May I Offer a Definition of | Beauty{2} ?


Caravaggio - Saint Jerome2This is Part 2 of an ongoing series based on the paper I wrote on Beauty and the subsequent sermon I gave on it. [Bold: things I had time to say // Regular: things I didn’t have time for]

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Whenever you go to study a particular topic in the Bible, the first place you go is the concordance. You go online, or you look in a book, and you search for every time that word is used. If you’re lucky, you’ll find some place in the Bible where the the writer gives you a direct definition for that topic. You look for statements like “This is love” or “Faith is” or “This is the will of God”. The Bible never gives a definition of Beauty. It calls God, creation, and people all beautiful. It says some people are beautiful. It says some people do beautiful things. It calls both good things and evil things beautiful. It calls for us to seek after certain beautiful things. It tells to avoid certain other beautiful things. So, just simply looking at the whenever the Bible uses the word “beautiful” doesn’t help us tremendously, but it’s a start. We can start to see that beauty is a bit more complex than we’re sometimes told. We start to see how a lot of common definitions we hear some times aren’t true Biblically. We see that:

  • it’s not perfection.
  • it’s not just when something reflects God.
  • it’s not just order or symmetry. We all know there can be beauty in chaos sometimes.
  • it’s not just in the eye of the beholder. There is some objective sense of beauty.
  • it’s not just an attribute of things or people.

The next step in studying something topically is to look at the original language to see what the English translation “beauty” meant in the Greek and Hebrew. When you do this, things get nuts. In the ESV alone, there are over 20 very different Hebrew and Greek words all translated as “beauty” or “beautiful”, but we can still learn a few things. First off, we see that the Hebrew mindset is a lot richer than the Greek one. The Hebrew words range in literal meanings such as pleasant, dignified, adorned, sweet, delightful, precious, boastful, arrogant, glorious, vigorous – one word used only once even means “scraped of all impurity”. The Greek words mean simply good and beautiful. But there is some depth here. The most common NT word used for “beautiful”, but most often translated as “good”, originally comes from a verb which means “to call”, speaking to the attractive nature of beauty. The other word used comes from the word for “hour” which describes beauty as being “within one’s hour”. By the way, in the attached manuscript, you can find a full breakdown of every instance these words appear in the Bible, their form, their frequency, and what each of those Greek or Hebrew words most literally mean.

So now we have a fuller idea of beauty, but still no working definition. At this point you just have to pray, read, and think a lot while looking at the broader context of theology. We use the things we clearly know about the nature of God, humankind, and reality to shed light on the ambiguous things and help us get closer to a definition. When you do that, some things come up that we need to keep in mind.

First, our definition needs to make God the most beautiful Person in the universe, it needs to make the cross the most beautiful event in history, it needs to make Jesus the most beautiful man who lived the most beautiful life this world has ever known, and lastly, it needs to make the Gospel (or the message of Christianity) the most beautiful thing anyone could ever hear or believe.

Secondly, we see that there is a tension that has to be held when it comes to talking about Beauty. It seems like Christians throughout history have fallen into one of two errors when thinking about it: either a pantheistic view or deistic view of beauty. The pantheistic view would say that God is beauty so only things that join him in His beauty can be beautiful. Nothing can have beauty in and of itself. It’s only beautiful as much as God shines through it. This definition would say that bad music made by Christians will always be more beautiful than really good music made by non-Christians. Now we all know that’s not true, because we’ve all heard really bad Christian music. This is the over-objective view of of beauty. The other view, the deistic view would say that God is beautiful, so He put beauty on earth that’s completely separate from Him so we can have a beauty that’s all our own, and it doesn’t relate to God in any way. God is beautiful. Humans are beautiful. There’s no connection. We don’t share in God’s beauty. This view would say that there is absolutely nothing more beautiful about one song that talks about the depths of who God is as opposed to another that doesn’t. They’re just songs. This view is an over-subjective view of beauty.

The Biblical view is different from both of these. The Bible teaches that God is separate from His creation, but He’s still present. God is not in created things, but those things can and do preach about who God is. Man is not God, but God has become a man so that He might communicate Himself to us and accomplish for us what we could not do for ourselves. So God is completely other, but He’s near. So, our definition of beauty has to reflect this. It has to be something that is connected to the nature of God but is still something humans can possess, but not in the same way. It has to objective for God, but subjective for us.

After doing all that, are you ready for an actual definition? The best definition that my arrogant, immature, and prideful 23-year old mind has been able to come up with for beauty is this:

Beauty is the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply.

That’s it. Beauty is what makes infinity, finite; it makes transcendent things seem near. So the more “stuff” that is represented more “simply”, the more beautiful something is. The best image I’ve been able to think of to explain beauty is the Hebrew word shalom. Many people know that this word is usually translated as “peace” but it has a much richer meaning than this. The Old Testament uses this word to describe the ultimate goal and end of history and all that God is doing–peace. Now, when we think of peace, we usually define it negatively- no fighting, no war, no hunger, no pain. But this word in the Hebrew carries with it the connotation of reknitting the very fabric of the universe. It paints a picture of a world that is made up of an infinite number of “strands” of sorts, and shalom is when these strands are re-woven together into a sort of tapestry. Beauty, therefore, is when some or many of these complex strands are woven together into a tapestry that we can perceive with our senses, both physical and spiritual. The more complex strands contained in one simple “tapestry”, the more beautiful that thing is.

This is the objective idea of beauty. But, this definition also has the benefit of having an appropriate subjective component as well. You see, we as individuals over time become more sensitive to certain ones of those strands of the universe and less sensitive to to others. Our culture, experiences, natural make-up, and ultimately our spiritual state all cause us to sense and value various strands differently, making us value different “tapestries” differently.

Next time, we’ll begin applying this definition to other things to (a) better explain it, (b) see if it works, (c) explain why we find somethings beautiful. The first thing we’ll talk about being beautiful? God. Until then . . .

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