Truth and Beauty: A Conversation with N.D. Wilson
Today, I’m welcoming N.D. (Nate) Wilson to the blog to talk about truth and beauty. Nate is the author of a number of books, including Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl: Wide-Eyed Wonder in God’s Spoken World. The DVD of Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl is available in the iTunes store (and for my international readers, you can find it in iTunes in the UK, Canada, Ireland, Netherlands/Belgium, and Sweden too!).
Trevin Wax: Nate, thanks for taking the time to join me for a blog conversation. I’ve been beating the drum for a while now about the need for Christians to go beyond mere affirmation and articulation of Christian truth and seek to proclaim and celebrate doctrine in ways that underscore the inherent beauty of Truth Himself. As I’ve made this case, I’ve noticed that your name keeps coming up in comments and emails.
Last week, I started reading Notes From The Tilt-A-Whirl and then I watched the excellent DVD based on the book. I’m happy to see that while guys like me are blabbing on about the need for beauty, guys like you are already delivering thoughtful, rich, dare-I-say exuberant prose that stirs up a sense of wonder at life, love, and the beauty of Christian truth.
Why is it important that we seek to communicate truth in persuasive and artistically powerful ways?
Nate Wilson: It is important that we communicate well (in ways that resonate artistically as well as theologically) because it adds a great deal of persuasive force – a sort of aesthetic affirmation and enticement to believe what is being said.
As a simple example, imagine being taken over to some family’s home and being told in advance that this family had really tapped into a deeper and truer and more beautiful way of relating to each other. But then, when the front door opens, all you smell are stale socks and a little pyramid of cat poo that’s lurking in the corner. The smell itself is already an argument against everything you’ve been told about these people, and anything they might have to say to you. But imagine if that door opens and you get hit with the smell of baking bread–you are now prepared to react differently. This is not to say that the wonderful smell establishes truth all on its own, but it is a testifying witness.
And this issue goes a lot further than mere pragmatic examples of efficacy in persuasion. If we Christians have the truth, and that truth is beautiful – more beautiful than any other message or religion out there – and then we present it in stammering, clumsy, irreverent, or ugly ways, well, we’re hypocrites. We’re living unfaithfully to the Truth. But if we live in a state of celebration and joy and gratitude, and if our words and our art and our presentations of that truth hit people like the smell of baking bread, then we’re getting somewhere.
Trevin Wax: Joy is a major theme in your writing. But you’re not talking about the abstract concept of joy or our need for joy or our pursuit of joy. (It’s possible to talk a lot about joy and yet be so serious about it that people don’t feel the lightness of weighty joyfulness.) No… the way joy encompasses your work is in your expression of joy and wonder. You don’t write about it; you write from it. Where did you get this emphasis on joy, and why is it important for us to cultivate joy in our lives and our work?
Nate Wilson: It all goes back to the warmth and joyfulness that my parents created and maintained in our family as my sisters and I were growing up. It was deep, constant, and completely genuine. And we (as we grew) understood that it was utterly and profoundly connected to our faith, and to the One in whom our faith rested. We laughed looking out at the world, because He was so obviously laughing as He spoke it.
We fed on P.G. Wodehouse because his words and wordplay were successful (if accidental) theological imitations of the playfulness of reality. We were in fellowship with each other. Our parents didn’t allow bitternesses or resentments or feuds to ever take root and grow – no stale socks or poo pyramids to ruin the atmosphere.
(Sidenote: My little sis has written a great book for young moms in the trenches on exactly this kind of stuff. It’s called Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches, and it’s darn good.)
Again, this all comes back to the hypocrisy of unfaithfulness (in this case, unjoyfulness). Do we have a message of joy and grace for the world, or do we not? If we do, then why don’t we act like it?
“Hey Bob,” I tell my neighbor. “If you turn to Christ, you can have a life and an outlook like mine, which, as it turns out, kinda sucks. You interested?” Joy is our strength, our gift. Joy in redemption and in reunion with God is what we have to offer, but we can’t offer the world what we don’t cultivate ourselves.
Trevin Wax: It’s obvious to me that you’ve read a lot of G.K. Chesterton. Like Chesterton, you expose the pompousness of the silly philosophy that passes as serious, and yet you maintain a whimsical sense that shows you don’t take yourself too seriously. What is it about Chesterton’s vision and writing that has inspired you? And why should we read Chesterton today?
Nate Wilson: We should read him because he was a prophet of joy, because he was a seer into the sleeping and blind souls of men, and he always seems to find the right words to slap us awake. He was/is incredibly perceptive about the seductions of self-importance and seriousness, and it’s hard to read anything he writes without gaining something.
But his book Orthodoxy should be required reading for absolutely everyone. It was the first book that I ever finished and then flipped back to the beginning to start over again. He wasn’t a Protestant, but I think we can call him a Puritan (“the last Puritan” is my tag for him). Obviously, I don’t go everywhere he goes, but I am blessed to have his writing around me, providing a voice like that of an amusing, wise, and deeply affectionate uncle.
Trevin Wax: Every time I talk about the need to express truth in the most beautiful and captivating manner possible, I get pushback from some well-intentioned folks who think that I’m advocating the kind of sophistry and rhetoric that Paul condemned in 1 Corinthians 1. There are some who think that whenever we start talking about art and beauty, we’re already stumbling down the path of doctrinal compromise and cultural capitulation. (Ironically, in making this point, these folks will use well-crafted analogies and thoughtful rhetoric.)
What’s the difference between articulating Christian truth faithfully (making good use of rhetoric, beauty, and art) and relying on rhetoric and persuasion that Paul describes as “foolishness” in the eyes of God?
Nate Wilson: First, I think the suspicious types have the right idea, and I’m with them when people tell me that aesthetic relevance is achieved (in worship, for example) by banging on drum kits while wearing skinny jeans. Beauty is a slippery concept in our culture, and less-than-helpful dupers and dupees regularly try to use it as a protective umbrella for all sorts of nonsense. But this is because they are looking to the foolish standards of the world to discover what is beautiful (which is what Paul is ripping on in 1 Corinthians). Shiny does not equal beauty. New technology does not equal beauty. Guys in skinny jeans equal the opposite of beauty. We need to backtrack a long, long way and dig into the narratives of Scripture (and natural revelation) so that we might develop a mature Christian aesthetic.
But having a Christian aesthetic is not optional. God made the world, and it is beautiful. He told (and lived out) the gospel, and it sets an aesthetic ideal for us. Grace is beautiful. Redemption is beautiful. And we should wear that on our faces, in our relationships, in and on our buildings – that’s how our lives should smell, and it’s what our art should pay tribute to.
Trevin Wax: Your dad says we might be on the verge of a Kuyperian renaissance in the arts. (See here.) Do you agree? If so, what signs point in this direction?
Nate Wilson: I agree with him. He likes to stick his finger in the wind, point to little wispy clouds on the horizon, and predict flash-floods. He has done it with educational movements; he did it with what some now call the New Calvinism; he has done it with postmillennialism (a position that’s still in process but is now off the endangered species list and growing); and now he’s predicting a wave of robust, Calvinist art. Ha! Seriously? It might seem ridiculous to some, but throw your mind back 10 years. How much more ridiculous would it have seemed then? And that, my friends, tells you which way the wind is blowing – even if it still only feels like a breeze.
But know this about my father, he doesn’t just like making predictions (preferably early enough that they seem impossible); he likes making predictions and then working his tail off to make them come true. Think of it more as a gameplan. He’s checking off his fight-these-strategic-battles list. He’s not a guy in the stands making a prediction. He’s more like a coach trying to call a play. That’s why he’s so involved in Christian education all the way up through the college level, and that’s why he predicts the things he predicts.
More on the data side of things, everywhere I go, people want to talk to me about the arts, particularly writing and film (obviously, I’m not a sculptor). I think he’s accurately spotted another cloud on the horizon, or maybe it’s actually all the same cloud, and he’s just labeling phases of one single growing storm. Call it Reformation…
Trevin Wax: Nate, I’m grateful for your work. Thanks for stopping by the blog.
Nate Wilson: Thanks so much for the chance to talk about this, Trevin. There’s so much more to say (and do), but I hope this was helpful as far as it went. In the meantime, a tall aspen tree is rattling against my attic window as one of our first Fall rains rolls in. Out in the yard, I have a four-year-old son in a raincoat, manfully doing his Christian duty on a tire swing, and I’m beginning to suspect that two floors away, my lovely wife is baking pumpkin bread. And that is a suspicion that I must confirm…
This is a world flooded with grace, as we should be.