Beauty, Rhetoric, Christian Humanism: An Interview With Gregory Wolfe
By Elrena Evans
Last month, the Agora Institute at Eastern University hosted Gregory Wolfe, founder and editor of Image, for a lecture on the Erasmus Option—exploring the importance of imagination and rhetoric in bearing witness to faith in relationship to culture. In addition to Image, Gregory was the founding director of the Seattle Pacific University MFA in Creative Writing, and edits a literary imprint, Slant Books.
Following his talk, I was able to speak with Gregory about beauty, rhetoric, and Christian humanism, and the roles they play in social justice. Here are some of the highlights of our conversation.
The relationship between beauty and social justice has been a fairly fraught one over the centuries, because one of the most common accusations is that beauty is a distraction from justice. On the other hand, there is reason to believe that the beautiful can increase our awareness of the fragility and value of the world.
…there is reason to believe that the beautiful can increase our awareness of the fragility and value of the world.
I would strongly recommend a book by Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, called On Beauty and Being Just. What she says is that beauty does a couple of different things: it gives us pleasure, yes, but at the same time it draws us closer to the object of our gaze and enables us to see it from the perspective of what we are looking at. She stresses that beauty gives us the opportunity to recognize the preciousness and value of what is fragile and passing—that can include the human person, the environment, the nature of our relationships toward one another—and induce in us a desire to defend and protect.
If you allow yourself to look at beauty as prettiness, or attractiveness, beauty is reduced to only that which immediately attracts, according to certain cultural stereotypes. In that instance, beauty is almost always going to feel like a triviality, if not a blasphemy of what is important. But if you uphold the possibility that beauty means more than superficial appearance, if beauty can be larger than that, you can understand that beauty is not just about attractiveness but about the power of form to reveal meaning.
The most fundamental means of visual communication on the part of a relief agency, for example, is the face of someone that has been helped, or someone who needs to be helped. Because the face is beautiful, the face is the seat of the soul. That beauty doesn’t necessarily mean a Hollywood definition of beauty, it’s the beauty of humankind that transcends any surface definition. And it doesn’t require sophistication for people to recognize—you don’t need to be an esthete who’s spent years at the Museum of Modern Art to look at the face of a Nicaraguan street child and see the beauty there and say, “This is someone who I am connected to, and must care for, in some sense. I cannot remain indifferent to this creature.”
The classical concept of rhetoric was that the speaker had not only to try and move the hearer, but also try to work towards a kind of unity. Rhetoric, at its heart, is about trying to bring people together in peace—knowing that conflict is an inevitable aspect of our experience, but not resting easy with that.
In that sense, rhetoric is a way of addressing difference. In a very polarized time, I think it’s habitual to caricature the “other,” and live in a state of perpetual outrage. It seems to me that living in a state of moral outrage has become almost an epidemic in our culture—that may sound callous on my part, but I think that there’s a moral reason to be concerned about moral outrage. There is danger, when we live in this state of hyperjudgmental smugness that prevents us from finding what is common between us and our enemy.
…the challenge of rhetoric is to be able to create an imaginative space large enough for us all to enter.
So the challenge of rhetoric is to be able to create an imaginative space large enough for us all to enter. It doesn’t guarantee an outcome, but it means that we can become closer to one another. That’s difficult, and it’s rare, but there are moments and places and times when these things can happen. And we need to cherish them, and look for and replicate them, if we’re going to really live up to our obligation to meet and to care for the “other.”
On Christian Humanism
The Christian humanist impulse is a view of human flourishing that’s about enabling people to find their fulfillment, to reach the potential that has been given to them. Living up to our potential, or living out our humanity, is difficult—there are forces in the world that are challenging, and sometimes the stress and strain of our anxieties and our fears lead us to retreat from reality into ideology, into a sort of alienation from the world.
The Christian humanist impulse is to try to bring us back into ourselves, to call us to be able to engage reality fully, and not keep it at arms’ length. And I think that can be scary, but it’s also hard work. Christian humanism is a kind of soul work that demands a lot of us, and we’re frail and tired and busy and stressed and distracted, and so in some sense, Christian humanism is about cultivating the heart. At times it can be accused of elitism, or esthetic snobbery, but its desire to use art and literature and rhetoric to train the heart is ultimately not about snobbery or elitism but about seeking the common good.
Christian humanism is a kind of soul work that demands a lot of us.
The tradition of Christian humanism has always had a strong civic mentality, a sense that our flourishing involves our participation in a just community. So it’s about sculpting one’s soul or deepening the heart, which takes work. But it is worth doing—because it builds that community, and it enables us to face our fears and look at what we might not otherwise be willing to look at, and look at it with compassion.
The Japanese director Akira Kurosawa said “The artist is the one that does not look away,” and I think that sentiment gets at a lot of the Christian humanist impulse: to learn how to look at what we might not otherwise. That has a lot of relevance to an enterprise that cares about the poor, in all the different ways that we can define that complex concept of “the poor.” Christian humanism is about helping people to know what’s even in their midst, and building community and making connections.
Elrena Evans is Editor and Content Strategist for Evangelicals for Social Action. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Penn State, and has also worked for Christianity Today and American Bible Society. She is the author of a short story collection, This Crowded Night, and co-author of the essay collection Mama, PhD: Women Write About Motherhood and Academic Life. She enjoys spending time with her family, dancing, and making spreadsheets.