Friday, 01 August 2014 12:58

Truth and Beauty

Written by  Matthew Jordan
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In 1819, the poet John Keats wrote these lines: “beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” It’s an overstatement, of course; the identification of beauty with truth is surely not all ye need to know. And yet… Keats’s words have been on my mind quite a lot lately. We should take them seriously.


My wife and I recently had the opportunity to travel to Oxford, England for a week. There, we were literally surrounded by beauty. From gothic buildings constructed centuries ago, to acres and acres of meticulously tended gardens, to walking paths along the rivers, it is an extraordinary place—a “thin place,” as some say, where the boundaries between heaven and earth seem a little less fixed. Our experience there got us thinking about the importance of beauty in human life, and motivated us to work harder to bring beauty into our lives and into the lives of our children.


Reflecting on such things, one is reminded of Paul’s exhortation to the church at Philippi: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Living, as we do, in a culture that seems to get coarser with each passing day, this idea is of particular importance. Contemporary American society does not often push in the direction of either truth or beauty. We are too busy too much of the time to pause or reflect, let alone to walk in the woods or visit an art museum. We prefer titillation over contemplation and entertainment over edification. Thus our recreation consists of sitcoms and Hollywood blockbusters rather than literature or great music.


It’s a shame, isn’t it? For my part, I’m not actually as curmudgeonly as the preceding lines may suggest… I really enjoy TV and movies, and I don’t believe there is anything intrinsically wrong with relaxing now and then in front of a screen. I do wonder, though, whether we American Christians aren’t missing a golden opportunity to bear witness to a different, richer kind of human life. My pastor and friend, Alan Cross, likes to speak of Christians “telling a different story,” and it seems to me that one of the ways in which we can do so is to unplug frequently from our hyperactive, superficial, entertainment-obsessed culture. As the psalmist says, “deep calls to deep.” My fear is that we have become far too content with life in the shallows.


For non-Christians (or at least non-theists), I suppose that this is excusable. After all, if you don’t believe that human beings are made in the image of God, then you probably believe that we’re just animals, nothing more. We have powerful bodily desires and an existence that ends when our bodies cease functioning. So why not be content with simply enjoying whatever pleasures come easiest? “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.” But for those of us who worship a God of both truth and beauty, who see our lives as being embedded in His creative work, living in the story He is telling and will go on telling for ever and ever… Well, for us it’s a bit harder to justify devoting much time to the trivial. The pursuit of truth and beauty is part of what we are made for. By taking it seriously, we bear witness to the One who is the very personification of beauty and truth, the Lord Jesus Christ. We remind ourselves and, God willing, those around us that human beings are extraordinary creatures who are offered an extraordinary future in the Kingdom of the Beautiful One, the One who is Truth. Perhaps Keats was right after all: beauty is truth, truth beauty—perhaps this is all ye need to know.




Last modified on Sunday, 03 August 2014 13:00
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