Saving Leonardo

from Sep 05, 2011 Category: Book Reviews

Nancy Pearcey’s second book about culture in 5 years, Saving Leonardo is subtitled A Call to Resist the Secular Assault on Mind, Morals, & Meaning.  Refined through lectures at Philadelphia Biblical University, Saving Leonardo complements her earlier book, Total Truth (2005). According to jacket notes, Saving Leonardo addresses the student of culture, with the goal of exposing secularism’s destructive and dehumanizing forces. Readers are left with one caveat: what you see and hear in the arts and popular media is not the innocent expression of personal opinion, but often deliberate antagonism toward a Judeo-Christian world and life view.

Because the author developed the manuscript as a teacher of young adults, Saving Leonardo is tonally a gradual expose, not a textbook or non-fiction novel. In it Pearcey names our culture’s naïve attraction to music, movies, and electronic games. Although aimed at young adults, Saving Leonardo excels as a readable, convincing defense of Christian orthodoxy for a wide popular audience.

This is actually a serious challenge to our present culture’s basic flippancy when it comes to the things of God. Regarding its usefulness beyond educating the young, its readers might be Christian artists, musicians, or writers who struggle with vocational calling. Any true artist, whether Christian or not, might take to heart its basic message. But there are enough philosophical questions to engage students of theology or future pastors. Indeed, that might prove to be its greatest value.

How does Saving Leonardo make the case for Christianity in a largely post-Christian world? It does so via hundreds of graphic images, with a fresh, dialogue-based approach to argument. But its great strength is Pearcey’s own life story. Her struggle as an agnostic child who entered college as a defiant enemy of traditional Christian teaching, but eventually became a disciple of Jesus, is a compelling one.

With all its content solidly backed by careful research, the book seldom mentions a composer, writer, or painter without quoting sources. When Pearcey talks about music, it is as a former violinist who has studied the great composers. When she assesses painting and architecture, she has done her homework. And, when discussing philosophy, Saving Leonardo shows a command of all the major schools and trends.

For example, the chapter entitled “Art Red in Tooth and Claw (The Enlightenment Heritage) goes quickly through a list of literary icons like Jack London and others. These icons come from an essentially naturalistic view of the world. Pearcey then develops each leading writer’s relationship to the enlightenment’s dismissal of divine creation, making her case respectfully, acknowledging genius and talent while challenging their world view.

Unlike some studies of culture through the eyes of Christian faith, Pearcey’s maintains respect for the humanity of painters, musicians, and writers. She is not witch-hunting in the arts, looking for atheists behind every canvas. Instead, she seems determined to help readers visualize the forces that foster hopelessness, emptiness, and determinism in all of culture. Echoing Francis Schaeffer’s pre-gospel apologetic directed at the modern mind, Pearcey bears no prejudice or guile toward her enemies. Compassionate and tough, she spots or challenges a philosophical position, then addresses the person who is tragically blind to the grace of God.  

She is likewise tough in“Morality at the Movies” (chapter 9). From pro-abortion films like Cider House Rules to materialist/amoral  messages in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, the book reveals agenda-driven films for what they are. Even pantheistic animated films like Pocahontas are exposed for their utter disregard of divine creation, and whose demure characters charm viewers into affection for ‘human’ rocks, trees, and flowers. This chapter alone should be required reading for Christian parents and young adults who are heavily influenced by cinema.

Finally, the Epilogue, “Bach School of Apologetics,” becomes a postscript to the book’s message. In it Pearcey reports that Bach’s music has taken Japan captive to its overt Christian themes, by way of Baroque forms and word painting.  In fact, through listening to Bach, some Japanese have been converted. Even the unconverted recognize that the Leipzig kappelmeister was a Christian whose genius was beyond comprehension to his contemporaries, and who even mystifies musical experts of the present day.

Author Nancy Pearcey summarizes her work with the conviction that the church needs to nurture, not tame or exploit, its artists, writers, and musicians. I cannot think of a better challenge for Christian readers of Saving Leonardo. Indeed, the author admonishes ‘world and life view’ adherents who use the term merely to impress friends. Since the Christian gospel is the ultimate object of every intellectual pursuit in Christendom, those committed ones who name Christ as Lord must not give in to pride or “empty intellectualism.”

I highly recommend we all digest Saving Leonardo. Clearly it is a resource for anyone teaching or influencing young minds. In a previous era, we would have no need to explain to our children the bizarre exploits of Lady Ga Ga, or expose sugar-coated idolatry in Avatar. But for those encounters when we are nakedly countercultural, Pearcey’s latest book prepares us for at least a modicum of informed compassion.


Terry Yount is a musician, freelance composer and writer living in Orlando, Florida. He has provided organ and instrumental music for Ligonier’s National Conference as director of Ligonier Sinfonia, which he founded. He also serves as Saint Andrew’s Organist and Dean of Saint Andrew’s Conservatory of Music.