Archive for February, 2009|Monthly archive page

Culture Wars, Circa Fourth Century

Human weakness thinks that anything which science cannot demonstrate must be foolish, whereas it ought to be more skeptical of the powers of science, and reckon it wise to think that these things [i.e., the virgin birth and Christ’s resurrection] cannot be understood because they are acts of God.

from Ambrosiaster’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians, written in the 4th century.


A Friendly Reminder in Light of the Upcoming Lenten Season

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent. It’s interesting to me that most low-church Protestants find their way into the liturgical calendar by way of Lent. I tend to think that maybe it says something about how, in our society’s glut of superabundance, we feel a subconscious need for renunciation, and so we turn to the resources of the Church. But I want to write about something else related to Lent, and it is this.

Lent is forty days, right? Right. Well, there are actually forty-six days in between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. The forty fast days of Lent don’t include the six Sundays therein. each of those Sundays is a feast day. If this is your experience with Lent, you’re thinking well, duh. But in my experience, most of us low-church converts don’t realize it to begin with. When Jess and I were first told several years ago that we didn’t have to fast on Sundays, Jess was scandalized. “It’s cheating! They’re changing the rules on us!” For me it was like an epiphany. Everything clicked into place. (I think I was in a Christian spirituality class at the time that leaned heavily on the theology of asceticism.) Here’s why.

Every Sunday for the entire year is a mini Easter, a celebration of Christ’s resurrection. As such, it is also a day on which we Christians look forward to our own resurrection at the Second Coming. Lent, on the other hand, is a period of waiting and penitence: we wait for Christ, who, in between his ascension and his return, is physically absent from the church, and we are penitent for our sins, clinging to Christ’s atoning work in his death on the cross. Fasting physically reinforces these more abstract realities to us. But even in gloomy Lent, Good Friday—death—cannot be complete without Easter Sunday—resurrection.

So here is my reminder. If in Lent, you either decide to “go the extra mile” by fasting on Sundays, or you feel guilty, so you don’t break your fast on Sundays: you are denying the resurrection. Both Christ’s and your own. You have taken the purpose of fasting—union with Christ—and made it about your own supposed holiness. You have missed the point of fasting, you have missed the point of asceticism, and you have missed the point of Easter.

Have a nice day!

Monasticism, Asceticism, Retreat from Society

I’m teaching a class on early monasticism at my church tonight, and in my preparatory reading I’ve come across many good quotations along the way. I reproduce them here for your enjoyment. Many of them sound like they could be talking about the church today. (The David Bentley Hart quote is from his excellent essay Christ and Nothing, The Rowan Williams and Karl Barth quotes are from Williams’s book The Wound of Knowledge, and the Peter Brown quotes are from his book The Body and Society.)

Christian asceticism is not, after all, a cruel disfigurement of the will, contaminated by the world-weariness or malice towards creation that one can justly ascribe to many other varieties of religious detachment. It is, rather, the cultivation of the pure heart and pure eye, which allows one to receive the world, and rejoice in it, not as a possession of the will or an occasion for the exercise of power, but as the good gift of God. It is, so to speak, a kind of “Marian” waiting upon the Word of God and its fruitfulness. This is why it has the power to heal us of our modern derangements: because, paradoxical as it may seem to modern temperaments, Christian asceticism is the practice of love.

—David Bentley Hart

The heritage of Stoic exaltation of the will dies hard, even now. Yet Benedict, following the fathers of the desert, assumes throughout the Rule that weakness and failure are the common order of monastic life.

—Rowan Williams

The . . . monasticism of the desert, and the great legislators [e.g., Basil, Benedict], approached the human problem at one level even more pessimistically than did Augustine. The shared life must be a withdrawn life; there are some social contexts in which the only victory is retreat, which so cloud the face of reality that the only way to ‘unillusioinedness’ is flight. And it must be life under obedience.

—Rowan Williams

Primitive monasticism is a search for a context in which illusions and distortions of reality can be removed. . . . The great contribution of monasticism to Christianity . . . is the acknowledgment that the believing community as a whole can save itself from seduction and deceit only if it allows for some who are prepared to undertake a drastic surgery upon the fantasizing and dominating self, and so remind the whole body of its vulnerability, its liability to live at a level of unseriousness. And it becomes increasingly clear, from Antony onwards, that such a surgery needs to be performed with at least a measure of assistance and mutual support in community.

—Rowan Williams

Even at the beginnings of monasticism it is possible to see what the Reformers were to object to, an apparent glorification of will at the expense of grace. Yet, finally, primitive monasticism is on the side of grace, if only because of the profound acceptance of failure in so many of the Desert Fathers.

—Rowan Williams

“The way into the desert” is “a highly responsible and effective protest and opposition to the world, and not least to a worldly church, a new and specific way of combating it, and therefore a direct address to it.”

—Karl Barth

The ‘world,’ the ‘present age’ of previous Christian radicals had been almost too big to be seen. Its measureless demonic structures had engulfed the very stars. There was no outside viewing-point from which to take the measure of its faceless immensity, and no hope of disengagement from its clutches other than through drastic rituals that promised total transformation, through the formation of small, inward-looking groups of the redeemed.

—Peter Brown

To flee “the world” was to leave a precise social structure fo an equally precise and, as we shall see, an equally social alternative. The desert was a ‘counter-world,’ a place where an alternative ‘city’ could grow.

—Peter Brown

“The imagined transfiguration of the few great ascetics, on earth, spoke to them of the eventual transformation of their own bodies on the day of the Resurrection.”

—Peter Brown

When they beheld him [Antony, after twenty years in the desert], they were amazed to see that his body had maintained its former condition, neither fat for lack of exercise, nor emaciated from fasting and combat with demons, but just as it was when they had known him previous to his withdrawal. the state of his sould was one of purity. . . . He maintained an utter equilibrium, as one guided by harmonious reason and steadfast in that which accords with man’s true nature.

—Athanasius Life of Antony

Basil . . . reconciled most excellently and united the solitary and the community life. . . . He founded cells for ascetics, but at no great distance from his cenobotic communities, and, instead of distinguishing and separating the one from the other, as if by some intervening wall, he brought them together and united them, in order that the contemplative spirit might not be cut off from society, nor the active life be uninfluenced by the contemplative, but that, like sea and land, by an interchange of their several gifts, they might unite in promoting the one object, the glory of God.

—Gregory of Nazianzus

Dear Awesome Levi, You Are Awesome. Thank You for Being Awesome.

Yesterday I received in the mail a very fun surprise indeed. A package from my friend Levi Simpson showed up in our mailbox. When I opened it I found, tightly shrink wrapped, the book Maps and Legends by Michael Chabon. Levi has known of my lurve for Chabon for awhile, and he had found it on sale and thought of me.

Let me enumerate the ways in which Levi has—in an act of almost sheer clairvoyance—anticipated my very thoughts:

  1. I have given a heavy, wistful sigh many times with this very book in mind since writing this post (about deciding not to buy any books for a year) .
  2. I have checked it out twice from the library but have only read snatches of it here and there. I actually had it checked out the day Levi’s copy came in the mail. Every snatch I had read left me aching with desire to read more (when I had more time to digest it), and I had resolved to own it some day.
  3. But the paperback is coming out soon, and I was afraid the beautiful hardcover editions would disappear from shelves and become more and more difficult to find as my year sans book-buying wore on.
  4. This book been at the top of my Amazon wishlist for quite some time.
  5. It is one of the handsomest books ever. It’s published by McSweeney’s, a company that almost always makes very nice books. As I was looking for photos of the book to share on this blog, I stumbled across this blog, which describes the book as follows (I swiped the nice three-part photo from the same place):

The treatment [of the book’s design] is really elaborate and luscious, an object lesson in making the physical book into a piece of genuine desiderata, an artifact you want to own as well as read. The black cloth wraps around the hardcover jacket with debossing and foil. Then there are three bellybands with Jordan Crane’s illustrations.

The fact that there are three fully illustrated layers, two of which will never see the light of day unless somebody takes time to peel each layer off, speaks volumes about the artistry that went into it. It’s hard to imagine the motivation for designing and illustrating the jacket was to sell books. It’s simply there to make a beautiful object.

So thanks, Levi! I doubt you knew how much you’d be doing with one little gesture, but it meant a lot. Cheers, my friend!


Cormac McCarthy, the Nature of Literature, the Natural Law, Morality, and a Host of Other Sundries

I was excited recently to find this article by Christopher Badeaux on Cormac McCarthy at a promising (new?) website called The City, which is run by some folks at Houston Baptist University and looks like a sort of evangelical riff on First Things. I’ve read a few other pieces and liked them alright, but I was pretty disappointed with the Cormac McCarthy article. I got as far as the extended quotation below (which is near the beginning) before I realized what I was in for. (I would have commented on the article’s site itself, but that function appears to be unavailable right now.) The quotation:

It is not a profound insight to say that disorder lies at the core of every modern novel: Things falling apart drive action. The truth of most literature since well before the Romantic era, however, is that disorder is made right at the end of almost every book. The villain is defeated, the damsel is rescued, the world is saved, and, in literature from the 1960s on, socially appropriate noises are made and coffee is had. Even with that, novels are a window into a safer world, one in which everything more or less turns out right in the end—where the awful consequences of life are put on hold in favor of the pleasant ones.

Put differently, only the Russians want to be depressed at the end of a good book.

This is actually slightly maddening, because a novel is a self-contained utopia in which disorder has no extrinsic effects, carries no ripples of destruction and disintegration, and in fact, suggests to the reader that an original sin is always entirely containable and repairable. One never feels the connection between the people who inhabit the bubble of the novel. They live lives as strutting, separate parts of some beautiful machine that runs precisely and predictably outside of the suspension of disbelief.

Where to begin with this comedy of errors? First, we have a thesis: “disorder lies at the core of every modern novel.” (Fair enough.) Then Badeaux takes us back to “most literature since well before the Romantic era,” where “disorder is made right at the end of almost every book.” (I think the Greeks might have had something to say about this. Possibly also Shakespeare.) But in the very next sentence, we’ve somehow been magically transported back to “literature from the 1960s on,” where at the end of every novel “socially appropriate noises are made and coffee is had.” (What this means or is referring to I have no idea.)

I mean, seriously. What world is this describing? Not the one I live in. If by “most literature since well before the Romantic era” he means “the complete works of Jan Karon,” I suppose it begins to make sense, but I may be making a bit of an interpretive leap there. There were also those “Russians,” the inevitable exception that proves the rule, who just “want to be depressed at the end of a good book,” which seems just a tad glib. (Incidentally, “the Russians”—by which I’m guessing he means, primarily, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky—would more characteristically be described as modern than anything else, which should support his thesis rather than provide an exception.)

Directly following the extended passage quoted above, Badeaux launches into the following: “In the real world, sin is a pebble in a pond: It touches so much more than the sinner and, when there is one, the victim. It disorders lives and relationships in ways foreseeable and incredible.” Change “victim” to “victims” and “foreseeable” into “unforeseeable” and you practically have a thematic summary of Macbeth. But according to Badeaux’s account of the history of literature, Macbeth—produced before the Romantic era—is one of those works where “The villain is defeated, the damsel is rescued,” and “the world is saved.” I must’ve missed that Act.

In opposition to the happy, cheery world of Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Badeaux posits as their antithesis Cormac McCarthy’s two books No Country for Old Men and The Road. I just can’t make things add up.

But why my disproportionate reaction? Well, I share two things in common with Badeaux: I am a fan of Cormac McCarthy, and I am a committed, relatively conservative Christian. So I feel like I have a vested interest in the outcome of Badeuax’s exploration.

The general thrust of the article is to read Cormac McCarthy (or at least No Country and The Road) as a particularly compelling illustration of natural law, especially original sin, which is fine enough. The article should be evaluated on whether or not it succeeds in its aims. But Badeaux’s understanding of the history of literature is so phenomenally and weirdly wrong (either that or I’m misreading it somehow, and I would be happy to be told so if that were the case), that it gives me serious pause about anything else that he will say after it.

And it turns out I was right to give pause. Badeaux’s interest seems not to be in literature per se but in either co-opting or rejecting it based on its adherence to or deviation from a Christian understanding of natural law. Consequently, he seems somewhat dismissive—or even ignorant—of Cormac McCarthy’s work that doesn’t fit his thesis of McCarthy as quasi-Christian auteur of original sin. (At one point he says, “for contrast [to No Country and The Road], I worked my way through Blood Meridian,” but there are no references to any of McCarthy’s seven other novels.) As an example, Badeaux reads the psychotic killer Anton Chigurh in No Country as the manifestation of Llewelyn Moss’s moral failings, which is interesting, but Moss seems less a catalyst of evil than an inadvertantly complicit protagonist on whom is wrought the furies of the novel’s bizzarely fatalistic antagonist, Chigurh, who more or less represents a concentrated manifestation of the universe’s ontology of violence. To understand Moss’s actions as catalyzing moral retribution seems not to read McCarthy as displaying the natural law but to read an explicitly Christian morality into McCarthy’s own aims for the book. These are two very different things, and the latter is a stretch at best and inconceivable at worst. And since there’s no retribution for evil in Blood Meridian, despite its being much more philosophically complex than No Country, Badeaux dismisses it as “simple.”

Two things have happened here. Art has become, first, evaluated based on its adherence to a particular morality and, second, merely a vehicle for a worldview. I don’t think art doesn’t contain those things, but to reduce art to a worldview or a morality—either in its creation or in its evaluation— destroys it.

Notes on Jaroslav Pelikan’s Christianity and Classical Culture

The title and the structure of this book alone warrant a significant amount of sorting out to figure out what’s going on. The full title is Christianity and Classical Culture: The Metamorphosis of Natural Theology in the Christian Encounter with Hellenism. The book is structured in two parts: “Natural Theology as Apologetics” and “Natural Theology as Presupposition.” Each part has ten chapters, and each chapter parallels a chapter in the other part. So, for example, chapter six is titled “The Universe as Cosmos,” and chapter sixteen is titled “Cosmos as Contingent Creation.”

But back to the title. Pelikan sees the highest synthesis of Christianity and classical culture occurring, at least in the Christian East, in the thought of the Cappadocians. The book is an exploration of how Greek thought functioned in their theology. In other words, what was the nature of the relationship between philosophy (“natural theology” or simply “reason,”) and theology? As the subtitle indicates, Pelikan intuits a metamorphosis in the way “natural theology” functioned in the Cappadocians’ theology. The nature of that metamorphosis is hinted at in the structure of the book.

For Pelikan, the metamorphosis of natural theology took place in that it first functioned as an apologetic against the larger Greek-speaking—Pagan—cultural establishment, hence “Natural Theology as Apologetic.” But in the transition, under Constantine, from Christianity as an oppressed and persecuted religious group to the cultural and ideological milieu, natural theology metamorphosed into a presupposition for dogmatic or systematic theology. In other words, the faithful witness of Scripture confirms, completes, and transcends natural reason. Hence “Natural Theology as Presupposition.” The premises of natural theology are confirmed and enhanced by the conclusions encapsulated in the language of faith. Another way of thinking about it would be that the “Natural Theology as Apologetic” model is outward-looking in its emphasis, geared toward the establishment of a Christian theological patrimony in the wider culture, and uses reason (in other words, natural theology) toward that end, while “Natural Theology as Presupposition” is inward-looking, geared toward the life and thought of the church, and uses reason in the service of the higher truths of Christian doctrine.

So the structure seems quite ingenious, demonstrating, first, the two functions of Hellenistic thought among the Cappadocians and, second, Pelikan’s thesis that those two functions reflect a transition from one to the next. A simple example is that, by reason, one might be able to prove—against, say, an atheist—that there is a God (natural theology as apologetic), but reason alone cannot prove the Trinity, which must be divinely revealed and received in faith (natural theology as presupposition).

There’s plenty more to think about, but I haven’t actually finished the book yet.

A New Discovery

One of the great things about the world of the interweb is that it’s like exploring the professor’s mansion in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. You can walk through a narrow, obscure doorway and find yourself in Narnia.

I was tooling around on this blog when I clicked on a link that took me to the site for the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning and the Journal of Scriptural Reasoning Forum. All of their content is published online by the University of Virginia. What a wonderful world of riches to explore!

I was particularly interested in a few articles by R. R. Reno, and they are indeed very good. I hope to comment more about the first one in the future, but for the time being, I commend them to you here:

Biblical Theology and Theological Exegesis

Origen and Spiritual Interpretation