Wednesday 28 May 2014

“Protestants went too far in ridding themselves of beauty”

Full transcript of an interview with Pentecostal pastor Brian Zahnd, about his recent book “Beauty Will Save the World”. The article, in Portuguese, can beread here.

Transcrição integral da entrevista ao pastor Pentecostal Brian Zahnd, sobre o seu mais recente livro “A Beleza Salvará o Mundo”. Areportagem pode ser lida aqui.

What is this new book about?
It is called “Beauty will save the world”, the phrase comes from a Dostoyevsky novel, The Idiot. He has this phrase in there a couple of times, and it was Alexander Solzhenitsyn who said, well that's not just an enigma, it’s a kind of prophecy.
What I am doing is looking at the Christian faith through the lens of beauty. The ancient Greek philosophers talked about the true, the good and the beautiful. And Christianity has a long history of trying to defend itself by claiming that it is true or by claiming that it is good. So we talk about Christian apologetics or ethics. But I am saying let’s look at it a different way, because we live in a secular age that is very suspicious of any claim to absolute truth or a superior morality. What if we approach Christianity aesthetically? Looking at it through the lens of beauty? So that is what the book is about, and that is how I approach that. I do it in a lot of different ways, but that is the basic thesis and the idea.

There are many different forms of beauty: Poetic beauty, physical beauty… Are you speaking about a specific form of beauty?
Beauty is a strange word. We all use it, we kind of know it when we see it, or hear it, or we think so anyway. But it’s hard to define. If you look it up in the dictionary you go yeah, ok, but beauty has to be a lot more than that.

I think beauty is related to form. You mentioned poetry, that's the form of words, or a painting, the form of colour, sculpture the form of shape. There is something about the form that is intrinsic to the nature of beauty and so people say: "If you are going to talk about Christianity, what is the form of beauty?" And I think that is what we call the Cruciform, the Christ crucified form.

This is a very odd claim to make, because in its original intent, Crucifixion is a form of psychological terror used by the Romans to control an oppressed people, and it was intentionally designed to be hideous, repulsive, ugly, and yet, somehow, the Cross has been re-appropriated in the Christian faith to be something beautiful.

Can people who follow Jesus Christ posture themselves in the world in such a way that it replicates the Cruciform and is beautiful? In other words, Christianity has a long history of really trying to present itself with a clenched fist, or a furrowed brow, or a wagging finger, none of which is beautiful, it’s all ugly. And I'm suggesting that possibly our posture in the world, as those who would follow Jesus, should be one of arms outstretched, in offered embrace, and simply responding to whatever we perceive as a wrong against us with those beautiful words, "Father forgive them".

In one of the stories you relate we hear about the conversion of the Rus people by Prince Vladimir. Now, the Prince's emissaries were struck by the visual beauty of a celebration in Constantinople, which brings us to the idea of liturgy and its beauty. As a reformed Christian, a Pentecostal, what does this say to you about the Protestant tradition of having stripped away most of the visual beauty of churches and liturgy? Did it go too far?
That's very perceptive, and yes I think it has gone too far. I would be regarded as one of the voices in a new movement in America, among... I hesitate to call myself Protestant, but that's probably the only thing left to me. The reason I hesitate is because I don't feel like I'm protesting, but certainly I belong to that tradition. But there is a movement to reclaim liturgy and, specifically, beauty.

I have a lot of Catholic friends, and I have become close enough to our Catholic friends to know what they say behind our backs. And what they say is "my, their churches are so ugly!", and I have to say "Yeah, you're right".

We are trying to reclaim beauty in all sorts of ways, in liturgy, in our worship space, in how we sing, what we do... I think the Protestant church has gone too far, and in an effort to reform, also ridded itself of all manner of beauty, and that's why, when I'm in Europe I always make a point of visiting as many Cathedrals as I can, because I love the beauty.

You say when you're in Europe, so I presume you've been here before...
Many times. I've been to Portugal once before, and to Europe many times.

So being familiar with European Christianity, at least from these visits and you're friends and contacts here, do you feel that your ideas also make sense on this side of the Atlantic?
I think so, that's what I'm told. When I sit down to write I think it's inevitable that I am going to write primarily to an American audience, because that's probably who I'm talking to, but I'm told it resonates with Europeans as well.

I read very widely, many of my influences are European theologians, especially European Catholic Theologians, like Hans Urs Von Balthazar, Gerhard Lohfink, people like that.

Going back to your book on Forgiveness, how important is forgiveness in the life of a Christian?
I think it’s at the very centre, it’s not at the periphery, it’s absolutely at the centre, and that book would be another example of really writing for an American audience, but I may possibly gain a European hearing. I think most people are aware of the culture wars, in America, where different groups fighting for their rights within this democratic system that we have. I am thinking that that is not how we want to present the Gospel, it is not a fight for our rights, but a continual offer of forgiveness.

I'm saying that if Christianity isn't about Forgiveness, it’s about nothing at all, and yet I fear that at times it looks like it’s about moralism, about finger wagging, about keeping the rules, about how to behave yourself, and so those two books, "Unconditional" or "Radical Forgiveness", and "Beauty will save the world", they're both really saying the same thing. One looking at Christianity through the lens of forgiveness, the other looking at it through the lens of beauty, but it's the same thing. I'm using different metaphors, but it’s the same message.

Speaking of the culture wars, the way you put it, it almost seems like Christians have been on the offensive, wagging their fingers and being moralistic. Now, however we are seeing the opposite, Christians losing their jobs for expressing their opinion about things like traditional marriage... So when you say that Christians have to engage their adversaries with open arms, isn't there a risk that they will open their arms and get crushed? Because it seems like the secular culture has really gone on the offensive and is trying to push Christianity out of the public square.
I think the risk of, as you say, getting crushed, is always present. Jesus says take up your cross and follow me. And what is He doing with that cross? He's not going on a crusade, He's going to His own death, and we have to be willing to do the same thing.

A beleza do Cristianismo
In other words, Christianity is intelligible only if God raises Jesus from the dead. There are times when we simply must trust our fate to the God who raises the dead. And if resurrection is not possible, then Christianity is unwarranted and the only defence I can offer is that I believe in the God that raised Jesus from the dead, and that if we follow Him, the Father of Jesus will act on behalf of truth, beauty and goodness.

You mentioned the Cruciform, and you obviously don't only mean the Crucifix as an adornment. But speaking of the Crucifix, we have 2000 years, specifically in Orthodox and Catholic traditions, of embellishing the Crucifix and turning it into a beautiful object, some would say that the embellishment has whitewashed all the gore and hideousness of the crucifixion out. Is there also a place for that hideousness, as you called it?
I think so. I am coming from a Protestant background, where Crucifixes were absent. So I want to embrace the Crucifix more and more, as the posture of Christianity in the world. On the other hand, a Crucifix that is constantly adorned with gold, and gems and jewels, may also be missing the point: That Jesus died an ugly death, but what he did was a beautiful thing, and that it becomes beautiful in Resurrection. But it is possible for the Crucifix to then become the service of Empire, of interests of wealth, and begin to be symbolized that way, where everything is overlaid with gold and we begin to miss the point.

So it’s always this tension we are living in. On the one had the Cross is originally an ugly thing, it’s the torturous death of a Human Being, on the other hand it's where God is revealed in Christ as forgiving, so how do we express that artistically?

I think a lot of the medieval artists, in the Renaissance, did a good job, where they are depicting a violent death, on the other hand it is undeniably beautiful. And I think they are rendering a good service to us, in that in the midst of what truly was ugly, a violent death by torture, God was being revealed as beauty. As Hans Urs Von Balthazar, one of my favourite theologians says, being disguised under an ugly crucifixion and death, Christ upon the Cross is paradoxically the clearest revelation of who God is. So we are living in that tension of the paradox, its ugly but it’s beautiful.

Are you married?
Yes, and I have three children and three grandchildren.

What have you thought of Portugal?

I love it! We came a year ago, spent two weeks, went back home, had saudades and had to come back. We love Portugal!

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