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This situation is unprecedented in western civilisation: even 50 years ago, when these galleries of one of the richest collections in the world were last displayed in the V&A, they could assume that everyone was familiar with the rudiments of Christianity. Now, in a twinkling of an eye, 2,000 years of culture in the profoundest meaning of the word have been largely forgotten. There has been a slump in the practice of religion in all western countries except the US, and therefore of its transmission, in the family and in schools. This is true even in Catholic Italy, where, according to the Eurispes statistics office, in 2006, 87.6% of the population said it was Catholic, but only 36.6% was practising. The one hour a week of religious study at school has been optional since 1984, and in any case focuses on the catechism, so the gospel stories are almost unknown. Gianni Romano, professor of history of art at Turin University, says his pupils will recognise the Annunciation and perhaps St Peter with his keys, but not the less popular St Paul with his sword, while any of the less famous episodes, such as Doubting Thomas, will be quite unknown to them.In the UK, the decline is even more marked. According to research conducted in 2005 by the Christian Research English Church Census, only 6.3% of the population go to church on Sunday. In the Mori poll of 2003, only 56% of the population could name one of the Christian gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John).
Paradoxically, for decades after a 1944 law, religion was the only subject that UK schools were obliged to teach, but in the secularising, revolutionary 1960s and 1970s this was widely ignored in state schools. Now it has had a revival in the guise of multiculturalism and citizenship classes because society has become more diverse, with 2.7% of the population Muslim and 1% Hindu.
The emphasis today is very much on bridging the gaps between communities, say Matthew Burrows, a teacher of religion in a Church of England school. Even here though, there is no continuous narrative of the Old and New Testaments and no theological structure. “We tend to examine themes common to all religions, such as ‘Love your neighbour’, or the major feasts of other religions, such as Eid al-Fitr [the conclusion of Ramadan]”, he says.
Admirable as this is, it leaves little time or inclination to get to know the sequences and routines of Christianity, so no Virtues and Vices, no Stations of the Cross, no liturgical seasons or colours, not even a mention of the programmes of prayer, such as the Rosary or the Offices of the Day.
The complex system of type and antitype, whereby the key episodes in the New Testament are considered to have been prefigured by events in the Old Testament, is not taught, partly because it might offend the Jews. Cultural sensitivities even lead to the sacrificial aspects of the Crucifixion being downplayed, as being too alien and negative in our society. The result is that pupils leave school not only without many of the facts of Christianity, but much of its way of thinking.
Whether you are happy with this or not, it presents historians of pre-19th-century art everywhere with a major problem. They are no longer part of a mainstream, but students of the arcane.
I realize, all of a sudden, that I have assumed more than I have a right to about how much my children know of the Christian narrative (which of course includes the Hebrew narrative). I’ve been so interested in making sure they get the morals and the piety straight that I don’t think I’ve troubled much at all to teach them the stories.
Which brings us, yet again, to MacIntyre territory:
MacIntyre puts it in simple terms: “I can only answer the question, ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question, ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?'” It is essential, therefore, to be embedded within a tradition that provides a coherent narrative that frames the beginning of our story and moves us toward the ending. For MacIntyre, there is no such thing as a universal, objective morality outside of human experience. Moral goods “can only be discovered by entering into those relationships which constitute communities whose central bond is a shared vision of and understanding of goods.” He writes elsewhere that “epistemological progress consists in the construction and reconstruction of more adequate narratives….” Accordingly, the second half of After Virtue is itself a reconstructed narrative of the Aristotelian moral tradition.