Attending to Beauty | President’s Reflection

There are many people in the evangelical world who care about Truth and Goodness. There are not nearly enough who care about Beauty. Houghton College is fortunate to have a legacy of individuals who have understood that Beauty is one of the windows through which we, as finite and temporal human beings, may catch a glimpse of the Infinite and Eternal. Beauty is perhaps more mysterious than Truth and Goodness, and less susceptible to human efforts to regulate its power and influence through rules and formula.

Beauty is also often the most powerful way to move the human spirit. It’s not without good reason that Plato worried that music and poetry might undermine the authority of Reason in The Republic. It is understandable that the 16th-century Protestant Reformers worried that art could become idolatrous. It makes sense that the 18th-century Enlightenment’s worship of Reason, with its search for predictable formulaic laws, was threatened by 19th-Century Romanticism’s fascination with the “sublime” and mysterious. I am grateful for those in Houghton’s story who have kept inviting us to see the gifts of Beauty—and who have dared to reckon with its risks.

Lessons of Beauty

I grew up well-schooled in the church’s concern with Truth and Goodness. I knew the “right” things to believe and the “right” things to do. I worked hard to make sure I measured up. It was when our family moved to Houghton that I was first introduced to the idea that Christians ought to be equally concerned about Beauty.

Mrs. Anne Finney—wife of Professor Charles Finney, chair of the college’s music department—taught the junior high girls’ Sunday School class. Each Sunday, she began class by arranging in front of us, with great care, a vase of freshly cut flowers. As she worked, she would talk to us about the importance of cultivating clear vision, so that we would see in our daily lives God’s handiwork in the world. She introduced us to the word “aesthetic” and told us that God cared a great deal about excellence in workmanship—and not just sincerity—when we offered to God our time and talents.

Though we were always polite in class, we clearly did not understand the rich gift Mrs. Finney was offering us. Sometimes, to our shame, we even volunteered for nursery duty to escape going to class. I look back with regret—but also deep gratitude—that though we failed at the time to appreciate the gift, she kept holding it out for us Sunday after Sunday. She created a hunger for a God who cared for more than rule-keeping.

Dedicated to Artistry

In this same junior high season, thanks to my friend Lora Beth Stockin, I was a frequent visitor in the Stockin home. Unlike any house I had ever seen, the Stockin home was a veritable art studio. There was art everywhere, on the walls, and half-completed on easels at various places throughout the house. We knew Mrs. Stockin was an artist and taught at the college. But we also learned about Lora Beth’s grandmother, Aimee Ortlip, who lived with the Stockins as she aged.

Lora Beth would tell us, in somewhat hushed tones, that her grandmother had asked that God would not take her in the midst of doing a painting. I never said anything, but I wondered secretly, how, if Mrs. Ortlip kept starting paintings, God was ever going to find a moment of interruption in her work when He might bring her home.

Worship Through Excellence

And then there was Dr. Finney himself, who not only chaired the Music Department, but also played the Holtkamp organ for Sunday services of Houghton Wesleyan Church, which at that time were held in Wesley Chapel. He exercised a dominant role (to put it mildly) on what was considered appropriate for Sunday worship. We learned quickly, as a new family in the church, that all stanzas of every hymn must be sung, that the final stanza of each hymn must be sung in unison, with organ improvisation, and that certain hymns were inappropriate to be sung in public worship—mostly because they were deemed to be sentimental or judged to be written in ways that were unworthy of being offered to God. (Pity the poor person who requested one of these hymns at an evening hymn sing. The congregation knew by the way it was played that it did not pass muster with Dr. Finney.)

We had endless discussions over dinner at our house about whether the concern for excellence should override care for people’s feelings. We understood that sincerity of spirit and excellence did not always go easily together. We also came to see that concern for honoring God’s glory in worship might sometimes require making people feel uncomfortable.

A Lasting Legacy

I was reminded of all this at the recent funeral service for Roselyn Danner, wife of longtime Vice President for Student Life Bob Danner, but also someone who faithfully contributed to the college in her own right, in the college art acquisition program. She devoted her life to attending to Beauty. Whether in her home, or her garden, in the college art gallery, or on the college grounds, she pursued the creation and cultivation of beauty. Her life and work issued endless invitations to open our eyes to the beauty all around us, and to enlarge our imagination for all that God is and all he intends for us.

During last Saturday’s graduation processional, as Professor Judy Congdon ushered in the graduates to her own arrangement of the hymn Blessing and Honor, Glory and Power, I was overwhelmed once again with gratitude for Houghton’s commitment to the pursuit of seeing God through Beauty, as well as Truth and Goodness.

As their class gift to the college, the Class of 2019 chose a mosaic sculpture in the shape of a strand of DNA, to be displayed as public art on our campus. Their gift was represented during the commencement ceremony by a mosaic painting created by graduating senior Seoyoung Je, with a custom frame made by Professor Aaron Harrison. This assures me that the legacy of Beauty at Houghton is alive and well, and will continue long into the future.

Wherever you are today, may you have eyes to see God in the beauty of Creation, in each other as God’s image-bearers, and in the works that we create because we are made in God’s image.

Shirley A. Mullen, Class of 1976
President