The pursuit of beauty

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I have always been interested in the topic of beauty. From a musician’s standpoint, beauty is obviously an important issue but it is not just about music. Beauty is all around us in many forms beside the arts.

The term that is often associated with the study of beauty is aesthetics and there is (predictably) a lot of debate in the Christian world about aesthetics. I don’t want to dive too deep in those waters today but I do want to address two very common questions about aesthetics from a Christian viewpoint.

1) How important is beauty? Is it on the same level as truth? Should Christians be searching for beauty just like they should be seeking truth?

2) Is beauty relative or objective? Is beauty really in the eye of the beholder?

My more conservative friends will basically answer these questions in this way: beauty is on the same level as truth and beauty is objective. Christians should search for beauty as passionately as they search for truth and as they learn and get closer to God, they will understand what objective beauty really is.

I agree in part. I am not convinced it is on the same level as truth and I am not convinced that Christians have an obligation to search for beauty like they search for truth, but I do think beauty is important to God and should be important to us. And, searching for beauty is certainly a healthy thing. It makes us more thankful and changes our perspective.

How do you look for beauty? Here are a few pictures. Take a look at them and then I will discuss them below.

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Both of these pictures are beautiful but I much prefer the first to the second and I think there are two lessons here that we should remember.

1) Beauty is often found in the simple and ordinary. Look at the small details of life to find beauty–the simple song, the kind word, the small but generous deed, the texture of old wood or a simple leaf. You don’t have to travel to Europe and backpack across the Alps to find beauty.

2) The best kind of beauty is authentic beauty. The second picture is representative of a current trend with photography in which something beautiful is digitally treated in ways to attempt to make it even more beautiful. In real life, the water is not that stunning blue. Yes, I see the beauty in this picture but the beauty is negatively tinged by inauthenticity.

Looking intentionally for beauty will enrich your life. Look for beauty in your environment, nature, your work and other people. By all means, look for the beauty in other people not just because of their appearance but who they are and what they do.

I do digress from my conservative friends on the second question in that I think that beauty is largely subjective. I reject the idea that if two Christians are drawing closer to God, their ideas of beauty will start to align more and more. I reject the idea that one culture has established a standard of beauty in music or the other arts that other cultures must try to measure up against. And I reject the idea that the Bible is very specific about what beauty actually looks like.

One of the easiest ways to debunk the myth of God-revealed objective beauty is to look at the history of music. There are some that claim that the Common Practice Period (CPP), which is essentially European classical music, sets the standard for the world. The problem is that even within that period, the idea of beauty clearly changed over time. What was considered ugly and dissonant at the beginning of the period was considered beautiful by the arrival of Beethoven. If the CPP composers could not even agree on what beauty was, why would we hold them up as the standard for everyone else?

Music is just one example of course. It is easy to think of numerous other examples where beauty is at least somewhat relative. Truth may not be relative but beauty surely is.

I want to be a person who is unceasingly looking for beauty and appreciating it in all its forms, no matter how insignificant. As a human being and as a Christian, that is a good and right thing and it is a healthy thing. My idea of beauty may not be your idea of beauty and that is absolutely OK, but I want to encourage you to intentionally search out beauty too.