Where have all the artists gone? Protestant suspicion – and Catholic celebration – of the arts

English: Madonna and child, thought to have be...

English: Madonna and child, thought to have been damaged during the English Civil War, at St Mary’s Roman Catholic church, Brewood, Staffordshire, England. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the “creation chapter” of my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis, after a brief reflection on the opposite-but-the-same Western tendencies that have crept into our Protestant churches – Gnosticism and materialism – I turn to the arts to see how these tendencies have manifested themselves there.

Evangelicalism and the arts

Let’s put a finer point on the issue by looking briefly at the evangelical Protestant churches and the arts. Where are the arts in modern orthodox Protestantism? One author looks at the century from 1860 to 1960 and finds only C. S. Lewis and T. S. Eliot practicing the creative art of literature to a high degree from an orthodox Protestant stance. During the same period, the Catholics produced an embarrassment of literary riches, from Tolkien and Flannery O’Connor to Gerard Manley Hopkins and Evelyn Waugh. All these, and many other Catholics, were “world-class writers,” and all orthodox Christians. The same seems to be true – perhaps even more so – in other fine arts. Similarly, few evangelicals have excelled in the worlds of television and movies. Indeed, “evangelical Protestants, especially, have not only not shone in the fine arts, they have often opposed such arts or valued them only as vehicles for evangelism, objecting to much of their subject matter.”[1] The author concludes that the problem for Protestants (and the superiority of Roman Catholics) in the arts stems from a difference in approach to Creation. Whereas Protestants often emphasize how fallen Creation and human society are, the theology of the Roman Catholic Church has proved more Creation-positive, and thus more likely to affirm and create images of the world, whether literary or in the visual arts.

Helping the Catholic Church on the way to these positive attitudes was the fact that, though the early and medieval Western church affirmed a form of Platonism, it was not typically the dualist form that infected the Gnostics. Rather, it was the Neoplatonism of the 2nd C. AD and beyond, which at least partially overcame Platonic dualism with a teaching that “the . . . spirit realm must be approached through the lesser material world rather than by eschewing that world.” Couple this with the Aristotelianism that (as we’ll see) entered the medieval scene during the 12th and 13th centuries, which also believed that knowledge of the truths beyond nature might be gained through the study of nature, and you get not only a positive view of Creation, but also an almost riotous flourishing of the arts—both in and out of church.

For the actual riots, though, we turn to the early Protestants, who tended to dismiss all of this earthiness as extra-biblical and suspect, and to marshal Old Testament texts prohibiting the use of images as idolatry. This led to “iconoclastic” (image-smashing) riots in the mid 16th century that destroyed much church art in cities across Europe (as far as Scotland). In fact, as late as 1643, during the English Civil War, we see the same impulse at work in the account of Bishop Joseph Hall of Norwich, who described iconoclastic mob action in England: “What clattering of glasses! What beating down of walls! What tearing up of monuments! What pulling down of seats! What wresting out of irons and brass from the windows! . . . What demolishing of curious stonework! . . . And what a hideous triumph in the market-place before all the country, when all the mangled organ pipes, vestments, both copes and surplices, together with the leaden cross which had newly been sawn down from the Green-yard pulpit and the service-books and singing books that could be carried to the fire in the public market-place were heaped together.” [Cited in “Iconoclasm,” Wikipedia; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iconoclasm.]

What, then, did the medieval church have, theologically, that the Reformation church seems to have lost? What was the bridge from the material to the spiritual world that avoided both Gnosticism and materialism—and fostered the arts as well?

Ah, that will be the topic of the next post. 🙂

[1] Richard Wilkinson, “Missing Persons: Where Are All the Great Evangelical Artists,” Re:generation, July 1996, http://www.ctlibrary.com/rq/1996/summer/2313.html

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