Thursday, September 15, 2022

goddesses (and an alternative)

I have an article up at Comment today reviewing a show at The British Museum entitled "Feminine Power."

I'm also happy to report that at long last my book Mother of the Lamb has arrived. I think it's part of where this blog, started in 2003, has been headed all along. 

My fantastic editor had me push all the academic discussions, art historical and theological, to the endnotes, so I hope it is accessible to anyone, while also being a resource for scholars. She also helped me keep the cost down. Please consider purchasing a copy wherever books are sold. 

Saturday, July 30, 2022

Venice & Chicago

Here's one article on the Venice Biennale at Comment and here's one on Chicago, with a focus on Mary at The Lamp (pay-walled for now). I'm really happy with these.

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Another Everlasting Update

Here is a long discussion with Iwan Russell-Jones at Regent about The Everlasting People where we covered some new ground, a shorter discussion with Marty Duren at Uncommontary, and a two part discussion about the book (and other matters) with Ryan McDermott at The Beatrice Institute (Part 1: The Prehistoric Christ and Part 2: Ecumenical Geneologies and Deep History).  

But if you'd prefer to listen to the book itself, the audiobook is on the way. 

Update of the update: It would be hard for me to be more pleased with a review informally entitled "Misjudging Milliner." The paywall has been lifted on the full review at Literature & Theology.

Friday, May 06, 2022

The Way to Groves of Jade

Here is a piece at Marginalia Review of Books on Christianity, Buddhism and the mainstream art world's irreversible dilation. It is fortunately timed to go with the opening of Here After at Bridge Projects this weekend, exploring the “hope for paradise [that] has sparked the imagination of humankind across history and many religions.” A good time to make your way to LA!!

Friday, March 25, 2022

Mary is no shill for war

(Even though she's being used that way.) So I argue on today's Feast of the Annunciation at Public Orthodoxy.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Responses to Noll

Some colleagues and I responded to the re-publication of Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

Friday, March 11, 2022

The Everlasting Update

Here's a talk given this week with some new information uncovered since I wrote The Everlasting People, not without mentioning Ukraine.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Glowing Totems and Borrowed Icons

Here are two pieces, one entitled Canadian Pentecost at Comment and one entitled Athos for All at Front Porch Republic. Thanks to both places for publishing them.

Tuesday, February 15, 2022

podcasts... and a new book available

Here is a podcast with the Yale Center for Faith & Culture about the Virgin Mary (in anticipation of the book, Mother of the Lamb, that you can pre-order here).

And regarding The Everlasting People, here is a podcast conversation at The Holy Post (second half of the episode), with video here. Several reviews have appeared so far, but I am especially grateful for this one at the Englewood Review of Books by Joel Wentz.

There's a lot more to say about both books, so if you'd like to have a podcast conversation, hit me up. Here is a view of the office as I finished up Mother of the Lamb, with thanks to the Uffizi for providing the high resolution photos. 

Thursday, January 06, 2022

Unwitting Magi

A sermon preached at All Souls Church, Wheaton, IL (audio here, video here)

Most people in this congregation know the secret to avoiding the after-Christmas doldrums, namely, extending the day into the season it properly is. It may be a challenge in Advent to restrain while the rest of the world rejoices, but that is made up for while we celebrate Christmastide as the rest of the world is swallowed by the post-yuletide undertow.

And after those twelve days of Christmas, just when we need it most, as the winter without Christmas threatens to descend upon us, there is Epiphany, and the season of Ephiphanytide that follows it. This season is not just about seeking the distant star but reveling in its pure bright winter light. To steal a phrase, Epiphany is the most wonderful time of year. It represents Christ for everyone, even pagan astrologers. Not merely national, sill less nationalist, but global Christianity for this nation, yes, and every other nation too. If, in the last few decades, it was the task of Christians in this wider town of Wheaton to recover Advent and the Christmas season; it may be our task in the next few decades to recover the season of Epiphany, which stretches all the way through to the Feast of the Encounter of Mary and Simeon on February 2. The fact that there’s little risk of this season being commercialized makes the recovery all the easier.

But there’s a problem, as I see it, with Epiphany, something that keeps us from being able to wholeheartedly embrace it. And that problem is this: As we celebrate the magi, journeying from the East to worship Christ, many Christians, or post-Christians in some cases, are themselves journey to the East. Burned by Christianity's very public failures, some think the light of Buddhism or Hinduism is brighter. The private pursuit of mindfulness, some gamble, offers what a Christian congregation like ours cannot.

We sure can sure learn a lot from the religions of the East – there are Buddhist and Hindu temples not far from here on Route 59 that I’ve visited, nd I’ve enjoyed my visits. But really what should Christians do about this reverse magi journey? Well, as a way of highlighting the second chapter of Matthew, let me offer the journey of a few contemporary magi that might surprise you. These magi journeyed far more deeply into the East than anyone I know of, and something happened to them – they found Christ there. Or rather, he found them.

Our first unwitting modern magi is a psychologist who, in the mid-twentieth century, sponsored some of the first big translations of Far Eastern texts that are still used today. But he was also convinced he had to go to India himself. And so he did. And while he was there, he had a dream, and if this psychologist listened to anything he listened to his dreams. In the dream he found himself not in India, but in the Grail castle off the southwest coast of England; that is, his unconscious smuggled Christianity back in to his psyche. That’s not my assessment, it is his:

It was as through the dream were asking me, ‘What are you doing in India? Rather seek for yourself and your fellows the healing vessel, the servator mundi which you urgently need. For your state is perilous; you are in imminent danger of destroying all that centuries have built up.
So that’s our magi #1: The psychologist, son of a pastor, the disciple of Freud, Carl Jung, found himself, just like the original magi, journeying from the East to Christ. Whether or not he fully got there is another topic entirely. 

Our magi #2 is another psychologist, who knew Carl Jung personally. Robert Johnson built his own career by giving talks about the Holy Grail, that symbol of the Eucharist, to churches. But he too felt something was missing, he felt the call of India. But one particular trip didn’t go well. In Calcutta, the city of the destructive goddess Kali, he encountered human suffering such as he had never thought possible. I’ll let him tell this extraordinary story himself:

I was one thousand miles from anyone I knew and felt myself falling into an abyss. It was worse than a panic attack; it was as if I had wandered into some corner of hell…. Then I remembered there was something to do. I had once been told by a friend that in India you have the right to approach a stranger and ask that person to be the incarnation of God. It is a starling custom … This person may refuse the request, but generally it is considered a sacred duty to accept the role if he or she possibly can. I walked several blocks until I reached a tiny park. Then I began desperately looking for someone I could approach and ask to be my incarnation of God. I spotted a middle-aged man; he was dressed in Indian fashion and was barefoot, but he had an air of dignity and calmness. I am amazed now at my boldness, but I was driven by desperation. I approached him. “Sir, do you speak English?” “Yes.” “Would you be the incarnation of God for me?” “Yes,” he replied. He pointed me to a bench, and for the next twenty minutes I poured out my woes. He said not  a word but listened patiently to me.” [I so grateful for this ministry, that I then asked the man.] “Please tell me something about yourself - who are you? what is your work? “I am a Roman Catholic priest,” he replied, plainly and directly.
In a city of well over ten million, less than one percent of whom are Christian, Johnson encountered someone who testified not that he was the incarnation, but who testified to the Christmas mystery instead. This psychologist, the disciple of Carl Jung, found himself, just like the original magi, journeying from the East to Christ.

Magi #3 is Huston Smith, the child of missionaries to China who became an authority on world religions, but who never gave up the Christian faith himself. The following story might be part of the reason why: 

It was 1964 and I was using a semester’s leave to continue my research in India. At the moment to be described, I was conversing with one of a number of gurus whose reputations had taken me to the foothills of the Himalayas, when suddenly there appeared in the doorway of the bungalow I was in a figure so striking that for a moment I thought I might be seeing an apparition. Tall, dressed in a white gown, and with a full beard, it was a man I came to know as Father Lazarus, a missionary of the Eastern Orthodox Church who had spent the last twenty years in India. Ten minutes after I was introduced to him I had forgotten my gurus completely—he was much more interesting than they were—and for a solid week we tramped the Himalayan foothills talking nonstop.

This scholar, a world authority on all faiths, just like the original magi, found himself journeying from the East to Christ. 

Modern magi #4 is William Johnston, a Jesuit priest from Ireland who spent 50 years in Japan. He is the one who translated Shusako Endo’s famous book Silence into English. Fully immersed in Zen Buddhism, Johnston noticed something. It was the kind of things you notice when you live in a place instead of just traveling to it. He noticed that those who attempted to fuse Christianity and Buddhism, that is, to have both, were never respected by the Zen Buddhists themselves, who wanted Christian interlocutors who knew the Christian mystical tradition. Johnson’s conclusion: “Much as I love the Buddha and the patriarchs, I cannot make to them the commitment I make to Jesus…." The difference, Johnston found, between Buddhist and Christian meditation, and he was well versed in both, was love. For a Buddhist, love is a potentially distracting attachment. But God found himself attached to a cross because of his love for us. Johnston the Jesuit, just like the original magi, found himself journeying from the East back to Christ.

What we learn from the magi, whether the ones in Matthew or the ones I just mentioned, is that Jesus is not a tribal god. Our faith is not regional. Or rather, it is regional, but it is for all regions. Within centuries of the original magi’s journey, Christianity overwhelmed the area where the magi came from. This branch of the faith is known as the Assyrian Church of the East. The heartland of Christianity for them was not the Midwest, but Mesopotamia, and it went Eastward from there. “His dominion shall be also from one sea to the other, and from the river unto the world’s end," our text this evening reads. Many of you will know that this form of Christianity has undergone great suffering, but their new patriarch, Mar Awa III, born in Chicago, consecrated patriarchy in Iraq, just visited our area this last month to minister to his flock: another journey from the East to make the point to us about the universal Christ.

As Vince Bantu puts it, Christianity is not becoming global, it always has been global. And the magi are why. They incarnate the message of Ephesians “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body.” “All those from Sheba [that is, from Africa] shall come.” So yes, we need Epiphanytide. But it’s not just about the magi. Because impressive as their journey was, theirs was not the longest journey.  Let me read from the Welsh poet R.S. Thomas:

And God held in his hand
A small globe.  Look he said.
The son looked.  Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce

Let me go there, he said.

That’s the journey that prompted the magi’s journey, then or now.  The real arrival in this story is not theirs, but his. He traveled farther. Not by the stars but through them. And he, Jesus, made the journey for one singular reason, to which he is irrevocably committed. He made the journey for you.


Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Dionysus Redeemed

Here is a triple book review at Comment covering America, Dionysus, Christ, masculinity, sex, wine, drugs and slavery because art history—the most efficient discipline in the panoply of the liberal arts—can do all that.


Wednesday, December 08, 2021

Book of the Year! (claims one kind person)

The Christian Century kindly published an excerpt of my book, which I suppose makes The Everlasting People, technically speaking, a "Book of the Century." Seriously though, I was especially delighted to learn it was John Wilson's book of the year at First Things, sharing the honor with the amazing Diane Glancy's A Line of Driftwood, about the 1921 journey of an Iñupiat woman named Ada Blackjack. That my book in part retraces Chesterton's 1921 journey to this continent makes for a tidy pairing.

So there you have it: The Christian Century and First Things, together at last.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Romancing the Real

A review of Michael Martin, Sophia in Exile (Angelico Press, 2021), with mention of a few of his other books as well.

Something wonderful is happening in Michigan. Not only has the state produced the trilogy that unfolds the Christian tradition of wisdom as told by Arthur Versluis of Michigan State (mentioned previously here), but now Michigan has generated another trilogy, this one by Michael Martin (The Submerged Reality, Transfiguration and now Sophia in Exile) who writes from his biodynamic farm on the other side of the state. Both of these Michigan mystics do much to uncover alternative (but very much Christian) theological communities surrounding the figure of Sophia throughout Christian history. Still I wonder if Versluis or Martin have stopped to realize that their work, between the two of them, could be substantial enough to contribute equally meaningful twenty-first century iterations of such communities as well.

The title of Martin's latest work says it all, Sophia in Exile. Those familiar with the Gnostic gospels will here recognize a myth where Sophia has been exiled from the evil earth to be beckoned back by select initiates. But Martin has not written the last book in his trilogy to endorse this Gnostic myth but to recast it traditional Christian terms. In other words, Martin's is a wisdom tethered to God's good, richly enchanted earth. Still, Martin faces the failures of Christianity squarely, concluding (in a gloss on Berdyaev) that "only Christianity can save the world from Christianity" (174). 

Though more well-researched than many an academic tome, Sophia Exile is certainly not academic (though it is demanding). Martin writes with verve and freshness across a truly wild range of topics. You won't find, for example, nostalgic appeals to the trivium and quadrivium in his work, and he dismisses aping the Inklings as cosplay. His reflections are generously (but not excessively) seasoned with quotes from Heidegger, Goethe, Rilke, William Morris, Sri Aurobindo or with scenes from Malick films. He has absorbed and mastered the academic's trade of hermeneutical nuance. But the difference is that Martin also pushes through the mists and vapor of academic grandstanding, keeping his feet moving on a very earthen spiritual quest. We might say he takes us from the hermeneutic to the hermetic.

Martin is free to say things that most academics (I am one, so trust me on this) politely avoid: he offers a discourse on nature spirits, a profound meditation on the irreducible mystery of marriage, or generous ruminations on hunting or farming. But whatever Martin's topic, it is our alienation from the earth, from the Real—across the arts, agriculture and academia— that is the common refrain. Sophia is shorthand for the engagement that overcomes this alienation, an engagement which takes considerable attentive work and is consequently far less common than one would think. Sophia is "the metaxu between science, art, and the religious" (25), we learned in the last volume. In this one Martin expands on the fact that she is in exile because we are in exile, unable to give reality the patient and humble regard that it requires. And ultimately, the case remains that "Christ is the Real" (95). If Protestantism (thanks to Boehme, Pordage, Bromley, Law, Herrick, etc.) did so much to revive interest in Sophia (a debt which Orthodoxy frequently forgets), Martin here reminds us that the revival was due in large part to Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah (5-11). 

Martin's learning and breadth as an English professor is the backbone of Sophia in Exile. If he previously reminded us that Robert Fludd and Thomas and Rebecca Vaughan deconstructed natura pura (nature without any need for God) before David Bentley Hart ever got around to doing so (106), now he leads us instead to the optics of Thomas Traherne ("it is almost as if the writings of Traherne wanted to be found, but only waited upon the arrival of the proper moment," 112) and the poetry of Eleanor ("Nellie") Farjeon (a writer, he boldly claims, equal if not better than C.S. Lewis or Charles Williams).

Martin's training and intelligence is in service to much more than himself, and jealously for that which he serves helps explains his pugilism. While the last volume in the trilogy argued "our concern... should be not the problems that now surround us but rather that we can do despite the restrictions brought on by the circumstances within which we find ourselves" (101), he aims to take on global issues a good bit more directly in this book, written in the wake of the pandemic. Martin is profoundly pessimistic about wisdom's prospects in the face of Big Tech. Such companies, Martin previously claimed, could never create pure nature (119). Sophia in Exile only turns up the volume on such warnings, claiming Big Tech has come closer to that unwelcome prospect than ever before. Whether people off the farm and on the grid can enjoy a steady connection to reality therefore remains to be seen. Martin's rhetoric sometimes make it seem like this is unlikely. But it must be possible. Why else would he have expended so much energy writing such beautiful books? 

The result of my finishing Sophia in Exile was only to go back to the first in the series (the longest), and look into Martin's close readings of major figures from the wisdom tradition like Boehme, Fludd and Tomberg. There is so much more to take in there, to say nothing of the anthology he edited (with pairs so well with Versluis's similar collection). To be bored by this rich, and still largely unknown Christian tradition of wisdom is to be bored with reality itself. How serendipitous that these buried texts have been made so freely available to us just when they are needed the most.

Friday, November 19, 2021

From Midwest Strange to Midwest Sacred

An essay of mine at the Front Porch Republic. Hope it can help those who live in the flatlands (or anywhere really) to love where they live.

Thursday, November 04, 2021

Your Gaia is Too Small

I wrote at The Hedgehog Review about why the "Gaia hypothesis" is a good idea with a not-so-good name (so I proposed a better one).