Archive for April, 2008|Monthly archive page

Pope Benedict XVI and the Media

In light of almost every major American media outlet wringing their hands over precisely when it is that Pope Benedict XVI is going to announce that he’s decided to allow women to be priests, embraced gay marriage, decided that John Paul II was cracked over the whole birth control thing, and taken full personal responsibility for the entire clergy sex abuse scandal—not to mention their constant preoccupation with the “public perception” of the Pope (e.g., “The scourge of liberal theologians,” “He’s a dusty, professorial type,” “Why isn’t he John Paul II?”) instead of, you know, actually reading any of the words he’s ever written—there couldn’t have been a better time for Tracey Rowland’s new book, Ratzinger’s Faith: The Theology of Pope Benedict XVI, to appear. There have been plenty of books and articles published about Ratzinger/B16 since he became Pope which cast him as anything from a dangerous conspiratorial anti-modernist to a neoconservative bastion of freedom and democracy, but Rowland, I think, understands him from the inside. That is, she doesn’t attempt to create a critical evaluation of his thought in order to discern his wider agenda, which of course would be fine and has its place; she uses his ideas to develop her own (and she’s no slouch of a thinker by a long shot, as she proved in After Vatican II: Culture and the Thomist Tradition). There’s an excellent review by Ryan T. Anderson of Rowland’s book on the Books & Culture website which, short of reading Benedict’s work or Rowland’s book on his theology, could do a lot to mitigate some of the ridiculous expectations and misunderstandings of Benedict that I read and hear every day.

I don’t say all this to align myself in direct opposition to the concerns of the media listed above but rather to point out that there is a coherence and a continuity to Pope Benedict’s thought that has been almost completely ignored in most of the coverage I have heard. They seem baffled that Benedict’s first two encyclicals have been about love and hope (from the Vatican’s watchdog!), and they definitely don’t apprehend that the better part of Joseph Ratzinger cum Benedict XVI’s career has been dedicated to a critique of not just the issues the media keep bringing up but the intellectual traditions many of those issues represent. Now I also don’t want to sound like I’m saying that the media must read all the books he’s written in order to report accurately and directly on his visit, but it wouldn’t kill them to at least take a sympathetic look at the broader arc of his work through the last several decades instead of commenting backhandedly about how it butts up against our modern liberal presuppositions. In other words, it seems like they’ve told us more about themselves than they have about Benedict XVI.

Read The Road by Cormac McCarthy. That Is a Command.

I finished Cormac McCarthy’s The Road last night. What a novel. I don’t have any words to say about it that haven’t already been said by other reviewers, but an especially good explication comes from another Pulitzer-prize winning novelist, Michael Chabon. His essay “After the Apocalypse” appeared in the New York Review of Books in February of last year. It makes for some good chewy stuff when one fine writer writes about another fine writer, and this is no exception. The entire essay is worth reading in its own right, but I’ve included a few good quotes below, which have to do with the paradoxes at the heart of the novel. Enjoy.

McCarthy is ensnared and his hell undone by the paradox that lies at the heart of every story of apocalypse. The only true account of the world after a disaster as nearly complete and as searing as the one McCarthy proposes, drawing heavily on the “nuclear winter” scenario first proposed by Carl Sagan and others, would be a book of blank pages, white as ash. But to annihilate the world in prose one must simultaneously write it into being. Thus even an act of stylistic denial as extreme as McCarthy’s here—the densely foliated sentences of Suttree and Blood Meridian, teeming with allusion and inhabited by exotic nouns and rare adjectives, are burned away; the chapters and scenes broken down into fragments and rubble—remains, in spite of itself, an affirmation. The paradox of language undoing the death it deals animates every passage of the novel.

* * *

The paradox in every part and sentence of the post-apocalyptic narrative—evoking even as it denies—is repeated as if fractally by The Road as a whole. The son has wearied of his father’s stories of the past, of deeds of heroism and goodness, of the world that no longer exists—”Those stories are not true,” he complains—but he has none of his own to offer. He leads an all but storyless existence in which meaning, motivation, and resolution have no place and nothing to do. And yet of course the only way McCarthy has of laying this tragic state before us is through storytelling, through craft and incident and a layered, tightly constructed narrative that partakes of the epic virtue it attempts to abnegate.

Also of note, there’s a movie in the works. Viggo Mortensen to play the father.

We Have a Winner, Sort of

Well, my readers poll has kind of turned out to be moot. Though all the votes may not have been cast (there’s a delegation recounting votes in Florida right now), I have come to a conclusion, sort of. On Saturday night, on a lark after a fit of despair over the wayward direction being taken in the comment box, I decided to blaze through McCarthy, and I’m halfway finished with the book. But do not lose heart, faithful voters! Because C&P received a staggering twice the number of votes the other books received (i.e., 2 votes, whereas the others received 1 – stuffing of the ballot box and illegal recommendations excepted) I will move on to that next, provided I don’t end it all before I finish The Road. It’s a heartbreaking novel.

No disrespect to Ryan Cordell, though, who enthusiastically managed to put in four votes (three for The Idiot and one for this gem of literary magnificence – it’s a real book! Neither Ryan nor I made this up!). The decision was based on the sheer number of votes received. And be assured, I did not consider the personal source of the votes. (Though in the world of book recommendation, considering the source of the recommendation may prevent not a few reading disasters. But since I had already recommended these three to myself, I figured I needn’t worry. Also, Ryan, if you’re wondering why your name keeps transmogrifying from “Ryan C.” to “Ryan Cordell” in the comment box, it’s because I have another friend named Ryan Cochran who also comments regularly. Moreover, many of the others who comment on this blog know Ryan Cochran and might be confused without my emendations.)

Levi, have you read The Road? What did you think? Others?

Readers Poll: Help Me Decide What to Read!

I’m taking a poll. The current book I’m reading, though good, is extremely dense and long, and my momentum has ground to a halt. I’ve been floundering around with short stories and essays for awhile now, so I’m going to read a novel to pick up some steam. But I can’t decide which one. So, dear reader, I enlist your help. I’ve narrowed it down to three that are already on my bookshelf, but I need some guidance from here. The books are:

Dosoevsky: Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky: The Idiot

Cormac McCarthy: The Road

I will read all of these eventually, so it’s not an incredibly important decision, but my floundering has left me in a vortex of indecision. Help!

Robert Louis Wilken: Essays and Reviews

Last fall I was introduced to the work of Robert Louis Wilken when I read his book The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. He’s an excellent writer, and the book was the best introduction I’ve read to the Church Fathers. He’s a historian of early Christianity at the University of Virginia, and he also contributes pretty regularly to First Things, one of the few magazines I subscribe to. First Things makes all of their content available online a few months after it’s published, so a few days ago I ran a search for Wilken’s articles on their site. I was amazed not just by the amount of articles he has written for them but by how regularly he writes with a clear perspective on the very same things I’m interested in. So in a fit of whimsy I’m linking to all of them here and annotating a few for clarity or an extra-special plug.

The Language of Belief.

The Church’s Way of Speaking. Very good. This was also adapted as a chapter for The Spirit of Early Christian Thought.

Augustinian Justice.

The Church as Culture. This is the best essay I’ve read by Wilken.

Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. A review of Jaroslav Pelikan’s companion volume to his three-volume set on the Creeds of the church.

Christian Figural Reading and the Fashioning of Identity.

The Crisis of Isalm: Holy War and Unholy Terror.

Keeping the Commandments.

Augustine of Hippo: A Biography. A review of the second edition of Peter Brown’s biography.

In Defense of Constantine. An excellent review essay that goes just a little of the distance toward showing how incredibly complicated the events were that surrounded Constantine’s embrace of Christianity and the consequent politics involving the relationship between Christianity and the empire (read today as church and state).

The Jews as the Christians Saw Them.

From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East.

Gregory VII and the Politics of the Spirit.

Thinking Biblically: Exegetical and Hermeneutical Studies. I haven’t read this yet, but it looks like a tasty morsel.

Cassian the Monk and John Cassian: The Conferences. A review of two books, one on John Cassian (and actually just given to me by a relative – thanks!) and the other a translation of John Cassian).

Jaroslav Pelikan: Doctor Ecclesiae.

Confessing Mysticism. You can also buy this article on Amazon for $9.95. It’s your choice. A review of John Peter Kenney’s book The Mysticism of St. Augustine: Rereading the Confessions, which, after reading this review, I will be reading sooner rather than later.

Catholic Scholars, Secular Schools.

The Icon of the Transfiguration

I like Eastern Orthodox icons, which should be obvious to any of my regular readers, as I pepper icons rather liberally across the pages of this blog. But it seems a little crass to say I like icons. They are an essential element of worship in the Eastern church, and we evangelicals, I think, do our Orthodox brothers and sisters a disservice when we find the objects of their veneration neat, or cool. Nevertheless, like them I do. But I also like to think I’ve progressed a step beyond seeing them as commodities to slake my consumerist thirst, so many trinkets to put on the shelf next to my Precious Moments figurines. While I don’t venerate them, icons are replete with divine meaning; they are visual theology. I was first drawn to them through my fascination with the episode of Jesus’ Transfiguration in the Gospels. In studying Eastern spirituality for a class at Regent College, I came across the phrase “the Divine and Uncreated Light of Mount Tabor” and was struck by the economy of language, the felicity with which it captured the image of Jesus in the Transfiguration narratives.

Soon after, I learned that the Transfiguration, and the icons depicting it, is central to Eastern spirituality and theology (the Orthodox don’t differentiate between these two) and provides the quintessential paradigm for mystical encounter with the divine, and ultimately for theosis.

All this to say, this afternoon, I was at a local used bookstore and picked up a copy of The Uncreated Light: An Iconographical Study of the Transfiguration in the Eastern Church by iconographer Solrunn Nes. Aside from the fact that I find the topic fascinating, and I can’t wait to dive in, another thing that caught my eye was a foreword by theologian David Bentley Hart. It’s only three pages long, but it alone is worth the price of admission. He eloquently puts into words a little of what makes the icon significant:

The Transfiguration image comprises within itself the whole story of creation, incarnation, and salvation in a particular way, with a special harmony of elements, and with a singular intensity. It allows us, in one fixed instant of visionary clarity, to see and to reflect upon the entire mystery of the God-man and of the divinization of our humanity in Him. The light that radiates from the figure of Christ is the eternal glory of His godhead shining through – and entirely pervading – His flesh. It is the visible beauty of the glory that entered the world to tabernacle among us in the Person of the eternal Son: the same glory that passed through the history of Israel, that transfigured the face of Moses, that dwelt in the Temple in Jerusalem, that rested upon the Mercy Seat of the Ark of the Covenant, that overshadowed Mary when the angel of God appeared to her, and that has at various times throughout the history of the Church revealed itself to and in the saints.

The icon also, however, offers us a glimpse of the eschatological horizon of salvation; for the same light that the three disciples were permitted to see break forth from the body of Christ will, in the fullness of time, enter into and transform all of creation, with that glory that the Son had with the Father before the world began (John 17:5), and that the whole of creation awaits with groans of longing and travail (Rom. 8:19-23). Then, to use an image favored by a host of Orthodox spiritual writers, the entire universe will be like the burning bush seen by Moses: radiant with the fire of God’s holiness, but not consumed. And the Christian who prayerfully turns his gaze to the Transfiguration icon, and holds it there, should see himself taken up into the incarnate God, and refashioned after the ancient beauty of the divine image. For, just as it is Christ’s humanity that is transfigured in the light of his divinity, without thereby ceasing to be human, so too our human nature is called to an intimate union with the divine nature; we are created, that we may be deified in Christ. And so the icon is at once a revelation of God made man, and of all of us made god in Him. In it, we see how the kenosis of the eternal Son – His self-outpouring in the poverty and frailty of infancy, manhood, weariness, sorrow, suffering and death – is also simultaneously our plerosis – the filling of our nature with the imperishable splendor of divine beauty and limitless life, the light of rebirth and of resurrection.

Post at Nonnus

A few thoughts of mine on an essay by Peter Brown.