There can be no argument that the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries changed the Western world irreversibly. One of the distinctives of this time period was the emphasis on the pursuit of knowledge by way of logic, or reason. Many things that had previously been assumed, including the existence of God, were brought into question.
Therefore, in Christian circles, the Enlightenment prompted growth in the school of apologetics. Where God is no longer assumed, he must be logically proven, argues the apologist. It is true that the school of apologetics has served the church as a helpful evangelistic tool in removing barriers that the mind might not have otherwise been able to traverse. However, apologetics has its limits. Trying to convince someone they are in error is often an ineffective way of changing their mind, and even if one succeeds, changing the mind will not necessarily change the heart.
Not only that, but the cultural climate is changing. This is an age where truth is said to be relative; how one feels about something is more indicative of its value as a truth claim than how one thinks about it. In today’s cultural climate, logic is no longer the driving force of the average individual’s belief system.“…Many local churches have overemphasized apologetics, logic, and the explicit proclamation of the gospel in a way that has stifled the beauty that could exist within them.” -Garrett Davidson
Since the Enlightenment, logic and science have driven much of Western thought, but this recent shift marks a significant change from the way of thinking that has persisted for the last several hundred years. This is an age where logical arguments will prove progressively less valuable.
Now, this does not mean that apologetics is useless, that logic is dead, or that the gospel need not be proclaimed explicitly. It does mean, however, that many local churches have overemphasized apologetics, logic, and the explicit proclamation of the gospel in a way that has stifled the beauty that could exist within them. And in some cases, these churches have gone even farther and accused their members of wastefulness, syncretism, or paganism.
Christians who consider creativity wasteful might argue that J.R.R. Tolkien, author of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-1955), squandered decades of his life to building a fantasy world. However, a glimpse into Tolkien’s theology shows that he saw creativity not as wasteful but as powerful. Creativity is a means of relating to God and reflecting his image, says Tolkien. He recognized that God’s identity as a creator is fundamental to who he is. What is unique about Tolkien’s thought here is that he sees God’s creativity as one of those attributes which is communicable, that is, one which can be imitated.
This facet of Tolkien’s theology is made apparent in The Rings of Power, The Lord of the Rings television show airing now on Amazon Prime. In a fascinating conversation with Elrond, Lord Celebrimbor reflects on the beauty of creation and the power of beauty to change hearts:
Celebrimbor: They say that Morgoth found the Silmarils so beautiful that after he’d stolen them, for weeks he could do nothing but stare into their depths. It was only after one of his tears fell upon the jewels and he was faced with the evil of his own reflection that the reverie was finally broken. From that moment, he…he looked upon their light no more. Fëanor’s work nearly turned the heart of the Great Foe himself. What has mine ever accomplished?
Elrond: I…it has turned my heart, my lord.
Celebrimbor: The heart of many an elf. But I aspire to do far more than that. An age ago, our kind brought war to these shores. I want to fill them with beauty. To grow beyond petty works of jewel-craft and devise something of real power.
Like Lord Celebrimbor, the church too should desire to see the world (and its pews, in particular) filled with beauty. As logical arguments prove to be decreasingly helpful, it seems most likely that aesthetics—media, the arts, storytelling, beauty—will step in to fill the gap. Even now, some Christians have begun to recognize the potential aesthetics has to be a powerful tool for the kingdom of God. However true this may be, it is no secret that Christians are largely underrepresented in popular media. Might this be because of the rift that has existed between the local church and nerd culture in the past? What good might come from a multitude of influential, creative, storytelling, artistic, beautiful nerds leading and serving local churches all over the world?“What good might come from a multitude of influential, creative, storytelling, artistic, beautiful nerds leading and serving local churches all over the world?” -Garrett Davidson
Well, Christians might not turn the heart of the Great Foe; in fact, it is God who changes hearts, yet he still holds his people responsible to do the work. A church that does not create space for reflecting on and creating beauty will be found negligent in its charge to make disciples.
However, much like Lord Celebrimbor suggests, beauty is powerful. And if local churches succeed at fostering beauty and creativity among their members, they will have devised something of real power. Oh, that churches might encourage their members to become artists, painters, photographers, videographers, content creators, writers, developers, storytellers, etc. with the same fervency that they encourage them to be theologians. Hearts—and the world—will be changed. Souls will be saved. And God will be glorified.