Sunday 12/20/15

  1. Praise of the servile and liberal arts
  2. Give ’em what they want
  3. Outsourcing morals to the state: Game Over
  4. Savoring the art of Chauvet
  5. 12/25 is ours; we stole it fair and square

1

Scientists and engineers live lives governed by the reality principle: Get the variables wrong, the experiment will fail, even if this seems insensitive; do the math wrong, the equation will tell you, even if that hurts your feelings. Reality does not similarly regulate the production of Marxist interpretations of “Middlemarch” or turgid monographs on the false consciousness of Parisian street sweepers in 1714. Literature professors “deconstructing” Herman Melville cause nothing worse than excruciating boredom in their students. If engineers ignore reality, reality deconstructs their bridges.

In their scalding 2007 book “Until Proven Innocent: Political Correctness and the Shameful Injustices of the Duke Lacrosse Rape Case,” Stuart Taylor Jr. and KC Johnson plausibly argue that Duke’s disgrace — a fictional rape; hysterical academics trashing due process — was driven by the faculty Group of 88. Signatories of its manifesto included “only two professors in math, just one in the hard sciences, and zero in law. . . . More than 84 percent described their research interests as related to race, class or gender (or all three). The Group of 88 was disproportionately concentrated in the humanities and some social science departments. Fully 80 percent of the African-American studies faculty members signed the statement, followed by women’s studies (72.2 percent) and cultural anthropology (60 percent).”

(George Will writing, partly, about Purdue University)

Let no one take comfort in their philistine educational “practicality” from these observations, though. Alan Jacobs defended the liberal arts (especially in consciously Christian setting) more beautifully than I could:

But I will say this: I believe the kind of education students receive in the Honors College at Baylor, and at Wheaton, is in most respects far superior to what they would receive at secular schools of greater academic reputation and social prestige …

I would point to three factors:

1. At Christian colleges, students and faculty alike tend to think of learning as a project in which the whole person is involved. Information is not typically separated from knowledge, nor knowledge from wisdom. The quest for education is less performative, more earnest than at many secular institutions. People are more likely to think and speak of education as something that leads to eudaimonia, flourishing.

2. A closely related point: Christian institutions tend to think quite consciously that their task involves Bildung, the formation of young people’s characters as well as their minds. So in hiring and retention they place a greater emphasis on teaching and mentoring than is common in secular institutions. (There are exceptions, of course, but even the most student-centered secular institutions cannot, because of their intrinsic pluralism, specify what good personal formation looks like.)

3. Perhaps the most important feature: Christian teachers and students alike can never forget that their views are not widely shared in the culture as a whole. We read a great many books written by people who don’t believe what we believe; we are always aware of being different. This is a tremendous boon to true learning, because it discourages people from deploying rote pieties as a substitute for genuine thought. No Christian student or professor can ever forget the possibility of alternative beliefs or unbeliefs. Most students who graduate from Christian colleges have a sharp, clear awareness of alternative ways of being in the world; yet students at secular universities can go from their first undergraduate year all the way to a PhD without ever having a serious encounter with religious thought and experience — with any view of the world other than that of their own social class.

So I remain supportive of the liberal arts even as I despair of how liberal arts academic characters are being formed and at how some of the ideological approaches can stultify rather than promote flourishing.

2

A thoughtful conservative having something good to say about Walmart drew me into this column, which proved worthy:

I will admit that the last time my wife shopped at a Walmart, some years ago, she swore never to go back. The tattoos, piercings, and shouted vulgarities were too much for her, as was the woman standing in line to cash her government check, wearing a shirt that declared “[expletive deleted] work.” (Would that I were kidding.) … Walmart’s customer base simply reflects America’s working-class culture, increasingly vulgarized as are yuppies (not to mention academics), but still mostly made up of hardworking citizens I would trust long before any urban liberal.

A central reason for that trust is also, I think, a reason for Walmart’s continuing success. The way Walmart avoids insulting its customers is to avoid the worst excesses of “cutting-edge” trendy culture and to give normal American customers what they actually want—thereby reflecting what is left of middle-American values. I brought my family to Virginia for the weekend, and as I waited in the ever-long line to purchase a few things, I heard my teenagers singing a Veggie-tales tune. This blast from their younger past was courtesy of the book-display at check out, which included a number of religious works including, of course, Veggie Tales. I honestly cannot remember the last time I saw anything Christian displayed so prominently in any store that was not itself overtly Christian. But Walmart was happy to sell what its customers want.

Toys gathered on shelves according to gender as well as age, so parents can find the right items for the right kids. Christian books. Christmas ornaments and cards that actually mention Christ. Even Christmas music that mentions Christ. I am quite certain many readers of other online journals (though not the good people of The Imaginative Conservative) would sneer or even become agitated at such retrograde merchandising. But that is precisely my point. These are what normal Americans expect. To tell your customers, “no we do not have any Christmas cards that mention Christ”—as a clerk at a different store told my wife some time back—is to tell them that their faith is not only unwelcome on public property, but unwelcome at your store as well.

(Bruce Frohnen, Holy Walmart! How to Succeed in Business by Not Insulting Customers)

3

I don’t distinctly remember anything previously from this author, but The Ecclesiastical Failure of Christian America is memorable:

Chesterton once quipped that America is “a nation with the soul of a church.” That traditionally has been viewed as a source of strength to the nation as well as a source of strength for American churches. While American Protestants furiously multiplied denominations and sects almost from the start, the country nonetheless enjoyed a cultural moral consensus centered particularly around the Ten Commandments. This provided a form and level of unity to splintered denominational system.

This, I think, is really what Americans meant when using phrases like “Judeo-Christian Heritage.” They were happy enough to include Jews in the American project, but the real import of the term aimed to articulate a generic moral heritage for the various Christian (Protestant) denominations. And the “Judeo” part was a sly, if implicit, way to make sure we all understood the reference was to the Ten Commandments and not, say, to the more-contested lessons from the Sermon on the Mount.

… In effect, the Church contracted out moral discipleship and church discipline to the culture. American Christians had gotten used to and easy-going, non-threatening permeability of church and culture.

Fast forward to today when we hear about the need for churches to exercise the so-called Benedict Option. Basically, it means little more than churches need actually to reflect the full reality of what they’re supposed to be in the first place. But American churches are out of practice, ironically because of the power they once exercised over American culture.

As a result of developing the last 200 years of a “nation with the soul of a church,” Christians don’t have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church.

(James R. Rogers) Hmmm. I wonder if there are any exceptions, any Churches that for some reason already “have the ecclesiastical practices and habits that allow them easily and naturally to be fullness of the church”?

It might make sense to start with Churches that have had the audacity to believe that they are The Church, whose adherents were “ecclesial Christians” (coined by the lat Richard John Neuhaus) for whom faith in Christ and faith in His Church was one act of faith, not two.

4

In the visual arts, with the sole (possible) exception of photography, I’m utterly incompetent and virtually illiterate (I think Wheaton College would have tried to remedy that had I remained). So I must take the word of those who incommensurably utter or write words about visual arts.

Written of the Chauvet Cave art:

Several things make Chauvet stand out among prehistoric cave sites. For one thing, the majority of the animals depicted are not those that would have been hunted for food, such as aurochs and mammoths. Rather, there are dozens of depictions of major predators like cave bears, wooly rhinoceros, cave lions, panthers, and cave hyenas.

But what really caused me to hold my breath was that this cave art was unmistakably art. These charcoal drawings are not mere stick figures; they employ shading and smudging that model three dimensions and perspective. [Examples follow]

The other distinctive: though there has been some debate, scientists now generally believe that Chauvet may be over thirty thousand years old, nearly twice as old as the cave art at Lascaux and Altamira.

What makes all this so compelling to me is that it runs counter to the received wisdom. Since the Enlightenment we’ve been told by anthropologists that art by early humans was utilitarian in purpose: cave art, they argued, was part of a shamanic ritual in which pictures of animals enabled hunters to gain power over the animals’ spirits and thus kill them more effectively.

The same goes for the religious dimension of Paleolithic humanity, which is seen as little more than the manipulation of the environment. When an anthropologist in Cave of Forgotten Dreams is asked what constitutes our humanness, all he can say is “the capacity for adaptation,” a purely functional explanation.

The operative word in the received wisdom has always been power—power over those animal spirits, power over the environment. But this seems to me to project the ideology of modern scientism—Francis Bacon’s conviction that science involves power over nature—on rich, complex, ancient phenomena. It’s hard to imagine anything less scientific than projecting a prejudice onto the evidence.

But when I gaze at the drawings on the walls of Chauvet—when I see male and female cave lions (predators unlikely to become the Paleolithic tribe’s next meal) shown gently brushing up against one another—all I can see is love. Welling up within this love I see wonder, awe, praise, and celebration—art that generates life, rather than seeking to take it away.

(Gregory Wolfe, from the journal Image, volume 73)

5

Saturday’s local newspaper featured a really odd Op-Ed, Why this Christian won’t keep Christmas. I doubt that this link will work due to paywall. The talking points were:

  1. Every serious theologian and historian agrees that Dec. 25 is not Jesus’ birthday.
  2. Every serious theologian and historian knows that Dec. 25 and the winter solstice have long been dedicated to a variety of false gods.
  3. Everybody knows the trappings of Christmas are the trappings of false religions.
  4. Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus ask for an observance of his birth.
  5. No where in the New Testament did any of the apostles observe it.

So fie on Christmas!

The author threw in some red herrings to pad the argument, but that’s what it boils down to.

I’m not going to quibble about the accuracy of any point except 3, which is a conclusion, not a fact, if one thinks (as I do) that even pagan symbols could be baptized, so to speak, and made Christian. (Think of S.I. Hayakawa saying “We should keep the Panama Canal. After all, we stole it fair and square.”) I’m just going to say that from where I sit, the argument is utterly immaterial to whether I’m going to celebrate Christmas and celebrate it on December 25: That’s what the Church does and I’m in The Church. I don’t care what Rob Keeney’s going to do.

But how does his argument look to any “Bible-only” Christians who are reading this? Has he dotted his I’s and crossed his T’s? Aren’t points 4 and 5 true? Aren’t they conclusive?

If it’s right, are you going to drop Christmas or admit the selectivity of the “Bible-only” approach to Christianity?

UPDATE: I made the point I wanted to, but I’m reminded by a Facebook friend that there is reason to doubt Rob Keeney’s version of the “Christmas story.”

* * * * *

“In learning as in traveling and, of course, in lovemaking, all the charm lies in not coming too quickly to the point, but in meandering around for a while.” (Eva Brann)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.