Monday, May 10, 2004

Folk religion means ignoring the art critics

Robert Ellwood, one of my favorite and most-readable historians of religion, has a new book out, Cycles of Faith, a sort of lifespan-development theory of how the major religions of the world grow, develop, and change.

Christianity he places in the Folk Religion phase, when although still vibrant, the religion is no longer organically connected to the sources of political power and to "high culture" generally.

Today, although plenty of third-rate and derivative art is produced and although such artists as the early twentieth-century symbolists have drawn from alternative esoteric strands of spirituality, art based on the dominant religious traditions that could be called original and distinguished is miniscule."

The 19th century, Ellwood notes, had its "revivals" -- Gothic Revival, Byzantine Revival. But in the 20th century, "high culture" no longer depended much on religion for inspiration. Even church architecture, after a Modernist phase, seems to have drifted into lassitude.

Into this atmosphere comes Image: A Journal of the Arts & Religion

Image's manifesto: One of the legacies of the modern era has been the secularization of culture. For much of the twentieth century, the belief that God is dead, or at least inaccessible, has stripped a great deal of religious vision and wisdom from the modern imagination. Most of our leading critics and thinkers have been skeptical of, or indifferent to, artistic expressions of religious faith.

A culture is governed by its reigning myths. However, in the latter days of the twentieth century, there is an uneasy sense that materialism cannot sustain or nourish our common life. Thankfully, religion and art have always shared the capacity to help us to renew our awareness of the ultimate questions: who we are, where we have come from, and where we are going.

They are trying, but I think that Ellwood may be right.