In his 1970 Nobel Prize speech, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn reflected on the oft-quoted line from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot: “Beauty will save the world.” Solzhenitsyn, who had seen and experienced more ugliness than most, held firm to the belief that “the persuasiveness of a true work of art is completely irrefutable; it prevails even over a resisting heart.” Solzhenitsyn went further, locating the future flourishing of Truth and Goodness (mostly forgotten) in the tree of Beauty. Where Truth and Goodness have been cut down, “then perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, and ever surprising sprouts of Beauty will force their way through and soar up … fulfilling the task of all three.”
I recently watched a superb BBC documentary by Roger Scruton from 2014, Why Beauty Matters. Scruton, a charmingly fierce culture warrior, shows in many contrasting examples of beauty vs. ugliness that Truth and Goodness are in peril. Scruton champions a pre-industrial idyll that may seem absurdly reactionary to some (not me!), but his larger point is that we’ve forgotten what art is for. We need places to live and work and worship. They are useful for us when they reflect our value as creatures of Beauty itself. To Christians, this means God. A brutalist housing estate fails here. Likewise, we need to look at paintings and sculptures that draw our souls to something nobler. A urinal in a museum will never do this.
Christians have a special role to play as evangelists for Beauty (i.e. God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). First, we are called to preserve. If no one else listens to Bach or contributes to the upkeep of Westminster Abbey, we do. But we are not just looking backwards. If we are building churches, why should they blend in to the modern urban landscape of glass and steel — or, worse yet, of cinderblock and stucco? We have endless opportunities to advance beauty by making new things that reflect the glory of God and convey Truth and Goodness even to unwitting participants in them. We must contribute to culture in ways that invite its transformation.
I thought about this last point as I read “Exploring our Options” by David Zahl, editor of Mockingbird. I love Zahl’s writing, and I always feel as though he and I are looking at the world with many of the same cultural artifacts around us. He writes about bands I love and films that mean a lot to me. We have never met in the flesh, but we have many mutual friends. When we do meet someday soon, I want to try and get to the bottom of his particular Lutheran line of Gospel vs. Law. But for now: Beauty. Zahl’s article really got my attention because it deals with the Benedict Option (one of my obsessions). He is ultimately critical of it for some very good reasons, and I particularly appreciate this over-arching concern: “Don’t all generations think that their problems are the ones that will do civilization in?”
But Zahl’s article also gives me pause, especially as I contemplate Beauty as the vehicle for Truth and Goodness. He notes, “I simply like elements in the culture too much, and I don’t think it makes me an ‘assimilationist.’ Our connective tissue is rampant, as this site hopefully demonstrates. There is much to be gleaned from unexpected sources.” I am inclined to say “Amen,” except as I step back and consider the Church’s heritage and vocation. And in this way, I realize that my ecclesiology is much, much higher than Zahl’s! As a Catholic, I know that grace is everywhere. The whole universe is sacramental; and yet, the Church has been given guaranteed means of grace that the world needs. As this relates to Beauty, the Church must be intentional about sub-creating with God for the life of the world. We know who Jesus is in ways that the world does not. We know the story of salvation and we must tell it. We are smuggling Truth and Beauty out from within, infecting those who encounter it. Again, as Solzhenitsyn argues, beauty “prevails even over a resisting heart.”
I may be splitting hairs here, but I think there is a fine point to make. For centuries Christians have had the market cornered on beautiful things. The Divine Comedy, the Sistine Chapel, even The Brothers Karamazov and The Lord of the Rings are tethered to the Church more securely than the “connective tissue” between modern culture and Christianity that Zahl mentions. And to say that the beauty of these things will save the world is much closer to saying “God will save the world” than appraising the cultural value of heavy metal or a Woody Allen film, even though Guns ’n Roses and Annie Hall have been indispensable to me. (And by the way, please read Zahl’s long piece on Axl Rose. It’s stupendous).
What the Church needs now more than ever are true sub-creators, participants in Beauty, and self-conscious vessels and dispensers of grace. We need to live the Mass in art and culture — to bear fruit of doxological, Eucharistic living. Our forebears made things that have drawn the world into the Kingdom of God. We can too; and we need not just settle for uncovering “Gospel” in unintended sources.
The last Christian poem has not yet been written. The last sublime cathedral has not yet been built. The last breathtaking piece of Christian music has not yet been composed. Let us resist being crowded out by and making do with what is nearly beautiful, good enough, or even ugly. Let us take the place of honor at the table of Beauty that is our inheritance and our destiny. Let us show the world something better than what it already has.
(Click here to listen to some of this in a recent sermon, Part 3 of my Advent series on the Benedict Option.)