Category Archives: Books

If Anyone Wants to Lavish Gifts on an Obscure Scholar

If there are any rich blog-patrons out there, I have good news for you.  The C BD academic calendar showed up in the mail this weekend, and I’m positively salivating over some of the offerings.  If you want to start a career as a wealthy blog patron, you could make my year by sending any or all of these gems to the following address:

Nathan Gilmour
Department of English
254 Park Hall
Athens, GA 30602

Barth’s Church Dogmatics in Paperback

Calvin’s Complete Bible Commentaries and Institutes

Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament

The Early Church Fathers

Bibleworks 8.0

The Geneva Bible

Christian Writers’ Market Guide, 2009

Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament

Babylonian Talmud in Translation

N.B. If you are taking this as a serious request, please do not send these books.  This is a bit of a pipe dream, not a serious request.  I have neither the time nor the shelf space for these multi-volume beasts.


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Book Review: Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

whosafraidcover

I actually read this one while watching a sick Micah before we left for Indiana, so I’m working mainly from memory here.  This is my second Smith book, and once again I enjoyed it immensely.  I get the sense reading Smith that he’s been taught the way I have, namely to take disputed texts on their own terms and to evaluate from inside rather than based on catch phrases and reputation Such respect is especially important when one takes on dense philosophical and theological texts, and Smith’s care is evident.  

Each of the book’s chapters takes on one significant figure in postwar 20th-century French philosophy, those figures that some folks call postmodernists.  With each of the chapters Smith starts out with common reactions to the “bumper-sticker” phrase with which critics of postmodernism saddle the writer, and he proceeds to examine what the phrase means in its proper context, to trace some of the major ideas from the writer, and to suggest ways that the philosophical insight can inform Christian community for the sake of faithfulness.  Those three chapters deal with Derrida’s “There is nothing outside the text,” with Lyotard’s “Incredulity towards metanarratives,” and Foucault’s “Power is knowledge.”  The book finishes with a chapter of proposals for Christian theology and common life that points intellectually towards the Cambridge school’s Radical Orthodoxy and communally towards some of the practices of the Emergent Churches.

I hesitate to write so much about such a brief book as this, but each chapter also engages the philosopher in question by means of discussing a recent movie, and his final chapter introduced me to a movie that I only knew from shelving it at the public library.  Smith is clearly writing for folks who do not have a great deal of exposure to these thinkers, but even so, I did not find myself, as so often I do when I read Christian books about postmodernism, taking the books off of my shelf to see the context that the authors leave out to make their point.  Smith is even-handed throughout, seeing Christian theology not as an act of rejection but as a series of appropriations, something that would have been simple common sense to thinkers like Augustine and Aquinas but which has fallen on hard times since the Church lost the university and since segments of Christianity have decided to battle against rather than redeem what philosophy has been doing of late.

I did not have too many problems with the book.  Smith certainly reads Foucault as being more optimistic than I do, and Smith himself is more optimistic about the possibilities of intellectual and practical freedom inside of historical episcopal hierarchies, but even for those he offers good reasons, and overall, I’d recommend this book without reservation to any Christian interested in reading recent philosophy as Augustine read Plotinus and Aquinas Aristotle.

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Taking Heidegger up to Indiana

So here I am in Plainfield, I hope.  As you might have surmised, I’m writing this in Georgia but scheduling it for the day after we’re supposed to drive.

On the last few trips I’ve brought some sort of epic narrative with me so that I could enjoy some people hitting each other with spears rather than digging through the sloppy arguments of New Historicism and the self-indulgent neologizing of the post-Freudians.  A few years ago I brought along the Aeneid, and the year after that I brought along Homer’s Iliad. Last Christmas I brought two, Gilgamesh and Morte d’Arthur. This year, though, I couldn’t come up with a narrative that I’ve just been itching to revisit (I considered Langland and Ovid, but neither inspired), so I’m going to try to bring along some philosophy on this trip.

Michial Farmer (friend and faithful reader of this blog) and I have made plans to read through as much of Heidegger’s Being and Time as we can next semester, he for the sake of his comprehensive exams and I for the sake of better understanding Radical Orthodoxy.  I’ve muddled through the opening sections, and I’d like to annotate as much of it as I can before we start up a new semester.  I’m also bringing along my Sony Reader, and I might give up Heidegger in favor of a reread of Frankenstein, but I would like to bring along one book for which one needs a pencil to read.

I’m not sure what to think of Heidegger, having read only excerpts up to this point.  His biography alone is controversial among the folks with whom I’ve talked philosophy: Fred Norris, whose research assistant I was for two years, says that his participation in the National Socialist Party should give any Christian pause, but Andrew Cole, with whom I most recently read Heidegger, brushed off his participation in the Party as something that he did out of necessity, if he wanted to save the university whose Rector he had become.  Beyond his involvement with Hitler (who, if I remember right, would not answer his telegraphs), I’ve read a number of accusations that Heidegger de-historicizes humanity, preferring a flat generic conception of human temporality that denies genuine change across periods.  I’m not sure that any of that will come up in this book, but I’ve listened to the opening podcasts in Hubert Dreyfus’s lecture series on Being and Time, and he presents Heidegger’s philosophy as profoundly humanizing, quite to the contrary of what I’ve read elsewhere.

All of this is to say that I’m looking forward to reading this famous/infamous book, and I imagine I’ll be writing more on it as we work through it.

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Marketing Western Civilization

Learning for Everyone

Not a profound essay, but an interesting bit of American popular history.  I knew that the Great Books movement started in the early twentieth century at Columbia and Chicago, but I never knew about its appeal outside of universities:

The Great Books craze began in the early 1940s in Chicago, expanding from Hutchins’s university to an evening seminar in the Loop for the city’s movers and shakers. It then caught on with other intellectually (or socially) hungry adults in the city and state — 5,000 by 1946 — and spread to Cleveland and other Midwestern cities. In 1947, Hutchins and Adler launched the Great Books Foundation, which, using low-cost paperbacks of the classics, spread the gospel outside the Midwest.

Four years later, Mr. Beam reports, there were 2,500 Great Books discussion groups, with roughly 25,000 members meeting “all over the country, in public libraries, in church basements, chamber of commerce offices, corporate conference rooms at IBM and Grumman Aircraft, in private homes, on army bases, and, yes, in prisons.” By 1961, when the marketing push for Britannica’s “Great Books of the Western World” was in high gear, about 47,000 Americans were enrolled in Great Books discussion groups.

Such a phenomenon fascinates me mainly because as someone who believes in intellectual development in churches, I couldn’t imagine assigning homework from the Bible to most Sunday school classes I’ve taught, much less getting a group together to read Aristotle.  I have been a part of a few groups, all church-related, that read novels and Christian books together (the sorts that fall somewhere between the Christian Inspiration section at Barnes and Noble and the theology catalog at Cambridge University Press, intellectually speaking), but in almost all of those cases the hectic paces of our lives devoured them.  I sometimes blame myself for lacking the leader’s personality that could sustain such a group, but I know full well that’s generally not my role in the world.

At any rate, since it is a WSJ piece, there is a brief stab at the modern university, and it goes something like this:

Given what has happened to the study of the humanities in the past two decades — with theory and politics playing a larger role and fewer people reading the traditional canon — it is hard not to feel a bit nostalgic for Great Books earnestness. In academe, there is only what might be regarded as a saving remnant: “Among major universities, only Columbia, where the whole idea began” — around the time of World War I, long before the mania erupted in Chicago — “still force-feeds a much-abbreviated version of the Great Books curriculum to its undergraduates,” Mr. Beam notes. “Tiny St. John’s College, created by disciples of Hutchins and Adler, still devotes all four years to teaching the Great Books, as Hutchins vainly hoped the University of Chicago would do.”

Molly Rothenberg, a student at St. John’s in Annapolis, Md., told Mr. Beam of comparing notes when she was a sophomore with a fellow graduate of the public high school in Cambridge, Mass. St. John’s sophomores study works by such authors as Aristotle, Tacitus and Shakespeare. Her friend was attending Bates College in Maine. “She told me they were studying Rhetoric,” Ms. Rothenberg said, “and they would be watching episodes of ‘Desperate Housewives’ and listening to Eminem. They were going to analyze it. I just laughed. What could I say?”

I have to admit that I share some of this snobbishness–I did pat myself on the back, knowing that of the roughly two hundred forty freshman comp students I’ve taught at UGA over the last three years, not one has escaped without some knowledge (even if it is the knowledge of stuff they should have read but didn’t) of Plato, Boethius, Job, Genesis, or the Psalms in modern translation.  A goodly number of my students, those who did both semesters of my “Apostle Paul Sequence,” have spent two long semesters learning to write while wrestling with some of the Adler list.  I know that some theorists would say that division between “Great Books” and other texts is crass Marxist superstructure, coded markers for social class.  Certainly there’s some merit to that critique, but I also know that while my students spend about twenty bucks to buy their copies of Plato and Boethius, the kids down the hall doing pop culture reviews paid sixty for their anthologies.  My curriculum might have encoded class markers, but theirs costs more at the bookstore.

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What’s the Matter with Kansas Now?

I know I’m weird for all sorts of reasons, and the most recent is that, after retreating into my paper-grading and preparing for my guest lecture at Emmanuel College the full week before the presidential election, I picked up a piece of polemical federal electoral non-fiction (a political book, if you’re not an Aristotelian) the day after my guest talk.

Thomas Frank is one of those political writers that actually makes his subject matter fun without making it a joke.  He’s obviously no friend of the GOP, but he’s openly critical of the “New Democrats” as well, largely because they’ve implicitly given up on economics as a point of policy, ceding the territory entirely to the Republicans and their global capitalist ideology.  In other words, part of the force of GOP caricatures of “liberals” as New-Left rich kids who don’t care about any actual laborers so long as nobody threatens their abortions and their sense of moral superiority comes from the fact that much of the party’s leadership has been targeting the folks who used to be called moderate Republicans, content to be “not the Conservatives” and giving a cold shoulder if not the middle finger to the people whose economic interests they used to represent because those poor folks are going to go God, guns, and gays anyway.

I do have to wonder, though, at the fact that such a careful writer would take half of the steps to an interesting historical insight and not take the other half.  Frank rightly notes that in the early days of Fundamentalism its most vocal proponents were left-wingers, decrying the Capitalist ideology that whoever lands on top of the industrial heap must be there because of some inherent and natural fitness to rule.  William Jennings Bryan especially opposed the onrush of such biological determinism because to allow such conclusions would be to cede to industrial Capitalism the legitimacy that scientific endorsement lends.  He also notes that for a series of bizarre reasons (definitely worth reading), those people who oppose evolution in the early twenty-first are the selfsame people most vocally behind the interests of the Capitalist establishment.  He notes well that an elaborate game of bait-and-switch becomes necessary, and moreover he points to the creation of the “liberal elite,” an imaginary enemy if ever there was one, is necessary and in most cases sufficient for convincing people to vote against their own economic interests.

The missing half is, of course, why genuine economic liberals, who traditionally favor policies that benefit the working poor, have embraced materialistic evolution, an ideology rooted in strife and supremacy, while retaining the largely Capitalist-limiting economics that were rooted in medieval Christian, desire-transforming models rather than the strange (perhaps even heretical) providence of natural selection and the invisible hand.  Personally, I find both combinations bizarre, but for reasons beyond my perception, Frank chooses to focus on one misfit rather than the other.  I know that the easy and cynical reading would be that he’s simply pandering to the Democrats who might buy subsequent books, but my gut tells me he’s a bit more thoughtful than that.

But then again, I do tend towards Pollyannaishness on occasion.

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Filed under Books, Political Entertainment

Christian Standard Takes a Stand for Books

What Have You Read Lately?

So it appears that Paul Williams is joining in the “Kids These Days” game, and I can’t say how much I love the fact that he’s touting reading, a practice near and dear to my own heart, in one of the most-distributed publications in our movement.  That’s not to say that it’s a comprehensive case for changing leisure habits; the column isn’t much more than a memory of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and their place in his family.  But all the same, any Christian Standard piece dedicated to books is alright by me.

I have to say that, although it’s not by any means one of the most important good things that’s happened, moving to Athens Christian has among brought me into closer contact with the larger movement by subscribing to the Standard.  Having been away from it between 2002 (when I was the manager of the Restoration Movement Archive Collection at ESR) and last August, I’ve enjoyed quite a bit reading pieces from professors and classmates and old friends and folks I’ve never heard from, all dedicated to our little corner of the ecclesiastic world.  It’s a small thing, but it’s gotten me excited again about the prospects of being a professor of our movement.  That’s not to say that I’m only going to apply to “our schools” when the time comes, but thinking about landing in one of them makes me smile a bit more these days.

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Dante 2008: Paradise

I wrapped it up yesterday afternoon, reading the last cantos of Paradiso and closing the book until 2009.  The realities of fallen mortals and our attention spans struck me as ironic this time: although the Pilgrim continued to rise into realms of increased energy and joy, my own eyes and concentration waned as canto after canto rolled on.

Nonetheless, I did see things this time around that before I hadn’t.  I noticed early in the section that Dante’s troubles formalizing and versifying his experience come not only from their distance from his human experience (presumably Hell did the same) but also from the fact that memory, a faculty entirely dependent on the passage of time, had no power in a realm outside of time’s operations.  He drops hints as he goes that what goes by in narrative time in the reader’s mind actually is happening atemporally, taking zero time.  And when “looking about,” much less “having a conversation,” stop having meaning, the poet still must write poetry.  So he does.

I also finally caught (I can’t see why this escaped me before) that when the Pilgrim reaches the final sphere, not only Peter but also David and James and John (in other words, several biblical authors) present the questions on his faith.  And only after they finish does Adam appear and answer his questions about prelapsarian existence.

The lower spheres (the moon, Mercury, and Venus) still strike me as some of the most depressing stuff in the poem (what kind of heaven still holds grudges?), but it’s affecting me less each time I read it.  Perhaps Dante’s hierarchical universe is sinking into my head after all these years.  Or maybe I see in their inclusion in the grand scheme for folks who just didn’t quite get it right here on earth but nonetheless get grabbed by divine grace.

I still get goosebumps when Dante rises to the seventh sphere and everything goes blank on him.  The music of heaven stops playing, Beatrice’s face becomes a mask, and everyone speaks in hushed tones.  When he asks the spirit of St. Benedict what has happened, the old monk tells him that the music and the beauty of this sphere is actually greater than any of the six before, but for a mortal, even one saved, to behold it would destroy him with the intensity of its harmony and splendor.  I know some people would prefer a more egalitarian Heaven (sometimes I would too), but that’s pretty darn cool.

Overall, I still think that Dante’s Comedy is the best ever, and I think that enjoying this poem in its fullness is itself a pretty splendid reward for pursuing an education.  But then again, I’m supposed to be working on my dissertation prospectus, so I reckon I’m the kind of person who would say that, ain’t I?

The summer can be over now.  Bring on the school year.

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