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The Three Great Dangers of Evangelizing through Beauty

by David Gray, November 25, 2013

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A notion has been creeping into the conversation of Catholic evangelization circles lately that it would behoove us to evangelize this generation through beauty; more precisely, that we should intentionally promote encounters with God through a formulaic movement from Beauty (How Wonderful I Sense it to Be), to The Good (I Desire to Participate/Share in It), to The Truth (Now I Understand What it Is).

A major proponent of this idea has been Father Robert Barron, a Catholic priest of the Arch Diocese of Chicago and the Rector/President of Mundelein Seminary. Barron is most famous for his creation of the Catholicism series. He has produced a video on the idea of evangelizing through beauty (here) that seems to mimic an article (here). Another good article on the subject is Catholic and American? Evangelizing through Beauty, by Bishop Olmsted of the Diocese of Phoenix.

Before I begin the critique of this idea and explain its three great dangers, I must clarify that I completely agree that the goodness of God can be found in beauty; that what is beautiful in the creation can lead one into an encounter with the Creator; that it is good for the senses to play a role in the encounter with God; and that the beautiful things that the senses can perceive, such as art and music, have always played a role in Catholic Christian evangelization. Pope John Paul II said it wonderfully when he wrote, “The world in which we live needs beauty in order not to fall into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations and enables them to be one in admiration.”

I must also explain that my references to Father Barron in the article are not personal. I’m not attacking him or tearing him down. He just happens to be the point man on this formulaic notion of evangelizing through beauty as the first principle. In fact, Fr. Barron played a very important role in my early formation as a Catholic. I have watched every video that he produced through his Word on Fire Ministries prior to 2011, and I have read every book he had written prior to that year as well. I find him to be one of the most creative minds that our Church has had the opportunity to hear from in this generation.

The issue of danger here deals with the formulaic matter of using beauty as the first principle of Christian evangelization, as well as the danger of weakening/undermining/running-from the axiomatic Gospel of Truth, only so that we might easily preach the subjective idea of beauty. There is a grave danger found in giving up on the Truth, as well as the danger of losing another generation due to them receiving a version of Catholicism-lite if this method of evangelization is adopted. Altogether I find this idea of evangelizing through beauty as the first principle to be one of the most dangerous ideas ever uttered in modern Catholicism. It has the potential to turn our faith into the religion of Oscar Wilde’s aestheticism. I have taken time below to list what I believe are the Three Great Dangers of Evangelizing through Beauty.

First, there is a premature capitulation to relativism found in Father Barron’s promotion of this idea that inveighs against truth. He suggests that because modern culture is so relativistic, that they would instantly dismiss the truth if it is offered to them. Therefore, we must massage them into the truth by offering them a demonstration of beauty. Could you imagine if people like John the Baptizer, Saint Paul, or Saint Dominic had surrendered to comfortable ideas of their day? Inasmuch as relativism has always been in fashion, unfiltered truth has always been the light that broke through its darkness.

Rather than be cowards and surrender to relativism and be scared to lean on the primacy of truth, we ought to become martyrs of the truth. Being that truth has a divine support structure found in Jesus who is the Truth, the Holy Spirit who is the Spirit of the Truth, and in the Catholic Church that is the Pillar and Foundation of Truth and the Temple of the Holy Spirit, I am not quite certain why any Christian would allow any generation to scare them away from scaring it directly; even without having to massage them into through creations.

I have a question. Is God true because He is beautiful, or is He beautiful because He is true? Clearly, God is beautiful because he is true. Therefore, I am not certain why anyone would suggest that we focus on attempting to articulate how beautiful a creation is, when we haven’t even done all that we can do to clearly articulate to all how true our Creator is. Perhaps we should more diligent in redoubling our efforts to artfully articulate the truth, rather than wasting time on an endeavor that may or may not massage anyone into it. Such an effort does not have to be what Fr. Barron has reduced to being merely moralizing and intellectualizing, because the truth doesn’t need those helps. The truth simply needs to be repeatedly shared and then God’s grace does the rest.

The most troubling thing about Fr. Barron’s idea is when he applauds the benefit of evangelizing through beauty, because it is unthreatening. Are you serious? I’m really tired of soft Christians who are afraid of the fact that the Gospel of Christ is threatening! Yes it is threatening to people who are living in lies and darkness! Yes! It is threatening because it is good and beautiful. Because it threatens it converts.

Second, the difference between divine truth and beauty is that one is axiomatic, while the other is subjective. When Father Barron offers a formulaic notion that we begin with what is subjective (beauty) he contradicts himself because he has only arrived at this method because he believes that this generation thinks truth is subjective. This same relativistic generation who thinks truth is subjective is now supposed to find beauty objective?

While Fr. Barron rightly notes through example that the aesthetic approach to evangelization can kidnap the heart and draw one into participation, he seems to dismiss the fact that truth can have that same effect. Even Bishop Olmsted in his article cites his own empirical evidence of beauty leading him to he faith, but how many millions of people can attest to truth leading them to the Church? Therefore, if both truth and beauty can lead a soul to good and to God, why not always lead in with the surest of the two? We would be much better off losing this fight because we shared the truth and they rejected it, than losing it because they rejected it because we preferred not to share it.

Third, the reliance on the senses will lead to a more Protestant-like Catholicism. If you want to know how successful a Church can become by emphasizing an appeal to the senses, then just look at modern Protestantism. It has become the religion of emotions found in praise music, dancing, and poetry. It is truly romantic and idealistic that we could facilitate a soul’s move from beauty, to good, to truth, but the reality of the situation is that many people will get stuck at beauty, just as they are in modern Protestantism. Many will not move beyond feeling good in the senses, and they will remain cursory in a shallow faith life.

In conclusion, what remains for me to say is that evangelizing through beauty as the first principle is, indeed, a beautiful idea, but it just isn’t tenable, and it is too risky in this age to attempt, even if it was trustworthy, which it is not. We must always begin with the truth, because it is God’s most powerful weapon. To begin with anything less than the truth is to begin with something less than what the world deserves to hear.

Jesus then said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
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20 Comments


    • Ellen Finan
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    • November 25, 2013

    I see what you are saying, but I think Beauty is Truth. Your last point is the weakest; Protestant emotionalism is not Beauty. Your choice of words also points to a problem: "Truth" as a "weapon". I think Barron and others want to "woo" with Beauty, rather than go to war. I don't think it's dangerous to attempt this approach. I think it will work on some people.

  • I think part of the problem that also needs to be addressed is "beauty" as Catholics understand it..... is not self-evident. Fr. Barron and others realize relativism has savaged the world. Did a true understanding of beauty somehow escape? We have to explain WHY beauty is such a great thing from a Catholic perspective.

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    • Jennifer McWethy
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    • November 30, 2013

    David L. Gray - Mr. Gray, beauty is not relative, for true beauty is beautiful bcause it points to Truth. there is no question that beauty is discovered in various ways depending on many factors such as culture, time, and place, but beauty is aboslutely not relative. It also seems as though you have accepted the definition of beautiful as put forth by this diseased and corrupt culture. I say this based on your notion that "Beauty changes." This notion is simply not true and uncritically accepts relativism at face value. Since truth does not change, and since beauty is beautiful only as it depicts, hints at, or points us towards truth, then beauty does not change. Now perhaps you would say that our standard of beauty has changed, and I would not argue with this, but I also woutln't allow the fact that the domnant culture cannot accurately define what is beautiful to dissuade me from accepting the truth that beauty is eternal. Just because our culture no longer values the ideal of purity, innocence, and awe as beautiful does not mean that they are not; it means that the culture is moribound and is not to be trusted. By the way, this is exactly the point that Fr. Baron is pointing to. It is possible to woo the cultureby exposing them to what is truly beautiful, and for some this will awaken a longing for the Divine, and this my friend is absolutely true. Christ, is forever, the ever beautiful one; throughout eternity He will attract the gaze of our soul. As well, the beauty of Our Lady is ineffable; likewise, she will attract the heart of men eternally. Finally, I fear you have also accepted the mawkish view of what is beautiful by your curious acceptance of the erroneous view that beauty is non threatening, and if Fr. Barron also accepts this he too is wrong. How absurd such a notion is. True beauty is terribly threatening; it shakes the very foundations of what we thought we knew, why do you think the current culture refuses to acknowledge what is beautiful; I'll tell you why, because to do so would start a revolution. True beauty has powerful implications for this death besotted culture. What are the implications of beauty for planned prenthood and moloch's destruction of the innocent, Lord have mercy. What is one constant lacking in the tyranny of progressive ideology, hint: its beauty, see as first exhibit the art / architecture produced by communist ideology. How do you know that the liturgical monsters were such: They eschewed the beautiful. You know this is true, the modernists liturgy is banal and stripped of the beautiful by focusing no longer on the glorious Christ in the Eucharist, but inward to the ego in all its ugliness and sin. Palestrina, chant, and the music of the Michigan Dominican's is beautiful; Gather us in, not so much. Be not afraid Mr. Gray, not everything is a capitulation.

    • Terry Redman
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    • December 1, 2013

    Jennifer McWethy

    • Benjamin Holmes
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    • December 1, 2013

    Beauty compliments truth. How can we expound upon the timeless nature of the Catholic Faith to non-believrs, and then bring someone to a guitar liturgy with Protestant overtones? I'm nt suggesting we need to return to full Latin usage, I don't. The revival of our dying Western culture will not be achieved through the pleasant strumming of guitars and electronic piano, nor will it be achieved through chanting a dead language. I humbly propose that the model for English-speaking parishes is found in the Anglican Use (Ordinariates).

    • Benjamin Holmes
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    • December 1, 2013

    Beauty compliments truth. How can we expound upon the timeless nature of the Catholic Faith to non-believers, and then bring someone to a guitar liturgy with Protestant overtones? I'm nt suggesting we need to return to full Latin usage, I don't. The revival of our dying Western culture will not be achieved through the pleasant strumming of guitars and electronic piano, nor will it be achieved through chanting a dead language. It will be a robust combination of clear-cut, uncompromising Faith in the public square and visibly Catholic worship. I humbly propose that the model for English-speaking parishes is found in the Anglican Use (Ordinariates).

    • Benjamin Holmes
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    • December 1, 2013

    Absolutely. If beauty precedes truth, then there is a problem. High Church Anglicans have glorious divine services, yet they do not belong to the "fullness" of the Church of Christ.

    • Kimberly Foreman Barry
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    • December 2, 2013

    Why not both at the same time? Many people are really turned on to the faith for the first time when they witness a traditional liturgy. Truth and Beauty together. And I hear what you're saying about Protestants, but I also think that at least in their minds they are beauty-rejectors from the outset. Beauty is associated with Catholicism and is therefore dangerous. That's why there are no statues, pictures, sacramentals, etc in so many Protestant churches. For those people, of which I was once one, sometimes the truth needs to be sort of raw at first, just so they know it's real. Then the beauty can come in to confirm the truth. Beauty will seem permissible since the truth has been tested and found true. But for others, life has been so ugly for so long that real beauty is nothing short of refreshing. And while physical beauty is one aspect of beauty, I think it's important to point out that real spiritual beauty is always attractive, even to non-religious people. That's why people love Pope Francis kissing that man with all the boils. We know that we would recoil, but that he did it for love, and that's why we admire him and think the whole thing is beautiful. And why Christ dying on the cross covered with blood and ugly scars...is beautiful.

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    • December 8, 2013

    Well done! You uncovered the NEW Seamless Garment of Life. God bless you. Susan Fox www.christsfaithfulwitness.com

    • MC
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    • August 4, 2015

    I think that you may have got the wrong end of the stick about Evangelisation Through Beauty (ETB), but I also think you are right about the fact that it should not be the primary way of evangelising. Laudato Si can evangelise through beauty. The teaching of Theology of the Body can evangelise through beauty. It is not just about architecture, paintings, and statues, it is about teaching as well. It is a new way of speaking to the world that just will no longer listen to a Catholic world view anymore. Also your comments about ETB it being likened to protestantism do not necessarily hold water. Henry VIII and Cromwell raped England of all religious beauty and piety at the reformation. Catholics in England have had their senses shut off to seeing God through beauty for 500 years. Try practicing the faith at most of the churches here. Those whitewashed church walls are a product of the Tudors and Elizabethans who deserted the Faith. The destruction of beauty is only ever of evil. You also seem to confuse 'sensory' protestant, non-conformist and free church worship with ETB. The problem here is that these protestant worship services have pycho-sensory effects on congregations i.e. the hype is psychologically induced. This is not the same as evangelisation through beauty. It is also worth noting that you fail to recognise that Medieval cathedrals and churches were in fact ornate for a reason. The majority of the congregations could not read or write so they had to tell the stories of the Gospel in the stained glass windows, statues, and architecture. That is how God spoke to people then, and this is how God is speaking to people now - because as Pope Benedict pointed out - the world is spiritually illiterate (in many ways more so than in past periods of history. They simply do not get the 'old Catholic language' (by old I mean 50 years old). They need something new. Ironically, Saint Pope John XXIII at the beginning of Vatican II stated that he wanted Catholics to speak to the world in a new way which they understood. Unfortunately that 'new' way has never materialised since Vatican II and we have not yet become the Lumen Gentium as Pope John XXIII wanted. The Church became secularised i.e. no different than the outside world. So, what could those on the outside possibly see any different when they came into the Church. They want something different, not identical. Evangelisation through beauty may not have all the answers, but it is working. Finally, let us look at the Theology of the Body as 'evangelisation through beauty'. In short, the Theology of the Body takes a globally 'perceived' judgmental message of Humanae Vitae, and turns it into an inspirational message for young Catholics in 'how to live your life'. The Theology of the Body gives us an inspirational message that some people are attracted to. It turns a 'perceived' negative message in to a positive message. This is ultimate truth. I really do not see how you can think that there is no truth to be proclaimed from Evangelisation through Beauty. The protestant reformation shut down the world's senses to God, so much so that it became difficult to find God. This is a warning from history.

    • I see your point and I agree with a great deal of it, but I think you missed my opening point about the 'formulaic' problem. You can't lead with aestheticism, or you'll have the religion of Oscar Wilde.

        • MC
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        • August 4, 2015

        I get your point about Oscar Wilde. I agree it it should not be used for primary evangelism (I will amend my comment at the beginning), but I think it is useful in certain circumstances where there is no way of getting through to people' i.e. another tool in the box so to speak. Nice site by the way.

          • MC
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          • August 4, 2015

          I did also think in retrospect that my comments were more relevant for England rather than American. There seems to be more religious openness in the U.S., but in the U.K. people simply do not discuss religion, it is a real problem.

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