Alan Jacobs cites a New Yorker essay in which the writer, Maria Bustillos, discusses the value of reading writers whose thought she doesn’t like. She finds herself seduced by Edmund Burke, even though she strongly disagrees with his politics. Bustillos writes:
I will never be entirely persuaded of his message, but the skill and beauty of his rhetoric have opened the door to many insights for me…. It’s like the most beautiful voice you ever heard, singing a song you can’t stand.
To which Alan responds, in part:
Reading this passage, I think, “But Burke isn’t really ‘singing a song you can’t stand,’ is he? He’s singing a song you couldn’t stand at first but you are now beginning to appreciate the artfulness of, even if it’s still not quite your thing.” But, no that isn’t quite right, because Bustillos’s response to Burke isn’t purely aesthetic: the beauty of Burke’s language is sufficient to create in her at least partial sympathy with his actual arguments. She’s not “entirely persuaded” — but not utterly alienated either. She “can’t quite dismiss” even Burke’s deep commitment to chivalry “out of hand”: she’s going “to investigate further.”
When I read this from Alan, I immediately thought of religion, and the effect the Chartres cathedral had on me as a young man. I have told that story here before, and I won’t detail it again. But it is as pure an experience of aesthetic beauty battering down a door in one’s mind as I can imagine. I didn’t leave Chartres as a Catholic, but I did leave Chartres a different man, one who was now open to thinking about God and Christianity and myself in a different way. Catholicism was foreign to me, but after Chartres, it was less so, because the particular beauty of that cathedral, built by French Catholics in service of God as revealed to them by Roman Catholicism, resonated with something very deep inside of me, and began the process of revelation. I wanted to know more.
Beauty did that. Beauty is not the same thing as truth. Beauty can mislead. The classic example of this is Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph Of The Will,” the Nazi propaganda film, which is absolutely gorgeous and heart-stirring. And evil. Truth is not always beautiful.
But when you have truth united to beauty, you have something very powerful indeed. Beauty is unsettling because our response to it is visceral, not intellectualized. We are not pure minds, but our minds are incarnate, inseparable from our bodies. Beauty seduces. The question of whether or not it seduces one towards truth and light, or towards falsehood and darkness, is a separate one, but not nearly as separate as we might think.
This is why our priest insists that we make our church as beautiful as we can manage within the limits of our resources. This is what we owe God, not only as worship, but in making it possible to more fully reveal Him to ourselves, and to others.