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.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Semi-Puritan Mind of Thomas Paine

There were two Americas in the beginning, as there were in the nineteenth century and as, if the 24-hour news networks are to be believed, there are now. The geography and principles have changed, but the split always exists. On the one hand, you had New England, founded by the Puritans not, as the history books told me in elementary school, for freedom of religion but for the freedom to practice their religion and to punish or banish all others. On the other, you had the mid-Atlantic states, beginning with Jamestown, Virginia, settled for financial reasons—if God was involved in the settlement at Jamestown, He had to share the space with gold and glory, as the old saying went.

(And yes, there were others—New York, settled by the Dutch as a fur-trading outpost and a center of American business ever since; Savannah, Georgia, originally founded as a refuge from English debtors prisons and the best laid-out city I’ve ever visited; St. Augustine, the oldest city in North America, or so the board of tourism says, founded by the Spanish while John Winthrop was just a gleam in his daddy’s eye. But it’s Massachusetts and Virginia, with Philadelphia in between but belonging mostly to the latter, that made the difference during this country’s infancy. Of the seven men labeled as the major Founding Fathers by Richard B. Morris, only two—John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, of New York City—and it wasn’t until Andrew Jackson in 1829 that we’d have a president from anywhere other than Massachusetts or Virginia.)

And yet these two Americans were not as separate as it might appear, in that the Puritan worldview—stripped, to some extent, of its religious baggage—filtered its way down to Philadelphia and Virginia. In his book The American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch notes that the two baseline principles of “Yankee” America, “multidenominational religion and the sacral view of free-enterprise economics” were natural heirs of Puritanism:
Both these developments were rooted in the heterodox tenets established a century before: the moral distinction between the Old World and the New (as between Egypt and Canaan), the chosen people whose special calling entailed special trials, and above all a mythic view of history that extended New England’s past into an apocalypse which stood “near, even at the door,” requiring one last great act, one more climactic pouring out of the spirit, in order to realize itself.
Bercovitch’s analysis explains something puzzling at the heart of the political tracts put out by Deists at the time of the American Revolution. How could a group of people who didn’t believe in God’s providence still see America as, in Winthrop’s famous words, “a city on a hill”? For there can be little doubt that this is how our Founding Fathers saw their country.

Let’s take the instructive example of Thomas Paine, the Deist or atheist (the debate rages on) who coined the phrase “The United States of America” and who wrote the wildly popular anonymous tract Common Sense a mere six months before the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Very early on, he makes the bold statement that “The cause of America is in a great measure the cause of all mankind.” Leaving aside the truth or falsity of this statement for now, we can safely say that it is an early, though probably not the earliest, instance of secular American exceptionalism. Paine may use the language of the Puritans, but he’s not claiming that it will be the avenue to lead all of the elect to Christ and thus bring on the tribulation and the millennium. Rather, it is America’s secular government that will serve as the Great Example for the rest of the world.

But Paine’s very secular purpose relies on the Bible for much of its argument. A Deist, he did not believe in the accuracy of the Bible, but he nevertheless appeals to its authority, spending several pages conducting what amounts to a Puritan-style exegetical and political sermon. Problem is, his exegesis is lousy: “In the early ages of the world, according to the scripture chronology, there were no kings; the consequence of which was there were no wars; it is the pride of kings which throw mankind into confusion.” Such a statement is true only if one considers Moses, Joshua, and the Judges to be kings—war very clearly predates kingship in the Hebrew Bible.

But Paine has to use the scriptures to make his point precisely because of the remnants of the Puritan legacy in America—our New England forefathers always viewed themselves as a sort of new Israel, whose success was guaranteed because of biblical prophecies that predicted the maintenance and triumph of the faithful remnant. (This was not a metaphor for the American Puritans; they saw themselves speaking literal truth when they equated ancient Israel with seventeenth-century America.) So Paine’s use of the scriptures has a specific historical purpose, and, as Bercovitch notes, it marks a turning point when Puritan rhetoric became distinctly secular.

I am more interested in the present-day effects of Paine’s rhetoric, however. I argued in episode three of The Christian Humanist that America is not and never has been a “Christian nation” in the sense that the Christian right asserts that it was. My co-host David Grubbs quite rightly brought up the religious language of our (mostly secular) Founding Fathers, and if he agreed with me that the Christian right misreads the facts, he insisted that they have a leg to stand on.

Fair enough, and now we understand why. You’d have to flash forward 225 years from Tom Paine to Karl Rove to find a nonbeliever so cynically willing to use religious language to persuade religious believers to adopt a political viewpoint, and, as with Rove, it worked for Paine. The Revolution was conducted, if not on religious grounds, at least using religious language, even though Paine, Jefferson, Madison, et al, had no real intention of making the United States a “Christian nation.”

And yet it backfired. Every time a Christian conservative appeals to the mythic past of those religious founding fathers (you simply must watch this video, for example, which must have required more time and effort to upload to YouTube than to research and write), they are seizing on an intentional ambiguity in the writings of men like Thomas Paine. Use religious language when you don’t wish to adopt that religion, and you end up with generations of people who can’t tell your real views.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Christian Humanist Episode #7: Wars on Christmas

The last--and in my opinion best--episode of our first semester should be up on Feedburner and iTunes shortly.

General Introduction
- More on science fiction and fantasy
- Book recommendations for Sam Mulberry

Christmas in the Medieval Era

- David reiterates the complexity of Medieval Europe
- Christmas and kings
- An Arthurian Christmas
- Where have all the jousters gone?

Washington Irving’s Rediscovery of Christmas

- The Puritan and American Wars on Christmas
- Geoffrey Crayon goes to England
- Mix of secular and religious traditions
- The weird bachelor uncle
- Irving misses tradition
- Santa Claus

A Christmas Carol

- Why are we so afraid of Scrooge?
- David questions his cynicism
- Warning: Don’t let your children listen to this section!!!!
- Scrooge’s rational skepticism and misanthropy

How the Grinch Stole Christmas

- Michial prepares for the flame emails
- Scrooge removed from motivation
- Physical disability

Merry X-Mas, Everyone
- “JESUS IS NOT AN X!!!!!!”
- Michial defends X-Mas objectors
- In which Nathan Gilmour looks like a total bumpkin
- Dreaming of a White Christmas with the KKK

The 21st-Century “War on Christmas”

- Not an attempt to destroy Christmas
- Born of inclusivity
- Protests against public display of religious paraphernalia
- Economic impetus for Christmas
- Ties to the 24-hour news cycle
- Ham-fisted inclusivism
- Why is this only in America?

Is There a Conspiracy?

- Are there supernatural forces at play here?
- A question of data interpretation
- Are we dealing with a broader intellectual or cultural trend?

How Shall We Then Live?

- Secular and religious Christmas festivals
- Advent carols
- David Grubbs tells us the real story of St. Nicholas
- You can’t go home again


Abbott, Edwin Abbott. Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. New York: Cosimo Classics, 2007.

Irving, Washington. Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Complete. Teddington: Echo Library, 2007.

---. The Sketch-Book. New York: Oxford UP, 1998.

Malory, Sir Thomas. Morte Darthur. Ed. Stephen H.A. Shepherd. New York: Norton, 2003.

Moore, Clement. The Night Before Christmas: Heirloom Edition. Philadelphia: Running Press Kids, 2001.

Powers, Tim. Declare. New York: HarperTorch, 2002.

---. On Stranger Tides. Northridge, Cal.: Babbage, 2006.

Sedgwick, Catharine Maria. Hope Leslie; or, Early Times in the Massachusetts. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Seuss, Dr. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! New York: Random House, 1957.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
. Trans. Marie Borroff. New York: Norton, 2009.

Updike, John. Rabbit, Run. New York: Fawcett, 1996.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Sisters Are Doing It for Themselves

My knowledge of early American women writers is embarrassingly small. I’ve read the usual poems by Anne Bradstreet and Phillis Wheatley, and once in a survey course I struggled through Mary Rowlandson’s captivity narrative, which I ended up abandoning in disgust. My situation is, I suspect, not that different than other literary scholars who focus on other eras, and to my credit or debit, I’d never read other writers of the era (Charles Brockden Brown, for example) until very recently.

My committee added a few women writers of the early days of the republic to my comprehensives list, however, and it was with a certain amount of dread that I looked forward to Susanna Rowson’s Charlotte Temple and Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie. How wrong I was. These two books are by far the most enjoyable and interesting pieces I’ve read thus far from the days before the American Renaissance—and the fact that I’d not heard of them until this year suggests a tragic and gaping hole in my education.

Charles Brockden Brown is justly called the father of American literature, but just as often he’s rather unjustly called the first American novelist of note. I am, let me be clear, a fan of the Canon and think that every student of literature, no matter what his or her specific area of study, should have to read the “classics” (preferably in a multiple-semester and interdisciplinary core curriculum required of all university students, but that’s a topic for another post).

I am therefore generally unsympathetic toward arguments that call the Canon racist or sexist or otherwise exclusionary—I am certain that women writers from the Elizabethan era would be added to the Canon were there enough of them of the same quality as Shakespeare, Marlowe, etc., and it is not Shakespeare’s fault that there is no female Hamlet, Aphra Behn notwithstanding. (Another topic for another time: I do accept Paul Lauter’s suggestion that the Academy should have multiple canons, but even so, I wish to maintain the large one in the center, even though it’s composed of Dead White Men. Oronooko is simply not as important as Dr. Faustus, not as influential or as important to Western culture. I have not read it, but I suspect it is also not as good. Please no comments calling the Canon into question.)

So it means something when I say that Brown is unjustly called the first American novelist of note. One of the first things one learns about Charlotte Temple is that it was the first American bestseller, and among the next things one learns is that more than two hundred editions of the novel were printed between its first appearance in 1791 and its virtual disappearance from study in the early twentieth century. It sold far more copies than Wieland or Edgar Huntly, inspired far greater devotion, and was much more of a cultural touchstone. It seems obvious that Rowson is both the mother of American literature and our true first novelist of note.

But its cultural impact wouldn’t matter if it were a mere eighteenth-century version of Twilight, a weepy melodrama for young women that had nothing to say to the larger world. (God help my academic descendents who will have to fight against Stephanie Meyer’s inclusion in the Canon.) No, Charlotte is incredibly rich for its genre (sentimental romance) and length (just over one hundred pages in my edition); its message is complex and not easily stated, and its actors move beyond the stock characters who generally populate such novels.

Rowson sets Charlotte Temple up as a moralistic tale of a fallen woman, taking breaks throughout the narrative to reassure readers (constantly assumed to be either impressionable young women or their censoring matrons) that the moral is forthcoming. But it never really does—Charlotte falls, but she does so even after doing her very best to live uprightly, and unlike many other novels of this type, her seducer genuinely loves her and provides for her even after external circumstances move him to leave her.

You can find the criticism in your local university’s database that will tease out the implications of the plot-moral dualism in Charlotte Temple to much more effect than I am willing or able to in this space. I bring it up only to note that it’s far more complicated and intellectually engaging than the canonical novels of Charles Brockden Brown—who set out to raise moral questions, best I can tell.

As good as Charlotte Temple is, however, it pales in comparison to Sedgwick’s Hope Leslie, first published several decades later as Early Times in Massachusetts. When Sedgwick is discussed at all—apparently a relatively and tragically rare occasion—it is as either a domestic novelist amongst domestic novelists, i.e., an American Jane Austen; or else it is as a female counterpart to James Fenimore Cooper’s frontier romances.

I must take this opportunity to express my absolute loathing of James Fenimore Cooper. I don’t hate him as much as Mark Twain famously did, but I’ve read both The Last of the Mohicans and The Pioneers, and if the former is bearable for the interest of its implications about race, the latter is among the most boring books I’ve ever read. Cooper has a lot of characters in these novels—characters who never, with a very few exceptions, rise above their status as characters to become human beings (especially not Natty Bumppo). The plots are interesting enough in places, but Cooper can’t write a battle scene to save his life. These are, simply put, bad books.

Not so with Hope Leslie, which covers the Pequod uprisings of the seventeenth century with far more grace than that with which Cooper handles the French and Indian War in The Last of the Mohicans. The characters ring true—the titular protagonist has more depth in the course of her three hundred pages than Cooper grants to Bumppo in more than a thousand, and her ideas (which, big surprise, is what I really read for) are far richer and more complex than anything Cooper can come up with.

Critics read the novel particularly for Sedgwick’s remarkably progressive views on race and gender. Her most likeable character is Magawisca, an Indian woman who does her very best to function as an emissary between Pequod and white society and ends up torn to pieces for her efforts. (She doesn’t die, but in one particularly gory scene, she has her arm chopped off by a tomahawk while trying to re-enact Pocahontas’ defense of John Smith.) She is tragic but never melodramatic, never approaching the “tragic mulatto” portrayal of race that would prove so popular later in the century. Magawisca is the route by which Sedgwick can express her views on racial reconciliation and female empowerment, but the incredible thing, to say it again, is that her use as a symbol does not detract from the verisimilitude of her portrayal. She is one of the most memorable characters in American literature.

I am ready, in fact, to name Hope Leslie the single greatest American novel before The Scarlet Letter, and to pronounce ex cathedra that no American literature class should ever teach The Last of the Mohicans without teaching it alongside Sedgwick’s far superior novel—unless, of course, the class is called “Novels Called Classics That Aren’t That Good.” It is leaps and bounds above Brown, Cooper, Poe, and all but the best sketches of Washington Irving; it stands with the best of our literature from any era.

I have joked before that I don’t read women authors. Susanna Rowson and Catharine Maria Sedgwick are going a long way in convincing me to change that habit.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

More on Science Fiction

As Nathan Gilmour says, I “really have a way of drawing the ire of scientists.” After this week’s podcast on Fantasy literature and Science Fiction, we received a very long and well-reasoned dissenting opinion from Beth Crompton, who’s probably our most faithful listener who is not married to one of the hosts. She has two problems with the episode, and since both of them seem to have been sparked by things I said, I’ll be responding to them here in this post.

Her first problem is that our discussion of science fiction is “too general,” a fact that I admitted to during the podcast itself and will reiterate here: I’ve not read a lot of science fiction, especially the hard genre stuff, and so what I know about the genre is going to be based heavily on the literature that has been picked up by the Academy as transcending its genre.

My entire knowledge of literary science fiction thus boils down to four novels by Robert A. Heinlein (Stranger in a Strange Land, I Will Fear No Evil, Time Enough for Love, and The Number of the Beast), Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (I’ve not seen Blade Runner, however), and a larger number of novels in the related “dystopian” genre, particularly Don DeLillo’s White Noise and Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins, both of which I have taught in classroom settings. So any statement I make about science fiction is going to be rather limited, a fact which I will freely admit and perhaps should have stressed further on the podcast. I am not qualified to make broad statements about science fiction as a genre.

Beth’s bigger caveat with our discussion revolves around my final mini-lecture on the podcast, in which I talked about some points Percy makes in his excellent self-help parody Lost in the Cosmos. (It’s absolutely the best starting point for Percy, in my opinion—don’t just pick up The Moviegoer; it’ll bore you to tears.) We were running short on time, and since the podcast wasn’t on Percy, I didn’t go into a whole lot of detail about what else he says in that book. Since I have as much space as I want here and since his argument is important to Beth’s objections, I’ll do so now.

One thing Percy does in this book—the main thing for what we’re talking about—is to expand Kierkegaard’s ethical sphere, really to move it into the modern world. Kierkegaard, as you may know, says there are three “stages on life’s way”: the aesthetic, in which a person lives for himself and the moment; the ethical, in which he lives for an idea; and the religious, in which he lives for God. (It’s much more complicated than that, and Kierkegaard wrote at least three books elucidating the spheres.)

So Percy goes about trying to find out who in the modern world best represents the ethical sphere, and his conclusion is that it’s represented by two groups: artists and scientists. The former, however, collapses back into aestheticism too easily, whereas the latter remain firmly convicted of their ethical beliefs “Because science works better, this is the age of science, scientists are the princes of the age.” So scientists are the modern embodiment of the ethical sphere and thus feel most at home in the world.

So when Percy brings up Carl Sagan and asks why he’s so lonely, he’s looking for chinks in that armor. Beth claims that she is “sort of depressed by the assertion that scientists are any more particularly lonely and depressed than anyone else.” The addition of the word depressed changes the meaning of the assertion. If I used it in the podcast, I certainly did not mean to. Percy never claims Sagan is depressed—only that he is lonely, a different kettle of fish. He has a worldview that seems to explain everything, an ethos by which he can live his life—and yet he’s looking for more, against what he knows is all reason. David was right to mark this as a “religious itch”—from my own Christian existentialist perspective, the desire for aliens to come down and increase our knowledge, or fulfill us, or whatever else, is a misdirected version of the first section of Augustine’s Confessions, i.e., “our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.”

(Our introductory music this week was very nearly Radiohead’s “Subterranean Homesick Alien” incidentally, which is a great musical version of this same notion. The poor narrator of the song is lost in a world where everything is tied up and longs for something outside the circuit to come in and break it.)

Beth points out quite rightly that “just because something is well-understood and categorized doesn't mean it's not still freaking cool” and that scientists often have a sense of wonder about the universe. This is very true. But I didn’t accuse scientific materialism of not having a sense of wonder about the universe (at least I don’t think I did—I have not gone back and listened to the podcast). I accused them of having a worldview that does not allow for mystery as the word is typically understood. It’s true that mystery and wonder are related things, and I could have this wrong, but I see no place for mystery in Enlightenment scientism and the materialism that has followed in its wake and floats around scientific discourse to this day.

She also says that “there's a lot more to science than classifying things, and also, it would be a strange categorization indeed that left out humans,” responding to my reference to Kierkegaard’s critique of Hegel, that he designed a system that explained everything, then stepped back and saw that he didn’t fit into it. Obviously science does more than classification, but it begins at classification, or at least classification takes place near the beginning of things—and when scientists can’t classify something (the unclassifiable is coterminous with the mysterious, of course), they are forced to leave it out, to leave it untouched.

(An example: in this interview, a journalist asked Richard Dawkins what science can do about the why questions that science cannot answer. Dawkins, somewhat incredibly, actually claimed that such questions are just not worth asking. In other words, there’s no point in asking if there’s a meaning to life. Obviously not every scientist—not even every materialist scientist—is Richard Dawkins, but his attitude is instructive here.)

And while scientific systems may have a place for “humans,” I would argue that materialist science (a distinction which I am sure to make) has no place for the Self as understood by everything from Christian theology to Sartrean existentialism to 18th-century political thought. In my encounters with scientists (popular scientists, of course) who wish to deal with the concept of the Self, they either ignore it altogether (leave it out of their systems as something not worth talking about) or attempt to force it into a narrowly materialist worldview, as I heard Michael Shermer do just last week when he was talking about neuro-biology. The Self is a set of chemical reactions. Under such a schema, the scientist as a Self is left out of his own system in any meaningful way.

Beth helpfully gives me a list of science fiction that is life-affirming, which I appreciate and which I will try to read if I ever finish my comprehensive exams and dissertation (a dodge, yes, but at least I’m admitting it’s a dodge), but I do want to stress that I did not claim science fiction was depressing or nihilistic. In fact, when I brought up Carl Sagan’s loneliness, I said specifically that I was talking about sci-fi in its more optimistic strains. So the relative sadness of T.S. Eliot and Nathaniel Hawthorne vs. Neil Gaiman or Ursula LeGuin is not really relevant here. If anything, I’d argue that the realism I read is far more depressing than the sci-fi I’ve read—and of course there are materialists and non-materialists writing in both genres.

I do have to say one thing about depressing literature, however. Beth specifically calls out Hawthorne for his depressing approach to sin in The Scarlet Letter. (I respectfully disagree.) But she praises an R.A. Lafferty novel that I am not familiar with. Here is her description:
Sin in Lafferty's novels exists to be ridiculous. In The Annals of Klepsis, there is a woman who was exiled for committing the Unspeakable Sin, and she is badgered throughout the novel to reveal the nature of her sin, not so that she can be judged, but just because everyone is really curious about what it was. The most frustrating thing about the novel for the reader is not that this woman sinned and what this says about the treatment of women and society's lack of compassion, but that we never figure out what the Unspeakable Sin was either and we would really like to know, because it sounds fascinating.
I have two points here: (a) From my Christian point of view, making sin “ridiculous” rather than something very serious indeed is a grave misstep, and I’d much prefer a depressing novel that treated it seriously than an upbeat one that treated it as a joke; (b) the plot Beth describes parallels Hawthorne’s short story “Ethan Brand” to such a degree that I can only assume it’s an homage to him. So it’s a good thing, I suppose, that not everyone hates Hawthorne. [Insert smiley-faced emoticon.]

At any rate, I hope that clears up any misconceptions I may have given Beth or other listeners about my feelings on science and science fiction. I must again reiterate that I’ve got nothing against science. I just don’t trust materialism; I think it’s bankrupt as a worldview and is a complete failure at explaining the peculiar mystery of what it means to be a human being. Echoing Percy’s question about Carl Sagan’s loneliness was my way of suggesting that something deep inside the materialist is afraid of the same thing.

Thanks to Beth for writing such a long and thoughtful email. She clearly knows much more about science fiction than I do and has thought a lot about it. If you want to respond to anything you hear on The Christian Humanist Podcast, send us an email at

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Episode #6: Fantasy and Sci-Fi

This is our seventh episode, and we're finally talking about literature. It oughta be up on Feedburner and iTunes sometime this afternoon.

General Introduction
- Things were busy while David was gone.
- Brief feedback notices.

A Moment of Confession; or, It’s All Geek to Me

- Nathan Gilmour, dungeon-master extraordinaire
- Michial’s Back to the Future obsession
- Has David ever read anything without dwarves in it?
- “Oh, not another [expletive] elf!”

How does speculative fiction relate to mundane reality?

- Questions at the borders of our knowledge
- Humanity as an aesthetic category
- Science fiction and the novel of ideas
- Sex and science
- Realities of human experience
- How black-and-white is the world of fantasy literature?

Speculative fiction and literary realism

- Metaphor and literality
- Madeleine L’Engle’s probable vs. possible
- Separate spheres or cross-pollination?
- Fantasy novel as novel

Ideas in Fantasy Literature

- Interiority interacting with fantastic elements
- Proliferation of Tolkeinian beings
- The nonhuman face of humanity
- To be human means to have potential

Ideas in Science Fiction
- Walker Percy’s ontological lapsometer and the Cartesian split
- Disembodied heads galore!
- How death leads to life
- Man and technology

Christians and Speculative Fiction

- Should Christians read about witchcraft?
- Why witchcraft doesn’t mean today what it used to mean
- The shift from romance to realism
- The materialism of science fiction
- Why is Carl Sagan so lonely?
- The evolution of the vampire

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

Card, Orson Scott. How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy. New York: Writer’s Digest, 2001.

Chesterton, G.K. Tremendous Trifles: Humorous Sketches. New York: WLC, 2009.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Oxford: Oxford UP, 2007.

Gilgamesh: A New English Version. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. New York: Free Press, 2006.

Gibson, William. Count Zero. New York: Ace, 2006.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art. New York: North Point Press, 2000.

Percy, Walker. Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book. New York: Picador, 2000.

---. Love in the Ruins: The Adventures of a Bad Catholic at a Time Near the End of the World. New York: Picador, 1999.

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

Tolkein, J.R.R. The Lord of the Rings: One Volume Edition. New York: Mariner, 2005.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Episode #5.1: More on New Calvinism and Emergent

It's just me and Nathan Gilmour in this week's short episode, responding to criticism about last week. Please pardon our technical difficulties.

General Introduction

- How this show will work.
- Nathan’s blog addressing Sam Mulberry’s email.

Emergent and Poststructuralist Philosophy

- Is poststructuralism “out” in the Academy?
- Michial gets cynical; Nathan gets sanguine.
- Existentialism and poststructuralism.
- Effusive praise for James K.A. Smith.
- Radical Orthodoxy.
- Calvinism Outside of New Calvinism.
- Ecumenism.
- Michial refuses to call heresy.
- The difference between Christian existentialism and the Emergent Church.


- Can a postmodernist nail things down?
- Definition under attack.
- Enlightenment thought and systematizing.
- Does the Emergent Church subvert itself?

More on Celebrity Culture

- We badmouth the absent David Grubbs.
- A consequence of Calvinist intellectualism?
- “The dark, tangled, visceral aspect of Christianity.”
- Home video feeds.


- Tripp Fuller and Tony Jones.
- Why don’t the Neo-Calvinists respond?
- Were we kinder to Neo-Calvinists?


Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: An Introduction. Ed. Helmut Gollwitzer. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1994.

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

Derrida, Jacques. The Gift of Death and Literature in Secret. Trans. David Wills. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2007.

McLaren, Brian. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Milbank, John, et al. Radical Orthodoxy: A New Theology. New York: Routledge, 1998.

Pinnock, Clark. Most Moved Mover: A Theology of God’s Openness. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2001.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “What Is Literature?” and Other Essays. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard UP, 1988.

Schaeffer, Francis A. A Christian Manifesto. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005.

Smith, James K.A. Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2006.

Updike, John. Rabbit, Run. New York: Fawcett, 1996.

Nathan Gilmour's Written Response

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Nathan Gilmour Responds to Podcast Questions

Right here, folks.

I can second most of what he says, except when he talks about knowing mostly Emergent people in their 40s and 50s; this has definitely not been my experience. I will particularly get behind the following sentence: "I wanted to do a show on Emergent and the New Calvinism because I thought that each corrected a deficiency in the other." I believe this, as well, and have been kicking around a related episode of the podcast on why denominations are a good thing. If we do that one, however, it'll be in the spring semester, as I've only got one more episode to moderate this season, and it's going to be on Apologetics. (UPDATE: No, it won't be. We've switched the schedules around, and I have no more moderations this semester. Apologetics was supposed to be our first episode; now it appears it'll be the first episode of the second season.)

Thanks for listening and reading, and if you've got any questions, comments, or complaints, send 'em along to

Karl Barth, Christian Humanist

I’m afraid I’ve been spreading a vicious lie about my favorite theologian, Karl Barth, for several years now, and I feel I need to clear the air a bit. I brought it up on the very first episode of The Christian Humanist Podcast (TCH if you’re me; the CHP if you’re Nathan Gilmour or teach at Bethel University), and I go into more detail in this post from two summers ago.

The lie: Karl Barth did not believe in what Calvinists call “general revelation,” and more specifically, that he distrusted Christian humanism and thought it a quest at best quixotic and quite possibly heretical. Turns out, this may not be true.

I should admit straight out that I have not read as much Barth as I should. I’ve been through Helmut Gottwizer’s 260-page selection of the three-kabillion-page Church Dogmatics several times, and I’ve read The Humanity of God and Evangelical Theology: An Introduction. Hardly enough, it’s true, to make me an expert. (It may not even be enough for me to call him my favorite theologian, but I’m going to anyway.)

I think I make a pretty good case for my position in the post linked to above, both defending my position that he mistrusts natural theology and, in the sequel, giving a few historical reasons why that might be the case. I may only have half of the story, however, as I’m realizing as I make my way through Ralph C. Wood’s The Comedy of Redemption. Wood seems to have read every word Barth ever wrote five or six times and devotes two full chapters in his book on American novelists to the other great Swiss theologian, and he says I’m wrong:
It is a commonplace to say that Karl Barth’s work is Christocentric. It is even more conventional to dismiss his theology as antihumanistic. The aim of this chapter is to show that, while the former is incontestably true, the latter is demonstrably false. Barth’s theology of culture, far from being misanthropic, has a profound regard for humanity and all its works. Yet it is not built upon our native longing for God. Barth makes a radically evangelical estimate of human creation, rooting it in the Gospel’s own unapologetic claim that God in Christ has shown himself to be ineluctably for us rather than against us.
As usual, I have overstated the case, though it’s good to know that I’m at least following the crowd in my misreading of Barth. The major counterexample is Barth’s deep love for Mozart. He apparently began and ended every day by listening to a Mozart record, and “Barth’s study contained a picture of Mozart that was hung—as Barth always pointed out—at a slightly higher level than Calvin’s.” The theologian saw Mozart’s music as a major signifier of God’s grace and wrote what is apparently a very famous essay about him. According to Barth, the composer
heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow.
(To which I say, whatever. I’ve never liked Mozart very much, even though he appears to be the official composer of Christian existentialism, between Barth’s adoration of him and Kierkegaard’s long essay in Don Giovanni in Either/Or. I still like Beethoven, Chopin, and Erik Satie better.)

It is important that Barth is talking about Mozart and not, say, Bach. (According to Wood, in fact, Barth believes that “Mozart . . . is content to play while Bach is determined to preach. The angels may perform Bach when they are before the throne of God . . . but when gathered unto themselves it’s always Mozart.”) Finding theology in Bach would be easy; his music is full of theological themes. But not Mozart, who “did not intend his music, at least not his secular work, to resound with the praise of God’s prevenient grace.”

So Barth is finding echoes of faith in a work meant for a secular audience and written by a person who (by all accounts) was thoroughgoingly secular. This is, in fact, the task of the Christian humanist as I define it—to “demonstrate[] what surprising echoes of the Gospel can be heard within human creation whenever it is not made the basis for faith in God.” Barth’s trouble comes when we start with the secular work and try to move toward the Bible; this cannot be because “Only by first hearing God’s unique and saving Word spoken in Christ can we later catch its worldly resonances.”

This explains Barth’s antipathy for what he calls, in the Church Dogmatics, “Christian humanism.” The Christian humanist moves from the world to the Gospel instead of vice versa and is thus in danger of building Towers of Babel. Wood calls Barth “a humanist Christ rather than a Christian humanist. In the latter formulation, the noun always overwhelms the adjective.” (I disagree, incidentally, which is why the podcast is still called TCH instead of THC.)

But Wood’s final thoughts in the chapter are worthwhile to anyone who considers him- or herself a Christian humanist or a humanist Christian or whatever else:
Hence Barth’s refusal to set a so-called Christian humanism in opposition to scientific, existentialist, Marxist, or other humanisms. Because they are all abstract programs, says Barth, Christian faith must not seek to compete or to compare itself with them. The Gospel, Barth insists, differs from all humanisms not in degree but in kind. It “is neither a principle, not a point of view, nor a moral philosophy. It is spirit and life, a good message of God’s presence and work in Jesus Christ. It does not form some Front or Party either, not even for the sake of a certain conception of man. It forms congregations, and these exist for service among all men.”
Wise words from Barth, as usual—words that all Christian scholars in the humanities should take to heart to avoid moving in the wrong direction. Sorry for the confusion.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Christian Humanist Episode #5: Neo-Calvinists vs. the Emergent Church

It should be on Feedburner and iTunes very soon, but in the meantime, here's the show notes for the latest episode--in which we criticize the arch-enemies of Neo-Calvinism and the Emergent Church.

General Introduction
- Listener email.
- Response to the CWC’s crossover idea.

Our Experiences
- Nathan stumbles, Forrest Gump-like, upon the movements.
- Piperians and Edwardsians.
- Joshua Harris and the outlaw hideout.
- Emergent at Toccoa Falls College.
- The popular face of postmodern theory.

Celebrity Culture
- Origins of Neo-Calvinism and Emergent in the critique of Evangelical criticism.
- A sign of the times?
- The Emergent Church’s position in the multimedia age.
- Neo-Calvinist video feeds and Reformed history.
- The cult of Joshua Harris.
- Has Christianity always been a celebrity culture?

The Emergent Church and Ecumenism
- Emergent claims that the history of Christianity is the history of competing claims.
- You can’t compress diverse traditions into a singular culture.
- The “yes, but on the other hand” tradition.

The Movements and History
- Michial answers another question instead.
- Neo-Calvinists or Neo-Puritans?
- The free-for-all ecumenism of the Emergent Church.

The Curse of Exclusivity
- Neo-Calvinism’s concern with the minute details of confession.
- Emergent’s hipsterism.
- Calvinism clubs.
- The reason for David’s mistrust of Emergent.
- Christ the Center and the PCUSA.
- Our second ex cathedra pronouncement.
- Why we want our pastor in a comb-over, not a faux-hawk.
- What a good church should look like.

The Future of the Movements
- Are they sustainable or the new Rosicrucians?
- Neo-Orthodoxy vs. Neo-Liberalism.
- Neo-Calvinism as not all that “neo.”

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

Bell, Rob. Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2006.

Carson, D.A. Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church: Understanding a Movement and Its Implications. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2005.

DeYoung, Kevin and Ted Kluck. Why We’re Not Emergent: By Two Guys Who Should Be. Chicago: Moody, 2008.

Driscoll, Mark. The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out without Selling Out. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2004.

Hansen, Collin. Young, Restless, Reformed: A Journalist’s Journey with the New Calvinists. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008.

Harris, Josh. I Kissed Dating Goodbye. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2003.

Kimball, Dan, et al. The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003.

McLaren, Brian. A New Kind of Christian: A Tale of Two Friends on a Spiritual Journey. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2003.

Piper, John. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2003.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Whiteness of the Whale

If you ever read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick for a class and want to make your teacher very, very angry, try to steer every conversation around to the “meaning” of the white whale itself. Your teacher won’t appreciate it, but you’ll just be following the early trends of Melville critics, for whom the whale absolutely must have represented some huge secret to the meaning of life. Is it God? Evil? Purity? Humanity? Sin? Sexuality? You name it, and someone’s proffered it as the secret meaning of the novel.

The best thing I’ve ever read on this front comes from R.P. Blackmur’s The Lion and the Honeycomb. Blackmur is pretty tough on Melville as a writer. The author’s problem, he says, is that “he did not write of characters in action; he employed the shells of stock characters, heightened or resounding only by the eloquence of the author’s voice, to witness, illustrate, decorate, and often as it happened to impede and stultify an idea in motion.” The truth of Blackmur’s assertion should be obvious to anyone who has spent any time attempting to decode the myriad symbols in Moby-Dick. Melville attempts to write an allegory here, but he fails:
Successful allegory—La Vita Nuova and Pilgrim’s Progress—requires the preliminary possession of a complete and stable body of belief appropriate to the theme in hand. Melville was not so equipped; neither was Hawthorne; neither was anyone in nineteenth century America or since. That is why Melville’s allegorical devices and patterns had to act as if they were agents in a novel; and that is why we are compelled to judge Melville at his most allegorical yet formally as a novelist.
Putting aside the question as to whether there is something intrinsic in the American character—then or now—that keeps us from having that “complete and stable body of belief,” I think that Blackmur has it absolutely right here. Moby-Dick is an allegory without a key to decoding, a mass of signifiers without steady signifieds behind them; it is, perhaps, the first poststructuralist novel.

I am generally suspicious of the type of reading—enormously popular in the 1970s and ‘80s, the tragic heyday of Critical Theory—that would claim that a given text is not about what it appears to be about at all but is instead all about the act of literary production and the attempt to interpret it. This is typically lazy reading, in my opinion, a refusal to engage with the author and a violent overlay of fashionable criticism over his or her work.

But there’s no way around it here. The author’s intention in writing Moby-Dick was clearly to demonstrate that the author’s intention doesn’t matter. Moby-Dick is such a glorious, sprawling mess, covering dozens of genres and hastily thrown together, that any attempt to map it out based on Melville’s autobiography or personal philosophy is bound to fail. It contains too much for such an approach to be at all effective. The novel deals with so many subjects and yet is “about” none of them that it can reasonably be said that what it is “about” is the concept of being “about.”

And we’re clued in on this from the very beginning. Moby-Dick does not begin at sea or even in New Bedford but rather in a library, in a series of other books. We’re given eleven pages or so of quotations about whales, presented to us by a “sub-sub librarian” —a person lost in the depths of the library, lost in a vast series of words and pages, just as the reader will shortly be. He gives us a variety of sources on whales: symbolic, literal, mythic, and so forth. But he can’t pin down the whale; nor can the reader of Moby-Dick, who could spend a lifetime concocting various signifieds for the signifier of the white whale and never get any closer.

When our actual narrator, the enigmatically named “Ishmael,” shows up, he, too, presents us with a catalogue, though in his case it is not about the whale but about the various types of people who are drawn to the ocean. His catalogue, however, has the effect of simplifying rather than complicating our interpretation—he’s making a universal case for the importance of the ocean, a universalizing moral point.

This should provide comfort and a structure for interpretation, but it doesn’t—Ishmael’s overarching point about the power of the ocean is quickly lost in the maze of genres and narratives that follow it. He doesn’t even make it to sea until ten chapters later, demonstrating that land is in fact just as important as the sea. His point has been overthrown, and Ishmael moves from being an infallible guide of the sort to which readers are used to being a voice among voices, no more important than Father Mapple or Captain Ahab or Queequeg.

And even when he does try to act as our guide, Ishmael can’t resist teasing us with the knowledge to which he is privy and we are not. For example, he refers to “an old writer—of whose works I possess the only copy extant.” He advocates a sort of Gnosticism, a secret knowledge that only he can access; the reader cannot look for real guidance to an unfriendly speaker like him.

But the early image that best serves as an emblem for the novel itself is the painting at The Spouter-Inn. Ishmael is taken in by it, is fascinated by it, but he cannot for the life of him figure out what it’s a picture of. Then he figures it out—it’s a whale destroying a whaling-boat (a rather grim image for an inn for whalers). The painting retains its mystery, however, and in this it mirrors the novel itself.

Ishmael’s attempt to make sense of it resembles the task that critics have faced in reading Moby-Dick for decades, and Ishmael’s statement about interpretation—“at last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain.” But because Melville’s allegory is at the very best slippery, that thing in the middle, the meaning of the white whale, will never be truly found out, and the rest of the picture/novel will never be plain.

This is the power and the frustration of Moby-Dick, perhaps America’s first great novel and a production wholly singular in the history of literature. But to be fair, Melville tips the reader off from the very first page that this novel will not be a sign to be interpreted but rather a series of words and images, thrust together violently until they make your head spin.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Golden Blunders

It goes without saying that Henry James knew exactly what he was doing when he made Isabel Archer, the heroine of The Portrait of a Lady, an American lost abroad in Europe. Doing so allowed him to make a grand statement about the values of the country he’d left behind without making it overtly; he was able to hide the meaning behind the layers and layers of baroque social pleasantries that fill the 600-plus pages of the novel. Like his characters, James talks a lot, but his intent is mostly subtext.

Isabel is prototypically American. Newly orphaned in her late teens, she finds herself brought to England by her aunt, Lillian Touchett, a brash and independent woman who never fails to tell people exactly what she thinks of them. Isabel is not rich and not as pretty as her sisters, but she’s intelligent and committed to living a full life. More than that, she’s committed to her independence. Her notions of freedom manifest themselves in her taking a stand against society, in her repeated refusals to join the crowd and to do what is expected of her. Isabel is who she is, to use a tautology, and while she captivates everyone she meets, she rarely does what it would take to enter their full good graces.

But everyone still loves her, to the point that when her uncle dies, her cousin Ralph, who has known her for less than a year, gives away half of his own inheritance to make her independently wealthy. The idea here is that Isabel will be able to refuse the marriage offers that are bound to come her way—she has in fact already turned down a suitor from New York and an English lord—and to travel and think on her own, to maintain her independent self. This, as you might imagine, is not to be.

The seeds of Isabel’s destruction are planted when she meets her aunt’s friend Madame Merle, who describes herself as belonging to the “old, old world”—an explicit rejection of American ideas of freedom and individuality. If Isabel’s personality has little or no social element, Madame Merle has nothing other than the faces she shows to the world. She turns spiritual homelessness into a virtue. There is no authentic human self hiding beneath the surface of social pleasantries, but Isabel is unaware of this absence because she is not particularly good at looking beneath the surface. The reader, however, on his or her second time through the book, is easily able to spot the warning signs:
She was in short the most comfortable, profitable, amenable person to live with. If for Isabel she had a fault it was that she was not natural; by which the girl meant, not that she was either affected or pretentious, since from these vulgar vices no woman could have been more exempt, but that her nature had been too much overlaid by custom and her angles too much rubbed away. She had become too flexible, too useful, was too ripe and too final. She was in a word too perfectly the social animal that man and woman are supposed to have been intended to be; and she had rid herself of every remnant of that tonic wildness which we may assume to have belonged even to the most amiable persons in the ages before country-house life was the fashion.
Madame Merle’s complete self-alienation—in fact her total lack of a cohesive self—leads her to a social position that removes all social alienation. She can navigate the world just fine because there’s no need to mesh what is inside with what is outside. Instead, she’s completely surface, all motion with no act.

It’s no shock that Isabel likes her, of course; James presents her as something almost superhuman, as evidenced by Ralph’s description of her midway through the book: “she pushes the search for perfection too far . . . her merits are in themselves overstrained. She’s too good, too kind, too clever, too learned, too accomplished, too everything. She’s too complete, in a word.” One can’t achieve this superhuman completeness without sacrificing something, and Madame Merle has sacrificed her authentic self in favor of a self composed of the me rather than the I.

She is in the end quite sinister, as Mrs. Touchett’s summary of her demonstrates: “She can do anything; that’s what I’ve always liked her for. I knew she could play any part; but I understood that she played them one by one. I didn’t understand that she would play two at the same time.” But how can a person composed only of social sides not be two-faced? It’s in the job description.

I will refrain from giving away too many of Madame Merle’s secrets, but suffice it to say that most of the bad things that happen to Isabel in the second half of the novel are mostly her fault. Foremost among them is her marriage to Gilbert Osmond, an American dilettante living in Florence whom Isabel is manipulated into marrying, against the wishes of all of her friends. Once they are married, Gilbert turns into an oppressive monster, one who will not allow Isabel her own opinions or actions. He married her for her money, of course, and once she becomes his wife, he sees her as nothing but a painting to display on the wall. And paintings don’t talk back.

The reader is hard-pressed to discover a reason for Isabel’s attraction to him; he is vastly inferior to her cousin Ralph, who’s in love with her, and not even as good as the self-loathing Lord Warburton, whose proposal she callously turns down. Isabel is attracted to his poverty; she knows that, unlike Warburton, Osmond will not be taking care of her once they are wed, and she extrapolates from this fact the idea that she will not have to sacrifice her independence.

It is, in the end, her commitment to independence and freedom that get her into so much trouble. Her desire for independence traps her in a terrible marriage (in an era in which it was very difficult to get a divorce), and her rebellious streak causes her to disregard all the warnings she receives from her friends and family. And in pursuing independence, she sacrifices independence. The warning here, I suppose, is against unchecked freedom, which is in the end not the highest ideal—wisdom is.

But the story does not exactly end in Isabel’s abject misery. She is married to a tyrant, stripped of friends and family, and drifting through life without purpose or hope. But two good things come from her alienation. The first is that her friends, who could not get along before, suddenly understand one another and form real relationships of the type Isabel is no longer capable of having. She has become the sacrificial lamb for their emotional and spiritual health; her misery has allowed them to escape their own.

The second is that she forms a close relationship with her stepdaughter, Pansy, who is not particularly bright or ambitious but is kind and does not deserve a manipulative cad like Osmond as her father. (Near the end of the novel, Osmond attempts to make her marry Lord Warburton for money and social position, refusing to listen to her protests that she loves another, less wealthy man.) Isabel stays an Osmond because someone must protect Pansy from the sinister machinations of her father and Madame Merle; she has lost the efficacy of her own private, independent mind, but she can still provide one for Pansy, can still help her stepdaughter exist in a world other than the cruel social one.

It’s not a happy ending, of course, but it’s not exactly a sad one, either. Isabel, who set foot on the continent as a naïve romantic committed to the very American ideal of personal liberty, has discovered that the evil in the world makes something more important than freedom: responsibility. She gives her life meaning by submitting it, unasked, to another.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Christian Humanist Episode #4: God and Country

We've uploaded the latest episode of The Christian Humanist to the FTP site, and it should be available via iTunes this afternoon and our Feedburner site even earlier.

General Introduction

- Response to CWC: The Radio Show regarding visual art
- Response to listener Beth regarding science

Our Three Assumptions

- The United States is not and never has been a “Christian nation.”
- It is not a particularly admirable goal to make the United States into a theocracy.
- No one political party fulfills the mission of Christ.

Our Experiences with Christianity and Politics

- Evangelicalism and Limbaughism
- Pro-life churches
- Home schooling and conservativism

Constantine’s Conversion

- David clears up a common misconception
- A defense of Constantine
- Early reaction to Constantine’s conversion
- Oh, those complicated Middle Ages!

Anabaptist Politics

- Nathan’s not a Mennonite
- Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder
- Divine vocations that are not for Christians

The American Revolution

- David clears up another common misconception
- What was the American Revolution actually about?
- Were the Christian colonists right to revolt?
- Paul’s appeal to his rights as a Roman citizen
- The difference between kings and emperors
- The pragmatism of the Church Fathers

Modern-Day Protest

- Should Christians make the world safer?
- The role of prophetic speech
- Who should pull the sword out of the sheath?

Should Christians Run for Office?

- Does Washington corrupt otherwise pure people?
- Should we be serving in academia?
- Blame it on the system
- The importance of postmodern theory
- Nathan’s letter-writing campaign


Estep, William. The Anabaptist Story: An Introduction to Sixteenth-Century Anabaptism. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s, 1996.

Grafton, John, ed. The Declaration of Independence and Other Great Documents of American History 1775-1865. New York: Dover, 2000.

Hauerwas, Stanley. After Christendom?: How the Church Is to Behave If Freedom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas. Nashville: Abingdon, 1991.

Wulfstan, St. Homilies of Wulfstan. Ed. D. Bethurum. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1957.

Yoder, John Howard. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdman’s, 1994.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Hey, I Hate Ayn Rand, Too, But Aren't You Going a Little Far?

I'm not going to do a full post about this (mostly because I haven't really decided what I think about the universal health-care plan currently making its way through Congress), but I want to make one point about this article from Peter Laarman.

Laarman turns the tables here on the Religious Right, who are fond of saying that if you're at all sympathetic to pro-choice politics, you care more about convenience or respectability or whatever else than the teachings of Jesus. I don't like that argument when James Dobson uses it because it ignores how complicated these things are--how complicated belief itself is and how hard it is to boil down a person's religious commitments to a set of political issues.

So it makes me pretty angry when Laarman says the following of Christians who dare to oppose universal health care:
The reluctant conclusion I draw is that these are Ayn Rand Christians who were never touched by the spirit of the Christ whose ministry was emphatically defined from the start by his compassion for the sick and for his healing of the multitudes who came to him with all manner of diseases. Jesus did not seem to think that it was taking anything away from the already-healthy to restore the health of the physically and psychologically afflicted. He did not operate from a zero sum mentality nor from a neoliberal economics of scarcity. In his economy of radical abundance—one version of what Lewis Hyde calls the “gift economy”—the more health you give, the more health you get.
He gets at least two things wrong here. One, he compares the healings of Jesus to the healings of State-funded medical institutions, which is at the very least short-sighted and, depending on how you want to spin it, is blasphemous. Jesus' miracles didn't cost money, and they were guaranteed to work. I'm not even sure what Laarman means when he says that Christ took "away from the already-healthy to restore the health of the physically and psychologically afflicted." I don't recall His passing a hat around the crowd before healing the blind man.

Two, he throws up the classic liberal smoke screen of refusing to recognize the difference between a person's not thinking a government can or should make it its business to take care of poor people and a person's not caring about poor people. (Lest someone throw me in with the reactionary right, I'll point to the classic conservative smoke screen of confusing government care with government instrusion.) I can think that Obama's universal health-care system is a wasteful boondoggle that will not accomplish what it was created to accomplish without wanting hundreds of millions of sick people to die, uninsured, in the street, and it's a particularly ugly form of bad faith for Laarman to suggest that's not true.

The stories from this website tend to be blindly offensive blanket statements without any middle ground or connection to reality--last week, for example, one of their authors declared ex cathedra that the homosexuality debate had been settled and that there was nothing wrong with it, a proclamation that doesn't seem to have been based on anything or to have had an effect on anything. But this one struck me as particularly one-sided, writing off, as it does, an entire political party as un-Christian on the strength of a cheap and faulty argument.

(For the record, I am vaguely in favor of universal health care but would prefer a complete revamp of the system rather than the current subsidization plan, which I think is just going to waste a lot of money.)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

The Anxiety of Influence

Most Western cultures have an epic poem that attempts to tell the mythological history of the country. The Greeks, of course, had The Iliad and The Odyssey, and the Romans, building from those two poems, had The Aeneid. The British have The Faerie Queene; the French have La Chanson de Roland; the Italians have the little-read Orlando Furioso.

America, as you’ve no doubt realized, does not have an equivalent poem. To some extent, I suppose, the notion of the “Great American Novel” is our corollary to the nationalist epic poem—but the fact that no one has ever been able to agree on what exactly that novel is (and the more recent assertions that we should just eliminate it as an ideal category altogether) suggests that America’s mythological history is to some extent up in the air.

(Were I to suggest an American epic, incidentally, it would be neither poetry nor in the strictest sense fiction. Instead, I’d say Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography is about as close to the mythic roots of this country as it’s possible to get. Franklin makes a lot of stuff up, mostly to make himself look better, and in the process of doing so creates the American Dream, the bugaboo that has haunted American writers ever since.)

The absence of a national epic—and the unwillingness or inability of our early American authors to construct one—created in the first literary century of the new country an enormous anxiety, one that is never far beneath the surface of the fiction of the era. We’d thrown off the chains of “oppression” from our Mother Country and earned our freedom, and we’d come up with a radical system of government that we were enormously proud of.

But Britain still had Shakespeare, and Milton, and Spenser, and Chaucer, and Beowulf, and a whole host of lesser writers who were nevertheless more respected and more widely read than anyone produced in the colonies. We had, at the time of the Declaration of Independence, Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, Phillis Wheatley, a few other notable Puritans—plus the political and social writings of the founding fathers. We couldn’t compete on the global market, and American books did not sell well in England and on the Continent—even when they were printed there.

The result of this imbalance of artistic power is a dual impulse on the part of American writers of the early 19th century. On the one hand, they wished to say in no uncertain terms that American had its own literature, one that could compete in philosophy and artistic effect with the best Europe had to offer. On the other hand, they were forced to lean hard on the models of the past—none of whom were American.

James Fenimore Cooper is probably a good place to start. Cooper wrote enormous bestsellers that dealt with the American frontier and wilderness; they are historical romances with a heavily patriotic edge. Like many other authors of the time, Cooper begins each chapter in his novels with a quotation from an outside source. The texts he quotes are illuminating. In his most famous and popular novel, The Last of the Mohicans, he provides the reader with 34 epigraphs. Only two of them come from American writers, William Cullen Bryant and the now-forgotten Fitz-Green Halleck. The rest are all British, with Shakespeare receiving the lion’s share (twenty chapters, more than half of them, feature a quote from him).

This is a way of asserting America’s equality, both political and literary, with its Mother Country. Further, several of the epigraphs are clearly used ironically—one, from The Merchant of Venice, is just a bunch of nonsense words—suggesting that Cooper is taking down British literature at the same time he is praising American works. And finally, the last epigraph in the book is from Halleck, suggesting that America has come out on top in the final analysis. Cooper dismantles the master’s house using the master’s tools.

That’s not to suggest that he wastes any opportunity of making fun of the British outright, of course. Early in the novel, our narrator informs us that the Britain who fought the French and Indian War was a dying animal, waiting to be euthanized by its colonies just a few years later. This may be my favorite paragraph in the entire novel:
The imbecility of her military leaders abroad, and the fatal want of energy in her councils at home, had lowered the character of Great Britain from the proud elevation on which it had been placed, by the talents and enterprise of her former warriors and statesmen. No longer dreaded by her enemies, her servants were fast losing the confidence of self-respect. In this mortifying abasement, the colonists, though innocent of her imbecility, and too humble to be the agents of her blunders, were but the natural participators.
Charles Brockden Brown is less up front in Wieland, America’s first novel. Wieland owes less to British sources than to the Continent, specifically the rich German tradition of the Gothic novel, into which it fits like a hand into a glove—with a single exception. Perhaps the most defining feature of the Gothic novel is the great castle in which it takes place. The castle allows the Gothic novelist to present her reader with a score of easy thrills—cobwebs, creaking doors, unexplained drafts, etc., etc.

Not so with Brown. America, of course, does not have thousand-year-old castles the way that Germany does, and so there’s no castle in Wieland. (There’s not even a cave, the other grand setting of the European Gothic romance, although caves play a major role in Brown’s later Edgar Huntly.) One might be tempted to imagine that the castle is absent from the novel because it is absent from America. Brown disagrees, saying that his “one merit [is] that of calling forth the passions and engaging the sympathies of the reader by means hitherto unemployed by preceding authors. Puerile superstitions and exploded manners, Gothic castles and chimeras are the materials usually employed for this end.” The setting of Wieland—along with Brown’s unfortunate need to explain everything that happens—is in itself a protest against the literature of the Old World and an attempt to forge a new American literature.

Of the three major American writers of fiction before the American Renaissance, Washington Irving is the most read today and the most interesting in terms of his treatment of Britain. The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon is openly nationalistic and patriotic but begins with a lengthy explanation as to why Europeans are better than Americans:
I had read in the works of various philosophers that all animals degenerated in America, and man among the number. A great man of Europe, thought I, must therefore be as superior to a great man of America as a peak of the Alps to a highland of the Hudson; and in this idea I was confirmed by observing the comparative importance and swelling magnitude of many English travelers among us, who, I was assured, were very little people in their own country.
Irving, obviously, is being sarcastic here; later, in an essay on the treatment of America by British authors, he will say that America has heretofore been “visited by the worst kind of English travelers . . . the broken-down tradesman, the scheming adventurer, the wandering mechanic.” And if the book begins with “Crayon” traveling to England to see a superior race, it spends an awful lot of time in the New World instead.

So he’s forever ambivalent on the subject of Europe vs. America, an ambiguity that is only heightened in his two most famous stories, “Rip Van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” These have come to be regarded as two of the most quintessentially American short stories—I can’t get close to Halloween without thinking about upstate New York, thanks to Irving—but they’re not American at all, strictly speaking, as they are based on German and Dutch fables. Irving cannot create an American literary identity out of whole cloth but must borrow and adapt.

This is, in fact, Irving’s solution to the anxiety of influence. Unlike Cooper, who openly mocks the Old World and subverts their literature to use against them, and Brown, who simply purges Old World styles of the elements that don’t mesh with rural Pennsylvania, Irving suggests a common lineage with the British and suggests a more open and universal approach to reading and writing:
Generation after generation, both in animal and vegetable life, passes away, but the vital principle is transmitted to posterity and the species continue to flourish. Thus, also, do authors beget authors, and having produced a numerous progeny, in a good old age they sleep with their fathers, that is to say, with the authors who preceded them—and from whom they had stolen.
Literature becomes the bearer of a kerygma, and authors become merely the birds who drop the seeds. The question of a national literature thus becomes, at least to some extent, moot. Irving reaches higher than creating an American literature—he wishes to be ranked outside of nationality and by truth instead. Two hundred years later, now that American authors generally do not feel inferior to their European counterparts, his route to authorial courage seems much more attractive: Admit your smallness in the grand scheme of things and your importance in transmission.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Addendum: Poe and the Patristics

I misspoke a bit on the podcast yesterday—if you haven’t listened to it yet, what are you waiting for?—when I said that the Church Fathers play virtually no role in American literature. (If you didn’t notice, I had actually forgotten about Updike’s Roger’s Version until the second before I brought it up.) In fact, there’s at least one other major American author who leans on them from time to time: Edgar Allan Poe.

Poe was not a religious man. The quote you see on atheist websites from time to time (“No man who ever lived knows any more about the hereafter than you and I; and all religion is simply evolved out of chicanery, fear, greed, imagination, and poetry”) seems to be more or less an accurate statement of his views. But the man was something close to obsessed with subjective experience, which leaves a space open not only for semi-traditional mysticism but for Kierkegaard-style religious existentialism. (My first paper in my PhD program was on this topic.)

So when Poe brings up the Church Fathers, which happens only very rarely, it’s generally to serve a higher purpose—to demonstrate a character’s intense subjectivity. The most famous instance is in the short story “Berenice,” one of his very best. Our narrator is one of Poe’s typical hyper-sensitive artist types, this time named Ægeus. He’s a half-cousin to Roderick Usher, sickly and gloomy. Indeed, his entire existence seems bound up in his family’s enormous library, in which his mother died giving birth to him.

His cousin Berenice, on the other hand, is “agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy . . . roaming carelessly through life with no thought of the shadows in her path.” It takes a paranoid and neurotic subjectivist like Ægeus to see the shadows, of course, and he watches as his cousin develops an illness that strips her of her personality and identity. His own illness, at this point, “grew rapidly upon me, and assumed finally a monomaniac character of a novel and extraordinary form . . . This monomania, if I must so term it, consisted in a morbid irritability of those properties of the mind in metaphysical science termed the attentive.” He has become a hysteric—or a mystic.

His monomania is fed by his choice of reading material, which consists primarily of “St. Austin’s great work, the ‘City of God;’ and Tertullian ‘de Carne Christi.’ ” The operative sentence in the latter, of course, is the famous “Mortuus est Dei filius; credibile est quia ineptum est; et sepultus resurrexit; certum est quia impossibile est”: “The Son of God died; it is wholly credible because it is unsound. And, buried, he rose again; it is certain because it is impossible.” Ægeus’ hypersensitive mind takes this paradoxical statement to heart, and when Berenice dies and is buried, he unconsciously slinks out to the grave, exhumes the corpse, and uses dental equipment to pull out his cousin’s teeth.

That’s when we learn that Berenice hadn’t died after all; she was merely in a swoon, and this act of amateur dentistry has brought her out of it. (Biblical scholars: When did the “swoon theory” against the resurrection first enter theological conversation?) Her cousin’s monomania, fueled by the absurdist writings of the most unpleasant of the Church Fathers, has saved her, albeit in a horrifying way.

(I have the vague sense that the Patristics pop up in another of Poe’s tales, but I can’t place which one. I had assumed it was “The Colloquy of Monos and Una,” a heavily philosophical conversation between two corpses buried in the same grave, but I was wrong. So this may be Poe’s lone reference to the Church Fathers.)

What this demonstrates is that the attitude we described in the podcast as typical of Evangelicals is by no means exclusive to Evangelicals. If the Church Fathers are our crazy uncles to whom we are related but to whom no one wishes to speak at the family reunion, we’re in good artistic company in thinking so. Poe asserts here that they have something valuable, perhaps even life-saving, to say—but in saying it they threaten our souls and our sanity.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Christian Humanist Episode #3: The Crazy Uncles No One Talks To: The Church Fathers

The third episode of The Christian Humanist Podcast should be up on iTunes shortly. In the meantime, you can download it here (not at the time I'm writing, but soon). In this episode, we discuss the Church Fathers and our relationship with them today. Listen as I display my utter ignorance of Church history! Listen as David and Nathan put me to shame! Just listen.

Show Notes

General Introduction
Who are the Church Fathers?
- Are all Fathers saints?

Our Own Experiences with the Patristics
And how do we feel today?
- Reformers and Patristics
- The hazy lines between Apostles and Fathers

The Fathers' Relationship with the Classics
Their concern with philosophers
- Augustine's City of God
- Tertullian's denunciation of Christian humanism

The Church Fathers in Our Own Disciplines
John Updike's Roger's Version
The Wife of Bath objects!
- The Patristics up for grabs in the Renaissance

The Elephant in the Room
Are we incorrect in our interpretations of the Bible when they differ from the Patristics'?
- The tyranny of the democracy of the dead
- C.S. Lewis suggests a via media
- The big Orthodox question
- What does "unanimous consent" even mean?
- Apostolic succession or unanimity of teaching?

Are the Patristics Fathers to Protestants, Too?
Too influential to ignore
- Don't skip fifteen centuries of theology
- The Christian Classics Ethereal Library

Augustine. City of God. Trans. Henry Bettenson. New York: Penguin, 2003.

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

Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Ed. V.A. Kolve and Glending Olson. New York: Norton, 2005.

Chesterton, G.K. The Everlasting Man. Ft. Collins, Co.: Ignatius, 1993.

Fathers of the Church. The Canons and Decrees of the Council of Trent. Charlotte, N.C.: TAN, 2009.

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

Lewis, C.S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1994.

Luther, Martin. The Bondage of the Will. New York: General Books LLC, 2009.

McGrath, Alistair. Christianity's Dangerous Idea. New York: HarperOne, 2008.

Milton, John. "The Doctrine and Discipline of Divorce." The Major Works. Ed. Stephen Orgel and Jonathan Goldberg. New York: Oxford UP, 2003. 182-226.

Niebuhr, H. Richard. Christ and Culture. New York: Harper and Row, 1956.

Norris, Frederick W. Christianity: A Short Global History. Oxford: Oneworld, 2002.

Tertullian. On Idolatry. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2004.

Updike, John. Roger's Version. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Christian Classics Ethereal Library
The Catholic Encyclopedia: Fathers of the Church