Beauty: Truth Without Violence

More from David Bentley Hart:

An “aesthetic” response to a postmodern insistence on the inescapability of violence is adequate only if it gives a coherent account of beauty within the Christian tradition itself; only if beauty belongs already to the Christian narrative, fully and consistently developed, and in such a way as to allay the suspicions it arouses, can the beautiful conceivably mediate Christian truth without the least shadow of violence.

Is a Persuasion

Christ is a persuasion, a form evoking desire, and the whole force of the gospel depends upon the assumption that this persuasion is also peace: that the desire awakened by the shape of Christ and his church is one truly reborn as agape, rather than merely the way in which a lesser force succumbs to a greater, as an episode in the endless epic of power.

-David Bentley Hart in his introduction to The Beauty of the Infinite

In the Queue

What’s in my browser and/or Instapaper queue today (which means I haven’t read most of it, but I was interested enough to open the link and plan to read it later):

  • An interview with Ken Myers (of Mars Hill Audio Journal, which I cannot possibly praise enough) from last year’s fall edition of Comment. In re-reading it, I find his suggestions to once again be immensely challenging.

    3. You believe individualism to be a corrosive, destructive force in the modern world. Do you have any suggestions for students who wonder how to live in way that is not individualistic in the context of today’s college or university?

    Some form of community is often prescribed as the antidote to individualism. But “community” involves more than getting together with a bunch of people just like you. So I would urge students to get involved as much as possible in the lives of people who are unlike them: different ages, different vocations, different stages in life. Local churches are (at least in theory) an ideal place for this, as long as the church doesn’t segregate students into the “student ministries.”

    Secondly, one of the great conveyors of individualism is the commodification of everything. Individualism goes hand-in-hand with the displacement of the idea of culture as a legacy or inheritance with that of culture as a set of sovereignly selected commodities. We now choose everything in our cultural life; we don’t simply receive anything. One way of fighting the mentality of individualism is to put oneself in a position where one is an apprentice, where one receives something offered rather than “consumes” it. For example, find someone (in that church community you’re a part of) who knows a lot about an ethnic food tradition and go to a restaurant with them, letting them choose the menu (and maybe you can even pay for their meal). Or find someone (a professor, even) who knows a lot about some artistic tradition that is foreign to you (German cinema, Renaissance choral music, English detective fiction) and apprentice yourself to them. You could do the same with master gardeners, cooks, bird watchers, woodworkers, motorcycle mechanics, even theologians. Yes, there is an initial act of individual choice, but submitting to someone else’s authority and expertise over time is a great way to fight the temptation to assert our own sovereignty.

  • From the Guardian: “Technology and the novel, from Blake to Ballard
  • Steve Garber in the Art House America blog on “The Epistemology of Love
  • Several students have approached me about leading film conversations in different contexts on campus this year, so I’m looking back at the Arts & Faith Top 100 list. (I think Babette’s Feast may be first on my list.)
  • Obama gets the new Franzen novel early, panic ensues. (I have checked Amazon basically every day hoping that the novel – which I preordered what seems like millenia ago – has shipped. It has not. I may be a little obsessed.)
  • Kevin Spacey will be in the Bridge Project’s Richard III at BAM this winter – directed by Sam Mendes.
  • David Brooks as public theologian?

Friday morning

Two announcements:

  • My dear friend Jenni (who I have known from a distance for several years and am delighted to be rooming with at The Glen in a week or so) has been working very hard on the Art House America site – and it’s finished, as of last night. So go read, gawk at the loveliness, and enjoy.
  • I’m delighted to be the faculty advisor for the newest women’s house at King’s, named for Corrie ten Boom. (You can read the announcement here from last spring.) I know several of the girls from my class last year, and I am very excited to be joining them as they embark on their first year, and to be able to engage in student life at King’s in my first year.

Things I am pondering:

  • The perennial question: M.F.A. or Ph.D., or both, and in which order? Do I need to study craft or history? Where, how, when? Do I need prerequisites? And how can I avoid paying for it? These things roll around in my head a lot, and they’ve come back lately in a kind of aggravated existential crisis. (What do you think?)
  • I asked this question of a number of teacher/writer friends in an email, but I’ll ask here, too: if you do both, how do you manage both? Do you schedule time for writing into your office time? Or is it haphazard?
  • Similarly, blogging friends: do you find that blogging takes away from or enhances your writing time? I used to say that blogging was exercising the writing muscle. Then I stopped blogging. And I think maybe I was right, but it’s hard to start again.
  • Jim Belcher’s book Deep Church, which, besides being incredibly engaging, compassionate, and reasoned, is also challenging, expanding, and clarifying my thinking in ways that few books have done of late (Jamie Smith‘s Desiring the Kingdom being one of those few). If you care about church and have been scurrying around the periphery of both relatively traditional evangelicalism and vaguely emergent churches for a while, like me, you can’t afford to skip this one. I promise: you haven’t read it before. And you’ll also enjoy it.
  • Speaking of Desiring the Kingdom, I’m struggling with how to develop thick practices in my students through teaching. I’m already committed to not setting deadlines for big assignments for Sunday night or Monday morning, because I know students, and many will not make Sunday into a day of rest if they know a project is due. I don’t want to teach them that behavior – it will burn them out. I’ve been there. I know. And I also plan to focus on Sabbath the week we also focus on poetry and description in my first-semester writing class this fall. But what else? I’m thinking about, for instance, Andi’s article on shelter and my own new (even if shared) office.

You know, just an average Friday morning.

Evangelicalism and the Contemporary Intellectual

Last night, I went with some friends to The New School for a panel on “Evangelicalism and the Contemporary Intellectual,” co-hosted by the literary journal n+1 and Eugene Lang College. Panelists included Malcolm Gladwell, James Wood, Christine Smallwood, and Caleb Crain (who moderated, mostly).

Of course, off the bat, one sees that there are no presently-evangelical intellectuals on that panel. (They’re all ex-evangelicals, to one degree or another.) As it turned out, this may have been a wise choice. The panelists spoke about their backgrounds and how their evangelical upbringing contributes to their work today as intellectuals, and then took questions from the audience. I suspect that had a known evangelical intellectual been on the panel – a philosopher, a minister, whatever – the Q&A session may have devolved into ad hominem attacks. It stayed mostly respectful, as these are non-evangelicals who nonetheless do not believe that evangelicalism is the worst thing to appear in America.

Gladwell grew up in Canada, son of a Jamaican mother and English father, and in a relatively staid British version of evangelicalism that doesn’t couple a particular politics with the faith, and I suspect this may have something to do with his ultimate conclusion that he’s “truly sad” that he doesn’t share his parents’ faith. He reiterated this point several times, and spoke of attending church in D.C. when he lived there. He remembered a communion service, which he said was one of the most beautiful things he’d experienced, and seems genuinely sad that nothing he will experience outside of that service will affect him in the same way.

Christine Smallwood’s background most closely mirrored my own: an evangelical church in New Jersey that slowly drifted toward contemporary evangelical expressions of faith (especially in worship), with a “WWJD” orientation. She spoke of the emotional focus that her church moved into, of the gradual dumbing-down of what they were taught. Now a Ph.D. candidate in literature and a former associate literary editor at The Nation, she made some interesting points about the “crisis of narrative” that evangelicalism’s overwhelming on conversion creates, and how that may play into the decline of the megachurch. She also said that the Bible taught her a lot about literature: that narrative is the best vehicle for delivering truth, that language is important, how to do what we call “deep reading.”

James Wood grew up Anglican, but his mother was Presbyterian, and it sounds like they were not terribly high church. In this discussion, he’s most notable for having written some scathing critiques of the “new atheists,” while not being a believer himself. (Look up his article “God in the Quad” from the August 31, 2009 issue of the New Yorker – it knocked my socks off when I first read it.)

All three are no longer believers, but their stance toward evangelicalism was fairly charitable, given the circumstances – more charitable in some cases than some of us who remain in the church. I have fairly detailed notes, but I’m mulling them over rather than just writing everything down here.

I think one of the things that struck me most, though, was when Mr. Wood said that he was drawn out of faith partially because he discovered the world of literature, where you could “talk about anything.” In other words, in fiction, you can encompass the totality of fiction. Nothing is off-limits simply because of its content. This rang true for me, in that there seem to be many books that evangelicals aren’t, or weren’t, “supposed” to read. This accounts for my long and detailed knowledge of mediocre Victorian novels and spiritual biographies (which were approved reading material), but my absolute lack of hundreds of other very necessary and empathetic books. (Innocuousness in a moral sense was more important than telling the truth “slant,” as Emily Dickinson said, and my year working at a Christian bookstore proved that this is not just a phenomenon among Christian fiction for young people, where it might perhaps be explainable.)

Nothing was said that particularly surprised me, but it’s refreshing to show up at an event like this and see some kind of strides being taken toward understanding, rather than categorical dismissal. It’s important for evangelical churches to see what kind of fruit their form of Christianity has reaped, both good and bad. I have a lot of hope that evangelicalism – in the true sense – will shed the vestiges of anti-intellectualism (something I’ve run into all my life, though I’ve been privileged to know some well-read, deep-thinking evangelicals) within my lifetime. I hope I can be part of that.

Even if real knowledge of evangelicals (the people who hold the theology, not the politically-powerful demographic) is woefully inadequate in the mainstream, at least they’re trying. As someone who lives somewhere in the middle between these two – evangelical theologically if not demographically, intellectually aspiring if not actually intellectual quite yet – I think I can see a place for me in there somewhere.