Wednesday, March 30, 2011
Thursday, March 24, 2011
Kierkegaard's (or rather, Anti-Climacus') Practice in Christianity--one of the little brothers in a corpus that includes Fear & Trembling, Sickness Unto Death, and Concluding Unscientific Postscript--is sort of an amalgam of Kierkegaardian themes. (And it still includes all those aspects of Kierkegaard that frustrate me to no end; I have a passionate love/hate relationship with the Dane.) But while recently re-reading Practice, this passage about Christ's "abasement" and "loftiness" stood out for me--sort of a rebuff of both a simplistic theologia crucis as well as the typical Lutheran critique of the theologia gloriae. It seems to me a number of different theological schools of thought might come under his critical glare:
"If there were someone who could love him only in his loftiness, that person's vision is confused; he does not know Christ and therefore does not love him either; he is taking him in vain. Christ was and is indeed the truth. If someone can love him only in his loftiness, what does that mean? It means that he can love the truth--only when it has conquered, when it is in possession of and is surrounded by power and honor and glory. But when it was struggling, when it was foolishness, to the Jews an offense, to the Greeks foolishness; when it was insulted, mocked, and, as Scripture says, spat upon--then of course such a person could not love it; then he wished to stay far away from it. That is, he wanted the truth far away from him, but this is actually to be in untruth. It is just as essentially a part of 'the truth' to suffer in this world as to be triumphant in another world, in the world of truth--and Jesus Christ is the same in his abasement as in his loftiness. But if, on the other hand, someone could feel drawn to Christ and love him only in his abasement, if such a person wanted to hear nothing about his loftiness, when power and honor and glory are his; if he (what sad perversity!) with the impatience of a restless spirit, bored, as he would not doubt say, with the good and victorious days of Christendom, if he longed only for scenes of horror, to be with him when he was being insulted and persecuted--then the vision of such a person is also confused; he does not recognize Christ and therefore does not love him either. Christianity is not at all closer to heavy-mindedness than to light-mindedness; they are both equally worldliness, equally far away, and both have just as much need of conversion" (pp. 153-154).
Wednesday, March 23, 2011
It's pretty easy to domesticate or even romanticize Jesus' call to those first disciples--to those fishermen who would become fishers of men. We've seen enough flannelgraphed versions of those jolly men tending their nets that we now imagine they were made for such a call--as if they were just out of work seminarians waiting around for "religious" work.
What if, instead, we imagine Jesus showing up on the docks in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, calling Sig and Edgar to drop their crab pots and come follow him?
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
You can tell a lot about a literary culture by its used bookstores; they are something like the fossil record of a reading public. And one of the things that regularly astonishes me is what you won't find in used bookstores in the United States: contemporary British authors. Nowhere is the old adage ("two countries separated by a common language") more true that in our reading habits. The authors that grace the shortlist for the Man Booker prize hardly make a dent on American literary culture.
The most egregious omission in this regard has to be Julian Barnes, the best contemporary writer you've never read. I was hooked as soon as I read A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters, the book that seemed to earn him a place in the pantheon of supposedly "postmodern" novelists. But Flaubert's Parrot is the book that really sealed my devotion, though his memoir, Nothing to be Frightened Of, is a masterful, honest, even humble meditation on mortality in our secular age.
It's this memoir that comes to mind in Barnes' recent review of Joyce Carol Oates' new memoir, A Widow's Story. Indeed, if the excerpt of JCO's book in the New Yorker is any indication, I'll take Barnes review over Oates' book. His prose is probing without drawing attention to itself--kind of liquid without being soppy. He makes an 18th-century meditation on mourning by Dr. Johnson seem utterly contemporary (and what other critics would have that 1750 essay to hand?). He even has the chutzpah to criticize Oates the widow in the concluding section of his essay, though with grace and sensitivity.
But what's really exquisite about the essay is how perfectly Flaubertian it is: in the best spirit of the master, Barnes observes the discipline of self-suppression--achieving that vaunted Flaubertian ideal of objectivity that prevents him from even appearing in the essay. The "I" here is not flaunted, to that point that the reader might not realize or recall that Barnes' own widowhood is still quite fresh (following the death of his wife, Pat Kavanagh). But while Barnes the widower--that Barnesian "I"--does not parade itself in the essay, of course it impresses itself on the entire piece. Barnes' the widower is everywhere between the lines, informing an entire sensibility, resonating with Oates' clichéd mourning ("what is grief at times," he asks, "but a car crash of cliché?). And it is the sympathy of widowhood that also gives him license to criticize Oates' silence about her prompt remarriage. In the age of the confessional, solipsistic memoir, Barnes' Flaubertian discipline is to be admired.
Monday, March 21, 2011
If I had gobs of money just lying around, and a slightly more seared conscience, I could be easily sucked into the world of literary collecting, ardently acquiring the secularized equivalent of relics. I could see my home office becoming a kind of reliquary, lined with first editions and decorated with all sorts of artifacts--say hand-written manuscript from Ted Hughes, quirky photographs of Evelyn Waugh, used pipes from P.G. Wodehouse or maybe one of Elizabeth Bishop's fountain pen, perhaps a portrait of Oscar Wilde or George Sand. It would be a delight to work in such a Wunderzimmer, absorbing the aura of writers gone before
In other words, I would be like a kid in a candy shop if I could be part of the Bonham's auction of the Roy Davids Collection of Papers and Portraits--a veritable who's who of British and American letters from the Victorian era up to the mid-20th century. I'll have to settle for window shopping.
Sunday, March 20, 2011
While I have the utmost respect for the Book of Common Prayer--probably the single most important expression of historic Christian worship in my own life--lately I've been using a new resource for prayer: Seeking God's Face: Praying with the Bible Through the Year. Compiled by Philip Reinders, one could think of it as a Reformed prayerbook, embodying the Protestant emphasis on the centrality of Scripture while also honoring post-apostolic tradition (e.g., by including prayers that draw from the Heidelberg Catechism, the Belgic Confession, and the Westminster standards). Like the most ancient and global Christian practices, it encourages a prayer discipline that is centered on the Psalms while also, in the spirit of the lectionary, walking us across the entire narrative of Scripture. It honors the tradition of disciplined (written) prayer while also making room for extemporaneous prayer and devotion.
To learn more about the book, and to see what each daily practice looks like, check out the excerpt that is available from Faith Alive [pdf]. Amazon also offers an annotated image the lays out the elements of each 2-page spread.
In sum, I think this is a wonderful gift to foster intentional Christian piety with a Reformed accent. It would be a marvelous way for those new to the Reformed tradition to connect themselves not just to the doctrines of Reformed theology but also the practices of Reformed piety.
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Colin McGinn's review of V.S. Ramachandran's new book, The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist's Quest for What Makes Us Human is both appreciative and appropriately critical. McGinn rightly calls Ramachandran to the mat for his unwarranted reductionism and his over-reaching claims, while also affirming the bodily basis of consciousness. He ends with an excellent question:
Why is neurology so fascinating? It is more fascinating than the physiology of the body—what organs perform what functions and how. I think it is because we feel the brain to be fundamentally alien in relation to the operations of mind—as we do not feel the organs of the body to be alien in relation to the actions of the body. It is precisely because we do not experience ourselves asreducible to our brain that it is so startling to discover that our mind depends so intimately on our brain. It is like finding that cheese depends on chalk—that soul depends on matter. This de facto dependence gives us a vertiginous shiver, a kind of existential spasm: How can the human mind—consciousness, the self, free will, emotion, and all the rest—completely depend on a bulbous and ugly assemblage of squishy wet parts? What has the spiking of neurons got to do with me?
Thursday, March 17, 2011
When I was at the Geneva School in Orlando this past January, I sat down for an extended interview about Christian classical education, initiated by Christopher Perrin from Classical Academic Press and the Institute for Classical Schools.
They've rolled out audio of these conversations (video to come). You can listen to the entire conversation (45 minutes) or sample these segments:
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
For a long time--even after I had published several books--I kept telling people that I wanted to be a writer. What I generally meant was that I wanted to be a novelist (and that's still true) or write for Harper's. But I also think I was working with a latent distinction I still want to affirm: being an author and being a writer are not synonymous. Most philosophers and theologians are authors: they publish articles and books bent on communicating content and making arguments. Their goal is conceptual clarity and careful demonstration. But all of that can happen with very little attention to form. Indeed, one can write entire books and yet not take language all that seriously.
But it's just that attention to form that characterizes the writer. To make the move from being an author to being a writer you have to learn to love sentences.
You will know you're on your way to being a writer when you have a love/hate relationship with language: when you can be either thrilled or vexed by the cadence of a sentence or turn of phrase--when you can't quite leave the paragraph on which you're laboring because there's a tic of timing that's driving you mad. Or when you begin to consider the force of a sentence in terms of its ability to move rather than prove. In sum, you'll know you've become a writer when you consider the sheer play of language to be a country to which you'd gladly emigrate.
You will also know you're on your way to being a writer when you find yourself a different reader: when you find yourself gratefully lingering on a sentence you've just read because it has brought an unexpected delight, and you have a deep appreciation for the writer's attention to craft--that she's forged something anew, just for the sheer delight of putting it that way. Or when you find yourself angrily scribbling in the margins because of some hack's laziness and tired, derivative style.
So how does one make that transition from being an author to being a writer? Unfortunately, I have no easily formula. Instead, what comes to mind is Pascal's advice after his infamous wager: "Can't find yourself able to believe?," Pascal asks. "That's OK. Just fake it for a while. Go to Mass. Try on the rhythms of a believer. Practice your way into faith." Something similar holds for becoming a writer, I think: act as if. You're working on a book, for goodness' sake--give yourself permission to imagine yourself as a writer.
And then consider some of these as new habits:
1. Immerse yourself in fiction and poetry. If you don't love fiction, I can't imagine how you'll ever be a solid writer. The imaginative worlds of novels and the linguistic intensity of poetry should be your daily bread. Central to your apprenticeship should be mimesis, learning to imitate good writing. To familiarize yourself with that, you need to be regularly swimming laps in the deep pool of literature. If you can't imagine this being true for you, then stick to being an "author."
2. Apprentice yourself to the craft of writing. Granted, there's an entire industry of wannabe writers out there that keeps Poets & Writers afloat. But there are also some very helpful books that are themselves examples of engaging writing. I'd recommend starting with Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.
3. Become a formalist. You will need to train yourself to appreciate form in fiction--to not just be carried along by the narrative force of the story, but to also be attentive to the gritty conditions of that--the minute particularities of how sentences and paragraphs work, the careful, world-changing choices an author makes. To that end, I constantly commend James Wood's How Fiction Works.
4. Be patient. Recall Malcolm Gladwell's 10,000 hours rule (in Outliers): What looks like overnight "genius" exploding onto the scene is usually the product of about 10,000 hours of practice. This is the (admittedly discouraging) math of expertise. Now, I think you can log credit for all the hours you spend reading fiction and poetry as hours of practice. But you also just need to write. And write. And write. Write stuff that will never see the light of day. Write blogs. Take form seriously in your emails. Never miss an opportunity to make language dance and play. Embrace the craft at every turn. You might just become a writer.
Monday, March 14, 2011
I don't envy young theologians and Christian scholars today. Fewer and fewer tenure-track positions only ramps up the expectations for landing a job. What might have earned someone tenure a generation ago is now almost needed just to land an interview. The pressure to publish begins in doctoral programs, especially for those outside of elite departments.
At the same time, the proliferation of journals and even publishers has made it easier and easier to "get published." The old gatekeepers have lost their monopoly. There was a day when publishing books in theology required passing through the portals guarded by the publishing establishment: Cambridge University Press or Oxford University Press for one kind of theological publishing; Eerdmans, T & T Clark, Fortress, Baker or InterVarsity Press for another sort. In any case, there were established channels that made "getting published" more difficult. But over the past decade, with easy access to publishing technologies, we keep seeing more and more publishers springing up. Granted, even "back then" there was always the University Press of America, but now we have a proliferation of publishing outlets for theology--not to mention a growing cadre of niche and online journals. The result is that if you have a manuscript for a reasonably coherent book, it's now easier than ever to see it in print, to "get published."
And so my unsolicited advice to young theological writers: Just because you can publish it doesn't mean you should. In other words, don't confuse printability with publishability. If you shop a manuscript to some of the old stand-bys in theological publishing, and you consistently get turned down--then, sure, it's true that I can name three publishers off the top of my head who would probably be willing to publish your book. But I wonder if you would have just missed a teachable moment:
Was there something to learn in those rejections? Was there some feedback in those difficult emails--hard as they were to receive--that might have made you a better writer? Could it just be the case that your project is not worth publishing? Could your manuscript be like that unpublished novel that every great novelist had to write, just to learn how to do it, only to have it end up in the drawer in their desk? (I can still remember Donald Hall, in Unpacking the Boxes, talking about the thousands of poems he wrote that never saw the light of day.) What if it turns out that those editors and referees actually knew a thing or two?
I can already imagine the response: "Well, that's easy for you to say, Mr. Tenured Professor--Mr. Protector-of-the-Establishment-and-Status-Quo. Worried about people hounding in on your turf?"
You're welcome to that retort. Nobody's stopping you. Maybe you're right. However, if I'm suggesting that not everything that gets published in theology today deserves to be published, I'm not thereby claiming that everything that does get published by the "old stand-bys" necessarily deserves to be published either. The established houses are not perfect. But they do keep the bar a little higher.
I just wonder if there might be a few young theologians out there who are willing to at least pause and consider the possibility that there remains some wisdom in the establishment--and so might, for the sake of their work, submit to the disciplines of the process, even find the gifts hidden in rejections, rather than scurrying to find what upstart press will get their book into print. They might be grateful later, and theology might be better for it.
Saturday, March 12, 2011
There's no dearth of publishing in Christian theology. To the contrary, there has been an expanding universe of theological publishers churning out more and more books, now supplemented by the oft-hailed (and over-hailed, I'd say) blogosphere. So at this moment there are countless theologians writing--sketching outlines and plans, whiling away at manuscripts, passionate about their ideas, all with the aim of reaching an audience via the still-exhilirating technology bequeathed to us by Gutenberg.
But there surely is a dearth of good writing in theology. For a discipline indebted (one hopes) to the Word become flesh, theologians seem rather docetic about publishing--didactically focused on concepts and ideas and argument with little attention to the "flesh" of writing. Fixated on "content," they are remarkably unconcerned about form. The result is a strange paradox: by basically not thinking about language, form, and writing, the theologian treats language as if it were transparent; yet it is precisely when language and form are invisible in the writing process that we get the most obfuscating prose. Some of the most important books in theology over the past twenty years have bordered on being unreadable (and the "bordered on" is a generous qualifier!). Granted, some of this is the product of the weird dynamics of academese and the desire to appear "rigorous." But surely some of this is also the product of a widespread lack of attention to form, to the process and dynamics of writing (well).
There are, of course, some exceptions. Rowan Williams is a model of winsome clarity and accessible profundity; Stanley Hauerwas' writing reached a new level in his recent memoir; Janet Martin Soskice's work is exemplary. And there are others. But for every decent writer in theology, it would be easy to line up 20 examples of boring, plodding, didactic clunkiness.
There have also been some efforts to address this. The recent seminar led by Marilynne Robinson at Princeton's Center of Theological Inquiry was an encouraging and enticing sign. But we need more apprenticeships in writing--or at least need more theologians willing to learn the craft of writing, attentive to form.
I was prompted to think about this while reading the recent Paris Review interview with Jonathan Franzen. The expansive conversation covers the span of Franzen's career and is an occasion for him to reflect on his maturation as a writer. Commenting on the gut-wrenching cuts he had to make to the manuscript of The Twenty-Seventh City, Franzen describes an epiphany. After being pressed by the novelist Hugh Nissenson, Franzen recalls,
I set down the phone and picked up the manuscript, which I hadn't looked at in eight months, and I said, "My God, there's two hundred pages that I can cut in half an hour." I just suddenly saw it. I suddenly made the connection between my needs as a reader and what I was doing as a writer, which I had never made before. That in fact I was not interested in punishing the reader, because I didn't enjoy being punished myself. If I wanted the book to be read, it needed to move, and so I had to make the cuts to make it move (p. 57).
How different would theological writing look if more theologians could make the connection between their needs as a reader and what they're doing as writers?
Wednesday, March 09, 2011
I just learned that Eerdmans has released a Kindle edition of Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy. Kinda cool.
In the Kindle Store you can also find an edition of The Devil Reads Derrida: And Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts.
It's probably a sign of my malformation, but at the imposition of ashes this morning this Edward Sharpe lyric came to mind (listen to it here):
The ashes mean nothing if they don't speak of our mortality (and, of course, the death of Christ and hence the atonement). And so I think these lyrics came to mind because their opening reminds me of what we need to hear--what I, strangely, want to hear--in worship on Ash Wednesday: "You are going to die. And you are going to be judged. And there is a hell. And, yes, this should worry you." Otherwise Easter is just the culmination of our self-realizations, the cuddly affirmation of our own projects.
Tuesday, March 08, 2011
Josh Ritter is probably my favorite singer-songwriter, even if his latest offering, So Runs the World Away, is not his strongest. He's one of the great poets among songwriters today, able to pair almost prolix lyrics with illuminating melodies that make them work. I'm constantly reminded of his literary ability with each listen.
So I was very intrigued to learn that Ritter has a novel coming out: Bright's Passage. And what particularly intrigues me is this photo which accompanied the announcement: notice Ritter's novel is here set alongside a collection of Graham Greene novels. I'm hoping that's a good omen.