Beauty and Christianity (some incomplete thoughts & questions)

How should Christians think about beauty? Is beauty important or as stewards of the time and money that God has entrusted to us should we simply care about utility? John Mason Hodges asks, “As Christians, what should our culture look like?”[1]

Should we meet for worship in replicas of Herod’s Temple? Or is that a lavish waste? Should our churches replicate vacation cruise liners that were stripped of all luxury for service during WWII? What is the place of beauty within the church and within the Christians life? Is it a waste or is it part of worship?

The Bible teaches us that God is beautiful (Ps. 27:4; Is. 4:2; 28:5; Ps. 29:2; 1 Chron. 16:29). We also see that we were made in God’s image and that we are made to glorify God and subdue and bring culture to the earth. It seems clear then that beauty should be part of glorifying God and making culture. In the OT we see lavish beauty in the temple. However, is that a model for us? How should we as Christians think about beautification?

This seems especially perplexing when we read in the Gospels, for example, of what our relationship should be to wealth (e.g. Matt. 6:19-20). Ha? What does that mean? Jesus talks about giving our money to the poor and such, so is that a contradiction when we think about how we are to glorify God by making things beautiful?

Also, what about the beautification of music? What about the furnishings of our home? Yet, “Since the beautiful is rooted in God himself, his desire for us to love the beautiful is simply his desire for us to love him more fully.”[2] So, is it wrong or right for us to beautify? And if beauty images God in some way shouldn’t we be as lavish as possible and spare no expense? Wouldn’t this please God and actually be an evangelistic tool?

These are difficult questions. Because people have practical needs that require time and money, how can we invest in beauty when there are so many ugly things to be dealt with in life? Couldn’t our money and time go to better places than ornate decorations? 

However, on the other hand, it seems that being human is to care about beauty. Part of being more human is caring more about beauty.[3] Pigs might not mind rolling around in their filthy sty but that is not an admirable human quality.

Why are we unhappy with the disorder in our bedrooms and on our tables? Why do we feel better after seeing something clean? Why do certain things seem to fit when other things seem out of place?

Roger Scruton says, “There is an aesthetic minimalism exemplified by laying the table, tidying your room, designing a website, which seems at first sight quite remote from the aesthetic heroism exemplified” by extravagant works of art. “Nevertheless, you want the table, the room, or the website to look right, and looking right matters in the way that beauty generally matters—not by pleasing the eye only, but by conveying meanings and values which have weight for you and which you are consciously putting on display.”[4]

In the beginning, humanity was called to subdue—cultivate, bring culture to—the earth. We reflect our Creator when we do this. He is the first culture Maker. He cultivated a Garden, and it was very good. And then he told humanity to do the same.

Beauty and beautification are not boring and unnecessary distractions. Beauty and beautification image and glorify our Creator. That is not to say, however, that beauty must be extravagant and without utility. Utility and simplicity can be components of beauty. Shaker and mission style furniture are simple but they have beauty and have stood the durability, utility, and stylistic test for over two hundred years.

The Bible is profound and the Bible is beautiful. The Bible also tells us of the beautiful God and His beautiful work of redemption. When our art, our work, or our worship is trite it communicates that it is likely not true. “When truth is not beautiful, it loses its ability to compel”[5] To be true is to be deep, profound, beautiful. “If the culture that Christians generate is not beautiful in a way no other culture is, it will become increasingly difficult to make a compelling case to the unbeliever to accept our God or his Word.”[6]

As Christians, “There needs to be some evidence that we are more, rather than less, human: more profound, more transparent, and more multi-faceted than the unbelieving world around us… we must have real life in our midst, not warmed-over music, a Christian version of consumerism,… sentimental art, and bumper stickers that say ‘Got Jesus?’”[7]

This is very important because

“Beauty can speak to the heart in a way that logical reasoning and moral teaching cannot. Our musical and liturgical choices in worship can display an aspect of God that is often ignored. We must ask ourselves, how can we whet the congregation’s appetites now for the satisfactions that will be theirs in God for eternity?”[8]

“Without beauty, proclamations of truth and goodness are less able to compel the audience to taste them and see that they are worthwhile.”[9] In the Bible we are encouraged to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” So, there is an experiential element to Christianity. Beauty and tasting our important. We are not just heads on a stick. We are more than merely cognitive. We take an a whole swath of experiences.

So, as Christians, beauty is important. However, beauty does not need to be extravagant. Beauty, however, should fit the occasion. I believe Ecclesiastes 3:1 may speak to this, there is a season for everything under heaven. There is a time to wear a wedding gown (extravagant) and there is a time to wear an apron. There is a time to drink wine and rejoice and a time to fast and mourn.

I think beauty within the church and the Christian life is similar. I think we should spend and be spent for the propagation of spreading Christian beauty. By that, I do not mean catchphrase Christian slogans. I mean beautiful and profound things that honor God. Let’s spend our time, our talents, and our money in beautification that purposely and intentionally honors God (e.g. dramas, films, books, music, buildings, etc). But let’s seek God’s wisdom so that we do so appropriately. 

So, what should Christian culture look like? What should your house and even your bedroom look like? What about what you wear?… How should we think about beauty and the importance of beauty?

_______________

[1] John Mason Hodges, “Aesthetics and the Place of Beauty in Worship” in Reformation and Revival vol. 9 Num. 3, 2000, 63.

[2] Hodges, “Aesthetics and the Place of Beauty in Worship,” 67.

[3] I imagine, though I can’t prove, that Jesus was good at His craft. Whether He did carpentry or masonry I am sure His work was beautiful. Jesus subdued the earth through His craft. He gave it form. He gave it beauty. He clipped the thorns and cultivated the rose, so to speak.

[4] Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, 8.

[5] Hodges, “Aesthetics and the Place of Beauty in Worship,” 71.

[6] Hodges, Ibid., 60.

[7] Hodges, Ibid., 66.

[8] Hodges, Ibid., 73.

[9] Hodges, Ibid., 72.

About Paul O'Brien

I am a lot of things; saint and sinner. I struggle and I strive. I am a husband and father of three. I have been in pastoral ministry for 9 years. I went to school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary but most of my schooling has been at the School of Hard Knocks. I have worked various jobs, including pheasant farmer, toilet maker, construction worker, and I served in the military. My wife and I enjoy reading at coffee shops, taking walks, hanging out with friends and family, and watching our three kid's antics. :)

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