Evangelism Through Beauty

By Joseph Francis

Classical philosophy provides us with three transcendent qualities of being: truth, goodness, and beauty. These “transcendentals” are identified as fundamental qualities of reality. Our very existence is wrapped up with participation in them. For the Christian, they also identify that for which the human heart longs. 

Deep inside all of us exists an insatiable hunger for that which is true, good, and beautiful. This hunger points us toward the One who is himself the fullness of truth, goodness, and beauty. He alone can satisfy our desire. As Augustine pointed out in his famous prayer “You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.” The Christian message is fundamentally that man’s desire for the transcendent realities of being can only be fulfilled in the True, Good, and Beautiful God.

The more you reflect on the transcendentals the more you realize the role they play in everything we do as the Church and as persons created in God’s image. In particular, the true, the good, and the beautiful have played an important role in how the Church has approached evangelization and formation.

For much of the recent past, Christians have attempted projects of evangelization by focusing on the true or the good. We have a tendency to think that if we could just prove to our neighbor that God exists (the true), we could convert him. Or perhaps if we could show him how moral and virtuous Christianity is (the good), perhaps he would see the error of his own ways and convert. But, of course, in this day and age these approaches rarely work. 

If you go up to an unbeliever and try to tell him that what he believes is wrong, the response will likely be “Who are you to tell me what I ought to believe?” Even worse, were you to go up to an unbeliever and point out how his actions or lifestyle are wrong, the response will be “Who are you to tell me how I ought to live?” No one likes to be told what to believe or what to do. When someone does this, we are repulsed and become defensive. We put up an emotional wall.

But what if we were to start not with the true or the good, but with the beautiful? Instead of pointing out the flawed beliefs or lifestyle of the non-Christian, how might he react if we show him something that is beautiful? Beauty has an incredible way of being accessible, enticing, and disarming. Even an atheist who walks into St. Peter’s Basilica is struck by what he sees there. Beauty then becomes the springboard for contact with the other transcendentals. One might say, “Wow, Giotto’s frescoes are incredible! What moved him to paint like he did?” Beauty has a way of drawing us in. When we experience it, we want to be a part of it. We want to know it. We become primed for the goodness and truth toward which it points.

To be clear, starting with the beautiful doesn’t mean we ought to neglect the true or the good. In fact, I would strongly argue that we need to double down on them through a renewal of the catechetical project in parish churches. The point, rather, is that beauty increasingly seems to be the most effective starting place for reaching the unchurched. 

As Anglo-Catholics, we are naturally inclined to things of beauty. But how often have we approached beauty with an eye toward evangelization? I recently spent a Saturday afternoon at the annual Greek Food Festival in Dallas, organized by Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox parish. In addition to the smorgasbord of culinary delights, and the various Hellenistic cultural displays, the event invites people to walk through the church itself. 

My wife and I watched as dozens of people wandered through the temple (as the Orthodox call it) gazing up at the incredible iconography covering the walls and ceiling. Many paused at the various displays set up which explained the particularities of Orthodox belief and liturgical practice. Driving home with bellies full of baklava, we reflected on how incredible it was to have so many people awestruck at the beauty they found in the church. 

Many of the visitors would otherwise likely never have stepped foot in a parish of the catholic tradition. And yet, because there was beauty to be found, they were drawn in to learning more about the faith that inspired such splendor (and we speculated there was a correlated rise in attendance at Divine Liturgy the following day). Whether intentional or not, this was evangelization through beauty. The experience reminded me of something supposedly said by an architect of Glastonbury Abbey, “I want to build a church so beautiful that even the hardest heart will be moved to prayer.” Perhaps this sentiment is worth emulating in our own parish contexts.

How might Anglo-Catholics tap into this approach to evangelizing the culture? The traditions of our patrimony provide plenty of possibilities. Public processions for Rogationtide, Corpus Christi, Marian or patronal feast days, or at other times, bring the splendor of our incarnational worship out into the world. Cultural festivals which promote music or art are a natural reaction to our belief that God uses matter to relate to us, and that we in turn play a role in the renewal of creation. Beautiful church architecture and adornment not only communicate what we believe about the sacramental life, but they also provide an appealing “low bar of entry” to the curious non-believer. Even traditional dress for priests and religious provides opportunities to display the kind of disarming, intriguing beauty which has the potential to evangelize. 

As G. K. Chesterton noted in Orthodoxy, the countries still dominated by Catholicism “are exactly the countries where there is still singing and dancing and colored dresses and art in the open-air.” This is because Catholicism fully embraces the doctrine of the Incarnation. If God truly took on flesh in the womb of Our Lady, then matter itself – our very humanity – has been taken up into the Godhead. Why then would we not utilize beautified matter in our efforts to spread the Gospel? 

It is not a dramatic claim to say that we live in a world bereft of real and significant beauty. Technology, while giving us more access than ever to beautiful things, has in some ways cheapened beauty in art and music. Perhaps now, more than ever, the Church has a unique ability to provide the authentic beauty so lacking in the world. For young people overwhelmed by a synthetic and monotonous saturation in iPhone apps, Netflix series, and fast food, I think the aesthetics of the catholic faith have an exceptional appeal. 

But, of course, beauty is not only found in physical displays of sacred art or music. There can be true beauty in relationships and in community life. Just as the outward forms of our faith must reflect the beauty of the One we worship, our parish communities should also reflect the communal beauty of the Holy Trinity. 

When someone visits your parish for the first time, do they find there a community which is a foretaste of the divine? Coffee hour after Mass, while sacrosanct to most Anglicans, almost always fails to meet this standard. Successful parishes – parishes that draw in newcomers through the appealing beauty of their communal life – are the ones that eat, pray, and live with one another during the week. 

My encouragement to Anglo-Catholics in today’s world would be to embrace the peculiarities and beauty of our own tradition as a means for reaching the culture. As a millennial myself, I am more and more convinced that the way to bring Gospel truth to young people and the “Nones” is by providing them a taste of the beauty they are so sorely lacking. This, of course has been the tradition of Anglo-Catholics from the beginning, bringing the splendors of the catholic faith into the slums of England. 

We would do well to reignite our zeal for souls in this day and age by asking how our parishes might bring truth and goodness to others, by giving them that which is beautiful.

Forward in Christ

Proclaiming the Faith and Order of the Church, given to us by Christ.