The Contrasting Aesthetics of Christendom

March 21, 2014

Awhile back, the Evangelical Theological Society devoted an annual meeting to “defining evangelicalism’s boundaries,” whether doctrinally, ecclesiologically, or historically. And I got to thinking whether there were aesthetic markers as well.

At the time, I was a Chicago-area pastor, and I thought I’d visit some local churches to see what I might find. I started with First Baptist in Hammond, Indiana, where a big mural of Jack Hyles and his wife graced the side of one of their buildings, he in a royal blue suit. The young security man who showed me around the facilities wore a suit. The auditorium was decked with bunting, stars, and flags for a patriotic program in the wake of 9/11, and the church bulletin spoke of “soul winning.”

The next week, I ran by College Church, out west in Wheaton, Illinois. On this weekday, the staff wore sweaters and other casual clothing. There were no murals of former pastors. A sailing-ship weather vane sat atop the steeple. A promotional note spoke of Christmas Coffees as “a chance to share with your neighbors.”

I imagine you can find fundamentalist churches with “Christmas coffees,” where the staff wear sweaters, and I know some evangelical churches that speak of “soul winning,” but the aesthetic centers of mass are different. This became clearer to me as I tracked the phenomena, from Willow Creek to Moody Memorial to St. Joseph Catholic in Wilmette to Averyville Baptist in East Peoria, as well as to a range of bookstores and websites.

Here are some observations about the various aesthetic centers of mass to be found within American Christendom.

Dress and Grooming

Fundamentalists favored short hair and a clean-shaven look. Turning through Hammond’s photo booklet, I saw 33 men in various leadership positions, without so much as a mustache. In the Willow Creek welcome booklet, I found a mustache, a beard, and a nascent beard.

The Hammond bulletin announced guided tours of Hyles-Anderson College and invited you to meet up with one of the hosts, pictured in a white sport coat. When you visited their website, you read that women must not wear shorts, slacks, or skirts which ended above the knees. Men had to wear ties to class. (The Wheaton College website gave a different picture.)

Evangelicals seemed to dress according to their particular “tribe.” The Promise Keepers and Willow Creek contingent were given to polo shirts, khaki pants, fleece, and golf wear. The Mars Hill/Books and Culture group was keener toward Clark shoes, facial hair, and corduroy. The Grunge evangelicals favored a Kurt Cobain look, with body piercing, grays and browns, flannel, and frayed edges. Generally speaking, they tended toward natural fibers, though some of the older Billy Graham Evangelistic Association group turned to the comfort that came with synthetic fibers.


The pastor of Averyville Baptist Church in East Peoria, Illinois, had a treasure trove of fundamentalist publications, to which he graciously gave me access. Turning through Sword of the Lord, Revival Fires, The Baptist Contender, Regions Beyond, The Temple Trumpet, Valiant for Truth, The Baptist Pillar, Baptist Bible Tribune, The Baptist Evangel, and The Flaming Torch, I noticed certain patterns: 1) Pages devoid of illustration, sidebars, and white space held as many as 2,500 words each; 2) The colors of choice were black and red; white lettering was often nested in side-to-side bands in these colors; 3) The American flag was common, even on issues published before 9/11; 4) They favored literal, simple line drawings with text and citation, e.g. a shield with superimposed sword, “John 17:17,” and “…thy word is truth”; the front of a columned Greek building with “KJV 1611” writ large; a collage of Bibles over crosses, two flaming torches, and a rippling American flag.

Evangelical graphics were more understated—fewer swords and more wind and grain; abstract or stylized rather than literal illustration; two-color rather than black-and-white or four-color, the look of choice in church bulletins. (Burgundy and slate blue were popular; in fact, they preferred colors requiring a qualifying adjective—not just orange, but burnt orange) Christianity Today’s Books and Culture was a paradigm; caricature was popular (perhaps with a debt to David Levine’s work in The New York Review of Books), as was the venerable woodcut look.

The cover of Willow Creek’s welcome booklet was over 70% white space, with Land’s End-clothed, inch-tall figures floating in this medium. Inside the back cover, a wide shot of their campus, taken in the golden hour before sundown, rested on blueberry matte, which accounted for 80% of the space. On the facing page, you saw a laid back family, a father with a mustache and “coat-of-many-colors,” a multi-textured, asymmetrical-patterned sweater. His son, with floppy sweater, cargo pants, and an insouciant shoelace lying on the ground to his left, stood with arms crossed. The mother and two daughters assumed cross-legged poses on the floor, elbows on knees, chins on fists. These people were pretty cool, pretty evangelical.

An Anglican feel was also gaining currency. British crests were popular, as was Latin. (The logo of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals featured Post Tenebras Lux.) Fundamentalists employed shields in their logos, but these were more typically filled with line drawings of a variety of objects, one for each quadrant. (See, for example, the Hyles-Anderson College version, with its Bible, harp, balance, and lamp.) The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary produced two logos at different points on the spectrum, with the main one having a more evangelically graceful and abstract dove, Word, and cross, integrated in a fashion reminiscent of a British coat of arms.

Fundamentalist publications and advertisements showed a heart for hovering, shadowed letters with sunbursts and highlights. Evangelical print was more reserved.

Jack Chick’s work was prototypically fundamentalist. His virtually wordless tract, “One Way,” was obviously designed for children. Along the way, we saw a skull and crossbones, boils, squiggly stench lines arising from dead bodies, circling insects, the fires and smoke of hell, and blood dripping from a crucified Jesus on bowing children, with hearts of love drifting upward from them.

As for framed prints, fundamentalists were more inclined to go with Salman’s Head of Christ, while Ron DiGiani’s The Servant better served the evangelicals. (In the latter painting, Jesus washes the feet of a businessman slumped in high-backed, red leather chair beside his elegant desk. He wears braces and a rep tie.)

Along the way, I was reminded of the newer sports franchises, whose color choices favored a more evangelical look, leaving the older teams to go with fundamentalist colors. Before the 1980s, teams favored red, white, and/or blue (Cubs; Cardinals; Red Sox; Giants; Cowboys; Lions; Canadians; Redwings; Flyers; Bulls; Pistons; Sixers); or black, navy, white, and/or gray (Sox; Yankees; Raiders). But then came an explosion of teal and/or purple (Diamondbacks; Hornets; Rockies; Marlins; Devil Rays; Mighty Ducks; Ravens). These were the colors you found at the Promise Keepers store as well.


Fundamentalist expression came in a hotter style. For instance, a front page of Sword of the Lord ran an article by John R. Rice, with the terms “wickedness” and “apostasy.” There were six exclamation marks in the first eight paragraphs. And the paper’s credo was edgy – “Opposing Modernism, Worldliness and Formalism.” The same was true for the other lead slogans I found in the Avery Baptist collection —“Earnestly Contending for the Defense and Proclamation of Baptist Distinctives and Old-Time Religion”; “Canada’s Only True Baptist Paper”; “A Bible Believing Independent Baptist Publication.” And I saw no evidence that they’d spent time worrying whether ‘Community’ would attract anyone other than ‘Baptists.’

The view book at Hammond showed the leaders for the “Deaf Department,” the “Blind Department,” and the “Oriental Ministry.” An evangelical church is more inclined to speak of the hearing impaired, visually impaired, and Asians. Political correctness or sensitivity is not the Fundamentalist strong suit.

Evangelical expression was typically more neighborly and rounded off. The College Church newsletter announced the availability of “assistive listening devices” in the “narthex,” and not “hearing aids in the lobby.”

Catholics and Evangelicals

Though some Catholic images reflected the investment of great wealth, e.g. St. Peters in Rome, Catholic publications were, for the most part, quite modest in appearance, perhaps because of their identification with the poor. (See Dorothy Day’s The Catholic Worker as a model.) Instead of the sharp graphics of a Christianity Today, they were more given to folkish drawings, such as those Annie Vallotton did for the Good News Bible. Furthermore, they were not averse to the dense print/mimeograph look of fundamentalist newsletters. And such icons as the Mother Angelica on EWTN were not particularly cool. With her fleshy face, eye patch, and dated glasses, she exhibited little of the smoothness of Willow Creek.

When I visited a traditional Roman Catholic bookstore, I saw a lot of devotional literature marked by images of 1950s families, halos, sunbursts, thorn-circled and immaculate hearts on Jesus’ and Mary’s chests, and hovering flames and doves. And, to continue the sports-team-color analogy, I think the Catholic palette more nearly featured the old-school orange, yellow, green, and brown, chosen by the A’s, Packers, Browns, Jets, Celtics, and Astros.

Evangelicals and Pentecostals

When I lived in Indianapolis in the late 1980s, a procession of national denominational meetings came through the Hoosier Dome. Each had pressing issues: for the UCC, it was whether to seat gay members; for the Nazarenes, it was whether or not to allow attendance at movies. When the Pentecostals came to town, the local religion writer had to explain that there were two camps—the big hair, heavy makeup group, exemplified by Tammi Bakker, and the no-makeup, hair-in-a-bun group, given to high-collared, long, print dresses. Both fundamentalism and Pentecostalism had a basic blue collar feel, but the differences were striking. Pentecostals were more likely to be flamboyant; you’d rarely find Paul Crouch’s furniture or a Benny Hinn comb-over-and-Nehru-jacket combination on a fundamentalist platform—or on an evangelical platform, for that matter. Furthermore, Anne Graham Lotz and Kay Arthur wouldn’t think of attempting the Tammi Faye Bakker or Jan Crouch look.

(Now and then, Pentecostals adopt something of an evangelical look; Kenneth Copeland puts on the crew neck sweater and sits down at the kitchen table for coffee, but the voice and eyes are fundamentalist hot, not Bill Hybels or Leighton Ford cool.)


Of course, none of this is static. Styles change in churches as well as on the runways of Dior and Armani. But distinctions will be evident. “Millennial” evangelicals often preach in jeans (sometimes “pre-stressed” or torn) and untucked shirts. They sport the haven’t-shaved-in-two-days look. Some seem to pay homage to a “product”-enhanced version of Martin Short’s Ed Grimley peak on SNL. Who knew this would catch on?

In contrast, middle-aged evangelicals are becoming more adept at arranging pocket handkerchiefs, sporting French cuffs, tying bow ties, and such.

In graphics, evangelical designers are monkeying around with all sorts of styles, borrowing from bombastic detergent boxes, claymation, Orthodox iconography, or whatever they please.

So what?

Let’s close with some words of context:

1. Aesthetic concerns do matter. Do you ever see overweight men in malls wearing tank top, Crocks, black knee-length nylon socks, and tight purple coaching shorts? Not so easy on the eyes. Or does anyone think that a mangy dog crossing a crumbling asphalt expanse in front of a boarded up building is as pleasant or engaging as sunset at Big Sur? Some things really do reward the senses; some things punish them – whether we’re talking storefront, tabloid, sidewalk traffic, or church.

2. God’s creation features a lot of winsome aesthetic diversity. His garden includes begonias, orchids, roses, sunflowers, daisies, etc., and not just a sea of tulips (no pun intended).

3. Truth is more important than aesthetics. Christianity is a propositional faith at base, not a graphics faith. Let’s not establish Aesthetes for Christ. We die for creeds, not pleats.

4. Aesthetic pride is deadly. The Hindus have their untouchables to patronize or shun; some Evangelicals treat the Duck Dynasty gang as their Dalits. Not only is this spiritually dangerous; it’s socially risky, in that snootiness can come back to bite you.

5. Aesthetic pragmatism insults the Holy Spirit and the Word. Those who think they can build a church by cultivating a look and feel, and that they can’t build it without such ambiance, simply don’t understand the power of gospel.

Mark Coppenger

In addition to teaching at Southern Seminary, Coppenger is managing editor of the online Kairos Journal. Before attending seminary, he taught at Wheaton and Vanderbilt, where he directed a project for the National Endowment for the Humanities. He has authored, edited, or contributed to numerous books.  His articles and reviews … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24