Monday, July 26, 2010

A Minor Moment Against Spurgeon (an orthodox rebel's defense of art)

The following is a comment I made in response to this blog post at Pyromaniacs. I love reading the Pyros because of there staunch orthodoxy against all the lunacies of both secular and Christian post-modernism. However, on this rare occasion, I find reason to disagree with them; or more specifically, to disagree with one of their heroes: Charles Spurgeon. Every weekend, the Pyros post an excerpt from one of Mr. Spurgeon's excellent sermons. This time, however, his sermon wasn't so excellent. I suggest that you read it (it isn't long) before reading my response below.

Phil [the Pyro who posted the sermon]:

I have to say, as an artist myself (though not a catholic), I completely disagree with what Mr. Spurgeon has said here in regards to the material and the spiritual (except for that last part about God not despising "the tear that drops from a repentant eye"; that was awesome).

My disagreement is a matter of concern and not condemnation. I am concerned b/c Mr. Spurgeon's seemingly complete dismissal of the "material" sounds oddly gnostic in its implications.

I am glad that he enjoys (as we all should) "to hear the swell of organs, the harmony of sweet voices, the Gregorian chant" and to see "the choristers and priests, and the whole show of a grand ceremonial," but his thunderous dismissal of them and all "architecture," "music," and "fine arts" as "vanity" is dangerous. If the material world is so utterly useless in worshiping God, then why have church at all? Why those pulpits and pews? Why those buildings with their lofts and crosses? Why those hymnals and sermons written and spoken in language, a construction of man? Are they too not all equally "material" and thus equally "vain"? What of our bodies? Are they too not grossly "material"? In light of all this, should we not all become aesthetes in desert caves again, contemplating God in a complete spiritual way devoid of any vain and distracting physicality?

Of course, Spurgeon doesn't say that here (or anywhere for all I know), but my point is that I see no reason (given his view of the "material") why he shouldn't think that. That is my concern. His logic seems to lead us to a slippery slope.

I agree with Spurgeon that John 4:21-24 is saying that real worship is a spiritual affair (and thus the time will come when it won't matter which "mountain" that you worship in; vs. 21), but I don't see how Jesus is saying that all material forms of worship are now "vanity". I don't think the text says that. If I may speak a tad boldly about one of my betters, I think Mr. Spurgeon is making it say that for anti-Catholic reasons rather than for reasons of sound biblical exposition.

If all that Mr. Spurgeon is saying is that all our best efforts are filthy rags before God, then that is fine. But that is not all that he is saying (as far as I can tell): he is also saying that efforts in the artistic realm not only pale in comparison to God (something any sane artist would admit) but also that their very existence is a "mockery" to God as well as "vanity". That is where I disagree. As creatures made in God's image, we too are creators (though of a lesser sort); and whenever we create something that rings of truth and beauty, we are reflecting (however imperfectly) the image of God in that creation, truth, and beauty. Such a reflection brings Him glory. I wholly agree that such reflections are nothing when compared with the real thing (i.e., God Himself), but I completely disagree that God regards them as mockeries and vanities. The same God that is supposedly against the artistic flair of "popish ritual" is the same God who adorned His own house with gold and priests. The same God who does not despise the tear of the repentant eye neither despises the painting of the repentant hand.

I'm willing to be wrong about my understanding of Spurgeon's sermon, though it won't rock my world either way. Spurgeon is just a man. A great man, and a great Christian, but still a man all the same. As such, it's no crime to disagree with him, something I know that you know.

-Jon Vowell (c) 2010


1 comment:

  1. Yeah, so last night I was playing Assassins Creed II and I was in Venice and they have a church there called St. Mark's Basilica (although it was written in Italian, Basilica del San Marco or something like that.) Anyway, there was an assassin's tomb hidden inside and when I got Ezio inside the sanctuary of the the church, I was floored. I had to stop playing for about a minute and just walk around the virtual reconstruction of this church. It almost made me water up (it was late, I was tired, whatever.) I just happened upon this post of yours (read the original Pyro post as well for context) and I'm glad you took up a defense for art. One day, I'm going back to Italy and I'm going to visit Venice and see St. Mark's Basilica.