“The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”
That’s a famous line from the poet Gerald Manley Hopkins, and it comes to mind when looking through the the awesome new three-volume set, National Geographic: Around the World in 125 Years. To call this collection a book of photography is like calling the Sistine Chapel (which is pictured in the book in a double-page spread) a rectory. (Full disclosure: my father worked at National Geographic from the 1960s to the early 1990s; he passed away in 1996 and I have no friends or relatives working there anymore.)
For the first time in its history, NatGeo has allowed another publisher to reproduce its work. The publisher is the German company Taschen, which has a five-star reputation for producing titanic, gargantuan books with glorious reproductions of art. The books are in three volumes, each one about three inches thick, several pounds, and the length and width of a imac screen. Each volume covers a different part of the world: The Americas/Antarctica, Europe/Africa, and Asia/Oceania. Stacked together, they are difficult to even hold. (This video will give you an idea of what they look like.)
These are the greatest photographs in the world, reproduced in a widescreen format. And here’s the irony, although it shouldn’t be: National Geographic is a scientific organization, yet these are deeply religious photographs. That is to say, if you don’t feel awe at the holy and transporting beauty of the world when looking at “Around the World in 125 Years,” you are hip deep in the procrustean bed of secularism and need to seek help. Whether it is Thomas Abercrombie’s astounding arial shot of thousands of Muslims bowing in prayer hundreds of feet below, Allison Wright’s spectacular photograph of a monastery in Bhutan, or the hundreds of incredible pictures of the oceans, the seas, the cities and the fantastic creatures and people who live in them, these photographs, each one a work of art, take your breath away. You can spend at least an hour just looking at a single one of them.
But what if a person feels nothing when looking through these photographs? In asking that question, we get to the real problem of modern life. It’s the problem of an anti-religious secularism, a Christophobia, that is so ingrained that people can’t see God even when they are called to do nothing but respond to the presence of God directly in front of their faces. I’m not talking about snake handlers or idiots who believe the earth is 6,000 years old, but the simple act of receiving an indication of the presence of the transcendent. The great theologian Dietrich Von Hildebrand called it “receptivity to values.” And it’s possible that some people just don’t have it.
These people can be both liberal and conservative. On the conservative side you have the Jesus people. If they aren’t anti-science, they often have the mistaken notion that God lit the fuse on the Big Bang. But this is an anti-Christian view. We believe that God created the laws that govern the universe, but that God is outside of time and space. To say that he triggered the Big Bang is to worship a nature God.
Even worse are the liberals, some of whom seem genuinely incapable of appreciating anything beautiful if it carries with it the slightest taint of theology. Yet our feelings of awe when seeing the kind of majestic scenes in Around the World in 125 Years are real, and come from somewhere. We have a response to what the priest and theologian Thomas DuBay called “the evidential power of beauty.” You could explain it away as neurons firing – which even some NatGeo scientists no doubt do — but the more capacious, and more logical, explanation is that we have a hunger for the transcendent and that images of the staggering glory of creation connects us to some thing higher.
National Geographic: Around the World in 125 Years is an extraordinary document of men and women, journalist, photographers, and explorers, who went to the farthest-flung places, met people from everywhere on earth, and risked their lives for the right shot — the shot that would allow them to touch the face of God. That’s what drove them. These books are the evidence that they succeeded. It’s quite different from today’s journalists, for whom an adventure means a Twitter war.