Sunday, October 30, 2011

BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD (2011) - by Gregory Wolfe (Book Review)

"There is a large body of believers who have essentially given up on contemporary culture; they may admire a few writers here or there, but they do not really believe that Western culture can produce anything that might inform and deepen their own faith. One might almost say that these individuals have given in to despair about our time. For me, the most depressing trend of all is the extent to which Christians have belittled or ignored the imagination and succumbed to politicized and ideological thinking."
- pages 18-19

If you have never read Image Journal, it's high time you started. There is a large sense in which modern day Christianity has completely given up on the Arts. Just look at the architecture of modern day churches, and then compare that to old Christian churches built hundreds of years ago. The difference you see there is between a Christianity that believed that beauty was valuable and a modern version of Christianity that simply doesn't care anymore. Image is one of the only collections of current writers that I know who absolutely reject this modern trend. (Don't you wonder if the lost, the poor, and the needy used to be drawn to some churches simply by the veritable beauty of the windows and the architecture of the building itself? A building of which the construction itself was an act of worship?) The purpose of the Image quarterly journal is to focus on modern day artists (authors, poets, filmmakers, etc.) who are passionate about bringing back the old Medieval and Renaissance viewpoint once contained within Christianity that the good and the beautiful originate from God, and therefore, the creative imagination can produce works that point us in the right direction. The book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, is written by the man who founded Image. His name is Gregory Wolfe.

If you enjoy thinking, Wolfe has thoughts and developing questions in this book that could keep you thinking and exploring a few fascinating ideas for a lifetime.

As you begin reading, it becomes obvious that the main insights that we are given in the book were only reached and crystallized by Wolfe after years of thought, experience and study. It may seem like a truism to some. But I doubt that many of us (and in my experience, hardly anyone who believes Christianity is true) have realized the full extent and consequences of one of his main ideas. The idea is this. In spite of politics (with the power to change laws that control our lives), in spite of religion (with the power to insulate us within protected and self-contained sub-cultures, even if we attempt to convert others from the outside into our own sub-culture), and in spite of education (with the power to shape the minds of the young), one of the most powerful ways to reach anyone and everyone (no matter what political party, religious creed, or educational background one happens to possess) is through the arts and humanities. In other words, through culture itself.

Before the table of contents, Wolfe gives us one page from the thinking of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, part of which includes -

"... there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie ... In contrast, a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation ... Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power - and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps the old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth ..."

We may have different personalities, different beliefs about religion or politics, different tastes and preferences. But, there are universal truths about the human heart and condition to apply to us all. Just as the stars or the natural wonders of the world amaze and inspire us, no matter what part of the globe we may come from, so a beautiful and inspired great work of art can speak to any human being. And it is the arts (film, literature, music, etc.) that form and affect the way people think more powerfully than perhaps anything else in the world. The movie theater, TV, video and computer games are all a part of culture. The places you go to eat or hear music are a part of culture. The huge ever-expanding electronic world of social media is a part of culture. This is all obvious. But the insight here is trying to understand just how powerful culture really is. It is culture that ultimately determines who will win the next election. It is culture that determines how a pastor will apply what he says in the pulpit next Sunday. It is culture that determines what educational course a professor will use in the next class that he or she teaches. This is a subject that, in and of itself, deserves an entire book of its own.

To be more specific, Wolfe discusses how his thinking on culture has been influenced by other writers. One of whom, church historian John W. O'Malley, has extensively explored the subject in the book, Four Cultures of the West -

pg. x -
"At the outset of Four Cultures, O’Malley alludes to the early church father Tertullian’s famous challenge: ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In other words, what do the prophetic, religious cultures of Judaism and Christianity have to do with the ‘wordly’ cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. The answer given by the West, as it evolved through the medieval and Renaissance eras, was: plenty. Tertullian’s prophetic culture was placed in a dynamic, productive tension with the other three culture: the academic/professional culture of the philosophers and scientists, the humanistic culture of poets, rhetoricians, and statesman, and the artistic culture of visual and performing artists."

In other words, there are four major parts of culture. Religion, Politics, Education and the Arts. All four naturally intersect with each other. Different periods of history emphasis one or two over the others. In our own age, Religion and Politics seem to be a focus that often overshadows Education and the Arts. Wolfe, while appreciative of all four, is strongly drawn by the latter two - the literary/rhetorical and the visual/performing arts.

Speaking of political culture, Wolfe has reached his conclusions today by working his way through a number of experiences within the American conservative movement. He was raised by conservative parents. He attended Hillsdale College and then went to work for National Review magazine for the summer & fall of 1980 (the election of Ronald Reagan). But something wasn't quite right. Wolfe couldn't quite bring himself to align with most conservatives because they were missing something.

pg. 7 -
"Despite gains which conservatives have made since 1980 in politics and economics, they have made precious little progress in the realm of culture. In other words, conservatives have not had much of an impact on the major cultural organs, such as the leading newspapers and magazines, nor have they made their presence felt in literature, criticism, and the visual and performing arts."

It's not that Wolfe turned to Liberalism, it's just that he couldn't stand the shrillness and political interestedness within politics, even among major conservatives. As political as many of the major voices within Christianity and conservatism are, they have had little to no impact on the actual culture. Wolfe has found this same uselessness and ineffectiveness, sadly, within Christianity as well. And this was a criticism back in the 1980s as much as it's a valid criticism today.

pg. 18 -
"Within the Christian community there have been many different approaches to modern culture. Some of the mainline denominations have followed a liberal ethos that welcomes new trends in secular culture. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have moved in the opposite direction, retreating into a fortress mentality and distrusting the ‘wordly’ products of mainstream culture - so much so that they have created an alternative subculture. To simplify somewhat, you might say that whereas liberals lack Christian discernment about culture, conservatives have just withdrawn from the culture."

Instead, Wolfe found himself attracted to the older historical tradition of conservatism. There is, within conservative thought, an intellectual and literary tradition that, according to Russell Kirk, can be traced back to Edmund Burke and to other classics before. Wolfe considers himself privileged to have had Russell Kirk (author of Eliot and his Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century, The Roots of American Order, and The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot) and Gerhart Niemeyer (author of Law Without Force, Between Nothingness Paradise, and Aftersight and Foresight) as professors at Hillsdale. Wolfe devotes a chapter each to both these writers in his Four Men of Letters section of the book (the other two being Malcolm Muggeridge and Marion Montgomery).

Wolfe regretfully notes the fact that young conservatives today are unlikely to even know who Russell Kirk is. His books are no longer widely read or published, and his conservatism is not as combative as more popular highly partisan sections of conservatism would like. "This is a grievous loss. There is a remarkable amplitude and hospitality to Russell Kirk's conservatism that stands in marked constrast to the narrowing tendencies of these other factions." (pg. 204.) By the time Wolfe finishes describing Kirk's passion for "what Edmund Burke called the 'moral imagination'" you wish you could have known Kirk yourself. The use of the imagination ought to complement reasoned argument, and with an extensive view of history and philosophy, one tends to take a more moderate approach in applying historical lessons to modern day problems. Thus, Kirk fundamentally believed in the presence of the past (an awareness of the big picture of history), the tragic sense of life (a realistic view of human nature), and a sacramental vision (acknowledging the transcendent).

pg. 211 -
"Unlike the moderns, to whom life is a matter of process, of constant activity and 'becoming,' Kirk held, with the ancients, that man's highest calling is contemplating what is ... This accounts for the enormous energy and 'joy of being' (to quote Gerhart Niemeyer again) that emanated from Kirk. With figures like Dr. Johnson, Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis, Kirk shared a robust delight in the goodness and sacramentality of simple things, from food to fireplaces. Kirk's definition of grace is where time and the timeless meet, where the natural is touched by the supernatural."

Therefore for Kirk, and thus also for anyone who had the pleasure of sharing his company, life was a joy and adventure. Something as simple as a drive would turn into a treasure hunt for the perfect countryside, library, dinner theater, wine tasting, ice cream parlor, local bakery, diner, or example of good neoclassical architecture. This joy for old and simple things translated itself into Kirk's writing, writing that took intense pleasure in the ideas of thinkers like Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke, Josef Pieper, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Henry Newman, Miguel de Unamuno, Walter Bagehot, and John Lukacs. This love for exploring the ideas of a large host of literary and philosophical writers shaped and improved Kirk's own writing ability.

pg. 212 -
"The clarity and lucidity of Kirk's prose, his ability to convey complex ideas and historical events in ways that can be easily understood, places him in the same category as a writer like C.S. Lewis. But those who read Lewis and Kirk often make the mistake of believing that their books are a substitute for engaging the original works and ideas. These readers forget that Lewis and Kirk are calling them to undertake the same disciplines and intellectual adventures they themselves undertook."

And it was precisely this undertaking that Wolfe chose to undergo for himself. It wasn't long after Hillsdale that he "went off to Oxford University and immersed [him]self in literary studies and theological reflection." (pg. 11.) There is a joy in this undertaking when he decided this, and that joy is still exhibited in his book. To Wolfe, part of the adventure of life is hunting out treasures within culture, art and literature - no matter what the time period. Devastating and soul-shaping works of truth, goodness and beauty exist out in the world, and most of us are only aware of a very small minority of them. While we intently focus on a political message that we're so interested in advancing, or while we revel in the safety and security of our own little bomb-shelter sub-culture, we are never going to be exposed to, let alone participate in, the existence and creation of these works. It was exposure to just a few of these works that changed Wolfe:

pg. 10 -
"After a one-semester flirtation with libertarianism, I quickly apprenticed myself to Kirk and Niemeyer. They established their conservative visions on a rich synthesis of literature, history, philosophy, and theology. In short, they espoused a form of Christian humanism that I found deeply moving. By comparison, the political and economic nostrums touted by others ... as the practical manifestations of conservatism seemed brittle and thin. They were piping voices compared to the deep organ chords of Dante and Aristotle, Aquinas and Newman, whom I was reading with Kirk and Niemeyer."

And it is with this sort of viewpoint that Wolfe takes us through a tour of the deeper literary chords of brilliant modern thinkers, authors, novelists, poets, playwrights, film-makers and painters who are inextricably bound within Christianity and yet, still outside any Christian sub- or popular culture. In this sense, Beauty Will Save the World is like a treasure map of artists that, for all intents and purposes, we ought to teach ourselves to appreciate. The joy of this book, for me, was the discovery of so many names that I either knew nothing about, or had only heard of briefly.

There is a sort of sacredness imbedded within the works of certain artists. If you have ever read C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, then you have a little inkling of what I mean. Wolfe is intent on introducing us to a whole number of other like-minded artists.

The authors Wolfe enthusiastically recommends include:

Georges Bernanos, Frederick Buechner, Christopher Dawson, Elizabeth Dewberry, Harold Fickett, Denise Giardina, Graham Greene, Romano Guardini, Ron Hansen, Mark Helprin, Jacques Maritain, Francois Mauriac, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson, Dorothy Sayers, Anne Tyler, and John Updike, among others. He also gives Evelyn Waugh, Shusaku Endo, Andrew Lytle, Wendell Berry, Larry Woiwode, Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcom Muggeridge and Marion Montgomery each their own separate chapters.

Wolfe is also happily interested in poets who explore Christianity and modernity, and he recommends:

W.H. Auden, Richard Chess, T.S. Eliot, Donald Hall, Andrew Hudgins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Karr, Denise Levertov, Paul Mariani, Richard Wilbur, and Franz Wright, among others (along with a special chapter devoted to the work & poetry of Geoffrey Hill).

The three chapters discussing the works of painters Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom, and Makoto Fujimura give you just a glimpse of the talent that is out there, hidden to many of us, but evident if you just take the time to look.

The works of all of these artists are treasures Wolfe has cultivated a deep and abiding appreciation for. These are artists that this book ought to convince us that we all need to make the effort to appreciate and understand for ourselves. It is a pleasure just to read Wolfe's explanation of, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins -

pg. 83 -
"It is the use of language that distinguishes Hopkins, but however firm his own theological grounding, the nature of the times and the decay of language itself lead him to place great burdens on words and word-order. For all its formality and artificiality, Hopkins's 'sprung rhythm' is meant to be a heightened form of colloquial speech. Thus the Jesuit sought to keep poetry close to the vitality of language as it is commonly spoken, steering literature away from the decadence of aestheticism or the pomposity of Parnassian diction. His poetic diction is packed with the short, sharp, guttural Anglo-Saxon words of Teutonic origin, skillfully played off Latinate words. In his use of language Hopkins takes the route of many modern Christian poets: he reaches into history to restore life and meaning to words.

Through the use of compressed syntax, assonance, and internal rhyme, Hopkins attempted to write incarnational poetry. Perhaps the best example of this comes from the poem 'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.'"

Or Wolfe's description of Flannery O'Connor -

pgs. 96-97, 100 -
"... Then, at Christmas, she developed the first symptoms of lupus, the disease that had taken the life of her father when she was just fifteen. Her father had lived for only three years after the onset of symptoms, and so O'Connor assumed that she would have only that amount of time left ... O'Connor made the only decision she could: she packed her bags and returned home to the family farm ...

The defeat could not have been more total. Living with her mother and a family of ducks on the farm, she was cut off from any intellectual or cultural stimulus, confined to letter-writing for contact with the outside world. Her fiction, which employed violence and the grotesque, horrified her mother. 'Why can't you write something uplifting,' Regina would say, 'like the folks at Reader's Digest?' As O'Connor confided in a letter to a friend: 'This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can say is, if you have to ask, you'll never know.' ...

O'Connor's tales are parables of human pride being confronted by the shock of divine grace - the violence in her stories is caused not by God but by the stubbornness of our human attempt to live as autonomous agents. By the same token, the grotesque in her fiction is not an unhealthy obsession with deformity but a metaphor for what me make of ourselves, the distortion that takes place when creatures attempt to think of themselves as gods, as creators of their own world. In the moment of violence that often concludes her stories, God's judgment and his mercy are one and the same. That is why the endings of her stories are open-ended: we don't know whether the protagonists will choose the virtuous path or not, which throws the question back at us, her readers: What would we do?"

Or Wolfe's description of Wendell Berry -

pg. 157 -
"Berry believes that the modern cult of technology and innovation has come close to destroying the environment, caused vast numbers of people around the world to be uprooted from their native places and scattered into sprawling, anonymous cities, and torn at the very fabric of marriage, child-rearing, and local institutions that provide identity and ensure good stewardship of the world's resources ...

In a steady series of essays, collected in such volumes as The Unsettling of America, The Gift of Good Land, What Are People For?, and Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, Berry has dared to question what most of us refuse to consider: that the costs of our vaunted progress and prosperity have taken far too heavy a human toll. This is undoubtedly one reason he is so controversial: he calls attention to the secret most of us would like to sweep under the carpet. Most of us, when confronted by the litany of woes that Berry cites, tend to shrug our collective shoulders, assuring ourselves that there is little or nothing we can do to slow down the juggernaut of modern life. But Berry insists that we all can do something, and that makes us uncomfortable ..."

I don't know if you'll do the same, but by the time I'd read one of Wolfe's entire summations of one of these writers in Beauty Will Save the World, I'd already be in the middle of compiling a complete works bibliography/list on that writer, with immediate plans to acquire as many of his or her books as possible. The enthusiasm here is catching, but there's a method to it as well. Wolfe is purposefully introducing the reader to modern day artists whose work is both informed by their Christianity and outside the Christian subculture of modern churches and bookstores. Each writer, poet or painter that he recommends have created works to appeal to everyone, whether Christian or not.

And there is a direct corollary to this - the admission that some nonChristian artists can still produce works of art that have something from God in them. In fact, the argument goes that creativity itself is a moral virtue. So while an artist may have moral failings of his own, that doesn't mean that a work he creates still cannot, in and of itself, be good, be true, or be beautiful. And if you are a Christian, then you are supposed to believe that everything good, true and beautiful is ultimately from God and His creation. Therefore, great works of art may exist that many Christians are not even aware of, simply because of their rejection of the talented sinner who made the work in the first place. This has resulted in sort of blindness.

pg. 5 -
"But to deny the imaginative insight Picasso possessed on the basis of his intellectual and moral failings, I came to realize, was both petty and close-minded. Similarly, when I read D.H. Lawrence I found a penetrating critique of technology and the modern dichotomy between mind and body. Yet I have found that most conservatives prefer to dismiss Lawrence on the basis of his ideas about sexual liberation. Though it may seem a truism to most people, it eventually dawned on me that one can learn from an artist or thinker who asks the right questions, even if one may disagree with many of his answers ... Why categorize artists and writers as good or bad in terms of ideology, rather than of imaginative vision?"


And it is this blindness that Wolfe calls "Declinism" - the idea that we are going all downhill from here. There are many Christians and conservatives and/or other cultured people who believe there is nothing worthwhile to be found in our modern day culture. Modern art is considered worthless. Modern literature is considered garbage. Modern music and film is considered primarily pagan and immoral unless made within the protected sub-culture of American Christianity. And so, the declinist halts his own education because he stops looking. According to the declinist, older works of art have become irrelevant and ineffectual in modern times, while newer works of art are increasingly worthless and degrading. Culture is no longer something we pursue.

pgs 6-7
"Most conservatives think of culture as a museum, rather than as an organic continuity. They are all in favor of promoting the classics, but when it comes to contemporary culture, they have simply opted out. To be sure, the modern era has been cursed with a tremendous amount of shoddy, obscene and meretricious art ... But, to quote an ancient dictum, abusus non tollit usus. The abuse of a thing does not nullify its proper use. If conservatives would look about themselves, they would see that our century has also been blessed with a tremendous amount of superb art."

You do not have to agree with an artist's theology to appreciate something good that he or she has created. And you can appreciate such a work of art without giving up your own theology.

pg. 23 -
"It is true that some of the artists that I’ve mentioned may not be strictly orthodox on all aspects of doctrine, and many of them remain outside of the institutional church. But many of these figures are faithful Christians or observant Jews. All of the artists I’ve listed treat religion as one of the defining components of our lives. I think it is fair to say that if this body of art was absorbed and pondered by the majority of Christians, the quality of Christian witness and compassion in our society would be immeasurably strengthened ... Christian artists must be confident enough in their faith to be able to explore what it means to be human."

In fact, it is a weakness within your theology if you are afraid of culture. Part of the strength of Christianity is actually believing, with fairly straight-forward confidence, that it's true. This is the confidence Thomas Aquinas rested upon when he declared that nothing ever discovered in science would ever contradict Scripture. And if Christianity is true, then we have nothing to be afraid of from other truths anywhere else in culture, history, science, or the world. In fact, we really ought to be stewards of what is good in the world.

pg. 43 -
"The world is not evil; that is a Gnostic idea. Of course, generation after generation of believers have struggled to define what living ‘in the world’ means. Some have interpreted their faith in such a way that they are only in the world as a ghost or a hologram might be: these are the conservatives who live in a world of abstractions, the harsh moralistic principles that keep them in orbit above the world."

Christian Humanism

This brings us to something many of you may not have heard of before called Christian Humanism. While it's a main theme of the entire book, Wolfe explores it extensively in Chapter 4.

pg. 30 -
"Today the phrase Christian humanism sounds like an oxymoron in the ears of most people. The only word the most of us can remember being applied as a modifier is ‘secular.’ But it was not always so."

In fact, it is amazing how many of the basics of Christian humanism have been turned on their ear. Wolfe gives an example of this, earlier in the book, demonstrating how a few words relating to culture in the English language have changed from things of worth to mere derogatory terms.
The word "rhetoric" for example -

pgs xiii-xiv -
"The humanists also believed that rhetoric was the use of crafted language to speak to specific contexts. Unlike prophecy or analysis, the primary goal of rhetoric is to seek unity, common ground. Far from being ivory tower intellectuals, humanists frequently inhabit the political realm, but they do so as peacemakers, not firebrands. Finding the right word for the right occasion exemplifies this desire for points of connection. And as O’Malley notes, rhetoric aims not just at the head but at the heart.

But consider the low regard in which we hold terms like rhetoric and oratory today. Their meanings have almost become completely reversed, so that they are now synonymous with falsehood and verbal frippery. Such is the politicization of our times ..."

Christian humanism could be said to be a tradition of moderation in almost all things, with still an absolute uncompromise on what really does matter. It also involves a willingness to take what comes from God from General Revelation as well as from Special Revelation. Special Revelation is specifically revealed divinity such as the incarnation of Christ on earth or the writing of Scripture. General Revelation is knowledge of the divine given us through God's creation and all that it involves - science, history, philosophy, human creativity, and the arts & humanities. Thus -

pg. 36 -
"Underlying the Christian humanist vision is a theological conviction that the Fall of man had damaged, but not obliterated, human nature. Thus the pagan writers, while they did not have the benefit of divine revelation, could approach, if not fully reach, the deepest truths about man’s place in the universe. After the Fall, the image of God in man was marred, but not completely effaced. Another way of putting this is that nature bears witness to God, even if it needs to be completed and fulfilled by grace. This was not a view formulated for the first time in the Renaissance; it can be found in many of the great medieval thinkers, including Thomas Aquinas."

While perhaps not allowed to Calvinists, this is a view that changes how you think about the world. You're going to find value and interest in places where you otherwise normally would never even think to look. The value you believe that you can find involves, not only the truth about the human condition, but also the transcendent. The interest you'll find will involve ideas that are capable of changing who you are - ideas that you have never thought of before - ideas that very wise men, thousands of years ago, thought through, debated, argued and crystallized. Ideas and values that are never to be found in regular popular culture. Say what you will about declinism, our education today isn't what it used to be. Treasure hunts require a little effort.

pg. 35 -
"Myths and misperceptions about Renaissance humanism are legion, including the notion that it constituted a radical break from the Middle Ages, now a thoroughly debunked idea among scholars of those eras. But it is undisputed that the Renaissance was characterized by a passion for bonae litterae - literally, Good Letters (a phrase that has no real modern English equivalent), the study of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome."

Wolfe discusses in detail two men who were examples of Christian humanism - Desiderius Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Both were men alive during the transformation from the Renaissance to the Reformation. Sir Thomas More is particularly interesting because of how close his historical situation was to today. More was a powerful intellect in his day, influential and with a famous reputation for his integrity, numerous political and religious factions were always trying to enlist him as an ally. Somehow, Sir Thomas More managed to avoid this. On one side, politics (particularly King Henry VIII) was trying to get More to compromise his talents in the pursuit of what were essentially the partisan political causes of the day. On the other side, religion (Catholics on one side, and Protestants on the other) were trying to enlist More in advancing their causes in opposition to each other. But -

pg. 42 -
"More sought a third way between religious fundamentalism and secular politics and yet he could hardly be described as a compromiser. Erasmus was a deeply pious man who reveled in the pagan classics, a traditionalist bent on wide-ranging reform, a supremely cultured man who believed in the virtue of simplicity."

In refusing to allow himself to be enlisted in increasingly politicized causes, Thomas More eventually was killed for it. To many, More may have been seen as a moderate. But when he died for his principles, More proved that his moderation was a much more sophisticated stand on principal. While it involved a refusal to follow politics or religion to the exclusion of the other, or to the exclusion of other parts of culture that mattered, that refusal was, in and of itself, principled. Sir Thomas More set an example for us that involves refusing to withdraw from culture and the public square. Instead of withdrawal or separation, it involves active influence within culture and the public square. This demands an interaction with those things in culture that affect and transform the way people think. This demands involvement with those things that speak to human emotion. And your involvement and influence, according to Christian humanism, still ought to point in the right direction.

pg. 42-43 -
"When emphasis is placed on the divine at the expense of the human (the conservative fault), Jesus becomes an ethereal authority figure who is remote from earthly life and experience. When he is thought of as merely human (the liberal error), he becomes nothing more than a superior social worker or popular guru.

The Christian humanist refuses to collapse paradox in on itself. This has an important implication for how he or she approaches the world of culture. Those who make a radical opposition between faith and the world hold such a negative view of human nature that the products of culture are seen as inevitably corrupt and worthless. On the other hand, those who are eager to accommodate themselves to the dominant trends of the time baptize nearly everything, even things that may not be compatible with the dictates of the faith.

But the distinctive mark of Christian humanism is its willingness to adapt and transform culture, following the dictum of an early church father, who said that ‘Wherever there is truth, it is the Lord’s.’ Because Christian humanists believe that whatever is good, true, and beautiful is part of God’s design, they have the confidence that their faith can assimilate the works of culture. Assimilation, rather than rejection or accommodation, constitutes the heart of the Christian humanist’s vision."


Therefore, another idea that Wolfe explores involves how art can imitate the Incarnation. Any art with power is powerful because it speaks to us in spite of the time period we are in. Great art transcends time, but it also speaks to people who are living in their own time, not to people who are dead. This means that any artist who wants to create something that can make us understand him must understand the time and the culture in which he or she is in.

pg. 6 -
"Just as Christians believe that God became man so that He could reach into, and atone for, the pain and isolation of sin, so the artist descends into disorder so that he might discover a redemptive path toward order."

An example of an artist who did just that was T.S. Eliot. The rejection of faith and religion by modernist thinking has resulted in a spiritual vacuum in our society. This is a vacuum that has resulted in the challenging and questioning of traditional values in Western society - a subject T.S. Eliot explores in his poetry.

pg. 53 -
"Eliot was all too aware of the fragmentation of Western culture. Eliot’s ambition was to create a body of poetry that would not only dramatize the major episodes in the decline of Christendom, but also discover how grace could be found in a fractured culture."

In other words, a good artist will work from within the culture of his own time. Assuming there are truths universal for all of us, in any geographical or historical location, then an artist can reach these truths no matter the state of culture in his time period. The more fragmented or broken the society he is working within is, the more poignant the revelation of these truths may become.

pg 45 -
"To the Christian humanist, culture and art can become analogues for the Incarnation. In particular, art is like a sacrament: a union of form and content, the inherence of divine meaning in the crafted materials of this earth."

Here is where Wolfe's book focuses - on an insight that many of us often forget. We used to consider culture and the arts as something that could change who we are for the better. Today, we take it for granted that religion and politics are intrinsically linked to defining our identity. The fact that education can play a powerful role in shaping who you are as a person is still at least admitted, if not always put to meaningful practical application. But, we've almost forgot about this today with culture and the arts. The films and TV shows that you watch shape who you are - as does the music you listen to, the books or magazines you read, the social activities you choose to engage in. Your personality is affected by how much or how little culture you expose yourself to. Your very moral and spiritual being is shaped by what sort of culture you are immersed in. And, this is something that you can choose for yourself. You choose what sort and how much culture you expose yourself to. Here, Wolfe has given us a whole large number of artists that developing an appreciation for would be well worth the effort.

pg. 22 -
"In a politicized age, constricted by the narrowness of ideology, few people really believe that art provides the necessary contemplative space that pulls us back from the realm of action in order to send us back wiser and more fully human."

The conservatives who view modern culture as a lost cause are actually afraid to interact from within it. Christians who view modern society as dangerous, sinful and tempting, think they ought to avoid it in order to keep their own little selves untainted and ... comfortable. Declinists who lament the fall of Western society have no interest in art that explores this fall and that imagines the abyss out of which they believe nothing good could ever originate. If you don't believe art (and its portrayal of truth, goodness and beauty) is powerful enough to shape and affect people, then its only role is to cater to differing little personal and partisan tastes.

pgs. 24-25 -
"It is precisely this fear of the imagination that has led many Christians in America to create a subculture with Christian publishers, Christian record labels, and Christian art galleries. The underlying message conveyed by these products is that they are safe; they have the Christian seal of approval. But this is a devil's bargain: in exchange for safety, these products have given up their imaginative power. And this is just where the strangest irony of all emerges. This subculture has rushed to produce Christian versions of almost every secular trend: from Christian heavy metal bands to Christian romance novels to Christian self-help books. But because these products lack the transforming power of the imagination, they are little better than the pop culture trends they imitate."

In other words, Christians in modern society have a low view of art and culture. No matter how many things they may have right, the result is still a sort of spiritual deformity. There is something wrong with the very idea of a Christian sub-culture. It's a practice that results in stunted, unwhole and unwell people who are deficient in certain matters of the heart and soul. It is amazing how filling your life with pop culture kitsch results in the lack of a sound view of the world.

But we don't have to be this way. And we can encourage the cultivation of the Christian humanistic view of art and culture amongst each other. You don't have to conform to the way the rest of society thinks or doesn't think. You don't have to conform to any sub-culture you may have been brought up within. And you can seek out other friends who are interested in thinking, discussing and exploring these same challenging themes.

pg 4 -
"I have always been fascinated by the literary and intellectual communities formed by writers with similar insights into their age, ,such as Samuel Johnson’s “Club” and C.S. Lewis’s Inklings. These meetings of the minds seem to me to be the essence of living culture, models of artists-in-community engaged with the challenges and opportunities of their time."

Within the Image Journal, Gregory Wolfe has started a collection of like minded thinkers, writers and artists who are interested in challenging the same stunted mindsets. This is a minority collection of thinkers that Wolfe's book invites us to join.


Because it's a good and refreshing endeavor. Wolfe hints at why through his entire book. I'm particularly partial to a little quote that Wolfe uses from Mark Helprin’s novel, A Soldier of the Great War, where a character explains -

"It’s as if God set loose the powers of art so that man could come so close to His precincts as almost to understand how He works, but in the end He closes the door in your face, and says, Leave it to me. It’s as if the whole thing were just a lesson. To see the beauty of the world is to put your hands on the lines that run uninterrupted through life and through death. Touching them is an act of hope, for perhaps someone on the other side, if there is another side, is touching them, too."

It is with these sorts of gems that Wolfe fills his book. His ideas and unique understanding of them should be just the beginning of our discussion. The number of possibilities here - that creativity is a virtue, that politicizing art and culture kills the entire purpose of art and culture, that Christian humanism is entirely consistent with orthodox Christianity, that good artists are always involved in a sort of act of incarnation, that we can be changed by the works of a whole large collection of very talented thinkers and artists, that we have every reason to be confident that God's truth can be brought out in the art of any historical time period, that true conservatism requires an abiding commitment to the humanities spread throughout history, that the very idea of the culture wars is flawed, that good works of art can be created by sinners and bad works of art can be created by saints, etc. - are enough to keep us occupied and engaged for a long adventuresome & treasure-hunting filled life.

If that which is truly beautiful ultimately points to God, then redemption can be found in normally unexpected places. If we decided to cultivate an appreciation for those things that powerfully express this possibility - then such cultivation will change who we are for the better. So go on, go read the book.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful post. The book reviewed sounds like a very worthwhile read. God bless.