An American Virgil

From Web Exclusives

Among the more adventurous sallies in church décor in recent memory is the dancing saints sequence at San Francisco’s Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, where Hypatia, Charles Darwin and William Blake among others have been drafted into the communio sanctorum. Perhaps the program is less a . . . . Continue Reading »

Celibacy in the City

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The day after the Supreme Court’s ruling on marriage this summer, I was in line for the Ferris Wheel with my three year old daughter. An insufficiently directive ride attendant left me confused as to which car to enter. Do we get our own? Do we pile in with strangers? Whatever our options might . . . . Continue Reading »

All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Evangelicalism

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Sometime in the mid-1990s, sickened by what I perceived as the shallowness of evangelical culture in suburban Wheaton, Illinois, I launched into the post-hippie, proto-hipster nightlife of Chicago. I roamed not yet fully gentrified streets with dropouts and homeless people, under the L-tracks and along the wind-battered shores of the third coast. The counter-culture then radiated from Belmont Avenue, which I imagined to be something like what Haight-Ashbury (since colonized by Ben & Jerry’s) must have been in 1969.Following one such night of seeking suburban Wheaton’s opposite, I experienced a moment of transfixing beauty. I wandered into Lincoln Park Zoo at dawn and had it all to myself—a solitary Adam among the animals. Then, as I watched sea lions frolic in the shallows of their tank I braced myself for a return to Wheaton College where I would reluctantly (and barely) finish my undergraduate degree. In my arrogance, I may have even thought to myself that I was returning to splash in the shallows with evangelicals like the animals before me. Continue Reading »

50 Years from T. S. Eliot

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Much already has been and will be said about T. S. Eliot this year, which marks a half-century since his death. Attempts to map his posthumous critical fortunes inevitably convey a downright Biblical pattern—the uniform literary “Hosanna!” of the 1960’s morphing, by the 1990’s, into a collective “Crucify him!” The turnabout is well expressed by literary maven Cynthia Ozick, who displayed something of both attitudes in an exquisite essay entitled T. S. Eliot at 101. Continue Reading »

Our Death Mounds

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As the Western suburbs of Chicago go, it’s a spectacular view. To the distant north is the angular, imposing steeple of Wheaton Bible Church. To the south looms the imperious tower of Fermilab, guarding its unnaturally circular particle accelerator. Continue Reading »

Advent for Artists

From Web Exclusives

After years of premature Christmas celebrations, even evangelicals are learning to reclaim Advent, the season of preparation. Might the enclaves of high culture do the same? What follow are a few suggestions.

 Among the holiday specials on offer at the Museum of Modern Art right now is the Robert Gober retrospective, The Heart is Not a Metaphor. But it unfurls far too quickly. Art-loving audiences are confronted all at once with a decapitated Jesus, a trash-can baptismal font, genitally themed wallpaper, cryptic sinks, decontextualized fragments of Hieronymous Bosch paintings and androgenized body parts roasting in a fireplace. Why not mete these gallery features out slowly, over four weeks?

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The Five Stages of Grieving the Art of Jeff Koons

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It is Sunday night, and the Whitney Museum of American Art has been open for thirty-some hours straight. The line for this last chance to see the Jeff Koons retrospective wraps around the block. Fittingly, these are also the last hours of the Whitney Museum itself, at least in its upper East Side manifestation (their new building opens in Chelsea next year). Visiting the hideous structure one last time is like reaching out to pet the old family dog before he gets put to sleep—only to have your hand bitten. The inverted ziggurat architecture has always been an exercise in anti-effort with the art to match. A longstanding top floor feature was Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arma snow shovel the artist purchased and declared art by fiat. Once elusive, the meaning is now clear. Here is the tool that has authorized the Whitney to pile it high. Koons’s towering mound of polychrome aluminum Play-Doh, the highlight of the show, is the simply the crest of the heap. Continue Reading »

Protestantism in the Desert

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I admit to having experienced perverse enjoyment when first hearing the story Episcopal Bishop James Pike. The cautionary tale is featured in Joan Didion’s The White Album, and more recently, in two sobering chronicles of Protestant decline, Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion and Joseph Bottum’s AnAnxious Age. Following an impressive revisionist binge, Pike finally cast off Christianity completely. In pursuit of some kind of Gnosis, he drove into the Jordanian desert in a Ford Cortina with two Cokes and his third wife, where he lost his way and died. Such a fitting illustration of the Protestant condition, I once thought: an ill-equipped Ford Cortina hurtling to desert doom. Continue Reading »

Not So Secular Sweden

From the June/July 2014 Print Edition

It’s 4 a.m. and I’m in an eighteenth-century Swedish castle that has been transformed into an ecumenical monastic community run by Pentecostals. I gather my bags and descend a grand staircase, past family portraits going back generations, past neo-­classical statues, past Coptic, Russian, and Greek Orthodox icons—their candles still flickering from the night shift. Then past a well-stocked patristic library, down another enormous flight of stairs, and through a foyer. I take one last look through the window at the rolling lawn lit by a full moon. Staring down at me is the portrait of a Pietist Lutheran, Hedvig Ekman, who married into this family in the late eighteenth century. Behind her head the artist painted a faint hint of gold threatening to become a halo, indicating that through her, holiness entered the household. Because of Hedvig’s devotion, a beautiful chapel was appended to the castle.Still making my way to the exit, I pass a picture of influential theologians gathered on the castle steps a century ago. They include Gustaf Aulén, author of Christus Victor, and Lutheran Archbishop Nathan Söderblom, an ecumenical pioneer who worked with Catholics to revive devotion to Bridget of Sweden, one of Europe’s patron saints. In the same image is the grandmother of the woman whose life, nearly a century later, would be changed by the Jesus People USA and Pentecostal Christians—sufficiently changed that when the Ekman family decided to give up this castle in the 1980s, it was donated to Swedish Pentecostals. Continuing the ecumenical spirit, the castle, now known as Bjärka-Säby, hosts Coptic, Catholic, and Evangelical Christians as well. The precision and beauty of their prayers rival the liturgical exactitude I have witnessed on Mount Athos. Continue Reading »


From Web Exclusives

It is a bipartisan moment to be cherished. Rick Santorum called the President a snob for wanting everyone in America to go to college, and now Obama has come around to Santorum’s side. As the President said to a General Electric plant in Wisconsin this year: “I promise you, folks can . . . . Continue Reading »