David Bentley Hart’s new book In the Aftermath: Provocations and Laments (Grand Rapids, Michigan / Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans, 2009) has just arrived in the post. It’s a collection of twenty-one shots, previously fired in journals and newspapers, from the Eastern Orthodox hit man from Providence College, Rhode Island. (Lots of weapons in Providence: I once had a knife pulled on me near Brown University.)
I love Hart. His opening salvo The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth exploded in 2003, and theologians will be picking out the shrapnel for years to come. His little The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (2005), bullet for bullet, is one of the best (anti-)theodicies a-round. Hart is not only an ace of a marksman (even if he doesn’t always hit the bullseye), he’s got Buffalo Bill style; and while his academic prose can be dauntingly dense, his popular writing dazzles (if, horribile dictu, you will need a dictionary). Here is theology at its most entertaining - and devastating. Hart takes few prisoners. He makes Hauerwas look like a wimp. If In the Aftermath had an index, it might be more properly called a Body Count. True, if a thinker is a jerk or an ignoramus, Hart merely wings him with a derringer; but if he is “evil or depraved” (p. xi), Hart mercilessly lets him have it with the magnum.
Here is Hart on the New Atheists:
“Of course, the truth is that the entire tribe … is a disappointment. A reflective and brilliant atheist is a man to be admired, if he truly demonstrates an understanding of what it is he is rejecting; and an atheist genuinely willing to accept the full implications of his convictions (Nietzsche being a nonpareil example) should not be reviled for those convictions. But it seems obvious that among the innumerable evidences of late modern culture’s lack of spiritual depths one must include its manifest impotence to produce profound atheists. Instead, the best it seems we can hope for today are dreary purveyors of historical illiteracy, theatrical indignation, subfusc moralizing, and the sort of logical confusions that Richard Dawkins has brought to a level of almost transcendent perfection” (pp. xi-xii).
And here is Hart (after that swipe at religion’s cultureless despisers, wiping the smile off a few Christian faces) on the “gnosticism” of American evangelicalism:
“[T]he American myth of salvation, at its purest, is a myth of genuinely personal redemption, the escape of the soul from everything that might confine and repress it … into an eternal, immediate, and indefictible relation with God; and it is to this myth, much more than the teachings of the New Testament, that some forms of American evangelical Christianity, especially fundamentalism, adhere. This is obvious if one merely considers the central (and some might say only) spiritual event of fundamentalist faith and practice, that of being ‘born again.’ In the third chapter of John’s Gospel, where this phrase is originally found, its context is mystagogical and clearly refers to baptism; but so far removed has it become from its original significance in many evangelical circles that it is now taken to mean a purely private conversion experience, occurring in that one unrepeatable authentic instant in which one accepts Jesus as one’s ‘personal’ Lord and Savior… One could scarcely conceive of a more ‘gnostic’ concept of redemption: liberation through private illumination, a spiritual security won only in the deepest soundings of the soul, a moment of awakening that lifts the soul above the darkness of this world into a realm of spiritual liberty beyond even the reach of the moral law, and an immediate intimacy with the divine whose medium is one of purest subjectivity” (p. 51).
As some younger Christians say, mantra-like and ad nauseum, in their prayer groups - “awesome!”
Perhaps some more dispatches from the front later.