Beauty Will Save the World


A thousand years ago Prince Vladimir the Great, the pagan monarch of Kiev, was looking for a new religion to unify the Russian people. Toward this end Prince Vladimir sent out envoys to investigate the great faiths from the neighboring realms. When the delegations returned they gave the prince their reports. Some had discovered religions that were dour and austere. Others encountered faiths that were abstract and theoretical. But the envoys who had investigated Christianity in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople reported finding a faith characterized by such transcendent beauty that they did not know if they were in heaven or on earth.

Then we went to Constantinople and they led us to the place where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or earth, for on earth there is no such vision nor beauty, and we do not know how to describe it; we only know that God dwells among men. We cannot forget that beauty. —Primary Chronicle of the Sent by Prince Vladimir of Kiev-Rus to Constantinople

Upon receiving the report from the Constantinople delegation of the unearthly beauty they had witnessed in Christian worship, Prince Vladimir adopted Christianity as the new faith for the Russian people. What impressed the envoys and persuaded Prince Vladimir to embrace Christianity was not its apologetics or ethics, but its aesthetics—its beauty. Thus we might say it was beauty that brought salvation to the Russian people. Nine hundred years later the great Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky coined the enigmatic expression, “beauty will save the world.” What Dostoevsky meant by this mysterious quip has been a matter of much conjecture, but it certainly must somehow have been connected to Dostoevsky’s deep Christian faith.

Today there are many in the Western World who are in search of some form of spirituality to give them what materialism promises but is unable to deliver. Like Prince Vladimir they are seeking for a new spirituality. The Western Church as heirs of the Enlightenment remains tempted to respond to a renewed spiritual interest with logical arguments for the truth of Christianity (apologetics) and perhaps also by making the case for the moral goodness Christianity can produce (ethics). This is all fine. But what about beauty? Is it possible that what Prince Vladimir found most persuasive about Christianity in the tenth century and what Prince Myshkin advocated in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot is the very thing that could draw a new generation of spiritual seekers to faith in Jesus Christ? Is it possible that the Christian message can be communicated in terms of beauty? Along with apologetics and ethics is there also an aesthetics that belongs to the gospel of Jesus Christ? Yes! Beauty is integral to the gospel.

We are generally more accustomed to defend Christianity in terms of its truth and goodness. But beauty also belongs to the Christian faith. And beauty has a way of sneaking past our defenses and speaking to us in unique ways. To a generation suspicious of truth claims and unconvinced by moral assertions, beauty has a surprising allure. And everything about Jesus Christ is beautiful! His life, his miracles, his grace, his teaching—even his death, and certainly his resurrection—they are all inimitably beautiful. A Christianity enchanted by this beauty, formed by this beauty, and reflecting this beauty, has the opportunity to present to a skeptical and jaded world an aspect of the gospel that has been too rare for far too long. Where truth and goodness fail to win an audience, beauty may once again captivate and draw those it enchants into the kingdom of saving grace. It is possible to tell the Christian story in terms of beauty, because the story of Jesus Christ is breathtakingly beautiful!

On November 13, 2010 the eighty voice Chorus of Niagara gave a surprise performance of the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah in the food court at the Seaway Mall in Niagara Falls, Ontario. Unsuspecting shoppers are eating their fast food lunches in a place that seems infinitely removed from the sacred and beautiful. Then a young woman with a cell phone pressed to her ear stands to her feet and begins to sing the first melodious strains of the Hallelujah chorus. She is joined by a man who moments earlier had been eating his Arby’s lunch. Then what appears to be a mall custodian joins the growing chorus. Eventually all eighty voices of the choir are performing an exquisite rendition of Handel’s masterpiece. The shoppers in the food court are stunned. Some capture the moment on their cell phones. Others rise to join the time honored tradition of standing for the Hallelujah chorus. Some simply sit with faces full of wonder, while others wipe away tears. All are witnesses to a miracle—the modern banality of a shopping mall food court has been transformed into a cathedral of astonishing beauty.

A local photography company recorded the surprise performance in the Seaway Mall and posted it online. They hoped it might be viewed by as many as fifty thousand people. But within weeks it had been viewed tens of millions of times! Perhaps the thing that makes the video somewhat amusing is also what makes it deeply moving—its incongruence. The juxtaposing of high art and a shopping mall, the surprise of sacred music in a food court, seems to have a strange influence upon us. Why? As modern people do we harbor a deep-seated fear that we are losing all beauty? We have technology, convenience, security and a measure of prosperity, but where is the beauty? Where is the beauty that we know we cannot really live without? With this as our latent fear, a choir appearing out of nowhere and performing sacred Baroque music in a shopping mall is not unlike what the Gospel of Luke describes at the birth of Christ—

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.

This “random act of culture” in Ontario is a perfect metaphor for how the church should position itself in the world. Instead of angry protesters shaking our fist at a secular culture, we are to be joyful singers transforming the secular with the sacred. Instead of alienated separatists sequestered in Christian enclaves, we are to transform food courts into cathedrals by our song. The church is to sing the melody of Christ in the malls of meaninglessness and once again astonish the modern world with the beauty of the gospel. Theologian Yves Congar advocates the idea of the church, not in protest or isolation to the world, but as the saving presence of Christ within the world.

The Church is not a special little group, isolated, apart, remaining untouched amidst the changes of the world. The Church is the world as believing in Christ, or, what comes to the same thing, it is Christ dwelling in and saving the world by our faith. —Yves M.-J. Congar, The Reasons for the Unbelief of our Time

Beautiful! Our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ. We do this best, not by protest or political action, but by enacting a beautiful presence within the world. The Western church has had four centuries of viewing salvation in a mechanistic manner, presenting it as a plan, system or formula. It would be much better if we would return to viewing salvation as a song we sing. The book of Revelation (from which George Frideric Handel found the lyrics for his Hallelujah chorus) doesn’t have any plans or formulas, but it has lots of songs. The task of the church is to creatively and faithfully sing the songs of the Lamb in the midst of a world founded upon the beastly principles of greed, decadence, and violence. What is needed is not an ugly protest, but a beautiful song; not a pragmatic system, but a transcendent symphony. Why? Because God is more like a musician than a manager, more like an composer than a clerk keeping ledgers.

God is more like a cantor who chants his Creation into existence and rejoices everlastingly over its beautiful harmony. His song continues, and its melody moves and inspires humankind to restore beauty and harmony to a Creation that is fallen and misshapen.” —Vigen Guroian, The Melody of Faith: Theology in an Orthodox Key

Sin and Satan have stolen from humanity the song we were meant to sing with our Creator. We are bereft of beauty and missing melody. We are left with little more than inane Muzak in the malls of meaninglessness. It is into this world that the Son of God comes singing his song. The Singer invites us to join him in his song. To sing with the Son of God the beautiful song he brings is to join the company of the redeemed. It is the beauty that saves the world.

After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemists, the geologist, ethnologist,
Finally shall come the poet worthy of that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
–Walt Whitman

Happy New Year!


(The painting is, of course, Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh)