Eagleton on the “new historicism”

It is a familiar truth that the last thing which historicisms are usually prepared to place under any historical judgement is their own historical conditions. Like many a postmodern form of thought, it implicitly offered as a universal imperative — the imperative, for example, not to universalize — what could fairly easily be seen, from some way off, as the historically peculiar situation of a specific wing of the Western left intelligentsia. Perhaps it is easier in California to feel that history is random, unsystematic, directionless, than in some less privileged places in the world — just as it was easier for Virginia Woolf to feel that life was fragmentary and unstructured than it was for her servants. New historicism hsa produced some critical commentary of rare boldness and brilliance, and challenged many an historical shibboleth; but its rejection of any macro-historical schemes is uncomfortably close to commonplace conservative thought, which has its own political reasons for scorning the idea of historical structures and long-term trends. – Literary Theory (2nd ed.), 198

In this assessment of the “new historicism” (ie, philosophers and cultural critics, mainly American, who are writing in the wake of Foucault) Eagleton points out not only how such particular strands of “leftism” are irresponsibly non-self-critical, but also how the post-political ethos of such movements (unlike that of earlier versions of critical cultural theory) ends up reinforcing the political status quo.

While I deeply respect Eagleton’s old fashioned insistence (faithful, as he ever is, to Marx) on political criticism which must practically serve to bolster the plight of the working poor, at the same time I regard this reinforcement of the status quo as containing large grains of goodness.

Why? Because, in relativizing or undermining the older movements of political criticism (ie, Marxist-influenced thinkers down through the immediate predecessors to Foucault and Derrida) “postmodern” movements such as the “new historicism” have the effect of opening up an “aporetic space” for the church / theology, which were not as apparent before. As important as social justice is for the world and for the West, it pales in comparison to the potential cultural acknowledgment of the validity of theological thought within that ongoing political discussion called the Western tradition.

This does not mean that “late capitalism” is good; it means that social justice is a penultimate concern.

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How to “stick it” to the Divider

As any number of folks in the Epiphany Community can tell you, the etymological meaning of the word “devil,” which occurs in Scripture a total of 34 times, literally means “the divider.” The devil loves to take what God has joined together in his good work of creation, and to rip it apart.

Which is why, for St. Paul in his letter to the Ephesians, God in the Gospel is all about taking what sin (and the devil) has torn asunder and “putting it back together again.” Fixing it. Making it into what, from the very beginning, it was supposed to be.

Indeed, as NT Wright has noted (in a recent lecture delivered to the students at Wheaton University) the letter to the Ephesians evokes at least four different divisions (wrought by sin, etc.) which God in the Gospel is working to repair and restore.

First, God is reuniting heaven and earth (Eph 1:10). Once upon a time God and man enjoyed each others’ intimate presence in the evening cool of the garden. Can you imagine? God being as present, indeed, more present, than your spouse, your parent, your loved one? And then, when the unspeakable had happened, man began to do what we all now do: he hid from his lover. What is the Gospel? It is the good news that God is reuniting heaven and earth … that, as the wonderful song says,

When at last this earth shall pass away,
When Jesus and his Bride are one to stay,
The feast of love is just begun that day.
God and man at table are sat down.

Second, God is reuniting giftedness and work. Have you ever had the horrible realization, when thinking of your own work, “I’m just not good at this?” Have you ever sensed that there is a terrifying mismatch between your work and your gifts? In the face of this common dread, St. Paul says that “we are [God’s] workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph 2:10). Part of what’s going on here is the often neglected truth that, for the Christian, your work is bigger than your career. That is, each one of us is called to and specifically gifted for work, service, in the Body of Christ. God is faithful, if we ask him, to give us our daily bread. Beyond earning a paycheck, though, we can achieve deep satisfaction in the labor of Christ’s vineyard.

Third, God is reuniting Jew and Gentile, and every racial division which separates us. In Paul’s vivid imagination, the church “the multi-splendored wisdom of God … now … known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Eph 3:10). The book of Ephesians stresses the reconciling work of Christ to break down “the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) which isolates Jews from Gentiles, and vice-versa. In our day we can be assured that if there is now no enmity between between Jew and Gentile, then there is definitely no necessary division between Hispanic and Anglo, between black and Asian, etc. For, as Paul states, elsewhere, we are “all one in Christ” (Gal 3:28).

Fourth, God is reuniting male and female. In chapter five of Ephesians Paul has been speaking at length about the relationship between husbands and wives. Even while advocating an egalitarian “mutual submission” between husband and wife, he also commends a certain hierarchical structuring of the marriage bond. This structure is meant to reflect the relationship between our “head,” Christ, and his “body,” the Church. As for Christ and the Church, so also for every husband and wife within the economy of God’s community.

Do you want to “stick it” to the devil, the “divider?” Then get on board with God’s reconciling project. It is called “the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and it is uniting all things in heaven and on earth.

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Liturgy & “the Linguistic Turn” of the 20th Century

In his Literary Criticism Terry Eagleton summarizes (as he alone can do) broad swaths of intellectual development by writing:

The hallmark of the “linguistic revolution” of the 20th century from Saussure to Wittgenstein to contemporary literary theory, is the recognition that “meaning” is not something that is simply “expressed” or “reflected” in language: it is actually produced by it.

For several years now I have been preaching that the same can be said, mutatis mutandis, for liturgy and doctrine or belief.

This epiphany, for me a kind of “liturgical turn,” is a preeminent reason why I needed to leave evangelicalism (in my case, conservative Presbyterianism, which certainly thinks that liturgy should express right belief instead of form or produce right belief) and move to a thoroughly liturgical, sacramental tradition.

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My Approach to Christian Ministry

One of the things Episcopal priests get to do is to pray for and discern folks who God might be calling to ordained ministry in the church from our local congregations. We need more priests and deacons! With that prayer in mind, and in expectation that the Holy Spirit is raising up and equipping new leader for the Church, I offer these thoughts on pastoral ministry.

Christian ministry should be incarnational. What is the incarnation? It is God moving into our neighborhood. It is God, in the person of Jesus Christ, becoming one of us. It is God beginning to look like one of us. Where is Jesus now? Yes, he is seated, according to the Creed, at the right hand of the Father. But he is also here with us, present to the world and in the world in the form of his Body, the Church. Incarnational ministry means continuing the mission of Jesus in all of its downward mobility (Phil 2). A particular leader in this area is John Perkins.

Christian ministry should be rooted in the heart. Proverbs 4:23 tells us that “out of the heart flow the issues of life.” In a world racked by addictions and bondage of all kinds, the Church must resist the temptation to preach a counterfeit gospel of quick-fixes and of self-help, a merely external and moralistic perversion of the truth. Instead, we must preach the reality that when the heart changes, everything changes: where your feet take you, what your eyes look at, what your imagination is captured by. The reality and the hope of real change, from the inside out. A strong pioneers in this area: Larry Crabb.

Christian ministry should be subversive, resisting and challenging the world’s confusion of status quo religiosity with the visible, communal life of the Church. What is assumed here is that religiosity is the basic commitment of the human heart: the urge to compare oneself with others, the tendency to garner self-esteem through one’s own status or accomplishments, the drive to worship oneself as hero. The church must challenge these assumed and habitual patterns in both the individual and in the larger society, deeply mired in what one thoughtful psychologist describes as “the standardized heroics of mass culture.”* Leaders in this area: Tim Keller, Rowan Williams, Eugene Peterson.

Along these same lines, Christian ministry should be patterned after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Suffering is not optional for the Christian (Acts 14:22). At the same time, it is not an end in itself, embraced merely for its own sake. Suffering is the darkness before the light, the pruning before the beautiful rose blossoms. It is God’s way of turning us sinners into something great. As in the very life of Christ, it is the prerequisite for new life. According to Walter Brueggeman, the Psalter shows us the Gospel pattern of “orientation – disorientation – new orientation.” Only this kind of thinking, embracing the darkness of Good Friday, the death of the grave, can we give the world a compelling and liberating way to cope with, indeed to triumph over, the evil, brokenness, and nihilism which plague us. Some pioneers in this area: Soren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther, and St. Francis of Assisi.

Christian ministry should be cosmic in scope. The good news of Jesus is not intended simply to make us feel better about ourselves. Its primary purpose is not to show us how to “go to heaven when we die.” Our articulation of it must not imply that the “real action” of the Christian life is having a private relationship with one’s own, personal Jesus. Not less than this, the Christian faith is much more: it is an eschatological hope for the human race and the entire world. In the cross of Jesus Christ God has proven himself faithful to his own promises, promises to “fix the Adam problem,” to heal humanity and the entire cosmos of the ravages of sin and death.  These promises take the form of a covenant, and the “real action” of the Christian life must be portrayed as a lived response to the question “How can we find our place, how can I find my role, in God’s grand drama of bringing salvation to this hurting world?” remembering all the while that “out of the heart flow the issues of life.” A pioneer in this area: Bishop NT Wright.

Christian ministry should be contemplative. Not only does this way of being help to identify distractions for ministry (my own attitudes, assumptions, agendas, etc.) but it also brings God’s healing presence to my tendency to rely on my self-constructed identity, what some theologians would call “my false self.” Pioneers in this area areThomas Keating; James Finley.


* Sam Keen, in his foreword to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.

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