The title of Brian Zahnd’s brand new book Beauty Will Save the World is taken from a quote in Fyodor Dostoyevski’s novel The Idiot. Zahnd’s book is a prophetic call to turn away from the ugliness that evangelical Christianity has acquired in the last thirty years due to the loud, angry people who claim to represent us; our consequent identification in the public sphere as an anti-intellectual, xenophobic, populist partisan voting bloc; and our canned, formulaic theology that has produced exponential growth among our megachurches, but seems to be bored with and disdainful of the depths of mystery within God’s Word. Zahnd writes that all of evangelicalism’s various strategies for political and cultural conquest turn ugly when they cease to emulate the “cruciform [which] is the aesthetic of our gospel” (7). Zahnd contends that “our task is not to protest the world into a certain moral conformity, but to attract the world to the saving beauty of Christ” (xvii).
The word that Zahnd uses for the ugliness we have assumed is “pragmatism.” This is an interesting use of the word pragmatism for me, because I usually contrast it (positively) with ideology: while pragmatists can make compromises with adversaries and develop realistic solutions to problems, ideologues would rather destroy whatever they’re working on than concede an inch of their principles. But Zahnd is talking about pragmatism in a different sense. He’s contrasting the worldly and cruciform approaches to changing the world:
Just put good people in positions of power and good things will happen… We are easily seduced by the clear logic of political pragmatism. But we need to remember that God does not save the world through the clear logic of political pragmatism… Instead, God saves the world through the ironic and mysterious beauty of the cruciform. To achieve good through attaining political and military dominance has always been the way of the fallen world. 9
So if Jesus’ way of saving the world was to be crucified, why are Christians today trying to save the world through seizing political power? Note that this isn’t an argument about the relative merits of one political party or the other. Nor is it a call for us to renounce political participation altogether and join the Amish (though perhaps that wouldn’t be such a bad idea). Zahnd’s concern is with how we are witnessing to the world:
Isn’t it our first task to actually be God’s alternative society?… We’re not so much tasked with running the world as with being a faithful expression of the kingdom of God through following Jesus and living the beautiful life that Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount. 13
Our task in the world is to witness to the beauty of the gospel, not to conquer or overthrow anything. Why does it seem so unimportant to so many evangelicals how ugly we make God look with our conquistador attitudes? The prevailing attitude among many evangelicals is summed up by a sentence from the blog bio of Antioch “Bible” Church pastor Ken Hutcherson: “the only way to make your enemy a friend is to defeat them or kill them.” The opposite of Biblical becomes “Biblical” when all that “Biblical” means is politically incorrect. I’m still reeling that a Christian pastor actually presents that sentence among a list of beliefs that prove his “conservative Christian” credentials along with capital punishment, deporting illegal aliens, and drilling for oil. Wow.
The true evangelicals are those who concern themselves every waking moment with the question of how their lives evangelize others, making sure that everything they do attracts other people to Jesus. If the cross is the beauty that is supposed to shape our witness, we cannot approach evangelism as an argument that we’re trying to win or a political campaign in which we’re trying to destroy our opponents. Showing other people their logical flaws is a very adolescent form of persuasion: it doesn’t attract anyone to anything. Same goes for defeating other people politically. Beauty stands a much better chance of drawing people into salvation.