Creating Sacred Literature

Goya Crucifixion“We are just at the beginning,” Charles Taylor wrote in his lumpy but essential tome, A Secular Age, “of a new age of religious searching, whose outcome no one can foresee.” If we are just at the beginning of a new age, it stands to reason that we are also at the ending of an old age.

The old age was, at least in the West, the mostly European Christian civilization that lasted more or less from Constantine to Darwin. That thing is dead. We live amongst its fragments and tatters, which is hardly news to anyone roaming this earth in the early decades of the twenty-first century.

One of the interesting things about living in a “between age” is that you have two essential choices on any given day. You can spend your time looking forward to what will come. Or, you can spend the day sifting around in the ruins of what was.

To my mind, some of the most interesting and provocative literature produced in the twentieth century was created in the mood of the latter choice. It is a literature you would not call religious. But you’d be hard pressed to call it completely secular, either.

Let me give you an example.

Jorge Luis Borges wrote a short story in 1970. He gave it the title “The Gospel According to Mark.” The story takes place in the countryside of Argentina in the year 1928.

The central character in the story is a young man named Baltasar Espinosa. Borges wrote, “We may describe him, for now, as one of the common run of young men from Buenos Aires, with nothing more noteworthy about him than an almost unlimited kindness and a capacity for public speaking that had earned him several prizes at the English school in Ramos Mejía.”

The young man has something of a split consciousness, endemic to the age. His father instructs him in “freethinking.” His mother teaches him the Lord’s Prayer. [Read more...]

For the Love of Hank Stuever, Part 2

Continued from yesterday.

Hank StueverHank Stuever’s 2005 collection of essays Off Ramp: Adventures and Heartache in the American Elsewhere may not be the Good Book—as I said in the first part of this post—but you might be forgiven for thinking that I have treated it as such: My copy of the paperback edition’s spine was long ago broken, victim to interrupted bedtime reading, and the text falls open automatically to well-thumbed sections, the equivalents to top Biblical hits Psalm 23, John 3:16, and 1 Corinthians 13.

Part 1 of this post scoped out a number of the reasons why Stuever’s work is such a touchstone for me, but didn’t actually make reference to any of the essays from Off Ramp. That seemed a suitable way to underscore the way that I encountered his writing in the first place, as it leapt up at me from the Style section pages of The Washington Post.

Off Ramp is a collected, but not exhaustive, anthology of Stuever’s newspaper feature work that roughly spans the period 1992-2004, not only at the Post but also at the Austin American-Statesman and before that, The Albuquerque Tribune—years when he was not once, but twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing. [Read more...]

For the Love of Hank Stuever, Part 1

50614-stock-photo-music-listening-tape-cassette-symbols-metaphors-tape-spaghetti-radio-playIt’s been a rotten day. The Fed Ex package didn’t arrive; a typo slipped through several levels of Edit. The leaf blower crapped out but not before spitting out a pile of half-masticated leaves onto the wet sidewalk, so that now the concrete looks like a rusted boat hull. The auditor is suspicious of that high overhead rate. The toddler peed on the carpet. And all the high school kids think Ronald Reagan was president in World War II.

On that kind of day, I just make it to the end, make sure my children are fed and have brushed teeth, pour a glass of wine, and pull out the book I almost always pull out at the end of a bad day—arranging the sofa throw just so over my knees. Salud!

If you read at all, you likely have a book like this. (My husband’s is What If, which presents alternative outcomes of historical events.) Perhaps it’s even the Good Book (you are a better person than I). In my case, though, the reassuring tome at the end of the day is the collection of essays Off Ramp, by Hank Stuever. [Read more...]

The Greater Evil: Proscription or Compulsion?

Chinese MuslimsThere’s a new law in China, and it’s aimed at weakening a faith. As the Chinese government is not one to bother with currying world opinion, those who speak for the authorities are quite aboveboard regarding exactly what they’re about and why:
If a people are made to do something, they will soon enough not begrudge having to do it. Forbid a man and he will resent you; compel a man and he will grow accustomed to you.
It’s not uncommon for the jailed to fall in love with their jailers—Stockholm Syndrome, it’s called. But I venture that in most cases, it’s those who use the strongest tactics against their prisoners who win the most hearts. Lock them up and they stay strong; wear them down and win them over.
But back to the law: the new Chinese mandate requires all restaurants to serve alcohol, including those operated by Muslims. [Read more...]

A Good Fight: Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night)

Two_days,_one_nightIf a pair of writer/directors exists that can rival Joel and Ethan Coen for a body of work with profound depictions of humanity, it is another set of brothers. The films of the Dardennes, Jean-Pierre and Luc, have consistently been among the best of modern offerings and were a main feature in an essay I wrote on European film for Image a few years back (“Portraits of the Sonata: Desire and Transformation in Modern European Cinema,” No. 61, Spring 2009).

La PromesseL’Enfant, and especially Le Fils, match any expectations one could have with regard to artistic portrayals of humanity’s struggle for decency and dignity, and one of the Dardennes’ latest works, Deux Jours, Une Nuit (Two Days, One Night) proves that their touch has not waned in the thirty-odd years they’ve written and directed for the screen.

The film features the magnificent Marion Cotillard. In an Oscar-nominated performance, she plays Sandra, a Belgian mother of two children who has just learned that while she was absent, her employer offered her co-workers a choice: they could either have a one thousand euro bonus, or Sandra could keep her job. [Read more...]


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