Monday, May 06, 2019

Glasnost continues

A decade ago in Seven Days in the Art World Sarah Thornton profiled art historian Thomas Crow in a book describing art as an "alternate religion for atheists." Today the same Thomas Crow, in his book No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art, demands that the "interdiction against theology" in art history and criticism be lifted.

Perhaps it's just me but I'm sensing a pattern here.

Don't miss the chance to see Crow in conversation with Ben Quash & James Elkins at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The event is entitled Idols & Taboos: Modern & Contemporary Art and Theology Today.

Where: Ballroom, MacLean Center, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 112 S. Michigan Ave, Chicago 60603 USA
When: Thursday May 23, 6-7:30pm

Sunday, May 05, 2019

Two & Two

Two videos with fantastic students (below), and two articles (a morning after reflection on Notre Dame & a brief thought on Rembrandt, Joseph & pornography in this fine lineup).
Wheaton College x Art Institute of Chicago from Wheaton College on Vimeo.

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Flat Screen Faith

An Easter sermon preached today at All Souls Church in Wheaton (audio here):

He is risen! He is risen indeed!

It’s exciting news when the most brilliant disciple of the atheist Sigmund Freud sees the need for belief in God. As many of you know, the name of this student was Carl Jung, and there is a lot one can learn from him. But here is one thing he really got wrong: “It is funny,” Jung tells us, “that Christians are still so pagan that they understand spiritual existence only as a body and as a physical event. I am afraid our Christian cannot maintain this shocking anachronism any longer.”

And so having cited this unfortunate remark of the great Swiss physchiatrist, please indulge me again, maybe with an Alleluia at the end this time.

He is risen. He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

The field of Biblical studies is wonderful. You can learn all kinds of things about the Ancient Near Eastern and Graeco-Roman contexts in which the Biblical books were originally written, you can learn the original languages. But as in any field, some people in Biblical studies make some miscalculations. I speak of the Biblical scholar Gerd Lüdemann: “A consistent modern view must say farewell to the resurrection as a historical event.”

Having heard that, please indulge me once again.

He is risen. He is risen indeed, Alleluia!

The notion that you can keep Christianity without resurrection has aged about as well as pay phones, in-flight ash trays, spitoons, hoop skirts, zuit suits, and those massive televisions that we used to have to cram in our living room and the gargantuan pieces of furniture we used to hide them before the flat screens came along.  You still sometimes see those huge TVs on the curb, usually with five garbage stickers on them because no one wants them!  And who would want a Christianity without resurrection either?

It’s often said if the resurrection isn’t true, don’t go to church, go to brunch. Well I was at one of those Chicago brunch meccas just this week and I overheard the bartenders planning the cocktail menu for this Sunday – Easter morning. And they said, “We need to mix up our menu to bring people in.” One employee said, we could change up the Bloody Mary with a bloodless Mary, which I guess is some kind of cocktail. And how I wish I had had the courage to say then and there, “Sounds like perfect cocktail for someone without resurrection hope on Easter Morning! Bloodless Mary.” But because he is risen we’re not at brunch, we’re here instead to drink from the veins of the risen Christ, and today at least we’re throwing in brunch too.

I’m sure you know the great John Updike poem, Seven Stanzas at Easter:
Make no mistake: if he rose at all It was as His body; If the cell’s dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, The amino acids rekindle, The Church will fall. 
Let us not mock God with metaphor, Analogy, sidestepping, transcendence, Making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded Credulity of earlier ages: Let us walk through the door.
Or better than Updike’s poem is this bald statement of fact in 1 Cor 15; “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died.”  Or Acts 10: “We are witnesses to all that he did… They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day.” That is not a pious sentiment, a clever aphorism, haiku a or a sonnet - it’s journalism. They killed him, God fixed it, says St. Peter.

One reason that resurrection matters is because it addresses our root anxiety. There are a lot of surface anxieties in our lives, and some that cut a good bit below the surface. But if you follow those anxieties to their root, and ask yourself, “what’s the worst thing that could happen?” The answer tends to be: “Somebody could die.” That’s about as bad as it could get. And that root anxiety of our impermanence is what drives so many of our worries, agendas and sins – and so the root anxiety is the one Jesus addresses this morning not just by his words but with his body, by conquering death and replacing it with the root peace of the risen Christ.

That root peace is why Roger Persons, a member of our congregation, when his wife Jean died while they were watching TV together, was able to address her then and there and say, “Walk with the king.” That root peace is why Jason Long and I, sitting at the top of Central Dupage Hospital with Brett Foster as the sunset beamed into the hospital room so strongly that I had to put on my sunglasses, felt strangely, in retrospect, like Brett was preparing us for our own deaths as well. When I think of Brett, my memory now skips from that hospital room to his funeral where we heard these words from the Orthodox poet, Scott Cairns, about the resurrection – not Jesus’ resurrection, but mine and yours.
...one morning you finally wake
to a light you recognize as the light you’ve wanted
 every morning that has come before. 
And the air
 itself has some light thing in it that you’ve always hoped the air might have.
And One is there
 to welcome you whose face you’ve looked for during all 
the best and worst times of your life. He takes you to himself 
and holds you close until you fully wake.
And in our gospel passage, Mary of course – like all of us on this side of death – is not yet fully awake. She makes first contact with the resurrected Jesus, and it’s about as awkward as Peter embarrassing himself by trying to pitch a tent on Mount Tabor. Mary’s problem is that she thinks Jesus is dead, and when she sees that he’s gone, she consoles herself by saying, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him."

I wonder if it’s her root anxiety in the form of a sentence. It signifies confusion, frustration and maybe even a little panic. I almost imagine her wandering off in a daze reciting those words in some kind of stupor. "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." Then the disciples show up, Peter and John. And of course, the best illustration I know of that moment in all the world is a train ride away at the Art Institute of Chicago. It’s by the African American painter Henry Ossawa Tanner. It shows Peter kind of concerned, almost twiddling his thumbs cause he knew he blew it – and John, the beloved disciple has this beaming look on his face, as if to say, “I knew it!”  Tanner suffered from racial prejudice all his life – he believed in resurrection. Still, in our passage, neither Peter nor John stick around.

But Mary wanders back, still clinging to the best she can do under the circumstances. Call her the Bloodless Mary, wringing her hands as she repeats, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him." And then she gets what we all think would work for us if only it would happen: An angelic visitation. “She bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet.” I hope you’re catching that this is a reference to the ark of the covenant – two angels surrounding a void of presence – the absence that signifies that God cannot be contained. And the angels, puzzled say to her, "Woman, why are you weeping?"

And her reply? "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him." The presence of the angels doesn’t clear up her confusion, so the Lord himself explains it to her. “She turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you looking for?" Now that is a reference to the mystical treaties the Song of Solomon if there ever was one – God’s pursuit of the soul. “Whom are you looking for?” God asks this to all of us this morning.

But it doesn’t work! Mary thinks he’s the gardner. And she offers her good intentions and pious objectives one more time. "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away."  She still clings to her pre-resurrection agenda. On Friday from one of our speakers said that Jesus was LOUD on the cross and I think he’s loud here too.  He has to be loud enough to snap her out of her pious plans to anoint his corpse. And so he shouts with smile, "Mary!"

There have been a lot of good stories about Notre Dame de Paris this week, but here’s the best one I know of. Denise once told me that when she was there with her mother and sister, they were touring the Cathedral which was packed with tourists, when a mother lost her son. And my wife Denise knows the name of that boy, as does everyone who was in Notre Dame that day because the mother started to shout it. Dimitri!  After three shouts the packed cathedral fell silent but she kept shouting, no - screaming, “Dimitri! Dimitri!” until he was found. And that, after all, is what Notre Dame’s architecture is – it is the risen Christ shouting to you through beauty. Shouting your name and mine, trying to snap us out of our own agendas, even our own ambitions to serve him. That’s what beauty does, what pain does, what tragedy, suffering and joy do. They’re all the risen Christ shouting our name again and again in the Cathedral of this cosmos while the cathedral lasts.

And like Mary, we wake up, “Teacher!” and we cling to him, as any of us would. That's what coming to church is about. But then comes Jesus’ famous lines to Mary: “Don’t hold onto me.” He does not mean back off. He tells her to stop clinging to him because he has something for her to do. Not her agenda this time but his. Namely, Go tell the boys. In all four gospels the women are first, the only difference is the number of women who are present. And each gospel the mission of the women is the same – and it is from them that we get the message with which we began.

He is risen: He is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Monday, March 11, 2019

Evangelicals & Zen Masters

John Cage said, "I was almost forty years old before I discovered what I needed - in Oriental thought... I was starved - I was thirsty. These things had all been in the Protestant Church, but they had been there in a form in which I couldn't use them," (297). Here's an essay of mine on how I made the same discovery, but learned to use them.

Update: Of course, for more on Merton, and the risks, see Alan Jacobs' wonderful article in The New Yorker (and this blog post). William Johnston and the others I mention in the above essay may therefore be better guides in navigating inter-religious terrain, offering essential supplements to Merton. Arise, My Love is Johnston's splendid summa. How I wish I had known of it sooner. And then there's this from The-Ox Herder and the Good Shepherd by Addison Hodges Hart (David Hart's brother):
The classical Christian view (or at least one significant version of it) has been to recognize the divine logos as shaping this common [religious] grammar in a hidden way, and revealing itself definitively in the person of Jesus Christ. Even if those of non-Christian faiths don’t perceive that to be the case, we Christians nevertheless can. If we think about it sufficiently long and hard enough (and assuming we have really encountered the pertinent texts and traditions firsthand and on their own terms, without prejudice or hubris), Why shouldn’t a Christian discern Christ and God say, in the concept of the Tao, or in the words of Krishna to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, or in the notion of the Buddha nature? This may even be one more way of understanding how Christ is before all things and in him all things hold together (Col. 1:17)
We therefore should be prepared to wonder whether such moments will be counted among the 10,000 places in which Christ played. But to want more than wonder is greedy, and it's Lent.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

NPW 250

We had fun discussing all manner of things on the 250th episode of New Persuasive Words.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Why Art History?

A bit about how we do art history here at Wheaton.

And I suppose this is as good a place as any to keep a running list (to be updated over time) of recent "why art history?" articles (and why liberal arts in general as well).

1. Looking at Art Could Help Medical Students Become Better Doctors
2. How Art History Majors Power the U.S. Economy
3. One Man's Quest to Change the Way We Die
Miller had wanted to work in foreign relations, in China; now he started studying art history. He found it to be a good lens through which to keep making sense of his injuries.
First, there was the discipline’s implicit conviction that every work is shaped by the viewer’s perspective. He remembers looking at slides of ancient sculptures in a dark lecture hall, all of them missing arms or noses or ears, and suddenly recognizing them for what they were: fellow amputees. “We were, as a class, all calling these works monumental, beautiful and important, but we’d never seen them whole,” he says. Time’s effect on these marble bodies — their suffering, really — was understood as part of the art. Medicine didn’t think about bodies this way, Miller realized.
4. Why Med Schools are Requiring Art Classes
5. Mark Cuban: Liberal Arts is the Future
6. Liberal Arts in the Data Age 

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Monday, January 07, 2019

all brows need not be furrowed

May I point out a few quick things about this wonderful, piercing dialogue at Cambridge between Roger Scruton and Jordan Peterson? 

 
They’re right! Art is indeed that which sorts empirical phenomenon so it can address us, and much of the academy muffles the speech. (Many of my fellow academics who sneeringly dismiss Peterson or Scruton would not last ten minutes in a debate with either of them.) But the academy is – to a certain extent – already on the side of the angels. There is a post-critical theory movement that has arisen due to the sheer failure of the kind of critique that Scruton and Peterson take on. To put that melodramatically, God has his 7000 who have not bowed the knee to Foucault.

Folks like Rita Felski exemplify this, as do the folks present at the conference Jonathan Anderson organized on post-secular (Jeff Kosky, Lori Branch), as of course does Jonathan’s work. It's been a theme here for a while. Did I mention just down the way from Cambridge the Tate Modern launched a Bible commentary? That feminism has been hacked by the Virgin Mary?

While some of the negativity is still subsidized, a lot of it has collapsed or is collapsing on its own. Peterson is in a pitch battle with those who militantly cling to the old order. The battle is real. But the attack mode has serious drawbacks, and lends outsiders (those who only listen to Peterson) the impression that the entire academy is crazed and the only sane ones left are Peterson and Scruton. I am not saying Peterson should not be fighting – the fight came to him. I have listened to and read a good bit of Peterson, and I’d consider myself a selective admirer (and critic). His more severe critics should ask themselves why he can consistently fill a Toronto lecture hall for serious lectures on the Bible and they can't. Still, Peterson's is not the only, and for many of us, not the best strategy.

That said, Scruton and Peterson are right about transcendence. I can’t emphasize that enough – I’m only mentioning Peterson's tone (which is why so many academics are allergic to Peterson – a tone which, considering Peterson’s enemies, he arguably has to take on to survive). If, as Scruton so wonderfully puts it, “culture is the residue of what we have loved,” we have a shot at fortifying that residue, at "bunking" instead of debunking. Peterson and Scruton are not hidebound conservatives - they insist we need to be “building the future instead of criticizing the past.” As they put it, "there is no formula"; and because of that, some of us may choose to take a different approach. If we are to focus on particular places as Peterson recommends, strategies will differ based on locale.

So, here's to little Kings College Cambridges popping up in many unexpected places, while believers in cruciform beauty quietly find as many allies as we can.

Happy Epiphany!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Art, Barth & Eckhart

Being some things discussed over at the Crackers and Grape juice podcast. The episode is Mother of the Debilitated God. They run a good show over there.

Monday, December 10, 2018

#Emptiness

On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the death of Thomas Merton (who saved my faith in more ways than one), and prompted by twitter CEO's thoughtless (his description not mine) meditation exploits in Myanmar, here is Merton on true and false emptiness in his last book, Contemplative Prayer (1969):
A person [cannot] become a contemplative merely by "blacking out" sensible realities and remaining alone with himself in darkness. First of all, one who does this of set purpose, as a conclusion to practical reasoning on the subject and without an interior vocation simply enters into an artificial darkness of his own making.  He is not alone with God, but alone with himself. He is not in the presence of the Transcendent One, but of an idol: his own complacent identity. He becomes immersed and lost in himself, in a state of inert, primitive and infantile narcissism. His life is "nothing," not in the dynamic, mysterious sense in which the "nothing," nada, of the mystic is paradoxically also the all, todo, of God. It is purely the nothingness of a finite being left to himself and absorbed in his own triviality....
An emptiness that is deliberately cultivated, for the sake of fulfilling a personal spiritual ambition, is not empty at all: it is full of itself. It is so full that the light of God cannot get into it anywhere; there is not a crack or a corner left where anything else can wedge itself into this hard core of self-aspiration which is our option to live centered in our own self. Such "emptiness" is in fact the emptiness of hell. And consequently anyone who aspires to become a contemplative should think twice before he sets out on the road. Perhaps the best to become a contemplative would be to desire with all one's heart to be anything but a contemplative; who knows?
Actually, there is no such entity as pure emptiness, and the merely negative emptiness of the false contemplative is a "thing," not a "nothing." The "thing" that it is is simply the darkness of self, from which all other beings are deliberately and of set purpose excluded....
But true emptiness is that which transcends all things and yet is immanent in all. For what seems to be emptiness in this case is pure being. Or at least a philosopher might so describe it. But to the contemplative is is other than that. It is not this, not that. Whatever you say of it, it is other than what you say. The character of emptiness, at least for a Christian contemplative, is pure love, pure freedom.... It is love for love's sake. It is a sharing, through the Holy Spirit, in the infinite charity of God... This purity, freedom and indeterminateness of love is the very essence of Christianity. It is to this above all that all monastic prayer aspires.
Of course Merton reserves his most severe words for Christians. But if the above passage is too Christian for you, take it up with Merton's friend Thich Nhat Hanh who wrote the book's glowing introduction (and who might know a thing or two about Buddhism).

May the Lord have mercy on us all. 

Friday, December 07, 2018

Fun with Nietzsche

Image result for pious nietzsche
I miss Bruce Benson. He has moved on from Wheaton, but the best of his influence endures here, as does the influence of other former Wheaton professors like Dennis Ockholm, Alan Jacobs, or Ashley Woodiwiss. If someone were to write about the recent history of this particular center of Christian learning, none of these figures, Bruce especially, could be left out. Here he is in his relentlessly fair book, Pious Nietzsche:
Nietzsche's [geneology] works well if one considers certain elements of Christian history and not others.  Speaking of Nietzsche, the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky joked: "Tell me what you need, and I'll supply you with the right Nietzsche quotation." Similar things are often said about the Bible - and everything becomes far more complicated once we talk about the entity "Christianity" and its history. For there have been "Christians" who could fit just about any description. Paraphrasing only slightly, one could say: "Tell me how you want to portray Christianity, and I'll provide you with the right examples." Have there been "Christians" obsessed with sin, unconcerned about the body, cruel to themselves and others because of ressentiment, gloomy, against pride, freedom, and courage, and even the joy of the senses? Of course....

But one can just as easily come up with other examples of Christians who do not hate themselves or their bodies or those who are not Christians, or courage or the sense or joy. Nietzsche has deliberately painted a rather radical picture of hatred and self-denial. While painting such a vivid portrait works well in communicating the failings of a religion, its great disadvantage is that it is a portrait that is so easy to pillory. That Nietzsche is able to find some examples that fit the description lends at best partial credence to it. Otherwise, he provides remarkably little support. If his is to be a convincing revisionist history, he needs considerably more examples - and better ones than those he has (152-153).
As Coppleston pointed out so long ago, Nietzsche's claim that Christianity is world-denying is better aimed at Manicheanism. But Bruce has fun taking that point further:
The resurrection is all about the eternal "Yes." It is God's "Yes" to the world. Thus, Norman Wirzba is right when he says, "Nietzsche is united with Christianity in his quest to affirm life," though Nietzsche is clearly unable to see that connection. That Jesus is resurrected bodily is an especially strong affirmation of the body. Further, what Nietzsche misses is that the Christian notion of redemption is not merely about the world to come, it is as much about this world. As the theologian N.T. Wright puts it, "The resurrection, in the fully Jewish and Christian sense, is the ultimate affirmation that creation matters, that embodied human beings matter." Nietzsche is certainly welcome to his "otherworldly" interpretation of the resurrection - and there have been plenty of theologians and believers throughout the past two millennia who have tended in that direction - but his interpretation clearly goes against orthodox Christianity. To say that the cross is the condemnation of life on earth is simply a gross misunderstanding. Whether it is likewise for Nietzsche a willful misunderstanding is a question that cannot be answered, even though it must be posed (136).
Image result for alistair kee NietzscheThese brief quotes to not do justice to the tenor and scope of the book. For a more straightforward, analytic approach, Alistair Kee's Nietzsche Against the Crucified is equally good, successfully arguing that "Nietzsche has exercised a more profound and positive influence on Christians as a critic of religion than he ever could have as a local pastor" (11). It might seem odd to toggle from Nietzsche's anti-Christian statements to his more favorable observations, but as Nietzsche himself put it, "This thinker needs no one to refute him: he does that for himself." Ecce Homo famously concludes: "Have I been understood? Dionysos against the Crucified." And Kee's interpretation - sustained and well documented - is memorable:
"Have I been understood?" A meaningless, unnecessary question - if Neitzsche was indeed the enemy of Christ crucified... Why then was this redundant question asked [three times by the greatest master of the German language to date!] if not that at the end Nietzsche took fright at the thought that some gullible, misguided, immature young mind might read the motto - and believe it!" (3, 174).
Both Benson and Kee are deeply serious, and neither succumb to Christian cheap shots leveled toward a great thinker who - being dead - can't fight back. In particular, Benson's concluding insight is hard-earned, and especially instructive: "To be able to affirm even Christianity - against which [Nietzsche] has railed so vehemently - is finally to become truly Dionysian - and to have left all ressentiment behind" (215).

Monday, November 26, 2018

a not-so-new regime of interpretation

I imagine that most college professors in the humanities in their thirties, forties or fifties were trained under critical theory. It was drilled into us whether we liked it or not, and we are therefore probably not at risk of forgetting it. The mode of furrow-browed critique towards works of art and literature will, I expect, always come naturally, even if we prefer (as I do) to fuel our prophetic stirrings more with Amos than Agamben. But it is increasingly difficult to ignore the fact that the dark night of suspicion is giving way to some kind of dawn. In The Limits of Critique (University of Chicago Press, 2015), Rita Felski explains:
My conviction - one that is shared by a growing number of scholars - is that questioning critique is not a shrug of defeat or a hapless capitulation to conservative forces. Rather, it is motivated by a desire to articulate a positive vision for humanistic thought in the face of growing skepticism about its value. Such a vision is sorely needed if we are to make a more compelling case for why the arts and humanities are needed. Reassessing critique, in this light, is not an abandonment of social or ethical commitments but a realization, as Ien Ang puts it, that these commitments require us to communicate with intellectual strangers who do not share our assumptions. And here, a persuasive defense of the humanities is hindered rather than helped by an ethos of critique that encourages scholars to pride themselves on their vanguard role and to equate serious thought with a reflex negativity. Citing the waves of demystification in the history of recent thought (linguistic, historicist, etc.) Yves Citton notes that they share a common conviction: the naïvety of any belief that works of art might inspire new forms of life. We are seeing, he suggests, the emergence of another regime of interpretation: one that is willing to recognize the potential of literature and art to create new imaginaries rather than just to denounce mystifying illusions. The language of attachment, passion, and inspiration is lo longer taboo (187).
Felski cites Michael Billig, Luc Boltanski, Jane Bennet and James Elkins as further allies in this shift. Especially helpful is Michel Chaouli's questioning the measures we take to keep the power of works of art at bay.  "How curious it is," he remarks, "that we dig wide moats - of history, ideology, formal analysis - and erect thick conceptual walls lest we be touched by what, in truth, lures us [in works of art]."  Lest we think this means we should look with dewy-eyed infatuation at any manner of artistic expression, Felski elaborates,
That critique has made certain things possible is not in doubt. What is also increasingly evident, however, is that it has sidelined other intellectual, aesthetic, and political possibilities - ones that are just as vital to the flourishing of new fields of knowledge as older ones... (190).
The antidote to suspicion is thus not a repudiation of theory - asking why literature [and art] matters will always embroil us in sustained reflection - but an ampler and more diverse range of theoretical vocabularies. And here, the term "postcritical" acknowledges its reliance on a prior tradition of thought, while conveying that there is more to intellectual life than the endless deflationary work of "digging down" or "standing back." Rather than engaging in a critique of critique, it is more interested in testing out alternative ways of reading and thinking. What it values in works of art is not just their power to estrange and disorient but also their ability to recontextualize what we know and to reorient and refresh perception. It seeks, in short, to strengthen rather than diminish its object - less in a spirit of reverence than in one of generosity and unabashed curiosity (181-182).
But a shift as major as this one is going to need some heavy theoretical cover, and Actor-Network-Theory serves this role for Felski. If you need it to get to where she finds herself, have at it. Treating works of art as non-human actors may be a helpful experiment, but not necessarily a new one. (After all, it has long been common for Wheaton students to refer to their Bibles as the living Word.) That said, perhaps this alliance will only buy us ten years or so, until Actor-Network-Theory (already under considerable fire) itself succumbs to a new regime. That is why theology strikes me (unsurprisingly) as the more field-tested warranting discourse for the post-critical moment, something that art historian Tom Crow (see his No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art) most certainly understands. 

Does a turn to theology mean that works of art will be any less pulsingly vibrant? Not in the least. Decades before Bynum showed how "Christian materiality" is far different (and more fundamentally paradoxical) than recent Object Oriented Ontology trends, John Meyendorff used the same terms to describe the kind of faith that Gregory of Palamas (1296-c.1359) defended:
We find here the elements of Christian materialism, which, instead of wishing to suppress matter which has revolted against the spirit through the effect of sin, gives it the place the Creator assigned to it, and discovers the way which Christ opened for it [matter!] by transfiguring it and by deifying it in his own body.
That Christian materiality is the ultimate warrant for interpreting works of art is old news at this old blog (15 years and counting), but as literary theory comes around to something resembling it, the warrant bears repeating. In these post-critical times, venerable figures like Wheaton English professor Clyde Kilby (see his posthumousy published The Arts & the Christian Imagination), don't look so countrified after all. Fortunately, for a school that has taken faith seriously as a backdrop for studying the humanities, Felski's wonderful book is not the dawning of a new regime as much as permission (even vindication) for what we've been doing all along.

And so, Professor Felski: Thanks!

Friday, November 23, 2018

The Biblia Pauperum of Our Time

I hope it's fair to say that amidst all the buzzing at AAR (American Academy of Religion) and SBL (Society of Biblical Literature) this year, between the sessions on aliens and the necessary hand-wringing over the American political scene, something actually historic was introduced in regard to the Bible. Namely, an online commentary that very selectively deploys the internet's visual capabilities to illuminate the Biblical text. Let's face it: New commentaries, and the academic library subscriptions necessary to come with them, are expensive. Add to that the fact that attention spans are famously declining, and increasingly privilege (for better or for worse) the visual. Perhaps these factors makes the Visual Commentary on Scripture, which is actually... wait for it... free, the biblia pauperum (Bible for the poor) of the twenty-first century. Every minister should be talking about this homiletical goldmine.


The idea and support for the VCS come from Howard and Roberta Ahmanson (who were also behind the Ancient Christian Commentary), and the execution came from the prodigious and nearly (it seems to me) superhuman team of Chloë Reddaway, Ben Quash, Michelle Fletcher and Jennifer Sliwka. It could only have come from London. When Rowan Williams and one of the U.K.s chief art critics and sculptors can pack a hall beyond capacity at the at the Royal Academy, it is fairly evident that the UK is miles ahead of the U.S. regarding the intersection of art and religion. London, after all, is - as one of the more exciting publications emerging from this crucible puts it - holy ground. When video artist Bill Viola is exhibited in St. Paul's Cathedral and a Bible Commentary is launched in the Tate Modern, the bridge connecting the two feels very substantial indeed. Will North America one day get there too? I have my fingers crossed.


You should now stop reading this and go enjoy the available commentaries of the Elder and Younger Testaments (or scroll the delicious visual menu here). Did I mention they're free? But if you need further prodding, I got to pick what Leon Morris referred to as "possibly the most important paragraph ever written" (109), Romans chapter 3. How is this most important paragraph visualized in the history of art? Selection is everything here, and - to make the case (with Tom Oden) that the Reformation's fierce emphasis on grace is not an exclusively Protestant possession - I chose to split mine between medieval (the Deësis), Renaissance (Cranach of course), and contemporary art (Martin Creed), with Cranach in the interpretive driver's seat. "I have absolutely no idea what I'm doing," says Creed in the forward to his major catalog. "Art is shit. Art galleries are toilets. Curators are toilet attendants. Artists are bullshitters." But fortunately the artist doesn't get the last word.

The Visual Commentary on Scripture - with dozens of entries already published and many hundreds more to come - might take some getting used to. Here's an introductory video. Each passage gets three individual commentaries using selected artwork, limited to a merciless 300 words (this, should be noted, is very hard to do). Then the author/curator is also permitted a longer combined commentary bringing the three together, which is easy to miss, but gives the curator a chance to drive his or her points home. For Paul, Julian of Norwich, and even Martin Creed (despite himself) in the very museum that hosted the VCS launch, that point is - notwithstanding the madness - that...

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Limiting Luther, Interrupting Ignatius

From Bengt Hoffman's Luther and the Mystics (1976):
Martin Luther's faith consciousness was significantly molded by mystical experience and western dependence on rationalism has obscured or eclipsed this mystical light. This is to say that the rational attributes of trustworthiness and loving care ascribed to God and the corresponding realities of faith and trustfulness found in man, are shot through with non-rational intimations, experiences of fascinating, awe-inspiring and bliss-giving presence. Luther's language about God residing in the heart of the believer was not only figurative. It was based on actual experience. The rational terms for God-man union were underpinned by a mystical knowledge. As indicated, there are barriers built into western intellectual thought structures which render it difficult to grasp the intimate connection between the conceptual-doctrinal and the experiential in Luther's legacy" (18-19).
From Thomas Keating's Open Mind, Open Heart (1986):
The genius and contemplative experience of Ignatius of Loyola led him to channel the contemplative tradition, which was in danger of being lost... [but the] unfortunate tendency to reduce the Spiritual Exercises to a method of discursive meditations seems to stem from the Jesuits themselves. In 1547 Everard Mercurian, the Father General of the Jesuits... forbade the practice of affective prayer and the application of the five senses. The spiritual life of a significant portion of the Society of Jesus was thus limited to a single method of prayer, namely, discursive meditation. The predominantly intellectual character of this meditation continued to grow in importance throughout the Society during the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries... [Accordingly, early modern Catholicism] received the limitation imposed not by Ignatius, but by his less enlightened successors (23).
Philip Endean's article, Luther in Ignatian Light, goes further along these lines. Meanwhile, three cheers for the primary sources themselves!