On Change

Capriccio with Roman Ruins

Francesco Guardi
Capriccio with Roman Ruins, a Pyramid and Figures, 1770
Oil on canvas

Historian of religion Jonathan Z. Smith writes, in a short essay reflecting on the “standpoint” of the scholar:

“Society or culture is preeminently the construction of significance and order through symbolic activity… Social change may then be specified as the discovery or creation of new modes of significance or order.” (J.Z. Smith, Map Is Not Territory 144)

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Within the Immanent Frame

Some reflections from Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and the so-called “Christian” values of modernity.

Paul Van Hoeydonck
Fallen Astronaut, 1971

Over the course of my now five-month Poet in Babylon hiatus, I have spent some time familiarizing myself with the claims made by Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor in his landmark 2007 work, A Secular Age. It goes without saying that ASA has been commented upon to death by now, so my aim in this short post won’t be to further unpack its claims, support its logic, or critique its assumptions; rather, it will be to take a more pastoral angle on how American Christianity — especially its evangelical wing — has assumed for itself the claims and values of secularity in the name of a more “authentic” religious experience.

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Corrado Gianquinto
Saints in Glory, 1755

I was reading the recently-published monograph of Haley Goranson Jacob on the theme of “glory” from Romans 8, and, in it, she unpacked a very surprising lexicological thesis: “glory,” doxa in the Greek New Testament, has very little to do with “radiance.” Rather, Prof. Jacob suggests, “glory” is more closely related with words of “power,” like “majesty” or “rulership” or “authority.” It would appear, from her impeccable exegetical archaeology (and, my-oh-my, this book has some stunning scholarly work in it!), that the notion of radiating-glory is one we pick up from certain phenomenological proof-texts in the Old Testament, rather than one that is natural to the term.

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To Break Bread With Judas

Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio
The Taking of Christ, 1602
Oil on canvas

In certain progressive circles, something to the following extent has been punted around from time to time as an expression of dire concern regarding the resurgence of Nazism (and other fascist / neo-fascist ideologies) in our late-modern world:

“‘As we say in Germany, if there’s a Nazi at the table and 10 other people sitting there talking to him, you got a table with 11 Nazis’… When you break bread with a Nazi, you tell them that they’re a member of society. They’re not. They don’t deserve to be. And they should know their hatreds [sic] make them unfit to be around decent people.” (David Rodham Avallone)

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Mediated Revelation

Fra Angelico
The Annunciation, 1446

There is a trope, pretty common in the Old Testament and the Gospels, that whenever God reveals something new to His chosen people, He does so through angelic messengers. Some examples of this kind include the angels’ visits to Abraham, Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush, and, perhaps most famously, Mary’s annunciation. Some of these visitations in the Scriptures are obviously angelic, as when the angels deliver Lot and his family from Sodom and Gomorrah; others are less clear, especially when the phrase “angel of the LORD” serves as a gloss for the Lord Himself.

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The Unideal Rural

Andrew Wyeth
Christina’s World, 1948
Egg tempera on gessoed panel

I recently read an article that, astoundingly, asserted that the work of Wendell Berry created unsustainable fantasies regarding the goodness of rural life. Such a claim surprised me. To assert that Berry’s fictions are, well, fictions would not have been surprising (albeit, uninteresting); but to assert that his fictions are misleading, that they somehow idealize the rural, is shocking. Au contraire!

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The Eccentric Vico

Georgia O’Keeffe,
Red Hill and White Shell, 1938
Oil on canvas

I have been spending time with an old friend these past few days. Nevermind the fact that he’s a little eccentric, sometimes absolutely ridiculous, sometimes utterly incomprehensible. As Anthony Grafton writes in his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Giambattista Vico’s New Science, the man was articulate in his own field — rhetoric — but considered practically a madman when it came to his research into philology and history that culminated in the New Science: “Vico did not receive so much as a letter from Le Clerc or Newton, to whom he sent copies. The only reference to the book that appeared abroad was a deliberately inaccurate and malicious notice… which Vico tried to rebut… Other Neapolitan intellectuals, he decided, regarded him as a madman” (Anthony Grafton, “Introduction,” xv-xvi).

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2017: Books in Review

Giorgio Vasari
Italian Humanists (Six Tuscan Poets), 1554
Oil on panel

“I am unable to satisfy my thirst for books. And I perhaps own more of them than I ought; but just as in certain other things, so does it happen with books: success in searching for them is a stimulus to greed… Books please inwardly; they speak with us, advise us and join us together with a certain living and penetrating intimacy, nor does this instill only itself into its readers, but it conveys the names and desire for others.”

(Francesco Petrarch, Letters on Familiar Matters III. 18)

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The Church contra Echo Chamber

Nicolas Poussin
Echo and Narcissus, 1630
Oil on canvas

In his recently-published, and thoroughly insightful, conclusion to the Cultural Liturgies trilogy, theologian James K.A. Smith articulates a particularly-challenging (and surprising) précis for what a Christian political theology ought to be. Following the lead of Oliver O’Donovan and Peter Leithart, Smith speaks Hauerwas to Kuyperians and then Kuyper to Hauerwasians, resulting in a re-furbished and refined view of the Church qua polis, not disjunctioned from the political polis (as it is in Lutheran Two Kingdoms doctrine) nor in charge of the political polis (as it is in NAR “Kingdom Now” dominionism, and several other postmillennial variants) nor its own entirely separate political polis (as the modern Roman Catholic Church functions). These are all, Smith asserts, false leads. Continue reading “The Church contra Echo Chamber”

Confession and Moral Reasoning

Ilya Repin
Refusal of the Confession, 1885
Oil on canvas

There is a dearth of moral reasoning in the present-day American culture, not to mention in the Church. It would seem to be the logical consequence of a libertarian ideal of freedom, despite all criticisms to the contrary. Under the hegemonic ideology of our day and age, the notion of asserting some claim or access to moral authority is offensive (at least), outmoded (certainly!), and tyrannical (at worst!). It is from this standpoint, for instance, that Michel Foucault calls the Augustinian practice of confession the modern’s source of self and, thus, their prison under the regime of biopower (since biopower undergirds and advances an ideological value of subjectification, etc.). This thesis, one of the central pieces of his The History of Sexuality, is questionable to me. Continue reading “Confession and Moral Reasoning”