The renaissance was a time of dramatic shifts in the culture of western Christendom. It was a time of origins, when former patterns of thought and culture faded into the background and modern values began to appear. This was true in the case of humanism, and it was true in the art it came to influence. Famous paintings of the renaissance document this shift.
One type of painting that came to represent the epitome of renaissance art was the Madonna. We are used to this term, but its historical background is interesting. It comes from the medieval Italian Ma Donna, or “My Lady,” and entered the English lexicon as a specific type of painting depicting Mary holding the infant Jesus in her arms. As such, it is simply the descendant of a long tradition of artistic representation in Christendom dating to the early centuries.
The image of Mary holding Jesus itself came to be standardized not in the medieval or renaissance west, but the Byzantine east, where a range of icon types were developed such as the icon of She Who Points the Way (Hodegetria in Greek). Whereas such earlier depictions of Mary and Jesus were primarily liturgical, however, the renaissance Madonna gave rise to a new conception of the two, one that was increasingly worldly. I commented briefly on this development in an earlier post, and here I would like to take the reflection a step further. Continue reading
If the Puritans proved themselves the enemies of Christmas (see my previous post on that), they did so in part because their particular form of theology had been severed from the roots of ancient Christianity. As ironic as it is, the Protestant Reformation that inspired them cut a large part of modern Christendom off from the faith of the early Church.
The reformers, of course, believed they were restoring that faith. They looked at contemporary (sixteenth-century) Roman Catholicism and concluded it had deviated dangerously from it. Doctrines like sola scriptura (the authority of “scripture alone”) were devised by Luther and other Protestant fathers to correct these deviations. This is all well known to any college undergraduate who has been through a course in western civilization.
What is not taught in most American (or Canadian, or British, or Australian) colleges, however, is how far Roman Catholicism itself had departed from what was for eastern Christians the standards or norms of the ancient faith. Continue reading
Recently the internet was humming with commentary about a challenge issued to Starbucks to honor the celebration of Christmas. Joshua Feuerstein, an Evangelical Protestant Christian, posted a video in which he decries the coffee giant for what he considers its “war on Christmas,” evidenced in the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of the holiday on its seasonal red cups. (I myself do not find the challenge very compelling, not due to any lack of sympathy for Mr. Feuerstein or allegiance to Starbucks, but to the fact that when I stand in the store waiting for my coffee I observe that the cup in question is framed by shelves loaded with a seasonal roast called “Christmas Blend”).
In any case, it is hard to believe that the holiday could really disappear from American culture any time soon. If nothing else, it is far too great a cultural institution. It is rooted too deeply in what modern Americans value. It enhances, for instance, domestic life. Christmas is an opportunity for family togetherness, cozy times by the fireplace sipping hot drinks, listening to holiday music, watching holiday movies, enjoying the blinking of holiday lights, and opening presents. And all of these domestic pleasures are of course mediated by our consumer economy, which shifts into overdrive the day after Thanksgiving to produce, market, and distribute an immeasurable amount of holiday stuff.
However, these twin themes of contemporary Christmas–domesticity and consumerism–were not always a part of its celebration. I will write later about its significance in ancient times. Here I would like to reflect on its more recent history during the past couple of centuries. It is a history that will be unexpected for some Christians who have responded positively to the censure of Starbucks. Continue reading
It has begun. In fact, it has been going on for a couple of weeks now, since the celebration of Black Friday. The world around us is celebrating Christmas. Malls are ringing with carols. Restaurants are humming with patrons. Offices are cheerful with festivity. That December 25 is still weeks away does not really matter. The world loves a party, and Christmas provides a month of opportunities. It is delightful, and there is no other season of the year like it.
The world is celebrating what in the course of two thousand years has become the central holiday of winter. (Even in Australia, where it is summer: “Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way; summer in Australia; on a scorching summer’s day”!). Yet as it does so, it impoverishes its very understanding of the world, or cosmology.
Today is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, a holy day (“holiday”) for Christendom since earliest times.
Nicholas was an early fourth-century bishop, a victim of pagan persecution, and a saintly defender of the poor and the afflicted.
The following is a traditional icon of him, still used in Orthodox Christian worship today (the scenes around the borders depict events from his life):
It is remarkable that his image was ultimately transformed in our post-Christian Christendom to look like this:
How did this happen? What historical changes occurred to change the fourth-century ascetic into a symbol of indulgent consumerism?
For those interested in finding out, I can recommend a website that lays it all out. It makes for very interesting reading, especially in the wake of the Black Friday rush for the malls!
In any event, finding a pair of images better suited to tell the history of the secularization of Christendom would be hard to find.
Image credits: Wikipedia and Multi-Lingual Living
Less than a week ago, Muslim terrorists attacked and killed more than a hundred people in Paris, leaving many more wounded and suffering. France, recently distinguishing herself as aloof from America’s “war on terror,” has now (in the words of President Francois Hollande) declared herself “at war” with ISIS. French jets have begun to bomb military targets in Syria to defend France and the west from radical Islam.
Indeed, not only the west but the world community has expressed deep sympathy for France, reminding one of the global expressions of solidarity with the United States in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. The United States and France, along with the west as a whole, have much in common. We are hated by Muslim extremists.
Apart from the psychological fact that fanatics always need someone to hate, the following are three particularly apparent reasons: Continue reading
In a recently published book (hot off the press this year), a professor of history at Illinois State University claims that America’s culture wars are over. Or at least they should be. A War for the Soul of America, by Andrew Hartman, is a history of the struggle against cultural change that has occurred in America since the 1960s. That history is now over, he claims, and advocates for a secular, permissive, and pluralistic culture are the victors. Their opponents have been defeated by the statistics. Surveys indicate that the social values of the left have been normalized in American society, with the majority of even young Republicans now favoring, for example, the legalization of gay marriage. Obergefell v. Hodges (decided in June, apparently after the manuscript was sent to press) would only seem to confirm this.
In one sense, the struggle for America’s soul is presented by the author as what it obviously was: a conservative and religious backlash against the rise of movements advancing the separation of church and state, abortion rights, feminism, and gay marriage. But what is curious about the narrative is the way it presents this backlash, not as the struggle to uphold any kind of absolute standard of moral behavior and cultural good order, but as a process of social-psychological adjustment. If polls reveal that the values of the 1950s are dead, then, the author suggests, continued resistance to the new cultural order is futile.
What I find perplexing in this professor’s triumphant liberal narrative is its ultimate point of reference: the 1950s. Was that decade really the definitive moment in the history of American values?
Would it not be more effective to evaluate the history of contemporary American culture from a broader perspective? To launch that history in the 1950s ignores some twenty centuries of moral formation, minus fifty years. It also sets up the liberal narrative imposed by this author with a sure victory. And yet there is so much more to a moral society than what one finds in America in the 1950s.
In short, would it not be useful to evaluate our present culture and its problems from the perspective of the total history of Christendom, of which America represents a rather recent and incomplete picture?
This is what I hope to do in the posts ahead.
Political revolutions cost lives, and so can cultural ones. This is true when the agent of change is the government, and that government is totalitarian. It is even more true when the totalitarian government is wedded to an ideology such as Communism.
In recent posts I have introduced the Soviet cult of Lenin within the context of the Communist Party’s violent assault on Christians. The Communists could not avoid violence in general because it was built into the ideology they inherited from Karl Marx. I will speak elsewhere about Marx’s place in the history of Christendom, but here I want to emphasize the role of violence in Marxism’s vision of history. History could not move forward without it. And history had to move forward. In the nineteenth-century “age of progress,” absolute standards of good and evil, cultivated by centuries of Christianity’s influence, were exchanged for a relativistic morality of progress. That which brought it about was good, and that which hindered it was evil. Continue reading
One of the really remarkable things about the Soviet cult of Vladimir Lenin was its religious character. It is a reminder that strict atheism is rare, even in the modern world.
There is a Psalm verse that speaks of how unusual and even ridiculous atheism is: “The fool says in his heart, there is no god” (Psalm 14:1). The Communists were adherents to the philosophy of Karl Marx and therefore strict atheists. They were convinced religion is an “opiate of the masses” imposed by class oppressors upon the workers and that there is in reality no god whatsoever. The Soviet Union was the first government in world history that committed itself to atheism. And yet, it was also the first government in history to invent a new culture, or system of beliefs and values, that was pseudo-religious. This can be seen in several features of the Lenin cult. Continue reading
When Lenin died of a stroke in 1924 the Communist Party was eager to immortalize him. The cult of Lenin that resulted went further than all earlier efforts in the history of Christendom–Christian or post-Christian–to glorify departed leaders.
The case of the United States is an interesting contrast. On the one hand, there were undoubted similarities. The “apotheosis of George Washington” depicted on the interior of the Capitol dome in a capital city named after the first president drew upon the pagan Roman practice of deifying departed emperors (that is, literally declaring them to be gods). Washington was also glorified by a political culture in the early American republic that sought to create an almost mystical sense of his ongoing presence, expressed later by innumerable sites scattered throughout the eastern United States claiming that “George Washington slept here.”
The difference between the cult of Washington and that of Lenin, however, was not just that the one was committed to individual rights and the other to totalitarian dictatorship. What really made the difference was that while Washington showed relative indifference to traditional Christianity and seems to have favored its Enlightenment alternative of deism, Lenin was an atheist and intended to create a civilization of atheists. And it was this goal that colored the cultural revolution that gave rise to his posthumous cult. Continue reading