Beauty and the Scriptures as Art

Once we establish the primary argument that the Scriptures are known to be the Scriptures down to the very word, we can then work on other arguments to support that main argument. One of the arguments in favor of the KJV is its beauty the qualities of which seems to be lost on modern translations.

Historically in the West the Good, the True, and the Beautiful have traveled together. Their qualities interrelate and interpenetrate. God is the Good and what He makes is good. God is the True, the source of Truth and what He says is therefore true. God is the Beautiful and everything He makes, commands, and purposes is also beautiful. As such, it should not seem foreign to our ears for the Christian to make arguments for the goodness of Scripture, the truth of Scripture, and the beauty of Scripture.

Indeed, the content of Scripture, or shall we say the substance of Scripture is beautiful, but my focus is on the accidents of Scripture – the shape of the words, the order of the words, the excellency of translation, the majesty of translation, and phraseology. In this sense, in the sense of Scriptures shape, the Scriptures are a work of art. Unfortunately, by the 70’s the evangelical church has largely left of pursuit any meaningful pursuit of art.

Hans Rookmakker, chair of art history at the Free University of Amsterdam and colleague of Francis Schaeffer, once wrote in his work, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, that

“Evangelicals have also underestimated the importance of art. They have thought of biblical pictures as being representations of biblical stories. But they did not see that the salt had become tasteless, that there was so much idealization, so much of a sort of pseudo-devotional sentimentality in these pictures that they are very far from the reality the Bible talks about.”

Rookmaaker, Death, 75.

As it was in Rookmaaker’s time so it is in ours. In our modern day we need look no further than God Is Not Dead II. Certainly, there are belligerent atheistic professors on college campuses and Christians need to be ready to give an answer of the hope that lies within them with meekness and fear. But as the story goes the evil professor is every bit a caricature, a form of idealization, and religious sentimentality in this and similar movies, abounds. They are like Hallmark Movies with some extra Christianity sprinkled in.

Art is the betrayer of culture. Art tattles on a culture. Art tells us what a culture truly believes. And Western culture believes

“Man is dead. He is nothing but a machine, a very complex machine, an absurd machine.”

Rookmaaker, Death, 129.

In the West, man is widely construed as a mere biological machine making temporal bodily transactions for the maximizing of pleasure and minimizing of pain. Machines are not concerned with beauty. They exist for accuracy and efficiency, but they are in the end dead things.

Does anyone take pause after saying, “Hmmm, we have found new hope in the CBGM and the employment of computers to do the work of men?” No, we forge ahead as dead machines having dead machines do the work of dead machines. Would believing text critics agree with my assessment? No, but have they dealt with the beauty question in their own work? No. Does their failure to treat the beauty question play into the current cultural language of men being dead machines therefore our art will be like us, dead and mechanical? Yes.

How often do you read in the preface or arguments for the modern versions that beauty is an essential element of the work? Perhaps not the translators, but how about the readers? How many of them seek beauty in their preferred text? None, because in large part the current ecclesiastical culture seems to have absorbed the culture and language of those around them. Don’t believe me? Take the time to read Carl Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self and come back for round two. Instead, all we hear about the next translation cash-grab is its accuracy and efficiency. Again, the language of lifeless machines. Is accuracy important? Of course. Is beauty less important? Never, because of the proximity of beauty to the Good and the True.

Indeed, if X is good and true, it should be equally as beautiful. If the Scriptures are good and true, then they should be at least as beautiful. But alas they are not. In fact, this is not even a stated aim of either the progenitors of the new translations nor is it the stated aim of those who read those translations. Why? At this point we can only guess, and my guess is that they do not care if their Bible is beautiful as to form because they are not sure it is good and true. Which is also why they keep making new Bibles at will. So, while they fail to care for the beauty of their text they tacitly argue against the goodness and truth of their own text by not making it beautiful.

To further the point I take you again to another of Rookmaaker’s works, Art Needs No Justification. In it he writes,

“So if an artist depicts the Christmas story, he does so not only because it happened so many years ago, but because he understands that to be still of great value and importance to us. And he will show what his understanding of it is. Therefore, if we see the many cheap and sentimental Christmas cards we really have to question what they stand for. Should that be the understanding of that story now? Isn’t that too cheap, unworthy of the reality of the Son of God coming into the world? Is that the quality of our Christianity? If it is, and I think it is, it raises many questions!”

Rookmaaker, Art, 43.

In another place he gives this accounting,

“I saw a painting that depicted the ‘column of fire at Mount Sinai.’ It was in the form and on the level of a poster. I saw a young artist painting ‘Ecce Homo,’ Christ among his enemies, but it was badly done, and therefore below the line [of appropriateness and decorum]. If one cannot paint a good head, how can one tackle a subject so difficult that many artists in the past avoided it, as it was so hard to do in a convincing and right way? We must know our limits and choose our genre as well as our subject since the genre itself is part of the communication.”

Rookmaaker, Art, 48.

In sum, translators show their understanding of translation and of the thing they are translating when performing the art of translation. If the translator will not or cannot make a beautiful translation of the Scripture in addition to its being accurate, this inability or failure tells us something of how the translator understands his discipline and of how he understands the nature of the Scriptures as good and true. As such, it may be that the subject of translation is too difficult for the translator/artist. As Rookmaaker points out, if the translator cannot make the translation beautiful, then perhaps he/she does not know his/her limits or chosen genre.

If the Scriptures are indeed the written words of the Creator God in the person of Jesus Christ, does it not stand to reason that they be beautiful and that we aim to make them beautiful? And if the Scriptures are not translated beautifully and if beauty is not a primary aim along with goodness and truth, does that not show how cheap we hold the Scriptures? Or to borrow from Rookmaaker again, does not our constant proliferation of ugly translations bespeak “the perceived quality of our Christianity” as ugly and unkempt?

So many seek to make Christianity attractive with smoke machines, laser light shows, and skinny jeans while we churn out ugly translations with the language and speed of a dead machine.

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