In the early 2010s Unilever launched its “Dove Real Beauty” campaign. The effort included a video production entitled “Dove Real Beauty Sketches.” Forensic sketch artist Gil Zamora produced sketches of women whom he had never seen based solely upon their self-descriptions. He then drew sketches of the same women based upon descriptions provided by third parties. The self-descriptions were uniformly more negative and unattractive than the third-party descriptions. The closing line, “You are more beautiful than you think,” voices Dove’s concern: that upbringing, socialization, advertising, and other aspects of our society have rendered American women incapable of seeing the beauty that they possess. When it comes to beauty, something about us has gone wrong.
In the same period of time, British author E. L. James published her soft-porn fiction bestseller Fifty Shades of Grey. The book tells the tale of a rich, older man who woos a young, inexperienced woman into a relationship in which he dominates her and uses her for sex without obligating himself toward her at all. Original and imaginative, isn’t it?
Although E. L. James wasn’t trying to do so at all, she has made the same point that Dove made: When it comes to beauty, something about us has gone wrong. Upbringing, socialization, advertising, the Internet, and other aspects of our society have rendered an enormous number of Americans incapable of seeing the beauty in romantic love as God created it.
This is the true price of pornography. Yes, pornography normalizes the bizarre, but the flipside of the coin may be the darkest aspect of it at all: It bizarrifies the normal. If one were to create a pornographic website that featured average couples who had been married twenty years or more engaging in sex as the average married couple experiences it, who would watch it? And yet study after study has shown that the greatest satisfaction in romance comes to people in just that kind of a relationship. There is beauty there; our culture just doesn’t condition us to see it. What would we see if married men and women described their marriages to a sketch artist? What would we see if their friends described their marriages? When it comes to beauty, something about us has gone wrong.
This weekend the book Fifty Shades of Grey comes to movie theaters in its film adaptation. A lot of my pastor-friends are reminding people that the film is inappropriate for Christians to watch. I don’t disagree, but as true as that is, I’m not sure it addresses the root problem. What’s more, as we warn people that the film is inappropriate, a large percentage of our population (and a larger percentage of our congregations than we’d like to admit) reply with a single word that captures the zeitgeist more succinctly than I ever could: “Whatever!”
Drawing lines seems such a bother. We don’t like to be inhibited. Moral rules seem like a set of shackles. Whose business is it which movies I watch?
Are you open to seeing this in another way? Each time you choose to read a book, choose to watch a film, or choose to DVR a television show, you are revealing something about what you find to be beautiful. Rather than imposing a set of shackles, God is trying to free you to crawl out of the muck and mire and to learn beauty.
Line-drawing exercises exist not to restrict you, but to inspect you. The biblical word for “temptation” is also sometimes translated “test.” Yes, tests are hard work, but without them you never have any good measure of how much you are learning. Yes, a medical test can be expensive, but how else will you know whether you have the flu? In the same way, our modern world of media choices, with all of the temptation that it brings, gives you a constant measure of whether your sense of beauty is healthy, allowing you both to diagnose yourself and to keep up with your progress.
When you are tempted to watch an inappropriate movie, instead of saying, “Whatever!” why not give yourself a different “whatever”: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4:8, ESV). These things are beautiful! What is wrong with us that they do not appeal to us as they should? Why does bondage and exploitation appeal to you? Why do you prefer stories in which people are destroyed over stories in which people are reconciled? What do your media choices reveal about what you find beautiful?
Aesthetics (the study of beauty) lie at the heart of the human rebellion against God. God created a beautiful world with beautiful people in a beautiful garden. They enjoyed peace, productivity, and prosperity. Eventually, an advertiser was able to convince them that their paradise was too plain. He sold them a beautiful fantasy about how knowledge would make them like God. He successfully enticed them to exchange the truth of God for a lie and to exchange idyllic beauty for a curse. The German Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said it (forgive me) beautifully when he wrote, “Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance.” In other words, when you lose sight of what is beautiful, you will inexorably also lose sight of what is true and what is good.
Paul’s prescription is Philippians 4:8 is to call us to seek beauty with our minds. It requires resolve and effort on your part. We all need to go to Beauty School. What makes a painting beautiful? What makes a book delightful? What makes a film worth watching? What makes a person attractive? What makes sex healthy? Just as the women in the Dove Real Beauty Sketches needed to be trained to see the beauty in themselves, we need to be trained to see the beauty in truth, honor, justice, purity, loveliness, excellence, and praiseworthiness. Doing so will, by the way, help you to see beauty in what Christ is making of you, as well.