054 Contemporary Culture, Faith and the Arts

During the past five years Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and Assistant Professor of English at Concordia University-Wisconsin, has published four books, nicely-nuanced discussions of cultural issues.

Veith’s most recent work, Postmodern Times: A Christian guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway Books, c. 1994) provides us a thoughtful perspective on contemporary cultural currents, asking with the Psalmist “When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps 11:3).

Basic to “postmodernism” is the self-contradictory aphorism “there are no absolutes,” a slogan which may well spell the last gasp of the Enlightenment-shaped “modernism” which has dominated the West for several centuries. What it does, of course, is free one to ignore all others’ absolutes so as to pursue private pleasures! Its widespread acceptance suggests a cultural collapse as well as anarchic hedonism.

Much of postmodernism takes its cues from Nietzsche, who urged readers to find freedom from various oppressive structures (including any restrictions of “knowledge” and “truth” and “reality”) by imposing their own will, constructing their own reality, artfully arranging the electrodes to engineer their own “virtual reality.”

“Even science is dismissed as ‘just another set of narratives'” (p. 50), and logic dissolves amidst philosophical “language games.” Historians claim to have no handle on the facts of the past but simply toy with “metaphors” embedded in social constructs, so truth and fiction become interchangeable. Shrewd, skillful historians learn how to “perform,” to write persuasively, imposing their own values through the manipulation of data.

Postmodern “deconstructionists” thus “interrogate the text,” devoutly following the prescribed “hermeneutic of suspicion,” torturing it in Gestapo fashion, to exact confessions or information thought useful by the interrogator. “Truth is not the issue. The issue is power” (p. 57). “Whereas classical scholarship sought the true, the beautiful, and the good, the postmodernist academy seeks ‘what works'” (p. 58). Rational discourse has been superseded by power plays, rhetorical assaults, name-calling and politically correct speech.

Such strategies easily erode the very foundations of American democracy. Today “nearly every assumption that gave rise to democracy is under attack, from the freedom of the individual to the existence of a transcendent God whose Law is above all cultures and who endows human beings with inalienable rights” (p. 157). Without moral absolutes, we resort to might-makes-right. If reality is socially-constructed, as many declare, totalitarianism inevitably follows. If the Constitution is merely what judges declare it to be, then the cleverest and most powerful jurists easily impose their wills upon the rest of us.

Veith shows how postmodernist art celebrates performance rather than substance. So Christo drapes buildings or fences with cloth and, having made his point, takes it down. Other “artists” cut themselves with razor blades on stage and toss bloody rags into the audience. “Annie Sprinkle, former port star and now performance artist,” styles herself as a “post-porn modernist” and “masturbates on stage and invites members of the audience to come up and inspect her genitalia with a flashlight” (p. 103).

Religion too bears the imprint of postmodernism. Wherever we celebrate “spirituality without truth,” appeal to desires rather than moral principles, we find the renaissance of paganism. Even evangelical Christians find much allure in such user-friendly trends. As Leith Anderson concludes: “‘The old paradigm taught that if you have the right teaching, you will experience God. The new paradigm says that if you experience God, you will have the right teaching'” (p. 211).

To return to the old paradigm, to insist there is a Truth in Reality which we can know and declare, is the only way to respond to postmodernism, Veith says. There is indeed a great cultural war being waged, and we’re called to enlist in defending the truth against the various proponents of postmodernism. “If the foundations are destroyed,” the righteous do must try to understand the significance of the cultural war–and reading Postmodern Times would help in that endeavor.

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Providing a fine foundation for Postmodern Times is Veith’s Modern Fascism: Liquidating the Judeo-Christian Worldview (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, c. 1993). “Ideas have consequences,” says the book’s publisher. “That truism is frightening” (p. 9). And one idea that’s fearfully resurgent these days, especially in postmodern culture, is fascism. Skinheads in Europe and America, race riots, ethnic nationalism, illustrate fascist trends evident in the newspapers. More insidious fascist forces, however, are at work to destroy Christian culture.

In essence, “Fascism was essentially a spiritual movement. It was a revolt against the Judeo-Christian tradition, that is to say, against the Bible” (p. 14). In Hitler’s Mein Kampf, we read: “Verily a man cannot serve two masters. And I consider the foundation or destruction of religion far greater than the foundation or destruction of a state.” So Veith explains and evaluates 20th century fascism, showing its continued influence in modern America, where it assails not Jews per se but the transcendent, ethical Deity they represent. “Fascism is the modern world’s nostalgia for paganism,” the book concludes. “It is a sophisticated culture’s revolt against God” (p. 160).

“‘The heart of Nazism, as Hannah Arendt has observed, is anti-Jewishness'” (p. 43). Intellectuals such as Ezra Pound “blamed Jewish monotheism for the West’s ‘intolerance, monopoly, and uniformity'” (p. 46). Under the guise of anti-Semitism, Hitler sought not simply to exterminate a race but to annihilate the monotheistic theology which shaped Western Civilization and holds mankind accountable to a righteous Holy Other, a Divine Lawgiver whose standards stand forever.

Such fascism appears in many areas. Alarmingly (since ideas do have consequences), it’s infiltrated America’s most elite universities. This probably should not surprise us, for Hitler noted that “‘Nothing makes me more certain of the victory of our ideas than our success in the universities'” (p. 113). Followers of Martin Heidegger and Paul De Man, voguishly influential “deconstructionists” such as Michael Foucault, have ingested their pernicious views, providing open sluice gates into popular culture.

Heidegger, the architect of an influential version of existentialism, comes under sharp attack in this book. As David Hirsh declares, in The Deconstruction of Literature: Criticism after Auschwitz: “‘Much as it may pain philosophers to admit it, Hitler and Heidegger shared a world outlook. Both sought to return German culture to pagan roots by rupturing that fusion between Hellenism and Hebraism that constitutes European humanism'” (p. 88).

Recent studies show how deeply Heidegger supported the Nazi program. Appointed Rector of the University of Freiburg, he delivered an address, “The Self-Assertion of the German University,” which clearly aligned him with Hitler’s Fascism. The “will-to-power” celebrated by Nietzsche received an enthusiastic endorsement in Heidegger’s thought, for he asserted that we do not discover truth in reality–we create our own truth, our own reality. Existential ethics–baptized in certain Christian circles as ‘situation ethics’–denies the existence of natural law and urges each person to devise his own values.

Heidegger lost his position as rector not because he came to oppose Hitler but because he was aligned with the Rohm faction of radical Nazis which was purged in 1934. Thereafter, however, he opened his classes with the Nazi salute and enjoyed the support of Hitler’s regime. To David Hirsch, whose wife survived the Holocaust, Heidegger should stand trial along with the rest of the Nazis; indeed, his crimes may be graver than the camp killers, for Hirsch asks: “Is it possible . . . that there should be no connection between the Nazis’ effort to murder God in Auschwitz and Heidegger’s attempt to deconstruct the metaphysical tradition in Western philosophy, which is to say his attempt to destroy that fusion of Hellenism and Hebraism which is Christianity? In fact, are we not bound in honest to say that the real-world endpoint of Heideggerian (and now Derridean and de Manian) deconstruction of the logocentric tradition is precisely Auschwitz?'” (p. 143)

Today’s popular culture, pulsating to the beat of MTV and rock concerts, may seem some distance from Auschwitz, but inwardly there’s a tie inasmuch as it appeals to our emotions rather than our reason. Popular culture, Veith says, amply illustrates “the fascists’ artistic ideals: pleasure from violence; the thrill of moral rebellion; the cult of the Aryan body. The grisly blood-letting of a slasher movie; the body-builder who takes the law into his own hands by machine-gunning his enemies; the masses of teenagers slam-dancing as Metallica sings, ‘Scream, as I’m killing you!”–such art is the quintessence of the fascist aesthetic” (p. 12).

Fascism lost the struggle for political supremacy in Italy and Germany fifty years ago. But it’s alive and well in contemporary America! To understand its essence, to discern its spheres of influence, to develop a Christian mind capable of responding to its threat, Modern Fascism provides believers a good guide.

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Veith’s Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton: Crossway Books, c. 1990) celebrates the worth of reading good books. Designed “to help people be better readers” (p. xiii), the treatise contains some literary critiques, but it’s mainly designed to help readers enjoy and benefit from their efforts. For Christians, especially, reading is essential, for in a society increasingly shaped by TV we must read to “cultivate a sustained attention span, an active imagination, a capacity for logical analysis and critical thinking, and a rich inner life” (p. xiv). Fundamentally, we’re people of the Word and need to cherish words. “Christians, to maintain their Word-centered perspective in an image-driven world, must become readers” (ibid).

This concern leads Veith to his first chapter: “The Word and the Image: The Importance of Reading.” While others may cease reading, kicking back in easy chairs aligned with the TV, Christians (by virtue of their Faith) must resolutely read. The Old Testament’s sustained critique of “graven images” must be extended to the image-shaped culture of our day, for we’re surrounded by graven images, idols in various guises, which sever us from the Word. Word-centered thinking differs, significantly and substantially, from image-shaped feeling, for language appeals to the mind while images appeal to the emotions.

In Neil Postman’s judgment, “‘the teaching of the media curriculum must lead inevitably to a disbelief in long-term planning, in deferred gratification, in the relevance of tradition, and in the need for confronting complexity'” (p. 21). Too frequently, in our anxiety to “reach” the non-Christian world, we employ its media and inevitably toss aside those very qualities necessary for the integrity of the Faith.

So read! “If we cultivate reading–if we read habitually and for pleasure, reading the Bible, newspapers, the great works of the past and the present, the wide-ranging ‘promiscuous reading’ advocated by the Christian poet Milton–we will reinforce the patterns of the mind that support Christian faith and lead to a healthy and free society” (p. 25).

So it’s essential that we read–even if what we read may not be what’s fashionable in the elite halls of academia. Veith repeatedly emphasizes that good reading, like good food, generally gives one pleasure. Clearly we must learn to discern the difference between garbage and good stuff. And there are moral and aesthetic standards which we rightly apply to our reading. There is a “critical” side to good reading. But we should read not to critique, not to impose our own views or desires, but to allow the written word to draw us into broader and deeper realms of experience and reflection. Good literature is good because it enables us to better understand truths we’d never discover on our own.

After pointing out the difference between non-fiction and fiction (some of my students refer to anything written as a “novel”! and some equally misguided biblical scholars curiously confuse poetry with fiction!), Veith pens an instructive chapter on “Poetry: The Art of Singing,” showing that lots of people who think they dislike poetry really love it when it’s set to music and enables them to articulate the joys and sorrows of life. Language is thoroughly metaphorical, and the metaphors of poetry have unusual power. Thus Veith thinks “poetry is probably closer to reality than other forms of literature” because it is “written out of the intensity of lived experience” (p. 85). Contemporary Christians need to rediscover the Psalms, the majestic poems of the Hebrew Scriptures. They also need to learn to relish the poems of great Christians such as George Herbert and T.S. Eliot, whose works enable us to more fully know God’s Truth as it pervades all of lived experience.

“Tragedy and Comedy: The Literature of Damnation and Salvation,” merit careful study. Those who espouse a tragic view of life–mouthing mottos such as carpe diem (“seize the day”) or “go for the gusto,” assert that this life is all there is. Almost necessarily such folks live for the pleasures of the moment, which is truly tragic. Great tragedies reveal the penalties for sin, the failures of life lived on purely human terms. Comedy, however, ridicules vice and celebrates virtue. Chaucer, Veith thinks, is the greatest comic writer in the English language, and there’s an optimism of grace and salvation in his tales.

After discussing “realism” and “fantasy,” Veith provides us a short history of literature since the Middle Ages, pointing out significant Christian voices in the process, showing how major cultural shifts have been expressed in prominent writers. He also provides a helpful “reading list” to guide us to the best books in our tradition.

Reading Between the Lines is a fine, balanced work. One delights in Veith’s delight at the sheer joy of reading. One learns from his critical appraisals of writers and historic epochs. Teachers and college students would benefit from the study of this book, a good companion to Mortimer J. Adler’s classic How to Read a Book.

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The State of the Arts: From Bezalel to Mapplethorpe (Wheaton: Crossway Books, c. 1991) extends Veith’s cultural analysis to creative works of various kinds. He deplores the types of “fine arts” exemplified by alleged “artists” such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol. When shocking viewers, not making beautiful works, becomes an artist’s objective, “art” has lost its character.

The very fact that Warhol et al. attract such attention leads Veith to contend that the arts need Christians–probably more than Christians need the arts–because arts need truth, meaning, substance. Goodness stands rooted in Truth–and good art must draw constant nutrients from abiding truth. So “Christians, who have a conceptual basis for truth, also have a conceptual basis for beauty” (p. 88).

Art, Veith insists, adds beauty to our world. Thus, celebrated works of art, confined to museums (which were only invented in the 18th century), may be less valuable than the crafts which enrich our daily surroundings. Too often, modern artists adopt a Bohemian pose, severing ties with “the rich texture of common life that has always inspired the greatest art. If ordinary life–the process of birth, growing up, getting married, working, raising a family, growing old, dying–is unworthy of their attention, what is left? Their art becomes inhuman, an academic exercise in abstract theories, an increasingly esoteric self-indulgence that has nothing to do with the human condition” (p. 97).

Museums, however, do shelter some of the great masterpieces of art, so we need to study their holdings to get a perspective on historic epochs. From the Middle Ages to Modernity, Veith provides us a brief overview of artistic endeavors, inevitably espousing a pronounced worldview.

For example, modern art illustrates existential philosophy, “perhaps the dominant philosophy of the twentieth century. Existentialism teaches that life is meaningless, considered objectively, but that, once this is realized, individuals can impose their own meanings upon reality. This is the root of situation ethics, that ‘there are no absolutes,’ but that instead people must choose their own values. It is also the root of intellectual relativism, that ‘what is true for you may not be true for me'” (p. 90).

From the Christian perspective, Bezalel (the artist who built the Tabernacle in the Old Testament) provides an illuminating portrait of a divinely inspired artist, spiritually gifted with the ability to design and construct a beautiful sanctuary. Though images, such as the golden calf built by Aaron, are condemned, the Old Testament clearly endorses the use of images and beautiful forms in both the Tabernacle and Temple. Rightly used–never to be worshipped–they add to our joy and enable us to better praise the God of beauty.

Modern-day Bezalels, Christian artists, continue the good work of art. Veith devotes pages to Georges Roualt and lesser-known artists, showing how vital faith informs and pervades the work of first-rate artists. The Church should recognize and encourage artists, using their creative works in churches. In their own way, they can teach solid theology.

Yet ultimately the Faith is not an aesthetic response to beauty. So art and architecture should always take a subordinate role to the proclamation of the Word. We find truth as we hear and heed the Word, not as we feel moved by art and music. Churches are not entertainment centers, rivaling either symphony halls or rock concert arenas.

In my judgment, probably because I’m more given to reading than visiting museums, Veith’s Reading Between the Lines is better than State of the Arts. Yet the latter work serves a valuable purpose, introducing those of us who lack good grounding in the history and appreciation of art, teaching us to better appreciate and celebrate beauty wherever it’s found.