The most powerful writer since Julius Caesar

More embarrassing, unbecoming, grovelling sycophancy from America’s artists and intellectuals when it comes to Barack Obama. Rocco Landesman, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, is lauding our president’s literary gifts, saying he is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar:

This is the first president that actually writes his own books since Teddy Roosevelt and arguably the first to write them really well since Lincoln. If you accept the premise, and I do, that the United States is the most powerful country in the world, then Barack Obama is the most powerful writer since Julius Caesar. That has to be good for American artists.

I know that he is not saying that the President is a writer of powerful works; rather, that he is a powerful man who writes. And, yes, he can call down nuclear weapons–whereas Julius Caesar could only put nations to the sword in the old fashioned way–so that makes him powerful, a powerful writer of a memoir. But the comparison to the divinized overthrower of Rome’s republic remains unsettling. Still, what our arts czar says isn’t even true. Lots of presidents since Teddy Roosevelt wrote their own books, from Woodrow Wilson to Bill Clinton.

I know tODD says that some of this artistic adulation is ironic. It just has to be. Maybe it is in some cases. But go to your local gallery, mention Barack Obama, and see what people say. No, this emperor-worship is NOT good for American artists.

The meaning of monsters

Stephen Asma is a philosophy professor writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education on Monsters and the Moral Imagination. Here is some of his theory:

The uses of monsters vary widely. In our liberal culture, we dramatize the rage of the monstrous creature—and Frankenstein's is a good example—then scold ourselves and our "intolerant society" for alienating the outcast in the first place. The liberal lesson of monsters is one of tolerance: We must overcome our innate scapegoating, our xenophobic tendencies. Of course, this is by no means the only interpretation of monster stories. The medieval mind saw giants and mythical creatures as God's punishments for the sin of pride. For the Greeks and Romans, monsters were prodigies—warnings of impending calamity.

After Freud, monster stories were considered cathartic journeys into our unconscious—everybody contains a Mr. Hyde, and these stories give us a chance to "walk on the wild side." But in the denouement of most stories, the monster is killed and the psyche restored to civilized order. We can have our fun with the "torture porn" of Leatherface and Freddy Krueger or the erotic vampires, but this "vacation" to where the wild things are ultimately helps us return to our lives of quiet repression. . . .

According to the critic Christopher Craft, Gothic monster tales—Frankenstein, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Dracula, Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles—rehearse a similar story structure. "Each of these texts first invites or admits a monster, then entertains and is entertained by monstrosity for some extended duration, until in its closing pages it expels or repudiates the monster and all the disruption that he/she/it brings," he writes. . . .

Monsters can stand as symbols of human vulnerability and crisis, and as such they play imaginative foils for thinking about our own responses to menace. Part of our fascination with serial-killer monsters is that we (and our loved ones) are potentially vulnerable to sadistic violence—never mind that statistical probability renders such an attack almost laughable. Irrational fears are decidedly unfunny. We are vulnerable to both the inner and the outer forces. Monster stories and films only draw us in when we identify with the persons who are being chased, and we tacitly ask ourselves: Would I board up the windows to keep the zombies out or seek the open water? Would I go down to the basement after I hear the thump, and if so, would I bring the butcher knife or the fireplace poker? What will I do when I am vulnerable?

He goes on and on about such “monsterology,” but I don’t find any of these points particularly persuasive about why we find zombies, vampires, aliens, and slashers so compelling. What is YOUR theory? Put another way, if you are a monster fan this time of year, if you love to get scared, and if you enjoy horrific images, what’s the big attraction?

Why conservative Anglicans can’t just go to Rome

My colleague Dr. Roberta Bayer, professor of political theory here at Patrick Henry College is a conservative Anglican, an editor with the Prayer Book Society, which champions the 1928 version of the Book of Common Prayer. She writes about how the Pope’s offer to let Anglicans come on over to Rome is not a legitimate option for genuine Anglicans:

The spirituality of the Book of Common Prayer is not the spirituality of the Counter-Reformation. The art and the architecture, the poetry and prose of the seventeenth century reflect some of the differences. The churches of the Anglican Reformation reflect classical order, the inward spirituality,of Christian vocation lived out in the family, the community, and the nation. The churches of the Counter-Reformation reflect an inward spirituality as well, but one which glories in the spiritual journey of the soul within the church. The Bernini statue of the Ecstacy of Teresa of Avila relates an approach to God which is very different from that found in the theology of the Reverend Jeremy Taylor, writing in the same period, or the poetry of George Herbert and John Donne. Roman spirituality calls for an ecstatic art and architecture, calling heaven down to earth, and the church up to heaven. Anglican spirituality, calls for columns and rational proportion, for reflection upon the right relation of our sinful nature to our final redemption, a proper relation of man to world, and the consideration of holy living in this world, and preparing ourselves for the the next.

The nineteenth century revival of a nostaligic neo-Gothic in both Roman and Anglican traditions, bringing with it a spirituality sometimes of sentiment, followed in the twentieth century by a new spirituality, charismatic and self-expressive, means that in the English speaking world, Christianity presents itself, in both Roman and Anglican churches, as more or less similar. Yet contemporary perceptions are deceptive. Counter-Reformation practices in the church of Rome are as remote to most peoples’ contemporary sensibilities as is the Book of Common Prayer. The proper recovery of both is salutary to the recovery of the fullness of Christian teaching in both traditions.

In the contemporary world, given our changed perceptions of prayer and worship, and the fact that few leaders, if any, are sympathetic to a historical understanding of their own tradition, people have forgotten the theological basis for the dispute about spiritual formation that drove the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. Thus, the move to Rome seems easy: the liturgical rite in an Anglican parish looks much like the rite in a contemporary Roman parish. Rome appears attractive because it upholds orthodox Christian teaching on gay marriage and women clergy. But morality never was a fundamental or key point of difference between traditional Anglican teaching and that of Rome. It is only in the twentieth century that there have come to be divisions over moral truth for reasons having to do with the culture at large.

Benedict has been friendly to those willing to embrace the fullness of tradition in his own church by allowing for the older mass. But on behalf of those too few Anglicans who continue to embrace the theology and spirituality of Cranmer, Hooker, Ridley, Taylor, Donne and Herbert one can only ask of the Vatican how it is that catechetical, spiritual, and liturgical differences can truly be resolved? To move to Rome with this ordinariate may be to remain Anglican in name only. Indeed, it may have the further and unfortunate consequence of confusing perceptions about Anglicanism, and make the possibility of reviving the Anglican Way, its spiritual and liturgical patrimony even more remote. And one may in fact be moving from one instantiation of contemporary theology to another, having lost the riches of the past on the way.

This is an important point. Conservative Anglicanism, as defined in the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, is NOT Anglo-Catholicism. Rather, it is a church of the Reformation.

Artists on Obama

Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott reviews a book entitled Art for Obama: Designing Manifest Hope and the Campaign for Change. It’s based on a travelling exhibition featuring works by noted artists based on President Obama. Mr. Kennicott, who presents himself as reliably liberal, is nevertheless appalled at the results and is embarrassed at the spectacle of artists–who had been proclaiming themselves as outsiders and subversives–reducing themselves to sentimental, dewy-eyed propagandists:

There is something tremendously depressing about the recently published "Art for Obama," a survey of images and sculpture produced in support of Obama's 2008 campaign for president. The gloom sets in slowly, page after colorful page, slogan after inspiring slogan. It is a catalogue of celebratory art, of smiles and hope and change, and somehow, it leaves you with a hollow, panicky feeling in the gut. . . .

This is a wholesale embrace of the full trove of Americana, as if young American artists were never happy on the margins of American society, as if they have suddenly found the right moment to release their inner Norman Rockwell. It almost calls into question the long-standing assumption that artists in America are by necessity and choice outsiders. Perhaps they never really were. The artists included here feel more like insiders whose invitation got lost in the mail.

So, throughout the book, one can never be quite sure if the supposed anti-bourgeois orientation of artists still applies in the age of Obama. . . .

These are terrifying images, made by artists seemingly unaware of the fragile line that separates democratic enthusiasm from totalitarian mania. It’s too easy, however, to say that this naive collection of Obamamania amounts to any serious desire for fascism or authoritarian control, as the president’s critics will surely do. But it does show the emptiness of imagination in a group of artists who suddenly find themselves on the crest of a historical wave, unable to invent anything new, unable to articulate any sense of the moment beyond the observation that it is “all very inspiring and a lot of fun.”

Art of Obama

Bach’s smackdown of Frederick the Great

I have just finished a book that I am going to count among my favorites of all time. It is that good. You have GOT to read it. It’s entitled Evening in the Palace of Reason: Bach Meets Frederick the Great in the Age of Enlightenment by James A. Gaines.

In 1747, Frederick the Great–the king of Prussia, patron of Enlightenment rationalism, and military strongman–invited Johann Sebastian Bach, now an old man three years from his death, for an audience. Frederick fancied himself a musician and scorned the old-fashioned polyphony that Bach was known for in favor of music with a single pleasant melody. Frederick, who enjoyed humiliatating his guests, had composed a long melody line full of chromatic scales that was impossible to turn into a multi-voiced canon (that is, a “round”: think “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” with different groups starting at different times) and told Bach to turn it into a fugue (an even more complicated “round”). Whereupon Bach, on the spot, sat down at one of the new piano fortes and turned it into a three-part fugue. The flummoxed King said, in effect, OK, turn it into a 6-part fugue. A few days later, Bach sent him a 6-part fugue and more than a fugue, “A Musical Offering” that rebuked Frederick and all of his Enlightenment notions with the Christian faith.

This book tells about that confrontation and the events in each man’s life that led up to it. Gaines, in effect, gives us a dual biography, with alternating chapters on each subject. We learn about Frederick’s miserable childhood with an abusive father, the previous king (who, at one point, had his son’s best friend beheaded and made him watch, thinking that he would be next). Then we learn about Bach’s happy childhood in a Christian home. We learn about Frederick’s unhappy and childless marriage. Then we learn about Bach’s family, in which he was a loving husband and father of 20 children. We learn about Frederick’s decadent love of the arts and his infatuation with the Enlightenment, and his mutual admiration society with Voltaire. Then we learn about Bach’s deep Christian faith and his orthodox Lutheran theology. We learn about Frederick’s ascension to the throne, his turning Prussia into a military powerhouse, and his unprovoked wars against his neighbors for nothing more than his ego. We learn about Bach’s career at courts and churches, his stubborn integrity that caused him to battle with virtually all of his employers, and, despite occasional musical respect, how he died in obscurity with his music all but forgotten. We also learn about the aftermath, how Frederick’s legacy would blossom but burn out under Hitler. And how Bach was rediscovered by Mendelssohn in the 19th century, whereupon he has become recognized as arguably the greatest musical composer and one of the greatest artists in any form ever.

The author, James Gaines, is a journalist–a former editor of TIME–and so, though he knows his music as an amateur classical musician, he writes not with scholarly heaviness but with a lively and enjoyable narrative flair. And his secular background makes the book all the more remarkable for what it says about the relationship between Christianity–indeed, Lutheranism–and art. Gaines suggests that Bach was a greater man and a greater creator than Frederick precisely because of his faith. Bach was transcendent because he built his life on something transcendent.

Gaines shows how Bach’s view of music goes right back to Luther. For them and other Christians of their time, music was quite literally a sign and measure of God’s created order in the universe. Bach and Luther favored polyphony–many voices going on at the same time, whether in the multiple but unified melodies of canons and fugues, or in the phenomenon of harmony–because it imaged forth the unity-in-diversity that is everywhere in creation; indeed, in existence itself; not only that, but in the Godhead Himself.

Gaines also draws on the Bach scholarship that demonstrates how music in this tradition encoded specific meanings. In Bach’s final “Musical Offering” to Frederick, he includes 10 canons, which are emblematic of the Ten Commandments (“canons,” laws, get it?). He includes a caption in one section that refers to how the notes ascend like the King’s glory, except that the notes go nowhere and turn into the most melancholy of melodies. He thus says through his music that Frederick may think himself “Great,” but his glory goes nowhere, that he will end only in death, that he doesn’t stand up very well to those Ten Commandments. Bach works in chorale motifs and church music–which Frederick hated–but which give this king his only hope. Yes, Bach was using his music to witness to this august secularist King in his palace of reason.

You will learn a lot about music and a lot about history in this book. It is also one of the best books about the relationship between Christianity and the arts that I have ever come across. It also illuminates the relationship between Lutheranism and the arts. Gaines keeps bringing Luther into his story, to the point of saying that Bach and Luther had the same personality (intemperate, stubborn, no-comprising, but also warm and sensitive and devout). We learn surprising things, such as the way Enlightenment skepticism had a rather harder time in Lutheran countries than in those of other theologies, since Lutheranism had already developed a vigorous intellectual tradition that had thoroughly worked out the relationship between faith and reason. We also learn about the magnificent use of music in Lutheran worship that was unique to any other religious tradition.

And we confessional Lutherans can also appreciate what Gaines does not go into, that Frederick the Great, with his religious “toleration” was literally the grandfather of the Prussian Union, that ecumenical amalgamation and theological watering down of the state church in the name of enlightenment principles, that two kings later would send orthodox Lutherans fleeing to America and other New Worlds. Gaines also makes outstanding use of Bach’s notations in his Calov Study Bible, which happens to be owned by Concordia Seminary in St. Louis and which I have held in my hot little hands.

So drop whatever you are doing and buy this book. You will be glad you did. Here, I will make it easy for you:

A new Leonardo?

A previously obscure painting has been identified as a work of Leonardo da Vinci with the discovery that the artist’s fingerprint is on the painting. Here it is:

A new Leonardo da Vinci?


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