LifeWay Christian Store’s recent decision to pull the film The Blind Side from its shelves because of profanity, violence, and immoral behavior has ignited a debate in Christian circles about the role of art and beauty, and Christians’ place in consuming and creating art. There seem to be two camps: those who believe that the value of Christian movies is primarily their effectiveness as a tool for evangelism and those who believe they are an art form, valuable for their own sake, that can reveal God’s truth in profound ways. To answer this question we must cultivate an understanding of the biblical worldview of aesthetics — whether objective beauty actually exists and how it might be known through the moral order and through nature.
Should Christians Care about Aesthetics?
Aesthetics is the study of how beauty both embodies and points the way to truth. What we call art is the physical expression of aesthetic principles. Most Christians are accustomed to truth being communicated propositionally (in a three-point sermon, for example). But artistic truth should be taken seriously as well. Art is powerful in penetrating our minds and spirits. That’s why it’s easier to recall the tune and lyrics to a theologically rich hymn than to remember the points of a sermon. Good art enables us to appreciate true beauty. Such is the power of art and beauty that Christian art scholar H.R. Rookmaaker said art itself can be a vehicle for carrying out Christ’s commandment to love others. “Love is to make things that are right and fitting, to help our fellow-man, to make this world more beautiful, more harmonious, more suitable for human living, more suitable for expressing that inner beauty and love for which all men are searching — even if, in despair, mankind often breaks it down, even if, in sin, we often destroy beauty and create ugliness,” Rookmaaker wrote. “Beauty, as it were, is a by-product of love, of life in its full sense, of life in love and freedom.” 1
Does Objective Beauty Exist?
The skeptical philosopher David Hume wrote, “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them.” But the idea that beauty is subjective — “in the eye of the beholder” — is a radical departure from the classical view that beauty is accessible, knowable, and nameable.
Jonathan Edwards attempted to deal with the “subjective vs. objective” question by explaining that there are two categories of beauty: beauties that are “more palpable and explicable” and those that are “hidden and secret.” 2 The former category would include such beauties as scenes of nature and musical chords, the pleasing nature of which can be explained mathematically or scientifically as a product of order in the universe. “Hidden and secret” beauty, on the other hand, revolves around rightly ordered relationships — such as a picture of a mother caring for her young child. “These hidden beauties are commonly by far the greatest, because the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden is it,” Edwards wrote. “In this latter sort consists principally the beauty of the world.” 3 To Edwards, then, beauty is objective, but its objectivity is sometimes hard to explain because it is so richly textured. To say that beauty is complicated is not to say that it is unknowable, though. In our pursuit of a biblical worldview of aesthetics, we would present two criterion: is it moral and does it tell the truth about the created order?
Clue #1 to Understanding Beauty: Is It Moral?
Dr. Beth Impson, a professor of English at Bryan College and a Summit Tennessee instructor, has wrestled for years with how to define and teach beauty. “I have always struggled,” she admits. “How do we talk about what makes great art? Is it just an aesthetic skill? Where does the idea of morality come in?” This tension came to a head when Impson examined the works of American author Kate Chopin, a talented writer who nevertheless advocated radical feminist ideas such as adultery as a way to strengthen marriage.
Impson’s struggle — how Chopin could use such beautiful language to communicate such a morally reprobate sentiment — led her to conclude that beauty of the grandest sort must be morally as well as aesthetically skilled. “No matter how beautiful Chopin’s sentences and paragraphs are, you can’t recommend it except to discerning readers,” Impson said. To find moral beauty, Impson says we ought to look to what Scripture says about the scarring effect that moral depravity has on it. Impson points to Ezekiel 16:25 as an example (“At the head of every street you built your lofty place and made your beauty an abomination, offering yourself to any passerby and multiplying your whoring”). “Something is morally beautiful if it tells us truths about human nature, truths about the created world, truths about who God is,” says Impson. “[Advocating adultery] is moral ugliness.”
That doesn’t mean that beautiful art should obscure the often ugly effects of the fall. Rather, it’s how those effects are treated that determine the moral beauty of an artistic work. Works like the film Schindler’s List or stories by Flannery O’Connor exhibit moral truth by exposing the wretched effects of the fall on the human condition, and in doing so cause us to yearn for that which is morally beautiful. Impson points out that minor chords in a piece of music create dissonance but can actually contribute to the harmony of the piece by creating a longing for resolution.
Clue #2 to Understanding Beauty: Does It Tell the Truth About the Created Order?
From a biblical worldview, what counts as aesthetic beauty isn’t something we make up ourselves — it’s found in the created order. Francis Schaeffer puts it this way in Art & the Bible: “The common symbolic vocabulary that belongs to all men (the artists and the viewers) is the world around us, namely God’s world. That symbolic vocabulary in the representational arts stands parallel to the normal grammar and normal syntax in the literary arts. When, therefore, there is no attempt on the part of an artist to use this symbolic vocabulary at all, then communication is impossible here too.” 4
Romans 1:20 says that God has made His truth known in creation. Good art is compelling because its very order tells the truth about God, human beings, and nature. Even in our fallenness we are driven to see order of this sort. Impson sometimes walks into a classroom of students and writes two sentences on the board. Whether or not the sentences have anything to do with one another, her students always try to connect the two. They naturally strive to apply some sort of order. “It’s the same thing with art,” Impson said. “It’s embedded within us.”
Why Does All This Matter?
Discussions about aesthetics can be esoteric and academic, but the recognition of what is beautiful, true, and excellent is a discipline that can be cultivated through practice. Whether we like it or not, we’re constantly bombarded with something passing itself off as art: music on the radio, television shows and films, novels at the local bookstore, or photos in a magazine. Living discerningly requires us to actively reflect on what is true, what is good, and what is beautiful in each of these situations. If we do, we can appreciate God’s created order in new ways. If we don’t, we’re opening ourselves up to deception. “Art can reach us in ways that nothing else can, for truth or for falsehood,” Impson said.
In the end, making the debate about The Blind Side a question of proselytization sells the Christian worldview short. As Christians we ought to discipline our aesthetic understanding — in movies, visual arts, music, and more — to more skillfully communicate truth, meaning, and purpose in a world of squalor, hopelessness, and dejection. It’s not about us and our preferences — it’s about whether the whole earth might worship the Lord in the beauty of His holiness (Psalm 96:9).
- H.R. Rookmaaker, Modern Art and the Death of a Culture (Wheaton, Illinois; InterVarsity Press, 1970) p. 243.
- Jonathan Edwards, “The Beauty of the World” http://www.enjoyinggodministries.com/article/the-beauty-of-the-world/.
- See note 2.
- Francis Schaeffer, Art & the Bible (Downers Grove, Illinois: IntervArsity Press, 1973) p. 40.