Inventing the Kingdom, Part 2

diploria strigosa fossil by james st john on flickrThis post, which appears as the Editorial Statement in Image issue 92, is continued from yesterday. [Link to yesterday’s post here]

“I consider myself a sort of portrait artist,” Carrère says, and his other books bear this out, but in The Kingdom most of the best portraits are of the bit players. Carrère’s rendering of Saint Paul, on the other hand, is straight out of central casting: a vain megalomaniac, a sort of Gnostic heresiarch eager to escape the world and eager for the Apocalypse.

With Saint Luke, Carrère is more generous, in part because he sees himself in Luke. The Greek physician is a cultured man, steeped in pagan tradition, “fond of anecdote and human traits; theology bored him.” Luke comes late to the party: the sayings of Jesus are already available in Mark’s Gospel, but Luke, with his gift for narrative, is impelled to weave his own version of both the Gospel and the early church.

The problem Luke faces, according to Carrère, is that there are too many gaps in the story, and so he has to do what many gifted contemporary writers have done in such circumstances: he invents. Carrère thinks Luke not only invented stories like the infancy narratives of Christ but that he was the ghost writer for the Epistle of James, since the presumably illiterate “brother” of Jesus could not have written anything.

Late in the book, Carrère pauses to justify his form of highly personal interpretation by contrasting his method with that of Marguerite Yourcenar, author of many novels, including the epic Memoirs of Hadrian. He quotes Yourcenar’s literary manifesto for her historical fiction:

Strive to read a text of the second century with the eyes, soul, and feelings of the second century; let it steep in that mother solution which the facts of its own time provide; set aside, if possible, all beliefs and sentiments which have accumulated in successive strata between those persons and us…. Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us….

Carrère’s school of writing, he says, is more in tune with contemporary sensibilities. “Good modern that I am, I prefer the sketch to the grand tableau”—another baffling statement in light of his sweeping four-hundred-page tableau of Christianity’s first century. [Read more…]

Inventing the Kingdom, Part 1

image of Emmanuel CarrereThis post appears as the Editorial Statement in Image issue 92.

When The Kingdom landed on my desk with a thud, I could tell that it would pose a challenge—that it would be a book I had to contend with. In addition to being a substantial tome, it comes with the cultural imprimatur conveyed by its publisher, the venerable Farrar, Straus and Giroux, whose backlist includes the likes of Czeslaw Milosz, Seamus Heaney, and Flannery O’Connor.

From the publicity materials I learned that its author, Emmanuel Carrère, is one of France’s leading writers and intellectuals, the author not only of novels and memoirs but also of film and television screenplays, some of which he has also directed. One of these was a series about people who mysteriously come back from the dead, not as zombies, but as people resuming their normal lives: Les Revenants, remade in North America as The Returned. Carrère’s books include My Life as a Russian Novel and The Adversary, the chilling story of a Frenchman who posed as a doctor for twenty years, then killed his own family in a doomed attempt to prevent the truth from coming out.

The Kingdom begins with a memoir of Carrère’s fleeting conversion to Christianity more than twenty years ago, the moment when, as he put it at the time, he felt “touched by grace.” You can tell by the way he writes about it now that Carrère is embarrassed by the sentimentality of this phrase. But at the time his devotion was sincere, manifesting itself in daily Mass attendance and a series of notebooks in which he recorded a running commentary on the Gospel of John.

And yet, only a couple of years later, he would relinquish his faith. “I forsake you, Lord,” he wrote in the final notebook. “Please do not forsake me.” [Read more…]

When Art Disrupts Religion: An Interview with Philip Salim Francis

Headshot of Philip Salim Francis. He is situated in the left hand quadrant of the frame, wearing a dark blazer and a white shirt with a black tie. He is in front of a door with white paneling. His hair is slightly curled on top and he has a bemused expression on his face. Just released by Oxford University Press, When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind has received praise from such leading scholars as David Morgan and Randall Balmer. Image editor Gregory Wolfe recently interviewed the author, Philip Salim Francis.

Image: Your book has the provocative title When Art Disrupts Religion: Aesthetic Experience and the Evangelical Mind. In a few words, what’s the thesis of the book?

Philip Salim Francis: I’m trying to make the case that the arts have the ability to unsettle and rework deeply ingrained religious beliefs and practices—perhaps like nothing else can. Modern aesthetic theory, as you know, is obsessed with the “disruptive capacities” of aesthetic experience. I wanted to test the limits of these claims through ethnographic study: could art disrupt and reconfigure the religious identity of even a people who had been steeped—for a lifetime—in the more conservative strains of twentieth century American evangelicalism? And if so, how would that all play out on the ground? [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 4

Painting of Socrates standing in the center of a nondescript area, with his arm raised. He is lecturing to a crowd of men who are gathered around him, some lounging, others standing, but all looking towards Socrates in the center of the circle. They are wearing togas. The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

I’m enjoying this conversation but at times I worry that you’re playing Glaucon to my Socrates. In other words, just egging the “master” on. I want to be sure you’re not just tossing up softballs for me to take a swing at. You’re a professionally trained philosopher; I’ve never taken a philosophy class in my life. So don’t hesitate to take a real swing…at me!

Now I don’t want to bog the conversation down in quibbles but I worry that semantic differences and definitions may be getting in the way. You’re getting at this when you accuse me of doing a “bait and switch” in defining beauty—messing with the “registers.”

My point about Donatello’s Mary Magdalene was that the work of art can take what is ugly—a ragged, gaunt, old woman—and transform that ugliness into a form of beauty—a simultaneous perception of spiritual beauty inhering in outward brokenness. [Read more…]

The Beauty Dialogues, Part 2

Maddalena_di_Donatello_Opera_Duomo_Florence_n03The following is a response to Morgan Meis’s letter posted yesterday.

Dear Morgan:

Thanks for throwing down this particular gauntlet. Yes, we adopted Dostoevsky’s phrase from The Idiot, where one of the characters attributes the saying “beauty will save the world” to the eponymous hero of the novel, Prince Myshkin.

I’m well aware that any slogan or mantra can quickly become a stand-in for real thought, for Jacob-and-the-angel wrestling with difficult, complex subjects. Neither I nor the extended Image community is immune from that sort of danger.

We acknowledged that a while back when we published an entire symposium on the topic of “The Word-Soaked World: Troubling the Lexicon of Faith” in issue #75. The purpose there was to interrogate and “trouble” frequently invoked terms (art, faith, mystery!) that had become anodyne through thoughtlessness and over-usage.

And just for the benefit of readers wanting to pursue these issues further, I would point out that I’ve dealt with some of your challenges in essays like “The Wound of Beauty” and “The Tragic Sense of Life.”

Given the large amount of historical baggage attached to the word beauty, it is never going to be a word that we can use without qualms and qualifications. That’s why T.S. Eliot once wrote:

We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory. [Read more…]