Author: James K. A. Smith

Reframing the Imagination: On Wes Anderson’s Formalism

[As we are patiently waiting for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel to wend its way to the flyover states, I thought I might share a snippet from a presentation I made last year under the auspices of the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (thanks to the hospitality of the inestimable Jeremy Begbie).  Reading A.O. Scott’s review of the new film brought this to mind.]

I have elsewhere argued that the imagination is less a faculty of “invention” and innovation and more like a preconscious comportment to the world—a tacit “understanding” of the world that is fundamentally aesthetic.  I think this has important implications for how the imagination is invoked in the encounter between theology and the arts.  On this alternative account, the imagination is not a unique skill or capacity peculiar to artists; the imagination is a fundamentally human “faculty” by which we orient ourselves to the world.  So while artists are without question creative, that does not mean that they have cornered the market on the imagination.  Instead of placing the imagination on the production side of art (the inventive, creative pole), we should recognize the power of the imagination on the reception side of art (though not only art): it is our imagination that “receives” the work of art, and such works of art can (and do) function as imagination-training-sites, formative encounters that both appeal to—and “trigger”—the imagination while also shaping and forming our imaginative horizons.  (This has extra-artistic implications as well.)
If a Christian theological engagement with the arts is going to focus on the imagination, I’m suggesting that this should be less fixated on the dynamics of creativity and invention and more focused on the irreducible “know-how” (praktognosia) that is named by “the imagination.”  In that case, the imagination will be an occasion for thinking about the dynamics of truth—the unique, affective way that art tells the truth about the world rather than just “expressing” my interior sincerity.  Our most powerful works of art are not just products of the imagination; the truth they tell is truth fit to our imagination.  They can only be understood on a “poetic register,” can only be understood by the imagination.  And that understanding is itself irreducible. 
If we were to make that move, it would lead to a new Christian appreciation for what I can only describe in a ham-fisted way as “formalism”—an appreciation for form as truth.  In Imagining the Kingdom I get at this through Cleanth Brooks’ notion of “the heresy of paraphrase.”  Here I’d like to try a different tack with a different medium—through an engagement with the films of Wes Anderson, focusing on The Royal Tenenbaums as a case study.  One could think of this as an expansion of a terse footnote in Imagining the Kingdom (p. 48n.31).
I should confess that this case study was prompted by Michael Chabon’s recentmeditation on Anderson’s oeuvre in the New York Review of Books.  (Chabon’s essay is one of those disheartening works of genius that make you lose any hope that you’ll ever be able to write.  “That’s it; I quit. I’ll never be Michael Chabon.”)  He looks to Anderson as both a chronicler of brokenness and a quiet, humble evangelist for the hope that things might be otherwise.  “The world is so big, so complicated, so replete with marvels and surprises,” Chabon observes, “that it takes years for most people to begin to notice that it is, also, irretrievably broken.  We call this period of research ‘childhood.’” It is a difficult education.  “Everyone, sooner or later, gets a thorough schooling in brokenness.  The question becomes: What to do with the pieces?”  Some hunker down atop the pile of brokenness and “make do;” others take out their frustration by breaking the fragments that remain.  But “some people,” he says, “passing among the scattered pieces of that great overturned jigsaw puzzle, start to pick up a piece here, a piece there, with a vague yet irresistible notion that perhaps something might be done about putting the thing back together again.”  Wes Anderson, he argues, is one of those people. 
Granted, because we only get glimpses of how it’s supposed to be, “through half-closed lids,” our efforts at rebuilding will be, at best, approximations: “A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered.  Of course the worlds we build out of our store of fragments can only be approximations, partial and inaccurate.  As representations of the vanished whole that haunts us, they must be accounted failures.  And yet in that very failure, in their gaps and inaccuracies, they may yet be faithful maps, accurate scale models of this beautiful and broken world.  We call these scale models ‘works of art.’”
Wes Anderson is that kind of artist.  As Chabon goes on to highlight, Anderson’s films are often compared to Joseph Cornell’s boxed collages that reproduce a world in miniature.  Indeed, such miniature panoramas often appear in Anderson’s films.  But the entirety of Anderson’s filmic aesthetic does the same thing: it is not a surrealist or fantastical invention of a world so much as a re-framing of our world. (And the framing is not just visual; soundtrack is also essential. Cue Jeremy Begbie.)  
Chabon captures this brilliantly:
“For my next trick,” says Joseph Cornell, or Valdimir Nabokov, or Wes Anderson, “I have put the world into a box.”  And when he opens the box, you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterfly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss.  And you say, leaning in, ‘The world!’”
I would suggest that Anderson’s films tell the truth on the register of the imagination in ways that we might not realize, or even be able to articulate, and yet nonetheless feel.  A Wes Anderson film plays the strings of your imagination in a way that has you sort of grinning and longing and smiling and mourning, all for reasons you know not why; and yet you can’t stop.  Chabon’s essay helped me to excavate something of my visceral reaction to Anderson’s 2001 movie, The Royal Tenenbaums
The world of the Tenenbaum family, framed in this film, is certainly a broken world: an absent scoundrel of a father who has abandoned his family; a son who is a young widower; an adopted daughter who has always been “other;” a suicidal son who is in love with her; and a dear family friend beset by addiction.  There’s nothing pretty about this family. 
And yet the movie is so oddly gorgeous.  (I’ll say more about the “oddly” in a moment.)  But its aesthetic does not beautify this brokenness; it doesn’t “pretty up” fragmentation or paper over the horrors.  To the contrary, it is the frame—the very form of Anderson’s shots—that attests to the fact that things should be otherwise.  In some way, the story of an Anderson movie is almost—almost—irrelevant.  Or better: the story Anderson tells is told in the form.  
Royal’s character is a study in this: Anderson cultivates our sympathy for him, despite almost everything he actually says.  (Gene Hackman’s acting here is an incredible dance with the director—a stunning performance.)  Royal is shot in a way that exudes sympathy, and clothed in a way that testifies to the fact he wants to be something other than he is.  The narrative force of an Anderson film is carried visually.  It’s not that screenplay isn’t important, but that the story is (also) told on the register of frames and shots and sets—and that this “telling” is a narration that uniquely and irreducibly speaks to the imagination.


For example, how might this help us make sense of Anderson’s near-history aesthetic—the indescribable way that he cultivates a feel that is at once old but timeless, un-placeable and yet vintage.  What’s at work, for example, in the mix of elegance and ugliness in The Royal Tenenbaums?  The majestic oak paneling and the beat up old Gypsy cabs; the Pellegrino on the dingy old refrigerator; the sumptuous beauty in a shot of a suicide returning home on a vandalized city bus? [with Nick Drake’s “Fly” as the soundtrack, pleading “Please, give me a second grace…”].  What we see is the sad dignity of the formerly bourgeois, the air of civility that clings to the nouveau-pauvre, you might say.  And yet it is in that tension between elegance and ugliness, a tattered sophistication, that we absorb a sense of how things could be—how things ought to be—at the same time we sense that the world is askew, that it’s not the way it’s supposed to be. 

Despite a common criticism, I don’t think this is just nostalgic.  (In the spirit of Kurt Cobain’s “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you,” we might also say: Just because you’re nostalgic doesn’t mean things didn’t used to be better.) Indeed, I think Chabon gives us a frame to see anew Anderson’s aesthetic: he cultivates a sense of order in the very frame of his camera.  The function of line and color in his portraiture is a geometry of normativity.  
The unapologetic artifice of Anderson’s frame is an aesthetic form of hope—a form that bears witness to order, harmony, perhaps even peace.  Despite the chaos that is captured in the frame, the framing of the shot registers that someone is in control.  And that is a truth that we absorb on the register of the imagination.


In just about a month, Baker Academic will publish my new book, Who’s Afraid of Relativism? Community, Contingency, and Creaturehood, the latest offering in the Church and Postmodern Culture series.

In some ways, this is kind of the “Anglo-American” sequel to the “Continental” conversation in Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism? Taking Derrida, Lyotard, and Foucault to Church.  In Who’s Afraid of Relativism? I engage the pragmatist tradition of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Richard Rorty, and their living heir, University of Pittsburgh philosopher Robert Brandom.  And since this pragmatist tradition is sort of the philosophical background of “postliberalism” in Christian theology, the final chapter reconsiders George Lindbeck’s important book, The Nature of Doctrine, for contemporary theology and ministry.

In the course of offering a Christian introduction to this philosophical tradition, I aim to refine just how we throw around the charge of “relativism,” seeking to constructively recover a theology of creaturehood that honors our contingency and the role of community in how we know what we know.

And like my earlier book, I talk about movies!  Who’s Afraid of Relativism? includes discussions of Wendy and Lucy, Lars and the Real Girl, Crazy Heart, and a fantastic but under-appreciated French film, I’ve Loved You So Long.

You can read more about the book, along with endorsements, at the Baker Academic site.

And don’t miss the chance to score a free copy: Baker Academic is giving away a few copies over at GoodReads.

(If you’re in the west Michigan area, watch for updates about a book reception hosted by the Calvin College Philosophy Department.)

Faithful Compromise

The spring 2014 issue is devoted to a timely, but also counter-intuitive theme: Faithful Compromise.  In my editorial, I tease out this paradoxical notion.  Here’s a snippet:

It’s a dangerous thing to acquire a theology of cultural transformation but lose an eschatology. Too many Christians who are newly convinced about the implications of the Gospel for society—on either left or right—act as if we are the ones who need to secure the kingdom. If the advent of justice really depended on us, then I can imagine why we could never entertain compromise: it would all rest on our shoulders, hinge on our decisions, depend on our commitment. The buck would stop with us; we would be the last line of defense. 

But we need to be careful that our commitment to pursuing shalom isn’t confused with a progressivism that functionally imagines we bring about the kingdom. Instead, we need to recover an Augustinian sense of living in the saeculum, this time between times in which we long for kingdom come but live without illusions of its being accomplished and perfected before then. This side of the eschaton, we seekproximate justice, which means facing up to the complexity of our decisions, policies, and systems and learning to work within them. 

To pray “Thy kingdom come” is liberating precisely because, while it calls us to participate in what God is doing in the world, it also reminds us that God alone, in his providence, is bringing about the consummation of all things. And until then, we can’t expect—and shouldn’t seek—complete purity. Every time we pray, “Thy kingdom come,” we are also reminded: it hasn’t come yet. In the meantime, we are liberated to compromise—faithfully, with much discernment, and always praying, in hope, “Thy kingdom come.”

You can read the entire editorial online for free.  And check out the Table of Contents for this jam-packed issue.

Not yet a Comment subscriber?  Join the conversation!  If you subscribe to the print edition by March 7, your subscription will begin with this issue.  Or, you can subscribe anytime to the iPad edition for just $19.99.

For My Epitaph

A passage from Plato’s Apology that never fails to move me, after Socrates has been sentenced to death:

“This much I ask from them: when my sons grow up, avenge yourselves by causing them the same kind of grief that I caused you, if you think they care for money or anything else more than they care for virtue, or if you think they are somebody when they are nobody.  Reproach them as I reproach you, that they do not care for the right things and think they are worthy when they are not worthy of anything.  If you do this, I shall have been justly treated by you, and my sons also” (41e-42a).

Douthat on Social Liberalism as Class Warfare

In the spirit of pretending this blog is a Tumblr, here’s a rich snippet that is the fulcrum of Ross Douthat’s long essay, “Social Liberalism as Class Warfare“:

[I]s it just a coincidence that this self-interested elite holds the nearly-uniformly liberal views on social issues that it does? Is it just random that the one idea binding the post-1970s upper class together — uniting Wall Street’s Randians and Harvard’s academic socialists, a left-leaning media and a right-leaning corporate sector, the libertarians of Silicon Valley and the liberal rich of the Upper West Side — is a hostility to any kind of social conservatism, any kind of morals legislation, any kind of paternalism on issues of sex and marriage and family? Is the upper class’s social liberalism the lone case, the rare exception, where our self-segregated, self-interested elites really do have the greater good at heart?
Maybe so — but for the sake of argument, let’s consider the possibility that they don’t. Not infrequently in culture-war arguments, conservative complaints about liberalism’s hostility to “traditional values” (or whatever phrase you prefer) are met by the counterpoint that liberal regions of the country seem to embrace bourgeois norms more fully than conservatives communities. (The contrast between family stability in Massachusetts and Alabama, for instance, is often invoked by cultural liberals as an argument-clincher.) I think this counterpoint oversimplifies a more complicated landscape and elides some crucial issues, but it does get at something real: In upper class circles, liberal social values do not necessarily lead to libertinism among the people who hold them, and indeed quite often coexist with an impressive amount of personal conservatism, personal restraint.
But if we’re inclined, with Waldman, to see our elite as fundamentally self-interested, then we should ask ourselves whether the combination of personal restraint and cultural-political permissiveness might not itself be part of how this elite maintains its privileges. Waldman, for instance, makes the (completely valid) point that just telling a single mother to go get married to whomever she happens to be dating isn’t likely to lead to happy outcomes for anyone involved. But is that really just because of wage stagnation and the truncation of the potential-mates bell curve? Or could it also be that the decision to marry only delivers benefits when it’s part of a larger life script, a way of pursuing love and happiness that shapes people’s life choices – men as well as women — from the moment they come of age sexually, and that exerts its influence not through the power of a singular event (ring, cake, toasts) but through that event’s place in a larger mix of cues, signals, expectations, and beliefs?
If it’s the latter — and if you’re not an economic or genetic determinist, I really think it has to be — then it’s worth recognizing that much of what the (elite-driven) social revolutions of the 1970s did, in law and culture, was to strip away the most explicit cues and rules linking sex, marriage, and childrearing, and nudging people toward the two-parent bourgeois path. No longer would the law make any significant effort to enforce marriage vows. No longer would an unplanned pregnancy impose clear obligations on the father. No longer would the culture industry uphold the “marriage-then-childbearing” script as normative, or endorse any moral script around sexuality save the rule of consenting adults.
And following our hermeneutic of anti-elite suspicion, let’s ask: If the path to human flourishing still mostly runs through monogamy and marriage, who benefits the most from the kind of changes that make that path less normative, less law-supported, less obvious? Well, mostly people who are embedded in communities that continue to send the kind of signals that the law and the wider culture no longer send.
That can mean a religious community: In those red states with high divorce rates that liberals like to cite, frequent churchgoers are an exception to the pattern, or course Mormon Utah is the high marriage-rate (and, not surprisingly, high social mobility) exception to every post-1970s trend.
Or, more importantly for our purposes, it can mean a community low in explicit moralism but high in social capital and social pressure, where the incentives not to date or sleep with the wrong person at the wrong time are sharpened by the immense rewards for not making personal mistakes, where divorce and single parenthood are regarded as major threats to the all-important intergenerational transfer of success, where young people are inculcated with the kind of self-control required to dabble in libertinism but not take major risks, and where the influence of a libertine culture is counteracted by the dense network of adult authority figures whose examples matter more than what you watch and read and consume. A place where the norms and rules and script don’t have to be made explicit to carry immense weight. A place where everyone understands the basic secret of success.
A place like, well, the modern meritocracy.

Continuing a Conversation with the Westmont Four

I generally don’t respond to book reviews or articles about my work.  I especially don’t respond to those reviews that seem the most critical because, in my experience, they’re also usually not worth responding to (and often amount to some form of “I hold X; Smith holds Y; ergo, Smith is wrong” Uh, nope!).

In the same vein, while any author soaks up glowing reviews, I don’t often learn much from them.  So I’m appreciative, but they don’t really advance the conversation.

A real gift to an author is a review that is constructively critical, that appreciates the argument and then pushes back on those points that deserve push back.  I learn from such reviews, and engaging them becomes a way to advance my own project.

It was in that spirit that I briefly engaged the review of Teaching and Christian Practices written by Jesse Covington, Maurice Lee, Sarah Skripsky, and Lesa Stern–who I now think of as “the Westmont Four” (W4 for short).  Since then I had the pleasure of spending a week at Westmont College last spring, leading an interdisciplinary seminar on Christian formation and higher education.  They were wonderful hosts, and I fear I learned more than I taught.

So I was excited to see the Westmont Four’s their review of Imagining the Kingdom, “Irreducibly Embodied,” in the most recent issue of Books and Culture.  Once again, they have posed some important questions (I won’t be able to answer them all), and in the spirit of advancing the conversation, I thought I might take just a few moments to reply.

Is my anthropology “dualist?”

W4 claim that I claim “to be opposed to a hierarchical dualism of mind and body that prioritizes intellectual, reflective, discursive cognition over practical, affective, aesthetic involvement.”  This is why they are puzzled “to see repeatedly this very dualism, inverted but reinstated.”

I, too, was surprised to see this framed in terms of a critique of dualism, since I didn’t recall framing my criticism in those terms.  Re-reading ITK, I note that the word “dualism” only occurs twice, both times in reference to others, and never in the way the reviewers suggest here.

Whence this impression, then?  First, I think W4 might be confusing a duality with a dualism.  Not all distinctions are dualistic.  I take dualism to be, roughly, a hierarchical distinction that devalues one of the terms of the distinction.  So, for example, a gnostic soul/body dualism not only distinguishes soul and body but also denigrates the latter.  In contrast, Thomas Aquinas’ hylomorphism also distinguishes soul and body but then affirms that the person is the holistic composite of the two, and that each has their own “operations,” as he might put it.

I don’t anywhere try to deny the duality between something like “mind” and “body.”  What I argue is that too many pedagogies have effectively and functionally ignored the role of the body and its unique “operations” in shaping our being-in-the-world.

Second, I don’t know how the reviewers came to the conclusion that I think that “the dimensions of thought and action” are “so neatly distinguished and ordered.”  In fact, I spend quite a bit of time trying to emphasize how messy and complicated this is.  That’s why I spend so much time trying to explicate Merleau-Ponty’s notion of “the between”–this fuzzy, messy, “zone” which is almost impossible to describe, between intellect and instinct.  Here is just one representative passage (and in citing this, I might note that direct citations from ITK are a bit scant in their review):

Merleau-Ponty is attentive to what we might call our “hybridity,” our sort of incarnational suspension between angelhood and animality—as mind and body. He is trying to describe our comportment to the world as neither intellectualist nor merely a reflexive biological response to stimuli. Our being-in-the-world is between instinct and intellect.  Such an account of embodied perception pushes back against Cartesian “thinking-thing”-ism that would reduce us to minds merely carried in the vehicles of our bodies as well as a reductionistic animalism that would reduce all of our action and perception to mere biological response to stimuli. I don’t just abstractly think my way through the world, but neither am I merely a passive victim of impressions, bounced around by instinctual reflexes.23 I’m not an angel, but neither am I an insect (PP 90); I am not merely a mind trucking around in a body, but neither am I just a bundle of biological mechanisms passively responding to my environment. So what we need, Merleau-Ponty argues, is a model of the human person that does not fall prey to the dichotomies of mind or body but rather does justice to our “betweenness”24 and its peculiar preconscious knowledge (ITK, pp. 43-44).

Third, I don’t think W4 have quite appreciated the force of Merleau-Ponty’s account of “the body” since they seem to assume that an appeal to “the body” is just an appeal to a biological machine (this is the criticism that they crib from David VanderLaan).  But that is just the sort of materialistic mechanism that Merleau-Ponty rejects, and which I also emphasize in his wake. Again, I’m not confident that W4 have quite absorbed the nuances of the argument in chapter 1 (which could certainly be my fault).  Consider just two passages, both from chapter 1:

This is not a rejection of intellection or “objective thought” per se; neither does Merleau-Ponty mean to consign us to mere biological responses to stimuli. Indeed, his appreciation of the centrality of the body in the constitution of meaning is decidedly antireductionist, resisting both materialism and intellectualism (ITK, p. 70).  

Similarly, following Merleau-Ponty, I emphasize: 

It is just this bodily attunement and perception that underwrites “objective” knowledge and intellectual reflection. It is not either perception or knowledge. It’s not a question of choosing to settle for some crude, unthinking kinaesthetic perception of the world and thus forgoing intellectual reflection; rather, I perceive in order to understand. Merleau-Ponty has emphasized that perception is not just some kind of crude, ham-fisted theorizing of the world; rather, perception is a fundamentally different (and primary) way of intending the world, of meaning the world with the body. Perception does not just provide the raw materials to be processed by intellection. However, that doesn’t mean there is no relation between perception and objective knowledge. In fact, the latter is rooted in the former as its condition of possibility. Reflection is embedded in “primary perception” that is “non-thetic [i.e., non-positing], pre-objective and preconscious experience” (PP 281). Merleau-Ponty’s account does not denigrate reflection or devalue objective knowledge. He simply situates it and emphasizes its dependence on the primacy of perception. So it’s not a matter of valorizing perception over reflection but of reconceiving the nature and task of reflection. What Merleau-Ponty offers, then, is a new account of what we’re doing when we “know” the world objectively in a reflective mode (ITK, p. 72).

If that’s not “acknowledging” the “embodied nature of the intellect,” I don’t know what is.  I think W4 sometimes assess what they think I’m saying rather than what I actually say.  Suffice it to say that

Do I collapse the university into the church?

W4 worry that I don’t clearly delineate the Christian university as a site to love God with the mind.  I confess I’m getting a little tired of this mis-reading, but I obviously have to take some of the blame for its endurance.  Once again, it seems odd to think that a book that asks readers to wade through the thicket of the likes of Merleau-Ponty and Bourdieu somehow devalues “the mind.”  And since I hope that this is a book that will be read in Christian colleges and universities, can we safely conclude that I don’t envision the university as Sunday school class?

Indeed, I’m not sure how much more explicit I can be; on p. 11 of the book under review I say this:

[W]ith its critique of rationalist or intellectualist models of the human person, it would seem that Desiring the Kingdom plays right into the hands of antiintellectualism. Indeed, some seem to worry that my model would simply have us spending all day in chapel or turning the Christian college into a glorified Sunday school. But such worries stem from a misunderstanding of my emphasis on worship with respect to worldview. In particular, such a worry seems to read my claim that worship is a necessary and important condition for integral Christian education as if I were claiming that it is a sufficient condition for Christian education (and this includes Christian education in the wider sense of discipleship, even though my focus tends to be on Christian higher education). But I’m not suggesting we raze the physics labs and expand the chapel. I’m not suggesting we demolish the literature classroom and just stay in church all week. Nor do I anywhere suggest that a Christian university is not about the business of ideas!  Of course it is. The issue is whether it is just trafficking in ideas. It’s the latter that I’m rejecting.

In this context, W4 also seem to think that the Christian university should have its own liturgies, and that “importing” liturgical practices from the church are inappropriate.  Here I think we just bump up against very different ecclesial sensibilities.  Westmont is a generically evangelical institution, and (from my experience) it seems that many students and faculty locate themselves in nondenominational “evangelical” contexts.  My approach is more forthrightly Catholic and envisions a robust connection between the church and college (without collapsing the two).  So admittedly, my vision of the “practiced” Christian university looks more like the University of Paris at its origin than a contemporary evangelical college.

Zooming Out

I could say more, but won’t.  This is already too long.

In conclusion, let’s just keep in mind my quarry here: I am not just trying to make sense of how Christian formation works.  My project is to offer a Christian philosophical account of liturgical formation more broadly, including cultural (or “secular”) liturgies, some of which will count as de-formations from a Christian perspective.  My quarry is as much a phenomenology of temptation as it is a phenomenology of Christian worship (see ITK, pp. 140-142).

So by all means, we should be asking about the role of conceptual and theoretical reflection in Christian education.  But I am also asking how our de-formation happens, and this is where I think an over-estimation of the conceptual actually blinds us to the dynamics of deformation.  Sure, you can–and should–ask, “How do we form reflective Christian practitioners?”  But let’s also keep in mind that I’m trying to answer a question like, “How does a 17-yr.-old girl become an ardent consumerist?”  I’m simply not at all persuaded that “the conceptual” plays much of a role in this at all.  (Though I do think conceptual reflection can play a role in beginning to undo it–that’s my point on pp. 186-189 of ITK.)

In the end, I think this is a serious and charitable review still written from within an “intellectualist” paradigm.  And from within that paradigm, any proposal that doesn’t conform ends up looking anti-intellectual and irrational.  But of course my project is to try to invite us outside that paradigm.

2013: The Year in Writing

I so enjoyed Alan Jacob’s review of his year in writing that I got thinking back over my own 2013 in terms of publishing.


The second volume of my Cultural Liturgies project appeared as Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works.

I continue to be grateful for its reception, especially since it asks people to wade through two of the most obtuse French theorists, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Pierre Bourdieu.  But I enjoyed doing some proper “philosophy” in this book, though I still try to enlist it in service of the worshiping community.

Work on volume 3 is maturing and percolating, but slowly.  The working title is Embodying the Kingdom: Reforming Public Theology.  Don’t ask me when it will be out. 😉

I also published a fun little “side project” with the new Calvin College Press.  Discipleship in the Present Tense is another collection of essays, reviews, and interviews–a kind of sequel to The Devil Reads Derrida.

I’ve been encouraged by notes and tweets and blogs about the book.  This little publishing outfit doesn’t have money for promotion, so if you can pass word along to your friends, I’m sure they’ll be grateful.

This was the year I assumed the editorship of Comment magazine, so most of my periodical writing energies are now focused there.  Over the past year, this included the following essays (I’m not including blog posts at the Cardus Daily, some of which generated good conversation):

In each issue of Comment I also write a column of sorts called “World View: An Annotated Reading of Your World.”  But that’s so good you have to subscribe to get it. 😉

Also in the Cardus family, I published a Protestant appreciation of Pope Francis’ encyclical, Lumen Fidei in the October issue of Convivium.

But I was also able to publish a few pieces elsewhere.  In March my essay, “Science and Culture Take Practice: Engaging Science as Culture” was published in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith.   And I published a review of David Wells’ latest book in Christianity Today.

But hands-down, my favorite assignment was my article for First Things, David Foster Wallace to the Rescue.”

Favorite Reads 2013: The Year of Biography

I won’t even attempt to rank the books I’ve read over the past year, or pretend to any kind of comprehensive, retrospective evaluation. (You can get a glimpse of my year in reading over at GoodReads).

Instead, a few impressionistic notes about some favorites and standouts.

First, though I wouldn’t have anticipated it, 2013 turned out the year of the BIOGRAPHY for me.  This began with what I have to say was a pivotal book for me, Eric Miller’s outstanding biography of Christopher Lasch, Hope in a Scattering Time.  Lasch–and Miller–are models for our time.

In the spring, during my sabbatical, I was absorbed with Benoît Peeters’ sprawling bio, Derrida.  (My review will finally [sorry, John!] appear in the next issue of Books & Culture.)

In the summer, I very much enjoyed James Bratt’s comprehensive and compelling biography, Abraham Kuyper: Modern Calvinist, Christian Democrat (watch for my review in next month’s issue of Perspectives). 

In quick succession I read Michael Ignatieff’s memoir of failure, Ashes and Fire, which I highly recommend, and then André Pratte’s short biography of a successful Liberal Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, from which I learned a ton (a tonne?).

Finally, in the same ballpark, I was captivated by Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, which languished on my “to-read” stack for too long.  As I put it in my GoodReads note, I was in tears at the end of the book, “mourning all that is broken and fallen and tragic in this world, yet grateful for all that is beautiful and cherished and charitable nonetheless.”

Some other NONFICTION standouts include The Institutional Revolution by Douglas Allen, which all of the Cardus Senior Fellows read for our retreat.  This is one of those books that reframes how you look at just about everything, rooted in scholarship that is unbelievably comprehensive but also accessible.  I still think about this book.

In the “still-thinking-about” category, I would also include Tyler Wigg-Stevenson’s very important book, The World is Not Ours to Save.  (I enjoyed the opportunity to interview Tyler and tease out some of his argument in new directions.)  And Andy Crouch’s latest, Playing God, deserves all of the attention it has gotten.  (You can read my review for Comment.)

All of this nonfiction reading (on top of my “professional” reading which I don’t generally track) didn’t leave much time for FICTION AND POETRY this year (alas).  I’m almost embarrassed to report that I finally read The Great Gatsby for the first time and understand all the fuss.  I also enjoyed the comfort food of Nicholson Baker’s Traveling Sprinkler, a follow-up to one of my all-time favorites, The Anthologist.  And I was delighted to discover a Spokane poet while visiting Spokane this summer: in Christopher Howell’s captivating collection, Dreamless and Possible.  (I chose one of his as the “page one poem” in the We Believe in Institutions” issue of Comment.)

Finally, it would be ridiculous to start tracking all of the essays and articles I read, but thinking back, one essay stands out for me as brilliant on many levels: Benjamin Snyder’s scintillating article, “Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification” in the Fall 2012 issue of The Hedgehog Review.

In the spirit of Josef Pieper’s Leisure is the Basis of Culture, I close the year grateful for the incredibly blessed luxury of being able to read.

[If any of these titles interest you, consider buying from a fellow lover of books like Byron Borger at]

A Flourishing Detroit Requires More Than an Influx of Cash

Over at the Cardus Daily, I’ve posted some thoughts-from-the-hip on the status of the Detroit Institute of Art’s collection in light of the city’s bankruptcy proceedings.  Here’s a teaser:

“Detroit” is more than its finances (or lack thereof) because cities are more than economic entities. Cities are multifaceted organizations of human social life. There is an economic aspect to any city, to be sure; but a city is not only economic. There are many sorts of “capital” that make a city flourish. 

Read the rest.