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Steve Baarendse on the Eyes of the Heart & the Glory of God
What is the end, the telos, of beauty, imagination, and creativity? Some have said that beauty is its own end; in the arts, this was called "art for art's sake." You can see it recited as catechism in John Keats's famous epigram about the Grecian urn: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—That is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
But the Christian knows that this Romantic creed is only a tragic half-truth. Even artistic beauty is not big enough to be its own end; and art, severed from its transcendent source, is powerless to save. Keats died appealing to the beauty of poetry, but coughing up blood. He did not acknowledge the One to whom beauty points, who bled and died for sinners, the One who alone has the power over death.
Christians have the answer to the riddle of beauty, though it doesn't diminish its mystery: beauty is not a thing, but a Person. We can't analyze beauty; it is Someone we come to know. Just as beauty can't be separated from truth and goodness, they all come together in the Person of the God-Man Jesus Christ, who created all things and in whom all things subsist. Jesus is the end of beauty, which means that beauty, wherever we find it, always points to him. He himself formed our imaginations with one great object: that even though now we look through a glass darkly, we would come to see him better and better, and to long more and more for the glory of his appearing.
The Beauty of the Son
Union with Christ is the ground of beauty's apprehension. People catch glimpses of beauty all around, because the world, in spite of sin's degradation, is still charged with the grandeur of God. But a real, grateful appreciation of the beautiful can only be fostered in relationship with this God, who made us and redeemed us, and we can come to know him only through the person and work of his Son. If beauty is difficult to define, it's because our Lord Jesus shines as a many-splendored diamond with unnumbered facets, the radiance of the Father's glory (Heb. 1:3). We who have come to him have only just matriculated in the school of his beauty. We will never graduate, nor will we want to.
This is the beauty that the Bible and the theater of creation point to at every turn, if we only have eyes to see it. Creation points to the beauty of Jesus, because the Son was the craftsman at work in creation, the One in whom was all the Father's delight (Prov. 8:30). Nature is the creative expression of the Galilean carpenter's skillful workmanship. The artistic beauty of the tabernacle and the temple pointed the Israelites to the beauty of Jesus, who tabernacled among us in his incarnation. He said of himself, destroy this temple and I will raise it in three days (John 2:19).
Even the disfigurement of Jesus' crucifixion points us to his beauty, because in it we see the glory of our redemption and the depth of the Father's mercy for sinners. Jesus is beautiful in his resurrection and exaltation, and the beauty of his redemption is displayed to all the world through his Body, the Church, the Bride he himself is washing so he can present her "in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any blemish" (Eph. 5:27). Finally, the vision we have of heaven, where the Lamb in his glory will be the source of light, is one of inexpressible delight (Rev. 21:23). So we can truly say of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ: "If ever any beauty I did see, / Which I desired, and got, 'twas but a dream of thee" (John Donne, "The Good-Morrow").
Beauty Returned to God
My students are sometimes surprised by how many of the poems in our secular literature textbook are great works of art and also explicitly Christian in their content. But should this be surprising?
People who have become aware of the glory of Christ are inspired to create some astonishingly brilliant works. Think, for example of the polished gems encased in George Herbert's The Temple, John Donne's Holy Sonnets, or Gerard Manley Hopkins's devotional verse. Think of the rich, imaginative scope of Paradise Lost, The Pilgrim's Progress, The Lord of the Rings, and The Chronicles of Narnia, or the wild, grace-charged stories of Flannery O'Connor. They are all the creative work of Christians who understood that art was a good gift of the Creator, to be cultivated as a vocation and returned to God as a sacrifice of praise.
Contemplating the Divine Glory
It's hard to think of any American thinker who wrote more poignantly about beauty, or whose theology was more grounded in it, than Jonathan Edwards. This comes from his memoir of his teenage years:
From about that time I began to have a new kind of apprehensions and ideas of Christ, and the work of redemption, and the glorious way of salvation by him. An inward, sweet sense of these things, at times, came into my heart; and my soul was led away in pleasant views and contemplations of them. And my mind was greatly engaged to spend my time in reading and meditating on Christ, on the beauty and excellency of his person, and the lovely way of salvation by free grace in him. I found no books so delightful to me, as those that treated of these subjects. I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. These words seemed to me sweetly to represent the loveliness and beauty of Jesus Christ. ("Memoirs of Jonathan Edwards," Works, vol. I [Banner of Truth, 1974], xiii)
This new apprehension of Christ's beauty changed the way Edwards saw everything in the world. The loveliness of Christ working in him made him alive to beauty everywhere else:
After this my sense of divine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of every thing was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast or appearance of divine glory, in almost every thing. God's excellency, his wisdom, his purity, and love, seemed to appear in every thing; in the sun, moon, and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers, trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. I often used to sit and view the moon for a long time; and in the day, spent much time in viewing the clouds and sky, to behold the sweet glory of God in these things: in the mean time singing forth, with a low voice, my contemplations of the Creator and Redeemer. (Ibid.)
With the eyes of his heart opened to beauty, Edwards's affections welled up in thanksgiving. Similarly, Johann Sebastian Bach signed his works "SDG"—Soli Deo Gloria, "Glory to God alone." Chesterton says in his little book about St. Francis that the worst moment for the atheist (and we can add the pantheist) is "when he is really thankful and has no one to thank."
This is the end of the matter: we need to care about the beautiful, because our life—including our appreciation for beauty, literature, and art—has the single evocative purpose of participation in the beauty of the Lord. We've been made for more than a utilitarian, materialistic life. We're not just ethical, but also aesthetic beings. The best thing art can do is to remind us that we were made for more. It can, if we desire it, point us to our Creator, to the God who in the beginning said, "Let light shine out of darkness," and who has shone in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:6). •
Steve Baarendse is an Associate Professor of English and Humanities at Columbia International University in Columbia, South Carolina. He and his wife Sara have three children and worship at Lexington Presbyterian Church (PCA).