Stanley Fish is a postmodernist scholar of the highest rank, but his conclusions are not always what his fellow academics expect. A professor both of literature and of law, Fish explains how, in previous rulings about homosexuality, the Supreme Court arrived at the principle that just because something is immoral, that doesn’t mean it should necessarily be illegal. But in the Obergefell ruling that legalized gay marriage, the court went back to a moral standard–the new morality of tolerance, affirmation of all, personal autonomy, etc.–with hardly any reference to law. [Read more…]
We saw True Grit over the weekend, the Coen brothers’ rendition of the novel by Charles Portis, which had also been made into a movie that earned John Wayne an Oscar. I’m a fan of the novel and both movies, including this one.
The John Wayne movie is an iconic Western, and I like icons. This one is darker and, well, grittier, and I like that too. The Coen version is especially good in bringing to the forefront the novel’s language. The 19th century was a time of greater formality than our own, with an attention to codes of good manners and the use of a more flowery language than we usually do today, in our hyper-casual culture. That was also the era of black and white morality, when the Bible was on everyone’s lips. And yet, at the same time, on the American frontier, the era was also wild, violent, barbaric, and squalid. The Coen brothers capture both of those co-existing dimensions perfectly, and it’s a sight to see.
The performances by Jeff Bridges as the drunken U. S. Marshall Rooster Cogburn and Hailee Steinfeld as the formidable 14-year old Mattie Ross out to avenge her father’s murder are as good and as memorable as anything you will find in the movies. I also loved the movie’s score, based on 19th century American hymns (e.g., “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”).
I urge you to read what Stanley Fish has to say about this movie in his blog post via Narrative and the Grace of God: The New ‘True Grit’ – NYTimes.com.. The postmodernist literary critic, who now seems to be going beyond postmodernism in a good way, got his start, like me, as a literary scholar specializing in applying Reformation theology to 17th century literature. He says this about the movie:
The new “True Grit” is that rare thing — a truly religious movie. In the John Wayne version religiosity is just an occasional flourish not to be taken seriously. In this movie it is everything, not despite but because of its refusal to resolve or soften the dilemmas the narrative delivers up.
Fish takes a key line from the movie: “You must pay for everything in this world one way and another. There is nothing free with the exception of God’s grace.” He then offers what I would call a Calvinist interpretation of the film.
A Lutheran interpretation might take the grace bit a little differently, agreeing that everyone is a sinner but showing God’s hand in the vocations being carried out in the story.
At any rate, True Grit is great fun, and it will also stay with you.
If you’ve seen it, weigh in.
Stanley Fish sheds light on contemporary politics by means of his vocation as a classically-educated literary scholar:
And the Democrats will be helping them [Republicans] by saying scathing and dismissive things about the Tea Party and its candidates. The Greek mythological figure Antaeus won victory after victory because his opponents repeatedly threw him to the ground, not realizing that it was the earth (in the figure of his mother, Gaia) that nourished him and gave him renewed strength. The Tea Party’s strength comes from the down-to-earth rhetoric it responds to and proclaims, and whenever high-brow critics heap the dirt of scorn and derision upon the party, its powers increase. . . .
What to do? It is easier, of course, to say what not to do, and what not to do is what Democrats and their allies are prone to do — poke gleeful fun at the lesser mortals who say and believe strange things and betray an ignorance of history.
That won’t work. Better, perhaps, to take a cue from Hercules, who figured out the source of Antaeus’s strength and defeated him by embracing him in a bear hug, lifting him up high, and preventing him from touching the ground. Don’t sling mud down in the dust where your opponents thrive. Instead, engage them as if you thought that the concerns they express (if not their forms of expression) are worthy of serious consideration, as indeed they are. Lift them up to the level of reasons and evidence and see how they fare in the rarified air of rational debate where they just might suffer the fate of Antaeus.
Does anybody know any other myths or legends that might have applications to our times?
Fellow 17th century literary scholar, former postmodernist theorist, law professor, cultural commentator, and unconventional defender of religion Stanley Fish has this to say on the recent Supreme Court ruling allowing that Cross in the Mojave desert, as well as similar rulings permitting religious images in the public square. “When Is a Cross a Cross?” he asks.
Also, when is a menorah a menorah, and when is a crèche a crèche, and when are the Ten Commandments directives given to the Jews by God on Mt. Sinai? These questions, which might seem peculiar in the real world, are perfectly ordinary in the wild and wacky world of Establishment Clause jurisprudence, where in one case (Lynch v. Donnelly, 1984) the Supreme Court declared, with a straight judicial face, that a display featuring the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the wise men conveyed a secular, not a religious message.
In the latest chapter of this odd project of saving religion by emptying it of its content, Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for a plurality in Salazar v. Buono, ordered a district court to reconsider a ruling that Congress had impermissibly promoted religion by devising a plan designed to prevent the removal of a cross standing in the Mojave National Preserve. The cross had originally been erected in 1934 by the Veterans of Foreign Wars to commemorate American soldiers who had died in World War I. In 2002, Frank Buono, a retired Park Service employee, filed suit alleging a violation of the Establishment Clause and “sought an injunction requiring the government to remove the cross.”
In litigation unfolding in at least four stages, the District Court and the Appellate Court of the Ninth Circuit determined that “a reasonable observer would perceive a cross on federal land as governmental endorsement of religion.” In response, Congress took several actions, including designating the cross and the adjoining land a national memorial and transferring ownership of the land in question to the V.F.W. in exchange for land located elsewhere in the preserve. Turning again to the courts, Buono asked for an injunction against the transfer; the District Court granted it, concluding that “the transfer was an attempt by the Government to keep the cross atop Sunrise Rock and so was invalid.” The issue was Congress’s motive. The effect of what it had done was obvious: the cross now stood on private land, which meant, at least theoretically, that there was no longer an Establishment Clause violation because a private party, not the government, was speaking.
But the question remained: did the transfer “cure” the violation or did it, as Justice John Paul Stevens contended in dissent, extend and re-perform it? In a paroxysm of patriotism, Justice Anthony Kennedy has taken the Christianity out of the cross and turned it into an all-purpose means of marking secular achievements.
Now the fun and crazy stuff begins. Kennedy denies that the “emplacement” of the cross was accompanied by any intention “to promote a Christian message.” It was “intended simply to honor our Nation’s fallen soldiers.” (At oral argument Peter Eliasberg, an ACLU lawyer, observed, “There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew.”) Therefore, Kennedy reasoned, Congress had no “illicit” intention either; it merely sought a way to “accommodate” (a term of art in Establishment Clause jurisprudence) a “symbol often used to honor and respect those whose heroic acts, noble contributions and patient striving help secure an honored place in history for this Nation and its people.”
Notice what this paroxysm of patriotism had done: it has taken the Christianity out of the cross and turned it into an all-purpose means of marking secular achievements. (According to this reasoning the cross should mark the winning of championships in professional sports.)
It is one of the ironies of the sequence of cases dealing with religious symbols on public land that those who argue for their lawful presence must first deny them the significance that provokes the desire to put them there in the first place. It has become a formula: if you want to secure a role for religious symbols in the public sphere, you must de-religionize them, either by claiming for them a non-religious meaning as Kennedy does here, or, in the case of multiple symbols in a park or in front of a courthouse, by declaring that the fact of many of them means that no one of them is to be taken seriously; they don’t stand for anything sectarian; they stand for diversity.
So you save the symbols by leeching the life out of them. The operation is successful, but the patient is dead.