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

...is 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.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Evolution & Sacrifice: Christ our Caterpillar

The current show at Chicago's Lookingglass theater, "In the Garden," offers a crackling portrayal of the relationship between Charles Darwin and Emma, his fervently believing wife. Showcasing an intimate, theologically charged spousal conversation about science and faith that is distorted by popular agendas of Christians and atheists both, it's the best marriage I've ever seen on stage.  The play concludes, somewhat melodramatically but (sucker that I am for this sort of thing) effectively with the strolling couple reciting the conclusion to a later edition of On the Origin of Species, amended to include the word "Creator."
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.
Ichneumonidae vs. Caterpillar
Gratifying as that passage may be, a speech made by Charles toward the end of the play laid out his darker moments as well - a dramatization of a letter Darwin wrote to Asa Gray regarding some parasitic wasps (Ichneumonidae).
There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars...
But as David Hart puts it, from an earlier metaphysical vantage point, the parasitic wasp would have posed much less of a problem.
In the ancient or mediaeval worlds, the idea of the evolution of species would not necessarily have posed a very great intellectual challenge for the educated classes, at least not on religious grounds....  It would not have been drastically difficult for philosophers or theologians to come to see evolution as the natural unfolding of the rational principles of creation into forms primordially enfolded within the indwelling rational order of things.  In the wake of the triumph of the mechanical philosophy, however, when nature's "rationality" had come to be understood only as a matter of mechanical design engineered form without, the Darwinian proposal of natural selection suggested the possibility that nature might instead be the product of wholly indeterminate - wholly mindless - forces...  It seemed a dangerous idea only because of the metaphysical epoch in which it was first proposed.
Corpus Christi College, Oxford
Perhaps due to the fact that the mechanistic epoch is (in at least some quarters) fading, I'm having difficulty summoning forth the despair that the caterpillar story is supposed to invoke.  It seems no different than the way medieval physiologists (mistakenly) viewed the pelican who (they thought) sacrificed its life by sprinkling its own blood to regenerate its young.  Hence Christ, for Dante (Paradiso XXV:113) is nostro Pelicano, and hence the sundials at Oxford and Princeton are topped with a such sculpted birds. But whereas the pelican story, beautiful as it continues to be, is based on bad biology, the self-sacrificing caterpillar is not - while still making, it seems to me, a similarly sacrificial point.Yes, I realize the caterpillar isn't voluntarily sacrificing itself (give it a break, it's a bug).  But such a reality is setting up the grammar for just that sort of action at higher, and later, stages of biological life.

In her extraordinary (and freely available) Gifford lectures, Sacrifice Regained: Evolution, Cooperation and God, Sarah Coakley discusses some such cases by exploiting recent debates about evolution and altruism to recover the notion of sacrifice on scientific and theological grounds.  (Two years working in Harvard's biology lab with Martin Nowak might cause one to grant her the right to speak on the matter.)  As she puts it three lectures in: 
What if Jesus’s ethics of seemingly self-destructive sacrificial ‘excess’, instead of being seen as irreducibly hostile to preparatory forms of evolutionary ‘cooperation’ and ‘altruism’, might itself be a fulfillment and completion of them – and, in the light of the resurrection a means of a completely new form of ‘cultural evolution’ – a form sustained in the ‘excessive’, uncalculating mode of a new type of cooperative community? Is it possible, then, that this ecstatic ethics of excess could, after all, be theoretized evolutionarily in novel, ‘cultural’, yet eschatological mode - not as a meaningless ‘spandrel’ as Jackson sees it, but as a horizon of evolutionary hope beyond the constraints of its normal, much more limited, evolutionary concerns?
Coakley sounds much like Darwin's witty wife Emma (so vividly performed by Rebecca Spence) might have had she enjoyed the benefit of her husband's scientific education. There is, after all, nothing "faith shattering" about the food chain when faith is founded upon one who enters it - at the bottom - in order to be (Eucharistically) consumed.

Monday, May 19, 2014

More on Conversion Dynamics

Here are some longer quotations that didn't make it into Not So Secular Sweden:
In words quoted at my brother-in-law’s conversion to Catholicism, Hilaire Belloc put the matter this way:
When you have predicated of one what emotion or what reasoning process brought him into the fold, and you attempt to apply your predicate exactly to another, you will find a misfit.  The cynic enters, and so does the sentimentalist; and the fool enters and so does the wise man; the perpetual questioner and doubter and the man too easily accepting immediate authority—they each enter after his kind.
Belloc reminds us of the irreducibly personal aspect of calling, which transcends Biblical or church historical argumentation. "It was not logic that carried me on,” wrote John Henry Newman in his Apologia Pro Vita Sua, “as well might one say that the quicksilver in the barometer changes the weather.”  But the thick description of conversion dynamics cuts both ways, applying to those who stay put as well.  After I asked him about Ulf Ekman’s conversion, Abbot Peter announced with a peaceful smile that he will remain Pentecostal.  It reminds me of Edward Pusey’s reply to John Henry Newman:
I cannot unmake myself; I cannot see otherwise than I have seen these many years… I am no nearer to thinking that the English Church is no true part of the Church, or that inter-communion with Rome is essential, or that the present claims of Rome are Divine.  I earnestly desire the restoration of unity, but I cannot throw myself into the practical Roman system, nor renounce what I believe our gracious Lord acknowledges.  And so I must go on, with joy at the signs of deepening life among us, and distress at our losses, and amazement that Almighty God vouchsafes to employ me for anything….
I am in debt to Fr. Scott Caton for the Belloc quote, and to Edward Short's Newman and His Contemporaries for the Pusey quote.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Not So Secular Sweden

This month's First Things contains a piece I wrote on my recent trip to Sweden to visit the amazing Bjärka-Säby.  Special thanks to the Apologia organization who invited me to give the lectures.  Here are some photographs to go with the piece.

There may be reason to think that the strange convergence across denominations that is already happening in Sweden will be happening in American soon. 

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Lives of the Artists LIVE!

My amazing Wheaton College Renaissance art history students (Spring 2014) dramatized the lives of the artists by Karel Van Mander (1548-1606) and Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574). Here are just few clips from a semester's worth. (Don't worry, we did serious analysis as well.)  If my Ph.D. is revoked for encouraging this endeavor it will have been worth it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Keep it Strange

It was a decade ago now that James Elkins wrote this:
 To fit in the art world, work with a religious theme has to fulfill several criteria. It has to demonstrate the artist has second thoughts about religion . . . . Ambiguity and self-critique have to be integral to the work. And it follows that irony must pervade the art, must be the air it breathes (On the Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art, Routledge, 2004).
But then he wrote this:
A few years ago I wrote a book called The Strange Place of Religion in Contemporary Art. It was motivated by the absence of what might be called committed religious art in the international art market....   The book has introduced me to a new world, because I now receive invitations to talk to Christian institutions.  In many cases I had not even been aware that those institutions existed - for example Westmont College in Santa Barbara, Lipscomb University in Nashvielle, and Biola University...   Getting to know some of the many careful and reflective people who write about religious art from outside academia has made me sensitive to the absence of personally engaged conversations about religion (as opposed to historiographic, philosophic, or sociological conversations) in academia.  The excellent scholars of religion who are themselves religious, and value their scholarship principally as a way to enrich their religious experience, have shown me a different way of reading art history (Idol Anxiety, Stanford University Press, 2011).
And now Jeffrey Kosky writes this:
In this book, I have tried to work against [the secularist] narrative and break the necessary condition between secularity and disenchantment.  My implicit contention has been that in denying themselves recourse to religious vocabulary or theological conceptuality, modern art critics give up what would be advantageous to a profound encounter with the works in question. Religion and theology has let me name what the art critic often names and addresses with only  limited vocabulary.  In this sense, it lets me prolong the encounter with the work of art, deepening the event of its coming intimately over me and bringing its strangeness to light (Arts of Wonder: Enchanting Secularity, University of Chicago Press, 2012).
Christopher Brewer points out a few things that Kosky missed, but either way, you might call this progress - in the complete opposite direction of the (by now nearly fossilized) secularization theory of yore.  The secret is out, even if a few folks have yet to get the message.

Still, notice that last line of Kosky's.  Encouraging as this all may be, I sure hope religious people retain their strangeness.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Color of Jesus

Last Tuesday I found myself overlooking Los Angeles atop a travertine terrace at the Getty Museum, hosted by the wonderful people of Biola University.  Having journeyed throughout the Mediterranean studying Byzantine art, I realized then that Katy Perry is right: You can travel the world, and nothing comes close to the Golden Coast.  In fact, many of the Byzantine icons that I studied had just found their way to California as well. A few hours later we zoomed down the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu to enjoy the opening of the Byzantium show at the Getty Villa. The icons on display there included some old friends.
Gospel book, Ethiopia, about 1504–1505

But little did I know that an iconoclastic controversy of its own was brewing in the area, one not entirely dissimilar to Byzantium's. And for the purposes of that conversation, the Getty image most pertinent was not one of the magnificent icons on loan from Greece, but one of the Ethiopian manuscripts on display, a frank reminder that Christianity (pace the Nation of Islam) remains an indigenous African religion.

The debate I am referring to concerns the ethnicity of a towering depiction of Jesus at Biola, Kent Twitchell's The Word. Theologian Matt Jenson explains the background of the controversy, and introduces the Cultural Encounters issue dedicated it. Let me offer some highlights from this excellent series of articles.  

Biola art professor Barry Krammes writes of being paralyzed when a young African American turned to him in a recent discussion about the Biola Jesus and said, "If you loved me as your brother in Christ you'd be willing to have that mural removed." And yet, Barry brings some necessary background to the debate.  He recalled that in the spring of 1993, students offered similar concerns, and after hearing them, Twitchell himself "offered to pay to have the mural sandblasted off the wall." Faced with such a humble reaction, the students relented.  The art, after all, was modeled after a Russian Jew, and it was also a gift that has come to symbolize Biola, even showing up on ID cards.  
"The Word" by Kent Twitchell at Biola

Of course there are the standard iconoclastic objections as well, to which Jenson responds with characteristic lucidity. His article will be a go-to resource for me to give to Protestants skeptical about icons from this point on. Summarizing John of Damascus, Jenson put it this way: 
It would be presumption to say that we can straightforwardly image God.  But, if God has given us an image of himself in the incarnation of his Son - a Son who could be seen - then we have warrant...  Our imaging of God takes its cures from and is ruled by the incarnation, in which he made himself visible and known.
Jenson adds that John Calvin's iconoclasm "wrongly conflates use and abuse."  And yet, Jenson admits this does not necessarily justify the Biola mural.  "I do not think ours is a case where people value the Jesus mural so highly that they confuse it with Jesus.  No, the danger comes in our very familiarity with the image." 

This in turn leads to a very forceful argument against the mural from Brad Christerson: "For many people of African, Asian, and Native American descent, European portrayals of Jesus are a symbol and a reminder of how Christianity was used to legitimize the conquest and political/economic domination of their people." Christerson makes a strong case for removal, not least of which, "it hurts our current and potential relationships with many individuals and communities of color in our city and around the world."

Agreeing with Christerson's principles, Jonathan Anderson offers a magisterial take on the controversy, explaining that the key issue to be the matter of destruction
It is difficult to see how such an act would not directly contradict the very inclusiveness that we desire: it seems baldly problematic to suggest that Biola’s sensitivity toward and desire for diversity would justify the removal of an image on the grounds that we do not approve of the ethnicity [Russian Jew] of the model that Twitchell chose for the image. 
Scott Haskins and Kent Twitchell conserving
But nor does Anderson merely endorse the image. He adds that "One of the problems that have contributed to this controversy is the singularity of the mural: it is by far the largest, most notable, and most visible artwork in the university’s relatively small art collection..." And this is the insight that appears to have enabled Biola to move ahead.

In the concluding essay, Biola president Barry Corey explains his decision to restore the mural.  It partly resulted from the knowledge that elsewhere in Los Angeles the same artist had painted a brown Jesus that had helped faciliate between rival gangs. And yet, there is not a hint of triumphalism in Corey's essay.  "Today when I pass the Jesus mural and strain my neck to look up, I feel more of the sorrow of my brothers and sisters who have struggled to move on after my decision."  The choice to keep the mural came with the new initiative of the Mosaic Cultural Center to encourage more diversity on campus, and to think more seriously about how art is displayed.

Mystical Body

There is little to add to this illuminating discussion other than to suggest a way to frame the insights that have already arisen within it.  In his difficult book, Corpus Mysticum (Mystical Body), Henri de Lubac recovered the lost medieval understanding of the threefold body of Christ.  These three angles are not segments as much as they are aspects of the one mystical body, the totus Christus (total Christ).  These aspects include...
1.  The historical, raised body
2.  The Eucharistic body
3.  The Ecclesial body
When applied to images of Jesus, de Lubac's distinctions should cause us to ask, "Which of these three aspects is the artist trying to depict?" 

1. If the aim is to depict Jesus in the first sense, then emphasizing his Jewish ethnicity is essential.  The objection against white or black Jesuses on historical grounds would then, and only then, be legitimate.    

2. But in the other two categories, things get more interesting, because the natural body of Jesus does not play by our rules.  The body of Christ also appears in or as (prepositions are very difficult here) bread. Artists have endlessly depicted this Eucharistic body as well (see, for example, the wonderful summary by Wheaton art history major Maddie Johnston of our recent Art Institute conference on this very subject). 

3. But what about when the bread is consumed by all and sundry, and works its way into bodies of every concievable ethnicity?  It is here - in the ecclesial depictions of Jesus - where multiple ethinicities are permissible, and even demanded.  In his article, Matt Jenson did make a move in this direction by quoting Peter Leithart:  "We see His face in the face of His brothers, our brothers... and this justifies, too, the practice of depicting Jesus in culturally specific ways.  Jesus can be depicted as a black man (or an Asian, or a South Sea Islander), because some of His brothers are black."  But should we not add sisters to that as well? 
Gregory Schreck, "Jesus is stripped Naked"

Hesitation in this direction only comes from not being clear about de Lubac's three categories.  Of course Jesus was Jewish, and of course he was male (in the first of de Lubac's three senses).   But if the Jesus being depicted is not the raised Jesus, or the Eucharistic Jesus, but his body as reflected in the church (which obviously includes women) then such images are warranted. 

Take, for example, this photograph in  Gregory Schreck's profound Via Dolorosa series. Schreck does not believe the historical Christ was literally female any more than he believes his wife Karen, who served as a model for the Virgin Mary in the same series, was actually Jesus's mom.  Instead, Schreck's stations operate in de Lubac's third sense.  They "simply" remind us (if only it were so simple!) that the suffering of women, perhaps most especially the suffering of rape so delicately alluded to here, is also the suffering of Christ – a thought that, we can hope, might summon the hesitation of some future assailant. 


Black Jesus, White Christians

At the same time, one disturbing trend with these more flexible images of Jesus in the third sense - black and white, male and female - is where they are displayed.  Edward Blum's The Color of Christ tells the famous story of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.  In 1963 a bomb killed four girls of this black congregation, and blew out the image of a white Jesus in the process.  It was replaced with the image to the left, which announces - quite correctly - "You did it to me" (Matthew 25:40). 
16th St. Baptist, Birmingham, AL

The problem, it seems to me, is not with the image, but with the fact that this is not the church where the black Jesus needs to be displayed.  It should also be in white-majority churches who need to be reminded of the crime!  Perhaps it is white Christians who primarily need the black Jesus, and possibly the reverse scenario should be contemplated as well in order to foster enemy love.  We might then defend Warner Sallman's controversial Jesus - so long as it is exhibited outside of primarily white scenarios. And in turn, the black Jesus should not just be for black congregations (pace Father Pfleger), but for more white environments as well. 

Admittedly, worship settings might not be the best place for such experimentation, but Christian colleges possibly are. In fact, something like this did happen at Wheaton during a recent flare up of racial tension.  Art professor Jeremy Botts took Marion Perkins's black Jesus, made a massive print of it, and hung it in the stairwell of our art department, because it is white Christian (the majority at Wheaton) who most need to be reminded of the black aspects of the body of Christ. Come to think of it, we need a native Jesus as well (and there are many).  It is serendipitous that the issue of Cultural Encounters in which the Biola discussion appeared also begins with a memorial to the primary voice for Native Americans among evangelicals in the last decades, Richard Twiss.  As Steve Charleston points out (in a way that nicely converges with de Lubac), “While as a man Jesus was a Jew, as the risen Christ, he is a Navajo. Or a Kiowa. Or a Choctaw. Or any other tribe.”  

 
Marion Perkins's Man of Sorrows
It light of such possibilities, it is exciting to think how the iconography of such a beautiful Southern California campus as Biola might evolve in decades to come, complementing - not replacing - Twitchell's perfectly justifiable image of Christ. This would break the visual monologue at Biola that Anderson and Christerson lament. The multiplication, not the destruction of images, is what is called for. Caution is certainly called for, but who will take up the charge?  From the quality of the art department at Biola, I would imagine there are more than a few.

Diversity in (not as) Religion

The responsible and civil manner of the discussion at Biola contrasts with the screaming matches about diversity on many secular campuses.  There, diversity is often declared by fiat, until competing groups become satisfied with parallel existence, defending their allotted chunk of ethnic turf.  P.D. James called such an approach its own replacement religion. But because they already have a religion, diversity at places like Biola and Wheaton can be built on a very different, and far sturdier, foundation.

It very well may be that the interest in diversity that has trickled down to Christian colleges is because of secular academic fashion for the subject. This is to our shame, as we should have been setting the pace. Nevertheless, it is also true that diversity is being taken up in a fresh and more lasting way at places like the one where I teach. You can guilt a student into caring about diversity for four years (and even that can be difficult, if not backfire). But intertwine diversity with students' deeply held theological convictions, and they'll care about the matter for life.

And then some.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sacred Frank Gehry?

And here's an article of mine at Public Discourse on giving up a few prejudices I could no longer afford to indulge.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Glorious Impracticality of Art History

Asked by First Things to respond to the POTUS art history brewhaha, I just said the same thing I've said before, once again; and you can read it here.

Consistency - that's the ticket.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Last chance to register for Envisioning the Eucharist!

Here's the final program for the conference you won't want to miss.  Last day to register by emailing drjamesromaine@gmail.com is today.  Hope to see you there!