The Fall of Man

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Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.” Unless a thing is dignified, it cannot be undignified. Why is it funny that a man should sit down suddenly in the street? There is only one possible or intelligent reason: that man is the image of God. It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down. No one sees anything funny in a tree falling down. No one sees a delicate absurdity in a stone falling down. No man stops in the road and roars with laughter at the sight of the snow coming down. The fall of thunderbolts is treated with some gravity. The fall of roofs and high buildings is taken seriously. It is only when a man tumbles down that we laugh. Why do we laugh? Because it is a grave religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified.

 –G. K. Chesterton

God, Beauty, and Ugliness

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Many of the aesthetic norms which have characterized Western society have come as a direct result of the Christian worldview being deeply saturated in the fabric of our cultural ethos. Although the doctrine of the image of God as well as the doctrine of God’s common grace mean that unbelievers are capable of producing artifacts which truly reflect divine beauty, over a long period of time non-Christian cultures generally tend towards ugliness – a corollary of the relativism necessitated by the rejection of any final standard of truth. A world without God is an ugly and frightening place. Indeed, if there is no God, then beauty is but a transitory parenthesis in a world in which the ugliness of chance, chaos and death have the final say over all of us. Medieval cathedrals, with their spires pointing to the heavens, were the appropriate artistic outworking of the Trinitarian worldview, while nihilistic art, with its hopelessness and celebration for the ugly is a consistent outworking of a world without God.

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Conversely, over long periods of time Christian cultures tend to increase in beauty. That is what happened in the Christian West, which gave rise to the symphony, polyphonic harmony, perspective in painting and many other developments that have made the world a different place, to say nothing of specific creative geniuses from Bach to Michelangelo, from Shakespeare to Beethoven. Some of these men may not have been believers, but they lived, worked and breathed in a civilization that was built (albeit imperfectly) on the Christian worldview. Whether or not every great composer, artist or poet explicitly acknowledged that worldview, they worked on the basis of presuppositional aesthetic norms which arose out of the West’s Christian orientation. Long after our society threw off this heritage, these norms continued to operate like a lizard’s tail which continues to twitch even after it has been severed from the body. But a severed lizard’s tail will not twitch forever.

Robin Phillips,
Beholding Beauty