The Villanova Christianity and Culture and Criticism and ... Conference ended with a remarkable panel on contemporary Catholic literary achievements (and rumors of a lack thereof). It featured the following three thinkers: literary critic and aspiring novelist Paul Elie; the established novelist and literary critic William Giraldi; and the distinguished poet, literary critic, and phenomenologist Kevin Hart.
Full disclosure: I have a pony in the race. I not only have written extensively on the Golden Age in Catholic and Christian poetry and fiction, but I also have worked with Image Journal as a Luci Shaw Fellow (applications for this year's fellowship are due February 15th).
It seemed to me the questions lobbed at the panel kowtowed too much to the narrative of crisis and decline that Elie set up with his opening remarks. Elie is very attached to this narrative of decline for two reasons. First, he argues in his excellent intellectual biography The Life You Save May Be Your Own that the period when Walker Percy, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, and Flannery O'Connor were at the height of their powers is an unmatched Golden Age. Second, he is writing his own novel that he presents as the cure for everything that ails contemporary Catholic literature.
I mixed things up a bit by asking the panel a question that undermined the Elie narrative. Here is the gist of what I asked:
Can we really trust critics to identify new and original talent when they've previously dropped the ball on some of our greatest writers? It took critics nearly a century to discover giants such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Cyprian Norwid, and Kierkegaard. Maybe today they are not doing a particularly good job of identifying talent among writers who happen to be Catholic, but the talent is still there?
There was a short period of consternation (or maybe that's my fiction?). Then, to my own consternation, William Giraldi (a self-professed non-practicing Catholic haunted by the Catholic imagination) took the question up instead of Elie. He really ran with it. Giraldi thought my question tantamount to what he called critical "nihilism." His objection was, more or less: If we cannot trust critics then what are we to do—throw our hands up and say, forget it?
His characteristically pugnacious response amusingly missed the point of my question. I did not mean to say that critics are always wrong and should not be trusted.
It was my intention to make a more nuanced point: Critics are not infallible and great novels and poetry exist outside the popular critical press. It took me so long to expand on this simple point (and calm Giraldi down a bit) that Elie got off scot free.
In my mind Giraldi retroactively atoned for this strange exchange with another pugnacious comment that he had made earlier. He straightforwardly claimed that secular-scientific humanism has nothing whatsoever to offer writers; there's no drama in nothing multiplying nothing. On the other hand, according to Giraldi, the sacraments are structured toward the writing of great fiction. Why the sacraments? And this is really original: it's because the sacraments are for sinners. Good stories require drama, falls, and reconciliations, and this is what the sacraments are all about.
The rest of the conference was a blast as well. It exposed me to the work of many literary critics, art critics, philosophers, and creative writers whom I had not known, and gave me a new perspective on those whose work I knew. Below you will find a selected list of these thinkers along with representative works and publisher blurbs—in no particular order, as usual.
One thing is clear after going to this conference: Catholic and Christian criticism, like Catholic philosophy, is doing just fine.
1) Kingdoms of God by Kevin Hart
"What did Jesus mean by the expression, the Kingdom of God? As an answer, Kevin Hart sketches a 'phenomenology of the Christ' that explores the unique way Jesus performs phenomenology. According to Hart, philosophers and theologians continually reinterpret Jesus’s teaching of the Kingdom so that there are effectively many Kingdoms of God. Working in, while also displacing, a tradition inaugurated by Husserl and continued by philosophers such as Heidegger, Marion, and Lacoste, Hart puts forward a new phenomenology of religion that claims that ethics and religion are not always unified or continuous."
2) Arts of Wonder by Jeffrey Kosky
"Jeffrey L. Kosky focuses on a handful of artists—Walter De Maria, Diller + Scofidio, James Turrell, and Andy Goldworthy—to show how they introduce spaces hospitable to mystery and wonder, redemption and revelation, and transcendence and creation. What might be thought of as religious longings, he argues, are crucial aspects of enchanting secularity when developed through encounters with these works of art. Developing a model of religion that might be significant to secular culture, Kosky shows how this model can be employed to deepen interpretation of the art we usually view as representing secular modernity. A thoughtful dialogue between philosophy and art, Arts of Wonder will catch the eye of readers of art and religion, philosophy of religion, and art criticism."
3) Prophets of the Posthuman by Christina Bieber Lake
"Prophets of the Posthuman provides a fresh and original reading of fictional narratives that raise the question of what it means to be human in the face of rapidly developing bioenhancement technologies. Christina Bieber Lake argues that works by Nathaniel Hawthorne, Walker Percy, Flannery O'Connor, Toni Morrison, George Saunders, Marilynne Robinson, Raymond Carver, James Tiptree, Jr., and Margaret Atwood must be reevaluated in light of their contributions to larger ethical questions. Drawing on a wide range of sources in philosophical and theological ethics, Lake argues that these writers share a commitment to maintaining a category of personhood more meaningful than that allowed by utilitarian ethics. Prophets of the Posthuman insists that because technology can never ask whether we should do something that we have the power to do, literature must step into that role."
4) The Beauty of the Cross by Richard Viladesau
"From the earliest period of its existence, Christianity has been recognized as the 'religion of the cross.' Some of the great monuments of Western art are representations of the brutal torture and execution of Christ. Despite the horror of crucifixion, we often find such images beautiful. The beauty of the cross expresses the central paradox of Christian faith: the cross of Christ's execution is the symbol of God's victory over death and sin. The cross as an aesthetic object and as a means of devotion corresponds to the mystery of God's wisdom and power manifest in suffering and apparent failure. In this volume, Richard Viladesau seeks to understand the beauty of the cross as it developed in both theology and art from their beginnings until the eve of the renaissance."
5) Busy Monsters by William Giraldi
"Echoing a narrative line that includes Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, William Giraldi’s Busy Monsters has been hailed as one of the most exciting fiction debuts in years. Penned with a linguistic bravado that explores the diaphanous line between fiction and fact, this very funny, very inventive début novel has at last revived the great American picaresque tradition."
6) British Romanticism and the Catholic Question by Michael Tomko
"British Romanticism and the Catholic Question offers the first comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of Catholic Emancipation, one of the romantic period's most contentious issues. The debate over extending full civil rights to British and Irish Catholics elicited a prolonged political and cultural conflict about the nation's religious and historical identity. It engaged the period's most prominent writers, including S.T. Coleridge, Elizabeth Inchbald, Walter Scott, P.B. Shelley, and William Wordsworth. Beginning with the 1778 Catholic Relief Act, the book follows debates over the Catholic Question across parliamentary speeches, periodical writing, and political cartoons and through the genres of the national tale, epic poetry, the historical novel, and romantic drama. British Romanticism and the Catholic Question argues that while the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act removed the confessional state's legislative apparatus, the regulation of religious difference passed into culture and reshaped the nineteenth century's approach to religious minorities and toleration in the British nation and empire."
7) Radical Reinvention by Kaya Oakes
"As someone who clocked more time in mosh pits and at pro-choice rallies than kneeling in a pew, Kaya Oakes was not necessarily the kind of Catholic girl the Vatican was after. But even while she immersed herself in the punk rock scene and proudly called herself an atheist, something kept pulling her back to the religion of her Irish roots. Rebellious and hypercritical, Kaya relearns the catechisms and achieves the sacraments, all while trying to reconcile her liberal beliefs with contemporary Church philosophy. Along the way she meets a group of feisty feminist nuns, a “pray-and-bitch” circle, an all-too handsome Italian priest, and a motley crew of misfits doing their best to find their voices in an outdated institution."
8) Some Permanent Things by James Matthew Wilson
"This is James Matthew Wilson’s first full-length book of poems, and a singularly powerful announcement it is . . . philosophy, metaphysics, theology, the American political scene viewed through the complex lenses of the classics, with allusions ranging from the ancients to the moderns . . . all woven into a complex music which has anchored itself in the long tradition of meter and rhyme. . . He is a word painter . . . with the eye of someone for whom the essential being of things—the quiddity, the inscape—leads again and again into a deeper mystery."
9) The Oracles Fell Silent by Lee Oser
"When the legendary Sir Ted Pop hires young Richard Bellman as his secretary, Bellman’s work on the great man’s memoir transforms his young life into a divine comedy—or is it a devilish farce? In a New York beach house in Southampton, Bellman treads the forbidden ground of Ted’s final hour with Johnny Donovan, his partner in fame, who 'fell' from a London rooftop in 1969. Sir Ted battles false prophets and mad messiahs for control over his own story, but what rock’s biggest mystery reveals to Bellman is the unthinkable hand of God."
10) Rituals of Spontaneity by Lori Branch
"In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a newfound love of spontaneity transformed Christian worship and revolutionized the Enlightenment's 'culture of sensibility.' Rituals of Spontaneity tells the story of how and why spontaneity came to be so revered. Using archival material and works of Bunyan, Shaftesbury, Goldsmith, Smart, and Wordsworth, Branch shows that the rise of spontaneity was intimately connected to the forces of commerce and science at the dawn of the Enlightenment. By focusing on the language in which spontaneity was defended and on its psychological repercussions, Rituals of Spontaneity challenges previous understanding of secularization and demonstrates the deep, often troubling connections between religion and secularism in modernity."