May 26, 2016
As most of my readers are aware, John Webster passed away yesterday. He was 60 years old. There are already some very fine pieces written in remembrance of this extraordinary theologian. Steve Holmes, Fred Sanders, Travis McMaken, Mark Thomson, and many others have offered their reflections, which also serve as nice little introductions to Webster’s theology.
Webster held the Chair of Systematic Theology at the University of Aberdeen (pictured above) when I was there in the M.Th. program. For the past few years, he has been at St. Andrews. I do not have much to add to what has already been written, but I am fortunate to have sat under the teaching of Professor Webster. His course on “Principles of Systematic Theology” was inspiring and overwhelming, especially for someone still wet behind the ears in academic theology as I was. Webster was always incredibly kind and gracious. I wrote a paper for him on P. T. Forsyth, and he had some encouraging things to say.
Just as Barth did for his generation, Webster reminded us of theology’s peculiar joy and beauty. The expression that will be forever associated with Webster is “theological theology,” as Mark Thomson has written about in his remembrance. Theology as a rigorous discipline has an integrity of its own, so far as it is faithful to its object: God. As I have often recommended to others, there are two books from Webster which should be required reading for all students of theology: Holiness and Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch. The former is the single best introduction to Webster’s whole approach to theology, and the latter is probably his most influential book, at least among his many students.
Back in December of 2008, I wrote a post called, “The Ontology of Grace.” Therein, I offer some brief reflections in comparing Webster and Balthasar. It is remarkable how much my interests and questions have remained. I also recommend watching his 2009 Hayward Lectures, which are still available!
We can thank the Lord for giving the Church the gift of John Webster, a faithful servant in his kingdom. May God bless his soul.
May 14, 2016
“In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda.”
— Karl Barth
Henri Bouillard (1908-1981) was a French Catholic theologian and professor of theology at l’Institut Catholique de Paris. Alongside his fellow Jesuits, Henri de Lubac and Jean Daniélou, and his colleague in Paris, Louis Bouyer, Henri Bouillard was a leading figure within the movement known as la nouvelle théologie or ressourcement. During the early years of suspicion surrounding this movement, Bouillard was dismissed from la Faculté de Théologie de Lyon – Fourvière in 1950. The fruit of his first doctoral dissertation, Conversion et grace chez S. Thomas D’Aquin, was published in 1944 and roused controversy from the then dominant neoscholastic theologians and influential prelates.
He moved to Paris, where he began work on a second doctorate, awarded by the Sorbonne. The result was the three volume Karl Barth, published in 1957 by Éditions Aubier-Montaigne in Paris. According to Grover Foley, this dissertation was “the first at the Sorbonne ever allowed to be written about a living author.” The oral defense was “the cultural and religious event of the year” according to the theology journal, Bijdragen, in a 1958 issue (see Foley, “The Catholic Critics of Karl Barth,” SJT, June 1961, 145).
Karl Barth was in attendance, having traveled with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne von Speyr from Basel. Eberhard Busch recounts the event in his biography of Barth. The endnotes are in brackets:
In the middle of June 1956 Barth went with Hans Urs von Balthasar and Frau Adrienne Kaegi-von Speyr to Paris. There they were to take part in ‘the doctoral examination of a Jesuit’, Père Henri Bouillard, ‘who had written 1200 pages about me. He was cross-examined about me for five hours (at the Sorbonne), and then we celebrated in a Chinese restaurant’ [letter to Heinrich Vogel, 5 September 1956]. This viva-voce examination ‘was an extraordinary event, in that the “subject” of such a thesis should not really be still alive. That I was in fact very much alive and even there in person made the whole proceedings very tense, but also added a great deal of merriment’ [Charlotte von Kirschbaum to Karl Gerhard Steck, 5 July 1956]. Bouillard was another of those Catholics in whom Barth discovered a surprising affinity to his own thought…’In an astonishing way he too is very much d’accord with me. He is another one who wants to introduce me into Roman Catholic theology rather like a Trojan horse, but he also has his own critical little coda. Unlike Hans Urs von Balthasar, however, in this case it is not some holy little Thérèse or Elizabeth, but a transcendental ontologie de la foi, agreed criteria of a Kantian character. Still…there is much to suggest that I have another chance of becoming a kind of Catholic church father in partibus infidelium‘ [letter to his sons, 14 September 1953].
(Eberhard Busch, Karl Barth, 421)
I cannot imagine having Barth sitting in the audience while defending your thesis on Barth! Oscar Cullmann was one of the examiners.
Bouillard’s three volumes were never translated into English. However, you can find some translations of important sections. Parts from volume two and volume three were translated and published as an article for the spring issue of Cross Currents in 1968. The title of the article is “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology” by Henri Bouillard. This article combines the introduction for volume two and “Le problème de la théologie naturelle,” a section in chapter two of the third volume. Also, in 1967 Bouillard published portions of his Karl Barth in a single volume of less than 200 pages, Connaissance de Dieu, which was translated the following year and with the same title, The Knowledge of God. So, these are the two places where you can find some of Bouillard’s work on Barth in English.
Bouillard’s Critique of Barth
Barth refers to Bouillard’s transcendental “ontology of faith” and its “Kantian character.” Bouillard believes that the possibility of natural theology is necessary. As a possibility, this refers not to actual knowledge but, rather, to the “transcendental condition” necessary for any knowledge of God to happen at all. Without this transcendental condition, which corresponds to our being made in the image of God, our faith in God would be arbitrary. “It is not enough to appeal to a miracle of revelation or grace, which takes hold of our intellect and subdues it. Immediately the question rebounds: how can we know that our faith is the result of a miracle, that is to say of God’s action, and that it is not simply an arbitrary human act?” (“A Dialogue with Barth,” 218). Here is the final paragraph in the article:
As we have seen, if Vatican I judges it necessary to define the possibility of a natural knowledge of God, it is because this possibility constitutes the foundation of Christian faith. To be sure, the objective basis for the possibility of faith resides in divine revelation. But the subjective basis of this possibility resides necessarily in us; otherwise it would not be our certitude. The possibility of natural knowledge of God is the transcendental condition for the knowledge of faith. But, in strict terms, to identify a transcendental state is not to practice abstraction; rather it is to make a reflection. When Catholic teaching affirms the possibility of a natural knowledge of God as the beginning and end of all things, it does not really make an abstraction of God’s action, at the expense of His being in general and in abstracto. It separates, by an act of reflection, the radical condition that certain knowledge of this God is possible to us. It does not claim, as Barth seems to believe, that natural knowledge must necessarily temporally precede knowledge of faith; rather it maintains that natural knowledge of God is necessarily implied by virtue of man’s status as a rational being. By identifying this state and drawing our attention to it, Catholic doctrine is not creating an idol which it then identifies with the God of the Church; on the contrary, it makes explicit the internal condition by means of which one can find this “God” of the idols and acknowledge Him without lowering Him to the level of an idol.
(Henri Bouillard, “A Dialogue with Barth: The Problem of Natural Theology,” trans. Gerard Farley, Cross Currents, Spring 1968, 226)
That is where the article ends, unfortunately, just when you are excited to read more! If you look at volume three, from which this excerpt is taken, Bouillard continues for several more pages.
Based on these translated portions alone, it is not clear exactly what Bouillard considers to be, as he writes earlier in the article, “the judicatory principle which would permit us to establish in truth the recognition of divine revelation in history” (218). Grover Foley likens it to Bultmann and Schleiermacher (Foley, ibid., 146-147). Bouillard is striving to articulate the way in which we know it is indeed God who we know in faith. This means that there must be some correspondence between God and ourselves, in our capacity to know that this is God who is being known. Any precondition of this sort is rejected by Barth.
That should spark your interest in Henri Bouillard.
Hans Küng in Paris
On a final note, it is worth mentioning that Hans Küng was also in attendance at Bouillard’s defense. Küng recounts it in his memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom. Küng feels that he was slighted by Bouillard when they were both in Paris working on Barth’s theology and even claims that Bouillard was “jealous” of the younger student (p. 129). Henri de Lubac defended Bouillard against Küng’s criticisms (Dokumente 14 , 448-454). Rudolf Voderholzer writes:
[Küng] had first accepted help from Bouillard while writing his 1957 doctoral thesis on Karl Barth, but one year later he severely and a bit condescendingly criticized his mentor’s interpretation of Barth. In his study of Barth, which took a very favorable view of the Protestant theologian, Küng had tried to prove, from just a few passages, that Barth was advocating a position, in regard to the doctrine of justification, that is acceptable to Catholics. Bouillard’s perspective was more differentiated and skeptical, and of course Küng accused it of hampering the ecumenical movement.
(Rudolf Voderholzer, Meet Henri de Lubac: His Life and Work, 81)
For what it’s worth, First Things had a scathing review of Küng’s memoirs: “At age seventy-five, Catholicism’s best-known theological dissenter has published a memoir that is an unmitigated embarrassment. The vulgarity of the author’s self-aggrandizement is breathtaking, the viciousness toward those who disagree with him deeply saddening.” I have no idea if Küng’s grievances toward Bouillard are legitimate, but he is not successful at hiding his self-regard in recounting the events.
Here are a couple more images (click to enlarge):
On the left is the nihil obstat and imprimatur. On the right is the dedication to Fr. Henri de Lubac “in gratitude and affection.”
April 26, 2016
This has been a good year so far.
There is a lot of junk on country radio, but there are significant bright spots as well. Chris Stapleton continues his unprecedented dominance — routinely topping the country album charts and receiving almost every award in which he is qualified to receive, whether from the Country Music Association (CMA) or the Academy of Country Music (ACM). He is sweeping them all! Thank you, Jesus!
In the list below, you will hear some of my favorite songs right now. We have two representatives of the great state of California: Jon Pardi and Sam Outlaw. I love both, but I am especially fond of Sam Outlaw. Texas native, Maren Morris, is a strong female vocalist with a fine sense of what’s good and how to make it even more good. Tim McGraw reminds us how to mature as an artist, with incredible dignity and grace. I love the guy. Chris Stapleton releases his first music video, “Fire Away,” about bipolar disorder and suicide. Craig Campbell has released his new single, “Outskirts of Heaven,” which is remarkably similar to Kip Moore’s “Dirt Road.” Both songs are about how heaven is not clouds and white walls. Instead, heaven is a lot like Dixie (with an implicit shout-out to Hank Jr.).
Granger Smith has released his first #1 single, “Backroad Song,” which somehow manages to elevate itself above the bro-country landscape. On a more serious side, Dan + Shay’s “From the Ground Up” is a heartwarming look at life-long fidelity between a husband and wife. This is a surprisingly mature theme from the young duo, even if the song is perhaps overly sentimental. Finally, Frankie Ballard has released his best single to country radio: “It All Started with a Beer.”
I hope you enjoy. With each video, I have provided some of the lyrics.
“Head Over Boots,” Jon Pardi
The way you sparkle like a diamond ring
Maybe one day we can make it a thing
Test time and grow old together
Rock in our chairs and talk about the weather, yeah
“My Church,” Maren Morris
When Hank brings the sermon / And Cash leads the choir
It gets my cold, cold heart burnin’ / Hotter than a ring of fire
When this wonderful world gets heavy / And I need to find my escape
I just keep the wheels rollin’, radio scrollin’ / ‘Til my sins wash away
“Angeleno,” Sam Outlaw
She didn’t marry for money / A cowboy’s always broke
She didn’t marry for comfort / A cowboy’s never home
But when she looked in his eyes / She saw his soul
Stretchin’ out like a desert / Angeleno
“Humble and Kind,” Tim McGraw
Let yourself feel the pride but / Always stay humble and kind
Don’t expect a free ride from no one
Don’t hold a grudge or a chip and here’s why
Bitterness keeps you from flyin’ / Always stay humble and kind
“Fire Away,” Chris Stapleton
Honey, load up your questions
And pick up your sticks and your stones
And pretend I’m a shelter for heartaches that don’t have a home
Choose the words that cut like a razor
“Outskirts of Heaven,” Craig Campbell
Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven
Where there’s dirt roads for miles / Hay in the fields and fish in the river
Where there’s dogwood trees and honey bees / And blue skies and green grass forever
Lord when I die / I wanna live on the outskirts of Heaven
“Backroad Song,” Granger Smith
Barbed wire fence carving out a hillside
Cutting holes in the midday sun
Like a postcard framed in a windshield
Covered in dust
“From the Ground Up,” Dan + Shay
Grandma and grandpa painted a picture
Of 65 years and one little house
More than a memory, more than saying I do
Kiss you goodnight’s and I love you’s
Me and you baby, walk in the footsteps
Build our own family, one day at a time
Ten little toes, a painted pink room
Our beautiful baby looks just like you
“It All Started with a Beer,” Frankie Ballard
Cursed the devil and prayed to heaven
Lost it all and we rolled some sevens
Been more smiles than there’s been tears
Been more good than bad years
Ain’t it crazy baby how we got here
Oh, it all started with a beer
April 18, 2016
“Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality.”
— Abraham Kuyper, Lectures on Calvinism
Kuyper’s defense of Calvinism in relation to art is rather bold. I strongly disagree with him. Nonetheless, it is stimulating.
Abraham Kuyper’s Lectures on Calvinism is something of a classic in Reformed literature. Delivered as the Stone Lectures at Princeton Theological Seminary in October of 1898, they were published the following year jointly by Höveker & Wormser in Amsterdam, T&T Clark in Edinburgh, and Fleming H. Revell in New York. I will be following the pagination of that edition, freely available.
The fifth lecture is dedicated to art. As with each lecture, Kuyper is committed to showing how Calvinism is superior to all other belief systems, whether that of Rome on the one hand or Liberalism, both Protestant and secular, on the other hand. As Kuyper sees it, Rome’s sacerdotalism replaces God with the Church, and Liberalism’s pantheism replaces God with nature and man’s spirit. Calvinism is, you guessed it, the only consistent system that allows God to be God. The lectures are highly rhetorical.
Calvinism did not develop an art style of its own, and that is a good thing according to Kuyper. Instead, Calvinism liberated art to follow its own principles. That is the gist of Kuyper’s argument. I am not convinced that he succeeds, but it is a fairly sophisticated argument. I will do my best to present it, along with a generous amount of quotations.
His argument follows a historical analysis of civilization’s progress. In the lower stage of man’s development, art and religion were inextricably woven together. “Scarcely a single art-style can be mentioned which did not arise from the center of divine worship and which did not seek the realization of its ideals in the sumptuous structure for that worship” (195). This a noble thing, according to Kuyper. Nonetheless, “If, however, it can be shown that this alliance of religion and art represents a lower stage of religious, and in general of human development, then it is plain, that in this very want of a special architectural style, Calvinism finds an even higher recommendation” (195). That is what Kuyper aims to prove for the rest of the lecture.
What is most remarkable is that Kuyper locates the greatest artistic achievements, specifically architectural, in this “lower stage.” This includes the Pantheon in Rome, Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, St. Peter’s Basilica, Cologne Cathedral, et al. I have to admit that it takes some guts to relegate these to a “lower stage”! All of these edifices represent a time when art was beholden to religion. For Kuyper, that is the primitive alliance from which Calvinism set us free. He weaves his discussion of artistic liberation with political liberation:
First then the aesthetic development of divine worship carried to those ideal heights of which the Parthenon and the Pantheon, the Saint Sophia and Saint Peter are the stone-embroidered witnesses, is only possible at that lower stage, in which the same form of religion is imposed upon a whole nation, both by prince and priest. In that case every difference of spiritual expression fuses into one mode of symbolical worship, and this union of the masses, under the leadership of the magistrate and the clergy, furnishes the possibility of defraying the immense expense of such colossal structures, and of ornamenting and decorating them. In the case, however, of a progressive development of the nations, when individual character-traits split the unity of the masses, Religion also rises to that higher plain where it graduates from the symbolical into the clearly-conscious life, and thereby necessitates both the division of worship into many forms, and the emancipation of matured religion from all sacerdotal and political guardianship. (196)
More than Lutheranism, as Kuyper continues, it is Calvinism that fully freed us from this “sacerdotal and political guardianship.” It is striking to me how much weight Kuyper places upon this matter of “guardianship,” whether civil or ecclesiastic. It is integral to his conception of Calvinism’s greatest value — freedom — including in the realm of art. Perhaps Kuyper’s disciples will disagree with me that “freedom” is Calvinism’s greatest value, but it is on nearly every page of this volume! It is at the heart of his rhetorical strategy.
For Kuyper, we have moved from a primitive to a mature stage in human development. It is in the primitive stage that symbolic forms are necessary, not at the mature stage. As he summarizes his account of our emancipation:
As a result of this, [Calvinism] abandoned the symbolical form of worship, and refused, at the demand of art, to embody its religious spirit in monuments of splendor. (196-197)
The symbolic is superfluous for the mature believer. It is not necessary. This is even demonstrated in the Bible, where the symbolic worship in Israel is but “the ministry of shadows,” and, moreover, part of a “state-religion, which is one and the same for the entire people.” It is a religion “under sacerdotal leadership” (197). So, Israel represents a lower stage, as with the Church of Rome, insofar as both maintain a certain symbolic primitiveness and guardianship. Christ does away with all of this, bringing forth a free and mature people. His priesthood is spiritual and eternal. “The purely spiritual breaks through the nebula of the symbolical” (197).
Enter Hegel (Not Surprisingly)
Kuyper then appeals to Hegel and Von Hartmann. As non-Calvinists and philosophers, they are not partisans. Kuyper writes:
Hegel says that art, which, at a lower stage of development, imparts to a still sensual religion its highest expression, finally helps it by these very means to cast off the fetters of sensuality; for though it must be granted that at a lower level it is only the aesthetical worship that liberates the spirit, nevertheless, he concludes, “beautiful art is not its highest emancipation”, for that is only found in the realm of the invisible and spiritual. And Von Hartmann even more emphatically declares that: Originally Divine worship appeared inseparably united to art, because, at the lower stage, Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form. At that period, all the arts, he says, engage in the service of the cult, not merely music, painting, sculpture and architecture, but also the dance, mimicry and the drama. The more, on the other hand, Religion develops into spiritual maturity, the more it will extricate itself from art’s bandages, because art always remains incapable of expressing the very essence of Religion. (198)
So you can see how Hegel and Von Hartmann are representing Kuyper’s perspective, assuming that Kuyper is presenting them accurately. Beautiful art is “not the highest emancipation.” This union of art and religion represents a lower stage where “Religion is still inclined to lose itself in the aesthetic form.” Kuyper quotes Von Hartmann as saying, “Religion, when fully matured, will rather entirely abstain from the stimulant by which aesthetic pseudo-emotion intoxicated it, in order to concentrate itself wholly and exclusively upon the quickening of these emotions which are purely religious” (198). Wow! We have the opposition of “aesthetic pseudo-emotion” and the “purely religious.” The frozen chosen must not get too excited and emotional!
Kuyper continues with his theme that our maturity requires a separation of religion and art. He is always clear: “And so, arrived at their highest development, both Religion and Art demand an independent existence, and the two stems which at first were intertwined and seemed to belong to the same plant, now appear to spring from a root of their own” (199). Once again, Kuyper reiterates that this is a more advanced stage, akin to Aaron versus Christ and “Romanism” versus Calvinism. Once again, Kuyper must be quoted in full:
Calvinism occupies a higher standpoint in the 16th century than Romanism could reach. Consequently Calvinism was neither able, nor even permitted, to develop an art-style of its own from its religious principle. To have done this would have been to slide back to a lower level of religious life. On the contrary, its nobler effort must be to release religion and divine worship more and more from its sensual form and to encourage its vigorous spirituality. (199)
Kuyper is very fond of describing Calvinism as “vigorous” and other manly attributes. Therefore, he laments that “the pulse-beat of the religious life in our times is so much fainter than it was in the days of our martyrs,” by which he means the Calvinist martyrs and the liberation of Holland from Spain. That was the golden age for which Kuyper longs. It was a time when Calvinism made men to be men! “The man who fears God, and whose faculties remain clear and unimpaired, does not on the brink of age return to the playthings of his infancy” (200). Thus, it is not surprising that he would appeal to Hegel. They have far more in common than Kuyper would probably like to admit. Both occupied similar terrain in defending a progressivist and emancipation-oriented history of man, conveniently locating their own ideas at the pinnacle of this progress.
Kuyper sees Calvinism as a supremely sober and manly religion. By contrast, Roman Catholics are weak-minded and their spirituality is effeminate, as evidenced by their dependence upon aesthetic symbols.
You can read the rest of the lecture on your own time. Kuyper further explains what he means by the liberation of art, which does not mean that he is advocating for a purely secular art. Rather, his understanding of “common grace” means that even non-religious or non-cultic art is still properly understood in its orientation toward God.
I am not convinced that Kuyper’s “common grace” is helpful, at least not in this lecture. The damage is already done. It is hard for me to imagine anyone, other than the most ardent Neo-Calvinist, who finds Kuyper’s presentation to be compelling. This is probably the most ingenious way to defend Calvinism vis-à-vis art, but it is almost comical. If Chartres and Hagia Sophia are examples of a primitive and lower stage in man’s development, then I will take the “lower stage.” Of course, Kuyper mentions Dutch painters of the 17th century (see p. 223). Rembrandt is great, but if that is the “liberation” that Calvinism offers and little else — forgive my incredulity. This is a stimulating lecture, but I am far from convinced.
Image: Bijbel Hersteld Hervormde Kerk
April 14, 2016
The Cathedral of Barcelona, known in Catalan as Catedral de la Santa Creu i Santa Eulàlia. Photograph is mine.
What made the Church’s art distinctive in the West during the Middle Ages?
Joseph Ratzinger gives an answer in his The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press). It is not a long answer, covering only a few pages, but I think it is worth sharing. The following quotes and excerpts can be found on pp. 126-128.
The Narrative of the Cross
According to Ratzinger, the West distinguishes itself from the Eastern Church, and its shared patrimony with the East, in the art that we know as the Gothic. It is in the Gothic that “the central image becomes different.” How? The risen and victorious Lord, who brings harmony and rest, is “superseded by the image of the crucified Lord in the agony of his passion and death.” This is the distinctive narrative that dominates the Gothic, and moreover the focus on narrative and history is what is most distinctive. As Ratzinger continues:
The story is told of the historical events of the Passion, but the Resurrection is not made visible. The historical and narrative aspect of art comes to the fore. It has been said that the mysterial image has been replaced by the devotional image.
We will soon see what this means, namely the contrast between “mysterial” and “devotional.”
From Plato to Aristotle
With the help of Paul Evdokimov, Ratzinger explains one important factor that contributes to this change in the West. Evdokimov was a Russian-French Orthodox theologian and professor in Paris. According to Evdokimov, we must look at the shift from Platonism to Aristotelianism. Here is how Ratzinger summarizes it:
Platonism sees sensible things as shadows of the eternal archetypes. In the sensible we can and should know the archetypes and rise up through the former to the latter. Aristotelianism rejects the doctrine of Ideas. The thing, composed of matter and form, exists in its own right. Through abstraction I discern the species to which it belongs. …The relationship of the spiritual and the material has changed and with it man’s attitude to reality as it appears to him. For Plato, the category of the beautiful had been definitive. The beautiful and the good, ultimately the beautiful and God, coincide. Through the appearance of the beautiful we are wounded in our innermost being, and that wound grips us and takes us beyond ourselves; it stirs longing into flight and moves us toward the truly Beautiful, to the Good in itself.
This Platonist understanding is seen in the iconography of the East and the theology that supports it, though Ratzinger highlights the Church’s transformation of Platonism “by the light of Tabor” and ultimately by the Incarnate God — whereby “the material order as such has been given a new dignity and a new value.” But in the medieval West, this Christian Platonism “largely disappears,” according to Evdokimov by way of Ratzinger. That is probably putting it too strongly, but here is how Ratzinger explains it:
…now the art of painting strives first and foremost to depict events that have taken place. Salvation history is seen less as a sacrament than as a narrative unfolded in time. Thus the relationship to the liturgy also changes. It is seen as a kind of symbolic reproduction of the event of the Cross. Piety responds by turning chiefly to meditation on the mysteries of the life of Jesus. Art finds its inspiration less in the liturgy than in popular piety, and popular piety is in turn nourished by the historical images in which it can contemplate the way to Christ, the way of Jesus himself and its continuation in the saints. …A devotion to the Cross of a more historicizing kind replaces orientation to the Oriens, to the risen Lord who has gone ahead of us.
Ratzinger then cautions us not to “exaggerate the differences” that have developed in the West. “True, the depiction of Christ dying in pain on the Cross is something new, but it still depicts him who bore our pains, by whose stripes we are healed.” There is still a mystery into which we must enter.
The Consolation of the Cross
The example of Grünewald’s Isenheim altarpiece, which Ratzinger uses to illustrate, is familiar to every student of Karl Barth. Ratzinger uses it to illustrate his point that the Gothic allowed for a deeper sense of our sharing in the mystery of Christ’s redemption:
Though Grünewald’s altarpiece takes the realism of the Passion to a radical extreme, the fact remains that it was an image of consolation. It enabled the plague victims cared for by the Antonians to recognize that God identified with them in their fate, to see that he had descended into their suffering and that their suffering lay hidden in his. There is a decisive turn to what is human, historical, in Christ, but it is animated by a sense that these human afflictions of his belong to the mystery. The images are consoling, because they make visible the overcoming of our anguish in the incarnate God’s sharing of our suffering, and so they bear within them the message of the Resurrection.
You can see how Ratzinger is bringing together the realism characteristic of the West and the mystery characteristic of the East. As he puts it, “The mystery is unfolded in an extremity of concreteness, and popular piety is enabled thereby to reach the heart of the liturgy in a new way” (emphasis mine). These images “come from prayer, from interior meditation on the way of Christ.” Indeed, the point of Western realism in its Gothic form is not to draw attention to the phenomenal reality alone, in a sort of reductive or positivist way. As Ratzinger explains, the images “do not show just the ‘surface of the skin’, the external sensible world; they, too, are intended to lead us through mere outward appearance and open our eyes to the heart of God.” He continues:
What we are suggesting here about the images of the Cross applies also to all the rest of the “narrative” art of the Gothic style. What power of inward devotion lies in the images of the Mother of God! They manifest the new humanity of the faith. Such images are an invitation to prayer, because they are permeated with prayer from within. They show us the true image of man as planned by the Creator and renewed by Christ.
There is a lot to ponder.
In this brief account of Gothic art, Ratzinger emphasizes the Cross, which was made an emphasis in the West by the Aristotelian turn toward history and narrative. I am sure that specialists can quibble with this account, but that’s why people don’t like specialists.
The striking thing for me is this emphasis on the Cross. If Ratzinger is correct, Gothic art is not “triumphalist” or expressing “a theology of glory” (vs. “a theology of the cross”) as some Protestant polemics would have it. There is grandeur to be sure, and vanity was probably of greater weight than humility for most of the bishops who were patrons of the artists and artisans. But the narrative and devotional aspect of a cruciform piety is striking indeed, and that is evident for anyone who has toured the great medieval works of France, Spain, England, etc., whether the stained glass or the paintings or the architecture.
March 28, 2016
I have recently been enjoying the works of Shakespeare in a series from Yale University Press: “The Annotated Shakespeare.”
I have two volumes as of now: Hamlet and King Lear. I’ve actually had them for a year or two, but I finally managed to start reading them. I recently watched Justin Kurzel’s film adaptation of Macbeth on Amazon Prime, so that got me in a mood for Shakespeare.
I have not read Macbeth since high school, so I cannot make any informed comparisons between the movie and the play, which I barely remember. I liked the movie. The acting is superb, and the production team crafted some mesmerizing aesthetics, as the critics agree. The screenplay was lacking in some respects. It seemed to me that the ambition and overall pathos of Macbeth was not developed nearly enough, whether before [spoiler alert!] his murder of King Duncan or afterwards in his subsequent devolution into lunacy.
The biggest complaint from viewers is the difficulty of hearing and following the dialogue, which is taken directly from Shakespeare and is entirely without any modernization — in addition to thick accents and frequently whispered voices. However, the problem is easily solved by turning on the closed captions. Seriously, the captions make the movie an enjoyable instead of a frustrating venture. Trust me.
Yale’s Annotated Shakespeare
As for the Yale series, let me commend it to you, because I think it is important. It is important because Shakespeare is one of our great cultural treasures, and yet most English-speakers today do not have the capacity to read Shakespeare. The problem is not in understanding and interpreting Shakespeare, though that is not without challenge. The problem is simply that we do not speak his English. The problem is in terms of vocabulary and grammar.
The enormous value of Yale’s annotated series is the abundance of footnotes on each page, “translating” and, in some cases, explaining the more archaic English — both individual words and expressions. From Hamlet, here is an example:
In act 1, scene 3, Laertes is warning his sister, Ophelia, about Hamlet’s romantic advances. He says:
For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute. No more.
Most readers can get the gist, but the footnotes are helpful. “For” means “as for” — “trifling of his favor” means “dallying of his attention” — “Hold it a fashion and toy in blood” means “a pretense and fooling about of disposition/mood (modern usage: ‘of young hormones’)” — “a violet in the youth of primy nature” means “a flowering of a young man in his prime” — “Forward” means “precocious, ahead of its time” — “suppliance” means “diversion, pastime.”
As you read it with the footnotes, the meaning is clear, and the reader is not frustrated at not knowing what a particular word or expression means. As a result, Shakespeare is made far more accessible to the general reading public. The footnotes can be a bit excessive and, for many, unnecessary at times. But that’s a small complaint, and it will vary from person to person.
The annotation and introduction is by Burton Raffel (1928-2015), Endowed Chair in Arts and Humanities and professor of English at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. In order to produce the series, he teamed-up with the legendary literary critic, Harold Bloom (Yale University), who writes an essay for each volume. There are 14 entries in the series, which you can get from Yale or from Amazon.
March 8, 2016
Here are some book that I have recently read. I have written a mini-review for each.
Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism (HarperCollins Publishers)
Richard McBrien (1936-2015) was a longtime professor of theology at Notre Dame and best known for his lengthy, textbook-like tome, Catholicism. McBrien is representative of the “spirit of Vatican II” crowd in Catholic academia, causing some tension with those who preferred to stress continuity between V2 and the magisterial tradition of previous centuries — an emphasis found in the writings and actions of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In short, McBrien was a “liberal” in the relative sense of these post-V2 debates.
This book is well-written and engaging. As McBrien writes in the preface, it was written for theology students and seminarians, as a sort of guidebook to Catholic ecclesiology. It does, however, presuppose a fair amount from the reader, even though it is not a difficult book to read. If you have zero knowledge or interest in Catholic ecclesiological debates of the past two centuries, then you will probably snooze after the first few pages.
My major criticism is that McBrien is wholly invested in modern ecclesiology and the discussions surrounding Vatican II. The large majority of citations are from this council and from his favorite contemporary ecclesiologists, such as Yves Congar. Why is this a criticism? Because it is very limited. McBrien doesn’t come close to communicating the breadth and depth of the Catholic doctrine of the church. There is very (very!) little resourcement of theologians, councils, popes, mystics, etc., prior to the 19th century. In this regard, McBrien is not nearly as satisfying as Henri de Lubac, Jean Daniélou, Joseph Ratzinger, and Hans Urs von Balthasar.
John Leith, Creeds of the Churches (3rd edition, WJK Press)
John Leith (1919-2002) was a longtime professor of theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond. This 700+ page volume is very helpful. You can see the table of contents at Amazon. I am not aware of a comparable single volume that includes this much material, expertly selected by Leith and including brief introductions. It can serve as an excellent companion to Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church, now in its fourth edition. Leith’s volume is focused on doctrine, including creeds, confessions, conciliar decrees, papal decrees, and the like. In addition to the wealth of Protestant documents, there is also a generous selection of “modern” Roman Catholic documents (Trent, Vatican I, Marian dogmas, Vatican II) and less common documents such as The Confession of Dositheus from the Eastern Orthodox in the late 17th century.
Dwight Longenecker and David Gustafson, Mary: A Catholic-Evangelical Debate (Brazos Press / Baker Publishing Group)
It is hard to evaluate this book. I am sure that there is an audience for this, but I found the shortcomings too significant for me. The book is formatted as a dialog between a Catholic and Protestant, who were in fact once classmates in college. Longenecker is a convert to Catholicism and now a priest in South Carolina. Forewords are provided by Richard John Neuhaus and J. I. Packer. I greatly appreciate the civil tone throughout, and there is a genuine search for truth and clarity. But the dialog format, while perhaps increasing the accessibility of the volume for a larger audience, severely limits the scholarship necessary for arguing the points in dispute. However, for the Protestant who is new to Mariology (i.e., 99% of Protestants), I can see how this volume could be very helpful as an introduction and incentive toward further study.
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)
Louis Berkhof (1873-1957) was a prominent Dutch-American theologian and church leader in the first half of the 20th century. He is best known for his Systematic Theology, which is still widely recommended among Calvinists in America. Full disclosure: I did not read the whole volume, and I am sure that I never will. But I believe that I read enough to evaluate its merits.
There are indeed merits to this volume. It is eminently clear, concise, and sober. If you are seeking a one-stop shop for scholastic Reformed orthodoxy, then this is probably as good as you will find. My criticisms have much to do with my own prejudices. Insofar as the volume attempts to go beyond a mere restatement of received orthodoxy and venture into actual demonstrations and defenses of said orthodoxy, the shortcomings are massive. And when it comes to modern theology, including Barth in his early period, then Berkhof has little to offer and the little can be misleading. Admittedly, Berkhof was writing when the whole “dialectical” movement was nascent and not altogether coherent, eventually fracturing.
St. John of the Cross, John of the Cross: Selected Writings (Classics of Western Spirituality; Paulist Press)
I had read John of the Cross years ago — his renowned Dark Night of the Soul. But this was my first time reading The Ascent of Mount Carmel, which is featured alongside other important works in this volume from Kieran Kavanaugh, a disciple of John in the Discalced Carmelite religious order. I greatly benefited from Dark Night when I first read it. It is hard-hitting to say the least, but The Ascent is even more hard-hitting. At least, that was my impression. John of the Cross comes dangerously close to a Manichean obsession with creation’s propensity for evil by way of creaturely attachment. This is not uncommon among the most serious of mystics (not, by the way, your garden-variety Episcopal eco-feminist’s pseudo-mysticism). However, John has an aesthetic sense that is wonderfully expressed in the poetry upon which these writings are but commentaries. On the whole, John is as enigmatic as Simone Weil, with the same tension between the Cross and the Glory.
Maren Morris, “My Church”
I love this song! This is Maren’s debut single, and it has been moving quickly up the Country Airplay chart.
February 15, 2016
“God is great, and God is good
But he’s never gonna save this town
The way I see it, there’s two ways out
We can dry up or drown
We’re gonna dry up or drown”
— Evan Webb
McClure, Illinois is just another small town USA. Like most small towns, the well-being of the community is heavily contingent upon outside forces, whether government or corporate. In the case of McClure, this includes the closure of a state prison, a source of employment in a fragile economy. But then there’s nature. Nature often likes to beat a man when he is already down. In this case, McClure was hit by the flooding of the Mississippi River this winter, thanks to unusually warm temperatures.
So Evan Webb and his bandmates wrote a song:
The images in the video are from their community. Evan himself was displaced by the flooding.
It is rare to find an artist who can communicate this devastation, honestly and without an exaggerated sentimentality. It requires, first of all, a songwriter who is embedded within the community. Secondly, it requires a songwriter who is willing to write from this perspective, instead of writing from some generic, universal platform.
This was, in fact, how country music was born. As Southern men moved from the farms to the mill towns in the 1910’s and 20’s — as in Gastonia, North Carolina — they longed for the sounds of home with all of its peculiarity. Some entrepreneurial businessmen decided to fill this need, as businessmen do, and enlisted the first recording artists in this new and as-yet-undefined genre, like Jimmie Rodgers. This is a genre that has given us Merle Haggard’s “Pride in What I Am,” “If We Make It Through December,” and “Mama’s Hungry Eyes.” I only mention Haggard because he is my favorite songwriter. Others could be enlisted.
As for McClure, Illinois, we have Evan Webb and the Rural Route Ramblers. Evan is no Merle, as I am sure that he would readily agree. Most people have never heard of him or his band. Yet, he has given us something special — a reminder of what country music is supposed to be about. His hometown, with a tiny population, was devastated, and he put it into song.
God is great?
The standout lyrics, in the sense of grabbing one’s attention, are the “God is great” lines that I quote at the beginning of this post. These lines could upset some people. If God is great and good, then of course he will “save this town”? Right? That is the false piety that Evan is criticizing. It is a piety that excuses ourselves and indeed privileges ourselves.
Evan is not denying that God is great or that God is good. He is not posing a contradiction for our dialectical amusement. He is saying that God is not the simplistic and self-serving God of our common piety. Evan is calling for action. It is a call for responsibility. This has nothing to do with any Pelagian scheme. It is the opposite. It is a call to service, just as Evan and his friends worked hard to contain the flooding with sandbags.
It is an understanding of a God who is not in our back pocket, so to speak — a cheap comfort and readily at our disposal. That is refreshing.
So, may God bless Evan and his band and his town. Amen.
Image: Evan Webb (source)