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Classical Education

Irrigating Imaginations: The Centrality of Beauty for Culture Care

By May 26, 2023December 21st, 2023No Comments

by Justin Ariel Bailey

I. Our Challenging Cultural Moment 

In a widely discussed article for The Atlantic, social psychologist Jonathan Haidt draws on the biblical story of Babel as a metaphor to capture the state of public discourse in the United States. Painting a picture of the scattered Babelites wandering “amid the ruins, unable to communicate, condemned to mutual incomprehension,” he describes how our digital connectedness has weakened our trust in each other, our institutions, and the stories they tell. Rather than realizing the promise that social media would give everyone a voice, Haidt claims, what really happened is it gave everyone a dart gun, the ability to lash out at anyone else with impunity.

Indeed, since most well-adjusted people don’t want to dart-gun other people, bad actors are given an oversized influence on online conversations. The fear of getting darted leads us to retreat further into cultural cul-de-sacs where no one meaningfully challenges our vision of the world. These echo chambers cut us off from the wisdom of opposing perspectives, spreading what Haidt calls “structural stupidity.” And thus, “the past ten years of American life have been uniquely stupid.”

We can feel the force of Haidt’s argument, not least in how the dynamics of social media have also reshaped educational spaces. At the Christian university where I teach, my students seem to be going silent precisely when they should be learning to participate in public discourse. Regardless of their partisan leanings, they are all afraid of saying the wrong thing and getting darted by someone else. These fears stifle the risk-taking that is essential to learning, trying out new ideas, making claims, and being wrong in public.

To use language from educational scholar John Palfrey, in the admirable effort to make safe spaces, we have neglected to cultivate brave spaces, where dangerous ideas can be handled responsibly. Courage is needed as we face a cultural moment that runs on superficiality, sensationalism, and outrage and is often allergic to nuance and complexity.

Yet even the most nuanced discussions reveal that our differences are real, and that we make our way through a world filled with competing visions of what is good, beautiful, and true. As Christians inhabit increasingly secular environments, many believers feel beleaguered and besieged. Commentators argue that the days of a winsome witness are gone, and that the current cultural moment calls for a more confrontational style. How shall Christian educators and leaders make our way in this challenging cultural moment?

Over seventy years ago, H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture offered a typology of the ways that Christians throughout history have sought to reconcile their allegiance to Christ with their allegiances to the local communities to which they belong: Christ against culture, Christ of culture, Christ above culture, Christ and culture in paradox, Christ transforming culture. Although Niebuhr’s preference for the final mode is clear, it is not clear what transformation entails, or how we might bring it about, especially in hostile environments.

II. Shifting the Metaphor: From Culture War to Culture Care 

Indeed, as Christians in North America have encountered increased resistance to traditional values, culture war has emerged as a dominant mode of engagement. Here culture is imagined as a contested space, a “no man’s land” where we fight for every inch. Cultural transformation is sought through ideological combat and institutional conquest. If we naïvely ignore the battle for hearts and souls, it is argued, we may lose our faith, or the freedom to practice it.

We should not overlook the real fears that have produced this martial posture among Christians. Nor should we deny that martial metaphors are found in the New Testament (e.g., 1 Tim. 6:12, “fight the good fight of faith”). But these metaphors are always qualified in their character: “For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does”; “our battle is not against flesh and blood” (2 Cor. 10:3; Eph. 6:12). Indeed, we should also ask whether the strategy of culture war can remain theologically faithful, ethically responsible, or uniquely generative.

Although it may be possible to wage culture war without compromising our integrity, this is not easily done. The working assumptions of culture warriors too often tend towards a Machiavellian realism (the willingness to win at any costs) rather than the restraint of the “just war” tradition (which prescribes strict rules of engagement). The sense of being continually “under attack” engenders anxiety, exhaustion, and rage. As on the terrace of the wrathful in Dante’s purgatorial journey, a “fog of war” obscures our vision. We need better metaphors and models to cut through the fog and to reorient our life together for the sake of the world.

The Japanese American artist Makoto Fujimura has proposed “culture care” as an alternative to culture war. He writes, “After many years of culture wars, no one can claim victory. We have all been further dehumanized, fragmented, and exiled from genuine conversation. Culture at large is a polluted, over-commoditized system that has failed us.” The solution, he continues, is not becoming more combative. Rather, we must recover a biblical understanding of culture in which “culture is not a territory to be won or lost but a resource we are called to steward with care. Culture is a garden to be cultivated.”

If culture is more like a polluted ecosystem than a battlefield, then it shifts our posture from defense to discernment, and from resistance to repair. Yes, there will be things to resist and ideas to uproot. But planting a garden requires so much more than trying to kill all the weeds. It requires patient, loving attention, daily diligence, and the active planting of beautiful things. So now we can specify the sort of transformation we seek: Christ transforming culture by caring for culture.

The theology of culture care is found in the first pages of the Bible. Created in God’s image, humanity is called to cultivate creation, unfolding its glorious potentialities. As many commentators have shown, the command to “have dominion” (Gen. 1:28) is not a metaphor of domination. Its meaning is made plain by the verbs in the second chapter, where humanity is called to “till and keep” the garden (Gen. 2:15). We were gardeners before we were warriors.

After the fall, the calling to care for culture becomes fraught, disrupted by the conditions of the curse. We now can expect a world that pushes back against us with thorns and thistles, an ecosystem sometimes inhospitable to our cultivation. There will be frustration and pain as we nurture places and people. Failure will be guaranteed, confronting us most viscerally in the certainty of death (Gen. 3:16-19).

How will we find security in a hostile, inhospitable world? The biblical answer is covenant. God’s people are invited to make their home in God’s covenantal promises, promises embodied and fulfilled in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). In the resurrected body of Jesus and the gift of the Holy Spirit we are given a taste of what is coming: salvation means creation healed.

Images of the new creation abound, but it is consistently described as a mingling of divine and human creativity: a garden-city whose gates will never be shut (Rev. 21:25), a place where “everyone will sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one will make them afraid” (Mic. 4:4). Christians bear witness to the now and not-yet reality of God’s kingdom by seeking to nurture “small imperfect models of the good world that is to come.”

The hope that this kingdom is coming, not our cultural success, is the ultimate source of our security. Because Jesus has been raised from the dead, we are assured that our labor is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58). Our efforts may fail and be forgotten. Indeed, the willingness to lose by the world’s standards – even to die – is basic to Christian discipleship (Luke 9:32). But we are invited not to “rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead” (2 Cor. 1:9). God can take up our humble efforts and weave them into his tapestry, making them matter in ways that we could not have foreseen.

Covenant not only provides security for culture care to continue; it also sets the terms of our engagement: relational interdependence and entrusted stewardship. We recognize that our neighbors are also image bearers, who should never be dismissed in the course of our discernment. And we recognize that the culture is an ecosystem of meaning, a shared environment entrusted to our care. We may not be wholly to blame for the pollution of our cultural spaces. But we are all responsible to work for their repair, to leave them better than we found them.

As we engage in the reparative work of culture care, we must learn to imagine a better future. But here lies the heart of our problem, a failure of imagination. Because we have lost our sense of our place in the biblical story, our imaginations have been taken captive by “the way things are.” We are unable to imagine our own healing, much less the healing of the nations.

This means that a primary task of educators, parents, and Christian leaders is to nurture Christian imagination in ourselves, as well as the people and places we have been entrusted. The best medicine for vain imagination is a vibrantly Christian one. Our task, as Lewis reminds us, “is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts.” How do we irrigate desiccated imaginations? With beauty.

III. The Role of Beauty in Culture Care 

The way forward in our polarizing climate requires not just critical resistance but also cultural renewal: learning to tell better stories, to paint more beautiful pictures, and to make connections that were previously unimagined. As we seek to grow more skillful in culture care, we have much to learn from artists, poets, and creative writers, who have a special vocation in irrigating imaginations with beauty.

Fujimura notes how creatives tend to be “border-stalkers,” moving on the margins, challenging uniformity, holding space for ambiguity. As he writes: “The generosity of an artist in this sense can mean mediation in the culture wars, beginning by overcoming caricatures and injecting diversity, nuance, and even paradox into the nature of the conversation, and then moving on to teach society a language of empathy and reconciliation. Grounded artists can provide rallying points around which reconciliation begins.” Artists can teach us to slow down and take a second look, to appreciate complexity while also seeking a coherent vision.

Indeed, we do not need to consider ourselves artists to pursue lives that are coherent and beautiful, characterized by righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom. 14:17). We could extend this creative calling to the communities and institutions we inhabit. When we care for a cultural space, a class, a school, a church, a neighborhood, or a family, we are nurturing generative spaces, spaces in which beauty can arrest our attention, redirect our desire, and elicit our delight.

Beauty arrests our attention. It slows us down and inclines us towards a heightened attentiveness to the world around us. As philosopher Elaine Scarry puts it: “It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level.” If our current cultural moment is allergic to nuance, beauty can train our powers of attention to notice things we have otherwise missed.

Beauty also redirects our desire. Beauty may evoke a subjective experience in those that perceive it, but ultimately beauty is not about us. Just the opposite: it confronts us with otherness that is not reducible to ourselves. Indeed, when we encounter beauty, we feel like we have been given a gift, but we also feel “an urge to protect it, or act on its behalf.” As such, being immersed in beauty re-humanizes us. It creates a space to resist the dehumanizing forces that beset us in everyday life. Beauty calls out postures of gratitude (what a gift this is!), generativity (what else is possible?), and generosity (how can I keep the gift going?).

Finally, beauty elicits our delight. Delight is at the very core of the experience of beauty. Why do we crave beauty? Just for the heaven of it. Because in the biblical perspective, beauty makes an imaginative claim about the world. Despite all the brutality and brokenness, the Christian story claims that beauty is the deeper reality, and that the diseased creation is being made new (Rev. 21:5).

We must never separate beauty from her sisters, goodness and truth. To live well is to respond rightly to reality, to a beauty that is profoundly good and grounded in truth. For although the Christian story is beautiful, it also challenges our ideas of beauty and what it means to live a beautiful life.

The Christian understanding of beauty centers on the Cross of Christ, which we would never have imagined to be beautiful, the medicine of healing we could never have discovered by our own ingenuity. The Cross forces us to reckon the ugliness and brutality of the world, and our complicity in it. It forces us to come to terms with how severely we fail to live up to our highest hopes. Celebration of the beautiful, apart from a consideration of the concrete person of Christ and the Cross, can lead only to a theology of glory. But it will be a lesser glory, one limited by our best imaginings. If the human imagination is never confronted with and humbled by the Cross, then it will be unable to imagine the deep hope that only the Cross can provide.

For once the Cross has humbled us, it offers us hope. Indeed, in the gospel, this symbol of the worst that humans can do has been reimagined as a sign of the best that God has done. The Cross does not deny the possibility of loss, or defeat, or brutality. It denies that any of these things can have the final word.

The Cross invites us to reimagine beauty and a beautiful life in cruciform terms. Like the Japanese art of kintsugi, it repairs our shattered hopes with gold, opening every possibility of redemption. Faith in Christ does not change the past, but it can change the meaning of the past. And faith opens up the most capacious future, because it tells us that even death will be swallowed up in the end.

The Christian story is beautiful, but it is also true. We seek to be nourished by those who remind us of our place in this story, who bear witness to the story with beautiful lives and beautiful work.  By taking beauty seriously, what these witnesses show us is not that God will end up being the way we want him to be. They show us that whatever we imagine, God will be better.

Our cultural moment is one of deep anxiety and despair. In response to this, some will continue to double down on winning the culture wars. But there is a better way forward: culture care, where we seek to irrigate desiccated imaginations with beauty. In this mode we continually ask what it means to care for and beautify the polluted cultural ecosystems in which we find ourselves, leaving them better than we found them.

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