What We're Reading
On Volume 52 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, guest Ian Ker discussed his book The Achievement of John Henry Newman. Those who took a particular interest in this interview will be pleased to know about the "Newman Reader" web page, a veritable treasure trove of links to articles by and information about Newman. The dozens of resources available include biographies and bibliographies of both primary and secondary works. [Posted March 2006, ALG]
On Volume 77 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, Peter Schakel and Alan Jacobs discussed their recent works on C. S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia. Of course theirs are not the only works published lately on the subject, as a review in Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity demonstrates. In "Wardrobe Accessories," Donald T. Williams reviews three commentaries on The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, two of which are written by former guests on the Journal.
All three of the works—whose authors are Bruce Edwards, Devin Brown, and Leland Ryken and Marjorie Lamp Mead—"rise above the sea of commercial mediocrity," writes Williams, and have their own unique organization, emphasis, and focus in discussing the first book of the Chronicles. Their titles are (order listed corresponds with order of authors above): Further Up and Further In: Understanding C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Inside Narnia: A Guide to Exploring The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; and A Reader's Guide Through the Wardrobe: Exploring C. S. Lewis's Classic Story. Williams describes what each does best and notes to which audience each is particularly suited.
Through the years the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal has featured several interviews about Lewis and his work; to see a complete listing of them, click here. [Posted March 2006, ALG]
In December of 2005, the literary scholar Roger Shattuck died at the age of 82. Shattuck was best known for his first book, written in 1958, The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I. I first read this book in 1989, when I was working on All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture. Shattuck helped me see that many of the characteristic attitudes and sensibilities of popular culture were shared with the much more recondite work of epoch-defining artists of the 20th century, such as Henri Rousseau, Alfred Jarry, Erik Satie, and Guillaume Apollinaire.
In 1996, Roger Shattuck wrote what many have recognized as his most ambitious (and controversial) book, Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, which violated the modern spirit of exploration and progress by asking "Are there things we should not know?" In their obituary notice for Roger Shattuck, the editors of The New Criterion commented: "Today, shallow intellectuals bandy about words like 'subversive' and 'transgressive' as terms of endearment. But the age-old uneasiness about the subversive potentialities of unfettered knowledge reveal a recognition that knowledge can bring unhappiness and ruin as well as insight and liberation. This thought is embedded in countless myths and stories, many of which Roger anatomizes in the course of his book." (The entire notice can be read here. The Times of London also carried a very thoughtful obituary, more thorough than that in his long hometown paper, The Boston Globe. It is online here.)
I had the good pleasure of interviewing Roger Shattuck when Forbidden Knowledge was published; that interview appeared on volume 24 of what was then called the MARS HILL TAPES. While much of his early writing was more celebratory of the modern avant-garde, in his book and in subsequent conversations and correspondence with him, Roger Shattuck revealed himself to be a chastened seeker. He was surprisingly supportive of the project of MARS HILL AUDIO, and even wrote a commendation for us to use in our marketing efforts.
In honor and memory of his intellectual brilliance and moral seriousness, we're making available the two parts of my 1996 interview which appeared on volume 24 as a free downloadable mp3 file. It may be obtained by clicking HERE. [Posted January 2006, KAM]
It is widely affirmed that Francis Bacon (1561-1626) is a pivotal figure in Western cultural history. Bacon was a champion and publicist for what became known as the "scientific method," sometimes referred to (in honor of his singular role in promoting its legitimacy) as the Baconian method. The central assertion of this new way of knowing and explaining the world was that empirical and inductive practices could lead to experimentally verified (and repeatedly verifiable) set of conclusions about how things happen. Classical forms of knowledge of the world proceeded by deducing conclusions in the abstract from an array of more fundamental propositions.
While figures like Galileo (1564-1642), Kepler (1571-1630), and Newton (1643-1727) are often regarded as pioneering scientists whose work had widespread influence, Bacon might be better seen as the first philosopher or theorist of science. Bacon is not known for scientific discoveries, but for outlining and defending a new approach to the world which included techniques and habits of thought. Bacon introduced a mindset into the Western world that has become its dominant identifying feature. In his characterization of what underlies Western cultural life, theologian and missiologist Lesslie Newbigin observes that the most important cultural effect of the rise of the Baconian method was to impart to the West a sense of mastery over the world, and a loss of concern for questions of purpose. "To have discovered [through inductive techniques] the cause of something is to have explained it. There is no need to invoke purpose or design as an explanation. There is no place for miracles or divine intervention in providence as categories of explanation." (Foolishness to the Greeks, p. 24)
In time, this new mentality evoked the sense that dealing with Nature (with the goal of mastery) was a more suitable preoccupation for a society than dealing with God (from a standpoint of submission and obedience). And so science is credited with having a secularizing influence in Western culture. This has led many cultural historians to argue that Francis Bacon himself was a pioneer of secularization. Even though Bacon used religious language and ideas to defend the new science (e.g., framing the project of practical social improvement, "the relief of man's estate," through the acquisition of practical knowledge as a way of undoing some of the effects of the Fall), these historians have argued that Bacon was fundamentally interested in purely social and political concerns, not in anything religious, transcendent, or eternal.
Historian Stephen A. McKnight has written a new book, The Religious Foundations of Francis Bacon's Thought (University of Missouri Press) which argues that Bacon did not employ religious ideas with cynical and manipulative intent, but with the utmost sincerity. Rather "Bacon's program of utopian reform, as presented in the 'New Atlantis,' is grounded in genuinely and deeply felt religious convictions, which serve as the foundation for his program of political and social prosperity through the advancement of learning."
An excerpt from McKnight's book was published in the Fall 2005 issue of the journal The New Atlantis (now you know where the title comes from!), and is available online. If all goes well, Stephen A. KcKnight will appear on volume 79 of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, during which time questions will be raised about whether Bacon's religious ideas were theologically sound as well as sincere. [Posted January 2006, KAM]
"Taking Care is an important, and provocative, ethical document that belongs in every university and medical school bioethics curriculum. More important, it offers a starting point for a badly needed national conversation about a difficult topic that is too often avoided. Leon Kass and the President's Council on Bioethics deserve high praise for another job well done." Wesley J. Smith, "A Kass Act," The Weekly Standard (September 10, 2005)
Under the chairmanship of Leon Kass, a guest on multiple volumes of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, the President's Council on Bioethics produced in-depth studies of human cloning, biotechnology as therapy, human nature, stem cell research, reproductive biotechnologies, and alternative sources to human pluripotent stem cells. Its latest release, and the last report during Kass's tenure as chairman, is Taking Care: Ethical Caregiving in Our Aging Society. The document acknowledges that America is an aging society and explores the concerns it will face as it ages. In the book's preface Kass writes: "Taken as a whole, our report aims to enrich public discussion about aging, dementia, and caregiving, to encourage policymakers to take up these complicated yet urgent issues, and to offer ethical guidance for caregivers—professional and familial—who struggle to provide for those entrusted to their care. We also hope to encourage policymakers in this area to take into account the humanistic and ethical aspects of aging and caregiving, not only the economic and institutional ones. Staying human in our aging society depends on it."
The five chapters in Taking Care are titled: "Dilemmas of an Aging Society," "The Limited Wisdom of Advance Directives," "The Ethics of Caregiving: General Principles," "Ethical Caregiving: Principle and Prudence in Hard Cases," and "Conclusions and Recommendations." They deal, respectively, with aging well in modern times and in America; practical and ethical critiques of living wills; constructive inquiry into ethical caregiving—both its ethical principles and moral boundaries and how prudence and principle collaborate in determining ethical caregiving; and with the conclusions and recommendations of the Council. The full text of Taking Care is available on-line. [Posted October 2005, ALG]