09 July 2011

Five-Minute Wolfe

Here's another "five-minute book review"; well, not really a review, since I'm officially reviewing this book for Books & Culture. So, this is more of a quick explanation and recommendation. Enjoy!

This is a collection of essays that Wolfe has written throughout his career as editor of Image Journal. While they cover a variety of topics from theoretical aesthetics to autobiography to literary reflection, they are bound together by the theme of Christian Humanism. This is the concept, which Wolfe sees in resurgence, that imaginative and beautiful cultural products are perhaps the best way to communicate truth and goodness in our postmodern times. This is not a book you need to read straight through, although it is excellently well organized and makes most sense that way (introductory ideas, theoretical/autobiographical chapters, then chapters on individual writers and artists). You can just pick you the chapter, say, on Shūsaku Endō and learn a lot that way. This book is packed with recommendations of authors to read. There's also a subtext that recommends conversion to Roman Catholicism, since the majority of the artists and writers studied have done just that. Indeed, Wolfe makes a subtle but persuasive case that it has been Roman Catholics who have stewarded the arts in America (and elsewhere) while Evangelical Protestants have locked their doors to sing horribly cheesy and poorly written songs and look at ugly clip art. You know, he's got a point there. He's got a lot of points. But go and read it for yourself and see what the rest of them are.


Rosie Perera said...

Looking forward to reading the book. My one (tangential) thought is how sad that so many evangelicals who have seen the light with respect to Christian Humanism have abandoned the evangelical church to go back to mother Rome instead of transforming it from within or banding together with the evangelicals who do get it about the arts, of which there are a growing number now, thanks in no small part to people like Greg Wolfe and Image. Yes, there are reasons to abandon evangelicalism, and I do understand the people who have done so. But... I just wonder whether it might be less tempting to abandon if so many people hadn't already abandoned it.

Annelise said...

The choice to join with the Roman Catholic church is properly a question of authority rather than aesthetics or even many aspects of theology. No doubt the Catholic community has many things right that other Christians don't, and there's nothing to stop us (as I see it) from taking from the Christian past whatever is true. There's every reason to move with new understandings of wisdom that come from the community of sincere believers- in terms of humanity, the arts and their multifaceted expression for the cultures and people in our age.

Still, while arts of so many kinds serve God's truth and purpose beautifully, they're still secondary. It's not right to mingle questions of beauty with those of theology interchangeably any more than it is to totally separate the two. To confuse aesthetics with authority is even worse. Cultural cringe or peer-pressure is a damaging reason to change what you believe, particularly in a matter so complex and important as whether the Pope and the Roman church have authority over our entire Christian teaching and communion. Likewise, to transform the Evangelical church aesthetically from within makes no sense if the Catholic claim to authority is correct; both beauty and full human dignity are then inseparable from the whole body of theology and Catholic church life.

I imagine that Wolfe's intention is rather to convey a certain spirit or life in the Catholic understanding of the arts and humanity, showing that the Spirit works uniquely amidst every level of their gathering and conversations. That's very legitimate, though the other questions are still the crucial ones. Resisting clip-art and cheesy songs is more a matter of valuable cultural heritage and aesthetic communication than a proof of Protestants' remove from God's authority. Beauty and clear communication spring from Him and are shared among the churches, yet Jesus is also found working in the plainest, simplest, even messiest or most confused places in a deeply relational sense. He leads His people in a beautiful way, wherever we are culturally. The whole body grows together in Him.

Anyway, I'd so love to read this book if I can find a copy of it! It looks really good. I look forward to reading your review as well, if you post it.