Seminary Conferees See Shift in Front Lines of Culture War: Decry Influence of Ideology in Art

By Trotta, Liz | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 21, 1997 | Go to article overview

Seminary Conferees See Shift in Front Lines of Culture War: Decry Influence of Ideology in Art


Trotta, Liz, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


NEW YORK - The culture wars involving art and politics have become so integral to the national discourse that the cartoon lobbed into the fray by this week's New Yorker magazine scored a direct hit.

The cartoon shows two gorillas, squatting amid the trees in their natural habitat. One observes: "I tried art for a while back in the eighties, but, talk about a jungle . . ."

Such levity is anything but typical in today's dead-earnest discussions of where the culture is headed. More representative are mind-numbing workshops, seminars and colloquia devoted to dissecting diversity, ethnicity, racism, gender, and the usual ideas-as-brickbats employed in the culture clashes.

The latest addition to the campaign - which disavowed "touchy-feely" things right from the start - unfolded last weekend at Union Theological Seminary, that eminent institution surveying the intellectual battlefield from its perch on Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan.

It began with the ageless jazz musician Dave Brubeck and his quartet playing sacred music and closed with the surgical observations of author Chaim Potok on the merits of obscene art. If a central theme emerged from this eclectic mix, it was that religion and art, rooted in Judeo-Christian values, are making a slow comeback in a country where politics has infected all levels of artistic and intellectual life.

"The enemy is not the [National Endowment for the Arts] or Jesse Helms. These are symbols," said Robert Royal, an author and vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington. "We all seem to be groping for coherence and yet the only way that seems to be available is the narrow realm of political activism. Aesthetics must point the way, not politics."

Endeavoring to move the culture debate along, the editors of Image, a quarterly journal on religion and the arts, sponsored the three-day conference titled "Beyond the Culture Wars: Art, Faith and the Rise of the New Religious Humanism," a mixed program of art, music, literature, and even economics.

Gregory Wolfe, editor and publisher of Image, told the audience of artists, writers and thinkers that, while he doesn't expect to make the cover of Time, the philosophy he calls "religious humanism" offers an antidote to ideology, synthesizing religious insights with the reality of the world.

"The idea is to achieve a balance, not between liberal or conservative views of the culture, but between the human and the divine," he said. "If you stress the human at the expense of the divine, you get liberal error and make Jesus into a guru or a do-good social worker. If you err on the side of the divine, you bring the legalistic power and might of the just God and lose imagination and empathy."

Dramatizing how both religious and secular education have been corrupted by a "Tower of Babel syndrome," he read an Internet posting of malapropisms found in students' test answers: "Adam and Eve were made from a tree;" "Joan of Arc was canonized by George Bernard Shaw;" "Lincoln freed the slaves by signing the emasculation proclamation;" and "Sir Francis Drake circumcised the world with a 100-foot clipper."

A 1996 University of Virginia survey dramatically revealed Americans' attitudes as they grapple for a sense of order amid the chaos of the culture wars. James Davison Hunter, author of "Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America," and one of the team of scholars that helped prepare the survey, said interviews with 2,000 participants of all classes and political persuasions revealed a deep-seated fear that a way of life is crumbling. …

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Seminary Conferees See Shift in Front Lines of Culture War: Decry Influence of Ideology in Art
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