What We're Reading
Essays on finding balance in our new man-made environments
Technology often plays a prominent role in the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal discussions; over the years we've spoken with figures such as Gilbert Meilaender, Albert Borgmann, Brian Brock, and Neil Postman on topics ranging from bioethical concerns to the sociological and psychological impact of the internet. Adding to this discussion about the overlooked consequences of technology is a new book by Arthur W. Hunt III, Associate Professor of Communications at the University of Tennessee, titled Surviving Technopolis. This book features a collection of Hunt's essays, each one examining the impact of technology on a specific area of life from economics to public speaking. From the introduction:
Whether we call it the megamachine, La Technique, Technopoly, or the Abolition of Man, makes little difference. These labels are all getting at the same thing. To boil it down, Technopolis refers to our new man-made environments - now gone global - and how they intentionally and unintentionally alter the economic, social, and moral fabric of our lives. In this sense Technopolis is not just about new and powerful technologies; it is about the technological milieu in which we swim. Ultimately, these essays address the subject of what people are for - that is, the implications of being created in God's image.
It's a short read, but filled with insights into the far-reaching impact of our technology-driven society.
Wisdom from The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology
Near the end of The Desire of the Nations, Oliver O’Donovan examines the origins and trajectory of liberal society in the West. He begins by calling attention to a scenario imagined by St. Paul in I Corinthians 14:24f., in which an unbeliever wanders into a church that is saturated in compelling, prophetic witness. The message he hears is both rational and convicting, and he falls on his face in repentance. This story, O’Donovan says, “is a paradigm for the birth of free society, grounded in the recognition of a superior authority which renders all authorities beneath it reactive and provisional. We discover we are free when we are commanded by that authority which commands us according to the law of our being, disclosing the secrets of the heart. There is no freedom except when what we are, and do, corresponds to what has been given to us to be and to do. ‘Given to us’, because the law of our being does not assert itself spontaneously merely by virtue of our existing. We must receive ourselves from outside ourselves, addressed by a summons which evokes that correspondence of existence to being. ‘Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty’ (2 Cor. 3:18). The church of Christ, which professes the authority of God’s summons in the coming of Jesus, has the role of hearing it, repeating out, drawing attention to it. In heeding the church, society heeds a dangerous voice, a voice that is capable of challenging authority effectively, a voice which, when the oppressed have heard it (even in an echo or at a distance), they cannot remain still.” [p. 252]
Click for a link to free audio featuring Ken Myers in conversaion with Oliver O’Donovan.
Theological reflections on Terrence Malick's Tree of Life
Volume 119 of the Journal featured an interview with theologian Peter Leithart on the topic of empire criticism. As readers of his First Things blog will know already, Leithart’s expertise is certainly not limited to political theology, or even to theology in general. He has proven himself well versed in things philosophical and literary, and with last year's publication of Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, he demonstrated his ability as a film critic.
Examining the film from a distinctly theological perspective, Leithart unpacks many of the key themes of the film, showing them to be part of a complex and coherent whole. Leithart is, admittedly, not an unbiased critic; in his preface he describes the film as “one of the most beautiful films I had ever seen, drenched in prayer, shot-through with the biggest questions that we humans pose about our lives and our world, more philosophically and theologically sophisticated than any film I knew.”
If you’ve seen the film already, you’ll know that it is the type of film that demands helpful commentary such as this (and multiple viewings!) in order to grasp its full significance. Shining Glory is a short and enlightening read – and it is always encouraging to realize how thoroughly Christian and theologically rich an incredible work of art like Tree of Life really is.
Dana Gioia’s latest collection of verse
Dana Gioia’s recent essay, “The Catholic Writer Today,” is a sobering reminder of the causes and consequences of the contemporary “schism between Christianity and the arts.” Gioia’s realistic diagnosis and hopeful encouragements (summarized here) should be read in light of his work as a poet, which displays the commitment to craft, language, and tradition he calls for as a cultural observer.
His most recent collection of poetry is called Pity the Beautiful, his first volume in over a decade; serving as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts from 2003 to 2009 kept him somewhat preoccupied. Among the poems is one with seasonal relevance called “Shopping,” which begins:
I enter the temple of my people but do not pray.
I pass the altars of the gods but do not kneel
Or offer sacrifices proper to the season.
Strolling the hushed aisles of the department store,
I see visions shining under glass,
Divinities of leather, gold, and porcelin,
Shrines of cut crystal, stainless steel, and silicon.
But I wander the arcades of abundance,
Empty of desire, no credit to my people,
Envying the acolytes their passionate faith.
Blessed are the acquisitive,
For theirs is the kingdom of commerce. . . .
The imagery in “Prayer at Winter Solstice” makes it a fitting Advent meditation:
Blessed is the road that keeps us homeless.
Blessed is the mountain that blocks our way.
Blessed are hunger and thirst, loneliness and all forms of desire.
Blessed is the labor that exhausts us without end.
Blessed are the night and the darkness that blinds us.
Blessed is the cold that teaches us to feel.
Blessed are the cat, the child, the cricket, and the crow.
Blessed is the hawk devouring the hare.
Blessed are the saint and the sinner who redeem each other.
Blessed are the dead, calm in their perfection.
Blessed is the pain that humbles us.
Blessed is the distance that bars our joy.
Blessed is this shortest day that makes us long for light.
Blessed is the love that in losing we discover.
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Dana Gioia on the need for a renewal of Catholic literature
Dana Gioia, poet and former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, wrote a lengthy article for the latest issue of First Things in which he details the decline over the past fifty years or so of the prominence of Catholic literature in the greater world of American literary culture. Gioia is a catholic Catholic: he argues that the decline of Catholic literature has a negative effect on everyone interested in a thriving artistic culture, not just Roman Catholics:
The retreat of the nation’s largest cultural minority from literary discourse does not make art healthier. Instead, it weakens the dialectic of cultural development. It makes American literature less diverse, less vital, and less representative.
It’s not just Catholic voices that are being squeezed out of the dialogue, Gioia argues; it’s the loss of any real engagement between the dominant culture of materialistic philosophy and any persons who believe that “all reality is mysteriously charged with the invisible presence of God.” Anyone who “tend[s] to see humanity struggling in a fallen world,” who “combine[s] a longing for grace and redemption with a deep sense of human imperfection and sin” suffers when Catholic literature declines.
Gioia closes the essay with some choice observations on the nature of culture:
Culture is not an intellectual abstraction. It is human energy expressed through creativity, conversation, and community. Culture relies on individual creativity to foster consciousness, which then becomes expanded and refined through critical conversation. Those exchanges, in turn, support a community of shared values. The necessary work of writers matters very little unless it is recognized and supported by a community of critics, educators, journalists, and readers. The communion of saints is not only a theological concept, it is the model for a vibrant Catholic literary culture.
Read the whole essay here.
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