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Review: James K. A. Smith's 'Who's afraid of postmodernism'?

Cover of James K. A. Smith's 'Who's Afraid of Postmodernism?'

This week’s post takes the form of a brief book review, my first as a blogger here (but hopefully not my last; I’ve got a few other books in mind that I’d really like to share with you). I thought I’d start with one of my favourite books on the intersections between Christian thought and academic culture, James K. A. Smith’s Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006). It’s a slim little volume, but don’t let its slight dimensions fool you: this is a lively, provocative book with a lot to say.

The title of the book sets out Smith’s basic thesis pretty well. Essentially, he suggests that postmodernism, as a significant movement within academic discourse, has suffered unfairly from a severe image problem within the Christian community, especially by comparison with modernism. Modernism – with its basis in scientific rationalism and humanistic narratives of technological and social progress – is often presented as an intellectual framework whose only defect is its tendency towards atheism, its willingness to explain God away; by contrast, postmodernism is seen as a kind of intellectual bogeyman, the antithesis of modernism’s calm rationality and hopefulness, flagrantly rejecting every value that the Church should be holding dear. Smith’s aim is to redress the balance: he points out a number of ways that postmodernism serves to reemphasise vital aspects of our faith and witness that are all too easily obscured by an uncritically modernist worldview.

By its very nature postmodernism, more than perhaps any other intellectual movement, can only be understood as a (far from unified) patchwork of individual thinkers’ contributions. Smith’s approach is thus to move away from the kinds of generalisation often found in (generally dismissive) Christian discussions of the topic, and instead focus on the contributions of three of the most influential writers associated with the movement. Hence the subtitle: Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church

All three of these writers have a pretty fearsome reputation (I’m ashamed at how glancing my own engagement with them has been over the years), and the first impressive achievement of this book is to make their thought so accessible. Each chapter begins by using a relevant film as a lens to approach the ideas of a specific author (the origins of the book in a lecture series are quite evident here). It’s a gesture that could easily seem clichéd or superficial, but in practice it works remarkably well – Smith’s insightful analysis of his chosen examples leads smoothly into a discussion of the key ideas of each author that is surprisingly rich, given the brevity of the book as a whole. He focuses on key statements by each writer that have become in effect postmodern ‘slogans’ within contemporary culture: Derrida’s claim that ‘there is nothing outside the text’, Lyotard’s description of postmodernism as ‘incredulity towards metanarratives’, and Foucault’s equating of power and knowledge. 

I can’t hope to sum up Smith’s responses to each of these in such a short review, but I was particularly struck throughout by his ability to find redemptive meaning in each writer’s work, and to move from it towards a thoughtful and loving critique of contemporary Christian culture. He focuses in particular on the importance of the church as an active, distinctive and engaged community of truth; he suggests that postmodernist ideas can help us to engage more with the insights of the historical church, and even to rediscover helpful liturgical practices that set the body of Christ apart from the world and redirect our gaze towards Jesus. In the end, he suggests that postmodern ideas, far from undermining the basic tenets of Christianity, can in fact act as a stimulus for revitalising our thought and action.

What do you think? Do leave a comment to let me know!

FiSch research published in Trends journal

About two years ago, FiSch launched a research project on ecosystem services. A group of Christian scholars, with backgrounds in philosophy and/or ecology, formed the Faith-in-Scholarship Working Group on Ecosystem Services (FiSWES). After a number of face-to-face meetings, we continued to work on improving the ecosystem services framework with insights from a Christian philosophical framework. We (Richard Gunton, Eline van Asperen, Andrew Basden, David Bookless, Yoseph Araya, David Hanson, Mark Goddard, George Otieno and Gareth Jones) are pleased to announce that this work has now led to a first publication, in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, a leading journal in the fields of ecology and evolution. We expect the article to be available online in the next few weeks, so watch this space! Also, for more information on a Christian conference on this topic, please scroll down to the end of this post.

So how did we go about this? We followed Andrew Basden’s ACE approach: affirm, critique and enrich. In essence, this is also the structure we follow in our TREE article.

Affirm: Ecosystem services (ES) provides an important framework in conservation science and policy. It analyses the many ways in which people benefit from ecosystems, and uses these as incentives for conservation. It has been very successful in motivating people to conserve ecosystems, and has broadened people’s understanding of the different ways in which natural habitats benefit humans.

Critique: The use of ES has not been without controversy. The main criticism arises becomes it encourages people to put a price on the different ‘services’ that an ecosystem provides. But many of the benefits that people derive from ecosystems cannot really be commodified. Think for example of recreation. You can measure how much money people spend on visiting nature reserves, or how much it saves the NHS if people’s health improves as a result, but do such numbers really express the full benefit? Monetisation and commodification can also lead to bias towards those stakeholders who are richer, more vocal or better connected. These issues, and the fact that the definitions and categories used in ES are often vague and contradictory, point to a deeper underlying conceptual problem.

Enrich: In order to do justice to the plurality of motives people have for conservation, and the multiplicity of stakeholders, we propose a framework that focuses on mutual human—environment relationships and the diverse ways in which particular people value particular places. To do this, we offer a comprehensive, mutually irreducible set of axes to consider, derived from aspectual theory. For a particular place and a specified stakeholder we can then ask how the stakeholder appreciates the place in these kinds of ways.

If this all sounds a bit abstract to you, the article contains a diagram to outline the different axes and some examples of stakeholders. And of course we are planning to develop this further. We really hope this will be a constructive contribution to the discussion around ES.

If you’d like to learn more, the John Ray Initiative’s annual conference on 18 March in Birmingham has the theme ‘Nature in the balance: Can we put a value on the environment, and should we?’ A number of FiSWES members will be giving talks or leading workshops. We’d love to see you there!

Here's the full reference of the article:

Gunton, R.M., van Asperen, E., Basden, A., Bookless, D., Araya, Y., Hanson, D.R., Goddard, M.A., Otieno, G., Jones, G.O. (in press): Beyond ecosystem services: valuing the invaluable. Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Doing English in the church

‘Oh, you’re thinking of doing English at university? You’ll have to be careful about that. A lot of people lose their faith.’

I was seventeen. I had been a Christian for several years, and I had loved books for much longer. I was doing two English A-Levels and thoroughly enjoying them, and I had just moved past a period of crippling doubt in God – the first I had experienced – into a steadier, more confident faith.

Dangerous territory

So hearing the above, from an older friend at church, was jarring. It didn’t stop me pursuing my studies, but it was an attitude I’ve encountered more than once in the evangelical church. The academic study of literature is dangerous for the Christian: Christianity is a religion of the Book, but for some, really only the one Book is safe.

This can manifest simply as gentle warnings and raised eyebrows, which is all I faced, or – for others I’ve talked to – active discouragement from pursuing English at all. Related subjects such as philosophy and history often attract similar worries: I remember a peer’s loss of childhood faith being directly linked by other Christians to her study of philosophy.

The death of the Author?

Why is this the case? I don’t think the concerns stem simply from anti-intellectualism, though that is certainly something evangelicals have to reckon with. Distrust of academic literary study, where it is raised, seems to come mainly from anxiety about postmodern or relativist practices of reading, and the way these may undermine the Bible’s authority. The death of the author and the death of God, two memorable claims advanced by twentieth-century thinkers, are certainly linked, and for some Christians this is enough warning to stay well clear of the literary academy.

This concern is rarely stated explicitly. But it’s a problem. Not an urgent or even a major one, perhaps; Christian young people still study literature, and there are more believers in this section of academia than at first appears. But there is often a lack of support from their churches, partially out of ignorance of the nature of the work and partially from the anxiety I’ve discussed.

Bridging the gap

Christians in literary study can feel isolated, already a problem in a field not well suited to collaboration, and encounter few resources to help them integrate faith and work. If we believe Christ to be the Lord of all life, what can we do to foster more and better Christian engagement with the literary academy?

I have a few ideas on the church side of things:

  1. On an individual level, we can affirm and encourage young people with an interest in literature (and similarly ‘difficult’ subjects), making sure they hear positive reactions as well as negative or unsure ones.
  2. The church can acknowledge the power and value of literature that is not explicitly 'Christian': this can work out in lots of ways, but centrally I think it’s important to talk about, give, lend, and reference a wide variety of books in church contexts. (This will mean going beyond C. S. Lewis and other ‘safe’ fiction.)
  3. Ultimately it should be an integrated, public part of our witness, as individuals and churches, that academic life can and should be lived for Christ, including the ‘difficult’ parts of the humanities.

From the academic side, Christians in literary study can aim towards a greater willingness to integrate their faith with their academic field in an explicit way. We can model a commitment to doing it well in Christ which will be winsome both to unbelievers and to those Christians who are sceptical.

And we can do better at supporting one another – there are resources and initiatives available on specific issues relating to literature and Christian faith, and there are Christians faithfully doing literary work, but often these are not very well linked up. In the UK, the Christian Literary Studies Group is one forum for exploring this interface and also has a helpful list of resources and groups. I would love to hear in the comments about other ways that Christian literary scholars can connect with one another and with their churches, for everyone’s benefit.

Can Christianity enhance science?

Church Scientific is a project of Faith-in-Scholarship in partnership with Blenheim Baptist Church. Launched last October, it seeks to help Christian students and researchers in science-related subjects to explore how a Christian worldview might enhance their scientific work. We believe Church Scientific is unique in bringing Christianity to bear on scientific work in three ways:

  1. It explores and develops a Christian philosophy of science;
  2. It examines the processes of research and discovery, seeking to help scientists in their endeavours;
  3. It addresses scientists in the communal context of Christian fellowship, including the church.

The core of the project is a series of scientists' workshops. These ran in Leeds in autumn 2016, with six different speakers presenting a total of nine talks to a group of around 15 participants. These talks picked up from the overarching question, "Could a Christian worldview contribute to science?" by unpacking some of the ideas that philosopher Elaine Storkey had laid out in her talk at the launch event. There's more detail about the talks in this post at www.churchscientific.org.uk.

The next phase is a series of science café evenings.  In each of five evenings, three participants will give short talks about an area of research that they are currently pursuing, mentioning any ways in which a Christian worldview might be having an influence in their work. After each talk, an audience (hopefully drawn from churches across Leeds) will take some time in small groups to discuss what they've heard, and come up with some ideas and questions for the speaker. Then there'll be a period of conversation with the speaker, so that everyone can benefit from the combined wisdom and creativity of the whole group. So we're not putting scientists on pedestals to expound knowledge so much as seeking to bring faithful scholars into conversation with fellow believers and followers of Christ.  I'm excited to see how this works out!

The third and final phase will be a conference to bring together the best of what's been shared in the earlier parts of the project. This will also provide an opportunity for refinement and development of ideas that are taking shape as we go along. The format of the conference is still being discussed, but we envisage it taking place around July 2017, somewhere in Leeds. Watch this space!

So far Church Scientific has a northern feel: located in Leeds, it's funded by a Scientists in Congregations project based at St John's College Durham, along with Blenheim Baptist Church (Leeds) and Wetherby Baptist Church (North Yorkshire). But next year we also hope to take it to new locations - subject to funding, of course!  For all the news, you can follow us on Facebook.

Evangelistic resolution?

One of the challenges facing Christians in many contemporary contexts is how to talk about our faith that Jesus is Lord and Saviour to the people we encounter at work. There may be several basic reasons why it's difficult:

  1. Secularist attitudes (or even legislation) discourage it.
  2. We sense that it's inappropriate to share our faith using contact that arises from professional positions such as lecturing, consulting, etc.
  3. We don't know how to make this Gospel seem relevant to those around us.

If we believe that Jesus' kingdom really is coming and is the answer to all kinds of affliction, injustice and indeed the threat of eternal condemnation, then quietism isn't an option. But each of the above challenges needs meeting in a different way. Items 1 and 2 raise important questions about our view of secularism, while item 3 raises an even bigger question about the message of the Gospel itself.

Secularity without secularism?

As regards secularism, we need to realise that there's no neutral ground, and if Christian values are marginalised in the public square, then values from some other source must have taken their place. But let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Secularity itself - in the sense of differentiating the authority structure of the church from those of the state, business, etc. - surely brings blessings (according to the vision of the Christian statesman Abraham Kuyper). But those blessings expire at the point where these structures are supposed to become the sole domain of certain interests, like religious, political, or economic.  Churches should be separate from the state and also not businesses, but faith and ideology cannot be kept out of politics or economics (as also seems clear from the Bible). We could champion 'secularity without secularism' - known in Kuyper's tradition as 'sphere sovereignty'.

What about the gospel message itself?  Sphere sovereignty here means that we must never accept the easy assumption that the Kingdom of God is irrelevant to our work. If it is, we shouldn't be doing the work! Here I'm urging a broad view of why Jesus was incarnate in the first place (and I highly recommend Richard Middleton's A New Heaven and A New Earth, which I'm currently reading). I've always had some generic ways to link my ecological research to God's kingdom, but now I'm excited to be part of some projects with a Christian philosophical element - in ecology, in conservation, and in research methods. We're not preaching through these, but we are trying to work out perspectives that come from a Christian worldview. So I'm delighted when colleagues ask me about these projects, which may lead to fruitful conversations on hard secularist ground. Every so often I discover or suspect that someone I'm talking to has abandoned Christian faith earlier in life, and I pray that God may be drawing them on. A holistic gospel is crucial for such conversations.

A holistic Gospel

A while ago I was discussing with a friend how some Christian groups appear to 'go liberal'. Despite starting with a fervour for sharing the gospel alongside some other interest like humanitarian aid or Christian perspectives on science, politics or art, after some years they seem to lose the evanglistic fervour. But, speaking candidly, I suspect that the same thing has happened to me personally, if I compare my undergraduate interest in evangelism 15 years ago, as an active Christian Union member, with what I seem to do now. I don't suppose I'm alone in this...

But perhaps this is partly due to not recognising the breadth of God's claim on people's lives in the first place.  His kingdom challenges us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, for obedience to Christ in every area of life.  So the challenge must be to conceive all of my life as meaningful response to Christ's call - whether it be filling out forms, marking, analysing data or speaking.

As 2017 begins, I need to think and pray more about seeing my daily work as genuine service in Jesus' kingdom.  What can I - or you - discuss with colleagues, friends or clients about how this total lordship of Christ naturally relates to our daily concerns?

Called to be a scholar?

This year my autumn term has been a bit different from those of the last six years. At the end of September my postdoc grant ran out, and we moved to Durham, where my husband has started his training to become a vicar and I became a part-time visiting fellow at the University. A time of change and transition, and a time to reflect on my calling as an academic.

From a very young age I have wanted to be a scholar. I think I was about 8 years old when I started to answer the question ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ with ‘a researcher at a university’. Over the years, this desire grew into something I recognised as a calling to use my God-given talents to learn more about His creation and to teach and enthuse others about it. When I finished my masters’ degree, I started looking for opportunities to do my PhD in my own country, The Netherlands. After two ‘wilderness years’ of waiting and doing jobs that didn’t require me to use all of my brain, I decided to apply for PhD positions in the UK, and soon found a post in York. In contrast to many PhD students, I enjoyed my PhD years from start to finish (OK maybe not that summer month when everyone was on holiday and I was digging though statistics books, but pretty much everything else).

My experience post-PhD has been more mixed. After finishing my PhD, I applied for several postdoctoral grants, since there are not many postdoc positions advertised in my field. After about a year, I was awarded a three-year part-time postdoctoral grant, which I supplemented with teaching. Three years later, I got another grant and I moved to the other side of the country to take it up. Now, having just finished this last grant, I am more or less unemployed again…

I have felt confirmed in my calling by getting the PhD done and receiving several grants. I still love doing research and teaching, and find it hard to think of any other job which would use my talents to the same degree and would give me the same amount of satisfaction. But I have found it difficult to deal with the uncertainty of short-term contracts and the stress of moving over large distances. And the fact that I may well end up being a vicar’s wife also complicates things! Having a bit of thinking space, whilst still pursuing my research (and writing up those articles that I didn’t get round to in my full-time job!), is therefore welcome. You probably know others who are in a similar situation. Please pray for us that we will be able to discern God’s calling on our lives, whether He has something new for us or whether we should continue to pursue the academic life.

How have you experienced God’s calling to be a scholar? Have you received confirmation of your calling, whether through events or through people’s comments? Are you open to the fact that your calling may change over time or be different in different seasons of life?

Art, the scholar, and the self

Today I want to talk about a poem.

Archaic Torso of Apollo

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), trans. Stephen Mitchell (see the original German)

I read this poem in my first year of literary study and was struck first and foremost by the stark insistence of the last line: ‘You must change your life.’ At first it seems oddly disconnected from the rest of the poem – a meditation on the strange living power of a damaged piece of art. (The technical term is ekphrasis, a verbal description of visual art.) But the bluntness of that last phrase is designed to make us consider its relevance to the rest of the poem.

A demand

The experience which Rilke describes here is not inspiration, pleasure, or quiet reflection – any of the states of mind we might want to associate with looking at art. Instead, it is obligation. You must change your life – it is required of you, even inevitable. We are not looking at the statue: it is looking at us. ‘Here there is no place/ that does not see you.’

How can a damaged statue of a pagan god require anything of us? I have been thinking on and off about this poem ever since I read it, and it has become something of a challenge to me as I have pursued my literary studies. As with all good ekphrastic poems, the technique of describing a piece of (usually visual) art allows the poet to explore the nature of his own art as well. Reading the poem, we don’t physically see the archaic torso, but Rilke conjures it for us, depicting in his own medium the life and ‘brilliance’ he describes. He then demands a response. He demands we consider ourselves in the light of the statue and of the poem which revives it for us.

A challenge

The challenge, I think, is to take art seriously, and act accordingly. Rilke forces us to recognise the living power of an object centuries out of its time, jolting us out of our self-centred preoccupation with the present moment. Art can do this if we let it: push us out of ourselves and remind us of the existence of a world beyond us, of wild beasts and legends and stars, or simply of the inner lives of others.

Apollo (the god of the arts) is not an especially comforting figure here. All the poem’s metaphors are full of contained energy, the sense that all at once there may be an explosion of movement, in what direction we don’t know. The demand for us to change our lives is the natural extension of the realisation, inherent in all good art, that there is powerful agency outside us in the world, and so human self-sufficiency is only ever partial and temporary.

Academics in particular have good reason to heed this truth, given the strong temptations towards idolatry of the self in the pursuit of knowledge. I regularly face the danger, as a literary scholar, of denying the agency of the writers I read by focusing only on what I want to find, rather than accepting what they have to say on their own terms. You will know your own specific temptations, from abstract problems of methodology to the everyday desire to hoard credit and resources for yourself.

The Christian scholar seeks, above all, to acknowledge and work under the supreme agency of God in the world. Art like Rilke’s can help us to look away from ourselves long enough to do so.

Faith and Knowledge

Reasoning

Our “Christian philosophy in diagrams” series began with an ontology: things in relation over time. After ontology (what there is), philosophy typically looks at epistemology (how we know). This week I want to share a proposal based on the following diagram:

The oval represents what goes on in my mind, and it’s tightly bound to the green surrounding, which represents my experience. We’re looking at a common-sense, realist view of mental content here – and not just beliefs: the purple area on the right represents tacit knowledge, which was formally introduced to epistemology by Michael Polanyi. His phrase “we know more than we can tell” nicely evokes this sector of mental content. I know how to communicate, how to recognise certain faces, how to ride a bicycle, and so on – without necessarily being able to explain this knowledge.

We’ll leave tacit knowledge aside now to consider propositional knowledge (although Polanyi showed that tacit knowledge plays a central role in scientific research). So the central column indicates how knowledge that I might express by saying “I know/believe that…” can be arranged from what I find self-evident to what I hold most tentatively.  This is where things get interesting. I owe much of the following to Roy Clouser, whose book “Knowing with the Heart” takes its title from a quote of Blaise Pascale: “The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing”.

Knowing God is Real

Does the Bible tell us to have faith that God exists? Biblical writers never even seem to countenance that big question of our humanist age. Instead, we’re supposed to find it obvious that the creator God is real, and put our faith in Him. (Indeed, says Clouser, the authoritative texts of other religions make similar claims.) And I hope that is our experience – once we’ve encountered God’s self-revelation in Scripture, in daily life and perhaps through visions or other special experiences. So that bottom layer of the blue column is for all basic beliefs that are obvious to me – about the reality of my friends, the accuracy of my vivid memories, etc – and also that God is real and loves me. The arrow from “Special Revelation” indicates one of the important influences – along with many other forms of testimony – on what I may come to see as self-evident.

Common Knowledge

Then we have the blue arrow labelled “Proof; discourse”, leading from self-evident knowledge to what I’ve called “common knowledge”. The claim here is that we tend to be less certain of things that have to be proven or explained to us. Much confusion is generated when beliefs that are easily shared and agreed upon get passed off as the only real knowledge – leaving everything else as mere belief or opinion. If we buy into the widespread “objective vs. subjective” dualism, we’ll be urged to refer to “knowledge” only when reiterating beliefs shared by lots of boffins! But this notion is completely unworkable, as Clouser shows. The history of ideas (not least science) readily shows that “objective knowledge” routinely changes. Moreover, it only takes a little post-modern awareness for us to suspect that, in many discourses, the use of words like “objective”, “proof” and “fact” owes more to their effectiveness in silencing dissenting points of view (“subjective” “beliefs” and “opinions”!) than to any real infallibility. More needs to be said about analysing how reliable a belief is, as distinct from how firmly I currently hold it.

So we’re left with the term “faith”. There’s a popular view that this is about believing in things without evidence. But biblical faith is more like extrapolating beyond evidence. “I do believe: help me overcome my unbelief!” Lots of teachings come in this category for me, like the belief that God will heal a loved one, or that Jesus will return. So I’ve put “faith” part-way up the column of uncertainty – having already parked my basic Christian convictions along with my most certain knowledge.

Try reading John 9 for a fascinating insight into the convictions of someone gradually coming to faith in Jesus. Then perhaps compare it with the way Jesus became real to you. Or pray and ask Jesus for that reality, if you’re not sure about it!

Modern music and faith

Music snippet

A couple of months ago, fellow FiScher Alicia Smith wrote a fascinating blog post on the relationship of her PhD studies with her faith. I’d like here to attempt something similar in relation to my own field. This post is going to ask more questions than it answers, for space reasons, but hopefully it will generate debate! If so, my plan is to follow this introduction up in more detail in the future, perhaps via an occasional themed series.

The image shows a (tiny) snippet of my clarinet quintet, Love Unknown (2008). It's music, Jim, but not as we know it...

My PhD was built upon the analysis of contemporary Western art music, also commonly known as avant-garde, experimental or modern music (although each of these terms carries quite distinct – and rather problematic – connotations within the field itself). I was looking at the ideas and musical processes which lie behind the music of various contemporary composers such as Thomas Adès, György Kurtág and Kaija Saariaho (a quick search on YouTube or Spotify will give you an idea of what their music sounds like – they are all quite distinct from one another). All of these composers stand to some extent within the radical lineage established by earlier (and more infamous) composers such as Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage.

As with its parallel strands in the visual arts and literature, music like this tends to polarise opinion, with some lauding it as an authentic expression of contemporary concerns, and others deriding it as incomprehensible, elitist or arbitrary. Modern music seems especially likely to bring accusations of inaccessibility (‘these composers don’t care about their listeners; they’re just writing for themselves’), incoherence (‘that’s not music, it’s just noise’) or discomfort (‘why would you write something that just makes me feel bad?’).

For a Christian, questions about the role of artistic endeavour within God’s kingdom can complicate the situation still further. At various points within my PhD, as part of the usual bouts of self-questioning that all postgraduate students experience from time to time, I found myself fearing that what I was doing was all a waste of time. Was this music just a distraction from my fundamental calling of telling people about Jesus? Or, perhaps even worse, was it a kind of destructive influence in itself, an emblem of the despair and darkness of the contemporary world which I should be resisting rather than embracing?

The problem for me is that I love much of this music, and feel an enthusiasm for it which surpasses even the great and well-loved works of the Western canon. Indeed, often other, more ‘accessible’ or ‘uplifting’ music can seem rather boring by comparison. I love it for its complexity, which to me seems to mirror and respond to the complexity of the created world; I love it for its moments of fleeting but hard-earned beauty, which often speak to me of a deep yearning for redemption; I love it even for its free inclusion of sounds that are uncomfortable or perhaps disturbing, since these seem an honest response to the beautiful but broken world in which it is written and heard.

For me, then, part of my journey as a PhD student (and beyond) involved coming to terms with the gap between my own experience of this music, and the reality of its wider reception within society and within the church. One of the motivations for my research is the desire to bridge this gap. Hopefully, I’ll be able to talk a bit more in future posts about what that has meant in practice. In the meantime, please do talk about your own experiences with modern music and art in the comments!

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Everyday Apocalypse: From Antichrist to Zombies

Detail from Albrecht Dürer, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

A guest post from David Parry.

A report from the Christian Literary Studies Group Annual Conference

The Christian Literary Studies Group gathered at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, on Saturday 5th November for our annual day conference, which this year had the theme “Shaping Ends: Aspects of Apocalypse”. Current world events were not in view when we chose the theme months before, but they added a certain resonance to our discussions.

Opening reflections by CLSG Secretary Roger Kojecký reminded us that humans tell stories to find patterns of meaning in life, and that they need “the sense of an ending” to make sense of those stories. The papers that followed ranged widely through literary history, but a common theme was the popularity of apocalyptic themes today. One speaker reported that his online research had led him to a product advertised as “zombie repellent spray”! (Robert Joustra and Alissa Wilkinson’s book How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World, reviewed by Alicia Smith in the forthcoming issue of the CLSG journal The Glass, explores apocalyptic in popular culture from a Christian perspective.)

Modern fiction and apocalypse

A keynote presentation by Andrew Tate (Lancaster), spinning off from his forthcoming book Apocalyptic Fiction, addressed the recent genre of ‘climate change fiction’, novels that depict a world after ecological catastrophe. After hailing the nineteenth-century writer and artist John Ruskin as something of a prophet of environmental disaster, Andrew examined novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, and Margaret Atwood, observing that, though depicting a post-apocalyptic world, these writers (even those hostile to Christian faith) tell stories of the survivors that suggest some kind of hope for humanity on the other side of catastrophe.

Simon Marsden (Liverpool) looked at how Christian ideas of apocalypse and the afterlife surface in unexpected forms in contemporary Gothic horror novels – he referenced the TV show The Walking Dead, in which a zombie apocalypse survivor remarks, “Christ promised a resurrection of the dead. I just thought he had something a little different in mind.” Although Gothic horror is often sceptical about organised religion, depicting a nihilistic universe or a bleak afterlife, the recent novels of Peter Straub and Justin Cronin depict a kind of redemption. For instance, in Cronin’s Passage trilogy, the “viral” race of vampire-like humans is redeemed by the messianic Amy, who overcomes the virus progenitor Zero through sacrificial love. (The A to Z names are not coincidental).

Antichrists and apocalyptic hope

Victoria Brownlee (National University of Ireland, Galway) helped to give the long view by looking at how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English Protestants saw the pope as the Antichrist and the Catholic Church as the scarlet woman foretold in Revelation, exploring how this belief is expressed in texts such as Edmund Spenser’s epic poem The Faerie Queene. Though this sounds like an extreme fringe belief to most Christians today, it was a pretty mainstream view amid the interweaving of political and theological conflicts of that time. Historians have long observed that periods of crisis give rise to apocalyptic thinking, and Christians have often been tempted to play the game of “pin the tail on the Antichrist”.

However, two further papers reminded us that the original sense of “apocalypse” is not disaster but rather unveiling/revelation, which for Christians is a revelation of an ultimate hope beyond catastrophe. Tom Docherty (Cambridge) drew from his PhD research on the poet Geoffrey Hill, looking at how the form (e.g. rhyme scheme and line endings) as well as content of Hill’s poems expresses a longing for a completion that remains unresolved in this life.

Finally, Roger Pooley (Keele) probed New Testament scholar Ernst Käsemann’s assertion that “Apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology”, exploring both ancient apocalyptic texts, parallel with the Bible, and literary works by Yeats and Bulgakov, with Russell Hoban’s sci-fi novel Riddley Walker cited as another literary representation of post-apocalyptic hope. Roger encouraged us to be open to “everyday apocalypse”: we do not have to wait until the end of time for God’s hope-filled future to be revealed to us.

Most of the conference papers will appear in revised form in the Spring 2017 issue of the CLSG The Glass (along with several book reviews). CLSG membership is open to any
one interested in the intersection of the Christian faith with literature, within or beyond academia. We would be delighted for you to join us.

David Parry teaches English literature for various colleges of the University of Cambridge, and his research focuses on early modern / Renaissance literature.

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