Thursday, July 10, 2008

Seeking beauty

by Nathan Brown

In Breath, the most recent novel by Australian writer Tim Winton, one of his characters describes his first glimpse of surfing and compares it with the seeming absence of beauty in the everyday world of Australian masculinity:

“I couldn’t have put words to it as a boy, but later I understood what seized my imagination that day. How strange it was to see men do something beautiful. Something pointless and elegant, as though nobody saw or cared. . . . We never spoke about the business of beauty . . . but for me there was still the outlaw feeling of doing something graceful, as if dancing on water was the best and bravest thing a man could do.”

But, in describing surfing as “pointless and beautiful,” perhaps Winton misses the point of beauty—that in a world created and loved by God, beauty is never pointless. Beginning with a creation that was “excellent in every way” (Genesis 1:31) to the Old Testament poetry that exults in the wonders of the Creator to Jesus’ pointing to the flowers on the hillside (see Matthew 6:28-30), beauty is always a glimpse of the power, goodness and love of God, and an awakened appreciation of beauty a step toward connecting with that reality.

The pointedness of beauty is why theologian N T Wright insists on beauty as a key component of what the church should be pursuing in the world:
“the church should reawaken its hunger for beauty at every level. This is essential and urgent. It is essential to Christian living that we should celebrate the goodness of creation, ponder its present brokenness, and, insofar as we can, celebrate in advance the healing of the world, the new creation itself. . . . The arts are not the pretty but irrelevant bits around the border of reality. They are highways into the centre of a reality which cannot be glimpsed, let alone grasped any other way” (Simply Christian).

In our churches and communities, we need to find ways to encourage art in its many forms. Our church foyers can be exhibition spaces; our worship can be more than just singing and speaking; our artists need our prayers and practical support; our engagement with the community can include shared projects of creativity and beautification.

We need to make space for our painters and photographers, sculptors and poets, novelists and filmmakers, musicians and storytellers, dancers and actors, scrap-bookers and knitters, designers and animators. In turn, our artists must be serious and joyous, honest but redemptive and hopeful.

But our understanding of beauty also needs to expand beyond the arts to encompass so many others things we easily take for granted. Beauty is also created by our gardeners and cooks, our builders and homemakers, our tree-planters and professionals, our carers and counselors, our surfers and explorers, our mothers and friends.

And we are all part of it: there is engagement with beauty—and a contribution to it—in any moment of recognising and appreciating something beautiful. Then, in pointing out or sharing beauty with another, we become evangelists of beauty and thus agents of the kingdom of God.

As human beings, we create in these and so many other ways because God created, continues to create and will re-create a world in which beauty is never pointless:
“He has surrounded you with beauty to teach you that you are not placed on earth merely to delve for self, to dig and build, to toil and spin, but to make life bright and joyous and beautiful with the love of Christ—like the flowers, to gladden other lives by the ministry of love” (Ellen White, Thoughts from the Mount of Blessing).

Because of the reality of Jesus and His resurrection, and the promises of God and the hope they give us, we are part of a new kind of life in the world and “nothing you do for the Lord is ever useless” (1 Corinthians 15:58).

This includes the creation or appreciation of beauty that we might otherwise be tempted to consider pointless. Amid the pain, fears and sorrows of life, perhaps dancing on water—or whatever is your creative gift or passion—is among the best and bravest things a Christian can do.


  1. I agree that beauty is the point, not righteousness. Righteousness or right doing functions to allow beauty to exist, otherwise the stark order of following rules brings no joy to life.

    Unfortunately the church has often lead out in the destruction of beauty, whether music, art, or sculpture. The second commandment essentially bans sculpture.

    So, yes, lets work for that which brings joy through beauty.

  2. Richard - I admire your logic. You really force one to think and consider/reconsider reasoning for belief. I like a challenge!

    Now, forgive me for following a clichéd format, but I do question your logic behind your "the second commandment essentially bans sculpture" comment. I normally don't like to major in minors, but such broad strokes of generalization beg to be challenged, or at least addressed.

    First off, sculpture is in no way limited to one format (i.e people). Secondly, sculpture is in no way prohibited - it is the bowing down to images, or worshiping images instead of God, or images representing God that is prohibited. You're logic is a bit, well, illogical.

    If sculpture were prohibited, the entirety of most SDA campuses (not to mention other Protestant and Catholic alike) would be in "violation" of the 2nd Commandment. Pioneer Memorial Church would be in violation due to the sculpture of J.N Andrews and kids.

    Now, the destruction of music, I think we can agree on!

  3. Charles Posted...

    "First off, sculpture is in no way limited to one format (i.e people). Secondly, sculpture is in no way prohibited - it is the bowing down to images, or worshiping images instead of God, or images representing God that is prohibited. You're logic is a bit, well, illogical."

    Well, I don't think it has to do with logic, but, if this were true, I would simply be in error. Let's look at one version of the 2nd commandment.

    "Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth:" Exodus 20:4 KJV

    This seems to cover most things one could sculpture. This has certainly been applied to all sculpture at times by Christians and by the ancient Jews and even Muslims.

    I'm not going to dispute the universal application of this particular interpretation, but it has been applied to all sculpture by some and this belief has resulted in the destruction of more far more than one graven image.

  4. Art is definately an important part of the church. Diversity in art is also important. Church members should feel like the have the opportunity to express their art--to participate in the art of the church.

    Being a musician, I certainly understand the need for some form of quality control in church services. Obviously it is wise to tap into peoples strengths and not their weaknesses, and unfortunately there will always be those who desparately want a weakness to be a strenth.

    But the general principle I think is encouraging people in their strengths and creating more space and more opportunity for them to be a part of asthetic expression. I agree that we should put effort into creating this space and opportunity. Instead of focusing on the new stained glass window or pew coverings, we should first be asking, how we can encourage more people to be participants in the inspired expression of beauty that God gives to all of us.

  5. Great stuff, Nathan. I'm so glad you raised this issue. When I read NT Wright's latest book several months ago and came to that second to last chapter I was stunned to find him describing basically what we have found to "work" for us in Hollywood. We combine works of beauty with acts of justice - both of which point to the reign of God - and discover that this IS evangelism. People want to worship a God that has been reveal to them to be both beautiful and righteous. Thanks for sharing these thoughts!