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Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder, Part 5: The Judgment of Beauty

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

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: The Source of Beauty
Part 3: The Marring of Beauty
Part 4: The Redemption of Beauty

The Judgment of Beauty

Once a person becomes a Christian — once his capacity to recognize beauty has been restored — that person has an obligation to correctly judge things beautiful or ugly. God commands believers to “test everything” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). The word translated “good” here signifies the intrinsic excel- lencies of something, and its first definition in Greek dic- tionaries is “beautiful.” It is contrasted with “good” from verse 15 of the same passage, a word that identifies something that is beneficial. In other words, here Christians are specifically commanded to evaluate everything in order to determine whether something has intrinsic worth.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Perhaps the passage that most clearly articulates such a command is Philippians 4:8:

Finally, brothers, 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.

Here we find a list of absolute standards by which we must judge all things. The phrase rendered “think about” literally means, “take into account.” Everything we en- counter must be judged by the qualities in this list. Each of these terms is worth considering:

  • “true” — truthful, honest, real, genuine
  • “honorable” — noble, of good character, worthy
  • “just” — conforming to the standard, righteous
  • “pure” — holy, chaste, innocent
  • “lovely” — literally “towards affection,” pleasing
  • “commendable” — worthy of praise, admirable
  • “excellence” — moral excellence
  • “worthy of praise” — commendation, approval

These qualities could be grouped into the three cat- egories of truth, goodness, and beauty. Something is true when it agrees with reality; something is good when it meets real needs; and something is beautiful when it is worthy of pleasure.

In all three of these categories, there is a subjective realm (what we think) and an objective realm (what really is). With truth, we may subjectively think something is true that is objectively not true. For example, I may truly believe that grass is red, but that doesn’t make it true. So in the case of truth, we must always change what we think is true to match what God says is true in his Word. John 17:17 says, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” With my belief about the color of grass, I have to readjust my beliefs to match reality.

With goodness, we may subjectively think that something is good for us when it is objectively not good. For example, I may think that drinking cyanide daily is good for me, but that doesn’t make it so. Here, too, we must always change what we think is good to match what God says is good. With my views of cyanide, either I would need to adjust my thinking or reality would eventually sink in!

The same is true with beauty. We may subjectively think something is beautiful — we may take pleasure in something — but what we think may not match with what is objectively beautiful. For example, I may take pleasure in a particular work of art or song or style of music and think that it is beautiful, but that does not make it beautiful. According to this passage, we are to take into account things that are worthy of praise, things that are admirable. This implies absolute standards. Here again we must change our tastes to match what God says is beautiful. Our responsibility as Christians is to change what we take pleasure in to those things that are actually worthy of our pleasure — those thing that are actually beautiful.

Next: Change Your Taste

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.

6 Responses to Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder, Part 5: The Judgment of Beauty

  1. Scott, when you write that we find here, "a list of absolute standards by which we must judge all things," you raise a question in my mind: Does "all things" include the flavor of food? By that I mean, is there an objective standard of comparison between the taste of a New York strip steak and a lobster tail? Or between a strip and a filet? Or do you mean that some flavors are objectively beautiful and some are not, as in a steak is beautiful and a hot dog is not?

  2. Hey, Ben. First a clarification: I believe that taste is black and white; you have either good taste (i.e. you like what is actually good) or bad taste (you like what is objectively bad).

    Within the huge realm of good taste, however, there is a whole lot of room for preference. I may recognize the worth of something, but prefer something else that is just as worthy.

    So with the flavor of food, if you like the taste of bile, you have bad taste. But I may prefer the flavor of crab legs to lobster tail, even though both are objectively good.

    Or to put it another way using spicy foods. People have different preferences regarding spicy foods. But there comes a point where the spiciness of food may be objectively harmful to a person's mouth. At that point it would be wrong to like the taste! :)

    The other issue here is that there are other criteria for judging something than just beauty. So with food, something may be beautiful to the eye and harmful to the stomach.

  3. I don't think bile is thought of by anyone as food, so I'd prefer to stay in the realm of something that's more apples to apples. So what about crab legs or steak vs., say, haggis or exotic Chinese foods . . .

    Are the tastes of the Scottish and the Chinese objectively bad? On what objective grounds do you base your arguments?

  4. The link just sends me to the home page, so I wasn't able to see the pic you referenced.

    But just in general response, different cultures prefer different foods, and as long as what they prefer is within the realm of what is objectively good (as compared to the nature of God, etc.), then it's just difference of preference.

    But, I would assume that in every culture there are preferences that are actually bad. I don't know enough about food to make judgments there, but I assume that's true. I know it's true for music.

  5. Ok, I'll poke around a bit more if you don't mind.

    1. I understand you to say that it is possible for tastes in food to reflect values that are more or less compatible with the character of God. True?

    2. Is there anything superior about the food preferences of one culture to another?

    3. Is it possible that what is good taste in one cultural context might be bad in another? In other words, might it be objectively good to serve haggis in one cultural context and objectively bad to serve it in another? Or are the standards for what is good and bad taste universal? (I understand you to say that there are universal standards when you say there are absolute standards by which we must judge all things, but I'm trying to clarify if my interpretation is what you intended to communicate.)

  6. We are dealing with other levels than just beauty in this discussion of food, because people normally take more than disinterested pleasure (what defines beauty) in food. Taste in food is really not exactly equivalent to taste in art, I don't think.

    However, I'll indulge the discussion…

    1. True.

    2. Potentially. It depends upon what values are informing the food preferences, and whether the food preferred is objectively good, true, and beautiful.

    3. It is certainly possible that a preference might be good in one culture and bad in another, but not taste. Taste is black and white. The usability of something may involve various conventional associations that might render what might otherwise be intrinsically good unusable in a given culture.

    So yes, there are universal standards, but there are never JUST universal standards. There are also many other factors unique to different times and cultures than influence the issue.

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