Lent this year has, for me, been an occasion of some meager recollection of that spirituality, with a greater recognition – or admission – of how much better I do with that kind of structure. I would once have bristled about a lack of spontaneity in such a format, but that is starting to look more and more to me like a function of age, of a certain sort of youthful enthusiasm, like that which would see "self-expression" as a key part of art, but which is coming to appear more and more like a substitution of mere energy for real vision. Prayer seems more like art in that way to me, I think, where there is certainly something to be said for sincerity, of course, but where that is revealed to be pretty thin beer the longer you sit with it.
Then somewhere near the end of the evening Mike said something to me about being weak in art history, particularly as regards its tie to theology and theological history: a thought that he had expressed earlier in the evening's conversation. Something recently had gotten me thinking about how I started picking up that interest, myself, back in the summer of 1991 in Madison. Perhaps that had come up in the "spirituality and autobiography" conversation with Meg last week, as we also talked about her work in, and thoughts about, theatre. So I found myself making a bit a strange recommendation to Mike in suggesting that he might want to start reading in that direction the same way that I did: through the Protestant Fundamentalist theologian Francis Schaeffer. I call this a bit of a strange recommendation in that quite disagree with Schaeffer on a great many things, now, finding him guilty of trying to squeeze too much into the formula he was describing as he attempted to diagnose the shift of Western culture from its Christian philosophical, theological and spiritual roots to a new Secularist paradigm, basing far too much of the latter on Existentialism. The phenomenon he is trying to describe is a real one, it was just that he oversimplified the mechanism of how that shift was occurring, resulting in a number of problematic descriptions and assessments in support of his overall argument.
But nevertheless, like Merton said about Tertullian, "he's worth reading even when he's wrong." The genius of Schaeffer was that he tried to do a very necessary work that it us utter anathema in today's academic culture: he tried to be a generalist. The generalist tries to master a great many fields so that their interaction can be described. For all the noise we make today about being "interdisciplinary," it's all too easy to find fault with someone who tries to do this, because no one today can possibly master all major fields of human knowledge. I just found fault with him, above, although I might argue that I was speaking as a specialist somewhat closer to the heart of his program. But it's not his ambition or his intention with which I am finding fault, nor am I trying simply to be an academic nit-picker. I think that those attempts at speaking in a more "generalist" way are important, and that is a work that particularly falls to theology among the sciences. (See the "definition" of theology I have on my profile page, to see more of that idea.)
So, why the recommendation to Mike? Schaeffer seriously attempts to incorporate art history into his survey of the shape of how our culture is and has been shifting, integrating it into his philosophical, theological, historical and political argument as a serious voice and influence in the cultural conversation. So: music, art, film – all these were major fields for a Christian to know, which was a rather novel position in American fundamentalism in the 1960s or 70s. As a model, or a starting-point in trying to get a sketch of an integrated view of art and the history of ideas, Schaeffer still strikes me as a useful starting point, in just the way a lot of theological educators might use Justo Gonzalez's survey histories of theology for undergraduate or Master's students who are trying to learn their way "around the map" of history, even though you will tell them later on to toss out a lot of the generalizations that Gonzalez makes as they grow more competent. Mike is more than competent enough in the general history of thought, and in Christian thought in particular, that he could read Schaeffer without swallowing it all whole, as I did as a beginner in such things, where I had to continue to work just to see how much more there was to learn than his direct summations. So for the first time in 15 years I find myself hefting the one-volume work How Should We Then Live? The Decline of Western Thought and Culture, which became Schaeffer's major entry into public conversation on the cultural impact of the anti-Christian shift in Secularism, both as a book and even more as a documentary series. (Which is an interesting story in itself, given that this documentary series was produced in many ways as an answer to the more-or-less uniform Secularist vision given in many PBS documentaries of the time, with PBS protesting – in all sincerity – that they couldn't show something that was so one-sided in its perspective.)
It'll be interesting to revisit this just for intellectual autobiographical reasons in seeing whether it does indeed work for Mike in the way I suspect. I figured that the Protestant orientation would be familiar, and that its direct and popular nature would make for a far easier starting-point than something like the vast (and very Catholic) theological aesthetics of Hans Urs von Balthasar, however much better Von Balthasar's work might be in a more final sense. Bob Foster is going to be in town tomorrow and we're gathering to enjoy his company – "Thursday is the new Friday," quipped Amy – and it'll be interesting to see whether he agrees with my thought that this could still be a useful starting-point for Mike in trying to integrate art history into his theological work.