Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Book Review: John Calvin's American Legacy – Chapter 11 – Cold Comforts: John Updike, Protestant Thought, and the Semantics of Paradox

Chapter 10 review here. Chapter 9 review here. Chapter 8 review here. Chapter 7 review here. Chapter 6 review here. Chapter 5 review here. Chapter 4 review here. Chapter 3 review here. Chapter 2 review here. Chapter 1 review here. Introduction review here. Initial thoughts here.

Kyle A. Pasewark opens his article on Protestant/Calvinistic thought and author John Updike with a zinger of an observation: “Americans are not a people whose palates are sensitive to the taste of paradox.” Pasewark, unflinchingly, elaborates:
The strong and unambiguous flavors of progressivism, optimism, pessimism—all, in their way, opposites of paradox—are more our style, and we prefer them laid on a plate, or at the buffet stand, clearly distinguished [emphasis CCS] from one another so that we can have one flavor at a time rather than components stacked upon each other or flavors melded to confront us with first salty, then sweet, then both together (257).
If that doesn't make you twinge, then consider the weight of Pasewark's additional observation that Americans, precisely because of their Protestant heritage, ought to have a more developed palate:
This American preference is a little bit unexpected, since the United States is often portrayed—and portrays itself—as a “Christian nation,” and one would think that the key Christian and, even more, the central Protestant category of “paradox” would fare a little better in American culture, that “paradox” would be a word that one hears more frequently (257).
I must interject with affirmation: I rarely hear the word “paradox” when I am out-and-about. For example, I never hear the word “paradox” when I am at the grocery store in the north-most part of the Bible Belt, that is, in Warsaw/Winona Lake, Indiana, both cities with rich and deep heritage in American Revivalism—only miles form my residence is a Monument/Sanctuary dedicated to celebrating Billy Sunday's life and work; and I never hear the word paradox when I am at work where I am employed by a Fortune 500 Company and where I interact with co-workers in markets spread out across 27 of the States . . . okay, that is not accurate, I have heard one individual use the term “paradox” but that was only once in the past two and half years—in that instance “paradox” was a word in cliché phrase he used to describe an intermittent network issue we were troubleshooting, so that doesn't really count. I have only heard the word “paradox” used regularly in Wesleyan-Armenian circles during my days at university (Indiana Wesleyan University, Marion, IN), and then after college in Reformed – G. K. Chesterton-reading-and-chronically-quoting circles, which I now call home, that is, within the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches (CREC). All of that to simply say, Pasewark is correct—Americans are not a people whose palates are sensitive to the taste of paradox.

Pasewark strings together a collection of zingers like pearls on a necklace in the first 3 or 4 pages of his article. He says, “Nowhere is the American preference for the directness of the nonparadoxical more in evidence than in the American understanding of freedom.” He then goes on to dismantle the uncouthness of how most Americans think about freedom, for we, I mean Americans, “do not approach these contradictions [our use of freedom to indicate many things that we believe are all “good” but are in fact contradictory] as contradictions but as modalities of the same thing” (257). Pasewark, again, shows that Americans are not as sophisticated as we would like to think we are.

These comments prep the ground for Pasewark's ensuing excavation, examining the “cold comforts” of John Updike, Protestant Thought, and the Semantics of Paradox. Pasewark begins with two premises: 1) “paradox is the fabric of John Updike's fiction” (258), and 2) “the classic doctrine of election is paradoxical” (259). To understand the latter premise Pasewark reminds his audience, “one's election [is] the condition for freedom, not its eradication” (259). Pasewark then goes into a couple examinations of characters from John Updike's writings to illustrate what happens when people with nonparadoxical understandings of freedom worship freedom (like Americans often do), “as seekers of freedom, his major characters ask for nothing more than to be alone, but they still require others, and though they begin by demanding freedom, they become ugly dominators of others and, ultimately, self-destructive as well” (260). This perverse and bizarre nonparadoxical freedom is their highest good and becomes their religion, and as Pasewark comments, this type of freedom is “asocial and apolitical” (262). Pasewark also notes:
This lack of political consciousness is not a weakness in Updike's work but an expression of his characters' deepest American contemporaneousness. For them, too, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are personal, not social (263).
Pasewark follows up this thought with an additional comment, “This, too, is a reversal and cancellation of Calvinistic Protestantism from Geneva through the Puritans,” which means when you try to create a just society with men and women who live with the effects of their death nature and the sin of their federal head Adam, “the actualization of social and political life is not ecstatic but effortful” (263). This is why freedom is paradoxical—one's election is the condition for freedom, for effort, for labor, etc., and it will be fruitful, productive. Contrast that with a nonparadoxical freedom, which, according to Pasewark, “devours not only itself but also the others whom it touches” (263).

Paswark then turns his eyes to the contemporary and provides examples of this naughty “freedom” running wild within American Republical political party (e.g. George W. Bush, activities of the CIA of late, etc.) and the resultant destructiveness. Bad “freedom is bad for people, personally, but also corporately, by that I mean bad “freedom” is bad for society. Personal and social havoc occurs when paradox is not the calibrating instrument of freedom, however, Pasewark tries to leave his audience with a hopeful thought:
. . . just how far from Calvin's view of freedom and government “this great roughly rectangular country severed from Christ by the breadth of the sea” has come. We can hope, however, that the full glory of the ultimate destructiveness of the nonparadoxical understanding of freedom is now clear to us, and perhaps the way is clear for a conception of freedom that is both paradoxical and political (265).

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