Nancy Pearcey, author of Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity and How Now Shall We Live? (co-written with Chuck Colson), has long been one of the leading voices of Francis Schaeffer’s legacy. Schaeffer argued that the pulse of an era’s ideology is in its art; in her newest book, Saving Leonardo, Pearcey extends this idea through what she calls the “upper story/lower story” framework, arguing that “secular” worldviews are reductionist because they view the world primarily through either rational thought or emotion—what she calls the fact/value split. The Enlightenment tried to stuff reality into a purely reason-driven box, while the Romantics rejected the head in favour of the emotions, and that basic dichotomy, Pearcey argues, is still a useful framework for understanding the ideas that drive cultural leaders—especially artists.
The ultimate aim of Saving Leonardo, then, is to demonstrate the paucity of secular worldviews when compared to a worldview rooted in the Bible that recognizes man as both body and soul and acknowledges that truth is, as Pearcey puts it, “unified and universal” (25).
But—importantly—the book also seeks to alert readers to how the culture they consume shapes them: a familiar refrain to many Comment readers. Worldviews are embedded and embodied in works of art, and Pearcey proposes that our own worldviews are shaped by what we view—unless we can detect the wrong ideas and know the truth.
Saving Leonardo is unabashed about its American conservative political orientation, a fact that will likely not trouble many of its readers. But even those who are disposed to quibble will find the book impressive, with high-quality full-color reproductions of a host of artworks and a staggeringly intense, comprehensive, and highly readable survey of the history of art and philosophy—truly, no small feat. While Christian schools and home schools will probably make the most use of the book, many adults could also probably use a brush-up on their knowledge of, say, Degas, or phenomenology.
Saving Leonardo is dense, and its primary subject is art, so every reader is likely to find something to argue with while nodding in agreement elsewhere. The book is strongest in its centre narrative; the beginning and ending chapters, which attempt to deal with popular culture, politics, culture-making, and other contemporary topics feel scattered and stumble at times—as if they’d been added to help the ordinary evangelical understand why they need to care, but lack the care and rigour of the centre sections.
The chapter entitled “Morality at the Movies,” for example, tries to evaluate worldviews in Hollywood films, but takes the easy way out, falling onto some tired, bizarrely out-dated films that have been written about extensively (Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Crimes and Misdemeanors) and rushing madly, in a scant two pages, through examples of films that speak to the human condition, culminating in a ringing endorsement of that most recent Christian film, Fireproof.
Pearcey acknowledges that the chapter is not meant to be comprehensive, but in a book aimed at a popular audience, it seems a serious oversight not to spend time on what is probably today’s most widely-consumed and pervasively culture-shaping art form. And the kind of analysis for which the book calls, one that considers how ideas shape us, isn’t really here: for instance, every Christian college’s favourite film, Braveheart, is called an “inspiring account of the Scottish fight for independence”—yet, a nuanced look at the film would be less caught up in the rousing speeches and more aware of the troubling values of individualism, easy judgment, and over-romanticism (both in relationships and on the battlefield) that Braveheart can cause its viewers to embrace.
That said, I was more often in agreement with much of Saving Leonardo than I expected to be. Yet I was also vaguely uneasy throughout. Worldview talk can tend to over-privilege ideas while playing down how our desires shape what we truly believe. The forces that shape us are much more visceral and embodied than just our ideas. To ignore this truth is to subscribe to our own version of the fact/value split.
But that wasn’t what troubled me most. On reflection, I started to realize the problem lay deeper than simply the premise of the book.
Let me briefly digress. Last semester, a prominent voice in the Christian worldview discussion visited the college at which I teach. When I was a homeschooled teenager, I was a committed and eager participant in the curriculum that his organization produced, which aimed to do much what Saving Leonardo asks of us: help us figure out the ideas that drive the world we live in so that we do not unthinkingly accept them and so that we therefore more effectively reach our neighbours for the gospel.
In what would have seemed like a bizarre activity to the outside observer, my friends and I, with our families, gathered each Saturday night at a friend’s house to watch videotaped lectures on topics ranging from euthanasia to rock music to the problem of evil. We took notes and participated in post-lecture discussions about the topics.
Each lecture laid the ideas it presented against a framework of four worldviews that were, we were told, vying for our hearts and minds: Marxism/Leninism, cosmic humanism, secular humanism, and biblical Christianity. A handy grid helped us understand these worldviews better. Various categories—science, psychology, law, and so on—were arranged along the Y axis, while the four worldviews ranged across the X axis. So, for instance, we could easily see that in the area of politics, secular humanism stood for world government, Marxism/Leninism for the new world order, cosmic humanism for the New Age order, and biblical Christianity for justice, freedom, and order. All three non-Christian worldviews founded their biology on evolution (Darwinian and sometimes punctuated); Christianity stood for creation.
We were learning about worldviews in order to be able, ostensibly, to love our neighbours well. But in reality, we spent a lot of time after the lectures disparaging those whose views were different than ours: hippie lefties, Bill Clinton, environmentalists, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, over-educated college professors. One of our favourite jokes was about those whose “minds were so open that their brains had fallen out.” My little brother thought for a long time that “Democrat” was actually a profanity. You get the idea.
While some of this joking was undoubtedly all in good fun for our parents, our minds were impressionable enough that it was startling to discover, upon entering adulthood, that most people on the opposite side of politics weren’t actually actively out attempting to destroy civilization, but were chasing their vision of what a good society would look like, just like the rest of us. The forces that shaped my vision of a good society were often very different from someone else’s, but most of us wanted roughly the same thing: safety, justice, prosperity.
Although I was chagrined to discover at the lecture last month that there are apparently now six worldviews, not four (postmodernism and Islam were added)—it felt sort of like Pluto’s demotion all over again—I heard some of the familiar concepts: When you’re reading the paper in the morning, the speaker told us, if you understand the six worldviews, then you easily categorize what you’re reading by the worldview to which it corresponds. That way, you won’t be taken in by false ideas.
I left feeling mostly nostalgic, but ran into a student in the elevator—someone I know to be thoughtful and careful in her thinking, especially after sitting under the rigorous instruction of my colleagues for the last several years—who was actually quite irate. She fumed a bit, and said something that gave me pause: “No wonder people are concerned about evangelicals, if we tell teenagers that there are only six categories of people, and if you know what they are, then you can understand the whole world.”
The point, of course, is that a worldview framework that can help us identify false ideas can quickly become a categorize-and-dismiss system—an easy way for us to put our “opponent” in a box and ignore what they have to say, all in the name of “loving them.” Then we can even joke about them or sneer at them. This tendency, I submit, has more to do with why young people hate politics (a question Pearcey asks in the introduction to Saving Leonardo) than some are willing to admit. And naturally, it goes both ways: consider the well-worn argument of the new atheists and their less severe cousins that Christians ought not to have a voice in the public square simply because they are Christian.
In Saving Leonardo, Pearcey, to her credit, recognizes and warns against this tendency, frequently reminding us that we can appreciate the artistry and skill of a painter without having to agree with his worldview and that we must examine our hearts before examining others and be motivated primarily by love. Several times, she reiterates the idea that we study worldviews to “demonstrate love for others . . . to get inside their thinking and find ways to connect God’s truth with their innermost thoughts and questions” (18). We should be proactive in acquiring literacy about what drives our culture—through an examination of the art around us—in order to “get ahead of the cultural curve and learn how to speak God’s truth anew to each generation” (132).
But what contradicts this is her tone—which tends to employ combative language, sometimes quite angrily—and consistent use of “us vs. them” language. For instance: “The goal of this book is to equip you to detect, decipher, and defeat the monolithic secularism that is spreading rapidly and imposing its values on your family and hometown” (10). Or, “by analyzing the secularist playbook, Christians will be equipped to counter secularist strategies and communicate more effectively with secular people” (45). The very subtitle of the book is “a call to resist the secular assault on minds, morals, and meaning.” And especially by lumping all Western worldviews other than the Christian one (whether or not we can even say there is a single Christian worldview is another question for another day) into the “secular” camp (and the word is used a lot in the book), whether or not the ideas are separated from the people who hold them, it’s not a stretch to imagine that here Pearcey has given plenty of ammunition to readers inclined to feel uncharitably toward their “enemies.”
This is precisely what made me so uncomfortable as I read the book: the feeling that in so emphatically stating the truth, Pearcey was leaving little room for thoughtful disagreement or the knowledge that those who hold different views are often incredibly intelligent, compassionate, thoughtful people who care about the world and desire to lead significant lives. They are not simply misled away from a Christian worldview by secular ideas. They are not stupid, or insufficient. And I am not more intelligent or worthy than they are because of the way I look at the world.
Instead, for many in the “secular” world, the church has simply failed to show them a picture of a good life, a good society, that they see as worth their time. While Pearcey mentions this, she spends too much time on pointing out wrong ideas and too little time observing that the church’s embodiment of the Bible’s teachings has been insufficient.
Ironically, this imbalance between ideas and embodiment in Saving Leonardo may even constitute its own fact/value split. I’m sure that Pearcey knows and recognizes this danger, but the book’s presentation may subtly undermine its pleas for compassion and self-examination—especially among a less discerning audience.
Furthermore, it’s worth pointing out that my worldview is not something I rationally or neutrally choose to believe. My ideas do not simply trickle down into the way I live my life. No: the way I live my life shapes my worldview—not simply what I believe, but how I believe it. In fact, if postmodern philosophy has taught us anything, it’s that what I believe, the ideas I hold, trickle up from my daily practices. And therefore, being able to accurately identify the wrong “ideas” in a movie I watch will not make me a more faithful Christian if I miss the way the story encourages me to live. I don’t have a worldview. My worldview has me.
So what ultimately worries me about Saving Leonardo is this: the very act of “discerning” worldviews, particularly when divorced from an adequate acknowledgement of our failure not just to think well, but love and live well, can shape our own worldview into one that pities those not like us, prides ourselves on the rightness of our positions, and does not aid us in dwelling among our neighbours and seeking their good. What good is it if we save Leonardo—and lose our souls?