Monday, May 10, 2021
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The source of all beauty

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I am the Good Shepherd – John 10:11

A YORKSHIRE landlord once told me a story about a famous television presenter, whose name I must keep secret to avoid the libel laws. This presenter went up to Yorkshire to make a programme. He gave the landlord £100 and asked him to procure a woman for a night’s companionship. The landlord said, ‘A hundred quid? Buy my wife three or four gin and tonics and some fish and chips and she’ll entertain thee as long as tha wants!’ 

A rather more serious moral example came up recently when it was reported that a man had hired out his wife for a whole year to his friend for about £175,000. He was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and he needed the money to pay for a transplant. In their comical or serious ways, both these stories are examples of people being regarded not as ends in themselves but as means to an end: as instruments who can be bought for the right price. When Jesus tells his disciples that he is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, he is telling them that he values them absolutely. And this is the pattern for how we should all be. Some hopes! The trouble with us is that we are not capable of anything like this level of selflessness. We are utilitarians and consumerists, and we plot and scheme all day long to get the best deals for ourselves.

Now I’ve been trying to preach on today’s gospel for thirty years, but this week I noticed something in the story of the Good Shepherd that I’ve never seen before. The English Bible and the Prayer Book translate the Greek words into the familiar I am the Good Shepherd. However the original does not say ho poimayn ho agapos, Good Shepherd, but ho poimayn ho kalos, Beautiful Shepherd. This takes us into some thrilling territory, for it introduces aesthetics and not just morality into its representation of Jesus.

This has a startling message for us: it means that the sorts of music and pictures, poems and landscapes that we value say as much about our morality as the ethical precepts we try to uphold. There is something else here which is utterly bound up with what I wrote just now about means and ends. For it is not only persons who must be treated as ends in themselves: the character of a painting, a symphony or a poem must not be regarded in that crass utilitarian fashion which asks only ‘How much is it worth?’ 

We are commanded to have the eyes of God who, when he looked at the world he had just made, pronounced that it was very good. And so, when we look at works of art and at a landscape of, as it might be, a host of golden daffodils, we must, if we are to do right, look at these things contemplatively with what the great Kant called disinterested interest. We must see things, as well as our fellow human beings, for what they are in themselves and not for what we can profit from them. 

The world is charged with the grandeur of God. 

The beautiful presence of God haunts all creation. His spirit broods over the deep.

We are commanded to love what is beautiful just as we are commanded to do what is right. And because of our fallen nature we can, alas! do neither of these things. As well as moral corruption, we see all around us so much artistic decadence and sheer ugliness. There is the perverse and fashionable determination to get oneself up in an ugly style. And, since we are made in the image of God, this is just as much the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost as to say, in the context of morals, Evil be thou my good

There is the more generalised crass indifference to beauty: narrow village streets spoilt by a rash of double yellow lines; tasteless advertisements and billboards that deface public space which is meant to be sacred; the appalling anti-art of pickled sheep and other carcases in formaldehyde; the blistering banality and sheer raucousness of much that passes for music; the trashy soap operas to which half the nation is addicted. These are dramas which do the dirt on human life because they caricature it or return it to us unexamined. This is ugliness, the image of God defaced. We can no more evade responsibility for what we make than for what we do. Or as Roger Scruton said: ‘You can pretend to evade the moral law, but you will never live happily with the attempt. You can pretend to ignore the degradation of music, the spoliation of the landscape, the destruction of the town; but in your heart you will gradually be subdued and even destroyed by these things.’

We can’t have beauty on the cheap any more than we can have morality on the cheap. These things take hard work. We practise being good until we become, if not good, then just a little bit better than we were. We must similarly practise our appreciation of what is beautiful – learn to develop an eye and an ear for it. It ought to go without saying that the enemy of beauty is not obvious ugliness but that which so often tries to pass itself off as beautiful. For the idol, if it is to deceive us successfully, must be made to look as much like the true God as possible. I mean of course Kitsch which is the artistic equivalent of idolatry: the chocolate-boxy, painting-by-numbers sentimentality which apes and parodies the true picture; the pretty poems of the poetasters; worst of all the infection of religion by new liturgies which make the groom croon to his bride All that I am I give to you.

Let us test our understanding of the beautiful and the good by finding the most difficult example. It is easy to see how a painting of the Madonna and Child could be of surpassing beauty, but how about a beautiful crucifix? Surely this savage and brutal torture is all degradation and ugliness? Well, the Greeks sidelined much of what is truly awful behind masks and off stage – literally obscene. Christ engaged with the awfulness in order to redeem it, and that is why the crucifix is beautiful: because its appearance is the phenomenal aspect of its reality: the crucifix says LOOK! This is how God loves the human race!

And the death of God is life for us. Ah, the Beautiful Shepherd and his frequently unlovely sheep! The beautiful is what is real. Ugliness is all pretence. It is idolatry. The beautiful is no soft touch, no holiday from reality. It is not for the squeamish but tells it as it is. How about the hymn which frightened me as a child and scares me still: 

Those dear tokens of his passion, still his dazzling body bears; 

Cause of endless exultation to his ransomed worshippers:

With what rapture gaze we on those glorious scars!

William Blake rejected a god who rumbled around Sinai casting thunderbolts and making impossible demands. He would not, as he said, have this god who farts and belches and coughs. But what does the Psalmist – David the shepherd boy – say about God? That He is beautiful and the source of all beauty. And, of course, Jesus the Beautiful Shepherd is of the house and lineage of David. 

One thing have I desired of the Lord, that I will seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord.

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Peter Mullen
Peter Mullen is a Church of England clergyman, writer and broadcaster

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