Recent Publication: Agonistic Culture, or George Lucas’ Turn to the Tragic

My cultural interests tend to lie less in popular culture than a stream of my writing since 2007 would suggest, but where my passions have dovetailed well into academic interests is in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga – testing and contesting the methods of ‘myth studies’ and the ‘myth of redemptive violence’.  My contribution to a recent collection of papers edited by Douglas Brode and Leah Deyneka entitled Myth, Media, and Culture in Star Wars contests Michael Kaminski’s attempt to pull the saga away from myth studies into the form of purely popcorn entertainment many already assume it to simply be [The Secret History of Star Wars].  The case study for doing this focuses on identifying the narrative shape of the prequels (1999-2005) as broadly following Aristotle’s depiction of ‘tragedy’ in his Poetics.  In so doing, the chapter even controversially contests the protests against the addition of the prequels to the saga, and suggests that the protests are largely, in the end, shaped merely by aesthetic choices since the newer trilogy offers some comment-worthy ‘mythic’ re-envisioning or retroactive defamiliarisation.

THE Gospel According to Calvin?

One of the things that animates much of my work is the excitement that comes with imagining myself aiding in modest ways popular readings of material I am passionate about, and encouraging deep reasoning and debate concerning it.  Very recently I contributed to a collection of papers edited by Myk Habets and Robert Grow entitled Evangelical Calvinism.  I had not dealt with Calvin much since the days of the oozing of him in through every pore as a third year undergraduate student, but having done so largely in a way that engaged many of the interpretative streams including that of T.F. Torrance.  I am grateful that the editors of this volume have invited and enabled me to return to that site, and my contribution does so through asking particularly thorny questions about Calvin’s now controversial perspective on prayer (I hope to eventually complete a book on The Politics of Prayer).

Nonetheless, it is worth me offering a brief disclaimer since many will see the title Evangelical Calvinism and make certain assumptions about what the book and my own participation in it are doing (in my Antipodean part of the secular world at the moment even the term ‘Evangelical’ itself is one that brings so much negative baggage that thoughtful and intelligent ‘Evangelicals’ receive little hearing).  To be honest I have little idea of what ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ is, at least if the term depicts some kind of movement!  Movements have a tendency to be rhetorically ungenerous to those with whom there is disagreement, self-protective, and smugly self-satisfied.  In other words, movements can have substantial difficulties resisting the slip into ideology.  As Alasdair Heron says in his insightfully helpful Foreword to the volume, “The authors do not necessarily subscribe to a single definition, but the theological constellation they have in view can be characterized most easily in terms of its affinities in the Reformed tradition. … Readers will observe more than one theological posture maintained in the following pages” [xiii, xv].  Consequently, I would like to critically converse with the editors’ introduction [ch. 1] and theses [ch. 15] at certain points at least where they position themselves as suggesting EC offers a perspective.  (The editors’ say that EC is not “a new movement” which implies that it is a ‘movement’, only an older one than many imagine [p.2].  This is reinforced by setting EC directly over against Federal Calvinism as a “form of Calvinism” [p.3], and by constructing theses characterising EC [ch. 15].)  I would want instead to speak about ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ not as a position but most broadly as an ethos, as I will explain below.

Moreover, I certainly do not read Augustine alongside Aristotle and Newton [pp.440, 447], or regard Thomas as having “developed a speculative theology” [p.429], nor am I as positive towards Duns Scotus [pp.429, 432, 437], nor rhetorically would I want to essentialistically separate EC neatly from [even if there’s a disclaimer of only “certain forms of”] “Roman Catholicism, Federal Calvinism, and classic Arminianism” [p.432].  At least the volume tends to dispense with the now problematic historical descriptor ‘Protestant’ which opens the way for what Donald McKim in his Introduction to Reformed Theology speaks of as a critical learning from, and engagement with, all times and places.  Likewise, it does not succumb to the temptation to singularistically describe Evangelicalism, as Sung Wook Chung tends to simplistically do in his Karl Barth and Evangelical Theology.

On the whole, I have found this to be a most interesting book project, and it offers plenty of intellectual challenges along the way such as to provoke readers into further contemplation of the theological significance of Calvin, among others, today.  The editors are to be thanked for this and for their passion to see the theological reading of Calvin kept alive as something worth critically conversing about.

A sample of my reading of ‘Evangelical Calvinism’ from my chapter:

To take the terms “Evangelical” and “Calvinism” together in such a fashion may be project-determining, and this very book arises out of just such a vision on the part of the editors. But what kind of work is the phrase doing? To ascertain the type of project-determination it involves depends upon how both terms are framed and how they function to qualify and redirect each other. This, of course, can open the phrase to a plurality of understandings, since there is no consensus on what either term means, never mind how their combination operates. For instance, they can function together as a marker, a group-identifying slogan. My own contribution, in contrast, approaches the intellectual conditioning provided by such a broad description in terms of a mood. “Calvinism” has a particular, historically traceable connection to the theological work of the Reformer John Calvin. How far those successors can trace their intellectual lineage back to Calvin is a matter of dispute, and Torrance himself tends to envisage successive generations of the Reformed traditions as diverging from Calvin in key areas, areas of God, grace, and Gospel. Both Thomas Torrance, and his brother James, write in ways that suggest they are attempting to retrieve Calvin from the Calvinists, especially those of the Scottish Federal traditions. Just how far such a project is sustainable is itself a matter of controversy among the work of theological historians such as Richard Muller. Here the best work of an intellectual historian can provide crucial vigilance that restrains the wildest imaginings of the theologians who frequently display impatience with detail and context. Nonetheless, there is something theologically important going on, and it may well be signaled by Torrance’s use of the term “Evangelical.” His theological approach is not that of many who appear to do little more than carry around the bones of the Reformer, attempting to breathe new life into them for each new generation, as if it is only, or at best primarily, through his work that the Gospel is heard (perhaps this could at least partially be described through a term like “Calvinist Evangelicalism”). At worst, the term “Evangelical” functions to reveal a particular way of enclosing the range of theological conversation, and thereby deny certain levels of difficulty and complexity. In this garb, it works to secure a parochial and philistine narrowness of vision. This would entail the reduction of “God” to, in Rowan Williams’ terms, a “tribal fetish”. At best, on the other hand, it can here enable an effort to address “Calvinism” in a way that asks where and how the Gospel might be heard through John Calvin. This project would mean admitting that Calvin was not unsuccessful in fulfilling his dogmatic aim with the Institutes, the aim announced in his prefatory address to King Francis I: “My purpose was to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.” This approach would implicitly make a judgment on any theological conversations that promote decatholicization by calling them into question as improper limitations on the theological activity of listening to the plenitudinous responses to the “all-embracing magnitude in Christ.”

[John C. McDowell, ‘Idolaters at Providential Prayer:  Calvin’s Praying Through the Divine Governance’, in Myk Habets and Bobby Grow (eds.), Evangelical Calvinism:  Essays Resourcing the Reformation of the Church (Eugene, Oregon:  Pickwick Publications, 2012), 353-403 (354-6)]