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Eloquence vs Utilitarianism

October 10th, 2008 Posted in Theology

After reading John Wilson’s delightful review of Denis Donoghue’s On Eloquence, I made a note to eventually read the book. Listening to John Piper’s recent muddle-headed misinterpretation of Wilson makes me wish I had time to read the book right away.

In a nutshell, whereas Wilson celebrates the beauty of words (and newborns, and well-made churches, and other aspects of God’s creation), Piper feels compelled to subjugate them all to a fussy puritanism. A sunset may be beautiful, yes, but only insofar as it points us to God. A poem can be lovely, true, but only in service to God.

It’s a false dichotomy Piper constructs between himself and Wilson, who doesn’t deny that beauty is a gift from — and signpost directing us toward — God. His point is simply that spare utilitarianism is not God’s way. The Creator doesn’t need a blazing sunset or a glorious Psalm to accomplish his ends, unless we acknowledge that one of his ends is the creation of beauty itself.

Which is something Piper cannot do, committed as he is to the notion that God’s sole overriding end is self-exaltation. Even that conceptualization should allow Piper to celebrate art for the simple sake of its beauty, but in his explication of the conditions that make Christian eloquence allowable, he hews tight to the line of the Christian utilitarian: eloquence is good insofar as it sets up a soul to be saved. This is the same logic that compels Christians to insist that the beauty of a church building is irrelevant, that Christians ought not concern themselves with art and literature, that a sermon need not be, well, eloquent.

But consider Wilson’s anticipatory rebuttal:

“If eloquence is associated with ‘pretense’ and all that implies, it is also suspect because it lacks weight. You can’t eat it. It won’t save souls, prevent global warming, reduce the spread of AIDS or the incidence of abortion.

Yes, all true, and this is why eloquence is precious.”

It is precious, as are other forms of art, because they are emulations of, and participation in, the work of our Creator. He surveyed his creation and said: It is good. “Let us forswear,” Wilson goes on to write, “false dichotomies.” Indeed.

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