Saturday, December 23, 2006

An Advent Poem (Luci Shaw)

(This is her latest and a fine poem for our fourth week of Advent.)





















The androgynous visitor is dressed
in a rosy fabric thick as pigment, the tunic
blown back by turbulence to expose its lining,
a blue crescent under the right arm. Angels
are said to be genderless, so there’s a
certain enigma here. A wing, the clue to otherness,
arcs in golden space. We are

at several removes from the reality, reading
between the lines, speculating on Angelico’s
speculation. How does an angel look? We are not
Daniel or Zechariah; we have not been shown.
This rendering suggests not celestial power but
a weight of apprehension; what must be announced
will not be entirely easy news.

Wind is part of the picture, gusts
whipping the robes and body along a stretch
of patterned carpet. Gabriel seems to be
advancing up an incline, laboring with
the imperative of message, hair flattened against scalp,
features tense, hands folded tight to the chest.
Agitation or awe—it is hard to tell. We can’t see
the heart hammering in the unearthly body,
but the announcement, the cracking open of a space
within the vastness containing earth and heaven,
must weigh like a gold boulder in the belly.

How might it feel (if an archangel has feelings) to bear
this news? Perhaps as confounded as the girl, there
in the corner? We worry that she might faint.
Weep. Turn away, perplexed and fearful
about opening herself. Refuse to let the wind
fill her, to buffet its nine-month seed into her earth.
She is so small and intact. Turmoil will wrench her.

Might she say no?

Monday, December 18, 2006

Waiting Crazy in the Desert

(The following is the text of the sermon I preached a week ago at Church of the Holy Trinity. I thought about splitting it into two blog entries, but decided against it. The sermon works as a whole and so it's best left that way. As preached, it times in at 22 minutes, Anglican Standard Homily Time. If you wish rather to hear it, you can download the audio from the HT website. I've included pictures along the way to break up the text.)


The Text: Luke 3:1-6

Opening Comments
Thank you for having me. It’s good to be with you. I’m praying for you and with you.

Today we find ourselves in Advent, the season of the little Lent, with little penitences and little deserts along for the ride.

My question to you is this: Do you find yourself in a desert today?

Deserts, as you well know, come in many shapes and sizes but often consist simply of having more of what you don’t want—burdens, responsibilities, problems—or less of what you do—joy, fruitfulness, meaningful relationships. You look around you, you look inside you, and your desert stretches out for endless mile after endless mile, like the landscape out in West Texas. And you ask yourself: Can anything good come out of this desert I’m in?

You ask, Don’t people go crazy stuck in the desert?

And the answer is yes they do, why yes, people do go crazy if they’re not careful.

Crazy stuff happens to you in the desert.

For instance, in the desert you start seeing things funny.

It’s what scientists call the mirage effect. A mirage is a naturally-occurring optical phenomenon, in which light rays are bent to produce a displaced image of distant objects. What’s important to keep in mind, though, is that a mirage is not strictly speaking an optical illusion. There really is something objective out there: sand, sun, cacti, camels, hyenas, heat waves. It’s what you interpret the image to mean, however, that is up to the fantasy of your mind.

It’s not what’s there, it’s what you want to see there: a lake of water or a castle hovering in the air, or perhaps more closer to home, an image of your perfect husband floating in the air just beyond reach or a vision of your ideal job where you are right all the time and you never make mistakes and everything goes the way you want it to go and everyone is always happy with you.

To put it more directly: the desert we experience the temptation to satisfy our needs by fantasizing. We fantasize about perfect sex. We fantasize about perfect family life. We fantasize about all the money we want and what we’ll do with it. We fantasize about happy endings to our lives written by me!

In the desert we fantasize about the perfect loaves of bread. They’re called the make-me-happy bread: if only X or Y or Z happens in my life, then I’ll be happy, and seeing as how God is not providing the perfect bread I think I’m going to make it myself—with just a little bit of yeast that I borrowed from that Devil fellow. In the desert we start thinking that life back in Egypt really was great. Why? Because there was lots of great food and retail stores and stock options and opportunities for recreation and worship services that met all my spiritual needs—never mind that we were in a state of complete slavery.
In the desert you start seeing things funny.

In the desert you also find yourself forgetting things that you knew as obvious as a doorknob when you weren’t in the desert.

For example, in C. S. Lewis’ story The Silver Chair, which is book number six in the chronology of Narnia, at the climax of the story a witch, the Queen of the Underworld, has trapped the four heroes in her underground kingdom and tries to convince them that there is no other world. One of them, a chap named Puddleglum, argues that he has seen the sun and another, a certain Prince Rilian, explains to her that the sun is like a lamp hanging in the sky, but they cannot explain it to her except through metaphors. She craftily replies that since they cannot tell her what the sun is, ‘Your sun is a dream, and there is nothing in the dream that was not copied from the lamp’.

And a third character, a girl named Jill Pole, says, “There’s Aslan,” to which the witch replies:

“I see that we should do no better with your lion, as you call it, than we did with your sun. You have seen lamps, and so you imagined a bigger and better lamp and called it the sun. You’ve seen cats, and now you want a bigger and better cat, and it’s to be called a lion. Well, ‘tis a pretty make-believe . . . look how you can put nothing into your make-believe without copying it from the real world, this world of mine, which is the only world.”

Eventually Puddleglum, feeling the lulling, dulling, downward tugging effects of the music would overtake them entirely, breaks the enchantment by stamping bare-footed on a fire, which brings them back to reality. (Cf. David Mills, "Enchanting Children," Touchstone, Dec. '06, Vol. 19, issue 10.)

In Lewis’ contemporary academic setting, he was combating the theory popular amongst psychologists and philosophers that all that Christianity was, was simply a projection of our highest human desires and calling it Jesus. When we are in the desert, and there is no Jesus anywhere within eyesight, we are sorely tempted to let ourselves sink fully into the witch’s enchantment: to begin forgetting the true nature of God.

In the desert we begin forgetting that His promises are true—even if it takes seven hundred years for them to find the light of day, as it did from the time of Isaiah to the time of the angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary. In the desert we start forgetting that God’s will—that same will that brings and keeps us in our various deserts—is good, is perfect, and is pleasant. In the desert we start wanting to forget that God is faithful, wise, loving, merciful, and deeply concerned about the state of our hearts.

In the desert you find yourself forgetting things that seemed to you as obvious as a doorknob when you weren’t in the desert.

Finally, in the desert it doesn’t look like anything good is happening.

In the desert you’re constantly thirsty and there’s never enough water. The climate is inhospitable: too hot during the day, too cold at night. There’s little you can do to change the desert’s ecology and without a map, you’ve no idea how to get out. It’s all bad. Strange messengers come and go, unannounced—nudges from the Holy Spirit, a random word of encouragement from a friend, at times angels—and they don’t tell you when they’re coming back, and worse, the messages are always slightly cryptic. I’m supposed to do what? But how? And how long? And with what? And I don’t know if I can make it that long. You do? Great. But you’re not me.

And the messengers keep saying two particular things over and over and over till you think you’re stupid for having to hear it that many times. They keep saying, “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.” “Do not be afraid.”

“Do not be afraid!”

“Do not be afraid.” And then they say, more cryptically, “Even though you don’t completely understand His ways, you will know them because they will ring true.”

“So keep at it, be of good cheer, and we’ll see you later,” and off they fly into some crevasse of supernatural ether.

I think Corrie ten Boom, that Dutch Christian woman many of you are familiar with, comprehended this idea well. When the Nazis invaded the Netherlands, she along with her family became very active in the Dutch underground, hiding Jewish refugees. Ten Boom was able to rescue many, many Jews from certain death at the hands of the Nazi SS.

The Germans eventually arrested the entire ten Boom family on February 28, 1944 with the help of a Dutch informant; and they were sent first to a prison and a political concentration camp in the Netherlands, and finally to the notorious Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany in September 1944 (where Corrie's sister Betsie died), until her release in December of that year.

In the movie about her life, The Hiding Place, Corrie narrates the section on her release from camp by saying that she later learned that her release had been a clerical error: it so happened that the women prisoners her age in the camp were killed in the week following her release.

So what good could ever come from her desert experience in the concentration camp? Oh my friends, there was much good that happened unseen to the Nazi guards: little acts of grace, small moments of sustaining joy, a deep and warm sense of being loved by a God who could understand from the inside out what it felt like to be a victim of such awfulness.

And yet many of us in our own little deserts, we still feel that nothing good is really happening.

Back in the land of Advent
So here we are in this season of Advent, the Winter Lent, in which we are to be practicing the disciplines of waiting and penitence. What do we do? How ought we to be living these days? What hope will sustain us in our respective deserts? How do we keep from going crazy and doing stupid things like eating sand or jumping off cliffs?

From our passage today in Luke 3 the way forward becomes radiantly clear. Our hope, my friends, lies in remembering who our God truly is. Our hope lies in the God of our Lord Jesus Christ and the constancy of his character. And so I leave you with these three reminders of who your God is.

First, our God patient.

Our God is patient, not harried or sloppy or forgetful. In Luke’s Gospel we have this rush of activity surrounding the births of John and Jesus. But what about before, what about after their births? Before and after we have long, long periods of waiting. The last verse in Luke chapter 2 tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature. The first verse in chapter 3 opens up eighteen years later. In between? A vast silence. As one Christian writer has put it:

“This is the way of God: long waiting, intense action, followed by long waiting. Decades may come and go before anything seemingly significant takes place. The Gospels testify to a patient God who sometimes takes centuries to set up his move, and who then thinks nothing of sitting on it for another thirty years until everything is just right.

“Is this not also true of God's work in our lives? At times, God's activity will seem intense and glorious. At other times, it may seem as if he is taking a nap.” Waiting is, by God's design, a primary way by which He makes us everything that we were intended to be.

Our God is patient and his timing is impeccable, and you can trust Him. I urge today to trust Him anew. Ask Him to show you how to practice that same kind of exciting, thrilling, anticipating, deeply satisfying patience that He is so good at—even in the desert.

Second, our God is specific.

Look at how the first two verses of chapter 3 open up.

1Now in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, Pontius Pilate being governor of Judaea, and Herod being tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of Ituraea and of the region of Trachonitis, and Lysanias the tetrarch of Abilene, 2Annas and Caiaphas being the high priests—

the word of God came unto John the son of Zacharias in the wilderness.


Incredible specificity. Our God does not traffic in generics. He is specific, and He is very specific in His love for you. You have this kind of body, that kind of personality, these specific strengths and weaknesses and abilities and potentials. You have had these specific experiences and you’re faced with those exact challenges in this season of your life.
And in the sixth year of George W. Bush’s presidency, Rick Perry being the governor of Texas, Will Wynn the mayor of Austin, on the week that Robert Gates was confirmed as the new Secretary of Defense, two days after Mel Gibson’s new movie “Apocalypto” came out in theaters, during the rectorate of Clifton David Sims Warner--

—the word of God comes to you in the desert.

And that’s exactly and fabulously what God does so well.

Into the midbar (desert) comes the dabar (word). Into your exact, specific desert comes God’s exactly crafted, specifically attuned word to you.

So I urge you to today to trust God with all the specifics of your life. Trust Him with all the specific desires of your heart. Trust that just as He cares about the specific shape of an African violet flower or the specific sourness of a pink lemon, so he cares about all the specifics of your life and calling.

Third, our God is comforting.

The text that is quoted in v. 4 goes back to Isaiah and it is a statement of comfort to people who’d been living in exile, in the desert, for a very, very long time.

1"Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God. 2" Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD'S hand Double for all her sins." 3A voice is calling, "Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. 4"Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley; 5Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

And so to you, dear friends, in whatever desert you may find yourself—in your marriage, with your children, with your job, with lost opportunities or desires that feel never to be fulfilled, with physical illnesses or relational tensions—in whatever desert it may be, I say receive the comfort of your God. Receive His comfort today. For He knows that you are but flesh. He knows that you are mortal and weak. He knows that you are in pain.

Our God is neither aloof nor task-driven. He is tender and patient and attentive to each of His sheep, to you and to me. So trust Him. Trust anew His ability to comfort you.

In the end
In the end, as we travel through week 2 of Advent, through our Little Lenten deserts, let us remember to keep asking God to help us see things accurately, as they truly are from His perspective. Let us ask God to keep in our hearts the strong remembrance of the things that are true about Him, about ourselves, and about one another. And let us trust that in the midst of our deserts much good is happening, hidden perhaps, often elusively, but happening as sure as there is oxygen in this room.

G. K. Chesterton once said, “We’re all in this boat together and we owe each other a terrible loyalty.”

You here may feel that Holy Trinity is like a little boat sitting in a desert waiting for waters and rowers and good sailing. That may be.
But I bless you today with the grace to love one another even more deeply from the heart and to hold each other up with a buoyant hope that God sees you, in all the specificness of your little Episcopal fellowship.
I bless you with the knowledge that He guides you with a patient, impeccable timing.
I bless you with the certainty that He offers you His comfort in all the aches and groanings that accompany your waiting upon Him.

God bless you in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, December 11, 2006

On Beauty and the Art of Schooling: Part II


(Here is part 2 of my talk at Regents private school. In matters mundane I attended Gallery Lombardi's show this past Thursday night, where a number of Hope artists had work hanging. On Friday I met with Alex Villareal who is the newly appointed visual arts coordinator at Gateway Church, a minor megachurch here in town. Friday night I saw a modern dance showcase at ACC that included a piece by Annette Christopher.
Saturday night I went out with the boys to see Mel Gibson's Apocalypto [and if I hear one more film critic use the phrase "pornographic violence," I'm going to break their face, not because I disagree with their evaluation of Gibson's film but because it's so much hyperventilating melodramatic rhetoric and hypocritical. Tarantino anyone? Scorsese? Rodriguez' "Sin City"? Nope. They're just cool. They're "daring" and "fun" and "prophetic." Sigh.].
Sunday morning I preached at Church of the Holy Trinity, where my brother-in-law Cliff is the rector. I preached on how people go crazy if they get stuck in the desert too long and aren't careful with what they start imagining. So all in all a full weekend. It's week 2 of Advent, the Winter Lent, and thus far I've been able to avoid all retail stores with their demented Christmas muzak mixes.)

MY ASSUMPTIONS
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.

Let me explain, each in turn.

BEAUTY IS ABSOLUTE.
Why? Because it is grounded in the nature of God and as such is tethered to something everlastingly true and infinitely powerful. As Barth puts it in his Church Dogmatics (II.I.655), “We cannot overlook the fact that God is glorious in such a way that He radiates joy, so that He is all He is with and not without beauty.” He is, as the Catholic theologian Richard Viladesau notes, “the 'horizon' of every experience of beauty," a horizon that is total and absolute in its scope, utterly transcendent, wholly Other. It is in light of this that we can regard beauty as a transcendental.

Inasmuch, then, as creation is a reflection of God, the nature and works of creation will manifest habits characteristic of Beauty.

This is of course an awfully rushed assertion, but brevity of time does not allow us to expound any further.

Let me move on to what may seem a slightly more controversial declaration for the Christian.

BEAUTY IS RELATIVE.
In what way exactly?

FIRST: IT IS RELATIVE TO FORM.

FOR EXAMPLE: a mountain and a flower.

The beauty of a mountain is relative to mountainness, and it’s unfair to expect the beauty of a flower to compete or be fairly compared to the beauty of a mountain. “That flannel flower at the base of the Andes isn’t as beautiful as that Andean mountain!” And it’s not that you’re exactly going to find an ugly mountain out there, it’s that you’ll find different kinds of mountains beautiful in different ways: the Rockys, the Himalayas, the Andes.

The principle here holds true for all flower species.

And for the cartoon in comparison to the novel.

Or the art of mime over against the feature documentary film.

Or punk-rock music and baroque music.

The principle is this: The judgment of a form’s beauty is relative to the laws of that form.
To say that baroque music is more beautiful than punk-rock is like saying that French is more beautiful than Mandarin. To my ears that may be true, but the form of French and the form of Mandarin, while both human languages, are radically different, and one is better off making comparisons internal to each language. There is French oratory that is beautiful and there is French oratory that is sloppy, crude and ugly. So too with Mandarin. So too with baroque music. So too with punk-rock music. While punk-rock may attract a smaller audience—an audience that is drawn to its aggressive, emotionally forceful, often angry but sometimes raucously playful tones—it is false and wrong of us to judge it all ugly simply because we find its sound ugly—simply because we find it tastes ugly to our ears.

To judge in this way puts us back in that same chaotic cul-de-sac where African drums are evil. Or that rocknroll is the devil’s preferred music.

But let me take a hard right turn now in the direction of the female body.

Can we say that this or that woman’s body and face deserves—in a kind of absolute sense—to be called beautiful, like Nicole Kidman or Grace Kelly or Beyonce Knowles?

My answer is relatively no and yes.

Let me start with no: No, we can’t because physical beauty is relative to the eye of the beholder.
I apologize here for the crudeness of the following question: Is a woman beautiful with big hips or small hips? (Stay with me, hey, and trust me when I say I know I’m walking a minefield here. I have sisters.) The answer to the question depends on whom you ask, and when you might have asked this question, but the answer is both: A woman is beautiful with big hips and small hips. In talking with a few of my African-American friends, they tell me that they could care less about skinny, white, magazine girls. They find women with bigger hips tre beautiful. In contrast, White Anglo Saxon men of the Western, late 20th century, American type generally speaking tend to find smaller hips beautiful.

What’s my point? My point is this. Whether we’re talking about Peter Paul Rubens’ corpulent figures or the pin-up model of the 1940s, whether it’s a svelte Japanese princess or a colossal Nordic queen, the question of a woman’s beauty is a relative matter—and especially because there are a myriad other reasons why you find your wife beautiful. The big or small hips is in effect culturally relative. The dominant culture which has shaped your view of the world will shape your view of women and their bodies, and pretty much everything else about them.

And now let me say yes: Yes, we can say in one sense that physical beauty is absolute.
The reason is this: What makes a woman beautiful in strictly physical terms is the proportion of her parts, say the parts of her face: forehead to eyebrows to nose to lips to cheekbones to chin to neck. This is a truth that all you art teachers know well. Composition is important. The arrangement of the parts to the whole is important.

Whether we like it or not, whether we’re conscious of it or not, with both women and men, we are drawn to symmetry. We’re attracted to things which are rightly related to each other. And it is in our nature, it is not simply nurture. That’s why we love watching the Olympics, because it’s here that we find a great collection of beautiful bodies performing beautiful feats of athleticism. When people describe an athletic moment as beautiful, they’re likely recognizing the unity, the complexity, and the brilliance of the feat, that sometimes makes you cry.

The temple which God commanded the Israelites to build is all about symmetry, it is about things which are rightly related to each other.

So is the nature of God.

And the disease of our society is to idolize physical beauty cut off from the whole person. So please don’t go obsess about your body. Remember that there are beauties more powerful than the tug of physical attraction and it is all these beauties together that hold a relationship together in strength and in joy.

So in sum then: Beauty can be regarded as relative to the form and relative to the culture. The form and the culture determine the parameters for the judgment of a thing’s beauty.

SECOND: IT IS RELATIVE TO SUBJECT MATTER.

The main idea is this: Whether your subject matter is happy or dark, pleasant or unpleasant, all of it can be made beautiful. It is not whether your subject matter can be presented beautifully, it is how.

For example, a happy subject matter is sunsets. Now sunsets for the most part display a quiet okayness about them. "There's the sunset, isn't that pleasant." But some sunsets are gorgeous. And in those cases they are manifesting the qualities of beauty at their maximal force.

But a dark subject matter can also be beautiful.

For example, the cross. The cross is a summarily unpleasant thing. Yet Christ crucified is one of the most beautiful events of all history. It is beautiful because on it we see Love at its most powerful. It is beautiful because in Christ all things hold together, in Christ, fully God, fully Man, a whole range of theological and existential meaning is exhibited, in Christ the beauty of God is broken and it makes us weep.

In summary, whether your subject matter is lovely or terrible, romantic or drab, goofy or grotesque, we are, according to the terms above and the way in which we've defined beauty, able to represent the subject beautifully. Think Matthias Grunewald's "The Crucifixion." Think Shakespeare's Othello. Think U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Hurry, Wait, Hurry


(Regent College just published an Advent Reader, which offers daily readings all the way up to Christmas. I'd been invited to write an entry but just couldn't manage to find the time. But no worries. I'm plenty happy reading the offerings--especially last night's, written by a certain Gary Thomas, an alumnus from 1988. His second paragraph kept me chewing all day long. God bless him and all those great writers living in Bellingham, Washington.)

In Both Seasons: Matthew 2:13-23
(Evening of December 5)

The book of Matthew begins by laboriously and slowly recounting the Messiah's ancestors. It then launches into a fast and furious exposition of events: Jesus' conception, his birth, and the glorious and fantastic prophecies surrounding the Messiah. Just as suddenly, the story takes a long pause. Between the last verse in chapter 2 and the first verse in chapter 3, nearly three decades pass before Matthew picks up the story again. This long-awaited Messiah has finally come, but all Matthew cares to tell us about his first thirty years is the shockingly sparse, "He went and lived in a town called Nazareth."

This is the way of God: long waiting, intense action, followed by long waiting. Decades may come and go before anything seemingly signifcant takes place. The Gospels testify to a patient God who sometimes takes centuries to set up his move, and who then thinks nothing of sitting on it for another thirty years until everything is just right.

Is this not also true of God's work in our lives? At times, God's activity will seem intense and glorious. At other times, it may seem as if he is taking a nap. Waiting is, by God's design, a significant part of the Christian life. Sometimes, we will feel as if we are in the center of God's work; at other times, we may feel like all we are doing is living in a simple town. In both seasons, however, we are still living the Life of Christ.

(I love that line, "a patient God who sometimes takes centuries to set up his move." It makes me think of all this poker playing that's taking place these days. Setting up his move. It's just, I guess, what poker players, spy agents, lawyers do. It makes me feel that in all my waiting and waiting and waiting something really is happening. Time is not being wasted, and good gracious I hate, intensely hate wasting time. My sitting and watching and thinking and taking long walks through the neighborhood and lying on my couch staring out the 1955-built window onto my front lawn and talking to myself while I drive and scribbling, scribbling, scribbling out a minor character in this scene, with that other character, for only God knows what reason for the play I'm currently busting a gut over--by faith and by God something really is happening.

That thought made my insides feel all sad and peaceful all day long.)
(PIC: Nicole Brunner, "Waiting," Advent 2001, HopeArts, clayboard print, imaging what she saw every morning as she waited at the same stop light on her way to work.)

Monday, December 04, 2006

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.)

BUT FIRST, LET’S POINT OUT THE PINK ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM

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.

A DEFINITION

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.

MY ASSUMPTIONS

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.