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Beauty and the image of God.



Bone, a recently published collection of poetry by model, actress, Instagram superstar Yrsa Daley-Ward is one of the most devastating collections verse I've read. Featuring themes of broken relationships, mistakes, regret, neglect, and failure from those responsible for care, it is one of the most simply haunting depictions of a life lived looking for a hope that is as elusive as it is temporary when it does arrive.
Yet there is tension it creates for the reader beyond having to confront the deep sorrow of another, which is that it is thoroughly enjoyable poetry. The beauty is as clear and bright and shining as the themes are moving. It almost doesn't make sense to be there because of the nature of the themes explored, yet it is. But that's the only reason it's accessible. Because there is beauty. The beauty of the form of the verses, the construction of the sentences, the dry humour, the wit, the intelligence and the bravery are all as evident morally as they are aesthetically.

I find it a strange phenomenon that beauty should be born of such despair. Yet, there are so many other places you could look to discover that so many of the most beautiful expressions of skill and creativity so often derive from brokenness, pain and suffering. My record collection would be another prime example! But, as I build up an understanding of beauty and its place within the created order, and how it functions, this observation seems so at odds with God's purpose for beauty. And there is a question that jumps out which is: how can beauty exist this way? If pain and suffering are symptoms of a fallen, broken, cursed world which fails to reveal the beauty of God as well as it did at first, how can those things become the origins of such immense beauty? I believe that largely, aesthetic beauty is proportionate to and representative of its moral counterpart. Bodies are a great illustration of this. If our bodies are healthy, they tend to look healthy and therefore more beautiful. It's not vain to talk this way. If we are ill, or if we have suffered physically, our bodies start to not look as pleasant. If our body has been cut or bruised, it loses some of its beauty, because bruises and cuts are symptoms of damage and damage is not good. When those bruises and cuts heal, however, we begin to look healthy, and beautiful again. A lack of cuts and bruises symbolises good health, which is pleasing to us and those who love us and we appear more beautiful all round. It would not be healthy for cuts and bruises to look beautiful. If that were so we might admire them or even go out of our way to cause them. We would be less concerned about addressing the cause of them which in turn will worsen our health further. To be punched in the face, for instance, is not a beautiful thing. It has evil intent within its moral dimension and provokes repulsion at the sight of the disfigurement its aesthetic dimension. How then, can poems about a loss of identity, shattered realities or despair at life be so beautiful?It seems difficult on first reflection to reconcile this reality. 

It's a hard thing to attempt to work out and something which I believe is confusing to many, even if it's not fully understood or acknowledged. It's quite similar, really, isn't it, to the question of how can a good God allow suffering? There is often discord in our experiences of reality and they are not easy to reconcile or even articulate. Whilst debates over those sorts of questions will remain as long as mankind does, and we must learn to be content that God does not reveal everything there is to know to us. Yet, there is one Biblical truth that I find immensely helpful in getting to grips with the combination of beauty and brokenness we experience all around us, which is that God is wholly, fully, passionately committed to the preservation of His image in the world. And not just in mankind (mankind being made specifically in the image of God). The whole of the created order reflects something of the one who created it and imagined it. It can't not. And God is fiercely devoted to preserving that image, that reflection, wherever it is.

You get glimpses of this devotion all over the Bible, but I think the principle is most clearly articulated in places like Exodus 32 verse 9 - 14. In this passage, Moses pleads with God to hold off His wrath against the people of Israel and not destroy them, not because they deserve mercy, but because God's image must be preserved that His name and character my remain evident to the world in that particular way He has chosen to reveal it. It's fascinating that this is what Moses appeals to. But he does, because if God destroys Israel at that moment, even though he'd be right to do so, His image would not be preserved amongst His chosen people, and would cease to be made known to the nations in the way He intended to. In fact, as Moses points out, the likes of Egypt would think less of God, and that he brought Israel out of slavery just to kill them in the wilderness and not to show mercy. Of course, even with no one to observe, God is still loving, kind, just, merciful, gracious etc. He was these things before creation. It's very important not to forget that. Yet, the whole point of creation was that it was to be a place where the attributes of His character would be enjoyed by someone other than Himself as He shared His immense goodness. So Moses says to God, if you destroy Israel now, whom you have chosen to be merciful to out of all the nations of the earth, then you no longer have anyone you are willing to be merciful to in the same way, and then that aspect of your character is lost to a degree in that special sense. This opposes God's original plan for creation. Just to be clear, I'm not saying that God would cease to be merciful if He destroyed Israel at this point, but He would cease to be revealing mercy in creation in that special way: toward a chosen people. Which is what He is committed to doing. Because it's in the showing of mercy that others are able to enjoy God, to benefit from His goodness and worship Him for it.

So, how does this apply to beauty and the question I have asked previously? Well, despite all of creation being under a curse; broken, twisted and rife with evil, it's still God's world and His purpose still stands. He's not content to let His image disappear completely, even if it has faded significantly in some places. He is committed to finishing what He's started. And so, if I write a poem, or compose a song, even if I hate God, even if I'm suffering, even if I don't believe God exists, even if the content is vile or debased or promoting evil or celebrating a godless worldview, I'm still writing, composing, thinking, imagining, creating. The very act of being creative is to bear the likeness of my creator. It cannot be any other way. We create because God is a creator. And even if we create with evil intentions, we still create. You see? God just won't let us get away with being completely godless. He forces us into reflecting His image at all times, even if it's only in a minute way even if we don't acknowledge Him and even if we don't want to acknowledge Him. Of course, God's image does fade. Of course, some things reflect His image more than others, but I think that because of God's commitment to the preservation of His image, he will never let it slip completely. He will never let it slip to 0%. I think that even if you look at the most horrific evil in the world, there will always be at least a trace amount of the beauty of the image of God to be found.

You see, God wants us to be able to hope. God wants us not to give up on finding Him because He has not given up on us. Even amongst hardship, pain, suffering, despair, God leaves traces of the beauty of His image to be found, that we might also be able to find out Hope. And even more than that, the brokenness and the hope often work together. Because if we didn't suffer, we might not realise there is a problem to be dealt with - sin. Yet, if we didn't have any evidence of hope, we would despair. It's incredible really, to think about. And so we can read through the poems of Yrsa Daley-Ward and although we are led to feel the depths of her pain and frustration, we also experience the beauty of the elegance of the poems themselves. We find the beauty and we are lead to hope and we rejoice. Beauty frees from ultimate despair. It shows us that nothing is completely devoid of goodness. It shows us that God is still there to be found. This is what God intends. All because He is so committed to the preservation of His image. Because in the preservation of His image, His people find hope, and they might just turn to Him and then He would save them. God answered the prayers of Moses more than once. He answered because, even though he would be just to destroy, He loves to preserve, to restore, to save even more. The more people He saves, the more people there are to display His image in creation, which means more people are happy and satisfied as they fulfil their purpose and God delights in this. It's a wonderful dichotomy.

And for Christians, I believe this truth should do two things. Firstly I think it should give us assurance. I think we should be assured of God's commitment to us because of His commitment to Himself. Our salvation is wrapped up really in how much God loves God. Of course, He loves US, each of His children, deeply, truly, personally. But it's because they are His image bearers and His image is wonderful. And so when we doubt or struggle with unbelief and in times when our faith is shaken, or when we are so conscious of sin, we can look to the beautiful things of the world and know that God loves His image, He preserves it because it's glorious and to give us hope. Each shred of beauty that we can find in even the darkest of places is a sign that God is there, ready and waiting - even more than that - seeking to find us and be found. He wants salvation for all people. Even if we feel like we are in a dark place, the shred of beauty there will tell us that that place is not too dark for God to give us hope. Secondly, I think it should give us freedom and confidence to engage with the godless cultures around us. Much of the world is so harmful that it would be good for us to steer clear. But as we seek to be lights in the darkness, we should understand that everywhere we look, God's image is being revealed, even if it's in tiny ways. The music we listen to, the art we can look at, the poems we can read, the acts we can commit will never fully lose the image of God in them. We should, therefore, be content to enjoy it the image of God wherever we see it and encouraged to engage with the world, shining light on the beauty of the image of God that will never disappear.

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