Chapter 1: Form and Beauty: This is a book about beauty and Christianity—or perhaps about the beauty of Christianity. We are all attracted to beauty. We desire it, we admire it, we recognize it when we see it. We have an innate instinct for beauty, even if the definition of what beauty actually is can be a bit unwieldy. In an academic sense, beauty is generally
understood as a combination of color, shape, and form that we find aesthetically pleasing. That is a rather bland description of beauty, but even if the definition is inadequate, we do understand that beauty has a form. This is important. Whether it’s a painting or a poem or a sculpture or a song, beauty has a form. Form is central to beauty. Distortion of a beautiful form takes away from its beauty. Obviously it’s even possible for a beautiful thing to become so distorted and deformed that it loses most or all of its beauty. When this happens, it’s a kind of vandalism.
Think of a beautiful stained-glass window, an artistic combination of color, shape, and form. Imagine a stained-glass masterpiece in a great cathedral, perhaps depicting a scene
from the life of Jesus. Now try to imagine a vandal lobbing bricks through that window. The beautiful combination of color and form has been broken, and beauty has been lost. It is a tragedy, and we are saddened. What we hope for now is some kind of restoration—we hope that beauty can be recovered. We hope for this because one way of viewing life is as an ongoing struggle to create, preserve, and recover what is beautiful. This is why art is not merely a leisure pursuit but serious business, because, quite simply, life should be made as beautiful as possible.
But this is not a book about art appreciation. This is a book about Christianity and about making it beautiful. Christianity in its proper form is a transcendent beauty. The story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection is not only the greatest story ever told, but it’s also the most beautiful story ever told. Christianity as the ongoing expression of the Jesus story lived out in the lives of individuals and in the heart of society is a beauty that can
redeem the world. That is an almost outlandish statement, but I believe it!
Yet I also recognize that Christianity can be distorted. It can be twisted out of shape. It can lose its beautiful form. When this happens, Christianity is not only less than beautiful; it can at times be blatantly ugly. It has happened before. What I fear is that we are in danger of losing our perspective of what is most beautiful about Christianity and accidentally vandalizing our faith with the best of intentions. I fear the vandalism has already begun. This book is about what can be done and how Christianity can recover its form and beauty through a new kind of reformation.
Ecclesia reformata semper reformanda—The church reformed and always reforming.This Latin phrase was one of the mottoes of the Protestant Reformation—a reminder and an acknowledgment that for the church to remain true to its mission and witness and to retain its beauty, the church must constantly be reforming itself. Of course, semper reformanda doesn’t mean the church should mindlessly engage in change for the sake of faddish novelty or trendy innovation. That’s not what I’m talking about. Rather semper reformanda comes from the realization that there are forces—political, social, theological, spiritual, and so forth—that over time tend to twist the church and the gospel out of shape. As a result the church must continually seek to recover the true form and original beauty found in the gospel of Jesus Christ. This kind of reformation is an ongoing process.
There is indeed a sense in which the need for some measure of reformation is always present, but there are also times when the need for reformation (think re-formation) is more critical than others. There are times when the distortion of the church is severe enough that the integrity of our message is compromised. I’m convinced the evangelical church in the Western world is facing just such a crisis. Putting it as plainly as I can, evangelical Christianity needs to recover the form and beauty that are intrinsic to Christianity. We need a reformation because we are being twisted out of shape. Let me try to explain how this has happened.
The stories of evangelicalism and America are deeply intertwined in much the same way that the stories of Catholicism and the Roman Empire are intertwined. Evangelical Christianity came of age during America’s rise to superpower status on the world stage. America, untethered from European Christendom and their vassal state churches, provided an environment conducive for evangelical Christianity, and evangelical Christianity has flourished in the American environment. (By evangelical I mean the expression of Protestant Christianity characterized by a dual emphasis on the authority of Scripture and a personal conversion experience—this is evangelicalism at its best.) So far
so good. But there is always a particular temptation faced by the church when it is hosted by a superpower. The temptation is to accommodate itself to its host and to adopt (or even christen) the cultural assumptions of the superpower.
This is nothing new. The long history of the church bears witness to the reality and seductive power of this temptation. The historic problem the Greek Orthodox Church struggled with in the East sixteen hundred years ago was the temptation to be too conformed to the Byzantine Empire. At the same time, the historic problem the Roman Catholic Church struggled with in the West was the temptation to be too conformed
to the Roman Empire. And I dare to suggest (or even insist!) that the problem that is distorting American evangelicalism is that it has become far too accommodating to Americanism and the culture of a superpower. This is fairly obvious. You don’t have to be a sociologist to recognize that the American obsession with pragmatism, individualism, consumerism, materialism, and militarism that so characterizes contemporary America has come to shape (and thereby distort) the dominant form of evangelical Christianity found in North America. It becomes American culture with a Jesus fish bumper sticker. If we are unwilling to engage in critical thought, we will simply assume that this is Christianity, when in reality it is a kind of Christianity blended with many other things.
To be born in America is to be handed a certain script. We are largely unconscious of the script, but we are “scripted” by it nevertheless. The American script is part of our nurture
and education, and most of it happens without our knowing it. The dominant American script is that which idolizes success, achievement, acquisition, technology, and militarism. It is the script of a superpower. But this dominant script does not fit neatly with the alternative script we find in the gospel of Jesus Christ. So here is our challenge: when those who confess Christ find themselves living in the midst of an economic and military superpower, they are faced with the choice to either be an accommodating chaplain or a prophetic challenge. Over the last generation or so, evangelicalism has been
more adept at endorsing the dominant script than challenging it. And in conforming too closely to the dominant script of Americanism, the Christianity of the American church has become disfigured and distorted and is in desperate need of recovering its true form and original beauty through a process of re-formation. We need to bear the form and beauty of the Jesus way and not merely provide a Christianized version of our cultural assumptions.
In order to recover the true form and original beauty that is integral to Christianity, we need an ideal form, a true standard, an accurate template, a faithful model to which we can look, to which we must conform. For historic Christianity this has always been Jesus Christ upon the cross, which is a holy irony, since crucifixion was designed to be ghastly and hideous. But this is the mystery of the cross. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ, which attains in retrospect an eternal glory and beauty through the resurrection, is the axis of Christianity around which everything else revolves. Thus the cruciform (the shape of a cross) is the eternal form that endows Christianity with its mysterious beauty. Simply put, the cross is the form that makes Christianity beautiful! The cross is the beauty of Christianity because it is at the cross that we encounter co-suffering love and costly forgiveness in its most beautiful form.
But the question is, can we see the beauty of the cruciform? In a culture that idolizes success, can we see beauty in the cross? In a culture that equates beauty with a “pretty
face,” can we see past the horror of a grisly execution and discern the sacred beauty beneath the surface? This is what artistic representations of the cruciform are capable of capturing and why their work is invaluable. The artist doesn’t give us a journalistic photograph of an event, but an artistic interpretation of an event. The great masters of sacred art were both artists and theologians; through their work they have given us an artistic interpretation that reveals the inherent, but hidden, beauty of the cross. Consider the cruciform and try to apprehend its beauty. The Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in the gesture of proffered embrace, refusing to call upon avenging angels but instead loving his enemies and praying for their forgiveness—this is the form and beauty of Christianity. The cruciform is the posture of love and forgiveness where retaliation is abandoned and outcomes are entrusted to the hands of God. The cross is laden with mystery. At first glance it looks like anything but success. It looks like failure. It looks like defeat. It looks like death. It is death. But it is also the power and wisdom of
God. This is mysterious. It is also beautiful. This is the mysterious beauty that saves the world.
The cruciform is the aesthetic of our gospel. It is the form that gives Christianity its unique beauty. It is what distinguishes Christianity from the dominant script of a superpower. But the beauty of the cruciform is a beauty communicated in a mystery. To those who value only conventional power and crass pragmatism—which is always the tendency of a superpower—the cruciform looks like folly, weakness, defeat, and death. It is not conventional beauty. But to those who have eyes to see, the cruciform shows forth a transcendent beauty—the beauty of love and forgiveness. It is the beauty of Christ’s
love and forgiveness as most clearly seen in the cruciform that is able to save us from our vicious pride and avaricious greed.
This is relevant to our situation because pride and greed are often pawned off as virtues in the culture of a superpower. Pride and greed are the engines of expansion, and as such they tend to be reworked as attributes. It was true in first-century Rome, and it’s true in twenty-first-century America. We’re told to “take pride in ourselves” and reminded that “we’re number one.” We sing about how proud we are to be Americans (even in church!). Plus there’s always someone new buying into Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy of self-interest and explaining to us with great passion how “greed is good.” But our Scriptures give a minority report; they tell us that pride and greed are the pliers that have distorted our humanity into a sinful ugliness. We must see the beauty of Christ in the cruciform and understand that it is only the beauty of self-sacrificing love that can
save us from pride and greed. This is the beauty Dostoevsky correctly and prophetically spoke of when he said, “Beauty will save the world.”
The church always faces the temptation to turn its gaze from the beauty of the cruciform and look instead to “the kingdoms of the world and their splendor.” The beauty of the cruciform is a subtle and hidden beauty, like the enigmatic smile of Mona Lisa. The splendor of Babylon is brash, like the garish lights of Las Vegas. When we lose sight of the subtle beauty of the cruciform we become seduced by the power, prestige, and pragmatism of politics. To borrow Tolkien’s theme, we become seduced by the ring of power. The ring of power is the enemy of beauty. It was the ring of power—“my precious”—that transformed the humanlike Sméagol into the reptilian Gollum. In like manner, the church begins to devolve from beauty into a distorted form less beautiful the moment it reaches for the ring of power.
But we reach for the ring of power nevertheless. We find it almost irresistible. Of course we supply ourselves with copious reasons as to why our fascination with conventional power is a good thing: “We want to have power to do good.” “We want to make a difference in the world.” “We have to take a stand against evil.” But without realizing it, we are being subtly seduced into thinking there is a better way to go about achieving righteousness and justice (think beauty) than by taking up the cross and following Jesus. We begin to think that if we can just get Caesar on our side, if we can just get the emperor to hold a National Prayer Breakfast, we can then baptize the ways and means of the empire and at last accomplish “great things for God.” And here’s the thing: Caesar is
more than willing to employ the church as a chaplain, as long as the church will endorse (with a bit of religious flourish) the ways and means of the empire. Of course the ways and means of the empire are the ways and means of political and military domination. There’s no beauty in that. Politics is never pretty. Everyone knows that. Thus the church sacrifices the beauty of Christianity when it chooses the political form over the cruciform.
Reaching for the ring of power distorts our beauty.
But why would we do it? Why would we sacrifice the enchanting beauty of Christianity for the ugly machine of politics? Because political power is so—and there’s no other word for it—pragmatic. We’re convinced “it works.” What could be more simple? Here’s the formula. Just put good people in positions of power and good things will happen. (Such thinking is very close to the wilderness temptation Jesus faced; more on that later.) We are easily seduced by the clear logic of political pragmatism. But we need to remember that God does not save the world through the clear logic of political pragmatism (though Jesus was tempted by the devil, and even by his own disciples, to attempt it). Instead, God saves the world through the ironic and mysterious beauty of the cruciform. To achieve good through attaining political and military dominance has
always—always!—been the way of the fallen world. We seem to lack the imagination to envisage any other way. But it’s not the Jesus way. It’s not the beautiful way. It’s not the way of the cruciform.
Jesus does not save the world by adopting the ways and means of political pragmatism and becoming the best Caesar the world has ever seen. Instead Jesus saves the world by suffering the worst crime humanity is capable of—the crime of deicide (the murder of God). On the cross Jesus absorbed our hate and hostility, our vengeance and violence into His own body and recycled it into love and forgiveness. By his wounds we are healed. By this beauty we are saved.
The third-century theologian Origen observed that “the marvel of Christ is that, in a world where power, riches, and violence seduce hearts and compel assent, he persuades and prevails not as a tyrant, an armed assailant, or a man of wealth, but simply as a teacher of God and his love.”1 Commenting on this, David Bentley Hart says, “Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire. . . . Such an account [of Christ] must inevitably make an appeal to beauty.”2 I absolutely agree! Christ persuades, not by the force of Caesar, but by the beauty of love.
I assume that every Christian would agree with the idea that what Jesus did in his death was beautiful and that somehow this beautiful act is central to our salvation. But the challenge is to translate the beauty of the cruciform into contemporary Christianity—especially a contemporary Christianity obsessed with power and politics. The beauty of the cruciform by which Jesus saves the world through an act of co-suffering love and
costly forgiveness is the same beauty that must characterize the church if we are to show forth the glory of the Lord in our world. But it’s the beauty of cruciform love that is most
marred when we allow the Christian faith to be politicized.
A politicized faith loses its beauty very quickly. I know, because I was once an enthusiastic participant in the process of faith-based politicization. I was willing to subtly, and at times not so subtly, align my church with partisan political agendas. Senators and congressman would visit my church to give their testimonies (always around election time). We handed out “voter guides” so those not paying close enough attention would know how to vote. We found ways to make the elephants and donkeys of the American political process somehow analogous to the sheep and goats in Jesus’s parables. But for me that came to an abrupt end in a fairly dramatic fashion.
In September of 2004 in the heat of a volatile presidential campaign I was asked to give the invocation at a political rally where one of the vice presidential candidates was
appearing. I agreed to do so. I remember well the acrimony outside the convention center where protestors and supporters were busy hurling ugly epithets at one another. Inside the convention center the crowd was being whipped into a political frenzy that amounted to “hurray for our side!” As I sat on the platform with the political acolytes, and me as their rent-a-chaplain, I began to squirm. I knew I was being used. I was a pawn in a political game. I felt like a tool. (And a fool!) When it came time for me to pray (for which the unstated purpose was to let it be known that God was squarely on our side), I stepped to the podium and first prayed silently, “God, what am I doing here? I’ve made a mistake. I’m sorry.” I then offered a largely innocuous prayer and left as soon as I could, promising myself and God that I would never do anything like that again. But in leaving the convention center I again had to run the gauntlet of supporters and protesters yelling at one another with the police in between the two groups to prevent them from being at one another’s throats. It wasn’t pretty. And no prayer could make it pretty. It was petty, partisan, and petulant. I could not imagine Jesus or the apostles sullying their gospel to participate in it.
That moment was a turning point for me. I was no longer willing to see the church as a sidekick to Caesar, fully baptized (immersed, not sprinkled) into the acrimonious world
of partisan politics. It’s not that I’m afraid of controversy or persecution—I am perfectly willing to suffer persecution and ridicule for the sake of Christ (this is part of the cruciform). But I am unwilling to throw myself into the political fray for the sake of partisanship. I’m unwilling to do so because I simply no longer believe that political parties have much to do with God’s redemptive work in the world. Jesus is building his
church, not a political party. And I’m absolutely certain that political partisanship costs us our prophetic voice. We end up a tool to one side, an enemy to the other, and prophetic to neither. The bottom line is there is simply no way to make politics beautiful. But the way of the cruciform is beautiful. And I have made my choice. I choose the beautiful over the pragmatic. I realize that many people will not understand this, but I fully believe this is precisely the choice Jesus made. In choosing the cruciform over the political, Jesus was choosing the beautiful over the pragmatic.
If we are going to recover the form and beauty of Christianity, we are going to have to face squarely the issue of the politicization of the faith, because things are getting ugly. In the current climate of polarized partisanship where everything is now politicized, there is an appalling amount of anger, vitriol, and a general lack of civility. Sadly, millions of confessed followers of Jesus are being swept up in the madness as they give vent to their anger, fully convinced that God is on their side. Their justification is “we’ve got to take America back for God.” Presumably this is to be done by the dubious means of acrimonious partisan politics. But we need to think less politically and more biblically.
Does the church have a mandate to change the world through political means? We have assumed so, but it is a questionable assumption at best. Baptist theologian Russell Moore
has observed that, “Too often, and for too long, American ‘Christianity’ has been a political agenda in search of a gospel useful enough to accommodate it.”3 But is our mission a kind of political agenda or is it something else? Isn’t our first task to actually be God’s alternative society? Pause and think about that. I’m afraid we’ve made a grave mistake concerning our mission. We’re not so much tasked with running the world as with being a faithful expression of the kingdom of God through following Jesus and living the beautiful life that Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus described his disciples as sheep among wolves. The mistake of confusing our mission of being faithful as God’s alternative society with trying to rule the world through the crude means of political power is nothing new—it’s the mistake the church has been making for seventeen centuries. Prior to the Roman emperor Constantine, the early church was content to simply be the church—to be a city set upon a hill living the alternative
lifestyle that is the Jesus way. But after the emperor Constantine and the adoption of Christianity as the imperial religion, the church embarked upon a project of running the
world in cahoots with Caesar. This project has not turned out well. And it has been particularly damaging to the church. In fact, it has led to the ugliest episodes in church history. The church’s collusion with political agendas led us into the shameful venture of the Crusades and the arrogant doctrine of Manifest Destiny. These things are truly ugly.
The problem with our “change the world” rhetoric is that it is too often a thinly veiled grasp for power and a quest for dominance—things that are antithetical to the way Jesus calls his disciples to live. A politicized faith feeds on a narrative of perceived injury and lost entitlement leading us to blame, vilify, and seek to in some way retaliate against those we imagine responsible for the loss in late modernity of a mythical past. It’s what Friedrich Nietzsche as a critic of Christianity identified as ressentiment, and it drives much of the Christian quest for political power. In the Jesus way the end—no matter how
noble—never justifies the means. It’s inevitable that a movement fueled by resentment will soon depart from the Jesus way, and it is bound to become ugly. Jesus specifically told us that we are not to emulate the ugly ways of Caesar in grasping for power and dominance. Instead we are to choose the counterintuitive way of humility, service, and sacrificial love. These things are inherently beautiful. But we have a hard time learning this lesson.
When the disciples James and John (whom for obvious reasons Jesus called “the sons of thunder”) expressed a desire to reign with Christ in their imagined version of Jesus as Caesar, Jesus made it clear that they didn’t know what they were talking about and that the way of political dominance would not be the way of his kingdom. Jesus curtly told his disciples: “It shall not be so among you.”† Jesus was doing something new and truly beautiful; he was not imitating the way and means of Caesar. The brutal Roman Empire had plenty of splendor as veneer, but it lacked any true depth of beauty. Jesus deliberately
chose the beauty of co-suffering love over the brutal pragmatism of political power. When Pilate encountered Christ, he could not understand this—but we must. We must
never forget that Jesus ushered in his kingdom by refusing to oppose Caesar on Caesar’s terms. Jesus didn’t fight political power with political power. Thus Jesus submitted to the
injustice of a state-sponsored execution by telling Pilate, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting.” Think about that. It is part of the mystery and beauty of Christianity that the kingdom of God comes, not by the sword of political power, but by the cross of self-sacrificing love. Jesus didn’t smash his foes with the sword of “righteous” political power; instead he absorbed the blow of injustice and committed his fate to the hands of God. In this we find an undeniable truth: we cannot fight for the kingdom of Christ in the same manner that
the nations of the world fight, for the moment we do, we are no longer the kingdom of Christ but the kingdom of the world! A politicized mind can only imagine power as political domination, but a Spirit-renewed mind imagines the more excellent way of love—which is the more beautiful way of the cruciform.
Admittedly we live in a world where much is wrong. But what is most wrong with the world is not our politics or Congress or who lives in the White House. This is either the
naïve gullibility or the manipulative rhetoric of partisanship. What is most wrong with the world is the ugly distortion of humanity brought about through the dehumanizing forces of lust, greed, and pride. As followers of Jesus we are not called to campaign for a political solution—for ultimately there is none—but to demonstrate an authentic Christian alternative. We are advocates of another way. Certainly we can participate in the political process, but we must do so primarily as ambassadors of another kingdom exhibiting and teaching the beautiful virtues of that kingdom. This is how we are salt and light. This is what makes us a shining city set upon a hill. We are to model what it means to be Christlike in a Caesar-like world. But to be Christlike in a Caesar-like world requires us to embrace the cruciform.
Of course the cruciform is offensive to the unimaginative mind of pragmatism. Pragmatism sees the cruciform as a passive surrender (though it is anything but that!). Pragmatism believes the only way to change the world is to beat down the bad guys—either with ballots or bullets. But without even raising the thorny issue of who are the bad guys in the ever-escalating world of revenge, the philosophy of “beat down the bad guys” displays an appalling lack of imagination. Pragmatism requires little imagination; it only needs the will to power. Or pragmatism will trot out the oft-quoted axiom from Edmund Burke: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” That is true enough, provided we don’t misapply what it means to “do nothing.” I was once given Burke’s maxim as a counterargument after preaching on the Sermon on the Mount. As if living the Sermon on the Mount is “doing nothing.” Or worse yet, as if a Christian can call upon Edmund Burke to refute Jesus Christ!
But here is the real problem I have with the trajectory of the American evangelical church in the early twenty-first century. If, instead of imitating Christ with his cross, we want to
imitate Caesar with his sword, we inevitably choose the ugly over the beautiful. This approach always leads the church away from living as a witness to the gospel. Being a faithful witness to the gospel should be a hallmark of evangelical Christianity.
But something has gone very wrong. Think about it—that the primary public witness of the American evangelical church for the past thirty years has been political is an absolute tragedy! Evangelicals are no longer known within the wider culture for their devotion to Scripture and their belief in a personal conversion experience. Now evangelicals are known primarily for their politics. This has been anything but helpful. The amount
of hope many evangelical Christians place in politics is nothing short of astonishing! If nothing else, it is naïve—but worse, it is a betrayal. It is a betrayal of the beautiful way of Christ. For in a politicized faith we embrace the ugly pragmatism of political domination over the beauty of the cruciform.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has correctly observed: “The church doesn’t have a social strategy; the church is a social strategy.”4 Instead of trying to force change upon the wider society through means of legislation, we are to exemplify the beautiful alternative of the kingdom of God by actually living it! We make a terrible mistake when we tell the wider society something like this: “We have the truth, so let us run society by setting the rules.” That is a kind of tyranny, no matter how well intended. Instead we should simply be the alternative we seek to produce. We should be a righteous and just society. We should bethe beautiful expression of the kingdom of God attracting people by the unique aesthetic of our gospel. Our form is the cruciform, and our beauty is the mysterious aesthetic of the crucified Savior.
Admittedly, this is a complicated issue that doesn’t yield itself to simplistic solutions. I understand this. Christians have a complicated relationship with the state because we are
a people who carry dual citizenship. We are citizens of both the kingdom of Christ and the particular geopolitical nation we happen to live in. But this much is certain: our first allegiance must be to the kingdom of Christ. Furthermore, we must never make the mistake of thinking God has some kind of commitment to the well-being of our particular nation over the well-being of other nations. This type of ugly and arrogant nationalism is completely incompatible with the Christian faith, which confesses Jesus as Savior of the world and not merely some version of a national deity. Is it possible that American Christians actually believe that Jesus has an interest in the well-being of America over the wellbeing of, say, Mexico or China or Ethiopia? Surely not! This is “American Exceptionalism” as a ridiculous and idolatrous doctrine. Our politicians may traffic in such nonsense, but Christians must not! What Jesus is committed to is the salvation
of the world and the building up of his global church. So whereas Christians are free to participate in the civic and political process of their respective nations, Christians must
do so as those who exhibit a primary allegiance to the Jesus way—the beautiful way of the cruciform. This means treating everyone (including political enemies) with kindness, love, and respect. As followers of Christ, our mission is not to seek to rule the world through Caesar’s means of dominance—a means Jesus explicitly rejected—but to be a faithful church and thus a living example of God’s alternative society.
So, reformation is needed, and the cruciform is what can give shape to our much-needed reformation. In the cruciform we find both our proper form and, subsequently, our unique
beauty. The cruciform as a pattern gives us a means of evaluating our own form and how we present ourselves to the wider culture. With an eye on the cruciform, we can ask ourselves, “Does this attitude, this approach, this action look like Jesus on the cross?” If our attitude, approach, and action cannot be reasonably compared to the image of the cruciform, we need to abandon it. Caesar may adopt it, it may be practical, it may
even be “successful,” but if it’s not Christlike, then it’s not our pattern. Without a radical commitment to the shape of the cruciform, the process of deformation will continue year after year, and our beauty will be lost.
One of the “pliers” that distorts our Christian witness out of shape is the paradigm of protest. For far too long we have been enamored (and distorted) by protest. We love to protest. We really do. We’re good at it. We have lots of practice at it. In protest we find an outlet for our anger, we connect with like-minded people, and we at least feel like we are “making a difference” and “standing up for righteousness.” It’s exciting and cathartic. So we picket, we protest, we boycott, we form petition drives, and we write angry letters to editors and CEOs and encourage other Christians to do the same. We hold rallies where we in no uncertain terms, and with presumed divine sanction, unleash our righteous anger on a wide range of enemies. Liberals, Hollywood, gays, and Muslims are
regular targets. But does it look like the cruciform? Is it beautiful? Would a common observer look at it and say, “That’s beautiful; it reminds me of Jesus”? Do our clenched fists and furrowed brows of protest align nicely with the outstretched arms and compassionate face of Christ on the cross? If not, we have drifted from the pattern of the cruciform in our paradigm of protest, and the inevitable result will be a distortion of
Christianity. As our Christianity takes on more of a political agenda, it sloughs off resemblance to the cruciform. The result is a distinctive loss of beauty. We tend to justify our foray into the unseemly as necessary if we are to preserve morality, but I agree with Orthodox Archbishop Lazar Puhalo when he says, “True morality consists in how well we care for one another, not what sort of behaviour we wish to impose on one another.”5
Again I raise the question: Why would we do this? Why would we sacrifice the beauty of the cruciform for something everyone knows is a far cry from beautiful? Why this obsession with political power? I think the answer is that we have a carnal obsession with outcomes. It’s the ugly specter of pragmatism. We want to see a clear and obvious way that our actions are going to result in the desired outcome. We want to do good, achieve good, bring about good, vote in good, legislate good, formulate good, enforce good. So we choose the means that appear most logical in achieving this outcome. But remember, Satan never tempted Jesus with evil; Satan tempted Jesus with good. Satan enticed Jesus to go ahead and do good and to bring it about by the most direct way possible. The
temptation was to imitate the means and methods of the pharaohs and Caesars. Satan tempted Jesus to usher in a righteous world by a bloody sword. “War is impatience.”6 Obsession with outcomes and demanding to see a quick and logical way in which present action will bring about desired good are the ways of Caesar, but they are not the way of the cruciform. Obsession with outcomes is, among other things, an abandonment of faith.
Christians all believe that Jesus achieved salvation through what he did on the cross. (Though the exact way this works remains a matter of theological debate.) But on Good Friday, how could anyone have seen a “logic” in Jesus’s crucifixion? If Jesus’s intent was to save the world from the dominion of evil, how could submitting to an unjust execution at the hands of an oppressive regime accomplish anything like that? It’s absurd! Salvation is ironic because there is nothing logical or practical or obvious about the cross. Fighting is practical. Fighting is logical. Fighting has a long history of (at least temporarily) achieving desired ends. Peter was ready to fight, and presumably so were many others who followed Jesus from Galilee. But Jesus told Peter to put up his sword. There would
be no bloody revolution. No violent resistance. Not even an angry protest. Instead Jesus went to the cross, forgave his enemies, and simply died. In rejecting the way of Caesar, “Christ showed that the world was a text that could be read differently: according to the grammar not of power, but agape.”7
Did evil triumph because this good man did nothing? It certainly seemed so. But don’t forget the dying prayer of Jesus: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” I think we can understand Jesus’s prayer as something like this: “Father, I have obeyed you, I have shown the world your ways, but the world has rejected me and your ways. I forgive them, but I am dying. So now I entrust everything to you.” This is the way of the cruciform. It is the way of faith.
In going to the cross, Jesus was not being practical; he was being faithful. Jesus didn’t take a pragmatic approach to the problem of evil; Jesus took an aesthetic approach to the problem of evil. Jesus chose to absorb the ugliness of evil and turn it into something beautiful—the beauty of forgiveness. Jesus bore the sin of the world by it being sinned into him with wounds. Jesus bore the sin of the world without a word of recrimination,
but only a prayer of forgiveness. He bore the sin of the world all the way down to death. So that the apostle Peter says, “By his wounds you have been healed.” This is the beauty of the cruciform. This is beauty being derived from pain, or as Bob Dylan says, “Behind every beautiful thing there’s been some kind of pain.”8
In order to do a beautiful thing, Jesus had to abandon outcomes. He had to entrust the outcome to his Father. On Good Friday Jesus abandoned outcomes, embraced the cross,
and died. Jesus abandoned outcomes in order to be faithful and trust his Father. As we confess in the Apostles’ Creed, “He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead.” A lost cause. But then came Easter! The cornerstone of Christian faith is that on Easter Sunday God vindicated his Son by raising him from the dead. But until Easter Sunday no one thought of death, burial, and resurrection as a logical means of achieving good. Even today most people cannot accept the “formula” of the cruciform as a viable means of bringing about good. We want something that makes more sense. Something quicker. Something practical. And what we get are the same old ugly ways of Pharaoh and Caesar. Our embrace of the practical and ugly over the faithful and beautiful
exposes our unbelief. We are orthodox enough to confess that Jesus saves the world through his cross, but we don’t want to imitate it. So we choose the ugly forms of coercion over the beauty of the cruciform—the false morality of the Pharisee over the true morality of Christ. But our critics see this ugliness in us, even if we are unaware of it.
Part of the problem is that in the Western world we are deeply conditioned to choose the heroic over the saintly. We love our heroes best of all. Heroes are goal-oriented people of
great capabilities who know how to make things happen. We admire their ability to get things done and shape the world according to their will. Saints on the other hand—especially to the American mind—seem quaint and marginal, occupying religious spheres on the periphery of the action. We want to be heroes; we don’t really want to be saints. The difference between the heroic vision and the saintly vision is a fundamentally
different way of viewing the purpose of life.
For the hero, the meaning of life is honor . . . for the saint,
the meaning of life is love. . . . For the hero, the goal of
living is self-fulfillment, the achievement of personal
excellence, and the recognition and admiration that
making a signal contribution to one’s society through
one’s achievements carries with it. For the saint, life
does not so much have a goal as a purpose for which
each human being is responsible; and that purpose is
love: the bonds of concern and care that responsibility
for one’s fellow human beings carry with it. . . . These
two paradigms—the hero and the saint—and the way
of life that descends from each, are really two fundamentally
distinct and genuinely different visions of
human society as a whole, and even of what it means to
be a human being. They are two distinct and different
ways of asking the question of the meaning of life.9
Accepting Francis Ambrosio’s paradigms for the hero and saint, we should recognize that the way of Jesus is the way of the saint, but the way of the hero is what we tend to glorify. To speak of the goal of life in terms of self-fulfillment, achievement, and excellence is very American (originally Greek and Roman) and very popular. There are plenty of versions of American Christianity that easily accommodate this basic paradigm. Christianity understood as a program for self-improvement and success in life is how Americanized Christianity most often accommodates itself to contemporary culture. It also makes Christianity popular and “successful.” But an honest reading of the Sermon on the Mount makes it clear that Jesus is teaching something radically different. In the Gospels we see Jesus through his teaching, which sets forth the alternative paradigm of the saint where the purpose of life is love, and the expression of that love is in the form
of care and compassion for our neighbor. The life of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels begins as a life of teaching and ends in a life of suffering. But these are not to be separated. At the cross Jesus lived all that he taught. The life of love that Jesus proclaimed in his teaching he lived in his suffering. The life of co-suffering love is the paradigm of the saint, and it is how Jesus lived and died. It is the beauty of the cruciform.
Of course I can hear someone protesting, “But Jesus is my hero!” I understand what is meant by that, but if we are intent upon forcing Jesus into the archetype of typical hero, we distort him. In trying to make Jesus a hero, we miss the simple fact that Jesus did nothing that was conventionally heroic—at least not according to the Western ideal of heroism. Elijah was a conventional hero when he humiliated the prophets of Baal on
Mount Carmel and then executed them at the brook Kishon. But how did Jesus contend with his enemies at Calvary? Not in the heroic manner of Elijah on Carmel, but in a new and saintly way—the way of love and forgiveness. The Jesus of the Gospels is not a heroic general who slaughters his enemies, but a suffering saint who forgives his enemies. And even if one appeals to the Book of Revelation, it should be remembered
that the holy irony perceived in the prophetic metaphors is that the monstrous beasts are conquered by a little slaughtered lamb. It should be clear that the way of Christ is not the way of the conventional hero, because Jesus saves the world not by shedding the blood of his enemies, but by allowing his own blood to be shed in an act of redemptive love. This is the way of the saint, not the hero.
But we struggle with choosing the way of the saint over the way of the hero. Our Christian rhetoric is replete with calls to the heroic as we are urged to “be mighty men and women of God” and “fight the battles of the Lord” and “do great things for God.” We love the idea of being a hero and winning a great battle for God. There’s a lot of what we call “glory” in it. But we’re not so keen on laying down our lives in the manner of Christ at Calvary. We fail to comprehend the glory of the cross. So we struggle with which model to adopt. The hero or the saint? Achilles or Emmanuel? Caesar or Christ? Charlemagne or St. Francis? More often than not we end up choosing the hero, and this feeds one of the ugliest aspects of a misshapen Christianity—triumphalism.
Triumphalism is an ugly form of arrogance engendering a sense of group superiority. Triumphalism is a smugness and boastful pride that one’s nationality or religion is superior to all others. If Christians aren’t careful, they can be easily seduced into the ugliness of triumphalism. As Christians we believe that Jesus has triumphed over sin, Satan, death, hell, and the grave. We confess that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. We call Jesus King of kings and Lord of lords. But this does not entitle us to an attitude of arrogant triumphalism. Confessing the triumph of Christ
should not lead to the ugliness of triumphalism. In fact, the Christian attitude should be the very opposite.
The Christian attitude must be the deep humility exhibited by the apostle Paul when he described himself as “the foremost” of sinners. Paul was able to boldly confess the lordship of Christ while at the same time exhibiting an attitude that was completely devoid of arrogance and triumphalism. In the pluralistic cultures of the modern Western world, the ugliness of triumphalism will prevent multitudes of people from seeing the true beauty of Christianity. If we engage with people of other faiths with the attitude equivalent to “my religious founder can beat up your religious founder,” we should not be surprised if they do not see the Christian faith as inherently beautiful.
A continual turning to the cruciform leaves no room for triumphalism. Yes, Jesus triumphed over evil, but he did so by the counterintuitive way of humbling himself to the point of death, “even death on a cross.”† As we seek to assimilate the cruciform into our lives, it should always produce the beauty of a graceful humility and never the ugliness of arrogant triumphalism. If we are to show forth the beauty of Christ in our world, we must banish triumphalist attitudes from among us. It was the attitude of triumphalism in the Middle Ages that led to the ugly actions of the Crusades. Since Jesus had triumphed through the cross, it was reasoned, why not help spread his triumph through the conquest of the sword? The Crusades were the ugly offspring of a union of power-obsessed
pragmatism and arrogant religious triumphalism, and I fear that this kind of distorted thinking may have certain modern equivalents.
One more thought on heroes and saints. Heroes tend to be heroes to only one side—their side. Heroes attain their glory in an “us versus them” context. For example, the French and the Russians have decidedly different views of Napoleon, just as Americans and Mexicans will view Santa Anna differently. But saints, over time, tend to be universally recognized for their saintliness. It has to do with the universality of love. It’s why nearly everyone admires St. Francis of Assisi or Mother Teresa of Calcutta whether or not they are Christian. St. Francis and Mother Teresa are preeminent examples of lives shaped by the cruciform to a degree that their lives of co-suffering love have come to be universally recognized as lives of beauty.
So in the present situation in which the American evangelical church finds itself, there is a desperate need to recover a theology of beauty. The way out of the mess and confusion of a politicized faith is to follow the path of beauty. It is the way of beauty that will lead us home to a more authentic Christianity. A theology of beauty is the antidote to the poison of pragmatism and the toxin of triumphalism. Perhaps no other theologian has done as much to develop a theology of beauty as the great Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar. In his work on love as form and beauty he writes:
Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed,
and nothing else ought to be believed. This is the
achievement, the “work” of faith . . . to believe that
there is such a thing as love . . . and that there is
nothing higher or greater than it. . . . The first thing
that must strike a non-Christian about the Christian’s
faith is that . . . it is obviously too good to be true: the
mystery of being, revealed as absolute love, condescending
to wash his creatures’ feet, and even their
souls, taking upon himself all the confusion of guilt,
all the God-directed hatred, all the accusations showered
upon him with cudgels . . . all the mocking hostility
. . . in order to pardon his creature. . . . This is truly
Indeed, it is too much! The apostle Paul would describe this extravagance as “the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.” The picture of God as seen in the redemptive co-suffering love of Christ is too much in the sense that it overwhelms us in much the same way that we find a stunning sculpture, a masterpiece painting, or a majestic sunset overwhelming—it is the experience of being overawed by a transcendent beauty. This is
how the gospel is made most compelling—by making it beautiful. Instead of trying to overwhelm a cynical world weary of argument and suspicious of truth claims with the force of logic and debate, what if they were overwhelmed with the perception and persuasion of beauty?
Beauty is graceful and has a way of sneaking past our defenses. It’s hard to argue with beauty. Beauty is compelling in its own way. What I am suggesting is that we look to
beauty as a primary standard for our theology, witness, and action. As radical as it may sound to those who have grown up in the sterile world of late modernity, asking the question Is it beautiful? is a valid and viable way to evaluate what we believe and do. We should ask ourselves: “Is this a beautiful doctrine?” “Is this a beautiful witness?” “Is this a beautiful practice?” Along with asking if it is true and if it is good, we should also ask if is it beautiful. Truth and goodness need beauty. Truth claims divorced from beauty can become condescending. Goodness minus beauty can become moralistic. To embrace truth and goodness in the Christian sense, we must also embrace beauty.
At least as far back as the Greek philosopher Plato, beauty was understood not merely as an adornment, but as a value as important as truth and goodness. It was only in the twentieth century that beauty began to be diminished as a value. Now we live in a day when pragmatism and utilitarian “values” have largely displaced beauty as a value. But the loss of beauty as a principal value has been disastrous for Western culture. One obvious example of what has befallen us is the loss of aesthetic sensibilities in architecture. Where once the role of architecture was to help beautify the shared space of our cities and neighborhoods, now the role of architecture is to build utilitarian structures as cheaply as possible. The result has been a profound loss of beauty. It’s a kind of vandalism. What modern building would people a thousand years from now flock to visit as we do the Notre Dame Cathedral today? If the Gothic cathedral was the architectural statement of the Middle Ages, the “big box” store may well be the architectural statement of our age. This is tragic. But what if what has happened to architecture is also happening to Christianity? What if modern architecture mirrors what is happening in modern
Christianity? What if utility is triumphing over beauty in the way we think about the church? This is alarming.
As our world turns its back on beauty, the result is that we are increasingly surrounded by ugliness and images of alienation. Think of government housing projects and the soulless
strip malls of suburbia. Art itself is under assault. Art is now largely driven, not by time-tested standards of beauty, but by the marketplace. So the question is no longer, “Is it beautiful?,” but “Will it sell?” (Is this too reflected in the church?) In a world where kitsch, profit, and vulgarity are vandalizing art, philosopher Roger Scruton worries that we are in danger of losing beauty, and with it the meaning of life.11 Yes, the loss of beauty is related to the loss of meaning. Attaining to the beautiful is a valid way of understanding the meaning of life—especially when we recognize a link between the sacred and the beautiful. For thousands of years, artists, sages, philosophers, and theologians have connected the beautiful and the sacred and identified art with our longing for God. It has only been during the modern phenomenon of secularism—what
Nietzsche described as the “death of God”—that we have severed the beautiful from the divine. But when the beautiful is severed from the absolute (God), what passes for beautiful can be anything and everything—which is to say nothing. There really is a profound connection between the loss of beauty and the loss of meaning.
Yet despite the modern assault upon art and beauty, the hunger for beauty abides deep in the human heart. That the allure of beauty is part of the human makeup is clearly seen
every time a child picks up crayons and tries to capture the beauty of the world around him. And it is to this firmly entrenched desire for beauty that we should appeal in our
efforts to communicate the gospel. If we can show a world lost in the ugliness of consumer-driven pragmatism and power-hungry politics the true beauty of Christ, it will be irresistibly appealing. For too long we have relied upon the cold logic of apologetics to persuade or the crass techniques of the marketplace to entice, when what we should do is creatively hold forth the transcendent beauty of Jesus Christ. But to do this, we must examine what we preach and what we practice in the light of the beauty of the cruciform.
We need to constantly ask ourselves, “Is this beautiful? Is this thought beautiful? Is the attitude beautiful? Is this action beautiful? Does it reflect the beauty of Christ and the cruciform?” If finger-pointing isn’t beautiful, then we should abandon it. If politically based protest isn’t beautiful, then maybe we can do without it. If the common man doesn’t recognize what we do in the name of Christ as beautiful, we should at least reexamine it. If a particular doctrine doesn’t come across as truly beautiful, then we should hold it suspect. Someone may raise the question, “Can beauty be trusted?” I believe it can, as long as we make the critical distinction between the shallow and
faddish thing that our modern culture calls “image” and the absolute value that our ancestors have always understood as beauty. We can rightly evaluate our faith and practice in terms of beauty for this very reason: The Lord and his ways are beautiful.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time.”
It’s time to recover the form and beauty of Christianity. Our enduring icon of beauty and the standard by which we gauge the beauty of our actions is the cruciform. The cross is a beautiful mystery—a mystery where an unexpected beauty is in the process of rescuing the world from its ugliness. Beauty will save the world. This is the surprising beauty of the cross when seen through the prism of the resurrection. The cross made beautiful is the ultimate triumph of God and his grace. If the crucifixion of Christ can be made beautiful, then there is hope that all the ugliness of the human condition can be redeemed by its beauty.