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24 Questions for Advent: Fifteen

How many times can we wake up in this comic book and plant flowers?

- Rodriguez, Cause

I watched a moving documentary from 2012 called Searching for Sugar Man. It is about two music journalists from South Africa who take on the task on researching what happened to a folk icon that had reportedly died years earlier. What they discover is that the musician, named simply Rodriguez, was still alive but had faded out of his music career in America and had gone back to his job in building demolition, completely unaware that his recordings from 30 years before had made a powerful impact upon a culture on the other side of the world. A real-life Cinderella story.

Rodriguez’ re-issued recordings give a raw and authentic picture of his observations of the racial tensions and economic disparity of 1960s Detroit that resonated with the people of South Africa during apartheid. The above quote is from the song Cause, which plays on the dual meaning of the word as both a response to a question and a call for action.

Written decades ago, the quote seems even more relevant today. We are truly living in a “comic-book world” that is increasing filled with violence, sensationalism and the villainization of others. We pine for the need to instill beauty, to continue to “plant flowers” in a culture that seems more and more to be approaching a dystopic state. But for how long can we keep at it?

Beauty will save the world.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Idiot

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote an essay on Dostoyevsky’s quote that has stayed with me over the years. Here’s a few excerpts:

Dostoyevsky once let drop the enigmatic phrase: “Beauty will save the world.” What does this mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty had provided embellishment certainly, given uplift—but whom had it ever saved?

However, there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie; and the hidden element, the distortion, will not immediately become visible. And a speech, or a journalistic essay, or a program in rebuttal, or a different philosophical structure can be counterposed to the first—and it will seem just as well constructed and as smooth, and everything will seem to fit. And therefore one has faith in them—yet one has no faith.

It is vain to affirm that which the heart does not confirm. In contrast, a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation: concepts which are manufactured out of whole cloth or overstrained will not stand up to being tested in images, will somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one. Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power- and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them.

And so perhaps that old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth. If the crests of these three trees join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light—yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three.

The Grunewald Guild is an art & faith community in central Washington state that I had the privilege of directing for ten years. One of the many gifts about the Guild was the creative culture which was nurtured there that demonstrated Solzhenitsyn’s observations about the power of Beauty. People who struggled to put into words the meaning of their faith found powerful expressions in creating art in community. Life-changing relationships were formed out of the shared, sacred & vulnerable acts of putting one’s heart into the making and movement of basic materials. Creating beauty indeed performed "the work of all three."

“It was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoyevsky to say that ‘Beauty will save the world,’ but a prophecy,” sums up Solzhenitsyn.

It is enough to keep me planting flowers.

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