The Double Entendre of African-American Music: A Lesson for the Church

Music has undergone serious theological neglect according to Jeremy Begbie, a professionally trained musician and theologian at Duke Divinity School. In his introduction to Theology, Music and Time, he writes:

In the twentieth century, the corridors of theology were not generally alive with the sound of music. Music has received virtually no sustained treatment in contemporary systematic theology. Much has been written about the bearing of literature upon theological disciplines (especially biblical hermeneutics), and the same goes for the visual arts. There have been some courageous forays into theology by musicologists, but apart from a few notable exceptions, twentieth-century theologians paid scant attention to the potential of music to explore theological themes.

In some respects this is puzzling, given not only the supposedly limitless interests of theology, but also the universality of music in all cultures, and the unprecedented availability and ubiquity of music in so-called “post-modern” culture, the persistence of music in the worship of the Church, the strong traditions of theological engagement with music in past centuries, the intense interest shown in music by many philosophers past and present, the growing literature on the politics, sociology, and psychology of music, the recent emergence of ethnomusicology, and the intriguing deployment of musical metaphors by natural scientists. In the chapters which follow, we shall be touching upon some reasons for this theological neglect. Undoubtedly, one of them is the difficulty of speaking about music in ways which do justice to its appeal and which genuinely shed new light upon it. As George Steiner observes: “In the face of music, the wonders of language are also its frustrations.” Another reason is the opacity of the process of musical communication: it is clear that music is one of the most powerful communicative media we have, but how it communicates and what it communicates are anything but clear.

Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time and Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music ought to be consulted, but for this blog post I am turning outside the theological guild to Michael Eric Dyson, a sociologist at Georgetown University and radio host.

In “The Great Next: Jazz Origins and the Anatomy of Improvisation,” an interview that belongs to Open Mike: Reflections on Philosophy, Race, Sex, Culture and Religion, Dyson brings clarity to what Begbie calls “the opacity of the process of musical communication.” Reflecting on an interesting feature of African-American music (spirituals, blues, jazz), he observes how the double entendre allowed blacks to communicate with each other:

A crucial feature of double entendres was the articulation of culturally coded messages and styles that signified on white dominant cultural structures while promoting black self-definition. Even though the dominant culture may have viewed blacks as barbarians and savages, as dumb animals incapable of abstract reasoning or “high” culture, they nevertheless reveled in the robustly playful elements of black cultural creativity. At their best, black folk refused to get struck in narrow Victorian modes of identity where they repressed consciousness of their sexual selves while exclusively engaging their spiritual nature. They didn’t buy into that bifucation between mind and body. As critic Michael Ventura argued, African cultures overcame the Cartesian dualism of the West because they contended that there was no such as being mental and spiritual over here and being physically embodied other there.

The double entendre was about black folk having their cake and eating it too, so to speak: it was about healing the rift between body and soul; it was about playfulness while contesting white power in signifying fashion; and it was about enjoying and celebrating their culture even as vicious stereotypes abounded. That was terribly liberating to black folk who had been indoctrinated with the belief that they were inferior, that they were, in the words of Margaret Walker, “black and poor and small.”

If there is an application for us, then I propose that Christian theologians, pastors, musicians, and laypersons consider how worship (or liturgy) communicates and what it communicates. Does church music promote the double entendre of Christian self-definition as this-worldly and other-worldly, embodied and ensouled, above beast and below angel, dust of the ground and breath of life? Does church music invite playfulness while contesting the powers that be?

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  • Christof Meyer

    It seems like Begbie’s quote is completely apropos of our broader conversation here about the manner in which truth is somehow communicated to our souls through our bodies. The reason we don’t understand these things, however, is itself shrouded in mystery. Perhaps it has something to do with the way that we systematically marginalize ideas that we come to know via our ‘art faculty” (for lack of a better term) – vs. our intellect, for example. But it could be deeper than that, of course. It could be that trying to solve the problem Begbie raises is impossible to do with rational syllogism’s. Maybe art (music or otherwise) cannot be reduced to merely rational terms… I hope not. Because I like to believe that the truth carried in theological music is not only “knowable” but “understandable” by my mind (which is rational)… But if it’s not, I should find a way to be ok with this.

    The double entendre concept is interesting, by the way, but beyond the fact that it’s possible to use music to do more than one thing at a time, I’m not sure how the example could prove useful to someone who’s trying to do what you recommend.

    Finally, I’m positively sure that mentioning Wink in this setting hurts your credibility as an ‘Mere-Orthodoxy’ sort of Christian. Especially in light of the conversation we’d been having about homosexuality and disgust. To be charitable, perhaps you didn’t know that Wink is a guiding light of the “Soul Force” movement – with whom I have a great degree of experience. I know those guys, have met with them more than once, read their books, etc. They are pleasant to talk with, and horribly misguided about sin, God’s plan for humanity, and our ability to repurpose scripture to remove any ‘specific’ ethic that bothers us. Wink and White speak together, support each other, etc. And, while your plan for Wink’s contributions to this conversation may have simply been to bring up the words “power that be”, I walk away deeply saddened.

    I am interested in bringing more theology to our music. But not “new” theology. Not theology like Wink proposes. Not theology like White proposes. In fact, perhaps it’s good that we’re singing hymns from the 19th century, if only because the alternatives (bad/new theology) would have led us down a darker path – away from the light of scripture – than the potentially dull, but otherwise edifying songs of our great-grandparents.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

      Christof: I appreciate hearing your comments. Music, as far as I can tell, “cannot be reduced to merely rational terms” because it is multi-dimensional: affective, imaginative, spiritual, and cognitive. Lacking formal training in music, I often feel frustrated by “the opacity of the process of musical communication.”

      Can you please elaborate here: “I’m not sure how the example could prove useful to someone who’s trying to do what you recommend”?

      My reading of Walter Wink is limited to his chapter “Homosexuality and the BIble” in a volume he edited, Homosexuality and the Christian Faith, and the introduction to his book, The Powers That Be. Let me be clear: I’m skeptical about his project to “reformulate our ancient concepts — such as God and Satan, angels and demons, principalities and powers — in light of our modern experience” because the reformulations risk a change in the content. Between Wink’s view of sin and Calvin’s view, there’s no contest: Calvin is more faithful to Scripture. That said, I’m not allergic to hearing another expression of ancient concepts and discerning if there are appropriable truths. For instance, what should we make of Wink’s view on “the powers that be”? He writes:

      Everything has both a physical and a spiritual aspect. The Powers That Be are not, then, simply people and their institutions, as I had first thought; they also include the spirituality at the core of those institutions and structures. If we want to change those systems, we will have to address not only their outer forms, but their inner spirit as well.

      I found the implications of that ancient view staggering. It means that every business, corporation, school, denomination, bureaucracy, sports team – indeed, social reality in all its forms – is a combination of both visible and invisible, outer and inner, physical and spiritual. Right at the heart of the most materialistic institutions in society we find spirit. IBM and General Motors each have a unique spirituality, as does a league for the spread of atheism. Materialistic scientists belong to universities or research labs that have their own corporate personalities and pecking orders. Like the proponents of the new physics, who went right through materialism and out the other side into a world of spirit-matter, so we, too, can see the entire social enterprise of the human species under the dual aspects of spirit and matter. We are on the brink of rediscovering soul at the core of every created thing. There is nothing, from DNA to the United Nations, that does not have God at its core. Everything has a spiritual aspect. Everything is answerable to God.

      Finally, Christof, mentioning Walter Wink should not “[hurt my] credibility” or cause you to “walk away deeply saddened.” If Wink is a heterodox Christian, and he may very well be, that certainly doesn’t make me hetereodox any more than mentioning an atheist like Freud, Marx or Nietzsche makes me an atheist. Guilt by association is unwelcome.

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  • Christof Meyer

    Hmmm. I didn’t think I was accusing you of guilt by association but, rather, guilt by invocation. Now that we have had a bit of a dialogue, it seems like you weren’t invoking Wink’s name to improve our understanding of your question. But then, I still don’t see how you get off the hook for mentioning him without any qualification. Perhaps the only problem here is promiscuous linking – leaving it up to the reader to decide whether you approve or disapprove of the linkee’s work (need a better word for that).

    In an environment where Wink is fairly well-known for; all the things you mentioned above, his outspoken sponsorship of homosexual advocacy groups (Soul Force among others), and his criticism of the traditional Thomist/Augustinian concept of Just War… among other (heterodox) things, I don’t see how you get to mention him casually and not draw fire. The man is leading people away from the good path and off to perdition, and I simply don’t accept that inviting people to check out “The Powers That Be” (the purpose of a link after all) in an affirming way is compatible with Orthodoxy. It might be an acceptable thing to do for other reasons, but ‘illuminating’ this dialogue re: the need for better theology in music hardly seems a good place to start pouring in suspicious sources.

    My problem with the post-modernist tack (not necessarily one you share, but it looks like it from way over here in Virginia) is that it is always picking and choosing various ideas and pretending they are compatible when they actually are enemies. The danger here, is not that our ideas will become polluted or impure or something (none of my ideas are anywhere close to pure) but that our ideas will lack power because they are disconnected from reality.

    Bringing this back to the matter at hand. I love the fact that you brought up the need for more, better, meaty theological music. I also think you are totally correct to bring up the pertinent issue: “yes, but how does theology even get communicated through music?”. To answer that question we need theology that is grounded in reality – Wink won’t get us there, and my own theology is also equally unlikely to get us anywhere. A good place to start, it seems, would be to recapture whatever was working in the 19th century – probably the last time the Church had an operational theological-music-making enterprise. From there, we will have to make some adaptations, it would seem…

    Consulting Wink, on the other hand, would seem very unlikely to get us where we are going.

    This entire post, by the way, is my way of trying to answer you: “Can you please elaborate here: ‘I’m not sure how the example could prove useful to someone who’s trying to do what you recommend’?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

      CHRISTOF: Okay, call it “guilt by invocation.” Must the invocation of a particular voice always include a caveat of approval or disapproval? I don’t think so.

      At the end of my post I asked, “Does church music invite playfulness while contesting the powers that be?” I linked to Wink’s book because he provides an interesting view about “the powers that be.” Perhaps his view would augment and not necessarily conflict with an orthodox understanding. That’s why I invited you to reflect on a passage from his book.

      I acknowledge there is a danger in “picking and choosing various ideas and pretending they are compatible when they actually are enemies,” but you’ve assumed incompatibility rather than proved it. What’s problematic about Wink’s claim, “The entire social enterprise of the human species under the dual aspects of spirit and matter. We are on the brink of rediscovering soul at the core of every created thing. There is nothing, from DNA to the United Nations, that does not have God at its core. Everything has a spiritual aspect. Everything is answerable to God”?

      For example, Martin Luther’s famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress,” seems like a superlative example of church music that contests the powers that be. What are those powers that be? According to the hymn, they are “the flood of mortal ills,” “our ancient foe,” “this world, with devils filled,” and “the Prince of Darkness.” Wink’s view about the powers that be might help us to gain a wider understanding of what “this world, with devils filled” means. The traditional view, which I espouse, interprets the devils literally whereas the progressive view, which Wink espouses, interprets them figuratively, as he writes in the introduction to his book:

      The spirituality that we encounter in institutions is not always benign. It is just as likely to be pathological. And this is where the biblical understanding of the Powers surpasses in profundity the best of modern sociology. For the angel of an institution is not just the sum total of all that an institution is (which sociology is competent to describe); it is also the bearer of that institution’s divine vocation (which sociology is not able to discern). Corporations and governments are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare. And when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased. They become “demonic.”

      I had never been able to take demons seriously. The idea that fallen angles possessed people seemed superstitious. But if the demonic is the spirituality produced when the angel of an institution turns its back on its divine vocation, then I could not only believe in the demonic, I could point to its presence in everyday life. And if the demonic arises when an angel deviates from its calling, then social change does not depend on casting out the demon, but recalling its angel to its divine task.

      Wink wrongly calls the idea of fallen angels “superstitious.” Nevertheless, his view is a salutary reminder that institutions can turn diabolical (or demonic) and we must, partially through the church’s music, recall those institutions to their divine vocation.

  • Christof Meyer

    Hmmm. This is getting to be a dialogue now, but it’s definitely work, maybe that’s why there is so little dialogue on the web.

    You asked so many questions (some rhetorical) that it’s really hard to know how to write. Talking face-to-face in situations like this seem almost infinitely more likely to result in dialegesthai (thinking of the Phaedrus here) than the path that we are on… but since this is an important topic… why not try?

    What are we trying to do here? It seems like we’re trying to do something like: help the Church (us) figure out what music is all about and, from there, to be motivated to cultivate the love of theologically nourishing music to the glory of God.

    How, now, shall we live? I can find “something” to encourage in almost any work by any author and, through sophisticated acrobatics, make those things fit into our conversation, but this doesn’t mean they will help us get to truth. Like I said to my old friend/professor Craig Detweiler, just because there IS a matrix of meanings in The Matrix and that SOME of them are really interesting does not NECESSARILY mean we should study this film in pursuit of enlightenment. We would be better off, it seems, studying something that is more likely to be true than not. Therefore, I start off from a position of antagonism (to the proposition that using Wink’s book is helpful) from the start. If we are just trying to have fun, of course, then this is a great way to be entertained… but since life is short and we will all soon be dead, I say let’s go for the gold here – bringing in sources that we know have the same telos we do.

    Do you really want to have a pro-Wink / anti-Wink comment debate here? I think our positions are closer than it seems on him, so lets move past the possibly-good to the generally-considered-to-be-good and get to work. Some people to consider:

    Thomas
    Augustine
    Luther
    Paul (on Psalms, hymns, spiritual songs)
    etc.

    If you’re interested in this, I think it would be very interesting… Although I totally understand if you don’t feel a comment thread is a good place for this.

    Finally, just so that you don’t think I’m blowing you off, I’ll say this regarding Wink’s idea of spirituality. The subject is incredibly complex and difficult to talk about without good definitions to work with. Wink has essentially introduced a new definition of spirit into the Western lexicon of usage and I find this baffling, if not dangerous. The would spirit means something in English. You know, it’s got pneumatic connotations, it can be used singularly to specifically to a person, or broadly to refer to a movement (spirit of the age), it could also mean your soul. In any case, Wink takes the word “spirit” and bends it to fit his storyline. I think this is dangerous for the following reasons. 1. Language (words) stand for real ideas, by bending the word ‘spirit’ to mean something different than we normally understand he points us away from the real thing “a spirit” towards??? I don’t know what. 2. “spirit” has profound scriptural hooks into the Bible, but Wink’s “spirit” makes no sense of the received knowledge we have of what a spirit is and how it works… which makes sense in light of the way he views scripture (we are free to reinterpret it with every successive generation – relativism at its worst), but leads away from the thing scripture is trying to teach. 3. I have no idea where Wink gets his conclusions from re:”souls”, “spirits” and “demons” and, therefore, I find it highly unlikely that following his advice will get us anywhere near our objective (see above). What does it mean to “recall its angel to its divine task”? How does these non-angelic “angels” operate? If they are so important, then how do we effect them? Especially in light of the fact that neither you, I, nor Winker actually believes corporations have real “spirit” “angels” guiding them, how am I supposed to operate in light of this non-knowledge? Isn’t it actually foolish to do anything in light of this non-knowledge?

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

      CHRISTOF: No, I don’t really want “a pro-Wink /anti-Wink comment debate” because (A) my reading from him is very limited, (B) my view of his theological project is skeptical, and (C) we could find more enriching resources for clarifying “the opacity of the process of musical communication,” as you point out.

      Returning to my blog post, I began with Begbie’s call for greater “attention to the potential of music to explore theological themes.” Dyson’s treatment of the double entendre in African-American music fascinates me because it seems there’s an application for church music insofar as we’re trying to communicate something about our God and about ourselves. These questions are genuinely open-ended: Does church music promote the double entendre of Christian self-definition as this-worldly and other-worldly, embodied and ensouled, above beast and below angel, dust of the ground and breath of life? Does church music invite playfulness while contesting the powers that be? Only studied attention to the music in my church (or yours) would reveal an answer. If heightened consciousness results next time you are sitting or standing in the pews and singing, then my blog post will have achieved its modest objective.

      What is your church tradition? For most of my life I’ve attended churches that belong to the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) but I’m slowly gravitating toward PCA (Presbyterian Church of America). Due to positive experiences in London at Holy Trinity Brompton, in Oxford at St. Aldates Church, and in Washington, DC at Church of the Resurrection, I have deep sympathies for the Anglican tradition. I’m encouraged by ACNA (Anglican Church of North American) and AMIA (Anglican Mission in the Americas).

      By the way, it’s cool that you’re friends with Craig Detweiler. What course(s) did you take from him at Biola? He’s now at Pepperdine, right? I’ve wanted to read A Matrix of Meanings and see Purple State of Mind. I just added the film to my Netflix queue.

      Pertaining to our disagreements about emotional responses to homosexual persons and the value of invoking heterodox voices, I’ll invoke the words that Detweiler says in the trailer for his fim: “It can’t be about arguing. Even if you win the argument, you lose.” While it’s difficult to cultivate a relationship between blogger and commentator, I’ll strive to do so with those who are willing to tarry a little longer. If my travels bring me to Richmond, you can count on me contacting you so we can dialogue over a dark English ale or a complex Pinoir Noir.

      I visited your website, SquareMethod Design, and was interested to learn that you grew up in New Mexico, a place that has earned its motto – “land of enchantment” – in my life. Our family took annual pilgrimages from Colorado to northern New Mexico. The land, people, and culture are deeply imprinted on my soul, as you may have discerned with my affection for Willa Cather, who immortalized the Southwest in Death Comes for the Archbishop and The Song of a Lark. Santa Fe became a temporary home for me during my master’s in liberal arts at the Graduate Institute of St. John’s College. Nothing – and I mean nothing – beats conversations with “Johnnies” about Plato, Goethe, or Locke while you imbibe margaritas on a rooftop casita, watching the sun dip below the desert horizon and intensify the evening sky with a palette that would make Georgia O’Keeffe jealous.

      Do you and your wife envision a future in New Mexico? Are you still working in the field of marketing and design? What were the professional advantages of earning a MBA at Univ. of Virginia? One last question. Are you aware of any flourishing Christian classical secondary schools in Richmond? There are a few sprinkled in Virginia.

  • Christof M

    The dialogue continues!

    This seems like the big question: “Does church music promote the double entendre of Christian self-definition as this-worldly and other-worldly, embodied and ensouled, above beast and below angel, dust of the ground and breath of life?”

    The Church has always ‘promoted’ this perspective throughout its history. But ‘promoting’ it, of course, means something very specific to me – approving of, and paying for, music that reflects these concepts. How Great Thou Art, A Mighty Fortress, and For a Thousand Tongues, feature popular expressions of these ideas. However, much older music like the Gregorian Christus Factus Est Pro Nobis – (obedience in this life led to Jesus’ exultation in the next) also affirm this strange ‘one foot on sod, the other on gold’ dichotomy you reference above.

    In fact, this would be an open and closed case if it weren’t for the fact that people don’t experience the sum of Church history on any given Sunday. This complicates matters greatly because it means that we can’t assume one’s experience with Church music will fall in line with established Church objectives. This is, of course, totally consistent with God’s plan for mankind because it means that we will be presented every week with an opportunity to check for a disconnect between our words and deeds. If only we took this chance more seriously…

    The longer I live the higher I get in my preferences for worship. I grew up Baptist, but after moving to Europe began working with the Anglicans in Belgium (Mission to Seamen) and eventually became an ordained youth worker in a low-church Anglican parish in the West Midlands. Then after I came back to the States I began attending an Anglo-Catholic parish, and now I’m an Anglican-in-exile in Richmond – worshipping with a high church PCUSA congregation (that is, nevertheless, rigidly Orthodox and warmly liturgical). This movement has been fueled by people like Ken Myers from Mars Hill Audio, and the Torrey Program, but mostly I find it more coherent to reality than other disconnected ways of worshipping. I don’t look down at people (from my “high” horse :-) but I do believe that rightly-considered (not the same as well-executed!) liturgy is very helpful.

    In a recent interview, James Davison Hunter and Ken Myers discussed the importance of lifting up (high) things that are worthy of esteem – taking them more seriously, considering them more fully – lest we inordinately raise up other things… perhaps accidentally. The world, so goes the argument, IS arranged hierarchically. Therefore, any perspective on God, worship, life-ordering, that pretends to make everything flat will contribute to a lack of understanding – and who knows what one might miss? In an attempt to “bring down” the sacred so that everything in life becomes equally sacred, everything becomes normal – even the Sacraments.

    So, how do know what to raise up? I guess that’s where the dialectic comes in. Torrey makes a big deal out of the fact that the Logos is ‘literally’ at the heart of the dialectic. This wouldn’t have been a big deal if Jesus’ incarnation hadn’t been described as the ‘enfleshing’ of the Logos itself (himself?). This is part of the main reason why Torrey believes so strongly in the enlightening power of proper dialogue – Christ is there… in some strange way. I am actually very interested to see how St. John’s does things. My dad has done some consulting for them and my brother-in-law is there right now getting a Masters. He did Torrey first and believes that the institution’s lack of love for Christ is like an aerodynamic impediment to rapid motion towards the truth in a dialogue. It still works (Christ is there!) but things move much more slowly than a Torrey class would. Especially when considering texts that are obviously not Christian, the classes take forever to get to the heart of the text… Anyway that’s what he says. I’d like to see for myself and occasionally consider picking up a Master’s there (to get back to NM) but it’s probably unlikely at this stage of my career.

    I’d love to get back to the Southwest and I’m always on the lookout for jobs that would pay the bills AND allow me to develop my understanding of Design Thinking – my current practice. There are Classical schools in Richmond. The ‘purest’ school is Veritas Christian School, but there are some older schools that retain an ‘touch’ of Classicism.

    Probably the best reason to go to UVA for your MBA is their deep-seated appreciation for teaching business concepts in the Socratic way. The only top-tier school that does this is Harvard. In contrast to them, Darden loves artists, poets, and writers AND deliberately keeps a small student body so that everyone is personal, friendly, and team-loving. It was one of the best experiences of my life.

    • http://www.mereorthodoxy.com Christopher Benson

      CHRISTOF: Thanks for replying. We’re both doing the ecclesial splits with one foot in the Anglican tradition and one foot in the Reformed tradition.

      1. Why are you an Anglican-in-exile when Richmond offers Christ Church Anglican (www.ccanglican.org) and Eternity Anglican Church (www.eternityanglican.org)?

      2. Which PCUSA church do you attend? Because PCUSA tends to be the most liberal Presbyterian denomination compared to EPC, PCA, and OPC, your parish must be an exception to the norm if it is “rigidly orthodox” (I would prefer saying “faithfully orthodox” because “rigidly” connotes blind dogmatism.)

      3. You described your church as “warmly liturgical.” Tell me more about the liturgy in your church.

      4. Which church does Ken Myers attend in Charlottesville? I thought he was a Presbyterian but maybe he has become an Anglican in recent years. If I am not mistaken, he attends the same church as James Davison Hunter.

      5. Explain “design thinking.” What exactly do you do? What service do you provide? If you have your own marketing/design studio, why not relocate to New Mexico?

      6. Have you read Cather’s novels that take place in the Southwest: either The Song of the Lark or Death Comes for the Archbishop? If not, I encourage you to read them!

      7. Regarding education, I am opposed to “cradle to grave” Christian schooling. I think there should be seasons of Christian schooling. Some people will choose that season in the early years (primary and secondary school) and others will choose that season in later years (undergraduate and graduate school). After my season of Christian schooling at Wheaton College, I was equipped with a biblical worldview to enter the secular settings at the Missouri School of Journalism and St. John’s College.

      8. Comparing Torrey Honors Institute and St. John’s College, the former is a great books program within a university whereas the the latter is a great books college. I am biased in thinking that no one does a better job of teaching the great books than St. John’s because it is their exclusive focus, similar to Thomas Aquinas College. For what it’s worth, Mortimer Adler (author of How to Read a Book) and Allan Bloom (author of The Closing of the American Mind) regarded St. John’s as the finest liberal arts school in the nation.

      That said, Torrey has two significant advantages over St. John’s. Because the program is housed in a Christian university, (1) Torrey offers additional (Christian) texts that are absent from the reading list at St. John’s and (2) the Torrey community reads the great books through a biblical worldview. Unlike many secular colleges which deliberately foster biblical and theological illiteracy, St. John’s can and should be praised for including the following in their curriculum: Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Augustine (Confessions, City of God), St. Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal (Pensees), and Kierkegaard (Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling).

      One final observation. The dialectic assumes a different shape depending on the community of dialogue-partners. At Torrey, the dialogue-partners are all putatively evangelical Protestants. Shared belief may permit them “to get to the heart of the text” quicker (a dubious claim), but it could also deafen them to dissenting or divergent voices. At St. John’s, the dialogue-partners come from all walks of life. Heterogeneous belief means that the community seldom achieves consensus, which can be frustrating in the pursuit of truth. Nevertheless, there is a welcome plurality of interpretations, sharpening the Socratic inquiry and argumentation of the dialogue-partners. St. John’s is a microcosm of our pluralistic society, where Christians must learn to converse with dialogue-partners who do not share their beliefs.

      8. Since its announcement in December 2009, my imagination has been excited by the prospect of becoming a tutor at the forthcoming C. S. College, which will be the only “mere Christian” great books college in the United States with a commitment to the visual and performing arts. I would enjoy belonging to a community of learners that includes Catholics, Protestants, and the Orthodox.

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