We skim now on the surface tension between two cultural impulses: our inclination to rely on facts, doctrines and arguments to ballast and direct wandering affections; and our inclination to rely on aesthetic impulses toward beauty to move us and others toward God. Each inclination is half right, but each hides a lie we treasure: that we are naturally qualified, without regeneration, to recognize God’s truth or his beauty.
Something attracted us today—a suggestive scent, a lovely turn of a phrase, a surprising smile, a generous deed, an elegant idea. Do you remember yours? For me, it was a sip of wine-in-the-making, sweet as the juice, and sparkling as champagne, like the “new wine” in Jesus’s parable. We answered with a smile; its delight reminded us of a similar one just last week. Again, we are attracted; we move closer.
If attraction to beauty leads us toward God, then we can follow our attractions and let our neighbors follow theirs, confident that when beauty stirs us, our responses move us in the same God-ward direction.
A painter friend asked me last week what I was writing. When I explained, she wondered aloud, “If beauty could lead us to God, why isn’t everyone a Christian?” There must be more going on here.
In a media rich age, we are readier than ever to look to beauty as a lever of cultural influence, particularly in discipleship, evangelism, and apologetics. Many are setting aside the levers of evidence, facts, doctrine, and reason, and looking around for a new tool. An old friend, the power of beauty and our attraction to it seems to pull us even before truth’s persuasion kicks in. Beauty’s compelling power, especially when paired with emotionally rich liturgies, music, and devotional habits, marks a path to God that promises to out-perform hobbled doctrines and closely reasoned arguments. Stories stir us. Narrative, literary approaches, and the arts enjoy a surge of interest, while catechisms and systematic theology hobble at the rear.
And why not? God, the creator and source of all beauty, is himself beautiful. His creation stirs admiration for itself and its maker. “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Ps. 19:1). People, too, can make the beautiful—a wine (I can hope), an algorithm, a hymn. God, who everywhere reveals his glory in created beauty, attracts people through this beauty. Some will see and turn to him. Does beauty lead us to God?
Beauty is everywhere, even in its conspicuous absence. It always leads people. Where? It can lead anywhere. Differing tastes can account for some of this diversity. Individual senses of beauty differ, as do cultures, regions, and eras. Even an individual’s tastes fluctuate day by day, even hour by hour, and develop with years. How can we account for subjective tastes without denying beauty’s obvious solidity? And how can we account for objective beauties while respecting diverse and dynamic tastes? Neither objectivity nor subjectivity alone can finally explain beauty and give us confidence to follow its pull. Beauty may lead us toward God, but at least as often away from God. Even our attractions to beauty draw us to other gods.
Beauty appears often in Scripture: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes mysterious. People’s taste for beauty figures even larger. The Old Testament frequently says, “in your eyes,” or “in his eyes” to highlight different assessments of honor, justice, truth and beauty, between person and person, and between people and God. Subjective and contradictory human differences, though inescapable now, might find growing agreement if our senses of beauty agreed more closely with God’s. Three obstructions, though, hamper us from sharing God’s taste for beauty.
Three Beauty Blockades
“Stolen Water is Sweet”— Our Taste is Twisted
Eve saw the beauty—“delight to the eyes”—of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil twice: once, before her disobedience, she saw it through God’s eyes, sharing his enjoyment of it, his law about it, and his purpose for it. Then, believing the Serpent, she saw the beautiful fruit alone, excluding God’s vision—the first private indulgence. The beauty that Eve and Adam saw and shared with God one day, the next led them away from God. We follow in their footsteps, seeking the beautiful in our own eyes, as if our tastes, our perception of beauty, were reliable, undamaged by their rebellion, or our own; as if redemption, while needed to restore our sin-twisted sense of truth, were not really needed to restore our sense of beauty.
“He Had…No Beauty”— God Hides His Beauty
Some biblical beauty cameos look deliberately obscure. If we relied on our natural sense of beauty to draw us to God, what must we make of Lot’s nearly-fatal choice of the sumptuous Jordan Valley, leaving dusty Canaan to Abraham? A puzzling preference for the aesthetically inferior pops up often in the OT: Jacob opts for livestock that is streaked or spotted; Leah the plain-looking bears Jacob more children than beautiful Rachel; God preferred David the punk kid to Saul the tall, dark and handsome, and even to David’s showy older brother, Eliab. “The Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.”
God even hides the beauty of his chosen Servant: “…he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him.” And so it proved; people who saw the Son of God in the flesh noted how unimpressive he looked. Paul, too, looked unimpressive, and knew it: “…his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.” Sin has twisted our taste for beauty, and God seems to prefer the ugly, even hides his beauty deliberately. Could beauty’s pull on us meet any worse troubles?
“A Fragrance From Death to Death”— Satanic Blinding
The Enemy “has blinded the minds of the unbelievers to keep them from seeing the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”