By Scott Keith –
Recently, I had a discussion with a good friend regarding the nature of beauty. He recalled a frequent argument he has had with another friend. The nature of their argument sought to answer if music can be categorized into bad, good, better, and best. In other words, can it be said that Bach is better than the Beatles or that the Beatles are better than Bach?
For my part, I cannot speak directly to Bach or the Beatles as I am not familiar enough with either to speak intelligently about the content or composition of their artistry. But I can say that I think there is an objective character to beauty and goodness. In fact, I think that there has to be.
What I am discussing is, of course, not a new argument. C. S. Lewis dealt with it, at least to some degree, in his classic text The Abolition of Man. Therein, Lewis begins his argument by explaining the state of things in his time, which I believe are certainly the state of things now.
“There is a widespread modern assumption that value judgments do not reflect any objective reality. For example, the authors of a textbook on English ‘for the upper forms of schools’ tell their pupils that language as we use it involves continual ‘confusion’ because, as they say, we often ‘appear to be saying something very important about something: and actually we are only saying something about our own feelings.'” Lewis brings the argument back down to earth. When I say that something is sublime, or that something is beautiful, am I stating what I perceive to be reality, or am I stating my opinion?
My perception is that the standard answer from our current societal milieu is to believe that all judgments of value––good, better, sublime, beautiful, ugly––are subjective and personal. But, by claiming that all value judgments are subjective, we seem to put ourselves in a situation where we are faced with an irreconcilable set of choices. Either we reckon that those around us will hold to at least some value judgments to be objective; or we reckon that they will not.
The first alternative seems to hold on to outdated modes of thinking not only regarding ugliness and beauty but right and wrong as well. Those who claim that this or that is beautiful, or good, or right seem to do so only because they think that it is. How do I objectively ground that I believe my wife to be beautiful? Is this not a subjective assertion?
The second alternative seems untenable. That is, do we expect that people will go through their lives believing nothing of value to be objective? The musician who believes this will have no reason to attempt for good music. The artist who believes this will have no reason to strive to make great art.
Now, we are left with a third option. Perhaps some things are good, true, and beautiful because God has declared them to be thus; and thus, they are. When I say this, I recall Romans 10:15, “And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!'” Having worked in the shoe industry for some time, I can tell you, feet are not beautiful. They are more often than not ugly, mangled, sore ridden, bacteria and fungus infected extremities. They are, perhaps, the ugliest part of any body.
Yet, in the text, we are told that when they bring the Gospel, they are beautiful. So does the Bible lie here? No, feet, as they are referred to in this portion of Romans are covered with and overshadowed by the Gospel of Christ. They are beautiful because, in the Gospel, the bearer has been declared righteous––more beautiful than gold or silver––and his feet are part of his new man in Christ. They also are supplying the mode of transport so that the truth that is Christ can be shared from mouth to ear. Beautiful!
The objective character of beauty seems to be part of God. We share in it when He shares it with us. Through His creation, we see His created beauty. Through His Law, we see His created goodness. Through His Gospel, we see His sublime sacrifice for us.
“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) When God declares something to be right, good, or beautiful, it is. It is not good only because He declares it to be so. Rather it is in the declaring that His creation is covered with part of Him. So, though we are yet sinners, He reckons us righteous. In His declaration, on account of Christ, we share in who He is; good and beautiful. “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3)
Good writing, great art, and sublime music, are all attempts to tap into the beauty of God which we recognize all around us. Just as the idea of right and wrong, good and bad remain even in the unregenerate man (Romans 1:20), so to do ideas of beauty. Thus, any man can drive through the tunnel upon first entering Yosemite and say “that is beautiful.”
Too, we recognize good art, that which taps into the beauty God first created and declared. We discern that some people are gifted by the Lord with the ability to be great artists. “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with wisdom, with understanding, with knowledge and with all kinds of skills––to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of crafts.’”
Our final task, when it comes to art and beauty, is to do just that. That is, to make every attempt to discern what is good, true, and beautiful. We may never find the rubric that definitively tells us that Bach is better than the Beatles, or that the Beatles are better than Bach. But, it does not serve us well to believe that an answer should not be sought. If all goodness, truth, and beauty are from the Lord, then it seems that goodness, truth, and beauty are in the eyes of one beholder. Those eyes are the eyes of the Lord. We simply attempt to tap into and recognize what He has left for us here and yearn for the day when His beauty will be revealed to us completely. For the sake of His Son, we will see Him face to face, and we will know fully goodness, truth, and beauty.