Can Beauty Save the World?

A review of Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age.

• Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age. By Gregory Wolfe (Wilmington: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2011). 278 pages.

One Friday afternoon before Christmas break last year, a seminarian came by my office to drop off a copy of Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age. “You should check this out, Doc,” he said, “you and this guy think a lot alike.” It was a good day—I don’t often receive excellent books and high compliments on the same day, let alone in a single gesture.

Inspired by the lovely jacket art (a painting titled Psalm by Laura Lasworth) I set to reading immediately. I discovered, to my interest and delight, that Mr. Wolfe and I do “think a lot alike,” and seem to be of one mind concerning the debilitating effects of bad politics upon good religious culture.

I concede readily that Wolfe’s approach to the matter is a great deal more elegant and accessible than my own. Where I have long argued that the tendency of modern people to politicize every aspect of their lives, religion included, is the inevitable product of a flawed historical narrative, Wolfe argues, with convincing clarity, that “the problem” is essentially an aesthetic one, and can be remedied through a renewed appreciation, and a re-appropriation of the aesthetic sphere. As the title—borrowed from Dostoevsky by way of Solzhenitsyn—asserts, it is beauty, not ideology, that will save the world.

Like many books in the “this is just what we’ve been waiting for” category, Beauty Will Save the World is not a long-winded or multi-layered dissertation, but rather a well-articulated theme superbly reinforced and elaborated. The book is a collection of essays on aesthetics and Catholic religion, divided into five eminently readable parts.  

In Part One, “From Ideology to Humanism,” Wolfe describes the redemptive value of Christian humanism for a western civilization that has become alienated from its own aesthetic ideals by an infatuation with ideology.  Part Two expands upon Wolfe’s core ideas with thoughtful examinations of the challenges that have faced Catholic writers, poets, and artists throughout the twentieth century. Parts Three, Four and Five deal more specifically with the artists themselves, with insightful sketches of many of Wolfe’s teachers and cultural heroes. Among these exemplars of authentic humanism are figures as diverse as philosopher Russell Kirk, novelist Shusaku Endo, and artist Fred Folsom. Woven through these biographies of modern artists, writers, and literati is Wolfe’s own informal autobiography, the narrative of an eclectic late-twentieth century man who abandoned a youthful infatuation with politics in order to rediscover and re-map the long-neglected terrain that lies at the crossroads of art, literature, and religion.

Wolfe, a resident writer and teacher at Seattle Pacific University, is the perfect man to lead weary culture warriors into this rich and holy oasis. As the founding editor of the celebrated literary and art journal Image, as well as the director of the Seattle chapter of the Communion and Liberation movement, Wolfe has spent his career working to re-integrate the aesthetic and religious realms. His project, or “vocation,” as he describes it, is “to explore the relationship between religion, art, and culture in order to discover how the imagination may ‘redeem the time (2).’”

Throughout this twenty-five year exploration Wolfe has struggled with the most nagging characteristic of the time, i.e., the tendency of modern consciousness to reduce all forms of cultural expression to the status of propaganda, leaving those who would strive for the spiritual redemption of our culture with few strategies other than political action. Wolfe, like many religiously committed and philosophically grounded young people during the “Reagan Revolution,” aligned himself with conservatives, as they offered the best hope for preserving the cultural and religious traditions that the progressive left seemed bent on replacing with a secular materialist worldview. Unfortunately, the conservative resurgence that began in the 1950s was so focused on economics, politics, and diplomacy that its chief architects largely ignored culture, other than to malign the eccentricities of “modern” art and literature. Owing to what Wolfe describes as an “aversion” to the imagination (3), conservatives have both yielded the cultural turf to the left, and set themselves in permanent opposition to it. Wolfe’s experiences as a young politico led him to the conclusion that “conservatives were so deeply alienated from modern culture that they had retreated from any serious engagement with it (2).”

Christians too (although it is probably safe to assume that Wolfe is referring primarily to conservative Christians) have been guilty of this dis-engagement from culture. As he observes:

It is my conviction 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 (17).

There is no shortage of evidence, particularly in recent years, to show that the religious right has been indifferent if not inept on questions of culture, and Wolfe knows that the solution to the cultural—and moral—gap between left and right will not be solved merely by an expansion of conservative power. He suggests, rather, that if we recognize that “art is one of the few things that can still bind us together (15),” and that artistic creativity is “a constant invitation to virtue (96),” we may recapture the artistic aspirations of our pre-modern Christian heritage—through the modalities of modern aesthetics. This, Wolfe argues, is the single best hope for redeeming the mind, soul, and spirit of a divided world.

The bulk of Beauty Will Save the World is a lavish consumer’s guide to the great poets, writers, and artists of the twentieth century Catholic Revival and beyond.  In determining how to reinvigorate culture, the profiles of Evelyn Waugh, Wendell Berry, Mary McCleary, Gerhart Niemeyer, and Malcolm Muggeridge—to give only a sampling—along with hundreds of other references to western aesthetes, will give the thoughtful reader a great deal to chew on.

If I have any criticism to make about Beauty Will Save the World, it might be that Wolfe should consider the question of modern civilization a bit more historically in order to enrich his already superb aesthetic take on the issue. He recognizes the critical distinction between “modernity” and “modernism,” yet doesn’t explain it in a satisfying way. For example, the definition—or rather characterization—of modernity he uses is this synthesis from Kirk and Niemeyer: “The essence of modernity . . . is the denial that man can know and conform to the transcendent order, so that he must therefore construct his own order, as an extension of his mind (2).” While this is a good subject-based definition of modernity, we also have to recognize that modernity is also an objective historical consciousness—a discrete historical civilization peculiar to a time and place (Europe and North America over the last five hundred years) with distinct narrative properties (an ever-expanding process of reason and freedom leading to endless material progress.)

The reason this matters is that understanding the narrative quality of modernity helps us understand the role that religion will have to play in the re-construction of civilization once the modern civilization ends. It also helps us clear up the murkiness that Wolfe himself alludes to in determining how modern artists such as Eliot and Lawrence were so decidedly un-modern in their critiques of technology and subject-object dualism. I propose that the answer lies in the difference between modernity as a historical consciousness and modernism as an aesthetic movement.  If we allow that the latter emerges as a moment of crisis within the former, we might see that the products of “modernism” in the aesthetic sense are actually “postmodern” in the historical sense. The “modern” works of Eliot, Joyce, Picasso, Kandinsky, etc., in their clear departure from the bourgeois rationalism of modern civilization are really heralds of a new order of historical consciousness. As an aesthetic movement, “modernism” has long invoked that dimension of the term “modern” that implies the relentless overcoming of the present by endless novelty.

Now that modern civilization has become little more than a tedious exchange of ideological salvos across a political wasteland, we should be keen to embrace the idea that religious and aesthetic rejuvenation will be a decidedly postmodern enterprise. It may be that Beauty cannot save the present world, but it will be an essential element in constructing a new one.

On that note, I will close with unvarnished praise of Wolfe and this vibrant book. Beauty Will Save the World is a must-read, not only for Catholics and conservatives, but for their liberal and non-religious rivals alike. The opponents of Christianity who think our cultural life is a combination of tractor pulls, Bible studies, and burning crosses on the front lawn may find the means to conversion in Wolfe’s erudition and insight. Those who already know the loveliness of Christian culture will find this book both edifying and therapeutic.  Beauty Will Save the World is a book that reminds us of what we love most about life, and promises the restoration of wholeness in a distressingly fragmented world.

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About Dr. Eric Cunningham 0 Articles
Dr. Eric Cunningham is Associate Professor in the Department of History at Gonzaga University. He specializes in modern Japanese history and also teaches courses in world and East Asian history.