Sunday, October 30, 2011

BEAUTY WILL SAVE THE WORLD (2011) - by Gregory Wolfe (Book Review)

"There is a large body of believers who have essentially given up on contemporary culture; they may admire a few writers here or there, but they do not really believe that Western culture can produce anything that might inform and deepen their own faith. One might almost say that these individuals have given in to despair about our time. For me, the most depressing trend of all is the extent to which Christians have belittled or ignored the imagination and succumbed to politicized and ideological thinking."
- pages 18-19

If you have never read Image Journal, it's high time you started. There is a large sense in which modern day Christianity has completely given up on the Arts. Just look at the architecture of modern day churches, and then compare that to old Christian churches built hundreds of years ago. The difference you see there is between a Christianity that believed that beauty was valuable and a modern version of Christianity that simply doesn't care anymore. Image is one of the only collections of current writers that I know who absolutely reject this modern trend. (Don't you wonder if the lost, the poor, and the needy used to be drawn to some churches simply by the veritable beauty of the windows and the architecture of the building itself? A building of which the construction itself was an act of worship?) The purpose of the Image quarterly journal is to focus on modern day artists (authors, poets, filmmakers, etc.) who are passionate about bringing back the old Medieval and Renaissance viewpoint once contained within Christianity that the good and the beautiful originate from God, and therefore, the creative imagination can produce works that point us in the right direction. The book, Beauty Will Save the World: Recovering the Human in an Ideological Age, is written by the man who founded Image. His name is Gregory Wolfe.

If you enjoy thinking, Wolfe has thoughts and developing questions in this book that could keep you thinking and exploring a few fascinating ideas for a lifetime.

As you begin reading, it becomes obvious that the main insights that we are given in the book were only reached and crystallized by Wolfe after years of thought, experience and study. It may seem like a truism to some. But I doubt that many of us (and in my experience, hardly anyone who believes Christianity is true) have realized the full extent and consequences of one of his main ideas. The idea is this. In spite of politics (with the power to change laws that control our lives), in spite of religion (with the power to insulate us within protected and self-contained sub-cultures, even if we attempt to convert others from the outside into our own sub-culture), and in spite of education (with the power to shape the minds of the young), one of the most powerful ways to reach anyone and everyone (no matter what political party, religious creed, or educational background one happens to possess) is through the arts and humanities. In other words, through culture itself.

Before the table of contents, Wolfe gives us one page from the thinking of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, part of which includes -

"... there is a special quality in the essence of beauty, a special quality in the status of art: the conviction carried by a genuine work of art is absolutely indisputable and tames even the strongly opposed heart. One can construct a political speech, an assertive journalistic polemic, a program for organizing society, a philosophical system, so that in appearance it is smooth, well structured, and yet it is built upon a mistake, a lie ... In contrast, a work of art bears within itself its own confirmation ... Works steeped in truth and presenting it to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power - and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them. And so perhaps the old trinity of Truth and Good and Beauty is not just the formal outworn formula it used to seem to us during our heady, materialistic youth ..."

We may have different personalities, different beliefs about religion or politics, different tastes and preferences. But, there are universal truths about the human heart and condition to apply to us all. Just as the stars or the natural wonders of the world amaze and inspire us, no matter what part of the globe we may come from, so a beautiful and inspired great work of art can speak to any human being. And it is the arts (film, literature, music, etc.) that form and affect the way people think more powerfully than perhaps anything else in the world. The movie theater, TV, video and computer games are all a part of culture. The places you go to eat or hear music are a part of culture. The huge ever-expanding electronic world of social media is a part of culture. This is all obvious. But the insight here is trying to understand just how powerful culture really is. It is culture that ultimately determines who will win the next election. It is culture that determines how a pastor will apply what he says in the pulpit next Sunday. It is culture that determines what educational course a professor will use in the next class that he or she teaches. This is a subject that, in and of itself, deserves an entire book of its own.

To be more specific, Wolfe discusses how his thinking on culture has been influenced by other writers. One of whom, church historian John W. O'Malley, has extensively explored the subject in the book, Four Cultures of the West -

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 Judaism 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 culture: 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."

In other words, there are four major parts of culture. Religion, Politics, Education and the Arts. All four naturally intersect with each other. Different periods of history emphasis one or two over the others. In our own age, Religion and Politics seem to be a focus that often overshadows Education and the Arts. Wolfe, while appreciative of all four, is strongly drawn by the latter two - the literary/rhetorical and the visual/performing arts.

Speaking of political culture, Wolfe has reached his conclusions today by working his way through a number of experiences within the American conservative movement. He was raised by conservative parents. He attended Hillsdale College and then went to work for National Review magazine for the summer & fall of 1980 (the election of Ronald Reagan). But something wasn't quite right. Wolfe couldn't quite bring himself to align with most conservatives because they were missing something.

pg. 7 -
"Despite gains which conservatives have made since 1980 in politics and economics, they have made precious little progress in the realm of culture. In other words, conservatives have not had much of an impact on the major cultural organs, such as the leading newspapers and magazines, nor have they made their presence felt in literature, criticism, and the visual and performing arts."

It's not that Wolfe turned to Liberalism, it's just that he couldn't stand the shrillness and political interestedness within politics, even among major conservatives. As political as many of the major voices within Christianity and conservatism are, they have had little to no impact on the actual culture. Wolfe has found this same uselessness and ineffectiveness, sadly, within Christianity as well. And this was a criticism back in the 1980s as much as it's a valid criticism today.

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."

Instead, Wolfe found himself attracted to the older historical tradition of conservatism. There is, within conservative thought, an intellectual and literary tradition that, according to Russell Kirk, can be traced back to Edmund Burke and to other classics before. Wolfe considers himself privileged to have had Russell Kirk (author of Eliot and his Age: T. S. Eliot's Moral Imagination in the Twentieth Century, The Roots of American Order, and The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot) and Gerhart Niemeyer (author of Law Without Force, Between Nothingness Paradise, and Aftersight and Foresight) as professors at Hillsdale. Wolfe devotes a chapter each to both these writers in his Four Men of Letters section of the book (the other two being Malcolm Muggeridge and Marion Montgomery).

Wolfe regretfully notes the fact that young conservatives today are unlikely to even know who Russell Kirk is. His books are no longer widely read or published, and his conservatism is not as combative as more popular highly partisan sections of conservatism would like. "This is a grievous loss. There is a remarkable amplitude and hospitality to Russell Kirk's conservatism that stands in marked constrast to the narrowing tendencies of these other factions." (pg. 204.) By the time Wolfe finishes describing Kirk's passion for "what Edmund Burke called the 'moral imagination'" you wish you could have known Kirk yourself. The use of the imagination ought to complement reasoned argument, and with an extensive view of history and philosophy, one tends to take a more moderate approach in applying historical lessons to modern day problems. Thus, Kirk fundamentally believed in the presence of the past (an awareness of the big picture of history), the tragic sense of life (a realistic view of human nature), and a sacramental vision (acknowledging the transcendent).

pg. 211 -
"Unlike the moderns, to whom life is a matter of process, of constant activity and 'becoming,' Kirk held, with the ancients, that man's highest calling is contemplating what is ... This accounts for the enormous energy and 'joy of being' (to quote Gerhart Niemeyer again) that emanated from Kirk. With figures like Dr. Johnson, Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis, Kirk shared a robust delight in the goodness and sacramentality of simple things, from food to fireplaces. Kirk's definition of grace is where time and the timeless meet, where the natural is touched by the supernatural."

Therefore for Kirk, and thus also for anyone who had the pleasure of sharing his company, life was a joy and adventure. Something as simple as a drive would turn into a treasure hunt for the perfect countryside, library, dinner theater, wine tasting, ice cream parlor, local bakery, diner, or example of good neoclassical architecture. This joy for old and simple things translated itself into Kirk's writing, writing that took intense pleasure in the ideas of thinkers like Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Edmund Burke, Josef Pieper, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, John Adams, Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, John Henry Newman, Miguel de Unamuno, Walter Bagehot, and John Lukacs. This love for exploring the ideas of a large host of literary and philosophical writers shaped and improved Kirk's own writing ability.

pg. 212 -
"The clarity and lucidity of Kirk's prose, his ability to convey complex ideas and historical events in ways that can be easily understood, places him in the same category as a writer like C.S. Lewis. But those who read Lewis and Kirk often make the mistake of believing that their books are a substitute for engaging the original works and ideas. These readers forget that Lewis and Kirk are calling them to undertake the same disciplines and intellectual adventures they themselves undertook."

And it was precisely this undertaking that Wolfe chose to undergo for himself. It wasn't long after Hillsdale that he "went off to Oxford University and immersed [him]self in literary studies and theological reflection." (pg. 11.) There is a joy in this undertaking when he decided this, and that joy is still exhibited in his book. To Wolfe, part of the adventure of life is hunting out treasures within culture, art and literature - no matter what the time period. Devastating and soul-shaping works of truth, goodness and beauty exist out in the world, and most of us are only aware of a very small minority of them. While we intently focus on a political message that we're so interested in advancing, or while we revel in the safety and security of our own little bomb-shelter sub-culture, we are never going to be exposed to, let alone participate in, the existence and creation of these works. It was exposure to just a few of these works that changed Wolfe:

pg. 10 -
"After a one-semester flirtation with libertarianism, I quickly apprenticed myself to Kirk and Niemeyer. They established their conservative visions on a rich synthesis of literature, history, philosophy, and theology. In short, they espoused a form of Christian humanism that I found deeply moving. By comparison, the political and economic nostrums touted by others ... as the practical manifestations of conservatism seemed brittle and thin. They were piping voices compared to the deep organ chords of Dante and Aristotle, Aquinas and Newman, whom I was reading with Kirk and Niemeyer."

And it is with this sort of viewpoint that Wolfe takes us through a tour of the deeper literary chords of brilliant modern thinkers, authors, novelists, poets, playwrights, film-makers and painters who are inextricably bound within Christianity and yet, still outside any Christian sub- or popular culture. In this sense, Beauty Will Save the World is like a treasure map of artists that, for all intents and purposes, we ought to teach ourselves to appreciate. The joy of this book, for me, was the discovery of so many names that I either knew nothing about, or had only heard of briefly.

There is a sort of sacredness imbedded within the works of certain artists. If you have ever read C.S. Lewis or G.K. Chesterton, then you have a little inkling of what I mean. Wolfe is intent on introducing us to a whole number of other like-minded artists.

The authors Wolfe enthusiastically recommends include:

Georges Bernanos, Frederick Buechner, Christopher Dawson, Elizabeth Dewberry, 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, and John Updike, among others. He also gives Evelyn Waugh, Shusaku Endo, Andrew Lytle, Wendell Berry, Larry Woiwode, Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcom Muggeridge and Marion Montgomery each their own separate chapters.

Wolfe is also happily interested in poets who explore Christianity and modernity, and he recommends:

W.H. Auden, Richard Chess, T.S. Eliot, Donald Hall, Andrew Hudgins, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Mary Karr, Denise Levertov, Paul Mariani, Richard Wilbur, and Franz Wright, among others (along with a special chapter devoted to the work & poetry of Geoffrey Hill).

The three chapters discussing the works of painters Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom, and Makoto Fujimura give you just a glimpse of the talent that is out there, hidden to many of us, but evident if you just take the time to look.

The works of all of these artists are treasures Wolfe has cultivated a deep and abiding appreciation for. These are artists that this book ought to convince us that we all need to make the effort to appreciate and understand for ourselves. It is a pleasure just to read Wolfe's explanation of, for example, Gerard Manley Hopkins -

pg. 83 -
"It is the use of language that distinguishes Hopkins, but however firm his own theological grounding, the nature of the times and the decay of language itself lead him to place great burdens on words and word-order. For all its formality and artificiality, Hopkins's 'sprung rhythm' is meant to be a heightened form of colloquial speech. Thus the Jesuit sought to keep poetry close to the vitality of language as it is commonly spoken, steering literature away from the decadence of aestheticism or the pomposity of Parnassian diction. His poetic diction is packed with the short, sharp, guttural Anglo-Saxon words of Teutonic origin, skillfully played off Latinate words. In his use of language Hopkins takes the route of many modern Christian poets: he reaches into history to restore life and meaning to words.

Through the use of compressed syntax, assonance, and internal rhyme, Hopkins attempted to write incarnational poetry. Perhaps the best example of this comes from the poem 'That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection.'"

Or Wolfe's description of Flannery O'Connor -

pgs. 96-97, 100 -
"... Then, at Christmas, she developed the first symptoms of lupus, the disease that had taken the life of her father when she was just fifteen. Her father had lived for only three years after the onset of symptoms, and so O'Connor assumed that she would have only that amount of time left ... O'Connor made the only decision she could: she packed her bags and returned home to the family farm ...

The defeat could not have been more total. Living with her mother and a family of ducks on the farm, she was cut off from any intellectual or cultural stimulus, confined to letter-writing for contact with the outside world. Her fiction, which employed violence and the grotesque, horrified her mother. 'Why can't you write something uplifting,' Regina would say, 'like the folks at Reader's Digest?' As O'Connor confided in a letter to a friend: 'This always leaves me shaking and speechless, raises my blood pressure 140 degrees, etc. All I can say is, if you have to ask, you'll never know.' ...

O'Connor's tales are parables of human pride being confronted by the shock of divine grace - the violence in her stories is caused not by God but by the stubbornness of our human attempt to live as autonomous agents. By the same token, the grotesque in her fiction is not an unhealthy obsession with deformity but a metaphor for what me make of ourselves, the distortion that takes place when creatures attempt to think of themselves as gods, as creators of their own world. In the moment of violence that often concludes her stories, God's judgment and his mercy are one and the same. That is why the endings of her stories are open-ended: we don't know whether the protagonists will choose the virtuous path or not, which throws the question back at us, her readers: What would we do?"

Or Wolfe's description of Wendell Berry -

pg. 157 -
"Berry believes that the modern cult of technology and innovation has come close to destroying the environment, caused vast numbers of people around the world to be uprooted from their native places and scattered into sprawling, anonymous cities, and torn at the very fabric of marriage, child-rearing, and local institutions that provide identity and ensure good stewardship of the world's resources ...

In a steady series of essays, collected in such volumes as The Unsettling of America, The Gift of Good Land, What Are People For?, and Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community, Berry has dared to question what most of us refuse to consider: that the costs of our vaunted progress and prosperity have taken far too heavy a human toll. This is undoubtedly one reason he is so controversial: he calls attention to the secret most of us would like to sweep under the carpet. Most of us, when confronted by the litany of woes that Berry cites, tend to shrug our collective shoulders, assuring ourselves that there is little or nothing we can do to slow down the juggernaut of modern life. But Berry insists that we all can do something, and that makes us uncomfortable ..."

I don't know if you'll do the same, but by the time I'd read one of Wolfe's entire summations of one of these writers in Beauty Will Save the World, I'd already be in the middle of compiling a complete works bibliography/list on that writer, with immediate plans to acquire as many of his or her books as possible. The enthusiasm here is catching, but there's a method to it as well. Wolfe is purposefully introducing the reader to modern day artists whose work is both informed by their Christianity and outside the Christian subculture of modern churches and bookstores. Each writer, poet or painter that he recommends have created works to appeal to everyone, whether Christian or not.

And there is a direct corollary to this - the admission that some nonChristian artists can still produce works of art that have something from God in them. In fact, the argument goes that creativity itself is a moral virtue. So while an artist may have moral failings of his own, that doesn't mean that a work he creates still cannot, in and of itself, be good, be true, or be beautiful. And if you are a Christian, then you are supposed to believe that everything good, true and beautiful is ultimately from God and His creation. Therefore, great works of art may exist that many Christians are not even aware of, simply because of their rejection of the talented sinner who made the work in the first place. This has resulted in sort of blindness.

pg. 5 -
"But to deny the imaginative insight Picasso possessed on the basis of his intellectual and moral failings, I came to realize, was both petty and close-minded. Similarly, when I read D.H. Lawrence I found a penetrating critique of technology and the modern dichotomy between mind and body. Yet I have found that most conservatives prefer to dismiss Lawrence on the basis of his ideas about sexual liberation. Though it may seem a truism to most people, it eventually dawned on me that one can learn from an artist or thinker who asks the right questions, even if one may disagree with many of his answers ... Why categorize artists and writers as good or bad in terms of ideology, rather than of imaginative vision?"


And it is this blindness that Wolfe calls "Declinism" - the idea that we are going all downhill from here. There are many Christians and conservatives and/or other cultured people who believe there is nothing worthwhile to be found in our modern day culture. Modern art is considered worthless. Modern literature is considered garbage. Modern music and film is considered primarily pagan and immoral unless made within the protected sub-culture of American Christianity. And so, the declinist halts his own education because he stops looking. According to the declinist, older works of art have become irrelevant and ineffectual in modern times, while newer works of art are increasingly worthless and degrading. Culture is no longer something we pursue.

pgs 6-7
"Most conservatives think of culture as a museum, rather than as an organic continuity. They are all in favor of promoting the classics, but when it comes to contemporary culture, they have simply opted out. To be sure, the modern era has been cursed with a tremendous amount of shoddy, obscene and meretricious art ... But, to quote an ancient dictum, abusus non tollit usus. The abuse of a thing does not nullify its proper use. If conservatives would look about themselves, they would see that our century has also been blessed with a tremendous amount of superb art."

You do not have to agree with an artist's theology to appreciate something good that he or she has created. And you can appreciate such a work of art without giving up your own theology.

pg. 23 -
"It is true that some of the artists that I’ve mentioned may not be strictly orthodox on all aspects of doctrine, and many of them remain outside of the institutional church. But many of these figures are faithful Christians or observant Jews. All of the artists I’ve listed treat religion as one of the defining components of our lives. I think it is fair to say that if this body of art was absorbed and pondered by the majority of Christians, the quality of Christian witness and compassion in our society would be immeasurably strengthened ... Christian artists must be confident enough in their faith to be able to explore what it means to be human."

In fact, it is a weakness within your theology if you are afraid of culture. Part of the strength of Christianity is actually believing, with fairly straight-forward confidence, that it's true. This is the confidence Thomas Aquinas rested upon when he declared that nothing ever discovered in science would ever contradict Scripture. And if Christianity is true, then we have nothing to be afraid of from other truths anywhere else in culture, history, science, or the world. In fact, we really ought to be stewards of what is good in the world.

pg. 43 -
"The world is not evil; that is a Gnostic idea. Of course, generation after generation of believers have struggled to define what living ‘in the world’ means. Some have interpreted their faith in such a way that they are only in the world as a ghost or a hologram might be: these are the conservatives who live in a world of abstractions, the harsh moralistic principles that keep them in orbit above the world."

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


An Essay on the Rather Unfortunate Idea of the "Culture Wars" And On a Few Older Ideas Currently Out of Fashion

"Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being."
- Thomas Carlyle

"There is a religious war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the Cold War itself. And in that struggle for the soul of America, Clinton and Clinton are on the other side, and George Bush is on our side."
- Patrick Buchanan

"Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living."
- T.S. Eliot

"We are awash in evil and the battle is still to be waged. We are right now in the most discouraging period of that long conflict. Humanly speaking, we can say we have lost all those battles."
- James Dobson

Alright, let’s face it, your and my personal tastes are subjective and transitory.

Whether we like or enjoy something at any given time can entirely depend on what day of the week it is.

Your personality affects your own personal tastes and opinions. And this is what makes us different from one another. We all prefer different things, think different thoughts, go through different experiences, enjoy different pleasures, and ... acquire unique perspectives.

In other words, whether you realize it or not, you are heavily influenced by your upbringing, by your environment, and by your surroundings.

Another way of putting this is by saying that who you are as a person is shaped and influenced by the culture in which you live. However, saying that sort of thing is derived from a very deliberately designed line of thinking. And while this is precisely the idea that we are going to explore, let’s dispatch with a few preliminary assumptions first.

Once upon a time in America, or so the story goes, people were approximately uniform. Everyone lived comfortably and safely with the same ideas, same religion, same politics, same morality, and same ... culture. Sure, there were Democrats and Republicans who voted differently in elections more or less in the friendly way that you'd root for different football teams. Of course, every once in a while, bad guys would come along, like Hitler, and all the decent people would have to band together and stop him. And that's what they did. But, we at least all knew what right and wrong were, believed in the same God, and didn't make each other lock our doors at night.

But then, something happened. Other cultures started invading the land. Diabolical influences like Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Bertrand Russell, Betty Friedan, Margaret Sanger, John Lennon, Timothy Leary, Jane Fonda, and Carl Sagan marshaled their invading armies of "Secular Humanism" against everything that was decent in the world. Pagan philosophers like John Dewey and Karl Jaspers decided to be sneaky and capture the hearts and minds of the children by taking over the education system. W.E.B. Du Bois and William James started talking about something weird called cultural pluralism, multiculturalism, mosaics and tossed salads. A liberal intellectual elite covered the university landscape with enemy fortresses by making up things with "-ology" at the end of them (sociology, psychology, pathology, anthropology, ecology, ethnology, historiology, synecology, tegestology ... sexology). Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was much less pleasant than the story of the Garden of Eden. Albert Einstein said everything was relative. And, well, everything went to hell. Time to head for the bunkers. Never give in. Never surrender.

It may depend upon your social circle or upon your level of attraction to politics or religion. But if you’ve ever happened to peruse the rhetorical excesses engaged in by the religious right over the last two or three decades, then you’ve probably heard of it. If you listen to the modern news media, then you’ve absolutely heard of it. And if you should have ever had the misfortune of sitting through even one day of speeches within the chambers of the United States Congress, then you’ve heard it repeated so many times that the phrase is already meaningless for you.

Culture War ...

There are certain rhetorical exercises specifically designed to arouse deep feelings within the heart of the listener. Using military idioms related to battles and war is one such exercise. If one is persuaded that "Secular Humanism" is an enemy that we ought to engage in combat with, one will feel slightly stronger about it than if merely told that Gore Vidal or Noam Chomsky were bad writers. If persuaded that Charles A. Beard was a Red Commie intent on destroying American history, I will care much more than if poor Mr. Beard was merely a conspiracy theorist who, unlike Harry Turtledove, forgot to add the word fiction to the end of his science. Talking in terms of a war, you first of all have to make sure you know who the enemy is. Next you need to build defenses and fortifications to protect yourselves. Finally, you need a plan of attack.

Now, lamenting extreme partisan politics today is old hat. Unless you are a member of the ACLU or the Christian Coalition, or unless you're a politician or journalist, you probably think unfavorably on the idea of "culture wars" anyhow. Many of us are likely to see questionable rhetoric and propaganda for what they are. When Patrick Buchanan waxed crusade-like about the cultural religious war that those liberals had brought against us, you ought to have forgotten about it five minutes later. When the news media praised President Obama for how his message of hope and change transcended the culture wars, you ought to have yawned. When Dr. James Dobson announced that the Christian church was losing the battle for the hearts and minds of their children, you ought to have checked up on baseball scores. And, when Jonah Goldberg and Peggy Noonan worried that Texas Governor Rick Perry would encourage the "culture war," you ought to have casually dismissed the idea that governors who declare "Confederate Appreciation" months have the slightest chance at winning presidential primaries in the first place, let alone general elections.

This is the point. The idea of "culture wars" is a political and divisive idea. It's an us vs. them mentality. It's a fun game to play in high school government class. It's an exercise in rhetorical overkill.

However ...

We've got to admit that all this sort of thing has still been brainwashing us a little. Even if you don't realize it, these dumb ideas about culture wars have affected the way that you think. I'll prove it to you. How do you define the word "culture"? What is a culture, anyway?

Defining the Word "Culture"

1 - The American-Heritage Collegiate Dictionary defines “culture” as “The predominating attitudes and behavior that characterize the functioning of a group or organization.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “culture” as “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group ... the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization ... the set of values, conventions, or social practices associated with a particular societal characteristic.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines “culture” as “the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people or other social group ... the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”

So a culture is a set of social conventions, beliefs, values, practices, traditions all specific to one group of people as distinguished from another. This is how the word "culture" is most often and generally used. But, there is another definition of the word.

2 - The American-Heritage Collegiate Dictionary also defines “culture” as “Special training or development ... A high degree of taste and refinement formed by aesthetic and intellectual training ... Development of the intellect through training or education ... Enlightenment resulting from such training or education.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary also defines “culture” as “the act of developing the intellectual and moral faculties especially by education ... enlightenment and excellence in taste acquired by intellectual and aesthetic training ... acquaintance with and taste in fine arts, humanities, and broad aspects of science.” The Oxford English Dictionary also defines “culture” as “the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively ... a refined understanding or appreciation.”

So culture, according to the second definition, is the cultivation of that which is of value, of worth - the moral and intellectual virtues. Interestingly enough, this other definition is the older one. This is evidenced by the fact that the first definition is not found in older English dictionaries. Instead we have -

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 A Dictionary of the English Language, which defines the word culture simply as “The act of cultivation; tillage; the art of improvement and melioration.” Noah Webster’s 1828 Dictionary defines the word 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 ... Any labor or means employed for improvement, correction or growth.”

I think my favorite discussion of the older definition is found in the 1889 Century Unabridged Dictionary, which defines “culture” as ...

“The systematic improvement and refinement of the mind, especially of one’s own. [Not common before the nineteenth century, except with strong consciousness of the metaphor involved, though used in Latin by Cicero.] ... The result of mental cultivation, or the state of being cultivated; refinement or enlightenment; learning and taste; in a broad sense, civilization: as, a man of culture.”

Rather to the pomp and ostentacion of their wit, then to the culture and profit of theyr mindes. - Sir T. More, Works, p. 14.

The culture and manurance of minds in youth hath such a forcible (though unseen) operation as hardly any length of time or contention of labour can countervail it afterwards. - Bacon, Advancement of Learning (Original [English ed.], Works, III. 415.

O Lord, if thou suffer not thy servant, that we may pray before thee, and thou give us seed unto our heart, and culture to our understanding, that there may come fruit of it, how shall each man live that is corrupt, who beareth the place of a man? - 2 Esd. viii. 6.

Culture, the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world, and thus with the history of the human spirit. - M. Arnold, Literature and Dogma, Pref.

There you have it. Two completely distinct and separate ideas of what culture is. Our understanding of what the word "culture" means has changed over time. So the next question I'm interested in is why this is so. What does this change in definitions mean? But, before we get to that, let's consider for a moment the purely elementary notion of semantic evolution. Granted, many words in the English language have more than one meaning. In fact, many words in almost any language have multiple meanings and represent different ideas, depending upon how they are used. Over time and history, a number of English words have gained multiple meanings that they didn't originally contain. All this is true. And yet, there is still something more interesting than semantic diversity going on here.

In order to process this distinction further, we next need to decide if these two definitions simply contain two distinct ideas to which one can hold to at the same time. Are these two meanings complimentary or are they contradictory? Do they both contain separate ideas that are worth conveying in different contexts, OR do they each contain a philosophy that excludes the other? Of course, one of the most immediate things to come to mind here involves the fact that the entire idea of a "culture war" is impossible when using the word by its old definition. The "us vs. them" way of thinking is only possible if you use the word "culture" according to its more recent definition. The more recent definition is how we distinguish ourselves from others. The older definition is how we distinguish who we are now with who we could/ought to become or grow into. When Patrick Buchanan talks about the culture war, or when Pat Robertson talks about our different values and beliefs about something like gay marriage, the old definition of culture hasn't even crossed their minds.

It is entirely possible, if not even probable, that both definitions of the word "culture" are perfectly legitimate uses of the word.

At first glance, the idea of cultivating virtue and improved aesthetic taste within yourself doesn't seem to exclude the idea that different groups of people have social characteristics that distinguish them from one another.

There's something interesting about these two ideas, however. One is old, one is new. And it took a group of philosophers to advance the new idea. For example, early 1800s philosopher, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, advanced the newer definition of culture that we have today. Hegel is a philosopher most famous for talking about "progress" in history. To Hegel, cultures (plural) exhibited different contradictions and embodied different sets of values which were opposed to each other. In order to have a deeper appreciation for one's one culture, Hegel taught, one has to understand how it is different from other cultures. This involves a focus on language, customs and social norms. In doing this, Hegel considered himself in opposition to what he thought of as the Kantian view of culture. (See The Phenomenology of Spirit and Lectures on the Philosophy of World History).

Hegel describes culture as "I that is a We, and the We that is an I." He often writes about what he calls the "spirit of a culture" or the "spirit of a nation" when distinguishing between different groups. For example -

"The spirit of a nation is reflected in its history, its religion, and the degree of its political freedom. The improvement of individual morality is a matter involving one’s private religion, one’s parents, one’s personal efforts, and one’s individual situation. The cultivation of the spirit of the people as a whole requires in addition the respective contributions of folk religion and political institutions."

In other words, a culture (religion, political institutions, etc.) shapes and forms the people contained within it. This is to be distinguished from the older idea of culture as it applies to the individual person, something Hegel is less interested in.

"Hence it is that, in the case of various kinds of knowledge, we find that what in former days occupied the energies of men of mature mental ability sinks to the level of information, exercises, and even pastimes, for children; and in this educational progress we can see the history of the world’s culture delineated in faint outline ... In this respect culture or development of mind (Bildung), regarded from the side of the individual, consists in his acquiring what lies at his hand ready for him, in making its inorganic nature organic to himself, and taking possession of it for himself. Looked at, however, from the side of universal mind qua general spiritual substance, culture means nothing else than that this substance gives itself its own self-consciousness, brings about its own inherent process and its own reflection into self."

While we shouldn’t blame him for it, it is no coincidence that G.W.F. Hegel was one of Karl Marx’s favorite philosophers. Adherent’s to Hegel’s dialectic can point out that Marx did not follow all of Hegel’s ideas with satisfactory logical consistency, but it cannot be denied that Hegel’s advancement of the newer view of “culture” heavily influenced Marx in developing his ideas on class warfare. In fact, in distinguishing between the bourgeois culture and the oppressed proletariat, Marx had every reason to be suspicious of the old view of culture. The old view of culture can look like the property of only the educated elite, of the upper class in society, of the conceited bourgeois. Again, once culture means the differences between groups of people then it’s not too difficult to begin viewing the world as a war between the values of those different groups of people.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

"The Queen of Argyll" - by Silly Wizard (1983)

So there's a lot of useless time-wasting one can do on YouTube, but I've got to admit there's some really good music on there that's hard to find. Given my family heritage, I'm a little partial to Scottish folk music, and here's one with particularly well written and haunting lyrics from the band, Silly Wizard's sixth album, Kiss the Tears Away.

Silly Wizard, by the way, was a Scottish folk band that, while established in 1970, released most of their music in the 1980s (continuing a tradition like this in the midst of 80s music had to be pretty rare). No synthesizer, just guitars and mandolins.

(First brought to my attention over at a fun music Arts and Faith thread.)

Saturday, October 1, 2011


Tom: I don't think I really enjoyed history at school.
Gerri: Didn't you?
Tom: Maybe I did. It's just that the older you get, the more relevant it seems.
Gerri: Hmmm.
Tom: To state the bleeding obvious.
Gerri: We'll be part of history soon. (giggles)
Tom: Exactly.

Another Year is a simple, understated film. But there is something about it that makes it glow. The marriage between the two main characters of the film gives the story a strength around which everything else revolves. Tom and Gerri are an older couple happily married with one son. They have created a home that is a shelter and refuge for whoever drops by for a visit. In fact, the marriage portrayed in this film is just the sort of marriage that I want someday. Marriage, for various reasons, is looked down upon in our culture. Over 40% of all American marriages are currently ending in divorce. So it does the heart good to see the joy that a happily married couple can have portrayed so fully in one little film.

Honestly, nothing much happens during the two hour run length. You simply get to watch as this couple is visited by friends and family, all of whom in their own ways, have their own problems and weaknesses. Maybe that's putting it lightly. Some of their friends are complete and absolute messes. Life hasn't been kind to them, but they haven't been doing anything to help themselves either. They visit the two protagonists of the film because they find love and comfort there. It's peaceful to be around these two, and they provide strength to whoever shadows their doorstep. Just being in their company results in a place of warmth, patience, hospitality, comfort, and food and drink for all. Their friends inconvenience them and bother them. Their simple pleasures are regularly interrupted. But their very existence provides a rock in the storm.

Tom Hepple (Jim Broadbent - Professor Kirke in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Professor Slughorn in Harry Potter) is a bright-eyed, cheerful, soft-spoken man who occasionally surprises those around him by suddenly taking a moral stance on something with a considerable amount of bluntness and force. Gerri Hepple (Ruth Sheen - a favorite actress of director Mike Leigh) is a woman who works in counseling and psychology, and because of her love for people and her understanding of them, doesn't really do anything different when she's off the job. Because they give each other joy, they are both stronger and able to be a light and a help for others.

Mary: Everybody needs somebody to talk to, don't they?
Gerri: Yes, they do.

Because Tom and Gerri love each other, they take simple pleasure in merely being in each other's company. They enjoy working in their vegetable garden together year round (the result of which they use to supply their table), just reading in bed together, or just sitting under a shelter and watching it rain. The joy they take in each other is evident to their friends and that is what makes them such a comfort to be around. It's as if they attract hurting friends with problems in need of solving simply by their very goodness.

Actress Lesley Manville turns out one of the films best performances as Gerri's friend from work, Mary. Mary is the friend we get to see the most, partly because she is the friend who takes the most liberties with her friendship with the Hepples. The awkward situations she creates for them are both humorous and pathetic. But you know people like Mary. Anything good that happens to her always ends in a disaster. She is a lost soul. She has been hurt by a divorce and by other men in her life, and yet her neediness just creates more of the same. She's man-crazy, and she allows the way men treat her to form who she is as a person. Because she even fantasizes about a romance with the Hepples' son, Joe (who she knew as an adult while he was a mere 10-year-old), she regularly forces her desperation on the Hepple family.

Mary: Well, what can you do Tom? You can't walk around with a label saying 'Don't fall in love with me. I'm married.' Can you?
Tom: Some people wear a ring.
Mary: He didn't. Well he wasn't a bad person. He loved me.
Tom: Sounds to me like he was a duplicitous shit.

And yet, they don't stop loving her. In spite of all her demands on them, and in spite of their annoyances, they merely accept her as a person who they hope can grow into the woman they believe she's capable of. They grace her with an almost infinite amount of patience. They welcome her to their dinner table even when she really is intruding. One is reminded of how Christ taught us to love the poor and needy in the Gospels. Some people are materially poor, and others are poor in spirit. Tom and Gerri give aid to those of their friends who are poor in spirit.

Peter Wight plays another friend, Ken, who is also poor in spirit. His lifestyle of eating, drinking and being merry has taken its toll on his soul. He mirrors Mary's cliches about living life while you can and avoiding thinking about tomorrow. An old friend of Tom's, Ken occasionally warms himself in the glow of the Hepple household and always dreads leaving them to go back to his own pitiful life. Tom reaches out to him and encourages him to change both the way he lives and the way he thinks. When Tom offers the companionship and comradrie of a walk across the country focused on visiting old local pubs to him, Ken's misery is so entrenched that he can't even accept the offer. He's so focused on himself and his own sadness that he can't bring himself to take joy in things outside himself. In fact, as screwed up as Mary is, she's somehow still out of Ken's class. His attempts to flirt with her are destined to end in brutal failure. Like Mary, he also drinks too much. And smokes too much, eats too much, pities himself too much, etc. But this doesn't mean Tom is going to stop being his friend.

One of the questions that Tom and Gerri have to wrestle with in this story is how, exactly, they can help their lost friends. They discuss their disappointment with each other when their hospitality and encouragement doesn't seem to help. Gerri even questions whether she should be guilty for being so happy while her friend isn't. Their friendship with others can only accomplish so much, so why does it sometimes seem like it's not accomplishing anything at all.

And here is where we reach something I don't understand about the film. While Another Year has received overwhelmingly positive reviews, there are a large number of reviewers who don't like Tom and Gerri. Something about their joy and goodness bothers film critics. But why?

In The Village Voice, Karina Longworth opines -

"The further the characters are etched, the harder it becomes to figure out with whom Leigh intends us to identify: Tom and Gerri’s horrible house guests, who you can’t help but pity for their clueless concern for only themselves? Or self-appointed 'Saint Gerri' and her even more self-righteous partner, whose care for friends and family is never anything less than condescending?"

Tony Macklin, apparently in between chugs of Pabst Blue Ribbon, complains -

"Several reviewers have said they'd like to meet and stay with the people in the movie. I'm not sure why. If you identify with these characters, you probably are not going to this movie. The characters probably don't go to the movies. If I were at a party with these characters, I'd pay my respects, and get the hell out of there."

Kent Turner takes a deep drag from his water vapor cigarette, and sneers in Film-Forward -

"Luckily, Mary’s also soused on an afternoon bender, otherwise she may not have overlooked Gerri’s condescending recommendation that she 'could try a culture holiday' for a change of pace ... [A] compelling question hovers throughout: why are the eerily calm Gerri and Tom enablers, or are they just sounding boards for Mary? While she holds the film hostage, the couple commits a thoughtless act at a funeral in such a quiet and confident way that their selfishness and arrogance have gone under the radar for many critics."

In The Hollywood Reporter, Ray Bennett speculates on the actors bringing "a sly touch of smugness to the apparently contented but quite boring central couple" and wonders if Leigh secretly "intends them to be not quite as nice as they appear." Alistair Harkness, after spending too much time scowling upon the Scottish heath, just doesn't like people who smile. He moans that "... there's obviously no scope for drama in simply observing the lives of such sickeningly happy people" and grumbles that the Hepples' friends are "seen through the prism of Tom and Gerri's conceited point of view."

Simon Foster apparently decided that this film dangerously portrays the bourgeois middle class in too positive of a light. Taking a breather from his Friedrich Engels reading, he pounds out in SBS Film how he doesn't like the film's married couple for being "secure in their well-educated, professional lives" and makes fun of director, Mike Leigh, when "[s]ome early concerns about the single lifestyle by their upwardly-mobile son ... are dispersed when he brings home Katie (Karina Fernandez), an equally vibrant, well-educated, upwardly-mobile member of their class strata ..." Since it bothers him that much, at least Foster can rest secure in the knowledge that his ability to critique film is the opposite of upwardly-mobile. Critic Mike Scott only offers struggling friends tea or water. He agrees with Mr. Turner when he scoffs in the Times-Picayune - "Good thing Tom and Gerri are the lovely enablers that they are. They pat Mary and company on the back, pour them a drink, wipe their noses, then go on with their lives. And then ... nothing."

Tom: It's the young person's prerogative to be noisy.