Who Should Read This Book? – Anyone who enjoys reading profound, entertaining and imaginative essays on philosophy, theology, history and even book reviews on obscure books.
What’s the Big Takeaway? – I am not sure there is one takeaway from a book like this as the essays range in topic far and wide. I suppose one takeaway might be: we need writers like David Bentley Hart. I’ve wondered in the past who the CS Lewis or George MacDonald is of our day; someone who writes both fun and whimsical stories as well as insightful thoughts on faith and culture. Most Christian fiction is lame and most apologetics is boring. There are a few writers who rise to the top and combine both. Marilynne Robinson is one and David Bentley Hart is another (though, he is definitely not an ‘apologist’ and would deplore the title).
A Quote: “I take it as an absolutely irrefutable maxim that a man capable of playing golf very well is probably capable of little else, while a man capable of watching golf with interest is probably capable of anything” (138)
“I, by contrast, hope to see puppies in paradise, and persevere in faith principally for that reason” (264)
I’ve sung the praises of David Bentley Hart’s writing before. Few authors I have encountered appeal to both the intellect and the imagination. Hart is brilliant and having a dictionary close by when reading his work is helpful. But he’s also witty and whimsical, seen most clearly in his recent (and I predict my favorite book of 2021) Roland in the Moonlight. Anyone who thinks so highly of dogs is an admirable guy.
This collection of essays, published a few years back, is an eclectic set. Hart’s interests range widely and the essays reflect that. He begins by offering a reading list of obscure books and the book reviews throughout this book are equally obscure. The first essay in the book is a celebration of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories which are anything but obscure. Sadly, to Hart, these stories are not read as much as they once were as adults think we should read more realistic fiction (and I think of Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories here which laments much the same thing) and our tendency to not really encourage our kids to read at all:
“True, we can still be beguiled by bad fiction whose only recommendation is its ‘realism’ or ‘seriousness’ (and so waste our time on the dreary moralism and creative-writing-class prose of Ian McEwan, or the blundering bombast of Cormac McCarthy). But most of us are blessedly free from the imaginatively crippling prejudice that only such seriousness can be profound; and I suspect it was Carroll, to a greater degree than we usually realize, who was our liberator” (19).
“Today, of course, it is often asserted that they are really books for adults, but mostly on account of the obscurity now of many of their cultural references, and of our tendency these days to raise our children as instinctive illiterates who have to be judiciously shielded from new words and complex syntax, rather than as the omnivorously assimilative and rapidly adaptable creatures they are” (19).
Later, in an essay celebrating good bad books, Hart again laments the replacement of reading with screens:
“I want here to praise them and all those other good bad books that helped teach me to seek out and love far better books than they, and to voice the hope that my childhood experience of total immersion in stories that required as much from my imagination as they gave in return is not becoming an ever rarer thing for children. Statistics tell us that children today a great deal of time in front of screens – televisions, computers, tablets, car DVD systems, and so on – and very little reading. It seems to me a sad thing for a child to rely chiefly on entertainments that render the imagination mostly quiescent. There is a point in every life, moreover, at which the dimensions of the imagination become largerly fixed, and I suspect that those dimensions also somewhere determine the limits of a persons’ powers of reason. And this – not to sound too alarmist – ought perhaps cause us some anxiety” (220)
May we all read more! Speaking of reading, though I may never read them, I jotted down some authors to check out from Hart’s lists. It is not surprising that Hart is not a fan of the so-called “New Atheists” as he heaps scorn upon their arguments in a memorable essay titled “Believe it or Not: On the Very Disappointing Literature of the New Atheism”:
“The current atheism a la mode, it seems to me, has by now proved itself to be so intellectually and morally trivial that it has to be classified as just a form of light entertainment; and popular culture always tires of its diversions sooner or later and moves on to other, equally ephemeral, toys” (73).
Its not necessarily their fault, as our entire culture fails at discussing religion well:
“It seems obvious to me that the peculiar vapidity of New Atheist literature is simply a reflection of the more general vapidity of all public religious discourse these days, believing and unbelieving alike” (75).
That said, in response to weak Christianity, the new atheism is formed too simply and easily:
“The principle source of my melancholy, however, is my firm conviction that today’s most obstreperous infield lack the courage, moral intelligence, and thoughtfulness of their forefather in faithlessness. What I find chiefly offensive about them is not that they are skeptics or atheists; rather, it is that they are not skeptics at all and, as a result, have purchased their atheism cheaply, with the sort of boorish arrogance that might make a man believe himself a great strategist because his tanks overwhelmed a town of unarmed peasants or a great love because he can afford the price of admission to a brothel” (76).
They reject an understanding of God thought ought to be rejected, one that is little to do with classical theism and more modern Deism:
“For all of the New Atheists, the concept of God is simply that of some very immense and powerful being among other beings, who serves as teh first cause of all other things only in the sense that he is prior to and larger than all other causes. That is, they are concerned with eh sort of God believed in by seventeenth and eighteenth century Deists” (76-77).
What is a classical view of God? Hart’s book The Experience of God is on this, but he touches on it in this essay:
“It is not logically requisite for anyone, on observing that contingent reality must depend upon absolute reality, to say then what the absolute depends upon; or, on asserting the participation of finite beings in infinite being, further to explain what it is that makes being to be. Other arguments are called for (as Hume knew). And only a complete failure to grasp the most basic philosophical terms of the conversation could prompt this strange inversion of logic, by which the argument from infinite regress – traditionally and correctly regarded as the most powerful objection to pure materialism – is now treated as an irrefutable argument against belief in God” (81)
The first book I ever read from Hart was Atheist Delusions, a response to the new atheists with he worst title of all his books, a title which Hart says was not his idea. Plenty of evangelical Christians enjoyed reading this book, seeing Hart in all his sarcastic and snarky glory. But as readers of that book came to learn, Hart has plenty of scorn for Christians in America. In “The Needle’s Eye” he writes:
“The Ease with which Americans often confuse their civic and fiscal values with Christian virtue is always a little baffling, granted, and I realize that every Christian people has tended to confuse their interests and ideals of this sort or that class or nation or ideology or empire with the moral commands of the gospels. Many American Christinas, though, have a special talent for elevating the blandest and most morally negatory aspects of social and economic life to the status of positive spiritual goods, essentially laudable, and somehow all of a piece with he teachings of Christ” (203)
He goes on to muse how only in America is it possible to combine Christian faith with libertarian politics:
“America is such a n odd combination of Christian pieties and post-Christian habits of thought. What other country could produce persons, for instance, who believe it possible to be both Christian and Libertarian?” (290)
This culminates in one of the best essays int he book, Mammon Ascendant. Here Hart questions what is usually unquestioned among American Christians: the friendship between faith and capitalism. Capitalism is no friend to Christianity but actually is a competing faith (here I am reminded of Eugene McCarraher’s The Enchantments of Mammon and Daniel Bell’s The Economy of Desire). Hart writes: “The history of capitalism and the history of secularism are not two accidentally contemporaneous tales, after all; they are the same story told from different vantages” (313).
Most of these essays are at close to ten years old. It would have been nice to have notations of when each essay was first published. Since the essays were written and the book was published, the internal conflicts of Christianity in America have grown. As Jesus says, you cannot serve two masters and the ideals of libertarian freedom, freemarket capitalism, nationalism – continue to overwhelm anything resembling a Christian ethic. This new religion of Christian Nationalism elected Trump. One of the best passages in the book is Hart’s words on Trump, published in 2015:
“How obvious it seems to me now, ho pure and lucid. Here, clearly, is an ideal model of the diabolical: cold, grasping, bleak, graceless, and dull; unctuous, sleek, pitiless, and crass; a pallid vulgarian with poutish effeminate lips, bulging jowls, and a grotesque coiffed red, floating through life on clouds of acrid cologne and trailed by a vanguard of fawning divorce lawyers. That, I suspect, is the dreary truth of the matter: the devil is probably eerily similar to Donald Trump – though perhaps a little nicer.” (167)
Hart is critical of American Christianity and recognizes how far we are from the first Christians. This point is made in the final essay of the book, “Christ’s Rabble”. Though this separation from the first Christians is not unique to American Christianity, for Hart it is almost as old as faith itself. We have, for centuries, learned to read scripture in such a way to make it more palatable. The first Christians were nothing like us:
“I think it reasonable to ask not whether we are Christians (by that standard, all fall short), but whether in our wildest imaginings we could ever desire to be the kind of persons that the New Testament describes as fitting the pattern of life in Christ. And I think the fairly obvious answer is that we could not. I do not mean merely that most of us find the moral requirements laid out in Christian scripture a little onerous, though of course we do. . . Rather, I mean that most of us would find Christians truly cast in the New Testament mold fairly obnoxious: civically reprobate, ideologically unsound, economically destructive, politically irresponsible, socially discreditable, and really just a bit indecent” (336).
Hart does not wag a finger at us in writing this. He’s not writing as if he lives like these folks either. There’s no hypocrisy here, just honest history admitting none of us really want to or are able to live this way. Perhaps this is a result of Hart’s Christian Universalism. Knowing all will ultimately be saved, he can both lament how far we are from the first Christians and not try to manipulate us to live that way. Rather than explaining it away or imagining we live just like them and are thus part of a tiny group of real and true Christians, Hart leaves it as is. This has always been the beauty of Hart’s writing – he writes about what he wants, from obscure authors to conversations with his dog, and he writes the truth.