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On Beauty, Part 1

Spencer MacCuish —  June 23, 2011 — 1 Comment
This entry is part 1 of 3 in the seriesOn Beauty

The Grand CanyonSometimes the concepts that we interact with every day and take for granted are the most fascinating to explore. Consider beauty. A recognition and appreciation of beauty is a part of the universal human experience. But why? Have you ever tried to define beauty? How is it that we all appreciate beauty? And if we all appreciate beauty, why is it so difficult to define? Do standards for beauty change? Is the concept of beauty a cultural construct? Or is it universal?

Take human beauty as an example. In modern Western culture, physical fitness and tanned skin seem to be high on the list of what constitutes beauty. But 200 years ago, pasty white skin and a plump physique were the criteria for what was beautiful. Clearly our standards of beauty have changed. Or could it be that in both cases the same standard of beauty is being upheld?

I contend that while the physical manifestations may change with time, the worldly standard for beauty has not changed. Sex, money, and power: these are the standard for what is beautiful. Two hundred years ago, to be pasty white meant you did not have to be outside working, and to be pleasantly plump meant you had enough resources to be well fed. Today, to be physically fit means you have the time and financial resources to work out regularly, and tanned skin implies you have the leisure time to be in the sun. In either case the standard for what is beautiful has not changed, only the physical manifestation has been altered.

But we should not allow humanity’s three greatest idols (sex, money, and power) to define beauty for us. In our effort to understand a concept such as beauty, we must always move beyond a culturally driven understanding and seek to discover what the Bible has to say about the issue. Does the Bible actually have any relevance for the way we perceive beauty? Of course!

Why is it that certain aspects of nature (e.g., the ocean, Yosemite, the Alps, the Grand Canyon, a brilliant sunset, a star filled night, etc.) are almost universally considered beautiful? I suggest that we all find these things beautiful because, as expressed by Psalm 19, nature is screaming out the glory of God. These things are beautiful because they reflect God. We see beauty in creation because it reveals a powerful and creative designer whose every action is characterized by beauty.

The same is true of human beauty. Just like every other part of creation, each person displays the beauty of his or her Creator. In a physical sense, this is as true of the person who rejects Christ as of the Christian. Of course, a person’s inner beauty is determined by the extent to which they reflect God in their thoughts, actions, and character, so a person’s relationship with Christ should have a huge bearing on their inner beauty.

But should we think of physical beauty and “inner” beauty as two unrelated things? I suggest that these two types of beauty have much more in common than we might think. For example, a woman who reflects God in her thoughts, actions, and character will care for her body, she will not over-eat or under-eat, and she will not abuse her body through addictions to drugs or alcohol. These sinful activities often leave “scars” on our physical bodies that announce our sin to everyone around us. Even physical features that many consider to be appealing become ugly when they reflect our sin—like the man who overworks his muscles to such an extent that they stop reflecting fitness and begin announcing his self-idolatry to the world.

I’m certainly not suggesting that every person who is overweight, skinny, or scarred bears these physical characteristics because of sin. And I know this is a sensitive issue for many of us. But it’s imperative that we think through these things. My point is simply to make the connection that our lack of inner beauty often manifests in our physical appearance.

We also need to recognize the effects of sin on our world. Many people bear the scars of sin on their bodies. Whether it’s the result of a birth defect, some sort of “natural evil” (e.g., being burned in a fire), or abuse, these scars serve as a reminder of sin—not a person’s own sin, but the sin that pervades the creation through the curse. In these cases, a person’s inner beauty may have no connection with these aspects of their physical appearance. They are simply a reminder that we live in a sin stained world.

But the stain of sin is not the final word. Through the redemption available in Christ, even those physical scars that remind us of the curse can ultimately be transformed into signs of grace—just as Jesus’ nail-pierced hands point beyond the effects of sin to His victory over death.

I want add a brief note about the way we perceive beauty, though this will be the subject of a future post. Sin stains everything it touches, and our standard and perception of beauty are not exempt. People often find beauty in raw sensuality rather than godliness. Just as sin pervades and therefore distorts our culture’s perception of sex, love, happiness, hope, etc., so sin causes us to see beauty where we should see depravity. Conversely, our sin-stained perception causes us to overlook beauty in places where it ought to be seen. But I will explore this in greater depth later.

For now, I want to start the discussion by suggesting that God Himself is the standard for beauty, and that something is beautiful insofar as it reflects the workmanship, character, and love of its Creator.

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the seriesOn Beauty

In a prior post, I argued that God Himself is the standard of beauty and things are beautiful insofar as they reflect Him. We will continue the discussion by posing the question: If God is the standard for beauty, why are there different preferences or tastes as to what humanity identifies as beautiful?

First, I want to acknowledge that there is a great diversity when it comes to what humanity deems beautiful. I want to argue that these areas of divergence are subjective and pertain to preference issues. I would also suggest that there should be a celebration of this diversity regarding the subjective aspects of beauty. The fact that various aspects of humanity can see various aspects of creation as beautiful reflects the diversity of the Creator.

Second, I want to affirm the adage that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. An individual absolutely is the one who determines what they deem beautiful. But is it possible for a person to be wrong in what they use as their standard of beauty? In other words, beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, but many people are just not seeing things the way they were intended to be seen.

The implications of this are incredibly significant. Perhaps we focus too much on the object of our aesthetic judgment rather than focusing attention on the very criteria by which we make those judgments. If we acknowledge God as the Creator and that things are beautiful insofar as they reflect God, it is also fair to acknowledge that humanity is an image bearer of the Creator. Thus, the more the Holy Spirit conforms us into the image of God, the more we view creation the way God does. If we were to see things the way God does, the way things were intended to be seen, I would suggest our entire criteria for determining beauty would change. We would move from seeing and judging things from a worldly perspective to seeing things from a Godly perspective.

On the one hand, not all beauty is subjective. There is a standard for beauty, namely, God Himself. People and things are beautiful insofar as they reflect God’s craftsmanship and character. Because we have this standard, the vast differences of opinion regarding what is beautiful and what is not is due in large part to human error—it amounts to human beings using insufficient standards to make aesthetic judgments. (As an aside, any time we hold a standard higher than God we are engaging in idolatry.) The more we allow the Gospel to transform every aspect of our lives, the more our standard of beauty will be aligned with God’s standard. Our sense of beauty will change as we become more like God and see the world from His perspective.

On the other hand, beauty is in the eye of the beholder—in a healthy way! Many of the people and things that we find beautiful reflect God in a number of ways, and some people will be attracted to some of these aspects more than to others. I believe this diversity in preference glorifies God. He is a cross-cultural God; He created a world full of diversity, both in the natural realm and in the human realm. So long as He receives the glory He is due, God is honored when individuals notice and appreciate some aspect of His creation that the people around them do not.

In summary, beauty does indeed reside in the eye of the beholder, but we must always ask ourselves if we are beholding God’s world in the way that He intends.

This entry is part 3 of 3 in the seriesOn Beauty

In this series of posts on beauty, the premise has been that God is the standard of beauty, and His creation is intended to reflect Him. Some of the implications of this have been addressed, but in this post I will attempt to delicately expand on the affect sin has on beauty.

We have been talking about what makes things beautiful, but what about the converse? What makes something unattractive? If creation was intended to reflect the Creator and humans are intended to reflect the very image of the Creator, then something becomes unattractive when it does not reflect God as God intends.

Nature that is pristine and unpolluted is beautiful, but it can loose its luster when trash and other forms of pollution overwhelm its natural beauty. Clearly, an abused and polluted earth does not fit God’s intention—it certainly does not fit the description of the Garden of Eden, which seems to reflect most clearly God’s original design for creation.

In like fashion, when human beings make decisions contrary to God’s intentions, we will not be as beautiful as we could be because we are not reflecting God in those areas of our lives. All issues of preference aside, a person who lives in bondage to any form of idolatry will inevitably lose some of the beauty that God created them to display.

We must see that sin does indeed affect beauty.

In addition to the physical appearance of the creation in general and human beings in particular, sin also affects the way we interpret beauty. How could it not? When we allow our corrupt, perverted hearts to be the determiner of what is beautiful, we experience the aesthetic affect of sin. In short, we have tainted our perception of what God intended. Things that God had intended to reflect his image, we have objectified (either sexually, financially, or in some other fashion). Our sinful desires shape our perception of beauty around our own idolatry, rather than God’s glory.

As an amazing gift of God, beauty is worth fighting for. There is no realm in creation that is not touched by sin as a result of the fall, and beauty is not exception. As Christians, we should be pursuing beauty and seeking to rid the creation, our own bodies, and our aesthetic sensibilities of the effects of sin. We should be longing to see every square inch of this world reflect God in the way He intends.

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