Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Evangelizing Power of Beauty

~Here's an excerpt from GodSpy on Beauty by John Murphy. He retells the story of Joshua Bell, the world-class violin virtuoso's experience of playing the the Washington DC's L'Enfant Metro Station during rush hour. Who stopped to listen and who didn't stop to listen? Did anyone care about transcendence? Will Beauty save the world or are we relegated instead to a world of banality? I was thinking a great deal about this sitting in the little country church last Sunday. In the midst of the fields of corn, wheat, and cotton, this little country church managed to retain that vision of beauty with its native stone walls and timbered ceiling, and the tabernacle in front under a beautiful carved crucifix and all 'round were the carved wooden Stations of the Cross.
The folksy liturgy is supposed to appeal to the younger generation. It’s supposed to make the mass “more accessible.” This is condescending to kids who know better. Recall that the only people who stopped to listen to Joshua Bell play classical music were under the age of ten, and then ask yourself who has the more sophisticated taste. Going to church must offer us something that we do not get from the wider culture or else what’s the point? It’s the sacred liturgy. Treating it as a diluted rock concert is silly, for the simple reason that somewhere else in town (or even at home on a pair of headphones) any kid can experience a better rock concert.

The mass is intrinsically true and good and would be so under any conditions, but the faithful ignore beauty at their own peril. As humans, we are attracted to beauty. Or as Aquinas put it, “Grace builds on Nature.” We experience life through our senses. Beauty, therefore, can make a more effective tool of evangelization than an appeal to the intellect (truth) or an appeal to the conscience (goodness), both of which are innate in Catholic teaching and will inevitably follow the initial encounter. A perfect example is St. Augustine, whose conversion was prompted by the music of the sacred liturgy: “How I wept, deeply moved by your hymns, songs, and the voices that echoed through your Church! What emotion I experienced in them! Those sounds flowed into my ears, distilling the truth in my heart.” Would St. Augustine ever have experienced his conversion sitting in a pew being subjected to an off-key rendering of “On Eagle’s Wings”?

Another example is the Romantic writer, Chateaubriand, who longed for a Catholic renewal in France after the revolution’s stripping of the altars. Sitting in a bare Protestant church, Chateaubriand dreamed of “chants, pictures, ornaments, silk veils, draperies, laces, gold, silver, lamps, flowers, and incense of the altars.” That may seem like a litany of artificiality, but it speaks to a profound truth—the Catholic mass satisfies a fundamental human longing for beauty, a beauty that indexes the greater, more powerful beauty of God.

Artists throughout the ages have been inspired by their faith to produce works of abiding, enduring beauty. A catalogue of Christianity’s contribution to cultural beauty could fill the Alexandrian library..... living works of art, beautiful prayers to God.

...There is a mistaken assumption that faith is limiting, a pre-established frame that artists must squeeze their work into. Flannery O’Connor wrote in her essay collection, Mystery and Manners, “When people have told me that because I am a Catholic, I cannot be an artist, I have had to reply, ruefully, that because I am a Catholic, I cannot afford to be less than an artist.’” Why? Because the creative act echoes the initial act of creation: God bringing the world into being, much as a painter labors over his canvas or a composer her symphony. God loves what He created, and Christ’s Passion proves His willingness to die for His work of art. Christ’s death on the Cross was a revelation in artistic as well as salvific terms—the powerful, haunting beauty of suffering even unto death when love is the motivating force.

The fact of Original Sin makes ignoring humanity’s fallen state impossible for the artist, which is why the Christian mode of beauty can have a sublime terror or despair, as in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment or Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs. With reference to the unblinking naturalism of O’Connor’s prose, the Archbishop of Canterbury wrote, “The tightrope that the Catholic writer must walk is to forget or ignore nothing of the visually, morally, humanly sordid world, making nothing easy for the reader, while doing so in the name of a radical conviction that depends on that world being interrupted and transfigured by revelation.” Thus, Christian faith does not limit but rather expands an artist’s sensibility for the simple reason that Christianity is all-inclusive of joy and suffering, hope and despair, sin and redemption. As JRR Tolkien put it, “there is no story without the fall.”

By becoming “subcreators” with God of authentically beautiful art that is both of its time and suffused with perennial truth, artists can participate in a new kind of evangelization. In the words of Image journal editor Gregory Wolfe, “Beauty is making a comeback.” (His own journal testifies to this). Ron Hansen’s slim, haunting novel, Mariette in Ecstasy, published in 1992, belongs on a shortlist of the great Catholic novels. Another recent example was the remarkable success of The Passion of the Christ, with its Caravaggio-inspired visual scheme. More telling, perhaps, is the spate of secular art that taps into the deep vein of Christian philosophy—the bruising beauty and life-affirming message of Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, the sophisticated albums of singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens, the near-biblical pitch of Cormac McCarthy’s prose, or the Christ-infused finale of the Harry Potter series. The experience of great art, whether religious or secular, nearly always has a spiritual dimension—an interstice in daily life where the luminous eternal breaks through.

The luminous eternal is truth, goodness, and beauty. Of the three, beauty may be the best proselytizing force because we respond to it willingly, happily. Whether the object of our attention is a striking painting, a lyrical prose passage, or a glorious piece of music, humans are hardwired to delight in beautiful things. To adopt Oscar Wilde’s formula, Beauty is higher than Genius because it needs no explanation. It simply is. That is why modern art relies so much on theory.

Beauty is not just icing on the cake; beauty is substantial, essential. In his introduction to the Glory of the Lord, the great theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar addressed the mystery of beauty and its utter necessity. I leave him with the final, eloquent word:

“Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, a world of interests, leaving it to its own avarice and sadness. No longer loved or fostered by religion, beauty is lifted from its face as a mask, and its absence exposes features on that face which threaten to become incomprehensible to man. We no longer dare to believe in beauty and we make of it a mere appearance in order the more easily to dispose of it. Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”


Anonymous said...

Beloved in the Lord:
While I myself prefer Bach, Mozart and Beethoven with regard to music; brocade with regard to fabrics; and Gothic with regard to architecture, the fact remains that what I and others like personally does not define "beauty." Margaret Wolfe Hungerford was right-on when she said, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." In truth, James E. Townsend

Aristotle said...

"What if the 'eye of the beholder' is blind? What if the ear of the beholder is deaf? What if the eye of the beholder has been perverted and deformed by a constant exposure to disorder and ugliness? What if the ear of the beholder has been corrupted by a steady diet of noise and chaos? In such cases, the beholder's ability to apprehend beauty is severely compromised, and his judgment is not to be relied upon. What we must be willing to say, and what the Church has not shied away from saying dowm through the ages, is that sometimes the eye of the beholder is wrong." - Fr. Robert Johansen