Sights and Sounds: Brideshead Revisited

Before our longish drive back to Canada for Christmas vacation, I set off to our public library in search of a book on CD with hopes of shortening the trip, as it were. I hit upon a gem: Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited narrated by Jeremy Irons. This turned out to be a spectacular combination. Irons--who, for me, will almost simply be identified with Father Gabriel in The Mission--brings Waugh's very Catholic novel to life in wonderful ways. With a voice much at home on the stage, Irons incarnates Waugh's already remarkably complex and charming characters, creating voices for each (even the 11-year-old girl, Cordelia), and hitting just the right note for Charles Ryder's narrative voice.

But then another wonderful little turn of providence. Our pilgrimage back to family in Canada always takes us to Stratford, Ontario--effectively our hometown (though we're from small villages just south), namesake for Stratford-upon-Avon, and home to the acclaimed Stratford Festival Theatre. All in all, an absolutely charming place that everyone should try to visit at least once. One of the treats of visiting Stratford is returning to some old haunts in local bookshops, particularly two used bookshops from which I've built some important parts of my library. My favorite is The Book Stage, just behind the Avon Theatre and run by a German bibliophile, Manfred Meurer (who does not lack resemblance to Albert Einstein). Manfred and I developed something of a working relationship as I was engaged in graduate studies in phenomenology--first in Toronto, then in Philadelphia. As Manfred learned of my work and interests, and watched my book-buying habits, he started to set aside texts for me in a secret little closet, to be unveiled whenever I returned to Stratford. When I would come back into town from Philadelphia, I would visit Manfred, who would then trot out assorted Husserl and Heidegger books, some even in German. I think he was almost as excited as I was.

Alas, Manfred closes up shop for the winters, so I headed to my other haunt: "Yesterday's Things," a used book shop on Ontario Street just a few doors down from our first apartment after returning from Iowa. (It was a charming space: a second floor flat in a turn-of-the-century home; it will always be remembered as the home to which we brought our firstborn, Grayson.) The philosophy and theology selection at Yesterday's Things does not compare to Manfred's (think multiple copies of A Course in Miracles), but the literature selection is outstanding--and incredibly inexpensive (especially when the American dollar is a little stronger). I first headed to the Wilde section, but found nothing I don't already own. There was a decent edition of Orwell's later journalism and letters, but in paperback. No Chesterton. A volume of C.S. Lewis's letters looked intriguing. But then I noticed, on top of the shelves and out of order, a mint, hardcover edition of Waugh's Brideshead Revisited--a Little, Brown edition from 1979 for just $10 (CDN!). I snapped it up.

I continued to listen to Irons' rendition on the way back to the States, and now back home (and with very little time in the car), I've turned to reading the hard copy. I'm not sure if it is unfortunate or fortunate, but Ryder's narrative voice-in-my-head while I read is Irons', and Irons' wonderful interpretation of the characters continues to echo for me (his rendering of Anthony is spot on). And as new characters come on the scene, I half find myself tempted to hear how Irons plays them out, and perhaps I'll give in to the temptation and check. In any case, Irons' performance of the book has enriched my reading--as if I can hear the book in my hands.


Coming Soon: Top 5 of 2005

I've always been a sucker for year-end retrospectives and so the next couple of weeks are always a highlight for me as all kinds of venues generate their "top 10" lists. (See, for instance, the NYT's 10 Best Books of 2005, o John Wilson's Top 10 Books of 2005 from Books & Culture.) I'm going to be more humble and suggest a "Top 5 of 2005" in the next few days. Stay tuned.


The History of Love

My wife and I just finished Nicole Krauss's remarkable novel, The History of Love. My wife first devoured it, and when she quite quickly and decisively described it as perhaps her favorite book ever (and she doesn't just say this everyday), I splurged, bought the book, and also proceeded to inhale it from the first lines ("When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.")

Krauss's writing is dynamic, with a wide range. There's no monotone rut of observation. Instead, she manages to inhabit several very diverse characters (how does a 34-year-old write so well in the voice of an old man?). The novel has embedded within it several different genres, and layers upon layers (books within books and translations of books, with journals and letter and poems interspersed). And while it is certainly a meditation on love (both familial and romantic, love lost and love hoped-for), it is also a profound exploration of language and all of our attempts to find "words for everything." The book's impact hovers somewhere between ecstacy and mourning, rapture and heartbreak. And it's a book that keeps haunting you for a while. A must read.


New Left Review: Best Read with Wine

As I think I've confessed before, I'm a journal and magazine junkie. One of my favorite, more 'highbrow' periodicals (without quite being "academic"), is the New Left Review. Each issue always has a few gems, such as Alain Badiou's recent overview of French philosophy, Malcolm Bull's quasi-review of Hardt & Negri's Multitude, Slavoj Zizek's critique of human rights, or Regis Debray's reflections on John Paul II. One of my favorites from a little further back is Mike Davis' chilling account of urban poverty in "Planet of the Slums" (a bit of a precis of his forthcoming book).

And what better way to enjoy reading the New Left Review than with a nice glass of wine? My wife and I have become devoted fans of Riesling, and so I scarfed up the latest issue of the Wine Spectator in which Riesling gets cover story billing. They highlights top Rieslings from Germany, Alsace (in France), Australia, and a few from the States (from Washington and the Finger Lakes region of NY). Our tastebuds are probably a little skewed by our geography, but we thought our favorite Riesling from Chateau Grand Traverse in Michigan deserved a mention!


Calvin e-Journal: Minds in the Making

Nathan Bierma, a relatively new (though returning) face here at Calvin College, was recently appointed the editor of Calvin's web-based zine/mag/journal Minds in the Making. Nathan is one of those people who seems to be doing a hundred different things, and he does them all well! (Nathan is also an author, writes a column for the Chicago Tribune, and now plays a key role at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship.) His tranformation of the Minds journal if fabulous. In addition to instituting some regular "columns," he regularly collects a wide sampling of some of the intellectually stimulating stuff that happens on our campus almost everyday. And he's done so in a multi-media format, including not only articles and essays, but also audio files of lectures and interviews, as well as visual slides, and more.

Minds in the Making is a wonderful glimpse into the diverse conversations that take place here at Calvin, and we have Nathan to thank for opening the window into that.


A Reply from Vanity Fair

I have earlier confessed on this blog to my weakness for Vanity Fair. Several months ago (July 28 to be exact), I moved from passive voyeur status and sent the following "Letter to the Editor" to Vanity Fair:

Did the VF editorial team miss the chance to read James Wolcott's article ("To Live and Die in Iraq," August 2005)? In the same article that Wolcott rightly scolds "Mr. Media" for showing only American players in Iraq, and only sanitized images at that, the only photos that accompany the article feature, you guessed it, only American soldiers and none that would disturb Mr. Media's picture of the war. Not a single Iraqi "extra" makes an appearance. Left on the cutting room floor, I guess?
Wolcott's article also catalogues the litany of celebrity "events" that consume American media. And then immediately after his article, I have to endure Dominick Dunne's sophmoric romp through recent Hollywood "disasters." This is amplified by the editorial choice to highlight the line about Lana Clarkson's breasts, with the frat-boy touch of highlighting the word "breasts" in red.

If only VF's editorial policies followed more closely James Wolcott's prescriptions.

James K.A. Smith
Grand Rapids, Michigan
To my surprise, I just received this response in reply:

Thank you very much for your letter to the editor. We have received several letters regarding this matter, and I will be sure to address this point with the appropriate editors here. I appreciate your input and hope that you continue expressing your opinions to Vanity Fair.


Graydon Carter

One can hope.


Hot off the press: Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition

It's a bit weird to suggest that I'm reading my own book, but anyone who's an author knows that, in fact, this is strangely true, without being as utterly vain as it sounds. This week I received the first copies of Radical Orthodoxy and the Reformed Tradition, hot off the press from Baker Academic. After a book has been put to bed (about 6 months prior to its appearance), it's always fun for an author to receive it back in this new form. It sometimes feels like someone else's book, and in the case of an edited collection like this, much of it is!

I was honored by the recent blog attention given the book by an astute reader: Byron Borger of Hearts&Minds Books in PA.


Listening as Reading

This blog is supposed to keep some notes on what I'm reading; I'm stretching that a little by noting something I'm listening to, which then got me to reading the lyrics. One of my son's friends turned me on to The Decemberists. They're song "16 Military Wives" is quite a remarkable little piece of cultural critique which masks itself as a "ditty" with a kind of upbeat tune which should create serious cognitive dissonance for anyone who listens to the words. I'll paste the lyrics here, but you really must listen to the song. (For some commentary on the "meaning," visit http://www.songmeanings.net/lyric.php?lid=3530822107858533163 .)

Artists > Decemberists, The > Sixteen Military Wives
Submitted by themunkel on March 1, 2005

sixteen military wives
thirty-two softly-focused, brightly-colored eyes
staring at the natural tan
of thirty-two gently clenching,
wrinkled little hands

seventeen company men
out of which only twelve will make it back again.
sergeant sends a letter to five military wives,
his tears drip down from ten little eyes.

cheer them on to their rivals
cause america can
and america can't say no
and america does if
america says it's so
it's so
and the anchorperson on tv
goes la-di-da-di-da.

fifteen celebrity minds
leading their fifteen sordid, wretched checkered lives
will they find their solution in time?
using fifteen pristine moderate liberal minds
eighteen academy chairs, out of which only seven really even care
doling out a garland to five
celebrity minds
they're humbly taken by surprise

cheer them on to their rivals
cause america can
and america can't say no
and america does if
america says it's so
it's so
and the anchorperson on tv
goes la-di-da-di-da-didi-didi-da

fourteen cannibal kings
wondering blithely what the dinner bell will bring
fifteen celebrity minds served in a leafy bed of sixteen military wives

cheer them on to their rivals
cause america can
and america can't say no
and america does if
america says it's so
it's so
and the anchorperson on tv
goes la-di-da-di-da-didi-didi-da.


Book Reviews as Crucial Knowledge

[Sorry for the blog silence of late. What little time and energy I've had left for blogging has gone into some discussions at the Generous Orthodoxy "Think Tank."]
I am a passionate devotee of book reviews: I commit to writing quite a few of them, and I make a point of trying to consume them regularly--both the sorts of reviews one finds in the Atlantic and Harper's, as well as the more scholarly review in academic journals. [For the latter, the "table of contents alert services" that many academic journals provide are a godsend. See the Modern Theology site for an example, and click on "Sign-up for e-tocs."]

I think book reviews are a crucial arena for discourse, for both "public" intellectuals and the ivory halls of academe. Sometimes they are pointers, bringing to our attention works that we might not otherwise have encounters; at other times, they provide an arena for debate and provide an opportunity to "listen in" as leading thinkers hash out their commonalities and differences. And there's nothing an author likes more than a good book review (where "good" doesn't just mean praise and adulation, but rather someone who really takes your arguments seriously, thinks along with you, and then takes you places you didn't go in the book).

One rich and free resource that I highly recommend is Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. A relatively new online review, the editors manage to get some of the best people in philosophy to provide very extensive reviews of works across a range of subdisciplines and even across the disciplines. Sign-up to receive new reviews by email and you'll receive several treasures weekly and browse through the Archives to find much more.

Today I received a review of a fascinating book I hadn't come across: Amy Mullins' Reconceiving Pregnancy and Childcare. This is one of the briefer NDPR reviews, but has got me to put this book on my wish list.


If This Doesn't Scare You...

I must confess to a dirty little secret: I am a regular and avid reader of Vanity Fair. It's not something I like to trumpet. Even my kids bug me about my "girlie magazine," and I must admit that when I'm on the bus, I try to hide the front cover. It's not just the glossy pages of fashion ads that are disconcerting; it is the general bourgeois, "high-society" glitz that VF perpetuates (Graydon Carter and Dominick Dunne can be such whores to celebrity sometimes). It's a bit like my passion for Oscar Wilde: part of me knows the quasi-socialist in me should hate this stuff, but the other part of me would like nothing better than to have been a part of late 19th-century "society." (Someone once asked Wilde why he wasn't a socialist, to which he replied: "I prefer to keep my evenings free.")

But I was attracted to VF for the articles (gee, where have you heard that line before?). In particular, it's one of the places where I can regularly read Christopher Hitchens, including some of his best pieces later collected in Love, Poverty, and War. James Wolcott also regularly contributes some good stuff, including an excellent piece on the skewed coverage of Iraq. And there usually some decent interviews to boot, including a memorable one with Vigo Mortensen (quoting Kant!).

But the August issue included a cover story on poor Martha Stewart's house arrest that included this disturbing little tidbit: Martha chose to spend her confine at a new farm in Bedford. For this project, she was committed to a very simple, but scrupulously uniform color scheme: all the buildings would be a washed gray (now "Bedford Gray" in the Martha Stewart line), and all the accents would be black. Included in the black accents are all of the animals on the farm--including the dog! In fact, her horses, if left in the sun through the day, tend to take on a reddish sheen that upsets this color palette. So Stewart has directed the handlers to keep the horses inside all day in order to preserve the appropriate black accents for the environmental decor. Quite a microcosm of economic power manipulating nature for ridiculous ends.


What I'm Reading: A Sampler

There are a number of books that have moved around the house--from my desk to nighstand to coffee table to front porch and back to my desk--for which I can't provide a proper review, but which deserve some "props." So here's a bit of a clearinghouse post about some great stuff that I've been dipping into since late spring.

Lauren Winner's Real Sex: The Naked Truth about Chastity (Brazos, 2005) is a bold and extremely helpful book. Having worked with "college & career" ministries in several different churches, it became clear to me that many evangelicals lack a really robust, positive theology of sexuality. This book goes a long way toward changing that.

Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, by Mark Noll and Carolyn Nystrom (Baker Academic, 2005). Asks a great question, and then provides a nice blend of journalistic reporting and theological insight. Encouraging and hopeful about where the relationship between Rome and evangelicalism is at, and where it's headed, yet also honest in its assessment and critique.

My thinking here might be slightly biased since the author is a dear friend, but I think that Amos Yong's The Spirit Poured Out on All Flesh: Pentecostalism and the Possibility of Global Theology (Baker Academic, 2005) has just set a new standard for pentecostal theology. Amos' knowlege of theological and philosophical literature is global in its scope, and just downright daunting in its depth. This is the book on pentecostal theology that non-pentecostals should read.

While I'm a bit critical of how glibly and faddishly the notion of "empire" is thrown around by theologians and leftish religious pundits, one will find a judicious, well-researched account from theologian Gary Dorrien in Imperial Designs: Neoconservatism and the New Pax Americana (Routledge, 2004).

Of course, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince was also on my nightstand for a few days. I was a bit disappointed with how little the story really moved forward, but was glad to see that Dumbledore confirmed some of my own predictions about prophecy in the series.


Whose Catholic Revolution?

An alluring title made me eager to engage Andrew Greeley's The Catholic Revolution: New Wine, Old Wineskins, and the Second Vatican Council (University of California, 2004). Hoping for some behind-the-scenes insight into the impact of de Lubac, Congar, and the nouvelle theologie, it was disappointing to see that Greeley's "Catholic" church doesn't seem to exist outside of Euro-America, and that the extent of the "revolution" was that American Catholics started using birth control. One will find a more revolutionary vision (though not "all the way down," so to speak), in Pope John Paul II's Memory and Identity (Rizzoli, 2005).


The Sound of Words: A Poem by Coleson

Reading something a little different tonight: a collection of poems by my son, Coleson (10). I was particularly impressed by his "onomatopoeia" poem which tries to find words for sounds, conveying a mood and ambiance. With much pride, I'm happy to share the fruits of his artistic labors:

The deep moo of the cow in his pen
The annoying creak of the barn door as the farmer enters and exits
The light swish of the windmill on top of the barn
The stomp of animals walking around their pen
The loud vurrm of the tractor
The rude "eew" of people smelling the barn
The quiet chomp of the animals as they're eating
That's a farm yard

Coleson Smith, 2005


America's Founding: Another Story

I just finished the first volume in Gore Vidal's "American Chronicle" series--a set of historical novels which tracks the history of America from the revolution up to the 1980s, largely through the variegated and bastardized legacy of America's greatest theologian, Jonathan Edwards. Thus the first novel, Burr, tracks the revolutionary emergence of the Republic through the adventures of Aaron Burr, Edwards' grandson and most famous for the duel in which he killed Alexander Hamilton. (Edwards appears in the story through the figure of Mrs. Townsend, the moralist proprietor of a brothel who is an avid reader of Edwards, particularly on the so-called Freedom of the Will. But the Reformed tradition of the great Edwards does not fare well with his wayward grandson. En route to what would be his final home, accompanied by the Reverend P.J. Van Pelt, Colonel Burr confides to Charlie Schuyler: "If you should hear that I have died in the bosom of the Dutch Reformed Church, you will know that either a noble mind was entirely overturned at the end or a man of the cloth has committed perjury.")

As I was reading this, my oldest son was getting his first dose of the "canonical" account of America's historical mythology from his junior high history book. Being a Canadian, I didn't receive this "orthodox" indoctrination, so I wasn't in much of a position to judge Vidal's slant, but a historian colleague of mine assured me that my son would be better served by Vidal.

Having now read Burr, I can now see that Vidal's Inventing a Nation was a non-fiction (?) return to old haunts in a new context. In Burr, Vidal offers an entertaining, iconoclastic account of the invention of a nation which, for a long time, had ambiguous relations with imperial, monarchic dreams. The "heroes" of American faith--Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton--are cast in less than flattering terms, while the villains of the canonical story (Jackson, even Benedict Arnold) are given a chance to tell their side of the story--particularly in Burr, who variously suffered as the murderer of Hamilton, a traitor to the union, and a would-be emperor of Mexico. But it's hard not to love him.

One of the most fascinating subtexts here is the early republic's continued flirting with monarchy (Washington was addressed as "His Excellency" and held court in Philadelphia) and empire (Bonaparte was admired far and wide, and many of the key players here spent time in France). It is undoubtedly the contemporaneity of these themes which brought back these figures with such force in Vidal's more recent Inventing a Nation. In an age of Newspeak and Thought Police, Vidal's fiction might be the best place to get at "the truth." So I'm looking forward to diving into Lincoln.


Empire for Dummies

I wish I could spend more time with this book but it is WAY overdue from the public library (paying fines is my little way of donating to public services). Arundhati Roy's An Ordinary Person's Guide to Empire is a collection of stinging yet witty editorials which is happy to take aim not only at the American imperial project, but also the lingering British version of this in India. As she puts it, "Empire is on the move, and Democracy is its new war cry" (47). Or better, "Democracy has become Empire's euphemism for neo-liberal capitalism" (56).

Her concerns range from corporate control of the so-called "free press" (see my Fors Clavigera post on this), to the "poverty draft" that fills our military ranks (though increasingly not even that is enough).

One of her more witty tropes is the suggestion of Saddam Hussein's remarkable restraint: "If the Saddam Hussein regime indeed has weapons of mass destruction, it is showing an astonishing degree of responsibility and restraint in the teeth of extreme provocation" (35). With all those threatening WMD in Iraq, you'd think he might have pulled the trigger as American forces bore down on Baghdad.


Hitchens on the Clintons: No One Left to Lie To

As I've indicated before, I secretly want to be Christopher Hitchens (or Bernard-Henri Levy). This was further confirmed this past weekend as I enjoyed one of Hitchens' earlier book, No One Left to Lie To: The Values of the Worst Family. As you might imagine, Hitchens' take on Bubba is somewhat different than the version we heard in Clinton's My Life (which we listened to last summer when we drove home from L.A.).

First published in 1999, Hitchens ruthlessly documents the underside of the teflon-Clinton, including everything from his very intentional pandering to the Right by a method of "triangulation" (and his transformation of the Democratic party as a right of center machine), his unabashed opportunism, his wag-the-dog war crimes, and a serious investigation (and substantiation) of rape charges against Clinton. A very sobering book that we'd expect from Hitchens the contrarian, who was almost alone in unmasking the Clinton menace during a time when even Gore Vidal was coming to William Jefferson's aid.

My only disappointment is that I fear Hitchens--whose contrarian tendencies have now made him a defender of Bush's war in Iraq, and even an endorser of Tony Blair in the upcoming election--might never write such a book on George W. Indeed, it is striking to read this book now, 5 years later, as he seems to let Bush off on matters for which he castigated Clinton (especially on the death penalty). Even if his experience seeing the sufferings of the Kurds at the hands of Saddam Husserin has made Hitchens deeply sympathetic to the campaign in Iraq, I hope Hitchens' biting wit, sharp analysis, independence, and rigorous journalism will at some point be turned on the purchased presidency of Bush the Lesser.


Highlights from Harper's

You'll start to see here and over on Fors Clavigera that I have a new favorite monthly: Harper's magazine. The magazine is part sampler, part essays, with decent selections of art and literature. Lewis Lapham's opening editorials (like "Democracyland") are always incisive and entertaining, and the Harper's Index--curious compilations of culturally-revealing stats--are always a treat. (E.g.: Percentage of born-again U.S. Christians who have been divorced: 35. Percentage of Americans who have been: 35. Chances that the divorce of a born-again Christian happened after he or she accepted Christ: 9 in 10.)

The March 2005 issue included an illuminating essay on desertion ("AWOL in America") and a hilarious account of a leftist journalist who posed as a Bush supporter and worked on grassroots campaigning in Florida ("Bird-Dogging the Bush Vote"). To top it off, the same issue included a surrealist little piece of literature which clearly takes aim at America's reality-TVish culture ("Brad Carrigan, American"), and then a review by Terry Eagleton on accounts of the Enlightenment ("The Enlightenment is Dead! Long Live the Enlightenment!").

All in all, great stuff and well worth your attention. The June issue should be arriving any day now.


French-American War Revisited

An interesting little book I happened upon: Dangerous De-Liaisons (Melville House, 2004) documents several dialogues between two leading editorial figures--Walter Wells (The International Herald Tribune, European outlet of the New York Times) and Jean-Marie Colombani (of Le Monde). While a bit rambling, the book provides interesting insights into what has almost always been a tortured relationship of love and hate (or perhaps better, a passive-aggressive relationship of superficial love and deeper hate). What emerges from the conversation is a sense that, in the days after 9/11, there was a new opportunity for solidarity ("Today, we are all Americans," Chirac announced). When W. asserted an American unilateralism, that possibility was destroyed. But this wasn't something new; it was really just a lapse into old ways. The conversation provides an illuminating account of how different two democracies can be.


Virtuous America?

While I was reading Vidal's Inventing a Nation, I also picked up an interesting book by Claes G. Ryn, America the Virtuous: THe Crisis of Democracy and the Quest for Empire (Transaction, 2003). I have a hunch that if I knew better, I would see that there's something of Voeglin behind this, but that's a vague guess right now. At the very least, Ryn seems more comfortable with Adams' vision of America.

Just two quick pieces of interest:

(1) Ryn helpfully reminds us that a commitment to "democracy" can be expressed in quite different forms, and does not require the propogation of "plebiscitary" democracy that we get from the neocons. The problem with that version of democracy, he says, is that it "does not entertain any deep-seated suspicions regarding the popular desires of the moment" (p. 52). For some reason, this reminded me of Vidal's extolling of a more Jeffersonian Republicanism as checks and balances on the "will of the people." But I might be getting this all confused. (Hey, I'm only a Canadian!)

(2) Ryn describes the neocons of the PNAC-variety as "the new Jacobins." This provides an interesting historical analogue that repays further consideration.

The White House, Political Fundamentalism, and the "Echoing" Press

In the treasures of the new arrivals shelf at the GRPL I found another little gem I've been trying to digest: David Domke's God Willing? Political Fundamentalism in the White House, the "War on Terror," and the Echoing Press (Pluto Press, 2004). Domke, a communications scholar at the University of Washington, undertakes a systematic, quantitative analysis of Bush rhetoric since September 11, with a special focus on the way the current administration has "converted" political agendas into religious missions through a very intentional lexicon. The result is what Domke calls a "worldview" (and he seriously engages relevant literature on the notion of worldview, including Naugle, and others in the Reformational tradition); more specifically, he labels the worldview "political fundamentalism"--which, I think, is a rough equivalent of what we often call "Constantinianism."

[It is interesting that Domke notes: "It is unfortunately the case that there will be a desire by some to dismiss this book as the product of an anti-religious, anti-conservative mindset. The reality couldn't be further from the truth. My worldview, and that of a number of the individuals who assisted me on this project or offered insightful suggestions, has been and continues to be substantially shaped by the Christian faith" (p. xi).]

This internal critique of White House rhetoric is only part of the book; the other major piece of the research looks at the way that the mainstream media--and not just Fox News, but also the networks and major newspapers--uncritically bought into this rhetoric. Thus, despite, say, the NYT's persistent critique of Bush, their adoption of the same lexicon to describe the "war on terror" actually mitigates their ability to engage in critique.

This is an important book and repays careful attention (why aren't communications scholars at my college talking about this book?--well, I think I know why...). But it's now overdue, so this is a note to self to check this out again later.


Another Evangelical Scandal

It’s now over a decade ago that Mark Noll documented what he described as The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. The scandal, of course, was that there wasn’t one: “evangelicals” had devoted themselves largely to “saving souls,” not creating research universities or redeeming that arts. (For Noll’s recent retrospective, a decade after Scandal, see “The Evangelical Mind Today” in First Things

In _The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience_ (Baker, 2004) Ronald Sider now offers an account of another evangelical scandal: the problem isn’t that evangelicals don’t think, for him; rather, the problem is that they don’t practice what they preach. Or, as the subtitle puts it, “Why are Christians living just like the rest of the world?” The first chapter of this book is a litany of statistics which show that despite the religious veneer of the American populace, the practices of American Christians are not really different from their non-Christian counterparts: both are beholden to a market fundamentalism that baptizes invidualism and hedonism.

Overall, I found Sider’s book underwhelming. It certainly doesn’t compare to Noll’s account concerning the evangelical “mind” (admittedly, Sider’s isn’t an “academic” book). Whereas Noll very patiently tries to discern the causes of the scandal, Sider seems content to recite statistics and never really gets to thinking about the root cause for evangelicalism’s assimilation to a consumer culture. I suspect this is because in the end, even Sider’s version of Christianity still adheres to the same root cause, viz., majoritarian democracy coupled with the valorization of free-market economies. In short, I think this book confirms what I’ve always thought about Sider: at the end of the day, he isn’t really prophetic. He is a reformer, at best. While he tries admirably to get evangelicals to appreciate the structural character of sin, he stops short of recognizing that capitalism and the version of “democracy” pushed by the current administration are at the heart of the problem. Sider wants to create charitable, compassionate, property-owning agents of a chastened free market; he’s not willing to call into question that entire system. (He even makes a point of trying to say that the early church retained notions of private property. Acts 2:44 seems to clearly indicate they held “all things in common.”) But rabid capitalism is quite happy to encourage charity, tithing, and the like: none of it really challenges the dominant model for distributing goods and wealth.

Perhaps what is particularly sad is that even a model as anemic as Sider’s still needs to be articulated with what he takes to be a prophetic edge (though most of the time I find his so-called “prophetic” tone to be just downright moralistic!). The depth of the Babylonian/American captivity of the church means that Sider’s book still needs to be heard—but only as a starting point.

All that said, there are a few themes I really appreciated in Sider’s stance:

(1) I completely agree with his call for a recovery of church discipline. Only when we begin to reassert boundaries for the church and consequences for transgression will we be able to live out a sense of countercultural antithesis vis-à-vis the broader culture.

(2) However, re-asserting church discipline will also mean calling into question the ideal of “autonomy” not just for individuals, but for church’s. Here is where Sider the Baptist is at his most un-Baptist best: he rightly discerns that non-denominationalism and notions of congregational autonomy amongst Protestants really just creates a network of places for Laodicean disciples to bounce around without consequence—still naming the name of Christ but all the while baking cakes for the queen of heaven (Jer. 7). I have long thought that non-denominationalism is the height of evangelicalism’s modernism.

(3) Sider also emphasizes the role of small groups as a site for abstract notions of “community” to hit the ground. Our own experience attests to his intuitions here.

Much more could be said, and the book deserves to be read, at least to get the conversation going. In the end, though, I wonder if the book is a bit of a missed opportunity.


Vidal's Founding Fathers: Inventing a Nation

In _Inventing a Nation: Washington, Adams, Jefferson_, Gore Vidal returns to the infancy of the republic with one eye clearly fixed on the present. Rather than documenting the "official" history of the birth of the nation, Vidal takes us behind the curtain to the machinations at work, noting especially the tensions between Hamilton and Jefferson, and Washington's stately presence above the fray, even if he leaned for the federalist cause. What I found most striking is just how much was "up in the air" with the American experiment. For instance, after the Revolution, it wasn't simply self-evident what form of government would work for the newly liberated colonies. Indeed, there were hints that a new monarchy wasn't out of the question.

Or consider Vidal's observation that "democracy" is "a word that appears nowhere in the American Constitution" (p. 135)--which is why it is so curious that today, in the name of the "American ideal" that the US sees fits to export by force, we get simply the festish of free elections. As Vidal puts it, "Current publicists for the American Empire have convinced themselves that if other nations, living as they do in utter darkness, would only hold numerous elections at enormous cost to their polity's plutocracy (or to the benign empire back of these exercises), perfect government would henceforward obtain as The People had Been Heard." But "no one would wish an uneducated, minsinformed majority to launch a war, much less do something meaninful like balance the budget of Orange County, California" (p. 136).

Vidal doesn't miss the change to compare Adams' support of the Alien-Sedition Acts with our contemporary "Patriot Act": "Is is simply coincidence that Adams, after years of relative obscurity in the shadowy corridors of the American pantheon, has, of late, been found to be a figure of great character and intellectual interest as, indeed, he was an is? But one wonders whether those who would now place him on high might be indeed be otherwise enthralled by the fact that, ignoring the Bill of Rights, he approved the Alien-Sedition Acts not only in time of war but even in the face of a dangerous possibility of...well, danger, some time or other in the days to come" (p. 153).

Perhaps what is most curious is that both Vidal and Bush & Co. look to Jefferson as the paragon of "American" politics. For Vidal, Jefferson is the consummate republican, suspicious of the federalist machinations of Hamilton and Washington. Indeed, he enlists such a Jeffersonian ideal in order to criticize the centralizing tendencies of the current administration (which, ironically, are decided anti-republican, despite the fact that they are the work of Republicans). What is it that Bush, Wolfowitz, and Rummy see in Jefferson? The Jacobin penchant for expansionist idealism. [More on the latter in another post concerning the "new Jacobinism" because neoconservative imperialism.]

Vidal closes with a consideration of the "case that made the court": Marbury v. Madision. Here Vidal's interest is in showing the early expansion of the Supreme Court's power under Marshall, which he then bemoans as the same institution which gave us George W. as president. So once again, this curious bivalency: the leftist Vidal and the neoconservatives both lament the "activism" of the courts, though obviously for different reasons. Doesn't this suggest that so-called "liberals" and neocons are cousins of the same continuum?

[For a helpful overview of Marbury v. Madison, see Micahel J. Glennon, "The Case That Made The Court," Wilson Quarterly 27.3 (Summer 2003): 20-28.]


Curiosity and the Duty of Reading

Once again, a question from a student got me thinking about books and reading. This stemmed from a bit of an ugly incident: one day in class I became completely exasperated with my students' lack of curiosity. We were reading fascinating texts (it was an essay by Milbank) that opened all kinds of doors into contemporary thought and the halls of the tradition. But my students seemed satisfy to scan the piece and not dig deeper. So, admittedly, I laid into them a bit, and I still don't entirely regret it. Afterward, one of my favorite students asked for some direction. I was actually a bit daunted by the scope of the question, so it took me a _long_ time to reply. Here's it is:

Dear B__,

Well, you must be thinking the apocalypse is near, as I'm finally answering your email! I would apologize for the delay, but it's been so long now, an apology might just embarrass both of us. So let's pretend you just asked!

I still recall the class that occasioned your email: I had become frustrated, perhaps unjustly, with what I perceived as a lack of initiative among your compatriots when it came to engaging serious ideas in difficult texts (we were reading a doozy from Milbank, as I recall). Looking back, I probably over-reacted, but if it was an occasion for you and I to have this exchange, then I don't regret a minute of it. At the time, my "outburst" came from a sense of both sadness and frustration. And in some ways, this stems from a kind of jealousy. As I think you know, I don't have anything that even resembles a "pedigree": I come from stock with dark blue collars and was the first person in my entire extended family to attend college and earn a degree. Even at that, I went to a little "hick" Bible college in Iowa! So when I see the riches of a liberal arts education that is on offer for you guys at Calvin, I am deeply envious, and often wish that I could dive into the wells that Calvin students are daily "required" to swim.

What I find so maddening is that despite this "embarrassment of riches," too many Calvin students--including our philosophy majors--tend to aim so low, try to figure the minimum that's needed to pass (or even worse, the minimum to secure the glorified commodity of the educational "market"--the "A"). They won't even complete the assigned reading, let alone dig around in the wealth of literature related to the "required" reading.

And what I find saddening, I guess, is that this seems to be such a flippant refusal of a wealth of gifts. Or, perhaps I should say that I just don't understand this attitude. I'm not trying to set myself as a model (and, of course, when someone says that, you know they're going to do exactly that! :-), but when I finally got to college, I wanted to devour everything I could get my hands on (I had been converted to Christian faith just 10 months before, and finally cared about reading). I spent hours upon hours in the library, diving into one book, seeing in it directions to another, tracking it down, and swimming into its waters. If my professors assigned some lame reading in Charles Ryrie or Lewis Sperry Chafer, I would follow up their critiques of "process theology" by getting ahold of Whitehead's Process and Reality. When one of my professor's bibliography's listed W.G.T. Shedd's Dogmatic Theology as a classic, I began to read it cover to cover as my own course in systematics. When, in his discussion of the Trinity, Shedd opened my eyes to the philosophers, I began to read Plato, Aquinas, and others. Every footnote I saw as an invitation into whole new worlds. If there is one thing that I love about my "job" (there are many things), it's the fact that I get to spend a lifetime exploring new worlds. And it's never stopped. Even just in the past 6 months, to give just a couple of examples, two vast new vistas have opened up for me, and I'm busying trying to acquaint myself with the terrain: (1) the fascinating nexus of John Ruskin, William Morris, and others who thought long about the relationship between architecture and Christian socialism; and (2) quite by chance, the writings of 19th-century novelist and playrwright Oscar Wilde.

Perhaps what I mean to say is that I think curiosity is one of the most important Christian virtues. Curiosity is the desire to explore every nook and cranny of the gift God has given us in the world of thought and culture (as well as the natural environment). Curiosity takes seriously God's gifts in the cultural unfoldings of those he has gifted. (I often pray with Coleson, who loves reading Tolkien, etc., thanking God for gifting authors who open up the world for us in ways we could never on our own.) The "world" of culture (theoretical culture such as philosophy and theology, but also literary culture) is like a river system. As Christians, especially Christian thinkers and theologians, we have an obligation to explore the depths of the Christian tradition and its literature (but as St. John says, this is the kind of obligation that is not a burden, but a gift) This tradition is like a wide, deep, river, which seems slow and plodding, but once you get close, and dip a foot in its current, you find it is powerful and rushing with energy. What an absolute privilege to be able to swim in these depths. But more than that, we should seek to explore every tributary back to its source, and take the time to hike the paths that lead off from the river's edge.

So what I would want to communicate is not so much a reading list as a reading program, or even better, a reading passion. A kind of disciplined curiosity--curiosity as a discipline. This is a discipline that requires never saying no to a footnote. Now, obviously, one can't read everything. But one should get in the habit of selectively following up leads beyond what is "required," letting curiosity set a program of exploration. In addition, one should make note of those paths that can't be explored now, but might come back again later. So, for instance, I've kept bumping into John Ruskin's name for the last several years. Finally, my curiosity reached a critical mass, and converged with certain fortuitous events that gave me the opportunity to finally explore the "Ruskin" tributary of the river of Christian thought more thoroughly. To be a good reader requires a good memory.

I'm not sure if this is what you were hoping for. Perhaps you were hoping for more of a "bibliography" of 'essential Christian reading.' I feel almost completely un-equipped to do something like that. In lieu of that, let me make just a few broad suggestions:

(1) As I think you've already been doing, let your formation in Christian tradition range across denominational and traditional boundaries. Any good Christian thinking will be "catholic" and should reflect an engagement with the streams of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. An important way to absorb this is by drinking deeply from the Church fathers. As you know, I think Augustine is a world to himself, and you could live a lifetime on his corpus. (Confessions would be my "desert island book.") But spend time in the Eastern fathers as well (Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianus, Basil the Great). There is a rich medieval canon: Bonaventure, Anselm, Aquinas, and more. I nice way to start is still Anton Pegis' selection of Aquinas' writings. Calvin's Institutes is a must-read for a good Presbyterian like yourself, but also consider some of Luther's works. [I'm going to break off the reference to specifics here because I won't be able to do justice to things. So many books, so little time! We could talk more about 20th-century classics, etc.]

(2) Never, ever, ever settle for second-hand accounts. Don't ever settle for somebody else's reading of Barth; read Barth for yourself. Etc.

(3) To determine the shape of a must-read list, listen carefully to those you respect. Who influenced them most? What books were most formative for them? What are they reading now? Spend time with people who are readers, and when you choose your friends, choose people who read books.

(4) Read some decent monthlies (like the Altantic, New York Review of Books, and Books & Culture) to get a sense of what's out there and what people are saying about it. This will require you to make some good habits and make an effort to do this. I do this when we take the kids to the public library each week.

Well, B__, much more remains to be said, but this is at least a start. Thanks for asking the question, for your patience, and just for being "B__." Your persistence in asking bodes well for a curious heart.

Blessings on your reading, with love,

Slouching toward the blogosphere

My apologies to the (2!) people who read this for being so lax in posting. While we were on sabbatical in Cambridge [ http://www.calvin.edu/~jks4/cambridge.htm ] I was able to do tons of reading, but couldn't find the time for making informal notes of this sort. In particular, my work was absorbed by two spheres that are more related than you might think: I read almost the entire corpus of Oscar Wilde's works, and dove into the literature and painting of the Pre-Raphaelites. I'll try to post on these matters shortly, and catch up on some other reading.