Thursday, November 11, 2010

Review of Ann W. Astell's Eating Beauty: The Eucharist and the Spiritual Arts of the Middle Ages

Ann W. Astell's Eating Beauty is, as one might guess, not accidentally titled. It is a play on words that works in multiple directions. First, it is jarring in light of the fact that food was never a subject in Medieval aesthetics. It made no sense to speak of the beauty of food (despite Augustine's famous ode to the taste of a stolen apple). Beauty may reside in the eye of the beholder, but not in the beholder's taste buds. So, in a work that deals with Medieval aesthetics, there's something delightfully jarring about the phrase “eating beauty,” which in asserting that beauty can be eaten challenges the absence of the culinary arts in the Middle Ages.

But, as both a title and a phrase meant both to jar and to play with readers, “eating beauty” is much more significant than that. Because, when you eat beauty, you consume it. Destroy it. Exhaust its capacity for beauty. The beauty is spent. But, not just spent. It is also transformed. Not just ground between your teeth, but digested in your bowels. And, as it is digested, it becomes a part of you. When, in other words, beauty is eaten, not only is the beauty itself transformed, but the eater is, in taking beauty into their body and making that beauty a part of themselves, transformed as well.

This play on words serves, then, as the starting point for a Eucharistic theology. In laying out that theology, Astell pits two foods against each other: the apple, the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Garden of Eden, and the Eucharistic host, the bread which is also the body of Christ, eaten in holy communion. Just as sin came – at least in a mythic sense – into the world through an act of eating, the ugliness of that sin is transformed in the very body of those who eat the Eucharistic host. Eating beauty is thus a Eucharistic act, taking the beauty of Christ into the body through the eating of the bread. This is a magnificent metaphor, and it alone – even if there were no other virtues in this work – is sufficient to reward the reading of Astell's book.

From here, however, she takes the reader on a whirlwind tour through Medieval aesthetics. And on that tour, I must confess, she lost me. She strikes me as a more than competent Medievalist, deftly narrating the thoughts of Bernard of Clairvaux, Gertrude of Helfta, St. Bonaventure, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and even, in an unexpect twist given her subject matter, Simone Weil. But, as a theologian and not a historian, it was what she offered to Eucharistic theology at the beginning of her work, that powerful metaphor of eating beauty in the Eucharistic host, that most struck me. I kept wanting her to draw that metaphor forward, unpack its significance for those who, whether consciously or not, eat beauty as they draw the Eucharistic host into their bodies at the table of Christ. But, by and large, she didn't do that.

That Astell – who at the time of publication was a Professor of English at Purdue University, and is now a Professor of Theology at Notre Dame – did not do this, is, perhaps, unsurprising. She is, after all, a Medievalist, and all of her previous works narrate Europe's Middle Ages. But still, I couldn't help but wonder if Astell wasn't hiding her own voice too much behind the great voices of the past, whose thought she rightly points us to. In that sense, though Eating Beauty is, on its own terms, a success – even if a success that, as a theologian and not a historian, I'm not entirely equipped to judge – I can't help but view it as a missed opportunity. Or, perhaps, an opportunity that has not yet been missed. After all, one great metaphor can serve as the foundation of an entire work. Dr. Astell should know that; that's what she just did. And if she can, perhaps someone else can, too. So, who wants to explore what it means to “eat beauty” in the Eucharistic host today?

Tuesday, November 09, 2010


I'm thinking about rebooting this blog. It has been sitting in cyberspace, long neglected by its less than loving parent. There's some good stuff here, and there's also a great deal here that I'd like to revisit as my theology changes. And change it has and change it must, for change is part of the nature of life and faith, and should be expected in the life of faith.

I'm especially struck by how little this blog interacts with post-colonial theory, and how it uncritically falls into the pattern of constructing race in a binary way, with "black" and "white" as the normative categories, not allowing for any diversity in those camps, much less allowing for the existence of other camps.

I'm also struck by how much of a "post-evangelical" blog this is. And that't what it should be, as it wrestles with my move away from Evangelical Christianity (which is distinguished from the fundamentally evangelical drive of Christianity, that is always looking to bring people into the Kin-dom of God).

I haven't posted in a while because I haven't had anything to say in a while. I've also been busy with duties in church (I re-entered pastoral ministry for a year, though I'm now back in the familiar position of being principally an ex-pastor not employed by any congregation but still thinking and acting pastorally in my daily life), school (I've moved to Evanston, IL, and am in a PhD in theology program here), and family (it is not a coincidence that my writing here tapered off around the same time my daughter was born).

I also began to despair about the ability to sufficiently converse in the blogosphere, which has become a very coarse place indeed. Or, perhaps its always been coarse, and mean, as cowards hide being the mask of anonymity to say here what they wouldn't dare say to your face. Except, perhaps now they would. Conversations seem to be coarsening everywhere, as American culture (sorry, but as an American I write as and American, uncritically placing the United States at the center of the universe, because for better and for worse it is the center of my universe) divides itself into two camps eternally pitted against each other. Political Zororastrianism, you might call it, though who gets to be Ahura Mazda and who gets to be Ahriman depends on which side you're on.

Thoughtful critics will say that there has never been a Golden Age in American history where we've all just gotten along, despite our differences, but whatever the long lens of history says the short lens of my life says that in the past decade things have really changed. Civility belongs in a museum, next to all of the other quaint and curious extinct animals, for us to marvel at, not live with.

That atmosphere is, frankly, exhausting. And in it, people like me don't have much to say. Life itself is struggle enough without the added struggle of clumsily wading into public discourse. That's why I took a brief excursion into music blogging, though I didn't really have the time or the drive to keep that up. After you've said what you like about music, and what kind of music you like, what else is left to say? You can get into theory, but I don't know any of that. You can wade into philosophy, but having done that I just want to smack myself and scream "Just listen to the damn music, and stop analyzing it!" Who cares if a particular musical expression reminds you of Derrida, or Kierkegaard, or of some obscure Zen master whose work you never understood in the first place? Who cares about the constant struggle between chaos and order, between building up and tearing down, constructing and deconstructing? And, what's the point of saying that something can only be understood "non-rationally" - even if you're right about the limits of reason, you still have to use it to say why it doesn't work here, which creates its own absurdities.

My point in all this is confessional: I ran into the limits of blogging. Or did I?

I guess we'll find out, because I've started writing again. What, if anything, makes it here is a matter of speculation. If anything does, I hope it is better than this self-indulgent stream-of-consciousness. But, that's also the point of blogging, isn't it? To indulge yourself in the delusion that you have something to say, and something worth hearing. Or, in this case, reading, because the art of reading to yourself has been around at least since Augustine's mentor Ambrose. And I guess, to the extent that I have a point, that's my final one. Something is lost when reading becomes the intellectual activity of decoding words for yourself, and not a way to both represent and reproduce speech.

That something is the communal nature of literature. What's lost is the sense of reading together. Reading in community. The community, by the way, places important checks on interpretation, acting together to understand common symbols. Without an interpretive community, symbols don't function. They have no meaning. They don't point at anything beyond themselves. They have been vacated, emptied out. They are no longer symbols, but mere scribbles with no one to decipher them.

These words, signs and symbols themselves, will sit on your computer screen if you so desire. But, what community is in place to read them, together? To decide - with me and also against me, for the meaning of words goes well beyond authoral intent - what they mean?

I've got some ideas about that, but they will have to wait.

For now I'll say this: the blogosphere ain't church, and that's one of the reasons I've been in church and not here. Church is that common interpretive community that helps me make sense out of my experience of God, and helps me unpack the symbolic nature of God's self-disclosure. The fragmentary nature of the blogosphere, however, is very much like the fragmentary nature of church. And, the consumeristic mentality of the broader culture permeates both the blogosphere and the church. So I read a blog because I know that the author already agrees with me, and I go to church because I know the pastor already agrees with me. And I don't have to take seriously those who disagree with me, because my reading habits and my worship habits reinforce in me what I already believe, while helping me turn my enemies into straw, to be, I suppose, ultimately not just torn down but set on fire.

I'm not arrogant enough to think that I have any solutions to the problems so clumsily alluded to here. That's one of the reasons I haven't been writing. But, whether I have any solutions, it may soon be time for me to reenter the struggle.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

New Blog

I'm now blogging at a new blog devoted to music and culture, Yes, I Am Cheesy Enough. My first contribution to this emerging group project is (loosely) on Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin's 1973 album Love Devotion Surrender. You can find it here.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

On the Use of Hell as a Moral Enforcement Mechanism

A friend of mine has been asking an interesting question lately: "What is killing the church?" I'm not entirely sure that I accept the premise. It's not entirely clear to me either that a.) the church is dying (though it is certainly in decline in the West - whatever is meant by "the West"), or that b.) if it is dying, its impending death is not from natural causes. That said, the question is a very interesting one, and it has produced some good conversation.

I've appreciated many of the answers offered - including my evil twin's contention that if the church is dying it is because, at least in evangelical circles, it has been more concerned with making converts than with making disciples, offering up salvation as a cheap good to be purchased as a form of fire insurance, bought with the price of a single, rote prayer, affecting only one's afterlife, and not one's life.

Some offerings, however, have bothered me a little. One of them - which was also commonly offered as a source of the decline of the small country church I briefly pastored - is roughly this:

In our collective rush to theologically accommodate a culture uncomfortable with "Biblical truths," we have abandoned language and beliefs concerning hell, which has in turn caused us to lose all sense of accountability.

There are a number of contentious premises in this kind of argument. The first - a not-at-all-uncommon one, which is by no means unique to this kind of argument - is that it makes sense to speak in monolithic terms of "the church" and "culture." There are, of course, good theological reasons to speak of "the church." Christian unity - while rarely if ever existing in history - is an important theme in the Christian tradition. Just because there is no single historical entity called "the church," which has a single population unified by a single set of beliefs and practices, does not mean that it is entirely nonsensical to speak of such an entity. We should just understand that such an entity has not yet come into existence in history, and may never do so. It is a kind of eschatological vision - a vision of what might be God's ultimate intention - and not a statement of what is.

Monolithic language of "culture" is more problematic, because it doesn't even point to some eschatological reality out there on some distant horizon. Simply put, there is no single entity called "culture." It does make sense to speak of "cultures," but even there we must be careful, for there is no pure distillation of any single culture. Don't believe me? Fine. Try this: What are the defining attributes of, say, American culture? Do you think you could find any two people to agree on some comprehensive list? I don't. But perhaps that's because the category is too big. What about a subculture within American culture? OK, you could divide by geography, and pick a state, or even a city. Or perhaps a neighborhood within a city. But you still would have an almost impossible time coming up with a list of attributes that everyone within the "culture" in question could agree on.

Or, perhaps, you could find a subculture within "American culture" that is divided by some kind of common interest rather than by geography. What, then, might be the defining attributes of, say, "punk culture," or "hip hop culture"? Could you ever find common agreement on those, or on any other identifiable subculture? I sincerely doubt it.

That doesn't mean that all language concerning culture should be abandoned as nonsensical. It just means that great care should be exerting when discussing culture. There are aspects of American culture that have been heavily influenced by the Christian faith. There are aspects of the way that the Christian faith is often practiced in the United States and elsewhere that have clearly been shaped by aspects of American culture. The relationship between the Christian faith and whatever conglomeration of cultures it finds itself surrounded by in any given region is a very complex and mutually interdependent one. A great many books have been written on the subject, including Lamin Sanneh's excellent Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture.

It just doesn't make sense to say that "the church" has totally given in to "culture." It certainly might feel true - especially in the midst of theological disagreement. But that doesn't mean that it is true. There is no single entity, existing in history, called "the church"; there is no single entity existing either in history or anywhere else called "culture"; and the relationship in any location between the practice of the Christian faith and the various cultures surrounding said practice is never a one-way street.

But that's a trivial concern. The real concern is the use anywhere of hell - or, rather, the fear of hell - as a kind of moral enforcement mechanism. This is not uncommon, and I have no interest in picking on any particular person. This is a pretty common move, made not just in the conversation my friend hosted on the causes of the impending death of the church, but really almost anywhere the practice of the Christian faith feels threatened. And, no doubt, more than a few places where it isn't. The notion here is that hell - or, at least, the fear of hell - is a good and proper motivator of moral behavior. If only language concerning hell were employed more, people would behave better.

This is often connected - as in the case of the church I once pastored - to some telling of the Myth of the Golden Past. The Myth of the Golden Past can be found almost anywhere. It simply points to some generally undefined point in the past, and says, roughly, that things were so much better then. If only we - whoever and wherever "we" are - could return to that point - or, at least, the values of that point - we would be so much better off.

This myth is a naive telling of history, glossing over all of the problems of whichever period has been idealized, and using it as a critique of what is wrong in the present. Insofar as it identifies real problems in the present it does have some use. But, because the idealized past it presents has no real reality to it, but is rather a fiction created by a naive remembering, the solutions offered in the telling of this myth are rarely if ever helpful. Usually this myth is wielded as a weapon against progressives in any context, who are moving a particular group away from the sins of the past. (See, for example, the way political and social conservatives in America use an idealized retelling of the 1950s as a critique of both present social problems and the liberals who they blame for said social problems.)

So here the solution to the present problems faced by the church is to return to an age of doctrinal purity when the faith did not just cave in willy-nilly to a culture more concerned with making everyone feel good than with telling God's hard truth. If only we - whoever "we" are - hadn't jettisoned our doctrine and language of hell (though it is by no means clear to me that beliefs concerning hell are really in decline - hellfire and damnation preachers still abound, if not quite in the force they had in the first Great Awakening when Jonathan Edwards penned his famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God"), then we would have the kind of moral accountability that would eliminate the various social, cultural, and personal sins that have relegated the church to the margins.

Hell is thus offered up as both an effective and appropriate moral enforcement mechanism. A means by which to control behavior and to impose a code of behavior consistent with a particular Christian theology.

Before I say what I think - from a Christian perspective - is horribly wrong with this kind of argument, I should note what is right with it. It is connected to the historical development of beliefs about the afterlife. Notions of good and bad afterlives are found in at least some strands of almost every religious tradition, and they generally (though I'm painting with a really broad brush here) begin as a kind of theodicy, a kind of defense of God's or the gods' justice.

One of the great scandals of life is that moral behavior seems so disconnected from outcomes in life. The righteous often suffer. The wicked often live lives of lavish luxury. This calls into question the fundamental justice of the universe. And, while there are some subtle moves available - like my argument here - concepts of heaven and hell are a neat and tidy way to recalibrate the moral scale of the universe. It may, such beliefs argue, seem as though wickedness is too often rewarded, and righteousness too often punished. But, things only seem that way. There is a-whole-nother layer to reality, another life or lives beyond this one. And the one's moral activity in this life impact one's fate and standing in the nest life or lives.

But is such a move - appealing to hell as a kind of moral enforcement mechanism, with the fear of hell serving as a motivator for moral behavior, and hell itself balancing the universe's scale of justice - a Christian move. One the one hand, insofar as the move is made by many Christians, my from-the-ground-up view of religion compels me to say that it is, in fact, Christian, in the sense that it is a belief that many Christians hold. But, is it properly Christian, motivated by Christian theology. I'm not so sure that it is. And I am sure that, whether it can be described as "Christian" or not, positing hell as a moral enforcement mechanism is a bad move.

And that (finally!) brings us to the point. Here, in list form, is what I think is wrong with using hell as a moral enforcement mechanism (sure took long enough to get here!):

1. Fear of hell - like fear of any punishment, and contrived consequence for misbehavior - is a poor motive for doing good and avoiding doing bad: One who behaves in a particular way simply out of fear of punishment can hardly be called a moral agent at all, much less a good moral agent. A good moral agent is someone who wants to do good for the sake of doing good. The good itself has a kind of positive appeal. Claiming that hell - and only hell - presents us with moral accountability in a way that eliminates bad behavior is not only manipulative, crippling moral agency; but also sells the good itself short, as though it has no appeal on its own.

Fear of hell, in other words, creates moral infants who can never understand the positive appeal of the good.

2. Connecting hell - and damnation, the opposite of salvation - to moral behavior - while consistent broadly with the history of negative afterlives outside the Christian tradition - fails to understand and appreciate the distinctive role of grace in the Christian doctrine of salvation: Broadly, Christianity asserts that Christians are saved by God's grace, through the saving act of Jesus Christ, and NOT through our own effort and moral behavior. Even most pietistic theologies, which do connect salvation with moral behavior, do not assert that moral behavior causes or prevents salvation, but rather that good moral behavior results from and gives evidence to salvation already caused by grace.

Thus, where hell is a stand in for the opposite of salvation, the true home of those who stand outside salvation (a problematic doctrine in its own right), connecting moral behavior to fear of hell - where behaving morally both results from and alleviates said fear - is a denial of the saving role of God's grace. If hell is in fact an option, and the opposite of salvation, then still, in a Christian understanding, it is not moral behavior that would save one from hell, but rather God's grace.

3. Hell itself makes God a cosmic tyrant and a bully: John Wesley famously said of the Calvinist understanding of God (as he understood it), "Such a God would be unworthy of worship." That is exactly how I feel about a God who creates and sends people to hell, a place of eternal torment without any hope of relief. No properly functioning moral agent would create unrelenting suffering for anyone or anything. Such suffering - without the possibility of any redemptive value - is the very embodiment of evil. Yet those who posit hell as a moral enforcement mechanism offer an understand of God as the cause of eternal torment.

Oh, sure, there are subtle moves available to try to move the cause of the suffering from God to the one suffering, but that calls divine sovereignty into question. If God created hell, and if God ultimately decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell, then it is, in fact, God who is the agent responsible for creating eternal suffering in those that God also created. God thus ultimately created them for suffering, which makes God morally worse than the child with the magnifying glass frying ants in the backyard on a hot summer's day, for at least the ants' suffering has some end - even if said end is only death - and at least there is some hope that the child will one day grow up and cease being so callous to the suffering that s/he creates in other sentient beings.

I know that was a lot of words to say only a little, but hopefully it spurs at least a little thought concerning the use of hell as a moral enforcement mechanism.