There is great beauty in this world and much of our joy arises from it. Some of it we experience directly but much reaches us through the senses of other people who have the ability to distill their experience into art.
Christianity says that beauty is a clue, a residue of God’s creative genius that has survived our rebellion against him. We are surrounded by faint echoes of Eden. Art, then, is an echo, a memory from another world. For art to succeed, it must awaken our own memory, though we may not remember quite what it is that we are remembering. Successful art produces the pain of homesickness, a disease more precious and wholesome than health.
It is our longing for that distant, mostly forgotten place which gives art its power. It is our desire to remain in this safe and familiar place that gives art its temptation because, while the task of art is to awaken longing and deepen our awareness of the mystery around us, we, the consumers of art, often prefer light comedy. We enter (and exit) the passionate joy or sorrow of a skilled musician with the press of a button. We wish to be transported from our pedestrian routine by the beauty or heroism of an actor on the television screen, which is to say that we wish to be transported without the inconvenience of moving.
And so we long, weakly, for truth and beauty and, more forcefully, for entertainment. The dual nature of our desire gives rise to the Celebrity; the performer who has learned how to exploit beauty to his own ends by giving us what we want. He may be a politician or a beauty queen; the art form does not matter because he is selling oblivion, not art.
My pastor is teaching about the events recorded in Acts 14, where the apostle Paul did a miraculous thing. He saw a man listening intently to his public speech about Jesus, saw that the man “had faith to be healed” and so he healed him. The rest of the crowd was astounded and immediately anointed him a celebrity. “The gods have come down to us in human form!”, they shouted. What a relief! No more terrifying religious doubts: the gods had appeared in manageable form, validating their practices and requiring no further accommodation.
Paul had achieved stardom, an elevated state that continued until his apparent death…about fifteen minutes later. He fell from grace by refuting the concept of celebrity. “Why are you doing this?”, he said, “We too are only men, human like you”. He tried to turn their attention from himself to what was true and beautiful, “to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them”, a loving God who “has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy”. For this, he was enthusiastically (but incompetently) murdered, a decision which made sense at the time. It is, after all, easy to appease a human celebrity who, by definition, is in the business of appeasing you, but something else entirely to acknowledge your debt to the founder of the cosmos.
The “good news” of Paul and every true artist is that there is something odd about this place, something more than meets the eye. It is both too beautiful and too terrible to stand alone in the universe. We are surrounded by faint echoes of Eden, and each echo began with a voice. This is a fact of great beauty and also of deep, frightening wonder, like standing on the very edge of the Grand Canyon. Behind the echo is a voice and it is not speaking to humanity, it is speaking to you.