I find myself, on this side of the election, with a particular longing for the beautiful. Perhaps it’s partially from the ugliness of this election, and the ugliness that it’s drawn out of so many people. Perhaps it’s because so much of social media inevitably utilizes the current of sarcasm, snarkiness, vitriol, and cliches that it legitimately kills excellence. Perhaps it’s just the noise of life generally. I really don’t know.
Before jumping in too much, I want to throw out a quote to start the discussion. This is a compelling image, so I’d urge you to consider it seriously. I’m not endorsing every aspect of this statement (or every aspect of this author’s approach to beauty), but there’s a healthy dose of legitimately biblical truth in this understanding.
The beauty of the world is the mouth of a labyrinth. The unwary individual who on entering takes a few steps is soon unable to find the opening. Worn out, with nothing to eat or drink, in the dark, separated from his dear ones, and from everything he loves and is accustomed to, he walks on without knowing anything or hoping anything, incapable even of discovering whether he is really going forward or merly turning round on the same spot. But this affliction is as nothing compared with the danger threatening him. For if he does not lose courage, if he goes on walking, it is absolutely certain that he will finally arrive at the center of the labyrinth. And there God is waiting to eat him. Later he will go out again, but he will be changed, he will have become different, after being eaten and digested by God. Afterward he will stay near the entrance so that he can gently push all those who come near into the opening.Simone Weil, Waiting for God
I believe Weil is wrong that all it takes is courage to follow beauty to the source, but I do find intensely compelling the image of beauty as a gate to a labyrinth in which God waits at the center. Our minds have been darkened through sin (Rom 1:21), so we cannot follow the trail of beauty all the way back to its source unaided, but that trail remains. God created the earth, and it still speaks of him, even if we are unable to listen with our natural ears (Ps 19:1).
When one even considers the way that the word “beautiful” makes it into our Bibles, it is occasionally translated from the Greek word “καλός.” This word (καλός) essentially means “good,” and it carries that flavor in all of its different renderings throughout the NT. The situation is actually similar in the OT, where one of the most common words translated “beautiful” is “יָפֶה,” which has a similar semantic range, often indicating “right” or “good.”
I don’t imagine this is terribly surprising – when we speak about something being beautiful, we are usually speaking it being profoundly right. A beautiful painting is one which speaks a compelling truth about what it renders. A beautiful sentence is one which is not only factually true, but reveals its truth to the hearer compellingly and insightfully. We may speak about a person as being superficially beautiful, but on a fundamental level, we acknowledge that beauty comes from a conformity to the holiness of God. Despite the scars which he still bears (indeed, because of those scars), Christ remains the perfect expression of beauty.
Al Mohler’s article on the role of beauty correctly argues that which is truly beautiful is also necessarily true and good. This is foundational to the point that beautiful is more than simply “pretty,” but it remains false that beauty = truth = goodness. Even if all three descriptors must be predicated of any subject for any of them to be expressed in their full sense, each of the terms actually conveys something different. Truth refers to the reality of something – that which is true is that which really “is.” Goodness refers to the moral correctness of something – that which is good is what it “ought” to be. Beauty refers to our perception of something – it happens when we “see” that something is good and true.
This is where we have dropped the line, and this is where Weil’s image is instructive. We know of God’s truth and goodness, but we do not long for them. We do not long for them because we have not truly “seen” them – to use Weil’s chilling image, we have not been “eaten and digested” by God. They have not touched us, frequently because of our own studious avoidance of the true force of the biblical argument.
The dangerous side of the quote suggests that any perception of beauty can accomplish this, but this doesn’t take into account what we have discussed regarding truth and goodness. We must insist that there is a true beauty, which, when acknowledged and properly understood, leads us to God, as well as a false beauty, since our faculties are clouded by sin and we are liable to call evil good and good evil. That being the case, we must be careful to be sure that our reading of “beauty” is within the bounds of biblical truth. We must be open to correcting our initial emotional impulses with in light of scriptural truth.
All that being said, I think we do great damage to the testimony of the church when we fail to consider beauty as worthy of our attention, both in the church and in our lives. A song with gorgeous, interlocking harmonies speaks to the glory of God, not simply through the faithfulness of the lyrics, but through the beauty of the notes themselves. A beautiful arrangement of music “speaks,” much as words do, of God. It elevates. It says that common elements, arranged with care and order, produce something more. Life is not simply sound and fury signifying nothing, but is the meaningful creation of a loving God. Sin has not destroyed all good in the creation, but we must learn to see with God’s eyes or we shall miss it.
We need not be hostile toward all experiential beauty as mere “emotionalism.” If our faculties are functioning rightly, guided by the Word of God, we can have the confidence to walk in to Weil’s labyrinth to find God at the center. Beauty is, as Christ is, the goodness of God breaking into our world, even in the here and now. In many situations, where words become sterile, beauty still speaks to a part of the soul which knows that we were created for more. It simultaneously pleases and points to a more ultimate fulfillment through its incompleteness. It makes the bones ache, and reminds us of our so easily forgotten finitude. If we are to call others to Christ, we must remember that, not only do our words call them to repent and believe, but the beauty of the Lord’s revelation also speaks and leads to God, if we will follow it in the light of scripture.
One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple.Psalm 27:4