“The Route to a Renaissance of the American Fine Arts Lies Through Religion.”

August 29, 2007

Those are not the words of a theologian or pastor, but of Camille Paglia. Who’s she? She is, according to Wikipedia, an “American social critic, author and teacher. She is a professor of humanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.”

She’s no fan of Christianity, by her own admission. But, boy does she have some helpful insights about the need for Christians to get their artistic act together!

In a rather lengthy, but extremely interesting article (which gives a helpful overview of art, iconoclasm, and church history from the Reformation to today’s modern art – I learned several things!), she writes,

“…would anyone seriously argue that the fine arts or even popular culture is enjoying a period of high originality and creativity? American genius currently resides in technology and design. The younger generation, with its mastery of video games and its facility for ever-evolving gadgetry like video cell phones and iPods, has massively shifted to the Web for information and entertainment.

I would argue that the route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion.”

Why does she think this?

“I view each world religion, including Judeo-Christianity and Islam, as a complex symbol system, a metaphysical lens through which we can see the vastness and sublimity of the universe.”

She decries the fact that knowledge of the Bible is “dangerously waning” not only in the West generally, but particularly among aspiring young artists and writers. She is actually a proponent of putting “the study of comparative religion at the center of the university curriculum.”

“Great art can be made out of love for religion as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.”

Talk about being more discerning than Christians! She makes so many good points, it’s embarrasing. Go ahead, read all of these, you can do it! There are gems in this list. [Comments in brackets]

  • “This is a practical, commercial nation where the arts have often been seen as wasteful, frivolous, or unmanly.”
  • “The Puritans’ [who I constantly read and adore theologically and devotionally as a Christian pastor] attitude toward art was conditioned by utilitarian principles of frugality and propriety: art had no inherent purpose except as entertainment, a distraction from duty and ethical action.” [this attitude is still with us, unhelpfully] Although, “The Puritans did appreciate beauty in nature, which was “read” like a book for signs of God’s providence”
  • “Though American drama and the visual arts may have languished in the wake of Puritanism, music was tremendously energized…This emphasis on congregational singing is one of Protestantism’s defining features.”
  • “Hymnody should be viewed as a genre of the fine arts and be added to the basic college curriculum.”
  • “There was a second great confluence of religion with the arts in nineteenth-century America. The Bible, in its poetic and indeed Shakespearean King James translation rather than in today’s flat, pedestrian versions, had a huge formative influence on the language, imagery, symbolism, and allegory of such major writers as James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.”
  • “Because of the divergence between religion and the prestige fine arts in the twentieth century, overtly religious art became weaker and weaker”
  • “If there were few open conflicts in America between religion and the fine arts through most of the twentieth century, it was simply because the two realms rarely overlapped.”
  • “Though work offensive to organized religion constituted only a fraction of the projects annually supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, conservative demands for the total abolition of that agency escalated.” [Ah, might this explain, at least partly why Christians are so antithetical to art?…because of the controversies of Serrano and Mapplethorpe? Have Christians thrown the baby out with the bathwater?]
  • “The stereotyping of artists as parasitic nihilists that was beginning to take hold in the popular mind in America.”
  • “Though controversy has subsided, the NEA disturbingly remains at the top of every list of government agencies that many citizens across the nation want abolished. “
  • “For the fine arts to revive, they must recover their spiritual center.”
  • “Art lovers, even when as citizens they stoutly defend democratic institutions against religious intrusion, should always speak with respect of religion.”
  • “Conservatives, on the other hand, need to expand their parched and narrow view of culture. Every vibrant civilization welcomes and nurtures the arts.”
  • “Progressives must start recognizing the spiritual poverty of contemporary secular humanism and reexamine the way that liberalism too often now automatically defines human aspiration and human happiness in reductively economic terms.”
  • “If conservatives are serious about educational standards, they must support the teaching of art history in primary school”
  • “Without compromise, we are heading for a soulless future. But when set against the vast historical panorama, religion and art—whether in marriage or divorce—can reinvigorate American culture.”

Thank you Camille Paglia. You have given Christians much to consider and act on.

ADDENDUM:

This is from Gene Edward Veith’s blog today:

The Art & Music Candidate. . .
. . .is Mike Huckabee, the Baptist minister who was governor of Arkansas and a favorite of Christian conservatives. A personal cause for him is encouraging art and music education.

“I call it a weapon of mass instruction. It’s a critical part of education,” Huckabee said during a visit to Northern Virginia last weekend. “This whole idea that music and art are great programs if you can afford them and have room for them — that’s utter nonsense. It’s the stupidest thing we’ve done to education in the last two generations.”

I love it when Christians defy the stereotypes. Christians SHOULD be cultivating the arts, as they have for centuries. It’s the non-Christians who are assaulting the very concept of beauty. Many Christians today are all for truth and goodness as absolutes, but when it comes to the other and related absolute, beauty, they are just as relativist as the postmodernists they decry.

Advertisements

Why Evangelicals Don’t Write Great Literature

September 1, 2007

Where are the C.S. Lewis’s, the J.R.R. Tolkien’s, the Flannery O’Connors of our day? Why aren’t Evangelicals producing writers like this? What’s missing in our Evangelical church culture that fails to produce writers like that? A fantastic article appeared recently in Touchstone magazine by Donald T. Williams that wrestles this important question and offers some answers.

After some reflection of my own, I offer here 4 suggested reasons why great literary works are such a black hole in Evangelical achievement.

1. Unexposed

Students are less and less being exposed to great literary works in high school, and then they aren’t being exposed to them in college either. The days are nearly gone when students received a well-rounded liberal arts education. A student entering into university today is entering into an educational system where studies are now very narrow, with a focus on preparing for a specialized task in the workplace. Students are being shortchanged when they graduate, for they remain unexposed to the greatest literary works the world has produced. And they are the worse for it. And so is the world they enter.

(Camile Paglia helpfully chronicles the history (I’ve distilled her salient points here) of how the relationship between religion and fine arts has been deteriorating since the Reformation to the point where it now has almost no perceivable relationship at all. Thankfully, there is a discernable renaissance of Christians in the art scene, but the literary still awaits us.)

2. Unimaginative

Is it overstating the case to say that most of our imaginative powers in the West are either largely stunted by our disengagement of our minds though an overindulgence in on-screen entertainment, or where imagination still exists, it gets consumed primarily on improving technology? Good content (stories, plots) is getting hard to come by these days. It’s just the same old thing, only not as good as the last time. Christians are merely children of their culture in this regard. Camile Paglia states it well:

“…would anyone seriously argue that the fine arts or even popular culture is enjoying a period of high originality and creativity? American genius currently resides in technology and design. The younger generation, with its mastery of video games and its facility for ever-evolving gadgetry like video cell phones and iPods, has massively shifted to the Web for information and entertainment.”

The result: a perpetual stream of arguably inferior and even silly Christian novels that are superficial, predictable, and as a result, boring. If they aren’t embarrassing for being such transparently plain religious propaganda, then they tend to fail to be realistic in their presentation of life. David Williams shows how Flannery O’Connor understood this point well:

“O’Connor understood that good writers do not simply parrot these insights; they must take this doctrinal understanding and apply it to the concrete realities of human life. “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

When we do not understand this distinction, Christian fiction becomes mere religious propaganda. “The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality.” Doctrine is a light to see human experience by, not a formula to be dressed up in a fictional disguise.”

Christians need to recover the creativity that resides in them as a reflection of the image of God, and train their minds to think imaginatively again. The best way to do this is to read the works of imaginative minds.

3. Ungrounded

Evangelicals are ungrounded in transcendent theology and a sense of mystery. What does the average Christian feast on week after week in the average worship service? A pitiful meal of pragmatic, topical, self-help, how-to, motivational speeches, and shallow-if-nonexistent exposition of the Scriptures. Theology is avoided at all cost. But Christians are starving for something substantial – nourishment that will satisfy their soul’s deepest longings for a taste of the depths of the Holy One. Williams states it well:

“Good fiction ultimately probes the mysteries of life: Why are we here? Why do we suffer? What is the Good?

Our services, like our fiction, are justified by their efficiency in achieving pragmatic goals. Our sermons are full of practical, easy steps to spiritual victory, a better marriage, or financial success; our music is designed to express comfortable emotions; everything is aimed at maximizing the body count at the altar call.

Some of these goals are worth pursuing, but perhaps if abasement before a transcendent deity, felt as such, were one of them, we would produce better Christians and better writers.”

Theology deepens us as believers. It stretches us in the same ways needed for writing significant literary expressions, and provides for us the needed foundational underpinnings for our lives and creative work. Christians today aren’t taught to think deeply about God or redemption, so they are condemned to drown in the superficial. It’s all they get fed by their pastors, so it’s all they can give back out. Our literary failures are just one small evidence of the theological shallowness of our churches. Christians need to learn doctrine and how solid theology relates to real life. In other words, Christians need to be educated, and taught how deep truth is necessary for their lives.

4. Unencouraged

Evangelicals just don’t nurture good writers and good writing, as Williams points out. Why? “We often positively discourage “literary” writing as being of questionable spiritual value.” There’s no wonder why passion for good literary and artistic expression in the church is nearly non-existent. I find it difficult to believe that there are so few gifted for this work as there are doing it in the church. These people need to be encouraged to use their gifts, talents, and passions for God-glorifying art and literature. The church needs to recognize these gifts and talents as good and reflective of the image of God, and should therefore be used for His glory.

Evangelicals need to learn how to nurture and support literary and artistic vision, one that is free from the pressure to be a propagandist. As Thomas Aquinas said, we need to recover the belief in “the good of that which is made,” and a belief that that quality is, in itself, glorifying to God. Furthermore, we need not demand that what Christians write can only be justified if it fulfills pragmatic or explicitly evangelistic ends in order for it to be considered good. Again, this is a theological issue.

Conclusion:

The reasons for the Evangelical dearth of literary achievement are systemic to Evangelicalism’s culture, both theologically and philosophcally. Thankfully, we are beginning to realize it and do something about it. There are encouraging signs of movements of Christians seeking to rise above the challenges, the stereotypes, the book formulas, and the problems that”Christian” literature has embodied for so long. I, for one, am hopeful for the future of Christian authors that are on the horizon. May their tribe increase! (Check out The Master’s Artist blog for a peek at some encouraging developments in this regard).

(Hat Tip for the Touchstone article: Think Christian)