In her latest book, Saving Leonardo, author Nancy Pearcey argues that secularism is destructive and dehumanizing. She illustrates how artists, writers, scientists, and moviemakers shape the culture’s thinking. And she depicts how, throughout history, philosophy, science, art, literature, and film have fortified or undermined mankind’s concept of liberty. Here, byFaith speaks with Pearcey about the relationship between worldview and the institutions that shape culture. 
 
What did you observe, in the church as well as in the broader culture, that compelled you to write Saving Leonardo?
 
The public square has grown relentlessly secular, yet Christians are rarely prepared to engage effectively with secular thinking. We are still emerging from the fundamentalist era of the early 20th century, when theologically conservative Christians adopted a strategy of retreat in the face of the great intellectual challenges of that era (Darwin, Marx, Freud). They circled the wagons and adopted a fortress mentality. As a result, most Christians have lost touch with secular thought and do not know how to speak effectively into the public square.
 
Even the meaning of terms has shifted. For example, we often hear people talk about defending Christian values. Yet for secular people, the term “values” means literally “whatever a person or group values”–private tastes or preferences. And private tastes are not open to rational persuasion. They can be imposed only by coercion.
 
To label a position “values” is therefore to discredit it. What it communicates is that I am willing to use coercion to impose my personal preferences on other people. No wonder Christians are accused of violating the terms of democratic debate.
 
In order to be a missionary in our age—and all Christians are called to be missionaries—we must learn the language of the surrounding society. Here in America, of course, most of our neighbors speak English. But they may use terms in ways that are foreign to most Christians, because those terms are defined in the context of secular worldviews. Loving one’s neighbor means caring enough to enter into their minds and speak to them in their own terms.
 
After all, the first rule of effective communication is to know your audience. To get a message across to people, you must address their assumptions, questions, objections, hopes, fears, and aspirations. In short, their worldview. Saving Leonardo is a field guide to the worldviews that have shaped the modern (and postmodern) mind, and seeks to equip believers to speak the gospel more effectively in our age.
 
As a consequence of the scientific revolution, you state that empirical science became the sole source of truth, that moral statements became mere expressions of emotion, and that this separation of facts from values is the key to unlocking the history of the modern Western mind. Can you talk a little about the relationship of truth to morality?
 
Let me illustrate with an example. During the last presidential campaign, a reporter for ABC News interviewed several teens at a Christian youth rally. Most of them were solidly biblical in their convictions on moral issues like drugs, sex, and abortion. In fact, some even ranked abortion as their number one political issue. But, strangely, many of the same teens also said they favored political candidates who supported abortion. To the reporter, this seemed like a contradiction, so he asked, “Doesn’t that bother you?”
 
One teen replied, “Maybe a little bit, but it’s all personal preference.”
 
Moral convictions are all personal preference? Where had these teens picked up such a relativistic view of morality? They may be attending religious rallies, but they have absorbed a secular view of morality. The primary source of moral relativism is the philosophy of empiricism, the claim that reality is limited to what can be known by empirical science.  Obviously, moral truths cannot be stuffed into a test tube or studied under a microscope. As a result, moral statements were no longer considered truths but personal tastes.

The fact/value split signals that the unity of truth has shattered. For America’s elites, truth resides only in the realm of scientific facts. Values are thought of as preference—even prejudice.
It was empiricism that led to a separation of facts from values. People have always known, of course, that factual statements differ from moral statements. But they understood that both kinds of statements refer to an objective reality. Which is to say, they were committed to what was called “the unity of truth.” They might debate which principle to apply in a given situation, but they knew there was a genuine right and wrong.
 
The fact/value split signals that the unity of truth has shattered. For America’s elites, truth resides only in the realm of scientific facts. Values are thought of as preference—even prejudice.
 
Let me give you an example. When the Iowa Supreme Court imposed same-sex marriage on that state in 2009, it claimed that the plaintiffs (the pro-homosexual side) “presented an abundance of evidence and research.” By contrast, the court said, the definition of marriage as a man and a woman was “unsupported by reliable scientific studies.” It was nothing but “stereotype and prejudice.”
 
The lesson is that what is accepted as science and facts will trump values every time. And it is no use to protest that these are “cherished” or “deeply felt” values. That kind of emotive language only adds fuel to the fire. It plays into the stratagem of reducing moral principles to private feelings.
 
The real solution is to challenge the empiricist assumption that has shattered the unity of truth. In Christianity, all of creation is the handiwork of a single Mind. Therefore our explanations all fit within a coherent and unified system of truth.
 
One of the sections in your book is “Artists as Thinkers.” Why is that a reality we need to consider?
 
At a 2006 conference of the International Arts Movement, I had the honor of sharing a podium with the poet Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, who once said, “All art is a language—a language of color, sound, movement, or words. When we immerse ourselves in a work of art, we enter into the artist’s worldview.” When you read a book or watch a movie, do you recognize that you are entering into a worldview? Do your children?
 
Saving Leonardo opens with the example of a children’s story, Hank the Cowdog, which my own son loved when he was young. The story features a cattle ranch owned by a rancher and his wife, along with their little boy, and a bachelor cowboy who lives down the street.
 
CBS decided to turn the story into a video for Saturday morning cartoons. But in the process, they twisted it to fit the dictates of political correctness.
 
In the CBS version, the rancher and his wife were no longer married. Instead the woman had been promoted to the ranch boss, while her husband was demoted to a ranch hand who worked for her. In fact, all three adults lived together in a kind of bunk house. And the little boy was nowhere to be seen. He had been erased from the story altogether.
 
What was this all about? Clearly the story had been rewritten to convey a feminist agenda. Marriage? A trap for women. Family? An outmoded and oppressive social institution.  Even the cattle ranch was apparently not environmentally correct enough and was changed to a chicken farm.
 
The example illustrates that even young children are bombarded with distinct worldviews. Ideas do not typically come neatly packaged with a warning label attached, so we know what we’re getting. Instead there is what we might call a “stealth” secularism that permeates society through images and stories that bypass our critical grid, override our logic, and hook us emotionally. We can be seduced into a set of ideas, a movement, or a worldview, sometimes without our even knowing it.
 
In the same chapter you provide a crash course on art and worldview, explaining the philosophy behind Greek art, Byzantine art, Renaissance, Baroque, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, etc. Why should the average Christian be mindful of these philosophies?

The arts are a language, and it is crucial for Christians to learn how to interpret it. Saving Leonardo gives readers the skills to evaluate ideas when they come to us not in words (where they are easier to recognize) but through creative works.
 
After all, this is where most people acquire their ideas about life. They’re not taking philosophy courses at the local university. They’re picking up ideas through the books they read, the movies they watch, the music they listen to. That’s why Saving Leonardo is filled with examples from painting, sculpture, architecture, literature, drama, and music—to give plenty of hands-on practice in identifying ideas embedded in within creative works. 

By describing their worldview, you ruined the Impressionists for me. How do we evaluate art that’s good and beautiful–even if it’s not true?
 
This is not to say that a work of art can be reduced to the cognitive level alone. Aesthetic elements—line, color, texture, tone, plot, characterization—have their own impact. That’s why we can appreciate the skill and beauty of a work of art even when we disagree with the artist’s perspective. The philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote a book review in which he said, “I like his art, but I do not believe in his metaphysics.” We too can like the art, even if we do not believe in the artist’s metaphysics.
 
The painter Louis Finkelstein once said, “The sense of all stylistic change is that the underlying view of the world changes.” What this means is that we can read the history of changing views of the world through the history of artistic styles.
 
You might think of Saving Leonardo as a fun way to learn about worldviews. After all, who wouldn’t prefer to learn about ideas through pictures and stories? It is an approach that involves the whole person: not only mind and intellect, but also emotion and imagination.
 
In your discussion of literature you call atheism boring. You then go on to describe the vitality of biblical realism. Why should Christians be better novelists than atheists? And why don’t we see the likes of O’Connor, Percy, Sayers, Lewis, and Tolkien today?
 
Virtually every student I’ve ever asked has read books by Jack London, like Call of the Wild. But what most of them don’t know is that as a young man, London underwent what one historian calls “a conversion experience” to radical materialism. He memorized long passages from Darwin and could quote them by heart. He wrote about dogs to soften the blow, but his real message was that humans are nothing but evolved organisms, with no free will, governed by natural selection and survival of the fittest.
 
London was a leader in a movement called literary naturalism, which used fiction to flesh out the tenets of philosophical naturalism, the idea that humans are products of nature and nothing more—determined by environment and genetics. Naturalism is often summarized in a line from the novelist Theodore Dreiser, who said the individual is “the pawn of forces over which he has no control.”

Much of the drama of human life stems from wrestling with wrenching moral dilemmas. That’s why Christian writers have the resources to craft far more gripping, more engaging stories. They have a much richer view of human nature.

 
Dreiser underwent the same kind of conversion experience. As he put it, the theory of evolution blew him “intellectually to bits,” destroying the last traces of his religious upbringing. He decided that humans “were merely minor elements in a vast mechanistic process” of the struggle for existence.
 
But the literary naturalists’ goal of portraying humans in this way proved a difficult task. It was not easy to flesh out believable characters who made no decisions but were merely swept along by social and cosmic forces—puppets of fate. It also made for characters who were incredibly dull. There can be no real character development if they are helpless victims of outside forces. A professor of film studies says naturalism was frankly “boring,” creating “dramas which meander and never quite reach a resolution.”
 
Not only is naturalism boring but, more importantly, it is not true to life. In reality humans are not completely determined elements in a vast mechanistic process. They make genuine decisions.  Much of the drama of human life stems from wrestling with wrenching moral dilemmas. That’s why Christian writers have the resources to craft far more gripping, more engaging stories. They have a much richer view of human nature. Though naturalism is an offshoot of realism, a Christian worldview is far more realistic.
 
In fact, literary historians have credited Christianity with producing realism in the first place. Classical literature was expected to be about grand historical or mythological subjects. Important events took place only among gods and heroes, kings and warriors. By contrast, the working classes and the peasantry were usually portrayed as comic yokels. Realism broke with this prevailing tradition by emphasizing the dignity of ordinary, even humble, people. Where did this new style come from? From the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation.
 
Literary critic Erich Auerbach (himself Jewish) says it was the story of Christ that broke down the classical rules of style. How? Through its “mixture of everyday reality and the highest and most sublime tragedy.” That is, the world-changing events of the gospel took place among everyday, ordinary people. Jesus welcomed sinners and prostitutes. He invited humble fishermen to be His disciples and ate with tax collectors (despised collaborators with the Roman occupation forces). These were characters who would never be considered suitable for representation in classical art. But amazingly, their lives became the focus of the great climax in God’s plan of salvation. As Auerbach writes, the events of the New Testament take place within the lives of common people, yet they “assume the importance of world-revolutionary events.”
 
As a result, the Bible introduced a realistic style that would change literature for all time. It recognized the dignity of ordinary people and commonplace history—precisely because they were not merely ordinary and common, but were elements in God’s unfolding plan of salvation. Each individual participates in a moral drama of cosmic importance.

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POLITICS VERSUS CULTURE?

Todd Gitlin, the former president of the radical group Students for a Democratic Society, noted that after the 1960s protest movement, the New Left began “marching on the English Department while the Right took the White House.” We asked Nancy Pearcey which was the more effective strategy.  
 
I have talked with many people whose ideas about Christianity were largely formed by reading a particular piece of fiction—Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. One teenager who was raised in a committed Christian home earnestly informed me that “we know” Jesus was married, a fact later suppressed by church authorities. How did the boy “know” that? From The Da Vinci Code.
 
Art and literature are powerful means of transmitting worldviews. Yet Christians often dismiss them as mere entertainment, a leisure activity. Those who are serious about being a redemptive force within the broader society tend to focus on politics. Isn’t it more important to know what’s happening in the White House?
 
Secular people know better. To use Todd Gitlin’s famous phrase, the people who “marched on the English Department” are now in the White House. The 1960s radicals who avoided the draft with student deferments made their way up through the universities, became professors, and inculcated their radical ideas into the minds of generations of young people.
 
This explains why Christians and other moral conservatives continue to lose ground culturally, in spite of becoming more politically active in recent decades. Sociologist James Davison Hunter, author of Culture Wars, says evangelicals have grown adept at mobilizing money and manpower to reach political goals, yet they have overlooked one crucial fact—that America’s secular elites reached an intellectual consensus on the legitimacy of things like abortion and homosexual rights “far earlier than any kind of legislation or court decision that would ratify that consensus.”
 
In short, what came first was a shift in worldview. Ideas are born, nurtured, and developed in the universities long before they step out onto the political stage.
 
That is true today more than ever because modern societies are knowledge-based societies, where information and expertise have as much impact as economic resources. As a result, the university has become the primary shaper of culture. 
 
As Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz explains, in earlier ages most ideas took the form of tacit, taken-for-granted assumptions filtering down organically in the customs and traditions of family, church, and ethnic group. Most people paid little attention to formal philosophy.
 
It was only in the middle of the 20th century that Westerners discovered “that their fate could be influenced directly by intricate and abstruse books of philosophy.” For the first time, “their bread, their work, their private lives” began to be controlled by political ideology. Milosz was describing the impact of Marxism in Eastern Europe, but his insight applies just as well to the various ideologies that shape American public culture today.
 
And one of the most effective ways to master those ideologies is through the arts and humanities. The ideas contained in “abstruse books of philosophy” take on concrete form through image and story. That’s why Saving Leonardo is filled with richly colored art reproductions.

Nancy Pearcey wrote Saving Leonardo while serving as research professor of worldview studies at Philadelphia Biblical University. Pearcey studied Christian worldview at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland with Francis Schaeffer, and was later named the Francis A. Schaeffer Scholar at the World Journalism Institute in New York City. She has authored or contributed to several books, including The Soul of Science and How Now Shall We Live (with Charles Colson). Her most recent book was the bestselling Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity.  

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith, and the author of two novels.

 

About the author, Richard Doster

Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith. He is also the author of two novels, Safe at Home (March 2008) and Crossing the Lines (June 2009), both published by David C. Cook Publishers.

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