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Beauty Will Save the World (2011) - Gregory Wolfe


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#1 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 30 August 2011 - 11:55 AM

Original thread here (with the author's participation).

Because I still want to make the effort to keep the A&F Book Club in existence, I'm pinning/moving the discussion here where it'll be easier to find. I've let some distractions stop me from reading and writing over the last couple months, but in the next week I hope to post a link to my book review here. I've just begun my second read through the book, mostly because it's generating some questions that I really need to spend more time thinking through.

It's entirely possible that our Book Club has diminished to a membership of two, just David Smedberg and I. But let's try and interact on this one enough to generate more interest.

Has anyone else read this yet? You really ought to.

#2 David Smedberg

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Posted 06 September 2011 - 10:06 AM

I was doing a WorldCat search for this book, so that I could read and discuss, and I had a momentary brain-fart as to how to spell "beauty" (embarrassing!). So I left out the word and did a search for "Gregory Wolfe Will Save the World". Then I saw what I had written, and I laughed. :lol:

#3 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 08 October 2011 - 10:23 AM

pg. x -

At the outset of Four Cultures, O’Malley alludes to the early church father Tertullian’s famous challenge: ‘What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” In other words, what do the prophetic, religious cultures of Judiasm and Christianity have to do with the ‘wordly’ cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. The answer given by the West, as it evolved through the medieval and Renaissance eras, was: plenty. Tertullian’s prophetic culture was placed in a dynamic, productive tension with the other three cultures: the academic/professional culture of the philosophers and scientists, the humanistic culture of poets, rhetoricians, and statesman, and the artistic culture of visual and performing artists.

Alright, just about finishing my second read through, and one of the things I'm being forced to do as I'm reading and hearing more about engagement and interaction with culture, is to pay attention to how the word "culture" is used in the first place.

pg. 18 -

Within the Christian community there have been many different approaches to modern culture. Some of the mainline denominations have followed a liberal ethos that welcomes new trends in secular culture. Evangelicals and fundamentalists have moved in the opposite direction, retreating into a fortress mentality and distrusting the "wordly" products of mainstream culture - so much so that they have created an alternative subculture. To simplify somewhat, you might say that whereas liberals lack Christian discernment about culture, conservatives have just withdrawn from the culture.

If you had to explain what the word "culture" meant, how would you define it? The definition I hear the most often is probably along the lines of "the behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group" or "the set of shared attitudes, values, goals and practices" or "the customary beliefs, social forms and material traits of a racial, religious or social group" or "the way of life, especially the general customs and beliefs, of a particular group of people at a particular time." This common definition of what a culture is, is, well, by definition, how you distinguish yourself from others. A culture is, by modern definition, an "us" that is different from a "them." Everyone belongs to a culture that is different from another culture. Some Christians create a sub-culture that is separate from the main culture. Some Christians embrace the main culture as different from the old, outdated, antiquated boring culture.

pg. 19 -

... I confess that I am astonished by the lack of attention most religious believers have shown to what I call the dark side of the culture wars. The dominance of the culture wars over our public discourse is a striking example of how politicized we have become. It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture - that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship, and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture.

pg. 20 -

The very metaphor of war ought to make us pause. The phrase "culture wars" is an oxymoron: culture is about nourishment and cultivation, whereas war inevitably involves destruction and the abandonment of the creative impulse. We are now at the point in the culture wars where we are sending women and children into battle and neglecting to sow the crops in the spring. Clearly we cannot sustain such a total war. In the end, there will be nothing left to fight over.

But here, Wolfe is now using the term in its old sense. For example, Webster's 1828 dictionary defines "culture" as "the application of labor or other means to improve good qualities in, or growth; as the culture of the mind; the culture of virtue." Other versions of the older definition include "a refined understanding or appreciation" or "the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education" or even simply "music, art, theater, literature, etc."

The newer definition of culture as social characteristics that differentiate people from one another? Yep, that's not in the old dictionaries. The old definition is still in the modern dictionaries, but it's starting to be overshadowed by the new one. Our understanding of what culture even is has changed. Granted one word can denote different and separate ideas. But, if "culture" really used to be employed mostly to mean the cultivation of things like truth, goodness and beauty, then why do we refer to that definition so little. If, as Wolfe says, culture is about nourishment and cultivation, then why should even even take it from there to discuss how there are so many different cultures, ancient cultures and modern culture, Secular culture and Christian culture, etc. ad infinitum?

This reminds me again of M. Leary's question over on a different thread last month.

"How do Christians engage the culture..."

Why do Christian authors and journalists so often say "the culture" rather than just "culture"? Unless I unconsciously block it out, I only ever see the article used in Christian writing.

Is this a throwback to the initial Christianity Today era when Evangelicalism was emerging in response to a specific, monolithic alternative to conservative Christianity that was emerging in the 50s and 60s? So there was "the culture" out there that we needed to "engage"?



#4 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 01 November 2011 - 01:30 AM

I'm a little nervous posting this where the actual author is around to read it, but here, finally, is - a book review.

#5 David Smedberg

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Posted 21 November 2011 - 10:36 PM

I'm sorry that my contribution has been so long in coming. I've really been struggling to understand this book's message and in particular its watchwords--like beauty, humanism, and conservative vs. liberal. I thought I had a general picture of what each of these means, but I'm not sure how useful my preconceptions have been. I've read through much of the book twice and still have yet to feel like I've "got it".

Part of the problem is the long, involved analyses of works that leave me cold--or that I strongly suspect would if I put myself through the effort of reading them. I am no fan of Flannery O'Connor, at least yet. The same is true of T.S. Eliot. I have substantively engaged with the works of both of these authors and have left each encounter saddened, much more than enriched.

I read with interest that Greg found "a disparity between [Eliot's] supposed classicism and the messy, fragmented, subjective dimensions of his poetic language... I tried to mature with him." I too have a lot of maturing left to do (for those who don't know, I'm 26) perhaps along much the same path. I have at times ranted about formalism in poetry and in literature generally, but some excellent essays (especially in The Nation) have helped me move past that obsessive focus. What I have not--cannot seem to--move past is not the form of Eliot's poetry, or O'Connor's stories, but their pervasive bleakness.

By "bleak" I mean that there do not seem to be any saints. And as I read through the latter chapters of Beauty will Save the World, I did not see the portrait of sanctity that I hoped for---since that, on a literal level, is the realest kind of beauty that saves--isn't it?

As a side note, I cannot seem to find them right now, but Greg made more than one mention of saccharine piety. As someone who is cultivating the virtue of piety actively right now, as a response to the invitation of God to have life, and not death, while I appreciate that religious zeal comes with dangers, I think what we really need to talk more about is its advantages. Of course, what is really needed is not to fear piety or zeal for the Spirit, but to seek these things in a fresh and personal way--not in a calcified manner.

In the writings of Newman, I find a vision for that kind of zeal. In someone like O'Connor, I find a warning: how not to be. And that has its place, if only a secondary place.

#6 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 24 January 2012 - 06:49 PM

I'm sorry that my contribution has been so long in coming. I've really been struggling to understand this book's message and in particular its watchwords--like beauty, humanism, and conservative vs. liberal. I thought I had a general picture of what each of these means, but I'm not sure how useful my preconceptions have been. I've read through much of the book twice and still have yet to feel like I've "got it".

Part of the problem is the long, involved analyses of works that leave me cold--or that I strongly suspect would if I put myself through the effort of reading them. I am no fan of Flannery O'Connor, at least yet. The same is true of T.S. Eliot. I have substantively engaged with the works of both of these authors and have left each encounter saddened, much more than enriched.

I can identify with that initial reaction to O'Connor and Eliot, but they are seriously worth working through. O'Connor's stories don't seem initially uplifting, and she took a lot of criticism for it (from Protestants, Catholics, and her own mother). But there is grace to be found in them, even if it's only a momentary glimmering. It's all the more powerful for the story being dark or grotesque as it might be.

I read with interest that Greg found "a disparity between [Eliot's] supposed classicism and the messy, fragmented, subjective dimensions of his poetic language... I tried to mature with him." I too have a lot of maturing left to do (for those who don't know, I'm 26) perhaps along much the same path. I have at times ranted about formalism in poetry and in literature generally, but some excellent essays (especially in The Nation) have helped me move past that obsessive focus. What I have not--cannot seem to--move past is not the form of Eliot's poetry, or O'Connor's stories, but their pervasive bleakness.

Eliot simply can't be judged by a small sampling of his poetry. It's when you look at his work as a whole that you see the redemptive journey he takes from The Waste Land to The Hollow Men to Ash Wednesday to The Four Quartets. There's a very important progression and conclusion there, that you won't see unless you start from the beginning and go on to the end. By the time you finish The Four Quartets (and by the time you read through Eliots essays and literary criticism - which makes you look quite differently at much of his poetry), his message is no longer bleak (even if his portrayal of our culture is quite bleak). Remember, one of his major themes is the fragmentation of Western Culture. It has dissolved and dissipated into the cliched pop culture that we're stuck with today. If you look at what we're losing, things look quite bleak. If you, like Eliot, then look back on what is worth keeping, things don't look so bleak after all.

By "bleak" I mean that there do not seem to be any saints. And as I read through the latter chapters of Beauty will Save the World, I did not see the portrait of sanctity that I hoped for---since that, on a literal level, is the realest kind of beauty that saves--isn't it?

True, almost every character in O'Connor's stories is a sinner. Her stories are about sinners, and they reveal things about who we are. And yet, there is something incredibly different about her than the casts of characters writers like Chuck Palahniuk or Bret Easton Ellis will give you.

The latter chapters of the book give us discussions on Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcolm Muggeridge and Marion Montgomery. If you've never read these guys, read them. Out of the four, for me personally Muggeridge gets pretty close to being a saint as he gets older. If you ever listen to one of his interviews or speeches, the whole room lights up when he enters it. His passion for speaking about what mattered was full of joy. Kirk also makes for redemptive, if occasionally at times hard work, reading. His outlook on life fully comports with the Christian humanistic tradition that Wolfe introduces the reader to.

As a side note, I cannot seem to find them right now, but Greg made more than one mention of saccharine piety. As someone who is cultivating the virtue of piety actively right now, as a response to the invitation of God to have life, and not death, while I appreciate that religious zeal comes with dangers, I think what we really need to talk more about is its advantages. Of course, what is really needed is not to fear piety or zeal for the Spirit, but to seek these things in a fresh and personal way--not in a calcified manner.

In the writings of Newman, I find a vision for that kind of zeal. In someone like O'Connor, I find a warning: how not to be. And that has its place, if only a secondary place.

What did you think of Wolfe's criticism, then, of what he called "declinism" - those conservatives or evangelicals who all just bemoan the loss and bankruptcy of our culture? One the reasons I found the book challenging was because Wolfe asks us to look for piety and redemptive works of art even in the world of modern art (look back at his chapters on Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom, and Makoto Fujimura).

Trust me, there is far more to O'Connor's writing than just showing "how not to be." She looks at humanity in some of its darkest moments, but then suddenly gives you flashes of how Christianity and grace have the potential to be transforming.

And don't just let your experience with O'Connor color your view of the rest of the authors that Wolfe recommends. I think one of the very best things this book does is encourage us to start cultivating an appetite for the more powerful writers within Christianity, many of whom don't advertise their faith or publish their books in Christian book-publishing houses.

Georges Bernanos, Frederick Buechner, Christopher Dawson, Elizabeth Dewberry, Shusaku Endo, Harold Fickett, Denise Giardina, Graham Greene, Romano Guardini, Ron Hansen, Mark Helprin, Jacques Maritain, Francois Mauriac, Thomas Merton, Flannery O'Connor, Walker Percy, Marilynne Robinson, Dorothy Sayers, Anne Tyler, John Updike, Evelyn Waugh, , Andrew Lytle, Wendell Berry, Larry Woiwode, Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcom Muggeridge and Marion Montgomery ... all these authors are now authors that I must read more of.

W.H. Auden, Richard Chess, T.S. Eliot, Donald Hall, Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Hudgins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Karr, Denise Levertov, Paul Mariani, Richard Wilbur, and Franz Wright are mostly poets that I have read very little of. It's time to work on that.

On a final note, I'm still right now working through Wolfe's ideas on the "culture wars" in my head. He may have only alluded to it, but I find it fascinating that there are two distinct definitions of "culture." 1) a set of social conventions, practices, traditions, beliefs, etc. particular to one group of people and 2) the purposeful cultivation of that which is of value or of virtue. It strikes me as curious that definition #1 is new, while definition #2 is old AND that the very idea of a culture war is impossible without definition #1. There are some further implications to this that I've haven't found yet.

#7 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 24 January 2012 - 07:22 PM

Persiflage wrote:
: Out of the four, for me personally Muggeridge gets pretty close to being a saint as he gets older. If you ever listen to one of his interviews or speeches, the whole room lights up when he enters it.

Wow. I appreciate the fact that Muggeridge went rogue during his tour of Ukraine in the '30s and thus exposed what the Soviets were doing there, but what little I know of his persona after his conversion in the '60s is not particularly positive: his clueless altercation with the Pythons during the release of Life of Brian, his suggestion that his cameraman on the Mother Theresa documentary had captured a miracle on film when in fact the guy had simply used a new kind of film stock.

#8 David Smedberg

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Posted 24 January 2012 - 08:45 PM

That's a great reply, Jeremy, thanks. Since tomorrow is the first day of classes at the University of Maryland (where I work) I may not have time to respond for a little while...

#9 David Smedberg

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Posted 18 February 2012 - 11:35 PM

So, at long last I come to finish off my thoughts in this thread.

I can identify with that initial reaction to O'Connor and Eliot, but they are seriously worth working through. O'Connor's stories don't seem initially uplifting, and she took a lot of criticism for it (from Protestants, Catholics, and her own mother). But there is grace to be found in them, even if it's only a momentary glimmering. It's all the more powerful for the story being dark or grotesque as it might be.

I hope so. I will certainly be giving her another try--I don't know exactly when, since right now I have a few others books that have claimed my attention. The same goes for Eliot. I appreciate how you've noted that the bleakness is both these authors is not absolute--instead, it's leavened by hope. I may have failed to pick up on that hope when I read their work for the first time.

Eliot simply can't be judged by a small sampling of his poetry. It's when you look at his work as a whole that you see the redemptive journey he takes from The Waste Land to The Hollow Men to Ash Wednesday to The Four Quartets. There's a very important progression and conclusion there, that you won't see unless you start from the beginning and go on to the end. By the time you finish The Four Quartets (and by the time you read through Eliots essays and literary criticism - which makes you look quite differently at much of his poetry), his message is no longer bleak (even if his portrayal of our culture is quite bleak). Remember, one of his major themes is the fragmentation of Western Culture. It has dissolved and dissipated into the cliched pop culture that we're stuck with today. If you look at what we're losing, things look quite bleak. If you, like Eliot, then look back on what is worth keeping, things don't look so bleak after all.

The distinction between Eliot's message and his outlook on our culture is important! There is a great deal that could be said about our culture, but the most important is that I don't think Eliot was looking at cliched pop culture--I think he was looking into the eye of the storm of modernism and seeing some of the emptiness that lived there. Now, we (in my view) are wrapped up in the response to that--call it postmodernism--which has, I think, an aspect of "screw it all" because modernism failed us so badly. To the degree that we must reassert our balance as a culture and a people, and not give in to a "screw it all" mentality, I cannot be more enthusiastic. Where the right balance is to be found, I'm not at all so sure.

The latter chapters of the book give us discussions on Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcolm Muggeridge and Marion Montgomery. If you've never read these guys, read them. Out of the four, for me personally Muggeridge gets pretty close to being a saint as he gets older. If you ever listen to one of his interviews or speeches, the whole room lights up when he enters it. His passion for speaking about what mattered was full of joy. Kirk also makes for redemptive, if occasionally at times hard work, reading. His outlook on life fully comports with the Christian humanistic tradition that Wolfe introduces the reader to.

Before I return my copy to the library, I'll be sure and re-read the chapter on Muggeridge. Have you read much Newman? He is a powerful draught, dude. I try to reread The Dream of Gerontius at least once a year--it only takes an hour or so, but I always take more so I can really absorb it.

What did you think of Wolfe's criticism, then, of what he called "declinism" - those conservatives or evangelicals who all just bemoan the loss and bankruptcy of our culture? One the reasons I found the book challenging was because Wolfe asks us to look for piety and redemptive works of art even in the world of modern art (look back at his chapters on Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom, and Makoto Fujimura).

Well, I can only speak as one who is only somewhat a conservative, and not an Evangelical (at least a Protestant one--in another thread I mentioned how confusing this word can be as shorthand). I am quite sure that lighting a single candle is better than cursing the darkness. But when I say that I see the problem as being basically all forms of modern philosophy post-Nietzsche, you begin to see the scope of the challenge from my POV. So much of art rests on philosophy, sometimes without a lot of reflection. (As I mentioned, much of the opening chapters of Greg's book seemed to use terms like "humanism" in ways that aren't always consistent with what I thought those terms meant.) It's desperately important that we not only oppose what's wrong but move towards getting it right. I'm still working hard on understanding Maritain, and how far he can take me--he seems like one of the most likely candidates.

Edited by David Smedberg, 18 February 2012 - 11:35 PM.


#10 Greg Wolfe

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Posted 19 February 2012 - 04:30 AM

If y'all have specific questions or challenges, don't hesitate to fire away. I'm checking the board less these days, which I regret, but I'm rarely away for too long.

#11 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 22 February 2012 - 04:01 PM

I appreciate the fact that Muggeridge went rogue during his tour of Ukraine in the '30s and thus exposed what the Soviets were doing there, but what little I know of his persona after his conversion in the '60s is not particularly positive: his clueless altercation with the Pythons during the release of Life of Brian, his suggestion that his cameraman on the Mother Theresa documentary had captured a miracle on film when in fact the guy had simply used a new kind of film stock.

Muggeridge himself admits that he had a number of personal faults. His eloquence on that subject is pronounced in Chronicles of Wasted Time. His thoughts on the increased sensationalism of sex and violence in culture and his own increasing focus on the teachings of Christ later in his life were night and day different from how he thought and lived earlier in his life. He made an 180 degree turnaround - and that doesn't mean his theology was going to always be relied upon. But there is no doubt that, after his conversion, he became a master conversationalist on subjects like Christianity -

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtYcDE-Nw2M

Yes, he went a little too far in his admiration and promotion of Mother Teresa. And yes, his objections to Monty Python's Life of Brian seem unreasonable and close-minded to us now. But I sometimes think we don't remember how his old-world objections to Monty Python were more a generational gap than personally unique to Muggeridge (a generational gap of four decades, Muggeridge being born in 1903, John Cleese was born in 1939, Michael Palin was born in 1943). Muggeridge infamously showed up late to his screening of Life of Brian, completely missing the film's early distinction between Jesus and Brian. As hilarious as I personally find so many scenes in Life of Brian, I wouldn't describe Muggeridge's objections to the crucifixion scene at the end of the film as "clueless." Muggeridge's writing and thought are incredibly worth reading and exploring. And yes, even his criticism of Life of Brian, asking us to consider what impact the film would have on how a majority of young and/or uneducated viewers (who are not capable of appreciating the nuances of the film's satire on the falsehoods within much of modern church teaching) would view Christ, is worth spending time thinking about.

Have you read much Newman? He is a powerful draught, dude. I try to reread The Dream of Gerontius at least once a year--it only takes an hour or so, but I always take more so I can really absorb it.

A little. I have to read more. After reading Ian Kerr's masterful biography of Chesterton, his biography of Newman is now on my to-read short-list, and I assume that will provide a good introduction to spur on reading more of his works.

What did you think of Wolfe's criticism, then, of what he called "declinism" - those conservatives or evangelicals who all just bemoan the loss and bankruptcy of our culture? One the reasons I found the book challenging was because Wolfe asks us to look for piety and redemptive works of art even in the world of modern art (look back at his chapters on Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom, and Makoto Fujimura).

Well, I can only speak as one who is only somewhat a conservative, and not an Evangelical ... when I say that I see the problem as being basically all forms of modern philosophy post-Nietzsche, you begin to see the scope of the challenge from my POV. So much of art rests on philosophy, sometimes without a lot of reflection. (As I mentioned, much of the opening chapters of Greg's book seemed to use terms like "humanism" in ways that aren't always consistent with what I thought those terms meant.) It's desperately important that we not only oppose what's wrong but move towards getting it right. I'm still working hard on understanding Maritain, and how far he can take me--he seems like one of the most likely candidates.

I think one of the aspects of Mr. Wolfe's use of the old traditional sense of "Christian humanism" is that of trying to take a broader view of how the rest of the society (and tradition and history) thinks and uses terms and ideas differently than you. I was taught that "humanism" was always nonChristian, secular, and against any Biblical worldview. But actually that's how my own little sub-culture used the term, not how everyone else in the rest of the English speaking world used it. (Jefferson Bethke just recently learned the same thing about the use of the term "religion.") Someone who buys into and uses the "culture wars" rhetoric, like Rick Santorum, ends up speaking in his own sub-cultural language and sometimes being completely unaware how the rest of society actually thinks ... at least until the backlashes hit him over the side of the head. Regardless of whether you agree with someone like Santorum's politics or religion, he is not a "Christian humanist."

Mr. Wolfe's book has encouraged me to try and be more cautious and culturally aware. It's only by educating yourself in both a rich historical cultural tradition AND modern cultural influences that a "Christian humanist" is able to see beyond the increasingly partisan and polarized rhetoric in modern media, art, religion and politics.

If y'all have specific questions or challenges, don't hesitate to fire away. I'm checking the board less these days, which I regret, but I'm rarely away for too long.

Thank you! I do have a few more questions as I've been thinking things over. In the book, you regularly refer negatively to the "culture wars" and you respond to the politicized use of "the arts as an arena in which" they "fight their battles." On pg. 19, you write - "It was once a universally accepted notion that politics grows out of culture - that the profound insights of art, religion, scholarship, and local custom ultimately shape the terms of political debate. Somewhere in our history we passed a divide where politics began to be more highly valued than culture."

1 - By the artists you explore and recommend, it seems like you are arguing that this is still true - that "culture" defined as the arts (literature, television, film, etc.) - still vastly more powerfully shapes politics than politics is really able to influence the arts. Is this true?

2 - It then seems to follow that the imaginative parts of culture (humanistic, artistic) are much more powerful in affecting and changing people in meaningful ways than politics. This may seem obvious after everything you've written, but would you argue that working in creative "culture making" has far more power to change people's hearts than merely using politics to pass a law? Say that there is a "social justice" issue that we care about. Does it follow from the conservative or humanistic tradition that the use of culture as a way to change people is more meaningful than the use of politics as a way to change people?

3 - Or, is your critique of the culture wars coming from the opposite conclusion? - that the arts and humanities used to affect and shape people more, but now it really is politics that does so instead?

My struggle with these ideas comes from an agreement with the idea that culture, instead of politics, is more powerful to accomplish change. But when one decides to use "art" instead of politics in order to achieve, let's say a "social justice" goal, the result is more often propaganda or bad art. The use of the arts and humanities (instead of trying to pass a law) in order to advocate a particular message somehow often weakens the quality and power of the art itself. It seems like a paradox - "culture making" works better for changing the world than politics, BUT when you start using art for such a goal, its value as art suddenly plummets.

I'm sorry if these questions seem repetitive or confusing. I'm still trying to work out my thoughts and frame them more meticulously. It's much harder to be precise on ideas like this than on pure questions of law.

#12 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 23 February 2012 - 04:07 AM

Persiflage wrote:
: Muggeridge infamously showed up late to his screening of Life of Brian, completely missing the film's early distinction between Jesus and Brian.

And that is PRECISELY what made his objections to the film -- and to its treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, etc. -- so "clueless". He hadn't a clue what the film was about because he hadn't seen it in its totality. That's appalling for a major journalist who claims to be voicing an important opinion on a highly controversial subject.

Although, hmmm. Jesus and Brian are both in the Sermon-on-the-Mount scene -- Jesus delivering the sermon, and Brian standing in the back row, as it were, straining to hear the sermon. If Muggeridge really HAD seen that scene, he would have known that Jesus and Brian were two different characters. And if he had NOT seen that scene, then how dare he pontificate on how the Pythons had treated the Sermon in that scene?

I get that there was a generation gap at play there. Frankly, I have never expected ANYBODY to "get" Life of Brian if they weren't already somewhat familiar with the sort of comedy that the Pythons produced. But Muggeridge failed to do even the most minimal research in this case, namely to watch the film he was commenting on, and his remarks afterwards betrayed his ignorance -- and the fact that he made his ignorant remarks so aggressively just compounds the matter.

#13 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 24 February 2012 - 08:24 PM

And that is PRECISELY what made his objections to the film -- and to its treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, etc. -- so "clueless". He hadn't a clue what the film was about because he hadn't seen it in its totality. That's appalling for a major journalist who claims to be voicing an important opinion on a highly controversial subject ... Muggeridge failed to do even the most minimal research in this case, namely to watch the film he was commenting on, and his remarks afterwards betrayed his ignorance -- and the fact that he made his ignorant remarks so aggressively just compounds the matter.

What if I agree with you that Muggeridge's criticism of Life of Brian was wrong, and it was wrong due to a distinctly personal failing on his part - is that a reason to discount Muggeridge's other insights about religion and culture? Is that a reason to decide not to read or value the rest of his work?

One of the main themes I've taken away from Beauty Will Save the World is a criticism of a very conservative tendency that I have to discount everything that comes from an artist, writer or thinker because I disagree with one thing the person does or says that I believe to be important. I've tended to discount any value that "modern art", generally speaking, can offer us because I find aspects within modern art to be abhorrent. I've discarded the works and thinking of different artists because I believe their personal lives to be morally reprehensible. I've considered the works of certain authors to be valueless because of positions that they have taken on particular issues. It is a very polarizing and partisan sort of thing to do. And it is a habit that Mr. Wolfe is intentionally challenging. One of the reasons that Wolfe gives to admire the writing of Flannery O'Connor so much is that some of the most depraved and grotesque of her fictional characters will suddenly have a flash of grace or insight into truth that gives a little glimpse of the divine. Fallen, erroneous and morally reprehensible men and women are able, in our world, to give us works of truth or beauty that are in spite of their own personal failings.

This seems counter intuitive to me, because I've been specifically taught, for example, that if someone gets one Biblical principle wrong, then they are unreliable in everything else that they do or say. Wolfe has challenged this way of thinking for me.

Edited by Persiflage, 24 February 2012 - 08:25 PM.


#14 Greg Wolfe

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Posted 25 February 2012 - 05:15 PM

1 - By the artists you explore and recommend, it seems like you are arguing that this is still true - that "culture" defined as the arts (literature, television, film, etc.) - still vastly more powerfully shapes politics than politics is really able to influence the arts. Is this true?

Politics and culture shape each other. I do think culture shapes politics more powerfully than the other way around. Culture is more than the arts. I just happen to be a writer who focuses on the arts. I've never denied that culture involves much more than art.

2 - It then seems to follow that the imaginative parts of culture (humanistic, artistic) are much more powerful in affecting and changing people in meaningful ways than politics. This may seem obvious after everything you've written, but would you argue that working in creative "culture making" has far more power to change people's hearts than merely using politics to pass a law? Say that there is a "social justice" issue that we care about. Does it follow from the conservative or humanistic tradition that the use of culture as a way to change people is more meaningful than the use of politics as a way to change people?

I happen to agree with the title of George Will's book: "Statecraft as Soulcraft." With Aristotle I believe that politics can indeed shape the soul. The problem is that our politics has become so diminished, so reduced to ideology, that it has lost credibility and thus the power to shape lives. In a healthier age, politics would be more influential that it is nowadays.

3 - Or, is your critique of the culture wars coming from the opposite conclusion? - that the arts and humanities used to affect and shape people more, but now it really is politics that does so instead?

Ideological politics is a powerful influence on people -- not so much in shaping their souls as in stunting the growth of their souls. Ideology has reduced politics to the mere assertion of power -- there is little attempt at dialogue, persuasion, and rhetoric (in the non-pejorative old-fashioned sense of the word). In that sense, the arts and humanities have been increasingly shut out of any real interaction with politics.

My struggle with these ideas comes from an agreement with the idea that culture, instead of politics, is more powerful to accomplish change. But when one decides to use "art" instead of politics in order to achieve, let's say a "social justice" goal, the result is more often propaganda or bad art. The use of the arts and humanities (instead of trying to pass a law) in order to advocate a particular message somehow often weakens the quality and power of the art itself. It seems like a paradox - "culture making" works better for changing the world than politics, BUT when you start using art for such a goal, its value as art suddenly plummets.

Of course, art with a propagandistic purpose is no longer art. I am not arguing that art should directly seek to achieve political goals. What I AM saying is that we have allowed ourselves to believe that politics is the only -- or, far and away the most influental -- force for social justice in society. And that simply isn't true. Can you imagine political/social reforms in Victorian Britain without Dickens? Who is our Dickens today?

I'm sorry if these questions seem repetitive or confusing. I'm still trying to work out my thoughts and frame them more meticulously. It's much harder to be precise on ideas like this than on pure questions of law.

True, these large generalizations are very difficult to get clear. I try to be fairly sparing in the number and type of generalizations I use! Thx for the questions.

Peter:

I don't disagree with your take on Muggeridge on Python. All I would point out is that the sadness of this stems from the fact that Muggeridge did care about satire and did, in fact, influence a younger generation -- that of the "Private Eye" crowd (which was literary rather than cinematic, hence closer to his own abilities).

But in his later years his criticisms became less well-informed and more sweeping. Lots of swings and misses.

Persiflage wrote:
: Muggeridge infamously showed up late to his screening of Life of Brian, completely missing the film's early distinction between Jesus and Brian.

And that is PRECISELY what made his objections to the film -- and to its treatment of the Sermon on the Mount, etc. -- so "clueless". He hadn't a clue what the film was about because he hadn't seen it in its totality. That's appalling for a major journalist who claims to be voicing an important opinion on a highly controversial subject.

Although, hmmm. Jesus and Brian are both in the Sermon-on-the-Mount scene -- Jesus delivering the sermon, and Brian standing in the back row, as it were, straining to hear the sermon. If Muggeridge really HAD seen that scene, he would have known that Jesus and Brian were two different characters. And if he had NOT seen that scene, then how dare he pontificate on how the Pythons had treated the Sermon in that scene?

I get that there was a generation gap at play there. Frankly, I have never expected ANYBODY to "get" Life of Brian if they weren't already somewhat familiar with the sort of comedy that the Pythons produced. But Muggeridge failed to do even the most minimal research in this case, namely to watch the film he was commenting on, and his remarks afterwards betrayed his ignorance -- and the fact that he made his ignorant remarks so aggressively just compounds the matter.



#15 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 26 February 2012 - 02:53 AM

Persiflage wrote:
: What if I agree with you that Muggeridge's criticism of Life of Brian was wrong, and it was wrong due to a distinctly personal failing on his part - is that a reason to discount Muggeridge's other insights about religion and culture?

Nope, and I never said it was; I simply said that what little I knew of his public persona post-conversion was not particularly positive.

Greg Wolfe wrote:
: I don't disagree with your take on Muggeridge on Python. All I would point out is that the sadness of this stems from the fact that Muggeridge did care about satire and did, in fact, influence a younger generation -- that of the "Private Eye" crowd (which was literary rather than cinematic, hence closer to his own abilities).

Thanks, that's a background that I'm not familiar with.

#16 J.A.A. Purves

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Posted 02 September 2012 - 01:46 PM

Politics and culture shape each other. I do think culture shapes politics more powerfully than the other way around. Culture is more than the arts. I just happen to be a writer who focuses on the arts. I've never denied that culture involves much more than art ... I happen to agree with the title of George Will's book: "Statecraft as Soulcraft." With Aristotle I believe that politics can indeed shape the soul. The problem is that our politics has become so diminished, so reduced to ideology, that it has lost credibility and thus the power to shape lives. In a healthier age, politics would be more influential that it is nowadays.

So, I've been thinking. A problem seems to be that government politics has been separated in our minds from every other kind of politics (politics of marriage, politics of family, politics of the schoolroom, politics of the university, politics of church, politics of the arts & humanities). It has become so bad that you reacted against it back in the days when you were around National Review in the 1980s, and I experienced much the same thing when I went to a Christian conservative politically motivated college for two years. Government politics has sunk to such a partisan level that we don't even want it around Arts & Faith. The political threads at the Arts & Faith forums were before my time here, but I can only assume that they encouraged such a sunken and biased level of discourse that it was considered harmful to the forum's peace and reputation.

I just read Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, and I'm somewhat startled at his level of discourse on government political issues. He brings a wealth of history, philosophy, and literature (with even a little poetry) to the discussion. Mindful of the idea that politics is primarily a reflection of culture, his discussion of political issues has a depth and breadth that I have not seen anywhere else before (except perhaps with old Firing Line episodes of Buckley's). This is something incredibly valuable that we have lost. And I'm trying to think how we could ever bring it back. If "politics can shape the soul" then we need to combine the historical and literary traditions into our discussion of government politics. Otherwise, the affect of politics upon the soul will be merely disparaging and belittling.

Ideological politics is a powerful influence on people -- not so much in shaping their souls as in stunting the growth of their souls. Ideology has reduced politics to the mere assertion of power -- there is little attempt at dialogue, persuasion, and rhetoric (in the non-pejorative old-fashioned sense of the word). In that sense, the arts and humanities have been increasingly shut out of any real interaction with politics ... Of course, art with a propagandistic purpose is no longer art. I am not arguing that art should directly seek to achieve political goals. What I AM saying is that we have allowed ourselves to believe that politics is the only -- or, far and away the most influental -- force for social justice in society. And that simply isn't true. Can you imagine political/social reforms in Victorian Britain without Dickens? Who is our Dickens today?

Until reading Kirk, I'd never really distinguished between the terms "philosophy" and "ideology" before. According to Kirk, it seems that there is a historical political tradition that ultimately rejects Ideology in all of its forms (Marxist, socialist, libertarian, Christian fundamentalist, objectivist, etc.) I don't think I've realized until just now that there is a political philosophy that argues that Ideological politics is always bad. When the arts & humanities are shut out of any real interaction with politics, it seems that ideology is all that is left.

What I find most interesting is that, as a result, it seems as if you have rejected interacting in politics in your career and you have used John W. O'Malley's distinctions on types of culture in order to separate government politics from the arts & humanities as two distinct types of work. You've chosen to be "a writer who focuses on the arts" and to you that means that government politics is to be avoided in your focus. And yet, Kirk seems to point out (repeatedly and with example after example) that the best discussions and thoughts on government politics have arisen from men and women who are educated and steeped in the arts & humanities. A person who focuses on arts, literature and history is a person most likely to encourage moderation and wisdom within government politics. The greatest thinkers on government politics where the thinkers who came from the arts & humanities traditions. Edmund Burke began his writing career by writing A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.

So if we are ever going to put a damper on the vast craziness of soul-crushing ideological politics, we are going to need men and women invested in the arts & humanities who don't avoid government politics. It seems that there are an infinite number of partisan radio talk shows and TV shows, full of ideologues and demagogues shouting and accusing each other nonstop. But even a more educated station like NPR doesn't have anything like a show where they look at modern day political problems, and then look at history and literature going all the way back to Greece and Rome, and then applying the lessons and thoughts from the ancients to our modern problems today. There is nowhere that I can see, on the internet, on the television, on the radio, where people educated and absorbed in the arts & humanities, in history and religion, are discussing government politics.

The separation of government politics from everything else seems to be our greatest problem here. I saw you were just discussing the arts and social justice at a Festival in Oregon - how the two can interact seems to be a question that almost no one in the modern world even considers.

Edited by Persiflage, 02 September 2012 - 01:50 PM.