By Micah Dowdy
How crazy would it be if the law of gravity only applied to some things, but not others? What about if the rights and protections in the Bill of Rights only applied to half of the citizens of the United States? What about if speed limits only applied to me and not to anyone else? Though these suggestions sound absurd, this is sometimes the way that we think about beauty. We think that beauty is limited to art and aesthetics and that it has no place anywhere else. But something that the law of gravity, the US Bill of Rights, and speed limits all have in common is that they are comprehensive and all-encompassing. Today I have been asked to speak you all about how Mars Hill has shaped my understanding and appreciation of beauty, and I hope to explain how I have learned that beauty is something that is comprehensive too.
Mars Hill has helped me develop my worldview in all three aspects of truth, goodness, and beauty, but out of those three things my perception of beauty was by far the most impacted during my 13 years at Mars Hill. Ever since my first day of Kindergarten, I have always been involved in some kind of art class. One of the wonderful things about art classes at Mars Hill is that the teachers don’t just teach artistic techniques, they teach you how to view the world in a way that you’ve never seen it before. They taught me that God was the original artist, and that whenever I create art of any kind, I am a student of God’s creation. Angles, patterns, textures, colors, and shapes are not human constructs, we merely replicate these things that have already been designed. This part of my education changed my view of who God is and caused me to marvel at his infinite wisdom, power, creativity, and imagination.
One of the first things that comes to mind when I contemplate what I’ve learned about beauty is something that Mr. Cunningham taught us in Modernity this year. He was explaining to us that the Modern Era is a rejection the classical era, and he was using C. S. Lewis’s, The Abolition of Man, to help us understand this rejection. He taught us that people traditionally believed that the standards for morals and aesthetics are fixed and unchanging, but that the modern era changed this objective standard into a subjective standard. This subjective standard for truth and aesthetics is what Lewis calls relativism. Lewis asserts that the opposite of relativism is the classical idea of the Doctrine of Objective Value, which he defines as, “the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.” Lewis believed that the classical view of reality was the proper view of reality because everything has an innate quality within it that demands a proper human response. For us, this means that certain things are really beautiful, and other things are not. And even if we may feel differently, the objective standard stays the same. It is our job to learn which things to love and which things to hate, to learn how to appropriately respond to the intrinsic value of things.
A saying that you’ve all probably heard before is “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But this is not a biblical idea, it is a postmodern idea. The age that we live in proclaims that everyone’s version of truth is just as valid as my version of truth, or your version of truth. Though this seems appealing, it makes no logical sense. Children are not taught that math is in the eye of the beholder, and matters of truth and beauty ought to be no different. It just so happens that the objective source of beauty is the same as the source of truth, which can be none other than God himself. Beauty has never depended on a beholder because that would mean that God’s beauty and glory depended on us, which of course is not true.
The concept of objectivity has led to many interesting and sometimes bizarre discussions about aesthetics in many of my classes. How do we know what pieces of art are objectively good or bad? Can certain colors be good or bad? Can abstract art be objectively beautiful? We even spent a class talking about coffee, and whether or not there is such a thing as good or bad coffee, or whether it’s just a matter of subjective opinion. Though some of these may seem to be silly or meaningless discussions, they represent something deeper about the way that Christians view reality. We know that God as the master designer has set the standards for aesthetic beauty, but how do we know what those standards are? I believe that the answer lies in getting to know God more, because as we become more like Christ, our perspective of beauty changes just like our character does.
I have also been taught that beauty is important in areas other than art and aesthetics. In rhetoric class, we were not only taught how to speak and write logically and persuasively, but also to speak and write beautifully, with poise and eloquence. The beauty of language was heavily emphasized in my rhetoric classes, but also in almost all of my other classes when we wrote essays and read beautiful literature. We were taught how to express our thoughts in all kinds of writing, but it didn’t matter whether it was creative writing, an argumentative paper, or a physics lab report, whatever the subject matter was, it was meant to be beautiful and articulate. Our teachers helped us produce this kind of writing by teaching us rhetorical devices, the different types of sentence structures, the types of poetic meter, and the proper paragraph and discourse structure. Sometimes it was easy for me to get too caught up in the academics and the grades, but when I look back now on my 13 years of school, it has become clear to me that all of my efforts shaped the way that I think and act, they caused me to see beauty through a different lens.
Another thing that impacted me were the girl’s convocations that Miss Thistleton and Dr. Augustine led a couple times a year. We discussed topics such as patience, grace, integrity, and friendship. But the topic that I remember talking about the most was inner beauty. They told us that we are God’s masterpieces, fearfully and wonderfully made. They read verses like 1 Peter 3:3-4, which says, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God's sight is very precious.” I really enjoyed these convocations because I learned more about God’s character, but also because they helped me to understand the way that God sees me.
Something you all may have seen when you walked in today is the Philippians 4:8 sign by the door. It says, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” This is probably the most well-known Bible verse about beauty, and just a couple of days ago Mr. McKenna read it to us during morning assembly. He said that, although the verse means that Christian’s ought to meditate on things that are lovely and praiseworthy, it also means that Christian’s ought to focus on the beautiful qualities in other people. This means that we see people as made in God’s image and we keep no record of their wrongdoings like Christ did for us. The world tells us to judge others when they make mistakes, to tear them down, but the Bible tells us to look at the beautiful qualities of the hearts of others, to see others how God sees them, as masterpieces.
Just like the law of gravity is something that is universal and all-encompassing, beauty is much the same way. The way that we see beauty affects every area of our lives. It affects art and language, it affects the way that we see reality, the way we see God, the way we see ourselves, everything. Overall, I have learned that God is the original artist and that He has set the standard for beauty. I have learned that beauty is important in all areas of the Christian life and that our hearts ought to be the most beautiful thing about us.