Art, beauty, aesthetics–these do not provide much for us in the way of utility and functionality, at least if we are thinking of those terms in their strictest of definitions. And yet, God seems to have filled our world with an abundance of beauty. We are naturally drawn to create art, to order our world around us in a way that is visually appealing. Why is that?
“Not everything can be named. Some things draw us beyond words. Art can warm even a chilled and sunless soul to an exalted spiritual experience. Through art we occasionally receive— indistinctly, briefly—revelations the likes of which cannot be achieved by rational thought.
It is like that small mirror of legend: you look into it but instead of yourself you glimpse for a moment the Inaccessible, a realm forever beyond reach. And your soul begins to ache…” – Aleksander Solzenhitsyn
Solzenhitsyn here is pointing to how art can create in us what the Germans call sehnsucht: a pleasurable pang of melancholic longing “surrounded by a misty indefiniteness which seems essential to its very nature…Such moments are rare; they may come with a mounting sense of grandeur in the presence of natural beauty or with piercing sweetness on hearing a certain strain of music . . . an experience of “enormous bliss,” of being transported to awesome heights which make the close-by world seem far away,” (Corbin Scott Carnell, Bright Shadow of Reality: CS Lewis and the Feeling Intellect).
Beauty can do something to us that we struggle to explain, even to understand. In rare moments we are pierced with a sudden realization that the dull grey pall that has been our life is not Ultimate Reality. There is a world beyond us that has cracked its door open for a moment and let some of its warm light stream down below. Maybe it is found in the quiet of a morning sunrise, a passage in a story, or movement in a song. A portal has opened briefly and our hunger for something beyond fills us with an ache.
And in that delicious moment we know two things to suddenly be true: (1) This world is broken and something is terribly wrong; we are like the slaves from Plato’s cave who for the first time catch a glimpse of sunlight. We now know that the darkness of the cave is not what we were meant for. (2) We were made for something more. And, of course, that “something more” is God Himself–we quite literally were made to behold God’s glory (Isa 43:7). The longing to spirit away to a magical land of beauty, wonder, and joy that so often capture our imagination in fairy tales and pieces of art is our innate homesickness for Heaven. The high beauty of God has seeped through this created world and filled our hearts with the indelible reminder: there is somewhere else I belong.
And we desperately need those reminders. We constantly are tempted to knit our hearts into this world more and more, to think that this world is our home, and that its dreariness is what is natural. We need to be startled by beauty, filled with longing, and eager for our everlasting resting place where we bathe in splendor, where we will “behold the King in his beauty,” (Isa 33:17).
So, maybe beauty and art don’t pay the bills, but they, in a way, give us reason to pay the bills in the first place. We naturally are drawn to art, to beauty, to music because in those things all of us catch whiffs of, “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” (Lewis, The Weight of Glory). So, we should take care to cultivate beauty around us, in our homes, in our community, so that we may have reminders of the Ultimate Beauty that is to come, so that we may not be duped by a worldly counterfeit.
For more on this take 2 minutes to read Herman Bavinck’s reflections on the role of art for the Christian here, or take 15-30 minutes to read the most important thing CS Lewis ever wrote about this whole subject, (possibly the most important thing he wrote at all): The Weight of Glory.