Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Closing Lines: Eliot's Middlemarch

The inestimable Byron Borger pointed to a recent feature in The Guardian: "The 10 best...closing lines of books."  All of them are a treat, but the closing line from Eliot's Middlemarch (a book, incidentally, that I think is instructive for contemporary discussions about science and religion) deserves to be highlighted (and is too long to be tweeted!):
"But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why Weigel's Wrong: On Liturgy and the Olympic Opening Ceremonies

As someone who has written extensively about the formative power of "secular liturgies," you might think I'd be primed to analyze the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics as an example of just such a "secular" liturgy.  In other words, you might think I'd be sympathetic to George Weigel's critical analysis of the opening ceremonies as "The Liturgy of the World State."

But you'd be wrong.  Indeed, I think Weigel's account of the opening ceremony as a "liturgy" betrays a pre-Vatican II notion of the liturgy as spectacle, as something to be observed (rather than something inviting "full, conscious, active participation" as the reforms of Sacrosanctum Concilium emphasized).  

Liturgies should not be confused with "ceremonies."  Liturgies are not "events"--one-off bedazzling spectacles rife with ritualistic symbol.  I don't deny that the Olympic opening ceremonies were an affective, symbolic enactment of a story.  But while that is a necessary aspect of a "liturgy," it's not a sufficient criterion.  Liturgies are not just symbolic and ritualistic; they are enacted stories that are (1) repeated and (2) participatory.  The Olympic opening ceremonies--while spectacular and ritualistic and, without question, infused with a story--do not function liturgically because they lack these other aspects.  There is no repetition of any version of the opening ceremonies (indeed, novelty is THE defining goal).

But that's not to say that there aren't plenty of secular liturgies in our culture that do inscribe in us the story that Weigel is worried about.  But Weigel seems to miss their liturgical nature because he confuses liturgy with spectacle--just the notion that both Protestants and Catholics agree needs to be reformed.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Detroit Free Press Op-Ed: Further Thoughts on Penn State and "Cultural Change"

I've expanded my first ruminations on the NCAA's sanctions against Penn State's football program in an op-ed for the Detroit Free Press, now available online.

Musings on Penn State, the NCAA sanctions, and "Cultural Change"

I was struck by the goal of the NCAA sanctions, which was described several times (in the recent press conference) as "cultural change" within the football program at Penn State.  I think that goal is exactly right (if it's sincere) and necessary.  But this raises the question: how do you change the "culture" of an institution?  How do you transform the ethos of an organization?  Which in turn raises the obvious question: are sanctions a way to generate cultural change?  (While posed in a very different context for very different reasons, I think James Davison Hunter's account of "cultural change" in the first part of To Change the World is actually quite relevant here.)

I don't have a clear answer to these questions.  To consider this, we need to carefully hear the mix of sanctions imposed. I have no expectation that a massive fine, erasing wins, or diminishing the number of scholarships will have an impact on the ethos of an organization.  However, note that the sanctions also include new structures of accountability, compliance officers, and more pro-active strategies to effect change.  The punishments will feel the most striking and get the most press; it's the fine print that's at issue when it comes to actually effecting "cultural change."

Even so, questions remain.  We enter here the dialectical dance between virtue and ethos: on the one hand, an ethos can foster virtue.  On the other hand, I think you need agents characterized by rightly-ordered desire to cultivate a virtue-forming ethos.  What's needed here is a conversion of the imagination, a complete re-narration of what the organization and institution is about.  I'm not too sanguine that sanctions can bring this about.  The institution needs not just new rules, but a new story.

A Symposium on "The Fall of Interpretation" @ ChurchandPomo

Over at "The Church and Postmodern Culture," our fearless coordinator, Chad Lakies, has organized an extended online engagement with my latest book, the second edition of The Fall of Interpretation: Philosophical Foundations for a Creational Hermeneutic (Baker Academic, 2012).  Over the next few weeks, there will be contributions from Mark Bowald (Redeemer University College), Neal DeRoo (Dordt College), and Crystal Downing (Messiah), and each week I'll respond to their constructive, critical engagements.  

You can read Chad's overview of the symposium and check out the first installment from Mark Bowald, "Redeeming Interpretation: An Interlocution on Sin and Hermeneutics."  My response, "Sins of Omission," will appear on Thursday.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

"Practically Human": An Invitation to the Liberal Arts

A collection of my colleagues have produced a wonderful little book entitled, Practically Human: College Professors Speak from the Heart of Humanities Education, published by the new Calvin College Press (who've produced a very handsome text).  It's an engaging, accessible manifesto of sorts, articulating the unique strengths of a liberal arts education that values the humanities at the core of its educational vision.

But what's unique about the book is that it is written for high school students and parents who are thinking about college choices.  It would be a great resource for high school juniors and seniors, their parents, high school guidance counselors, and youth pastors.

Here's a peek at the Table of Contents:

Introduction: Two Farms Gary Schmidt and Matthew Walhout 
Greater Than Gold: The Humanities and the Human Things Lee HardyPhilosophy 
“The Ducks Are Hazards in the Classroom”: Learning to Listen with Perception and Grace Benita Wolters-FredlundMusic 
Who Wants to Live in the “Real” World? Will KaterbergHistory 
Getting Engaged: The Joys of Studying History Karin MaagHistory 
Good Looking Henry LuttikhuizenArt and Art History 
Science in a Human Matrix Matthew WalhoutInterdisciplinary Studies of Science 
Ruining the Movies? Carl Plantinga, Film and Media Studies 
Why Stories Matter More Than Ever: A Letter to a Friend Just Beginning College Jennifer HolbergLiterature 
Why Come to College to Study Writing? Gary SchmidtWriting 
How a Speech Can Change an Audience: Why Studying Public Address Is ImportantKathi GroenendykRhetorical Studies 
Shouting at Your Neighbor: Why We Bother with Other Peoples’ LanguagesDavid I. SmithForeign Languages 
New Life from Ancient TextsDavid NoeClassics 
An Invitation Won LeeBiblical Studies

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Teaching & Christian Practices: A Substantive Engagement

When David Smith and I convened the working group that would eventually lead to the publication of Teaching and Christian Practices: Reshaping Faith & Learning, our goal was to start a conversation, not issue an edict.  We always had the sense that we were tentatively exploring new ground, raising new questions, experimenting with some hypotheses.  So we didn't see the book as the definitive statement; to the contrary, we published the book just hoping to find some folks who were willing to ask the questions with us.

So the engagement with the book that is found in the recent review in Books & Culture is just the sort of thing we had hoped for.  In "Habits of the Heart & Mind," four professors from Westmont College--Jesse Covington, Maurice Lee, Sarah L. Skripsky, and Lesa Stern--report from a year of wrestling with the proposals and experiments that are collected in Teaching and Christian Practices.  They raise four questions that we were also asking, even after we finished the book:
  • What is "Christian" about these practices?
  • How do people change?
  • What does Teaching and Christian Practices teach us about pedagogy?
  • What might have to be sacrificed in order to create space for such practices?
All good questions.  Even within our working group, we couldn't come to consensus on some of these matters, so we tried to create a "big tent" that provided room for different answers and approaches.  But what's great is that these questions represent a new conversation in Christian higher education--a new trajectory that is really beginning to think about pedagogy, formation, and the mission of the Christian university.

Interestingly, when they helpfully ask what makes "Christian practices" Christian, I'm reminded of conversations we had in our working group in which my own inclination to a liturgical "center" and criterion for Christian practices was met with some reservation--which is why the book's definition is wider (this is where I demur from Volf, for instance).  I think the reviewers are right to press this question.  In concert with them, I might suggest that Christian practices will be those practices that intentionally "carry" the Christian story--so they are teleologically defined.  Much more would needs to be said, but on this point I'm hopeful that some of what I'll say in Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works might actually address this question by thinking through the "narrative logic" of Christian practices (with a little help from Bourdieu).  Imagining the Kingdom will also clarify how I understand the constructive relationship between practice and reflection (though I still think there is a primacy to practice--I'll marshall Merleau-Ponty to make further refine and defend this claim).  

But mostly I just want to express my appreciation to the reviewers for a substantive, charitable, critical, constructive review that truly advances the conversation we had hoped to begin.  I hope others who join the conversation will also read "Habits of the Heart & Mind."

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Hegel on Education

From Hegel's Elements of the Philosophy of Right, trans. Nisbett (Cambridge UP, 1991), 196:

"When a father asked him for the best advice about the best way of educating his son in ethical matters, a Pythagorean replied: 'Make him a citizen of a state with good laws.'"

Draw your own analogies.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Drama of Belief: Tony Kushner on Theatre

Last spring when I was in New York I had really hoped I could score tickets to Tony Kushner's play, The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism, but didn't.  (Most will know Kushner from Angels in America.) Especially for someone like me, who's sympathetic to voices like Ross Douthat and Charles Taylor and John Milbank, it's important to hear a very different sort of critique of our present--the sort of diagnosis of modernity that ripples across Kushner's oeuvre.

The interview with Kushner in the latest issue of The Paris Review only confirmed this sense for me.  It is a conversation sparkling with insight, sounding existential depths.

Indeed, one of the things that struck me is how often Kushner's take on drama echoes Augustine's account of drama (which I've discussed elsewhere)--except that they have very different evaluations of what's at issue.  Consider, for instance, Kushner's reflection on how writing differs from acting:

When I'm writing a new play, there's a period where I know I shouldn't be out in public much. I imagine most people who create go through something like this. You will fully loosen some of the inner straps that hold your core together. You become more porous and multivalent and multivocal, so that the multitudes you have inside yourself can start to get up and walk around and emerge. Then, hopefully, you put them back into the cave.  But to really play Linda Loman, you have to go there every night.  So you live in a state, I would imagine, of permanent looseness in the core, which I find frankly terrifying (pp. 116-117).

That's exactly what terrifies Augustine about the stage in Book III of the Confessions: the actor so regularly divests the self of a center and identify--so regularly fragments and dissipates the self (the chief effect of sin, for Augustine)--that Augustine worries there's no return.  This is the great danger for actors.  And Kushner recognizes the danger. He's not willing to go there himself, but also thinks that actors are those brave souls who have the courage to risk themselves in this way.

But then, interestingly, Kushner unwittingly hits on Augustine's concern for theatre-goers.  Kushner again:

Sometimes a phony-baloney actor will hoodwink the public for decades, but the actors we really rever aren't kidding around when they act. They suffer. PArt of what we are paying to see when we go to the theater is suffering. We want to see actual suffering. There's a certain Christ-like thing going on--the actors are suffering so we don't have to (p. 117).

I'm not interested in the "Christ-figure" bit; I'm intrigued by Kushner's claim about theatre-goers: we don't suffer; we merely observe suffering.  Once again, this is one of Augustine's central concerns in Book III: the play engenders emotion in us, but not real suffering (it's not happening to us), and not sympathy other (we know they're acting). So we go to enjoy suffering (and if you know anything of Augustine's use/enjoyment distinction, you can imagine how perverted he thinks this is.  I'm not saying he's right, just that there are these intriguing parallels with Kushner's take).

This leads Kushner into a nuanced, philosophical discussion of the productive tensions between realism and fantasy on the stage.  Drama, he contends, remains that unique genre where the audience has to be in on the joke--we have to wink in return when we see the director wink at us off-stage, because you can't hide the curtain and you can't not hear the stage crew moving props around and you can't get lost in a totalized fantasy world like you can in the cinema. (Kushner launches into a fascinating critique of our erotic relationship to technology on this point insofar as technology tries to hide its human origins, the fact that it's made.)

Kushner points to one of his key influences on this point:

Brecht says the point of theater is, among other things, to make you conscious of this disappearing trick.  That's why he used a half-curtain in his productions, with the audience watching one scene being played out in front of the curtain and, behind it, the next scene being prepared.  As he wrote in one of his theater poems, let people "see that this is not magic, but work, my friends." His most famous, and most misunderstood, idea about staging is what he calls the distanciation effect--he wants theater to enable you to see the familiar as strange and the strange as familiar, so that you greet reality with an appetite to interpret it (pp. 118-119).  

This is why Kushner thinks drama can have such a critical function in society, without devolving into mere tracts and propoganda.  It gets us to question our reality.  "The incomplete, imperfect illusion will never be unnecessary for human beings," he concludes, "and its home will always be in the theater, where everything, including death, is simultaneously thoroughly and yet not entirely convincing."

Friday, July 06, 2012

"The Devil Has All the Best Stories": JKAS on ABC's "Encounter"

While I was in Australia I was interviewed by David Rutledge for "Encounter," a program on ABC's Radio National (think of it as the Australian equivalent of the BBC).  Rutledge was engaged and curious, so the interview was really just a ranging conversation.

They've now edited that interview, along with snippets from my New College Lectures, to produce the 1-hour program of Encounter for July 7.  However, you can already listen to the program, "The Devil Has All the Best Stories," online.

I'm not sure that the in-person, informal, conversational mode of my presentation necessarily translates into "good radio," but you'll find the program offers a preview of my new book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works (appearing in January 2013).