Christian Smith on Converting to Catholicism, part II

In part I of this post, I discussed some (there are many more) problems with Christian Smith’s How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Steps.  In this second part, I want to point out that Smith does highlight some genuinely unfortunate overarching tendencies within contemporary evangelicalism in this book. There are two charges that Smith makes that really do stick, in my estimation. The first is #16: ‘Begin noticing how allergic evangelicals are to Mary’. International evangelical subculture has been formed, as have other forms of Protestantism, more by what they are against than by what they are for, and this has led to a tragically diminished role for Mary within the economy of salvation. No one was more scathing than Desiderius Erasmus toward the crass paganism of popular Catholic adoration of Mary, yet he also realized how deeply destructive the dismissal of Mary in Protestant theology would be:

‘Although I am unarmed, you shall not cast me out unless you cast out the son I am holding in my arms together with me. For I shall not be parted from him. Either you cast him out together with me, or you let us both remain here–or do you prefer a church without Christ’? (Desiderius Erasmus, quoted in Scott Hendrix, Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization, p. 33)

Of course, I do not think that the recovery of the veneration of Mary as theotokos, the God-bearer, as the Council of Ephesus in 431 professes her to be, requires becoming Roman Catholic. Robert Jenson and Carl Braaten have demonstrated how possible it is from a Lutheran or Anglican context to recover a high place for Mary within the theology and piety of the church.  But Smith is right to point out that American evangelicals have been ‘innoculated’ against Mary, and that therefore she does not appear within the life of the church except where she cannot be avoided, namely at Christmas. And he is right that evangelicals become very nervous about idolatry whenever Mary’s name is brought up.

The other charge that sticks is #18: ‘Note your dissatisfaction with the heavily cognitive, often rationalist, nature of much of Protestantism’, which is closely linked to #33: ‘Consider the historic sociological connection between the Reformation and secularization’. The latter charge is quite a bit more specious historically and is probably impossible to substantiate. I have yet to read the latest attempt to do this, Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, but I sincerely doubt that Gregory will be able to succeed where Louis Dupré and others have failed. But the former claim, that evangelical Protestantism is heavily cognitive and most often lacks a sacramental imagination, seems basically sound to me. And it’s clear that without a sacramental imagination, one cannot properly value the material, such that one is almost inexorably bound to capitulate to the gnosticism of late modern American culture. But once again, I think this is more of an historic connection within evangelicalism than a necessary one. There is no reason why evangelicals cannot read the Fathers, or even read Calvin and Bonhoeffer, and develop a sacramental theology while retaining all that is fair within evangelicalism. That is what I hope to do and what I hope I have been doing. I have a great appreciation for Roman Catholicism, especially for the nouvelle theologie that has done so much to restore the place of mystery within Catholic theology, but nothing that Smith has written here has convinced me that the time has come to swim the Tiber.

Christian Smith on Converting to Catholicism, part I

I’ve now read through Christian Smith’s other book explaining his journey to Roman Catholicism, which is actually presented as a ‘how to’ manual – How to Go from Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic in Ninety-Five Difficult Steps. He doesn’t say it, but I suppose the ninety-five steps nicely mirror Luther’s ’95 Theses’, which as Smith points out at one point, is actually a deeply Catholic document and not a ‘protest’ text in any meaningful sense of that word. Smith invokes Thomas Kuhn’s famous ‘paradigm shift’ model of scientific change to describe how an evangelical might end up as a Roman Catholic. Kuhn’s argument, in essence, is that scientific theories are ‘world pictures’ that do not change gradually, simply on the basis of accumulating evidence. Scientists work within an established paradigm of what he calls ‘normal science’, and over time anomalies inexplicable within the current theoretical framework begin to accumulate. Efforts are made to accommodate the paradigm to these anomalies, but if there are a sufficient number of such anomalies and another paradigm is suggested that is able to explain and integrate these anomalies, a theoretical revolution is likely to take place in which new paradigm of normal science takes the place of the old. Something like a paradigm shift rather than a gradual accumulation of evidence is necessary, according to Smith, for someone to go from being a ‘good evangelical’ to a ‘committed Catholic’.

Smith’s book is pretty snarky towards the evangelicalism from which he has emerged, and the ‘descriptive’ passages of the work make very little effort to hide it. I definitely don’t mind a little sarcasm here and there, so this feature of Smith’s writing doesn’t bother me. For instance, I’m a fan of this barb:

People around you and maybe you yourself pray with a lot of particular, but by now so-familiar-that-they-usually-go-unnoticed, phrases, such as, “Father God”, “we would lift up”, “I just have a heart for”, “as unto the Lord”, “nit our hearts together”, “we are convicted”, “if be your will”, “pray a ‘hedge’ around”, and “in Jesus’ name”. About 10-20 percent of the words used in the informal prayers of more than a few of the people around you consist of the one word “just”–as in, “Lord, we just ask that you just give us the eyes just to see you, Lord”. Your community believes in praying authentic, spontaneous, personal prayers–not rote, ritualistic, formal, dusty, traditional prayers. It once occurred to you, however, that most people’s spontaneous, personal prayers sound an awful lot alike. They actually seem to follow standard formats. (pp. 21-2).

But what does bother me is that the snark is in service of painting an inexcusably broad-brush portrait of American evangelicalism. I’m sure the logic and practice of the communities that Smith is describing as the ‘normal science’ of evangelicalism exist somewhere, but it is not descriptive of the communities of which I have been part. What’s really inexcusable is his tendency to lump together confessional and non-confessional evangelical traditions together. Non-denominational Bible churches and Reformed churches such as the CRC or the PCA, which are creedally oriented, have very little in common together. The latter have a de facto teaching office in a way that the former do not, which provides both the framework for and the limits within the Bible is to be read. Even if these communities as a whole tend to use the rhetoric of biblicism in defense of their confessions, i.e. that the Canons of Dort or the Westminster Confession are a mere distillation and systematic presentation of ‘gospel’, the theologically astute within these denominations explicitly see themselves as operating within a tradition governed by creedal commitments.

Shrove Tuesday and the Body of Christ

‘We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community’. -Dorothy Day

Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday in the Anglican tradition, also known as ‘pancake day’. For the past few years, my small group at Church of the Redeemer has had a gathering in which we have consumed huge amounts of pancakes, beer, sausages, and whatever other comestibles we’re giving up for Lent. One of the men in our small group is Northern Irish, and the first year we did this he suggested that we incorporate some customary U.K. Shrove Tuesday practices. He mentioned as a for instance the ‘pancake relay’, but we had no idea what that meant, so we made up our own pancake games, including pancake flipping, pancake races, and pancake tossing competitions, among other things. It’s been a wonderful and celebratory communal event binding us together as a group.

Last year my daughter was just under one and not really aware of what was going on in this celebration. It’s really funny to look at pictures and videos of her from this time period. She’s always looks pretty confused, even freaked out at times. But this year was different. She’s finally started walking and talking and has developed a robust emotional and social life. It turns out that my daughter is extremely socially driven and is a even bit of a ham. She was a late walker, and the turning point for her came a month ago when she walked across the room to me in the presence of our small group and everyone cheered her on.  It was as though a light bulb came on in her head at that moment, and she’s been walking ever since.  I loved watching her at last night’s pancake fest. She has taken a special shine to our friend Grace, so when Grace showed up with her son, my daughter made a beeline for her and asked to be held. For the rest of the night she ran around with a huge smile on her face, peals of laughter punctuating the evening’s festivities.

This particular community in Nashville is very dear to me, and moments like last night, in which I see them loving my daughter well, make me love them all the more. I love that my daughter was baptized among these people, and that they took vows as a congregation to help us to raise her as a Christian. I love that we come together around feasts and fasts appointed to us by the church’s calendar, because it reminds me that this particular body forms an organic part of the whole company of saints who are the body of Christ. For as Augustine has taught us, Christ is the totus christus, the whole Christ, head and body, and his social or mystical body is wherever and whenever there has been a people of God visibly gathered in his name. When we celebrate, fast, and pray, we do so in the company of the whole body of Christ, which joins us invisibly in sacramental presence. This is why Henri de Lubac and others have come to argue that salvation is not merely individual but social. The disintegration and fragmentation caused by sin has been reversed by a re-gathering of all in the new Adam, Christ. Christians throughout the centuries have been tempted to call this new creation of people gathered into Christ a ‘new race’. But this is a mystical unity that is not a uniformity, a unity that is compatible with the diversity of cultures and languages. This is why in describing how the Psalms are to be prayed, Bonhoeffer can say that

The Psalter is the vicarious prayer of Christ for his Church. Now that Christ is with the Father, the new humanity of Christ, the body of Christ on earth, continues to pray his prayer to the end of time. This prayer belongs, not to the individual member, but to the whole Body of Christ. Only in the whole Christ does the whole Psalter become a reality, a whole which the individual can never fully comprehend and call his own. That is why the prayer of the psalms belongs in a peculiar way to the fellowship. Even if a verse or a psalm is not one’s own prayer, it is nevertheless to prayer of another member of the fellowship; so it is quite certainly the prayer of the true man Jesus Christ and his Body on earth (Life Together, pp. 46-7).

There is no greater privilege imaginable to me than to be counted with my wife and my daughter in the mystical body of Christ and to participate in the divine life of this body in the outpost called Anglicanism.

A Portrait of ‘The Artist’ as a Young Mom

I naturally have a touch of melancholy, but since I left the year-round brightness of Austin, the darkness and coldness of winter worsens it and I end up worn out, slothful, and withdrawn. The way that I have learned to cope with this is that every year around the end of Christmastime, I write out a list entitled ‘Things to get me through winter’. This year has about 20 goals, which include going to bed early, drinking lots of water, getting a membership to the Frist Center, buying warm socks, and to “See a movie that I want to see in the theater by myself on a weekday.”

Until this year, I would have never wanted to go to the movies alone. I’ve only gone to a theater alone once before, over a decade ago when I was briefly in a city where I had not yet made friends. I was always a strong extrovert. But since college, every year, I have increasingly enjoyed being by myself. In the recent psychological exam that I took, I still tested as an E on the Myers-Brigg test, but just barely–an E with a need for a whole lot of alone time.

Ten years ago, as a single, childless early twenty-something, I had margins of alone time in each day that I never really noticed until they were gone–time in the car running errands, afternoons when all my roommates were out, or laying in bed at night. When I got married, the little crevices of aloneness in the day got filled up by sharing a life, a car, and a bed with Jonathan. But even then, I still had some time alone, and when either of us needed to, we could tell the other one to disappear for the evening and we’d fill up on solitude.

Then came the baby. She’s a total joy, but (besides the exhaustion and relentless anxiety) the hardest part of adjustment to motherhood is the loss of time alone. Generally, for the last two years, I’ve been with my daughter, or when I’m not, I’ve been working. I can’t tell her that she needs to feed and clothe herself today because Mama needs to sit in a room and stare out the window.  After I put her down at night, we have 2 hours to do everything that we haven’t done all day or we collapse into in an exhausted haze of hulu or facebook. It is a full life–full of beauty and giggles and love, but also very full of people. As a scholar, Jonathan gets alone time while he’s researching, but as a minister, my work provides more time with people. So I’ve begun craving alone time palpably. I hunger for time where there is no need to attend and no task to accomplish.

Today, unexpectedly, Jonathan rearranged his day to give me my winter’s list movie alone. Leaving the house, I felt anxious. It was like I had first date jitters, but the date was with myself. I slipped into a dark theater and was riveted by ‘The Artist’, an incandescently lovely black and white silent film. I left anonymously, no one there to ask what I thought of the movie. I am sure too much of this would get lonely, but today, it was blissful.

Normally, when I get time alone now, I use it for some spiritual practice like prayer or silence or for something ‘good for me’ like doing yoga or getting a haircut. Today, I did something by myself that was merely for fun, which felt lavishly free.

It is so easy as a new mom to lose yourself. Some of this is probably good. There is a self-forgetfulness that makes one more able to love and bless. But there is another sort of self-losing that is tragic. It is the kind of hollowing that leaves you busy, shallow, and boring.

I am grateful for this season of my life and for the new life in our home. Even the starving pangs my inner-introvert feels leave room for grace to grow in me. But I’m also grateful for the times when I have space to remember that before I was a minister, a wife, or a mom, I was a self. I don’t believe in a sort of blunt individualism that would separate my singular inner self as more important or even more ‘me’ than my identity as a mother, a wife, or member of my community. But nevertheless, I am also an individual. A Tish. A daughter of God. A woman who loves words, beauty, ideas, and earthiness. I bought myself some popcorn today and settled in, grateful for a gift that I would have never appreciated ten years ago.

Pregnancy Is not a Disease: How We Talk about the Female Body and the HHS Mandate

I should just make clear here at the beginning that my main interest in and objection to the HHS contraception mandate is that of religious liberty. If the Catholic Church and many Protestant believers did not have a moral objection to contraception and abortifacients, which they are now required by the federal government to provide to employees, this issue would have sailed right by me unnoticed. I simply think that the government encroaching on religious bodies by forcing communities to do that which they find morally reprehensible is wrong, regardless of whether or not I agree with the particular stance of those religious communities. The Amish should not be forced to buy televisions. An orthodox Jew should not be forced to provide my daughter with a baptismal gown. A Muslim woman should not be forced by the government to wear or not wear hijab. This so-called ‘compromise’ seems to do little to address the concerns of those most marginalized by this mandate. For reasons why see a helpful summary by my friend, Fr. John Baker, here.

But, putting all that aside, there is something else that has bothered me about this broad conversation regarding contraception and federal mandates:  The near constant refrain from those in support of the mandate that contraception is necessary for a woman’s health, inferring that somehow if you oppose this mandate, you are for making women less healthy. Since when did disease prevention and pregnancy prevention come to be regarded as the same thing?

I was a strong supporter of universal healthcare. It was one of the reasons that I voted for Obama in the last election. We even put a ‘Healthcare for All’ bumper sticker on our car. I still believe in that. Our insurance and healthcare system are broken and this failure has affected many whom I love dearly.

But instances where contraception is somehow medically necessary for women are extremely rare. In reality, oral contraception has been shown to raise a woman’s risk of stroke and breast cancer.  We are mandating ‘healthcare’ that makes women less healthy.  So let’s be honest, this mandate isn’t about preventing or healing illness in women, this is about ensuring that women can have satisfying sexual experiences while avoiding the natural results of those experiences.

I am all for women having dynamite sexual experiences, but I don’t see how this is such an inalienable right that the government must trample all other commitments to ensure that we do. And if this mandate is really about the government providing sexual freedom to women under the name ‘health care’, then where will it end? If we want to ensure that those adults who want to have sex can whenever they’d like, why not mandate free access to Viagra? Or, if we equate pregnancy prevention with disease prevention, why do we not also see the provision of children to those who desire them, necessary for the ‘health’ of women? Ought we mandate free access to fertility treatments and IVF, even though the latter most often involves some sort of abortive measure?

If we confuse prevention of disease and prevention of pregnancy, there is really no end to what we can mandate as long as we call it “healthcare.”

The other thing that I find absurd about this confusion is that it equates having a baby and having a disease.  I am unashamedly a feminist. I think that women’s bodies are amazing and ought to be celebrated, and I can think of little less pro-woman than equating a healthy woman’s body doing the miraculous work that it naturally does with ‘disease’.

I get that many people have no problem with contraception or abortifacients. I am not saying that all women should not use contraception. I’ve used it myself. I am saying, however, that if one chooses to use contraception, which is, by definition, non-essential for health, that one should pay for it. If one does not want to pay for it, there is absolutely free pregnancy prevention available to them: a) abstinence and b) Fertility Awareness Method, which every woman in America needs to learn if for no other reason than you will be far more in touch with your body than you would otherwise. Read about it here.

Among women, particularly educated women, the new trend is to battle to remove the historic stigma of pregnancy and women’s fertility. We are into showing our baby bumps proudly and having our babies naturally. There’s a push (which I’ve been part of) to allow women to breastfeed publically for as many years as we and our babies would like to and to provide women with employment alternatives that support breastfeeding and infant care.  We can’t have it both ways, ladies. We can’t ask the culture to applaud and respect our fertile, life-producing capabilities when we want children, and regard them as pathological and deleterious to our health when we do not.

[I posted an update in the comments].

Craig Bartholomew on Hyper-Mobility and ‘Placial Stability’

There’s an interesting interview at Christianity Today with Craig Bartholomew, Professor of Philosophy at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario, on his new book about the ‘crisis of place’ in western culture.  Our technological reordering of transportation, communication, and our built environment has generated a culture of instantaneity in which individuals are virtually unfettered by time and space, or at least in which these features of our humanness have become less ‘real’, less central to our existence than they have been at any point in history. Individuals have in the process been given the illusion of self-creation and self-sufficiency and the illusory hope of total liberation from the past and tradition. Zygmunt Bauman has astutely pointed out that the ambitions of the middle class and its vision of the good life have been reinscribed around the desirability of the range of experiences made possible by mobility:


Life ambitions are more often than not expressed in terms of mobility, the free choice of place, travelling, seeing the world; life fears, on the contrary, are talked about in terms of confinement, lack of change, being barred from places which others traverse easily, explore and enjoy. ‘The good life’ is life on the move; more precisely, the comfort of being confident of the facility with which one can move in case staying on no longer satisfies. Freedom has come to mean above all freedom of choice, and choice has acquired, conspicuously, a spatial dimension. (Bauman, Globalization: The Human Consequences, p. 121)


Since Bauman wrote those words in 1998, the hegemony of that vision of the good life in the west has only become more totalizing, and the consequences for the Christian faith, as Bartholomew points out, have been devastating. The rank individualism of American Christianity has been facilitated by our willingness to move so easily for a better job or slightly better conditions without due consideration given to how such a move will diminish us and the communities of faith from which we are departing. It is hard to see how hyper-mobility could give rise to the material conditions necessary to foster costly discipleship and not merely moralistic, therapeutic deism.

Bartholomew asserts that ‘We need a spirituality that will undermine Western individualism’. Part of that has to be what Bartholomew is calling ‘placial stability’, a willingness simply to stay put. Necessary to our personal transformation and the transformation of the communities of which we are a part is a stronger sense of what we owe to one another in terms of our embodied presence in the body of Christ. Personal and communal transformation requires longitudinal, spiritual friendships characterized by loyalty and vulnerability.

Clearly this is an issue that requires some nuance, since discipleship requires attention to the given possibilities of one’s culture. In our globalized economy, it is often difficult to be rooted because our jobs have become impermanent. And it is obviously not a sin to move. But where we are given the choice, we should consider soberly and in community such decisions, and in the conditions of late modernity we should prioritize stability where it is possible.

On a related note, check out the sermon entitled ‘Transformation in Everyday Life’ from this past Saturday by a good friend of mine, Fr. Kenny Benge, on the importance of rootedness.

Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part II

I think it is virtually incontestable that evangelicals in America have for centuries invested themselves in an epistemology and consequent hermeneutic of Scripture that is indefensible.  Smith spends some time in the book outlining some of the relevant history, lighting upon, for instance, the common sense realism of the Scottish Enlightenment that funded the theology of Old Princeton. This ‘mental science’, as Mark Noll and Brooks Holifield, among others, have noted, became the adjunct to 19th century Princetonian theology that Aristotelian and Neo-Platonic philosophy was to the medieval university.  As Smith puts it, ‘implicit in Scottish commonsense realism is a ‘picture theory’ of language, which says ‘words are directly knowable by the mind, and, in addition, are direct representations of the objects ot which they refer. Logically, therefore, words and sense impressions are identical in that each refers directly to objects. Those objects, in turn, are directly and with utmost certainty known by the mind” (p. 56). Adoption of commonsense rationalism led Charles Hodge to affirm that Bible was the storehouse of revelatory facts for the theologian in the same sense that nature was the storehouse of natural facts for the scientists. One still finds these kinds of affirmations in theologians like Wayne Grudem, but they are damaging for evangelicalism because they are simply not true. They constitute a stipulative form of foundationalism that results in a false certainty about the meaning of Scripture and fissiparous and schismatic tendencies on the basis of these false certainties. The irony, as Smith points out, is that evangelicalism’s ‘practice of sola scriptura [which, as many have noted, means something different than it did in the Reformation] in America as a means to arrive at pure doctrine and practice is that the populist pursuit of Bible-only-ism started off as an ideological project not of conservatives but of heterodox liberal Protestants driven by Enlightenment ideals’ (p. 84).

I am qualifiedly in agreement with him as well that we need to acknowledge the ambiguity and multivocality of Scriptural texts and the need to distinguish between dogma, doctrine and opinion, especially as the freedom to admit a realm of adiaphora opens evangelicals not to relativism but to tradition, mystery and charity:

‘Evangelicals today cut themselves off from a relevant and important vocabulary–which, when properly used, often describes well Christian faith and life–when they expunge from their theological vocabulary the category of mystery.  They also in so doing perpetuate the problematic tendency in much of evangelicalism toward a dry, know-it-all rationalism in the form of a systematic cognitive covering of all intellectual bases–which ultimately has more to do with modern Enlightenment than scripture’ (p. 145).

I don’t think the answer to the false turns in evangelicalism is to convert to Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. My concern, however, is not that evangelicals will convert but that they will fail to acknowledge the ways in which their tradition has maintained (albeit in a theoretically anemic and hermeneutically deficient way) a high view of the inspiration and normativity of the Scriptures and the uniqueness of the person and work of Jesus Christ. For all their faults, evangelicals have by and large heeded the warning of Roy Harrisville: ‘Whoever you are, if you do not repent and believe the testimony laid down in this book concerning God and his Christ, it will judge you to inconsequence, render your reading of it, your interpretation of it, your preaching on it a comic  spectacle to the world to which you believed you had to adjust it, and your church will die. As well it should’ (‘The Loss of Biblical Authority and Its Recovery’, in Reclaiming the Bible for the Church, eds. Jenson and Braaten, pp. 60-1). If evangelicals do not learn the lesson that the solution to the fundamentalist and evangelical varieties of modernism is something old and not something new, shiny and relevant, they will fail to be faithful. And that will be a great loss for the church and the world.

Christian Smith, Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism, and Christocentric Readings of Scripture, Part I

Christian Smith, who I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was received into the Roman Catholic communion in 2011. I have no plans at this point of following him, but I am extremely interested in reading the books he put out in the process of coming to his decision to do so.  Earlier in the year, I read Robert Gundry’s critical review of The Bible Made Impossible, Smith’s book arguing that the predominant hermeneutic (method of reading Scripture in the contemporary context) of evangelicalism, which he calls ‘biblicism’, is self-defeating because it results in what he calls ‘Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism’ (PIP). Biblicism in its most basic form is ‘Bible-only-ism’, or the idea that one can and should read the Bible without reference to the church’s tradition of interpretation. PIP refers to the massive number of private, idiosyncratic, often self-interested readings that result from biblicism. PIP is a problem for biblicists, because they believe that every aspect of life is addressed by Scripture either directly or, as the Westminster Confession of Faith says, through deduction by good and necessary consequence thereof. If in fact it turns out that PIP results from biblicism, this undermines the biblicist contention that the Scripture is clear and a sure guide in every area of life.
Gundry’s review of Smith’s book struck me as defensive and evasive, engaging in mostly ad hominem and tu quoque analyses of Smith’s book. Smith’s recommendation of Karl Barth’s Christocentric reading of Scripture meets with this purely anecdotal quip: ‘For in Basel during the fall of 1960 I regularly climbed out of the basement of biblical studies to attend the theological seminars held by Barth upstairs, only to hear him repeatedly engage in subjective judgments on what in the Bible carries authority and what therein does not’. Without further ado, Gundry dismisses Barth as a ‘subjectivist’. Pretty sure you can’t dismiss the 20th century’s most important Protestant theologian without a greater sense of gravitas. And in response to Smith’s recommendation of creedal readings of Scripture and a stronger teaching office in the church, Gundry’s sole response is that PIP can be found elsewhere than in biblicist evangelicalism. Of course, Gundry virtually ignores the fact that Smith concedes this point and that his argument is not that Christocentric and Christotelic readings of Scripture resolve PIP, but that they are more faithful to the apostolic hermeneutic of Scripture and to the tradition of interpretation in the church and therefore that they are more authentically evangelical readings of the text.  Smith’s point is that the Bible is not God’s ‘handbook’ for life but rather God’s self-revelation to his people culminating in Christ, who becomes the hermeneutical key that unlocks the meaning of the rest.

Mr. and Mrs. Darcy Never Drop F-Bombs

At the beginning of Advent, just when nights are getting long, cold, and perfect for fiction, I decided that I wanted to read something classic and I found a collection of Jane Austen’s work for cheap in half-price books.

I began reading Pride and Prejudice.  I had never read it before even though I had seen the Colin Firth movie version multiple times, which is great, and the Kiera Knightly movie version, which is lousy.

Once I picked it up, I read it daily as much as I could. I never wanted to put it down. I finished it on Christmas day in front of a cheery fire knowing that I had a new book in my top ten list.  Austen’s writing is bright and makes me feel clean and hopeful.

The whole time I read it, I thought a lot about virtue and, specifically, I thought about the fruit of the spirit.  For Advent, Jonathan and I gave up cursing. It’s not that I really think cursing is bad thing. A well-placed cuss word can be just right at times.  But for people like us who are rich in words and poor in kindness, cursing is a gateway drug to over-anger. A dashed out curse word can take a little argument or a little annoyance and make it rage, like fuel on a small bit of kindling.  Trying to give up bad tempers altogether was more than we could tackle, but we could give up cursing. Since we cuss enough that we both do it without noticing even, having to simply slow down and think about what to say in situations of stress, conflict, or tiredness, helped us to be calmer and kinder.  Because of this Advent “fast,” December was full of thoughts and conversations about gentleness, kindness, patience, peace, and self-control.I come from a long line of bickerers. I have grandparents that through their decades of marriage honed bickering into a near art-form.  I have come to realize that knowing how to speak politely to family members, isn’t really something that comes naturally to me or that I’ve had much training in. Texans call a damn spade, a spade, which is a great thing that I don’t want to give up, but I wondered how to hold onto this kind of truth-telling and learn gentleness as well.  I really feel like, as embarrassing as this is, I need a tutor in basic civility and kindness in my home.  I found this in Austen’s characters.Elizabeth Bennett (and even Jane) are not at all simpering mealy-mouthed saccharine dolls. They are strong and opinionated. They understand themselves and the world around them. Elizabeth has this way of telling people around her that they are idiotic or obnoxious while remaining careful, respectful, and even polite. She is honest and authentic and yet kind and gentle.

Virtue, in Austen’s writing, is not bland, legalistic, or passive.  It is powerful, bold, and charming. Restraint does not diminish the honesty of a conversation, but allows hard truths to be spoken (about too much pride and too much prejudice) in a way that doesn’t belittle a person.

Austen knows that politeness and manners can be empty and shallow and a veneer for all kinds of vice. See Mr. Collins and his obsequious, over the top formality. But she points to another kind of disciplined civility in her characters that gives them, well, character.

I’m not about to start speaking to Jonathan in Victorian English, but a little bit more Miss Bennet (and Mr.Darcy) in our manner would certainly make the Warren Manor a more peaceful place.  I’m grateful for the tutorial in, as Austen would say,  “domestic felicity.”

Tolkien, Allegory, and Sub-Creation

If you don’t know Ralph Wood‘s work yet, you should. His work centers on the mutual indwelling of faith and imagination, and he’s also written monographs on the theological basis for the writings of Flannery O’Conner, J.R.R. Tolkien, and most recently, G.K. Chesterton. Right now I’m reading through his book on Tolkien, The Gospel according to Tolkien, published by Westminster John Knox in 2003.

Tolkien was, of course, great friends with C.S. Lewis, but their ideas on the how the craft of literature was inflected by the Christian faith were extraordinarily different. Lewis, after his conversion, became an apologist for the faith, and he did not hesitate to enlist his generous literary talents in this endeavor. His justly famous Chronicles of Narnia make inspiring reading, but there are allegorical correspondences that make their evangelistic character plain. It should be said that Lewis himself did not see the books as allegories, calling their Christian character a ‘supposition’ and intending only heuristic correspondences between Aslan and Jesus. Interpreters of Lewis have likewise tried to distinguish between parable and allegory in locating the literary genre of the books. But whether or not the books should expressly be read as allegories, if one does not see Jesus in Aslan, one has missed the point of the books.

In whatever light one sees the Narnia series, however, it is clear that Tolkien was doing something different in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Tolkien confessed that he had a ‘cordial dislike’ of allegory and avoided it in his own writing. The presence of the gospel in his story is thus indirect, as an informing presupposition rather than didactic feature of his writing. Whereas in Narnia, Aslan has a distinctively Christological character, dying as ransom for the Narnians and rising from the grave in victory, all of the central characters of LotR have Christological properties, but none of them are to be read as Christ. The vision of goodness cast by the gospel is everywhere present, but nowhere concentrated in LotR. As Wood writes, ‘Tolkien the Catholic is confident that the sacramental and missional life of the church will convey the Gospel to the world without the assistance of his own work’ (p. 8).

The work was intended to function autonomously as literature, but it was not for that reason construed as being less true than explicitly Christian literature. For Tolkien, the meaning of our createdness was not only that we might worship but also that we might in turn create.  He refers to the worlds of his own making as ‘sub-creations’, and these miniature products of imagination, as with God’s creation, bear the imprint of their makers. Tolkien writes this illuminating poem in his ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ and Other Essays:

Man, Sub-Creator, the refracted Light
through whom is splintered from a single White
to many hues, and endlessly combined
in living shapes that move from mind to mind.
Though all the crannies of the world we filled
with Elves and Goblins, though we dared to build
Gods and their houses out of dark and light,
and sowed the seeds of dragons–’twas our right
(used or misused). That right has not decayed:
we make still by the law in which we’re made. (p. 144)

For Tolkien as a Catholic Christian, this meant that his sub-creation would be pregnant with the sacramental vision of the cosmos. The fictive element would express, precisely through its mythic dimensions, the power of Catholic faith, fides quae creditur. As dark and forbidding as the literary world of LoTR can be, there is a hopefulness in it that is never extinguished. Tolkien puts this virtue of hopefulness on the mouth of the elf Haldir in Lothlorien: ‘The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater’ (LotR, 1.363). In my view, Tolkien’s understanding of literature as sub-creation can be seen as an application of the Catholic truth that grace does not destroy but elevates and perfects nature.