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Back to the future

We have become too obsessed with ourselves, too inward-looking, too subjective, not just in our art but in our morality and in our religion

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One of the biggest movies of the year is 300, a computer-generated rendition of the ancient Greeks fighting the Persians at the Battle of Thermopylae. A major hit for HBO is Rome, a made-for-cable series on the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire. Historical novels about the heroes of Greece and Rome clutter the bookstores, and biographies of Caesar and Cicero make the bestseller lists.

Usually, rediscoveries of Greece and Rome herald a shift in style, away from the emotional subjectivity of Romanticism to the rational objectivity of Classicism. A pendulum has been swinging between those two poles for centuries in Western civilization.

These two kinds of styles are evident in the arts, but they also reflect ways of thinking and feeling. The classical style values order, universality, and reason. The romantic style values disorder, individuality, and emotion. Classical artists try to imitate the world outside themselves. Romantic artists are more interested in expressing the world inside themselves. Classical artists see the order in nature. Romantics see its wildness.

Christians have expressed their faith effectively in both styles (the classicist Milton; the romantic Hopkins), and the Bible seems curiously open to both, with its concept of creation referring both to the natural order and to the act of making something out of nothing.

Usually, styles change when Classicism becomes dry and conventional, or when Romanticism becomes sappy and conventional. Today, it is time for the pendulum to swing. We have become too obsessed with ourselves, too inward-looking, too subjective, not just in our art but in our morality and in our religion.

The movie 300 is not there yet. It is full of lurid violence (forbidden in classical drama), emotional venting (not the stern Spartan emphasis on duty), and an indulgence in the exotic (with the Persians presented as grotesque monsters) rather than the universally human. But perhaps it is a beginning.

Today, many Christians are involved with "classical" schools, which offer a more rigorous education than the feel-good, me-centered curricula of public schools. Many artists are discovering classical aesthetics, as tracked in the journal American Arts Quarterly. Many architects are designing buildings that follow the classical harmonies. A classical revival might, as it did in the Renaissance, help spark a biblical revival.

Gene Edward Veith Gene is a former WORLD culture editor.


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