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The Wonder Report: February 12, 2021
Useless Beauty and What We Make of It
In my reading of Scott Russell Sanders’ The Way of Imagination, I came to this question in his essay, “Useless Beauty”:
Wherever we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty. What are we to make of this?
In this season of gray and cold, of isolation and exhaustion, when my experience of nature feels limited to what I can see out my window and my engagement with art and music and friendship and culture feels limited to what I can see through apps and screens, the world feels void of beauty, not replete. So I’ll admit that the underlying assumptions Sanders was writing from created as much of a question as the question itself. Is the universe saturated with beauty?
At the same time, even if I do have to look through the window or watch on a screen or wrap up in four layers to see it, beauty is everywhere. It’s in the pine scent of the candle and the lacy leaves of the potted plant on my desk. It’s in the snow spread thick like butter on the limbs outside my window, and the blinding bright gray of the sky on a freezing February day. If I look, I find it in the patterns of the cauliflower florets I’ll chop into stir-fry, the pop of flavor in my heavily-peppered potato soup, the flecks of yellow in my dog’s hazel eyes, and the rhythm of sleet tapping against the windows.
Even in the bleakness of winter, there is abundant beauty for those who will behold it, and what, indeed, are we to make of it?
Whether we assign that beauty to a cosmic Designer, to a material process, or to mere perception, in his essay Sanders moves swiftly from beauty towards stewardship. He says our response to “a world overflowing with such bounty” should be to “rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.”
And I tend to agree with him. Though beauty comes to us from everywhere, it’s not a gift to be taken for granted. Beauty must be preserved and nurtured and replenished.
Yet, as someone who does see the beauty of the cosmos as the work of a cosmic Designer, I think beauty moves us to something more.
I recently heard a sermon from Mark 1:21-28, one of Jesus’ first appearances in the synagogue after his public ministry began. As Jesus is teaching, the crowds were amazed. Later, when he rebukes an unclean spirit, the crowds were amazed. Even the unclean spirit was amazed: “I know who You are—the Holy One of God.”
But Jesus didn’t come to make people “merely astonished,” the preacher said. He came to invite people to believe and follow him.
I love that phrase “merely astonished” because it’s so surprising and unexpected. In our highly produced culture, astonishment is often the goal. We go for the gasp, the viral share, the 15 minutes of fame. “Merely” diminishes what so many of us aspire to.
But along the dusty paths and upon the arid hillsides, Jesus hoped the beauty of his kingdom would capture more than just the attention of the crowds. He wanted their imaginations, too. He wanted his words not only to have meaning but to mean something to them.
In fact, capturing the imagination of his people has been God’s method from the very beginning. Not only with words and beauty but with everything he created. In Psalm 19, David writes, “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; And their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” And in Romans 1, Paul writes, “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made.”
But Paul goes on to say that the glory of creation, the “useless beauty” of the cosmos, also serves as an indictment when we don’t take the leap from astonishment to gratitude and from gratitude to worship.
Of course, we’re all at fault in one way or another of failing to notice, of failing to give thanks, of failing to acknowledge who God is in all of this (Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer) and who we are (creatures, needy, guilty).
And for these gaps between what God wants from us and what we actually do, there’s another kind of beauty. A beauty the world often misses. The kind that produces a gasp of horror rather than astonishment: the beauty of the cross. Our beaten, bruised, and bleeding Savior made a way for us to see anew the beauty of God all around us, the “useless beauty” that draws us to Him.
Before we continue on, I wanted to offer a brief thank you for everyone who stuck with me through the transition to Substack — which was just about everybody! Hopefully your experience of The Wonder Report will only improve with this transition.
Which brings me to a quick “show note.” Many people tell me that they like this weekly newsletter, but that they rarely have time to read it all. And I just smile … because that’s what I hope will happen! I want this to be an abundant place where you take what you can and happily leave the rest behind. And now, because you can see the archives of this and every post on my Substack webpage, you can return later if you’d like to read more.
Here’s what I would suggest: Skim each issue. Read what catches your eye. Then delete the email. That’s right. Delete it. In the meantime, click on this link: The Wonder Report. Bookmark it. And when you have time, go back to the site, select “Let Me Read it First,” and you’ll have access to anything you missed.
Are you struggling to see the beauty all around you?
Before we can respond to beauty, before we can answer Scott Russell Sanders’ question about the “useless beauty” all around us, we need to take note of it. To see it. To be astonished. (And hopefully not “merely” so.)
Let’s take an inventory. Beginning right where you are, what beauty do you see? Then, when you get up from where you sitting, walk into the next room, look out the window, go outside (even if you have to bundle up).
Be a beauty seeker this week.
This and That
Here are a few articles, essays, and more to give you hope, to make you think, to grow your faith, and as always, to help root you in love.
Art with Divine Authorship by Makoto Fujimura for Church Times. This is actually an excerpt of Fujimura’s new book, Art and Faith: A Theology of Making. He talks about the Japanese art forms of Nihonga and Kintsugi, using these techniques to bring to light not only the beauty of art and creation, but also the beauty of Christ’s redemption.
From the essay: “KINTSUGI does not just “fix” or repair a broken vessel; rather, the technique makes the broken pottery even more beautiful than the original, as the Kintsugi master will take the broken work and create a restored piece that makes the broken parts even more visually sophisticated. No two works, done with such mastery, will look the same or break in the same way.”
“So, too, the biblical passages of restoration. Seeing the redemptive act of God, the ultimate act of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, through the lens of Creation and the Holy Spirit’s work, awakens in us the potential of the New Creation.”
8-Year-Old Calls Out NPR For Lack Of Dinosaur Stories by Mary Louise Kelly for NPR. It’s almost impossible to tell you how much I enjoyed this story about a boy who listens to the NPR show All Things Considered in the car with his mom but takes issue with the word “all.” It draws to mind the importance of precision in words — really “all”? But it also highlights the creativity and imagination of children. It’s like those little foam toys where you add water and watch them grow: kids take the words they hear and let them expand in every direction.
From the the boys’ letter to NPR: “My name is Leo and I am 8 years old. I listen to All Things Considered in the car with mom. I listen a lot.
I never hear much about nature or dinosaurs or things like that. Maybe you should call your show Newsy things Considered, since I don't get to hear about all the things. Or please talk more about dinosaurs and cool things.”
Kindness of Truth-telling by Charity Singleton Craig for Redbud Post. I wrote this article last month when I was thinking so much about words and truth. Sometimes, we elevate these ideas to the level of discourse and public speech. But what if we committed to caring for words in our everyday conversations, too?
From the essay: “Over the years, I’ve often wondered if the imprecise way we talk about our own lives isn’t also a kind of sin against others when we set up our stories as either normative on the one hand or exceptional on the other. As a single adult all the way into my early 40s, I was subjected again and again to the narratives from married people about how God brought them a mate. Sometimes, the story went something like “when I truly committed my life to God, he brought me a spouse,” with the implication that I hadn’t fully committed my own life to God or I, too, would be married. Other times, the story sounded more like “God told me when I was seven that I would marry a pastor, and I did,” as if my lack of divine utterance relegated me to a life of singleness.”
”I’m not saying we shouldn’t share our stories with each other. I’m simply advocating that we tell them with precision, embracing accuracy, nuance, subtlety, even humility. It means “we calibrate the differences between what we want words to mean and how they may be heard.” It may even mean we pick up words “from dusty corners where most of the good ones have been consigned to disuse and re-introduce them, hoping to ambush the listener who is contented with cliche,” as McEntyre suggests.”
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What I’m Reading
Check out these books, magazines, or other publications I'm currently reading or have just finished. I'll only share resources I highly recommend ... and I'd love to hear your recommendations, too!
Prayer in the Night by Tish Harrison Warren. This book is next on my list, but I’m highlighting it now because it would make a great read for Lent, which begins next Wednesday.
Here’s how the publisher describes the book: “How can we trust God in the dark? Framed around a nighttime prayer of Compline, Tish Harrison Warren, author of Liturgy of the Ordinary, explores themes of human vulnerability, suffering, and God's seeming absence. When she navigated a time of doubt and loss, the prayer was grounding for her. She writes that practices of prayer "gave words to my anxiety and grief and allowed me to reencounter the doctrines of the church not as tidy little antidotes for pain, but as a light in darkness, as good news." Where do we find comfort when we lie awake worrying or weeping in the night? This book offers a prayerful and frank approach to the difficulties in our ordinary lives at work, at home, and in a world filled with uncertainty.”
The Passion of the King of Glory by Russ Ramsey. I can’t recommend books for Lent without mentioning this one from Russ Ramsey. It’s part of his Retelling the Story series, that includes The Advent of the Lamb of God and The Mission of the Body of Christ. The Passion of the King of Glory is formatted for Lenten reading, and is a great companion leading up to Passion Week.
Here’s how the publisher describes the book: "His was a ministry of incarnation--touching the infected, dining with sinners, defending the defenseless. The sick needed a physician, and the Physician had come." Enter into the greatest story ever told. In this carefully researched retelling of the story of Jesus, pastor Russ Ramsey invites us to rediscover our wonder at Jesus' sinless life, brutal death, and glorious resurrection. Featuring forty short chapters recounting key episodes from Jesus' time on earth, this book expands on the biblical narrative in a fresh and creative way--giving us a taste of what it would have been like to walk next to Jesus and experience his earthly ministry firsthand.”
One of my greatest joys is to encourage writers as they hone their craft, develop their voice, and live a meaningful writing life. Here are some tips, insights, prompts, and more to help you as you write.
If I haven’t said it enough already, I love newsletters. I love writing this one, but I also love reading newsletters. If you haven’t already checked out the Wonder List #1 over on Substack, you’ll see that this first list is a list of newsletters I read and enjoy.
So it was with great joy that stumbled on this article at The Write Life encouraging writers to begin their own newsletters:
“Some might say there are too many newsletters these days. But we would never say there are too many books or too many articles,” writes freelance author Britany Robinson. “Likewise, I believe there is room for endless newsletters for writers. Every writer has something a little different to offer, and there are billions of readers out there who might be drawn to what only you can offer. And when writers reach readers, great things can happen. Newsletters are one more way to do that.”
She goes on to list 6 reasons you should start a newsletter, which are all great. If you’re thinking about starting an author newsletter, I’d encourage you to read the article.
But I’d also like to offer one more reason to start a newsletter: to correspond with readers. Authors have a lot of pressure to be great at their craft, great at social media, great a publicity and design and speaking. But as an author myself, one thing I want to be greater at is engaging with my readers. To have conversations about the things I’m writing about and to hear the things they are thinking and dreaming about to. Newsletters have the potential to inviate that kind of relationship.
That’s it for this time! As always, you can hit reply and end up in my inbox. Or you can also leave a comment on this newsletter which will live in the archive over on Substack. It’s one of my favorite features of this platform.
Thanks again for being a subscriber. One of the reasons I write is because of readers like you!
Until next time,