I admit to having experienced perverse enjoyment when first hearing the story Episcopal Bishop James Pike. The cautionary tale is featured in Joan Didion’s The White Album, and more recently, in two sobering chronicles of Protestant decline, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and Joseph Bottum’s An Anxious Age. Following an impressive revisionist binge, Pike finally cast off Christianity completely. In pursuit of some kind of Gnosis, he drove into the Jordanian desert in a Ford Cortina with two Cokes and his third wife, where he lost his way and died. Such a fitting illustration of the Protestant condition, I once thought: an ill-equipped Ford Cortina hurtling to desert doom.
The story was on my mind on a recent trip to Amsterdam, which might well have been my last day as a Protestant. I make my way past drug dens and prostitution booths to Amsterdam’s Beginhoff, a charming courtyard where the Beguine sisters once lived, worshipped, and cared for the sickuntil Calvinists took their property in 1578. The church itself, prominent in the center of the tulip-lined enclosure, was then given to Amsterdam’s English speaking Protestants, and it was here that the pilgrims reportedly worshipped before boarding the Mayflower to come to the New World. The historic church is locked. Why are Protestant churches so often locked? Across the way, however, is one of Amsterdam’s “hidden” Catholic churches, a concession to Catholic persistence built a century after Protestant takeover on the condition that it didn’t look like a church. This church isn’t locked. Behind the unassuming façade is a magnificent worship space where a lively, reverent Mass is just concluding. The church is relatively full. The wall paintings celebrate the 1345 Eucharistic miracle of Holy Stead, which once drew thousands to Amsterdam. It is among the ironies of church history that across from the place where the pilgrims worshipped are the remains of a once great pilgrimage center. Judging by the numbers, I have to concede that my surprise audit of religious life on a weekday in Amsterdam certainly doesn’t score any points for the Reformation.
But I’m giving the Protestants another chance. I exit the Beginhoff and stroll to Dam Square to visit the massive Nieuwe Kerk (new church), built in 1408 to accommodate the enormous Catholic population. It too went the way of the Reformation in 1578, and I aim to examine its current condition. Approaching the building, I see two massive banners promoting an exhibition by the modern painter Francis Bacon. Not all Protestant churches are locked, I learn. Some are open and charge admissionbecause they have become museums. After paying the mandatory fee, I see that one of Bacon’s black triptychs is enhancing the high altar. The particular one featured here was painted in 1971, the same year the last Beguine nun in Amsterdam died.
But Bacon is not mourning the Beguines. He is mourning his partner George Dyer who killed himself just a day before Bacon’s major retrospective in Paris. The left wing of the triptych shows the bloodied, contorted face of Dyer as a boxer (the dead visage Bacon might have seen?) In the middle panel Dyer’s sinewy, muscular arm opens a doorhis shadowy silhouette about to ascend a stairway to darkness (the uncertainty of afterlife?). But interpretive question marks won’t do for this exhibition. Lest we miss the message, the museum labels offer catechetical assistance. The triptych form employed by Bacon, we learn, “began as a dignified form for telling the story of Christ’s crucifixion and death as an awesome and exalted event that could offer comfort in times of suffering and death.” That is, until this secular Saint Francis arrived. “The imagery of the crucifixion held no deeper religious significance for Bacon, who was a non-believer,” continues the museum description. “He saw the cross as the ideal coat rack on which to hang his personal thoughts and strong feelings about raw reality.” And then an altar call of sorts: “In a traditional presentation of the crucifixion there is always the golden horizon of the salvation that comes after Christ’s suffering. That perspective is utterly lacking in Bacon’s writhing, grappling, copulating, bleeding masses of flesh inhabiting closed, windowless spaces.” In his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, John Henry Newman dismissed Protestantism with the assertion that “Germany and Geneva began with persecution and have ended in skepticism.” The Nieuwe Kerk might be the art historical equivalent of Newman’s dictum. Reformed Christian attempts to purify Amsterdam by purging its church interiors ended in “writhing, grappling, copulating, bleeding masses of flesh” taking the place of Christ.
But if I am honest with myself, I was again just entertaining a perverse delight. It is a peculiar spiritual condition, reallyone that precedes some (though certainly not all) conversions. Somehow I could deploy secret reservoirs of forbearing grace to the considerable shortcomings of the Catholic and Orthodox or Catholic churches (e.g. “Petrine authority persists despite Borgia debauchery”). Whereas the sins of Protestantism only betray a rot at the enterprise’s core.
I didn’t have the luxury of reveling in that conclusion that day, as I had to catch a plane. Within hours of my Amsterdam experience I was in the Lutheran Cathedral in Linköping, Sweden, and the contrast with the Nieuwe Kerk was extreme. An Orthodox icon, its candle flickering, inhabited each niche of this Protestant Cathedral. Flocks of schoolchildren were being catechized. A massive crucifix hovered over the main altar, containing, I was told by my companions, a relic. There is an extravagant altarpiece by the famous Northern Renaissance artist Maerten van Heemskerck; it survived the ravages of Iconoclasm on account of it being in Sweden. We stopped before an icon of Antony and Paul in the Coptic style, and my Swedish friends relay the story of Martin Lönnebo, a different bishop in the desert. While visiting St. Antony’s monastery in Egypt in 1991, he and three companions set off on a journey to the hermitage of St. Paul, tracing the steps of Antony and Paul’s ancient journey to meet one another in the desert. They lost their way to the point of desperation. They had even written their pastoral farewell letters, which they expected would be eventually discovered alongside their corpses. Then unexpectedly came relief. One of them spotted traces a trail. Following it, they made their way back to St. Antony’s monastery, and ultimately back to Sweden where they spearheaded the diocesan renewal which, the beauty of the Linköping Cathedral suggests, is still having its effect.
The Bible names the desert a place of destruction, and I am not surprised it consumed ex-Bishop James Pike. But the story of Bishop Lönnebo reminds me of a rather obvious feature of the Biblical narrative that I had forgottenit is also a place of renewal. This helps me make sense of the unexpected richness of the Anglican communities where I live in Wheaton, however fragile they might be. “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:19). Without disputing Newman’s brilliance, one can still wonder whether the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, with its airtight Aristotelian trajectories, can account for the element of surprise.
Matthew J. Milliner (@millinerd) teaches art history at Wheaton College.