Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Contemplative Art of T.S. Eliot

In my February column for First Things I try to approach T.S. Eliot from the land of art history and visual culture.  Other thoughts on the matter here, at Books & Culture with Brett Foster, or in my article in the QU4RTETS catalog.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Princess Indeed

My January column for First Things has something to frustrate the Left and the Right: Enjoy!  Thanks to art history student Stephen Westich for the wonderful photograph of the girl referred to as the Downs Syndrome Awareness Princess from the Busse Woods Powwow we attended:

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Success Secrets

Now that has officially outlasted The Dish, people have asked me if I have a formula for success over the long haul.  If only it were so simple!  But come to think of it, there is one thing I've have carefully avoided, which may be part of this website's enduring resilience:  I never self-promote.  Why deprive others of the thrill of discovering my genius on their own? Consequently, I spend most of my time pointing out the merits of others.  Consider, for example, Professor Matthew Williner, who (see image below) recently gave a lecture at Duke Divinity School, co-sponsored by Duke's art history department.  It is available at the DITA iTunes page (filled with lots of other good stuff) under the title, "Toward a Visual Ecumenism" (here's a permalink).

Whoever this Williner guy is, he has the answers, and the problem of Christian fragmentation may very well have been resolved in our time.

Monday, January 05, 2015

The Epiphany Curve

This holiday The Atlantic's readers (The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis) breathed sighs of yuletide relief, assuring themselves that the mid-life crisis they have had, are having, or look forward to having would inevitably result in a biologically determined sextogenerian rebound. "The U-curve," writes the author, "offers an opportunity for society to tell a different and better story about life in middle age and beyond: a story that is more accurate and more forgiving and much less embarrassing and lonely." In sum: U complete me.

Not one to waste time, I aim to apply the insights. Wisdom, said article relates, is (merely?) neurological. Hitherto known as the three wise men, I will henceforth refer to them as the three "older people [who] compensate for deterioration in specific regions of the brain by recruiting additional neural networks in other regions—an increase in so-called neuroplasticity that compensates for cognitive decline and perhaps brings other benefits."

Spoken with the sarcastic disdain of someone yet to gain lasting wisdom, I know; but that is a direct quote from what would have been a far more fulfilling article were it not fortified with neurological reductivism like so much Viagara in a dissolute quinquagenarian. It's not that the findings are inaccurate (I'm unqualified to say), or that neurology is unhelpful (it availeth much), or that it's a bad article (I admit I appreciated much of it).  Nor is it that the findings, as the article at one point concedes, are anything new.  But what they are is upside down.

Indeed, the history of art has long asserted that the arc of life is indeed curved: Beginning with youthful, relatively clueless ambition, cresting with arrogant self-reliance, and followed by the humility that comes with age, when, that is, age submits to Divine reality, adoring - as one gorgeous Epiphany collect puts it - "the fruition of thy Glorious Godhead."  The Epiphany curve, furthermore, can take its course at any stage of life, and indeed occurs many times within it.  Here is the curve at the heart of the Psalter, the one that infuses the writings of the saints, or modern spiritual guides such as William Barry (really worthwhile!), Ken Shigematsu (quite good!) or Jacques Philippe (spiritual classic!).

But above all, whereas all The Atlantic has to offer is images of Middle Aged guys looking mopey (how I felt, at points, when I read the article), the Epiphany Curve has centuries of unparalleled beauty behind it, and some impressive names as well:

Don't question my elegantly-placed yellow curves - I didn't get my Ph.D. in art history for nothing.  More importantly, happy Epiphany millinerd reader(s), as you revel in the "mystery that the Gentiles are fellow heirs" (Ephesians 3:6).  And remember, it too is a season, not a day.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The View from Nipple Fountain

The strategy recommended in my December First Things column is to call blasphemy's bluff. 
Robert Gober's MoMA Jesus and the newly refurbished Church of St. Brigid-St. Emeric compared.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Kind of Faith an Artist Had Better Not Lose

The New Republic has been bought out, Rolling Stone has been discredited, and has resorted to extended blockquotes. Really, really good Christian Wiman blockquotes.
"Grace fills empty spaces," writes Simone Weil, "but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it." 

Whatever one thinks of the religious implications of that sentence, there is a kind of faith that a poet had better not lose. It is a faith in the mind's ability to find meaning in a world that exists indepedently of itself, and a concomitant faith in language to serve as a means of doing so. In the absence of this, poetry can only be at best a diversion within life; at worst it is a complete evasion of it. Yet even for those poets who manage to retain such faith, who in their better moments believe in the value of poetry and in its capacity to formalize some fragment of living reality, the prospect of spending a life trying to articulate sweet sounds together ought to be fraught with doubt and uncertainty, some unshakable sense that, in the face of real suffering and chaos, poetry may be irrelevant.  It is this tension that keeps talent alive.  
It is also this tension that keeps form alive. The least satisfying forms are those that are the most satisfied with themselves...  Those who merely imitate the order they see around them are ornamentalists.  There are pleasures to be had from such work, but they are the pleasures of amenities. At the same time, formal distortion is interesting and meaningful only when it occurs in a poet for whom formal coherence seems a real possibility... It requires no great talent to imitate chaos, or to illustrate the inability of the mind and language to make meaning. Those who do, as Wallace Stevens suggested, are simply exacerbating our confusion.
This structure of ideas, these ghostly sequences
Of the mind, result only in disaster.  It follows,
Casual poet, that to add your own disorder to disaster

Makes more of it.
I have not intended this to be an argument in favor of a "return to traditional forms." Much of the self-satisfied metrical poetry I read makes me nostalgia for Dada.  I have focused on these forms for the sake of clarity and economy, and because they seem to provoke the strongest animus. I do feel that, whether one writes in traditional forms or free verse, it's probably time to get beyond this automatic resistance to finish and closure in poetry, that the idea of form as somehow more authentic if rough and unfinished has itself become something of a convention. If one's experience of life is truly confusing and chaotic, and if one's feeling for the inadequacy of language is something more than an academic idea, perhaps the proper response is either silence or coherence.  Not the kind of coherence that eliminates uncertainty, not the kind of closure that congratulate itself, but something sharper, some only momentary peace which, because it comes with a consciousness of loss, is also pain.
I owe this reference to the sage of Lincoln Marsh, Joel Sheesley, who has applied this creepily insightful passage to his own staggering paintings.   In the context in which he shared it, Sheesley explained how the supposed ban on traditional form is simply outflanked by Christian Wiman's wisdom, with which I now conclude:
A poorly cropped digital image of one of Joel Sheesley's amazing paintings
My friend thought that to write in traditional forms was to cleave to a vanished past, to insulate oneself and one's work against one's own time.  I have tried to make a case for them as bearers of contemporary consciousness, though I do admit that one can't use these forms without referring to the past. So long as it isn't merely a sentimental attachment to the antique, I think of this reference as a strength.  I also think that there is a sense in which to work toward some ideal order is to claim a connectedness with the future as well as the past, that a poem may foreshadow formally a time in which one's world and mind will - and I'm paraphrasing Marilynne Robinson here - be made whole.  To reach for is not to grasp.  ...I think perhaps the poems that I've been talking about in this essay were written by poets who believed utterly in an absolute formal coherence that - and this was part of their belief - did not [millinerd insertion: YET] exist. To experience such forms is to experience both consolation and provocation.  It is to come into a place of language that is easeful and unchanging and will not let you forget the fact that it is not a place. It is to be given an image of life that you have lost or long dreamed of, to hear as sound something of the farthest sorrows that you are, and to know in that moment that what you've been given is not enough.
On that seasonable note of waiting and expectation, I wish millinerd reader[s] a merry Advent!

Sunday, November 23, 2014


Blair Kamin in today's Chicago Tribune is generally pleased with the University of Chicago Economics Department's moving into the old Chicago Theological Seminary... with one exception:
The lone weak spot involves the repurposing of the seminary's chapel, where stained glass windows that were deemed overtly Christian (and therefore, potentially offensive to non-Christians) were removed.  The large chapel - once the site of religious services and now a comfortable, colorful gathering spot for grad students - is fine. But the small one, previously a dark meditative space where multicolored light filtered through stained glass, is now a chilly little conference room.
Chilly?  You decide. My guess is that most economics students at the University of Chicago would have been intelligent, and thick skinned enough, to fathom the history of their own institution.
Top photo Matt Frizelli, bottom today's Chicago Tribune

Monday, November 10, 2014

Upcoming Talk

If you find yourself in Durham, NC this week, please come on by. If not, I'll eventually post the video here.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

The Other Bishop in the Desert

I have joined the ranks of First Things columnists, proof of this venerable journal's coming decline. Here's round one.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Enchantment of Lightning

And another essay!  You mean you missed the last one?  Come on now. If Syndicate Theology is the future of academic web writing, it sure will be a lot of fun.  On the print side though, check out the compelling essay by Jon Anderson, "The (In)visibility of theology in Contemporary Art Criticism," in this brand new book.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Friday, July 04, 2014

The Open Cage

What is there to add to the responses of Jones and Jacobs to Peter Conn's call to de-accredit religious schools ("The Great Accreditation Farce"), other than to offer yet another gentle nudge to wake up and smell the post-secular discourse?  Stephen D. Smith's The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, published by some obscure, sectarian, confessionally biased place called Harvard University Press, is a good start.

Smith elucidates that the kind of "neutrality" advocated by Conn has been tried, and tried repeatedly, in the public square.  And if it didn't work there, the same goes a fortiori for the academic milieu.  Proponents of reason as "referee" include John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, Ronald Dworkin, Thomas Nagel, Amy Gutmann, Dennis Thompson, Stephen Macedo, David Richards, Charles Larmore, Samuel Freeman, Richard Rorty, and Robert Audi.  That list is from Northwestern Law Professor Andrew Koppelman, who concludes the strategy "has been a disaster, because it has produced the opposite of what they have hoped. A doctrine grounded in universal respect has left a lot of actual citizens feeling profoundly insulted" (Religion as a conversation starter).

For his part, Smith dubs this condition the "iron cage of secular discourse."
We can try to treat all of our normative commitments as if they were the sorts of commitments that secularly congenial disciplines like economics or rational choice theory can recognize...  but then we may perceive that we have done violence to many of our deepest convictions. Where we can refuse to attempt that translation; but then it is awkward finding within secular discourse the words and concepts to say what we really want to say and to articulate what we really believe.
Smith points out the irony of Richard Rorty's "conversation stopping" objection to religion, an irony that applies to Professor Conn's objections as well.  "After all, who is it that is trying to stifle or regulate conversation? Rorty's opponents are not telling him: 'Stop talking secular.' Rather it is Rorty and like-minded thinkers who issue the injunction 'Don't talk religion.'" What's more, Rorty was honest enough to realize that any exclusively secular claim to "reason" was necessarily bogus.  "The claim that we [secular atheists] are appealing to reason whereas the religious are being irrational," he wrote, "is hokum."

The result of Rorty's confession, Smith concludes, is that
Rorty's continued insistence on excluding religion from public discourse begins to look merely arbitrary - an inherited commitment derived form assumption he no longer accepted, and which had hence degenerated into a mere prejudice.  More generally, his prescription looks like a recipe for a discourse that is assured in advance of being shallow, empty, and pointless.  Why would anyone want to waste precious time and energy in that sort of predictably futile and boring conversation?  Contrary to Rorty, it appears that it is not religion after all, but rather the imposition of artificial constraints on discourse, that is the "conversation stopper."
Abraham Joshua Heschel and Martin Luther King, Jr.
Meanwhile, those who broke out of the cage seem to have offered a few contributions here and there.
Proponents of religion in the public square respond that the sort of objection raised by Rorty and others exhibits misunderstanding - or simply ignorance about what religion is - on the part of those who make it.  There is nothing inherent in religion, they say, and nothing distinctive to religious believers, that is more preemptorily preclusive of discussion then there is in other, more secular perspectives and believers.  Proponents may point to an earlier era's overtly theological analysis of public concerns like Martin Luther King, Jr., Reinhold Niebuhr, John Courtney Murray, and Abraham Joshua Heschel - reflective analyses displaying a depth of wisdom and insight that compare favorably (to put the point gently) with those of more contemporary and secular political thinkers - as evidence that religious perspective can enliven and deepen public deliberation rather than truncating or silencing it. 
But perhaps Smith's call to open the cage of secular discourse is only appealing to me because, as a Wheaton faculty member, in addition to other constraints, most of my time outside the classroom is actually spent in a 5 x 5 x 5 foot cage.  And while I will certainly be transferred to the hole for publishing this blog post without permission, I will surely emerge in time to memorize my pre-approved Fall lecture scripts, and I wish you a happy Independence Day.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Uncertain Future of Secular Art History among the things discussed by Jon Anderson and I, alongside religion in academia, justice, Ruskin, how the avant-garde was necessary because of Christian compromise... all before I desecrate an In and Out Burger cup.  Go on now... gather round the computer with the whole family. 

But the funny thing is that James Elkins explicitly singles out Jon Anderson as the person who caused him to change his mind about religion in the art world, yet Jon is asking me the questions?  So you might want to skip this interview and listen to him instead.  And he can actually paint!

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Future of Protestantism is Evangelical Mystagogy

Or at least one of its brightest futures. Biola actually flew me out to offer an emergency response to the failure of anyone in the Future of Protestantism conversation to seriously discuss images (icons were in fact dismissed!), and to confirm Leithart's insight that the future is ecumenically high church.  (Or so I'd like to think.  In fact I was pinch-hitting for the Russian superstar scholar Alexei Lidov who couldn't make it to Biola.) 

But high church evangelicalism is just a theory, you might say, a "paper church," as John Henry Newman put it.  Well, come on by any Sunday to All Souls Church (whose iconography concludes this talk), and see just how much more than paper it actually is.