Is This Book Beautiful? part 2

In my last post, I offered this thesis: the question we need to ask of any theological book we offer our kids is, ultimately, “is this book beautiful?” But what about truth? What’s the standard for measuring beauty? What about “true” books that aren’t beautiful? Is that an oxymoron? After a lovely dinner with Haley, our husbands, and the kiddos – at which all of those questions were tossed around – I’ve been thinking hard about why beauty is so important in children’s literature. Here’s my go at an explanation.

First, some definition. When I think of real, genuine beauty – the kind that wins us to itself, that is pure and good and true – the best biblical term I can come up with is “glory.” As in, the glory of the Lord. Sinners that we are, we can often find this beauty challenging or terrifying. We can rarely encounter it and remain unchanged. It draws us out of the prison of ourselves. It is a moment of the great, uncreated reality breaking through. We find that we are part of something much larger, much more lovely than we ever could have guessed – and we learn to see ourselves in the light of God’s glory, rather than the other way around. In this way, beauty is often the vehicle of truth.

In other words, beauty is something that confronts us. It stands whole in itself and makes us reckon with it. It is not easy. The Old Testament reading last week was about Jacob wrestling with the angel: he won’t let go until he gets a blessing. And because he is wrestling with God, of course the blessing is forthcoming. Beauty, I think, is much the same.

But what does this have to do with literature for our kids? Why not primarily evaluate our books by their doctrinal content or faithfulness to Scripture? Isn’t beauty too subjective? Or, if we hail from certain Protestant traditions, even dangerous? How can asking “Is this book beautiful?” be an essential – maybe even the essential – question?

A couple of things. First, I’m definitely not advocating ignoring doctrinal content or faithfulness to Scripture. If a book is going to give a truly beautiful account of the truth, its horizon has to be subject to and shaped by the revealed glory of God, as seen in Jesus and attested by the Bible. Unfortunately, though, when many of us ask the question, “is this book true?” we’re operating with an impoverished category of truth. We’re so used to thinking of it as doctrinal proposition, or confessional summary: some static, complete body of knowledge that is either affirmed or denied. “Does this book affirm the virgin birth, or not? Does it portray Scripture as inspired? Does it treat the Bible stories like they actually happened? Does it acknowledge that all have sinned?” If the answer to these is a bare yes, then I know I’ve been tempted to give it a pass, as long as it’s not too cheesy in the presentation of that “truth.”

But a list of “true” statements, shorn of the living glory that makes them true, is an incomplete witness to the True Word that took on flesh. Something untrue cannot be fully beautiful, and something stripped of beauty is less than true. Ironically, many of us who want to give the best theological books to our children are so focused on the question of truth that we let beauty slide – and so give our children less than the full truth. Not only is God true – not only does he exist – but he is Good, and stands before us as a decision. Will we love and obey the God who is known in Christ, or not? That’s why we try to tell our children the truth about God.

Forgive me a brief foray into academic theology, but I find Hans Urs Von Balthasar‘s observation (in volume 1 of The Glory of the Lord) helpful here:

In a world without beauty–even if people cannot dispense with the word and constantly have it on the tip of their tongues in order to abuse it–in a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out. Man stands before the good and asks himself why it must be done and not rather its alternative, evil. For this, too, is a possibility, and even the more exciting one: Why not investigate Satan’s depths? In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency. (my emphasis)

In other words: if we cannot see the beauty in truth, it won’t compel us. That is, we may acknowledge something as true without loving it as good or wanting to submit our lives to it: “even the demons believe–and shudder” (Jas 2:19). But if we look for beauty- rigorous, real beauty, not easy sentimentality or prettiness – we may be won over to the truth more fully than if we simply see words we agree with. And when we are won over to the glory of truth, we can know it as good and bow before it – and that’s what I desire for my kids. I do want them to have heads full of true statements about God, but only if those truths also woo their hearts and lives by their beauty.


4 thoughts on “Is This Book Beautiful? part 2

  1. This is a really thought provoking post and such a challenge as a writer. But then I think of those books that have nothing overtly theological about them yet still hint at the beauty you reference. And I think when we pigeonhole our approach – almost to make it expositional – we underestimate our kids. I think in many ways they are much more adept at entering in to a story world and breathing its air than we adults are (especially as we tend to analyze things to death). A timely post – I’m writing today and want to give whar you’ve said some thought…thanks!

    • Hi Marissa! Fun to see you here. I’ll let Sarah reply, too, but I wanted to jump in to say ABSOLUTELY. There are a great many books that aren’t overtly theological that capture glorious beauty – often better than the overtly theological ones, to be honest. We absolutely affirm that, but we’ve also intentionally limited our scope here at the blog to the overtly theological because we feel like those books aren’t being talked about enough. Although, I will admit that the line is sometimes fuzzy and at times I’ve been tempted to expand to include some of those gloriously beautiful books that are beyond what verge on, as you said, almost expositional.

      By the way, I’m really looking forward to reading your book when it comes out!

    • Thanks for stopping by, Marissa! “I think when we pigeonhole our approach…we underestimate our kids.” I couldn’t agree with you more! Not only are kids wonderful at entering in to the world of a story and simply inhabiting it, it’s absolutely crucial that we invite them to do so if they’re going to develop any sort of moral and spiritual imagination.

      And as I’ve reflected on my own life of faith, I appreciate more and more how faithful grownups helped to shape my imagination. I feel like that was the groundwork that made theological study and reflection possible, not the other way around.

      You’re writing a book? Hooray! What is it about?

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