Computer Game World of Warcraft

God, the Republic, and 60 Billion Hours of World of Warcraft

Elsewhere in the pages of Providence (so far: Parts I and II) Susannah Black and Richard Dreyfuss report on their correspondence about “what’s required of us to survive this strange and challenging time with our cities, civilizations, and souls intact.”

Mr. Dreyfuss laments the present-day absence of civics (“the methods of assuming and practicing citizenship”) in the education of Americans, fearing that this absence will result in a “spiral of civilizational decay.” He yearns for a re-establishment of civic virtue and “the secular faith of the Constitution, the foundational values that let [America] be the protector of all faiths.”

Ms. Black replies with some skepticism about the value of such a re-establishment, in part because she believes that “there was a weakness at the heart of even this founding-era natural law tradition, or at least of some versions of it,” given that “[the] founders knew that virtue was important, but they’d already half-forgotten what it actually was, and why it was important.” She argues for an architectonic critique of American society, revealing how the foundations of the American civil order are weak and flawed. Mr. Dreyfus retorts that it is fine and well to worry about foundations, but not while the house is on fire: “We will not survive this century unless civic virtue is revived. We can discuss its origins all day—if we have the right to speak at all, and aren’t dead under jihad.”

But alarm at the prospect of an imminent civilizational cataclysm is unwarranted. America is not existentially threatened by Islamic jihadism in our time, by conquest or by conversion. The apocalyptic imagination that this moment demands need not so very much resemble a spiritual panic attack. And for all their foundational flaws, America’s constitutional proclamations and arrangements have for nearly a quarter of a millennium afforded vigilance against foreign aggressions, the amelioration of domestic injustices, and the cultivation of a verdant associational and economic life. The American regime has proven remarkably durable despite the human condition. However unsound the spiritual architecture of America, the sheer survival of its amalgam demands something other than radical disapprobation. But, admittedly, although the American house is neither on fire nor about to collapse, it does require maintenance work as well as critical concern in view of the eschaton.

And so, what is to be done? It is not for nothing that Plato considered the banishment of poetry from his ideal political community. In this (as in most things) Plato was wonderfully provocative even though he was wrong. Alongside family life, formal education, and faith communities, the arts and entertainments that engage our imaginations have a powerful and profound effect on popular sentiment, public opinion, and civic virtue. As poetry in song, drama, and spoken word performance moved the ancient Greeks, so are we in our time moved by the songs and stories that we experience through our earbuds, on our screens, and wafting in the air as we go about our lives at home and in our public places.

The scale of our shared experience of games, songs, and stories astounds me. As many as 12 million people have invested upwards of 60 billion hours playing the massively multiplayer online role-playing game World of Warcraft. The song most listened to on Spotify, “Lean On,” by Major Lazer (with DJ Snake and MØ), had by November 2015 received more than 526 million plays. Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” the most watched YouTube video to date, has been seen by more than 2.5 billion people.

This is a good time to live in with regard to the quality of our popular entertainments, as Christianity Today’s critic-at-large Alissa Wilkinson demonstrates in her writing on television shows such as Girls, Madam Secretary and Scandal, Broadchurch and True Detective. As an avid consumer of movies and television shows, I remain gratefully surprised by the many stories that affect how I feel, what I think, and why I care. Recently, Stellan Skarsgård’s character in the series River made me consider deeply and with empathy what it is like to live with serious mental illness. I’m aware of this story continuing to affect not only my own inner life and friendships, but also my attitudes with regard to workplace practices and labor politics. The television series The Wire, which I watched years ago, continues to challenge my understanding of the way in which various institutions affect the cultural ecology of a city, enabling and constraining the ways in which communities and individuals can live their lives.

The cultivation of civic virtue in America depends—as much as on anything else—on artists and entertainers who imaginatively portray the human condition, honestly question the American regime, and constructively represent embodied civic virtue. Dear Ms. Black and Mr. Dreyfuss: Keep Calm and Make Art.

Gideon Strauss is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Public Justice and Associate Professor in Worldview Studies at the Institute for Christian Studies.

Photo Source: Pixabay

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  • Susannah Black

    We are, I’m afraid, in heated agreement. My point about the philosophically dodgy foundations of the United States was not meant to imply that I’m worried that it’s in danger of immanent collapse (through an excess of immanence, perhaps) or that We Will Fall Because Locke Had a Faulty Anthropology or something. And I’m not paralyzed with fear about IS, at all.

    I am attentive; when one knows that there is a state in the world that is in principle committed to extending its rule over the planet and that has in practice shown itself willing to carry out terrorism in major cities, it is hard not to be attentive. Living in New York does make one feel more vulnerable, and it was… disconcerting to read, in a recent piece by John Cantile (or someone writing in his name) in Dabiq, a calm reflection on the possibility of dropping a dirty bomb on Manhattan, should other attacks not do the job of luring American troops to fight on the ground. I don’t know whether these contingency plans are credible or not, but they do fall into the category of things that concentrate the mind wonderfully.

    Yes, they are designed to; yes, that’s the point of terrorism and propaganda; we are meant to be reacting in panic. We should not do so– we should get on with out lives and make things and build things and study things. This is not the Blitz, and the number of people killed in terrorist attacks on American soil since 9/11 is minute. Months before the beginning of the Blitz, C.S. Lewis spoke to students at an evensong service at Oxford; his remarks have come down to us as an essay called On Learning in Wartime; it is worth a read.

    I haven’t the faintest idea what the American military should do about IS, and being afraid of terrorism is not a way to spend one’s life. But the existential questions raised by the fear of terrorism and by the in-your-face reality of evil that IS demonstrates are perennial. And now is always a good time to allow ourselves to have the conversations that will chase the quarry of civic virtue down. There is something that we want in government that is not IS; what is it? That is not a stupid question. And it’s not one that can be answered in fear. We should respond to terrorism by doing the good human things that terrorism interrupts, and understanding and practicing good politics is one of those things.

    And yes, so are really good Netflix series. And summer stock.

    • How wonderful it is to be in heated agreement, Ms. Black!

      A few quick remarks on the side …

      Even though I don’t believe ISIS in particular or Islamic Jihad in general pose an existential threat to the USA I agree that America (government and citizens both) must take threats of terror on American soil as well as foreign turmoil that disturbs the global peace and threaten American interests very seriously, neither overreacting nor underestimating the potential consequences of such terror and turmoil.

      And: C.S. Lewis’s On Learning in Wartime – oh, how I do love it!

      Primarily, though, YES! As you write: “The existential questions raised by the fear of terrorism and by the in-your-face reality of evil that IS demonstrates are perennial. And now is always a good time to allow ourselves to have the conversations that will chase the quarry of civic virtue down. There is something that we want in government that is not IS; what is it?”

      My impression from your contribution (so far) to the correspondence with Mr. Dreyfuss, though, is that you would argue for a different American regime than that bestowed upon the United States by its Founders. Yes, these are the kinds of arguments that one must have if one were to practice political philosophy, and if that is your intent I applaud you. But I would always want to temper philosophical radicalism with historical meliorism, insisting that the work of citizens is the conservation and improvement of what we have towards the most audacious vision of justice that we can imagine while also allowing ourselves to be constrained by a prudence informed by careful study of what has been accomplished in actually existing regimes.

  • As a rule I don’t recommend reading Soren Kierkegaard except with a sizable (and doctrinally sound) grain of salt. But in the last couple of decades I have found myself going back to his critiques repeatedly to find he is becoming ever more relevant to our own age. So when Gideon Strauss posted your article on Twitter I read it, found much that I disagreed with, but especially his sign off that the solution to our age resides in art. I believe Kierkegaard gives a compeling argument to the contrary.

    But first a few words about myself. I claim no graduate degrees, and no higher educational training in liberal arts. My views on these sorts of things had their first spark in a handful of book I read in my twenties that started me on the way to a career in reading that has led me to an understanding of our present age that is very different than those held by many of my fellow Christians from the academy.

    The two key books that began this arc were Kierkegaard’s Either/Or and Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. To be more precise , it was Dostoyevsky’s poem of the Grand Inquisitor that rocked my world.

    From these two pieces of literature I drew a rough thesis about the nature of our age and human frailty.

    That human’s fear the responsibilities of moral freedom and are restless to find some idea, or god to shuffle it onto to free them of it’s anxieties (Poem of the Grand Inquisitor).

    That in our age, many of these ideas are aesthetic and/or ideological (Either/Or). (To see what I mean by ideological see my The Politicized Soul.

    This will also explain why I think underestimating Jihadism is risky.)

    I add that one can draw two alternative conclusions from these two points: one is Calvinistic, the other is Proustian (as in Marcel).

    First the Calvinistic – that the human mind is an idol factory, and it’s only remedy is the one true God.

    Second the Proustian – that Calvin was right except there is no God, there is only the artist who explores with the benefit of his muse the infinite and fascinating varieties of self-constructed ideas and gods that humans aspires after, and the beautiful tragedy of those that realize, once the idol is attained, that it was just a well decorated but empty vessel.

    At this point I think you can see where I am going.

    Gideon Strauss listed a number of TV shows including The Wire and True Detective as hall marks of our age in TV excellence. I agree. I believe we have Mathew Wiener to thank for this sudden cascade of high quality viewing. Essentially these are all extending the art that he first formulated in The Soprano’s and later Madmen. But it’s evident that Wiener is of the Proustian school of art, as are these films that follow in his train.

    So what do I mean by Proustian school and how does it differ from, say, the Dostoyevskian school?

    Here’s where Kierkegaard comes in handy.

    In his Either/Or Kierkegaard elaborates on his first two of his three sphere’s of existence: The Aesthetic, the Ethical and the Religious.

    The Aesthetic Sphere is characterized by a life in pursuit of the sensual, passionate and the poetic. To the aesthete the world and its ideas are objects to be consumed in the pursuit of these three things. His universe is Ptolemaic, everything revolves around him and his pursuit.

    The Ethical Sphere is characterized by a life of duty to those things that are greater than the self and it’s appetites. Family, community and church are central features of the ethical sphere of existence. His universe is Heliocentric, he revolves around those few things that are worthy of the sacrifices of duty.

    The Religious Sphere sacrifices all Aesthetics and Ethics to the Object of faith. In a phrase the religious person does not seek happiness directly, he loves and obeys God and leaves the question of happiness to Him.

    According to Kierkegaard, the Aesthetic is not sufficient ground upon which to live an Ethical life, because the Ethical demands the sacrifice of self to duty an act which necessarily entails a transition from the aesthetic to the ethical. But the ethical can contain the Aesthetic. Similarly the ethical is not sufficient ground upon which to live a religious life which requires the leap into faith. But the religious can contain the Ethical and the Aesthetic.

    This is not to say that one cannot contemplate the ethical from the point of view of the aesthetic, in some of his later works like Stages on Life’s Way, Kierkegaard describes some forms of the poetic life that can view the ethical at the limit of the boundary of the aesthetic, but being aesthetic these poets refuse to step into and inhabit the ethical life for themselves. In a matter of speaking they have their faces pressed against the glass looking into the sphere on the other side.

    This is essentially what the Proustian school is, it examines these spheres but from an artfully aesthetic detachment lacking any notion that these views have any greater grounding in truth than his own. Weiner’s Soprano and Draper are subjects for this kind of artful examination, albeit, using therapeutic categories as an extension of the Proustian art.

    How is this different from someone with a Christian persuasion, say, Dostoyevsky? Consider the similarities and differences between the central characters of the first season of True Detective, Rust Cohle, and Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, Rascalnikov.

    Both characters are possessed by a dark nihilistic ideology. Both stories put that ideology to the test. And both end with conversions of the character from nihilism to some form of religiosity or spirituality.

    Now consider the differences.

    Why are these characters nihilistic to begin with? Raskalnokiv: delusions of Napoleanic grandeur. Cohle: the traumatic effects of the loss of his daughter and subsequent divorce.

    Question: which of these is a moral (ethical) explanation,
    which is not?

    What ultimately triggered their conversion? Raskalnikov: finally acknowledging his guilt and the demonic nature of the ideas that possessed him. Cohle: an after death experience where he had a vision of his daughter.

    Question: which of these is a moral (ethical) explanation, which is not?

    Note in the case of Cohle that the explanation to both questions is therapeutic. He was traumatized by his daughter’s death, and it was the experience of a vision of his daughter that gave him both hope that he will see her again, and closure.

    If there is a confusion at the heart of the belief that Gideon’s list of TV shows is ultimately edifying in a Christian sense it is that we Christian’s don’t realize that the Therapeutic has displaced the Ethical and the Religious in our post Christian age as the template from which our experience is now explained. The confusion is understandable inasmuch the Therapeutic bears some resemblance to nominal Christianity, but that’s what makes it so subversive.

    This hit me like a ton of bricks one day at church when I heard a pastor give a sermon on Romans Chapter 1. I realized the way he was talking about sin, and salvation through Christ, that his language talked less about sin as sin, and more as an experience of shame. And therefore by implication we need Christ to deliver us from shame. Because the language was so similar to the typical Christian today it goes unnoticed, but by that small conflation we neutralize the gospel.

    I fear our desire to laud artistic excellence such as that seen in The Wire and True Detective risks elevating what are actually Therapeutic works of art, the premises of which lie at the root of the corrosiveness of our age and in the Church. To see what I mean google Christian Smith and Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

    In 1923 a book was written that anticipated much of this. It was titled Christianity and Liberalism and the author was J. Gresham Machen. He was speaking to the significant inroads German Liberal Theology had been making into the Presbyterian Church. Starting from the premises of Liberal Theology Machen explains how a rejection of the historicity of the Christian claims leads to rejection of doctrine of innerancy and doctrine in general leaving the church adrift, “founded
    upon the shifting emotions of sinful men.” Machen argues the key difference between this form and Christianity properly understood is “Consciousness of Sin” without which the claims of the gospel and our need for it have no meaning.

    Another book written in the early 1970’s elaborates on a prominent form that the “drift” Machen mentions now takes. The book is Triumph of the Therapeutic and was written by Phillip Rieff. It’s subtitle is “Uses of Faith after Freud.”

    I recommend to anyone interested in this subject to read Chapter 1 of that text which elaborates on how after Freud our cultural priorities were re-sorted to serve “well-being” as the highest end to which all other concerns, including faith and theology, are now viewed as servants.

    Tony Soprano, Don Draper, and Rust Cohle are thus men needing to come to terms with their trauma to find redemption. Redemption then lay in the Therapeutic. In contrast, Raskolnikov was a sinner. His redemption lay
    in acknowledging this and accepting the redemption made available to him through faith. Redemption thus lay through acknowledging consciousness of sin.

    To the modern, doctrinally untrained eye, they look very similar. But in fact they reside in completely different spheres of existence and fundamentally different accounts of the human condition.

    • There is so much to applaud in your correspondence, Mr. Davis! Hurrah, for a start, for Kierkegaard, Dostoyevsky, Machen, and Rieff! However – and other duties calling I can only note this down now for further elaboration later – it is not my argument that the solution to our age resides in art.

      • Susannah Black

        Thank you for letting us nag you out of the Twittersphere to join us here! I’ve called in a Kierkegaardian consultant who may get here shortly; meanwhile… OK, there are a lot of bits to this, and I’ll take a crack at some of them. What bothers me most about what you describe SK to be saying is that it seems to fragment reality, and I am too much of a Thomist to take this, I think. On some level I think we SHOULD conflate the ethically good, the aesthetically good and the “religiously” good– we will towards Good, end of sentence. To carve it up like that and be scared that one will not lead you to the other is to …all my divine simplicity antennae are objecting; it seems like one must be trying to carve up God.

        Let me just talk about beauty: I understand the fear that an uncommitted detached amoral aesthetic appreciation (in the green carnation sense) will make us into nihilistic self-centered jerks, but that kind of aesthete isn’t really responding to beauty at all, because the nature of beauty has got to be to point to the ultimate beauty. When you’re being all Oscar Wildish and aesthetic, you’re not using your aesthetic sense right– it IS pointing you inwards, so you end up thinking more about how very elevated your tastes are and hardly at all about the thing you’re seeing or smelling or tasting.

        But that’s a separate question from the self-realization-as-salvation Christian Smith Goes to the Movies cultural critique, in which you are dead on.

        • I think we’re not too far off. As a rule this is where I like to make the epistemology/ontology distinction.

          I think what you’re describing is true beauty, which is to say one that is an expression of the true and the good necessarily (thanks Aquinas). Ontology.

          But Kierkegaard is talking about what we see in our subjectivity. As all of us good Paulines know left on our own we are doomed to suppress the truth in our unrighteousness. The effect is reality as we receive it is fragmented, disordered by sin. Epistemology.

          Kierkegaard’s genius was that he embodied this by writing through his pseudonymous works, different voices speaking to different fragments of existence.

          So volume one of Either/Or is written by an aesthete, two is written by an ethicist in response to the aesthete, etc. The effect is we understand what Kierkegaard is writing about within the subjectivity of its writers.

          As doctrinally literate Christians we can appreciate the journey of Rust Cohle from the view of the truth of which his revelation at the end of the season was a glimpse. But what do you suppose the writers had in mind? Likely they’re view of Rust’s conversion at the end was spiritual and non-religious. In other words, aesthetic and therapeutic.

          So you’re right about the true nature of beauty, but our artists and writers are largely operating from therapeutic assumptions and so their creations reflect that fragmentation. Their epistemological equipment is distorted by their condition.

          So my ultimate point is these are great stories but they suffer from lacking redemption by the truth. We can pick through them like pagan myths and appreciate the glimpses like CS Lewis, but doctrinal literacy and discernment is called for.

          But our problem today is that literacy is largely absent. Doctrinal literacy among the churched, and true artistic literacy of the Western Canon among our artists and writers.

          This is why the products of our creative class so often fall short of anything beyond ambitiously artful amusement. And it’s also why so many Christians can’t tell the difference.

          • Ha! The world would be better if all comment boxes were this serious and courteous. More in due course …

          • So, in brief, again (time flies, and all that): I am not arguing that beauty will save us. I have to confess that I probably tried too many things into my short response to the first two sets of correspondence between Ms. Black and Mr. Dreyfuss, unsurprisingly resulting in some exaggeration, some over-simplification, and some melodrama. Here then is what I am trying to say, in point form:

            1. America is not existentially threatened by Islamic jihadism in our time … even though Islamic jihadism is one of the bigger threats to peace in the Middle East and the northern half of Africa and this generation’s major source of global terrorism. (Does anyone remember those small Marxist terror cults of the 70s and all the havoc they made?)

            2. The American constitutional order is about as sound and productive of quotidian human goods as any political arrangement human beings have historically been able to put together, despite the serious and worthy debates in which we can and should engage about the fundamental flaws of the American founding (in terms of divine ordinances, human nature, and eschatological hopes).

            3. That said, the nurture of civic virtue (in concert with public opinion and popular sentiment) is of very, very, very great importance, also in America.

            4. The nurture of civic virtue requires effort in several spheres of human endeavor, primarily the raising of children by parents, moral formation in faith communities (for example, political discipleship in Christian churches), civic education in schools from kindergarten to trade schools and higher education, … AND IN OUR ARTS AND ENTERTAINMENTS.


          • (Sorry for speaking loudly there at the end.)

          • Susannah Black

            Har, Andy Crouch– after the Issue 2 release event last week, we– Paul Coyer and some (though not all) of the Marks and I– went to hear him speak at Trinity Forum; that dude can present like nobody’s business. Plus there were lovely canapes and very decent wine… And I’m down with culturemaking as a concept, of course. But…hmmm… at the same time. I’m pulled in two directions by the idea that arts and entertainment can shape civic virtue. Of course they can shape civic CULTURE, but we call that propaganda. I’m not sure that deliberately setting out to shape civic (or religious, or moral) ANYTHING makes the best art. I certainly don’t write fiction that way; I write as good a story as I can, and the thing is, if reality is the way we think it is, and if we are allowing ourselves to be shaped “with the grain” of the world, then what we write will be both entertaining and true, without forcing. If you try to force, you get didactic moralism which is just ugh. Even Lewis– especially Lewis– didn’t set out to write allegory; he started with a picture in his head of a faun with an umbrella in a snowstorm.

          • Did Mr. Crouch play the piano? Did he have you (plural) sing?

          • Susannah Black

            Oh that’s right he does that! Cannot tell you how much I wish he had. Would give a great deal to hear Paul Coyer do a Sondheim medley. Except I don’t think that’s exactly AC’s repertoire.

          • Have our publishers host a Sondheim sing-along with Mr. Crouch at the piano. I wager he’d accept the invitation. And I wager the event would pay for itself, especially with a well-stocked bar.

          • Susannah Black

            This must happen. Oh my. Stupid Disqus not being Facebook! I can’t tag Marc in this! How will we ever explain to him why this has to happen if I can’t TAG him!

          • Susannah Black

            There. I went to twitter and fixed it.

          • ?

          • Marc LiVecche

            I once saw a picture of Robbie George with a banjo, Neuhaus with a cigar and a glass of something, and good many other folks one would love to have a cigar and a glass of something with while listening to banjo. I think J.B. Elshtain, of blessed memory, was there as well. If we’ve the hint of a chance at replicating what must have been a grand occasion than I’m all in. Tell me more! You had me at well-stocked bar but piano, Crouch, Black, Gideon, and friends too would make it gluttonous joy.

          • As someone whose understanding of arts and entertainments has been considerably influenced by the writing of the philosopher Calvin Seerveld, I share your dislike of propaganda and moralistic didacticism masquerading as art, Ms. Black.

            I want to suggest, however, that imaginative, well-crafted arts and entertainments, made without didactic or propagandistic intent, can have even more powerful and profound effects on popular sentiment, public opinion, and civic virtue than work done with didactic or propagandistic intent, especially in the long run. Also, not every work of art and entertainment done with didactic intent need be moralistic or propagandistic. I believe that artists and entertainers can imaginatively portray the human condition, honestly question a particular political regime, and constructively represent embodied civic virtue without either succumbing to moralism or perpetrating propaganda.

            Consider Shakespeare’s works, which I would argue must be considered as being among the most imaginative and well-crafted works of art and most compelling entertainments ever made, and which at the same time constituted (especially as a complete body of works) a profound dramatic education of princes and citizens. The what ifs that Shakespeare plays out takes both players and audience on imaginative journeys that empathically allow us to consider the consequences of several possible religio-political regimes … to significant educational effect with regard to how we feel (affecting popular sentiment), what we think (affecting public opinion), and why we care (affecting civic virtue). And we might yet have American songs, games, and stories of nearly this caliber (and with similar educational benefits) as the United States approach their sestercentennial moment.

          • Thanks Gideon, this clarifies a lot.

            I agree on your last two points. I would add that to achieve your last point in particular requires a reformation of our culture and art to include, once again, a coherent ethics and religiosity which at present is fundamentally absent.

            It is because of this absence that our best art is, I described in our Twitter exchange, Euripidean rather than Aeschylean.

            Like Euripides our artists have lost faith in the gods of the city, so to speak, and its ethos and culture. In Euripides the Greek gods are shown as drunkards and
            brutes. Similarly, in The Wire and True Detective the City and the Church are portrayed as corrupt and contemptible. The two examples of spiritual redemption
            that do occur, Bubbles in The Wire, and Cohle in True Detective, occur outside of civic, ethical and religious institutions and are personal and therapeutic.

            To our artistic class all we have to save us is a therapy that delivers us, or at least deadens the pain, of our traumatic past.

            This explains the difficulty we have in achieving what you pose in your point 4. I think Rieff explains this further.

            Rieff’s description of our therapeutic age is that we have collectively, if not subconsciously, resigned ourselves to a culture that aspires to little else than comfort and well-being. Our therapeutic specialists (who reside in
            Hollywood, Washington, Schools, and (dare I say it?) Churches, no less than psychological offices) exist to give us rational defenses against those things that would call us to sacrifice our well-being on behalf of ideals that demand personal renunciation of our personal preferences and freedoms, be it religion, nation or other.

            Rieff is essentially saying the Therapeutic is a technology designed to ensure we never need trouble ourselves with stepping outside of Kierkegaard’s aesthetic sphere into the ethical or religious both of which demand submission of the self to some notion of something higher.

            Rieff also notes that the assumptions of the Therapeutic
            worldview comes with one pre-requisite, and one consequence.

            First the consequence: Citizens of the Therapeutic age are not made of stern stuff. They live in a protective environ that ensures the atrophy of the stoic and civic virtues. Hence the necessary pre-requisite, the
            viability of the Therapeutic Age depends on the perpetuation of at least some minimal level of affluence, and comfort, with minimal demands upon its citizens.

            This basically sets us all up for a number of potentially
            tragic outcomes. Fortunately for the sake of brevity I’ve already written at length about these and they touch on your first two points:

            First, it makes us intellectually lazy placing our appetite
            for amusement at the center of all of our affairs which has had tragic effects on the quality of our political and cultural thought and discourse:


            Second, it has made us all individuals dispossessed of any unifying notion of citizenship, which is now manifesting itself in a variety of unpleasant ways in our contemporary politics:


            Third, it’s made us all fodder for Utopian/Eschatological
            ideologies that by virtue of their outlandish promises give people something to fill when the comfortable numbness of the therapeutic is not enough:


            Which is why I’m less sanguine about your topics in point 1 and 2. I fear we may be too quick to diminish the
            threats of things like Jihadism internationally, or political factionalism domestically, because they may both be feeding on the dry vegetation left by a worldview that has left people’s souls hollow and desperate for something to fill.

            Until we deal with what is creating fuel for these kinds of
            movements, and our Therapeutic class has a vested interest not to, the fires will burn very fast.

            While I am in enthusiastic agreement with your last two
            points, what stands in the way is our culture’s tight embrace of the belief that we can have our comfort and well-being with no ethical burdens and no consequential costs.

          • Well, then, onward with the reformation! To quote (or perhaps paraphrase) Andy Crouch: the way to change culture is to *make* culture. (To which purpose a correspondence such as that between Ms. Black and Mr. Dreyfuss is a marvelous example. Would that more friends were sending each other email motivated by such concerns, informed by such learning, and characterized by such seriousness and healthy passion!)

          • Susannah Black

            Well, this is excellent:

            But look, you ascribe motives to IS jihadis that make sense for Marius and his friends and for Occupy Wall Street, but I don’t know how legit it is to apply them to the fantasists of the Caliphate. You have to allow a genuine difference in culture, when considering the form that disordered political passion takes. Those young men are more likely to be moved by the theologians who inspired Nur ad Din Zenghi than by the troubadours who inspired Raymond of Poitiers, whom he beheaded.

            (Had to cut it from my Caliphate talk in DC, but check out Ibn Asakir: very very distinctively IS-style theology, and the battlefield theologian of Nur ad Din, who was Zarqawi’s hero. And yes, the reason that Raymond was not around to fight Saladin a couple of years later was that, shortly after Eleanor and Henry visited, Nur ad Din had his head and arms sent to the Caliph in Baghdad in a silver box. De Rougement’s troubadours were faffing around Aquitaine spreading Catharist heresy in the form of lovesongs, but they were not inspiring beheadings in Syria then and I do not think they are now.)

            But. The urge to be Enjolras does make sense for Western raised IS fighters, at least a bit– and all of this taps in to basic good human stuff anyway; darn it, Davis, we ARE called to a great fight, as you know perfectly well.

            See you on the barricades, brother–



            Nur ad Din and Zarqawi:

          • Susannah Black

            Melodrama, Gideon? You? SURELY not.

            I in fact do think that Beauty will save the world. Because look, if any of this stuff is true, then what we’ve got is a God without (my church is doing a run-through of the 39 Articles for Lent, so this is at the top of my brain right now) “body, parts or passions.” And being without parts means divine simplicity, and that means that His “quality” of beauty is not a quality as we know them– he just IS Beauty, as he IS a Father and as he IS Love, and Righteousness, and everything else. These aren’t predicated of him, they ARE him– right? So yeah, because Jesus will (and in fact has) save the world, Beauty will (and in fact has.) Sorry not sorry.

          • Ooooo. Onto-theology. Well …

            “As nurses commonly do with infants, God is wont in a measure to lisp in speaking to us. Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slight capacity.” (John Calvin)

            So, if we are speaking analogically of God as Love or Beauty or Truth, I’d agree that Beauty will save the world.

            But, analogy excepted, the creaturely aspect of beauty will surely not save the world – and to love beauty ultimately and believe in its salvific power is misguided, with disastrous consequences. (Taking a moment here to note that disastrous consequences abound even for those whose ultimate loves and beliefs are properly ordered, we humans and this world being as we are.)

          • Susannah Black

            My Kierkegaardian Consultant (KC) writes (and I may reply later):

            I thought the last thing your interlocutor said seemed pretty cogent. In fact, beauty is from God and the good we appreciate in beauty is the beauty of God himself. But in our experience, the esthetic person does not see it that way. What you were describing in your response was that all our desires are ultimately oriented towards God. If I remember correctly, for Aquinas, the will just IS oriented towards God, but it’s disorder in that will that gets us in trouble.

            I think Kierkegaard’s problem with this would be that it could eliminate the need for genuine conversion. If the esthetic person is actually already oriented towards God, then he simply needs to “transition” closer and closer to loving God. Kierkegaard thinks they can’t make a rational transition into the religious. Instead the esthete eventually sees his own worldview run aground. The esthetic life reveals itself to be internally inconsistent, but there’s no rational transition to the ethical (or the religious). Instead, in choosing, he has to “leap” into the next stage through a conversion experience. He undermines his own desires in favor of a different way of life. What’s important to remember is that Kierkegaard is always thinking of this from the inside, from the existential situation of the person rather than an abstract metaphysics of the beautiful.

            The Aquinas reading, when illicitly “instantiated” in the existential situation may make it look like we never sin (act defiantly) but only are ignorant of what we’re supposed to do. If we really “knew” we loved God in the beautiful things we yearn for, then we wouldn’t sin. Kierkegaard is insistent (in Sickness unto Death, for example) that sin is not a negation, but a position (see how this stands in tension with a view of sin as privation. Even if metaphysically it is, existentially it is an ACT we choose to DO).

          • Thanks Susanna,

            I particularly like your friend’s phrase “his own worldview run aground.” That is the gist of how Kierkegaard sees what must necessarily happen as a prelude to conversion. The unavoidable recognition that ones premises for living fail.

            One of the reasons why I think Rieff’s text on the Therapeutic are relevant is because the Therapeutic seeks to provide solutions that often enable one to continue to live in a life based on failed premises by providing strategies of coping with the symptoms of failure. As a result it can defer the moment of Kierkegaardian recognition.

            I would also like to mention what I suspect you find troublesome about Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard is typically accused of being a Kantian irrationalist. There’s a lot of legitimacy to this accusation. He seems to accept Kant’s bifurcation of existence into the noumenal and the phenomenal.

            But most of these critiques decontextualize what Kierkegaard was doing. Kierkegaard was directing all his fire at what he correctly saw as the toxic growing hegemony of Hegel’s influence.

            To Kierkegaard, Hegel’s project risked subsuming the individual into the machinery of dialectical historicism. So Kierkegaard’s constant insistence in invoking the depth and wideness of Lessing’s ditch which can only be overcome by a personal and radical “leap”, should be understood as an argument directed at Hegel whose project sought to deny the personal individual and his choices any place in a historical mechanism that Hegel argued would reconcile Kant’s Noumenal and Phenomenal categories in time.

            Once understood in this light, one can temper the aspects of Kierkegaard that otherwise look an awful lot like irrational decisionism.

            The best exploration of this that I have read is an anthology called “Kierkegaard after MacIntyre” which is an excellent collection of essays written by Kierkegaardians in response to Alasdair MacIntrye’s critique of SK in his book After Virtue, which essentially deploys this classic line of argument against Kierkegaard.

            It’s an amusing book because the Kierkegaardians manage to show that once you understand Kierkegaard’s arguments in their proper context, he ends up sounding an awful lot like MacIntyre. The book ends with McIntyre’s response which is humorously sophistic.

            I hope to read your thoughts. This has been a very stimulating exchange.

          • Susannah Black

            Mr Davis– OK, so if I’ve got what you’re saying, SK was basically wanting to be what we’d now call a “personalist”– SK contra Hegel is like the early version of the 20th c personalists contra Marx, right? He was worried both that people might think you could sort of ooze into being Christian without actual conversion, and that all change and reality were, in a culture dominated by Hegel, located outside of human people, human choices. Yes?

            There are two things I am bothered by in this. One is that while it makes sense as a critique or … concern about human experience, it goes so so wrong as an analysis of reality– because in reality there is no division between the ethical and the religious. Yes, you have to throw yourself on God at some point, but I just CAN’T see the leap of faith as he saw it, as a leap apart from the ethical. His concerns seem to me to be those of someone brought up as a nominal Christian in a culture that still has a powerful remnant of Christian-inspired moralism to it, and he wants to shock people into realizing that being “good” and being Christian are not the same thing, and to do this he overstates his case and ends up saying that they have nothing to do with each other.

            I am allergic to this, partly because of my path into the Church– when you’re coming from a completely secular, completely materialist, basically nihilist place, then ALL of these things– the idea that there is a Good, or even good; God; things having natures; things having purposes; angels and the incarnation and sacraments and bread and wine and oil and walking on water and good grief, even the concept of numbers, and the laws of logic– all these things seem to lie on the other side of a barrier. And what gets you past that barrier– what makes you realize that your worldview, your materialism, is just simply not accurate, is the fact that at least SOME of these things– at least MATH, let’s say, or logic– have to be true, and are in fact part of what lead the people who shaped the materialist worldview into which you were born to adopt materialism. It was logic wrongly applied, precisely because it lead to a worldview that sawed off the branch it was sitting on.

            And coming from this place, it looks as though SK wants to break apart what was finally sanely put together when one becomes a moral realist and a Christian, which are not the same, but which belong in the same shining world, which is the real world.

            W/r/t the therapeutic– of course this is a legit critique; it’s why Lorraine Bracco’s job in The Sopranos is not a sensible one; from tragedy to farce, it’s Billy Crystal in Analyze This– “What is my goal here, to make you into a happy, well-adjusted gangster?” If you are making your living violating the good, you are going to be miserable, and your treatment is to repent, first.

            Love to hear your thoughts on this– and Michael M, yours too– I KNOW you’re reading these comments, you lurker.

          • I actually share your allergy, which is why my first post on this began with a significant qualification about how one should take Soren Kierkegaard. Also, J. Gresham Machen would have probably been disgusted by the idea that I drew his name into an essay alongside Kierkegaard.

            However, having said this, I think there is a need for us logocentric Christians to acknowledge there is more going on in conversion than proper logic. Even CS Lewis described himself as drawn to faith “kicking and screaming”. If it’s all about clarity of logic then what was Lewis’ kicking and screaming about?

            The short answer was Lewis was divided. Using Aristotle’s analogy in the ethics, his rational charioteer was having trouble reigning in the less rational parts of his nature. But he managed to enter into the faith regardless, I would argue because, as a self consciously classically trained rationalist he was already deeply committed to following the guidance of his reason well before that.

            But how many does that describe today? I think the small remnant of logocentric Christians make a mistake in thinking the way to faith is necessarily paved by clarity of thought. The spirit works the way the spirit chooses to work and for some that may be by reason, but for most others something else entirely.

            The virtue of Kierkegaard is his writing encompasses a lot of competing viewpoints that helps to appreciate how the transition to faith appears differently to different persuasions.

            Regarding your comments on my Politicized Soul essay. Thanks. That essay really is an expression of my unifying thesis for why our age is the way it is. Ultimately, it’s simply a variation of Augustine “We remain restless until we rest in God, for we were made for God’s good pleasure”. We just happen to live at a time where there are an infinite variety of counterfeit options to the individual who thinks heightened passion is the way to authenticity.

            As far as ISIS goes, I recommend getting De Rougemont’s book and skipping to chapter 6 titled “Arab Mystical Poetry” and you’ll find out how he explains that the Troubedours and the Cathar heresy has it’s roots in Manichean movements that were spawned out of Arab Islamic culture.

            I’ll stop here since, now that I’m contributing to your magazine, I don’t want to be stealing my own thunder.