I recently caused a small stir on Facebook by saying this:
“One of the greatest aesthetic and arististic gifts the world ever received was the casting down of images in the Protestant Reformation.”
I thought it might be good for me to explain what was behind that comment, at least a little bit.
Yesterday, our family gathered after worship to grill burgers and, as is our wont, the conversation lofted above the green grass, like so much smoke from the burgers. We were discussing artistic ability, evangelicals, and the movies. My comment, and the reasons for it, were part of the discussion.
There are all kinds of critical things that can be said about this topic, many of them accurate, and there are also some common conclusions that can be drawn from these facts, many of them inaccurate. One of the inaccurate ones (as in, wildly inaccurate) is that evangelicals make bad movies because they are not as “visual” as other branches of Christendom, and they are not as visual because the Protestant reformers stripped our churches free of icons and images, lo, these many centuries ago, and we have never quite been able to get our sensate groove back.
Fireproof and Courageous were heavy-handed in the message they sought to convey, but the only reason people noticed it and squawked is that the message was true, and contrary to the prevailing propaganda. Those movies could have been every bit as heavy-handed without exciting comment had the message been about climate change, treating a gay teen-aged boy with dignity and respect, or some down-n-out protagonist discovering the critical importance of “believing in himself.” You only notice the propaganda that sticks out, and it sticks out by running contrary to the standard-issue propaganda. If it runs contrary to the prevailing standards for propaganda, then the aesthetic values have to be jaw-dropping good. If it reinforces the current line, then it just blends in, like camo-gear in the bushes from fifty yards away, and has to be jaw-dropping bad to get someone to notice.
So Ovid did not utter the caution that it is art to conceal art because the evangelicals of his day were producing too much cinematic schlock. He did it because this is a standard human mistake. Whenever you have anybody undertaking an artistic endeavor, you will have bunch of them doing this. Virgil produced a masterpiece elevating the caesars of Rome, and John the Revelator gave us a masterpiece that put them back in their place. If Virgil had an untalented cousin who praised the caesars in all kinds of embarrassing ways, it would have been much harder to see than the work of an untalented cousin of John.
My point is that art extends along a spectrum, from good to bad, passing through the mediocre, and whenever you have enough people doing it to make yourself a statistically significant bell curve, you will get that bell curve. When the trailing end of the bell curve is cited as “representative” of the whole, and the vanguard of the curve is noticed, if noticed at all, as an “exception,” then the person talking is either a foe or an insecure friend. Think about it. October Baby was roughly in the same league with We Bought a Zoo, and one of my daughters was pretty sure it wasn’t evangelicals who made Hot Tub Time Machine.
So then, let’s bring this down to the supposed visual deficiencies of Protestant civilization. This is what was behind my Facebook comment. I have no problem with evangelicals receiving criticism for producing schlock. That is what criticism (rightly conceived) is for. What I cannot abide is schlock criticism — memes that make no sense getting endlessly repeated as though they were some kind of wisdom. One of those memes is that evangelicals are unique in their ability to produce this stuff. Anybody who says this cannot have been in a video rental store recently. Evangelicals make bad movies because making good movies is hard, which turns out to be the same reason why people generally make bad movies. Evangelicals make bad movies for the same reason evangelicals have ten toes — they are people and people tend to generate lots of crapola.
If we want to compare aesthetic contributions, then let us compare the best to the best, or the worst to the worst. Let us not — unless we want to reveal that we have a mongrel dog in the fight — compare the best of one to the worst of the other.
And this should be done carefully. When we are talking about the contributions of Christian civilization, I don’t mind (at all) Roman Catholics taking pride in Bach, and they shouldn’t mind it that I can glory in Dante. But when we come to the crossroads, and we compare Protestant civilization and artistry with Catholic, there are certain things that the facts prevent us from saying. It could be a useful talking point to say that the stripping of the images from the churches constituted an opening salvo in a war on beauty, and was sort of an aesthetic fall from Eden, a point that is just as false as it is convenient.
Keep in mind that I am comparing the general ethos of one form of civilization to another — I am not talking about whether a particular artist went to Heaven when he died. In this sense, civilizations can even take credit for their heretics and apostates. And, in a slightly different way, we can take some mutual pride in men who passed each other crossing the Tiber, men like Chesterton or Donne.
Also remember that Francis Schaeffer used to talk about the “mannishness of man.” Even in the grip of a really bad idea, it is hard to keep the image of God from manifesting itself. Take the Shakers and their radical simplicity. That was some bad whiskey, as far as civilization-building is concerned, but we still got some cool furniture out of it.
So then, be done with the idea that Protestantism “has no artistic soul.” Remember my earlier point about Bach and Dante. I understand that we have to factor in Newton’s comment about standing on the shoulders of giants — the magisterial Reformation does not show contempt for the great things accomplished down through church history prior to the Reformation. We know that what came after was built on what went before. But, I would want to argue (alongside Phillip Schaff) that the greatest accomplishment of the Roman Catholic church was Protestantism, and I would want to include the arts in this.
I believe that the elimination of that idolatry in the churches was a great liberation for the people of God, and when the people are set free, like a loosed deer, they make and say beautiful things. “Naphtali is a deer let loose; He uses beautiful words” (Gen. 49:21).
And in the aftermath of that liberation, we do not see aesthetic contributions of the evangelical Reformation going all to blazes. Just the reverse. Protestantism gave us Bach, Shakespeare, Donne, Herbert, Rembrandt, Cranach, Durer, Holbein, Milton, Spenser, Defoe, Wren, Bunyan, and I could keep going with a very long list that ends with C.S. Lewis. Now I am more than ready to acknowledge that our civilizational high water mark was in part possible because of prep work by earlier Christians before those images came down. But in addition, I want to argue that a lot of it happened because the images came down. Ordinary life was exalted (in much the same ways that the Protestant doctrine of vocation glorified ordinary work), and beauty began to flow over the threshold of Ezekiel’s temple, toward its appointed task of inundating the world of the mundane. Glory came to the ordinary, and it was brought there by Protestant missionaries.
The goal was not to destroy holiness, but to get it out of the monasteries. The goal was not to destroy beauty, but to get it out of places where it was being falsely worshiped, and move it to places where it could be innocently enjoyed. Zwingli did take the organ out of the church, that’s true enough, but it should also be remembered that he took it to his house.
So what I am not willing to admit, even if there has been a rash of preachy movies lately, is that this high water mark was actually a low water mark.
My favorite Catholic writer is, of course, Chesterton. He once said, in another context, that a courageous man ought to be willing to attack any error, however ancient it is. He also added, however, that there are some errors too old to patronize. The same principle applies here. There are some civilizations that are far too aesthetically accomplished to be patted on the head and told that they have the soul of a badly educated Philistine. And if the critics go on to point out that the mistake we made was our cleansing of the sanctuaries, back before our fathers in the faith brought so many beautiful things into the world, then I will begin to suspect the creation of a brand new fallacy — post hoc ergo non propter hoc.