[This review was written for The Gospel Coalition.]
Over sixteen centuries ago a North African pastor, reflecting on his conversion from the idolatry of created things to worshiping the Living God himself, confessed:
Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new,
late have I loved you!
Lo, you were within,
but I outside, seeking there for you,
and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong,
You were with me, but I was not with you.
They held me back far from you,
those things which would have no being
were they not in you.
You called, shouted, broke through my deafness;
you flared, blazed, banished my blindness;
you lavished your fragrance, I gasped, and now I pant for you;
I tasted you, and I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I burned for your peace.
Such was the experience of Aurelius Augustine, so beautifully captured in this famous prayer from his Confessions (X.27, The Confessions, tr. Maria Bolding, New City Press, 1997, p. 262). And such was the experience of Steve DeWitt, who recounts his “journey into beauty” in a new book entitled Eyes Wide Open: Enjoying God in Everything. “Without fully realizing it, all of my life I have yearned for, searched for, fought for, and craved beauty,” he writes. “So have you. So did the ancients…These pages are thoughts on a journey that has enriched my life in ways I cannot adequately describe” (pp. 2-3).
DeWitt structures his book in three parts, what we call three legs of the journey toward a deeper understanding of beauty. Part one (“Seeing God’s Beauty”) begins by tapping into the human longing for beauty which points us to the Trinitarian God as the ultimate source of beauty in the universe. Quoting Pascal, “The world everywhere gives evidence of a vanished God, and man in all his actions gives evidence of a longing for that God.” (p. 7). But we are like the characters in H. G. Wells’ story “The Country of the Blind:” there was once a time when we could perceive the glorious beauty of God. But that time is long past. We are now characterized by “spiritual blindness” (pp. 21-22). What we need to learn is that “beauty is God’s invitation to delight in Him. Wonder and awe whisper to us that there is something beyond, something more” (p. 24). That something is God in his all his Trinitarian glory.
The second part of the book examines “The Story of Beauty: In Creation, Sin, and Christ.” “God creates beauty so we can know what He is like,” writes DeWitt (p. 62). “The beauties of this world whisper to our souls that someone is ultimate. But the ultimate is never found in the wonderland of creation” (p. 71). We are “beauty junkies” (pp. 78-79), on a continual quest to see, hear, taste, touch, and smell more. But ultimate satisfaction eludes us. “There is embedded in our spiritual DNA an ancient memory of when everything was as it ought to be, when everything was in harmony. Beauties harmonies are an echo in our hearts of the ancient harmony, and we miss it” (p. 98). The problem is that rather than allowing beauty to lead us back to God himself, “we worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator” (Rom. 1:25). We have bought into the lie that “something else is more desirable than God” (p. 93). Thus we are hollow inside, in need of redemption. “Fallen humanity needs a Savior. All the beauty longings in our heart scream for just one beauty that restores, fulfills, and endures” (p. 98).
The final section of the book moves from our existential longings for beauty and the theological vision of beauty unfolded in redemptive history to the practicalities of how to relate to beauty in every day life. What distinguishes a Christian’s response to beauty from that of an atheist? How do we walk beaches, view sunsets, enjoy music, watch movies, eat desserts, and stare at the stars to the glory of God? (p. 117) How do gratitude and worship work in relation to nature, the arts, literature, and marriage? DeWitt wrestles with these kinds of questions especially in chapters nine and ten, offering a helpful grid for exercising discernment, while the final chapter points us forward to consummation of all beauty in the new heaven and new earth.
Eyes Wide Open is a good book that manages to be accessible without being shallow. Drawing on a wide array of previous writers (Augustine, Calvin, Lewis, Ryken, Piper, Dubay) and illustrated with personal anecdotes as well as insights from art, music, film, and literature, DeWitt has given us a theologically solid and practically helpful primer for how to think Christianly about beauty in a world that constantly sends us mixed messages the nature of beauty and its true source.
The danger with this book (really, of any book) is that one could just read it, enjoy it, and shelve it, without making any significant changes in how one thinks or lives. That’s no fault of the book – it’s just the reality that comes with reading, especially in our age of information overload. So, allow me to conclude with three suggestions for how to put Eyes Wide Open to good use. (1) A small group of believers could read and discuss the book together (there are helpful questions provided with each chapter), interspersing their discussions with activities that provide real-life fodder for discussion, such as visiting a museum, listening to music, or watching a film. (2) The book could also be used evangelistically. Since so many of the stories and quotations tap into the innate longings of the human heart, try sharing it with an unbelieving friend who is open to learning more about Christianity. (3) Finally, this book is a great resource for pastors to use who want to further explore the concept of beauty with their congregations. We don’t often associate sermons with the word “beauty.” But paying attention to this book could help redress that problem.