In the latest iteration of that interminable meme beloved by traditionalist conservatives everywhere, “Everything is terrible because of Protestantism” Peter Leithart has argued that Protestants cannot write because of our impoverished theology of the sacraments. His argument, particularly in part two, actually does become more complex than his “gleefully reductionistic” title would suggest, but the primary argument Leithart is making is that a memorialist view of the sacraments necessarily creates an impoverished imagination incapable of producing great art.

Symbols separated from reality and reduced, as they are in much Protestant theology, to “mere signs,” cannot do anything, whether in reality or in fiction. They exist as sheer ornament, or, at best, as pointers to some something in some real realm of reality that can do something. But if this is so, then the moment of grace, whether in fiction or reality, never enters this world, into the realm of what-is. Without a sacramental theology, and specifically a theology of sacramental action, Protestant writers cannot do justice to this world or show that this world is the theater of God’s redeeming action.

Derek Rishmawy has already written well on some of the ways this critique over-simplifies a complex problem. (Steven Wedgeworth’s clever rejoinder  is also worth reading, although it touches on a variety of different issues that we won’t address as directly here.)

That said, before we discuss other potential causes of evangelicalism’s artistic impoverishment and before we dive into some of the theological considerations raised by Wedgeworth, there is a more basic question we would do well to consider. Behind Leithart’s argument there is one particular assumption that has gone largely unchallenged in the responses I have seen so far: that a memorialist view of the sacraments is necessarily not “sacramental.” Throughout the discussion as I’ve followed it there seems to be a dichotomy assumed between something being memorialist and something being sacramental. Or, to shift into more Leithartian language, there is a dichotomy between the view that the sacraments remind us of something and the view that the sacraments do something. It has seemingly been excluded from the start that the sacraments might do something precisely by reminding us of something.

Leithart’s argument seems to simply assume that memory is a weak thing incapable of producing thick cultures or rich artistic works. And yet on inspection this claim is actually harder to sustain. To begin, we might consider the way that scripture itself treats memory. Throughout the Old Testament God commands his people to build various sorts of memorials—physical objects to remind them of specific times where God acted to deliver or protect his people. Additionally, we could consider the entire structure of the famous Shema in Deuteronomy 6 which is built around words that God’s people are to speak over and over, both to themselves and to their children. You might even say that piety in scripture consists largely of remembering various things God has done.

Given that, why should we think that a memorialist view of the sacraments is incapable of creating robust cultures transformed by the Gospel that go on to produce, amongst other things, great works of literature?

There’s more to this as well, however. Much of Leithart’s larger intellectual project, which seems to be an odd sort of post-Protestant twist on Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, is built on recovering a specific sort of lost sacramental vision for all of life. It is, in many ways, a resourcement project based on the idea that by remembering the past we will be better equipped to understand and act in the present. So Leithart’s own work implicitly acknowledges the power of memory to transform individuals and communities and, in time, cultures.

Of course, much of the confusion here may come from the fact that not all types of remembering are created equal. There is a difference between me remembering to buy eggs on the way home from work and my remembering the day of my baptism, for example. There is also a real difference between a few college students at a campus ministry sitting in a small room during Bible study and remembering “God’s faithfulness to them” (which could take any number of different and completely subjective shapes) and the people of Israel coming to the temple in Jerusalem and seeing the many memorials there that remind them of God’s faithfulness. So, certainly, having physical signs in which our memories are anchored and constrained is useful. But this seems to be precisely what the sacraments are. When I partake of the eucharist, I am not being invited into a purely subjective remembering of whatever I please. Rather, I am being invited into multiple memories. One of those memories is, of course, the memory of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion that followed it. Yet a person more fully shaped in the history and rhythms of the church will also remember other things as well—the passover dinner that in many ways foreshadowed the future crucifixion, the fact that the eucharist is a shared practice that unites Christians across centuries, the experience of coming to that table for the first time oneself and how that act anchors us in the memory, membership, and history of the Christian church.

There are real problems with evangelical art and the depth of evangelical culture more broadly. But those problems are not embedded in our sacramental practices per se. Or, at the very least, addressing whatever sacramental problems we might have does not require abandoning a more historically informed memorialist position. (I say all this as someone who is not a memorialist, for what that is worth.)

This, then, brings us back to Rishmawy’s original post which highlighted other potential reasons for evangelicalism’s artistic failings. To his list, which you can read right here, I would add the following: Like the rest of America, American evangelicalism has in the past 50-75 years embraced a culture of transience, mobility, and wrongful focus on efficiency, all of which lends itself both to an impoverished sense of beauty and a badly truncated understanding of membership, community, and neighborliness. All of this also wreaks havoc on our ability to remember, to identify with our ancestors in the faith and to recognize in the sacraments a shared sacrament that ties us to them in a real and true way. Many of us are not even tied to our immediate family in any sort of real, daily way so how on earth can we be expected to identify with the local or historic church in any sort of thick, substantive way when so much of our daily life resists that sort of formation?

This is reflected not only in the lack of great evangelical literature, but also in our church architecture and our liturgies for public worship which often mimic cultural fads that have more to do with producing celebrity and high emotional experience than shaping Christians in the life of Christ:

To put it bluntly, there is nothing about the typical practice of many American evangelicals that lends itself to the sort of deep remembering necessary for true Christian formation, which very much includes the formation of a Christian imagination.

Rather, our personal piety, church liturgies, and even our buildings themselves all direct us quite explicitly toward a sort of Christian practice that is shallow, captive to cultural fads, and unlikely to produce the sort of depth necessary to produce mature, imaginative Christian believers. Thus the problem is not with memorialism per se, but with a number of other cultural practices and habits that limit not only our ability to create great art, but also our ability to produce mature, grounded believers.

Posted by Jake Meador

Jake Meador is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy, and son Wendell. Jake's writing has appeared in Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play.

  • Steve Billingsley

    Here’s my two cents. Isn’t great art, by definition, rare under any circumstances? I won’t argue regarding impoverished imaginations per se – but people that want to gripe about the lack of great art (and the proliferation of kitsch) coming out of Protestant circles miss the point. Most art that has ever been produced anywhere from any culture has been kitsch. Truly great, enduring art is rare and most Christians, regardless of denominational environment or sacramental theology, aren’t deeply formed in a type of culture that forms profound Christian imagination. That’s true today, and it was also true 100 years ago and 1,000 years ago.

    That doesn’t mean that Christian leaders shouldn’t be concerned to deepen teaching and culture to foster more profound formation – but let’s not kid ourselves – this isn’t a new problem.

    • Ian

      I think the burden of proof lies with you here, as most mosaics, frescoes, icons, sculpture, paintings, symphonies, novels, and films have not been made by evangelicals but in fact an enormous percentage have been made by Catholics and Orthodox. Christian imagination has shaped these media, as a matter of fact.

      • Steve Billingsley

        Yes, but part of that is a function of raw numbers (there are many, many more Catholics/Orthodox than evangelicals and they have been around for much longer) and mountains and mountains of kitsch produced by Catholics/Orthodox has been consigned to the dustbin of history – we just don’t have access to it anymore. And even in the present day – walk into a Catholic bookstore/gift shop – it’s filled with “sacred heart of Jesus” decorative candles and ripoff/mediocre Pietas. Most icons are also not high-toned works of art either and never have been. My point should be entirely uncontroversial.

        • Ian

          But your point is because this is simply not true: “Truly great, enduring art is rare and most Christians, regardless of denominational environment or sacramental theology, aren’t deeply formed in a type of culture that forms profound Christian imagination. That’s true today, and it was also true 100 years ago and 1,000 years ago.”
          Christians of 1,000 years ago (and prior to and for centuries afterwards) did have their imaginations formed profoundly and the preponderance of art from this period bulldozes your statement. The creation of these works was more routine in this era and their quality more consistently high. Moreover, the works of this period irrevocably shaped what Western art is- Christian art wasn’t a branch of a larger field or industry.

          I’m not interested in speculative mountains of kitsch consigned to the dustbin of history that may or may not have ever existed, particularly since “kitsch” is a modern invention. Coincidentally, the rise of evangelicalism correlates with its development (and needless to say, I’m not so sure that is a coincidence). The pietas you mention are indebted to that invention and only formally to an imbedded historical tradition.

          • Steve Billingsley

            Are you sure you aren’t just idealizing a Medieval period that may or may not have existed in the way you imagine it? Some people 1000 years ago had their imaginations formed profoundly by art. Some weren’t even aware that it existed. We only know the art that has endured from past periods – and we don’t know what will endure hundreds or thousands of years from now from our period. As far as your statement that the rise of evangelicalism correlates with the development of kitsch – you’re going to have to show your work there. The term kitsch is a modern invention – so perhaps using that term is a mistake – but if you are trying to say that low quality/shallow art that finds an audience despite it’s lack of quality or depth correlates with the rise of evangelicalism – then Plato or Aristotle might have something to say to you about that.

      • Patrick MacDonald

        It seems to me that you misunderstand what the actual argument is here. I don’t mean to be condescending in any way.

        The “burden of proof” most basically means that one is obliged to prove his or her proposition. So, what’s important is to understand what proposition is being put forth that would require some justification or proof. It doesn’t seem to me that Jake is arguing that Protestants have put out just as much or even more recognized, good artworks as the Catholic or Orthodox traditions have. What was argued, first, is that the reason why Protestants haven’t seemed able to do this is because of a memorialist position on sacraments. And, I believe, Jake is arguing that this is not the case. It’s not because of a memorialist position on sacraments that Protestants have not created as many esteemed artworks as Catholics. There are other issues involved.

        • Ian

          I don’t think I misunderstand Jake’s argument at all as I’m responding to Steve’s unhistorical assertion. I replied to Jake later in the thread. The burden of proof lies with Steve w/r/t his claim that most Christians weren’t “deeply formed in a type of culture that forms profound Christian imagination” 1,000 years ago. And he wants me to verify my critique of his unsubstantiated assertion.

    • That’s fair and it’s worth pointing out that even the great hymn writers, like a Charles Wesley, wrote thousands of hymns, only a few of which are still sung today.

      That said, I also think you can easily argue that there is something particularly disordered about evangelical art these days and I don’t think it’s hard to do so. Did you read Alissa Wilkinson’s B&C essay on evangelicals and criticism? It touches on some of these things: http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/webexclusives/2016/february/critics-job-and-why-it-matters.html?paging=off

  • There is a difference between the words of Christ, ‘do this in rememberance (anamnesis) of me” and “I remembered to remain faithful to Christ’s commandments” or “I remember (mneme) Christ on the Cross”. That is, this distinction is made readily apparent already in scripture (if you read the Greek). The Biblical examples of memory (in the sense you have cited them) are references to “stepping into the reality of the past” a substantially sacramental way, by way of memory (anamnesis). But your distinction of “remembering to read my Bible” and “remembering to remain faithful” are two of the same kinds of “remembering.”

    Plus, the “validity” of the “memory” depends largely on Apostolic Sucession / The Priesthood which Protestants readily reject.

  • Aaron Siver

    Having read Leithart a fair bit over the years, I’ve tended to get the idea that the point he’s trying to make is the same point being raised here, i.e. that the act of remembering or memorializing does not leave us unaffected. I guess I’d tend to think that Leithart would agree and say something like “remembering is sacramental”.

    • I hope he would. I’m actually in broad sympathy with his critique. But my argument is that it is entirely possible to retain the basic eucharistic theology of memorialism and correct many of the issues he’s raising. You can have deep historical roots, rich cultural artefacts, and a real heritage without O’Connor’s sacramental theology.

      • Nathanael

        In the case of O’Connor one is also tempted to ask to whether her sacramental theology or the Protestant southern culture in which she lived was really more important in shaping her imagination.

  • James McClain

    “‘…real realm of reality…'” Shazam!

  • Ian

    I think Leithart overstretches his thesis by attributing the total causality of the impoverishment of the evangelical imagination to low sacramentology, but I agree with the thrust of his historical claim. Because at the same time I’m with you in insisting that “a number of other cultural practices and habits limit not only our ability to create great art, but also our ability to produce mature, grounded believers.” Where I would expand it is in suggesting that these other practices and habits are traceable to the denial of real presence in the Eucharist as Zwingli’s move there is an inadvertent first step in secularizing the material world. Weber seems to agree that the project of modernity just is the disenchantment of the world as begun in this first modern severance of the divine and the creaturely. Insofar as the practices and habits that have contributed to the dearth of evangelical ecclesiology/sacramentalism/imagination, etc. issue out of modernity, I would argue the sacraments still figure into the problem in a substantial way. One and a half cents.

  • Philip Fellows

    This is meant seriously, and not polemically: does anyone know why Leithart hasn’t converted to Catholicism? I’m broadly sympathetic to the thesis that there is a lot that Protestants can learn from Catholicism / Orthodoxy but I would have thought the trajectory that he advocates would have led him to have addressed conversion at some point.

  • I haven’t read other comments, but there is an assumed missing link in the sacramental/memorial argument. It’s this: historically, churches with the memorial position on the Eucharist take the “ordinance” much less frequently. The impoverishment of the imagination takes place in the absence of the Eucharistic liturgy. In my baptist churches growing up, we took Communion 4 times a year. In Brethren/Quaker/Pentecostal backgrounds, churches can go years without taking it. Churches with a sacramental take on the Eucharist take it more frequently. There are exceptions, sure, but this is undoubtedly a proper generalization across Christendom. And if that’s true, I think the center of Leithart’s argument still holds.

    In addition, I presume that Leithart’s central argument is interrelated to the many issues that Rishmawy
    addressed. The center of the argument is that the impulse to innovation inherent to evangelicalism since the First Great Awakening has always eschewed a sacramental imagination. It’s that same impulse for
    innovation which is at root of many of the other possible factors for bad evangelical art.

  • Denscribble

    I have a question when it comes to memorialism: does taking the sacrament of the supper wrongly “do something”?

  • Dan

    Ah memorialism, the theological impoverished view brought about by the radical reformers. I am a protestant myself but we understand the Communion and Baptism as more than mere memorialism. Maybe our memorialist brethren should crack open the bible and read more about both “ordinances”.