Before beginning the content of this post in earnest, perhaps I should go ahead and answer one question that might have occurred to some of you: am I speaking about the Right with regard to politics, or with regard to religion? The answer to that question is “yes.” For reasons that I hope will become clear very shortly, conservatives in both spheres (and I identify as such in both) face similar problems when it comes to the importance of beauty, artistry, and story.
While I identify as a person of the political Right, my political involvement has been limited mainly to keeping abreast of the issues so that I can make informed decisions at the ballot box. I read and listen to political commentary on a regular basis but have neither the time nor the means to become involved in large-scale political efforts. Thus, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference typically escapes my notice. However, this year’s meeting was brought to my attention—and to that of many in my profession who do not share my political views at all—by the rather off-key singing of a young lady invited to sing the National Anthem at the opening of one of the conference’s events. That singing was hilariously parodied by a number of musicians on YouTube, and while I feel sorry for the singer enduring so much ridicule, at the same time public performance includes subjecting oneself not only to praise, but also to critique and parody. CPAC should have chosen a more skilled and seasoned performer, and compensated him or her appropriately.
Now at this point you might ask, “but Micah, we’ve all heard popular acts butcher the National Anthem over the years, and those people were certainly not all conservatives.” Granted, but if we of the Right are going to hold ourselves out as those who stand for what is true and good in our nation, we should also stand for what is beautiful. These hold together, as I have noted many times in this space, and when one is missing the others begin to falter, as well. For better or worse, The Star-Spangled Banner is a notoriously difficult song to sing well, and for an event of the scope and resources of CPAC to give that role to an obviously unsuited amateur creates bad optics, to say the least.
One could say similar things for the church. I have for years advocated for a certain simplicity in the music used in Christian worship. I have argued that the primary musical expression in public worship ought to be congregational singing, and that contributions from choirs, instrumentalists, and solo or ensemble singing ought to draw attention to the texts being sung, read, and preached, avoiding a performance-type environment at all costs. This is not to say that I think the music should be an afterthought, or of poor quality. On the contrary, I think everything we do in worship ought to be thoughtfully planned, carefully prepared, and skillfully executed. I only mean that artistic contributions—including music but also including things like decorations, vestments, and the like—ought to heighten our attention to the Word as it is read, preached, and sung. The arts ought never to detract from our attention to the Word, sacraments, and prayer.
Sadly, we run into similar issues with regard to worship as in politics. The more Word-centric churches—perhaps particularly in my own Reformed tradition—can have very plain services where the music is in fact an afterthought. On the other end of the spectrum, in some places music is a major budget item, where the resources, staffing, and planning of the music used in worship borrows techniques, values, software, and often people from the world of theatre. Even when the intent is expressly otherwise, the combination of high decibel levels, advanced lighting techniques, and unfamiliar songs can prove distracting. The latter type of church is certainly more exciting while the former is seen as uncompelling, but there are problems in both examples.
Conservatives in both American politics and in Christianity share a similar problem. One holds to principles of free market economics and individual liberty, and the other proclaims the infallibility of the Word of God and the power of the Gospel to change lives. Both groups have well-formed positions with solid arguments and counterarguments. Yet these are not heard, because their presentation is not compelling, not beautiful. It is plain at best, hokey or even ugly at worst, and totally devoid of a story that really moves people.
You see, those of the Left long ago gained dominance in the culture making industries in our society. Perhaps it has always been so, because artists tend to be people who ask hard questions and challenge assumptions, both tendencies which can seem threatening to entrenched conservative positions. The problem is that the Right has ceded that ground entirely, and while we still have good arguments, we fail to get a hearing because people are not moved to action or to change by good arguments. They are moved by beauty, by story, by emotion. The Right—in both politics and religion—wants to view people as primarily rational creatures. Maybe we can wish it were so, but it isn’t so, or at least it isn’t the entire story. We are also emotive creatures, and lectures on free-market economics and the infallibility of the Bible simply do not engage people on the visceral level where real change takes place.
Now, am I suggesting that we abandon the formation of solid arguments for our positions? By no means. These certainly have a place, though that place lies largely in further developing the thinking of the already-convinced. If our ideas really are true, just, and right, then they will withstand the most rigorous intellectual challenges, and should be thus tested. I am saying that we must stop settling for the true and good only, and instead bring renewed interest to the beautiful. We should find the artists within our midst, address their (often legitimate) questions and challenges, and encourage and support them in the great work of culture-making from our own worldview, rather than telling them to “get a real job” and then send them into the open arms of the Left. We must relearn the importance of beauty and of story, understanding that right principles alone are not compelling. Seeing a beautiful presentation of how those principles are played out in the lives of people and societies is.
I’ll close by reminding all of us that the Book we believe to be the Word of God is not a list of commands and prohibitions (though it contains such lists). It is, rather, the story of how God made the world and all it contains, how human beings—made in God’s image—fell from their perfect created state, and how God worked through thousands of years and the lives of one man and his descendants to bring about a Redeemer who would restore all things. It really is The Greatest Story Ever Told, a story that is that much greater because it is true.
God himself, in whose image we are made, knows that people are moved by beauty and story, and revealed himself to us accordingly. We who strive to exemplify the principles held in his Word should do likewise.