Awash in Wonder: What Artistic Beauty Tries to Teach Us

Do they not have bones? Does gravity not apply? Are they not even human? The Chinese State Circus performance of Swan Lake is beyond amazing. I have never seen such daunting ballet lifts on stage before. Check out this 4-minute video clip and stand in awe. Then ask why it is you might be standing in awe.

I am awash in wonder every time I see this routine. But why? The German poet Rilke once went to a museum and effused over an ancient statue of Apollo. He was so captivated by the sculpture that when he got home, he wrote in his diary, “I must change my life.”

I find it significant that he didn’t write, “Wow, that was a great aesthetic experience I just had,” though it was. He didn’t write, “I was awestruck by the artistry of that piece,” though he was. No, he wrote, “I must change my life.”

Christian author Tim Keller argues that what Rilke was really saying—and what he went on to write in a poem containing the same expression—was this:

“Anything that really moves you, any great insight you ever get, any experience of beauty that really gets you at your core—it always makes you aware of the fact that you’re just a shadow of what you should be. You’re just a fraction of what you know you ought to be.”

While Rilke may have overstated his point a bit, most of us realize—when we’re completely honest with ourselves—that our lives would benefit by a series of significant changes. In the presence of great art, that realization is highlighted anew. We get a sense that we’re a long way away from what we could be as human beings.

At the same time, we’re not so far away that we can’t recognize flashes of beauty when we see them, or even consider what those flashes of beauty might be trying to teach us. Abraham Kuyper, the Dutch theologian, put it like this:

“If you confess that the world once was beautiful, but by the curse has become undone, and by a final catastrophe is to pass to its full state of glory, excelling even the beautiful of paradise, then art has the mystical task of reminding us in its productions of the beautiful that was lost and of anticipating its perfect coming luster.”

Art’s task, says Kuyper, is to remind people where we came from and where we’re going. Our origin was the creative hand of God, and our destination is a complete and perfect restoration in him through Christ. In the meantime, all of us can enjoy the sheer beauty of a good performance, whatever our theological commitments may be.

With visions of those incredible Swan Lake dance moves in our minds, we can luxuriate in the grace of God that motivated King David to write:

“I will exalt you, O Lord, for you lifted me” (Psalm 30:1).

Surely God’s “lifts” are at least as good as those of the Chinese State Circus.