Saturday, August 04, 2012

Book Review: Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey

Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey exposes secularism as a destructive and divisive force in the modern world and suggests means to address it. Pearcey is the well-known heir apparent to Francis Schaeffer in style and content. Having been a student of Schaeffer at L’Abri, she co-authored The Soul of Science with Charles Thaxton in 1994, then became widely known after co-authoring How Now Should We Live with Charles Colson in 1999 and more recently the widely successful Total Truth (2004). The book reviewed here, Saving Leonardo, consists of two sections. The first describes the growth of international secularism as a monolithic worldview especially focusing on its cultural affect. The second section traces the history of secularism contrasting Enlightenment and Romantic worldviews. Drawing on Schaeffer’s concept of a two-story worldview, Pearcey brings it into the twenty-first century illustrating how the fact / value spilt has infiltrated philosophy, the arts and popular culture. She states her purpose clearly, “The goal of this book is to equip you to detect, decipher, and defeat the monolithic secularism”[1] and that goal is met in admirable fashion. This presentation will give a broad overview and summary of the book offering several points of analysis along the way.

Part one asks the question, “Are you and easy mark?” This is necessary because secularism is deeply ingrained in academia and media to the point that many Christians are taken in unaware. A big part of the problem is ignorance of the divided notion of truth along the fact / value split. Pearcey argues that the Bible not only presents individual truths like the divinity of Christ and God as creator but it also teaches on the nature of truth. She argues, “Because all things were created by a single divine mind, all truth forms a single, coherent, mutually consistent system. Truth is unified and universal.”[2] This is a central point of the book which comes back around as various historical periods are examined with their defining ideas.

The secular world is neither wholly rationalist nor postmodern rather deliberately divided. Modernism rules the lower story fact realm whereas postmodernism has a stranglehold on the upper story values realm. For example, the secular view of the human person divides human life from personhood. The body in the lower story (the fact realm) is viewed as a biomechanical machine whereas personhood (the self) is consigned to the subjective upper story. This frames the debate on bio-ethical issues like euthanasia, sexuality, and abortion. For example, on the value free facts side, human life has been opened wide for disturbing experimentation. Scientists are given a wide berth by defining personhood in an unscientific subjective way and bio-ethical limits are relaxed. This plays out in social areas as well.

Pearcey delves deeply into controversial territory explaining how this plays out in sexuality and gender issues. The fact / value divide puts physical anatomy and gender over sexual desire and psychological identity. The book argues how the relegation of these identity issues to upper story of subjective preference allows it to seem perfectly acceptable to change gender and sexual preference on a whim. She dubs this “pomosexuality” based on postmodernism. As a point of critical analysis, this development seems especially problematic for the classical lower story homosexual argument that their inclination is not a choice. This point of incoherence should create a meaningful tension for secularists and illustrates how the broken view of truth is where Christian thinkers can make the most meaningful critiques.

In part two, Pearcey make a case for the two major historical paths to secularism. Whereas the early Greeks elevated geometry, the later Neo-Platonists promoted the ethereal ideal which found expression in Byzantine icons. Later, monastic asceticism was simply a living out of this metaphysic with a rejection of the earthly, physical plane. During the Renaissance, there was an effort to integrate the two by mastering many disciplines hence the term “Renaissance man.” As the epitome of that type, the frustrated life of Leonardo da Vinci is symbolic of modern man’s struggle to find unified truth. The title of the book draws from this inner need to unite the divided field of knowledge, an effort which found some success in Luther and Calvin’s restoration of biblical principles.

The book argues that the Reformation recovered a unified biblical view but the enlightenment was quick on its heels. Pearcey argues that when Kant failed to resolve the gap between freedom and nature, philosophy split into the continental and analytic schools. The Enlightenment viewed the world as machine implying determinism. Whereas secular romantics favored evolutionary thinking, the rise of Darwinism posed a new materialist challenge. Accordingly, Romanticism responded with an organic elevation of nature. While the Enlightenment absorbed the factual realm and led to materialism, Romanticism focused on the values realm and to philosophical idealism, the notion that ideas not matter are ultimate reality. Similarly, art divided into the naturalist (formalism) traditions and idealist (expressionism). As Pearcey explains how various works of art reflect the world view and philosophy of their day, the worldviews come alive and the genres take on more profound meaning.

The enlightenment inspired styles reflect the data driven lower story level. For instance the machine-aesthetic Bauhaus school is inevitable child of cold hard scientific determinism. However, people are not machines and stripped down utilitarian uniformity is ultimately unlivable. Accordingly, the Bauhaus styled high rise housing project turned out to be depressing concrete prisons. Similarly, minimalist art seems ridiculously simplistic and inane. Whereas a pile of bricks on the floor or a few squares of color may accurately reflect the analytic secular worldview they express little of the depth and meaning found in more traditional art forms. Yet, this shallowness is reflective of the enlightenment worldview from which it was inspired. One thing Pearcey adds to the discussion that Schaeffer lacked is how Christians utilized these genres. Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms is cited as an example of one man’s journey back to faith and gratitude. Other artists who found the enlightenment worldview unlivable made the leap into the upper story.

Evolutionary ideas became popular in the nineteenth century and have remained consistently so. In the lower story, Darwin’s theory was used to assault biblical truth claims about creation. The book presents an entire chapter on Darwinism and how it played out in “tooth and claw” literature by Jack London and Edgar Rice Burroughs as well as how evolutionary themes became the cohesive element between the Enlightenment / Romantic divide. It is particularly revealing how philosophers like Hegel substituted an “Absolute Spirit” for a personal God as the driving force of evolution. Hegel’s dialectical synthesis, often called historicism, posited truth as transitory and not absolute concept of truth albeit it is a self-refuting paradigm. Hegel’s ideas spawned biblical criticism and interest in occult philosophies.

The book reveals how Romanticism began as a protest against Enlightenment values. Artists like Blake responded to the industrial revolution by describing factories as “dark, Satanic mills.”[3] Art became a means of protest against the exploitation of nature for greed. Artists began to draw from within themselves rather than brute sense perception and this marks the distinction between impressionism and expressionism. Accordingly, paintings like Van Gogh’s Starry Night are not based on what he saw as much as what he felt. Pearcey argues that many artists in this period saw art as substitute religion. Even so, a major strength of Saving Leonardo is that it presents Christian works like Abbey Burial Ground by Friedrich, Christ Mocked by Soldiers by Rouault and the contemporary expressionist Makoto Fujimura in addition to commenting on secular works. and finds its expression in New Age ideas today. Spiritualism and psychic research literally exploded during the nineteenth century and the Eastern religions increasingly infiltrated into the West. Furthermore, the implications of quantum mechanics, that consciousness is a causal factor in reality, inspired many thinkers to abandon the lower story. Scientists still practice an odd form of denial when it comes to the quantum level implications for materialism. Today, quantum mysticism with an embrace of eastern monism is popular along with postmodern thought.

Postmodernism was the result of the wholesale abandonment of rational certainty and embrace of radical relativism. Pearcey demonstrates the rejection of the metanarrative as a cohesive story of human history and reveals how it fuels deconstructionism in the arts and political correctness, diversity and multiculturalism in the political sphere. She also does a great job of explaining how reductionist worldviews amount to worship of the created over the creator. For example, materialism. empiricism, naturalism and pantheism all fall under the postmodernist’s term “totalizing.” They all reduce the complex reality created by God to one thing and Pearcey argues that biblically this is merely a form of idolatry. This argument has explanatory scope by unifying the error various strands of secularism and is well supported by passages like Romans 1:23. She makes a cogent case that only a biblical worldview recognizing the transcendent creator can avoid idolizing part of the creation.

The two story worldview is also addressed in terms of continental and analytic philosophy. She breaks the two streams up as upper story (continental): Idealism, Marxism, phenomenology, existentialism postmodernism, deconstructionism and lower story (analytic): rationalism, materialism, naturalism logical positivism, linguistic analysis. One criticism is that some philosophers, like Brian Leiter from the University of Chicago, argue the continental / analytic distinction is unhelpful because they do not always divide so neatly.[4] Even so, Pearcey seems well aware that these categories are not necessarily so distinct in writing, “Over the course of history, these two traditions have not remained watertight. At times, they have overlapped or borrowed from one another.”[5] Whereas not everyone falls neatly into one side or the other, everyone is affected by the split. By outlining these corresponding paths through modern history, she offers new insights as to where we are today. People live segregated lives along the facts / values divide which extend into academia as sciences / humanities. This calls for a holistic Christian response and Saving Leonardo makes some cogent suggestions.

After a whirlwind survey of the worldviews displayed in many films, the epilogue entails a call to action. Remarking on the music of J.S. Bach’s evangelistic fruit in modern Japan, she asks, “Where are today’s counterparts to Bach?”[6] It is a passionate call for Christians to reengage the arts for the glory of God.

The missionary call is not only overseas but in our backyards and the ability to discern world views is paramount. The call for American Christians to increase support and interest in the arts is warranted. However, it may be the case that it is not simply a lack of patronage by Christians but more indicative of a wholesale lack of sophistication by the average American. It seems we are largely a shallow mass media oriented society. Furthermore, we are up against much more than indifference and ignorance. In Colossians 2:8, Paul connects deceptive philosophies to the “elemental spirits of the world.” The Greek term stoicheia was used for demonic entities in ancient magical papyri and Jewish texts. Richard Melick comments, “In Jewish circles, the term ‘elements’ often applied to supernatural beings who ruled over people. Some considered them demons.”[7] It is an oversight to neglect the role of Satan and the demonic realm in promoting secular ideas. One wonders if they have been consigned to the upper story for so long that they are so easily forgotten. Perhaps Pearcey demurs because some Christians have retreated to a fortress mentality out of fear.

Unfortunately, there has also been a fear driven tendency to sanitize the potency out of art forms within evangelicalism. Accordingly, a stinging critique of banal syrupy-sweet Christian expressions is delivered. She writes that this is reflective of evangelicals accepting the world’s dualism by pushing the sacred into the upper story making worship an emotional high. She calls for engaging the culture in the down and dirty realities of life. A good example of Christian using film to subvert secular culture is Brian Godawa’s short film Cruel Logic.[8] The book closes with a quote from her mentor Francis Schaeffer, “One of the greatest injustices we do to our young people is to ask them to be conservative. Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary.”[9] Indeed this book is a call to arms, a passionate plea for Christians to engage the culture in interesting and revolutionary ways.

This paper offered a summary and analysis Saving Leonardo. The book is an ambitious effort surveying human thought over a vast period time. Through the survey, Pearcey makes a strong case that two story worldview concept plays out in philosophical and artistic movements in demonstrable ways. The fundamental tenet is that only the biblical worldview with a rational Creator God provides an epistemological foundation for a unified field of knowledge. By understanding the nature of the divide the Christian can lovingly exploit it to “take the roof off” over the unbeliever. Through understanding where culture has been and how it has arrived where it is today, one can make a meaningful impact on the future. Saving Leonardo shows why all secular worldviews have a divide and suggests a technique for finding the point of tension. The book succeeds in its goal and is a valuable reference for worldview analysis. Like Leonardo da Vinci, mankind is not content living in a divided field of knowledge. It is up to the twenty-first century Christian to take the lead toward a unified biblical worldview, in effect, saving Leonardo.

Apologetics 315 Book Reviewer Cris Putnam is a Christian apologist who holds a Master of Arts in Theological Studies and is the co-author of the best selling book Petrus Romanus. More of his writing can be found at

[1]Nancy Pearcey Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, and Meaning, Kindle Edition, (Nashville: B&H Publishing) 10.
[2] Pearcey Saving, 25.
[3] Pearcey, Saving, 179.
[4] “Brian Leiter on the Analytic Continental Distinction” Philosophy Bites Podcast, (accessed 06/15/2012).
[5] Pearcey, Saving, 246.
[6] Pearcey, Saving, 268.
[7] Richard R. Melick, vol. 32, Philippians, Colissians, Philemon, electronic ed., Logos Library System; The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2001), 253.
[8] Brian Godawa, Cruel Logic, YouTube, directed by Brian Godawa (Los Angeles, CA: 2007), (accessed June 16, 2012). I blogged on this film in relation to a Richard Dawkins book here:
[9] Francis Schaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century, in The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer, vol. 4, 70. in Pearcey, Saving, 278.


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