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The Ugly and the Beautiful

March 22nd, 2006
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The beauty of Christ’s Resurrection challenges Christians to imitate God’s splendor

by Uwe Siemon-Netto

Don’t be fooled by paintings and sculptures depicting Christ’s
crucifixion as a serene event. He did not hang there looking charming,
His arms outstretched to bless humanity in a farewell gesture of sorts.
Such images, often found in churches, almost seem to support the
contention of some heretics that God spared His Son the tortures of the
most painful form of execution—in other words, that the crucifixion was
a divine hoax.

The truth is dire. Christ’s passion was horribly
ugly. After all, He was true man as well as true God. As a true man He
felt the torment. His body, reeking, sweating, bleeding, was as
contorted as the bodies of the two criminals to His right and His left.
He doubtless groaned, screamed in agony. And He sensed dereliction: “My
God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

Let’s not kid ourselves—there was nothing aesthetically pleasing
about what happened on that first Good Friday at Golgatha. Look at
Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece in Colmar, France, reproduced
here.  So shocking is this sight that you may be tempted to turn away,
just as you may have closed your eyes during the scourging and
crucifixion scenes in Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ.”

But this is precisely how it must have been. Had the crucifixion not
been ugly, had Jesus not experienced evil at its very worst “pro me,”
as Luther said, meaning “for me,” then all this would have been bogus,
a lie. Then the resurrection would have been a lie as well. We would
have been deprived of the participation in its eternal beauty. In fact,
we would not be Christians at all but still dwelling in darkness. We
would not be saved.

It seems we have moved away from the sound theology of Grünewald—or
the artists who created the mosaics in the vault of the magnificent
Cathedral of St. Mark in Venice showing realistically the ugliness of
Christ’s suffering and the beauty of His Resurrection. Tragically,
thinking of the Christian faith in terms of aesthetics is not
fashionable in post-modernity, whose relativism blurs the distinction
between ugliness and beauty, just as it blurs the line between evil and
good.

“I think this is beautiful,” said a Frenchman I know whose entire
body is covered with “Gothic” tattoos depicting Satan’s realm—skulls
and bones, chains and flames, and the ghastly visages of demons. “This
was a beautiful work of art,” said German composer Karl-Heinz
Stockhausen about the 9/11photographs of airplanes crashing into New
York’s World Trade Center bursting into balls of flames.

Bad equals good and ugly equals beautiful.  There is a Greek word for this contemporary folly: diaballein, literally “throwing across,” or turning things on their head. This expression has given the devil his name.

As post-moderns, worshipers included, groove to “music” without
melody and harmony, as even Christians regale in the noises emitted by
the likes of Eminem, who screeches out his vulgar and destructive
lyrics, I wonder: What happened to the Biblical notion that beauty is
willed by God; that God himself “shines forth … in beauty” (Ps. 50:2)?
What happened to the insight that beauty is a key element of
civilization, and that civilization is the fruit of the order created
by God? Whatever happened to man’s God-willed yearning to become
civilized?

St. Thomas Aquinas called beauty the “splendor of order,” and the
church father St. Gregory of Nyssa saw beauty as God’s uncreated order.
Yet there is nothing exclusively Christian about seeing beauty as
coming from God, and that creating beauty is therefore one of
humanity’s most noble endeavors.

“Whichever way I turn I see the face of God,” says the Koran,
referring to nature’s loveliness. As a journalist covering the dialogue
between religion and science, I discovered that, of all scientists,
astrophysicists from every culture were most inclined to acknowledge
God’s existence. Many told me that the breathtaking beauty of the
universe left them no option. “Why do I believe in a Creator?” asked a
Hindu cosmologist rhetorically. “Because I need someone to say ‘thank
you’ to,” he explained.

The desire to seek and create beauty appears to be built into the
nature of the human species, even those who did or do not know the true
God. Thousands of years ago, cave-dwelling people in southwestern
France created magnificent cave drawings in their grottos.

We easily recognize the exotic beauty of ancient Chinese or American
Indian works of art. Though generally not Christians, the Japanese,
perhaps more than any other people on earth these days, are embracing
and sometimes allowing themselves to be converted by Johann Sebastain
Bach’s music, which must at first have sounded alien to their ears.

To be sure, de gustibus non est disputandum, as the Romans
said, there is no disputing about taste. I make no judgment here
whether a Beethoven symphony is superior to a Johann Strauss waltz or a
W.C. Handy song played by Louis Armstrong or sung by Ella Fitzgerald.
They are all beautiful.

So how do we explain some people’s urge to create ugliness, a
perversion seemingly unique in the history of civilization? How do we
explain the proliferation of treeless malls, bland apartment housing,
or heavy-metal music or, worse still, black metal, its Satanic
counterpart?

My friend by correspondence, Rev. Philip G. Meyer of Terre Haute,
Ind., sees today’s trend toward ugliness as a manifestation of modern
man’s rebellion against God. He is right. If God equals beauty and is
the Author of beauty, then it behooves man as the one created in God’s
image to imitate the Creator (Eph. 5:1)—or, in Lutheran, vernacular:
Conform to Christ, the beauty of whose resurrection defeated the
ugliness of His crucifixion.

It’s also too common for God’s beautiful creatures to willfully use
“body art”—especially tattooing and piercing—to achieve the opposite
image—the image of Satan. Someone cleverly observed that tolerance is
the last virtue of a depraved society. With this in mind I’ll state
with cheerful intolerance: The post-modern fad to create ugliness to
the point of destroying one’s God-given features is not something we
can dismiss as neither good nor evil. It is evil—period!

This is why cultivating once again one’s own sense of aesthetics,
and raising future generations to appreciate beauty, should be seen as
a profound obligation by God’s people. And there is no more appropriate
time of the year to remind ourselves of this than this month when we
commemorate the horrific ugliness of Christ’s Passion followed by the
splendor of His Resurrection.

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Dr. Uwe Siemon-Netto is director of the Concordia Seminary Institute
on Lay Vocation, St. Louis, and the Concordia Center for Faith and
Journalism, Bronxville, N.Y.   His email address is:  layvocation@csl.edu

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