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Volume 8, Issue 2: Thema

A Wine Dark Sea and Tumbling Sky

Douglas Wilson

For aeons we have sung of arms and men. The deeds sung were mighty, and the exploits of these masters great. We have long sung of men like Odysseus and Aeneas, not only because they were clever, or pious, but because of the weight and beauty carried in the words of their chroniclers. But another triumph, another conquest, although accomplished and acknowledged, has not yet been sung as it deserves to be. The epic has not yet been written which tells of the greatest conquest in history, the conquest of history.

The older pagan beauty baffles. We know that the pietas of a pagan was offered to demons, and we wonder to think that any man could be capable of offering such glories to the twisted. But in many cases these men were simply offering back what had been given to them. The source of their aesthetic powers was not something which they sought to hide from us. In their glorious poetry and in all their art, they exhibited their devotion, calling upon the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the Muses, to fill their sails. And so the inspiration came, enrapturing the ancient artists and enabling them to produce works of unbelievable beauty. It baffles still. The splendor of these powers was imparted to men in the midst of a rebellious squalor. The granite despair of Homer was brought to shine like marble. And the ancient piety of Aeneas was fashioned as a diadem to adorn the head of a beast.
Modernity is amused. The ancient and superstitious tomfooleries have been revealed as such by reason and science. But the apostle had a sharper view; he was never one to beat the air. His fight was against principalities and powers, and the wickedness which was everywhere present; the pagan world was animate .
But still, all these ancient powers have fallen to the ground. The names of the baals are taken from the mouths of men, to be remembered by name no more. 1 Through the triumph of the Christian faith, all the elder powers and lords have been taken away.
And hear ancestral Muses cry
The wine dark sea and tumbling sky.
Our Lord came in order to make His blessings flow as far as the curse could be found. Like a warrior in one of the old stories, He fell upon the adversary. The strong man was bound, his house was sacked like Troy. Only folly would return to that house, thinking to find any treasure there now. The treasure has been taken away and is now among countless trophies in the house of the Lord. We may indeed boast when we remember there was a time when we were taken into exile, and all the articles from our Temple were taken away with us, and set up in an unholy city. Our music then was desolate as well, and our harps silent on the willows. Now, in the goodness of God, the situation is turned on itself; back in the sunlight, we may pour our libations to the Most High with golden cups which once were raised idolatrously in the dark places.
When our race was in its nonage, the Lord was pleased to number the sons of men and their nations according to the number of the celestials. When the Most High divided the nations, when He separated the sons of Adam, He set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God. 2We were governed, as children often are, by these nurses and tutors. Some of them, like Michael the prince, served the Lord at this station in humility. Others ruled with cruelty and hatred, murderers from the very beginning. The cherub of Tyre once walked on the holy mountain of God until iniquity was found in him. The power of Babylon was once a son of morning until he vaunted himself as God. The prince of Persia withstood the servants of the Lord and was later supplanted by the prince of Greece. The power of Ekron was lord of the flies and grew in power to become the lord of Rome. In the temptation of our Lord, this great devil was willing to give all his kingdoms away if our Lord would only bow down to him. But there was no need to receive as a gift what was soon to be taken as spoil in battle.
While the goodness of all our Lord's adversaries had vanished away with their rebellion, their splendor had not . This splendor was imparted in various ways to the sons of men, but Christ came in order to take that kind of splendor away from us. His purpose in this was to establish another kind of glory, the beauty of holiness.
We may say with gratitude and humility that the purpose of God in history is to redeem the world and to bring mankind up to maturity in Christ. What is man? And yet God has been pleased to set all things under his feet. We were created to make beautiful things -- in music, in stone, on canvas, in sculpted gardens, and in wonderful buildings. But because of our rebellion in Adam, we not only fell away from our appointed task, we also fell under the tutelage of cruel masters. The ground quickly filled with thorns, and the sky was filled with malevolence. And so we were rudely governed, like disobedient children. The splendor of that ancient world was not fully human. The old boast that man is the measure of all things was made by those who had an alliance with another realm, and that realm was not a kingdom of men .
Our Lord was born as one of us in order to redeem us and topple all these ancient powers. As that great aeon came crashing to a close, the pillars holding that old sky were thrown down; a new heaven and new earth were established. The seed of David came to destroy the one who had the power of death, that is, the devil. When He was lifted up in death, at that moment the ruler of that age was cast down. And when He triumphed over all these powers, He made a spectacle of them, taunting and humiliating them. The governors of that aeon were overthrown, and in the wisdom of God it was accomplished through their murder of a righteous man. Clearly, if the rulers of that age had known what they were doing, they would never have crucified our Lord and our glory.
Authority was wrested from them and turned over to man . Not man in Adam, and not man under guardians, but man in Christ. Now God's wisdom is exhibited in . . . mere men . The manifold wisdom of God was set before the celestials, and it was set before them in the church -- that is, man in Christ. Certainly we do not yet see everything in subjection to man, but we are instructed to see Christ. And as more and more of us see Him, we will also see the cultural fruit of seeing Him. Since the kingdoms of men were first shaken to the ground and replaced with a kingdom that cannot be shaken, we have seen wonderful things. The advances in theology, architecture, painting, confessions, philosophy, literature, and music have been considerable; as His kingdom continues to grow, we may expect to see what eye has not yet seen. Our wisdom is not from the rulers of that age, who came to nothing. God's ordained wisdom cannot fall to the ground; it was established before the ages for our glory. 3Eye has not seen and ear has not heard the coming glory by grace. Of the increase of His government there will be no end.
As with all other spheres, God governs our progress in aesthetics by degrees. The destruction of the old culture, and the institution of the new, were not accomplished instantaneously. The rock which struck the great king's statue grew to fill the earth. The mustard seed grew; the tree was not lowered to us from the heavens. Because Jesus is Lord, Christian culture is now established in the earth. But He does not want to do everything all at once. The powers fell in an instant, but the cultures they supported took more time to fall.
And whenever a great city falls, the dust and rubble must be removed before anything can be done. When the saints overthrew Jericho, the inhabitants were slain but the treasures preserved. After the Lord's triumph, the rubble of that ancient world took considerable time to remove -- and many treasures had to be brought out to be built into the new city -- and the process still annoys the impatient. But now, as always, in patience we possess our souls.
Many proud moderns still do not like to admit their complete dependence on Christ, and will certainly resent it when the glory of culture is attributed to Him. But splendid pagan culture is really no longer a possibility -- the Muses are gone. Any culture which desires beauty now must have the beauty of holiness. Christ is Lord of all now; He is certainly the Lord of beauty. When the travesties scattered throughout our modern art museums are set alongside the glories of ancient Greece, the Christian heart should swell with pride. Our Lord has thrown unbelievers down, and they can never recover. Look what they now do on their own! The modern materialist has truly fallen between two stools -- he cannot have the Nike of Samothrace and he cannot have Bach's Mass in B Minor . He cannot have Virgil and he cannot have Milton. But he can hang a toilet seat on the gallery wall and apply for federal grants -- we are all just prisoners here of our own device.
Modern man has not had beauty taken away from him; but in order to have beauty, it must now be in the context of Christian culture. Unbelievers will produce works of great beauty, but they are dependent upon Christian culture as they do so. Turning from our Lord Christ means turning from the only fountainhead of true aesthetic wonder.
The apostle saw in his vision that the kings of the earth would bring their glory into the new Jerusalem. So a glorious future awaits, and a great part of that glory is the glory found in beautiful things. We must consider by faith the beauty that remains yet to be brought into the world, and which, in the centuries to come, will be. Eye has not seen . . . but perhaps the eye of faith can make something out.
Over time the church will continue to mature in Christ and teach the meaning of loveliness to an unbelieving world. Not only so, but she will also exhibit a vision of loveliness to the world. As the saints are equipped to serve Christ in everything they do, their works will glorify Him. This will of course happen in law and auto mechanics, but it will also happen in the library and studio, with the pen and brush. The distance between Odysseus and Beowulf was great, but the distance between Beowulf and the works to come will be greater still. Charlemagne was a lesser king than Darius, but he was also a different sort of king. God has been very kind to us.
Regardless of these great works of Christ, unbelief is always content to walk along, looking at the ground. And admittedly we live in a time when the church has tired of her assigned task of pointing up at the kingdom of heaven -- for the last century or so the church has failed to instruct believers on their duty of glorifying God in the arts. We were told to be salt and light for everything men do, including the realm of the arts. But because we are currently occupied in our manufacture of Precious Moments figurines, the world has been left to turn aside to aesthetic chaos. They have done so. But we must take the long view. Disobedience in the church does not take Christ off His throne any more than disobedience anywhere else. Of the increase of His government there will be no end .
Exalt and sing the Lord on high,
Of wine dark sea and tumbling sky.

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