Thursday, November 6, 2014


You can’t judge a book by its cover. Judging by its cover, Love: Christian Romance, Marriage, and Friendship, by Princeton Christian philosopher Diogenes Allen, looks like it falls in the same general area as The 5 Love Languages or some other self-help book. Looks, as they say, are deceiving.

Allen actually traverses some of the terrain as other important works, most notably The Four Loves, by C. S. Lewis. In Allen’s case, he taps into the Western tradition to help explain in a deeper way what usually gets flattened or trivialized for mass consumption in most books on this topic. Allen takes the humanities seriously, and in the first few chapters of the  book, he refers to the following writers:

Denis de Rougemont on courtly love
Plato (Phaedrus)
St. John of the Cross
Coleridge (“Rime of the Ancient Mariner”)
Arthur Miller (Death of a Salesman)
Martin Luther

Allen does not write as the Princetonian scholar, though. He wants to make accessible to a more general audience some of the fundamental Christian insights into the nature of love in its multiple dimensions. A work like this shows that “The Western Tradition” is much more than a dull section of humanities credits required to knock out an undergraduate degree. Allen shows that ancient Greeks, Medieval Catholics, modern Protestants, and literary works of all kinds have the power to illuminate the most fundamental reality of all human beings (“Love the Lord your God and your neighbor as yourself”).

The Western Tradition was generated for a reason. It is not a unified, monolithic voice, and it still communicates profoundly about our own day to day concerns for loving and being loveable. Why study good literature, philosophy, and theology? So you can love your wife better. So you can love your kids better. So you can love God better.

Friday, October 24, 2014

American Rhetoric

The rhetorical tradition is absolutely central to the Western tradition. The Apostle Paul was obviously educated in that tradition, given his highly literate use of various rhetorical devices throughout his letters. The early Church Fathers, such as Augustine and Chrysostom, employed traditional rhetoric while re-tooling it for specific ecclesiastical needs (homilies, teachings, biblical exegesis). The Reformation was fueled in part by a return to classical rhetoric (Melancthon, Luther’s right-hand man, wrote a widely influential textbook on the subject).

In the modern era,  writers as various as C. S. Lewis, T. S. Eliot, Dorothy Sayers, Frederick Buechner, and Annie Dillard use the full complement of rhetorical techniques to  move us and instruct us.

Here is a useful guide to rhetoric as it surrounds us in the American tradition: American Rhetoric.

This site is full of helpful features, such as a speech bank of famous American speeches, apologetics link, and –my favorite part of the site—examples of speechifying in movies. The other part of this site I like is the “rhetorical figures in sound,” in which you hear a variety of speakers, many who are famous, display figures of speech. Enjoy.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Classic

Christianity and the arts; Christianity in the arts. One of the germinal influences in getting Evangelicals to pay attention to the cultural world in faithful, obedient ways, was the Dutch critic Hans Rookmaaker.

Rookmaaker influenced Francis Schaeffer, among many others, and from there influenced subsequent generations of Christians in thinking about and participating in the world of culture. Rookmaaker did not intend to make dilettantes out of Christians. He loved Jazz and modern painting, for instance, because he felt that these forms of art spoke deeply about ultimate matters and that Christians needed to learn the tools for discerning their cultural situation, not just to evangelize efficiently, but to love God’s creation as it is unfolded historically.

His most important and influential work, Modern Art and the Death of Culture, is still worth investing in and studying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Imagining History Wrong On Purpose

In his essay "Reading," British poet W. H. Auden presents his idea of Eden, the ideal place for him to live based on his personal temperament, his background, and his particular likes and dislikes. Eden for him consists of a variety of historical and artistic and technological combinations from the past, with an emphasis on pre-20th Century British. 

Eden  Landscape: Limestone uplands like Pennines plus a small region of igneous rocks with at least one extinct volcano. A precipitous and indented sea-coast. 

 Climate: British. 

 Ethnic origin of inhabitants: Highly varied as in the United States, but with a slight Nordic predominance. 

 Language: Of mixed origins like English, but highly inflected. 

 Weights & Measures: Irregular and complicated. No decimal system. 

 Religion: Roman Catholic in an easygoing Mediterranean sort of way. Lots of local saints. 

Size of Capital: Plato’s ideal figure, 5004, about right.

 Form of Government: Absolute monarchy, elected for life by lot.

  Sources of Natural Power: Wind, water, peat, coal. No oil.

  Economic activities: Lead mining, coal mining, chemical factories, paper mills, sheep farming, truck farming, greenhouse horticulture. 

 Means of transport: Horses and horse-drawn vehicles, narrow-gauge railroads, canal barges, balloons. No automobiles or airplanes. 

 Architecture: State: Baroque. Ecclesiastical: Romanesque or Byzantine. Domestic: Eighteenth Century British or American Colonial.

  Domestic Furniture and Equipment: Victorian except for kitchens and bathrooms which are as full of modern gadgets as possible. 

 Formal Dress: The fashions of Paris in the 1830’s and ‘40’s. 

 Sources of Public Information: Gossip. Technical and learned periodicals but no newspapers.

  Public Statues: Confined to famous defunct chefs. 

 Public Entertainments: Religious processions, Brass Bands, Opera, Classical Ballet. No movies, radio or television. 

That's all good fun, and it induces one to try his or her own hand at revising history to fit one's own unique proclivities. 

Another version of this idealized editing of personal, social, and historical life appears in the somewhat recent trend of Steampunk. In this more limited redaction of history, a mainly Victorian ambience appears in stories, art, costumes, and "cosplay" events. Some people pour enormous amounts of time and money into personal Steampunk theater, and one is forced to admire some of the fascinating and even artistic overhauling of clothing, weapons, and even transportation. 

Science fiction got into the act, with well known novelists like William Gibson (The Difference Engine) depicting alternate histories in which Steampunk really arrived in the 1800's (what if steam powered cars and basic mechanical computers--difference engines-- had been invented then?). 

Jesus said, "Unless ye be born again. . . ." 

All humans know deep down in their most inward, unsanctified territories that things are not right in the world. The world is not as it should be. Principalities and Powers tramp the world's history, resulting in such catastrophes as the Trojan War, the siege of Constantinople, Napoleon inflicting mass casualties on innocent villagers, trench warfare, fantasy-induced murder by ISIS Muslims. . . .   

We know human flourishing can collapse in the face of Victorian slums, Aztec slavery, Stalinist mass murder, Roman crucifixion of Christians, Native American relocation. . . . 

We know our own lives can be wrecked by poverty, anxiety, illness, ungrateful children, hateful spouses, terrible jobs. . . .

Art can embody this transfiguration we crave. Auden craved it. Steampunks crave it. Humans imagine alternative histories, do-overs, both personal and bigger. What if dinosaurs existed alongside humans (Dinotopia)? What if steam technology had been more advanced in the 1800's (Steam Boy)? What if there really was a place where law-keeping took place ungrudgingly (Utopia)? 

Art cannot give us what we crave, and it can even delude us about what we really need. But read from a Christward perspective, art can become a crucial part of our lives, one of its functions being to remind us that we must dwell east of Eden, while reminding us, a la Auden, that we can still image Edenically. Art can imaginatively point to our hidden need and desire to be born again.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Across the Pond

American Christianity has always had to wrestle with a triumphalist streak, whether in conservative or liberal forms. To gain some perspective on this problem, it helps to look outside our American inflections of Christianity to other cultural positionings of faith. One way to do this appears on the U.K. web site bethinking. Since Christians in the U.K. are now a distinct minority in an increasingly hostile and aggressive secular culture, their wrestlings with faith and culture can inform our own in helpful ways. Take a look. 

Here is a sample essay called "A Media Studies Approach to Not Noticing God." In it, Pete Lowman reflects on how modern media trains everyone--even Christians--to see the world in purely material cause-effect ways, effectively shutting down our intuition of supernatural realities.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hell Everywhere

Hell is not a Christian invention, though ignorant Atheists might try to say so. Religions from around the world have imagined a realm of divine punishment, and the representations of these ultimate scenes of judgment/punishment speak to a deep need for the Law to be carried out. C. S. Lewis, following the Apostle Paul and the rest of the Great Tradition of Christian thought, points out in Mere Christianity that all people know the Law (and Lewis provides support with the Appendix to The Abolition of Man, in which he lists the varieties of cultures that universally say things like don't steal, don't cheat on your wife). But Lewis goes on to say that no one keeps the Law. And then Lewis takes the next step, the one that we don't like taking because of our fallen nature--we habitually make excuses for why we didn't keep a law. We refuse to repent, in other words. 

The Law is engraved on our hearts, but our clouded brains and occluded inward vision keep us from knowing clearly how we have failed, and we--sinful brats that we are--pretend that we didn't do anything that bad or that we didn't do anything bad at all. But we can never escape our guilt and our dodges, so we suppress them. But these suppressions inevitably rise to the surface in mutated ways--hence the visions of Hell in so many cultures. 

We know something is wrong with us, but we cannot bring ourselves to see just how bad it is outside of the grace of God that comes to us in the fullness of the Law (Jesus, for instance, on the Sermon on the Mount says, yes you did commit adultery. Yes, you did lie. Yes, you did murder. Every single one of you. Balderdash, we reply. Jesus is just using Semitic exaggeration. He doesn't really mean what he said. We dodge). 

Depictions of Hell arise in distorted ways, though, because we want to minimize our own culpability and heighten that of others, so, like the Chinese hell, horrible people--people unlike decent folk--like ourselves--get boiled alive again and again, or torn apart by demons, or are grilled forever. Or mostly forever. One aspect of Buddhist hells is that the torment ends after a certain number of eons, and the sinner is reborn into a new life of destiny. Reincarnation in Eastern religions sometimes is preceded by a billion years in hell with demons who are actually purgative forces of Karma. Though hell still hurts.  You can even tour Chinese hell with the kids if you are looking for something to do on a weekend.

So, Muslim hell, Buddhist hell, Shinto hell, Zoroastrian hell--humans with a religious bent build hells because we know deep down that humans deserve judgment. But also deep down, we screen ourselves from judgment, finessing the hard words of Jesus by imagining hell might have a termination of some kind or that we ourselves won't be there, only the really, really wicked people will. 

How might this play out in popular culture? One way is that depictions of hell are horribly, horribly wrong, for the most part. Whether it is hell in Constantine, or hell in What Dreams may Come or hell in Jacob's Ladder, the reality of final separation from God, that Love that moves the heavens and the stars as Dante puts it, is deflated by poor theology and the need for entertainment. In some ways, there isn't really a problem with this on one level--movies are fantasy machines that allow us to escape our humdrum lives. The problem comes when someone watches something like Beetlejuice, where hell is obviously a joke, a prop for some Tim Burton-esque fun and so gets reinforcement that separation from the Maker is a residue of primitive belief, something fit only for movie fun; or someone watches something like the sci-fi/horror crossover Event Horizon and thinks that Christians really believe hell is a place of torture and thus cannot in any form or shape be taken seriously.  

What might be an antidote to false religious understandings of hell and false pop culture representations? You know the answer to that. The best Christian theology, the best art, and the best literature on the subject. Augustine. Dante. Milton. Lewis. Enjoy watching Homer Simpson in hell. It's just entertainment. Visit the Chinese hell parks. It's interesting culture stuff. But if you want the inside straight dope on what it means, turn to the real experts.