If that’s what it takes to be great, then I’ll keep my mediocrity, thank you very much.
Whiplash is certainly intense. And if you enjoy vulgar insults, you’ll get your fill of them. (Though I found Fletcher’s verbal abuse to be relatively uncreative and limited in its themes. He would have benefited from some time with Shakespeare.)
Anyway, I appreciated the study of mad obsession with greatness and glory–and how life-draining and humanity-destroying it can be, even as it generates glorious beauty. But I’m trying to recall–please help me with this: can you think of a story or film of someone who pursued greatness without sacrificing the things that make us human, like actual relationships with other human beings?
In my previous post I claimed to be enthusiastic about finding some smart people to read How (Not) To Be Secular and discuss it with me. But when I thought about how the discussion might run, I imagined myself as Charlie Brown in this cartoon.
I’m in the fifth day of being sick and I’ve defended myself against boredom with a tactical thermonuclear weapon: James K. A. Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor. Not being a bona fide genius, I’ve had to read it on my tip-toes just to hang on to the faintest inkling of what he’s talking about. Fortunately, Smith includes a glossary. Unfortunately, it barely helps:
Closed world structures (CWSs) Aspects of our contemporary experience that “tip” the immanent frame toward a closed construal. See also spin; take.
Got it? The next entry is priceless:
Cross-pressure The simultaneous pressure of various spiritual options; or the feeling of being caught between an echo of transcendence and the drive toward immanentization. Produces the nova effect.
Still with me? I’m not sure I’m still with me.
Anywho, all joking aside, it’s almost been worth being laid-up just to be able crawl through it. Smith wrote this little book as a “map” to reading Charles Taylor’s “inaccessible” (ha!) 900-page gorilla, A Secular Age. Smith offers an acute analysis of Taylor’s acute analysis of how we human beings can understand ourselves in our secular society. Unfortunately, I can’t offer you an acute analysis of Smith’s acute analysis, etc. I can tell you that he strips away all grounds for the smug confidence of exclusivist humanism, as if it had an obvious explanation of reality and Christianity is totally deadsville, as any moron can plainly see. (He doesn’t write it quite that way, alas.)
Having reached the end of the book, while my head is still spinning, I’ve decided I need to read it again–but I’ll need reinforcements. So I’m recruiting a few others to read and discuss it with me. Maybe together we can ferret out the arguments and recast them in terms that are more useful for us than CWSs and nova effects. Or maybe we’ll just learn a new language together.
And if I haven’t made myself clear yet, I’ll spell it out for you: this book is worth your (excruciating) effort.
In Why We Pray, William Philip doesn’t try to convince us to pray or motivate us to pray (though what he says is powerful motivation): he assumes we pray. And he explains why. The whole book is very good–and the last two chapters (of only four total) are excellent. “We Pray Because God Is a Sovereign God” makes good sense out of the puzzler that some people toy with: If God is sovereign, why bother asking him to do anything? His answer is not only good sense; it’s biblical.
In the last chapter he also steers people away from some nonsensical notions of faith and prayer. In fact, I was surprised how many fine points he made in such a short book. And all in a warm and encouraging way.
Since October I’ve been using John Frame’s Salvation Belongs to the Lord: An Introduction to Systematic Theology in a group study of (you guessed it) systematic theology. I can’t recall whether I’ve read any other “introductions” to systematic theology, but I suppose this is a good one. Frankly, I prefer the “director’s cut” versions: like Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. If you’re going to dig into theology, why not dig all the way?
And the reference to triads above is an allusion to Frame’s tri-perspectivalism: his pedagogical model for organizing knowledge. It can be helpful.
Let me begin with a selection from de Botton‘s final chapter/essay, “On Habit.”
… De Maistre’s work springs from a profound and suggestive insight: that the pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to. If only we could apply a travelling mindset to our own locales, we might find these places becoming no less interesting than the high mountain passes and jungles of South America.
What then is a travelling mindset? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. We approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is interesting. We irritate locals because we stand on traffic islands and in narrow streets and admire what they take to be strange small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or hairdresser’s unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.
Home, on the other hand, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it..
This is certainly a wake-up call in its literal application: a call to open my eyes to Zobor and Nitra and Slovakia once again as a tourist. Yes, I’ve only been settled on Zobor for six months; yet I see how quickly my once-entertaining walks around this giant anthill called my neighborhood have grown utilitarian: I need the fresh air and the exercise–never mind all the queer architectural transgressions that used to startle and intrigue me as I wondered what the architects, or the builders, or the owners could possibly have had in mind when they erected them. If I can take de Botton to heart, I can open my eyes again and find refreshment even in my backyard–which we just discovered to be strewn with thousands of tiny but breathtaking flowers.
However, I’m wondering whether there might be an interpersonal application of this principle of habituation. Our friendships can grow just as stale as our experience of our own bedrooms–nothing new here, no need to take note of details, nothing to get excited about. So I’m thinking of trying some experiments in renewed receptivity in some old relationships. For example, this woman I’ve been wandering the earth with for more than 36 years now….
Let me say up front that Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel is a fine collection of essays–and the sort of thing I really enjoy. I’ve enjoyed it enough to order a second helping (The News: A User’s Manual). So I’m happy.
Yet there’s something missing, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. My best guess is that, because de Botton is an atheist (though not of the militant sort–he’s even written a book extolling the virtues of religion for the irreligious), he misses the personal aspect of reality–at least the personal aspect beyond the mere human.
I say this because as I’ve been reading de Botton I’ve been thinking of similar writers–those similarly talented and thoughtful who have attempted similar themes: Annie Dillard, Margaret Visser, and Walker Percy in his brilliant essay “The Loss of the Creature“; each of them gets beyond de Botton’s interest in the world and human personality–beyond interest into fascination and infectious delight. Delight, as I see it, demands something personal, someone on whom to bestow gratitude. Dillard, Visser, and Percy are each (some sort of) Christian, and therefore know that certain Someone to whom our thanks are due for the intricacies of reality that not only intrigue but even waylay us.
This guess (as I call it) occurred to me when I compared two of de Botton’s essays, one on the sublime (and Wordsworth and Job), which seemed to fall short, and one on “eye-opening art” (and Van Gogh). He seemed to struggle to face the sublime and bow before it; but his appreciation for Van Gogh and others who open our eyes to see the world in new ways was just–and I think he succeeded because he had someone to thank: Van Gogh et al.
Whether my guess is good or not, the book is well worth reading. If de Botton were here, I’d thank him.
Another unread book of mine that beckons me is called All Art is Propaganda, a collection of critical essays by George Orwell. I’m taking the book title as a slogan to sum up my reaction to two highly regarded films which I watched this week: Interstellar and The Imitation Game. Both films promote politically correct dogma (global warming, evolution, pre-wiring as the cause of homosexuality, etc.). The difference between the two films is that the propaganda is a relatively minor aspect of Interstellar–it’s more like a setting for a more meaningful exploration of truly interesting themes that include love (especially of parents for their children) and the fact that mankind infects creation with evil. Even the cool science speculation, though it permeates the film, recedes into the background as the Great Themes take over. The Imitation Game, however, after getting off to a decent start, devolves into bald propaganda. The main character clearly deserved compassion, but compassion isn’t my natural response to manipulation.
I love to read. But a combination of duties and (very mild) malaise has kept me from plowing ahead into several new books that look promising. Perhaps if I list a few of them here I’ll motivate myself to dig in:
A Brief History of Thought: A Philosophical Guide to Living, Luc Ferry
The Things of Earth: Treasuring God by Enjoying his Gifts, Joe Rigney
How (Not) to Be Secular: Reading Charles Taylor, James K. A. Smith
The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton
I’ve also got some selections from Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm beside me, C. S. Lewis’s family letters (first two volumes) on my Kindle, a collection of Tolkien’s essays that includes “On Fairy-Stories,” some books on prayer in the, er, “reading room,” and, since Paula and I are about to wrap up Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, we have to decide what to read together next: Don Quixote? Some Elizabeth Gaskell? Or is that The Lord of the Rings I hear calling my name?
I have my play cut out for me!
“Sometimes I used to read to myself out loud, just to hear a voice.”