Volume > Issue > Briefly Reviewed: November 1985

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.

Pages: 1,487

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

Publisher: Eerdmans/Paternoster

Pages: 383

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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