In a previous post (Part I!) I mentioned an article in a recent issue of Harper’s called “The Watchmen” – it’s an interesting (if maybe a bit overly ambitious) look at how the place of Christian intellectuals in the public sphere changed radically over the past sixty-ish years. The author, Alan Jacobs, veers with almost wild abandon between different topics and figures, trying to bring together the outline of a common thread in our recent cultural history.
You can read the article itself for more, but there were two things Alan mentioned in particular that kinda struck me: the first one (and the subject of the last post) was how there was a strain in certain religious think-tanks to limit space in the discussion to thinkers of faith. Which has a whole string of implications and consequences.
The second thing that stood out to me was his approach to Marilynne Robinson, author of the Pulitzer/National Book Critics Circle Award winning novel “Gilead” and one of the most prominent English-language literary voices alive concerned with the intersection of faith, culture and writing.
One might say that she (along with Donna Tartt, who was written about by Jonathan in a recent post here at Dappled Things) is the premiere example of “the successful Christian” re: bestseller and critical fame. She’s taught at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, proclaimed Calvin to be underrated, and is possibly the only person First Things and Obama can agree on as being a major, present-day voice of literary and moral influence.
I’ve never actually read a single of Marilynne’s essays*, and “Gilead” has been on my list for a while but I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet – it pops up in so many conversations though that I feel obliged to start the novel pretty soon even if just for the sake of having something vaguely intelligent to say about it. I think I’ve only really heard people talk about her in hushed tones of reverence (from people whose taste I respect), so it was interesting to read of someone with a more critical stance regarding her work.
The context where she appears in the article is in contrast to a dude named Richard John Neuhaus, a Brooklyn pastor who was caught up in the civil-rights movement and protested zealously against the Vietnam War. He got tons of airtime and printed space in “every major periodical in America” – he was a major (and popular) voice for social change while being deeply (and vocally) influenced by both Christian scripture and tradition. However, his cultural star started to dim when he took a pro-life stance in the wake of Roe vs. Wade, expecting his audience to equally take up the cause. They didn’t.
Things had already been splitting for some time – his anti-war/anti-death-penalty social-justice allies mostly sided with contemporary pro-choice feminism, and the still-fermenting pro-life movement was uncomfortable allying itself against forces set against certain government policies. Things were settling along wholly partisan lines and there was no space for a person who, prominently and visibly, attempted to stride both sides of a constantly widening cultural divide. By keeping one foot in each boat he lost support everywhere.
Thus began the dominance of rather “quieter” Christian voices, much like Marilynne’s, who prefers to present the subtle (if broad) effects of faith rather than forcefully defining the source (and implications) of said effects. Richard’s approach could be compared to a large rock being dropped ceremoniously into a lake, splashing or forcefully disturbing boats otherwise trying to move along with a minimum of fuss. Marilynne’s, however, might draw more parallels to ripples that, upon contact with said boats, leave it up to the boats to decide how to react. She seems (as far as I’ve understood from people who speak about her) less concerned with putting the grand metaphysics on display than on drawing attention to their visible echoes in society and in individual souls.
Which, from a cultural standpoint, makes sense: Alan discusses the growing sense that contemporary high culture isn’t really the friendliest place for an explicitly Christian worldview. It’s not just that the metaphysics and morals aren’t seen as interesting, but moreso that they might be seen a priori as, at worst, threatening or, at best, embarrassingly old-fashioned. Marilynne, it seems, is able to walk the tightrope of faith and culture in her novels with unprecedented success. She understands the language of postmodern North America and acts as a kind of creative translator.
But it seems Alan’s not as interested in Marilynne’s work as a novelist so much as her life as an essayist and cultural critic. He describes her career as “a case of opportunities taken, but also opportunities missed,” referring to how “she often speaks explicitly as a Christian, but there tends to be a strange mismatch between her subject and her audience.” This leads into an observation that’s left a large impression on me.
Before getting into that, though, I’d like to mention another Christian intellectual mentioned in the article: Cornel West, a contemporary of Marilynne’s. Like Richard, he tries to straddle two different cultural spheres at the same time: his radical politics (he denounced Obama not for liberalism, but for ushering in “a Wall Street presidency, a drone presidency, a national security presidency”) are said to potentially alienate him from a (?cultural?) Christian fanbase, while his outspoken Christianity makes him seem irrelevant to more left-leaning activists. Like Richard, he tries to speak to everyone and ends up with a limited niche audience.
Marilynne, on the other hand, regularly publishes in prestigious literary and cultural reviews. This is Alan’s “opportunity taken” – the “opportunity missed,” though, comes through what he sees as a) preaching to the choir and b) a failure to represent one side of the divide with greater nuance.
By preaching to the choir, Alan’s referring to how Marilynne critiques, for example, perceived patterns in American cultural Christianity to buy into fear (or gun proliferation, the death penalty and active campaigns against food stamps/universal healthcare) in an issue of The New York Review of Books rather than, say, First Things, which may be the journal intellectual and influential Christians are more likely read on a regular basis. “My point,” he writes, “is not that Robinson’s argument is wrong but that it offers a highly critical interpretation of people who are not reading it, and leaves the core assumptions of its audience unchallenged.” He goes on to imply that this merely confirms (rather than challenges) what one demographic believes about the other, and may do more to entrench the cultural divide than anything else.
This really strikes me, as it’s a reminder that if you actually want to make change then the last thing you should do is complain about someone else to your like-minded friends. How many times have you seen a passionate speech or article about revolution delivered to people who not only support the cause, but who support it so much that they never actually stop hanging out with co-conspirators so as to go out to do the actual work of engaging with folks? The real task remains: finding a way to work within and among the people whose ideas you disagree with – finding the humanity there, the common language. It’s easy, among the peeps like you, to harbour contempt (even if implicitly) for those who are different or seen as threatening. Social and intellectual bubbles are breeding grounds for cultural blind spots.
If his first beef is that she seemingly limits herself to an educated liberal audience, his second focuses on the way she appears to represent the vast majority of American Christians to her readers. She describes holding her social views as a result of reading the gospels, and Alan sees this as a kind of speaking down to Christians who claim to read the Bible while coming to different political conclusions.
She seems, to him, to be constantly reminding educated, secular liberals that she’s more like one of them rather than a ‘regular’ Christian. He contrasts this to how, in his view, Christian intellectuals of the past rarely “[distanced] themselves from ordinary believers, even though they could not have helped knowing that many of those people were ignorant or ungenerous or both.”
He goes on to write: “While surely she must know some living Christian subculture from the inside, she does not seem to be interested in representing its virtues, or its mixture of virtues and vices, to an unbelieving world, or to speak on its behalf, or to speak to it in any general way.”
These are strong words, and it’s because Alan sees Marilynne’s choice not to act as a bridge to (or relate in a substantial way with) Christian subculture as a failed opportunity on her part to occupy the role of yesteryear’s vanished watchwoman. Maybe he’s right in seeing it as a lack of richness in her cultural approach/agenda, or maybe Marilynne just doesn’t perceive her sense of mission that way. Maybe she feels like she needs to merely be an example of a Christian who can sit at the same table as secular intellectuals, which in and of itself is a mighty task in today’s culture, one she seems uniquely fit for.
Alan knows he’s coming on a little rough, though, and says that while “this sounds like a reproach….I mean for it to be a lament.” He sees her as capable of a greater greatness and mourns the missed chance for a richer, more textured culture in America. He goes on: “I can’t help wishing that someone, someone of Marilynne Robinson’s stature and gifts, would tell readers of The New York Review of Books that such church communities need not be scorned or feared, and then tell those church communities the same about the readers of The New York Review of Books.”
That said, this article was published in Harper’s** of all places. And that, for him, must be a sign of comfort.
Some other miscellaneous observations (because there are so many goodies here for the swiping):
a) Alan Jacobs places all this in the context of a post-Brexit, post-Trump (or at least post-Trump-announcing-his-play-at-politics – would that we were already post-Trump) world where there’s a greater awareness (and one might say anxiety) on the part of secular liberals looking out at the growing clout of what they consider to be ignorant, conservative, right-wing, populist patsies. And, to their chagrin, these folks (along with their ideas) aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
The value of Christian intellectuals to said secular liberals, according to Alan, is that they can act as a bridge between these two groups. They are people who “may themselves belong in some sense to the communities driving these movements but are also part of the liberal social order.” Thus, they can work to raise critical awareness within groups at-risk for what’s being referred to as “populist tendencies” while, on the other hand, they can “speak the language of other intellectuals, including the most purely secular…their task would be that of the interpreter, the bridger of cultural gaps; of the mediator, maybe even the reconciler.”
b) He describes the perceived public value of Christian intellectuals around the time of the Second World War as being able to give a metaphysical justification to democracy, a political system being more and more challenged through the slow-burning track of the Cold War. This is kinda weird, because the ultimate vision of the world proposed by Christianity is kinda far from democratic: there are unalterable precepts that’re independent of popular vote or opinion. From a Christian point of view, if a nation votes for policies that go against objective moral principles then the state puts itself in the wrong. It seems like a spiritual system was being inappropriately appropriated for the sake of a political cause.
Interestingly enough, modern skepticism of democracy’s effectivity (read the outcries against Trump or Brexit) make certain Christian approaches to values (that of principles which outlast a single vote of the people) a bit more attractive.
c) Alan writes about the mid-century anxiety Christian intellectuals had about the rise of the technocrat, a type of person for whom progress takes a more technological or materialistic definition than humanistic one. Scientist and doctors began to replace philosophers and religious leaders as beacons of morality and good sense. It was a prophetic sentiment, and the current reverence paid to Hawking’s or Dawkins’s abilities as cultural critics comes from this transition.
d) A wonderful definition of the value of an intellectual in general: “Karl Mannheim had said that any individual intellectual ‘takes a part in the mass of mutually conflicting tendencies.’ The phrasing is inelegant, but the point clear: the social value of the intellectual derives from his or her acknowledgment of multiple, not always harmonious, allegiances, and potentially competing values.”
This is otherwise known today as “negative capability,” which is more than just an ability to look at things from multiple perspectives – it’s the capacity to be able to hold contradicting worldviews within your range of comprehension without having one grapple the other to the death. This helps people avoid easy (and/or unhelpful) binary interpretations of situations and aids in cutting through to the underlying nuance in an issue. This was not particularly favoured during the Cold War, where awareness (or expression) of nuance could be misinterpreted as “pinko sympathy for the Commies.”
This ability is one of our greatest tools for actually engaging with the world and with culture in any helpful way.
e) Alan makes the observation that the writers of the “Catholic Renaissance” in the fifties (Walker Percy, J.F. Powers, Flannery O’Connor + friends) were, as compared to their intellectual predecessors, profoundly apolitical. I don’t know what that reveals, implies or means but I found it a very striking conclusion that deserves further investigation.
f) A link is made between the growing irrelevance of Christian thinkers and the increasing budgets and creative shizznazz at religiously-affiliated universities and institutions. These created smaller pockets of culture that allowed for emerging writers, artists and intellectuals to talk to each other without the assistance of the major journals and blogs. This gave a chance for developments to occur that were practically invisible to anyone outside the Judeo-Christian bubble. Apparently, what aided the creation of the cultural gap was that religious folk finally had a room of one’s own.
g) A final bit from Alan:
“About a decade into my professional life it suddenly dawned on me that, unlike the people I went to graduate school with and the professors I saw as my mentors and models, I was never going to have a single audience. It would be necessary for me at times to speak to the church; at other times to believers from other religious traditions; at other times to my fellow academics; and at yet other times to the American public at large. This meant that I would not be able to formulate a single writerly voice, a single mode of articulation, a single rhetoric that I could deploy in any and all situations. Rather I would have to strive to be, as the Apostle Paul said, all things to all people, however disorienting and puzzling that obligation might be.”
*I blitzed through a couple mostly for the sake of fact-checking stuff for this post.
Josh Nadeau is currently on retreat in Georgia (the country, not the state) and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.