Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Magnificent Rebels:
The First Romantics and the Invention of the Self

by andrea wulf
knopf, 512 pages, $35

Every few years, a book comes along that claims to have finally resolved the question of who discovered the individual—for Harold Bloom, it is Shakespeare; for Alain Badiou, it is Paul. In the prologue to her new book, Andrea Wulf attributes the discovery of the individual to the Jena Set, the artistic and philosophic crowd which congregated around Goethe in the aftermath of the French Revolution, and whose greatest scion is Hegel. Wulf has accomplished something major in writing what might be the first book to humanize the author of The Phenomenology of Spirit—more than most figures in the history of philosophy, Hegel has always seemed a graven image rather than a living, breathing man. By her own account, Wulf sees in the Jena Set fertile ground for thinking through individualism, a topic which is, to her, especially relevant as we enter an age of climactic change wrought by the overextension of human industry. Unfortunately, in this ostensible biography of an intellectual movement, Wulf fails to make good on her promise. Magnificent Rebels is brimming with the lively humanity of its subjects. Did you know that Friedrich Schiller kept rotting apples in his desk because the putrid aroma served to motivate his work as a playwright? Nevertheless, her humanization of the German ­idealists never leads to a real engagement with the content of German idealism. The reader is taken in by the image of the crestfallen ­Novalis reading to the empty dress that once adorned his fiancée before her tragic death. But it is anyone’s guess what Novalis’s ideas have to teach us, or what those ideas even are.

A reckoning with industrial civilization is on the horizon. One of the greatest tasks for contemporary thought lies in an archaeology of our philosophical predecessors, a searching for forgotten ­conceptual tools that might help us think man’s relationship to his world anew. If those tools are to be found in Fichte or Schelling, it will not be Wulf who excavates them.

—Hunter V. McClure

Cursing with God:
The Imprecatory Psalms and the Ethics of Christian Prayer

by trevor laurence
baylor, 416 pages, $59.99

Contemporary translations of the Bible often conceal much of its strangeness. This is difficult when the Psalmist plainly cries out for God to bash in the teeth of his enemies, make their wives widows, and dash their infant children against the rocks. The so-called imprecatory psalms (e.g., Psalms 7, 12, 58, 69, 83, 109, 137) are not only liturgically jarring. They present formidable moral ­challenges to readers who regard them as authoritative.

Writing from a Reformed, evangelical perspective, Trevor ­Laurence helpfully situates his reading of the imprecatory psalms among other common approaches, including those that “relinquish” to God all responsibility for righting wrongs, and those that regard them as outbursts of primitive emotions that must be allegorized for Christian use—if not omitted entirely from the lectionary. He disputes the notion that they are little more than sanctified schadenfreude or revenge fantasy, insisting that interpreters try to make sense of the world in which the Psalmist’s calls for vengeance are ethically intelligible.

Whereas sanitized worship leaves believers bereft of biblical language to express a desire to see divine justice manifested, Laurence argues that recitation of these psalms is “an ethically permissible—even obligatory—means by which the Christian Church faithfully enacts her God-given calling as a royal priesthood in the world.” Their “prayerful performance” has the capacity to cultivate the affections of faith, hope, and love—even love of one’s enemies. Indeed, as Laurence shows, the same sentiments are found on the lips of Jesus himself and throughout the New Testament.

Cursing with God—the preposition is crucial—is an exercise in narrative ethics. For those who might prefer to overlook these unsettling texts but suspect that ignoring them is theologically negligent, Laurence is a faithful companion.

—Patrick Gray

Contemplative Realism:
A Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto

by joshua hren
benedict xvi institute, 71 pages, $7

We live in a post-­Christian, neo-­barbaric world,” a Dominican ­friar noted to me recently, “and most people are dogmatically literal.” We were discussing the necessity of charity and truth in preaching points of sexual morality. I expressed frustration at the thought of misinterpretation, and he reminded me, “We should be thankful that we have been trained to perceive levels of meaning, and be patient with the world and the times in which God has placed us.”

This conversation came to mind repeatedly as I read ­Joshua Hren’s Contemplative Realism: A ­Theological-Aesthetical Manifesto. Hren guides us to challenge the ­realism that dominates contemporary literary and scholarly conversation. He presents as a vivid contrast the dynamic of “contemplative realism,” exploding the limited interpretive framework of shallow, literal, post-Enlightenment narrative.

This brief work does not attempt to create a new theory of reading and interpretation; rather it shows forth the rich wealth of the Christian literary tradition. In this tradition, we find the training of which that friar spoke, the “interpretive framework, inherited from medieval biblical exegesis, [which] trains the mind to see a given literary work as saturated with meanings—literal, ­allegorical, moral, and anagogical.” The resultant understanding, argues Hren (with a host of authors, poets, critics, and saints to back him), is far more real than “realism” can be. In such contemplative realism, the writer and the reader both have the potential for visionary perception. I recall Gregory the Great’s words describing St. Benedict: “If he saw the whole world as one before him, then it was not that heaven and earth became narrower but the visionary’s soul became so wide.”

Without downplaying the challenges of this post-Christian, neo-­barbaric world, Hren’s work remains one of hope and inspiration. This little volume is a fine offering (conveniently ­stocking-­stuffer-sized!) for the prayerful consideration of writers, readers, and all lovers of the exquisite richness of that which is truly real.

—Eleanor Bourg Nicholson

Hieronymus Bosch:
Time and Transformation in the Garden of Earthly Delights

by margaret d. carroll
yale, 192 pages, $32 

The Garden of Earthly Delights, Hieronymus Bosch’s ­oil-­on-wood triptych housed in Spain’s Prado Museum, has ­enchanted and bewildered viewers since the early sixteenth ­century. Across two shutters and three ­interior panels, the Netherlandish artist painted a biblical history of the world from its creation to its destruction, stopping just before the Last Judgment (a subject Bosch had explored in an earlier triptych).

That much is agreed upon. But what to make of Bosch’s invented creatures, bizarre organic structures, and frolicking, acrobatic youths? The subject of the central panel, after which the entire work is now named, remains the most mysterious aspect of the painting. In her absorbing new study for lay readers and experts alike, Margaret D. Carroll tries to make sense of this kaleidoscopic scene using the writings of Renaissance humanists and ancient philosophers.

Though the panel is flanked by depictions of Eden and the Apocalypse, Carroll rejects the idea that the garden’s figures are “already sinful and prey to demonic temptation.” Instead, she argues, the middle panel “extols the infancy of mankind as a Golden Age of innocent sociability,” free from the “corrupting effects of civilization.” While she rightly points out the “gentleness” and “playfulness” of most figures, I am not so sure they are as blameless as she suggests. In downplaying the presence of sin, she leaves us wondering why humanity must face the nightmarish scene that concludes the narrative. It is hard to shake off the more common idea that the garden of the central panel is a false paradise, and the youths more licentious than ­liberated.

Rich in visual analysis, and containing fascinating discussions of cosmology, courtly literature, music, and exploration, the book reads like a field guide to an unknown country. If only it didn’t overlook the dangers disguised as delights.

—Jane Coombs