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In a broken world, wholeness shines. Moreover, the beauty of this wholeness can put the world on a new path because seeing beauty is one of the first steps toward wanting to make the assent to it.
Integrity comes from the Latin adjective “integer,” meaning entire, whole, complete, and sound. It is a beautiful word because it speaks of the rare quality of wholeness in a world that is fractured. Too often we only see shavings, splinters, and shards. Some may even mistake a part for the whole. We see this brokenness all around us—in the public square, in education, in the family, and if we are honest even in ourselves. Instead of wholeness, we are left with pieces of a puzzle that do not fit and refract a distorted view of life; or if the pieces do fit, it produces an image that is dystopian. Recently, Sianne Ngai, Andrew W. Mellon professor at the University of Chicago, penned a book, Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. She argues that in a late capitalistic society our aesthetic sensibilities are reduced to what is zany, cute, and interesting based on how people labor, communicate, and consume. Think of plushy toys, cat videos, kitsch, and five second clips on TikTok of random antics. Ngai has a point. In a world without integrity, all we are left with are tidbits with little sense of beauty and no sense of the sublime while, to use the words of Neil Postman, we amuse ourselves to death. Can we do better?
Christianity offers an honest alternative—wholeness in brokenness—in the life of King David. Yes, David committed adultery, had someone murdered, and sowed a dysfunctional family, the stuff our tabloids would love to get a hold of, but he was Israel’s greatest king. His men loved him, his people honored him, Michelangelo immortalized him, and most importantly, if we believe in the author of 1 Samuel, he was a man after God’s own heart. He is singular in the Judeo-Christian tradition. He possesses something that makes him shine. It would be easy to highlight one or two of David’s characteristics to show why he is attractive—his humility, his courage, or his repentance, but that would be reductionistic. David was a complex person with many traits. He was courageous, self-forgetting, and generous. He also knew how to mourn, laugh, get along with everyone: soldiers, scoundrels, society’s elite. He could also sing, compose poetry, rush into battle, and lament. He was a special man but also an everyman. When we layer all these qualities together, we come to a better understanding of who he was, a whole person. Let me offer three examples from his life to give a glimpse of who he was.
My favorite story concerning David comes from 2 Samuel 23:13-17. Here David encamps with his men in the cave of Adullam, and he finds himself between the Scylla of the Philistines, who blocks him from obtaining water, and the Charybdis of Saul who is trying to kill him. David, parched, longs for a drink in the wilderness, and he lets out a yearning—If I only had water. These words float into the ears of three of his loyal warriors, and they break through enemy lines to a well in Bethlehem and carry water back. This act shows how much David’s men love and honor him. Rarely do we see that kind of devotion to another. The point of the story, however, is not what David’s men do; it is what David does with the water. He refuses to drink it; it is too precious in his eyes to consume. The water represents the blood of the men who risked their lives for him. So, he chooses to honor his men just as they have honored him; he pours out the water on the ground to the Lord. In David’s mind, only the Lord is worthy of it. Had I been there, my respect for David would have reached new heights.
Another story that gives a glimpse of David’s character comes from 1 Samuel 30. We see David’s decisive and gracious leadership. When he grasps that the Amalekites have captured and taken away his family and the families of his men, he takes decisive steps. He calls upon God, readies six hundred men, and pursues the Amalekites. However, at Besor, exhaustion overtakes two hundred men. He allows them to stay and departs with the rest. David catches up with the Amalekites, who are sprawled over the countryside, enjoying their plunder. David attacks and defeats the Amalekites and recovers everything. The climax of the story comes when David reaches Besor. Some men do not want to share the spoils of war. David, rather than succumbing, flexes and says that all people will have an equal share in the spoils. Divine logic drives his reasoning. God protected them, God led them, and God has given them the victory. David acknowledges divine favor; so, he extends favor to others. This generosity leaves a deep mark among the men. According to 1 Samuel 30:25, equal distribution of a successful military campaign’s booty became a lasting ordinance in Israel.
Another powerful story concerns Shimei, a Benjamite, who curses David and pelts him with rocks after Absalom’s coup. David’s men cannot believe their ears, the disrespect, the arrogance, the physical assault. Abishai, a fierce warrior, says: “Why should this dead dog curse my lord the king? Let me go over and cut off his head” (2 Samuel 16:9). David’s response takes the reader a few steps back. First, he asks what any of this has to do with Abishai. David absorbs the insults. They belong to him and no one else. No blame shifting at all. Then, he says: “Leave him alone; let him curse, for the LORD has told him to” (2 Samuel 16:12). David understands that he is not innocent. He knows that repentance is the way forward even if the path is filled with a volley of stones, dirt, and insults. His humility, repentance, and sense of responsibility gleam at the nadir of his life.
The composite picture from these vignettes showcases a man who outdoes others in honor, who depends on God, who acts decisively, who gives grace, and who takes responsibility with humility in times of failure. When we add his psalms, lamentations, and even his controversial dancing at the entrance of the tabernacle into Jerusalem, the picture of David becomes fuller. He does not fit into a one-dimensional mold, no easy interpretations about his character, no overriding trait to tie him together. Quite the contrary, he possesses a configuration of qualities that are not usually found in one person. He is a glorious paradox in a fractured world; he is whole.
People have long seen the connection between beauty and symmetry, the Greeks, the Romans, and even modern physicists, such as Anthony Zee who writes in his book, Fearful Symmetry: The Search for Beauty in Modern Physics, these words:
The beauty that Nature has revealed to physicists in Her laws is a beauty of design, a beauty that recalls, to some extent, the beauty of classical architecture, with its emphasis on geometry and symmetry. The system of aesthetics used by physicists in judging Nature also draws its inspiration from the austere finality of geometry.
If we apply this idea of beauty and symmetry to character, then David’s character was spherical and symmetric. Plato, in the Sophist, makes this move and argues that the wicked soul is deformed and ill-proportioned, and the good soul is well-proportioned (Sophist 228c-e). Perhaps this is why everyone can relate to David—the strong, the weak, the righteous, the unrighteous, the lowly, the mighty, and everyone in between. The shape of David’s character attracts. To use the insight of Aristotle, at David’s best, we see the unity of virtues. He also had practical wisdom, which requires all the virtues. So, when David poured out the water his men brought to him, he was exercising temperance and justice. When he gave the spoils of war to everyone, he was showing magnanimity and liberality. And when he took the insults of Shimei, he was embracing humility, a Jewish virtue.
Here is the point. Healthy character has always been balanced and unified. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul offers an apt imagery. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). To have this fruit (note that the word is singular), an individual must have all the listed qualities, not two or three. Selectivity proves that the fruit is defective, and the soul is ill-proportioned. Love without self-control is not love; it is self-love. Joy without kindness is not joy; it is satisfied narcissism. All configurations, no matter how creative, fall short; for beauty to shine, all the traits must grow together. Biblical character has always been whole, and David, at his best, was in full bloom.
If David’s charisma stems from his integrated wholeness, then we can deconstruct things and make the case that the lack of integrated qualities makes a person less attractive. Decisiveness without grace hardly inspires. Ambition without temperance and truthfulness is destructive, and justice without mercy only consumes. All of us have strong qualities, but what makes people attractive is the integration of qualities that are ordinarily disconnected in a broken world. Wholeness is attractive, brokenness, not so much. The perfect picture of this wholeness is found in David’s greatest descendant, Jesus. All the beautiful strands in David find eschatological perfection in Christ. He is fully God and fully man. He is loving yet just; he receives honor but embraces shame and honors others; he is filled with glory but empties himself; he is perfectly just and holy, but he is also filled with enduring love and mercy. He is the first and the last. Only in Christ do all things come together. To quote Colossians, he is the image of the invisible God (Col. 1:15).
What does all of this mean for us? We don’t have to be flat. We can have all the contours of humanity. We can be complete people, robust, and real. In fact, that picture is the Christian injunction. The goal, however, is not to seek to be attractive for the sake of being attractive. Such a goal would end in failure because our motivations would be disingenuously unattractive. We would be famous for being famous, as Daniel Boorstin stated sixty-years ago in his prescient book, The Image. In a word, we would be hollow. Instead, the goal is to become more virtuous. At that point, we don’t need to try to be attractive; we simply will be on account of the unity of virtues. In a broken world, wholeness shines. Moreover, the beauty of this wholeness can put the world on a new path because seeing beauty is one of the first steps toward wanting to make the assent to it.
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The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.