I received an email today with an essay by Fr. Robert Barron (it doesn't seem to be available on the web yet) about evangelizing through beauty:
In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time. “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s. In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.” To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic. Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel that was a riot of baroque decoration. Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education. The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again.
In the course of his many visits, Charles came, of course, to know the inhabitants of the house, Sebastian’s strange and beguiling family. Especially through Sebastian’s mother, the aristocratic and devoutly Catholic Lady Marchmain, he became familiar with the moral demands of the Catholic Church, especially as they pertained to Sebastian’s increasing problem with alcohol. For many years, Charles joined Sebastian in his friend’s rebellion against these strictures, but in time, he came to appreciate their importance, indeed their indispensability. Finally, at the very close of the story, we learn that Charles, the erstwhile agnostic, had come to embrace the coherent philosophical system of Catholicism and to worship the Eucharistic Lord who was enshrined in the beautiful chapel at Brideshead. Many years after entering that chapel as a mere aesthete, he knelt down in it as a believer.Father Barron makes many good points here, but he's mistaken in one thing: the chapel at Brideshead is not beautiful, not to Charles Ryder's trained eye. It is not "a riot of baroque decoration"; it had been renovated some twenty-odd years before Charles sees it in the Arts and Crafts style, and though Charles is hesitant to say so to his hosts, he finds it hideous. The chapel is a symbol, throughout the book, of how the falsity of poor art can stand between an aesthetic soul and God.
"You're an artist, Ryder (says Brideshead), what do you think of it aesthetically?"Charles does learn to see God despite ugliness: at the end of the book he kneels in the chapel, before "a beaten copper lamp of deplorable design".
"I think it's beautiful," said Cordelia with tears in her eyes.
"But is it Good Art?
"Well, I don't know what you mean," I said warily. "I think it's a remarkable example of its period. Probably in eighty years it will be greatly admired."
"But surely it can't be good twenty years ago and good in eighty years and not be good now?"
"Well, it may be good now. All I mean is that I don't happen to like it much."
The on-going conversation about the engagement of Catholicism and the arts has been active lately with the advent of movies such as Here Be Dragons, For Greater Glory, and The Passion of the Christ. (I would assume that Protestants are having their own conversations about movies in the Fireproof vein.) It's telling all these movies were embraced by various stripes of Catholic media, as is presenting Catholicism in a non-hostile light were the only thing necessary to make a movie good art. Also telling is the fact that of the recent spate of "Catholic" movies, only The Passion of the Christ received anything approaching critical acclaim. The critics can always be wrong, of course, but they're also a useful standard, trained as they are to look for a certain baseline level of quality: is the movie consistent? does the plot make sense? is the acting good? does the director understand cinematic structure? is the screenplay coherent?
As Catholics, we also have standards for judging, not just art, not just movies, not just novels, not just entertainment, but every product of man's hands: Is it good? Is it true? Is it beautiful? Catholic art is much more than just slipping an explanation of dogma or a favorable portrayal of a priest into a work -- it's high quality, honest, and evocative whether or not religion is explicitly mentioned. Since God is Truth and Beauty and Goodness, what is good and true and beautiful must point to Him and participate in His life. Conversely, art that relies on wedging Catholic imagery or teachings into formulaic or unrealistic portrayals of reality doesn't do itself any favors. Not everyone who says, "Lord, Lord," will enter the kingdom of heaven.
I read a Catholic novel the other day, and I'm sorry to say that it was one of the more poorly written pieces I've had the misfortune to read lately -- though as I tend not to be a consumer of pop fiction perhaps my quality level is misaligned with the general taste. It told and it showed, neither to best advantage. The premise was unbelievable, the characters were by turns too period and too anachronistic, the plot needed several kinds of tightening and crafting, and the writing shifted between being didactic, obvious, repetitive, and plain boring. And yet it was praised by several Catholic reviewers whose taste in fiction and ability to evaluate literature I will ever after hold suspect.
Catholicism is more than an Old Boys Club or mutual affirmation society. Catholic reviewers shouldn't be afraid to insist, in charity, on quality from Catholic artists -- that's part of the role of a reviewer. Of course, it does not make one a bad person or a bad Catholic to be unable to construct a paragraph -- but it does make one a bad writer. Good writing, like all good art, raises all those who encounter it, regardless of education, and evangelizes those who love beauty without realizing that Beauty is God.