Last week I talked about the difference between two kinds of human thinking: reason and imagination. Once you understand this difference, you’re better able to understand the purpose of art and the nature of beauty. I left off suggesting that what truth is for reason, beauty is for imagination. Let’s talk more about beauty.
Show and Tell
Beauty appeals to the imagination. In part that means it appeals to our senses (like sight and sound). One of the qualities of good art is that it shows rather than tells. Art doesn’t tell us that we should be brave. It shows us courage so profound that it is beautiful. A movie like Brave Heart shows us uncompromising courage. The Matrix shows us bravery born from belief. The Blind Side shows us courageous love. In the beauty of the story, we experience in our imaginations what might otherwise be spoken to our reason in the phrase, “be courageous.”
Beauty and Glory
But in addition to appealing to our senses, art also appeals to our sensibilities. There is a beauty to the way Shakespeare’s Macbeth describes his belief in the futility of life when he says it is “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” (Act 5, Scene 5). David beautifully describes the courage of faith in a moment of danger or dread: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…” (Psalm 23:4 KJV). We call the sensibility which allows us to recognize and appreciate beauty the aesthetic sense. It’s a kind of inborn attraction to beauty in the world which I think is put there by God to draw us to Him. This is one application of Ecclesiastes 3:11: “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men…” (NIV). The aesthetic sense can be mis-educated and distracted, but this is all the more reason that Christians need to know how to make and talk about art.
Consider another of David’s Psalms: “The heavens declare the glory of God; / the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1, NIV). This psalm echoes the idea that God draws us to Him through beauty in the world. But look at this word, “glory.” What do you think of when you think of glory? Commonly we think of either renown (like an athlete winning glory on a field) or a shining, brilliant appearance, both of which are biblical uses of the word. But the second definition fits the concept of beauty we’re discussing. While the Bible talks about beauty (31 verses in the NIV) and finds even some spiritual importance for beauty (Philippians 4:8, I Peter 3:4), the concept of glory is far more common, but I think they are connected. God’s appearances are associated with glory (Exodus 24:17, Luke 2:9). You and I often look at sunsets or rainbows or autumn trees and, like David in the Psalm, see the glory of the Lord. Isn’t at least part of what we’re seeing God’s beauty? As I said, I think that’s why we have an aesthetic sense.
Truth calls us to God through reason. Beauty calls us to God through imagination. If we can see God in the heavens and the beauty of the world, then it’s also clear that beauty does appeal to more than just our five senses. Our aesthetic sense allows us to see what begins with sight but takes us beyond it (this is also why Peter can talk about the importance of spiritual inner beauty in I Peter 3:4). I don’t think this is the only purpose of beauty. In an earlier article I said that art (and so the beauty it creates) is intended to entertain and enrich us as well as enlighten us. Beauty is meant for pleasure—it’s there for us to enjoy. But it is also given to us by God to draw us to Himself.
Just as music is meant to appeal to our ears, not eyes, and paintings to our eyes, not ears, so truth is meant to appeal to our reason and beauty to imagination. They certainly overlap each other (we’ll discuss that in the future), but philosophy and science teach our reason, music and story teach our imagination. When philosophy achieves truth, it gives us ideas which are real. When literature achieves beauty, it gives us a vision of the real. Art, when it is good, is about showing us these visions. Again, this is not art’s only purpose, but it is its most important purpose in relation to the glory of God.