Guests on Volume 83: Barrett Fisher, on film noir and its revealing portrayal of human moral confusion; Dick Keyes, on contemporary cynicism, how it's destructive, and how it might be resisted; Richard Lints, on a distinctively theological approach to understanding human identity; Paul McHugh, on how the discipline of psychiatry needs to mature, and on stories as diagnostic tools; Paul Weston, on lessons from Lesslie Newbigin on interfaith dialogue and the attacks on Christianity from scientism; and Paul Walker, on how the forms of Renaissance choral music communicate rich theological concerns.
“In a way, that’s what noir is about; it’s about the strangeness of human nature. An account of noir which only talks about the darkness of human nature misses the mark because noir characters are mixed characters.”
Professor Barrett Fisher discusses the intrigue and satisfaction of film noir. The genre — the movies of which are both visually and morally dark — received its name in France after World War II when its movies opened in theaters there, surprising audiences with how uncharacteristic they were of earlier American movies. Fisher references the titles and stories of several classics as he explains why the films are psychologically fascinating. Take any of the characters out of the time and place in which they are living out their stories, and the moral dilemmas which torment them remain; the films, he notes, are artistically rich examinations of human nature and how strange it is. Fisher also mentions the three reasons he does not become depressed while watching noir.
“Cynicism is so dangerous interpersonally because it just pushes people away. The people who are well-motivated toward you, who do love you, you are seeing through them and rejecting the positive efforts they are making to love you.”
L'Abri Fellowship worker Dick Keyes discusses the danger of cynicism and how postmodern ideas about human beings and self-interest encourage suspicion. Cynicism, says Keyes, author of Seeing through Cynicism: A Reconsideration of the Power of Suspicion, is the confidence that one can see through how people present themselves to the motivations and intentions at their core. It is one of two extreme responses to the brokenness of the world. Contrary to sentimentalism, which refuses to look at the effects of sin in the world, cynicism looks only at those effects and refuses to acknowledge that good exists alongside of them. Keyes notes that a proper response to brokenness is limited suspicion coupled with the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
“The biblical material provides us with safeguards against the abuses that have been played out in Western culture in the last century or so. A check on the unfettered human will is precisely why the Christian faith needs a new hearing in a time like ours.”
Professor Richard Lints discusses the need for a reinvigorated biblical account of human nature. Lints is co-editor of the anthology Personal Identity in Theological Perspective and author of two of the essays therein. While an authoritative account of human nature will seem out of place in this pluralistic age, he says, a theological anthropology would help the West to recover notions of human dignity. Keyes also attends to the correlation between consumption and idolatry. He notes how the practices of consumption influence the practices of religion.
“Sometimes the sterner virtues of, well, being truthful, being just, have to come along with the kindness and support virtues. Psychotherapists sometimes have to use judgment even when they can be accused of being judgmental, since certain kinds of behavior are, in themselves, destructive to the person, their future, and the people around them.”
Psychiatrist Paul McHugh discusses how he is trying to reform psychiatry and why a new system would be helpful for therapists and patients. McHugh is author of The Mind Has Mountains: Reflections on Society and Psychiatry. He states that the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is akin to Roger Tory Peterson’s field guide for birds, which identifies what warblers look like and how to tell them apart but does not address how they came into being or what factors have contributed to their development; the DSM identifies symptoms of diseases without addressing their causes. McHugh explains why psychiatry ought to categorize mental disorders in ways which account for their causes. If psychiatrists know which type of depression their patients have and what is causing it, for example, they will have a better understanding of how to heal the depression and not just its symptoms, and they will also know of which sorts of virtues their patients are in need.
“Newbigin owned for himself [this assumption from Karl Barth that] there isn’t something more basic than the revelation of God in Jesus Christ philosophically, from which one can argue for the Gospel, there isn’t some place that is deeper, more foundational . . . The Gospel is its own plausibility structure, it creates the world in which one thinks.”
Professor Paul Weston discusses theologian Lesslie Newbigin’s time in India and how it influenced his thought and work. Weston, editor of the anthology Lesslie Newbigin: Missionary Theologian, explains that Newbigin traveled to India after completing his theological training, which had taught him to argue for the validity of the Gospel using the tools of the Enlightenment, reason and rational discourse. Those tools did not get him far with his hosts, however, because they did not use the same sorts of tools in dialogue. Newbigin returned to the West, read Karl Barth, and affirmed that one’s foundation for discussing the Gospel and culture ought to be the Gospel itself. Weston notes that Newbigin’s work challenges the Church to remember that foundation when engaging culture and to ask, and act from, this question: What would it mean to relate to culture with the revelation of God in Christ as the guiding light?
“There’s not a way in the world that Josquin [des Prez] could’ve [composed the music] and then put the text to it later. He had the text; he looked at it; he decided how, in a musical way, he was going to project that text so . . . The music deepens the words and really takes you right through the whole narrative.”
Conductor and professor Paul Walker tells the story of how his choral ensemble, Zephyrus, learned to sing Praeter rerum seriem, a song about the Incarnation by composer Josquin des Prez (ca. 1440-1521). The title of the text, which is also its first line, translates as “Outside the normal order of things”; the way the music that accompanies the text sounds imitates the idea of the text, and it is this integrity of sound and content that suggested to Zephyrus how they ought to sing the piece. Walker explains that Renaissance music does not include notations about dynamics but because the music was composed to fit the text, singers can take their clues about dynamics from the text itself. He describes how Praeter rerum seriem conveys the story of the Incarnation in both word and sound. Walker also notes why it is difficult to find Christmas music from eras before the nineteenth century.
“The marriage vows themselves [are] profoundly suspicious; they’re asking this poor couple to imagine a worse-case future for themselves — in finance, in health, and in everything in general — right there on their wedding day and in their wedding ceremony, and to promise that they’ll love each other anyway.”
On this bonus track, Dick Keyes discusses the difference between cynicism and suspicion and how contemporary culture encourages cynicism to fester. Keyes states that cynicism is suspicion without limits. It erupts when unrealistic hopes and expectations meet with the reality of sin and brokenness in the world; but brokenness is not the last word for the world, says Keyes, so people ought to guard against succumbing to cynicism. The antidote for it begins with a biblical understanding of properly limited suspicion. He mentions two institutions into which such suspicions are built.