The Better Letter: Beauty Will Save the World

This week’s TBL is utterly and insidiously apolitical.

For those of you tired of election talk and politics in general (and who isn’t?), here’s Bonnie Raitt, Lowell George, and John Hammond performing “Apolitical Blues” (recorded live in 1972). 

I’m going to stay apolitical this week, despite politics blaring pretty much everywhere and all the time these days leading up to the latest instance of the most important election of all-time.

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Beauty Will Save the World

We live in a modern culture increasingly dominated by the intentionally ugly, crass, and crude. To pick one obvious example, Twitter helps us to discover our worst selves at the worst possible moments. The Sam Mendes film, 1917speaks profoundly in opposition to that domination.

“Man does terrible things to man, and to creation besides. But even with evil at loose in the world, bringing desperate suffering to living things, beauty will win in the end.”

Beauty – as in, say, an Adirondack sunset (above) – is a human universal, even though some of us have a greater capacity for seeing it and are more responsive to it than others. It gains and maintains our attention.  It thrills and heightens our perception (particularly of truth), yet fleetingly so. 

Modern culture would have us believe that beauty is a pleasure technology, a social construct entirely in the eye of the beholder. Yet, I dare you to stand in awe at the edge of the Grand Canyon and think its joyous greatness is a mere construct to attract a mate or improve our social standing. In the words of the poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

The opening chapter of the Bible proclaims: “God looked over everything he had made; it was so good, so very good!”

As a central character in Marilynne Robinson’s new novel observes, “I just think there has to be a Jesus, to say ‘beautiful’ about things no one else would ever see.”

Oscar Wilde recognized that the world hungers for beauty. It is transformative and revelatory. Great physics is elegant and beautiful.

As the poet Dana Gioia recognized, “people transfixed by beauty intuitively know something significant is happening …Once someone has experienced the beautiful, they long for more…Beauty inspires us to transform ourselves and our world, it gives us the vision of our own possibilities.” Here in San Diego, people routinely gather and the world stops to observe the sunset. We applaud afterward.

Read the following paragraphs by Sarah Vowell in The New York Times.

“Here’s what Dr. King got out of the Sermon on the Mount. On November 17, 1957, in Montgomery’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he concluded the learned discourse that came to be known as the ‘loving your enemies’ sermon this way: ‘So this morning, as I look into your eyes and into the eyes of all of my brothers in Alabama and all over America and over the world, I say to you: I love you. I would rather die than hate you.’

“Go ahead and re-read that. That is hands down the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical thing a human being can say. And it comes from reading the most beautiful, strange, impossible, but most of all radical civics lesson ever taught, when Jesus of Nazareth went to a hill in Galilee and told his disciples, ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.’”

Beauty persists, even (perhaps especially) during hardship and uncertainty. Holocaust survivor and concert pianist Alice Herz-Sommer performed more than 100 concerts during the two years she spent at Theresienstadt, playing all of Chopin’s études from memory. She later explained, “People ask, ‘How could you make music?’ We were so weak. But music was special, like a spell … the world is wonderful. It is full of beauty.”

Science can explain what art is and how it works, but it can’t say what it means or what is beautiful.

In this way, our reliance upon art to transmit truth, via stories and songs, is a feature of human existence, not a bug. Steve Jobs’ central animating idea – elegance – was born of calligraphy, not engineering.

We live in a world obsessed with the future and impatient with the past. Revision, adaptation, and old-fashioned editing are works of redemption. They can take things that are lost, broken, or just plain blah and turn them into something beautiful or useful. 

Kintsugi (“golden joinery” in Japanese) is a Japanese technique for repairing broken pottery and other ceramics with a special lacquer mixed with gold, silver, or platinum made to look like pure precious metal. The philosophy behind the technique is to recognize breakage and repair as crucial aspects of the history of the object and therefore visibly to incorporate the repair into the piece instead of disguising it. The process often results in something more beautiful than the original. It is related to the Japanese philosophy of wabi-sabi, which encourages one to embrace the flawed and imperfect.

At our best, that describes us — broken people repaired and restored. Beautiful.

And maybe, just maybe, per Dostoyevsky, “Beauty will save the world.”

Amen (literally).


Numbing Self-Righteousness

Have you ever had a limb that “falls asleep”? 

We Christians are prone to a self-righteousness that numbs us to the core. We’re so sure that we’ve got it just right that we’re oblivious to the suffering around us and throughout the world. We’re so focused upon what we believe that it negatively impacts what we value.

What we believe is essentially private. We aren’t forced to disclose our beliefs to others and what we disclose need not be accurate. But what we value will be reflected in what we choose to do (or not do). If we don't care for and serve other people it's really good evidence that we don’t value them.

Jesus is clear about that (Matt. 25:37-45).

“Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

“Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, ‘Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because — I was hungry and you gave me no meal, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was homeless and you gave me no bed, I was shivering and you gave me no clothes, sick and in prison, and you never visited.’

“Then those ‘goats’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?’

“He will answer them, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me — you failed to do it to me.’”

For example, where was the Church when the AIDS crisis struck? Largely preaching about homosexuality and ignoring the suffering and the need.

Of course, this problem isn't entirely a Christian one. It is essentially a human issue. We tend to think we're right – indeed, extremely and obviously correct – such that we're so focused on our status (as worthy, based upon right belief) that we are numb to human need. I pray today (and every day) that I may be awakened and re-awakened to the need that surrounds me and that I will value those in need enough to act upon it. Such awakenings can sting (as when an appendage has “fallen asleep” but starts to “wake up”). But that temporary pain can serve as a good reminder of the far greater pain of others – pain that screams for relief.

Amen.


Prodigals All

The parable most commonly referred to as the story of the prodigal son appears only in Luke. It reads as follows.

“Then he said, ‘There was once a man who had two sons. The younger said to his father, “Father, I want right now what's coming to me.” So the father divided the property between them. It wasn't long before the younger son packed his bags and left for a distant country. There, undisciplined and dissipated, he wasted everything he had. After he had gone through all his money, there was a bad famine all through that country and he began to hurt. He signed on with a citizen there who assigned him to his fields to slop the pigs. He was so hungry he would have eaten the corncobs in the pig slop, but no one would give him any. That brought him to his senses. He said, “All those farmhands working for my father sit down to three meals a day, and here I am starving to death. I’m going back to my father. I’ll say to him, ‘Father, I've sinned against God, I've sinned before you; I don't deserve to be called your son. Take me on as a hired hand.’” He got right up and went home to his father. 

“’When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech: “Father, I've sinned against God, I’ve sinned before you; I don’t deserve to be called your son ever again.” But the father wasn’t listening. He was calling to the servants, “Quick. Bring a clean set of clothes and dress him. Put the family ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Then get a grain-fed heifer and roast it. We’re going to feast! We’re going to have a wonderful time! My son is here — given up for dead and now alive! Given up for lost and now found!” And they began to have a wonderful time.

“’All this time his older son was out in the field. When the day’s work was done he came in. As he approached the house, he heard the music and dancing. Calling over one of the houseboys, he asked what was going on. He told him, “Your brother came home. Your father has ordered a feast — barbecued beef! — because he has him home safe and sound.”

“’The older brother stalked off in an angry sulk and refused to join in. His father came out and tried to talk to him, but he wouldn’t listen. The son said, “Look how many years I've stayed here serving you, never giving you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me and my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up and you go all out with a feast!”

“’His father said, “Son, you don’t understand. You’re with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours — but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. This brother of yours was dead, and he's alive! He was lost, and he’s found!”’” Luke 15:11-32 (The Message).

This story is a familiar one and one which even has a Buddhist counterpart. It is the third and final parable of a trilogy, following the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7) and the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). As most commonly rendered, the story focuses on the prodigal and how he squanders his gifts and returns home with trepidation but is welcomed with open arms. The self-righteous and resentful older brother is also a frequent source of sermon material. Yet, remembering the key to understanding stories told in a story-telling culture – you are in the story – I want to focus on the father.

Since the father sees his returning son coming from afar, and isn’t described as having been told of his coming, the story suggests that the father is and has been waiting and watching for his son’s return. Note too the two ways in which he humiliates himself to reach his lost sons. He both hikes up his robes and runs out to meet his prodigal son (a huge insult to his dignity). He also leaves a party he is hosting (a major faux pas) to try to make peace with his other son. These details provide more than an image of God the Father (“God hasn't moved; I have”). They also suggest how I can be a better father and grandfather to my own children and theirs. 

Am I constantly watching out for them?

Am I prepared to suffer any humiliation or indignity to reach out to or serve them?

Am I willing to continue to offer them my favor (what they need – not just what they deserve) no matter what they may do?

As Henri Nouwen put it in The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Story of Homecoming: “The Father is always looking for me with outstretched arms to receive me back and whisper again in my ear: ‘You are my Beloved, on you my favor rests.’”

Amen.


Totally Worth It

This is the starkest contrast I saw this week. This is the most encouraging thing I saw. The booziest. The sweetest. The most inspiring. The most impactful. The stupidest. The ickiest. The most 2020 thing.


Benediction

The beauty of a great musical work wonderfully rendered is always something special. Please listen to the Nordic Choir’s stunning performance of Morten Lauridsen’s “Sure on this Shining Night.” It features the poetry of James Agee.

Sure on this shining night | Of starmade shadows round | Kindness must watch for me | This side the ground

The late year lies down the north | All is healed, all is health | High summer holds the earth | Hearts all whole

Sure on this shining night | I weep for wonder | Wandering far alone | Of shadows on the stars

Savor it. It provides this week’s benediction.


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Issue 35 (October 23, 2020)