Sacramental theology & the imagination

The notable Christian thinker Peter Leithhart has written an essay entitled Why Evangelicals Can’t Write on the difficulty evangelicals seem to have in writing good fiction. It all comes down, according to Leithart, to the colloquy at Marburg where Zwingli rejected Luther’s affirmation of the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament. Leithart, who is Reformed and not Lutheran, sees Zwingli’s split between reality and meaning as having huge consequences for the Protestant imagination. You need to read the whole essay, but here is an excerpt:

Blame it on Marburg. More precisely: Blame it on Zwingli. A Zwinglian poetics leaves us with three choices: Either a flat mimetic realism that gives literary expression to “the real” without attempting to penetrate beyond the surface; or a flat didacticism that ignores the real in its haste to get to the point; or an allegorism that forges arbitrary links between the real and the symbolic, and in the end swallows up the real in its meaning. (Mr. By-Ends, Mr. Worldly-Wiseman, Faithful, and Hopeful are mere symbols, silhouettes of characters rather than characters.) Although, to give Bunyan his due, he was here following a typical (and very Catholic) medieval pattern in literature, while adding the astounding innovation of homely and realistic dialog. Nevertheless, the cardboard charactizations strike us the way they do for a reason.

In a Zwinglian poetics, things cannot be both themselves and also—simultaneously, without ceasing to be what they are, for the very reason they are what they are—something else. Zwinglian will not permit something to be both real and symbolic, to be both wholly itself and yet, because of what it is, to disclose something more than itself. Zwinglian poetics does not permit Southern customs to be Southern customs and yet, precisely because they are Southern customs, to be haunted by Christ.

The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins in worship. The renewal of literature, like the renewal of the world, begins from the pulpit, to be sure. But the pulpit will renew literature only when it is nestled where it should be nestled, between the font and the table.

Leithhart contrasts this split of the imagination with Roman Catholic and Anglican authors who do have a sense of the sacramental.

A Zwinglian could counter, OK, so where are all of the great writers on the other side of Marburg, the Lutheran authors? Well, we would have to go to Germany and, especially, Scandinavia, where I suspect there are some good ones. Bo Giertz. Hans Christian Andersen? Most of us English speakers are oblivious to authors in different languages. Our own Lars Walker, who is a good novelist himself, might alert us to some. In English, Walter Wangerin is a fine writer, and his work has far more of the tangible universe than many other contemporary Christian authors from other traditions.

HT: Scott Stiegemeyer, who offers some of his own insights on the subject.

What do tattoos mean?

Richard Cohen asks why people get tattoos (which 40% of 26-40 year olds have) and, after showing how styles and commitments keep changing, poses a theory and an application:

I asked a college professor what she thought of tattoos, and she said that for young people, they represent permanence in an ever-changing world. But how is that possible? Anyone old enough and smart enough to get into college knows that only impermanence is permanent. Everything changes — including, sweetie, that tight tummy with its “look at me!” tattoo. Time will turn it into false advertising.

The permanence of the moment — the conviction that now is forever — explains what has happened to the American economy. We are, as a people, deeply in debt. We are, as a nation, deeply in debt. The average American household owes more than its yearly income. We save almost nothing (0.4 percent of disposable income) and spend almost everything (99.6 percent of disposable income) in the hope that tomorrow will be a lot like today. We bought homes we could not afford and took out mortgages we could not pay and whipped out the plastic on everything else. Debts would be due in the future, but, with any luck, the future would remain in the future.

Is that it, that tattoos reflect “the permanence of the moment,” or the attempt to make the moment permanent? I suspect that among the readers here, some of you fall within the tattooed 40%. I am curious about what the attraction is to having your body all carved up with needles to make a picture on your body. I’m not criticizing you. I’d just like to know the meaning of tattoos.

The poetics of Looney Tunes

Billy Collins, the former U. S. Poet Laureate, tells about how he was influenced as a poet by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, and other Warner Brothers cartoons. The piece will open your eyes to both the creative process and the genius of those cartoon classics. You should read the whole thing, but here is a sample from Inspired by a Bunny Wabbit:

I think what these animations offered me besides some very speedy, colorful entertainment was an alternative to the static reality around me that dutifully followed the laws of the physical world. The brothers Warner presented a flexible, malleable world that defied Newton, a world of such plasticity that anything imaginable was possible. Bugs Bunny could suddenly pull a lawn mower, or anything else that might come in handy, out of his pants pocket, and he wasn’t even wearing pants. Flattened by a 500-pound anvil, Wile E. Coyote could snap back into shape in a heartbeat. A box containing a pair of Acme rocket-powered roller skates would arrive in the desert with no sign of a delivery service (though you suspected it would be called Ace Delivery).

Plus, characters could jump dimensions, leaping around in time and space, their sudden exits marked by a rifle-shot sound effect. Anticipating the tricks of metafiction, these creatures could hop right out of the world of the cartoon and into our world, often Hollywood itself to consort with caricatures of Eddie Cantor and Marilyn Monroe. Or Bugs would do the impossible by jumping out of the frame and landing on the drawing board of the cartoonist who was at work creating him. This freedom to transcend the laws of basic physics, to hop around in time and space, and to skip from one dimension to another has long been a crucial aspect of imaginative poetry.

Baptism at the Capitol

At Jamestown, I bought a reproduction of John Gadsby Chapman’s “Baptism of Pocahontas.” Imagine my surprise when my family toured the Capitol building to see the original painting, all 12 feet by 18 feet of it, prominently featured in the Rotunda, right next to John Trumbull’s famous rendition of the signing of the Declaration of Independence!

Baptism of Pocahontas

America’s founding and the monuments to that event are NOT just matters of enlightenment neo-classicism or mere civil religion, despite my recent observation about our “shrines” and the graven images within them. In Washington, D.C., are many tributes that are explicitly Christian.

I hope it isn’t censored and put into storage once complaints materialize about the uniquely Christian and thus impermissibly sectarian nature of baptism or that the painting’s theme has to do with the imperialistic proseletyzing of native Americans.

So you think you can dance

Then don’t measure yourself against Cyd Charisse, who died this week. Notice how in “Singin’ in the Rain” with Gene Kelley, she projects two polar opposite feminine archtypes: the temptress (the dark lady) AND the romantic ideal (the fair maiden):

Even Canadians got da blues

I’m still here at the Lutheran Church Canada convention in Winnipeg. Their convention seems much less contentious than those I’m used to. Anyway, there’s a blues joint close to the hotel, so last night some like-minded pastors and I took our lives in our hands and went in. Here we found a hot band with a gravelly-voiced singer, name of Big Dave McClean, playing pure, traditional, 12-bar Delta blues.

Blues is a splendid art form. It has 12 measures, following a rigid chord progression, with lyrics in a strict poetic form. It is NOT pop culture, though pop culture as well as the high culture of jazz grew out of it, but is rather folk culture, highly traditional, conservative, and historically resonant and culturally rich. Blues is one of those highly-structured art forms–like the sonnet, the mystery novel, or (as one of the pastors pointed out) the liturgy–whose constants make possible infinite variety and total artistry.

Between sets we discussed theology, and the coolness factor was very high. I wish each and every one of you could have joined us.


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