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Poured Concrete for the Soul

Why are we now not surprised when architecture is ugly and inhuman? Nancy Pearcey offers answers to this and many other questions about our aggressively secular age.

By From the February 2011 issue

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Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning
By Nancy Pearcey
(B&H Publishing Group, 328 pages, $26.99)

The Third Church of Christ, Scientist, in the District of Columbia is one of the ugliest buildings I've ever seen. It's a hulking, windowless pile of poured concrete, constructed in 1971. Over time, church members came to detest it so intensely that they wanted to tear it down, but the District government wouldn’t let them. The church, against the will of its members, had been designated as a historic landmark -- an exemplar of the "brutalist" style of architecture.

Why are we now not surprised when architecture is ugly and inhuman? Why, for nearly a century, has our culture produced painting and sculpture that is meaningless and sterile? How did 20th-century academic music become so theory-ridden that it was impossible to listen to? Just before the First World War, the word "architecture" was defined authoritatively as "the art of building in such a way as to accord with principles determined, not merely by the ends the edifice is intended to serve, but by high considerations of beauty and harmony.…" In the arts as a whole, why have we descended from "high considerations of beauty and harmony" to a weary acquiescence in the degraded and absurd?

In Saving Leonardo, Nancy Pearcey illumines the answers to those questions and much more besides. Although a great portion of the book discusses the arts, in one sense that is not her real subject at all. Her subject is the intellectual underpinnings of Western society over the past 250 years, how those underpinnings have radically shifted, and how those shifts affect -- well, everything, including not just the arts, but culture, morals, and even our concepts of truth and reality. Art mirrors underlying beliefs, and is a harbinger of where those beliefs are taking us. In recent times, the news has not been good.

Pearcey’s analytical framework will be familiar to those who have read Total Truth, her powerfully insightful work on "worldviews" published in 2004. Formerly, Christianity was viewed as making truth claims about the world, and those claims were nearly universally accepted in Western culture. God exists; the world is his creation; and science is an investigation into his design using the senses and reason he has given us to discover truth. Our conduct should be governed by his moral laws, which are ascertainable, immutable, and true. Beauty is not merely subjective, but is an objective perfection toward which artists can aspire, and which their works can approach more or less nearly. In short, truth was considered to be unitary and the truths of Christianity were an integral part of it.

That has changed profoundly. As Pearcey shows, a secular worldview now reigns, at least among the classes that matter. The elites in "law, education, mass media, academia, and advertising," among others, act as society's gatekeepers, and are in a position to control the "official definitions of reality." And they have officially ruled out of bounds all public discourse based on Christian principles, primarily by means of what Pearcey refers to as the "fact/value split."

Adapted from Francis Schaeffer, under whom Pearcey studied in Switzerland, the fact/value analysis holds that modern secularism has artificially separated truth into two domains. Analogizing truth to a two-story house, the first floor is the realm of "facts," generally defined in an empiricist or materialist way. The truths of science are the paradigmatic facts that can gain admission to the first floor. Only in this realm, the secularists assert, do we find real truths about the world that are objective and verifiable, and can thus form the basis for education, government policy, and public discussion.

The second floor is the realm of "values," such as statements about aesthetics, morality, and God. These are considered by secularists to be expressions of personal preference only, which are subjective and unverifiable, and cannot form the basis for public discourse or actions. So the second floor is where religion goes. Like an eccentric uncle shut up in the attic, Christianity can be ignored so long as it doesn't try to come downstairs and annoy polite company.

Thus, materialist secularism becomes by definition the default worldview and the only legitimate worldview. As Pearcey notes, the fact/value split is the "main strategy used to marginalize and disempower Christians in the public arena." Indeed, "why bother to argue that Christianity is false when it's so much easier to take it out of the realm of true and false altogether?"

THE CONSEQUENCES OF FRACTURING TRUTH, delegitimizing Christianity, and substituting a secular worldview have been staggering. In Saving Leonardo, Pearcey first examines those effects on hot-button issues such as sexual morality, abortion, euthanasia, and embryonic research. As she shows, divisions on these issues are deeply influenced by whether one adheres to the secular view that human beings are merely biological machines, blindly evolved for no purpose, and guided by nothing but their own interests and preferences, or whether one embraces the Christian view that each of us is a divine creation, with a God-given purpose in life, and subject to immutable moral laws.

The central part of the book then traces the development of the two main streams of thought that have produced most of the modern and postmodern worldviews, in which secularism has now come to predominate. Enlightenment rationalism was the spring of the first stream, while the second was fed by the romantic reaction against rationalism.

Pearcey often turns to philosophers and thinkers for the explicit intellectual articulation of those two currents. But her major task is to track the continuing courses of rationalism and romanticism as they shaped artistic expression in the 19th and 20th centuries. In doing so, she lays bare the secular pre- suppositions that have increasingly come to underlie literature, the dramatic arts, the plastic arts, and music, with generally baneful effects.

That is an ambitious, synoptic undertaking, but Pearcey traces cause and effect deftly and clearly, without any sacrifice of nuance or accuracy. The breadth of learning that she brings to bear is formidable. How does materialism deeply inform the novels of Jack London and Theodore Dreiser? What is the philosophic foundation for the (unlistenable) musical serialism of Boulez and Babbitt? How do three paintings depicting executions by firing squad, one by Gamborino, one by Goya, and one by Manet, reveal different underlying worldviews? Pearcey marshals hundreds of examples to elucidate how worldviews play out in works of art. (I'll also note here that the book has more than 100 color images interspersed with the text, so her intellectual points are vividly and graphically reinforced as the reader progresses.)

The effects of the precepts of secularism, which destroy the unity of truth, and deny any objective meaning and purpose in life, have necessarily been dismal in the arts. The romantic strain, focusing on the individual’s quest for liberation and meaning, ultimately degenerates into paintings in which paint is flung on canvases, and plays in which noth- ing occurs but banal, meaningless dialogue. The rationalist strain, which has tended to devolve into materialism and determinism, produces barren geometrical abstraction in painting and hideous Corbusian "machines for living" in architecture. An author who actually bases a novel or a play on materialist principles, as the turn of the century "naturalists" tried to do, runs the risk that his work will be utterly boring. Who cares what characters might do, if they are mere "puppets of fate," and lacking free will? As Pearcey shows, human freedom and the responsibility to make moral choices, which are central to the Christian worldview, are also essential for artistic meaning.

Saving Leonardo's final chapter is an exercise in how to tease out the hidden moral (or amoral or immoral) assumptions in popular movies. It concludes with an epilogue entitled "Bach School of Apologetics," which notes the inadequacy of the saccharine sentimentalism that sometimes afflicts "Christian art," and is a call for serious, committed Christian engagement in the arts and culture.

The book is in no sense a dispassionate history of the rise of secularism in society or in the arts. In an age drenched in false ideas, Pearcey's avowed goal is to help her readers "recognize and resist secular ideas in science, philosophy, ethics, the arts and humanities." Thinkers and artists have in recent times created "worldviews that undermine human dignity and liberty," and the only hope, she argues, lies in a worldview that is "rationally defensible, life affirming, and rooted in creation itself."

A postscript on the Third Church of Christ, Scientist: After a legal struggle, the congregation has now received permission to demolish the poured concrete, brutalist building that has burdened their souls for so long -- but only after they put plans in place to construct a new church in its stead. I hope they will build a magnificent church of profound beauty. There is room for hope that, after a long struggle, we can build a renewed culture of profound beauty, too.

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About the Author

Dan Peterson is an attorney who practices firearms law in Northern Virginia.