Becoming the Beautiful

August 29, 2016

by Timothy Witmer

As creatures made in the image of God, though the image is marred, we are still attracted to what is beautiful. As creatures made in the image of God, we are also creators. Every culture has its own creative expressions of beauty. Much of this can be seen in what we call the “arts,” particularly in art and music. Unfortunately, sin has impacted these areas of life as well.

Plato was right when he saw the need for the connection between the beautiful, the good, the true, and the real. We have been given a glimpse into what can happen when there is a disconnect between the beautiful, the good, the true, and the real. Hans Rookmaaker and Francis Schaeffer have written extensively on what has happened to the arts, as they have become expressions of the increasingly secular and irrational perspective pervasive in Western culture. For example, Jackson Pollock reflected meaninglessness and despair in going about his “art” by placing canvases on the floor and dripping paint on them from cans swinging above them. This was to communicate that “chance” rules. But even then he couldn’t escape the order of God’s universe—because the laws of gravity and motion dictated the movement of the paint!

Some modern music isn’t much better. Dispensing with ordinary standards of meter, melody, and harmony, modern composers have made their statements as well. Arnold Schoenberg came along and gave us twelve-tone music with no resolution as a picture of his despairing worldview. Following him was his student John Cage. Cage believed that everything has come about by chance and he expressed this in his “music.” He is probably best known for his composition 4’33”, which was debuted by David Tudor in a recital of contemporary piano music in 1952. He came onto the stage, sat at the piano, and lifted the piano’s lid. He played no notes but sat in silence. Then he closed the the lid. He repeated this twice more without playing notes, after which he stood up and left the stage. You see, the title 4’33” signified four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence. The artist did hold a stopwatch as he turned the pages of the score! Isn’t it interesting that Cage’s work still depended on the orderliness of time?

Though Cage died in 1992, his “music” lives on. His composition Organ2/ASLSP is being performed right now in Halberstadt, Germany, and will not finish until 2640—a total time of 639 years! It began on September 5, 2001, but the first year and one half was total silence. The first chord was not sounded until February 5, 2003. It did not progress to the second chord until January 5, 2005. Small bags of sand hold down the keys for their lengthy performance. The first “movement” will last seventy-one years. If you didn’t figure it out, “ASLSP” stands for “As SLow aS Possible!”

All of this begs the question, “Is this really music?” or “Is this really art?” Schaeffer notes, “The more it tends to be only an intellectual statement, rather than a work of art, the more it becomes anti-art.” The bigger problem is that the statement is also often anti-God, anti-order, and anti-beauty. “Beauty used to be one of the artist’s highest priorities; now for artists it is among the lowest priorities, if it is even a criterion for artwork at all” (Philip Ryken).

Of course, the ultimate evidence of the impact of sin on God’s creation is the entrance of death itself. Because man sins, he dies. The very climax of the created order is destined for destruction unless there is intervention. Artistic expressions can then be the cry of a heart in despair of death or a rebellious fist in the face of God. The good news is that the Lord has not left us in this condition.

The Ultimate Beautification Project

The author of beauty has embarked on a mission not only to redeem humanity but all creation with it. If sin is the ultimate destroyer of whatever is lovely, Jesus came to restore it. Being unstained by sin he was the perfection of divinity and humanity, as John wrote, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). Jesus’s purpose in coming into the world was to glorify his Father through perfect obedience and to destroy the ugliness of sin and death.

One of the most remarkable mysteries of all, the perfect and beautiful Savior took upon himself the ugliness of sin on the cross for all who would believe in him. Remarkably, he laid down his life voluntarily. Death had no claim on him, but he submitted to its penalty for our sakes. He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven conquering sin, death, and the grave. Those who believe are completely forgiven. “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The restoration project has begun.

This restoration is an ongoing work in parts. It includes the demolition of our old sinful habits, and then the replacement of them with new ones as we are progressively conformed to the image of Jesus. This can seem like a painstakingly slow process but don’t be discouraged—the result is worth it!

Some of the most beautiful frescoes in the world are found in the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo took six years to complete them in the early sixteenth century. Over the years, however, layers of grime began to obscure their beauty; their very survival became at risk. In 1979, it was determined that these magnificent works of art would be cleaned and restored. The first step was to apply a cleaning solvent to a postage-stamp size section of one of the frescoes; the experiment succeeded. It took twenty years to complete the project—more than twice as long to restore them as it did to paint them in the first place! The results have been amazing. At the time of its completion, the Governor of Vatican City said, “This renovation and expertise of the restorers allows us to contemplate the paintings as if we had been given the chance of being present when they were first shown.”

The renovation the Lord has begun in your own heart and mind will continue throughout your life. Amazingly, when he is finished you will be even better than new because you will be remade in the likeness of Jesus. In the meantime his Spirit has been given to help us remove the grime of sin and restore the image of God in the likeness of Jesus. The process will be complete only when you meet Jesus in glory or when he comes back to make everything new and beautiful again.

This piece is adapted from Timothy Z. Witmer, Mindscape: What to Think About Instead of Worrying, (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press, 2014), 108–112. Used with permission of the publisher.

Read More On art, beauty, worldview

Timothy Witmer

Dr. Witmer (DMin, Reformed Theological Seminary) is professor of practical theology at WTS.

Next Post...

Taking up Your Burden (of Proof)

August 25, 2016

by Scott Oliphint