Top 10 Books in 2007: 5 and 6

5. Looking back, I read quite a bit of Joyce Carol Oates over the past year, including her novella The Corn Maiden: A Love Story (in Transgressions, ed. Ed McBain), short stories collected in High Lonesome: Selected Stories, 1966-2006, criticism in Uncensored: Views & Reviews, and one of her novels: You Must Remember This. JCO is a compelling storyteller whose writing extends an invitation into a world (worlds often set in upstate New York). But when one begins to map the Oatean world, one finds that it is a nihilistic world that is laced with violence (boxing appears constantly as a crystallization of this in her work, particularly in You Must Remember This). And I don't use "nihilistic" in an off-handed sense: I mean quite literally that Oates seems to not only see ubiquitious violence in the world; she inscribes it into its very structure--as the essential conditions of the world. (This, I've suggested before, might actually be where she differs from someone like Cormac McCarthy: while McCarthy's barren worlds are riddled with violence, I find in McCarthy a hint of hope that it might--that it could and ought--to be otherwise.) For instance, in You Must Remember This, Felix's violent and incestuous abuse of his niece Enid is the condition of possibility for her music, college success, yea her very sense of identity. I don't have the heart for such a Hegelian world.

However, the passge from the novel that sticks with me is a bit of a throw-away scene later in the story. Felix, the former boxing star and current town "player," poses a question to his brother, Lyle, a used furniture salesman eeking out an existence on the working side of town: "What's it like being a father?" Lyle, resisting his "first instinct" to "make a nervous joke," instead replied: "It depends. Sometimes it does seem to me I'm thinking about them constantly, obsessively, even when I'm not exactly aware of it." Recounting his worry over the children when they were younger, Lyle feels Felix's intense stare and concludes: "I suppose it's the crucial thing in my life. All Hannah and I have really done, you know? Because, well, what else is there...?"

I'm not sure if JCO is participating in a bourgeois mocking of this work-a-day vocation of raising a family, or whether she's giving voice to a sanctification of the ordinary. I found myself moved by Lyle's confession as a valorization of the "work" of domesticity, of family-making and child-rearing. It is perhaps especially poignant for those who have a kind of "public" life, whose professional work gets recognition and acclaim through other channels. But at the end of the day, I'm with Lyle: what more important work could there be? While I'm not at all inclined to the idolization of the family (as in a disordered "focus" on the nuclear family), I do think that the "domestic" work of family-formation trumps much of our "public" work. Indeed, in an era when the pursuit of self-interest translates into, at best, serial monogamy, there might be nothing more "counter-cultural" than the "work" of family. In fact Lyle's remark called to mind a centuries-old admonition to parents, Jacobus Koelman's 1679 The Duties of Parents, which he opens by reminding fathers and mothers that the vocation of parenting "is the most important duty God has put on your shoulders." So often the arts and literature see domesticity as a poison and threat to an "interesting" literary life; but right here in a "literary" novel we hear Lyle suggesting otherwise.

6. I continue to find myself going back to Charles Taylor's A Secular Age. This is a book that has dug a deep well that this generation and the next will continue to drink from.


Top 10 Books in 2007: 7 and 8

7. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men. For the life of me, I can’t imagine how this book could possibly be a movie. Not because it isn’t a compelling story with all sorts of chilling thriller potential. And not because it isn’t populated with deep, fascinating, haunting characters (Chigurh is one of the most chilling characters I’ve run into in a while). The reason I can’t imagine this as a movie is because of McCarthy’s genius, namely his ability to paint such powerful pictures with such a simple palette and so few strokes. McCarthy’s prose is so frugal it borders on being stingy—and somehow (just how?!) he creates an engulfing world with two-bit dialogue and miserly description that says so much with so little.

The book also got me thinking: I think those who regale McCarthy for his “nihilism” (as I was wont to do a couple years ago) might be falling for a trap. I think we need to perhaps read McCarthy the way we ought to read Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray: we ought not confuse the author’s voice with that of the protagonist. So is it Chigurh who embodies Cormac McCarthy’s “worldview?” Or should we rather listen to the voice of Sheriff Bell?

Heading out into the chaotic moonscape that is Chigurh’s habitat (and creation, in a way), in an exchange with Molly, Sheriff Bell

pushed the chair back and rose and got down his gunbelt from the coatrack behind his desk and hung it over his shoulder and picked up his hat and put it on. What is it that Torbert says? About truth and justice?

We dedicate ourselves anew daily. Something like that.

I think I’m goin to commence dedicatin myself twice daily. It may come to three fore it’s over.

8. Edmund Wilson, Letters on Literature and Politics, 1912-1972. Wilson was one of the twentieth-century America’s great critics—from a time when criticism mattered (Norman Mailer, in a Paris Review interview, talks about his respect for critics like Wilson and Kazin), as well as a time when critics weren’t housed primarily in academia. Wilson and Kazin were part of a class of public intellectuals that has almost passed from the contemporary scene (Christopher Hitchens might be a bit of a throwback in this respect). I’m a correspondence junkie, so it’s easy for me to have a soft spot for a collection of letters from a sparkling figure like Wilson (who also was quite famous as a “character” in the literary scene; if the letters became a movie it would almost surely earn a ‘R’ rating). But letters like these also bring out my Luddite romanticism: it seems to me that the advent of email means we’ll never have books like this again. Our correspondence is too fleeting and flippant, too mechanical and utilitarian. No one will confuse our terse emails with the rich sorts of letters that Wilson and his circle used to swap. Wilson valued the letter (even the post card) as an outlet for literary flair and creation. Though he lacked any social filters and was only too willing to let his friends (like F. Scott Fitzgerald) know exactly what he thought of their work, one also finds here his appreciation for wise teachers and literary confreres.


Top 10 Books in 2007: 9 and 10

Caving in to the general media mania for “lists” as the year draws to a close, I’ve looked over my shelves and recalled the ten best books I’ve read in 2007. A couple of provisos should be made: (1) These are books I read in 2007, not necessarily books that were published in 2007 (in fact, I think only one of them appeared in the past year); (2) by “best” I simply mean books that were significant for me in some way. Usually this just means that they were books I kept thinking about, books that kept re-inserting themselves into my consciousness and imagination, perhaps books that changed my mind in some way.

So over the next week or so I’ll be posting some brief reflections, in reverse order (though the ranking shouldn’t be taken too seriously).

9. Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered. Since reading this book, I’ve continued to dive into Burke’s corpus (in fact, he will be an important part of the Studies in British Culture course I’m teaching in York, England next semester). As David Brooks has noted, Burke’s conservatism is precisely what has been forgotten by the neoconservatives that currently pass for the Right.

10. William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury (in the old Random House Faulkner Reader, which also includes his Nobel Prize address). This is one of those reads by which I keep trying to make up for my lack of a liberal arts education. Faulkner is often cited as an important influence, or at least background, of the “Southern Catholic” writers I appreciate (Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor), so I felt an obligation to dive into this rather intimidating book. You sort of have to let it wash over you. It requires the reader to be willing to be out of control, to feel lost, to trust the author that it’s going somewhere. At times I have to say it felt maddeningly obfuscating. But Faulkner also paints multiple words in a minimalism that brought to mind the sparse dialogue of Cormac McCarthy. In fact, I need to check about influences of Faulkner on McCarthy, since Faulkner also has an uncanny ability to let the third person narrator’s voice accommodate itself to shifting characters and locales, as well as an art for dialogue (including difficult dialects) that are true to the characters. Nothing short of a literary experience.


Whose Stillborn God?

Even critics will have to recognize that The Stillborn God is a stunning book. (It is also a handsome book, just the sort of thing one expects from Knopf: stout, creamy, a pleasure to hold. Only deckled pages would have been an improvement.) Lilla’s erudition informs a sweeping narrative of the early modern liberation from “political theology” effected by Hobbes, giving rise to the “Great Separation” between private claims to revelation and the public arbitration of politics by appeals to reason alone. But the remainder of the story tracks all the ways that “political theology” came back to haunt the modern West—particularly in German contexts. The core problem of the book is that it buys into the simplistic myth of religious violence and secular peace, resting on the unsubstantiated empirical claim that “religion” (whatever that is) breeds violence whereas institutions of liberal democracy foster peace (current world conflicts not withstanding). Lilla also continues to cling to the myth of a “secular” political philosophy. In both of these respects, he is culpably ignorant of contemporary scholarship (particularly the work of William Cavanaugh, John Milbank, Nicholas Wolterstorff and Jeffrey Stout). And Lilla can’t simply plead that he’s doing history; what’s at stake is his historiography. Despite these fundamental problems, it remains an important book that can’t be ignored.

Mailer vs. Vidal: Those Were the Days!

The recent passing of Norman Mailer has been an occasion for the literati to reflect on both his genius and craziness (Christopher Hitchens' reminiscence is a treat). But perhaps the most voyeuristically captivating is Dick Cavett's recollection of the infamous episode of his late night TV talk show on ABC in 1971 wherein the talk show couch became an impromptu boxing ring as Norman Mailer squared off with Gore Vidal. The antics are ludicrous; and yet they stem from a sense that literature and criticism mattered (after all, the thrown-down-gauntlet that occassioned the fray was a claim Vidal made about Mailer in the New York Review of Books.)

But don't miss the really significant and depressing point: apparently in 1971, late night talk television was home to literary figures like Mailer, Vidal, and others. Can you imagine that? Can you imagine Cormac McCarthy and Joyce Carol Oates on Letterman? Or Alice Munro and Tom Wolfe making an appearance on Leno? Sadly, if this was ever going to happen on late night TV, I'd expect to see it on Comedy Central's Daily Show or Colbert Report.


Is Religion Dangerous?

I'm not given to conspiracy theories about the "liberal" or supposedly anti-religious bias of the media. Indeed of late, with the emergence of the so-called "new atheism" of Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, et. al., I've been encouraged to see outlets like the New York Times and Washington Post bring in voices that weren't just echoing choirs, but pushed back on the shoddy scholarship and inflated claims of these works. But I must confess to being puzzled by one thing: why is it that Keith Ward's book, Is Religion Dangerous? (Eerdmans, 2007) has not yet been reviewed in a major outlet? It's British version (2006) was reviewed (and praised) in places like the Times Literary Supplement and the Daily Telegraph. Why has its American release been ignored by the Times, the Post, the Globe, and other usual suspects who've given space to the new atheism?

Ward's book is excellent. Regrettably, it was published (in the UK) before the appearance of Dawkin's God Delusion and Hitchens' God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything; but nonetheless it already anticipates the sorts of flimsy arguments that they spout. While Ward's Christianity is a little liberal for my tastes (he's more enthusiastic about demythologizers like Tillich than I would be), the core of the book is on the money. It is even-handed, absent the screeching alarmism that tends to characterize these debates. And it is peppered with a wry British wit. Easily accessible for a general audience who's been following these conversations.


A Postliberal Catholicism

For many Protestants, “postliberal” theology has often also been an invitation to a more “Catholic” theology—a theology that is more properly ecclesial, written from and for the confessing, worshiping community. For instance, postliberalism has emphasized the extent to which “the Word of God” is the church’s book, rightly interpreted only within the stakes and interests of the confessing ecclesia. In a similar way, postliberalism has emphasized a role for tradition that counters the tradition-allergies of both conservative and liberal Protestantism. Thus one might suggest that Robert Barron’s wonderful book, The Priority of Christ: Toward a Postliberal Catholicism (Brazos, 2007), brings postliberalism back to its Catholic home. Drawing on the insights and intuitions of Lindbeck, Frei and others, Barron articulates a Catholic systematic theology that takes “the narratives concerning Jesus Christ as epistemically basic.” Thus his postliberal Catholicism is a narrative Catholicism, teasing out the implications of this for Christology and the doctrine of God, as well as ethics and epistemology—all drawing on a prodigious knowledge of the history of philosophy and theology. On top of all this, it is a downright lovely book, written with a kind of winsome literary flair that exhibits the inviting clarity of a master teacher. Highly recommended for sharp undergraduates; required reading for graduate students and scholars.


Not Your Grandma's Secularization Thesis

Taylor’s massive tome, A Secular Age, is one of those big, heavy landmark books that is destined to be a definitive classic. Taylor is out to tell a story about the emergence of our “secular” age, articulating a new kind of secularization thesis that also functions as a criticism of tired, triumphalistic versions that confidently predicted the steady withering of religion in our “modern” world. On Taylor’s account, secularity or secularization should not be merely identified with a diminishment in religious belief or the decline of religious observance. Rather, a “secular” age is one in which belief in God is no longer axiomatic. The shift that gave rise to secular modernity was a shift in the plausibility conditions of society such that even religious believers recognize the contestability of religious belief. In this respect, Europe (with little public religious observance) and the United States (rife with public religiosity and high religious participation) are both secular insofar as religious belief is considered one option among others. This shift in plausibility conditions makes possible the emergence of an “exclusive humanism” that, for the first time, imagines human flourishing without reference to transcendence. Essential reading.

For further discussion of Taylor's book by signicant scholars, visit The Immanent Frame.


What I'm Listening To: Josh Ritter's "The Temptation of Adam"

With thanks to my good friend, Mark (my "music pusher"), I have been absolutely absorbed by Josh Ritter's new album, The Historical Conquests of Josh Ritter--like, I mean, seriously obsessed with it to an absurd degree. In particular, I just can't shake a stunning song, "The Temptation of Adam." It tells a fascinating, rather surreal story while at the same time exploring the aspects of the sort of "love" that only lives in sequestered situations ("desert island"-relationships, you might call them). The lyrics indicate something of the poetry, but this doesn't do justice to it as a song (with mellow acoustics). The YouTube video of a live performance captures some of this, but I would highly recommend splurging on the album. (And it really is an "album"--a throwback to the days when an album was a "work," a kind of sustained meditation on a theme. This album [plus bonus CD] have a symphonic quality about them insofar as one keeps hearing echoes and reprise. Great stuff.)

"The Temptation of Adam" Lyrics:

If this was the Cold War we could keep each other warm
I said on the first occasion that I met Marie
We were crawling through the hatch that was the missile silo door
And I don't think that she really thought that much of me

I never had to learn to love her like I learned to love the Bomb
She just came along and started to ignore me
But as we waited for the Big One I started singing her my songs
And I think she started feeling something for me

We passed the time with crosswords that she thought to bring inside
What five letters spell "apocalypse" she asked me I won her over saying "W.W.I.I.I."
She smiled and we both knew that she'd misjudged me

Oh Marie it was so easy to fall in love with you
It felt almost like a home of sorts or something
And you would keep the warhead missile silo good as new
And I'd watch you with my thumb above the button

Then one night you found me in my army issue cot
And you told me of your flash of inspiration
You said fusion was the broken heart that's lonely's only thought
And all night long you drove me wild with your equations

Oh Marie do you remember all the time we used to take
We'd make our love and then ransack the rations
I think about you leaving now and the avalanche cascades
And my eyes get washed away in chain reactions

Oh Marie if you would stay then we could stick pins in the map
Of all the places where you thought that love would be found
But I would only need one pin to show where my heart's at
In a top secret location three hundred feet under the ground

We could hold each other close and stay up every night
Looking up into the dark like it's the night sky
And pretend this giant missile is an old oak tree instead
And carve our name in hearts into the warhead

Oh Marie there's something tells me things just won't work out above
That our love would live a half-life on the surface
So at night while you are sleeping I hold you closer just because
As our time grows short I get a little nervous

I think about the Big One, W.W.I.I.I.
Would we ever really care the world had ended
You could hold me here forever like you're holding me tonight
I look at that great big red button and I'm tempted


Intersections: Hitchens on Updike on Others

It's always a treat when voices that move, inspire, and evoke us come together on the same page of criticism: Who doesn't find an almost voyeuristic pleasure in reading living literary giants writing about other great contemporary literati? I'm a junkie for such criticism: reading Evelyn Waugh reviewing Graham Greene or P.G. Wodehouse, Joyce Carol Oates reviewing Don DeLillo--you get the idea. Those who enjoy the same intersections will find a treat in this Sunday's New York Times Book Review: Christopher Hitchens on John Updike's new non-fiction collection, Due Considerations. Not surprisingly, Hitch thinks Updike is just too damn nice.

As an aside, this is the sort of writing where Hitchens keeps his marbles. Unlike the sloppy "new atheist" Hitchens, Hitchens the literary critic--like Hitchens the investigative journalist--is always a delight.


Postal Petition from New York Review of Books

If, like me, you enjoy reading in literary and political magazines outside of the mainstreem, consider signing this petition:

On July 15, the postal rates for many of this nation's small magazines increased by 20 to 30 percent, due to a decision made by the Postal Regulatory Commission (PRC) that turns against more than 200 years of postal policy.

We believe this issue to be of such importance to small intellectual publications on both the right and left that we felt it imperative to alert our readers. This rate increase has the effect of shifting costs from the large publishers, such as Time Warner, to smaller publications, such as The New York Review, Commentary, The National Review, and The Nation. These unfair and onerous rate hikes threaten the future of many smaller, independent publications.

Congressional hearings have been scheduled for next Tuesday, October 30. Prior to that, we are requesting that all concerned readers sign a congressional email petition that can be found here: http://www.freepress.net/postal/

Free Press, working with a wide variety of small publishers, is hoping to collect well over 100,000 signatures by the end of this week in order to get the attention of the committee members prior to the hearing. We hope you will join in this effort. These new postal rates threaten the existence of the small independent magazines and journals that are so important to a free press and a vibrant democracy.
Thank you for your help.

Rea S. Hederman > Publisher


Pascal for our Time

I've been dipping back into an old love of late, Pascal's Pensees, in association with a (long overdue!) review I'm writing of William Desmond's very Pascalian Is There a Sabbath for Thought? Between Religion and Philosophy. So it was fortuitous when Nathan Bierma asked if I would write a little ode to Pascal for his Newsletter for the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL)--an immense resource of ancient, medieval and early modern texts. You can read it here.


"Art of Fiction" Interviews from The Paris Review

On a rainy afternoon a couple weeks back, my wife and I curled up at Shuler's, a local bookstore. I found the latest issue of The Paris Review and was immediately sucked in by a fascinating interview with Norman Mailer, part of their "Art of Fiction" tradition of interviews with leading writers. Mailer is typically irreverent and spiritual at the same time, a kind of avant-garde conservative. The interview is a riot and filled with some absolute gems about matters including style, God, character development, wives and ex-wives ("every wife is a culture," Mailer remarks), the absence of a generation of critics to succeed Wilson, Kazin, and others--and much more. A wonderful read.

Today I went looking for the interview online (I couldn't quite afford to drop the twelve bucks for the journal) and found a veritable treasure trove: the journal has made available dozens and dozens of past "Art of Fiction" interviews since 1953. And they're being made available (many downloadable as .pdfs) absolutely free! A fantastic resource that will have me sidetracked for days.


Another Wright

I'm not sure what it is about this surname, but to my list of "favorite poets named Wright" (James, Franz), I have recently added Charles. I only recently encountered his work: first in the summer issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, then, about a week later, on the new arrivals shelf at the Grand Rapids Public Library where I picked up his recent collection, Scar Tissue.

Wright does a wonderful job of capturing the colloquial in ways that honor it without making it "high falutin.'" I hear in him a chronicler of sides and spaces of American culture that don't often receive the attention of poetic homage. VQR very generously provides access to one of my favorites, "Cowboy Up" and "The Gospel According to Yours Truly."

Cowboy Up
Charles Wright

There comes a time in one’s life when one wants time,
a lot of time, with inanimate things.
Not ultimate inanimate things,
Of course, but mute things,
beautiful, untalkbackable wise things.
That’s wishful thinking, cowboy.

Still, I’d like to see the river of stars
fall noiselessly through the nine heavens for once,
But the world’s weight, and the world’s welter, speak big talk and
big confusion.

The Gospel According to Yours Truly
Charles Wright

Tell me again, Lord, how easy it all is—
renounce this,
Renounce that, and all is a shining—
Tell me again, I’m still here,
your quick-lipped and malleable boy.

(Strange how the clouds bump and grind, and the underthings roll,
Strange how the grasses finger and fondle each other—
I renounce them, I renounce them, I renounce them.
Gnarly and thin, the nothings don’t change . . .)


Not Your Grandma's Christianity

I finally had an opportunity to read Lamin Sanneh's wonderful little book, Whose Religion is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West. Sanneh, of Yale, is one of the leading voices reminding Western & European Christianity that it doesn't "own" the Church. And the book is written in the very engaging format of a dialogue, which makes it almost breezy (why don't more of us adopt this strategy?).

The book is a very helpful corrective and antidote to those (like myself!) inclined to a dreamy notion of Catholic liturgy and orthodoxy as the panacea for all global ills. While Sanneh is very interested in considering how world Christianity contests the secularism of the West, the shape of this "counter"-narration is very different from Western and European Christian critiques of secularism (as in Radical Orthodoxy--though I also think there are some important resonances).

According to Sanneh, the most interesting explosion of world Christianity bears little genealogical relationship to colonial missionary endeavors (which gave us "global Christianity", the globalization of European Christianity, not "world" Christianity, which springs from the bottom up). Rather, the most interesting movements of Christianity in the global South are indigenous. However, the current explosion owes one important factor to western missionary endeavors: the translation of Scripture into the mother tongue for different global contexts. The result, according to Sanneh, was that once colonial presence withdrew from these regions, Africans (for instance) were free to encounter the Gospel as Africans because they had the Bible in their mother tongue. And according to Sanneh, these contexts were especially primed for the Gospel precisely because their indigenous and primal religious sensibilities made them open to the dynamics and enchantment of a creator God who would come to inhabit history, would suffer, and rise from the dead. In other words, primal religions functioned as an especially fertile and open horizon for the reception of the Gospel--but now "discovered" indigeneously, and thus not freighted with European colonial baggage.

This is a fascinating story, and Sanneh, though emphasizing indigenous Christianity, is not simplistically anti-European precisely because he sees their role in translation. (I think he would also have to concede the formative role of 'Western' Christianity in shaping the very shape of the canon of the Bible that would later be translated into these mother tongues--but perhaps, in fact, the formation of the canon already included African and Asian voices.)

I do worry that there remains a hint of a new Christendom project latent in this story, but nonetheless, it is a story that needs to be heard far and wide in the West.


A Life in a Night: McEwan's On Chesil Beach

While, fittingly, on the beach, I finished Ian McEwan's latest, On Chesil Beach. Lingering in the ambiguous space between novella and novel, the book is exquisite. McEwan sketches worlds in fine-grained detail, but does so with a minimalist, almost sparse style. What I found most intriguing and remarkable, however, is his command of time. It is the rhythm and cadence of the novel that struck me. In the course of a focused, slice-of-life story about a wedding night, he also manages to narrate two complete lives. And he does so without having to resort to tricks or gimmicks like flashbacks. Instead, the story wends from past to present to future to present without missing a beat, and without the least jarring of the reader's temporal sensibilities. One of the summer's few "beach" reads that will repay re-reading.


Repressing Freud

Gary Greenburg's fascinating Harper's article, "Manufacturing Depression" (May 2007) prompted me to take down off my shelf a volume with some dust on it: the Modern Library edition of The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud. For the first time I read A.A. Brill's Introduction to the volume, which is both a pretty decent summary of Freud's psychoanalysis as well as Brill's recounting of his personal history with Freud--which coincides with the immigration of psychoanalysis to America, which was engineered by Brill as both Freud's first English translator and as founder of the New York Psychoanalytic Society. Freud recounts Brill's role in the final piece in this volume, "The History of the Psychoanalytic Movement." Freud was surprised by how well psychoanalysis was received "even in prudish America" (p. 950).

I finished Freud's "History" last night. While it is constructed as a bit of a martyr's tale, it is also an illuminating glimpse into the early debates. Especially helpful for me was Freud's account of the "seccession" of Jung who, on Freud's account, shrunk back from really being honest about the role of infantile sexuality in the development and formation of neuroses. Instead, Jung "spiritualizes" the libido. This, in fact, is a constant refrain in Freud: those who failed to follow his lead (also Breuler as well as Jung's "Swiss School") were too frightened to deal with the taboo of infantile sexuality. So Freud's "History of Psychoanalysis" is, in large part, a psychoanalysis of his opponents--which he freely admits, along with the risk (viz., that one opens oneself to a "psychoanalytic" response, p. 964). What surprised Freud is that someone could lose their psychoanalytic salvation: "I had not expected that anyone who had mastered analysis to a certain depth could renounce this understanding and lose it" (p. 963). With this sort of tone, I was almost waiting for the Master to break into parables about seeds, sowers, rocky ground, and birds of the air.

Whatever we have come to conclude about Freud (his theories are now roundly--and justly--criticized), I think we still need to appreciate how dramatic and powerful Freud's vision was. To read the work on dreams or sexuality is to see someone who is grappling with phenomena in incredibly attentive ways. In an almost phenomenological way, Freud was really attending to "the things themselves" (though like Husserl, he thought he was just "observing;" only his opponents he thought were "interpreting"). In sum, Freud articulated one of the most powerful and comprehensive mythologies of the last century. He sketched a nearly comprehensive story to account for phenomena that others had not.

In fact, what we have to deal with now is what Heidegger would call the "sedimentation" of theory. While Freud's theories have been discredited, psychoanalysis has sunked so deeply into the communal psyche of America that we end up constructing our experience according to Freudian rules. Thus "prudish America," heir to Puritanism and neo-puritanisms, is wont to repress so much, only to have it return. We thus end up replaying Freud in our everyday pathologies, even though we "know" better.


Greene on the Rock

While over here in the UK I finished Graham Greene's Brighton Rock--set in the seaside resort town with a seedy side (think Atlantic City with accents), in the early 20th-century. It's a pretty streamlined treatment, and becomes quite brisk in the latter part of the story (one gets the feeling that Greene had a screen treatment in mind as he wrote the book--though it's clear that a film version could not have done justice to the closing drama and interiority). But what stands out is stunning character invention and development, particularly in the diabolical Pinkie, but also the self-confident Ida who, in a way, bears remarkable resemblance to the "earnestness" Alden Pyle in The Quiet American.

I won't be able to reproduce the layers of religious themes at work in the book, but perhaps a quote from the closing few pages captures how Greene sees sainthood tottering on the brink of demon possession (whereas Ida's world of moralistic certainty is actually never near to God). In the words of an anonymous priest:

He said gently, 'Corruptio optimi est pessima.'

'Yes, father?'

'I mean--a Catholic is more capable of evil than anyone. I think perhaps--because we believe in Him--we are more in touch with the devil than other people.'

Shivering thought.


Think Magic

Speaking of memoirs: after pointing me to Taylor's Leaving Church (and having the same concerns), my wife passed along Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (a National Book Award winner). In addition to Didion's literary depth, the book offers several other contrasts.

The year of "magical" thinking follows a horrific sequence at the end of 2003 in which Didion and her husband John Gregory Dunne find their daughter on life support. Returning home from one such excruciating visit, Dunne suffers a massive cardiac episode and dies. It is weeks before Didion's daughter regains consciousness and can be told the terrible news--only to then later suffer a brain bleed that once again puts her in a coma (she later, very slowly, recovers).

Both Taylor and Didion are Episcopalians, though Didion is forthright that this is merely a cultural tradition for her. She is Episcopalian in the same way that one might be Texan or speak Spanish: it is taken to be an accident of birth, though nonetheless a formative aspect of one's identity. But she confesses that her heart was never really in it when, at the end of the creed, she would profess belief in "the resurrection of the dead." And yet, the "magical" thinking of this year seems to be the hope that John will return: that things need to be primed for his re-appearance. But perhaps in describing this as "magical," Didion has already implanted all that's needed to dismiss such thinking as mad.

Ultimately this is a memoir of grieving; and by the end, she has begun the work of mourning. Indeed, one of the insights of the book is her experiential distinction between "grieving"--which is largely passive, comes in waves, and sneaks up on you--and "mourning"--which is active, requires hard work and intentionality. But despite being a memoir of grieving, one must be struck by how un-sentimental the book is: it almost has an air of aristocratic or royal restraint about it ("you mustn't let them see you weep"). And yet neither is it aloof or cold. It is forthright, honest, and heartbreaking.

What struck me most is the way in which The Year of Magical Thinking (unlike Leaving Church) is a memoir where characters other than the author really take center stage--in this case Didion's husband, John, and her daughter, Quintana. The memoir is an homage, without slipping into hagiography.

It is also a glimpse of what can only be described as an exotic, almost extinct beast: a 40-year marriage right smack in the middle of Hollywood and the New York literary set. Here was a couple who were both writers, who worked from home together pretty much everyday for 40 years, who not only survived this, but thrived because of it. It is this marriage and this friendship that makes The Year of Magical Thinking so lonely, veritably echoing with emptiness. What emerges from the book is an honest picture of a marriage that was, above all, a friendship in the most Aristotelian sense. The account of marriage here is one that puts to shame so much "Christian" literature (e.g., cp. the non-account of Taylor's marriage in her memoir, which seems so tangential to her identity). The Year of Magical Thinking is a story of marriage as the hardest thing in the world, but also the most rewarding and enlivening ("quickening" we would say in the older rhythms of King James English). As such, Didion gives unwitting, backhanded witness to sacramentality.


Leaving Church for What?

I just finished Barbara Brown Taylor's "Memoir of Faith," Leaving Church. Taylor was for 20 years an Episcopal priest--first in an urban Atlanta parish, then moving to a rural north Georgia parish that calls to mind scenes from Mitford. The narrative arc of the memoir, however, recounts her decision to leave parish ministry--eventually ending up as a religion professor at Piedmont College. As such, the book is somewhat mistitled: it's really a book about leaving ordained ministry. "Leaving Clergy" would be more fitting, but less catchy--and it does seem by the end of the book that Taylor's post-clergy rendition of Christianity does translate into leaving church. Having so diffused God's presence into "the world"--especially the world of "nature"--Taylor can't come up with very good reasons for staying. So instead we find her on the porch of her hilltop home on Sunday mornings, reading the paper and enjoying the geese flying overhead. (Many "emergent" folks will find much that they'll love in her critique of the institutional church; that in itself is a red flag for me.) Taylor is clearly no Anglo-Catholic, since she sees no sense of any special presence of the Spirit in the church's sacraments.

The book is breezy and honest and a compelling read. As someone who has at times been tempted by the reverse trajectory--to "leave college" for ministry--the book is a sobering look behind the curtain which I'll want to keep close by whenever those temptations rear their ugly head.

But I must confess I never quite found myself sympathetic to Taylor's narrative voice. I think this is for at least two reasons:

First, I found the book incredibly self-absorbed. Someone might be quick to point, "Well, it is a memoir; what did you expect?" But perhaps this says something about what memoirs have become in our culture, and why there is such a cult of the memoir today--and increasingly within the church (I think the same voice comes across in the memoirs of Anne Lamott and Lauren Winner). The memoir is a symptom of the general cult of narcissism that characterizes late-modern American culture. In these memoirs, the author gets all the best lines. Indeed, I felt like Taylor voice sounded like that of the stereotypical "only child" (is she? I won't be at all surprised). The world painted for us revolves around Taylor, as if everything existed for Taylor.

Is it possible for memoirs to not be narcissistic? Absolutely, though they are rare today. A non-narcissistic memoir will be characterized by a first-person voice that doesn't confuse the first-person perspective with the centre of the universe. It will be a memoir that lets others emerge in full-bloom as developed characters, and puts the best lines in their mouths. (The paucity of other characters in the book was, for me, the most striking piece. Not even her husband's picture gets filled in.) In short, it would be a memoir characterized by one of St. Augustine's central axioms: "What do we have that we did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7)

My second reservation stems from the first: I just can't bring myself to find liberalism as a very interesting or viable hope for the future. And at the end of the day, Taylor just wants to give us more liberal Christianity. By "liberal" I don't mean an epithet that the Southern Baptist Convention throws at anyone who rejects a literal six-day creation. By "liberalism" I mean an understanding of the self and the world that was bequeathed to us by Locke and Rousseau--a vision that places the individual at the centre of the world and sees the entire world existing to satisfy that autonomous, self-determined individual.

And it seems that is the spirituality that Taylor finds liberating. She cites with approval another friend who "left church." Talking about his decision to no longer participate in the church's worship, the friend testified: "I think I finally hear the gospel. The good news of God in Christ is, 'You have everything you need to be human.' There is nothing oustide of you that you still need" (p. 219).

That might be a gospel, but it's not the Gospel of Jesus Christ--it's the gospel spewed by the evangelists of Enlightenment liberalism who waxed elegant about the self-sufficiency of the individual. A gospel of self-sufficiency is the antithesis of a gospel of grace, which points out our utter lack, and our utter dependence precisely on something outside ourselves. And not just God: the corporate worship of the church is itself a testimony to how much I need all of these odd, strange, generally unlikeable people that congregate together whether we "want" to or not.

As much as I would sometimes like to "leave church," I know that this would only be fueling the worst parts of me, allowing me to retreat to a comfy space that I control, no longer disciplined by the hard work of submitting to external discipline and no longer required to be called out of myself to encounter and love those who get on my nerves (and they me!).

Leaving church is easy; it's staying that requires courage--and that requires grace.


Protestant Novelists?

I've been thinking a little more about the closing questions I offered in my earlier reflections on Graham Greene's Quiet American--my hunch that somehow the Catholic sacramental imagination has produced better novelists than the Protestant social imaginary.

I should have qualified this, of course, to say that I was thinking primarily of 20th-century novelists--which is why Updike came to mind. It's probably the case that any American novelist in the 20th-century who isn't Catholic is a kind of "Protestant" novelist by default, just because of the ubiquitous protestantism of American culture (somewhat like Hegel said all Western philosophy after Augustine is "Christian" philosophy in some sense). This is obviously the case for Hawthorne and Melville, but might still be the case for 20th-century novelists, at least up to the 60s or so.

Perhaps this line of questioning is untenable, but it does seem instructive somehow. Pen-pal acquaintance Andre Muller (New Zealand) articulated the issue in correspondence: what would it mean for a novel to be "Protestant?"

Well, probably lots of guilt, with no penance! In which case Cormac McCarthy might be the quintessential Protestant novelist (!). More specifically, it seems to me that "Protestant" novels tend toward a kind of didacticism that reflects the cognitivist, "talking-head" way that Protestantism has tended to construe Christian faith. So rather than the obliqueness of Greene, you get something like Marilynne Robinson's Gilead--which is a fabulous book, but not on the order of Waugh or O'Connor (in my humble opinion).

[P.S. While it is unfortunately not available online, those with access to a relatively good library might be interested in my piece on Franz Wright in the most recent Harvard Divinity Bulletin. It's entitled "Absence as a Window." The same issue includes new poems from Wright.]


Graham Greene's "Very Quiet" American

A couple weeks ago I faced a long drive by myself to Brock University in St. Catherine's, Ontario. To redeem the time as it were (6 hours each way), I checked out the audio version of Graham Greene's The Quiet American, read/performed by Joseph Porter. (Porter does a decent job, though his Alden Pyle sounds more like he's from Arkansas than Boston.)

This is Greene at his finest: an insightful critique of naive imperialisms in Indo-China forms the backdrop for the micro-drama between the "earnest" Protestantism of the American Pyle and the unwitting Catholicism of the "detached" Brit, Fowler, and their common love. Indeed, Love is at the center of everything, and the story is dripping with a sense of sacramental presence. The pentitential longing of the closing passage left me in tears on I-69.

The book also got me asking: Do we really have any great Protestant novelists? Can any Protestant novelist really hold a candle to the sacramental imaginations of Waugh, Greene, Percy, and O'Connor (or Tolkien)? What would we offer as a Protestant counterpart--Updike?! Is that the best we've got? Is this something of a confirmation of the "talking-head"-ness of Protestantism--its myopic concern with intellect as opposed to the Catholic affirmation of the sensual and imaginative?


MacIntyre on NOT Having Your Cake and Eating It, Too

I'm spending some time in Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue today, and was particularly struck by the incisiveness of his diagnosis of a society that recognizes only "external" goods. As he discerns, "in any society which recognized only external goods, competitiveness would be the dominant and even exclusive feature" (p. 196). And then this fabulous quote:
Notoriously, the cultivation of truthfulness, justice and courage will often, the world being contingently what it is, bar us from being rich or famous or powerful.
The qualifier "contingently" is brilliant, and pregnant with theological insight: he doesn't given in to saying that these are always and essentially mutually exclusive, but only in the contingent configurations of our (broken, fallen) world. (It calls to mind some of Augustine's ruminations on "the praise of men" in Book 10 of the Confessions.)

MacIntyre then ends with this prescient diagnosis: "We should therefore expect that, if in a particular society the pursuit of external goods were to become dominant, the concept of the virtues might suffer first attrition and then perhaps something near total effacement, although simulacra might abound" (196).

Gee, I wonder what that sort of society might look like?


Telling God's Story: A must-read for preachers (and everybody else!)

I just had opportunity to read the manuscript for a book due out in May: Telling God's Story: Narrative Preaching for Christian Formation (InterVarsity Press). This is, hands-down, one of the best books I've read in months, and certainly the most exciting book I've ever read on preaching that actually thinks about the nature and task of the Church. (Imagine that: a book on homiletics that is actually tethered to ecclesiology and not just current trends in rhetoric or corporate sales strategies.) InterVarsity asked me to provide an endorsement for the book and I was glad to say the following:
The church should be worried about this book. It comes as an invitation to rethink the task of preaching, but three pages into it you’ll realize that Wright is not giving us another “how-to” book for adding to the plethora of “messages” delivered every Sunday. No, this little book is packed with minor prophet-like punch, arguing that preaching is the practice by which the North American church has fallen, but also gives us a glimpse of how preaching could help her stand. Providing a brilliant historical and theological diagnosis of the problem with so-called “biblically based, need-centered preaching” (whether liberal or conservative), Telling God’s Story winsomely sketches what authentic “biblical” preaching looks like: not conscripting the Bible to legitimate the cultural narratives of consumerist individualism or triumphant nationalism, but rather finding ourselves in the biblical story as an alternative to both. If the church is properly said to be a polis, then this book unpacks the “politics” of homiletics. It should be required reading in seminaries across the North America. And we could hope that pastors already immersed in ministry would be willing to risk reading this book. But be forewarned: it will radically change your understanding of your charge to “preach the Gospel.”


The Bottom of the World

I'm not sure where this started--it might have been from reading Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner years ago, or perhaps Melville's Moby Dick, or maybe even watching Master and Commander--but for the last several years I've been fascinated with the seas off southern South America, and especially dipping below Cape Horn to the bottom of the world. Seas you can stroll beside in southern California are fine, but there must be a special kind of terrifying beauty about waters that can be so monstrous (I remember first sensing this watching the bay north of Vancouver).

So it was a special treat when a friend gave me a copy of Hal Roth's sailing memoir, Two Against Cape Horn (1978), which documents the voyage of Hal and Margaret Roth from southern California down the west coast to South America, through the coastal channels of Chile, and final around Cape Horn itself before heading home via the eastern seaboard. It is a remarkable tale, including vignettes of intriguing people, history of sailors who first ventured around the cape (including Darwin's voyage on the Beagle), creative frugality and learning to live off the gifts of land (wild celery) and sea (mussells everywhere)--and even the account of their own shipwreck which left them utterly dependend upon the hospitality of Chilean natives and the navy. That, perhaps, was one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. There is something about such lone voyages--like all of the lone adventures of the wealthy, whether climbing moutains or sailing around the world alone--which are the height of modern (and American) individualism, a John-Wayne-ish swagger of independence. Perhaps unwittingly, Roth's story shows this all to be a lie: nobody sails around the cape "alone."


Kirk on Burke

As I've indicated at times over at Fors Clavigera, I have found myself of late sometimes struggling with my orientation--POLITICAL orientation, that is (though my wife is sometimes alarmed by my interest in Oscar Wilde!). While my soul recoils at the ideology of the Religious Right, I find myself equally disenchanted with the Religious Left, and so I myself drawn to earlier models--primarily the 19th-century Christian socialism of Ruskin, Maurice (and the less 'Christian' visions of William Morris), I have also had a growing interest in more classic "conservatism" (as opposed to the neo-conservatism that dominates today's political discourse). This is especially true since, as an advocate of "ancient" paths of catholicity, I'm clearly sympathetic with the anti-revolutionary streak that characterizes conservatism proper.

So a couple months ago, I thought I could kill two birds with one stone by reading Russell Kirk's biography of Edmund Burke: Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered (1967; reprint ed., ISI Books, 1997). Burke is oft hailed as the father of conservatism, while Kirk is often looked to as a father of American conservatism. (The Russell Kirk Center is located not far from here, in Mecosta, MI.)

The book was a very engaging read, almost a bit of a page turner. It is written in a kind of "classical" style of brief biography (reminding me of Waugh's biography of Rossetti), perhaps teetering on the edge of hagiography, but never quite there. Kirk's treatment is primarily an account of the man through his ideas and political vocation, not pretending to offer any kind of comprehensive treatment. Rather, Kirk was trying to bring to life Burke's vision--and I was struck by how instructive it would be for today's neo-conservatives to return to Burke, who would have no truck with their passion for de-regulation, global expansion of laissez-faire market systems, and blatantly revolutionary program of "regime change."

Kirk's Burke is most passionately opposed to the "arbitrary" exercise of political power, which animated his attempts at conciliation with the American colonies while at the same time strenuously renouncing the French revolution and the ensuing reign of terror. This same concern led him to commit decades to reigning in the corruption of the East India Company and to battle for expanded Irish rights. This also translated into a very critical attitude to the Enlightenment (not unlike some postmodern critiques of the Enlighenment).

While I find Burke's penchant for Christendom to be bothersome, I can see where it's coming from (something like O'Donovan?). But what I find most perplexing about such "Christian" conservatism is how to square a core sensibility of conservatism with a core Christian doctrine. Conservatism, of course, is about "conserving;" it is anti-revolutionary, and operates with an abiding sense of the wisdom to be found in the past, in tradition, in the institutions that have been handed down across the ages. In fact, this translates into a kind of optimism about what's gone before. And it's this optimism about past institutions that I can't quite square with the doctrine of original sin. Burke at one point puts it this way, speaking in favor of "things long established": "The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and when time is given to it, as a species, it almost always acts right" (p. 93).

But how to square this confidence in the native wisdom of "the species" with the trenchant critique of human wisdom as folly that we find in the New Testament (Rom. 1; 1 Cor. 1:18-25)? I wonder if there is grounds for an ecclesial conservatism but not a political conservatism.

In any case, this is a book that I will read again, sooner rather than later.