Thursday, October 28, 2010

Interviews on the Interwebs

A couple of interviews that might be of interest:

First, I was interviewed by Kenneth Sheppard for Patrol Magazine on "Philosophy, Culture, and Communication"--a conversation about academic life, public scholarship, and how Christian scholars serve the church.

Second, I was interviewed for Inner Compass, Calvin College's PBS program on religion and culture. That is now archived online; you can watch it below.

Defining "The Good Life" - Inner Compass from Calvin College on Vimeo.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Danto on Philosophy and/as/of Literature

Arthur Danto's contribution to the Blackwell Companion to the Philosophy of Literature is not exactly worth the price of the book (it's $200!), but it would certainly be worth the bus fare to the library. His quarry in "Philosophy and/as/of Literature" is the literary nature of philosophical writing and what that means for philosophical reading today, given the professionalization of philosophy and the dominance of a certain genre of philosophical writing. There's a history to be told here, and Danto notes a significant shift:

For a period roughly coeval with that in which philosophy attained professionalization, the canonical literary format has been the professional philosophy paper. Our practice as philosophers consists in reading and writing such papers; in training our students to read and write them; in inviting others to come read us a paper, to which we respond by posing questions which in effect are editorial recommendations, typically incorporated and acknowledged in the first or last footnote of the paper, in which we are exempted from such errors and infelicities as may remain and thanked for our helpful suggestions (p. 54).

Yep, that about nails it. I think non-academics, or even scholars from other disciplines, are sometimes astounded to learn that a philosophy "speaker" is really just a reader: s/he stands up at the podium and reads a manuscript, head-down, and rattles through the material.

Danto goes on to analyze this in Kuhnian terms: this is "normal science" in philosophy. "Mastery of the literary form is the key to success in the form of life." It comes with tangible benefits (tenure, recognition, invitations to go read more papers). "These practical benefits aside, no one could conceivably be interested in participating in the form of life defined by this literary form, were it not believed that this is the avenue to philosophical truth." But then Danto can't resist lodging a bit of skepticism about this paradigm: "It is less obviously a matter of agreement that philosophical truth is defined by this being believed to be the way to find it."

What Danto observes is the significant gap between "normal science" in philosophical writing and the range of creative genres that constitute the history of philosophy. And he starts to wonder whether that means we might not be very good readers, precisely because of the way we've learned to write:
Much of what I have read on Plato reads much as though he, to whom the whole of subsequent philosophy is said to be so many footnotes, were in effect a footnote to himself and were being coached to get a paper accepted by the Philosophical Review. And a good bit of the writing on Descartes is by way of chivying his argumentation into notations we are certain he would have adopted had he lived to appreciate their advantages, since it is now so clear where he went wrong. But in both case it might at least have been asked whether what either writer was up to can that easily be separated from forms of presentation that may have seemed inevitable, so that the dialogue or meditation flattened into conventional periodical prose might not in the process have lost something central to those ways of writing (p. 55).

It is exactly this concern about the irreducibility of form and the worry about what's lost in translation that is dominating my thinking about volume 2 of "Cultural Liturgies." But it's also generally why I continue to resist certain hegemonies in professional philosophy, and even within my own department. Sure, Emmanuel Levinas' Totality and Infinity does not have any formalized syllogisms or logical notation--but in that incredible book Levinas is performing something that cannot be teased out in "summaries of the argument." Indeed, such summaries and translations and formalization do an injustice to the kind of philosophical truth embodied in such works. This is why Danto ultimately worries about how we read:
The form in which the truth as [Plato and Descartes] understood it must be grasped just might require a form of reading, hence a kind of relationship to those texts, altogether different from that appropriate to a paper, or to what we sometimes refer as a "contribution." And this is because something is intended to happen to the reader other than and in addition to being informed (p. 55).

Friday, October 22, 2010

Theology and Race: A "Duke School?"

When I read J. Kameron Carter's commanding Race: A Theological Account, I had just a twinge of concern that his senior colleague at Duke, Willie James Jennings, had been "scooped" just a bit. Jennings began work along these lines back in the early 1990s, but then he got swept up into administrative duties at Duke Divinity School which then sidetracked him from his original research. But I have often come back, for instance, to his 1996 Modern Theology essay, "'He Became Truly Human': Incarnation, Emancipation, and Authentic Humanity" as a touchstone for starting conversations about theology and race. And Carter himself tips his hat to Jennings' pioneering work.

So I am thrilled to see Jennings' work has finally culminated in his new book, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale UP, 2010). While its argument echoes Carter's narrative about race and theology in Western thought, it looks like Jennings' work also makes unique contributions. I'm eager to read it.

I also wonder whether we're not seeing the emergence of a kind of "Duke school" on theology and race. As further evidence, consider Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice's contributions along these lines as well (for example in their co-authored more popular book, Reconciling All Things: A Christian Vision for Justice, Peace, and Healing). Or consider Brian Bantum's new book, originally a Duke dissertation: Redeeming Mulatto: A Theology of Race and Christian Hybridity (Baylor UP, 2010).

In suggesting an emerging "Duke school," I don't mean to attribute to them some imperial program for a "school of thought." Nor do I mean to attribute to them some concern to formulate a "party line." Nonetheless, one can detect a similar sensibility in the work of Carter, Jennings, Katongole, and Bantum: a theological engagement with race that is "post-liberationist," one might say: not because they're somehow in favor of "oppression," but rather because, having come through liberationist paradigms, they have also seen the problems with such an approach (in particular, the way in which it still remains mired in modern categories that are at the root of the problem). It requires a certain courage to articulate this sort of position, since (as I've seen with my students), it can sometimes be mistaken for a 'color-blind' approach, or could appear to give comfort to those who would pretend to "transcend" race. But they are decidedly not advocating either. It's just that our imagination on these issues tends to remain binary and simplistic, whereas they are inviting us beyond such simple oppositions. Indeed, to use Bantum's term, they might be inviting us to a more "hybrid" theology.

I'm encouraged by this development, mainly because I have students who are so interested in working through these issues with rigor and nuance. I'm grateful to be able to point them to the Duke school, so to speak.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Letters to a Young Calvinist Facebook Page

We've set up a Facebook page for Letters to a Young Calvinist at, surprisingly enough,

Since the book really aims to be a primer and invitation to a wider conversation, we'll use this Facebook page as a way to highlight other resources, point to relevant conversations, and hopefully host some discussion of the book and related themes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Kuyper for Piper: "Letters to a Young Calvinist" now available

Letters to a Young Calvinist has now been released and should be available at booksellers near you. I received my copies a couple of weeks ago and was jazzed to see it in print. Brazos has done a great job creating a cool little book that is accessible and approachable in its format and presentation. It's certainly my most "popular," accessible book to date.

Now my hope is that it finds its audience: there are all sorts of folks who I hope will read it, but I'm especially hoping it might be received by a younger generation who, like my younger self, were awakened to thoughtful Christianity by a certain stream of Reformed theology. Letters to a Young Calvinist is an invitation to see other streams of the Reformed tradition--to value the complex richness of the Reformed voices across the spectrum.

Sometimes I describe this little book as "Kuyper for Piper." The goal is to build on the young, restless, Reformed interest in the doctrines of grace by also celebrating other core themes of the Reformed tradition: creation, culture, covenant, and catholicity, with a special concern for appreciating the ecclesiology of the Reformers. In the process, however, there's also some internal critique of Kuyperianism as well.

As with any book, one sends it out into the world like a child: with some trepidation and angst, with much hope and gratitude. Watch for news about events related to the book, as well as a Facebook page that's in the works.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Academic Conference Rules

A great New Yorker cartoon that well captures the posturing of Q&A at academic conferences.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Room for Theology in "Theory": New Signs in SAQ

A few years back, Eugene McCarraher's review of Terry Eagleton's After Theory posed the question: "After Theory, Theology?" It was a brilliant review of an excellent book and got to the heart of matters in the current state of "theory" (that strange, amorphous mix of continental philosophy marshaled across a range of disciplines in order to do "critique"). Both Eagleton and McCarraher suggested that a thorough, consistent "postmodern" critique of Enlightenment rationality--theory's bread and butter--should ultimately open the door for religious perspectives to get a hearing in a genuinely pluralist academy. (George Marsden made similar claims in The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, but without all the sexy, pomo references.)

Not everyone got the memo, however, and in some ways the university remains the last bastion of a pretty strident secularism. However, there have been pockets of theoretical conversations across the disciplines which have begun to absorb this point. As a case in point, consider the latest issue of the South Atlantic Quarterly, one of the iconic "theory" journals, currently edited by Michael Hardt and published by Duke University Press. (Ever since I knew what "theory" was, I had always sort of dreamed of getting to publish in SAQ.) The Fall 2010 issue, guest edited by two anthropologists, Matthew Engelke (London School of Economics) and Joel Robbins (UC San Diego), is devoted to the theme, "Global Christianity, Global Critique." But such a title might hide the fact that this issue is actually pressing the implications of something like the Eagleton/McCarraher thesis: that perhaps theory not only needs to consider religion, but that theory might even be "religious"--and that perhaps an anthropology of religion might be well-informed by theology without giving up its critical capacities. In his contribution to the volume, Simon Coleman describes this as a "committed anthropology." (My own contribution is something I wouldn't have dreamed could appear in SAQ: "'The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets': Global Pentecostalism and the Re-enchantment of Critique.")

There's no consensus represented by the contributors, but there is a set of shared intuitions and sensibilities. I think the issue signals a new day in both theory and the social sciences.

Here's the full Table of Contents so you can see other contributions:

Joel Robbins and Matthew Engelke

Joel Robbins
Anthropology, Pentecostalism, and the New Paul: Conversion, Event, and Social Transformation

Elizabeth A. Castelli
The Philosophers' Paul in the Frame of the Global: Some Reflections

James K. A. Smith
"The spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets": Global Pentecostalism and the Re-enchantment of Critique

Jon Bialecki
Angels and Grass: Church, Revival, and the Neo-Pauline Turn

C. J. C. Pickstock
Liturgy and the Senses

Birgit Meyer
Aesthetics of Persuasion: Global Christianity and Pentecostalism's Sensational Forms

Brian Goldstone and Stanley Hauerwas
Disciplined Seeing: Forms of Christianity and Forms of Life

Simon Coleman
An Anthropological Apologetics

Matthew Engelke
Number and the Imagination of Global Christianity; or, Mediation and Immediacy in the Work of Alain Badiou

Monday, October 11, 2010

Douthat on Smith on Religious "Knowledge"

Over at his NYTimes "Evaluations" blog, I appreciated Ross Douthat's engagement with my "off the cuff" piece on the Pew Survey on Religious Knowledge (also noted at the Atlantic's "Daily Dish" blog).

While he's sympathetic to my second thesis, Douthat raises a fair point by asking:

Can one be a serious practitioner of Catholic Christianity who doesn’t know (as 41 percent of Catholics in the Pew survey did not) that the Church teaches that the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus in the Eucharist, rather than just symbolizing and memorializing Christ’s sacrifice? (Note I’m not even talking about whether you believe in transsubstantiation here — just whether you know that it’s what the Church says is happening on the altar.) There I think the answer is probably no: At a certain very basic level, what you know about a religion and how you practice it go hand in hand, and you can’t really be “a master of the game” if you’re ignorant of its rules — in the same way, say, that you couldn’t be a great baseball player if you didn’t know that three strikes make an out.
Of course, I wasn't saying that there's no place for religious knowledge in faithful religious practice. But his case and the analogy got me thinking further:

(1) In my book Desiring the Kingdom, at several points I discuss how children and mentally challenged adults participate in worship, sort of as "limit cases" to consider. I don't pretend these are the norms. But in both cases, it seems to me one can have devout practice that isn't necessarily attended by reflective knowledge. (Nor does this preclude emphasizing that such reflective knowledge would be a desirable good.) I think these sorts of questions remain germane particularly given my interest in (and concerns with) Christian Smith's work on youth spirituality, which also tends to come down pretty hard (at least implicitly) on 19-year-olds who seem to be playing a game but unable to articulate the rules. I'm not in the least suggesting religious communities haven't failed in catechesis, but I do think there are also modes of religious "understanding" which do not always translate into articulated answers of the sort measured by surveys. And since Douthat specifically raises the Roman Catholic example, it seems to me that Catholic spirituality has always made room for an affirmation of faith that is tactile, kinetic, and visual and thus not always articulated by the believer. That is, while many converts to Catholicism have "intellectual" concerns front and center, global Catholic spirituality is precisely a tradition that has always been hospitable and accessible to the uneducated, even the illiterate, who are no less faithful. Of course, this is also a mode of spirituality that is susceptible to superstition, but the two are certainly not identical. (I'm thinking of the peasant believers in Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory.) So I can imagine all kinds of Catholic faithful who are not able to articulate what Douthat is asking of them, but nonetheless have a kind of tacit appreciation and understanding of just what's at stake in the Eucharist.

(2) I wonder about the baseball analogy: yes, it seems right that I would have to have a kind of propositional knowledge about 3 strikes constituting an "out." And so I think both Douthat and I agree that there are reasons to be disappointed about the outcome of the survey--which sort of shores up my cynical "civil religion" thesis, as Douthat notes). On the other hand, we should also recognize that knowing 3 strikes = an out is not the sort of knowledge that actually makes one a good baseball player. It is just the sort of "spectator knowledge" that armchair batters around the country will be muttering about in October. But of course that's a long ways from having the sort of know-how which enables one to get a piece of a 98-mile-an-hour fastball. And it seems to me that religious "knowledge" is more on the order of that know-how than spectatorish acquaintance with the rules.


Saturday, October 09, 2010

Men at Forty


Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.

At rest on a stair landing,
They feel it moving
Beneath them now like the deck of a ship,
Though the swell is gentle.

And deep in mirrors
They rediscover
The face of the boy as he practices tying
His father’s tie there in secret,

And the face of that father,
Still warm with the mystery of lather.
They are more fathers than sons themselves now.
Something is filling them, something

That is like the twilight sound
Of the crickets, immense,
Filling the woods at the foot of the slope
Behind their mortgaged houses.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

On the Pew Survey of Religious Knowledge @ Immanent Frame

The Pew Forum's "U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey" has generated some press and buzz (see the New York Times report, for instance). In response, the folks at Immanent Frame have assembled one of their "off the cuff" features on the survey, "Surveying Religious Knowledge." It includes brief assessments from an interdisciplinary cast of scholars. You'll also find my own take there.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Review of "Hipster Christianity"

The Other Journal has now posted "Poser Christianity," my review of McCracken's Hipster Christianity: When Church and Cool Collide.

The review goes in a particular direction, because I think McCracken was asking for it. But I should note that there are some points of overlapping concern. For example, I think McCracken is right to see certain renditions of the emerging church as basically just the successor to Willow-Creekish seeker-sensitivity. And I share his concern about Christian assimilation to cultural trends. We just disagree about what counts as "assimilation."

Post-Ironic? Again with DFW

I'm continuing to live with David Foster Wallace quite a bit. Following his reflections on the tyranny of irony, consider what he says later in the same essay:

"The next real literary 'rebels' in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of anti-rebels, born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre principles. Who treat of plain old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and hip fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Dead on the page. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point. Maybe that's why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can see, risk disapproval. The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today's risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the 'Oh how banal.'" (p. 81).

One might wonder whether, already in 1990, DFW had foreseen the coming of David Eggers, Jonathan Safran Foer, Nicole Krauss, even Jonathan Franzen--whether Wallace had prophesied what Melvin Jules Bukiet would later pan as the "Brooklyn Books of Wonder." There is a certain "sincerity" to their work that can look almost naive and quaint alongside Pynchon and even Wallace himself. But perhaps that is their (relative) rebellion. (This reminds me of Zizek's aside about straight marriage as "the most dark and daring of all transgressions.")

I think Wallace "gets" how novelists could head in this direction. And yet, the prose of Franzen and Krauss does feel so flat and predictable and, well, "straight-forward" after the experimentalism of DFW. No doubt avant-garde form can become tiresome and self-conscious, but it also seems to me that we can't just return to the narrators and forms of Updike either. The omniscient narrator has died; any revivification of him (sic) is not a resurrection, but only a zombie.