Friday, November 28, 2008

"Christianity and the Arts"

How you look at things depends on where you are. That's very true and widely applicable. A reasonably sensitive, intellectually inclined resident in small town evangelicaldom will feel that Christian churches are all too inclined to squelch creativity in young Christians. (One thing to ask is, how much of this is the Christian in the church and how much is the small town? As Lewis Atherton pointed out in the beautiful Main Street on the Middle Border, the cult of the immediately useful has been squelching the artistic sense of small town Midwesterners regardless of their church going habits for a very long time. One bitter ex-Christian I know complained about how growing up his family had only one book -- the Bible. After he described his mother and father's chaotic lives, however, I have a feeling that if they had been non-Christians, they would have had no books.) Another Christian growing up in New York or attending a university will take creative encouragement for granted and feel agitated by the anti-Christian attitudes of much modern art.

Another thing that's very true and widely applicable, is that big ideologies today always try to justify themselves by claiming that adherence to the ideology produces great art. Marxism did it, as seen in things like Gy├Ârgy Lukacs's works on aesthetics, which proclaimed that properly understanding class struggle was the key to great modern art. To which Leszek Kolakowski replied, that since not a single writer who was not a Marxist ever became a great writer just by becoming one, this theory is probably totally fantasy. But still people go on, thinking that if just adherents to my party produce great art, that my party will be shown to be true.

To this assertion, in its Christian form, John Henry Newman has some very wise comments. In the course of his book Idea of a University (excerpts here), he opens with what you might expect of a famous Catholic convert: a lament that English language literature is suffused with a spirit hostile to Catholicism, either from a Protestant (such as Milton's) or a skeptical (such as Gibbon's) point of view:

We may feel great repugnance to Milton or Gibbon as men; we may most seriously protest against the spirit which ever lives, and the tendency which ever operates, in every page of their writings; but there they are, an integral portion of English Literature; we cannot extinguish them; we cannot deny their power; we cannot write a new Milton or a new Gibbon; we cannot expurgate what needs to be exorcised. They are great English authors, each breathing hatred to the Catholic Church in his own way, each a proud and rebellious creature of God, each gifted with incomparable gifts.

Perhaps he getting ready to enunciate a clarion call for English Catholics to prove the truth of their church by creating truly Catholic literature. But no -- he then goes on to point out something quite important in the whole tired "Christianity and the Arts" discussion: that great art and literature is always problematic from the point of view of truth and morality:

These are but specimens of the general character of secular literature, whatever be the people to whom it belongs. One literature may be better than another, but bad will be the best, when weighed in the balance of truth and morality. It cannot be otherwise; human nature is in all ages and all countries the same; and its literature, therefore, will ever and everywhere be one and the same also. Man's work will savour of man; in his elements and powers excellent and admirable, but prone to disorder and excess, to error and to sin. Such too will be his literature; it will have the beauty and the fierceness, the sweetness and the rankness, of the natural man, and, with all its richness and greatness, will necessarily offend the senses of those who, in the Apostle's words, are really "exercised to discern between good and evil." "It is said of the holy Sturme," says an Oxford writer, "that, in passing a horde of unconverted Germans, as they were bathing and gambolling in the stream, he was so overpowered by the intolerable scent which arose from them that he nearly fainted away." National Literature is, in a parallel way, the untutored movements of the reason, imagination, passions, and affections of the natural man, the leapings and the friskings, the plungings and the snortings, the sportings and the buffoonings, the clumsy play and the aimless toil, of the noble, lawless savage of God's intellectual creation.

It is well that we should clearly apprehend a truth so simple and elementary as this, and not expect from the nature of man, or the literature of the world, what they never held out to us. Certainly, I did not know that the world was to be regarded as favourable to Christian faith or practice, or that it would be breaking any engagement with us, if it took a line divergent from our own. I have never fancied that we should have reasonable ground for surprise or complaint, though man's intellect puris naturalibus did prefer, of the two, liberty to truth, or though his heart cherished a leaning towards licence of thought and speech in comparison with restraint.

He then goes on to point out that actually compared to Italian or French literature, English literature is actually rather less directly subversive of Catholic truth and morals.

He does then go on, rather inconsistently, to recommend the creation of a Catholic school of literature, but this passage to me has always struck me as crucial to any discussion of art and religion.

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