This world is a treasure trove. Not only are the mountains filled with gold, the mountains are gold. They are golden with sunlight, golden with wild flowers, golden with leaves preparing for flight. And everything we touch is gold. Billions of icons walking and talking, gilded with flesh and blood, breathing and laughing glory.
Where can we go from this wealth? Where can we escape from this abundance, this overflow? The market has been flooded. Inflation seems inescapable. Just when we think we’ve seen the finest diamond, the loveliest face, the most gorgeous sunset, we’re caught off guard yet again.
Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, explains that one of the fundamental qualities of beauty (whatever it is) is the principle of replication. When something is experienced as beautiful, we have the irresistible desire to duplicate it, to share it, to imitate it, to say it again, paint it again, to capture it and re-create it. In other words, we might say that beauty is regenerative. You know it’s beautiful because of the offspring, the generations that follow, the iterations, the attempts (however faltering or ridiculous) at mimicking. Yet, as art has sometimes been wont to despairingly parody, every attempt is never an exact replica, never a perfect clone. But this is only grievous if beauty is finite, if beauty has only a certain limited number of appearances on this show. And all appearances are quite to the contrary. As unlikely as it may seem to many, Bach’s better may yet be born.
In fact, the trouble with beauty does not seem to be its utter rarity. Truly, as Scarry notes, there is something of the unprecedented in the beautiful, something unexpected, some never-before-ness about it. And yet, so often that which is beautiful was there all along, was there without us noticing, was there buried beneath mountains, buried in our thoughts, buried in our pain, buried in our busy-ness waiting to be discovered, unearthed, melted down, and polished into glory. From friendships to palm trees to constellations, the rarity is often most profoundly in our ability to notice. And this is at least in part due to the shocking proliferation of beauty. It’s really rather irresponsible. Though we may rightly decry the kitschiest pop entertainment on any number of reasonable grounds, the fact of its popularity, the fact that it will sell millions is in part due to this proliferation. Bodies are beautiful, rhythms and color are attractive, even snatches of coherent narrative and poetry are compelling. We are gods, and we live in the Kingdom of Heaven.
This explains why a complete fundamentalist or elitist rejection of the world-schlock is not compelling. The commercial vision of beauty is distorted, disordered, and thereby tragically disorienting, but it cannot be said that they are not trafficking in beauty. And we are all implicated. The beauty of life is unrelenting even while we seek to ignore it, violently tear it apart, or throw it away. And yet this is the problem that the gospel of Jesus comes to address. It is the claim that this abuse of beauty will ultimately end in the loss of all beauty – and this can seem most bizarre and unreasonable to the most addicted abusers. Watch them twerk, watch them strip, watch them take a baseball bat to the beauty they have been given and watch the beauty return again and again with a thousand lives. Yes, some succeed in a measure of deformity. Some succeed in measures of deep, aching loss, and yes, it is the modus operandi of the world to suppress the guilt and shame that haunts us all. But the startling flip side is that so much beauty remains, so much grace pervades. And yet Jesus proclaims a better way, a more lovely way, a greater beauty than any can think or imagine.
This is the task of the Christian Church, the mission of Jesus, to proclaim that in the midst of this golden world (marred though it is in profound ways), there is yet more gold to be found, greater glory remains to be uncovered and received. In the older Christian tradition many described the Christian life as a path of ascending to God, ascending step by step to the final beatific vision of Christ Himself in all His radiance and beauty. While this has sometimes obscured the radical break that believers make with the old way – there is a chasm of difference between those headed for heaven or hell – nevertheless what the fathers recognized is that our task is a creative mission, pointing further up and further in, to something, Someone, more beautiful than we can imagine. This is what the proliferation points to. This is what the pervasive, unrelenting beauty means. It’s coming from somewhere.
Since the earliest days of the faith, being a Christian has meant being a witness, testifying of having seen Jesus alive from the dead. For some, this was a direct, visual experience. Mary and her friends saw Him in the garden and became the first witnesses. Two others walked with the (unrecognized) risen Jesus as they left Jerusalem convinced that their dreams of a Messiah had been shattered. And the irony heightens as the Messiah Himself explains the Scriptures to them, how the Messiah had to suffer before entering into His glory. Then as they stop for the day, He breaks bread in their presence and their eyes are opened and they see Him just before He vanishes from their sight. When other disciples were gathered in hiding, He appeared unexpectedly in their room, displaying the holes in His hands and feet and side, and again He showed Himself to as many as five hundred people before also being taken from their sight. Yet, He would still appear again in a blinding vision to Saul as he was breathing threats to destroy the fledgling movement. And if the Christian Church is to be taken seriously, somehow billions since have caught glimpses of this Beauty. Replication has happened. We are the regenerated, the copies, the icons, the disciples. There is something altogether right about this pattern, this beauty – fleeting, unexpected, and utterly life changing. It is this vision of Jesus, this vision of the crucified and resurrected Messiah that changes lives, that changes cities and empires, that changes the course of human history.
It was Augustine who described the problem of sin as being a disordering of love, and the solution of the gospel is a re-ordering, a right ordering of our loves. And this seems to fit. In a world inundated with beauty, disoriented sinners cannot rightly order these beauties. We tip them upside down and backwards, we disvalue the valuable, and we cling slavishly to the trifles when the Giver offers extravagant wonders. Somehow, it is our task as Christians to point to the greatest Wonder, the extravagance to come, the beauty of Jesus. There is so much more to see if only we could see Him. In one of Dostoevsky’s novels a character claims that “Beauty will save the world,” and we celebrate Epiphany — this explosion of glorious Light in the gospel of Jesus — because it already has.