Stephen Richard Turley reviews Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological World by Gregory Wolfe.
Reading Time: 7 minutes

If the too obvious, so straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three. And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoevsky to say that ‘Beauty will save the world’, but a prophecy.” Inspired by these words from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Laureate lecture, Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World, is an extended meditation on the soteriological significance of beauty. The book comprises a series of essays organized in five parts. Parts One and Two constitute the theoretical foundation of the book, while Parts Three to Five are devoted to a survey of writers, poets, and artists who embody the theoretical insights specific to Christian humanism.

Part One, “From Ideology to Humanism,” recounts Wolfe’s aesthetic journey from right wing politics to editor of a journal devoted to the analysis of art and culture. Having graduated from Hillsdale, where he sat in the classrooms of Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer, Wolfe began his professional career with National Review during the time of the Reagan Revolution in the early 1980s, only to find an irreconcilable dissonance between the spiritual and intellectual depths of the Western tradition and those who purported to defend that tradition in the political arena. Wolfe found increasingly that modern politics constituted an economy of power and coercion that affected corrosively the aesthetic nature of classical humanism. Eventually, Wolfe turned to a different state of affairs, one constituted by culture and art, which operated according to the grace of beauty and imagination. Here, in this aesthetic economy, one acts not in response to the consequentialism and compulsion inherent in statist practices, but rather according to the physics of beauty, the attraction that awakens wonder and draws one to encounter divine life through the evoking of a moral imagination.

Wolfe began to see the contemporary conservative political movement as a microcosm of a larger cultural crisis that centered on the loss of the metaphysical and transcendent. Citing Elaine Scarry, he notes that if the metaphysical realm has vanished, “one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the vase, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty. If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems more self- centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard” (15). This is coupled with the observation of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who noted that the modern age has pursued the quest for truth and goodness at the expense of beauty and, as a result, has lost the primary agency of love. Wolfe concludes: “Taken together, these two statements suggest not only the enormous challenges facing our politicized society, but also the possibility of a theological aesthetic that can heal and unite” (15).

With the loss of beauty as an objective value, like truth and goodness, the American West has increasingly turned to power in order to influence cultural outcomes, resulting in the so-called ‘culture wars’. The problem here, as Wolfe observes, is that politics was appropriated classically as growing out of culture, not determinative of it. Said differently, liturgy, art, music, education, and science were properly basic to politics, such that the power of the state was relativized to and shaped by a collective moral imagination gifted to humans by God to perceive the divinely-infused meaning of the cosmos.

Reflecting on and contributing to the formative nature of culture was the task of the classical Christian humanist, who conceived of culture as the point of integration between the social and the transcendent, where eternal values are made palpable and substantial within the nexus of social practices. Quoting Virgil Nemoianu: “Culture is seen as a kind of tumbling ground for the spiritual, the social, the historical and the psychological…. the human being individually, and the human species collectively, act as a key, as the intersectional locus where all areas of the cosmos can meet … According to [the Christian humanists], aesthetic culture is that which seeks to articulate the opening toward transcendence that appears as a human constant in all human societies known to us” (34). Culture in the classical sense, as differentiated from the more mechanistic modern socio-anthropological sense, involves the development, nourishment, and exercise of what makes us distinctly human, namely, the embodiment of the Socratic trinity: the true, the good, and the beautiful.

For Wolfe, at the heart of this project is a sacramental vision of art. “To the Christian humanist, culture and art can become analogues for the Incarnation: a union of form and content, the inherence of divine meaning in the crafted materials of this earth” (45). He cites David Jones who writes in his essay, “Art and Sacrament,” that the Eucharist, consisting of culturally transformed grain and fruit, is the foundry for a sanctified and redeemed culture. And because culture is that which nourishes our humanity, the redemption of culture reciprocally fosters sanctified senses and souls. In the words of the art historian Hans Rookmaaker: “Christ didn’t come to make us Christians. He came to make us fully human” (46).

In Part Two of the work, “Christianity, Literature, and Modernity,” Wolfe maps out how such a Christian humanism can effectively engage a world constituted by secular modernity. Wolfe highlights several Catholic writers who seek to recover the sacred in the modern context, that is, a new vision of the transcendent that reveals itself through the frames of reference specific to the modern age. For example, Walker Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, depicts a futuristic world where human free will has been superseded by a scientific elite that manipulate the masses through dumping quantities of heavy sodium isotope in the water supply. When confronted on the devastating effects of heavy sodium on cortical function, the lead scientist defends his experiment:

What would you say, Tom … if I gave you a magic wand you could wave over there [Baton Rouge and New Orleans] and overnight you could reduce crime in the streets by eighty-seven percent…. Teenage suicide by ninety-five percent…. Teenage pregnancy by eighty-five percent…. (68)

Percy’s novel thus probes how the modern age has combined intellectual brilliance with unprecedented brutality: the key to comfort, peace, and security is the elimination of human free will. “The twist to this arrangement, which the Devil is careful not to divulge, is that by reducing man to the level of cattle – taking away the sacred dignity of human personhood – men become as expendable as cattle” (69).

In Part Three, “Six Writers,” Wolfe highlights the work of Evelyn Waugh, Shusako Endo, Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Lytle, Wendell Berry, and Larry Woiwode. Wolfe’s analysis of the latter three, who share an affinity with the great Southern Agrarian writers such as Allen Tate and William Faulkner, is particularly penetrating. Lytle, one of the “Twelve Southerners” who defended the South’s traditional agrarian culture in the 1930 publication, I’ll Take My Stand, believed that historical consciousness is inseparable from attachment to place and family. Wolfe writes: “For Lytle, the essence of Christendom is the family: it provides us with identity and schools us in love and self- sacrifice. Modernity, on the other hand, is characterized by the desire for power, a lust which leads man to wander, alone, separated from the community in the monstrosity of his ego. Technology without limits, the secular welfare state, the arts dominated by pornography and neurosis – all these are the effects of power without love, the individual without community” (143). In the writings of Berry and Woiwode, the distinctly sacramental vision of the landscape awakens the moral imagination to the ways in which the land mediates a quality beyond itself. Wolfe contrasts such a vision with the relation of a technician to nature, which is one of power and manipulation, and thus represents a fundamentally different economy than that constituted by the reciprocal love between the gardener and his garden. “It is not without significance,” Wolfe observes, “that the gardener is usually on his knees” (166).

In Part Four, “Three Artists,” Wolfe takes us past those who are satisfied with lamenting over the loss of classical Christian culture (‘declinists’, he calls them) and into an encounter with artists who have embraced the redemptive possibilities of modern art, such as Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom, and Makoto Fujimura. His analysis of Folsom’s Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go-Go Club) is nothing less than Taboric. Wolfe’s exegesis transfigures a painting of a strip-tease scene into a sacred encounter with the grace of God: “Her [the stripper’s] arms are in the process of lifting up to an outstretched position, an implicit crucifixion …. In the lower left corner sits Pascal. Moving across the baseline we come to Folsom himself, almost directly underneath the stripper. Following his pointing hand we come to the lower right corner … which presents us with the wounded hand holding a glass of wine… It is the hand of the one who issues the ‘last call’ to all of us” (190).

The book concludes with Part Five, “Four Men of Letters,” where Wolfe surveys the contributions of Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Marion Montgomery. Kirk and Niemeyer are singled out for their contributions to the moral imagination. “There is no more pressing need,” Wolfe writes, “in the moral and spiritual crisis of our time than the need to recover the imagination.” (206). For Kirk, inspired by Edmund Burke, the moral imagination is constituted by a symbolic universe where the images recorded by the senses are stored in our memory and are in turn constructed into analogies, metaphors and paradigms by which the totality of our experience can be synthesized and expressed in a coherent intellectual, moral, and spiritual life. In short, the moral imagination is the means by which we commune with divinely-infused meaning in our human experience and conform our lives accordingly.

If there is a refrain throughout this catena of essays, it would be that of invitation, for this is the nature of the soteriological significance of beauty. It has long been recognized that the Greek term for beauty, kalon, is related to the verb kalein, ‘to call’. Beauty is the effulgent or illuminative manifestation of the loveliness, the delectableness, the delightfulness of the true and the good, which awakens eros or a loving desire within the human person. Thus, beauty serves the indispensable role of momentum or motivation in intellectual, moral and spiritual pursuits, which stands in stark contrast to the coercion and manipulation inherent in political power. Wolfe’s essays are a collection of exhortations calling us to jettison our ideological abstractions and instead embrace a sacramental imagination that through a sanctified culture lifts us up into an indissoluble union with the divine source of life. With Beauty For Truth’s Sake, we encounter the redeeming nature of art and are thereby reminded that regardless of the secular eclipse of truth and goodness, beauty still shines through.