Wider Connections: Tweetable Nietzsche on Religion and Liberty Transatlantic

I have a love/hate relationship with academic writing. I appreciate the rigor and logic which goes into an epic footnote, but I cannot stand the descent into jargon which marks the majority of academic writing. When a professor manages to cross the divide into writing for a popular audience yet maintain his logical rigor, something amazing happens. C. Ivan Spencer’s Tweetable Nietzsche is such a book. I recently reviewed Tweetable Nietzsche for the Acton Institute’s Religion and Liberty Transatlantic, and argued that “Tweetable Nietzsche: His Essential Ideas Revealed and Explained offers little which a graduate student specializing in Nietzsche’s thought would find unique. But for the undergraduate, the educated adult, or the teacher approaching Nietzsche for the first time, Spencer provides the most recent, accessible volume on Nietzsche’s thought. Throughout the book, Spencer’s method is clear: He provides a quote in the form of a tweet, and then explains it and its significance.”

These “tweets” make Nietzsche more systematic, more coherent than the primary sources appear, but at the cost of reducing complexity to simple, Spencer makes Nietzsche comprehensible for a wide audience. “Spencer begins with Nietzsche’s most famous thought: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.” From this foundation flow all of Nietzsche’s considerations. Convinced that God was nothing more than a social construct, Nietzsche argued that since the Western world had rejected the existence of God in the wake of Darwinian evolution, it must also courageously embrace the task of rejecting all morality, epistemology, and philosophy premised upon the existence of God. Spencer explains that “[t]o Nietzsche, belief in God, the central hub of Western civilization’s ideas and culture, thwarts progress.” Now that God was dead and that fact was recognizable in the brave new world of industrialized technology, true progress could begin.”

The significance of Nietzsche and the helpfulness of Spencer’s book for Nietzsche initiate are difficult to overstate: “Nietzsche sets before the atheist an example of consistency: Without God, there is no reason to embrace charity or morality. For the theist, Nietzsche presents a challenge in which the believer must articulate the necessity of God’s existence for human flourishing.”

This book is no fresh out of grad school adapted dissertation; Spencer has spent the last twenty years studying the great ideas of the Western tradition with students. This book evidences God’s grace in a teacher who has been faithful over the long haul, and has the insights to prove it. Tweetable Nietzsche is well worth the read.

Black Mirror: Arkangel and Parenting Real Humans

Fiction reflects the world back to us, and lets us see our own reality more clearly in the process. This mirroring is particularly the power of satire, but is also belongs to speculative fiction. Netflix’ Black Mirror season 4 has one episode which hits home to every parent or adult who works with children. The episode is entitled “Arkangel,” and it picks up on our very human desire to protect children.

The story focuses on a single mother (Marie, played by Rosemarie DeWitt) and her daughter (Sara, played by Brenna Harding); in the opening scene,  3 year old Sara wanders away. Marie panics, and summons the neighborhood to search for the missing child; she is found. Nothing horrible occurred – the girl just followed a kitten to the train tracks. The panicked mother (and what parent cannot sympathize?) takes her daughter to enroll in a new trial technology. The Arkangel program is injected into Sara’s temple, and it connects her visual, auditory, and chemical information to a tablet Marie can use to see and hear whatever Sara sees and hears. Marie is quickly informed that she has the ability to filter the world for her child: anytime fear spikes, Mom can censor it. The story unfolds from there about as you might imagine: Marie is over protective, and eventually repressed Sara lashes out and runs away. (I won’t give any more spoilers, but do know that this episode goes beyond a PG-13 warning for content).

As a teacher, I sometimes wish I knew what my students hear when I teach. I wish I could get specific data to know what worked. When I’ve taken groups on field trips, I am terrified that someone will wander off; somehow I will lose a child, and it will be my fault. It is a frightening thing to be responsible for the well-being of another person. The technology “Arkangel” plays with is all too plausible; it seems but one update away for my iPad to offer me a new augmented reality app which scans the brain activity of my students to tell me who is engaged and who is not.

Like good speculative fiction, “Arkangel” shows us what happens when we use technology against the natural order of things. God has so created reality that there is mystery in the world; danger, fear, secrets – these things have a role in forming us into certain people who flourish in the world. As children grow into adults, they have to make choices. Parental ignorance of those choices just might be its own blessing in disguise. Given infinite knowledge, “Arkangel” suggests that parents would stifle their children’s ability to make choices at all, and thus remove from them part of their humanity.

This mystery in the world and our lack of total knowledge is itself a reminder that God alone is omniscient; were we to gain absolute knowledge, we would fail to use it well. In this case, our lack of knowledge is a fingerprint of grace.

Wider Connections: Economics on The Intersect Project

For a season in my life, socialism held a minor attraction. I studied history under a great professor who emphasized the human costs in modernization, and my studies left me mildly sympathetic to the dream of socialism. The argument made sense: some goods are best distributed by disinterested parties, and the government can best assure justice if they govern the self-interested parties acting in the marketplace.

 

Over the following five years, I grew out of my attraction to socialism. Marriage and the realities of bills which must be paid and investment which could profit gave me a practical preference for capitalism; my work in education increased my appreciation for individual responsibility. More than these, however, my view of economics became better informed as a I saw the economic correspondence between Scripture and free market capitalism.

 

As of this morning (January 3), an essay I wrote exploring these topics for The Intersect Project is live. In that article I flesh out this biblical connection and explore some of the reasons why socialism is attractive but fails to deliver human flourishing. I argue that “capitalism is grounded in a strong vision of human dignity, the divine creation of reality, and the command for humans to take dominion of all reality.”

 

Questions of economics are never ending; every human is an economic actor, and God has so built creation that when we live according to his principles, it is far easier to find physical flourishing than when we oppose his laws. “God is not in the business of making us rich, but we find flourishing when we align our lives with the structures of creation. Free market economics works not because people seize wealth from others, but because our God made all things and pronounced them ‘good’ and ‘very good.’ When we live as homo oeconomicus bearing the imago dei, we bring glory to God through stewarding his world.” These principles, and our ability to know them, are fingerprints of grace.

(If you are interested in more economics, I have written one other economics-oriented essay, published on The Imaginative Conservative, accessible here. That essay deals with Wendell Berry and Agrarianism.)

A Truer Human Nature (Thoughts for New Years 2018)

New Years is a time for resolution, for trying to achieve change. “Out with old, in with the new!” And yet – the failure to achieve New Year’s resolutions becomes frustrating; we sit there with Paul saying “I do not do what I want to do; what I do not want to do, that I do!” By God’s mercy, Scripture speaks to both of these very human realities – both the longing for goodness, and grace in the face of our inevitable falling short.

The bible presents a two-sided vision of humanity which C.S. Lewis termed “glory” and “shame.” Scripture on the one hand presents us a high vision of what humans beings can do: we are called to be “holy as I am holy,” to “fight the good fight” against sin, “taking up the whole armor of God” so we may “stand against the evil one.” There is an element of Scripture that upholds a vision of humanity which can become like God in terms of sinlessness. Of course, that capacity is tied to our redemption in Christ and incomplete until we experience the bodily resurrection Paul describes in I Corinthians 15. But, Scripture shows us, Christians have the capacity to live without sin.

And yet, Scripture also shows us another side of the biblical view of humanity. David implies that we are sheep, for “the Lord is my shepherd.” Isaiah reminds that “all we like sheep have gone astray, each one to his own way.” The  picture of perfect humanity only lasts three chapters in Genesis, and that pattern of humanity is continued throughout the biographical portions of the Old Testament: the men of God only stay holy for a time. David, the “man after God’s own heart,” went astray with Bathsheba. Abraham’s faith did not prevent him from pursuing a different solution to Sarah’s infertility with Hagar. Moses wrath cost him entrance to the Promised Land. Gideon, after delivering the rescue of God, erected idols and led Israel to sin. The New Testament continues this vision: Peter denies Christ, Paul and John Mark are divided by conflict for years, the newly baptized Simon Magus tries to buy the Holy Spirit. But the New Testament also makes clear God’s grace towards us as sinners. Jesus calls his disciples to live holy lives, yet he is kind and compassionate when we fall short of the command. His holiness did not lead to condemnation of the prostitutes or the prideful; instead, the gospel tells us, Jesus heard the rich young ruler’s response and “looked at him with love.”

The biblical vision is one high demands: perfect righteousness towards God and man. As such, it fits with other religious texts worldwide which call for humans to choose selflessness. Yet we cannot forget the other side: the bible also recognizes human weakness and stupidity; God is not surprised when we sin. He recognizes that like sheep, we rarely know our own good. This double-vision is what C.S. Lewis describes in The Magicians Nephew. Cab driver Frank is to be the first King of Narnia, and at the conclusion of the story he and Aslan have a critical conversation about the title “Son of Adam.” Being a “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve” is enough “glory to lift” the lowest peasant’s head – because this son or daughter bears the divine image, has the capacity for rational thought, is a free agent, and is redeemed by Christ. Being a “son of Adam” or “daughter of Eve” is also enough “shame” to “bend the head of the proudest emperor” – because Adam and Eve chose to leave it all, and as their heirs we continually give away that which would bring us true joy and happiness in exchange for sinful pleasures which fade.

This then is what it means to be human: made in God’s image, with all the amazing rights and capacities that relationship entails. But we are also sheep who wander and stray; apart from the Good Shepherd, we would walk right over a cliff to our doom.

Here is the amazing part – God knows. He knows our weakness and our failings, and we can never sin beyond his willingness to forgive. He is not surprised when we fail to keep our resolutions or when we sin; all he requires is repentance and He restores us.

So go into 2018 not “firmly resolving” to lift yourself up by your bootstraps and *oof* make change happen; begin the year determining to be a good creature in God’s world and draw nearer to him through his unchanging grace. For this too is what it means to be human.

2017: A Literary Year in Review

2017 has been a great year. Tom Darin Linksy put up a post yesterday listing his favorite writings from the year, and he inspired me to revive The Herring Review. In the past twelve months the following have occurred: I found my ideal doctoral program and began course work with Faulkner University, I learned that I could get paid for my writing, and my wife and I bought our first house! We now have a beautiful dining room/library where I tend to write. I hope in the coming year to keep this blog up to date with writings which are not copyrighted by another website or organization. But enough about the future; let’s look at what happened in 2017!

 

  1. The Imaginative Conservative – I wrote four articles published by The Imaginative Conservative ranging in topics from Wendell Berry to #metoo. My favorite article on TIC this year came after reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology and Fr. William Lynch’s Christ and Apollo. Entitled “Greek Comedy and Norse Tragedy: In Search of a Truer Story,” the essay can be read here.
  2. Moral Apologetics – It was a mild year for my writing on the Moral Apologetics website; they accepted the one submission I sent. “Sophocles and the Doctrine of Sin: A Reflection on Teaching Greek Tragedy” followed my second year teaching Greek literature to 9th graders. I was surprised by how clearly the Greek tragedians convey a robust picture of sin, and the ways in which my (secular) classroom could become a conduit for this biblical doctrine. The essay can be read here. Despite not writing much for MA this year, I made their list of “Top 10 Posts in 2017” with an essay on the applicability of Scripture to all areas (originally posted in 2015); that list can be found here.
  3. The Federalist – I wrote two articles for The Federalist, one on the feasibility of classical education and another on the self-defeated nihilism within season 6 of House of Cards. I have grown to respect The Federalist as a website a great deal; during the Roy Moore scandal weeks they took a lot of flack for publishing voices on both sides; while they definitely lean to the right politically, The Federalist is working to restore an active, balanced journalism in the United States, and I am proud to write for them. The House of Cards essay can be found here.
  4. Think Christian – In May, I discovered Think Christian by way of Dr. Karen Swallow-Prior. Think Christian follows a Kuyperian analysis principle: if the teachings of Scripture are true, then we should see echoes, parallels, and hints of those truths in contemporary pop culture. Think Christian seeks to draw out those hidden connections to Christianity buried within pop culture. Thus far, I have written five articles for TC. My favorites include my first article on American Gods, one on “This is Us,” and an analysis of my favorite song in Disney’s Moana. Writing for TC has forced me to develop a more concise style – their ideal post says something substantial in 700-800 words.
  5. Literary Life – Who knew that Facebook could be helpful for a young writer? This year I discovered the Facebook reading group (and blog) Literary Life, run by Rick Wilcox. Wilcox began his blog years ago, and has built his ministry around the need for Christians to engage literature. Rick was kind enough to publish two essay of mine as part of his Sunday guest series of posts. My first essay for him examines Brideshead Revisited as a novel contrasting modernism with an enchanted Catholicism; the second considers Dante as an illustration of the power literature has to express theology beautifully.
  6. Religion and Liberty Transatlantic – In July, I attended the Acton University conference in Grand Rapids. I learned year ago that the point of conferences is not really to attend sessions; the point is networking. I recall being stuck in a conversation with a history PhD who taught at a protestant seminary and had recently converted to Catholicism; he felt no need to inform his administration that he could not sign his school’s articles of faith. Rather aghast at this inconsistency, I searched for a way out of the conversation. I saw Fr. Ben Johnson standing at a table and went over to introduce myself. We had a lovely conversation about our mutual spiritual journeys. His went from Evangelical to atheist to Greek Orthodox priest; mine went from Southern Baptist to almost-Orthodox to almost-Catholic to almost-Presbyterian and back around to Southern Baptist. We exchanged emails, and went on with our different quests. That night, I discovered he was the chief editor for Acton! I emailed him about submitting some papers to Acton for publication, and to date he has published three of my articles Religion and Liberty Transatlantic, and two more are forthcoming in January. My favorite essay is a reworking of a conference presentation from 2016, and it addresses the unique view of tolerance which developed in the West; that essay be accessed here.
  7. Christ and Pop Culture – In late October, a Facebook post informed me that Christ and Pop Culture had put out a call for submission to their November online magazine edition. I submitted a proposal, and Erin Stranza approved the pitch. At the end of that month, my school hosted a debate seminar and mini-tournament. I was present, but multi-tasking. I drafted the article as Dr. Ben Voth lectured on the different burdens affirmative and negative must meet in parliamentary debate. The following month, “American Gods: A Pagan Enchantment which does not Satisfy” was published. This article is an expansion of the ideas I initially developed in my American Gods piece for Think Christian, and can be accessed here.
  8. Christianity Today – My writing process is rather strange; usually, I get ideas for books, essays, articles, and poems during church services. There is something about the liturgy of prayer, singing, and orientation towards God that allows thoughts to snap together. During Advent of 2016, one Sunday’s song selection was particularly poignant. The praise team combined medieval, modern, and contemporary Christmas hymns in a smooth format; simultaneously, I had begun reading Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age and saw in each hymn a snapshot of the Christian mentalite of the age through which theology was expressed. Later that afternoon, Beth Ann Schreier mentioned in our small group how she wished someone would write on the origins of hymns. My article pitch was born! In January I pitched this article about theological imagination seen through Christmas hymns to Christianity Today; Caleb Lindgren accepted it, and over the next year we sent 47 emails back and forth polishing this article. On December 12, Christianity Today published “The Contexts for our Christmas Carols” on their Church History webpage; that article can be viewed here.
  9. Academic writing – I began doctoral work fall semester of 2017. As part of that, I have written one book review for The Journal of Faith and the Academy. I reviewed Wendy McElroy’s Rape Culture Hysteria and found her analysis to be sound; she questions the very existence of a pandemic of male assault. I wrote this review before the #metoo began trending, and still think McElroy provides a helpful corrective to mainstream feminism. For my philosophy survey course, I wrote a 25 page term paper attempting to construct a positive philosophy of language defending a traditional understanding of words as granting access to meaning. To do so, I spent several weeks reading Heidegger, Gadamer, and Foucault and then set them in conversation with each other.
  10. Upcoming projects – In January, I will have an essay published on The Intersect Project connecting free market capitalism with biblical Christianity (not identical, but parallel to each other) and a review of Ivan Spencer’s Tweetable Nietzsche on the Religion and Liberty Transatlantic. I plan to review Mike Cospar’s Recapturing the Wonder: Transcendent Faith in a Disenchanted World for the Journal of Faith and the Academy. I have a paper on enchantment and literature being considered for publication by the Institute for the Advances Study of Culture at UVA (it was turned down by Dappled Things and Image this past year). I have plans to write on the theology within Les Miserables, the Museum of the Bible as a cultural artifact, and continue working on my ongoing book project. The book is attempting to work out a detailed argue for why every high school student should sincerely ask himself the question “should I go to college?” and consider the wider options available which do not entail years of debt slavery.

What a year! God has blessed my small efforts richly; in the middle of full time teaching, part time doctoral studies, new home ownership, regular church involvement, and lots of time spent with my wife, I am astounded to look back over this list and see what opportunities God has brought my way in 2017. 2018 looms on the horizon and, from all indications, looks to be a great year (with lower taxes and better federal government – who knew that could happen?) I will close this lengthy blog post with my favorite passage from Numbers: In 2018, “May the LORD bless you and keep you. May He make His face to shine upon you for a blessing.”

Coming Soon on The Herring Review!

Dear readers,

I find writing happens during seasons of leisure. As this blog indicates, the last several months have not been such a season. Life has been busy, busy, busy. Heading into Christmas break, however, the writing itch has begun stirring again. Two new projects are underway – I (Josh) will post an essay reviewing Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, and then I will also put up a review of Winston Brady’s new ebook play “The Virginia.” Winston is an humanities instructor at Thales Academy (http://www.thalesacademy.org/) and has written this play in his spare time and out of his love of the Civil War period of American history. I am excited about reading a promo copy and will post a review soon.

Sincerely,

Josh Herring

Leaf by Niggle: A Life Worth Living

While checking up on blogs this morning, I discovered a new post by Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative. I took Dr. Birzer’s course on Jacksonian America at Hillsdale College, and fell in love with his mythic kind of history. Far from the fact-obsessed history of Civil War enthusiasts, Birzer approaches history in the line of Herodotus and Christopher Dawson. For him, history is first and foremost an amazing story. In this post, he mentioned a short story by Tolkien I had never read before (accessible here) called “Leaf by Niggle.” This story is lovely, showing clear plot movement and character development. It illustrates the connected nature of the Inklings’ writing; I don’t know if Tolkien influenced Lewis or vice versa, but this story strongly resembles The Great Divorce and The Last Battle. In its conclusion, “Leaf by Niggle” highlights two visions of human nature, leaving the reader’s sympathies clearly directed towards the humane.

The story follows a man named Niggle. He is a nice old man who knows he will one day take a journey. His consuming passion is artistic: Niggle loves painting leaves, and works on a masterpiece of a tree set against a mountain range. He is never able to finish his work, because his neighbor Parrish (a man lame in one leg) always needs a favor. Just when the story starts to drag, Niggle begins his long journey, a Tolkien euphemism for death. Niggle’s death begins in a hospital where he must serve for a long period of time. Eventually, he is judged worthy of moving to the next stage. At the next level, Niggle sees the real tree made from his vision! Here is the perfect form, better than he made. Shockingly, Niggle recognizes that in the leaves were “Some of the most beautiful – and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle style – were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parrish: there was no other way of putting it.” There is still work to do: the Tree is in a garden, which needs to be perfected. Niggle goes on to partner with Parrsh, whose gardening prowess enables Niggle’s imagination to plan how they can work the garden forest.

Tolkien envisions a character with an artistic obsession finally seeing the reality, and that reality is actually a composite effect. He highlights the nature of masterpieces. No great book, poem, song, or painting is created in isolation, but is a product of humanity. Further, Tolkien crafts a small character, much like his hobbits. Niggle’s willingness to still love his neighbor without expectation is his strength. When he is released from the purgatory hospital, his judge says, “And there is this: he never expected any return.” Niggle had no grand ambition, no desire to fix all the problems with the world. Instead, he wanted to paint the perfect leaf. His joy was in the little things: small art, caring for weak neighbors, and minding his business in a very English sort of way.

After Niggle and Parrish build a garden beyond the tree, Niggle is taken away up into the mountains. Tolkien builds a progressive eschatology: Niggle is purified, perfects his life’s work, and then goes beyond where the author can describe. This scene sounds almost exactly like the heaven described in The Great Divorce. Lewis envisions a final post-mortem opportunity for salvation, where saved souls try to convince the damned to travel with them across a desert of burning sand into the mountains. In The Last Battle, Aslan’s country is composed of a ring of mountains which surrounds all possible worlds. These two Inklings shared a common love of mountains, and used them to symbolize eternal joy.

Following Niggle’s ascension and departure from the story, Tolkien concludes with a conversation between two men who evaluate Niggle. Their conversation is worth quoting at length, because it highlights two different views on human value.

“I think he was a silly little man,” said Councillor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact: no use to Society at all.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not so sure: it depends on what you mean by use.

“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.”

“Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?”

“Yes, if you must use that meaningless expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean.”

“Then you don’t think painting is worth anything, not worth preserving, or improving, or even making use of?”

“Of course, painting has uses,” said Tompkins. “But you couldn’t make use of his paintings. There is plenty of scope for bold young men not afraid of new ideas and new methods. None for this old-fashioned stuff. Private day-dreaming. He could not have designed a telling poster to save his life. Always fiddling with leaves and flowers. I asked him why, once. He said he thought they were pretty! Can you believe it? He said pretty! ‘What, digestive and genital organs of plants?’ I said to him; and he had nothing to answer. Silly footler.”

On the one hand, Niggle represents a view of life which finds beauty worth appreciating for itself. A job and career enables a life of leisure appreciating the beauty of the world. Beauty is an end unto itself, for Niggle. For Tompkins, however, nothing is worthwhile unless it can be put to a practical end. His pragmatic viewpoint sees no value in Niggle’s life nor in his painting; unless a painting can be subverted to governmental use as propaganda, Tompkins has no use for it. All the little people in the world, those who have no demonstrable material contribution to Soceity, Tompkins would have them done away with long before their nature death, making way for those “young bold men not afraid of new ideas.” Education then suits men for their role in the machine of the state. The traditional organic nature of society stands in opposition to the pragmatic mechanical view which reduces man from a participant in a good cosmos to a cog in a machine.

Reading Tolkien is a bit like reading Homer. Just when I think I understand a particular passage, image, or figure a new layer of meaning opens. “Leaf by Niggle” deserves to be read, and read again as a reminder of the need to pursue beauty in the small things and to value beauty as an end. In these short twenty pages, Tolkien packs in most of what Evelyn Waugh does in Brideshead Revisited: these two worldviews are incompatible with one another, and the traditional view has all the beauty.