I was reading a review of a new book with the intriguing title Beauty will save the world. The author, Brian Zahnd, makes the suggestion that in discussions about Christian faith and practice, too much attention has been given to the question, “Is it true?” but not sufficient focus has been given to the question, “Is it beautiful?” Zahnd suggests that ancient Greek philosophy, and later the Christian church fathers, spoke of three prime virtues: truth, goodness and beauty. The church fathers understood that this trinity of values not only proceeded from the essence of who God is, but form the essential guide for Christian living “as we seek to believe what is true, be what is good, and behold what is beautiful.” Zahnd’s book would suggest that we need to recover a Christian aesthetic, whereby we once again present Christianity not only as true but also as attractive and beautiful. C.S. Lewis used to use the phrase “winsome” to describe the inherent charm and loveliness of the good news.
In a sense, it is a consolidating of the criteria St. Paul suggested in what is one of my favourite passages of scripture. To the church in Philippi, the apostle advised that “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (4;8). What is important is the recognition that the hard work of evaluating and guiding our attitudes, decisions and actions in life as Christians cannot be undertaken with a single yardstick. To do so creates not only an imbalance but often an unwanted perversion to the gospel. Maybe that is also why the prologue to John’s gospel says that in Jesus we have seen the glory of the one and only who came from the Father, who is full of grace and truth.
We most certainly need truth—the truth of faith, the truth of scripture, the truth of the light of God’s Word shining in our lives—to guide, equip and strengthen us. We equally need the grace of God—or we could say, the goodness of God—as well as the beauty of God—or the loveliness of his loving kindness—to help keep us oriented in life. Otherwise truth, or our selected proof texts of scripture, can become simply a sledgehammer with which we battle and batter everything and everyone we consider to be in opposition to our personal biases.
I remember a wonderful line in an old stage play, later made into a movie starring Kirk Douglas, called The Rainmaker. Douglas plays a charlatan who promises to be able to bring rain to a drought stricken community. Much of the course of the play takes place at the home of one farm family. The farmer’s daughter eventually falls in love with Douglas’ character, much to the outrage of her brother who is determined to prove that the so-called rainmaker is nothing but a fake seeking to con the whole town and a philanderer seeking to break his sister’s heart. What is more maddening for the brother is the readiness of his father to put his trust in this man who sees as such an obvious flim-flam artist. At one point, however, the father retorts to his self-righteous son: “You are so full of what’s right that you can’t see what’s good.”
We live in a world filled with not only the false and deceptive lures of advertising, politics and popular entertainments are forever twisting truth, but our own hearts are all too willing agents in the conceits and deceits of life. We desperately need to seek after and hold onto truth. Yet unless we also seek after that which is noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and praiseworthy, or after that which is good and beautiful, or that which is gracious, with equal fervor and attention, we may find we have really gained nothing. Just as spiritual gifts, or all prophecy, knowledge, and faith, or even the most extraordinary acts of sacrifice will mean nothing, according to Paul (I Corinthians 13) without love, so truth requires its counterparts of goodness and beauty.
Or to put it a different way, it is not enough to ask, “What is the right thing to do?” We must also ask, “What is to be done that reveals the goodness of God and the loveliness of the gospel?” Often times, I suspect, it is much easier to do merely the right thing. Doing what is also good and lovely may demand far more of our discipleship, faith, courage and self, which is why we are perhaps tempted to settle for a single yardstick.