Recently I happened upon an auction catalog of modern art. Almost all of it was ugly. Objectively ugly. If it is possible to lack something in spades, the contents of this catalog lacked beauty in spades. Some would urge me to look past the surface at the deeper meaning in each piece, but past experience tells me that path only ends in misery and a headache. As any good classical-schooled student will be quick to point out, there’s a reason art history tracks closely with the history of philosophy. Today’s art is ugly precisely because today’s philosophy that underpins it is ugly. Which is to say that bad philosophy makes bad art, whereas good philosophy makes good art.
In other words, objective beauty exists because objective truth exists. However, many reject the truth, and so it is not surprising that many a viewer or listener cannot appreciate good art. It is in this sense that we correctly say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Nihilism produces bad art, yet a certain kind of Christian is tempted to delight in Radiohead. On the other hand, many more are tempted by the sentimentalism of Kincaid, and therefore find his very bad art quite pleasing to the eye.
The scary thing about art is that it actually has the power to inform and change our worldview as we give ourselves to it. It affects our very definition of beauty. Just like bad company corrupts good morals, so bad art corrupts good desires. This is the basic argument for building beautiful church buildings. “Objective beauty exists. Ugly buildings corrupt our ability to worship, because they do not lift our hearts up to God. Therefore our buildings must be beautiful.”
This sounds compelling until we realize that it is also the argument of the young man who insists he can only date a woman with the body of a porn star. “Objective beauty exists. If I marry an ugly woman, I won’t be attracted to her. That would be disastrous to my marriage, and that wouldn’t glorify God. Therefore my girlfriend must be beautiful.”
At this point, I could spend a long time explaining to the young man that the super skinny form our society values today is objectively less beautiful than the chubbier form valued by the society of yesteryear. It would be an interesting argument, and I’d be right. But I’d also be exactly wrong.
The problem with this young man is not his reasoning. The problem is that his definition of beauty is bad because it only takes into account outward form.
There’s nothing much wrong with the outward form of a porn star. Yet the mature Christian man will not find her attractive because she is filthy on the inside. There is such a thing as objective beauty, even in a cup, and we can certainly point to certain characteristics of objective outward beauty: symmetry, form following function, etc. However, Jesus tells us our concern is to be whether the cup is clean on the inside, not whether it is clean on the outside, much less what it looks like on the outside.
We are always tempted to argue about outward beauty and attempt to perfect our definition of the outward beauty of music, buildings, paintings, tombs, and even women. It is exactly this outward form of beauty that God says is fleeting. (Proverbs 31:30) So when it flees, then what? Among other things, a man married to a woman whose beauty has fled feels justified in turning back to the pornography that largely formed his definition of beauty in the first place.
The work we all need to undertake is to have our definition of beauty conformed to God’s definition of beauty, which has less to do with the skin and more to do with the heart. The reason God warns women against adorning themselves with “braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments” (1 Tim 2:9) is not because such things are ugly. Rather, it is because such things do nothing to beautify a woman according to God’s definition of beauty, and in fact militate against two of God’s characteristics of beauty: modesty and discretion.
The same holds true with our church buildings. When the disciples praised the outward form of the temple, Jesus didn’t counter by describing how much better the original temple was. He just said it would be torn down. He was dismissive of it. On the other hand, he demonstrated real concern with what was happening on the inside when he threw out the money changers.
In fact, as I try to explain to young men, outward beauty, whether of a woman or a building, is not determined by its form. God has seen fit to make outward beauty miraculously dependent on internal beauty. Those who have their eyes trained to discern true beauty will not be distracted by the weight of the woman or the height of the arches or the glitter of gold. Instead, they will see the internal character shining through the much less substantial physical form.
Years ago in Ethiopia I saw several beautiful ancient Orthodox churches and monasteries, but all of them paled in comparison to the humble building with mud walls and a tin roof that a small group of Evangelical Christians had built out in the bush.
And that’s because it was objectively more beautiful.
Until we relegate the outward form to the (un)importance that God places on it, our wives will continue to feel objectified by us and our worship of God will be hampered.