When I was younger, I had little appreciation for what is sometimes called “fine art.” I looked down on opera (“I can’t even understand what they’re singing!”). I laughed at abstract paintings (“It doesn’t look like anything!”). And I struggled through poetry (“Why does it matter how this makes me feel?”). I was utilitarian in my outlook because I believed that art served little function in society and mattered even less in the Church. What really mattered, I told myself, is winning souls.
Then my wife and I moved to the secular, artistic city of New York. We came to plant a church. To win souls. And I suddenly found myself surrounded by artists and art lovers — the opera singer who led worship in our church plant (God has a sense of irony!), the photographer whose works are featured in the neighborhood, the writer who aspired to produce a hit sitcom, the designer who worked in the fashion industry. Inside our church and out, I met people who loved hip-hop and ballet, people who were inspired to create culinary art and who frequented the local art museums.
I realized that I needed to make a course correction. I had always emphasized that Christianity was true and good. Now, surrounded by people who appreciated beauty, I became convinced that I needed to portray the Christian story in beautiful terms. I began to journey towards the Beautiful.
From beginning to end, the Bible is a beautifully crafted story of a beautiful God who creates and redeems beauty.
If you are familiar with the Bible, this is not hard to do. Our triune God is majestic and glorious. His inherent beauty is reflected in the beautiful world in which we are privileged to live. It is a world that whispers to us of the beauty of its Creator. From the cosmic expanse above our heads, to the microscopic biospheres beneath our feet, the earth reflects the glory of God. This beauty is apparent when we look at humanity: the crown of God’s creation. We are the ones who image God, we are the ones who most reflect his glory. It’s as if God designed humans to hold up a mirror that reflects his ultimate beauty.
But beauty in the Bible is unexpectedly redefined by the death of Jesus. What’s more beautiful than that old, rugged cross, stained with blood? All of history turns on that hauntingly beautiful symbol. Through this sacrifice, Jesus brought into existence his Beloved Bride: the Church. Although we are marred by sin, Jesus looks at the Church and he sees beauty in the midst of renewal. When the Church lives up to its vocation and bears the name of Christ with excellence, it is uniquely beautiful.
One day, the Church will reign with its Creator over the resplendent City of God. The New Heavens and the New Earth are the beautiful destiny of the redeemed. From beginning to end, the Bible is a beautifully crafted story of a beautiful God who creates and redeems beauty.
All of this I learned as I theologically reflected on the importance of beauty to my secular (and Christian) neighbors. I had guides on my journey towards beauty: writers like Makoto Fujimura and Karen Swallow Prior. Their insights taught me to appreciate the beauty in the Bible and in the world. And then something else happened: I learned to put the pieces together. I discovered that art was connected to church planting and beauty was linked to evangelism.
I’m a missionary to the north-central Brooklyn neighborhood of Crown Heights, where I pastor a diverse, beautiful community of faith. I am also trained as a missiologist. I realized as I studied beauty that God never intended for us to separate truth, goodness, and beauty. Christianity is all of these because God is true, good and beautiful. It dawned on me that cultivating beauty in my community was a part of our mission to bear witness to the lordship of Christ.
To bear the name of Jesus in a neighborhood marked by racial tension, violence and poverty, I needed to model a better, more beautiful way. At a recent event for the essential workers of a local school, we gave away gourmet meals. Not mediocre, but excellent, because this best showcases the lavish grace of God. We also hired a saxophonist to stand under a tent and play jazz as the snow fell around him because we wanted to celebrate beauty in a dark and ugly time.
Whether I’m planting trees in my community or platforming jazz musicians, I’m cultivating beauty. Instead of merely fighting a culture war, I’m slowly tilling the ground, pointing towards ultimate beauty. I’m pointing towards an old, rugged cross.
I don’t have all the answers, but I have learned that this journey towards beauty is essential to our Christian mission. As pilgrims on the way, we are making a beautiful journey towards the City of God. We are on a pilgrimage towards ultimate beauty, and we are privileged to invite our neighbors to join us on this journey.