The Evangelical Aesthetic

Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons.


As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

Protestants do preaching; Catholics do cathedrals. Both proclaim the gospel. It is only the small-minded Protestant who cannot admit the deficiency in the Protestant aesthetic; it is only the small-minded Catholic who cannot admit the deficiency in the Catholic aesthetic. But the purpose of this post is to highlight the Protestant — or evangelical Protestant — aesthetic in word and song. I only have one example. It is sufficient: “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Vince Gill wrote the now-classic gospel song, “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which he recorded with Patty Loveless. It’s a stunning song, beautiful in a crippling sort of way. Most songwriters would die happy if they had only written, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Even for Vince, one of the all-time greats, this is special.

Vince Gill and Patty Loveless performed the song at George Jones’ memorial service at the Opry, a couple years ago. If this is not heaven on earth, I don’t want to go to heaven:

Let the tears flow. George Jones is crying tears of joy in heaven.

A Protestant could have never written The End of the Affair, but a Catholic could have never written “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

This is why Catholics and Protestants need each other.


Image: Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons. (source)



  1. I know you are making simple typing, but is this catholic/protestant divide sensical? What of the music Handel or Bach? What of the homilies of a Fulton Sheen? I don’t know.

    You’re right though. When one sense over-powers the others, all are deficient. The Eucharist may be the central sacrifice, but what of preparing our hearts, through the hearing of the gospel, for such an offering? Or in other-words, doesn’t the preaching of the Word necessitate the ordained ‘visible word’ of the Supper?

    And then of course, we could talk about the flaming zeal of a Chrysostom, the literary power of a Dostoevsky, or the musical flurry of a Rachmaninov. The East is a whole other question.

    But, as you point out, there’s something to the “South” as a tradition. Flannery O’Connor is right to call it a “Christ-haunted” place. Maybe it’s what is able to provide depth. Only such a bizarre, paranormal, spooked place could produce a Johnny Cash.


    • Yeah, there are always exceptions when generalizing this broadly, but the divide makes a great deal of sense. For liturgically-minded Lutherans and Anglicans, the divide is less apparent, but it is very apparent for those of us in regions more influenced by Reformed and/or revivalist traditions which are very word-centric movements — as in the South. And, yes, the East is a whole other question, though they obviously reject the iconoclasm that runs through the Reformed and revivalist forms of Western Christianity.

      Ideally, we could take the best of Protestant homiletics (the preached Word) and combine it with the best of Eucharistic liturgy (the visible Word).

    • The East is an interesting case, though not one I know much about besides some reading in Russian lit. On the one hand you have Dostoevsky’s tortured theo-existentialism, on the other hand Tolstoy is much more down-to-earth but is still not afraid to go on a 30-page rant against the “great men” view of history. And like Flannery, the Russians also have a gift for black comedy – it’s seldom mentioned how funny Dostoevsky (and others like Gogol) can sometimes be.

  2. Solid guitar work from Mr Gill, right there. I’d agree. We protestants lose a lot when we dismiss Catholics, without a thought or care for who and what we’re really dismissing. The Church didn’t begin with the Reformers.

    • Gill plays his guitar with the same delicate sense that his vocals are most famous for. I love it.

  3. The best and most sympathetic Christian characters in movies tend to be Catholics.* From Hitchcock’s I Confess to the priest in On the Waterfront to The Mission. More recently, there’s Ida and Calvary and Of Gods and Men. Even The Godfather has Catholic trappings haunting it in the background (and flawed as part III is, the confession scene is one of the high points). I wonder if this is because the Catholic aesthetic imagination leaves more of a mark on people even if they’re lapsed than a Protestant background does?

    * You could also add black Protestants in civil rights movies, I suppose.

    • Plus, only Catholics (with an occasional Anglican) ever fight demons, or are engaged in some secret-war against the forces of hell. There is no Protestant John Constantine*!

      *I know the theology of the film/comic is atrocious and sub-Christian, but I still like it for cosmic warfare thematic.

    • There is one Korean movie called Punch which portrays Protestants in a sympathetic light. It’s not a movie which focuses on visual aesthetics though.

  4. I once heard catholic author, and Franciscan i think, Ron Rolheiser suggest that Catholics are the most incarnational groups in Christendom. I chuckled to myself as the audience to this talk, a catholic group, murmured in assent to this idea. It was clear to me, that how RR (and the catholic crowd), understood the concept of incarnation and the way i have been taught, as an evangelical, to understand incarnation, are two significantly different things. It is tempting to become judgmental in this moment, to think oneself superior (my evangelical default towards moral superiority is a tenacious).

    RR was thinking of the host and with it all the atendent ideas of visual, physical world. I, of course, was thinking of embodiment of the life of Jesus in a most evangelical, preaching, speaking, declarative, sort of way.

    I was grateful for the insight because i believe that God wanted to use this moment to bring me to a point of humility.

    It makes me think that we still have plenty of work to do in understanding and blessing each one another within Christendom. Whether we are from visual or verbal traditions. Its all good.

    • Thanks for this. I heartily agree about being sensitive to how each other’s tradition expresses its faith through the same categories but in a different way. The example of “incarnation” is particularly important. Going back to at least Johann Adam Möhler, the idea of an “incarnational ecclesiology” where the church is a “continuation of the incarnation” has been a very fruitful idea for Catholic theologians after Möhler and to this day. Of course, Protestant — especially Reformed — theologians have pinpointed this as the archheresy of Roman Catholicism: the Church replaces Christ, as they argue. In response to the Protestant, the Catholic can begin with how Paul calls the church, “the body of Christ,” a rather “incarnational ecclesiology” if you ask me. But still, there are fundamental disagreements remaining. If sanctification contributes to justification, then the Catholic ecclesiology makes sense.

  5. I think where Catholic aesthetic differs in a significant way from Protestant aesthetic (and spirituality) is in its appreciation of the ordinary. This is partly what is meant by “incarnationalism”. In Catholicism, this life and this world do not merely exist as a stage for conversion, but have value apart from the way they may be used in evangelization, because the life of Christ is believed to indwell them.

    This is often not the case for Protestantism, and especially evangelicalism. The ordinary, everyday world are treated as a means to an end, but often not appreciated in their own right as expressions of divine creativity. It’s hard to make good, compelling art when you treat your materials as mere stuff to use on the way to something else.

    Obviously, there are exceptions to this rule, as in the song included in this post. The pathos, the connection with human suffering, which is universal, expressed so honestly, so harrowingly, makes compelling art, at least when it is done with a sensitive touch. But this is still a song about getting out of this world, and going somewhere else. It doesn’t hallow the ordinary, but seeks escape from it.

    • Yes, I agree, Robert. Another way to put it — as some theologians do — is that Catholics have an “overrealized eschatology” and Protestants have an “underrealized eschatology,” insofar a one believes in the transformation and sanctification of the here and now, whereas the other believes in the transformation and sanctification of the hereafter.

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