Beauty, Begbie, and the Bible

As thinkers throughout the ages have sought to codify, sideline, relativise, deconstruct and reclaim beauty, scepticism about beauty’s relevance to music is understandable; concepts of beauty have been used to reify particular structures, tonal systems, national-trends or the saccharine and sentimental, thereby stifling creativity and wielding musical formulas as a powerful sociopolitical weapon. Despite this, I am now convinced that we need to cling on to a better concept of beauty and theologian Jeremy Begbie’s first two chapters in his recent book A Peculiar Orthodoxy are the most refreshing things I have ever read on the topic of beauty, particularly in relation to music.

Begbie bases his concept of beauty on the Triune God, the loving and self-giving trinity which abounds in ecstatic, dynamic, outgoing love that pours itself out as revealed in the Bible and the life of Jesus on earth.

This seems to me more convincing and exciting than the various metaphysical, philosophical or aesthetic basis that have been proposed for beauty, and when applied to music this is the most generative, overflowing concept of beauty I have come across.[1]

Here is how Begbie puts it:

If beauty is to be ascribed primordially to the Triune God, and the life of God is constituted by the dynamism of outgoing love, then primordial beauty is the beauty of the ecstatic love for the other. God’s beauty is not static structure but the dynamism of love…the endless self-donation of Father to Son and Son to Father in the ecstatic momentum of the Spirit.[2]

We must go to the economy of salvation to discover God’s beauty (and thus the ultimate measure of all beauty) since the incarnation, death and raising of Jesus display God’s love in its clearest and most decisive form; here, above all, we witness the mutual self-surrendering love of the Father and Son in the Spirit for the healing of the world.[3]

Divine beauty, created beauty, and the beauty that we make

In chapter one, Begbie focusses on how this Trinity-based concept of beauty plays out in created beauty. I won’t regurgitate all his points or his exploration of J.S.Bach’s music, but I hope you will find my five highlights useful:

  • Creation testifies to God’s beauty in its own distinctive way – physical matter is not just trying to replicate a spiritual reality in an inferior way, groping around to find some fixed, perfectly beautiful form that actually belongs to the spiritual realm. Instead, Jesus’s incarnation and physical resurrection show that God is dedicated to physical matter. ‘Creation’s beauty is not, so to speak, something that lives in a land beyond the sensual…Creation’s beauty is just that, the beauty of creation…its beautiful forms are the forms of its matter.[4] This means that we need not adhere to gnostic ideas that devalue physical beauty, nor unthinkingly run along with Platonic ideas that consider ‘God as the Form of beauty in which beautiful things participate’.[5] Creation’s beauty does reflect and bear witness to God’s beauty, but only by the grace of God and ‘in its own creaturely ways’.[6] And just as creation’s beauty reflects God’s beauty but is ‘other’ to it, so our musical creations reflect and bear witness to both God’s beauty and creation’s beauty in their own musical ways without being bound to an underlying spiritual form or hidden pattern that we must realise in sound. Begbie draws our attention to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and how each invention seems to be elaborated upon according to its musical potential rather than in order to fit a pre-determined, fixed form.[7] (I think this is a nice analogy rather than a dismissal of all music that is composed to fit a pre-determined form.)

  • In beauty there exists a diversity and unity of distinct parts, just as the Godhead is Father, Son and Spirit living a unified life rather than a ‘monadic sameness’.[8] The Spirit unifies and unites things whilst ‘liberating things to be the particular things they are created to be. The beautiful union that the Spirit generates is not one of homogenized harmony or bland repetition but one in which the unique particularity of things is enabled and promoted’.[9]

  • In the Trinity there is an overflow of self-giving, uncontainable love. There is an excess and abundance of love and if this is the measure of divine beauty it seems at odds with accounts of beauty that are based on ideas of balance, symmetry, perfect ratios and proportions. For this reason Begbie is cautious of ‘overly harmonious models of beauty’.[10] He writes ‘there is still proportion and integrity, but it is the proportion and integrity of abundant love… this is how creation’s deformed beauty is remade…by a re-creation exceeding all balance, by a love that is absurdly lavish and profligate, outstripping all requirement, overflowing beyond anything demanded or expected, generous beyond measure’.[11] As an example of this in music, Begbie delights in the unpredictability of Bach’s music for solo violin and how this seemingly-improvised virtuosity gives a ‘wildness’ which defies the neat “organic” understanding of how Bach developed musical material.[12]

  • Created beauty will be gloriously ‘remade and transfigured’, and this beauty of the future has already been embodied in Christ and is anticipated by the Holy Spirit among us now. ‘In Jesus Christ, divine beauty has, so to speak, come to grips with the wounded and deformed beauty of the world; in the incarnate Son, crucified, risen, and now exalted we witness God’s re-creation of the world’s beauty’.[13] Just as all of earth and heaven will be made new, so will be the flawed created beauty that we now see and work with. We see a preview of that in the risen and ascended Christ: ‘Here we see physical matter transformed into the conditions of the age to come, granting us a preview of that age when the earth will be filled with the glory of God’.[14] The Holy Spirit now realizes this among us so that we know the promise and the hope of the glory to come. This means that when we are dazzled by a scene or a piece of music we need not ‘try to seize the moment but to give thanks and look ahead to the beauty of the new heaven and the new earth, of which this world’s  finest beauty is but a miniscule glimpse’.[15]

  • Natural beauty (the beauty that God has made in creation and given to us) need not be opposed to artistic beauty (the beauty that humans make). We don’t make beautiful music from scratch – we need the beautiful matter that God has given us in creation to form and inspire our art. On the other hand, we are to work and toil with this matter rather than seeing any modification to it as corruption. So in our music we are to sweat and toil with the natural beauty that God has given us, shaping and forming it to fashion ‘art that can anticipate the beauty previewed and promised in Jesus Christ’. [16]

The beautiful, the sublime, the infinite and transcendence

Basing our concept of beauty on the amazing relationship and saving work of our triune God means that ‘we will resist the temptation to drive apart beauty and the infinite’.[17] According to philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), perceiving something sublime overwhelms us, it induces awe and even fear as we sense that there is something bigger than our finitude, something beyond our comprehension. His idea of perceiving beauty is more to do with play between our imagination and understanding – it seems rather tame in comparison to an experience of the unknowable infinite. His ideas didn’t die in the wake of modernism and postmodernism, but we are more likely now to hear talk of ‘transcendence’ rather than ‘sublimity’ – both words are still referring to some unknowable, awe-inspiring experience that seems to point beyond our finitude. This leaves us with a down-played view of beauty and only a formless, non-depictable notion of the infinite which could be ‘devoid of love or goodness, and thus potentially oppressive’, or just imaginary.'[18] Here is Begbie’s response to this situation:

The sublime should never have been divorced from beauty in the first place… beauty should be associated with infinity, but since this infinity is none other than the infinity of the Trinity, this beauty is not formless or shapeless or wholly unrepresentable, but the formful beauty if intratrinitarian love revealed in Jesus Christ, and as such can never be oppressive or dehumanizing but only life-enhancing.[19]

I am struck by the goodness of this reassertion of beauty’s connection to the infinite, particularly as we are used to hearing people seeking transcendence in music. Re-joining our ideas about God, the sublime, and beauty has the potential to morph this hunger for some sense of the unknowable into a hunger for a beautiful, infinite God who has revealed himself.

Sentimentality meets the Three Days of Easter

In chapter two, Begbie advocates that we divorce beauty and sentimentality by looking at the Three Days of Easter. Beauty in the arts can be associated with sentimentality, with a soppy emotional self-indulgence that ignores or trivialises evil whilst avoiding costly actions.[20] If beauty is a vehicle for such sentimentality it seems guilty of covering up or encouraging complacency at injustice and pain. Begbie sets out three suspicions of the pursuit of beauty, then responds to them by pointing us towards the beauty of the triune God and the ‘counter-sentimentality’ of the Three Days of Easter, Jesus’s torture, brutal execution, burial, and resurrection.

Suspicion #1: Beauty could be charged with being an offence against truth, lying in a world that is broken and painful and hurtling towards death, a world that is obviously not beautiful.

Response #1: ‘Beauty is not a mask and brokenness is not the only reality’.[21] Whilst the world is broken, Jesus’s resurrection makes and demonstrates something glorious that we can also be truthful about. Celebrating this life-giving wonder does not cover-up or ignore the pain in this world. On the contrary, Begbie writes that ‘the Son who is risen is the Son who was given up to the corrupting force of sin and death afflicting creation, and in such a way that creation’s beauty is exposed as fatally flawed and broken just as its corruptions are met and healed.[22] Within the story of Easter we find truth about the depth of depravity as well as of living hope, just as we notice our own sin as we are remade in the beautiful risen Jesus’s image.

Suspicion #2: Beauty distracts from ethical obligation by screening out howls and victims, or is an opiate to dull the oppressed to injustice.

Response #2: Justice and beauty both concern right relationships. As Begbie succinctly says, ‘Justice is beautiful’.[23] To explore the counter-sentimentality of the cross a little more, I would like to add to Begbie’s response. As we read of the cross, the victim is not screened. Rather he is hung at the centre of the scene, naked and crying out. His friends have abandoned him and human justice has failed. We cannot avoid seeing this victim and realising our culpability. Rather than numb us to our ‘ethical obligations’, it shows us our flaws and does away with any self-conceited self-righteousness which might fool us into thinking that we can possibly have fulfilled them. This scene is not beautiful in appearance, just as Isaiah prophesized that the despised and rejected saviour would have ‘no beauty…to attract us to him’.[24] But though the appearance is not beautiful, the self-giving love of God is fully at work and fully beautiful as He is 'just and the one who justifies'.[25]

Suspicion #3: Beauty trivializes evil, harmonizing it away. If concepts of beauty focus on balance and symmetry, evil seems necessary to level things out and the true horror of evil and the suffering it causes are suppressed.

Response #3: Jesus’s resurrection from the dead did not balance-out or level-up evil in some cosmic scheme; it crushed, exploded and destroyed the powers of death and evil forever! The glorious goodness doesn’t balance out the bad, it eclipses it. As Begbie writes, ‘The world is not so much balanced as reconciled, and reconciled by a God of infinite excess.[26] Our concept of beauty needs to be built on this reconciling God of infinite excess rather than ideas of balance and symmetry.

Conclusions

Our highest concept of divine beauty is to be found in the triune, self-giving, outward loving Godhead and cannot be reduced to some form or scheme. Created beauty bears witness to this beauty but in its own creaturely way rather than by fitting physical (including acoustic) matter into a spiritual blueprint. Therefore, fears that an assertion of God’s beauty might dictate and limit musical creativity is unfounded – in the dynamic, excessive love of the trinity we find no requisite for rigid pre-determined forms, homogenised harmony, bland replication, uniform simplicity, classically balanced proportions or descent into deceitful sentimentality that cannot face the reality of evil. Instead we can faithfully and unpredictably improvise with the matter that God has created and given to us, with the aid of the Spirit anticipating the beauty that has been ‘previewed and promised in Jesus Christ’. [27]

Begbie’s concept of beauty as outlined in these two chapters leaves me convinced that true beauty is to be found in the Trinity and excited by the prospect of how this can connect with music. It also leaves me with many questions! I can think of three areas I would like to explore further:

  1. Perhaps the first thing I would like to do with Begbie’s trinitarian concept of beauty is to test-run it whilst looking at a variety of Bible passages which mention beauty in different contexts.[28] Some passages may pose more of a puzzle than others – as I have already written, Isaiah prophesised that the despised and rejected saviour would have ‘no beauty…to attract us to him’ – this seems inconsistent with Begbie’s assertion that ‘If Christ is the measure of divine beauty, so also is he of created beauty’.[29] Perhaps there is more than one sort of beauty being spoken of here which may not be surprising when there are many different of Hebrew words that are translated as ‘beauty’ in English Bibles. A closer look at beauty(s?) in the Bible seems necessary. 
  2. Begbie draws upon the music of J.S. Bach and James MacMillan, and a poem by Michael O’Siadhail as examples of the beauty that we make. I would like to see more examples of music making discussed in the light of this trinitarian concept of beauty. And let’s not just consider the scores - how does this concept apply to the act of doing music or 'musicking'?
  3. What of power-play? Many musicians aren’t just wary of concepts of beauty because they can be creatively prescriptive, but also because they have been used as oppressive sociopolitical weapons. Perhaps there is no way of carefully articulating a concept that fully protects it from being twisted and used for evil, but it would be interesting to think more about how a trinitarian concept of beauty might not so easily become a bandwagon for control as other concepts of beauty have been. Begbie’s description of counter-sentimentality could be an interesting start in this direction.

Postscript, inspired by ‘Response #3’

God does not resolve evil as we resolve a suspension, enjoying the bitter-sweetness of the clash then tidying it up, he finds nothing enjoyable in it and he shatters it completely. I think that musical dissonance is an unhelpful image of evil. There is no final harmony that justifies horrendous suffering or that at least ‘makes sense’ of it with clear voice leading, instead there is a glorious cacophony that silences evil and renews the entire piece. Dissonance can be resolved, made logical, and eventually emancipated. Evil cannot.

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[1] Begbie describes the need for this Trinity-centred, salvation-centred approach in his introduction: ‘I believe that the concept of beauty needs very careful handling if we are not to distort the way the arts actually operate in practice, and if we are to avoid being captive to some intellectual schemes that cannot accommodate a narrative that culminates in a crucifixion and resurrection…I am less impressed when a particular metaphysics is adopted that centres on, say, the beauty-truth-goodness triad and is then used without justification to set the entire stage for theological adventures in the arts’. Jeremy Begbie, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and The Arts, (Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2018), p. ix.

[2] Begbie, A Peculiar Orthodoxy: Reflections on Theology and The Arts, p.4-5, italics original.

[3] Ibid. p.5. Begbie cites Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, vol.1, Seeing the Form, trans. Erasmo Levià-Merikakis (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1982).

[4] Ibid. p.7.

[5] Ibid. p.8. Begbie does not dispense with the term ‘participating’ altogether, but he does outline John Webster’s concerns that it may cause us to ‘overlook the irreducible Creator-creature distinction’, fail to base our understanding of God’s relationship with the world on the history of Israel and Jesus Christ, and forget that creation only reflects its Creator by God’s grace.

[6] Ibid, p.8.

[7] Ibid. p.16. In his book Bach and the Patterns of Invention (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), Lawrence Dreyfus argues that in Bach’s composition, form was subsidiary to the process of invention and elaboration.

[8] Ibid. p.11.

[9] Ibid. p.11.

[10] Ibid. p.12.

[11] Ibid. p.11.

[12] Ibid. p.18-19. Lawrence Dreyfus also rails against “organicism” being applied to Bach.

[13] Ibid. p.9.

[14] Ibid. p.9.

[15] Ibid. p.10.

[16] Ibid. p.24.

[17] Ibid. p.5.

[18] Ibid. p.6.

[19] Ibid. p.6-7. Begbie refers to the writing of John Milbank and David Bentley Hart as he writes about the sublime and the beautiful.

[20] Ibid, p.26-34. Begbie’s description of sentimentality reminds me of Roger Scruton’s description of kitsch; both down-play the cost of feeling and have been mistakenly associated with beauty. Roger Scruton, Beauty: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), p.159-161.

[21] Theodore L. Prestcott, “The Bodies before Us”, in A Broken Beauty, ed. Theodore L. Prestcott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 24. Quoted in Begbie, p.44.

[22] Begbie, p.44, italics original.

[23] Ibid. p.45.

[24] Isaiah 53:2 (NIV).

[25] Romans 3:26 (NIV)

[26] Begbie, p.45

[27] Ibid. p.24.

[28] Even in his introduction Begbie writes, ‘I am very aware...that there is little detailed exegesis of particular scriptural texts in what follows…I hope to extend this approach in further writings.’ p.viii

[29] Begbie, p.9.

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