Guests on Volume 119
• MARY EBERSTADT on how the decline of formation of natural families has made Christian belief less plausible and contributed to the secularization of Europe
• ALLAN BEVERE on why the claim by “empire criticism” that the letter to the Colossians is a veiled repudiation of Roman imperial hubris is mistaken
• PETER J. LEITHART on how the Bible evaluates empires in light of their relationship with the people of God
• STEVEN BOYER on why “mystery” is a necessary category in Christian theology
• KAREN DIELEMAN on how different liturgical practices of Victorian congregationalism, Anglo-Catholicism, and Roman Catholicism influenced the poetry of Elizabeth Barret Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Proctor
• PETER PHILLIPS on the founding of The Tallis Scholars and the peculiar beauty of Renaissance polyphony
“Nothing in human experience is regarded as quite so transcendental as being handed an infant and told, ‘take care of this.’”
— Mary Eberstadt
Mary Eberstadt’s book How the West Really Lost God challenges assumptions about the nature of secularization. In this conversation, Eberstadt argues that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, has always depended on the family for its transmission. Although religious conviction is known to influence family formation, Eberstadt turns that assumption upside down: according to her research, weak family formation and familial illiteracy is the first cause of a diminishing Christianity. In a discussion of the history of post-World War II religious revivals and the effect of secularization, Eberstadt points out that religious booms are always accompanied by a rise in marriage and birth rates. She describes the manner in which participation in a family shapes our understanding of faith, and concludes that the institutionalization of birth and death (as in daycare and nursing homes) insulates people from the rhythms of family life and makes religion inaccessible to many people.
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“Empires can do good things. Empires can be unjust. But because of the lordship of Jesus Christ, we know all empires end.”
— Allan Bevere
Jesus is Lord, Caesar Is Not, edited by Scot McKnight and Joseph B. Modica, is the first book to hold empire criticism up to evaluation. As one of this anthology’s contributing authors, Allan Bevere addresses this new direction in an increasingly politicized hermeneutic. He says that this type of New Testament criticism was especially popular during the Bush presidency’s era of aggressive foreign policy. However, although many of these policies still remain and are hallmarks of a totalizing empire, many of these voices have dropped quiet with the Obama presidency. Bevere agrees with empire critics who resist the spiritualizing of the gospel and maintain a historical context within which it should be understood. However, while recognizing that there is some good writing being done regarding the dominating tendency of empire, Bevere maintains that Paul is not primarily concerned with empire in his letter to the Colossians, and concludes that empire criticism has gone too far.
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Peter J. Leithart
“That’s one of the key things that distinguished the more negative portrayal of empires in the Bible from the more neutral or positive ones...the issue that divides them is how the empire treats the people of God.”
— Peter J. Leithart
Leithart explains that empire studies (what Allan Bevere refers to as ‘empire criticism’) is a thread of New Testament scholarship that reads its text as consistently anti-imperial. His book Between Babel and Beast: American Empires in Biblical Perspective focuses on the extent to which empire criticism lumps together all empires as basically the same type of entity. The reality is much more complex, in that there are diverse sorts of empires. To highlight the stark contrasts between these empires, Leithart compares the early and late Old Testament description of Babel and Babylon as exemplary of maturing gentile political structures. Most important of all is the relation of empires to God’s people. Leithart balances his criticism of empire studies, maintaining that he is suspicious of the religious right’s portrayal of America in which the American nation takes on the sacredness of the Church’s mission. The centrality of the Church is a key theme in his book, by which Leithart seeks to encourage New Testament scholars toward a thoroughly Christo-centric politics.
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“The apostles are given the mystery of the kingdom of God. They know the mystery. And yet, how many of us would say that knowing it means they've got it all ﬁgured out?”
— Steven Boyer
Is it possible to conﬁne God within the limits of reason, within cognitive categories suited to the world? Steven Boyer explains that mystery is not merely a puzzle to be solved: it can be the answer in itself. The oft-quoted mantra “Knowledge is Power” can lead to the assumption that the only knowledge worth having is that which leads to practical power. Boyer points out what he sees as an unhealthy distinction between God and God's attributes, and explains what he means by “revelational” versus “investigative” mystery. Discussing the extent to which childhood is motivated by wonder, Boyer concludes that the task of mature theology is not to eliminate wonder but to expand it. His book The Mystery of God: Theology for Knowing the Unknowable was coauthored by Christopher A. Hall.
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“A Congregationalist comes to reality, to knowing the truth through the proclamation of the word. And an Anglo-Catholic comes to it through God’s manifestation of Himself through a more indirect way: through analogy, for example, through typology.”
— Karen Dieleman
English professor Karen Dieleman discusses her book Religious Imaginaries: The Liturgical and Poetic Practices of Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Adelaide Procter. She addresses the inﬂuence of denominational difference in each poet’s experience of life, relating it to the resulting structure and style of their poetry. Dieleman explains that to the Congregationalist Browning, everything tended toward the expository dimension, which can be seen in the multiple-voiced, dramatic dialogue which works its way in her poetry to a point of public epiphany. In Rossetti’s Anglo-Catholic experience however, Dieleman sees a private encounter with mystery in which words are less necessary and language is more tightly disciplined. Dieleman sees the future-orientated nature of Procter’s poetry as inspired by the Roman Catholic focus on the resurrected Christ. She concludes that the Anglo-Catholic tradition was the most community-oriented of its day, expressed in Christina Rossetti's poetry by her interchangeable use of “I” and “We.”
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“The emotional element is there. But it’s not thrown at you, it’s not as in your face as opera is. . . . In a really good piece, you've got to listen for about 10 minutes, because it probably won’t manifest itself at its full force until the end, until the ﬁnal bars, where it’s going to blow up in your face and just sweep you away.”
— Peter Phillips
Founder Peter Phillips recounts the history of his choral ensemble The Tallis Scholars. Phillips explains the extent to which 1970s performance practices obscured the natural clarity of this music, and the life’s work he saw in furthering the music’s appeal to audiences. Phillips describes the digital recording innovation of bringing forward the usually unheard inner parts with clarity, and explains his preference for a less reverberate recording space. He also defends this repertoire against the accusation of “boring, white, emotionless” and explains the subtle nature of the music's emotional element. The interview concludes with a discussion of Thomas Tallis’ hidden depths, and the continuing discovery of works of Flemish Renaissance polyphony.