Christianity, culture and Culture

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.

The first page of the Gospel of Mark in my Bible. This is what happens when a geek becomes a Christian.
The first page of the Gospel of Mark in my Bible, complete with multiple annotations and underlinings. This is what happens when a geek becomes a Christian.

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.

Rembrandt, 'The Return of the Prodigal Son' (1661-69). What story is Rembrandt telling here? Why is the rich man embracing the man in rags? Who are the onlookers? Why are the rich man's hands unmatched?
Rembrandt, ‘The Return of the Prodigal Son’ (1661-69).
What story is Rembrandt telling here? Why is the rich man embracing the man in rags? Who are the onlookers? Why don’t the rich man’s hands match?

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?

The ruins of St. Mary's Abbey, in York, which was abandoned during the Reformation. Will the modern drive towards secularisation see the same fate befall the Christian fate?
The ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, York, which was abandoned during the Reformation. Will the modern drive towards secularisation see the same fate befall Christianity?

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?

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3 thoughts on “Christianity, culture and Culture

  1. Interesting questions, and very thought-provoking. It’s certainly possible to appreciate a work of art, for example, for its beauty or emotional impact, without knowing anything about the reasons why it was created or what it symbolizes or even anything about who is being depicted. For example, I’ve forgotten what little I ever knew about ancient Assyrian history but I’m moved to tears every time I see the dying lioness in the Lion Hunt frieze at the British Museum. The great European cathedrals are visited by hordes of people yearly; the details of what they’re looking at may have become obscure to some and are unknown to others, but it seems hopeful to me that these places are considered by so many, from around the world and from different religious traditions than mine, to be must-see sites/sights.

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  2. Be it religion, modern art or classical music (not to mention even contemporary classical music) – it needs people explaining the relevance to our culture and to the world’s cultural heritage. People with knowledge and with a narrative gift. And it needs the consciousness that culture is important as materialism will not give us an answer to existentialist questions. Religion and philosophy can help us finding such answers while arts will help us endure uncertainty about the validity of those answers.

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