Thinking about Beauty

Tonight over dinner, a friend and I happened upon, in the course of our converstion, the subject of Jesus, and how people today picture him in his personality. I often find myself sitting in a lecture or sermon or casual conversation about religious topics and since I live in the Bible Belt, and go to a Christian school, Jesus comes up a lot, and often he seems to be portrayed in a less-than-holistic way. People tend to focus on the more plesant character traits that he exhibited, while ignoring the more concerting ones (maybe that’s why we know so little of him!). Everyone knows that Jesus told his followers to consider the lillies of the field, and how they neither spin nor toil, and yet God clothes them. Everyone knows that he died for us, and in nearly his last breath called out to God to forgive even his merciless murderers. Such a thin, silky portrait of the Christ distorts his character much more than it illuminates our understanding of him.Though it may not seem at all apparent at first, I think that a widespread failure to understand beauty plays a big part in this obscured portrait of the Son of God.

When thinking about beauty, an important distinction needs to be made between two categories: Aesthetic beauty and Conceptual beauty. The first category of beauty can roughly be characterized by instances of visible beauty – objects or events that are appealing to the eye such as sunstes, thunderstorms, kittens, paintings by the great artists, beautiful people, architecturally excellect buildings, etc. Strongly related to this form of beauty would be general states of pleasure. Visible beauty is percieved through the senses and gives us pleasure and in any culture that centers on pleasure (ours, the greeks, etc.) we wiil strive for pleasure in every sense roughly equally.

The second category, which I have termed Conceptual beauty, includes other, invisible instances of beauty. Things in this category, though beautiful in a way, are not normally termed “beautiful” today. A better ascription might be “wonderful”. Things that are conceptually beautiful might be totally invisible, such as the astounding symmetry and complexity of mathematics, or the beauty of a kind deed. In this category we also find events that don’t fit in the first category – that is, they aren’t appealing to the eye, and in fact may be utterly abhorrent to the eye – but are beautiful or wonderful on a deeper level that eludes our bodily vision. For example, one would look at the crumbling wall of berlin (assuming one understands the history of the wall and the role it played in the ruin of so many lives) as a wonderful, even beautiful thing. One might, similarly, watch the birth of a child as an instance of beauty more profound and substantial than anything Monet ever produced, even tough it is a terribly painful ordeal involving tearing and ripping of flesh, spilling of blood and other fluids, and often hours of screaming.

This distinction makes all the difference when we think of Jesus. Especially when we go to picture him. During the renaissance people began painting pictures of Jesus as a very beautuful man – an aesthetically beautiful man. I’m not totally committed to Jesus being either attractive or ugly. I don’t really care either way. But I think we miss something when we relegate the excellence and greatness of Jesus to physical beauty. And this is exactly what art has done with him up until Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion. Jesus has ceased to be pictured as a mutilated propitiation for our sins, hanging nude, nailed to a tree, and has been pictured as a serene contemplative, his golden locks flowing gently in the Gallilean breeze, faintly luminescent in the warm glow of an autumn sun as he stands quietly gazing over the rolling fields of Judea.

You would have vomited if you had been at the cross that day.

Now artists are doing what they can. There is great pressure in art to produce aesthetically appealing work, and also a great current in the soul of men who are truly awake to speak of (in words or other art) great things. And what is greater than Jesus and his work for us? So artists are often merely working within the limits of their trade, and we can’t totally fault them for that. But something is lost in translation when we try to show Jesus greatness, which flows much deeper than our eyes can see, by merely making him beautiful. Not only are we unable to recreate such beauty in aesthetics, but in order to even try the first thing we would have to do is make Jesus look at least better than the average person. And that certainly includes wiping away the blood, putting some clothes on him, and hiding the fact that the defining moment of his life was an aesthetic nightmare.

I mentioned the connection between aesthetics and other sorts of pleasure. Once we make Jesus the paradigm of aesthetic excellenc, our foot is already in the door to make him pleasant in every other way. “If beauty is all about good feelings, and Jesus was the most wonderful person, he must have certainly also been pleasant” (notice how the line of thought starts with beauty, and then jumps from beauty to wonder without realizing that the shift was made?). We end up with a Christ that looks like a GQ model but can’t even save us from boredom, much less our hell-begging guilt before his Father.

The remedy for this vacuous view of Christ is to understand what his beauty was all about – and what his cross’ beauty was about. The cross’s beauty was not aesthetic, but conceptual. It was not beautiful to look on, but wonderful because it undid death, because it is a mockery of hell for all who carry it, and the hammer that shatters the throne of Satan. Once these categories are clear in our mind we will be prepared to think lucidly on our calling to bear this cross that is a symbol not of ornate beauty or serinity, but a sign of shame in this world and death to ourselves.

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