Brideshead, Beauty, and Evangelisation

Faith, Fiction

What follows are some excerpts from an article by Fr Robert Barron, entitled Evangelizing Through Beauty, from

In his masterpiece Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh implicitly lays out a program of evangelization that has particular relevance to our time.  “Brideshead” refers, of course, to a great manor house owned by a fabulously wealthy Catholic family in the England of the 1920’s.  In the complex semiotic schema of Waugh’s novel, the mansion functions as a symbol of the Catholic Church, which St. Paul had referred to as the “bride of Christ.”  To Brideshead comes, at the invitation of his friend Sebastian, Charles Ryder, an Oxford student, devotee of the fine arts and casual agnostic.  Charles is overwhelmed by the sheer majesty of Brideshead’s architecture and the sumptuousness of its artistic program, which includes magnificent painting and sculpture, as well as a fountain of Bernini-like delicacy, and a chapel which was a riot of baroque decoration.  Living within the walls of the manse, Charles mused, was to receive an entire artistic education.  The beauty of the place would entrance Charles for the rest of his life, drawing him back again and again. […]

This brief and utterly inadequate summary of Waugh’s narrative is meant simply to highlight a ryhthm that obtains, I would argue, in effective evangelization. […] The pattern is more or less as follows:  first the beautiful (how wonderful!), then the good (I want to participate!) and finally the true (now I understand!). […]

The same applies, a fortiori, in regard to religion.  I might suggest that the evangelist  start with the Sainte Chapelle or the life of Francis of Assisi or the Little Flower’s Story of a Soul or Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain or Gregorian chant, or perhaps best of all,  a carefully executed liturgy of the Roman rite.  These would function in the manner of Brideshead, captivating even the most bored agnostic.  Then, the wager goes, the captivation would lead to a desire, perhaps vague at first, to participate in the moral universe that made those artistic expressions possible.  And finally, the participation would conduce toward a true and experiential understanding of the thought patterns that undergird that way of life.  First the beautiful, then the good, then the true.

I wonder whether this winsome aesthetic approach might prove more frutiful in a postmodern culture so instinctively skeptical of dogma either intellectual or moral.


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