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Beauty Will Save the World (2011)


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#1 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 22 June 2011 - 01:22 PM

So looks like we've got no thread for this book yet. Basically, we should all buy it just support the cause. I just started reading it and the number of nonexistent thread discussions at A&F that this book alone could start is considerable. For instance:

pg. 5

Though it may seem a truism to most people, it eventually dawned on me that one can learn from an artist or thinker who asks the right questions, even if one may disagree with many of his answers.

pg. 6

Just as Christians believe that God became man so that He could reach into, and atone for, the pain and isolation of sin, so the artist descends into disorder so that he might discover a redemptive path toward order.

pgs. 24-25

It is precisely this fear of the imagination that has led many Christians in America to create a subculture with Christian publishers, Christian record labels, and Christian art galleries. The underlying message conveyed by these products is that they are safe; they have the Christian seal of approval. But this is a devil's bargain: in exchange for safety, these products have given up their imaginative power. And this is just where the strangest irony of all emerges. This subculture has rushed to produce Christian versions of almost every secular trend: from Christian heavy metal bands to Christian romance novels to Christian self-help books. But because these products lack the transforming power of the imagination, they are little better than the pop culture trends they imitate.

pg. 44

It's also why Christian humanists don't tend to found schools of thought or band together in cliques. More often than not, they choose to got it alone, communicating, perhaps, with kindred spirits across distances of time and space.

Anyone else read this yet? I have to admit some of the ideas in here about modern art are challenging me and some of my assumptions. I also did not know that Wolfe knew Russell Kirk - hanging out and talking with that guy must have been amazing.

I'm enjoying the read very much, Mr. Wolfe. I'm going to have some things in here to think about for a long time.

#2 ldwenzel

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Posted 22 June 2011 - 05:32 PM

I do not have access to Gregory Wolfe’s book but I was struck by the ”fear of the imagination” quote and how it paves the way for a Christian subculture etc.…. In college we read Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Here we met a religious thinker whose fictional characters wrestled with Christian faith issues in philosophical context. The author seemed to let the secular world close in on them. It all looked so bleak, and only those who were “listening” could hear the spiritual message. This is my take on a religious writer with a “fearless imagination.” Is this what Mr. Wolfe meant? Or perhaps I’m just another one of those who “go it alone, communicating, perhaps, with kindred spirits across distances of time and space.”



#3 Crow

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Posted 24 June 2011 - 04:34 PM

I have received this book in the mail, and am looking forward to reading it. However, I am very busy right now with being in the process of moving, and upcoming vacation plans, and trying to finish some other reading, so it will be a little while before I am able to jump in and devote the attention this kind of work needs. But I am sure it will be an enriching experience.

Edited by Crow, 24 June 2011 - 04:37 PM.


#4 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 09 July 2011 - 04:09 PM

Almost finished, some more thoughts:

- I find Wolfe's break with mainstream conservatism very interesting, partly because I both don't share this with him and I still agree with his main points about art and culture. I don't have the personal experiences that Wolfe has with the guys over at National Review, but I grew up with William F. Buckley as a hero reading every single book of his that I could get my hands on. Buckley regularly refused to take extreme positions in politics, economics and religion and it was part of his moderation/humanism that attracted me to his thought. At the same time, while I was never privileged to know him in person, I share Wolfe's experience of being influenced by Russell Kirk's books and thoughts as well. There is a classical tradition of Christian humanistic thought to be proud of and to constantly learn more from. Sir Thomas More & Desiderius Erasmus are great examples of this, as I believe Thomas Aquinas, Charles de Montesquieu, John Locke, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Alexander Hamilton, Frederic Bastiat, Thomas Carlyle, Alexis de Tocequeville, John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Henry Cabot Lodge, G.K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc, C.S. Lewis, Randall Jarrell and Buckley all are, among others, also.

- As I understand it, the criticism of conservative thought here is that it judges and excludes. I haven't been quite convinced that judgment and/or exclusion are bad things.

- The chapter on the art of Fred Folsom is probably the most interesting chapter discussing the work of a painter that I have ever read.

- It is high time I read some Andrew Hudgins, Geoffrey Hill and other modern poetry.

- Wolfe's thoughts on the culture wars are exactly the ideas that led me to Arts and Faith in the first place. I'm tired of the Christian use of art for propaganda/proselytizing purposes. And there are still only a minority of voices out there even trying to explain the damage that this causes. It's going to take me more time to compare Wolfe's thoughts with those of Roger Scruton whose works I've also been recently reading my way through. But both seem to advance the idea of a work of art being inherently a good or bad thing, in and of itself. Therefore, we ought to appreciate a work of art for it's own sake - not for it's utilitarian use or the position that it takes in politics or religion. And therefore, even a bad/sinful/imperfect artist can make a work of art that is, in and of itself, something good.

- Looks like I also need to get John W. O'Malley's book on the four cultures. Out of (1) the prophetic/theological, (2) the rational/critical, (3) the literary/rhetorical, and (4) the visual/performing, I'm probably most engaged in (2) and (3) rather than (3) and (4) like Wolfe. All four ought to balance each other out within an overall civilized culture - but this is an idea that has never even occurred me before, let alone most people.

- Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain has been sitting silently on my bookshelf, waiting its turn, for a couple years now. After reading Wolfe, it has started calling out to me to be read now, not later.

- Another note on the culture wars, I'm still not sure why ideology has turned into such a pejorative term. So far in the book, I have not seen quite how an ideology is any different from a philosophy or worldview. All three are all one to me. Is that that ideology tends to polarize? So does philosophy. What exactly is negative use of the word getting at?

- Declinism: this seems to be, according to Wolfe, a fault of those who insist that our culture is on the rocks, headed toward destruction - saying things like how there is no good music, movies, painting, etc. anymore. I understand the statement that every different generation has its failures and successes, and I also understand how crying wolf all the time doesn't help with anything. At the same time, hasn't there got to be a line we draw somewhere? Yes, there are art works excellent and praiseworthy in every generation. But, it is perfectly possible for one generation to be more immoral, vastly less educated, or more philosophically in error than an entirely different generation ... isn't it? I'm still also trying to wrestle with the difference between the traditional idea of the uneducated and the modern version of younger people who are highly skilled and educated only in things like using mass-media social-networking for their own entertainment. There is a big difference between an uneducated Charles Dickens rogue and a "uneducated" hipster who can't use rudimentary English grammar but can still send texts on his cell phone 50 times a day. Doom-saying isn't useful, but I'm still trying to find the balance of how to explain why and how something like watching television for an unreasonable amount of time each day is going to screw with the state of your soul.

- Every single participant at A&F needs to read this book.

Edited by Persiflage, 09 July 2011 - 04:10 PM.


#5 Christian

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Posted 09 July 2011 - 05:32 PM

Who among the National Review crew does Wolfe write about negatively?

#6 Greg Wolfe

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Posted 16 July 2011 - 01:39 PM

Sorry for the delay in posting here. Thanks for the kind words, friends. They are much appreciated.

While I do trace the reasons for my leaving the conservative political movement in this book, I don't treat that movement monolithically.

For example, the final section of the book contains essays that are tributes to four conservative thinkers who I continue to admire.

I don't attack anyone in the National Review circle per se. In fact, I wrote a tribute to my old boss, Bill Buckley, soon after he died:

http://imagejournal....rvative-elegies

If there are specific questions you'd like me to answer here, please feel free to fire away.

And thanks for reading.

#7 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 17 July 2011 - 02:51 AM

Who among the National Review crew does Wolfe write about negatively?

He doesn't go after any particular names, just a direction the movement was headed that he disagreed with. He writes how witnessing them taking power in the '80s changed the movement, and I'm sure it's true. Moving from minority to majority always results in changes that may not be for the better. I've lent the book to a friend, when I get it back I'll find the excerpt I was thinking about - although I'm sure he can explain it better than I can.

If there are specific questions you'd like me to answer here, please feel free to fire away.

I do have two questions when you have the time.

You object to what seems to be the knee-jerk conservative criticism of modern art. Your argument, as I understand it, seems to go along the lines that Christianity can permeate into almost any art form and then find and give redemption from within. You give great examples of Christians who do this. Thus, a Christian criticizing modern culture is not usually one who is seeking to wrestle with what is within that culture to find what is good. So far, I think I get this. But -

1 - Is there ever a time to draw a line?

Because I can also still see a place for reasonable arguments attempting to halt certain cultural trends and reverse them. I think the idea is that there are certain mediums (perhaps Reality TV, computer games, social networking media, etc.) that, by definition, are designed to do something to the consumer (give him a rest from thinking, kill time, keep him creatively updated with a barrage of pop culture and the fads of his peers). Remember the "feelies" in Huxley's Brave New World. It's not that we ought not to force ourselves to learn from and appreciate creativity in art outside of what we are used to.

2 - But, in our mass consumer driven society, aren't there parts of popular art in our culture that are the opposite of creative? If something dulls and deadens the creative faculty, then what?

These might seem like questions that misunderstand what you are getting at. If so, sorry about that. Just know that I'm thinking through and talking about this with friends. I loved the book and look forward to discussing the ideas you have in it with other readers.

Edited by Persiflage, 17 July 2011 - 02:58 AM.


#8 Greg Wolfe

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Posted 17 July 2011 - 08:26 PM

You object to what seems to be the knee-jerk conservative criticism of modern art. Your argument, as I understand it, seems to go along the lines that Christianity can permeate into almost any art form and then find and give redemption from within. You give great examples of Christians who do this. Thus, a Christian criticizing modern culture is not usually one who is seeking to wrestle with what is within that culture to find what is good. So far, I think I get this. But -

1 - Is there ever a time to draw a line?

Because I can also still see a place for reasonable arguments attempting to halt certain cultural trends and reverse them. I think the idea is that there are certain mediums (perhaps Reality TV, computer games, social networking media, etc.) that, by definition, are designed to do something to the consumer (give him a rest from thinking, kill time, keep him creatively updated with a barrage of pop culture and the fads of his peers). Remember the "feelies" in Huxley's Brave New World. It's not that we ought not to force ourselves to learn from and appreciate creativity in art outside of what we are used to.


The act of "drawing a line" happens in myriad ways and at myriad moments. In other words, there are few big "Lines" and many little "lines."

That doesn't stop people from talking about huge abstractions like the evils of "Modernity" or "Modernism" but the larger the abstraction, the harder it is to pin down, much less "halt."

Very few cultural trends are ever "halted." They simply run out of steam because other trends become more attractive. Criticism plays a role in this process, but much less than some people think it does.

My argument is that generating new culture and cultural trends is ultimately more effective than engaging in polemical criticism.

(My argument sounds a lot like that of Andy Crouch -- my only excuse is that I've been making that argument for a couple decades before Andy's book was published.)

2 - But, in our mass consumer driven society, aren't there parts of popular art in our culture that are the opposite of creative? If something dulls and deadens the creative faculty, then what?

These might seem like questions that misunderstand what you are getting at. If so, sorry about that. Just know that I'm thinking through and talking about this with friends. I loved the book and look forward to discussing the ideas you have in it with other readers.


Are there elements of "popular art" that run counter to creativity? Sure. I have no doubt about that.

I don't really promote "popular art" in my book, so I don't know where you're getting that term.

By most definitions, my book promotes "high art" and not "popular art."

But maybe I'm not understanding your question.

Thanks for asking.

#9 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 24 July 2011 - 01:17 PM

The act of "drawing a line" happens in myriad ways and at myriad moments. In other words, there are few big "Lines" and many little "lines."

That doesn't stop people from talking about huge abstractions like the evils of "Modernity" or "Modernism" but the larger the abstraction, the harder it is to pin down, much less "halt."

Very few cultural trends are ever "halted." They simply run out of steam because other trends become more attractive. Criticism plays a role in this process, but much less than some people think it does.

My argument is that generating new culture and cultural trends is ultimately more effective than engaging in polemical criticism.

As I understand one criticism against Modernism, it's that there are certain cultural trends that, instead of running out of steam, embed themselves within the culture having accomplished lasting effects that will never go away. Revolution, Industrialization, Technological advances - can all completely change the culture in both specific and general ways. But, the "evils of technology" is an age-old and traditionally made objection (in criticizing Modernity). I am usually disinclined towards this objection (and I don't understand it at all as it's expressed in films like The Last Samurai). But when I read how a life full of nonstop high-speed mass-media social networking can drug the soul, I have a hard time not believing it.

Applying your argument here, would that mean that creating and promoting new cultural trends will better address these problems? There are some who argue that video games are a new art form that can be designed to express truth and beauty to the younger generation ... video games? When I raise children some day, I could just ban them from whatever the equivalent of texting, facebook and twitter is a decade from now, or does trying to ban things like that simply not work?

Are there elements of "popular art" that run counter to creativity? Sure. I have no doubt about that.

I don't really promote "popular art" in my book, so I don't know where you're getting that term.

By most definitions, my book promotes "high art" and not "popular art."

But maybe I'm not understanding your question.

No, you're right. I was thinking of "popular art" as a modern phenomenon - as modern art. But your examples of Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Hudgins, Shusaku Endo, Fred Folsom and Mary McCleary (among others) are great examples of artists using the forms of modern art to produce powerful works that would classify as "high art" rather than popular.

So if I were to ask myself what criticizing popular art accomplishes ... I'd be hard pressed to think of much of anything substantive.

The idea that the creative is more powerful than the confrontative seems like such a simple and obvious idea. And yet, I think I take it for granted ...

(Thanks for discussing this with me a little.)

#10 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 08 August 2011 - 11:14 AM

Two further thoughts, I was reading recently on the differences between the "Separatists" and the "Puritans." Their theology seemed to deeply influence their approach to the culture around them. One decided to decry against their own culture, separate themselves from it, and live in their own separately created culture. The other decided to try and influence and change the culture from within. This seems like a long debated theological difference in approach. It'd be interesting to read older debates between the two.

Second, on the idea of The Four Cultures of the West -

1 - Religion - prophetic/theological
2 - Politics - rational/critical
3 - Education - literary/rhetorical
4 - The Arts - visual/performing

- the more I think about it, the more true it seems to be that our modern technological culture downplays the latter two, and increasingly emphasizes the first two. I'm still trying to understand why this is.

#11 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 30 August 2011 - 11:57 AM

I've taken the liberty of moving this discussion over to our Featured Book Discussions for our admittedly very small Book Club.

#12 anglicanbeachparty

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Posted 17 January 2013 - 03:39 PM

- The chapter on the art of Fred Folsom is probably the most interesting chapter discussing the work of a painter that I have ever read.


I don't know if I can still reply to this thread (since it was later moved), but I would just like to say that Fred Folsom ROCKS! I want to be him when I grow up.