Monday, August 31, 2009

Whose "God in the Quad?"

In the latest New Yorker, James Wood reviews Terry Eagleton's response to the new atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, et. al.), Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate. The essay, "God in the Quad," exhibits Wood's familiarity with (and even a kind of backhanded sympathy for) Christian theology (with a bonus, on-the-money side reference to Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre thrown in). While not as tight as his literary criticism, here's an essay on theology, by a critic, that could never have been written by, say, Edmund Wilson (who, despite his Calvinist heritage, seemed to have a tin ear for theology).

Wood is undoubtedly right: even Eagleton's response to the screeds of Hitchens & Co. ends up playing by their rules. And it was refreshing--but somehow expected--to hear Wood call out Eagleton on his lack of interest in the Incarnation. But as a devil's advocate for orthodoxy, Wood gets greedy on two counts.

First, the mission of the incarnate God was not "to secure us eternal tenure in heaven." This betrays an understanding of the story bequeathed to us by Hal Lindsey (or Karl Marx). As even the staunchly orthodox Bishop of Durham has argued, the telos of the Incarnation is a new earth. If the resurrection means anything (as Wood seems to appreciate), it means Christianity is a kind of materialism.

Second, Wood somehow convinces himself that the Incarnation--God's becoming flesh--amounts to idolatry. This is because he buys the slippery logic of Mark Johnston who mistakes idolatry and particularity. True, when God is "laden with" human attributes, created in our image, then idols are the result. But what if God takes on such finitude and particularity? If the eternal God gives himself in the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth (and admittedly, that's a big if), then the Incarnation is an act of condescension rather than the effect of human construction.

Things might be still more complicated.

Reading Habits

Someone writing an article on reading asked me a series of questions, a kind of e-interview, and because they were good questions, I thought I'd post the exchange here. Others might take up these same questions on their own sites. I'd be intrigued to hear about others' practices in this regard.

What is your approach to your reading? (For instance: How do you choose the books you will read? Do you make book lists? Are there any resources or people on whom you depend when you are deciding what to read? Do you have specific categories that you try to read from, or are you a more scatter-shot reader? What periodicals do you read?)

Good question. I don't feel like I have much of a system. I think one issue is the fact that I'm constantly trying to make up for the lack of a proper liberal arts education. That, and the fact that I really didn't start reading books until I was 18. My most passionate reading is not professional--the reading I want to do is in the areas of literature and poetry. And I guess I have a kind of implicit "canon" in my head that I've been trying to work through--a tacit canon that I've somehow absorbed through, well, reading! Over the years I've been trying to build a decent library from used bookstores, church rummage sales, etc., and so now I generally try to read in different "locales." For instance, I have a very loose policy of shuttling back and forth between American, British, (though the latter would also include colonial and post-colonial literature, like Salman Rushdie) and French literature (Balzac, Baudelaire, Flaubert)--with some "new" stuff mixed in (i.e., books that have just appeared, that are currently being reviewed). My professional reading is compelled by different sorts of obligations--my research requires that I keep up with certain developments, certain "hot" discussions, etc. Though I confess I find it harder and harder to get excited about this "obligatory" reading. I don't keep up the way I used to. (That might partly stem from the fact that I'm quite an unabashed generalist now, so I don't think of myself first and foremost as a specialist in French phenomenology anymore.)

As for periodicals, I subscribe to The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, and we have a family subscription to Vanity Fair (which isn't the soft schlock you might think). I read the New York Times and The Guardian online each morning.

Professionally, I am a journal junkie and absolutely love the "Table of Contents Alert" services that are offered by most scholarly journals (and in most cases, offered free, though one needs a subscription to actually read the articles). This service sends the new Tables of Contents for each issue to my inbox. I probably subscribe to 25 of these, across a range of disciplines. It's fabulous.

Do you use any tools to plan or track your reading?

I keep a list of what I've read in the back pages of my Moleskin. I started this because my reading is quite eclectic, and I'd remember something, and try to recall where I'd read it, but because I read so many things at the same time, it was hard to track down. So now I note what I read, and when--though I'm not as careful about this as I should be.
I should note that in addition to reading books and periodicals, I'm an irrepressible sampler. I'm just constantly dipping into books in my library, have books stacked everywhere in the house (the pile beside my bed regularly totters on the edge of toppling), and am not at all averse to just sitting with a different book for a few minutes. So I'm reading in my library all the time.

I also have kept a "What I'm Reading" blog at, but I've not been very faithful with it, largely because I've put too much pressure on myself to make every post an exquisite review, which is unfortunate.

Do you take notes or write in your books?

Yes! When I was in college, I was averse to this, but I've been converted. I underline a lot and make marginal comments. But most importantly, I make the blank back page of the book a personalized "index" of sorts (I think I learned this from my teacher, Jim Olthuis). On those back pages, I highlight themes (with page numbers) that I'll want to come back to, draw connections, make notes to myself, etc. This makes it easier for me to come back to a book later and dive back into it for writing purposes.

How many books do you typically read in a year? idea. From this list I'd guess about 30, but this list doesn't include the books I read for "professional" purposes.

Do you set aside time each day or week to read?

Any 3 minutes not doing something else is time to read! (And yes, this is a point of some marital and parental tension sometimes!) I don't have a dedicated block, except perhaps the end of the day, when my wife and I are very happy to crawl into bed early (around 10:30) and read til about midnight. Fortunately my wife is an avid reader, too, so the TV is off most evenings, and by the time we've dispatched the kids to bed, we're ready to unwind just reading. But I also read whenever I can (I always take a book with me when we're running errands as a family, though I ask permission first). I stopped taking books to kids soccer games because it made me inattentive. But in general, I have a book (or at least a magazine) in my hand.

What technologies do you use to aid your reading? (Audiobooks? Websites? Project Gutenberg? Kindle?)

I guess the Table of Contents Alerts I mentioned would fall under this category. I sometimes listen to audiobooks if I have a long drive somewhere by myself, but that's quite rare. Never touched Kindle and can't imagine I ever will.

What would you tell a college student about approaching their required reading lists?

Look, you won't listen to this, but I've got to say it so you feel guilty later: Your required reading lists are a gift. What I wouldn't give to repeat high school and actually take advantage of being "required" to read Shakespeare or Hemmingway. I know it won't feel like that. So just promise me this: you'll read one book from every required reading list as if you wanted to.

What would you tell a recent graduate about establishing a reading practice?

Keep books in every room of the house. Pile them up on the end table or nightstand or back of the toilet. Have the books there, staring at you, inviting you, wooing you, calling to you, shaming you. Keep bumping into them. Pick them up and look at them. And even if you have a first job, resist signing up for cable and spend the end of each day reading. Then find a friend who loves to read (and, if possible, a spouse) and talk about books.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

CT Review of "Desiring the Kingdom"

Eric Miller's review of Desiring the Kingdom from the August issue of Christianity Today is now available online. The title, like Miller's review, gets it just right: "Putting Worldview in its Place."

Despite a couple of quibbles, I appreciate how well Miller captures the essence of the book's argument--and does so for a general audience. One couldn't hope for more.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

The Mathematics of Despair

Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers was an entertaining read at the time, but only one bit has really stayed with me, a number that haunts me more than it ought: 10,000. This is Gladwell's magic number of genius. You might recall that his project is to demythologize "genius" by anecdotally noting the conditions of opportunity that yield the greats and masters. Genius is less a dispensation of the gods and more the cumulative effect of opportunity. And time. That's where the magic number comes in: on Gladwell's accounting, mastery or genius is never an overnight success. Far from it. Instead, even when stars "burst on the scene," they are the products of hours and hours and years and years of practice, repitition, and drudgery. What made the Beatles, for example, was the endless gigs in out-of-the-way Hamburg, Germany, giving them the opportunity to accrue their 10,000 hours--the price of genius. Gladwell tells a similar story of Bill Gates, whose class and location afforded him hours upon hours on emerging computer technologies. The result? You guessed it: he logged that magic number.

That magic number, however, can also add up to despair. For example, I am a fledgling poet. (I won't say a "budding" poet, since that would entail some Hegelian confidence that I'll "bloom!") Given the shape of my family commitments, my professional obligations, my other writing projects, and my general laziness and inertia, that translates into about 1 hour per month writing poetry. So let's do the math: at that rate, I'd be approaching greatness right around the time I'd be giving Methusaleh a run for his money. Sigh.

And it turns out that Gladwell is probably right. I recall Donald Hall, in Unpacking Boxes, describing hours and hours of practice, producing reams and reams of detritus, and perched upon that pile is an iceberg-tip's worth of great poetry. As Hall recounts:

Where I sit today, working at my desk, there are shelves behind me that are dense with abandoned or unfinished work--including the book-length mock epic in iambic pentameter. Behind my neck roosts a rookery of bad manuscript. To write as much as I have done, I have needed often to fail.

I also recall that Hall was a precocious only child--as was Updike. A pattern here? In any case, if 10,000 hours is the magic number of greatness, what can you get for, say, 636? Upon doing the math, one begins to wonder if it's worth starting.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Desiring the Kingdom: Read an Excerpt

August 5 was the official release date for Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation. The Baker Academic site offers a glimpse into the book by providing an excerpt for download which gives you a look at the expanded Table of Contents, Preface, and Introduction, all of which provide a bit of a map of the book.

Last night I was re-reading Oscar Wilde's "Critic as Artist" and was reminded of a quote that, in a way, captures the core intuition of Desiring the Kingdom:

"Do you wish to love? Use Love's Litany, and the words will create the yearning from which the world fancies they spring."

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

"Devil Reads Derrida" Interview

David Opderbeck, a law professor, musician and self-described "theology buff," has started a little interview with me growing out of his reading of my new book, The Devil Reads Derrida: and Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts (Eerdmans), with a particular focus on the role of the Christian scholar in relation to the church--the focus of my Introduction to the book, "The Church, Christian Scholars, and Little Miss Sunshine."

You can read an introduction to the conversation, the first round of questions in part 1 , and a second round in part 2.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

The Lies of Country Music

Rebellion is relative. For example, given what passes for "conventional" and status quo in our home, my 17-year-old's rebellion takes the form of sympathy for the Republican party, a desire to major in business, and a passion for country music. He certainly knows how to push my buttons.

I'll admit that I can partly understand the soft spot for country music. I was raised on the country music of the 70s--"when country wasn't cool," as Barbara Mandrell put it. It was also when country was "country & western," though one could already see poppish sound making its inroads. But at that time, country stations still regularly played Patsy Cline and Hank Williams--and were the airwave home to Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, George Jones, and Johnny Cash. Even the "next wave" of folks like Randy Travis were faithful to this tradition. (For a beautiful tribute to this earlier era, see Marty Stuart's photo-essay, Country Music: The Masters--at the top of my wishlist.)

But the "new country" of today seems to me something different. And it is a catalyst for daily squabbles between me and my son: as soon as we hop in the car, his finger goes for the pre-sets on the radio, clicking one of the three local country stations. I try to tell myself that this is not a battle worth having--that this is a kind of adolescent "expression" I can live with, like earrings and tatoos. But within minutes my blood begins to boil, largely because of the pervasive nationalism of today's country. It's as if Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA" was a required template for all contemporary songwriting. Consider, for example, Brooks and Dunn's rendition of "Only in America":

Sun coming up over New York City
School bus driver in a traffic jam
Starin' at the faces in her rearview mirror
Looking at the promise of the Promised Land
One kid dreams of fame and fortune
One kid helps pay the rent
One could end up going to prison
One just might be president

Only in America
Dreaming in red, white and blue
Only in America
Where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance
Everybody gets to dance
Only in America

Sun going down on an L.A. freeway
Newlyweds in the back of a limousine
A welder's son and a banker's daughter
All they want is everything
She came out here to be an actress
He was a singer in a band
They just might go back to Oklahoma
And talk about the stars they could have been

Only in America
Where we dream in red, white and blue
Only in America
Where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance
Everybody gets to dance
Only in America

You can understand how, as a Canadian and a Christian, this identification of "the Promised Land"--and the attendant falsehoods about opportunity--are tough to take with my son crooning along.

What's at issue, I think, is not so much what's said as what's left unsaid. For example, while I'll admit that Rodney Atkins' "It's America" is an affecting ditty, its selective nostalgia is deceptive. Consider the idyllic picture being sketched in these lyrics:

It's a high school prom,
It's a Springstein song,
It's a ride in a Chevrolet.
It's a man on the moon,
and fireflies in June
kids sellin' lemonade.
It's cities and farms
and open arms,
one nation under God.
It's America.

What really sticks in my craw is the second verse:

Later on when I got home
I flipped the TV on.
I saw a little town that some big
twister tore apart.
People came from miles around
just to help their neighbors out,
and I was thinkin' to myself:
I'm so glad that I live in America.

Really? So people only help distraught neighbors "in America?" If you lived elsewhere, do you think, Mr. Atkins, that these folks would be left to their own devices? Any chance you think this vaunted American virtue of care for the neighbor applies to health care policy or public education? I didn't think so.

Or finally, consider the lies, damned lies in Justin Moore's current hit, "Smalltown, U.S.A.":

A lot of people called it prison when I was growin up
These are my roots and this is what I love

Cause everybody knows me and i know them

And I believe that's the way we were supposed to live

Wouldn't trade one single day in small town USA


Give me a Saturday night my baby by my side

A little Hank Jr. and a six pack of light,

Old dirt road and I'll be just fine.
Give me a Sunday morning that full of grace
A simple life and I'll be okay

Here in small town USA

Around here people break there backs just to earn a buck

Don't ever get ahead but we have enough
I watch people leave and they come right back

I never wanted any part of that
I'm proud to say that I love this place
Good ole small town USA

Look, I'm not out to demonize small towns (I grew up in a village of 600 people), but this simply doesn't tell the truth. It is a nostalgic, selective picture that gives the lie to smalltown life, painting over its dark underside: the racism and exclusion; the narrow horizons and xenophobia; the cycles of poverty, unemployment, and hopelessness; and as Nick Reding has recently shown us, the spiraling cycles of substance abuse (see Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town). (And a story that remains to be told is the growing secularization of rural and smalltown America.) Far from being a "good ole" place, the small town can be one of the ugliest corners of American life--though this never makes its way into Thomas Kinkade paintings or Norman Rockwell pictures or "new country" songs.

As an Argentinian proverb puts it, "A small town is a vast hell." That sounds like material for a real country song.

Mad (Adulterous) Men

Well behind the curve, my wife and I began watching Mad Men this week. I've been underwhelmed: while Donald Draper's suave, dapper character is drawn with a bit of mystery and complexity, the rest of the scenes are populated by cartoonish caricatures who are flat, predictable and--worst of all--unbelievable. And its propagandish attempt to shock us with the gender mores of the period (1960) fails in two ways: on the one hand, the lecherous, boorish men and compliant, unhappy housewives that populate this world are so hysterically drawn that they come off as parodies--which deflates the scandal; on the other hand, we shouldn't underestimate how much the glamor and chic of the staging and costuming actually makes such a world attractive.

Last night, just part way through season 1, with illicit liaisons proliferating, it hit me: This is like watching an Updike novel. And I was reminded of Nabakov's quip that adultery is the most conventional way to rise above convention. In Updike's Foreword to Early Stories, he says his stories are meant "to give the mundane its beautiful due" (p. xvii). But does he ever really settle for the mundane? Is the mundane really so adulterous? Could Updike hallow the mundane conventions of fidelity? That, for art, would be a more remarkable feat. Not great television, I grant, but still a task for the novel.