If there is one Catholic website out there that, in my opinion, more people should be following and reading, it is By Way of Beauty. Matthew generously agreed to allow me to pick his brain, and he provided some great insights on culture, beauty, and evangelization.
I've been growing increasingly interested in culture and its ability to evangelize and engage our society, and By Way of Beauty is a great example of engaging the already existing culture in a profound way.
The greatest part is that it is evangelistic by its very nature and not preachy or contrived. Matthew and Wes sit by the streams of art and entertainment pointing out the underlying big questions and truths just below the surface. The resulting articles are hard to stop reading.
[I'm in bold, Matt's words are not bolded.]
Matt, can you tell us how By Way of Beauty was born into the internet world?
My brother Wes and I started the site in the summer of 2011 using Blogger. We didn’t know much about the blog world or read any blogs. What we did do, though, was talk a lot about art. Whenever we watched a movie together, we had a little tradition of talking about philosophical and theological ideas we found in it afterward over drinks. It was a sort of natural progression into writing articles. Eventually we decided to get on the Internet and share our jabbering with whoever wanted to read it, which was great because we could use video, pictures, and links. The response has been really spirited.
You write about all sorts of scandalous things: Rapper Kendrick Lamar, books like "A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion", and "The Mysognist", Television like Breaking Bad and Mad Men, movies like The Rum Diary and The Cabin in the Woods, yet you claim to be a man of faith. Defend yourself!
We’re both Catholic men, and we’re proud of our faith. I hope it shows through the writing. But we were raised to believe that Catholics shouldn’t be prudish and standoffish; that reflects a sort of Manichean temperament that the Church has always fought against.
Catholicism is earthy, without being worldly; and our sacramental view of the universe should make us more engaged and conversant with the world – and that includes the art world. Fr. Barron has been a great exemplar of this, in reviewing films by the Coen Brothers and Scorsese.
It doesn’t mean you have to endorse every idea you come across; just that you see things analogically, and put your ideas on the table in a more compelling, relatable way. If you can’t relate to everyday people and speak their language, how are you going to have a conversation? If you can’t have a conversation, how are you going to explain what the faith means? I think a real danger - online as much as offline - becomes insularity. The culture will just go on spinning around your comfort zone, your circuit of like minds, and you can't really reach it because you’ve talked about nothing it appreciates, relates to, or even understands. It tuned you out, a priori.
Pope Francis has really underscored that in his first weeks, I think. He's reminding us of the importance of breaking out, going where the people are, and making contact. Your presence alone can speak volumes.
The mission stated on the site references a secret novelist and the existential pursuit of truth. Could you explain the mission of the site and why you feel it is important?
Our mission is really just to talk about art and entertainment in a way that asks essential questions: Who am I? Why am I here? Why is life worth living? Does God exist? Who is He? Walker Percy emphasized the notion of “the search” in his work – that’s exactly what we’d like to emphasize. He’s a sort of patron saint for us.
Artists that we talk about regularly – Josh Garrels, Terrence Malick, Ron Hansen – draw these questions out, so we want to promote their work. But the real task is digging into the Kendrick Lamars and Breaking Bads, and finding jewels that people might take away from them.
So “By Way of Beauty” is kind of a misnomer, in retrospect. Benedict XVI’s writing on "via pulchritudinis" was a big motivation. But I think a lot of people come expecting the “finer things club” – Rembrandt, Vivaldi, Shakespeare. But it’s obviously not like that;we’re digging into both the highbrow and lowbrow stuff.
Is there a tension between a more Thomist approach to evangelization ("Here is an objective, deductive, and principled account of the truth.") and a inductive, subjective, and experiential approach more like that of hippie catechists of the 70's ("What do you think love is?")?
I think this reflects a long-standing tension: Platonic vs. Aristotlean, Augustinian vs. Thomistic, the dynamic “feeling” Church and the systematic “thinking” Church. I think the Church needs both modes to evangelize. It’s like John Paul II’s image of faith and reason: two wings of a dove that ascend to the contemplation of truth. Head and heart, intellect and passion, are the same way; they should go hand in hand.
Pope John Paul II seemed to have a balanced approach to evangelization ("Let me guide you to the truth and point it out by way of the subjective, inductive and experiential...") and By Way of Beauty seems similar in this regard. Do you think of your site as an evangelizing ministry or is that just a natural byproduct of what the site's main mission is?
I hope we can strike that balance, but I don’t think of By Way of Beauty at all in those terms. We don’t break the Bible or Catechism out, which has to be part of that. It’s important, of course, and there are some great people using the new media to do that: Brandon Vogt, Bad Catholic, and Catholic Memes are all doing great work. We’re coming from a Catholic perspective too, but our content is more neutral territory. If there is an evangelizing aspect, it’s our hope that non-believers become aware of these points of contact with Catholic thought, and are curious to look into things on their own they might not have otherwise.
The Catechism says the human person, "with his openness to truth and beauty", is a way we can come to know God. Truth and goodness seem to be lost on our culture. In an increasingly technological culture is it possible we are losing our openness to beauty as well? What do we do about it?
Von Balthasar had a great line, that if beauty is separated from her two sisters, she’ll take them with her in a mysterious act of vengeance. That's powerful. When we compartmentalize these things, we lose all of them. Art without truth and goodness stops being beautiful; and truth and goodness without beauty stops being compelling. That connection has been lost, and the first thing we should do is try to build it up again.
I think one of the best things we can do is do a better job of supporting artists and the arts in our private and professional lives, in our families and our communities. Film is an especially powerful and universal medium – look at what Peter Jackson did with Tolkien.
Peter Kreeft asked once: where’s our Dante? That’s a great question. Personally I hope that our Dante is a filmmaker, because the potential for film to impress ideas on us is tremendous.
How can people practically get in on this beauty/God action in their everyday lives? Whether it is for evangelization or for self-sanctification?
God is the supreme artist. There's a great line in a hip-hop song: God is a painter and the sky is his canvas, God is a poet and our lives are his stanzas. I love that. The world is charged with His presence and glory – we just need to open our eyes and receive it.
What is the first Walker Percy book I should read?
If you’re into fiction, go with The Moviegoer; if you’re more of a non-fiction reader, Lost in the Cosmos. But they’re all fantastic.
You can find Matt and his brother Wes talking to you about art and entertainment over a few drinks at ByWayofBeauty.com. I highly recommend keeping up with their site and sending some of their articles to your friends.
Check out some of these superb articles from By Way of Beauty:
Fourteen Philosophical Films (That the Lists Missed)
To Love Another Person - The Story of "Les Miserables"
Good Kid, M.A.A.D. City - The Thirst of Kendrick Lamar
Pascal in "The Rum Diary"
A Good Man is Hard to Find