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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 thechristianhumanist@gmail.com. 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

Other
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)
Freakonomics
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Latino USA (NPR)
A Way with Words
Philosophy Bites
Science Friday

Music
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

Knowing

  • Some information on Piper Kerman and her memoir

Reading

  • 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
  • http://mic.com/articles/93117/the-one-thing-keeping-orange-is-the-new-black-from-being-the-most-feminist-show-on-television
  • Prisoner/guard power relations
  • Lightning round wrap-up

Passing On

  • http://www.washingtoncitypaper.com/blogs/artsdesk/film/2014/06/11/where-the-fuck-are-all-the-guards-an-ex-con-reviews-orange-is-the-new-black
  • http://the-toast.net/author/mallory-ortberg/
  • http://www.christianitytoday.com/women/writers/laura-ortberg-turner.html?paging=off
  • http://www.bathshebas.net/articles/8

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.

Plato Was Not White

PlatoAnother teaching semester is about to ramp up, and as is often the case, I have some Platonic dialogues lined up to teach.  I’ve taught at least one dialogue in  almost every semester since about 2005, and on the campus of Emmanuel College, where I’ve taught since 2009, people who know about me at all know about me as “that Plato guy.”  My sense is that the relatively few people who know about me on the Internet regard me likewise.

Perhaps that professional investment in Plato (personally, I’m more of a postmodern Augustinian with leanings towards MacIntyre’s brand of neo-Thomism) has made me more irritable than I should be when the old Athenian ends up in the crosshairs of well-meaning folks who wish to set right the balance of power and take away the overlordship (I prefer that Anglo-Saxon compound word to the Hellenism “hegemony,” and I grant the irony) from “dead white males.”  I think the political questions there are fascinating, but a matter of some historical import gets in the way of the politics, if one isn’t careful: Plato wasn’t White.

Whiteness, as sociologists will tell you if you ask, isn’t merely a matter of skin pigmentation: it’s a much more complex and more historical phenomenon. The stories of “light-skinned” Black people in the twentieth-century United States show some of this complexity.  Because they’re part of a narrative that involves centuries of institutional slavery, being “light-skinned” does not confer membership in the social group of political power. There might be social benefit relative to White people or even among other Black people, but also possible is a betrayal-anxiety renders such a Black person subject to different sorts of injustice, perhaps even suspicion that they’re masquerading as white by their own choice or betraying “their people” because they “look white.” 

Likewise, human beings born into the former (or current) European Empires with lighter-than-average pigmentation don’t get treated as “white” so much as exotic specimens of “those people” who “look like us.” Pigmentation figures in but only pigmentation as one variable in a complex, multi-variable system.

Where did Plato go in all of this?  My brief answer is that the name “Plato” has become a token in a game that the historical man Plato would not have recognized.  The fact of the matter is that Athens, though a significant regional power in the fifth and fourth centuries, was not the sort of global empire that the British and French and Germans and Dutch grabbed and maintained a couple thousand years after he wrote his rightly-famous dialogues.  In fact, reading around in the actual texts of Plato and his contemporaries reveals a fascination not with “white” empires (there weren’t any yet) but with the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and other, more far-reaching powers who have become, in the age of European empires, the colonies of the new world powers.  And that’s the point: “White” names a very recent development in the grand human story, not one that’s perpetual or inevitable.  And that means we’re free to imagine other possibilities.

That’s what’s insidious about declaring Plato “White” too easily: such a move threatens to obscure the contingency of history, in which the man Plato was not “White” because that term takes its twenty-first-century meaning not from skin-coloring but from a centuries-long (but not THAT many centuries!) narrative of Capitalist-formed human slavery, nationalist-based empire-building, and–I grant this point–attempts to co-opt texts like those of Homer and Euripides and Plato as parts of a “Western Canon,” a movement that claims them as part of a project of “civilization” undeniably tied up in the story of how northern and western Europeans became “White” as opposed to the Asian and African and American tribes over whom they won military supremacy.

Or, to put it another way, I fear that when we 21st-century folks point at Plato and shout “White!” we forget the contingency and thus the mutability of the story of “White” and grant “White” a historical longevity that it just doesn’t have.  My hunch is that we might actually find more political grain to glean when we grant the historical contingency of the era of European overlordship, and I eagerly note that Washington, D.C. in the twentieth century is something analogous to Baghdad in the ninth or Rome in the first or Babylon centuries before that without being identical to any of the above.  But to insist on the “Whiteness” and thus the moral badness of someone who wasn’t around long enough to see that part of the human story strikes me as a reductionist move that ultimately cuts off conversations that are worth having.

Is Nathan Gilmour, twenty-first-century English professor and blogger, White?  Yes.  And there are better ways and worse ways for him to be so.  May he always be aware enough of his place in complex historical stories to strive towards better ways of living with his neighbor as the contingent, historical being that Dasein finds itself being.

Was Plato White?  No.  And my hunch is that the best way of reading him is not as a forerunner and pioneer of the British Empire but as someone alien to our own experiences precisely because he was a Greek and thus not a beneficiary of Empire the way that Nathan Gilmour is.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #139: On Idolatry

Nathan Gilmour moderates a discussion about the treatise On Idolatry Tertullianby the Patristic theologian Tertullian. Listen as we get mad at Tertullian and move the discussion into the realm of boycotts, guilt, and politics!

Our theme music this week is Steve Taylor’s “Guilty by Association,” from 1984′s Meltdown. Does Taylor know that he’s implicitly attacking Tertullian? Maybe not–but you do!

Christian Humanist Profiles Episode 8: Approaching the End with Stanley Hauerwas

HauerwasIf the LORD had led Israel out of Egypt, Dayenu.  If the LORD had wrought justice upon the Egyptians, Dayenu.  If the LORD had wrought justice on their gods, Dayenu.  The refrain from the Passover song reminds those celebrating that God’s generosity overflows each grand tale told of the mighty acts and the provision for Israel.  It would have been enough merely to have such glorious memories, but as Stanley Hauerwas’s most recent book, Approaching the End, reminds us,  every act of God remembered surges forward to set before the faithful a road, a path, a way to journey that transforms both our ways of imagining the world and the lives of the people who travel that way.  Christian Humanist Profiles this day welcomes Dr. Stanley Hauerwas to a conversation about the end, the people who sing the end, and the practice of theology as it forms us joyfully to embrace the end.

The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #138: Mark Heard

Michial Farmer leads a discussion with Nathan Gilmour and David Grubbs about the late singer/songwriter Mark Heard’s 4905_Mark_Heard_picture_11992 greatest-hits album High Noon. Heard died unexpected of a heart attack in 1992, and still remains an obscure name today. But his music is some of the best that “Christian rock” has had to offer the world.

A YouTube playlist of most of the songs on High Noon.
Image Journal‘s “Diary of a Musician.”