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.
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)
February 8, 2016
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
February 1, 2016
“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
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.
Image: Peter Leithart (source)
December 29, 2015
There is some quality below, in my most humble opinion. I am actually surprised myself. Thanks to outside circumstances, the blogging has been haphazard, which has the potential to yield some interesting results. Looking back, I am satisfied. We had some good discussions on Protestant ecclesiology, Roman Catholicism, various aspects of modern dogmatic theology, and I took a trip to France and Catalonia with my brother! The above picture of Sainte Chapelle is mine.
Thank you for reading, commenting, and emailing. I always enjoy it when a reader sends me an email. You can do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here is a list of this year’s content, organized into a few categories.
Not Karl Barth
Is the Psalmist a Protestant? (G. C. Berkouwer)
Systematic Theology Guides
November 7, 2015
Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015
The most astute readers of this blog will remember that I recognized Chris Stapleton in a post back in June: “The Latest in Alt-Country.” Therein, I said that his debut album, Traveller, will be on the year-end best album lists, “I guarantee it.” To be honest, I couldn’t guarantee it; I was just being hopeful and buoyed by the critical acclaim. But, now, Traveller is the #1 album this week across all markets, and it is currently sold-out on Amazon if you want a physical copy. Forbes is reporting that the album jumped by 6,000%! What happened?
The CMA’s happened. But before I continue talking about the CMA’s, you need to watch this performance at the Grand Ole Opry from a couple years ago:
That is Stapleton singing the Waylon Jennings’ classic, “Amanda.”
Now that you have been properly introduced to Chris Stapleton, let’s continue…
The Country Music Association Awards is the longest-running and most prestigious awards show for country music. In the greatest of ironies, the current chairman of the CMA is Gary Overton, who was head of Sony Nashville at the time when he was widely quoted and scolded for saying, “If you’re not on country radio, you don’t exist.” Tell that to Chris Stapleton. Or Aaron Watson. Or Jason Isbell. Or Blackberry Smoke. They all had #1 country albums this year without any radio support. The times they are a-changin.
I was pleasantly surprised when it was announced that Stapleton received three nominations: Best New Artist of the Year, Best Album of the Year, and Best Male Vocalist of the Year. I was pleased, but we have seen these gestures in the recent past. I am not aware of anyone seriously predicting that Stapleton would win any of his categories, with the slight possibility for album of the year. But it happened. First, best new artist. Second, best album. Third, best male vocalist.
When the hat trick was announced, I jumped off of my couch. I watched the whole thing live. I couldn’t believe it. Stapleton was clearly overwhelmed in the third acceptance speech. The widely-read SCM blog wrote:
What Chris Stapleton did was unprecedented, and historic. There have been plenty of 3-award sweeps in the history of the CMA’s, but never by such an underdog, and an unknown. …When Stapleton was accepting the Male Vocalist of the Year award, you could tell he was taking in what he knew might be the greatest moment of his life, and he promised he would take the honors very seriously.
The Chris Stapleton sweep was not the only thing that made the headlines. A few weeks ago, the CMA announced that Stapleton would be performing live at the awards show, alongside Justin Timberlake, for two full songs! The presence of Timberlake next to Stapleton is actually not surprising. They are friends, and the Memphis-born Timberlake gave his Kentucky friend a huge boost in December of last year by tweeting:
REAL music fans already know. So, mainstream:
Remember that name… –jt
When the CMA gave Stapleton a performance slot in the show, he called Timberlake and asked if he would join him. He agreed, and the result is already being described as one of the great moments in the entire 49-year history of the CMA’s. While there were a few other good performances on Wednesday night’s broadcast (and some truly awful performances), the duo of Stapleton and Timberlake stole the show. It made everyone else look like amateurs. They started with “Tennessee Whiskey,” the third track from Stapleton’s album:
Most of the material on Traveller is original, but “Tennessee Whiskey” was originally recorded by country legends, David Allan Coe and George Jones, in 1981 and 1983 respectively. After performing “Tennessee Whiskey,” they transitioned to Timberlake’s “Drink You Away”:
Like I said, there was nothing else that could compare to these two performances. However, I did enjoy Kacey Musgrave’s “Dime Store Cowgirl,” Eric Church’s “Mr. Misunderstood,” and Reba McEntire’s set with Brooks & Dunn. There were a couple other highlights as well. Dierks Bentley was joined by violinist Lindsey Stirling to perform “Riser,” which is a song that I blogged about in July. Maddie & Tae, considering their age, did a good job with “Girl in a Country Song.” Also, it was a big night for Little Big Town with three wins.
But it was Chris Stapleton’s night. He dominated, and the Luke Bryan win for Entertainer of the Year was merely an afterthought. You can see the commentary from The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The Huffington Post, Rolling Stone, and ABC News. Does this mean that country music has found its savior? Probably not. I do not expect a massive reversal on country radio any time soon. But these things can happen piecemeal. Stapleton is an interesting character. His own music follows the high standards of the 70’s outlaw era which he loves, but he has been writing hit songs for some of Nashville’s biggest names. He is not a “purist.” He is willing to write or co-write pop-country singles, and this is partly why he is so well-known to those in Nashville.
This was a good week for country music. It was a good week for music lovers everywhere. The cynic can find ample room to make criticisms, but this is a time to celebrate. Congratulations to Chris and Morgane Stapleton and to Dave Cobb, the legendary Nashville-based producer of Traveller. The Georgia native, Dave Cobb, is someone you should know. He has produced for Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Shooter Jennings (Waylon’s son), and Whiskey Myers, among many others. That’s impressive.
Image: Chris Stapleton and wife, Morgane Stapleton, at CMA Awards 2015 – Taylor Hill, Getty Images (source)
September 6, 2015
Tonight marks the return of the Southern 500 to Labor Day weekend at Darlington Speedway, South Carolina! Little known fact: I was born 10 miles from Darlington Speedway.
The 1974 Southern 500 is one of the classic races in this golden age of NASCAR. In 1974, my parents have not even met — I was born under Reagan — even though they are both from the Florence-Darlington area of eastern South Carolina, not far from Myrtle Beach.
In 1974, Dolly Parton is dominating the country charts and Bob Dylan is hitting the road for the first time in eight years. It’s a good year. At the first “super speedway” on the NASCAR circuit, the small town of Darlington is receiving some racing legends: Cale Yarborough, Bobby Allison, Richard Petty, Buddy Baker, and a young Darrell Waltrip.
This was back when “stock car racing” actually involved stock cars, with working headlights and everything. My dad went to a Darlington race in the late 60’s, and when one of the teams needed a new car soon before the race, they simply went to a local dealership and bought a new car, making some modifications back at the track in their garage. That’s true stock car racing.
Richard Petty is on the pole. Cale Yarborugh is a favorite to win. Cale won the Southern 500 the previous year and in 1968, an epic year for him when he also started and finished the Daytona 500 in first place.
Here is the summary report after the 1974 Southern 500:
I love these retro NASCAR videos. It continues with part two and part three. Throughout the fifties, sixties, and seventies, NASCAR races were not broadcast live. Instead, they were given an official summary report, normally about a half-hour long. The 1979 Daytona 500 was the first NASCAR race broadcast live from beginning to end. Richard Petty won.
You can watch a documentary on the ’79 Daytona 500:
You will not regret watching this documentary!
You can also watch the official race summary of the 1984 Firecracker 400 at Daytona, where President Reagan lands and congratulates Richard Petty on his 200th win! This is one of the greatest moments in NASCAR history. It also involves an “infamous fistfight” between Cale Yarborough and Donnie Allison.
July 7, 2015
It has become a tradition for my brother and myself to attend the Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival in Morganton, North Carolina. Morganton is a small town in the Appalachian Mountains and only 1.5 hours from Charlotte. It is worth recognizing that North Carolina has a vibrant bluegrass scene, featuring Steep Canyon Rangers from Asheville and Mandolin Orange from Chapel Hill, among others.
With the pine trees waiving and the rolling hills rolling, the park in Morganton is an ideal location for a bluegrass festival, even though it is among the (relatively) smaller festivals in the larger bluegrass circuit. It is routinely praised by the performers, which has included living legends like Rhonda Vincent. I am not normally a fan of outdoor concerts. The acoustics suffer for obvious reasons. But the equipment and the sound crew at Morganton are top notch. The pluckings of the mandolins and banjos are clear. The fiddles soar high.
If you have not been to a bluegrass festival, then your life is insufferable and trite. Repent and atone! You can begin by listening to Darin and Brooke Aldrige, who performed a superb set this past weekend in Morganton. They played several tracks from their recent album, Snapshots. Here is a promotional video for the album:
A typical bluegrass festival will feature an abundance of gospel songs and probably a few testimonials. Darin and Brooke are no exception. They have some wonderful gospel tunes on each of their albums, some of which are always included in their live sets.
Jesus is “the best friend you’ll ever have,” as Darin spoke in-between songs this past Saturday. And the audience thought to themselves, “Well, duh. Of course.” The bluegrass audience is the salt of the earth!
July 3, 2015
It has now been a week since the Supreme Court issued its fanciful decision on gay marriage — legally contrived and morally suspect. In 1992’s Planned Parenthood v. Casey, Justice Kennedy wrote (or co-authored), “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” That is a good summary statement of postmodern nominalism. There is nothing higher, nothing to which we are accountable, except our own experience of “meaning” and “mystery.”
Justice Kennedy continued his romanticist jurisprudence in last week’s Obergefell v. Hodges case. He formulates the first premise on which the majority decided: “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy” (p. 3). This is why, we are told, bans on interracial marriage were invalidated. He continues, “Decisions about marriage are among the most intimate that an individual can make.” So, “personal choice” and “individual autonomy” are the founding principles upon which interracial marriage is a marriage? We are then given flimsy attempts to define marriage as “a two-person union unlike any other in its importance to the committed individuals” and “an intimate association.” Same-sex couples aspire to “the transcendent purposes of marriage” (p. 4), which are what exactly? Kennedy then finally proceeds to offer the only constitutional basis of the majority’s opinion: a highly dubious interpretation of the fourteenth amendment.
The subsequent media parade offered scarcely any attempt to digest and discuss the moral rationale. At this point, I suppose, Kennedy’s moral logic is self-evident to the culture. The corporate blitz to capitalize was unlike anything we’ve seen in the aftermath of a Supreme Court decision, as seemingly every major corporation proudly displayed its support. Social media followed suit. The White House went technicolor. News anchors and reporters could scarcely contain their enthusiasm. This united front gave voice to our new era of social discourse. We emote and shame, whereas our forefathers reasoned and convinced. Twitter is more powerful than Aristotle.
If you have not done so already, I highly encourage you to read the SCOTUS decision, both the majority opinion and the dissents. Justice Scalia never holds back: “The opinion is couched in a style that is as pretentious as its content is egotistic” (p. 75.) Justice Alito, joined by Justice Thomas and Justice Scalia, offers the most conservative dissent, insofar as he directly targets the redefinition of marriage away from its procreative ends and offers this sober warning:
It [the court’s decision] will be used to vilify Americans who are unwilling to assent to the new orthodoxy. In the course of its opinion, the majority compares traditional marriage laws to laws that denied equal treatment for African-Americans and women. E.g., ante, at 11–13. The implications of this analogy will be exploited by those who are determined to stamp out every vestige of dissent. Perhaps recognizing how its reasoning may be used, the majority attempts, toward the end of its opinion, to reassure those who oppose same-sex marriage that their rights of conscience will be protected. Ante, at 26–27. We will soon see whether this proves to be true. I assume that those who cling to old beliefs will be able to whisper their thoughts in the recesses of their homes, but if they repeat those views in public, they will risk being labeled as bigots and treated as such by governments, employers, and schools. [pp. 101-102]
Below, I have collated some of my favorite articles that have dared to wade through this torrent of powers, the potestatis publicae. I will begin with “The Empire of Desire” from R. R. Reno. Unlike most of the subsequent articles, this was not written in response to the Supreme Court decision. It was published in the June 2014 issue of First Things. This is one of Reno’s most incisive essays, more important now than then.
“The Empire of Desire,” R. R. Reno (First Things, June 2014):
Indirectly (and unknowingly) evoking the rich tradition of liberal Protestant theology, Vattimo suggests that this antinomian trajectory is “a transcription of the Christian message of the incarnation of God, which St. Paul also calls kenosis—that is, the abasement, humiliation, and weakening of God.” Here we find a wonderfully pure expression of the metaphysical dream of our era: God himself is an antinomian. Christ does not fulfill the law of Moses; instead, he undercuts Moses and evacuates the law of all normative power. Sinai becomes the Antichrist.
“The Benedict Option for Evangelicals,” Phillip Cary (First Things, June 30, 2015):
The youth group in effect competes with more secular forms of youth culture for the hearts of future evangelicals.
It’s a tough competition to win, and the momentum is now clearly on the side of the opposing team. The evangelical team is playing defense, and they have a major theological weakness. They’ve adopted a version of the liberal Protestant turn to experience. Today’s evangelical Christians are taught to find God by listening for the voice of the Spirit in their hearts. My students typically think this is what it means to know God. This theology will hardly help them resist a culture that is all about celebrating the desires we find within us. If the true God is the God of our experience, then why can’t the voice of liberated desire be the Spirit of God?
“Can Evangelicals See Themselves in the LGBT Movement?,” Alastair Roberts (The Gospel Coalition, July 1, 2015):
While most persons receive their identity from without as society imposes its sexual and gendered identities, the LGBT person recognizes that true identity arises from within. The realization of an authentic subjectivity over against the formalism of imposed norms of gender and sexuality is recounted in the “personal testimonies” of coming-out stories and tales of transition. Given the understanding of the nature of true identity within LGBT communities, it shouldn’t surprise us that same-sex marriage has been pursued chiefly as an “expressive”—rather than a “formative” and “institutional”—reality.
…the LGBT community and the same-sex marriage cause are advanced in large measure through emotional personal testimony and stories of subjective self-realization. This is the language evangelicals were raised on, and it can resonate with us. Evangelicals, having placed so much store on the truth and immediacy of the personal narrative and the value of unfeigned emotion, will face particular difficulties in considering how to respond to these.
“After Obergefell: The Effects on Law, Culture, and Religion,” Sherif Girgis (Catholic World Report, June 29, 2015):
It’s not that the majority opinion offered bad interpretations of the Constitution’s guarantees; it hardly interpreted them at all. Huge swathes of it read less like a legal argument than the willful paradoxes and obscure profundities you might hear at a winetasting.
…now the most prestigious secular organ of American society—the Court that helped make Martin Luther King’s dream a reality—stands for the propositions that deep emotional union makes a marriage, and that mothers and fathers are perfectly replaceable; indeed, that it “demeans” and “stigmatizes” people to think otherwise.
“The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion,” David French (National Review, June 26, 2015):
This isn’t constitutional law, it’s theology — a secular theology of self-actualization — crafted in such a way that its adherents will no doubt ask, “What decent person can disagree?” This is about love, and the law can’t fight love. …
Christians who’ve not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can’t abide being called “hateful.” It creates a desperate, panicked response. “No, you don’t understand. I’m not like those people — the religious right.” Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.
“A Conversation With My Gay Friend,” Jennifer Fulwiler (July 9, 2012):
“Yes, marriage is about sex. But it’s about sex because sex is how new life is created — and, ultimately, it is an institution ordered toward protection and respect for new people.”
[Andrew:] “So if you have a straight friend who’s infertile, you’d tell her she can’t get married either?”
“I said ordered toward. When a man and woman have sex they’re engaging in that sacred act that creates human life, even if none will be created in that particular act. It’s still sacred.”
…”If you’re totally open to having kids, then there are the sacrifices that come with birth and raising children; if you’re abstaining during fertile times, you’re sacrificing. Infertile couples sacrifice by not using artificial methods like in vitro to force new life into existence. Gay men and women sacrifice by living chaste lives, as do people separated from their spouses, and people who are not yet married, or whose spouse has died. Notice that we’re all sacrificing, and that all of the sacrifices are about the same thing: love and respect for new human life, and specifically the act that creates new human life.”
“Where Do We Look for the End of Loneliness?,” Wesley Hill (Spiritual Friendship, June 27, 2015):
Yet I’m also a Christian, and according to historic Christian orthodoxy, marriage isn’t the only, or even the primary, place to find love. In the New Testament, as J. Louis Martyn once wrote, “the answer to loneliness is not marriage, but rather the new-creational community that God is calling into being in Christ, the church marked by mutual love, as it is led by the Spirit of Christ.” Marriage in Christian theology is, you might say, demythologized. With the coming of Christ, its necessity is taken away: gone is the notion that without it we are doomed to lovelessness.
“The Episcopal Church on Its Way Towards Adopting Gay Marriage,” George Conger (Anglican Ink, June 29, 2015):
“God has given us a new revelation not shared with our forefathers in the church,” the bishop said. “As such, we must proceed slowly and with generosity of spirit,” to ensure that the revelation given to the majority was not in error. The bishop said the history of the surrounding community, Mormon Salt Lake City, was an example of what not to do.
Apropos, the Episcopalians now have something in common with Mormons: new revelation. By the way, TEC officially voted — overwhelmingly — to adopt a new rite for the marriage of any gender configuration. The ACNA will continue to attract the remaining few evangelicals in TEC over the course of the next year.
Image: The White House in rainbow colors after the SCOTUS decision on June 26, 2015 (source)
June 24, 2015
The imaging and messaging of the media portrait of Pope Francis is perhaps not unlike the 19th century quest for the historical Jesus: you see what you want to see.
Famously, that was Albert Schweitzer’s indictment of the “first quest” for the historical Jesus. The strange, supernatural, other-worldly, apocalyptic Jesus is not suitable for the progressive 19th century man. The kingdom of love, however, is perfectly suitable, so long as it does not require a whole lot of personal sacrifice — nor the most offensive of all concepts: the miraculous.
As others have observed, the current Pontiff is deeply rooted in Latin American piety, with all of its strangeness and vivid sense of the supernatural. He is also a profoundly “modern” man. This is a contradiction for our cultural elites, who energetically resolve the contradiction. The result is a highly selective portrait of Pope Francis. It is a portrait that they have painted for our consumption. We are, indeed, eager and insatiable consumers.
As I have complained before, Pope Francis is widely misunderstood and misreported. He embodies a Catholic social ethic that is incommensurate with the dominant ideologies of the West. This social ethic is, at turns, liberal and conservative. It is, at turns, comforting and discomforting to both liberals and conservatives. The recent encyclical, Laudato Si, is an excellent case in point.
The liberal adulation is predictable, as is the conservative repudiation. The latter has been duly criticized by others, so I am more interested in the former. Sandro Magister, the Italian journalist at L’Espresso, has been highlighting this problem of liberal selectivity since the beginning of Francis’ pontificate, and he steadfastly continues to do the same in regard to the recent encyclical:
If one reads “Laudato si’” with patience, in fact, one passage that coincides with the ideas of Gotti Tedeschi [on sin and the loss of God] is there, in paragraph 50:
“Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of ‘reproductive health’… To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.”
But this passage has been ignored by almost all the world’s media.
And the same neglect has fallen upon other passages of the encyclical in which Pope Francis condemns abortion, in paragraph 120, experimentation on embryos, in paragraph 136, the cancellation of sexual differences, in paragraph 155.
It must be said, however, that the almost universal disregard of these passages cannot be imputed to their slight prominence in the overflowing totality of “Laudato Si’.”
In addition to Sandro Magister, I expected to read competent and insightful observations from Father Robert Barron. I was not disappointed. I have previously praised Fr. Barron — here and here and here.
Fr. Barron released a brief video in response to the encyclical:
And today, Fr. Barron published an informative article: “‘Laudato Si’ and Romano Guardini.”
Rachel Lu, writing for The Federalist, has a similar take: “Pope Francis’s New Encyclical is Not What You Think.” On the other side of the debate, The Federalist has also posted a number of critical responses. You can read Peter Johnson’s “Pope Francis’s Incoherent Economics” and Maureen Mullarkey’s “Where Did Pope Francis’s Extravagant Rant Come From?” The Acton Institute has also released some video responses to the encyclical, such as Jay Richards’ thoughts.
I am not competent enough to know the merits to these criticisms. All I know is that I like how Pope Francis upsets everyone.