I make a point of never watching the Oscars. If I want to waste four hours of my life being alternately patronized and reminded what an abject failure I am according to the criteria contemporary society holds dear, I can always read The New Yorker. But I am sufficiently aware of what goes on at the Oscars to venture a few predictions.
First, I predict that the usual suspects will be there, signaling their virtues and taking heroic stands against wickedness, although #MeToo will have replaced the more traditional #JusticeForRoman.
Second, I predict that the acceptance speeches will be full of the kind of deep political and philosophical analysis which has become de rigueur for those with credentials: the ability to memorize a few lines and pretend to be someone else in front of a camera. Now, I have a sneaking suspicion that I could randomly knock on any door in my neighborhood and find a more intelligent commentary on current events than I would hear from a denizen of Tinseltown. But few of my neighbors are photogenic, so they have nothing of real value to contribute to our political culture.
That brings me to my third prediction: We will once again witness the triumph of aesthetics over ethics, or rather that identification of aesthetics with ethics which is now the default position of Western society.
Think about it: The red carpet will provide us with a parade of beautiful people. That’s one way of looking at it. Here’s another: It will provide us with an endless stream of people who have cheated on spouses, betrayed friends, broken marriage vows, wrecked homes, had abortions. Those who have been exposed as sexual abusers may be less in evidence this year. But other than that, the usual carnival of corruption will be on full display. And it will be attractive, because it is physically beautiful.
In America, for many generations now, beauty has covered a multitude of sins. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that beauty has turned a multitude of sins into an aspirational lifestyle. Of course, most Oscars viewers have about as much chance of attaining that lifestyle as of winning the New Jersey Lottery. Promiscuity can be indulged with relative impunity by the rich and famous, but it is utterly destructive for the poor. If, as Dr. Johnson said, lotteries are taxes on the gullible, then Hollywood sells a lifestyle whose mortgage is paid by the most vulnerable.
This brings me to one area where I think the Oscars might actually help Christians: the matter of beauty. In our highly sexualized world, beauty has come to be identified with physical attractiveness. And given the role that sex plays in a world where immediate satisfaction is increasingly seen as the goal of human existence, the connection, even identification, of aesthetics and ethics seems set to grow stronger.
Christians, however, must not play that game. One alternative approach would be to emphasize ethical teaching as discrete from aesthetics. Another—one that acknowledges that human beings are, as William Hazlitt once put it, poetical animals, that we are deeply affected by beauty and form—would be to cultivate in Christian circles an understanding of true beauty.
It is often said that Roman Catholicism has an advantage over Protestantism here. But Protestantism has notions of beauty at its disposal that strike at the heart of the Hollywood ethic and can be found in the ordinary corners of life.
In Luther’s abolition of the boundary between the sacred and the secular, we have the conceptual framework for seeing the beautiful in the ordinary. This concept is decried by some Catholic philosophers of secularization as part of the problem—but I disagree. It means that a simple friendship can be beautiful, a mundane household chore can be beautiful, a pleasant meal with friends can be beautiful. And in Luther’s emphasis on a Pauline understanding of the cross in 1 Corinthians as a contradiction of worldly aesthetics, we have the theological basis for seeing beauty in and through that which the world decries as weak and distasteful.
Compare, for example, the sight of some Hollywood couple on the red carpet with the sight of an elderly husband caring for his wife of fifty years, upon whom Alzheimer’s disease has inflicted its carnage. Surely the latter is more beautiful; and yet in a world dominated by the goal of personal satisfaction, the point needs to be asserted with vigor.
Christians need to see the beauty that flows from life lived in accordance with the gospel, and we need to use the language of beauty again and again to emphasize it. We should not allow what is morally vile to monopolize the language of beauty. In a world where taste is truth, the church’s task is to cultivate taste. And that begins with understanding that the cross, foolish and offensive as it is to the denizens of this world, provides us with our basic criteria of beauty.
It is a message that is lost on the Oscars contenders, I am sure. And it is foolishness to many in their audience. A world of merely immanent ends will always focus on immanent notions of beauty. But #MeToo indicates that the world of sexual beauty has its own inner ugliness. And we should remember that weakness and suffering and death are the lot of us all. For the world, such things are nothing but ugliness and defeat. For the Christian, beneath the outward ugliness lies the beauty of the gospel, for the cross brings life, and death leads to resurrection.
Carl R. Trueman is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion in Public Life at the James Madison Program at Princeton University.