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May 24, 2007

Goodness, Truth, & Beauty--a Trinitarian Relationship?

Box This past weekend I attended the Washington Arts Convocation, a two-day conference entitled, "Jumping Out of the Self-Referential Box." The title refers to the tendency of art since the rise of the Enlightenment to deal with the question of who am I? vs. the more important question who art Thou? This gathering of Christian artists has been the twenty-year dream of Jerry Eisley, the founder of the Washington Arts Group, and he has worked the last five years on making it a reality. Among the keynote speakers were:

I particularly enjoyed Greg Wolfe's opening talk on the relationship between truth, goodness and beauty. Wolfe posited that the three have a sort of trinitarian relationship. Truth, he posed, corresponds with reason, goodness with faith, and beauty with the imagination. Drawing on the thinking of Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar, he described how beauty is the least troubled by our fallenness, how beauty can go under the radar and pierce and wound us with the beatific vision. I was particularly intrigued by his explanation of beauty's shocking quality.

Wolfe suggested that beauty always brings a slight shock, a surprise. Drawing from Ezra Pound, he said that the surprise is the way the form captures the truth and makes it new. It is this making new of primordial truth that makes itself felt as a shock or a surprise. It is also for this reason that artistry is also often related to the prophetic.

Wolfe qualified, however, that beauty is not simply prettiness as many of us might think. Sometimes beauty is raw, or as Yeats described it, a "terrible beauty." Wolfe argued that beauty has often straddled the tension between the idealism and realism, what is vs. what should be. As Christians, he said, the temptation has too often been toward the idealistic, toward using faith as a buffer. He argued for a capaciousness to our notions of beauty that would include the boredom, horror and the glory of the human experience. In Wolfe's opinion, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O'Connor, and painter Georges Rouault are artists who have captured this best in recent times.

Another highlight of the weekend for me was meeting poet Luci Shaw. In my opinion, she is one of the truly great Christian poets living today. It was a joy to hear her read some of her own poetry and she graciously indulged me in answering a question I had about her lifelong friendship with Madeleine L'Engle and how their friendship has informed both of their artistic bodies of work.

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