What We're Reading
In December of last year, 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 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]
"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]
Ken Myers traveled at the end of September to Nashville under the auspices of the Humanitas Project and InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries to lecture at Vanderbilt University and Belmont Church. . . .
Ken Myers traveled at the end of September to Nashville under the auspices of the Humanitas Forum on Christianity and Culture and InterVarsity Graduate and Faculty Ministries to lecture at Vanderbilt University and Belmont Church. He gave two lectures, "Faithful Stewards or Terrestrial Gods? Christianity and the Chief End of Science" and "Word Made Flesh, Flesh Made Whole: The Embodied Character of Salvation and the Basis of Bioethics,". The Humanitas Project provides "educational resources that will help in making informed and wise decisions about supporting and using" new biotechnologies; its executive director is Michael Poore, and more information about it is available here. [Posted October 2005, ALG]
In 1997, I wrote a short article for Modern Reformation magazine entitled "Is Popular Culture Either?" It was an epilogue to my 1989 book, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, which began my interest in what might be called the sociology of popular culture. . . .
In 1997, I wrote a short article for Modern Reformation magazine entitled "Is Popular Culture Either?" It was an epilogue to my 1989 book, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, which began my interest in what might be called the sociology of popular culture. While many Christian apologists have focused on the message-bearing capacity of pop cultural artifacts, I have long been more interested in the deeper dynamic of how cultural forms situate us in (or out of) communities, how they shape our deepest assumptions (as opposed to our explicit beliefs), and how they shape sensibilities and emotional expectations which, in turn, become matrices of meaning.
One of the aspects of popular culture which I failed to examine as thoroughly as I should have in my book was taken up in this article. I had not yet read Wendell Berry's powerful essay "The Work of Local Culture" (included in our Anthology, Place, Community, and Memory) which underscores the imperative of intergenerational continuity if a community is to sustain any kind of coherence. The word "culture" has historically been used to describe in summary all of the ways of living, believing, and feeling that sustain bonds of membership and obligation within a community. Culture is thus about passing on a notion of the good life from one generation to the next. A culture establishes ends and bounds that in-form the conscience by speaking deeply with morally binding address.
I suggested in that article that "popular culture" wasn't really popular, as it was created and sustained by elites in entertainment, manufacturing, media, and marketing, and it wasn't really culture because popular culture as we know it is deeply committed to age segregation. I addressed the ephemerality and disposability of the artifacts of popular culture in my book, but mostly in the context of the problem of superficiality. The deeper problem is the problem of culture-as-commodity rather than culture-as-legacy. When what we label as "culture" becomes a collection of accessories that individuals independently choose to shape their personal project of self-creation, cultural artifacts no longer have the capacity to bind, to join, to direct, and to in-form. Popular culture as we know it is a web of commodities (often short-lived), aspirations to independence, and the liberation of desire. Cultures as they have been experienced through most of human history have served such radically different ends that calling popular culture "culture" is at best confusing. (I won't bother connecting the dots on the phrase "youth culture.")
From a theological perspective, we were created for community, for membership, for mutual trinity-imitating belonging. Cultures are not simply adaptive mechanisms that facilitate survival, they are the necessary extensions of our image-bearing being. That's why social, political, and economic institutions that encourage us to move in a direction that is (in Christopher Clausen's term) post-cultural, or (in Philip Rieff's formulation) anti-cultural, or (in my own phrase) auto-cultural are finally dehumanizing.
In the past few decades, many Christian churches have adopted techniques of ministry that fit nicely into this post-, anti-, or auto-cultural regime. These techniques are sometimes labeled "contemporary," and they are often consciously pitted against "traditional" forms of ministry. The leaders of the various movements that have championed these retoolings seem to be largely oblivious to the problems I have briefly outlined above. In their writings to explain the necessity of their approaches, one reads a great deal about how traditions need to be dismantled in order to reach more people. But there is no evidence that they have wrestled with the question of whether or not traditions are necessary to keep a people together (at many levels) over time. The Gospel itself is then another commodity individually appropriated, not the foundation of a community, not the announcement of a new people committed to a shared way of life forward into many generations. Such re-invented churches are successful in reaching many individuals, which is absolutely no surprise. It would be shocking if they didn't. But if they are to become communities rather than strategies, they will have to take more seriously the necessity of traditions as vehicles of committed memory.
These concerns were all at the back of my mind (as they almost always are) as I was reading a recent article by Lee Harris called "The Future of Tradition," in the June & July 2005 issue of Policy Review. Harris's recent book Civilization and Its Enemies has gotten a lot of attention; several of our subscribers have suggested that I interview him (let me apologize here for my negligence). He has obviously thought a great deal about what allows a civilization to survive, and one of the ingredients he has identified is tradition. He says that traditions must be seen not as "reason in a somewhat garbled code," but as a pattern of living that embodies deep "habits of the heart."
Let me extract a few paragraphs, and suggest that you read them not just with the crisis of our own civilization in mind, but with concern for the health of the Church as a community, a people, a body through time.
"In even the shortest possible list of the attributes of a civilization, you are certain to discover the feature of transgenerational stability. A civilization must have a proven track record of cultural permanence, which is to say that it must be a multigenerational project. A civilization must be passed, with its fundaments pretty much intact, from one generation to the next; and this is especially true when we are dealing with civilizations whose civilizing process requires a stern renunciation of the id in all of its manifestations—ungovernable impulses, unruly desires, a lack of consideration or feeling for the well-being of others, sexual promiscuity, prodigal expenditures on passing fads, and so on. In short, the loftier the ethical ideal of a civilization is, the harder it must work to preserve this ideal against the return of the id.
"But how exactly is a civilization passed on from generation to generation? We can understand passing on an heirloom, like a set of fancy china, from one generation to another. But a civilization cannot be reduced merely to the physical props that are associated with it: the buildings, the transportation system, the machines and the tools, the gold and the treasure. What possible use would America's complex superhighway system be to a generation no one had taken the trouble to teach how to drive?
"A society that wishes to reproduce itself must take care to pass on to the next generation the knowledge required to maintain itself at more or less the same level of civilization. It is not enough to pass on the good china; you must also pass on the family recipe for making the pot roast. Yet even that is not quite enough; you must also find a way to pass along the culinary skills needed to transform a recipe written in words into an actual plate of pot roast. Figuratively speaking, a civilization must pass on the china, the recipe and the cook. But even this is not quite enough. You must also make the cook realize that in addition to cooking, he must know how to replace himself, and, most critically, he must feel that he has a duty to replace himself. Not only must he teach his children to cook, but he must also teach them how to teach their children to cook.
"If a society wishes to find a way of ensuring that newly emergent and valuable techniques are passed on and preserved, its members must feel themselves under an ethical obligation to leave the best possible world not only for their children, but also for their grandchildren.
"The grandchild, far from being incidental, is decisive. Civilization persists when there is a widespread sense of an ethical obligation on the part of the present generation for the well-being of the third generation—their own grandchildren. A society where this feeling is not widespread may last as a civilization for some time—indeed, for one or two generations it might thrive spectacularly. But inevitably, a society acknowledging no transgenerational commitment to the future will decay and decline from within. Which leads to our main question: How is this task accomplished? How do you make parents feel such a deep and unshakeable ethical commitment to their grandchildren?" [Posted August 2005, KAM]
The newest issue of The New Atlantis (Summer 2005; available on-line here) provides further evidence that it is the most instructive and insightful publication examining the many facets of the relationship between technology and culture. . . .
The newest issue of The New Atlantis (Summer 2005; available on-line here) provides further evidence that it is the most instructive and insightful publication examining the many facets of the relationship between technology and culture. Christine Rosen (a guest on MARS HILL AUDIO Journal volume 70) continues her series of reflections on how some of the most private and personal technologies (iPods, TiVo, cosmetic surgery) shape our consciousness and our sense of personal identity and of the shape and texture of relationships. In "Video Games: Playgrounds of the Self," Rosen shows why explicit sex and graphic violence are only the more superficial problems facing heavy game players.
Eric Cohen, the editor of The New Atlantis and Director of the Project on Bioethics and American Democracy at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, also focuses on the inner effects of living in a technological society. In "The Real Meaning of Genetics," Cohen argues that the real challenge posed by radical programs of genetic engineering are not in the potentially monstrous products created by new techniques, but in new attitudes toward life, death, children, and love. In his concluding paragraphs, he reminds us that "too often, we easily assume that the progress of science is identical to the progress of man. The truth, as always, is much more complicated. Many men and women of the past were superior in virtue to us now, and many scientific discoveries of the present and future will prove a mixed blessing, and sometimes even a curse."
Two theologians, David Bentley Hart (featured on volume 67 of the Journal) and Robert W. Jenson (a guest back on volume 20) contribute essays assessing the importance of John Paul II's Theology of the Body for bioethics and for cultural and social wisdom more generally. Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian, contrasts the elevated view of the human in John Paul II's work and in Christian thought more generally with the view that dominates in various "transhumanist" and eugenist circles. This latter view appears at first glance to present human beings in a more Promethean, grander guise, since there is a lot of talk about acquiring more and more power over nature and human nature and "becoming as gods." Yet Hart (in "The Anti-Theology of the Body") maintains that there is a pathetic paradox in this hubris: "The materialist who wishes to see modern humanity's Baconian mastery over cosmic nature expanded to encompass human nature as well—granting us absolute power over the flesh and what is born from it, banishing all fortuity and uncertainty from the future of the race—is someone who seeks to reach the divine by ceasing to be human, by surpassing the human, by destroying the human. It is a desire both fantastic and depraved: a diseased titanism, the dream of an infinite passage through monstrosity, a perpetual and ruthless sacrifice of every present good to the featureless, abysmal, and insatiable god who is to come."
In "Reading the Body," Robert W. Jenson insists that one of the effects of John Paul II's Theology of the Body is simply to re-focus attention in medical ethics to the human body. So Jenson writes: "I propose that most questions conventionally bundled together as 'bioethica,' together with some medical-ethical questions at the boundary, can be cast in the form: Should/may we do (x) with/to bodies that are human? Interpreting bioethical problems as problems about bodies . . . does assume that some entities—such as embryos or even cells—may be regarded as bodies that are human without necessarily insisting that they have the status of human persons." Jenson continues discussing a number of other bioethical maxims suggested by John Paul II's remarkable reminder of the biblical teaching of the meaning of the human as centered in the body.
If this isn't enough to encourage you to read the current issue of The New Atlantis, there are also reflections about Paris Hilton and the end of the Star Trek franchise. We stoop to conquer. [Posted August 2005, KAM]