Adapted from a persuasive speech I gave in my Com101 class this semester
The famous graphic designer Massimo Vignelli once said, “The life of a designer is a life of fight: fight against the ugliness.” As a designer myself, I spend a big part of every day fighting against the ugliness. If you are 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, ugly things can be 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 church buildings. I’ve been involved at lots of churches. Some of them have ugly auditoriums, but God is doing amazing work in people’s hearts. 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 in 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 kid, 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 into the future, I would have been disappointed to see myself working in graphic design.
Since my time at Wheaton, I’ve slowly started re-examining my theology of the physical world—and especially my theology of beauty. The incarnation and resurrection make pretty good arguments for the value of the physical, so I won’t focus on the goodness of physicality. Instead, I want to tell you why Christians should care 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 for 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 weight in our society, beauty becomes especially compelling. Perhaps that’s why Dostoevsky once famously wrote, “Beauty will save the world.”
If you would like think further about this topic, I highly recommend watching this talk by Roger Scruton.