Monthly Archives: November 2013

America as a Renaissance Idea

In the late 1500s and early 1600s, a bevy of artistic allegorical depictions of America were produced in Europe. Many of the engravings that came out of this period were to commemorate the centennial of the discovery of America in 1492 by Christopher Columbus. This piece, originally printed by Jan van der Straet in 1600 and later engraved by Phillippe Galle around 1620, is a fascinating work that depicts America as an integral part of the Renaissance. It is one of the first artistic depictions of America as more than merely a physical fixture on the map. Indeed, America is seen here as a symbol of a great advancement, a progression, a remaking of the world, a great leap forward in human civilization.


This particular piece, called Nova Reperta (Lat., “New Inventions”), served as the frontispiece for a bound collection of engravings celebrating several inventions and discoveries of the Renaissance. Jan van der Straet (1523-1605) produced this piece, along with nineteen others that served a didactic purpose, educating viewers about the death of the medieval world and the birth of a new world, filled with immeasurable promise.

Let’s notice a few details in the piece. Starting at the upper left and moving across to the upper right, you will see a young woman pointing to a map of America.


The map depicts the continents of North and South America as open, new, yet to be settled and civilized. The map’s position relative to the other details in the piece indicates that America is the first of all Renaissance discoveries. Thus, the discovery of America opens the door, not only to a new physical world, but a new intellectual one as well. The names of Christopher Columbus of Genoa and Amerigo Vespucci of Florence give credit where credit is due: not only to the individuals who are most closely associated with the discovery of America, but also to the great Italian cities that produced them.

The young woman represents a youthful new world, and she is taking the place of an old man who is departing the scene on the upper right side of the map. The old man represents the medieval paradigm, who now plaintively looks back on a world that no longer recognizes him.


Notice an interesting detail that van der Straet includes in both the young woman and the old man. Both are grasping a snake which is devouring its own tail.

This depiction is called an ouroboros, and it is quite ancient. It appears in Western and non-Western art alike, but the symbol has various meanings depending on the cultural and artistic contexts. It is likely that van der Straet is depicting the ouroboros in the classic alchemist style–as a symbol of continuous destruction and continuous renewal. Here is depicted a world that is undergoing both a death and a rebirth.

Renaissance man, starting roughly in the late 14th century with the thought of Petrarch (1304-1374), looked back to the classical world of Rome and Greece and saw a golden age. But that golden age died with the fall of Rome, and the centuries following were regarded by Renaissance thinkers as a dark age. But Petrarch and others believed that a new order could be ushered in that was the culmination of classical Rome and Greece. The spirit of the classical age could be recovered by man’s own efforts, to put to death the dark age that dominated the last 1000 years and bring about a third age superior to that of anything that had gone before it.

The discovery of America was the harbinger of this third age. The ouroboros represents the death of the dark age, the medieval world. It is being displaced by the new ideas, inventions, and discoveries of the new world of the Renaissance. The dying old world depended on a priori assertions, on religious and philosophic authorities, and was suspicious of new ideas and innovations. It has habitually looked to the past and regarded the physical world as a fleeting and inferior reality, and anticipated the perfect spiritual world of heaven.

But the new world of rebirth sees great value in this life, and is willing to put off heaven to enjoy the riches and bounty of this world. It looks forward to the future with the expectation that progress is inevitable. New ideas and new technologies will replace those of the dark age, and the well-worn paths beaten down by mindless dependence on intellectual and spiritual authorities are about to be abandoned for new trails blazed by discoverers and scientists.

America is allegorically depicted here as the manifestation of the death of old ways, and birth of a new order.

As we continue to survey van der Straet’s piece, we see several new phenomena placed below the young woman and the departing old man. These are numbered I-IX.


The first, and most prominent discovery is America. The second, is the compass, pictured on the right and labeled with the name of Flavius Amalfitanus, the Latinized name of the Western inventor of the compass.


The third, labeled ignibus amata puluis, is gunpowder and the cannon.


Fourth, labeled imprimi volumina, is a printing press.


The fifth invention, the iron clock, is labeled roisge iugis indita hora ferreis.


Next is a medicine derived from guaicum wood, labeled hyacum.


Seventh, ab igne ftilla, is the process of alchemy.


The eighth, fila ferica, is the cultivation of silkworms,


and last is the saddle with stirrup, or staphaas: prisco operta cuneta faculo.


Since the sixteenth century, America has been regarded as a symbol of hope and progress. The United States of America, birthed at the apex of the English Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, embodied the promise of inevitable progress. Early American self-identification was laden with this notion in its founding mottoes–E Pluribus Unum, Novus Ordo Seclorum, and Annuit Coeptis, meaning “out of many, one,” “a new order for the ages,” and “God has blessed our undertaking.” And Americans have seen themselves as the “last best hope of earth” ever since. As recently as Thanksgiving Day 2013 (yesterday), one of America’s most prolific and respected writers expressed this very idea in the closing words of her editorial.

This piece also represents the beginning of American patriotic art. I realize that term is a bit of an anachronism. Still, this piece is indicative of American patriotism, even though it was produced long before the United States came to be. Nova Reperta is fascinating in part because it captures much of the essence of what later would be called “American exceptionalism”–the notion that America is in a class by itself. Exceptionalism means that America is more than a nation, it is an idea. America represents an intellectual, political, practical, and emotional break with the old world and the old way of things.

This has been, for many, the reference point in making sense of providence and the flow of history since the flag of the dual kingdoms of Leon and Castille were planted in the sands of San Salvador over five centuries ago.


The Lessons Graveyards Teach

This blog, Historical Trinkets, is a gem–its subtitle is “Hidden history, book reviews, photographs and general history-related prattle.” If you like old graveyards, then you should definitely check it out. Being a huge graveyard nut myself, I have enjoyed perusing it. (Thanks to Mary V. Thompson, Research Historian at Mount Vernon, for the tip). Prominent on this blog are photographs from graveyards around London from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The sculpture, symbolism, and serenity of an old graveyard are unforgettable.

When we were living in Orange County, Virginia, I used to go over to the Maplewood Cemetery in Gordonsville and walk the grounds. My grandparents on my father’s side are buried there, and I remember being there for my grandmother’s funeral almost forty years ago. The Maplewood Cemetery is located outside the town, and I never encountered another person while walking amongst the tombs (at least among the living).

The Maplewood Cemetery is divided up into distinct sections. There is a modern section on the eastern half of the cemetery that is typically ordinary–many of the tombstones are flush with the ground and there is little imagination represented in that section. There are no statues of mourning angels, no inscribed eulogies and no relief sculptures on the tombstones. Modern cemeteries tell a lot about the aesthetic and spiritual sensibilities of a culture, and the culture’s ability to reflect on its own mortality. In that section, the message to be gleaned from the passer-by is, as it were, “a bunch of people lived awhile and then died–keep moving, nothing to see here.” Modern cemeteries provide an interesting commentary on the contemporary worldview, just as old ones do, but that’s another blog post.

The interesting side of the Maplewood Cemetery is the west side. There are numerous graves containing remains from soldiers who served the Confederate Army. Most of these were officers, and native to Orange County. There is also a mass grave tucked away in the trees near the back of the cemetery, containing remains of unknown Confederate dead. And there are many graves of prominent people of Gordonsville–these graves are particularly beautiful and often poignant–haunting would even be a good term.


There is a long row of family plots, each of them walled off and gated. In each of these little family plots, the graves are surrounded by stately trees, spreading ivy, and tall boxwood shrubs that emit their subtle fragrance, redolent with dignity, solemnity, and timelessness. It’s quiet in those little walled-off parks. They are places of reflection. They make one consider how one has spent his life, and the time one has left on this earth. One bears in mind that someday, in the not too distant future, there will be a gravestone bearing his own name.

As you walk among those tombs, you pass among ornate sculptures. There are obelisks covered in drapery, symbolizing end of life. Some obelisks are cut off, symbolizing life cut short. Sculptures of oaken stumps represent the same. Marble angels mourn over other graves, often children and infants whose lives were extinguished by disease or accidents. Each of these sculptures have a bit of morbidity to them, but many of these also harbor the hope of resurrection and life eternal. On many gravestones, there are relief sculptures of lit candles, or of evergreen boughs. There are verses from Scripture, notably 1 Corinthians 15 and John 14. And all around the signs of death are signs of life–trees, grass, birds, and breezes. In the spring, there are daffodils and the buzzing of bees all round.

I used to go to that cemetery to pray, to reflect, and to meditate on Scripture. How I miss that lovely place.

Civil Religion and American Exceptionalism


It’s been a good week at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Baltimore. For one thing, I had the opportunity to take my friend and colleague, Stephen Presley, on a little tour of Washington, DC this past Monday. He is an Irenaeus scholar with a PhD from the University of St. Andrews, a very impressive teacher and scholar. But, being from Texas, he never had much of an opportunity to visit DC. So I gave him a “civil religion” tour. We stopped over at Arlington Cemetery, the most hallowed ground in America, to see JFK’s grave and the Tomb of the Unknowns. Then we went over to the Lincoln Memorial, and saw the “temple” in which the great statue of Lincoln is situated between the walls on which his greatest pieces of oratorical flourish are inscribed forever.

I say this was a “civil religion” tour because the topic was heavy on my mind. This past Tuesday, I presented a paper on American exceptionalism as an aspect of civil religion. The paper was a shortened version of the introduction to my forthcoming book on exceptionalism, and I was anxious to take my thesis out for a spin. Here’s what I said in a nutshell.

American exceptionalism, as an aspect of civil religion, takes two forms. High exceptionalism conceives of the nation in normative, transcendent, providential terms. It misappropriates theological themes from Christianity and applies them to America. Two of the most salient examples are 1) America is a chosen nation, and 2) America has been given a divine commission. Others include the ideas that America is immune to corruption, America possesses a sacred land, and that America has a glorious past that is peopled by saints and must be recovered.

Low exceptionalism does not go so far as to assign America a transcendent status, nor is it a providential interpretation of American history or society. Rather, low exceptionalism is the idea that America presents its people and the world with an example to pursue. This is an example of justice, natural rights, freedom under the rule of law, and equality of opportunity. No other nation was founded upon such principles. No other nation has been so singularly possessed of realizing that example over the course of its history. And no other nation has attracted people from all over the world to its shores on the basis of such an example.

Low exceptionalism as an idea includes Seymour Martin Lipset’s conception of exceptionalism as being “a double-edged sword.” Not only is America exceptional with regard to rights and equality, but it is also exceptional in terms of rates of incarceration and income inequality. Fair enough–America has many flaws, some of them profound. America still has far to go on the road to justice and equality. But it is on the road, and has already come very far from its point of departure in 1776. Acknowledging flaws is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Indeed this is another aspect of the idea of low exceptionalism–America is an exceptionally self-examining nation, and is never satisfied with itself as it contemplates how it lives up to its own ideals.

It is important to insist that both high and low exceptionalism are aspects, not of Christianity, but of civil religion. For one thing, Christianity should not be asked to pay for the sins of high exceptionalism. And nothing in Christianity places hope in any nation, but solely in the person and work of Jesus Christ. For another thing, Christianity does not articulate an explicit doctrine of natural rights or of equality. These ideas are found in the Western philosophical tradition, and are in many ways compatible with Christianity’s view of the dignity of the individual and conception of justice. High and low exceptionalism reflect the same pitfalls and values that civil religion offers. There is the pitfall of deifying the nation, one that high exceptionalism tends toward in its providentialism. Then there is the value of unifying the nation under great liberal ideals rooted in natural law. We find this value in low exceptionalism.

As a concept, American exceptionalism must be refined. There is a need for such refinement in public discourse, especially when we as a nation reflect on our engagement with ourselves and with the world. If we embrace high exceptionalism, our actions will be animated by hubris leading to destruction. But conceiving of ourselves in terms of low exceptionalism can cause us to value our principles and do that which preserves and extends those principles to others by the force of example and not coercion.

Pennsylvania and Maryland Bound

ImageNext week, I’ll be off to the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in Baltimore. I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, hearing the latest in theological and church-historical research, and presenting a paper of my own. Here are a few interesting titles that are beckoning me:

“Our Bonhoeffer? Why He is an Evangelical (and Why We Need Him),” Stephen J. Nichols

“The Clash of Ambitions: Inerrancy, Academic Witness, and the Neo-Evangelical Legacy,” Owen Strachan

“The Bible Made Impossible? A Response to Christian Smith,” Glenn R. Kreider

“When Inerrancy Failed: Twentieth Century Evangelicals and Race in America,” Miles S. Mulliin

“God is True and the Serpent is a Liar: Ireneaus’ Intertextual Readings of Genesis 2-3,” Stephen Presley

“Online Spiritual Formation: A Defense of the Incarnational Model,” Sten-Erik Armitage

“An Alternative to Universal and Limited Atonement,” John Hammett

I will be presenting a summary of my work on American exceptionalism in a paper entitled, “American Pietas: Considering the Theological Problem of American Exceptionalism.” This will be the first time I test my thesis, and I’m looking forward to the feedback.

In addition to attending ETS, I will be heading to Lancaster and Mechanicsburg, PA. My friend Bruce Etter is producing a classical Christian curriculum for middle and high school students for Veritas Press. Bruce, John Fea of Messiah College, and I will be working together on units on the social contract theory of Jean Jacques Rousseau, the Federalist Papers, and the Christian America thesis.

It’s going to be a fun week! If you’ll be attending ETS, let me know!

Do Equality and Fairness Trump Religious Freedom?

The Illinois legislature legalized same-sex marriage recently–starting on June 1 of next year, same-sex couples will be able to solemnize their relationships in state recognized ceremonies. Advocates stress that churches need not worry, that dissenting churches and clergy will not be required to honor requests by same-sex couples to perform weddings or to use their church facilities for the same.

That’s fine, but as Robert Gilligan writes over at RealClearReligion, religious freedom is not merely contained within the four walls of a church. Religious freedom means just that–everyone has the freedom to hold to their belief systems and exercise those systems as their consciences direct them, just as it is articulated in the First Amendment and driven home in the Fourteenth. But the new law has no provisions recognizing religious freedom outside the church. Businesses, individuals, and faith based organizations outside the church are not protected from dire consequences if they dissent against same-sex marriage.This is alarming, given the fact that dissent against the new definition of marriage has become a new unforgivable heresy.

Here is a section of Gilligan’s piece

It’s all good, lawmakers assured faith groups and religious organizations. Your religious freedom is secure.

Where have we heard that before?

How about three years ago, when Illinois lawmakers promised during floor debate on civil unions legislation that no faith-based social service organizations would be affected. But within six months of civil unions becoming law, all Catholic Charities in the state were pushed out of their longtime mission of caring for abused, abandoned, and neglected children. The state refused to renew contracts for foster care and adoption services because of Charities’ religious belief of not placing children with unmarried couples, be they heterosexual or homosexual.

We know better this time. We know our religious freedom is not protected. And when we asked for more protection, our pleas for fairness were rebuffed and spurned.

What we are seeing in the culture then, is not only a redefinition of marriage, but also a redefinition of religious freedom. Religious freedom has been understood since Locke in the 17th century and before, as an individual right bestowed on each person by God at birth. The right of the individual conscience is a natural right, and the individual is responsible to none but God for the content of his faith. Now, under the new orthodoxy of “equality” and “fairness” which is being thrust upon us, religious freedom means government toleration of your faith system as long as it stays chastened within the four walls of the church.

TBYFA Now on WordPress

Well, I made the jump from blogspot to WordPress, and I already see that I made the right decision. Thanks to those who gave me feedback and advice. The new web address is

Most of my posts made it from the old blogspot site to the new site, so very few changes there. I hope you keep visiting To Breathe Your Free Air! Feel free to suggest any changes–and don’t forget to follow me!

Thanks to the faithful readers of TBYFA! Looking forward to posting on WordPress!

First Hand Pics and Accounts of the Titanic Disaster

This site contains some fascinating pictures taken from the deck of the Carpathia on the morning after the sinking of the Titanic, April 15, 1912. Take a look at some of these pictures–they help to press home the reality of what those people went through after their ship sank from under them.

There are also a couple of letters written by survivors detailing their particular experiences. Here is part of what John P. Snyder wrote to his father a couple of weeks after the sinking–

I can only tell you that I have a mighty fine wife and she is the one you must thank—besides our Lord—for my being able to write this letter. If it hadn’t been for Nellie I’m sure that I would not be here now.  She is the one that encouraged me to get up when I wanted to go back to bed.

We were both asleep when the boat hit.  I don’t know whether the trump woke me up or I woke when Nellie spoke to me. At any rate she made me get up and go out to the companionway to see what was going on—I went out three times before we decided to get up and get dressed.

When we reached the top deck only a few people were about and we all were told to go down and put on our lifebelts—we did it at once thinking it was only a precaution. When we got back on the top deck again we saw they were getting the lifeboats ready—as soon as they were ready they told the people to get into them. . . .

Only a very few people were on deck at that time and they thought it much safer to stay on the big boat than try the lifeboats. When we rowed some distance away from the Titanicwe realized—by looking at the bow seeing the different rows of port holes getting less and less from three rows—then two rows and finally the bow went under—that the finest boat in the world was doomed—we hit between 11.40 and 11.50 and the Titanic sunk at 2.22 in the morning.

Read the entire letter–it is amazing how Snyder closes his letter by casually noting his wife’s weight gain of 20 pounds since their wedding! She must have been pregnant. What a way to finish his account of surviving one of the most famous maritime disasters! It’s a poignant reminder that those folks on the Titanic were real people just like us.