Michele Bachmann is worried about the Renaissance
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It’s the Renaissance, stupid.
The economy is not what ails us today. No, what ails Americans is what Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and their artistic spawn have wrought in the culture, starting 500 years ago. The Renaissance has dragged us all down.
Tea party queen and Republican presidential candidate Michele Bachmann is convinced that America is sinking into tyranny. Why? In a remarkable profile of the candidate appearing in the Aug. 15 issue of the New Yorker magazine, the artistic flowering of the Italian Renaissance takes a beating for having done away with the god-fearing Dark Ages.
Bachmann ‘belongs to a generation of Christian conservatives whose views have been shaped by institutions, tracts, and leaders not commonly known to secular Americans, or even to most Christians,’ writes Ryan Lizza, who spent four days on the campaign trail talking with the candidate and her husband. He chronicles Bachmann’s enthusiasm for the extreme evangelical teachings of the late Presbyterian Pastor Francis Schaeffer, commonly regarded as having sparked the 1970s rise of the Christian Right. Schaeffer loved visiting Florence, Italy, where his idea of Renaissance ruin is on full display.
Bachmann also adores Schaeffer follower Nancy Pearcey, a prominent creationist whose recent book is ‘Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning.’ That’s Leonardo as in ‘da Vinci,’ whose famous drawing of ‘Vitruvian Man’ shows a human being inscribed within a perfect circle and a perfect square. The artist made the ungodly error of putting humanity at the center of time and space.
Not that Pearcey wants you to be mad at Leo, though -- a political error in the culture wars that she has said conservative Christians have repeatedly made over the last 30-plus years. Like Schaeffer, Pearcey instead counsels hearty admiration for creative skill, coupled with deep compassion for misguided artistic conceptions.
Hate the art, in other words, not the artist.
This art-historical drivel first saw print in Pearcey’s 2004 book, ‘Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From Its Cultural Captivity.’ The title is plucked from Schaeffer, who, Lizza writes in the New Yorker, ‘instructed his followers [that] the Bible was not just a book but ‘the total truth.’' The cover of Pearcey’s kooky cultural treatise features a gay reproduction of Vincent van Gogh’s 1888 painting, ‘Sower With Setting Sun.’ Van Gogh, himself a failed preacher, turned to art as an ecstatic secular expression of spiritual joy. Pearcey’s book lauds Schaeffer’s empathy for artists who are ‘caught in the trap of false and harmful worldviews’ -- specifically, those that have trickled down from wicked Renaissance humanism. ‘As the medieval period merged into the Renaissance (beginning roughly in the 1300s),’ she wrote, ‘a drumbeat began to sound for the complete emancipation of reason from revelation -- a crescendo that burst into full force in the Enlightenment (beginning in the 1700s).’
Darn that Enlightenment! Next thing you know it will be birthing truly dangerous ideas, like secular democracy.
Bachmann and her husband, Marcus, first got on board Schaeffer’s crazy train in 1977, when they watched -- and were wowed by -- the evangelist’s 10-part film series, ‘How Should We Then Live?’ (Apparently conversational English is also Satan’s work.) Schaeffer’s son Frank, who produced the film series before later repudiating his father’s evangelical labors in his own 2007 book, ‘Crazy for God,’ described the recurring cinematic set-up: ‘Dad would stand in front of great artworks, from Michelangelo’s ‘David’ to Marcel Duchamp’s '[Nude] Descending a Staircase,’ and proclaim our answers to modern culture.’
Protestant Schaeffer laid considerable blame for humanist developments at the feet of Michelangelo, the Renaissance sculptor (and -- ahem -- devout Catholic). His close-up camera hid David’s nudity, lest it offend tender, Bachmannesque sensibilities. The future King David’s mortal victory over Goliath’s paganism was a worthwhile subject, since it prefigured Christian triumph. But the elder Schaeffer couldn’t imagine that Christ’s dual nature -- as both deity and human being -- could be embodied by fusing the exquisite sculpture’s unearthly perfection with forthright nakedness.
‘The first five installments of the [film] series are something of an art-history and philosophy course,’ Lizza writes. ‘The iconic image from the early episodes is Schaeffer standing on a raised platform next to Michelangelo’s ‘David’’ -- the raised platform allowing for the nudity to be cut out of the frame, when it’s not bathed in dark shadow -- ‘and explaining why, for all its beauty, Renaissance art represented a dangerous turn away from a God-centered world and toward a blasphemous, human-centered world.’
Of course, American culture has had trouble with art (not to mention nudity) ever since the Pilgrims bumped into Plymouth Rock in 1620. The Pilgrims arrived carrying ‘the Word,’ while all those graven images essential to the visual arts were seductive examples of the devil’s work.
How should we then live? Francis Schaeffer died in 1984 -- a year that is surely coincidental. But Bachmann, an ideologue of the Christian-conservative movement, can’t get enough of the art-junk he peddled. Lizza quotes her as having called Pearcey’s earlier book ‘wonderful,’ while she and Marcus find the late filmmaker to be ‘a tremendous philosopher.’
I’m guessing that Michelangelo and Leonardo would disagree. (Incidentally, the Bachmanns’ Christian counseling center in Minnesota would surely recommend sexual-orientation conversion therapy for both artists.) As the saying goes: Hate the philosophy, but not the philosopher.
-- Christopher Knight
Photos (from top): Michele Bachmann. Credit: Jason Reed / Reuters
Video: Francis Schaeffer, ‘How Should We Then Live: The Renaissance,’ 1977