On 31 October 2017 the Protestant world will celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther posting his 95 theses on the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. Luther was concerned about some of the then-current practices of the Roman Catholic Church and posted 95 objections to these practices to generate conversation. He had wanted to keep the discourse within the Church and so wrote them in Latin so as to be unreadable to the masses. However, within two weeks the theses had spread all over Germany and within two months, all over Europe. In January 1518, Luther’s friends had translated the 95 theses into German, printed them and distributed them. Thus the Protestant Reformation was born.
Other major events were happening in Europe around the same time. The ancient Roman Empire had finally fallen when Constantinople was lost to the Turks (1453), Johannes Gutenberg made the first practical movable type printing press (c 1440), explorers were discovering the New World (1492), and the intellectual ferment of the Renaissance had begun. Naturalism, the worldview that considers only natural elements and believes that all phenomena are covered by the laws of science, leaving no room from the supernatural or the spiritual, developed into the “Enlightenment”. The arts had long been considered the pathway to ultimate reality, but this began to change.
Protestantism, therefore, grew into maturity at about the same time that science overtook the arts as a source for truth. Protestant theology focuses on reason, Protestant churches have plain architecture and plain interiors, and Protestant religious practice avoids the emotional. Protestant evangelistic efforts focus on convincing people of the truth of the Bible and the person of Christ. Understanding that faith comes by hearing the message of God (Romans 10:17), John Calvin felt that the ear was the supreme sensory organ. Perhaps that is partly why Protestantism’s primary claim to sublimity in the arts is its music.
Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy began 1000 years earlier. Their theologies do not neglect reason but focus on authority. Cathedrals and Orthodox churches are breathtaking to behold and both liturgies overflow with ritual and history. Augustine, the most famous early Christian theologian, felt that sight could be a great source of temptation and advocated Christian imagery to replace secular. This may have been a major factor in Catholic and Orthodox visual artistry.
Islam and Hinduism also emphasize beauty, ritual, the emotional and the transcendent.
The World Wars, the possibility of nuclear holocaust, the inequities and insoluble problems of life have proven the inability of reason alone to save mankind. Many have rejected religion, even civic religion, and face a life with no transcendent meaning. Intuitively understanding that naturalistic philosophy is self-contradictory and emotionally unwilling to accept personal oblivion and a meaningless universe, people are searching for more. In response, new religious movements based on paganism, Eastern spirituality, technology, and even mainstream religions have proliferated.
Historically, Protestant Christians have abandoned the arts to our peril. Early reformers rightly objected to ostentation and waste, using the money of the poor to provide magnificent edifices for the rich. But they went too far. Even as God created the natural world and the science that describes it, He created the spiritual world and the arts that reflect it. The Charismatic movement has recognized the need for emotion and ritual in every Christian’s walk with God, and they are the fastest growing Christian group in the world.
Below are some articles describing the impact of the arts on practical matters in the world. I wrote them for seminary, but hope they will be of interest to other readers as well.