Saturday, January 30, 2010

New Blogs

Ladies and gentlemen:

I will no longer be posting on Ladder on Wheels for the time being, saving my posts for the collated blog over at the Christian Humanist Podcast website. So if you like the sort of thing you read here, you'll get three times as much if you add to your RSS feed reader. I won't be deleting this blog, and if something happens and the podcast folds in wrath and acrimony, I'm sure I'll come back. But for the time being at least, my thoughts will be here, not here.

The other announcement: If you liked my music or just wanted to laugh at it, I will be posting more of it at There's nothing up there just yet, but add it to your reader and you'll be alerted when something is. I'll start with old songs and then eventually record some new ones. (I have a back catalogue since 2007 that hasn't been recorded.)

Thanks for reading Ladder on Wheels, and we'll see you at The Christian Humanist Blog.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Christian Humanist #10: Literary Hell

It should be up on Feedburner and iTunes sometime this afternoon; in the meantime, here's the show notes. Also, please visit the new Christian Humanist Podcast website!

General Introduction

- Response to listener email and the CWC
- Football talk

The Greco-Roman Underworld

- Odysseus in Hades
- Aeneas in the underworld
- Awkward!

Anglo-Saxon Hell
- Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother
- Do we need to make Beowulf into a theological allegory?
- Hell without flames
- Hel as a person

Tactile vs. Abstract

- Why are modern minds so nervous about physical location?
- Anxiety over falsification?
- TBN reads The Weekly World News

The Master of the Afterlife

- Our favorite translations
- The Allen Mandelbaum story
- The division of the circles

- Our favorite punishments

Milton’s Hell

- The pathos and anxiety of counteroffensive
- Genesis B
- The role of self-deception in literary hells

20th-Century Hells (And More!)
- “Don Juan in Hell”
- Trying to make sense of William Blake
- Lewis’ bus ride over the moon
- The Orthodox version of hell
- Purgatory
- One-dimensional sin and Piers Plowman
- Hell is other people

Lightning Round
- What are the dangers?
- Is literary hell a good thing or a bad thing?


Aquinas, Thomas. The Summa Theologica. New York: Pearson, 2008.

Barth, Karl. Dogmatics in Outline. New York: Harper, 1959.

Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Trans. Leo Sherley-Price. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York: Norton, 2001.

Blake, William. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell. Blake’s Poetry and Designs. Ed. John E. Grant and Mary Lynn Johnson. New York: Norton, 2007.

The Blickling Homilies. Trans. Richard J. Kelly. New York: Continuum 2003.

Dante. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Allen Mandelbaum. New York: Everyman’s, 1995.

---. Trans. Mark Musa. New York: Penguin, 2002. 3 volumes.

---. The Divine Comedy. Trans. Dorothy L. Sayers. New York: Penguin, 1950. 3 volumes.

Eliot, T.S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950. New York: Harcourt, 1952.

Gower, John. Confessio Amantis. Trans. Andrew Galloway. Kalamazoo, Mich.: Medieval Institute, 2006.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Langland, William. Piers Plowman. New York: Norton, 2006.

Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. New York: HarperOne, 2009.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost. New York: Norton, 2004.

The Poems of MS Junius 11: Basic Readings. Ed. R.M. Liuzza. Florence, Kent.: Routledge, 2002.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York: Vintage, 1989.

Spenser, Edmund. The Faerie Queene. New York: Penguin, 1979.

Virgil. The Aeneid. Trans. Robert Fagles. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Christian Humanist #9: Pat Robertson, Haiti, and Suffering

The latest episode of The Christian Humanist will be on iTunes and Feedburner soon. A word about the music: You'll notice I let the song play much longer than normal at the end of the episode--that's because it's one of the saddest, most beautiful songs I've ever heard, and the artist could use your support. The song is "Resplendent," the artist is Vigilantes of Love, and the album is Audible Sigh. You can get it at Highly recommended. (And yes, that's Emmylou Harris singing along.)

General Introduction
The creek done rose

Pat Robertson and the Haitian Earthquake

- Robertson as a boon to mediocre seminary students with blogs
- Michial gets amused; David gets irate
- Why the world needs more David Grubbses

The Veracity of Robertson’s Claim

- Is he just making stuff up?
- Haitian voodoo
- Robertson’s flattening of Bois Caïman
- The equally flattening response of Robertson’s critics
- Voodoo as political ritual; Bois Caïman as ongoing event
- Does voodoo deal with the demonic world?
- The all makes Nathan nervous

Pacts with the Devil

- Robert Johnson at the crossroads
- Medieval witch trials
- Evolution from Christ’s temptation
- Do Haitians believe in the pact?
- The U.S.’s earthquake weapon and global warming

The Cause and Purpose of Suffering

- Biblical views of suffering
- The Christian Humanist podcast teaches the Book of Job
- Extrabiblical ancient theodicies
- Punishment as an act of kindness
- Calvin on providence
- “The Wanderer” and the convergence of providence and fortune
- C.S. Lewis on suffering
- Why abstract theodicy doesn’t work
- Does God will suffering?

Back to Pat Robertson

- Reliance on 1 Chronicles’ view of suffering
- Polygonal theodicy
- Can we stone Pat Robertson to death yet?
- Pretending to be a prophet but actually being Job’s friend
- Jesus dodges the question

The Appropriate Response to Tragedies

- David Brooks responds appropriately
- Help and humility
- Suffering as a call to repentance
- What does it mean for creation to groan?

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Calvin, John. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960.

Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von. Faust: A Tragedy. Trans. Walter W. Arndt. New York: Norton, 2000.

Lewis, C.S. A Grief Observed. New York: HarperOne, 2001.

Machiavelli, Niccolo. The Prince. Trans. George Bull. New York: Penguin, 2003.

The Malleus Maleficarum. Trans. Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2009.

Marlowe, Christopher. Doctor Faustus. New York: Norton, 2004.

Thompson, Francis. Hound of Heaven and Other Poems. Wellesley, Mass.: Branden, 1978.

“The Wanderer.” Trans. S.A.J. Bradley. Anglo-Saxon Poetry: An Anthology of Old English Poems. London: Dent, 1982.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Harriet Beecher Stowe and the Search for the No Man's Land

Uncle Tom’s Cabin—which I managed to go 27 years without reading—is really a remarkable book, particularly its first half, before Harriet Beecher Stowe completely devolves into sentimental pulp. (I spent at least one hundred pages wishing Little Eva would just go ahead and die already.) The most effective and interesting parts of the book are the ones in which Stowe leaves behind her plot and the conventions of sentimental fiction in order to rage against the reader and present her (really quite radical for the time) views on the race question. For example:
I know the feeling among some of you northerners well enough. Not that there is a particle of virtue in our not having [slavery]; but custom with us does what Christianity ought to do,—obliterates the feeling of personal prejudice. I have often noticed, in my travels north how much stronger this was with you than with us. You loathe [African Americans] as you would a snake or a toad, yet you are indignant at their wrongs. You would not have them abused; but you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves. You would send them to Africa, out of your sight and smell, and then send a missionary or two to do up all the self-denial of elevating them compendiously. Isn’t that it?
Well, Randy Newman agrees, anyway. Uncle Tom is at its best in passages like these, in which Stowe loads up an ideological shotgun and hits absolutely everyone she can with its debris—no one in her world is safe from her indictment, which is what makes her most famous novel something beyond self-righteous; it’s what makes it a good novel rather than a merely important one. (I can’t bring myself to say great—not when the last third of the book is so weak and bound to convention.)

But I’m not writing to talk about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Instead, I want to say a few words about her much less known 1859 novel The Minister’s Wooing, another sentimental novel of protest—only in this case she’s protesting the hard Calvinism of her lineage rather than slavery (at which she nevertheless gets a few shots off).

Let’s define our terms first. The sentimental novel—however much American critics want to pretend it’s not so—has been the dominant form of the novel for most of the genre’s existence, beginning with Samuel Richardson and moving on through Sister Carrie and up to—I don’t know, Twilight. There is a formula: boy tries to seduce girl; girl resists; girl undergoes incredible feeling; then, depending on whether the novel is a comedy or a tragedy, she either marries the right boy or is left ruined by the wrong one.

The best writing I’ve read on sentimental fiction is Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel. Fiedler tells us that the sentimental novel, arising as it does at the end of the Puritan era, replaces Protestantism with something called the “Sentimental Love Religion,” a nebulous faith with limited dogma that posits “love between the sexes as the fountainhead of virtue and joy.” On a more primeval level, it posits emotion as a higher path to truth than reason and thus stands as a precursor to Byronian Romanticism.

This is why it’s safe to call both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Minister’s Wooing “sentimental novels of protest”; Stowe may use logic in her attacks on slavery and Calvinism, but her indictment of her readers is an indictment of a failure to feel, not to think, properly. And that’s her indictment of Calvinism, as well: at its worst, it is a cold, unfeeling dogmatic system rather than a religion meant for real human beings. It has its high points, of course,
But it is to be conceded, that these systems, so admirable in relation to the energy, earnestness, and acuteness of their authors, when received as absolute truth, and as a basis of actual life, had, on minds of a certain class, the effect of a slow poison, producing life-habits of morbid action very different from any which ever followed the simple reading of the Bible.
Thus Stowe proffers a new religion to replace it—only the new religion she proffers is the same old sentimental love religion with a thin veneer of Christianity over it. At times, her faith sounds downright blasphemous, as when she notes that
Of old, it was thought that one who administered poison in the sacramental bread and wine had touched the very height of impious sacrilege; but this crime is white, by the side of his who poisons God’s eternal sacrament of love and destroys a woman’s soul through her noblest and purest affections.
It’s rare to find such a concise and blatant statement of the changes sentimentalism makes to Christianity, but there it is. The one sacrament for the sentimentalist is love, and not the agape of the New Testament. Romance is king, eros by another name. The rampant piety of The Minister’s Wooing and other novels like it only masks the fact that sexuality is at its center, only imperfectly disguises the sexual longing at its core.

The plot is thus. (Spoilers follow.) Mary Scudder is a pious young woman of feeling in late eighteenth-century Newport. She’s halfway in love with her cousin James, an unbelieving sailor, whom she wants to marry but cannot because of her faith. Meanwhile, she is passively courted by her middle-aged minister, Dr. Hopkins, a staunch Calvinist and abolitionist. James goes off to sea for two years, and after a short time word comes back that his ship has sunk and he’s dead. Mary and other members of the community have a crisis of faith. Dr. Hopkins proposes, and Mary says yes, even though she doesn’t love him the way she loves James. Just before the wedding, James shows up and announces that he’s become a Christian, at which point Hopkins lets Mary off the hook. Everyone lives happily ever after.

(There’s also a standard “seduction” subplot, starring Aaron Burr, of “Got Milk?” fame, in the role of the seducer, but this part of the novel seems uncomfortably attached to the main plot.)

The Minister’s Wooing
is most interesting in its philosophical conversation (as is Uncle Tom’s Cabin, leading me to conclude that Stowe must have been privy to some wonderful conversations among the famous members of her family). Its plot is mostly sentimental convention, but for a time I thought it was going to go in a more satisfying direction. There is a brief moment (“brief” being a relative term in a novel of nearly 600 pages) in which it appears that, even though James has returned from death and the sea a Christian, Mary will fulfill her vow to Dr. Hopkins anyway. As she tells a friend who has told her she will be miserable in a marriage without eros,
I believe, that, if you go on patiently in the way of duty, and pray daily to God, He will at last take out of your heart this painful love, and give you a true and healthy one. As you say, such feelings are very sweet and noble; but they are not the only ones we have to live by—we can find happiness in duty, in self-sacrifice, in calm, sincere, honest friendship.
What a revolution it would have been in the history of the sentimental novel if our heroine had become Mary Hopkins and lived a happy life devoid of eros! The novel would have grown and adapted; it would have been a critique not just of cold Calvinism but of the warm (and for some reason, I want to say moist) sentimental love religion. Instead, Hopkins appears, a deux ex machina, and allows Mary to renege on her promises and marry her true love.

No one would blame her in real life, of course, but the plot of a sentimental novel bears so little resemblance to life as it was ever lived that I can’t help wishing that Stowe had been braver in her attacks—as brave, in fact, as she is in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where no ideology escapes her penetrating stare. As it is, she takes a look at the battle between Calvinism and the sentimental love religion, nods at the no-man’s land in the center, and sanguinely takes her place in the sewing circle.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Christian Humanist #8: Apologetics

The triumphant return of The Christian Humanist!

General Introduction

- Emmanuel College’s takeover of The Christian Humanist Podcast.

Our Experiences with Apologetics

- Ethical apologetics
- Archaeological apologetics
- David Grubbs, head librarian
- Michial’s apologetics class
- The BLT department

Justin Martyr and Tertullian

- Philosopher made theologian
- Justin and the Logos
- The advantage of prophets
- Are they even considered apologists?
- Tertullian’s exorcism throwdown

Aquinas and Anselm

- Aquinas’ “proofs of God”
- Integrating Aristotle and revelation
- Faith seeking understanding
- Aquinas’ rejection of Anselm
- What role does reason play in faith?
- Dawkins’ philosophical tone-deafness

C.S. Lewis

- Looking at his life before his argument
- Lewis’ fear of God’s wrath
- Eternal homesickness
- Materialism to idealism to Christianity
- The moral argument
- Michial admits his ignorance of N.T. Wright

Christian Existentialism

- Is “faith seeking understanding” the majority opinion?
- Enlightenment disputation in the neutral public square
- Pascal’s Wager
- Kierkegaard’s radical subjectivity
- Do Enlightenment apologists throw out revelation?
- David defends Ken Ham (kind of)
- Rescuing Jesus
- God’s billboards and man’s submission

A Disclaimer
- Are we saying that science is wrong?
- Are we saying that science and faith have no compatibility?
- Are we saying that there’s no way to use apologetics in science?
- I’ll see your Locke and raise you a Nietzsche

The Rise of the Nü Atheists

- How has the discipline of apologetics changed?
- The overall tone-deafness of the nü atheists
- Where’s the real battle?
- The MC Hammer defense
- Apologetics as an inside tool

What’s the Role of Apologetics Now?

- Know what the questions are
- Being an apologist for learning to the Christian
- Proceed in humility

Anselm. Monologion and Proslogion with the Replies of Gaunilo and Anselm. Trans. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1996.

Aquinas, Thomas. Of God and His Creatures: An Annotated Translation of the Summa Contra Gentiles. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2006.

---. The Summa Theologica. New York: Pearson, 2008.

Augustine. Confessions. Trans. Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

---. Essential Sermons. Trans. Edmund Hill. Hyde Park, N.Y.: New City, 2007.

Barth, Karl. The Word of God and the Word of Man. Gloucester, Mass.: Peter Smith, 1958.

Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. New York: Mariner, 2008.

Eagleton, Terry. Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. New Haven: Yale UP, 2009.

Edwards, Jonathan. The Sermons of Jonathan Edwards: A Reader. Ed. Wilson H. Kimnach, et al. New Haven: Yale UP, 1999.

Ham, Ken. The Revised and Expanded Answers Book: The 20 Most-Asked Questions About Creation, Evolution and the Book of Genesis Answered! Green Forest, Ariz.: Master, 1990.

Justin Martyr. The Writings of Justin Martyr. Ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson. Berkeley, Ca.: Apocryphile, 2007.

Kierkegaard, Søren. Concluding Unscientific Postscript. Trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton UP, 1992. Two volumes.

Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity. San Francisco: Harper, 2001.

---. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Fully Updated to Answer the Questions Challenging Christians Today. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999.

Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm. The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1974.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensees. Trans. A.J. Krailsheimer. New York: Penguin, 1995.

Strobel, Lee. The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1998.

Tertullian. Tertulliani Liber Apologeticus: The Apology of Tertullian. Trans. Henry Annesley Woodham. Charleston, S.C.: BiblioBazaar, 2009.

Voragine, Jacobo di. The Golden Legend: Selections. Trans. Christopher Stace. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Wright, N.T. Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense. New York: HarperOne, 2010.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Quare Me Repulisti, et Quare Tristis Incedo

If you’re looking for the first American masterpiece of the Modernist era, look no further than Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 short-story collection (really a loose novel more than anything), Winesburg, Ohio. A mentor to both Hemingway and Faulkner, Anderson manages to maintain a connection to the realist traditions of the preceding decades and bring them into the Modernist world, breaking his characters down into the “grotesques” he uses to make a philosophical point but never allowing them to lose their efficacy as human beings. Winesburg manages to do something that most of the fiction of the era can’t—which is to say that it’s both interesting and moving.

And the most moving story in the collection is the first (or second, depending on whether you count the anecdote about the writer and the carpenter before the title page. The story is titled “Hands” and deals with a strawberry picker with the improbable name of Wing Biddlebaum. Wing serves as Anderson’s depiction of the otherwise unremarkable man with an incredible and uncontrollable power, one that separates him from those around him and leads him to a life of utter loneliness.

Wing Biddlebaum, at the beginning of his story, is one of the clearest images of alienation in American literature. We see this from the opening paragraph, in which he stands “Upon the half decayed veranda” and looks “Across a long field that had been seeded for clover but that had produced only a dense crop of yellow mustard weeds” at a group of children whom he longs to embrace but cannot. This field is an image of broken dreams, the broken dreams that separate him from the rest of the town.

Indeed, Anderson tells us outright that “forever frightened and beset by a ghostly band of doubts, [he] did not think of himself as in any way a part of the life of the town where he had lived for twenty years.” The townsfolk don’t hate or mock him—rather, they are amazed at his ability to harvest strawberries and are “proud of the hands of Wing Biddlebaum in the same spirit in which [they are] proud of Banker White’s new stone house and Wesley Moyer’s bay stallion, Tony Tip, that had won the two-fifteen trot at the fall races in Cleveland.” He is an object among objects—or at the very best an animal, but never a human being.

He is an outsider, nearly purely alienated—except for his relationship with a teenager named George Willard, which allows him to “lo[se] something of his timidity, and his shadowy personality, submerged in a sea of doubts, came forth to look at the world.” In other words, he becomes human through this act of communion. When he touches George Willard and sends him away in horror, the town has lost its last opportunity to learn Wing’s story.

We get it, though. Wing was once named Adolph Myers, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher who had a peculiar sort of religious power which manifested itself chiefly through his hands: “By the caress that was in his fingers he expressed himself. He was one of those men in whom the force that creates life is diffused, not centralized. Under the caress of his hands doubt and disbelief went out of the minds of the boys and they began also to dream.” He is a priest, mostly unconsciously, who can heal people by merely touching them.

The predictable happens, however, and Wing is accused of child molestation, at which point “Hidden, shadowy doubts that had been in men’s minds concerning Adolph Myers were galvanized into beliefs.” He has been made into a grotesque by the truths of others—not even by adopting his own truth. (I should note here that Sherwood’s big philosophical theme in the novel is that the process of accepting a truth as one’s own converts one into something less than human and makes that truth into a “falsehood.”) Once he flees Pennsylvania for Winesburg, he can no longer trust his religious power: “Although he did not understand what had happened he felt that the hands must be to blame.”

And yet, and yet. Wing cannot control the power that lives in his hands. It is for this reason that he isolates himself from the other Winesburgians, for this reason that he warns George Willard that “You are destroying yourself . . . You have the inclination to be alone and to dream and you are afraid of dreams. You want to be like others in this town here. You hear them talk and you try to imitate them.” Unlike George, Wing cannot imitate them—his hands are uncontrollable, and the end of the story finds him enacting religious rituals alone and unconsciously:
A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp upon a low stool he began to pick up the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.
The message is clear: The sort of religious power Wing Biddlebaum/Adolph Myers possesses can only be misunderstood by the society in which priests must live, but they cannot get rid of it, it being a curse as much as a blessing. The only solution is to retreat behind a dusty field of broken dreams and sever the human connections one so sorely needs. The dispensation of grace comes only rarely and at great personal cost. Such is the role of the undogmatic priest in a world hungry for doctrine—he can communicate only subconsciously, an action which will always be viewed suspiciously by outsiders.

Someone must have written about Anderson’s influence on John Updike—the description I’ve given of Wing Biddlebaum in this post echoes Updike’s portrayal of Harry Angstrom, particularly in Rabbit, Run. (Updike’s essay for the New Yorker, “Twisted Apples” serves as the introduction to the Modern Library edition of Winesburg, Ohio.) The difference, of course, is that Rabbit is instinctively loved by most of the people in his society, even as his religious impulses destroy lives. This must say something about the difference between 1919 and 1959—but I’m not ready to tease that out yet.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

Post of the Year

According to my blog tracker, my most popular post is the two part "Deep in the Big Black Heart of the Sunshine State," about the deep existential darkness in Disney/Pixar's best movies. It wasn't even close, and it's all thanks to John Frost over at The Disney Blog, who promoted the posts. Frost's generous promotion was followed by cross-posts on The Journal of Cartoon Overanalyzations and, improbably, on the message boards at, both of which boosted those posts skyward.

The message, of course, is that the Internet cares far more about what I have to say about cartoons than what I have to say about literature--which isn't really surprising. Too bad I'm pretty much out of thoughts on cartoons.

If anyone is interested, our most-downloaded podcast is Episode #4: God and Country. It's not one of my favorites, but that's the one people apparently were intrigued by.

Happy New Year, everyone (and new decade, whatever the naysayers say). Here's hoping 2010 is better than 2009--and that the teens are better than the aughts.