Handel’s Messiah versus Hillsong, cathedrals versus coffeehouses, the Sistine Chapel versus the “Precious Moments” brand: Christians love all this stuff. Someone must be right, right? Frank Burch Brown explores these topics of manmade beauty, termed aesthetics, in Good Taste, Bad Taste and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. Brown is Professor of Religion and the Arts at Christian Theological Seminary. The title alludes to a conclusion that is unaddressed by Brown: what Christians should and shouldn’t do regarding aesthetics. But this is not a field guide for how to run a church’s art department. Instead, he explains the aesthetic situation from two distinct camps American in which Christians find themselves. The two camps are, firstly, those who love Thomas Kinkaid, and secondly, those who do not. But instead of condemning those with supposed “bad taste” or praising those with the “good taste,” Brown’s purpose is to create a “Christian taste.” Christian taste is most interested in love, in the “cultivation and appreciation of aesthetic diversity,” with the best interest of the universal church held as highest priority (Brown xiv). Conversely, Brown is careful not to promote a sappy, feel-good, half-truth (which he describes as “kitsch,” later to be addressed), but calls for discernment, and necessarily then, discrimination against some of the productions Christians have acquired an unhealthy taste for.
Once again, Brown intends to shift the reader’s taste, good or bad—whatever that may mean—to Christian taste. A perspective of grace, though he never terms it specifically as such. Taste can bond people together or tear them apart—“the most alienating of disappointments is the discovery that a beloved person or admired group rejects the very kinds of art and beauty that one cherishes” (Brown 10). No doubt Brown, a professor of art as well as a worship leader has encountered all different types of aesthetics in worship, and has experienced or seen people experience the alienating disappointments caused by taste. His thesis makes plenty of room for diversity in aesthetics, and this principle is definitely informing it. Brown supports his thesis through several arguments that explain how aesthetics are a theological issue more than stylistic, how the sacred is subjective, and how aesthetics are important corporately and individually.
Theology and Kitsch
Questions of taste are not very relevant unless people have bad taste; healthy diets are not very relevant if no one eats Cheetos. Christianity encounters a problem when sincere devotion to God is expressed through kitsch. Brown describes Christian kitsch as “a beautiful lie,” because it shows the beauty of the world with none of the ugly (Brown 129). Brown acknowledges some value in sentimentality, “but when sentimentality dominates the religious space, it truncates religious development,” he explains (20). Brown explores the oxymoron while keeping peace between lovers of kitsch and haters of kitsch.
The most glorious display of kitsch come to the Midwest is arguably the Precious Moments Chapel, the crown jewel of the Precious Moments figurine brand. Compared to the Sistine Chapel, what it was modeled after, some weep from the glorious splendor and some are appalled. Brown, rather than say “this is right” and “this is wrong,” goes to great efforts to fully highlight the enigma. If the reader is even the most classical artist of snobbery, if a Christian, cannot deny that people experience sincere spiritual feelings while there. Likewise, Brown’s argument makes even the Christian who is avidly indulgent in kitsch see Precious Moments Chapel’s artistic failings; its half-truth of sticky sweetness, ignoring the fall and only portraying the redemption. Both sides of the argument real; thus, the question changes from “which is right,” to “how do we deal with this while respecting our fellow believers?”
Ultimately, Brown is not describing a stylistic issue, but rather a theological issue. This argument implies that grace can overcome stylistic preferences, moving the focus to theological preferences, that is, a preference for honesty over lies.
Sacred is Subjective
Some Christians will split churches over matters of taste, believing one taste is approved by God and one taste is not. Brown, in the spirit of the unity he longs to inspire, argues that sacred things are largely products of cultural influence. Aesthetic sacredness is formed by theology, but also by function—setting up a space and creating elements from the mundane things of life because it works within Christianity.
For example, Brown brings up the architecture of a church. A church must be a place that allows for interpersonal encounters, so indoor facilities large enough to house the whole congregation at once were built. This did not determine it “the sacred,” but it became sacred to people. Now, when people want to change the format of a Christian meeting place, Brown argues that the sacred “must always make use of the materials and powers that can otherwise be used for mundane purposes” (Brown 216). Christians did not find a sacred taste and continue on with it, but a certain taste was made sacred. Thus there is always room for new tastes coming from culture, so long as it is not tied with negative religious connotations. Brown describes this situation as like building a new church in China to look exactly like a Buddhist one, in which Christians would sing traditional Buddhist chants with replaced words. This is a blatant distraction to Chinese Christians.
The implications here are that the issue is not material, but personal and theological. Types of building and settings are not one more holy than another, but perhaps one more culturally appropriate. Brown leaves much of the specifics up to the reader to decide, and does not offer much conclusiveness or finality from the issue though.
Aesthetics: Corporately and Individually
Brown also argues for an appreciation of aesthetics, because it is important to the individual and the corporate body of Christ. Within this argument, Brown gives reason for why his whole book matters. In the individual, how and what one responds to aesthetically, can make a religious difference. He says “the person who cannot respond readily to poetry will miss part of the religious meaning of the psalms” (Brown 25). Corporately, the global church’s use of aesthetics represents the overall theological wellness of the church. And not specifically the theology of aesthetics, but on a grander scale how people believe is shown in words they sing, or what the central focus of a church building is.
The implications from this argument outline Brown’s main purpose once more. Christians have a minimum obligation to begin and continually cultivate an appreciation for other styles that portray Christian truth. This promotes a common language of aesthetics throughout the global church, enriching individuals, as well as strengthening the voice of the universal church.
On the whole, Good Taste, Bad Taste and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life, is not a handbook on what to do, but rather, how to think. And how he calls Christians to think is with theological discernment met with compassion when dealing with aesthetics.
Brown, Frank Burch. Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. Print.