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.