I can order a coffee fluently in a number of European languages, but beyond that the curse of Babel hits hard. I have a little schoolboy French, some tourist’s Italian and German but beyond that I’m stumped. Words matter. I had a tortuous few days in Belgium in an area where to get the language wrong was to be ignored for the visit. Fifty-fifty choice. Russian roulette with words. Do you feel lucky?
We need to begin with words, simply because in order to think about why we feel this way or that about something, we need them. Two people standing in front of a painting will almost inevitably start to talk about it. Certainly to communicate to others, but often to explain ourselves to ourselves.
We are made in the image of the thinking, speaking God, and so we think and speak. It is central to our relationships, and beyond Babel it was God the Word who became flesh, reversed the curse, and set us on the track for the day when people from every tongue will praise him with one tongue.
Words matter, because they matter to God. He upholds the universe with the Word of his power. That requires and promises coherence, logic, and explanatory power.
That means that we find the gospel both true and beautiful. Not true because it is beautiful, but because it is true it is beautiful.
And in an upheld sense, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” is both true and beautiful. Even the basis of logic and science, like e=mc2 is beautiful, because it is rational and coheres. That’s what it means to have a universe upheld by a powerful word.
We sometimes say, “A picture paints a thousand words”, and it’s true. But so is the reverse. Words can do things that great visual or musical creations cannot – who could paint Hamlet’s soliloquy? Not the indecision -the flow of thought throughout the speech.
I’m going to suggest three elements to understanding of beauty, and put them on a biblical timeline. Separately, or in combination, I think they go some way towards explaining why something created is an echo of the Uncreated one, and why anything at all is beautiful.
And the first is that Christ in his office as prophet elevates words and the possibility of their carrying truth to the level of trustworthiness, right to the foot of the heavenly throne. We stand there because we trust his words to be true and reliable, and as such, they are sweet and a delight – and gorgeous.
But ask a painter why she has painted a painting, and she’ll say, “If I could explain that, I wouldn’t have painted it.” So in the next post we’ll consider the place of what moves us, and affections.