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In Brief: March 01, 1999

While studying with Dutch art historian Hans Rookmaaker, a few of us were invited to his home for coffee and cookies. I noticed a religious print on his wall that lacked any of the aesthetic qualities he had taught us to look for. He noticed me standing in front of it and said without elaboration: "There are a lot of reasons beside aesthetic ones to hang something in one's house." True enough. But what are they, I wondered? Because it was a gift of a beloved aunt? Did it remind him of some event in his life? Or speak of God in a way that touched him deeply? He didn't tell us; indeed, the questions did not even figure in the art curriculum of that day, though Rookmaaker already knew they were important.

Much has changed in the study of art—and of religion—in the 25 years since that experience, and much of that change has come to focus on what to make of our everyday religious life—its artifacts and practices. Now an art historian at Valparaiso University, David Morgan, has written a book, published by a university press, about the "other" reasons for hanging things in one's living room, especially reasons connected with faith.

Visual Piety: A History and Theory of Popular Religious Images by David Morgan
Univ. of California Press
280 pp.; $35

In 1993 Morgan ran an ad in 25 religious periodicals, asking people to comment on the role Warner Sallman's Head of Christ (or any of his other popular prints) played in their lives. The 531 responses provide the primary data for his project, though Morgan puts these responses in the context of a rich study of popular piety that stretches from the Middle Ages through the Reformation to Jonathan Edwards and Victorian America.

But why should people in universities pay any attention to this kind of popular religious art? Behind this question lies an important shift in cultural studies over the last generation. Increasingly scholars recognize the importance of everyday practices and the way people construct their world—even, or especially, with things they hang on their walls or stick on their refrigerators. Rather than seeing popular religious images as expressions of a "hegemonic" mass culture, Morgan underlines their character as collective representations that express a deeply felt communion with the unseen world. And rather than privileging aesthetic contemplation that reinforces class distinctions, Morgan wants to understand the way images become "the means by which space becomes familiar and personal" and grasp their role in making belief functional.

Though this is not his primary purpose, Morgan gathers important materials that would contribute to understanding the development of the Protestant imagination: The inward attention to the spoken and preached Word, and the focus on transforming spiritual experiences with their goal of encountering God. This focus leads inevitably to an emphasis on narrative and to a belittling of visual objects, which can illustrate but not embody truth. But does this not reflect an important theological weakness that refuses to take God's creation and Christ's incarnation with radical seriousness? And does this not lead to an inferior aesthetic that does not allow a full-bodied experience of will, emotion, and heart in the presence of images that challenge our world as well as secure it?

These reflections led me to a deeper question. If popular religious art developed in a milieu where these (primarily) theological corrections were made, I wondered, is there any reason why popular art cannot, in its own way, challenge as well as secure our world? David Morgan implies that it can, but his dichotomizing of high and low art, the one challenging the other securing our world, keeps him (and I suspect all of us) from fully appreciating this genre. Does not the art of, say, Georgia O'Keefe or Henri Matisse secure our world as well as challenge it? And in a world that always is in danger of falling apart around us, shaping images that comfort and sustain us may reflect a greater miracle than we scholars can recognize. I think David Morgan knows this, but scholarly publications, like most conversations about art in our century, have sometimes conspired to keep this fact a secret.

William A. Dyrness

Local Heroes: The Political Economy of Russian Regional Governance

By Kathryn Stoner-Weiss
Princeton University Press
240 pp., $35

When are local heroes not persons? When they are in the hands of a social scientist. Then they are … something else—forces maybe, abstractions. This book seeks to discover how post-Soviet Russia is faring by looking at some of the regions, and the premise that "Moscow isn't Russia" is sound. Yet the only persons who get more than the skimpiest passing mention are Moscow players Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin, plus favored Western scholars.

The regions studied are four oblasts, or provinces, out of 89 territorial units, one of them twice the size of Texas. So the heroes are not very local, either. To be exact, the local heroes are "high-performance governments" of sizable territories. In case you're interested, Nizhni Novgorod is doing better than Tyumen, which is doing better than Yaroslavl and Saratov. The desiderata are democracy in politics and the free market in economics, a combination only recently established among Western scholars as unassailable.

Adhering strictly to the Gospel of Statistics, the author ladles out charts and graphs to show that early progress comes fast when businessmen and politicians are in cahoots. Or, as she prefers, the "central argument of this book" is that "civil society in the post-Soviet context is poorly organized and that coterminous political and economic change made economic actors particularly important to the functioning of regional governments."

It's what comes next that will please those who exercise the hermeneutics of suspicion on social-science "literature." Positivist methodology's one very small step for mankind leaves us with the puzzle of why "clearly some regions were better governed than others, although on paper their institutions were identical." And so the operative word of the book's final movement is may. Stoner-Weiss comes to the "potentially unsettling prediction" that over the long haul decentralization may be better than the company-town model. That would clear the way, of course, for true heroes truly local.

—Edward E. Ericson, Jr.

The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet: Tools of Scientific Revolutions

By Freeman Dyson
Oxford Univ. Press
124 pp.; $22

Freeman Dyson hopes that technology—which he broadly describes as the fruit of applied science—can become an agent of positive social change. He knows that the events of this century have amply demonstrated the ability of technology to achieve the opposite result when misused, but his hope lies in the fact that the same human beings who misused technology in the past can now use it for more noble ends.

Dyson has the good sense to know that technological advances will inevitably have an impact on society, for good or ill. In The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, Dyson offers one view of how the technological tools presently available can be used to create a better world. The title of his book reflects his belief that solar power, genetic engineering, and the Internet offer the latest and best hope to create a world where the lives of all people will be dramatically improved.

To that end, he applauds advances in genetic engineering that have led to the sequencing of genomes. His view, which seems to be correct, is that this work will continue to benefit humankind as diseases and birth defects are progressively eradicated. He also suggests that if humans ever wish to colonize outer space, they must create genetically engineered plant life that can survive in extreme environments.

Dyson also argues that the Internet can help promote social justice and improve the standard of living of all people. He argues that if the information and channels of communication provided by the Internet were accessible to all, it would lead to a more equal distribution of wealth among nations and bring about the most massive improvement in the human situation that the world has ever known. Technologically speaking, this global network would be brought about by a series of low-orbit satellites. Those in remote or poverty-stricken areas would be able to use solar-powered receivers to tap into this global network.

Dyson knows that many of his predictions will be wrong. His concerns, however, transcend the specifics of technology. The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet is really a challenge to those of good faith, including Christians, who hope and pray that such technologies will improve the world rather than exacerbate existing problems. Because his book is more a manifesto than a roadmap, it is left to the reader to work out the details.

The one major failing of the book is that Dyson does not seem to have a sufficient awareness that "technology is only one of many forces driving human history, and seldom the most important," even though he writes the words. As a result, the book never quite manages to offer the nuanced analysis of the role of technology in society one would have expected. Dyson instead leaves to others the complicated task of understanding the past, present, and future of technology against the backdrop of larger religious, economic, and cultural trends and histories.

—Matt Donnelly

Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information

By Erik Davis
Harmony Books
353 pp.; $25

Erik Davis has provided us with an important book on the symbiotic relationship between technology and the spiritual imagination. Following Neil Postman and others, he begins with the premise that "Culture is technoculture." Davis goes further, however, to suggest that all technology, because it is imagined and created by human beings, is infused with "metaphysical concerns." Out of humanity's "spiritual imagination," technological artifacts are created and infused with religious meanings as diverse as humanity itself. (Some, for example, have argued for the Buddhist nature of cyberspace.)

Davis's argument for the link between spirituality and technology is persuasive. He provides a useful overview of spiritual interpretations given to technology in the twentieth century—even as the Western world has become increasingly post-Christian. Another line of supporting evidence is to be found in the various religious uses and understandings of the Internet, amply documented in Jeff Zaleski's groundbreaking work The Soul of Cyberspace.

It is Davis's analysis of the "metaphysical concerns" revealed by technology—and given new life to some degree by technology—that makes his book worthy of attention from the church. Particularly instructive is Davis's suggestion that mystical understandings of technological innovations have almost inevitably been placed within larger utopian frameworks tinged with ancient gnosticism. Techgnosis itself is driven by the human-centered search for transcendence that lies behind the religious eclecticism of modern cyberculture and in a real sense propels cyberculture forward. The sad truth lurking just below the general optimism of Davis's book is that the attempt to find meaning within a heterogeneous inner universe can never fully satisfy a human soul thirsting for truth and permanence.

Davis agrees that all human beings desire "meaning and connection," yet he and other techno-pundits can offer no place within the confines of our brave new world where meaning and connection may be found, either in cyberspace or elsewhere. In the end, it seems, technology and all of human culture must be understood or interpreted in light of something beyond themselves if they are to be intelligible.—MD


Hints of His Mortality

By David Borofka
Univ. of Iowa Press
235 pp.; $22.95

It's too bad that David Borofka's Hints of His Mortality won the 1996 Iowa Short Fiction Award. It's not surprising that it won the award—it is among the best short story collections published in more than a decade. It's too bad, though, because the University of Iowa Press has not been able to market the book as effectively as a more popular press. Hints of His Mortality may be difficult to find. But it is certainly worth the effort.

The 13 short stories that make up the book are unified by voice and theme. The voice—articulate, compassionate, sometimes funny, always engaging—is that of a middle-aged, middle-class male. The theme is the distance between what life promises and what it delivers ("I craved importance," one narrator writes, "but I sold insurance"), between the ideal and the real, the spiritual and the physical. "What can I say," writes the narrator in the epilogue, "but repeat the usual cliches?" Turns out, he can say plenty.

And that's one of the things that is so impressive about this volume—that the narrators can invoke cliches and breathe new life into them, can describe the mundane events, the ordinary misfortunes and insecurities and infidelities, both physical and metaphysical, that mark our age and make readers, as Joseph Conrad put it nearly a century ago, see. And what readers see are characters who wanted to be more than what they ended up being, characters struggling to be human as they witness heaven's glory, "fade into the light of common day."

The stories are filled with spiritual, as well as physical, searches for meaning and significance. In an age when "statements of piety" are difficult to make "without some shade of irony," as one narrator puts it, Borofka manages both to raise religious issues with irony and to take them seriously—to be moral, that is, without being moralistic. In California, where most of the stories are set, a place that "does not lend itself easily to either liturgy or reflection" but where "sex … is a banquet," Borofka manages to create both a kind of literary liturgy and a place for reflection.

The narrators are disappointed—with the human condition certainly, misfortune, instability, loss, and loneliness even in the midst of material plenty; but they are also disappointed with themselves, their own capacity for cruelty and selfishness. But Borofka doesn't leave either his characters or his readers in that despair. While he articulates the human need for forgiveness as well as any contemporary writer, he also—and this is what is lacking in much of contemporary fiction—articulates the presence of grace. In Borofka's world, though an Episcopal priest can fall in love with organists and secretaries, and his estranged sister-in-law declares love "the most highly overrated thing on God's green earth," that priest's brother can be saved by a drunk in a cafe who will wake the next morning "to see the daily miracle of rebirth and admonition."

But this description doesn't do justice to the volume, for theme is abstract and Borofka's stories are particular, concrete. They are also a joy to read.

—Joey E. Horstman

Matt Donnelly is assistant editor of Computing Today magazine. William A. Dyrness is dean and professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary. Joey E. Horstman teaches English at Bethel College (Saint Paul, Minn.)

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