Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 27, 2013

When I wrote my introductory essay on the role of the arts in evangelization (see The Problem of High Culture: The Arts and Evangelization), I acknowledged my limitations in handling this complex subject, and I also recommended Gregory Wolfe as a far more able Catholic guide. In doing so, I mentioned Wolfe’s book Beauty Will Save the World, but I did not say much about it because I expected to review it in the immediate future.

Wolfe is writer in residence at Seattle Pacific University, where he directs the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program. More importantly for my readers, he is the founder and editor of Image, which is widely known as the premier journal for exploring the arts in their relationship with spirituality and religion, in the context of the richness of Catholicism. His books include Sacred Passion: The Art of William Schickel, Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography, Intruding upon the Timeless: Meditations on Art, Faith, and Mystery, and of course Beauty Will Save the World. The last two books are collections of his other writings. Intruding consists of editorials from Image, and Beauty is a collection of longer essays over a period of years.

As such there is both some repetition and some development of Wolfe’s leading ideas in Beauty Will Save the World. One of several themes central to the book is captured in the subtitle, which also serves as the title of this review, “Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age”. Wolfe contends, rightly in my view, that the modern world breathes an atmosphere of ideology, and that too many—even of those with significant spiritual vision—have been boxed into a “culture wars” mentality which is generally closed to the exploration and nurturing of a fuller sense of being. Wolfe sees the imagination as vital to the healing of what is essentially a fracturing of the human psyche, and as an avenue of grace in an increasingly technocratic culture.

The essays are grouped into five parts: From Ideology to Humanism; Christianity, Literature, and Modernity; Six Writers; Three Artists; and Four Men of Letters. The last section, which features Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Marion Montgomery, is primarily a tribute to the key ideas of four men who have profoundly influenced Wolfe himself. I did not find this section to speak as effectively to the main themes of the book as the other four, but these essays do present a kind of framework for understanding Wolfe’s formation and perhaps a more academic way of exploring the kinds of problems he hopes to address. In the other parts of the book, however, Wolfe is more directly occupied with the role of the imagination and the importance of the arts in following the perennial way of beauty to God (via pulchritudinis).

By the time Wolfe has finished laying the groundwork in the first two parts of the book, the reader is ready to join him in a series of explorations of the specific ways in which significant creative writers and artists have used the forms and insights of modernity to provoke deeper perceptions of reality, suffering, and the yearnings of the human spirit. Among those who receive Wolfe’s focus, Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy play an important role in connecting art in a post-Christian world with the long Catholic imaginative tradition. Wolfe also devotes separate essays to the writers Evelyn Waugh, Shusaku Endo, Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Lytle, Wendell Berry, and Larry Woiwode, as well as the painters Fred Folsom, Mary McCleary, and Makoto Fujimura.

The work of each of these artists leads us to envision the “something more” that always exists both for and in the human person. And while I will leave a critical assessment of Wolfe’s insights to someone who is far more immersed in the arts, I can report that I found each essay fascinating. Each also led me to think more deeply about the arts and the imagination, and the serious difficulties which attend engagement with both in our pleasure-oriented yet stark and sterile age. Beauty Will Save the World is an excellent starting point for a persistent journey of the imagination to God.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 28, 2013 8:27 AM ET USA

    Gregory Wolfe was an enjoyable professor and a man with a sense of humor. Having lost touch with his endeavors over time it is much appreciated that you have posted this discussion of his important work. As we move forward in these fantastic times where imagination and reality seem to be merging ever closer and blurring distinctions, there must be a transcendent reference point to extricate us from a descent into the "stark and sterile." The book title is quite cogent and enticing.