Saving Leonardo: An Interview with Nancy Pearcey

Nancy Pearcey is perhaps the most famous heir of Francis Schaeffer’s legacy.  Her book Total Truth was both a bestseller and award-winner, which can be a rare combination.  

I was delighted to sit down with her to discuss her latest offering, Saving Leonardo, which is just as unique, thoughtful, and important as her last.

The book is Saving Leonardo. Is he in danger?

I wrote the book to be a survival guide to the varieties of secularism that are undercutting freedom and dignity within our culture today.  The reference to Leonardo functions as a metaphor for the way the arts and popular culture channel worldviews deeply into people’s minds and emotions.

The substance of the book is an exploration of the two major “brands” of secularism today.  It’s a little like Ford and Chevy.  We often think of secularism as a single phenomenon, but there are really two strands:  modernism and postmodernism.

Modernism still reigns in the natural sciences, in fields like biology, chemistry, physics, where the dominant worldview is scientific materialism, which treats humans as little more than biochemical machines.  At the same time, postmodernism is rampant in literature, theology, the arts, and similar disciplines.  It is just as dehumanizing because it tends to treat humans as simply the product of social forces, such as race, gender, and ethnic group.  These two streams have created a pincer movement that is crushing human dignity and liberty.

Is there an intellectual connection between modernism and postmodernism, or is it simply historical?

Modernism has its roots in the Enlightenment, and worldviews that aspire to be scientific all cluster under that brand—empiricism, rationalism, logical positivism, analytic philosophy and so on.  These all lead to forms of reductionism that suggest the only world that is real is the world we can see, touch, taste, or measure.  These worldviews deny the spiritual, the moral, and even the emotional, which they reduce to chemical reactions in the brain.

This is where the subtitle of my book comes from.  Modernism assaults “Mind, Morals, and Meaning” by reducing the mind to the brain, reducing morals to our personal preferences, and reducing the universe to a product of blind, material forces, which implies that it has no ultimate purpose or meaning,

This assault lead to a counter-reaction in the Romantic movement.  The Romantics wanted to preserve a sense of the spiritual, but they moved away from orthodox Christianity and toward pantheism.  This stream of thought has given rise to philosophies like existentialism, postmodernism, and deconstructionism.  Saving Leonardo traces the trajectory of these two strands of modern thought.

How does Saving Leonardo relate to Total Truth?

Total Truth is about how truth itself was divided between facts and values.  As I probed this, though, I realized that the division between facts and values was just the tip of the iceberg.  The Enlightenment tradition focuses on the fact realm: what is empirically verifiable and rationally justifiable.  The Romantic stream tended to care about the values realm:  about morality, justice, and the human spirit.  The fact-value dichotomy functions as a sort of hermeneutical key to nearly all of western thought since the Enlightenment.

A lot of people think that modernism came first and postmodernism came later—that the two are sequential.  But in reality they are two types of thinking that exist side-by-side.  People tend to be modernist in many realms of their lives, like in their finances or their business lives, or in dealing with doctors and their health.  But they are postmodern in their theology, ethics, and the arts.  So we’re really dealing with a split mind.

What makes Saving Leonard unique?

Saving Leonardo asks, Who’s writing the script to your life?  Most people are not reading philosophy books; they’re picking up ideas about life from the books they read, the movies they watch, art, literature, and other cultural forms.  That’s where we are most likely to pick up secular ideas—often without realizing it.  So the second half of the book is filled with illustrations and pictures as a way of helping people understand how ideas are communicated through culture.

Let me give you an example.  During the last presidential campaign, ABC news interviewed several teens at a Christian youth rally.  Many of the teens held biblical convictions on current issues—for example most were pro-life.   But the same teens also supported candidates who are in favor abortion.  To the reporter, that sounded like a contradiction.  So he asked the teens, doesn’t that bother you?

Well, one of them said, “it’s all a matter of personal preference.”

Where did they pick up such a relativistic concept of morality?  These teens are channeling David Hume, the arch-empiricist who said that if all knowledge is a matter of sensation, then even moral truths are really just sensations—what feels good to you.  Personal preference.

Plato said philosophers should rule the world, and they do—hundreds of years after they die.  Eventually their ideas filter down into the culture, and a major conduit is the arts.

You’re pretty critical of the Enlightenment.  Do you think there’s anything in the period that is worth holding on to?

Certainly.  The best parts of the Enlightenment were rooted in a Christian worldview.  The Enlightenment was based on the scientific revolution, but that came out of a Christian understanding of nature and the world. Historians of science have pointed out that no other culture, east or west, ancient or modern, ever talked about law in relation to nature.  The Enlightenment understanding of the “laws of nature” came from the medieval notion that if God is both Creator and Lawgiver, then the creation must be lawful.

These were deeply Christian themes that the Enlightenment took and ran with.  They wanted God’s good gifts, but didn’t want God.  If you go back and read some of the founders of the scientific revolution, most were devout Christians.

Sociologist Rodney Stark did a wonderful study of the scientific revolution and identified the 52 most significant scientists who were not just theorists but did ground-breaking work at the origin of modern science—the “stars” of science. Then he examined their biographical information, and all but two were clearly Christians (and historians actually disagree about one of them).  The only clear skeptic was Edmund Halley.  Most of the founders of modern science held a Christian worldview, and it inspired their scientific work.

How should Christians respond to living in an increasingly post-Christian world?

In any culture, Christians have an obligation to live out a Biblical worldview in every area of life.  This is not a Christian problem, it’s a human problem—because everyone aspires to live an integrated, consistent life.  The universe as a whole is an integrated unity, and that means truth must also be an integrated unity, and should be expressed in everything we do.

How that is fleshed out politically is primarily in being faithful in your own sphere of influence.  It’s like happiness—you don’t find happiness by pursuing it directly.  You find happiness indirectly through building relationships, meeting your obligations, engaging in meaningful work, and so on.  For Christians who aspire to have an impact on their society, the same principle holds.  It’s often the byproduct of simply having a Christian mindset in whatever your calling is, living and acting consistently with your convictions.

There have been a lot of popular critiques of worldview-centered approaches to culture, most notably James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. How would you respond?

I had written nearly all of Saving Leonardo before Hunter’s book came out, but in the first chapter I actually quote Hunter saying that the reason Christians have failed to have the social impact they hoped for was that they put all their eggs into the basket of politics.  They overlooked the fact that America’s secular elites had already reached an intellectual consensus on contentious social issues like abortion long before any kind of legal or political measures were taken.  In other words, Hunter himself notes that what came first was shift in worldview.  Ideas are born, nurtured, and developed in the universities long before they step out onto the political stage.

The way I put it in Total Truth is that politics is “downstream” from culture.  And the implication is that it’s time to go “upstream” in order to get a handle on the forces that are shaping politics.

In Saving Leonardo I give the famous quote from Todd Gitlin, former president of the radical SDS.  After the student unrest of the 1960s, he said, the Left “marched on the English department, while the Right took the White House.”  Today we must ask:  Which was the more effective strategy?  The English department is now in the White House.

The implication is that the university is the main shaper of culture today.  The intelligentsia holds the reins of power.  This has not always been the case.  America has historically had a reputation for being non-ideological and pragmatic.  As Calvin Coolidge put it, “The business of America is business.”  And what is America’s only home-grown philosophy?  Philosophical pragmatism.  But we are increasingly a knowledge-based society, and that means whoever is in a position to define what counts as “knowledge” will wield social and political power.

Nancy R. Pearcey is professor of worldview studies at Philadelphia Biblical University. Previously she was the Francis A. Schaeffer Scholar at the World Journal-ism Institute, where she taught a worldview course based on her book Total Truth, winner of the 2005 ECPA Gold Medallion Award for best book on Christianity and Society.

Saving Leonardo is available in bookstores everywhere and online today.

Summer Reading Symposium

We thought we’d help you make it through the summer doldrums by listing a few–okay, more than a few–books that our contributors think you might find worth your time.  Without further ado, then…..

Rachel Motte

Alas, summer doesn’t provide much of a break for those of us no longer in school. I very much dislike hot weather, so I’ll spend my summer holed up in every air conditioned church, office, hotel lobby and theater I can find with the following:

1. The Qur’an

Like it or not, this is something that anyone who wants to engage the culture on a national and international level must read. It’s very difficult to argue fairly against a worldview unless you have first given its primary source material a thorough and open-minded read.

2. The Cambridge Companion to the Qur’an

After reading a primary text on my own, I find it helps to read through other readers’ interpretations to see what I may have missed and to solidify my own views.

3. Stay Home, Stay Happy by Rachel Campos Duffy

I’m convinced that stay-at-home moms have the most difficult job there is. That’s why I’m always interested when an intelligent, well-educated woman wants to talk about how to do the job well.

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Lindsay Stallones

Ain’t nothin’ like a lazy summer day, a tall glass of sweet tea and a good book. For me, summer’s a time to recharge my creativity and challenge my view of the world. Here are my picks for the next few months:

1. Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

The first book in a brilliant fantasy series by film critic and author Jeffrey Overstreet is the kind of delight that sneaks up on you. When I found myself absently sketching the characters weeks later, I realized how powerful the story was. Overstreet is currently writing the final book in the series, The Ale Boy’s Feast, so this is the time to get caught up with the story (Cyndere’s Midnight and Raven’s Ladder).

2. The Marble Faun by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

I take an annual trek through this expatriate murder mystery set in 19th century Rome. Hawthorne wrote that he wanted to write a story that felt like a magic lantern show, where characters pass out of focus and meld into the shadows just as they first become clear. He succeeded. It is haunting, beautiful, and frightening all at once.

3. The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns

I can’t wait to dive into this meditation on Christ’s teachings and the problem of poverty, penned by the president of my favorite charity organization, Worldvision.

And, if you’re going to the beach, I think it’s required to bring a copy of The Odyssey to read as you gaze at the waves.

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Hayden Butler

I’ve always considered summertime to be a season particularly suited to letting our souls come out to play. In that spirit, the three texts above present us with stories that break us out of our everyday modes and allow us to explore ideas and sentiments we might otherwise be too distracted to notice.

1. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

2. The Fairy Tales of Hermann Hesse by Hermann Hesse (Translated by Jack Zipes)

3. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

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Robin Dembroff

Summer reading should be fun. I am saying that partially in bitterness—my summer course coming up will require me to read some pretty fatty (literally and allegorically) books. So, here are the books I wish I had time to re-read, and that, if I hadn’t read them before but knew how simply awesome they are, I’d get extension on my schoolbooks just to read them.

1. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

2. The Brothers K by James Duncan

3. Harpo Speaks by Harpo Marx and Rowland Barber

Okay, okay, the part about extensions is a lie. But still.

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Amy Cannon

Figuring out a summer reading list can be daunting — to say nothing of actually completing it! I am often overwhelmed by the sheer variety of genres, much less individual titles to choose from. To help with these feelings of inferiority, feel free to use my trick, the old mnemonic heard a lot around summertime, though usually only at weddings: “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” To wit:

1. Something old: It’s unlikely that this year’s writers of good beach books are going to surpass the riches of literary history. Time is the most effective book critic, and a novel’s endurance through time is its own best review. Read a classic, something you’ve always wanted to have read and know to be good.  This summer, I’m re-reading The Pilgrim’s Progress which, by any standard, counts as an all-time best seller, and which will surely outlast the summer. As for fun reading, I’m going to trot out my well-worn copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s incomparable Jeeves and Wooster stories. Light (I have injured myself laughing) and lasting, Wodehouse is the perfect thing to give you a mental break without wasting your time.

2. Something new: But, hey, let’s not bash what new literary minds have to offer. See if your favorite contemporary authors have been up to anything lately — if not, try a new author. Though current literary celebrity need not indicate a book’s lasting greatness, it’s a good place to start expanding your reading list. It’s worth trying a new genre as well — only go in for Science Fiction? Try a biography, maybe of Tolkien. Heavy on the non-fiction? Pick up a collection of short stories. I myself can’t wait to sink my teeth into Marilynne Robinson’s new Absence of Mind, based on a set of lectures she’s given on the tendentious relationship between science and religion.

3. Something borrowed: Can’t think of what to read? Ask around! Ask people you respect, friends, neighbors, relatives, the guy at the bookstore, that nice librarian — people who love books love recommending them almost as much as reading them. Besides, we’re friends with our friends for a reason, and though you may not see eye-to-eye with your nearest and dearest on things literary, it’s worth taking at least one book recommendation for your summer reading. I’m taking the recommendation of a friend (who also had the kindness and good sense to just give me the book he wants me to read) to take my first foray into the works of Jacques Maritain, one of the most important Thomists of the 20th century. I’m also setting aside some time for Kathleen Jamie, a poet little known outside of her native Scotland, recommended to me by no less than Garrison Keillor.

4. Something blue: Admittedly the least intuitive mnemonic, I take this to mean “something serious.” Summer isn’t the time to let your critical faculties atrophy. Read books you want to read this summer. Read fun books. But devote some of your leisure time to something that’s good for you. Though we don’t think to lug our tomes of theology or books on budgeting to the beach, times of leisure are often the times we are refreshed enough to read things we would otherwise be too frazzled for. A year out of college is a good time to remember my Complete Works of Plato isn’t useful just as a doorstop, and Calvin’s Institutes seems only to grow larger the longer I leave it on my shelf. My complete set of William Faulkner doesn’t recommend itself for bright, brisk summer reading — nor does the Truman Capote I’ve been meaning to get to — but they can stand to get a little sand in their pages, and are worth a little summertime work…even if I am working on my tan at the same time.

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Sean Patterson

Dallas Willard has long been considered a modern sage on the spiritual life. These three books make an excellent summer read to refresh and deepen your spiritual life. Interestingly enough, the books should be read in reverse chronological order in order to follow a topical progression from general to specific.

1. The Divine Conspiracy

2. The Spirit of the Disciplines

3. In Search of Guidance

As a sidenote, it looks like In Search of Guidance is a little hard to find, and I think Hearing God might make a nice substitute to it.

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Dustin R. Steeve

Relaxing over the summer is good, but don’t lose your edge. My list of top-3 summer reads for this summer is like reading Forbes on the beach – you’ll stay sharp while kicking back.

1) Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind.

Typically, I enjoy non-fiction books; that’s because I’m a nerd. However, the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind has captivated my imagination and lately given me many hours of fun fantasy reading. I highly recommend this series of which Wizard’s First Rule is the first book; it’s the basis of the Legend of the Seeker television show.

2) The Big Short by Michael Lewis OR The Virtues of Capitalism by Austin Hill and Scott Rae.

If the rapid spiral of the housing and stock markets has your head spinning and you’re looking to re-capture a sense of equilibrium, I highly recommend The Big Short. This book will take you behind the scenes of the sub-prime mortgage crisis and give you a helpful snapshot of why things fell apart. If you feel like the forlorn lover of free-market capitalism, re-kindle your passion with The Virtues of Capitalism; it will remind you of the virtues of capitalism that wall street and the media have forgotten.

3) Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell

I read this book while reclined facing the ocean from the living room of my friend’s beach house. It’s a perfect summer read. Gladwell’s winsome manner and thorough research makes for fun, smart, and enlightening reading.

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Jennifer Gaertner

1. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

2. Obasan by Joy Kogawa

3. God’s Silence by Franz Wright

Each of these books is as distinct from one another as the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, but one theme that pulls them together is an ever present and allusive “silence.” Sobering summer reading, Steinbeck’s East of Eden and Joy Kogawa’s Obasan touch upon historical periods and cultures sometimes neglected by modern day audiences and both gravely portray broken familial relationships. Wright’s God’s Silence also calls for the same personal and interpersonal reflection, but in poetic form, and with the enduring hope that someone will answer the silence.

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Jen Hardy

1. Till We Have Faces (C.S. Lewis). I read this once every 4th summer. This fictional re-telling of the myth of Psyche is one of Lewis’ masterpieces, tying together themes of trust/betrayal, selfishness/sharing, paganism/deism, despair/joy and facing oneself. Take a deep look at the darkness of your own heart and the sins against Love in this novel.

2. Common Ground without Compromise (Stephen Wagner): If you’re dedicating any time to think more deeply about the abortion issue, pick up this light reading. It will give you food for thought on the major premises on which both pro-life and pro-choice sides agree.

3. Education for Human Flourishing (Paul Spears & Steven Loomis): For any students, whether about to embark on a new academic journey (starting college or grad school), or in the tired midst of one, think hard about exactly why you are taking that journey. Spears & Loomis dig deep to the foundation of what being educated and educating others is all about.

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Julia Kiewit

1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Jules Verne. Jules Verne is one of my favorite “science fiction” writers. This is an excellent and engaging book, and his novels always center around technology or expeditions that were ahead of his time. As a bonus, this book will probably help expand your vocabulary too!

2. Three Philosophies of Life: Ecclesiastes, Life As Vanity Job, Life As Suffering Song of Songs, Life As Love, by Peter Kreeft. Dr. Kreeft is one of my all time favorite writers and does an excellent job capturing the big ideas in very accessible ways. Most especially though, he writes from a very classical perspective, intertwining theology, C.S. Lewis, and classical works in almost all of his writing. This one is a particular favorite as he looks at Ecclesiastes, Job, and Song of Songs, as three different perspectives on life, and parallels them each respectively with the three parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

3. This Mortal Flesh: Incarnation and Bioethics, Brent Waters. This is one of my favorite new works on bioethics. Brent Waters is definitely in the “Who’s who?” category of individuals in the world of Christian bioethics. For any bioethcs nerds, this is will be intellectual candy. For anyone else interested in seeing what are some of the main categories of bioethics conversations today, this would be a great place to start. ‘

I Told Me So: Self Deception and the Christian Life

Gregg Ten Elshof’s* recent book I Told Me So, which examines the role self-deception plays in the church and in our lives, suffers from an inherent marketing disadvantage.  Recommending it to friends, colleagues, or other non-anonymous individuals carries with it the risk of creating enormously awkward situations:  “But what precisely did you mean by buying this as my birthday present?”  I suggest, for such occasions, something by Andrew Murray instead.

That disadvantage is a pity, as Ten Elshof’s book fills a wide gap in the recent literature on the spiritual life and so deserves a broad hearing.  It is a model of clear, persuasive prose, but more importantly, I Told Me So is a deeply penetrating and highly convicting explication of a phenomenon that receives far too little attention.  It is in this way a helpful companion to such works as Spirit of the Disciplines and The Lost Virtue of Happiness.

Ten Elshof is at his best, and most provocative, when articulating the relationship between self-deception and the truth.  Writes Ten Elshof:

Knowing the truth is, in general, extremely important.  But knowing the truth is not all-important.  On occasion, we find that something else is more important.  Terminal cancer wards are full of patients who believe things we all know to be radically improbable.  They believe that they will be one of the very, very few who fight back and win-or that they’ll be the recipient of a miracle healing in response to the prayers of friends and family.  It’s not just that they believe that they could get better-that God could perform a miracle on their behalf.  In this they’re surely correct.  No.  They believe they will get better-that God will perform a miracle on their behalf.  Nearly all of them are wrong.  And anyone familiar with the statistics is well situated to see that they are.  But-and this is the most salient part for our discussion-nobody corrects them.  In fact, they are encouraged to persist in these highly improbable beliefs.

The excerpt exposes two fascinating aspects of self-deception that Ten Elshof highlights at various places:  first, self-deception is often a social phenomenon.  By not correcting the patient, those around him enable him to persist in his false belief.  Second, self-deception is, as Ten Elshof puts it, “an unexpected friend in time of need.”  Again, Ten Elshof:

While the truth is often freeing, it is not always so.  The truth can be utterly crippling and life-destroying for the person not positioned to receive it.  Through discipleship to Jesus, we position ourselves over time to be capable of handling the truth-perhaps in time, even the whole truth.  If we are disciples of Jesus, then, we position ourselves to be more and more acquainted with the truth-and to experience the truth as freeing.  In the meantime, though, God has mercifully designed us with the capacity to avoid and resist truths that we can’t handle.

Ten Elshof’s proposal is as freeing as it is unique.  By locating our growth in understanding the truth within the context of our relationship with Jesus, Ten Elshof manages to free us from the weighty responsibility of seeing our own sin.  Ten Elshof isn’t denying introspection–he speaks elsewhere of having a plan for sanctification–but is establishing relational limits on our introspection.  There is an appropriate time and place for our encounter with various truths, and that time and place may not always be of our own choosing.

In this way, Ten Elshof’s book is an important resource for both the non-introspective soul and the overly introspective soul.  And by helping us understand the role self-deception plays in the Christian life (for good and ill), Ten Elshof opens his reader to a deeper understanding of the way grace manifests itself in the life of the Christian. 

* I once had the opportunity to take a class from Ten Elshof, and that my wife maintains semi-regular correspondence with him.  We both regard him as one of the most thoughtful and careful teachers we have ever met.

Cross posted at MereOrthodoxy.com

On the Evolution of Et Elle, et al.

Nearly four years ago, Joe Carter noticed that there were relatively few women contributing their opinions to the exchanges happening in the Christian blogging community.  To solve the problem, Joe hosted and sponsored “Intellectuelle,” a community of women bloggers, here at Evangelical Outpost.

For four years, those women diligently and faithfully contributed their voices to the conversation, functioning as a band of “Nancy Pearceys” for the rest of us.  But with the redesigned site, it became clear that what was originally an act of generosity had now become a liability.  Intellectuelle needed an identity, a platform, that it could call its own.

The prospect of change also allowed the ladies at Intellectuelle to revisit their vision.  Judging by the ratio of men to women online, the question of women’s participation online is, sadly, still a question.  They are attempting a new answer.

In short, they have shed the name in favor of Et Elle, et al.–loosely translated, “and she, and others.”  The same insightful commentary of Bonnie Lindbloom, Sarah Flashing, Letitia Wong and the rest of the crew will remain, but with the added contribution of Collin Brendemuehl and others.  The result is a website that approaches delicate and difficult questions without ignoring or denying gender, but without privileging one over the other.

The internet is a vast space, and there are countless Christian blogs.  But there are only a handful destinations where you can consistently find rich, robust, and interesting conversation that is reasonably conducted and respectfully handled.  Et Elle, et al. will doubtlessly be one of them. ‘