The Importance of Beauty for Protestants
Ever wonder why good, solid, Reformed Presbyterians like Scott Hahn become Catholic? Why do they abandon so much truth?
Ever wonder why worship these days is lackluster, despite all the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) hype?
I submit that part of the answer lies in beauty. Once upon a time, theologians stressed the important of truth, beauty, and goodness in the life of the believer. Truth and goodness are both upheld today in various denominations. Correct me if I'm wrong, but here I'd say goodness is godliness, or holiness. It is growth in sanctification. All God's truth is truth. So what about beauty?
I don't think the modern world has much of a conception of what beauty is. The world says that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But Paul, in Philippians 4:8 doesn't say, "Whatever ... you think is beautiful ... think on these things." He says, "Whatever ... is beautiful ... think on these things." Evidently, things have beauty whether we see that beauty or not. That's just one example where the modern world seems to have fallen by the wayside.
Part of why Presbyterians are becoming Catholics is because the Presbyterians have abandoned beauty in their worship service. The Catholics, while perpetuating the abomination of the Mass (and thus re-sacrificing Christ in contradiction to Hebrews), have a stunning worship service. It is lovely. And we human beings are made to respond to beauty like that. When it's missing, we think something's wrong, and rightly so.
R. C. Sproul once said that the medievalists claimed beauty consisted of three things: form, harmony, and complexity. I think most people could agree on the first two, but that third one throws a lot of people for a loop. I've posted before on why I think complexity is necessary for true beauty.
I think that, with God's grace, we Reformed folk need to recover beauty in our worship. But it goes beyond that, even. We need to have much more beauty all around us. We should decorate our homes beautifully, we should listen to beautiful music, and read beautiful books.
Why don't people do that? Probably one reason, as Susan pointed out to me, is that people might have a pessimistic view of eschatology, or end times. If the world is getting worse, why bother to fiddle while Rome burns? I have one answer to that: God's sovereignty. He holds you in the palm of His hand; nothing but good (that is, things that will drive you closer to God) will ever happen to you in this life. So you can relax. It will all work out in the end, trust God for that. And if you trust God for that, you can spend time obeying Paul in Philippians 4:8. Evidently, God commands us to seek out beauty and enjoy it for His sake. Don't forget, in so doing, though, that all beauty must reflect the beauty of holiness. There is no other kind now.
As Douglases Wilson and Jones wrote in their fantastic book Angels in the Architecture, Jesus Christ has thrown down the older pagan beauty of the Greeks. The modern pagan world cannot even come close to it. If you will have any beauty at all, you must borrow it from Christ. Anything else is ugly.
Beauty is important because God is beautiful, the Ultimate Embodiment of Beauty. God wants us to experience that beauty. God lures, rather than coerces, us to Himself. He shows us the incomparable riches of Christ, and desires that we should desire those riches. As Lewis wrote in The Weight of Glory, "It would seem that God finds our desires not too strong, but too weak... We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in the slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."
You can pursue beauty with near abandon, and if you continually couple it with truth and goodness, I do not think you will often stray.
Another interesting comment Susan made, that I would appreciate your input on, is the following idea: beauty is a logical consequence of truth and goodness.
So what about worship? What about CCM? It lacks complexity, and so is not as beautiful as much of the older music. There is newer music being written, to be sure, that is wonderfully beautiful. Morten Lauridsen and Arvo Part are two living composers writing stupendous works. Age does not inherently have anything to do with beauty. Older works have this advantage: since only the good stuff survives the test of time, older works tend to be better on that basis. But we can equal Bach, I claim. We have to get back to his level first.
One common mis-assumption these days is that young people want CCM. That is not quite true. We're seeing many young people more interested in the traditional hymns, because the words tend to be deeper. The people most interested in CCM are the baby boomers, because they think that's the "in" thing. I think CCM will pass away soon enough, like many fads.