Friday, September 09, 2016

Mere Fidelity on Christian Intellectuals, part 2, the podcast following up on a Jake Meador essay--they're underselling the significance of the Cold War for the role of Christian evangelicals even while Alastair Roberts astutely notes that those Christian intellectuals of yore were actually mainliners

Well, a while back Mere Orthodoxy had a piece about Francis Schaeffer and Christian intellectuals.  They had a podcast revisiting that topic recently.

To some degree I think the Jacobs piece may have been misread by people who thought Jacobs was potentially proposing there are no Christian intellectuals because Jacobs formulated a case that the Christian intellectual, as a subset of intellectuals as a demographic, are not a part of the public discourse.  Of the various ideas proposed I think that Alastair Roberts' comment about how evangelicals need to remember that the Christian intellectuals in the post-war/mid-war era were not evangelicals as would have been defined by evangelicals either then or now; rather, Roberts pointed out that these Christian intellectuals mentioned in the Alan Jacobs piece were mainliners. 

What I thought was largely skipped over entirely by the Mere Fidelity crew was (except for perhaps a short reference mentioned by Anderson) that these mainline Christian intellectuals wre addressing the state of the world in the Second World War but also, crucially, during formative decades in the Cold War.  The West was still sufficiently if nominally "Christian" enough that mainline church folk could say things that a nominally Christian West would be interested in.  While it's possible to propose that evangelicals withdrew or were sidelined in the later decades of the Cold War it might also be accurate to say that they were only ever marginal contributors at best to the Cold War era political and social concerns. 

The role of evangelical intellectual activity in relationship to the Cold War might be likened, perhaps, to the imagined golden age of the classical guitar, which Matanya Ophee said never existed in his lecture "Repertoire Issues" from decades ago--I would suggest that an addendum to Ophee's lecture, should he ever wish to present it again, is to note that when Richard Taruskin published his massive five-volume set of books, the Oxford History of Western Music, Taruskin described the guitar as essentially outside the Western literate musical tradition.   Whether it's evangelical scholars or classical guitarists looking back on a lost golden era of public influence and acclaim we might be pining for a golden age that, on more careful inspection, never actually occurred.

One of Taruskin's pet ideas for his Oxford series is to highlight the little that has been done in arts history to frame our understanding of later 20th century art and music history explicitly in terms of the Cold War and its political balkanization.  Going back to about 2011 or 2010 I've been playing with the idea that there is an explicable shift in the wake of the end of the Cold War in which the residual dread of the Red threat mutated into dread of our own governments in the West.  The X-Files was the kind of television program that probably could not be made and would not have been marketable in a Cold War context.  I've also proposed that in a parallel way that if in the Cold War Superman made sense as America's self-image via superheroes (or Wonder Woman, to a lesser degree), Batman became the superhero touchstone as the costumed crusader whose battle was not against enemies of America but corruption within an American society itself.  Of course Wonder Woman and Superman did that, too, but they're more flag-draped than Batman ... and that's a whole other set of topics.

To the extent that the Christian intellectuals who contributed ideas to public discussion about politics, liberty and traditional liberalism within a Cold War context, then to the extent that the Cold War ended and we got "the end of history" those useful contributions ran their course.  Perhaps much like the government of the United States started to see less reason to fund avant garde art in direct and indirect ways once it became clear to some people that we "won" the Cold War, a whole lot of people who were more nominally Christian than evangelical/ardently observant had the luxury of casting off what was, arguably, chiefly an alliance of convenience.  It's not like no one can look up the pragmatic view about whatever religion is suitable enough in a war against Communism from the Eisenhower years. 

So there's all that. 

As a side note, Anderson (I think) mentioned Roger Scruton as a conservative intellectual.  If Scruton's worth mentioning (and I would agree he is) what about ... say ... the Future Symphony Institute?  I think that FSI is leaning too hard on criticism of atonalist music at the moment even if I am 100% for preserving the Western literate musical tradition.  I'm even for Scruton's idea that we should find some way to repair or bridge the breach between academic and vernacular/popular musical idioms that has grown in the last century.  This would even coincide, roughly, with a trend in the musical heroes of pop music who have been lionized in death of late, namely Prince and David Bowie. 

In a century in which everyone attempting to earn their avant garde credentials tried to tear up the rule book, so to speak, nobody seems in a rush to consider that there really aren't any rules left to break.  It's gotten to a point where, if Kyle Gann is right, it's easier to do avant garde music than to master the frequently demanding idioms of vernacular/popular musical styles.  We may be in a cultural moment where breaking the rules is far easier than manipulating and refining the rules.  It may be easier to just declare sonata and fugue "obsolete" than spend a lifetime learning and manipulating the conceptual syntax of 18th century procedural development of musical ideas so that you could deploy them for a riff that might be in a James Brown or Hank Williams Sr. song than an old Austrian folk song.  For that matter, a lot of music students may not even want to master forms and procedures that by now are considered obsolete or have been ill-served by pedagogical idioms that have clung to 19th century German idealism.  Instead of dissecting the twelve-tone method we could go in any number of other directions--there's the just intonation/microtonal movement, for instance.  What if the problem with twelve-tone music lay not merely in its methodology for material development but in the shortcomings of equal-temperament itself?  Whole movements have built themselves up from that idea and if intellectuals who want to consider where music could go there's a way of saying "we chose the wrong future" than suggest that the reason German music became stale and repetitive was that half of all the thing worth doing in German music had been done by the time Haydn died.

Yeah, yeah, Scruton thinks more highly of German idealism than I happen to and an over-reliance on that kind of idealism and its attendant ideas about what qualifies as art or not within music may be one of the more obvious conundrums for Christians in the arts to consider.  That so many have tried and not always succeeded in arriving at a fusion of vernacular musical vocabulary and the formal procedural modes of thematic presentation and expansion refined in the 18th century doesn't mean it isn't worth doing.  It can be easy to forget that the history of those idioms entailed at least a century of steady experimentation across an entire continent.  The cliché has become how to emulate a Beethoven or a Mozart but the person they were trying to emulate and beat in their own era was Haydn--we have a culture in which breaking the rulebook is more sexy than doing what Haydn and J. S. Bach did, refining existing idioms and amalgamating a panoply of existing styles, forms and idioms.  If there is a realm where historically informed evangelicals could make substantial contributions to the arts you would think this would be one of those areas.

Which gets me to one of the ideas floated about Christian intellectuals and how those few who could qualify tend to be known strictly within their guild and not really outside of it.  That may simply be true of intellectuals as a category and it may be fair--you have to have solved some kind of problem your guild thinks is worth solving before you can move on to address anything else. 

But that's about all I have to blog about on that orbit of topics for the moment.


chris e said...

I am of the opinion that the entire phenomena was historically contingent anyway.

There were a number of factors other than a general 'christian' background to the culture (and tbh I don't think that played much of role in every intellectual was seen anyway).

There was a general disconnection of the Church from the intellectual life - in the aftermath of the Fundamentalism controversy - at a time when access to scholarly resources was limited, coupled with a simultaneous disconnection from the historical answers and resources of the Church itself. This played out against what was at the time a fairly clear cut struggle which could be described in good vs evil terms (along particular axes - abortion for instance was illegal in much of the Soviet Bloc).

There was also the role of state sponsorship of the intellectual life to go along with state sponsorship of the arts.

Given these conditions 'Christian Intellectualism' was possible and easier. The same types of people exist today, they speak to smaller audiences and inhabit a parallel set of christian 'think tanks' with names that sound like something from a SCAA convention (Latin features heavily). It is evident that the calibre of the thinking produced was ever thus - which Christian Intellectual (of the supposed golden age) doesn't sound derivative or trite when read today?

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

this is reminding me that as I read musicians and composers lament the lack of state funding for the arts that happened a generation or so ago that I haven't seen them do what Richard Taruskin has, which is to directly and explicitly connect the dots between state patronage and the political aims of the Cold War. I've seen historians connect those dots but not the musicians or artists lamenting the tectonic shift in the dynasties of patronage.

I've had a chance to see some old college friends lament how access to the arts seems to be a privilege and not a right within contemporary American education and the kind of outrage I've seen in those laments suggests that some people think it was somehow not the case earlier. The more I learn about art history and the history of art patronage the more this mentality seems ... a bit ... privileged. Only people who could afford to liberal arts colleges and get degrees in the humanities seem able to be outraged that access to the arts within public schools is a sign of privilege or money. I learned a lot and heard a lot of music during my high school years but it was through access to a solid city public library system, not because I was learning about blues from my high school.

Access to the arts and participating it has always been a matter of privilege and money. There was nothing like being jobless for three years to remind me that if you don't have the money to spare you have no realistic shot at participating in the local arts scene unless there are events that are free and those events basically have to be sponsored by local arts societies of one kind or another.

chris e said...

Yes, that is true also, though I was making the tangential point that in part the cold war gave some of these intellectuals a profile that was perhaps artificially elevated. While having a much more receptive audience who knew less further elevated their status in house. So perceptual gap plus public boosterism.

I don't think that era is coming back any time soon, and maybe not ever, the days when there were massive intellectuals (Aquinas et al) were the days of societies in which the pinnacle of intellectual life was the creation of philosopher-theologians.

So the people yearning for a return to a few decades ago are really yearning for a certain emphasis, rather than absolute excellence.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

good point. I've been bouncing back and forth between reading stuff like the Mere Orthodoxy piece on Christian intellectuals and Kevin Volans or Kyle Gann lamenting that the governments on the Western side of the Cold War divide no longer invest in the arts the way they used to and how corporate interests have abandoned the fine arts traditions in comparison to half a century ago.

Both groups could be nostalgically yearning for a certain emphasis rather than for excellence. It may be that with the U.S. in a haze and people dreading the future the arts will be a low priority but Christians with a really long-form sense of history about the arts and theology can know that this isn't new. Heinrich Schutz went from composing pretty lush complex choral/instrumental works to the comparatively skeletal little sacred concert pieces. A generation of war had so decimated cultural resources he had to make do with what he actually had access to, not what he wished he had.