Obsessed with Beauty

There is a permeating pressure in our Christian culture to celebrate the “beauty in the mundane.” My Instagram account reeks of captions and Christian cliches that combine minimalism with pixels of beauty to create an artistic philosophy that “all of everything is worth celebrating, even the steam from my coffee.” There is an apparent overwhelming necessity for the need to be overwhelmed by beauty. There is pressure to feel. There is pressure to wonder. This philosophy was espoused by Whitman who described pleasure writing, “I lean and loaf at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.” Even well-known and respected Christian writers such as Ann Voskamp (author of “One Thousand Gifts: A Dare To Live Fully Right Where You Are”) boldly scream: “I want to see beauty in the ugly, in the sink, in the suffering, in all the days before I die, the moments before I sleep.” This is where the Christian populace tears up because we all want to feel the beauty in the ordinary. We want to be able to rejoice at the sight of each and every sunset or the surge of a symphony’s moving power in Handel’s “Messiah” or the Brahms “Requiem” all of those who were musically inclined spent a night the other week enjoying. And yet, our hearts are cold. As you rejoice over your blade of grass you are reveling in, I cannot join you because I sit here unable to conjure up the same feelings of fascination. As guilt sets in, I always wonder: Are people just faking it?

This guilt-tripping-beauty-obsession is one of the most misdirected philosophies I have observed in contemporary Christian culture. Why? Because it rips out the very definition of beauty and replaces it with an emphasis on its effect rather than its cause. Something is not beautiful because it makes you cry in delight. Losing your breath at the visual energy of a sunset or getting goosebumps up your neck at a concert or whatever makes you feel alive is just that. A feeling. This feeling is shared by billions of people who share your same genetic makeup: that of being human. These people stumble upon something divine in God’s general revelation and emotionally react because God is gracious toward them. In fact, all secular artists who conjure up masterpieces that make their way to history’s hall of fame are just that—stumblings upon God’s divine nature. Gene Edward Veith, Jr. in “State Of The Arts, From Bazalel to Mapplethorpe” says this about Augustine: “Augustine, a stern critic of the arts, attacks the way sinners use the arts to draw people away from God, the true source of beauty.”

As sinners saved by grace, spare yourself from this pagan worship of beauty. Beauty is not an emotion. Beauty is Truth. It is okay if you are not emotionally affected by each sunset. Instead, whisper praise to God at his faithfulness in our solar system. As you are given opportunities to observe beautiful blades of grass, do not tritely conjure up emotions for the sake of expression (in person or social media). Instead, turn your eyes to the Creator and thank him that regardless of how you feel, that blade of grass is precious because God made it. You will have delighted Him far more than all the tears and replica photographs or paintings could afford Him. Scripture does not tell us that we must “find the beauty in the mundane.” Instead, it charges us with the command to give thanks in all things (1 Thess. 5:18) knowing that whether we react to the beauty or not—it remains as steadfastly as God remains.

Notice these caveats: Firstly, worship the Creator over the creation. Worship in spirit and truth, not with the ignorance of those who do not know who created all things, but with the knowledge that beauty is Christ Himself. Are you discouraged with worship on the Lord’s Day? Remember that worship in God’s house is not a failure if you were not moved by an inspiring story or application of Scripture. You have not wasted your Sunday if you did not “feel like you got anything out of the sermon.” The very act of corporate worship and participating in the means of grace with a heart that shows up is pleasing to God. Feelings will follow obedience.

Secondly, beware blind optimism. Ambrose Bierce says that optimism is “The doctrine or belief that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly.” One of the most misleading aspects of our culture’s obsession with beauty is the extreme pendulum swing of calling beautiful that which is ugly. As strongly as you affirm your delight in beauty, make sure you call out the things that are ugly and displeasing to the Creator. In a world where sin has permeated all aspects of life, let us not become the beauty-lovers who see no wrong. No aspect of this fallen world is outside of God’s redeeming power, but the harsh reality is that this earth will burn in the end. All of our treasures on earth will burn along with all of the corrupting misery of sin. This is not something to be taken lightly, so let me ask: Are you spending time condoning the things that God will burn? Are you calling the ugly “beautiful?”

Thirdly, God delights in emotion. I do not advise or recommend a stoical philosophy of beauty. Our modern conceptions of beauty center around feelings and emotion, and yet a biblical view of beauty is Truth. Herein lies the conflict. It is critical to understand that emotions are not the enemy. They are not sinful. They are not flimsy and shallow and something to stuff inside a box and hope nobody notices. They fill our lives with an essential part of our humanness and there is freedom in Christ to express all kinds of emotions—especially through prayer to God. The question posed is what are you doing with your emotions? Are your emotions, as you encounter beauty, directing you toward worship of God or directing you away from Him? As you observe your blade of grass and colorful fall leaf are you taking the emotions of wonder back up to God in praise?

Bauer Evans says, “Believe the Gospel until Christ be sweet again.” In a similar way, we need to believe the truth of beauty even while we are not tasting its sweetness. We need to enfold ourselves with the mundaneness that makes up our lives knowing that it is beautiful because of Christ—and not that the mundane is, itself, beautiful. It may seem like a threadbare difference, but the evidences of drastically different lives are lived between those two lines.