Thursday, November 19, 2009

What is different about Sophie's world? Review of a modern classic.

"Sophie's World" by Jostein Gaarder
(a novel about the history of philosophy)

There was time when nearly everyone I knew who fancied themselves as a bit of an intellectual wanted to be seen reading this book. Now, over a decade on, the author has produced better novels and other authors have produced arguably better introductions to philosophy. (Without undue modesty, I am planning one myself if I live long enough to retire from full time teaching.) So where does that leave the fictional Sophie and her persistent mentor, Alberto Knox?

The bad news: "Sophie's World" is not as good as past hype might lead you to expect.
The good news: It's still better, in my view, than most of the other over-hyped pop-philosophy blockbusters on the shelves.

'Sophie's World' is at its worst when it pretends to be the sort of novel you would read purely for entertainment. That's because it starts out as quite a good novel but finishes as a very bad one. Early on it catches your interest with an intriguing mystery and efficient narrative. Then, about half way through, the author reveals his hand (rather like a stage magician showing you the hidden compartment in the hat) and ruins the plot. We are left with just another bit of post-modern ironic detachment in which the fate of the characters ceases to matter to us, and as a novel it's all downhill from there on.

The book is at its best when it sticks to what Gaarder does best: lecturing on philosophy. This is where the fictive elements work best - by providing a character to voice the questions in our own heads. The author shows a sound grasp of what will make sense to an uninformed reader, and provides a gentle ramble through a couple of dozen centuries of human thought that will help most people's understanding of the world in which we live.

That is not to say that Gaarder dispatches all periods in history with equal aplomb. His dealing with the metaphysical and ontological abstractions (jargon-free equivalent = world of ideas) of ancient Greece and the middle ages is exemplary. He manages to explain the more-or-less-unexplainable in terms of the easily-understood, in a way that more school texts should copy. Even the prickly thickets of 20th century existentialism yield up some of their unappetizing secrets under his patient hand.

Gaarder is least successful in dealing with creeds that go beyond pure ideas and involve a challenge to behaviour and lifestyle. His treatment of Marxism (which is not so much about ideas as it is about action) is shallow. His survey of Christianity (which is not so much about ideas as it is about relationships) can only be called a caricature. Some vitally important philosophers and their theories are arbitrarily ignored, most likely because their ideas cannot so easily be dramatised as part of the story line.

And this last comment is the key to what makes the book successful: The characters at the top level of Gaarder's story-line are there to enact dramatically some of the questions and answers raised by the various philosophers under consideration. Even the name Sophie is a reference back to spirit of wisdom (Greek sofia) whom the 6th century Roman thinker Boethius used as a speaking character in his essays on the nature of reality. This literary conceit is what makes the book such a success as teaching, but is also the reason for its eventual downfall as a novel. As the philosophical payload of the book begins to enquire more deeply into the nature of reality, the story-line cannot carry such a heavy burden without splitting at the seams and becoming irrational.

So the upshot is that there are better philosophical novels (for a first-class Scandinavian novel of ideas, try "Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow") and better introductions to philosophy (e.g. Alain de Botton's 'Consolations of Philosophy').

In the end, however, "Sophie's World" is surprisingly successful as a hybrid. Provided you are willing to treat the novel as a means to understanding rather than pure entertainment, Gaarder's approach helps to make learning fun and is solidly informative. I still recommend it to prospective students.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Youse Wants Grits With That?" Why the Church is Like a Bowl of Hominy.

The first time a waitress in the American South asked me if I wanted grits with my breakfast order, I politely declined. I had heard the term before, generally in movies and in the context of life in America’s urban ghettoes. They fell into the vague category of “soul food”, and thus in my mind they belonged on the same plate as other austerity foods like chicken wings and potato skins.

I first tasted grits for myself when my wife and I were guests in a Virginian home and could not politely refuse. My wife hated them, but I was curiously drawn to both the culinary possibilities and the sense of experiencing the underside of the American dream that grits historically represent.

Hominy grits are the large white maize husks that are left on your plate after corn-on-the-cob, dried and coarsely ground. You mix them with one part to 3-4 parts water and/or milk, and boil them for several minutes until you have a semolina-like paste studded with tiny fibrous particles of husk. Sounds disgusting but actually it isn’t. You just need an open mind in order to get started.

Early on in American history, the east coast Native American tribes saved the lives of the European settlers (a bad move from their point of view, given the later turn of events) by teaching them how to grow maize. And as slavery took hold of the southern colonies, the rejected husks became the staple diet of millions of African Americans. It undoubtedly saved many of their lives, just as many concentration camp victims owed their survival to being fed on potato peelings; sometimes oppressors do not realise they are throwing their victims the most nutritious part of the crop.

Nowadays, grits are a regular part of the menu in pretty well every working-persons’ diner in America. Up in the industrial north people tend to eat them sweet, with maple or blueberry syrup. Down south more people eat them salty, sometimes with cheese. North and south, most people today swamp them with butter. When cold, they set like the closely related polenta (made from the yellow kernels) and can be sliced, and griddled or even shallow-fried. The internet predictably boasts a number of grits-focused websites to which the surprisingly numerous people who have a real fetish submit all kinds of unusual recipes.

This last fact gives the key to what grits are all about: they are simply a nutritious but flavourless stodge which takes on the flavour of whatever you stir in. In other words, cheese grits taste of nothing but cheese; maple syrup grits taste of nothing but maple syrup; you could easily come up with an amusing and original recipe of your own (like, say, curried prawn and lemongrass grits) which would taste of nothing but… er… curried prawns and lemongrass.

This makes grits a surprisingly apt picture of post-modern Christianity. In these strange times, the Church as a worldwide movement is rapidly becoming a doctrine-free, morally-neutral, spiritually flavourless base into which people can stir whatever seasoning or sweetening ingredients they like: church with spiritual gifts; church with social justice; church with ritual; church with sacraments; church with alpha . . . the list is endless. In each case, as with grits, we can all too easily forget that the nutrition is more important than the added flavouring.

The Church is the body of Christ. It is always nutritious, because whatever mistakes its members make, Christ is always present. Even the most over-flavoured churches are always studded with nourishing fibre in the form of God’s Word, God’s Spirit, and the lives of those faithful servants for whom Christ is at the centre of their lives. May we never let the added flavouring obscure the presence and voice of Christ in the diverse churches, communities and fellowships that meet in his Name.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"Autumn Journey" - Looking Back at Fischer-Dieskau

 "Autumn Journey" (a video biography of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau) by Bruno Monsaingeon (1995), accompanied by a live Schubert Lieder recital by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau
Hard to obtain, and available only on VHS or US import DVD (Region 1)

A strong case could be made for regarding Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the greatest singer of the twentieth century. Almost as strong a case could be made for regarding Bruno Monsaingeon's reverent but probing documentary on the singer as the most fascinating film ever made about the inner life of a major recording artiste.

That is not to say that Fischer-Dieskau consciously sets out to reveal himself. On the contrary, as a consummate musical actor and an intensely private individual, he maintains a professional distance throughout. The honesty with which the film looks at the externalities of his career, from his youthful flirtation with Nazism to his post-retirement career as voice coach and producer, is almost a trompe-l'oeil for the fact that this performance is not too far from being another stage role in the singer's vast repertoire.

And yet herein lies much of the appeal. If this was just another example of a famous performer laying his soul bare, it would be tedious. As it is, we are treated to a deliciously ambiguous relationship between the film-maker and his subject. For all Monsaingeon's evident (and justified) adulation, he never lets his integrity slip, and as a master craftsman himself he puts his whole art in the service of the viewer. In lieder itself, the accompanist's role is as important as that of the singer - and it is as though Monsaingeon has used this relationship as a model for his film.

Thus, although it is Fischer-Dieskau who does the talking, the camera and the subtle use of wonderful archive footage never cease to winkle out unspoken truths. We can see clearly when the subject is putting a spin on events or cunningly adding to the myth. In fairness to the great man, he does so with intelligence and tastefulness in keeping with his status as an eminent scholar and artist. But without the film-maker's probing eye we would miss out on half the story.

The second half of the package is in many ways more poignant than the first. Here we are treated to one of the singer's last lieder recitals before his self-imposed retirement from live performance in the early nineties. In a way it is sad that Fischer-Dieskau should be remembered this way, deprived of the power - the iron fist in a velvet glove - that belonged to him in his prime. And yet even here the film-maker's judgement is flawless, because Fischer-Dieskau was always more than just a voice. In fact others were perhaps his equal in beauty of tone (Hermann Prey, for example, or Gerard Souzay). What set Fischer-Dieskau apart was the depth with which he communicated meaning through vocal inflection, posture, gesture, facial expression and eye contact. Of course these skills do not fade with age - indeed they become more refined. Stripping away the vocal power and agility of a younger man throws these unique and defining gifts into the limelight.

Thus with an artistic intelligence worthy of Fischer-Dieskau himself, Monsaingeon both penetrates and simultaneously perpetuates the mythical status of one of the greatest artists of our time. You may find that you come away from the encounter without warming to the man, but you will take away a new understanding of the artist and even greater awe at his achievements. To anyone interested in serious music, or in the cultural history of the twentieth century, this video will be an indispensable asset for repeated viewing.

A Life Story in Music - Bartok's Quartets (CD)

Bartok: The String Quartets
by the Takacs Quartet (CD: Decca, 1998)

The wonderful thing about Bartok’s six string quartets is that they are simultaneously integral and distinct; they were written in very different circumstances, each embodying a quite specific real-life situation for the composer and a particular phase in his musical ambitions. And yet for this very reason, taken collectively, they chart and encapsulate Bartok’s whole life and career – ranging full circle from simple romanticism to vibrant experimentalism and back in the end to lush tonality. Thus they really belong together in a set rather than as individual recordings, despite the span of years over which they were composed.

The 1998 digital recording by the Takacs Quartet is quite outstanding in both musical and engineering terms. The Takacs is particularly successful in bringing out the intended “gypsy” inflections in many of the movements – an area in which otherwise fine interpeters of other nationalities have lacked the full cultural immersion necessary to do proper justice to such an important strand in Bartok’s staggering musical vision.

None of these quartets is “easy listening” – even the more traditionally structured compositions make considerable demands of the listener – but in the long term they amply repay any amount of effort invested in exploring their inexhaustible depths.

By the same token, the Quartets are probably not the best introduction to Bartok’s work for the beginner. A good place to start is the remarkable “Concerto for Orchestra” from his mellow final period, followed perhaps by some of the music for a larger ensemble, such as his “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”. But as soon as you feel ready to face a challenging but beautiful exploration into the heart of the greatest composer of the twentieth century, his quartets are waiting and the Takacs set could hardly be bettered.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Understanding the Old Testament

Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction
by Lawrence E. Boadt (Paulist Press, 1984)

Introducing the Old Testament (2nd rev. ed.)
by John W. Drane (Lion Hudson, 2000)

As a trainee Reader I had to read a lot of dense and dry theology text books, and Lawrence Boadt's "Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction" is one of the few that fired my enthusiasm. I would hasten to say that I do not agree with all the author's assumptions, but it is very unfair to him to suggest (as some American Bible-belt reviewers have done) that he does not see Holy Scripture as divinely inspired, and I am certain he does not deserve the "liberal" tag that some of the same reviewers have tried to attach to him.

The fact that Boadt (who incidentally is a Jesuit priest) is willing to explain the views of liberal scholars without attaching a Surgeon General's health warning at every turn of the page is hardly the first step on the road to perdition. Besides, if we only ever read books we wholly agree with, we may never grow up as Christians. It is always wonderful to read a book that stresses the work of the Holy Spirit behind scripture and history - but that is essentially devotional writing. Actually some of my evangelical colleagues would say that's the only sort of theology we need, but it doesn't take much reflection to see the limitations of such an approach. How can we answer the world's questions (as indeed we can and must, with flying colours!) if we do not grapple with the questions that arise naturally when scripture is read with an open mind by anyone with a basic grasp of human history?

I find no evidence that Fr. Boadt disagrees with my own mainstream position on the inspiration of scripture; rather I tend to assume that he takes it for granted. However, he has set out to write a book not about Christian pneumatology but about divergent scholarly opinions on the historical and cultural roots of the Hebrew scriptures. That task has been undertaken by many writers ranging from Christian fundamentalists to militant atheists. I do not think any of them can have done so with more intelligence, sensitivity, honesty and grace than Boadt.

If, however, you really want a more conservative introduction that covers similar ground, try John Drane's excellent "Introduction to the Old Testament". I worked extensively with both books during my theological training, both are strongly recommended, and Drane is actually a little more up to date in terms of the latest scholarly fashions (new edition soon please, Fr. Boadt). However, the evangelical Drane writes with only the merest fraction more of a confessional flavour than the catholic Boadt, and fittingly so as both books are intended as introductions to scholarly thought rather than as discipleship manuals. In fact of the two books I found Boadt more helpful on many counts - easier to read, more interesting, better prose, better structure and generally more informative about the cultural context of the various Hebrew scriptural writings.