Beauty, Creativity, and God

This is the transcript of a talk I gave in a Christian small group on April 28, 2015. I haven’t changed any of the text from its spoken form, so some turns-of-phrase may not make much sense in writing. I have added links where relevant, though.

Preface

I have gone back and forth a lot about what to talk about tonight. There are a few subjects that are near and dear to my heart, but the more I care about them, the harder a time I seem to have articulating them.

So tonight’s going to be a little bit different. Usually, we take a chunk of Scripture and walk through it. That’s a great way to study the Word of God — it’s safe, it’s reliable, and we know we’ll get something out of it. There’s no better way to learn about God than through His own words.

Tonight, we’re going to be going topically. I know what I want to say, and we’ll touch on some scripture, but we’ll also pull in some thoughts from philosophers and theologians, and even a few magazine articles.

Let me preface all this with the world’s biggest disclaimer: this is not gospel. It’s informed by the gospel, and it’s related to the gospel, but at the end of the day what I’m talking about tonight is one man’s thoughts on a particular subject. You can feel free to disagree with everything I say without feeling like an apostate. I could be dead wrong about all of this.

Tonight, I want to talk about beauty — specifically, artistic beauty. And “artistic” doesn’t just mean paintings and sculptures — it can include everything we make. Music, movies, anything that’s designed. In particular, I want to talk about how beauty was something that used to be really important to the Church, but it’s something that we’ve mostly stopped talking about. And I want to talk about how we can pursue beauty for the glory of God, not just in the things that we do and make, but in the things we expose ourselves to.

Introduction

I was in Boston recently visiting some friends, and I went to church with them on Sunday morning. They attend a place called Park Street Church — if you’ve visited Boston, I can guarantee you’ve seen it. It’s a beautiful old building on the edge of Boston Commons, right in the heart of the city.

I love visiting other churches and seeing how they do things. Everything about the service was well-done: the sermon was great, the music was great. Even the bulletins were impressively well-designed.

Midway through the service came the offering. As the ushers came forward, the choir began to sing. They were positioned out-of-sight in a balcony at the back of the sanctuary, so until they started, I had no idea they were even there. The offertory was a minimalist choral work, without instruments, and it was beautiful.

I don’t mean the kind of everyday beauty that we barely notice. Flowers are beautiful. The sky is beautiful. We rarely stop to look at them.

No, this was the kind of beauty that makes your heart leap up into your throat. The kind of beauty that catches you off-guard and makes you blank out the rest of the world. The kind of beauty you experience when you’re up in the mountains and you look out on an incredible vista, and something inside of you wants to reach out and be a part of it. It’s that recognition that the Creator of that landscape also created you. That’s the kind of beauty I’m talking about.

As I sat there, listening, I was reminded of a truth that I think we all kind of know instinctively, but it’s been beaten out of us by time and culture and education. It’s the truth that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

That’s a tough pill to swallow. Of course beauty is in the eye of the beholder! We’ve heard that phrase so many times we don’t even think to question it. Different people have different tastes — it’s that simple. Nobody can have taste that’s truly “better” or “worse” than someone else, right? If one person likes Mozart and another likes Nickelback, it just means they have different sensibilities, right? Right?

The first time someone tried to convince me that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder was in a class called Civilization and the Arts, which my college required everyone to take. The professor started discussing this, and most people were aghast. It’s an offensive concept — the idea that my preferences in music and movies and art could be worse, rather than different, from someone else’s — it’s shocking, and bizarre, and against the grain of everything society teaches us.

That day in class, I was that annoying kid who raised his hand and fought the teacher on the idea. It doesn’t matter if everyone agrees with you, you still don’t want to be the annoying kid. By the end of the semester, though, I was thoroughly persuaded.

First things first: contrary to popular belief, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is not in the Bible. It actually stems from a work by Plato in the 3rd century BC, and it’s not even about beauty itself, but rather our perception of it. It’s a subtle difference, and we’ll get to that.

How do we define “beauty?” It’s hard to have a real conversation about something if we don’t know how to define it.

We all know what beauty is, but how do we describe it?

More often than not, when we use the word “beautiful,” we’re describing a person. Sometimes we’ll use a different word — cute, pretty, handsome — but we’re still in the ballpark.

The more we get to know someone, the more beautiful they often seem. As we discover someone’s character — maybe they’re kind, maybe they have fascinating interests, maybe we click with their sense of humor — we’ll often start to perceive them as being more beautiful. Similarly, if we discover that someone is mean or cruel, no matter how attractive they seemed when we first saw them, they may start to look plainer to us. It seems like beauty is somehow related to the degree to which someone reflects God’s character.

Maybe that’s what Beauty is — a reflection of God’s character.

If that’s the case, something interesting starts to happen. There are other things that reflect God’s character — Goodness is one. Truth is another.

Let’s take goodness, for example. Society right now tends to be morally relativist — in other words, what’s right for me might be wrong for you, and vice versa. As Christians, we know this isn’t true. Right and wrong aren’t human standards, they’re standards set by God.

Now, even in a morally relative society, there’s plenty of agreement around some things. Most people will acknowledge that murder is wrong. Other things are a tougher sell, though. You’d be hard pressed to find someone outside the church who thinks that sex before marriage is immoral.

Good and evil — right and wrong — are what they are because of God’s character. The more in tune with God’s character something is, the more “good” or “right” it is. The more out-of-tune with his character, the more “wrong.”

If beauty is similarly related to God, that means that it’s subject to the same thing. The more in tune with God’s character something is, the more beautiful it is. The less in-tune with God, the less beautiful.

So why don’t we all find the same things beautiful? Doesn’t this mean that beauty is relative? What I find beautiful, you might not. What you find beautiful, I might not.

We live in a fallen world. We’ve all encountered moral grey areas — times when right and wrong aren’t very clear. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a right and wrong for that situation, it just means that we’re having trouble seeing it, and have to muddle our way through.

Similarly, we can’t necessarily perceive what’s more or less beautiful. To borrow a phrase from Paul: we see the world through a mirror darkly. Everything’s hazy to us.

Furthermore, due to the tastes and skills we’ve cultivated, we may have an easier time seeing beauty in some places than others. A carpenter can look at a chair and marvel at the beauty of its construction. He might admire the grain of the wood, or the quality of the craftsmanship, or the genius of its design. I just see a chair.

Why should we care?

So why should we care? What difference does it make in our lives if beauty is an absolute, objective thing, or if it’s something that’s different to everyone?

Well, we should generally care about what God cares about, and we have every reason to believe that God cares about beauty.

First, He made creation, and creation is beautiful. He obviously cares about craftsmanship and excellence.

Second, God himself is beautiful, and so pursuing Him involves the pursuit of beauty at some level. Psalm 27:4 says:

One thing have I asked of the Lord,
    that will I seek after:
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.

And finally, in Exodus 31, there’s a really interesting passage in which God outlines his plans for the design of the tabernacle. The Israelites are refugees in the desert, and in the midst of their struggle God appoints artists to build His dwelling place to a meticulous standard. It reads:

The Lord said to Moses, “See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft. And behold, I have appointed with him Oholiab, the son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan. And I have given to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the testimony, and the mercy seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lamp stand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt offering with all its utensils, and the basin and its stand, and the finely worked garments, the holy garments for Aaron the priest and the garments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing oil and the fragrant incense for the Holy Place. According to all that I have commanded you, they shall do.”

There’s an explicit connection made here between artistic excellence and the Spirit of God. And it’s interesting to note that God chose his artists for the tabernacle; they weren’t elected. “Popular opinion” isn’t a good way of determining what art is good and what isn’t. There’s a higher standard: God’s standard.

Beauty and the Church

I feel like there are things that the Church used to care about that we’ve kind of given up on, for no real reason. We used to be at the forefront of art and culture — for the better part of a thousand years, the Church was the big patron of great art. When we built buildings, they were Cathedrals. When we made music, it was Mozart’s Requiem. When we painted, it was the Sistine Chapel. There was an attitude of excellence — if we were going to make something, we should make it for the glory of God.

That’s not to say we don’t care about that stuff now. We certainly spend a lot of time thinking about music and its relationship with the church. But I feel like things got weird at some point.

We used to be in front of the culture. We’d make things that were excellent, and the rest of society would recognize its excellence and follow suit. Now, we’re playing catch-up. Christian music is popular music from ten years ago, with the word “Jesus” added in a few times.

The Atlantic had a whole article on exactly this last month. Apparently this phenomenon started in the 60s and 70s. As youth culture became more pronounced, some Christian organizations decided to reach the youth by imitating popular music but injecting a Christian message into it.

To quote The Atlantic:

This new wave of Christians making music didn’t anchor itself in artistic excellence or music that spoke to popular culture; it viewed music—and art in general—as a mere tool for evangelism, or as propaganda. Christians defaulted to writing songs that simply imitated those of the mainstream, yet with less talent and lower production values, and more than a little Jesus name-dropping thrown in the mix. It’s part of the reason why Gregory Thornbury, president of the King’s College in New York City, noted that, ‘Christianity is the greatest of all nouns but the lamest of all adjectives.’

God is the maker of all things. Everything else cannot create, only modify or corrupt. Christians shouldn’t settle for sloppy seconds; we shouldn’t be creating knockoffs of things and passing it off as “Christian Culture.” First, it’s just bad quality. Second, if our goal is to attract people from the cultural mainstream into the faith, it will fail miserably. Why settle for a knockoff when you can have the real thing?

No. All we need to do is keep presenting the gospel truthfully and authentically. We’re the antidote to society, not its cleaned-up little cousin.

There’s an apocryphal story about Martin Luther in which he’s talking with a cobbler who just became a Christian. The cobbler says, “Now that I’m a believer, I want to do the right thing and honor God. How do I make Christian shoes? Should I draw crosses on them?” Luther responds, “No, of course not. To make Christian shoes, just make really excellent shoes.”

I love the thought of a world in which the Church is at the forefront of culture.

That’s one of the indirect consequences of the crucifixion. There used to be a separation between the sacred and the secular; when the curtain of the temple was torn in two, that divide was breached. The holiness of the sacred can now bleed into the world of the secular. No longer do we need to go someplace special to commune with God — we can do it right here, right now, wherever we are. Through the works we produce, we can imbue the secular world with a tinge of holiness. Instead, by following society’s lead, we’ve allowed the secular to bleed into the sacred.

There’s a book called Art for God’s Sake, which says the following:

All too often we settle for something that is functional, but not beautiful. We gravitate towards what is familiar, popular, or commercial, with little regard for the enduring values of artistic excellence. Sometimes what we produce can be described only as kitsch — tacky artwork of poor quality that appeals to low tastes. The average Christian bookstore is full of the stuff, as the real artists will tell us, if only we will listen. Ultimately this kind of art dishonors God because it is not in keeping with the truth and beauty of his character. It also undermines the church’s gospel message of salvation in Christ.

A Personal Pursuit of Beauty

Philippians 4:8 is one of Paul’s great rallying cries:

“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”

God cares about excellence. We know this, because everything He does is excellent. God isn’t a God of doing things halfway; He isn’t a God of shoddy workmanship. And we, being made in His image, have the ability and desire to be the same way.

This runs counter to what society would have us do. We give lip service to liking things that are excellent, but really, we just want things to be easy.

Because, frankly, we have access to a wider array of excellent things than anyone else at any other point in history. If we have access to the internet, we have access to the greatest free library ever assembled. We could spend every hour from now until we die reading great books, listening to great performances, studying the collections of just about every major museum.

With all this at our fingertips, we’re still bored. Everything around us is designed to distract us — it plays to our lesser angels, the more fallen aspects of human nature.

Blaise Pascal, the philosopher, said: “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” We prefer being distracted because it allows us to avoid the tension and conviction that comes when we’re alone with our thoughts for long enough.

And let’s face it: reading books, or listening to performances end-to-end, or learning a language is really hard work. It’s a lot easier to just waste time.

“Use well the time, for the days are evil,” and there we are on Buzzfeed looking at cat videos.

Beauty is worth pursuing, even when difficult. We are called to approve what is excellent, and to use well the time because the days are evil. We should pursue things that reflect the character of God and bring us closer to Him.

Worthwhile things take effort. Just because it’s easier to like Katy Perry than Rachmaninoff, that doesn’t mean that Katy Perry is better than Rachmaninoff.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say that we become the things that we consume. If we eat junk food enough, we’ll start to feel terrible. Our bodies will lose the ability to do what they’re designed to do, and if we go full Super Size Me, we’re pretty much killing ourselves in slow motion.

The same goes for other things we consume — the media choices we make. I’m not saying that if we listen to enough Ke$ha we’ll eventually start replacing the S’s in our names with dollar signs. But the things we expose ourselves to get into our heads, and our souls.

We should cultivate lives that are sensitive and attuned to the things of God, not dulled by the banality of society.

I’m not going to say that good Christians only listen to classical music, or that we should spend every waking hour reading hard books by dead poets. I am saying that we should be more intentional in our choices about what we consume. It’s easy to leave the radio on when we drive and not think about what we’re listening to. It’s easy to spend hours binge-watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix. But it’s not nearly as rewarding as the alternative.

I read something interesting recently. Wind back the clock a hundred years, before the advent of television, before even radio was ubiquitous. The main source of information — the main type of media — was the written word. To become a functioning member of society, you had to be literate.

There’s a pretty steep learning curve to literacy. It takes a while to get to the point where you can read a book or a newspaper well enough to join in civic discourse and become a functioning member of society. You had to learn to read in order to qualify for membership in “the secret society of adults.”

Then came television, not all that long ago. TV is easy — you sit there, and you watch it. No learning curve. A three year old can look at a TV and get a pretty good sense of what’s going on. There’s no need for separate programs for kids and adults.

When a piece of media isn’t aimed at a particular age group, what happens? It settles at around a seventh-grade level. I’m not talking about the stuff on Cartoon Network; I’m talking about the stuff on the Discovery Channel and CNN. We’re not elevating the children in maturity — we’re infantilizing the adults.

You can see the effects of that everywhere. We celebrate immaturity. We used to have Sean Connery and Gary Cooper; now we have Will Ferrell and Adam Sandler. The news is tailored to middle-schoolers. There are 25 superhero movies slated for release in the next five years, while the budget for indie dramas decreases. We keep setting the bar lower for what it means to be an adult.

When I read this, I was reminded strongly of 1 Corinthians 13:11 — “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

Perhaps I’m taking that out-of-context. But I remember being a kid and really wanting to grow up, to become an adult and join adult society and do adult things. (This was before I knew about taxes.) Being in a state of perpetual adolescence is one of those lesser things that God has freed us from — just because that’s the game society is playing, doesn’t mean that we have to play along. We’re free to move past childish things. And when we assume the role of adults, we can be leaders and reorient society towards things that matter.

I don’t want this to sound like an imperative. One of the remarkable things about being a Christian is that pursuing things like this isn’t something we have to do; it’s something we get to do.

Creating Beauty

One of our greatest privileges as humans is that we get to participate in the ongoing work of Creation. God created the raw materials, and He’s invited us in on the process of turning them into something new.

We’re what J.R.R. Tolkien liked to describe as “sub-creators.”

In Genesis, we’re told that we’re made in God’s image — we share some of his attributes and characteristics. If we’re reading through Genesis for the first time and don’t know anything else about God, by the time we find out we’re in His image, we only know a little about him: He creates things, and He declares them good. He makes things that are excellent, and he revels in their excellence.

We get to do that too.

Have you ever met a kid who wasn’t creative? Every kid likes to make things, whether it’s drawing pictures or building things out of Lego or messing around with Play-Doh. When they get older, a lot of kids like to draw comics or write stories. If there’s a video camera lying around, maybe they’ll start to make movies. Or if there’s a computer, maybe they’ll start learning how to program.

If someone doesn’t think they’re creative when they’re older, it’s because society beat it out of them. Our culture, our education system, is great at turning people into drones. The creative adults are just kids that survived.

Who here considers themselves creative? Raise your hands.

I’ve got good news for those of you who aren’t raising your hand — you are creative. It’s written so deeply into our souls, that desire to make things that are excellent, that it’s very easy to recover it after it’s been lost.

And I’ll bet you’re already more creative than you know. A lot of jobs that society tells us aren’t creative actually are. Being “in business” is considered among the least creative things a person can do, but what is business? It’s re-allocating resources in new and productive ways. That’s almost the definition of creativity!

Take an hour a day — or maybe an hour a week, for starters — just to make something. Draw, or write, or paint. Take up an instrument. Write your thoughts stream-of-consciousness. Build something. Cook something. You’ll feel better. It’s one of the ways we can mirror our Creator.

Conclusion

So often, we settle for a grain of sand’s worth of beauty when God is offering us the whole beachfront.

It’s like that comic that was circulating for a while: a little kid (representing us) is clinging on to a little teddy bear. God is beckoning for the kid to let go of the bear, but the kid is refusing, not realizing that God has a big giant teddy bear that He’s waiting to give to the child.

Pursuing beauty is hard work, but it’s like running or other kinds of exercise — it gets easier the more we do it. Our muscles may have atrophied, our sense of the sublime may be dulled, but God’s grace can rush in and set us back on course.

Beauty is a gift from God. It’s something we’re built for, and it’s something that enriches our lives. And it’s everywhere, if we just look for it. The craftsmanship on a staircase. The industrial design of a car. The melody of some piece of music that we barely hear while changing stations on the radio is someone’s life work. We just need eyes to see and ears to hear.

And that’s it.