Tobias Wolff’s essay in a fie-year-old issue of The New Yorker is about “the power of aesthetics to shape our lives,” but the anecdote around which it is built is about the power of aesthetics to inspire of impeded the development of religious faith.
He writes of watching the Bergman film “Winter Light” with a friend in Oxford many years ago, listening intently to a priest explain the film afterward, and then being crashingly disappointed when the priest concluded his presentation by asking his audience to focus on a painting that Wolff considered trite.
It seemed to me a typical Pre-Raphaelite production: garish, melodramatic, cloying in its technique and sentimentality; pretentious humbug. The contrast between Bergman’s severe, honest art and this painting, on the same screen, chilled me. Was this what the minister held in his mind as the answer to all our problems—a kitschy figure from a calendar? I turned to Rob. “Let’s get a pint.”
But Rob was intent on this very image. Rapt. He barely glanced at me. “You go on.”
That night—to some extent, that picture—changed his life. He enrolled in Bible classes at the church, and went on to become a missionary in Africa. The same night sent me in the opposite direction, at least for a time. But would a different painting—Caravaggio’s “Conversion of St. Paul,” for example—have kept me in the pew? We like to think of our beliefs, and disbeliefs, as founded on reason and close, thoughtful observation. Only in theory do we begin to suspect the power of aesthetics to shape our lives.
Wolff’s piece raises two kinds of questions for me. One, is, I believe, the question he intends: to what extent are decisions we consider moral or intellectual actually aesthetic (And to what extent can we draw clear lines between these categories?). The other is more a church person’s question: how often do we confuse questions of faith with questions of taste? (And, again, to what extent can we draw clear lines between the two?)