As a child, my parents often visited the late Elder Yeh Shu Jen’s home for fellowship, and I would tag along with my siblings. I enjoyed hanging out with her grandchildren upstairs while the adults were in the living room below. However, going upstairs also meant passing by the framed, imitation Mona Lisa that graced the bare walls of a dimly lit stairwell. I would run up or down the stairs as fast as possible to avoid her gaze, which I felt was always following me. I barely stopped to examine the portrait since it made me uncomfortable just by being around it; I was satisfied with simply knowing that it was a famous painting by Leonardo Da Vinci and tucked this piece of trivia into my back pocket.
Faith and art are strange bedfellows. For most of human history, faith made art both possible and impossible. Discoveries of art from the Upper Paleolithic Age found in the caves of Lascaux carry mystical overtones of rituals, ordeals, and the divine—suggesting that since time immemorial, faith and art have shared desires of transcendental values such as truth, goodness, and beauty. To this day, we do use art in our faith expressions of truth, goodness, and beauty. Early theologians such as Irenaeus writes that “the glory of the Lord is human living being, and human being lives for the vision of God;” thus we sing about looking into God’s holiness and gazing into God’s loveliness, and declare God’s glory through proclaiming the beauty of God’s name and creation. Yet when it comes to viscerally representing this beauty in the church, we often become fearful.
The most well-known rejection of art and beauty from the church that continues to reverberate in the world today happened during the Reformation, where anything that appealed to the senses, especially the eyes, were removed from the sanctuary. Idolatry was the reason, but art and the beauty it represented was the victim. The Protestant sanctuary became an empty space, and where the individual’s intellectual mind became the only acceptable space where the “vision of God” can exist.
The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar writes this in his magnum opus, The Glory of the Lord:
“No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it…. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past—whether he admits it or not—can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
It sounds like an exaggeration when Von Balthasar says that one can no longer pray or love when beauty is defined as a static ornament or mere appearance. But isn’t it true that when we think of beauty as how something looks, we reject what we determine is the opposite?
What is the opposite of beauty? A professor once posed this question to my class.
Most of us thought it was a trick question: Isn’t the answer—ugly—a little too obvious?
The opposite of beauty is not ugly, it’s glamour, he said. A hush fell across the room.
Glamour takes beauty and turns it into “mere appearance,” emphasising standards of beauty that are perfect in unrealistic ways, and tagged with a commercial price. And when “mere appearance” fails to make the cut of human approval, often determined by capital gain, it is easily disposed of. We don’t even cancel it—we just don’t care to consume it.
In this age of social media and the copious amount of screen time our eyes capture—now intensified by the pandemic—we must seriously reflect upon our notions of beauty. If we continue to consider beauty as only what looks good and is pleasing to the eye, we fall into the trap of confusing beauty with glamour. We scroll only what we want to see; we approve of what catches our eyes with our cash. We hold celebrities and influencers (and even ourselves!) to impossible standards, and with our criticisms we forget how to pray and love one another as human beings created in the image of God. This mindset may have found its way into our churches when we become critical of almost anything art or “beauty”-related in our premises, or immediately refuse anything ugly or “non-Christian” in the name of excellence and holiness.
Let us consider the God who makes all things beautiful. Is this “beauty” perfect objects in nature or good-looking human beings in a flawless world? While there is beauty in life that makes us instantly gush, this same God stepped into our dirt and grew up among our sinful and messy midst with “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Perhaps we may have confused “beauty” with “glamour,” even as we sing about the splendour of our King. We may look forward to a huge city of gold (Revelation 21:21), but we miss the point of the beauty of salvation when it is only about glamour that pleases our eyes and makes us reach into our pockets. If God is beauty, our definition of beauty must be like Christ, the perfect Image of God: who acknowledges the brokenness in humanity yet artfully gifts us a visible hope. Beauty, just like Christ’s love, is not merely an adjective; it is also a verb.
As a child and someone who was ignorant of art, I could not understand the beauty of the Mona Lisa. She is not a glamorous woman, and neither was she wearing finely-designed clothes to boast about her financial ability to engage a famous painter for a self-portrait. It was only until I began to understand the brilliance of Da Vinci’s oil painting of a plainly-dressed woman with a mysterious smile on a poplar wood panel that my fear of the mysterious was transformed into awe and wonder. Desiring to know the struggles, intricacies, and thought processes of the painter helped me to shed the influence of glamour and recognise the beauty of his art.
Art and beauty come hand in hand, but our notions of beauty need to go beyond glamour and what is skin deep. The next time you encounter art in various forms, whether you think it is “beautiful” or not, I would like to challenge you to get to know the person behind the work—that as you understand the story behind the artist, you will see with Christ’s loving eyes that art and beauty are never beyond redemption. Because that, too, is the beautiful story of our faith.
Benita Lim is currently a third-year PhD student (Theology and Culture) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Her research interests are in liturgy, worship, and intercultural studies. She grew up in Glory Presbyterian Church, and served as a pastor focusing on youth and worship service ministries in True Way Presbyterian Church (Chinese) after graduating with a Masters of Divinity (Biblical Studies) from Singapore Bible College in 2015. While in the United States, she served in a choir conductor and pastoral role at International Evangelical Church Los Angeles.
Benita is also currently Faculty-in-Preparation with Singapore Bible College.