Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Literature is Good for You

Simone Weil is one tough cookie. Her writings are both luminous and infuriating, enlightening and neurotic. But this isn’t about the relative merit of her work. Weil’s influence is assured, regardless of where one comes down on the clarity or helpfulness of her ideas about God, suffering, prayer, and salvation. Her unique vocabulary makes her difficult to understand, and I am not going to comment on the contentious possibilities of her work, though many readers across multiple denominational fences have found her to be inspiring. 

What I am interested in is Weil’s response to literature and what this can tell us about the inherent power of grea literature. What Weil can help us see is that the contemporary academic approach to literature censors some of the best things great literature can do for us. Weil--a mystic, a philosopher, a non-Marxist leftist, a klutz who tried to live out the Gospel--read literature like The Iliad or George Herbert’s poems and was lifted to higher vision than the secular realm can account for. Literature at its best can have an intrinsic power that is now more or less denied in the secular academy. 

“Literature” is now a subject conditioned by academic speculation, controlled in classroom contexts, and burdened with au courant critical theory. At least that is what it has become for most people who encounter literature in the context of current academic study. Weil’s encounter with the power of literature helps us see that the boundaries between literature and theology is thin and permeable, and this is a good thing. Her reading of Greek classics and British poetry, for instance, flies in the face of most contemporary literature professors, yet Weil has far more academic and even leftist credentials in her little finger than an entire English department faculty will ever have. And she says that literature can show us something of God. 

Take, for example, the metaphysical poet George Herbert. Weil, who suffered from excruciating migraine headaches, learned to recite Herbert’s poem “Love” in order to concentrate and to lessen the pain. The internalizing of Herbert’s God-enraptured poetry helped ease Weil into Christian faith by helping her discover the palpable love of God, and this is a use of literature scorned by or ignored by nearly all modern academia. 

Another example. Weil also thought that The Iliad was suffused with a vision of life comporting with the deepest insights of the Christian vision of human boundedness. The epic showed that all human beings are subject to “force,” the violent necessities of passion, genetics, psychology, and culture. We are trapped but we know we want to be free. We hate violence, fear death, and just want to go home, yet when the blood lust of war strikes us, we want to kill and subjugate. Both sides--Greek and Trojan--and all warriors--major, minor, heroic or cowardly--are caught up beyond self-control, and Force rules all, making all turn temporarily into hateful monsters. When Force has run its course, for a while anyway, everyone returns to sanity and hates what he has become, but he will succumb again in short order until something breaks. Weil’s interesting take on the poem might or might not be true, but the point here is that she found Great Literature to be something more than a subject to write essays for in an English class. The Iliad offers one of the profoundest views ever composed in artistic form of human captivity and the hunger for freedom from necessityWeil claims that literature at its best achieves an almost religious quality of revelation. 

Katherine T. Brueck, in her  The Redemption of Tragedy: the Literary Vision of Simone Weil, uses Weil’s ideas about literature to question recent academic trends that turn away from considering how and why literature can speak to us of pressing human realities. The qualities of truth, goodness, and beauty are laughed at in many (most?) colleges and universities, but Brueck deploys Weil's experiences  to challenge the hegemonic discourse (and grading practices) of institutionalized secular education. This so far is a minority opinion, but that doesn't matter. It is the truth. 

Monday, March 31, 2014

Enjoying a Rotten Future

Gattaca is beautiful and horrible

A favorite trope for sci-fi movies is the Dystopian future. Movies as various as The Matrix, Elysium, Surrogates, Brazil, and Metropolis ( and Blade Runner!) build their narratives on a future that turns out to be unpleasant. Scientists do not become saviors; technology does not free us to become even more human. Regardless of the variations among all these movies (near future, distant future, awful future, slightly less awful future), these films and manymany more, operate mostly on the level of entertainment.  

In other words, the dystopic vision of the future is not a serious extrapolation of current trends. Instead, the cityscape or the building interior or the laboratory or the robots or the genetic freaks serve primarily to move the action forward. In some cases, such as a serious film like Blade Runner, the dystopian city serves as a metaphor that reflects deeper issues beyond just the excitement of the surface narrative. But this is rare, and even here the imagined city is not supposed to be a literal futureIn most cases, the awful futuristic landscape almost never really helps us think about the real dehumanization of technology or ideology. The visuals of a trashed out environment, or errant technology, or tyrannical government or technological control nearly always bends toward entertainment. 

This is curious. It is something like most horror film. Terror induced by faux supernatural phenomena is purely for fun. Most people who watch movies about demons care nothing about reflecting on genuine supernatural realities. In such film, the intrusion of the demonic results in a simulation of terror that is supposed to be enjoyed for the duration of the viewingIn real life, if one were to encounter a genuinely demonic entity, the resulting terror would probably paralyze you. The buzz that comes from watching simulated demonic possession is understood by the viewer to be an aesthetic experience only. 

So too, the picture of a future that has gone horribly wrong serves little purpose other than a narrative jolt, just for the fun of it. Watching either version of Total Recall results in a mild buzz of enjoyment for a couple of hours. The futuristic images do not provoke any serious reflection on a potentially trashy future. So here is the irony: we are entertained by images of a depressing future. Rather than being depressed, we enjoy the temporarily giddy feeling of an awful future coming our way because we know the images are not serious. We see a vision of human debilitation, and we say, "that was so cool." 

What happens if we want to tell or see a serious, provocative, reflection-inducing narrative of a genuinely dystopian future? We are mostly out of luck, it seems. Only rarely in film do we encounter a story of a plausible future that we do not want. One example is Gattaca. This film portrays a future in which enhanced genetic engineering is plausibly portrayed. The resulting two-tiered society--those who can afford genetic medicine and those who cannot--is convincing, giving rise to a feeling of despair about real life and perhaps prompting one to think a little more about the ethics of genetic experimentation.  The movie is aesthetically compelling, but the movie is more than "just" entertainment, unlike, say, Elysium, which on the surface seems to be saying something serious about immigration and health care, but which in fact is totally bogus. Elysium uses a veneer of current event anxieties to tell what is really an action film story. Gattaca moves beyond the level of mere entertainment, and the dystopian trope becomes a vehicle for further reflection, even though we are entertained while watching the movie. 

Watching sci-ffilms is theologically interesting because it says something about our spiritual dislocation. We enjoy simulations of horrible living conditions. We do not enjoy actual horrible living conditions. For a few hours we escape from our lives by imagining a future that would be too horrible to actually live in but which we "enjoy" living in through the surrogacy of actors--people who are not who they are.

Pretend slum from Elysium is fun to watch

Real slum from Africa is not fun to watch

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Pen and Sword

Dorothy Sayers, detective novelist
Ok, there is a long quotation coming up, but bear with me. This quotation is a letter by the British novelist and theologian (and playwright and translator) Dorothy Sayers. She is writing to a scientist who is asking about Christianity. Rather than answer kindly, Sayers rips into the scientist for not doing his own research into a full answer:

“Why do you want a letter from me? Why don't you take the trouble to find out for yourselves what Christianity is? You take time to learn technical terms about electricity. Why don't you do as much for theology? Why do you never read the great writings on the subject, but take your information from the secular 'experts' who have picked it up as inaccurately as you? Why don't you learn the facts in this field as honestly as your own field? Why do you accept mildewed old heresies as the language of the church, when any handbook on church history will tell you where they came from?
Why do you balk at the doctrine of the Trinity - God the three in One - yet meekly acquiesce when Einstein tells you E=mc2? What makes you suppose that the expression "God ordains" is narrow and bigoted, while your own expression, "Science demands" is taken as an objective statement of fact?You would be ashamed to know as little about internal combustion as you know about Christian beliefs.

I admit, you can practice Christianity without knowing much theology, just as you can drive a car without knowing much about internal combustion. But when something breaks down in the car, you go humbly to the man who understands the works; whereas if something goes wrong with religion, you merely throw the works away and tell the theologian he is a liar.

Why do you want a letter from me telling you about God? You will never bother to check on it or find out whether I'm giving you personal opinions or Christian doctrines. Don't bother. Go away and do some work and let me get on with mine.”

Sayers was nominally associated with the Inklings, not as an actual regular participant but as a highly respected associate of the members. Although now Lewis and Tolkien are the best known members of this crew, Sayers was once a very widely known British writer of the day, mostly because of her novels about the upper crust detective Lord Peter Wimsey.  Sayers became famous primarily through her fiction, but her real love was theology and translations. She wrote a number of stimulating essays on the relevance of the doctrine of the Trinity to modern life, and most of her stuff still works in a punchy, critical way. That is, her style is punchy, and she is critical of the Church for abdicating its responsibility to teach the“strong meat” of hard core biblical dogma, both as systematic theology and as a powerful interpretation of life.

Sayers made no truce with either a simpering Church that wanted everyone to like it or with an ignorant secularism that didn’t really know what the Church officially teaches (and she blamed the Church for this widespread ignorance in and out of the Church).

The reason I bring all this up is to ask a question about the kind of rhetoric Christians should use when dealing with unbelievers. Sayers’ rhetoric is entirely different from the more irenic rhetoric that Lewis consistently used, regardless of the level of his writing. That is, whether it was for an introductory audience, such as the original readers of Mere Christianity or more informed readers for more difficult texts such as the sermons in The World’s Last Night, Lewis always portrayed himself as a concerned amature who didn’t know very much but who was trying to help out others. Sayers, in contrast, was aggressive, even combative, against both other Christians and against ignorant unbelievers.

Some of the difference can be explained as an effect of temperament, probably. Lewis was just a different psychological type, the natural teacher as it were. Sayers was the ex-ad agency writer, and her abrasive personality comes through naturally in her writing. But is this all? Is there a time and place for Lewis--and a time and place for Sayers? Is it right for a Christian, when rhetorically appropriate, to punch back twice as hard?

Dorothy Sayers, Christian apologist

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Augustine: Culture Raider

"If those . . . [pagan writers] have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use. . . . In the same way, all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings . . . but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some of the most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them."

Before he became a Christian, Augustine was not all that impressed with Aristotle. However, he was taken with New Age stuff. Something deep within pushed him in a scrambling religious direction. He took up with the Manicheans for about 12 years, hoping to find answers to his questions about the nature of evil and why he was so unhappy. Augustine eventually became disillusioned with the Manicheans, even while remaining connected with them, so when he finally made the break, it was not that hard, and his repudiation of them was total.

However, when Augustine found the “Platonists,” meaning what we now call neo-platonists, meaning especially Plotinus, he thought he had found heaven before he found the real heaven. The Platonists gave him the ability to conceptualize God in a non-material way. They also gave him insight into the nature of evil. They also helped him to understand his own profound dissatisfaction with his life and why the world was so beautiful while also disappointing and heartbreaking because of its mutability. After Augustine passed over from the Platonists to the Christian faith, he found that many of the conceptual tools the Platonists had given him helped explain some facets of Christian belief, such as the non-materiality of God. Perhaps the greatest gift the Platonists gave him was an ability to read the Scriptures. Previously, Augustine had been repulsed by the apparently vulgar, philosophically naive, and downright unreadable portions of scripture. No longer. His Confessions, for instance, are saturated in scripture with multiple references and allusions in each paragraph.

Augustine’s engagement with his pagan education and culture is instructive--some of it did nothing for him (Aristotle), though he didn’t despise it. Some of it seduced him, but it turned out to be ridiculous and self-serving and ultimately something he had to revolt against (Manicheanism). And some of it was luminous, elevating, deeply spiritual, and decisive in bringing him to full Christian faith (neo-platonism).

I think this is fairly accurate to our experiences--we are surrounded by competing Weltanschauungen that lace our post-Christian culture. Some of these might be outright repulsive to downright persuasive, usually on subconscious levels. Engagement with other worldviews does not mean standardized, uniform rejection. Augustine recognized spectrums of distance to or from Christ among various strands of Roman culture, and the same recognition holds true for us.

We test the spirits. We weigh and measure. We become historically and aesthetically sensitive, conserving the best and tossing the worst. This is a never ending act of obedience because we are creatures of time and place, tasked with living faithfully in an always changing world that God is taking to its fulfillment according to His plan, not ours.

The standard Augustine emblem: the heart, pierced by God, on fire with love, controlled by Scripture

Friday, March 7, 2014

Neil Postman, Frenemy

The media scholar Neil Postman uses exaggeration as a rhetorical technique in nearly all of his writings, and one thing he tends to do repeatedly with this is distort the history and beliefs of religion. And yet, in spite of this, Postman has become a favorite writer on media and education for many Christians. And this is right because of what he helps us see around us, what is usually invisible or is background noise we no longer hear. In other words, Postman is the frenemy of Christians.
Postman was always willing to admit the importance of religion in the development of the most fundamental human issues. As a critic of modern media and technology, he frequently pointed out--correctly--that no form of technology, no matter how advanced, would solve the basic problems that people have always faced and always will face. Hatred, loneliness, joy, despair, love--none of these things require the most up to date laptops integrated into the classroom.
How does one be a more loving father? How does one learn to live next to obnoxious neighbours? Why does one get anxious about the future and what do we do about it when we can’t sleep at night because of our anxieties? Modern technology and the ideology of constant progress cannot help us with any of these. But Plato, Isaiah, Confucius, Marcus Arelius, and Shakespeare, among others, can still speak to us in ways that provide help for what ails us emotionally and spiritually. Faster laptops with more memory cannot help you understand your self. But an ancient Roman writer, or a Renaissance Italian poet, or an Eighteenth Century theologian can.
One of Postman’s constant theses was that education in particular is not improved by better and better technology. Larger storage capacities and faster processing speeds have nothing to do with being an educated person, and yet the modern secular cult of progress tries to trick us into ignoring this obvious insight. Newest is best--the latest ipad in the classroom will help our kids learn better, right?

Postman apparently believed in some kind of ultimate religious truth, but he was also a non-practicing Jew who didn’t believe in supernatural intervention or in the veracity of biblical witness to the one true God of creation. In some of his books, this leads him to distort what Medieval and Reformation Christians actually believed in order to make a point about how technological change affects society. Nevertheless, Postman also claimed that religious writers, like Isaiah and Micah, or Spinoza and Goethe, were more helpful sources for learning how to be human than the latest technocrat promoting the most efficient information delivery system.
So, curiously, Postman ends up being a frenemy of Christians. Much of what he says has been born out by actual experience, and in spite of his willing to overstate, distort, and exaggerate--something which he admits he does--, he also helps Christians become aware of the mediated environment they dwell in, usually without knowing the full nature of the ideology that modern technology enforces (such as, newer is always better).
Postman’s style of rhetoric has its place. To draw attention to a dangerous situation that most don’t see, one might have to shout. His analyses of the cultural perturbations that new technologies cause should be adopted by Christians (and have) who can go on to correct his simplifications of traditional theology.

One recent application of “Postmanian” insights is Why Johnny Can’t Preach, by T. David Gordon. Another Christian scholar employing “Postmanian” insights is Quentin Schultz.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Jack Reacher and the Illusions of Freedom

In the movie Jack Reacher Tom Cruise plays an updated version of an old fashioned American hero who comes across the path of an elderly villain who had survived for decades in a Soviet gulag. The villain (played by Werner Herzog!!) has become a reptilian boss of an American-Russian gang that uses a construction company as a front to feed its endless hunger. The Russian, known as Zec, which simply means “prisoner” since the man no longer remembers his original name, is missing almost all of his fingers. The reason why is that he chewed off some of the fingers to keep from getting gangrene from frostbite in Siberia and thus dying. The others he chewed off to keep from having to work in the sulphur mines (sounds vaguely similar to the movie Barabbas) where he also would have most likely died


This willingness to self-amputate shows the drive of Zec to live. His urge to survive has made his criminality become his essential nature, and he confesses at one point to continue engaging in criminal activity long after he has obtained anything he really needs because it has become his nature to simply gobble up more and more of life. His survival instinct has metastasized into a kind of pure evil that commits crime now for the sake of committing crime. He doesn’t want women, or wealth, or fancy cars. Crime no longer has a goal for him, just as his surviving the Gulag had no real purpose other than pure survival itself.

No doubt such people exist. No doubt labor and death camps all over the world contain emotionally, mentally, and spiritually stripped human beings who have essentially turned into automatons that are zeroed in on living for as long as possible. But these are not the only sort of humanity that exists in death camps. The Soviet Gulag, as one example, might have regurgitated Zec, but it also formed Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is unfortunately not as well known as he used to be. His existence, though, demonstrates how the Christian vision supports a humane life in the most inhumane of circumstances. Solzhenitsyn survived the Soviet Gulag and learned how to be Christian (and a novelist) as a result. In the early short novel A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alyosha the Baptist survives with joy, not with animal determination. The main character, Shukov, is not a Christian, but he recognizes in Alyosha a miraculous ability to love and forgive and endure that goes beyond any of the other prisoners, some of whom seem to be early versions of Zec. In his non-fiction  Gulag Archipelago, Solzhenitsyn recounts his own experiences and his growth of faith, showing that Alyosha was not merely the byproduct of a novelist’s imagination.

During one scene in Jack Reacher, Cruise/Reacher is in the office of Helen Rodin, the defense attorney for an Army sniper framed by Zec. Reacher makes her look out a window into nearby offices where people are working late in cubicles. He then gives a little monologue that includes the following: “So many people talk about freedom and security, safety and success. But what is freedom?”   

Reacher claims that what many Americans consider to be freedom is in fact a kind of low grade serfdom.  The poor saps working late have bills to pay, and bosses to placate, and ladders to climb. Reacher ponders if this is the “freedom” he has spent his life fighting for overseas; has all his efforts really been worth the fight? Provisionally for him it is because his American existence allows him to live in such a way that he can get up and move any time he wants, living off grid.

He says: “It's why I refuse to work for someone else … my freedom is defined by my vision of being safe, secure but able to get up and go.”

Reacher’s freedom in this context obviously contrasts with Zec, who knew what the ultimate cubicle was in the Gulag. But Zec is still trapped, enslaved, by his subhuman programming that drives him to commit crimes even though he doesn’t need to. So what is going on here? On the one hand, the ultimate American fantasy of freedom: the skilled male who can do just about anything and get away with it in style, a man with a kind of old fashioned martial nobility and self-control, who rides into town, rights wrongs, and rides out again, helping the weak, even on the bus that leaves the big city. On the other hand, the criminal who stops hurting others only when the good guy kills him.

In some ways, this is a satisfying fantasy. But . . .  what about Solzhenitsyn? He is not just a tertium quid, a third option on a spectrum between Reacher and Zec. He is the question mark put to all man-made constructions of freedom (and justice). Reacher can never stop moving, can never have a family, can never grow old with grandkids. He is free but only in a limited fantasy sense that men sometimes entertain (sort of like Huck Finn perpetually lighting out for the territory). Zec is just dead. But Solzhenitsyn finds happiness wherever he is, in the Gulag prison, in the woods of Vermont, in post-Soviet Moscow.

"It is for freedom tha Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened by a yoke of slavery."