The following is an excerpt from Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World by David F. White. It’s a featured Speakeasy selection, and there are still limited review copies available for qualified reviewers.
The windows of his room looked onto the garden, and our garden was very shady, with old trees, the spring buds were already swelling on the branches, the early birds arrived, chattering, singing through his windows. And suddenly, looking at them and admiring them, he began to ask their forgiveness, too: “Birds of God, joyful birds, you, too, must forgive me. Because I have also sinned before you.” None of us could understand it then, but he was weeping with joy: “Yes,” he said, “there was so much of God’s glory around me: birds, trees, meadows, sky, and I alone lived in shame, I alone dishonoured everything, and did not notice the beauty and glory of it at all.”
—Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
In one of my earliest memories from around the age of three, I recall peeking through a rusty screen door onto a tree-lined gravel driveway as the late afternoon breeze stirred the autumn leaves in the golden light of the setting sun. The path of translucent stone chippings set aflame by the substrate of red Mississippi clay snaked from the steps below my naked feet to the widening horizon. This is not only my first clear memory, but also of astounding beauty, in which the glory of the world awakened my budding consciousness and commanded my attention. With my whole being I wanted to know this driveway, these stone chips, these trees, this sun, and this world, to drink them in or to be drunk by them. I was enveloped by wonder, a sense that an excess of goodness lay within the ordinary.
Of course, I could not then have articulated this, and even now words are wholly inadequate to capture that moment or the many others like it. My Mississippi childhood was filled with beauty that announced itself in dust motes, dancing sunbeams, languid lakes and rippling streams, noble black dogs, cooing doves, and chirping crickets, my mother’s ruby red lipstick and the tickle of my father’s beard stubble. As I grew into adolescence, beauty announced itself in my uncle’s rockabilly singing, my church’s a cappella harmonies, the lustrous paintings of my art teacher Mr. Quinn, the adorable girl in my junior high class, and in a well-thrown curve ball. I would come to know beauty in the faces of children and nurturing mothers, the selfless work of teachers and coaches, in heroic acts of justice, and in the story of Jesus Christ and the loveliness of his church. So compelling were my childhood epiphanies that I committed no little energy trying to create and respond to the world’s beauty by drawing, painting, and playing musical instruments, however imperfectly.
Yet, somewhere along the way, probably by late adolescence, I was warned—or maybe I breathed it in the air of hard-bitten southern pragmatism—that to yearn for beauty is self-indulgent, while seeking truth and goodness is practical, respectable, even virtuous. I was smart enough, they said, to use my mind to comprehend the world’s truth. I had a responsibility, they said, to make the world a better place. Indeed, they said, the gospel of Jesus Christ commands these pursuits. Although I have spent the better part of my adult life pursuing these blessed paths of truth and goodness, I have long suspected that this bipartite canon was incomplete. With this book, I return to memories of my childhood braided in wonder to reconsider the question of beauty for my faith and my calling to Christian education.
Throughout this book I will use the terms “education” and “formation” somewhat interchangeably. The term “formation” has historically been understood as more inclusive, connoting such activities as worship, prayer, and spiritual practices, while the term “education” has largely denoted the work of the mind—cognition, intellection, instruction. This book insists, as does any fully Christian notion of truth, that the task of forming Christians must include more than cognitive mastery. Any education that is truly Christian must also engage the heart, body, soul, the whole person. My central concern is how we participate with the Spirit in strengthening Christian faith—how we tend the power that animates us for love of God and neighbor in the way of Christ. This book considers beauty as a way of attending to God’s speech that awakens, empowers, and forms us in Christ’s lovely way.
As we will see, the impulse to reclaim beauty for Christian formation emerges in response to several contemporary circumstances—including a growing recognition of modernity’s tragic reductions, our abiding yearning for transcendence, the consequent gravitation to art and beauty as a haven, and Christianity’s insistence upon hallowing the material world as sacramental. Instructional models of Christian knowing and faith do not address the urgencies of this historical moment, much less those of the grand tradition. Beauty, however neglected or trivialized, is a phenomenon that holds an important place in the church’s historic thought and practice—but which also resists the reductions of modernity and meets the yearnings of this historical moment for transcendence. Beauty as a category has been explored by philosophers and psychologists, but for purposes of this book constitutes a theological approach to questions of epistemology, teaching, learning, and formation that can be seen as adequate to its object, God’s living Word.
The failure of modern rational foundations should not trouble Christianity, since it is grounded in expressive materiality in which the cosmos is imbued with depth, mystery, and glory—and in God’s incarnation, which establishes the priority of rhetoric over dialectic, persuasion over argumentation. Christian theology offers an alternate imaginary that revalues beauty and art, an ontology that awakens us to a world enchanted by God’s beauty and populates the wonderous depths evacuated by modernity and pedagogies of instruction. Before we can establish beauty as an approach to Christian formation, it will be helpful to rehearse some of the conditions that point to beauty’s significance.
Praise for Tending the Fire That Burns at the Center of the World
“David White is both a scholar and an artist. As a senior scholar in the field, he compellingly argues that theological aesthetics should be at the heart of Christian formation. As an artist, he helps us feel why and see how. If creativity participates with the God that is eternally at play crafting the universe into a work of art, Dr. White is cocreating with the divine. He makes Christian formation beautiful.”
—Frank Rogers Jr., Claremont School of Theology
“Behold! David White taps a deep, if seldom-mined, vein of the theological tradition to gently awaken readers to a world that ‘glistens and crepitates’ with the transformative power of beauty. Refusing the flat functionalism of contemporary knowledge, White lures us toward a beautiful existence where there is always more than ‘just the facts’ on offer. In White’s imagination, beauty ultimately becomes iconic, thereby inviting our awakening to and participation in the beautiful mystery of divine love. Behold!”
—Fred P. Edie, Duke Divinity School
About the Author
David F. White is the C. Ellis and Nancy Gribble Nelson Professor of Christian Education at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. David’s most recent writing includes Joy: A Guide for Youth Ministry with Sarah F. Farmer and Miroslav Volf (2020), Dreamcare: A Theology of Youth, Spirit, and Vocation (Cascade, 2013), Awakening Youth Discipleship: Christian Resistance in a Consumer Culture with Brian J. Mahan and Michael Warren (Cascade, 2007), and Practicing Discernment with Youth (2005).