June 11, 2015
Affliction is an uprooting of life, a more or less attenuated equivalent of death, made irresistibly present to the soul by the attack or immediate apprehension of pain. If there is complete absence of physical pain there is no affliction for the soul, because our thoughts can turn to any object. Thought flies from affliction as promptly and irresistibly as an animal flies from death.
[“The Love of God and Affliction,” in Waiting for God, p. 68.]
As some of you know, I did my undergraduate thesis in Religious Studies on the French mystic-philosopher, Simone Weil. At the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, I was introduced to Simone Weil by one of the philosophy professors, who described herself as a Platonist Anglican. For those of us fortunate to take her classes, she also assigned the Platonist novelist, Iris Murdoch, not surprisingly.
I was enraptured by Weil. I hated her and loved her with equal passion. She demands nothing less.
Simone Weil was a Gnostic. I resisted the “Gnostic” identification for Weil for a long time, even though it is common in Weil studies. I resisted it because Weil is far more interesting, far more important than the libel associated with Gnosticism. “Anti-matter”? “Anti-creation?” Superficially, yes, because our profound suffering requires a love that supersedes all principalities and powers. But alongside suffering, she believed that beauty was the surest path to God, and she believed this with the utmost seriousness and an integrity that should put us all to shame.
Simone Weil is an anomaly. She makes other anomalies appear tame by comparison. Pascal and Kierkegaard are her immediate forebears, at least in general qualifications and applications. This is why she is homeless. Feminists do not know what to do with her. Christians are equally perplexed.
Weil is a heretic, but she is a noble heretic. She is a heretic that the church needs in order to survive and thrive.
In the marriage feast of the new creation, I will drink wine with Simone Weil. I will wipe her tears, and she will kiss mine.
May 4, 2015
“The Protestant Reformation was a major rupture in Western history, rather than some murky transitional era,” according to Yale professor, Carlos Eire. “The great ontological difference between the physical and spiritual realms — upheld by Protestants, especially in the Reformed tradition — drove a wedge between matter and spirit.”
In the following lecture (embedded below) at Gordon College, Professor Eire argues that “in the sixteenth century, something very odd happened, which was that suddenly some Christians started to argue that miracles, such as the ones that are told about in the New Testament, could no longer happen, but in fact that they had ceased to happen when the last apostle died.” That was a theological novum in the history of the church. By contrast, the Roman Catholic world experienced a boom in miraculous accounts, in continuity with the early and medieval church.
Professor Eire wants to extend and modify Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism desacralized the world, resulting in the secularization of the West. Weber was limited to “magic and superstition.” He did not account for the radical way in which reality was reconceived in theological terms by Protestants, where the divine-world relationship was given an altered metaphysical landscape in contrast to the Christian past. A continuing emphasis in Eire’s academic work is that historians have underestimated the role of theology and belief, in favor of political and social forces (e.g., “class struggle”). He does not discount the latter, of course, but he is taking seriously the theological commitments and their ramifications for social change, which is in fact closer to the self-perception of the major players who were initiating the changes (e.g., Calvin).
Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He is the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1989), From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and A Brief History of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2011). His most popular book is his award-winning memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003).
The image above, of St. Bernard of Clairvaux receiving milk from the breast of Mary, is referenced by Professor Eire in the lecture. Image source: Taylor Marshall
April 20, 2015
There have been some remarkable vocal performers in the history of country music. The most famous have been on the male side, where some of the most distinctive voices can be heard: from the yodels of Hank Williams and Dwight Yoakam to the expressive baritone of George Jones and Randy Travis. Next to their male colleagues, we can also list the legendary Tammy Wynette, with her vulnerable tremor, or the wonderfully twangy and confident Reba McIntyre. It is the “distinctive” quality that makes country vocals such a special contribution to American music. A powerhouse vocal performance is not country, though I might make an exception for Carrie Underwood.
Ashley Monroe is an excellent case in point. She is one of my favorite singer-songwriters to emerge in the last ten years, and she has made some influential friends with Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton. But she is more than a great songwriter. She is also an excellent vocalist, projecting both confidence and vulnerability. Her twang is effortless. She has only received modest success in regard to radio play, yet she is very well-known and beloved throughout Nashville and, indeed, the whole country. Her album, Like a Rose, has been a great success, hailed by both critics and average country fans alike. And there is even a beautiful music video for the title track.
Among her performances at the Opry, I warmly recommend these two:
“Has Anybody Ever Told You,” Ashley Monroe
“Two Weeks Late,” Ashley Monroe
Image: Ashley Monroe (source: Farce the Music, retrieved 22-April-2014)
April 15, 2015
I have been interested in Karl Rahner’s doctrine of Mary ever since I read his essay, “The Fundamental Principle of Marian Theology,” in Mary: The Complete Resource (OUP, 2007). Happily, I just stumbled across Peter Fritz’s excellent lecture on Rahner’s Mariology:
The lecture was hosted by the ICL at the University of Notre Dame. In the title of the lecture, Fritz intentionally puts “minimalism” in quotation marks. As he concludes, Rahner’s Marian minimalism is “a variant of Marian maximalism” and rooted “in the devotional matrix” of Marian piety.
Fritz is the author of Karl Rahner’s Theological Aesthetics (CUA Press, 2014).
October 1, 2014
I have sung the praises of Holly Williams in a previous post, “The Grace of Holly Williams.” I cannot think of a single album, ever, that has impressed me as much as her third album, The Highway, released early last year. It’s perfect, if such a thing is possible. From beginning to end, it is perfect.
Let me quote from my earlier post:
Holly’s joy is not cheap, much less contrived for the sake of eliciting a transitory emotional attachment. There is emotion to be sure, lots of it, but its origin — its wellspring or fountain, to be more poetic — is beyond oneself. It is in one’s family, a favorite theme for Holly, or the love of a spouse or in the bitter sorrows of a friend suffering from alcohol addiction. When the song’s theme is grief, it is never morose, never indulgent. In other words, Holly teaches us how to live. That is what a great artist does. That is what art does. Even though only a few of her songs will explicitly reference her Christian faith, grace is everywhere. This allows her to trust life.
And that is to say nothing of the music, which is superb throughout. And her vocals are, somehow, both intense and comforting. The Highway closes with “Waiting on June,” her finest song and an accomplishment that should stun every songwriter in Nashville. Yesterday, Holly gave birth to her first child, “Stella June Coleman” [HT: Trigger]. The first name is that of Holly’s great-great aunt, and the middle name is after her maternal grandmother, June. “Waiting on June” follows the life of Holly’s grandmother from marriage to the grave and even to heaven.
A couple weeks ago, Holly released an official video for the song:
All of the ingredients that make Holly special — a beautiful soul and a beautiful person — are in this song.
September 15, 2014
It is worth highlighting and further commenting on, as I called it, “the most ridiculous moment” in God’s Not Dead. As a reminder, here is the description in my review:
After this heated exchange between Josh and the professor, each student begins to stand, one by one, declaring, “God’s not dead.” (Think of Dead Poets Society and all the students declaring, “Oh Captain, my Captain.”) Over and over, “God’s not dead. God’s not dead.” Eventually the entire class is standing. Remember, this is the same class that wrote, “God is dead,” with their signatures just a few weeks prior. Josh is so persuasive that he wins over the entire class!
This is the coup d’etat for Josh. He has just delivered his final blow to the professor. Standing victorious, Josh watches the class rise in an emotionally-gripping declaration of their belief in God. Martin, a student from China, is the first to stand. Earlier in the film, he informs his father back home that he was being persuaded by arguments for God’s existence, much to his father’s displeasure (commie atheist bastard that he is, of course, because only stereotypes exist in this evangelical fantasy world). Apparently Martin was not alone, as we see every student in the class rise after him, determined and defiant with their newfound faith in God.
That should strike you as profoundly disturbing. Josh has converted the entire class. How? By proclaiming the love of God in Jesus Christ? No. By preaching repentance and forgiveness in the cross of Jesus Christ? Nope. By mentioning at least something vague about Jesus Christ, the promise of redemption, the hope of glory, or any of the sort? No again. The message of the film is clear. You don’t need Jesus or the Holy Spirit to convert a classroom of students to belief in God. Reason alone is a sufficient bridge from unbelief to belief. No “foolishness” to the Greeks here. Sorry, Paul. “God is alive,” and you don’t even need to change your heart of stone to a heart of flesh.
Josh has “put God on trial,” as he stated at the beginning, and God won! Whew, I’m glad that God has such great lawyers on his defense team. What would The Almighty do without them?
Switching topics. In the review, I talked about the one-dimensional characters and the filmmakers’ apparent inability to grapple with the complexities of human nature. In the comments, Robert has a sober reflection:
When contemporary Christians produce “art,” including and perhaps especially popular “art,” that so poorly reflects the truth of the human world around them, reducing it to caricature (and they do this very, very often), it inevitably supports the suspicion among perceptive non-believers that, since Christians are so badly out of touch with the truth about human reality, they are even less likely to be in touch with the truth about divine reality. It in fact produces the same suspicion in me, a Christian, about many other Christians, both the ones who produce this “art” and those who gleefully consume it. This is why it’s so embarrassing, and cringe-worthy.
Amen. The End of the Affair, this movie ain’t, and it is hard to imagine evangelicals today being capable of such.
September 7, 2014
I realize that this post will be of limited interest — or no interest — to most of my theological readership. But, hey, it’s time for y’all to expand your horizons.
This has been an interesting year in mainstream country music. There has been a civil war within the genre for the better part of a decade now, beginning roughly in the mid-00’s. It would be too simplistic to say that it’s “traditionalists” versus “modernists,” or something like that. In fact, country has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and appropriate genuine creativity through its storied history, from Hank to Merle to Dolly to Dwight to Garth. There has always been those who have picked one particular iteration of the genre and excluded all others as something less than the read deal. The miracle that was Hank Sr., whose consolidation of the genre pioneered by Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff was indeed stunning, is a good example of someone who has defined country music for many people. But most country fans have a deep appreciation for the broader contours through which this genre has molded itself through the years, self-consciously as a representative form of American folk art, at least in the South. Yet the past is inevitably a point of reference. Collin Raye, well-known on 90’s country radio, ably expresses the frustration of many:
I’m passionate about it because I love our genre. I got into country music not to make a buck. I did it because I love it … I grew up at a time when Merle Haggard was writing stuff like “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Sing Me Back Home”. Kristofferson was writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me & Bobby McGee” and stuff like that. It was poetry. Country music has never been about the chord progression or the complexity of the music. It’s always been about lyrics and stories, and real life slices of life. And the one common thread has always been poetry.
You can click on the links to the Haggard tunes and understand what he’s talking about. Yet Collin Raye’s own style of country was itself quite different from the heroes he mentions. The intensity of the current civil war within country music is among those who accept and encourage the forward movement of the genre, not lazily repeating the past. This introduces a great deal of complexity when it comes to identifying the worrisome features of the music on country radio.
The most insightful critiques have focused on the obvious gender disparity on country radio. Rolling Stone, for example, has identified the problem but with some hopeful signs for the future. The problem has been and continues to be, as it is labeled, “bro country” or “party country.” Jody Rosen coined, “bro country,” last year, and it is now used widely. We can quote Collin Raye again, as he humorously describes the trend:
There appears to be not even the slightest attempt to “say” anything other than to repeat the tired, overused mantra of redneck party boy in his truck, partying in said truck, hoping to get lucky in the cab of said truck, and his greatest possible achievement in life is to continue to be physically and emotionally attached to the aforementioned truck as all things in life should and must take place in his, you guessed it…truck.
I didn’t mind the first two or three hundred versions of these gems but I think we can all agree by now that everything’s been said about a redneck and his truck, that can possibly be said. It is time to move on to the next subject. Any subject, anything at all.
Willie Nelson once wrote in his early song, “Shotgun Willie,” that “you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Apparently, that’s not the case anymore.
Disposable, forgettable music has been the order of the day for quite a while now and it’s time for that to stop.
Looking at the past year, the dominance of bro country is still going strong, though a push-back is emerging. It is painful for me to offer examples of bro country, but here is one of the hit songs on country radio this year: “Ready Set Roll” by Chase Rice. Sorry, you may never recover. The latest single from Jason Aldean is arguably worse, which I didn’t think was possible. To be fair, these two songs are the most egregious examples that I could recall and are not representative of the whole. But it would have been impossible to imagine these songs on country radio even five years ago. Impossible. Hence, the civil war today. If you read the comments on the videos or follow country blogs or listen to callers on country radio, there is a significant amount of listeners who have had enough. And country radio is caught in a bind, losing longtime listeners in droves, while gaining unstable and fickle listeners in the short term — the sort that Nashville loves, for now.
The problem is that women are eating this stuff up. [But see the next paragraph.] Everyone knows it. Not a secret. Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan have built massive followings on vapid songs, with a fan base almost entirely of women. That’s an exaggeration, but the dedicated base is clear. They buy most of the concert tickets, the albums, the t-shirts, and the smart guys looking for girls will follow accordingly. That sounds sexist, I know. I have little doubt that men are capable, or more capable, of consuming fantasies and catering their libido with the greatest resolve. But we’re talking about this specific market place. The fantasy world of bro country is heavily fueled by female consumers. Yes, these are men’s fantasies — the “girl in a country song” satirized by Maddie & Tae, which has been getting airplay finally — for which men are responsible. But the consumer is very much the woman who wants to be the girl in a country song. Nashville knows it. They’re not stupid.
Yet, women may save country music. Everyone knows this too. That’s the paradox. When you look at the artists today, women dominate by every credible criteria of genuine artistry. Miranda Lambert is the most famous, and God bless her for being a standout artist in this dark malaise. We could add Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Holly Williams, and Maggie Rose, among others. But with the notable exception of Miranda, country radio is currently dominated by male voices, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of country music. Miranda has expressed dismay at the situation, rightly asking where is today’s Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, or Pam Tillis? For every ten songs, you are lucky if one is female. Yet, the artistry and intelligence is clearly on the female side, as multiple music critics and average fans have recognized for some time now.
The latest nominations for the 2014 CMA’s is a significant nod in the direction of the female performers, as Kevin John Coyne noticed. Miranda leads the nominations. Jason Aldean is snubbed. And George Strait is nominated for entertainer of the year. There is harmony in the universe once again! As a result, the nominations reveal some curious incongruities with country radio. Martina McBride is nominated for female vocalist of the year. Country radio ignored her most recent album, yet the album debuted at number one. Brandy Clark was nominated for new artist of the year. Country radio ignored her album, yet music critics and country fans alike have lauded it as one of the most refreshing albums in years. It is nice when nominations actually buck the radio trend to some extent. There are disappointing nominations to be sure, like Thomas Rhett among the new artists. Rhett is a poster boy for bro country. Look at the comments for his hit song, “Get Me Some of That,” and you can test my thesis about women eating this up.
My hope is that the women can indeed save country music — not the female fans who swoon at every insipid “hey pretty girl,” but the female artists who are keeping the genre alive. There are plenty of women among the fans who agree, but they are currently outnumbered by (apparently) former fans of Backstreet Boys. That is sad.
July 9, 2014
So, I have been away for the past week on a family vacation to Northern California — my brother, myself, and the parents. It was the first time I have ever been to the west coast. We started with Yosemite National Park, then the wine country (Sonoma Valley), and then San Francisco. The temperature change was ridiculous! The weather was in the 100’s in Yosemite, then the 80’s in Sonoma, and then 50’s/low-60’s in San Francisco! The wind chill was in the forties! It’s July! My brother quoted Mark Twain, “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.” As beautiful as San Francisco is, I am far too acclimated to weather in Dixie to ever live in SF, unless I could acquire one of the endless number of gorgeous houses that line every street. There is a reason why SF is the most expensive city in America.
In San Francisco, we went through Haight-Ashbury. I was a bit disappointed. I wore my General Lee t-shirt (Dukes of Hazzard), and I didn’t receive even a mild rebuke! Seriously, I expect more gusto from the liberals on Haight Street. Oh well. They did have a huge rainbow flag waving.
Here are some of my pictures (click to enlarge):
May 29, 2014
I love The Gaslight Anthem. The cultural savants would never sink to their level, least of all graduate students in the pursuit of critical acumen.
The Gaslight Anthem is utterly without pretension. They embrace melody like it was invented yesterday. This is, in fact, hard work. As I like to say, the eternal is far more difficult to communicate than the pedantic and peculiar.
As much as I enjoy this song, their best song and video is “Handwritten.”
Their pop-punk roots are perfectly expressed in “Bring It On.” Any song that begins with, “My queen of the Bronx…,” has got to be good.
May 25, 2014
In a recent two-part video series, Fr. Robert Barron introduces the life and theology of Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), the most creative, ambitious, and wide-ranging Catholic theologian in the modern period. Balthasar was beloved by Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, but he is a controversial figure among many Catholic theologians (see Karen Kilby). Fr. Barron does a splendid job introducing Balthasar and commending his works:
In the second part, Fr. Barron focuses more on the particulars of Balthasar’s theology:
For the uninitiated, let me reiterate Fr. Barron’s reference to Balthasar’s “trilogy.” This is the informal name given to Balthasar’s dogmatics, structured around the three “transcendentals” (usually associated with Platonism) of truth, goodness, and beauty. These “properties of being” are convertible, one into the other, such that wherever truth is found, so is goodness and beauty. Wherever goodness is found, so is truth and beauty. Wherever beauty is found, so is goodness and truth. The ordering given by Kant in his threefold Critique is truth (reason), goodness (ethics), and beauty (aesthetic judgment). Balthasar reverses the ordering to beauty, goodness, and truth:
The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics in 7 volumes
Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory in 5 volumes
As you can see, not only did Balthasar reverse Kant’s ordering, but he also gives greater volume to the first transcendental of beauty, then goodness, and then reason. There are some very good surveys of Balthasar’s theology, including Stephen Wigley’s Balthasar’s Trilogy (T&T Clark, 2010) and Rodney Howsar’s Balthasar: A Guide for the Perplexed (T&T Clark, 2009).