Book Review: Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age

Joseph O’Brien

Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age
by Gregory Wolfe
ISI Books, 2011
278 pp., $29.95 (hardcover)
ISBN: 1933859881

One look at any art museum and the numberless portraits of the Madonna and Child, or depictions of the Nativity, the Crucifixion or the Last Supper that invariably hang there will demonstrate exactly how successful the relationship between the Church and the artist has been in the history of Western civilization. It’s never been a perfect marriage, of course — Dante takes true relish counting the popes he spots during his guided tour of hell, Chaucer skewers priests and religious with fanfare and flourish on the road to Canterbury, and on the other side of the ledger, inquisitors and popes have placed everyone from Homer to Victor Hugo in the Index of Forbidden Books. But as the notorious relationship between Pope Julius II and Michelangelo Buonnaroti demonstrates, even in their rockiest moments, the Church and the artist always seemed to find a way to cooperate in the production of great art.

At some point, though—perhaps as the modern and postmodern lines of thought began to blur creativity’s once-bright aesthetic lines—this fecund marriage between Christianity and art soured, became strained and in many cases broke apart.

The idea of the Church today serving as patron of the arts seems as outmoded as arranged marriages and the divine right of kings. At least, artists in general no longer look to the Church for both guidance and support for their creative endeavors. Given the mostly bankrupt pop-cultural shenanigans that pass for “art” these days, things have come to a sad pass indeed for the artist, the Church and the world in general. So what happened, can it be fi xed and if so—how?

The founder and editor of Image: A Journal of Religion and Art of Seattle, Wash., Gregory Wolfe attempts to answer these questions in Beauty Will Save the World—and in the process provides a sort of “soft” manifesto for Christian writers and artists.

Above the Fray

For Wolfe, political speeches and religious moralizing will not save civilization—at least, as important and integral to humanity as these things may be, they won’t accomplish it alone.

Wolfe takes the title for his book from a statement made by the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky—and uses the cryptic statement to sculpt the book’s argument.

“Whereas I once believed that the decadence of the West would only be turned around through politics and intellectual dialectics,” Wolfe writes, “I am now convinced that authentic renewal can only emerge out of the imaginative visions of the artist and the mystic . . . it involves the conviction that politics and rhetoric are not autonomous forces but shaped by the prepolitical roots of culture: myth, metaphor, and spiritual experience as recorded by the artist and the saint.”

Rather than “preaching and speeching” a culture to life, Wolfe looks to the artist’s talent to depict the beautiful—that is, the immediately perceivable truth and goodness in a poem, a piece of music, a painting or some other work of art, a perception which all men in all times have been capable of grasping.

“It is my conviction,” Wolfe writes, “that the Christian community, despite its many laudable efforts to preserve traditional morality and the social fabric, has abdicated its stewardship of culture and, more importantly, has frequently chosen ideology rather than imagination when approaching the challenges of the present.”

It is not the criticism of culture but the making of culture, Wolfe argues, that will save the world from barbarity. Above the fray of the so-called “culture wars,” the artist’s work, aided by the clear-eyed truths of the Gospel, will serve to sustain both the human and the divine in civilization. For the Christian artist, Wolfe writes, true art tries to neither score political points nor catechize at the expense of delight. Successful Christian artists, he notes, strike an equitable balance in their creative approach to contemporary culture.

“Above all, these artists and writers are neither baptizing contemporary culture nor withdrawing from it,” he writes. “In the tradition of Christian humanism, they are reaching out to contemporary culture and using their discernment to find ways to see it in the light of the Gospel. Just as Christ established contact with the humanity of the publicans, prostitutes, and sinners he encountered before he revealed the message of salvation to them, so Christian artists must depict the human condition in all its fullness before they can find ways to express the grace of God. In other words, Christian artists must be confident enough in their faith to be able to explore what it means to be human.”

Guided Reading

A compelling and coherent account of those writers and artists who possess this sort of balanced vision of heaven and earth, Beauty Will Save the World tackles some of the thornier problems which confront the Christian artist these days.

Serving as the book’s “guiding spirits,” English/American poet T.S. Eliot (1888-1964), an Anglican, and American novelist and short story writer Flannery O’Connor (1925-1960), a Catholic, serve for Wolfe as two prime examples of artists whose work, informed by their faith, has made them universally acknowledged as two of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

“The tradition of Christian humanism always held that the secular forms and innovations of a particular time can be assimilated into the larger vision of faith,” he writes. “That is why T.S. Eliot could adapt modernist poetics to his Christian convictions, or Flannery O’Connor could take the nihilistic style of the novelist Nathanial West and bring it into the service of a redemptive worldview. Only a living faith that is in touch with the world around it can exercise this vital mission of cultural transformation.”

Naming Names

While grounded in the concrete works of novelists, poets, and artists, Beauty Will Save the World also has ideas aplenty. As Christian humanists St. Thomas More and Desiderius Erasmus sought to do at the dawn of the European Renaissance, Wolfe writes, a growing cadre of contemporary (20th and 21st century) writers has been expounding a convincingly Christian artistic vision.

Among the best known, Wolfe points out, are English novelist Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966), Kentucky poet, essayist and novelist Wendell Berry (b. 1934), American political philosopher Russell Kirk (1918-1994), and English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990). Wolfe also highlights a triumvirate of modern painters—Fred Folsom, Mary McCleary, and Makoto Fujimura, who illustrate—literally—that Christian and artistic vision can coexist on the same canvas.

Beauty Will Save the World also analyzes the work of writers whom the world has either forgotten or not quite gotten around to meeting, including Japanese novelist and Catholic Shusaku Endo (1923-1996), whose novel “Silence” relates the Catholic missionary experience in Japan; English poet Geoffrey Hill (b. 1932), who like Eliot writes about religious themes in his work; and Southern novelist Andrew Lytle (1902-1995) and Midwestern novelist Larry Woiwode (b. 1941). Both novelists, according to Wolfe, show the importance of tradition and the sense of place in man’s understanding of the world and himself.

Sacramental Arts

For the true Christian writer—from Dante to Chaucer to Shakespeare—and even today’s poets and artists, the world is not to be flatly rejected but accepted as God’s creation, a creation both fallen and in need of redemption and one which becomes the “stuff” of their inspiration.

Necessary for the recovery of this balance, Wolfe writes, is the Christian humanism embodied by such learned Christian scholars as St. Thomas More and Erasmus but which he claims has been present since the Church’s beginning.

“Perhaps the best analogy for understanding Christian humanism comes from the doctrine of the Incarnation, which holds that Jesus [is] both human and divine. This paradoxical meeting of these two natures is the pattern by which we can begin to understand the many dualities we experience in life: flesh and spirit, nature and grace, God and Caesar, faith and reason, justice and mercy.”

In Beauty Will Save the World, Gregory Wolfe looks for a solution to the artlessness of the modern world. The dearth of Mozarts, Rembrandts, and Shakespeares in modern culture is not, for Wolfe, a signal of defeat, but a sign that Christians—both artists and potential audiences—are not looking hard and close enough at the whole Christ, both man and God, as a model and inspiration for great art.

In fact, as many of the successful Christian writers of the 20th century have proven—such as Eliot, Waugh, and O’Connor— Wolfe indicates that Catholics in particular, and those with a sacramental understanding of reality, have something to offer the world through their talents.

“To the Christian humanist, culture and art can become analogues for the Incarnation,” Wolfe writes. “In particular, art is like a sacrament: a union of form and content, the inherence of divine meaning in the crafted materials of this earth.”

Beauty Will Save the World serves as a sort of marriage counselor for faith and art—and for the sake of the world, both artists and audience alike could do worse, much worse, than take advantage of Gregory Wolfe’s advice.