[percy-l] "The Orthodox Avant-Garde"

Mike Frentz mfrentz_2 at comcast.net
Wed Oct 12 21:55:50 EDT 2005

Interesting, but not at all surprising.  After all, authentic  
Christianity (especially as embodied in the inept, corrupt, scandal- 
ridden, imperfect, humanly executed/divinely inspired Catholic  
Church) has despite its faults, been the most progressive force the  
world has ever known to anyone who is familiar with its history --  
unfortunately a consistently small minority.

It's pretty clear that those known contemporarily as "progressives"  
are interested in anything but progress -- 44,000,000 U.S. dead since  
Roe v. really isn't a rational measurement of progress at all is it?   
It's time to reclaim the language!


On Oct 11, 2005, at 2:27 PM, JHForest at cs.com wrote:

> I just came upon this text, which connects Walker Percy, Aleksandr
> Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr., G.K. Chesterton and others in
> what the author sees as an "orthodox avant garde".
> Jim Forest
> * * *
> Christianity Today, Week of July 25, 2005
> The following article is located at:
> http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2005/130/12.0.html
> The Orthodox Avant-Garde
> Armed with traditional faith, these Christians subverted the  
> establishment,
> putting secular ideas under the microscope of the eternal.
> Interview by Rob Moll | posted 07/26/2005 09:00 a.m.
> >> It's not easy to place thinkers as diverse as Walker Percy,  
> Aleksandr
> Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr., G.K. Chesterton, and Northrop
> Frye into the same category. But Robert Inchausti, English  
> professor at
> California State Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, says they were all
> avant-garde orthodox Christians. No matter their different political,
> denominational, or literary positions, they all sought to be  
> faithful to
> Jesus while engaging the world. In Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws,
> Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise, Inchausi discusses
> Christian thinkers, writers, and activists who challenged secular
> worldviews on their own turf, yet remained thoroughly Christian. <<
> Q: Who are the avant-garde Orthodox?
> These were orthodox Christian thinkers and artists who were not  
> theologians
> and made important and somewhat revolutionary contributions to various
> secular disciplines. They're interesting people because they're both
> subversive of the existing modern order, but they are not  
> subversive of the
> church or subversive of the faith.
> They have a unique status as people who model for us how it is  
> possible for
> believing Christians to enter into dialogue with the secular  
> culture in a
> way that revolutionizes and transforms the secular culture and  
> doesn't just
> protest against it or isolate from it.
> If you look at some of the major Christian artists and thinkers and  
> social
> critics over the last hundred years, you find a variety of political,
> artistic, and intellectual schools within which they operate. Yet,  
> they
> still share Christ as their major inspiration. You have somebody like
> Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who from an American political perspective  
> would be
> very conservative. He single-handedly did away with Marxism as an  
> attractive
> philosophy for Paris intellectuals. And at the same time you have  
> somebody
> like Dorothy Day, whose entire witness to the poor in the United  
> States was
> to defend small families and small farms and collectives and  
> indigenous poor
> against a social Darwinism that she thought was running away with  
> American
> culture during the Cold War years.
> Few people know these believers were Christians. E.F. Schumacher,  
> the Small
> Is Beautiful fellow, is often recognized as the guy who wrote about  
> Buddhist
> economics, because of a chapter in his book Small Is Beautiful. But  
> he was a
> Christian, and he said he put in Buddhism because he didn't want it  
> to seem
> like special pleading. He just wanted to make it clear that the  
> economic
> systems had religious under pinning. In order to demonstrate that  
> in a way
> that he could get a hearing, he used the example of Buddhism. But  
> he himself
> was a Christian thinker.
> Q: Not only was their Christianity misunderstood, but often their  
> message was
> misunderstood. You include Jack Kerouac, who dismissed his hippie  
> followers
> who got into Buddhism, but Kerouac was a conservative and a Catholic.
> Kerouac was really only a Buddhist for three years of his life. He  
> was a
> very traditional Catholic growing up, and then he toyed with  
> Buddhism for
> about three years. He came back to his faith and wrote a lot of  
> stuff about
> Jesus and refused to give up his love of Jesus for the Buddha.  
> Later, when
> he was having a hard time kicking his alcoholism, he started getting
> attacked by the New York critics for a pretty accurate description  
> of his
> work, in which they said, This is a form of Christian primitivism.
> Q: Kerouac captures a spiritual search in a way that many novelists  
> don't.
> You make the point that the novel has the ability to probe the soul  
> in a way
> that Enlightenment attempts to discover truth can't.
> That's why Solzhenitsyn was so wise to novelize his history of the  
> gulag.
> When he transformed the sufferings of millions of people into  
> stories we
> could feel, it became real. Pasternack, in Doctor Zhivago, made the
> spiritual sufferings of the lost intelligentsia of the revolution  
> real in a
> way that we could feel. Kerouac does the same thing with a  
> spiritual longing
> that was useful in the 50s and 60s to say there's more going on  
> then just
> the Cold War. We should be telling our stories to one another about  
> our
> inner lives.
> Q: Thomas Merton was another Catholic writing spiritual literature  
> during the
> Cold War years.
> The Seven Storey Mountain was a great conversion story. It provided a
> criticism of materialism, modernism, the Bohemian art theme, and  
> left-wing
> politics, all these things that tempted him, that he turned away  
> from 20
> years before anybody else in the country had discovered them.
> Then after he died, all his journals and letters came out, and it  
> turns out
> that all those years that he was in the monastery, he was having  
> these deep
> conversations with people from all different backgrounds and was  
> thinking
> through his faith and bringing it into dialogue with all kinds of  
> things,
> which made him a different writer. Now, we even read The Seven Storey
> Mountain differently.
> Q: It's ironic that while Merton had left the world for the  
> monastery, through
> his letters, he was active politically. Many of these Christians  
> have a
> different take on political action.
> If you want to argue politics in the modern world you immediately find
> yourself hamstrung by definitions imposed on you by politicians who  
> have
> laid out the rhetorical terrain. So the best way to deal with it is to
> refuse to play the game by the rules. These Christians offer an  
> alternative
> vision that addresses political problems from a humble and inclusive
> Christian perspective that doesn't argue about things so much as  
> reveal
> things.
> Let me give you an example of this. At the end of my book, I say these
> people don't want to change the world. Changing the world is not their
> number one priority. Their number one priority is to love and serve  
> the
> world in the light of Christian revelation. Now if that means that  
> you have
> to stand up to an injustice, if that means you have to change the  
> way the
> mass media is run, or change curriculums or something, that will  
> mean that
> you will engage in dialogue with people, and you will witness, and  
> you will
> listen. You don't come in with this top down agenda and take  
> everybody's
> life apart so that you can put it back together again.
> Kentucky writer and farmer Wendell Berry's method is to ask how this
> reform is going to affect my community and enter into dialogue with  
> the
> people for whom these political reforms are going to change. The  
> guy I think
> who was really on to this is Dostoyevsky. I guess you could call him a
> sentimental naturalist in his first book, Poor Folk. And then he  
> was sent to
> the camps and he had his eye opened to the true nature of human  
> beings. He
> came back and said until we deal with the irrational in man and  
> healing
> one's suspicions of another, you could have the greatest political  
> ideology
> and people would subvert it out of sheer spite. Somehow, trust has  
> to be
> regained between people before you can talk about politics. And  
> that's why
> ideological posturing, even if you're right, is counterproductive.
> Q: What kind of impact have these thinkers had, or should have?
> In the 20th century, the contemplative side of Christianity was  
> made much
> more accessible by Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. Solzhenitsyn  
> also had a
> great world impact.
> Some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s views have been misunderstood or  
> co-opted.
> We think of him more as a civil-rights icon than as an engaged  
> prophetic
> Christian trying to figure out non violence. I think he had a much  
> more
> troubled, interesting, complex message to America than what we have  
> decided
> it was in our history books and in our one-paragraph summaries of  
> him. I
> would say that his legacy probably has not been fully understood.
> I don't think the full impact of what Schumacher has written about  
> economics
> has really hit yet, the defense of family business and local community
> economies. That's starting to have resurgence in the third world  
> with these
> micro credit organizations. If you start taking Schumacher  
> seriously, then
> economics is due for a quantum leap, and that hasn't happened yet.  
> We need
> to rethink the way we do economics, to question the assumption that  
> we're
> all self-maximizing individuals.
> I think Northrop Frye is another one who was understood too  
> quickly, or
> misunderstood. Literary studies over the past 20 years has been  
> struggling
> with a lot of competing materialisms. Frye had offered in the early  
> 60s a
> radical mystic contemplative vision of the literary studies, which  
> doomed
> him to obsolescence in 1963. But now that practices like lectio  
> divina and
> those contemplative ways of reading are being rediscovered, you  
> look back at
> Northrop Frye, and he's the guy who provides the most interesting  
> ideas and
> paradigms. But I think such a recovery is going to have to be done by
> religious folk. Because if you try secularizing his categories,  
> they just
> don't work. It's only through religious eyes that Frye's literary  
> cosmology
> makes sense, in the same way that Lord of the Rings has a deeper  
> meaning to
> those who see its Christian themes.
> In Frye's letters and journals and also his sermons, because he was a
> pastor, you get to see the full Christian dimension of his  
> thinking. He
> discussed how to read prophetically, how to read contemplatively.  
> These were
> issues that Frye addressed that the last 20- 25-five years of literary
> criticism just ignored. I think what's going to happen in about 10  
> years is
> they're going to rediscover the language in which Frye was writing  
> and learn
> he was trying to teach us how to read in a way that deepened our inner
> lives, not just increased our intellectual sophistication.
> * * *
> --
> An archive of all list discussion is available at http:// 
> lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/percy-l/
> Visit the Walker Percy Project at http://www.ibiblio.org/wpercy

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