A call for the church to create beauty for the sake of a saturated, disintegrated millennial generation.
In her 2012 play Love and Information British playwright Caryl Churchill presents over 100 unnamed, ungendered characters in a collection of vignettes, some mundane, some moving, many non-specific but still recognisable. Churchill asks a broad question: How do we find meaning in a world flooded by stimulation? To convey this, she permits the director to sequence the scenes in whichever order they like provided they follow certain rules. The (intentional) effect is an endless promise of meaning without the integration required to realise it. I saw this play in Melbourne in 2015 and I considered how apt its title was. Love and information, presented side by side, unintegrated. The play deliberately bombarded me with moments and hints of realities without embodying their significance. I was left thinking: the most we can expect in this version of the contemporary world is a shadow of love, because we don’t know how to integrate real love with a deluge of information.
Anyone working in Big Data will tell you that the sector’s biggest challenge is explaining what to do with the staggering amount of data humans now produce. Over 2.5 trillion gigabytes of data are created every day—12.7 million of which are transferred on Pornhub. Our grasp has exceeded our reach. This is not new from the Bible’s perspective, which affirms that humans are ‘crowned with glory and honour’ (Psalm 8) but also recounts the time God dispersed the Babelites to save them from their own achievements (Genesis 11). We are blessed beyond our ability to use our gifts constructively. For the first time in history we have set off a chain of physical events in our planet’s climate with outcomes yet to be fully understood. We now produce an overabundance of food to meet our needs, but 10% of the world’s population is chronically malnourished as nearly a third of it goes to waste. We are closer to generating energy using the processes at the core of the sun than we are to getting rid of nuclear weapons.
These examples reflect a failure of integration—spiritual, physical and imaginative. We are currently ‘twisted out of proper shape and proportion’ as per the Biblical account of the Fall—the components of human life don’t work as they should. In this state we don’t enjoy the full spiritual nourishment we need, despite ever-increasing resources. To compensate, we have become participants in a survival economy in which we seek goods, such as knowledge, audiences, experiences, money and power to meet our needs. These goods already exist—the goal is to acquire or commodify them. Winners and losers are defined by how much their perceived needs are met. Precarity is the driving motivator, despite the magnitude of resources available, because we are unable to integrate these goods to satisfy our needs. This is the legacy modernity’s dizzying prowesses in particular have left us to reckon with.
Millennials have grown up at a time where modernity exploded into the data age. We enjoy its relentless pace and suffer from its heightened precarity. Prophets of our time describe the experience more evocatively than I can (have a listen to Radiohead’s ‘Idioteque’ or if conscience permits, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). Millennials shaped by information saturation are richer with knowledge than ever, but the ‘God-shaped hole’ threatens to disintegrate us. Much ink is spilled about millennials, for good reason. Together with Gen Z we are expected to account for 75% of the globe’s workforce in the next 5 years—an unprecedented generational exchange of money and power. If we don’t get better at integrating the resources available to us, we will have some bumpy decades ahead.
Many Western churches present the gospel of Jesus as a solution to the problem of spiritual disintegration. But millennials across the Western world are becoming less religious. They also trust institutions less, marry less and have fewer children, and have more of a ‘do it yourself’ attitude than their predecessors. This makes millennial attitudes towards belief a key frontier for Christian apologetics. Church leaders are asking themselves: How do we evangelise millennials if they reject the structures we have? In fact there is a greater challenge, which Charles Taylor dubbed the ‘Nova Effect’. It’s the problem I’ve described so far: the flood of competing unmeaningful information.
The expression ‘church shopping’ betrays this dynamic. When there’s a plethora of options, people gravitate towards the package that best meets their perceived needs. This motivates competing organisations to sharpen their activities into products, their culture into brands, maximising accessibility to retain their clients. Organisations that emphasise high commitment without providing equivalent user experience become casualties in the long-term. Meanwhile the ‘shopping’ process is continuously reduced to the lowest common denominator—the caprice of the equivocating shopper—until the organisations themselves have whittled away their inherited value and we are left with too many voices saying things of too little substance for too little loyalty in return. Everyone and no one is to blame because the issue is fundamentally about economics—oversupply and underuse. Right?
Here we see the survival economy at work—and the small dividends it pays. Churches risk self-mutilation as they compete against one another and the wider culture for their survival. How can the Christian community possibly win in an information-saturated age? We need not despair, however, because there exists another economy: as my friend Eugene Wong puts it, the economy of the gift. This is God’s economy, and the economy we were designed for. Its core products are love and new life. Its core concern is worship. Thanks to God’s grace this parallel economy runs beneath the economy of survival, acting as a constant corrective until the kingdom is revealed. For millennials, beauty is the point where the two economies intersect.
Beauty is evidence of premeditated grace. It is the joy of God materialised. In the Book of Job, when God finally responds to Job’s cries for an explanation of his suffering, he offers no theological argument, nor explicit sympathy, nor reference to Job’s circumstances. Instead, he uses poetry. God sings of what he has created: the humble and the great, the gentle and the terrible. Have a read of Job 38-41. God stops to pay tribute to his design for the weather (38:22-38). He casts the constellations—which men like Job named—as living creatures ruling the Earth in a firmamental drama (38:31-33). God’s theodicy includes even the wild donkey (39:5-8). Job cannot argue with such a performance. He remains in silent awe, in ashes, humbled beyond even his sufferings. I wonder what Job must have felt in that moment? Perhaps a sense of limitless love. A sense that not even his ruin can blemish the indestructible joy God has poured out in all things. A sense that he is no longer himself, having witnessed in a fraction of time the torrential majesty of his Maker’s hands.
Beauty not only reveals a part of who God is, it reveals a great deal about his intention for how the world is supposed to work. The command to ‘fill the earth and subdue it’ (Genesis 1:28) implies that God’s abundance and potential are baked into the way we are designed. Consider how many beautiful things we enjoy that God did not himself create but inspired in common providence. Wine, for instance, did not exist in the beginning. God provided the weather, the soil, the chemistry, the genera of grapes. God gave humankind creativity, skilful fingers, the ability to taste, the insight to build tools—all without creating the beverage. His intent was for people to continuously discover and nurture the potential of his creation, that he may partake in it with them as Jesus eventually did. The same is true for coffee, music, paint… Beauty, properly expressed, is generative. It integrates our information about God and his world with our affections to produce an overflow of new life rooted in God. In the words of artist Makoto Fujimura, ‘beauty points backward, outward and forward to our ultimate Source and Sustainer’.
For this reason, any generation that has separated itself from God will struggle with beauty. There is no real place for beauty in materialistic worldviews where consciousness is just a neuron factory. The stars do not sing of their own splendour. Christian apologists will argue that the intricacies of nature point to a Creator, and will defend truth or morality accordingly, but beauty somehow gets left behind. It’s so… subjective? And frivolous, often impractical. So we think as Australians, rarely considering that living would hardly feel like life without the beauty that quietly permeates these lands and even much of our human environment. Physical beauty motivates our eyes to love; momentary beauty motivates our bodies to dance; the beauty of a newborn motivates us to nurture. God in his wisdom designed his world generously that returning generosity would prevail. When I consider this, it is unthinkable that I would ignore the imperative of beauty in my own daily life, and yet I do, regularly. Why is that? And why don’t more Christian apologists invoke the witness of beauty?
I think we experience the paradox expressed in Churchill’s Love and Information: we have enough information to validate what we already think, but we also never have enough of consuming. We are in equal parts dissatisfied with the grace we have received and satisfied not to know more. C.S. Lewis argued that our desires are too contented for the rewards of heaven. Yet we still strive to settle for a noisier, accessorised emptiness—we are gluttons for cultural fast food, which feeds our stomachs but not our souls. In this environment beauty can endure, in fact it can help us ‘detox’ (which is why many people find retreats into nature so refreshing). Beauty exists at the intersection between two economies. On the one hand it is sought as a commodity to meet human needs (consider the liturgies of Instagram). On the other it conceals shades of the divine in something as small and gratuitous as a snowflake. But rarely are we perceptive enough to cross over from the former to the latter. More often we confuse the two in our minds and degrade beauty by making it an idol or by holding it at a distance out of cynicism. This is fundamentally a spiritual problem reflecting how we all treat our Maker. In a soul-starved and information-saturated environment a common Christian response is to prioritise hard lines—what is truthful, what is lawful, what is safe or complete—over the phantasmic and aqueous force of beauty. In doing this we risk compounding what is already happening in our culture: increasing spiritual poverty and decreasing generative potential.
It has not always been this way. A brief glance at the history of art and the church shows us what is possible. Consider, for example, the enduring human impact of the Gothic cathedral on the West. Originally designed to improve on the fire-prone roofs, dark sanctums and uneconomical walls of the Romanesque, these cathedrals became the tallest, most light-filled buildings in any city that housed them, as well as public art galleries dedicated to teaching religion, marvels of engineering and craftsmanship, places of safety, symbols of civic power, and repositories of history. It is no surprise the world wept when Notre-Dame de Paris caught fire in April 2019—few human artefacts have ever carried a civilisation’s aspirations for as much history as the Gothic cathedral. Or consider the various revolutions that have arisen from church worship music. Liturgical plainchants provided the building blocks for Western musical notation., In his explicit devotion to the glory of God, composer and organist J.S. Bach consecrated so many musical traditions for worship that it is hard to overstate his impact. 174 living composers named him the greatest of all time as recently as October 2019. The prolific conductor John Eliot Gardiner, who is agnostic, says that Bach’s music ‘can only have come from somebody who has a totally credible and believable sense of godhead and the futility of human existence; [these are] the aspirations that are necessary to make sense of our lives…’. Across an ocean the spirituals of African-American slaves, sung to counter oppression with the joyful gospel of Jesus, produced a heritage that underpins the large majority of music enjoyed in the West today and for a century. How many cosmic Western stories where good prevails—Shakespeare, Dickens, George Lucas—find their seeds in centuries of medieval church drama, I wonder? Likewise how much can the literacy of pre-medieval monks—which led to, among other things, the copying and illustrating of Scripture across Europe—be attributed to The Rule of Saint Benedict (AD 516), which required monks to spend nearly four hours of their day reading books for spiritual edification? We barely understand how much grace God has shown our civilisation by the acts of Christians faithfully cultivating beauty in His name—though these are but shadows of the glory to be revealed.
The essential task of apologetics today is to convince people in our culture that they have settled for less than they think. But it is impossible to persuade them unless we show them what they’re missing out on first. And unfortunately, the task is made more challenging because today we do not regard beauty to be a central ingredient of our faith. In many situations we treat beauty as a waste of resources, a privileged indulgence, a distraction from core concerns, or a matter for private taste. Beauty is acceptable and enjoyed, but it is not allowed to influence our priorities.
Compare, for example, our unintegrated attitude towards congregational church songs. We have sophisticated language to evaluate whether the song’s lyrical content is suitable for the setting, including its theological messages, perspectives (‘we’ or ‘me’?), clarity etc. But our language for evaluating the musical or poetic content revolves around whether we like the tune, whether it’s catchy or uplifting, whether it’s singable. Both sets of concerns are important but notice the difference: in the first case, we refer to frameworks and ideals, while in the second we refer to practicalities. Evangelical churches generally scrutinise songs as a kind of teaching. As long as they pass this test anything that works with enough people will do. This mindset comes from the survival economy, focusing on metrics but leaving the information and affective components unintegrated. It doesn’t matter if what we sing is beautiful or not so long as it produces the right results. We may recognise the power of a beautiful song, but we don’t go very far to integrate or cultivate the craft required to create it. This discrepancy has led to a theological environment which trains pastors how to create functional Bible sermons each week but doesn’t train musicians to write beautiful songs for edification. Not to mention dancers, visual artists, architects or dramatists who in other times all made welcomed contributions to the sanctioned order of church worship.
Someone could retort that cultivating beauty is not the mission of the church. A typical Australian evangelical church might say that their mission is to make Jesus known. This does not require sensorial beauty, lest we enshrine ‘the wisdom of this age’ rather than the Spirit’s power (1 Corinthians 2:6). The Bible elevates the beauties of truth and righteousness, certainly, but warns about the deceptions of charm and outward beauty (Proverbs 31:30). Why should beauty be a priority for the church?
Beauty integrates. It allows a person to catch a glimpse of the vastness of God, of grace, of sin, of the incarnation, without crushing them. It unifies the body—individual or corporate—into a single response of worship. It sharpens our attention and desires into a stirring of the soul. This is why it can be dangerous, the way sex is when misused. The solution is not to ignore beauty but to facilitate and celebrate its proper expression. Why should we separate sensorial beauty from righteousness? In the Bible no expense is spared when God is worshipped. Beauty, including sensorial, should be understood as a manifestation of God’s generosity to us and of our generosity towards his praise. It is an opportunity for further integration with him. Better for us to learn it together in worship than derivatively from our wider culture.
There are other reasons why a healthy nurture of beauty in our church culture is indispensable. Firstly, as we have already seen with Job, beauty is a core language God has created to show us what his character is like. Hearts that have greater sensitivity to beauty have more room for the beauty of God and have much to teach from their experiences. Hearts that are dull to beauty are probably dull to important aspects of God.
Secondly, the method is always the message. Why do we so love pithy outlines of the gospel as evangelistic tools? These are good as far as they go, but their design communicates what they are: drastic reductions of the sweep of biblical revelation into propositions that can be easily dispensed. God has not revealed himself to us as a bare piece of information. If we consistently approached the gospel—and the source text from which it emerges—as a wellspring of God’s revealed beauty as well as his truth, would this not enrich our experience of the good news as well as our endeavours to share it?
Thirdly, we must not only strive to see people saved—we must carefully consider what they are being saved into. We are commanded to make disciples. Disciples are on a journey to integrate God’s revelation with their affections so that they can live fragrant lives. Beautiful living—made possible through the Spirit of Jesus—is a hallmark of real discipleship, manifesting in abundant joy, holiness, love and newness of life. We may rightly reject the hypocrisy of an aesthetically pleasing exterior with rotting bones underneath. But if we don’t leave space for beauty in our practice or understanding we end up modelling for others a salvation life that is bland and milk-like, generative only in spite of our efforts.
The church is not an art gallery; but it is the expression of the body of Christ. If Christians in our time and place are indifferent to beauty, what will onlookers conclude about the God we worship? Millennials are going to keep shopping whether or not we figure this one out. Indeed, one particularly millennial response to our culture’s information deluge is to seek out beauty. This is partly the fruit of wealth, manifesting in the rise of café culture and craft beer, or in returns to handmade clothing or vinyl records. Millennials are almost twice as likely to engage with the arts as Baby Boomers. They increasingly accept the need to protect the beauty of nature through social design. This turn towards beauty is a natural progression in postmodern culture. Beautiful artefacts cut through the noise by synthesising information into something abundant and attractive. They trump ‘single-use’ mentalities by rewarding repeat engagement and reflection. In the absence of shared epistemic or moral foundations beauty attracts a premium, especially in the worldview which insists that purpose is something you create rather than something you find. In some cases, certainly in my artist circles, beauty is virtually equated with meaning itself.
The trouble for millennials is that beauty is incapable of bearing our worship. What’s more, beauty, like meaning or love, requires time, persistence and faith of a kind to emerge. It is not the fruit of a hyper-plugged life that chases the lowest common denominator. There are countless examples of the disintegration that occurs when artists who receive their calling as a gift become trapped by the demands of the survival economy. They seek out glory instead of serving it, or their success spoils the intent behind their work and they no longer cope with the ‘Spirit of Saleability’ dragging at them from all sides. An environment obsessed with using art to meet one’s own needs chews up the artist in the end. While all creators must work in the survival economy at some level, it is just not possible to sustain beauty—sensorial, inward or other—without true commitment or sacrifice rooted in the gift economy. Universities face the same problem in the realms of truth or virtue: these can be weaponised to endlessly deconstruct identity or culture, but in ‘fragilizing’ the foundations from which beauty (or truth, or virtue) emerges we end up with less of it, not more. For beauty to endure there must be a return to the Source of every perfect gift, ‘with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’ (James 1:17).
As Western culture fights over fragmented scraps of the survival economy, God’s children have an opportunity to reset. Of all people Christians should understand the creative power of sacrifice. We are rooted in the gift economy, lavished in undeserved provision, called to offer ourselves as instruments of mercy. Our inheritance cannot spoil or fade. What better position to be in for making beautiful things? Like Paul at the Acropolis, we can sit at the intersection of the two economies and use beauty to help millennials find the meaning they seek in Jesus. This is why many gospel-centred churches must rethink their categories for beauty. Far from being an aloof, exceptional commodity, beauty is an unmissable sign that the good news of Jesus actually creates new life in dead places. It is the discipline of amplifying spiritual realities for human senses. It ‘makes reality more what it already is’. It is a currency that my generation understands but cannot spiritually benefit from without the church’s investment.
As I contemplate the heritage of the Reformation in threatened evangelical churches today, I can’t help but think that we follow a pattern of defending our traditions (many of which are worth defending) without actually using them to create new durable things. Andy Crouch helpfully observes that culture always seems full until we create more of it, which perhaps explains why we are slow to take up the imperative of beauty. Instead of surviving our world through fight or flight we could treat it like a garden to cultivate, creating new space for beauty and for believers. This is the approach millennials are hungry for. It holds hope for recovering social trust. Church leaders should consider what this means for their congregations and denominations—to what extent are our prayers, resources and priorities mobilised for the practicalities of ‘holding on’ as opposed to seeding new life in the gift economy? Is the faith we practise one that beauty-lovers and culture-nurturers can own for themselves?
The best argument I can give my millennial friends for my faith is that I know the story of a love so powerful I would die for it. Such an idea is jarring to anyone who swims in the noise of contemporary ideas, too cynical to commit and afraid that they are beyond love. But beauty has a strange habit of manifesting right at the point where everything breaks. After all, our God is uniquely versed in beauty. He took the ugliest thing mankind had produced, the symbol of unspeakable violence and humiliation, and filled more of our halls and pages and imaginations with it than we can count. He has not finished.
Remy studied philosophy, music and theatre. He lives in Melbourne and is married to Nichola. Remy recently finished working as the Creative Ministry Director for St Matt's Prahran and currently teaches for 3D Arts Company.
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 ‘The state of food insecurity in the world 2015. Strengthening the enabling environment for food security and nutrition.’ FAO 2015. Quoted in World Hunger Education Service, ‘2018 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics’. Hunger Notes May 25 2018 https://www.worldhunger.org/world-hunger-and-poverty-facts-and-statistics/#hunger-number
 World Nuclear Association, Nuclear Fusion Power Nov 2020 https://www.world-nuclear.org/information-library/current-and-future-generation/nuclear-fusion-power.aspx
 D. Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (HarperCollins, 1991), p63.
 EY, Global Generations: A Global Study on Work-Life Challenges Across Generations (2015), p1.
 D. Masci, ‘Q&A: Why Millennials are less religious than older Americans’. Pew Research Centre, January 8 2016, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/01/08/qa-why-millennials-are-less-religious-than-older-americans/
 J. Riess, ‘Why millennials are really leaving religion (it’s not just politics, folks)’. PBS Religion & Ethics, July 16 2018, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/2018/07/16/millennials-really-leaving-religion-not-just-politics-folks/34880/
 D. Masci, op.cit.
 C. Taylor, A Secular Age (Harvard University Press, 2009), p300.
 M. Fujimura, Culture Care (IVP, 2017), p22.
 Ibid, p52.
 C. S. Lewis, The weight of glory and other addresses (Macmillan, 1949).
 R. Taruskin, The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume I – Music from the earliest notations to the 16th century (OUP, 2010), p6.
 J. Grier, ‘Adémar de Chabannes, Carolingian Musical Practices, and Nota Romana’. Journal of the American Musicological Society Vol. 56(1), Apr. 2003, pp43–98.
 ‘JS Bach is the greatest composer of all time, say today’s leading composers for BBC Music Magazine’. BBC Music Magazine October 31 2019, https://www.classical-music.com/news/js-bach-greatest-composer-all-time-say-today-s-leading-composers-bbc-music-magazine/
 C. Burton-Hill, ‘Can Any composer equal Bach?’ BBC Culture September 17 2014, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20140917-can-any-composer-equal-bach
 D. Knowles, The Benedictines: A Digest for Moderns (Saint Leo Abbey Press, 1962), Chapter 2: Reading. http://archive.osb.org/gen/knowles/dkb02.html#lectio
 E.g. Genesis 4:4; Exodus 31:1-11; Matthew 2:11; Mark 14:3; Luke 21:3; Revelation 21:10-21.
 K. Tabachnick, ‘Millennials and arts: can we do it their way?’ Clyde Fitch Report October 4 2016, https://www.clydefitchreport.com/2016/10/millennials-arts-nonprofit-digital-marketing-audience/
 A. McGahan, ‘Clearing the Temple: Kingdom Creativity vs The Spirit of Saleability’, A Forbidden Room September 6 2018, http://www.aforbiddenroom.com/artistry/clearing-the-temple-kingdom-creativity-vs-the-spirit-of-saleability/
 C. Taylor in D.Rishmawy, ‘Ministering to millennials in a secular age’. TGCA US, January 23 2018, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/ministering-to-millennials-in-a-secular-age/
 S. Žižek, in A.Riesman, ‘Future Shock’. Vulture December 26 2016 https://www.vulture.com/2016/12/children-of-men-alfonso-cuaron-c-v-r.html
 A. Crouch, Culture Making (IVP, 2013), chapter 4.
 D. Brooks, ‘America is having a moral convulsion’. The Atlantic October 5 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/10/collapsing-levels-trust-are-devastating-america/616581/
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