Last week, I pooled my birthday money with some gift cards I had received for Father’s Day, and splurged on a set of high-end noise canceling headphones from the storied audiophile company Sennheiser. When they arrived in the mail a few days later, I engaged in the loving ritual that has come to be known as “unboxing.” One does not simply rip open the packaging; no, one must savor the experience, discovering little by little the beauty that lies within the box. And so the outer cardboard was removed, followed by the interior packaging. A velveteen case emerged, and within in it was a silky smooth cloth bag containing the treasure. My heart leapt in my chest as I pulled the vintage leather-and-ivory headphones out of the bag and held them in my hand for the first time. Before putting them on, I turned them over in my hands for a minute, marveling at the exquisite craftsmanship. Hand-stitched leather headband with contrasting thread. Brushed and polished steel. Supple leather pillows for the ears. Even the wiring was lovingly and prominently featured. All told, this was far more than just a utilitarian product designed to pump sound into my head. This pair of headphones was an aesthetic object of desire crafted beautifully for the pure enjoyment of beauty. It was art.
THE BEAUTY REFLEX
Why do we love beautiful things? Why did my new headphones provoke such excitement? Why do geometric patterns on a blouse cause women to squeal with delight? Why do the contours of a sports car cause men to make whatever the manly equivalent of “squealing with delight” is? Why do we run our fingers breathlessly over rich-grained leather, handcrafted furniture, and the latest lust-worthy Apple product? What is it about the human spirit that responds reflexively to beauty?
And why do we strive to create such beauty ourselves? Why do we hang art on our walls and cultivate flower gardens in our front yards? Why do three-year-olds proudly present their scribblings to mommy? Why do we fill our cities with murals and monuments and parks and architecture? What is it about the human spirit that reflexively seeks to create beauty?
That reflex is nothing less than the cultural mandate of Genesis 1—“be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it”—beating in the human heart. Our souls yearn for glory, and respond to glory by seeking to recreate wonder wherever we go. Singer and songwriter Michael Card writes in his book, Scribbling in the Sand,
“We are driven to create at this deep wordless level of the soul because we are all fashioned in the image of God who is an Artist…His image is woven into the fabric of everything we are. His thumbprint on our lives affects us in ways we will never begin to understand. His divine beauty, which is part of our essence as well, demands a response… We hunger for beauty because it is a beautiful God whom we serve.”
The cultural mandate flows in our veins as an inescapable impulse, expressing itself in our magnetic draw to beauty, because we were made in the image of a beautiful God. As image-bearers and regents of God, we represent the reign of an Artist. God exercises his royal dominion by creativity and artistry; he creates order out of chaos, beauty out of ugliness, and a grand story out of the million narratives of history. And so we, imitating him without even realizing it, carry on the creation project of order-producing and beauty-making and culture-building.
Even if you’re not an artist or musician or architect, this has massive implications for how you live in a world that is both passing away and yet pulsing with endless wonder. We were created to experience and extend beauty. Every person who has ever lived, even if they have never heard of Jesus, is driven by both of these passions. But those of us who know Jesus, who have been brought into the God-Man’s kingdom where the human project is being restored, have a special relationship with beauty. We are the ones in whom the beautiful image of God is being restored, those who are being trained to take the reins of the cultural mandate into the new creation.
This changes how we experience beauty and extend beauty. First, our experience of beauty is transformed because we are now able to see whence all beauty comes and where it all points. My Sennheiser headphones, if I have eyes to see, are more than an elegant combination of technological wizardry and careful craftsmanship. They are a glimpse of the beauty of the Creator himself, refracted through the lens of his image-bearers’ creativity.
Does that seem excessive, to imbue a set of headphones with the imprint of glory? Consider: why do things have such an attraction to our souls? Why are we so tempted to love our possessions more than we love God or people? Why is the pull of idolatry so strong? I mean, after all, it’s just stuff. Why should physical objects be able to command such fatal sway over our emotions and desires? It is because our souls were wired to respond to beauty, but the Fall and sin have blinded us to the true source of beauty, God himself. The upside-down nature of present reality has twisted our relationship with the physical world; the way we respond to the beauty of things and people and God is inverted from their proper order. Instead of basking in the resplendent beauty of God, celebrating the inherent beauty of people, and enjoying the reflected beauty of things, now we ignore God and use people and love things. Like a man desperate for the sun in a room full of candles, we are drawn to the sparkly shininess of stuff, which dimly reflects the beauty we long for. In the words of Romans 1, we have “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images”—a poor substitution indeed.
But the restoration of our full humanity in Jesus can begin to slowly heal this horrible trade. Once the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to truly see the superior beauty of God, the glimmers of earthly trinkets can be restored to their proper place in our hearts’ affections. Surprisingly, this doesn’t mean that we end up loving stuff less. Rather, with love for God restored to our hearts, we are now finally able to love other things rightly, in their proper proportion. Once the great reversal restores the beauty of God to its highest place, we can celebrate people and enjoy our possessions with freedom and joy. It is a liberating feeling to be able to hold a pair of glorious headphones and still love God’s glory more. Only then are we truly free.
The restoration of our humanity in Jesus also transforms how we extend beauty; that is, how we cultivate artistry, expression, and creativity. If, in Christ, we are part of the new humanity that will bring the glory of the nations into the New Jerusalem, if we are being restored back into the image of our Artist God, then we should be the kind of people who take beauty seriously. We should be on a perpetual quest to create beauty wherever we go.
This applies even if you’re not an artist or musician. You’re a human, which means your calling as an image-bearer is to reproduce paradise. So if you’re a craftsman, put all your skill into creating well-made, beautiful products. If you’re a nurse, labor to draw out and honor the dignity of your patients. If you’re a homemaker, work to make an orderly, beautiful space in which your family can thrive. If you’re a computer engineer, write elegant code. If you’re a businessperson, build organizations that celebrate and advance what’s good and true. If you’re a scientist, pour your heart and mind into studying and explaining the Creator’s exquisite creation. If you’re a student, strive for an excellence that honors your teachers and classmates. In every profession, quality and kindness and attention to detail makes your work—whatever you do—point to the Creator’s splendor. “Whether you eat or drink (or teach or paint or build) or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Even the boring can be beautiful.
BEAUTY AS MISSION
The experience and extension of beauty can be about far more than just aesthetics. Beauty itself be a tool of mission. As human beings who hunger after beauty, our souls can only fully be satisfied with the Beautiful One himself, King Jesus. “In that day,” the prophet Isaiah wrote, speaking of the church age, “the Branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious” (Isaiah 4:2). Jesus, the Davidic Branch, is the beauty we were made for. But the secondary, reflected beauty shining through our artistry can point back to the Beautiful One and help people come to know him.
You may not know this, but as you read this chapter, God is using beauty to plant seeds of revival and is calling people to himself in one of the most spiritually desolate countries on earth, Japan. In a surprising twist of history, the music of 18th century German composer Johann Sebastian Bach has captured the minds and hearts of Japanese people. The musical splendor flowing through his artistic gift has become a means of mission. Every Advent season, Bach’s “Christmas Oratio” plays to sold-out crowds in non-Christian Japan, telling the story of the Savior in musical form. Thousands flock to hear Bach’s retelling of the gospel in famous compositions like “St. Matthew’s Passion.” Some simply appreciate the music. But others are drawn into Bach’s complicated interplay between major and minor, light and dark, and discover behind the music the deep Christian faith that fueled his artistry.
The effect that Bach’s music has had on secular Japan is hard to overstate. Japanese musicologist Keisuke Marayuma, for example, spent several years studying Bach’s cantatas in Germany. He was so moved by the music and the Scripture behind them that, at the end of his studies, he tracked down a German bishop and told him, “It is not enough to read Christian texts. I want to be a Christian myself. Please baptize me.” Another musician, Yuko Maruyama, was once a devout Buddhist, but upon encountering the gospel in Bach’s music, was eventually drawn to Jesus. “Bach introduced me to God, Jesus, and Christianity,” she said. She now teaches theology in Tokyo. Famed organist Masaaki Suzuki has said, “I believe that Bach has already converted tens of thousands to the Christian faith.” Some have called Bach “the most significant missionary to Japan since the Jesuit Francis landed there in 1549.”
J.S. Bach is a prime example of how God can use beauty to draw people to himself. This is one of the greatest means of mission that Jesus’ kingdom has. We are the restoration of the human project, beautifiers in the hands of the Beautiful One. Our history is one of cathedrals, masterpieces, symphonies, and sculptures—monuments to the majesty of our God.
A RETURN TO BEAUTY
Yet as twenty-first century Christians, we have somehow lost sight of this heritage. “Christian art” today is often just a reheated version of its secular counterpart, with less originality and skill. From cheesy wall art on sale in Christian bookstores, to cringe-worthy Christian movies, to the musically- and lyrically-hollow contemporary Christian music scene, the modern church seems to have lost its sense of calling to make beautiful things. Where we once gave the world Bach and Handel and Michelangelo, now we have repetitive three-chord worship anthems and tacky inspirational pictures of sunsets. Is it any wonder that the watching world is unimpressed with our claims about our King and his kingdom?
This loss extends even further than CCM radio hits and Christian kitsch. I’d like to gently push back on the centuries-long trend in church architecture and worship services that intentionally eschews beauty as “worldly” (yet another tentacle of Gnosticism strangling the kingdom). The trend began in the Reformation as a necessary reaction away from the idolatry of Catholicism and the embrace of a simple gospel. The magnificent cathedrals and stained glass windows and gilded artistry of medieval Christianity gave way to the plain, stripped down meetinghouses of Puritan worship. And maybe that wasn’t an entirely bad thing. But the baby ended up being thrown out with the bathwater, and today the trend away from beauty has reached its nadir with churches inhabiting warehouses and strip malls. Modern efforts to bring beauty back into the sanctuary with well-crafted lighting, sound, and production elements are often met by stiff resistance from the people in the pews, who decry such accoutrements as “worldly” diversions from pure spiritual worship. One of the most frequent complaints I hear in my own congregation is how our production crew’s attempts to holistically create a high-quality ambiance of beauty with stage and lighting elements offends the sensibilities of some of our more staid members. “Why can’t we just worship God without all these unspiritual distractions?”
This isn’t to say that some modern “rock show” worship sets don’t go too far in blending entertainment and worship, or that we should all go back to stained glass and incense. And of course church expenditures on building projects and stage lighting should always be balanced against the more pressing needs of mission and mercy. But if the kingdom of God is, at its heart, a beautification project that is restoring humanity and the whole world, shouldn’t that value be reflected in the embassies of the kingdom, our churches? And if our worship is to be more than a gnostic rejection of anything physical as “unspiritual,” then our gatherings should embody a whole-person, flesh-and-blood celebration of our calling to create and cultivate. Whether your congregation is a megachurch building a new campus, a church plant worshipping in a rented gymnasium, or an underground gathering in a persecuted country, the celebration and exhibition of beauty should be—if not at the center of worship—at least very close to it.
We worship a beautiful God who is making us and all things beautiful. Let’s honor that full-bodied gospel in how we build and work and decorate and sing. Let’s recapture the church’s heritage of being culture-shapers and beauty-makers. In doing so, we will once again be able to show to the world a new way to be human, a God who is the very definition of beauty, and a kingdom in which everything will be made beautiful again.