Of Christian-College Dress Codes and the Sermon on the Mount

I’ve never been fully fluent in the sociological terminology that usually accompanies these sorts of discussions, and I studiously avoid Internet neologisms that sometimes arise out of the same (though I’m not above lampooning them), but while teaching the Sermon on the Mount in conjunction with Plato’s Republic last year (yes, I do this every fall semester, and no, that’s not weird), I couldn’t help but note the strange ways that my own Christian college’s dress code runs counter to one of the most-easily-dismissed passages in the Sermon on the Mount as Matthew relates it.

My hunch is that, when most of us encounter the chopping-off-hands bit of the Sermon, we’ve got some sort of hermeneutic tool at the ready to dispatch it.  Whether it’s the reading that holds amputation-and-self-disfigurement as a hyperbole indicating the impossibility of fulfilling the law or whether it’s an allegorical reading that regards “hands” and “eyes” as workers and overseers who must be purged from the Church “body” lest they lead the whole body into the “flames” of schism and such, or whether it’s another configuration that I’m not remembering as I write this, just about everyone with whom I speak has some device for reading that passage.  And that’s a good thing: since there have been so few hook-and-eye-patch congregations in Christian history, I’m inclined to think that there’s a wisdom rather than an apostasy behind our hermeneutical practices.

The Grammar of Gouging Eyeballs

But such hermeueutical practices, I’m inclined to think, sometimes blind us to some of the basic, subject-and-predicate matters that lie in the text itself.  Here’s the verse in four English translations, used respectively by broad swaths of Evangelicals; by conservative Protestants; by liberal Protestants; and by Roman Catholics.  One grammatical feature occurs to me in each:

New International Version

Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.

English Standard Version

Matthew 5:27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

New Revised Standard Version

27 ‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

New Jerusalem Bible

Matthew 5:27. ‘You have heard how it was said, You shall not commit adultery.
28. But I say this to you, if a man looks at a woman lustfully, he has already committed adultery with her in his heart.
29. If your right eye should be your downfall, tear it out and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body thrown into hell.
30. And if your right hand should be your downfall, cut it off and throw it away; for it will do you less harm to lose one part of yourself than to have your whole body go to hell.

I’ve provided four translations, usually associated with rather different folks within the Christians of the twenty-first century, not merely to be tedious (though there’s a joy in that as well) but to note that the grammatical feature is not particular to “liberal” or “fundamentalist” Bibles; it’s something that translators of all persuasions reproduce.  To wit, as Jesus frames it, in Matthew 5:29, the eye, not the body of one’s neighbor, causes one to sin.

The grammar is easy enough to see; the infinitive follows the causal verb.  But the way that my own college (and, my hunch is, others) justify dress-code policy, the Sermon on the Mount gets turned on its head.  If lust occurs, the way that student-life folks tend to tell us, the defect is not in the eye of the one looking but in the body of the one looked-at.  (Yes, feminist theorists, I’m feigning a bit of illiteracy with regards to gaze-discourse so that I can attempt these thoughts with a different vocabulary.  No, I don’t think it’s always good or necessary to re-invent the wheel.  Bear with me.)  Thus, although the relationship between the looked-at and the looker persists, we locate the defect in that defective relationship precisely opposite where Jesus did.

That’s where Plato came in for me: as those who have read and taught the Republic know, the aim of education in Plato’s famous cave-allegory is not to provide sight to an eye incapable of sight; such healing is the stuff of Aesculapius or perhaps Jesus.  Rather, those of us without divine healing-gifts practice the art of education in order to broaden the scope of the mind’s vision and to re-orient that intellectual sight, teaching students to be mindful of relationships between particular entities and the grand forms in which those entities participate rather than merely in the existence and location of the particulars.  (That’s how I teach the cave-allegory, anyway.)

I’m not saying that Jesus had read his Plato (that seems at least improbable, even if not entirely impossible), but I will say that the image of the eye’s scope and orientation might just get us asking different questions about eyes, hands, and sins; and the Sermon on the Mount might just have something to say about the way we think about how college women dress when the weather gets uncomfortably hot in Georgia.  (In Georgia, we call those months April through October.)  Perhaps, instead of thinking that the eye has a fixed nature and that the world should adjust to it, we might take the saying in another allegorical/spiritual direction, taking the eye-removal and the hand-removal as allegorical transformations of the soul.  Perhaps part of the spiritual discipline of a Christian might include the ability to see a world in which human beings, body and all, aren’t to be possessed, in the imagination or otherwise, but celebrated.

How Shall We Then Dress?

Now as far as concrete policy goes, I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal of certainty to offer.  I’m inclined, as someone with a generally conservative bent, that the particular complexity of each school should be the starting point, not the postscript, for conversations about school rules, but I do think that this sort of mindset-shift might at least shift the terms of the conversation.

At the very least, in light of the call to transform the eye of the soul, the squirrelly grammar of “not leading men into temptation” becomes so unintelligible that dress codes as we know it don’t make sense any more.  But then again, we might say that Romans 14 has something to add, that there’s nothing inherently wrong with certain modes of dress but that we avoid them nonetheless for the sake of those who are weak-minded.  (Not natural, mind you–the hope would remain that the weak-minded gain some strength at some point.)  In that scenario, we would not chide women not to be objects–of temptation or otherwise–but to take the position of the person who is at liberty to do or to exist in a certain way but, for the sake of those less powerful, doesn’t.

Or we might say that, in the interest of living peaceably (a la 1 Peter), we submit, even in contradiction to the ontological change that occurs when we become that royal priesthood, to the expectations of the world surrounding us (after all, we all know better than to assume that the entire world is likewise convinced ), provided that they do not violate the conscience, in the interest of winning some by virtue of our good works.  Once again, such a position would insist that those eyes which treat bodies as objects rather than God-beloved desiring and desired persons, and not the body treated as the object, are the roots of those sorts of evil.  But the policy move would not be automatic.

Then again, it might be that the moment arrives when a community devoted to learning says that neither the books we read nor the clothes we wear are for the sake of perpetuating the weak-mindedness of some but precisely to challenge ideas that locate the blame wrongly (if my reading of Matthew 5 is correct) with the looked-at rather than the looker.  It could be that teaching Greek tragedy and listening the Wagnerian opera and going to classes with attractive classmates should simply be parts of what it means to become a responsible Christian human being.

I’ll admit here that I don’t know.  But I do insist that the contest does not happen between the “biblical” supporters of certain sexually-anxious dress codes and the “secular” opponents of the same.  As with other questions of this sort, my own inquiry is going to deal with which way of being Biblical ultimately leads to a responsible, faithful life of discipleship.  That question, I think, lies open still.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #141: The Christian Humanist Podcast

David Grubbs leads a discussion with Nathan Gilmour and Michial Farmer about what makes our 259925_217925914913908_7919708_npodcast a particularly Christian endeavor. We also give our personal histories with the faith and with intellectualism and explain a few movements with which we associate–and don’t associate.

Our intro music this week is a Vacation Bible School classic.

Christian Humanist Profiles 10: Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith

Ever since the English-speaking world discovered the work of Søren Kierkegaard in the middle part of Kierkegaardthe last century, he has been an indispensable part of the Western philosophical and theological traditions. He is seen, variously, as a precursor to movements as diverse as existentialism, poststructuralism, evangelicalism, and neo-orthodoxy. Few people make it through higher education without encountering books like Fear and Trembling and the Concluding Unscientific Postscript, but while most of us have some familiarity with the basic contours of Kierkegaard’s thought, it can be very difficult to fill in the details. Kierkegaard, like his near-contemporary, Nietzsche, was not a systematic thinker in the manner that analytic philosophy expects, and it’s hard to get your mind around his arguments without reading many of his books many times over. To make it even harder, most of Kierkegaard’s most popular books appeared under a series of strange pseudonyms, and scholars have argued amongst themselves whether we can take them as expressions of Kierkegaard’s own thoughts, or whether we should read them as something more akin to fiction. All this means that Kierkegaard is hard to understand and easy to caricature.

Fortunately, our guest today on Christian Humanist Profiles is Merold Westphal, who has been thinking and writing about Kierkegaard for decades. He is the author of three previous studies of Kierkegaard: 1987’s Kierkegaard’s Critique of Reason and Society; 1996’s Becoming a Self: A Reading of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript; and 1999’s Levinas and Kierkegaard in Dialogue—as well as many other books on Hegel, postmodernism, existentialism, hermeneutics, and atheism. His latest book is Kierkegaard’s Concept of Faith, part of Eerdmans’s new series on Kierkegaard as a Christian thinker.

What if Teaching Is a Science? A Bit of Conceptual Fiddling

I see the formulation all the time,  but I rarely give it much thought.

“Teaching isn’t a science.  It’s an art.”

“Teaching isn’t a science.  It’s a craft.”

“Teaching isn’t a science.  It’s a calling.”

I’m sure there are other variations on the second half of the couplet, but the first half almost always denies that teaching is a science.  Usually, when I read it, I move along to the inevitable paean to the aesthetic, the liberal arts, or otherwise to things with which I can groove.  And when I hear it, assuming that the speaker is in the room with me (and folks don’t often say this to me over the phone), I nod politely and listen to the inevitable complaint about teacher evaluations, requirements imposed by administrators of various ranks, and so on.

But I’m not one who can nod politely for very long without wondering about things, and my contrarian streak has gotten the best of me lately, so I’ve been asking myself precisely what one would lose if one started thinking of teaching as a science.  And since I’ve got some smart readers who will put me in my place as soon as I write this, I figured I’d fiddle with a claim that occurred to me: thinking about teaching as a science stands to correct some of the worst habits that we teachers sometimes develop, so long as we maintain a robust notion of what counts as science.

“Science” doesn’t mean any one, static thing, of course.  When medieval universities regarded theology the “Queen of the Sciences,” there weren’t any theology labs, in which one had to wear angel-resistant goggles, any more than theology had a crown to wear.  The metaphor indicates that theology, as the disciplined inquiry into ultimate things (for Christians, the revelation of God in the persons of Father, Son, and Spirit), situates all the other modes of knowing (dialectic, law, medicine, rhetoric, and such) by naming their chief end.  As the term comes more narrowly to mean traditions of inquiry into observable physical phenomena exclusively, the term doesn’t even stay there but comes to incorporate those practices that bring scientific observation and experimentation to bear on human life.  Thus “science” comes to mean not only inquiry but also technology, sometimes mechanical and other times electronic and other times still the strange phenomena that get called “social engineering.”

That last label, I have a hunch, is what makes people almost reflexively deny that teaching is a “science.”  Folks rightly object to notions that people should or maybe even could manipulate human existence in some behavioristic manner, treating the souls in a classroom like so many machines or, even worse, as parts of a machine that we call “the economy” or something likewise sub-human.  As far as that goes, I share those concerns, which is why I’ve been a steady and vocal critic of many of the politicians’ attempts to dictate the practice of education from capital cities, as far removed from the classroom as they are from doing a day’s real work.  Likewise, when corporate lobbyists, intent on making a fat profit from their “school reform” initiatives, try to turn neighborhood schools, one of the cornerstones of in-town life, into yet another consumer choice to be exercised by the parents with the least to lose, I’m almost always in the corner of the public schools over against the privatizers, separatists, and other folks who would make the schools one more place where the well-off can avoid coming in contact with the poor.

My fear, though, is that we give up too much when we make “science” functionally equivalent to “mechanistic behaviorism” or “technocratic manipulation.”  My hunch (and this little essay is an attempt to explore that hunch) is that several of the things that characterize the actual practice of science, as opposed to the popular technocratic notion of “science” as easy electronic fixes, might be precisely what we teachers could most use:

  • Observation, Experimentation, Documentation: One thing that my science-professor colleagues always insist on from their students is that their explorations of material reality come with careful, detailed, truthful records of the same.  I know that, in my own practice, the bad ideas that I don’t write down as bad ideas tend to come back in future semesters, and on occasion, I find myself wishing I could remember a good idea.  I’m not sure that I have the chops to teach a course of any complexity and record what happens therein with anything approaching ethnographic detail, but I still regard this as a scientific practice that could benefit my teaching if I could just do more of it.
  • A Body of Theory that Drives Further Practice: “I understand that most chemists have moved beyond it, but I’m actually very good at phlogiston theory.”  Unfortunately I could imagine a scenario where an academic says something like that, but my hunch is that the academic in question would be in a humanities department, not a science department.  Certainly there’s room, in theory, for sciences to rehabilitate old practices, but they must have some darn good reasons to, and there have to be some intelligible theoretical goods to show for them.  Simply saying that this or that mode of investigation is “how I learned to do it” or that folks have been “doing it this way forever” doesn’t hold as much weight as demonstrations that a given practice yields more adequate theoretical results.  (I have a hunch I’m underplaying Thomas Kuhn here, but again, this is mainly a thought experiment, so let me know what you think.)
  • A Community of Inquiry: Scientists publish their results.  And the aim isn’t what humanities scholarship too often becomes, the quest to take down the current “big dogs” in the field, but to craft, over time, a public record of what observations and experiments disclose.  Certainly we humanities-types publish our essays and books and blogs, but I wonder what might happen if we spent more time and resources developing some more robust apparatus to compare what happens when we try certain “moves” in core-curriculum, in upper-division, and other contexts.  I know that journals do in fact publish the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, but I also know that, in my own circles, few read them and fewer, if they know what’s good for them professionally, dedicate any effort to that rather than more traditional scholarship.
  • Equipment that Does Particular Jobs: This one is a bit more of a stretch, since I know science professors who make the same unreflective use of presentation software, online class environments, and other educational “technology” that we humanities-types do, but I sometimes wonder what I could do if I had as strong a notion of what the equipment (in a Heideggerian sense) of my classroom environment was for as, say, a chemist does when handling titration rigs or an astronomer does when choosing which sort of telescope to use for a given observation.  As far as I can tell, the impulse just to “do some particle acceleration,” divorced from a sense of what a particle accelerator does best, is somewhat less of a temptation than “making a powerpoint” seems to be for some of us.  (I could be wrong about that–science folks, let me know.)
  • Institutional Support: Have you ever wondered whether the suits who call the shots in the 21st-century academy might be the biggest fans of “teaching is not a science”?  I have.  After all, science gets funding.  Those who do science well get facilities and time dedicated to getting science right.  And even granting that every line of work in the academy has administrative hoops through which one must jump, the sense I get is that those who are the best among science-practitioners are relatively less likely to “do science” on the side while they devote most of their time to “academic work” which will more likely result in promotion.  As long as teaching is “not a science,” those who call the shots can treat it as a mystical and mysterious charism that some mortals receive and others don’t but certainly doesn’t merit the hiring of all that many salaried practitioners who have the time to do academic research not in order to escape teaching but in order to enhance it.  (That used to be one of the stated ideals of the research university, right?)  So long as “teaching is a craft,” institutions can treat it has a hobby.  So long as “teaching is a calling,” institutions can saddle it with a vow of poverty.  So long as “teaching is an art,” those who do it best can remain “starving artists.”  But if it’s a science?  The shift won’t happen like magic (because science isn’t magic), but I imagine that the priorities of an institution might just have some reason to re-align.

To bring all of those threads together, I wonder whether denying that “teaching” falls into the same rubric of “science” has the political fallout, whether we intend that or not, of continuing to relegate it to the status of a hobby or a religious vocation, something that eccentric personalities fiddle with, rather than a complex practice best pursued in community,with the support of institutions, ideally never with fixed dogmas or even with fixed aims but always accountable to each other as practitioners.  Or, to put it another way, I’ve seen more than a few essays bemoaning the privileged place of “science” in popular and academic discourse, to the detriment of other ways of academic existence.  Might a better strategy be appropriation rather than Jeremiad?

Obviously none of this is a rigorous philosophical treatment of the category “science” or a programmatic call for a new kind of education.  But I am curious to know, readers: do you share my sense that we raise deflector shields too quickly on the term?

Christian Humanist Profiles 9: A Very Critical Introduction to Hauerwas with Nicholas Healy

If we write, our best friends might just be those who write against us.  Luther and Erasmus, both stanley-1formidable thinkers, derive at least part of their well-earned place in the Church’s memory because of their fierce struggle over the freedom or the bondage of the will.  Friedrich Nietzsche, whose reputation in philosophical circles was in no danger, nonetheless gains a different sort of place in the Christian curriculum precisely because Alasdair MacIntyre and John Milbank and David Bentley Hart have dedicated so many words to countering his work.  And Stanley Hauerwas, who made his own name offering a strong rhetorical alternative to Protestant liberalism over the years, no doubt will have Dr. Nicholas Healy to thank for his recent book Hauerwas: A (Very) Critical Introduction, a volume that encourages readers to revisit the Duke theologian’s books precisely to evaluate where truth lies and where it might next unfold, if we take what’s best in Hauerwas and seek to do better what his books don’t yet do well.  As we begin to talk about just such things, Christian Humanist Profiles welcomes Nicholas Healy to the show.

Am I Interdisciplinary?

Students had been saying it for years, but it wasn’t until this semester that I started wondering what it really means when students say I’m not a “real” English professor.  Most don’t mean it as a bad thing; they seem rather to enjoy the break, when they prepare for and attend my classes, from what they would call “real” English-department work.  Since I often tell folks that my dissertation was an “interdisciplinary” project, combining post-liberal theology and literary criticism, I began to ponder whether one phenomenon has influenced the other or whether they’re parts of some larger constellation of phenomena.

When my students claim such a distinction from the “real” English professors, I don’t think any of them mean to say that I’m incapable of teaching literary criticism (though there are days I fear just that) or that their courses with me leave them wanting when they stood toe to toe with other “English” people.  The claim (I’ll reserve judgment about whether it’s an accusation or a congratulation) seems rather to do with the fact that they imagine much of my teaching, in literature classes as well as in rhetoric classes, to be “philosophy” rather than “English.”

Granted, I do tend to assign Platonic dialogues in my English classes, but they always have something to do with what we’re after in a given course.  In a rhetorical theory course, it makes perfect sense to me that students read Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus.  Likewise, when I teach the sophomore literature survey (which encompasses, in my classes, a range of texts from the ancient and medieval worlds), I assign Plato’s Symposium because its discussions of different orders of desires set students up nicely to approach questions of desire and damnation in Dante’s Inferno.  So the texts I assign for students’ reading must have something to do with it.

But there’s more to it than that–students have told me more than once that the manner in which I teach literature differs from the “real” English professors in our department.  Perhaps, judging by some such conversations, I’m more concerned with “the universe that a work creates” and less so with authorial biography and literary history.  Or perhaps, according to others, my selection of texts seems to veer away from “representative” pieces and towards those more likely to lead students into existential crisis.  Not all of the students even attempt to articulate the character of those differences, but many of them get the sense that they should call what my colleagues do “English” but aren’t sure quite what to call my own approaches.  I’m alright with that.

After all, even the most consistent “real” English professor is doing at least a couple of different things in any given course, each of which could merit its own “department” if one had the imagination to dream such a school.  Most upper-division literature courses that I’m aware of, and this includes my own, do some sort of work that one could reasonably call literary history.  Not only the work as a whole but particular literary forms, technical maneuvers, and modes of publication weave themselves into an investigation of things-in-the-world that results, usually, in some sort of narrative, a story that begins in some neighborhood of the past and wanders here and there, showing how this playwright responds to those predecessors’ literary texts or remain consistent in spite of the shifting sands of the broader culture.  As anyone who’s written a long literary-historical essay knows, that work is endlessly fascinating, and an English professor with some time on her hands, an empty notebook, and a reliable pen could likely sketch out an entire college major, perhaps even a graduate program, focused almost entirely on the history of how contingent forms, themes, and other such things rise and fall.

On the other hand, one could imagine an undergraduate program, perhaps even a graduate program, exclusively on the science of interpretation itself.  The historical element would be there, to be sure, even if only as background material, but such a program’s narrative focus would be on the questions that human beings bring to our own artifacts when we curate, edit, interpret, teach, and otherwise interact with texts in ways that treat them as “literature.”  (Writing that last sentence gave me ideas for at least three upper-division courses.)  And if I’m being really perverse, I could imagine an alternative institutional history in which the “real” literary-history professors don’t waste their time on “literary theory” and the “real” theory professors reciprocate.  After all, why remain content with one “English” department when there could be two departments, one for literary history and another for hermeneutics?  And I’m sure somebody reading this could offer me an example or two of places where just such things happen.

My point in nodding towards that alternative history is that, at least in the English department, everyone is already interdisciplinary, at least if one imagines a “discipline” as a historically contingent body of intellectual practices handed down from one generation of scholars to another.  The departments that we inhabit are not co-extensive with “disciplines” so much as each department stands for a coalition of disciplines (and one discipline can certainly inhabit more than one department) that share a common story.  Within any given course a professor looking for energy to drive a course’s curriculum could do worse than to mine the tensions between the discrete, intelligible disciplines that constitute any given department.  To build a course or even a major around the framework of such tensions is to give English majors (or Ministry majors or Chemistry majors or Economics majors, for that matter) a season of guided practice in theorizing differences, and one could do worse for the students.

Because schools differ, what counts as “English” also stands to take on the character of a place.  To my mind that means that an “English” person within one institution’s network of narratives might differ radically from her counterpart in another institution’s network without either ceasing to be an “English” or a “History” or a “Psychology” person.  In a larger institution, one with a healthy department called “Philosophy,” there might be less call for there to be a Plato person in the English department.  (That said, I learned all of my Hegel and a good deal of my Nietzsche in a big university’s English department, not a quarter-mile from the same university’s Ph.D-granting Philosophy department.)  Where a college has a strong English department and a strong Communication department, there’s not much sense in saying that one or the other is the proper place for students to study rhetorical theory; odds are, students learn their rhetoric in both “places.”  (Since, in my school at least, most departments share the same classroom buildings, I teach many of my own classes in the same rooms where students learn their management theory, their American history, their Greek, and their psychology.)  Since every department exists as a conversation between disciplines, and since every discipline has its history of interactions with other disciplines, my sense is that “interdisciplinary” names an awareness of one’s historical contingency more than a genuinely transgressive act.

So when I do think about what and how and why I teach, departmental boundaries don’t concern me nearly as much as teleology.  When I plan a course or a lesson, or for that matter when I engage in conversation with students and colleagues, the question that interests me more than whether I’m doing English-department things is into what sort of narrative-network this or that lesson fits, what sorts of things am I inviting students to do and how those things, when attempted in proximity to what they’re doing in chemistry lab, blend horizons and open up new possibilities for students.  When I ask teleological questions, framing what I do in terms of doing-this-for-the-sake-of-that, the departmental boundaries do not go away (after all, they provide the institutional support that makes my sort of teaching possible), but they take their place as one line of questioning among many, contending for primacy, sometimes ending up prominent and sometimes secondary (as all lines of questioning should).  Likewise, to say that departmental identity does not claim ultimate place in determining what counts as good teaching and scholarship doesn’t mean that something else becomes magically central and intelligible; it just opens up a bit of space to negotiate what might become, provisionally and as the fruit of negotiation, central and intelligible.

So I’m going to keep doing “interdisciplinary” research, knowing full well that such a label doesn’t make my work any more interesting (or less difficult) than anyone else’s.  I’ll keep teaching Platonic dialogues in freshman composition classes, taking their dialectic assertion-and-negation structure as a model for revision.  And I’ll keep on refining what I do, never forgetting that my appointment is in a department but never taking that fact as the ultimate, conversation-ending conclusion.  And when it’s time to talk about the contradictions of divine knowledge and human moral responsibility in Boethius, I’m going to do so joyfully, waiting to see what they’ll call me next.


The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #140: Answers to Your Questions

We answer your emails today! If you’d like to be included on a future listener-feedback episode, send woman-reading-a-letter-woman-in-blue-reading-a-letteryour comments, complaints, critiques, or criticism to Here are the time marks for the individual emails and subjects, should you wish to skip ahead.

[03:05] Mark Heard and listener feedback about listener feedback. (See below.)
[04:29] Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology and “A Primer on Religious Existentialism.”
[06:41] Spoon River Anthology and A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
[08:47] A case for stupid songs and Grubbs’s Dick Van Dyke moment.
[12:08] Non-Trinitarian Christianity.
[16:05] Postmodernism vs. Bertrand Russell.
[20:52] American political theory.
[29:44] A defense of Francis Schaeffer.
[33:30] The Bible and The Christian Humanist Podcast.
[46:33] The best philosophical works?
[55:04] Podcast recommendations. (See below.)
[57:09] Jaws and Rabbits.
[1:01:11] A physics lesson on Mark Heard. (See below.)
[1:04:09] War and technology.

Darrell’s Heard post.

Jonas’s podcast recommendations:

Books / Literature
Bookworm (KCRW)​ ​[Author interviews. The authors continually express amazement at the interviewer's reading of the book. He will say things they thought no one would see in the book, or he'll show them something is there that they hadn't seen.]
World Book Cl​ub (BBC) [In a live event, the host asks an author questions in front of an audience, which also asks questions, as do readers from around the world via phone or e-mail.]
Selected Shorts​ ​[I generally hate it when actors--as opposed to authors--read audio books. But here actors read short stories in front of audiences and I love it. In one episode titled "Odd Couples," James Naughton performed Raymond Carver's "Cathedral." Truthfully, I have never found great pleasure in Carver's work. But this brought out the humor I hadn't seen, and made me like the story a great deal.]
Writers & Company (CBC)​ ​[Author interviews.]
Books and Authors (BBC) ​ ​[The most common format is for two guests plus the host to each select a book that they all read, and then they discuss each one. The guests are usually well-known people who are not authors.]
New Yorker Fiction ​ ​[New Yorkers fiction authors read and discuss stories that have been published earlier in the magazine. My favorite is when Hisham Matar read Jorge Luis Borges's "Shakespeare's Memory."]
Poem Talk (Poetry Foundation)
Poetry Off the Shelf (Poetry Foundation)
Poetry Magazine Podcast (Poetry Foundation)
Poetry Lectures (Poetry Foundation)
Poem of the Day (Poetry Foundation)
Writer’s Almanac
Guardian Books
NYT Book Review
Free Library of Philadelphia
Los Angeles Public Library: Aloud

Culture Gabfest (Slate)
Great Lives (BBC) ​ ​ [The host invites a famous guest to nominate someone (anyone, as long as they are no longer living) as having lived a great life. They also invite an expert on the subject--an academic, family member, etc.--to join the conversation. This often sets up an interesting dynamic, since the expert often tempers the enthusiasm of the person who nominated the great life.]
In Our Time (BBC)​ ​[The topics range from literature to science to history to philosophy. His guests are experts on the subject, bursting with things to say--there is always much more that they want to cover than they have time for.]
Lexicon Valley (Slate)​ ​[Language talk.]
Radio 3 Essay (BBC) ​ ​[The essay form is alive and well.]
Lapham’s Quarterly
New Yorker Out Loud
Studio 360 (WNYC)
Front Row Daily (BBC)
Arts & Ideas (BBC)
Political Gabfest (Slate)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Latino USA (NPR)
A Way with Words
Philosophy Bites
Science Friday

Soundcheck (WNYC)
All Songs Considered (NPR)
Alt.Latino (NPR)
The Checkout (jazz)
Jazz (NPR)
The Jazz Session

Todd explains Mark Heard:

Here is an alternative take on the candle and prism stanza of Heard’s wonderful “Love is not the Only Thing”.  I think Michial got the gist of what Heard was saying correct – bit if I remember what he said (about the prism in some sense “containing the rainbow”) was off-base in terms of the physics.

In the lines in question, “You see me like a prism sees a candle; I’m scattered into differing hues”, I believe Heard was getting at the following.  The singer’s wife is likened to a prism, which can “see” the different colors in the candle’s light. The husband’s light, seen by others, is simply white – but contained within – the light, not the prism – is a rainbow of hues that his wife alone can bring out.   To me as a physicist (and a husband who celebrated his 22nd anniversary just yesterday) this is a truly beautiful analogy.

Paul’s history of military technology:

At West Point, all Cadets are required to take 2 semesters of Military History courses.  In my first Military History class, we began with the battle of Agincourt, a battle of English victory against the numerically superior French in the 100 years war (1415).  This battle is known for the use of the English longbow attacking the superior French cavalry and men at arms force before they were able to inflict heavy casualties on the outnumbered English force.  King Henry the VIII of England decided to push his troops forward to provoke a French assault as both the English and French knew many French reinforcements were marching to the battle.  The outcome of this battle astounded many contemporary Military histories as the consensus is that the English were able to kill and capture the French at a rate of at least 8:1.  In the restricted terrain of the battle of Agincourt, the English Longbow proved a formidable weapon against the heavily armored (though not in all areas of their bodies) French force.  Also, unencumbered by 50-60 pounds of armor they were able to effectively attack the flanks of the superior armored French force and kill/capture thousands of them.  This battle is seen as one of the first examples of a numerically/tactically outnumbered Army defeating a much larger and better equipped Armies in Military History.

Skipping several more advances in warfare, I would like to now discuss in minor detail the American Civil War.  This war is predominately viewed by military historians as one that the USA had a long term insurmountable advantage over the Confederacy in terms of industrial strength and population.  However, the Confederacy was able to delay this defeat by many years by means of expert tactical decisions by Confederate Generals.  Among the many examples of the expert tactics of the confederacy was the Second Battle of Bull run in which a numerically inferior Confederate force defeated the United States Army of VIrginia.  This Battle culminated in General Longstreet’s division crushing of the left flank of the Union Army and a disastrous Union retreat.

Continuing this history of warfare, I now advance to World War I-a war that was supposed to be a quick march from Germany to Paris (according to the German  Schlieffen Plan), that ended in many years of horrific trench warfare on two fronts.  It is here that the world was introduced to the horrors of chemical and biological warfare.  I would argue that this advance in the technology of warfare did drastically change war as we know it.  It is believed that over 9 million people died in World War I.  If this nearly unfathomable number of casualties is not a change in warfare, then what is?  This war also was the beginning of tank warfare, a change that would resonate in history (Blitzkrieg anyone?)  What was thought by many to be a quick war ended up draining the recourses and manpower of the majority of Europe from 1914-1918.

World War II, likewise marked a major change in the history of war.   The atomic bomb is the largest piece of evidence for the fact that war forever changed with World War II.  There were an estimated 50-85 million casualties during WWII!  This makes all previous wars pale in comparison with the human toll of this war.  WWII is often characterized as the first (and possibly only?) total war due to the strategic bombing of enemy military industrial and population centers as well as the use of the Atomic Bomb.  WWII was characterized by a scale and commitment to war I hope to never experience in my lifetime.

The current/recent US Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been significantly different from previous US Wars.  First, and foremost, the United States has been able to wage these wars despite minimal effects of war impacting the majority of American civilians.  Contrasting these wars with the American Civil War, WWI, and WWII prove a major point that warfare has changed much recently (more than Michael appears to understand)  Also, in the same (or many other) episode of your podcast, I believe Nathan mentioned the current administrations use of drones to attack suspected military targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Similar to what I said of the atomic bomb I must say, If modern drone warfare is not a complete change of war, then what is?

In conclusion, war has changed an extreme amount from the days of hand to hand combat to trench warfare, the invention of tanks, the atomic bomb, and more recently the advent of drone warfare.  I feel that this is a simple concept to understand, yet maybe it is one of those things that only those in the field can really appreciate?  My opinion is that war has changed more than it has stayed the same in the history of the United States.

Our intro music today–as always for listener-feedback episodes–is Loose Fur’s “Answers to Your Questions,” from 2006′s Born Again in the USA.

The Christian Feminist Podcast, Episode #10: Orange is the New Black

  • Intros and listener emails


  • Some information on Piper Kerman and her memoir


  • Our favorite characters and the nature of the ensemble
  • Pennsatucky, Sister Ingalls, and OitNB’s depictions of Christianity
  • Sexuality, queerness, and gender identity on OitNB
  • Prisoner/guard power relations
  • Lightning round wrap-up

Passing On


Against Allegory

For the last several years, I’ve been teaching the Honors Introduction to Literature course at my small pilgrims-progress-mpChristian college. It has traditionally been taught as an introduction not to literature in general but to specifically Christian literature, and I do not rock the boat, at least not in this case. One of the things my students are consistently surprised to learn is that I do not, like most of them, like John Bunyan’s classic 1678 allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress. In fact, I don’t like allegory much at all as a literary genre.

It wasn’t always this way. When I was first reading “important” books as a zealous teenager, I generally assumed that what made them great was a hidden, allegorical meaning—usually a theological one—below the literal surface. I don’t remember where I got this idea from, but I suspect The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe had a lot to do with it. This assumption, naturally enough, led to some truly nimble interpretive acrobatics. I was finally broken of the habit by T.S. Eliot’s early prose-poem “Hysteria”:

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark cavern of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden . . .” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.

Perhaps some critic, more devious than I, can interpret this in such a way to make the speaker Christ and the woman the Church, but this task was beyond my seventeen-year-old abilities, and I decided that not every poem was a religious allegory. As time went by and my own thought became more sophisticated, I became embarrassed of my earlier assumption—and eventually I grew to dislike allegory itself, which I saw as a form of authorial pre-digestion.

The critic and essayist Susan Stewart, on the other hand, conceives of allegories as distinctively readerly texts, in the sense that “In allegory the vision of the reader is larger than the vision of the text; the reader dreams to an excess, to an overabundance.” I can’t say I agree with this. In allegory, as I understand it, the additional meanings are actually present in the text, folded in layers beneath the literal meaning of the words. This is why Dante can famously suggest that his writing must operate on four levels at once.

So, while it’s true that the literal text of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe never announces that Aslan is Christ, it’s not correct to say, as Stewart does if I’m reading her correctly, that the connection exists only or chiefly in the mind of the reader. It exists in the text itself, and even in the intentions of the author. (It’s not readers, after all, who turn Aslan into Christ—Lewis does that.) It’s just that the allegorical meaning of the text sounds in a different register than the literal meaning. All of this is carefully constructed by the writers of allegories, which is why Stewart goes even further afield when she argues that

The eschatological vision of allegory makes the reader the producer of the text in the sense that closure can be achieved only through conversion. But the production of the eighteenth-century novel is divided between the author and his reader, and the reader’s production is subsidiary to, and imitative of, the author’s work.

This schema, it seems to me, is exactly opposite. I agree with Stewart that the “realist” novel (broadly conceived so as to include Richardson, Joyce, Robbe-Grillet, and parts of Melville in addition to James and Cheever) involves an interpretive apparatus divided between author and reader, with the latter imitating the former’s initial creative act. But the author is much more present in allegory than in realism, and his intentions are far more transparent. But they are heavy at the same time they are transparent—so heavy that the reader cannot push them out of the way to conduct the secondary creative act of critical interpretation.

To return to the example I began with, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is thick with the sort of heavy transparency I’m talking about. When your characters have names like Christian and Mr. Worldly Wiseman and have what being they have in places called things like the Slough of Despond and the Doubting Castle, the author’s intentions have been made so abundantly clear that only a child could fail to pick up on them—or be proud of herself for picking up on them. The allegorical register of Pilgrim’s Progress is played so loudly that no other register is audible.

There’s an argument to be made, of course, that not every allegory is as heavy and transparent as Pilgrim’s Progress—and of course this is true. Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, for one, offers an almost infinite space for the secondary creative act. But I would argue that that space opens up in the places where the poem is the least allegorical—allegorical in the sense of the genre here, rather than as a vague synonym for analogical.

The least artistically interesting book of The Faerie Queene is, not coincidentally, the most transparent and the heaviest: the first, in which the knight of faith seeks theological unity amidst schism. It’s often less clear what Spenser was trying to do in the other books. His characters tend to become so fleshly that they break through their allegorical bonds—witness Britomart, who supposedly represents female chastity but who ends up becoming a strikingly masculine knight in her own right. The literal register is interfering with the allegorical register, and the result is that readers are given a chance to help Spenser say something, instead of passively listening to him.

This is also true, incidentally, of Lewis—Till We Have Faces is a more interesting and powerful book than The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. It still has the faint appearance of allegory to it, but the pieces don’t quite fit together. We recognize, reading this novel, that there are signifieds lurking behind the signifiers of the characters and plots, and we know, for example, that Cupid is meant to map onto the Christian God, with some corners sticking out—but we never see any of this except through a glass darkly. Till We Have Faces thus welcomes readers to join in the act of creation to a degree that the Narnia books sometimes don’t—though they are still a universe ahead of Pilgrim’s Progress in this respect.

Allegory, I’m saying, works better as a literary element among literary elements than as a genre unto itself. Such a statement, of course, presupposes a particular teleology for literature and a particular table of values for literary criticism. It should be clear by now that I value ambiguity over precision in terms of the moral argument of literary work—authors and texts that are humble enough to invite the reader to their party. (The reader, in turn, must wipe her feet at the door and treat her hosts with genuine respect.)

Strict allegory does not have this humility. I have little sense of who he was in the non-imaginative world, but the Bunyan who dreamed up Pilgrim’s Progress is not humble. He is a preacher rather than an artist, and the reader of his allegory would no more think of joining in the creative act than a congregation would think of joining its pastor at the pulpit. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with preaching; I’m offering you a sermon of sorts here, after all. But it is not literature, and however good Bunyan’s theology is, his art is lousy.

One of my goals for that Honors Introduction to Literature course—and one of my general goals when teaching literature in all of my classes—is to open up a space for artistic expression beyond allegory. In part, perhaps, this may be an expiation for the sins of my youth. But the discovery of the ambiguity of the worlds presented through art (and the one we all live in together) is, in some sense, the discovery of a higher ethical realm—and certainly a higher artistic one.