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BOOK REVIEW: 'Beauty Will Save' presents a case against pragmatism Morgan Guyton, Mar 13, 2012
By Morgan Guyton Special Contributor
Beauty Will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity Brian Zahnd Casa Creacion, 2012 Paperback, 256 pages
What if beauty really were the definitive word by which we understood the gospel? This is the basic question underlying Brian Zahnd’s new book, Beauty Will Save the World.
Many Christians today are questioning the formulaic approach to sharing the gospel that has predominated modern pop evangelicalism. “Instead of trying to overwhelm a cynical world weary of argument and suspicious of truth claims with the force of logic and debate,” asks Mr. Zahnd, “what if they were overwhelmed with the perception and persuasion of beauty?”
His book is a compelling account of how a renewed appreciation of the gospel’s beauty can save our evangelism. It is not so much a new claim as it is an accessible translation of many important insights, in which I found the fingerprints of contemporary thinkers like Hauerwas, Wright, Moltmann, Girard and Boersma, as well as ancient church fathers like Athanasius, Augustine and Gregory of Nyssa.
The problem with evangelical Christianity’s public witness to the world right now is that it is overly focused on winning arguments, whether it’s through partisan political struggle or trying to debate sidewalk bystanders into reciting the sinner’s prayer. We can’t seem to comprehend that arguments generally don’t convert people; they push them away.
Mr. Zahnd observes that many evangelicals seem to be embracing Caesar’s methodology for success rather than Christ’s: “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.” He writes that instead of being activists and culture warriors, we’re supposed to be witnesses: “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.”
The author also contends that we have been seduced by worldly pragmatism into abandoning our call to embody Christ’s beauty as our principal means of inviting others into Christian discipleship.
For Mr. Zahnd, the foundation of our witness rests in identifying “the cruciform” as “the aesthetic of our gospel.” To him, the salvific power of the cross is compromised when its strange beauty is domesticated inside “cogent terms like ‘the plan of salvation’ and ‘spiritual laws’” which make the gospel “no longer astonishing,” but instead “commonsense, logical, and, most of all, ‘useful.’”
He describes the salvation offered by the cross in aesthetic terms: “God does not save the world through the clear logic of political pragmatism. . . . God saves the world through the ironic and mysterious beauty of the cruciform.” His contention thus poses a very uncomfortable question to an evangelical culture that has turned “salvation” into a neatly packaged industry of tracts with check-boxes: Can the cross save us if we are not astonished by it?
Mr. Zahnd’s aesthetic account of salvation follows a mostly Christus Victor model of atonement (though he takes pains to clarify that he is presenting this as a complement and not a replacement for other atonement theories). He centers his story around the ironic declaration of Colossians 2:15 that “having disarmed the powers and authorities, [Jesus] made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”
To Mr. Zahnd, the cross becomes a pivot point by which “the world [is] given a new axis . . . of love” as an “an instrument of physical torture and psychological terror” is transformed into “an object of beauty representing faith, hope, and love.”
Salvation is an aesthetic transformation, not just a juridical transaction: “Jesus is not just saving individuals and leaving the world as it is has always been—dominated by principalities and powers under Satan’s spell. No! Upon the cross Jesus is recreating the world! The orbit of pain around the axis of power becomes transformed into the orbit of peace around the axis of love.”
I really appreciated the way that Mr. Zahnd doesn’t focus on attacking and deconstructing pop evangelical theology as many others have, but instead offers a beautiful, scripturally-grounded vision of his own.
I don’t think he would claim that he’s given an exhaustive account. There are aspects of this book that will be frustrating to a certain kind of reader. His biblical interpretation is way more midrashic than exegetical. For example, he describes Satan’s temptation of Jesus as representing Jesus’ contemplation of whether “to go about his messianic mission” using “bread,” “circuses” or “empire,” which sounds a little too John Dominic Crossan for my taste. As much as we want to make Jesus the anti-Caesar, he was way more Jewish than Roman.
At the same time, I’m not convinced that “accuracy” always trumps beauty. While Mr. Zahnd’s interpretive approach is certainly anti-modern, it’s more like the intertextual, sacramental hermeneutics of premoderns like Augustine than it is like the deconstructive, identity-politics-laden approach of the postmoderns.
The beautiful story that Mr. Zahnd tells is not necessarily the whole story, but it has been a tremendous refreshment to my homiletic imagination and it definitely deserves a seat in the orchestra of biblical reflection.
The Rev. Guyton is associate pastor at Burke (Va.) United Methodist Church.