One of the surprising news that caught much attention at this year’s Academy Awards had nothing to do with The Artist, Hugo, The Descendants or War Horse. It was “Angelina Jolie’s Right Leg”. On the red carpet, her right leg slid out from behind her black, high-slit dress every time photographers wanted to capture her. Her sexy right leg (and yes, just the right) had a show of its own at the event. It became a newsworthy highlight. Angelina’s right leg’s achievement to stardom (versus my right leg) is an indicator of what our society cares about – beauty. The beauty that captures the attention of others is not something we just want to see but also pursue, which is why so much of commercial industry is driven by our desire for beauty, whether it is the beauty we find in cosmetics, homes, gardens, apparels, art or a sunset. There’s something powerfully delightfully and profoundly enriching about having beauty in our lives. But what is it about beauty that is so compelling?
Beauty is an ideal that conveys to us the excellent, whole, worthy and perfect. And for that, we are willing to sacrifice at great lengths to achieve beauty because in some sense, whether superficial or substantial, it affords us a sense of significance. We tend to relate beauty to surface aspects that seem to be merely decorative. But often when we discuss whether something is beautiful we realize that “real” beauty, as some would call it, has more to do with qualities that are unseen, like character virtues, personal values or life principles. We see beauty in the charity of a sacrificial person, sincere love of a faithful husband, enduring faith of a single mother, or pure innocence of a child. The portrayal of genuine beauty gives us hope. It reminds us of the good that’s worth fighting for in an often ugly world with troubled lives. It reminds us of the redeemable in our humanity. It tells us, we don’t have to stay this way and we can be better than we are. Perhaps what people want to see on screen, in stories, in magazines and in art is this unseen beauty that gives us hope. But what exactly is beauty? How can we see something unless we know what to look for?
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is a common aesthetic perception which simply says beauty is whatever you make it to be. While beauty is intimately tied to our subjective experiences of pleasure, delight and attraction, its definition can be independent of our subjective experiences, meaning we can subjectively experience something that is objectively defined. One of the many defining elements of beauty, I believe, is truth. This notion that anything beautiful must contain truth extends from the thoughts of the classical Greek philosophers, like Socrates and Plato, to the Christian fathers, like Augustine and Acquinas. This age-old idea has been embraced by recent Christian thinkers like Schaeffer, Tolstoy and Rookmaaker. Truth, not merely the surface aspects, is an essential element of beauty, without which beauty could not exist. Plato argued that anything containing the opposite of truth that is a lie is considered to be ugly. We’re talking about the truth of anything – truth about what’s real, who we are, our problems, our solutions, and most importantly as Plato would agree, God.
Practically, a pursuit for beauty becomes a pursuit for truth. Pursuing this objective beauty ignites a passion in us for life that’s larger than life, because we seek not the sentimental comforts of nice feelings but the grander reality of truth that exists apart from our perceptions and desires. Objective beauty is not molded by our preferences but discovered as we mature in our mind and beliefs. Embracing beauty defined by truth frees us from the distractions of the small appetites of consumerism, the petty pressures of conformity and the confines of self-indulging feelings. When beauty is not merely defined in the eye of the beholder, then we may be free to pursue something greater and beyond ourselves. Our world will always be drawn to and even hunger for beauty. The question is what form of beauty will we settle for, pursue or be satisfied with.
By Brian S. Chan
Pastor of One Thing church in Hollywood, Professor at Biola University (teaching “Beauty & Spirituality”), Juror for 168 Film Project & Author of The Purple Curtain: Living Out Beauty in Faith and Culture from a Biblical Perspective