It is sometimes difficult in our modern, secularised world to remember just how big a part religion has played in most people’s lives throughout history. By today’s standards I’m something of an oddball: a 30-something female who regularly goes to church, reads her Bible, and believes that Jesus Christ is the one true Son of God, the giver of salvation and eternal life.
But go back a hundred years and the West is a very different place. The horrors of the Great War are beginning to make some people doubt the Christian faith of their childhood and youth, but only a relatively small circle of radical intellectuals and social rebels will openly declare themselves to be atheist.
Go back another hundred and fifty years or so, and while the Enlightenment philosophers are toying with atheism the church and Christian faith are deeply rooted in the lives of almost everyone in Europe.
Go back still further and you get to the Reformation of the 15th and 16th century, where the question was not ‘is the Christian faith true?’ but ‘what is meant by true Christian faith, and how should we live in the light of this?’ (and ‘what do we do with the people who disagree?’).
In other words, most people in the Western world, for most of the last thousand years or so, have lived in a cultural mileau where the scripture, teachings, traditions, rites and rituals of the Christian church have formed the backdrop of their lives from cradle to grave, and unsurprisingly this has been reflected in their art. Music, sculpture, painting, literature, architecture: all have freely taken Christianity as their theme and subject, confident that their audience will understand without explanation.
Which can be rather disconcerting for the modern reader, accustomed as we are to a secular worldview. What, for example, are we to make of the long sections in Robinson Crusoe dedicated to the hero’s musing on his predicament as evidence of God’s providence and chastisement? How do we make sense of the pictorial representations of the biblical narrative which adorn the walls and ceilings of churches and cathedrals with no helpful explanatory note to tell us who, or what, they depict? How do we approach the poetry of people like Gerard Manley Hopkins in the 19th century or James K. Baxter in the 20th, who wove Christian themes deeply into their work?
For me, the Culture Project has provided an opportunity to explore the rich artistic legacy of my chosen spiritual tradition – but I am an oddity. As our culture becomes increasingly more secular, will whole swathes of our Culture be dismissed as irrelevant, or fade into the obscurity of the incomprehensible, due to a lack of religious literacy and an accompanying scorn for any work which expresses it? I rather hope not.
What do you think? Does the increased secularisation of society play a role in the mainstream disinterest in our literary and artistic heritage? Does it make older works harder to understand?