Not long after Bob Dylan’s conversion, I heard him give a radio interview. For obvious reasons, I always considered him a tough challenge in such settings. He can be moody, unpredictable, combative, and cryptic. In this discussion, he was true to form. That, and Dylan continually strummed his guitar in the background, muffling both the interviewer’s questions and his own sometimes mumbled answers.
It seemed to me that the interviewer was growing desperate. Things were not unfolding smoothly. So he tried to get on Dylan’s good side. In reference to Dylan’s newly found Christianity, the interviewer said, “Beauty, truth, and goodness—isn’t that what it’s all about, Bob?”
The strumming stopped.
No music, no words, no anything–just dead air.
After about 45 seconds of silence, Dylan spoke: “I’m not too sure about beauty.”
I’ve often wondered why he said that and what, exactly, he meant. I’d like to ask him, but I’ll never get the chance, and I’m not certain the answer would be forthcoming or clear even if I did. So I thought about it. Here’s what I think:
Beauty is seductive. It can lure you into error of all sorts and degrees. If our aesthetic sensibilities weren’t fallen, then beauty might work more often to draw us to the Truly Beautiful, to Christ Himself, the fairest of ten thousands, and that would be both a pleasure and a blessing. But now beauty is more a pleasure and a trap. We are trapped by the falsely beautiful because in place of the real thing we have cultivated a taste for the garish and glitzy. We grew fascinated by the lights of Las Vegas. They are the flame; we are the moths. We think them beautiful. They are not beautiful; they are seductive. They are siren calls to destruction, to what the casinos call “financial extinction” (ours) and to what others label “moral extinction” (also ours). Furthermore, we sinners want to be seduced, sometimes desperately and unresistingly. You’ll recall we elected Bill Clinton twice.
Where there’s money or power, there are conjurors. Their crafts are varied, and sometimes are employed by those who mean us no conscious harm, although harm is what they deliver. They conjure pleasures of various sorts, things more beautiful and enjoyable than true. They know what flavor of Turkish delight (to employ a well-known image) to dangle before our eyes and noses in order to get us to do their bidding. So they flavor and scent everything they write or say or argue with it, hoping to addict us to the native flavor or scent of the thing they represent and for which they evangelize. Having ourselves been thus habituated, when that erroneous thing appears, we are drawn inexorably toward it, ready to swallow it whole, whatever it is in itself, good or bad.
In my view, the conjurors are most dangerous in religion. They know that the pleasures of beauty open access to our immortal souls. So they tell stories, not always or entirely true; they make stained glass windows depicting those stories; they articulate winsome sermons and books about those stories, designed to pull down the soul’s natural defenses to error and to evil. Or, on the contrary, they might erect enormous and expensive buildings in places like Oxford in order to tell anti-religious scientific stories, fictions posing as fact. Meanwhile, other buildings in Oxford are dedicated to producing anti-science religious stories. Both sides have their conjurors and mythmakers. It often works.
You might not know it works, even when it works on you. Indeed, you might recognize its impact most effectively in others rather than in yourself. Think of someone so fascinated and convinced by Philip Pullman’s novels that she begins publicly to self-identify as one of Pullman’s characters, signing her essays, her opinions, and her correspondence with that character’s name, even posting that character’s image as her own. One might not be surprised were she to adopt Pullman’s views and defend them heartily, even if those views were false; and to adopt Pullman’s stance toward life and literature, even if she absorbed those views by means no more intellectually respectable than osmosis and accustomedness, acquired by living inside them and finding them useful and, eventually, comfortable. In such cases, the pleasure of the thing thus absorbed (Pullman’s writings and its inherent worldview), coupled with her elaborate self-identification, make seduction more and more likely. As I said above, we want to be seduced. And if Pullman’s agenda really is to undermine Christianity and to counteract the influence of C. S. Lewis, then do not be surprised to see it succeed, at least in her case. Do not be surprised to see her defend it by elaborate and allegedly intellectual justifications, all contrived in the wake of her self-identification.
My example is not conjured. I see its like virtually every day, on both sides of the religion/anti-religion divide. To invoke Tolkein in this regard, they make according to the same principle by which they were made. Or, to put it historically, do not be surprised to see Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins conjure stories and allegedly rational arguments that praise Pullman while criticizing Lewis. I recall Hitchens once justify his ignoring Lewis by saying that Lewis was boring. Need I say that a boring Lewis is a conjuror’s trick?
Conjurors beget conjurors. They reproduce after their own kind. They conjure with stories, with arguments, with moods, with flavors, with memories, with emotions, with poses, with impressions, with facts, even with beauty, if they can.
We Christians have our conjurors too, our allegedly rational raconteurs who spin gossamer webs and who tell lies “breathed through silver.” Out of respect for your intelligence and insight, I decline to name them. I think it unnecessary. A moment’s honest reflection, I trust, will make at least some of them obvious. Rather than produce a list of Christian conjurors, I say this:
There’s only one good reason to believe an idea, and that’s because it’s true. There’s only one good reason to reject it, and that’s because it’s false. Therefore, if you tell me that you chose your worldview because of its beauty, or the grandeur of its attendant architecture and art, or because you are attracted to its history, or because it is quaintly old, or because your grandmother believed it, or because by believing it you discovered comfort and a sense of belonging, then I tell you now that I will not find your reasons compelling. Neither should you. If it’s true, believe it. If it’s not, don’t. It doesn’t matter what you or I like or prefer. It doesn’t matter if we find it “meaningful” or “comfortable,” or “beautiful.” That’s not the issue. Truth is the issue. Truth, not beauty, will set you free.
If an idea comports with reality, it’s true. If it doesn’t, it’s false. It’s as simple as that. But “simple” isn’t the same as “easy.” Distinguishing the true from the false can be exceedingly difficult. You won’t know truth by its beauty, its meaningfulness, or its comfort. Ideas don’t comport with reality simply because they are old, or new, or widely held, or rarely held, or comforting, or disturbing, or else invoke either God or authority. None of that makes an idea true, even if Christian conjurors made you think so.
Let me make it plain: Because nothing is a theology- or philosophy-free zone, an acquired love for, or taste for, some varieties of art, whether musical, literary, or representational, can be the door to delusion and injury, even if it feels like insight, healing, or comfort all along.
One can be of the Devil’s party and not know it.
The Romantic era critics sometimes alleged that in Paradise Lost Milton was of the Devil’s party and did not know it. They said that his Satan was so memorably and compellingly drawn (and that his God was not) because when Milton was talking about Satan and evil He was talking about himself. When he was talking about God and righteousness he was talking about something so distant, foreign, and unknown that it could never be more than an off-putting, self-justifying, preening, medieval schoolman.
Whatever one might think of Milton’s Arianism, his mortalism, or his views on polygamy, he has won the day. Whether you ever have read his epic poem or not, his views of Genesis 1-3 predominate. His 11,000 lines forever have re-shaped how we understand creation, the fall, and redemption. If you are going to write 11,000 lines focused mainly on three chapters in the Bible, you must ad lib a great deal. Milton’s epic ad lib has prevailed. Right or wrong, he was a compelling conjuror.
Many others have followed in his train. Some were closer to the truth than was Milton; others were not. If any of those conjurors are your heroes, you will not likely recognize them for what they are.
I invite you to try. I invite you to remember the Devil’s party and its surprising membership. I invite you to recall that he masquerades as an angel of light and will lure you to his side by making you feel comfortable, enlightened, and awe struck. I invite you to reject his advances, which might feel like rejecting a lover, but is not. Seducers and lovers are not interchangeable. The former want you to think so.
Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.