How Much Truth Is There in Beauty?
How Much Truth Is There in Beauty?

How Much Truth Is There in Beauty?

Would you eat an ugly cucumber?

Millions of dollars ride on your answer to that question. So does a lot of theology.

According to a recent study published in The Journal of Marketing, tons of produce and other food is tossed out every year in the United States as failing to meet minimum appearance standards for sale. Sid Mookerjee, Yann Cornil, and Joandrea Hoegg argue that labelling substandard vegetables and fruits as “ugly” will in fact promote their sale. According to the article’s abstract,

The authors examine why consumers discard aesthetically unattractive produce, and test a low-cost, easy-to-implement solution: emphasizing the produce’s aesthetic flaw through “ugly” labeling (e.g., labeling cucumbers with cosmetic defects “Ugly Cucumbers” on store displays or advertising). Seven experiments . . . demonstrate that “ugly” labeling corrects for consumers’ biased expectations regarding key attributes of unattractive produce—particularly tastiness—and thus increases purchase likelihood. “Ugly” labeling is most effective when associated with moderate (rather than steep) price discounts. Against managers’ intuition, it is also more effective than alternative labeling that does not exclusively point out the aesthetic flaw, such as “imperfect” labeling.

Some of us remember when Red Delicious apples were actually delicious, rather than being the leathery, boring, but always perfect-looking products now trucked everywhere from Washington State. We might welcome the prospect of “ugly” produce that actually tasted good. Such an aesthetic even fits nicely with the Brooklyn-millennial vogue for authenticity.

Why, however, do we consumers typically recoil from ugly vegetables and strange-looking fruit? Are we simply spoiled?

Surely some of our revulsion comes from very basic programming. Bad-looking fruit is often truly bad: bad-tasting, yes, and bad for you, even poisonous. Asymmetry in nature is not usually a sign of health, but of sickness or injury if you ingest it. We have learned to heed what creation tells us.

Understandably, we tend to attach various positive traits to good-looking people that in fact have nothing to do with beauty: reliability, intelligence, honesty, and so on. Every fairy-tale hero is alluring. This association of beauty with other qualities, however, is a trap we need to avoid not only in personal relationships but in theology and ethics as well.

Before we go there, however, let’s make a brief stopover to consider beauty in the realm of physics. Throughout the Middle Ages in the West, philosophers and theologians, influenced by Greek thought, believed that because God created the cosmos, and God is perfect, creation had to be created perfect too. The heavenly bodies, therefore—as creatures closer to God and thus more excellent than anything terrestrial—must certainly move in circles, the perfect shape.

Copernicus, Galileo, and others eventually overturned this view, convincing their fellow scientists of a heliocentric universe. But it still took a courageous move by Johannes Kepler to posit that the planetary orbits might not be circular, might not be perfect. They might be, and they are, ellipses. Modern astronomy was able to demonstrate how things actually are, rather than rely on speculations about how they had to be. It has thus moved ahead dramatically ever after.

Christian theology has long wrestled with similar challenges. So-called perfect being theology has sincerely tried to think the best possible things about God. It proceeds by identifying all the attributes that would make a being truly supreme—what philosophers sometimes call “great-making properties”—and then attributing them to God in the highest degree.

If living a long time is great, then living forever would be the greatest. So God must be immortal. If having power is great, then having unlimited power would be the greatest. So God must be omnipotent.

Problems, however, crop up quickly in such a method. Patience is a virtue, yes. But infinite patience is actually a bad thing, for then evil would never be judged. Being subject to change seems to make God a kind of victim of the changeableness of God’s own changeable creatures. So must God be changeless—or “immutable”? Theologians throughout history have wondered about this problem, especially when in the incarnation it certainly looks like God undergoes a significant change, and one we’re all very glad God underwent.

What Kepler did was analogous to what Moses was challenged by God to do at the burning bush. Rather than construct a version of a supreme being and call it “God,” look at what actually is the case. See Yhwh as what God actually shows himself to be, in word and deed, and think accordingly.

God may end up not looking like what we expect, and not saying and doing what we expect God to say and do. When Jesus arrives on the scene, he doesn’t fulfill any Jew’s expectations of Messiah. The one thing everyone expected and hoped Messiah to do was the obvious: get rid of Rome. We Jews have our land, we have our temple, and we have our sacrificial system. Everything is nicely in place. We just need to be free. So, God, obviously you ought to have your Messiah attend to that problem as the first order of business. Instead, Jesus ends up on a Roman cross, looking like the exact opposite of a Messiah.

If God were to have gone ahead instead to get rid of Rome, and not heal Israel of its death wound of sin, then Israel would simply have incurred the curse of the covenant again and a new overlord, a new scourge, would have to have been found to bring Israel to judgment and further discipline. God was determined to put an end to all that. So God did in Jesus what most, and first, needed doing. It doesn’t look beautiful. It didn’t appeal to the Jewish sensibilities of the day. But it was the right thing to do. All the rest follows.

In our own time, mass media have featured for a while now the outrages and flame-outs of one pretty-boy preacher after another. Cool music, cool stages, cool bands, even cool sneakers have gone quickly from impressive to indicative of superficiality, hypocrisy, and abuse. John Keats might have mused that “beauty is truth, truth beauty,” and in the age to come surely beauty, truth, and goodness will be conjoined as they should be. But until then what we think of as beauty can be properly suspected of untruth, of disguising a lie.

God did in Jesus what most, and first, needed doing. It doesn’t look beautiful. It didn’t appeal to the Jewish sensibilities of the day. But it was the right thing to do. All the rest follows.

In this meanwhile in which we live between the Fall and the Lord’s return, between the beautiful order of the original Garden and the properly reordered world to come, Christians follow a Leader who was literally nondescript. Our Master was someone so ordinary-looking (despite the cinematic and painterly representations of him as glowingly gorgeous) that Judas had to kiss him to pick him out from the rest of the group for the arresting soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Meanwhile, Scripture warns us that Satan himself can appear as an angel of light. Even Disney movies warn us that while, yes, the heroines are always conventionally beautiful (who really thought Mulan was a boy?), so are at least a few of the villains. Beauty in a mixed-up world no longer can reliably testify to anything other than itself. And it might well disguise something actually bad—like those indestructible and inedible apples.

So here’s to ugly cucumbers, tomatoes, and all the rest—not because they’re ugly, as if that were now a virtue, but because they can yet be good vegetables: tasty and nutritious.

And here’s also to those who rightly pursue and produce beauty: in poetry and song, in architecture and interior design, in arts and crafts of every sort. The Creator of so many beautiful creatures surely loves the image of God turning out more beautiful stuff.

It’s just that, in this upset and disordered world, beauty isn’t a reliable key to truth and goodness. No, to determine those, we have to do what right-thinking grocers, and astronomers, and theologians have done. Look at what’s actually there, not for what we presume must be there because—goodness!—it looks so beautiful.

Topics: Theology
John Stackhouse Jr.
John Stackhouse Jr.

John G. Stackhouse Jr. is a Canadian scholar of religion. As a journalist he has been recognized with over a dozen awards by the Canadian Church Press, and his scholarship has been supported by research grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Association of Theological Schools, the Canadian Embassy to the United States, and several other sponsors. He currently teaches at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick.


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