New piece published in Mere Orthodoxy: "Befriending Books: On Reading and Thinking with Alan Jacobs and Zena Hitz"

I'm in Mere Orthodoxy with a long review-essay of two new books: Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader's Guide to a More Tranquil Mind by Alan Jacobs and Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life . Here's a section from the opening: If the quality of one’s thinking depends upon the quality of those one thinks with, the truth is that few of us have the ability to secure membership in a community of brilliant and wise, like-hearted but independent thinkers. Search for one as much as we like, we are bound to be frustrated. Moreover, recourse to the internet—one commonly proffered solution—is far more likely to exacerbate than to alleviate the problem: we may find like-minded souls, yes, but down that rabbit hole lies danger on every side. Far from nurturing studiositas , algorithms redirect the energies of the intellect into every manner of curiositas ; far from preparing a multicourse feast, our digital masters function rather like Elliott in E.

New piece published in LARB: an essay review of N. T. Wright's Gifford lectures

This morning I'm in the Los Angeles Review of Books with a long essay review of History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology , which are the book form of N. T. Wright's Gifford lectures. Here's the opening paragraph: DOES GOD EXIST? An affirmative answer is presupposed by the world’s major religions traditions, particularly those that claim Abraham as forebear. Contemporary atheists, however, are far from the first to wonder about the question. Ancient philosophers and Abrahamic believers of every stripe have grappled with it in one form or another. For Christians who reflect on the matter, the catchall term is “natural theology.” But there is no one habit of thought or mode of analysis captured by that title. Rather, it gathers together a complex heritage marked as much by internal disagreement as by shared inquiry. That heritage is in part a genealogy. In order to come to terms with natural theology today, therefore, one must have some se

Between pandemic and protest: introducing The Liberating Arts

Earlier this year I had the opportunity to join a group of gifted Christian scholars with an idea for a grant proposal. The idea was to respond to the crisis facing institutions of higher education, particularly liberal arts colleges, proactively rather than reactively. That is, to see the moment—pandemic, protest, political upheaval, demographic collapse, threats to the future of the liberal arts on every side—as an apocalyptic one, in which deep truths about ourselves and our culture are unveiled, as it were, from without. What to do in light of those revelations? How to shore up the ruins, and more than that, to articulate a positive and hopeful case for the institutions and areas of expertise to which we all belong, and by which we have been so profoundly formed, in the midst of so many competing challenges and voices? Led by Jeff Bilbro, Jessica Hooten Wilson, Noah Toly, and Davey Henreckson, the proposal was approved and we received the grant from CCCU. Earlier this month the pr

On "anti" films that succeed, and why

More than one friend has pointed out an exception or addendum to my last post on "anti" films, which makes the claim that no "anti" films are successful on their own terms, for they ineluctably glorify the very thing they are wanting to hold up for critique: war, violence, misogyny, wealth, whatever. The exception is this: There are successful "anti" films—meaning dramatic-narrative films, not documentaries—whose subject matter is intrinsically negative, and not ambiguous or plausibly attractive. Consider severe poverty, drug addiction, or profound depression. Though it is possible to make any of these a fetish, or to implicate the audience as a voyeur in relation to them, there is nothing appealing about being depressed, addicted, or impoverished, and so the effect of the cinematic form does nothing to make them appealing: for the form magnifies , and here there is nothing positive to magnify, only suffering or lack. So, for example, The Florida Projec

No such thing as an anti-war film, or anti-anything at all

There is no such thing as an anti-war film, François Truffaut is reported to have said. In a manner of speaking, there is no such thing as an anti- anything film, at least so long as the subject in question is depicted visually. The reason is simple. The medium of film makes whatever is on screen appealing to look at—more than that, to sink into , to be seduced by, to be drawn into. Moving images lull the mind and woo the heart. Moreover, anything that is worth opposing in a film contains some element of goodness or truth or beauty. The wager or argument of the filmmaker is not that the subject matter is wholly evil; rather, it is that it is something worthwhile that has been corrupted, distorted, or disordered: by excess, by wicked motives, by tragic consequences. Which means that whatever is depicted in the film is not Evil Writ Large, Only Now On Screen. It is something lovely or valuable—something ordinary people "fall for" in the real world—except portrayed in such a wa

2021: the year of Martin, Rothfuss, and Williams?

Could 2021 see the publication of long-awaited sequels to three major fantasy series? It would mark a full decade since George R. R. Martin published the fifth entry in his Song of Ice and Fire . He's been writing pages and pages since then, or so he says. He turns 72 this month, and following the TV adaptation of Game of Thrones concluded, then living through a global pandemic, he's had nothing but time to write. In any case, even after #6, he's got at least one more book in the series to write, assuming it doesn't keep multiplying and fracturing indefinitely. One can hope, no? It's also been a decade since the second book in Patrick Rothfuss's Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy was published. Four years spanned the first two books. Perhaps ten will span the second and the third? Rothfuss insists that he is hard at work on The Doors of Stone , yet reacts cantankerously to continuous "Are you finished yet ?" queries. It's unclear whether it's the p

Louis Dupré on symbolism and ontology in religious language

Religious language must, by its very nature, be symbolic: its referent surpasses the objective universe. Objectivist language is fit only to signify things in a one-dimensional universe. It is incapable of referring to another level of reality, as art, poetry, and religion do. Rather than properly symbolizing, it establishes external analogies between objectively conceived realities. Their relation is allegorical rather than symbolic. A truly symbolic relation must be grounded in Being itself. Nothing exposes our religious impoverishment more directly than the loss of the ontological dimension of language. To overcome this, poets and mystics have removed their language as far as possible from everyday speech. In premodern traditions, language remained closer to the ontological core which all things share and which intrinsically links them to one another. Symbols thereby participated in the very Being of what they symbolized, as they still do in great poetry. Religious symbols re- pres

François Furet on revolutionary consciousness

[T]he revolutionary situation was not only characterised by the power vacuum that was filled by a rush of new forces and by the 'free' activity of society. . . . It was also bound up with a kind of hypertrophy of historical consciousness and with a system of symbolic representations shared by the social actors. The revolutionary consciousness, from 1789 on, was informed by the illusion of defeating a State that had already ceased to exist, in the name of a coalition of good intentions and of forces that foreshadowed the future. From the very beginning it was ever ready to place ideas above actual history, as if it were called upon to restructure a fragmented society by means of its own concepts. Repression became intolerable only when it became ineffectual. The Revolution was the historical space that separated two powers, the embodiment of the idea that history is shaped by human action rather than by the combination of existing institutions and forces. In that unforeseeable a

10 thoughts on colleges reopening

1. Not every college is the same. There are community colleges, private colleges, public colleges. Some have 1,500 students, some have 50,000 students. Some are in rural areas and small towns, some are in densely populated urban centers. Some have wild and uncontrollable Greek life, some (very much) do not. 2. Not every place is the same. There are regions, locales, and states that are still hot spots on lockdown, and there are others that are in rather better shape. 3. Not every institution is the same. Some are cash-strapped or risk-averse or profit-driven or top-down—or what have you—and some have resilient and time-honored habits of shared governance. 4. Not every professor is the same. This applies not only to characteristics like age or discipline but also to personal judgment or preference: universities are not split, in a perfect dichotomy, between administrators who are pushing forward with reopening and faculty who are pushing back. 5. Economic pressures are real. Although it

David Walker on slavery and the justice of God

And as the inhuman system of slavery , is the source from which most of our miseries proceed, I shall begin with that curse to nations , which has spread terror and devastation through so many nations of antiquity, and which is raging to such a pitch at the present day in Spain and in Portugal. It had one tug in England, in France, and in the United States of America; yet the inhabitants thereof, do not learn wisdom, and erase it entirely from their dwellings and from all with whom they have to do. The fact is, the labour of slaves comes so cheap to the avaricious usurpers, and is (as they think) of such great utility to the country where it exists, that those who are actuated by sordid avarice only, overlook the evils, which will as sure as the Lord lives, follow after the good. In fact, they are so happy to keep in ignorance and degradation, and to receive the homage and the labour of the slaves, they forget that God rules in the armies of heaven and among the inhabitants of the ear