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Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder, Part 1: Introduction

The following is taken from Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World.

IMAGINE I TELL MY WIFE that I want to take her to a special place for our anniversary. We arrange for a babysitter for our children, we dress in our finest clothes, and we hop into our car to set off for our romantic “mystery” destination.

Becky’s excitement soon turns to bewilderment as I pull into the local junk yard. I park the car, open the trunk, and pull out a small table and chairs. I proceed to set up the table, putting a candle in the middle, place settings on each side, and a picnic basket next to the table.

“Here we are, dear,” I exclaim, “all set for our romantic dinner.”

“A romantic dinner in a junk yard?” Becky questions.

“Sure,” I answer. “I thought this place would set the mood nicely. Don’t you just love how the rust on the scrap metal glimmers in the lowering sunlight and how the smell of garbage adds that extra touch to our evening?”

“No, I don’t,” she replies with a frown. “I don’t find this setting pleasing at all.”

“Oh, come on, “ I object. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, isn’t it? You just need to re-adjust your perceptions.”

The situation is silly, of course. No one in their right mind would consider a junk yard beautiful or romantic. There are certain smells and sights that are objectively ugly!

Yet in a culture of relativism, the scenario above sounds strangely plausible. If people do not believe in absolute standards by which to determine beauty, who is to say that a junk yard is not beautiful?

A Christian believes in absolute standards of truth and righteousness. Such standards may be discerned from the Word of God and the nature and character of God.But what about absolute standards of beauty? Do they exist?

The idea of “beauty” traditionally describes an object or idea in which we take pleasure simply for what it is. In other words, if we delight in something for what it can do for us, we don’t necessarily call that thing “beautiful.” We call something like that “good.” We call something beautiful when we take pleasure in it apart from any practical benefit we may receive from it. A beautiful object has intrinsic qualities in it that cause delight.

For example, I take pleasure in my computer because it allows me to accomplish a lot of things, but I wouldn’t call my computer “beautiful.” On the other hand, I take pleasure in watching a sunset even though it does absolutely nothing for me. It is this kind of delightful thing that I would call “beautiful.”

Is this notion of “beauty” found in Scripture?

In order to answer this question, we must first recognize that although we commonly use the term “beauty” today in signifying this concept, biblical authors use many different terms to describe this same idea. In your English translation you might find the idea of beauty encapsulated in words like sweetness, splendor, majesty, pride, excellence, loveliness, purity, admirability, glory, or even goodness. Words like these are often translations of Hebrew or Greek terms that resemble our idea of “beauty.”

Next: The Source of Beauty

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.