Gospel, Not Glamour

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By Cindy Brandt | Twitter: @cindy_w_brandt

N_CINDY

I’ve just come back from a special treat: the Phantom of the Opera. I got goose bumps five times from the majestic orchestral chord progressions, cried twice, and dropped my jaw seven times in awe of what these skilled performers can do with their vocal chords.

The story of Phantom, for those who aren’t familiar, is about a disfigured man who lives beneath an opera house, hidden from a world that has shown him no compassion. He develops an obsession towards an unassuming actress named Christine, by drawing her into his music, a window into his dark, tortured soul.

When Christine falls in love instead with another man, the Phantom terrorizes the opera house and threatens the life of this man in exchange for Christine’s companionship. He sings, “you alone, can make my song take flight”. Therefore, in the end, when he decides to let her go, he loses not just a girl, but his ability to create. “It’s over now, the Music of the Night,” he bellows as the cymbals clang from the pit orchestra, signalling the tragic end of his musical career and the curtain falls.

What has made this theatric piece into an enduring classic is not only the masterful musical composition and dramatic staging production, but the complex character of the Phantom. He is evil, without a doubt. His love for Christine is a twisted obsession, wanting her only for himself, and he uses violence to achieve his selfish desires.

But his songs are mesmerizing. The deep tenor of his strong voice delivering flawless melodies, one after another. Just when the audience is brought to a climactic musical phrase, we are stunned yet again by another beautiful turn of chorus. The question that keeps churning in my mind, “how can something so beautiful come out of such ugliness?” How can there be true Music in the dark of the Night? Is there something salvageable in a man so disfigured both physically and internally?

I believe our vocational calling as people of God is to seek out beauty in this world. In order to inspire genuine worship, churches often put up slideshows of beautiful nature scenes, to help us remember how beautifully God creates. Indeed, the sight of an unforgettable sunset draws us into transcendence and gives us a glimpse of the Divine.

But I think sometimes we forget that God created some ugly things as well. The breathtaking mountaintop views cannot be formed without accompanying deep canyons. Rolling hills and idyllic streams are often surrounded by vast expanses of dry desert. For every beautiful creature there are many other hideous looking ones. Some of the deep-sea life forms I’ve seen in aquariums were so ugly it was hard to even look at. And let’s not forget that only a few are born with Hollywood-worthy features; most of us are in fact quite ordinary looking.

What does it mean for us as people of faith to draw close to beauty? Does it mean we ignore or redeem all that is ugly?

Theologian Cecilia Gonzalez-Andrieu, author of Bridge to Wonder: Art as a Gospel of Beauty, says this: “The opposite of beauty is not ugliness, it’s glamour.” The real affront to beauty is that which disguises as beauty, but is in fact, shallow and short-lived attention. Glamour induces bursts of glory but fizzles out quickly. Beauty grows slowly but leaves lasting impact.

Yet how often are we, the Church, enamoured more with glamour than beauty? We are entranced by the glamour of a big building and fancy equipment, the glamour of celebrity pastors, the glamour of a dazzling website, the glamour of media attention, and the glamour of beautiful, fashionable, fit people.

We have mistaken beauty for glamour when we try to hide all who are messy and only showcase the put-together. We have exchanged beauty for glamour when we turn our face away from disfigured and tortured souls, and we are missing out on the music from below.

There was beauty in the Phantom, but it was mixed up with his obsession and bitterness and rage. There is beauty also in beautiful people, but it is also mixed up with their insecurity, loneliness, and fears. The difference is that the latter can hide their darkness underneath their glamour, whereas the physically disfigured man remains masked and hidden forever.

Our Gospel is not one that celebrates the glamorous, but the Beautiful. Jesus hung on a cross, stripped of glamour, leaving only the powerful hope that every phantom living in the shadows of society no longer have to hide. Every person’s mask can be shed, so her music can be brought from night to light.

As communities who follow Jesus, we must work to look past glamour to find beauty in the margins. We must make it safe for beautiful people who are used to the dark to practice living out their true beauty in the light. There is intense vulnerability involved in shedding a mask one has lived a lifetime behind. We give others permission to open up their wounds each time we make the brave decision to reveal our own. Healing can only come when we share our pain.

None of us are perfect behind the masks, so when they come undone, there will be hideousness which turn our eyes. Some will be difficult to confront, fear will compel us to put back the mask. But again, the enemy is not ugliness. The enemy is glamour, that irresistible draw to recoil back into shallow beauty which distracts us from the real work of finding lasting beauty—even, and especially in the ugliness of pain, suffering, disfigurement, and humility.

This is the scandal of the cross, the ultimate vulnerability to make way for true beauty.

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About Cindy: 

cindyI write from Taiwan about finding faith in the irreverent, miracles in the ordinary, and beauty in the margins. I drive a Prius, am more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing. I’m super social justice-y, and a feminist. You can find me at cindywords.com, where I tap my words out from the thirty third floor of the high rise I call home.

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Image credit: r.nial bradshaw

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