The Charm of Beauty in an Ugly Age
By Brian Zahnd
"It is the prerogative and charm of beauty to win hearts."
–Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote
It's an ugly time right now. Especially in the public discourse in the land in which I live. Politicized and polarized, public discourse has devolved into the polemical napalm of give-no-inch, take-no-prisoners, burn-it-all-down flaming rhetoric. Ugly "us versus them" ideology goosesteps across the American stage. Hysterical screams of fear-infused hatred are heard in this nation of immigrants.
Deport 'em all!
Build a wall!
Don't tread on me!
Are we entering a dark age where the only thing we can build is a wall and where nothing is sacred but a gun? I wonder. I was in New York recently and saw the Statue of Liberty. I think she had a tear in her eye…or maybe it was just in my eye. The tired and poor, the wretched refuse, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free…are basically given the finger these days. For the sake of honesty maybe it's time to commission a new statue.
Yet it's not for America that my heart is most heavy these days, but for the church. Are we just a religious version of our ugly age or can we actually be the alternative counterculture of Christ? Can we develop enough spiritual maturity to be a Christlike community of radical love and mercy? We must! If not, we will become as superfluous as a Blockbuster video rental store…and suffer the same fate.
If the church in America is to recover any relevance, it won't be through a public emphasis on the true (though there is a place for Christian apologetics), and it won't be through a public emphasis on the good (though there is a place for Christian ethics), but through a public emphasis on the long-neglected third prime virtue—the beautiful. What we desperately need is a renaissance of Christian aesthetics. In a post-Christian culture adverse to claims of truth, and suspicious of assertions to a superior morality, it is still the prerogative and charm of beauty to win hearts. If we can be so formed in Christ that we begin to live beautiful lives, we will gain a new hearing; if not, we deserve to be ignored.
If we can be so formed in Christ that we begin to live beautiful lives, we will gain a new hearing; if not, we deserve to be ignored.
A generation ago most of the evangelical church and much of the Catholic church in America made what was possibly a well-meaning, but was certainly a stunningly tragic mistake by selling its soul to partisan politics over a single political issue. Now after having drunk from the poisonous wells of partisanship for nearly four decades, much of the so-called conservative church is infected with the repulsive spirit of racism, the vulgar contempt of nativism, and the hideous specter of militarism. These things have happened before in church history (especially in the context of empire), but it is particularly traumatic to watch it happen before your own eyes.
Yet in the midst of this ugliness there is hope—the hope that Fyodor Dostoevsky's enigmatic maxim will turn out to be, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn suggested, a prophecy: Beauty will save the world.
Why is the life of Jesus universally considered beautiful? Because of his mercy, his welcoming demeanor, his tenderness toward the weak, his generous forgiveness of sinners. Everyone (except the self-righteous Pharisees) recognized the winsome beauty of Jesus. Today, nearly everyone likes Jesus. Everyone! Even atheists like Jesus. I can't think of a single serious person who is a critic of Jesus. Friedrich Nietzsche, God bless him, tried to be a critic of Jesus, but he couldn't keep it up and seems to have actually been a grudging admirer.
Our hope is that the church can be inspired to try to imitate the winsome beauty of Jesus. When the church carries the grace, the mercy, the unconditional love, the radical forgiveness that characterizes Christ, that's when she bears the beauty that belongs to the bride of Christ.
When the church carries the grace, the mercy, the unconditional love, the radical forgiveness that characterizes Christ, that's when she bears the beauty that belongs to the bride of Christ.
In depicting a society of people intent on following the peaceful way of the Lamb, John the Revelator bounces back and forth between the twin metaphors of a bejeweled city and a beautiful bride. Then John combines them so that the Bride, in concert with Spirit, calls to those languishing beside the burning lake to come into the beautiful and verdant city. (See Revelation 21 & 22)
Whenever I think of these images from the finale of Revelation I am reminded of the recurring line in one of Bob Dylan's best songs, conjuring a compassionate woman speaking to a weary and beleaguered traveler: "Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm."
'Twas in another lifetime, one of toil and blood
When blackness was a virtue and the road was full of mud
I came in from the wilderness, a creature void of form
"Come in," she said, "I'll give you shelter from the storm."
(You can read all ten verses here. Each verse makes me think of the bride of Christ as she ought to be.)
"Shelter From The Storm" helps me imagine the church, not as a raging warrior, but as a gracious hostess, a hospitable innkeeper. There are times when some metaphors serve us as better than others. I would suggest now is a time for us to lighten up on militaristic metaphors and lean into hospitality metaphors. Instead of culture war hostility, we need radical hospitality. It's time for us live up to the ubiquitous church marquee that says, "Everyone welcome."
Let's try to evaluate the church in the context of beauty and ask some fearless questions.
Instead of contributing to the hateful rhetoric of our ugly age, could the church be a shelter from the storm?
Instead of a furrowed brow of disapproval, a clenched fist of anger, a wagging finger of condemnation, could the church present to the world a compassionate countenance of grace?
Instead of being sucked into the destructive dualism of reactive people, could the church become a contemplative people seeking to hold all things together in the reconciling love of Christ?
Instead of ratcheting up culture war polemics, could the church speak the first words of the risen Christ, "Peace be with you"?
If so, we can enact the beauty of Christ in a way that will be conspicuous in an ugly age.
If not…well, I don't want to think about what happens to the church if it persists in clinging to ugliness. So let's ask the Holy Spirit to help us make Christianity beautiful again.