Topsy-turvy, Tono-Bungay

In his blog-through of the works of H. G. Wells, Adam Roberts has reached Tono-Bungay, and there’s much food for thought in the post. Real food, not patent medicine like Tono-Bungay itself. Much of the novel, in Adam’s account, considers just that relationship: between the real and the unreal, the health-giving and the destructive, the truly valuable and mere waste — all the themes that Robertson Davies explores in The Rebel Angels and that are also, therefore, the chief concern of my recent essay on Davies, “Filth Therapy”.

Here I might quote Adam quoting some people who quote some other person:

Patrick Brantlinger and Richard Higgins quote William Cohen’s Introducing Filth: Dirt, Disgust, and Modern Life to the effect that ‘polluting or filthy objects’ can ‘become conceivably productive, the discarded sources in which riches may lie’, adding that ‘“Riches” have often been construed as “waste”’ and noting that ‘the reversibility of the poles — wealth and waste, waste and wealth — became especially apparent with the advent of a so-called consumer society during the latter half of the nineteenth century’ [‘Waste and Value: Thorstein Veblen and H. G. Wells’, Criticism, 48:4 (2006), 453].

This prompts me to want to write a sequel to “Filth Therapy,” though I clearly need to read Introducing Filth first.

It occurs to me that these are matters of longstanding interest to Adam, whose early novel Swiftly I have described as “excresacramental” — it was the first novel by Adam that I read, and given how completely disgusting it is, I’m rather surprised that I kept reading him. But he’s that good, even when he’s dirty-minded, as it were.

These themes make their way into fiction, I think, because of an ongoing suspicion, endemic now in Western culture if not elsewhere, that we have it all wrong, that we have valued what we should not have valued and vice versa, that we have built our house only having first rejected the stone that should be the chief cornerstone. As the old General Confession has it, “We have left undone those thinges whiche we ought to have done, and we have done those thinges which we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” This suspicion, which is often muted but never quite goes away, is perhaps the most lasting inheritance of Christianity in a post-Christian world: the feeling that we have not just missed the mark but are utterly topsy-turvy.

Christianity is always therefore suggesting to us the possibility of a “revaluation of all values,” a phrase that Nietzsche in The Antichrist used against Christianity:

I call Christianity the one great curse, the one great intrinsic depravity, the one great instinct for revenge for which no expedient (i.e. A means of attaining an end, especially one that is convenient but considered improper or immoral) is sufficiently poisonous, secret, subterranean, petty — I call it the one immortal blemish of mankind… And one calculates time from the dies nefastus on which this fatality arose – from the first day of Christianity! Why not rather from its last? From today? Revaluation of all values!

But Nietzsche issues this call because he thinks that Christianity itself has not set us right-side-up, but rather turned us upside-down. It was Christianity that first revalued all values, saying that the first shall be last and the last first, and he who seeks his life will lose it while he who loses his life shall find it, and blessed are the meek, and blessed are the poor in spirit…. Nietzsche’s call is therefore a call for restoration of the values that Christianity flipped: rule by the strong, contempt for the weak. It is, when considered in the long historical term, a profoundly conservative call.

Whether or not Nietzsche’s demand for a new paganism is right, surely it is scarcely necessary: for rule by the strong and contempt for the weak is the Way of the World, always has been and always will be; Christianity even at its most powerful can scarcely distract us from that path, much less set us marching in the opposite direction. Because that Way is so intrinsic to our neural and moral orientation, because we run so smoothly along its well-paved road, it is always useful to us to read books that don’t suggest merely minor adjustments in our customs but rather point to the possibility of something radically other. Such books are at the very least a kind of tonic, and a far better one than the nerve-wracking stimulation of Tono-Bungay.

The Tech-Wise Family

In his previous books — Culture Making, Playing God, and Strong and WeakAndy Crouch has shown a remarkable facility for translating theological and philosophical ideas into the language of Christian practice and action. I haven’t mentioned this to him, but I suspect that when Andy confronts a new idea he asks himself, What would life look like if we acted on the belief that this idea is true?

So Andy is just the right person to give us his new book The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place (click the link above for more details). It’s really first-rate: unashamedly practical but buttressed by theological acuity and some really interesting research from the Barna Group on the technological habits of American families. Andy writes explicitly and straightforwardly as a Christian, and some of his arguments will, I expect, have greater force for Christians, but there’s a great deal of wisdom and sound advice here for every family who wants to make reasonable and health-giving decisions about their engagements with technology.

I’m pretty occupied right now by my Anthropocene Theology project, but don’t be surprised if I have a post or two or three about Andy’s book later.


“As things developed, she [Oedipa Maas] was to have all manner of revelations,” we are told in the first chapter of The Crying of Lot 49, and as Edward Mendelson pointed out long ago in an essay I’ve already mentioned, the language of the novel is relentlessly religious.

Here’s a passage from Chapter 2:

She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding. Smog hung all round the horizon, the sun on the bright beige countryside was painful; she and the Chevy seemed parked at the centre of an odd, religious instant….

She gave it up presently, as if a cloud had approached the sun or the smog thickened, and so broken the “religious instant,” whatever it might’ve been….

And a little later, when she sees a commercial for a housing development that her former lover, Pierce Inverarity, had invested in:

A map of the place flashed onto the screen, Oedipa drew a sharp breath, Metzger on the chance it might be for him looked over. But she’d only been reminded of her look downhill this noontime. Some immediacy was there again, some promise of hierophany: printed circuit, gently curving streets, private access to the water, Book of the Dead….

As Mendelson comments, Pynchon seems to have borrowed the term “hierophany” from the scholar of religion Mircea Eliade, who writes in his book The Sacred and the Profane: “To designate the act of manifestation of the sacred, we have proposed the term hierophany…. From the most elementary hierophany — e.g., a manifestation of the sacred in some ordinary object, a stone or a tree” — or a printed circuit, or a map of a housing development — “to the supreme hierophany (which, for a Christian, is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ) there is no solution of continuity.” That is, there is no possibility of accounting for what has been revealed within the structures of everyday experience, no means of domesticating what has shown itself. “We are confronted by … the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world” (p.11).

Another way to put this is that the hierophany happens within ordinary space but suggests something beyond ordinary time, something that belongs to or comes from a different temporal order. Therefore, “religious man lives in two kinds of time, of which the more important, sacred time, appears under the paradoxical aspect of a circular time, reversible and recoverable, a sort of eternal mythical present that is periodically reintegrated by means of rites” (p. 70). Eliade claims that such experiences are “inaccessible to a nonreligious man” (p.71), which would suggest that Oedipa is a religious person — and yet she shows no evidence of participating in any “rites,” any communal worship. This may help to explain her obsession with the possible existence of the Trystero as an organization, a secret community, that bears and transmits revelations of the sacred. Oedipa, like her namesake Oedipus, thus becomes a seeker of truth, a pursuer of religious possibility — a homo religiosus, and perhaps even an anima naturaliter christiana, in this respect not unlike Psyche in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, following her blurry vision from within a kind of cloud of unknowing.

Eliade taught at the University of Chicago for many years but was a native Romanian, and as a young man was an enthusiastic advocate for Romania’s fascist Iron Guard — a fact he later took great pains to obscure. A decade ago Joseph Frank summarized Eliade’s story, along with those of his countrymen Eugene Ionesco and E. M. Cioran, in an essay-review that’s very much worth reading. Here’s a key passage:

Sweeping aside all the ideas of the past that had been destroyed in the carnage of World War I, Eliade wrote: “The myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism, all this has been shattered to pieces in every area in which it has been contested.”

Frank goes on to argue that Eliade’s belief that the fascists alone had the power to overcome the secular “myth” and “faith” of modernity led him to endorse anti-Semitism, not just politically but also intellectually:

Nothing blatantly anti-Semitic can be found in Eliade’s postwar writings, but the prejudice is transposed into a much more scholarly key in his theory of religion. One of the cornerstones of his doctrine was that archaic man lived in a world of cyclical time, whose recurrences were marked by festivals of one kind or another in which “sacred time,” the time of religious experience, was re-created. The modern world has largely lost this ability to relive “sacred time” because the Hebrews (as Eliade now calls them) broke with the cyclical time of “the eternal return” by linking God with linear time. “The Hebrews,” he writes, “were the first to discover the significance of history as the epiphany of God,” and this discovery of history ultimately led to all the ills of the modern world.

It’s not clear to me that this is correct: In The Sacred and the Profane Eliade emphasizes the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, especially in contrast to other world religions (p. 71), and says that Christianity “goes even further” than Judaism “in valorizing historical time” (p. 110). But I don’t know that much about Eliade, and we need not settle that matter here; I just felt that I needed to acknowledge the possibility that there is an even darker side to Eliade’s thought than I know. And in any case the tendency of religious people to accept authoritarian political figures as bulwarks against secularism has a certain currency.

But: What matters for my attempt to make sense of Pynchon is that the Christian model of time — “The Christian liturgy unfolds in a historical time sanctified by the incarnation of the Son of God” (Eliade, p. 72) — effectively repudiates “the myth of indefinite progress, the faith in the aptitude and power of science and technology to establish widespread peace and social justice, the primacy of rationalism and the prestige of agnosticism.” To reassert the power and validity of hierophany is at least to begin to emancipate oneself from the claims of technocracy to account for and then govern the whole of behavior. (It is vitally important here that governance and control are the key terms of cybernetics.) It may seem odd that someone as concerned with emancipation from governance as Eliade was would endorse fascism, but presumably he held some analogue of the Kirkpatrick doctrine: a distinction between authoritarian regimes that, as Auden put it, “leave the self alone” and totalitarian ones that leave nothing alone — secularism and technocracy being on Eliade’s account totalitarian.

In any case, hierophany is ungovernable — and in this sense is the counterpart of the anarchic Brownian motion of the Whole Sick Crew in V. We could say that the Whole Sick Crew are living in a kind of permanent carnival — which means, as Bakhtin never tires of explaining, that they are not living a true carnival at all, because the healthy and vigorous carnivalesque never rejects and indeed is wholly dependent on the religious structures that prompt its laughter. And indeed this is why the Crew are “sick” instead of vital. They evade technocracy but (and this is the perennial problem of anarchy) have no alternative structure of meaning and value with which to replace it. They have the community but not the hierophany; Oedipa has the hierophany but not the community. The Crew and Oedipa alike enact signs of contradiction, but what they signify is partial, incomplete. Eliade would suggest that lived Christianity, especially in its liturgy, is the truly effectual sign of contradiction because it unites hierophany and community. Pynchon has not stated his views on this topic.

However, what seems to be held out as possibility in CL49 is something other than either pure anarchy or formal organizational structure. Jesús Arrabal of the C.I.A. — the Conjuración de los Insurgentes Anarquistas — says that a miracle is “another world’s intrusion into this one,” which clearly invokes Eliade’s definition of hierophany, but then he explains what happens when such a miracle occurs: “revolutions break out spontaneous and leaderless, and the soul’s talent for consensus allows the masses to work together without effort, automatic as the body itself.” I spoke in a previous post about the cyberneticists’ interest in the simple rules from which complex behavior emerges without being planned or directed, and Arrabal envisions what we might call spiritual emergence: anarchy is for him not the goal but the precondition for spontaneous and therefore genuine order.

And isn’t this reminiscent of what happens in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descends to empower “the soul’s talent for consensus” among the variegated disciples of Jesus the Christ? I think of W. H. Auden’s comment on that passage:

The Christian church came into being at Pentecost. The gift of the Holy Spirit on that occasion is generally called the gift of tongues, but it might equally as well be called the gift of ears…. As writers, readers, human beings, we cannot speak to or understand each other unless we are first prepared to listen. Of all the gifts that the Holy Spirit is able to bestow, the one for which we should first and most earnestly pray is humility of ear.

And I think it tells us a lot about Pynchon that the closest approach Oedipa Maas makes to experiencing this emergence of spontaneous order from anarchy does not involve either tongues or ears, but rather when she stumbles into a group of wildly, incomprehensibly dancing deaf-mutes.

a technological tale for Reformation Day

What I have been calling the technological history of modernity is in part a story about the power of recognizing how certain technologies work — and the penalties imposed on those who fail to grasp their logic.

In his early book Renaissance Self-Fashioning, Stephen Greenblatt tells a story:

In 1531 a lawyer named James Bainham, son of a Gloucestershire knight, was accused of heresy, arrested, and taken from the Middle Temple to Lord Chancellor More’s house in Chelsea, where he was detained while More tried to persuade him to abjure his Protestant beliefs. The failure of this attempt called forth sterner measures until, after torture and the threat of execution, Bainham finally did abjure, paying a £20 fine to the king and standing as a penitent before the priest during the Sunday sermon at Paul’s Cross. But scarcely a month after his release, according to John Foxe, Bainham regretted his abjuration “and was never quiet in mind and conscience until the time he had uttered his fall to all his acquaintance, and asked God and all the world forgiveness, before the congregation in those days, in a warehouse in Bow lane.” On the following Sunday, Bainham came openly to Saint Austin’s church, stood up “with the New Testament in his hand in English and the Obedience of a Christian Man [by Tyndale] in his bosom,” and, weeping, declared to the congregants that he had denied God. He prayed the people to forgive him, exhorted them to beware his own weakness to die rather than to do as he had done, “for he would not feel such a hell again as he did feel, for all the world’s good.” He was, of course, signing his own death warrant, which he sealed with letters to the bishop of London and others. He was promptly arrested and, after reexamination, burned at the stake as a relapsed heretic.

When Bainham was first interrogated by More, he told the Lord Chancellor that “The truth of holy Scripture was never, these eight hundred years past, so plainly and expressly declared unto the people, as it hath been within these six years” — the six years since the printing of Tyndale’s New Testament in 1525.

The very presence of this book was, to ecclesial traditionalists, clearly the essential problem. So back in 1529 Thomas More and his friend Cuthbert Tunstall, then Bishop of London, had crossed the English Channel to Antwerp, where Tyndale’s translation was printed. (Its printing and sale were of course forbidden in England.) More and Tunstall searched high and low, bought every copy of the translation they could find, and burned them all in a great bonfire.

Tyndale gladly received this as a boon: he had already come to recognize that his first version of the New Testament had many errors, and he used the money received from More and Tunstall to hasten his work on completing and publishing a revision, which duly appeared in 1534.

withdrawals and commitments

I posted this on my personal blog, but on reflection I’m thinking that it has a place here, especially with our recent thoughts about attention.

My buddy Rod Dreher writes,

What I call the Benedict Option is this: a limited, strategic withdrawal of Christians from the mainstream of American popular culture, for the sake of shoring up our understanding of what the church is, and what we must do to be the church. We must do this because the strongly anti-Christian nature of contemporary popular culture occludes the meaning of the Gospel, and hides from us the kinds of habits and practices we need to engage in to be truly faithful to what we have been given.

David French responds,

I must admit, my first response to the notion of “strategic withdrawal” is less intellectual and more visceral. Retreat? I recall John Paul Jones’s words, “I have not yet begun to fight,” or, more succinctly, General Anthony McAuliffe’s legendary response to German surrender demands at Bastogne: “Nuts!”  

In reality, Christian conservatives have barely begun to fight. Christians, following the examples of the Apostles, should never retreat from the public square. They must leave only when quite literally forced out, after expending every legal bullet, availing themselves of every right of protest, and after exhausting themselves in civil disobedience. Have cultural conservatives spent half the energy on defense that the Left has spent on the attack?

It strikes me that French is responding to something Rod didn’t say: Rod writes of “the strategic withdrawal of Christians from mainstream of American popular culture,” and French replies that Christians “should never retreat from the public square” — but “popular culture” and “public square” are by no means the same thing.

In most of the rest of his response French emphasizes strictly political issues, for instance, current debates over the extent of free speech. But Rod doesn’t say anything about withdrawing from electoral politics — he doesn’t say anything about politics at all, except insofar as building and strengthening the ekklesia is political (which it is — see below).

It’s not likely that French and I could ever come to much agreement about the core issues here, since he so readily conflates Christianity and conservatism. (“The surprising box office of God’s Not Dead, the overwhelming success of American Sniper, celebrating the life of a Christian warrior” — I … I … — “and the consistent ratings for Bible-themed television demonstrate that there remains a large-scale appetite for works of art that advance, whether by intention or by effect, a substantially more conservative point of view.”) But his response to Rod has the effect of forcing some important questions on those of us who think that the current social and political climate calls for new strategies: What exactly do we mean by “withdraw,” and how far do we withdraw? What specifically do we withdraw from? What are the political implications of cultural withdrawal?

Rod, in the post I quoted at the outset, does a fantastic job of laying out very briefly and concisely the work that needs to be done to strengthen local religious communities. But time, energy, attention, and money are all plagued by scarcity, which is why some kind of “withdrawal” is unavoidable — if I’m going to put more money into my church, that means less money available elsewhere. And if I’m going to devote more attention to active love of God and active love of my neighbor, from what should I withdraw my attention?

All of this is going to remain excessively vague and abstract until we can see specific instances of such withdrawal. But I suspect that different groups of Christians will have widely varying ideas of what needs to be withdrawn from: cable TV, New York Times subscriptions, Hollywood movies, monetary contributions to either of the major political parties, public schools, etc.

So I wonder if a better way to think about the Benedict Option is not as a strategic withdrawal from anything in particular but a strategic attentiveness to the institutions and forms of life within which Christians can flourish. In other words, Rod’s post is the right starting place, and the language of “withdrawal” something of a distraction from what that post is all about.

My own inclination — but then I have been a teacher for thirtysomething years — is to think that our primary focus should be on the two chief modes of Bildung: paideia and catechesis. And I do not mean for either of these modes to be confined to the formation of children.

If we ask ourselves what genuine Christian Bildung is, and what is required to achieve it in our time, then we will be directed to the construction and conservation of institutions and practices that are necessary for that great task. And then the necessary withdrawals — which may indeed vary from person to person, vocation to vocation, community to community — will take care of themselves.

a Good Friday meditation

This semester I’m teaching Kierkegaard’s Either/Or for the first time in a decade or so, and I keep having these little moments of insight and recognition that remind me of just how freakishly brilliant SK is. Here’s one example.

The most famous section of Either/Or is the “Seducer’s Diary,” which appears in the first part — the papers of “A,” the aesthete — and according to A is a manuscript that he discovered. The strong hint, of course, is that A wrote it himself, whether as a faithful account of his own experience or as a clever fiction. (Note also that SK presented Either/Or to the public not as his own work but as the work of one Victor Eremita, who tells us in the preface that he found all of the various papers in an old desk. So there’s a Russian-doll effect: authors within authors within authors.)

Before A presents us with the seducer’s diary, he tells us that he happens to know the seduced girl, and moreover has come into possession of some letters from her. He reproduces a few of them, including this quite remarkable one:


There was a rich man who had many cattle, large and small; there was a poor little girl, she had only a single lamb, which ate from her hand and drank from her cup. You were the rich man, rich in all the earth’s splendour, I was the poor girl who owned only my love. You took it, you rejoiced in it; then desire beckoned to you and you sacrificed the little I owned; of your own you could sacrifice nothing. There was a rich man who owned many cattle, large and small; there was a poor little girl who had only her love.

Your Cordelia

We may note several things here. First, before we ever hear Johannes’s account of his conquest of Cordelia, which he presents as a strictly aesthetic enterprise designed to create something interesting — he calls it the task of “poeticizing oneself into a girl” — we hear Cordelia’s grief and pain, that is, we are alerted to the very ethical dimension of eros which Johannes repudiates. It is a kind of caveat lector for those with ears to hear.

Second, we discover that Cordelia is someone capable of describing her situation with eloquence and metaphorical power.

Third, we see that the primary metaphor she uses derives from Scripture, and that she employs the biblical story in an extraordinarily complex and sophisticated way. The story is that of David and Bathsheba, but Cordelia draws more specifically on the climax of that story, when the prophet Nathan confronts David with his sin. Remember what David has done: in his lust for Bathsheba he has sent her husband, Uriah the Hittite, out into the front lines of battle to be killed. David is therefore not just an adulterer but also a murderer.

Nathan knows that David would be unlikely to respond well to direct confrontation; so he concocts a fairy-tale-like story, one that appears to have nothing to do with David, and thereby elicits the King’s morally-charged response. Only then does Nathan reveal the real meaning of the story, whose force David cannot now escape.

Cordelia’s use of the story in her letter to Johannes is remarkable primarily because she does not cast herself in the role of Bathsheba, the seduced woman. Rather, she gives herself a twofold role. Recall that, in Nathan’s story, the rich man is David; the poor man with one ewe lamb is Uriah; the ewe lamb is Bathsheba. Therefore Cordelia identifies herself with Uriah, which is as much as to say to Johannes: You have sent me to my death, and stolen my one treasure, which is my love. Johannes in this version of the story is then not just a seducer but a kind of murderer.

But note also this line from Cordelia’s letter: “You were the rich man.” Her words echo those of Nathan, which calls to our attention that she is casting herself in a second role, that of the prophet — a word that means not “seer” but “spokesman” — who speaks the word of truth into the reluctant ears of sinners. She the victim must also be the spokesman; she must speak for herself because there is none other to speak for her.

And finally, in her retelling of — her midrash on — the biblical narrative, she adds one more element: “you sacrificed the little I owned.” The lamb that had been a beloved companion is led to the slaughter; is made a sacrifice to Johannes’s “poeticizing.”

We do not know what Johannes thought about this letter, but A’s response to it — remember, he is the one who presents it to us — is telling: “to some extent she lacked lucidity in her presentation. This is especially the case in the second letter [the one we have read], where one suspects rather than grasps her meaning, but to me it is this imperfection that makes it so touching.” One suspects rather than grasps her meaning. Yet the meaning is not so hard to grasp — again, for those with ears to hear.

The image of the sacrificed lamb, a lamb that is not merely without blemish but also beloved, thus hovers over the diary that we then read. Which leads me to one final reflection.

At a key point in his narrative Johannes writes, “There is a difference between a spiritual and a physical eroticism. Up to now it is mostly the spiritual kind I have tried to develop in Cordelia. My physical presence must now be something different , not just the accompanying mood, it must be tempting. I have been constantly preparing myself these days by reading the celebrated passage in the Phaedrus on love. It electrifies my whole being and is an excellent prelude. After all, Plato really understood love.”

In Plato’s Phaedrus Phaedrus leads Socrates out into the countryside where they discuss a speech by the logographer Lysias on love. What might Johannes have found so “electrifying” about this debate?

The key question Lysias raises is whether a person should prefer to form a relationship with a lover or a non-lover. Socrates thinks this is a fascinating speech, and gives two different speeches of his own in response to it. It is the first of these that most directly addresses the question. It is a speech which he concludes in very forcible terms: “Consider this, fair youth, and know that in the friendship of the lover there is no real kindness; he has an appetite and wants to feed upon you: As wolves love lambs so lovers love their loves.” Ah.

Such a dark tale. Is there a more hopeful one? I think there is. It begins, “There was a king who loved a maiden”

Christian humanism and the Twitter tsunamis

Trigger warning: specifically Christian reflections ahead. 

The reason I want to say something about the two recent Twitter tsunamis is that they seem to have some significant, but little-noted, elements in common.

I’m going to start with something that I’ve hesitated whether to say, but here goes: I think my lack of enthusiasm for Ta-Nehisi Coates’s essay on reparations is largely a function of, ahem, age. The people in my Twitter feed who were most enthusiastic about Coates’s essay — and the enthusiasm got pretty extreme — tended to be much younger than I am, which is to say, tended to be people who don’t remember the Civil Rights Movement and its aftermath. Or, to put it yet another and more precisely relevant way, people who don’t remember when a regular topic of American journalism was the crushing poverty imposed on black Americans by a history of pervasive racism.

Conversely, I spent much of my adolescence and early adulthood trying to understand what was going on in my home state (Alabama) and home town (Birmingham) by reading Marshall Frady and Howell Raines and, a little later, Stanley Crouch and Brent Staples, and above all — far above all — James Baldwin, whose “A Stranger in the Village” and The Fire Next Time tore holes in my mental and emotional world. There’s nothing in Coates’s essay that, in my view, wasn’t done far earlier and far better by these writers.

Which doesn’t mean, I’ve come to see, that anyone who loved Coates’s essay was wrong to do so. It seemed like old news to me, but that’s because I’m old. Samuel Johnson said that people need to be reminded far more often than they need to be instructed, and it is perhaps time for a widely-read reminder of the ongoing and grievous consequences of racism in America.

But I do think the strong response to Coates’s essay indicates that the American left has to a considerable extent lost the thread when it comes to race and poverty. (I do not mention the American right in this context because my fellow conservatives have been lastingly and culpably blind to the ongoing cruelty of racism, and have often thoughtlessly participated in that cruelty.) For that left, perhaps Coates’s essay can be a salutary reminder that there are millions of people in America whose problems are far worse than websites’ or public restrooms’ failures to recognize their preferred gender identity — which is the sort of thing I’m more likely to see blog posts and tweets about these days.

Which leads me to the second tsumani, the response to the shootings in Santa Barbara. I was interested in how this extremely rare event — of a kind that’s probably not getting more common — led to the more useful and meaningful discussion of common dangers for women, as exemplified by the #YesAllWomen hashtag. Even though I think “hashtag activism” is an absurd parody of the real thing, I thought the rise of that particular hashtag marked a welcome shift from the internet’s typical hyperattentiveness to the Big Rare Event towards the genuine problems of everyday life.

But even as some good things were happening, I also saw the all-too-typical — in social media and in life more generally — lining up into familiar camps. It’s as true as ever that These Tragic Events Only Prove My Politics — even though that site hasn’t been updated in a long time — so I was treated to a whole bunch of tweets casually affirming that mass murder is the natural and inevitable result of “heteronormativity” and “traditional masculinity.” And I saw far more comments from people attacking the #YesAllWomen hashtag as “typical feminist BS” and … well, and a lot worse.

No surprises there. But I was both somewhat surprised and deeply disappointed to see how many of the men attacking users of the #YesAllWomen hashtag — users that in every single case I saw the attackers were not following, which means that they were going out of their way to look for women who were hurt and upset by the shootings so they could belittle those concerns — used their Twitter bios to identify themselves as Christians. (One of the most self-righteously sneering guys I saw has a bio saying he wants to “code like Jesus.”)

And if you don’t see the problem with that, I would suggest that you read some of the “one another” verses in the Bible, like Romans 12:16: “Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.” Or this passage from Ephesians 4: “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” And if you’re a Christian and think those rules only apply to your interactions with your fellow Christians, well, maybe there’s something in the Bible about how you should treat your enemies. As Russell Moore has just written, “Rage itself is no sign of authority, prophetic or otherwise.”

There are women all over the world who live in daily fear of verbal harassment at best, and often much, much worse. They are our sisters, our mothers, our daughters, our wives — or just our friends. How can we fail to be compassionate towards them, or to sympathize with their fear and hurt? How can we see their fear as a cause for our self-righteous self-defense? To think of some supposed insult to our dignity in such circumstances seems to me to drift very far indeed from the spirit, as well as the commandments, of Christ.

I began this post by saying that the two recent tsunamis have something in common, and this, I think, is it: hurt and anger at the failure of powerful human beings to treat other and less powerful people as fully human. This has been a theme in my writing for a long time, but is the heart and soul of my history of the doctrine of original sin, which I’m going to quote now. This is a passage about the revulsion towards black people the great nineteenth-century Swiss scientist Louis Agassiz felt when he came to America for the first time:

Agassiz’s reaction to the black servants at his Philadelphia hotel provides us the opportunity to discuss an issue which has been floating just beneath the surface of this narrative for a long time. One of the arguments that I have been keen to make throughout this book is that a belief in original sin serves as a kind of binding agent, a mark of “the confraternity of the human type,” an enlistment of us all in what Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy called the “universal democracy of sinners.” But why should original sin alone, among core Christian doctrines, have the power to do that? What about that other powerful idea in Genesis, that we are all made in the image of God? Doesn’t that serve equally well, or even better, to bind us as members of a single family?

The answer is that it should do so, but usually does not. Working against the force of that doctrine is the force of familiarity, of prevalent cultural norms of behavior and even appearance. A genuine commitment to the belief the we are all created equally in the image of God requires a certain imagination — imagination which Agassiz, try as he might, could not summon: “it is impossible for me to repress the feeling that they are not of the same blood as us.” Instinctive revulsion against the alien will trump doctrinal commitments almost every time. Black people did not feel human to him, and this feeling he had no power to resist; eventually (as we shall see) his scientific writings fell into line with his feelings.

By contrast, the doctrine of original sin works with the feeling that most of us have, at least some of the time, of being divided against ourselves, falling short of the mark, inexplicably screwing up when we ought to know better. It takes relatively little imagination to look at another person and think that, though he is not all he might be, neither am I. It is true that not everyone can do this: the Duchess of Buckingham couldn’t. (“It is monstrous to be told you have a heart as sinful as the common wretches that crawl on the earth.”) But in general it is easier for most of us to condescend, in the etymological sense of the word — to see ourselves as sharing shortcomings or sufferings with others — than to lift up people whom our culturally-formed instincts tell us are decidedly inferior to ourselves. If misery does not always love company, it surely tolerates it quite well, whereas pride demands distinction and hierarchy, and is ultimately willing to pay for those in the coin of isolation. That the doctrine of a common creation in the image of God doesn’t do more to help build human community and fellow-feeling could be read as yet more evidence for the reality of original sin.

So you can see that my own response to the problems I’ve been seeing discussed on Twitter is a Christian one, more specifically one grounded in a theological anthropology that sees all of us as creatures made in the image of God who have (again, all of us) defaced that image. And it is in the recognition of our shared humanity — both in its glories and its failings but often starting with its failings — that we build our case against abuse and exploitation.

But to have a politics grounded in this Christian humanism is also to be at odds with most of the rhetoric I see on Twitter about the recent controversies. I mentioned earlier the “lining up into familiar camps,” and those camps are always exclusive and oppositional. The message of identity politics, as practiced in America anyway, is not only that “my experience is unlike yours” — which is often true — but “my experience can never be like yours, between us there will always be a great gulf fixed” — which is a tragic mistake. That way of thinking leads to absurdities like the claim that men like Elliot Rodger are the victims of feminism, and, from other camps, the complete failure to acknowledge that five of the seven people Rodger killed were men. It also leads, I think, and here I want to tread softly, that it’s going to be relatively simple to figure out who should receive reparations and who should pay them.

It’s not wrong to have camps, to belong to certain groups, but it’s disastrous to be unable to see beyond them, and impossible to build healthy communities if we can’t see ourselves as belonging to one another.

So why does identity politics so frequently, and so completely, trump a belief in our shared humanity? I’m not sure, but the book I’m currently writing takes up this question. It deals with a group of Christian intellectuals who suspect, as many others in the middle of the twentieth century also suspected, that democracy is not philosophically self-sustaining — that it needs some deeper moral or metaphysical commitments to make it plausible. And for T. S. Eliot and Jacques Maritain and Henri de Lubac and Simone Weil and C. S. Lewis and W. H. Auden, only the Christian account of “the confraternity of the human type” was sufficiently strong to bind us together. Otherwise, why should I treat someone as equal to me simply because he or she belongs to the same species?

Transhumanists: The Once and Future Christians?

Charles Stross recently claimed that he had found some roots for transhumanism in the relatively obscure Russian Orthodox writing of the idiosyncratic Nikolai Fyodorovich Fyodorov. Stross provocatively asks:

So. Transhumanism: rationalist progressive secular theory, or bizarre off-shoot of Russian Orthodox Christianity? And should this affect our evaluation of its validity? You decide!

I would be more cautious than Stross seems to be about claiming any discernible intellectual influence here. But, influence or not, there are indeed interesting likenesses, and those (along with the striking differences) can illuminate some of the perennial aspirations that transhumanism builds on, at the very least turning our attention away from questions of mere technological feasibility.In that vein, I just finished a novel from 1884 that contained the following passages:

As a matter of fact, artifice was considered by Des Esseintes to be the distinctive mark of human genius. Nature, he used to say, has had her day; she has finally and utterly exhausted the patience of sensitive observers by the revolting uniformity of her landscapes and skyscapes … what a monotonous store of meadows and trees, what a commonplace display of mountains and seas!In fact, there is not a single one of her inventions, deemed so subtle and sublime, that human ingenuity cannot manufacture….There can be no shadow of doubt that with her never-ending platitudes the old crone has by now exhausted the good-humored admiration of all true artists, and the time has surely come for artifice to take her place whenever possible.

The book is Joris-Karl Huysman’s à Rebours, translated (not very literally) in the English version from which the above quote is taken as Against Nature. It is considered one of the minor classics of French Decadence. I’d be surprised if any transhumanist luminaries had actually been influenced by this book, or by the Decadents in any fashion, but the underlying similarities hardly need to be belabored. Nor do I think they are intellectually accidental.The Decadents, like transhumanists, seem to have believed in the unrelieved grimness of human life. Where the Decadents thought culture was at a standstill, the transhumanists care not a whit for it, that battle having been lost. In a decaying world where everything was permitted, the Decadents found it hard to find anything worth doing (including eating, drinking and being merry).Transhumanists have a more crusading mentality, but it points in the same direction as Against Nature. For the fictional Des Esseintes abandons civilization (that is, Paris) and undertakes a series of strange and refined aesthetic experiments on the assumptions articulated above. (Seasteading, anyone?) He works hard, and not without technological assistance, to achieve the ideals he has set for himself, just as transhumanists would have us work hard to be the very best we can imagine ourselves (if we have selves) to be.Here’s the bad news from the transhumanist point of view. Des Esseintes is a broken man by the end of the book. Worse yet, eight years after writing this minor classic of the Decadent genre, Huysman found himself, rather more to his own surprise than not, a devout Catholic. Contempt for nature can lead in unexpected directions. Who knows what is in store for our transhumanist friends?

Christianity and the Book

Next academic year I will be leading a faculty seminar here at Wheaton on Christianity and the Book: Histories and Futures. Participating in the seminar will be faculty from English, Education, Chemistry, Ancient Languages, Communications, and the Library. Oh, and our President wants to be there too.

We’ll want to start the year by acknowledging that the book is a technology, and that, therefore, we need to think well about technology in general. Here I think Albert Borgmann’s Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life will be especially helpful. We will also want to develop a specifically theological vocabulary, and might be assisted in that endeavor by Murray Jardine’s The Making and Unmaking of Technological Society. We will read Leo Marx’s terrific essay, “Technology: the Emergence of a Hazardous Concept” and sample some of the more pessimistic (Jacques Ellul, Neil Postman) and optimistic (Kevin Kelly) thinkers about technology.

Then we’ll turn to the history of the book. We’ll need an anthology: either The Book History Reader or A Companion to the History of the Book.

For the particularities of Christianity’s relation to the book, we’ll read, among other things, Roberts and Skeat’s The Birth of the Codex, Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams’s Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, and Ivan Illich’s In the Vineyard of the Text. When we get to the Reformation it’s going to be hard to know what to select: I’ll probably come up with readings from Elizabeth Eisenstein, Andrew Pettegree, Adrian Johns, and Lucien Febvre and Henri-Jean Martin. Surely there’s a place for Ann Blair’s Too Much to Know.

Then — and here’s where it gets really tricky — late in the year we’ll want to think about how Western culture is shifting away from the dominance of the codex and what implications that has both for Christianity and for higher education. I’d love to discover that some brilliant sociologist is studying churches and new media, but I haven’t discovered that yet. We may need to read some McLuhan at this point. Also perhaps essays from Robert Darnton’s The Case for Books and Grafton’s Worlds Made by Words.

And then, on the embrace-the-future side of things, we’ll want to read The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, by Cathy Davidson and David Theo Goldberg. Possibly Kamenetz’s DIY U and Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus. And many blog posts by many different people.

What am I missing? What else should we read? What topics should we explore? Whom might we invite to come and speak to our group? Help me out, folks.


“A spotlight illuminates the icon of the Apostle John discovered with other paintings in a catacomb located under a modern office building in a residential neighborhood of Rome, Tuesday, June, 22, 2010. Restorers said Tuesday they had unearthed the 4th-century images using a new laser technique that allowed them to burn off centuries of white calcium deposits without damaging the dark colors of the original paintings underneath. The paintings adorn what is believed to be the tomb of a Roman noblewoman and represent some of the earliest evidence of devotion to the apostles in early Christianity.” — here