"I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that.” James Dobson? Pat Robertson? No, these sentences were written in 1957 by Flannery O'Connor. And yet, as she wrote in a passage Bret Lott quotes in his new collection of essays, “My audience are the people who think God is dead. At least these are the people I am conscious of writing for.”
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In our own time, Marilynne Robinson, Christian Wiman, Mark Johnston and several others have written, passionately and poignantly, of a similar dissonance. To be a liberal intellectual of faith in the West today (if you will forgive my imperialist shorthand) is to be met with incredulity, condescension, suspicion and sometimes outright hostility.
I arrive at this conclusion reluctantly, since it is also held by some of those I regard as ideological enemies, but honestly. (Richard Dawkins to a reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, on learning that the latter was preparing a story on the evangelical Christian academic William Lane Craig: "Whose side are you on? Are you religious?")
In their lively new books, the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour and the American novelist Bret Lott approach this tension from very different angles — Latour's acute, Lott's somewhat obtuse.
I really wanted to like Lott's "Letters & Life: On Being a Writer, on Being a Christian" — it's often quite likable. (Is it mere perversity that predisposes me toward a writer who "was born again after a Josh McDowell rally"?) The book begins like this:
My name is Bret Lott, and I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary …
and so on, through the entire Apostles' Creed. It's a nice way of avoiding the throat-clearing that so often accompanies literary professions of faith — the apologizing and hairsplitting. Lott is refreshingly forthright about what belief in Christ's divinity means for him, and about his struggles to reconcile that belief with his commitments as a novelist.
But soon he is recounting his interactions with "a supernatural God," and they turn out to follow the usual fundamentalist self-actualization script. Lott went to Moldova to help run a Bible camp for children, where he supervised a relay game in which each child was to receive a stick of gum. But he had brought only 160 pieces of gum, and 170 children had shown up. (Shades of Daniel in the lion's den!) Lott went on handing out the gum, instructing his two sons and the other Americans on the trip to pray that somehow, miraculously, 160 sticks of gum would suffice for 170 children: "We all prayed there, on the spot, that somehow there would be more gum, enough for all of them. And there was enough gum. To the person: precisely enough pieces of gum." Later, God repeated the miracle with some tie-dyed T-shirts. Lott writes, "Do I really believe that God reached out his hand to us and, as those five thousand people who'd gathered at Bethsaida on the shore of the Sea of Galilee were given food from five loaves and two fish, gave us some extra gum and a big wad of T-shirts? Yes I do. Count on it."
I find that I believe a lot of things that place me on the wrong side as far as Richard Dawkins is concerned. But if you believe that God intervenes materially in your personal stash of chewing gum, I'd think it might occur to you to at least wonder why he does not also intervene to save, for instance, tens of thousands of children from a tsunami. It is certain that people prayed for at least some of them. Perhaps they professed the wrong faith? Ah, then surely they deserved their miserable fates.
I was willing to allow Lott his gum, though, on the grounds that he is, after all, a fiction writer, and it was, after all, a pretty good story, and his personal gum-supplier God is, alas, the American Jesus himself. But my good will curdled on page 36, where Lott tells us that he and his wife once lunched in Jerusalem with a pair of "completed Jews." I realize that this vile phrase is not uncommon among so-called Messianic Jews, who hold that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but Lott is a writer (as he is continually reminding us). A certain attention to the nuance of words is in his job description.
"Life & Letters" is not worthless — Lott tells engaging stories, and he is insightful on O'Connor, whom he clearly reveres. But I have to report that this author of an essay about the importance of avoiding clichés and being precise in writing resorts often to phrases like "the tip of the iceberg" and "this day and age," and reaches no further for evidence of our cultural decline than "the Kardashians, the guido culture of "Jersey Shore," and the lives ahead for Jon and Kate's eight."
Latour's "Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech" is, as Lott might say, a whole different animal. The book is a kind of meditation: switching among the third ("ashamed that he goes [to church], ashamed of not daring to say he goes"), first and second persons, Latour has composed, in Yeats' phrase, a dialogue of self and soul. A highly respected anthropologist and sociologist of science at the Paris Institute of Political Studies, he wants to recover something we might call religious truth, but he knows that the conventional forms have become inadequate to that truth. "The naïve lines written under the awful plaster statues" reveal that "it's not the object of prayer that has died out, it's the prayer form itself that has become outmoded." No matter what he does, he says "G.'s name in vain" — even printing the word "God" would situate Latour's text in the blandly familiar discourse of belief that he wants to escape.
For while Lott is focused on belief — "I believe in a supernatural God," he writes more than once — Latour is convinced that this misses the entire point of religion: "Belief or non-belief [does] not distinguish those who talk about religion from those who don't." Latour's opening pages are devoted to acknowledging that this proposition will seem outrageous to, precisely, believers and nonbelievers. (But it is rather in keeping with certain strains in Buddhism, Judaism and even liberal Protestant Christianity. "You know, I have lost my faith," said a young Hannah Arendt to her rabbi. "Who's asking you for it?" he responded.)
Latour is not arguing for a mushy metaphorical reading of the Bible (he is concerned mainly with the Christian gospels here). Instead, he wants to get past the "ready-made narratives" and "to be let in on the secret of the machine that produced them, and that could generate them today de novo." Somehow to renew religious speech through repetition — without getting rid of anything in the religious tradition — to "oblige the old [religious expressions] to refer to the present": This is the task Latour envisions.
He is, perhaps inevitably, somewhat less than clear on how we might set about this work. (I can't, however, do justice in these brief comments to just how much is here — Latour's distinction between rhythm and melody in religious language deserves a review in itself.) Fleetingly, though, reading "Rejoicing," we might dimly sense what renewal would entail. For there is a transformation at the heart of the gospels (regardless of whether you "believe"), a truth to be recovered, here and now. And no, Latour writes, "of course it's not just a matter of some personal, psychological sentiment, heard by the voice of conscience in the intimacy of one's heart of hearts, and making no claim whatever on the form of the external world." But this transformation has been buried under a rubble of "infantile piety," a scientistic misunderstanding of "Science with a capital S," "worn-out words," and a neurotic obsession with belief as the primary category issue. Rejecting the either/or that makes bedfellows of Lott and Dawkins, Latour's good news resides in religious speech acts, utterances that refuse "to choose between immanence and transcendence":
Even though everything in those utterances is false, everything becomes true if you translate them, if you transfer them while offering them the vehicle specific to them, which is not a message, a doctrine, an insight, a consolation, but a form of good word that does what it says: 'Look out! Get up, time is fulfilled, it's you I'm talking to, you are what it's about, here and now.'
Michael Robbins is the author of the poetry collection "Alien vs. Predator" and a forthcoming book of criticism, "Equipment for Living."
By Bruno Latour, translated by Julie Rose, Polity, 200 pages, $22.95
Letters & Life
By Bret Lott, Crossway, 192 pages, $22.99