Do classical students need to be obsessed with architecture, poetry, paintings, and baroque composers to be truly classical learners? Doesn’t Proverbs 31:30 say that beauty is vain?
Pursuing truth and goodness makes sense. The Bible says, “the truth will set you free” and “for this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness” (Jn. 8:32, 2 Peter 1:5). But the New Testament commands us to not prioritize outward beauty (1 Pet. 3: 3-4, 1 Tim. 2:9). The Old Testament says that God does not look at the outward appearance but at the heart (1 Sam. 16:7). Though the Bible teaches very clearly that there is an objective spectrum of beauty in human appearance (Gen. 29:17, Gen. 39:6, 1 Sam. 16:2, Dan. 1:4, Song of Sol. 5:10), it seems to always be drawing our attention away from it.
We are, of course, encouraged and designed to stand in awe and wonder at God’s creation (Psalm 8). But what does that have to do with architecture, poetry, and music? Is it wrong to appreciate and study these man-made things? Did Jesus ever emphasize the importance of pursuing beauty?
Beauty That Fades
In Mark 13:1, the disciples walk out of the temple and say to Jesus, “Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!” If ever there was an opportunity for Jesus to emphasize His love for beautiful architecture and symbolic art, it was now! But Jesus replies, “Do you see these great buildings? There will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
After acknowledging that the buildings were indeed great, Jesus then takes the conversation in a completely different direction. Instead of eloquently describing all the spiritual metaphors behind the architecture, He prophesies the destruction of the temple and then launches into a detailed description of the end times. He concludes the conversation by saying, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away” (Mark 13:30).
Jesus is intentionally drawing our attention to a life-changing truth.
Beauty is meaningless…because of death.
The whole book of Ecclesiastes agrees with Him. The grass withers, good-looking people die, buildings get destroyed, and great achievements are forgotten. So, why pursue any of it?
It would be a hasty generalization to infer that Jesus despises beautiful architecture based on Mark 13 alone; however, Jesus references human attempts at being beautiful and poetic elsewhere. He despised the Pharisees’ flowy robes (Mark 12:38), and He criticized their verbose prayers (Matthew 6:5). Yes, it was their hypocrisy that made the showy attempts meaningless, but Jesus never prescribes a certain uniform or elegant prayer style for even sincere worshippers.
Jesus was focused on one thing: declaring His gospel of forgiveness based solely on His grace and love for sinners.
Jesus chose uneducated fishermen to be His first disciples. The Apostle Paul admitted to not being an eloquent speaker. Why would Jesus choose these men to spread His gospel message if they lacked the poetic, rhetorical skills that befit a classical Christian?
Beauty That Lasts
Perhaps that is the point. God chose to create the world. He didn’t have to. God chose to make a nation out of one man and preserve them for thousands of years. He didn’t have to. God chose to send judges and prophets to warn His people about judgment so they would repent. He didn’t have to. God chose to sacrifice His beloved Son in whom He was well pleased. He didn’t have to. And God chose to use the least qualified men and women all throughout history to turn the world upside. He didn’t have to.
This is true beauty. This unexplainable love and faithfulness of God is pure, unadulterated beauty. And it is worthy of our attention. Therefore,
Beauty is meaningful…because of Christ.
Without drawing any attention to His physical appearance or artistic abilities (Is. 53:2), He lived a perfect life and provided salvation for the world.
Elegant clothing and shiny buildings and imaginative poetry and a handsome face may be eye-catching and even stir one’s inner affections, but they have no power to transform the soul. Only faith in the Son of God can open one’s eyes to see what makes this world and the world to come truly beautiful.
It is this gospel story of grace and faithfulness and love that gives art and music and poetry and architecture such depth. Any attempt to capture or communicate the wondrous deeds of God is an attempt to create beauty.
The sad reality for many classical students and brilliant minds throughout history is that they observe mere shadows of beauty while forsaking the actual substance. Some may actually attribute great poetry, complicated paintings, and the mathematical genius behind grand architecture to the intelligence and creativity of God, yet they continue to believe that their salvation is partly based on their good works (Gal. 2:16, Eph. 2:8-9).
The Purpose of Beauty
Classical students should absolutely study and see clearly the human attempts all throughout history at capturing the glory and beauty of God as seen in creation and in His wonderous deeds. However, if they become an erudite scholar on Dante’s “Divine Comedy” or Renaissance realism or Bach’s counterpoint but continue to base their hope of Heaven on their good works or knowledge or accomplishments or purgatory, they have missed the point of beauty entirely. Their knowledge of art and poetry and music is like the pharisees’ flowy robes and verbose prayers: vain.
The spectrum of beauty in creation serves as a reminder that any beauty we possess or create or see in this world is an infinitesimal fraction of God’s beautiful character. The way people feel when they stare at the Grand Canyon, read a beautiful poem, see an attractive person, listen to a gorgeous song, or stare at an intricate building is but a modicum of how God feels when He thinks about His people (Psalm 139:17-18). Though they did nothing to deserve or secure His loving gaze, He adopts them, making them heirs with His Son, promising that nothing and no one can snatch them out of His hand (John 10:28).
That is the very essence of beauty…and it is worth pursuing.