Beauty Will Save the World
Earlier this year, I saw a blurb in Christianity Today about a new book titled Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity. Once I saw the title and description, I knew I had to get it.
If you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you’ve probably seen me harping on the need for Christians to consider the inherent beauty of truthand how that beauty shapes the way we present Christian teaching. Brian Zahnd, author of Beauty Will Save the World, is saying something similar:
To a generation suspicious of truth claims and unconvinced by moral assertions, beauty has a surprising allure.
I appreciate the evangelistic impulse behind this idea, and I found that this book offered some good suggestions that point us in the right direction. For example, Zahnd is right to insist that beauty has been manifested most powerfully in the cross of Christ:
Every cross adorning a church is in itself a sermon—a sermon proclaiming that if Christ can transform the Roman instrument of execution into a thing of beauty, there is hope that in Christ all things can be made beautiful!
He is onto something when advocating Christian aesthetics:
With an emphasis on truth, we have tried to make Christianity persuasive (as we should). But we also need a corresponding emphasis on beauty to make Christianity attractive. Christianity should not only persuade with truth, but it should also attract with beauty. Along with Christian apologetics, we need Christian aesthetics. Christianity needs not only to be defended as true—it also needs to be presented as beautiful. Often where truth cannot convince, beauty can entice.
Zahnd sees beauty as inherently “cruciform.” Reorienting ourselves around the self-giving love at the center of our faith exposes the dangers that lurk behind Christian partnerships with the powerful and the implementation of worldly strategies to effect change:
The church always faces the temptation to turn its gaze from the beauty of the cruciform and look instead to “the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.”
He also recognizes the distinction between moral conformity and gospel proclamation. He writes:
Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ. We do this best, not by protest or political action, but by enacting a beautiful presence within the world.
Though I resonated with much of Zahnd’s vision, I have more than a few issues with his proposal. For time’s sake, let me point out my biggest hang-up.
I didn’t sense that Zahnd offered a clear and compelling way forward when the world despises our “alternative society” as ugly and intolerant. He seems to place most of the blame for the decline of Christianity on evangelicals who have compromised the beauty of the cruciform through excessive political involvement. He’s right… to a point. But what happens when beauty doesn’t capture?
Yes, Christian truth is inherently beautiful, and the beauty of truth can be an arresting force that sweeps people into the arms of Christ. But what happens when some people encounter Christianity as the stench of death instead of the fragrance of life?
Beautiful truth does not mean popular truth. Zahnd does a good job laying out the stunning beauty of Christ’s death and resurrection. He is right on the idea of the church being an alternative society that displays this beauty before the world.
But Zahnd is not clear on how we move forward when the world condemns as “ugly” what we know is inherently “beautiful” and celebrates as “beautiful” what Scripture would say is ugly.
Beauty is objective, yes, since beauty is an attribute of God. This means that true beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. But it would help to know how to present the beauty of Christianity in a world where many subjective “beholders” remain implacably opposed to Christianity no matter how beautiful and cruciform our display is. We need to keep thinking on this…