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Essay

A S I WRITE, POPE BENEDICT XVI has just departed by helicopter from the Vatican to begin his retirement. It is a safe bet that in the flood of commentary on his legacy little attention will be paid to one of his more inconspicuous initiatives—the “Courtyard of the Gentiles.” But to my mind, this little program, carried out by a Vatican council, bears a significance out of proportion to its obscurity.

The name comes from the Second Temple in Jerusalem, built by King Herod in 20 and 19 BCE. A space in the grounds was set aside where non-Jews of all stripes could freely mingle with rabbis and teachers of the law. This courtyard constituted a transitional space: it existed within the temple grounds and yet it remained open to the world.

It might surprise you to read on the Vatican’s official website for the program that the real divide today “is no longer between those who believe and those who do not believe in God, but between those who want to defend man and life, the humanity of man, and those who want to suffocate them through utilitarianism, which could be material or even spiritual.” The awkwardly translated website goes on to ask: “Is the frontier perhaps not between those who recognize the gift of culture and history, of grace and gratuity, and those who found everything on the cult of efficiency, be it science or sacral?”

What I find fascinating about this set of questions is not only the attempt to move past the believer/unbeliever dialectic, but also a refusal to make scientism the sole whipping boy: there is a bracing recognition here that religion itself can be reduced to a utilitarian ideology.

Benedict’s Courtyard of the Gentiles consists of a series of public events on several continents at which nonbelieving artists and intellectuals have been invited to discuss a variety of topics. It launched with a conference at Notre Dame in Paris, featuring a dialogue with Julia Kristeva, a cultural theorist and expert on psychoanalysis who is on pretty much everyone’s A-list of contemporary intellectuals. Interviewed about the experience, Kristeva argued that the tradition of humanism, which she claimed began with Erasmus in the Renaissance, must remain in dialogue with religion. Among the reasons she supported this dialogue was that we are “faced with the danger of freedom, of extreme individuality and unbridled passions. But it brings us to the need to reinterpret our ‘uninterrupted’ tradition, because something has been lost.”

One of the things we have lost is precisely the sort of dialogue the Vatican has been encouraging. In the mid-twentieth century, religious thinkers like Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Jacques Maritain could still share platforms at universities and conferences with their secular colleagues. That almost never happens today—another legacy of the culture wars’ politicization of public discourse.

But when I scan the writing of the best cultural critics out there today I sense a conversation waiting to happen. To take a random example, Kristeva’s concern about the dangers of freedom without purpose was echoed in the New York Times in a provocative piece by Anand Giridharadas pointing out a strange resonance between two currently popular television programs, Downton Abbey and Girls: “One television show is about English aristocrats, crisp, proper, well-dressed even in bed. The other is about four young women, often lost and very often unclothed, in a setting quite different from Yorkshire: Brooklyn, New York.” Giridharadas notes that in Downton Abbey the young are struggling for personal freedom in a highly regimented social order, whereas in Girls there is almost unlimited personal freedom—and yet there is a new thralldom. “Girls is about atoms that desire in vain to form molecules; about sex lives that breed more confusion than excitement; about people with the liberty to choose every day, on various dimensions, whom to be—and who grow very tired of the choosing.”

I’d like to hear Giridharadas in conversation with Mark Edmundson, one of the sharpest cultural critics writing today and a professor of literature at the University of Virginia. In his 2009 essay “Notes on the Mono-Culture,” Edmundson suggests that culture itself, which once had an independent life and could take on a critical, dissenting role in relation to society, has capitulated to contemporary values and now merely reflects them back to us, reinforcing their grip on our lives. The result, he believes, is akin to a collapse in the separation of powers: in our new monoculture there is nothing to call into question the sway of what the Vatican calls utilitarianism, the pursuit of money and power.

For those with a low tolerance for this sort of cultural criticism it might be tempting to dismiss Edmundson’s argument as just another creaky, quasi-Marxist rant from a privileged academic who’s nostalgic for the 1960s. And there are moments in his essay when you’d be justified in thinking so, such as his lament for the decline of the head shop (as if being stoned was the incubator of real thought or contemplative vision).

But there’s more going on here. Edmundson says nary a word about multinational corporations, though he does lash out at the American penchant for obsessive amounts of caffeine-fueled work followed by evenings of mind-deadening entertainment. His deepest criticisms are, in fact, leveled at his peers. The essay is really a screed decrying what was once called la trahison des clercs—the treason of the intellectuals. And the heart of this treason is a refusal to make judgments, aesthetic and ethical. “Here’s the discovery,” he writes, “you can also get smart people to like mindless things.” To do so you need to “trash high culture. You need to associate liking junk with liking democracy.”

In the monoculture, judgment is not thought of as the discernment of better from worse or truth from falsehood, but as mere tyranny. “Shaping taste, pointing people beyond themselves, is cultural elitism.”

This is where things get interesting. Edmundson is concerned about a crisis of authority—what the Courtyard website calls “culture and history”—while at the same time making a case for a counterculture.

In theory this appears to be a contradiction in terms, but in fact this is how culture has always functioned—as a mirror held up to society—from Virgil’s Aeneid and its warnings about the dangers of Roman imperial power to Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy, with its noble cowboy individualists who remain disastrously blind to the tragic nature of history.

Another candidate for a Courtyard conversation—one whose concerns overlap with those of Edmundson—is William Deresiewicz, author of A Jane Austen Education, who blogs for the American Scholar and frequently reviews books in publications like the New Republic.

Deresiewicz is similarly concerned with a culture that, as he puts it, “always lets us off the hook.” In his recent blog posts he’s taken to analyzing the layers of culture, using some of the terms made famous by Dwight Macdonald: “masscult and midcult.” Nowadays, he argues, mass culture with its superficial distractions and middlebrow culture with its high-minded sentimentality have been joined by “upper middlebrow culture.” The work produced in this cultural layer is genuinely well-crafted but it stops short of being truly “disruptive.” “It is post- rather than pre-ironic,” Deresiewicz writes, “its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk….”

Even if Deresiewicz has just panned one of your favorites, it’s hard to ignore his larger point. The problem, he writes in a subsequent post, is how to “make art that transgresses the assumptions of people who think that everything they do is transgressive.” Paradox intrudes itself again here because the upper middlebrow, for all its apparent antinomianism, expects you to live in a very particular fashion. “There’s a right way now to eat, vote, laugh, think.”

Like Edmundson, Deresiewicz is in search of a new avant-garde, some movement in culture that will take down upper middlebrow culture’s “self-delight.” The sacred cows that need to be spitted are:

That people are basically good. That freedom is the chief ingredient of happiness. That we control our fates. That society is slowly getting better. That we are more virtuous than those who came before us. That the universe coheres in a mystical whole. That it all works out in the end. In short, the whole gospel of self-improvement, progressive politics, ethical hygiene, and pantheistic spirituality.

I hope it does not come across as triumphalistic if I suggest that at least one stream that ought to flow into the new avant-garde might be what the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann has called “the prophetic imagination.” I would be the first to admit that, as Edmundson claims, institutional religion has often allowed itself to be coopted into the monoculture, but surely he and Deresiewicz should be willing to concede that this is a betrayal of the Judeo-Christian tradition’s deep undercurrent of prophetic subversion, its imperative to stand up for the disadvantaged in the face of utilitarian greed and the ever-present temptation to retreat from moral judgment and self-sacrifice into cynical, evasive sophistication.

The prophetic imagination generates a counterculture, a form of dissent that points people beyond themselves. It disturbs the peace, disrupts complacency. Its theme song was sung by a woman two thousand years ago who praised the one who “hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat, and hath exalted the humble. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.”

You know, we are really not so far apart. Like his peer James Wood, who is a secular fugitive from a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, Deresiewicz is a refugee from Orthodox Judaism, someone who as a youthful rebel managed to get himself kicked out of his yeshiva. Though he remains a self-described atheist, Deresiewicz confessed in his blog that “Once I became a professor and began to try to articulate the purpose of a college education, and of studying the humanities in particular, I found myself being forced to use words like soul and salvation.” Those are good words. Let’s use them without trying to define them too quickly.

One of Edmundson’s more insightful statements emerges out of his critique of the way technology and contemporary media are reducing us to isolated brains hooked up to the internet. He writes: “But real oppositional cultures are collective, not radically individualized. It’s only by groups of people getting together, face-to-face, and talking in new ways, living in new ways, working in collaboration that’s acknowledged and not acknowledged, hustling for each other’s work that pockets of cultural resistance form.”

This sounds a lot like the church to me, at least when it is living out the prophetic imagination. That’s certainly what people thought when they saw the apostles gathered in another part of the temple called Solomon’s Porch in the early days of the church, when those who met there suddenly found themselves living and talking in new ways.

In any case, let’s talk. Here in the courtyard, the sun is shining and the day is still young.


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