Art / Visual Art

Nourishing Our Souls

“Beautiful things are a delight to the senses, a pleasure to the mind, and a refreshment for the spirit,” artist Makoto Fujimura writes in Culture Care (p. 32). The italics are his, by the way, and he is right to emphasize them. “When feeding our souls, we dare not substitute surface attraction—that which is effortlessly appreciated and soon exhausted of virtue—for true beauty.”

We commonly think of a triad in which we should grow and mature: truth, goodness, and beauty. I know plenty of Christians who regularly set aside time to grow in truth and to mature in their thinking, reading challenging books, and being part of a small group that does serious Bible study together. I also know plenty of Christians who consider carefully what it means to grow in goodness and righteousness, taking repentance seriously, praying that virtue would take root in their hearts and lives, and adopting spiritual disciplines in a heart felt desire to love what is good and to do it.

But are there Christians who have a thoughtful plan for growing towards maturity in beauty? Who intentionally set aside time to relish the delight, pleasure and refreshment that can be found in beautiful things? Who intentionally seek to sharpen their ability to see beauty in a broken world?

The usual excuse is that there isn’t enough time to add growth in aesthetics to growth in truth and goodness, but that is obviously a smokescreen. After all, we always make time for the things we consider essential. Don’t we instead believe we can achieve spiritual maturity without developing a deeper appreciation of beauty or a more profound comprehension of art? Although we’d never put it this boldly, we actually believe that a Christian can consistently refuse to give beauty the time it requires, can hold undeveloped views of creativity and culture, can insist that “what I like” is a sufficient standard for art—and here’s the kicker—we actually believe that such a philistine can still be regarded as a mature and maturing follower of Christ.

The Mighty One, God the Lord,
speaks and summons the earth
from the rising of the sun to its setting.
Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.

(Psalms 50:1-2).

To miss beauty, then, is to miss God who dwells among his people. Just as we worship God awed by his truth and goodness, so too we worship him for his glory: “how great is his goodness,” the prophet Zechariah exults, “and how great his beauty! (9:17).

We are limited by our culture’s Enlightenment roots, shaped by pagan Greek thinking where truth, goodness and beauty are made into categories of thought, impersonal, abstract and strictly rational. A far richer, truer vision of reality is found in the Hebrew wisdom tradition in which Jesus lived and taught. Here truth, goodness and beauty are not to be dissected but lived, together one mysterious glory of the infinite personal God who has revealed himself in creation, scripture and Christ, before whom we stand in faith, obedience and silence. In this view beauty is not a category of thought but a reflection of the Creator in all things called into existence by God’s word, is personal because it is a reflection of the personal infinite God, is never abstract but always lived, and is never strictly rational because it goes far beyond all reasoning into a mystery of divine glory that is rational but beyond human knowing. In the Greek view beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but in the Hebrew it is the resplendent glory of God Most High.

Beauty is a signal of transcendence, a sign that something beyond the here and now exists and can be embraced. It is one reason why the scriptures insist that unless we learn to be still, we cannot know God. Beauty is unhurried, delicate and allusive, so quiet contemplation is necessary to plumb its depths.

“Blessed are they,” Impressionist painter Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) said, “who see beautiful things in humble places where other people see nothing.” We do God no favor in being so busy or so distracted or so captured by Enlightenment philosophy that we look at glory but see nothing.