Of all the awkward bedfellows in the world, art and Christianity would have to be near the top of the list. Perhaps it’s because art is explorative and Christianity needfully conservative. Perhaps it’s because Christianity is about mission and eternity, and beauty is ‘vain’.
Beauty of Ugliness
Christendom (not Christianity) has a deep aversion to finding beauty in ugliness, even though this is one of the most remarkable human gifts. We are able through the arts to look at the human condition and to explore even our darkness in such a way that the end product is both beautiful and challenging. Art can explore issues emotionally in a way that social analyses cannot, and can even provide hope or healing by that process.
One way or another, Christian art almost always falls prey either to impossibly cheerful sentimentalism (hopeful landscapes, children smiling at a kind carpenter), or to paper-thin visual sermons. When Christians do attempt exploration or beauty for its own sake, other Christians tend to be deeply suspicious.
I recall commiserating with a young Christian friend who had been saved out of drug addiction, and in attempting to paint his life story, decided to represent the darkness of addiction with a skull. The well-meaning man at the Christian rehabilitation center who led him to Christ rebuked him harshly for dabbling with the ‘demonic’. And there are any number of stories like this. Christians are expected to listen to music that is optimistic and preferably hymnal. It seems not to matter that the world around us is stained with corruption, abuse, arrogance oppression and so on, to which a voice raised in outrage or even anger is not at all inappropriate*. Exploration of any themes but for denial seem to be off limits. In this kind of thing, Christendom has become an enemy of the arts.
[*May I commend to you the fine work of Radiohead, who deliver excellent social critique with uncommon beauty. There are not many who can write powerful songs about election promises, voodoo economics, amnesia, ecology and car crashes.]
Ugliness of Beauty
However, in another important respect, Christianity and beauty ought to have an uneasy relationship. Beauty is good. Beauty causes us to love, it causes us to marry, it causes us to choose. Beauty has an emotional power that taps into our desires and even into our brain chemistry. The love of beauty is one of the attributes that is most basically human.
Francis Collins, a well-known scientist who was, I think, in charge of the Human Genome Project, attributes the final piece of his Christian conversion to happening across a frozen waterfall while on a hike and being overcome by its beauty.
But, hand in hand with everything inside me that finds good in beauty is the ugliness of idolatry. I find it impossible to escape that the love of beauty leads to worship. This is the intended function of our love for beauty, no doubt. Beauty should lead us to worship the One who made the beautiful and the capacity for us to enjoy it. But, mixed creature that I am, beauty cannot produce awe in me without producing the desire to possess.
Advertising knows this better than most. Our most powerful appreciation of beauty tends to be in the opposite sex (at least for men; shoes may vie for top spot among women), but as much as it is right to appreciate the beauty of women, the ugliness of lust and coveting is never far away. And so advertisements will pour lust into the sale of toilet cleaners or tinned soup in the hope that we’ll make a Pavlovian link between the girl and the goods.
As I see it, idolatry of human beauty is not only pervasive in every part of our culture, but it also expresses itself differently in men and women. Many argue (surely correctly) that men are more susceptible to visual arousal than women, which would account for it, but even if it’s just because men have been trained to objectify women by the male bias throughout history, the point is much the same. Men respond to sexual beauty by becoming collectors of women (usually only images of women), whereas women respond to the idolisation of beauty by unfavourable comparison of themselves to some perceived ideal. Men desire to own and women desire to be. [Of course, this is a general tendency; there is likely to be an element of both these responses in men and women].
Both of these are undesirable, ugly responses to the good of beauty. In men, the idolatry of beauty paves the road to infidelity, and Jesus cites lust as being of the same order as adultery. So it is easy to condemn those men who suffer from weakness in this area (which I imagine is most of us). However, the corresponding female response, expressed in low self-image, is also damaging, though harder to condemn (because if someone is already feeling bad about herself, it’s a bit insensitive to heap guilt onto misery). Idolising someone else’s appearance leads to discontentment, ingratitude, depression and various other kinds of selfishness that are not fitting, and that can be detrimental to the relationships that are actually important.
One doesn’t have to look far to find people who have shipwrecked their faith and their hope because they’ve been blinded by hollow trinkets, whether shiny objects or their human equivalent.
While we continue to live with the ambiguity of finding mixtures of dark and light, of beauty and ugliness within us, let us carefully maintain the tension of a deep love for beauty, a deeper love for the Creator of beauty, and a vigilant aversion to the ugliness of turning beauty into idolatry.