Friday, September 14, 2018

The Power of Beauty

John Keats finished his poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" with the memorable these words.
"Beauty is truth, truth beauty," – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Since 1820, people have been arguing over the question of truth and beauty.  Basically the debate distills into two questions.  Are truth and beauty necessarily linked?  Is the link between truth and beauty the sum of all necessary knowledge?  For the second question, not much need be said.  Few have attempted to take this hyperbolic statement and make it normative.  It would be simplistic in the extreme to assume that the putative link between truth and beauty are so determinative.  If this link be proved, it would indicate an important part of human knowledge.

The more important question is the first.  Are truth and beauty linked and if so, how so.  This assertion contradicts the proposition that, "beauty is in the eyes of the beholder."  Keats seems to aware of something our subjective society has yet to grasp.  Beauty has an objective quality.  The Christian worldview appreciates the objective and the certain.  We hold to the reality of the Bible and its absolute truth claims.  We dislike the purely subjective and uncertain.

If beauty has an objective quality, we then question structures and qualities make up beauty.  Often we find ourselves left to a near subjective rationale akin to Justice Potter Stewart's famous test for the obscene, "I know it when I see it." (Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 US 184,197 (1964))  What Justice Stewart groped toward was a way to take an objective test and apply it in a way that would make sense.  For us, for an objective view of beauty, we seem to fail to identify the qualities of beauty.  Instead, we often rely upon intuition and sense perception to inform our conclusions.  This does not disprove the objective.  Instead, it requires us to remember that our intuition of beauty may arise from the image of God in which He made us.

In C.S. Lewis' book, The Abolition of Man, he records the difference between the concept of the "sublime" and "sublime feelings."  In this case, the feelings arising from the observance of beauty are considered inconsequential to the actual character of a thing.  Lewis righty calls out this abominable casuistry for the pernicious doctrine that it is.  He ends the first chapter by describing how it produces "Men without Chests," men without feelings.  An intellect devoid of passions.  Not for the last time, will we observe the twin temptations of passion without thought and thought without feeling.  Lewis well defines the dilemma. "We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise." (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, HarperSanFrancisco, 1944 pp.1-26, 26)

Lewis reminds us of the critical role the appreciation of beauty plays in the lives of men.  Men generally face the temptation to ignore feeling for the sake of thought.  For Christian men, this is often seen as our sacred duty.  Yet, the place of beauty and its attendant emotional response plays a role, as Lewis comments, on our moral and vocational life.  Beauty has a motivational impact on us.  It causes us to aspire to greatness and virtue.  This applies to both genders.  Lewis lived in an earlier generation, but as we have watched the degradation of society, this temptation of thought without feeling has crept into fashion with male and female alike.

There is a Christian theory of beauty, derived from the Bible that goes beyond the mere formal theory of beauty.  Perhaps the most telling passage appears in Psalm 29. "Give unto the Lord, O ye mighty, give unto the Lord glory and strength.  Give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." (Ps.29:1-2)  This attaches the concept of beauty to one of the most significant attributes of God, holiness.  Sinclair Ferguson aptly defines holiness as it applies to God in this way.  "God's holiness is His God-ness.  It is His being God in all that it means for Him to be God."  (A Heart for God, Sinclair Ferguson, Banner of Truth Trust, 1987, 82)  If we take Ferguson's concept of holiness married to the text of Psalm 29, we arrive at the conclusion that beauty is part of God's attributes.  We then conclude that beauty comes from God, that beauty is a part of the image of God in which He made man, that beauty, in some form, appears in all that God created, and that beauty is often hidden by sin.

So, why all this talk about beauty?  The concept of beauty and how we view it plays a role in how we look at the non-story arts.  There is art and beauty in many things, but when we begin to look at static visual art and music, we enter the domain of the aesthetic and beauty.  As such, we must strive to develop a Christian approach to beauty especially in these arenas.

When my parents lived in Northern Virginia, one of my favorite activities when I visited them was touring the National Gallery of Art.  I cannot recommend a visit more highly.  The entire experience is sublime.  Allow me to describe a visit.  When I would go, I would take the Metro, the DC subway system.  I would begin at the Wiehle-Reston station on the silver line.  At that time, they were still constructing the silver line that would eventually reach to Loudoun One.  Because of the newness and upper income of that region, the trains were sparsely populated by business professionals and clean-cut students.  As you traveled into the city, the silver line merged with the orange and blue lines.  The trains sped through older stations and tunnels where the dim lights and dirt, along with the increasing clouds, brought a dimness of soul as well.  I usually departed the Metro at the L'Enfant Plaza station.  There is a sense as you ascend out of the subway, riding the escalators back to ground level, that you are coming back to life from the grave of the subway.  I experienced a lifting of soul, especially if you decide to use the Smithsonian station and exit upon the National Mall.

There is something evocative about the National Mall, with its tree-lined avenues and the open space that welcome as diverse activities as tourists, picnickers, Soccer players, and football fans.  If you visit, skip the protesters, it spoils the beauty of the vision of unity.  Lining the streets of the mall are numerous museums open to the public.  Many are operated by the Smithsonian.  One of which is the National Gallery of Art.

All the buildings surrounding the mall are magnificent and stately, but there is something weighty about the National Gallery.  All the building use stone, but the Gallery's use of that stone seems calculated to provoke the visitor to some sense of awe.  Perhaps it may be misleading to refer to it as a gallery.  The architect may have attempted to build at temple to art.  Everything about the building is meant to dwarf you, from the oversized doors, to the excessively tall ceilings of the main rotunda and the winged corridors.  The black marble ionic columns and matching floor with the center fountain mute the conversation as you begin your visit.  The halls branching east and west from the rotunda are lit from skylights.  From these halls, you pass into the rooms containing the paintings, and the atmosphere transitions from imposing to occasionally intimate.  The ceilings are lower, the rooms grow smaller, and your attention is drawn from the grandeur of the building to the beauty on the walls.

Now, not every painting will trigger your sense of the sublime.  If you follow the self-guided map, you begin with the earliest art, mostly religious icons.  However, if you persist, you will find art that may make the grandeur of the building seem unworthy of the riches of beauty within.

You see, here is the thing that I learned about beauty in my repeated trips to the gallery.  Sin operates on beauty in two ways.  First, sin mars the beauty that God created, and instilled in man.  You cannot look at a painting without seeing some effect of sin, if only the degradation that entropy plays in damaging works of art.  This effect of sin we probably know full well.  It is the other that we may not truly appreciate.

Sin not only mars the beauty that exists, but is also interferes with our ability to recognize the beauty there is.  There is a need for us to use our sanctified minds to observe the world and see its beauty.  As art developed over time, so also did people's ability to reflect beauty.  You see, there is a reason, a connection that lies at the intersection of the idea that truth is beauty and beauty truth, that God is the source of all beauty, and that He created the world with beauty.  This means that art is beautiful when it represents truth of holiness in the world.  It means that art is not beautiful when it does not represent the truth of holiness.  When art represents the effects of sin, we cannot expect it to be beautiful.  When art fails to represent reality, we cannot call it beautiful.  This does not exclude abstract are or impressionistic art.  There is reality in the expression of real impressions and feelings.

Jackson Pollock, on the other hand, breaks the rules of beauty we have so for extracted.  When I visited, the east wing of the Gallery, where the modern painting are exhibited, one wall is almost fully given over to a Pollack.  It was the typical paint cans on strings painting.  It meant nothing.  It has no representation.  It had no meaning.  Any beauty that may have appeared was smothered by a sinful philosophy.  That is another lesson of beauty.  With all human art, there will be a mixture of beauty and sin.  When the sin overcomes the beauty, we ought to question whether it should be considered art.

There remains one final aspect to visual beauty that we must remember as Christians.  You don't have to go to the National Gallery of Art to develop an appreciation for beauty.  Really, all you need to do is look outside.  I have written elsewhere, "This beauty does not appear in mere isolated areas.  Rather, God has filled the world with beauty.  You cannot look anywhere within God’s creation and not see His artistry.  The presence of beauty is inescapable, but we often don’t see it.  Our inability says more about us than about the world.  Perhaps we can’t see beauty because we have stopped looking for it." (

If we have stopped looking for beauty, we have also stopped listening for it.  I was instructed growing up to listen with discernment especially for the lyrics, to think critically about the music, looking not for its beauty, but for its dangers.  I remember a pastor repeatedly drilling this phrase as if it clinched an argument. "Music is not neutral."  By this, he was warning us against a certain genre of music.  He emphasized that the lyrics were not the sole criteria of a song, but that the genre could be so corrupted that the music itself was tainted.

This brings up an issue with which we must deal in both art and music.  Theologians call it "common grace."  The Westminster Confession of Faith indicates these works in this way. "Works done by unregenerate men, although for the matter of them they may be things which God commands; and of good use both to themselves and others." (WCF 16:7)  The Confession goes on to point out how these work do not earn God's approbation, but are wholly sinful, and yet we cannot escape those words, "of good use."  Wicked people do good things.  The Scripture proofs for this section refer to the repentance of Ahab (I Kings 21:27,29), and the rebellion of Jehu (II Kings 10:30-31).  This means that even an unregenerate artist can produce beauty in art and music.

While we ought not argue for the irredeemability of all music created by unbelievers, we must agree that music matters along with the lyrics. Consider singing a song with a different tune or a different key.  Would you sing "Happy Birthday" in a minor key?  Even those who have negative conceptions of their birthday would object to that practice.  If major and minor keys impact our perception of the lyrics, might this not be true for different genres as well?  Humorists have used this to some effect, the playing of a well-known lyric to a different genre of music.

While detestable lyrics ought to place a piece of music outside the acceptable diet of the Christian, we must analyze more that mere words.  We can argue that music can range from the bad, to the mediocre, to the sublime.  Even within the uncertainties of music, we ought to understand basic realities that govern the importance of tunes.  Imagine a child sitting at a piano who has no musical training.  He will hit the keys at random and make noise,not music.  We might choose to call him the Jackson Pollack of music, or we might appropriately tell him that what he is doing is not music.  Music must abide by some order.  Even the loose experimentation of jazz follows charts and order.  This brings harmony instead of dissonance.  And yet, dissonance within a piece of music may have a role to play so long at it ends in resolution.  There has to be a reason for the music.

All of this aims at beauty in music.  Most common musical tastes rate a far step below beauty.  Popular music we would probably hesitate to call beautiful, and yet that does not make it bad.  We must always remember that there will usually be a difference between the music we like and regularly listen to and that which is beautiful.  How much we tolerate that difference requires discernment.  That we don't make our regular diet out of the beautiful reflects how hesitant we are to approach beauty, how redolent it is of holiness.  Nevertheless, we do need regular encounters with beauty.

It would be wrong to end this section without a comment about the music in the church.  As we discussed in previous lessons, I have no desire to enter into the fray of the worship wars.  Music plays a role in the worship of God and must abide by the regulative principle of worship.  Instead, I want to talk about congregational singing.

Consider these verses.  "let all those that put their trust in thee rejoice: let them ever shout for joy." (Psalm 5:11) "Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, ye righteous: and shout for joy, all ye that are upright in heart." (Psalm 32:11) "Let them shout for joy, and be glad." (Psalm 35:27) "O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph." (Psalm 47:1) "Let thy priests be clothed with righteousness; and let thy saints shout for joy." (Psalm 132:9)  "Sing, O ye heavens; for the LORD hath done it: shout, ye lower parts of the earth: break forth into singing, ye mountains."  (Isaiah 44:23)

I urge you to notice the connection between shouting and singing and worship.  Our singing is often too anemic because we do not think about what we are saying.  Consider this hymn.
Savior, if of Zion's city
I, through grace, a member am,
let the world deride or pity,
I will glory in thy name:
fading is the worldling's pleasure,
all his boasted pomp and show;
solid joys and lasting treasure
none but Zion's children know.
These words written by John Newton shouted speak volumes about our confidence about our place and enjoyment of the blessings of God.  Let us not be people without chests, people without feeling, people without appreciation for the beauty of holiness.  Let us be those who before the beauty of holiness worship, not with empty volume, but from a true appreciation of all we have in Christ Jesus.

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