Saturday, July 05, 2014

On "Courage" in the (Christian) Academy

[a few thoughts composed on my iPhone on the shore of Little Platte Lake]

Someone has said that academic squabbles are so nasty only because they are so unimportant. Nonetheless, many academics like to see themselves as "courageous"--exhibiting intellectual heroism, taking stands that are unpopular, leading to some kind of "martyrdom."  This is the kind of "courage" you claim when you've dodged the draft and type with hands never blemished by a callous. 

This self-understanding of academic "courage" takes specific forms among Christian scholars, and is perhaps ramped up by adding religious stakes to the mix. Again, the scholar likes to imagine himself or herself as "courageous" for saying unpopular things, for speaking truth to power, for questioning the status quo. 

There are "progressive" versions of this in which the courageous scholar-martyr is marginalized by evangelicalism for taking unpopular stands that are nonetheless supported by "science" or "justice" or "democracy" or "experience" or what have you. As a result s/he is critcized, bullied, rejected, ostracized, ignored, excluded, etc. But the courageous scholar is willing to endure such sacrifices for the sake of Truth, Justice, Science, Progress, Diversity, etc. 

But progressives don't have the corner on the courage market. There are conservative Christian scholars who tell themselves the same story: they are willing to risk marginalization, exclusion, derision, even appearing the fool in order to stand up for The Truth against academic trends, intellectual fads, and the temptations that roll into the university under the guise of Progress.

But when one looks at these scenarios more closely, I think one will see that, in fact, neither is risking very much. Those "courageous" progressives don't really value the opinions or affirmations of conservative evangelicalism anyway. What they really value, long for, and try to curry is the favor of "the Enlightened"--whether that's the mainstream academy or the progressive chattering class who police our cultural mores of tolerance. Sure, these "courageous" progressives will take fire from conservative evangelicals--but that's not a loss or sacrifice for them. Indeed, their own self-understanding is fueled by such criticism.  In other words, these stands don't take "courage" at all; they don't stand to lose anything with those they truly value.

Similarly, "courageous" conservatives who "stand up" to the progressive academy aren't putting much at risk because that's not where they look for validation and it's not where their professional identities are invested. They are usually "populists" (in a fairly technical sense of the word) whose professional lives are much more closely tethered to the church and popular opinion.  And in those sectors, "standing up to" the academy isn't a risk at all--it's a way to win praise. When your so-called contrarian stands win favor from those you value most...well, it's hard to see how "courage" applies. 

But here's what we don't often see: Christian scholars who have vested their professional lives in the mainstream academy willing to take stands that would be unpopular at the MLA or APA or AAR. Conversely, we don't see many conservative scholars willing to defend positions that would jeapordize their favored status with popular evangelicalism. 

Now both of those options would require courage.

Monday, June 30, 2014

O.K. Bouwsma on philosophers and philosophy

O.K. Bouwsma, a graduate of Calvin College's philosophy department, was a longtime professor of philosophy at the University of Nebraska and, later, the University of Texas.  He is one of four presidents of the American Philosophical Association who was an alumnus of our department here at Calvin.  He was also one of the first U.S. interpreters of Wittgenstein and influenced students like Norman Malcolm who went on to play a significant role in the reception of Wittgenstein in North America.

I was recently re-reading one of Bouwsma's classics, a little review essay on Wittgenstein's Blue Book that first appeared in the Journal of Philosophy in 1961.  It includes one of my favorite passages of philosophy ever, and makes me think being a student of Bouwsma must have been spell-binding:

I have been trying in these paragraphs to represent a certain source of misunderstanding, an obstacle to misunderstanding.  It may also be represented in this way: Philosophers are people who investigate what sorts of things there are in the universe.  They are, of course, scrupulous in these investigations beyond the scrupulosity of any other investigator.  They stand at the gate and wait, fearing to tread where angels rush in. And what do they ask? They ask questions such as: Are there angels, universals, pure possibilities, uncrusted possibilities, possibilities with a little mud on them, fairies, creatures made of beautiful smoke, relations, the Lost Atlantis, real equality among tooth-picks, sense-data, ghosts, selves in prison with two feet, everlasting shoe-makers, heaven, thinking horses, pure uncontaminated acts, absolutely independent tables, the minds of stars, the spirits of an age, perfect circles, the geometrical point of a joke, the devil, floating impressions, categorical don’ts, one simple called Simon, perspectives waiting to take their places as the penny turns, gods, any ding-dong an sich with a bell so one can find it in the dark, trees, houses, and mountains of the mind, itches of necessary connection, two impossibilities before breakfast, blue ideas, enghosted pieces of furniture, etc. 
 And if now anyone comes to the reading of this book [Wittgenstein’s Blue Book] expecting the author, for instance, to say: “Yes, yes, God exists,” and then to show him a new and knock-out proof that is guaranteed for a thousand years or to help him to an old one, long buried in a Kant heap, but now freshly washed and polished, well, the author is more likely to remind him that thought Nietzsche some years ago read an obituary notice to the effect that God is dead, he, the author, had not even heard that God was sick.  “The living God!”  And as for inventing any new apriori synthetic, a new drug to cure this or that, or any and all, sorts of incertitude, though he seems at one time to have been interested in inventing a new type of airplane propeller and showed a keen interest in all sorts of gadgets, a milk bottle, for instance, from which with the use of a spoon, one could pour off the cream—“Now, there’s America for you!”—this particular form of invention he seems not to have been interested in.  He was more inclined to recommend a few old home remedies and common herbs, garden variety simples which he was insistent one should not confuse.  And as for those readers in general who want answers to their questions and who, if they already have answers, want better reasons, the author givens neither better reasons for the old answers nor any answers, and those readers who keep their questions may be considered either fortunate or unfortunate as the case may be. 
I have tried to show how it is that this book should disappoint some readers, supposed that they had expectations in reading it.  I have suggested that the reason why such readers have such expectations is that it is, or is read as, a book in philosophy.  And it is a book of philosophy, surely?  Well, it is and it isn’t.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Reframing the Imagination: On Wes Anderson's Formalism

[As we are patiently waiting for Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel to wend its way to the flyover states, I thought I might share a snippet from a presentation I made last year under the auspices of the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (thanks to the hospitality of the inestimable Jeremy Begbie).  Reading A.O. Scott's review of the new film brought this to mind.]

I have elsewhere argued that the imagination is less a faculty of “invention” and innovation and more like a preconscious comportment to the world—a tacit “understanding” of the world that is fundamentally aesthetic.  I think this has important implications for how the imagination is invoked in the encounter between theology and the arts.  On this alternative account, the imagination is not a unique skill or capacity peculiar to artists; the imagination is a fundamentally human “faculty” by which we orient ourselves to the world.  So while artists are without question creative, that does not mean that they have cornered the market on the imagination.  Instead of placing the imagination on the production side of art (the inventive, creative pole), we should recognize the power of the imagination on the reception side of art (though not only art): it is our imagination that “receives” the work of art, and such works of art can (and do) function as imagination-training-sites, formative encounters that both appeal to—and “trigger”—the imagination while also shaping and forming our imaginative horizons.  (This has extra-artistic implications as well.)

If a Christian theological engagement with the arts is going to focus on the imagination, I’m suggesting that this should be less fixated on the dynamics of creativity and invention and more focused on the irreducible “know-how” (praktognosia) that is named by “the imagination.”  In that case, the imagination will be an occasion for thinking about the dynamics of truth—the unique, affective way that art tells the truth about the world rather than just “expressing” my interior sincerity.  Our most powerful works of art are not just products of the imagination; the truth they tell is truth fit to our imagination.  They can only be understood on a “poetic register,” can only be understood by the imagination.  And that understanding is itself irreducible. 

If we were to make that move, it would lead to a new Christian appreciation for what I can only describe in a ham-fisted way as “formalism”—an appreciation for form as truth.  In Imagining the Kingdom I get at this through Cleanth Brooks’ notion of “the heresy of paraphrase.”  Here I’d like to try a different tack with a different medium—through an engagement with the films of Wes Anderson, focusing on The Royal Tenenbaums as a case study.  One could think of this as an expansion of a terse footnote in Imagining the Kingdom (p. 48n.31).

I should confess that this case study was prompted by Michael Chabon’s recentmeditation on Anderson’s oeuvre in the New York Review of Books.  (Chabon’s essay is one of those disheartening works of genius that make you lose any hope that you’ll ever be able to write.  “That’s it; I quit. I’ll never be Michael Chabon.”)  He looks to Anderson as both a chronicler of brokenness and a quiet, humble evangelist for the hope that things might be otherwise.  “The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises,” Chabon observes, “that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken.  We call this period of research ‘childhood.’” It is a difficult education.  “Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.  The question becomes: What to do with the pieces?”  Some hunker down atop the pile of brokenness and “make do;” others take out their frustration by breaking the fragments that remain.  But “some people,” he says, “passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.”  Wes Anderson, he argues, is one of those people. 

Granted, because we only get glimpses of how it’s supposed to be, “through half-closed lids,” our efforts at rebuilding will be, at best, approximations: “A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered.  Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can only be approximations, partial and inaccurate.  As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures.  And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models of this beautiful and broken world.  We call these scale models ‘works of art.’”

Wes Anderson is that kind of artist.  As Chabon goes on to highlight, Anderson’s films are often compared to Joseph Cornell’s boxed collages that reproduce a world in miniature.  Indeed, such miniature panoramas often appear in Anderson’s films.  But the entirety of Anderson’s filmic aesthetic does the same thing: it is not a surrealist or fantastical invention of a world so much as a re-framing of our world. (And the framing is not just visual; soundtrack is also essential. Cue Jeremy Begbie.)  

Chabon captures this brilliantly:
“For my next trick,” says Joseph Cornell, or Valdimir Nabokov, or Wes Anderson, “I have put the world into a box.”  And when he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterfly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss.  And you say, leaning in, ‘The world!’”

I would suggest that Anderson’s films tell the truth on the register of the imagination in ways that we might not realize, or even be able to articulate, and yet nonetheless feel.  A Wes Anderson film plays the strings of your imagination in a way that has you sort of grinning and longing and smiling and mourning, all for reasons you know not why; and yet you can’t stop.  Chabon’s essay helped me to excavate something of my visceral reaction to Anderson’s 2001 movie, The Royal Tenenbaums

The world of the Tenenbaum family, framed in this film, is certainly a broken world: an absent scoundrel of a father who has abandoned his family; a son who is a young widower; an adopted daughter who has always been “other;” a suicidal son who is in love with her; and a dear family friend beset by addiction.  There’s nothing pretty about this family. 

And yet the movie is so oddly gorgeous.  (I’ll say more about the “oddly” in a moment.)  But its aesthetic does not beautify this brokenness; it doesn’t “pretty up” fragmentation or paper over the horrors.  To the contrary, it is the frame—the very form of Anderson’s shots—that attests to the fact that things should be otherwise.  In some way, the story of an Anderson movie is almost—almost—irrelevant.  Or better: the story Anderson tells is told in the form.  

Royal’s character is a study in this: Anderson cultivates our sympathy for him, despite almost everything he actually says.  (Gene Hackman’s acting here is an incredible dance with the director—a stunning performance.)  Royal is shot in a way that exudes sympathy, and clothed in a way that testifies to the fact he wants to be something other than he is.  The narrative force of an Anderson film is carried visually.  It’s not that screenplay isn’t important, but that the story is (also) told on the register of frames and shots and sets—and that this “telling” is a narration that uniquely and irreducibly speaks to the imagination.


For example, how might this help us make sense of Anderson’s near-history aesthetic—the indescribable way that he cultivates a feel that is at once old but timeless, un-placeable and yet vintage.  What’s at work, for example, in the mix of elegance and ugliness in The Royal Tenenbaums?  The majestic oak paneling and the beat up old Gypsy cabs; the Pellegrino on the dingy old refrigerator; the sumptuous beauty in a shot of a suicide returning home on a vandalized city bus? [with Nick Drake’s “Fly” as the soundtrack, pleading “Please, give me a second grace…”].  What we see is the sad dignity of the formerly bourgeois, the air of civility that clings to the nouveau-pauvre, you might say.  And yet it is in that tension between elegance and ugliness, a tattered sophistication, that we absorb a sense of how things could be—how things ought to be—at the same time we sense that the world is askew, that it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. 

Despite a common criticism, I don’t think this is just nostalgic.  (In the spirit of Kurt Cobain’s “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you,” we might also say: Just because you’re nostalgic doesn't mean things didn’t used to be better.) Indeed, I think Chabon gives us a frame to see anew Anderson’s aesthetic: he cultivates a sense of order in the very frame of his camera.  The function of line and color in his portraiture is a geometry of normativity.  

The unapologetic artifice of Anderson’s frame is an aesthetic form of hope—a form that bears witness to order, harmony, perhaps even peace.  Despite the chaos that is captured in the frame, the framing of the shot registers that someone is in control.  And that is a truth that we absorb on the register of the imagination.

Monday, March 03, 2014


In just about a month, Baker Academic will publish my new book, Who's Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, the latest offering in the Church and Postmodern Culture series.

In some ways, this is kind of the "Anglo-American" sequel to the "Continental" conversation in Who's Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  In Who's Afraid of Relativism? I engage the pragmatist tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and their living heir, University of Pittsburgh philosopher Robert Brandom.  And since this pragmatist tradition is sort of the philosophical background of "postliberalism" in Christian theology, the final chapter reconsiders George Lindbeck's important book, The Nature of Doctrine, for contemporary theology and ministry.

In the course of offering a Christian introduction to this philosophical tradition, I aim to refine just how we throw around the charge of "relativism," seeking to constructively recover a theology of creaturehood that honors our contingency and the role of community in how we know what we know.

And like my earlier book, I talk about movies!  Who's Afraid of Relativism? includes discussions of Wendy and Lucy, Lars and the Real Girl, Crazy Heart, and a fantastic but under-appreciated French film, I've Loved You So Long.

You can read more about the book, along with endorsements, at the Baker Academic site.

And don't miss the chance to score a free copy: Baker Academic is giving away a few copies over at GoodReads.

(If you're in the west Michigan area, watch for updates about a book reception hosted by the Calvin College Philosophy Department.)

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Faithful Compromise

The spring 2014 issue is devoted to a timely, but also counter-intuitive theme: Faithful Compromise.  In my editorial, I tease out this paradoxical notion.  Here's a snippet:
It's a dangerous thing to acquire a theology of cultural transformation but lose an eschatology. Too many Christians who are newly convinced about the implications of the Gospel for society—on either left or right—act as if we are the ones who need to secure the kingdom. If the advent of justice really depended on us, then I can imagine why we could never entertain compromise: it would all rest on our shoulders, hinge on our decisions, depend on our commitment. The buck would stop with us; we would be the last line of defense. 
But we need to be careful that our commitment to pursuing shalom isn't confused with a progressivism that functionally imagines we bring about the kingdom. Instead, we need to recover an Augustinian sense of living in the saeculum, this time between times in which we long for kingdom come but live without illusions of its being accomplished and perfected before then. This side of the eschaton, we seekproximate justice, which means facing up to the complexity of our decisions, policies, and systems and learning to work within them. 
To pray "Thy kingdom come" is liberating precisely because, while it calls us to participate in what God is doing in the world, it also reminds us that God alone, in his providence, is bringing about the consummation of all things. And until then, we can't expect—and shouldn't seek—complete purity. Every time we pray, "Thy kingdom come," we are also reminded: it hasn't come yet. In the meantime, we are liberated to compromise—faithfully, with much discernment, and always praying, in hope, "Thy kingdom come."

You can read the entire editorial online for free.  And check out the Table of Contents for this jam-packed issue.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2014

For My Epitaph

A passage from Plato's Apology that never fails to move me, after Socrates has been sentenced to death:
"This much I ask from them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if you think they are somebody when they are nobody.  Reproach them as I reproach you, that they do not care for the right things and think they are worthy when they are not worthy of anything.  If you do this, I shall have been justly treated by you, and my sons also" (41e-42a).