Archives For Beauty

Charles Darwin saw glory in this world. He couldn’t help it. His vocation as a scientist forced him to stare at all of the crazy and beautiful things in the world on a regular basis. You can’t look at this world for any length of time without seeing the glory all around you.

Something special is going on here. We can’t deny it. But if there was ever a person who might try to deny the specialness of this world, wouldn’t you think it would be Darwin? After all, he is famous for declaring that this world is nothing more than a huge accident. Or more accurately, a near-infinite series of infinitesimally small accidents that taken together form one mammoth accident. This accident is the sum and substance of everything we have ever known. Should we really expect the world’s biggest mistake to be glorious?

You wouldn’t think so. Especially when you consider the type of mistake the world is supposed to be. It’s not the kind of mistake that Van Goh might have made. You can imagine Van Goh painting something breathtaking, then accidentally mixing his colors a bit wrong or letting his brush slide just a hair, only to discover that his mistake added something intangibly wonderful to the painting.

"Starry Night Over the Rhone" by Vincent Van Goh

No, the world is not this type of mistake. If Van Goh made a mistake like that, it would still have the power of personality behind it. You still have a volitional being—a master artist, actually—bending his creative powers toward the production of something beautiful. A mistake in the painting process might come as a pleasant surprise, and it would quickly become a part of the painter’s new vision for the painting.

But according to Darwin, the world is a different type of mistake entirely. It’s purposeless. There is no personality behind it. It churns accidentally, thoughtlessly, and its productions are not appreciated or valued by the impersonal forces of chance. It simply is what it is. An accident whose non-existent creator cannot recognize it, let alone categorize it as beautiful or ugly.

You wouldn’t think that this type of world would be glorious, nor would you think that the biggest accident in this near-infinite line of accidents would possess the desire or the categories to see it as glorious.

Yet Darwin looked at the world and saw glory. He saw that something special was happening. But when no one is behind that specialness, when all this beauty is a huge mistake, you have no one to praise but the accidents themselves. So Darwin proclaimed:

“When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.”[1]

Ennobled! Really? When I recognized that these things were big accidents, I realized how noble they were. Hmmm. He says it again:

“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”[2]

Grandeur! Really? When I saw that these beautiful things were the unintentional exhaust of a mindless machine, I saw glory. Hmmm.

Darwin saw it, but he couldn’t explain it. His system simply did not have categories to account for what he was seeing. So how should we respond to the beautiful mess we are accidentally floating in? We should be proud of our accidental selves:

Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen, though not through his own exertions, to the very summit of the organic scale; and the fact of his having thus risen, instead of having been aboriginally placed there, may give him hope for a still higher destiny in the distant future…We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system—with all these exalted powers—Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”[3]

Be proud of yourself for being the biggest accident of all, but recognize that you still kind of look like the crap from which you were mistakenly spawned.

For some reason, that doesn’t do it for me. Van Goh probably could have made some beautiful mistakes, but I don’t think that Nothing can do the same. All I’ve ever seen Nothing do is nothing. Go ahead and deny purpose and craftsmanship, Darwin, but I know that you know. I can see that you can see it. Your statements about the glory of it all simply confirm what God has already told me:

“The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things…they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:18-25)

 


[1] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (New York: Avenel, 1979) 458-459.

[2] Ibid., 459-460.

[3] Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London: Penguin Classics, 2004) 689.

I have been trying to learn how to “be”—as in “Be still and know…” It is so hard to downshift, to stop my mind from doing NASCAR laps, to stop “doing” and truly disengage. So hard. Our 21st century American culture is not friendly toward such an attitude.

But here we were, my wife and I, two weeks in the mountains, on what many would call “vacation.” But it was more than that; it was a gift of time to slow down, even to stop, and to learn more about “being.” It took several days to downshift from high gear to medium gear. I was beginning to wonder if I would ever make into low gear… and then on day five…

I started this blog series awhile back called “The Church is a Mystery” with the tagline “Exploring How God Shows up at Church.” I have been posting one blog per week on the many varied churches that we have been able to attend, and exploring the incredible diversity of places that make up the Body of Christ. This post is a bit different.

As we spent this time in the mountains, I felt like I was in church much of the time (“church” defined as a place to encounter God, not as an “ekklesia” assembly of believers). I was in God’s cathedral, surrounded by His creative masterpieces, and I had the time (and took the time) to listen, and to look, and to be still.

Early in the morning of our 5th or 6th day, I had to take our puppy out for a “necessary” walk. As I drowsily stepped outside, I was jerked awake by the colorful splendor of the sunrise on the still snow-covered mountains. That evoked an extended meditation on the fact that God is a God of color. His creation is full of color, all kinds of color. Trees, plants, flowers, sky, sunrise/sunset, oceans, rocks, beaches, animals.

But what colors did God choose to dominate His creation? As I gazed around me, I saw mostly green and blue. Plants, trees, grass, crops—green. Sky, oceans, water—blue. Even from space the earth appears mostly blue. My mind wandered. Why did God choose green and blue to be the major colors of His creation?

My amazing bride did some research for me and discovered that green has strong emotional correspondence with safety; it has great healing power. Green is the most restful color for the human eye. And blue is often associated with depth and stability. It symbolizes trust, loyalty, wisdom, confidence, faith, and truth. Blue is considered beneficial to the mind and body. It slows human metabolism and produces a calming effect and is strongly associated with tranquility.

So think about this: when God decided what color to use for the trees and grass and leaves and most plant life, He chose a color that is restful. And when He decided what color to make the sky and waters and oceans, He chose a color that is calming and peaceful. He didn’t choose red, which increases respiration rate and raises blood pressure. He didn’t choose orange or yellow, which cause stimulation. He chose restful, calming colors. Or, He determined that those colors would be restful and calming! Or, however He did it!

So what did God say to me as I met with Him in the mountains? Rest. Slow down. Be calm. That is how you will hear from me. And getting out into creation is a good way to rest, surrounded by calming colors. Elijah discovered that God speaks in a still, small voice. Jesus needed to get alone so He could hear from His Father. We need to take time to be still. I would argue that is the only way we will get to know God—by slowing down, being quiet, resting, letting the calming colors of green and blue minister to our spirits.

A.W. Tozer, who certainly knew his God, had this to say on the topic:
“God now speaks by the wind and the earthquake only; the still small voice can be heard no more. The whole religious machine has become a noisemaker. The adolescent taste which loves the loud horn and the thundering exhaust has gotten into the activities of modern Christians. The old question, ‘What is the chief end of man?’ is now answered, ‘To dash about the world and add to the din thereof.’”

He wrote that in 1955!!! We have only gotten busier, moved faster, found gears beyond high gear so we can go even faster, and find it ever harder to hear God’s still, small voice.

So yea, I went to church in the mountains. It took five days of being still before I began to meditate on how God is a God of color, and how He has surrounded us with the very colors we need to calm down, slow down, be still.

I heard and saw Him in other ways that I will share in subsequent posts. We have a lot of catching up to do in learning to “be” rather than to “do!”

Be still and know that I am God. – Ps 46:10

Why are we drawn to beautiful things? Why do 3.5 million people visit Yosemite National Park every year? Why do we plant flowers, paint our house, choose just the right car, have a closet full of clothes, go to art museums? We are drawn to beauty and to beautiful things, and there is a reason for that. John Piper is quoted as saying “There is in the human heart an unquenchable longing for beauty.”

Do you think of the local church as a place of beauty? Probably not. The local churches of today have come a long way from the cathedrals of Europe. Instead of soaring and lofty architecture, we have warehouse boxes or strip mall slots that serve as our houses of worship. Instead of structures that lift our eyes upward toward God, the only things we see when we look up are heating ducts and electrical conduit. Granted, we paint those mechanical albatrosses flat black so they ‘disappear,’ but it still just isn’t the same as the towering spires and vaulted ceilings.

I had never heard a sermon on ‘beauty’ before. At least not that I can remember. Do a concordance search on the word ‘beauty’ or ‘beautiful’ and you will get a lot of material. The Bible has a lot to say about beauty. So why, in 54 years of church attendance, had I never heard a sermon on beauty? Regardless of the unknown answer to that rhetorical question, this past Sunday I heard a sermon on beauty. It was powerful, and amazing. Dawn and I looked at each other after the service and in essence said the same thing to each other: ‘that was the best sermon I have heard in a long, long time.’

The pastor of this local church, a mere 10 minute drive from our house, expounded with great conviction and freedom on how all beauty points to God, the Ultimate Beauty. “From Mount Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines in glorious radiance” (Psalm 50:2). We have a deep longing for this Ultimate Source of Beauty, so we are drawn to beautiful things on earth: mountains, sunsets, symphonies, architecture, clothes, flowers, fabric, sonatas, and so much more. These things of beauty draw us to the Source of beauty. But sometimes the earthly things of beauty can become idols and take our focus off of that Source. Usually when we find something beautiful, we want to share it. “Hey, check out the amazing sunset! Quick, look out the window!” Just as we should desire to share the Ultimate Source of Beauty Himself.

It opened my eyes to new dimensions of the world around me. It gave me a new, deeper understanding of why my wife was always redecorating the house, and perhaps made me a little more willing to paint the walls a different color, yet again! God was so present in this average-sized local church. This past Sunday was the first week they had gone to two services: the first service was more traditional with choir and hymns, while the second was more upbeat with the classic rock-style worship band. It was in so many ways so typical of so many churches. And, as in so many churches in so many places, it was a living, breathing, Holy Spirit infused expression of the Bride of Christ. It was alive and well. It was beautiful!

And it got me thinking. Should we incorporate more beauty into our places of worship? Into our homes? Into our lives? Of course, with the awareness that this earthly beauty should always point us to the ultimate Source of beauty. But what are we missing by being drab and mundane? Does our view of God get skewed when we don’t have ‘enough’ beauty in our lives? I would love to hear thoughts from our readers on this topic!

Over the past four posts, I have offered four reasons why Christians should care about the arts. With the exception of my first point, these reasons have focused on the utility of the arts. In other words, I have been arguing that we should care about the arts because of what they can do for us (they teach us about humanity) and how we can use them (they give us the opportunity to test God’s truth and to connect with non-Christians).

But art is not about utility. Art is valuable because of what it is, not just because of what it does. Art is valuable because it is a good gift of God, and we should enjoy it as such.

Francis Schaeffer recognized this in the creativity of art:

“A work of art is a work of creativity, and creativity has value because God is the Creator.” (Art and the Bible in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol 2, 394)

Warner Sallman JesusCan pure creativity really be a good thing in itself? Shouldn’t creativity serve a more useful purpose—like a drama that portrays the gospel or a painting of Jesus? Creativity is great when it is used this way, but we do not have any grounds to say that beauty, creativity, or the arts in general are only valuable if they are useful.

We can take our cue on this point from God. He created a world that was both useful and beautiful: “Out of the ground the LORD God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen. 2:9). A utilitarian God would certainly make trees that were good for food, but pleasant to the sight? Isn’t that a bit extravagant? Or consider the light that God created. God declared the light good, even before there was an eye to see it or a plant to photsynthesize with it. It was just good.

Or take the tabernacle. Without a doubt the tabernacle served many important functions. But God takes up a lot of space in the Pentateuch with describing how the tabernacle should be adorned. Schaeffer brings the implications home:

“Art is not something we merely analyze or value for its intellectual content. It is something to be enjoyed. The Bible says that the art work in the tabernacle and the temple was for beauty.” (394) (For example, see Ex. 28:2.)

Grace Foretold (Fujimura)Not only did God create a beautiful world—a world so beautiful that poets, artists, and ordinary people over the millennia have not been able to help but exult in its beauty—He also created us with the capacity to enjoy it. God didn’t just create sunsets, He gave us eyes that could see them. He didn’t just create sound waves and the physical properties required to create them, He also gave us ears to hear them. He didn’t just give us beauty, He gave us the aesthetic sensibilities to appreciate beauty for what it is. Art can be useful, but it is still valuable even when it doesn’t do anything.

Leland Ryken says it well:

“When we enjoy the colors and design of a painting, the fictional inventiveness of a novel, the harmonious arrangement of a sonata, we are enjoying a quality of which God is the ultimate source and performing an act similar to God’s enjoyment of the beauty of his own creation. We can participate in the arts to the glory of God by enthusiastically enjoying the arts, recognizing God as the ultimate source of the creativity and beauty that we enjoy. If artistic creativity is, as the Bible claims, a gift of God, we can scarcely demonstrate our gratitude for the gift any more adequately than by using and enjoying it.” (The Liberated Imagination, 88)

There are many reasons that Christians should care about art, but ultimately we don’t need more reasons than this: art is a gift from God, and we should enjoy it for His sake.