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Friday, March 19, 2010


My less-than-prolific status notwithstanding, I've been spurred out of silence by David Bentley Hart once again.

In his superb collection, In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments, Hart has an article entitled "The Laughter of the Philosophers." This should catch the eye of anyone who has ever brushed the sunken shoulders of such bleak entities as Immanuel Kant, Hegel (let's omit his entire name, shall we?), Derrida. There's a litany of vile epithets that come to mind, "funny" not being one of them. But Hart contends that humor is important. Why?

Harold Bloom has stated that the most important critical tool our age lacks is a sense of irony. Humor tends to sharpen arguments rather than hinder them. At least, this is the case in my limited experience. Those who wear their hearts on their sleeves, and proffer a slender sincerity, refuse to laugh at themselves, will often find themselves at the center of the joke. Humor is perhaps the most powerful mode of exposing a contradiction. Consider the work of such classical satirists as Swift and Voltaire. Many idols flourish within the dusty temples of humorless sages and archival moles, but humor may just be the "hammer of the gods" of which Nietzsche spoke.

I do sometimes suspect that Derrida is laughing at me beyond his convoluted grave as I wade through his sordid swamps. Isaiah Berlin must chuckle as I "thrash in the shallows"with him as Hart puts it. And what of our modern progeny? I detect very little humor in the Rorties, the Dennets (ostensibly a scientist, I suppose), Dawkins (a proselyte). Read the new atheists and they speak with the fearsome sincerity and moral candor of street preachers wielding signs declaring "the end is nigh."

Seriously, let's loosen up!

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


Letter to a Well-Meaning Church

“Not all who wander are lost.”
J.R.R. Tolkien

Dear Church,

I wanted to thank you for the warm welcome my wife and I received this past Sunday. Your congregants truly are a generous group of people. The compulsory greeting sessions are always somewhat painful, but I met some people I may actually shake hands with again.

Your worship team is impressive to say the least. I thought I was mistaken initially when I heard the first few licks of “Crazy Train.” I wouldn’t mind playing a few songs with those guys if they could tolerate an amateur.

When your pastor mounted the podium I hardly knew it; he looked just like me. Informal and at once familiar, I’d swear I’ve met him before. After he had recommended a few movies and television shows, he spoke of reaching the lost and inviting a friend to the next service. It seems your church has a great bash planned for just such an occasion, and for the benefit of just such a person.

Here, I would offer you some humble words of caution. I have many friends who make their homes as far from any church as they can. There are many ideal places I can think of to go with them, but your church is not one of them. You feel certain of your positive influence upon them, but seem to think little of theirs on you. It also seems not to have crossed your mind that a church may be the worst place for someone who does not yet speak its language, so to speak.

May I offer some further advice? It seems that you make a categorical mistake when you insist on calling your church the Church. The capitalization shouldn’t make you blush. There is a world of difference between your congregation, and what Christ means when he refers to His bride. The Church is nothing less than the organic body of believers world-wide who, by God’s grace, act as His ambassadors. It’s not that the Sunday morning service shouldn’t be evangelistic; it’s just that inviting the uninitiated to such a gathering is a bit like starting a story with the climax.

You spoke often of the importance of culture. For you, the word seems to refer exclusively to the domain of the media. If there were any references to classical paintings or Greek deities, they escaped me. With all the talk of conversion, I must confess I sometimes wonder whose converting who. We might consider making the church a shelter from pop culture instead of another one of its havens. After the many film, music, television and twitter references, I grappled with the question of what a phrase like “in Christ alone” even means. Your team sang it you know?

Please understand, I mean no disrespect by any of these remarks. I’m just a fellow believer who needs a place of rest and replenishment.

Faithfully yours,

A Wandering Believer

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


I have a rather unsettling matter to attend to.

In my junior year of college, I laid out an argument against Satan as the hero of Milton's epic poem. I did so by examining both of the most recent Humanist Manifestos and seeing whether Satan measured up. He didn't, of course, and I was able to pass him off as the effete dictator that I then believed him to be.

Well, I'm not of this persuasion any longer. Milton, no doubt, intended Satan as the villain. After all, he is the foul deceiver of the Genesis narrative, and this is Milton's stage. But he got away from Milton. Satan became something more than a villain, he became emblematic of the human condition. It's exceedingly hard to resist his charms the more you read the poem. In the face of total devastation, he continues to lambaste Hell's acrid landscape with his cries of revolt. His delusions are as magnificent as those envisioned by Cervantes.

As I see it, and I'm making a considerable claim here, all literary criticism proceeds from a psycho-analytic standpoint. This may be our "cross to bear" in a post-Freudian age, but I think it's an intrinsic quality of the discipline. We engage with great works to engage with great minds, to touch genius as Nabokov once stated. Our analysis of a given text hinges on our perceptions of an author's given motives however opaque they may be. In the case of Shakespeare, we've come to an overwhelming black hole where only speculation is possible. Milton, on the other hand, left a slew of conflicts behind for us to absorb. But his epic is filled with Satan's voluminous personality which is impossible to discard. God, however, is his greatest failure in the poem, and is a lifeless piece of truncated doctrine. As a Christian myself, these are difficult facts to acknowledge, but I find it intolerable to lie to myself on the subject of Milton's literary hedonism.

So, there you have it, I think Satan emerges as the hero of Paradise Lost because of Milton's own short-comings.