On Beauty and the Art of Schooling: Part I

(This is part one of a talk I gave at a faculty symposium for Regents School of Austin, November 18. Regents is a "classical" school, which means they place a great deal of importance on the three transcendentals, truth, goodness and beauty. They asked me to offer thoughts on the role of beauty in the educational formation of their students. It's a once-a-year affair, so I felt honored to have been asked. As per usual, I could only offer introductory thoughts.

After giving my outline for the talk, I began in this way.)


Scripture talks about the good and the true but not much at all about the beautiful. That's the pickle pink elephant.

It's the tension for us as Christians. Isaiah’s Messiah is uncomely and the writers of Scripture seem more concerned with ethics than with aesthetics. So what business do we have meddling with the ramblings of the Greeks? What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem, as Tertullian famously asked?

Good question. Does this mean we are lost? Do we have to rig it up with a wink and a nod to the apostolic writers? I do not think so. But it does mean that if you’re going to make beauty a priority in the vision and curriculum of your school you’re going to have to be very honest about the fact that there’s not much there in the Bible and face up to the vast negligence of beauty throughout Protestant history.

The fact is, Protestants tend to be either ignorant, stubbornly uncurious or schizophrenic about beauty, and that’s the ugly part, the antithetical force to our project this morning.

The good part is that God sometimes ignores our Protestant quibbles and gives us something better than we failed to ask for. He gives us Mstislav Rostropovich's Bach Cello suite, all four, and a three-layer torte made with dark chocolate, whipped mocha cream, and toffee in a roasted pecan and hazelnut crust. He gives us music and chocolate and a great love for both. He gives us beauty.

So what is it? What is beauty? Is it even sane of us to attempt to define it when all the pre-modern, modern, post-modern, super-modern, hyper-modern, post-post-modern forces keep us in a perpetual state of concussion about truth? Well, yes, it is, It is sane.


Let me offer a definition that is as compact as it is frustratingly elusive. Each triad in the definition corresponds to its counterpart in the order of the triad. For example, coherence goes with integrity and unity.

Here is the beginning of a definition in a somewhat inelegant form.

Beauty is a thing that is marked by coherence, complexity and radiance— integrity, multiplicity, and brilliance—unity, diversity and richness.

Let me illustrate.

FOR EXAMPLE: the Holy Trinity. And moving on . . . .

FOR EXAMPLE: Hamlet. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a beautifully written play. The plot, the characterization, the setting, the dialogue, the themes, the emotions, the poetry—it all fits together brilliantly. Nothing is wasted. It coheres and pulls together the disparate aspects of our fallen lives-- this too too sullied flesh—into a meaningful whole.

The expanse of scale, the rich contrasts, the subtlety of imagination, the levels of meaning—it is all a richly complex story. So many things are happening at the same time that you can’t take it all in in one sitting.

So you go back to the theater, over and over and over again, and you never tire of it because it is seemingly infinitely engaging. It is also radiant with vitality, forcefulness, tenderness, humor and an incisive penetration into the human nature.

It is thus, and on this understanding, coherent, complex and radiant: it is thus beautiful.

MOZART’S MUSIC? It is some of the most beautiful music ever written. Mozart was a master of dissonance and chromaticism. His music “is remarkable for its clarity and transparency and for its wonderful structure and poise” (Jon Pott, B&C, Nov/Dec ’06). “Everything seems fluently worked out and, even at its most impulsive, never strained and out of control.” And, as your own John Mays pointed out, it often makes you weep.

HOW ABOUT A STEAK? What’s a beautiful steak? Is there such a thing? Oh yes, my friends, oh yes. In Texas there is such a thing, thank the good Lord.

First of all, it’s first rate meat, it’s the best meat out there, USDA Prime.

Next, it doesn’t contain too little fat (which would rob it of flavor) or too much fat (because that would rob it of tenderness), but just the right amount to help the meat be juicy and full of flavor. It’s called marbling, and it's the little specks of fat found inside a muscle.

Neither is it over or under-marinated, which would cause you to foul up the consistency of the meat or drown it in a foreign sauce and thus transform it into a slab of Worcester.

Then you sear the steak for about 35-45 seconds a side to lock the juices in, not more, not less. And once you take the steak off the grill, you let it sit for five to ten minutes before you pierce or cut it. This helps the juices to settle. If you cut or pierce it too early, you release all the juices and it will make for a much drier steak.

So in summary: your steak is marked unity, diversity, richness, not too much, not too little, and just the right amount of everything in between with the result that, when you put it in your mouth, you start crying because it tastes so good—and then you start talking about God non-stop.

Case in point: the "Italian" movie BIG NIGHT.

Primo: Okay, now this is done, taste it. Taste.
Ann: [tasting the sauce, feeling it in her mouth] Oh, my God. Oh, my God!
Primo: Is good, huh? You like?
Ann: Oh, my God!
Primo: “Oh, my God” is right, see? Now you know. To eat good food is to be close to God. You know what they say? To know God . . . to have the knowing?
Ann: Knowledge.
Primo: Yes. The knowledge of God is the bread of angels. [beat] I’m never sure what that means, but is true.
Ann: [breaks out into laughter]

You taste something beautiful and eventually it starts making you hungry for God.

This is of course the effect of something beautiful upon us. When humans encounter beauty, they are also encountering the Source of all beauties, God. And when you and I encounter beauty, we find ourselves drawn towards more of it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Suffice it for now that I have presented to you with what is regarded as a classical definition of beauty and it is one that I maintain remains true for all humans throughout all time, and I give you full permission to disagree with me.

But for now, let me tell you my assumptions behind the definition.


1. Beauty is both absolute and relative.
2. Beauty is both objective and subjective.
3. Everything God makes is beautiful and much of it will often terrify and surprise us.
4. The Christian can make what is ugly, beautiful.


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