24 October 2012

Stories that Tell Themselves

Here is my latest article over at Curator magazine. It is about "embodied literary theory." In it, I examine four novels whose stories about both about literary theory and simultaneously shaped by those very same theories they explore. Here are the novels and their theories:

1. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides - gender theory/queer theory/psychoanalysis

2. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides - formalism/narrative theory

3. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - historicism/poststructuralism

4. Possession by A. S. Byatt - narrative theory/feminism/poststructuralism

Here are some selected quotes from the article:

Embodied Theology occurs when a religiously devout writer, composer, or artist incarnates faith in the very form and fabric of his or her work. Literature, for instance, can be about some doctrine or belief; it can also enact it. . . . Embodied Theology is an implicit, rather than an explicit, expression of belief. It is subtle and integral. . . .
This concept of embodiment is not limited to a profound expression of theology. . . . the academic study of literature will not kill a really robust talent. In fact, truly elastic genius can turn abstraction into story. There are, I discovered, ways of creating Embodied Literary Theory. . . . [Possession]is all the more complex because the characters themselves realize that they are in a story with a certain shape, and they accept the narrative inevitability of their final acts—in this tale—with a scholar’s delight in accuracy. . . . 
So for those who worry that studying the material you love will strip it of its pleasure, take heart! If it is indeed the field for you—and if you are for it—its pleasures are endless. From the panic of youthful encounters to the intellectual joys of mastery, the material you love will reward you. You can consume it or create it—or both, at once.
Please read the whole article and leave me a comment! Thanks. 

10 October 2012

A Matter of Perspective

I read all three volumes of The Hunger Games this summer, then just watched the first film recently. I'd like to share my interpretation of the moral message of the books vs. that of the film, and I think this message turns on the matter of perspective.

First, my thoughts on the books. I'll leave aside discussion of the writing style; others have done that (see, for example, here, here, and this GREAT one.

As I read through the series, I was appalled. Of course, I was appalled for all the right reasons--that is, I was sickened by things that were supposed to sicken me: the horrors of the [gladiatorial] arena, the de-valuing of life, the culture's voyeurism of violence, and so forth.

But I was also horrifed by aspects that I did not expect. In particular, I was not persuaded that The Hunger Games is a morality tale. I was not persuaded that the books actually condemned the acts they pretended to condemn. In short, I felt as if Collins herself was reveling in the violence, relishing the bloody bits, and wallowing in the brutality. In the back of my mind, I had the kind of feeling I get when a middle-school boy (or a middle-aged man, for that matter) yells "All right!" when beheadings and other gory deaths occur onscreen.

In addition, Katniss's descent into moral degradation throughout the series did not (I thought) serve as a moral warning. It should have done: the message who that those who make war, however justified, become like the very oppressors they seek to overthrow. That was the message, but I didn't think it struck home.

And then I watched the movie.

This is one of those rare occasions when I have loved a film adaptation of a book. I thought it was splendid. I also thought that the moral message was loud and clear (as it should be! – I don't think this is one of those messages that needs to “steal past watchful dragons” and be expressed in subtle hints). You know why?

I think it's because Katniss was not the narrator, so the reader/viewer did not inhabit Katniss's cauterized conscience and stunted worldview. The audience was—OK, I'll speak for myself: I was—able to maintain a moral distance from the events and thus condemn them clearly, in good conscience.

Living inside Katniss's conscience was not a comfortable experience.

And now that I've written that, I realize that such discomfort is itself carries the potential for a moral awakening, and perhaps a more subtle one than the obvious message about not killing kids. This is the moral message that even an admirable person such as Katniss will inevitably corrupted by her context. A strong-willed, courageous, right-minded child brought up in a twisted society will become twisted.

So the perspective makes all the difference, but not exactly the difference I thought it did at first.

I love how writing writes me into new ideas!

06 October 2012

Sproul on Art #5

Sproul on the Arts Report #5
R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts
Music: The Handmaiden of Theology”

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a summary.

As a follow-up to his talk about music's influence in the previous talk, Sproul began with a long, fascinating discussion of jazz. In order to lay the foundation for explaining the beauty of jazz, he gave a fairly detailed music theory lesson about major and minor scales, intervals, and chords. His point was to show how jazz operates rationally, within structure, that it is highly complex, and that it follows a definitive mathematical pattern. The essence of jazz, then, is freedom within form.

His next move was, I thought, smooth and sophisticated. He took that background about harmony and used it to evaluate “pop” music. He pointed out that pop music restricts itself to 3 chords, and that is has a lack of complexity. Classical music, on the other hand, is far more complicated. It has a richness, a depth of content, and has endured the test of time. Sure, there are simple compositions within the Classical tradition, but intentionally so: artful, sophisticated. Pop music tends to be simplistic: unintentionally so, simple out of ignorance and lack of training, and ends up being boring. Unlike pop music, the more I listen to it, the richer it becomes.

This led him to an excellent line: Eat meat, not milk—in music!

This is not to say that there is never a place for very simple music in worship. Sproul pointed out two: he thinks we should use very simple music with children, and with “primitive people” out on the mission field.

Then he made a very strong point: he asked, What should be enhanced by our growth in the knowledge of God? Our understanding of music! We should always keep enriching the music we use in our worship.

Coming back around to concepts of classical standards for evaluating music, he brought in Jonathan Edwards' ideas about the “sweetness” and “excellence” of worship, the idea of Religious Affections: Edwards thought that conversion itself was an aesthetic experience.

Then he summed up the “Worship Wars” with a sweet one-liner: The Worship Wars are not about good music vs. bad music; they're about good music vs. mediocre music. Um-hm. (Although he didn't mention BAD music!)

Finally, he finished by explaining the title of this talk: Martin Luther said that music is the “handmaiden of theology” because music can teach Biblical truth.

05 October 2012

Sproul on Art #4

Sproul on the Arts Report #4
R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts
The Influence of Music”

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a summary.

Sproul started out by talking in a general sense about the fact that music has a strong impact on our moods and behaviors. He said he has been often very moved, in an almost mystical way, by the mysterious power of music. Then he said he wanted to apply the “Classical, objective” principles—proportion, harmony, simplicity, and complexity—to music.

Then he went off on a discussion about pitch, talking about people who have perfect pitch (he claimed it's not natural, that it's developed). Then he mentioned Plato, who was very concerned about the power that music had to influence how people act. He said that music creates social interactions. He talked about dance rhythms, and about the story in the OT when David's harp-playing soothed King Saul. He said there are cases when animals and even plants have shown a response to music.

Then he shifted to talking more specifically about the negative influence of music. He told the story of two murders, young men who killed their parents. Each of these killers said that he was addicted to porn and involved in satanism, and that he had started down that road by listening to heavy metal music. Sproul also said that “rap celebrates violence and unrestrained sexuality.”

Then Sproul went on to distinguish between “music” and “noise,” saying that music is much more sophisticated. He talked about the four elements of music: MELODY, HARMONY, RHYTHM, and TIMBRE. He finished by getting a bit technical, talking some music theory to explain some elements of Western harmony and the progressive harmonies of jazz.

04 October 2012

Sproul on Art #3

Sproul on the Arts Report #3
R. C. Sproul: Recovering the Beauty of the Arts
Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder”

In our adult Sunday school class, we are watching a series of lectures by R. C. Sproul on the Christian and the arts. I'm summarizing them and writing my responses. Here is an index to these posts. Today's post is a summary.

Sproul began by talking about “subjective” vs. “objective” standards for art. I've been fumbling with some ideas of subjectivity and objectivity in one of my responses, too, but in a different way. Instead of turning to “science,” as I'm trying to do, Sproul turned to “Classical” culture. First he spent some time denigrating our current culture, claiming that it denies objective truth and absolutes. Well, sure it does, but James K. A. Smith and others have written about the positive side of postmodernism, poststructuralism, relativism, and pluralism for the Church, so I don't think we should get too exercised by this anti-objectivism. But anyway, I'm supposed to be summarizing, not responding.

Sproul went on to say that obviously there are subjective responses to works of art, and personal preferences for one work or another. But, he said, the question is about NORMATIVITY vs. RELATIVITY, and that the question turns on the word “ought”: Is there an art that Christians OUGHT to appreciate?

He did not answer the question outright. Instead, he talked about the words “value” and “ethics,” saying that traditionally, we have though about the ethics of a choice, which is objective, and now we think about the value of a choice, which is subjective. That seems a bit simplistic to me—but let me proceed.

He added to this question another one about “Art Appreciation”: Should we transcend our personal preferences?

Then he reframed the question as a difference between CHAOS and COSMOS: chaos is unintelligible, disordered; a cosmos is a place with an inherent, systemic, knowable order (the kind articulated by empiricist and rationalist philosophies). Then he talked about logic and chaos theory, which both as “Is there an order?” Both presuppose a formal, rational, harmonious structure. He mentioned Plato's Academy, over the door of which was a sign reading “Let none but geometers enter here,” meaning that therein the study of Form was pursued in its mathematical relationships.

So then he introduced Aristotle's Classical “Primary Necessities for Order,” suggesting that they were thus the objective standards by which we can judge Art:

03 October 2012

In Praise of Uncertainty

I have always admired—or, more accurately, envied with a gnawing envy—people who live in the certainty of a totalizing worldview. I have always thought that the only kind of mental greatness is the kind that jump immediately to an answer to every question, that fits every possible scenario neatly into an organized mental system, and that understands the relationships of each part to the whole. I have always thought that this was a feature of “true faith”: that along with a really real Christian belief would come an intellectual understanding of everything that knew where each piece belonged.

What do these kinds of people do? Here are some examples.

They hear about a new law making its way through the legislature, and they know right away whether it's right or wrong, good or bad, practical or impractical, helpful or harmful. They have a theological (or other ideological) explanation for their response, too, right away.

They hear about some tabloid scandal, and they know right away whether the person in question was playing for headlines, or caught as a victim in a larger scheme, or using fame to promote some valuable lesson at the cost of privacy, or even putting their liberty at risk for the sake of subverting some abused authority.

They interpret international events on the micro- and macro-scopic scales as easily as turning the pages of a novel.

They create reasonably logical syllogisms in ordinary conversation.

Now, I am not one of these people. I have always doubted the reality of my own faith, partly because I do not have this kind of certainty. I have been laboring under the idea that a “real” faith would come with its own totalizing worldview, and that if I do not know how to interpret everything, I must be deficient in mental ability, Christian commitment, or both.

I don't have a clear position on every political issue. I'm an Independent, largely from lack of understanding of the implications of policies and party platforms. I don't understand the causal relationships of history and future. I don't know whether to commend or condemn most behaviors that make the front page—or that are confessed to me in my office.

So I've been waiting to grow up.

And then I saw Obama 2016, the new film by (and about) Dinesh D'Souza
. This struck me as being a strange, perhaps undesirable, kind of totalizing worldview.

And I then read “I Have No Opinion” by Rebecca Tirrell Talbot, which encourages writers to take their time developing their ideas, not to rush into conviction and certainty.

And I assigned my students a reading from They Say, I Say by Gerald Graff and Kathy Berkenstein, which talks about including your own opinions and the first-person pronoun in essays. It seemed to me that most first-year college students probably need more time to develop their ideas.

And I'm starting to think, there's something to be said for uncertainty.

I mean, think about it for a minute. Is any totalizing theory really “totalizing”? How is that possible? For one thing, we little people don't know everything. For another, not everything is knowable. For another, our racial body of knowledge changes: parts of it become obsolete and other parts enter, resplendent with the sheen of the radically new. History unfolds, or unravels. We are finite. Reality is complex.

So my new question is: Is knowing everything really such a great idea? Maybe it's better to be skeptical, cynical, doubtful, cautious, and uncertain. Maybe that's a better reflection of reality.

Oops, did I just create a new totalizing theory? Sorry about that.