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Is Beauty In the Eye of the Beholder?

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“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” So goes the common refrain. And it’s not entirely misguided, as far as it goes. At least, it expresses a reality that most, if not all of us have experienced, at one time or another. One person appreciates the poetry of John Donne or W.H. Auden, another doesn’t see what all the fuss is about. One bibliophile reads nothing younger than his grandparents and won’t pick up a book unless it is accompanied by the musty smell of old libraries while another prefers his with glossy covers depicting the most recent amalgamation of the vampire/zombie/werewolf/superhero industry. A man’s wife snuggles up with him to watch a television show premised upon wistful British reminiscences of a classist past while her husband wishes secretly that they could watch COPS instead. I like rock music. You like classical. My church is traditional. Yours is contemporary. And so it goes. “There’s just no accounting for taste,” we conclude with a sigh. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
          This perception is furthered through the experience of romantic love. The man who is in love finds his beloved to be beautiful, even if the rest of humanity feels reasonably confident that he is wrong. Indeed, the man in love will be deeply offended by even the suggestion that the woman he loves is anything less than the most beautiful woman on the planet. Seeing what appears to the rest of us to be the hopeless naiveté of this punch-drunk fool, we merely shrug and remind one another that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
          But is it? Surely, we should at least hesitate before affirming such a relativistic dictum as this. The best test case for this hypothesis must be the one whom the bible calls beautiful enough to warrant single-hearted devotion—God himself (see Psalm 27:4, for example). Is it possible that the beauty of the Lord is dependent upon the one beholding him? Does it comport with the larger message of the bible to suggest that God’s beauty is “in the eye of the beholder”? Notice, we are not asking whether all people find God to be beautiful. Of course not all people do. But those who fail to properly value the beauty of God are called sinful in the bible (see Isaiah 59:2 or Romans 1:22–23). Thus, the failure to apprehend God’s beauty is not a mere matter of differences in personal taste, it is a moral failure of the highest order. It betrays an inability to perceive truth, for God is true beauty.
          And since God has created human beings in his image, we ought not to be surprised that human beings still retain such a dusting of that divine beauty as to, at times, enthrall one another. Our physical eyes are oftentimes slower than our emotional or spiritual perceptions in discovering this beauty. This explains our previously mentioned Quixotic lover who proclaims the beauty of his beloved contra mundum. He sees something that others have not been permitted to see. His physical perceptions have fallen in step behind his mental, spiritual and emotional sight. Love has pulled aside the curtain and allowed him to catch a glimpse of the divine beauty that had been hidden from other, less devoted spectators. It is not that the beauty of his beloved is relative, or unreal, or true only for him; it is rather that the very real beauty of his beloved has been vouchsafed to him alone.
          Beauty proceeds from God and thus cannot be, finally, relative. Sally Lloyd-Jones understands this concept and explains it fetchingly in The Jesus Storybook Bible. There, several times during the story of creation and more than once throughout the rest of the stories as well, we can read these precious words, “they were lovely because [God] loved them.” There it is, in language a child can understand: beauty is the unfailing result of being loved by God.
          I was reminded of this principle during the recent holidays. Introducing my young children to the simple and profound joys of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” I was struck again at the symbolism latent in the transformation of the children’s Christmas tree, that occurs toward the end of that program. The sparse little tree that had been the symbol of Charlie Brown’s confusion with regards to the meaning of Christmas and which had been mocked by the other children is transformed into something beautiful after everyone’s eyes are opened to its potential. It becomes lovely because they love it.
          Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? The answer for the Christian has to be an emphatic, no. It would be better to say that as beholders, we must rely on the one who is true Beauty to open our eyes.
  1. Tim Bredamus says:

    Once again, greatly appreciated, brother! Thank you for continuing to point us to Him. This blog reminded me of this video:

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