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David Bentley Hart's essay on "Religion in America" from In the Aftermath had me chortling with glee at various points, and pondering profound observations at others. Hart's generous-minded, boisterously cynical assessment of the absurdities of American Christianity, which nevertheless compares favorably with the desiccated wasteland of modern secularist Europe, is one of the finest essays I have read.

In this post, I will just offer some of the more delightful lines and sharpest daggers from his glittering prose:

The station's oblong pillars were blackly begrimed; shreds of posters in garish hues hung limply from the walls; in shallow depressions of the concrete floor opaque pools of oleaginous water glistened with a sinister opalescence; an astringent chemical odor of antiseptics vying with various organic purulences suffused the damp air; a scattering of gaunt torsos farther along the platform bore eloquent witness to the malaise of Britain's post-war gene pool.

The last line there really had me in awe.

Or how about this vicious jab at American culture:

Obviously, in any number of ways, America is late modernity's avant-garde; in popular culture, especially, so prolific are we in forms of brutal vapidity and intellectual poverty that less enterprising savages can only marvel in impotent envy.

And one of his best summary statements on American Christianity:

Most of us, for instance, rarely have cause to reflect that some of the variants of America's indigenous evangelical Christianity, especially of the "fundamentalist" sort, would have to be reckoned--if judged in the full light of Christian history--positively bizarre. Yet many of its dominant and reputable churches have--quite naturally and without any apparent attempt at novelty--evolved a Christianity so peculiar as to be practically without precedent: an entire theological and spiritual world, internally consistent, deeply satisfying to many, and nearly impossible to ground in the scriptural texts its inhabitants incessantly invoke.

In justifying his confidence that the evangelical denominations will soon wholly outstrip the liberal mainline denominations:

I merely observe that theologically and morally conservative believers tend to have more children. Conservative American Christians reproduce at a greater rate than their liberal brethren, and at an enormously higher rate than secularized America; the extraordinary growth of traditionalist Christian communities in recent decades is something that has been accomplished not only by indefatigable evangelization, but by the ancient and infallible methods of lawful conjugation and due fruition.

A description of the current culture war in America that is second to none:

"It is a tension that--for want of that precious medium, civilization--looks likely to increase, for our extremes are becoming very extreme indeed: a modernity drained of any of the bright refinements and moral ambitions of Enlightenment reason or humanist idealism, reduced to a "high" culture of insipid ethical authoritarianism and a low culture consisting in a dreary hedonism (without a hint of healthy Rabelaisian festivity), ever more explicit and repetitive celebrations of violence, sartorial and sexual slovenliness, atrocious music, and an idyllic emancipation from the fetters of literacy or (in fact) articulacy; and an antiquity of real and dynamic power, but largely uncontrolled by any mediating forces of order, stability, unity, or calm. To the dispassionate observer, there might be something exhilarating in the spectacle, the grand titanic struggle--within the very heart of their homeland--between a secular culture of militant vanity and incorruptible coarseness and a Christian culture of often prosaic experientialist ardor."

Finally, the best, a delightful dismemberment of the liberal Episcopalian, John Shelby Spong:

"All of which [the rise of African Christianity] tends to make rather hilarious a figure like John Spong, the quondam Episcopal bishop of Newark. It was Spong who, in 1998, produced a hysterical screed of a book, pompously entitled Why Christianity Must Change or Die, that--in arguing for a "new Christianity," unburdened by such cumbrous appurtenances as, for instance, God--succeeded only in making audible the protracted death rattle of a moribund church. It was Spong also who, that same year, appalled that African bishops at the Lambeth Conference were about to defeat movements towards an official Anglican approbation of homosexuality, delivered himself of a fiercely petulant diatribe almost touching in its unreflective racism; these Africans, he declared (all of whom were far better scholars and linguists than he, as it happens), had only recently slouched their way out of animism, and so were susceptible to "religious extremism" and "very superstitious" forms of Christianity. Now, admittedly, Spong is a notorious simpleton, whose special combination of emotional instability and intellectual fatuity leaves him in a condition rather like a chronic delirium tremens; so it is not surprising that, on being somewhat unceremoniously roused from the parochial midden on which he had been contentedly reclining, his reaction should be puerile and vicious; but is perplexity and rage were genuine and understandable."


First: thanks for the Hart posts. I read Christ and Nothing the other day and enjoyed it a lot (you didn't have a link to it, but it's posted online:

I think Hart's writing style, though, merits a little more discussion. I mean: it's absurd. There's just no reason to stuff each sentence with so much lumpy, esoteric, cribbed-from-page-1243-of-the-OED vocabulary.

Now--don't get me wrong. None of this necessarily means it's bad writing. Properly done, this sort of thing can be a pretty fun shtick--sort of the equivalent of wearing a ridiculously fanciful mustache while gravely defending some argument in a debate. You establish yourself as something of a colorful character; your whimsical side humanizes yourself a bit to the audience, taking the edge away from any perceived haughtiness. It works; it's a style.

But the thing is, from what I've read of Hart so far, I can't tell if he has any self-awareness about any of it--whether he's having one hell of a good time at the typewriter heaping baroque invective on his enemies, or if he naively thinks that using the word "oleaginous" is just the most literary and intellectual thing one can do. If it's the first case then I'm laughing with him and cheering him on; if it's the second case, though, I'm laughing at him--and finding him kind of insufferable.

Now, this is just based from one essay and the excerpts above, so I really need to read more. And all of this is just about his writing style, independent from the substance of what he's saying.

So, I don't know. Do you sense any whimsy in these passages? Does this guy love language--or does he just love big words?

July 17, 2009 at 7:46 AM  

Incidentally, if I were to buy a Hart book, which one would you recommend?

July 17, 2009 at 8:07 AM  

In reply to your question at the end, my impression is that is that's it definitely more the former. His style is intentionally and consciously flamboyant; he knows the rules and he flaunts them out of sheer delight in language. Such is my impression at least.

Of course, I have rather a weakness myself for using absurdly polysyllabic words, so to me, using "oleaginous" hardly requires apology. This isn't because of a desire to seem abstruse and academic, but simply because these more obscure words seem to me to communicate more evocatively and precisely than their street-level equivalents--"oleaginous" seems to convey oilyness better than "oily" does. It seems that Hart takes the same approach.

Also, it's interesting to note the difference between someone like Hart, who writes so well that the context illumines the meaning of the most obscure word, versus Milbank, who writes so that the most illuminating context is obscured by his use of obscure words. Just wait till you see some Milbank excerpts I'm going to post later.

As for what to read, The Beauty of the Infinite is the must-read classic. But it's quite long and quite dense, and I haven't gotten through it yet. That's why I picked up In the Aftermath, a more popular-level collection of essays. And I highly recommend it.

July 19, 2009 at 2:04 PM  

Ha! Randomly I was reading fun facts about crayons, and ran into this:

The name Crayola was coined by Alice Binney, wife of company founder Edwin, and a former school teacher. She combined the words craie, which is French for chalk, and ola, for oleaginous, because crayons are made from petroleum based paraffin.

"Oleaginous" strikes again!

August 20, 2009 at 7:12 AM  

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