One of my favorite movies of all time is Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. Aside from the fact that it has an incredible musical score and stunning animation, it is one of my favorite stories due to the fact that it captures a very deep and profound truth about reality: It takes beauty to change that which is beastly.
If you recall, the Beast was not always outwardly grotesque. He had been a handsome
prince. However, as the narrator at the beginning of the movie tells us, he was spoiled, selfish, and unkind. One night a haggard and disfigured old woman came to the Prince’s castle in hopes that she could find shelter from the bitter cold. But the Prince was disgusted by the woman’s appearance, and turned her away. The woman then told the Prince not to be deceived by appearances, “for beauty”, the disfigured woman says, “is found within.” After the prince cruelly dismisses her to the cold night, the old woman changed form and appeared as a beautiful enchantress, who transforms the prince into a hideous beast, and places the castle and all who dwell there under a spell.
And most of us know the rest of the story. A woman named Belle (which in French means “beauty”), wins the affections of the Beast over, they fall in love, and the Beast is transformed. But his outward form is not the only thing that has changed. He’s not merely what he used to be in appearance. No, he is more than what he used to be: his outside appearance is finally proportionate to his inside appearance, and we all know that if it were not for Beauty, he would have never changed.
This post is about beauty, and its captivating, alluring, and (if we let it) transformative power. But, you may ask, how does beauty transform? And further, what is beauty? As much as I would love to explore the great theory of beauty in detail here, I will look at only one facet of the theory in this post, and this facet is called proportion, or harmony.
Reality consists in proportionate relations. Certain colors harmonize with some colors better than others. Certain musical notes sound more harmonious with some than others. Painters oftentimes try to balance the tight rope between unity and diversity. Make a painting too unified and it can be bland; paint a picture with little to no unity and it becomes too busy. Mathematical formulas are harmonious in that they consists in true relations with the way the world is, and therefore are called “elegant.” A story that harmonizes what we know of reality with a metaphor “rings true” and captivates our imagination, filling our senses with awe, and sometimes causing us to say “that is beautiful!”
But there is another type of harmonious relation that I want to focus on in this post, and it is the relations of persons- relationships.
The Enchantress in Beauty and the Beast is right- Beauty is more than appearances. How many times have we met someone who was beautiful in appearance, and yet their immaturity, selfishness, and cruelty, among other vices, repulsed us? Sometimes a person’s physical appearance can be diminished due to their lack of virtue. And this is a truth learned from Beauty and the Beast. Because of the prince’s cruelty, he was already a beast. Or to put it more technically, the prince was not in proper relation to his fellow human beings. the Enchantress made his outward form match his inward nature.
And this is where Beauty steps in.
Beauty graces the halls of the enchanted castle, loving its residents, and its prince, and despite his disfigurement and beast-like cruelty, love wins him over, and his affections are oriented toward Beauty, falling in love with her, and finally being transformed (or should I say “transfigured”) from more than he once was, to what he was meant to be. As Mrs. Pots said “there’s something there that wasn’t there before.”
Beauty transforms the beastly. If beauty consists in harmony, as the great theory proposes (and I believe it is partly correct), then beauty is to be found in harmonious human relationships, and they are only harmonious when they match the way things ought to be.
When people are properly related to others, then beauty results, and it does so because it is truth.
And this why Beauty and the Beast is a beautiful story. It’s beautiful because it tells us something true. It tells us something true about relationships and the way that reality is designed. No, men don’t get turned into beasts, candle stands, and clocks by enchantresses. There is no such a thing as a magical flower. However, G. K Chesterton once wrote “My first and last philosophy, that which I believed in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery… The things I believed most then-the things I believe most now-are the things called fairy tales.” Why did he say this? Because he was not concerned with such contingencies as enchantments. He was concerned with the spirit of fairy land’s law. In fairy land you can magically change a man into a beast, but you cannot magically change cruelty into good, or good into cruelty, for you cannot change truth. “Cold reason decrees it from her awful throne, and we in fairy land submit.”
Beauty is intrinsically tied to truth. In fact, they’re really two sides of the same coin.
And that is why Jesus, on the Christian worldview, is beautiful. When we are not in proper relationship with God, the very author of our being, then we are not properly related to the God who is there- the God who is true and beautiful. Because of sin we are not in a proper relationship with God, and our life is not in harmony- not in proportion to reality. This means that who we are does not match who he is, and this is the epitome of ugly. We have become the beasts.
And this is where Beauty steps in.
Jesus graces our depraved existence, and loves us to the very depths of where depravity leads. He who was beauty itself took on the ugliness of our sin on the cross, and allowed that which would destroy us to bury him in the grave. And it was there in the ugliness of death that he made all things beautiful. It wasn’t that he made the ugly beautiful. No, what beauty did was to reach out in order to redeem that which is ugly, and to transfigure it. Beauty destroyed death. The penalty of sin was death, and through death, beauty conquered sin.
“Crown him the Lord of Life, behold his hands and side!
His wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified!”
Our Savior is good, and he is truth. Therefore, he is beautiful. Truth, goodness, and beauty are inseparable because truth, goodness, and beauty find their source in the matter-of-fact existence of a God who is there, and who has acted beautifully in time and space through his Son, Jesus Christ.
His beauty is what transforms us, because it is his beauty that changes our affections toward him in order to change our beastliness into something glorious. Through Jesus, we become properly related to the God of the universe, and thus exemplify a true and harmonious relationship that is beautiful. That is why the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar can say that beauty is “a divine summons to change one’s life.” Beauty transforms us because beauty puts us back into harmony with the God of this universe.