Protestantism the Arts and the Natural Sciences

An ominous cloud of suspicion hovers over the issues to be discussed in this chapter, casting a shadow over its themes. It is impossible to ignore the brute historical fact that, virtually from the inception of the movement, certain sections of Protestantism unleashed a wave of destruction of religious art. How can we even begin to explore the relationship of Protestantism to the arts in the light of such a violent and destructive past? Was not the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas right when he castigated Protestantism as "the adroit castrator of art"? And what of sport, widely regarded by its supporters as an art form, which was so famously detested by the Puritans?

The situation seems just as troubling in relation to the natural sciences. Surely the infamous Scopes "monkey" trial of 1925 made clear Protestantism's outright hostility to the entire scientific enterprise, especially when this seemed to pose even the slightest challenge to the literal reading of the Bible? And what about Calvin's outright opposition to Copernicus when he lambasted the Polish astronomer for daring to place his own authority over that of the Holy Spirit? Did not the Bible declare that "God has established the world; it shall never be moved" (Psalm 93:1)?

These concerns are entirely understandable, and reflect the deep ambivalence within certain sections of Protestantism in relation to both the arts and sciences. Nevertheless, the situation is much more complex and nuanced, not to mention more interesting, than prevalent stereotypes suggest. This chapter explores the origins and emergence of Protestant attitudes to the arts and sciences, attempting to document and account for a wide variety of viewpoints. There is no single, definitive "Protestant" attitude toward any of these matters; instead, we find a surprisingly wide range of approaches, each of which is consistent with the specific vision of Protestantism that underlies it. As there are many such visions, it is only to be expected that a correspondingly broad range of attitudes have emerged.

In his famous Rede Lecture at Cambridge University entitled "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution," C. P. Snow (1905-80) lamented the growing divide he discerned within Western culture between what he called "the literary intellectuals" and "the scientists." These two groups, he remarked, had "a curiously distorted image of each other" and were separated by a "gulf of mutual incomprehension." It may seem inappropriate to include two such variegated domains in a single chapter. However, since the object here is to explore the interaction of Protestantism with modern intellectual culture, it is both convenient and imperative to treat them together. We begin by considering the relationship between Christianity and the arts.

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