Beauty and the Best of It
John Stackhouse and Gregory Wolfe contribute, in surprisingly similar ways, to a renaissance of excellent books on how Christian faith relates to broader cultural questions.
I was born on November 18, 1982. This date is not important for most readers, and, in the grand scope of history, it is just another day. (Those first two sentences are also not the best start to a book review.)
I note the date, however, because it is exactly one hundred years after the birth of Jacques Maritain.
I note that bit of trivia because it seems to me that I am lucky to have been born when I was born and to be living in the day in which I am currently living. I say this without any sense of historical superiority or smugness, and note it only because I am thankful to be a young Christian, living at a time when many excellent books that reflect on how Christian faith relates to broader cultural questions are being published—like Gregory Wolfe's Beauty Will Save the World and John G. Stackhouse's Making the Best of It: Following Christ in the Real World.
Along with others in the genre (James Davison Hunter's To Change the World, Andy Crouch's Culture Making), these books offer Christians the fruit of hard, thoughtful, faithful reflection on what it means to be a faithful Christian in North American culture. And I've not even mentioned journals like Books & Culture, Image, and First Things (and Comment, we hope). I am—and you are—lucky; we seem to be in the midst of a renaissance of Christian humanism.
This renaissance offers new life after the drought of the 1970s and 80s, when positivism and postmodernism often pushed thoughtful Christian voices to the side or silenced them, when Christians were embarrassed, or simply left the room for the ghetto.
We can only hope that what we now experience is the blossoming of the Christian humanism of people like Jacques Maritain, Flannery O'Connor, and Richard Niebuhr, who not long ago were at the thoughtful forefront of art, literature, politics, and broader cultural engagement—not only for Christians, but for all of North America. And both Maritain and Neibuhr are major influences on Wolfe's and Stackhouse's books, which offer unique and surprisingly similar responses to the question of Christ and culture—responses worthy of engagement.
Making the Best of It
Making the Best of It is a meditation on and expansion of the work started by Richard Neibuhr's foundational Christ and Culture, first published in 1951. Stackhouse's book has largely flown under the radar since it was published three years ago, and this is a shame: it is a fine piece of synthesis and suggestion.
Part of the reason for its value is that it serves to restore Niebuhr's book and draws from it to articulate salient points about the most faithful Christian social engagement in this day and age. Many today see Christ and Culture as a bit of an antique: quaint and fashionable for its time, but a little too dingy to be given place of pride on the bookshelf or cited in a conversation.
Stackhouse, with the care of a restorationist, encourages the reader to scrape away the interpretive varnishes which have been placed over the original work and see it for what it is: an attempt to encourage Christians to discern the proper response to the question asked by Bonhoeffer—"Who is Jesus Christ, for us, today?"
Stackhouse begins his answer to that question with a review of Neibuhr's now well-known categories of Christian engagement: Christ against, of, above, in paradox with, and transforming culture. Most valuable in his evaluation of these categories is his commentary on how one should appropriately use them. Rather than understanding these categories as rigid silos into which we fit our approach to culture, it is more helpful to understand them in terms of a spectrum. We might find ourselves and others at different points on that spectrum at different times and in different situations:
. . . not only can it be appropriate for Christians to take different stances on different aspects of the same culture, but it typically is appropriate.
One might add that approaches to an aspect of culture might differ depending on the cultural milieu at the time—but more on that later. In making this argument, Stackhouse echoes the realism exemplified in Ecclesiastes where the teacher tells us that there is "a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens."
Following his resetting of Neibuhr's categories, Stackhouse provides a sketch of three Christians (C.S. Lewis, Reinhold Neibuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and how they approached, in their unique way, the question of how to act as Christians in their day. The biographical sketches might seem out of place but, as in Wolfe's book, they serve a unique purpose:
My hope is that this exercise in tracing out the convictions of my eminent predecessors at even this relatively brief length will help us understand better the true character of their affirmations and help us avoid triggering our reflexes to overlook, repress, or misrepresent—even to ourselves, even without consciously intending to do so—any complex, odd, or even initially repellent thing they might say that we need to hear.
In short, Stackhouse is exemplifying in his book his concern not only for ideas, but for what it is to "be Christian in the world, what is the proper profession and practice of the Christian faith." We learn best through lives lived—through incarnation—and not through categories which are forced upon reality. Where ideology lives, incarnation is needed.
Stackhouse's emphasis on incarnation leads him—in good Protestant fashion—to Scripture. Here, Stackhouse builds alongside the work done by scholars such as N.T. Wright, Michael Goheen, and Craig Bartholomew by affirming that "the Bible is fundamentally a story."
Stackhouse tells the story in such a way as to draw out the implications of Scripture for living. He has harsh criticism for those who wish to privilege one part of Scripture over another or who wish to read certain passages as a "how-to" manual for life (for instance, interpreting Jesus' movement from a carpenter to prophet as a call to give up one's work for the sake of missions). We are not, he suggests, intended to give up our daily work in order to go save souls; to consider the scriptural story in this way is to fundamentally misunderstand what Vincent Bacote has called "the first great commission"—the cultural mandate—as well as the "great commission" given by Jesus in Matthew 28. Rather,
The redemption commandments were given, therefore, not to supersede the creation commandments, but to serve them . . . To obey fully the creation commandments is to live in the Kingdom of God. Thus Jesus' proclamation of the arrival of the Kingdom is the proclamation that God is setting things right, with himself properly in the center and everyone and everything else accordingly being put in its proper place. To live in the light of the Kingdom is to live in shalom, and to seek the Kingdom is to see a world in which the creation commandments are once again honored by everyone, every moment, in everything.
Yes, Scripture is a story, but one that is still in progress. Stackhouse makes the link from Scripture to our vocation as Christians: "God intends the rest of the church to keep writing it, generation by generation, until the Lord of the church returns, to fulfill the promise made at the book's beginning." The story needs to be written not as some ideological tract, as it were, but as a realist novel.
Here we come to the basic thrust of Stackhouse's preference for Christian realism. If we are indeed living in a good world which has been created good by God—a world where we are divinely commanded to live and work—and if that world has been tainted deeply by sin, we must write with the knowledge that evil is present and that we are implicated in that evil. We are not God, yet we are saved, and we must act. Living "in the light of the Kingdom" means "refusing to live as if we were in Eden or the New Jerusalem, and instead intentionally structuring our lives, individually and corporately, with the expectation of evil." We are to make the best of a situation which is ultimately beyond our ability to direct in its entirety, trusting in God to refine the dross with his fire.
Making the best of it means listening to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. Even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained; and even in the best of all hearts, there remains a small corner of evil.
Beauty Will Save the World
Solzhenitsyn, and the "refusal to live as if we were in Eden or the New Jerusalem," both feature prominently in Gregory Wolfe's recent Beauty Will Save the World. This is an excellent book, not only for the demonstration of what it means for Christians to "make the best of it" in art, but also for its broader commentary on the way Christians in North America act, as individuals and communities, and the way they should act in light of the gospel.
It's helpful to read Wolfe against Stackhouse for two reasons: first, Wolfe's book actually provides an example of how one community of Christians—Christian artists—are working out what it means to live and work faithfully; and second, because it fills in several gaps left by Stackhouse.
The book is a lengthy meditation on, and defense of, beauty as a necessary—and perhaps preeminent—transcendent for today's culture.
The title comes from Dostoevsky, and the book opens with an epigraph from Solzhenitsyn reflecting on those words. Like most epigraphs, it provides the key to understanding the book:
A work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power—and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them . . . If the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three. And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoevsky to say that "Beauty Will Save the World," but a prophecy.
Wolfe argues convincingly that Christians must rediscover this understanding of beauty in order to live faithfully in North American culture.
The book is a compilation of Wolfe's essays. They are at once autobiography, cultural criticism, and a call to quietly but confidently man the easels in a world that would rather pick up a megaphone and head to the streets. Like Stackhouse's book, Wolfe's offers a program fleshed out by examples of real people from whom we can learn.
The whole book might best be understood as the story of Wolfe's "struggle to find an integrated vision in a polarized time" and a reflection on his "vocation . . . to explore the relationship between religion, art, and culture to discover how imagination may 'redeem the time.'"
But it would be wrong to think of this as a collection of personal reflections that pertain only to the author. To the contrary, the book is at its best in its critique of the culture wars which have plagued the United States and the impact that these wars have had on the health of our culture writ large.
The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase "culture wars" is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse. We are now at the point in the culture wars where we are sending women and children into battle and neglecting to sow the crops in the spring. Clearly we cannot sustain such a total war. In the end, there will be nothing left to fight over.
The branches of truth and goodness, in other words, are amputated and crushed and can bear no fruit. Thus, like Solzhenitsyn, we must look to art for food to get us through:
At a time when two of our most precious forms of communication—political discourse and reason itself—have been compromised by the divisiveness of ideology, art is one of the few things that can still bind us together. It should be no surprise that beauty—long vilified as hopelessly bourgeois or subjective by modernists and post-modernists alike—is making a comeback. From scholarly books like Elaine Scarry's On Beauty and Being Just to such films as American Beauty, it is clear that our culture is longing for the liberating and restorative power of creative intuition (to use a phrase of Maritain).
Beauty is a salve for a wounded culture and nourishment for a culture hungry for the goodness and right which it has used to make war.
What ingredients go into making beauty? How does one make beauty which will save the world?
Wolfe suggests that we cannot dine on the dust of the past. Many conservatives, and Christians among them, have sought to feed themselves on the culture of yesteryear. Turning our backs on the world as it is—with all of its evil, pain, and hurt—and attempting to live off the fruit of culture from the past because it is safe is akin to eating the dirt which should rightfully be feeding new shoots of culture.
What is needed is moral imagination:
The imagination calls us to leave our personalities behind and temporarily to inhabit another's experience, looking at the world with new eyes. Art invites us to meet the Other—whether that be our neighbor or the infinite otherness of God—and to achieve a new wholeness of spirit.
Art must come to grips with the tragedy of life in a fallen world. It must not turn its head from what is ugly and evil, nor must it neglect to appreciate the work of non-Christians. "All truth is God's truth," says Augustine, and the same goes for beauty.
It is not enough, says, Wolfe, that Christians are creating a host of subcultures. Christian artists "must be confident enough in their faith to be able to explore what it means to be human. At the heart of Christian humanism is the effort to achieve a new synthesis between the condition of the world around us and the unique ways in which grace can speak to that condition."
Like Stackhouse, Wolfe recommends that Christians confidently go knee-deep into the messiness of God's world and make beauty of it.
One striking difference between Stackhouse and Wolfe is in the notion of how those worried about maintaining faithful witness to Christ maintain that confidence. Wolfe, a Catholic, emphasizes the ease with which Catholic artists (a whole chapter is devoted to Catholic writers in the modern world) can go about their craft, knowing that mother church is there to draw them into her bosom when things become too much for them. Indeed, his very definition of art—that it take seriously the tragedy of life, that it be incarnational—is drawn from the church. This is not a clearly articulated point, but the question of whether or not it is easier for Catholics—for whom theological orthodoxy is given from on high and communally—to exercise the freedom necessary to grapple with the messiness of human life, than for the Protestant who must work with art individually while also being concerned with doctrinal rightness is something worthy of further exploration. Perhaps it is not just a latent sense of Puritan pragmatism or iconoclasm which plagues Protestant artists—perhaps ecclesiology also matters?
Another question—which also has bearing on how the church is run—became live for me after reading these two books. I'm thinking of the current state of the Anglican church, but it might have application elsewhere, particularly in how institutions remain unified and able to achieve their purposes.
Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the global head of the Anglican communion, is a formidable theologian and a bishop who holds art and imagination very close (many might not know that Williams is an excellent literature critic who's spent a great deal of time focusing on the works of the man who first said "Beauty Will Save the World": Dostoevsky). In many cases, Williams exemplifies the type of artistic posture that Wolfe recommends. His action in the face of deep fissures within the global Anglican communion have been marked (to use a quote from Wolfe describing the artist's posture) by "a refusal to join in partisan battles." He has certainly earned the reputation—from both sides of the chasm—of "being aloof and pusillanimous" (again, Wolfe's description of the appropriate artist's posture). What do we make of this? Can beauty save the world? Can it even save Anglicanism? What of those who simply don't have "ears to hear"?
This leaves me wondering if it might not be best to think of Stackhouse's description of Neibuhr's categories of cultural engagement as a spectrum to be traveled across in different circumstances to the transcendentals of truth, goodness, and beauty. Might there not be a time when beauty will save the world and a time when goodness will save the world?
I highly recommend both books: they stimulate many questions and shed much light. Vive la renaissance!