Podcast • December 27, 2013

Katherine Powers: The Lost Art of American Catholicism

“The baby is crying like hell now. I am not liking it one bit and do not expect to grow used to it. What a foul fiend I am to have for a father… You ...

kath powers 4 300

“The baby is crying like hell now. I am not liking it one bit and do not expect to grow used to it. What a foul fiend I am to have for a father… You ask me how it feels to be a father. About the same, I think… If you must get married, I say to young people, be sure you can afford a fifteen-room house and servants. That comes as a blow to them. They read The Catholic Worker and all the rest and are accustomed to thinking in terms of Mary and Joseph and the manger. We have the manger, but we are not Mary and Joseph. Anyway, we are not Joseph.”

J. F. Powers in a letter to the poet Robert Lowell, November 26, 1947

Katherine Powers — “the baby” at left and above, the first of five — wrote one of the resonant and memorable (and best reviewed: here and here) books of 2013. Suitable Accommodations is the “autobiography” of her father, the novelist and short-story master J. F. Powers (1917 – 1999). She assembled it really, from his letters. But it reads and lingers like the novel her famous father meant to write and didn’t, about the family life of an Irish-American and very Catholic artist in the 20th Century Mid-West. We’re talking about the rueful ironies, disappointments and human contradictions of a religious imagination in mid-century America. And I’m presuming to take it personally because I hear so much of my own upbringing in Katherine’s story.

She is evoking a post-war moment, when religion in general and Catholicism as it touched us could be felt not as a political/ethnic pigeonhole but as a vocation or the choice of an unconventional or alternative life. “Movement Catholicism” of the 1950s was big-family time — Trapp Family time before “The Sound of Music” — full of rural aspiration and voluntary poverty, beekeeping and organic gardening, liturgical reform and home-grown art, with a variety of American cultural eminences busy in the background like Flannery O’Connor, Robert Lowell and Katherine Ann Porter (for whom Katherine Ann Powers was named). As Paul Elie notes in an astute review, “Having J. F. Powers in The New Yorker was like having JFK in the White House,” in the same moment, too, even if Powers didn’t like the Kennedys at all. “Too bad it isn’t Gene [McCarthy] instead of Jack,” he noted after the Kennedy election in 1960, “if we have to have a Catholic.”

It was another country and another culture, gone now with barely a trace, it seems. J. F. Powers’ made it his role to write about priests, the way Ring Lardner had written about ball players. His best novel, Morte d’Urban, about a comic climber in the church, won the National Book Award 50 years ago – in a head-to-head race with Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Updike’s Pigeon Feathers. The charm of Powers’ work is a bit of a mystery today. His art did not penetrate the darkness of those rectories. Neither did it catch much inner light of Christian strivers or the spiritual imagination. In Katherine’s reconstruction of her father’s life, a gray Chekhovian fog of self-pity and missed opportunity hangs over the landscape and an under-lived life. All the more remarkable that she has given us a an elegant, selfish man, a writer both stylish and blocked, a reluctant but prolific father, in a telling more poignant than her papa’s best stuff.

Podcast • May 3, 2011

Martin Marty’s Saint for Moderns: Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Martin Marty (35 minutes, 17 mb mp3) Historian and theologian Martin Marty Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a saint by now if Protestants (Lutherans, in his case) sanctified their ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Martin Marty (35 minutes, 17 mb mp3)

Historian and theologian Martin Marty

Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a saint by now if Protestants (Lutherans, in his case) sanctified their best. The historian Martin Marty brings him to life in conversation and gets quickly to the essential point of Bonhoeffer’s wide relevance today in a world where church life withers here and abounds elsewhere. Strictly orthodox at the same time he was blithely, instinctively informal, Bonhoeffer preached both the death of religion and Christian renewal. In his writing and his life Bonhoeffer seems to have anticipated the sense that religion is played out, almost disreputable; and still that the spark of the divine in man drives the visible and invisible life of the world.

The case for Bonhoeffer’s sainthood is easy on the grounds of his activism. He was a sweet-spirited martyr who’d returned to Germany from America in the summer of 1939, on the last free trans-Atlantic oceanliner before the War, knowing full well that he was sailing to his death, but having decided that the choice was between bringing down the Third Reich or bringing down Christian civilization. He said at the time: “I know which of those alternatives I must choose but I cannot make that choice from security.” For his part in a plot to assassinate Hitler, Bonhoeffer was imprisoned at Buchenwald, then Flossenburg, and hung on April 9, 1945, three weeks before Hitler killed himself. Bonhoeffer’s last words were “This is the end — for me the beginning of life.”

There’s another sort of immortality in Bonhoeffer’s writing. Martin Marty is decoding the ideas in some of his most famous phrases: “the cost of discipleship,” for example, and “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer’s most resonant line was to the effect that “when Jesus Christ calls a man, he calls him to die.” He knew the price that Christians of conviction were paying in Nazi Germany, and he listed them: “Gefallen… gefallen… gefallen.” He knew as well that the institutional weight of the churches would not save them: conventional worship had cheapened grace, and when the real thing showed up they would not recognize it. Philosophically and scientifically, Bonhoeffer wrote, the world had “come of age,” and the ritual and superstition of its adolescence were expendable. But the “arcane discipline” of Christianity seemed to Bonhoeffer as essentially lively as ever: the shared meal of bread and wine, “the language, the concern, the agenda, the action of the people with whom you’re bonded. These meanings of God are active.” It was a vitality that captured Bonhoeffer in African America — in the Abyssinian Baptist Church and other black churches of Harlem, when Bonhoeffer was studying at the Union Theological Seminary uptown in New York. I am reminded of the Czech composer Anton Dvorak, in New York a half-century earlier, hearing the future of serious music in the songs and spirituals, the “Songs of Zion” that came out of black slavery in America:

MM: They were looking for, and discerning, and finding, and making something of, to use a word that needs some defining, soul. One definition of soul, it comes from Aristotle via a lot of other people, is that soul is not a ghost in the machine, it’s not a pilot on a ship, it’s not Caspar the ghost. One scholar calls it the integrated, vital power of any organic body. That’s what these people heard — the Jewish white composers like Gershwin. How did they catch on so fast? They were looking for precisely this kind of thing, and we still call it soul music. He learned to find that in preaching. But he also never turned against high culture. When you read his books, they draw upon worship and music from all the ages… He once said you have no right to engage in a Gregorian chant unless you have spoken up for the Jews. He was looking for soul.

CL: Can you picture him as one man?

MM: Yes I can, because I think he had that integrative power of soul. Trying to discern the secret of people like this is always the hardest thing we do. One thing a leader does, he takes steps at high risk. At the theological schools they used to call it the hermeneutics of testimony. If you have something at stake, you’re going to be paid attention to in a different way. I knew Martin Luther King somewhat. I don’t know why it was, but I think everyone I knew pictured that he isn’t going to live a full life. Someday somebody is going to get him … Therefore what he said had to be measured. Gandhi was the same thing. Certainly Mandela: twenty-seven years in that prison, he could read out of a phonebook and I’d want to be there. And I think that’s what happened with Bonhoeffer.

Martin Marty in Chicago, with Chris Lydon in Providence, April 27, 2011.

Zesty, prolific Martin Marty was seized as a seminarian more than 50 years ago by the scattered writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, which he helped to gather and publish. His new book is a “biography” (in the Princeton series) of Bonhoeffer’s last miscellany, Letters and Papers from Prison.

Podcast • January 20, 2010

Rebecca Goldstein’s Ontological Urge: the 36 Arguments

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rebecca Goldstein (36 minutes, 22 meg mp3) Who knew that the God question is burning bright in our university neighborhood of brain scientists, mathematicians, computer geniuses, game theorists, ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Rebecca Goldstein (36 minutes, 22 meg mp3)

Who knew that the God question is burning bright in our university neighborhood of brain scientists, mathematicians, computer geniuses, game theorists, physicists and literary folk, too? — that is, in the postmodern precincts around Boston that I call “the frontal lobe of the universe.”

Photo Credit: Steven Pinker

The philosopher-novelist Rebecca Goldstein, both playful and stone-serious, has caught the chatter and mapped the territory in and around Brandeis, Harvard and MIT in 36 Arguments for the Existence of God — A Work of Fiction. The arguments rage in the head of the novel’s protagonist, Cass Seltzer, a best-selling psychologist of religion, a latter-day William James. TIME magazine has dubbed him “the atheist with a soul.” Career-climbing from Brandeis to Harvard, Cass (like Goldstein) is trying to triangulate a position between the death of God and the ecstasy of belief — at a safe distance from neo-atheists like, say, Sam Harris, and neo-believers like, say, Cornel West:

RG: Both sides will often offend me, and I think that’s why I felt I had to write the novel. I agree with Sam Harris. I’m on his board, of the Reason Foundation. I agree with him: our metaphysics is the same. But I’m very uncomfortable with some of the belittling descriptions of religious people. Not saying that he does it. But sometimes I hear it: “this is the fallacy that they make, this is their mistake, if we can point out where their reasoning goes astray.”

Religion and religious emotion are so much more complicated than that. One of the things that Spinoza taught us, and it’s being validated finally in neuroscientific labs, is that emotions and intellect, cognitions and passion, are inextricably bound up with one another. Cognitive states are also emotional states, and emotional states make cognitive claims.

So even for those of us who believe in reason — and again this is pure Spinoza — this itself is an emotional experience. I break into tears at beautiful mathematical proofs. This kind of intertwining is something that we all share. And so the notion that we could, on the reason side, just go through the arguments and show what’s wrong and people would stop believing is very, very false. There are reasons other than just strict logical arguments for people to be believing.

CL: Why draw a hard line between your experience of a mathematic truth, or beauty that brings you to tears, and a Dostoyevskean epiphany of the Almighty?

RG: I do believe ultimately, in terms of establishing truth, in objective means… The history of our species is filled with people being enraptured and enthralled and having private revelations that are completely counter to each other, and slaughtering each other because of these things. The Enlightenment grew out of it. John Locke, for example, has an essay “On Enthusiasm,” on religious enthusiasm, saying: look, it’s not a source of truth. It is powerful and it is ecstatic. I’m very prone to it myself. I often say ‘I spend more time out of my mind than in my mind.’ I’m extremely prone to this sort of thing.

There are all sorts of intellectual gifts that give us this feeling. For me, it’s science, math, art, music, philosophy… And it’s a kind of religious experience, you know, but for me these are much safer than trying to answer the nature of the universe… That God-almighty important question can’t be entrusted to enthusiasm. 

Rebecca Goldstein in conversation with Chris Lydon, January 16, 2009

Podcast • October 27, 2009

How God Came Back: Gordon, Cox and West

This is a book-fair exchange that caught fire around a current version of the old graffiti duel: “God is dead,” signed Nietzsche. Then, “Nietzsche is dead,” signed God. How’s to read the evidence that God ...
This is a book-fair exchange that caught fire around a current version of the old graffiti duel: “God is dead,” signed Nietzsche. Then, “Nietzsche is dead,” signed God. How’s to read the evidence that God is back in an almighty way — in the bookstores, in popular culture, in world affairs? Neo-atheists including Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins have given The Big Guy best-selling burials all over again in recent years. But now come Karen Armstrong, Robert Wright, and at the Boston Book Festival last weekend: novelist Mary Gordon, a “progressive Catholic” who leaves plenty of room for doubt; the post-modern Baptist theologian Harvey Cox; and Cornel West, the lay preacher and “blues man in the life of the mind,” as he calls himself – each of them writing and talking up a storm about an insatiable hunger out there for a personal god, or gods, and also for “blessed communities” in His or Her name. In a jammed hall of the Boston Public Library last weekend, I asked the writers not to summarize or sell their books but to imagine we were in a train compartment between, say, Istanbul and Vienna, just talking. Harvey Cox led off for Mary Gordon and Cornel West, who brought it home, as we say in church.

Lets go back to three of the great historical sociologists who gave us an analysis of what religion would look like – some were more wrong than right.  Weber said there would be secularization that would become ubiquitous.  There would be a disenchantment of the world that would lead toward an iron cage, where people would be, in fact, yearning for god-talk but giving it up, because science and technology would become so hegemonic, would become so influential, that people would no longer opt for narratives that invoke God or grace.  Now Weber was wrong about secularization, but he was right about the iron cage.  Durkheim said that there’s an eternal in religious sensibilities to a degree that human beings are gonna worship something.  They’re gonna treasure something – the question is, what will it be?  Conrad in Heart of Darkness said: what? It’s idolatry, it’s Kurtz and it’s ivory.  But they’re gonna treasure something.  The question is: will it be something outside of their ego, their tribe, their clan, their nation?  Will it be transcendental, will it be universal, will it be cosmopolitan?  And then here comes Karl Marx, who says all of this religious talk is just a sigh of the oppressed.  Of course people want to live in a world where they have some sense of wholeness.  But like George Santayana who defined religion as what?  Religion as the love of life and the conciousness of impotence.  That’s Santatyana.  He’s a naturalist.  Religious, but in no way Christian or anything else.  He agrees with Marx.  Religion is fundamentally about coming to terms with your limits.  You’re gonna die.  Your bodies will be the culinary delight of terrestial worms one day – can’t get around it.  Can’t get out of space and time… alive!

… One of the reasons why I pride myself in being a bluesman in the life of the mind, is because a bluesman or blueswoman has the Keatsian sensibility.  That negative capability… So for example you look at the Christian texts, look at the blues note of Jesus himself – my god, my god, why hast thou forsaken me, on the cross?  That’s a blues moment, that’s a Keatsian moment.  Here God, God’s self, is calling into question the benevolent power of the supposedly ultimate power of the universe.  Now I like that moment, because its humanizing… What do you do in the face of that?  Well the blues say oohhh, wait a minute.  The blues ain’t nothing but an autobiographical chronicle of personal catastrophe expressed lyrically anyway.  Nobody loves me but my mama, and she might be jiving too.  That’s B.B. King, that’s the King of the Blues.  That’s Antigone.  Everything’s against you in the darkness, including your blessed mama.  And he does that on the B-side of The Thrill is Gone!  And it comes from a blues people who have dealt with catastrophe in America, American terrorism in the form of slavery, for 244 years.  American terrorism in the form of Jim Crow, Jane Crow, lynching… In the face of that kind of terrorism, you don’t create a black Al Queda, and just counter-terrorize.  You say: no, in the face of slavery, we want freedom for everybody!  In the face of Jim Crow, we want rights and liberties for everybody.  It’s the Love Supreme that John Coltrane talked about.  In the face of that kind of catastrophe, you hold onto some sense of what appears to be impotent – namely love and justice.  Why?  Because even when you’re gangsterized, you don’t wanna get in the gutter with a ganster.  Even if you’re defeated momentarily, you’d rather be defeated with integrity than win with the thugs.  That’s the lesson of the best of Black history in America…

Cornel West in conversation with Mary Gordon, Harvey Cox and Chris Lydon at the Boston Book Festival, October 24, 2009.

Podcast • April 10, 2009

James Carroll: Practicing "Americanist" Catholic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with James Carroll (56 minutes, 26 mb mp3) “Practicing” — meaning: James Carroll: radical, pastoral, sacramental …that through these disciplines, rituals, and searches, we have some prospect of getting ...

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with James Carroll (56 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

“Practicing” — meaning:

James Carroll: radical, pastoral, sacramental

…that through these disciplines, rituals, and searches, we have some prospect of getting better. This, therefore, is practice like the practice of an art or sport. That we are practicing means, above all, that we are not perfect — not in faith, hope, or charity. Not in poverty, chastity or obedience. Not in the cardinal virtues, or the works of mercy, or the acts of contrition. Not in peace or justice. Not in the life of prayer, which is nothing but attention to the presence of God. In all of this we are practicing, which is the only way we know to be a Catholic.

James Carroll, Practicing Catholic, Houghton Mifflin, 2009. p. 10

“Americanist” — meaning: stamped with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s individualism and universal in-dwelling spirit. Embodied in the Boston priest of JFK’s inaugural, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who was moved by his love of his sister’s Jewish husband, Dick Pearlstein, to bury the old Roman boast that there was “no salvation outside the church.” Jim Carroll’s Americanist piety moves in a zone between, on one hand, our overtly secular national culture and, on the other, the anti-modern, anti-democratic European church tradition that Pope Benedict XVI seems to be reviving.

“Catholic” — meaning:

The practicing Catholic is at Mass. What makes a Catholic? This tradition is sacramental. The practice of Mass trumps all doctrine. We can have disagreements with the Pope and the bishops — about abortion, birth control, stem cell research, the miracles of the saints, all of that. But what we have in common is the intuition that at the table, around bread and wine, we encounter each other and God in a profound way. It’s food. It feeds a kind of hunger. Catholics go to Mass. What is a practicing Catholic? It’s somebody who goes to Mass.

James Carroll in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 10, 2009.

Jim Carroll, like me, was in the last generation of Latin-Mass altar boys, a child of the “faux-medieval” Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. He was a Paulist Priest and university chaplain for five years, and was then absolved of his vows to pursue a rival vocation: writing. For most of 30 years now Jim has modeled to me what it could mean to modernize a tradition that, even if we didn’t quite grasp it, grasped us forever.

Long ago over lunch with our friend, Bernard Avishai, the question was, “No kidding, do you believe in God?” When I hesitated a while, Jim said: “Chris, you believe in music…,” which I surely did. That was a rough start of a religious inquiry which led, not least, to my second baptism at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston in 1987. Along the way, Jim, Bernie, I and a grown-up variety of seekers (mostly Jews and Catholics, of many degrees of conviction and curiosity) read and chewed over the Bible, twice, from Genesis to Revelation.

Our conversation resumed this Good Friday morning over coffee and Jim Carroll’s arresting new book, Practicing Catholic. Jim is a learned radical in religion, ever at odds with the hierarchy, and still “incurably pastoral.” I think of myself as an ill-educated spiritual enthusiast, “eternally hungry.” And so it astonishes me to read anew how often our searching paths crossed over the years — around Emerson, for example, and Cardinal Cushing, who baptized me at birth; also Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Thomas More and Thomas Merton.

Part of my puzzle in all these ruminations is whether Jim and I are sharing the fixations of one generation of American guys, or rather questions that reach all sorts of other people sooner or later. So your own versions of Jim’s questions and mine – church, tribe, belief, modernity and God – are entirely to the point and much more than welcome.

Podcast • April 11, 2008

Pico Iyer: the "Transcendentalist" Dalai Lama

In Tibet the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism; now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, ...

In Tibet the Dalai Lama was an embodiment of an old culture that, cut off from the world, spoke for an ancient, even lost traditionalism; now, in exile, he is an avatar of the new, as if having traveled eight centuries in just five decades, he is increasingly, with characteristic directness, leaning in, toward tomorrow.

Pico Iyer, The Open Road: The Global Journey of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, page 203.

pico iyerPico Iyer:’open road’ Transcendentalism

The Dalai Lama becomes the best sort of New England Transcendentalist in Pico Iyer’s crystalline meditation on the family friend he’s been watching and interviewing for 40 years — that is, almost all his life. The book opens with an epigraph from Henry David Thoreau (“So simplify the problem of life, distinguish the necessary and the real…), closes with Ralph Waldo Emerson (“Nothing is secure but life, transition, the energizing spirit…”) and is brim-full of William James’s wisdom on science, psychology and religion. The title comes from D. H. Lawrence’s paraphrase of Emerson’s child, Walt Whitman: “The great home of the Soul is the open road. Not heaven, not paradise. Not ‘above.'”

Pico Iyer is himself a man of that open road — born of Hindu parents, both from Bombay; schooled at Oxford; long an American citizen; now based at TIME magazine and in Nara, the ancient capital of Japan. In journalism’s upper reaches these days Pico Iyer’s pieces from Havana, Phnom Penh, Damascus and Delhi set the standard of global curiosity and confidence — of the child-like eye and Old Masterly prose. But there is a home inside this traveler. The joy of our conversation was finding that he has vital roots not far from my own, in those beloved New Englanders. “I would like to call myself a Transcendentalist,” he says. “The higher form of globalism, I’ve always thought, is Emerson. That’s why I chose to write a book about the Dalai Lama: because he’s talking globalism but not at the level of Microsoft, McDonalds or Britney Spears, but at the level of conscience, imagination and the heart.”

Take this conversation with Pico Iyer as a first crack at the Tibet questions that will not go away in this year of the Chinese Olympics. This book, The Open Road, is a brief for the Dalai Lama’s brand of urgent patience (“Speak out, not lash out,” as Pico Iyer puts it) which many Tibetans and others find hard to hear. The hope in the Dalai Lama’s circle seems to be that under constant world pressure the Chinese leadership would deign finally to meet with the exiled holy man. “He doesn’t expect the Chinese leadership to come to its senses overnight,” says Pico Iyer, but neither does he see fruits in militancy. “He knows that to prick their pride is to bring down even greater hardships on Tibet.”

Tell us, Open Sourcerers: who has a better take on responsibility, compassion and possibility with respect to Tibet?

Podcast • January 26, 2008

MLK Jr. after 40 years: a Fraternal Memoir

Michael Haynes is my touchstone of the abiding power and fascination and the profound earthly-heavenly mystery around Martin Luther King Jr. In 1951 Haynes and King broke in together as apprentice preachers at the historic ...

Michael Haynes is my touchstone of the abiding power and fascination and the profound earthly-heavenly mystery around Martin Luther King Jr. In 1951 Haynes and King broke in together as apprentice preachers at the historic Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston, and they stayed in close touch until King’s assassination 40 years ago, come April 4. Haynes is greatly under-cited in the King biographies, it seems to me. In our conversation Haynes makes a lively, loving witness on Martin, the young Ph.D. student, asking: “Where are the girls that would set my heart on fire,” until the church secretary introduced him to Coretta Scott at the New England Conservatory. But Haynes was also intimately connected with the man who knew, at the end, that his days — maybe his hours — were numbered, and who embraced his destiny in defiance of “longevity,” in submission to God’s will, with an open willingness to lay down his life to cure a cancer on American life. “The highest and deepest and best of the love and sacrifice of Jesus Christ had permeated this man,” Haynes says.

When these two young public theologians met, King, at 22, was the designated heir of an Atlanta church dynasty, just entering doctoral studies at Boston University. Haynes, the son of Barbadian immigrants and the brother of “Charlie Parker’s favorite drummer,” Roy Haynes, was a year and a half older than King and still in seminary. In 1951 he was the minister to youth at Boston’s oldest, most established black church, with Beacon Hill roots back to 1805. Big-league baseball had just been integrated but the black-rights movement was embryonic when Haynes first encountered King, and I’ve often wondered where this pre-civil rights generation got their defining assurance that things could change, things must change. They found it in each other.

He had grown up, Haynes remembers, with a “burning awareness that a cancer was eating at America. I think for any black, North or South — realizing there were strictures, there were limitations, that we’re still being kept out and separated — there was something grossly wrong with that separation, and these walls, these barriers needed to be broken down. I think a lot of young leaders, probably including myself, were waiting for God to appoint a Moses. The time was just right, and Martin was that man who was going to lead us to a promised land… It’s tragic when a body has a cancer and doesn’t know it… Dr. King made that diagnosis very clear to America.”

In 1953 King invited Haynes to join him in ministry and struggle in Montgomery, Alabama, but Haynes stayed in Boston, to win election to the Massachusetts Legislature and to pastor the Twelfth Baptist Church for more than 40 years.

Rev. Michael E. Haynes

Rev. Michael E. Haynes

For almost half that span, I have been his blessed and grateful parishioner. I make an inadequate note in this conversation that on the enflamed subject of religion in American life these days, the amazing grace of African-American church life is a vastly underrated treasure. The Haynes example at Twelfth Baptist is a Christianity that is Scriptural but not literal; faith-based but never fantastical; community-rooted and bathed in black history and black culture but never provincial or tribal; socially activist but not partisan, much less ideological; moral but not moralistic. Barack Obama in his King Day speech showed himself as an apt child of the church and its preaching tradition. Typical of Haynes’ delicate balances is the line he quotes to me here: “God forbid we should get so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.” But on the subject of Dr. King, the special joy of listening to Haynes comes in hearing not balance but the seamless fusion of their spiritual and political imaginations — of radical Christ-centeredness and the nth degree of tough-minded love and courage.

April 1, 2007

Back to God with Camille Paglia

The route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion… When a society becomes all-consumed in the provincial minutiae of partisan politics, as has happened in the US over the past 20 ...


The route to a renaissance of the American fine arts lies through religion… When a society becomes all-consumed in the provincial minutiae of partisan politics, as has happened in the US over the past 20 years, all perspective is lost. Great art can be made out of love for religion, as well as rebellion against it. But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.

Camille Paglia, “Religion and the Arts in America”, A lecture at Colorado College, February 2007, available on CSPAN

This is for nother, who wrote on the site a year ago that he’d be happy to hear Camille and Chris “discuss a grilled cheese sandwich.”

Yes, conversations with Camille Paglia tend to go everywhere… and we’ll surely get to the Edwardses, the Clintons, the Giulianis and the rise of a compelling new presidential persona in the brownskinned JFK, Barack Obama. I wonder why she writes in her Salon column, resumed after 5 years: “I wish Nancy Pelosi were running;” and what prompted her to tell Mitt Romney (running against Ted Kennedy in 1994) “You’re going to be president.”

Because she’s always had a brilliant ear for media trends, I hope we’ll get to the surging power of YouTube as an instance of the now all-dominant (blogosphere-challenging) visual culture. I hope she’ll have a shot at explaining the voluminous hostility of the Salon comment thread on her comeback pieces… But we’ll begin with Professor Paglia’s observation of the collision between the almost-theocracy of the Bush years and hard-sell neo-atheism from the likes of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. What has become of the relaxed and tolerant fascination with each of the world religions as, in Paglia’s line, “a complex symbol system, a metaphysical lens through which we can see the vastness and sublimity of the universe.”

Paglia calls herself an “atheist,” but it always seemed to me the wrong word for a woman who grew up, as I did, with the gaudy statuary, stained-glass piety and Counter-Reformation confidence of the Catholic church in the

American 1950s — and who celebrated Italian-Catholic paganism in her breakthrough book, Sexual Personae.

Paglia is a scholar and culture buff who cannot imagine human life without the religious appetite — or American life without the vital pulse of our religious history. Without the King James Bible, as she writes, there is no Hawthorne or Melville. Without the fire and brimstone of Jonathan Edwards in the 18th Century, there is no Rush Limbaugh today. Without the “image mania” of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, there is no “YouTube” culture stamping out the last inhibitions of Calvinism on our laptop screens. Without the hymns of the “great awakening” in America there is no Elvis and no James Brown. From Julia Ward Howe’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to the swan song of the Titanic, “Nearer My God to Thee,” Paglia insists that the genius of “American hymnody should be required study.” And further: African-American gospel music — “passionate and histrionic” — should be recognized as “America’s grand opera.”

So how, she asks, did we come to the sullen and simple-minded alienation of conservative Christians blaming Godless leftists for sex and violence in the popular media; and smug liberals in high dudgeon about the Fundamentalist hostility to abortion and gay marriage?

I hope this conversation will take in how much has changed since yesterday — 1991, in fact — when Camille Paglia burst onto our scene. She’s changed, too — partnered up and adopted a child who’s now in primary school. Ever and always she remains, as I wrote on the site two years ago, My Kinda Talker. What else must we talk about, please?

Extra Credit Reading
Camille Paglia, Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s, Arion, Winter 2003: “Religion has always been central to American identity: affiliation with or flight from family faith remains a primary term of our self-description.”

Camille Paglia, The Salon Interview: Camille Paglia, Salon, February 7, 2003: “Anyone who thinks symbolically had to be shocked by the explosion of the Columbia shuttle, disintegrating in the air and strewing its parts and human remains over Texas — the president’s home state! So many times in antiquity, the emperors of Persia or other proud empires went to the oracles to ask for advice about going to war. If there was ever a sign for a president and his administration to rethink what they’re doing, this was it. I mean, no sooner had Bush announced that the war was “weeks, not months” away and gone off for a peaceful weekend at Camp David than this catastrophe occurred in the skies over Texas.”

Thomas Hibbs, Praising Paglia, National Review, August 12, 2003: “[Paglia] wants religious texts to be taught as culture rather than as morality, a bifurcation utterly foreign to religious texts. Paglia’s dilemma here is instructive. She faces the obstacles of the modern, self-conscious pagan, someone who cannot believe in the pagan gods in the way an unreflective ancient Roman once did, but is nonetheless attracted to its mythic structure and its rich symbolism.”

galoot, in a comment to Open Source, April 2, 2007: “As a painter I am puzzled by the quotation from Paglia. She calls herself an atheist, but looks to religion to rejuvenate the arts? I’m starting to think that just as you can’t be a little bit pregnant, you can’t be a little bit in favor of religion. Reason v. Unreason, that’s where the battle lines are being drawn – in politics, in art, everywhere.”

pryoung, in a comment to Open Source, April 2, 2007: “Camille Paglia: ‘But a totally secularized society with contempt for religion sinks into materialism and self-absorption and gradually goes slack, without leaving an artistic legacy.’ Well, what about a deeply (often fanatically) religious society that sinks into materialism and self-absorption?”

S. Casey, Camille Paglia on C-SPAN: On the Arts and Religion, The Laughing Bone, March 15, 2007: “In a startling and delightful transformation, she suddenly becomes a hyper-intellectual improvisational stand-up comedian, with all of her natural Martin Scorsese-on-speed vocal mannerisms in full effect.”

Judith, Art and Politics, Part 2, Our World and Welcome to It, March 7, 2007: “Granted, someone can have deeply-held political beliefs and the talent to display them artistically, but anything – art or politics – means little if it doesn’t have something deeper than humanism or materialism as the outcome.”

Camille Paglia discussion group, The Camille Paglia Community: “This is a community dedicated to the study, appreciation, and discussion of camille paglia’s works, career, influences, and characteristic subject matters.”