Tag Archive for aesthetics

2. Beauty in the Hebrew Bible

Few Christians would say that beauty is unbiblical. After all, they vaguely remember references to “the beauty of holiness” or the desire “to behold the beauty of the LORD”. But many might think of beauty as extra-biblical: mostly an aesthetic and philosophical concept, more at home in art galleries and philosophy lecture-halls than in churches and seminaries. And as that ancient biblicist Tertullian put it, what hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?

This objection is the first of several stumblingblocks that modern Christians may have toward the concept of beauty. Are we forcing the square-peg of a Greek philosophical idea into the round hole of Scripture? Before I reveal all my cards on whether Plato and Paul could share a meal, I’d prefer to call for a cease-fire between biblicists and philosophers with a question for both: could there be a transcendental Reality that our English word beauty refers to, and which the Bible describes in several ways? In other words, could both Scripture and philosophy be pointing toward something transcendent that exists in God’s universe, even if the nomenclature differs between theologians and philosophers?

My answer is positive: the reality to which beauty refers is all over the Bible. Seeing it might require wiping some of the salt-spray of the Enlightenment from our hermeneutical lenses, but it is fairly plain to see, if you look.

Let us proceed inductively, working from the worm’s-eye view all the way up to the bird’s-eye view. We’ll begin with the vocabulary of Scripture that carries the ideas of beauty, proceed to the key verses about beauty, and ultimately scan the themes of Scripture that seem to support the idea of beauty that carry across the canon. We’ll also notice the actual form of Scripture: the beauty of its own literary structures.

Wait. Aren’t we begging the question with such an approach? Aren’t we assuming a certain definition of beauty to be proven, and then finding in the Bible what we were required to prove? Yes and no. It is nearly impossible to avoid some circularity when we try define transcendentals such as truth, goodness or beauty, because you keep needing the concept to validate if you’re finding the concept. But it is still possible to do an honest search, and find if the ideas broadly accepted as approximate to beauty  are found in Scripture. The vital thing is to keep allowing Scripture to hammer our idea into shape, and not try to tame Scripture with our philosophical whip.

Hebrew Words

A word-search on the English word beauty will not yield illuminating results, because the English equivalents of Hebrew words are variable, including such synonyms as glory, beauty, excellency, honour, loveliness, comeliness, pleasantness, and delightfulness. You could say that the Hebrews took the idea of beauty for granted, without seeing a need to define it abstractly or conceptually. Beauty is more of an adjective than a noun in Hebrew thought, more a descriptor than an idea considered in itself.

At least twelve Hebrew words carry the idea.

. In the Hebrew beauty-vocabulary, the ideas of splendour, majesty, honour, and glory mingle with the ideas of pleasure, desire, attractiveness and enjoyment. For the Hebrew mind, no division seemingly existed between what was lovely and loving it, between the desirable and its desire, between splendour and its admiration.

Hebrew writers are describing a phenomenon, not defining an idea. Obviously the phenomenon contains the idea: excellence or attractiveness, as well as pleasure and delight. At this stage of pre-speculative intellectual history, no separation existed between the experience and considering the experience in the abstract. The Hebrews knew both as a value and as an experience all that we now call beauty.

Without Chests?

“Men Without Chests” is the curious title of a chapter in Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man, and it’s from that chapter title that this blog takes its name. (You can read the chapter here). What does this odd title mean? Is this some odd anatomical reference? Is it an obscure metaphor referring to cowardice?

Lewis guides us by taking us back in time. He takes us back to the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, who thought of education very differently. Training a young child was not a matter of filling his head with information which could later be cashed in in the form of a well-paying job. Rather, both pagans in the classical era and believers in the pre-modern era believed a child needed to be trained in an area completely neglected by modern secularists: feeling correctly. The child needed to be taught to judge all things for their value, and develop healthy admiration for what was true, good, and beautiful, and develop healthy distaste for what was false, evil, and ugly. This was not simply the training of the reason, but the training of the heart, not simply the accumulation of knowledge, but the development of desires. Education, for pre-moderns, was not the path to a career, it was the shaping of a human to be just, noble, honourable, and responsible.

They saw that the parts of the man that mediated between reason (the head) and appetite (the belly or loins) were the affections or desires (the chest). When the ‘chest’, or the noble affections were trained, the human had a seat in the soul to protect it from giving in to sheer visceral appetites and passions.

By contrast, modern education pretends to eschew all judgements (except for non-judgementalism), embrace all truths (except exclusive truth), and see all things ‘beautiful in their own way’ (except those who claim that beauty is an objective reality – they find those people ugly). Twelve years of this produces what Lewis calls “Men Without Chests”. That part of the human which loves, admires and praises, or disdains, hates, and refuses is sorely underdeveloped, or even missing.

When it is missing, what results is a human with nothing between himself and his appetites.  The man without developed affections pendulums between brutality (loving too harshly or not loving enough) and sentimentality (loving too sweetly or loving too much). Brutality and sentimentality are equal and opposite errors, and they are both forms of idolatry.

Now picture entire churches, entire segments of professing Christianity, lacking this judgement, this sense of beauty or ugliness. Picture churches whose worship is either brutal or sentimental. Picture Christians incapable of admiring God for His beauty, unable to spot cheap substitutes for true worship, lacking all ability to distinguish between worship and entertainment. Those would be Churches Without Chests.

And now consider whether such a phenomenon requires your imagination, or merely your powers of basic observation.

The Green Book

Poor Alex and Martin. Misters King and Ketley had no idea that their forgettable English textbook would unleash one of the twentieth century’s most eloquent and destructive critiques of modernism, with the two of them in the marksman’s crosshairs.

The Control of Language: A Critical Approach to Reading and Writing, was published in 1939 as a textbook for upperform students in British schools. Little did Alex King and Martin Ketley know that their work would catch the ire of Oxford don and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. But ignite his ire it did, and the result was one of Lewis’ most important books, The Abolition of Man.

In his first chapter, “Men Without Chests”, Lewis graciously gave King and Ketley the pseudonyms Gaius and Titius, and to The Control of Language he gave the title The Green Book. But beyond his civility towards their persons, Lewis gave no quarter when it came to his criticism of their book. For within the book, Lewis found an error that was pernicious and destructive, and one with the power to subvert young minds.

Their error has now become a commonplace in our day. They comment on Coleridge’s experience of hearing two tourists see a waterfall, one describing it as “sublime”, the other calling it “pretty”. Coleridge endorsed the former and was disgusted at the latter. King and Ketley wanted their readers to see this through modernist eyes, however. They wrote: “When the man said This is sublime, he appeared to be making a remark about the waterfall… Actually … he was not making a remark about the waterfall, but a remark about his own feelings. What he was saying was really I have feelings associated in my mind with the word “Sublime”, or shortly, I have sublime feelings.’” 

And here Lewis released his truth bloodhounds. For contained in that statement is the germ of modernism, naturalism, and even atheism. Beauty, or sublimity (a form of beauty), according to King and Ketley, is not a real attribute of persons, places, things or ideas in the universe. Beauty is not something that can be predicated of another with any coherent meaning. Instead, beauty simply refers to pleasure in the subject. Beauty is the happy approval of observers.

From there, a logical connection is quietly made in the young person’s mind: we are not to make judgements of value about the world, calling things true, good or beautiful. Instead, we are simply to say, “Such and such is beautiful to me” or “I feel pleasurably attracted towards such-and-such”. All we are allowed to do (by the rules of modernism) is make statements about our thoughts and feelings. To make value judgements about the world would be to assume a meaningful universe that can be judged for meaning – including its beauty.

Lewis knew that this view was an Enlightenment revision, and an anti-Christian one. He wrote, “Until quite modern times all teachers and even all men believed the universe to be such that certain emotional reactions on our part could be either congruous or incongruous to it—believed, in fact, that objects did not merely receive, but could merit, our approval or disapproval, our reverence or our contempt.”

One wonders how many pulpits are occupied by men like Gaius and Titius.

“When you say that certain music is beautiful, what you of course mean is that it is beautiful to you, and that you know according to Romans 14 that it may not be beautiful to another Christian.”

“To say that Isaac Watts wrote beautiful poetry is true. But is it not true that a child’s prayer is just as beautiful, in its own way?”

“What style of music we like is simply a preference. That we all defer to one another’s preferences is what really pleases God. God has no musical preference.”

Whether or not they realise it, men who say these kinds of things, and the churches that approvingly nod, are heirs of King and Ketley. Finding the path that Lewis reminds us of may be a difficult task, but it is the original path of Christianity, and the one we must follow.