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A Media Ecology of Theology:
Communicating Faith Throughout the Christian Tradition

by paul a. soukup
baylor, 240 pages, $39.99

Initially developed at the University of Toronto between the 1930s and 1970s, media ecology is a meta-disciplinary perspective that understands media as environments that shape human consciousness. Despite this expansive approach to media, media ecology has generally shied away from exploring that environment which encompasses all others—namely, the spiritual dimension. With few exceptions, that unbounded environment has been left to the theologians.

In A Media Ecology of Theology, Paul A. Soukup, S.J., seeks to bridge that divide, offering not a media-ecological analysis of the spiritual dimension itself but, as the title suggests, an examination of Christian theological expression through the lens of media ecology. Structured around the affordances that communication media provide theology, Soukup expertly shows how media environments have influenced and continue to influence the dissemination of Christian beliefs and disciplined reflection on those beliefs.

In a series of case studies, Soukup examines Christian theology’s changing media ecosystem, focusing on not only the usual suspects of communication media (e.g., orality, writing, print, film, social media), but also music, art, architecture, and ritual. Even translation, which occupies a kind of liminal space, gets a chapter. Although each of these case studies could stand alone, together they offer a picture of a complex ecology at work. Soukup deserves special commendation for the emphasis he places on the interaction of theology and religion with popular culture. That ecosystem, he argues, is a feature, not a bug, of Christianity’s two-thousand-year history of reflecting on its beliefs in both personal and institutional settings. Soukup does a fine (and important) job highlighting the ways in which both professional and “popular” theology show the stamp of communication media.

This book will be highly rewarding for those interested in theology or media theory, and doubly rewarding for those interested in both.

—Ethan Stoneman

The Index of Prohibited Books:
Four Centuries of Struggle Over Word and Image for the Greater Glory of God

by robin vose
reaktion books, 296 pages, $35

Any man under thirty knows all too well, either personally or from the experience of close friends, the diabolic influence that pornography can have on the mind. A few conservatives are thankfully beginning to rethink what constitutes “free speech,” but their efforts have been woefully inadequate. In considering what is to be done, we would do well to recall the lesson of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum.

In his overview of the Catholic Church’s four-century experiment in censorship, Robin Vose aptly reminds us that censorship is “not just a strange feature of ancient times, a curiosity far distant from modern concerns,” but rather something characteristically modern. The Church’s comprehensive and systematic effort at controlling the flow of words and images was only imaginable after Gutenberg’s revolution. Against dishonest secular criticism, Vose shows that the Index was not merely a tool for inquisitorial persecution; rather like peer review and digital algorithms in our time, it was designed to filter information through expert criteria so that it would be a relevant and reliable “product of university-based academia.”

Yet this latter comparison invites pause. In a time when we are presented with ample reason to question expert opinion and peer review, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? To cite just one example, The Lancet instantly condemns as “conspiracy theories” any research into the possibility of a lab leak at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Who shall determine what counts as a legitimately harmful conspiracy and what is merely at variance with established opinion?

The crisis introduced in the seventeenth century by the advent of mass literacy and pamphleteering was ultimately not solved by the direct action of governments or the Church. In order for books like The Arraignment of Lewd, Idle, Froward, and Unconstant Women to be taken out of circulation, what was required was the education of the newly literate public in standards of taste and decency—something that institutional efforts could encourage, but not mandate. Such words feel cheap in a time when ten-year-old boys are daily poisoning their minds with VR porn—clearly some kind of strong state action is necessary. It would be imprudent, however, to endorse the Counter-Reformation’s well-meaning methods of governance to curb the influence of wholly new information technologies. A radical rethinking of censorship for the digital age is necessary.

—Hunter V. McClure

Elizabeth Bishop:
A Very Short Introduction

by jonathan f. s. post
oxford, 176 pages, $12.99

Nearly thirty years ago, Oxford University Press started its “Very Short Introduction” series, an attempt to break away from the narrow specialization of academic publishing and reach the general reader. After decades of books on broad topics such as existentialism, aesthetics, slavery, and God, Oxford has started releasing compact introductions to individual authors.

Jonathan F. S. Post’s excellent Elizabeth Bishop: A Very Short Introduction is a recent offering in this commendable series. Few major poets are such suitable subjects for a brief study. Bishop published only ninety poems in her lifetime, as well as eight short stories and a few memoirs. As Post observes in his opening chapter, “No 20th-century poet has gone so far with so little, has made such a virtue out of scarcity.” Among the canonic poets of the English language, only Gerard Manley Hopkins has a smaller body of work.

Post also makes a virtue of that scarcity. Even within Oxford’s tight format, he has room to discuss all of Bishop’s significant poems. He provides a brief outline of Bishop’s life, but he avoids a chronological approach to her work. He presents the poems in thematic chapters.

Post starts by examining Bishop as a lyric poet fascinated by traditional forms—ballad, villanelle, sestina, and sonnet. As Bishop told Anne Stevenson, who wrote the first book on her work, “I have always been an umpty-umpty poet with a traditional ear.” Bishop left several masterful additions to the American canon with the fixed forms she handled. Post continues with chapters on Brazil (where Bishop spent sixteen years), poetry and painting, love poetry, and travel poems. None of these groupings seems forced. Bishop’s imagination was obsessive. She returned to the same subjects and landscapes with the same quiet hungers and hurts underneath.

The book is written in an engaging conversational style with the relaxed authority that comes from long classroom experience. (Post is a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.) Both students and instructors will find this an invaluable companion to Bishop’s poems.

Dana Gioia

What Happened to Civility:
The Promise and Failure of Montaigne’s Modern Project

by ann hartle
notre dame, 190 pages, $30

The best explanation for our current lack of civility in public and private discourse, according to Ann Hartle, professor emeritus of philosophy at Emory University, surfaces in the writing of the sixteenth-century French author of the Essays, Michel de Montaigne. On the precipice between classical and modern approaches to just about everything, Montaigne responded to the religious conflicts raging around him by articulating a new basis for overcoming differences and creating the social cohesion necessary for any polity: civility.

For Montaigne, civility rested, in turn, on the only foundation capable of withstanding even the most vociferous disagreements: moral character. Hartle emphasizes that the elements of moral character (such as magnanimity and charity) on which Montaigne’s civility relied were fragments of a longstanding, robust tradition in the West that wed classical philosophy and Christianity, without which freedom of speech and conscience would not exist.

Montaigne emerges as the hero of these pages for constructing a notion of civility to match changing conditions, including divergent Protestant and Catholic interpretations of that tradition. Yet Hartle also suggests that he played a role in those changes, self-avowedly preferring the independence of the self-consciously self-created individual to the authority of tradition.

Hartle insists that the only source of social cohesion that actually works precedes politics and lies in the sacred tradition itself, which casts each person in the image of God. To her, the virtues ultimately crumble without this deeper basis in Christian notions of human dignity and classical philosophy. It is unclear, then, why the book recommends Montaigne’s civility to the extent it does, if Hartle groups him with the forces eroding this bedrock tradition on which his ideas relied. Perhaps she is suggesting this is the best we can hope for, but the implications of her own argument suggest that we will need to go further and retrieve sources from before the cultural tectonic shifts she maps.

—Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

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