In a provocative piece recently published in First Things ('Culture Before Politics'), Peter Blair criticizes so-called “Christian art,” be it in music, film, literature, or any other medium. Many of these noble attempts at producing creative works, he thinks, while their Christianity is sincere, have artistic “merits” hardly worthy of the name. Singling out the film Fireproof as a prime example of Christian schmaltz, Blair pleads for a kind of Christian art that commands respect as art and isn’t awarded points for good intentions or being “heartfelt.”
In fact, Blair doesn’t much like the idea of calling it “Christian art” in the first place. “If Christians stopped trying so hard to produce ‘Christian art,’” he argues, “and tried, instead, to produce good art, they would find that they have garnered a larger hearing.” For the most part, I think he’s right.
Blair thinks the subtle approach is best. “Many people,” he writes, giving one example,“who would otherwise be hostile to straightforward Christian arguments have been seduced by the beauty of Marilynne Robinson's novels.” However, I don’t much like the idea of “engaging the culture” by using art as a kind of commodity with a subliminal Christian message. We need a bigger picture here, a bolder project.
First things, first
The family, obviously, is the foundation of society. But, something our pluralistic age forgets is that the temple is the foundation of culture. I don’t mean the “idea of a temple.” I mean the church, the parish.
During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, the most extraordinary, most beautiful, and, indeed, the biggest buildings in the West were churches. This, of course, was not particular to Christianity; in the pre-Christian era temples in Greece and Rome as well as in Palestine and India held a similarly important position in their respective cultures. As in the pre-Christian era, during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance churches were the most extraordinary, most beautiful, and biggest buildings because they were the most important. They were what the culture valued, and rightly so: the culture itself was an outgrowth of the Church. And the culture valued them because they signified the culture’s relationship to God. But the Reformation changed all that.
With the Reformation came a deep suspicion of beauty and ceremony. The resurgence of the iconoclasm that had so viciously decimated the Christian East in the eighth and ninth centuries had an even more devastating impact on the West in the sixteenth and seventeenth. Images of Christ, the saints, and the Virgin were desecrated and destroyed throughout Europe. Altars were destroyed. Shrines were destroyed. Stained-glass windows were shattered. Monasteries were ruined; their libraries were ransacked and their precious contents often burned or set to scandalous employment in the privy. Sometimes these tragedies were enacted by angry mobs. More often, as they did so notoriously under Henry VIII, they occurred by royal decree.
Not only was beauty destroyed at the physical level, it was also destroyed at the metaphysical level. Saints’ feast days were removed from the calendar, pilgrimages were outlawed, and the folk customs that accompanied them were dismissed as superstition if not as ineffective forms of witchcraft. Ploughs were no longer blessed on the first Monday of Lent. The Sacred Host was no longer carried over the fields in procession to bless the crops. Bonfires no longer burned on St. John’s Day. In some places, even the celebration of Christmas was outlawed.
These customs of folk religion bore a significant purpose, though some theologians such as Erasmus and the Reformers who followed him despised them:
1) They witnessed to God’s participation in the seasons and in human life;
2) They affirmed that the year and human work are sacred. Following the Reformation, even in predominantly Catholic countries, the observation of saints’ days gradually lost their joy and accompanying celebration of the sacred, though they remain, almost like ghosts, on the Church calendar.
Similarly, over time art left the Church—or the Church left art. The Catholic Church, without question, has been the greatest patron of art throughout human history, but the Church has been rather indifferent to art for some time. Twentieth- and twenty-first century church architecture, for example, generally includes some of the ugliest buildings ever conceived. Dutch Modern meets Frank Lloyd Wright. At the same time, the interiors of many a modern Catholic church are stripped of images, stained glass, candles, and the atmosphere of the sacred. Even the liturgy itself—the locus of the sublime if ever there was one—has likewise been compromised in order to be thought more “relevant.”
Preaching in some quarters has, to a disturbing degree, devolved into a generic, never-ending infomercial for Jesus. And I won’t even start to discuss recent developments in church music, developments that should be enough to turn anyone agnostic. The early Protestant distrust of beauty and disdain of ceremony, it seems, have been internalized by the modern Catholic Church. The Diocese of Orange’s recent purchase of Rev. Robert Schuller’s “Crystal Cathedral” stands as clear evidence of the tacky and aesthetically uninspired interchangeability that is the worst kind of ecumenism. Too bad they can’t paint over it. I’m not a traditionalist and I am not, as are many, hostile to the evangelical mission of Vatican II; but I don’t see how the uglification of Catholic culture helps to spread the good news.
Meanwhile, Protestant churches, iconoclasts at their founding, have done the proverbial one-eighty. Whereas early Protestants accused the Catholic Mass of being nothing but theater and entertainment—all show and no substance—now it’s hard to find a Protestant church that doesn’t have a stage and a “praise band.” And it is primarily (though by no means exclusively) due to Protestant initiatives that the desire to “engage the culture” has manifested in co-opting and baptizing the secular culture’s art forms and idioms.
This is all backwards.
Getting things in order
The English word “culture” derives from the Latin cultus, which can mean “worship,” “devotion,” or “form of worship” among other things. That is, culture comes from cultus. Not the other way around. Co-opting the secular world’s forms is not the way forward, it is not the way, according to Dostoevsky’s famous phrase, by which “beauty will save the world.” A good model of enlisting beauty to save the world—imperfect, it is true, though the best I’ve found—comes from Waldorf education.
Founded and developed in the early twentieth century by philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who, in the aftermath of World War I, was dedicated to providing an education that would contribute to a “renewal of culture,” Waldorf schools are an exemplary model of what the cultus-culture dynamic could look like. First of all, beauty is foregrounded in Waldorf schools, and the arts, indeed, are an important part of Waldorf education. A sense for beauty and a feeling for the sacred are cultivated in Waldorf schools and permeate every facet of the curriculum and instruction.
The classrooms are beautifully and colorfully painted in the Lazure style. Invariably, on the wall of every Waldorf kindergarten will be found a color reproduction of a Renaissance Madonna, usually one of Raphael’s depictions of divine motherhood. Catholic school classrooms, on the other hand (of which I am a refugee), with the exception of a crucifix or the occasional statue of the Virgin, are just as ugly as their public school counterparts—upon which they are obviously modeled.
Waldorf schools, which are private and non-denominational, are often accused of being “too Christian.” They do not teach Christian doctrine of any kind, however, though the Christian year is an important part of the Waldorf school year. To be sure, Steiner’s Christology (which is not taught in Waldorf schools) is tinged by Gnosticism, but that is not my concern here. What is my concern is how the Waldorf movement beautifully reimagines the Christian year.
In a Waldorf school, the entire school body celebrates Michaelmas on September 29th, often with an imaginative dramatization of St. Michael’s battle with the dragon. At Martinmas (November 11th), young children make lanterns and undertake a lantern walk with their teachers and parents at night, processing through the neighborhood, singing songs, and letting their little lamps illuminate the darkness. Just before Christmas the teachers and members of the community perform in a medieval Nativity play as a gift for the students. Children plant baskets of wheatgrass just before Easter and sing the hymn “Now the Green Blade Riseth” in a school gathering as they celebrate the coming Resurrection in a spirit of absolute joy. And, even though school is not typically in session, Waldorf communities often join together on St. John’s Day for games, feasting, singing, and a bonfire. And this is by no means a complete picture of the role the Christian year plays in this education.
Catholic parishes and schools, of course, as well as their Protestant and Orthodox counterparts, also have festivals. But these are often more or less secular affairs (think “the Vegas tent”) with prayers awkwardly and perfunctorily stapled to them at one end or the other. What is missing from these events is beauty. And, with beauty gone, the feeling of being in the presence of the sacred proves more elusive. In short, in their joyful and reverent celebration of the Christian year so deeply informed by their own cultus¬-culture ethos, Waldorf communities—who very often aren’t even Christian, and certainly don’t constitute a church—put all of us—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox—to shame. In their rejection of the dominant, secular culture’s mores and standards, Waldorf communities turn instead to the Good, the True, and the Beautiful as a source for creative inspiration.
Christians don’t influence the culture, because culture is not an exterior “thing” upon which to work. Culture grows out of cultus. The culture we see around us has grown out of its cultus—in all of its uninspiring and insipid details. The culture we might create should rise from its own cultus, and could, if we reclaim the love for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty that gave us Czeslaw Milosz’s poetry, Johann Sebastian Bach, and the multifarious genius of Michelangelo. The Good, the True, and the Beautiful are not commodities, even for selling the gospel, but qualities that can lead us—and others—to an awareness of God.
It is time for our own cultural renewal.
Spero columnist Michael Martin is a professor of English at Marygrove College.