I recently read a post by Tim Challies and Sean Harrelson that had been making the rounds, called “The Disabilities Dilemma.” It spoke of a church conference on beauty and mission, where very few people stopped by “a booth covered with pictures of broken bodies and disfigured faces.” The argument that the post makes is that an over-emphasis on beauty in theology has the potential to drive Christians away from people with disabilities, since “the disabled have a way of disturbing our commitment to beauty.”
First, I want to thank Tim and Sean for raising the important topic of why the church is often hesitant to engage with the topic of disability, and for their work toward changing the tide. As someone who works with people with developmental disabilities and is active in church, I count myself among those who feel that Protestant Christianity has neglected beauty in significant ways: the beauty of art, of the gospel and scripture, and the beauty that we have been called to nurture in the world around us (including creation-care). It excites me to think that we are starting to reclaim a sense of being moved by that which is beautiful.
I am not sure what the real reason is behind only five people stopping by a booth at a conference on beauty and mission. I am certain, though, that the conversation needs to be more nuanced than to push for beauty to be generically de-emphasized in the Christian faith.
One reason I would suggest this is because to categorize a substantial portion of the population as presenting “broken bodies and disfigured faces” strikes me as an inaccurate stereotype of disability. Thinking through the range of people I have met or worked with who have disabilities, so many are truly beautiful – in a wide variety of ways. Also, the promotional material that I have seen, of the type that is displayed at conferences, also tries to capture people at their best – in the moments where they express joy, serenity, or are actively engaged in an activity that they find meaningful and rewarding.
Secondly, if the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has any merit, we really do need to clarify what conception of beauty we are referring to. The article states that “Ours is a highly marketed culture popping with logos, sound bites, and all kinds of bling.” It goes on to observe “our younger generation of evangelical leaders care a great deal for aesthetic quality in music, technology, architecture, interior design, and graphic arts. They value beauty.” In the span of a couple of sentences, it covers a range of aesthetic aspects and classifies them together as “beauty.”
Later on, the article observes “In his perfect Creation there was not a single stain of ugliness. But then we chose to be ugly before him. We chose to go our way instead of his way, and in doing that we became hopelessly marred and disfigured.” It becomes difficult to discern where the authors are referring to sin, and where they are referring to physical abnormality in nature or in humanity.
Perhaps the real problem with our theology is not an over-emphasis on beauty but an under-emphasis on what constitutes beauty. If beauty is defined by marketing, perfection of audio and visual presentations, and graphic design, it will look very different than seeing the full range of humanity, of people created in the image of God, as beautiful. One perception of beauty says that to be in control is what is beautiful. In this view, to manipulate all elements and oneself in such a way as to present the perfect image is what matters. Another perception of beauty is that light and dark, frail and strong, vulnerable and resilient together reveal the fullness of humanity and the image of God. This view understands that what we receive and that which is outside of our control is gift and there is beauty in receiving, in being able to let go of the drive for perfection and power.
We see this exemplified in the way that very God should become very man, with “no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). Ironically, in Christ’s very brokenness on the cross, in his disabling, we are disturbed by the beauty and depth of His undying love.
Perhaps, in this way, we have not been disturbed enough by the beauty of the body of Christ – we are satisfied with the societal perception that to be in control and to hide imperfections and weakness is what constitutes beauty. If we were passionate about true beauty, we would not rest until those who “seem to be weaker” (1 Cor. 12:22) are recognized as being indispensable to the true beauty of fellowship, the body of Christ. If we were more fully moved by the beauty of the cross we would not rest until those who have been excluded and marginalized by cheap and temporal perceptions of beauty have been welcomed – loved – back into fellowship and we are then open to receiving their gifts and their ministry.
I would like to end with a portrait of sublime beauty. In his ability to gently capture light and darkness, vulnerability and brokenness, Rembrandt has portrayed the beauty of a timeless story of God’s embrace of humanity. Is this not the beauty we are called to paint a picture of, to urge the church to rekindle its passion for the beauty of Christ?