My son is going to college in downtown Los Angeles, so a few mornings a week I race up Baldwin Avenue to Foothill and on to the Sierra Villa light rail station. Although my bleary eyes dislike zipping along Foothill at 6:20 AM, I started to notice one certain tree in the median on the western edge of Arcadia, just before the Pasadena line. Many of you have no doubt seen the same tree. Although there are several poplars in that area, there’s one that seems to have been made by an artist. The trunk is perfectly smooth and the greenery is spread at a jaunty angle.
It is indeed “the perfect poplar.”
Why is it that I see that tree as so perfect? Why do I identify it as beautiful? Is it possible that I am hard-wired for beauty?
In his excellent book Simply Christian: Why Christianity Make Sense, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright speaks of what he calls “echoes of a voice.” Specifically, we hear the echoes of a voice for justice (right and wrong, fair and unfair), spirituality (“we were made for more than this”), relationships or love and the echoes of the voice of beauty.
Wright tells a parable: a musical manuscript is discovered that proves to be a genuine work of Mozart. However, the music is only that of the piano part of what appears a concerto. Long pauses are in the piece, but we have no clue what other instruments Mozart had in mind. We have evidence of a beautiful intelligent composition, but an incomplete view of that beauty.
So also when we look in the creation, we see beauty, but we cannot see or even perceive it all. It is “exquisite, yet leaving us unsatisfied.” It not as if we get to the point of ever saying, “Enough, I’ve seen all the beauty there is.”
Slowly it dawns on us that the reason that all the beauties of earth leave us unfilled is the realization that they are reflections, echoes of a greater beauty. “Heaven and earth are full of glory, a glory which stubbornly refuses to be reduced to terms of the senses of the humans who perceive it.”
There are the few who stubbornly refuse to see the glory behind the beauty. Our idea of beauty, they say, is an evolutionary adaptation. But the vast majority of the world’s peoples see the divine hidden behind the beauty. The beauty and glory of God is reflected and expressed in the beauty and the glory of His creation. Like the Mozart masterpiece, from where we stand we have only a portion of the manuscript.
Wright points out that the Biblical writers never try to gloss over the miseries and deficiencies of this world, and at the same time they stoutly maintained that the creation is good, and the good creation of an infinitely good God. They tell “the story of what…God has been doing to rescue his beautiful world and put it to rights. And the story that they tell…indicates that the present world really is a signpost to a larger beauty, a deeper truth. It really is the authentic manuscript of one part of a masterpiece. The question is, What is the whole manuscript like, and how can we begin to hear the music the way it was intended?”
Beauty is a clue placed both in the creation and in the human heart by God himself as breadcrumb to follow to seek the road home. The perfect poplar, the Grand Canyon, a white sandy Hawaiian beach, a stunning desert vista, Victoria Falls—all clues placed here to remind us of the deeper beauty that can be seen if we look hard, and the echo that can be heard with cupped, expectant hands. Listen!—God is calling.