The title of this post might be strange enough to generate interest, but I will begin with a statement that isn’t strange at all. I went into music for two reasons: I was good at it, and I enjoyed it. That’s it, and thus a politically and socially conservative, (then-)Southern Baptist kid went off to music school. And I stayed in school a long time, finishing three degrees in eight years (four of those years also teaching part- or full-time), and having such a laser-like focus on practice and study that I remained only vaguely aware of how aberrant my views on basically everything else were in the professional milieu into which I was entering.
Emerging from school back into “real life,” then, was rather jarring. I discovered very quickly that my professional colleagues not only did not share my views on many topics, but also did not understand them, and in fact considered them rather ignorant and backward. At the same time, the people I met in church and other religious and civic organizations did not understand my profession or why it was important…and considered the views of the people with whom I worked to be ignorant and backward. To be sure, people on both sides were mostly prejudging caricatures of those on the other side, an effect that has been amplified rather than reduced in more recent years by the advent of social media. Meanwhile, my intellectual tug-of-war was only beginning.
One great thing about finishing my university training is that I found myself with time to read and study and explore other topics that interested me. I’ve written a great deal here about my theological studies and how these have been a blessing to me, and left me more convinced than ever that Christianity as a Weltanschauung—a “worldview,” though the German term conveys a bit more meaning than that—is not only defensible, but is the view most consistent with reality. Nevertheless, I was dismayed by how little regard the Calvinists, whose views on basically everything I found to be most congruent with my own, seemed to have for the arts.
At the same time, I was reading some of the better conservative political, social, and economic commentators, and they, too, seemed to have little regard for the arts. Not only do people on the Right view most in the arts community of being of the political and ideological Left (and they are), but many are suspicious of any industry that cannot survive on a for-profit basis in a purely free-market economy. Anyone who has ever been involved in or studied the history of the arts knows that the arts have seldom been able to survive or thrive on a purely market basis. They have always depended upon some form of subsidy or patronage. Whether or not that patronage must come from the government via taxation is an entirely separate question and is best left for another time. (The short answer is, no, it doesn’t have to come that way.)
Suffice it to say that developing my own worldview did not do very much for my sense of my place in the world. Studying theology did not make me a theological liberal and studying politics and economics and philosophy did not make me a political or social liberal. Yet here I was, still having a sense that being a musician somehow mattered, but unable to figure out why this was so through the lens of my views on basically everything else.
The answer has come to me somewhat slowly, but I’m finally landing at a place that works, I think. In a nutshell, it’s this: beauty matters. It matters first of all because God says it does. When God gave commandments to Moses regarding the furnishings of the tabernacle and the garments of the priests, he commanded that they be made “for glory and for beauty.” (Exodus 28:2) Centuries later, the Apostle Paul wrote of what we often summarize as “the good, the true, and the beautiful,” saying “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) In a time when political, social, and religious conservatives are more interested in utility and pragmatism than in beauty for its own sake, it is helpful to remember that the God we worship is neither utilitarian nor pragmatic. The Jewish places of worship did not have to be beautiful, but they were, and God was glorified by it being so. For that matter, God did not have to fill the creation with beautiful scenery, interesting creatures, and tasty food, but he did, and he was glorified in doing so. When Paul tells us to think on beauty, he is telling us to do so not for some utilitarian purpose, but simply because beautiful things honor their Creator.
So, the primary reason that beauty matters is that God is glorified by it. But there is a lesser but still important reason: a beautiful presentation makes our views compelling. The story of conservative Christian cultural engagement in the past 150 years is remarkable primarily for the lack of a story. Rather than engaging in the arts, culture, politics, the academy, etc. in meaningful ways, Christians withdrew from these areas, and with some notable exceptions our cultural products, when they existed at all, have been kitschy, saccharine imitations of what the broader culture was doing ten years earlier. Needless to say, this was neither winsome nor compelling. We might have had our theology right, and we might have had right thinking in the political and social realms, but without a beautiful, compelling presentation it is hard for these views to gain an audience. Those of us on the Right must learn to engage the arts winsomely, first of all because beauty is an objective good, and secondly because people are rarely drawn to truth bereft of beauty.
What, then, is the way forward? While this view will have some effect on how we view Christian worship, better conservative and Christian cultural engagement must be much broader than that. We must create great art, music, literature, and film that is simply beautiful, simply compelling, even when these products have no secondary evangelistic or other pragmatic purpose whatsoever. We must create beautiful things because beauty is good.
As a preliminary model, I would like to suggest a work of literature that many of us will know and love: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973). I am currently on my third reading, this time reading aloud to my son at night. If anything, reading aloud has made the beauty of Tolkien’s prose even more evident to me. The thing is, these books could have been MUCH shorter if Tolkien had just told the story, but instead he chose to present noble acts both simple and heroic with beautiful and ornate prose. A practicing Roman Catholic, Tolkien’s fundamentally Christian worldview is evident, yet he was not fond of allegory and, to my understanding, disdained people trying to impose a Gospel presentation on the work. (This is not, in other words, The Chronicles of Narnia with its obvious Christ-figure in Aslan.) Those sharing elements of Tolkien’s worldview will see echoes of that worldview everywhere in these novels, but his overall commitment to creating beautiful art resulted in a work that is beloved by people of all stripes, Christian and secular, liberal and conservative.
Perhaps, then, beautiful art not only glorifies God and serves as a way to make conservatism and Christianity compelling, but also provides a common ground for people of widely divergent worldviews to come together and talk about things that all agree are “true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and praiseworthy.”
It’s at least a place to start.