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Art and Armageddon

Richard Speer


Gian Lorenzo Bernini, “The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa,” Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome, 1652

“I recall the words from the Holy Scripture,” intoned that prince of piety, Vladimir Putin, last month at a rally in Moscow. Then he quoted Jesus Christ as recorded in the Gospel of St. John: “‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’” A month earlier, another moral authority, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, riled up the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando with this call to arms: “We need people all over the country to be willing to put on the full armor of God to stand firm against the Left’s schemes. You’ll be met with flaming arrows, but the shield of faith will stop them!” 


Theocracy and the hypocrisy that so often accompanies it are on the rise around the world, exemplified by the Russian Orthodox patriarchs who bolster Putin’s brutality in Ukraine and equally by the American Far Right’s crusade against abortion rights in 21 states and counting, DeSantis’ “Don’t Say Gay” law, and the “groomer” and transphobic animus igniting the Republicans’ latest culture war. This is to say nothing of ongoing jihads in quadrants of the Islamic world, ethnic cleansing of Muslims by Christian militias in the Central African Republic, state-sanctioned Hindu attacks on Muslims in India, and ongoing violence between Sunni and Shia in the Middle East, Pakistan, and Indonesia, to cite only a few examples. The linkages between faith and force have colored human history from its inception, but recent escalations are perhaps even more troubling and puzzling, coming even as Gallup polls tell us that, at least in the West, people attend church far less than their parents and grandparents and are increasingly identifying as “spiritual but not religious.”

As an art critic, I have a conflicted perspective on the dialectic between religion and secular humanism. As a proponent of Enlightenment thinking and science, I staunchly support the separation of church and state and abhor the encroachment of dogma into our personal and political lives. Yet I’m also capable of being moved to tears by the opening lines of Genesis, the closing strains of Handel’s “Messiah,” the epiphanic swoon of Bernini’s “Ecstasy of St. Teresa.” Wherever any of us might stand on the continuum from belief to nonbelief, we cannot dispute that historically, world religions have generated a preponderance of the world’s masterpieces of visual art, architecture, music, literature, and philosophy. Without the founts of creeds —mythological, pagan, and monotheistic — we would have no Bhavagad Ghita or Tao Te Ching, no Torah or Koran, no Aboriginal songlines, creation myths of the Maya, Inca, Aztec, Zulu, and Boshongo, no mask of Tutankhamun, “Last Supper,” or Sistine Chapel ceiling, no Bach B-minor Mass or Schubert “Ave Maria,” no Rumi, Homer, Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen, Dante, Milton, Coleridge, Martin Luther King Jr., C.S. Lewis, or Cormac McCarthy ...


To be sure, plenty of our preeminent artists and thinkers were essentially hired hands who, absent religious patronage, found secular subject matter to inspire their genius. For every devout J.S. Bach, there was a Raphael, godly in professional life, libertine in private. And yes, there’s a plenitude of art that celebrates humanist values and deconstructs quotidian conundrums, especially since the advent of modernism. But modernism is a recent development, and if humanism is ever to surpass mysticism as a fount of aesthetic inspiration, it has a lot of catching up to do.


Raphael, “Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” ca. 1507, oil on wood panel, 28 1/2 x 22”

The tensions between religion and secularism vis-à-vis aesthetics are indubitably thorny. How to account for the uplift we feel at Chartres, Machu Picchu, or Angkor Wat when the excesses of evangelical zeal have led to the atrocities of the Crusades, the molestation of uncountable children by clergy (Catholic and otherwise), and the unconscionable subjugation of women worldwide? Are we in the 21st Century still to embrace supernatural beliefs as windows into the grandeur of the unknown and lodestars of our moral compasses, or do we try to expunge them from contemporary life altogether, as irrelevant or antithetical to contemporary concerns? 


I thought about this quandary a lot this month as the Ukraine invasion grew ever grimmer and I found myself reading three books by the late public intellectual Christopher Hitchens. A key figure in the New Atheist movement, Hitchens, like his friend Richard Dawkins, believed that religion has no place in the halls of government or the academy. Known for his acerbic wit and Oxford-honed eloquence as a debater, he penned a bestseller entitled “God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.”


Trina McKillen, “Bless Me Child for I Have Sinned,” 2010-13, glass, marble, wood, nails,

metal, nickel-plated composite, linen and Plexiglas, 102 x 94 x 58”. Photo: Rubin Diaz

As I spent time with his ideas these last weeks, my thoughts kept returning to another provocateur, author and essayist Camille Paglia, whom I’ve been reading since the mid-1990s. An atheist like Hitchens, Paglia nonetheless believes that comparative religion should form the centerpiece of every school’s curriculum. A critic of Hitchens’ thesis that God is not great, she countered that she would stake her entire reputation on a single line from her magnum opus, “Sexual Personae”: “God is man’s greatest invention.” In her 2003 essay, “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness,” she held: “I don't believe there is a God, but I respect every religion deeply. All world religions contain a complex system of beliefs regarding the nature of the universe and human life that is far more profound than anything that liberalism has produced: a huge metaphysical realm that involves the eternal principles of life and death ... What are these sneering, snarky atheists offering in place of religion? In my system, I offer art and the whole history of spiritual commentary on the universe ... Teaching religion as culture rather than as morality gives students the intellectual freedom to find the ethical principles at the heart of every religion.”


It’s perennially discouraging that people on the same side of contentious issues are often the first to throw one another under the bus. Whither collegiality? Although Hitchens relished taking on sacred cows like Mother Teresa, Princess Diana, and Henry Kissinger, he rarely resorted to the brand of ad-hominem attacks that Paglia levied upon him for ostensibly disavowing the religion/art connection. For this offense she labeled him and his New Atheist compatriots “adolescents ... juvenile, symptomatic of a stunted imagination ...  glib ...  an absolute fraud ...” (Salon, 2015) and held that “Hitchens’ argument that religion is the source of everything negative in the history of mankind is absolute nonsense ... I think it’s very bad for a culture to imagine that there is enough sustenance in the secular worldview to help people along in life. I feel that religion and art, in tandem, present a very complete worldview” (Third Way, 2008). Such petty sniping between would-be allies is akin to theologians debating how many angels would fit on the head of a pin — or Piet Mondrian breaking (ideologically at least) with his longtime friend Theo van Doesburg for the mortal sin of turning the neoplastic grid at a diagonal. Today’s progressive thinkers, in particular, suffer from a self-destructive proclivity to nitpick with one another while the united enemy slouches toward Bethlehem.


Paglia, in fact, is underinformed when she proclaims Hitchens ignorant of religion’s value to nonbelievers. His 2011 essay “When the King Saved God” is a love letter to the King James Bible, singing the praises of “crystalline prose ... a giant step in the maturing of English literature ... rivaled only by Shakespeare ... a repository and edifice of language which towers above its successors ... A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one.” Not much daylight between that caliber of big-picture appreciation and Paglia’s. Both are appreciating a religious text not as God’s word, but as a historical and literary document nonpareil. 


As a ceaseless progression of internecine squabbles within the Democratic Party in the face of lockstep Republican stonewalling has demonstrated, you can hand two compatriots the keys to the kingdom, and they will stand by, bickering over what color to paint the gate, even as the barbarians storm it.


Before and After:

(l.) Church of St. Ignatius of Mariupol, Ukraine. (r.) A Ukrainian serviceman takes photos of a demolished church in Mariupol, Ukraine, after the residential area was hit by Russian shelling. Photo: Evgeniy Maloletka / Associated Press

All of which goes to show that when theocrats in Russia or Washington weaponize religion to justify war in Ukraine or run roughshod over the U.S. Constitution, we should pay attention to the words they use and the spiritual traditions they invoke. As both Hitchens and Paglia acknowledge, religious texts wield enormous power to stir emotions, galvanize tribalist grievance, mobilize hot and cold warriors, and alter the course of history. If, all too comfortable in the bosom of secular insularity, we allow ourselves to forget or ignore the importance of religious history — regardless of whether we subscribe to any doctrine — then how can we comprehend and counter Putin’s byzantine rationales for forcing Ukraine back into the would-be motherland’s embrace?  


The underground river of Russian history runs deep and rich beneath the gilded onion domes and sparkling icons of her Orthodox basilicas. Putin is not the only Russian who would restore some twisted ideal of a sprawling Christian empire. To the extent that this conceit resonates with those who support or fear him, his invocation of Scripture is not just some theoretical parlor game between believers and nonbelievers of subtly different stripes. When an unhinged man with wounded pride sits in the Kremlin with one hand on the Holy Bible and the other on the nuclear button, it’s a matter of existential consequence for us all.

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