Thursday, June 13, 2019

Cultivating Beauty

* I wrote this article for our church's Resurrection Reads: Summer 2019 Newspaper and some of it was from an older blog post I had written back in 2012.

In Francis Schaeffer's essay, Pollution and the Death of Man, he describes lecturing at a Christian school whose neighboring property was what they termed a "hippie community". This property across the ravine included trees and farms where pagan grape stomps were enjoyed by the members of this "Bohemian" community. Francis Schaeffer's curiosity was stirred so he visited the community and met one of the leaders and enjoyed a conversation which included Schaeffer's views on the Christian answer to life and ecology. The leader complimented Schaeffer by telling him that he was the first person from "across the ravine" who had ever been shown the pagan grape stomping area, complete with a pagan image. I will let Schaeffer tell it now:

Having shown me all this, he looked across to the Christian school and said to me, "Look at that, isn't that ugly?" And it was!  I could not deny it. It was an ugly building, without even trees around it.
It was then that I realized what a poor situation this was. When I stood on Christian ground and looked at the Bohemian people's place, it was beautiful. They had even gone to the trouble of running their electricity cables under the level of the trees so that they couldn't be seen. Then I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness. Here you have a Christianity that is failing to take into account man's responsibility and proper relationship to nature.

Several pages later, he comes back to this thought as he writes how the Christian church can exercise dominion over nature without being destructive.

For instance, in the area of nature, we ought to be exhibiting the very opposite of the situation I described earlier, where the pagans who had their wine stomps provided a beautiful setting for the Christians to look at, while the Christians provided something ugly for the pagans to see.  That sort of situation should be reversed, or our words and our philosophy will, predictably, be ignored.
It is always true that if you treat the land properly, you have to make two choices. The first is in the area of economics. It costs more money, at least at first, to treat the land well. For instance, in the case of the school I have mentioned, all they had to do to improve the place was to plant trees, and somebody decided that instead of planting trees they would prefer to do something else with the money. Of course, the school needs the money for its important work; but there is a time when planting trees is an important work.

His account resonated with me. Christians should be providing something beautiful for the pagans to look at. When the hippie community looked across the ravine, they saw no culture worth pursuing, no nourishment for their souls, no ideas for their consideration. They saw ugliness and there was no relief from it, except to turn away. And while Schaeffer was writing especially about nature and ecology, this has implications for all of our endeavors as Christians.

Christian educator Andrew Kern defines education as the cultivation of wisdom and virtue by nourishing the soul on truth, goodness, and beauty. I’ve added order to that for our family. We want to cultivate wisdom and virtue by nourishing our souls on truth, goodness, beauty and order so we may bring life to our family and to those around us.

We have a new home on a street in which new homes are still being completed. None of us have any landscaping yet. We are waiting for all of our lots to be graded, top-soiled and then sodded. It's part of the building package we paid for. I find this current tree-less, grass-less, plant-less situation depressing. If you've talked to me about our new house in recent weeks, I've probably mentioned it.
But the older homes behind our new development all have super green grass, small trees and shrubs, garden plants and bird feeders. We are living on their creation of beauty as we look out of our windows and notice the birds flitting from one take-away to the next. I'm tempted to pity myself most days without a garden to plant but my new neighbors have inadvertently shared their work of cultivating beauty and care for creation by giving us a lovely view.  I hope we can return the favor soon by creating order and beauty on our property.

Creating beauty is not limited of course to landscaping or education. When our daughter Kate was hospitalized as a newborn, the nurses made her crib area as cheerful as possible with a decorated homemade name tag above her crib, cute blankets and even the tape holding the tube into her nose was often cut into a heart or star shape. It was very touching to see this devoted care.

And of the many, many commutes I traveled back and forth from our home to hospital for those three winter weeks, it was seeing the Christmas lights on the trees and houses and beautiful stained glass windows lit up on the church that gave me extra hope and comfort as I drove home in the dark in the late afternoons. Those homeowners and church builders never knew how much cheer they brought me as their wonderful attempts at beauty shone out into the darkness. But I knew.
As a young girl, my mother traveled extensively throughout the United States with her family by car. She never forgot driving through an area of Appalachia in the southern US and seeing many unkempt homes lining the road and then seeing one house with a tidy and clean front yard and a few flowers bringing cheer to a difficult home life. As a young girl, she understood that even in the poorest of places, beauty can shine where there is desire for it.

As Christians, we need to cultivate a Christian understanding of the world  and we need to make it obvious, whether it shows in planting trees and flowers, making good music, writing lasting stories, building beautiful buildings or cooking wholesome food.  May it no longer be said that we as Christians have only contributed that which is sterile, but instead that we have sought to cultivate a culture of beauty through wisdom and virtue.

Forget-me-not flowers from my friend Rachel's garden

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting! Edith Schaeffer also wrote about this neglect of the beautiful among the Christian missionaries. It seems to grow out of a dualism that sees the material, physical world as unspiritual and not worth investing in. But we are not spirits. We are whole persons with physical senses also that crave beauty. Christ blessed and sanctified the physical world when He entered it, and God loves us through it, too, through the sun and the rain and the flowers. We can love the setting that He put us in by, as you say, cultivating that beauty.

    It's so encouraging that homeschoolers are on the forefront of this very worthy movement of appreciation for the beauty of the earth, and of our participation in it! Forgive my rant - thank you so much for this word.


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