The Role of Beauty in City Transformation

I have always loved beautiful things. I love to surround myself with flowers on the kitchen table, a garden full of colours and textures, paintings and sculptures on my walls and window sills, photographs of special places we’ve visited and shared beautiful moments in with family and friends. Beauty is important to me. Over the past few years I have been studying beauty; the philosophy of aesthetics, the theology of beauty and gathering an anthology of beauty through images, texts, poetry that help me to engage more personally with the theme.

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Last month I was invited to speak about the role of beauty to transform our communities, something that I am passionate about. Here are my notes for the talk:

“Today I am going to spend a few minutes talking to you about BEAUTY.
This might seem to be a rather unusual subject in a conference about unity, mission and city transformation but I want to explain to you why I feel that it is vital for the church to recover an understanding of the value of beauty if we stand any chance of sharing Gods love and presence to our present western culture.

Throughout history philosophers and theologians from Plato and Augustine to contemporary thinkers like Von Balthasar and Tillich have spoken of the importance of the ancient triad of Goodness, Truth and Beauty; the transcendentals that describe the character, nature and presence of God.

As Evangelicals we have for the past few hundred years focused on Truth, with the Word being the most important means of sharing Gods love with the world. More recently we have ministered through acts of Goodness and kindness, these expressions have been shared over the past few days through the ways the church is now engaging with culture and society through food banks, serving the homeless, street pastors and many more expressions of goodness.

But Beauty has been harder to claim and has at times slipped away from the evangelical consciousness, seeing it as irrelevant or superfluous.

So what do I mean when I say we need to recover the art of beauty?
By beauty I do not mean the pretty, the pleasing, the perfect or naive, but beauty, I believe is the very nature of God, that can be found, discovered, and even surprise us in the midst of our everyday lives, even in the most difficult and harshest of situations.

Beauty is the divine breath of love and grace that touches our hearts with a thread of gold.
It brings hope, life, aspiration, joy, gentleness, peace and goodness.
It brings a taste and a touch of our creators heart so that when we encounter beauty, be that in music, art, poetry, nature, science, the embrace of friends or family, or in the kindness of a stranger in a moment of terror and devastation, we encounter God.

Beauty becomes liminal space. (a place of transition, a space in-between, where boundaries are dissolved) It points beyond itself to the eternal, like a finger pointing to the moon.
Beauty is a language of the heart, the call of God to humanity, and as such it cant be owned or bought with a price, it is instead a gift, open to everyone who has the eyes to see it and receive it. Beauty is fragile, and transient, like the blossom that visited us for a week or two and is already fading, or the colours of a rainbow that are only present for a moment.

Humanity is drawn to beauty, it is how God made us, each one of us has a longing to be united with the Beauty of God that created us. We were created in Eden, a garden of Beauty and we long for Zion, the Promised Land, Heaven, an eternal place of beauty. Biblically we learn that the beauty of the holy city in Revelation is inseparable from the glory of God who is its light and source. It is impossible for us to imagine the place where God dwells without beauty, for God is beautiful.

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In todays culture we have been conditioned to see beauty as glamour, stunning photo shopped models without a single blemish on their perfectly formed faces, or as expensive and desirable objects that create the perfect home in magazines and on the tv programmes like Grand Designs. Life has become starved of beauty as we have tried to possess and consume it. Modern life has become ugly, mass produced, materialistic, always drawing attention to the negative, the bad, the evil, the things to fear, the people to 4. hate, and contemporary art particularly in the Brit Art scene has become obsessed with the language of the age, art is now disturbing, shocking, reflecting the uncertainty of life since the 2 world wars. Its about randomness, life without truths and absolutes, life without religion and faith. As our society has lost its faith in God and religion so too it has inevitably lost faith in beauty too, for beauty is of God.

But true beauty, an echo of the presence of God, brings hope, compassion, joy and peacefulness. In Greek the word for beautiful is Kalon – related to the word Kalein – the notion of the call – when we experience beauty we feel called by another. We sense something that is beyond ourselves, in the words of George Steiner, “Beauty is an echo of the presence of other.”

I dont have time today to give a Biblical understanding of Beauty, or to explain the history and philosophy of aesthetics… thats perhaps for another time. But what I do want to share quickly are 3 stories, 3 examples of beauty that reveal Gods presence and love amongst our communities.

Firstly the story in the news recently of Stephen, the young teenager with terminal cancer who has raised millions of pounds in the past few weeks for cancer research. In an interview with one of his friends in the cancer unit, a young teenage girl, she said tearfully, “Ever since I was diagnosed with cancer, the world has seemed more beautiful, colours are stronger, everything is more intense and amazing.”

Her eyes had been opened, because death can bring us closer to the Divine, God reveals His glory to us when we stop and pause and think about life and death. She has discovered the eternal in the present moment, for she is no longer too busy rushing around achieving and competing, but her diagnosis has forced her to slow down and to listen and to see everything more intensely. She has discovered the beauty of death and resurrection, she has seen the beauty of God in her time of distress and pain and is reaching out to the call that she is sensing.

The second story is about Edi Rama – mayor of Tirana the capital of Albania – for 11 years. An artist before he became a politician he believed in the power of colour to revive the hope that had been lost in his city. He began a programme to paint the drab grey buildings in the city with bright colours. Apparently the EU were not happy that their funding was being used in this way and said that the colours he had chosen did not meet European standards and asked him to compromise, He said ‘No’ that compromise was the colour of grey and that they had already more than enough of that.

“I love the joy that colour can give to our lives and to our communities. When colours come out everywhere, a mood of change started transforming the spirit of the people….People started to drop less litter in the streets. They started to pay taxes. They started to feel something they’d forgotten….. Beauty was giving people a feeling of being protected. This was not a misplaced feeling – crime did fall.”Image

The third story was about the PassionArt Trail – talking about bringing beauty to my city through the Easter story in art and music, where we received a welcome in secular spaces because they valued the beauty that we were bringing. Epiphany, a group of Christian classical musicians performed sound portraits – musical prayers over the visitors to these two secular spaces. The staff at both venues commented how the atmosphere changed on those days that we were there. You could sense the presence of God in the beauty of their music and the emotion of the artwork, the colours, the forms, the sounds.                                                                                                                     (Go to http://www.passionarttrail.co.uk to learn more and http://www.epiphanymusic.org.uk)

Summary
As christians called to city and town transformation we must be agents of beauty as well as of truth and goodness.
Beauty is a language that speaks through the hardness and indifference of our culture.
Truth is now considered subjective, but beauty disarms, it attracts without an argument, for it speaks directly to the heart and not just the mind.
The church therefore now needs to offer goodness and beauty as ways to share Gods love with the world.
Acts of kindness and goodness have flourished over the past few years as we have re-engaged with the social gospel of Jesus, but perhaps we can enhance and grow our mission by engaging with beauty too.

If we are called to reflect God to the world then we surely are called to reflect beauty.

So can I ask you to consider when you are planning your mission, your worship, your transformation agenda’s, how can we bring beauty into the spaces around us? How can beauty be evoked and welcomed in your place?

A talk given at Gather Global event in London by Lesley Sutton – artist and curator

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