Dick Staub is the host of what may well be the finest podcast out there on the subject of Christianity and the arts, The Kindlings Muse. He has a knack–clearly derived from his previous life as the host of a three-hour daily interview-based radio show–of picking the right panel of guests and then stepping out of the way. He apparently saves his opinions for his pop-theology books, of which About You is the fourth. Staub clearly counts C.S. Lewis as his role model, and indeed, his writing has the same go-down-easy aura of gentle rigor one finds in Lewis’s nonfiction. They both delight in speaking about heavy ideas in a way that makes the lay reader feel smart and engaged–without talking down to him, as so many works of popular theology do these days.
In About You, Staub’s topic is one I’ve heard a lot–especially from Eastern Orthodox Christians–and which appeals to be quite a bit: the notion that Christ’s death and resurrection accomplish more than mere penal substitution, that in fact salvation involves our becoming more “real,” more “fully human” in the sense that Christ Himself is fully human and fully divine. There would be several ways to get this message across. The easiest would be a syrupy self-help volume about the value of each individual. Staub veers uncomfortably close to this method at times, but as he says, “the simplistic bromides of positive thinking have turned me off” (4), and for the most part he avoids formulas and one-to-one correspondences. He also mostly avoids treacle of the Max Lucado variety, though at times he seems too bent on telling his readers how incredibly special they are.
His main technique is an entry-level existentialism–not the California “full potential” kind but something less flattering, something that acknowledges that we are what we’ve done but also a better self that races always ahead of us. That we strive to be “fully human” at all suggests, as Sartre puts it, that “we are what we are not,” that a nothingness lurks deep in our being, and Staub chalks this discrepancy up to the Fall of Man, a barely remembered event that nevertheless has imprinted itself on our “collective memory” (ix). Therefore, while he begins his book with the affirmation that each of us is a genius (on the sketchy grounds that “Webster’s second definition of genius is ‘an individual’s natural abilities and capacities’ –actually, this merely suggests that we all have genius), he immediately backtracks to discuss the world’s creation as perfect and man’s destruction of that perfection.
Staub is a bit slippery in this chapter, and not without good reason in this highly politicized area of theology. He insists that our creation by God is the important thing and then invokes Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria:
I am serious about both my faith and contemporary science. I think they are compatible. I do not believe issues of apparent disagreement between faith and science can be resolved by ignoring or dismissing one or the other; rather, we need to see them as equally important albeit different ways of looking at the same world. (17)
He doesn’t take any clear stand on evolution, which probably bothers Ray Comfort but not me: what matters is that the God described in the Bible created the world, not how God did so. Staub does a great job teasing out the implications of the Imago Dei and explaining why creation in a broad sense matters. His whole argument hinges on this chapter. If we’re not created in the image of a creative and loving God, he says, our miniature creations and imperfect loves are mere delusion. If we are, on the other hand, then to express ourselves creatively is to get closer to being fully human.
The book does a good job of branching out from this beginning, and Staub discusses things like alienation, salvation, and individual destiny with ease and depth. He’s particularly effective in his critique of the evangelical pitfall of solipsistic individualism. More conservative than most of the Emergent Church, he nevertheless takes the best insights from that movement, mixes them with the little-read Mark Twain piece Extracts from Adam’s Diary, and comes to the measured conclusion that “our essential need for company counterbalances our undeniable individuality. We thrive on camaraderie and companionship as much as or more than we crave occasional solitude” (41). This is not an original thought, of course–but then Staub never claimed it was. It’s refreshing, in a world where Christian popular-press authors feel obligated by arrogance or agent to tell you that their every book is something you’ve never seen before, to find someone happy with being a popularizer. Lewis would be proud.
In fact, one of Staub’s most interesting points revolves around this issue. The problem with contemporary society, he says, quoting a friend, is that we’ve lost our middlebrow culture:
In his definition, “middlebrow individuals” are interested in thinking through ideas and issues, but are turned off equally by both highbrow pretensions and lowbrow mindlessness. Middlebrow culture is where academics and mere mortals once met to converse; it is where we forged a path that shunned academic theory without application and rejected the dumbing down of culture. (88)
This diagnosis certainly flatters those bloggers and podcasters who, like me, are planted firmly in the realm of the middlebrow. But is it true? The middlebrow is all around us, and not just on the Internet: Cornel West is on Talk of the Nation every other week; folks have bestsellers with books like Freakonomics and Hot, Flat, and Crowded; Stanley Fish has a regular column in the New York Times; and even a charlatan like Glenn Beck finds an academic to conspicuously worship. It’s true that we lack a Christian public intellectual along the lines of Lewis or Karl Barth, but the enormous machine of the Emergent publishing empire demonstrates that it’s not for lack of trying. I agree with Staub that there’s a problem with the middlebrow–but it’s not as simple as saying that it doesn’t exist. I will likely expand my thoughts on this subject in a future post–so stay tuned if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.
I’m not really the target audience for About You, I suspect, for the same reason that Nathan Gilmour isn’t the target audience for A New Kind of Christianity: I know the material he’s popularizing too well. But for a therapeutic, relatively conservative introduction to existentialist ideas–keeping in mind that Staub never claims outright that he’s writing such an introduction–you could do a lot worse than this book. I assigned it to my high-school-level Sunday School class, and it’s driven the students to a higher caliber of question. And it’d make a good gift for a recent Christian-college graduate, on his or her way to the crisis of faith that so often comes next. Just ignore the ugly, non-descript cover.