The Very Idea of Beauty

Every now and again there will be a thought that burrows itself so deeply into my brain that it pervades my thought process, it imbues my synapses and I just cannot seem to stop thinking about it.  No matter what the subject, if my mind is wrapped so tightly around a topic it will keep me thinking and it will even keep me awake at nights.  Not because the topic itself is horrible or scary or even the least bit anxiety-evoking but because my mind is just one that prefers to analyze and re-analyze and revisit over and over again, ad infinitum.

That much being said, lately I’ve been thinking about beauty or aesthetics.  Right now I wonder if they’re the same thing.  They are related in that aesthetics is the study of beauty and its principles.  But what I have been thinking about most is how that plays out and what we view as beauty as opposed to what real beauty is supposed to be and how that should really affect our outlook on things that are beautiful.  For just as God created the world and said it was good he created man and in them I think the understanding, the concept of things that are beautiful.  But I don’t think that their definition is anything close to what we, especially in America, appreciate as true beauty.

How did we get here?  I could go on and on and rant and rave like a fundamentalist anti-culture nut about why pornography and magazines with scantily clad women and all the sexual content on TV are the reasons why we have lost this true concept of beauty.  I would agree that those have the ability to take our minds and hearts away from the true beauty of God but I think it starts with just a perception of reality.  These days we have multiple outlets in which to access or attain eye candy that tantalizes our minds but, as with all things, it is merely temporary.  It, like many other things that we idolize, becomes less and less powerful and so we require more and more to keep us satisfied.  Temporary and superficial beauty has become a drug like any other and it’s just as addicting if not worse because your fix is free as long as you can connect to the internet.

The very sad part in all of this is that it has caused a desensitization towards beauty.  As my previous posts have pointed out it becomes a question of whether or not you see the actual eternal beauty of a person or just the external decoration that God has provided someone as His creation.  Of course, I’m mostly talking about lust which is a sin that has caused men to lose their jobs and their entire lifestyles; there are pastors out there who are not pastors because they chase this illusory and cheap sense of gratification through their access to what they may perceive as “beauty”.

Beauty is not a word, it is not some compliment you just pay to someone and it certainly is not the cause of someone’s lustful behavior.  Beauty is something created by God so that we are able to see his eternal power and divine nature (Romans 1:20), so that there is proof that God does exist.  I happened to have experience this on my way to and from work today.  I was watching lightning just illuminate the sky and ground, and the rain was coming down just enough.  Lightning storms in the dark night is probably one of the most calming and most beautiful things in the world.  I cannot help but smile every time I see rain and you can guarantee that I am smiling ear-to-ear if there is thunder and lightning.  When I came home this morning (I was working overnights, bleh) the most amazing thing was to see the storm just crawl across the sky towards the East as the pale grey and blue sky seemed to be torn in half by bolts of lightning.  It is in those moments that I am in awe of God’s creation.  And that is something real beauty should evoke.  Francis Chan points out that we must be in awe of God and I am learning this more and more.

But let’s bring it back to people momentarily.  I was having a conversation with a friend about this topic recently and I pointed out to her how cheap it would sound if I were to say, “Oh, I think you’re pretty”.  Pretty to me is a cheap word and would never condescend to use it as a compliment and she agreed.  What she pointed out to me is that most guys would tell a girl she’s pretty if he wanted something or was trying to get in her good graces.  I thought that very insightful.  But it also begs the question: what is a suitable compliment that comments well about your thoughts about someone else’s beauty?  Aesthetic value cannot be measured or quantified; it is not held accountable to the natural sciences and cannot be studied empirically.  That is the gift and curse of pondering beauty is that you really can only think about it and try to find an answer for yourself.

Going back to the conversation I had with my friend, someone asked the question of how I would describe her.  That’s dangerous ground to tread, my friends.  But since I’m not afraid of telling the truth to good friends, the first word that came out of my mouth was “unremarkable”.  Now, I know you’re probably face palming at this point because it seems that what I said was stupid, foolish and could probably be construed as an insult if you didn’t understand the context.  I meant it in an almost clinical sense as if to say that she did not have any features that readily come to mind if I were asked to describe this person.  She is what she is and, bless her heart, she understood and thankfully didn’t beat me up.

In Psalm 27:4 the Psalmist writes about the beauty of the LORD.  God is the source of all beauty and I think that’s the place to start in trying to figure all of this out.  Go to the source, you know?  So, if God is the source of all beauty and He created us in His own image then we must have, at least at the beginning (think Genesis) we should have purely understood the concept.  Adam and Eve were very familiar with beauty all the days they were in Eden.  If all things created were good in the eyes of God then how beautiful must things have been?  But paradise was lost and Adam and Eve were banished from that beauty and into the soil to work.  And so sin entered the world and that is where we are now.

But not all is lost because we still have an ability to recognize beauty.  Otherwise we wouldn’t fall in love with sunsets, we wouldn’t climb mountains, and my artist and traveling friend would not be where she is today if there wasn’t still an understanding of beauty.  But it’s not in pure form.  We have forgotten, I think, what it was like before we were even born what it was to behold something that was so perfect and so unbelievably beautiful.  Perfection has been lost because the last perfect thing to walk on this very earth was nailed to the cross for our own misconceptions of beauty whether it be money, sex, drugs, whatever.  So, now we spend our time trying to find that beauty again but the sad part is that it’s been staring us in the face this whole time in the form of a cross.  As bloody and disgusting and terrible as it might be, it is still pure beauty because it represents the tearing down of all we hold as beautiful and shows us just what perfect beauty can look like.

So, what do we learn from this?  We don’t know beauty at least not fully.  One day we will.  I think the lyrics to a Nodes of Ranvier song called “Don’t Blink (Or We May Miss It)” kind of sums up what I think.

The very idea of beauty died so long ago
But sometimes I catch a glimpse
At the call of your name or the touch of another’s hand
I see this place as Adam once saw Eden
(and I see people as Adam once saw Eve)
But gone is the garden of perfection
(The dirt we’ve become is the dirt we came from)

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One thought on “The Very Idea of Beauty

  1. You’ve hit on one of the weakest points of American evangelicalism. Look at how we dress, how we decorate our churches, how we entirely neglect even talking about beauty. We have so much to learn from other cultures and other tribes within Christianity.

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