Via The Browser, here is a link to Tyler Cowen’s hourlong conversation with Ross Douthat. You can listen to it, or read the transcript. It’s really diverse and rewarding. Tyler Cowen is a fabulous interlocutor. Here’s a passage that really resonated with me:
COWEN: Let me ask you my number-one question about you, and maybe it’s too big a question for you to answer, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about for the last few weeks.
The apparent — I wouldn’t say lack of interest in theology, but you don’t write about theology much in its theological aspects. Maybe a part of the sociological narrative. But what strikes me rereading everything you’ve written as a whole is how interested you are —
DOUTHAT: [laughs] God help you, man.
COWEN: — in aesthetics, in narrative, film, television, and novels — that this is elevated.
So if you read St. Augustine, as you know, in the Confessions, he’s very skeptical about theater. It’s potentially a form of idolatry; it distracts people from God. And theology is weaker in your approach and narrative and aesthetics are stronger. And this strikes me ultimately as a kind of theological decision. So in the Catholicism of you, what’s the theological basis of narrative and aesthetic themselves being elevated over theology? That’s what’s been bugging me.
COWEN: And maybe if you could address that, I would be happy.
DOUTHAT: I’ll venture a theory, again, about something that I haven’t thought about before you raised it 30 seconds ago. So please take this with a grain of salt.
I think that you could make the argument that narrativity is the way in which God has revealed himself in the world from a Christian perspective, from a Judeo-Christian perspective. You know the Old and New Testaments contain a lot of theologizing, but they are, above all, narratives. They are stories of a chosen people. They are travails and betrayals and wars, and miseries, and judgments, and all the rest. And then there’s a story in the New Testament that is, as the cliché goes, the greatest story ever told. And I mean I think you’re right about me — when I read the New Testament, I want to read the gospels much more than I want to read St. Paul. And I find the gospels much more interesting than St. Paul, and that’s obviously not true of everybody, or we wouldn’t have been having wars about what Paul meant in Christianity [laughs] for the last 2,000 years.
But I think to the extent that I would defend my own instincts and my own approach — sometimes I say this to my children when I’m clumsily trying to indoctrinate them in my faith; I say “you are living inside a story, and God is the storyteller.” And again, this is not a thought original to me at all, but God is the storyteller and you are an actor within that story. And the difference is that in this story, God, Christians would say, God himself enters the story: he becomes a character in the play, which is a very difficult thing for a playwright to normally do.
But that story, the fact that God is a storyteller, tells us something reasonable about how best to approach him and that it is not just OK, but completely plausible to approach him through narrative, through poetry, through art, through stories, and so on. And there is a sense — I think this idea I’m stealing from Alan Jacobs, who wrote a biography of C. S. Lewis — but I think there’s a real sense in which — and maybe this speaks to the failure of Western theology over the last 50 years — but Christians in the West, in the United States — well-educated, would-be intellectual Christians — tend to be heavily influenced by storytellers, heavily influenced by Lewis, heavily influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien, heavily influenced even by Dorothy Sayers and her detective stories, heavily influenced by Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.
I think it’s probably fair to say that Chesterton’s Father Brown stories had as much influence on my worldview as his more sort of polemical and argumentative writings. And, again, I think therein lies some important insight that I haven’t thought through, but I think you’re correctly gesturing at, about a particular way of thinking about God and theology that isn’t unique to Christianity, but that is strongly suggested by just the structure of the revelation that we have. Marilynne Robinson has a line, I think in Gilead, about — one of the characters is imagining that this life is like the epic of heaven. That we’re living in the Iliad or the Odyssey of heaven. This is the story that will be told in the streets.
And I think that’s a very powerful and resonant and interesting way of thinking about our lives, but thinking about the Christian view of history that we’re living inside a very, very interesting story that people will be talking about in heaven for a long time.
That resonated with me because the book I’ve been thinking about writing has to do in part with narrative theology. I’m still trying to concentrate my inchoate thoughts into a thesis, but it has to do with something I read in doing my Benedict Option research that has stuck with me. It’s Cardinal Ratzinger’s remark that
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.
Why is that? After all, beauty and goodness aren’t arguments, strictly speaking. I think the future Benedict XVI meant that beauty and goodness are gateways to truth — and in fact, the relationship among these three concepts may well resemble the relationship within the Holy Trinity.
That sounds dry, but there’s more to the idea I have. I don’t want to give too much away here. I can say that when I read Douthat’s claim that “it is not just OK, but completely plausible to approach [God] through narrative, through poetry, through art, through stories, and so on,” I think not only is it completely plausible, but at some very real level necessary — especially in our increasingly abstracted, technopolistic world.
All of this I hope to explain in the book. But first, I have to finish the proposal.
If you have any good books to recommend to help me think through this, please list them in the comments thread.