“We Are the Destroyers”
Several years ago my wife Sharon and I were visiting our son Richard at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, where he was launching his Ph.D. program in philosophy (he graduated this past May). Touring the campus, we approached the Department of Modern Art. I’ll never forget the description emblazoning the entrance: “We Are the Destroyers.” No motto more truthfully and chillingly describes not only modern art but Modernism in all its guises, the latest iteration of which unfolds before our eyes in the wholesale toppling of historic monuments in the wake of the tragic killing of George Floyd (see “Cultural Gravediggers”). Te be Modern is to destroy.
The early Modern destroyers
We often use the word modern as a synonym for contemporary, but here I’m denoting another, more technical definition. “Modern” refers to an outlook on life (a worldview, actually) emerging in the mid-19th century and flowering 100–140 years ago in Europe. It has radically reshaped our world. The Modern (I’m capitalizing this usage) was first identified by French poet Charles Baudelaire, and its foundational tenet was captured by fascist Modernist poet Ezra Pound: “Make it new!” Every age must invent its own world. It cannot be bound by the religion, views, ethics, art, education, law, and commitments of its ancestors. They might have been suitable for their time, but not for our own time. We are unique, like no generation preceding us. The past has no claim on us. Even our memory of it impedes our grand march to The Good Life. Therefore, the past must die. We must obliterate it. There can be no life in the present without the death of the past. We must destroy to create.
The Modern began in art. The slight shift from the past in the movement known as Impressionism (Peter Gay:* “Impressionist paintings were reports from the interior”) by Monet, Manet, and Cézanne quickly moved to Expressionism, Cubism, and Surrealism. Picasso and Dali were only the most daring:
Spider of the Evening (1939–1940), by Dali
Modern art must destroy not only all previous artistic conventions; it must eviscerate conventional morality. From Picasso, “we have a telling drawing of a muscular naked man beating a cringing naked woman, another of a woman being strangled. More central to his work, he imagined rapes with fair frequency, it seems with almost sadistic relish.”
Picasso, even in his own time, was not deemed a low-life porn artist. He was lionized as the artistic Modernist par excellence. He delighted to destroy.
The architectural Modernists included the Bauhaus school in Weimar Germany and Frank Lloyd Wright in America. Classical architecture with its ornamentation and time-honored forms going back even as far as ancient Israel’s temple must be supplanted by the new, the minimalistic, the instrumental. The past enslaves. We must liberate ourselves. Peter Gay notes of Futurist Modernist Umberto Boccioni:
“In architectural creation,” he warned, “the past weighs down on the mind of the client and the architect.” Hence, creativity must break away from tradition: “it has to start again from the beginning.”
Mere evolution in architectural style is unacceptable. Classical architecture must be destroyed, and the Modernists must create all over.
The towering musical Modernist was Arnold Schoenberg, whose goal was “not merely to defy these [classical] rules but to construct wholly new foundations for music.” His goal was “pure subjectivity,” which for him meant “the emancipation of dissonance” from its slavery to convention. This is the objective of his famous Second String Quartet: “What it did to its hearers was largely to deprive them of the expected signature of a stable key underlying the music.”
This lust for coherent dissonance was not merely an exciting invention for Schoenberg. He was deliberately destroying the past to make way for a revolutionary future. The same was true in prose (James Joyce), poetry (T. S. Eliot), dance (Balanchine), and theater (Ibsen). All were self-conscious destroyers.
Modernity wasn’t simply the latest worldview in history; it was the worldview to destroy all previous history.
While Modernism as a movement began in the 19th century, its spirit originated in the French Revolution under the influence of the Romantic thinker Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The Jacobins restarted the calendar, and renamed the days of the week and months of the year. The whole point was to “avoid Christian associations.” When Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge established in mid-1970’s Cambodia the most radical regime in human history, they betrayed their debt to the French Revolution by returning their calendar to Year Zero.
They destroyed history. It was theirs to reinvent.
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The contemporary Modern destroyers
What does the Romanticism of Rousseau and the cubism of Picasso and the dissonance of Schoenberg have to do with today’s razing of monuments? They share the Modernist worldview. They are the destroyers.
I sketched the Marxist roots of the current revolutionary nihilism in “The Marxism in the Mayhem,” but one characteristic of the violence notably perpetuating Modernism is Modernism’s erasure of history. Marxism, like all other utopian schemes, demands not just a decisive break with the past but also a purging of the past. The past must be washed from modern brains if they are to be prepared for the Brave New World. It is in this sense that Marxism is quintessentially Modern.
What is it that Marxist mob wants? Not, surely, simply the end of racism and slavery, for why would they raze or attack monuments of the greatest pro-Union figures of U.S. history, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant?
We get closer to the actual answer to that question when we ponder the rationale for the removal of Teddy Roosevelt’s statue at the American Natural History Museum, a case not of mob toppling but political purging. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio declares that it “symbolizes colonial expansion and racial discrimination.” The fact that it depicts an incontestably notable figure in the “natural history” [!] of the United States is apparently insufficient. Teddy, who was certainly deeply flawed, fails the litmus test of the Modernists, for whom today’s “progressive” standards must have no enduring past rival. It’s not even sufficient to say that he was great as judged by the standards of his time but fails by today’s standards, a relativist assertion. No, the past itself must be not merely judged, but purged, for the new world to fully emerge. Memory of the past is an impediment to the utopia of the present and future.
This sentiment is the relentless conclusion of Modernism as it presses toward logical consistency. Western civilization, the world that has granted King the blessings he and his family enjoy and the liberty freely to express his contrarian views, is grounded in Christianity and Jesus Christ. Therefore, to destroy history in the West is to cancel Jesus Christ. His method is wrong.
First, if he thinks Jesus went to Egypt to “blend in,” implying a connection with the modern U.S. racial divide, he’s likely under the mistaken and embarrassing impression that North African skin color is identical to sub-Saharan skin color. Jesus was not as white as northern Europeans, and he was not as black as sub-Saharan Africans. Jesus was a Jew, likely with very light brown skin. Jesus wasn’t white, but he wasn’t black either.
Second, the statues of Jesus as a so-called white European simply do not permit that distinction. While pictures of Jesus can be quite misleading, statues of the Jewish Jesus would not look fundamentally different from white Europeans, since statues barely highlight skin color. Some Jews are whites and some are not, but their other features are similar.
What this radical Leftist is really attacking, of course, is not racism but Jesus Christ and Christian culture. Christianity shaped Western civilization, which he is trying to overturn.
At its root, this is the war on Jesus Christ and the culture he creates. If he could topple God, as Lucifer first attempted, he would.
Gary DeMar has noted the radical contrast between biblical Faith and this history-erasing Modernism:
On a side note, the Bible does not cancel its history. The books are open for everyone to see. Nothing is hidden. There is David’s adultery and his duplicity in the death of Urriah the Hittite to hide his sin, and yet his psalms grace a large part of the Bible. There are few Bible personalities who come away unscathed.
If cancel culture were applied to the Bible, there would be little to read. Look at the list of people from the Old Testament as examples of faith in Hebrews 11. Most of the them would be cancelled given today’s standards, many of whom grace stained glass windows in churches.
Why? Because God is a God of history. History is the theater of his creation, man’s fall, and Christ’s cosmos-redeeming work. Jehovah exhorts Israel:
“Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of many generations.
Ask your father, and he will show you;
Your elders, and they will tell you: (Dt. 32:7)
To know history is to know God’s work. To erase history is to erase God’s work. If Modernists can erase history they can erase God from man’s memory (largely, though not entirely; see Rom. 1:18–23).
The community of memory
The church is what Charles Colson once called “The community of memory.” The church was birthed by spectacular, history-altering events: Jesus Christ’s sacrificial death and victorious bodily resurrection; the Holy Spirit’s descent at Pentecost; the divine inspiration of the Bible. The Lord’s Table is a tactile act of memory. The weekly confession of the Apostles or Nicene Creed is an explicit remembrance. The Christian Faith is impossible without memory, without history.
The only impregnable bulwark against The Destroyers is Christianity, and Christian culture in particular. Christian culture doesn’t attempt to erase the past but to reform it based on the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and God’s moral law. It recognizes both the historical scars of human sin as well as the blessings of God’s grace, both redemptive (toward believers) and common (to all people). Christian culture presupposes historical continuity. God is at work in history, a very sinful and flawed history, to gradually expand the Kingdom of his dear Son.
Christian culture is happy to acknowledge the deeply anti-Christian elements of history (including racism) because it knows that God’s grace can overcome all sin and that we need not produce utopia before breakfast next Thursday. The gradual purging of the sinful society will happen only in the consummate state of eternity, though sin will be greatly mitigated in the world before then.
Christians need not topple monuments even of flawed men because we know the solution to the flaws isn’t violence and coercion but the shed blood of Jesus Christ. God alone in Christ redeems man from sin, but Christians labor to get the gospel to the world, for this gospel of peace cleanses men and culture without destroying them.
We are not the destroyers. We are the builders.