Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Featured: BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD – Gregory Wolfe [Vol. 4, #16]

“Making the Claims of
Truth and Goodness Meaningful

A review of
Beauty Will Save the World:
Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age

by Gregory Wolfe

Review by Jonathan Master.

BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD - Gregory WolfeBeauty Will Save the World:
Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age

by Gregory Wolfe
Hardback: ISI Books, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]

There never was a golden age for art and the church.  Not one in which the church fully understood and supported her artists, or where the artists, for their part, practiced their work in constant service to the greater glory of God. But there have been better and worse times.  Our age, by anyone’s reckoning, is not one of the better ones. In general, the church is concerned, confused, or downright hostile to high art; and artists return the favor, often scorning traditional norms of decency, order, and Christian transcendence. Some have ventured into this breach, but few as successfully as Gregory Wolfe, writer, critic, and founder of the journal Image.  Wolfe’s work is a gift to us, deserving of our gratitude.

This ambitiously titled book, Beauty Will Save the World (“tell us what you really think, Mr. Wolfe”), is a hybrid of sorts.  It contains elements of autobiography, and sections which can best be described as intellectual match-making, introducing readers to important voices in contemporary art and literature. Along the way, Wolfe employs his incisive critical skills, showing once again why he is such a valuable resource in the efforts at rapprochement between art and the church.

The autobiographical portion of the book is both fascinating and revealing. In it, Wolfe discusses his own journey, which hinges on two critical events. The first is the election, in 1980, of Ronald Reagan to the presidency.  At the time, Wolfe was working on the front lines of the conservative movement, in the offices of William F. Buckley’s National Review.  What he saw in 1980 had a profound effect.  It appeared to Wolfe that those in the conservative movement quickly lost their zeal for reform, rapidly transforming into creatures of the federal behemoth they had decried not months before.   His zeal for cultural renewal through right-wing politics was deeply damaged by watching this transformation.  He writes of those years, “My euphoria evaporated and was replaced by something closer to moral revulsion.”  He did not altogether abandon the thinkers in the conservative movement; two chapters in this book are devoted to critical appreciation of Gilbert Niemeyer and Russell Kirk, both of whom Wolfe frequently cites with warm agreement and affection.  Their thought and teaching served as the entry-point in his early engagement with the conservative movement, and still informs his critical perspective today.  But his revulsion at what he saw in 1980 eventually led him to seek a different path – not politics, but art.  Along the way came the second major turning point highlighted in this book: Wolfe’s conversion to the Roman Catholic Church.

This commitment to the Catholic communion seems to have shaped Wolfe’s life profoundly, and it shapes his critical judgment as well.  Of the three visual artists he highlights in the volume, two are Roman Catholic; the essay section includes Wolfe’s, “Ever Ancient, Ever New: The Catholic Writer in the Modern World,” which is as good an introduction as any to the literary categories that Wolfe seems to value most highly; also, particularly in the biographical sketches provided in the section entitled, “Five Men of Letters,” Wolfe takes special delight in giving sparkling accounts of conversions to the Roman Catholic Church.  The point of all this is not to criticize Wolfe, nor is it intended to portray him as anything less than an astute, often brilliant, critic of art and observer of life.  But his particular commitments do emerge throughout the book, as well they should.

What emerges most forcefully, however, is Wolfe’s care in attempting to understand modern art and literature on its own terms.  The best example of this in the book is his sympathetic chapter on the paintings of Fred Folsom. Folsom is an unlikely subject for critical acclaim from someone such as Wolfe: he is a realist, in a moment in painting where abstraction is prized; and, though a Christian believer, his paintings portray the seamy underside of society, his masterpiece being, “Last Call (at the Shepherd’s Park Go-Go Club).”  The scene and subject are aptly captured by the title, and yet, as Wolfe unfolds the background and meaning of this painting, and sets the larger project of Folsom’s work in its proper context, he does what the very best criticism does: he teaches us how to view work carefully, to appreciate its remarkable perspective, without resorting to simple cheerleading.  The reader comes out more appreciative, engaged, and, especially in the case of Folsom, with something important to consider.

There is another strand that develops throughout the book. Wolfe does not just treat us to a whirlwind tour of contemporary artists and writers, seen through his incisive critical eye; he also tries to show us something of an approach – not just to art, but to life itself. In one extended chapter, he refers to this approach as “Christian humanism,” and to explain the label, Wolfe cites two historical examples: Thomas More and Erasmus of Rotterdam. His point is not to get sidetracked into specific historical details, but to introduce a type of Christian figure who understands the importance of humane learning, who lives with the contradictions of life as we have it, and who does so in the context of a robust theology.  Wolfe characterizes these efforts as appropriations of the doctrine of the Incarnation; the Savior of the World was both fully human and fully divine, and the best thinking in the Christian humanist tradition emphasizes neither of these at the expense of other, or forgets the connections between the two.  He quotes from Gerald Vann, “Don’t preach divinity to the subhumanized, first give them back their humanity.”  One might only add what Wolfe surely believes: the only way back to being human is through reception of Christ and obedience to God; there is no other path out of subhumanity.

But back to the title.  Will beauty save the world, as Wolfe ambitiously suggests? In the end, I don’t think Wolfe fully believes it will, if by “beauty” he is referring to the best work of the artists he has devoted his life to describing. He has imbibed enough of William F. Buckley to avoid the trap of immantizing the eschaton, and while great modern art may bridge many gaps in our cultural divide, and while it surely provides a more truthful expression of the life’s deepest realities than partisan politics, it cannot solve our ultimate problems.  But what Wolfe’s book – along with his entire body of work – does convincingly show is that the beauty of great art – in our modern age, as in any other – points us to God in a way that nothing else in creation can. Beauty is, as Wolfe says in his opening chapter, is a “necessary agent for making the claims of truth and goodness meaningful.”  This comes as a sort of explanation for his life’s work, and Wolfe has clearly labored out of a personal desire to show that it is so.

So, while perhaps the beauty modern artists produce cannot save us, it can point us to the Source and Measure of what is true, and what is good, and what is beautiful.  That hope alone makes it worth praying and working toward a golden age to come.


Jonathan Master is an associate professor at Philadelphia Biblical University and director of its Center for University Studies.  He and his family reside in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

One Comment

  1. I am currently half way through Wolfe’s gorgeous and lush description of the crucible of faith and culture from which we can emerge more refined.u00a0 What a lovely and powerful gift to the world community.u00a0 And the above review captures it beautifully.u00a0 nShann