Reading Notes (10/27/09) Print
Reviews
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Tuesday, 27 October 2009 21:50

Before I read his obituaries that came out in January, I don’t remember ever hearing of Donald Westlake.  Author of more than a hundred novels and non-fiction books, as well as several screenplays, Westlake wrote crime novels, mysteries, soft porn, and science fiction under a dozen different pseudonyms.  He specialized in depicting criminals, writing twenty novels about the brutally efficient Parker (under the pseudonym Richard Stark) and another series about the hapless and wonderfully named petty criminal, John Dortmunder.

The obits were enthusiastic, and written by people I trusted, so I decided to take a look.  After reading several novels, I don’t share William Kristol’s opinion that Westlake deserved the Nobel Prize for Literature, but his novels are certainly sharply written, ingeniously plotted, full of diverting self-deprecation and black humor.  Westlake’s web site (www.donaldwestlake.com) opens with a quotation that captures the tone: “I believe my subject is bewilderment.”  Fade out, and then fade in: “But I could be wrong.”

His 2000 novel, The Hook, was the best of the few I read.  Struggling novelist Wayne Prentice runs across an old friend, the hugely successful writer, Bryce Proctorr, while researching a book.  As they share a drink and catch up, Proctorr reveals that his writing has stalled because of the distraction of a messy, protracted divorce.   Prentice has a finished novel he has been unable to sell.  Proctorr suggests a deal: He will pass off Prentice’s novel as his own, and they split the million-dollar advance.

There’s a hook: As part of the deal, Proctorr wants Prentice to knock off his wife.

With a setup like that, there’s no way to stop reading once you start.  In his endorsement, Stephen King says that the novel includes “one of the most hair-raising murder scenes ever written.”  He’s right.

*****

What is work for?  According to John Hughes’s recent The End of Work: Theological Critiques of Capitalism (Blackwell, 2007), modern capitalist economics treats work in purely utilitarian terms.  For Welsh poet and essayist David Jones, the “utile” is “mere utility, functionality, opposed to questions of goodness and beauty,” the realm of “carburetors and gull’s pinions” as opposed to the realm of Stonehenge and the Lord’s Prayer.  The spirit of utility is the spirit of “rationality and ruthlessness, of quantification and commodification, of sameness and indifference, of control and hoarding, opposed also to all that is ancient, particular, differentiated, all that is free, child-like, celebratory, worshipful, cultic holy.”  In Jones’s account, the “utile” is based on an anti-sacramental view of reality.

Jones expresses this in a litany, “Tutelar of the Place,” a plea for liberation from utility:

Queen of the differentiated sites, administratrix of the demarcations, let our cry come to you.
In all times of imperium save us when the mercatores comes save us
from the guile of the negotiatores save us from the missi,
from the agents who think no shame
by inquest to audit what is shameful to tell
deliver us.

Hughes, curate at St David’s with St Michael’s in Exeter, summarizes the Marxist alternative to capitalist work, but focuses particularly on the theological critiques of utilitarian work, examining such diverse figures as Karl Barth, John Paul II, Miroslav Volf, John Ruskin, Josef Pieper, Jacques Maritain, and Jones.  He recognizes that the central importance of aesthetics in these critiques: The various traditions “point towards the ‘aesthetic’ origins of any critique of capitalism.”  But he also recognizes the limitations of aesthetic critique, titling one section of his final chapter, “Only theology overcomes utility.”

Our work, he argues, must be analogical participation in God’s, who “does not create out of any need or lack in himself” but only out of “love for the thing made.”  All the dualisms of utility and beauty, of thought and action, of rest and labor, or work and play, are overcome in God’s work.  Human work can participate in God’s work insofar as “in the highest forms of human activity, perhaps especially in the lives of the saints and in the liturgy, we see ‘work’ that is also thoughtful, playful, restful, and delightful.” At our best, our labor embodies the Benedictine motto: “laborare est orare,” to labor is to pray, to work is to offer God worship.

*****

Pauline studies have been upended in the last few decades by various perspectives on Paul – new, fresh, new-new, post-new, etc.  It’s all very exciting, and much of the work is illuminating.

One of the most intriguing studies I’ve come across recently is Tom Holland’s Contours of Pauline TheologyHolland teaches at the Evangelical Theological College of Wales, and his book is not easily classified as new or anti-new perspective.  In it, he develops several central themes.  He accepts N. T. Wright’s notion that Pauline theology is profoundly shaped by the apostle’s conviction that Israel’s hope for a “new Exodus” has been fulfilled in Jesus.  But he thinks that Wright and others have missed a crucial feature of that paradigm, namely, the Paschal death of Jesus as the foundation for that new exodus.  Jesus dies as the substitutionary and representative “firstborn” to redeem us from bondage.

He argues that for Paul justification has to be understood in the context of the new exodus paradigm, which implies that justification is “more than a declaration; it is the activity of God that is focused on the rescue of a people from enmity with himself.”  Again, “The Jews had been justified when God delivered them from the control of their oppressors in exile.  They had claimed to be the people of God, a claim that seemed ridiculous in the light of the reality of their condition.  But it was a true claim, and God justified this claim when he delivered them from exile.”

Holland also believes that Paul, as a “Hebraic” thinker, put corporate realities ahead of individual, and thus concludes that many Pauline passages and terms traditionally understood as references to individual realities are actually social realities.  The “body of sin” is not physical flesh or even “sinful nature,” but a community covenantally bound to Satan, the inverse of the “body of Christ.”  The “harlot” to which we are not to join our members (1 Corinthians 6) is not first of all an individual prostitute, but the false bride (Holland brings up Revelation 17-18 in this context).

I’m far from persuaded by everything Holland writes, and his writing is dry and sometimes clumsy.  But the book is so full of fresh insights that the effort is worth it.

*****

David Bentley Hart’s Beauty of the Infinite has been one of the most-discussed books of theology in recent years.  It is a daunting volume, best read with an open dictionary near at hand.  Never has one writer expended so much ink on semi-colons.

Why can’t he write in English? some readers have complained.  The answer, known to those who have read Hart’s essays in First Things, the New Atlantis, and elsewhere, is, He can.  For doubters, he proves it again in Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale, 2009).

Framing the book are chapters dealing with the usual tiresome suspects – Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett, Harris.  Throughout, Hart rebuts charges concerning Christianity’s suppression of reason and science, its brutality and violence, its intolerance and ignorance.  But the heart of the book is an account of the cultural impact of the Christian gospel, what Hart calls the “Christian Revolution,” and a warning of the dangers of modernity’s reversal of that revolution.

Incarnation and resurrection are at the core of this revolution, which brought “an entirely new universe of human possibilities, moral, social, intellectual, cultural religious.”  Among other things, it brought a new consciousness of the dignity of man: “For peoples that have come to believe in Easter, even if only for a brief cultural moment, it was no longer possible to believe with perfect innocence that divine justice recognized the power of one person to own another; for, in coming to believe in the resurrection of Christ . . . they found that the form of God and the form of the human person had been revealed to them all at once, completely, then and thenceforth always, in the form of a slave.”

Hart is immensely learned, and he writes Atheist Delusions with an eloquence, wit, and rhythm that frequently reminded me of Chesterton.



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Last Updated on Saturday, 31 October 2009 12:05