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.

Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl Movie Trailer from Gorilla Poet Productions on Vimeo.

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Comments:


14 thoughts on “Truth and Beauty: A Conversation with N.D. Wilson”

  1. Brandon Vogt says:

    Fantastic interview, Trevin! Your questions are provocative and sharp. And as a fellow lover of Lewis, Chesterton, and Wodehouse, Wilson is naturally one of my favorite modern writers.

    One note, though:

    “(Chesterton) wasn’t a Protestant, but I think we can call him a Puritan (“the last Puritan” is my tag for him).”

    I’m really confused by this. Chesterton was Catholic through-and-through, so to call him a Puritan seems strange–especially since he explicitly harps on Puritanism in many of his essays and regularly rejects Puritanical impulses.

    Why do you think Wilson considers Chesterton a “Puritan”?

    (Again, fantastic interview. It makes me want to immediately dive back into “Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl”.)

  2. Nate Wison says:

    Brandon, I kinda just let that Chesterton comment fly, didn’t I? There’s a lot of undercurrent here, but the short answer is that I think Chesterton A) badly misunderstood and maligned (Elizabethan) puritans (not entirely his fault–the later models were daft caricatures of the originals) and B) Was himself a terrific picture of the sort of anti-gnostic, earthy, and celebratory joy manifested by the greatest of the ruff-wearing puritans. Thus, just as it gave GK great joy to call Bernard Shaw ‘the last puritan’ (because he knew the godless sage would squirm), so it brings me great joy to stick the same tag on this elder brother I so admire. Of course, I also think it accurately describes Chesterton–the way he reveled in the gospel and creation, his view of the iniquity of fallen man, and the fact that he worked to purify rather than protest the Roman church. Ladle on an extra scoop or two of wishful thinking, and I have all I need!

  3. Brandon Vogt says:

    Nate,

    Thanks for the great reply! I see where you’re coming from now.

    When you said “Puritan” I imagined an extreme, strict, ascetic prude. But as you mentioned, that couldn’t be further from Chesterton. He was balanced, sensible, and deeply enjoyed life.

    Thanks for clarifying!

    PS. In the last couple years, I’ve think I’ve given out more copies of “Notes” than any other book. Thanks for such a brilliant, imaginative book.

    PSS. Marc Barnes is an absurdly talented 18-year-old who writes like a blend of you, Chesterton, and Flannery O’Conner. Check him out:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/badcatholic/

    Your brother,
    Brandon

  4. Psul says:

    Beautiful. Joy, YES! Thank you both ;-)

  5. Paul says:

    I was so excited by that tasty interview that I mistyped my name, haha!

  6. Chris Nelson says:

    I’m just continuously troubled by our reliance on folks like Chesterton, Lewis et al. Sigh, do we have any orthodox people to study, read and learn from or do we always need our ears tickled by those who deny the gospel?

  7. Brandon Vogt says:

    Chris,

    That’s a pretty bold statement. How are Lewis and Chesterton unorthodox? How do they deny the gospel?

    Your brother,
    Brandon

  8. Beauty and joy: the Baptism of Russia (well, actually Kiev, in the Ukraine) was founded on it, and it’s a pillar of Russian Orthodoxy to this day. If only it were that simple!

    I agree, St Paul does critique the apologetic from outward appearances, not only in First Corinthians, but far more so in Second Corinthians, which seems almost anti-beauty in a sense. 2 Corinthians is all about weakness, all about God taking our worst and using it for His best, in ways that none of us would have predicted or believed. Yes, redemption is stupendously beautiful, but its beauty is not of this world, and so different from this world’s appearances that the latter is heavily discounted both in the NT and in some parts of the OT.

    As for joy, now there’s a challenge. Yes, the Gospel is good news – extraordinary good news. But the context in which the Gospel is preached is not just tinged with sadness but actually drenched with it, so thoroughly drenched that even for those of us who believe our greatest joy is not in what is, but in what is to come. I know for myself, growing up in a family that so resembled the Karamazovs that I read that book 12 times just to understand my father and brothers better – growing up seeing people yelling and throwing plates and knives at each other – growing up to believe that being male was the root of all my sinfulness, and the root of all the Hell in the world – growing up with rape and torture and slavery and all kinds of abuse – all meant that joy was the scarcest of all realities, that hate was more real than love, that sin was more real than redemption, that condemnation was more real than grace. Joy is still elusive even today, 30 years later, and while it may function as a witness it’s still an all too infrequent one. Spending the rest of this life in recovery sometimes seems closer to the norm. I have godchildren in South America who have to dodge bullets on their way to school every day! Please, don’t insist on joy as if it were a condition of grace; that’s even worse than “singing songs to a heavy heart.” The God of our Scriptures was the God who said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted….Blessed are they that hunger and thirst for justice, for they shall be filled.” His own prophets wept until they couldn’t weep no more – for example, Jeremiah, who once cried out, “O that my eyes were a fountain of tears, that I might weep for the slain of my people.” (9:1) Yes, joy in the good news of the Gospel is all very well, and I can tell you that I’ll be more joyful than anyone else once we get beyond this life. But until then, I will “rejoice with those that rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

  9. Chris Nelson says:

    Chesterton was Catholic, denying sola fide, sola gracia, sola Christus. Who knows what Lewis was. He would be horrified to be known as an evangelical. As one who claimed to know the deepest truths, he showered contempt on the Old Testament and had a vacuous, confused soteriology. Lewis claimed Anglican during his post conversion but some believe he may have become a Catholic near the end of his life, which, if true, makes things even worse.

  10. Brandon Vogt says:

    Chris,

    This might not be the best place to talk about these things–I won’t comment further but you can email me at [email protected]–but I take huge exception to a couple of your points.

    First, Chesterton was Catholic, but then so was every Christian for the first fifteen hundred years (and the majority since). He didn’t deny sola gracia or sola Christus–I challenge you to produce one statement that says we are saved by something other than Christ’s grace–but he did deny sola fide because it’s an unBiblical, made up doctrine that was not embraced until the sixteenth century. It’s Chesterton who loudly and boldly proclaimed the Gospel; I think you’re the one who “denies the Gospel.”

    Second, Lewis was Anglican by name but Catholic in his bones. His writings lay out quite clearly his Christocentric, non sola fide view on salvation so to say his soteriology is “vacuous” and “confused” is, to be blunt, arrogant and ignorant. He wasn’t confused at all and the last thing people would say about Lewis is that he is “void of expression.”

    It seems overall that your biggest beef is not ultimately with Chesterton or Lewis but with Catholicism. You lament both writers to the extent that embrace Catholicism. If you’d like to argue the truths and claims of the Catholic Church, I’d love to do so either through email or through my blog (www.thinveil.net). One site you might be interested in, though, is:

    http://www.calledtocommunion.com

    Grace and peace!

    Your brother,
    Brandon

  11. Chris Nelson says:

    Sorry Brandon, the Reformation is the refutation of Catholic heresy.

    God Bless you

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Trevin Wax


​Trevin Wax is managing editor of The Gospel Project at LifeWay Christian Resources, husband to Corina, father to Timothy, Julia, and David. You can follow him on Twitter. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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