This months column in Evangelicals Now
Scruton was a provocative and deep philosopher whose insights have been of great personal help to me – most of all in his discussion of beauty and its demise within many parts of contemporary society.
The Apologetic of Beauty
My own view is that the apologetic of beauty is one that is greatly underplayed in the modern evangelical church. Scruton saw that beauty matters – especially in an ugly society. Take these insights from his 2009 BBC documentary Why Beauty Matters (which should be compulsory viewing for all politicians, artists, academics, architects, and clergy!).
In it (as with his book with the same name) Scruton argues that beauty matters because we live in a world of ugliness and alienation. Beauty is ‘a universal need which if we ignore leads to a spiritual desert. I want to show you the path out of that desert – a path that leads to home’. He also argues that beauty is a remedy for suffering, and something that shows human life to be worthwhile. His reflections on modern art are brutal. He argues that art no longer has a sacred status and whereas it once made a cult of beauty, now we have a cult of ugliness. The whole idea is to shock us – but it soon becomes boring and vacuous. In the modern world everything is about appetite and advertising – which is the reason why beauty is disappearing. Utility and ugliness go together. Today’s works of art aim to create a brand even if they have no product to sell except themselves. It’s all about me.
Beauty Leads us to God
In contrast to this narrow utilitarian view, Scruton takes a wide philosophical and historical perspective. He shows how beauty leads us to God. He says that art is about love or lust. Lust is about taking and love is about giving. Lust leads to ugliness. Love to beauty. His strongest criticism is reserved for modern architecture which he suggests has followed the creed of Louis Sullivan’s ‘form follows function’.
Art needs creativity, and creativity needs sharing. In this he gives us an important insight into why the doctrine of creation matters. Human beings are creative because we are made in the image of God.
In essence, with one glaring exception, I think Scruton has got it spot on. On a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York I noted that the various galleries were divided into different centuries. All of the galleries were packed, except the 20th-century one – where you could have played a five-a-side football game. Very few wanted to observe the ugliness. Most preferred the beauty of the earlier art – much of which was religious or inspired by Christianity.
Religion as a Beauty Substitute
The one exception is when Scruton suggests that religion might be a substitute for beauty – or at least they are co-extensive. Hans Rookmaker in his classic Modern Art and the Death of a Culture gives a more holistic biblical understanding of what art is and who it points to. Again, Rookmaker’s work is one of those few books I would encourage any Christian leader to read.
Beauty ultimately comes from, and points to, God. He has made everything beautiful in its time (Ecc. 3:11). God’s city is beautiful (Ps. 48:2). The heavens declare the glory of God (Ps. 19:1). We desire that the beauty of the Lord our God would be upon us and that we would gaze upon His beauty (Ps 27:4). He gives us beauty for ashes and the oil of joy for mourning (Isa. 61:3). Beauty is everywhere in the Bible because the Triune God is beautiful.
A few years ago a Chinese student with no knowledge of Christianity or the Bible attended a Christianity Explored course when I was at St Peter’s. At one point my wife noticed that she was crying and went over ask if she was OK. Her reply was stunning: ‘Yes – I’m not crying because I’m sad. It’s just Jesus… He is so beautiful’.
I once spoke to a lady after an event in which she explained that her partner had died, her children were struggling, she didn’t have a job, she lived in a run-down council estate and she herself had a tumour but couldn’t go to hospital because of her children. We talked about the ugliness of life and then I told her that I couldn’t promise to heal her, give her a job, or money or a new house, or deal with the myriad of difficulties in her life; but I could introduce her to someone who can take even the ugly things and make them beautiful. With tears in her eyes she exclaimed ‘if only that were true!’ It is.
The Beauty of Holiness and the Holiness of Beauty
Perhaps in the church we need to reflect more on beauty in all of its aspects – each one of which is a ray coming from the source of light and beauty. There is something holy about beauty and something beautiful about holiness. We need the beauty that leads us out of the desert – to our real home.