Why do I love the way that Vermeer painted yellow? Can I describe the joy produced by concentric circles on an Art Deco water pitcher? What attracts people to spend thousands of dollars on an Eames designed Herman Miller chair? Why does the Chrysler Building’s crown make me smile? What accounts for the sensation produced by the visual elegance and dramatic displays in a Bierstadt painting of Yellowstone or a photograph of Yosemite by Ansel Adams? Why do lines on a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air produce happiness?
There are so many beautiful things in this world.
You may believe the answer to these experiences of joy and satisfaction are the product of an un-sanctified worldly-mindedness. You may call for the repentance of one who places value on such earthly things. But what if enjoyment of beautiful things is part of our sanctification as believers? What if the appreciation of beauty, design, and craftsmanship is a reflection of something heavenly, and in itself is a reflection of God’s character?
The study of beauty is called “aesthetics.” The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that aesthetics is “The philosophy or theory of taste, or of the perception of the beautiful in nature and art.” When we think of beauty and what constitutes beauty what are our Christian starting points or presuppositions?
God is truth.
God is good.
God is beauty.
Beauty is a theme of God’s character that is often missed in our discussions concerning his nature. The psalmist desires to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD (Psalm 27:4). He believes that kings will desire God’s beauty (Psalm 45:11). From God’s people, his beauty shines forth (Psalm 50:2). Beauty is in the presence of God (Psalm 96:6).
Aesthetics begins with God himself. Beauty is a reflection of the Creator, a glimpse into the divine. Has the church lost something of its appreciation of beauty?
I had the privilege of recently attending a lecture by Japanese-American artist, Makoto Fujimura. In that biographical lecture, Fujimura described being an artist in New York City in the 1990s. He said that in the 90s in New York artists were not allowed to talk about beauty because beauty was a part of an “imperialistic past.” In other words, the art community understood that when beauty was purposeful, it was connected to a worldview that was not their own. And they were correct. Beauty belongs to the Christian worldview. All things beautiful point us to the divine.
William Edgar, in the Calvin and Culture essays wrote about a distinctively reformed view of art. He said, “The arts should remind us of what was lost through the curse and what is to be hoped for in the creation’s perfect coming luster.”(Calvin and Culture, 43)
Beauty does not merely point us back to an imperialistic, i.e., Christian culture that has crumbled around us. Beauty points us back to the Creator himself and his creation. Yet it also points ahead to a perfected eternity in which all things have been made right. Beauty is eschatological as well as divine.
Beauty belongs to us as a gift from the Creator himself. In a way, the joys and smiles and desires produced by art and beauty and all things lovely (Philippians 4:8) are expressions reminding us that we have been made for something more. We are more than merely utilitarian creatures on a search for all things practical. We are image bearers of the one who describes himself as beauty. And for those who are in Christ, we are reminded that this world with all its rust and scrapes and dirt will not always be so. Beauty drives us to the Beautiful One when understood rightly.
Herman Bavinck in his Essays on Religion, Science, and Society calls us to recapture the place beauty ought to hold in the life of the Christian. He says,
We cannot express in words what a valuable gift the Creator of all thing has granted to his children. He is the Lord of Glory and spreads his beauty lavishly before our eyes in all his works. His name is precious in the whole earth, and while he did not leave us without a witness, he also fills our hearts with happiness when we observe that glory. Beauty and the sense of beauty respond to each other… When observing and enjoying true beauty, it is not man who bestows his affections and moods on the observed object, but is God’s glory that meets and enlightens us in our perceptive spirits through the works of nature and art. Humanity and the world are related because they are both related to God… Beauty is harmony that still shines through the chaos in the world; by God’s grace, beauty is observed, felt, translated by artists; it is prophecy and guarantee that this world is not destined for ruin but for glory — a glory for which there is a longing deep in every human heart.”(Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, 259)
For beauty and glory. May we reflect that in our lives — and in our joys.