By Brian Zahnd
When considering Christian faith and practice, we are used to asking, "Is it true?," but we also need to ask the question, "Is it beautiful?"
The ancient Greek philosophers, and later the early church fathers, spoke of three prime virtues: truth, goodness, and beauty. As prime virtues, truth, goodness, and beauty need no further justification—they are their own justification, which is a way of saying that truth, goodness, and beauty don't need to be made practical—they don't have to do anything to be of value. The value of a virtue is inherent; we simply choose truth, goodness, and beauty because they are true, good, and beautiful.
Early Christian theologians located the source of these prime virtues as proceeding from God himself—truth, goodness, and beauty are virtues because God is true, good, and beautiful. Thus this trinity of virtues becomes a guide to Christian living as we seek to believe what is true, be what is good, and behold what is beautiful.
But it is this third virtue, the virtue of beauty, that has been most marginalized in the way we understand and evaluate Christianity. As a result, Christianity has suffered a loss of beauty—a loss that needs to be recovered. With an emphasis on truth, we have tried to make Christianity persuasive (as we should). But we also need a corresponding emphasis on beauty to make Christianity attractive. Christianity should not only persuade with truth, but it should also attract with beauty. Along with Christian apologetics, we need Christian aesthetics. Christianity needs to be presented as beautiful. Often where truth cannot convince, beauty can entice.
The aesthetic aspect of Christian witness and doctrine needs to be developed, and we do this by focusing on the unique form of Christian beauty …. The unique form of Christianity is the cruciform—Christ upon the cross, arms outstretched in offered embrace, forgiving the world its sins. This is the beauty that saves the world, and the symbol of this saving grace is the cross.
That the Roman cross, an instrument of physical torture and psychological terror, could ever become an object of beauty representing faith, hope, and love is an amazing miracle of transformation. Every cross adorning a church is in itself a sermon—a sermon proclaiming that if Christ can transform the Roman instrument of execution into a thing of beauty, there is hope that in Christ all things can be made beautiful! This is precisely the claim that the Christian faith makes concerning what Jesus accomplished in his death—and it is an astounding claim!
Excerpt from Beauty Will Save The World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity by Brian Zahnd (Charisma House, January 2012).