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60Flannery O'Connor: Stamped but not Cancelledhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2015/06/flannery-oconnor-stamped-but-not-cancelled
Tue, 16 Jun 2015 00:00:00 -0400 On June 5, 2015, the U.S. Postal Service published a commemorative stamp in honor of Flannery O’Connor. O’Connor is an anomalous candidate for such acclaim, since her work stands at a critical distance from the American project, both in its older and more recent iterations. Precisely in her refusal to assimilate her fiction to the national consensus, she made her most valuable gift to it.
The Last Man and the First Manhttps://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2014/12/the-last-man-and-the-first-man
Tue, 09 Dec 2014 00:00:00 -0500Scanning half a dozen major journals for obituaries devoted to the most important mystery writer of our time, P. D. James (19202014), I was astonished to find that not one of them mentioned her serious Anglo-Catholicism, much less its shaping presence in her fiction. This, despite one murder occurring in a church (
A Taste for Death
, 1986), a novel set in a theological college (
Death in Holy Orders
, 2001), another named
(1994), still another titled directly from the Book or Common Prayer (
Devices and Desires
, 1989), as well as an apocalyptic Christian allegory (
The Children of Men
]]>Orthodoxy at a Hundredhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2008/11/005-emorthodoxyem-at-a-hundred
Sat, 01 Nov 2008 00:00:00 -0400 G.K. Chesterton’s most renowned book is a hundred years old.
was first published in London by John Lane Press in 1908, and it has never gone out of print”with more than two dozen publishers now offering editions of the book. Graham Greene once described it as among the great books of the age. Etienne Gilson declared that Chesterton had a philosophical mind of the first rank. Hugh Kenner said that the only twentieth-century author with whom Chesterton could be compared is James Joyce. And Dorothy Day was inspired to return to Christianity mainly by reading
. Indeed, we might say that the last century
to Chesterton”for in that now one-hundred-year-old book,
, he remarkably prophesied the ailments of both modernism and postmodernism, while adeptly commending Christianity as their double cure.
Born in 1874 to Anglican parents who were functional Unitarians, Chesterton soon saw that their acculturated kind of Christianity would not suffice as an answer to the ills of the modern world. Largely under the influence of Frances Blogg, the high church Anglican who eventually became his wife, Chesterton gradually came to identify himself as a Christian. Indeed, he began to use
as a synonym for Christianity. Partly in deference to Frances, however, Chesterton was not received into the Roman Catholic Church until 1922, when he was forty-eight, fourteen years before his death in 1936.
Chesterton regarded his conversion as a progressive and not a reactionary decision”not a nostalgic, backward-gazing act. The central argument of
is that Christianityfinally answered his pressing questions. It challenged him to push ahead toward the consummation of all things: The only corner where [people] in any sense look forward is the little continent where Christ has His Church.
Though sometimes a crank and often a curmudgeon, Chesterton never turned in revulsion against the disorders of his own age. On the contrary, he sought to redress them by means of a feisty and witty, punning and alliterating kind of journalism. In a torrent of essays published in the
Illustrated London News
and many other newspapers”they would eventually number more than fourteen hundred”Chesterton thundered against all manner of evil, mainly the maladies that afflicted the poor: the wage slavery that wedded workers to their jobs, the prohibitionism that robbed the destitute of convivial relief from drudgery, the nanny state that wanted to manage even the cleanliness of the needy, the eugenics programs that would keep the mentally deficient from marrying. He even devised a scheme, called distributism, for reallocating land.
Many of Chesterton’s books are collections of these newspaper essays:
What’s Wrong With the World
Alarms and Discursions
Fancies versus Fads
All Things Considered
, and so on. He also wrote remarkable studies of such nineteenth-century figures as Dickens and Browning and Blake as well as biographical accounts of Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas. In addition, he authored a clutch of small novels and short-story collections:
The Man Who Was Thursday
The Club of Queer Trades
The Flying Inn
The Napoleon of Notting Hill
. And there are, of course, the perennially popular Father Brown stories.
Yet except for
The Everlasting Man
(1925) and a couple of late works such as
The Well and the Shallows
(1935), Chesterton rarely devoted himself to straightforward theological writing. He sought to come at things indirectly, slyly suggesting or else thunderously pronouncing about matters whose religious import was often more implicit than overt.
is the notable exception to his usual pattern of writing. It is not an anthology but a carefully argued and deceptively complex work whose title indicates that its moral concerns are also theological. It is a subtle account, in fact, of his own conversion, as he moved gradually from the claims of reason to those of faith.
In the book, Chesterton treats the most serious things in the lightest manner, probing depths when he appears to be skating on surfaces. He jauntily declares, for instance, that solemnity flows out of men naturally, like the seepage of a fetid pool, but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity. Chesterton was impatient with Christian apologists of his time because they were so solemn: It is plainly not now possible (with any hope of universal appeal) to start, as our fathers did, with the fact of sin. For Chesterton, the conviction of sin depends on an assumed metaphysical order”a transcendent hierarchy of goods, over against which one can resist vices and promote virtues. The collapse of this order is the condition and thus the curse of our age.
What tack, then, does Chesterton take to deal with such an enormous collapse in the courts of heaven? In an exceedingly shrewd ploy, Chesterton argues that our age is
. Perhaps sensing the new vogue of psychology that would dominate the twentieth century, he declares us to be both mentally and morally unhinged. In so characterizing our age, he becomes the uncanny prophet of both modernism and postmodernism.
Chesterton attends first to our insane rationalism. His attack on rationalism is no attack on reason: Reason itself is a matter of faith, Chesterton observes. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality at all. We assume the rationality of the world as the fundamental postulate and axiom of our very existence. That the world is rational rather than irrational is the basis of everyday life. We could not engage in the most elementary communications and relations if our words and concepts”our reason”did not have a truthful relation to reality.
Unfortunately, since the time of Descartes, we have come to believe that there is nothing but reason”reason of a largely reductive and calculating kind. Real things are said to be those that can be demonstrated either by empirical science or mathematical logic.
For Chesterton, such modernist rationalism is madness. The rationalist who ignores the limits of reason is always on the verge of becoming a maniac. The maniac is not the person who has lost his mind, Chesterton observes. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason . . . . He [dwells] in the clean and well-lit prison of one idea. The mental jail cell of modernity is, for Chesterton, the monomaniacal notion that the universe consists of nothing but matter and energy. Though Chesterton identifies such madness as materialism, it might be better named
. As believers in the triune God who has enfleshed himself”who has become matter for our sake”Christians are unabashed materialists who repudiate the gnostic error of belittling or despising the world.
What Chesterton rejects is the deadly physicalism that attributes everything to material and efficient causes, failing to ask about formal and final causes”what ends drive beings and what purposes are those beings meant to serve? In refusing to ask such questions, physicalism attributes everything to outward forces. Its curious effect is to turn us in on ourselves, convincing us that we could not be radically other than our genetics and environment have decreed us to be. Insane rationalists are profound pessimists.
Chesterton links modern rationalism to ancient Stoicism. The Stoics were also pessimists who believed in a self-enclosed, self-repeating cosmos. Absent any belief in the transcendent God, their only recourse was to worship the god within, or what would later be called the Inner Light. For Chesterton, this is the worst form of lighting. It would give rise, in fact, to the New Age religion of our own time. Thus did Chesterton foresee both our sickness and our cure:
]]>The Catholic Fantastic of Chesterton and Tolkien https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2008/01/the-catholic-fantastic-of-ches
Wed, 02 Jan 2008 00:00:00 -0500It is often assumed that G. K. Chesterton and J. R .R. Tolkien were reactionary, antimodern writers. In a certain sense they were. Tolkien regarded nearly everything worthy of praise in English culture to have ended in 1066. He scorned the imposition of Norman culture on a vibrant English tradition that had flourished for more than five hundred years, and he looked on the Arthurian legends as an alien French import that offered no fit basis for a national mythology such as he sought to construct in his
. Tolkien also thought the Protestant Reformation to be a terrible error, insisting that the cathedrals of England were stolen Catholic property. Neither was he happy that his friend and companion, C. S. Lewis, remained what Tolkien derisively called “an Ulster Protestant.” Tolkien also lamented the Triumph of the Machine, as he described the Industrial Revolution and all its pomps. He refused, moreover, to drive a motorcar once he saw the damage that paved roads and automobiles had done to the English countryside. Tolkien was an unapologetic monarchist as well, believing that hierarchical distinctions are necessary for the flourishing of any polity, whether academic or ecclesial or governmental. He longed, in fact, for the return of Roman Catholicism as the established state religion of England.
]]>Murder in the Vicaragehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2006/11/murder-in-the-vicarage
Wed, 01 Nov 2006 00:00:00 -0500 The Lighthouse
by P.D. James
Knopf, 352 pages, $25.95.
]]>Ivan Karamazov's Mistakehttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/12/ivan-karamazovs-mistake
Sun, 01 Dec 2002 00:00:00 -0500 It is has become commonplace to regard Ivan Karamazov’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” as a prescient parable glorifying human freedom and defending it against the kind of totalitarian threats it would face in the twentieth century. Fyodor Dostoevsky’s angry atheist delivers an uncanny prophecy of the omnicompetent, freedom-denying state that would arise in his own native Russia. But concerning the liberty that is the only cure for state-sponsored oppression, Ivan is terribly wrong. The Christ of the Grand Inquisitor advocates an idea of freedom that Dostoevsky considered an abomination. It is linked to Ivan’s critique of God for allowing innocent suffering. For Dostoevsky, the problem of evil and the question of human liberty are profoundly joined: our answer to one quandary determines our answer to the other. Freedom and suffering are interstitial realities, as the Grand Inquisitor understands, even if he understands them wrongly.
]]>American Evangelical Christianity: An Introductionhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/10/american-evangelical-christianity-an-introduction
Mon, 01 Oct 2001 00:00:00 -0400 With the death of Sydney Ahlstrom and the retirements of Robert Handy and Martin Marty from the classroom, Mark Noll has surely become our leading teacher-historian of American Christianity. George Marsden may be his superior in charting the history of American fundamentalism and the Christian involvement in education, but Nolls work is more encyclopedic, as is evidenced by his authoritative work of 1992,
A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada.
This latest book,
American Evangelical Christianity
, a collection of previously published essays reshaped into a sustained argument, demonstrates yet again the impeccability of Nolls scholarship. His careful mastery of the historians craft, his massive bibliographical knowledge, his clarity of style and civility of approach”all these serve to answer his own complaints about the scandal of the evangelical mind. Noll has an evangelical mind that, far from being small and closed, is both capacious and generous. Hence his rightly honored place at the international table of scholarship in religious history.
Noll concedes that it is notoriously difficult to define his subject. What Wittgenstein said about the aroma of coffee can also be said of evangelicalism: everyone knows it exists, but no one can precisely describe it. Wags have declared that an evangelical is anyone who likes Billy Graham. Noll, more helpfully, pares the leading evangelical characteristics down to three: a radically life-reorienting experience before God; an un abashed priority given to the Bible”especially its cross-centered gospel”as the one authoritative rule for faith and practice; and an adaptive engagement with the surrounding culture. It is this last item, of course, that issues in things both good and evil. On the one hand, it gives evangelicalism”especially in its pentecostal expression”a vitality that makes it the most rapidly expanding form of Christianity today. Yet, on the other, these very same cultural adaptations also bring compromises and corruptions that threaten the very integrity of the faith for which evangelicals are such ardent exponents.
Together with Nathan Hatch and many other historians, secular and Christian alike, Noll has been insisting for many years that there has never been any such thing as a Christian America. Here again he reiterates the point that the American founding was a notably secular event. It was accomplished”for the most part, and contrary to conservative myth”by deistic Episcopalians who believed neither in original sin nor in Israel and Christ as Gods unique provisions for the worlds salvation. Benjamin Franklins celebrated motion for prayer at the climax of the Constitutional Convention was in fact not passed, and the orison itself was not prayed, at least not in public. Nor did the cultural hegemony of evangelicals begin with the Great Awakening of the 1740s. As Noll crisply notes, this infusion of religious fervor into American life was more successful at ending Puritanism than inaugurating evangelicalism.
It was the frontier revivals of the 1770s and 1780s, Noll demonstrates, that marked the real emergence of the voluntarist, individualist, and sectarian kind of Protestantism that we know as evangelicalism. These new and distinctively American Christians did indeed embrace and adopt”though they did not inaugurate and inspire”the essential qualities of the founding: the democratic, republican, commonsensical, liberal, and providential conceptions by which the founders had defined America. The result, for the first six decades of the nineteenth century, was a thoroughgoing alignment of American Protestantism with the American political project. A country once ruled by Congregationalists, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians was now dominated, at least religiously, by Methodists and Baptists.
The moralistic zeal of their revivalism seemed to find its perfect echo in the ethical seriousness required by democratic principles. Non-Christian politicians such as Thomas Jefferson saw, in turn, that republican government could not flourish without citizens of sterling character. Church-state separation in politics thus made for church-state symbiosis in religion. Government provided the liberty and space for evangelical Christians to express what Noll calls their strong communal sense . . . through voluntary organization of churches and parachurch special-purpose agencies, i.e., Sunday schools, aid endeavors for the poor, missionary enterprises, publishing houses, etc. Noll cites the massive involvement of evangelicals in the sectional antagonisms prior to the Civil War as proof that they had learned to make public use of their state-granted freedom of religion. Yet such engagement with American culture proved, all too predictably, to have sectional as well as religious motivations. Evangelical loyalties to region shaped evangelical responses to slavery, as adaptability yet again revealed its double character.
The result of this unhappy division, as Noll reports, is that black Protestants have remained mainly on the margins of evangelical existence. This fact is both ironic and sad. Nolls statistics reveal that most black Protestants are imbued with the same warmhearted, Bible-centered, culturally adaptive faith that characterizes other evangelicals. Fifty-two percent of them give at least a tithe to their churches, 86 percent believe that miracles still occur, and 83 percent pray at least once daily. Though these figures are higher than those registered among white Christians of all kinds, black evangelicals have remained segregated by social attitudes and religious customs, unable to teach their white counterparts the most salutary of lessons. Noll states the matter simply and clearly: Black Christians are the ones who have experienced the cross most dramatically in American history. This experience of radical suffering also informs Negro spirituals, making them a permanent and powerful legacy to American Christianity. As Noll points out in his fine chapter on evangelical hymns, there is no color or class or gender line running through a gospel song such as Thomas A. Dorseys Precious Lord.
After the failure of William Jennings Bryan to garner a national political majority, and especially with the public ignominy he won for his cause at the Scopes trial of 1925, white evangelicals became politically quiescent until the 1970s. Their influence in American public life was largely muted by the fundamentalist controversy in theology and the anti-evolutionist animus in education. Noll is at considerable pains to show that evangelicals have not been simpletons, at least until recently, about either science or theology. From Cotton Mather in the seventeenth century to Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield in the nineteenth, most evangelical theologians were enthusiasts for science. They understood it largely as a methodological commitment to observation, induction, rigorous principles of falsification, and a scorn for speculative hypotheses. These theologians sought to use science in order to defend the veracity of the Bible and to establish a Christian worldview. Thus did they regard both nature and Scripture as great storehouses of unvarnished empirical facts. Any fair-minded observer, employing the disinterested powers of reason, could ascertain these facts, and then assemble them into a coherent order that proved the truth of the Christian religion.
Historical critics of Scripture soon began to dispute the factuality of many biblical events, even as scientists began to make totalizing antireligious claims about the naturalist and materialist character of the universe. Noll laments the resulting wars of science and religion, especially as they have been fought by proof-texting creationists on the right and by arrogant naturalists on the left. He names Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould as the chief offenders among the latter sort. By contrast, Noll praises the historical efforts of Ronald Numbers and David Livingstone, as well as the scientific work of Michael Behe and William Dembski, for challenging the standard secular accounts of evolution. Noll hails postmodernist thinkers of whatever stripe who acknowledge the context-dependent character of both science and religion: They have succeeded in showing as clearly as humanly possible that no capital-S science and no capital-R religion exist beyond the bounds of space and time or the boundaries of personal and communal existence.
Noll strikes a similarly mediating stance in his assessment of Billy Graham. Until recently, Graham was the sole evangelical to gain large public attention. Noll lauds him for preaching nothing other than the central conversionist doctrine of redemption through the cross and resurrection of Christ alone. Not only has Graham avoided the sexual and monetary scandals that have often brought shame upon the evangelical cause; he also has shrewdly traded angularity for access. By condemning generic rather than specific sin, Graham has been able to address men and women of every kind and condition with the glad tidings of the gospel. Thus did Graham become, in Nolls estimate, one of the most powerful forces for Christian ecumenicity ever seen.
It is not surprising that, in his constructive chapters, Noll urges evangelicals to adopt a mediating political theology that lapses into neither a world-denying pessimism nor a redemption-denying immanentism. Nolls own theological realism has a decidedly Niebuhrian cast. Not within this world can Christian ideals ever be fully realized, so inveterately ingrained is the human bent toward sinfulness. It behooves evangelicals neither to demonize their political enemies nor to divinize their own political pronouncements. The deeply paradoxical double-sidedness of nearly every Christian doctrine indicates, for Noll, that all political judgments must be at once local and universal and unavoidably complex. He therefore praises the mediating spirit of Canadian evangelicals for leavening their culture with the yeast of Christianity: Where in Canada evangelical connections with politics have often moderated extremes, in the United States they have more regularly exacerbated extremes.
Though Mark Nolls own moderation has won him an honored place in the pluralist public square, his inclusion there risks a scandal of its own”the scandal, namely, of muting the gospels offensiveness, its necessary disjunction with all cultures and nations. It is a fair question, I believe, to ask whether evangelicals have made a deadly error in adapting Christian faith to the basic American assumption that to be free is to be a sovereign individual unencumbered by any aims or attachments that we have not elected for ourselves, nor by obligations to any communities that we have not autonomously chosen to join.
These voluntarist notions often cause evangelicals to violate the radically obediential and communal character of Christian faith. Thus did Dietrich Bonhoeffer complain in the fateful year of 1939 that, despite their admirable multiplicity of Christian insights and communities, American Protestant churches suffered from a lack of Reformation in the upper case. He feared that the churches acceptance of the private sphere allotted to them by the state had robbed them of their power to give public embodiment to the often offensive truth of the gospel. Perhaps if Bonhoeffer were living today, he would add the adjective evangelical to his stark warning that denominations are not Confessing Churches.
To be a confessing church is to be drastically unadaptive about its allegiance to the God of Israel and Jesus Christ. As the Barmen Declaration makes clear, it is to reject all other events and powers, figures and truths, as Gods revelation. Thus do we still need from Noll a sharp critique of such sub-Reformation adaptations as Billy Grahams three baptisms, his virtual adulation of Ronald Reagan, his immunity to real religious doubt, and especially his decisionist and non-sacramental brand of revivalism. It would have also been good to hear that, even if the advocates of Design Theology eventually prove that nature operates not by an unsponsored and undirected evolutionary process but by an intelligent Shaper, their discovery would still constitute a far-off echo of the scandalously self-identifying and kingdom-creating God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ.
Noll praises evangelicals such as Charles Colson, J. I. Packer, and George Carey for seeking doctrinal solidarity with Roman Catholics. Yet there is much that evangelicals have also to learn from the patristic tradition. Here the recent books of evangelicals Robert Webber and Daniel Williams”on our need to recover the Churchs witness during the first five centuries”serve as important supplements to Nolls work. I believe that evangelicals must also begin asking hard questions about authoritative ecclesial offices and social teachings. The present Popes encyclicals, for example, have served”like nothing possessing similar authority within the evangelical world”to help Catholics resist the demands of our consumerist culture of convenience as well as the omnicompetent nation-state that undergirds it.
Surely the paradox articulated many years ago by Rabbi Manfred Vogel applies equally well to evangelicals: While America has been good for Jews, said Vogel, it has been bad for Judaism. Liberal democracy has offered evangelical Christians, together with Jews and many others, an unprecedented economic, educational, and political freedom, and for this gift we bow in great gratitude. But we have also baptized its church-subverting vices, especially its individualist and voluntarist notions of Christian existence. Hence our clamant need to answer the scandalous and anti-adaptive call to upper-case Reformation. It remains Gods summons not to evangelical Protestants alone but, as Bonhoeffer said, to the entire Body of Christ.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.
]]>Protestants and Pictures: Religion, Visual Culture, and the Age of American Mass Productionhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2000/11/protestants-and-pictures-religion-visual-culture-and-the-age-of-american-mass-production
Wed, 01 Nov 2000 00:00:00 -0500 In accord with much of Scripture itself, the churches of the Reformation have emphasized the ear over the eye:
fides ex auditu
. The conviction that faith comes less by seeing than by hearing (Romans 10:17) undergirded the Protestant renewal of the Church through the preached and sung Word. Luther famously urged his people to stick your eyes in your ears when listening to sermons, so that the
might strike their consciences as visual images could not. The God who has fashioned His own image in Jesus Christ is a jealous God, Calvin insisted, who shall have no other images before Him. Thus the Protestant preeminence in music and literature”in Bach and Milton and Herbert, in Donne and Blake, in the great Victorian poets and novelists, in T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, perhaps even in Charles Ives and John Updike”finds no concomitant greatness in painting and sculpture, at least within the Anglophone world.
David Morgans excellent book does not claim any aesthetic eminence for the visual art produced by American Protestants. But he does demonstrate”in mountainous de tail, with abundant illustration, and by way of rigorous scholarly re search”that American Protestants were once driven by a powerful visual piety. As a historian who emphasizes material things no less than ideas and beliefs, Morgan seeks to show that our lives are formed chiefly not by the great monuments of art and culture but by prosaic objects and ordinary commodities. Mass“produced images, he convincingly argues, have been among the most powerful influences on American Protestant life.
By the early part of the nineteenth century, the ready availability of printed material had given rise to our first mass culture. It was made possible, Morgan shows, by a convergence of several forces: national aspiration, mass migration, and an economy based more on consumption than production. It was also prompted by varied new means of communication: mail order, a reliable postal system, uniform currency, widespread literacy, and dependable transportation via an ever“expanding infrastructure of roads, railroads, canals, and steam“powered vessels. The standard way of reading this revolution in mass culture is to see it as having an inexorably secularizing effect. Morgan argues, quite to the contrary, that Protestant evangelicals so decisively shaped the new print culture that they were able to set their stamp on the entire national ethos.
The chief forces driving this cultural and religious revolution were the illustrated texts produced by the American Tract Society (ATS) and the American Sunday School Union. The ATS was organized in 1825 on the premise that the press is the grand medium of communication in all parts of the missionary world. Against the complaint that the Word should be heard more than read, the ATS replied that the oral medium limits the spread of the gospel to mere local cultures while the miracle of the printing press enables the evangelizing of entire cultures. The pen is an artificial tongue, the ATS declared, but when its products are set into print, they have permanent effect, unlike the vanishing voice. The tract, in turn, could sharpen and simplify the gospel as the lengthy and often ponderous Bible could not.
Morgan is right to mark the founding of the ATS as a decisive moment in American religious history. It meant that the Protestant churches came to share the new national urgency about education and literacy. They believed that a reading citizenry is at once the most readily evangelized and also the most likely to uphold republican ideals. Just as print advertisements had proved immensely effective in commercial life, so could Christian tracts sell this joint republican“Christian message. (Even though revivals were not centered upon the printed and illustrated Word, they partook of this same commodifying ethos, as the saving decision for Christ became analogous to the consumers choice.)
Yet evangelism was no longer limited to garnering souls for heaven. The mission of the Church was also to be realized on earth. Far from being alien to the social gospel, evangelical tracts promoted moral re form, philanthropic giving, benevolent agencies, and especially the mother“tended home. The aim of this first mass propagation of the gospel was to make the postmillennial kingdom dawn first on these democratic shores and illumine the entire world. As the one nation that combined perfect religious and political liberty, the United States would serve as the flagship of western Protestant civilization.
This conflation of national and religious aims would have lasting consequences. At first the Protestant tract movement seemed radical in its ethical rigor. Its early advocates sought, for example, to end both slavery and war. But these drastic demands were soon subordinated to the more convenient and easily realized aims of the young Protestant republic. Native Americans were depicted not as noble savages but as barbarians who blighted our Christian civilization. Negro slaves were limned as happy Christian simpletons whose masters were guilty not so much because they sinfully shackled their fellow creatures but because their political demands threatened national unity. Roman Catholics were shown as drunken louts and superstitious heathens who needed amalgamating as well as converting. The impoverished working classes were displayed as intemperate and wayward souls whose improvidence proved a burden to taxpayers. The ideal American Protestant culture was envisioned, by contrast, as a tranquil rural affair presided over by mothers who instilled in their children the Christian virtues of thrift and honesty and abstinence from worldly vices.
During the latter half of the century, Morgan argues, American visual piety underwent a seismic if gradual shift. From having had primarily a didactic purpose”to illustrate the truth of Gods biblical Word”Protestant pictorial efforts sought increasingly to prompt personal piety, especially among children. If children could be reached for the gospel, so could their parents. Children, in turn, could best be influenced through sentimental images of pity and comfort on the one hand, fear and shame on the other. Hence the birth of the chalk talk, where pastors and others sought to overcome the limits of the catechism by sketching biblical stories on blackboards. Entertainment and amusement thus became essential tools in the marketing of evangelical faith, as American commerce and American Protestantism were ever more fully entwined.
For a nation and a religion in creasingly at ease with each other, there seemed but little need for the venerable Puritan and the more recent revivalist demand for radical conversion and conscious submission to the will of God. These extravagant practices among old“style evangelicals gradually gave way to a new“style liberalism built on the idea of Christian nurture. Horace Bushnell, that ideas most famous advocate, held that the organic development of character can best be assured through wholesome images and unconscious influences rather than doctrinal inculcation. The most wholesome of all images is surely that of historys most influential figure, Jesus himself. It is the grandeur of his character, wrote Bushnell, which constitutes the chief power of his ministry, not his miracles or teachings apart from his character.
Devotional images of a haloed and idealized Jesus, especially his face, thus came into immense vogue. Werner Sallmans
Head of Christ
and Heinrich Hofmanns
Christ in Gethsemane
were but the most popular among many hundreds of such sentimental images of the Savior. There also arose a concomitant interest in Jesus childhood. Just as the boy“Christ underwent his own development of faith, so did the new graded and illustrated Sunday School lessons seek to insure full spiritual consciousness at the end of adolescence.
Morgan concludes his magisterial survey of nineteenth and early twentieth century American visual piety by noting that the triumph of the suggestive image over illustrated text constitutes a decidedly modern and post“Enlightenment turn. It moves from the rational to the affectional, from clearly conveyed knowledge to nonrationally evoked feelings. The outcome was decisive. Whereas the didactic images of the early nineteenth century sought to create a culture of character that endorsed moderation, self“re straint, even self“denial, the devotional images that emerged in the latter half of the century helped produce a culture of personality. This new kind of visual piety avoided effeminate notions of a suffering and humiliated Christ in favor of a strong Personality who exuded energy and self“fulfillment, strength and self“expression, assertive masculinity and self“possession.
David Morgan resists the temptation to present his history as a tract for our times. He refuses to make easy judgmental links between past and present, as he might well have done. Morgan could have shown, for example, that the sleazy evangelical slogans and the trite praise songs of our own time have their origin in the visual piety of our Protestant forebears. It is indeed tempting to view the artistic and religious movement that Morgan charts as a huge mistake. Yet as Richard John Neuhaus once warned, most of us would not be Christians at all were it not for the popular piety of Christendom. It is also true, as Mark A. Noll has observed, that a new American nation could hardly have been built without the symbiosis of its Protestant religion and its republican politics.
Yet it is still necessary to ask why Catholicism has managed to remain a popular religion while engendering visual art that makes the Faith rigorous rather than flaccid (though Catholics, to be sure, have produced their own full share of religious kitsch). The answer does not lie merely in Protestant biblicism and iconoclasm. Might it be that our Protestant churches failed to incarnate a communal life of belief and worship sufficiently arresting to invigorate the artistic imagination? Dietrich Bonhoeffer made an argument along these lines after his first American tour in 1930“31. Bonhoeffer complained that this nations Christianity is based upon an unfree kind of freedom, a Protestantism without Reformation. American Christians, who once fled persecution, have created here a comfortable Protestant Establishment piety that is unfortunately susceptible to complacency and sentimentality. In seeking to tend to the business of the nation, Bonhoeffer explained, American Protestantism has largely surrendered its radical Christological critique both of itself and the nation. David Morgans illuminating book bears out Bonhoeffers foreboding contention in deeply instructive ways.
Ralph C. Wood is University Professor at Baylor University.
]]>In Defense of Disbeliefhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/1998/10/002-in-defense-of-disbelief
Thu, 01 Oct 1998 00:00:00 -0400A
healthy dose of Christian disbelief or “holy skepticism” would serve as a much-needed antidote to the soft-core spirituality that saps much of contemporary Christianity, especially in its evangelical expression. An anti-doctrinal sentimentality often rules the worship and the art of our churches, where self-serving emotions are exalted over true mystery. The church of our time needs a theology that repudiates all saccharine substitutes for the hard thinking that Christian faith requires.