Saturday, December 20, 2014

In Memoriam: Helen Piett

As many of you know, I don't come from a small "town;" I come from a small village.  Embro, Ontario had a population of just about 600 people when I was growing up, without even the one proverbial stoplight to slow down passers-through who would miss it if they blinked.  If you've read an Alice Munro story or a Robertson Davies novel--especially the Deptford trilogy--you'll have a pretty good sense of what it was like.   A lot of stiff-upper-lipped Scotsmen who coached hockey and spent Thursday nights at the lodge; a lot of salt-of-the-earth women who tolerated them and ran things from behind the scenes.  Within a block of each other was the Presbyterian church and a local United Church congregation, and the green between them was where I remember celebrating Embro's 125th anniversary in 1983.

I won't romanticize it.  No doubt it was a difficult place to be an outsider.  And when I was young, the stability of the place was already eroding: the culture of divorce and dislocation would eat away at a more ancient fabric.  But the village and surrounding rural township forged an identity in two primary nodes: the hockey arena and our rural school.

I am just old enough to remember the original arena: a green ramshackle driveshed of a building on Argyle Street--basically corrugated metal and a roof over what would otherwise be an outdoor rink.  It was here that I would take my first steps on the ice, though within a few years a new arena would be built on the other side of town, the local temple of Canadian religion.  For a significant swath of the community, life revolved around the arena.

But even more of us were bound together by the school.  All of us were bussed from miles around to a country school north of Embro: Zorra Highland Park, whose name signaled the Scottish heritage of the township ("Embro" is said to be a garbled form of the "Edinburgh").  My first teacher there in kindergarten also happened to be my great aunt, Helen Piett (née Smith).  I was terribly sad to learn that Aunt Helen died a few weeks ago, on November 22, 2014.  I feel like I owe her memory and legacy a word of thanks.

My first-hand memories of Aunt Helen are memories of "Mrs. Piett," my teacher.  Because it was a country school, we went to kindergarten all day, every other day, so I remember her getting us settled down for nap time in the afternoons.  "Get your mats, children"--cushy, ugly, brown naugahyde mats for sleeping on the floor.  I remember her comforting me and putting a band-aid on my hair after Darryl Fraser hip-checked me into one of the cubby-holes, sending me off with the principal to get stitches in Tavistock.  I remember how every year, for generations, she created silhouettes of each student's young profile by tracing the outline of our heads projected by the stark light of the filmstrip projector.  She would cut these out of black construction paper, mount them on stark white backdrops, label the name and date in her meticulous cursive hand, and then present them to the parents.  Often when I visited friends in their homes, these shadows of their younger selves adorned the walls like memories.

For reasons that are painful to discuss, I never really got to know Mrs. Piett as "Aunt Helen."  Those corrosive forces that fractured families hit my own, leaving estrangement and dysfunction in their wake.  The entire "Smith side" of my life disappeared behind the walls erected by divorce--walls that are invisible and yet also block our way.

But then just before we moved to the United States in 1995, somehow Aunt Helen got in touch with me and passed along what is now a treasure to me: a family history of The Maisley McWilliams in Canada, 1846-1939, with five supplements tracing the history up until 1994.  Little did I know that Aunt Helen was also the family historian.  Most significantly, she had written me into the history I thought I'd lost.  There was my name in this story.  And even more: there was my marriage to Deanna in that final supplement.  And there were my two sons, their births in 1992 and 1994 etched into this family tree.  While I thought this family had forgotten me, Aunt Helen hadn't.

And she didn't ever again.  Faithfully, every year, she would send our family a Christmas card with one of her lovely letters of reflection and gratitude.  And we would reciprocate, partly in gratitude, but mostly because she was the only set of arms reaching out to us from this lost side of my life.  In Children of Divorce, Andrew Root argues that divorce is traumatic because its effects are ontological: it rends our very being.  Aunt Helen was someone who was trying to keep me stitched together.

This week we received a letter from Aunt Helen's daughter, Marlene Matheson.  Its first line both pierced my heart and cheered my soul:

It is with sadness that I write this last 'Christmas' letter for Mom.  Mom will be spending Christmas with Jesus Christ this year.

I am grateful for the quiet, steady witness of saints like Aunt Helen.  Thank you, Aunt Helen, for the gift you gave our family: the gift of a history, a story, but also the model of one who longed for the Lord of history.  Enjoy your well-deserved rest in the country you've been looking for your whole life.  I can't wait to see you there.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Comment subscription DEAL: Buy one, get one free! (til Dec. 4)

A limited time offer, til December 4, 2014: Buy one subscription to Comment magazine and we'll give you a second one for free.  Invite a friend to join the conversation that is Comment!

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Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Responding to a Common Critique of "Who's Afraid of Relativism?"

Eduardo Echeverria has published an article-length critical review of my book, Who's Afraid of Relativism?in the latest issue of the Calvin Theological Journal and the editors gave me an opportunity to respond.  I took them up on it, in part because Echeverria's serious engagement deserved a reply, but also because his critique reflects a common mis-reading of my project (of the sort you might see, for instance, in Philosophia Christi).

I've uploaded my response, "Echeverria's Protestant Epistemology: A Catholic Response," at Scrib and embedded it below.

One contextual note about a joke embedded in the title: Echeverria is a former Neocalvinist who converted to Roman Catholicism; I, on the other hand, am a Reformed Protestant.  Get it?

Friday, August 29, 2014

Labor Day Lament: A Poem

This "last Friday" of summer has a feel of Fall about it: we'll head to the first high school football game tonight with sweatshirts to guard against evening chill.  As I'm watching the kids on our street squeeze out the last dregs of summer, I'm reminded of how I approached Labor Day weekend as a child--which then reminded me of a poem I wrote several years ago.  It's probably not worth the light of day, but it might capture how some of us feel about the twilight of summer:

Labor Day Lament

When did Labor Day lose
its apocalyptic tenor? 
its doomsday connotation? 
its autumnal terror?

For a boy of twelve
Labor Day comes like a thief in the night,
with the sound of a dreaded trump
announcing the end of
catching crayfish and walnut fights—
as if the first day of school
was a recurring Armageddon.

For a boy of sixteen
Labor Day is the Day of Judgment,
the parousia that quashes
a summer of paramours—
when teasing bikinis and spaghetti straps
become draped in the wool of
Catholic school uniforms whose
scratchy discomfort enacts
a tartan penance.

For the young man at twenty-seven
Labor Day is lost in the blur
of cubicled time,
barely a blip in the whir of ambition
and the tribulation of his toil.

But at twilight
in the yard—
in the cemetery of his play—
in the gloaming of summer,
the smell of that adolescent dread
briefly hangs on the unkempt lawn
like neglected manna,
a tenuous revenant lurking
between tricycle and sandbox.

Its haunting no longer spooks
his responsible adult disenchanted soul.
Tuesday will be no Second Coming.
Apocalyptic is kids’ stuff.
We’re too busy slouching toward success.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sending our Daughter Off to College: A Guest Post by Deanna

Today we moved our daughter, our third child, into her dorm room at Calvin College.  It was everything we could have hoped for, and everything we've been trying to pretend wouldn't happen all summer.  Our baby girl has been launched into the next season of her adventure with Christ.

My wife, Deanna, sent a note to our closest family to share an update.  I found her little note so lovely, so fitting, so poignant, I asked if I could share it here, and she agreed.  

I just got home from taking Maddie to Calvin. The day we have been both looking forward to and dreading all at once. We like her so much. 
All the cliches are true. It goes by so fast. It seems like just yesterday...Where does the time go? Of course, there were so many days that led to this one. 6649 to be exact. So many of them ordinary, trying, never ending. And then there were the magical ones. All of the "firsts." All of the moments that have added up and been tucked away and made us into the people we are today. 
We are so very thankful. Profoundly grateful for our Maddie and her brothers. We look forward to watching her grow over the next 4 years and are trusting in God's amazing love for her. 
One of my favourite pictures of her from when she was little is this one I have included. She was pretending to be  a bird. Arms open wide, face to the sun, looking ahead, soaring. It perfectly encapsulates who she is. She is ready to fly. 

Friday, August 22, 2014

We Need More Than Liturgy: AGREED

It's always, er, let's say, "intriguing" to read an article that purports to be a critique of your work which, in turns, criticizes what you have also criticized and espouses positions that, in fact, you have also argued.  In short, it's puzzling to read an article that claims to disagree with you when said article argues for the same positions you hold.

I say "intriguing," but what I really mean is frustrating, disappointing, and puzzling--especially when such a "critique" is not some random musing hastily posted to a blog but an article that appears in a major evangelical publication that (one assumes) has been vetted by editors who (again, one would think) exercise some critical quality control.  (I say this as someone who also edits a magazine and has had to reject articles--even articles I've commissioned--when authors weren't willing to correct caricatures.)

This was my experience upon reading Kirsten Guidero's puzzling, somewhat meandering article, "We Need More Than Liturgy," published by Christianity Today.

The problem isn't critique.  Critique is how knowledge advances and how authors continue to learn.  And I've appreciated some well-founded critiques of both Desiring the Kingdom (DTK) and Imagining the Kingdom (ITK).  Indeed, as I note in the Preface to ITK, insightful criticisms of DTK shaped how I approached volume 2 of the Cultural Liturgies Project.  I've also engaged the helpful criticisms of my project from "the Westmont Four" that appeared in Books & Culture (here and here).

Lots of other criticisms are simply mistaken and uninteresting and usually exhibit the critic's inability to understand an argument (or that the critic has already decided before reading that book X is "wrong" because it is written by Y and Y is associated with Z, etc.).  Most of these sorts of "critiques" appear on blogs and I happily ignore.

Guidero's is this sort of "critique," but it appears with the imprimatur of Christianity Today and, one has to conclude, its editors.  It's frustrating to feel compelled to write a response to such a piece since it's required only because an author and editors failed to actually read what I've already written.  And if my response seems tedious, it's precisely because I find it tedious to have to restate what Guidero should have already read (supposedly "has read").  My response, then, is as much an indictment of the editors of Christianity Today as it is of Guidero.

Without further adieu, a few notes:

Liturgical Evangelicalism?

Guidero's attributes to me a "defense of liturgical evangelicalism."  I dare anyone to find any instance in which I have either used this term let alone "defended" it.  I have no idea what it would mean to be "a champion of the evangelical liturgy cause."  To the contrary I have been persistently skeptical about what "evangelicalism" means.  Instead, ever since the final chapter of Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? (2006), I have argued for catholic faith. "Evangelicalism" is not my term nor my identity.  I'm a Reformed Catholic.

Only Bodies?

Guidero mistakenly thinks I argue for some kind of reductionistic materialism, as if we were only bodies--that I set up liturgical formation "against" cognitive processes and am engaged in "a continued zero-sum game pitting mind against body."  Instead, she argues for the "enduring interrelation of our bodies, brains, and identities."

Here's the problem: that's also what I argue for.  Both sides of her claim are so baffling to me I don't even know where to begin, but I think it must stem from Guidero's inability (or refusal?) to really grasp what I argue in chapter 1 of ITK (an admittedly challenging chapter, focused on Merleau-Ponty).

Following Merleau-Ponty, I emphasise the "hybridity" of our being--that we are mind and body (ITK, 43).  This "betweenness" and inter-relatedness of mind and body is almost the entire burden of the first chapter of ITK (see especially pp. 69-72 about the "wholeness" of our experience).

[Also relevant is a footnote on ITK, p. 55, drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre: "The term animal (as in “liturgical animal” or “imaginative animal”) is just a philosophical way of naming our embodiment, of saying that we are not essentially souls or only minds but embodied thinkers that Aristotle called “rational animals.” We aren’t angels. Merleau-Ponty and Johnson press us to situate the rationality in our animality, in our embodiment. Alasdair MacIntyre makes the same point: “our whole initial bodily comportment towards the world is originally an animal comportment” (Dependent Rational Animals, 49).]

I'm not arguing that we are only bodies; I'm arguing that we are not less than bodies.  She takes my argument for irreducibility as if it were a reductionism.  But I don't know how many more ways I could protest that in the book.  Guidero is working with a dichotomy that I explicitly refuse.  For example, I conclude ITK by emphasizing "that this attention to our unconscious habituation and embodied 'feel' for the world is not meant to denigrate or neglect the role of reflection and intellectual analysis.  I am not setting up a dichotomy: either practice or reflection.  To the contrary, my hope is to foster intentional reflection on practice in order to encourage reflective immersion in practice" (p. 186).  The entire Preface of ITK makes this same point: if my argument is anti-intellectual, both of my books sure ask people to do some really hard thinking about worship!  In that sense, I only wish Guidero would have thought a little more carefully about all of this.

Furthermore, I explicitly agree with her claim about how we ought to be engaged in worship: as I emphasize at the conclusion of ITK, "worship requires full, active, conscious participation even if it is also forming us in ways that elude our conscious awareness.  If our immersion in the practices of Christian worship is always and only a matter of 'going through the motions,' then we are not really practitioners" (p. 187).

If some of Guidero's evangelical friends have latched onto "liturgy" as some kind of magical antidote, that's not my fault.


According to Guidero, I argue, in DTK, that "Christian education must be entirely redirected in order to better foster such liturgical emphasis on the emotions."  (Guidero has a habit of simply putting a title in brackets in a mode of vague reference--though this might have been a result of editorial trimming.)

Really? I'm baffled.  I've searched high and low throughout Desiring to see where I even talk about emotions.  All I could find was a critique of emotionalism on p. 79 and then a more substantial discussion on p. 224 where, again, I critique emotivism.  In the context of a discussion about campus worship, I push back on dichotomous models that emphasize either the intellect or emotions.  "[B]oth sides," I point out, "tend to either reduce Christianity to a belief system or an emotivist experience."  In contrast, I argue that "if we begin from the assumption that humans are liturgical animals, and that the Christian social imaginary is carried in the practices of Christian worship, then...the role of the chapel is not to stir our emotions or merely fuel our 'spiritual' needs..."

Guidero doesn't seem to appreciate the nuances of the philosophical account of the emotions that is unpacked in ITK drawing on scholars like Merleau-Ponty, Mark Johnson, Iain McGilchrist, Bob Roberts and relevant work in neuroscience. (One can find further exploration of a nuanced account of emotion in my earlier book, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy). She also seems to confuse my (Burkean) sense of the "sentimental" (also per David Brooks) as if this was some kind of Oprah-fied Hallmarkism and the stuff of Nicholas Sparks' movies--when, in fact, this is precisely what I criticize.

That I could be guilty of extoling "emotion-driven Christian liturgy" is almost laughable: you should come to my church!

No Guarantees

In what she takes to be opposition to my project, Guidero emphasizes that "liturgical formation does not guarantee virtue formation."

But where do I ever make claims about such a "guarantee?"  I reject any sort of liturgical determinism (just as Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu also reject determinism, as I note in ITK).  And already in DTK, I noted the limits of liturgical formation.  Consider, for example, an important footnote on p. 208:
I suggest that my account of secular liturgies might be able to provide a framework for explaining why the practices of Christian worship don’t seem to transform those who participate in them. For instance, I can think of a congregation gathering week in and week out for historic, intentional Christian worship that includes all the elements discussed here; and yet, from the perspective of shalom, some of its parishioners are unapologetic and public participants in some of the most egregious systemic injustices. Does that falsify my claims here? I don’t think so, at least not necessarily. Rather, we will need a more nuanced account of how some liturgies trump others; in this case, we could suggest that though these parishioners participate in Christian worship, their participation in other secular liturgies effectively trumps the practices of Christian worship. Such a line of investigation might also require that we attend to empirical realities, drawing on a theologically informed psychology, sociology, and ethnography.
Furthermore, I conclude ITK with an entire section emphasizing the importance of reflection and liturgical catechesis, inviting worshipers to think about what they're doing when they worship (pp. 187-189).  There, drawing on the wisdom of my friend John Witvliet, I explicitly name and reject the kind of liturgical superstition that Guidero attributes to me.

Liturgies from Heaven?

I'm not quite sure what to make of Guidero's section, "Who Decides?," but she seems to attribute to me some kind of traditionalism as if I think there is "one, true" Christian liturgy that was handed down from heaven to...who?  Cranmer? Calvin? Bob Webber?  I'm not sure because, simply, I don't hold this view.

If some people are prone to liturgical positivism and traditionalism, what does that have to do with me?  I explicitly reject this kind of static, "deposit" model of Christian liturgy, even though I do argue for a core, catholic liturgical inheritance that is the accrued wisdom of the body of Christ, led by the Spirit over the course of history (see esp. ITK, pp. 169-171).  But I also explicitly note that this does not preclude innovation in liturgical forms (p. 174n.61):
This is not to say that there is no room for innovation or improvisation in Christian worship or that affirming the formative wisdom of historic Christian worship requires merely repeating status quo forms. The point is rather that improvisations and innovations of worship form need to be attentive to the narrative arc of the form and the unique “incarnate significance” of worship practices. Innovations that are “faithful” will preserve the plot of that narrative arc and deepen the imaginative impact of worship. Unfaithful and unhelpful innovations will be developments that are detrimental to the imaginative coherence of worship.
Was there some other way I could have said that so Guidero could hear it?


These notes still don't quite capture the gulf between the positions she ascribes to me and those I actually argue for in DTK and ITK.  To do so would be to rewrite those books.  The best I can do is invite you to read the books carefully (even if Guidero didn't) and assess for yourself.

Do we need more than liturgy?  Absolutely.  In fact, I wrote a book called Desiring the Kingdom that concluded with the same point.  And that we need nothing less.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

On "Courage" in the (Christian) Academy

[a few thoughts composed on my iPhone on the shore of Little Platte Lake]

Someone has said that academic squabbles are so nasty only because they are so unimportant. Nonetheless, many academics like to see themselves as "courageous"--exhibiting intellectual heroism, taking stands that are unpopular, leading to some kind of "martyrdom."  This is the kind of "courage" you claim when you've dodged the draft and type with hands never blemished by a callous. 

This self-understanding of academic "courage" takes specific forms among Christian scholars, and is perhaps ramped up by adding religious stakes to the mix. Again, the scholar likes to imagine himself or herself as "courageous" for saying unpopular things, for speaking truth to power, for questioning the status quo. 

There are "progressive" versions of this in which the courageous scholar-martyr is marginalized by evangelicalism for taking unpopular stands that are nonetheless supported by "science" or "justice" or "democracy" or "experience" or what have you. As a result s/he is critcized, bullied, rejected, ostracized, ignored, excluded, etc. But the courageous scholar is willing to endure such sacrifices for the sake of Truth, Justice, Science, Progress, Diversity, etc. 

But progressives don't have the corner on the courage market. There are conservative Christian scholars who tell themselves the same story: they are willing to risk marginalization, exclusion, derision, even appearing the fool in order to stand up for The Truth against academic trends, intellectual fads, and the temptations that roll into the university under the guise of Progress.

But when one looks at these scenarios more closely, I think one will see that, in fact, neither is risking very much. Those "courageous" progressives don't really value the opinions or affirmations of conservative evangelicalism anyway. What they really value, long for, and try to curry is the favor of "the Enlightened"--whether that's the mainstream academy or the progressive chattering class who police our cultural mores of tolerance. Sure, these "courageous" progressives will take fire from conservative evangelicals--but that's not a loss or sacrifice for them. Indeed, their own self-understanding is fueled by such criticism.  In other words, these stands don't take "courage" at all; they don't stand to lose anything with those they truly value.

Similarly, "courageous" conservatives who "stand up" to the progressive academy aren't putting much at risk because that's not where they look for validation and it's not where their professional identities are invested. They are usually "populists" (in a fairly technical sense of the word) whose professional lives are much more closely tethered to the church and popular opinion.  And in those sectors, "standing up to" the academy isn't a risk at all--it's a way to win praise. When your so-called contrarian stands win favor from those you value most...well, it's hard to see how "courage" applies. 

But here's what we don't often see: Christian scholars who have vested their professional lives in the mainstream academy willing to take stands that would be unpopular at the MLA or APA or AAR. Conversely, we don't see many conservative scholars willing to defend positions that would jeapordize their favored status with popular evangelicalism. 

Now both of those options would require courage.

Monday, June 30, 2014

O.K. Bouwsma on philosophers and philosophy

O.K. Bouwsma, a graduate of Calvin College's philosophy department, was a longtime professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska and, later, the University of Texas.  He is one of four presidents of the American Philosophical Association who was an alumnus of our department here at Calvin.  He was also one of the first U.S. interpreters of Wittgenstein and influenced students like Norman Malcolm who went on to play a significant role in the reception of Wittgenstein in North America.

I was recently re-reading one of Bouwsma's classics, a little review essay on Wittgenstein's Blue Book that first appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1961.  It includes one of my favorite passages of philosophy ever, and makes me think being a student of Bouwsma must have been spell-binding:

I have been trying in these paragraphs to represent a certain source of misunderstanding, an obstacle to misunderstanding.  It may also be represented in this way: Philosophers are people who investigate what sorts of things there are in the universe.  They are, of course, scrupulous in these investigations beyond the scrupulosity of any other investigator.  They stand at the gate and wait, fearing to tread where angels rush in. And what do they ask? They ask questions such as: Are there angels, universals, pure possibilities, uncrusted possibilities, possibilities with a little mud on them, fairies, creatures made of beautiful smoke, relations, the Lost Atlantis, real equality among tooth-picks, sense-data, ghosts, selves in prison with two feet, everlasting shoe-makers, heaven, thinking horses, pure uncontaminated acts, absolutely independent tables, the minds of stars, the spirits of an age, perfect circles, the geometrical point of a joke, the devil, floating impressions, categorical don’ts, one simple called Simon, perspectives waiting to take their places as the penny turns, gods, any ding-dong an sich with a bell so one can find it in the dark, trees, houses, and mountains of the mind, itches of necessary connection, two impossibilities before breakfast, blue ideas, enghosted pieces of furniture, etc. 
 And if now anyone comes to the reading of this book [Wittgenstein’s Blue Book] expecting the author, for instance, to say: “Yes, yes, God exists,” and then to show him a new and knock-out proof that is guaranteed for a thousand years or to help him to an old one, long buried in a Kant heap, but now freshly washed and polished, well, the author is more likely to remind him that thought Nietzsche some years ago read an obituary notice to the effect that God is dead, he, the author, had not even heard that God was sick.  “The living God!”  And as for inventing any new apriori synthetic, a new drug to cure this or that, or any and all, sorts of incertitude, though he seems at one time to have been interested in inventing a new type of airplane propeller and showed a keen interest in all sorts of gadgets, a milk bottle, for instance, from which with the use of a spoon, one could pour off the cream—“Now, there’s America for you!”—this particular form of invention he seems not to have been interested in.  He was more inclined to recommend a few old home remedies and common herbs, garden variety simples which he was insistent one should not confuse.  And as for those readers in general who want answers to their questions and who, if they already have answers, want better reasons, the author givens neither better reasons for the old answers nor any answers, and those readers who keep their questions may be considered either fortunate or unfortunate as the case may be. 
I have tried to show how it is that this book should disappoint some readers, supposed that they had expectations in reading it.  I have suggested that the reason why such readers have such expectations is that it is, or is read as, a book in philosophy.  And it is a book of philosophy, surely?  Well, it is and it isn’t.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Reframing the Imagination: On Wes Anderson's Formalism

[As we are patiently waiting for Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel to wend its way to the flyover states, I thought I might share a snippet from a presentation I made last year under the auspices of the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (thanks to the hospitality of the inestimable Jeremy Begbie).  Reading A.O. Scott's review of the new film brought this to mind.]

I have elsewhere argued that the imagination is less a faculty of “invention” and innovation and more like a preconscious comportment to the world—a tacit “understanding” of the world that is fundamentally aesthetic.  I think this has important implications for how the imagination is invoked in the encounter between theology and the arts.  On this alternative account, the imagination is not a unique skill or capacity peculiar to artists; the imagination is a fundamentally human “faculty” by which we orient ourselves to the world.  So while artists are without question creative, that does not mean that they have cornered the market on the imagination.  Instead of placing the imagination on the production side of art (the inventive, creative pole), we should recognize the power of the imagination on the reception side of art (though not only art): it is our imagination that “receives” the work of art, and such works of art can (and do) function as imagination-training-sites, formative encounters that both appeal to—and “trigger”—the imagination while also shaping and forming our imaginative horizons.  (This has extra-artistic implications as well.)

If a Christian theological engagement with the arts is going to focus on the imagination, I’m suggesting that this should be less fixated on the dynamics of creativity and invention and more focused on the irreducible “know-how” (praktognosia) that is named by “the imagination.”  In that case, the imagination will be an occasion for thinking about the dynamics of truth—the unique, affective way that art tells the truth about the world rather than just “expressing” my interior sincerity.  Our most powerful works of art are not just products of the imagination; the truth they tell is truth fit to our imagination.  They can only be understood on a “poetic register,” can only be understood by the imagination.  And that understanding is itself irreducible. 

If we were to make that move, it would lead to a new Christian appreciation for what I can only describe in a ham-fisted way as “formalism”—an appreciation for form as truth.  In Imagining the Kingdom I get at this through Cleanth Brooks’ notion of “the heresy of paraphrase.”  Here I’d like to try a different tack with a different medium—through an engagement with the films of Wes Anderson, focusing on The Royal Tenenbaums as a case study.  One could think of this as an expansion of a terse footnote in Imagining the Kingdom (p. 48n.31).

I should confess that this case study was prompted by Michael Chabon’s recentmeditation on Anderson’s oeuvre in the New York Review of Books.  (Chabon’s essay is one of those disheartening works of genius that make you lose any hope that you’ll ever be able to write.  “That’s it; I quit. I’ll never be Michael Chabon.”)  He looks to Anderson as both a chronicler of brokenness and a quiet, humble evangelist for the hope that things might be otherwise.  “The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises,” Chabon observes, “that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken.  We call this period of research ‘childhood.’” It is a difficult education.  “Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.  The question becomes: What to do with the pieces?”  Some hunker down atop the pile of brokenness and “make do;” others take out their frustration by breaking the fragments that remain.  But “some people,” he says, “passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.”  Wes Anderson, he argues, is one of those people. 

Granted, because we only get glimpses of how it’s supposed to be, “through half-closed lids,” our efforts at rebuilding will be, at best, approximations: “A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered.  Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can only be approximations, partial and inaccurate.  As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures.  And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models of this beautiful and broken world.  We call these scale models ‘works of art.’”

Wes Anderson is that kind of artist.  As Chabon goes on to highlight, Anderson’s films are often compared to Joseph Cornell’s boxed collages that reproduce a world in miniature.  Indeed, such miniature panoramas often appear in Anderson’s films.  But the entirety of Anderson’s filmic aesthetic does the same thing: it is not a surrealist or fantastical invention of a world so much as a re-framing of our world. (And the framing is not just visual; soundtrack is also essential. Cue Jeremy Begbie.)  

Chabon captures this brilliantly:
“For my next trick,” says Joseph Cornell, or Valdimir Nabokov, or Wes Anderson, “I have put the world into a box.”  And when he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterfly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss.  And you say, leaning in, ‘The world!’”

I would suggest that Anderson’s films tell the truth on the register of the imagination in ways that we might not realize, or even be able to articulate, and yet nonetheless feel.  A Wes Anderson film plays the strings of your imagination in a way that has you sort of grinning and longing and smiling and mourning, all for reasons you know not why; and yet you can’t stop.  Chabon’s essay helped me to excavate something of my visceral reaction to Anderson’s 2001 movie, The Royal Tenenbaums

The world of the Tenenbaum family, framed in this film, is certainly a broken world: an absent scoundrel of a father who has abandoned his family; a son who is a young widower; an adopted daughter who has always been “other;” a suicidal son who is in love with her; and a dear family friend beset by addiction.  There’s nothing pretty about this family. 

And yet the movie is so oddly gorgeous.  (I’ll say more about the “oddly” in a moment.)  But its aesthetic does not beautify this brokenness; it doesn’t “pretty up” fragmentation or paper over the horrors.  To the contrary, it is the frame—the very form of Anderson’s shots—that attests to the fact that things should be otherwise.  In some way, the story of an Anderson movie is almost—almost—irrelevant.  Or better: the story Anderson tells is told in the form.  

Royal’s character is a study in this: Anderson cultivates our sympathy for him, despite almost everything he actually says.  (Gene Hackman’s acting here is an incredible dance with the director—a stunning performance.)  Royal is shot in a way that exudes sympathy, and clothed in a way that testifies to the fact he wants to be something other than he is.  The narrative force of an Anderson film is carried visually.  It’s not that screenplay isn’t important, but that the story is (also) told on the register of frames and shots and sets—and that this “telling” is a narration that uniquely and irreducibly speaks to the imagination.


For example, how might this help us make sense of Anderson’s near-history aesthetic—the indescribable way that he cultivates a feel that is at once old but timeless, un-placeable and yet vintage.  What’s at work, for example, in the mix of elegance and ugliness in The Royal Tenenbaums?  The majestic oak paneling and the beat up old Gypsy cabs; the Pellegrino on the dingy old refrigerator; the sumptuous beauty in a shot of a suicide returning home on a vandalized city bus? [with Nick Drake’s “Fly” as the soundtrack, pleading “Please, give me a second grace…”].  What we see is the sad dignity of the formerly bourgeois, the air of civility that clings to the nouveau-pauvre, you might say.  And yet it is in that tension between elegance and ugliness, a tattered sophistication, that we absorb a sense of how things could be—how things ought to be—at the same time we sense that the world is askew, that it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. 

Despite a common criticism, I don’t think this is just nostalgic.  (In the spirit of Kurt Cobain’s “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you,” we might also say: Just because you’re nostalgic doesn't mean things didn’t used to be better.) Indeed, I think Chabon gives us a frame to see anew Anderson’s aesthetic: he cultivates a sense of order in the very frame of his camera.  The function of line and color in his portraiture is a geometry of normativity.  

The unapologetic artifice of Anderson’s frame is an aesthetic form of hope—a form that bears witness to order, harmony, perhaps even peace.  Despite the chaos that is captured in the frame, the framing of the shot registers that someone is in control.  And that is a truth that we absorb on the register of the imagination.

Monday, March 03, 2014


In just about a month, Baker Academic will publish my new book, Who's Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, the latest offering in the Church and Postmodern Culture series.

In some ways, this is kind of the "Anglo-American" sequel to the "Continental" conversation in Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  In Who's Afraid of Relativism? I engage the pragmatist tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and their living heir, University of Pittsburgh philosopher Robert Brandom.  And since this pragmatist tradition is sort of the philosophical background of "postliberalism" in Christian theology, the final chapter reconsiders George Lindbeck's important book, The Nature of Doctrine, for contemporary theology and ministry.

In the course of offering a Christian introduction to this philosophical tradition, I aim to refine just how we throw around the charge of "relativism," seeking to constructively recover a theology of creaturehood that honors our contingency and the role of community in how we know what we know.

And like my earlier book, I talk about movies!  Who's Afraid of Relativism? includes discussions of Wendy and Lucy, Lars and the Real Girl, Crazy Heart, and a fantastic but under-appreciated French film, I've Loved You So Long.

You can read more about the book, along with endorsements, at the Baker Academic site.

And don't miss the chance to score a free copy: Baker Academic is giving away a few copies over at GoodReads.

(If you're in the west Michigan area, watch for updates about a book reception hosted by the Calvin College Philosophy Department.)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Faithful Compromise

The spring 2014 issue is devoted to a timely, but also counter-intuitive theme: Faithful Compromise.  In my editorial, I tease out this paradoxical notion.  Here's a snippet:
It's a dangerous thing to acquire a theology of cultural transformation but lose an eschatology. Too many Christians who are newly convinced about the implications of the Gospel for society—on either left or right—act as if we are the ones who need to secure the kingdom. If the advent of justice really depended on us, then I can imagine why we could never entertain compromise: it would all rest on our shoulders, hinge on our decisions, depend on our commitment. The buck would stop with us; we would be the last line of defense. 
But we need to be careful that our commitment to pursuing shalom isn't confused with a progressivism that functionally imagines we bring about the kingdom. Instead, we need to recover an Augustinian sense of living in the saeculum, this time between times in which we long for kingdom come but live without illusions of its being accomplished and perfected before then. This side of the eschaton, we seekproximate justice, which means facing up to the complexity of our decisions, policies, and systems and learning to work within them. 
To pray "Thy kingdom come" is liberating precisely because, while it calls us to participate in what God is doing in the world, it also reminds us that God alone, in his providence, is bringing about the consummation of all things. And until then, we can't expect—and shouldn't seek—complete purity. Every time we pray, "Thy kingdom come," we are also reminded: it hasn't come yet. In the meantime, we are liberated to compromise—faithfully, with much discernment, and always praying, in hope, "Thy kingdom come."

You can read the entire editorial online for free.  And check out the Table of Contents for this jam-packed issue.

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