4. Objective Beauty
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Really? So if I find sin to be beautiful, then it is so for me? While this saying may have been coined with good intentions I find no value in it as a Christian. If someone finds an object, action, or idea beautiful when God does not, then that person is wrong. That thing is not beautiful and the person believes in a lie. There is beauty in the eye of the beholder only if the beholder we are referring to is God. At this point some may object, “That proverb only refers to things which are actually subjective. For example, some may find a musical work to be beautiful while another finds it to be disgraceful and both views would be justified. No proverb is without exception.” But that’s a silly idea because there is an absolute standard for beauty, and that standard is Christ. Since perfect beauty is possible, human opinion is irrelevant. Saying that objective beauty does not exist is as silly as moral relativism (and maybe just as diabolical).
Truth is what is; what is not is untrue. When something is untrue, it is a lie. Lies are not beautiful and no amount of postmodern relativism can make them true or beautiful. In other words, truth is reality and lies point to nothingness. (I don’t understand why people think “what is truth?” is such a deep question. It seems to have the most obvious answer of any question ever asked.) Truth gives birth to beauty and goodness because beauty and goodness are real. Were they not real, they would not be beauty and goodness. Therefore beauty and goodness cannot be subjective. Truth is true and it does not create things that are unlike itself. If this does not settle the matter for you, read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.
In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a conversation happens between two artists; one damned and the other glorified. The heavenly artist said to the ghost, “When you painted on earth…it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape. The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.” The ghost’s painting was good because it reflected heaven; because it tried to capture the reality (truth) from which beauty comes. (In this, Lewis also made it clear that Godless men can still depict heaven; which is why Christians should not hesitate to consume secular art when it is good.) Music is the same way; it is only beautiful if it points beyond itself and towards the standard. Therefore, there is nothing subjective about beautiful music. It is either beautiful or it is not. If music depicts a glimpse of heaven, then it is so and no amount of opinion or reasoning can undo its beauty; we are obligated to enjoy it. If it does not point to heavenly beauty (especially if it does not even point beyond the author) then it is not beautiful. If it is possible that one person can observe God’s beauty in a musical work and another cannot, then there is something wrong with one of the two people’s perspectives.
There is an obvious exception that must be addressed. Some art is beautiful despite the use of ugliness. In fact, ugliness seems to be the very thing that makes certain varieties of beauty more beautiful. If this were not true, God’s plan for redemption would be darkened by our sin thereby making redemptive history one enormous contradiction. For light does not do battle with darkness but rather transforms it into more light. Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is the most obvious example. It is the ugliest movie ever made: “Let’s sit in a dark theater and watch a perfectly innocent man get sentenced to death by corrupt authorities, beaten to to bloody pulp, mocked by evil and ugly people, and then put to death by being nailed to a splintery cross and slowly suffocating.” Why is this beautiful? The best it could possibly be is boring if not the sickest and ugliest thing you’ve ever watched. This is not the case, however, because every ugly element in that movie is transformed by the Object of perfect beauty. Every insult, every lash, every slap and punch, every nail, and every painful breath was transformed into a beautiful act of forgiveness and compassion because Jesus makes all things new through his own perfection. Not only that, but those wounds also turned into victory through the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:54)! Such amazing beauty could not exist without something ugly being redeemed. If you let this line of thought go through to its logical conclusion, you will understand why a good God allows evil to exist. Sin turns into God’s goodness (Romans 5:20-21). We can also see that unredeemed ugliness can also be beautiful so long as the ugliness knows that it is ugly and is seeking help; there is beauty in ugliness’s search for a cure to its ugliness. However, when ugliness does not desire to be redeemed or does not even realize that it is ugly, then it is intolerable. The only exception is when unrepentant ugliness is depicted honestly; to point out a lie is to tell the truth, and this is also beautiful.
So then, there are three ways to express beauty. One is to depict heaven through divine inspiration. The very thought of doing this makes me very nervous, although I have written a few pieces out of passionate joy that turned out very well. To call it divinely inspired, however, is someone else’s job. Another (and much safer way) to depict beauty is through redeeming ugliness. The third is to reveal lies for what they are. These three ways of creating beauty are all very difficult, but the only other alternative is to write pretentious lies.
When we apply all of this to the music in our worship services, we can see that many people take musical preference far too seriously. When a certain type of music is used because that is what people prefer, there is a risk of using music that doesn’t reflect heaven. The reason we select or create a style of music for worship should not be due to anyone’s preference, but rather to what music is the most true and beautiful. Whether truth is in the music through heaven being reflected, ugliness transformed, or lies dismantled, the music in worship services must be inherently beautiful. If this is done honestly, not everyone is going to naturally favor the music that is used because our sin keeps us from recognizing beauty. It causes our judgement to be biased towards ugliness. There is therefore no possibility of every individual getting the music they naturally want in light of this truth. There will always be details of beauty that bother some people and not others since we are all uniquely imperfect. All we can do is create and use music that is as true as possible. But as time progresses our music must point to heaven more and more (or reach out for it). How do we do this?
Technique 1; make beautiful music for beautiful reasons: The measurable and universal characteristics of musical truth must be used (we’ve already addressed this in “Acceptable Sounds in Worship; Quality“). We must also not be picky about what genres to use (this should be based on cultural context), but rather what specific sounds and patterns are based on aesthetic truth and theoretical concepts. Obvious falsehood should be avoided. For example, heavily distorted electric guitars should not be used simply because the guitarist desires to sound powerful. This depicts God to be more like Thor than YHWH. Traditional western harmony, four part homophony, and strophic form should not be used for the sake of idolatrous nostalgia. The organ should not be abandoned (it’s being replaced by electronic keyboards, let’s face it) because it is quite possibly the most beautifully powerful instrument in the world. The music is not to be easy simply because people are content to be unskilled; the sounds they make will reflect their poor attitude. Yet all of these things are becoming rampant and are but a few examples of why the music in many worship services is becoming less and less beautiful.
Technique 2; admit that your music is ugly: All church music is ugly to a certain degree. This should not be a surprise and if it is I hope that it is only as surprising as Romans 3:23. To think that sinful people could create indisputable canonic music is like saying that people are basically good. Only through divine inspiration could a person make a sound of perfect beauty. And yet this debate of “traditional vs. contemporary” is still in session. Just as all people are sinful, so our music is ugly. So instead of forcing music to be something that can only come through divine inspiration, expose the ugliness for what it is and redeem it. Let the Thor-like guitar be Thor, but redeem it. You will instantly hear the power of our all-mighty God taking the strength of a brute and turning it into divine power, glory, and majesty. Stop hiding your ugly sounds with lies and depict the ugly sounds reaching for heaven so that we may hear the saintly cry for mercy and God’s response of redemption. Who has the wisdom to attempt anything else? It’s very difficult to do, but I’d rather attempt to make sounds like that than sing lies.
Technique 3; give control to God: Stop and think about a few things that you find beautiful. Take the things you thought about; consider how much control you have over each of them. You’ll find that you have very little if any at all. When we consider Christ as the object of ultimate beauty, we realize that the reason we find him beautiful is not because we have control over him but rather because of who he is without our meddling. This idea holds true in our faith and all the way down through the created order. We find beauty only when we discover something we don’t know. We discover it in the depths of the unpredictable and constantly changing details of life. My wife is beautiful because she has new things for me to discover each and every day. She is beautiful because she is growing. Changing. Completely outside of my control. Free to be the woman God designed her to be. Were I to manage this freedom that makes her beautiful, every component of her being that I successfully controlled would no longer be beautiful to me. It would be like capturing a flame in a jar to take wherever I pleased while it slowly faded out of existence. I love the way she thinks because its not the way I think. I love the way she teaches because it’s not the way I teach. I find her beautiful because I do not have control over her, and we attend to each other’s aesthetics like gardeners attending to trees we don’t even know the names of. As should be the case with how we handle all beauty; particularly the bride of Christ and the sound she makes.
Regardless of what generation you are from, your music is not finished developing. I understand that many do not wish to step outside of what they are comfortable with musically, but beauty is born out of the truth we are designed to revel in and there is no such thing as perfect beauty when it comes to man creating art in this life. It has to constantly continue becoming more true and more beautiful. So If the music in your church has not become any more beautiful for several years (let alone a century), then that should indicate a very serious problem: God’s spirit is not developing or moving in your music. Our music needs to progress in the same way that our understanding of God does because our music is an expression of worship created through our understanding of God. If you do not desire for your worship music to develop into deeper and truer beauty, it is very likely that your worship itself is not becoming deeper or truer either.
If you will not grow, then you will die.