The best of Fred Hutchison
Culture and the culture wars: is cultural relativism compatible with moral absolutes?
Bring beauty back into the battle for truth and morality
December 20, 2012
Fred Hutchison, RenewAmerica analyst

Originally published August 27, 2005

I am writing a book about Western culture, and I also write essays about the culture war. Obviously, I am interested in whether a necessary link exists between the culture of the arts and literature, and the culture war of good and evil.

I have a friend who agrees with almost everything I say about the culture war, but thinks my critique of popular music is nonsense. If he is right, culture is strictly a question of subjective personal taste. He believes that one can embrace moral absolutes while being a cultural relativist. If I am right, moral absolutes and cultural relativism are incompatible.

Is the wall my friend has built between aesthetic culture and the moral issues of the culture war a kind of semi-Gnosticism involving a dualistic worldview involving two incompatible sets of metaphysics? Or on the other hand, can morality and aesthetics express the same worldview with no metaphysical contradiction?

Before we plunge into the subtleties and complexities of philosophy, let us explore the more intuitive connections between ugliness and evil. The question of evil has relevance to the culture war. The question of ugliness and beauty has relevance to art, music, and poetry. Is there a link between evil and ugliness?

The ugliness of evil

When I was a senior in college, I heard a lecture on abortion from a Dr. Rice from Notre Dame. His entire talk was about the different techniques of abortion and how each technique was hideous and revolting. Dr. Rice's graphic description of the horrors of abortion was completely persuasive to my heart. From that time forward, I have never doubted that abortion is evil. In contrast to the vile evil of abortion, the sight of a young father, mother, and baby gathered together in a precious little family circle has a refreshing beauty. The beauty of that family scene is a hint to my heart about something holy and true.

The abortion clinic is a nightmare world of frightening ugliness that would make Madame Tussaud's Chamber of Horrors look tame by comparison. Madame Tussaud obtained permission to make wax copies of the severed heads of the Aristocrats of France who had gone to the guillotine during the French reign of Terror in 1794. She used actors' make-up on the heads to make them appear to be freshly severed. Her traveling show, which featured the heads, appealed to the morbid curiosity of the English. The hideous display probably turned more Englishmen away from the French Revolution than did political philosophers like Edmund Burke. One scene of horror is worth a thousand words.

When suicide bombers blow themselves up, their heads are ripped off by the blast and sometimes fly up a great distance into the air. The modern Madame Tussaud's wax works could do their part in the war against terror by displaying wax reproductions of the terrorist heads so that people could see at a glance the hideousness of terrorism and understand that it is evil.

Interestingly, C.S. Lewis wrote about a severed head that was alive in his book That Hideous Strength. The head controlled the scientists who brought it to life. It was a vicious thing controlled by demons. The head was a literary metaphor for all that is ugly, frightening, and evil.

Another image that nauseates the imagination is the perverted sexual practices of homosexuals. Here again, ugliness and wickedness go together. Most of the issues of the culture war involve an ugly evil on one side and a beautiful good on the other side. For example, euthanasia is ugly, and loving care for the disabled is potentially beautiful. Terrorism is ugly, but civilization at its best is beautiful. Random evolution from a pond of slime is ugly, but creation according to a divine design is beautiful.

What music would one use for a movie about terrorism? I presume one would select the music of ugliness such as edgy, atonal, dissonant music, or perhaps angry rap music, acid rock, or punk rock with a lot of screaming. You can count on the rock stars to make themselves as ugly as possible. What music would one select for a film on the triumph of civilization or the spiritual aspirations of the church at her best? One might use beautiful melodies interspersed with snippets of classical music at its most glorious. Music has a message even if there are no words.

The light of beauty and the cave dweller

Greek philosopher Plato discovered a link between truth, beauty, the good, and the just. His intuitive glimpses of beauty had convinced his heart of the existence of a higher, purer realm just out of reach of our ordinary experience. He compared this higher world of light and beauty to the blinding brightness of the sun as it would appear to those who live in a cave. Mundane daily existence is like the shadows in a cave. The blinding sunlight is like a truer and more beautiful world just beyond ordinary human experience.

The perpetual cave dweller is ambivalent about stories of a fiery beauty outside the cave. In his heart he wants to rush outside to bathe in the brilliant beauty. However, he is afraid of the light and the beauty. He does not want to be blinded or have his ugliness revealed in the light. He is even more afraid that the light might expose a beauty in him. If he finds out that he is beautiful, a crushing burden of responsibility will fall upon him. He will be obligated to walk in the light and live a life in accordance with beauty. It is far more comfortable for the cave dweller to retreat into the darkest shadows of the cave and huddle in comforting falsehoods, dress in rags of ugliness, and feel free of responsibility. Then he can claim that stories about the light outside the cave are a myth and a fairy story for children.

That terrible beauty

Ken Myers, culture critic and host of Mars Hill Audio, said that those who cloak themselves in ugliness are afraid of beauty, just as darkness is afraid of light. "Beauty is a mystery, like the sacraments," said Myers. It is concealed and yet revealed through material elements.

Brent Curtis and John Eldredge wrote in The Sacred Romance:

"Every woman is in some way searching for or running from her beauty and every man is looking for or avoiding his strength. Why? In some deep place within, we remember what we were made to be, we carry with us the memory of gods, image-bearers walking in the Garden. So why do we flee our essence? As hard as it may be to see our sin, it is far harder still for us to remember our glory. The pain of the memory of our former glory is so excruciating, we would rather stay in the pigsty than return to our true home."

These important words must be carefully unpacked. Louis Markos, author of C.S. Lewis Agonistes, expanded the first sentence to say, "Every woman is looking for and running from her beauty and gracefulness and every man is looking for or running from his strength and courage." Markos emphasized that beauty transcends physical beauty and the essence of femininity is greater than the feminine gender. God designed femininity as a spiritual essence, a psychological quality, and a physical form. The physical beauty of women is to be celebrated, but the psychological and spiritual aspects of femininity should not be ignored. Men can become infatuated with physical beauty, but they fall in love with the beauty and grace of the feminine essence. The first invitation for a date might be about physical beauty. The marriage proposal is about the desire of a man to become united with a beautiful and graceful life.

Some women today dress like men or wear tattered jeans like rag-pickers and have their hair cut in an ugly butch style. Why do they want to be ugly? Why is the cult of the ugly popular in today's culture? As Curtis and Eldredge explained in The Sacred Romance, we hide from our beauty because the antenatal memory of our former beauty, a beauty we had in Eden, is too painful to face. God sealed that racial memory in the human heart to haunt us with reminders of who we were designed to be and with reproaches about our ignominious fall from beauty into ugliness. Beauty beckons us to return to our true home in heaven where all is beautiful, but we stop our ears and embrace the ugliness. C.S. Lewis, paraphrased by Markos, said that the cause of the modern aversion to beauty is "...a rather desperate defense mechanism to protect our jaded, agnostic age from that terrible beauty that dwells together with goodness and truth in the heart of the Creator and the creation he made.... [W]hen beauty is deconstructed, goodness and truth follow in its wake...." In other words, if our culture loses its love of beauty and the cult of ugliness prevails, we shall eventually lose the battle against evil. If we accept C.S. Lewis as a wise guide, we are obliged to see that aesthetic culture and the culture war are joined at the hip.

The preference of some women for ugliness and their fear of beauty gives us tantalizing hints about the culture war. Is it possible that some women are terrified of the beauty of motherhood and flee to the ugliness of abortion? Maybe some are afraid of the beauty of being a bride and a wife, so they shun marriage and run to ugly singles bars for wretched one-night stands. Perhaps when some wives begin to get emotionally and spiritually close to their husbands, they panic at the approach of the terrible beauty of intimacy between a woman and a man and they find ways to flee to the ugliness of divorce. Men also flee from the beauty of emotional intimacy with a woman. The cult of ugliness is first cousin to the great destroyer. It is the ally of evil in the culture war.

We had faces

Markos explained that ugliness is a cloak that conceals us from that terrible beauty. The cult of ugliness gives us a hiding place where we become faceless, anonymous, and void of identity. In contrast to the concealment of ugliness, beauty is an unveiling of sorts. (Essay by Dr. Louis Markos, Rehabilitating Beauty: The Good, the Beautiful and the True in the Fiction of C.S. Lewis.) Ugliness as a cloak makes us faceless. Beauty reveals the face and to some extent, the soul that shines through the face.

Gloria Swanson played Norma Desmond, a fading star of silent movies, in the movie Sunset Boulevard. Gloria, as Norma, said, "We didn't need dialog. We had faces." The essence of the characters played by the silent stars was revealed to the public by camera close-ups of their beautiful and expressive faces. "I'm ready for my close-up, Mr. De Mille." Norma's statement "We had faces" implied that the stars of talking pictures who supplanted her did not have faces.

Interestingly, while art historian Kenneth Clark was admiring the faces on the west portal of Chartres cathedral in the book and video Civilization, he spoke of the "decline of the face." He said, "good faces evoke good artists and conversely a decline of portraiture usually means a decline of the face." Perhaps the faces of Chartres that Clarke admired depicted people who did not flee from their beauty but ventured out of the cave into the light to embrace it.

In the Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis wrote a section titled "Till We Have Faces" in which he uses a story from Greek mythology to gain profound insights about the nature of feminine beauty. In the same book, he wrote another section titled "Men without Chests" about the lack of strength and courage of the modern man and the lack of a link between his head and his heart. Once again, he hinted at the ugliness of the severed head.

Surprised by joy

Scholar and Christian writer C.S. Lewis came to believe in the existence of a great beauty, just out of his reach, which he sensed through the reading of fairy tales, myths, and courtly romances. He described his sudden but highly transitory experiences of joy in his book "Surprised by Joy." At a certain point in his development, he was on the verge of believing in the Christian God as the great beauty behind and beyond beautiful stories. Then he read "The Golden Bough" (1922) by Sir James Frazer. Frazer chronicled pagan myths and found parallels between certain pagan myths and the story of Christ. He argued that the story of Christ was just another myth that is told in many different versions because of a need in the human heart. Karl Jung and Joseph Campbell made the same argument.

J.R.R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings, was Lewis' mentor and best friend. The two of them walked the grounds of Magdalen College at Oxford all night discussing Lewis' difficulty in trusting Christ after reading The Golden Bough. If I had been Tolkien, I would have said to Lewis that tribal myths have their origins in nameless shamans who go into trances to conjure up stories from their subconscious and pass them on to the tribe through the oral culture of bards. In the process, the shaman's story evolves into a myth. In contrast, the prophets of higher religions receive revelations that come down from heaven and are written in sacred books that identify the prophets by name. Higher religions are essentially spiritual, and pagan myths are essentially psychological. Frazer, Jung, and Campbell often mistake the spiritual for the psychological and misconstrue the psychological as the spiritual. They are masters of confusion. Frazer confused Lewis for a little while.

Higher religions usually produce a culture of beauty. Pagan societies often produce a culture of primitivism and ugliness. However, even among the pagans there is a wrestling between beauty and ugliness. Occasionally beauty wins out, as in ancient Greek mythology and Norse mythology. For years, Lewis was captivated by the beauty of Norse mythology. He was part of a small circle of writers including Tolkien called the "Coalbiters," who were inspired by Norse beauty to write beautiful fantasies.

Tolkien, a man of wise intuitions, used the argument of original beauty with Lewis as they walked among the fragrant gardens of Magdalen College on a summer's night. Tolkien suggested that many myths include a Christ figure because of intimations of Christ in the human heart. For ages, people longed for a Christ who had not yet come. Tolkien challenged Lewis to consider that Christ came as a historical person to fulfill and satisfy all these longings of the heart. The other stories are fore-gleams of the coming Christ, the one great light. The beauty in the fairytales and myths that gave Lewis a hint of joy was a foretaste of the beauty of God revealed through Christ. Beauty had inspired Lewis, and on a few occasions opened the door of heaven to him just a crack, and only for a second, so he had a glimpse of divine beauty that burned in his heart. The moment of glory was evanescent so that Lewis would not mistake the beauty of the fairy tale with the great beauty that lay behind it. Lewis' moments of joy were clues for him to follow on the trail of beauty and joy to its source, which was Christ. The discussion with Tolkien in the gardens of Magdalen College had an immense impact on Lewis, and within two weeks he received Christ as Savior and Lord.

Semi-gnosticism

The ancient gnostic heresy involved a claim that an initiated elite can be saved through esoteric knowledge. Gnosticism was dualistic, and held that spirit is good but matter is bad. The gnostics sought esoteric knowledge by shunning the evil flesh and pursuing the good spirit. Gnostics tended to either despise the body and become ascetic, or become indifferent to the body and regard gluttony and sexual excess as an inconsequential matter.

Modern Evangelicals are well acquainted with the gospel of salvation by grace through faith, and are seldom prone to the gnostic heresy of salvation by esoteric knowledge. However, an anti-intellectual bias runs through some streams of the American Evangelical tradition, along with a hostility toward high culture. This is a disguised hostility to the beauty of God's creation in the material and intellectual realms. God created the human intellect and the aesthetic faculty and pronounced it "good." When man is fully flourishing in all his faculties and gifts, including the intellectual and aesthetic powers, he will build civilizations and a culture of beauty.

To delight in the gospel and in biblical truth while despising the other good gifts of God is a semi-gnostic dualism. This dualism has led some Evangelicals to adopt two incompatible worldviews, one for the soul and another for the rest of life. They view moral issues as matters of divine law, but relegate culture to private taste. They reject moral relativism, but embrace cultural relativism.

If man has a nature designed by God, he cannot arbitrarily choose his own morality. He must hearken to God's universal moral law. If God designed man to have a moral sense, did not God also design man to have an aesthetic sense? If the conscience, or moral sense has an affinity to a universal moral law, would not the aesthetic sense have an affinity for the beauties of creation and the beauties of heaven? To think otherwise is to claim that man's moral sense is designed by God, but his aesthetic sense is not. To suppose that in the realm of culture, man is not designed by the Creator, but designs and creates himself according to his whims and fancies, makes man the god of culture while the God of heaven reigns only in the realm of morality and saving grace. The idea that everything is equally valid in the aesthetic realm is cultural nihilism. To be biblically orthodox while culturally nihilistic is schizophrenic, a form of mental illness. It is possible that this dualistic pathology can produce Evangelical "men without chests," men who profess to be spiritually saved, but who are psychologically torn in two.

Many Evangelicals have imitated the cult of ugliness of the world. Some pastors have even encouraged this to facilitate mingling with unbelievers and reaching the lost. Ugly Christian rock and shabby clothes are standbys in semi-gnostic Evangelicalism. This ugliness desensitizes and deadens the aesthetic sense and conceals the beauty of the child of God under the rags of ugliness. The ugly unsaved might feel comfortable with the ugly Christians, but cannot see their beauty as sons of God. No glimpse of a beautiful God will ever shine through the deliberately ugly Christian. No art historian of the future is likely to admire this generation of Evangelicals without faces.

We shall never win the culture war until we reject the culture of ugliness and embrace a culture of beauty. Beauty, Truth, and the Good are necessary allies. Truth and the Good cannot defeat evil if Beauty goes AWOL. Bring beauty back into the battle for truth and morality, and we shall have more power and joy, and God shall have more glory as we fight the good fight.

Does culture matter to a civilization?

Theologian and author Michael Novak wrote that a healthy culture has "a strong cultural system based upon the full flourishing of persons and communities and rooted in the depths of the human spirit." Such a culture develops from deep spiritual springs and expands to nourish every faculty of human nature in order to bring forth expressions of the true, the beautiful, and the good. Novak's apt phrase "the full flourishing of persons and communities" is part of a general cultural renewal. As men flourish, their culture flourishes.

A high culture develops within a community of "remembered beauty." Every man is haunted by memories of beauty in his past. Families are united by shared memories of beauty. Groups like the Coalbiters and a more famous daughter group called the Inklings were drawn together because the members shared the same memories of beauty from the same stories. One of the many fruits of this little circle is the majestic movie The Lord of the Rings, based upon the book by Tolkien. The fruitfulness of the Coalbiters and the Inklings gives us a profound insight into how high cultures were developed in history.

The flowering of culture invariably accompanies the rise of new civilizations. The building of civilizations requires people and communities who are robust in every department of human thought and action. The decline of a culture into a shallow, culturally-decadent state can have an eviscerating effect on individuals, relationships, and communities and contribute to the collapse of a civilization.

These doleful consequences are not inevitable. A society that can produce a movie like The Lord of the Rings and draw an enormous audience still has a profound yearning for beauty. The desire for beauty has not yet been extinguished through the process of desensitization by a trashy culture. New groups devoted to beauty like the Inklings may yet lead us out of the desert of ugliness into the green meadows of beauty.

A message from Stephen Stone, President, RenewAmerica

I first became acquainted with Fred Hutchison in December 2003, when he contacted me about an article he was interested in writing for RenewAmerica about Alan Keyes. From that auspicious moment until God took him a little more than six years later, we published over 200 of Fred's incomparable essays — usually on some vital aspect of the modern "culture war," written with wit and disarming logic from Fred's brilliant perspective of history, philosophy, science, and scripture.

It was obvious to me from the beginning that Fred was in a class by himself among American conservative writers, and I was honored to feature his insights at RA.

I greatly miss Fred, who died of a brain tumor on August 10, 2010. What a gentle — yet profoundly powerful — voice of reason and godly truth! I'm delighted to see his remarkable essays on the history of conservatism brought together in a masterfully-edited volume by Julie Klusty. Restoring History is a wonderful tribute to a truly great man.

The book is available at Amazon.com.

© Fred Hutchison

 

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They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. —Isaiah 40:31