The Urgency of Beauty
The following article, the first in a series on the subject of beauty, is a guest post by Laura Cerbus. Originally from Western Pennsylvania, Laura lives and teaches in Melbourne, Australia, where she is becoming acquainted with the beauty and grief of cross-cultural life. Along with her husband and three children, she worships and serves in a local church revitalization. She writes at lauracerbus.com.
When it comes to beauty, the Church and our culture have surprisingly similar suspicions.
Knowing the proverb that speaks of beauty’s transience, and the apostle Peter’s admonition that beauty “should not come from outward adornment” (1 Pet 3:3), Christians can question the wisdom of spending much time on beauty. We’d be better served, we reason, if we focus on knowing what is true and discerning what is false, and on putting sin to death in our lives. We recognize the deceptiveness of beauty: pleasing outward appearances can be a mask, and our desires can lead us astray. Susan Pevensie, after all, with her focus on “nylons and lipstick,” forgets Narnia and so loses it. Beauty seems frivolous, and possibly dangerous.
Modern western culture shares these concerns. In contemporary Western culture, beauty has been trivialized. Self-expression is often the primary goal and criteria of success for many artists. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” after all, so how can there be any standard for beauty?
Indeed, many people see standards as dangerous. Given the Nazi quest for the perfect race in the not-so-distant past, and the growing number of people suffering from eating disorders in the present, impossible standards of beauty can wreck havoc and destruction in the minds and bodies of women, men, and children.
A similarity between church and culture is not always lamentable, when both affirm what is true and work towards what is just. This is not such an instance.
Beauty is much deeper and richer than our culture and churches tend to believe it to be—and, as it turns out, this depth and richness supports our quest and treasuring of the truth, as well as addressing the wickedness that has been justified in the name of “beauty.”
In future posts, I want to examine what exactly beauty is—its depths and richness, its place in our theology and practice. But first, I want to offer a case for beauty’s urgency in our lives: why is it worth thinking about now, when so many other demands press in on us, when almost every day brings a new crisis to the headlines?
Beauty and Desire
Many theologians have examined the connection between beauty and desire. Beauty is attractive; it draws us in and stirs up our hearts. Junius Johnson, in his recently published theology of beauty, writes that
Beauty is a summons. It begins with the most vulnerable part of ourselves, bypassing our sophistication, training, and habituation to reach that inmost point from which we know ourselves to be creatures and under authority. But it touches that place graciously, not in judgment; and so, rather than finding ourselves terrified before a truth we have hidden from for so long, we find ourselves romanced by a desire we can never seem to shake.
Beauty’s effect is to awaken desire, opening our hearts to longing.
This effect is not always good—because of sin, beauty can easily awaken sinful desires. These sinful desires give power to temptation: as James writes, it is our evil desires that entice us and lead us to sin (James 1:13-15). Eve, when she saw that the fruit was “pleasing to the eye,” took and ate (Genesis 3:6).
At first glance, the solution may seem to be to root out desire, and to practice a disinterest in beauty. Disinterested, we will be immune from beauty’s deception.
We will also be immune to love.
Faint with Love
Leaving out beauty can reduce our vision of God to only seeing his power, presence, and greatness. If that’s all we see, we may understand that there is none like him and that we ought to fear him. Even so, we could easily be left with a cold awe that remains unmoved.
Beauty, by contrast, won’t allow us to be indifferent. It catches our attention, stopping us in our tracks. It draws us in—the most beautiful things we have seen draw us out of ourselves and towards what is beautiful—beyond, even. The appropriate response is awe, yes, but also desire.
To recognize God’s beauty recognizes the longing that we have been created with: a longing to commune with God, to be united to him. While sin suppresses this longing in us, it’s still there. To acknowledge God as beautiful means acknowledging him as one to be desired—not just one who is worthy (good) and right (true), but one for whom we are made to long and in whom to be satisfied.
Perhaps you, like me, often lament your lack of a deep, soul-thirsting desire for God. I find myself sooner asking God to help me long for him than naturally expressing a longing for him. I can think of a few specific times in my life when the words of Psalm 42, “my soul pants for you, my God,” seemed to be effortlessly true of my heart—far more do I see my indifference and coldness of heart.
Why is this? I have no doubt in my mind that God is good, and that he is the truth. I wonder if my muted desire for God reveals my failure to see him as beautiful—to fail to have my heart allured and captured by his beauty, so that I am like the beloved in the Song of Songs, “faint with love” (Song of Songs 2:5, 5:8).
A desire like this may not feel like something urgent for us today. But judging its importance by its relative sense of urgency would be a mistake. Without a deep desire for God, pursuing goodness and truth become more difficult. The question of why we ought to pursue either cannot be answered apart from that desire—nor apart from beauty. Beauty adorns goodness and truth, stirring up our hearts to love them and want to pursue them. If this is true, then as it turns out, in our contemporary moment—when goodness is only practiced when it is expedient or practical, and when truth has become a political tool to be repurposed and wielded as we please—we need beauty more than ever.