Book Review: Saving Leonardo

“Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning” by Nancy Pearcey

True wisdom consists in seeing every field of knowledge through the lens of God’s truth — government, science, economics, business, and the arts.

Though we’re not even halfway through 2011 yet, I have a pretty good feeling this will end up being my favorite book of the year. A book on apologetics, culture, and philosophy that spends a lot of time focused on art, music, and literature is right up my alley! I actually finished reading it a couple months ago, but my brain was so full it took me a long time to process everything to be able to write a review. It’s still a daunting task, but hopefully I can at least give you enough of a taste of what Pearcey offers in this book to make you want to read it… because you really should!

“Saving Leonardo” is broken down into two Parts, though the second makes up the bulk of the book. Part 1 (“The Threat of Global Secularism”) shows the extent to which our culture has been co-opted by secularist thinking. Nearly everyone has a worldview that has been affected to some degree by secularism.

Far from being a conservative “fearmongerer”, or attacking an abstract secular “boogeyman”, Nancy Pearcey is very deliberate and nuanced in her description of what secularism is, and how and why it is so pervasive in our culture. The primary way in which secular thinking works its way even into the worldviews of most Christians is through the “fact/value dichotomy”. Pearcey builds off the work of Francis Schaeffer (under whom she studied at L’Abri), who described a “two-story concept of truth”. In this conception, “the lower story consists of scientific facts, which are held to be empirically testable and universally valid. The upper story (‘values’) includes things like morality, theology, and aesthetics, which are now regarded as subjective and culturally relative” (p. 26).

As Pearcey points out, “this dichotomy has grown so pervasive that most people do not even realize they hold it” (p. 27). This dichotomy is in direct contradiction to the biblical concept of truth, which is that all of creation is ordered by a transcendent, holy God who has given us objective, knowable truth that encompasses both facts AND values. The dominant thinking today, however, is that the realms of science (“facts”) and religion (“values”) have very little to do with one another. This could not be further from the truth!

Unfortunately, Christianity has bought into this false dichotomy over time, and has therefore largely withdrawn from (or in some cases succumbed to) the culture-at-large. Christians have very little influence or credibility in the sciences, and are no longer creating art, music, and literature (the building blocks of culture that shape our worldviews more than anything else) that impact society outside of Christian circles. This abrogation of the church’s responsibility as a culture-making institution has led to rampant secularism in our schools, our media, our politics, and even (to a growing extent) our churches.

For this reason, we find ourselves living in a time and place in which we are “metaphysically lost”. The concept of Total Truth (the title of Pearcey’s first book) is so far removed from our culture’s understanding that we are hardly even able to engage in the discussion. Christians who have unconsciously bought into dualistic thinking are unable to form logical arguments for why things like abortion and euthanasia are morally wrong. As she points out, “people do not just need rules, they need reasons” (p. 69). She closes out Part 1 with this challenge (to which I give a hearty “Amen!”):

It’s time for the church to regroup, rethink, and recast its strategy for social and political engagement. Christians must learn to engage the secular worldviews that drive the public debate. They must learn to articulate a worldview rationale for biblical morality. And most importantly, they must back up their message with authentic living before a watching world.” (p. 69)

Part 2 (“Two Paths to Secularism”) seeks to equip Christians with an understanding of exactly how we got where we are, and with the hope that real change in our society IS possible… though not using the tactics to which conservative Christians have resorted for generations. She does this by tracing the development of secular dualism by exploring the work of several “change agents”: philosophers, artists, composers, authors, theologians, scientists, politicians, and others who have shaped the course of history.

Those familiar with Francis Schaeffer’s work (especially How Should We Then Live?) will recognize the method of cultural analysis Pearcey uses to determine the significance of a particular cultural artifact, though her work is far more expansive in this regard. After a “crash course on art and worldview”, she dives into the meat of the book, tracing the “two paths to secularism”. These are two philosophical streams, each of which focused on one side of the facts/values dichotomy. The “Enlightenment Heritage” (Materialism) laid claim to the realm of empirical facts, while the “Romantic Heritage” (Idealism) wanted to protect the realm of values. Each of these streams of thought has had several tributaries — there is much variety within the two traditions — but they have developed roughly in parallel, with thinkers from each side of the divide reacting against the other.

The problem is that, while there are elements of truth within both realms, it is an error to focus on one to the exclusion of the other. Throughout history, Christians have found themselves on both sides of this split. To give you an idea of the scope of Pearcey’s investigation, I refer you to the following promotional video, in which the author names several of the genres and individuals presented in the book:

In the end, Pearcey encourages Christians to fully engage in cultural creation and debate. We should approach culture with discernment (which requires first and foremost a solid grounding in the Word of God), holding fast to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21) wherever we find it. Armed with God-given spiritual discernment and a “compassion for those who are trapped by destructive ideas“, the church is to become a living work of art, conveying the drama and excitement of the gospel to the world around us in word and deed. After all,

Ideas are very difficult to accept if they are solely abstract and theoretical. We need to see them lived out practically — made visible and tangible… we need a ‘plausibility structure,’ which means a social structure that renders an idea more plausible and believable. And what is the plausibility structure for the gospel? The church, the corporate life of the Christian community.” (p. 276)

There is so much more that could be said, but your time would be much better spent reading this book! I’ll warn you: This is a very large book (though it’s beautiful illustrations and full-color renditions of referenced artwork make it a joy to read, and offset the large amounts of text in a visually appealing way) that will take a long time to read, and even longer to process. Though Pearcey’s writing style is quite accessible, you’ll have to think a LOT. You’ll be challenged to reconsider preconceived notions, even if you don’t agree with every one of the author’s conclusions. In short, reading this book takes work, but it is absolutely worth it! Buy it here.

2 comments on “Book Review: Saving Leonardo

  1. […] thought this way once, but Nancy Pearcey made a great point in Saving Leonardo when she wrote that conservatives lost the culture war by focusing on politics while liberals were […]

  2. […] Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning (my review): The arts are often dismissed by Christians as mere entertainment, a leisure activity. […]

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