The 19th century Danish author Hans Christian Andersen tells a story entitled the Ugly Duckling, where a scruffy, barnyard duckling grows into a beautiful swan. Almost everyone loves the story of a come from behind person, or in this case an animal, who turns into a winner. But those are popular stories of ugly becoming beautiful. It is a totally different issue when someone proclaims that beautiful is really ugly. But this is the very style, the unpopular stance, that biblical prophets often take. They were willing to critique the aesthetic culture of whatever empire they lived in and in which God had called them to minister. Even when the vox populi regarded something as beautiful, pleasing, worthy of adoration, they were bold enough to speak the vox dei and proclaim its ugliness.
|Model of Jerusalem Temple on Temple Mount|
Remember the prophet Jeremiah, who ministered through the reign of more than one Judean king? One king in particular (Jehoiakim) was proud of the beauty of his royal palace, and he is portrayed in the book of Jeremiah as boasting with these words, “‘I will build myself a great palace with spacious upper rooms.’ So he makes large windows in it, panels it with cedar and decorates it in red,” (Jer. 22:14) to which Jeremiah responds, “Are you a king because you compete in cedar? . . . .your eyes and your heart are set only on dishonest gain, on shedding innocent blood and on oppression and extortion” (Jer. 22:15, 17).
Anyone who has seen a reconstruction of the Herodian Temple Mount and the Jewish Temple can identify with the amazement of one of Jesus’ apostles who was astounded at its beauty and splendor and remarked, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings! (Mark 13:1) Jesus then revealed his rejection of the aesthetic culture of most of his Jewish contemporaries; all Jesus could see was the Temple’s ugliness and declared its imminent destruction, notwithstanding its “beautiful stones and the gifts dedicated to God” (Luke 21:5).
By rejecting the popular aesthetic of his own day and culture, the prophet John places himself on the same trajectory as the prophetic voices mentioned above. Pagan authors of the 1st and 2nd centuries AD are clear in their praise of major cities of Roman Asia, e.g., Ephesus, Pergamum, and Smyrna, and even the fragmentary monuments that the modern tourist encounters support this praise. With clarity John can describe the Roman eye-candy that has mesmerized and seduced most of his contemporaries, but in the same paragraph he still knows the “mother of whores” when he sees her (Rev. 17:3-5).
|Augustean Gem in the Art
History Museum in Vienna, Austria
Roman authors, architects, and artists depict the magnificence of Rome and her influence in expressions of beauty and elegance, while John is committed to his urban ministry of showing that in God’s empire there is a reversal of things; once beautiful is now ugly. In more than one of John’s 7 letters he upbraids believers who still base their aesthetics on the values of the surrounding culture and therefore look for the attractive and the beautiful in Roman institutions and imperial ideology that defame the one, true God and at times unjustly brutalizes fellow believers. It is troubling to imagine that some of these believers in John’s churches were not even aware of the issues, much less that they had spent a large part of their lives regarding truly ugly things as beautiful.