Flavours of criticism

Seven Keys to Modern Art, Simon Morley, Thames & Hudson.

Simon Morley’s Seven Keys to Modern Art puts up-front and centre the postmodernist approach to art criticism by taking a number of famous artworks and analysing each of them using a series of methods – historical, aesthetic, experiential, and so on. Morley chooses just one particular artwork from an artist to represent both the artist’s output and career and particular genres, and applies systematically his flavours of criticism, each in a section of not more than a couple of pages, in order to illustrate the different ways we might (unconsciously and consciously) regard an artwork. This is not necessarily relativism, a beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder attitude, because he doesn’t shy away from judgement, but he does take the approach that we view art through different lenses, depending on circumstance and ideology, and we judge art’s success in various ways. There is a practicality to Morley’s approach; for example, we might, aesthetically judge a painting a failure while it is an art market success, fetching an exorbitant price. (Picasso’s late paintings, for example, may often fall into this category.) This is simply taking into account the reality of the art world.

In particular, Morley’s decision to include ‘market’ and ‘sceptical’ in his categories of criticism is interesting, since in pointing out the possible flaws in an artwork, and pointing out how often the fads of the art market determine what is successful art, Morley subverts much of the other positive analysis he includes. I can’t help but concentrate on the negatives, concluding that much high art is simply high art because someone says it is. And of course this is often the somewhat pessimistic conclusion to be drawn from postmodernist theory. It takes some of the power away from the work of art and places it back with the viewer. Or buyer.

On a more positive note (and at the risk of contradicting myself), this multifaceted approach allows us to avoid hasty judgements. We don’t need to make black and white judgements about art. Art is a striving for varying degrees of success. Sometimes the art viewer is inconsequential; much art is made for the artist’s own sense of achievement. Art is made for different purposes; one needs to analyse success against intention, and one can argue about the legitimacy of purpose. Much political art is derided for being such, even if the artist fully intended to make a political statement, because of the narrow-minded view of some that art is its own end (‘art for art’s sake’). Morley’s approach can allow us to wait for the artist to speak for herself, rather than expecting an artwork to answer the questions we bring to it. At the same time, it allows us to be free to be unmoved by some art. A postmodernist approach allows us to not buy into art market hype.

To take one chapter as an example, Morley focusses on an early, cubist collage of Picasso’s. He begins by outlining, in his biographical and historical sections, how Picasso, through cubism’s incorporation of ready-made, everyday objects, questioned how painting was done. Rather than painting a newspaper, he just stuck one on, and with his use of flat planes and shapes, he moved in the opposite direction of grand, realist representation, in effect challenging the viewer to construct everyday objects from as little information as possible. In doing so, says Morley, he makes a puzzle out of art. In asking us to decipher a painting, Picasso, somewhat like Morley himself, asks us not only to view the painting, but also to think about how we view paintings.

Morley also refers to the linguistic theories of Saussure, noting that Picasso’s painting here is an example of Saussure’s theory of interpreting signs. Painting becomes a written language. But Morley points out, in his ‘sceptical’ section, that this became something of a dead-end for Picasso, as sticking bits of newspaper on a canvas devalues the role of the artist (especially when this artist is aiming to make a lot of money from his ‘skill’). It also removes the sublime aspects from art, and art becomes just a useless duplication of what is already there, available to most of us. We might see cubist collage as just another step in Picasso’s relentless innovation, and innovation is partly why he is so valued, but cubist collage’s ultimate redundancy is underlined, says Morley, by the fact that Picasso soon abandoned it.

Because innovation was so highly prized in the Twentieth Century, work that was labelled ‘illustration’ was often set down as substandard art, partly because illustration is seen, like political art, as not standing alone, and also because it often relies on older notions of realism and technical skill, even if it is often caught up with the advertising world which is always on the lookout for the attention-grabbingly innovative. Morley doesn’t comment on this, but part of the positive legacy of postmodernism has been a recognition and rediscovery of illustrators and graphic design, and other ways of making art. Scepticism about the high art market and the role of art institutions dictating artistic taste has, happily, diverted attention to folk art and handicrafts (often the realm of subordinated female artists), commercial illustration and cartoons.

Morley does some further subverting by including in his catalogue works from Asian artists Xu Bing and Lee Ufan. Asian art often operates in different contexts and on different bases, and Morley reminds us that the Western trajectory of art is not the only one, and that there is a danger in talking about art by referring to other art, because it can narrow our ideological focus and criteria for appreciating art.


An empty bucket

Conjuring the Universe, Peter Atkins, Oxford University Press.

If the universe started from an infinitesimally small point, it kinda makes sense for the laws of the universe, despite the weirdness of quantum physics and subatomic particles, to have an underlying simplicity. Peter Atkins is out to prove in Conjuring the Universe that ‘not much’ needed to happen at the start of the universe for it to have the complexity it has now, as not only are the universe’s laws and constants fairly simple, but, also, things like the angular momentum of galaxies and particles’ electric charges add up to zero, meaning there is containment and simplicity here too. Fair enough, as the universe is an isolated system, and if they didn’t add up to zero we would have to postulate something or someone outside the universe constantly tinkering, a notion even the religious usually reject.

Atkins is a populariser of science. He can write wittily, and, good grief, he knows his chemistry and maths inside and out, but things get slipperier when he tries to speculate on origins. ‘It is important to be clear about the meaning of words’ he says at one point, then happily admits that he is using some terms loosely. His desire is, he says bluntly, to remove the idea of a Creator from the creation, and to do so, he tries to suggest that ‘not much’ happened at the start of the universe, so we can nearly say that nothing happened, effectively ruling God out. ‘Gone activity, gone agent’, he writes.

Quite aside from the fact that there are other deeper questions of why the universe should be running or continue running, why matter is unfailingly consistent or why you can have any laws at all, this elision of ‘not much’ and ‘nothing’ at the universe’s beginning, arising from the desperation to rid the world of the God hypothesis, causes him to use phrases that simply gloss over the difference – a key difference if we are trying to figure what on earth we are talking about when we are talking about the start of the universe.
He wouldn’t be particularly impressed, I would guess, if I told him the lights in my house come on by themselves. Well, they almost do. I do practically nothing – I just flick a switch, which is not much at all, and electricity flows to the light bulb filaments, illuminating the rooms. It is obvious here that the difference between nothing and not much is substantial. Nevertheless, if he can close that insignificant gap at some stage God disappears in a puff of smoke, aping the universe’s beginning but in reverse.

Some of what he writes is just unmoored metaphor. Mary Midgley, always alert to these things, would have been dismissive. He writes of nothing ‘rolling over’ into something, and then the Big Bang happening, ignoring what might cause the rolling and assuming that by talking about what happened before the Big Bang he has distanced questions of complexity from origins. He writes of the ‘fructiferous potency of nothing’, which sounds nice but is simply nonsense, like ‘the beauty of ugliness’. Likewise he argues using set theory that one can have multiple sets containing nothing, so nothing can be something and, hey presto, same with the universe, which is like saying if I have an empty bucket I have both nothing and something. These are just word games dressed up as scientific hypothesising.

This nothing becoming something, however consistent or logical the something is, is not really explained. He admits it is speculation and, when discussing how the positive and negative charges separated in the early universe, says he has ‘no idea’. This nothing being something, by the way, is also Stephen Hawking’s argument – because we get zero sum totals in the universe (of matter and antimatter, say), then nothing had to be created, despite the evidence of our senses that there is something in all this differentiation. The fact that things are separated and a great fecundity arises from the fact is hurried over. And it means that with the gap between not much and nothing glaringly obvious, Atkins’ book is simply a book about the simplicity of the universe’s fundamentals that is neither here nor there when trying to disprove God. ‘Not much’ gets no closer to ruling God out. Simplicity may, after-all, point to a designer.

This is not to say that the universe’s laws do prove there is a designer. We are in speculative areas here. Science becomes more like philosophy when discussing origins. If we are discussing something beyond the universe, how does scientific method fit into this? Can the metaphor of nothing ‘rolling over’ into something hope to make any sense at all beyond our in-universe sense of time and place? I wonder also whether Atkins is at times just confusing phenomenology with ontology. And all this aside, I wonder, why is he so desperate to disprove a Creator? Does he see the idea of a Creator as a cop-out, the equivalent of a parent saying ‘because I said so’? Is it in the spirit of open-minded scientific enquiry to so vehemently discount a hypothesis in favour of a ‘gut feeling’? Why can’t he just say that the hypothesis of a Creator certainly makes some logical sense but also raises other questions of logic and that he tends to be unswayed? Why is his every reference to a hypothetical Creator dripping with sarcasm?

I think these are the most interesting questions the book raises but I realise they are naïve questions. Gut feelings, personal preference, upbringing, relationships – these all bear upon scientific enquiry. They colour thinking and send us in particular directions when composing hypotheses. Atkins is in that cohort who think God is an imaginary figure in the same category as leprechauns, betraying a lack of theological knowledge, sure. But his gut reaction might also be to clerical abuse of children, religious persecution of minorities, or the Church’s corruption by being too close to political power. He might be driven to frustration by fundamentalist branches of religion’s distortion of science, and assumes that religion and knowledge are incompatible opposites. Or he might have more personal reasons to mistrust the Church and be angry at God and religious people. He says, by way of legitimising his prejudice, that gut feelings are often a good starting point for science. They can also be a barrier to further understanding, Einstein’s gut feeling against the unpredictability of the quantum world being one famous example. But a good question for Christians, or the religious in general, might be: what makes someone like Atkins follow his gut feeling for such derisive and somewhat myopic dismissal?

Extravagant gestures

Geoff Dyer’s White Sands is a book of travel reports, if you think of that as a generous term, encompassing travel to hospital as well as travel to China. At the very least (and the book is more than this) it is an implicit argument for the art of the essay – how to drive a narrative, set up jokes, hone epigraphic prose. I particularly like how he writes in an essay on Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, ‘After the Jetty sank and his plane crashed, Smithson’s reputation soared.’

In the middle of the book, structurally if not also thematically, are essays on some of the big ‘Earth Art’ (or ‘Land Art’) projects of the twentieth century, including Spiral Jetty, where artists eschewed the studio and gallery and went out into the world, into the outdoors to capture some of nature’s sublimity after centuries of trying to convey that sublimity on canvas. There is some irony in this because, as Robert Hughes points out, most art lovers only viewed these artworks in reproduction, in photograph or video, recalling the days long before easy international travel, when famous artworks were often only encountered by the majority in their reproductions by etchings and then, later, photographs. (Though this is slightly complicated by the fact that Smithson envisaged photos and video to be part of the jetty artwork, not just a record of it.)

Walter De Maria’s Lightning Field is an art installation of steel pointed poles covering a square mile or so of New Mexico desert. A photograph of it famously adorns the cover of Hughes’ American Visions. Dyer wanders around with some friends and finds the scale moving. In particular he responds in his essay to Lewis Mumford’s claim that human beings reserve extravagant gestures for religion. Dyer suggests sublime art can now be atheistic, ‘unless art has now become a god’, which, of course, it sort of has, or at least it is a religion with no external god, curving in on itself, the vehicle of veneration itself the object of veneration. If that is over-arguing the case, we might just as well say that viewing art is sometimes like a religious experience, and in the case of Earth Art, the experience recalls that of entering cathedrals and temples – structures that point to the power of both the divine and the human. The experience has to do with, amongst other things, the contemplation of time, the reality check of comparing the human to the eternal. Indeed, Dyer notes that Lightning Field is built for longevity, so that as well as the contemplation of space, Lightning Field facilitates the contemplation of time.

Although it is ostensibly in the same category of art, Spiral Jetty on the other hand is a more transient artwork making not the opposite case, but at least facilitating a contemplation of time from an opposite perspective. It was built at a time when the salt lake in which it is found was low, later it was submerged for years, until re-emerging more recently, with the added bonus of a covering, initially, of a sparkling crusting of salt. Rather than stand starkly and industrially permanent apart from its setting, its organic form, though striking, has a resonance with the natural world. It is a man-made object mimicking one of the simple forms of nature. Also, Smithson was fascinated by entropy and so the idea of the jetty’s eventual disintegration was part of the overall design. (Art conservators shouldn’t be needed but there is now an art foundation looking after the site, somewhat undermining Smithson’s intentions.) Dyer notes how if one is to travel to Spiral Jetty’s unique location and walk its spiral (recalling the medieval practice of walking the cathedral labyrinth, by the way), one enters and travels around it anti-clockwise, suggesting travel back through time, though he also notes, irreverently, that because of the low level of the lake one can also just take a straight line to the artwork’s centre, cutting across the arm of the spiral and saving time. This perhaps shows a human desire to shortcut access to the sublime, and it also perhaps echoes classical scholar Mary Beard’s comment in one of her recent books on art that throughout history major monuments to humans and gods have been subverted by a sceptical public.

Wood and wire thing

A Coveted Possession: the Rise and Fall of the Piano in Australia, La Trobe Uni Press.

Girls at the Piano, Virginia Lloyd, Allen and Unwin.

My mum was a piano teacher and a childhood memory is of the house filled with the sound of the piano. As romantic as that might sound, it was often simply children practicing scales and phrases being repeated over and over while Mum encouraged and admonished. A few decades on, learning the piano is still a part of children’s education, and indeed, the piano is a good grounding for learning music generally. My son is learning the piano, although he plays a keyboard rather than a piano, reflecting the decline of the heavy, boxy, wood and wire thing in the living room corner.

Pianos are now something of a luxury object – not really obsolete but, like the gramophone, exchanged for the electronic version. The real thing can be prohibitively expensive to purchase, costly to maintain and keep in tune, and are a burden when moving house. They are also not necessarily easy to fix, and today broken or even just unwanted pianos are dumped and destroyed, though this is not just a recent problem. Though we think of modern society as an exclusively disposable one, in his book Blue Lake David Sornig describes a huge bonfire of pianos beyond repair at the West Melbourne tip in 1914, some sort of performance itself, with wires popping atonally and the flames revealing skeletal frameworks in a musical charnel house.

In his book on the history of the piano in Australia Michael Atherton describes how the piano was seen as a household necessity, like a television today. A piano arrived in Australia with the First Fleet, along with the livestock, grains and bibles. In the ‘golden age’ of the piano (late 1800s to mid-1900s), as they became cheaper, along with the availability of cheaply printed sheet music, they became an essential aid to entertainment, especially before the invention of radio, as well as a middle class status symbol.

Great efforts were made to ship pianos from Europe, and they were hauled across the country by horse, bullock and camel. They were ubiquitous in town halls, schools, pubs, church halls and the military. For injured servicemen pianos contributed to what we would now term music therapy. Pianos were sent on warships, and there were pianos in the jungles of Papua New Guinea and at Changi, where internees even snuck out in the middle of the night, stole and carried a piano back to the prison camp. (The guards, scared of losing face, chose to ignore its obvious sudden presence.)

(One thing underplayed in Atherton’s book is recognition of the importance of pianos for churches. He differentiates between the organ as the church instrument and the piano as the everyday instrument, but pianos were used in Sunday schools, choir practices and school chapels.)

The Australian climate warped pianos, easily sending them out of tune, until, in the middle of the nineteenth century, iron frames were invented, creating a sturdier piano that stayed in tune longer. The first Australian pianos were made also in the mid-nineteenth century, competing with German pianos, considered the best. As in other areas, there was some ‘cultural cringe’ regarding buying local, but there was a healthy local industry. When WWI hit, German pianos went out of favour, though they still kept coming – the importers simply removed the German names. These days the best pianos are German, but also Japanese, and there is a burgeoning industry in China, though there are also local, boutique manufacturers, still innovating.

Virginia Lloyd’s Girls at the Piano is less about the piano, and more about the pianist, and more lyrical and introspective. Her memoir describes being able to sight-read the piano at school, having perfect pitch and being destined for a musical career, but also how she stalled, didn’t touch the piano for years, only later returning to it with a yearning to understand what this all meant.

In her memoir she recounts the tedium of practice and lessons, but also how the love and learning of music connects to and enhances other areas of life, how music connects people beyond the normal conventions of relations between the sexes and different age groups, how it can give a shy person feelings of power and confidence, and how learning music contains the thrill of ‘unlocking a mystery’.

In particular, the book is about the female pianist and how learning the piano has, over the last century and a half, been an expectation in the education of girls, yet until recently there have been few female concert pianists. Lloyd notes how, as with other pursuits, in polite society it was thought unseemly for women to perform in public, or even to improvise. Lloyd describes, on the other hand, her own love of improvisation, its subversive thrill, of playing in a jazz band where, though she doesn’t describe it that way, the jazz musician’s role is like a footballer’s combination of skill, drilled behaviour and adrenaline-fuelled, intuitive, snap decision-making.

Old ways are best

All Among the Barley, Melissa Harrison, Bloomsbury.

In his book Landmarks Robert Macfarlane comments on the richness of the vocabulary relating to the English landscape – the myriad of words, often local, that describe plants, birds, farm activities, weather and the like, but that are as endangered as other ‘old ways’ (another of Macfarlane’s book titles). It is no wonder that he endorses Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley. Harrison alternates between fiction and nature writing, and at the centre of this latest novel is the loss of old ways of doing things in the English countryside, and whether this is a good thing. The language that she uses shows the inseparability of tradition and its terminology. Describing is part of understanding.

The novel is set in the 1930s and its main character, Edie, is a teenager on a farm in the grain-growing area of England’s East Anglia. The river that flows through her village is called The Stound, an echo of the actual River Stour in Suffolk. The family farm is a self-contained and self-sufficient world, which Harrison enhances by paying attention to the way farmers know individual fields with their particularities and purposes like rooms in a house. But village life is also important, and Harrison deftly shows how, despite community spirit, World War One, the fluctuations of the markets and climate, and the looming crisis in Europe create stress and division.

Edie is growing into womanhood, receiving the unwanted attention of a local boy, and pondering her future. Although she can see the beauty in farm life, she is also attuned to its hardships, and can feel the weight of a potential life on the land pressing down. She is bookish and feels the pull of the city, even if she is unfamiliar with it. When a London journalist, Constance, comes to chronicle disappearing rural traditions, Edie finds a kindred spirit, and Constance encourages Edie to aim for a wider future. ‘Constance’ is an interesting and, I assume, not incidental choice of character name, harbouring a contradiction, as she has a passion for conserving the old ways even while she is a modern woman for the times (getting about in trousers) and encourages Edie personally to embrace change. The community is both welcoming and wary of uninhibited Constance, bemused, as rural people often are, at the city slicker’s enthusiasm for the supposed quaintness and wholesomeness of rural life. The local farmers tend towards the practical, and argue that while some old ways are best, technological progress brings undisputed benefits.

Some of the traditions relate to the business of farming. Some relate to witchcraft, which may or may not survive in the lives of local women. Harrison describes the particulars of baking, washing and harvesting, and the way past centuries literally push through the ground. As the book progresses we find that there is a more insidious side to the debate about tradition and progress, as some locals warm to the fascist ideology popular at the time (in England as well as Europe) that mixed ideas of homeland, tradition and racial purity. As well as evoking rural life, Harrison subtly explores the way a small farming village is not immune to the darker politics playing out on a more global scale.

What evangelicals want

The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, Frances FitzGerald, Simon and Schuster.

The history of American evangelical Christianity is as convoluted, wild and diverse as the US itself. Partly this is because there is no impregnable definition of evangelicalism. Although it is thought of in terms of beliefs, it is as much a style as anything. In Frances FitzGerald’s monumental, detailed, necessary history evangelicalism is not monochromatic. Neither is it static.

One could illustrate the fluidity of evangelicalism by picking almost any point on the timeline, but historians often see (and I am always intrigued by) Richard Nixon’s presidency as a key point in the modern turn of US politics, and we could likewise pinpoint the solidification of conservatism in evangelicalism, creating the stereotypical image of an evangelical that has predominated for decades but is now starting to fracture. Nixon may have been resentful of the coastal liberal elites but he wasn’t a hard right Republican. He was middle-of-the-road on abortion, had, let’s say, conflicted views on war (despite his escalation of the Vietnam War, he wanted to thaw the Cold War), and thought gun activists were nuts. Nevertheless it was his deliberate cultivation of support from the so-called silent majority, mainstream America worried about moral decay, that swept him into power. And among this conservative majority a minority began trying to reinforce in the American public’s mind that evangelicals were to be equated with Republicans. Part of this was the escalation of the abortion issue, which had not been such a rallying point previously, as well as activism against equal rights legislation, which was seen as radical minority rights, which were being promoted within the increasingly anarchic universities, encroaching on traditional values. It wasn’t all one way. The 1970s also saw an evangelical backlash against conservatism from Ron Sider and others. But the momentum was conservative and eventually Reagan was the beneficiary, though he didn’t realise conservative evangelicals’ every dream.

There are parallels with George W Bush, a conservative who, unlike Reagan, wore his evangelicalism on his sleeve but who also didn’t always do what evangelicals wanted and who also prompted a backlash, this time from the likes of prominent evangelical Rick Warren, who began to question the evangelical emphasis on personal morality over collective morality, particularly when it came to First World obligations to the Third World, and ethicist David Gushee who argued against the Bush administration’s sanction of torture, and who pushed against the boundaries of a conservative definition of evangelical with his thinking on same-sex marriage. (FitzGerald argues that for some the realignment may have been shrewd brand reinvention in the face of an increasingly liberal American public’s distaste for fire-and brimstone televangelists.) The election of Trump has caused further uncertainty within the evangelical camp as to whether conservative values and evangelical values happily align.

Evangelicalism is a force in American culture, but only one quarter of Americans identify as evangelical, and a minority of those don’t always identify themselves as conservative. It is therefore difficult to make definitive statements about what evangelicals believe, and there are contradictions. Evangelicals often talk as if the US is a Christian country but they also, as Christians are biblically advised to do, think of themselves as a minority – resident aliens, in the terms made famous in a religious sense by Willimon and Hauerwas. Evangelicals often talk as if they are like the biblical prophets, called by God to bring America back to God, as if the nation was founded as a religious state. But unlike biblical Israel, it is not clear America has ever been God’s country, except in the sense of the statistical likelihood of its citizens attending church. But even that fluctuates. While it is true that New England was settled for religious reasons, this was not the case for all the colonies, and historian Jill Lepore points out that by the time of independence only one out of ten Americans attended church regularly.

Whether the other ninety percent thought of themselves as Christian is perhaps more to the point. FitzGerald suggests that religion united the founding colonies, no less. But it might be fairer to say that it was a shared English heritage. Certainly, and famously, a state religion was proscribed, though the particulars of this have been debated ever since. Those identifying as evangelicals initially supported this enthusiastically because they were generally outsiders and aimed to be the receivers of religious tolerance. The Great Awakenings were grassroots movements beyond the staid, established churches which these evangelicals equated with a formal, perfunctory, lackluster Christianity. So evangelicals initially were happy for the separation of church and state and tended to avoid politics, focusing instead on individual morality. Mandating prayer in schools would have been anachronistic. But, again, how this played out was complicated, because later evangelicals were happy if the government of the day aided their drives for moral reform of society, as with prohibition. (As FitzGerald omits black churches from her narrative, arguing, controversially, they were not on the evangelical trajectory, she perhaps nudges evangelicals back towards the establishment.)

Fast forward to Jerry Falwell’s moral majority of the 1980s and the scales tipped. Falwell wasn’t arguing for a state church, but he did see a moral degeneracy that needed to be confronted both from below and above. FitzGerald sees the political activism of Falwell and company as a form of prohibition, with its aim, above all, as the enactment of laws that would enforce a specifically Christian moral code. The 1980s, and Reagan’s presidency, were a heyday in some respects, though the language suggested the Apocalypse was nigh, and evangelicals longed for the heyday of the 50s. There was some irony in Reagan’s courting of evangelicals, as Carter was the true evangelical. Reagan was an actor through and through and it is not even clear he was Christian.

Identity is important for evangelicals. When I attended an evangelical Anglican conference on a religious press pass a couple of years ago a participant, noticing my pass, cornered me and asked me whether I would call myself an evangelical. I sensed behind this question a desire to know if I was friend or foe. Is evangelicalism simply self-identification? Or are there moral stances that make or break? For some evangelicals, same-sex marriage is a defining issue, but David Gushee still calls himself an evangelical. Evangelism is of course simply spreading the good news, but what that good news entails exactly is contested. Evangelicals have supported and opposed segregation, miracle working, nuclear armament, the idea of America as a chosen nation, women’s rights, prayer in schools, the teaching of Evolution, prosperity gospel theology, government welfare, American military adventuring, and global aid. Evangelicals, FitzGerald says, have a fear of disorder, but are wary of government intervention.

What is consistent throughout is that for a movement, with a focus on ideals, the history of evangelicalism is surprisingly that of charismatic individuals. It is a story of prominent individuals rising and falling in the public’s attention and esteem – Jonathan Edwards, Billy Graham, Phyllis Schafly, Jerry Falwell, the Bakkers, James Dobson, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, David Gushee. Or perhaps it is not that surprising, considering the US’s history and idealization of individualism.

A woeful attempt to buy off God

Radical Sacrifice, Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press.

Sacrifice is a multifaceted, historically changeable word. It can mean paying the ultimate price – death – or something merely symbolic. As in war or revolution, it can help the status quo or threaten it. In the words of one theorist, it can be obligation or transgression. The Anzacs made sacrifices for the continuity of Empire, while for Dietrich Bonhoeffer it meant seeking an end to the empire of the Third Reich. As well as addressing inequality, it can perpetuate it, as seen in the austerity measures in Europe which have been used to pay for the recklessness and power of the rich.

The notion of sacrifice is central to religion, though theologian Robert Daly points out that Christian ideas of sacrifice are profoundly different to those of ancient religions, which are versions of an exchange with the gods. But the idea that an angry God needed to be placated by the sacrifice of Jesus persists. Secular society retains this traditional meaning under different guises, including sacrificing a handful of cricketers to the angry, sports loving public.

Sacrifice is the perfect topic for Terry Eagleton, in whose writing, he admits, we find the rare concurrence of leftist political thinking and Christianity. As a literary critic he brings in examples from fiction, grapples with philosophy and psychology, and then applies them to politics and ethics. He is out to retrieve the more radical aspects of sacrifice, rescuing it from conservativism and duty, and revealing modern liberalism’s wariness of it as self-centred or unnecessarily difficult. In Eagleton’s view, Jesus’ sacrifice is transformative because it upends the way the world thinks about power.

Traditionally sacrifice involves restoring the balance through putting the greater good ahead of the individual. In an individualistic society, this may instead be entirely internal, as in short-term pain for long-term gain. There is something of the Protestant work ethic in this, but Jesus seemed indifferent to such frugality, as indicated by the incident where a woman poured expensive perfume over him. Although indifferent to material wealth, Jesus nevertheless celebrates life itself.  Eagleton points out that it is not sacrifice to give up what you don’t value, and Jesus’ agony in Gethsemane shows how he valued what he was giving up. Death in Christianity, Eagleton says, is ‘accepted but not endorsed’, which shows up as false accounts of Christianity as ascetic and life-denying. As he says, the monastic life has been traditionally valued not because ordinary life is worthless, but because monks and nuns were giving up the riches of ordinary life for a higher purpose. (Things went haywire when this turned into disdain for ordinary life, which was what Martin Luther was partly reacting to.)

In the Old Testament, the prophets condemned ritual sacrifice as a woeful attempt to buy off God while the work of addressing society’s injustices remained undone. The challenge to the idea of God as a stern father needing appeasement through ritual appears here first. The prophets were pointing out the absurdity of the idea that God is more amicably predisposed towards human beings when he can smell roasting meat. A better option would have been to offer the roast to the poor. The early Christians likewise ignored the surrounding culture’s emphasis on ritual sacrifice for the good of society and concentrated instead on society’s outcasts, attracting the wrath of those in power.

Jesus was sacrificed, says Eagleton, for suggesting that God’s kingdom belongs not to the rich but to the poor. The authorities of his time saw the danger to their own position, not to mention the offence, from the idea that those who led the community turned their backs to God, and the poor and outcast were more in-tune with God.

In order to further their own ends, the rulers of the world are always happy to let others do the sacrificing. In the Russian Revolution the peasants were sacrificed for the sake of the supposedly egalitarian communist future. For Friedrich Nietzsche, society can only function if the elite (including himself) raise themselves on the bent backs of the poor masses. Lest we cast too many stones, we may ask what or whom we are sacrificing to the idol of our Western lifestyles: the global poor, the health of our oceans, the wellbeing of future generations?

(Originally reviewed for Insights magazine.)