The Beautiful

Years ago I did a class at my church entitled "Ugly." In that class we spent time thinking about how judgments of righteousness are often captured by aesthetic judgments, where what is beautiful is deemed good and what is ugly is deemed to be bad and sinister.

This is a bias that psychologists have studied. For decades psychologists have studied what is known as the what-is-beautiful-is-good effect. In these studies we observe that beautiful people are consistently rated as more intelligent, more able and more virtuous than the less attractive.

Think about that. The beautiful aren't simply judged as smarter and more talented, they are also judged as being better human beings. And because of this the beautiful gain a variety of social advantages. For example, the beautiful are more likely to get hired or get the promotion. Let alone the advantages in social popularity and interpersonal attraction.

I bring all this up as I was visiting with a homeless man the other day and he was missing a lot of teeth. That isn't uncommon where I'm spending more of my time as poor and homeless people without access to basic dental care will simply lose their teeth. Which can make them look sinister and scary. It's an automatic aesthetic judgment of ugliness that can affect your heart and mind. When looking at toothless smiles you need to beware of the what-is-beautiful-is-good effect (or, rather, its inverse: what-is-ugly-is-bad). And you need to educate your children about this as well. Because their knee-jerk reactions will also conflate the aesthetical (what is ugly) with the moral (was is bad).

Because as we talked about in my class those many years ago, the aesthetics of the gospel finds beauty in unlikely places. The gospel reverses the aesthetic standards of the world as the "ugly" becomes beautiful in the eyes of heaven.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

10 thoughts on “The Beautiful”

  1. Love this. As a visual artist and a (former) art educator, I've thought a lot about how our perceptions shape our reality, and how learning to make art is about learning to love. A fellow-student at University made a project of painting these huge, blown-up images of the hands and feet of elderly people, focusing in on the beauty in the criss-crossing of lines. And they were beautiful, and helped to re-shape -- in a small way -- our perception of age as beauty.

    Art is about learning to love. And love is about learning to see the beauty in everything. Like this:

  2. his post means alot to me as I just went through caring for my mom as she was (slowly) dying. We both wrestled with and fought to keep the disease process at bay, oftentimes commenting on all her (seemingly ugly) outward physical changes. There was an inner striving in both of us, until we realized that all efforts were fruitless - then we both were able to enter into that "letting go" stage, and it was only then that I could see past her outward (ugly) decay and embrace my mom fully in all her beauty. It was not easy and I often thought about where Paul refers to "outwardly we are wasting away, but inwardly we are being renewed day by day." I'm currently reading your book Unclean, and, strangely enough, it is helping me in grieving the loss, not only of my mom, but also my dad who passed a few months after my mom....

  3. GraceShe takes the blameShe covers the shameRemoves the stainIt could be her nameGraceIt's a name for a girlIt's also a thought that changed the worldAnd when she walks on the streetYou can hear the stringsGrace finds goodness in everythingGrace, she's got the walkNot on a ramp or on chalkShe's got the time to talkShe travels outside of karmaShe travels outside of karmaWhen she goes to workYou can hear her stringsGrace finds beauty in everythingGrace, she carries a world on her hipsNo champagne flute for her lipsNo twirls or skips between her fingertipsShe carries a pearl in perfect conditionWhat once was hurtWhat once was frictionWhat left a markNo longer stingsBecause grace makes beautyOut of ugly thingsGrace makes beauty out of ugly thingsSorry for the long post.  Can you guess the lyricist...? Bono (U2).


  4. Love this post! I also love the way Jesus demonstrated this in His life! His interaction with people was definitely not based on their social status or how they looked. This reminds me to be more Christ-like in how I view and subsequently interact with others. Thank you for porting this.

  5. Hi Judy,
    Thanks for sharing this. I've heard a few people make that connection with Unclean, which pleases me so much as I really wanted the book to help us enter and remain in those places where we encounter age, debility, disability, decay and death.

    Blessings to you.

  6. an interesting and touching story along the same theme:

  7. Makes me think about "the good, the beautiful and the true," or their updated status as moral, aesthetic and instrumental validity claims. 

    The kind of inversion of beauty that you do here is particularly interesting, because it might be used to suggest that aesthetic validity is just in the eye of the beholder. But really, this pattern of inversion (the ugly is seen as beautiful) is just as compatible with the claim that there really is beauty there, that this beauty is real and as fundamental as anything else. After all, our mind plays all kinds of tricks on us, making us see things exactly backwards:

  8. Have you written a blog series about "ugliness"? I would be interested in how you would respond to the typical, "We just have to remember that all people are made in God's image..." 

  9. The older I get and the more teeth I lose the less I'm inclined to look at toothless folk and see "ugly".  However, the reality is that most of us are really not that good lookin' anyway....;o>


Leave a Reply