Christ and Contemporary Culture

Beauty for the World

Image for Beauty for the World

In his book, Simply Christian, the New Testament scholar N.T. Wright asks his reader to imagine a scenario in which a collector starts rummaging through an old attic in a small Austrian town and comes across a faded manuscript written for piano. It looks like the handwriting of Mozart, but it is not a known piece. The collector takes it to a dealer who calls another friend. Before long, this interested group is huddled around a piano listening to the music. It is captivatingly beautiful. It shows all the marks of being Mozart, and yet, it seems to be incomplete. There are moments where nothing is happening at all, and the piano is simply marking time. There are other places where notes are scribbled in the margins. It becomes clear that this is, in fact, a manuscript written by Mozart, but it is only one part of a much larger piece. The parts for the other instruments are missing. Since the work is frustratingly incomplete, it is impossible to figure out what the whole piece might have sounded like. N.T. Wright suggests that this is what our experience of beauty is like in the world. The world is filled with moments of beauty, and yet, they are incomplete. It is as if we are missing critical parts, but we know there must be a larger whole.

When we view a stunning sunset or a remarkable painting, or when we hear a moving piece of music, we are often filled with the deepest feelings of awe, wonder, reverence, and even gratitude. What makes these experiences so meaningful is that they give us a respite from everyday concerns. It is almost as if the beauty picks us up and enables us to put to rest all the other matters that weigh on our hearts and minds. These experiences of beauty can also expand our imaginations and increase our sympathy and understanding. This is why many, especially those who may not believe in God, find that these moments of beauty are the closest that they can ever approach to an experience of transcendence. 

And yet, because of the transience, elusiveness, and incompleteness of these moments, beauty remains deeply mysterious. Our concept of beauty is constantly changing. All one has to do is flip through an introductory art book to see how our conceptions of beauty change with culture, time, and context. Moreover, as hard as we may try to hold on to a moment of beauty, it never seems to last. Like a butterfly collector pinning the wings of a butterfly to a board, the very moment we try to pin beauty down is the very moment that we lose it. All of which leaves us with a desire for more. Beauty evokes in us a kind of longing, and yet it leaves us somewhat unsatisfied. In his essay, The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis puts it this way,

“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing.  These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news of a country we have never yet visited.  Do you think I am trying to weave a spell? Perhaps I am; but remember your fairy tales. Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as for inducing them. And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid upon us for nearly a hundred years. Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modern philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth.”

Moments of beauty in this life are meant to point us to the highest of all beauties—the beauty of God himself.

In the Old Testament, God’s presence was marked by a cloud of glory. This visible manifestation of God’s presence with his people was beautiful and awe-inspiring, and yet at the very same time, terrifying. It was this cloud of glory that first led God’s people out of their bondage in Egypt in Exodus 13. It is from this very cloud that God later speaks to Moses in Exodus 33. But things take a turn when we get to the later prophets. For example in Ezekiel 10, Ezekiel has a vision of this glory cloud leaving the temple. It appears that God has abandoned his people. But what we soon discover as we scroll forward through the pages of Scripture is that God has not disappeared or left his people devoid of his presence. His glory is now coming in a true, more stable form—the person of Jesus. Jesus is the true temple, the place where God dwells bodily. That is what prompts the Apostle Paul to say in Colossians 1, “In him the fullness of deity was pleased to dwell.” Likewise Hebrews 1 proclaims, “Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” Jesus is the full demonstration of the very glory of God. The once faceless, nameless cloud of glory now has a face and a name. And his name is Jesus. 

Rather than beauty that is transient, elusive, and incomplete, we find in the person of Jesus, beauty that is permanent, stable, and perfect. The more we contemplate who Jesus is, the more we see the beauty of not only his birth and life, but his death and resurrection. And the more delight we take in the beauty of who Jesus is, the more he has to reveal of himself. 1 Peter 1:12 reminds us that even angels long to look into the Gospel that has been revealed to us. If angels never tire of looking into the beauty of the Gospel, then neither should we. Our desire for beauty finds its ultimate fulfillment in Jesus, the most beautiful one who was willing to suffer unto death because of his infinite love for us.

From For the World: Beauty, adapted by Mary-Catherine McKee