In my last post I explored some implications of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s reflections on Dostoevsky’s famous line “beauty will save the world.” I also engaged a bit with David Zahl at Mockingbird ministries. I was delighted that David then saw the article and noted a few things here and again on Mockingbird’s Mockingcast podcast. I was glad that he did not hear me as advocating throwing out his Wes Anderson DVDs, as mine are precious to me too! I also hope that neither he nor anyone else took me to mean that Christians ought simply to hang out behind marketing categories labeled “Christian.” I don’t know the first thing about contemporary Christian music. Occasionally a parishioner or friend will ask me if I know a certain song or performer, and I must inevitably plead ignorance.
But I long, as I know David Zahl does too, for Christians to be among those who are producing beautiful things for the world. And this is happening. A friend of mine in New York City sent me a link to this video, featuring the art of one of her church friends, Joshua Larock, who describes his vocation as a fine artist in terms of Christian culture-making.
Larock notes that “when we’re talking about the renewal of culture, the renewal of all things, we have to address worldviews here — what we’re producing and what we’re saying about what we’re producing.” Traditional forms can be agents of shaping what Larock calls “post-post-modern society.” I love it. Here I am reminded of one of the greatest living Christian aesthetes, David Bentley Hart, who says in the introduction to his Beauty of the Infinite (2004):
What Christian thought offers the world is not a set of “rational” arguments that (suppressing certain of their premises) force assent from others by leaving them, like the interlocutors of Socrates, at a loss for words; rather it stands before the world principally with the story it tells concerning God and creation, the form of Christ, the loveliness of the practice of Christian charity — and the rhetorical richness of its idiom. Making its appeal first to the eye and heart, as the only way it may “command” assent, the church cannot separate truth from rhetoric, or from beauty. (p. 4)
Accordingly, the most powerful critiques of Christianity are also somehow beautiful, albeit in a finite sense. Hart spends a lot of time with Friedrich Nietzsche, whose “attack on the gospel is first and foremost a virtuoso performance” (p. 94). Winning disciples of Christ, therefore, depends entirely on presenting before a longing heart Beauty that has no beginning and no end. We have the advantage every time over the likes of Nietzsche, but it isn’t always easy.
And there is another angle to explore in beautiful contemporary art by Christians like Joshua Larock. Creating beautiful things in the name of the Lord is proof of a high view of the Resurrection (Dave Zahl points this out in the Mockingcast, by the way). And no matter how many theologians for how many generations (particularly in Eastern Orthodoxy) have stressed just this sort of thing, the man responsible in our own age for popularizing this view more broadly is Anglicanism’s own N.T. Wright. If our eternal destiny is not to float about in heaven but to live in embodied abundance on a new earth, then Beauty matters here and now, in advance of Christ’s return. Wright notes in Surprised by Hope (p. 224):
The beauty of creation, to which art responds and which it tries to express, imitate, and highlight, is not simply the beauty it possesses in itself but the beauty it possesses in view of what is promised to it …. We are committed to describing the world not just as it should be, not just as it is, but as — by God’s grace alone! — one day it will be.
Wright also stresses that the wounds in Jesus’ Resurrection body remind us that true beauty emanates both from pain and joy. Some beautiful things are hard to look at, because the Christian faith isn’t optimism or pessimism. It’s hope.
On this last point, I conclude with another Christian artist, the writer Wendell Berry, who strives for a similarly beautiful, Resurrection-focused goal. And in one of Berry’s novels, Jayber Crow (2000), we may also tie back together Beauty as it relates to the Benedict Option, which I brushed by in my last post and mentioned in this sermon. Berry depicts colorful, broken people in small-town Kentucky — a Southern past that is for the most part unwittingly soaked in sacramental grace. The focus is on the community — the body — shaping and sustaining individuals and families who face the onslaught of wars, technology, and free markets creeping in on them. It is heartbreaking and inspiring stuff that I cannot recommend enough. This passage encapsulates Berry’s emphasis on the tacit evangelism of Beauty, even in the face of a counter-intuitive condemnation of God’s good creation by the Church herself:
In Port William, more than anyplace else I had been, this religion that scorned the beauty and goodness of this world was a puzzle to me. To begin with, I didn’t think anybody believed it. I still don’t think so. Those world-condemning sermons were preached to people who, on Sunday mornings, would be wearing their prettiest clothes. Even the old widows in their dark dresses would be pleasing to look at. By dressing up on the one day when most of them had leisure to do it, they signified their wish to present themselves to one another and to Heaven looking their best. The people who heard those sermons loved good crops, good gardens, good livestock and work animals and dogs; they loved flowers and the shade of trees, and laughter and music; some of them could make you a fair speech on the pleasures of a good drink of water or a patch of wild raspberries. While the wickedness of the flesh was preached from the pulpit, the young husbands and wives and the courting couples sat thigh to thigh, full of yearning and joy, and the old people thought of the beauty of children. And when church was over they would go home to Heavenly dinners of fried chicken, it might be, and creamed new potatoes and creamed new peas and hot biscuits and butter and cherry pie and sweet milk and buttermilk. And the preacher and his family would always be invited to eat with somebody and they would always go, and the preacher, havening just foresworn on behalf of everybody the joys of the flesh, would eat with unconsecrated relish. (p. 161)
Beauty cannot be suppressed, even by the Church. And when the Church is Beauty’s curator, the faith once delivered by the saints is at its very best. Infinite Beauty, who is our living God, really will save the world.
(For more on Beauty, the Benedict Option, and Wendell Berry, check out this sermon, the second in my Advent series on the Benedict Option.)