Review: Saving Leonardo

Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning (B&H Publishing Group/Crossway Books, Nashville, Tenn., 2010), 328 pp., hardcover, $26.99 USD.

Nancy Pearcey's newest book, Saving Leonardo: A Call to Resist the Secular Attack on Mind, Morals, & Meaning, arrives at a pivotal and opportune time. Or at least it does so for those hopeful of turning the tide against rising anti-Christian sentiment spurred by the New Atheists and other movements unsympathetic to Christian worldviews.

How opportune? Pearcey's book came out in late August, and as recently as Aug. 24 Catholic Archbishop Charles Chaput, in an (unrelated) speech given in Slovakia, called for Catholics in America and Europe "to oppose the rise of a 'state-encouraged atheism' that reduces religion to 'an individual lifestyle accessory' incapable of influencing the world," as reported by the Catholic News Agency. Chaput called relativism a "civil religion," and he remarked that today's secularist ideology envisions "a society apart from God."

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It was to confront precisely this kind of threat that Pearcey wrote her book. In Saving Leonardo, she returns to a theme she explored in her 2004 book Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity. There Pearcey, taking a page from her one-time mentor Francis Schaeffer, revealed the fractured nature of truth, as it is apprehended by contemporary society.

Today, truth is not embraced as a unified whole, but instead is divided into facts and values. Further, the "fact/value split" takes a two-story structure (Schaeffer's contribution), with facts (that is, anything deemed scientific, natural, material, objective, and/or purely rational, or "known," or "public") occupying the ground floor, and everything else (religion, spirituality, ethics, ideals, morals, art, beauty, and "preferences") relegated to the 2nd story, the abode of all mere "values," and the realm considered to be largely subjective and purely personal.

That was Total Truth. In Saving Leonardo, Pearcey revisits that concept, but goes further. Having come to realize that the problematical "fact/value dichotomy" permeates all of contemporary culture, she brings home her point by tracing the split from its origins (in the Renaissance) to the current day, revealing how it seeps into society through books, movies, art, and entertainment.

The "Leonardo" of her title is Leonardo da Vinci, "this universal man, divided between his irreconciliable worlds," (as Giovanni Gentile wrote of him). This man astride the worlds of religion, art, and science is suggested as a foreshadowing of our own times and our own dilemma.

The author shows us how the formation of worldviews begins with the philosophers, who influence the academics, who sway the student populations, who go out into life and shape culture according to the worldview they've absorbed.

Her aim is to equip. When we learn how to discern worldview within our culture, we learn how to filter it. We also are better equipped to reject it, if it does not reflect truth as we understand truth.

G.K. Chesterton wrote, "It is no good to tell an atheist he is an atheist; or to charge a denier of immortality with the infamy of denying it; or to imagine that one can force an opponent to admit he is wrong, by proving that he is wrong on somebody else's principles, but not his own."

Pearcey does as Chesterton would. She confronts an opposing view not by extolling the superiority of her own, but by stepping inside her opponent's position and testing its worth under its own premises, on its own grounds. Time and again, she takes us inside a secular worldview (and there are many), and explodes it by demonstrating how it is self-refuting. This tactic, which has proven effective in the hands of other Christian apologists, especially in recent years, finds a master practitioner in this author.

Again and again one is jarred with the "shock of the familiar." I already knew about Darwinism; about Postmodernism; about secularism. But from Pearcey I learned much: how Darwinism enters into more than just species consideration; how "secularism in all its forms is reductionistic… a worldview that does not start with God must start with something less than God"; how Christianity confers an enlightenment that is more than just spiritual enlightenment; why Christians should be more than critics of culture-they should be active creators of it; and why it is that, in culture, "the good drives out the bad."

She draws much from history, too. Citing the horrors of the Holocaust, Pearcey quoted Victor Frankl: "I am absolutely convinced that the gas chambers… were ultimately prepared… not in some Ministry in Berlin, but rather at the desks and in the lecture halls of nihilistic scientists and philosophers."

Pearcey writes: "Government policy merely followed where the universities led…. Ideologies determine how the state governs, how the economy is managed, how the news is framed in the media, and how the education system shapes the next generation."

Pearcey, who has served as professor of worldview studies at Philadelphia Biblical University and in other academic posts, proves herself the consummate synthesizer. Other apologists might make telling arguments; Pearcey does so herself, but weaves hers into ever-larger tapestries, all-the-more-overarching themes. Her multi-disciplinary approach (she has background and training in the applied arts, the performing arts, and the liberal arts, as well as in philosophy, theology, and social commentary) gives her the breadth of understanding that is required for a book of such scope.

Lavishly illustrated with photographs of classic artworks, architecture, film, and works of popular culture, Saving Leonardo shows as well as tells its story.

Besides being a cultural critic, the author is a leading advocate for Intelligent Design. With her husband Rick, himself an accomplished journalist, she blogs for

This latest book of hers is a work of depth and vision. What Pearcey confronts is nothing less than dehumanization and darkness. What she sustains is hope. And more than hope. Pearcey convinces us that the Culture War truly is winnable. More, that "total truth" can be ours if we diligently seek it.

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