Paradigms of Beauty
Dale Henderson gives cello concerts in New York City subway stations because he fears the day when classical music will be no more.
Dale Henderson gives cello concerts in New York City subway stations because he fears the day when classical music will be no more. He plays for free, focusing primarily on Bach Solo Cello Suites because their “power and beauty unfailingly inspire great appreciation, joy and deep emotion in those who hear them.”(1) Some commuters stop and stare, curious or captivated, many having never heard a cello or Bach concerto before. For Henderson, the music is an offering of something meaningful, seeds for future generations of classical music admirers who would not otherwise know it, beauty well worth lugging his heavy cello down into the subways to protect.
It is not always easy to talk about beauty without a minefield of objections or at best complicating list of qualifiers. Its modern place in the “eye of the beholder” gives it a tenuous feel at best. Its ancient place as a perfect and ancient ideal is equally held with abstraction. While Henderson describes a world without classical music as soul-less, others may not miss it so much. And the contrast of beauty in a broken and breaking world makes its distinctive encounters increasingly stand out.
One author describes the common, but individual, effect of our varied encounters of the beautiful this way: “‘Beauty’ seems suited to those experiences that stop us in our tracks. Whether it’s a painting called Broadway Boogie-Woogie or a scherzo by Paganini, the beautiful is conducive to stillness. It doesn’t excite us, or necessarily instill in us the desire to replicate it; it simply makes us exist as though we’re existing for that very experience.”(2) His words are rife with the power of beauty to create longing, a desire to somehow participate. Beauty indeed leaves us with the ache of longing for another taste, another glimpse. And for each of us, this longing can come at unique or unsuspecting times—at the spectacular sight of the giant sequoias or a tiny praying mantis, at a concert or watching a First Nation powwow and taking in the colors, the drums, the survival of a betrayed people.
But to suggest that beauty is simply a spectator’s preference, an individual’s pursuit of an abstracted and timeless ideal, is to miss something significant. For what of those moments when beauty is neither pleasant nor pretty, but haunting? What of a broken or wounded beauty? What of the communal ache of beauty? The well-known scene in Elie Wiesel’s account of the Holocaust when describes a young man named Juliek, an incredibly gifted violinist from Warsaw. Wiesel describes the night when Juliek, on the brink of death, played a Beethoven concerto in the dark for that group of dying, starving men. Wiesel remembers the intensely beautiful, sad and haunting music, noting that it was as if Juliek was playing his very life upon that violin, offering a lament for each of them. Their encounter with the beauty of the composition was humanizing, made all the more jarring in such a dark and dehumanizing setting. In the morning they woke to find Juliek dead, his violin crushed on the floor beside him.
The sometimes haunting interplay between the presence of beauty and its absence, the space between beauty and brokenness only contributes to beauty’s power to stop and still us. But how do we account for it? The severe absence of beauty can stir a common ache within us, a longing that is inexplicable if beauty is merely accidental or an abstraction divorced from reality. Professor and musician Jeremy Begbie suggests another way, noting that “beauty… has all too often been abstracted from time and temporal movement, and been turned into a static, timeless quality. Suppose, however, we refuse to divorce it from the transformation of the disorder of creation in the history of Jesus Christ. Suppose we begin there? Does this not open up a more dynamic paradigm of beauty?”(3)
The Christian imagination indeed presents a God who not only created and noticed beauty, whose own glory offers present encounters in the world, but the God who is not unfamiliar with the world’s brokenness, transforming a disordered creation by stepping closer into it in Jesus Christ. This is a God who takes all the glimpses and introduces the whole—not as an escape from reality but a deepening of it, one that can hold life as well as death.
I remember vividly one summer when I was working with a group of kids in an afterschool program and a young girl was stung by a bee. She had a severe reaction and the paramedics were unable to revive her. Sitting with one of her young friends at the funeral, somewhere in the middle of it she turned to me with tears in her eyes and said, “The cut on her face will never heal.” The young girl had a little cut on her forehead from some previous playground encounter, and her friend made this observation in the midst of her own shock and grief. I remember thinking how incredibly insightful her words really were. She was noticing something very simple, but there was something quite profound in her thought. She seemed to be saying instinctively that this wasn’t right, that wounds are meant to heal, that the broken parts of life are not okay: indeed, that wholeness is both our stubborn longing and a most profound calling.
Remarkably, in this little girl’s comment is something that every prophet in the Bible has said—the ones who were trying desperately to open the people’s eyes to the glory of God around them and the ones who were pointing out the absence of glory. Each of them looked around the world, and seeing its broken cuts and ugly blemishes, cried out instinctively, “This is not the way it’s supposed to be!” We were made for wholeness and flourishing. We were made to be fully alive in the image of a kind and present Creator.
Perhaps beauty has an effect on us because it hints at this beauty, this very particular beauty of God, with signals that come not intangibly but, like Jesus Christ, within time and community, and thus invite the hope of the possibility of transformation. God’s beauty is one that is somehow able to hold both life and death, a beauty somehow both heart-breakingly entwined with brokenness and offering something transformingly whole: the broken and risen human Son in whom we are carried into the love of the Father by the Spirit.
Whether a fleeting glimpse in the subway or a quiet act of kindness, something that stirred a community or stood up to a culture, each of these dim glimpses suggests not an escape from reality but a calling further into it, such that when we see the face of God, as C.S. Lewis says, we shall know that we have always known it.
(1) Pia Catton, “A Musician for the Masses Improves His Station,” Wall Street Journal, December 31, 2010.
(2) Arthur Krystal, “Hello, Beautiful: What We Talk About When We Talk About Beauty,” Harpers, September 10th, 2010.
(3) Jeremy Begbie, Voicing Creation’s Praise: Towards a Theology of the Arts (New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 224.