Christ and the Philosophers: the Beautiful
1 Samuel 16:1-13
I’ve been preaching a little series of sermons on “Christ and the Philosophers” – meaning people like you and me. For all of us wrestle as mightily as any academic over the daily questions of what is the good, the true, and the beautiful – and these are the great questions of philosophy. So I thought I’d talk about each of these.
Finding what the Bible has to say about what is good and what is true is fairly easy to do – but it’s a lot dicier when it comes to the Bible’s view on beauty. Perhaps it is because of the commandment to make no graven images that worked upon the ancient Israelites, to make them less likely to produce works of beauty or to comment on what makes something beautiful. I mean, they wore makeup and scent, as all peoples of the ancient Near East did – and occasionally we get reference to some ruler’s inventory of fabulous gowns. But we have almost no portraiture, no discussion of canons of proportion, in the Scriptures.
There are occasional descriptions of furniture and so on for the tabernacle – and later the temple – but the magnificence of all the stuff that went into God’s dwelling sometimes sounds like an inventory of Scrooge McDuck’s money bin: a laundry list of fabulous doo-dads made of gold, and another list of fabulous doo-dads made of silver, or of bronze. There’s no distinctive set of values for buildings or furnishings that typify the people of Israel.
Now, the ancient Egyptians had a distinctive set of standards for physical beauty, and they’d been using them to portray men and women for centuries by the time of David and Solomon. And by the time the exiles of Judah returned from Babylon, Classical Greek civilization was turning out its magnificent statuary, celebrating their ideal of human beauty. Likewise, both Egyptians and Greeks developed distinctive styles of architecture and decoration. The Greeks even discussed the mathematics of proportion that went into making a building beautiful. Meanwhile, the Bible is often downright negative about standards of physical beauty.
In the story we just read, Samuel is directed to the family of Jesse of Bethlehem to anoint a replacement for King Saul. Now, Samuel had an idea of what a king should look like; after all, he’d picked Saul out. Saul son of Kish was the tallest man in Israel. There was a king for you! Except Saul was a failure as a ruler, and God had rejected him.
Anyway, when Jesse assembles his seven sons, Samuel looks at the first one, Eliab, and he’s impressed. This guy looks like a king! Handsome, tall, imposing – just like Saul! And the Lord says No. In fact, what he says is, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; the for Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart."
God does not look upon the outward appearance; God looks upon, and judges, the heart. This idea is repeated several times in the Scriptures. In Proverbs, we are told that beauty is fleeting and deceptive, but a woman who fears the Lord is worth having! And let us not forget Isaiah’s prophecy of the Messiah, the suffering servant:
[H]e had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,I think the message is pretty clear: beauty of character is what God and the Bible are interested in, not beauty of appearance. The Lord looks upon the heart. So, there’s a kind of interiority to Biblical standards of beauty, of looking within rather than looking at surfaces. And this is carried on by the Christian Church, when it starts producing religious art and religious buildings later on.
and no beauty that we should desire him . . .
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
In a traditional Christian icon or statue of a saint, or in stained glass there is very little attempt to portray the person depicted as he or she actually was. Saints are typically shown with high foreheads (because it’s a symbol of their great wisdom), and with flowing, well-groomed beards (an image of venerable age). They are shown wearing the appropriate clothing and bearing the appropriate symbols of the time the picture was made. No attempt is made to present them in historically accurate clothing, for instance.
In fact, the most realistic thing about traditional pictures of the saints are the animals some of them are associated with. St. Cuthbert always looks like your standard holy man of the middle ages, rather than one of the 7th Century – but the otters at his feet are really well-pictured otters. St. Hubert (patron saint of hunters) is usually depicted as a bishop of the 14th or 15th Century, rather than as a nobleman of the 8th Century (when he lived) – but his stag always looks like one you’d like to get a shot at.
The Renaissance did a better job of presenting saints as real people, but it wasn’t until the paintings of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 19th Century that anybody ever made a picture of anyone like Jesus in an entirely natural, historically accurate way. And it shocked people: they thought it was sacrilegious.
Likewise, when the Church began designing buildings exclusively for public worship, they began encoding the space symbolically – wtih cross-shaped churches and eight-sided baptisteries (for the eighth day of creation, that is, the resurrection), and with colored hangings and so on that communicated the observance of sacred time. Even in plainer times, such as when the Puritans built their meeting-houses, they attempted to present the meaning of their worship in the things they built to house their worship.
I used to say, "Show me your sacred space, and I will tell you what you really believe." But then, what are we to make of some of today's churches - they call them “worship centers” or some such – which are bare as a storage closet, beset with gantries of exposed lights and all kinds of cables taped to the floor, with risers that my old junior high school would call rickety. I've walked into these churches at times, and I’ve looked at the space around me and found myself saying, “This is the ugliest doggone room I’ve ever been in, and we’re going to worship God here just to show that we can.”
Just because God looks on the heart doesn’t mean that he has no use for beauty. Indeed, the Psalms are full of images of astounding beauty. The ancient Israelites had a real feel for the beauty of nature, and their poetry is as full of these beautiful images as anything from English or Russian nature-poets. But again, there is this focus upon the meaning of this beauty.
The heavens are telling the glory of God;– knowledge of the Lord, and of his law. The beauty of the creation is supposed to draw you to praise its creator. The appearance of a person is secondary to what is in that person’s heart. The heart is what counts.
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
Now, this lesson is often given to young people by their parents, when those same young people are at that stage when they are most obsessed by surfaces – by the right clothes, and the right hairstyle, and the right accessories, with jewelry and tattoos and designer labels and phones and cars, and so on. And young people do not believe their parents when they tell them this. They think they’re just trying to make them feel better, whereas they know that if they could just deck themselves out the way the cool kids do, why, then, they’d be beautiful, too.
Sadly, it doesn’t work that way. For despite what the entertainers and advertisers will tell you, all the ”right” accoutrements cannot make you beautiful. And tucking this body part in, or pushing that one out, or decorating yourself with whatever is hip or startling is a waste of time. I have occasionally told young people who had given me their confidence that the body parts they think so important are not, in fact, the body parts that have the most impact upon physical beauty. In fact, the two most import body parts in determining physical beauty may surprise you. And I’ll just take a little detour here to note them as a public service – no extra charge.
The first body part that determines physical beauty in all cultures and across the centuries is – your spine. For if you carry yourself properly, so that all your parts hang from your head and shoulders, they will all arrange themselves to their best advantage. No amount of cool clothes or makeup or tattoos or whatever can cover up what is out of place, nor does anything look good on a person who is slouching.
The other essential body part that determines phyical beauty is your mouth – specifically, your smile. For a person who is smiling enlarges one’s eyes and sets one’s face alight – and people are drawn to the face of a smiling person, and all that other stuff becomes of lesser importance. I told Deanne that I fell in love with her for her smile. She didn’t smile much when we first met. Life had been hard on her; but oh, when she did: my heart just flipped over – even before I really knew her well. Meanwhile, a scowling person is just pug-ugly, no matter how much makeup one is wearing or what kind of car one is driving. Ug-lee.
If all this sounds like I’m being more critical toward girls than boys, I should probably note that the third most important thing (beauty-wise) is not a body part at all, but just basic hygiene. And though boys may be less fashion-conscious than girls, but they also sometimes need to be told more directly about the virtues of soap.
So, does this mean that fashion is irrelevant? Well, no. Standards of beauty come and go, and fashion is ever changing, for, as Amanda Halley, the fashion historian says, “fashion is not an island, it’s a response” – a response to things going on in society and how people feel about them. But if the Bible is any guide, we ought to seek to make our inner self and our outer appearance reflect each other. And young people who feel awkward and insecure, who maybe don’t like themselves very much right now, will tend to slouch and scowl, but as they come to feel better about themselves on the inside, that will translate to confidence on the outside, and that changes how we present ourselves to others.
More importantly, the person who does good things, who puts others first, who is in the right relationship with God, who is kind and patient, will do things for and with others that are themselves beautiful, even if their personal appearance is not. And what people will remember them for are the things they saw them do – for that reveals their character far better than their mere appearance.
“Handsome is as handsome does,” as they say. The Christian standard for beauty is an inner standard. So we should learn to value what makes us beautiful on the inside and cultivate that. And the way to do that is to make ourselves as mirrors to reflect the character of our Savior in all we do, in all we say, and in all we make.
And may it be so.