Guests on Volume 103: Steven D. Smith, on how the law only makes sense in the context of certain metaphysical beliefs, and on why we aren’t allowed to talk about such things in public; David Thomson, on the American Dream, acting, loneliness, the moral complicity of movie audiences, and the genius of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho; Adam McHugh, on how American culture distrusts introverts and on why their place in the Church needs to be valued; Glenn C. Arbery, on the Vanderbilt Agrarians, poetry, and the moral imagination and the shaping of virtue; Eric Miller, on Christopher Lasch’s intense commitment to understand the logic of American cultural confusion; and Eric Metaxas, on how Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s early experiences prepared him for his heroic defiance of the Third Reich.
“There is and should be a sort of disenchantment now with the secular discourse because of its inadequacy to convey a lot of what we really do believe and understand.”
— Steven D. Smith
Law professor Steven D. Smith discusses the metaphysical assumptions concerning human nature underlying the public legal order. He argues that because the legal regime only makes sense in the context of these assumptions, it is impossible to be truly neutral with respect to morality and religion when it comes to the law. Secular discourse, when it comes to the law, tends to ignore these facts, and Smith attributes related changes in American jurisprudence in the twentieth century to a creeping and unacknowledged naturalism, which Smith believes should be unmasked and “disenchanted” so that deliberations might proceed with integrity at minimum and perhaps even with genuine progress away from shallowness and toward a depth of understanding and engagement the lack of which is often publicly bemoaned. Finally, Smith describes the metaphor of “smuggling” and its capacity to undermine reasonable discourse.
“Why do we enjoy violence and cruelty so much [in film]? Why do we enjoy murder so much?”
— David Thomson
Renowned film critic David Thomson talks about director Alfred Hitchcock and Psycho. Thomson discusses the effect the move to the United States from the United Kingdom had on Hitchcock and his films. Thomson suggests that film achieves a kind of unique synergy with American culture because of the way that the medium interacts with the opportunity, scale, and character of American dreams and the American Dream. It’s a powerful combination that brings exhilaration to Hitchcock and his viewers but darkness and danger as well, the flip side of the dream. Thomson describes the relation between dream and acting as the capacity to imagine and embody an alternative reality; for actors for whom this kind of practice constitutes livelihood, this phenomenon can subtly shift and distort their identity, but it poses questions for Americans whose lives are ever more saturated with people in visual media with whom they identify and care for and in whom they believe, and yet do not really know. The uncertainty is necessarily there in a different way with screen distance, and a consequent sense of loneliness is something that is not only experienced but displayed in popular culture. Hitchcock paints a portrait of one form of such alienation in the character of Norman Bates Psycho, and he does so in such a way as to leave additional questions about the viewer’s enjoyment of watching it. It's not simply the display of brokenness and violence that Hitchcock was after, but our response to it and what that means as well, or at least the asking of that question. But what does that mean?
“In so many cases introverts are defined by what we're not rather than what we are . . . I wanted to say ‘Well, what are the benefits, what are the advantages, what are the gifts we have to offer to the other people in our lives that maybe our gregarious action-oriented culture is missing if we're not contributing these gifts?’”
— Adam McHugh
Pastor Adam McHugh shares his thoughts about introverts and the American Church. His research focuses on the changes in American culture in the twentieth century and how those changes affect the social place of introverts in society and in churches. He correlates the rise of extroversion in the past decades to the growth of mass media and the necessity of cultural leaders to be able to engage and navigate the new media ecosystem. Americans have always loved the gregarious go-getter and the big personality, but that disposition is magnified today by technological developments, as signified by the use of “networking” to describe not just technological but social relations. McHugh notes how advertising salesmanship has influenced models of evangelism, and how informality influences the amount and kind of communications. Introversion, for McHugh, is an inclination toward the inner world marked by significant activity and energy therein; he contrasts this view with common perceptions and misperceptions concerning introversion. His goal in the book is to present ways for introverts to engage a extroverted culture and contribute to and participate in the life of the Church without having to sacrifice the qualities and gifts introversion can bring.
“The language of a poem is so particular to that poem, in its rhythms, the way the words sound next to each other, in the particular choice of words — that it’s difficult to even to imagine what a poem would be if you simply paraphrased it, used other words, and had no access to that level of experience of the poem . . . it’s something whose sensitivity has to be learned.”
— Glenn C. Arbery
Glenn Arbery discusses the mid-twentieth century group of literary critics in the American South known as the Vanderbilt Agrarians. These critics, along with their students, exercised an incredible influence on the study of literature. Arbery suggests they centered their criticisms around changing technological, social, and industrial norms, and they finally settled on the metaphor of agrarianism to highlight the aspects of traditional farming communities they believed did justice to the sort of life people were made to have. Through their prose and especially their poetry, they attempted to draw out and embody these aspects so as to strengthen their readers and communities to be able to resist the practices and norms of consumer society and hyper-mobility and busyness. Arbery discusses the particular strengths of the form of poetry and its power to be able to capture and communicate the truths concerning a well-lived life. This conversation ends with a short discussion of “new criticism.”
“He really had no interest in making himself useful for political purposes, in the way that people who are trying to orchestrate political purposes would imagine usefulness. Rather, he understood his calling to, as an intellectual, tell the truth as being the most useful thing he could do for the body politic, for the beloved community that he imagined our end to be.”
— Eric Miller
Eric Miller joins us to talk about the late social critic Christopher Lasch, of whom he wrote a biography. After an early period of literary ambition, Lasch studied at Harvard University and came to see his calling to see and communicate what is really happening in society. He became concerned about the analysis and knowledge of history because he recognized that without understanding how reality and particular circumstances came to be, there would be little hope for positive change. Lasch observed the changes within the progressive tradition in which he was raised by his progressive parents and sought to understand why they were happening, especially the losses in the social and communal aspects of the tradition. He searched out these issues with seriousness and passion, not self-consciously, but with a kind of integrity even those who disagreed with him could appreciate. Miller traces the roots of Lasch’s critique to a sense of the corruption in the world whose manifestations could only be challenged when they were recognized as such.
“He understood that to be a Christian, it’s about the Incarnation, it’s not just about head knowledge, as it were. It's about your whole life. It’s about your voice, it’s about singing, it’s about how you conduct yourself. It’s about everything, every aspect of one's life has to be given over to God.”
— Eric Metaxas
Eric Metaxas, whose latest biography is about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, discusses the early life of the great pastor-theologian, including the enormous influence of his parents and family life when he was a child. Bonhoeffer was raised in a highly-sophisticated, well-educated and important family in Germany; in many ways, the Bonhoeffer family represented the best of early twentieth century German Christian culture, the culture of Bach, Goethe and Schiller. It was a musical family who enjoyed performing every Saturday night. In fact, if he had not heard the call to ordination, Bonhoeffer was likely to have become a professional musician. Nevertheless, the seriousness of his mother and the family culture of devout worship she established would anchor Bonhoeffer’s own maturity. As a pastor, Bonhoeffer came to recognize a need to reform the German church, which had been growing decadent. He was greatly influenced by his travels to the United States as well, where he witnessed people of all different sorts of ethnic backgrounds worshipping God together. For this German Lutheran, it was a new experience. Metaxas argues that this as well as many other strands of Bonhoeffer’s life would be woven together to make possible his courageous stand against the Nazi party.