((released 2015-07-15) (handle mh-126-m) (supplement true))
Guests on Volume 126
• JAMES W. SKILLEN on how all human cultural activity, including politics, should be understood in the context of God’s good purposes for Creation
• CHRISTIAN SMITH on how American sociology is not (as is claimed) a disinterested scientific endeavor but the pursuit of a sacred project driven by sacred commitments
• B. W. POWE on the unique “apocalyptic” insights of Marshall McLuhan and Northrop Frye
• DAVID DOWNING on C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress
• ROGER SCRUTO on the inability for materialism to give a satisfactory account of our experience of the material world
• JONATHAN ARNOLD on the curious place of sacred music in a secular society
James W. Skillen
“It finally dawned on me that the most basic question that wasn’t being asked was: Is government there because of sin, or does it have some root in Creation?”
— James W. Skillen
Within this neglected question, political-theologian James W. Skillen identifies two other forgotten inquiries. Namely, is Christianity solely a sin-salvation story and who is this Savior? These questions lead to far-reaching consequences that extend into all matters of cultural life. Skillen argues that Christianity and all true religions are not, on the one hand, mere expressions of worship or, on the other hand, neutral institutions with a religious veneer, but entire “ways of life” that structurally inhabit and give life to human institutions, authority, and responsibility.
• • •
“Part of what I’m saying here is that sociology operates, to some degree, with a kind of false consciousness about itself. That, on the one hand, it would like to think about itself as a scientific study of society . . . and, on the other hand, it’s this incredibly highly committed — politically, ideologically, morally — project that . . . actually has the character that it’s sacred, in a Durkheimian sense.”
— Christian Smith
Sociologist Christian Smith discusses the tacit assumptions, commitments, and ventures of American sociology. In particular, Smith foregrounds the underlying contradiction between sociology as a field that believes identities are profoundly shaped by social communities and structures, and the assumption within the sociological community that identity is fundamentally freely constructed by the sovereign Self. To this extent, American sociology is deeply American in that it is at heart a liberationist project committed to freeing individuals from the social constraints in which they are embedded.
• • •
B. W. Powe
“[McLuhan and Frye] represent an older literary tradition, an older philosophical tradition. They both rejected deconstructionism; they were very well aware of it. . . . [W]hat they saw as being the essential questions — the quest for identity, the nature of media ecology, how does the environment influence us, the primacy of literary texts at the core of the humanities — may have seemed like passé questions in the 80s and 90s and the turn of the century, but I would assert actually that they're not now . . . for the very simple reason that they are essential questions. They are the ones that relate deeply to our questions of soul, identity, spirit, imagination, and awareness.”
— B. W. Powe
English professor and author, B. W. Powe, shares his experiences and observations as a student and researcher of the literary critics Marshal McLuhan and Northrop Frye. Colleagues at the University of Toronto for over three decades, McLuhan and Frye both gained distinguished reputations in their fields, but with decidedly different styles. While McLuhan was notorious for his oral aphorisms, riffs, and dialogic associations, Frye was known for his paragraphic and architectural literary prose. McLuhan’s work in media theory anticipated the future with prophetic perception; Frye, on the other hand, probed into metaphors, symbols, and images with profound insight concerning the perennial quest for identity.
• • •
“Lewis wrote [The Pilgrim’s Regress] in two weeks while on vacation in Ireland . . . [H]e wrote in this white heat of creativity and pretty much wanted to get down everything he could think about about his own spiritual journey, and it probably was a mistake to write it that quickly. He later wrote a preface [where] he said that he was sorry for the ‘needless obscurity and the uncharitable temper of the book.’”
— David Downing
In this conversation, English professor David Downing discusses the context that accounts for the puzzling and allusive difficulty of C. S. Lewis’s The Pilgrim’s Regress.
• • •
“I think we’re living through a period in which we’re defacing things, defacing each other and defacing the world around us . . . We no longer see the light of the soul shining in things and this is revealed in our way of abusing and misusing nature, but also in the way of abusing and misusing ourselves.”
— Roger Scruton
Philosopher Roger Scruton discusses the ways in which the sacred or religious sensibility is prefigured in aesthetic experiences and in our relationships to the world. In his book, The Soul of the World, Scruton explores what sort of reality must exist in order for our relationships and our experiences to have meaning. Do merely physical causes account for our consciousness, our point-of-view? Can materialism satisfactorily explain our propensity to speak about things and to ask why? As Scruton argues, there is a soul and a face to the world around us which addresses us and to which we respond. Our responsibility results in an understanding of the world that stretches beyond mere explanation.
• • •
“What I find so interesting about the concept of beauty, and why it might be important to describe sacred music in that way, is what is the ultimate goal of a beautiful thing? It would be leading us to find the highest part of ourselves, to ultimately, at its best, transform us into something more beautiful ourselves, and lead us towards the ultimate greatest source of beauty, which is love.”
— Jonathan Arnold
Singer and theologian Jonathan Arnold explores why people of no religious commitment pay money to hear specifically sacred music. Arnold hypothesizes that for many people who consider themselves atheist or agnostic, sacred music provides a “real presence” of something much more powerful than themselves. In his book, Sacred Music in Secular Society, Arnold interviews a number of composers, conductors, and performers, a philosopher, and a theologian to glean insight into what might be happening for these listeners.