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Volume 8, Issue 2: Non Est

"For Glory and for Beauty"

Douglas Jones

Our euphoria over redemption isn't limited to our first discovery of the gladness of imputed righteousness. It extends to many parts of Christian living, especially our enjoyment of beauty. Recognizing, contemplating, and imbibing beauty is central to glorifying and enjoying God forever. We rob ourselves of so much life by burying our interest in beauty, as so many moderns do. Without beauty, we can be but empty clouds, hollow Christians.

And we shouldn't be ashamed for speaking about beauty in the abstract, like the ancient Greeks did, since God Himself does it. In decorating Aaron and his sons for priestly service, the Lord twice commands that the garments be designed "for glory and for beauty" (Ex. 28:2,40). Moderns scowl at general notions of beauty, but Scripture doesn't hesitate to identify a host of different things as objectively beautiful.
As we think about the nature of beauty, we shouldn't get snagged in the notion that beauty is the only category of aesthetic appreciation. We can, not only, appreciate or respect ugliness depicted biblically, but something may be magnificent, great, awesome, exuberant, etc., but not necessarily have the features for which we reserve the word beautiful . A particular symphony may qualify as magnificent but not beautiful. One thing may fall under both kinds of appreciation or more, but these different kinds of appreciation do appear to be distinct.
Something as subtle as beauty involves not just one but several traits. What could they be? Though more abound, consider the following four suggestions. None are original, and all can be improved or replaced by examining actual cases of beauty. But it's a start. Find something that is beautiful, not pretty or good or decent or even great, but something really beautiful, such as a piece of music, a painting, a human face, a piece of furniture, and see whether it has the following properties. Every beautiful thing I've seen has all of them to one degree or another. Ugly things never have all of them.
Trinity : Every worldview will see beauty in those things that reflect the most superior aspect of that worldview. This explains much about the absence of beauty in postmodernity, but it also explains why ancient Greeks like Plato (Philebus, 50e52b) fell in love with circles and squares and straightness. The ultimate items in their cosmos were abstract, impersonal, simple, colorless realities -- perfect triangularity and what not. Christians know that God Himself is supreme and beautiful (Ps. 90:17; Is. 28:5), and His beauty encompasses His triunity. God is one and many, a personal and harmonious unity and a plurality. So we shouldn't expect to find beauty in pure unity or simplicity (a line or a patch of white) or in a disconnected plurality (spattered paint or modern cities). Beautiful things will reflect the Trinity by having an interconnected unity and plurality. Well-connected themes and parts in paintings, music, poetry, narrative, architecture, landscapes, and even faces reflect the Trinity of God.
Acuity : Accidents rarely, if ever, produce beauty. Beautiful things all appear to involve some acuity, some keenness of mind, some detailed, superior craftsmanship. True beauty involves creative, technical skill at the highest levels. And for humans, skill almost always comes from hard, detailed work on technique. Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, and Beethoven produced beauty, in part, because of their superior craftsmanship. You can "make" rock-and-roll in a garage, but you have to be near a cathedral to create beautiful music. Acuity also reflects God's own craftsmanship. Through creation, God impresses His keen craftsmanship and unity-plurality in the colorful, texturized world around us. We find this most explicitly in the goodness and beauty of Eden. And instead of finding beauty in Greek angles, Scripture identifies beauty in earthy things like houses (Is. 64:11), trees (Ez. 31:8), garments (Is. 52:11), jewels (2 Chr. 3:6), humans (Gen. 29:17; 1 Sam. 16:12), and even sheep (Jer. 13:20). Find something beautifu l like a symphony or a full-grown lion and marvel at the craftsmanship.
Serenity : Beauty demands something else, too. Some paintings and symphonies can express excitement, and novels may involve suspenseful levels of tension; and we may call them all great, but not beautiful. Tension, violence, and excitement tend to exclude beauty rather quickly. We appear to recognize beauty only in those things that express some serious level of peace and serenity. Again, test this by examples. Watch an ocean sunset or a quiet snowfall. Listen to a rousing symphony and then a serene one. If serenity is important, my guess is that it, too, is a reflection and longing for the beauty of Eden past and future.
Purity : In biblical thinking, peace is closely associated with purity, though one can have peace without perfect purity (2 Sam. 7). Scripture tells us that God decorates or beautifies His people with salvation (Ps. 149:4) and that holiness itself has beauty (Ps. 29:2). Our willingness to recognize beauty also seems to be constrained by a deep concern for purity. Sin always crashes the beauty party. Since we live between Edens, this doesn't mean that we have no beauty amidst our sin. It means that those things that more readily call to mind holiness and innocence will be more beautiful than those that don't. For some reason, animals and nature often appear more innocent to us. So we marvel at an eagle's flight (Prov. 30:19) and the stars (Ps. 8:3). Paintings and music that favor innocence also captivate our sense of beauty, as do children and cathedrals.
Trinity, acuity, serenity, and purity -- when these gather to celebrate, they create a shower of beauty. Sometimes they gather in lesser ways, but sometimes they gather in a way that takes our breath away.

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