Even if beauty does save the world, is that the artist's first concern?
Of the bounty of delights in Father Robert Barron’s outstanding new documentary, Catholicism: The New Evangelization, which debuted Wednesday night on EWTN, one of my favorites was the segment on art and beauty. From a seat at The Eagle and Child, the Oxford pub where J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others met to read and talk over each other’s work, Father Barron explained how Tolkien in The Lord of the Rings used fiction as a means of manifesting the beauty of the Faith. The tagline for the documentary is, “The Catholic Faith is not about myths or legends, symbols or literary devices. It is about an encounter so overwhelming that you want to tell the whole world. It’s about an encounter with Jesus Christ.” Catholicism: The New Evangelization makes a powerful case for this claim, but in the film’s discussion of beauty, Father Barron rightly contended that “myths and legends” also have a role to play in preparing souls for that encounter with Christ.
But in what sense does art function in this way? Father Barron reported Tolkien’s remark from his Letters that the Catholic symbolism of The Lord of the Rings was unconscious in the drafting, but conscious in the revision. There is no doubt that Tolkien intended his work to image a Catholic understanding of reality. But in what sense does this make Tolkien’s novel, or any work of art, a tool of evangelization?
I think we should distinguish, first of all, that art is not a tool of evangelization in any literal sense. It is not like the megaphone that a street preacher might use. Art is not a mere means to the saving of souls.
For those eager to contribute their art to the work of the New Evangelization–and I, for better or worse, am one of them–this last statement might sound scandalous, or at least disspiriting. Why else would a Christian take up his or her pen, or paintbrush, if not, ultimately, to touch souls and hopefully attract them to the Beauty of Christ?
But all rides on that “ultimately.” A Christian artist can, and should, ultimately aspire to have his work lead souls to an encounter with Christ. But that evangelizing aim is a remote and secondary aim of the artist as he gets down to work. Evangelization is not the essential aim of the artist as artist–however much it may be the ultimate aim of the artist as Christian man or woman.
The charming, prickly, meticulous craftsman that comes through in reading Tolkien’s Letters would not, I believe, reply to the question, “Why do you write?” by saying, “I want to save souls.” Tolkien, I believe, would reply by saying something closer to: “I want to tell a good story about the world that I’ve co-created.” To paraphrase St. Thomas Aquinas, the aim of the artist is not primarily his own moral perfection, or the moral perfection of his audience. The aim of the artist is the good of the work, the making of an excellent thing–whether it be a story, a painting, or a dance.
Why is this distinction important? Why should we care about the difference between an artist’s remote aims and his essential aim as an artist? It may seem like I’m trying to compartmentalize the activities of the human person, activities that Christian moral teaching urges us to keep integral and ordered to God and our neighbor.
To distinguish, however, is not to separate. The Christian artist is always and foremost a Christian; that is why the aim of evangelization must always be his priority. But when that person sets about his work as an artist, he must distinguish, without separating, the task at hand from the task of saving souls. He will not forget the Christian truth he wants to announce to the world–thus did Tolkien develop the Catholic symbolism in the revision of his work. But he will also not forget that the work has demands of its own, that art has its own requirements that the Christian cannot expect to be waived for him.