Beside the Point

Not long ago, I was reading a review of a new album, released by a Christian artist who was known for his edginess and is now, perhaps, over the edge. The reviewer said (here I roughly, but accurately, paraphrase) that he had always liked this artist because he used raw words just to rile up evangelicals. And I thought that this was not truly a noble endorsement.

And it’s not because of the words he used, or because people were upset or offended, or because evangelicals were upset or offended (though I do think that, on the long road of learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, not taking positive pleasure in seeing each other offended is one step). As a reason to approve of anything, Look, he offends them! possesses doubtful worth. It seems a superficial judgment at best, an uncharitable motive at worst.

It’s unfortunate, then, that these days, it’s all around us. People have made lucrative careers of giving offense. In Exhibit 1,873 of our current societal dysfunction, certain citizens of this republic value most, in their elected officials, a demonstrated ability to offend their fellow citizens. You don’t have to look far in the broader culture to find the same impulse, to see real appreciation of the writer or artist or celebrity who offends the right people. In art, too, transgressing other people’s boundaries is often taken as a pleasure, and sometimes as an end in itself.

I understand the phenomenon; it’s all human nature, even if not the best part of it. We have all known people so annoying that they almost deserved to be offended. We have all seen boundaries so misdrawn that they deserved to be transgressed. No matter who you are, someone out there has sensibilities that are, by your measure, so hopelessly narrow or warped that they are begging to be offended. This judgment of others’ boundaries and sensibilities must, in some cases, be false. By the same rule of logic, it must, in some cases, be true. So if the sensibilities are narrow and the boundaries are skewed, isn’t there some value in offending them?

No, not intrinsically. It doesn’t follow that, because the boundaries are wrong, the offense is right. In this, as in other disputes, it is not possible that everyone is right, but it is possible that everyone is wrong. One can be politically incorrect by telling the truth, but one can also be politically incorrect by being a jerk; one can violate Victorian sensibilities in art by being better than they would permit, but also by being worse. The idea of offending the right people is tribal and superficial. Beyond the superficiality lies the lack of charity. It’s not charitable to enjoy upsetting or offending other people, nor is it worthy as an aim. What do you really achieve by bothering people?

Offense, as such, has very little meaning; it proves neither right nor wrong. As an insignificant thing, it ought to be incidental to what you are really doing. Tell the truth, or pursue artistic superiority – and perhaps people will be offended and perhaps not, but neither will be the point.

CSFF Blog Tour: Sabres, Cherubs, and Guardian Angels

During the blog tour of Angel Eyes, I wrote a post considering different aspects of the angels’ portrayals and their foundation in Scripture. Now that Shannon Dittemore has continued her series, I will continue mine. The portrayal of angels may be classified one of three ways: biblical (taught in Scripture), anti-biblical (contradicted by Scripture), and speculative (neither confirmed nor denied by Scripture).

So here we go:

Angels called Sabres worship God near His throne – The Sabres bear a resemblance to the four living creatures of Revelation, whom John saw around the throne and who “never stop saying, ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty.’ ” They are also similar to the six-winged seraphim Isaiah saw flying above God’s throne, “calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ “

But the Sabres can’t be the four living creatures. For one thing, there are twelve of them, and for another, they aren’t covered with eyes. Nor does their description match that of the seraphim. Although the Sabres have some biblical antecedent, they are speculative inventions.

Cherubs are small – Pearla, the Cherub, is a small angel; the demonic counterparts of her “cherubic order” – “impish” spies – are apparently small, too.

The Bible makes some mention of cherubs, or cherubim. They were a prominent aspect of the holy art of the tabernacle and the temple, and the Ark of the Covenant was overshadowed by golden cherubim. In the desert, when Bezalel crafted the Ark, he made the “cherubim of the Glory” of one piece with its cover. Centuries later, when Solomon built the temple, they made “the chariot” – two sculptured cherubim who spread their wings above the Ark in the Most Holy Place.

It is clear that those sculptured cherubim – whose design God had given to David – had two wings. We’ll get to the importance of that later.

Cherubim, together with the flaming sword, guarded the way to Eden and the tree of life. The four living creatures Ezekiel saw were cherubim – angels with four faces, four wings, and a multitude of eyes. “When the creatures moved,” the prophet wrote, “I heard the sound of their wings, like the roar of rushing waters, like the voice of the Almighty, like the tumult of an army.”

The walls of the temple Ezekiel saw – like the walls of the temple Solomon built – were decorated with cherubim. In the temple of Ezekiel’s vision, each cherub had two faces.

In chapter 28, God speaks: “You were the model of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone adorned you … You were anointed as a guardian cherub, for so I ordained you. You were on the holy mount of God; you walked among the fiery stones. … Your heart became proud on account of your beauty, and you corrupted your wisdom because of your splendor.”

Pearla, the Cherub, was called “little one” by the archangel Michael. One cannot imagine Michael extending the same endearment to the cherubim guarding Eden, or the four living creatures, or the “guardian cherub” of Ezekiel’s prophecy. One word you would not associate with the cherubim of Scripture is “small”.

In making imps and cherubs small, Broken Wings is drawing from culture and art, not the Bible. Indeed, the small cherubs make a very different impression than the cherubim of Scripture. Yet given the diversity of cherubim even in Scripture – two wings, four wings, two faces, four faces, covered with eyes, covered with jewels – I am reluctant to call Pearla the Cherub anti-biblical.

God assigns to human beings Shields (guardian angels) – In Acts, after Peter’s miraculous escape from prison, he came to the house of John Mark’s mother, where the believers initially thought he was “his angel”. Christians have believed in guardian angels since the beginning of the Church.

Two verses in Scripture support the idea. In Hebrews, the author writes, “Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?” The Gospel of Matthew recounts Jesus saying, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels always see the face of my Father in heaven.” This is even more in the way of guardian angels, because it implies that God does attach specific angels to specific people.

The details of “our” angels, and how they minister to us, are unknown to us. Maybe the popular idea of an angel who is always near us is correct; maybe the angels watch from heaven; maybe they come, from time to time, as God directs. The “Shields” in the Angel Eyes Trilogy are a sound biblical idea, even though the specifics are by necessity speculative.

Not Too Great a Good

Some Christians place little value on art. But I’m not going to complain about them. I intend, rather, to complain about Christians who place too much value on art.

I am thinking right now of Tony Woodlief and his article Bad Christian Art. I ran across this article while reading Sentimentality And Christian Fiction (an essay you should check out) on Speculative Faith (a website you should check out). Woodlief wrote:

I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.

I am certain that bad art does sometimes arise from bad theology; more often it merely shows it. But to treat art as a barometer for soundness of belief is to highly overrate art. Bad Christian art = bad Christianity is a false equation; it assumes a connection between good religion and good art that does not exist.

It’s unquestionably true that knowing God falsely means writing and painting and sculpting Him falsely. If that means writing and painting and sculpting badly, we will have to denounce as bad art every movie with New Age overtones, every humanistic piece of sci-fi, every sculpture made by a pagan and every song written by an atheist.

I think we all know better than that; I think we all would acknowledge that there have been great artists who have not known God, and some who have hated Him. And that should remind us of something that, in the great debate of Good Art and Bad Art, we sometimes lose track of: Art has value in and of itself – the same passing value of a good meal and a well-made table and all other good, earthly things. We might say of art, as Augustine said of beauty, that it is a good gift of God, but in order that the good might not think it too great a good, He gives it even to the wicked.

Anything can have heavenly value, but only through being offered up to Heaven. Art is no further from heaven, and no closer to it, than anything else. They say that you can peel a potato to God’s glory if you peel it to perfection. You can also paint and write and film to God’s glory, but that is the real value – not art for art’s sake, but art for God’s sake.

What is done for God must be done well. The mistake of Christians is not in wanting to find – or create – messages in art, but in forgetting that the art as well as the message should be good. The ham-handedly preachy movie and the schmaltzy, overdone book have errors that bear correcting. It’s good that someone points it out; maybe it will help us all to do better.

But we have to hold on to this thought: It may very well be that the preachy movie and the schmaltzy book please God more than the most beautiful sculptures of Greece. Because God never judges by mere appearances; He looks deeper and makes a right judgment.