What is beauty?

grayhairWhat is beauty? Is it a matter of opinion? The idea of beauty as being subjective is an ancient one and can be traced at least back to the third century before Christ. Its modern form was stated in a book by Margaret Wolfe Hungerford written in 1878, titled Molly Bawn. The statement is known to all of us: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Being Americans who relish the right to individual thinking, this well-known sentence is our creed. But is it biblical? May Christians believe in the subjectivity of beauty? Obviously, this question is a complex one, and I can offer only a few comments in this short space, and I’ll defer to some thoughts from William Dyrness and his book Visual Faith.

Dyrness distinguishes between the Greek view of beauty and the biblical view. The modern view of beauty, based on the Greek idea, is that beauty is primarily visual, whereas the Hebrew idea included sensations of light, color, sound, smell and even taste (e.g. Ps 34:8, “Oh, taste and see that the LORD is good!”). But even more significant than these sensory experiences, was that beauty included that which was “fitting” or “proper”:

“…frequently the beautiful is simply what we could call “the fitting” or “the proper”: gray hair on an old man, strength in a youth, virtue in a woman, words well spoken [Proverbs 20:29]. Here is where the biblical view and the Greek view stand in the greatest possible contrast. In the Old Testament, an object or event is not beautiful because it conforms to a formal ideal but because it reflects in its small way the wholeness of the created order. Something is lovely if it displays the integrity that characterizes creation and in turn reflects God’s own righteousness.”

In fact, the KJV of Proverbs 20:29 reads,

“The glory of young men is their strength: and the beauty of old men is the gray head.”

Those italics are mine, but they highlight the beauty inherent in the “fittedness” of gray hair for an old man. Most of us would think of gray hair as beautiful only if it is a certain shade of gray (other shades might be considered “ugly”—perhaps gray with yellow tones), but the biblical idea is the fittedness of gray hair for an old man. How this contrasts with our modern (and erroneous) perceptions of beauty—particularly for women: an absurd and narrowly defined look of a certain visual appearance for which less than 2% qualify. Is this how God defines beauty?

And what of the qualities of wholeness, integrity and righteousness that Dyrness writes? The connection between righteousness points to the inseparability of beauty from goodness. The connection of integrity points to the link between beauty and truth. It is these three: beauty, truth and goodness which define the one who is truly beautiful.

“One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD…”