Beauty is Not in the Eye of the Beholder. Colossians 3:16
As we come to the last chapter of Colossians there is a focus on some extremely practical and significant applications based on what Paul has already said in this epistle about what we have in Jesus Christ and because Jesus Christ is the superior person of the universe. And to understand what that means is more than just a few academic and theological principles, it truly and radically revolutionizes how we approach every dimension of our life. Paul comes back to this in terms of its application in the third chapter, talking about the characteristics and qualities that should be exemplified in our new life in Christ. Verse 16 is one of the most significant of all because what follows is really a listing of a variety of different consequences or results of letting the Word of Christ richly dwell within us.
This means that we should be regularly in church, in Bible study, in Bible class whether we have to listen via the internet or whether we are watching videos, listening to mp3s. This is something that should dominate all of our lives. It is organising absolutes in our scale of values and our priorities as we look at our lives with all of the business, all of the things required of us in terms of careers and families, that which should be above everything and that organises and gives meaning to everything else is our relationship with God. And that relationship with God is to be based upon knowledge. That knowledge comes only from His Word, and it is not just an academic knowledge, not just an awareness of facts about God, salvation or the spiritual life; but that this has become internalised so that God's Word and thinking has so "renovated" (Romans 12:2) or renewed our thinking that God's thinking becomes second nature to us. It doesn't just happen. The Holy Spirit isn't going to wave a magic wand and tap us on the head and presto-changeo. It takes time, effort, and a recognition that no matter what else I get done in the next month if I don't get this done nothing else really matters. We have to get to that point or we don't really get anywhere in the spiritual life. We have to let the Word of Christ make its home in our life and our thinking.
The first area of result that Paul mentions here is that in wisdom we will teach and admonish one another—the horizontal value of the body of Christ in worship together—in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in our hearts to the Lord. So singing here is not some sort of secondary thing that we do in a church, it is seen as something that is both here and in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5 as one of the first results or consequences of the person who is filled by means of the Spirit with the Word of Christ. So it is not dependent upon whether or not we think we can sing well. We are to sing; it is an expression of our response to the understanding of what God has done. In the Psalms it is frequently associated with the command to rejoice. It is an overt display of our internal joy. We find this throughout the Scriptures. So singing and using hymns and the singing part of our worship is not just something that is part of tradition what Christians do because that is what other generations have done, but it is an integral part of worship.
This tells us also in this passage something about the nature of singing. This is where things get a little controversial in our world today because in the recent decade there has been a rise of something that is called today by the name of contemporary Christian worship/music. This has so dominated modern ecclesiology and church life, and especially ministry to college age young people. We constantly hear people say things like we need to give them music of their generation. That is really a myth, a distortion, an absolute untruth, a counterfeit.
When in the history of Christianity, thinking back to the time of the apostles and from that time until the present, did any generation of Christians ever have this concept that in order to get people attracted to the Word of God we need to have music that is the music of their generation? To even buy into that you have to be historically, culturally, philosophically, and theologically ignorant. Sadly because of the degeneration of our education system in this country over the last 50 years most of us are culturally, philosophically, and especially theologically ignorant, because these things aren't taught anymore. We are becoming musically ignorant.
A generation or two ago many people were taught how to play piano, yet when we get into the generation following them this was not true and in the next generation less true. So we are going to wake up one day, not too far from now, where in a church we can't find anybody to play the piano or the organ when we sing. There ability to fulfil a significant mandate in the Scriptures related to singing musical worship has been impacted by the deterioration of the external culture. There is always this relationship that happens between the two. People can still sing, but unfortunately that same generation hasn't been trained to sing either. They didn't learn harmony and things like that. In previous generations this would happen at home; they didn't have televisions. In churches we have to address this somehow.
Isaac Watts, as he was meditating upon the Psalms, would write an imitation of them and write words for new hymns. This brought about a whole revolution in hymnody. In 1707 he wrote the words to When I survey the wondrous cross. It is typically sung in many congregations at the time of communion. Why? He wrote it to be sung at a communion service. And the music that he wrote was not taken over, he didn't go out and find a tune that was already there. He was somewhat inspired or influence by a Gregorian chant, i.e. the music had a history that goes back all the way into the deep recesses of the early church. Here we have a piece of music that even though it wasn't a Gregorian chant anymore it was inspired and based upon a Gregorian chant. He didn't say, Hmm, we need to have music of our generation. He goes back over a thousand years for the music. And the words, those wonderful, tremendous doctrinally-satisfying words that are there have been sung by maybe fifteen generations since he wrote this. And no previous generation until the current one said I think we need to sing something in the language of our generation. They weren't that arrogant. Do we understand the arrogance that is there? It is a rejection of everything that Christianity stood for, for1900 years, to say in their arrogance we are going to throw all of that out because it doesn't speak to me. So I have to have something that fits the pattern of what is being popular on the radio. Not only that, but the modern paradigm says that the reason we choose these things is somehow to make the unbeliever, the visitor, feel more comfortable and so that he is not hearing music that is dissimilar from what he listens to on the radio.
But wait a minute. If the music that we listen to on the radio each day is the product of a pagan, anti-God, postmodern culture, then why do we want to use that kind of music as a frame for the eternal truths of the Word of God. Talk about culture clash! If we are using the words of Scripture and tying them to the music of this generation we are creating one of the greatest conflicts that we can in art.
But we go back to something even more basic. We go back to what Isaac Watts did and the hymn When I survey the wondrous cross, and we listen to the music, and we just read the words independent of the music it is doubtful that anyone wouldn't say, "That is really beautiful." When we say something is beautiful what we should think about a little bit is that we are not only making an artistic evaluation, we are also making an ethical determination.
Think about a conversation. In this conversation you are sitting in Starbucks one morning and overhearing a conversation at the next table between two people. They are getting involved in a political discussion in election year and they are talking about the role and beginning to debate the role of the Federal Government when it comes to providing health care for the citizens of the nation. Aside from whatever political issues that may be involved in that particular topic one person says this is wonderful, fabulous. The people who have no money, the people who are without means, are going to have access to all of the fabulous, wonderful health care available. The other person says he couldn't disagree more, national health care in and of itself is inherently wrong.
Here we have two different descriptions of national health care. One says it is wonderful and the other says it is wrong. What do these two words have in common? Both of them express a value system. They express judgments from two different people based upon the thinking and values and the beliefs that each one of these two people has. So when they use these terms, wrong and wonderful, what they are implying by using these terms is that there is some sort of external standard beyond the existence of either one of them to which they are appealing. The problem is in a postmodern world today there is no believe in an external standard. So when someone says this is wrong and another person says this is wonderful all they can possibly do in terms of the modern mindset is just express an opinion—educated, uninformed, it doesn't matter. In our current postmodern world there are no absolutes. At the very best all there can be is two very different opinions. So who is right? Anybody, because there is nothing beyond each individual. Every person has their own value system.
As Christians we reject that out of hand because we believe there is an external value system. One of the big issues in the last 20-30 years in Christianity is we reject postmodernism and its attendant multiculturalism because they reject in their very presuppositonal base the reality of absolutes. And we believe in absolutes. So the evangelical church has taken a stand and has said we reject this whole idea of multiculturalism as a value system because it is basically relativism and it rejects any kind of absolute.
Second example. We are still sitting in Starbucks and now two students who come in and sit down next to us. They are having a discussion after class of a reading assignment that they had. They had to read a poem. One student expresses the view that this reading assignment was just inspiring and he was overjoyed as he read it. The other one strongly disagreed and said that the poem was not only disgusting, it was destructive. They had completely opposite views of this poem. So again we have words that are expressed for evaluation: on the one hand inspiring and joyful; on the other hand, disgusting and destructive. Each of these is relating opinions based upon, once again, the value system of the individual.
In the first scenario the poem in question is a late 19th century poem written by an American patriot extolling the wonders and the beauties of America and American culture, and the realisation of manifest destiny as the American people have now stretched from shore to shore, and God has richly blessed the nation. This is the person who says that this poem is inspiring and joyful. But the other persons reacts and says, no, it is disgusting and destructive. That person is operating on a different value system. For them it is much better to leave everything in its original state of nature, that the indigenous people should be left the way they were, that the native Americans should still be allowed to hunt the buffalo and migrate around the country; and all that has happened since these Europeans came in is the destruction of all this wonderful, beautiful cultures. So for them they read the poem and it is disgusting and destructive. The values that they hold shape the way they perceive this poetry.
Now we switch the poem. We now discover that the poem was written by a Russian Marxist from the early 20th century. In this view the person who says it is inspiring and produces joy is a person who has bought into Marxist-Leninist views. They are valuing the worker, the labourer and buying into a different worldview. The other person who sees it as destructive and disgusting is a person who sees the horrors and dangers of Marxism.
What we should understand from these two illustrations is that the values that these people present when they say something is inspiring and joyful or destructive and disgusting is that those judgments are preceded by a worldview and a value system. In the second illustration we have a work of art; it is a poem. It is not something that is viewed by most people as an ethical issue. We listen to the terms that we all agree are valid terms to use. Something is wonderful, joyful and inspiring; these have ethical connotations. The other terms, that something is disgusting, destructive and wrong, have ethical connotations. We are making a judgment on something that is a work of art and using terms to describe it that indicate an external value system of absolutes. Whether they believe in them or not it presents that. And this value system is using ethical terms to judge qualities of beauty and aesthetics.
In much of modern civilisation since the early seventeenth hundreds aesthetics has been separated from ethics classically. When we look at classical philosophy (Plato, Aristotle) they developed the study of thinking of hat isn't separated out as a separate study call aesthetics until the 1700s; they developed a philosophy of beauty. And even though they disagreed on what the specific qualities were that made something beautiful they all agreed that there was an external objective, universal standard of beauty. They just didn't know how to get to it. They all agreed that beauty wasn't in the eye of the beholder. That is very important. That is something that is inherent in our culture: we think beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
From the end of the period from the Greek philosophers going up through the neo-Platonists and through the Middle Ages the thinking of Plato and Aristotle and others was pretty much assumed. They might disagree on the specifics of how to create objective standards of what is beautiful but they all understood that there was a universal beauty. They just had to figure out how to define it. But the universal beauty is not in the eye of the perceiver, it is external. Christians would argue that it is in the person of God, that beauty is in the very nature, the very essence of God, and so beauty is not something that is a product of each individual opinion or perception; it existed in the mind of God.
We wouldn't have a problem saying that if truth or knowledge was substituted for beauty. Obviously there is an external standard for truth; it is in the mind of God. He knows all things; God is true; that is the objective standard. The only way to come to understand what truth is is to know God. Same with knowledge. Knowledge exists in the mind of God, and so we must come to understand who God is. And only by understanding who God is can we understand what true knowledge is.
From the early 1700s in philosophical thought, in the middle of the Enlightenment, truth is no longer located out there in the mind of God; it is now shifting to human perception of experience or reason—empiricism and rationalism. This impacted their view of beauty. And this is the root of the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. This developed more and more and by the time of Immanuel Kant at the end of the 1700s and on into the 1800s this idea related to aesthetics, because now aesthetics is separated from ethics and takes on its own discipline, the ultimate values for aesthetics are located not in an external objectivity but internally. There is a sense that beauty is in the eye of the beholder but it is a small sense. We can look at something and have different perspectives on what we like or dislike, that is a matter of taste; but there are external absolutes.
When we look at Scripture there is an emphasis throughout on God and the things of God as something that is beautiful. We need to address this issue of what beauty is. What exactly is the concept of beauty? Something is beautiful when we take pleasure in something for what it is. Beautiful is something like a sunset, something like sitting out in the wilderness somewhere and seeing a gorgeous landscape, a waterfall, or even out in the desert. Almost anyone can look at scenes of this nature and agree it is something that is beautiful. It is something we take pleasure in. We enjoy for the sake of what is there, not because it does anything or provides anything for us. This idea is inherent in beauty. Something is beautiful because we delight in it.
Scripture talks about these ideas. It uses the term "beauty" in many places related to God but it also associates it with these other ideas. For example, Psalm 16:11 NASB "You will make known to me the path of life; In Your presence is fullness of joy; In Your right hand there are pleasures forever." Just being in the presence of God brings joy to the soul because of the beauty of God.
Psalm 43:4 NASB "Then I will go to the altar of God, To God my exceeding joy; And upon the lyre I shall praise You, O God, my God." It expresses these ideas of the values inherent within God.
Psalm 8:1 NASB "O LORD, our Lord, How majestic is Your name in all the earth, Who have displayed Your splendor above the heavens!" God is excellent; God is glorious. These terms are often used together in numerous passages where you almost have to pile up different adjectives to express the glory, the majesty, the splendour of God.
1 Chronicles 16:29 NASB "Ascribe to the LORD the glory due His name; Bring an offering, and come before Him; Worship the LORD in holy array [beauty of holiness]." It could be suggested that very few of us have thought about beauty and holiness together, but that is a literal translation. God's holiness is called beautiful. That implies that beauty is located in the very essence of God. It is not something that is external; it is not something that is determined by the eye of the beholder.
It is also implied in passages like Exodus 28:2, 40 where God describes and commands that as the tabernacle is built and the furniture is designed and the clothing for Aaron is made that it is for glory and beauty. Often these two terms are brought together in a synonymous relationship.
Psalm 96:6 NASB "Splendor and majesty are before Him, Strength and beauty are in His sanctuary."
When we talk about music, when we talk about singing to the Lord, we need to ask: what is appropriate to sing in worship? What is appropriate is that which gives glory to God and which somehow reflects an external objective standard of beauty.
Sadly, in many churches (especially small churches) there is a whole congregation, including the pastor, who musically can't tell the difference between a Dairy Queen hamburger and a …. And so they don't see that this is important. But are they operating on an objective value system or a subjective value system? They have contradicted their whole framework of Christianity because they are operating on a subjective value system. We need to have people who really know good music. That doesn't mean it is classical, it's Bach or Handel or Mozart, but it is musically good and well crafted. It can be simple; it can be sophisticated but it is good music. And the words are good.
At the very core of the debate that rages in evangelical churches is a misunderstanding of this principle. Beauty is not in the eyes of the beholder. The value of good music and determination of what makes good music is that it fits an external objective higher standard. Just because you and I don't have the skill, the training, the background to understand that and to hear it, doesn't mean it is not there. It is there; it is theologically demonstrable. But sadly in the course of evangelical Christianity and Protestant Christianity we really have not done very well in developing a biblical view of beauty. This is what we need to have. Scripture say to do everything for the glory of God and there is no asterisk with a footnote excepting singing. It is all part of our spiritual life.