“Honor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary." Psalm 96:6
When was the last time you were touched by something beautiful? It could have been something you heard, saw, felt, or were impressed by. But the experience of the beautiful left you with an awareness that you saw part of something far greater.
In his book Truth, Beauty, and Goodness Reframed Howard Gardner defines beauty as something that’s interesting, that has a memorable form, and that invites revisiting. “And as a bonus,” he said, “it gives you a tingle.” This week I’m interested in the tingle, particularly as we experience it through beauty.
A couple of warnings here: first, beauty, truth, and goodness conform to a real standard. Pinning down that standard is enormously difficult, of course, but holding to a high standard for beauty should limit he common tendency to call all art beautiful. That’s simply not the case. Some art is an illustrated grunt on canvas. Call if art if you wish, but let’s not place in in the pantheon of eternal beauty.
A second warning about the pursuit of real beauty: don’t confuse it with entertainment. Entertainment is fun. Entertainment is diversionary. Entertainment is fine. I saw The Avengers Yesterday. It was entertaining, but nothing about it was beautiful.
I’m convinced that many people turn away from church today because they seek only entertainment, and ironically are disappointed by beauty, a by-product of technology and skepticism.
Now turning our focus specifically to the Christian sphere, our early fathers baptized the three great Greek virtues of truth, goodness, and beauty and discerned that each proceeded from God Himself. Thus “the tingle” is nothing less than God Himself, smiling or perhaps lightly applauding.
Over the centuries we have focused on truth and goodness. Truth enables us to establish doctrine. Goodness guides our actions with one another. Brian Zahnd, in Beauty Will Save the World, argues that beauty has been marginalized. Christianity generally has suffered a loss of beauty that must be recovered.
I think nowhere is the loss of Christian beauty more evident than in our music and architecture. I recently saw an organ pushed over in the corner of the choir loft, disconnected, and unused. Maybe it was due to the lack of an organist, but I think the more likely explanation is the organ simply does not fit in with modern instruments. It is both highly demanding to play and infinitely nuanced. Most congregations, sadly, are interested in neither.
As for architecture, soaring and beautiful buildings are beyond the means of most congregations and beneath the interests of “practical” church leaders. So many churches today are very poorly planned and look little more than warehouses with crosses on top. I believe even Luther would agree with me that our schisms have gone way too far, and our resources for building to the glory of God stretched too thin.
Ah well. I am never without hope. Gardener suggests keeping lifelong portfolios of beauty, either in our brains or a physical catalog that chronicles the experiences, music, art, and more that we find beautiful over time. In fact, today, take notice of the beauty around you. I began last week and noted a wondrous clarity of a bell in a concert. Then the beauty wove itself around me: The stained glass in our sanctuary, the light coming through it; the tiny fingernail of a newborn baby, the thousand shades of green in my backyard, the “Supermoon” (surely you didn’t miss that did you?)
The world is suffused with God’s beauty, so start your portfolio today. Look in the skies, in the bush aflame with God, the music (really good music), literature, and don’t forget people around you. God is beauty and you can enjoy Him now.
Dr. Terry Ellis
May 14, 2012