Hempton's chapter on Van Gogh is an exploration of Evangelicalism and Secularisation. Like many other cultural and church historians Hempton is sceptical of the received tradition that defined secularisation along lines like these: "the decline of the social significance of religion lay in inexorable processes of urbanisation, industrialization, and societalization, all conveniently subsumed within the catchall concept of modernization...". Explaining the origins and onset of the secular age using such an overarching theory is no longer tenable for many cultural historians and analysts.
Using three of van Gogh's paintings Hempton suggests persuasively because illuminatingly, that van Gogh depicted in image and colour the decline in influence and decay of dominant presence of the Church in Europe. The above picture, Old Church Tower at Nuenen (“The Peasants’ Churchyard”), contains the telling clues of intentional art. The windows are boarded or bricked up, the steeple (that upward pointing finger) has gone, the birds have claimed the tower as well as the air, no human figure is present. The low horizon, broken by wooden crosses that mark the graves of generations of peasants, with a dominant ruin in the foreground, speak of past glories now in ruin, and human history still present in the symbols of a faith slowly but surely in eclipse.
Van Gogh's own interpretation has obvious precedence:
"I wanted to express how those ruins show that for ages the peasants have been laid to rest in the very fields which they dug up when alive – I wanted to express what a simple thing death and burial is, just as simple as the falling of an autumn leaf, just a bit of earth dug up – a wooden cross. […] And now those ruins tell me how a faith and a religion mouldered away – strongly founded though they were – but how the life and the death of the [people] remain forever the same, budding and withering regularly, like the grass and the flowers growing there in that churchyard. “Les religions passent, Dieu demeure” [Religions pass away, God remains]." (Letters, 411.1)
This is Van Gogh's father's Reformed Church in Nuenen. Hempton sees here a further portrayal of secularization and the demise of Christendom. "There is no doubt that van Gogh's portrayal of his father's small Protestant church with its mainly female worshippers in a predominantly catholic village serves as an excellent symbol of late nineteenth century European religion. Religious pluralism, confessional pride, respectability...and feminization, which historians interpret as both the signs and the engines of European secularization, are all on display." (page 133)
Three paintings, in which van Gogh uses images depicting the powerful and personal undertow pulling people of faith away from ancient religious certainties. They reflect the religious consequences in van Gogh's personal life of inexorable changes in contemporary culture, as his own faith was transmuted from evangelical Christianity to a more poignant, compassionate view of nature and the world of human affairs. In place of rejection of a fallen world, in these and the later paintings human suffering and joy, natural beauty and ordinariness, the cycle of life, growth and death, became vehicles for a view of life with reversed polarities; no longer confident that God is love, van Gogh is rather seeking ways of saying, in painting after painting, love is god. And this credo, far from being sentimental humanist piety, conferred honest mercy and deep understanding of the human condition, upon a man afflicted by personality extremes of mania and melancholia. A recurring Pauline phrase in his letters to his brother was 'sorrowful yet always rejoicing.' The courage and cost of such defiance, the compassion and creativity triggered by such oscillating anguish, are part of the mystery of the triumphant tragedy of van Gogh's life and art and religion.