September 29, 2010

Wallace & Updike

Category: Literature :: Permalink

Today, I finished David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster and Other Essays.  Foster is in many ways an odd writer, given to almost obsessive self-clarification, leading to lots of parenthetical remarks and footnotes to his footnotes (I’m not kidding), or, in the case of the final essay, “Host,” to lots of little (and some not-so-little) explanatory boxes scattered all over the page, with arrows pointing to them.  He knows he has a weird style and he’s having fun with it, and, to tell the truth, I did too.

I’m not going to review the book, but I will say that Wallace frequently raised points I had never considered or shed light on things I had never thought about.   There are probably too many to include in one blog entry, so let’s start with just this one.

Wallace’s review of John Updike’s novel Toward the End of Time (“Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”) points up the problems I’ve had with Updike’s novels: while I, like Wallace, enjoyed some of Updike’s earlier work,  in his later work “his characters seemed to become more and more repellent, and without any corresponding sign that the author understood that they were repellent” (52).  I’ve often heard Updike recommended as a Christian author because he did identify himself as such and he often deals with Christian themes, has characters talk about God, and so forth.  And yet so much of what he wrote….  Well, here’s how Wallace  sums up toward the end of his essay:

Maybe the one thing that the reader ends up appreciating about Ben Turnbull is that he’s such a broad caricature of an Updike protagonist that he helps clarify what’s been so unpleasant and frustrating about this author’s recent characters.  It’s not that Turnbull is stupid: he can quote Pascal and Kierkegaard on angst, discourse on the death of Schubert, distinguish between a sinitrorse and a dextrorse Polygonum vine, etc.  It’s that he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants is a cure for human despair.  And Toward the End of Time‘s author, so far as I can figure out, believes it too (58-59).

Of course, Wallace is not the first to point this problem out.  John Gardner, in On Moral Fiction, wrote about Updike’s novel A Month of Sundays that it “can easily be read as a piece of neo-orthodox Presbyterian heresy (Christ has redeemed us in advance, so let’s fornicate)” (98).

If you want Updike stories that I think are really worthwhile, check out his short story collection Pigeon Feathers, or perhaps try his novels The Centaur or Of the Farm.  But more and more, after that, Wallace’s complaint is exactly on target.  (Someday, I’d like to read the whole of Larry Woiwode’s essay on Updike, of which I have only the first part, published in the now defunct BIAS Report years ago.  Maybe someday I’ll obtain the rest of it.)

Posted by John Barach @ 1:57 pm | Discuss (2)
September 14, 2010

Captive Audience

Category: Education,Politics :: Permalink

Did you hear about the protests today in connection with President Obama’s address to the nation’s schoolchildren?  It wasn’t related to the content of the speech; rather, it began even before he spoke.  What the protesters were objecting to, it seems, was not what the president said or even what the protesters thought he might say but the very fact that President Obama would say anything to their children.  And so, as one headline said, many conservatives were enraged over the Obama school speech.

Oh, wait.  That was last year.  This year, President Obama addressed schoolchildren again.  Were there protests?  No.  At least none that made the news.  Did some parents keep their children home?  Maybe, but certainly not in enough numbers that it drew the attention of NPR.

What made the difference between last year and this year?  Was it that conservative parents realized that President Obama was not the first president to address schoolchildren and concluded that they had no real reason to protest?  Was it that these parents heard last year’s speech, figured it was harmless, and though that today’s speech would be more of the same and hence not worth protesting?  Maybe.

But it occurs to me that what upsets people the first time it happens (in this case, the first time with a president some find particularly objectionable) barely makes them bat an eyelid the second time it happens.  If it happens often enough, in fact, it becomes a matter of course, not concern.  Before long, it’s just the way things are done.

The other thing worth noting, it seems to me, is that last year’s protests don’t appear to have had any significant effect.  They certainly didn’t deter the president from making another speech to the public schools.  Maybe some parents who protested last year or kept their children home have figured that their actions weren’t going to change anything and so they gave up.  Why bother?

Now I’m not saying that these parents ought to protest, whether by writing letters to the school board or by wearing anti-Obama-speech sandwich boards and parading up and down outside schools or even by keeping children home for the day of the speech.  If you’re going to hand your children over to the government to educate, then on what grounds can you legitimately protest when the government — in this case the president — procedes to do just that?

But what if you really wanted to make a statement?  Better, what if you didn’t care so much about “making a statement” or catching the attention of the government as you did about bringing up your children as Christians?  What if you didn’t turn their education over to the government, regardless of whether that government includes President Obama?  Then pulling your kids out of the public school for one day is hardly enough.  Why not make it permanent?

Posted by John Barach @ 2:06 pm | Discuss (0)
September 13, 2010

Divine Love Made Food

Category: Feasting,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

This afternoon, I began rereading Alexander Schmemann’s wonderful For the Life of the World.  Since I had just blogged about food as communion, I thought it would be good to pass on these quotations from the first chapter:

“Man is what he eats.”  With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature.  In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man.  For long before Feuerbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible.  In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.

Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God’s instruction to man to eat of the earth: “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat….”  Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood.  He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man.  And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life.  It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: “… that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom” (11).

Later on, Schmemann goes further:

“Man is what he eats.”  But what does he eat and why?  These questions seem naive and irrelevant not only to Feuerbach.  They seemed even more irrelevant to his religious opponents.  To them, as to him, eating was a material function, and the only important question was whether in addition to it man possessed a spiritual “superstructure.”  Religion said yes.  Feuerbach said no.  But both answers were given within the same fundamental opposition of the spiritual to the material.  “Spiritual” versus “material,” “sacred” versus “profane,” “supernatural” versus “natural” — such were for centuries the only accepted, the only understandable moulds and categories of religious thought and experience.  And Feuerbach, for all his materialism, was in fact a natural heir to Christian “idealism” and “spiritualism.”

But the Bible … also begins with man as a hungry being, with the man who is that which he eats.  The perspective, however, is wholly different, for nowhere in the Bible do we find the dichotomies which for us are the self-evident framework of all approaches to religion.  In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God.

The world as man’s food is thus not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God.  All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God.  It is divine love made food, made life for man.  God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good” (14, last paragraph break added).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:33 pm | Discuss (0)
September 7, 2010

Food as Communion

Category: Feasting,Literature,Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Recently, I’ve been reading Thomas Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, which has been occasionally illuminating, not only for reading literature in general but also in terms of reading the Bible.   (I hasten to add that the Amazon reviews point out a number of genuine problems with this book, too.)

Reading literature (including the Bible) is not like doing math.  When you do math and come up with a certain solution to a problem, you can go back and prove your solution so that anyone else who understands math can follow along with you.  But “solutions” in literature aren’t often that way.

Sometimes, of course, you can point to a particular passage that spells out your point.  Sometimes you can appeal to the grammar (“That verb is past tense and so it must be talking about something that happened in the past, not something that’s still happening today”) or to history (“The Scarlet Pimpernel is set during the French Revolution, which went through various phases, and therefore…”) to establish your point.

But sometimes you can’t.  When a writer sets a scene in the winter and describes the bleakness of the setting, is that symbolism?  Well, it sure feels like it sometimes, especially if what happened just before winter arrived is that the main character’s beloved left.  When a writer includes a meal — think of the extended meal scene in the movie Babette’s Feast — is that a form of communion?  You might think so, but it would be difficult to “prove,” because reading is not a science.

Foster’s book is intended to help readers spot things they otherwise might not.  Food as communion is just one of the themes he spends time on, and his comments in that chapter are quite helpful, shedding light on Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (sometimes a meal in a story can substitute for sex), Anne Tyler’s Dinner at the Heartbreak Restaurant (why can’t the mother get the whole family to sit down together for a meal, until the end of the book?), and James Joyce’s “The Dead.”  About the latter, Foster writes:

No writer ever took such care about food and drink, so marshaled his forces to create a military effect of armies drawn up as if for battle: ranks, files, “rival ends,” sentries, squads, sashes.  Such a paragraph would not be created without having some purpose, some ulterior motive. Now, Joyce being Joyce, he has about five different purposes, one not being enough for genius.  His main goal, though, is to draw us into that moment, to pull our chairs up to that table so that we are utterly convinced of the reality of the meal.  At the same time, he wants to convey the sense of tension and conflict that has been running through the evening — there are a host of us-against-them and you-against-me moments earlier and even during the meal — and this tension will stand at odds with the sharing of this sumptuous and, given the holiday, unifying meal.  He does this for a very simple, very profound reason: we need to be part of that communion.  It would be easy for us to laugh at Freddy Malins, the resident drunkard, and his dotty mother, to shrug off the table talk about operas and singers we’ve never heard of, merely to snicker at the flirtations among the younger people, to discount the tension Gabriel feels over the speech of gratitude he’s obliged to make at meal’s end.  But we can’t maintain our distance because the elaborate setting of this scene makes us feel as if we’re seated at that table.  So we notice, a little before Gabriel does, since he’s lost in his own reality, that we’re all in this together, that in fact we share something.

The thing we share is our death.  Everyone in that room, from old and frail Aunt Julia to the youngest music student, will die.  Not tonight, but someday.  Once you recognize that fact (and we’ve been given a head start by the title, whereas Gabriel doesn’t know his evening has a title), it’s smooth sledding.  Next to our mortality, which comes to great and small equally, all the differences in our lives are mere surface details.  When the snow comes at the end of the story, in a beautiful and moving passage, it covers, equally, “all the living and the dead.”  Of course it does, we think, the snow is just like death.  We’re already prepared, having shared in the communion meal Joyce has laid out for us, a communion not of death, but of what comes before.  Of life (13-14).

I don’t know that Foster is right to say that all meals in literature are communion in one way or another.  If a writer says, “I was grabbing a burger at Joe’s when the trouble broke out,” the burger isn’t likely to be communion. Food serves other roles beyond just communion.  Food can be fuel; it can also be reward.

But it does seem likely to me that any extended meal in a story is going to be significant (why else write about it?) and that shared food — or even, as Foster mentions in the chapter, shared cigarettes — forges bonds between people, not just in stories but in real life.  Of course, as in the example from Joyce, meals may also be taken in isolation or may be times of hostility, not communion, and the lack of communion in such cases may be significant.

The point, then, is not to take every meal as “communion” but to have communion on your mind when you come to the meal and to ask “Why is this here?  What’s really going on?  Are these people being bonded by the food they’re sharing?  If not, what else might the author be showing us?”

God has designed food as a form of fellowship.  Think of the dietary laws in the Old Covenant and how they symbolize the bonds that Israel may or may not form with the Gentiles.   Think of the sacrificial system, where the worshiper is represented by his offering, which is then consumed in the fire on God’s altar as “food for God.”  That’s what we want to be, and symbolically that’s what’s happening to the worshiper.  Think, too, of the times people prepare a meal for the Angel of Yahweh, sometimes without recognizing Him, and He refuses to eat with them.  You don’t usually eat with people you’re angry at, and neither does God.  And think, of course, of the Lord’s Supper in which we partake of Jesus, the great sacrifice, and are nourished by Him, but in which also we become one bread, one body, with one another.

Without committing ourselves completely to Foster’s dictum (“food is communion”), his chapter ought to alert us to a common function of meals in the stories we read and especially in the Bible.  If you’re interested in pursuing more food theology in the Bible, I’d highly recommend Peter Leithart’s Blessed Are the Hungry.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:17 am | Discuss (1)
September 2, 2010


Category: Theology :: Permalink

The other day, I came across a blog entry by Davey Henreckson, an acquaintance of mine from long ago, entitled “Trajectories in Contemporary Reformed Theology.”  In it, he lists “some of the more interesting contemporary scholars” working in the Reformed tradition (somewhat broadly defined) in various fields.  You can read his comments on that blog, but here’s his list:

Systematic Theology
John Webster
Kevin VanHoozer
Todd Billings
Daniel Treier
Edwin Chr. van Driel, Incarnation Anyway
Oliver Crisp
Paul Dafydd Jones
James K. A. Smith
Michael Horton
Paul DeHart
Peter Leithart

Historical Theology
Richard Muller
John Bowlin (on Aquinas)
Bruce Gordon (“new standard biography of John Calvin”)
Paul Helm
Mark Noll

Moral Theology
David VanDrunen
Stephen Grabill
Jennifer Herdt, Putting On Virtue
Oliver O’Donovan
John Witte
Philip Benedict
Eric Gregory
Peter Leithart
Michael Scott Horton
Gerald McKenny
John Bowlin
George Hunsinger
Philip Ziegler

In the comments, Jamie Smith recommends (under Moral Theology) Rebecca DeYoung’s Glittering Vices, and Henreckson mentions Graeme Smith’s Political Theology.

Now to my point: I look over this list and realize that I don’t know who most of these people are.  I recognize a handful of names, more under Historical Theology than under the other categories.  In fact, I think I’ve read something — anything! — by only two of the people mentioned here, Michael Scott Horton and Peter Leithart.

That makes me recognize that (a) theology is probably not my strong point right now, at least not high-level academic theology, which is understandable, given that I’m a pastor and not a full-time theologian and so my primary focus is on the text of Scripture and on pastoral work, but also that (b) I’m apparently completely out of date when it comes to my theological reading and studies.

When I was in seminary, I read Berkhof.  I’m somewhat familiar with Bavinck and Berkouwer, Dabney and Hodge, Kuyper and Schilder, Hoekema and Hoeksema, Murray and Van Til, Shepherd and Frame and Gaffin.  I’ve read some Barth, though barely.  I know James B. Jordan and Peter Leithart.  But I don’t know who else is good out there — and by “good, ” I mean worth spending my money and my time on (especially given that I’m a pastor and not an academic theologian).  I’m not interested in parting with the hard-earned for a book full of academic jargon and mumbo-jumbo or for something that isn’t well grounded in Scripture or for something that tells me what I already know.

For instance, Van Driel’s Incarnation Anyway looks interesting, given that it’s an argument that the incarnation was part of God’s plan even apart from the Fall.  But I’ve already heard a pretty good case for that from Jim Jordan, and I don’t know that it’s worth paying $60 to have Van Driel make it (and, I suspect, perhaps not make it as well, that is, as Scripturally).

This is my problem with a lot of biblical theology: I buy the books and then discover that they tell me things I already learned — and learned better — from Jordan.  (See Bill DeJong’s forthcoming essay on “Preaching and Typology,” for a comparison between Jordan and G. K. Beale on the Temple, in which he argues that Jordan and Beale cover a lot of the same ground, except that Jordan does more with it and is therefore more of an aid for preaching.)

So here’s my big request, for those of you who do read contemporary theology.  Could you please list for me the best books or authors — that is, the most interesting, most stimulating, most thought-provoking, most helpful, most worth the buck and the time for a guy like me.  Please don’t limit yourself to people within the “Reformed” field, as Henreckson does, either.  But if the guys he mentions are really worth reading, please do let me know.  And let’s add some categories to Henreckson’s list:

Systematic Theology
Historical Theology
Moral (and Political) Theology
Liturgical Theology
Biblical Theology
Pastoral Theology

The ball’s in your court.  Fire away!

Posted by John Barach @ 2:30 pm | Discuss (4)