Susan Boyle: Judged by Beauty

susan-boyleA guest post by Bruce Hamill:

The story of Susan Boyle captured the imagination of the world. At one level it was simply the surprise of beauty. Where did that voice come from? And yet there is so much more than that here. And the “so much more” has to do with the expression on the judges’ faces and the sniggers of the audience including those universal judges on their couches throughout the world. It was here that the analogy to resurrection is greatest. For here the whole world was agreed on the form of the beautiful and it didn’t include Susan Boyle. Only the act of casting her out, in which both audience and judges were complicit, explains the looks on the judges’ faces and the astonishing popularity of her YouTube clip. And yet in that moment of discovery a strange thing happened. We realized for a moment our own judgment. We were the judges judged by her truth. And then another thing happened. We began to tell stories which justified the world we are a part of. We could not face the judgment that her unveiling made upon our world, so we turned the attention on her heroism, in such a way that we could in fact adore her as an appropriate idol and icon of our time. Like Pilate we avert our gaze from the truth that judges us. Where Pilate asks the dialectical question, we renarrated the familiar ‘rags to riches’ tale in which there is no judgment or surprise and Susan’s triumph is the logical conclusion of our meritocracy. She becomes the hero so we can avoid the spotlight being turned on us the audience and the world of American Idol-atry that we participate in.

I wonder what will happen to Susan now? How much longer will she avoid baptism by ‘makeover’? How much longer will we be able to stand her ‘look’? How much longer will she be able to avoid seeing herself through the eyes of the crowd?


  1. Who’s “we”? Did Bruce Hamill himself re-narrate the tale so as to remove the element of judgment? If “we,” the first-person plural, does not include the speaker, then it is not “we”; it is “you” or “they.”

    To me, the story is that of those who judge by outward appearance getting their comeuppance.


  2. Hey Bruce. Great post. I was reminded of Lord Henry’s statement in Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, that “it is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances”. The story is not, as mim suggests, “that of those who judge by outward appearances getting their comeuppance” (which trades on idealist assumptions about the relationship between appearance and reality; form and content), but rather, as you suggest, of the ways in which our recognition of the form of beauty is distorted. The Christological analogy is very important here. The Christian claim is not that the beauty of the cross lies behind its bloody appearance, but that that bloody appearance is itself the glory of the Lord, although I think we need also to say that it is not all that there is to that glory.
    This is not, I think, one of the least difficult moments of Christian faith: since we are not, I think, being asked to reject in any straightforward manner, what might be called traditional conceptions of the beautiful, but to rework them in the light of the cross. To recognize Boyle’s voice as beautiful depends upon generally accepted – even unreconstructed – conceptions of what counts as beautiful music (in the way that, say, recognizing Ornette Coleman’s music as beautiful may not). The recognition that Monica Bellucci and Sophia Loren are beautiful women works in the same way, and is entirely proper. We would quite rightly think someone’s judgment defective if they thought that Bellucci was physically ugly, or, indeed, that Boyle was physically beautiful. I suppose the problem with Boyle is the very classical one of how someone who is not physically beautiful can produce such beautiful music. It’s a problem worth taking seriously (or rather, we ought to beware of those who don’t, or who answer it too easily, because this may indicate the moral failure of those who are unable to recognise or be seduced by beauty). The cross, I think, intensifies this problem, but in so far as the cross, as the unveiling of divine glory, is the action of God, it also reconfigures it.


  3. Thanks Andre, as usual your insights are stunning. If this comment is anything to go by you have read ‘The Beauty of the Infinite’… or DBH has been reading you.


  4. Hey Bruce… I’m very sorry (and embarrassed) to say that I have not read it yet. I will definitely do so in the very near future. I was reminded by your post that Umberto Eco has written a history of western conceptions of beauty (which he followed up with one on ugliness). He is a very theologically astute intellectual, as both his little book on the aethetics of Aquinas (a revision of his doctoral thesis, I think), and his discussions with Cardinal Martini show. Also, somewhat surprisingly, there is a copy of the book on beauty in the Upper Hutt Public Library (such are its immeasurable riches), which is where I am heading now.


  5. Hey Bruce…eloquently put! I feel there is hope for us Susan Boyle’s of the world yet :) I am rather counting on it!

    Thanks for an uplifting and great post :)



  6. Nos motivas, Susan y estoy viendo fotos en la red de los cambios que te están haciendo, pero nunca cambiaran tu belleza interior, ¡¡¡eres Grande!!!


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