Fascination with the ugly

While reading John Stott’s The Cross of Christ the other day, I was arrested by his phrase “fascination with the ugly.” In context, he characterized it as a product of the fall of mankind, the contrary of “gifts of aesthetic appreciation” that God placed in us at creation.

I am not as studied as I’d like to be in the concept of beauty, but I know it is to be pursued alongside goodness and truth. So I am concerned with our culture’s increasing fascination with the ugly.

I see this particularly in children's film and products. For example, we all remember Shrek. Funny, yes, but in the end our heroes embrace ugliness in the name of true love. In Enchanted we are asked to trade beautiful fairy tale ideals for what we can actually grasp in the big city—cockroaches, rats, and all. And outside of film, what is up with the Uglydoll fad?

Because this mild crassness does not constitute gratuitous sin, Christians don’t decry it. But beauty is God’s territory—should we not hasten to hold the ground? After all, if we accept that ugliness can be as good as beauty, it is not difficult to substitute pride for humility or meanness for kindness.


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LeeQuod – this one is ugly. // Majesty // --- © Rolley Haggard // Honor the king they shout with hate gobbed spit // Harshly forcing my face onto gravel and clotted dust // Splayed at the foot of deadly magnificence // The ponderous throne of brutal majesty towering down // My damned soul // Honor him they sneer reveling in my cramped foolish shameful trembling pose // Raising my cringing eyes I see him // The dread conqueror who wills me dead with urgent angry unsheathed steel // Me // Abjectly blinking upon his bronzed feet clasped in sandalstraps of dark cold wrought iron // Him // Haloed in pillaged laud // Draped in purpled robe embroidery // Filigreed gold crown studded with rubies // Glittering scepter and silver sword sharply gleaming in hands // Crossed over keenly anviled breastplate boss lavished with pebbled white and blue diamondstones // Fingers ringed with topaz and chipped sapphire sunk in scrimshawed ivory // A king of gods a god of kings // I drop my head // Have mercy Lord I vaguely moan awaiting the killing stroke // Feeling the restless ghost rising in my labored breath // Unto the final dark thrilling sigh // Then strangely somehow suddenly I hear intermingled the breathing of another groaning close by and // I // Confused unnerved raise my head to the encrimsoned light seeing // Him // The king not poised in effulgence upon a throne // But drooping ugly from a writhing gibbet // A vile screeching carcass slung on hooks adrip // With filth seeping from limbs and bloated feet trussed // With beveled iron bolts driven through shorn gristle // Flowing a purple robe checkerfield corpus of waled carmine-yellow flesh // Head hung no regent’s crown athwart // But tangle-twisted bramble ham-fisted into shining red bone // Richly bejeweled with ruby-like blood-sprung gems // The illusioned scepter and sword // Splintered shards of an outraged bladed sky thrust // Through bisected palms and knotted fingers gripping firmament emptied of glory beloved // And ah the diamond splendor that so dazzled // Is oh God sparkling sweat brimming from a body shot with impossible agony // Honor the king they scream Honor the king Honor the god damned king // And slumping now as the draining shed blood whitens my mansioned heart // I do
I rest in this firm belief, snugly: // Rolley never writes poems that are ugly. // I have great fascination // With each worded oblation // And I find I enjoy them quite smugly.
LeeQuod, since we’ve already pretty much fallen off the edge of the world with our irredeemably nugatory digressions (humblest, groveling apologies to Rebekah and Gina – but no guarantees of cessation (“better not to make a vow than to make it and break it”)), let me say, in the spirit of “fascination with the ugly”, that a mere 51 Rolaids would be massively insufficient to offset the disastrous and unpicturesque gastric consequences of consuming all 51 of THESE particular, pseudo-renowned Milk Duds. Ask Regis if you don’t believe me, but I’ve heard that more new life forms have been discovered under couch cushions than in all the world’s sub-aquatic fumaroles combined. According to Ben W it’s actually been calculated that had the soup primeval contained Dud-infested couches instead of mere run-of-the-mill slime the odds of life evolving from inanimate matter would have increased from 1 in 10^1803 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 1 in 10^1802, which is no small feet as feet had not at that point evolved. On top of that, computer models predict that if you throw in a few googolplex grains of calcium carbonate and magnesium hydroxide (a/k/a Rolaids), odds are better than zero that keyboard-savvy chimpanzees would evolve in less than 100 years after eternity, complete with eco-friendly typewriters and advanced degrees in “encyclopedia writing” from Strayer University. Is that impressive or what? Put that in your petri dish and smoke it. But don’t inhale unless you want your breathing to sound like Darth Vader in a Swedish swimming pool.
Rolley, for all the effort you put in with that Hadorn bridge reference, it would seem we should reward you with something more than a few hearty groans. We ought to find a way to put you out of your Missouri. Since misery loves company, I figured perhaps the 102nd Infantry Division could surround you with 102 companies each of size 102. But alas, there seem to be no surviving members of that august band of heroes. How about 51 Milk Duds and 51 Rolaids? Can't imagine that those two flavors would combine well; perhaps you should wash 'em down with some Seagrams Distiller's Reserve Gin. Sorry I can't offer any better proof. // Gina, did you warn Rebekah it could get like this? I suppose we could chalk it up to spreading the sainthood around...
"I'm told that great patience is not typically a trait of those of Italian descent..." That's only when it's personal and not just business.
And, of course, the reason those once ugly, smelly feet are now beautiful (and the reason we sinners can legitimately be called “saints”) is because Jesus broke the Alabaster Vial to wash us with precious Ointment unspeakable. // And LeeQuod, as for the pun about St. Louis, here’s my two cent’s worth: I think I just can’t leave that Hadorn Bridge motif alone. (Show me proof if you think I’m wrong). In any event, apologies for any misery I may have caused.
Dearest G, you certainly qualify as a saint per the definition found in the Bible. (You certainly don't qualify as a saint in the Roman Catholic sense, since I believe one of the qualifications is to be deceased.) In addition, you display the patience of a saint with many of the more pugnacious Pointificators; I'm told that great patience is not typically a trait of those of Italian descent, and if that's true, you're all the more saintly in your willingness to tolerate many of us and our hijinks. But I was also playing along with Rolley's use of "St.", and thereby drawing attention to his (probably) deliberate pun; I would guess that "St. Lewis" would have the motto "Gateway to the West-ern Christian", RH? ( http://www.legendsofamerica.com/MO-StLouis.html ) // One of the paradoxes of Scripture is that feet - the part of a person that would in Biblical times come in contact with all kinds of things, on dusty roads where animals also traveled - would be considered beautiful. The secular contemporaries of the authors of Scripture, unfamiliar with Isaiah 52:7 (quoted in Romans 10:15) might think that Christians have their own fascination with the ugly. Yet, as SBK and Rolley have brilliantly pointed out, God can redeem even ugly, smelly feet - so he can certainly redeem ugly, smelly us.
Sorry Lee, Gina can't be a saint while she's still alive. And I don't think you're talking to a ghost.
There's a St. Gina around here? Where?? (Seriously, my friend, you are as always far too kind!)
Yes indeed, thank you, Steve. A little while back St. Gina wondered why some of us apologize for even imagined slights committed at The Point, while others openly and repeatedly dare her to revoke their access. Per the Lewis quote this is because some of us take her, her fellow bloggers, and our fellow Pointificators seriously. As a result, we can have - electronically! - the deepest and most soulful kind of relationships, even in high merriment, with Rolley leading by example. It allows us to enjoy, even if only for brief moments, a fascination with the beautiful within ourselves and each other. Hallelujah.
SBK, isn’t that a great “passage” from dear St. Lewis? One of my all-time favorites. Thanks, neighbor!
Rolley, I think that's what I was trying to say... We have a fascination with what doesn't really matter. What does something signify... and, what is our response? As Lewis said: "There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendours. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of the kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously--no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption. And our charity must be real and costly love, with deep feeling for the sins in spite of which we love the sinners--no mere tolerance, or indulgence which parodies love as flippancy parodies merriment. Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat, the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden." Who is my neighbor?
It seems to me that whereas God destroys all evil, where possible He redeems ugliness. That is, He changes the significance of the Ugly Thing from something to be abhorred to something to be adored. The obvious example would be Christ’s disfigured body: “Behold His hands and side, Rich wounds, yet visible above, In beauty glorified”. Battle scars are badges of honor not because of intrinsic beauty, but because of what they signify – sacrificial love, fidelity, courage, commitment, etc. This is where we see the spiritual (the thing signified) eclipse the physical (the sign or artifact), and why our resurrected bodies will be more than physical; they will be spiritual; that is, the inner, the “spirit”, will have as much “visibility” as the outer, the body. We will “see” each other as we really are and not merely as we appear; or, to say it better, our appearance will coincide with and convey perfectly what we really are. We will see Christ not only as He appears (“as a Lamb slain”), but as He is (1 John 3:2), the Great I AM – God in all His ineffable glory. No longer will we sing “*veiled* in flesh”, but rather “*revealed* in flesh the Godhead see”. And so will come true the promise, “blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”. I guess my point, in typical round-about fashion, is that ugly can be mere appearance. The true test of ugliness, and of beauty for that matter, is, what does it signify?
Great thoughts LeeQuod about grounding beauty (especially on its, hopefully, intransitory nature). I don't know if I can add much to that. But, this thread was on my mind this morning. From the context Rebekah gave, can we include the "fascination with evil" under "fascination with the ugly"? If so, are we pulled toward things that make our souls ugly? I can think of a lot of things. On the other hand, do we sit in our churches (as sung by Petra): Looking through rose-colored stained glass windows // Never allowing the world to come in // Seeing no evil and feeling no pain // And making the light as it comes from within // So dim... // So, we must be able to recognize 'the ugly' and yet still 'shine the light' of God's redeeming, transforming love. Our creativity, in living out Grace, is part of God's way of building the beautiful city, His new creation, his bride, his beloved.
SBK, you're absolutely right - Ellen's on to something. As counterpoint to her claim, I'll say that I had a fascinated revulsion in seeing the inside of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Athens, and the *outside* of the Sagrada Familia Church in Barcelona. (The latter was architected by a man named "Gaudi", from whence we get the word "gaudy" - a term that applies to the church quite well.) I found myself longing for the spare simplicity of Protestant churches, in spite of the inspiration of soaring arches, beautiful ancient stained glass, and ancient relics. (To me, looking down on the actual bones of a saint will always be revolting. Other parts of the Greek Orthodox service in Athens were tremendously uplifting, but my eyes were repeatedly drawn to the coffins.) I think all of us, including Ellen, can find common ground in the idea that art which reflects Scripture, and which attempts to truly uplift the viewer (or, as Anne would add, the listener) is worthy of a church setting. Much of the art in my own church is transitory - lighting on the stage that emphasizes a backdrop that might only be present for a few weeks. Much of the rest of the church is like that - having few linkages to the past, unless you find the photo collage in one lesser-used hallway. So another aspect of Ellen's plaint is for being not merely shown beauty, but grounded in it. Having no such grounding, today's youth are free to indeed be fascinated by the ugly - and even transform themselves to partake in it.
I think that phrase, “fascination with the ugly", is arresting. And I think Ellen is focusing more on what we want to talk about... everyone 'knows' (or should) that physical beauty isn't as important or as lasting as spiritual beauty. But we do have an ugly utilitarian bent don't we? Though I'm generalizing, it shows in how we can make church boring, how we can pack people in, inject appropriate God talk, shuffle them out the door, perfect little drones. (For some reason, I hear echoes of Matthew 23:15). But for culture in general, I see a lot of the fascination with the ugly/grotesque. It shows up often: Body modification, Vampirism (and the whole Horror genre), soulless music, voyeurism, gore, vandalism as art, etc. A specific instance I despised was the promotion of the Orcs in various memorabilia for Jackon's "Lord of the Rings" movies. This went against every reasonable position one could take on, say, Tolkien's view. Orcs were not the anti-heroes, they were not lovely 'under-their-skin', they were not 'cool' because they had nose rings or because they made smoke-belching machines. The Orcs were everything the Elves were not. One being the base human tendencies and the other representing the supreme endeavors of our creative, beauty-loving minds. Part of the problem, I suggest, is 'independence' as the ultimate virtue. I can do and think and say as I want, and if it causes offense, it shows I'm well on my way.
Speaking of beautiful vs. ugly - many church architects could take note! I was raised Roman Catholic. It's amazing how many painfully plain Protestant churches I've been in. It appears to me a case of over zealousness in guarding against worshiping false idols. God is a God of beauty. The world he created for us has so much more than mere function and utility. Our churches should reflect more than mere function and utility as well, they should reflect His majesty, His creative beauty. After all, we are made in his image; He creates beauty, so should we.
It's not unusual for our favorite characters to be remembered as much for their weaknesses as their strengths. While Greeks liked Achiles, who was to be honest, a loathsome barbarian, his modern counterparts usually appear in silly bloodfests that are known to be silly by the viewer. The most memorable modern heros are people like Frodo. Even John Wayne wasn't all that handsome, come to think of it.
Respectfully, I disagree. The dichotomy between ugliness and beauty is quite different than the one between pride and humility, or meanness and kindness. In our culture, beauty and vanity are glorified excessively. Beauty is no virtue - some people are born with it and some aren't. For most people, some effort can make a difference, but beauty is already esteemed too highly above honesty, humility, charity and honor, which are traits of character rather than traits bestowed mostly by nature's luck. // Because of this, I appreciate movies like Shrek, which emphasizes that love is more important than beauty. I don't think that anyone is glorying in ugliness, but only trying to put outward beauty back in its place, back at the bottom of a long list.
Hmm, interesting topic to think about. Yeesh, ugly dolls? I won't be lining up to buy one any time soon. I'd like the reference for this statement: "... the concept of beauty ... is to be pursued alongside goodness and truth." Striving after beauty alongside goodness and truth is a new concept for me in my Christian walk. It begs the question, what is beauty? What beauty are we to be striving after in our Christian, God-honoring walk? So often we see the pursuit of personal, physical beauty to be a display of vanity and selfishness. Proverbs 31:30 states, "Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting; but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised." (A verse I remind myself of often when I contemplate the signs of physical aging on my face.) The sin-sick physical world we see around us is still beautiful and reveals that God created a beautiful universe. "Beauty is God's territory..." Indeed. "Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will." Rom. 12:2 God's beauty makeover for me began with the renewing of my mind; I'm so glad he is the God of transformation and didn't leave me in the swill pit of my former thought processes.
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