Where is beauty more likely to be encountered today: in a movie theater or in a Church?
A longstanding criticism of contemporary Christianity is that it has abdicated its understanding of the power of beauty. And since beauty may be the only argument for God people of our time are actually open to, that means we are largely failing to tell the Christian story to the world.
In fact, as screenwriter and Pepperdine University professor Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington argued in an interview last year, “immoral” Hollywood is in some respects less harmful to the soul than sorry Christianity.
How so? A story beautifully told penetrates our being in a way the merely didactic cannot. When we accept mediocrity from “Christian” art, we are undermining the message of the one who is Beauty itself in a way that someone who is simply telling a different story doesn’t.
Christian film and television, Nicolosi-Harrington says, are tragically lacking in creativity and respect for the audience:
“They are banal. They may be produced with the best of intentions, but they have no sense of the appropriateness of the art form, of using the medium to its full potential.
Sad though it is, you would never call the Church the patron of the arts today. Never. You would be laughed down.”
She’s right, and furthermore it seems to me in spite of the incredible decay of our culture in the past 30 years, there is a residual layer of Puritanism—fear of the body and the pleasures associated with it—that the Christian community has not shaken off.
The Catholic approach to culture is to encourage what is wholesome from whatever source it comes and to purify what is evil with good.
Even our feast days often take their roots from pagan practices that we simply appropriated and filled with Christian content. Christianity doesn’t fear, because Christians know that genuine truth and genuine beauty cannot contradict faith, as they spring from the same source.
Yet at least in the U.S., Christians often appear to have less a creative culture than a boycott culture. We won’t read that; we won’t see that movie; we get the vapors over curse-words.
We’re quick to condemn and slow to patronize. And we gratefully accept a lot of schlock simply because it’s inoffensive. Whereas to truly have an impact on the culture, you have to engage it.
It’s tricky to know how to do that because we have an obligation to protect our own purity –there really are things too degrading for a decent person to see. The matter gets thornier when we’re raising children and trying to walk a line between hermetically sealing them from the world and destroying their innocence.
Nevertheless, surely Nicolosi-Harrington is correct to insist that Christians must engage the culture confident that good is stronger than evil. We have an obligation not to be satisfied with telling the story in a way “good enough” for those who already know and accept it, but in a way that attracts people who deep down want to believe and are seeking. Mediocrity, too, is a way of hiding our light under a bushel basket.
C.S. Lewis once said that genuine art points a finger in the direction of beauty itself, so that as we look at the work of art, we see as if along a pointed finger, past the work, to God.
With that as backdrop, I call your attention to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, the Brad Pitt vehicle released this summer.
The film poses a question to the viewer: which is the path to happiness? The “way of nature” or the “way of grace”? Is life essentially meaningless, a time for us to grasp what pleasures we may before sinking into oblivion? Or is it, even in the face of sorrow, mysterious, beautiful and full of grace?
This unusual movie makes an elegant case for “the way of grace,” without forcing that conclusion. I’ve no idea what Mr. Malick’s religious beliefs are, but at least to this believer the film comes off as a cinematic presentation of the Argument from Beauty.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.