Tuesday, April 29, 2014

I Blame the Enlightenment

This is all there is, and it’s ugly.—My mum on the lie of realism.

We’ve lost so much.

We don’t know the meaning of art anymore. Right now I’m writing a book that I hope will help people begin to understand fiction. What it means. How it teaches. How to spot the deep-coded messages hidden inside plot twists and imagery.

I have such an easy job.

Fiction is easy. When it comes to the other arts, I feel like a complete dunce. My musical education began three-quarters of my life ago, and I’ve only just begun to understand what and how it communicates. I’ve never really studied architecture, although even I can tell what Brutalism says. As for pictorial arts, I have next to no idea, although Paul Johnson convinced me that Picasso was just about the most despicable creature in history.

The Birmingham Library, which says, "BOW TO YOUR FACELESS OVERLORDS"
We Christians are such infants when it comes to culture. And the sad thing is that our fathers were once so much wiser than we. JS Bach, Edmund Spenser, and whoever designed Chartres Cathedral worked according to a complex philosophy of art and culture, using an incredibly mature and meaningful system of symbol. But we, we look at the work and not only do we not know what they are saying, we also don’t know why they said it that way.

The main problem confronting Christians when it comes to culture is the bare fact that we are the children of a rebellious age. We were suckled by the world, not by Christendom. We have deep-seated presuppositions when it comes to art, which we’ve never challenged. Perhaps the best antidote is to get back, before the Enlightenment, to a time when Christians breathed the air of Christendom, not the air of modernity. 

In order to begin to understand art and culture from a Christian perspective, we need to begin by asking what it is that we have lost, and how we have lost it.


The Enlightenment. It sounds so benign, doesn’t it? Yet it was a philosophical movement dedicated to the sovereignty of man and the death of God. It spawned many revolutions and even more wars. It has been dancing on Christendom’s grave for more than a hundred years. We may be Christians, but we are children of the Enlightenment and much of our thinking is just baptised modernism. We may be Protestants, but I’m convinced that we actually have less in common with the Reformers than the medieval Romanists had in common with their sons and heirs, the Reformers. For the Enlightenment stands between the Reformation and us. 

This is a confession. It has been true of me in the past, and it will be true of me again. I have no doubt at all that it is also true of you.

Here it is: I am always uncovering bits of Enlightenment thinking in my own worldview. I’ve discovered enough false presuppositions by now to have come to expect it. I’m still looking. This is why we so often need help reading and interpreting Scripture, you know. It’s never just us and the Holy Spirit and the Bible. There are a thousand other whispering voices as well, the spirits of Rousseau and Voltaire, the spirits of Marx and Nietszche, the spirits of Sartre and Friedan, to distract us from what Scripture actually says. I may never have read these philosophers' works, but I drank their worldview with my mother’s milk. So did you.


Last year I read James Gaines’s wonderful book, Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment. It was so much more than a book on music. It was so much more than a book on Bach. For it provided a key that fits every door.

In this book Gaines discusses a clash of worldviews. Bach represented Christendom and the Reformation. Frederick the Great represented humanism and the Enlightenment. Both of them had opposing views about music.

Bach believed that music expressed profound truth about the cosmos. It was orderly: the cosmos was orderly. It had a beginning, middle, and end: so did history. It was characterised by unity and diversity: so was the Trinity itself. Everything about it—from the intervals used in a tune to the number of movements in a work—bore a deep symbolic meaning.

Every time someone talks about "the beauty of the commonplace", I think of Vermeer.
Frederick the Great patronised a new school. Enlightenment music had nothing serious to say about anything. It was the amusement of an idle hour, a way to entertain and divert one from serious occupation, not a serious occupation in itself. Christian music had been characterised by rigorous and cerebral counterpoint. Enlightenment music was characterised by pretty, flowing melodies that required little mental exertion. For the Enlightenment, music had nothing serious to say.

It occurred to me with the force of epiphany that the Enlightenment had not just affected music in this way. It had affected all the arts.


The Enlightenment was the age of paintings like The Swing—silly frilly pictures intended to amuse and titillate, quite different to the moral symbolism of the medievalists. The Good Samaritan Window in Chartres Cathedral, for instance, casts that parable as an allegory of salvation by Christ (the Good Samaritan) after the priest (religion) and Levite (law) prove themselves unable or unwilling to help.

The Enlightenment was also the reason why allegory of the kind written by Bunyan and Spenser was replaced by realistic novels. It was the reason why we lost poetry like Beowulf or Paradise Lost, in favour of Wordsworth going into rhapsodies over daffodils. It was the reason why preachers stopped interpreting redemptive history typologically, as Paul had in Galatians when he claimed that Hagar symbolised the Old, and Isaac the New, Covenant.

This picture is not devoid of symbolism. There's a Cupid and everything! It's totally serious, folks!
 The Enlightenment was the enemy of metaphor, symbol, and allegory. Composing music, painting pictures, writing poetry, or crafting novels had become not a way to tell truth, but a way to provide mindless entertainment. The artistic results can be roughly divided into two schools: the realist and the romantic.


Realism is a creature of the Enlightenment. Realism is not a Scriptural notion. Realism is fundamentally anti-Christian.

Realism sounds wonderful, just like Enlightenment does. But the term is just as deceptive. Pay close attention to this definition, from Wikipedia:

Realism in the arts may be generally defined as the attempt to represent subject matter truthfully, without artificiality and avoiding artistic conventions, implausible, exotic and supernatural elements. [...] Realist works of art are those that, in revealing a truth, may emphasize the ugly or sordid (emphasis added).

Remember George Orwell’s Animal Farm, and the slogan “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”? For realists, ugliness and sordidity is more real than beauty or goodness. And don’t even think about including the supernatural.

Isn't it a wonderful life?
One problem. The supernatural exists. God exists. Angels exist. Beauty and goodness don’t just exist, they triumph in the end.

The world is a lot quirkier than you think. Moses went and faced the magicians of Egypt and turned his staff into a snake. What genre are we in? The magicians then turned their staves into snakes, which in addition to being kind of freaky is not something that gets a lot of attention in Sunday School classes. As ND Wilson points out, it’s the first wizard duel in world literature, and it’s in Scripture.

In realism, Jesus never rose again. He’s certainly never coming back. He doesn’t rule the world from beyond the sky.

In realism, Jesus’ parables don’t mean anything. They’re just stories, told in an idle hour to tickle your fancies.


Romanticism is another creature of the Enlightenment. Romanticism is a lot easier to love, but it’s not a Scriptural notion either.

Romanticism is defined by Wikipedia like this:

The movement validated intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that which is experienced in confronting the sublimity of untamed nature and its picturesque qualities.

Romanticism says that the only thing art exists for is to provide an intense emotional experience. This is, at least, closer to the mark than realism. Good art can provoke an intense emotional experience. But that’s not what it’s for.


Both romanticism and realism are children of the Enlightenment. Both of them tell the same lie:
Art has no deeper meaning.

Realism says that the only purpose of art is to reflect, with mirror-like accuracy, the surface reality of life, especially if it’s ugly.

Romanticism says that the only purpose of art is to provide escape and diversion from this unutterably dreary reality.

Both of them refuse to acknowledge that there is some deeper meaning to art than diversion or reflection. If Art has no deep symbolic meaning, then it can only either reproduce “reality”—a reality leeched of symbolic and supernatural dimensions—or escape from it.


Pollock's message: "I don't exist."
Realism leads to chaotic, ugly, and spontaneous art because realism presupposes a world without a creator. Modern art, as it strains towards greater epistemological self-consciousness, is unsatisfied with an appearance of design. If the world is art, then it has an Artist who is sovereign over His creation. But the presence of an Artist, to the realist, is insufficiently real. There is no God, there is no Artist. 

Modern art is an attempt by the artist to erase himself from his own work. That was what Jackson Pollock was trying to do.

Unsurprisingly, the modern church has embraced realism and romanticism as the basic rationales of art. It has also embraced Arminianism, the idea that God chooses not to exercise sovereignty over His creation. Deism was the religion of many Enlightenment thinkers: the idea that God sort of sneezed the cosmos into being and has been ignoring it ever since. In my experience, the Christians most badly affected by the Enlightenment worldview are Arminians.


The antidote is a return to meaning, symbol, and metaphor. A return to allegory, fantasy, and epic. A return to art that peels back the material surface reality to show the goodness, beauty, and truth underneath.

Scripture is replete with such examples. Redemptive history is full of supernatural break-ins. Fire coming down from heaven to devour Elijah’s sacrifice. Prophets watching in the night visions. A King coming back from the dead.

God uses allegory to teach us. “Allegory” is, after all, another word for “parable”. The Authorised Version of the Bible even translates Paul in Galatians 4:22-24 like this:

For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants.

God uses metaphor and fiction to teach us. The Song of Songs. Nathan’s admonition to David. These stories are not entertainment. These stories are not amusement. They are deadly serious. They mean something, something deeper.

We need to return to a Christian idea of art, one that goes further than emotionalism or materialism.


JG said...

Excellent Suzannah - we need to be constantly reminded of this.

Anna Mussmann said...

You present so many things to think about that I'm going to be thinking for quite some time. I have been trying to come to an articulate understanding of the purpose of art, and of writing as art, and I appreciate these points.

Suzannah said...

I'm glad you find it thought-provoking, Anna. I'm afraid this was a somewhat hasty article. But the more I discover about writing, architecture, music, and painting, the clearer it becomes that there was a time, pre-Enlightenment, when all these disciplines had a significant symbolic/allegorical aspect to them which abruptly vanished around the time of the Enlightenment.

Christina Baehr said...

I know you are getting sick of me saying this but....PUGIN!

Suzannah said...

I will! I promise! One day I will Pugin with the best of them!

Marion Isham said...

As Anna says - such a lot to think about. Thanks Suzannah. BTW Is your Faerie Queene available in ye olde paper formatt? Alas, I have no e-reader.

Marion said...

Ooops. I scrolled down and you have a link to print out PDF. Thank you.

Suzannah said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it! Yes, you can get a PDF from Smashwords. Or a paperback from CreateSpace.

Breezy said...

I appreciate this post so much, Susannah. It's helped me further clarify my thoughts on painting/illustrations and has give me a lot of food for thought for other arts, too! I've always been drawn to the more symbolic, but I wasn't quite sure why. I think this article has done me more good than I can fathom at the moment. Quite revolutionary, dear. :)

Suzannah said...

Oh, thank you, Breezy.

This was such a hasty post. Can I just direct you (and everyone) to these lectures by John Hodges.

Most particularly, for the purpose of the visual arts, the one on Chartres Cathedral--"How to Read a Window". All the other BWSC 2012 talks he did lead up to this one, but it's the one that's most stuck in my mind. Even the arrangement of the statues on the outside of the cathedral was done with specific typological purposes in mind. Who knew that something as simple as the location of a statue on a building could be a means of telling the Gospel?

Breezy said...

Fascinating, I can't wait to listen to these! I'm quite giddy; thank you for sharing!

lukeisham said...

"The Birmingham Library, which says, "BOW TO YOUR FACELESS OVERLORDS"" Lolz very true.

Suzannah said...

I probably should have put up a picture of the horrible Brutalist State Government Offices in Geelong, which are similar but even worse if possible. Since I was a very little girl I've hated them with the fire of a thousand suns.

They are on the corner of Fenwick and Little Malop Streets. Also on Fenwick Street, directly across from the offices, is a little Reformed Presbyterian church dating back 150 years or so. The pitch of the offices is more or less exactly the same as the pitch of the church roof. Stand far enough back, and the offices look like they're smothering the church.

Mike said...


I arrived at your blog through searching on anything about Arthur Ransome and his Swallows and Amazons series of books (I will comment on those too) but when looking at your About section then went to Articles and here I am.

An interesting piece. You pose more questions that you answer, but then in my writing so do I!

But the questions you raise make me ask some of my own.

What Christian faith I had was lost between the ages of seven and fifteen (I am now sixty), it was quite simple. When I was seven my brother, my only sibling, was killed in a road accident and at fifteen my father died of a brain haemorrhage. On the death of my brother I asked my mother why God did not bring him back to life as he done Jesus? At the age of fifteen I knew why, it was all a nonsense.

Most importantly for me to make clear at this point is that I would not question your faith, what others believe as long as it does not lead to the harming of anyone else is not for questioning.

In the years since those events though some things trouble me. My upbringing was typical middle England Christian, not regular church going but it was the foundation of most of life, childhood education and beliefs (my mother and her mother retained their belief despite the tragedies – including my mothers brother, her only sibling, being killed in WWII.)

As I got older I became, and still am, fascinated by church architecture (mainly Gothic, but some modern) and stained glass in particular. Church music is often a refuge for me - Tallis and others of his time, and my all time favourite Allegri’s Miserere. The beauty of all these creations was to celebrate the Christian view of the world, so there have been occasions when I wonder if I have missed something, why do I not perceive whatever made these artists produce these things?

Take brutalism. Have you been fortunate to visit Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut chapel at Ronchamp? An architect whose fame outside that arena is for cold brutal buildings, yet the chapel is as moving and inspiring as the Gothic cathedrals at York and Paris and so on (in checking the spelling I found a news report from January that the chapel had been vandalised.)

Your example of the painting The Swing is of course extremely symbolic on many levels (there is a novel by Richard Adams – author of Watership Down – entitled The Girl In A Swing which borrows and uses the symbolism of the painting to tell a sensual story, a mystery, embracing Christianity, psychics, mystery and tragedy.)

Most of the time even in recent years when I have been brought close to death (six years ago I had a stroke, and three years ago a serious blackout from undiagnosed epilepsy) I have not felt a need for faith or religious belief in any form.

Despite this, the meaning of life and how we live a ‘good’ life in the Aristotelian sense continues to interest me (I did a degree in philosophy in my late thirties.)

The purpose of art? What a question. It should express emotions but it has ability to do so in many strange ways. One of my favourite works of art – Carl Andre’s bricks (Equivalent VIII to give it the proper title), I saw them at the Tate in London in the 1970s when the controversy of their cost arose. Then on the other hand Turner’s watercolours, Degas’s pastels of women bathing. They all have their beauty and message.

I look forward to more posts.

Suzannah said...

Mike, thanks for your thoughtful comment. So many of the comments I receive from atheists/agnostics are frankly trollish in quality.

Agreed that The Swing is symbolic, but, I would argue, in a frivolous way. But thanks for the Richard Adams recommendation. I'll have to look it up.

I find myself wondering why you spend so much time discussing your attitude toward your Lord and Master, unless you mean me to respond to it. Well, then. The Lord's purpose in your life is not to make you happy or ensure that you never suffer personal tragedy. The Lord's purpose is to get glory for Himself. Either He will display His mercy and grace through saving you, or He will display His righteousness, wrath, and judgement through holding you to the fully penalty for your rebellion, disobedience, and dishonour.

You are still alive on this good earth which has been given to you. You say that you have not felt a need for faith in any form. That should frighten you, for it suggests that you may be one of those whom your Master has destined to give Him glory through suffering His wrath.

You wonder if you have missed anything. You have not. Creation has always spoken to you, Tallis and Allegri have spoken to you, and so, if as an educated man you have read it, has Holy Scripture. There are your marching orders, sir. There is the document which explains the terms of your servitude to your King, and the dire consequences of disobedience. Repent and flee from the wrath to come.

Mike said...


Thanks for your reply.

I suppose one reason for my views is that I have had many devoted people who try to comfort me by telling me that the tragedies that have visited upon me are God's purpose. This conflicts with the image of God I was taught in school, and in my thinking undermines the nature of God.

When I did my philosophy degree one element was on the philosophical implications of the Holocaust, which was taught to us by a woman rabbi (this matters nothing that the rabbi was female, it was just worth mentioning.) What was particularly interesting was that many devout Jews gave up their faith as they felt God had abandoned them - but then if you believed that then do you still actually believe in his existence?

Thank you for your willingness to discuss such things, but I am as certain in my beliefs as you are yours!



Jess said...

This is a wonderful post! New reader, I will be back!

HappinessSavouredHot (Julie Saint-Mleux) said...

What an amazing post! The Enlightenment was my favorite era to study when I did my Master's in French literature. And I have put some of those paintings on my blog, The Swing for example. :-)

Andrew of the House of Lacey said...

What a wonderful article. This was a splendid portrayal of how the Christian West died and the goddess of reason was exulted! I was particularly intrigued by your thoughts on the Arts being an expression of world view. I have often thought that music is one of the most powerful arts out there, and it is frankly frightening to see how degraded it has become in our modern, as you put it, "realist", culture. I was "enlightened" when I read about how architecture, painting, ext. are similar in their purpose to express either God's world, or man's world. Thank you for this insight!

Suzannah said...

So glad you're enjoying the blog, Andrew.


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