I’ve been getting a lot of spiritual mileage off reflecting on the Trinity, and Michael Reeves’ little book, Delighting in the Trinity,* has been the source of a lot of it. I’ll no doubt be jamming on several Trinity-related posts over the next few weeks and months.
Reeves discusses the Trinity’s fountain-like qualities—a relationship overflowing with so much love that it spills outward in perpetual giving. Creation itself, he describes, is the manifestation of that overflowing love. He goes further,
As it is, there is something gratuitous about creation, an unnecessary abundance of beauty, and through its blossoms and pleasures we can revel in the sheer largesse of the Father (p. 57).
That is so true. In one sense, we could say that the entire scientific enterprise of discovering, analyzing, and cataloguing the world is an exploration of the seemingly endless--indeed gratuitous--beauty displayed in creation. There’s something no doubt perverted or mal-formed about a scientist who doesn’t periodically sit back from his or her work and just say, “Wow!” Anything gratuitous has that effect. Gratuitous beauty especially has that effect.
Our Triune God is a God who has chosen to not only make His world incredibly functional, but exceedingly beautiful. Many theologians have pointed out how the ongoing scientific discovery of the immensity of creation (e.g. organisms in the ocean's deep, celestial bodies in space previously beyond our sight, microscopic complexities at cellular and atomic levels) serves to corroborate God's passion for beauty...not just that He likes it, but He almost can't help Himself in over-filling the world with beautiful things. Any attempt at surveying the beauties of the world would lead us to one conclusion: God is gratuitous when it comes to beauty. We can't possibly take it all in, yet it is for His pleasure, His glory, His majesty, His delight.
Our Worship Reflects Our Theology
Worship thinkers often talk about how our worship itself reflects the kind of God we serve—that the elements, structure, and experience of worship all “explain” Whom we understand God to be. So here’s the question for us: How does our corporate worship display that God is a Trinity Who revels in pouring out gratuitous beauty? If confession reflects God's holiness, if songs of praise reflect God's joy, if prayers of thanksgiving reflect God's bounteous provision, then what about our worship reflects God's passion for an overabundance of beauty?
If you’re a Protestant like me, something in our DNA starts sending freak-out alerts to our brain. We’ve spilt Reformational blood trying to get away from the “excesses” of our brother and sister Roman Catholics, and in the process some of our revolutionary grandparents swung that beauty-pendulum about as far away from the gratuitous-pole as possible.
SIDENOTE: The interesting thing about the modern worship movement (which has remarkably transcended some of these old wars) is that they’re experimenting in new forms of gratuitous beauty that don’t look much like the smells and bells of yesteryear and therefore evade some of our historical baggage. I think back to the 2012 National Worship Leader Conference. In one of the worship services, the sanctuary was absolutely taken over (every square inch of wall) by projected names of God alongside complementary backdrops. The cultural critic in me wanted to cry “overstimulation,” but the aesthetician in me (and perhaps the best part of me that "hopes all things") exclaims, “Gratuitous beauty!”
SIDENOTE 2: I am so grateful for the renaissance of Christian reflection in and around the arts, coming out of places like Bifrost Arts, CIVA, Cultivare, and IAM and from institutions like Duke Divinity School, Gordon College, Union University, Belmont University, Fuller Seminary, Biola University, King's College (NYC), and people like Makoto Fujimura, David Taylor, Isaac Wardell, Jeremy Begbie, and my colleague, Dan Siedell. Something about this resurgence is awakening our aesthetic palettes to crave beauty, such that I think, in our worship services, we’ll be seeing more experiments in gratuity over the next few decades. Perhaps the old wars have been fought and run their course, and new generations are no longer holding the same grudges, such that we can healthily move forward.
In the next post, we'll explore just a few ideas about engaging lavish, gratuitous beauty in worship.