29 March 2010

Interview with Charles Kovich

This is the first interview of the ”Where are we now?” series. Please take a look at the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series. If you would like to suggest someone for me to interview, please leave a comment below or email me at I would especially appreciate information on how to get in touch with the artists you recommend, especially if you can introduce me (virtually) and serve as an initial liaison—or I would love to hear from you if you are in the arts and can offer yourself for an interview.

Interview with Charles Kovich
at the Conference on Christianity and Detective Fiction
Pace University, NYC, NY
6 March 2010

IA: Good afternoon, and thank you very much, Charles Kovich, for taking this time to talk to me about your own writing, your own detective fiction. And then we’re going to generalize out into anything you want to tell me about what you know that’s going on in the field in general. So you are a professor of literature?

CK: Yes. A professor of English at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Missouri.

IA: And you’re one of these delightful academics who takes forays into fiction for your own pleasure.

CK: Oh yes. Yes, well, both for my pleasure—actually, when I first came to the Department of English, the number of English majors was declining and I saw that we really needed to think about remapping the English major. So I proposed a three-track English major. The traditional literature track: we did Faulkner Melville and Shakespeare and everyone. And then I did a writing track, so that’s where some of this is coming from. I myself do courses in playwriting, screenwriting, sometimes novel writing, creative writing, we do business writing, we do all sorts of other writing. Memoir writing, all sorts of other things. And then we have an education track for those who want to teach high school—which is, by the way, only about 12% of the students. Most English majors go out and do other things in the world. So it led me to think more about writing and I started teaching playwriting, I started writing plays: I’ve had six plays produced. And then I got into writing novels and I was particularly interested in detective fiction and in detective fiction with a Christian background, so I got into that and I started writing these novels. I actually coauthor them with a friend of mine, Curtis Hancock. It’s really very interesting. We set up the Father Shrader series: this kind of polymath detective who knows all: you know how Sherlock Holmes solves through deduction and induction. We decided that we needed a hook. And so the hook would be that this detective would be a philosophy professor at a small Midwestern religious school, and instead of using deduction and induction, he would instead apply a philosophical principle to every murder. And so the first is called The Case of Ockham’s Razor after William of Ockham, a wonderful Medieval philosopher. The second is The Case of The Muse of Madness, which is after Plato’s Phaedrus where he says the Tenth Muse is the Muse of Love, which is a madness. And then the third one that I’m working on now (those two are published in hardcover) is The Case of the Owl of Minerva, which is not only the icon of the owl on Minerva’s shoulder, but also a philosophical principle from Hegel’s philosophy of Right. The owl of Minerva flies only at dusk, he says. So that got into those and then I put in a heavy dose of academic satire—very easy to do in these days with what’s going on in academia! And I modeled it on the Holmes-Watson relationship. I think that’s maybe the most successful detective series of all time, although it lacks a little something in the characterization sometimes—although I’m not… because Watson is the stand-in for the reader. We perceive as Watson perceives, and that’s why (I think) they have been so popular. You have your in: you can look at the story as Watson, trying to figure out what Holmes is doing. Now, there are two stories that Arthur Conan Doyle wrote with Sherlock Holmes narrating. They are just awful. Awful! Holmes sounds like a supercilious prig! He’ll say: “And then, dear Reader, I bent down and sniffed the glove—but oh! I can’t tell you what I gleaned from that or it would ruin the story, so I’ll save it for the end.” And you’re going, “Oh, thanks a lot!” you know, whereas Watson would have said, “I wonder what Holmes was sniffing and what was going through that great mind,” etc. So my narrator is Father Gerard Channing (it’s a religious school). I invented an order of the Catholic Church: The Order of St. John of the Cross (Compania de San Juan de la Cruz). Their nickname (you know how some attached the nickname of Jesuits to the Society of Jesus which the Order then adopted) is The Cruzites.

IA: Very nice.

CK: Father Gerard Channing has just come to this school to teach in The Department of Classical, Arcane, and Modern Languages, and he meets our polymath professor of philosophy who will be the detective, Father Dietrich Shrader, called Dietz for short. And so that has proceeded very well. It’s been a lot of fun doing the satire, doing the murder mysteries, bringing in a little cultural background, academic satire—it’s been a lot of fun.

IA: Very good! And you started from that premise of writing about what you know and so you’re able to bring this closed society, the academic society, so that gives you I would imagine a very good parameter for a murder mystery as well, because you have your locked room, as it were: the campus or the office or the classroom.

CK: Exactly. It’s just what you need. You need that kind of closed-in atmosphere, as you’re saying, for a mystery like that. I don’t think you could have it would be a good mystery if they were world travelers or something like that.

IA: You have to have a limited number of suspects.

CK: And as you say, too, I have all my degrees from religious schools, so I just know that atmosphere really well: what the people are, how they act and how they interact, and a lot of people have mentioned that they thought the atmosphere of this school was really good. The religious school has been somewhat gentrified and they really do like that a lot. I really did work on that, so I’m glad they noticed it.

IA: I think it was one of your reviewers that I saw online who said that in the academic world there are lots of motives for murder!

CK: Yes, exactly!

IA: The chair of a department or a colleague or so on—or a student, occasionally.

CK: But you know what Henry Kissinger said: Academic battles are so fierce because the stakes are so small.

IA: But not to us!

CK: No: to us they’re really important.

IA: So then, is your reading audience then primarily academics or students?

CK: Oh, no. I get a big chunk of those, but just people who like murder mysteries, too. Because I try to develop characters and ideas that would go off to the world. Because you have to set your novel someplace, and most people have been to school, so they’ll know the what students interact and whatnot. No, I have a wide variety of readers.

IA: So your readers don’t have to be very familiar with all the details of the Muses and of Minerva and so on?

CK: Part of what I was hoping to do was maybe to bring a little of that in so that by the time you finish the novel you will be. I bring in all the Nine Muses and of course explain the philosophical principles and also Gerard being a Classics professor constantly puts in little Latin phrases into the novel (which he does translate for you) but he just loves to do this as an illustration of what he’s thinking or meaning. And so I’m hoping maybe people will get a little of that too.

IA: So you’re educating in your favorite subject.

CK: Teaching to delight. Why not?

IA: Are you familiar with Umberto Eco? The Name of the Rose?

CK: Oh, yes, I love that book.

IA: Would you compare your work to his?

CK: He on purpose wants to be very dense. His goal is a little bit different—it’s a very dense work—but nevertheless The Name of the Rose and Foucault’s Pendulum and all of those are very wonderful works. But he does unravel things in a closed setting (a monastery or whatever) as I do, so he has that sensibility.

IA: And he packs in the academia; sometimes to teach the reader, sometimes to make the reader feel less educated than he.

CK: Right. He goes off in that direction sometimes.

IA: Now, what is the process of co-writing like? How does that work?

CK: We just got together and brainstormed about what we wanted to do. There are various ways you can do it. You can actually sit and try to write together, you can—well, what we do a lot is we’ll decide who does what chapter, because we’ve got the book outlined (because a murder mystery, that’s one thing: you must outline in advance. You have to know who the murderer’s going to be, what the red herring’s going to be, what the clues will be. You have to drop clues along the way. If you’re really, really, really observant, you might find out who the murderer is!) But what we’ll do is we’ll write the chapters and then trade them and kind of revise them so it’s virtually impossible to find out who wrote which chapter first. I don’t think you could stylistically find that out at all—which makes the novel seem coherent and unified—which is very good.

IA: Does either of you identify with one of the characters?

CK: Oh, I don’t think so. Father Shrader is so overwhelming—he’s one of the Holmesian overwhelming characters. I’m an English teacher and my co-author’s a philosophy professor. But I’m an English teacher, not a Classics or Arcane Language teacher. And Gerard (who is the narrator) has just come out of graduate school. This is his first appointment and he’s just so naïve and wonders about what’s going on. I find him a lot of fun—I don’t know, maybe I’m remembering what it was like to be a new teacher. No, I think I’m quite a bit different from him. I like the idea of making a new character, creating a whole. Just as God creates with molecules, an author creates. It’s like Coleridge says: There’s a kind of god-like quality to this. You create with words and characters. And I like to build a character rather than to just model a character: to actually build the character up from scratch and make him a character with his own personality, his own reason for being.

IA: Let me make sure I understand what you said about the narrator standing in for the reader, because I really like that. The idea is that there’s a brilliant mind and then there’s a less brilliant mind observing. As readers, we’re generally less brilliant.

CK: Well, nobody is a brilliant as Father Shrader and Sherlock Holmes. And so, yes: even though you may be very smart, and see things and understand things, not as well as this polymath mind can. And so as Watson does, so my Gerard Channing does. You see, he’s the stand-in for the reader. We are that character as we’re trying to figure out along with him. Remember they’re narrators too, so we hear them in the first person. You can think of yourself in that situation, too. And it works really well. It’s been one of the wonderful little pieces of the book structurally. I think.

IA: Does this tie into your own theoretical perspective? Are you particularly interested in reader-response theory?

CK: Well, I’ve met Stanley Fish. In fact I even took a seminar with him. I’m not so much of a theorist as I am a “literaturist.” I just love literature for its own sake. Art for art’s sake. And I think the theory comes along as you work through it. I would prefer to get the theory inductively rather than deductively, actually. And so it fits in what I think makes a good novel, let me put it that way. That’s why I’m writing it that way. The reviews have been very good, I’ve given a bunch of readings all over the country, I was on NPR in Lancaster for a time and Kansas City and other places. When I teach creative writing, the first thing I write on the board in capital letters is ENTERTAIN. If you’re not entertaining people, you’re not doing it. I teach a Shakespeare class. That’s the first thing Shakespeare does. That’s why his plays have lasted 400 years: not so much because they’re insightful, or because of the depth of characters. Remember that he bought stock in his own company, and so he didn’t make money unless his plays were packing them in. They could seat the house up to about 3000 people in the Globe theater. Some of them were paying a penny, so he wanted to pack them in there. I think it was Sam Godwin of Metro Goldwin Mayer who used to puff on his cigar and say to his screen writers: “Look, if you’ve got a message, try Western Union, not my production company!” But if people are entertained, I’m delighted. If they get a little more about philosophy, the classics, my sense of the order of the world, a little religious viewpoint in there, I think that’s a little extra, like the French say, a lagniappe, a little extra added on the end. I think that’s wonderful. I hope I am entertaining them. People who like to read detective fiction and murder mysteries are really doing it to be entertained. And if they get the other things in there? I think that’s just wonderful.

IA: I would imagine that there are an awful lot of those things because this is a religious school, they are philosophy teachers.

CK: Required philosophy and theology courses.

IA: Required courses at the school. What, something like 15 credit-hours of required philosophy?

CK: Yes, that’s right.

IA: Well, until the new administration tries…

CK: That’s the whole second novel; they’re trying to redo the whole curriculum, yes.

IA: So we’ve talked about some of your specific techniques that you use, both with your co writer in outlining, kind of working backwards when you’re writing a mystery, and narrative techniques and so on. Now, let’s broaden out a little bit and compare. Do you see what you’re doing as typical of contemporary detective fiction? Are you doing something revolutionary?

CK: Well—revolutionary? I think I’m unique. This is a unique little kind of hook: something different and something interesting to the readers. People have gone off onto all sorts of interesting hooks. There’s the feminist approach (Amanda Cross). There’s Joseph Hansen who his detective as the hard-boiled gay detective. I find that what’s happening in this kind of writing today—mystery writing, detective fiction—is that it’s various diverse. And that’s what people are doing: trying to find a niche, a hook, or something special rather than painting a broad canvas with just one type. And readers seem to be responding. This is a really, really big area today that people love. The nice thing that I love about fans of murder mystery (this is true of me, too: I just read out the public library in murder mysteries one year—I just had to read everything) is that these fans are very loyal. I think Christie published 68 novels, if I recall, and I’m sure that people have read all 68 novels. They just love them. Murder mystery fans are very loyal fans. I like that about them. They just want more and more and more and more and if you are willing to give it, they keep loving it.

IA: So you have a good niche. You’ve got your series detective as well: the personality to carry it through. What you’re saying about the variety of mysteries is often predicated around the detective. The person of the detective, whether it’s a black woman who is a single mother cop downtown or whatever the particular niche may be, the variety of the fiction is often built around the personality of the detective.

CK: Yes. I think it has become more character-driven today than in the past. I think that we like good, strong characters. Look how much people like Shakespeare’s play Richard III and it’s not the greatest of all plots: but what a strong character who’s on stage almost all the time. And I think that’s what’s happening too. The best of these, especially detective fiction and murder mysteries, are those that have a very strong character with something special about them, as you say: something unusual, and something that we haven’t maybe seen before, as well.

IA: How does that compare to what’s going on in other genres? In other genres in literature, or possibly even if you want to comment on the other arts as well?

CK: In other genres I think the great explosion is in minority literatures, which were ignored in the past and really kind of repressed. People just weren’t interested in them. And that’s what we’re coming to see now: Leslie Silko, with ceremony and so on. Really interesting novels that really were not, but now are coming into the mainstream. Toni Morrison is another. I just quoted Toni Morrison earlier: I said one of the reasons I decided to write these novels is from a quote by Toni Morrison. She said: “If there’s a story that really needs to be told, then you’ll have to go ahead and write it.” And I think she’s right. I think that lot of people are seeing that. So that I think is one of the biggest things coming into regular fiction today: that we’re seeing a lot more from minority voices that we just never saw in the past because they weren’t allowed to really speak in the past. And of course there’s almost been an explosion. But it’s giving a whole new perspective on things, which is great, and which is what I like about the murder mystery, too: it starts giving you a new perspective. What a murder mystery does is to provide a narrative that helps make sense of the world. And these other voices, minority voices, are helping us make sense of a world that is larger, with more depth, than we ever saw before because we weren’t looking at those things before. And I think that’s part of what fiction does and one of the great, great advantages of something like the novel is that it helps put order in our world as I think art does. One of my good friends at school is a visual artist. She paints (watercolors and oil paintings) and she does really unusual things: body parts and things like that. But if you talk to her, she’s doing that, too. She’s trying to organize the world around her visually. I’m doing it verbally. It’s very interesting. I’ve sort of developed, by talking, an aesthetic of the arts. You can look at a painting and what happens? Within two seconds you say, “I like it” or “I don’t like it.” But with verbal art you can’t do that. You may not know if you really like my novel in the first two seconds or two pages or twenty pages. There’s a kind of interesting time compression and time extension between the visual arts and the verbal arts. I find that just fascinating. I should write a paper on that or something someday.

IA: Absolutely.

CK: It fascinates me because you have to grow into a novel. You have to start to like Gerard Channing as the narrator. And although Father Shrader, Dietz, my detective, is kind of overwhelming (just because he can do it, he still smokes cigars—he’s not P.C. That’s his one little thing. He smokes cigars)—but you grow to like him, too. He’s got a good heart; he wants a sense of order and justice in the world. That’s why he goes around, sometimes even risking his life, to do this. At the end of every novel (I think it was based on or I must have been thinking about Reichenbach Falls and Sherlock Holmes confronting Moriarty in “The Final Problem.” You know that short story where supposedly Holmes is killed, but we find out later that he’s not. Although it seems certain he was killed from Watson’s description!) But I decided at the end of every novel I would have this tremendous confrontation between the murderer and Father Shrader. And I couldn’t say any more about them, because you can’t tell people who the murderer is of course! But they’re very good. One takes place in a biology lab, with all sorts of spiders and snakes and things and the other takes place, actually, in the chapel. There’s a big question of identity, which is a big theme in the second novel besides curriculum innovation: What is your identity, how do you find it, how is that a part of you?

IA: Now, pulling those themes from what you’ve just been saying (identity, curriculum changes, the body part paintings from your friend, and the minority literature): this is fascinating because it seems kind of counterintuitively that you/we/contemporary arts are making a meaning from disparate pieces rather than from a Medieval cosmology that’s holistic or from an Enlightenment Rationalist picture of the world—and at the beginning of the 20th century even the Christian apologists were using a rationalist approach to the world. So we have to wrestle with what has gone on in thought for the last sixty years, which has been fragmenting.

CK: Right. “The center cannot hold.” I think what we’re doing is something different, because they were doing that deductively. Here are the general principles, whatever philosophical system you want. And now Oh! Here are the gaps. Let’s start plugging our pieces of information in there. I think we’re looking at this more inductively today. Here are the pieces; what structure can you build with these that will allow them all to fit in? They have to fit. And what I think we found to our amazement is that we’re much better at doing this than we thought we could be. I think we are starting to build those edifices. That’s why some people are coming with these various theories (literary theories, other theories). I find theories of narratology very interesting. But I think we’re doing some of these things that in the other system we didn’t think we could do. We had to come up with this overarching system and then you had little slots to put things in. And we say no, we’re going to build our own slots. And then construct the system. I actually think it’s a better way. To me it’s a more fascinating way. It allows you, then, to be more diverse, to find more depth, and to be broader—more, really, open-minded. I think it’s really the difference between openness and closure really in these two big models. Because we’re open we can go in any direction. We’re building our structure but we can go right or left or up or down, whereas in the old way the structure was there. It was the cookie-cutter approach. If something didn’t quite fit in, you had to cut the edges off. And I think that was probably not the best idea and we may have lost some things there that we didn’t realize we were losing, because they all fit into the structure so nicely. We said, “Look at this beautiful structure; it’s all working!” On its own terms it was, until you look at all the pieces that were cut off and lying around and then you say, “What was the value of those pieces.” And they’re very valuable in our society and our culture.

IA: And those pieces are often the people that we’re been talking about.

CK: Often people who’ve been forgotten. Especially like minority voices, immigrant families, and so on. It’s easy to forget about people who don’t fit into your structure. I’m glad these people are giving their narratives out now so that we can see; they’re providing us with that understanding and insight.

IA: Would you agree that there is a shift of consciousness, a very large shift of consciousness, going on so that culture, civilization, whatever you want to call it, is moving—what from our perspective is—Eastward? That the arts and Christianity as well as economic strength is moving across the world to Asia and so we in the “Western world” are going to have to be aware of these artistic changes as well as these religious changes?

CK: I’m teaching World Literature now, and I’ve been reading more from the Asian, Russian, people like that. I’m just reading this wonderful book called Envy by Yuri Olesha right now, which is a fascinating book that mixes genres and all sorts of things together in ways that we don’t usually do. Yes, there’s always been this strain. In American literature it’s archetypes we’re looking back to. “There was an old man of Kouroo”—he has that wonderful story at the end of Walden you know. “Brahma built many things.” Beautiful story. Part of this gives us perspective. That’s what I was saying about openness. I think the more open you are to things the better you are. Openness is always better than closure. And so to be open to these things that perhaps we didn’t look at carefully in the past from the East. I don’t think you have to give up Western culture to do this. There’s one story, “The Talking Fish.” A biologist finds a talking fish and thinks he’s going to know all about water now. He asks the fish about water and the fish goes, “Huh? What are you talking about?” He says, “You know, water, humidity?” and the fish says, “What are you talking about?” Frustrated, he says: “You know: wetness, what’s all around you!” And the fish says, “What’s all around me is reality. What’s all around you?” A fish can never know wetness because it doesn’t know dryness. The reason we can call it day right now is because there’s night. We wouldn’t have a term like day if we did not have night. You have to know something through differences and through the Other and I think Eastern Philosophy, Eastern literature, Eastern culture, and Eastern ideas are helping us to (number one) see other ideas we didn’t have to have a new perspective. Does philosophy always have to be rigorously logical? Does it always have to do with entailment? Today philosophers say that’s what it’s about: “Entailment! Logically following!” Eastern philosophers would say, “What? What’s going on?” It’s helping us to know ourselves better because now we have something to compare ourselves with. I tell students: “If you want to be better at English, you should learn another language. Now you’ll understand more things about English.” And that’s the great thing I think about this look toward the East. It’s going to expand our own perspectives, which is part of how we grow intellectually and how we grow personally. But it’s also then going to let us understand more about ourselves and the culture we’re in. What we have and what we don’t have. That I think is the wonderful thing about it.

IA: So you agree that that is where it is going. Do you have any predictions that you want to make?

CK: Oh, I think we’ll all just muddle along as best we can. I don’t know, it’s hard to make predictions about these things. Most people I find who make predictions turn out to be wrong. I think something like 96% of the time. Well, I sort of take one day at a time and look at these things and try to do the best we can with what’s coming. And again, try to take whatever talents we have. Some people think I have a talent for writing mystery novels, detective fiction—I love that, with that kind of Christian religious background. I’m going to keep doing that and see where it goes. To me that’s rather fun. I don’t know if I want to know exactly what’s in the future. If I had a little time machine and could peer there. I think getting there, the journey, is where you’re going to learn the most, not necessarily already knowing the goal. Maybe the goal will change, because of the journey.

IA: Well, I look forward to reading—what is it--The Case of the Owl of Minerva.

CK: Yes, yes. When I finish.

IA: Well, thank you very much!

CK: Thank you, Sørina.

26 March 2010

Intro & Index to "Where Are We Now?"


I have recently written a summary of some of the things I have learned in this series. Please take a moment to read that article, then come back and leave me a comment here or on the interviews that interested you. I would like to keep this conversation going, even though the series will soon end. Thank you.


50.Ron Reed, artistic director of Pacific Theatre

49. Bruce Herman, painter

Carl Sprague, film & theatre art director/designer

47. Greg Wolfe, editor of Image

46. Jeanne Murray Walker, poet

45. Dana Gioia, poet & former NEA chairman

44. Stephen Burdman, artistic director of NY Classical Theatre

43. Jeffrey Overstreet, writer & film critic

42. Alissa Wilkinson, professor at The King's College, NYC

41. Larry Lipkis, composer

40. Andrew DeVries, sculptor

39. Catherine Taylor-Williams, actress

38. Victoria Bond, composer

37. Tania Runyan, poet

36. Ivan Moody, composer

35. Mia Chung, pianist

34. Jeremy Begbie, arts theologian

33. Doug Ovens, composer

32. Ned Balbo, poet

31. Paul Salerni, composer

30. Ellen McLaughlin, actress and playwright

29. Kevin Sprague, photographer and graphic designer

28. Ryan Jackson, painter

27. Barbara Crooker, poet

26. Noemia Marinho, artist

25. Michelle Gillett, poet

24. Sharon Barshinger, Director of Players of the Stage

23. Heather Thomas, poet

22. Silagh White, Director of ArtsLehigh

21. Kelly Cherry, writer

20. Anthony Lawton, actor

19. Erin Clare Hurley, Ed. Director of PA Shakespeare Festival

18. Matthew Whitney, painter

17. Rosie Perera, photographer

16. Diane Wittry, Music Director of Allentown Symphony

15. P. Tepper, American painter

14. Stan Badgett, muralist and writer

13. D. Audell Shelburne, professor, poet, and editor

12. Nicholas Friday, hip-hop artist and music producer

11. Sophia Ahmad, pianist and arts journalist

10. Paul Barnes, pianist

9. B. Gordon Van Patter, author, illustrator and presenter

8. Leah Maines, poet and publisher

7. Julie Ann Eggleston, pianist and music teacher

6. Charles McMahon, artistic director of Lantern Theatre

5. Nick Jarratt, performing arts major, pianist

4. Tammy Jarratt, graphic designer and art teacher

3. Chris Ugi, Director of MAFA

2. Vivian Doublestein, Executive Director of MAFA

1. Charles Kovich, mystery novelist

For many years, especially while teaching at the Master’s Academy of Fine Arts, I have pondered the reciprocal interactions that exist among historical events, the arts, and what might be called the philosophy or ideology of a time period. Each passing era has, in retrospect, some unifying sense of style, mood, purpose, or concept—especially in certain geographical locations—that can be isolated, studied, and described. Thus we can talk about the symmetry and harmony of the Classical Era, the intricate complexities of the Rococo, the rootless depression of the “Lost Generation,” the intentional synaesthesia of the Harlem Renaissance, and so on. These movements are sometimes conscious, sometimes more loosely constructed. They are usually intertwined with political and religious developments. It is fairly easy to study them from a chronological distance, assisted by historians, anthropologists, literary theorists, and the like. However, it is much more difficult to ascertain the tone of one’s own day. Could you say with confidence what techniques, topics, and theories inform the arts of the so-called Western world at this exact moment, and what those discrete observations add up to as a whole?

I would like to take the pulse of the moment: to discover, express, and discuss the current state of the arts in North America. I would like to ascertain the driving ideologies that inform the prevailing techniques in poetry, “high-brow” fiction, the visual arts, new musical compositions in the best classical tradition, and the synthetic arts such as dance and theatre.

While this sounds like a large and lofty project, I am approaching it via small steps: weekly interviews with artists or thinkers-about-the-arts, published on this blog every Monday. The interviewees will include religious and main-stream artists, as well as people who think about the arts and culture, even if they do not make art themselves. There will be poets, fiction writers, non-fiction writers, musicians, composers, visual artists, actors, conductors, students in college art departments, teachers, professors, department heads, and chairpersons of arts organizations.

In each interview, I ask these people what techniques, topics, and theories inform their own work (or the arts they study) and that of their genre(s) as a whole. I ask them to comment on the current state of the arts and sometimes see if they have thought about present and potential world-movements, such as postmodernism, the looming “post-human” phase, and possible artistic effects of the Eastward orientation of economics and culture.

Each post in this series, then, gives one glimpse into the current state of the arts. The idea is that the cumulative effect of these individual snapshots will be a collage or palimpsest that captures the artistic moment. Since I hope to interview both religious and non-religious people (and, indeed, the point is not to take the pulse of the church’s arts, but of the main stream arts in order to encourage Christian artists to respond), the result should be a broad survey of the general mood, tenor, or tone of the times, supported by specific examples. Inevitably, we will also ponder “How did we get here?” and “Where are we going?”

24 March 2010

The White Stone Gallery

Today I visited The White Stone Gallery in Philadelphia. I heard about the current exhibit, the 2010 Juried Fine Arts and Faith Exhibit, through the e-update of Image magazine. I’d like to tell you about my visit, discuss the works of art on display, and encourage you to go and visit it yourself.

The gallery is a little storefront on Main Street in Manayunk, along the river just north of Philadelphia, not too far north of the Museum of Fine Art. The street is a quaint little old-world boulevard of expensive shops, coffeeshops, and indie-style dealers in collectibles and second-hand clothing. Inside, the gallery is tiny and bright: a cube of white with a black ceiling that seems to open off and let endless distance into the small, squared-off space. The pieces were hung well, reds and dark russets echoing each other opposite the door, traces of gold and scarlet stringing the pieces on the left-hand wall, darks giving way to silvers, blues, then black-and-white along the right-hand wall. There were about 15 pieces, perhaps, in that front room. I moseyed along, trying to analyze the pieces. The visual arts are my weakest field; I can talk endlessly about writing, music, film, theatre, and even (to some extent) dance, but I haven’t much knowledge about the technical aspects of the visual arts. I found one piece that appealed to me for its delicate use of gold, especially how the metal traced out a Scripture verse in thin, veiny letters against a black backdrop.

I was drawn to the most representative painting in the room (there was also one remarkable photograph): a depiction of the Prodigal Son and his father in modern clothes; the father’s face was pressed to the son’s shoulder in deep, deep pain and relief. The layers of his joy and anguish were well depicted. But it was the son’s face that saved the painting from sappiness: it was completely empty. He stared straight ahead at nothing over his dad’s bowed head. His eyes were meaningless. He was totally drained. In his face I could read the straigraphy of flaunting confidence, angry pride, scornful independence, then flinging lust, followed by a crash into degredation, the flare and burn of shame and guilt, the absolute bottom reached. Then coming home. With nothing left. Stripped of feeling. Deep into that deadness of guilt that tries to push itself off on the other person, and so refuses everything in the end, even forgiveness.

While I was looking at The Prodigal Son” by Ryan Jackson, the curator of the gallery began to talk to me. She drew my attention to the next piece: a really funny, easter-colored picture of a dinosaur climbing out of a vermillion vase. It looked like it belonged in a child’s nursery. So Susan told me the story. The painter, Paul Tepper, is known for his Gothic works. He revels, even wallows, in the dark, the dreary. Then one day he got thinking about how art is a gift from God and therefore should be enjoyed: painting should be fun! It doesn’t always need to be serious; it doesn’t always need to confront the dark side of life. So he deliberately decided to play. Just play. And the result was this quirky, funny, bright piece “Dinosaur: Curious.”

Susan Hooks, the curator-owner along with her husband Derek, is a fantastic story teller. She took me around the gallery, recounting delightful tales of how people have responded to the art, of the artists’ lives and work, and of the vision she and her husband share for their gallery. The two of them both have experience as trained fine artists who have exhibited in galleries themselves. And they both have good business sense and experience. They run White Stone as a business, not as a ministry—but the ministry often seems to make itself, anyway. They know that if they do not compromise either the quality of the work or the orthodoxy of the message, they ministry will follow. If they were running a hardware store, Susan said, they would jolly well sell hammers that would do the job of driving in nails. But if anyone happened to ask about a certain Jewish carpenter, she wouldn’t hesitate to tell His story. Meanwhile, the Lord has given them a business to run, doors to keep open, art to sell. So they will spend their energies hunting down the best artists, those who present their faith subtly through impeccable technique. And now the best artists seek them out.

The artists have to have the technique. But if they don’t have the faith, the works will be wooden, cold. “It’s like when you hear someone sing ‘Amazing Grace’” said Susan. “If they sing it with absolutely flawless technique, you will be impressed and will admire their singing. But if the person who sings ‘Amazing Grace’ has also livedamazing grace, it will move you to tears. We have often had to keep boxes of tissues out around the gallery. People are moved to tears. What they see enables them to open up.” So although the Hooks don’t ask submitting artists for a statement of faith, they can tell. And it works the other way, too: once an art contest asked for submissions responding to the Twenty-Third Psalm. Many artists who were not Christians decided to submit work, and set about studying that Psalm in preparation. And many of them got saved in the process!

Starting next month (April 3 – June 27), three great names will grace White Stone: Makoto Fujimura, Wayne Berger, and The Milans (John & Elli Milan; I guess that makes four names?). I intend to go back to see this show, and to interview the curators officially for another post. But Fujimura?! He alone gives credence and respectability to this little gallery in my mind. And so did Susan’s explanations of what I saw today.

There was a little abstract piece by Melissa Kreism called “Song of the Rain.” It’s highly textured blues and grays speckled with silver somewhat resembling the rain on your window. Two women once came in and stood transfixed by that work. Their clothing, body language, facial expressions, and relationship shouted out their personal agonies to anyone attentive enough to read the silent language. But they stood staring at this work. Then they spoke, saying over and over how much they loved this piece. They pointed out the brighter spot in the middle, saying, “It looks like hope! It looks like Hope.” Hope called out to them, for they had no hope.

Other galleries work very hard to quiet the Christian message, Susan said. One gallery asked Cornelis Monsma to take off the titles that spoke clearly of his Christian faith. On the other hand, White Stone used to have Scripture verses posted with each painting. But they found that drove viewers away; the text preempted the visual experience. And the text got in the way of meaning(s).

Perhaps the most notable artist whose work hangs in White Stone at the moment is Kim Lucci Elbualy. She is a renowned artist whose work who will be selling work at the Smithsonian Craft Show at the Museum Building April, 22-25, 2010, sponsored by Smithsonian's Women's Committee. She had two pieces on display at White Stone today: “Fruits of the Spirit” and “Faith in Him = Fruit”. They consisted of metal boxes, open at the top, nestled together symmetrically and hung on the wall. The first was nine red boxes, three rows/columns of three. One box for each fruit of the Spirit. Empty boxed. Open toward the viewer. The second piece consisted of nine sets of nine boxes; nine within nine. They were arranged, again, in three rows/columns of three. So this work contained the other. But in this one, the central set was gold. And that’s faith, the most important and central fruit of the Spirit.

Then there was the photograph I mentioned earlier: “Serenity” by Nolan McCants. He took this picture just outside of a busy market in Nigeria. It depicts a little boy, exhausted, resting uncomfortably on a dirty bench in stark squalor for a moment before going back to the hustle and bustle of his work in the market. As Susan explained to me, the piece is very well set up. It is framed by dark objects: pieces of wood, a stack of cloth on a vender’s stand, a window. There’s only one splash of color: a flower curtain hanging on the wall. Then there’s the boy, dark in the middle of a central bright patch. Ambiguous chalk drawings whiten the wall around him. I thought the title was ironic, because the boy looks anything but tranquil, in his uncomfortable physical posture and squalid surroundings. And I hoped it was ironic, because otherwise it’s just another poor-black-boy-in-Africa heartsob story that really adds to the distancing of the Other.

But, Susan reminded me, we see art through our own filters. Then, paradoxically enough, she said that visual art, unlike writing, is straight communication. When you’re reading, you have to travel along the linear experience until you come to the “point,” the bit that makes sense of it all or the moment that appeals to you. With visual art, your eyes immediately jump to the part to which you connect. There’s nothing interfering. There’s no Platonic text-at-three-removes. It’s one step closer to the Original (I’ve moved away from Susan’s words now into my own [textual] interpretation).

In closing, I encourage you to go visit this gallery yourself. The current exhibit is on only until this Sunday. Then the gallery closes until April 3rd to set up the Fujimura—Berger—Milan show. All of the works in the gallery are for sale; I glanced at the price list and found the range from around $600 to the top piece, the large Elbualy installation, at $10,000. Most pieces were under $1000, making them affordable for the small private collector. So if you could support faith and the arts by buying a piece, or even just by stopping in and adding your encouragement to this excellent venture, please do so! I will be there again, D. V.

16 March 2010

Report on Christianity and Detective Fiction conference

Last weekend I attended The Conference on Christianity and Detective Fiction, presented by The Northeast Region of the Conference on Christianity and Literature and Pace University in New York City. Besides a really great, adventuresome weekend making my way to and around the city via bus, train, and subway, and a fantastic visit with all my family and a bunch of friends and staying with Nadine, the conference itself was lovely. I began reading detective fiction back in the early autumn in preparation for this and had a great time with Dorothy Sayers and G. K. Chesterton, especially. Here’s a brief report on the events and speakers of the conference.

Unfortunately, due to complications with subways, etc., I arrived late to the conference. Actually, I’ll tell the story. I left Allentown by bus at 8:15 am and arrived in NYC nice and early: around 10:30. Since the conference didn’t start until 2 in the afternoon, I had plenty of time. That was just fine, because I wanted to go to the New York Society Library and consult their copy of Charles Williams’s published mystery reviews. But I had luggage to haul around. So I conceived the brilliant idea of bringing my luggage to Pace Univ. (where the conference would be) and leaving it there while I trotted around the city. Now, mind you, at this point I had no map of Manhattan in my head. I do now! So, I got off the bus at 42nd street (Port Authority) and took the subway down to Pace, which is smack up against Brooklyn Bridge. It was a bit of a walk from the stop (I found out later I could have gone to a different stop that was practically on the school’s doorstep). By this time I was a bit hot and hungry and very glad to find the Univ. So trot in, country-naïve, and ask where I can change and leave my bag. Nowhere. Nowhere? Nowhere. Harrumph. So I have to drag the stupid heavy suitcase down into the subway again and go all the way up to 79th street. The library was quite accommodating and I got my research done in 45 minutes flat. Excellent. Time for lunch. Only I didn’t figure in all the extra time that would be taken by having to get subway attendants to let me through barriers and all that (especially when I went down the wrong steps and to the wrong side of the tracks once!), so I was late. In the end, I feel like quite a veteran of the NYC public transportation systems, and I like them a lot. But they took a little getting used to.

So I missed Chris Willerton, Abilene Christian University, “Dorothy Sayers, the Trinity, and the Creative Reader”—whom I very much wanted to hear. I’ll have to write and see if he can send me a copy of his paper.

Sayers and her peers

Christine Colon, Wheaton College, “Sayers and the Theology of Gender”

Prof. Colón began with a very useful and interesting survey of Sayers’ nonfiction work on the topic of gender roles and the place of women. She discussed the essay “Are Women Human?” in which Sayers makes the case that women shouldn’t be treated as “women,” as if there were a homogeneous block under that label, but as individuals. Just as I don’t want to be known as an American poet, or Women poet, or even necessarily Christian poet—I’d rather be known as Me, for what I have done (but not without influences, of course). Then she discussed Sayers’ piece “Why Work?” in which Sayers lays out a theology of work that allows a secular vocation to be viewed as sacred. Sayers laments the ways in which the Church suppresses women. Then Prof. Colón turned to the fiction, to examine the relationship of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane. In their romance, Colón claimed, they had to struggle with the competing claims of passion vs. integrity. Harriet could not marry Peter until she learned how to keep her vocational integrity within their relationship. Each had to gain independence and to be true to Vocation in order to be faithful to Truth. Only in that way were they able to have a healthy marriage of equals.

Edmund Miller, “Death and Execution During the War Years in the Posthumous Lord Peter Wimsey Stories Complied by Jill Paton Walsh
Prof. Miller was discussing two novels, Thrones, Dominations and A Presumption of Death, published in 1998 and (I think) 2003. These were written by Jill Paton Walsh after the model of Sayers’ novels. I am unclear whether or not they were based on fragments Sayers left behind. They are novels of manners, but they are also tales of a world at war. They have an interesting historical perspective, packed full of historical details, but they are more critical of the Monarchy than Sayers herself could have been at the time. The second novel enacts the difficult of understanding justice in a world torn apart and confused by the World Wars. It also involves the reader in a metatextual interpretation.

Next was Welcome and Introduction by Walter Raubicheck, Pace University, one of the three organizers of the conference. I don’t think I’ve attended a conference before at which the organizers have given papers. Fantastic work—but really, you ought to sleep sometime!
Dr. Raubicheck’s paper was partly an explanation of how the conference idea evolved and partly just a very thoughtful, funny, engaging discussion of some of the most important detective fiction writers (mostly Chesterton), their detectives, their themes, etc.

’Mainstream’ Writers and the Mystery

Helen Andretta, York College, CUNY, “Mystery and Meaning in Flannery O’Connor’s ‘The Enduring Chill.’”

Dr. Andretta gave a detailed, play-by-play plot summary of this excellent story, pointing out some themes such as child-parent tension and the mysterious nature of the main character’s illness. This is one of my favorites by O’Connor; I highly recommend it. I’m using it with my Advanced Language Arts students later this year.

David Humphries, Queensborough Community College, CUNY, “Putting the Cast of the Upright Judge in Contest: Robert Penn Warrens All The King’s Men as Cold War Mystery.”
It’s too bad I haven’t read All The King’s Men; I would have understood this paper better if I had. David talked a lot about history, narrators of history (It doesn’t matter who’s tell history): history is a narrative based on the beliefs of those who tell it. But then what happens is the exchange of a lie for a truth and the acceptance of the past. Now I have a note here that says: “God made man by making him separate from Himself; evil, then, is the measure of His greatness”—but I don’t have a note of who says that, whether it’s a character in the book, the author, or a scholar talking about the book. I think that it might be the narrator, because he says that “Separateness makes evil and free will possible,” and he forgives God at the end of the book.
Now, the other part of David’s paper, on which I apparently didn’t take notes, was how we can read this book as allegory? parallel? commentary? for the events of 1939-1945 and for the subsequent Cold War. I would like to read more on that topic, because that is what fascinates me: books as historical artifacts and as the [re]making of history á la 1984. Well, maybe that’s a bit extreme.

Jane Blanchard, Westminster Schools of Augusta, “Conrad’s Extravagant Mystery
Jane used a really great method for analyzing Heart of Darkness. She chose one scene, one motif, really, and used it as an analogy for interpreting the entire book. She took the image of “the Book”: a mysterious Russian book that fascinates Marlowe so much that he withdraws from his surroundings to contemplate the text. He has a singleness of intention and of purpose. This emphasizes the importance of work. And it gives a perspective on the entire novella as a textual experience that is not easily decipherable.

Trish Verone, Caldwell College, “Esau Revisited: Mistaken Identity and T. C. Boyle’s Talk Talk
This paper took a very interesting approach. It compared the story of Jacob and Esau (from the Bible) with T. C. Boyle’s 2006 novel Talk Talk as tales of identity theft, flight and chase, and confrontation. She went through both stories, episode by episode, showing what they have in common, pointing out especially the face-to-face encounters at the end that conclude with some kind of forgiveness.

So that was Friday. After the papers were over, there was a lovely wine & cheese reception. I greatly enjoyed being with this group. I got to talk to almost everyone there and made some great connections, even some new friendships! Then I went out to dinner with Anya Morlan (one of the conference organizers), her husband, and two of their students. [Anya, by the way, I was thinking of Psmith from P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Mike & Psmith and got him mixed up with Thomson & Thompson, the second of whom has a silent ‘P’ in his name! I distinctly remember one Tintin scene in which Thompson is on the phone trying to get the caller to spell his name right; “No, with a ‘P’ as in ‘Psychiatrist!’”)]

PLENARY SESSION: Dale Ahlquist, President of the American Chesterton Society, “G. K. Chesterton on the Art of Murder and the Divine Detective.”
This was a really delightful paper, probably the best of the weekend. He began by talking about how Chesterton brought the mystery into the domestic sphere, developed the locked-room mystery, and introduced the “underdog detective” in the person of Father Brown (based on a friend of Chesterton’s, Father John O’Connor). He based his stories on the importance of an unimportant character and used his mysteries to combat the conception that popularity means a work is not a masterpiece. He was the voice of the common reader. He does not tell the audience what it should feel, but what it does feel. Then Mr. Ahlquist discussed three reasons that we love detective stories.
1. We like justice. The Detective is a moral figure who preserves order. Chesterton said that “The romance of the police force is the romance of man.” And the genre itself is a defense of reason.
2. We like surprises. We like to be shocked by something we already know. Good literary criticism does the same: it tells us what we always knew about a book, but never quite thought of like that. And the surprise factor of a mystery is achieve through simplicity: “Real mysteries don’t hide mysteries; they reveal them.” Chesterton, by the way, was the first to use the term “mystery story.” He points out two kinds of mysteries:
I. The puzzle, which is temporary and surprises us once
II. The Eternal Mysteries that continually surprise us.
3. We like (whether we know it or not) the connections between the detective story and Christianity. These include:
- Faith and Reason are united, not opposed; the supernatural and the rational are also united, not opposed.
- There are 4 Biblical principles illustrated in the mystery genre. They are:
I. “The last shall be first and the first shall be last.” This applies to the cast of suspects. The most suspicious is obviously not the murder; the least suspicious obviously is.
II. “Seek and ye shall find.” There are clues, evidence, and it is like a great game of hide & seek. You know you will find the hiders; you know the mystery will be solved.
III. “Love your enemies.” Quite frequently, Father Brown discovers the criminal, talks to him, gets him to confess and repent, and then lets him go. Father Brown seeks out sinners to forgive them, not merely criminals to convict them.
IV. “The Truth shall set you free.” It’s all about finding out the truth.

After the plenary session was my panel:
Fantasy and Mystery

James Thomas, Pepperdine University, “J. K. Rowling’s Real Mystery: Harry Potter’s Journey from ‘Interesting Uncertainty’ to ‘Incomprehensible Certainty’”

James Thomas is one of the three “Potter Pundits” who have a regular podcast about Harry Potter; each of the members (or at least two of them) have also written books on the subject. They all believe that the Harry Potters books are not “No country for old men”; rather, these are mature, complex novels filled with important [Christian] themes. What’s more, they are excellent detective fiction. (Just think through each book; in each, there is a mystery to solve. What is the sorcerer’s stone? What’s inside the chamber of secrets? Who is Tom Riddle? Who is the Half-Blood Prince? Where are the horcruxes? and so on). But they are something more, too. They are the record of a faith journey. It very much parallel’s Gerard Manley Hopkins’s faith journey, which he described as a passage from comprehensible uncertainty to incomprehensible certainty. And Harry’s journey is much the same. Furthermore, Harry’s development from selfish boy to sacrificial Christ-figure depends upon three capital-M Mysteries.
I. The Mystery of Faith in things unseen. This can be clearly seen in the contrast of Hermione (the skeptic) and Luna (the over-credulous believer). But throughout the books, Harry has to learn to have faith in many unseen things, including the Hallows.
II. The Mystery of Death. This is most explicit in Dumbledore’s story, but more subtly in the Thestrals. Compare I Cor. 15:26. It is also operative in the Department of Mysteries, where study, thought, time, and death are housed. But there is one door in the Dept. through which Harry cannot pass. This is the door into:
III. The Mystery of Love. Love is an ancient magic. Sacrificial love has conquered death. The revelation of Snape’s true nature is a revelation of love. Cf. Proverbs 30. Love is one of the “Unspeakables”: it is God’s unspeakable gift. It is ineffability, Mysterion, deep and timeless.

Then I gave my paper. It was in large part based off of a discussion on this blog with “Orphan Ann” about the genre and value of War in Heaven. I posted my abstract yesterday.

Next was an acquaintance of mine, a professor at Nyack under whom Nadine and Eve studied, the librettist for “Danaher: The Musical”: Charles Franklyn Beach, “Murder Mystery and Holy Mysteries in Charles Williams’ War in Heaven.” Yes, we presented on the same book. And we did not compare papers beforehand. But it worked out really nicely! For about the first page, we said the same thing. Then we veered off into totally different but very complementary directions. I focused mostly on the generic conventions of a murder mystery and places WiH firmly into in 1930s Golden Age setting. Dr. Beach focused more on the medieval source materials from which CW drew. He discussed the two primary images in this story: The Grail (which CW spells Graal) and Prester John. He pointed out that Williams avoids the danger of didacticism, because “poetry is not meant to teach, but to lead us to joy.” Therefore, CW uses a sacramental approach, based on a firm belief that matter is good. Perhaps I should post a separate summary of Dr. Beach’s paper, because on it I (naturally) took the most notes.

Recent Detectives

Anya Morlan, Pace University
[one of the conference organizers], “Sister Pelagia, the Nun-Detective: Voice of Doubt or Reason in Boris Akunin’s Fiction”
Anya, who was born in Russia and has maintained some of her Russian roots, discussed a trilogy by Akunin, especially the second volume [I think], Pelagia and the Black Monk, published in 2009. This novels is rife with images, and is full of themes about history and time. The setting is never pinned down, but can be pretty well located in 1896 because of a reference to Checkhov’s play The Seagull. And, speaking of Checkhov, this Akunin novel is based on a Checkhov short story, “The Black Monk.”
Pelagia, in Akunin’s novel, is a nun who functions as a detective. The first volume of the trilogy is not religious, and the third is blasphemous, suggesting that Jesus was a homosexual.
Checkhov’s story, published in 1896, tells the superstitious tale of a Black Monk who wanders the earth for 800 years. It raises the question: “Can death be a godsend?”
In 2008, there was a trial in Russia in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were tried and found guilty. Orthodoxy was confirmed as the state religion and other denominations were outlaws.
Interestingly, Akunin writes nonfiction works under his real name and detective fiction under a pseudonym; detective fiction is scorned in Moscow, and Akunin said that he wanted to write something that his wife would not be ashamed to read on the train, so he tries to write literate, sophisticated detective novels. And he makes the covers very cultured, not like graphic slash fiction. In his detective novels, he challenges genre. He switches narrative voice, incorporates gender studies issues, allows readers to solves mysteries that the characters can’t á la Lacan’s claims about the knowing subject, has characters die of fear or grief, and includes epistolary sections.
One of the most fascinating discussions in this book is between Pelagia and [I think] her superior. He tells her that Hope is God; no one can honor God with their lives unless they hope to survive. That is why suicide is wrong. She counters: “Did Christ hope to survive?” And the superior drives her away from himself in anger. In the end of the story, she forgives, because she can.

Then I missed a couple of papers because I was interviewing Charles Kovich, a mystery novel writer; that interview will appear here soon as the first in a new series I’m about to launch. More on that in another post.

Christianity and Literature--[a session that veered away from the conference topic to deal with other works of literature and culture]

Regina Walton, Boston University, “ ‘Sighs will convey/Anything to me’: Sighs, Groans, and the Mystery of Wordless Speech in George Herbert’s Poetry.”

In this paper, Ms. Walton, a grad student, claimed that the reader of poetry is a detective; so is the scholar. She went on to compare the grammar of tears with the grammar of sighs in a very astute examination of some 17th century conceits. Tears are associated with the restoration of sight, while sighs are expressive of the spirit (Ruach, Spiritus). Sighing was thought to shorten life, and thus bring the sigh-er closer to his union with God. It is connected with the generative breath that God breathed into Adam. It is associated with the Holy Spirit’s movement and His intermediation. Through a very detailed deconstructive analyses, Ms. Walton pointed out all of the occurrences of sighs and groans in Herbert’s work and came to the conclusion that they are more expressive than speech.

Ineffability. Gotta love it.

Michael Rosenfield, Pace University[the third conference organizer], Missing in Action: The Deity in Patrick Hamilton’s World War II Novels.” I would have appreciate this paper more if I had read the novels in question. But the main idea was to point out how historically involved these books are, referencing as they do the major events and characters of World War II.

Amy Frazier, University of Texas at Brownsville, “The Ultimate Self-Sacrifice of Unsung Heroes: Christian and Non-Christian Christ-life Figures.”
This paper was the story of five such self-sacrificial Christ-like figures, both fictional and historical. First, Prof. Liviu Librescu, who gave his life during the Virginia tech shootings so that his students could escape out a window. Second, Michael A. Monsoor, who threw himself on a grenade to save his comrades in Iraq. Third, a character named Johannes from the film “I Am David,” who takes the blame for a theft and is shot by a Nazi concentration camp guard in David’s place. Fourth, an anonymous woman from the short story “Ladies and Gentlemen, to the Gas Chamber” by Tadeusz Borowski, who volunteers to take care of two children whose mothers have abandoned them, even though she knows this means certain death. And finally, Sidney Carton from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities.

And that was the conference! A very delightful time, all in all, with lovely people and good fellowship.

15 March 2010

CCL conference paper abstract

Last weekend I attended a CCL Conference on Christianity and Detective Fiction. Here's the abstract of my paper. I'll post a full report soon.

Is a ‘Christian’ Mystery Story Possible?
Charles Williams’s War in Heaven as a Generic Case Study

War in Heaven begins with this glorious opening sentence: “The telephone bell was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was no-one in the room but the corpse.” After this fantastic opening, Williams romps into a bizarre tale of the Holy Grail, black magic, and demon possession. However, from such an auspicious opening to a murder mystery, Williams goes on to overturn most of the standard procedures of that genre. He strays so far from convention, in fact, that War in Heaven is either a really bad murder mystery—or a really good something else.
In this paper, I intend to discuss the ways in which Williams departs from the rules that traditionally govern the mystery, show how he affirms certain essential premises, and illuminate his ultimate purpose. This purpose is quite different from the raison d’être of the mystery story proper, and leads into a discussion of how, and to what extent, a mystery can incorporate Christian themes.

An online interlocutor of mine, after reading War in Heaven, complained that “you begin the book with that perfect, fantastic opening sentence, expect this to be a page-turning murder mystery, and then it turns out to be a metaphysical drama and the poor murdered guy isn’t really all that important.” Her frustration is apt, and can be subdivided into three cogent arguments against the success of this book as a murder mystery. First, the opening leads the reader into generic expectations which are overturned by subsequent developments. Second, the characters are not developed as reader of fiction expect. Third, both plot and characters are subordinated to philosophical concerns.

While this reader’s concerns are both recurrent and justifiable, they illuminate important aspects of Williams’ purpose in rewriting the mystery’s standard operating procedure. First, the plot fails to meet the expectations set up in the opening. Surprising features include a very early (and disbelieved) confession by the murderer, the introduction of an important plot that has (apparently) nothing to do with the murder, and the fact that the real mystery to solve is not ‘Who murdered this victim?’ nor even Why or How he was killed.

Second, Williams’s characters are not developed as are those in standard fiction; but does Williams suffer from “a total inability to write credible dialogue; a total lack of interest in the depicting and development of character” (Barclay 99)? Williams’s theological purpose led him to depict characters, in Platonic terms, as copies of absolute spiritual realities. In other words, he sacrificed the psychological and emotional complexities of characters to the eternal realities they represent.

This leads to Williams’s ultimate purpose in War in Heaven. The final accusation he faces is that this book is “too intellectual.” I will approach this charge by discussing his theology and mysticism, especially as they relate to his ideas governing human relationships and interaction with the Divine. In the end, I hope to show that he wrote this book as a metaphysical thriller to communicate doctrine, not (primarily) as a mystery to entertain.

Which leads me to question the amount of philosophy or theology a mystery is capable of supporting. In the final analysis, War in Heaven is not a mystery primarily because it is designed to, if you like, ‘preach’; does it logically follow that pure mysteries cannot preach or teach at all? Hillary Waugh wrote: “The mystery novel does not contain the equipment to carry messages. It is too frail a box to hold the human spirit” (Waugh ‘Mystery vs. Novel’ 75). Yet many Christian mystery writers do communicate messages. Indeed, that is just the purpose of this conference; to examine how, and to what extent, each Christian author manages to write a good mystery that is also a strong enough box to hold the human spirit—and divine spirituality.

12 March 2010

Ekphrasis Report #4

This was a lovely, small meeting of just a few like-minded (and variously-minded) artists. Present were S, an actress and drama director; AM, a poet; J, a poet; (for part of the time) AR, a poet and singer-songwriter; and myself.

I began by sharing something new for me: a short story. The only prose I’ve shared with this group before was the little theoretical article I wrote for Comment. I usually share poetry. So this time I shared a rather wild piece of short spiritual fantasy, rather Charles Williamsian in nature. I assigned readers for the characters, which didn’t really work well. The piece is not set out like a play at all: the narrator is integral, the main character’s thoughts are written out on the page, and bits of dialogue flow into the narrative. But having my friends read aloud did help to carry the piece along. Otherwise I think it would have been a bit dull for them to listen to me read it. Maybe not. It’s the tale of a young man who repeatedly refuses all offers of grace, choosing instead to cling to his illusion of autonomy. Things start falling apart, and eventually he falls apart, literally, disintegrates, dissolves. My fellow Ekphrasians suggested that I make the offers of grace more clear and strengthen the virtuous character in the story: she’s rather passive, and it seems she’s just offering him love, not salvation. I’m kind of trying to suggest that they might almost be the same, or at least that love can be a stand-in for grace in a work of fiction. Or that a step towards love is a step in the direction of grace because it is a step, however small, out of self. But I agree with their suggestions and will work on fleshing out the virtuous character. She needs a scene of her own.

Next, S shared a scene from a play that she’s writing for a drama class. Now, S is an extremely brave person and a fascinating character. She is very admirable for many reasons. She’s fun, outspoken, expressive, dramatic, and very clear-headed and well-grounded. She’s entirely aware of the strongholds of liberalism and yet maintains her convictions with glowing happiness. I love how she can be herself in the midst of foul perversion, seeing the perversity with open eyes and joyfully sharing of the virtue God has given her. This play is a case in point. She’s so sick of the sexual promiscuity at her college that she’s writing a kind of “Virgin Monologues” or “Apology of Virginity.” And it’s delightful. Such a thing might make you cringe if it were the least bit cheesy, saccharine, or sentimental. It’s not. Hers is fun, lighthearted, then heartfelt and gritty, with a healthy dose of self-examination and humility. The characters are delightfully alive. The dialogue is fast-paced and believable. She’s got a great sense of timing and structure. She’s inventive, too, bringing in a curious “Chorus” kind of character and developing fascinating antiphonal techniques. She just shared bits of it at her school yesterday, and it was well received. I’m hoping hers will be the one play the class chooses for full production. Now, wouldn’t that be radical?

Then AM shared the same poem she has shared in the past, but with an added section. It’s a long, thoughtful, very mature poem reflecting back on her granparents’ past through the media of Christmas carols, sepia photographs, 50s songs, and memories. Then it contrasts this apparently idyllic, nostalgic daydream with their past, where “twisted mittens” grow into a symbol of her grandmother’s Alzheimer’s. It’s a very mature, profound poem, well crafted and carefully executed.

Next, JA shared a poem that (again!) I could not critique. His craftsmanship is exquisite. His lines are precisely hewn, his meters natural and exact, his tone balanced. He’s got an interesting technique in which some stanzas are in regular print and others in italics, and the italicized ones are meant to be a more introspective voice reflecting on the somewhat more narrative presentation of the regular-font-stanzas. The poems are short, tight lyrics, sometimes with a wisp of story, usually with a memory or a reflection as their impetus. They have a weight of their own be virtue of their careful craftsmanship.

Then AR showed up, lovely Apple laptop in hand, to share some of the songs he’s written and recorded recently. His work is an adventurous combination of poetry (he writes the lyrics), composition (he writes the music), performance (he plays piano and guitar), and technology (he dubs in drums, etc., and then creates all kinds of layers and effects). Unfortunately, just as he was sharing a song a very unhappy, uncompromising Librarian made her displeasure felt through cruel words and a facial expression worthy of the Wicked Witch of the West, and we hied ourselves swiftly out the door. She barely restrained herself from delivering a kick to our collective pants.

11 March 2010

Dr. Begbie, continued

Dr. Begbie, continued

Here at last is my report on the second of Dr. Begbie’s events that I attended at Biblical Theological Seminary. You can read the first report here.

This event was an evening lecture recital. After Dr. Dunbar’s introduction, Dr. Begbie entered, sat down at the gorgeous concert grand piano, and played the opening of a Bach Two-Part Invention. Then he stood up and began to talk about theology through the arts. This concept, of learning what art can teach us about theology, is one of his unique platforms. Everyone else I’ve heard on the topic takes it the other way around: Learning about the arts via theology, or learning what doctrine can teach us about the arts. Indeed, I have mostly thought about how my faith informs my making of and teaching about the arts. Do you see the difference? Rather than saying something like, oh, I don’t know, “Because God is a God of order, we make orderly systems and consistent secondary worlds in our fantasy writing” or something like than. Dr. Begbie is approaching it the other way around. Instead, he is, for instance, thinking about the improvisatory nature of Baroque performance practice (what he calls “The jazz factor”) and what it can teach us about human freedom within the structure of God’s will, about human creativity as images of God, and so on. Isn’t that a fascinating perspective? Instead of judging a book on its content, for instance, I could examine its techniques and draw spiritual parallels.

So as soon as he got up from the piano and started talking about the two-part counterpoint of that piece by Bach, I knew where he was going. He was going to talk about how the apparent contradiction of man’s free will vs. God’s predestination works like a two-part invention. And indeed he did. He spent the next hour delighting, shocking, astonishing and educating us on just that. His major premise was that “Western” thought is held captive by an image and that European and American Christians, as a result, are in the habit of thinking visually and using visual metaphors as the way of understanding the world to the point that we have excluded other conceptions of theology. So he put a diagram on the overhead. There was one circle representing “Me” and one circle representing “God.” The “God” circle was outside of the “me” circle: this is deism. God is outside of human experience watching the world run without interfering. I make my own choices, I determine my own existence, but in a lonely spiritual isolation from communion with the divine. If, however, the “God” circle invades the “Me” circle, you’ve got a problem. Such coexistence defies the laws of physics: two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. So if you invite God into your life, as it were, then you are abdicating your own personhood and giving up all claim to self-determination. You are overtaken by deity and lose your self. You cease to decide, to act, to exist. Hence the virulent objections to Christianity by many non-religious people; hence the bitter hatred of Calvinism by many Christians.

However, Dr. Begbie went on to show how that paradox dissolves when examined through an aural, rather than a visual, metaphor. He demonstrated that two notes can exist simultaneously, can occupy the same airspace, as it were, without losing their individual identity. When middle C and the G above it, for example, are both played on the piano, you can hear both of them—and it could also be argued that you hear something more than is neither of them but is created by their coexistence. The Trinity is an example of this mutual indwelling or perichoresis. A similar theological principle is Christ’s simultaneous possession of two distinct natures, God and Man, known as the hypostatic union. And finally, when human beings practice their mutual interrelationships, they are acting upon the coinherence, or mutual indwelling and interdependence. All three of these principles, related to the simultaneous action of free will and predestination, are better modeled by music than by pictures.

01 March 2010

Interdisciplinary Language Arts part 2

Yesterday I posted a description of the interdisciplinary projects I'm having my high school language arts students create. Today, here's a series of snapshots of what they have chosen to do. They're not in any particular order; sort of arranged by media, but not exactly. Let me know if you want me to post the reading list.

1. Dramatic Monologue from Perelandra.
This student recently performed a memorized, dramatic recitation of "Out, Out" by Robert Frost. She was spectacular and moved us all to tears. Now she has set herself the daunting task of composing a monologue, entirely with lines from the text itself, that captures the essential nature of the conflict on Perelandra. She'll switch roles, playing both Ransom and Weston.

2. Original Soliloquy from The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene.
This student recently starred as Jo in a production of Little Women, where she astonished us all. She poured energy and emotion into that role until Jo just burst off that stage into reality. Now she is planning to write an original soliloquy, in the character of the priest. She will come in costume and show us the seriousness of sin and the eternal necessity of religion [I think those are the themes she's chosen].

3. Film Version of Waiting for Godot.
This student has made films before; indeed, I posted a link to a join project she did with the Graham Greene student above. Now she has devised a really brilliant way of showing the cyclical meaninglessness of this play. She's choosing a few scenes and filming them over and over with different actors, dressed in costumes from subsequent decades, to show the perennial nature of this sense of vanity. She's also planning to narrate transitions in French.

4. Film inspired by Catcher in the Rye.
This film will depart more from the text than the Samuel Beckett one. This student plans to set the film in the time just after the book closes, when the character is in a mental institution, and have it consist of conversations between the patient and the psychiatrist, which spark flashbacks into scenes from the novel.

5. 3-D Mobile expressing themes and techniques from W. H. Auden's The Shield of Achilles.
This is the one that I have the hardest time imagining. It takes an enormous conceptual leap to go from a series of poems to a 3-dimensional, tactile work of static art. She intends to have several physical layers that will explore/express themes, techniques, and (especially) Auden's individual view of the nature of Modern Man.

6. Series of drawings illustrating the central theme of Our Town by Thornton Wilder.
This student has excelled in the visual arts and hopes to create a series of fine, well-crafted pencil drawings. Rather than stock tableaux or literal illustrations, however, he intends to create scenes that resonate with the same sense of urgency that the play does, in retrospect (or on a second viewing). He wants to express the idea that every moment of everyday life is valuable and that we need to appreciate the fleeting life as it passes. Carpe Diem!

7. Original "journal entries" and illustrations for The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury.
This will be a fascinating project, combining creative writing, visual art, and live performance. The student will take on the narrative persona of an omniscient character who views all of the disparate events presented in this series of 28 short stories. He'll write journal entries, draw pictures to illustrate, and then perform at least a chosen selection for his classmates.

8. Musical Performance accompanying a slide show of images and information about My Antonia by Willa Cather.
Piano studies have recently become more and more important to this student, and she wants to use that skill in conjunction with her presentation on this novel. So she has chosen a piece of music by Aaron Copeland, composed right around the same time that this novel was written. She'll create a slide show and time it to correspond with a live performance of this piano work. Copeland's wide, open harmonies well portray the sweeping spaces of the prairies.

9. Slide show of facts and original photography illustrating Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck.
This student wants to combine an academic approach with a creative approach. So his power point will have two parts. First, he'll go through the typical information we like to know about a book. When and where was it written, why, under what circumstances, what are its major themes and concerns, how does it connect to historical events surrounding it. But then he plans to do something really creative. He hopes to be able to stage photographs that illustrate important scenes in the book -- with people dressed as if they are from the time period, backed by farm scenes, etc -- and edit the photographs so that they look "authentic" and "vintage." I'm looking forward to seeing how that works out.

So there you have it! Your comments are welcome.