The Fourteenth of February

leonardo-da-vinci-heart

I think that if this blog could be summed up in a single word, I would choose “Love.”

I have, for reasons all my own, a deep passion for life and for experiencing it with all my senses and the whole of my imagination. If you’re still reading this blog after two months, I suspect you’re in the same boat. What you may not know, however is the role that a very special person played in forming this passion within me.

So today, I want to talk about Love itself. To do so I will focus on the person who is for me the embodiment of it. My wife, Kim.

It is, I think, a sign of how far we’ve fallen as a culture that even a discussion of this greatest of virtues is so easily drawn into the pettiness of politics. Even as a type these words, I worry about who I’m going to offend. “What about those from broken marriages?” “How can I work gender equality in the workplace into this?” “There’s gay marriage now Anderson, what about that?”

Call me an idiot, but I believe that it’s possible to transcend the mechanical and mean world of politics, culture, and economics. Damn Foucault’s torpedoes, I’m going to pull back, with my Love, onto Matthew Arnold’s darkling plain at Dover Beach.

The picture above that I’ve chosen for this piece fully represents my views on the issue. Da Vinci’s anatomical drawings of the human heart represents what is most certainly mechanical and scientific about human beings. We are kept alive by a pump after all. Da Vinci, however, doesn’t leave the object of his study in the realm of cold, heartless fact. He rescues it by rendering it as art – an art that inspires wonder and emotion, and one that creates a new space in which to experience life. This is the human heart. At once, mechanical and transcendent. Leonardo’s genius is in his ability to reconcile this contradiction.

St. Paul started a millennial firestorm with the whole “Wives submit to your husbands” thing. For my entire life, churches have fought and split over the politics of this issue. Yet I ask you to take a look at almost any little church across the land and tell me who keeps it operational. I recently read an article criticizing The Feminine Mystique for being racist and classist. Once we get into politics, just as in the church turf-wars of my youth, it seems division is the only possibility. My point here is not to argue the theologically correct view of women in the church or even the politically correct women, class, and race. I frankly don’t care anymore.

My wife is more than the love of my life. She is its pump. She came into my petty little world and pulled me out into a larger, infinitely richer one. My wife, for reasons that I will never understand, saw something in me that had value and she fought for it. This was no easy fight. Her adversary was a stubborn and ignorant boy, but her essential goodness (combined with a rugged stubbornness of her own) had the day. What’s more, she did not abandon me to my new life. Each day, she lives it with me and teaches me how to live it better. This is a tireless, courageous act that is perpetual and constant. Like the human heart, she contracts and expands to keep the whole system well-nourished and functional. And like Da Vinci, I am in constant awe of her magnificence.

This is important to understand: She is not only my partner. This is not a business relationship. She is part of me. The best part of me, in fact. Her love is not something that is added to my life like a spice. It is not a supplement, but rather a creative energy that gives purpose and meaning to everything I do or experience. Her love is the very landscape upon which my life is lived. It creates my life everyday and enriches each experience as it happens. The legal concept of partnership fails to capture what is magnificent about Kim. If we where merely partners, it would be implied that I have an existence outside my relationship with her. I don’t. Her love once-and-for-all eradicated useless, old-me. Thank God. Without her, I don’t exist at all.

Emptiness into fullness. Fear into joy. If I am an idiot for believing in transcendence, so be it. I have good reason. I have lived it, and I’ve discovered that Love is transcendent. Kim, through a force that science cannot account for or measure, entered into a life, changed it, gave it meaning, and creates it anew each day.

My wife is a miracle.

Happy Valentines Day, honey.

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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.

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Ah, love, Let us go to Dover Beach

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DOVER BEACH

By Matthew Arnold

The sea is calm tonight,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night air!

Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Agean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

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