So back in February, Peter Leithart responded to my response on his essay on Protestants and writing. I meant to respond again, but never did. It’s probably good though, because the conversation needs to be bigger than just any one article– and certainly bigger than personalities. I really did think his original essay shined a light on intellectual problems that have beset a very large group of thinkers. His response in February provides another occasion to zoom out and talk about them, and the main issue that I’d like to talk about is the concept of the “Fall” narrative.
The “Fall” narrative precedes the “Road Not Taken” one that Mark Lilla pointed out. Before you can imagine the alternative possibilities, you have to first firmly believe that a great historical disaster has occurred. The wrong “road” was taken, and many of the great possibilities have thus been lost. Now don’t get me wrong. Everybody does this. For the pagan perennialist sorts, the great fall was when Judea-Christian religion conquered the great world-wide “oneness” of ancestral-traditional religions. For certain arch-Protestants, the fall happened when “Greek” thought invaded the “Hebraic” early Christian Church. For anabaptist-ish folks, the fall happened when Constantine took over the church. For classic Lutherans, it was with the Babylonian Captivity of the Church under the Papacy. For postmodern-paleoconservatives everything is Scotus’ fault. For “Old School” Presbyterians, we can blame Finney. Schaeffer blamed the Renaissance. Conservatives blame Marx or the Civil War or Truman or FDR. For some of us at TCI, it’s all Van Til’s fault (see, I can be self-critical!). Whatever the application, the “Fall” narrative is pretty common.
Was it Peter Hitchens? The one who quipped "I don't think we need to go back to the past. I just think we chose the wrong future"? The eloquence of that quip, of course, is that it's precisely the sentiment of the left and the right who believe that thanks to whatever happened in the last twenty odd years (or more) that's the problem!
Now whether or not we agree Protestants can't write, Wedgeworth's brought up a question along the way, which has to do with a "geography of genius".
... [from the NPR piece]When Eric Weiner sat down to write his new book he had to tackle a big question first: How do you define genius?
"That's not as easy as it sounds," he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "I have a slightly unusual definition ... that a genius is someone we all agree on is a genius. It's a social verdict."
... I think if you go by what I call the "fashionista theory" of genius ... this idea that genius is a consensus, almost like fashion is a consensus — there's no good fashion or bad fashion, there's just what's fashionable ... you have to say that Steve Jobs is a genius because a lot of us, perhaps a majority, think that he was a genius. You know, we get the geniuses that we want and that we deserve. And this is what we care about; we care about technology.
Think about it: why are there no classical composers the likes of the Beethoven and Mozart out there today? There are very good ones, but we don’t think that there’s a Beethoven or a Mozart. It’s not that the talent pool is dried up or there’s been some weird genetic fluke that’s diminished the talent pool. It’s because if you’re a young, ambitious person, you’re more likely to head to Silicon Valley than to Vienna to study classical music. …
During Mozart’s time, in Vienna, 18th century, he had an extremely receptive audience, he had a demanding audience, and his audience was almost a co-genius with him. We tend to think that the genius produces this magnificence. And we, the audience, just passively receive it. I don’t think it works that way. Mozart was acutely aware of his audience and the demands that they had. And the audience appreciated his music, demanded better music from him — if more of us were like that today, vis-à-vis classical music, I think we would have more Mozarts.
[from Wedgeworth] ... The main reason we don’t have “great culture” is that we don’t have a market for it. Most folks simply aren’t that interested in it, and there’s not much money to be made. They put their time into STEM education, sports, and entertainment.
So if we run briefly with the idea that genius is a social verdict; that the distinction between an eccentric crank and a recognized genius is a matter of whether or not that person solved a problem that other people thought was worth solving; then that can be an important precursor to the question of, if we even agree Protestants can't write, why they should/would be any good at writing. It could be there are plenty of Protestants who can write well, by whatever definition Leithart wanted to use, but that the Christian publishing industry has no incentives or interests in actually publishing those authors. Given the scope of the plagiarism scandal that was associated with Mark Driscoll ... this proposal seems to hold a couple of gallons of water, to be blunt about it. Ditto for Rachel Held Evans. If these have been stars in the popular Christian writerly firmament to the right and left maybe that proves Leithart's point. But then Doug Wilson felt obliged to retract one of his books not so long ago. Maybe the problem is that after centuries of so many productive writers we're stuck recognizing how awkwardly second-hand all our ideas are, the world over, and that the better of us are just the ones who footnote this intellectual debt more accurately and meticulously upfront in the first editions.
But let's play some more with the possibility that genius is a social verdict and that it's bestowed on the basis of problem-solving. Submarines as tools for war were made as far back as the 1700s and yet the explosion of submarine production came with the 20th century. Sometimes an innovation can lay dormant for a few centuries until an iteration of it becomes practical enough to be worth using. It's not that submarines didn't exist for centuries, it's that the demand for them exploded once there was a set of interlocking innovations in their construction and a tactical/strategic need for them in the context of the Great War on out.
We've just seen the formal end of a twenty year period that was the era, if you will, of Mars Hill Church. What has been lost in all the writing about Mark Driscoll's public persona is that the early success of Mars Hill involved the other co-founding pastors. Justin Dean could talk with guys this year about how Mars Hill was this evangelical right-wing church that somehow thrived in Seattle but that's a misunderstanding of the sum of the history. Mike Gunn was not exactly a red state voter. I had a number of articulate and convinced progressives as friends during my time at Mars Hill. It makes better copy and summary judgment to say Mars Hill was just all around right wing but that's not an especially honest or thorough history for those who want to go beyond the bromides of partisan polemics. Considering the era of Mars Hill has only lately come to an end we should be cautious about attempts to distill 20 years of regional history into just a few pithy paragraphs, or a few pages in a magazine being some summation of what has happened. That said, it is useful to look at what was once Mars Hill as solving more than one problem for more than one constituency.
Mars Hill managed to solve a problem within the Seattle area from the 1990s. Its leaders found aw ay to bring back the all ages music scene in a way that compensated for some policy changes in the city that made all ages venues practically impossible to sustain. If all Mars Hill had ever been about was brand mongering for right wing causes it could never have grown the way it did within the Seattle city limits, could it? There had to be a few other things going on along the way. Driscoll's pulpit persona was not taking over the sum of Mars Hill pulpit activity until around 2002 ish. That left half a decade of time in which Gunn and Moi had prominent roles within the nascent Mars Hill. If Mars Hill had not played a role in solving the problem of a lack of all ages music options in Seattle could Mark Driscoll's jocular claim that he was to the right of Pat Buchanan have led the new Mars Hill to get anything done?
Which is not to say that Mark Driscoll's a genius, even if some people would say he is. This is just proposing that the social verdict that Mark Driscoll was a poster boy for the young, restless and Reformed was bestowed after he'd sorta gotten around to branding himself as Reformed (even though he wasn't in the earliest years of Mars Hill) after Mars Hill had established itself locally as a church community interested in the arts.
Wedgeworth made a point along the way of his rebuttal to Leithart that is worth mentioning in tangential connection to Mars Hill as a musical culture.
...An incredibly obvious point, but one that is nearly always left out in the intellectual circles named above, is that the most significant outlet for “poetry” in our day is not in university English departments, literary magazines, or even Bohemian villages. It is Hip Hop. If a young person in love with rhyme and verse wants to use their skills in the most competitive and influential arena today, they learn to rap. While rap has its own thickly layered history and culture, the emergence of Christian Rappers has been one of the more noteworthy talking points of the last several years, and there are those who would argue that the most important “Christian Rappers” today are Reformed Evangelicals of the low-church variety. If our categories for “great poetry” do not include a significant place for these kinds of artists, then that reveals the hidden parameters of the aesthetic conversion, and it shows the limitations of many Christians’ socio-political imagination.
For those who are committed to ideas that Mars Hill somehow failed because of an insufficient commitment to the regulative principle (yes, I've actually seen that in the Reformed blog scene), that kind of posturing comes across less as a plausible application of the regulative principle than an eagerness to maintain boundaries. There are plenty of Christians who would not recognize hip hop as a legitimate musical idiom. It's not my favorite, I'll admit that much, but if you look at the history of 17th century opera as it evolved into the 18th century it's not like fans of the old Renaissance style were in a rush to call recitative musical. It seemed unmusical at the time to advocates for the older styles. At the risk of pointing out something perhaps too obvious, Hamilton constitutes a fusion of hip hop with Broadway and the rave reviews left and right for it might suggest that a low/low fusion of artistic styles is considered okay. It can even be considered brilliant.
But what about a Leithart who says Protestants can't write? What kind of high or low is implied in that complaint? Wedgeworth's comment quoted above is that for anyone interested in traditional English language poetics there are not many chances to play with that in a collegiate scene where the poetry teachers will push you to start into free verse and abandoning conventional forms as soon as possible. But hip hop? You can do whatever rhyming you like, even if there are those who would say the rhymes are forced and artificial. Sure, just like many rhymes seem forced and artificial in the poetry of those poets whose work didn't make it into the literary canon because centuries of scholars came to a consensus about that stuff, maybe?
Now "if" Leithart's case hinges on a surmise that a lack of high churchly sacramentalism accounts for why Protestants can't write (and I doubt, really, that's where he's been going or where we "should" go) the problem behind all this may be trying to solve a problem within a coterie of cultural warrior activity that does not reflect the problems that others want to solve. Academics talking about artistic canons seem to have a different set of interests than practical musicians do. Kyle Gann's complaint, if taken as emblematic, has been that political and gender studies have so taken over academic musicology that talking about what the music actually does has been set aside so that actual composers have to get around to discussing the craft. It can certainly feel as if that's what's happened when I can't find a single monograph that discusses the evolution of sonata form in 19th century guitar literature but no end of discourses on performance details of the usual Sor and Giuliani sonatas.
To go by the success of Lin-Manuel Miranda's Hamilton, it would seem that while academics provide a profusion of commentaries on "problematic" elements in various artistic/scholastic canons that at a popular level what practicing/practical musicians have been aspiring toward, and the musical heroes who get lionized upon their passing seem to have been known for, is a successful fusion. Wedgeworth has raised the question of whether Christians interested in innovating in the arts might not be drawn to idioms and forms that are not even recognized as art by critical/arts establishments and that's a substantial concern. Even if it turns out that Andrew Stanton's a Christian how many people would dismiss his entire cinematic catalog on the basis of his having made animated films? If cartoons are taken as not being real art then it wouldn't matter how inventive or groundbreaking or finely crafted Stanton's films are. If Christians who do any pioneering work are working in idioms that a Peter Leithart would not even grant qualifies as "real" art to begin with then we're back to what I linked to earlier this year from Noah Berlatsky's end of the pool about how the mainstream can abject a whole range of artistic activity by deciding it's not even worth discussing to begin with and defined out of discussion as art by the negation entailed in refusing to take note of it.
But to swing back to Taruskin's observation, in his sprawling Oxford history of western music, if we're looking at fusions of low/low and high/high then critics are (to speak a bit too broadly) okay with that. What critics are not necessarily cool with in historical terms is a high/low fusion. Hip hop and Broadway? Yeah, sure, great. Jazz and classical? Sweet. Jazz and rock? Ooh ... well ... not all critics were happy when Miles Davis started experimenting with that. Superhero films that aspire to address questions about the human condition? Eh ...
So long as the fusion involves idioms that are strictly on the high or low divide of cultural criticism nobody complains. Kyle Gann has complained that fans of pop music regard their idioms as sacred. People identified as classical composers of some stripe or another aren't supposed to be appropriating the vocabulary or instrumentation of pop music. Sure, and when pop stars try writing string quartets or oratorios those often get grimly regarded by the establishment of critics on the other side, too.
When something is regarded as a work of art that "works" and experiments with a fusion, it's generally come from someone or a team of people who are regarded as demonstrating a competence in and a respect for the idioms being subjected to fusion. My gut reaction, which won't necessarily be yours, is that Miles Davis' jazz/rock fusion experiments worked because he had regard for the viability of the idioms he and his band were working to fuse.
To the extent that Christians are conspicuous by an absence in the arts (and this could be across the board, not just a Protestant thing) it could be because church traditions tend to be pretty rigid and also because if we've had a few generations of worship wars in the United States the fights were over what was considered legitimately or acceptable art to begin with. While over the last half century Christians in the West have seemed to battle over what styles could be considered "legitimate" artists have been experimenting with fusions. The punchline in South Park's "Christian Rock Hard" was that if you're too busy just catching up to what was Top 40 material in the last twenty years you're making lame knock-off music. Does this mean Arvo Part isn't popular? Heh, of course not, but what Part was doing was experimenting with where "forward" to go next in light of serialism and other avant garde idioms in his time and place. Messiaen was Catholic and Stravinsky Russian Orthodox and both composers experimented with stuff that was at the vanguard of musical innovation. They were both eclectic and played with fusions.
One of my objections to Francis Schaeffer's legend of WASP decline in his trilogy is that he focused so much on the fragmentation he lost track of the aspirations of fusion. Christian debates on style and substance in the arts may be a reflection of this--we may have had a history of debating which pop style is acceptable for long enough that by the time we assimilate it the style has become passe, while practical musicians of every stripe have been exploring fusions or the styles critical and scholarly establishments within Christian and non-Christian circles debate legitimacies. Of course when I first read the trilogy in my teens I was impressed Schaeffer could write about so many kinds of art and literature. Now that I'm middle-aged I'm slightly less impressed. His work still has some value if we can take what he did, build on it, and in some cases reject a number of his conclusions. If Schaeffer's obsession was fragmentation there was another author, contemporary to him, who proposed that a path for artists was fusion but we've discussed Meyer plenty earlier.
I'm going to float this idea as a former member of Mars Hill that before it became an empire obsessed with branding Driscoll's intellectual property as if that were the mission of the church and its Christian community, Mars Hill was able to play a short role in being an evangelical enclave in which a wide range of artists were able to discuss, debate, compete and collaborate on the arts with a view toward trying out as many styles as possible. In contrast to a narrative of fragmentation inherent in Schaeffer's trilogy, Mars Hill, for a short time perhaps, was a community in which Christian artists could debate and explore the possibilities of artistic fusion, not as an explicit style but as a historical disposition within the traditions of the arts. Well, maybe I'm only speaking for me there.
This is going to be lost on non-artists and non-musicians who might only want to examine Mars Hill in terms of right wing/left wing bromides. If you were to try to look at what Mars Hill members were interested in doing within the arts you might find that it was a bit more varied than that. While the era of Mars Hill has ended I'm interested in hearing what the other musicians I met in my time at Mars Hill are interested in doing, what they're going for. If you or I were to struggle to find a way to describe what we were aiming for my take (limited though it is) would be that Mars Hill musicians were perhaps inspired by experimenting with fusion. It doesn't mean we exactly innovated, it might just mean that we accidentally jumped on to the bandwagon that some musicians have been drawn to in the last fifty years, of finding ways to synthesize styles that different groups have wanted to treat as separate and sacrosanct.
It might be Christians as a group in the United States have not excelled in the arts because within the critical/scholarly establishments we've had a bunch of people debating what is legitimately art to begin with (often with unconcealed battles of liturgical application at stake), while beyond the confines of those establishments in the "secular" scene we've had generations of musicians, religious and otherwise, experimenting with the kinds of idiomatic fusions that, as the guitarist composer Leo Brouwer put it decades ago, academics tend to not even want to recognize to begin with.