Beauty Will Save the World: A Review

photo by daveynin (Creative Commons)

When you go for a drive around town, how often are you struck by the beauty of the architecture of strip malls, fast-food joints, and freeway exits? Does the brown cloud camping over your metropolis plant awe in your heart?

We are growing ugly. Logically, we’re growing ugly because we are losing beauty–it isn’t important to us in our architecture, in our studying, in our politics, in our entertainment, in our daily interactions with each other.  In Beauty Will Save the World, Zahnd asserts that our world is ugly because the axis on which the world revolves is one of power and violence. According to Zahnd, we (globally) spend over 3 billion dollars a day on defending ourselves. The United States accounts for 56% of that number. As we spend exorbitant amounts of money on political campaigns, weapons, and walls, there are places where people can’t even get a drink of fresh water, or enjoy a full meal for that matter. (Side note: check out globalrichlist.org. If you make $25,000 a year, that places you in the richest 10% in the world! Obama considers this income below poverty. Really? Really? I’m not sure if any of our politicians really understand the true depth of poverty. Do you? Do I?)

Zahnd’s main premise is that Jesus, through his death and resurrection, tilted the earth’s axis to one of love. His argument, while inefficiently written, is powerful and fascinating. Zahnd takes us to the beginning of history, when Cain killed Abel. God cursed him, and Cain went and founded a city. Zahnd asserts that this city was essentially founded on murder and violence, the consequence of his murderous actions, thus setting into motion a pattern of building power through violence. Zahnd does an amazing job of calling out the American church in its support for our imperialism. Zahnd writes,

“[T]here is always a particular temptations faced by the church when it is hosted by a superpower. The temptation is to accommodate itself to its host and to adopt (or even christen) the cultural assumptions of the super power. . .[T]he problem that is distorting American evangelicalism is that it has become far too accommodating to Americanism and the culture of superpower. . .The dominant American script is that which idolizes success, achievement, acquisition, technology, and militarism. It is the script of a superpower. But this dominant script does not fit neatly with the alternative script we find in the  gospel of Jesus Christ. So here is our challenge: when those who confess Christ find themselves living in the midst of an economic and military superpower, the are faced with the choice to either be an accommodating chaplain or a prophetic challenge. . . We need to bear the form and beauty of the Jesus way and not merely provide a Christianized version of our cultural assumptions.”

This is a kick to the stomach of any church who preaches both the gospel of grace and salvation and justifies any act of violence against another human being (bombing, slaving, trafficking, etc.). Jesus himself undermined the Roman axis of power in his day by claiming to be the king of heaven (and eventually all of Earth). Zahnd explains that through grace and forgiveness, Jesus undermined and invalidated Caesar’s power. Additionally, Zahnd points out that Jesus was able to take one of the most offensive, painful, frightening, and ugly symbols of death in Western history and turned it into a beautiful symbol of faith and life.

“It is the beauty of Christ’s love and forgiveness as most clearly seen in the cruciform that is able to save us from our vicious pride avaricious greed . . . [which] are often pawned off as virtues in the culture of a superpower.”

Zahnd  believes that it is the role of the Christian then to not “protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ . . . because God is more like a musician than a manager, more like a composer of symphonies than a clerk of keeping ledgers.”

And this is why art is important. Zahnd asserts that art is not as valuable in a pragmatic culture like a 21st-century United States. Whether it’s politics, economics, education, technology, business, or career, practicality reigns over aesthetics. Art is not practical, but it sure is beautiful. Zahnd uses the cathedrals found in Europe as an example of architecture exhibiting beauty and awe.  Art most likely will never provide a consistent paycheck for most of us. It just isn’t practical. And neither is Jesus dying on the cross or resurrecting from the dead. But both are awe-inspiring, mysterious, life-changing, beautiful.

Would the gospel of Jesus Christ be beautiful to those who don’t believe it if it weren’t based on pragmatism, logic, and usefulness? Would the beauty of the gospel be seen if Christian art sought to reflect originality and uniqueness in an axis of love?

photo by Eric Lars Bakke

I will leave you with this thought. I think the Tim Tebow phenomenon is an accurate microcosm of how evangelical Christians treat people outside of their (our) circle of belief. And I’m not talking about Tebow himself. I’m talking about his fans. Those who disassociate themselves with any who say something critical of their idol. It’s an us vs. them mentality, which often resorts to name calling, verbal abuse, and all around ugliness. If that’s how the followers of Jesus act to those who have a different world view, how will the gospel of Jesus’ grace and salvation ever be beautiful?

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