“Why is our world beautiful, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is beautiful? Why is our world ugly, and what are we as Christians to do about the fact that our world is ugly?”
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright asked these questions in a 2005 lecture at Seattle Pacific University. He’s right, of course, our world is both unbelievably beautiful and unmistakably ugly.
This is a world of sunrises and sunsets, of graceful deer and playful dolphins, of jonquils in the spring and autumn leaves in the fall; and it is a world of civil war, of terror and fear, of shame and disgrace, of oppressors and oppressed.
The prophet Isaiah in chapter 11 provides us with a vision of hope in which the ugliness of our world is either redeemed or destroyed:
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. His delight shall be in the fear of the LORD. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder's den. They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
This is a vision of a world in which oppressors live peacefully with the ones they have oppressed, having repented of their oppression. It is a beautiful picture of repentance and reconciliation. And it is also a warning: those oppressors who cannot repent, who cannot give up their violence toward innocents, will not be allowed to go one forever. They have no place in this lion and lamb world, and will be destroyed. If this seems a harsh word for the oppressor, it is a word of hope for the oppressed.
If all one sees in our world is the ugliness, then it’s hard to see Isaiah’s vision as anything but unrealistic wishful thinking that will never stand up to real-world realities, but when one sees the beauty of the world—not just that which God created, but also that which humans are able to produce in our in-his-image creativity—you realize that there is a real-world reality that is full of the glory of God “as the waters cover the see.” One of our God-given gifts is imagination, and every work of beauty begins with imagination. The creative imagination doesn’t accept what others say is real-world reality; it envisions other possibilities, and makes them real-world realities. Wright provides an example:
There's a work of art which stands at the moment in the great new atrium in the British Museum in London. The director of the British Museum is a practicing Christian, Neil McGregor. And he has with great courage put this work of art there. It speaks volumes about the nature of Christian imagination, taking the great biblical story and making it live again, speaking into and engaging with our culture. It's a sculpture from Mozambique, and it's a sculpture of the Tree of life, the Tree of life which stood there in the Garden of Eden, but was inaccessible, the Tree of Life which now grows on the banks of the Waters of Life coming out of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21 and 22. But this tree of life is different, because it is made of decommissioned weapons after the Mozambique civil war. It's composed entirely of military hardware — guns and stuff. It's a very powerful symbol of what Isaiah was talking about. There will come a time when people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, a time of peace.
How do you re-imagine the Christian story after a civil war? Maybe you do it like this. You turn the weapons into a tree of life. What a wonderful symbol of engaging the culture, of taking a theme which spans Genesis to Revelation and of saying, put this in the middle of your world and imagine, imagine what God is like and what the world will one day be like.