In his Letter to Artists, Pope John Paul II wrote, “People of today and tomorrow need [the] enthusiasm [of wonder] if they are to meet and master the crucial challenges which stand before us . . . . In this sense it has been said with profound insight that “beauty will save the world.”
Beauty will save the world. This simple observation was first made by the title character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, and is more recently the title of a book by pastor Brian Zahnd about the overwhelming beauty of the gospel message and the transformative potential of reclaiming beauty as a Christian and American value.
Artists—painters, sculptors, film makers, authors, musicians, dancers, actors—are the presenters and interpreters of beauty in our world. Artists are blessed with the creative impulse and God-given ability to scrape away all that’s false to uncover the wonder and grace of our shared human experience in ways that are self-evidently true and undeniably beautiful.
Uncovered beauty is a gift to the world. It is by the entire community. It remains undiminished as it is experienced in a way that defies the familiar law of supply and demand. Instead of being consumed as it is experienced, beauty is multiplied as it is experienced.
True beauty, then, isn’t commodifiable. You can’t put a price tag on it. And it doesn’t belong to any particular person. Beauty, therefore, is too often undervalued in our capitalist, market-driven, consumer society. But beauty ought to be immensely valuable to Christians, as every glimpse of beauty is in and of itself a revelation of God, a disclosure of Christ.
Two things happened this week to make me think about the power of beauty: the massacre in Las Vegas and the death of Tom Petty. Beauty was entirely absent for a few hours in Las Vegas Sunday night and it was horrid. If ugliness is the absence of beauty, Sunday night was the definition of ugly.
The repetition of violence in our culture, and it’s normalization, leaves us increasingly unable to celebrate and value beauty–and unable to recognize the presence of Christ in our world. And for that I mourn.
And then Tom Petty died. Music lives close to my soul. There’s something about a live band with a couple of guitars that resonates inside my bones. And Tom Petty was one of the artists who connected with me best. Generally spare, stripped down, and direct, his music is the truth with most everything else stripped away.
Not so long ago, Eminem encouraged us to lose ourselves in his music. And sometimes that’s just what we need. But as friend and fellow minister Aimee Yeager wrote, Tom Petty allowed us to find ourselves in his.
Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” might be my favorite album of all time. The only way to describe it is as beautiful. The guitar riff on “Honey Bee” is the definition of groovy. The melody to the title track couldn’t more aptly lead the listener to recall a favorite flower-filled meadow if it tried.
The whole album is scattered with lyrics and lines that stick in your mind, that demand to be sung or shouted with a knowing smile, that evoke a particular feeling of youthfulness and freedom, of heartache mixed with hopefulness, of lightness and beauty.
As you listen to the album, the music remains undiminished. It defies being consumed.
Also, in the last week, I had the chance to see a documentary about the Newnan, GA art community called “Artists are Welcomed Here.” It was directed and produced by Central Baptist church member Jonathan Hickman. It featured Central Baptist church members David Boyd, Sr. and David Boyd, Jr. Several other Central Baptist members were involved in and closely connected to the film’s production as well.
The film is a magnificent portrayal of the way that artists add to, uncover and reflect the beauty of our community. I’m proud that our church has so many artists and musicians among our ranks. And in this last week, as I have mourned the ugliness of violence and celebrated the beauty of a favorite musician, I have been reminded of the value of the artist—and particularly of our artists at Central—whose work of uncovering beauty is the work of disclosing Christ. And I am very grateful for their work.
As Pope John Paul II reminds us, we DO need people who can evoke in us the shared enthusiasm of wonder if we are to meet the challenges of today and tomorrow.
Beauty WILL save the world.