Guests on Volume 75: Mark Malvasi, on John Lukacs, the meaning of the modern, and how to think about history; John Lukacs, on the roles of curiosity and language in the vocation of historians; Steve Talbott, on how communications technologies divert language from its richest possibilities; Christian Smith, on the spiritual lives and theological assumptions of American teenagers; Eugene Peterson, on the essential relationship between theology and spirituality, and on the narrative life of congregations; and Rolland Hein, on the life and imagination of George MacDonald.
Professor Mark Malvasi discusses one of the themes on which historian John Lukacs has spent much of his time reflecting, the end of the Modern era of history. Malvasi is one of the two editors of an anthology of Lukacs’s works titled Remembered Past: John Lukacs on History, Historians, and Historical Knowledge. The collection contains essays spanning some forty years of the historian’s career along with a complete bibliography of his published writings. Malvasi explains that Lukacs links the decline of the Modern age to the decline of the bourgeois class and culture it developed. He also attends to the scholar's understanding and opinion of democracy.
Historian John Lukacs discusses the recording of the past and the importance of articulate, honest language for that task. Lukacs, a Hungarian who immigrated to the United States in 1946, has spent his career teaching and writing; his most recent book is Democracy and Populism: Fear and Hatred. All of his works demonstrate one of the main traits necessary for studying history — curiosity. Lukacs states that in earlier days a historian was known as “one who is curious.” He adds that one working within the discipline also ought to be mindful of speech and use of language, as “every choice of a word is essentially a moral choice.”
Steve Talbott, author of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, discusses language, communication, and how technology affects the former two. It influences them negatively, he explains, when it ceases to be “out there” and instead “becomes our own habit of thinking.” Technology utilizes precise language meant to relay information, and it tempts people to use more of the same for all communication. But when people think mechanically and communicate in kind, they neglect the significant meanings conveyed through metaphors and the spaces between words, along with the new understandings figurative expressions can open up to them. In other words, they fail to realize language's real potential, which can be seen, says Talbott, when words are employed creatively, both indicating a “vast realm of yet unsaid things” and simultaneously teaching people how to say those unsaid things.
Sociologist Christian Smith is co-author of Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers, a book based on The National Study of Youth and Religion, which took four years to interview and survey thousands of teenagers from across the country. Smith discusses the findings of the study and the language teenagers use to talk about their faith. While religion and spirituality are important to a majority of youth, an informed vocabulary for talking about these matters is not. Even if teenagers belong to a specific religious tradition, Smith says, most cannot articulate the particulars of that tradition. Narrow vocabularies enable adolescents to avoid conflict with others who believe differently from them, states Smith; consequently, youth are not learning how to constructively engage those others.
Theologian and former pastor Eugene Peterson discusses his book Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. Peterson notes the impetus for the volume (his desire to develop a theological base for pastoral work), and describes the difference between pastoral theology as taught in many seminaries and spiritual theology. He explains what he means when he emphasizes thinking “narrativally.” He also commends the work of writer Wendell Berry as witnessing to the importance and recovery of, among other goods, storytelling. Peterson concludes that Christians especially — because of their understanding of the world as created through the Word — ought to be “shepherds of language”; “take care of those words,” he says, “make sure they’re clean, well fed.”
Adjunct professor emeritus Rolland Hein tells the story of his first encounter with the work of novelist George MacDonald, naming the characteristics of the literature that contributed to the indelibility of the meeting. Hein, who has written George MacDonald: Victorian Mythmaker and The Harmony Within: The Spiritual Vision of George MacDonald, was a young man when a professor of his introduced him to MacDonald’s writings. None of the reading he had done before the encounter spoke to him in the way those sermons and fantasies did, on a level other than that of the mind. That, states Hein, is what MacDonald does well: he employs images that incite readers’ imaginations and speak to the desires hidden within their hearts. Hein explains that MacDonald is a writer of myth functioning rightly, and that such myth affects people a-rationally, stirring something in them much deeper than intellect or emotion alone.
“We live in a very rhythmic world, universe, but our culture just shreds it, doesn’t it?”
Eugene Peterson describes in G.M. Hopkins’ poetry the “fullness of life through metaphor” and “enormous attention [Hopkins] paid to the way language works.” Peterson goes on to discuss the importance of ritual and rhythm in Christian writing and community.