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.