Why Beauty Matters
Many of the houses where I once lived in Austin, Texas, were architecturally ugly. Built in the late 1950s, they were one-story, squat structures. Slapped-on metal porches hung out from flat roofs. The construction was cheap, and the brick was dingy and dull. I can’t say that I ever walked down my block and felt awe. Mostly I felt depressed, and while I was deeply grateful for my home, the ugliness of the street began to weigh me down.
That feeling only increased as I encountered other uglinesses at large: strip malls with their mass-fabricated façades; daytime talk shows and their voyeuristic gossip; relentless visual noise; racism; sexism; rudeness; self- indulgent behavior; wastefulness; and “faith” movies that rob Scripture of its narratively rich “un-tame” quality.
But in fact, the ability to make ugliness abound, whether material or moral, is in each of us, sinners great and small. True ugliness makes our souls sick.
It deforms us, leaves us dulled. And it’s not too big a stretch to call it one of the three “anti-fruits” of human rebellion, alongside falsehood and evil.
So what will rescue us from all this ugliness? In one way, beauty will, though not in any simplistic fashion.
A Sense of Beauty
When we say something is beautiful, what are we describing? What “work” is it doing in our life? And why do we find ourselves drawn to it?
Christians from St. Augustine to Jonathan Edwards have observed that beauty describes a quality of the world that’s inherent to it—a quality God has infused into all of creation, including what humans make of that creation. Three characteristics are usually included in historic descriptions of beauty: unity, unified: the coffee bean variety, character of the ground, water temperature, milk quality, timing, foam, and the care with which the drink is made and served. It’s a harmony of latte-ness.
Secondly, the latte is exactly the kind of drink it needs to be. It isn’t a cappuccino or a macchiato. There’s nothing generic about it. It is a latte just so, and we love it for being particularly this kind of drink.
Thirdly, the drink provokes for the latte-lover poetic outbursts: “What a fantastic coffee! Yum!” Whether our pleasure in the beverage takes the form of a quiet joy or an energetic enthusiasm, there’s a good chance that, come tomorrow, we’ll look for another one just like it. This latte has awakened in us a desire for more.
As you’ve already guessed, there is a subjective dimension in this example— including whether you like lattes, how well it’s been made, your mood, the barista’s mood, and whether you’ve ever tasted coffee in the first place. But it is never merely subjective. In every case, a latte bears witness, excellently or poorly, to the objective pattern of beauty; and differently for each of us, beauty stirs an ache of longing in our hearts. The longing for what? A sense of order in our lives, a sense of our unique place in the world, and a sense of being caught up in something bigger than ourselves.
The Power of Beauty
To the extent that we get a taste of unity in something beautiful—whether it’s of a simple sort like a tasty chocolate or an extravagant sort like a European cathedral—it invites us to long for an experience of order over against all the forces of alienation and loneliness in our world.
Likewise, to the extent that we get a taste of particularity, it invites us to long for the beloved quality of each thing God has made in this world and made possible through our works of culture-making. We need to be reminded of this daily because the disintegrating, homogenizing forces in our lives are very powerful. Fragmented schedules, broken relationships, acts of self-sabotage—such things threaten to rob us of the sense that each good thing in this world is a gift of God.
Lastly, when we get a taste of beauty’s capacity to awaken desire for more beauty, it invites us to long for the beautiful in all spheres of life. It does so in contrast to the forces that disorder our desires. For instance, when we hoard and abuse people and possessions in a self-oriented fashion, the result is that we become shriveled-up, self-absorbed creatures. We do this instead of allowing the good things of this world to pull us into something bigger than ourselves.
What does all of this have to do with God? Everything, in fact.
The Beauty of God
God constructs an extravagant diversity of life in the Amazon rainforest. He imagines the severe environment of the Gobi desert in Mongolia. He invents homier things such as the capacity to savor tea and toast. He commissions an extraordinary work of literature: the Bible. In it, we encounter the discomfiting poetry of Psalm 22. We discover the Apocalypse, teeming with strange creatures that inspire fear and awe. In the Gospels, Jesus’ parables deploy allusive turns of phrase, and the laments of Jeremiah escape every temptation to sentimentalize human pain.
All these works of God bear witness to beauty, but none do so more powerfully than His self-sacrificing love. At the cross, the beauty of God is mangled, dirty, misunderstood, and “banged with terror,” to quote poet e. e. cummings. This broken beauty makes us yearn to be loved and to love like such a God. And through it, we observe His ability to make beauty shine forth from all kinds of broken things— things from which we most expect beauty to be absent in our lives. In it, finally, we witness God’s promise to transform all of creation’s brokenness, as the theologian Jeremy Begbie explains, “into something of superabundant beauty.”
The Beauty of the Gospel
I suggest, then, that when we present a gospel that ignores or devalues beauty, we not only offer our friends and neighbors a small gospel; we also present to them a distorted gospel. We fail, in fact, to present a gospel that rightly reflects our triune God.
When, however, we welcome the reforming presence of beauty into our gospel—our evangelism and our social action, our worship and our work, our praying and our playing—we allow beauty to do something that only it can do, namely, to awaken a longing, ultimately, for the Source of all created beauties.
Similarly, when we welcome beauty into every part of our life—our scientific projects and our public parks, our grocery stores and our popular novels, our meal-makings and our mission projects—we can be confident that we are doing gospel work, even if not always quantifiable. My street in Austin was not without evidence of beauty. One family grew luscious red tomatoes in their front yard, and every March, Texas Mountain Laurels graced us with sweet grape-scented flowers. These were signs of beauty. To make beauty expand upon the earth, then, is to introduce a forestalling effect in our hearts—your and mine—against the downward drag of sin into ugliness, both moral and material. It is to introduce a holy irritation against all that distorts God’s world.
While not uncostly, it is worth every effort to expand beauty upon the earth, because we will be entering into the kind of work that Christ has been about by His Spirit from the beginning of time.
The article was selected from In Touch magazine.