Calvinism and Art

April 18, 2016

Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

“Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality.”

— Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism

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Kuyper’s defense of Calvinism in relation to art is rather bold. I strongly disagree with him. Nonetheless, it is stimulating.

Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is something of a classic in Reformed literature. Delivered as the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in October of 1898, they were published the following year jointly by Höveker & Wormser in Amsterdam, T&T Clark in Edinburgh, and Fleming H. Revell in New York. I will be following the pagination of that edition, freely available.

Kuyper's Calvinism

The fifth lecture is dedicated to art. As with each lecture, Kuyper is committed to showing how Calvinism is superior to all other belief systems, whether that of Rome on the one hand or Liberalism, both Protestant and secular, on the other hand. As Kuyper sees it, Rome’s sacerdotalism replaces God with the Church, and Liberalism’s pantheism replaces God with nature and man’s spirit. Calvinism is, you guessed it, the only consistent system that allows God to be God. The lectures are highly rhetorical.

Calvinism did not develop an art style of its own, and that is a good thing according to Kuyper. Instead, Calvinism liberated art to follow its own principles. That is the gist of Kuyper’s argument. I am not convinced that he succeeds, but it is a fairly sophisticated argument. I will do my best to present it, along with a generous amount of quotations.

Calvinism’s “Maturity”

His argument follows a historical analysis of civilization’s progress. In the lower stage of man’s development, art and religion were inextricably woven together. “Scarcely a single art-style can be mentioned which did not arise from the center of divine worship and which did not seek the realization of its ideals in the sumptuous structure for that worship” (195). This a noble thing, according to Kuyper. Nonetheless, “If, however, it can be shown that this alliance of religion and art represents a lower stage of religious, and in general of human development, then it is plain, that in this very want of a special architectural style, Calvinism finds an even higher recommendation” (195). That is what Kuyper aims to prove for the rest of the lecture.

What is most remarkable is that Kuyper locates the greatest artistic achievements, specifically architectural, in this “lower stage.” This includes the Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica, Cologne Cathedral, et al. I have to admit that it takes some guts to relegate these to a “lower stage”! All of these edifices represent a time when art was beholden to religion. For Kuyper, that is the primitive alliance from which Calvinism set us free. He weaves his discussion of artistic liberation with political liberation:

First then the aesthetic development of divine worship carried to those ideal heights of which the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Saint Sophia and Saint Peter are the stone-embroidered witnesses, is only possible at that lower stage, in which the same form of religion is imposed upon a whole nation, both by prince and priest. In that case every difference of spiritual expression fuses into one mode of symbolical worship, and this union of the masses, under the leadership of the magistrate and the clergy, furnishes the possibility of defraying the immense expense of such colossal structures, and of ornamenting and decorating them. In the case, however, of a progressive development of the nations, when individual character-traits split the unity of the masses, Religion also rises to that higher plain where it graduates from the symbolical into the clearly-conscious life, and thereby necessitates both the division of worship into many forms, and the emancipation of matured religion from all sacerdotal and political guardianship. (196)

More than Lutheranism, as Kuyper continues, it is Calvinism that fully freed us from this “sacerdotal and political guardianship.” It is striking to me how much weight Kuyper places upon this matter of “guardianship,” whether civil or ecclesiastic. It is integral to his conception of Calvinism’s greatest value — freedom — including in the realm of art. Perhaps Kuyper’s disciples will disagree with me that “freedom” is Calvinism’s greatest value, but it is on nearly every page of this volume! It is at the heart of his rhetorical strategy.

For Kuyper, we have moved from a primitive to a mature stage in human development. It is in the primitive stage that symbolic forms are necessary, not at the mature stage. As he summarizes his account of our emancipation:

As a result of this, [Calvinism] abandoned the symbolical form of worship, and refused, at the demand of art, to embody its religious spirit in monuments of splendor. (196-197)

The symbolic is superfluous for the mature believer. It is not necessary. This is even demonstrated in the Bible, where the symbolic worship in Israel is but “the ministry of shadows,” and, moreover, part of a “state-religion, which is one and the same for the entire people.” It is a religion “under sacerdotal leadership” (197). So, Israel represents a lower stage, as with the Church of Rome, insofar as both maintain a certain symbolic primitiveness and guardianship. Christ does away with all of this, bringing forth a free and mature people. His priesthood is spiritual and eternal. “The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical” (197).

Enter Hegel (Not Surprisingly)

Kuyper then appeals to Hegel and Von Hartmann. As non-Calvinists and philosophers, they are not partisans. Kuyper writes:

Hegel says that art, which, at a lower stage of development, imparts to a still sensual religion its highest expression, finally helps it by these very means to cast off the fetters of sensuality; for though it must be granted that at a lower level it is only the aesthetical worship that liberates the spirit, nevertheless, he concludes, “beautiful art is not its highest emancipation”, for that is only found in the realm of the invisible and spiritual. And Von Hartmann even more emphatically declares that: Originally Divine worship appeared inseparably united to art, because, at the lower stage, Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form. At that period, all the arts, he says, engage in the service of the cult, not merely music, painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the dance, mimicry and the drama. The more, on the other hand, Religion develops into spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art’s bandages, because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion. (198)

So you can see how Hegel and Von Hartmann are representing Kuyper’s perspective, assuming that Kuyper is presenting them accurately. Beautiful art is “not the highest emancipation.” This union of art and religion represents a lower stage where “Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form.” Kuyper quotes Von Hartmann as saying, “Religion, when fully matured, will rather entirely abstain from the stimulant by which aesthetic pseudo-emotion intoxicated it, in order to concentrate itself wholly and exclusively upon the quickening of these emotions which are purely religious” (198). Wow! We have the opposition of “aesthetic pseudo-emotion” and the “purely religious.” The frozen chosen must not get too excited and emotional!

Kuyper continues with his theme that our maturity requires a separation of religion and art. He is always clear: “And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own” (199). Once again, Kuyper reiterates that this is a more advanced stage, akin to Aaron versus Christ and “Romanism” versus Calvinism. Once again, Kuyper must be quoted in full:

Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality. (199)

Kuyper is very fond of describing Calvinism as “vigorous” and other manly attributes. Therefore, he laments that “the pulse-beat of the religious life in our times is so much fainter than it was in the days of our martyrs,” by which he means the Calvinist martyrs and the liberation of Holland from Spain. That was the golden age for which Kuyper longs. It was a time when Calvinism made men to be men! “The man who fears God, and whose faculties remain clear and unimpaired, does not on the brink of age return to the playthings of his infancy” (200). Thus, it is not surprising that he would appeal to Hegel. They have far more in common than Kuyper would probably like to admit. Both occupied similar terrain in defending a progressivist and emancipation-oriented history of man, conveniently locating their own ideas at the pinnacle of this progress.

Kuyper sees Calvinism as a supremely sober and manly religion. By contrast, Roman Catholics are weak-minded and their spirituality is effeminate, as evidenced by their dependence upon aesthetic symbols.

You can read the rest of the lecture on your own time. Kuyper further explains what he means by the liberation of art, which does not mean that he is advocating for a purely secular art. Rather, his understanding of “common grace” means that even non-religious or non-cultic art is still properly understood in its orientation toward God.

I am not convinced that Kuyper’s “common grace” is helpful, at least not in this lecture. The damage is already done. It is hard for me to imagine anyone, other than the most ardent Neo-Calvinist, who finds Kuyper’s presentation to be compelling. This is probably the most ingenious way to defend Calvinism vis-à-vis art, but it is almost comical. If Chartres and Hagia Sophia are examples of a primitive and lower stage in man’s development, then I will take the “lower stage.” Of course, Kuyper mentions Dutch painters of the 17th century (see p. 223). Rembrandt is great, but if that is the “liberation” that Calvinism offers and little else — forgive my incredulity. This is a stimulating lecture, but I am far from convinced.

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Image: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk

 

Barcelona Cathedral, August 2015 - photograph by Kevin Anthony Davis

Barcelona Cathedral

The Cathedral of Barcelona, known in Catalan as Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. Photograph is mine.

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What made the Church’s art distinctive in the West during the Middle Ages?

Joseph Ratzinger gives an answer in his The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press). It is not a long answer, covering only a few pages, but I think it is worth sharing. The following quotes and excerpts can be found on pp. 126-128.

The Narrative of the Cross

According to Ratzinger, the West distinguishes itself from the Eastern Church, and its shared patrimony with the East, in the art that we know as the Gothic. It is in the Gothic that “the central image becomes different.” How? The risen and victorious Lord, who brings harmony and rest, is “superseded by the image of the crucified Lord in the agony of his passion and death.” This is the distinctive narrative that dominates the Gothic, and moreover the focus on narrative and history is what is most distinctive. As Ratzinger continues:

The story is told of the historical events of the Passion, but the Resurrection is not made visible. The historical and narrative aspect of art comes to the fore. It has been said that the mysterial image has been replaced by the devotional image.

We will soon see what this means, namely the contrast between “mysterial” and “devotional.”

From Plato to Aristotle

With the help of Paul Evdokimov, Ratzinger explains one important factor that contributes to this change in the West. Evdokimov was a Russian-French Orthodox theologian and professor in Paris. According to Evdokimov, we must look at the shift from Platonism to Aristotelianism. Here is how Ratzinger summarizes it:

Platonism sees sensible things as shadows of the eternal archetypes. In the sensible we can and should know the archetypes and rise up through the former to the latter. Aristotelianism rejects the doctrine of Ideas. The thing, composed of matter and form, exists in its own right. Through abstraction I discern the species to which it belongs. …The relationship of the spiritual and the material has changed and with it man’s attitude to reality as it appears to him. For Plato, the category of the beautiful had been definitive. The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself.

This Platonist understanding is seen in the iconography of the East and the theology that supports it, though Ratzinger highlights the Church’s transformation of Platonism “by the light of Tabor” and ultimately by the Incarnate God — whereby “the material order as such has been given a new dignity and a new value.” But in the medieval West, this Christian Platonism “largely disappears,” according to Evdokimov by way of Ratzinger. That is probably putting it too strongly, but here is how Ratzinger explains it:

…now the art of painting strives first and foremost to depict events that have taken place. Salvation history is seen less as a sacrament than as a narrative unfolded in time. Thus the relationship to the liturgy also changes. It is seen as a kind of symbolic reproduction of the event of the Cross. Piety responds by turning chiefly to meditation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. Art finds its inspiration less in the liturgy than in popular piety, and popular piety is in turn nourished by the historical images in which it can contemplate the way to Christ, the way of Jesus himself and its continuation in the saints. …A devotion to the Cross of a more historicizing kind replaces orientation to the Oriens, to the risen Lord who has gone ahead of us.

Ratzinger then cautions us not to “exaggerate the differences” that have developed in the West. “True, the depiction of Christ dying in pain on the Cross is something new, but it still depicts him who bore our pains, by whose stripes we are healed.” There is still a mystery into which we must enter.

The Consolation of the Cross

The example of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, which Ratzinger uses to illustrate, is familiar to every student of Karl Barth. Ratzinger uses it to illustrate his point that the Gothic allowed for a deeper sense of our sharing in the mystery of Christ’s redemption:

Though Grünewald’s altarpiece takes the realism of the Passion to a radical extreme, the fact remains that it was an image of consolation. It enabled the plague victims cared for by the Antonians to recognize that God identified with them in their fate, to see that he had descended into their suffering and that their suffering lay hidden in his. There is a decisive turn to what is human, historical, in Christ, but it is animated by a sense that these human afflictions of his belong to the mystery. The images are consoling, because they make visible the overcoming of our anguish in the incarnate God’s sharing of our suffering, and so they bear within them the message of the Resurrection.

You can see how Ratzinger is bringing together the realism characteristic of the West and the mystery characteristic of the East. As he puts it, “The mystery is unfolded in an extremity of concreteness, and popular piety is enabled thereby to reach the heart of the liturgy in a new way” (emphasis mine). These images “come from prayer, from interior meditation on the way of Christ.” Indeed, the point of Western realism in its Gothic form is not to draw attention to the phenomenal reality alone, in a sort of reductive or positivist way. As Ratzinger explains, the images “do not show just the ‘surface of the skin’, the external sensible world; they, too, are intended to lead us through mere outward appearance and open our eyes to the heart of God.” He continues:

What we are suggesting here about the images of the Cross applies also to all the rest of the “narrative” art of the Gothic style. What power of inward devotion lies in the images of the Mother of God! They manifest the new humanity of the faith. Such images are an invitation to prayer, because they are permeated with prayer from within. They show us the true image of man as planned by the Creator and renewed by Christ.

There is a lot to ponder.

In this brief account of Gothic art, Ratzinger emphasizes the Cross, which was made an emphasis in the West by the Aristotelian turn toward history and narrative. I am sure that specialists can quibble with this account, but that’s why people don’t like specialists.

The striking thing for me is this emphasis on the Cross. If Ratzinger is correct, Gothic art is not “triumphalist” or expressing “a theology of glory” (vs. “a theology of the cross”) as some Protestant polemics would have it. There is grandeur to be sure, and vanity was probably of greater weight than humility for most of the bishops who were patrons of the artists and artisans. But the narrative and devotional aspect of a cruciform piety is striking indeed, and that is evident for anyone who has toured the great medieval works of France, Spain, England, etc., whether the stained glass or the paintings or the architecture.

Hamlet - Yale

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I have recently been enjoying the works of Shakespeare in a series from Yale University Press: “The Annotated Shakespeare.”

I have two volumes as of now: Hamlet and King Lear. I’ve actually had them for a year or two, but I finally managed to start reading them. I recently watched Justin Kurzel’s film adaptation of Macbeth on Amazon Prime, so that got me in a mood for Shakespeare.

Macbeth - Justin Kurzel

I have not read Macbeth since high school, so I cannot make any informed comparisons between the movie and the play, which I barely remember. I liked the movie. The acting is superb, and the production team crafted some mesmerizing aesthetics, as the critics agree. The screenplay was lacking in some respects. It seemed to me that the ambition and overall pathos of Macbeth was not developed nearly enough, whether before [spoiler alert!] his murder of King Duncan or afterwards in his subsequent devolution into lunacy.

The biggest complaint from viewers is the difficulty of hearing and following the dialogue, which is taken directly from Shakespeare and is entirely without any modernization — in addition to thick accents and frequently whispered voices. However, the problem is easily solved by turning on the closed captions. Seriously, the captions make the movie an enjoyable instead of a frustrating venture. Trust me.

Yale’s Annotated Shakespeare

As for the Yale series, let me commend it to you, because I think it is important. It is important because Shakespeare is one of our great cultural treasures, and yet most English-speakers today do not have the capacity to read Shakespeare. The problem is not in understanding and interpreting Shakespeare, though that is not without challenge. The problem is simply that we do not speak his English. The problem is in terms of vocabulary and grammar.

The enormous value of Yale’s annotated series is the abundance of footnotes on each page, “translating” and, in some cases, explaining the more archaic English — both individual words and expressions. From Hamlet, here is an example:

In act 1, scene 3, Laertes is warning his sister, Ophelia, about Hamlet’s romantic advances. He says:

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,

Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,

A violet in the youth of primy nature,

Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,

The perfume and suppliance of a minute. No more.

Most readers can get the gist, but the footnotes are helpful. “For” means “as for” — “trifling of his favor” means “dallying of his attention” — “Hold it a fashion and toy in blood” means “a pretense and fooling about of disposition/mood (modern usage: ‘of young hormones’)” — “a violet in the youth of primy nature” means “a flowering of a young man in his prime” — “Forward” means “precocious, ahead of its time” — “suppliance” means “diversion, pastime.”

As you read it with the footnotes, the meaning is clear, and the reader is not frustrated at not knowing what a particular word or expression means. As a result, Shakespeare is made far more accessible to the general reading public. The footnotes can be a bit excessive and, for many, unnecessary at times. But that’s a small complaint, and it will vary from person to person.

The annotation and introduction is by Burton Raffel (1928-2015), Endowed Chair in Arts and Humanities and professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In order to produce the series, he teamed-up with the legendary literary critic, Harold Bloom (Yale University), who writes an essay for each volume. There are 14 entries in the series, which you can get from Yale or from Amazon.

church

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Steven Wedgeworth has posted a rebuttal to Leithart’s thesis. As y’all know, I posted a defense earlier this week. Wedgeworth’s piece is a long rebuttal, including complaints about “churchly nostalgia” and a defense of Calvinist hip-hop! It is worth reading. We come at all of this from very different places, to put it mildly.

I will not address all of Wedgeworth’s criticisms, but I must address his account of the sacraments. And then I will briefly address his take on Newman’s high-church aesthetics, which is very off the mark.

This will allow me to discuss a topic that I have wanted to discuss again for quite some time: Thomas Aquinas’ view of the sacraments, namely the Eucharist.

Blame it on Trent?

Wedgeworth argues that Leithart has the doctrine of the sacraments all wrong, at least the Roman Catholic view. Here is Wedgeworth, worth quoting in full:

In Leithart’s words, a proper use of symbolism allows objects to “be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else.” This is all actually very interesting, and at the heart of Dr. Leithart’s larger career project, but it is not the way in which “sacraments” were debated at the time of the Reformation.

Assuming for a moment that Zwingli himself could not allow symbols to “to be both themselves and also… without ceasing to be what they are… something else,” it is abundantly clear that another religious party also had this very problem. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine cease being bread and wine when they become the body and blood of Christ. Thus Zwinglian poetics ought to be in close company with Roman Catholic poetics. Blame it on Marburg if you like, but don’t forget Trent.

This is far more than a cute tu quoque. When it comes to the Eucharist, the Tridentine position, which is still the definitive one for Rome, is that “a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood.” Indeed, the Council of Trent had a strong revulsion towards any assertion that both bread and body or wine and blood existed together at the same time:

“If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.”

This is a major problem for the sacramental poetics of Miss Flannery as Dr. Leithart has represented them. If the Eucharist really was the center of her existence, and if she really was a good Roman Catholic, then she ought not to have been able to write as she did. Perhaps she was a subconscious Lutheran. …

Is this true? Leithart argues that the sacraments operate simultaneously as themselves and as “something else.” For the Eucharist, this would mean that the signs used in the sacrament (bread and wine) are also Jesus himself in the Eucharist while remaining bread and wine. According to Wedgworth, this is not the Roman Catholic position. His argument is that the Council of Trent definitely stated that the elements of the bread and wine are no longer present but instead, at the time of the consecration, changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. As such, the sign is no longer the sign (in reality) but entirely substituted by the reality to which it ostensibly signifies.

That is a common enough account, but it is not correct, as I understand Trent and the official Roman position. As is well-known, the Tridentine position on the sacraments is heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Even though Trent avoids canonizing the substance/accident categories of Aquinas, it is impossible to understand Trent without understanding Aquinas. It is wholly permissible for a later generation to substitute these categories with other, perhaps better and more serviceable, categories, so long as Trent is properly understood and affirmed in the distinctions that it intends. That, at least, is the duty of the Catholic theologian.

“Substance”?

So, what is Trent actually saying? It all depends upon what Trent means by “substance.” It does not mean what we would mean. According to the standard Oxford Latin Dictionary of Lewis & Short, substantia means “that of which a thing consists, the being, essence, contents, material, substance.” For accidens, it is defined as “non-essential quality of any thing,” with a parenthetical note opposing the Latin substantia and the Greek οὐσία. According to Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin (Oxford, 1949), substantia means “a real existence; the thing itself,” referring to Tertullian, and substantialis means “substantial, real, essential,” also citing Tertullian. These definitions are, admittedly, not entirely helpful for clarifying matters. The reason is because they are abstract categories with, as you would expect, a broad and shifting referential range.

Most importantly, the “that of which a things consists” in terms of its “contents” or “material” or “substance” is different today from what it was in Aquinas’ day. We are far more likely to refer to the physical properties, chemical composition, and graphical terrain of any object as “essential” and therefore the “substance” of the object. That is not what Aquinas means, and it is not what Trent means. I first grappled with this topic by taking a very close, hard look at what Aquinas says, how he uses these categories, and the limits he places upon them. Luckily for myself, I have already dealt with this on the blog:

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part two

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part three

The moral of the story is that we must attend to the particular context in which these categories are used in order to understand what they mean. Yes, the substance is replaced by the substance of another (hence, “transubstantiation”), but what does Aquinas mean by “substance”? For Aquinas, substance is a non-local property, and this is a non-negotiable for dealing with this Thomist view of “the real presence” of Christ. As a local property, substance would acquire the properties of a local presence, which is spatially circumscribed. If that were the case, these properties would be essential to the “appearance,” which is (in Thomist language) the “accidents” and therefore not essential to the “substance.” I know that this is complicated for most people, but I try to explain it in the three-part series above on Thomas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation.

The point is rather simple, all things considered. The properties of bread and wine remain after consecration, insofar as they are physically and chemically and spatially defined — which is entirely how they are defined today as their “essential” properties. This is the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware of anyone, knowledgeable on the subject, who would disagree with me on that. I am, of course, very open to any challenges. Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985) defines transubstantiation as “only a transformation of substance, not of the incidental properties or accidents of the bread and wine. The appearance of bread and wine, therefore, remains” (p. 306). That is true, but we are prone to mistake “incidental” and “appearance” in ways that Aquinas and Trent never intended. The accidental properties that remain (the bread and wine) are not incidental in the sense of being capable of substitution by other properties! But that is exactly how we think of “incidental.” Likewise, the accidental properties are not mere “appearances” in the sense of a magical hallucination but are, in fact, the concrete properties that a scientist can verify and the Catholic can affirm as “really” present.

All of this is to say, the Roman Catholic position allows for the sort of “real” presence of the sign while allowing for the “real” presence of the signified, precisely in the way that Leithart argues.

John Henry Newman’s Aesthetic Motivations?

As a part of Wedgeworth’s criticism of “nostalgia,” he brings Newman and the 19th century into his discussion:

The move towards a “High Church” aesthetic began in the 19th century, with figures like Orestes Brownson and John Henry Newman, and it has continued throughout the 20th century with many celebrated examples. In nearly every case, these figures did not produce their literary or artistic works because of their newfound religious tradition, but instead found the new religious traditions because of the literary or artistic quests.

This is so incredibly wrong, if the second sentence is meant to apply to Newman. I don’t blame Wedgeworth, honestly, because he is simply placing Newman into a common narrative of 19th century theology and philosophy. As many of y’all know, I have spent a considerable amount of time with John Henry Newman. I have read most of his published works, and I wrote a master’s dissertation at Aberdeen on his most difficult work: the culminating masterpiece of his career, A Grammar of Assent, which has been unduly neglected in comparison to his more famous Essay on Development and the celebrated Apologia.

The best place to begin with Newman is actually his Oxford University sermons, while an Anglican, now published by the University of Notre Dame, which currently publishes most of his works. These are not typical sermons but more like lectures, and yet Newman was beloved by the students who flocked to see this quiet, shy, humble man in the pulpit. He had none of the charisma that we associate with a celebrated figure. There is a strong continuity from his Oxford sermons to the essay on development to the apologia and finally A Grammar of Assent, and you can clearly see it in his early work on the doctrine of justification.

The continuity is the priority that Newman places on the moral conscience. If we consider the Platonist transcendentals of truth/reason, goodness, and beauty, then we must say that Newman puts goodness and the conscience in the driver’s seat, with reason and beauty in a definitely subordinate position.

This is not altogether uncharacteristic of the 19th century, given the priority of moral or practical reasoning (usually associated with Kant) in matters theological, especially by the time of Ritschl. But aesthetics is also a defining feature of the 19th century (usually associated with Herder and others who reacted against 18th century rationalism and strict empiricism). Where does Newman stand? It is quite clear. Newman is deeply suspicious of the “aesthetes” who place beauty in the driver’s seat, including the more sophisticated and impressive accounts of a Coleridge or Blake. This is why it is wrong to characterize Newman as finding Rome because of an aesthetic quest. Far from it, even though that may have been the case with many of his peers. If aesthetics were in control, then Newman would have happily stayed in his beloved Oxford Anglicanism, instead of moving to the industrial Birmingham and founding an Oratory and inspiring others to do the same among the working class.

The most surprising thing of all, for anyone who has studied Newman, is how little aesthetics is part of his quest for religious truth. I believe that aesthetics is very much a part of his moral epistemology, but the law of God is the fundamental determination in his thought. This is even more clear in his collection of sermons after his conversion: Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations

Newman is such an anomaly for his time and far more so today.

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Image: source

Defending Leithart

February 1, 2016

Peter Leithart

“Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”

— Peter Leithart

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This past week, Peter Leithart published a two-part series at First Things on “Why Protestants Can’t Write” (see part one and part two). With a title like that, you are sure to draw attention and create a ruckus, and that is surely the point of the title. The original title, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.” That is probably the more accurate title, as we shall see.

Today, he posted a follow-up response, “Protestants, Writing, Sacraments.” At the end of the post, he linked to his review of Lori Branch’s Freedom & Propriety. I highly recommend reading both the follow-up and the review. They will clarify the sort of Protestant that Leithart is targeting.

I have engaged in these discussions for quite some time. I can predict the initial Protestant response with pinpoint precision. What about Milton? Or, in regard to visual arts, what about Rembrandt? There is a reason why these and a few other figures are always offered. Always. It is because they are exceptions — exceptions to the rule. But, the rule is the point, not the exceptions. Moreover, we must inquire why someone like Milton is able to write in a way that the evangelicals in Leithart’s crosshairs cannot.

What Sort of Writing?

We must first recognize what Leithart means by “write.” He is not talking about the craft of writing in general. Protestants are excellent at writing theology, especially doctrinal theology. In a previous post, “The Evangelical Aesthetic,” I wrote:

As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

In this scheme, Protestants are in fact good at writing, since it is a verbal medium. Yet, this is the medium that Leithart is engaging.

Leithart is very specific about what he means. He is saying, as I indicate above, that Catholic writers are imaginative in their narrative prose, namely fictional prose, in a way that Protestants are not. Leithart expresses this in terms of sacramental theology and not imagination per se, but I am fairly certain that the connection between the two is uncontroversial. The point is that Leithart is engaged with a particular form of writing, as well as a particular form of Protestant.

The Sacramental Writer

Let me put it briefly. The sacramental writer attends to the sign or symbol as really manifesting the divine — not merely indicating or pointing away from itself but, rather, itself operating in this capacity. Leithart explains this in the second part, by way of Flannery O’Connor. You can read it for yourself, and anyone who wants to criticize Leithart’s thesis must criticize it on this point.

Leithart believes that this is a “Zwinglian” way of understanding sacramental signs, and this is why he blames Marburg for our ills. It quickly becomes clear that Leithart is not attacking Protestantism as a whole — and he makes exceptions for “Protestants with prayer books” and “lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcendentalism,” as well as genuine exceptions like Marilynne Robinson. Typologies like this — here, “Zwinglian” — are always open for criticism in obvious ways, which is why fewer and fewer intellectuals are willing to do this sort of typological approach. That is a shame. It is why our thinking is so technical, careful, refined, and — boring.

So, Leithart is criticizing evangelicals for the most part. He is criticizing Protestants who are basically Zwinglian, which is to say, most Protestants in America and most of the global evangelical movement. Protestant charismatics are overwhelmingly Zwinglian, and that’s a large bulk of the global South. Charismatics have their favored ways of receiving the Spirit, and sacramental signs are rarely among these ways. To be clear, Leithart does not deal with the specific targets of his criticism, so I am conjecturing. It is also very likely that Leithart has large swaths of mainline Protestantism (and liberal Catholicism) in mind as well, to the extent that they inherit and perpetuate the same unimaginative and pseudo-sacramental approach to the Christian faith. Thus, he is attacking “modern Protestantism,” in both its conservative and liberal expressions. Nonetheless, it seems that conservative evangelicals are the dominant target.

More Reasons Why Protestants Can’t Write

Derek Rishmawy has posted a characteristically thoughtful response: “7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not Be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write.” This is a good post, but it is a peculiar post. It is meant to be a rejoinder of sorts to Leithart.

Derek criticizes Leithart’s “gleeful reductionism” as unhelpful, but Derek manages to supplement Leithart’s thesis with seven more reasons! You will need to read his post in order to understand what I mean. Here is part of my response in the comments:

I think this post supports and supplements Leithart’s thesis. For example, I am pretty sure that Leithart would interpret dispensational eschatology (Darby, Scofield) as an aggravated form of Zwinglian literalism and lack of sacramental imagination. And the same can be said for conversionism, with its reductionist view of the atonement and the gospel, and for cultural isolationism. It is worth noting that the original title of Leithart’s article, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” — which is a more accurate title because, as you note, his focus is not really on Protestants as a whole but “low church” evangelicals. And even where American evangelicalism has found cultural support, affluence, leisure (the basis of culture, according to Josef Pieper) in America, it has still not yielded anything significant of artistic quality. There’s a reason why all of the great Southern novelists were Catholic.

Sure, Leithart would need to do a lot more work to fully substantiate his thesis, but we must engage him at his strongest points. We must engage his conception of Christian writing as “a specific way of rendering the symbolic and real.”

I do not care if you disagree. I only care that you disagree on the real point of controversy and that you offer some credible alternative. From the Facebook responses that I’ve seen, this is sorely lacking. In fact, evangelicals have unwittingly demonstrated their own ignorance and even arrogance in some of these responses. Leithart is not pulling this from thin air. He is responding to real problems within Protestantism, as he has done for most of his career.

Derek complains that “this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the ‘Suicide Death-Cult’ tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth.” I can sympathize with that concern — a lot. But sometimes evangelicals need to self-flagellate, and this is one area (among other) in need of critical self-evaluation and humility.

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Image: Peter Leithart (source)

The Best Music Videos of 2015

December 23, 2015

Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw

I did this last year, for the first time.

I enjoy it, so that is good enough reason to do it again. Here are my favorite music videos of the year. There is a mix of mainstream artists (Eric Church, Carrie Underwood, Tim McGraw) and alternative artists (Turnpike Troubadours, Lindi Ortega, Whitey Morgan, Sam Outlaw).

There are ten videos below. I did not include Chris Stapleton’s CMA performance because I already blogged about it and provided the videos there. This was the year of Chris Stapleton and nobody saw it coming. For that matter, nobody would have predicted that a traditional country album would be the #1 album in the land — with zero radio support.

Enjoy the goodness that awaits…

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“Ghost Town,” Sam Outlaw

With his debut album, Angeleno, Sam Outlaw has single-handedly marked the revival of the Southern California country scene, where Merle Haggard and Buck Owens originate and the Academy of Country Music was born. At least, we can only hope that this is something of a revival. Sam Outlaw (“Outlaw” is his mother’s maiden name) has a deep intuition about what makes country music special. I highly encourage you to watch the CBS This Morning feature on Sam Outlaw: Saturday Sessions.

Sam Outlaw

Sam Outlaw

Also, be sure to read the brilliant review of the album at Saving Country Music — “It’s the haze that creates a sepia hue over everything in the city; it’s the way the streets are so full of electricity and desperation all at the same time.”

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“Down Here,” Turnpike Troubadours

“A gritty, country-leaning roots rock band out of Oklahoma, the Turnpike Troubadours at their best synthesize the populist, political folk of Woody Guthrie and the outlaw-styled honky tonk of Waylon Jennings with doses of bluegrass, Cajun, and straight-out rock dynamics…the group celebrates and explores modern rural life with a full awareness of history, delicately avoiding being ornate revivalists,” Steve Leggett writes. That’s well said. Their fourth studio album debuted at #3 on the US Country Albums chart. Also, if you haven’t seen “Gin, Smoke, Lies,” do yourself a favor and click on the link.

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“Talladega,” Eric Church

Eric Church is a native of Granite Falls, North Carolina, in the heart of NASCAR country, so it is only inevitable that he would release a song like this. “Talladega” reached #1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay this year, and it is well-deserved. It was also nominated for CMA Single of the Year, though losing to Little Big Town.

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“Ashes,” Lindi Ortega

This Canadian native — and now Nashville resident — has some of the most captivating vocals in country music. Faded Gloryville is her fourth album with Last Gang Records, and I recommend all four albums. Once again, her voice is her calling card. Sultry. Yearning. The video was filmed in Savannah, Georgia, a perfect setting.

Lindi Ortega

Lindi Ortega

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“Waitin’ Round to Die,” Whitey Morgan

This is what happens when a Townes Van Zandt song is covered by one of the great honky tonk heroes of our generation: Whitey Morgan. I was privileged to see Whitey Morgan in concert this year, and I was stunned. His talent and the talent of his band (“the 78’s”) is not worthy of my words. Trust me. This is as good as it gets.

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“Smooth Sailin’,” Leon Bridges

This has been Leon Bridges’ breakout year, beginning with his first single, “Coming Home.” There are obvious comparisons to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, which is like comparing a breakout country artist to George Jones and Waylon Jennings. As such, the shoes he hopes to fill are intimidating to say the least. In my opinion, there is still a lot of room for growth. He needs to make his own distinct stamp upon the noble r&b tradition. But, he has all of the fundamentals right, and he’s only 26 years old! We will hear much more of Leon Bridges for a long time to come.

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“Smoke Break,” Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood is the reigning vocal virtuoso of country music. She obviously tends toward the pop side of country, but she has consistently (as of late) released singles with substance. “Smoke Break” is her latest offering, and it is a welcome relief on the radio. The song recalls the long-standing tradition of working class songs in country music.

Carrie Underwood

Carrie Underwood

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“Diamond Rings and Old Barstools,” Tim McGraw

Tim McGraw is already classified as a “legend.” With two decades under his belt, he is still releasing chart-topping singles. “Diamond Rings and Old Barstools” did not quite reach the top of the charts (at #3 on Country Airplay), but I consider it as one of his best singles in the entirety of his career. This is everything a straightforward country song should be, and Tim’s delivery is pitch perfect. This is a live performance, and it sounds almost identical to the studio version.

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“Overdue,” Jillian Jacqueline

Jillian Jacqueline is a fairly new songwriter in Nashville, and “Overdue” is her first single. Her debut album, an EP, is “coming soon” according to her website. This is a lovely, simple song — beautifully sung. I hope to hear and see more of Jillian in the future. Since she did not make an official video for “Overdue,” somebody else made this unofficial video with clips of her recording. It’s so well done that it might as well be designated as the official video.

Jillian Jacqueline

Jillian Jacqueline

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“Send It On Down,” Lee Ann Womack

Few things are more embarrassing than when an established artist chases the trends in order to reclaim past radio glory. Lee Ann Womack is not one of those artists. Instead, her music is a reflection of her age and maturity, as it should be. And as a result, I am confident that her place is secure in the history of country music, alongside Kitty Wells and Tammy Wynette.

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Honorable Mentions (the ladies):

Whitney Rose, “The Devil Borrowed My Boots”

Miranda Lambert, “Storms Never Last” (Grand Ole Opry)

Ashley Monroe, “On To Something Good”

Kacey Musgraves, “Biscuits” and “Are You Sure” (ft. Willie Nelson)

Lucy Angel, “Crazy Too”

Madelyn Victoria, “He Only Loves Me on the Dance Floor”

Honorable Mentions (the gents):

Love and Theft, “Whiskey on My Breath”

Jon Wolfe, “Smile on Mine”

William Michael Morgan, “I Met a Girl”

The Cadillac Three, “White Lightning”

Tyler Farr, “A Guy Walks Into a Bar”

Kip Moore, “Lipstick”

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Whitey Morgan and the 78's

Whitey Morgan and Brett Robinson, Guitar World

 

The Evangelical Aesthetic

September 30, 2015

Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons.

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As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

Protestants do preaching; Catholics do cathedrals. Both proclaim the gospel. It is only the small-minded Protestant who cannot admit the deficiency in the Protestant aesthetic; it is only the small-minded Catholic who cannot admit the deficiency in the Catholic aesthetic. But the purpose of this post is to highlight the Protestant — or evangelical Protestant — aesthetic in word and song. I only have one example. It is sufficient: “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

Vince Gill wrote the now-classic gospel song, “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” which he recorded with Patty Loveless. It’s a stunning song, beautiful in a crippling sort of way. Most songwriters would die happy if they had only written, “Go Rest High on That Mountain.” Even for Vince, one of the all-time greats, this is special.

Vince Gill and Patty Loveless performed the song at George Jones’ memorial service at the Opry, a couple years ago. If this is not heaven on earth, I don’t want to go to heaven:

Let the tears flow. George Jones is crying tears of joy in heaven.

A Protestant could have never written The End of the Affair, but a Catholic could have never written “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”

This is why Catholics and Protestants need each other.

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Image: Vince Gill and his father, Jay Stanley Gill, an administrative law judge and country music enthusiast who gave Vince his first guitar lessons. (source)

La Sagrada Familia

September 7, 2015

La Sagrada Familia, nativity facade

La Sagrada Familia, nativity facade

It is impossible to capture the experience, either in words or in images, of visiting La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. This strange marvel is incomparable to anything that has come before, although there is a strong Gothic component that has been reimagined.

The devout Catholic architect, Antoni Gaudí, began work on La Sagrada Familia in 1883 and eventually dedicated himself entirely to its construction. He also created the models by which his successors could complete the work, which is still ongoing.

La Sagrada Familia, west aisle

Depending upon what time of the day you visit, different windows filter the sun’s light and project their colors throughout the space. This is the late afternoon sun coming through the western windows. Gaudí, it is said, was obsessive about the windows and gauging how much light would enter the church.

La Sagrada Familia, light from west windows in late afternoon

Above, two friars walking through the nave, near the western windows.

La Sagrada Familia, nave near altar

Gaudí was inspired by nature, replicating its forms in all of his works. In this case, the column supports for La Sagrada Familia are inspired by trees in a forest. As you can see, the columns branch-out from the nodes upward. This allowed Gaudí to give the church plenty of support from the inside, instead of having to use buttresses on the outside, and the forest-like design gives an aesthetic wonder to the space, instead of merely several uniform bulky columns. This is considered one of Gaudí’s greatest technical achievements.

La Sagrada Familia, nativity portal

The above photograph is a detail of the Nativity facade, designed and built under Gaudí’s direction. The liveliness to the scene is typical of Gaudí. The Holy Family is in the middle, where the doorway arches come together. The three wise men are on the left, and shepherds are on the right. Angels playing musical instruments are above.

If you didn’t watch it when I first posted it, you should see this short documentary, “God’s Architect,” from CBS News:

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Images: All of the photographs are mine. You are free to download for private use. If you want to republish, my permission is required.

Our Lady of Reims and Paris

September 4, 2015

Reims Cathedral

Reims Cathedral

Previously, we looked at the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres.

Now, I present two more masterpieces of thirteenth century Gothic architecture: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Reims. The cathedrals of Chartres, Paris, and Reims — along with Amiens Cathedral and the Royal Basilica of Saint Denis — are all located in northern France, the birthplace of Gothic architecture.

At the end, I briefly recount my experience at a Sunday morning mass at Notre-Dame de Paris.

All photographs are mine.

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Reims Cathedral south ailse

Reims Cathedral, south aisle

What I loved about the aisle windows at Reims is the amount of light they allow. By contrast, Notre-Dame de Paris is incredibly dark, which has its own aesthetic value of course. As you walk into Reims, the warmth of the space is palpable, unique among the cathedrals we visited. The more common iconographic and multi-color windows are along the ambulatory (i.e., behind the altar), as well as the rose windows in the West, North, and South.

Reims Cathedral, ribbed vaults

Reims Cathedral, ribbed vaults

The above photograph allows you to see the brilliance of light that illumines each aisle, in contrast to the chancel and ambulatory.

Reims Cathedral, Clovis baptism

Reims Cathedral, commemoration of Clovis’ baptism

In the nave, you can see here a commemoration of Clovis’ baptism. ICI SAINT REMI BAPTISA CLOVIS ROI DES FRANCS, which translates as, “Here Saint Remi baptized Clovis, King of the Franks.” Clovis was baptized by Saint Remigius at Reims, which effectively converted all of the Frankish tribes to Christianity. The French (etymologically derived from “Franks” by way of the Latin, Francia, for the Frankish people) owe their Christian heritage to this moment, historically speaking.

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Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris

Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris

Oh yes, the most famous cathedral in the world: Notre-Dame de Paris! The western facade is breathtaking, and its location on the Île de la Cité in the middle of the river is perfect. There are so many fabulous angles from which you can view this cathedral.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, south rose window and aisle

South rose window and aisle

Since the interior of Notre-Dame de Paris is so dark, I drastically increased the ISO and aperture value on my camera in this photograph, allowing you to see with greater clarity. Trust me, it is far darker, even on a bright and sunny day.

Notre Dame Cathedral of Paris, chapel behind the chancel

Marian chapel behind the chancel

This is more representative of the darkness of the interior. This darkness does, however, draw attention to the brilliance of the stained glass, as you can see in this photograph of a Marian chapel along the ambulatory.

My brother and I attended the 10am “Gregorian mass” on Sunday morning, which was very well-attended. I loved it! During the Gregorian mass, several parts of the service are done in Latin, including the Creed and Our Father. I am terrible at pronouncing French quickly, but Latin is a breeze! And it was great to hear everyone speak this “universal” language. There was a young French woman, probably 16 or 17 years old, next to me, and she was a pro! I was super-impressed. She even kneeled on the concrete floor during the consecration, which is not something that many were willing to do, given the lack of kneelers.

Also, the organ is something to experience! The organist was playing Bach or perhaps theme music from Castlevania — either way, it was great!

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Images: All of the photographs are mine. You are free to download for private use. If you want to republish, my permission is required.

Chartres Cathedral

September 1, 2015

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral

I am back from Paris and Barcelona! There is so much that I could write about, including pedestrian observations — such as how every Parisian smokes cigarettes, like it’s the 1960’s.

Instead, I will write a few posts about specific places that I especially enjoyed. First is Chartres Cathedral, or The Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres, southwest of Paris. Chartres is easy to access by train, about 60 miles from the center of Paris.

All pictures are mine.

Chartres is a much-beloved and storied cathedral, with its present construction dating to the early 13th century, including most of the stained glass. It was a very popular pilgrimage site in the Middle Ages, and its popularity as a pilgrimage site is returning, at least according to one book that I read. The cathedral emerges over the rolling hills of golden wheat fields, with the beneficence of the Virgin Mother awaiting the faithful.

Madonna and Child chapel

Madonna and Child Chapel

Every church we visited has a side chapel dedicated to the Madonna and Child. The one at Chartres is especially lovely, and you can see (click the image to enlarge) some people praying. All of these cathedrals and basilicas are active churches. There is a wedding occurring in the central nave, as I am taking this picture.

Chartres Cathedral, woman carrying a candle

Along the North side aisle

And here is a woman carrying a candle as a votive offering. As you turn around, this is the view of the South rose window:

South Rose Window

South Rose Window

As you can see from this picture, the cathedral is undergoing an extensive interior renovation (or “restoration,” depending upon your point of view). The purported aim of the restoration, which began in 2009, is to restore the interior to its original appearance. The only possible way to do this is through plaster and paint. The white is the new; the brown is the old. Here is another picture that vividly displays the difference:

Rib vaults

Rib Vaults

That’s a significant difference. The deterioration of the interior has been rather severe, much more so than the other cathedrals we visited, such as Reims or Notre-Dame de Paris. But the renovation is rather severe too. It entirely erases the marks of time. As you could have guessed, this renovation has received some harsh criticism, such as from Martin Filler writing for NYR Daily. Filler makes some good and important points, but I will reserve judgment until the renovation/restoration is complete. It will certainly give an entirely new atmosphere to the cathedral, and perhaps it will serve to even better showcase the marvelous windows.

La Belle Verriere window

La Belle Verriere Window

This is one of the most renowned windows, La Belle Verriere, along the South aisle. The Virgin and Child are surrounded by angels in the adjacent panels. In the lower panels (bottom-up) are the temptations of Christ and then the wedding at Cana.

Nave and South Aisle

Nave and South Aisle

Here is another spectacular view, which also allows you to see the contrast between the renovated nave and unrenovated portions of the southern aisle.

Charles Péguy memorial

Charles Péguy memorial

Charles Péguy is an important literary figure who immortalized Chartres in his writings at the beginning of the 20th century. The plaque above says that Péguy walked here to entrust his children to the Virgin Mary and, following his example, students from France and abroad make pilgrimage here by the thousands.

That’s the end of my tour of Chartres Cathedral! As with any of these sites, the pictures only capture a small glimpse of its wonder and majesty.

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Images: All of the photographs are mine. You are free to download for private use. If you want to republish, my permission is required.