Artists and creatives have sometimes (frequently? always?) made for strange bedfellows with the church. The artistic vision of the creative tends to push against the rigid nonconformity of religious tradition, creating a divide that often remains permanent. Artists that find themselves ostracized from other followers of their faith have been known to retreat from faith communities all together. This is unfortunate and when it happens it leaves the Body of Christ without vital parts of the whole. We are like a body made up with many practical elements, but without that which makes us truly human.
I’m very grateful for Andrew Klaven for writing this book and for Zondervan for publishing it. There are many, many books written about theology, doctrine and the tenants of the Christian faith, but very few of them in all of history seek to deepen our understanding of Christ by examining the arts and attempting to express the power that art holds to help us understand the essential Truth of the Gospel and the man, the Son of God, Jesus Christ.
The author, a lifelong secular Jew, who became a Christian late in life, has worked professionally as a writer of books and screenplays for most of his adult life. He has written thrillers, mysteries, detective stories and horror novels with a great deal of success, both before and after becoming a Christian. You can read the story of his conversion in his autobiography, The Great Good Thing, which I also recommend.
This book, Truth and Beauty: How the Lives and Works of England’s Greatest Poets Point the Way to a Deeper Understanding of the Words of Jesus, is actually a much greater endeavor than it’s very lengthy title. While the middle of the book does an excellent job of doing exactly what the title says, the beginning chapters and the later chapters explore the greater ideals of what is truth, the struggle of the modern world with that truth and the vision of how all of God’s Truth are expressed perfectly in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The book begins with a journey of the author to get to know Jesus, who he fully believes in and has placed his trust in, but whose teachings he sometimes struggled to understand. To him teachings like the Sermon on the Mount came across like, “ Blessed are you when your life is awful, because in heaven, trust me, it’s gonna be great.” He didn’t doubt the Truth that his only hope for eternal life was faith in Jesus. He fully believed that the Gospels provided an accurate account of the life and teachings of Jesus, but he doubted our own ability as fallen humans to actually live out these truths on this earth in a way that actually meant anything while we are here. This struggle is probably more common than many of us would like to admit.
His answer was to go to the Bible, specifically the teachings of Jesus. He even taught himself Greek to be able to try and understand what Jesus was saying as clearly as possible. If you’ve ever tried to learn any language, much less learning a new language in your 60’s you can appreciate his commitment to the task. He wanted to understand what he believed, a very honest pursuit. He describes it this way:
“Fiercely, constantly, I want to know how to become the man God made me to be, how to do the works he created me to do. I trust him with the big questions of eternity. I trust him with the end of days. I trust him with the last judgement…he must have made me with a purpose. No? He must have given me this moment on the planet with a thought in mind. I want to know what it looks like to live that out to the fullest. Not just in some general sense. I didn’t need God to die on a cross to tell me to be nice or charitable or faithful to my wife….But I want to know second by second how Logos instructed me to understand myself so I can have ‘joy to the full’ and ‘life more abundantly’ just as he promised.”
Isn’t that the struggle for many of us? We want purpose and meaning and we want our life to matter in some kind of eternal way. This book is about that and much more. Finding that meaning, that truth, but also finding it not just in the pages of Scripture, but seeing it reflected in art and nature and in the words that some artists put together to reflect the Truth of God’s creation.
Mr. Klavan believes that Christian truth and faith are the foundation of all of Western culture and civilization. So, when we look at the arts produced, we can find both the affirmation of those truths, but also the struggle to rebel against them. The specific focus on looking at the works of the Romantic era poets is chosen not just for the works themselves, but also because of the age that they were written in. The author expresses it this way:
“The Romantics set aside all religious precepts and traditions in order to see things anew. And in an age that was much like ours-an age of unbelief-these genius poets, in works of spectacular depth and beauty, in ways that were often unintentional-either accidentally or guided by a hand they could not perceive-blazed a literary trail back from the ruins of the old faith-from the smoking shambles left by human superstition, corruption, and violence-toward the original vision that Christ delivered not only in the Sermon on the Mount but in all the works and words of that invisible biography that hovers in the creedal silence between his miraculous birth and his suffering death.”
There is a struggle here. A struggle of unbelief. It is the struggle of man trying to define reality or redefine it in his own image, rather than the true reality of God’s creation. Truth is necessary. Truth is foundational. The author states:
“Without some sort of standard of perception, some kind of received Gospel truth, there can be no truth at all that goes unquestioned. no truth we hold self-evident, no axioms of morality, no way to determine what is objectively right and wrong.”
If we throw this aside then we can be led to all kinds of dead end roads. Whether it be the ideas of Marx, Nietzsche, Freud or others, without Gospel truth, there are many paths to lose our way on.
“We sense these uncertainties are deceptions in themselves. They contradict what we know, what we see, what we experience. They even contradict their own logic, because if there is no truth, then how can it be true that there is no truth?…We need God to give us ground to stand on, and not just God, but our God, the Christian God, who will confirm the good values the generations of the West have discerned and learned to live by over time. But we can’t just choose belief if we don’t, in fact, believe. We need God truly, not just as a useful stopgap against chaos or oppression….When we cry out to the universe, ‘What is truth? Who’s there?’ we need to be able to hear the voice of some essential reality respond to us: I AM.”
For such a short book, the author addresses many societal trends and issues. In addition to the help he finds in poetry, he draws upon Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein to illustrate principles of mankind’s battle against ultimate truth, whether it be from the arts, science or other aspects of culture. In examining the French revolution (a period of history with many similarities to our present day), we find attitudes that could have been reflected in modern ‘cancel culture’. The author describes it this way:
“France was to be fundamentally transformed into a crystal city of immaculate goodness, justice falling on the thirsty multitudes like rain. Every inequality would vanish. The past would be reviled and the statues of the old heroes would be torn down….Religion would fall. Reason would rule. And of course anyone who wasn’t willing to be reasonable would be reasonably slaughtered….The only thing standing in the way of human perfection, after all, is humanity….Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice…Evil is not evil when we do it, in other words, because our cause is just so very good.”
This is the righteousness of human reason. It was a situation where “ the oppressed of France had become the oppressors in their turn.” Ultimately, in the aftermath of the tyranny of this time and season, there was a time when many, including some of these Romantics, began seeking the truth that society was trying to abandon. This is the “ paradox of virtue: a society must be virtuous to be free, but it must be free before it can be virtuous because virtue is not virtue unless it is freely chosen….It is culture-tradition-that creates a people worthy of freedom, when it grooms them, in freedom to freely choose the good.”
In the author’s viewpoint, there is ultimate truth and it is that truth that art sometimes brushes up against. The alignment of the truth we are able to create with the truth of God’s creation is where we find beauty. The title of the book comes from Keats famous poem, Ode to a Grecian Urn:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all
Ye know of earth, and all ye need to know.”
The end of the book is focused not only on this idea of the true beauty of God’s creation, but also the fulfillment of God’s truth in Christ. The author wants to show us how we know “ our beauty is really beauty and our truth is really truth.” In the works of Samuel Coleridge he finds the idea that Christ is the model and perfection of all that humanity can know of Truth. He is “ a true melding of flesh and spirit, life and Logos, man and God. The more we experience the world through Christ, the more we become like Christ and know the world truly. This is what Paul was describing when he said, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
This book is not for everyone. The path the author takes to come to his conclusions may be troubling to some of my Christian friends. He is a different person, with a vastly different background before coming to Christ than most of us. His perspective is that of an artist, but where he lands is a place that all believers should find comforting. It is a Biblical perspective that aligns with the truth of Scripture and is centered on the Gospel and Jesus Christ. Our only hope is in Jesus, it is not in our own ideals or creations, but it is possible for us to create something such as a work of art that ties into the eternal truths of God in a way that helps us understand those truths.
That is what Christian artists seek to do. One might say that could be their spiritual acts of worship. There is value in this and Christian leaders should understand that value. They should appreciate it and cultivate it in the same way we relish in a good sermon or a hymn or worship song that helps us to praise and honor our creator and His son. I encourage every Christian leader to read this book. We need more Christian artists to create great art that taps into the eternal, immortal truth of all that God has made true and we need Godly men and women who can see and understand those truths and the way they impact everything.
The author ends by coming back to his discussion of the law, but this time in the light of Christ. We desire to create a perfect system of law, but the perfect system of law only works if those under it freely choose to follow those laws. “‘ Everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin,’ says Jesus. I have seen this again and again. I’ve known one or two murderers, quite a few thieves, too many adulterers, and more liars than honest men. Each in his degree was a slave and miserable. Only the person who chooses virtue and authenticity can be slowly shaped into a soul unchained. He’s the one who can let go of what the world calls good and follow Christ into the Logos life, to be the flesh made Word, to live a life like the Scriptures, figurative-a life that expresses the truth underlying the two great commandments that, in turn, underlie all the others: love God and love your neighbor as yourself.”
No one can live this life on their own. No one can freely choose the good every time on their own. The Sermon on the Mount isn’t about us inflicting change on the world, but rather “ He wants us to do these things not to change the world but to know the world and by knowing the world to change ourselves to be more in accordance with him.” Late he writes, “ to love as God loves, to behave toward the world as God does, to shine on the good and evil alike gives us eyes to see with, ears to hear. You begin to lose your life-your opinions, your fake and precious virtue-your identity, as Keats said-and so you find your life, your true life, the perfected identity God made in you from the start. “
“It is not that Christ is who we should be. It is that he became what we are trying to become. The Sermon on the Mount is a map of that experience…This is the greater system with which our broken system lives.”
I’ve shared with you a few of my favorite quotes of this book, but I highly recommend you read it for yourselves. This is a book that comes at the truth of God’s Word and the life of Christ from a different angle and I believe that if you read it for yourself you will not only grow in your understanding of Him, but it will assist you as you go out into this ever changing world and attempt to be salt and light to a people who may have wandered far from ultimate truth, but who can be shown a way back, even if the path is quite different from the one you took yourself.