This is part two of my analysis of Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to virtue ethics. This part focuses on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. Click here to view part one.
We are faced with a variety of competing views of morality within our society. There are many who would like us to believe that no one view is superior to another, or that all views are equally valid. This is problematic. On an intuitive level we somehow know this is not the way it should be. There remains within us the desire to resolve our differences – to enter discussion and debate for the intended purpose of convincing others that our view is correct (and theirs mistaken). But this problem goes deeper than simply having different starting points and perspectives. Every other person is convinced that their view is best, that it makes the most sense, that it is entirely rational, and in fact, more rational than any other. The result is that we are locked in a moral standoff, where no amount of arguing is likely to convince our counterparts. In Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry, Alasdair MacIntyre provides an excellent summation of this moral mess.
Debate between fundamentally opposed standpoints does occur; But it is inevitably inconclusive. Each warring position characteristically appears irrefutable to its own adherents; Indeed in its own terms and by its own standards of argument it is in practice irrefutable. But each warring position seems to its opponent to be insufficiently warranted by rational argument.
How did we get to this point? More importantly, how do we get out of this predicament? MacIntyre’s purpose in writing is to answer these questions and further develop the vision of virtue ethics that he initially articulated in After Virtue.
If After Virtue is perceived as an incomplete work, as I believe it should, then Three Rival Versions should be viewed as bringing MacIntyre’s aretaic vision to completion, providing the metaphysical grounding for objective virtues and providing us the means of arbitrating between competing moral views. Of course, MacIntyre’s proposed solution is not without its critics. The first, is the more serious charge that MacIntyre’s solution simply doesn’t provide enough clarity to make any difference in our moral standoff. I say this is more serious, in that if true, then the work is inconsequential. Second, is the charge that MacIntyre’s vision is essentially postmodern. This concern has been expressed by several prominent Christian philosophers. What one thinks of postmodernism, and the extent to which MacIntyre is thought to incorporate aspects of it into his position, will determine if this is a serious charge or not.
So, how did we get to this point? MacIntyre begins Three Rival Versions by delineating the development and presuppositions of three different conceptions of moral inquiry: Encyclopaedia, which is named for the 9th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica; Genealogy, after Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals; and Tradition, representing the Thomism put forth by Pope Leo XIII as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church. By tracing these three views, MacIntyre demonstrates that moral enquiry has progressed from objectivity, to subjectivity, to complete incommensurability and untranslatability of rival conceptions of morality. The essential move being the genealogist’s rejection of any theoretically neutral, pretheoretical ground by which all competing claims can be judged. So while contemporary moral theorists still cling to the idea that we can enter rational discussion with those who hold different points of view (a weak conception of rationality left over from the Enlightenment project), they deny the ability to reach rational conclusions and resolve differences (the strong conception of rationality that Nietzsche rejected). MacIntyre’s point here is to expose the irrationality of clinging to this weaker conception of rationality, if no such independent standard of adjudication can be found.
It is precisely here that MacIntyre challenges the conclusion of the Nietzschean genealogist, pointing to the example of Aquinas. By resolving the conflicting issues between Augustinianism and Aristotelianism, Aquinas proves that one tradition can be demonstrated as rationally superior to another. In MacIntyre’s thinking, Thomism provides us with the philosophical craft-methodology of how to engage morally incommensurable views. Thomas was able to articulate problems within both these rival traditions in terms internal to each system, demonstrating how each lacked the necessary resources to resolve those problems. He was able to demonstrate how the Aristotelian-Thomistic tradition was then able to provide solutions to those same problems. And finally, Aquinas anticipated his critics best counterarguments (framed again in terms of these rival views) and emerged with a superior response. This alone is a significant contribution to moral discussion. But MacIntyre believes that Thomism provides more than just this methodological approach; it is also the tradition which offers the metaphysical grounding required to provide an objective standard for the virtues, something that was lacking in After Virtue.
At this point, some have raised concerns that MacIntyre has not sufficiently delineated the finer points of his moral theory. As Richard T. De George has pointed out, “MacIntyre never makes clear how we are to use whatever in Thomism he believes valuable.” But this doesn’t seem to be an accurate assessment. MacIntyre discusses at length several key features of Thomism that are essential in demonstrating its superiority to other views. For example, just as Aquinas argued on the basis of natural law, MacIntyre states that contemporary society’s unwillingness to discard the fragments of morality is evidence of its metaphysical grounding in human nature.
The Thomist . . . discerns in the continuous reappropriation of the rules, and in the recurring resistance to discarding them, evidence of the work of synderesis, of that fundamental initial grasp of the primary precepts of the natural law, to which cultural degeneration can partially or temporarily blind us but which can never be obliterated.
Synderesis is the idea that human consciousness has an innate inclination toward the good. MacIntyre is therefore arguing that our intuitive desire to determine a morally superior view is grounded in human nature, an insight he sees as essential to Thomism. MacIntyre states elsewhere,
The plain person initially, as plain child, exhibits his or her knowledge of the principium of the natural law, which is the principium of practical reasoning, in the same way that he or she exhibits his or her knowledge of the principle of noncontradiction, that is to say, not in any ability to formulate the principle explicitly, but by showing a potentiality to do just that, in the way in which the truth of the principle is presupposed in a multiplicity of particular practical judgments.
Additionally, MacIntyre identifies Thomism as providing both a human telos which is eternal and the virtues and right actions required to direct humanity towards that telos. De George concurs with MacIntyre that Thomism provides the philosophical and methodological activity necessary to conduct moral enquiry, but he conveniently overlooks the metaphysical contributions of Thomism. It is these two Thomistic contributions that allow us to not only arbitrate between rival moral theories, but also between rival approaches to the virtues. In this regard, it doesn’t seem possible to view Three Rival Views as an inconsequential work, especially when read in conjunction with After Virtue.
But what of the criticism that MacIntyre’s view is postmodern? Thomas S. Hibbs argues that MacIntyre’s overall body of work has presented a postmodern Thomism, prominently featuring three postmodern motifs: namely, the emphasis on tradition and authority, the role narrative plays in shaping thought and culture, and the part community plays in shaping one’s personal identity. But, does simply using these motifs make MacIntyre postmodern? Given MacIntyre’s commitment to essentialism, the belief that we can arbitrate between competing moral claims, as well as his intimations about the authority of scripture, it is hard to see how this can be the case. For example, both William Lane Craig and J. P. Moreland have characterized MacIntyre’s overall approach as presenting virtues as mere “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” While one might be able to make this case solely based on After Virtue, it cannot be maintained given the contributions of Three Rival Versions. In this latter work, MacIntyre has demonstrated a commitment to the idea that human nature provides an objective grounding for the virtues. Essential to who we are as human beings, is an innate knowledge of what is good and virtuous. This belief would certainly seem to undermine the idea that he is postmodern, or, at the very least, Craig and Moreland’s charge that he is anti-essentialist. While it is true that, for MacIntyre, community plays an important role in cultivating the virtues, he clearly establishes nature as providing the objective grounding and impetus for such cultivation. As such, a fully orbed postmodern rejection of a transcendent, overarching telos/narrative cannot be harmonized with what MacIntyre is presenting.
I have stated elsewhere that the overall contribution of this work, in conjunction with After Virtue, provides Christians with a viable alternative to deontological approaches to moral theory. Virtue theory, properly grounded in the objective understanding of the human good afforded by MacIntyre’s reading of Aquinas, could provide a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. This is not to say that MacIntyre’s approach should be adopted wholesale. However, the groundwork presented in Three Rival Views should guide our consideration. Christians, who fear that wading into such waters would open them to the influence of postmodern thinking, must keep in mind that simply borrowing common motifs from postmodernism does not make one postmodern. If anything, MacIntyre has demonstrated that these motifs are premodern, being originally found in the writings of both Aristotle and Aquinas.
Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990), 7.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 75. Even the Thomistic tradition which factors heavily into MacIntyre’s proposed solution, has not escaped “the indefinite multiplication of disagreements,” by wrongly giving priority to epistemological questions. It is important to note that when MacIntyre advocates for Thomism, he is advocating the version articulated by Thomas himself.
Richard T. De George, review of Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition, by Alasdair MacIntyre, Faith and Philosophy 8, no. 4 (1991): 542. De George is actually quite emphatic in making this point, going on to claim that “If MacIntyre wants to be heard more, he must produce the substantive theory that will engage his opponents. Simply to claim that Saint Thomas has the solution to the ethical and philosophical problems of our times is a move that has been tried in Catholic schools for over a hundred years, with less than compelling success.” And then a few lines later, “This volume argues for a method. The proof of whether it is in fact superior to alternative and opposing methods will be whether it can yield a moral theory adequate to the times. This series of lectures claims that it can; but the lectures contain only a promise.” Ibid., 545.
MacIntyre, Three Rival Versions, 170.
Thomas S. Hibbs, “MacIntyre’s Postmodern Thomism: Reflections on Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry,” The Thomist: A Speculative Quarterly Review 57, no. 2 (1993): 277.
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455.
A brief review of MacIntyre’s seminal work on Virtue Ethics, After Virtue. This is part one of a two part analysis of MacIntyre’s overall theory of ethics.
There is no question that Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue is a significant work in moral philosophy, if not the most significant moral work of the 20th century. While it certainly figures as a major contributor to the modern revival of aretaic ethics, its true value can only be assessed within the larger context of MacIntyre’s follow-up works, particularly Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry. On its own, After Virtue presents an incomplete rendering of the virtues that not only falls short of the Aristotelian variety that MacIntyre professes to be offering, but that additionally runs the risk of contributing to the very moral quagmire from which MacIntyre is attempting to deliver his readers. Despite these concerns, After Virtue offers the aspiring Christian moral theorist an attractive alternative to the deontological approaches that have dominated Christian ethics for much of the church’s history.
There are two heroes in this book. The first is Friedrich Nietzsche, whom MacIntyre views as a hero of sorts; not because he is right, but because he takes the moral discussion in the modern period to its logical end. Nietzsche properly discerned that the rise of emotivism had effectively undermined the Enlightenment project’s attempt to craft an objective science of ethics. If all assertions of morality are nothing more than mere expressions of will, then better for us simply to abandon all pretense of objectivity and embrace our autonomy. MacIntyre understands Nietzsche as saying,
. . . my morality can only be what my will creates. There can be no place for such fictions as natural rights, utility, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. I myself must now bring into existence ‘new tables of what is good.’
In other words, there is no transcendent moral truths to which we can turn for guidance. What is good, is what the individual wills it to be. While Nietzsche is not responsible for morality devolving into utter subjectivity (MacIntyre places that responsibility on those who came before), he is responsible for justifying its acceptance. The result is the moral theorist’s complete inability to arbitrate between rival expressions of morality; moral discussion and debate is effectively halted.
Those thinking that Aristotle is the other hero in this book, better think again. That honor falls squarely upon MacIntyre himself. If Nietzsche is the King Kamehameha II of the European tradition because he awakened the world to the fiction of what morality had become, then what are we to make of MacIntyre? In like fashion, MacIntyre stands as a Nietzschean type hero, conducting his own genealogy of moral theory and awakening the world to the moral morass of modernity.
What then the conjunction of philosophical and historical argument reveals is that either one must follow through the aspirations and the collapse of the different versions of the Enlightenment project until there remains only the Nietzschean diagnosis and the Nietzschean problematic or one must hold that the Enlightenment project was not only mistaken, but should never have been commenced in the first place.
We can either follow Nietzsche or follow MacIntyre as he takes us back to a theory of morality rooted in Aristotelian virtues. MacIntyre plays the role of Nietzschean prophet, delineating the problems of modernity, and claiming to offer a solution far better than Nietzsche himself ever offered. What MacIntyre has done, as Richard Bernstein so ably points out, is to present us with a choice between morality and no morality. The question is whether he has sufficiently convinced his readers why they should choose the former and not simply embrace the liberation that the latter promises. Even if MacIntyre is successful in exposing modernity as devoid of morality, and even if countless moralists are awakened to realize their present condition for what it is, what’s to stop them from simply declaring, “Thanks, but no thanks.” There is no doubt that MacIntyre has laid out a substantial vision for moral theory, but why is it better than Nietzsche’s opposing vision? Why should we choose MacIntyre over Nietzsche?
The answer to this question hinges on one task. If MacIntyre is successful in presenting his readers with a teleology common to all of humanity, a shared telos such that it necessitates everyone embracing an objective catalog of core virtues, then I think they have no choice but to choose MacIntyre. To do otherwise would be to go contrary to nature and undermine the very idea of what it means to live in community. However, this is a big if. As it turns out, the most significant criticism of MacIntyre is that he has failed to do just that, instead leaving many to wonder if his account is more relativistic than objective. This charge of relativism is not entirely unjustified, and MacIntyre seems to have anticipated it. After reviewing various historical traditions related to the virtues, he finds incompatible lists and differences in rank order, acknowledging that it would be all too easy to draw the conclusion that no “single core conception” of the virtues can be found.
MacIntyre attempts to avoid this conclusion by providing a three-tiered account of the virtues, placing them within the context of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives. But it is precisely here, with MacIntyre’s emphasis on goods and standards internal to practices, that the charge of relativism is introduced. Martha Nussbaum characterizes MacIntyre’s approach as a clear turn toward relativism, in which “the only appropriate criteria of ethical goodness are local ones internal to the traditions and practices of each local society or group that has questions about the good.” Part of this criticism is grounded in the fact that MacIntyre’s vision does not seem to rule out practices that adopt vices rather than virtues. Building upon MacIntyre’s own speculation about the possibility of evil practices, Bernstein raises the prospect of a practice aimed at international espionage which requires excelling at dishonesty in appropriate situations. He, too, claims that MacIntyre’s position is in danger of being relativistic “because there is no reason to believe that the ‘acquired human qualities’ required to excel in one practice are the same as, or even similar to, those required for other, incompatible practices.” He rightly concludes that what seems to be missing is a clear objective standard to arbitrate between rival traditions and practices, the very task MacIntyre’s whole work hinges upon. To summarize this criticism in MacIntyre’s own words:
I have suggested so far that unless there is a telos which transcends the limited goods of practices by constituting the good of a whole human life, the good of a human life conceived as a unity, it will both be the case that a certain subversive arbitrariness will invade the moral life and that we shall be unable to specify the context of certain virtues adequately.
The fundamental problem with MacIntyre’s approach is his insistence on rejecting Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the human telos. If MacIntyre were truly harkening the reader back to a thoroughgoing Aristotelian approach to the virtues, then he would need to embrace an essentialist view of human beings that includes what it means to properly function and flourish as a person. Defending the notion of an objective teleology without grounding it firmly in human nature denies MacIntyre of the one feature that could tie all local traditions and practices together and provide them with an external referent by which to judge the value of conflicting virtues. This is a problem that MacIntyre seems to recognize and acknowledge in his prologue to the third addition of After Virtue.
. . . my attempt to provide an account of the human good purely in social terms, in terms of practices, traditions, and the narrative unity of human lives, was bound to be inadequate until I had provided it with a metaphysical grounding. It is only because human beings have an end towards which they are directed by reason of their specific nature, that practices, traditions, and the like are able to function as they do.
It is only in MacIntyre’s later works that this deficiency is definitively addressed. In this sense, After Virtue is an incomplete work.
No one should interpret this to mean that After Virtue is an inconsequential contribution to moral discussion. While MacIntyre might have downplayed the need to provide a metaphysical and biological grounding of the good, he was correct in emphasizing its inherent social context. Our conception of the good cannot be articulated apart from what it means to live the good in community. This is a contribution that Christian moralists cannot afford to overlook. Virtue theory, properly grounded in an objective understanding of the human good, provides a better way of reconciling the tension between transcendent moral values and the application of those values to various circumstances and contexts. Remaining fixed in a mindset that absolutizes all the individual commands and truths of scripture will take us down the path of developing curious theological schemes for arbitrating the conflicts that necessarily result. In this sense, MacIntyre’s approach retains a degree of relativism, but it is a relativism we Christians should not be afraid to embrace. Applying moral values differently to different contexts does not deny the existence of objective moral truths. Even one of MacIntyre’s harshest critics acknowledges this. Nussbaum concludes, “The fact that a good and virtuous decision is context-sensitive does not imply that it is right only relative to, or inside, a limited context . . . It is right absolutely, objectively, from anywhere in the human world, to attend to the particular features of one’s context.” Of course, the fundamental problem with extending relativism to all moral truth is that it prevents us from judging which application is appropriate, and which misses the mark. In the larger context of his writings on the virtues, no one should be charging MacIntyre with making this error.
Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 118. I am thinking here of MacIntyre’s own claim to be presenting something like that of Aristotle’s approach, as well as his rejection of Aristotle’s metaphysical grounding of the virtues which will be addressed more fully later in this review.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 113-114.
Richard J. Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle? Reflections on Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue,” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 100, no. 4 (2017): 296.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 181.
Martha Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues: An Aristotelian Approach,” in Ethical Theory: An Anthology, ed. Russ Shafer-Landau (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd, 2013), 631.
Bernstein, “Nietzsche or Aristotle,” 304.
MacIntyre, After Virtue, 203.
I am thinking here of conflicting, non-conflicting and graded absolutism.
Nussbaum, “Non-Relative Virtues,” 639.
J. P. Moreland and William Lane Craig, Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 455. In my opinion, the criticisms leveled by Craig and Moreland are a bit too harsh. They read MacIntyre as presenting the virtues as “linguistic constructions relative to the valuations and commitments of different traditions.” On a simple reading of After Virtue, that seems a fair criticism. However, they most certainly have failed to take MacIntyre’s later works into consideration in making this assessment.
My commentary on a recent article I ran across.
“Dennis Prager Doth Protest Too Much,” by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe, 23 October 2016 (view article here)
How should we view ethicists and moral experts who fail to live up to their own standard of ethics? Does it discredit the moral views they espouse?
For moral and religious leaders, this past presidential election was a challenge. Conservative Christians were faced with having to choose between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. On the Democratic side, the candidate not only stood opposed to the vast majority of views that Christians hold dear (i.e. abortion, gay marriage, immigration, etc.), but her campaign was mired in accusations of corruption and abuse involving both her and the former president. On the Republican side, the candidate was beset with recriminations of sexual harassment, adultery, and financial misconduct. What was a good Christian to do? Pick the lesser of two evils and hope for the best? Or, vote for a third party candidate and potentially hand the election to Clinton? Six months into the Trump presidency, and it’s obvious which path most Christians chose. Following the example of prominent Christians who publicly endorsed Trump, as well as conservative leaders such as Dennis Prager, evangelical Christians overwhelming voted for Trump.
Jeff Jacoby finds this troubling. Dennis Prager does not. Dennis Prager is a conservativeradio talk show host and nationally syndicated columnist. Jacoby describes him as “an important ethicist on the Jewish right” whose work has focused “on goodness and decent values as the most important ingredients in a healthy society.” Jacoby, himself a syndicated conservative columnist, criticized Christian and conservative leaders for being hypocritical. His basis for such an accusation? Many of these Trump supporters, were the same ones who declared Bill Clinton unfit for office back in the late 90s, and for virtually the same behavior.
While Jacoby did not name Prager in his original column denouncing “those in the highest ranks of the religious right,” in this article he responds to Prager’s claim that the accusation of pharisaism was an expression of gratuitous hatred. Jacoby is convinced that integrity and decency are indispensable qualities for those in leadership. Speaking in terms that he knows Prager will understand, he makes reference to Deuteronomy 16: 18-20, pointing out that God charged Israel with appointing judges and officers who were impartial, incorruptible and righteous. In supporting Trump, Jacoby sees Prager clearly violating this principle. And the result? When those who stand for morality support candidates who violate practically every standard of good character and decency, they damage their own reputation and influence. Jacoby fears that such inconsistency ultimately undermines the moral message of these leaders.
But is Jacoby’s fear misguided? Does the inconsistency of Christian leaders supportingTrump serve to impeach their testimony as moral authorities and undermine their message? While Jacoby’s reasoning is based upon an ad hominin argument, a noted fallacy, it doesn’t necessarily follow that he is wrong. Mark Coppenger points out in Moral Apologetics for Contemporary Christians, “if someone proposes to instruct others in how to live, his behavior is fair game for scrutiny.” But, while examining the moral credentials of an ethicist is valid, it cannot be said to carry the argument. Jacoby is right that the man on the street may well conclude that these moral leaders have damaged their authority, and that is unfortunate. But his inference that their moral message may also be damaged is a leap.
Here is the reality: Christians are not only capable of hypocrisy, we should expect it. At the heart of the Christian ethic is the message that humans are fallible creatures. It is not possible for us to live up to the moral standards that God sets out in his word, and inscribes upon our hearts. This shouldn’t surprise us, given how every moral example put forth in the Bible (with the exception of Christ) suffered from moral failure. But our ethic is not truly about living up to a standard of what is right; it’s about receiving God’s forgiveness and allowing him to live through us. So while some may be disappointed in those who threw their support behind Donald Trump, they shouldn’t be too quick to cast aspersions. After all, they were imperfect people, in imperfect circumstances, making an imperfect choice. Ultimately, in a fallen world we shouldn’t put our confidence in fallen people. We can, however, put our confidence in God and the truths expressed in his Word. As such, Prager does not view his own support of Trump, and prior condemnation of Bill Clinton, as hypocritical. He views it as standing up for principles greater than any one individual. According to him, “defeating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats, and the left is also a principle.” In fact, Prager calls it a higher principle.
I wish I could take credit for coining this term, but I can’t. Driving in my car, listening to the news about the President’s latest Tweets, the word twidiot came to mind. Now please, don’t get upset. I am not calling the president an idiot. I am also not getting ready to play armchair psychologist and diagnose him as suffering from some form of mental disorder. It was all of the hoopla associated with the President’s Tweets that triggered my moment of genius. Unfortunately, a simple Google search revealed that I was clearly not as original as I imagined. Twidiot is already a part of the vernacular, albeit not well known. The Urban Dictionary defines it as “Someone who twitters constantly, usually about insignificant or trifling events.” By definition, that would make the President a twidiot. Sorry, Mr. President. But don’t worry, you are not alone. It turns out we’re all twidiots.
Why are we so surprised that anyone, especially a 70 something year old man, would be Tweeting such inanity? Isn’t that what people do on Twitter? Somehow, the media is acting as if the President is the only person to ever act like an imbecile on social media. Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or Twitter, cyberspace is rife with opportunities for the masses to unleash their distinct brands of verbal diarrhea. All one has to do is scroll through the history of tweets from any well known celebrity to prove my point.
Social platforms give everyone the ability to instantly vent or pontificate about whatever foolishness comes to mind.
And let’s be honest, we are all prone to outlandish and vapid thoughts.
There are a great many things that come to my mind throughout the day – most of them ridiculous and juvenile. Fortunately for me, I don’t have a Twitter account, and never will. It provides me the luxury of reflecting upon, and ultimately censoring, the rubbish that never turns out to be as profound as I’d like to think. But if I did have a Twitter account, I’ve no doubt that it would inevitably reveal that I too am a Twidiot.
Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a 60 x 40 inch full color glossy photo of a plastic crucifix submerged in a container of the artist’s urine, was first displayed in 1988 at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art (SECCA) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The photo took first prize in the center’s annual competition, but immediately caused outrage among the Christian community. Its subsequent display at museums around the world has lead to protests, accusations of desecration, a reduction in funding for the
National Endowment for the Arts (the government agency that funded the SECCA competition won by Serrano), and acts of vandalism carried out against the controversial photograph. While violence should never be condoned, it’s understandable why so many Christians are upset. What Christian could possibly view this so-called work of art as anything other than an offense against the faith? One would think, we would be hard pressed to find a single follower of Christ for whom this photo is deemed beautiful. And yet, this is exactly what we find in Christian artist Edward Knippers, who believes that after more than twenty-five years it’s time for the church to no longer view Piss Christ as sacrilegious, but rather as a statement of divine truth.
How exactly does Knippers come to this conclusion? He begins by asking the reader to consider what she would think upon viewing the photograph without any prior knowledge of the fluid in which it is contained, or of the artist’s intention in creating the work. Under such conditions, Knippers cannot help but feel that she would consider it beautiful.
The image in and of itself is quite beautiful as we see a crucifix almost nostalgically glowing in a golden mist of timelessness.
It’s only upon becoming aware of the title and the realization of what the fluid is, that one takes offense. Knippers describes it as a jolt to the emotions. In his own reflection on Piss Christ, philosopher Jorge J. E. Gracia states that this is because of how society views the act of deliberately urinating on another person or object. It’s considered an act of power, defiance and humiliation. It’s as if the one pissing is declaring the person or object as worthless and disposable, like piss. It seems only natural for the viewer to conclude that this is exactly what Serrano is doing. But what if the viewer were to discover that this was not the artist’s intention? If this disturbing immersion was for a noble purpose, would it no longer be considered an offense? Knippers is not the first to make such a speculation. It’s entirely possible that Serrano is trying to make some statement about the trivialization and commercialization of the Christian faith. In this sense, he would be attacking the reduction “of one of Christianity’s most precious and seminal moments to a plastic trinket.” That would mean that Serrano is not attacking the Christian faith, but rather the Christian community for the way they themselves have desecrated the image of Christ. Along these same lines, Serrano may be expressing his anger about corruption in the Catholic Church (the institution most commonly associated with crucifixes), acting in a manner not unlike Christ when he overturned tables in the temple and chased out the money changers. Wouldn’t we then have to view Piss Christ as a work of piety and righteous indignation?
Even though Knippers considers these possibilities, in the end he dismisses the artist’s intention as unimportant. It wouldn’t even matter to Knippers if the artist was Catholic, or considered himself a Christian. What matters for Knippers is what Piss Christ comes to mean for him (and for Christians in general), independent of the artist’s actual purpose.
No matter what Serrano’s intent or what this piece has become through the crucible of the culture wars, at this distance in time, from all of the shouting and wounded feelings of hard fought battles, the Piss Christ has become for me an elegant statement of the Christian truth that should be at the heart of our contemplation . . . the fact that our dear Lord and Savior has come, and is here, to powerfully redeem the likes of us with his love.
Knippers has come to view Serrano’s work as symbolic of the incarnation: Jesus left the splendor of Heaven to be immersed in the cesspool of earth, in order to sacrifice his life on the cross for a fallen and filthy world. In this way, Piss Christ is to be seen as a powerfully instructive tool aimed at shocking us out of our comfortable lives to “wrestle with the hard reality of what Christ has done for us.”
Is Knippers correct in his interpretation? Given that Serrano has been largely silent regarding his intention, one might conclude that the meaning of this work is ambiguous. If this is the case, then Knippers is certainly justified in his postulation. It’s not
uncommon for artists to construct works that lend themselves to multiple interpretations. In a recent interview focusing on Piss Christ, the artist acknowledged that this was his goal.
I distrust anyone with a message. The best artistic intentions are usually cloaked in mysteries and contradictions. It wouldn’t be interesting for me if the art were not “loaded” in some way. I always say my work is open for interpretation and that’s why I prefer not to read many of the “interpretations” out there. Suffice it to say, the work is like a mirror, and it reveals itself in different ways, to different people.
But Knippers is not premising his interpretation on the basis of ambiguity. He is declaring that Serrano’s intention makes no difference in how he interprets this photograph. In taking this approach, he is isolating it from the context in which it is necessarily embedded.
First, there is the context of the artist’s intention. While Serrano may have intended for it to be a debatable thing, the fact that it has outraged so many would seem to suggest that he has failed in his goal and “loaded” the work too heavily in the direction of desecration. Is this a surprise? There is nothing ambiguous in the title he has chosen. As Gracia points out, the title is not Piss on Christianity, or Pissed Christ. Serrano entitled the work Piss Christ. There is simply no getting around the fact that Serrano has pissed on an image of Christ, and that alone is not easily separated from negative intention (especially given that he knew it would outrage people). Second, there is the context of the cultural reaction to the photo. To casually dismiss the perceptions of seemingly countless Christians worldwide (and quite a large number of non-Christians as well) and ask that they instead view it as an elegant statement of faith is ludicrous. Knippers is advocating a reckless hermeneutic. And because of this, I believe his interpretation is wrong.
This photo is disgusting and insulting. Given our society’s perception of what it means to urinate on someone or something, there is simply no other way to interpret it. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not instructive. Piss Christ should serve as a visual reminder of precisely why Christ came into this world. Even knowing that men would reject him, even knowing that they would mock his work on the cross, he still came. Though the world would piss upon it, the image of Christ’s unconditional love remains visible.
“. . . While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”
 In 2011 a print of the photograph was destroyed by a mob of protesters in Avignon, France.
 Edward Knippers, “Serrano’s Piss Christ Reconsidered,” Critique, February, 2016, 8.
 Jorge J. E. Gracia, “On Desecration: Andres Serrano, Piss Christ,” Michigan Quarterly Review 52, no. 4 (Fall 2013): accessed October 15, 2016, http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?cc=mqr;c=mqr;c=mqrarchive;idno=act2080.0052.415;g=mqrg;rgn=main;view=text;xc=1.
 Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.
 Gracia, On Desecration.
 Knippers, Piss Christ Reconsidered, 8.
 Udoka Okafer, “Exclusive Interview with Andres Serrano, Photographer of Piss Christ,” The Huffington Post, June 4, 2014, accessed on December 1, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/udoka-okafor/exclusive-interview-with-_18_b_5442141.html.
 Gracia, On Desecration.
 Romans 5:8 (NASB).
This is my attempt to put into action the principles learned from the book Art and Music: A Student’s Guide. You can refer to my post on What is Beauty? for a full review of that book. Keep in mind that I have zero experience evaluating works of art, and even less skill.
I first encountered Pascal Adolphe Jean Dagnan-Bouveret at a mall gift shop in 2004. I was thumbing through an eclectic mix of art reproductions, movie posters, and bikini clad women stretched across the hoods of luxury sports cars. I was killing time and not expecting to make a purchase. When I saw the print of Dagnan-Bouveret’s Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, I knew immediately that I had to own it. Was it because I instantly recognized this as a great work of pictorial art? That didn’t matter to me. I had never heard of Dagnan-Bouveret before that day. What mattered to me was what the painting represented. As it turns out, this artist is not considered one of the Old Masters, and this particular painting is not regarded, at least by most critics, as a masterpiece. However, it may be time to reconsider its place in history. My goal here is to evaluate the work in light of aesthetic principles and theological/biblical considerations, with an eye toward allowing this piece to speak to others just as clearly as it first spoke to me over a decade ago. The history of Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus is one of promise and disappointment. The work was purchased by Carnegie Steel chairman Henry Clay Frick, when he first saw it unfinished on the artist’s easel in the summer of 1897. An avid patron of the arts, Frick immediately donated the work to the Carnegie Institute, where it became one of the centerpieces of the newly established Carnegie Museum of Art. Carnegie’s vision for his museum was not to build upon the acquisitions of Old Masters, but rather to showcase contemporary painters who would in time become the ‘new generation’ of Old Masters. Dagnan-Bouveret was seen as exemplifying that vision. John Caldwell, one of the trustees of the Carnegie Institute’s Fine Arts Committee, was quoted as saying to Frick,
Unless I am greatly mistaken, this is one of the modern paintings that is going to hold its own and remain a ‘masterpiece’ for the instruction as well as pleasure of future generations.
Caldwell was mistaken. Frick purchased a total of three of Dagnan-Bouveret’s paintings.After his death his estate was unable to give away one of the more repudiated, the Consolatrix Afflictorum (which to this day remains out of public view in the storerooms of the Frick Art and Historical Center in Pittsburg). While Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus remains on display at the Carnegie Museum of Art, it was subject to mixed reviews when first introduced. Even though the Chicago Tribune declared it “one of the most remarkable works of the modern French school,” it also criticized it for being unoriginal (specifically referencing Veronese’s Supper at Emmaus as an example of the derivative nature of the work). The London Times, in its review of the painting’s London showing, also highlighted this point, referencing Titian and Rembrandt as examples. There is even some insinuation of kitschiness from critics. In 1900, this is exactly what a correspondent for the New-York Tribune implied when describing Dagnan-Bouveret’s body of religious paintings.
As devotional works one cannot take them seriously. The figures are too intensely French; the spirit of each is somewhat lacking in the magic which would stir the emotions of the spectator.
Contemporary art critic Ken Johnson characterizes the paining as “absurdly sentimental.” I wish to counteract these claims and demonstrate that Dagnan-Bouveret has produced something entirely original, transcending any characterization as religious kitsch. Far from being derivative and devotional, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus should be viewed as Avant-garde.
I have been a Christian educator for over twenty years. In 2004, when I first came across this work of art, I was the principal of a K-12 Christian school in El Paso, Texas. As a mission oriented school, we had an open enrollment and saw our ministry as one of leading students to Christ. The passage of scripture upon which this work is based, Luke 24:13-35, resonated with me as an educator. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, my students metaphorically walked with Jesus. They were exposed to scripture-based curriculum, affording the opportunity to hear about Jesus in each of their classes. They attended weekly chapel services where they were regularly challenged to commit their lives to Christ. They sat under the teaching of fully dedicated Christian teachers, who constantly sought to apply the Bible to every area of the student’s life. And yet, many of the students never came to faith. Luke gives insight as to why.
When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?”
These disciples did not recognize Jesus until he broke the bread and their eyes were opened. They did not, and could not, see Jesus on their own. He needed to open their eyes and make them see. It is this precise moment that Dagnan-Bouveret has chosen to capture. Seeing the painting for the first time, I suddenly realized that it was not my job to convert students to Christ. I could present him daily. I could open the scriptures just as Jesus did to these unknown disciples. But a person only comes to faith when God himself chooses to open the eyes. When this authentically happens, it is the most spectacular thing that can be witnessed. While it’s true that this passage is well depicted in European art, in my opinion, Dagnan-Bouveret is the only one to capture it with such vivid realism and emotion.
When looking at the painting, one cannot help but first be drawn to the figure of Christ. He sits at the center, surrounded in a glow of radiant light (reminiscent of Dagnan-Bouveret’s most famous work, La Cena). His hair is auburn, not typical of depictions ofChrist, but adding to a heightened sense of awe and intensity. This stands in contrast to the drabness of all other colors in the painting. The artist wants Christ to be the focal point. His eyes are looking straight ahead, as if focused directly on the viewer, instantly drawing him or her into the image. In fact, from whatever angle the picture is viewed, it appears that Christ’s eyes follow the observer. His two hands are spread out, the bread now divided, and the eyes of the three supper guests clearly opened. Their bodies are largely situated in shadow and darkness, with the light that radiates from Christ shining upon each of their faces. The light even seems to wash out the background scenery making it impossible to discern what is back there. This effect adds to the notion that at this moment, nothing else matters; everything else is obscured by the risen Savior. Two of the supper guests appear to be disciples, and the third a servant. There is a gradation in the responses of each. The servant girl, dinner platter in hand, appears to be in shock as she realizes that Christ is sitting before her. The disciple immediately next to her has his hands thrown up in wonder, as if amazed and entirely speechless. The disciple on the opposite side of Jesus has pushed his chair back, dropped to his knees, and has his hands clasped in worship. The progression of responses moves from fear and terror, to awe and wonder, then finally to total submission.
There is no doubt that the artist is attempting to paint a biblical event in the style of the Renaissance, and both The London Times and Chicago Tribune are correct that other European artists have painted this same scene. However, while this may be a biblical storycommonly depicted in European artwork, Dagnan-Bouveret captures the intensity and wonder of it better than any other. Take for instance the aforementioned Supper at Emmaus. Veronese seems more concerned with capturing the intricate detail of clothing than the intensity of the moment. Christ’s radiance extends barely beyond his own head. In contrast, Dagnan-Bouveret has Christ’s radiance overtaking everything in the photo. Where there is darkness, one gets the sense that the light is quickly chasing it away. You cannot help but conclude that this is a life changing event. Then there is the comparison of the people surrounding Christ. In the Supper at Emmaus, many of them seemed disengaged and unaffected. Nowhere in this work does anyone come close to capturing the mood and feeling that certainly must have accompanied this moment. In contrast, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus is filled with emotion.
But both the Tribune and Times were referring to something more than simply the style, when accusing the artist of being unoriginal. Off to the right of where Jesus sits, Dagnan-Bouveret has inserted three figures dressed in contemporary clothing. Numerous renaissance painters often did the same thing. Veronese was reportedly called before church officials because of this, being cited for the crime of heresy. But whereas Veronese was clearly doing nothing more than embedding a family portrait into his painting (often wealthy donors would be included in religious depictions to display their adoration and worship), Dagnan-Bouveret is providing commentary on the biblical scene. In addition to the very clear biblical message, which I believe Dagnan-Bouveret has captured faithfully, he has added an additional layer of meaning, one that is in tension with the original.
The modern figures are that of a man standing, a woman kneeling, and a small child immediately in the forefront, kneeling next to the woman. While all three figures are more obscured than any other in the work, the faces of the boy and woman reflect the light radiating from Christ, while the man remains obscured in darkness with what appears to be a dubious demeanor. More than anything else, it was the image of this modern man that caused the Chicago Tribune to title its 1898 review, “Frick Buys A Freak.” The paper also included multiple sub-headlines with the piece: It Will Cause A Shock; Europe Considers It Scandalous and Sacrilegious; Boldness Of The Artist; and, His Cynical View Of Religion. History has left us with the artist’s own words responding to this criticism and explaining the meaning of the three figures. For Dagnan-Bouveret the man clearly is skeptical, finding himself unable to accept the truth of Christ as easily as the boy and woman. This is reflected in the positioning of each of the modern figures’ hands. The child’s hands are clasped near his waist, the woman’s hands are prayerfully at her chest, and the man’s hands are touching his face as he considers what is before him. The move is from childlike faith to the uncertainty of modern man. Dagnan-Bouveret explains that it is the man, enlightened by the advances of philosophy and science, that struggles with his own religion.
But perhaps there is more to be seen here then the artist conveys in his own words. Upon closer examination, it appears that the child is the only one in the frame not looking at Christ. A child accepts the faith of his or her family, often without question. But while children understand the form of piety, they do not necessarily have a heartfelt devotion. This child appears distracted by something else, as children so often are. On the other hand, the woman is filled with devotion as she gazes upon the scene before her. There is no question of her sincerity or acceptance of the truth of Christ. But what of the man? Does Dagnan-Bouveret intend to communicate that educated man cannot, and must not give in to the superstition of religion? While the work does not reveal the man coming to faith, perhaps the radiance and intensity of the rest of the scene provides some insight as to the ultimate outcome of the struggle between faith and reason. The artist asks the question of his own work:
Have scholars and philosophers succeeded in giving satisfaction to the human soul? I don’t believe it. The figure of Christ remains, after 1,900 years, as effulgent as ever. His rule of morals is as sublime as ever.
In providing a retrospective analysis of Dagnan-Bouveret’s work, modern critic Gabriel Weisberg concludes that the artist must be understood in light of the deeper meanings that are reflected in his paintings.
He was certainly one of the most personal of the academic painters, and perhaps the key artist who interiorized academic image-making in a way that reveals the doubts and traumas of an era in which traditional ideology was under severe stress.
Of course, Dagnan-Bouveret did not limit his doubt to traditional ideology in artistic styling. In Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, he is clearly expressing doubt over the traditional ideology expressed in the very content of art, distinguishing this work as far more than sentimentality and devotion. This is the juxtaposition of two worlds in conflict: the enduring legacy of religious art verses its rejection by modernity. Is that legacy merely the product of a time when scientific ignorance made room for naïve faith? Even though Dagnan-Bouveret entertains this idea, the transformative power communicated in this painting suggests otherwise. Ultimately, it is today’s viewer that finds herself in the exact same position as the skeptic within the painting, coming face to face with the figure of Christ. His eyes connect, his radiance overwhelms, and he draws the viewer into the scene. Will the response be doubt, fear, wonder, or submission? Whatever the response, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus compels us to decide.
 Gabriel P. Weisberg, Against the Modern: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Transformation of the Academic Tradition (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002), 267.
 Ross Finocchio, “Frick Buys a Freak: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Development of the Frick Collection,” The Burlington Magazine, December, 2013, 827.
 Ibid., 828.
 W. R. Hearst, “Frick Buys a Freak,” Chicago Tribune, February 6, 1898, accessed November 13, 2016, http://archives.chicagotribune.com/1898/02/06/page/2/article/frick-buys-a-freak.
 “M. Dagnan-Bouveret’s New Picture,” The London Times, December 21, 1897, accessed on November 13, 2016, https://www.newspapers.com/image/33185176/?terms=M%2BDagnan-Bouveret%27s%2BNew%2BPicture.
 Finocchio, Frick Buys a Freak: Dagnan-Bouveret and the Development of the Frick Collection, 830.
 Ken Johnson, “A Timid Academician, Tempted by Modernism,” The New York Times, September 20, 2002, accessed November 9, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2002/09/20/arts/art-review-a-timid-academician-tempted-by-modernism.html.
 Luke 24: 30-33 (English Standard Version).
 Hearst, “Frick Buys a Freak.”
 Weisberg, Against the Modern, 10.
I will be posting several articles related to aesthetics and the nature of beauty. The following is a review of a book I picked up a few years ago and will serve as an introduction to the topic. Enjoy!
What is beauty, and how do we identify it? While the nature of beauty has perplexed philosophers for generations, perhaps the problem is best illustrated by turning to children. In every home occupied by toddlers, there are likely numerous “works of art” hanging on the refrigerator door. What mother wouldn’t consider such pictures beautiful? But can a shaky, barely identifiable image, drawn by a three year old hand, actually be considered beautiful? Would a curator declare such a drawing beautiful enough to replace a Rembrandt or a Picasso in an overcrowded exhibition? Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake utilize this scenario in their book Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, to point out why so many in our society find it easy to accept aesthetic relativism. The idea that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” helps us understand how a mother genuinely finds beauty in a child’s drawing, while a curator does not. It helps explain the wide variety and dissimilarity that exists in people’s preferences of beauty. But is this thinking correct? Munson and Drake’s purpose is to prepare Christians to think Christianly about art and music. How does the Christian faith and scripture inform our understanding of art and music? What constitutes beauty in these mediums? The authors are convinced that how we come to view beauty, has a direct impact on how we view truth and goodness. Munson and Drake propose a distinctively Christian conception of beauty, that is both objective and absolute, while at the same time accounts for our apparent subjective differences in taste.
In fleshing out this proposal, the authors begin with an analysis of the two major approaches to defining beauty. First, is the classical approach, which views beauty as objective and uniform. Beauty is seen as a characteristic of the object of perception, and can be empirically studied and measured. At first glance, this would appear to be in line with the Christian view of beauty that Munson and Drake are putting forth. In fact, the traditional perspective of Christians has been predominately classical. But the authors view this conception of beauty as inaccurate and dangerously idolatrous.
But make no mistake: not only were the masterpieces of classical antiquity made in the service of idols but also the classical vision itself, at its purest, is an idol. When form is made absolute, when—like the media-bewitched teen starving herself before the mirror—we devote our lives to the pursuit of some created formal standard, the result is not beautiful at all, but wicked and ugly.
Here, the authors connect this idea to C. S. Lewis’s warning against aestheticism. In The Weight of Glory, Lewis poetically cautions that the classical view of beauty can lead to idolatry, hinting at a more accurate conception (something the authors delineate later in the book).
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Lewis is correct in his observation that the classicist conception has often led to the misguided notion of equating beauty with the object of perception. Perhaps, it is precisely this adoption of the classical approach that has led to the internal struggle that many Christians have with beauty. Why does God makes things beautiful, if beauty only serves to lead us away from him? Augustine, who clearly echoed Plato in defining beauty in terms of symmetry and proportion, writes of his own struggle in The Confessions:
Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within and I was without. I was looking for Thee out there, and I threw myself, deformed as I was, upon those well-formed things which Thou hast made. Thou wert with me, yet I was not with Thee. These things held me far from Thee, things which would not have existed had they not been in Thee.
The authors maintain that the classical view is a mistake, not simply because we are sinful and inclined to abuse it, but because it is inherently idolatrous.
But idolatry is not the sole reason for rejecting this approach. The classical view tends toward uniformity, which seems to be at odds with our experience of beauty. If all things are beautiful in exactly the same way, how do we account for the diversity of tastes and the variety of perceptions regarding what is beautiful? It is precisely this phenomenon that has led to the second approach, which has become the most dominant. The postmodern approach maintains that beauty is not to be considered a quality of the object of perception, but rather a quality of the one perceiving. Beauty has essentially become synonymous with preference. It is precisely this kind of thinking that has led many to abandon the debate on what constitutes beauty. For the postmodern mind, there is no need to define what is relative to the individual and essentially undefinable.
It is at this juncture, that Munson and Drake begin to delineate a proper Christian conception of beauty. Building upon the teachings of scripture, the authors assert that beauty must be viewed as objective, rooted in the very nature of God. A key verse for them is Mark 14:3-8 where Jesus commends the woman who has anointed him with oil. Jesus declares that she has done a beautiful thing. Instead of commending her for doing a good thing, he commends her for the way (or form) in which she worships him. Hearkening back to Lewis’s quote above, the authors then define beauty as the forms through which we recognize the nature and ways of God. To make this clear, they juxtapose two scriptures discussing God’s creation. In Ecclesiastes 3:11, creation is referred to as beautiful. In Genesis 1:32 it is referred to as good. From this they infer that beauty is a form of communication. Beauty is the means through which God communicates truth and goodness. It is the means through which he communicates himself.
The authors are quick to distinguish this objective view from that of the classical approach. Yes, beauty is objective, but this does not mean that it is uniform. It also does not imply a cookie cutter approach to beauty where everyone must like the same things. Beauty is endlessly diverse. But how can this be the case if beauty is rooted in the unchanging nature of God? Beauty is endlessly diverse because it reflects and communicates the infinite glory of God. Because no mind can comprehend beauty in its fullness, we all see different aspects of it. Because we all have different backgrounds and experiences, we all have different perspectives and preferences. It therefore becomes necessary to view beauty as transcendentally objective. In this regard, the authors believe that the Christian view of beauty is the only view that can properly account for both objectivity and subjectivity.
The authors also assert that this is not a relativistic approach to beauty. The postmodern, relativistic approach implies that no one preference for beauty is better than another. When we are left with such a predicament, it leads to indifference. When no one’s view of beauty is better than anyone else’s view, then there is no need to learn from others or attempt to expand our understanding of beauty. Each person’s perception of beauty represents an objectively knowable facet of the overall concept of beauty. If we are going to come to a better and more complete understanding of beauty, then we must learn from others. “If we are going to see as much of God’s glory as possible, we have to learn to see through others’ eyes.”
Returning to the illustration at the start of this essay, we can easily see how both the mother and curator are merely seeing different aspects of beauty, and to different degrees. In her child’s drawing, the mother rightly perceives beauty. The child’s picture communicates several objectively good things, namely love, imagination, and the development of fine motor skills. But the curator is also making a correct assessment of beauty in not including the child’s picture in his exhibition. He is trying to find the highest and best examples of beauty, and certainly the child’s work does not compete with those of Picasso, although some might feel otherwise. Munson and Drake conclude that to a certain degree, beauty is present is all art. Both the child’s drawing and Picasso’s painting are beautiful. However, this does not mean that all art reflects the same degree of beauty.
. . . the beauty of any object is its capacity to proclaim truth and to realize goodness. The ugliness of any object is the sum of all the ways in which it obscures truth and impedes goodness, which means that everything in this cursed world is both beautiful and ugly. Some things will be mostly beautiful, and some will be mostly ugly, but everything will be a mix.
Munson and Drake next consider the question of art and music for the sake of enjoyment and leisure. Too many Christians believe that pursuing aesthetic pleasure is a waste of time. The authors provide several reasons, based upon general revelation, why this attitude is mistaken. Most notably, is the idea that Christians ought to start thinking of the artist or musician as expounding upon God’s natural revelation much in the same way that a preacher expounds on God’s special revelation. Just as not every Christian is gifted as a pastor, with the ability to exegete scripture, not every person is gifted as an artist, with the ability to observe and communicate through art the often obscured truths of general revelation. By means of color, symmetry, exaggeration and even abstraction, the artist draws our attention to the details of God’s revelation through the created order. The artist helps us see truth and goodness more clearly. She communicates a message, much like a pastor. And just as there are bad pastors, those who fail to communicate appropriately or clearly, so also there are bad artists and musicians. While Hegel is certainly not coming from a Christian perspective, I think he perfectly illustrates this when he talks about art being “born again.” There is truth that is communicated via the created order, which receives added emphasis and clarity as it is reborn through the artist’s work. The artist should be seen as highlighting, elucidating, and communicating things that fallen men and women might not have seen, or might have glossed over in the busyness of life. Beautiful art and music reminds us that we need to stop, look, listen and read God’s works. Seeing it in this capacity, the Christian needs to understand that avoiding art would be disastrous. Those who fail to take the time to enjoy and appreciate beautiful art and music, or even worse focus solely on bad art and music, will inevitably become desensitized to truth and goodness.
The book concludes on a very practical note, providing the student with guidelines for judging art and music, and then asking the student to make applications. Every Christian’s goal ought to be identifying those works of art and selections of music that best communicate the true and the good, that best exemplify beauty. Here the authors once again turn to C. S. Lewis for insight. In An Experiment in Criticism, Lewis challenges the Christian to seek out art and music that reveals new ways of thinking, and enriches one’s life. We can either use art and music to reinforce what we already believe, or we can allow it to teach us, imparting truth and goodness. Ultimately, this means judging art and music on the basis of its purpose. Does it promote an evil use, or the reception of ideas that are evil? If so, then it should be considered ugly art. In this sense ugliness should be understood as a form that “poorly realizes a good purpose, whether it be a good use or the reception of something good.”
In applying these ideas, the authors ask the reader to evaluate three separate works of pictorial art, spending at least fifteen minutes alone in contemplation before reading the author’s own analysis. These instructions are repeated in the final chapter, with three separate musical compositions. In each case, the reader is looking for ways in which the artist or musician is communicating truth and goodness. Several study questions are provided for further reflection, along with a glossary of key terms and a list of suggested resources.
While I found this book to be a compelling introduction to discerning the nature of beauty in art and music, I believe it comes up short in two areas. First, in the area of providing a distinctively Christian approach. Art and Music: A Student’s Guide, is just one volume in an eleven volume series entitled Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition. And yet, while the authors are clearly influenced by C. S. Lewis, they fail to significantly incorporate any other representatives from the long tradition of Christian thinkers writing on beauty. While I am fascinated by the position that the authors take, I am not sure this represents what Christians have traditionally held. In what is arguably the most important chapter of the book, when the authors are delineating their definition of beauty as transcendentally objective, there is more hints of Immanuel Kant and Werner Krieglstein, than there is to any distinctively Christian ideas. If one is hoping to learn about the rich tradition of Christian thought on art and music, this is not the book.
Second, the authors fail to provide any strong reasons for accepting the position they are asserting. Regarding the connection between beauty, truth and goodness, the scriptural argument is weak. This seems more of an assumption inherited from the classical approach, rather than anything based upon clear passages of scripture. Regarding their definition of beauty, if the authors are going to completely redefine how most people intuitively define beauty, then they will need to provide greater biblical and philosophical support. I found the proposal very intriguing, I just wish they have made a more convincing case. In the end, it comes across sounding more like a postmodern approach to beauty (everything is beautiful, everything is ugly), nuanced slightly to retain the appearance of objectivity.
Ultimately, the book did not provide the definitive clarity I had hoped. I am still unsettled in my views about the nature of beauty. However, the book did engage me enough to make me want to study this question further. What truly is the traditional Christian view of beauty? Do we need to re-think our understanding of beauty and settle on a view that somehow bridges the gap between the classical and postmodern approach, as Munson and Drake attempt to do?
As a fun activity until the next posting, how do you think Munson and Drake would respond to the Voltaire quote at the top? How would you respond?
 Paul Munson and Joshua Farris Drake, Art and Music: A Student’s Guide (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), 23-24.
 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 29. Italics mine.
 Augustine, “Augustine, from Confessions,” in Theological Aesthetics: A Reader, edited by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans Publishing, 2004), 1.10.5, Kindle.
 The biblical argument presented by the authors rests solely on Psalm 27:4.
 Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 35.
 Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 37.
 The language throughout this section seems to echo that of Werner Krieglstein and his thoughts on transcendental perspectivism. However, it should be distinguished that the authors are not making the argument that man can know nothing of the beauty of God, or that what defines absolute beauty is somehow relative to each individual’s own context and perception. Each individual has a tendency to hone in on certain aspects of beauty, on the basis of upbringing and personal experience. But each perceived aspect is still objectively discernible.
 Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 38.
 Ibid., 40.
 Arthur C. Danto, The Abuse of Beauty: Aesthetics and the Concept of Art (Chicago: Open Court Publishing, 2003), 12-13. Of course, the Christian would not go as far as Hegel and claim that the artist’s work speaks with greater clarity and truth.
 Munson and Drake, Art and Music, 91.
 The authors do not provide a clear delineation of “things” to look for when contemplating these works. They more or less challenge the reader to take a disinterested approach and allow the works to speak to them. When reviewing the analysis of the authors, it is clear that they are employing knowledge of artistic style and art history. The student interested in getting more specific details on what to look for might find Joshua C. Taylor’s Learning to Look: A Handbook for the Visual Arts (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981) exceptionally helpful.