An Interview with John Cunningham, Part Two

On this week’s podcast, Dan continues a conversation with Dr. John Cunningham, a pastor and theologian who recently completed his doctoral dissertation on aesthetics and beauty in the theology of Jonathan Edwards. In Part One of this interview, John and Dan discussed the idea that God is the very embodiment of beauty, and that our engagement with beauty can draw us deeper into the heart of God. Today, they talk about how delight in and desire for beauty can shape the way that we engage trauma and brokenness.

“Beauty, to not be reduced to an effete sentimentalism, has got to account for the ugliness of the world. And if beauty is to become something that informs our own spirituality, it has to be able to attend to ugly brokenness in our own lives.”

Dan and John draw from the idea that the crucifixion was itself a moment of glory and beauty, lamenting the fact that so much Christian art seems to jump directly from creation to the new world.

“The context of beauty matters. And if the context is brokenness and pain, then beauty must engage, transform, and overcome that—without wiping it away, but to churn it and change it. […] It is fitting for the greatest form of beauty to come with the greatest form of ugliness. […] Beauty is not just symmetry, but it’s the radical conjunction of opposites. […] The brokenness and glory of our lives are united in true beauty.”

This is similar to the idea of “eucatastrophe,” a term J.R.R. Tolkien created for the sudden moment of redemption in a story that seems to have no hope—a moment in which joy is marked by tears because it comes from such sorrow. John shares about being confronted with his daughter’s physical suffering and learning the difficulty of wrestling with these ideas not as theological concepts but as a fundamental part of how we engage the messiness and pain of real life.

“Good absorbs suffering and becomes the final word. All the no’s that are shouted at us—from ourselves, from the world, from the evil one—are trumped by God’s bigger yes: ‘I am with you. The good will overcome because I am the Lord of the Universe, and my beauty will triumph over all sin and suffering.’ […] This is not something easily explained but commonly experienced. This is beauty.”