Why We Need Beauty: Part 2
“No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to [people]. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether they admit it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” ~ Hans Urs von Balthasar
In the previous blog post, I offered a sketch of a theology of beauty. I did this in consultation with Majority World and indigenous voices. A theology of beauty must consider moral, pleasurable, spiritual, indigenous, cultural, natural, and artistic beauty.
The church needs to reactivate its theology of beauty. It needs to recover the transformative power of sanctified beauty. Beauty can corrupt, when it demands the worship that is due only to God. But beauty can also transform lives and congregations when it leads to the worship of God.
Here are seven core dimensions of a Christian theology of beauty:
1. A theology of beauty recognizes that all expressions of beauty witness to divine Beauty
It’s time the church cherished the redemptive, ethical, aesthetic, theological, and human value of beauty. All manifestations of beauty witness to divine Beauty, intentionally or not.
Recently, the University of Technology in Sydney opened a Frank Gehry-designed building. Sydney-siders are hotly debating whether this building is ugly or beautiful. We’ve already nicknamed it the “crumpled brown paper bag.” But it’s a striking contrast to the bland and cold and lifeless office buildings lining the Sydney skyline. Frank Gehry says folds in skin and clothing inspired the unique design. Explaining his approach to curve and folds in the design, he said: “The fold is primitive. You’re in your mother’s arms when you’re a child, and so we tried to do that with brick.” It will join the Sydney Opera House as one of our most iconic buildings.
This building has put the question of beauty “back on the table” among Australians. Is this beautiful or ugly? Not everyone will agree that it’s beautiful. But, personally, I think it’s dramatic and fascinating and captivating.The church must cherish the redemptive, aesthetic, theological & human value of beauty. Click To Tweet
Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly weighs into this discussion. She says that beauty isn’t just skin deep. Beauty enriches lives. And beauty leads us to ask questions about the sacred and spiritual.
“Everything in our culture tells us to despise and devalue beauty… Yet our deepest experience gives lie to this, as does our entire species memory. Beauty used to be the focus of intense imaginative engagement, philosophical enquiry, education, and public pursuit. Taken as one of the highest human values—up there with truth and love—it was tested and scrutinized, pummeled and parsed, debated, refined and—above all—taught…
Numerous studies point to the importance of beauty to wellbeing. People heal faster after surgery when they look onto green space. Fine art practice helps people with mental illness. Singing lifts the spirit. Yet this is still peering through the wrong end of the telescope; still valuing beauty in terms of utility. The point is, beauty doesn’t just make you feel better; it makes you feel differently. Only when we value beauty for its own sake—not for any measurable utility, for its status value or health outcomes but beauty qua beauty—do we experience its beneficence… This clearly moves into the realm of the spirit, which is why beauty has traditionally centered almost all forms of sacred ritual.”
Sure, all beauty is subjective. We judge beauty through our personal and cultural preferences. But that doesn’t mean we abandon our cultivation and analysis of beauty. We continue to create and scrutinize and refine and debate and teach beauty. This goes for natural, physical, sexual, moral, philosophical, visual, musical, technological, architectural, spiritual, and all other forms of beauty. As Christians, we believe that all beauty reflects Jesus Christ. It testifies to the One who is—and who reveals—true Beauty.All beauty reflects Christ. It testifies to the One who is & who reveals true Beauty. Click To Tweet
We value and celebrate beauty for it’s own sake, not for it’s utility. But we believe that created beauty is only possible because of divine Beauty. Beauty points to God. It opens opportunities for conversations and creative works that witness to Beauty. This Beautiful God reveals himself in his beautiful creation and gospel and artistry and more.
2. A theology of beauty sees all desire for beauty as desire for God
Paul reminds us how easy it is for us to replace the worship of God with the worship of natural, sexual, religious, and ideological beauty.
“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.
For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles.
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen”
As humans, we forget that our desire for beauty is a desire for God. And we forget that our admiration of beauty must lead to our worship and service of the Creator.
Our desire for purpose and meaning and life, is a desire for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Our desire for intimacy and companionship is a desire for communion with the Trinity. Our desire for leadership and direction is a desire for the King and Lord. Our desire for forgiveness is a desire for the gracious and forgiving Christ. Our desire for a fresh start is a desire for the transforming Holy Spirit. Our desire for spiritual fulfillment, a better future, and interpersonal connections, is a desire for the One who offers faith and hope and love. And our desire for beauty—in all its manifold forms—is a desire for divine Beauty.
So, as Christians, we must show how a desire for beauty is a desire for God. And we must celebrate the beautiful with enthusiasm—while fanning into flame our passion and desire for the One who is Beauty.
3. A theology of beauty desires that all beauty will lead to the worship of God
The church needs to recover the experience of God in all forms of beauty. Beauty can transform lives. We enhance our mission and worship through beautiful communities, beautiful art, beautiful goodness, beautiful truth, and beautiful worship. Beauty comes in many forms. Beauty can bring glory to Jesus Christ. We must recover moral, pleasurable, spiritual, indigenous, cultural, natural, and artistic beauty.
Created beauty witnesses to divine Beauty. But we can still enjoy beauty for its own sake. It’s important for us to celebrate beautiful things just because they’re beautiful. The Spirit calls us to regain our passion for artistic, natural, performing, visual, musical, literary, built-environment, cultural, moral, technological, urban, and human beauty. This involves us investing in these many forms of beauty. And we glorify God through them. And we pray and hope they lead to his worship and magnification. We work to that end. We pray that our poetry, music, literature, paintings, sculptures, architecture, dance, theology, and other beautiful creations, lead to the worship and service of the Creator.
4. A theology of beauty celebrates Beauty reaching out to us in Christ
Jesus Christ is divine Beauty. Beauty reaches out to us in creation, and in his incarnation, passion, resurrection, kingdom, and Pentecost. He chooses to reveal his beauty in creation and incarnation. His love and life and message show us the nature of true beauty. Beauty reaches out in the incarnation to an ugly and violent and fallen world. Beauty enters this mire and brings hope and salvation and regeneration. Through his divine power and grace and love he makes this mess beautiful. He also amplifies creaturely beauty wherever it exists.
In his life and death and resurrection, Beauty shows us what beautiful living, suffering, sacrifice, love, hope, faith, and rebirth look like. Beauty makes all things new. He ushers in the beautiful new creation. The old is gone and the new is here! He reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation that we might join with him in making all things new. And his kingdom is beautiful.Celebrate the beautiful with enthusiasm—while stoking our desire for Christ who is Beauty. Click To Tweet
This beautiful kingdom manifests itself in righteousness and holiness and peace and love and hope and joy in the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, the Spirit of Beauty empowers the church to glorify and serve the Father and Son and Holy Spirit. And, so, Jesus Christ shows us the nature of true beauty. He does this through creation, incarnation, passion, resurrection, kingdom, Pentecost, and the new creation.
5. A theology of beauty asks, “How can we be the community of the beautiful”?
How can our faith, ethics, contemplation, liturgy, poetry, and art be truly beautiful? How can these point toward the wonder and beauty of the triune God? How can we be “the community of the beautiful?”
We must examine, test, debate, foster, and teach beauty. We need to encourage imaginative and creative engagement with the notion and expressions of beauty. We should examine contemporary and ancient theological and philosophical enquiries on the nature of beauty.
Beauty must be front-and-center in our Christian education and theology and public pursuits. This must involve us identifying and developing and resourcing the creative arts and artists in our congregations. These include the performing arts, visual arts, literary arts, technological arts, and more. We need to find creative ways to incorporate the creative arts in our worship and fellowship and mission. We should help our congregations reconnect with artistic beauty and theological aesthetics and the Beautiful One. And we should develop beautiful worship experiences through painting, liturgy, poetry, drama, dance, nature, and so on.
Becoming “the community of the beautiful” is no easy task. The cold and dreary tastes of Modernity shape the theologies and architecture and worship of many congregations. Scientism and rationalism sideline beauty. Postmodernity makes beauty a subjective affair, not worthy of collective scrutiny and expression. But the church must reject such impulses. It’s time to rediscover our passion for the truly beautiful and for true Beauty.
6. A theology of beauty learns from First Nations and indigenous peoples
This involves allowing First Nation and indigenous art to nourish the Christian spirituality of our congregation. We can, of course, also learn from beauty from our own culture, and from other cultures. All cultures engage and express beauty in their own unique ways. This tells us much about the nature of beauty. But, since First Nation and indigenous peoples and traditions are often marginalized or neglected, we should be intentional about listening to what they can teach us.
A couple of decades ago, I spent a couple of weeks in an indigenous community in Carnarvon, Western Australia. I took a team of young Australians with me. During the evenings, around the campfire, we listened to indigenous elders tell dreamtime stories. They told these through song, dance, painting, storytelling, and musicianship. They expressed musicianship through a range of instruments. These included vocals, hand clapping, boomerangs, clubs, sticks, hollow logs, seed rattles, didgeridoos, decorative drums covered in reptile skins, and blowing into large conch shells.
Australian indigenous people express artistry in many ways. One of the best-known ways is dreamtime painting. They communicate Dreaming stories through delicate and exquisite iconography. This iconography includes paintings of symbols, totemic representations, kangaroos, emus, boomerangs, goannas, witchetty grubs, honey ants, spears, snakes, lizards, dingoes, and koalas.
Australian indigenous dreamtime stories and artistry go back at least forty thousand years. They communicate indigenous notions of the spirit world, nature, humanity, and cosmology. Indigenous art and beauty and aesthetics bring human and natural and sacred worlds together.Indigenous art & beauty bring human, natural & sacred together: as does the gospel. Click To Tweet
Indigenous Australians welcomed us warmly. We sang with them around the campfire at night. They invited us into their lives during the days. They introduced us non-indigenous Australians to the beauty of indigenous culture and history and aesthetics. Indigenous beauty revealed God’s beauty to us.
7. A theology of beauty enables mission
It’s possible for churches to create beautiful worship and architecture and liturgies, without being missional. But, in my opinion, it’s impossible to be missional without valuing and noticing and cultivating beauty.It’s impossible to be missional without valuing, noticing & cultivating beauty. Click To Tweet
Missional Christians notice beauty all around them. They pay attention to how their culture perceives and expresses beauty in all areas of life. They foster expressions of beauty that make sense to their culture, and that speak prophetically to their culture. At the same time, they enjoy expressions of beauty that come from other cultures and societies.
Missional Christians ask, “How can we create beautiful paintings, liturgies, poetry, literature, drama, dance, theology, morality, community, etc., that witness to Jesus Christ? How can we help people notice where God is present in beautiful things, drawing them to faith and repentance? How can beauty help inspire people to worship and serve Christ?”
I finish this blog with a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins (Pied Beauty, 1877). I pray that our desire for creaturely beauty will lead to the praise and adoration of God, who is Beauty.
Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled, (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Some Reflection Questions
- How are you developing multi-sensory worship experiences in the life of your church? How are you seeking to enrich your worship and prayer and spiritual practices through artistic beauty? Are you worshipping through painting, liturgy, poetry, drama, dance, and so on?
- How are you creatively telling the gospel, biblical truth, and the story of Christ’s kingdom?
- What can you, your family, and your church learn from the First Nations arts that are indigenous to your area? Are you allowing First Nation and indigenous art, and artistic beauty from cultures other than our own, to nourish your soul? Are you allowing those expressions of artistic beauty to help you connect with those “other” cultures and with people different from you? Are they leading you to Jesus Christ and his Beauty?
- You may not currently have a creative arts ministry in your church. But you can move in that direction. Commit to identifying, supporting, developing, and resourcing the creative arts and artists within or associated with your church. Do this as an entire church and ministry team. J. Scott McElroy and Jessie Nilo offer guidance here: See http://thenewr.org.
- Makoto Fujimura seeks the flourishing of the creative arts. He helps churches reconnect with artistic beauty and theological aesthetics. His Fujimura Institute defies “fractured, fragmented modern perspectives.” It “encourages artists and thinkers to collaborate, cooperate, and inspire their audiences to piece together a whole view of the world.” As a church or ministry, get to know Makoto Fujimura through his videos, writings, books, and art. Together, start to think, pray, and collaborate on ways that Fujimura’s work might help your church connect afresh with beauty. How does it help you worship the Beautiful Messiah? What can he teach your church about artistic beauty in your setting? (See http://www.makotofujimura.com). On the matter of creative arts and aesthetic beauty in the life of the church, Makoto Fujimura answers many questions you might have on Rachel Held Evans blog. (http://rachelheldevans.com). See her entry “Ask an artist (Makoto Fujimura)” and his responses.
- Take a day or weekend away to contemplate the beauty of nature. Go to the forest, or the ocean, or some other naturally beautiful place. Enjoy natural beauty.
Dr Graham Hill is the Founding Director of The GlobalChurch Project – www.theglobalchurchproject.com. He’s the author of “GlobalChurch: Reshaping Our Conversations, Renewing Our Mission, Revitalizing Our Churches” (IVP, 2016), and 3 other books.
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Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites or in any other place without written permission is prohibited.
 Elizabeth Farrelly, “More Than Skin Deep, Beauty Enriches Lives,” Sydney Morning Herald, <http://www.smh.com.au/comment/more-than-skin-deep-beauty-enriches-lives-20150211-13bmh9.html>.
 Romans 1:20–25.
 Alejandro García-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical, 1999).
 Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). This was a favorite poem of Alejandro Garcia-Rivera: see Alejandro García-Rivera, “Light from Light: An Aesthetic Approach to the Science-and-Religion Dialogue,” Currents in Theology and Mission 28, no. 3-4 (2001). 273.
 http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-an-artist-makoto-fujimura-questions and http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-an-artist-makoto-fujimura-response
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