July 2019 Feature
When reading a book on beauty and art recently, I stumbled across an intriguing paragraph that totally grabbed my attention. The words, by Gesa Elsbeth Thiessen, read:
The aestheticization of everyday life in postmodern society through the powerful impact of images in mass media, the arts and culture, the constant presence of music, mostly of the popular variety, and the cult of the body and of youth, are now ever-present features in our lives. The hunger for instant gratification, be it through exotic food, travel, films, music, body-cult, as well as the desire for religious or quasi-religious experiences, ranging from crystal-gazing to traditional forms of Christian worship, are all based in aesthetic, i.e. sensuous, experience and phenomena. (Thiessen 2004, 1)
Not only did the paragraph grab my attention and offer language to describe what is observed in everyday life, it also piqued my interest in contemporary cultural expressions of beauty. I began to explore topics like K-Beauty, the media’s and fashion industry’s influence on standards of beauty, cosmetic surgery, tattooing, and other forms of body art, etc. These expressions of beauty enhancement are increasingly commonplace and global in reach and influence. We in Singapore are certainly not spared their powers of persuasion and suggestion with “look and feel” considerations becoming more important in how we make decisions and order our lives.
The great irony today is that while there is so much talk about genuineness and authenticity, there has never been a time in history where we are surrounded by so much manufactured beauty. Behind the whole concept of “manufactured beauty” lies a shift in society’s thinking about outward appearance and external beauty. It seems to me that there is a cultural shift toward elevating external beauty’s importance together with increasing pressure to conform to ascending beauty standards.
Seeking to look good has resulted in greater effort and urgency at personal grooming, physical exercise, and eating well. It is no secret that the beauty industry, and especially the K-Beauty industry, is flourishing in Singapore. Likewise, the nation has seen an increase in personal trainers and fitness clubs–many offering 24-7-365 services–to help clients achieve a more aesthetically-pleasing self. Justin Chen’s short video A Beautiful Mind, which features a male model commenting on his efforts at looking good, perhaps captures both personal desire as well as societal pressure to reach for external beauty:
I think there is another side to beauty, and that’s your inner beauty which is all your inner traits. And I would weigh outer beauty 7/10 and inner beauty 3/10 because character building isn’t difficult. Anyone can do it. It’s easy. Just be a nice person! However, looking good–like going to the gym, working out, and taking care of your skin–that takes effort and it deserves some recognition.
Beyond merely performing daily rituals to look good, some have taken the additional step of undergoing cosmetic surgery. Gratefully, this push toward manufactured beauty is not felt as strongly in Singapore as it is in South Korea. There, subtle as well as not-so-subtle suggestion is exerted by photoshopped images in lifestyle magazines, multiple media platforms, ever-present subway adverts, high school peers, and even family members. Nonetheless, the desire to undergo facial contouring and body augmentation procedures in order to look more beautiful remains a trend to be watched in Singapore.
While it is easy to single out manufactured beauty observed in physical bodies, the phenomenon is readily found in church body life– albeit in a different form. One of the interesting developments of this present age is how new music technologies have transformed church musical experiences. Consequently, worship services increasingly deploy these technologies and the expertise available to create beautiful, multisensory experiences to draw worshippers to God.
Analog as well as digital guitar effects pedals can be used to create swells and shimmers which serve as soothing background ambient sounds. With a press of a button, reverb, echo, delay, and other sound effects can be used to shape the soundscape of a worship service and support a range of emotional responses appropriate to the moment.
Likewise, voice effect pedals can significantly transform vocal sounds and add much colour to a worship leader’s voice. Common effects include the ability to transform the gender of your voice, generate different harmonies, and sound like a chorus of six singers. With these enhancements, you can literally dispense with backup singers and choirs. The best thing about them, however, is that the autotune feature can pitch-correct your voice. These wonderful modern technological innovations can “photoshop your voice” and leave you sounding more perfect than you can ever dream of being!
This brings me back to the quote by Thiessen cited in the opening paragraph. There she drew attention to the growing prominence of beauty and aesthetics in the world we live in. The fact is, people do gravitate toward the beautiful. For some, the draw–whether toward natural beauty or manufactured beauty–has become a passion and an obsession to be attained at any expense.
As one who has an interest in music technology, I find myself able to spend long moments soaking in sound effects produced with guitar pedals. As a developing flute player, I also enjoy playing worship songs on my flute into a microphone connected to a voice effect app on my iPhone. What better way of feeling close to God while totally immersed in echoey, long-tailed, reverberating sounds which fill the soul with beauty and love.
One time while I was giving a complete sonic makeover to a simple musical phrase using the “runaway echo” function in my VoiceRack™ app, the depiction of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah crossed my mind. I was at a point in my learning journey when I was pondering the missional impact of beauty and how it can be deployed for the extension of God’s kingdom. It suddenly dawned upon me then that the Suffering Servant described in Isaiah 52:13-53:12 did not hold fast to his world of beauty nor did he feature beauty as his primary outreach strategy. Instead, by adopting a counterintuitive approach and applying an unconventional missional strategy, he was able to usher much spiritual benefit and blessing to many.
Isa 53:2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him…11b by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.
As I thought about the words in the passage, I realized there was something instructional featured there. If for me, the way to God was in the allure of beauty, for the Suffering Servant, the way to God was in the forsaking and abandonment of beauty. He who was previously robed in beauty allowed himself to be robbed of beauty.
What is deeply provocative and compelling in the example set is the willingness to let go of something so integral to his identity in order to enter our world. He did so, not to identify with beautiful people who were healthy and righteous, but with spiritually sick sinners in need of redemption and transformation (Luke 2:17).
Consequently, the beauty that he displayed was neither manufactured or manicured, but marred by choice and purpose. In this, we find a message for serious practitioners and consumers of beauty–which is that we must be grounded in a higher principle and purpose which guards us against becoming too insular, too trapped in our worlds, and too self-indulgence in immersive experiences.
The theologian Kevin Vanhoozer once wrote:
…to perceive beauty is to undergo a transformation of sorts from self-centeredness to other-centeredness. Experiencing beauty prompts us to give up our imaginary position at the center and forces us to recognize that we are in the presence of something larger than ourselves. (Vanhoozer 2004, 113)
While there is no attempt to displace or discount the place of beauty and the beautiful in the life of the church, his words offer proper perspective on our relationship with beauty. Further, it exhorts us towards a life of discipleship which follows the example of Jesus. May we in the church be true to this teaching and calling as we live life in an increasingly aestheticized world!
Vanhoozer, Kevin J. ‘Praising in Song: Beauty and the Arts’. In The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, edited by Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells, 110–122. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
Dr Calvin Chong is Associate Professor of Educational Studies at Singapore Bible College. His teaching and research interests include orality studies, hermeneutics, new educational technologies, designing learning experiences, the impact of narratives on worldview and values, conflict resolution/reconciliation, and contemporary urban missions and youth issues.