Monday, January 9, 2017

On the cultural aspects of religious practice

Last Monday, I finally got to see the Martin Luther / Reformation exhibit that is currently on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.  We had tickets a few weeks back but we rescheduled due to weather concerns—something that just happens in Minnesota. In the meantime, the book describing the importance of the collection had arrived and I made a stab at reading it. There were few surprises as I have been seriously pursuing the question, since the 1980s, of how the various state (Lutheran) churches of the Nordic countries influenced their uniquely progressive political and social development. The motor for this passion is self-discovery—as the son of a Lutheran clergyman who was also an agrarian progressive, I was taking on two targets simultaneously. Besides, the question IS interesting—how and why did the Nordic nations become models of enlightened social and political organization? This question is especially interesting since the starting cultural / religious position was Viking.

The short answer is that for the most part, the state churches stayed out of the way. Lutherans never persecuted science—in fact, the reason Descartes died in Sweden is because he was offered shelter from religious persecution. When Sweden decided to get out of the war-making business in 1814, the Church of Sweden quite quickly fell into line. The Church was a supporter when Sweden decided to create their welfare state—although by the 1930s, the influence of the church was mainly confined to rural areas where the clergy taught the principles of petty piety.

But there were parts of Dr. Martin's cultural uprising that provided a solid base for social expansion. The most notable was his insistence that believers should be able to read and understand their sacred documents. In honor of the 500 anniversary of Protestantism, the Germans have recently published a new edition of Luther's translation of the Bible. Apparently, the "improvement" of the latest version is the inclusion of more 16th-century text. (Fans of the King James Bible will understand.) It is almost impossible to overstate the social transformation that came to a culture when reading became an act of the new faith and debating the finer theological points a demonstration of one's serious intent. The highlight of the show at MIA was the Luther Bible with Cranach woodcut illustrations. This Bible first appeared in 1534 but the one on display is from 1541—87 years after the publication of the Gutenberg Bible (1454).  Not surprisingly, the Luther Bible is absolutely gorgeous viewed simply as a printing project—by Luther's time printing was pretty well understood.

The MIA show is something of an odd duck.  Lutherans have not normally junked up their churches with paintings and statuary. That sort of art was put aside from the very beginning. Trust me, Cranach the Elder may have made clever woodcuts for printing, but no one will ever confuse him with Michelangelo (who was working at the same time.) Lutheran Churches can be stunningly innovative, very modern, and often beautiful. (Some favorites include the Rock Church in Helsinki, the Gruntvig Church in Copenhagen, the Christ Chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter MN, and the Saarinen church in south Minneapolis.) If you follow the links, you will notice that most of these churches brag about their acoustics. Which leads to the subject of "Lutheran" art.

When the big churches of Northern Europe switched from Catholic to Protestant, the remodeling job followed a standard procedure. 1) Remove the painting and statuary, the stained glass windows, and bejeweled relics, 2) Paint the interiors white (mostly) because the new faithful would have to read during devout observances so bright interiors were important; 3) Build a fancy new pulpit because the sermon was now the centerpiece of the service; and 4) Install a gigantic pipe organ because music was now a highly approved practice of the faith. Luther himself wrote music. Besides, it's great fun to sing along to a big organ shaking the rafters.

The economic role of the pipe organ industry that sprouted in the wake of the Protestant Reformation cannot be overstated. The precision necessary to make those things work was phenomenal. Not surprisingly, any region that made pipe organs could easily understand the important parts of industrial technology. Other regions had other technological precursors of course, and the pipe organ shared the limelight with printing, but if the goal is precision manufacture, it's hard to beat pipe organs for a starting point.

If music and singing was Lutheran art form #1, printing was certainly #1A. Without printing, the Reformation was roughly as possible as without the internet. Printing runs second only to music because calling printing an art form is a bigger definition stretch. That said, most of the books on display at MIA were stunningly beautiful.

The third manifestation of Lutheran art didn't really surface until the 20th century. Scandinavian Modern was largely a social democratic movement that claimed everyone was entitled to have beautiful things. And that the best way to accomplish this goal was factories that mass-produced goods would hire artists to ensure that these goods were as beautiful as possible while still being inexpensive due to mass production. Beautiful things for everyday use. Luther would have so approved—he was very democratic. Industrial design may not have been a Lutheran invention, but Lutes seem to be especially good at it.

And of course, the highest flowering of Lutheran "art" are the successful societies. Any movement that starts with the sentence, "Out of love for the truth and the desire to bring it to light" should logically end with societies where corruption is almost unheard of. The top three countries in the Transparency International's corruption index are Denmark, Finland, and Sweden—countries that have been constitutionally Lutheran for centuries. Technological sophistication is utterly dependent on honesty measured in Ångstroms. Turns out honesty has measurable economic value. And the best form of honesty comes not from people who feel forced to be honest, it comes from people who have fallen in love with the truth—and the methods for finding truth.

I am happy I got to see the collection of early Lutheran artifacts at MIA. I am not sure an art museum is an appropriate venue for these items because of the frosty relationship Protestants had with art in general, but whatever. I still believe if you really want to see Lutheran art in all its glory, watch a Christmas concert from St. Olaf College (or Luther, or Concordia.) These things are run every year on PBS.

Of course, the real reason why any of this is still important is that the same value set (universal literacy, honesty, precision, and a love of beauty) that made the Lutheran nations so successful will be necessary to create the sustainable future. Not surprisingly, those nations already lead the way in implementing a Green agenda.