As a restless, questing college student immersed in the relativism and subjectivism of her milieu, Nancy Pearcey found her way to Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland in 1971. Here, for the first time, she found Christians (many of them long-haired hippies) seriously discussing and providing answers to the “Big Questions” she was asking. Though reared in a Christian home and nurtured in a Lutheran church, she lacked the coherent, in-depth understanding of the faith Schaeffer set forth. In subsequent decades, through advanced academic work, personal study and reflection, she established herself through a variety of publications as a thoughtful exponent of an orthodox evangelical worldview, writing for a popular audience. She skillfully laces her discussions with quotations and illustrations, both personal and historical, making them accessible to all thoughtful readers. Though at times overly simplistic (too easily reducing all issues to a “two-storey” graphic) and superficial (sharing Schaeffer’s distaste for significant Catholic thinkers), she still provides helpful guidance in charting a meaningful framework for understanding and responding to our world. Her most recent treatise, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, c. 2010), continues her helpful endeavor to engage the culture from a Christian perspective.
She begins by evaluating the everywhere-evident “threat of global secularism,” a massive cultural current transforming our world, primarily through our educational and artistic milieu. Though often oblivious to its subtly and power, we Christians must awaken to its threat. Following the example of Early Church thinkers, we must “address, critique, adapt, and overcome the dominant ideologies of our day” (p. 14) bearing in mind J. Gresham Machen’s maxim: “‘False ideas are the greatest obstacle to the reception of the gospel’” (p. 15). To Pearcey—as to John Henry Newman—the false idea of modern secularism is its reduction of all truth (including metaphysical, theological and moral truth) to personal preference. “Whatever works for you” goes the modern mantra! To which Christians must respond: Absolutely Not! Rightly grasped, Christianity is not primarily a personal perspective nor an inner feeling of peace and optimism, but a trustworthy knowledge of what really IS. This means we cannot accept the fact/value distinction that frequently dominates worldview discussions. Many modern thinkers insist that whereas they deal objectively with scientific “facts” all ethical “values” are subjective. Unfortunately numbers of “Christian” thinkers embrace this disjunction. Following Schaeffer’s lead, however, Pearcey insists this two-storey view cannot but fail one seeking for an integrated philosophy. What must be recovered, she says, is a pre-Enlightenment perspective, seeing an interrelated symbiosis of natural and spiritual realities equally authored by an all-wise Creator.
Having alerted us to the secularist threat, Pearcey gives us a “crash course on art and worldview”—nicely (if not lavishly) illustrated with scores of reprints in this well-appointed volume—that that helps explain how it emerged during the past two centuries. Throughout the ancient, medieval, and Renaissance-Reformation eras, styles changed but the underlying purpose endured: highlighting beauty that reveals truth about God, man and nature, both visible and invisible. As Walker Percy, one of America’s finest 20th century novelists, declared, “art is ‘a serious instrument for the exploration of reality.’ It is ‘as scientific and cognitive as, say, Galileo’s telescope or Wilson’s cloud chamber’” (p. 99).
Enlightenment intellectuals, however, restricted “truth” to natural science. Consequently, “art is merely decorative. Ornamental. Entertaining. Isaac Newton called poetry ‘ingenious nonsense.’ . . . . Hume denounced poets as ‘liars by profession.’ Philosopher Jeremy Bentham agreed: ‘All poetry is misrepresentation’” (p. 98). It might soothe one’s inner turmoil or exalt one’s expectations, but it reveals nothing about anything ultimately real. So too, many thought, for religion. But revolutionary 18th century developments sparked not only political upheavals such as the French Revolution but artistic celebrations of highly individualistic and Romantic perspectives. While scientists may well weigh and measure the external world of nature (how things are) artists insisted on freely imagining how things might or ought to be. Thus, by the end of the 19th century, movements such as “impressionism” and “cubism” flourished as monuments to this disconnect between art and objective reality. Rather than representing Reality like a photograph, Romantic art serves as a film projector in a theater, casting images on the screen, and throughout the 20th century, as Pearcey persuasively illustrates, this conviction intensified.
As an antidote to these developments, Pearcey recommends a recovery of great Christian artistic works—including the music of Bach, the “fifth gospel,” which is, amazingly, quite popular in Japan. Resulting from the work of Masaaki Suzuki, a famous conductor, thousands of Japanese have learned to play and appreciate the work of the gifted Baroque composer. “‘Bach works as a missionary among our people,’ Suzuki said in an interview. ‘After each concert people crowd the podium wishing to talk to me about topics that are normally taboo in our society—death, for example. Then they inevitably ask me what “hope” means to Christians.’ He concluded: ‘I believe that Bach has already converted tens of thousands of Japanese to the Christian faith’” (p. 267). And along with recovering great art we need to cultivate a high quality art absent in the popular culture. In our churches and homes we need to powerfully represent the Gospel story, shunning the “spiritual junk food” and “sentimentalism” that so frequently masquerades as Christian “music” and “art.”
To R. Albert Mohler, Jr., President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, “Nancy Pearcey helps a new generation of evangelicals to understand the worldview challenges we now face and to develop an intelligent and articulate Christian understanding . . . Saving Leonardo should be put in the hands of all those who should always be ready to give an answer—and that means all of us.”
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During the past century, the cultural consequences of taking natural science as the sole guide to truth have been increasingly (indeed alarmingly) evident. Illustrating this trend, Eric Temple Bell, a professor at the California Institute of Technology and former president of the Mathematical Association of America, declared that modern (i.e. non-Euclidean) geometry makes mathematics and logic, as well as metaphysics and ethics, endlessly tentative, asserting, in The Search for Truth, that there is no such thing as “Truth.” Trashing Euclid and Plato, Aristotle and Aquinas—all of whom “forged the chains with which human reason was bound for 2,300 years”—Bell celebrated the brave new world of modernity freed from any illusions regarding absolutes of any sort. Consequently, as Pope Benedict XVI noted in his inaugural message, we struggle with the “dictatorship of relativism” that renders all certainties suspect.
Rightly responding to such “modern” views, Nancy Pearcey supported, in Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2003), Francis Schaeffer’s position as articulated in his 1981 address at the University of Notre Dame: “‘Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital “T.” Truth about the total reality, not just about religious things. Biblical Christianity is Truth concerning total reality—and the intellectual holding of that total Truth and then living in the light of that Truth’” (p . 15). Most needed, Schaeffer and Pearcey insist, is a Christian “worldview” that fundamentally shapes the lives of millions of ordinary believers, thus transforming their culture. “A worldview is like a mental map that tells us how to navigate the world effectively,” Pearcey says. “It is the imprint of God’s objective truth on our inner life” (p. 23).
Unfortunately, too many Christians (Evangelicals included) have reduced their faith to a purely internal, “spiritual” realm disconnected from the physical and social worlds. In the opinion of Sidney Mean, a distinguished historian: “‘This internalization or privatization of religion is one of the most momentous changes that has ever taken place in Christendom’” (p. 35). Unfortunately, as Charles Malik noted, we need “‘not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world’” (p. 63). Thus pastors and teachers should do apologetics as well as preach salvation. “Every time a minister introduces a biblical teaching, he should also instruct the congregation in ways to defend it against the major objections they are likely to encounter. A religion that avoids the intellectual task and retreats to the therapeutic realm of personal relationships and feelings will not survive in today’s spiritual battlefield” (p. 127).
Despite their many positive accomplishments—and Pearcey generously notes them—American Evangelicals may not survive today’s battles unless they take ideas seriously. Though there was a scholarly (largely Calvinistic) dimension to 19th century Evangelicalism, the movement became, in revivalists’ hands, inordinately populist, more concerned with converging the masses than cultivating their minds. Believers were, then, unprepared to resist and refute powerful and anti-Christian ideas propounded by Darwin, Marx, Freud, et al. “The overall pattern of evangelicalism’s history is summarized brilliantly by Richard Hofstadter in a single sentence. To a large extent, he writes, ‘the churches withdrew from intellectual encounters with the secular world, gave up the idea that religion is a part of the whole life of intellectual experience, and often abandoned the field of rational studies on the assumption that they were the natural province of science alone’” (p. 323).
So it’s now time, Pearcey declares, to regain lost ground, to reestablish a Christian perspective, to redeem minds as well as hearts. To do so, Christians need to structure their worldview in accord with three guiding certainties: creation; fall; redemption. An originally good creation has been scarred by sin, but God’s gracious redemptive work in Christ has (to a degree) restored His original intent. Every worldview requires a creation story. Materialists, ancient and modern, explain the world in terms of mindless matter-in-motion, and pantheists, whether Stoics or “process” thinkers, endow Nature with divine attributes. Every worldview includes an explanation for the evil surrounding us—inadequately evolved species or demonic social institutions or malignant genes. And every worldview promises redemption, whether through scientific breakthroughs or political revolutions or inner enlightenment. Thus, as John Milton wrote, “the goal of learning ‘is to repair the ruins of our first parents’” (p. 129).
To make a Christian case for Creation, Pearcey says we must deal cogently with Darwinism, stressing that it is, as Huston Smith said, “‘supported more by atheistic philosophical assumptions than by scientific evidence’” (p. 153). Excluding any possibility of God, as Carl Sagan declared, “Nature . . . is all that IS, or WAS, or EVER WILL BE!” Adamantly upholding this assumption, naturalistic Darwinism has become a “universal acid” eating away many of the most fundamental cultural certainties basic to Western Civilization. “Half a century ago G.K. Chesterton was already warning that scientific materialism had become the dominant ‘creed’ in Western culture—one that ‘began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics.’ Far from being merely a scientific theory, he noted, materialism ‘is really our established Church’” (p. 157). Consequently: “‘The so-called warfare between science and religion,’ wrote historian Jacques Barzun, should really ‘be seen as the warfare between two philosophies and perhaps two faiths.’ The battle over evolution is merely one incident ‘in the dispute between the believers in consciousness and the believers in mechanical action; the believers in purpose and the believers in pure chance’” (p. 173).
The deleterious and far-reaching cultural impact of Darwinism stands illustrated by Joseph Stalin who, as a seminary student, lost his faith in God after encountering Darwin’s theory. Subsequently he imposed his murderous form of atheism upon a large swathe of the world. Less murderously, American thinkers—particularly pragmatists such as John Dewey and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.—launched an effective assault on many of the traditions vital to this nation. To them, all “truths” evolve in accord with naturalistic evolution and thus no permanent standards of right and wrong, in any area of life, actually exist. Everyone “constructs” his own reality and writes his own rules. Darwin himself realized, and feared, this logical outgrowth of his theory, confessing, in a letter: “‘With me, the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy’” (p. 243).
To refute Darwinism, Pearcey follows the lead of Philip Johnson, the U.C. Berkeley law professor who wrote Darwin on Trial and Reason in the Balance and helped launch the “intelligent design” movement. Rather than bog down in secondary details regarding the age of the earth or the reality of microevolution, Christians need to “focus on the crucial point of whether there is evidence for Intelligent Design in the universe” (p. 174). Importantly, we must grasp the significance of recent scientific insights, summed up by John Wheeler, a noted physicist, who said: “‘When I first started studying, I saw the world as composed of particles. Looking more deeply I discovered waves. Now after a lifetime of study, it appears that all existence is the expression of information’” (p. 179). The cosmos, it seems, is not ultimately mindless matter-in-motion; it is, rather, imprinted with an immaterial pattern, bearing information, or (as Christians have always believed) a Logos responsible for the design everywhere evident. Just ponder for a moment the widely-heralded fact that every cell in your body contains as much information as 30 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica! This Logos-structured world is increasingly evident as we begin to grasp the majesty of DNA, aptly defined by President Bill Clinton as “‘the language in which God created life’” (p. 1919).
Darwin himself recognized this manifest design but sought to discount it as only “apparent,” not real. Similarly, his modern apostle, Richard Dawkins, admits (in The Blind Watchmaker) that “‘Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having designed for a purpose’” (p. 183). But be not deceived, he insists, it’s all an illusion spun by the random machinations of natural selection. Such statements, Pearcey shows, pervade evolutionary literature, imploring us all to ignore common sense and believe the sacrosanct theory launched by Darwin. Outside the faithful community of naturalistic evolution, however, we find alternatives expressed by thinkers such as Nobel Prize-winner Arno Penzias, who says: “‘Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say “supernatural”) plan.’ In fact, he says, ‘The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole’” (p. 189).
Thus, Pearcey argues, the Bible contains the necessary ingredients for a coherent worldview. Taking it seriously, living in accord with its precepts, gives us the basis for cultural activities. Interested readers may begin this endeavor by consulting the annotated “recommended reading” list she supplies.
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For several years Nancy Pearcey worked with the late Chuck Colson, doing much of the research underlying his BreakPoint radio program and coauthoring his monthly column in Christianity Today. Re-examining their coauthored How Now Shall We Live (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., c. 1999), one suspects that Pearcey did the bulk of the research and preliminary writing with Colson adding his personal touch (scores of personal anecdotes, mostly taken from his prison ministry) and imprimatur. This is especially evident in the book’s structure (basically duplicated, with added scholarly references in Pearcey’s subsequent Total Truth), stressing four themes: Creation (where did I come from?); Fall (what’s wrong with me and the world?); Redemption (is there any hope?); and Restoration (how can we help repair what’s wrong?). A probing query from Ezekiel, struggling in Babylon during the exile, sets the stage: “How should we then live?” (33:10, KJV).
We should live, Colson and Pearcey answer, by crafting and following a biblical worldview, empowered by the realization, as St. Hippolytus said in the third century, that when Jesus ascended “‘His divine spirit gave life and strength to the tottering world, and the whole universe became stable once more, as if the stretching out, the agony of the Cross, had in some way gotten into everything’” (p. 13). Thus everything, rightly understood, points to and leads to the Christ. All truth is God’s truth! As the great astronomer Johannes Kepler declared: “‘The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony which has been imposed on it by God’” (p. 51).
Our challenge, as Christians, is to both discover and proclaim this truth in a world increasingly skeptical of all truth claims, frequently claiming to find neither rational order nor harmony anywhere. Such skepticism grows logically from the philosophical naturalism dominant in our culture and on display in school textbooks, PBS programs, and the EPCOTT Center in Disney World. In accord with the “just so” naturalistic story, for billions of years things just happened without design or purpose. Lifeless chemicals somehow ignited biological beings (protons and molecules) mysteriously structured by DNA strands. And we human beings are nothing more than enlivened chemicals, inexplicably endowed with both consciousness and self-awareness and conscience. This is the materialist creed; consequently, as C.S. Lewis said: “‘The Christian and the materialist hold different beliefs about the universe. They can’t both be right. The one who is wrong will act in a way which simply doesn’t fit the real universe’” (p. 307).
To Colson and Pearcey, the Christian worldview enables us to live wisely and well in the real universe, for “Christianity gives the only viable foundation for intellectual understanding and practical living” (p. 489). Whatever our gifts, whatever our vocation, we may play a vital role in God’s work so long as we do it Soli Deo Gloria—only to the glory of God! We especially need to give attention to our homes, churches, and neighborhoods and schools, bearing in mind the words of the tempter in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters: “‘What I want to fix your attention on is the vast overall movement towards the discrediting, and finally the elimination of every kind of human excellence—moral, cultural, social, or intellectual’” (p. 331). Our children and friends, as well as the world, need godly (i.e. good) music and literature, art and philosophy, films and TV. Rather than bring Rock & Roll into the sanctuary we need to take Bach into the marketplace! Rather than giving children video games, offer them Lewis’s Narnian chronicles and J.R.S. Tolkien’s trilogy of the Rings.
People also need to live in neighborhoods where broken windows are repaired and playgrounds are safe, where laws are enforced and elders respected. So well-informed political action (e.g. voting!), particularly on a local level, should be part of the Christian vocation. Rather than trying to ape (and somehow Christianize) the world we should seek to transform it with divinely-rooted truths. Thereby we will implement the vision of Francis Schaeffer, to whom this treatise is dedicated, volunteering for service in Christ’s corps of intellectual warriors, contending for the Faith once delivered to the saints.