By Stephen W. Hiemstra
What exactly is beauty and why do we care?
Recently my kids took me to see a film. In it, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful actresses portrayed a low-class, manipulative, rather loose woman. The film’s plot seemed shallow and pornographic, designed more to offend than to enlighten. I left the theater upset and annoyed, not entirely understanding why.
In his book, Visual Faith, William Dyrness (2001, 81) writes:
“Our modern images feature surface and finish; Old Testament images present structure and character. Modern images are narrow and restrictive; theirs were broad and inclusive…For us beauty is primarily visual; their idea of beauty included sensations of light, color, sound, smell, and even taste” .
As the old adage goes, beauty is more than skin deep. When it is only skin deep, we take offense as I did during my recent trip to the theatre.
Beauty More than Skin Deep
In clinical pastoral education we were taught to look for dissidence between words and the body language of patients that we visited. This disharmony between words and body language is, of course, a measure of truth. In like manner, the Bible paradigm of beauty is that the truth of an object matches its appearance.
Dyrness (2001, 80) writes: “the biblical language for beauty reveals that beauty is connected both to God’s presence and activity and to the order that God has given to creation.” The human spirit, although undefinable, is obvious by its absence: a beautiful, living human body emptied of its spirit is no more than a repulsive corpse. Morality works much the same way: “Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout is a beautiful woman without discretion” (Proverbs 11:22 ESV).
In biblical use, beauty is almost indistinguishable from the modern concept of authenticity. In both concepts structure and character complement one another. The surface appearance reflects a harmony within. The beauty we observe in nature reflects fingerprints of our divine creator.
Measure of Truth
Authenticity provides an interesting measure of truth. The gap between form and substance can be subtle, requiring deep discernment. A brilliant sermon can signal inner emptiness like a gold watch without tarnish may signal the substitution of gold plating for gold. Authenticity is a kind of Archimedes principle,1 a measure of the volume versus density of an idea, person, or piece of art.
Authentic communication is frequently less perfect than other communication. Because of original sin, we intuitively expect every human being to have flaws. Flawless communication appears too good to be true because it masks our underlying humanity, a kind of audible lie.
The call for authenticity begins in the third verse of the Bible that reads: “And God said, Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Unlike our proclivity to sin as revealed in our flaws, God’s words and actions are in perfect harmony. The contrast between heaven and earth could not be greater. Unlike heaven, which Revelation reminds us needs no light other than God (Rev 21:23), earth requires illumination that God immediately creates.
God pre-existence relative to creation implies is underscored in the name that he gives Moses in the burning bush. אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה (Exod. 3:14 WTT) that can be translated either as “I am that I am” or “I will be who I will be.” Or in vernacular English: “I am the real deal” which implies authentic being—something that cannot be wholly copied. By contrast, human beings, as images of God, always strive for authentic being, but because of sin never quite get there.
Jesus talked a lot about authenticity and about its inverse–hypocrisy. Perhaps his most famous statement about hypocrisy began with an admonition: “Judge not, that you be not judged.” (Matt 7:1) We frequently judge people by our own estimate of the degree of their hypocrisy. Howard Thurman (106), in a book with an ironic theme of authenticity, observed about the woman caught in adultery:
[Jesus] “met the woman where she was, and he treated her as if she were already here she now willed to be. In dealing with her he ‘believed’ her into the fulfillment of her possibilities.”
For Jesus, the tension between our desires and actions measured not just our authenticity, but also our proclivity to sin. Anger leads to murder; lust leads to adultery (Matt 5:22, 28).
God’s Easter Eggs
From statistics we know that correlation does not indicate causality. A theory is required to suggest why a measured correlation suggests causality rather than random association. If sunspots are associated with weather on earth, what explains this relationship? If the beauty we observe in nature reflects God’s fingerprints, does this indicate that God is good or are we simply projecting our thoughts on natural landscapes?
Authenticity fits into this discussion of causality because the harmony of form and appearance is entirely arbitrary—the world could just as easily be an ugly, inhospitable mess.
God’s goodness and superabundance serve as trademarks on all his work. The simplicity of mathematics in a complex world likewise appears like another one of God’s Easter eggs—scientific discoveries intentionally placed where his children would find them.
Authenticity as Critique
Years ago at a dinner party Ruth Graham learned that an older gentleman sitting next to her was the former head of Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI. Because part of his responsibilities included dealing with counterfeit money, she remarked that he must have spent a lot of time examining counterfeit bills.
“On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spent all of my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I saw a counterfeit, I would immediately detect it.” (Lots 2000, 3)
When authenticity is present, glimmering substitutes appear gaudy or cheap, a kind of visual lie.
Dyrness, William A. 2001. Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic. (Review)
Lotz, Anne Graham. 2000. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Word Publishing. (Review)
Thurman, Howard. 1996. Jesus and the Disinherited (Orig pub 1949). Boston: Beacon Press.
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Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net, Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.
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