The fantasist and the ascetic: reading David Bentley Hart

by Jonathan Monroe Geltner

I. Sensibility

The Dream-Child’s Progress and Other Essays is a devastating book. By that I mean that if you sit down and read it, ideally in one sitting, from the front cover to the back, you will—or you ought to be—devastated. I was. At the very least you ought to be able to work up a modicum of melancholy and unease. It was probably not the design of either David Bentley Hart or Angelico Press to publish such a book, although that is never a consideration that matters. And The Dream-Child’s Progress is not even a book in the usual sense of the word, but an assemblage of the author’s occasional writing, chiefly his regular column at First Things. But this is an instance of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.

We begin with a nod to the world of literature. Well, the prelude is more than a nod, actually, more like a litany. Giving credit for the idea to the editor, Hart says that since a number of the pieces collected in the volume concern books and writers, he will begin by offering a holiday reading list. There are to be roughly twenty-five volumes, so indeed this will be “a very long trip—maybe a convalescent’s journey down to the seaside to take the purging air.” In fact, Hart provides thirty volumes, plus slips in two more after the list is supposed to have been concluded. But, take note, before he has even begun the list he has mentioned or implied no fewer than twenty-six authors, some of great renown, some of less. Thus, before arriving at the first of the collected pieces we have met, even if in the brusquest manner, some fifty-eight literary figures. It flatters my vanity, I suppose, that I have read twenty-one of the twenty-six volumes or authors before the “holiday reading list” gets started; but of that vacation’s more obscure lore I have read only thirteen of the thirty-two items. (To assuage my wounded pride, however, let me state that I am some seventeen years younger than David Bentley Hart.)

In any case, there is a large correspondence between my literary sensibility and Hart’s, which is no doubt one of the reasons I so enjoy reading him. I will say more about this idea of sensibility in a moment. But first we must note two things about this prelude, which are perhaps not so playful at all (prelude meaning, of course, the playing or games done beforehand). All of the fifty-eight literary figures Hart brings into his prelude were once represented in his personal library, which he estimates contained 20,000 volumes. That library was lost during a period of personal difficulty for its curator. This fact alone makes an elegiac note worth keeping in mind. And remember, as well, this detail: All vanity is vanity, Hart says, and “twenty-three different editions of the Alice books is as much a sensuous indulgence and carnal extravagance as an Italian sports car or a mistress with expensive tastes.” And, he goes on, supplying what strikes you, on first reading, as no more than a wry joke: “If, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians, those whose works will have merited no reward at the end of days will have to be saved ‘as though by fire’ when the damnable works they did leave behind are consumed, the insatiable bibliophile may prove to have chosen a particularly combustible vice to indulge.”

You don’t think too much about this. You carry on, eager to see how much of Hart’s vacation or convalescent reading you’ve already got under your belt, or which titles he recommends sound like something you’d like to take on your upcoming vacation, and so on. You think you could do worse than take this very collection, for you know you’ve got a volume of David Bentley Hart in your hands, and that means fun. Paul can say what he will to the Corinthians, you’re not in Corinth—would that you were, it sounds better than a Detroit suburb.

And what is it that makes David Bentley Hart’s writing so delightful? Or, what is a slightly different question but perhaps should not be, what do people admire in his writing? Recently, when asked about his prose style in an interview, he said he subscribes to the “more is more” philosophy of writing. I find that I have little to note about his prose style per se. His sentences, while interestingly various, are not astoundingly long or syntactically arcane. I don’t find his vocabulary to be as outsize and outlandish as some seem to do. What impresses me about Hart as a writer is, as to matter, the scope and capaciousness of his intellect, and as to style, what would once have been called his wit. This little word has lost much of its connotation in recent centuries. Wit comes to more than describing academic journals (accurately, I might add) as “lushly floriferous conservatories of sub-literate prose” or some of the anathemas appended to the Fifth Ecumenical Council as the kind of thing that “might have been concocted by Aristophanes and Edward Lear during a long night’s assault on a distillery.” These sorts of formulations are certainly funny—I can’t even type the second without laughing. But wit is more than humor.

Wit is the kind of mental dexterity and daring that produces a piece like “A Dialogue upon the Island,” an imagined classical dialogue, between Ariel and Caliban after Prospero has left the island, that ultimately concerns the condition of man, interstitial between that of airy sprite (Ariel) and crude beast (Caliban). Wit conceives a subtle fantasy like “The Scholar and the Nymph,” at once half-mocking and a poignant tribute to what I might call the consola­tion of fantasy. He has wit who can produce an appreciative essay on the extraordinarily bad writer Amanda McKittrick Ros (“Brilliant Bad Books”), and he has even more wit who can understand the value of reading, alongside classic literature, a quantity of bad writing, or at least material that cannot endure, during one’s childhood formation (“In Praise of Good Bad Books”). Wit can descry the evil of golf (“Golf and the Metaphysics of Morals”), and it can ironically recommend the reinstitution of dueling on the grounds of the practice’s consistency with the logic (or lack of same) in contemporary jurisprudence (“A Modest Proposal”). It is wit that knows just the right tone with which to argue for prescriptive grammar and chastise us, with artful overstatement, for the proliferating varieties of linguistic catachresis to which we are prone.

It is often through his wit that Hart attains his wide range of interest. But while his voice is never absent from his prose, in a collection like The Dream-Child’s Progress Hart hits upon other topics and strikes other tones than occasion the most effective and decorous exercise of wit. We also value him, as a writer, for his intellectual range. Hart is capable of salutary comment on legal and political happenings, of quarreling with the New Atheists, of recommending a book about the Jesuit Ippolito Desideri’s mission to Tibet in the early 18th century, or Stephen R L Clark’s explication of the imagery and metaphorical method of Plotinus (“Getting to Larisa”). In that review, incidentally, Hart discloses what may be regarded as a key to reading anything of significant intellectual or artistic magnitude, including his own work:

[I]f certain philosophers regarded their discourses not only as investigations of concepts, but as initiations into a more elevated order of vision, then many of what modern readers are disposed to treat as incidental allegories or fetching analogies might better be understood as spiritual exercises, disciplines of the mind and will, which in being practiced—and only in being practiced—permit the reader to make tentative approaches to a central mystery, a reality veiled from all who have not yet achieved a certain state of soul.

The passage is worth setting alongside another similar articulation of the nature of philosophy, which Hart produces in the context of discussing a translation of the work of 13th century Japanese Zen master Dogen. There is, he says, “a certain ‘classical’ notion of what philosophy is: an attempt to give imperfect verbal expression to a knowledge that both precedes and surpasses all words; a passage through language from a pre-conceptual wonder at existence to a post-conceptual theoria of unconditioned reality.”

Both these passages should be put in conversation with Hart’s relation to the works of Lewis Carroll, to which I will turn in the second section. There is an argument to be made for an analogous understanding of literature. And to be sure, Hart is a literary man. After the prelude and the first, eponymous essay, the focus of which is Lewis Carroll, the reader of The Dream-Child’s Progress will encounter a handful of literary works and figures: Edward Upward, Orlando Furioso, Mark Twain’s autobiography, The Golden Ass, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Umberto Eco, the Somnium Scipionis, Edgar Rice Bourroughs, Amanda McKittrick Ros, the Heike, and Leopardi’s Zibaldone—in that order. Some of these receive praise, some blame (in the case of the Orlando Furioso, let it be known, it is blame, but only for a bad translation, the poem itself being, as Hart insists, one of the great fantasies of the European tradition). You will note that only one of the authors in this tally can be called Christian. I would venture to suggest that attention to such a wide horizon is precisely what ought to be, and what for several ages was, the proper Christian approach to literature, and to all the arts and cultural achievements. Hart is able to comment from a unique position: he is a Christian, but he is Eastern Orthodox not residing in an Orthodox country, and so not beholden to a corporatist mindset in the way that even brilliant Catholic or Evangelical writers often demonstrate of themselves. And Hart is a man of letters, but not (I can, unfortunately, assure you) in any way part of the literary establishment. The result is that he is endowed, in his belles-lettres, with an enviable freedom. He may discuss, with admiration, Leopardi’s Nietzschean atheistic genius (for Hart, it is people like Leopardi and Nietzsche who really knew how to be atheists in an honest, thoroughgoing, and courageous manner), or the surprising consanguinity with Christian reverence that is visible in Apuleius’ mostly farcical second century ‘novel,’ The Golden Ass. And here I will quote another statement of Hart’s that may come in handy later on. Speaking of the final prayer to Isis made by the protagonist, Lucius, he says that its “inventory of the goddess’ powers and blessings combines elements of what we might almost call the theological, the Mariological and the Christological—or, at least, the matriological and the soteriological. Isis creates and nourishes and sustains; Isis cares and loves and protects and provides; Isis defeats death and hell; Isis saves. And Lucius learns all of this in a moment of revelation and personal conversion …”

This is how a learned Christian reads. But the point I want to make is that perhaps the most important thing one receives from a man who is thus able to write freely is his sensibility. It is more than a literary sensibility. You can get it from a piece like “Charity and Patriotism,” with its charmingly repetitious catalogue of the author’s preferences among American composers, singers, and ballplayers (if you do not know who Renée Fleming is, you will have looked her up by the end of the piece); and you can get it from a moving, even disturbing piece like “Therapeutic Superstition,” about a man, a totally undoubting Christian, who sees fairies and is divinely lunatic in the way of William Blake and Thomas Traherne. Of such a man Hart says, “I do not think I have ever known anyone else who took such delight in the world… He may have been one of the few truly happy souls I have known in my life.” The piece is terrifying because of the fate of this man, which I will let you read for yourself.

As for sensibility, what it finally consists in must remain nebulous, that is to some extent the value of the term. It goes beyond literary taste, or even beyond the affinity a writer might express with not only the writing but the personality, evident in the work, of other writers, as for example in Hart’s appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor (he is, there, responding to that man’s sensibility). I can tell you that the expression of sensibility is not autobiography. Though Hart will sometimes seize on incidents from his personal life as occasions for writing, he is not an autobiographical writer. And yet, to acquaint oneself with the sensibility of a cultured individual is to gain a wonderfully intimate knowledge of a life, or an attitude to life, perhaps even a sense of community or communion. There are not many living authors who communicate their sensibility—or, it may be feared, have one to communicate.

II. Conversion

I hope I have so far managed to convey some sense of the rich profusion of matter on offer in The Dream-Child’s Progress, but by now you would be within your rights to wonder why I began by saying that the book is devastating. So let me suggest that far more powerful than encountering a well-developed sensibility expressed in a unique literary voice, is the experience of accompanying that sensibility, so to speak, through a moment of profound alteration.

The pieces of this collection are presented more or less chronologically, and they range over about eight years, from 2008 to 2016. But the first, eponymous essay is from 2016. It can thus be read together with the last essay, since both date from after the period when Hart had done the bulk of his work translating the New Testament (forthcoming autumn 2017). The final essay, “Christ’s Rabble,” comes directly out of Hart’s work on that translation.

I have made scant mention of Hart’s universalism or his long-running quarrel with the New Atheists, both on prominent display in the collection at hand and, in the case of universal­ism, appearing in both the first and last essays. That is because these topics, though contentious and emblematic of Hart’s work for those familiar with it, have little bearing on the potency of The Dream-Child’s Progress as a book. The book is aptly titled, it is in fact a progress, but it does not figure a progress from one intellectual position to another, it is not a progress from faith to doubt—not exactly.

Our author is a master of hyperbole, I would even go so far as to call the technique characteristic of his style. And that style is not insincere. (It would be a mistake to interpret the use of a rhetorical device as inherently ironic simply because it is rhetorical, although that is how we moderns, who are not classically educated, have no sense whatever of the oratorical, and whose social instincts have been obliterated by digital media, are prone to take it.) In the opening essay on Lewis Carroll, Hart writes:

Taken together, Alice and its even better sequel of 1871, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There, constitute for me something like the single recurrent motif subtending the entire arc of my life and drawing my whole existence into a meaningful unity.… Simply said, if the deepest fathoms of my mental habits, character, and vision of the good rise from any other source than those books, I cannot imagine what it is. When I dare to peer into my own inner depths, and venture down into the spiritual abyss upholding my flimsily buoyant little psychological self, I find a far greater self sustaining me: there stands another—there stands Alice—mon âme, moi-mêmeinterior animo meo. Or so I like to think.

This is the statement of a committed fantasist. That is my term for it. It is worth remembering that the root of the word fantasy is the Greek for vision, in the sense of visionary. Elsewhere in this volume of essays, as I have indicated, Hart expresses his admiration for what he thought was a strangely great man, an obscure fellow in the north of England who could see fairies. There you have another example of a fantasist. And if Hart’s capacity for fantasy is rooted in his early absorption of (and, he avows in, regular return to) the Alice books, then that is because the author of those books (a devout man and convinced universalist, Hart makes a point of explaining) was himself, at least in Hart’s conception of him, a great fantasist:

In the end, I think, much of Carroll’s faith consisted in a habitual way of seeing this life—or, rather, of seeing through it. He was not, I suppose, what one could call a mystic, but he did believe that human consciousness could occasionally pierce the veil of normal experience and glimpse something far more glorious. Sometimes this belief expressed itself in a curiosity concerning the ‘paranormal’ … At other times, it expressed itself in a fascination with fairy lore, and with the lovely thought that other and marvelous realms lie just outside the world we know, and occasionally break through to this side of the mirror.

For the convinced fantasist whose voice we hear at the beginning of The Dream-Child’s Progress, Carroll provides “a lesson in the moral intelligence of true whimsy, true absurdity, which affords both a detached but charitable view of this world and also a joyful intimation of another and realer world.”

Now, as the near-contemporaneousness of the bookend essays suggests, while the progress of this volume is one that Hart went through and one that we can imitate, as readers, what we and Hart are left with when this progression has come to its term is an abiding tension in the life of faith. To understand the nature of that tension, I will forego the progress, which is tedious to rehearse though fascinating to speculate about as you discern it in the intervening pages of this collection, and jump to Christ’s ‘rabble’ in the final essay.

We are no longer among the consolations of fantasy but confronted with the offense, if I may borrow Kierkegaard’s term, of Christianity. I am invoking Kierkegaard somewhat inappro­priately, as this is not quite the offense he wrote about with respect to Christ, but then it is Hart himself who describes the melancholy he finds himself suffering upon completing the translation of the New Testament as “almost Kierkegaardian.” He is referring to the notion (which tormented Kierkegaard) that most of us who call ourselves Christians are not really anything of the kind, and that if we bethought ourselves of what a truly Christian life entails, we would not want to be. And he is talking above all about the material conditions of our lives, and what he perceives as an unambiguous condemnation by Christ of material wealth as intrinsically evil, not merely subject to abuse. The dream-child Alice has finally wandered past all the charms of absurdity to come into the stark world, as Hart understands it, of the New Testament, where “[e]verything is cast in the harsh light of final judgment, and that judgment is absolute.”

Here is the question, then, and for what it’s worth I think this was very much Kierkegaard’s dilemma, or trilemma, rather, as he struggled to relate the aesthetic, the ethical and the religious: What place does an erudite, cultured, eloquent man, a master of ornate prose, a fancier of nymphs but also an aficionado of baseball, a lover of Bruckner’s music and Ella Fitzgerald’s voice, one who is expert (as Christian thinkers were for more than fifteen centuries) in the savor and genius of the non-Christian world—what place does such a one have among the more or less wretched renunciants, the strictly moral exemplars, of Christ’s ‘rabble’? Where were the philosophers among that rabble? The painters and sculptors? The great poets? The musicians of otherworldly skill? Another way of putting this question is to ask to what extent are the highest achievements of culture compatible with, or to be expected from, an egalitarian social and economic ethos such as we discover among the first Christians? As in the course of these essays Hart tilts more frequently and forcefully against the putatively religious and socially ‘conservative’ defenders of the neoliberal world order—his recurring point is that the permissive secularism and destructive capitalism of late modernity are two sides of the same garment—he seems to prime himself for this powerful recognition of the radically ascetic lives of the first Christians, and the “relentless torrents of exorbitance and extremism” that he believes make up Christ’s teaching when we have ears to hear and eyes to see, and do not try to accommodate them to our comfortable and so cleverly self-deluding post-industrial lives.

For my part, this is a staggering question, for I am most certainly a fantasist like Hart, and yet I undeniably hear the clarion call of ascetic renunciation from nearly every page of the New Testament. I have spent a good deal of time trying to imagine what sort of world it would be where society was uniformly like that of the first Christians. Try as I might, I cannot see how it doesn’t come down to a deadening homogeneity, brutally opposed to all the conditions of diversity and difference that give rise to art and inquiry, that produce the sort of culture and civilization that my education—like Hart’s—has exclusively prepared me to engage. Not to put too fine a point on it but the radicalness of those first Christians, like that of many subsequent saints, is terrifying. This is why I call the book devastating, and in no small measure that effect is due to the way it sneaks up on the reader, who for the most part has enjoyed the musings of an articulate, grown-up, well-educated dream-child who fearlessly ventures among the absurd and curious and beautiful, or on the other hand among instances of injustice or foolishness, but has not much trod within the precincts of holiness. It is at least a perplexing situation, as our author is prepared to admit: “I confess I do not really know what to make of these observations, or how to deal with the more onerous prescriptions and harsher judgments of the New Testament.” For the record, Hart has not forsaken his universalism here. He is preoccupied (if that is not far too weak a word) by what kind of life the holy lead. Be ye perfect as your father in heaven is perfect.

So where does this leave (down here on earth) the man whose life has been defined by Lewis Carroll’s fantasy and who considered the gregarious and charming Patrick Leigh Fermor his favorite living writer while that gentleman philhellene was alive? I must confess to being astounded by some of his remarks. Of Chesterton (to whom one is inclined to liken Hart in some of his guises as a writer), he says the following:

Even for a modern Catholic like Chesterton (though perhaps more British than Catholic), one of the greatest advantages of ‘the faith’ over the creeds of other peoples was its robust appetite for ‘beef and beer’—a sentiment that, on the surface, has a kind of merry medievalism about it, but that few medieval Christians would have found intelligible. I certainly find it deeply appealing. But if, as its proponents insist, it is indeed a genuine unfolding of some logic implicit in the gospel, it was a logic utterly invisible to those who wrote the Christian scriptures.

Well, if we are going to bring in the Middle Ages and what people would or would not have found intelligible during that period, let’s be more thorough about it. Two things medieval people found perfectly intelligible were enjoyment of life and sin. If you read medieval literature, you will know that it is brimming over with all imaginable pageantry and delectable goods of life. Much of that life is sinful, of course, as the hypothetical medieval person would be the first to tell you, but, well … the Middle Ages knew how to sin properly. You put your heart into it, is what you do, and you go ahead and call it a sin if that’s what it is (a great age for adultery, at least in the poetry). It’s something of a lost art, to judge by literary history. The literary deposit from the ‘Age of Faith’ is full of struggle and passion of great amplitude; and it is full of love for the beauty of the earth in springtime, for the glories to be found in the ornaments of craft and art, and for the ironies to be found in the errone­ous ways of all human forms. It was, in short, an honest time, as full of the ribald as of the reverent.

And it was an ascetic time. During that period in the history of our civilization when the logic of the gospel may be presumed to have fully permeated the culture, alongside the almost supra-moral zest for life that is detectable throughout the literature there is the great, perpetually decadent, perpetually renewed and reformed edifice of monasticism. The ascetic who had to a greater or lesser extent set him or herself apart from ‘worldly’ life was an image or an idea constantly available to the medieval man, whatever his feelings might have been about beef (which he rarely had the opportunity to eat) and beer. Medieval literature is full of monks and nuns (very few priests), sometimes holy, more often not so much, but in all cases embodying—because how could they not?—at least the ambition to heed the call of the asceticism of the gospels. So much of medieval ecclesial history is the dynamic tale of religious orders forming themselves, or seeking to return to the discipline of their stricter, purer founders.

I wonder if this historical example might point a way beyond the dilemma at which Hart seems to arrive at the end of this collection. I believe T. S. Eliot, in his essay on Christian culture, says something about the necessity, in a pervasively Christian civilization, of a prominent monasticism. It makes sense to me. As Hart points out, those first communistic Christians thought the world was going to end very soon. But it didn’t: “the Last Days seem to be taking quite some time to elapse, and we have families to raise in the meantime.” The world is big enough, I think, for the ascetic and the fantasist both. The world, and perhaps even the inner life of a single man or woman.

We must remember, as I pointed out, that the first and last essays of this volume were written fairly close to each other. And the prelude (presumably the last piece written), though it is a story of renunciation or resignation, and alludes in passing to the very aspect of Paul’s thought that sounds such a prominent theme in the collection and turns Hart, at the end, to wonder about the holy life, nonetheless offers, in its convalescent’s reading list, a catalogue of artistic achievement, a sort of testament of beauty (to steal a phrase from the sadly neglected poet Robert Bridges), a testament to the triumphs of sub-creation (to steal Tolkien’s term) that the severe vision of the gospel, as Hart has discovered it, would seem to negate or neglect.

I am left to conclude that Hart’s sensibility has not so much altered as it has been enlarged through his recent translation work. The Dream-Child’s Progress is a sort of conversion narrative, and like all such narratives it is endowed with an affective intensity—quite surprising, in this case, since you don’t expect it to be more than a convenient collation of small pieces. But its author has converted in the etymological sense of having turned a new corner, and come upon a tension that was perhaps not so noticeable or troubling to him before. I say it is a perfectly legitimate tension for a Christian to feel, in fact it is probably exactly the right tension for a Christian to feel throughout his or her life, in every quarter, these dual impulses of renunciation and participation. It is perhaps from that tension that our most stable cultural systems and our most beautiful works arise. Beauty, as Bob Dylan sings, walks a razor’s edge. David Bentley Hart has until now been a dauntless poetic theologian of the beautiful. I hope that the enlargement of his sensibility limned in The Dream-Child’s Progress does not signal a turn away from that most needful project.

* * *

Jonathan Geltner lives in southeastern Michigan with his wife and son. He did graduate work in Medieval and Renaissance literature at the University of Chicago and is currently pursuing a MFA in fiction from Warren Wilson College. Look for more of his writing at his blog Defending Fantasy

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35 Responses to The fantasist and the ascetic: reading David Bentley Hart

  1. Robert Fortuin says:

    Great reflection Jonathan, well written, thank you for that.


  2. Mike H says:

    “A committed fantasist”. Might also explain some of Hart’s affection for George MacDonald.

    Really interesting thoughts on how the NT translation process may have been on display in the progression of the essays. Would the “fantasist” have emerged if the “pitlessly literal” translation (per the Amazon description) had been completed prior to reading Carroll? Who knows. A devastating question.

    Bottom line though….fantasy must be good for the heart and mind.


    • Jonathan says:

      This would seem to be my bottom line as well. I just don’t know how one justifies it according to the gospel. I wonder and worry sometimes if fantasy is not my real religion, and my Christian confession simply the closest thing I can find in the real world to that bottom line. Fr Aidan wrote somewhere on EO, in an article or comments a little while back, that he prefers Rivendell to Trinity Lavra. That struck me at the time and recurs to me now as a remarkable aphorism, one which I feel I could agree with completely and which seems to strike at the root of the dilemma here.

      When I was in college I thought and frequently said that art — that is, all the arts taken together — was my religion. At some point that view stopped making sense to me. Not because of some new-found religious faith, but because I came to feel a real disjunct between the world, or the life, of art and that of holiness. It is an abiding problem for me. Hart really hits on Carroll’s Christianity in the title essay, but what he doesn’t flesh out is how Carroll’s fantasist/visionary nature is related to his devout, undogmatic, universalist Christian commitment.

      There is an amazing short story I would recommend on this topic: “The Cardinal’s First Tale,” appearing in Isak Dinesen’s Last Tales. There you have one of the most perfect renderings of the ambiguous co-existence of art and holiness. I wonder if DBH has read Dinesen. She was a consummate writer and very much concerned with just this problem.


  3. mattkofler says:

    I can relate to feeling the same tension between fantasy and asceticism that Hart and the author of this article feel. I’ve gone through a number of periods of doubt about God over the years, but what ultimately saved my faith (in my mind) was the idea that we live in an enchanted world, that the presence of God is everywhere, in all things, and that the enjoyment of ordinary creaturely things is at its root the enjoyment of God himself. Reading Harts “The Experience of God” was one of the things that convinced me of this, in fact. This idea has become a central part of my faith, so when I read the NT’s call to radical, apocalyptic asceticism, it’s a scary thing. It’s asking me to live the life of faith without the structures of support I’ve built, which I’m not sure I can do. I’ve already struggled against the disenchantment of atheistic materialism, and now it feels like I’m having to struggle against a different sort of disenchantment, one where God’s presence in the world and in human lives is strictly delineated. This is the same sort of disenchantment I found in traditional teachings about hell, and what ultimately drove me to universalism: how could I ever feel at home in the world if so much of it seems God-forsaken, devoid of God’s presence?

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Jonathan says:

    Really, I’m just happy I managed to work in an allusion to Bob Dylan…

    Seriously, though, the quotation from “Shelter from the Storm” congeals a lot of the thoughts that were turning over in my mind while I read Hart’s collection. The song is, for me anyway, one of Dylan’s most poignant and most full of religious and earthly longing and regret. The rest of the phrase “beauty walks a razor’s edge” is “and someday I’ll make her mine.” The point being that the singer sings from lack, from a place of loss and contradiction. The album on which “Shelter from the Storm” comes from the time when Dylan was losing his marriage. I wonder if fantasy doesn’t ultimately come from a place of longing, and in this way may be justified… anyway, give the song a listen if you never have, or if you really can’t stand Dylan’s music, maybe just read the lyrics, they fare better that way than do many song lyrics. This has long been my favorite recording of the song, from the live album Hard Rain, 1976:


    • Mike H says:

      Great song. That and “Ring Them Bells” probably my two favorite Dylan songs right now.


    • Mike H says:

      Brian Zahnd, an evangelical (in the broadest sense of the term) pastor wrote a book entitled “Beauty Will Save the World” (borrowed from Dostoevsky) which he referred to as “The Beauty of the Infinite lite”… least in its inspiration (I don’t think the intent was to “translate” DBH for a popular audience). But a big DBH guy.

      Anyway, the last chapter of the book is called “A Shelter From the Storm”. A sort of extended meditation on the connection between beauty, art, and metaphor – beauty being an element of the Gospel that is best captured in art and imagination. Doesn’t necessarily discuss “fantasy” one way or the other, but the importance of the aesthetics of beauty is the major theme.


  5. Bob Sacamano says:

    Fantastic writing, thank you for that. As a Hart aficionado, I think you nailed it.

    Just speculating, but I think Hart was seriously shaken by his illness and his work translating the New Testament. “Christ’s Rabble” is almost a total repudiation of his life’s work. Almost like how Aquinas had his mystical experience and denounced his previous writings as mere straw.


    • Alex G. says:

      How is an essay arguing for an absolutely unworldly Christianity a repudiation of a life’s work devoted to the absolute otherworldliness of Christianity? Hart’s politics have pretty much been the same throughout his career (read the last part of Beauty of the Infinite).


      • Bob Sacamano says:


        Perhaps I worded that poorly. I meant something more along the lines of Aquinas, who after experiencing a revelation of God described his own magisterial works as mere straw. Maybe less “repudiation” and more”perspective.”


        • Bob Sacamano says:

          Reading this back, I’ve said the same thing twice without realizing it.

          Ignore me, I’m an idiot.


  6. Morgan Hunter says:

    A wonderful review of what seems a wonderful book! The mention of the New Testament’s condemnation of material wealth as intrinsically evil reminds me of an essay by C. S. Lewis where he discusses an inherent tension in Christianity between the idea that the poor are blessed and wealth morally corrupting, and on the other hand that poverty is a dreadful evil to be alleviated as much as possible by concrete material charity. From Hart’s sublime writings on the problem of evil, it seems he is acutely sensitive to the awful realities of human suffering caused by material poverty, and so would not totally dismiss the second perspective as hopelessly worldly…


  7. brian says:

    Intriguing and finely written essay, Jonathan — and I very much share your sensibility.

    I have wrestled with some of the tensions you describe. I am still wrestling with them. Life has not gone the way I would have wished and a path of struggle and loneliness has caused me to think deeply upon these matters. I must say, I do not think any rendering of the kingdom as egalitarian and akin to Glaucon’s “city of pigs” can ever be right. The ideological spirit of the egalitarian is univocal, a vanishing of particular and specific difference in the name of an abstract and quantifiable equality. This is very much part of the ressentiment of the modern world that Nietzsche quite rightly excoriated. Indeed, the “justice” of the well-ordered whole must be, as Desmond proclaims, “an open whole” in which unique, incommensurable persons realize a flourishing life of infinite, creative relations where genuine freedom does not anticipate, but allows for the dramatic manifestation of the Good.

    In short, the gospel is always both ontological and eschatological. If we understand asceticism as mere renunciation, we misunderstand what Christian monasticism is meant to be. It may degrade into a bitter, world-hating moralism, but that is not the essence of Christian contemplation. What I think about is the modern West after the destruction of the altars, the stealing of monastic lands to found economic enterprise, Protestant burghers who became the new nobility, the whole capitalist venture at monetizing desire and value. The easy capitulation to the utile, to scientism, to the protean sophistry of advertising would not have happened if monks were still central to our social consciousness. And so, I see the core of monastic renunciation as not an antipathy for libraries or music or wines — was it not the monastery that preserved antique culture from the ignorant energies that gave us the fallow dark ages only to spark the festivity and fast of the medieval world? If the early Church renounced the fallen world, it was because it was rapt in a compelling vision of the eschaton. It did not refuse beauty. It was in love with beauty itself and the artistry of the Holy Spirit, kenotically present even now, as Bulgakov asserts, awaiting the radiant transformation of the parousia. Bulgakov will go so far as to understand human artistry as always already participating in higher realms, including that of the angels.

    It seems to me that apart from a sensibility alive to TriUne life and the eschaton, art shrivels into so much noise and the good is tainted by a sclerotic vision that reduces it to the banal, without mystery or reverence. In the end, a fantasist that is not reducible to nihilist noise requires the ascetic which is nothing less than a refusal to totalize and enclose within petty categories a pleromatic wealth that transcends our categories of poverty and wealth.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Jonathan says:

      Up to your usual eloquence, I see, Brian.

      I should maybe have emphasized more in the essay that I think Hart inhabits the contradiction fruitfully and faithfully, at least as far as one might derive from reading this particular collection. I could have dilated on the prelude, which is really fascinating in its elegiac tone. I don’t think he’s gone over to the puritans. But as I quote, he himself remains puzzled, to say the least, by the tension. Personally, I don’t believe the tensions that are most meaningful, the most productive of any artistic sensibility whether fantasist or not, are something that can be resolved in this life. Indeed, to believe that they were would be to commit to some sort of univocalism that would be disastrous for the creative spirit, which is — as better than I have observed and argued — a great part of the image and likeness of God.

      Liked by 1 person

      • brian says:

        I recommend a perusal of Hart’s essay on thrift included in his recent collection, The Hidden and the Manifest. No danger of capitulation to the puritans.

        And I agree about the resolution of tensions. As pilgrims, we are on the way. Perplexity and wrestling with angels is ineliminable in status via.


        • Jonathan says:

          I haven’t read all of those yet and will check that one out. In terms of tracking the development of his writing, there is the question of when he wrote it. I know that collection spans a long time. I’m aware that he could come along and say my interpretation of things is dead wrong. But in the world of lit crit we have a venerable practice of ignoring what authors say about their work.


        • Jonathan says:

          Which reminds me that I could have stated, in a different sort of essay perhaps, that I think of DBH first as a writer and secondly as a theologian.


          • brian says:

            In the preface to The Hidden and the Manifest (2017 publication date), Hart indicates that his views have not substantially changed. Mainly, he now eschews any reticence in identifying as a Christian Platonist. There’s an essay, The Writing of the Kingdom, that you might find of interest, Jonathan. Thrift is previously unpublished. It was originally intended for a volume that was designed to be in praise of thrift. Hart’s essay would have been, to say the least, anomalous.

            Style and theology go together, imo. Bad style is usually indicative of bad theology. All poets are crypto-theologians or at least crypto-metaphysicians.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            “Bad style is usually indicative of bad theology.” Discuss (as they say on exams). I think of Lewis’s observation in The Personal Heresy (ch. 5) about “the prose work of George MacDonald, where literary competence is often so to seek that any of us could improve even the best passages materially in half an hour.” This, in the context of celebrating MacDonald in terms of the second, less common of “two kinds of poetry”. (I suppose the next question to discuss, would be how “literary competence” relates to “style” as you use the word…)


          • Jonathan says:

            David, in response to your recent (6/14) comment here: I would either disagree with Brian’s maxim “Bad style is usually indicative of bad theology” or, rather, assert that theology, good or bad, has little intrinsically to do with literary merit. And this latter fact, as I take it to be, is surely on display in some of the essays in Hart’s collection under discussion here. For example, Leopardi, from a Christian point of view, has some pretty bad theology (or none), but he is a great writer. To advance a writer I’m fond of (and DBH): John Cowper Powys is arguably, most of the time, a horrible stylist, and he’s got, from a Christian point of view, some rather mixed theology. Nathless, he’s a great and important novelist: for the scope of his vision and his ecstatic enthusiasm, his sense of place and history, etc…

            The fact is that diametrically opposed styles can be equally wonderful (Kerouac is an important writer, as is Hemingway, and so on…).Literature simply does not participate in the moral and intellectual order the way religion and theology do. Bad style is indicative, for me, of nothing more than bad style, of poorly crafted writing. Some writers with sublime or genius thoughts have deployed terrible style; likewise some writers (such as Patrick Leigh Fermor, to take another example from the collection at hand) have superb style and no great intellectual content to speak of. There are many ways in which to value literature and each writer or work has to be taken individually, there is no skeleton key.


  8. Camassia says:

    I found “Christ’s Rabble” on the internet, and though he does make some good points (having attended a Mennonite church, I heard all about the radicalism of the gospel), I do have some quibbles. First — maybe he makes this clearer in the prologue, but how do we get from being anti-wealth to being anti-art? Poor people all over the world have produced folk art, folk music, and folk tales — many of them quite fantastical — so I don’t follow how Jesus’ favor toward the poor means that the uncreative shall inherit the earth.

    Secondly, Morgan Hunter’s point above about how the church viewed poverty as something to be alleviated as well as holy makes me think that Hart may have underplayed the importance of who was writing the New Testament and why. While there are lots of stories of Jesus helping the destitute, the sick, and the demon-afflicted, unless I’m forgetting something, Mary Magdalene was the only member of Jesus’ inner circle who had actually been one of those people. For the rest of the apostles, following Jesus seems to have been pure renunciation, so it’s not surprising that they would focus on that in their writings and in their memories of Jesus.

    I suspect that the church as experienced by a former street beggar wouldn’t have sounded nearly so harsh and anti-fun. No one seems to have been concerned that ending their suffering and giving them a secure source of food and shelter would endanger their souls. I can certainly buy that the church was opposed to private property, but that’s not the same as prescribing a life in the wilderness. After all, we see in the water-to-wine story that Jesus isn’t opposed to a good party.

    There’s also the fact that the New Testament isn’t a record of the early church but the *teaching* of the early church. And any teacher can tell you about the temptation to pay more attention to the “problem” students than the good ones. The epistles spend a great deal of ink addressing problems, including Christians who don’t want to share their property, so the non-mention of artists doesn’t necessarily mean that they weren’t around. It could just mean that they weren’t considered problems.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Alex G. says:

      Who’s anti-art? Where does that come from? Certainly not Hart, who’s about as unrepentant an aesthete as you’re going to find. The essay in Commonweal simply said that enormous personal wealth is condemned in the New Testament. There was no hint of puritanism in it.


      • Camassia says:

        Forgive me for responding to this so late, but I was going on not only “Christ’s Rabble,” but the above post, which made it sound like there’s a contradiction between the early Christian lifestyle and artistic creativity. “Where were the philosophers among that rabble? The painters and sculptors? The great poets? The musicians of otherworldly skill? Another way of putting this question is to ask to what extent are the highest achievements of culture compatible with, or to be expected from, an egalitarian social and economic ethos such as we discover among the first Christians?” etc. From the ensuing discussion, though, it looks like that idea came more from this post than from Hart himself, so I apologize for the assumption.


  9. DB Hart says:

    I doubt anyone is still following this thread, but–having been directed hither by two friends, and seeing my name associated with all sorts of things–I can’t refrain from jumping in. I’m not sure why Mr or Miss Camassia thinks the Commonweal article has anything to do with asceticism or puritanism or the renunciation of art or joy; the only topic addressed in the article was whether the New Testament allows for Christians to be possessors of great private wealth (which it clearly does not). But one does not have to be immensely wealthy to love the good things of the world, and to enjoy them. And, really, only in America does one encounter persons who try to make the gospel into an apologia classical liberal economics and the bourgeois family.

    Somewhere else above it has been opined that my recent illness has led me to repudiate my entire life’s work. Again, I’m not sure quite where that comes from. My thinking has remained, as far as I know, entirely consistent on the nature of the Christian life from the beginning of my career till now. “Christ’s Rabble” was occasioned by my translation, but that is only so much stage-setting. I could just as well have written it (or something like it) twenty years ago. The final section of The Beauty of the Infinite, for instance, contains a chapter called “The Optics of the Market” that (I believe) makes my leanings on political economics fairly clear. I have renounced none of my writings; I have suffered no grand awakening. If anything, being ill has made me more certain of the supreme significance of the world of the imagination.

    I am grateful for all the kind words, and of course for the attention; but, honestly, nothing has changed, except my hairline.

    Liked by 3 people

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      Just catching up with this thread. It’s been (or feels like) a long time since I read “Christ’s Rabble”, and foolishly or not, I have not paused to reread it before commenting.

      Now, “the only topic addressed in the article was whether the New Testament allows for Christians to be possessors of great private wealth (which it clearly does not).” I suppose the questions here are as to “great” (how great is great?) and “private” (and “possessors” as well, I suppose, in the context of exercise of ‘stewardship’) and “clearly”.

      In this context, what is going on in Acts 5:4? What are ‘menon soi’ and ‘en tei sei exousiai hyperchen’ saying? Is it a matter of “private”, or not? Is it a matter of “great”, or not? Is it a matter of being “possessors”, or not? Where is the “clearly”, here (whether “clearly does not” or “clearly does”)?

      And, where does “twenty-three different editions of the Alice books is as much a sensuous indulgence and carnal extravagance as an Italian sports car or a mistress with expensive tastes.” come into this?

      Is that “is” to say, ‘need be’? Ought there to be nothing anywhere like the Houghton’s collections of editions of Johnson’s Rasselas? Or is it somehow only impossible for that to be solely in the indefinitely extended care or ‘exousia’ of a particular concrete human person?

      Is it a matter of a (currently) “insatiable bibliophile” and his spiritual health with respect to the character of that ‘insatiability’?

      Is it an accurate characterization that you perceive “an unambiguous condemnation by Christ of material wealth as intrinsically evil, not merely subject to abuse”?


      • DB Hart says:

        You are confusing two different articles, I fear, and attributing to each a meaning beyond that which is stated.

        I have no idea why people make of Acts 5:4 some kind of sanctification of private wealth. It is an entirely rhetorical question–Before you decided to donate your holdings to us, it was entirely under your power, so why did you feel you had to pretend to donate it all and lie about it? It is not a remark that deals with the morality of possessions at all. There are, however, plenty of other verses that do, many of which are recorded in “Christ’s Rabble.” If Acts 5:4 is the best one can do as a counterexample, I am not even sure that constitutes grasping at straws. More like grasping at the shadows of straws.

        Anyway–bye. Thanks for the discussion.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Jonathan says:

    Since there’s still a bit of life, it seems, in this thread, let me try to make more explicit the central tension that was the theme of my essay — and it was only an essay, that is to say, an attempt to get at an idea.

    No serious person would assert that one must be wealthy to make art. But it is a serious question, as I see it, whether a culture can produce great art without a noticeably uneven distribution of wealth, health and security. Art rises from a fallen world. It comes out of struggle, striving, fear, disappointment, moral failure, in a word: injustice. I cannot think of a single major moment or tradition in the history of any art that did not come out of drastically less than ideal material and social conditions, and a disproportionate number of artists have led troubled and chaotic lives. This seems to me a matter of unimpeachable historical fact.

    For an example from the literary deposit of the tension I mean, look to the utopian — or dystopian — genre. In particular I have in mind William Morris’ News From Nowhere (1890). There is perhaps something to be admired in his vision of a simplified, egalitarian world: but there is no place in that vision for great art, or great enjoyment of art. And I think in that omission (whatever his intentions, approving or disapproving, sincere or ironic) Morris got it exactly right. Whatever art is, whatever it does, it has no place in Paradise. And we would literally rather die than go back to Paradise, it’s boring there. Isn’t this what it means to be fallen?

    One does not need either to resolve this tension or declare it terminal. It is simply there, for some more than for others. For me it is something very much felt; for Dr Hart, perhaps not so much, but this collection of his essays brought it palpably to my attention all the same.

    Liked by 1 person

    • DB Hart says:

      In the great socialist utopia, all will be equal in possessions and all will be great artists. I have foreseen it. That and an Orioles’ championship this season.

      You are putting the emphasis in the wrong place. How to judge how much wealth is too much is impossible. It is not impossible to recognize when you desire wealth you do not need, or when others possess greatly disproportionate wealth while the ranks of the poor continue to swell. The point is not that prudence can be circumvented by some strict measure. It is simply that the easy alliance of professed Christianity and an ethos of personal wealth as morally neutral or even good–the great American blasphemy–is one that the Christians of the New Testament would have found quite wicked.

      A society must be reasonably prosperous and stable to produce great art. There is no reason, though, why only one with extreme disproportions of wealth can do so. That is to assume that the accidents of past history are somehow necessities of logic. After all, America is the most excruciatingly unequal economic arrangement in the world today, and also the developed society in which great art is valued the least and vulgarity most richly rewarded.

      Art is an irrepressible human need; its material conditions will shift from age to age, but it will find a way to break through. We do not need Borgias and Rockefellers to assure that.

      Liked by 3 people

    • DB Hart says:

      The tension is real, incidentally; and I did intentionally begin with the essay about my library and end with the one from Commonweal intentionally. I commend your acuity in seeing that the book does have a structure. But the element that I think got misplaced was the one about the arts as such. My concern was possessions–of any kind–and the tension between the desire to possess and the dispossession of divine charity that pervades the New Testament. In antiquity when almost all art was public and liturgical, the notion of the private collector patronizing the private artist was very much a minor aspect of artistic culture as a whole.

      Liked by 1 person

    • nathanbogart says:

      “In Paradise they look no more awry;
      and though they make anew, they make no lie.
      Be sure they still will make, not been dead,
      and poets shall have flames upon their head,
      and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:
      there each shall choose for ever from the All.”
      -J.R.R. Tolkien, Mythopoeia


  11. brian says:


    I think our disagreements do touch on some perduring differences between us. There’s no doubt that in a fallen world, art is part of a process of struggle and wrestling with evil and resulting perplexities. Still, I absolutely do not believe that art or human interest or discovery, etc. is in any manner intrinsically dependent on a fallen world or agonic tensions or the chiaroscuro of good and evil. If difference is ultimately founded on TriUne divinity and creation is metaphysically derivative of original peace, the notion that evil is in some sense necessary for creative eros must be rejected. I expect the eschaton to be full of poesis and discovery and interest.

    As to style, I had in mind Balthasar’s studies on clerical and lay “styles” in the theological aesthetics. Undoubtedly, as a matter of literary skill, one can have a profound thinker who is a poor writer and vice versa. Nonetheless, I maintain that it is a mistake to separate style and substance as if rhetoric were an ornamental husk around a spiritual kernel. This seems to me not to take the Incarnation seriously enough. A kind of allegorical gnosis that is not perceptive or aware of the nature of the analogy of being results.

    It is true, of course, that one often finds a disjuncture between theological acumen and artistic skill. DLD brings up a good example in MacDonald. MacDonald’s spirituality does indeed run up against creaky Victorian melodrama. The answer is that his theology demands better artistry. One feels the flaws more keenly because the theology demands a more subtle and accomplished expression. To take an egregious example of sentimental, egalitarian taste, the recent success of The Shack is a mixture of sometimes admirable theological effort (especially with regards to its target audience) surrounded by saccharine imagery that can only vitiate any complex approach to God.

    If, as Gregory of Nyssa opines, eternity is an ever deeper progression into the mysterious God, I surmise it will involve a living poesis, a beautiful and complex discovery that is made manifest by something I find hard not to conceive as “unfallen art.”

    Liked by 2 people

    • DB Hart says:

      Salvation is that condition in which the divine art and human art are perfectly reconciled, and nothing but the creativity of glory remains.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Jonathan says:

      Brian, maybe our positions aren’t so opposed, maybe we’re describing the thing from two different sides, I from below and you from above. Down here, I think it’s undeniable that perhaps the prime artistic impulse, the creative Eros, proceeds from a sense of originary loss. What art aims for, points to, intends, aspires to, is the recovery of that loss, and this may be described in Christian eschatological terms. Such a recovery has to be a “non-identical repetition”, because what’s done is done, water under the bridge and all that. But art as we know it does not proceed from the point of view of that recovery already having been accomplished. That I would have to deny. I think of art as a response to fallenness. If there is creativity and discovery in the eschaton, I’m not sure how much sense it makes to call that art, or anyway poetry. The older analogy to music would perhaps be more persuasive to me.

      You can even see this in as eschatological a poet as Dante. The man’s whole artistic production can be laid at the feet of a girl he hardly knew and who died when he was a young man. If this isn’t actually true, it’s at least true that that is how Dante presented himself to posterity. If his is not a case of art proceeding from a profound encounter with originary loss, then I don’t know what is. There is an elegiac and nostalgic core in the arts and this has to be explained somehow, but I don’t think that needs to happen by way of denying some sort of dynamic eschaton.


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