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Biographies of theologians

Alan Jacobs suggests that we need more biographies of theologians. By which he means, on the one hand, quality biographies (not chronicles) written with style and insight; and, on the other hand, biographies about contemporary theologians, such as Robert Jenson or John Webster. I would love nothing more than a biographer on a par with Ray Monk to tell the story of, e.g., Jenson's life and work. And in general I heartily second his recommendation. But it prompted a thought. What makes a life worthy of a biography? Or put differently, what makes a biography worth reading? It seems to me the answer is threefold. Either the person is herself interesting (something about her charisma or temperament or virtue or genius); or her life was interesting (she fought back the English after having a supernatural vision, say, or traveled through the Balkans in between the world wars); or her thought, beyond being interesting in itself (that justifies secondary literature), produced interesting

Two new essays on the long Lent of Covidtide

Last week in Mere Orthodoxy I wrote about Tish Harrison Warren's terrific new book, Prayer in the Night: For Those Who Work or Watch or Weep . Today I'm in First Things reflecting on what it means to celebrate the Triduum in Covidtide. The essays are, in a way, companion pieces. Both are about persisting in Lent as we approach Easter Sunday; both reflect on the long Lent of the last year (the emergency liturgical season of "Covidtide"); both insist that resurrection is coming; both remind us that the passage to Sunday runs through the passion of Jesus. Some of us need to know in our bones that Jesus is risen; some of need to recall that Holy Saturday comes first. Yesterday I read St. Luke's account of Jesus's final hours with his disciples. The passage in 22:31-34 is almost too much to bear: “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned ag

Dame, ACU, sports, glory

Two years ago I wrote the following in a short tweet thread, in response to Damian Lillard's walk-off buzzer-beater to win Portland's playoff series against Oklahoma City: What's revealed by Dame's buzzer-beater walk-off series-winner, and the hoopla surrounding it since, is something simple but often forgotten in today's analytics-driven journalism: People do not watch or play sports for the sake of technical proficiency. They do so for glory. What Damian Lillard did was all-caps GLORIOUS. The stakes, the moment, the narrative, the beef with Russ, the degree of difficulty: People watch what is often sheer monotony in sports for a single, once-in-a-lifetime moment just like that. Paul George's comments after the game that "it was a bad shot, though nobody's going to say it," was true but seriously beside the point. Of course it was a bad shot! If by "bad" we mean "having a low probability of going in," it was definitionally

NYT, guilt by association, and libraries

It's a relief to see so many thoughtful—albeit blistering—responses to the long-awaited NYT hit piece on Scott Alexander and his erstwhile blog. It means that I'm not crazy for having the reaction I did when I read it, and that I don't need to write much to draw attention to the article's numerous flaws: only to point you to all the existing ones that already do the job . That's only a few, and none of the Twitter threads and dunks. I must say, the immediately striking thing about the piece is how boring and boringly written it is, in such a bone-deep passive-aggressive voice. Why all the fuss (internally, that is, at the NYT ) for that ? But: one additional thought. It has to be strange, at the experiential (nay, existential) level, for a writer truly to think that he can damn another writer through nothing but guilt by association. And not just association in general, but association understood, first, as proximate contact (i.e., having read and engaged a &

Anthropomorphism and analogy

Andrew Wilson has a lovely little post up using Herman Bavinck's work to show the "unlimited" scope of the Bible's use of anthropomorphism to talk about God. It's a helpful catalogue of the sheer volume and range of scriptural language to describe God and God's action. It's a useful resource, too, for helping students to grasp the notion that most of our speech about God is metaphorical, all of it is analogical, and none of it is less true for that. In my experience not only students but philosophers and theologians as well often imagine, argue, or take for granted that doctrine is a kind of improvement on the language of Scripture. The canon then functions as a kind of loose rough draft, however authoritative, upon which metaphysically precise discourse improves, or at least by comparison offers a better approximation of the truth. Sometimes those parts of the canon that are literal or less anthropomorphic are permitted some lexical or semantic control.

Digital ash

I'm on the record regarding "streaming" the sacraments, or otherwise digitally mediating the celebration of the Eucharist. With Lent approaching, the question occurred to me: Might churches "stream" Ash Wednesday? That is to say, would they endorse or facilitate the self-imposition of ashes? Nonsense, was my initial thought. No way. Of course not. Who would suggest such a thing? But that was naive. Surely, after almost a full year of administering the body and blood of Christ to oneself at home, the imposition of ashes upon one's own forehead at home is but a small leap; indeed, it is not so much a leap as a logical next step. If the blessed sacrament admits of auto-administration via digital consecration, how much more so the rites of Ash Wednesday? I am prepared, therefore, for digital ash. Which is another way of saying that I am praying: Lord, deliver us from Covidtide .

"You are your actions": close, but not quite

Over on Freddie deBoer's blog, he has a sharp piece up criticizing the vacuous identities induced by mass entertainment in late modern capitalism. Instead of having a nice time watching a Marvel movie, for instance, one's sense of self gets wrapped up in "being a Marvel fan." But Marvel doesn't care about you. Nor can it offer that depth of identity-constitutive meaning. It's just a movie that's a pinch of fun in a dark world, for which you fork over some money. Forgetting that, and allowing Disney to define who you are, is both childish and a trap. It doesn't end well, and it's a recipe for arrested development. Here are the closing two paragraphs (my emphasis): I wish I had a pat answer for what to do instead. Grasping for meaning – usually while drenching yourself in irony so that no one knows that that’s what you doing, these days – is universal. I will risk offending another very touchy subset of the internet by saying that I think many p

Alan Jacobs on avoiding unpaid labor for surveillance capitalism

...it’s important to understand that a lot of what we call leisure now is actually not leisure. It is unpaid labor on behalf of surveillance capitalism, what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. That is, we are all working for Google, we are working for Facebook. I would like to spread a model of reading that is genuinely a leisure activity and that escapes the loop of being unpaid labor for surveillance capitalism. That will start small, and maybe it will stay small, but my hope is that it would be it would be bigger. Even people who have very hard, demanding lives can spend an enormous amount of time in this activity that we have been taught to feel is leisure, but is as I have said unpaid labor. It’s interesting to see how things come into fashion. Think about how in the last few months we have decided that nothing is more important than the Post Office—that the Post Office is the greatest thing in the world. One of those bandwagons that I’ve been on for

"TV" by John Updike

TV By John Updike As if it were a tap I turn it on, not hot or cold but tepid infotainment, and out it gushes, sparkling evidence of conflict, misery, concupiscence let loose on little leashes, in remissions of eager advertising that envisions on our behalf the better life contingent upon some buy, some needful acquisition. A sleek car takes a curve in purring rain, a bone-white beach plays host to lotioned skin, a diaper soothes a graying beauty’s frown, an unguent eases sedentary pain, false teeth are brightened, beer enhances fun, and rinsed hair hurls its tint across the screen: these spurts of light are drunk in by my brain, which sickens quickly, till it thirst again.

A surefire way to increase the number of books you read this coming year

is to read less online. Not just to be online less, but to read online less. Read less news ( or no news ), fewer blogs and newsletters and Substacks, altogether fewer websites and online essays and articles, and replace that time with reading books. I promise you that your book-reading will increase dramatically, even exponentially, in 2021. Nor would you lose much. Whatever you are reading online, of whatever quality, it will always prove to be inferior in substance, style, or relevance to your life than what has already been published in a book. Have you read Auden, Eliot, Thomas, Rilke, Levertov, Hopkins, Herbert, Shakespeare, Milton, Dante? All of them, and all of what they wrote? If not, then what you're reading online is subpar by comparison. What about the novels of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Eliot, Austen, Melville, Twain, Trollope, Ellison, Baldwin, Morrison, McMurtry, Robinson, et al? No? Get on it. It's better than whatever you're reading on the internet. Take that