The Sectarian Review Podcast

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http://sectarianreviewpodcast.weebly.com/

Well this may be it.

I’ve found myself less and less interested in writing for this medium lately. And a quick perusal of this blog will demonstrate that.

It should also reveal that I’ve been aiming my non-teaching efforts toward podcasting instead. There is something truly rewarding about having live conversations with people about the broad range of topics I’ve tried to cover in the blog. If you haven’t yet, I’d encourage you to check it out. Here’s the link to our Facebook page:

https://www.facebook.com/SectarianReview/

Also, I’ve created a dedicated website to the podcast where you can learn more about it and link to all the episodes.

If you do, please let me know what you’re thinking. What makes that thing so much fun is the dialogue with our listeners. Here’s the link to the site:

http://sectarianreviewpodcast.weebly.com/

If you’ve been reading this blog, thanks so much. I hope you’ll listen to Sectarian Review and talk back!

Be well.

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The Football-Industrial Complex

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Hello dear reader. I wonder if you might allow me to call you “dear listener,” tonight.

As you may have seen from previous posts, I’ve gradually transitioned my blogging energies into podcasting. My podcast, Sectarian Review, offers me the chance to actually speak to other people about ideas and culture, and that has been a lot of fun and really gratifying. If you listen to podcasts, I hope you’ll check us out as well. We’re on iTunes and Stitcher and you can find a link here:

http://www.christianhumanist.org/2016/01/sectarian-review-5-the-football-industrial-complex/

There is no real reason these platforms can’t co-exist for a while, though. Below, find the introduction to our latest episode, a hostile inquiry into America’s (and Christendom’s) obsession with football. Drew Van’tland and Todd Pedlar joined me for a pretty lively discussion.

And I’m always looking for new collaborators. If you’d like to join us from time to time, please do let me know. This week, I had a philosopher and a physicist on the show. I’d love to include historians, economists, seminarians…anyone. Now for the intro:

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Hello everyone. Thanks for downloading another episode of the show. Danny Anderson here. Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA.

I want to give fair warning that this episode might be contentious, uncomfortable, and even unfair. This is my hope at least. Football occupies a gigantic space in our cultural consciousness and I think we should at least notice that. In doing so, we’re kind of going to be picking at scabs, an icky image, I know.

I should confess upfront that I have some personal issues with this subject, so I’ll have to work to avoid making this all about me and my psychology. I’m from Cleveland, a huge town for sports fandom, and spent almost all my youth utterly obsessed with the local teams, primarily the Browns. Now maybe it’s because the Browns’ terribleness makes it easy, but as I’ve gotten old and decrepit, I’ve come to a point where I don’t care much at all about it anymore.

Except that I do. I care that we as a society Recklessly engage in what I’ve come to know as the idolatry of my youth. I’ve watched, largely from a distance now, as Cleveland neglects almost every other part of its civic life for its obsession with trying to overcome the heartbreak of “The Drive” and “The Fumble.” I’m also disturbed as a person of Faith at Christendom’s dangerous conflation of the values of sport with the values of Christianity.

So these are my reasons for recording this episode. I know that as you listen, you might say to yourself “he’s ignoring all the positive things about football…teamwork, discipline, whatnot.” If this is the case, know that I’m not ignoring them, I’ve spent much of my life uttering those defenses myself. I’m simply rejecting them for the purposes of this discussion. As always, I want to encourage your angry or supportive responses, either at the Facebook page or our email sectarianreview@gmail.com. I even booted up a Twitter account, hopeless as I am in that medium.

Question 1: Idolatry – I just mentioned the term Idolatry in my prologue. I stand by it, but I’m open to debate. What is idolatry and how might it be related to American Football?

Question 2: Economic – I already threw Cleveland under the bus for what I think is a misappropriation of economic resources. Let’s talk with some specifics about the economics of the sport in America. What are some positive arguments one might make for our investment in this game. Why are those arguments silly?

Question 3: Cultural – Everyone knows that Marx called religion the opiate of the masses – something to keep the proletariat content in an oppressive system. Certainly he would replace that with football today, no? What cultural impact does the Football Industrial Complex impose on us?

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So that’s it. Have a listen and get in touch!

Danny

The Ethical Imagination of Horror

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Sectarian Review episode 3 has just been published.

Follow this link to listen and weigh in:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/TheSectarianReview

In this Godzilla-sized episode, Danny Anderson and Drew Van’tland are joined by Ed Simon to talk about the intersections between horror, religion, and ethics. This month’s Sectarians talk horror films, Nietzsche, H.P. Lovecraft, Flies, Babadooks, and, James Robertson’s The Testament of Gideon Mack. Also, Danny interviews Dr. Jamie McDaniel of Pittsburg State University about horror, liminality, and Disability Studies. Also listen for a couple of aural surprises!

Music Monday: (Gulp) Worship Music? Me?

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I know, I know. I’m the guy who hates worship music. Let’s just put that out there. I’ve even posted about this anti-passion before. See my ode to the great Rodney Crowell.

However, I do like church (generally).

My family and I recently purchased a house near Athens, Georgia and so we’ve been snooping around churches there. Who knows what’s going to happen, but we’ve found one we really like so far, and the music is no small part of that.

The church is called Classic City Community Church and their band is called “The Classic City Collective.” I’ve been so moved by them that I even bought their CD today (also apparently available on iTunes and Amazon).

The group undermines all my comfortable cynicism about Christian music. They seem to have a commitment to artistry that eludes most contributers to the decline of Christian Culture (aka “praise bands”).

They have taste. They have musical talent. And most of all, they can claim that most unique trait, subtlety. The music is emotional, but not boorish. These folks clearly are passionate about God, but they also have dignity and brains.

In other words there are no lyrics like “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss.”

Contemporary physicists like to point out that given the vastness of the universe, the appearance of life here indicates that it all but certainly exists elsewhere. Likewise, this group’s existence has given me hope that there are musicians out there who are fighting against my bitter cynicism about Christian music and culture.

If good taste and dedicated artistry exists in Athens, surely it exists elsewhere. This is no small leap into optimism for me, and I’m grateful for the correction.

Here’s a clip they produced about the band and its mission. Do yourself a favor and give ’em a shot.

Two highlights I’d like to point out. At about 1:15 in, there is sample of an utterly beautiful song called “A Mind at Perfect Peace.” I wish I could find a clip of the whole thing because it is truly lovely.

Also during that clip, the group’s leader, Paul Reeves, reflects on his reluctance to write worship music in the first place. He basically claims that the purpose of this music is a great responsibility and that he “didn’t want to do that flippantly.”

This betrays a commendable artistic maturity, let alone a fine spiritual one. Well done, sir. You’ve sold a tough (yet newly hopeful) customer.

Towards a Werewolf Apologetics

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Quick note at the start. If you haven’t yet, please click the Facebook “Like” button to the left. I try to supplement this blog with miscellaneous links and such on Facebook a couple of times a week. Having folks look at them would be great. Now for this werewolf business.

I recently introduced my students to Michael Chabon’s short stories, specifically one entitled “Werewolves in Their Youth.” It’s a great story that revels in both the wonder and the danger of the human imagination. It’s right up my alley, in other words.

I have a strategy when it comes to teaching. It basically boils down to confusing my students whenever possible, then working to help them catch up. I call this “education.” I pace around the room and stand beside them, lean over and ask them a direct question face to face . . . I basically model my classroom presence after Vincent D’Onofrio’s character in Law in Order: Criminal Intent. Sure they look at me like I’m a little crazy, but at least they pay attention most of the time. What can I say? As much as I’d like to be Lionel Trilling, I’m ever only Groucho Marx. Sometimes I even dress like him to teach.

Anderson Groucho

I know, I know. But sometimes a cigar is just a rolled-up piece of brown construction paper. More Freud further down.

Anyway, many of my students were disturbed when they looked at the syllabus on the first day of class and saw the title of the Chabon story. I teach at a small Christian college in a rural area and I think that I may have, as the kids say, “freaked them out” a little. Not wanting to have the villagers descend on my castle with pitchforks and torches, I assured them that there weren’t any actual werewolves in the story, just two misfit boys with wild imaginations.

But now I’m thinking, why not?

I happen to really love werewolf movies (a shock to my regulars, I’m sure), and I’m quite certain that a course devoted to werewolves would be entirely appropriate at any college, particularly a Christian college.

Alright, time for apologetics mode. Stay with me.

Treatise on the Christian Werewolf

Herman Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf describes the human condition as such:

There was once a man, Harry, called the Steppenwolf. He went on two legs, wore clothes and was a human being, but nevertheless he was in reality a wolf of the Steppes. He had learned a good deal of all that people of a good intelligence can, and was a fairly clever fellow. What he had not learned, however was this: to find contentment in himself and his own life.

The werewolf, as imagined in Hesse’s novel, but particularly the classical Hollywood rendition, is a splendid image of what it is to be human. All of us, each in our own way, walk the line between civility and brutality. This (I assume) mythical creature embodies that struggle. Here is a human body striving to live in a society with other humans, and upon it, brutal, cruel nature has collapsed.

Now, with the advent of the Twilight franchise, I know that the ancient conflict between human and nature is not fashionable. Ms. Meyer has popularized what I call, “the Magical Werewolf.” This is an individual who has come to some sort of happy oneness with nature and draws upon its violent resources to gain righteous empowerment and glittery self-actualization. This is self-help gibberish and I’ll have nothing to do with it. By stripping the creature of its agony, the Magical Werewolf has also stripped it of its dignity. I prefer the An American Werewolf in London vision:

A true Christian

This scene leaves no doubt that David is cursed. Well, I don’t want to break this to you, but we are all cursed. At the beginning of the film, David is just an innocent college-kid hiking across Europe on summer vacation. By the end, he is a vicious killer. The scene above captures the tortuous moments which comprise the border between the two. And I submit that these moments are where we all are most of the time. This film (my personal favorite movie) shows us the torment of living in a society as fallen, sinful creatures. The werewolf is a uniquely sympathetic monster because he or she is each of us.

There is, I think, ample evidence in the Bible for my argument. As cursed punishment, Adam and Eve are placed into direct and eternal conflict with nature, banished from their previously easy communion with the animals (take that Team Jacob). This forced distinction between human beings and nature is consistent. Over and over, association with nature equates with cursedness. Chosen Jacob was a man of the house, rejected Esau, a man of the wilderness. In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar is cursed in a manner that startlingly resembles the above clip:

The same hour was the thing fulfilled upon Nebuchadnezzar: and he was driven from men, and did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.

“The Dew of Heaven” is one of my favorite poetic images in the bible. It has the sound of pleasure, as if the divine has graced the recipient with soothing, life-giving refreshment. The reality for the once and future King, however, is horror. This divine drenching washes the humanity from his body. This is precisely the tragedy of the Wolfman. Nature has not empowered him to be a better human, it has overtaken his body and stripped away his humanity entirely. This is the very definition of horror. All I am trying to say here is that there is textual precedent in the Bible for the metaphor I’m trying to extend to Christianity.

However, I don’t mean to set the werewolf’s borders at Christendom. This tragic figure speaks to me mainly as a human being. In previous posts, I’ve tried to own my less than flattering moments because I think they are a big part of whatever meaning rests in human experience. To ignore my cruel self is to ignore the conflict between Civilization and its Discontents. My responsible wishes to contribute to society perpetually wrestle against my desires to destroy it. Culture versus Anarchy. Perhaps this conflict is what inspired Matthew Arnold’s animalistic sideburns. I am Tyler Durden.

The werewolf helps us visualize the precarious position we humans occupy on this planet as we strive to wedge civilization into the natural realm. Its tragedy, its horror, its loss of the human pronouns “he” and “she,” help us imagine and experience the wondrous horror that life is.

Wolverine

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Rodney Crowell and My Salvation from Christian Music

The Houston Kid

The Houston Kid (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

No one needs another polemic about the banality of contemporary worship music. This is a topic that’s been theorized and explored by people who care about it a lot more than I do. Here’s one fairly recent example I found lingering in my Pocket account.

Basically, the problem is that I have a rare medical condition, and if I hear a song that uses the words “amazing,” or “awesome” more than 37 times, my pancreas will explode and I will die.

OK, that’s not true, but I think you see my point. Contemporary worship is a genre that primarily rewards the emotional and scolds the intellectual. For instance, only this shameless genre could offer the world the phrase “Heaven meets Earth like a sloppy wet kiss,” with an un-ironic, straight face.

Of course I paint with a broad brush, but largely the genre fetishizes the …ahem… “awesomeness” of God, while ignoring the particulars of how that awesomeness is created. The problem with ignoring those details is that anything complicated about the Christian faith is left out of the experience. And if there is anything that Christianity has to offer contemporary society, it is the complications the religion carries within itself. This makes it real and relevant. Jacob, as a chosen scoundrel, undermines all notions of fairness and justice. This creates a beautiful confusion within the individual pondering the patriarchal story. It is a confusion that challenges the listener in a way that worship music refuses to, leaving my pancreas to suffer. Imagine Michael Phelps splashing in a kiddie pool. This is an image of what worship music too often does to Christianity.

Beautiful Despair in Rodney Crowell

This brings me to the subject of this post. Growing up listening to the Country Music of my parents, I first became aware of Crowell (dare I refer to him as Rodney here?) because of the great popularity of his hit album Diamonds and Dirt. The wit and depth of his lyrics, along with his stubbornly traditional approach to pop-country, made me a lifelong admirer.

As I grew older however, the Clash came calling for me and I neglected to follow Rodney’s career for many years. This was an insightfully blind mistake on my part. As luck would have it. I caught up with him around the time I was approaching 40, just in time for Rodney to guide me through that time in a way that Christian music would never have been able to.

What makes his music resonate with my own Christian Imagination is that, far from avoiding the beautiful confusion of life, he hones in on it as the very subject that makes life worth living. His song “Beautiful Despair” from 2005’s The Outsider, perfectly captures this attitude.

Beautiful despair is slouching forward

Toward a past you might regret

All to suck the marrow out

Of every magic moment that you get

The “awesomeness” that this lyric captures is not rooted in happy sentimentalism. Instead it captures the delicate dance that joy and pain share in the human experience. What is beautiful is not that we may avoid pain, but that the pain we will feel makes the joy worth feeling. This is the sweetness and light that Matthew Arnold wrote about, and to hear a wise, aging poet capture it in musical art provides more solace and inspiration than any endless repetition of shallow superlatives.

I was fortunate enough to see Rodney perform in a small venue in Athens, GA a few months ago and I noticed that his set consisted strictly of early and recent material. I didn’t feel that he was regretting the popular material of the late 80’s, but an artistic symmetry between the work of the brash young troubadour and older sage is clearly apparent. His classic early material, highlighted by songs like “‘Til I can Gain Control Again,” and “Song for the Life,” show an intimacy with the wisdom of recent songs like “Beautiful Despair,” “Earthbound,” and “My Father’s Advice.”

I feel a large measure of discomfort being mushy and personal so publicly, but given the nature of this post, I think I have an obligation to explain the depths of my appreciation for this great artist’s music. I have recently moved my family 11 hours from home for a job that I am most grateful for. I love teaching, and I particularly love teaching this group of students. I see great meaning in what I’m doing and I’m blessed with an institution and colleagues that encourage me in my work. As a person of faith, I see God’s hand in the events that ultimately led to this job.

Yet I am also feeling a sometimes overwhelming sense of loss and isolation.

Though I’ve met almost nobody I don’t like very much, I still search for the intimacy I left in Cleveland, Ohio. I sit through worship music that seems to uplift everyone around me, but leaves me unmoved. The music simply cannot withstand the contradiction of my situation. The abandonment of comfort. Finding my loss. Loving what sometimes makes me sad. Rejoicing for the opportunity to struggle. In short, the Beautiful Despair.

I am so fortunate to have abandoned Rodney Crowell’s inspiring music for so long, as now, with fresh ears, I can not only hear and enjoy it, but I can feel it.

The vision in both his lyrics and vocal performances captures the complexity of life as I currently lead it. I do not regret the pain and loss. Without them, the joy and passion would be incomplete.

Please watch this performance.

I Know Love is All I Need–from The Outsider

Though my parents are still with me (though still not with me), the speaker in this song captures the grateful isolation, the feeling of having arrived at lostness, that I feel. This is a feat that, sadly, Christian music does not attempt, yet it seems to me that it is an integral part of the Christian experience. To know and be confused. To trust and still fear. To carry doubt with sureness. To know that the experience of fear gives one the exhilarating chance to escape it. And knowing that the escape will still bring doubt along with it.

These contradictions are not to be avoided, as worship music often does. They are to be embraced as the very gift God has given us. Life is beautiful because it is inconceivable. Seeking the answer is a big part of answer. Rodney Crowell, thank God, understands that. With the help of his art, I can joyfully suck the marrow from this wonderful, terrifying life I’m lucky enough to still be living.

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Literature and the Christian Imagination

During the last few years of my life, I’ve felt as if I had a foot in two worlds. One foot (left or right – I’m not sure) stood on faith, and the other in academia. All in all, I kept my balance pretty well (yay me). As a student of literature and a person of faith, I instinctively felt that there was a compatibility between the two, invisible perhaps on the outside, but inseparable for me. It made perfect narrative sense, then, that I would end up teaching English at a small, Christian liberal arts college.

This confluence of events and interests has led me to inquire more deeply into the role the imagination and Culture (big C) in the lives of Christians. My thinking is that this will benefit both my students and my sanity, though the latter notion may turn out to be delusional. (I’ve been called worse, both by myself and others).

At any rate, this inquiry has implications not just for how Christians engage with or avoid literary cultural productions, but also how they engage with their faith. For example in The Gospel Coalition today, Greg Forster takes exception with a recent article in The American Conservative in which Rod Dreher claims that Evangelicals are hostile to religious expressions of wonder and awe (sacraments and such). This may seem to have little to do with Christian consumption of literature, but it does address the issue of Evangelical engagement with physical, cultural expressions of metaphysical ideas. In this way the conversation explores the depths and limitations of the Christian imagination – a subject of great interest to me as I attempt to challenge my students and myself going forward. Disruption as engaged learning.

As happy coincidence would have it, my department has decided to read the 1989 book, Literature Through the Eyes of Faith, by Susan Gallagher and Roger Lundin. I thought this to be a good occasion to dip my toe in the subject matter, bloggy-style.

Being written during the height of the Culture Wars, the book seems dated and reading it now is frequently to nod impatiently and say to oneself, “yes, I remember that. People used to talk about this back then.” However, the book does a fair job of establishing the history and logics of long standing debates about the role of literature in the age of High Theory (though not with the panache or precision of Robert Alter’s book The Pleasures of Reading in an Ideological Age). To its credit though, the book is a sincere attempt to inquire into the relationship between faith and literature. It is a serious-minded study of the joys and dangers of Christian consumption of literary art.

This virtue is, however, also its vice. The book is far too serious about this subject and makes the idea of danger too large an ectoplasmic boogeyman for the Christian reader. An example of this is found in a meditation about overt Christian themes in literature. The authors write, “Although we may be pleased to find works based on Christian narratives, characters, or practices, we must not hastily conclude that they endorse or advocate Christian ideas” (123). Implicit here is the idea that “good” literature must ultimately only validate Christian orthodoxy. I challenge this notion and feel that a Christian faith slavishly seeking opportunities to affirm cherished orthodoxies becomes intellectually dead. The Imagination uniquely offers a means to challenge assumptions, keeping their holders keen-witted and productively engaged with the world. Added to this limited engagement with literature’s richness is a repeated insistence that it not dare tread too close to the divine and ostentatious practice of doing anything. It must only reflect, not create realties or challenge existing ones. These themes run throughout the book, buttressed by a cautious rhetoric meant to keep literature safely in its place.

I wonder, in the end, how much the book really believes what it is saying. The section about metafiction, toward the conclusion, seems to suggest that philosophies that challenge Christian ontological claims have value both in their requirement that the reader question their conception of reality and in their engagement of the reader in the process of fiction-making. As much as the book claims a role for sanctified reading practices, it can’t seem to shake a respect for the sheer excitement of world-creation and energizing effect that literature, as an agent of chaos, can have if given the opportunity.

This contradiction is, to me, ultimately good as it complicates an otherwise overly-simple argument (though the book suffers as a pedagogical resource because of it). Let me just focus briefly then on what the book says rather than what it actually does, as the former contains the larger implications for Christian education and engagement with Culture.

Two statements epitomize my complaint with the book. The first has to do with literature’s ability to transcend circumstance. The authors write, “Though literature can provide us with relaxation and with images of the world as it might ideally be, it is neither an escape from reality nor a saving transformation of it” (xxiv). In other words, literature can do little to escape the forces of history. The book argues that its value instead lies solely in its reflection of God’s truth. For those of you in academia, think Foucault meets John Calvin. This is a kind of theological New Historicism, with the text unable to escape the material (and spiritual) conditions of its production.

In the context of a liberal arts education, this is a disastrous perspective. If the humanities cannot both provide perspective on the world and an intervention of imagination then what good is it? This absence leaves the world solely under the sway of material forces. Economics and politics are left as the only means by which God’s creation functions. Furthermore, this calls into question the authority of the Bible. Is it merely a record of events that reflect a world that God made and continually redeems while Human Beings continually ruin? Or is it an intervention in the world that shapes its reader and creates a new and richer reality?

Matthew Arnold

This is, of course, the same war Matthew Arnold, awesome side-burns and all, waged with those that marginalized Culture in favor of mechanical forces like economics and politics. Gallagher and Lundin reduce Arnold to his wish that Culture replace a diminished Religion in society (60), but they neglect to account for his definition of Culture in the early pages of Culture and Anarchy. Defending it against claims that it seeks and values mere curiosity, Arnold offers an alternative definition:

But there is of culture another view, in which not solely the scientific passion, the sheer desire to see things as they are, natural and proper in an intelligent being, appears as the ground of it. There is a view in which all the love of our neighbour, the impulses towards action, help, and beneficence, the desire for removing human error, clearing human confusion, and diminishing human misery, the noble aspiration to leave the world better and happier than we found it, – motives eminently such as are called social, – come in as part of the grounds of culture, and the main and pre-eminent part. Culture is then properly described not as having its origin in curiosity, but as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.

By denying curiosity as the defining feature of Culture, Arnold simultaneously denies that its primary service is that of reflective mirror. Literature and art do not simply wish to explore a pre-fabricated world, crafted through the forces of sin, salvation, and free-will enterprise, it also seeks to create a world that is better than the one formed through strictly material forces. Christians, and particularly those in the liberal arts and humanities, should then identify a comrade in Culture, not an adversary to be only leery of.

The historicist-influenced line of thought in Literature Through the Eyes of Faith also motivates the next statement I take issue with. In a chapter depressingly called “Keeping Literature in Perspective,” the authors write, “A Christian perspective on reading lies between the extremes of hedonism and redemption. Books are neither objects of pure pleasure or instruments of unlimited power. Instead, they are one way in which humans have developed the potentials of God’s world” (59). I, of course, would not claim “unlimited power” for books, but to demote them to just “one way” of reflecting divine influence is to make sociology out of literature and to deny a special-ness that narrative has in our lives as created beings that have creative potential. Metafiction, which the authors apparently like, in spite of their own argument, foregrounds the vitality of narrative-creation in our lives. It is not mere sociology, only reflecting images of truth back at ourselves. Nor is it distinct from “the real world.” Fiction is part – perhaps the most important part – of how we create the world.

Imagination is indistinguishable from reality. Christians too often neglect it at their peril.