FROM DOGMA TO AESTHETICA
Joanne M. Swenson
Entering the sanctuary of a large evangelical church last Christmas, I was struck by the seasonal decorations. Instead of the typical pine-bough swagging and cheery crimson bows, the church had numerous large, white gossamer panels suspended from the high ceiling. Each panel featured one word, such as ‘joy,” “peace,” or “hope,” embroidered in sparkling gold thread, using the playfully varied scripts that are now fashionable in post-modern type- faces. I realized that these shimmery, diaphanous panels were like the ones I had just seen adorning the local Nordstrom department store. The church’s aesthetic? “Lordstrom.”
Virginia Postrel, in her new book, The Substance of Style: How The Rise of Aesthetic Value is Remarking Commerce, Culture & Consciousness,1 persuasively argues that aesthetic values have become as important as utility in shaping the products and places of today. This same aesthetic imperative is also abundantly evident in the cultural products and performances of American evangelicalism. Revolve, a just-released edition of the New Testament, is an exemplar of this new aesthetic intentionality.2 Self-consciously styled as a teen-age girls’ fashion magazine, Deborah Solomon of the New York Times hilariously but accurately dubs it “The Fashion Bible.”3 Many other sacred symbols are also getting a fashion make-over, including evangelical eschatology.
Eschatology among evangelicals has long been one of their defining symbolic discourses, dominated by reality claims (dogma) accompanied by passionate argument, counter-argument and church schisms. Today, however, the repertoire of Final Days symbols has been expanded to include explicitly aesthetic objects, texts and performances, seen in Christian Contemporary Music, greeting cards, fiction, inspirational prints and calendars, not to mention the highly stylized covers of eschatological doctrine books. I will explain how this came to pass, and provide some examples of this aesthetic turn.
My argument however, goes beyond a journalist’s record of this proliferation of eschatological aesthetica (e.g. the media coverage of the blockbuster Left Behind fiction series, such as Time’s cover article of July 1, 2002). It is this: by transforming eschatological symbols from dogma to aesthetica, a profound shift will occur in what these symbols mean, and the work these symbols can accomplish. Taking my cue from Wittgenstein, that “meaning is use,”4 I propose we examine the unique way eschatological aesthetica get used. I hope to persuade you that this aesthetic absorption of evangelical eschatology decisively transforms it into an experience of The Present. The question then is what will be the fate of eschatology as a set of claims about The Future?
Eschatology and Evangelical Separatism
“Evangelical” should be understood as a very broad category that includes a variety of positions and people, that, like a Venn diagram, includes sub-groups that would find utter disassociation between themselves on important topics (such as sacramentally-minded Missouri Lutherans and liturgically-indifferent fundamentalists).5 Today’s evangelicals draw their most important beliefs and emphases from the Protestant fundamentalism that “turned increasingly shrill and bitter,”6 in reaction to the perceived humiliation of Biblical truth in the Scopes Trial (1925). At about the same time as Scopes, eschatological beliefs became a second, and especially divisive area in American Christendom. Fundamentalists angered their liberal brethren with increasing eschatological interpretations about the meaning of World War I and its geo-political aftermath, such as the 1917 capture of Jerusalem from the Turks, the Bolshevik Revolution , and Mussolini’s rise to power.7
“Bible-believing” Christians and congregations began to separate from their science-accommodating and politically liberal denominations, and especially to delegitimize their denomination’s seminaries and university-based divinity schools.8 The result was a series of splits, defections, and withdrawal of financial support from the historic, American establishment denominations such as the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists (today’s United Church of Christ), a pattern that continues through this day.9
The New Evangelical Culture?
Yet, even the earliest fundamentalist/evangelical separatism was accompanied by a market-driven, populist approach to spreading its version of Biblical truth. These religious conservatives turned to radio and began independent publishing ventures, using popularly engaging rhetoric and literary formats, such as magazines and pamphlets with vibrant headlines and illustrations.
Especially influential was Carl H. F. Henry, who coined the moniker, “The New Evangelicalism” to signal that a new movement was coalescing, distinctively different from its fundamentalist parent. When Henry founded the magazine Christianity Today in 1956, he created a medium that would showcase evangelical news and biblical interpretation. But, as important, Christianity Today’s advertising pages provided a vivid, visual display for books and consumer products from the entrepreneurial, non-denominational Christian publishing industry, including Moody Bible Institute, Eerdmans, and Zondervan, all imprints that continue to flourish today.10
Thus, we should realize that fundamentalist/evangelical culture never was inattentive to the aesthetic dimension of presenting their religious symbols. Ever adapting the idioms of popular culture to their religious symbolic repertoire, they sang their hymns, formatted their worship services, illustrated their religious books and magazines, designed their worship places, and even dressed themselves to reflect their secular peer group’s current sense of beauty, power and even edginess—“seeker” aesthetics. Bruce Bawer, in his recent book, Stealing Jesus, has it wrong then, when he describes evangelicals as those who “encourage a suspicion of aesthetic values.”11 Even in its first 1956 issue, Christianity Today proudly discussed its aesthetic presentation: “In design and typography, Christianity Today combines the classic heritage of the past with the best of the modern. . . In its choice of type faces, Christianity Today had the counsel of Paul Smith, a leading West coast type designer.”12 Its advertising pages included humorous and contemporary (by the standards of the 1950’s) cartoon illustrations for the convention of the National Sunday School Association; bold type- faces proclaiming Zondervan’s publication of Sex and the Bible, and Moody Bible Institute’s special issue of Moody Monthly, “Is Time Running Out?” (free with a five-month subscription!); and a full page ad from World Wide Pictures, offering their films and production services (“men who direct a crew of Hollywood’s finest technical craftsmen. . .men who produced and now exclusively distribute the Billy Graham films. . .”). Clearly, the world of aesthetic presentation is not foreign to evangelicals.
What has changed, however, is the sheer size of evangelical aesthetic culture. There are disputes about how to define, and thus, how to count “real” evangelicals in America. Most agree that evangelicals are now younger, distributed beyond the terra firma of the Bible belt, more affluent, and more immersed in contemporary consumer culture and its aesthetics (thus, “Lordstrom”).13 Beyond argument, however, is the explosion in evangelical books and products, goods that overwhelmingly are aesthetic in nature: according to a 2001 Newsweek article, “Christian” entertainment products had sales of over $3 billion (and that figure excludes gift wares and Bibles). Christian music had sales of $747 million, or 4.8% market share (compare that to Country music’s 10%); Christian movies and video, combined generated $835 million. Christian wares are no longer cloistered in Christian “supply” stores, but available at Walmart and other national chain-stores.14 Of course, by now, we’ve all read about the Christian theme park, Holy Land Experience, in Orlando, but did you know there is a Christian Wrestling Federation, whose members perform throughout the nation? Moreover, Christian books (excluding Bibles) sold over $1 billion (sales quadrupling since 1980). Yet, contrary to expectations, many of these books are not theological tracts, nor even biblically-based self-improvement manuals, but a new, burgeoning category, Christian fiction,15 the most famous example being the Left Behind books (55 million copies in its “product line” sold since the first book was released in 1995).16
The Late Great Planet Goes Aesthetic
In clarifying what is meant by “aesthetic,” Nelson Goodman is most helpful with his rephrasing of the perennial question, “What is art?” to the more illuminating “When is art?”17 Art (or the aesthetic) is when we read objects, texts, performances as, first, deeply dense with meaning, exhibiting chains of meaning that are revealed as we give ourselves over to the aesthetic object, event or performance in profound attention and even vulnerability. Second, aesthetica are also experienced as replete or finished, as an integral event of communication that resists amendment or editing, lest the fullness of meaning be damaged. Finally, aesthetica communicate by using the symbolic mode of exemplification and its kin, expressiveness; we say that a painting “expresses rage,” or that it “exemplifies redness.”18 These modes of communication are made possible because aesthetica must possess, either literally or metaphorically, the properties we attribute to them. They can’t exhibit or refer to properties with indifferent or interchangeable signs; they must manifest those properties, showing forth, through possession of those attributes. Ideally, aesthetica will do this so well that they move us – hence, the emotion so frequently cited as the hallmark of aesthetic experience.
Written in a non-aesthetic mode, Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth,19 and his more recent, The Everlasting Hatred: The Roots of Jihad,20 correlate biblical references with world events, to create a sequence of scenarios that will usher in the Eschaton of Jesus Christ. Lindsey’s works are non-aesthetic because they function primarily in the denotive mode, rather than the exemplary or expressive modes, the hallmarks of aesthetic symbolism. Lindsey uses biblical symbols to denote, that is, to point to events that he takes to be real or imminent. Unlike works of art that are replete, Lindsey’s works permit editing, paraphrasing or translation without any undue loss of meaning; indeed, Lindsey frequently paraphrases his work in radio and television presentations. In contrast, the biblical images, admonitions and prophecy that Lindsey bases his work upon are profoundly aesthetic: they are dense with metaphor and layers of complex reference to other Hebrew literature and memory, manifesting and evoking the highest hopes and fears of human existence. Lindsey’s work, however, exhibits no such complexity or evocative power. Lindsey uses, for example, bold-faced or italicized subtitles to set apart brief paragraphs or sections, guiding the reader to one, non-ambiguous point before moving on to the next topic. His work is highly literal and grasped with even a superficial reading.
For our purposes, what is telling about Lindsey’s nonaesthetic oeuvre is its decline in popularity. While The Late Great Planet Earth, released in 1970, sold 35 million copies, Lindsey’s latest works have sold markedly fewer. Indeed, owning dusty copies of his numerous (unfulfilled) prophecy books has become a joke even among evangelicals.
Three Evangelical Eschatological Aesthetics
By contrast, aesthetic representations of eschatology are flourishing. Most prominent, of course, are the fiction and related goods (calendars, toys, posters, video) of the Left Behind series. I would characterize their aesthetic as “iridescent urgency.” The books’ jackets are distinguished by two or three strong colors, such as orange, black and turquoise (Left Behind, the first book), violet and black (Nicolae), lime green, black and aqua (Soul Harvest), with simple, but ominously ambiguous images glowing behind the titles.21 A rapid, even breathless quality pervades the narratives. The reader is privy to the inner thoughts of the main characters as the dangerous events of the post-rapture tribulation unfold, expressed in blunt, short sentences. Godly heroes are inevitably men, with choppy, tough-guy sounding names like Buck, Bruce, Steve and Ray—names that contrast with the florid and elegant name of the arch-villain, Nicolae Carpathia. Miniature dramas of forgiveness, helplessness, mistaken commitments and remorse-filled realization hasten the pace of each book.
What does a reader do with such an aesthetic? Aesthetic objects, events and performances are not, contrary to popular understanding, “useless” but are profoundly useful in patterning our contemporary experience. Aesthetica, at their most powerful, create a virtual world (as Susanne Langer presciently used that word in the early 1950’s)22 which, in turn, tutors the sensibilities of the audience, “training” them to experience their every-day world in the cadences, tones, and emphases of the aesthetic world. Nelson Goodman has remarked that an aesthetic work is projectable onto life situations beyond the work of art: “(A)fter a couple of hours at an exhibition we often step out into a visual world quite different from the one we left. We see what we did not see before, and see in a new way. We have learned.”23 In the same way, an aesthetic enables its audience to project this aesthetic onto their various life situations, discerning how life fits into, or can be assimilated into this aesthetic. Thus, the larger world begins to bear traces of this style, as our attentive senses seek it out. Although it is LaHaye’s and Jenkins’s stated hope that their Left Behind books effect Christian conversions, their implicit task is aesthetic conversion. The reader’s world is remade in this aesthetic, into its world of drama.
Thus, Left Behind’s “iridescent urgency” can be projected to the here and now, patterning the daily events of the reader’s life with this aesthetic. Life can assume the books’ rapid pacing, with a sense of cosmic drama unfolding in intimate scenarios between family, friends and work colleagues. Above all, this aesthetic imparts an almost-gnostic economy of polar forces of good and evil, at work behind the superficial world of appearances. Normal folks with middle- class jobs and middle-aged temptations are thrust into dramas that propel them past their own reluctance and fallibility. The reader of these books doesn’t even really need to “become” Buck or Bruce in aesthetic projection, because he probably is already much like them.
Most of the book’s characters and many events are avowedly fiction, yet they are placed in the foreground of events the authors believe will be real someday.
This is a sort of historical fiction then, although the history is yet to occur. In this sense, there are non-aesthetic, religiously didactic tasks going on, such as when Bruce instructs his fellow church members about the events of the Eschaton, including the Rapture for which they apparently did not qualify (Left Behind, 308 – 314). Nonetheless, this is not a work that can be invalidated or found “not true,” in that its most prominent business is aesthetic, not didactic. An evangelical may use Left Behind as a guidebook to the coming Tribulation, a non-aesthetic use. But, until that Tribulation occurs, the work is “useless” in the way that all aesthetic works are, usefully patterning our experience in the here and now, tutoring our sensibilities in its repertoire of exemplars and expressive symbols.
Left Behind is a prominent example of the aesthetic turn of evangelical aesthetica, but there are other important and distinctly different forms of eschato- logical aesthetica. John Eldredge, a current best-selling author of evangelical self-help books, uses eschatological imagery, not of conflict, but of the consummation of creation, in his discussion of “the heart’s desire.” Although the genre of self-help would seem to be non-aesthetic, his texts are presented with attractive, evocative nature photography, with subtitles type-faced and laid out on the page as though they were bursts of the self’s own cathartic insight, e.g., “The Kingdom of God brings restoration. Life is restored to what it was meant to be.” His book, Dare to Desire: An Invitation to Fulfill Your Deepest Dreams,24 is a slim hard- cover of intimate dimensions, as though one could hold it to the heart. Pages of text are typically faced by another page with a striking nature photograph: a rushing stream, a road breaking through a wheat field, blades of grass glistening with frost. Here Armageddon is abridged, and the struggle toward God’s kingdom goes inward: “Our lives are a collection of others’ expectations.” The page with this text is faced by a photograph of a stand of dune grass, violently blown by ocean winds, under a leaden, foggy sky. The resolution of these struggles comes in “The Kingdom of God,” according to Eldredge: “The restoration of God’s good creation not only answers our heart’s longing for beauty, but for adventure.” The photo accompanying this text shows the spiny structure of several wildflowers, gleaming in bright back light. The kingdom of God is represented in this book’s aesthetic as delicate, luminous, clear, deliberately paced and brilliantly lit. These are the attributes, then, that we incorporate into our vision, our experiencing, through the tutoring provided by this book’s aesthetic. This kingdom-of-God aesthetic is used, as only an aesthetic can, to create a world of experience today – not in some yet-to-come millenium.
Many of these evangelical aesthetica take their inspiration, their “the home realm” (Nelson Goodman25) from the eschatological passages of the Bible. Evangelicals, familiar with eschatological passages from Isaiah, Mark, the Pauline epistles, Revelation, etc., have a kind of symbolic competence that enables them, as creators or audiences, to take biblical language and images, and follow them in new, aesthetic directions.26 For example, a sympathy card by DaySpring Cards (Siloam Springs, Arkansas) features a quote from a book by best-selling evangelical author Max Lucado: “. . .They are servants who opened the door when Jesus knocked. Now the door will open again. Only this time, it won’t be Jesus who walks into our house; it will be we who walk into His.” Facing this quote, on the card’s front, is a sepia-toned photograph of a door, set in a rustic, plastered wall. These verbal and photographic images are based on the assumption that the sender and receiver know the home realm of this “door” language, New Testament language about the door being knocked on by Jesus. And, in confirmation of this familiarity with the home realm, the reader opens the card and see cited one of those door passages: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with Me ” (Revelation 3:20). The card’s message is both denotive and aesthetic. It espouses a Christian eschatological belief that “we will walk into His house” at the Eschaton. But even more, its calming aesthetic of sepia tones, a simple, rustic image, and spare typeface exemplify a purified peace, focused without excessive embellishments or lustrous vistas. Both the Lucado and Eldredge works exhibit a similar aesthetic that is purified of excessive imagery and color. The Eschaton is represented as beautifully focused and introspectively concentrated in these aesthetic presentations.
I emphasize this point about excessive embellishment, because there is one more significant aesthetic vision of the Eschaton that demands consideration, that of Thomas Kinkade. It may be that the focused and introspective aesthetic of Lucado and Eldredge is a reaction against that of Kinkade’s work. Kinkade’s work has been long on the scene, at least in terms of consumer attention span; his work became widely available in the late 1980’s when his painting of Yosemite Valley was selected by Eastern National for mass-distribution in its National Parks souvenir shops. Kinkade made the leap from artist to brand-identity (“Thomas Kinkade: Painter of Light”) with the help of entrepreneur Ken Raasch. His illustrations were stamped onto collectors’ plates, lavishly framed and spot-lit in shopping-mall based “galleries,” and reproduced for numerous books, totebags, calendars, coffee mugs, etc.
His aesthetic does not shy from Technicolored romantic images, dappled with myriad, evocative moments, such as village store signs, flower boxes, rowboats tied up at a bridge. In a description of his painting, Lamplight Manor, Kinkade explicitly identifies the eschatological reference of these idealized images: “the brooke (sic) Windemer takes us to a rustic treasure hidden away in England's quaint Cotswolds—a magnificent manor house. How I would enjoy a private tour of house and grounds: the sweeping spiral staircases, the luxurious tapestries, and the dignified library. . . . Here we can anticipate the glory that awaits the children of God in heaven.”27
If ever the aesthetic work of projection was apparent, it is here. We can literally project this aesthetic into our daily lives, through physically placing it in our homes. Here, indeed, the Eschaton becomes a realized, contemporary experience, not only through placing Kindade’s aesthetic in our homes and public spaces, but through its education of our sensibilities in its lush, romantic, and Edenesque scenes, many of them domestic vistas of thatched cottages, gabled porches and garden gazebos.28 While critics can complain about the radical disjunction between the real world of Columbine High and Kinkade’s world of Cotswolds cottages, the world of aesthetic symbolism cares not a hoot for “the real.” It attempts, rather, to remake “the real” into its emphases, tones, and cadences. Kinkade’s work is not so much escapist as it is eschatological. And, as an eschatological aesthetic, it deals with the here and now, rather than officiously speculating about the future’s fulfillment. (I would rather live a day as a doorkeeper to Kinkade’s galleries, than a thousand in the tents of Hal Lindsey!).
Notwithstanding this affirmation of the aesthetic eschatology of Kinkade, it is evident that his popularity is waning, giving way to the minimalist, focused and introspective aesthetic discussed earlier.29 What is fascinating here is the basic fact of change and adaptation, testimony to the vitality of evangelical eschatology. We have already seen that evangelical aesthetics are not frozen dregs, but vibrant, esteemed in the life of the evangelical community, and evolving continuously. The vitality their eschatological aesthetics is, I would argue, a telling response and an implicit way of following the “rules of the game” of biblical literalism. To this topic of the “language game” of evangelical eschatology we turn next.
Don’t Act; Do Tell
How are the eschatological admonitions and visions of the Bible acted upon by evangelicals? Tellingly, they are a matters of faithful belief, yet, they generate little logistical activity. An owner of an Abilene, Texas evangelical bookstore, interviewed by a local reporter about the sale of end-time books, is characterized thus: “As much as she enjoys perusing the endtime section of her Christian book store, Mrs. Dyson isn’t staying up nights fretting over the future. ‘I don’t worry about it,’ she said, ‘because I know God’s going to take care of me.’”30 Here we must follow closely how eschatological symbols, specifically millenialist doctrines, get used by evangelicals and fundamentalists. We see the numerous books and websites dedicated to delineating the approaching events of the Eschaton. One thing, therefore, Christians do with this symbolic repertoire is to announce the impending calamity of the Eschaton. But beyond its profession, what do we observe Christians doing about this coming emergency?
Occasionally we read of Christians stockpiling emergency supplies for the Tribulation, hiding Bibles in caves around the Holy Land to convert the Jews who will be left after the Rapture, and giving money to radical Jewish groups to reconstruct the Temple (and presumably, destroy Islam’s Temple Mount, which inconveniently stands in its way).31 Yet, I would argue, these are the extraordinary exceptions that prove the rule of “Don’t Act; Do Tell.” These activities are considered so aberrant as to merit special attention by the press and criticism by the believing community. Most evangelicals implicitly understand that to pursue practical preparations and logistics planning in anticipation of the Eschaton is beyond the bounds of this “language game.”32 In 2002, a popular radio preacher, Harold Camping, urged his listeners to abandon their home congregations, arguing that, in fulfillment of eschatological prophecy, the age or dispensation of the church was now over, and the Rapture imminent. Camping was almost universally criticized by fellow evangelicals, not only for his dismissal of the church, but for attempting to time the events of the Eschaton.33
So, we have here a curious situation—a doctrine detailing imminent catastrophe that should incite a human response to act, yet the conventional behavior is “don’t act, do tell.” Evangelicals espouse biblically-referenced eschatological beliefs; a small but significant number of them purchase and study end-time books; and their seminaries’ professors teach eschatological doctrine and debate its more divisive details.34 It would be presumptuous, therefore, to conclude that evangelicals don’t believe in their eschatologies, even though there appears to be little activity around these anticipated events, except for their telling.
Does this implicit prohibition on practical, eschatological action spur, in response, a vibrant aesthetic response? What does seem evident is that eschato-logical hopes are given allegiance, even if the details are uncertain and debatable. And out of familiarity with and reverence for the literal truth of these eschatological symbols, an aesthetic response is generated.
To conclude, American evangelicals are showing a preference for the aesthetic use of eschatological symbols, subordinating the prognosticating, denotive use so associated with end-time believers. This aesthetic transformation of eschatology signals a shift, not simply in use, but in belief. The pragmatists have taught us that belief is that upon which a person is willing to act.35 To see what is believed here, let us, therefore, follow the action accomplished with these aestheticized symbols—where is the action? I’ve argued that what gets enacted is a way of experiencing the world today.
Based on popularity of evangelical cultural products, I’ve identified three types of eschatological aesthetics: polarizing urgency marked by human fallibility and tough-guy heroism (Left Behind’s LaHaye and Jenkins); focused introspection, purified of distractions and tutored by natural beauty (Eldredge and Lucado); and romantic, vibrant, and domestic idealization (Kinkade). Any of these three aesthetics are useable, yet they pose radically different approaches to structuring life. One polarizes and is breathless, seeing dangerous significance in the mundane; the second goes within and finds in purified desire oneness with God’s will; and the third looks upon the world as an extension of the blissful radiance of a happy, lamp-lit home. Yet, framed aesthetically, these choices are experienced as preferences, not ultimate truth claims.
How far we have traveled, then, from the early twentieth century’s eschatology wars, dividing denominations and igniting the fundamentalist movement and the new evangelicalism. Yet, these new aesthetic eschatologies promise more productive usability than any speculative schemata about the end-times.36
1. Harper Collins, 2003
Copyright of Cross Currents
is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and
its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express
written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the
retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for
the use of the individual user.