Why Beauty Matters

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The Hay Wain

I work at an organization that helps parents start faith-forming conversations with their teens. Our mission is to bring families together through the art of culture translation, which means that much of our time and energy is spent becoming experts on pop music, movies, television, and technology. It’s both a blessing and a curse. While it’s important to have the knowledge of, and ability to exegete culture, to merely live at the crossroads of mass entertainment can feel pretty shallow, at least to this 44 year old. Whenever we reference Iggy Azalea, Drake, or Kendrick Lamar I often think, will anyone even remember these artists names in 50 years? There is no doubt that pop artists are creative, but are they taking responsibility for what they are creating? And, more important, is their art expressing and manifesting beauty to the world?

The ancient Roman writer Seneca said, “Life is short, but art is long.” So, what makes a poem, song, movie, or painting last through the ebb and flow of cultural trends and tastes? Why has Augustine and Austen, Byron and Bronte, Michelangelo and Monet remained revered when Beyonce and Bieber will be forgotten in our lifetimes?  Lasting art, real creativity reveals whatever is good, whatever is true, and whatever is beautiful. Creating beauty is living into our vocation as image-bearers. Everyone is called to nurture beauty, to cultivate their own garden by offering in their own way whatever is good, whatever is true, and whatever is lovely. Living into our role as co-creators means creating beautiful worlds of peace and harmony in the midst of the fallen and the broken. There is an incredible mystery in human nature, where beauty exists, peace is real. It is rare to find cultures who value beauty but who live violently. Goethe said, “One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture, and, if it were possible, to speak a few reasonable words.” This is what it means to be fully human, to nurture beauty outside of the garden, where thorns and weeds cover the earth. Being fully human means taking our vocation as co-creators seriously, by nurturing the good and the beautiful in the midst of a fallen world.

But how do we cultivate beauty in the midst of banality? Beauty is attained by setting our own interests aside and letting something particular dawn on us, to allow something specific to elevate us into a state of wonder. Beauty asks us to look on it directly and precisely, to see it not in the abstract, but in concrete singularity: this tree, this flower, this sonnet, this song. It takes one thing to pull you into the depth of anything. And when you get to the depth of anything, for some wonderful reason, you have the power to get to the depth of everything. And God is found at the depth of anything. In this way, lasting, transformative art points us toward the divine. To understand great things, you have to experience them in small ways. When we start with something specific, we have a doorway to the universal. Beauty allows us to experience the eternal in the ordinary. There is an old Celtic saying that heaven and earth are only three feet apart, but in the ‘thin places’ that distance is even smaller. Beauty reveals these ‘thin places’, where the veil between heaven and earth is lifted if only for a brief moment, when both the seen and unseen world come together as the door between this world and the next is cracked open for just a moment and we glimpse the glory of the eternal. Such experiences elevate us from the cliche to reverence. As Thomas Merton said, “Art allows us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”

Practically speaking, how do we foster communities, churches, and families that appreciate and create beauty in the midst of brokenness? First, do hard things. Instead of reading a that self-help book you bought at LifeWay, pick up a piece of literature by George Elliott, Thomas Hardy, or James Joyce. It will be a struggle at first, but persevere, your brain will thank you. In this way, you will re-train your senses to recognize and enjoy beauty instead of twaddle. Second, surround yourself with classic artistic expressions as an alternative to the mass produced entertainment most of us currently consume. Because in very real ways, we grow accustomed to, and appreciate the things that surround us. Our sense of what is beautiful, and our ability to appreciate beauty is cultivated by what we take in. If we are surrounded by synthetic pop songs, touched-up photos of anorexic models, and block-buster blow em up movies, this is what we will assume is beautiful. We begin to prefer these things simply because they are familiar. As a substitute, listen to a concerto by Rachmaninoff, go to an art museum, or attend a play in the park.  Maybe this is what the Apostle Paul meant when he wrote, “Brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable–if anything is excellent or praiseworthy–think about such things.” And finally, turn off the television, shut down your Mac and go outside. Take a walk in the woods, climb a mountain, look up at the stars, feel the breeze on your face, take in the full revelation of the glory of God in and through his good creation. After all, the heavens do declare the beauty of God.

As Western Christians, we’ve spent a large portion of our time offering the world the good and the true. Libraries are filled with treatises on Christian ethics, morality, and apologetics. But, what we haven’t done is offer the world, through our life and posture, a Christian aesthetic of beauty. It isn’t enough to ask if our posture toward the world is good and true, we must also ask, is it beautiful? It could be that our greatest calling as God’s image-bearers in the world is to cultivate and nurture whatever is just, true, good, and most importantly, beautiful. To open up little thin places all around the world where everyone can come face to face with the magnificence and redemptive power of real beauty.  Because in the end, beauty just might save the world.

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