Malice Toward None?

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It would be interesting to know how many participants in the social media firestorm over President Obama’s comment on the Crusades at the National Prayer Breakfast actually read the whole speech. You can read the entire text right here–it doesn’t take long. I heard a lot about how the President was guilty of moral equivalence and how he threw Christians “under the bus.” What I didn’t hear from the President’s detractors is that he also mentioned the persecution of Christians in Nigeria, celebrated the release of Christian missionary Kenneth Bae from North Korea, recounted meeting the family of  imprisoned Iranian Christian pastor Saeed Abedini, and decried anti-Semitism in Europe. Did you?

What I did see on social media were both full-throated defenses and confident condemnations of the Crusades themselves. The Crusades–not a singular event but a complex set of realities involving Islamic, Byzantine, and Western civilizations over centuries–do not translate easily to present-day realities or 140-character tweets. Historians like Thomas Asbridge and Thomas Madden offer diverging interpretations on the motives and origins of the Crusades, but both believe that modern European imperialism and colonialism have colored our perceptions of decidedly medieval realities. The result has been anachronistic analysis, inaccurate renderings, and unfortunate applications…not to mention Orlando Bloom’s portrayal of a modern agnostic dressed up like a medieval knight. One can acknowledge these challenges without being an apologist for the Crusades. One can still affirm that lamentable and tragic things happened in Jerusalem, the Rhineland, Constantinople, Antioch, and elsewhere. The point I would like to stress here is that the Crusades remind us of the tension with which we live between historical context and historical judgment. How do we reckon with historical actors operating within the beliefs, standards, and assumptions of their time?  How do we offer moral reflection that respects but transcends that context without abusing the historical record? Tribal politics in the age of social media doesn’t have much time for that discussion.

Nor are many willing to look past a single comment or political disagreements to hear the larger themes of the National Prayer Breakfast address. If we did, we might learn something more about the Niebuhrian framework and Lincolnian echoes that inform Obama’s theology of history. We might consider our own historical susceptibilities and sins–individually and collectively. We might wrestle with Reinhold Niebuhr’s call to ponder “the pretensions of human cultures and civilizations” and his suggestion that “true religion is a profound uneasiness about our highest social values” (from Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History). Perhaps we could pause from debating whether President Obama has adequately responded to ISIS, or whether we agree with him on key issues, and ask if he has a point in describing one’s faith journey as such: “we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him.” Humility involves acknowledging our own limitations and reckoning with our mistakes. To use an example from the speech: Christians participated in institutionalizing the grievous injustices of slavery and segregation (offering biblical rationalizations in doing so), just as Christians participated in their abolition. This is irrefutably true even if your political opponent states it. Confession that takes us on the path to redemption and reconciliation seems a more apt response than defensiveness.

I want to end with the closing words from Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, brought to mind by John Fea’s post. Speaking in the final weeks of a devastating civil war and of his life, Lincoln captures the scale of judgment, the need for humility, and the necessity of walking forward “with malice toward none, with charity for all.” A fallen world, a fractured country, and the brokenness that characterizes us individually and institutionally require it:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Photo: Abraham Lincoln Delivering the Second Inaugural Address on March 4, 1865 (Library of Congress, Public Domain).

Civility and Its Critics


1798 Political Cartoon Depicting a Fight Between Congressman Matthew Lyon of Vermont and Roger Griswold of Connecticut (Library of Congress, Public Domain).

“The problem with civility is the presumption that we were ever civil in the first place. This is why calls for genteel discourse from on high always feel like deeply nostalgic fantasies offered in bad faith. There should be nothing controversial about everyday kindness; civility as a kind of individual moral compass should remain a virtue. But civility as a type of discourse—as a high road that nobody ever actually walks—is the opposite. It is bullshit.”

–Hua Hsu, “The Civility Wars

It seems all too fitting in our fractious age to invoke the term “wars” in an essay denouncing civility.  We know well the usual laments about polarization and politicization, about the cesspool of internet comment threads and the dynamics of social media feuds, about pervasive snark and the desire to turn every cultural event and news report into a score to settle. The alleged decline of civility becomes a talking point in this tale of woe, but Hua Hsu isn’t having it.

Civility, his New Yorker piece argues, is the product of an untidy history and “meandering evolution” that now gets selectively invoked for a troubling purpose: “At a time when our ideological divides feel wild and extreme, civility has become our polite-sounding call to fall back in line.” Hsu sees the call for civility as a form of social control–“invoked as a method of discipline, as a way of sanding down the edges of a conversation“–that leads to the avoidance of “having difficult conversations” and to the preservation of “our hierarchies.” Ironically, Hsu adds his own chapter to the meandering evolution of the term by making an arbitrary distinction between individual niceness (described as “everyday kindness” by individuals) and civil discourse (described as an ahistorical fantasy and enforcer of the status quo).

Hsu is correct that there is no “golden age of civility” to which we should return. Even a cursory study of three typically hallowed examples–the Roman Republic, Athenian democracy, and the early American Republic–adds to the pervasive historical testimony of incivility from the ancient world to the present day. (Case in point: the above cartoon portrays a 1798 fight on the floor of the House of Representatives that escalated after political disagreement led Matthew Lyon to spit tobacco juice in the eye of Roger Griswold). But I find it odd to dismiss the pursuit of civility on the grounds that it never has been sufficiently practiced. Might one consider the damaging effect of incivility throughout history as a force that negates or reduces human flourishing? To be clear, civility isn’t an argument for the status quo. Contra Hsu’s piece, I don’t believe for a second that civility precludes the ability to have difficult conversations, express passionate advocacy, or call for urgent reform in the face of injustice. I would say, rather, that it allows those things to happen in a constructive manner.

Whether framed as a classical virtue in service of the common good, a religious responsibility to honor the dignity of those bearing the image of God, or an expression of Enlightenment toleration of fellow citizens, we are reminded that civility is also part of a larger conversation of what it means to be human. Or as St. Augustine once told his fifth-century congregants:

So that a human being might not be alone a system of friendship was created. Friendship begins with one’s spouse and children, and from there moves on to strangers. But considering the fact that we all have the same father (Adam) and the same mother (Eve) who will be a stranger? Every human being is neighbor to every other human being. Ask nature: is this man unknown? He’s still human. Is this woman an enemy? She’s still human. Is this man a foe? He is still a human being. Is this woman a friend? Let her remain a friend. Is this man an enemy? Let him become a friend.*

Civility is more than bland niceness or subtle social control. It is more than an atomized individual making the decision to be nice. It is the recognition that we are social beings who are irreducibly and unavoidably connected to each other, a reality that brings a responsibility for how we become, in Augustine’s terminology, a society characterized by friendship.

A society characterized by friendship may seem a quaint proposition in light of the smoldering fires of Ferguson after a divisive grand jury verdict. The means and ends to social progress, Ta-Nehisi Coates argues in a thought-provoking Ferguson reflection, have been historically messy and existentially harrowing. Democracy has always been an untidy business with its capacity for contradictions, tribalism, and demagoguery. But “it is what it is” isn’t enough. American incivility is a luxury for the privileged, for those who fight the culture war on the taken-for-granted foundations of social stability, material prosperity, the rights of citizenship, and the rule of law. The luxury of incivility accomplishes its own sanding down–that of the very foundations which make it possible.

*Quote from Augustine’s sermon cited in Donald X. Burt, Friendship & Society: An Introduction to Augustine’s Practical Philosophy, p. 118.



Every Crisis Needs a Playlist

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A difficult season at work has led me to consider how I handle stress and crisis. Prayer, family, friendship/community, and exercise come to mind (exercise usually stays in the mind only). Music can also be a source of consolation…which brought to mind this quote from an interview with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy:

I guess I don’t think there’s any reason to feel guilty about having joy in your life, regardless of how bad things are in the world. Even the most dismal and hopeless-sounding Wilco music, to my ears, has always maintained a level of hope and consolation. I think art is a consolation regardless of its content. It has the power to move and make you feel like you’re not alone. And ultimately that’s what everybody wants to know.

The logical conclusion: everybody in a crisis needs a playlist. So all in good fun, here’s my 30 song playlist for the week:

1. Sam Phillips, Love and Kisses  

Perfect album opener that reminds us that every crisis demands a sense of irony and absurdity… ‘God will grant us all our wishes / Martinis and bikinis for our friends.’

2. U2, Invisible

A crisis playlist should always include a) one song released at the time of the crisis; b) calls for solidarity to withstand said crisis. U2’s new release and long career fulfill both criteria:  ‘There is no them, there’s only us.’

3. Crowded House, Don’t Dream It’s Over

Its title explains its inclusion. Bonus points for being the near-perfect pop song whose note of hope is tempered by recognition of the daunting obstacles: ‘Try to catch the deluge in the paper cup.’

4. The Clash, Should I Stay or Should I Go

Angst. Decisions. Communication. A good beat. The crisis in action. ‘So you got to let me know / Should I stay or should I go?’

5. Arcade Fire, Wasted Hours

A song about childhood nostalgia, but in a crisis it can serve as an assessment of how you’ve invested your time and energy on the road to this moment: ‘Wasted hours that you make new / And turn into / A life that we can live.’

6. The Verve, Bittersweet Symphony

Key ingredient for a crisis playlist: Essence of Bittersweet, that strange brew of hope, beauty, struggle, and disappointment. ‘Cause it’s a bittersweet symphony, this life

7. Andrew Bird, Desperation Breeds

Andrew Bird’s lament of ecological destruction reminds us that desperation has a cumulative effect: We keep breeding desperation / In this era of thieves / Who keep stealing respiration / From the tenderest of trees

8. Cat Power, The Greatest

Cat Power helps you assess your current situation in light of previous hopes and aspirations… Once I wanted to be the greatest / No wind or waterfall could stall me / And then came the rush of the flood / The stars at night turned deep to dust

9. Aimee Mann, Save Me

Aimee Mann is essential for Eeyores in crisis…no one is better at wrapping pleas of deliverance in wet blankets:  ‘Cause I can tell / You know what it’s like / The long farewell / Of the hunger strike / But can you save me / Come on and save me’

10. Over the Rhine, All My Favorite People

You and your peeps got problems? Welcome to the human race. Hold me: All my favorite people are broken / Believe me, my heart should know / Some prayers are better left unspoken / I just want to hold you and let the rest go

11. The Avett Brothers, The Once and Future Carpenter

Hope. Community. Direction. All needed to weather a crisis. Bonus points for including local artists on crisis playlist, btw…. ‘Forever I will move like the world that turns beneath me / And when I lose my direction I’ll look up to the sky.’

12. The Band, The Weight

Every crisis contains a distinct cast of characters (as in Crazy Chester, Luke, and Anna Lee) and a unique series of burdens. But at the end of the day…Put the load right on me.

13. Big Star, The Ballad of el Goodo

An anthem of resilience and self-determination in response to the draft and the Vietnam war? Perhaps. Hey, that’s a crisis! Hold on…  ‘Just if we can / Just, ah, hold on / Hold on / Hold on / Hold on.’

14. The Beach Boys, God Only Knows

Brian Wilson at his finest–transcendent, hopeful, with more than a dash of angst and uncertainty. Affirmation laced with the potential for loss: ‘I may not always love you / But long as there are stars above you / You never need to doubt it / I’ll make you so sure about it / God only knows what I’d be without you.’

15. Sam Cooke, A Change is Gonna Come

This classic, so apt in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, reminds us that however a crisis resolves, things will be different from then on: It’s been a long time coming / But I know a change is gonna come, oh yes it will

16. Mavis Staples, You Are Not Alone

This Mavis Staples- Jeff Tweedy collaboration conveys the consolation of community in the face of brokenness and adversity:‘A broken home, a broken heart / Isolated and afraid / Open up this is a raid / I wanna get it through to you / You’re not alone.’

17. Ryan Adams, I Love You But I Don’t Know What to Say

I like happy, mellow Ryan. Love and support communicated even when words fail… I promise you that I will keep you safe from harm / Love you all the rest of my days / When the night is silent and we seem so far away / Oh I love you but I don’t know what to say

18. The Swell Season, I Have Loved You Wrong

I miss the Swell Season. A plea for forgiveness in the face of relational dissolution, but… But this estranged organ in my chest / Still beats for you

19. Norah Jones, Peace

A Horace Silver classic gets the Norah treatment with pleasing results. Whatever one endures, at the end of the day… Peace is for everyone.

20. Emmylou Harris, Every Grain of Sand

Emmylou’s Dylan cover about finding order in personal chaos (‘in the hour of my deepest need’) surpasses the original: In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand / In every leaf that trembles and, in every grain of sand.

21. P.J. Harvey, We Float

Polly Jean reminding us to not get overwhelmed in the moment:  We just kinda lost our way / We were looking to be free / But one day / We’ll float / Take life as it comes

22. Sigur Rós, Ég anda

I mean, any band that makes up their own language and calls it “Hopelandic” has to be tonic in times of crisis. Allegedly, the last line of the song is the only one not in Hopelandic and translates, “I breath, fortunately”. So that’s good…

23. The Housemartins, I’ll Be Your Shelter

Gospel stomper by one-time, self-proclaimed Christian Marxists from Hull (not a typo). Crisis management 101: And when the tempest is raging / I want you to know got a friend that’s true  / Just like a shelter, in a time of storm / I’ll see you through, that’s what I’ll do

24-26. The Beatles, Golden Slumber/Carry That Weight/The End

Abbey Road really is the best, most complete Beatles album. So there. The inclusion of this medley is a case study of self-explanatory awesomeness. Once there was a way / To get back home / Sleep, pretty darling / Do not cry / And I will sing a lullaby

27. The Rolling Stones, You Can’t Always Get What You Want

“(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” ranks #2 on the Rolling Stone Top 500 songs of all time. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” the far superior song about a somewhat similar theme, ranks #100. That’s wrong. Anyway, the surprising denouement of crisis may mean: You can’t always get what you want / But if you try sometimes you just might find / You just might find / You get what you need

28. Johnny Cash, Greystone Chapel

Love the story of Cash surprising inmate Glen Sherley by playing his song during the legendary At Folsom Prison performance. A song about a place of finding refuge amidst “a field of darkness”:  Now there’s Greystone chapel here at Folsom / It has a touch of God’s hand on every stone / It’s a flower of light in a field of darkness / And it’s givin’ me the strength to carry on

29. Bob Dylan, Highlands

Bob Dylan wrote a 16 minute 33 second song because Bob Dylan. Navigating turmoil sometimes means a detour to the Highlands: Well my heart’s in the Highlands wherever I roam / That’s where I’ll be when I get called home / The wind, it whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme / Well my heart’s in the Highland / I can only get there one step at a time

30. Radiohead, Motion Picture Soundtrack

A classic Radiohead juxtaposition of seeming lyrical despair defied by musical beauty (see Jeff Tweedy quote at beginning of this post). Inclusion is primarily due to the wordless hidden track at the end, which somehow conveys hope.

Picture: Edvard Munch, “The Scream” (Public Domain).

In A Little While

Er, it’s been a while. This semester–unusually and insanely busy with a course overload and three conferences–absolutely waylaid my blogging. Not just in terms of time, but in terms of exhaustion. Frankly, I never figured out how to continue in the format and pattern that I began in the summer. However, I’m going to be regrouping with a couple of posts next week and taking advantage of the holidays to get back in the groove. Lots of topics to discuss–including a) a Reflektor post incorporating Kierkegaard, Carnival, and Greek mythology; b) posts on Robert Penn Warren and Walker Percy; c) more Marilynne Robinson; d) a post on history and humility; e) something on Atlantic City, where I visited for the first time this fall; f) recent books by Francis Spufford and Molly Worthen; g) the Iron Bowl (not really); etc. etc. etc….

Before I can get rolling again, I need to climb and conquer mountains of papers and exams. Looking forward to writing again very soon…in a little while.

A Secret Errand

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The recent death of Irish poet and Nobel Prize winner Seamus Heaney felt like a seismic cultural loss, reflected in the heartfelt tributes that subsequently have poured out across print, digital and social media. It sent me back to his poetry and prose, where among many gems I discovered a 1999 essay about another one of my literary heroes, Czeslaw Milosz (I wrote about a Milosz essay titled “Happiness” here). This proved to be a fascinating intersection. Heaney’s “Secular and Millennial Milosz” (found in Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001) examined his fellow Nobel Prize winner, a Lithuanian-Polish poet and writer who lived through the tumultuous decades of the twentieth century. Milosz, Heaney observes, was a student in Paris in the twenties, a “member of the literary avant-garde” in the thirties, part of the Polish Resistance in the forties, a defector and émigré in the fifties, a “Solomon among the flower children” at Berkeley in the sixties, “world visionary” in the seventies, a “moral and political force” for Poland in the 80s, and “a marvel of continuing imaginative value” in the 90s. Heaney notes that Milosz spanned the chronology of a century but the culture of a millennium:

“Born a Catholic in the forest lands of Lithuania, he grew up in a culture that still remembered dark-age folk-beliefs and the shimmering systems of medieval scholasticism and Renaissance neo-Platonism. His experience of the ideological and military crises induced by Marxism and Fascism towards the middle of the century could stand for the mid-millennial crisis of the Reformation and the Wars of Religion, just as his flight from ideological extremes into a more Voltairean cast of mind in the 1950s could represent the period of the Enlightenment. Romanticism followed, a total embrace of poetry and a trust in his ‘prophetic soul,’ so that he has ended up on a hill above San Francisco Bay, a sage on the mountain, maintaining the gravity of being even as he inhales the increasingly weightless, late-capitalist, post-modern air of California.”

The intersection of life and work is central to Heaney’s reflection on Milosz, who achieves “a magnificent balance” between reality and pleasure in his poetry: “Milosz dwells in the middle, at times tragically, at times deliciously, for he will renege neither on his glimpses of heaven upon earth nor on his knowledge that the world is a vale of tears.” As the Eastern Europe of Milosz’s youth (“land of Arcadia”) was transformed into a “land of nightmare,” Milosz refused the options of either Pollyannish denial or nihilistic despair.  Heaney depicts Milosz the poet and writer of prose like The Captive Mind as concerned with the moral and spiritual components of “individual responsibility,” which was not negated by the surrounding pervasive relativism and destabilizing assumptions about the self. What informed Milosz’s assumptions? Heaney elaborates:

Much is at stake from beginning to end in Milosz’s poetry. After all, the tradition of Christian humanism–the tradition he was born into and that had such a formative effect upon his sensibility–was under assault from the moment he came to consciousness. His imagination is supplied and made ample by a fundamentally religious vision, the one based on the idea of the Incarnation. What this entails is an assent to the stark, astonishing proposition that through the incarnation of the Son of God in the figure of Christ, the eternal has intersected with time, and through that intersection human beings, though creatures of time, have access to a reality out of time. This is the vision, after all, that gave us much that is glorious in western architecture and art–Chartres Cathedral and The Divine Comedy, The Book of Kells and Paradise Lost, Gregorian Chant and the Sistine Chapel,–and it still inspires this poet to occasionally symphonic utterance.

Milosz had a complex relationship with his religious faith, but his immersion in Christian humanism informed his understanding of the poet’s role in creating “variations upon ancient themes” in a world in which rapid scientific, technological and military transformation had profound implications for human flourishing. Indeed, as Heaney writes: “The figure of the poet as somebody on a secret errand, with ancient and vital truths in his keeping, appeals to him. Cultural memory, Milosz’s work implies, is necessary for human dignity and survival.”

It’s a profound insight about the importance of collective memory (and one a million miles from Henry Ford’s quip, “I don’t read history. That’s in the past. I’m thinking about the future”). Milosz’s secret errand, in fact, makes me think I should assign more poetry in my history classes. Historical consciousness, after all, means more than an accumulation of historical data. It is rather, as Wilfred McClay succinctly phrased it, “learning to appropriate into our own moral imagination, and learning to be guided by, the distilled memories of others, the stories of things we never experienced firsthand.”

The historical consciousness that informs Milosz’s work could also be said to be evident in Heaney’s writing. He too was on a secret errand to preserve cultural memory and human dignity in a body of work that included translations of ancient texts, prose of power and persuasion, and poetry that referenced the land, political complexities and religious strife of his native Ireland while remaining attuned to the beauty around him. His praise of Milosz reminds us of where Heaney himself found power in poetry. The closing words of Heaney’s Nobel lecture (and of this post) speak to the dignity and values to be claimed amidst the “vale of tears”:

The form of the poem, in other words, is crucial to poetry’s power to do the thing which always is and always will be to poetry’s credit: the power to persuade that vulnerable part of our consciousness of its rightness in spite of the evidence of wrongness all around it, the power to remind us that we are hunters and gatherers of values, that our very solitudes and distresses are creditable, in so far as they, too, are an earnest of our veritable human being.


Photo: Anne Burgess, Poets’ Chair, Rathlin Island, Ireland. “The inscription on the front of the chair is a poem by Seamus Heaney which includes the line, “When you sat … in the basalt throne”, an entirely appropriate verse for Rathlin, which is mostly covered in basalt, though it originally refers to the Giant’s Causeway. What a pity that the chair is made of granite, which does not occur on Rathlin! On the back of the chair is a list of artists and poets who have visited Rathlin, with room for many more.” (CC BY-SA 2.0)


Reflections on Reflektor

The start of the semester has slowed my blogging to a snail’s pace recently, but I’m  planning to pick  back up with regular posting  next week, beginning with a post on Seamus Heaney and Czeslaw Milosz. Meanwhile, have you heard the new Arcade Fire song ‘Reflektor’? Seen the video? Picked up on the David Bowie cameo? I’m still processing it, but it’s a densely textured (musically and lyrically) gem. The influence of  LCD Soundsytem’s James Murphy, who assisted in production, is apparent. I want  to wait and respond to it in the context of the entire (double!) album, because one of the things I appreciate about Arcade Fire is their commitment to the concept album. Here is the video, followed by some early critical responses and interpretations:

Paste’s Stephen Deusner:

The song opens with a wash of stray noise before a snare drum announces the main groove, which immediately flashes its membership card to the Tom Tom Club. The beat is all toms and high-hat, with squiggles of synth ratcheting up the jitteriness. It’s a perfect backdrop for Win Butler’s lyrics about heaven, mirrors, “the other side” and some mysterious force trying to keep him down. His songs have always possessed an air of conspiracy but have never resorted to paranoia; instead, he sounds like he’s writing in invisible ink on “Reflektor,” coding secret messages for his allies in the underground.

The song is most lucid at its mid-song climax, where it’s as though the entire band is walking down a hall of mirrors, repeating: “Just a reflektion of a reflektion of a reflektion of a reflektion…” Such a mix of high-minded indie and thrusting dance beats could easily have pulled the band out of their comfort zone and sounded silly or awkward, yet “Reflektor” shows just how large Arcade Fire’s comfort zone actually is. It sounds as big and urgent and monumental as “Wake Up” or “Keep the Car Running” or “Ready to Start,” except they’ve found new ways to convey those ideas. The band isn’t disregarding their previous peaks, but they refuse to remain beholden to them either.

Pitchfork’s Ian Cohen:

You can’t be concerned with the kids coming up from behind when you’re fighting for their welfare against the biggest and most fearsome corruptors imaginable– death, religion, the suburbs, and, presumably on “Reflektor”, the possibility that art isn’t a shared, living experience but rather a mirror for our own projections and preconceptions.

On “Reflektor”, Arcade Fire elevate message over medium by relying on their true superpower, a belief that their own music must create a timeless, communal connection. It’s a sleek, dark disco epic that doesn’t belong to the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s– or any decade, really. It takes up the more general cause for those who want music to be more than an accessory or a soundtrack, but rather a matter of literal life or death.

Stereogum’s Chris DeVille:

In the context of “Reflektor,” the lead single and title track from Arcade Fire’s upcoming fourth LP, that internal crackling takes the form of a longing that extends beyond time and space into unseen dimensions including, if Google’s translator hasn’t failed me, “the realm between the living and the dead.” The song pits Butler and his wife, band co-leader Régine Chassagne, as souls separated by some kind of divine chasm or the recesses of cyberspace or both, lost in a hall of mirrors and desperate to reconnect. There are lots of ideas to parse here — the detachment that develops from living through our devices, the ways we manipulate our online personas to keep our true selves hidden, the way that process can foster narcissism rather than genuine community — but one thread in particular got me all wrapped up. Amidst much talk of projecting and deflecting images, Butler dismisses the concept of eternal paradise for a soul without its soulmate: “If this is heaven, I don’t know what it’s for/ If I can’t find you there, I don’t care.” And then, on an Edward Sharpe-y note: “If this is heaven, I need something more/ Just a place to be alone, ’cause you’re my home.”

Rolling Stone’s John Dolan:

Arcade Fire are the the most important band of the last decade, and the music lives up to their universe-affirming mandate. “Reflektor” turns a shared sense of isolation into communion with a sleek, surging track that seamlessly integrates arty rock and diagonal funk, breaking down AF’s epic sound without scrimping on its essential cathartic thrust. It’s a mirror-ball party for all the lonely people.

Expectations are high but if the first track is any indication, they will be met. The album will be released on October 29th.

The Art of Learning


A new school year has begun and with it arrive renewed pleas for the value of liberal arts education and/or the humanities. Professors like me stand before first-year students and make the case for why their subject matters. Meanwhile, an ongoing conversation in journals, newspapers and on-line media rumbles on with no end in sight. A recent example is Brown University President Christina Paxson’s New Republic piece titled “The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities.”  Here is a nutshell version of her case:

First, we need to argue that there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines—to the study of history, literature, art, theater, music, and languages. In the complex, globalized world we are moving toward, it will obviously benefit American undergraduates to know something of other civilizations, past and present. Any form of immersion in literary expression is helpful when we are learning to communicate and defend our thoughts. And it should not be that difficult to concur that a thorough and objective grounding in history is helpful and even inspiring when applying the lessons of our past to the future….

Second, we need to better defend an important principle that centuries of humanism have taught us—that we do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others….

And third, the pace of learning is moving so quickly that I would argue it is all the more important that we maintain support for the humanities, precisely to make sure that we remain grounded in our core values.

I suspect that most of us would co-sign these and other truisms about the virtues of the Humanities evident in Paxson’s case. There are some curiosities in the piece–such as this oddly phrased declaration: “And yet, we know in our bones that secular humanism is one of the greatest sources of strength we possess as a nation.” It is clear that Paxson celebrates the virtues of “secular education” for the cultivation of responsible and productive citizens, which is fine in itself. Ironically, however, her assumption of secular uniformity correlates to what is missing in the piece: an acknowledgment that beyond funding issues, the dominance of scientific and technological fields, and the pragmatic rendering of education as skills acquisition lies another problem–the Humanities’ own fragmented state.

I wrote about the fragmentation of the Humanities in a previous post called “Humanities and the Heart of the Matter.” I won’t rehash that post but will point you to its citation of Columbia University’s Andrew Delbanco, who was struck by the way a Jesuit institution was able to articulate a mission and provide a coherent, cohesive foundation for liberal arts education. Religious institutions may not factor in Paxson’s celebration of the virtues of “secular education,” but as this recent post by Chris Gehrz notes, they can provide frameworks and metaphors that move us beyond “stock phrases” and pragmatic arguments for the Humanities. Gehrz points us to an Inside Higher Ed piece by Kevin Brown, who took his students to Wells Cathedral and found a metaphor for teaching as cathedral-building.  (Another example would be Gehrz’s previous reflection on the educational metaphor of spiritual retreat).

I began the semester with a reading from a medieval scholar who perhaps knew a thing or two about cathedrals himself. Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141) was an Augustinian canon who lived at the Abbey of St. Victor in Paris, an abbey later destroyed during the French Revolution (irony noted). Hugh of St. Victor’s Didascalicon is a work on study and teaching that still has much to say about how we might reinvigorate liberal arts education. His macro-suggestions on how to structure education, for example, combine the medieval trivium and quadrivium, the seven liberal arts, with support for crafts and skills described as “the mechanical arts.” That is a topic for another day (though it’s worth noting that his suggestions may be less predictable than you think). One thing that is clear from reading Hugh of St. Victor is his concern for what we nowadays call “the teaching-learning process.” Without “a fit method of study,” Hugh warns us, the result will be “many who study but few who are wise.”

I’d like to highlight just one small example of Hugh’s concern with our learning habits and practices: the need for meditation. He portrays meditation as the second step in reading, after the first step of analysis, which for Hugh involves the ordering of knowledge. Here is what he tells us about meditation:

Meditation is sustained thought along planned lines: it prudently investigates the cause and the source, the manner and the utility of each thing. Meditation takes its start from reading but is bound by none of reading’s rules or precepts. For it delights to range along open ground, where it fixes its free gaze upon the contemplation of truth, drawing together now these, now those causes of things, or now penetrating into profundities, leaving nothing doubtful, nothing obscure. The start of learning, thus, lies in reading, but its consummation lies in meditation; which, if any man will learn to love it very intimately and will desire to be engaged very frequently upon it, renders his life pleasant indeed, and provides the greatest consolation to him in his trials. This especially it is which takes the soul away from the noise of earthly business and makes it have even in this life a kind of foretaste of the sweetness of the eternal quiet. And when, through the things God has made, a man has learned to seek out and to understand him who has made them all, then does he equally instruct his mind with knowledge and fill it with joy. From this it follows that in meditation is to be found the greatest delight.

Hugh of St. Victor is operating out of a particular religious vision of education and of life. We see assumptions and frameworks that on the surface seem more familiar to the world of a medieval monk than to the quandaries of 21st century educators. The very idea of sustained meditation as central to the act of reading appears foreign in a world awash in the cult of efficiency and the omnipresence of digital stimuli. So what does any of this have to do with the contemporary state of the Humanities?

I would argue that whatever you believe about the nature of reality, Hugh of St. Victor points us to a vision of knowledge that transcends the mere accumulation of data. He offers here a vision of learning that finds wanting our assessment-driven efforts to quantify the intangible. He challenges assumptions that the pursuit of truth is fatally compromised by purely constructed knowledge filtered through a series of disconnected streams. He dares us to contemplate the possible unity of knowledge without sacrificing its diversity and complexity or an admission of our limited ability to discern it. Finally, Hugh of St. Victor relates education to a deeper human need for consolation, which may give us pause before giving into reductionistic explanations of that very desire.  His ideas, in short, reflect an important part of being human. Presumably that’s what the Humanities are about, too.

Photo: Hugh of St. Victor. (“Hugo von Sankt Viktor beim Unterricht in seiner Klosterschule in Paris; Darstellung aus einem von Hugos Werken; Die Handschrift befindet sich heute in der Universitätsbibliothek Oxford, England.”) Public Domain.



Left to Our Own Devices

“Technology proposes itself as the architect of our intimacies.”  –Sherry Turkle

Have you seen this Charlene deGuzman video that went viral over the weekend (i.e. the pre-Mileysian Age)?

Ouch. I watched this video while sitting at a computer as my kids played nearby. One thought triggered by the video and a follow-up conversation with my wife: what exactly are we doing to ourselves and each other? Why is it that I’m tempted to pick up my iPad when I get home from a workday largely spent in front of a computer? Why is my first impulse when my kids say something funny to run and document it on Facebook? Why is my Twitter feed like crack? And must we tolerate that loathsome term, “the selfie”?

Common responses to the social effects of technology include the following: 1) uncritical appropriation of the latest gadget or social media outlet; 2) conscious appropriation that focuses on the benefits, sees resistance as futile, and/or accuses those who resist as being a Luddite; 3) seemingly implausible rejecti0n of latest technology while citing a Wendell Berry essay; 4) expression of angst but no real sense of how to mediate the issue. Or maybe you’ve found yourself doing some or all of these at some point.  I have.

deGuzman’s video sent me back to Sherry Turkle’s 2011 book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other. Turkle is concerned about the dynamics of “our networked life” and how it presents and precludes opportunities for genuine intimacy and community. She is an MIT social scientist and not anti-technology, but she certainly isn’t triumphalist either:

“I acknowledge the many positive things that the network has to offer–enhancing friendship, family connections, education, commerce, and recreation. The triumphalist narrative of the Web is the reassuring story that people want to hear and that technologists want to tell. But the heroic story is not the whole story. In virtual words and computer games, people are flattened into personae. On social networks, people are reduced to their profiles. On our mobile devices, we often talk to each other on the move and with little disposable time–so little, in fact, that we communicate in a new language of abbreviation in which letters stand for words and emoticons for feelings….We are increasingly connected to each other but oddly more alone: in intimacy, new solitudes.”

Some of Turkle’s book already feels like common knowledge just two years later (perhaps with the exception of her discussion of “sociable robots”–I’m still a little freaked out by that section): We are “always on.” We now grow up “tethered” to our technological devices.  Our preference for texting over speaking on the phone speaks to more than just a preference. Our brains are being rewired–affecting how we think, how we relate, what we value, how/what we confess, how much anxiety we feel, how we construct our identities. But Turkle’s weaving of analysis with the stories of her interviewees allows us to put some flesh and bones on the social effects of networked life. Does Turkle offer any solutions? She calls for conversation and suggests a disposition ofrealtechnik,” which she explains as follows:

What I call realtechnik suggests that we step back and reassess when we hear triumphalist or apocalyptic narratives about how to live with technology. Realtechnik is skeptical about linear progress. It encourages humility, a state of mind in which we are most open to facing problems and reconsidering decisions. It helps us acknowledge costs and recognize the things we hold inviolate.

The paradox that Turkle captures is summed up nicely in her conclusion: “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, and yet we have allowed them to diminish us.” There is a price we pay when left to our own devices, both literally and metaphorically. Longtime tech executive Linda Stone shared a similar concern in an Atlantic interview with James Fallows. Stone is no Luddite either, but she wonders if our technological distractions aren’t hindering the cultivation of empathy:

“We may think that kids have a natural fascination with phones. Really, children have a fascination with whatever Mom and Dad find fascinating. If they are fascinated by the flowers coming up in the yard, that’s what the children are going to find fascinating. And if Mom and Dad can’t put down the device with the screen, the child is going to think, That’s where it’s all at, that’s where I need to be! I interviewed kids between the ages of 7 and 12 about this. They said things like ‘My mom should make eye contact with me when she talks to me’ and ‘I used to watch TV with my dad, but now he has his iPad, and I watch by myself.’

Kids learn empathy in part through eye contact and gaze. If kids are learning empathy through eye contact, and our eye contact is with devices, they will miss out on empathy.”

Once again, ouch. But to return to Turkle’s framing for a moment, the answer isn’t to repudiate the triumphalist narratives with a polar opposite, apocalyptic take on technology. But the effects both individual and social, must be reckoned with. There’s no harm in beginning with an assessment of what our technological habits and practices reveal about what we value. For me, it begins with a small step: from the time I come home from work until my kids go to bed, they need to see me untethered from a screen.

Politicization and Missing People

“If you reduce her to the Iraq War, you’ll miss her.”

Martin Marty on Jean Bethke Elshtain

Last week saw the passing of two highly accomplished scholars and public intellectuals, the American historian Pauline Maier and the Christian ethicist Jean Bethke Elshtain. Reflections on both scholars rightly heralded their contributions and influence within and beyond their disciplines. It was also interesting to observe whether, or how long, the politicizing impulses of the academy and media were kept at bay. Particularly in the case of Elshtain, it didn’t take long before obituaries or remembrances brought up her articulation of just war principles in support of intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. Consider the first sentence of The New York Times obituary:

Jean Bethke Elshtain, a philosopher of politics and religion whose erudite writings on good and evil, war and peace, and the moral imperative of American global military engagement made her an intellectual beacon for neoconservative policy makers in the post-9/11 era, died on Sunday in Nashville.

In fairness, the obituary does acknowledge that Elshtain could not be “easily pigeonholed ideologically” and “staked out positions across the political spectrum,” but the framing was set by that first sentence and returned to in the conclusion. The Times was not alone in quickly making Elshtain’s provision for “the moral justification for the war on terror” the centerpiece of an obituary. I wouldn’t want to suggest that we should ignore or resist evaluating important components of a scholar’s body of work–particularly those elements that might contain public significance beyond the walls of academia. But it still bugs me. Why is that?

I’ll begin with the confession that I have what amounts to a phobia for being pigeonholed and for having my entire existence or identity judged on the basis of a single action, opinion, decision. Nobody likes that, of course, but for me it can become paralyzing. So sure, “it’s not you, it’s me.” That said, I don’t think this is simply a matter of my neurosis. Politicized pigeonholing leads to the diminishment of people whose very identity and existence possess a complexity that far outreaches a particular political argument.

When one is heavily invested in politics like Brooklyn College political scientist Corey Robin, it makes it difficult to see beyond the political when considering Elshtain. For example, Robin’s challenge to the notion of Elshtain as a realist contains one representative passage where he describes her discussion on torture as “watered by the same streams of conservative romanticism that coursed in and out of the White House during the Bush years.” Robin even edited his post and added more, as unequivocally announced on Twitter:

Cards on the table, then. Ironically, Robin does acknowledge at the end of his piece that there may be more to the story: “I’ve seen many encomiums and generous words for Elshtain on Facebook and elsewhere. That is understandable: she was clearly a voice who inspired many, and she seems to have been a warm and generous person. I hope, however, that in the coming days people will wrestle with her words more fully and more carefully.” I wonder, though, what difference it might have made to Robin’s post (and tweets) had he begun with an exploration of why Elshtain was considered warm, generous, and worthy of such encomiums. A fuller appreciation of her humanity might even be the starting point for a more compelling critique, one free from the suspicion of political positioning.

By contrast, consider Charles Mathewes’ moving remembrance of Elshtain. Mathewes fondly recalls Elshtain the teacher, the mentor who made time for all, and the intellectual with a wide range of interests during his graduate school days at the University of Chicago. He doesn’t skirt the topic of Elshtain’s controversial opinions, but offers a fuller and more empathetic context:

She was a thinker, and a citizen—of several communities, actually—and she knew she had gifts and training that could make those roles come alive.  Whatever the nation, whatever the world would do, she wouldn’t squander those gifts, that training.

Sometimes that got her into trouble.  Sometimes she spoke out—on the war on terror, on torture, on other things.  She certainly wasn’t afraid of articulating her opinion, however unpopular it might be in the academy.  She wasn’t afraid to, as she put it in Democracy on Trial, “reach disagreement.”  (And she was right that reaching disagreement—clear, articulate disagreement—is an important and all too rare achievement.)  She wasn’t afraid to revise arguments, either, when she was convinced she was wrong; but you had to convince her of that, not just suggest you demurred, or found her views abhorrent.

In 2002, Alfonso Soriano the Dominican who played baseball for the New York Yankees, became the first Yankee in history to hit 30 home runs and make 30 stolen bases in a single season.  That year he also was the first Yankee to strike out more than 150 times in a season (157, almost one per game).  When pressed on the strikeouts, he defended himself by saying, “You don’t get out of the Dominica by taking pitches.”  Jean would agree.  You don’t get out of Tinmath, Colorado by taking pitches.  I don’t think she ever took a pitch in her life.

Mostly, the rest of us act as if we’re afraid to get our uniforms dirty, but not her.  She’d line up and swing hard.  Sometimes she’d whiff it, but when she connected, and that was more than most, you could kiss that ball goodbye.

One could say that empathy is an easier task for Mathewes because he knew Elshtain personally. But empathy isn’t restricted to personal interaction. We can draw, for example, on our starting assumptions about human nature and our shared experience of humanity. We can read about people like Elshtain and learn other quite interesting facts about her life. Life is too short–and people are too interesting–to allow politicization to diminish our subjects and ourselves.

Photo: marshillonline, “Jean Elshtain with symposium organizers Dr. Paul Rowe (L) and Dr. John Dyck.” (Attribution: CC BY-SA 2.0).

The Soul in Need

File:To The Wonder US Theatrical Release Poster, 2013.jpg

“Cinema is a specificity of vision. It’s an approach in which everything matters. It’s the polar opposite of generic or arbitary and the result is as unique as a signature or a fingerprint.”

–Steven Soderbergh’s State of Cinema Talk

“For Malick, sacrament isn’t pageantry, isn’t style or theatre; it’s experience.”

–Richard Brody, “To The Wonder: Filming in Tongues

“There will be many who find ‘To the Wonder’ elusive and too effervescent. They’ll be dissatisfied by a film that would rather evoke than supply. I understand that, and I think Terrence Malick does, too. But here he has attempted to reach more deeply than that: to reach beneath the surface, and find the soul in need.”

–The final words of Roger Ebert’s last film review

Last week marked the DVD release of Terrence Malick’s To The Wonder, the follow-up to The Tree of Life that only saw limited theatrical release (and iTunes streaming) and received less enthusiastic reviews than its predecessor. Few filmmakers seem to evoke such strong feelings of love or hate, of rapture or ridicule, than Malick. Why is that? Roger Ebert’s wonderful final paragraph of film criticism, cited above, alludes to the reason: Malick’s recent films are elusory and experimental. Plots are hazy and unconventional. Characters don’t engage in “normal,” fully realized dialogue. Whispery voice-overs (as fleeting in tone as in content) and extended scenes from nature pervade Malick’s cinematic landscape. Characters dance and twirl–a lot–whether in fields of grass or grocery store aisles. To the Wonder is not going to change anyone’s mind who has strong opinions about Malick already in place. Full disclosure: 1) I’m a total Malick homer.  2) I’m not going to offer a full film review, though I would point you to some more qualified to do so, obviously: Betsy Sharkey, Roger Ebert, Richard Brody, Richard Brody again, Jeffrey Overstreet, and Jon Baskin. In the interest of (sorta) fair play, here’s Dana Stevens, who really did not like it.

Very briefly: To the Wonder tells the story of an American man named Neil (Ben Affleck) who falls in love with a French-Ukrainian woman Marina (Olga Kurylenko) in Paris and brings her and her daughter to live in Oklahoma. Relational struggles, separations, infidelities, attempts to reconcile ensue, as does a renewed spark between Affleck’s character and a local old flame (Rachel McAdams). Meanwhile, they cross paths with a Spanish Catholic priest Father Quintana (Javier Bardem) serving in Oklahoma who is experiencing a crisis of faith. That gap-filled story unfolds almost esoterically with fragments of dialogue, waves of visual poetry, and soaring music–all amid the beautiful landscapes of old Europe and the American West. Malick’s film, apparently somewhat autobiographical, is a meditation on the difficulties of (potent, sought after, elusive) human connection and on the overwhelming, God-drenched beauty found in nature and even around the banalities of civilization. Both of these experiences are enveloped in what Damon Linker calls an “ecstatic cinematic tribute to God.”

But I’ve barely scratched the surface. If this blog post accomplishes anything, however, it would be to get you to watch this scene:

As Linker notes, Father Quintana’s monologue reaches back into the Christian tradition to recite and paraphrase words from the Lorica of Patrick (also known as St. Patrick’s Breastplate), John Henry Newman, and Mother Teresa:

Where are you leading us? / Teach us where to seek you. / Christ, be with me. / Christ before me. / Christ behind me. / Christ in me. / Christ beneath me. / Christ above me. / Christ on my right. / Christ on my left. / Christ in the heart. / Thirsting. / We thirst. / Flood our souls with your spirit and life… / so completely… / that our lives may only be a reflection of yours. / Shine through us. / Show us how to seek you. / We were made to see you.

These words are uttered over images of human suffering, relational forgiveness, and beauty rippling through the natural and developed world. They are set to the music of Henryk Górecki, a symphony originally written to commemorate the suffering of the Holocaust. Suffering, intimacy, and beauty are Malick’s primary touchstones for wrestling with God’s enigmatic absence and overwhelming presence–a tension that expresses the director’s unabashed longing for communion with the divine. In the case of Father Quintana, his sacrificial presence with those who are suffering–physically, spiritually, relationally–becomes a conduit of encountering the divine for his congregants and himself. His inability to find the words or faith on his own makes his act of appropriation (taking “the living faith of the dead” to articulate and enhance his present experience and longings) so necessary. Malick’s use of Mother Teresa’s words in the voice-over takes us back to her full prayer, which concludes:

The light, O Jesus, will be all from You; none of it will be mine. It will be you, shining on others through me. Let me thus praise You in the way You love best, by shining on those around me. Let me preach You without preaching, not by words but by my example, by the catching force, the sympathetic influence of what I do, the evident fullness of the love my heart bears to You.

One wonders if it is purely coincidental that Mother Teresa, who experienced her own struggle with God’s seeming absence, inspires Father Quintana to be the same “catching force” of divine presence by being present with others who suffer. Malick’s vision of religious longing, doubt, and faith–experienced in the cathedrals both human-built and natural–is central to a film that may not be his best, but has honesty, vulnerability, and beauty in spades.

Photo: To the Wonder US Theatrical Release Poster (Attribution: Fair Use).