I come from a tradition that highly values truth—believes in it as an absolute, even. In the church where I grew up, we were not taught to speak what was pure or lovely, but what was true. The standard of integrity in my childhood household was not to speak beauty, but to tell the truth.
Stories weren’t spurned, but they weren’t particularly valued, either. If we didn’t have something good—meaning: edifying—to say, we were instructed to say nothing at all. School presented some esteem of beauty, because I took literature classes, but most teenagers are too embarrassed to publicly experience beauty. So the lessons remained, at most, informative.
I’ve always valued beauty inasmuch as it represents order. Composition, balance, and a mathematical conception of elegance are avenues on which I can understand and appreciate visual art. I love those darn water lilies, and aesthetics help me say why without sputtering about “just adoring lavender right now” or having to use the word “pretty.”
Then last spring, I started requiring my students to write beautiful poems—and telling them that those poems could be about anything. We read a poem about a wolf and a chewed-off limb that ended with Professor Schmidt all choked up and goose bumped.
I admit it was a gamble, but there is no beauty without an experience; any example was going to be a gamble. Late in the spring, I got a sticker from Image that said, “Beauty will save the world.” The sentiment—from a Christian literary journal—was suspicious enough to be good for posting on my—Baptist college—office door. I felt scandalous like a philosophy professor.
Honestly, I’m as uncomfortable saying “Beauty will save the world” as I am saying “Love is enough.” I generally don’t believe that something that involves so much emotion could be trustworthy—or sufficient.
But, unsettling as it is, beauty’s capacity to include emotion makes it more complete than truth. Truth has little room for emotion. But a thing cannot be beautiful unless it is true.
My tectonics are shifting. And in the process I’m getting more frustrated with fundamentalist faith, politics, and 1970s architecture. A workplace without landscaping suddenly seems brutal, and churches without art hollow. I recognize the depth of his spirit when a friend tells me he’s lost his faith, not by some rational contradiction, but because he no longer sees it as beautiful.
And, ironically, in a culture saturated with image, I’m finding in this belief in beauty a release from bondage. There’s no longer any reason for me to strive toward my images of my neighbors’ supposedly organized, organic, glamorous, or important lives, or for me to compete with the pictures in Cosmo: they aren’t beautiful. They can’t be, because they’re not true.
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