Why We Need Beauty: Ideal

Beauty has value because people will pay for it, and yet beauty in our culture is generally perceived to be superficial and insignificant. Within this oxymoron, we’ve seen how beauty evokes substantial responses from people with the attention people give to beauty, the esteem people attach to it, and the price people pay for it. There seems to be a contradiction in claiming beauty to be superficial with the kinds of responses our society gives toward it. Perhaps our responses toward superficial beauty are really symbolic of us grasping for a substantial beauty we sincerely long for. Beauty is an essential quality of reality the human soul needs. Without beauty, the soul dissolves into despair.

Can you imagine a world without beauty? There are places that have been ravaged and abandoned, characterized by devastation, destitution, and pollution. There are conditions of lives where very little beauty is seen because of the atrocities rendered on people. The absence of beauty on a substantial level is real in some parts of the world and in some people’s lives. But imagine beauty infiltrating such places and people, from the beauty of smiles on faces and songs sung in communities to the beauty of art, architecture and arboretums. How would beauty affect societies and souls? I’ve seen how painting three large murals at a low-income, inner-city school enlivens the spirits of the children who attend it. I’ve seen how brand, new textbooks touch children’s hearts. Beauty nurtures the human soul.

One reason for why we need beauty is it expresses an ideal – an ideal hair, skin tone, voice, life, artwork, or character quality. In some cases, sociologically, the perceived ideal can be oppressive, making people feel as though they live in substandard means and need to be like others with more money, wealth, power, and fame. Aside from socially twisted standards that belittle people, ideals can convey noble tenets under a healthy definition of beauty, giving people a vision of something truly great to look towards and strive for. The ideal portrays perfection and pulls people out of complacency and stimulates change. The ideal stirs in people an appetite to be more than what they are presently, to recognize flaws and ugliness that should be recognized and to grasp for greater wholeness. While we hold in the one hand a healthy acceptance of ourselves, meaning we exercise self-forgiveness, self-love and not self-flagellation for not meeting a standard, we also maintain a proper view of the ideal that sets us in motion to better our lives, better ourselves, and better our world. Acceptance alone is flawed if it is a settling for brokenness that should be healed and transcended. The ideal calls for change to the good.

I know it may seem fleeting, because can the ideal ever be attained? Theologically, on this side of heaven, the answer is no. But we’d be moving in the right direction, rather than the wrong direction or no direction at all. We’d be on God’s redemptive, re-creative plan to fulfill his vision of beauty for the world. If we make progress towards the perfect although never arriving, we will still be better than we were before. In the absence of beauty and a view of the ideal, there would be no appetite, no striving, and no movement.

However, considering the ideal brings us back to the question of definition. A person’s definition of beauty defines the ideal in that person’s eyes. Most accept the implied definition of beauty formed by ever-changing currents of commercialism and consumerism. Commercialism and consumerism is influenced by the masses and largely steered by those in power. Those who have more means, resources, social status, and access to prominent figures have also greater ability to influence people’s perception of what is beautiful. Our definition of beauty defines our ideal, which influences what we have an appetite for and determines the direction we move in. But what if beauty, and the ideal, were not socially constructed?

What is objectively real began in creation when God conceived it and manifested it. In creation, God intentionally created the universe to contain beauty, as we can see from His repeated declaration of “it was good” in Genesis 1. So, beauty and an ideal was formulated from the mind of God to be an actual part of our reality. God’s creation and definition of beauty stems from his own character and nature. Everything he created is in harmony with who he is. The universe is ordered because God is ordered and not chaotic. The universe is whole because God is harmonious and complete in his character and nature. The universe is a sensible place, where 2+2 always equals 4, because God is a being of reason. The universe is largely a good, loving, and just place, because God is good, loving and just. The Fall has thrown some of these aspects off balance, but we can still see the universe as largely being good. In fact, the effects of the Fall prods us to strive for beauty because we know that this is not the way things are supposed to be. The world God made is still lovely but we are also far from the ideal. Beauty reminds us that we cannot stay where we are. Since an objective definition of beauty and the ideal is based in God, the journey of discovering beauty is discovering the wonder of God. The quest in becoming more beautiful is a quest in becoming more like God. The appetite for beauty then is a holy appetite, a genuine yearning of our souls. As we wade through various social perceptions of beauty, the ideal beauty we strive for is God’s intended beauty for people and the world.

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Beauty This Christmas

The Christmas season is a time that’s both celebratory and somber for many, as we celebrate hope and joy and close the year, like ending a chapter.  We tend to wonder about the worth of the past year and feel the excitement and intimidation of being at the threshold of another new year.  I find there’s one thing we desire to be the sum of ourselves through the journeys we travel — that is to achieve beauty.  Beauty, however, is more than a superficial covering, but a triumph over the broken, meaningless, hopeless, and regretful.  This is beauty marked by truth, the good, wholeness, and dignity, under the rich classical notion.  This beauty is fought for by ourselves and, at the same time, bestowed on us by those who treat us with love and respect.  To fight for beauty in ourselves, in our lives, and in our journey, we need the fierce courage to create beauty in our lives and the humility to find and receive beauty from others.  So as we come to the closure of a year with a celebration of joy, hope, and peace, I invite us to capture the beauty that was gained this year.  Do something this Christmas that makes you more beautiful.  Relish in the beauties of this year.  Marinate in the company of those who nurture greater beauty in you.  Above all, wherever your path has been as you arrive to the conclusion of 2016, allow this Christmas to remind you that you are far more loved than you could possibly imagine by a creative God who has envisioned a beautiful life for you.

Cosmos Through Him

Amidst life’s chaos and struggles, there is one who maintains composition in our lives.  There is one who holds everything altogether (Col. 1:17), whether the order of the universe or the harmony in our souls.  Christ is not only a means to a destiny – the savior giving salvation – but he is also the glue that keeps the world and our lives from utterly falling apart.  In this piece, my first Steampunk artwork, I used packaging foam to build the structure of the frame.  Foam is a non-biodegradable and non-recyclable material that is harmful to the environment.  I enjoyed redeeming the foam from being a destructive material to the world to being a material that provides structure.  Ironically, the foam is what holds the valuable items of a package in place.  The foam was symbolic for the kind of composition Christ offers.  The mechanical elements represent the inner-workings of a machine that is unseen.  Like Christ, we don’t immediately notice him in the world, but the composition, goodness and order we experience in the world are indications that there is someone at work keeping it altogether.  The automatic, ticking secondhand on the bottom right represents Christ’s supremacy over the passing of time.  He can give meaning and purpose to the events and experiences we have.  Grace, as embodied by Christ, does not only mean saving us from chaos but turning our chaos into a form of cosmos.

Brian S. Chan - 2013

Brian S. Chan – 2013

Selfishness Destroys Beauty

Yesterday morning I discovered four flower heads were ripped off of my Callo Lilies in front of my house, which I had carefully and diligently planted, watered and nurtured for the past few weeks.  I thought the Callo Lilies, often referred to as “resurrection flowers,” would add beauty to the urban neighborhood I live in and bless the many people who walk by my home.  When I saw the freshly ripped stems with their missing flowers, I was perturbed.  I thought about it and realized someone took (stole) them because he/she also found them beautiful as well.  That person was obviously blessed by them as well to want them.   The problem was that the person wanted them for him/herself, and in order to have them, he/she had to destroy them.  This reminded me of a common but destructive treatment of beauty.

Dr. William A. Dyrness from Fuller Seminary wrote in Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue, “Beauty gives rise to desire, which demands possession.  Possession then can destroy the beauty of the object” (82).  He references the desire of Amnon for David’s beautiful daughter in 2 Samuel 13 as a biblical example of this principle.  After Amnon took the daughter by force and used her for sex, he no longer found her desirable in his sight and she withered away as a woman of shame.  I think when we objectify the things of beauty to serve our personal gratification, we exploit its worth and in the course of satisfying our desires, we destroy what is beautiful.  We destroy it by demeaning its dignity, worth and integrity.  We destroy by using it.  We destroy by consuming it for ourselves.  Beauty is meant to be seen, shown and enjoyed by an audience, whether that audience is a passerby of a garden on a city street, a viewer of an artwork in a gallery, or a husband of a wife.  But beauty that is not respected, honored and treated with nurture will be used and destroyed by those who so selfishly claim it for themselves.  The beauty destroyed could be a flower, an artwork, a talent, a celebrity, a girlfriend or spouse, a human being…  We destroy beauty with our lust and lack of respect.  We destroy beauty all the time internally with our envy, lustful eyes or prideful entitlement.  It’s the consumerist mentality that often destroys beauty.

Our society however is paradoxically confusing, because in our consumer-driven culture, people fabricate the appearance of beauty with the intent of selling it.  Our culture markets beauty, or at least a form of it, in order to arouse desire.  Whether it is sexualizing people or creating a facade of the beautiful, people want to sell beauty.  But it is a consumerist form of beauty.  In marketing themselves, true, genuine beauty that is defined by goodness, truth and grace is on a path to destruction.  So, the selfish taking of beauty has a flip side, which is the selfish selling of it.  Both aspects exploit beauty and lack respect for it.

But our society is often like a child.  We see something beautiful, we like it, we take it and in doing so we break it.  I think we have to be careful of how we treat beauty in this world.  Just because we like it, doesn’t mean we should “have” it.

The Difficulty of Developing Self-Control

Someone asked two questions during a class I taught at my church on the subject of the roles of thoughts and feelings in spiritual growth: why is self-control so especially difficult? and how do you develop the virtue of self-control?  That question lingered in my mind for days and my ponderings were trapped on how can self-control be developed other than saying “to will yourself” as the answer.  And then it hit me last night while I was having my time with the Lord – it was one of those insights that seemed oh-so-familiar and yet strikingly fresh.

A major problem with self-control is desire.  Our desires naturally run up against many things that we are trying to have self-control over, so that we feel like we’re fighting against our ourselves as we attempt to resist our own inclinations and wants.  How do we resist something we really want?  I think most strive for one of two answers: 1) a behavioral modification approach of discipline and forcing oneself to not have what one wants & 2) praying for the appetite to go away.  Both of these have biblical validity and are important.  We experience problems when we find ourselves repeatedly failing in these two approaches – either when we don’t have the will power to resist the urges or when our appetites don’t subside or go away.  When we’ve invested in the latter approach with no results, we find ourselves getting angry with God.  Along with the first approach, the discipline of feeding our thoughts with truth and moral goodness helps.  But desires are a strong human compelling that don’t easily go away.  Immanuel Kant wrote that we are driven by our pleasures or our pains.  If we find it pleasurable, we’ll want more of it; if it’s painful, we’ll avoid it.  But this sort of self-centered, animalistic living does not take into account any standard of moral goodness.

Then last night I read Jesus’ words in John 14:15, “If you love me, you will obey my commands.”  I used to think this verse felt non-genuine, combining love with obedience though logically it makes sense especially if you thought of it from a parent-child/master-servant perspective.  But another insight into this principle is the wording of the if-then statement: the love is the condition for the obedience, not the other way around.  That is, the genuine love for Christ is the drive and motivator for obedience and obedience is the natural consequence of a fervent love for Christ.  What resolves the desires we should not have is a having a greater desire for someone else.  The greater loves in our lives will win over the smaller and lesser ones.  So that, when faced with a temptation or distraction that challenges our ability of self-control, it will be the quality of our love for God that causes us to say no to other desires.  In essence, I’m saying no to something because I choose to say yes to someone else.  The principle ruling in me is that I’m avoiding sin not just because it is morally wrong or spiritually corrupting, but because it displeases the God I love.  So I find myself not focused on trying to diminish my abhorrent desires within in (though I still give attention to that) as much as I’m investing time and energy into increasing my love for God.  What keeps me from dating other women is I’m already spoken for and my heart is already captured by another.  What keeps me from turning to sin and temptation has to be that I’m already spoken for by Jesus and my heart is captured by my God.  There are certain things I like to do but avoid doing because I know they would annoy my wife, but I gladly avoid doing them because my love for her outweighs my simple wants.  There is no loss when one is giving up something for the one he/she loves.

Perhaps then, the problem of self-control is not merely a matter of a weak will or a lack of discipline; it can be a question of the place, quality and depth of one’s love.  I think self-control which is a matter of the will always points to an issue of the heart.  Perhaps we are still too Kantian in our thinking because we are wrestling between a self-love versus a love for God which delineates between what we do for ourselves and what we do for Him.  When we are faced with the struggle of self-control, what we need is not only a smaller desire for the forbidden things but a greater desire for the God of beauty.  So my answer to the question of developing self-control is to develop a mad love for the Lord.  At least, I think that’s where it starts.

The Truth About Beauty

(published in the Hollywood Prayer Network newsletter – March 2012)

One of the surprising news that caught much attention at this year’s Academy Awards had nothing to do with The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants or War Horse.  It was “Angelina Jolie’s Right Leg”.  On the red carpet, her right leg slid out from behind her black, high-slit dress every time photographers wanted to capture her.  Her sexy right leg (and yes, just the right) had a show of its own at the event.  It became a newsworthy highlight.  Angelina’s right leg’s achievement to stardom (versus my right leg) is an indicator of what our society cares about – beauty.  The beauty that captures the attention of others is not something we just want to see but also pursue, which is why so much of commercial industry is driven by our desire for beauty, whether it is the beauty we find in cosmetics, homes, gardens, apparels, art or a sunset.  There’s something powerfully delightfully and profoundly enriching about having beauty in our lives.  But what is it about beauty that is so compelling?

Beauty is an ideal that conveys to us the excellent, whole, worthy and perfect.  And for that, we are willing to sacrifice at great lengths to achieve beauty because in some sense, whether superficial or substantial, it affords us a sense of significance.  We tend to relate beauty to surface aspects that seem to be merely decorative.  But often when we discuss whether something is beautiful we realize that “real” beauty, as some would call it, has more to do with qualities that are unseen, like character virtues, personal values or life principles.  We see beauty in the charity of a sacrificial person, sincere love of a faithful husband, enduring faith of a single mother, or pure innocence of a child.  The portrayal of genuine beauty gives us hope.  It reminds us of the good that’s worth fighting for in an often ugly world with troubled lives.  It reminds us of the redeemable in our humanity.  It tells us, we don’t have to stay this way and we can be better than we are.  Perhaps what people want to see on screen, in stories, in magazines and in art is this unseen beauty that gives us hope.  But what exactly is beauty?  How can we see something unless we know what to look for?

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a common aesthetic perception which simply says beauty is whatever you make it to be.  While beauty is intimately tied to our subjective experiences of pleasure, delight and attraction, its definition can be independent of our subjective experiences, meaning we can subjectively experience something that is objectively defined.  One of the many defining elements of beauty, I believe, is truth.  This notion that anything beautiful must contain truth extends from the thoughts of the classical Greek philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, to the Christian fathers, like Augustine and Acquinas.  This age-old idea has been embraced by recent Christian thinkers like Schaeffer, Tolstoy and Rookmaaker.  Truth, not merely the surface aspects, is an essential element of beauty, without which beauty could not exist.  Plato argued that anything containing the opposite of truth that is a lie is considered to be ugly.  We’re talking about the truth of anything – truth about what’s real, who we are, our problems, our solutions, and most importantly as Plato would agree, God.

Practically, a pursuit for beauty becomes a pursuit for truth.  Pursuing this objective beauty ignites a passion in us for life that’s larger than life, because we seek not the sentimental comforts of nice feelings but the grander reality of truth that exists apart from our perceptions and desires.  Objective beauty is not molded by our preferences but discovered as we mature in our mind and beliefs.  Embracing beauty defined by truth frees us from the distractions of the small appetites of consumerism, the petty pressures of conformity and the confines of self-indulging feelings.  When beauty is not merely defined in the eye of the beholder, then we may be free to pursue something greater and beyond ourselves.  Our world will always be drawn to and even hunger for beauty.  The question is what form of beauty will we settle for, pursue or be satisfied with.

Essentials

What does beauty have to do with life?  In a contemporary culture where the mass media has portrayed the image of beauty as mainly having to do with cosmetics and decorations, our common perceptions may have easily dismissed the significance of beauty in life, society and faith.  Understanding beauty is significant because we love what is beautiful; we pursue beauty.  To not be conscious of why we love what we love, we may find ourselves eventually at a place we never wanted to be.  When we seldom think of the meaning and significance of beauty, we may be insensitive to what allures our hearts.