Briefly Reviewed: November 1985
The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age. Vol. I: Why Flannery O’Connor Stayed Home. Vol. II: Why Poe Drank Liquor. Vol. III: Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy
By Marion Montgomery
Publisher: Sherwood Sugden & Co.
Price: Vols. I and II, $19.95. Vol III, $24.95
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
With the publication of Why Hawthorne Was Melancholy, Marion Montgomery, a professor of English at the University of Georgia, has concluded his three-volume work entitled The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age. One fears that Montgomery’s volumes will be little remarked and even less read in most circles that purport to address serious intellectual matters. Montgomery’s trilogy suffers a number of disadvantages that threaten to thrust it into obscurity. Prophetic Poet comes from Sherwood Sugden, a shoestring press in LaSalle, Illinois, that lacks the resources to spread word of Montgomery’s achievement. Although Sugden has published such distinguished writers as Christopher Dawson, George William Rutler, and Christopher Derrick, it is frequently dismissed (if acknowledged at all) as merely one of the legion of dreary right-wing presses. The nature of Montgomery’s trilogy creates a further problem, for even those who happen to stumble upon the work will be faced with three fat volumes of closely reasoned analysis cast, unfortunately, in prose less than felicitous at times. Then, too, Montgomery is difficult to peg: The Prophetic Poet and the Spirit of the Age is a strange beast compounded of literary criticism, theology, metaphysics, political philosophy, social analysis, and intellectual history. Scholarly specialists used to neat categories will blanch at such a concoction. The greatest problem, however, is that Montgomery confronts the modern world with a message it is ill-inclined to heed or even listen to: he exposes with exquisite perspicacity the intellectual poverty, moral debility, and spiritual vacuity of our era. Few people thrive on bad news, and one suspects that Montgomery’s trilogy will be derided as nothing more than a gloomy and reactionary diagnosis of the maladies that afflict the 20th century.
We shall be the poorer for ignoring Montgomery’s dazzling display of erudition, scholarship, and sagacity. Seldom in recent decades has a book appeared that so convincingly and devastatingly charts the declension of Western thought and literature. Focusing in separate volumes on Flannery O’Connor, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, Montgomery ranges from Sophocles and Plato to the latest headlines from The New York Times in tracing the relationship between the prophetic poet and the dominant ethos with which he must contend; along the way Montgomery delves into figures as diverse as St. Augustine, Dante, Nietzsche, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Yet Montgomery’s work is no mere catalogue of famous thinkers; rather, he skillfully creates a grand design that far surpasses the conventional categories that generally serve to order one’s comprehension of past intellectual and literary endeavors.
Reduced to its bare essentials, Montgomery’s trilogy argues that since the Renaissance the poet (or better, the creative writer, be he poet, novelist, philosopher, or other variety of thinker) has tended to gravitate toward one of two extreme positions: a preoccupation with the material world as the end-all of existence or a rejection of this world for a flight into a transcendence that ends ultimately in the embrace of nothingness. There has existed, by contrast to these stances, a tertium quid: the prophetic poet “whose strongest concern is to see time and place reconciled to the transcendent but without presuming himself the reconciler and without rejecting the one or the other on the presumption of his inherent power, his own willful pride.” Guided by the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas and the philosophy of Eric Voegelin, Montgomery subjects the Western intellectual tradition to incisive examination. For Montgomery, Flannery O’Connor represents the consummate prophetic poet, Hawthorne the anguished prophet who falls short of O’Connor’s fullness of vision, and Poe the prophet gone wrong whose alienation from God and his fellow man eventuates in a solipsism that foreshadows the barren philosophizing of atheistic existentialism.
Montgomery does not limit himself to the supposedly objective analysis of the scholar, for he is engaged in far more than a pursuit of knowledge for its own sake; there is too much at stake to justify such an undertaking: the health of modern man’s soul and his ability to formulate a Christian vision of unity in the face of the chaos of modernity. Montgomery rejects the fragmenting dichotomies that have plagued Western man since the Renaissance: reason versus faith, nature versus grace, mundanity versus transcendence, temporal versus eternal, thought versus action. Amidst the welter of late 20th-century life Montgomery seeks to reconcile these dichotomies and to offer a sense of wholeness in which, as Josef Pieper has phrased it, “Existence does not adjoin the realm of Eternity; it is entirely permeated by it.”
Montgomery writes from a profoundly Christian perspective, but he refuses to engage in the deplorable practice of forging the faith into an ideological cudgel with which to bludgeon his opponents. One supposes that his most enthusiastic readers will be political conservatives who derive comfort from his condemnation of the spirit of our desiccated age. But if they read him carefully, they will find his words rather disconcerting. Those whose minds are constricted by the shibboleths of free-enterprise economics and 100 percent Americanism will find little to applaud in Montgomery’s dissection of the values that have dominated our nation since the Puritan fathers first stepped ashore on Massachusetts Bay in 1630.
Montgomery transcends the parochialism that characterizes so much of contemporary American thinking, whether it emanates from Right or Left, from Christian or non-Christian. For Montgomery is himself a prophetic poet who has shouldered the onerous and thankless task of disturbing our complacency, rebuking our waywardness, and recalling us to forgotten truths.
Miracles and the Critical Mind
By Colin Brown
Price: No price given
Review Author: James G. Hanink
“Master,” said Nicodemus, we realize that you are a teacher who has come from God. Obviously no one could show the signs that you show unless God were with him” (Jn. 3:2).
Did Nicodemus, on that night he sought out Jesus, demonstrate a “critical mind”? What was obvious to Nicodemus, after all, seems not to have been obvious to many other Pharisees. Nor, of course, is it obvious to a good many of our contemporaries. Still, if we find centuries of skepticism about Christ’s messianic claims, we can also see the occasional advance. We have grown, for example, more critical of the “critical mind.” Colin Brown’s historical study of miracles surely contributes to our savvy.
Nicodemus, wittingly or not, holds the key. What is the evidential status of miracles? What, if anything, do they prove? Here we might contrast two sharply different responses. The “hard evidentialist” claims that a neutral observer, even from a historical distance, must admit both that the miracles recorded in Scripture did occur and that they establish that Christ is God. Miracles, in this view, give objective proof of Christ’s divinity. The “confirmed agnostic,” on the other hand, insists that a neutral observer, even as a supposed eyewitness, cannot have good reasons for thinking that any miracle, in the sense of a violation of a law of nature, has ever happened. So no “miracle” establishes anything about Jesus of Nazareth.
But, one asks, isn’t there an alternative? And something other than a version of evidentialism or agnosticism? Brown’s position aims for such an alternative. A definite virtue of this careful work is its chronicling of how philosophical paradigms and scientific shifts affect the assessment of miracles — and how both philosophy and science themselves change. Brown’s view, roughly, is that there is no neutral perspective, either as a historian or as an eyewitness, from which to pass verdict on miracles. But the Christian, nonetheless, reasonably judges that miracles have taken place, as real events in history, and that they confirm that Jesus is the Son of God.
What kind of argument does Brown give for his, in many ways attractive, position? To support the premise that there just is no “neutral perspective,” he cites the thesis (popularized by Thomas Kuhn) that all facts are theory laden. Drawing on the contemporary philosopher Richard Swinburne, he also argues that the reasonableness of judging an event to have taken place is partly a function of its antecedent probability. And the antecedent probability of a miracle is far greater on the believer’s world view than it is on that of the nonbeliever’s.
Where Hume sees man’s chicanery, Pascal sees God’s handwriting. It may make some sense to speak of a laboratory technician’s neutrality about meter readings. But if the Christian is right, it makes no sense to speak of neutrality about the presence of Almighty God.
For Brown, then, miracles are signs rather than proofs. “They are manifestations of a divine ordering of the nature with which we are familiar, and of the eschatological order of Christian hope.” But if they are not proofs, neither are they fables or literary devices. Brown’s account of miracles, emerging from a reflective evangelical Protestant scholarship, is at once nuanced and broadly orthodox.
And yet for a Roman Catholic at least two questions remain. A first is whether Brown has put the evidentiary status of miracles quite right. Vatican Council I, as he notes, teaches that miracles and prophecies “constitute the surest sign of divine revelation, signs that are suitable to everyone’s understanding.” Doubtless there is no such thing as epistemic neutrality. But the conciliar doctrine suggests that God’s dramatic interventions in nature, at least by their immediate witnesses, cannot be plausibly denied. Pharaoh might well harden his heart — but only then can he discount what has happened.
A second question is whether miracles occur in our time. (For Calvin and Luther they do not. Once Christianity is launched, miracles end.) Brown largely sidesteps this question, though he is respectful of the Catholic view. Still, a Catholic who welcomes the ministry of healing that is so much a part of the charismatic movement will likely be puzzled by those Protestants who doubt that miracles happen in the 20th century.
In summary: this is a welcome work on the history of theological and philosophical thinking about miracles. If we ever wonder why what was obvious to Nicodemus has often been less obvious to others, Colin Brown can certainly guide our speculations.
©1985 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.
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