Cultural Heritage

One of the most highly acclaimed French films has just hit American theaters. It's about the life of the Dutch artist Vincent van Gogh. But you'll never learn what van Gogh was really like from this movie. To start with, the film gives the artist a love affair, which he never had. It shows him carousing with Paris socialites, which he never did. But most important, the film omits the central fact of van Gogh's life: his deep Christian faith. The real van Gogh started out not as an artist but as a Bible teacher. His goal was to become a pastor. But his hopes were dashed when he flunked out of seminary. Undaunted, the young man preached the Gospel to destitute coal miners, living among them and sharing their poverty. But once again his goal was thwarted when he began to show signs of mental instability and lost the financial support of his mission society. It was only then that he turned to art. Vincent van Gogh went on to produce hundreds of great paintings. Yet he continued to battle with mental illness until, at the age of 37, he committed suicide. It's a tragic story. But almost equally tragic is the fact that the full story is usually suppressed. Books on art history carefully scrub out any reference to van Gogh's strong Christian faith. And van Gogh isn't the only one. Many people know the name of the great painter Rembrandt; but they don't know that he, too, was a devout Christian. We see the same blindness in books on literature. Samuel Coleridge was elevated to an icon by the drug culture of the 1960s because many of his poems were composed under the influence of opium. But no one mentions that Coleridge found freedom from his opium addiction by turning to Jesus Christ. Fans of the avant garde celebrate T.S. Eliot as the first modernist poet. But few talk about the fact that Eliot later became a Christian. In music, most people know that Bach and Handel were Christians. But what about Vivaldi? Vivaldi was a man of the cloth, nicknamed "the Red Priest" for his bright red hair. Antonin Dvorak, with his lively Slavic melodies, was a sturdy Christian believer. Felix Mendelssohn had Jewish parents but was himself a devout Lutheran. Examples like these are everywhere. Look at science. The notebooks of Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, and Pascal overflow with praise to the Creator. In virtually every field, Christians have made major artistic and scholarly contributions. Yet modern history books rarely mention the role faith has played in building our culture. For non-Christians, that makes it easy to belittle Christians as bumbling know-nothings. For Christians, it means we've been cut off from a rich cultural and intellectual heritage that is rightfully ours. So don't take your history from the movies, or even from history books. They rarely tell the whole story. Instead, check your Christian bookstore. The story of van Gogh's Christian faith, for example, is found in State of the Arts by Gene Edward Veith. Rediscover the great men and women who have created our Christian heritage.


Chuck Colson



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