In this edition of Radio Free Acton, we speak with cultural historian and author Victoria Coates on the capacity of democracy to inspire great works of art. Coates is the author of David’s Sling: The History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art, and spoke on the topic as part of the 2016 Acton Lecture Series. You can listen to the podcast via the audio player below, and her full Acton Lecture Series presentation is available here.
On November 3rd, Acton welcomed Victoria C. G. Coates, cultural historian and Ph.D, to talk about her argument that democracy has had a unique capacity to inspire some of the greatest artistic achievements of western civilization. She lays out this thesis in her latest book, David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art. In her Acton Lecture Series address, Coates takes as her case studies Michelangelo’s “David” and Albert Bierstadt’s “Rocky Mountains: Lander’s Peak“, describing the roles each played in their respective civilizations as well as the underlying political meanings of each piece.
You can watch Victoria Coates’ lecture via the video player below.
The rise of globalization and the expansion of trade are continuously decried for their disruptive effects, particularly as they apply to “authentic community.”
Indeed, our strides in global connectedness have often come at a local cost, with the small and familiar being routinely replaced by the big and blurry, the intimate with the superficial, and so on. The shift is real and widespread, but it needn’t be the framework of the future.
Disruption is sure to continue as collaboration expands and innovation accelerates around the globe. But while we’re right to be cautious of the merits of such change, we mustn’t forget the opportunities it presents, not just for our economy or personal wellbeing, but for community itself.
Examples of these fruits abound and surround us, from trade to technology to niche hobbies to global missions and so forth, but I was reminded of it recently while watching a “virtual choir” performance by Eric Whitacre, the famous composer and conductor.
Known best for his choral works, Whitacre continues to leverage the technological tools of globalization to gather singers from around the world, each submitting an individual video to contribute to a massive global choir. (more…)
Over the last century, Christianity has declined in social influence across much of the Western world, leading many to believe it has little place or purpose in public life.
In response, Christian reactions have varied, with the more typical approaches being fortification (“hide!”), domination (“fight!”), or accommodation (“blend in!”). In each case, the response takes the shape of heavy-handed strategery or top-down mobilization, whether to or from the hills.
And yet the cultural witness of the church ought to flow (or overflow) a bit differently. For Greg Forster, it has less to do with “cultural lever-pulling,” and a whole lot more to do with joy.
“Christianity is losing its influence in contemporary America because people outside the church just don’t encounter the joy of God as much as they used to,” Forster writes in his latest book, Joy for the World: How Christianity Lost Its Cultural Influence and Can Begin Rebuilding It. “…The joy of God can do what cultural lever-pulling can’t do.”
As we experience the joy of God in Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, our attitudes and activities are transformed. As Christians, our primary task is not to take that transformation and funnel it toward end-game tactics, but to faithfully embody it across culture: blessing our neighbors and cultivating civilization, whether in the family, our work and the economy, or citizenship and community (Forster’s three main categories). (more…)
As Christians living in a secular age, there’s a temptation to use Christmas as a wedge to wage epic new battles to restore Christendom.
But despite the flurry of hackneyed “War on Christmas” tropes, there is, alas, something rather amiss. Though the battlefront may not be a petty replacement of “Merry Christmas” with “happy holidays,” society is obviously devoid of a true understanding of the season, diluting a celebration about the invasion of heaven to a shallow idolatry of tradition for tradition’s sake.
Yet, as Andrew Ferguson reminds us, despite its best efforts, culture cannot, and indeed, doesn’t want to escape the “true meaning of Christmas” after all. In many ways, Ferguson writes, alluding to G.K. Chesterton’s famous words, it’s impossible to live in a post-Christian age.
Some things can’t be undone, and chief among them is the Light that was lit the first Christmas morning, while choirs of angels sang above,” Ferguson writes. “It can be ridiculed and parodied, satirized and scoffed at, obscured and sentimentalized, but it won’t be extinguished. So even a secular age continues to go through the motions, singing the same songs, sometimes the old songs, without quite knowing why.
And those songs — they bring such revelation and power, wherever they find a welcome set of lungs. (Yes, wherever.)
It is with Christmas music, Ferguson argues, that we see the Christian witness endure at its finest, not via an antagonism of tacky cultural kitsch, but through an elevation of the true and serious joy of Christ:
A good carol, said the great musicologist Percy Deamer, “was witness to the spirit of a more spontaneous and undoubting faith.” The effusions were organic, growing from the bottom up, and like the Gospels themselves, filled with metaphors taken from field and hearth…
…To take life”—and hence Christmas—”with real seriousness is to take it joyfully,” Deamer went on. “For seriousness is only sad when it is superficial: the carol is thus nearer to the truth because it is jolly.” The opposite isn’t necessarily true, by the way. “All I Want for Christmas Is You” [by Mariah Carey] might be described as jolly; no one would describe it as serious. “Joy to the World,” on the other hand, is both. A Christmas carol is meant to liberate us from phony seriousness and phony good cheer.
In the past that lesson has often been lost, at times even more thoroughly than in our own day—a reminder that should cheer us up, if you’ll forgive the expression. The serious joy, or the joyful seriousness, of Christmas is offensive to the grim Christian.
Carols offer a profound example of cultural engagement done right, shining a blinding light that, by virtue of its truth, goodness, and beauty, welcomes a lost world even as it wages war against hell.
Thus, as we worship and magnify Jesus this Christmas season, let us avoid petty battles against petty gods, whether of blind consumerism or nostalgic knick-knackery. Instead, let us exude and share the serious joy that comes from being a child of the living God. Let us simply sing, and sing of Jesus.
And let earth receive her King.
“God somehow demands of us so much more than this transactional nature. It is really about the gift that we’ve been given, and the only response we can give back is with extravagance, with gratuitous beauty.” –Makoto Fujimura (Episode 6, For the Life of the World)
We live in a society that has grown increasingly transactional in its way of thinking. Everything we spend or steward — time, money, relationships — must secure a personal reward or return. Even when we give things up for “useless” activities, it is framed in terms of self-indulgence or personal release. We are making “me time,” “emptying our busy brains,” or “rewarding ourselves.” Even our wasteful moments are in the service of balancing some imaginary busyness ledger.
But countering our transactional nature will require far more than surface-level tweaks such as these.
In For the Life of the World, Evan Koons discovers that we must learn to appreciate the value of God’s creation in and of itself. If we hope to unlock the Economy of Wonder, we must realize that everything need not be tied to or offered up for some sort of pragmatic use. God wants us to be gift-givers who focus not on scarcity but divine abundance.
In a new video blog, musical artist Sara Groves touches on these same themes, inspired by artist Makoto Fujimura, who also makes an appearance in FLOW. “Pragmatism and utility have infected every area of life,” she says. “…It’s the artist’s role to push back against pragmatism and utility.” (more…)
One of the long-running mistakes of the church has been its various confinements of cultural engagement to particular spheres (e.g. churchplace ministry) or selective “uses” (e.g. evangelistic conversion).
But even if we manage to broaden the scope of our stewardship — recognizing that God has called us to pursue truth, goodness, and beauty across all spheres of creation — our imaginations will still require a strong injection of the transformative power of Jesus.
When we seek God first and neighbor second, we no longer proceed from the base assumptions of earthbound goods — the “love of man” what-have-you. Yes, our goals and actions will occasionally find overlap with those of the world, but eventually, the upside-down economics of the Gospel will set us apart. We will do certain things and make certain sacrifices that are foreign and incomprehensible to those around us.
This has implications for all areas, but much of it boils down to our basic views about the human person: his and her dignity and destiny as an image-bearer of an almighty God. Once our hearts are transformed according to his designs and our views about our neighbors are aligned to God’s story about his children, our cultural engagement will manifest in unpredictable and mysterious ways. This is, after all, what it means to be strangers in a strange land, as Episode 1 of For the Life of the World artfully explains.
In his latest book, Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel, Russell Moore offers some valuable reflections along these lines, noting that we can’t possibly stand as witnesses of God’s love if our cultural comings and goings fail to respond through the lens of Christ’s kingdom. “The kingdom of God changes the culture of the church by showing us a longer view of who’s important and who’s in charge,” he writes.
What cultural engagement really requires, then, is a careful destruction of that basic lie the enemy continues to spread and embed across societies and civilizations: that the love of man and the worship of his goals is, indeed, enough. (more…)