It seems that in our Christian culture there is no end to people reminding us that “beauty is vain” (Prov 31:20) and that “inner-beauty” is all that matters. This is used in a variety of contexts, the most obvious is with the physical beauty of women, but a less obvious similar concern comes up with the church – specifically the building itself. Church buildings these days have become centered more around functionality rather than beauty. Utility rather than aesthetics often rules in the sanctuary. We’ve traded in stained glass windows, high architecture, intricate carvings, and pews for whitewashed walls, flat screen TV’s, and stadium seating or stackable chairs. We’re willing to spend money to make the building more useful for the congregation, but often spending to make things more “beautiful” is seen as superfluous and unnecessary in our budget. The question is: are our priorities right?
Two quotes have been stuck in my mind recently on this topic. As I’ve been reading Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables this summer, I came across something that the Bishop of Digne says in regard to his garden. His sister complains to him that he has a section of the garden that only has flowers, which is of “no use” to them, and she thinks they should put something more useful in. “It would be much better to have salads there than bouquets,” she says. His response is, I think, profound:
“[Y]ou are mistaken. The beautiful is as useful as the useful… perhaps more so.” (p. 22)
The bishop – a man no doubt who was wise and careful with his money and time – saw fit to daily tend to his garden because he valued the beauty of flowers, not any utility they provided him. We might learn something from the bishop’s simple priorities.
The other quote comes from Exodus 28 – where the instructions for the priests garments are given. The whole section is sort of book-ended by this phrase that is repeated twice:
You shall make them for glory and beauty. (Exodus 28:2, 40)
These garments were not primarily for any functional purpose – but rather they were made for “glory and beauty.” If you read all the instructions for building the Temple, you will find that much of the precise details for how to make all the instruments and utensils are often regarding the aesthetics of the building. This really stuck out to me as I listened through all the commands on my commutes during the day. Beauty was an essential part of the creation of the Temple.
So I wonder – why is it that we don’t put much effort into making our church buildings beautiful today? N.T. Wright says that beauty inspires worship – and worship is the central purpose of the church – so why don’t we incorporate more beauty into our church buildings? I, for one, find my heart wants to worship God so much more when I’m in some of the older church buildings that we visited in Chicago. I’m not saying that beauty is all that matters, or that utility and functionality is unimportant – but I think we’re a bit mistaken when we brush beauty to the wayside because it is not useful.
As for the physical beauty of women, the Scripture seems to speak highly of it as well. There are numerous women in the Bible whose beauty is mentioned: Sarah (Gen 12:11), Rachel (Gen 29:17), Abigail (1 Sam 25:3), and others. These are women that are commended in Scripture, for their character – yes – but also for their beauty (the two are not opposites, but routinely mentioned together). There is no doubt that beauty often causes problems: Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:2), Tamar (2 Sam 13:1), or Vashti (Esther 1:10–11), Joseph (Gen 39:6), Absalom (2 Sam 14:25); but the problem was not necessarily the beauty iteslf, but people’s response to it. In fact, God uses the beauty of one woman to save an entire nation (Esther 2:7). Beauty even seems to be a blessing from God, a sign of his favor. At the end of Job, when he is given a new family – there is explicit mention of his daughters being the most beautiful women in all the land, as a sign of blessing for him (Job 42:15). So physical beauty seems to matter in Scripture.
Now, I don’t claim this to be a complete and thorough study of beauty and it’s role for women and the church, but I do think it hints that perhaps we’ve swung the pendulum a little too far and fallen into another equally deep ditch. Beauty is good – we will one day “see the king in his beauty” (Isa 33:17) – and that will be a good thing! Beauty is useful – it has purpose. Character, “inner-beauty,” utility and function are all good things – but physical beauty need not be a casualty in order to maintain them. Beauty in it’s proper context inspires worship – both the physical beauty of the church and of women (and men also, I suppose, although I have no qualifications to speak on that topic and it does not particularly interest me). So beauty is useful – and dare I say, perhaps even more useful than we’d have previously thought?
What are your thoughts on beauty? I’d love to hear some other ideas on this topic.