Guests on Volume 100: Jennifer Burns, on the life and legacy of Ayn Rand, “goddess of the market” and entrenched enemy of altruism; Christian Smith, on the aimless cultural world of emerging adulthood and on how it makes the idea of objective moral order implausible; and Dallas Willard, on why it’s important to recover the conviction that religious beliefs involve real knowledge. In honor of the five score milestone, part two of the issue features a look back at the beginnings of the Journal and a few special excerpts of conversations with those early guests, including Peter Kreeft on Lewis, Huxley, and J.F.K. after death; P. D. James, on good and evil in fiction; James Davison Hunter, on culture wars; Paul McHugh, on when psychiatry loses its way; Ted Prescott, on nudity in art and advertising; Ed Knippers, on the powerful presence of the body; Martha Bayles, on pop and perverse modernism; Dominic Aquila, on Christopher Lasch; Gilbert Meilaender, on random kindness; Neil Postman, on technology and culture; and Alan Jacobs, on being maudlin in Madison County.
“I found that in a lot of the letters people would write to her: ‘I no longer feel I have to be my brother’s keeper’ or ‘I understand that I don’t owe other people anything; I can be myself.’ Part of that is, I think, why she's attractive to adolescents who are trying to figure out who they are, break free of bonds to other people, and who aren't comfortable with obligations and are striving to become independent and become unique and her work is a sort of tonic for them.”
— Jennifer Burns
Jennifer Burns, assistant professor of history at the University of Virginia, discusses her intellectual biography of Ayn Rand. In her biography, Burns examines the early life of Ayn Rand, born Alisa Rosenbaum, in Russia before the Revolution. She traces the life of Rand through her family’s experiences during the Russian Revolution and her later immigration to the United States, a place that in Rand's imagination was filled with glamour, wealth and beauty. She became jaded by the American intellectual elite's friendliness and acceptance of socialism and communism in the late 1920s and 30s, but grew to believe the wider American population had the right views concerning freedom and economics and sought to make herself a literary champion of capitalist freedom for “their side.” Burns describes how Ayn Rand’s relationships mirrored her system of ethics as well; she thought the only valuable relationships were those completely freely chosen, eschewing non-voluntary ties and resting relations on individual perceptions of value devoid of emotional considerations. Such beliefs as well as her atheism had a polarizing effect on conservatives around her; Burns discusses how her person and/or work were received by various figures of conservatism over time — figures including Whittaker Chambers, Friedrich Hayek, and Murray Rothbard — as well as their personal interactions. Finally, Burns comments on her intellectual and imaginative influences including Nietzsche and cinema, both of which, from an early age, she was greatly impressed by.
“The dark side, the Nietszchean side of postmodernism hasn't settled in and it’s in large part, in my viewpoint, because the promise of mass consumerism of living a happy life of collecting possessions, and having friends around those possessions, and having a good life and a beautiful spouse and beautiful kids, and parties with alcohol; all of that is extremely appealing to emerging adults, and they haven’t failed at that. Those that will eventually fail have not yet failed and so there's a tremendous amount of optimism about where their futures are going, even paradoxically while they have very little optimism about the state of the larger world . . .”
— Christian Smith
Sociologist Christian Smith discusses his book Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults, the sequel to his earlier book, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. This study follows up on the same cohort of American young people who were teenagers when described in Soul Searching. Sociologists have come to describe this new life stage occurring after the teenager stage but before young adulthood when the subject is typically between 18-29 years of age as “emerging adulthood.” Smith characterizes this period of emerging adulthood as being a time of exploration, opportunity, transience, confusion, openness and experimentation. Developing out of changes in the social, educational and economic structure of society, it is accompanied by new and particular expectations and norms. Emerging adults realize that some time in the future they will have to settle down, but now is the time for doing whatever they want to do and exploring different things, trying to have fun, and managing all the transitions they are facing while keeping their options open. But they face these choices and experiences in life without the aid of concrete and authoritative cultural forms, structures and pathways; instead, they operate out of vague and amorphous scripts largely disconnected from a sense of objective moral reality beyond themselves. With the loss or deep skepticism of belief in objective moral order, the emerging adult tends to lack motivation for anything apart from their subjective interests. Most, though not all, of these cultural forces shaping the emerging adults tend to work against a settled membership and life in a tradition or church community. The interview ends with a discussion of the various subgroups within emerging adults documented in Smith’s study.
“Religion has always presented itself as knowledge of reality based on experience and thought, no matter which religion. And certainly that was true of the Christian religion up through the middle of the 1900s.”
— Dallas Willard
Dallas Willard discusses the truth of spiritual knowledge and its epistemological validity in this segment of the Journal. His book, Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge, arose in response to interactions he had with a wide range of business, legal and political leaders which revealed their skepticism of the validity of religious, spiritual or ethical knowledge; as opposed to publicly valid knowledge, spiritual claims were seen as mere subjective traditions or opinions divorced from objective reality. He traces this skeptical belief in the U. S. back to the desire of liberal Christian theologians to protect Christianity from what they believed to be threatening developments in science, and the desire of conservative Christian theologians to emphasize the importance of understanding faith as a gift and not rational knowledge — a dichotomy Willard does not see any reason to accept. He describes in detail how this false dichotomy had led to great distortions in the understanding and practice of faith among everyday Christians and in churches, forcing believers to understand themselves as “committing” to essentially irrational claims. This sort of irrationalism leads to damaging consequences, including a loss of authority and the reduction of truth to the imposition of will and desire.
November 22, 1963, is certainly best remembered as the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Philosopher Peter Kreeft of Boston College found it interesting that two other notable figures of the twentieth century died on the same November day: authors C. S. Lewis and Aldous Huxley. Kreeft, who had long been fascinated with the writing of Socratic dialogue, wrote a post-death dialogue among Kennedy, Lewis, and Huxley in his book Between Heaven and Hell. Far from being a difficult task, Kreeft said the writing of the book was the easiest and most pleasurable writing he's done.
Mystery writer P.D. James talks about mystery as a genre and the way her own religious leanings influence her fiction. Detective stories remain popular, according to James, because they require that readers use their human reason and ingenuity to solve problems, and because they rest upon a conviction that murder is a great irreversible crime and is always evil. James also reflects on why writing about good and virtuous characters is more difficult than writing about evil and wicked villains. She describes herself as a religious person who is aware that there is more to life than this world; in her novel Innocent Blood she explores what she calls “the great religious questions” of guilt and repentance, sin and redemption.
In Culture Wars, sociologist James Davison Hunter argues that public policy debates over issues in law, art, family, and education are more than political battles. Hunter claims that they evidence a struggle for cultural authority between two groups which hold conflicting moral visions. Cultural conservatives believe that moral authority derives from transcendent sources. Cultural progressives reject static ideas about truth in favor of openness, relativism, and pluralism. But progressives are not amoral or secular, according to Hunter. In fact, they are equally zealous about their view of reality and seek the cultural authority to shape the norms and mores of public life according to this view. Hunter also explains how media technologies exacerbate the tension by reducing public discourse to sound bites.
“Sometimes the sterner virtues of, well, being truthful, being just, have to come along with the kindness and support virtues. Psychotherapists sometimes have to use judgment even when they can be accused of being judgmental, since certain kinds of behavior are — in themselves — destructive to the person, their future, and the people around them.”
— Paul McHugh
Psychiatrist Paul McHugh discusses how he is trying to reform psychiatry and why a new system would be helpful for therapists and patients. McHugh is author of The Mind Has Mountains: Reflections on Society and Psychiatry. He states that the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is akin to Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide for birds, which identifies what warblers look like and how to tell them apart but does not address how they came into being or what factors have contributed to their development; the DSM identifies symptoms of diseases without addressing their causes. McHugh explains why psychiatry ought to categorize mental disorders in ways which account for their causes. If psychiatrists know which type of depression their patients have and what is causing it, for example, they will have a better understanding of how to heal the depression and not just its symptoms, and they will also know of which sorts of virtues their patients are in need.
Professor and sculptor Ted Prescott traces the history of nudity in art from the Greco-Roman period through the Renaissance, and to the current trends in modern advertising. According to Prescott, the difference between the depiction of the body in art and in advertising has to do with the ends the two disciplines hope to achieve. Advertisements, as opposed to art, use nudity to attract potential consumers to products. While advertisements can be artistically and aesthetically pleasing, their primary purpose is to convince people of their need for the product. The body becomes, according to Prescott, “a stylized piece of furniture on which to hang a product.”
Painter Ed Knippers discusses how the Christian doctrines of the Incarnation and the Lord’s Supper influence his painting. In his fleshy portraits of biblical characters, Knippers attempts to capture the reality and mystery of the human body without reducing it to a wooden object or exalting it to the status of an idol. Knippers insists that physicality is a gift from God that must be appreciated but not worshipped. The artist’s challenge is to strike the balance between these polar interpretations of the flesh.
Martha Bayles discusses her book on popular music, Hole in Our Soul, in which she examines how modernist notions about science and the nature of truth have led to a loss of beauty and meaning in art. Bayles explains how the increasing emphasis on empirical data as the only measure of truth relegated both religion and art to the purely subjective sphere. This development paved the way for “introverted” modernism, a movement that disconnected art from any accountability to reality, preferring to celebrate art for art's sake. Bayles's book focuses on the reaction against this elitist trend that began with Dadaism after World War I and reached its apex with the music of Janis Joplin in the late 1960s. For “perverse” modernists, art is a means for shocking people, according to Bayles.
Social critic Christopher Lasch was deeply concerned about the individual and social consequences of what he dubbed “the culture of narcissism.” Professor Dominic Aquila, who studied with Lasch, explains how Lasch’s concern about self-absorption informed his critique of the state of American art and music in America. Lasch argued that art lost its reference point when it became separated from work or craftsmanship. Now that the arts are funded by the government or corporations, artists are no longer artisans, and their work has become increasingly self-referential, according to Lasch. This minimalism represents the loss of an artistic vocabulary. The artist’s inability to articulate anything of substance mirrors the widespread nihilism and faithlessness that troubled Lasch toward the end of his career.
Ethicist Gilbert Meilaender compares the popular slogan, “Practice random kindness and senseless acts of beauty” with classical and Christian ideas about virtue. This “bumper sticker morality” emphasizes impulsiveness over against the Aristotelian notion that virtues are habits of behavior that must be intentionally developed through discipline. Whereas Christian charity is grounded in a larger understanding of human beings and their relationship to God and one another, randomness resists connection with a broader ethical theory. Meilander also reminds us that true kindness requires a willingness to discipline and even wound.
In his book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, New York University communications theorist Neil Postman argues that technologies alter the way we think about the world. Postman asserts that Americans are now living in a "technopoly:" a culture in which technology has become sovereign over traditional modes of human association and social values. Rather than serving as a tool which helps solve specific problems, technology has become an end in itself: invention for the sake of invention. While Postman recognizes that inventions often confer benefits, he warns that they also limit possibilities (for example, one can no longer buy a Honda Accord without power windows). Technologies, according to Postman, are Faustian bargains: they giveth, but they also taketh away.
Literary critic Alan Jacobs reviews Robert James Waller's The Bridges of Madison County. This rendition of Erich Segal’s Love Story is predicated on the assumption that one should not think, only feel. Such excessive sentimentality encourages the reader to suspend judgment and reflection in order to indulge deliberately in emotion for its own sake. Jacobs contends that reflection reinforces and strengthens true emotions while exposing those feelings that are shallow and disingenuous. Sentimentalists such as Waller try to avoid this truth by keeping people from asking questions and by calling those who do insist on reflection “cynics.” Jacobs counters that Waller's shameless manipulation of his readers' emotions is the ultimate act of cynicism.