Guests on Volume 135
• BOB CUTILLO on the importance of understanding health as a gift
• HANS BOERSMA on recovering the patristic recognition of the sacramental presence of Christ in the Old Testament
• DANA GIOIA on the devout life and distinctive poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins
• MATTHEW LEVERING on the history of proofs of God’s existence, and what we learn about reason when we reason about God
• BRUCE GORDON on his “biography” of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
• MARKUS RATHEY on the dramatic and liturgical character of the major vocal works of Johann Sebastian Bach
“We live in a culture that tells us over and over again in multiple ways that we are in control. We are getting continual messages that we’re in the driver’s seat, which makes the possibility of sickness and the idea of dying very disturbing.”
— Bob Cutillo
Perhaps more than ever before — certainly in a way unique to history — modern culture is preoccupied with health. Medical science and care are becoming more complex, more public, and more controversial with each year. Contradictions regarding health and medicine abound. Technology, prosperity, and availability of food and treatments are unprecedented, yet mortality rates, chronic diseases, and anxiety over general health and wellness suggest that we may not be better off than previous generations and that in some instances, we are regressing. As is the case in other areas, the internet has produced an abundance of resources, access, and chatter regarding medicine and health, exposing a growing disenchantment and cynicism towards conventional medicine and yielding a proliferation of alternative approaches to treatment and nutrition. But in the midst of so much information and so many positions, how frequently do we pause to examine our assumptions about what kind of thing health is? Medical doctor Bob Cutillo thinks that our enthusiasm for health hinders us from more honest reflection about basic human realities, such as the vulnerability of our bodies, the reality of death and suffering, and the connection between an individual’s health and the health of communities.
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“The Reality to which the preacher needs to point the audience is the reality of God himself, the triune God. The purpose of the preacher is not simply to expound certain truths, but to discover within the text where Jesus Christ is revealed.”
— Hans Boersma
Theologian Hans Boersma joins us to discuss why we should recover a patristic way of preaching and reading scripture. While the modern tendency of exegesis is to move away from the words of a text to a more abstract summary or principle, the Church Fathers viewed scripture sacramentally as a reality to be entered into more deeply and more directly. Though the Church Fathers were very committed to correct doctrine, their guiding concern with regards to orthodoxy and preaching was to draw the Church into the life of God. We do not read scripture in order to abstract moral principles, but rather, in order that we might be “transformed by the renewing of our minds” and thereby perceive everything anew in light of Christ’s real presence.
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“Hopkins is here and now and he’s giving you exact words to bring you to a precise, physical reality. He’s not about Eternity. He’s about Creation.”
— Dana Gioia
Gerard Manley Hopkins is one of the most frequently anthologized poets in the English language because of his rhythmic originality and anomalous place among the Victorian poets. Yet few realize that were it not for the posthumous advocacy of Hopkins’s lifelong friend, Robert Bridges, the poetry of Hopkins may have completely disappeared. In this conversation, California poet-laureate, Dana Gioia, discusses the biographical circumstances that led to Hopkins’s conversion to Roman Catholicism and subsequent decision to stop writing poetry and why people should not confuse the poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins with that of religious mystical poets.
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“If you talk to educated people who’ve gone to Ivy League or gone to the great liberal arts colleges, they . . . don’t have even a concept of God. Not even the slightest concept. You can tell them about Jesus Christ our Lord, but they just simply have no background and they can’t think it. [F]or them, it’s like you’re telling them about the ‘Great Pumpkin.’ You’re out there with Linus in the pumpkin patch.”
— Matthew Levering
Theologian Matthew Levering talks about the long tradition of reasoning about God. Modern skepticism often questions the possibility of knowing anything about God, in part, because of the way in which “knowledge” is frequently restricted to statements of scientific or empirical fact and brought to bear on merely utilitarian purposes. The possibility of other modes of knowledge, such as those philosophically or theologically derived, is disparaged and dismissed. But to adopt this stance, argues Levering, is to ignore a rich and nuanced tradition of thinking about what type of being God is, or as the case may be, what being is in relation to God.
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“[C]alvin was a man who was forever in development; a man who continued to grow throughout his life. And that was reflected in his most famous work, the Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he continued to revise . . . and in those revisions, one sees Calvin’s development as a reformer, as a thinker, as a theologian.”
— Bruce Gordon
When a work is published, it leaves the careful hands of its author and enters into the unpredictable and sometimes turbulent course of history. Some books have an interest that extends far beyond their covers, worthy of its own narrative and commentary. The Reformation work of systematic theology, Institutes of the Christian Religion, written by John Calvin and published in 1536, qualifies as such a book. In this interview, Church historian Bruce Gordon talks about his recent “biography” of the Institutes published by Princeton University Press for a series titled The Lives of Great Religious Books. Gordon recounts the different ways that Calvin’s Institutes have been interpreted since its original publication, and having written his own biography of Calvin the person, Gordon observes the curious ways in which Calvin emerges as a variety of people when he is recovered in subsequent generations.
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“What we forget when we listen to Bach’s music in the concert hall is that Bach’s music was also embedded into a performance, into the liturgy, and that Bach’s works fulfill a very specific function in the context of the liturgy.”
— Markus Rathey
Musicologist Markus Rathey discusses the particular liturgical context in which J. S. Bach’s major vocal works originally appeared. While not advocating that we return to only encountering Bach’s sacred vocal works within liturgical performances, Rathey does argue that to assume the modern context of a secular concert hall or secular event as normative for Bach’s sacred music detracts from our ability to understand the full meaning and purpose of the music. Unlike Handel, whose sacred choral works were originally experienced in concert halls and as public events, Bach’s sacred music was more strictly limited to the liturgical readings and occasions of any given worship service. Far from being passively entertained, the “audience” of such music were already active participants in a much larger drama.