Machen writes in 1923 that “a remarkable change has come about within the last seventy-five years. The change is nothing less than the substitution of paganism for Christianity as the dominant view of life.” (65) That observation is interesting in itself, but he goes on to explain his point: “Paganism is that view of life which finds the highest goal of human existence in the healthy and harmonious and joyous development of existing human faculties.” This is very different from the Christian ideal, which Machen says is the “religion of the broken heart.”
What Machen means is not that Christianity is an attitude of “continual beating on the breast,” rather Christianity is the religion that faces sin once and for all. Whereas paganism must seek to cover over sin, Christianity actually deals with it. Machen says of ancient paganism, as for example in ancient Greece: “There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin.” (66) In other words, the drive to make the world beautiful, the drive of pagan architecture, art, drama, and poetry is the guilt and ugliness of unforgiven sin. The haunting of sin is the crucible of pagan art, and the drive to cover over that ugliness produces amazing and glorious works.
But Machen insists that sin “faced squarely once for all,” allows Christians to “develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism – a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.”
Sometimes it’s wondered where all the Christian artists are. Behind all the great modern artists are stories of tragedy, father hunger, abuse, addiction. It seems like all the greatest modern artists match Machen’s hypothesis of paganism. If you get enough ugliness in life, enough guilt haunting you, that will drive you to fight back in music, in art, in drama, with beauty.
And then from a Protestant point of view, there is sometimes the question about why many of the great Christian artists tend to come out of Roman Catholic or at least high church traditions. Where are all the evangelical Protestant artists? Why is the best we can do frequently a cheap knock off of pagan art? But if there is a connection between art and sin, a relationship between a live, personal knowledge of guilt and the drive to make beauty, the passion for the lovely, one might point to the tendency in higher church traditions and Roman Catholics in particular to spend more time dwelling on the horror of sin, the sufferings of Christ, and the present struggle that every Christian continues to face prior to the resurrection. And even if we want to keep insisting on the need for a robust Protestant doctrine of justification by faith, is there at least some validity to the RC critique that we’ve overstated our case, or at least presented the biblical teaching in an unbalanced way? Or conversely, we might also wonder if Machen’s definition of “pagan” may in someways apply in some Roman Catholic traditions where the indefinite nature of forgiveness is stressed and Limbo becomes the overarching metaphor for life.
Maybe Machen’s suggestion is worth considering. Maybe our lack of aesthetics, our lack of drive to create beauty points to an overarching superficiality in our faith. Maybe we have just enough “grace” sprinkled into our worship and life that mitigates our feelings of guilt, but not nearly enough to actually come face to face with sin, the cross, and forgiveness. And maybe, just maybe a robust Reformed celebration of Lent is one of the ways that we can begin to address that lack. Without letting go of any of the “once for all” nature of the atonement and justification, an annual reminder of what that was all about seems entirely fitting. Not an annual drubbing of guilt and fear, but an annual reminder of the cross, an annual reminder of the horror of sin, and an annual reminder of the freedom and joy won for us at the cross. And of course in an important sense, this should not be merely an annual thing, but a daily thing, a weekly thing, a monthly thing. We are always called to take up our cross and follow Jesus daily.
And certainly, regardless of Lenten practice, if Machen’s point is correct, it would seem that the evidence suggests that we as Protestant Christians have an anemic view of sin and the atonement. If the horror of sin and the cross and the joy of resurrection and salvation are far more potent motivators for producing beauty, then it would seem we need to revisit our preaching of sin, the cross, and salvation. And on the flip side, it would suggest that the few evangelical Protestant Christian artists who are actually producing real works of art, in addition to simply being gifted by the Spirit, have also come face to face with sin and come to understand real forgiveness, real grace.
Of course in real life there really is tragedy, sin, guilt, and in Christ, forgiveness and mercy. But there is also more “normal” Christian life growing up in the covenant, living faithfully and joyfully before the Lord. It should not be a prerequisite for Christian artists, that they must first go out and be unfaithful for a while. Of course there are always trials, temptations, and even death and sickness rears its head, but we don’t need an exotic testimony to know sin and forgiveness because at the center of every Christian life is the cross of Jesus, our own personal tragedy, our own personal horror story, our guilt, our sin, and most importantly, our triumph, our victory, our glory, our joy in Christ. Knowing Christ and him crucified is the wisdom and glory of God in us. And in that sense, Christianity surely is “the religion of the broken heart.”