Leithart's recent contributions on the reasons Protestants can't write over at First Things was impressive but mainly in the worst sort of way. Instead of writing a more direct "Why I like Flannery O'Connor" series, what we got was why Protestants can't write. As though John Donne's poetry and sermons weren't touchstones in English language literature? Steven Wedgeworth has written about the peculiarties of Leithart's assertions before but he's managed to sum things up eloquently recently.
Dr. Leithart’s essays on “Protestantism” 1 fall into this tradition of high-church nostalgia and historiographical storytelling. As such they are engaging and imaginative, but they suffer from the same weaknesses as the other storytellers. In the case of the “Protestants Who Can’t Write” dilemma, the majority of the difficult work of argument is actually done by the preliminary assumptions and assertions, as Dr. Leithart seems to admit in his follow-up qualification.
But even admitting this, there are some very basic problems which permeate the entire essay. The definition of great writing is never demonstrated, and one gets the impression that the “sacramental poetics” being valorized really only represents a narrow slice of what others would consider great literature. Various examples of great Protestant writers are also discounted as either outliers or holdovers from an earlier “culture,” giving the reader the impression that the playing field can be tilted in any number of possible directions in order to influence a certain conclusion. Zwingli, for his part, is not treated fairly. He serves instead as a sort of placeholder for “all of the bad things.” Perhaps most serious of all, the expression “sacramental” is used in a very particular way, not necessarily having much or anything to do with the actual sacramental debates of the 16th century. As such, the various characters in Dr. Leithart’s story are really only symbols of ideas, and they have little connection to the historical realities whose names they bear.
The most remarkable part is pointing out that post-Trent Catholicism on the Eucharist posited that you had to affirm it was the blood and body only and not "also" wine and bread makes Leithart's proposal that "Marburg" is to blame for Protestants not wanting something to be both real and a symbol; if that's the problem then post-Trent Catholics have the same problem Leithart insists Protestants have had.
In some ways, this response to Dr. Leithart has been playing his same game. You see, it isn’t merely a discussion of Dr. Leithart or his specific arguments, but it is also an attempt to reorder the larger conservative search for history, identity, and meaning. The nostalgic search for a high-church aesthetic always ends in fiction—not the fiction of great literary prowess, but instead stories about history that are not true. In Dr. Leithart’s story, “Protestantism” does not mean the Protestant Reformation, “Zwingli” does not mean the Reformer of Zurich, and “Sacramental” does not mean a sign and seal of the covenant of Grace. Instead these words are symbols and bare ones at that, not connected to reality. And this is true for all of the “Road Not Taken” stories.
A little interruption here, to show what is being referenced.
The Church has no widely accepted theology of history to speak of, just a stream of papal encyclicals that reflect the shifting moods of this or that pontiff. Thinking modern history has largely been left to lay Catholic intellectuals, who have had to sail upwind alone in their little boats.
Well, for the pessimillenialists ...
The golden age of lay Catholic historiography was the nineteenth century, when Counter-Revolutionary thinkers such as Bonald, the young Lamennais, de Maistre, and Donoso Cortés refined the World We Have Lost narrative that has nourished reactionary political movements ever since. But in the twentieth century lay and clerical writers developed a kinder, gentler variation of it that has not lost its appeal among Catholics. Let’s call it The Road Not Taken.
Those who recount this kind of story tell us that at some point in medieval or early modern history the West took a momentous wrong turn, putting itself on the path to our modernity with all its attendant problems. ...
Ostensibly presented as a temptation for Catholic historians ... this narrative arc could "also" be construed as the basis for Francis Schaeffer's trilogy, except it's possible to propose that in Schaeffer's case what would have been a Catholic polemic of the road not taken could be reinterpreted as a legend of WASP decline, maybe?
Well, let's get back to Wedgeworth here, who concludes with:
Nothing that has been written above should be taken as a denial of the fact that there is a real crisis in the modern world of arts, letters, and religion. There is. But this crisis is not the legacy of the Protestant Reformation’s ideals being faithfully carried out. Instead, it is the legacy of, among a myriad of decisions and events, the abandonment of those ideals. Especially, we have departed from the robust Christian humanism of Luther, Calvin, and even, yes, Zwingli. Mid-century Protestants hardly recognize the names of their fathers in the faith or the key doctrines to which they are supposed to be adhering. Before we decide which branches of the family tree to cut off, we should first make sure that we have actually identified them all.
Thankfully, in our day, the future is not entirely dim. Modernity has not proved wholly bad at all, but instead has given us new tools by which we can solve toward truth, in less time than any generation before us. We can discover if “Zwingli” is really Zwingli, and we can begin answering those very complicated questions of reception, modification, and revolution, and we can do so with the concrete data rather than just master narratives. The conservative Christian mind has many gifts and talents, but it has to get over its nostalgia and penchant for “Road Not Taken” stories. There is a better way to have this conversation, and encouraging that better way is the first step in beginning to solve our most serious problems.
I've been mulling over Schaeffer's trilogy lately, it's fiftieth anniversary is coming up, after all. Having admired it when I was in my teens (long ago, in other words) I've come to view its overall narrative with some skepticism. Schaeffer managed to recount a fragmentation and a decline. But as a musician with a sometime interest in music history there's more that could have been said about the Renaissance and the Reformation or how the Baroque era developed. There was the old style and the new style and in the 1600s you could learn either style but might well have to know both. The German, Italian, English, and French styles and forms were not thought of as being all that congruent and yet by the high Baroque era some Bach family had members able to synthesize a variety of ostensibly contrasting styles. But that's getting into something that might be best saved for later.
For some reason it just feels like it's worth mentioning that Manfred Bukofzer wrote a history of Baroque music (1947) in which he mentioned that the Pietists were opposed to the cantata while the orthodox Lutherans were okay with it. The paradox here was that the theoretically "new" school was against formal innovations such as assimilating secular musical forms and styles into liturgical music while the "old" school in Lutheranism was okay with it.
Wedgeworth's aside about hip hop practically deserves a separate post because he raises some points that seem worth discussing ... but maybe we'll get to a potentially fun comparison between the condemnation of hip hop as not "real" music to early negative reactions to recitative as being unmusical in 16th and 17th century operatic evolution later.