((released 2004-05-01) (handle mh-67-m) (supplement ))
Guests on Volume 67: Eric O. Jacobsen, on urban churches and taking the concrete realities of community seriously; Allan C. Carlson, on the family in American culture and in government policy; Terence L. Nichols, on a sacramental view of Creation as an alternative to naturalism; R. R. Reno, on spiritual lethargy and sloth and the need for a more heroic vision for spiritual possibility; David Bentley Hart, on a Christian understanding of beauty rooted in the reality of the divine gift that is Creation; and J. A. C. Redford & Scott Cairns, on the making of “The Martyrdom of Polycarp.”
In Sidewalks in the Kingdom: New Urbanism and the Christian Faith, pastor Eric O. Jacobsen discusses the “false gods” of individualism, independence, and freedom and the influence they have had on the physical order of American cities. He contrasts pre-World War II environments, which were designed with the perambulator in mind, to post-World War II environments, which were designed to maximize efficiency and automobile use; in the latter — unlike in the former — those who cannot drive are cut off from important functions of communal life. He also addresses excessive fossil fuel use as another example of the hold the “false gods” have on Americans: people have determined that they should use less fuel, but instead of meeting as communities and determining how to design their neighborhoods so that they do not have to use fuel by driving to stores, parks, or churches, they are trying to solve the problem individually, deciding to buy fuel efficient cars but remaining too far away to walk to the institutions they frequent on a daily basis. Jacobsen states that people can lean against these trends of larger culture if they have a strong opposing influence in their lives, for example, the authority of the church. For churches to leave an imprint, however, they need to be situated where people will rub against them — and meet their members — daily, in cities and traditional neighborhoods.
Historian Allan Carlson explains that the division in the feminist movement between equity feminists and maternalists existed before women secured the right to vote, and that it became even more prominent afterwards. In his book The “American Way”: Family and Community in the Shaping of the American Identity he depicts the fundamental difference between the two groups as one about who or what is the basic unit of society and economics: for equity feminists the basic unit is individuals but for maternalists it is the household. Equity feminists, he states, pursued the vote for women as part of a larger project to eliminate patriarchy while bringing full equality for women in the marketplace and business world — they viewed the home and children as barriers, for women, to full economic equality. Maternalists, however, pursued the vote for women in order to vote for public policy that would protect motherhood and children from the marketplace and from the pressures of business associations that wanted to employ women. They were concerned not with integrating women into the corporate economy, but with preserving the health and autonomy of the household.
In his book The Sacred Cosmos: Christian Faith and the Challenge of Naturalism, professor of theology Terence Nichols addresses the importance — for faithful Christian discipleship — of seeing nature as infused with God’s presence. Nichols — who measures Christian commitment not merely by how many people attend church but by what people believe about the afterlife, and by whether or not their posture towards nature is in accordance with what they believe about the afterlife — suspects that Christian commitment in America is “a mile wide and an inch deep.” While it may seem as if commitment is strong because attendance is strong, many of those who attend church, he explains, order their lives as if there is no afterlife, as if nature devoid of God’s presence and hope is all that exists. Nichols advocates re-emphasizing a sacramental view of nature as a corrective. The sacramental view, which has historically been tied to the Catholic, Orthodox, and Anglican traditions, sees nature as imperfect, yet full of the presence of God.
Theologian R. R. Reno elucidates the concerns of the Postmodern era in an effort to help the Church understand how to disciple its members in this age in his book In the Ruins of the Church: Sustaining Faith in an Age of Diminished Christianity. Reno claims that the waning of Modernity brought with it the end of the Western culture of existential heroism, which he describes as the struggle of individuals to pursue virtue and to conform their souls to an authority beyond themselves. The spirit of the Postmodern age, he explains, is characterized not by this painful struggle to “climb the mountain of virtue,” but by fear of personal change and a desire for a comfortable, peaceful life. Like the ancient Roman satirist Petronius (who died ca. 66 A.D.), people today question whether or not there is any authority outside of themselves to which it is worth conforming; they prefer to “carve out a zone of sanity” in their souls and for their lives than to undertake the wrenching journey of self-transformation that the Modern age commended. The challenge for the Church, then, is to discern how to witness to those who are more interested in living lives of quiet conformity than in living lives upset by life-changing ideas (people full of Petronian humanism rather than Promethean ambition).
In his book The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart discusses the language of beauty, the Triune God, and Creation. He states that the Christian understanding of Creation as beauty and gift, as the outward expression of the delight the Trinity has in itself, reveals a vision of reality different from the pagan or fatalist vision of reality. In an effort to explain this latter vision and to elucidate the difference between it and the former, Hart contrasts the music of Richard Wagner (1813-1883), which he cites as an example of the pagan or fatalist vision of reality, with that of J. S. Bach (1685-1750), Hart’s example of the Christian vision of reality. Whereas Wagner’s music has to end when and how it does, Bach’s music contains infinite possibility and could have ended (if he had been immortal) in any number of fashions. Hart adds that Bach’s music further demonstrates the Christian vision of reality in how it accounts for dissonance; the music makes room for it, he states, without degenerating into mere discord.
Composer J. A. C. Redford and poet Scott Cairns discuss their commission from First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, to compose an oratorio on the martyrdom of Saint Polycarp, a bishop of Smyrna during the first century; the work had its premiere performance in April 2004 at the church. Polycarp, who knew Saint John and other eye-witnesses to the life of Christ, was martyred when he was in his late 80s. His friend Marcion (not the heretic associated with gnosticism) wrote a letter about the martyr’s death to the church at Smyrna, and it is this letter on which Redford and Cairns’s “The Martyrdom of St. Polycarp” is based. Both Redford and Cairns studied Marcion’s letter and various other letters about and by Polycarp for the commission, and both said that composing the music and libretto for the oratorio stretched and deepened their faith. Redford talked of meditating on the balance of evil and good as he struggled with how to depict it rightly in the work, and Cairns discussed how the sweetness of the letters infused his life as he dwelt with them.