In my last blog post, I ended with a postscript asking for your definition of beauty and was met with a lot of really great answers. It seems that my readers (or at least the ones who answered) are hungry for a beauty that runs deeper than the epidermis, and that’s awesome.
Many of the responses talked about stirrings of eternity in each person’s experience of beauty, whether it’s via a beautiful sunset or being the presence of a beautiful person. Many of you said that beauty is experiencing life with someone else or seeing in them something rich and far deeper than superficial prettiness.
In my far-from-comprehensive opinion, however, I have come to find a lot of these definitions are true, but lacking. So here is my first stab at coming to some sort of explanation of beauty.
Beauty is not subjective.
The first flaw I think most of us encounter when trying to conceptualize beauty is thinking that it’s about us; the beholder. After all, beauty is in our eye, right? What this does to us is renders a beauty defined however one sees fit. Just like morals in our culture, beauty comes to be something defined internally by our fleeting wishes and tastes rather than by a much larger, objective source of beauty.
For instance, in some cultures, women with larger feet are more attractive, while in others, women with smaller feet are. Can both be right? Or is defining beauty so narrowly bound to lead to disagreement, and therefore an anemic definition of what is beautiful?
Even within our own culture, notions of beauty shift annually. In the 70’s, bell bottom jeans were in, but now the skinnier the better. Short bobs were once in, but now longer, natural hair is preferred.
If beauty were subject to the individual, or even to the culture, there would be no absolute beauty to which we may refer. Pedophiles find things beautiful which the larger culture finds repulsive. Pornography programs us to derive the pleasure of beauty from violence, degradation and control.
Describing beauty by means of our own enjoyment of it, then, strips away the grandeur of beauty itself and limits it to the experience of the individual rather than the substance of beauty itself. For instance, standing at the mouth of the Grand Canyon at sunset will invoke feelings of awe and grandeur in the beholder. However, the beauty is not hidden in the person’s experience of the canyon, but it is outside of them and they are merely coming into contact with it.
Typically, this person will return home and when they recount the experience to friends, will relay how the experience made them feel, rather than relaying the larger beauty which they barely touched. It is through experiences like this, though, that we get to receive a hint of raw, authentic beauty.
The next point (I can’t think of a title)
The word beauty is something ubiquitous, then. We apply it to supermodels and sunsets alike. Some of us even apply it to the gospel; The beauty of grace.
The previous section was not meant to disqualify one’s experience of coming into contact with beauty, whether it’s enjoying a love requited and a bookstore smooch, or standing on top of a mountain as a storm recedes. To be sure, those experiences bring us within inches of beauty itself, but the experience remains outside of ourselves if we limit it to merely subjective definitions.
How, then, do we accurately experience beauty? How do we put it on like a dress and live our lives within it?
Fyodor Dostoevsky predicted that “beauty will save the world,” but how do we come to define this ambiguous word? And how will it go about this incredible feat?
The power of beauty
Lately I’ve been finding myself reading Scripture and having the choking of sobs well up in my throat and tears edge the corner of my eyes. Some of you may remember blogs where I mention this, and it has been happening more and more often for some reason.
Just yesterday, as I was preparing for a talk on the first two verses of the Bible, I read the verse for the thousandth time, ‘…and the Spirit of God hovered over the waters.’ I looked into the verse a bit more, specifically the verb hovered. I found that the same Hebrew word is also found in the book of Deuteronomy to describe a mother bird fluttering over the young in her nest, provoking them to flap their wings and take flight.
I began picturing the Spirit of God fluttering like a mother bird, hovering over the chaos of the pre-diluvian world, whispering “Come to life! Rise up! Breathe!”
Tears lined my eyes and I had to take them away from the words on the page to avoid breaking down in the middle of yet another coffee shop. (And here I am again, swallowing down the sobs in yet another cafe…)
Some of you may have read my post on the last time I gave in to the tears during a screening of The Passion of the Christ. It wasn’t the cruelty Jesus endured, or the ripping of flesh from His bones; it was a line he delivered to His mother as He lugged the cross up the hill: “Look, mother, I make all things new.” I even got a tattoo to represent the line.
Why have these non-sad entities been the things bringing me to weep out of everything in the past decade? (For clarification: I have barely cried in the past ten years, and aside from the death of my dog, all of the instances have been similar to these.)
I think the beauty wrapped up in these passages from scripture do more than evoke emotions in us because they’re pretty phrases. They point to something powerful, something large and real.
And I think that when we encounter something enormous as grace or as powerful as redemption, the only possible response is to weep. Just as my college roommate stated at our friend’s wedding: “I cried not because the wedding was sad, but because it was beautiful. There are some things so intensely beautiful that the only possible reaction is to cry.”
It wasn’t the bride’s dress or the dashing good looks of the groom, but the beauty of the sacrifice to which they were both committing. Because like all things beautiful, marriage points outside itself to a bigger sacrificial work which is at play.
Beauty is a person
I think trying to encapsulate beauty with my own thin words is merely a chasing after a leaf on the wind. My hands may swing lamely after it but continually fall short, because I’m trying to stuff the grandeur of all reality into a 2-dimensional page.
The gospel is something truly beautiful. It is the epitome of sacrifice and giving of the greatest gift ever. However, it is not the action of the gospel which makes it beautiful, but the person who performs the actions. Isaiah 53 tells us that “there was no beauty in Him to draw us to Him.” In other words, Jesus was kind of ugly. Yet it is He who defines beauty once and for all.
It was through Him all creation was made, and it is through Him that all creation continues to exist. Not only does He sustain us merely by His being, but He sacrificed Himself so that the cosmos may be made new.
I don’t think it is possible to dissect the work of Christ and point to one part of it which is the definition of beauty. Yes, sacrifice is beautiful, and so is new life and resurrection. Healing is beautiful, as people are given new health, new limbs, or a sense they had been lacking. But it is not one of these things which encapsulates beauty.
It’s much bigger.
I think beauty, in essence, is solely defined in the nature and person of God.
He is not beautiful; He is beauty itself.
Therefore, everything He does is beautiful, as is everything He creates. (Sin, therefore, is anything done to skew the perfection of something’s or someone’s original beauty.) Adam and Eve were beautiful prior to the introduction of sin.
What was their first sin? It was to take their desire for beauty off of the Creator and onto something created—the fruit. They sacrificed the experience of Beauty Himself for a taste of something merely beautiful.
Some sort of conclusion
We catch tastes of beauty and see fleeting glimpses of it throughout our lives. Our notions of beauty sometimes catch the breeze of modern culture and fly away on the winds of whatever is trending at the moment. We are a fickle people chasing whatever we deem to be beautiful that week.
There are real hints of beautiful things in this life: A man being faithful to his wife and loving her well, or, yes, the beauty of a supermodel. God created and perfected sacrifice as well as aesthetics. But as beautiful as these things are, they themselves do not wholly encapsulate beauty. They are beautiful because they hold within them some trace of Beauty Himself and reflect an aspect of His person.
It will not be until the next age that our eyes will properly be adjusted to gaze upon Beauty. We will not only catch a glimpse of something beautiful, but we will finally be able to see what we have been longing for in our porn, drug trips, and TV binges.
At last, our descriptions of beauty will not fall short because we will be looking Him in the face. As Paul put it, we will not look through a foggy glass, but we will look upon the face of Beauty with untethered vision, and He will not disappoint.
In the end, Beauty will indeed save the world. Not through mere aesthetics or awe, but by nature of who Beauty truly is.