‘The Christians’ Is Serious Theater

Alissa Wilkinson writes, “When theatre works best, it’s because it forces you into a room where the action is happening right there, live. It’s often serious precisely because it’s a good setting for confronting serious issues, like being locked in a room where a horrible argument is happening.”

This is what she says happens when people attend the off-Broadway production of Lucas Hnath’s play The Christians. They’ll see a depiction of a church split over a serious theological disagreement without strawmen and caricatures.

When God Picks His Team

“Do you understand that God is not looking for ‘the cream of the crop?’” Jared Wilson asks. “He is in the margins, picking the scrubs, the losers, the dum-dums.”

Because in the Kingdom of God, the first, in our way of thinking, shall be last, but the last, as we see them, shall be first. God is not vindictive in saying this. There’s no mean spirit about him. He is simply telling us that we look at each other in ways he does not. Those we consider to be losers will not lose a thing in Christ.

‘The Devil’s Pleasure Palace,’ by Michael Walsh

It is the thesis of this book that the heroic narrative is not simply our way of telling ourselves comforting fairy tales about the ultimate triumph of Good over Evil, but an implanted moral compass that guides even the least religious among us.

In a book at once learned, insightful, inspirational, and maddening, Michael Walsh, former Time Magazine associate editor and current New York Post columnist, finds a useful lens through which to examine the culture wars of our time. The conflict goes beyond religion vs. atheism, or left vs. right, he tells us in The Devil’s Pleasure Palace. It’s about stories. It’s about the basic narrative through which we view history.

This, of course, is a point of view that pleases me immensely.

All human cultures, Walsh argues, have told their stories in the basic three-act form, the “ur-Narrative” – something is lost, a battle is fought, and the lost thing (or something better) is regained.

Against this, the modern left sets its own narrative of history, based on deconstruction, adopted from the poisonous thinkers of the Frankfurt School of philosophy who fled to America from Hitler in the 1930, took up residence, accepted the freedom and plenty of the country, and immediately began to plot to bring it all down in flames. Because they believe in destroying the good, to make way for their perfect dream of the socialist society.

I appreciated Walsh’s well-informed critique of the Frankfurt School thinkers and their influence. I was less enamored of his depiction of the “ur-Narrative.” He writes frankly from a Christian (Catholic) point of view, but his depiction of Christian theology is pretty idiosyncratic. It helps to remember that he bases his view of the narrative of the Fall of Man, not actually on Genesis, but on Milton’s poem “Paradise Lost.” And even in that, he stretches the text a bit to make a non-Miltonian, semi-Catholic point.

But I still found The Devil’s Pleasure Palace immensely fascinating and informative. Walsh has hope for the future of our culture. I’m not sure I share it. But I’m glad I read the book. Recommended, with cautions.

Did Frost Take the Untaken Road?

Frost is not simply that rare bird, a popular poet; he is one of the best-known personages of the past hundred years in any cultural arena. In all of American history, the only writers who can match or surpass him are Mark Twain and Edgar Allan Poe, and the only poet in the history of English-language verse who commands more attention is William Shakespeare.

Everyone loves Frost, and according to David Orr, almost everyone misreads “The Road Not Taken.” I think he’s right. I know I’ve misread it.

Democratic Vikings

I’ve mentioned before the book on the Viking Age which I translated a while back. There’s still no word on when the English version will be published, but the publisher, Saga Bok, has posted an excerpt on their blog here.

How far back in time the oral Thing system functioned, no one knows. It was likely not as highly developed during the Migration Era as it became after the start of the Viking Age in the 9th Century. It is also remarkable that the Norse Thing system has not up till now attracted much interest in the world at large. But in all probability that is easily explained. The Norwegians of that age left behind no monumental structures, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations. On top of that, Scandinavia lay on the outskirts of civilization, and encompassed only a small number of people. In this matter European scholars (including Norwegians) have allowed themselves to be deceived by appearances – the impressive structures and statues of southern Europe. Those who did not erect such monuments must not have had any significance in historical development.

Stirring Puritan Sympathies

Micah Mattix reviews a book that explores the passions and brotherly love of that group of people popularly slandered as being close-minded and stern.

Preaching on 1 Peter 3:8, Nicholas Byfield remarked, “The doctrine is cleer. That we ought to have a sympathie one towards another.” Robert Bolton urged his readers to “make conscience” their sympathy. Puritan sermons often aimed at stirring the holy affections of congregants, and Van Engen writes,

The imaginative work of sympathy, furthermore, constituted its own distinct practice. Puritan ministers instructed their parishioners to pray for others and provide physical aid, but before they acted, they had to be moved.

This helps explain why the Puritans, contrary to popular belief, were so expressive. When his wife was dying, John Winthrop was “weeping so bitterly,” Van Engen writes, “she asked him to stop” because (in her words) “you breake mine heart with your grievings.” When the Puritans fled England, and British soldiers separated children from their parents, William Bradford wrote that there was “weeping and crying on every side.” Anne Bradstreet regularly refers to her “troubled heart,” “sorrows,” “cares,” “fears,” and “joy” in her poetry. One of the most popular poems of the early colony was Michael Wigglesworth’s “The Day of Doom” (1662), in which he imagines the “weeping” and wailing of sinners but also the singing and “great joy” of God’s elect at Christ’s second coming. Van Engen writes that each instance of “tears and grieving, melting and weeping, pity and sympathy” in Puritan texts fits within “a broad tradition of Puritan fellow feeling.”

Author Abram C. Van Engen reveals these and other events in his book Sympathetic Puritans: Calvinist Fellow Feeling in Early New England. He touches on theological controversies and the witch trials, saying there are elements of Christian charity in all of Puritan life.

Speaking of early America, Mark David Hall criticizes a book on the religious mindset of the founding fathers. Were they a group of “pious, orthodox believers who sought to establish a Christian nation” or were they “Enlightenment deists who created a secular republic that strictly separated church and state”? Were they rational men who were strongly influenced by Christianity? Hall notes some good and bad points in Steven Green’s book Inventing a Christian America. (via Prufrock)

Hey Pilgrim

‘Three Roads to the Alamo,’ by William C. Davis

In Library and Information Science, there’s a popular concept called “faceting.” Faceting means describing a resource in more than one way, as more than one thing. The idea is that faceting makes it possible to describe an object more fully, in a way that’s more useful to more people.

William C. Davis’ Three Roads to the Alamo is a faceted historical work. Instead of a single narrative, the author takes us along with the Alamo’s three most famous defenders, Crockett, Bowie, and Travis, on their lives’ journeys, providing us not only a fuller description of each of them, but a more three-dimensional picture of America (at least the American south and southwest) during the early 19th Century.

The first subject we meet is the oldest and most famous – even in his own time – Congressman David Crockett of Tennessee. Indeed, as Davis reminds us, Crockett was the very first American media celebrity – the first American to see the newspapers and magazines create for him a separate persona, not entirely unlike him, but exaggerated and oversimplified. It must have been a bizarre life for him – in the east he dined in the finest restaurants, was feted by the rich and powerful, and spoke from the same platforms with Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. When he went home, it was to a dirt-floored cabin and a mountain of debts that never seemed to diminish. He finally solved the debt problem – to a degree – by figuring out how to monetize his celebrity. He wrote his autobiography (which I reviewed here), and it became a bestseller. Continue reading ‘Three Roads to the Alamo,’ by William C. Davis

The Greatest Biography

Joseph Epstein states, “The world’s greatest biography was composed by a depressive, a heavy drinker, an inconstant husband and a neglectful father who suffered at least 17 bouts of gonorrhea.” That biography is filled with quotations like this: “Depend upon it, that if a man talks of his misfortunes, there is something in them that is not disagreeable to him.”

And this: “The Irish are a very fair people—they never speak well of one another.” (via Prufrock)

Eve Through the Eyes of Young

The author of The Shack, William Paul Young, has a new novel on creation. Ann Byle interviews Young on what responses he expects to receive.

Some might argue that you are recasting Scripture from a more feminine perspective.

Yes, some might argue and others will likely insist, but I reject the notion. I am not trying to recast the Scriptures from a more feminine perspective. I am doing something much more sinister than that. I am recasting Scripture from a more “human” perspective. How sad is it that any conversation about the emergence of true humanity in the world, which includes submission, generosity, kindness, strength, integrity etc., is seen as a feminist conversation?

From Honor to Dignity to Victimhood

Jonathan Haidt has written an edited version of a sociology paper that attempts to explain microaggressions among American college students.

We’re beginning a second transition of moral cultures. The first major transition happened in the 18th and 19th centuries when most Western societies moved away from cultures of honor (where people must earn honor and must therefore avenge insults on their own) to cultures of dignity in which people are assumed to have dignity and don’t need to earn it. They foreswear violence, turn to courts or administrative bodies to respond to major transgressions, and for minor transgressions they either ignore them or attempt to resolve them by social means. There’s no more dueling.

Now, the paper’s authors conclude, we’re moving into a culture of victimhood, where slights against one’s honor are being defended by appeals to authority and public opinion. Being a victim is rewarded in different ways and universities are encouraging their students to view slight offensives or potential insults as system problems.

Haidt has written about this bizarre collegiate environment in an essay for The Atlantic this month, providing examples of what and his coauthor call “The Coddling of the American Mind.”

Some recent campus actions border on the surreal. In April, at Brandeis University, the Asian American student association sought to raise awareness of microaggressions against Asians through an installation on the steps of an academic hall. The installation gave examples of microaggressions such as “Aren’t you supposed to be good at math?” and “I’m colorblind! I don’t see race.” But a backlash arose among other Asian American students, who felt that the display itself was a microaggression. The association removed the installation, and its president wrote an e-mail to the entire student body apologizing to anyone who was “triggered or hurt by the content of the microaggressions.”

All of this is working to create “a culture in which everyone must think twice before speaking up, lest they face charges of insensitivity, aggression, or worse.”

...non fidarsi è meglio - my scared cat / gatto

Conservatism is scientific

I shared this idea on Facebook today. I’ll elaborate it here.

I had an epiphany today. I figured out what I think is the essential problem with liberalism in our time. They believe in an outmoded form of science, a pseudoscientific myth.

Think of one of our president’s favorite phrases: “My opponents are on the wrong side of history.”

Think about it. What does it mean to be on the wrong side of history? How can history have sides?

It can only have sides if you believe there is some overarching inevitability to the course of history. It’s understandable for Christians to think that way. We’re supernaturalists. We believe a Mind is in control. That’s how our world-view works.

But how can secularists believe that history has an inevitable course, a right and a wrong side?

It can only come from a myth, a belief in some kind of driving force behind the course of events, even if it’s seen as somehow non-supernatural.

In the 19th Century there was a common belief in Progress. You may think of the 19th Century as an age of faith, but it was also an age in which the driving, dynamic new world view was Darwinian. The problem was that even the scientists of the time generally didn’t understand how evolution works.

(I don’t propose to debate the evolution question here. I’m talking in terms of social myths and common assumptions.)

The kind of Evolution that was popularized by writers like H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw was purposeful. Nature – in some way – was striving to perfect itself. Everything it did was an attempt to come closer to the perfection that waited at the end. History had an inevitable course. This is implicit in Marx. He firmly believed he was writing science. Because it was science, anyone who disagreed had to be insane. Continue reading Conservatism is scientific

Rejected Under His White Name

Poet Michael Hudson has a strategy for getting his poetry accepted. He explains it in a note attached to his contribution to The Best American Poetry.

“After a poem of mine has been rejected a multitude of times under my real name, I put Yi-Fen’s name on it and send it out again,” he wrote. “As a strategy for ‘placing’ poems this has been quite successful … The poem in question … was rejected under my real name forty times before I sent it out as Yi-Fen Chou (I keep detailed records). As Yi-Fen the poem was rejected nine times before Prairie Schooner took it. If indeed this is one of the best American poems of 2015, it took quite a bit of effort to get it into print, but I’m nothing if not persistent.”

The guest editor this annual collection, Sherman Alexie, was angered by Hudson’s bluff, but he kept the poem in the collection because Hudson’s rationale was looking him right in the eye. “If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I gave the poem special attention because of the poet’s Chinese pseudonym. If I’d pulled the poem then I would have been denying that I was consciously and deliberately seeking to address past racial, cultural, social, and aesthetic injustices in the poetry world.”

Naturally, this has stirred up a conversation about race and the merits of poetry.

Update: Hudson’s pseudonym is reportedly the name of one of his high school classmates. The Guardian states, “While the real-life Chou refused to speak to the paper directly, her sister said that the woman was furious at the appropriation of her name for this purpose.”

What If Jesus Brought You Coffee?

Paul Pastor (you may call him Pastor Pastor) reviews the second volume of David Wilkie’s Coffee with Jesus. He remembers Wilkie saying, “You have to be able to laugh at yourself first, because you might be the problem, not everybody else.”

It is precisely this humility of humor, large and startling in its own way, that points to what I hope will be the true legacy of Coffee. Rather than blazing new comedic trails, pioneering cartoon art, or codifying some brilliance of original thought, it is the unitive speculation—what would Jesus say to the sincere nonsenses that we spurt on a daily basis?—that makes one think, that makes one feel charitably toward the weak of heart or opinion, that makes one laugh and wave some Trojan truth past the guards at the gates.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture