Evan Webb

“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

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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.

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Image: Evan Webb (source)

Recent books of interest

February 11, 2016

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Here is the latest installment of recent and upcoming books of interest. I have decided to use categories: Roman Catholic, Protestant, Barth Studies, and Other.

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Roman Catholic

Proofs of God

Matthew Levering, Proofs of God: Classical Arguments from Tertullian to Barth (Baker Academic)

Johann Adam Möhler, Unity in the Church, or, The Principles of Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press). This is a translation of a very important book from the Tübingen theologian.

Roderick Strange, ed., John Henry Newman: A Portrait in Letters (Oxford University Press)

Aquinas and Theology of the Boby

Thomas Petri, O.P., Aquinas and the Theology of the Body: The Thomistic Foundations of John Paul II’s Anthropology (Catholic University of America Press)

Roland Teske, S.J., To Know God and the Soul: Essays on the Thought of St. Augustine (Catholic University of America Press)

Gilles Emery, O.P., and Matthew Levering, eds., Aristotle in Aquinas’s Theology (Oxford University Press)

Gary Selin, Priestly Celibacy: Theological Foundations (Catholic University of America Press)

Evangelical Exodus

Douglas M. Beaumont, ed., Evangelical Exodus: Evangelical Seminarians and Their Paths to Rome (Ignatius Press)

Uwe Michael Lang, Signs of the Holy One: Liturgy, Ritual, and Expression of the Sacred (Ignatius Press)

Serge-Thomas Bonino, O.P., Angels and Demons: A Catholic Introduction (Catholic University of America Press)

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Protestant

Christian Dogmatics

Michael Allen and Scott R. Swain, eds., Christian Dogmatics: Reformed Theology for the Church Catholic (Baker Academic)

Keith L. Johnson, Theology as Discipleship (IVP Academic)

Kevin J. Vanhoozer and Daniel J. Treier, Theology and the Mirror of Scripture: A Mere Evangelical Account (IVP Academic)

Evolution and Holiness

Matthew Nelson Hill, Evolution and Holiness: Sociobiology, Altruism and the Quest for Wesleyan Perfection (IVP Academic)

Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate (Baker Academic)

Sarah Coakley - Future of ST

Janice McRandal, ed., Sarah Coakley and the Future of Systematic Theology (Fortress Press)

John Webster, Confessing God: Essays in Christian Dogmatics II (T&T Clark). This volume was originally published in 2005, now made more widely available and affordable.

Thomas H. McCall, An Invitation to Analytic Christian Theology (IVP Academic)

Samuel V. Adams, The Reality of God and Historical Method: Apocalyptic Theology in Conversation with N. T. Wright (IVP Academic)

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Barth Studies

Barth Infralapsarian

Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development, 1920-1953 (IVP Academic)

Sven Ensminger, Karl Barth’s Theology as a Resource for a Christian Theology of Religions (T&T Clark)

Jennifer M. Rosner, Healing the Schism: Barth, Rosenzweig, and the New Jewish-Christian Encounter (Fortress Press)

Shannon Nicole Smythe, Forensic Apocalyptic Theology: Karl Barth and the Doctrine of Justification (Fortress Press)

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Other

Oakes - Christian Wisdom

Kenneth Oakes, ed., Christian Wisdom Meets Modernity (T&T Clark). From the publisher’s description of the series and this volume:

The ‘Illuminating Modernity’ series examines the great but lesser known thinkers in the ‘Romantic Thomist’ tradition such as Erich Przywara and Fernand Ulrich and shows how outstanding 20th century theologians like Ratzinger and von Balthasar have depended on classical Thomist thought, and how they radically reinterpreted this thought.

The chapters in this volume are dedicated to the encounter between the presuppositions and claims of modern intellectual culture and the Christian confession that the crucified and resurrected Jesus is the power and wisdom of God and is the lord of history and of his church.

The scholars contributing to this discussion do not assume that Christianity and modernity are two discrete entities which can be readily defined, nor do they presume that Christian wisdom and modernity meet each other only in conflict or by coincidence. They engage with a variety of great figures – Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Rahner, Przywara, Guardini, Karl Barth, and Karol Wojtyla – to illustrate the connection between modernism and Christian wisdom. The volume concludes with a programmatic statement for the renewal of Christian philosophy that has been able to retain the cosmo-theological vision as outlined by Mezei in the final chapter.

Andrew B. McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective (Baker Academic).

Ralph C. Woods, ed., Tolkien among the Moderns (University of Notre Dame Press)

Kirk R. MacGregor, Luis de Molina: The Life and Theology of the Founder of Middle Knowledge (Zondervan). The author is an evangelical Protestant.

Weil - Seventy Letters

Wipf & Stock has republished three volumes from Simone Weil, under a series title of “Simone Weil: Selected Works.”

Francis Watson, The Fourfold Gospel: A Theological Reading of the New Testament Portraits of Jesus (Baker Academic)

Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, eds., A Biblical History of Israel (Second Edition, WJK Press)

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Music

Vince Gill, Last Bad Habit

Vince Gill, Down To My Last Bad Habit

Loretta Lynn, Full Circle

Nick Dittmeier, Midwest Heart / Southern Blues

Joey+Rory, Hymns

Dianna Corcoran, In America

Breelan Angel - Diamond

Breelan Angel, Diamond in a Rhinestone World

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Image: “Reading You”

The-Blue-Album

A little levity is needed for this blog.

I could pick any time-frame from past decades, but I am especially fond of the mid-90’s when it comes to the rock radio format. This has much to do with how “alt-rock” became mainstream in the early 90’s.

Sure, the “grunge” sound was quickly made accessible through a pop-sensible retooling, but that was a good thing on the whole. It challenged and changed the radio for a generation (albeit short-lived) with a surge of creativity. It was fun and exciting.

I will limit the time-frame from 1994 to 1996. Three years — three awesome years. There are ten music videos below, in no particular order.

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Weezer, “Undone (The Sweater Song)”

Weezer’s self-titled debut album, dubbed “the blue album,” was perfect for its time in every way. In contrast to the the seriousness of the early 90’s (e.g., Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage,” Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Alice in Chain’s “Man in the Box,” et al.), Weezer was fun and whimsical and witty, while retaining the distortion-driven dynamics of their grunge predecessors. The “true” fan of Weezer is invariably going to say that their follow-up release, Pinkerton, is their greatest album, but that is nonsense — as much as I love Pinkerton. The blue album was and remains their best work.

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The Smashing Pumpkins, “Tonight, Tonight”

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness is the epitome of mid-90’s creativity and ambitiousness. “Tonight, Tonight” won wide acclaim as both a radio single and a music video. The album also yielded the now-classic songs, “1979” and “Bullet with Butterfly Wings.” The lead singer, Billy Corgan, is a rather intelligent guy, and he enjoys bemoaning (rightly so) the current state of the music industry. Luckily for him, Billy and his band debuted at the perfect time, with a welcoming radio market and wide audience.

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Live, “Lightning Crashes”

Throwing Copper is one of the gems of the whole decade, and “Lightning Crashes” is the most treasured and recognizable song on the album. Everybody loves a slowly building tempo, especially when the payoff is as glorious as this. There is a reverence to the song, and the vocals are captivating from beginning to end. This was a song that would bind you to the seat of your car in the school parking lot, until the song was finished.

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Goo Goo Dolls, “Name”

Goo Goo Dolls began as a punk band from Buffalo. They had already been together for almost a decade by the time of their phenomenal breakout hit, “Name,” in 1995, from A Boy Named Goo. Obviously, their sound had changed, and it is why we all know them. They released several more hits and remain a popular band, even as their heyday has long passed. Goo Goo Dolls defined the crossover brand of “alt-rock-pop” in the mid to late 90’s.

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Tom Petty, “You Don’t Know How It Feels”

Tom Petty was already a well-established figure in mainstream music, having had multiple hit songs since the late 70’s. He continued to surprise the industry with his wide appeal, releasing massive hit singles like “Free Fallin'” in 1989. In 1994, he released Wildflowers and once again released a radio single that would become one of his most iconic songs: “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” This is classic Petty. According to Tom Petty himself, they record all of their albums “live” in the studio, without any layering or subsequent polishing. I saw them in concert several years ago, and I believe it. They are incredible.

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Collective Soul, “The World I Know”

It is a little-known fact that Collective Soul had the most #1 rock singles in the 90’s. The band is anchored by two brothers who are sons of a pastor in Georgia. While they are a “secular” band, they are noted for frequently introducing spiritual themes and expressions in their songs. I saw Collective Soul in concert in 2000, and they remain one of the most tightly-structured and impressive bands that I have ever seen.

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K’s Choice, “Not an Addict”

The deeper you stake it in your vein / The deeper the thoughts / There’s no more pain / I’m in heaven / I’m a god

Needless to say, this song connected with a lot of people. It is one of the most haunting and beautiful songs of the decade. K’s Choice is a Belgian band, and this is the lead track from their second album, released in 1996.

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Alanis Morissette, “Head Over Feet”

Now available in a four-disc “collector’s edition,” Jagged Little Pill is among the most recognizable 90’s albums, thanks to its multiple hit singles and crossover appeal. Alanis Morissette was one of the few women to appeal to both the modern rock and pop audience, and I cannot think of any woman today who is doing the same. Of course, rock ‘n’ roll as a mainstream format is now in a state of turmoil, if not complete collapse.

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Hootie and The Blowfish, “Let Her Cry”

Cracked Rear View gave us one huge hit after another. In fact, most people experienced “Hootie fatigue” at some point. As a result, we have forgotten how great they were, especially this album. It doesn’t matter what genre of music you like, if you don’t like “Let Her Cry,” then you are a soulless bastard! The lead singer, Darius Rucker, is now a successful country artist. They proudly hail from South Carolina.

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Hum, “Stars”

Hum’s “Stars” was a one-hit wonder on rock radio in the mid-90’s, though enjoying spins well into the late 90’s. Their album, You’d Prefer an Astronaut, is very much representative of what college guys (and gals) were into at the time. The distortion is extra thick throughout the album, and “Stars” stood-out with its melody and infectious riffs. To quote one of the YouTube comments (forgive the language), “Best fucking riff of the 90s.” Yep! Also, check-out Downward is Heavenward.

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If we continued into the late 90’s, I would include Foo Fighters, Everclear, Our Lady Peace, Matchbox 20, and Third Eye Blind, to name a few.

Among other songs that I could have listed for the mid-90’s: Oasis’ “Wonderwall” and “Champagne Supernova.” No Doubt’s “Don’t Speak.” R.E.M.’s “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” The Cranberries’ “Zombie.” Spacehog’s “In the Meantime.” 311’s “Down.” Sublime’s “What I Got.”  And, of course, plenty of Dave Matthews Band.

church

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Steven Wedgeworth has posted a rebuttal to Leithart’s thesis. As y’all know, I posted a defense earlier this week. Wedgeworth’s piece is a long rebuttal, including complaints about “churchly nostalgia” and a defense of Calvinist hip-hop! It is worth reading. We come at all of this from very different places, to put it mildly.

I will not address all of Wedgeworth’s criticisms, but I must address his account of the sacraments. And then I will briefly address his take on Newman’s high-church aesthetics, which is very off the mark.

This will allow me to discuss a topic that I have wanted to discuss again for quite some time: Thomas Aquinas’ view of the sacraments, namely the Eucharist.

Blame it on Trent?

Wedgeworth argues that Leithart has the doctrine of the sacraments all wrong, at least the Roman Catholic view. Here is Wedgeworth, worth quoting in full:

In Leithart’s words, a proper use of symbolism allows objects to “be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else.” This is all actually very interesting, and at the heart of Dr. Leithart’s larger career project, but it is not the way in which “sacraments” were debated at the time of the Reformation.

Assuming for a moment that Zwingli himself could not allow symbols to “to be both themselves and also… without ceasing to be what they are… something else,” it is abundantly clear that another religious party also had this very problem. The doctrine of transubstantiation asserts that the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine cease being bread and wine when they become the body and blood of Christ. Thus Zwinglian poetics ought to be in close company with Roman Catholic poetics. Blame it on Marburg if you like, but don’t forget Trent.

This is far more than a cute tu quoque. When it comes to the Eucharist, the Tridentine position, which is still the definitive one for Rome, is that “a conversion is made of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ our Lord, and of the whole substance of the wine into the substance of His blood.” Indeed, the Council of Trent had a strong revulsion towards any assertion that both bread and body or wine and blood existed together at the same time:

“If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood-the species Only of the bread and wine remaining-which conversion indeed the Catholic Church most aptly calls Transubstantiation; let him be anathema.”

This is a major problem for the sacramental poetics of Miss Flannery as Dr. Leithart has represented them. If the Eucharist really was the center of her existence, and if she really was a good Roman Catholic, then she ought not to have been able to write as she did. Perhaps she was a subconscious Lutheran. …

Is this true? Leithart argues that the sacraments operate simultaneously as themselves and as “something else.” For the Eucharist, this would mean that the signs used in the sacrament (bread and wine) are also Jesus himself in the Eucharist while remaining bread and wine. According to Wedgworth, this is not the Roman Catholic position. His argument is that the Council of Trent definitely stated that the elements of the bread and wine are no longer present but instead, at the time of the consecration, changed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ. As such, the sign is no longer the sign (in reality) but entirely substituted by the reality to which it ostensibly signifies.

That is a common enough account, but it is not correct, as I understand Trent and the official Roman position. As is well-known, the Tridentine position on the sacraments is heavily influenced by Thomas Aquinas. Even though Trent avoids canonizing the substance/accident categories of Aquinas, it is impossible to understand Trent without understanding Aquinas. It is wholly permissible for a later generation to substitute these categories with other, perhaps better and more serviceable, categories, so long as Trent is properly understood and affirmed in the distinctions that it intends. That, at least, is the duty of the Catholic theologian.

“Substance”?

So, what is Trent actually saying? It all depends upon what Trent means by “substance.” It does not mean what we would mean. According to the standard Oxford Latin Dictionary of Lewis & Short, substantia means “that of which a thing consists, the being, essence, contents, material, substance.” For accidens, it is defined as “non-essential quality of any thing,” with a parenthetical note opposing the Latin substantia and the Greek οὐσία. According to Souter’s A Glossary of Later Latin (Oxford, 1949), substantia means “a real existence; the thing itself,” referring to Tertullian, and substantialis means “substantial, real, essential,” also citing Tertullian. These definitions are, admittedly, not entirely helpful for clarifying matters. The reason is because they are abstract categories with, as you would expect, a broad and shifting referential range.

Most importantly, the “that of which a things consists” in terms of its “contents” or “material” or “substance” is different today from what it was in Aquinas’ day. We are far more likely to refer to the physical properties, chemical composition, and graphical terrain of any object as “essential” and therefore the “substance” of the object. That is not what Aquinas means, and it is not what Trent means. I first grappled with this topic by taking a very close, hard look at what Aquinas says, how he uses these categories, and the limits he places upon them. Luckily for myself, I have already dealt with this on the blog:

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part one

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part two

Transubstantiation in Thomas Aquinas: part three

The moral of the story is that we must attend to the particular context in which these categories are used in order to understand what they mean. Yes, the substance is replaced by the substance of another (hence, “transubstantiation”), but what does Aquinas mean by “substance”? For Aquinas, substance is a non-local property, and this is a non-negotiable for dealing with this Thomist view of “the real presence” of Christ. As a local property, substance would acquire the properties of a local presence, which is spatially circumscribed. If that were the case, these properties would be essential to the “appearance,” which is (in Thomist language) the “accidents” and therefore not essential to the “substance.” I know that this is complicated for most people, but I try to explain it in the three-part series above on Thomas’ doctrine of Transubstantiation.

The point is rather simple, all things considered. The properties of bread and wine remain after consecration, insofar as they are physically and chemically and spatially defined — which is entirely how they are defined today as their “essential” properties. This is the orthodox position of the Roman Catholic Church. I am not aware of anyone, knowledgeable on the subject, who would disagree with me on that. I am, of course, very open to any challenges. Richard Muller’s Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Baker, 1985) defines transubstantiation as “only a transformation of substance, not of the incidental properties or accidents of the bread and wine. The appearance of bread and wine, therefore, remains” (p. 306). That is true, but we are prone to mistake “incidental” and “appearance” in ways that Aquinas and Trent never intended. The accidental properties that remain (the bread and wine) are not incidental in the sense of being capable of substitution by other properties! But that is exactly how we think of “incidental.” Likewise, the accidental properties are not mere “appearances” in the sense of a magical hallucination but are, in fact, the concrete properties that a scientist can verify and the Catholic can affirm as “really” present.

All of this is to say, the Roman Catholic position allows for the sort of “real” presence of the sign while allowing for the “real” presence of the signified, precisely in the way that Leithart argues.

John Henry Newman’s Aesthetic Motivations?

As a part of Wedgeworth’s criticism of “nostalgia,” he brings Newman and the 19th century into his discussion:

The move towards a “High Church” aesthetic began in the 19th century, with figures like Orestes Brownson and John Henry Newman, and it has continued throughout the 20th century with many celebrated examples. In nearly every case, these figures did not produce their literary or artistic works because of their newfound religious tradition, but instead found the new religious traditions because of the literary or artistic quests.

This is so incredibly wrong, if the second sentence is meant to apply to Newman. I don’t blame Wedgeworth, honestly, because he is simply placing Newman into a common narrative of 19th century theology and philosophy. As many of y’all know, I have spent a considerable amount of time with John Henry Newman. I have read most of his published works, and I wrote a master’s dissertation at Aberdeen on his most difficult work: the culminating masterpiece of his career, A Grammar of Assent, which has been unduly neglected in comparison to his more famous Essay on Development and the celebrated Apologia.

The best place to begin with Newman is actually his Oxford University sermons, while an Anglican, now published by the University of Notre Dame, which currently publishes most of his works. These are not typical sermons but more like lectures, and yet Newman was beloved by the students who flocked to see this quiet, shy, humble man in the pulpit. He had none of the charisma that we associate with a celebrated figure. There is a strong continuity from his Oxford sermons to the essay on development to the apologia and finally A Grammar of Assent, and you can clearly see it in his early work on the doctrine of justification.

The continuity is the priority that Newman places on the moral conscience. If we consider the Platonist transcendentals of truth/reason, goodness, and beauty, then we must say that Newman puts goodness and the conscience in the driver’s seat, with reason and beauty in a definitely subordinate position.

This is not altogether uncharacteristic of the 19th century, given the priority of moral or practical reasoning (usually associated with Kant) in matters theological, especially by the time of Ritschl. But aesthetics is also a defining feature of the 19th century (usually associated with Herder and others who reacted against 18th century rationalism and strict empiricism). Where does Newman stand? It is quite clear. Newman is deeply suspicious of the “aesthetes” who place beauty in the driver’s seat, including the more sophisticated and impressive accounts of a Coleridge or Blake. This is why it is wrong to characterize Newman as finding Rome because of an aesthetic quest. Far from it, even though that may have been the case with many of his peers. If aesthetics were in control, then Newman would have happily stayed in his beloved Oxford Anglicanism, instead of moving to the industrial Birmingham and founding an Oratory and inspiring others to do the same among the working class.

The most surprising thing of all, for anyone who has studied Newman, is how little aesthetics is part of his quest for religious truth. I believe that aesthetics is very much a part of his moral epistemology, but the law of God is the fundamental determination in his thought. This is even more clear in his collection of sermons after his conversion: Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations

Newman is such an anomaly for his time and far more so today.

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Image: source

Defending Leithart

February 1, 2016

Peter Leithart

“Here is a thesis, which I offer in a gleeful fit of reductionism: Modern Protestants can’t write because we have no sacramental theology.”

— Peter Leithart

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This past week, Peter Leithart published a two-part series at First Things on “Why Protestants Can’t Write” (see part one and part two). With a title like that, you are sure to draw attention and create a ruckus, and that is surely the point of the title. The original title, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write.” That is probably the more accurate title, as we shall see.

Today, he posted a follow-up response, “Protestants, Writing, Sacraments.” At the end of the post, he linked to his review of Lori Branch’s Freedom & Propriety. I highly recommend reading both the follow-up and the review. They will clarify the sort of Protestant that Leithart is targeting.

I have engaged in these discussions for quite some time. I can predict the initial Protestant response with pinpoint precision. What about Milton? Or, in regard to visual arts, what about Rembrandt? There is a reason why these and a few other figures are always offered. Always. It is because they are exceptions — exceptions to the rule. But, the rule is the point, not the exceptions. Moreover, we must inquire why someone like Milton is able to write in a way that the evangelicals in Leithart’s crosshairs cannot.

What Sort of Writing?

We must first recognize what Leithart means by “write.” He is not talking about the craft of writing in general. Protestants are excellent at writing theology, especially doctrinal theology. In a previous post, “The Evangelical Aesthetic,” I wrote:

As is often said, the Catholic aesthetic is visual and material; the Protestant aesthetic is verbal and aural. Even Catholic novelists — in a verbal medium — are basically imaginative (image-making) in their orientation. Tolkien is an obvious example.

In this scheme, Protestants are in fact good at writing, since it is a verbal medium. Yet, this is the medium that Leithart is engaging.

Leithart is very specific about what he means. He is saying, as I indicate above, that Catholic writers are imaginative in their narrative prose, namely fictional prose, in a way that Protestants are not. Leithart expresses this in terms of sacramental theology and not imagination per se, but I am fairly certain that the connection between the two is uncontroversial. The point is that Leithart is engaged with a particular form of writing, as well as a particular form of Protestant.

The Sacramental Writer

Let me put it briefly. The sacramental writer attends to the sign or symbol as really manifesting the divine — not merely indicating or pointing away from itself but, rather, itself operating in this capacity. Leithart explains this in the second part, by way of Flannery O’Connor. You can read it for yourself, and anyone who wants to criticize Leithart’s thesis must criticize it on this point.

Leithart believes that this is a “Zwinglian” way of understanding sacramental signs, and this is why he blames Marburg for our ills. It quickly becomes clear that Leithart is not attacking Protestantism as a whole — and he makes exceptions for “Protestants with prayer books” and “lapsed Calvinists touched with Transcendentalism,” as well as genuine exceptions like Marilynne Robinson. Typologies like this — here, “Zwinglian” — are always open for criticism in obvious ways, which is why fewer and fewer intellectuals are willing to do this sort of typological approach. That is a shame. It is why our thinking is so technical, careful, refined, and — boring.

So, Leithart is criticizing evangelicals for the most part. He is criticizing Protestants who are basically Zwinglian, which is to say, most Protestants in America and most of the global evangelical movement. Protestant charismatics are overwhelmingly Zwinglian, and that’s a large bulk of the global South. Charismatics have their favored ways of receiving the Spirit, and sacramental signs are rarely among these ways. To be clear, Leithart does not deal with the specific targets of his criticism, so I am conjecturing. It is also very likely that Leithart has large swaths of mainline Protestantism (and liberal Catholicism) in mind as well, to the extent that they inherit and perpetuate the same unimaginative and pseudo-sacramental approach to the Christian faith. Thus, he is attacking “modern Protestantism,” in both its conservative and liberal expressions. Nonetheless, it seems that conservative evangelicals are the dominant target.

More Reasons Why Protestants Can’t Write

Derek Rishmawy has posted a characteristically thoughtful response: “7 Reasons Zwingli Might Not Be the Reason Protestants Can’t Write.” This is a good post, but it is a peculiar post. It is meant to be a rejoinder of sorts to Leithart.

Derek criticizes Leithart’s “gleeful reductionism” as unhelpful, but Derek manages to supplement Leithart’s thesis with seven more reasons! You will need to read his post in order to understand what I mean. Here is part of my response in the comments:

I think this post supports and supplements Leithart’s thesis. For example, I am pretty sure that Leithart would interpret dispensational eschatology (Darby, Scofield) as an aggravated form of Zwinglian literalism and lack of sacramental imagination. And the same can be said for conversionism, with its reductionist view of the atonement and the gospel, and for cultural isolationism. It is worth noting that the original title of Leithart’s article, when it was first published in Credenda/Agenda, is, “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write” — which is a more accurate title because, as you note, his focus is not really on Protestants as a whole but “low church” evangelicals. And even where American evangelicalism has found cultural support, affluence, leisure (the basis of culture, according to Josef Pieper) in America, it has still not yielded anything significant of artistic quality. There’s a reason why all of the great Southern novelists were Catholic.

Sure, Leithart would need to do a lot more work to fully substantiate his thesis, but we must engage him at his strongest points. We must engage his conception of Christian writing as “a specific way of rendering the symbolic and real.”

I do not care if you disagree. I only care that you disagree on the real point of controversy and that you offer some credible alternative. From the Facebook responses that I’ve seen, this is sorely lacking. In fact, evangelicals have unwittingly demonstrated their own ignorance and even arrogance in some of these responses. Leithart is not pulling this from thin air. He is responding to real problems within Protestantism, as he has done for most of his career.

Derek complains that “this is exactly the sort of piece that fuels what Gregory Thornbury’s dubbed the ‘Suicide Death-Cult’ tendencies of self-flagellating, young, Evangelicals who are still in emotional recovery over the Carman tapes they liked in their youth.” I can sympathize with that concern — a lot. But sometimes evangelicals need to self-flagellate, and this is one area (among other) in need of critical self-evaluation and humility.

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Image: Peter Leithart (source)