Putting the Beauty Back in Evangelism

In reducing the gospel to a set of beliefs to be conveyed, we’ve lost sight of the beauty of the message. We must reclaim it.

Excerpted from
Evangelism After Pluralism
By Bryan Stone


Many people in our world, both Christian and non-Christian, perceive evangelism as an ugly practice—wordy, arrogant, desperate and competitive, governed by a logic of production, and disconnected from beauty. And yet Isaiah 52:7 records, “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’” The practice of evangelism could very much use a reconnection to beauty. And when it’s reconnected to beauty, we may find that evangelism becomes more a work of art, embodiment, and imagination than an exchange of information or a technology designed to secure results. As Russell Reno puts it, “In Christ we are not overpowered by God as a sublime truth; we are romanced by God as pure beauty.”

If David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’s research is accurate, Christians have an “image problem,” a perception, especially among young people ages 16 to 29, that Christians are hypocritical, insincere, anti-homosexual, sheltered, too political, judgmental and concerned only with conversions—all of which boils down to a one-word description: Christians are “unChristian.” But in arguing for reconnecting evangelism to beauty, I am not trying to manage Christianity’s image problem. The challenge is much deeper than that. Evangelism is the practice of witnessing to beauty—not a beauty we might possess, grasp, buy, sell, master or contain, or that we are in a position to withhold from some and bestow on others. For we are in no more a position to control or contain beauty than we are able to control or contain a sunset. True beauty always grasps us rather than our grasping it. And though we might recognize it, reflect it, and even participate in it, beauty somehow always exceeds us and defies our attempts to contain it.

Philosophers and theologians have long spoken of the three transcendentals: the good, the true and the beautiful. And these are said to be interchangeable in some sense. What is good is both beautiful and true; what is beautiful is both true and good; and what is true is both good and beautiful. Christians believe that the way of Christ is simultaneously the greatest truth, the noblest good and the most perfect beauty. Beauty, however, is commonly recognized as the more forgotten of the three transcendentals in modernity, and this is especially true of those Protestant traditions that have focused on “the word.” As Edwin Muir protested against Calvinism in his poem “The Incarnate One,” “The Word made flesh here is made word again.” Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and indeed many Protestant traditions have long insisted on the importance of art, architecture, painting, color, ornament, bodies, matter and form in the expression of their faith. Yet some Christian traditions, especially within Protestantism, distrust material objects and think of outward form as hollow, if not idolatrous. Their turn to inward piety and a commitment of the heart have a history of resisting all these and individualizing, spiritualizing and interiorizing Christian faith—with enormous consequences for evangelism.

To take an aesthetic approach to evangelism is not to move away from words altogether, but to move away from their dominance and to highlight instead themes of incarnation, form, embodiment and sacramentality. “Matter matters.” For that reason, perhaps salvation is not best thought of in the first place as a collection of messages to be delivered, received and then judged and decided on. Perhaps the gospel of Christ is better imagined, engaged and offered as a form of beauty, as something in which we participate, as something more like a poem.

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A poem, for example, is not read for content. Indeed, the literal reading of a poem kills its meaning. Neither does a poem begin with a thesis sentence from which each point in the sentence is discussed in minute detail. Such a beginning would suggest the writer has a point to communicate thereby reducing the poem to a mere message. Neither information nor communication is the aim of a poem. Rather, a poem must be read line by line. Each line, however, though read as a unique entity must also be read in the faith that it manifests a greater whole.

What then would it mean to think about evangelism in relation to the more forgotten of the three transcendentals: beauty?

In her provocative book On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry observes, “Beauty brings copies of itself into being.” This simple observation is powerful when contemplated in the context of evangelism, given the fact that evangelism hopes for the begetting, passing along or reproduction of faith. What do we do when we see a beautiful sunset or a quiet lake reflecting the mountains around it? Quite often we want to take a picture of it, or draw it or paint it. Wittgenstein says that “when the eye sees something beautiful, the hand wants to draw it.”  We stop and stare at beauty, an action that Scarry suggests is the most basic and natural of our responses to beauty. Something about the beauty of a landscape, a poem, a face, a smell, a song or a taste inspires its reproduction, and frequently with great passion.

We do not typically reproduce beauty merely for ourselves, moreover. We often do so for others. We buy a postcard of what we have seen and send it to a loved one with the caption “wish you were here.” It is as if beauty, once discovered, demands that it be reproduced and shared. Consider again the other transcendentals: When we encounter truth, we are obliged to believe it.

When we encounter goodness, we are obliged to enact it. But to what are we obliged when we encounter beauty? Perhaps awe or wonder, but quite often beauty also inspires imitation, reproduction and begetting. In fact, that for which evangelism properly hopes is precisely that to which beauty inspires us. It is striking then that the practice of evangelism has not more fully engaged the category of beauty in the way we think about and offer the good news—or, as we might better put it, the “beautiful” news.

Maybe the very category of “news” already directs us too much toward a construal of the Christian way as something wordy or as primarily a matter of messages and beliefs. But beauty does indeed arrive as something new, or as Scarry puts it, “unprecedented.” A faith born out of a response to beauty inclines organically, naturally and perhaps even necessarily toward sharing. If Christians do not share their faith or seek to inspire it in others, perhaps the solution is not to berate, cajole or otherwise “fire up” lukewarm believers so they will go forth knocking on doors, buttonholing passengers sitting next to them on a plane or passing out tracts at the neighborhood grocery store. Perhaps the Christian faith has become unimaginative and unattractive and somehow disconnected from beauty. When faith is solely preoccupied with truth so that evangelism is aimed at securing belief understood as mental assent, perhaps it is no wonder that the average Christian has little interest in going about evangelism when it means convincing people to believe certain things. Many Christians are not sure what they believe; indeed, the number claiming certainty about their beliefs is in decline. Likewise, when faith is preoccupied with goodness, so that evangelism is aimed at securing a particular kind of behavior, it is no surprise that the average Christian has little interest in convincing people to act in certain ways. But when truth and goodness are connected to beauty, faith comes alive.

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Scarry says that true beauty has four qualities, each of which, I would suggest, renders beauty an obvious candidate for rethinking evangelism: (1) It is sacred in that it mediates and is transparent to the divine. (2) It is unprecedented in that when we encounter beauty it so often arrives in our perception as new and unparalleled. (3) It is lifesaving in that it seems to reach out to us and “makes life more vivid, animated, living, worth living.” And (4) it incites deliberation, filling the mind yet inviting “the search for something beyond itself.”

Scarry sees the first two as closely intertwined, “for to say that something is ‘sacred’ is also to say either ‘it has no precedent’ or ‘it has as its only precedent that which is itself unprecedented.’” This does not mean that true beauty arrives as something alien or mysterious, though it may indeed be astounding, discomforting or dissonant. It need not arrive with trumpets and thunder or be accompanied by heavenly choirs. On the contrary, beauty is just as likely experienced as tranquil, organic or “at home” in our world. It both “belongs” and yet stands out from among the ordinariness around it. The notion that beauty is sacred, then, means that it stands in contrast to the profane—not as the other-worldly stands in contrast to the this-worldly but as a rupture in our everyday experience that signals and mediates an inbreaking of the divine that is at once unsettling and captivating.

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Taken from Evangelism After Pluralism by Bryan Stone. Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, ©2018. Used by permission. BakerPublishingGroup.com.