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The Evangelizing Power of Beauty

There is a story about an American tourist somewhere in the wilds of rural Ireland. He is hopelessly lost. Desperate for reorientation, he is relieved to see a rustic Irishman sitting on a fence and sucking a straw. This man has probably lived here all his life, the American thinks to himself, so he surely will be able to help.

“Excuse me,” he asks, “how do I get to Limerick?”

The Irishman looks at him for a while and sucks pensively on his straw. “If I were you,” he replies, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

Although one can sympathize with the frustration that our lost American would have felt at the unhelpfulness of such a response, there is more than a modicum of wisdom in the Irishman’s reply. Indeed, if the characters are changed, the whole story takes on something of the nature of a parable.

Instead of an American tourist, imagine that the hopelessly lost individual is myself, and the rustic Irishman is St. Patrick in disguise. The year is 1978 and I am in the northern Irish city of Londonderry. I am there because, as an angry seventeen-year-old, I have become involved with the Protestant paramilitaries in Northern Ireland and a white supremacist organization in England. I am angry. I am bitter. I am bigoted. I hate Catholicism and all that it stands for (although, of course, I have no real idea what it really stands for but only what my prejudiced presumption believes that it stands for). Shortly afterwards I will join the Orange Order, an anti-Catholic secret society, as a further statement of my Ulster “loyalism” and anti-Catholicism.

During this visit to Londonderry, I take part in a day and a night of rioting during which petrol bombs are thrown and shops are looted—all in the name of anti-Catholicism. It is then, at least in the mystical fancy of my imagination, that I meet the rustic Irishman who is really St. Patrick in disguise.

“I am lost,” I say to him (though I am so lost that I don’t even know that I am lost). “How do I find my way Home?”

“If I were you,” the saintly Irishman replies, “I wouldn’t start from here.”

Wise words indeed, though at the time they would have fallen on deaf ears. Deaf, dumb, and blind, I had a long way to go. The long and winding road that would lead, eleven years later, to the loving arms of Christ and his Church would be paved with the works of great Catholic apologists such as John Henry Newman, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. Newman’s masterful Apologia and his equally masterful autobiographical novel, Loss and Gain; Chesterton’s OrthodoxyThe Everlasting Man, and The Well and the Shallows; and Belloc’s stridently militant exposition of the “Europe of the Faith”—each of these were signposts on my path from homelessness to Home. (For the full story of my conversion to Catholicism, see “Race with the Devil,” This Rock, May-June 2003.)

There were others, of course. Karl Adam’s The Spirit of Catholicism, Archbishop Michael Sheehan’s Apologetics and Catholic Doctrine, Fr. Frederick C. Copleston’s St. Thomas Aquinas, etc. I am therefore deeply indebted to the great apologists and, in consequence, retain the strongest admiration for those who continue the work of apologetics in our day. I hope and pray that the great work being done by This Rock and Catholic Answers will bring in a bumper crop akin to that which was reaped by these great apologists of the past.

Although my own approach to evangelization is somewhat different, I share the same desire to win souls for Christ as do Karl Keating, Tim Ryland, and Jerry Usher. I would, in fact, call myself an apologist, albeit one of a different ilk. I would say that I am a cultural apologist, one who desires to win converts through the communicating power of culture.

Perhaps a short theological aside will serve as a useful explanation of how cultural apologetics is both different from, and yet akin to, the field of more conventional apologetics. Truth is trinitarian. It consists of the interconnected and mystically unified power of reason, love, and beauty. As with the Trinity itself, the three, though truly distinct, are one. Reason, properly understood, is beauty; beauty, properly apprehended, is reason; both are transcended by and are expressions of love. Reason, love, and beauty are enshrined in and encapsulated by the Godhead. Indeed, they have their raison d’etre and their consummation in the Godhead.

Remove love and reason from the sphere of aesthetics and you remove beauty also. You get ugliness instead. Even a cursory glance at most modern “art” will illustrate the negation of beauty in most of today’s “culture.” Once this theological understanding of the trinitarian nature of truth is perceived, it follows that the whole art of apologetics can be seen in this light.

Most mainstream apologetics can be seen as the apologetics of reason, the defense of the faith and the winning of converts through the means of a dialogue with the “rational” and its sundry manifestations. On the other hand, the lives of the saints, such as the witness of Mother Teresa, can be seen as the apologetics of love—the defense of the faith and the winning of converts through the living example of a life lived in love. Finally, the defense of the faith and the winning of converts through the power of the beautiful can be called cultural apologetics, or the apologetics of beauty.

Throughout history, the faith has been sustained by each of these pillars and has built upon them. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and other giants of the Church have laid the philosophical and theological foundations upon which Christendom has towered above superstition and heresy, creating an edifice of reason in a world of error. Numerous other saints have lived lives of heroic virtue and self-sacrificial love, showing that there is a living, loving alternative to all the vice and hatred with which humanity has inflicted itself. Similarly, numerous writers, artists, architects, and composers have created works of beauty as a reflection of their love for God—and, through the gift they have been given, of God’s love for them.

It is in the last of these three spheres of apologetics that I have found my own vocation. It has become my aim, indeed my passion, to evangelize the culture through the power of culture itself.

In recent years, with the possible exception of Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, the greatest opportunity to evangelize the culture through the power of culture itself has been the release of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. As the author of Tolkien: Man and Myth and editor of Tolkien: A Celebration, both of which were published before the release of Jackson’s movies, I found myself in the privileged position of being able to surf the wave of Tolkien enthusiasm that followed in the wake of the release of each of the films in the trilogy.

In spite of the efforts of Jackson et al to play down the importance of the Catholic dimension of Tolkien’s masterpiece, I found myself giving talks on the Catholicism of The Lord of the Rings to audiences from all four corners of the United States—not to mention Canada, England, Germany, Portugal, and South Africa. I have spoken to large student audiences at Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, and several state universities. How else in this agnostic-infested age could an avowed Catholic give a lecture at a secular institution on Catholic theology to a captive—and for the most part captivated—audience? Although few of those in attendance would have dreamed of attending a lecture entitled “The Theology of the Catholic Church,” they were happy to attend a lecture entitled “Tolkien: Truth and Myth” at which they received unadulterated Catholic theology. Such is the power of art to evangelize.

I currently find myself embroiled on the frontline of the culture wars as a result of the publication of my new book, The Unmasking of Oscar Wilde. My research revealed, among other things, that Wilde had a lifelong love affair with the Catholic Church and that he considered his descent into homosexuality as his “pathology.” Having recovered from the homosexual “sickness,” Wilde finally succumbed to the true love of his life when he was received into the Catholic Church on his deathbed. This hard evidence, combined with the orthodox Christian morality of the vast majority of his work, destroys the popular image of Wilde as a gay icon or pioneer of (homo)sexual liberation.

Needless to say, this “unmasking” of their idol has led many homosexuals to question their attitude toward Wilde; it may also, one may hope, lead some of them to question their attitude toward homosexuality itself. Either way, the book is receiving considerable attention in the homosexual media, and I look forward with relish to debating the whole issue at a public debate on Wilde in San Francisco later this year. Once again, as with Tolkien, the successful application of cultural apologetics reaches audiences who would never dream of attending an overtly Catholic meeting. May the encounter prove catalytic and fruitful! In these sad but exciting times, apologists of every shade should unite in the battle to win a doubting world to timeless truth.

In even sadder and even more exciting times, the Jesuit martyr Edmund Campion stated defiantly that he would never recoil from his efforts to convert the English nation back to the faith of their fathers, “come rack, come rope.” Campion’s example speaks to us across the abyss of the centuries. He was a great and indomitable apologist who should be adopted as a model and patron of apologists everywhere.

These days, in our hedonistic anti-culture, barbarism is more likely to find expression in rock and rape than in rack and rope. But the enemy is the same. His name is legion. We might not face the martyrdom suffered by Edmund Campion—though who knows what awaits future generations of Catholics if the totalitarian tide of intolerant “toleration” continues to rise—but we can be as dauntless as was he in our efforts to win our faithless or erring brothers and sisters back to the faith of their fathers.

Another English Jesuit saint, Robert Southwell, wrote some of the finest poetry of the Elizabethan age in an effort to woo his fellow countrymen back to the faith. He too was martyred, but not before his verse had captivated the nation and influenced the work of a certain William Shakespeare. As such, Southwell should stand alongside Campion as the model and patron of apologists—particularly for those who choose cultural apologetics as their means to win souls for Christ.

As with other Christian writers before and since, Southwell employed the beauty of language as a means of conveying the beauty of the faith. Today, four centuries after his heroic death, the poetry shines forth as a lucid testament to the truth for which he died.

Let folly praise that fancy loves, I praise and love that Child
Whose heart no thought, whose tongue no word, whose hand no deed defiled.
I praise him most, I love him best, all praise and love is his,
While him I love, in him I live, and cannot live amiss.
Love’s sweetest mark, laud’s highest theme, man’s most desired light,
To love him life, to leave him death, to live in him delight.
He mine by gift, I his by debt, thus each to other due,
First friend he was, best friend he is, all times will try him true.

In Campion’s and Southwell’s day the Catholic faith was illegal. Today, in our own endarkened age, it is no longer illegal but is considered illegitimate. It is in the very midst of this darkness that beauty enlightens the gloom. Great art. Great music. Great literature. They are all great weapons. Giotto, Raphael, Michelangelo, Fra Angelico. Weapons! William Byrd, Thomas Tallis, Anton Bruckner, Arvo Part. Weapons! Dante, Shakespeare, Hopkins, Tolkien, Waugh. Weapons!

In the knowledge that art has an enormous power to win souls for Christ, it has been my desire to play a part in the nurturing of a Catholic cultural revival in the twenty-first century to parallel the revival that characterized the first half of the last century. With this in mind, I am honored to be co-editor of a Catholic cultural journal, the Saint Austin Review, or StAR, which aims to act as a catalyst for such a revival in Christian culture. Launched in England in September 2001 and now published in the United States by Sapientia Press of Ave Maria University in Florida, StAR represents a unique voice in the world of Catholic publications.

Although other Catholic journals include a cultural dimension, StAR concentrates exclusively on culture in all its multifarious manifestations. Regular features such as “Musica Donum Dei” and “Sound Truth” examine the lives and works of the great Christian composers as well as the works of contemporary Catholic musicians and singers. “Movie StAR/Video Vero,” another regular feature, looks at the world of film. There is also a section dedicated to the review of newly published books.

Most issues include a color feature on the visual arts, once again showcasing the work of the masters as well as that of contemporary Catholic artists. In the field of literature, StAR has dedicated whole issues to writers such as Dante, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, and Belloc. We also publish new poetry by highly gifted contemporary poets and original short stories, published for the first time, by leading Catholic writers such as Michael D. O’Brien and Marcus Grodi.

Our regular feature writers include James V. Schall, S.J., Patrick G. D. Riley, and John M. Haas. Other leading figures in the Catholic world who have written for the journal include Thomas Howard, Peter Kreeft, Barbara Nicolosi, Carl Olson, Alice von Hildebrand, E. Michael Jones, and Joseph Koterski, S.J. Themes have included “Modern Art: Friend or Foe,” “Faith on Film,” “Hollywood and the Culture War,” “The Lord of the Rings,” “Holy Russia,” “Return to Aquinas,” “King Arthur,” “Faith and the Feminine,” and “Harry Potter on Trial.” In short, and as the effervescent fervor of the foregoing description no doubt testifies, my association with this journal overflows into an outpouring of over-enthusiasm. Suffice it to say that my work on the Saint Austin Review is truly a labor of love.

We might live in a land of exile and a valley of tears, but we are not lost. The whole unfolding of human history might be, as Tolkien called it, a “long defeat with only occasional glimpses of final victory,” but we remain undefeated. Even in the long defeat there is the promise of victory. We are not lost and we have not lost.

Nor are we left undefended. Christ brings us a sword: the sword of truth. It is a magic sword. It has three-razor sharp edges (I assume that Paul will permit me the literary license!): the cutting edge of reason, the cutting edge of love, and the cutting edge of beauty. No, we are not defenseless. We have been given the weapons we need. All that is required of us is to use them well.

And to return to our rustic Irishman, he is right to muse that he wouldn’t start from here. We have wandered a long way from Eden in the years since our first parents’ first sin. No, indeed, we wouldn’t have wanted to start from here. But here is where we are, and Home is closer than we realize.

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