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.” And lest we object that we were hoping to locate beauty not in theology, but in principles of creation echoed in the arts, let us remember that our urge to boil beauty down to objective principles only illustrates our resistance to recognizing the beautiful God.
A Triangular Tomb –Three Blockades Together
We’ve glimpsed three barriers that impede our pursuit of God through beauty. These three barricades work together. Paul explains,
The coming of the lawless one is by the activity of Satan with all power and false signs and wonders, and with all wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. Therefore God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false, in order that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness. (2 Thess. 2:9-12 ESV, emphasis mine.)
Although we can still notice beauty, even enjoy it and be uplifted, our unregenerate tastes (which linger even after conversion) incline us only to objective principles like depersonalized, principial beauty, not to God. If the beauties of creation are ever to appeal to us because they remind us of God, he must make the first move.
Even before Christ appeared, God was showing his people, through his puzzling preference for the unbeautiful, that he approaches the unlovely, favoring us, beautifying even us with his love. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Through this new birth, God brings us alive to his beauty, and to his truth and his power; now our new eyes can see created beauty as the radiance of God’s glory, even in small incremental ways. God has given us eyes to see, ears to hear. Now we can obey his “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Not consistently yet, but if we have once listened and followed him, we have powerful evidence that our beauty taste buds have been awakened, and will develop.
What, then, shall we say about beauty’s role in leading people to God? What of evangelism, teaching, discipleship, and apologetics? While much more must be said, we can treasure three fundamentals that locate beauty for all ministries.
God Sees First
God sees beauty first, and he alone is qualified to recognize beauty and its distortions. The Genesis account highlights God’s original seeing with a superlative seven-fold emphasis: “…God saw that it was good.” This goodness God saw included beauty. God sees everything first, including beauty. He made people to see in his seeing.
We Distort Beauty
Although people were made to share God’s eye for beauty, we despised and lost it. Our taste for beauty now differs from God’s: sin has twisted our taste for the lovely. Our aesthetic sense is fallen, along with our knowing and our choosing. We presume that we can see independently, as if we had no need of God’s eyes, and our own eye for beauty suffered no distortions.
God Opens Our Eyes
God, beauty’s pattern and wellspring, comes to us anyway, and often along unmarked alleyways. As First Seer, He invites us to see with him. He regenerates the blind, he gives ears to the deaf. He shows us what we missed before, what no one can see but his own people. Every true beginning of God’s yeast-like work will spread, transforming more and more our sense of beauty, individually and corporately. “Aslan is on the move.”
God awakens his people, not to beauty as a principle, an absolute, or an objective aesthetic standard, but to himself. There’s more to his perfections than his beauty, not less. And in him, all created beauties explode into referred glory that converges in him; the rays of the sun rising over the ocean radiate from a point far beyond the sun, and much closer; they originate in God their maker and their first seer. With God-illumined eyes, we glimpse him, and all else in him. The ugly, too, begins to make sense to us, finding its place in the sweep of redemptive history.
For Evangelism, Discipleship, Apologetics
Our preaching and witnessing, teaching and training, and answering and asking, since God starts them all, proceed best along his redemptive trajectory. We can present God’s beautiful glory, confident that God will attract those he has awakened toward himself, all to whom he has given eyes and ears. For us who have come, our taste for beauty will mature and grow, like our other faithful senses and powers. So, in all our talking and writing, we can appeal to the unseen regenerating work of the Spirit in our hearers. We love God and neighbor this way, taking full account of the Beauty Basics above, and of the Christian’s dynamic palate for beauty. We start where we are with regenerate-though-milky beauty, remembering the meaty beauties where we are headed.
Perhaps the caution that must follow here applies only to myself. I once hoped I could grow so skilled at beautiful ministry (singer/songwriter) that I could nudge listeners a few micrometers closer to God through beauty, bypassing their cognitive roadblocks. The goal seemed laudable. In my hope to connect to people through their taste for objective beauty, I counted on their eye for objective beauty as my lever.
Any who have faced similar urges may also have stumbled into the relief that attends humility. Thus relieved, we can present beauty-laced evangelism, teaching, discipleship and apologetics, remembering that only God can give our hearers eyes to see him. Some among them may not even notice that they have started seeing God in his beauty! To others, our words will look foolish, even stink.
The failure of brute facts to compel belief in those who hate the truth should not be held against it. No more will “objective” beauty induce in the un-awakened an affection for the beautiful one. God’s glory will ravish the soul awakened to him by the Holy Spirit, while others wait, splashing in the mud puddles. Our pursuit of beauty can become pursuit of God only through the death and resurrection of Christ to forgive our delight in aesthetic principles and experiences and transform it to a delight in the Beautiful One. Beauty is not the method of our discipleship, but the meat of it.
Our Cultural Moment
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. We have reviewed our three disqualifications for this beauty project. Others have explored the sandbags to rationalism. God intended them to work together only in himself, in a greater mystery than either: his presence.
Another Cultural Moment
A similar tension of impulses faced the Apostle Paul. In his day, the leverage of symbolic intentionality sprang from his own culture, while the power of reason sprang from the surrounding Greek culture, “For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom….” He explains both apparent failures. Why did the Jews find the gospel insufficiently numinous? Instead of beauty, they saw only disqualifying commonness. Until the Holy Spirit touched them, they missed Jesus, the very image of Yahweh, hidden in plain sight. Similarly, the Greeks wanted the wisdom lever. Lightless and groping, they missed the very Logos of God. Paul’s answer to them also answers our cultural tension.
We are unbeautiful and despised, but Christ comes to his own. He alone sees the Father’s beauty, and he alone gives us his eyes ears. He stirs us to turn around and move toward him. “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after,” said David, who had these eyes, “that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” In him, we see all other beauties, created and crafted, brightened and enlarged, as David again observes, “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” Every Christian believer has an inkling of this illumination, and many have written movingly about their glimpses of God-illumined beauties. Let us go on as we have begun, keeping our eyes open for his beauties everywhere, especially the hidden ones. God is leading us to beauty!
- David A. Covington, A Redemptive Theology of Art
- Edmund Clowney, "Living Arts: Beauty in the Bible"
- Jessica Hiatt, Book Review of Art and Faith