Christians can show the way to beauty in an increasingly ugly world.
Perhaps it is true, as Humberto Eco explained in his lovely book, History of Beauty, that we don’t quite know what beauty is, but that it is, is beyond dispute.
Every age and culture of human beings has held to notions of beauty and has expressed those notions by means of a broad range of experiences and artifacts. In simplest terms, beauty is that which brings delight, and those things are truly beautiful, or so William Cowper insisted (“The Task”), to which we return in delight again and again. I have been doing a good bit of reading on the subject of beauty of late, and this much at least is clear: As hard as it is to define beauty, it’s even harder to write about it in a way that, following Cowper, makes you want to read about it over and over.
Beauty is both objective – that is, it exists in things external to us – and subjective – within the human soul. Philosophers, theologians, aestheticians, and others struggle to say much more than this, and, more importantly, to explain the relationship between these two aspects of beauty, without having one devour the other. Christian writers on beauty tend to lodge the ultimate expression of beauty in God Himself, especially as revealed in Jesus Christ (see, inter alia, Daniel J. Trier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, eds., The Beauty of God, and Francesca Aran Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty).
If God is beauty, as Augustine suggested, then perhaps we might actually gain more insight to the subject, not by studying beauty per se, but by a more careful consideration of God as the Subject and Sustainer of beauty – a Biblical theology of beauty, as it were. Such a study might lead, first of all, to our delighting in the Lord in ways more in line with what the Scriptures teach, and, second, with our being able both to appreciate more of the beauty God sustains around us, and to infuse more of His beauty into the yet-ugly nooks and crannies of everyday life.
We sing of Jesus as our “beautiful Savior,” and indeed, He is. But the beauty we find in Jesus is first, moral and spiritual, then aesthetic, although He is described – Psalms 2, 45, 110, etc; and Revelation 1 – in quite beautiful terms in the Bible. We are drawn to Jesus and return to Him because of His moral and spiritual beauty. His physical beauty, as described in His exalted state, gets our attention, but His deeper and more enduring beauty is what holds and potentially transforms us.
Twice in the book of Hebrews we are urged to “consider Jesus.” In Hebrews 3.1, the writer exhorts us to “consider” Jesus (κατανοήσατε) so that we will continue believing in and confessing Him throughout our lives. This word means “to discover something through direct observation, with the implication of also thinking about it – to notice, to discover” (Louw & Nida), like one might carefully observe an object in creation, or a work of art.
We can especially see the beauty and majesty of Jesus by contemplating images of Him presented in the psalms, for example, Psalm 45 (cf. Heb. 1.8; see also Pss. 2, 47, and 110). Here Jesus is portrayed as exalted in glorious array, surrounded by sweet fragrances, beautiful music, and His Church in glory. From there He goes forth conquering and to conquer, gathering and perfecting His followers in the goodness of the Lord, as He prepares them for their eternal dwelling in His holy courts.
This aesthetical and poetic consideration of Jesus stirs our hearts to delight in and enjoy Him, as we become immersed in the various devices and images the psalmists use to reveal His great goodness and glory.
In Hebrews 12.3, the writer calls us again to “consider” Jesus, but this time as a work of rational analysis (ἀναλογίσασθε), a theological, as opposed to an aesthetical contemplation. This suggests the need to study, think deeply, meditate, talk with others, and know Jesus in terms appropriate to His uniqueness and mission.
Each of these exhortations to consider Jesus involves the imagination, the first more engaging what Paul calls the eye of the heart (Eph. 1.18, following the Greek), and the second more with the mind of Christ and the protocols of reasoning. By the first we see Jesus as He is depicted in His glory, garbed in splendor and majesty, bearing the emblems of office, wearing the crown of righteousness, and attended by worshipful saints and angels. We see Him in His majestic loveliness, which is impressed on us by images, sounds, smells, and sweeping vistas of conquest.
By the second we trace out all Biblical arguments, explanations, reasons, hopes, and joys – all teachings, causes, and events – as they lead us to Jesus, Who is the focus of all Scripture, the consummation of all things, and the end of all meaning and purpose and life. By considering Jesus in this way, logically and theologically, we become persuaded that He alone can fulfill God’s purpose in restoring all things to Himself, and that He is indeed Lord and Christ.