Beauty Will Save the World
November 30, 2004
In the movie The Bourne Identity (2002), Matt Damon plays a CIA assassin who has lost his identity. In a chilling scene from the movie, he is trying to convince a woman who has given him a ride that he really is in trouble and that something more sinister than amnesia is afoot. As they sit together in a café, he points to the contents of a safety deposit box that is supposedly his – it contains passports and cash and a gun – and he asks what kind of person needs this. The woman tells him that there must be a benign explanation. He has suffered a trauma and so everything seems strange but there’s probably no real danger. Against her attempts to console him, the lost spy protests:
“I can tell you the license plate number of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is lefthanded and that the guy sitting at the counter weighs 215 pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the grey truck outside and at this altitude I can run flat out for a half mile before my hand starts shaking. Now why would I know that? How could I know that and not know who I am?”
The crisis of Jason Bourne, the spy who knows a lot of cool stuff and has mastered devastatingly effective skills but doesn’t even know who he is, puts into stark relief the challenges and choices before us today. What do we seek in our education, no matter what stage of life we are in? And, what is the purpose of a place like OBU?
Can we ever be satisfied with the accumulation of knowledge and skill without an expanding and deepening awareness of the human condition in this cruciform world? As surely as one biblical poet marveled, “what is man that God considers him,” (Psalm 8) and another psalmist cried, “my God, my God why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22), so, Christians who would keep faith with the gift of education must struggle to know as they are known, to enter deeply into the Christ-shaped coherence of all things as they are known and sustained by God. (cf. Col. 1.17) As the Matt Damon character knew no alley too dark or risk too great or sacrifice too costly or lead too insignificant in his pursuit to discover the key to his existence, we too must probe with humility, courage and integrity, conviction and energy the full reaches of human knowledge and experience in faith, hope, and love. Such an education, such a quest is God’s gift to us. Why has this gift been given us and what shall we do with it? This is the question posed by the Russian writer Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn. He posed the question, however, about art in an extraordinary speech written for his acceptance of the Nobel Prize for literature. And the title of his lecture? “Beauty Will Save the World” (The World Treasury of Modern Religious Thought, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1990, 623-30). Beauty will save the world. The world needs saving, but is beauty up to the task? What could this possibly mean anyway, and what does it have to do with education and the gift God has given us?
Solzhenitsyn did not get it at first. He came across the expression among the musings of another Russian writer, Dostoyevsky, who used it without explanation. And so Solzhenitsyn struggled. “What does this mean?” he thought. “Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift – but whom had it ever saved?” (625)
We might be amazed that Solzhenitsyn even had time or energy for such questions. He was, after all, for much of his life a prisoner in the infamous Russian gulags. But according to his own testimony he survived his ordeal as a man of literature who lingered long over such questions through the long cold Russian nights. And on the other side of that experience he took his stand on this conclusion: “It is in vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm.” (625)
Quick affirmations are our biggest temptation. Like Peter promising to follow Jesus anywhere anytime. “Hit me with your best shot,” we want to say to our pastors, “but, please, make sure you slap some knowledge on me I can use.” We sure don’t want to leave empty handed!
Here’s what I think Solzhenitsyn was trying to say and why I think it matters for us. I think he was trying to warn us that if we search for truth and goodness yet are not captured by the beauty of it all, we’ll never get past the illusion of mastery and control that already binds us. If in our quest for knowledge our vision is never transfixed by something beyond ourselves, by some fearsome beauty upon which we dare not turn our backs, we have no hope of change and thus no hope at all. Forever scavengers for bits of useful information, we’ll scarcely notice the chains that bind us.
Would we be free? Perhaps that’s why we’re here. We are, after all, a place devoted to the pursuit of the liberal arts, those modes of learning that promise freedom. And perhaps we have some vague conviction that what Jesus said about knowing the truth and the truth making us free has some sort of connection to our tasks. Yes, that sounds about right. Truth and freedom. We like that. Wrap that up for us. We’ll take it.
But what if Solzhenitsyn was right? What if beauty has something to do with our deliverance? What if the liberating truth of which Jesus spoke is not so much a tool that we lay hold of to cut through our own chains for ourselves; instead, maybe the truth we seek is the truth that seeks us. The beautiful reality of the word made flesh. The terrible truth that transforms us when we finally behold its awesome splendor.
Some of us, I suspect, wince at or outright rebel against the notion that “beauty will save the world” because we’ve gotten hold of the precise truth “Jesus saves.” This, we would argue, is ultimate truth, and nothing else need be known. For us, if Jesus saves and that is the truth, then beauty, whatever that is, must take a back seat. Yet isn’t there a terrible beauty in the cross of Christ? Isn’t the spectacle of Christ on the cross a wondrous vision with the power to transform us? And if this is so, do we have “eyes to see?”
Our world is in too big a mess for us to be satisfied with truth reducible to a slogan. Let us not fall prey to the temptations of precision and tidiness and manageability when it comes to the truth and beauty, which call to us. How tragic would it be at this hour for us to succumb to those armed with certitude, who peddle answers that are neatly packaged lies. Those who barter at the foot of the cross have not yet looked up. But we are being called to lift our gaze, to see the truth in all its beauty and splendor. Is this, then, why we are here? To lift our gaze and be transformed? I believe that it is. As those who know and love OBU, think about it. How might this happen at OBU?
Let’s admit first of all that it might not happen. Students might take their place in our classes, take all the exams, write all the papers, meet all the standards of the professions for which we are training, successfully fulfill the degree requirements, land a good job upon graduation and never take one step toward the light. We’ll know a lot more than we do on the first day of class, know how to write better, communicate more effectively, be proficient at skills we never dreamed possible and yet not be fundamentally changed. We’ll still be like our idols, with eyes that can’t see and ears that can’t hear and mouths that can’t speak. But we’ll be a big success because the world loves folk who see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. People, in other words, who take their place and mind their own business.
To see the tragedy of that outcome of our education, let us consider another possible outcome. Let’s think about the young man who comes to OBU to prepare for the ministry. He flies through his freshman year, generally digging all the Bible he gets to take and busies himself enough to ignore the fleeting moments in US 101 or 102 when the Bible he had always loved seems strange and distant. In the summer he works at the camp at which he had been saved and tells everyone he can about how God has called him into the ministry and how awesome it is to follow God. Year two at OBU arrives and he hits the wall we call Western Civilization. Not knowing better, he reads all the assignments and actually thinks about all the questions they raise. Honest enough not to pretend he understands that which he does not, he slows down enough in his study for the fleeting moments of doubt to catch up with him. The first sign of trouble for his family and friends is when he begins to think out loud about changing majors and pursuing something other than ministry. By spring break he is openly questioning the validity of the Christian faith and making plans to drop out of OBU.
So which scenario portrays the greater tragedy? Scenario one, the successful OBU graduate who finds her place in the world having never had her gaze lifted and her life thereby transformed? Or scenario two, the erstwhile ministry major who turns from Christianity because of honest doubts and sincere questions his education has allowed him to consider?
C.S. Lewis once argued that “when a young man who has been going to church in a routine way honestly realises that he does not believe in Christianity and stops going – provided he does it for honesty’s sake and not just to annoy his parents – the spirit of Christ is probably nearer to him then than it ever was before.” (Mere Christianity, New York: Macmillan, 1952, 163). Can we make room for that possibility? Can we appreciate the fact that genuine education is so rewarding because it offers the possibility of transformation but because of that possibility education is risky as well? Do we understand that Christian education cannot be made safe because God, while good, is not safe either? Can we agree that far more tragic than the wayward student is the self-satisfied student sanctimoniously looking for better handles on the truth he already presumes to possess? These scenarios are more than my rhetorical constructions; more complex versions of them both are likely to play out on the OBU campus and throughout life.
But something else may happen as well. There always exists the possibility that our studies may transform us. May God give us eyes to see and ears to hear. May he fill our hearts and minds so full of new truth and fresh perspectives that the old wineskins burst and we’ll experience rapture as well as rupture. We may yet have our gaze lifted and be given to see the worldwide, cosmos-engaging, terrible, beautiful truth of the cross of Jesus the Christ.
So how might that happen? It won’t without the discipline of study. Christian education is not about finding ourselves in the customary sense of that expression. It is about losing ourselves in something bigger than ourselves, about giving ourselves to something apart from and grander than the independent selves we’ve deluded ourselves into thinking we are. Notice on this score the language of our studies and curricula. We study other subjects, not objects. There is live truth to be wrestled with and not just dead information to be accumulated and assimilated. Notice, too, that we explore the truth through the portals of various disciplines and can never truly be granted free, unfettered access to truth. It seems paradoxical, but the path to freedom is submission and discipline and the transformation we seek will cost us the selves we currently are.
In addition to discipline, faith is a requirement for Christian education. I once had a student cry out as I was handing out an exam, “Dr. Hall, can we pray before the exam?” I assured her that she could pray over every question if she wanted to. I don’t know if she did and I don’t remember her grade but I’m confident that Christ, though with her, did not take the exam for her. But faith, as the substance of things hoped for, is certainly no small thing. So here are my hopes and what I pray for.
May we rise each day and thank God for the gift of learning whether we are young in our learning or more experienced with age. May our churches be a community of learners where we are bound by a common humanity and energized by the differences brought to the table. And please, God, deliver us from the false humility that masks our sloth, the miserly conceptions of truth that keep us from being truly free, and the illusion of having arrived when we’ve only just begun.
Kevin Hall holds the Ida Elizabeth and J.W. Hollums chair of Bible and is an associate professor of religion. In 1999, he received OBU’s Promising Teacher Award. He is a member, deacon, and Sunday School teacher at First Baptist Church, Shawnee and serves as supply preacher for churches around the state. He and his wife, Dee Dee, have three children, Brian, Bonnie, and Bethany.