Having a couple of dozen episodes under my belt, it has become blantantly obvious to me that Franz Kafka explains this show better than anyone. Interwoven in the many subjects we've covered is a persistent obsession with institutions and the control they have over our actions and desires. Now read Kafka's short parable "Leopards in the Temple:"
"Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony."
Kafka, in devastating brevity, describes how succeptible our institutions are to outside influences. The Temple is defenseless against the leopards that fundamentally alter its practices. At the same time, however, the institution retains powerful influence over those who worship there. The tale's heretic leopards, through insinuation and repetition, become sacred to the temple's worshippers.
The parable goes far in explaining contemporary Evangelicalism, which has adapted itself to sanctify the voracious political appetites of neoconservatism. In our recent episode about Political Correctness, I (perhaps reductively) defined Evangelicalism as "theocratic libertarianism." The leopards' intrusion has profoundly altered that institution. Similarly, our show entitled "Against Praise Movies" focused on exploring the corruption of Christian doctrine by a particular aesthetic made popular by the marketing of the Christian entertainment industry.
The Sectarian Review Podcast seeks to draw our attention to such situations. Often we will undoubtedly be unfair or make generalizations that are too broad. But the task of noticing the influence of our subtly altered institutions is, to me, an important one. And the concurrent task of injecting uncertainty and chaos into those received institutions (such as in finding theological and ethical merit in horror films) is a part of the vocation that Saint Kafka has laid before us.
Like millions of other people during the final week of the 2016 election, I compulsively checked Nate Silver’s http://fivethirtyeight.com/ (by far the best thing about ESPN). Silver’s success in the last few election cycles helped establish polling science as a dominant form of journalism and by this election it became ascendant.
The shock of Trump’s election is no doubt tied to the titanic failure of our pollster-gurus to live up to their reputations. Silver himself emerged from this election relatively unscathed, as his models gave Trump a legitimate chance at winning the election. The data revolution he inspired, however, was heartily adopted by the liberal establishment, which used it as part of its shame-based rhetorical strategy. This form of reporting meshed nicely with “woke” late night talk show host poking fun at Trump and his electorate (usually reduced to caricatures). “These people think Trump might win! Ha! What doobs!” And their scorn for apostates was eventually directed even at Silver himself for not being triumphant enough. The Huffington Post for example accused him of all sorts of nasty things.
Alas. Lesson learned, right HuffPo? Probably not.
I hope you’re still with me, because I want to publicly shame a particularly galling example of Big Data hubris. Like many others, I was intrigued by the Slate collaboration with a startup called Votecastr. The premise was as such:
1). Smarty Pants People in skinny jeans did a bunch of polling before the election.
2). Technocrats in track suits assigned humans into data-mining categories.
3). As votes were cast, the techno-utopianists lifted the “embargo” on data and told us who was winning, live. As it happened.
And wow they did great, eh? According to their calculations, Clinton mopped the floor with Trump, HuffPo style. Imagine their horror when the Blind Seer of Thebes revealed the truth to the world.
Let me conclude by proposing that maybe human beings are more complicated than algorithms can always predict. As much as Trump’s election offends me, I must admit that, odious as he is, he is a transcendent figure. By this I do not mean to compare him to Barack Obama’s ability to move the wheels of history. I simply mean that his appeal was not fully detectable by our computers and our institutional systems. He spoke to people about things the numbers couldn’t track.
The Democratic party’s supreme confidence in “demographics” was part of its undoing. The party and its surrogate institutions (like Slate) became utterly deluded by the previous success of its machinery. That led to a hubris straight outta Greek drama. The party was so sure of its math, it had no curiosity about the people behind the numbers. The liberal faith in numerology therefore correlates to its contemporary tendency to reduce the flyover states to a collection of bigotries.
So the post-election autopsy begins. As liberals try to recover in time for 2018’s mid-term elections, I hope they realize that human beings are not data sets, nor can they be categorized with such blunt instruments as “racist or not.” The KKK voting block notwithstanding, even if the voters Democrats lost this time are racist and sexist, they are not ONLY those things. What else do they care about, and might we speak to those desires as well?
For more (including pictures!) click here to visit Sectarian Review's Medium Publication
Over at the Sectarian Review publication on Medium, I just put up a little rant about the Chicago Cubs and their pretensions. Here's an excerpt:
Who else but the great Bill Murray, the pretty awesome Eddie Vedder, and the intolerable John Cusak (along with some financial advisers and lawyers) could fill Cleveland’s stadium with so much droopy Cub-boosterism? This is a team supported by — and which ultimately supports — the upper echelon of urban elitism.
Today’s identity-politics liberal is always on the lookout for privileged people performing the sin of “cultural appropriation.” Well I’m using that here. When the Cubs’ upper-crust fandom frames its devotion in terms of a working class experience, that’s cultural appropriation. They’re performing working class identity without actually living that life. The “lovable loser” persona is a mask that lets rich and famous folks pretend they aren’t obnoxiously privileged. “Oh woe is me. I’ve been a Cubs fan my whole life they they haven’t won anything. This lets me virtue-signal sadness and heart-felt devotion.”
Read the whole thing here:
And please. It's meant to be a little jokey.
Maybe I'm restless. Maybe I'm bored. Maybe I'm just excited about all the great conversations Sectarian Review has let me in on. I think it's that last one.
At any rate, the show has exposed me to so many smart people, that I'm inspired. Our conversations have prompted me to do a bit of reflective, expository writing lately, and I got to thinking, 'what if other people wanted to participate?'
Following that hunch, I went over to Medium and started what they call a "publication." Here it is.
I've put up a couple of pieces there, mainly on topics that , while related to the show, don't neatly fit into the podcast format. Then I discovered that anyone can submit something. Nothing would make me happier, I think.
So here's the deal. If you the listener/reader go to see a show and want to write a review of it, send it my way. If you have just binged-watched Penny Dreadful on Netflix (as I just did) and have some things to say about what the Victorians can teach us about our own moment, write it up.
I consider myself to be a terrible writer, so I'm sure I'll be an easy-going editor.
Please consider jotting down your ideas for other people. The bigger our conversation gets, the more exciting it is for everyone. If you'd like to submit something, go the publication page and click on your preferred contact avenue (Email, Facebook, Twitter). Let's have a conversation.
Here's the link again.
As Sectarian Review celebrates its first year of existence, I’m troubled that its purpose is hazy.
I've long been inspired by the legacy (perhaps the mythology) of this show's namesake, partisan review. It is a romantic notion I know, public intellectuals, not entirely shackled to university careers, engaging in passionate debate over the issues of day and the ways art might intervene in them. It all seems rather quaint in the light of the serious issues we as a society face, and I’m sympathetic to the argument that this image is that of a cloistered aloofness that theorizes, rather than confronts, public crises.
However, when i actually read the essays and reviews collected in those shabby covers, i find wisdom and insight that remains startlingly contemporary and even useful. It seems impossible that this group of intellectuals was just wasting its time. I urge the reader to take a little time to read its essays; insightful prose not mired in contemporary academic professional jargon (it is amusing that this is the field that thinks it - not the old public intellectual - is singularly capable of changing social reality).
The Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University has made the entire run of PR available online here.
A translation of PR’s project to the digital era seems a natural thing for me to do, given my proclivities. Further, by most accounts, the public appetite for podcasting is voracious in our current moment, so much so that even venerable print publications like Vanity Fair have taken time to reflect on their significance. Yet the ascendancy of the form gives me more anxiety than exhilaration.
Growing an audience for the show is odious. I'm compelled by tradition to beg for iTunes ratings each episode (a task I nearly always remember to do now). Supposedly, the more activity that occurs there, the more listeners will descend upon the show. However, as I scan the shows that comprise the current podcast craze, the competition is overwhelming. The shows that are most important to the podcast ecosphere tend to be avatars of already established media. NPR and Slate programs dominate, as do celebrity intellectuals like Malcolm Gladwell and famous comedians like Marc Maron. For every Serial, the iTunes chart is littered with established, professional programming that represents not the democratization of ideas, but rather the colonization of a market by established media powers.
I believe it was Nathan Gilmour of the Christian Humanist Podcast who suggested to me that iTunes and Stitcher should begin to distinguish between podcasting, and procasting. In other words, create a "charting" system that might level an imbalanced economy of producers. Until that practice is adopted, however, I will employ the term "the little podcast" to describe the work that Sectarian Review attempts to do.
The term I suggest is an obvious variation on "the little magazine," a form characterized by journals like Partisan Review and persisting into our current moment in publications such as n+1. The title of the essay you are reading is taken from Lionel Trilling's introduction to The Partisan Reader: Ten Years of Partisan Review, which he titled "The Function Of The Little Magazine," which I quoted in the epigraph to this piece.
Trilling's essay (now collected in his seminal The Liberal Imagination) introduced a collection celebrating a decade of PR, yet its tone is anxious. The critic laments the fallen condition of the life of the mind in his time. Reading the essay today, it is startling how similar our moment seems to his. Trilling describes his epoch as one:
"When a mechanical literacy is spreading more and more, when more and more people insist, as they should, on an equality of cultural status and are in danger of being drawn to what was called by Tocqueville . . . The 'hypocrisy of luxury,' the satisfaction with the thing that looks like the real thing but is not the real thing."
Partisan Review, with its 6000 readers, stood only as a small resistance to this neglect of mind, a coterie as Trilling puts it, against the tidal movements of American culture.
As is common in Trilling's prose, there is lament embedded in the insight. The essay's tone suggests a touch of shame about the celebratory nature of the volume it introduces. Yet, despite the smallness of the ripple PR left, Trilling expresses gratitude for the efforts, concluding that we "must take into account what would be our moral and political condition if the impulse which such a magazine represents did not exist..."
the very fact that small groups of serious-minded, educated people worked to maintain cultural spaces like PR's pages represented hope. And the little magazine became a version of Noah’s ark, carrying the hope that imagination and mind might survive for future generations. And not to pick a fight, I maintain that it provided a far more necessary and moral ark than the one ken ham has recently squeezed out of evangelical donations in Kentucky.
Trilling's essay heartens my own efforts in maintaining and improving the show going forward, primarily because it alleviates my desire to be popular. I am not Malcolm Gladwell or Ira Glass. Nor do I harbor any desire to replicate a "morning zoo" aesthetic for Sectarian Review. Striving for that kind of cultural relevance bears a heavy moral price that conflicts with the goals of this show. Simply stated, my purpose is to help, in my own small way, to look after the Christian imagination.
Trilling traced the decline of literature to the ascendancy of the media competing with it - "the radio, the movies, and certain magazines." he then went on to note (somewhat cryptically) that they were "antagonistic to literature not merely because they are competing genres but also because of the political and cultural assumptions that control them." i take from this that Partisan Review was better suited to do its moral work at the margins of society, shunning the controlling ideological assumptions (i.e. capitalism) of ascendant radio and television.
Wise as ever, however, Trilling recognizes that the margins offer no guarantee of the moral high ground, writing that while the word "coterie" is nothing to fear for the writer seeking significance, "neither should it charm us too much; writing for a small group does not insure integrity any more than writing for the many; the coterie can corrupt as surely, and sometimes as quickly, as the big advertising appropriation." more than simplistic elitism, his defense of the coterie is just that there is an accountability in small groups that is different than the kind that business plans and accountants provide. The small audience of PR actually, in Trilling's mind, supported its mission better than the larger readerships of, say, life.
Likewise, I am fine with the coterie that assembles itself around this show as it requires of us nothing more than our values. In addition, I look forward to responding to the imaginative and intellectual discipline it provides as Sectarian Review forms itself into whatever it will become.
As to that last point, what the show is or might become, well that is still an open question.
A quick perusal of our first year's output is potentially bewildering. The show has covered abstract human concepts like "voice," genres of popular culture (horror), specific works of pop culture (Daredevil and Jessica Jones), politics (Trump), historical subjects (David Barton), interviews with artists (J. Kwest, Chris Bernstorf), sports (football), and critiques of Christ-centered art (Pure Flix).
I pray that SR's audience maintains its patience, but I wish to make a claim for a unity in what we've produced already.
The Wild Goose Festival episodes explicitly dealt with another abstract notion, that of "hipness." during those two shows, I attempted to make a claim on the kind of marginal ethical spaces that PR sought out. That philosophical concept operates as a stance, a posture from which to participate in culture(s), sacred and secular - with intentionally fuzzy boundaries between the two. I propose that this posture characterizes nearly every episode.
In short, from a position alongside both secularism and sanctity, the show reviews both. The term "sectarian" - suggested by Nathan Gilmour - therefore necessarily contains a double meaning. Our criticism of culture operates from a claimed ethical position, Christianity. We are the sectarians in that sense. At the same time however, as we strive to occupy the edges of Christian culture, we simultaneously "review" Christendom’s sectarianism(s). Sectarians commenting on sectarianism. The show's organizing question is therefore something like:
"what is the machinery that causes us to think the things we think, to do the things we do, and to imagine the things we imagine?"
a hyper-awareness, of institutions and their workings, therefore characterizes the approach and subject matter of SR. This is the clearest way to understand our idiosyncratic topic selection as, in fact, unified and determined.
The coterie the show has brought together so far has provided great satisfaction to this endeavor. Further, it has shaped the mission as stated above. Perhaps the aspect of the show I am proudest of is that, from an early stage, it has been pushed by its listeners, many of whom become contributors and hosts. This is far more satisfying than a thousand iTunes ratings (though please don't be discouraged from leaving one). Sectarian Review has reached the point where each show topic, as likely as not, originated from listeners and other contributors. Our own coterie seems to have a sense, however vague, of what this little podcast is.
Thus I must thank each participant (both on air and behind the scenes) of Sectarian Review by name (in no real order):
Drew Van'tland, Allison Backous Troy, Thom Dawkins, Mark Trump, Todd Pedlar, David Grubbs, Nathan Gilmour, Michial Farmer, Mike Farmer, Victoria Farmer, Ed Simon, Carla Ewert, Michael Kimpan, Kristen Filipic, Chris Ebenezer, Jordan Poss, Jay Eldred, Jamie Mcdaniel, Kierstin Murosky, Carter Stepper, And Megan Von Bergen. And the list grows.
This is a coterie I can live with.
As you may know, the Sectarian Review Podcast was graciously invited down to the 2016 Wild Goose Festival in Hot Springs, North Carolina (and I don't know about the springs, but, yes, the air was hot at least).
I have many thoughts about Wild Goose, some of which I expressed on the show that I recorded there with the Christian Feminist Podcast's Carla Ewert and the OPEN initiative's Michael Kimpan. That conversation focused on finding a definition of hipsterism as a stance that seeks a positive moral position in society. The conversation was really fun and it still has my brain buzzing as I try and figure out what the heck this podcast is. Let me just say for now that that discussion really helped.
Right on the heels of that show, look for this episode, which is an interview I did with the pastor and hip hop artist J.Kwest (aka Rev. Julian DeShazier). His latest album, Lemonade, is a fantastic example of the kind of Christian art we argued for in our "Against Praise Movies" episode. In our conversation, we talked about art, faith, race, and the role of activism in fostering change. As you no doubt know, while we were in North Carolina, our country experienced more horrifying tragedies that once again demonstrate the persistence of racial injustice in America. These events hung over the whole festival (and J. Kwest's performance in particular) and I was lucky to have the chance to talk to Rev. DeShazier about it. It was profoundly moving for me.
This interview (and the trip to Wild Goose as a whole) felt like a turning point for this show. I've been struggling to figure out what this podcast is and I now feel like I have a glimpse of what it at least might be. The episodes will be up soon. In the meantime, please take the time to look up J.Kwest on YouTube and www.jkwest.com. His wonderful album, Lemonade, is available on iTunes and well worth the purchase.
The summer offers a college professor time to pursue other aspects of her or his intellectual work. I've buckled down on the podcast (among other things).
First, in a few days, I'll be interviewing Elijah T. Siegler about his recent book on the Coen Brothers and their films engagement with religion. That will end up on the Christian Humanist Profiles podcast.
For this show, you can look for these topics (below) in the coming weeks. And this is just a sample of the topics we have in the works. If you have any questions or suggestions, please let us know. We are always looking for ideas from you, our listeners. What's the point if we're only producing shows you don't care about? As always, you can contact us here. If you'd like to get more social, you can always find us on Twitter and Facebook as well. There are links to those outlets at the "Contact" tab above.
Also, if you are enjoying the show, please do stop by iTunes and give us a nice (5 star?) rating there. I know that every podcast rails on about this thing, but it is supposedly the most efficient way for new listeners to discover the show. Here is the link to our iTunes feed:
I've been busy this summer juggling a number of new episodes for the podcast, one of which is about a worldview loosely categorized as "Seven Mountain Dominion." Essentially, this ideology demands "Christian" dominion of social institutions: the family, religion, education, media, entertainment, business, and government.
Jay Eldred and I are set to record this in a couple of days (you may remember Jay from our David Barton episode).
This subject has me a little depressed about the desire in some Christians for power. The recent mass-murder at a nightclub in Orlando seems to heighten a power-lust that is perpetually immanent. In this case, a conflation of Christian institutional power with 2nd Amendment Political arguments is where this ideology will manifest. Jay and I have informally discussed a future episode about Gun Culture, but I hope to put that off for a while. The idea of using a tragedy like Orlando as exigence for a podcast turns my stomach a bit.
At any rate, if you have any questions or thoughts you'd like to see Jay and I take up in this episode, let us know. You can leave a comment here or contact us via various social media.
In the meantime, for some more detailed background about this issue, the always-great John Fea wrote about this when there was still a Republican Primary. https://thewayofimprovement.com/2016/02/04/ted-cruz-dominionist/
I really must have this man on the show sometime. He's great.
The Sectarian Review Podcast is hosted by Danny Anderson, who is an Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA.