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TAC Bookshelf for the Week of May 20

Scott Beauchamp, contributor: Unfortunately for this Bookshelf contribution, but fortunately for other reasons, most of what I’ve been reading lately has been intended for review. That being so, I wouldn’t want to get into them in any sort of depth here. But I will mention their titles briefly and say that it’s been a stroke of luck that each of these books have turned out to be fascinating and worthy of any interested reader’s time. My reviews of T.C. Boyle’s Outside Looking In and Robert Dean Laurie’s Begin the Begin: R.E.M.’s Early Years will be forthcoming in other publications. Stay tuned here at TAC for my reviews of Mike Chase’s How to Become a Federal Criminal and Paul Kingsnorth’s Savage Gods.

When my reading load for work is heavy, it significantly cuts into my “bedside table reading.” Even so, I haven’t yet given up on slowly working my way through the collected oeuvre of Roberto Calasso and am currently nibbling at his book K, a 300-page exegesis of Kafka’s allegorical and symbolic depth. This book is a little more easy going than Calasso’s The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony or Ka in that it reads closer to something like a conventional critical literary text. Still, Calasso’s mind is voluminous and idiosyncratic. It’s always an exhilarating joy to try and keep pace with him. Significantly, Calasso doesn’t attempt to demystify Kafka, which would be a pyrrhic victory for any critic, but instead attempts to fully articulate the mystery of Kafka’s work. And, as usual, his prose is beautiful. I’ll end here with an example, where Calasso draws certain parallels between The Castle and The Trial. Even in translation, Calasso’s words resonate with a rare and unique energy:

And the messengers—Josef K hasn’t mentioned them before—and it’s hard to imagine what their function might be. Which messengers? Used to communicate what? And invested with what powers? No answers can be abstracted from any of Josef K’s prior thoughts. We’re completely in the dark. But if we gaze ahead into the distance, we glimpse the silhouette of Barnabas in his silver livery, in the as-yet unconceived Castle. It’s as if the crosshatched contours of another world are emerging, where the world of The Trial is destined to be continued.

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Casey Chalk, contributorOne of the biggest bogeymen of my Calvinist seminary program was the great 20th century Swiss theologian Karl Barth. Like many other bogeymen, we never actually read Barth. Rather, he was mediated to us through contemporary Protestant theologians whose writings either manifested current core principles of his teaching, or unreservedly censured them. Even now that I’m Catholic, I’ve wanted to remedy that deficiency in my Reformed theological education. Wheaton theology professor Keith L. Johnson has made this easy with his recently published The Essential Karl Barth: A Reader and Commentary, a fantastic introduction to Barth.

Barth has always been a controversial figure in both the liberal and conservative wings of Protestantism, not to mention among his interpreters in Catholicism and Orthodoxy. A student of the prolific German scholar of higher criticism Adolf von Harnack, he later broke ranks from liberal Protestantism. He rejected academic skepticism towards the Biblical narrative in favor of what one might call a hyper-Christocentric paradigm that interprets everything through the lens of the revelation of God in Christ and his resurrection.

Yet in his desire to censure what he perceived as a sterile, humanistic tendency to place God under the microscope of philosophical and historical analysis—and thus make God subject to man, rather the the reverse—he also undermined the role of natural theology in the Christian tradition. Humans, Barth argued, can only have knowledge through the revelation of Christ, rather than through any natural capacity. Focusing attention so exclusively on the “Christ event,” the continual encounter with God when the Christian prayerfully reads Scripture, led the Swiss theologian to an incredulity towards the kind of propositional truth that is inevitable if one wants to create a coherent, systematic theology. Hence the concern from conservative Protestants.

Johnson offers a short biographical chapter that illuminates Barth’s remarkable influence. Beginning his career with a pastorship of a small country Swiss church, Barth’s opposition to World War I spurred his questioning of his liberal theological formation. A surprisingly popular reflection on the book of Romans led to an invitation to teach theology in post-war Germany. Yet Barth was also firmly opposed to the Nazis. Removed from his academic post, Barth returned to Switzerland, where he helped lead the “Confessing Church” of evangelical Germans opposed to Hitler. After the war, he tirelessly sought to help Germany foster a new Christian vision of religious and political life. He wrote volumes, much of which is found in his Church Dogmatics. In his latter years he was invited to be an observer at the Second Vatican Council.

This points to one of the most interesting aspects of Barth’s intellectual development. Several times in his life Barth was challenged by Catholic theologians—Erich Przywara, Gottlieb Sohngen, Hans Urs von Balthasar—who perceived that his thought, for all of its criticism of natural theology, lacked a coherent alternative that made sense of creation and addressed the subject of the analogy of being between God and man. Indeed, this remains a contentious topic fifty years after Barth’s death. Such debates—and Johnson’s very good introduction to Barth—demonstrate the continuing influence and impact of the Swiss theologian’s thought.

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