Beauty: Useful or Vain?

June 28, 2012

It seems that in our Christian culture there is no end to people reminding us that “beauty is vain” (Prov 31:20) and that “inner-beauty” is all that matters. This is used in a variety of contexts, the most obvious is with the physical beauty of women, but a less obvious similar concern comes up with the church – specifically the building itself. Church buildings these days have become centered more around functionality rather than beauty. Utility rather than aesthetics often rules in the sanctuary. We’ve traded in stained glass windows, high architecture, intricate carvings, and pews for whitewashed walls, flat screen TV’s, and stadium seating or stackable chairs. We’re willing to spend money to make the building more useful for the congregation, but often spending to make things more “beautiful” is seen as superfluous and unnecessary in our budget. The question is: are our priorities right?

Two quotes have been stuck in my mind recently on this topic. As I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables this summer, I came across something that the Bishop of Digne says in regard to his garden. His sister complains to him that he has a section of the garden that only has flowers, which is of “no use” to them, and she thinks they should put something more useful in. “It would be much better to have salads there than bouquets,” she says. His response is, I think, profound:

 “[Y]ou are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful… perhaps more so.” (p. 22)

The bishop – a man no doubt who was wise and careful with his money and time – saw fit to daily tend to his garden because he valued the beauty of flowers, not any utility they provided him. We might learn something from the bishop’s simple priorities.

The other quote comes from Exodus 28 – where the instructions for the priests garments are given. The whole section is sort of book-ended by this phrase that is repeated twice:

You shall make them for glory and beauty. (Exodus 28:2, 40)

 These garments were not primarily for any functional purpose – but rather they were made for “glory and beauty.” If you read all the instructions for building the Temple, you will find that much of the precise details for how to make all the instruments and utensils are often regarding the aesthetics of the building. This really stuck out to me as I listened through all the commands on my commutes during the day. Beauty was an essential part of the creation of the Temple.

So I wonder – why is it that we don’t put much effort into making our church buildings beautiful today? N.T. Wright says that beauty inspires worship – and worship is the central purpose of the church – so why don’t we incorporate more beauty into our church buildings? I, for one, find my heart wants to worship God so much more when I’m in some of the older church buildings that we visited in Chicago. I’m not saying that beauty is all that matters, or that utility and functionality is unimportant – but I think we’re a bit mistaken when we brush beauty to the wayside because it is not useful.

As for the physical beauty of women, the Scripture seems to speak highly of it as well. There are numerous women in the Bible whose beauty is mentioned: Sarah (Gen 12:11), Rachel (Gen 29:17), Abigail (1 Sam 25:3), and others. These are women that are commended in Scripture, for their character – yes –  but also for their beauty (the two are not opposites, but routinely mentioned together). There is no doubt that beauty often causes problems: Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2), Tamar (2 Sam 13:1), or Vashti (Esther 1:10–11), Joseph (Gen 39:6), Absalom (2 Sam 14:25); but the problem was not necessarily the beauty iteslf, but people’s response to it. In fact, God uses the beauty of one woman to save an entire nation (Esther 2:7). Beauty even seems to be a blessing from God, a sign of his favor. At the end of Job, when he is given a new family – there is explicit mention of his daughters being the most beautiful women in all the land, as a sign of blessing for him (Job 42:15). So physical beauty seems to matter in Scripture.

Now, I don’t claim this to be a complete and thorough study of beauty and it’s role for women and the church, but I do think it hints that perhaps we’ve swung the pendulum a little too far and fallen into another equally deep ditch. Beauty is good – we will one day “see the king in his beauty” (Isa 33:17) – and that will be a good thing! Beauty is useful – it has purpose. Character, “inner-beauty,” utility and function are all good things – but physical beauty need not be a casualty in order to maintain them. Beauty in it’s proper context inspires worship – both the physical beauty of the church and of women (and men also, I suppose, although I have no qualifications to speak on that topic and it does not particularly interest me). So beauty is useful – and dare I say, perhaps even more useful than we’d have previously thought?

What are your thoughts on beauty? I’d love to hear some other ideas on this topic.

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  • Reply Jacob Fronczak June 28, 2012 at 4:30 am

    God invented beauty. It sounds really super-spiritual to eschew beauty for beauty's sake, but it's really just asceticism, which by itself, is (ironically) actually useless.

    There is, interestingly, a stream of thought in ancient Judaism that says we will be held accountable for refusing to enjoy anything God has offered for us to enjoy.

  • Reply Ben June 28, 2012 at 5:44 am

    Jason, I agree with your thoughts. Interestingly a question bumping around in my head as of late is that of "what is beauty?" or rather, "Is beauty in the eye of the beholder or is it truly intrinsic in something?"

    My gut is to say it isn't in the eye (or ear) of the beholder, but I'm not sure why yet. (I drilled a current Hillsdale student about it last week and wasn't satisfied with her answer). Did you ever read Alan Bloom? I think he has something to say on the matter.

    imo, Beauty deserves far more credit than we give it. Given how much you read, I think you may find time for "Beauty will save the world" by Brian Zahnd.

    Edwards also found profound significance in beauty and traced it ultimately to Christ and Spiritual realities. "The reason why almost all men, and those that seem to be very miserable, love life is because they cannot bear to lose sight of such a beautiful and lovely world – the ideas, that very moment whilst we live have a beauty that we take not distinct notice of, but bring a pleasure that, when we come to the trial, we had rather live in much pain and misery than lose…"

    Edwards saw some things that are beautiful (a calm serene day, for instance) as shadows or resemblances/pointers to things that are truly "sweet and most charming" beauties, namely, Spiritual things (a holy and virtuous soul, in the case of the serene day). The lily pads and chirping birds around a quiet pond beautiful to be sure, yet they lead our mind to think on greater beauties such as gentleness and calmness.

  • Reply William June 28, 2012 at 8:18 am

    Excellent post, Jason. I've been thinking about this recently, too, as the church I currently attend lacks the beauty I came to appreciate and love at my church back in Texas. It's not just lacking beauty in the architecture and decorations, but it lacks the beautiful, purposeful order of worship and some elements I think very beneficial. Even communion — when we have it once a month — lacks the aspect of beauty I knew. I don't mean to knock my current church, it is theologically sound and unashamed in its preaching of the Gospel and is where God has me right now, but I find myself longing for beauty. I fall firmly on the "useful" side of the juxtaposition when it comes to considering beauty because I find it very useful as an aid in worship. Beautiful things reflect the beauty of our Creator (as orderly things do His order) and we find worship a natural response.

  • Reply Ben June 28, 2012 at 9:26 pm

    "In defending truth the church has created Christian apologetics, and in defending the good the church has created Christian ethics. But by in large we have ignored the virtue of beauty, relegating it to the demoted status of mere adornment. Yet the recovery of beauty as a way of interpreting and expressing the Christian faith may be just what we need at this time.

    Along with Christian apologetics and ethics, we need some Christian aesthetics. In a culture that is suspicious of our truth claims and less than impressed with our claim to a superior ethic, beauty may be a fresh way to communicate our message. Beauty has a way of sneaking past defenses.

    But for us to adopt a presence of beauty we need a form that we can look to as a guide. Whether it’s a painting or a poem, a sculpture or a song, it’s the form that gives a thing its inherent beauty.

    So what is the form of Christian beauty? I think it has to be the cruciform—Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in offered embrace, forgiving the sins of the world. What I’m suggesting is that the body of Christ should be in the world as the beauty of the cruciform. What we say, what we do, what we demonstrate should be in some way an expression of cruciform beauty.

    We should ask ourselves, does this stance, this position, this project, this action, this attitude look like Jesus upon the cross? If not, maybe we should rethink it. This would be a helpful step in getting rid of some of the ugly ways we react to what we perceive as wrong with the world."

  • Reply Jason Custer July 4, 2012 at 11:01 am

    I like that last thought. I've rediscovered your blog and have been enjoying your thoughts, Jacob.

  • Reply Jason Custer July 4, 2012 at 11:04 am

    I wholeheartedly agree – I'm naturally drawn to more liturgical worship services because of the order and beauty of the liturgy. But when the building is the same way – with everything thought out and ordered to have purpose and intentionality behind it, I can easily become captivated and find myself in a reverential posture quickly. I feel the same "longing."

  • Reply Jason Custer July 4, 2012 at 11:11 am

    I have added Zahnd's book to my wish list. I've honestly never thought extensively about beauty very much until now. I think it's something that has more far reaching influences than we tend to think. There's another book that I've had on my wish list for some time called "On Beauty and Being Just" by Elaine Scarry. I've heard Tim Keller talk about it a ton in regards to justice – so the idea really intrigues me. I also need to read more Edwards – I'm looking to purchase a collection of his broken into five books, each dealing with a different topic. Perhaps the one on "beauty" should be the first one I read. Anyways, let me know of anything that you come across.

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