Guests on Volume 109: Douglas Coupland, on the strange and wonderful life and thought of media guru Marshall McLuhan; Charles Mathewes, on lessons from Augustine on thinking about our political lives in theological terms; William T. Cavanaugh, on how the modern state is a unique kind of political entity, inviting a new kind of idolatry; William Dyrness, on the challenges of developing a positive theology of desire and the imagination; Steven Guthrie, on relating the Spirit’s work in making us human to what happens in art and human creativity; and Susannah Clements, on the changing view of evil evident in the evolution of vampires from Bram Stoker to Sookie Stackhouse.
“People thought that to show a communist on TV was to have the person watching it turn into a communist. . . . [McLuhan] sort of eclipsed that entire dialogue by saying ‘Look, it’s not the communist on TV . . . it’s the fact that you’re watching TV.’”
— Douglas Coupland
This playfully-edited yet evocative interview with author Douglas Coupland focuses on media guru Marshall McLuhan. Coupland discusses the centrality of pattern recognition to the thought of this paragon of media theory and relates that recognition to McLuhan’s understanding of natural law. McLuhan was no advocate for the changes he witnessed, contemplated, and judged; he perceived the formidable challenge of technology to the natural and human, a challenge unmet by the dominant cultural institutions of modern society. So his only defense against the rapid development of media technology consisted in his intense focus on observation, a focus that Coupland believes enabled McLuhan to foresee the advent of the internet. McLuhan’s main concern was for the effects of media technology upon the human soul, and to discover and understand these effects, McLuhan utilized a broad range of learning and provocative dialogical skills, the results of which were not always appreciated by his contemporaries. His greatest insights were to discern the subtle but pervasive effects that the form rather than the content of media has on human beings. Interspersed through this interview is a series of audio clips of McLuhan which demonstrate both his personal style and perspective.
“A lot of the political language we have could have a theological resonance if we understand it properly . . . without idolatrizing that political language.”
— Charles Mathewes
There is a prevalent assumption today that we can neatly separate theology from politics. In this interview, Charles Matthews takes lessons from Augustine to help us regain the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Love. He argues that church is ultimately a public thing, and it is impossible to divide politics so cleanly from our religious lives, as many today wish to do. Metaphysical questions, however, cannot be isolated. Mathewes says his goal is to enrich the way in which people think about their lives, politically and religiously. Attempting to chart a balanced course, he explains that the overwhelming power of the modern nation-state should not be demonized, and yet our primary citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven should be pondered carefully as well. Mathewes argues that historical events such as the threat of communism and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, have caused us to take up an imperial burden that is dangerous to believers. We must never confuse America with the Kingdom of God.
“For the authors of the Hebrew Scriptures . . . all of life was about the celebration and about the sacred. And it’s a mistake that’s often made in certain kinds of Christianity, to say that Jesus overcame this crude materialism and made it all about the spiritual and what’s inside your heart. But I think Jesus is in continuity with the Old Testament in this way. All of life is sacred, and nothing is outside of the purview of God. And this is why religion and politics are somewhat artificial distinctions.”
— William T. Cavanaugh
Theologian William T. Cavanaugh discusses the way in which the exaltation of the modern state required the marginalization and privatizing of Christian faith, so that redemption is seen as a purely personal and private matter. Cavanaugh’s book, Migrations of the Holy, explains how faith in the United States and in secular Western values can take on an element of religious conviction. The willingness to die for one's country versus the willingness to die for the Gospel is a symptom of this “migration” of the holy. Cavanaugh mentions a book provocatively entitled Was Jesus Muslim? in which author Robert Shedinger argues that the “religionization of Christianity” (in other words, the restriction of faith into a narrow, private category) is what we should really be worried about, not the “politicization of Islam.” Ultimately, politics and religion are false categories that have been invented along with the rise of the centralizing modern nation-state, and Cavanaugh raises fundamental questions about the meaning of church, state, and the place of community. He argues that ultimately, as shown in the Hebrew Scriptures, there is no aspect of life that God doesn’t care about, and the distinction between religion and politics is inherently false.
“Of course [desire] is disordered. But it’s that faculty that allows us to move outside of ourselves, to imagine and love others, and eventually God.”
— William Dyrness
William Dyrness’s writings on theology and the arts have been attracting readers for decades. In this segment, Dyrness describes his inspiration for this project within the context of his larger body of works. Working from within the Reformed tradition, Dyrness has always been frustrated that the arts are not more highly valued by his own tradition. He argues for a positive theology of desire and imagination, built upon a deep understanding of the goodness of God’s creation. He sees gratitude and praise of God at the heart of a healthy approach to interacting with that goodness. Dyrness mentions Calvin’s instructions for church order: “Outside of ordinary times of worship, the church should be locked, so that no superstition will be performed there” and describes the unintended consequence of this teaching on the manner in which Protestants interact with their church buildings. Dyrness encourages us to recover the virtues of contemplation: to sit quietly in a quiet space and contemplate visual things, and to meditate on Scripture. Recapturing a vision of God takes time and contemplation.
“The work of the Spirit is to make the Word of God flesh, to make the Word of God man. From a Christian perspective, the definition of humanity is Jesus Christ: He’s the perfect man, the complete human, the final human. Nietzsche very famously complained that our problem is ‘we are human, all too human.’ But from a Biblical perspective, our problem is that we’re not nearly human enough.”
— Steven Guthrie
Steven Guthrie explains his quest for a theology that combines necessary abstractions with the concrete particulars of life. He begins by relating his background in music, and original intention to be a composer, as the beginnings of a quest for beauty and the spiritual meaning behind it. This path led him in a theological direction, and his book Creator Spirit: The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human focuses on the doctrine of the Holy Spirit through the lens of the arts in human experience. Guthrie mentions the frequent use of the word “spiritual" in casual conversation and explains how it relates to (and falls short of) the fullness of the theological understanding of the third person of the Trinity. Guthrie discusses how art in the twentieth century tended to view humanity as either meat or machines. This raises several questions: Does beauty sweep the horrors and tragedies of life under the carpet? Must art be brutal in order to be honest? Guthrie concludes that the Christian vision of beauty should not be blind to the horrors of the world. Yet it should be hopeful: we can look forward with joy and wonder to the ultimate purpose and eschatological reality God has promised.
“Throughout [Bram Stoker’s Dracula,] the crucifix is a symbol, and it’s a symbol of Christian faith and a symbol the vampires are afraid of. Throughout the novel, the cross gains more power as the characters grow to understand that this is the source of protection against what the vampire represents.”
— Susannah Clements
Susannah Clements describes the history of literature dealing with the nightmarish specter of the vampire, examining their symbolic understanding of sin and human nature. The 1897 publishing of Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula expresses anxieties in late Victorian fiction, poetry and art about gender issues and the family. Bram Stoker’s reptilian, physically-demonic Count Dracula is nevertheless hypnotically attractive, which reveals a view of evil held by the author and readers of the Victorian era. By stark contrast, the Twilight series is a modern example of the current dreamy take on vampires. Clements describes the historically symbolic power of the vampire as representative of evil residing within the human body, explaining how the attempt by characters to escape bondage to that evil provides an illustration of the human soul in a battle against evil. These early beginnings of the horror genre were originally intended to “scare the hell out of you.” In sharp contrast, Anne Rice’s revision of the myth focuses more on the idea of guilt rather than sin, questioning the very concept of evil. Clements theorizes that vampire romance novels are increasingly popular today because of a growing cynicism among romance novel connoisseurs regarding the old “bodice-ripper” romance. The vampire now becomes the male interest in a larger-than-life role of spiritually perverse seduction.