Posted by: Dan | February 6, 2010

January Books

Just a few:

1. Occidental Eschatology by Jacob Taubes.

If you’re ever feeling a little cocky and starting to pride yourself on your intellectual abilities, I suggest you read this book and recall that Jacob Taubes wrote it when he was 23 years old.  Holy shit.  That’s a good reality check.

Anyway, in this book (the only one Taubes published during his lifetime… although he did publish a number of articles), Taubes demonstrates the impact that (an inherently revolutionary) apocalyptic eschatology has had upon Western philosophy, politics and spirituality.  In order to do this, he traces the ways in which the apocalyptic eschatology of early Judaism is caught up by early Christianity, revived by medieval theologians, and secularized by Lessing, Kant, Hegel, Marx and Kierkegaard.

I quite enjoyed this book, given that I’m currently writing my chapter on Paul’s (revolutionary) apocalyptic eschatology and contrasting to the consummated eschatologies of imperial Rome and contemporary Capitalism.  It appears that Taubes is always fun to read, and I look forward to continuing on with him.

2. Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies by David Bentley Hart.

I have almost entirely avoided the conversation that has circled around the so-called ‘new atheists’.  I have done this, to be honest, because I find most of that conversation to be dull and overwhelmingly stupid.  This is not to say that I think that atheists are stupid — all of the atheists (and agnostics) I know are quite bright and, in fact, far more intelligent than Dawkins et al. (and, to be fair, far more intelligent than a good many who waste their time responding to Dawkins et al.).  Thus, while I have poked around a very little bit in books by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, watched a few online lectures by Dennett, and read a couple great articles in response to these fellows (see here and here), I have mostly thought that this conversation was so obviously missing the point and so full of inaccuracies that any person with a minimal level of intelligence — regardless of their own a/religious views — would write off the whole thing.

So, when I noticed that David Bentley Hart — who is probably up there amongst the most well-learned and intelligent people in the Academy today (which means that Dawkins et al. probably couldn’t even understand the words that he uses, let alone follow the argument he makes in a book like The Beauty of the Infinite) — had written a book engaging this conversation, I got curious as to why he bothered and so I finally picked up a copy last month.

Basically, Hart is a little bit offended and a little bit puzzled by the ways in which the new atheists reconstruct the history of Christianity and its impact upon the Western world.  Basically, according to this reconstruction, Christianity has been an entirely violent, negative, destructive, and oppressive force (religion spoils everything, according to Hitchens).  Now while this may be true in some ways, and within some places in the West, to paint the entire history of Western Christianity in this way is blatantly false.  Thus, what Hart does, is demonstrate to the reader that Christianity has done more good than harm to the development of our culture, ethics, and sense of personhood.  Along the way, he also demonstrates that the Classical Greco-Roman culture wasn’t nearly so great as a good many of the new atheists imagine, that the new atheists themselves are depending upon a Christian heritage for the ethics they expound, and that the history of irreligious modernity has actually been much more violent than Christianity has been.

Of course, none of this is to say whether or not atheists or theists are correct to posit the non/existence of God.  Hart’s point is not to convert anybody to Christianity.  Rather, leaving such questions to the side, Hart is simply engaging in an historical exercise and reminding the reader of what actually has and has not gone on since Christianity began.  His conclusions, I think, are no surprise to anybody with a basic knowledge of history but they are, perhaps, are useful reminder to a good many who are drawn to the new atheists and who lack any awareness of history.

Oh, and after finishing the book I thought I would see if anybody amongst the new atheists had responded to Hart’s argument.  All I could find was one posting on Richard Dawkin’s webpage, regarding a radio interview Hart did about the book.  This is what Dawkin’s said:

Did ANYONE manage to listen to this all through without nodding off? Surely theology must be the ONLY academic subject in which such a stupefying bore, with such yawning chasms of intelligence-deficit, could rise to the top (see here for the whole thread).

Yep.  That’s all.  As far as I can tell, the new atheists haven’t responded to the substance of Hart’s argument because it is about as irrefutable as arguments from history can get.

3. The Recognitions by William Gaddis.

One of the reading goals I set for myself about a year ago was to not worry about reading so many books and instead focus on books that I have been putting-off due to their length.  Consequently, when the folks over at AUFS started a reading group about The Recognitions, I decided to join in.

I’m glad that I did — this is one helluva good book.  Of course, this doesn’t mean that it’s an easy book to read — Gaddis is fairly demanding of his readers, so don’t expect to open it up and skim through it while watching repeat episodes of ‘Jersey Shore‘ (trust me, I tried… and, yes, I don’t care what you have to say about ‘The Wire’, ‘Jersey Shore’ is probably the best show to ever air on television).  But it is worth the effort.  Gaddis’ prose is fantastic both in sustained sections — like the conversations that occur at a certain Christmas party — but also in some really brilliant short lines — as when one character says to another: “Sincerity becomes the honesty of people who cannot be honest with themselves” (any experienced liar — i.e. most of us — should be able to immediately identify with that!).

Basically, in this novel, I understand Gaddis to be exploring the various ways in which identity is both constructed and masked — by ourselves and by others, but also by our participation in things like art, religion, and business. Very quickly, it becomes difficult to discern between the ‘true’ identity of a character and between a mask that is worn or any identity that others (including the reader) project onto that character.  Just as significantly, it becomes difficult to determine which is of greater value — the ‘true’ identity, the mask, or the projection (hence, moments of ‘recognition’ produce rather mixed results).  Despite what Gaddis may or may not have intended when writing this, reading it certainly made me draw closer to Baudrillard’s variation of nihilism (i.e. all we can engage are simulacra devoid of any originals), or to Zizek’s assertion that the trauma of the Real is that there is no Real (i.e. the Real is a gap or absence).  This has got me doing a lot of thinking around truth and lying, constructions of reality, notions of self, and all that fun stuff.  Really, this novel is the first I have read in awhile that has really caused me to seriously revisit and attempt to clarify some of my own thoughts on matters extending beyond the text (so props to the guys at AUFS — but I think your next discussion group should be based on ‘Jersey Shore’!).

4. Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut.

I recently lent a couple of Vonnegut books to a brother of mine (who ended up enjoying them quite a lot) and so I thought I would pick something up as well.  Armageddon in Retrospect is a series of pieces — some letters, some stories, some speeches — published posthumously.  As with most things Vonnegut writes some are better than others, but I was particularly interested in reading the letter he wrote to his family in 1945 (shortly after living through the fire-bombing of Dresden) as well as the speech he was to deliver in 2007 (he died shortly before the event and so his son delivered the speech for him).  Those were really the best two sections in the book, and most of the short stories were kind of ho-hum.

I’ve been thinking about what it is in Vonnegut’s writing that appeals to me and I think a lot of it has to do with the manner in which he approaches his subject matter.  To begin with, I appreciate what I take to be Vonnegut’s honesty.  He doesn’t sugarcoat the nature of the world we live in — it is a monumental clusterfuck, wherein cities like Dresden get fire-bombed for no particular reason, and there isn’t much we can do about it (when commenting on the net effect of the Vietnam war protests, Vonnegut concluded: “We might as well have been throwing cream pies”).  However, instead of this leading him to abandon all hope and give into rage or despair, Vonnegut persists in the pursuit of love in the midst of all the craziness.  And not just love, but love with a little humour and a twinkle in the eye — even though, while loving and laughing, one never forgets the clusterfuck.

So it goes… and that about sums it all up, eh?

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Responses

  1. “As far as I can tell, the new atheists haven’t responded to the substance of Hart’s argument because it is irrefutable.”

    Irrefutable? I’m willing to believe that the new atheists haven’t responded because they’re dumbasses, but irrefutable? That always seems a stretch to me.

  2. Perhaps a bit of an overstatement… but I’m not sure. There are certain things that history demonstrates that I find hard to deny or refute.

    Of course, history is not an exact science and it is (and always has been) fraught with ideology… plus I reckon that certitude (about pretty much anything) is pretty much impossible, so maybe I should modify what I wrote…

  3. I wouldn’t think too hard about it. This is the first post of yours to come through the chute since I subscribed, and that caught my eye.

    I’ve not read Hart, so I can’t really say one way or the other. If his point is that Christianity isn’t the straw man Hitchens makes of it, then he’s probably got history on his side.

    One would think, however, that a truly irrefutable argument wouldn’t need to be made.

  4. Who would you rather go clubbing with, Pauly D or “The Situation”?

  5. So it goes.

    -Josh


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