Adapted from a persuasive speech that I presented to my Com101 class this semester.
Why should we care?
The famous graphic designer, Massimo Vignelli once said, “Fight against the ugliness.” As a designer myself, I spend a significant portion of every day fighting against the ugliness. If you describe yourself as a visual artist, musician, photographer, dancer, or decorator, you fight against the ugliness too.
But why? Why do we do it?
If we could be fighting poverty or racism, why fight ugliness? Is ugliness really so bad? After all, some ugly things are quite utilitarian. Take for example my freshman dorm. It’s ugly, but it’s practical and I had a great time living there. Or think about churches. I’ve been involved at many churches. Some of them have ugly sanctuaries, but God is doing amazing work in people’s hearts. So does beauty really matter?
This is a tension that the church has struggled with since the emergence of gnosticism, a philosophy that labels spirituality as good and physicality as bad. The tendency to separate or rank the physical and spiritual is still alive within Evangelicalism today. We tend to see the spiritual as superior, while we treat the physical world as neutral or even negative. Beauty is a casualty of this faulty theology, quintessentially evidenced by the non-denom auditorium.
As I child, I felt this tension deeply. I convinced myself that my life could only be “useful” to God if I pursued a spiritual profession. I was passionate about missions (and still am), but I failed to see other vocations as valuable. If I could have looked forward into my life, I would have been disappointed to see myself working in design.
Since my time at Wheaton, I’ve slowly started re-examining my theology of the physical world, especially of beauty. The incarnation and resurrection make pretty good arguments for the value of the physical world, so I won’t focus on the goodness of physicality. Instead, I want to tell you why Christians should care specifically about beauty.
Good, True and Beautiful
God has long been described by his church as good, true and beautiful. All goodness, truth and beauty find ultimate fulfillment in him. In the end, all beauty is a reflection of God. The principles that govern beauty—order and harmony—point us back to God and are ultimately displayed in the Trinity.
In a book titled “Eyes Wide Open,” Steve DeWitt says it this way, “God creates beauty so we can know what He is like. Since He is and always has been glorious and beautiful, creation reflects this with seeable, tastable, touchable, hearable, and smellable reflections of His glory and beauty.” In this way, beauty makes an argument toward God. This argument is especially poignant in our cultural niche. Father John Cihak describes its importance this way:
In contemporary America, most people are not moved by claims of truth or goodness. Relativism has made truth to be whatever you want, thereby turning the good into whatever makes you feel good. So how can you engage the average nonbeliever? How can you place him on the road that would lead him back to the Truth and the Good? Show him beauty.
As truth and goodness lose wieght in our society, beauty becomes especially compelling. Perhaps that’s why Dostoevsky once famoulsy wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”
If this beauty argument sounds too theoretical or philosophical, we can look to scripture texts to see how God has interacted with beauty and the arts in the past. Here we an exquisite collections of poetry and song. We find God’s instructions for the construction of the tabernacle and the ark of the covenant. We find descriptions of God’s temple and the holy city to come. God values and employs skilled artisans to create a place of beauty where he will choose to dwell. In these ways, scripture demonstrates the value of beauty.
Objection 1: What about the bad kind of beauty?
I can imagine a few objections to my argument. First, what about beautiful things that are morally reprehensible? Porn, for example. It may look pretty, but it objectifies women and breeds spiritual destruction.
I want to categorize this type of image as siren-like beauty. Remember the sirens from the Odyssey? Odysseus encounters them on his journey. These dangerous female creatures sing an irresistible song, but sailors who follow them always end up dead.
Dante meets these same sirens in a dream in Purgatorio. Here’s what happens (Purgatorio Canto XIX, 19-24, 31-33):
“I am,” she sang, “the sweet Siren, I am,
whose song beguiles the sailors in mid-sea,
enticing them, inviting them to joy!
My singing made Ulysses turn away
from his desired course; who dwells with me
seldom departs, I satisfy so well.”
[But Virgil] seized the [siren], ripped her garment off,
exposing her as far down as the paunch!
The stench pouring from her woke me from my sleep.
These sirens represent false beauty. The veneer looks appealing, but don’t be fooled. It’s rotting on the inside. But even the veneer tells us something about ourselves and about God. DeWitt’s thoughts are helpful in this area as well. He writes:
The beauties of this world whisper to our souls that there is someone ultimate. But the ultimate is never found in the wonderland of creation. We keep looking and longing for the beauty behind the beauty, the One who will satisfy the cravings of our soul. This explains why the drug addict keeps shooting up and the porn addict keeps looking and the materialist keeps buying and the thrill-seeker keeps jumping. On the other side of one thrill is the constant need for another.
So we’ve dealt with siren beauty, now let’s move on to objection two.
Objection 2: The Ugly Apex of Christianity.
What about this?
This is a panel from Grunewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece. It depicts the apex of the Christian narrative: the crucifixion. Look closely at Christ’s body. His hands are contorted with pain. his body is covered in wounds. This is an ugly event. Maybe the most ugly event ever.
So if this is the center to our faith, is beauty really a central Christian value?
Is beauty important to God if he was willing to be this ugly?
Yes. And here is why. On the cross, Christ absorbed all of the ugliness of sin and died with it. He died so that someday you and I can live in a (physical) world characterized solely by goodness, truth, and beauty. The cross is the ultimate battle with ugliness. Christ won that battle.
Finally, the cross isn’t all ugly. Take a look at Francisco de Zurbarán’s The Crucifixion (one of my favorite paintings at the Art Institute of Chicago). This painting fixates on the beauty of the cross—the willing sacrifice of the spotless lamb of God, the ultimate act of love. And this is beautiful.
If you would like think further about this topic, I highly recommend watching this talk by Roger Scruton.