A call for an Apologetic of Beauty

This piece is a transcription of a talk Lieschen gave at a KRUX evening at the start of 2021. Artwork by Carmen Maria Titus (MFA thesis 2019)

For all my life I’ve been assured that STEM practitioners are the crown princes of reality. In the hierarchy of valuable contributors of knowledge, the engineers are at the top, the scientists next, the accountants and financiers somewhere in the middle, and way at the bottom somewhere, are the artists. But something has shifted. And I can see the modern world starting to turn towards the artists and the storytellers.

I decided to give my talk the title “A Call for KRUX”, but it is in a broader sense also a call to a new apologetic. I’d like to attempt to generate between us an excitement for why I think God has brought us together like this and to suggest a keynote for our new year for your consideration. At the KRUX end-of-year supper in 2020 I felt the need for prayer. Of course, to thank God for his goodness and provision for KRUX during a challenging 2020, but also with a mind set on what happens next. 

At the dinner I remember saying I feel that the sun is setting on my time and rising on yours. I meant by that that I’m from the world of Science, Technology Engineering and Maths (STEM). For all my life I’ve been assured that STEM practitioners are the crown princes of reality. In the hierarchy of valuable contributors of knowledge, the engineers are at the top, the scientists next, the accountants and financiers somewhere in the middle, and way at the bottom somewhere, are the artists. But something has shifted. And I can see the modern world’s sometimes blatant derision of the arts, especially the visual arts, fading.

I have three ideas I’d like to explore. Firstly, a brief overview of how we’ve been approaching evangelism, scripture interpretation and especially apologetics in this natural science obsessed world.  Secondly, a reflection on how our approach was probably less effective and sustainable than we imagined, and why I don’t think this approach could be useful for much longer. Lastly, I propose to be a new approach, and the unique role that KRUX can play in applying it.

Old school apologetics: Did we have it all figured out?

In the West we have undoubtedly have been inhabiting a world obsessed with natural science. Natural science refers the systematic study of the nature and behaviour of the material and physical universe, based on observation, experiment, and measurement, and the formulation of laws to describe these facts in general terms. Much of our prosperity today is thanks to the foundations laid by Descartes, Galileo, Newton, and Leibnitz. From the 17th and 18th century we brought together ideas about knowledge and mathematics as the language of nature from the Greeks, the medieval university from the Romans, the Renaissance from Europe, and the Enlightenment to establish previously unthinkable advancements.

Now, modern science is not something separate from Christianity. In fact, science finds its origins in a conviction that there was a lawful order in nature, that human beings could discern and understand it because they’d been made in the image of the creator of that order, and that also they needed to go investigate. Confident in this fact and being honest about the success of the scientific method, Christians also set about applying it to their theology.

When I was a student and a member of a pentecostal church, we had two very distinct tribes. There were the feelers, the discerners, the prophetic guys who would be in charge of worship services and prayer meetings. And then there were the Christian thinkers; the facts driven, convinced by reason, logical operating “clever” ones. I was enrolled for a degree in mathematics, almost never knew what the charismatics were on about, and therefore found myself embraced by the “thinkers” tribe. And we were busy. We read Josh McDowell and listened to Gerg Koukl’s Stand to Reason podcast. We were pulling down every argument that exalts itself against God with proofs and logic and reasoned argumentation. It was the time of the scientific apologists and the mission was to have reasonable answers in an age of scepticism. Mine was the time of the rise of the literal young earth creationists’ too. We made arguments about the decay of isotopes in carbon dating and the fossil record and geological findings with all of our zeal to apologise for our fundamentalist faith in the literal interpretation of the scriptures.  If Kent Hovend and Ken Ham said it, I could quote it.

Our interlocutors were of course the disciples of the new atheists. New atheism is a modern-day atheism developed by a group of thinkers and writers advocating the view that superstition, religion and irrationalism should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever their influence arises in government, education, and politics.” Especially Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennet called themselves The Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse and have been described as evangelical atheists.

For example, in The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins states that faith is blind trust without evidence and even against the evidence. He follows up in The God Delusion with the claim that faith is an evil because it does not require justification and does not tolerate rational argument.  The New Atheists’ conclusion that belief in God is unjustified follows, then, from their addition of the claim that there is inadequate scientific evidence for God’s existence (and even adequate scientific evidence for God’s non-existence). 

And with both sides running hard and fast convinced that they will finally quiet the opponent forever with science, facts, logic, and reason, the stage was set. And it was properly set. Endless, countless, what seemed like weekly debates between the heavyweight thinkers ensued. Every week there was a new body slam moment as these giants of rationality owned each other publicly. Students on both sides made notes furiously preparing to deliver the same knockout at the next lunch with the siblings or braai with the buddies.

It felt like both sides were driving in opposite directions in identical cars, each convinced they were driving towards the truth. Perhaps they were, but they were also driving away from something. And I think what they were driving away from, was beauty.

But as these vehicles of argument continued to speed off in opposite direction, both sides encountered some technical issues. Audiences were turning against their professional debating wrestlers. From around the early 2010, Christian thinkers had to contend with being moved from Athens to Babylon in exile, while the New Atheists had to contend with being moved from center stage to irrelevant because they were… boring.

Exile and the kayfabe of post-truth

In a 2015 blogpost Steve McAlpine details what he calls the new exile of Christians from the public square.  He explains how the American church had moved from citizenship in Athens to exile in Babylon. What he means by this is that from about the 60s to the first decade of the 21st century Christians were active and tolerated citizens of society. Its greatest fear was to be irrelevant. As Oscar Wilde observed, the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about. So the church set out to be cool. It serves coffee and has YouTube channels. It has bands that produces best-selling albums and trend on Apple Music. But even an irrelevant citizen of society was still a citizen, with a voice and rights. Christians were allowed to hear and be heard. Their ideas might have been thought of as weird, a bit boring, but valid to be considered.

Since the 2010s, however there has been a clear reclassification of Christians and Christianity in civil society. The Christian had moved from a citizen of Athens to an exile in Babylon. What McAlpine means by this is that Christian ideas have become so unpalatable to the modern culture, that it has moved from being considered irrelevant to dangerous. Society is no longer interested in out-thinking Christians with facts and logic, but now seeks to overpower them. To be fair, it’s not going much better with the new atheists. To their surprise they are discarded by a culture equally tired of the empty nihilism that naturally follows from their arguments. Harris especially would argue that a fulfilling purposeful live of joy can be achieved without including religion and metaphysics. Ironically then he launches a mobile app for meditation guidance and argues for the benefits of psychedelics. 

Neither Christian apologists nor the New Atheists were ready for the post-naturalist, post-truth meaning searchers.

Circa 2015 an unknown Canadian professor of psychology was getting into trouble for his insistent opposition of compelled speech. Seeing how badly people understood his arguments, he realized the severity of loss of identity and meaning in the West as it set out to destroy ancient categories with very little idea of what should replace them. Jordan Peterson has since set about creating a video series on the symbolism and meaning of the (let’s be honest) odd stories of the new testament. Why is there a talking donkey and why did an old man set bears on the children for laughing at his baldness? Few people could have predicted the positive reaction that this series garnered. It was clear that there was a deep desire for the ancient, for the symbolic, for the wordless intuitive. For pictures and stories and art.

In a earlier KRUX talk I spoke about how we live in the age of kayfabe. Kayfabe describes the phenomena of the entertainment wrestling world. In this world, everyone knows the events in the ring are staged, the characters are scripted, and the outcomes are determined. But what distinguishes wrestling from cinema, is that the audience agrees to pretend that what they’re seeing is real. No one breaks the illusion. Everything is fake, but the audience chooses to believe it’s true. For the simple reason that it’s more fun this way. 

The rules of kayfabe are simple. Actors are to never break character. The narrative is not true because it’s real, it’s true because it’s entertaining. Everything today depends on its optics.

So, in the same way as the Christian traditional apologists are silenced by their inability to speak, the new atheists are silenced by their inability to provide meaning. Their clean science was boring and empty. Neither group seems to have a message for a western culture that either yearns for the ancient symbolic or for mindless entertainment.

Creating beauty in a starving world

Which then brings me to a potential shift in apologetics. I once discussed with someone my concern with the growing inability of new Christians to interpret scripture. His answer was “and yet, most people who read the stories, get it.” There is an intuitive knowledge of truth that is reached through storytelling and artistic expression. Maybe our task is not so much convincing unbelievers of what they should know, but instead reminding them of what they already know.

I would describe the problem of modern Western culture as suffering from the pain of profanity. Everything is shallow, literal, and ugly. We’ve scienced away all mystery and beauty. And we’ve been brutal to our own scripture.

In this world of yearning, we have a real opportunity to restore faith through the exegesis of the symbolic.

Instead of fighting about the specific liquid dynamic properties of water that could enable a man to walk on water, can we instead exegete what it means that there once was a man that had walked on water? Instead of fighting about the specific physiological characteristics of the Balaenoptera musculus which makes it possible to house a man for three days, can we instead exegete what it means to be swallowed by a creature of the deep?

A big theme in scripture, for example, is the symbolism of water. I’m sure you’ve heard me talk about water a hundred times already and that’s exactly for the reason I’m arguing here. It’s something that resounded with me on such an intuitive level and has deeply enriched my understanding and faith.

In the ancient Hebrew world, water is essential for life, but it is also a serious danger. In fact, when it surges out of control, as it does in a hurricane, for example, water becomes a symbol of all the forces of disorder and chaos that destroy human life. To the ancient Hebrews, the sea is in fact a symbol of evil. A good example of this is the flood waters of peril in Psalm 69.

   Save me, O God,

      for the waters have come up to my neck.

   I sink in deep mire,

    where there is no foothold;

   I have come into deep waters,

     and the flood sweeps over me.

   I am weary with my crying;

     my throat is parched.

   My eyes grow dim

     with waiting for my God. (Psalm 69:1-3)

At creation, therefore, what we see is the physical separation of land and water. But what we more importantly see is God’s forming something out of potentiality. How He establishes order out of chaos to create meaning.

At Noah’s flood we see the waters of chaos exert its power over a corrupted order. Chaos refills the earth so that a new order can be reestablished from it. The dimensions of the ark and the species of animals on board is interesting, but not quite the point. 

Whenever there is flood or excess of deep water, we think of chaos and potentiality, or we should. (Those who read Revelations literally are very disappointed to read about the lack of ocean on the new earth, instead of rejoicing in this symbol for the absence of destructive chaos.)

Physically, the direction of flowing water is always downwards. Symbolically we can think of this as the influence of heaven. Scripture separates the waters above and below so that there exists an upper and lower potentiality. There is a spiritual influence (which is fresh, living water) that comes down from heaven into the lower potentiality (the salt waters). In Jesus encounter with the Samaritan woman, for example, he uses this image when he says he will give her fresh water from above where she wants to give him mineral water from below in the well. Christ’s turning water into wine is another example of the design pattern of creation. The potentiality of the water is imbued with a fixed meaning and purpose.

From just these few examples the beauty of exegeting the symbolic is bound to stir within you more awe and worship than I suspect any aggressive logical argument could.


A call for KRUX

This then is my call for KRUX. Firstly, it is a call to celebrate what God has brought together here. To recognise the culture shift and get excited for the role of artists within it.

Secondly for us to develop our symbolic vocabulary together. I’m so happy that we’re covering the book of Revelation together as this is probably one of the best places to practice exegesis of the figurative. As a natural scientist, I know I’m running in the outside lane when it comes to the size of my visual vocabulary. I’m very much at the beginning of my discovery of the visual arts and symbolism. I’m reading and watching a lot of content from Jonathan Pageau’s Symbolic World and would recommend again his brother’s book on biblical design patterns in Genesis.

And most importantly my call is for the talent in this room to fill yourselves with beauty and to continue to create beautiful works. There is something so uniquely different brewing here. I’m not quite sure what it is but I’m fanning the flame. My call is for you all to write and tell stories and sketch and paint and write music. That we can introduce a new apology of beauty and remind the world of what it already knows.