War, Disillusionment, Literature, and the Divine

This year marks the centennial of the Treaty of Versailles, formally ending World War I, that bloodbath which took millions of lives, broke apart empires, and spawned the evil realities of fascism and communism.

That war also acted as an accelerant to the flames already eating away at Western culture.

If politics is downstream from culture, then culture is downstream from philosophy. Since the Enlightenment, philosophy, once considered the handmaiden of theology, had deserted her queen to claim her own throne. By the mid-19th century, philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach contended that the Christian God was an illusion. And, philosopher Karl Marx actively promoted atheism, arguing that religion “is the opium of the people.” About the same time, in Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Gay Science,” his character the Madman famously proclaimed “God is dead,” though few remember the end of that proclamation: “And we have killed him!”

By the outbreak of World War I, nearly the whole of philosophy was secular in outlook. Following the devastation and carnage of that war, and undergirded by modern philosophy, Western culture experienced radical changes, a breathless race we still run today with no finish line in sight.

Near the end of “This Side of Paradise,” published in 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald declared “Here was a new generation … grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in men shaken … .” His words serve as well as any for the epitaph for the old culture and its arts.

The Broken Bridge Between Heaven and Earth

This division between the arts and religion was new. For thousands of years, in Europe and throughout the world, art had served as a bridge between heaven and earth. In Western literature, all the great epic poems from Homer’s “Iliad” to Milton’s “Paradise Lost” made this connection. The plays of Shakespeare, the poems of John Donne, the works of Tolstoy, the sculpture and paintings of Michelangelo, the music of Bach: All of these and many more not only put themselves in the service of their craft and their patrons and audience, but also paid homage to the Divine.

Since 1919, however, in all the arts—dance, music, painting, sculpture, drama, and literature—we find religious faith abandoned, widespread disillusionment, and in many cases a new primitivism, which became what some might call barbarism. Here is but one small example. Google “music from the 1900s,” and compare the songs popular with our ancestors—“Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” “You’re a Grand Old Flag”—to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” or Linkin Park’s “In the End.”

In modern literature, this absence of the Divine sometimes becomes ludicrous. Again, let me offer one example: In Larry McMurtry’s novel “Lonesome Dove,” a well-told tale of a cattle drive from Texas to Montana, we meet dozens of characters: cowboys, outlaws, sheriffs, dance hall girls, and ranchers. Only rarely in this 864-page novel do any of these men and women mention, much less discuss, the ways of God, an absence highly unlikely given the place and the time.

Why is God not mentioned in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Lonesome Dove”? Set in the 1870s, faith would have been part of the American landscape.

In many cases, modern and postmodern disillusionment in literature leaves a bitter taste in its audience. For 15 years, I taught Advance Placement Literature to homeschooling students. These juniors and seniors were bright young people who wrote well and loved reading. During one classroom discussion of Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises,” a student raised his hand and asked, “Mr. Minick, why are so many of the books and poems we read so pessimistic?”

His question gave me pause. I am reasonably certain I stumbled through an answer, but whatever I said, I am also reasonably certain I didn’t answer his question.

The works he referenced didn’t include the likes of Geoffrey Chaucer, Jane Austen, or even Fyodor Dostoevsky. He meant the novels of 20th-century writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, all writers found on the list of Advanced Placement recommended reading.

That student had hit on an important point. The works of 20th-century writers now considered literary masterpieces are overwhelmingly devoid of the Divine and bleak in their take on mankind.

In “A Soldier of the Great War,” novelist Mark Helprin provides one reason for this lack of faith found in so many of our artists and in our culture at large. Here, an elderly professor of aesthetics is speaking to a young machinist. The young man asks the professor a question:

“You believe in God, don’t you?”
“How can you? What did He ever do for you?”
“That’s not the point, what He did or didn’t do for me. In fact, He did a great deal, but for some He’s done a lot less than nothing. Besides, one doesn’t believe in God or disbelieve in Him. It isn’t an argument.
“Though I used to argue it,” the old man said, “even with myself when I was younger. His existence is not a question of argument, but of apprehension. Either you apprehend God, or you do not.”

Many moderns, including artists, have failed to apprehend God. This failure leads to other misapprehensions: mistaking ugliness for beauty, falling for lies rather than embracing truth, and replacing God with scores of false gods, including the grotesque belief that human beings may themselves become as gods. These false pathways lead in turn to the unhappiness of our times, to the irony of being blessed with so many material goods unimaginable to our ancestors while at the same time experiencing an angst also unthinkable to most of them.

Mark Helprin’s book gives insight into why so many artists have turned away from faith.

Grass Pushing Through the Pavement

And yet, like unruly grass pushing through pavement, some authors in the last hundred years do feature religious faith and God in their work. G.K. Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, Sigrid Undset, J.R.R. Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson: These and others bring spiritual and religious perspectives to their novels and poems.

Sometimes, too, we must search for signs of this faith. In Graham Greene’s “The End of the Affair,” for instance, Maurice Bendrix, a novelist and an atheist, falls in love with a married woman, Sarah Miles. During the London Blitz, a bomb renders Bendrix unconscious, and Sarah prays and promises she will leave Bendrix if God allows him to live. Abandoned by the woman he loves and without knowing the cause, Bendrix becomes insanely jealous, believing first that Sarah is seeing another man and then, when he realizes the reason for her separation, finds her vow to God ridiculous.

At the end of this story, we listen as Bendrix rages one last time against God, only this time there is a subtle difference. Throughout the book, we find “he” in reference to God in lowercase. In the last few paragraphs, that “he” becomes “He,” indicating that while Bendrix may not love God, he has come to apprehend Him.

These writers continue to build, or at least imagine, that bridge connecting the earthly to the celestial. They are the ones who give us hope in a broken world. Infused with a comprehension of the Divine, of an entity greater than the self, their words act as a bulwark against despair and help make us more fully human.

Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C., Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.

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Author: Jeff Minick