The English textile designer William Morris said, ‘I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on…’
Does it matter to you that things be beautiful? What difference does beauty make? Where does physical beauty fit in our lives, and what is its place in the Christian life? Recently the toiletries brand, Dove, made a TV advert with the tagline: ‘You are more beautiful than you think’:
Pursuit of physical beauty is probably one of the areas in which women, and increasingly men, can find themselves very vulnerable. Images of airbrushed models and celebrities can leave us feeling imperfect and inadequate, which lends itself to a slavish pursuit of what is virtually impossible: physical perfection. When faced with the extremes of this pursuit, evidenced by the likes of Valeria Lukyanova of the Living Doll Movement and others, it seems to me that any talk about beauty requires that we engage with themes of truth, love and freedom, and their opposites: lies, loathing, and fear, because these things play a part in shaping our perceptions of ourselves, in the decisions we make around how to present ourselves to the world, and how to spend our money in that process. As a nation, the UK spends about £15bn a year on cosmetics and cosmetic procedures, though judging from the sights and smells on the London tube in the morning, some might find that hard to believe!
What is a Christian perspective on beauty? Are we to behave like the Amish and renounce make up and modern dress altogether? Or are we to go with the likes of Joel and Victoria Osteen, pastors of Lakewood Church, America’s largest and fastest growing church, and wear Chanel because we are “God’s ambassadors”?… Is there a middle way?
The Bible celebrates physical beauty, most vividly in the erotic poetry of the Song of Songs, where the lover describes his beloved as being like ‘a mare among stallions’ – in other words, extremely attractive, someone the guys would compete for. However, the main thing the Bible does is tell us about the God who made us. It begins by telling us that we are made in the image of a God who creates, who is creative, and who takes joy in his creation. This God creates, gives life, makes things well, makes things beautifully, loves his creation, and gives us the ability not just to reproduce but to design, adapt, embellish, explore, express. Being made in the likeness of such a God gives us a divine thumbs up not only to appreciate beauty, but to express our God-given creativity through art, literature, music, poetry, dance, theatre and yes, even clothing and make-up.
Yet there’s paradox in Scripture too: Jesus wasn’t much to look at but had lots of people following him; he didn’t wear expensive clothes or have many possessions, yet he allowed a sinful woman to pour perfume worth a year’s wages on his feet. It is also acceptable to speak of the beauty of Jesus’ deeds—washing people’s feet; feeding the hungry; enjoying the hospitality of sinners, calling them friends. As Christians, we follow a God who loves beauty but keeps it in check, regulates its excesses, and invites us to live in that tension between beauty and creativity, simplicity and sacrifice.
From a personal perspective, having given birth to and breastfed three children, my body is certainly not what it was, but I have come to love it more and to feel more beautiful when my husband kisses me in the morning than I ever did before, because that kiss when I feel ugly lets me know I’m really loved.
I like to think of beauty as God’s kiss, an embrace described to us in the story of the prodigal son/daughter in Luke 15. Permit me to tell it from a daughter’s perspective. For at the moment the lost child returns, ruined, in rags, her Father comes running, not to shout or demand an apology, but to embrace her, kiss her, and bring her home in a fine gown and the family ring. He bestows beauty on her when she’s at her worst. His kiss lets her know she is cherished, and forgiven. New clothes replace lost dignity. It’s from that place of encounter – God’s kiss – that we experience love, forgiveness, restoration.
William Morris set about to transform the world with beauty. Turns out God is doing just the same.