In her new book, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (2010), Nancy Pearcey has produced the kind of text I want to write someday: deeply researched but accessibly composed, rooted in a vision of an integrated, wholistic Christian spirituality and aimed at helping the evangelical community – my theological community of origin – to see the “big picture” of cultural and spiritual orientations, and how these big pictures are expressed in the daily pictures of the academy, media, and the arts. She advances an understanding of the arts as rhetoric that deeply informs my own analysis and enjoyment of the arts:
The common stereotype is that art is merely a matter of personal expression. But the truth is that artists interact deeply with the thought of their day. They translate worldviews into stories and images, creating a picture language that people often absorb without even thinking about it. Leaning to “read” that language is a crucial skill for understanding the forces that are dramatically altering our world. [p. 4]
Pearcey openly acknowledges her indebtedness to the evangelical mover and shaker of the 70’s and 80’s, Francis Schaeffer. In many ways her book is a sequel and an up-dating of Schaeffer’s tome of 1976, How Should We Then Live: The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture. This indebtedness is evident in many ways, from the reliance on worldview analysis, to the familiar split-level diagrams of Western humanism (grace over nature; fact over value), to the identification of the current ideological competitor of the Gospel. In Schaeffer’s case, it was secular humanism. In Pearcey’s, it’s global secularism. Pearcey’s book shares many of the same virtues that Schaeffer’s does, such as the bracing wake-up call from an overly private, spiritually enervating pietism towards a publicly relevant and prophetically discerning Christianity, and how worldviews find practical expression and application in daily life. Pearcey reflects Schaeffer’s critique of various forms of compartmentalization and dichotomization endemic in both secular and religious thought, and the philosophically insufficient answers such dichotomies lead toward.
Pearcey’s text suffers, however, from the same wince-producing generalizations and overly simplistic analyses that make and mar most of Schaeffer’s books. One is the overly rationalistic account of human experience and religious conversion. The greatest obstacles to God, according to this book, are “false ideas” (I vote heart-break and hormones). Another is the analysis and characterization of the Christian community itself. It’s either evangelical Calvinism or global secularism. And there’s little awareness that globalized secularism is in part a product of the very European Reformation to which she otherwise ascribes so much good.
Perhaps more disturbing and unhelpful are the dismissive ways in which non-Christian, or non evangelical thought and expressions are dealt with. Take her analysis of Mark Rothko’s work for example. She hearkens back to Schaeffer’s critique of liberal theology, of a religion of “nobody up there,” and applies it to Rothko. Yes, Rothko’s works are ambivalent and toward the end of his life increasingly dark. Yes, he committed suicide. But maybe there is a kind of Jewish mysticism and prophetic denunciation of commercialized representation that his work expresses. Presented in diametric contrast is the work of the contemporary Christian artist Makoto Fujimura, who (ironically) unambiguously acknowledges his indebtedness to Rothko’s work. But this relationship between the Jewish-American and Japanese-American is not explored or even acknowledged, or of the hybrid and syncretistic character of all worldviews (including evangelical Christian) to which their lives and art bear witness. It’s this kind of over simplistic, good-guy/bad-guy kind of analysis that has weakened evangelical cultural analysis over many years.
Nonetheless, given the general readership the book is aimed at, Pearcey advances a Christian analysis of culture that both critically and appreciatively acknowledges the role the arts play in translating the abstractions of “worldview” into concrete term. I remain a strong believer in and practitioner of “worldview analysis” and Pearcey presents a good case for it, enhanced with an informed, if generalizing, engagement with the realm of the arts. “Art is a visual language, and Christians have a responsibility to learn that language” (p. 208). The book is worth its price for that one line alone, and Pearcey provides a beginner’s handbook toward such “reading” of the arts. I might simply suggest that in addition to a responsibility to learn the language of the arts, Christians have an opportunity to enjoy them. The arts might actually enrich human existence, as well as provide material for a coherent and compelling worldview analysis.
James McCullough is a PhD student at the University of St Andrews. His research explores the relationship between works of visual art and spiritual formation. He lives on a farm near St Andrews with his wife and four children.