[If Paul] is right [in 1 Corinthians 13], then all things or systems that work against the principle of love will fail eventually. Sacrificial love, in other words, is the only sustainable operating force in the universe. We can complain that we simply cannot accept the assumptions proposed here; but Christians should not be able to operate, if we do indeed believe these principles, in some halfway land, on one hand claiming to believe the ordinances, but also functionally accepting the worldly systems at work as the only reality.
The medium of beauty in a business world is the workers that make the businesses run. It’s not the stock options or profit. They comprise far more capacity, and far deeper longing and invigorated promise for future generations than the system gives them credit for. So the question is not whether they are paid enough, or given enough work: the question is, does the workplace enlarge humanity, or endanger humanity.
Thus, we need to see the market not just as a tool to make money, but a complex labyrinth with a generative creative order. In such an ecosystem, we need to consider investments as a form of stewardship. Conversely, we may redefine investments as a way to create and sustain beauty, rather than gain power for ourselves. And true beauty, at her truest aim, is a humble stream that flows through the heart of a city, re-humanizing its inhabitants, and allowing them to breathe in what would otherwise be unbearable air.
The crisis in art today, where nobody much seems to know how to move beyond the sterile opposition of kitsch sentimentalism on the one hand and in-your-face brutalism on the other, is not to be solved, as Roger Scruton in his recent work seems to want to solve it, by a return to an early Romantic sensibility, however preferable that might be to some of what’s on offer today. The only way forward is to put back together what ought never to have been separated, so that, just as with God and public life, God and politics, God and art need to come once more into the same room and do business with one another. As with God and politics, this will be a huge struggle because there are so many ways of getting it wrong. But the church desperately needs artists of every sort, from sculptors to storytellers, from painters to potters, from singers to seamstresses, and so on; artists whose work will draw attention not to itself, the nemesis of an atheistic aesthetic, but rather to the glory of God. After all, if new creation has begun, if beauty has awoken afresh in the new Temple, the living home of the living God, as he awakens from the tomb, and if beauty is now let loose in all the world, it will rightly generate new forms, new possibilities, new delights. It will come closer and closer to its two senior cousins, Love and Truth, showing with them how to avoid the other false polarization, a brittle objectivity and a collapsing subjectivity, because it will be kept in place by the work of image-bearing, Spirit-filled human beings as they reflect the glory of God into the world and the glory of the world back to God.
What more, you may ask, do we want? … We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
—C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory," quoted here.
In the heart of the big myths is the dark passage, the Night Sea Journey; it contains the most ominous and mysterious places through which the hero must pass before the quest, whatever it is, can be fulfilled. One thinks of Dante going down, layer after fantastical layer, or of Odysseus, his ship sunk, swimming alone to Phaeacia, or even of the Ugly Duckling struggling through his long and awful winter. In one of our oldest stories, the legend of Gilgamesh, the great king—Gilgamesh—loses his friend in death. This throws him into angst about his own mortality, so he goes to seek a workaround in the faraway land of the divine. As part of his dark journey, Gilgamesh must run through a tunnel under the earth, the very tunnel the sun uses on its return from west to east. He must clear the tunnel before the sun heaves through—and (I spill the beans) he does so without incident. Yet among the many Night Sea images, I find this small passage particularly haunting: the image of one man running for hours in cindered darkness, watching for the first light of another world while at the same time listening for the ominous rumbling of a star. In the old writings of the sublime and the beautiful, there’s the observation that the difference between beauty and terror is largely a matter of distance. A single star on the horizon awakens a poignant joy, but much closer to its fires, the earlier joy grades quickly into a feeling more edgy and raw.
Fra Angelico, a deeply religious painter, was a great artist, but then so was Titian, a conspicuously worldly one. Bach was a pious soul and was possibly the greatest composer who ever lived, but what about Beethoven? If he was religious it was in a vastly different sense. Jane Austen was conventionally religious in her personal life, but her novels achieve greatness through their secular wit and wisdom. Art and religion are both eulogistic words: Calling something a work of art endows it with a nimbus of value; the same is true of religious. But is that the same sort of value?
The twentieth-century Welsh Catholic poet David Jones had it right when he suggested that “no integrated, widespread, religious art, properly so-called, can be looked for outside enormous changes in the character and orientation and nature of our civilization”—changes, I think, that would be deeply at odds with our commitment to liberal democracy. Jones agrees that it would be nice if “the best of man’s creative powers” were “at the direct service of the sanctuary.” But that can happen only “if the epoch itself is characterized by those qualities.” It is not, he goes on to note, a matter of will: What is possible to the artist in the way of creating religious art “has little or nothing to do with the will or wishes of this or that artist.” Be a painter ever so pious, he cannot “change himself into an artist of some other culture-sequence.” Some things were possible in the Middle Ages that are not possible today.
The real threat to the arts, Jones thought, was the modern world’s increasing submission to technocracy, to a thoroughly instrumental view of life that had no room for what Jones called the intransitive—for the freedom and disinterestedness traditionally thought the province of religious experience, on the one hand, and aesthetic experience, on the other.
Sports bring us the human body as a manifestation of nature—not just the elegant forms of athletes, but their animal ability to move through air and water. At the Olympics, these bodies are co-opted by a political culture that wants to be seen as natural, legitimate, stirring, beautiful. Beautiful bodies are just one kind of nature that nations like to claim. After all, this country invented the idea of “national” parks and claims the sublimity of the Grand Canyon (which preceded it by hundreds of millions of years) and all those purple mountains’ majesty as part of its identity. Corporations too like pristine landscapes, particularly for advertisements in which an SUV perches on some remote ledge, or a high-performance car zips along a winding road through landscape splendor. Few car commercials portray gridlock or even traffic—that your car is just a car among cars—let alone the vehicle’s impact on those pristine environments. Of course most of us have become pretty well versed in critiquing advertisements as such—we assume they are coverups if not outright lies. But the Olympics have not been subjected to the same level of critique.