Category Archives: Criticism

It is not what you wish it were.

Given popular understanding of the meaning and cultural power of Christianity in America, it may seem at best counterintuitive and at worse obscene to assert the social and political impotence of religion in the United States. But that is precisely the point. There is both more and less to the Christian faith than its empty public ciphers would suggest. The freak show of power’s religious courtiers being played out before our eyes is a distraction and misleading in the extreme. What force it appears to have is spent: mere thrashing in the death throes of an exhausted, protracted collapse. And politics aside, what remains incontestable is the expulsion of Christian thought from serious public intellectual consideration and the concomitant lack of interest on the part of either those who pull the cultural levers or those who would wreck the machine altogether.

If David Bentley Hart represents anything, it is that there is more to Christianity in public than debauched power politics, more to theology than the caricatures of the unknowing. It is a rich, demanding tradition that hates injustice, loves the truth, privileges the downtrodden, adores the beautiful, and refuses to give even one inch to the atomizing, reductive forces of a technocracy rushing to impose the future on us all. It knows, but what it knows is mystery. It is not what you wish it were, and it will not affirm what you already believe. But then, who would want that? “Our longing for transcendence is inextinguishable in us,” and though our age obscures it, “we are nevertheless still open to the same summons issued in every age to every soul.” Come and see.

–Brad East, Public Theology in Retreat

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Behold the butterfly

Technique, which transforms culture into luxury, puts so many cultural modalities at the reader’s disposal that none of them has any more importance than any other; the customer becomes a butterfly dipping into whatever flower he chooses. … Technique erects a screen between the author and his readers. Miniature fireworks issue from the magic bottle, but not revolt. A few printed pages out of the deluge of printed matter will never make the butterfly revolutionary.

–Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society (1970), trans. John Wilkinson [originally published as La Technique l’enjeu du siécle, 1954]


The deceptive allure of binary choices

Coates writes that since among working-class Americans, 61 percent of whites—but only 24 percent of Hispanics and 11 percent of blacks—supported Trump, only “whiteness” can be the culprit. But why did any percentage of working class blacks and Hispanics vote for Trump? Do they also secretly harbor white-supremacist viewpoints? Did they too inherit the all-powerful white heirloom? Or is it possible that all of these groups were motivated by a variety of factors, not least among them a visceral and uncompromising dislike of Hillary Clinton?

Beware the deceptive allure of binary choices that masquerade as arguments. Coates’s failure to imagine complexity in human motives yields the assumption that such complexity cannot possibly exist.

–Chloé Valdary, There’s No Single Explanation for Trump’s Election


What’s wrong with relative obscurity?

Why is Blanch’s influence on Dune worth recognizing? Celebrating Blanch is not a means to discredit Herbert, whose imaginative novel transcends the sum of its influences. But Dune remains massively popular while The Sabres of Paradise languishes in relative obscurity, and renewed public interest in Blanch’s forgotten history would be a welcome development. […]

The history she produced is a minor masterpiece, an unabashedly romantic account of a conflict that continues to inform religious and political tensions in the Caucasus to this day. (It’s no accident that Chechnya was the geographic core of Imam Shamyl’s movement, or that the Murids’ austerely militant Islamic faith recalls the theology of modern fundamentalists.) Blanch was not a professional historian, and one suspects that an academic would have produced an altogether less satisfying account of this period. The climax of The Sabres of Paradise, a tension-fraught exchange of hostages between the Russian army and the insurgents, would probably be relegated to a few dry paragraphs in an academic tome. For Blanch, it occupies an entire chapter — a magnificent account of the trade of three Georgian princesses, kidnapped in a daring Muslim raid, for Shamyl’s firstborn son, captured as a boy and raised to manhood in the court of the The Great White Czar.

–Will Collins, The Secret History of Dune

Though it’s probably beyond the scope of this kind of review, I wish Collins had dug further into the comparative stylistic cues of these two books. At least half of the review traces the direct influences on Herbert’s lexical and structural borrowings, while the latter half never really explicates what makes Lesley Blanch’s prose so masterful. On the one hand, I feel like Collins wants to recommend The Sabres of Paradise on its own merits as a literary historical work. On the other hand, the entire structure of his review suggests that, without considering its influence on a much more canonical work, Blanch’s minor masterpiece is more minor than masterpiece — and thus more or less justly overlooked. Collins’s description of the climax, for instance, gives me no sense of how Blanch depicts it or why it’s so successful in transforming a minor historical moment into a narrative climax of transcendent significance.

In writing about literary history, it seems to me that there’s no shame in simply acknowledging that a minor or mostly-forgotten work is made more interesting by its influence on a major, more canonical work. Such minor masterpieces are often fascinating and well-written in their own right, but I don’t see the need to pretend that, by themselves, they’re more than that. At the end of the review, Collins analogizes the influence of Blanch on Herbert to the influence of Edward Gibbon on Isaac Asimov. I get the point, and it’s fair to a certain extent, except for this: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was and remains fairly widely-read, and was certainly close to canonical among intellectuals for more than a century. Anyone interested in the history of civilization qua “civilization” has heard of it or read at least a part of it. And it’s supposed to be damn good. It didn’t just influence the Foundation series; it influenced the entire field of historiography, and as a popular account of the collapse of the Roman Empire, it has had an incalcuable impact.

Collins can only claim for Blanch a sizeable impact upon a single science fiction series. Based upon his review, I’m persuaded that said impact was, indeed, sizeable. But Lesley Blanch is not Edward Gibbon, and it is no sleight to acknowledge that she’s not. Guiding the mind that conjured Arrakis is actually pretty cool. Given the sheer volume of written material that is forgotten by literary history, making into the footnotes is not unimpressive. Perhaps we should value the footnotes more instead of trying to give every minor masterpiece its own chapter heading, which is flatly impractical. After all, being relatively obscure is better than being totally forgotten.


Politics of ruin

Every dystopia is a history of the future. What are the consequences of a literature, even a pulp literature, of political desperation? “It’s a sad commentary on our age that we find dystopias a lot easier to believe in than utopias,” Atwood wrote in the nineteen-eighties. “Utopias we can only imagine; dystopias we’ve already had.” But what was really happening then was that the genre and its readers were sorting themselves out by political preference, following the same path—to the same ideological bunkers—as families, friends, neighborhoods, and the news. In the first year of Obama’s Presidency, Americans bought half a million copies of “Atlas Shrugged.” In the first month of the Administration of Donald (“American carnage”) Trump, during which Kellyanne Conway talked about alternative facts, “1984” jumped to the top of the Amazon best-seller list. (Steve Bannon is a particular fan of a 1973 French novel called “The Camp of the Saints,” in which Europe is overrun by dark-skinned immigrants.) The duel of dystopias is nothing so much as yet another place poisoned by polarized politics, a proxy war of imaginary worlds.

Dystopia used to be a fiction of resistance; it’s become a fiction of submission, the fiction of an untrusting, lonely, and sullen twenty-first century, the fiction of fake news and infowars, the fiction of helplessness and hopelessness. It cannot imagine a better future, and it doesn’t ask anyone to bother to make one. It nurses grievances and indulges resentments; it doesn’t call for courage; it finds that cowardice suffices. Its only admonition is: Despair more. It appeals to both the left and the right, because, in the end, it requires so little by way of literary, political, or moral imagination, asking only that you enjoy the company of people whose fear of the future aligns comfortably with your own. Left or right, the radical pessimism of an unremitting dystopianism has itself contributed to the unravelling of the liberal state and the weakening of a commitment to political pluralism. “This isn’t a story about war,” El Akkad writes in “American War.” “It’s about ruin.” A story about ruin can be beautiful. Wreckage is romantic. But a politics of ruin is doomed.

–Jill Lepore, A Golden Age of Dystopian Fiction


Chronological snobbery.

Nothing is more characteristically juvenile than contempt for juvenility. The eight-year-old despises the six-year-old and rejoices to be getting such a big boy; the schoolboy is very determined not to be a child, and the freshman not to be a schoolboy. If we are resolved to eradicate, without examining them on their merits, all the traits of our youth, we might begin with this–with youth’s characteristic chronological snobbery. And what then would become of the criticism which attaches so mch importance to being adult and instils a fear and shame of any enjoyment we can share with the very young?

–C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (1961), p. 73


“At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.”

The Vatican is an imposing enough place to speak, especially for a Southern Baptist, so I guess I can plead that my mind was distracted with nervousness. I waited in line with several friends and colleagues of various communions and denominations to enter the center of the Church of Rome to attend a gathering, called by Pope Francis, of religious leaders from around the world to talk about marriage and family. Going through security, I fished in my coat pocket for my passport. The problem was that I had worn the same suit the week before, lecturing on the Protestant Reformation at an Evangelical seminary. Without thinking, I pulled out what I took to be my passport, only to find that I was handing the Swiss Guard a pocket-size copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.

As I made a fumbling attempt to put the little booklet away and find the right documentation, I wondered which of my grandparents would be more ashamed of me: my Roman Catholic grandmother, for my ushering the tumult of the 16th century right there to the pope’s door; my Baptist-preacher grandfather, for entering the Vatican at all; or all of my grandparents together — Evangelicals and Catholics alike — for my violation of southern manners. My awkwardness was all my own, though. The Swiss Guards didn’t recognize the 95 theses, and my American Catholic colleagues roared with laughter. At least I didn’t nail anything to a door.

–Russell Moore, The Reformation at 500