Thursday, April 09, 2020

The Beautiful and the Not-So-Good

All over the Christianity Today website are logos for something called “Beautiful Orthodoxy”. It’s their new flagship cause, and their main web page features a major link to a series of sparkling-toothed testimonials from people on how wonderful this is. And they’ve got a conference, organizational partners, and even churches on board.

Some well-known Christian leaders have signed on, it seems: Harold Smith, Katelyn Beaty, Sam Rodriguez, Joni Eareckson Tada … a whole list. Below the testimonials are articles declaring “The world is yearning for Beautiful Orthodoxy”, “Why we need a Beautiful Orthodoxy”, “Why We Champion Beautiful Orthodoxy” and that it’s “A Beautiful Calling”. The page ends with a wide click-on banner proclaiming “Join the Cause”.

Mysterious Vagueness

A cause? “Okay,” I thought, “let’s see what we’re joining.”

I tried to surf around on the CT website to find out. There were many, many words written in praise of the movement. But one usually finds at least one button that leads to some sort of itemized statement of faith. Churches and Christian organizations generally have such things on their websites so people can see at a glance precisely what doctrines they’d be signing on for if they came to that church or joined that organization. It’s only fair.

But CT didn’t seem to have that.

Lots of praise, but no clear delineation of the doctrine involved. Hmm. For a “cause” it sure seems shy about explaining itself.

But one mustn’t jump to any conclusions from a lack of information. So I decided to go straight to the source. I contacted the man CT pegged as its chief spokesperson, its former chief editor Mark Galli, to ask him what it was all about. Yet he didn’t tell me either; instead, he just directed me to the Amazon site to buy his book, Beautiful Orthodoxy.

Okay, I got a copy.

So I’m going to tell you what I found. In what follows, I give more quotations than usual, and page numbers, though this is a bit awkward for the reading eye. I don’t want to be thought to be “bearing false witness”, and quite frankly, much of what follows is rather difficult to believe without evidence.

Reading Through

Hmm.

The whole book is about 3mm thick, and otherwise of standard paperback dimensions, 79 pages of large and spaciously-laid-out print, and written, I would honestly estimate, at about a grade 7 or 8 comprehension level. That in itself is not necessarily bad, if you’re writing for a very general audience. But one would also not expect to be able to get into much theological depth if one is writing like that.

Now, the main thesis appears to be that Christendom has recently been espousing doctrine that is aesthetically unpleasing — “ugly orthodoxy”, to use Mr. Galli’s term. He writes, “The church [today] is not so much a lived experience of the good, the true and the beautiful as much as the disappointing manifestation of the sinful, the confused and the unseemly” (72).

Okay, I get it. He seems to be lamenting that Christians have sometimes been more focused on being doctrinally precise than on acting in loving ways. I suppose I can think of cases of that. On we go.

In general, one finds the book full of double-meanings, vague claims and unsubstantiated enthusing. Mr. Galli is trying to be both compassionate and profound here. Unfortunately, what he loses control of is clarity. So Beautiful Orthodoxy becomes full of ambiguous and somewhat disturbing statements.

Many of these have that puzzling and distressing character of claims that, if they were carefully nuanced and read in a myopically charitable way, might be conceded to have a small grain of truth in them, and maybe turn out okay; but they are also so badly worded and poorly explained that they can hardly avoid conducing to real blasphemy.

Either this signals a failure of communication — perhaps an editor did not do his job here — or the author himself is so loose in his own understanding that he is unaware of treading dangerously close to the line with some of these statements. One can hardly tell.

What’s the “Beautiful” About?

The “good, the true, and the beautiful”. Well, two out of three of those are major subjects of scripture, for sure. But it’s the last one upon which Mr. Galli hangs his entire thesis: Christianity needs to become more beautiful.

For Mr. Galli, beauty is the key missing element that’s going to put all the rest in place. As he puts it, “when we behold something beautiful, we start thinking about God” (50). He means such things as art (51), Gothic cathedrals (50), the woman Esther (52), the Jewish Temple (53), the earth in general, “flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind” (54), Roman Catholic saints (55), Platonic ideals (62) and the actions of Nelson Mandela and MLK (65-66). Surprisingly, he also gently chides readers for failing to recognize the beauty or truth in Andres Serrano’s picture of a urine-soaked crucifix (59).

And no, I’m not making that up.

Needless to say, Mr. Galli’s faith in beauty is considerable. For while he admits that “sadly, beauty can also lead us to false gods” (57), he has a fairly unreserved enthusiasm for fusing it with more traditional Christian values like truth and the good. Quoting Catholic Josef Pieper with approval, he writes, “Beauty is the glow of the true and the good that shines forth from every ordered state of being” (62).

Every ordered state of being?” One can hardly fail to think of the poet Keats’s famous line from “Ode on a Grecian Urn”: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty — that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

But is beauty really all we need to get us to the truth as well? If it is, it’s not in any sense clear.

Humans are Essentially Moral

Now, not only does the author believe that Christianity needs to be practiced with more “beauty”, he believes that human nature has an appetite for it. Human nature, he insists, is instinctively drawn through beauty to the good. He writes, “there beats in the breast of every human being the desire to do good … [a] compelling drive to do the right thing” (15).

He lays out the proof for this claim by way of some truly astonishing examples. He uses the example of Micah the thief and idolater at the end of the book of Judges, because the man eventually returned his stolen funds to his mother — this shows “he actually did right in the end”, so his story is only one of “religious decadence”, not of “immorality as such” (16). That’s his pass at biblical grounding.

He also thinks he sees the same impulse toward goodness in the secular world, in some rather unexpected ways. He says, people who “live together still believe in sexual fidelity” (17), and abortionists are also morally earnest, because “they do not advocate wanton killing of anyone they do consider a person” (17).

Any questions?

Dubious Doctrines

For example, the author has a very strange theory of ethics. Puzzlingly, he writes, “The criterion of good is not primarily (sic.) about one’s actions but one’s demeanor” (29). “The finest biblical picture of the good life,” he continues, “is not a person who is morally righteous or religiously faithful, but one who practices mercy” (32). What this means is really anyone’s guess; it’s not really clear from anything he explains.

This “mercy” is expressed in, among other things, a very broad ecumenism. In regard to Muslims, he writes, “in a limited philosophical sense, we worship the same God … There is only one God, after all” (35). So do Catholic authorities, and so do the Eastern Orthodox, apparently, among whom Mr. Galli sees no important issues of difference. He says, “we needn’t fuss over our identity” (38). Icons and idols are another thing we different groups of Christians “needn’t fuss over”, apparently, since “if such images could help uplift the soul to the true God, they were to be used” (53). And though different groups of Christians practice communion with different beliefs (referring to transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and memorialism, in specific) this is trivial because “few Christians deny the special presence of Christ in this act of worship” (71).

Reading this book, one would think that not only have the differences between Christians and beauty-lovers in the secular world been somewhat less than is generally believed, but also the different factions that historically have called themselves this or that kind of “Christian” never had a serious doctrinal issue among them in the first place. Nothing was ever really at stake. Just a lack of love. And, of course, of a deficiency of “beauty”.

Any more questions?

Another Christ?

Now we come to the crux of the matter. What does Beautiful Orthodoxy say about the person of Jesus Christ?

Well, in the words of Mr. Galli, Jesus Christ is not so much “the way, the truth and the life” as “the way, the truth and the beautiful” (12) [emphasis mine]. This latter word seems, for him, to be the key to interpreting every event and teaching in the Lord’s life, infusing all of it with a sort of saccharine and sentimental glow. Consequently, the version of the Lord that the book depicts is soft on sin, repentance and obedience, and high on the side of unconditional sympathy. Concepts like divinity, holiness and righteous judgment are, so far as I can recall, totally unmentioned.

In fact, if you look for yourself, you will find Beautiful Orthodoxy contains the following claims about the Lord:

Jesus was baptized because “he insisted that he wanted to be seen as one who at least bore sins” (26). “Jesus … shows little interest in truth as doctrine, that is, truth in the abstract” (43). “Jesus also told stories in which he appeared indifferent to sin” (27), such as the parable of the prodigal son. When the Lord asked “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone,” it was because “Jesus doesn’t want to be thought of in this way” (25). Severed entirely from its real ending, Mr. Galli’s version of the wedding feast parable ends with the lesson that Jesus wants “the bad as well as the good” (27). His version of Jesus “appears uninterested in the life of virtue” (27). And as for the Sermon on the Mount, it is a list of ideals “designed to frustrate and discourage us” (29) so that we will see that “God does not wait for us to live the godly and good life before pronouncing beatitudes over us”.

Any questions now?

If there’s not, shouldn’t there be?

In a Nutshell

Okay. Now, let’s sum up.

It seems like most of what Mr. Galli writes in Beautiful Orthodoxy is capable of being read innocuously. It seems he takes a (perhaps justifiable) objection to Christians defending their faith in unwinsome ways. It seems he wants to make us think more positively about people’s awareness of moral truth. It seems that he has some rather unorthodox readings of scripture, but again, that only seems. It seems he wants to emphasize mercy, and it seems that maybe he doesn’t want to dismiss righteousness and truth at the same time. Maybe.

It seems that he is positive about the Lord. But does it not also seem that in the effort to emphasize the Lord’s humanity, he’s lost touch with his holiness and his identity with God? Has he deliberately truncated and warped the gospel narratives to fit his agenda? It seems, but only seems.

The Key Issue

And that’s the problem. So much seeming, and so little that’s expressed unambiguously. So many unsettling claims, with not enough explanation to tell one what is really intended.

In retrospect, it’s no longer a mystery to me why the people at CT didn’t have a clear delineating of the doctrine underlying Beautiful Orthodoxy, and why the author didn’t just explain his view when I asked him to. It’s not actually possible to know what it is. Even for the guy who wrote it, perhaps. The doctrine here is not well-enough fleshed out to go beyond the realm of mere seeming — of vague impressions of ‘niceness’ without substance. One could read the whole book and get no more out of it than that Christians are supposed to become more pleasant for the world to deal with, more social-justice motivated, more ecumenical and less focused on knowledge and specifics of doctrine than they have been. One can even get the vague sense of bouncing from scripture to scripture, picking out some sort of warrant for the same.

But nothing is really tackled here. The passages cited to support the claim are used in some very weird ways. There’s no evidence this is a major biblical theme. Beauty (understood as aesthetic pleasantness) in particular is actually not lauded as a Christian virtue in scripture, nor does it get anywhere near the billing that things like truth, righteousness and goodness get there.

No serious potential objections are mentioned in Beautiful Orthodoxy, either; there’s scant service given to any “other side” of the debate, if Mr. Galli even thinks such exists. Consequently, the reader is left with a sense that the ideas in the book are just underdeveloped, insufficiently strong or well-supported, and untested by any sound critical examination.

And that’s a real problem; because vague, ecumenical enthusiasms are attractive, shiny, positive, and hopeful. They’re superficially beautiful. It’s hard even to question them, because any reservations automatically come across as mean-spirited and negative. But you’re being invited to join a cause you can’t really understand, one that by its silences opens up huge holes for false doctrine to be ingested along with the sweet taste of “beauty”.

Remaining Concerns

I’m concerned about this direction.

It’s not that CT is necessarily so important a website or publication as it has been. Rather, it’s that it speaks for a great number of vague evangelicals who lack sufficient discernment, perhaps, to be sensitive to the justifiable worries here. There are explicitly bad interpretations of scripture, and some very poor interpretations of the person of Christ as well, in this book.

The main thesis, that “beauty” is a key Christian virtue, is just not possible to sponsor from any careful reading of scripture. It’s saccharine, shallow, and an easy sell. One cannot help but wonder why so many evangelical leaders seem happy to sign on for a package so ill-conceived, so badly explained, and so wide-open to misunderstanding, if not always outright wrong.

Peter has written that days will come “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths”. Things will sound good, and lots of people will get on board; yet the one things nobody will have patience for anymore will be “sound doctrine” — God’s truth.

Is that what “Beautiful Orthodoxy” is? I’ll let you judge for yourself. But I think you should keep your distance from this package, and even from the people who are joining it too quickly. It’s a poorly-conceived and hazardous mess, one that invites us to lose our grip on truth in order to become more aesthetically pleasing to the untaught and to the world. It really takes no thought for the offense of the gospel, for the Christian duty to stand for truth in the face of opposition, or for the clear words of our Lord Jesus Christ, who did not say, “You will be beautiful to the world”, but rather, that “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.”

In any case, I certainly feel that I cannot support CT’s turn to what it’s calling “Beautiful Orthodoxy”.

I don’t think you should either.

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