Post-Secularism, Theology and the Arts

Whether by intention, a mysterious act of providence, or both, my reading in the last week was directed toward the theme of ‘post-secularism’ and the arts. By ‘post-secularism’, I mean the view that ‘secularism’ or the increasing ‘secularization’ of the West is a myth. According to this view, distinctions we make between ‘secular’ and ‘sacred’ are illusory and misleading. The ‘secular’ is not vacated of religious content; on the contrary, the ‘secular’ is full of religious desire and meaning.

I would like to draw your attention to three excellent articles on post-secularism and the arts, which I read last week. First, Matthew Milliner posted a two-part series on post-secularism and art history. In part one, he draws attention to “the second edition of the standard grad student intro to the discipline, which now ends – you may be surprised to discover – on a decidedly religious note.” In part two, Milliner comments on the recent publication of an article in Modern Theology titled “The Implicit Apophaticism of Dada Zurich: A Spiritual Quest by Means of Nihilist Procedures.” By turning to the Dada movement, Milliner and his interlocutor take on one of the darlings of the ‘secular’ thesis. He concludes by saying,

Theography, for lack of a better term, is not the only future of art history, but it is one of them – and to foreclose this possibility would be to artificially limit the interpretive dilation that critical theory and the visual culture debate of the nineties allowed. If it can be done with Dada, it can be done with myriad artistic movements more. Make no mistake, art’s theological potentialities also mean that art has, does and will operate as very bad theology too. But the grander point is that the secret of art history, or at least another of them, is that the discipline does not take its place under the queen of the sciences, but participates in her reign.

The second article comes, surprisingly, from the Wall Street Journal.  Gregory Wolfe, editor of Image Journal, writes an article titled “Whispers of Faith in a Postmodern World: The myth of secularism triumphant in the arts is just that – a myth.”  He writes this article in response to Paul Elie’s recent New York Times Sunday Book Review essay titled “Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?”  While Elie answers ‘no’ to his own question, Wolfe offers a case for why one should regard contemporary literature as religiously alive. Wolfe suggests that, in our postmodern context, faith must be conveyed in whispers and not shouts. The implication, it seems to me, is that religious themes are present in contemporary literature (and Wolfe offers several examples), and what we need are not more religious writers, but more attentive readers.

Finally, I draw your attention to an article published at the end of December in The American Spectator that I only got around to reading last week. It is titled “The Father, Mumford and Sons, and the Holy Spirit.”  In this article, Daniel Flynn comments on the popularity, much to the frustration of music critics, of Mumford and Son’s recent album Babel. Where Wolfe suggests that readers may not hear the ‘whisper’ of religious themes in contemporary literature, Flynn finds music critics to be over-sensitive to those same themes in Babel. He writes,

Critics really don’t like that people like a record made by people who like God … We don’t learn from the reviews of Babel whether or not Mumford & Sons are closeted Jesus freaks. We do learn that reviewers freak out about Jesus.

Post-secularism is the thesis that religious desire (a desire for ultimate truth, beauty and goodness) is part of every human activity, and each of these articles suggests that we need to be more attentive, or — in the case of the last article — more accommodating, to this desire when we go to an art museum, read a book or listen to music. We do not do this simply because it is the ‘right’ or ‘Christian’ thing to do, but because we cannot understand the arts properly if we ignore this important dimension of human existence.

1 Comment

  • Bennie P. Fox says:

    This inevitably involves some ambiguity, a favorite term of Wolfe’s. To reach people who are nearly blind, Flannery O’Connor once said, you have to draw large cartoons. Others like Waugh and Percy satirize modern society, but also show its attractions and real achievements. In a book like Ron Hansen’s Mariette in Ecstasy, a young woman who bears the stigmata in early twentieth-century America may be a hysteric, but she just might be an authentic religious sign as well.

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