In Praise of Ugly

By Paul Koch

One of the things that comes with affluence is the ability to hide what is ugly. Think of the stereotypical modern suburban home in Southern California where the mother of 2.5 children heads off to lunch with her girlfriends to show off her newly augmented breasts and face lift. The father who always has the latest iteration of whatever car demonstrates his upwardly mobile career path. Or the home with the perfectly manicured front lawn and well-appointed accent trees to give it that picturesque setting that is the envy of the homeowners’ association. Everything is beautiful. Not because it was beautiful by nature or happenstance, but by dedication of time and money what was viewed as ugly is soon plastered over.

Now, I’m not opposed to nice cars or a well-kept front yard, or boob jobs for that matter. What concerns me is the desire to always hide away what is ugly. Not only is it disingenuous to pretend that the ugly doesn’t exist, but it is dangerous to think that by changing the outside appearance we’ve solved the problem. There is real ugliness in our world, real filth and dirt that cannot be so easily pushed aside. And yet those who have the means to push it aside will go to great lengths to do just that. But there is something important about the ugliness. There is something about the ugly that we need in our lives.

If we pay attention, we see our lingering connection with the ugly all around us. Though we want the new and the clean and the beautiful, we can’t quite totally remove the ugly. We may buy furniture that has been intentionally roughed up so that that it looks like it has more of a history, more vintage. People buy jeans with tears in them and frayed pockets as if there were a story to them. We even eat at hip, clean, and comfortable new spots that look like the old and dirty dives we frequented when we didn’t have much of a choice. We clean up the ugly and leave just a bit of it behind so that it feels authentic and less like an Applebee’s.

I was at a little tap room and restaurant with my bride last Sunday afternoon to enjoy a bite to eat and a beer while watching the Dodger game. Behind us there was live music. This day, the entertainment featured a lovely trio of what I assumed were high school girls with beautiful voices. Their singing reminded me of the sort you would hear from a well-polished praise band in a popular church. The harmonies were sweet, and everything just seemed beautiful. My wife and I played our favorite game of trying to decipher if they were singing about a boyfriend or Jesus (not as easy as it may sound) when they suddenly shifted gears and sang a beautiful rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Now this song has been covered hundreds of times, and rightly so. Cohen’s poetry is haunting and powerful. But something about beautiful people with beautiful voices in a beautiful setting singing this beautiful song was just too much. Sure, we like the beautiful hallelujahs, but Cohen seemed to leave room for the broken and ugly ones as well. In fact, those ugly hallelujahs stand on equal footing and perhaps are far more common.

Maybe there’s a God above

But all I’ve ever learned from love

Was how to shoot somebody who outdrew ya

And it’s not a cry that you hear at night

It’s not somebody who’s seen the light

It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah

Sometimes I think the church has taken up the cause of the beautiful at the cost of the ugly. The dirty and filthy realities of the world are checked at the door of the church and inside is a carefully orchestrated experience of the beautiful, sort of like a spiritual trip to Disneyland. But to be all beautiful all the time is to strip life of its story, of its history. It is to play pretend, or worse, try to make everyone into our preferred brand of beautiful. Church then becomes a piece of performance art, where everyone plays their role—no one sings off key, no one can be ugly, no one is honest.

But the reality is far from perfect. There is a lot of ugliness in the lives of God’s children. There are a lot of broken and aimless hallelujahs. To ignore them or hide them away is to remove them from God’s gifts—from real love, from true forgiveness, from lasting and enduring hope.

I did my best, it wasn’t much

I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch

I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you

And even though

It all went wrong

I’ll stand before the Lord of Song

With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah