Writing in the Age of Unbelief

Years ago I was at a panel discussion featuring several Catholic authors when someone asked the question: “As artists, do you struggle with orthodoxy?” The panelists leaned forward in their seats, looked at one another, and began nervously laughing.

When they regained their composure, the answers were not memorable.

That’s not to say the writers were not thoughtful or up to the task—they were all at least a generation older than me, very well published and well respected—and it was kind of a punk question to ask—but my heart was burning for at least one of the panelists to say no.  [Read more...]

Thomas Merton: Contemplative Outlaw

On December 10, 1968, Thomas Merton stepped out of the shower in his Bangkok hotel room, reached to adjust the speed of a fan, and was fatally electrocuted.

In many ways, Merton foresaw his own death. And though he could never have imagined it exactly, it was filled with the kind of intent irony and poetry that his life as a contemplative monk/author/peace activist embodied.

As a Trappist monk, he was, by definition and order, cloistered. According to the Rule of Benedict, he was to avoid idle speech, and to live by the work of his hands. But as is well known, Merton struggled to stay silent and disengaged from the world. [Read more...]

In Memoriam: Joshua Casteel

I’m guessing that most of you haven’t heard of Joshua Casteel—but you should have. Casteel passed away in August after a short battle with a very aggressive form of lung cancer. He was only thirty-two.

An Iraq war veteran, Casteel served as an interrogator at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison shortly after the abuse scandal rocked the US military. He worked to ferret out intelligence that would help US forces capture and kill al Qaeda kingpins and foil the plots of jihadists.

I met Joshua in South Bend, Indiana at a conference sponsored by the Catholic Peace Fellowship, an organization started by Jim Forest and Tom Cornell, both of whom worked closely with Dorothy Day in her ministry of hospitality to the homeless.

I remember sitting down at one of the long tables during the lunch break just as Joshua was being introduced. He had a bit of a hipster vibe about him—flannel shirt, beard and black glasses—but there was no irony or cynicism in his posture or his voice as he recited the Magnificat: [Read more...]

Sleeping in Slave Quarters at Sweet Briar College

From my office window I can see the pale yellow plantation house, its sharply pitched roof peeking from behind a huge conifer, its two Italianate cupolas, one at either end of the house.

Since 1901, Sweet Briar House has been the home of the president of Sweet Briar College, a small women’s college in the foothills of the Blue Ridge, a bucolic place of towering trees and beautiful architecture, but also a place that was once home to nearly one hundred slaves.

Nearly all traces of this history are gone, except for possibly the most telling trace: a small log slave cabin thirty paces from the president’s home. [Read more...]

The Theological Imagination of David Foster Wallace, Part Two

Continued from yesterday.

In his now infamous 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tells a parable about two men, an atheist and a Christian, sitting in a bar in the Alaskan wilderness debating the existence of God. The two men interpret the world in two different ways, the believer thinking that his friend’s survival in a recent blizzard was the result of a half-hearted yet answered prayer, and the atheist believing that “all that was was two Eskimos that came along and showed me the way out.”

Wallace, raised by professors in university towns (Ithaca and then Champaign-Urbana) cautions the Kenyon students against applying too eagerly the relativistic liberal arts stance of simply allowing both men to be right because their beliefs are shaped by separate cultural forces and experiences. [Read more...]

The Theological Imagination of David Foster Wallace, Part One

When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008 there was much speculation and spilling of ink over how someone so gifted and so beloved could take his own life.

With the arrival of his personal papers in 2010 at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas, hundreds of journalists and scholars (1,500 in the last year alone compared to 650 for Tennessee Williams) have come to Austin to search his papers for clues that might answer the many lingering questions.

My interest is in a question that perhaps cannot be answered by combing the reams of notes, adolescent schoolwork, and his personal library with copious marginalia. [Read more...]

Art at the Crossroads, Part 2

Continued from Friday


In order to start treating being an artist more like a job and less like some precious ritual, an alternative lifestyle that non-artists don’t understand, I have done a lot of reading about how people throughout history have defined art and artists.

For hundreds of years, there has been contentious discussion about who can be called an artist. For example, for many years potters, weavers, carpenters, and sculptors of religious or ritual statuary were not considered artists because what they made was useful: if I can drink out of it, carry things in it, or wield it in some way, then it is not art but a tool.

On the other hand, the term artist has always been connected to the magical—the creation of something from within, like a poem or a melody, or the transformation of one substance to another more valuable one (alchemists were known as artists). Based on this definition, up until the Renaissance, painting was not recognized as one of the arts because it was seen as merely decorative—used to adorn and gild, rather than as a medium for the creation of something new. [Read more...]

Art at the Crossroads, Part One

Have leisure and know that I am God. —Psalm 65:11


For a long time now I have tried to argue that the maintenance of my various social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.) should be considered work. After all, maintaining a social media presence—a phrase that makes the bile rise in my throat—is an easy and free way artists can gain a wide readership/viewership for their work.

But aside from the ill feeling I get after spending a whole morning liking, sharing, blogging, and re-blogging, I also feel a strange sense of disconnectedness from the work itself—the actual art that I’m making; in my case a book manuscript of a couple hundred pages. [Read more...]