Friday, July 25, 2008

Shakespeare, Ideology, and the Catholic Church

Robert Miola has a devastating review of Joseph Pearce's The Quest for Shakespeare in the current issue of First Things. Miola says that Pearce's work suffers from two fatal flaws: firstly, Pearce's biographical account of Shakespeare appears to exhibit no real familiarity with the rudiments of modern Shakespeare scholarship. While I have no pretensions to Shakespearean historiography, this seems about right to me. I had seen lighter versions of Pearce's fundamental thesis pop up in various conservative Catholic media outlets previously, and I always thought it was a bit ridiculous. Despite my limited knowledge of Shakespeare and his place in English history, I could not quite fathom how one of the most overly-researched figures in English literature could lately be discovered as a Catholic.

The larger and more important criticism that Miola makes is to pose the question of why a recusant Shakespeare matters at all. Though Miola does not put it so forcefully, he seems to indicate that Pearce's work is primarily ideology masquerading as scholarship, noting with irony that Pearce himself decries such ideologically-driven scholarship when in the form of post-structuralist theory. In short, Miola argues that, in attempting to locate a Catholic Bard, Pearce operates within the same structural and methodological world as his ideological opponents.

If Miola is correct, then I would suggest that Pearce's work is representative of a larger trend within the world of conservative Catholicism, namely the tendency to express the faith within a neat framework of ideological concepts. Such ideology typically divides the world into opposing theological schemes, between which there can be little hope of reconciliation or even understanding. Needless to say, one of these schemes would be considered intrinsically orthodox, and the rest are to be thought of as essentially heretical. Google the phrase "save the liturgy, save the world" sometime, and you can see some excellent examples of what I refer to here.

I think this is trend is fundamentally destructive, and runs counter to the aims that most faithful Catholics hope to achieve within the Church. Conservative Catholics would do well to remember that a slavish commitment to ideology is part of what led to the current mess within the Church. A simple inversion of liberal ideology which masquerades under the label of orthodoxy will not solve any problems, and is likely only to perpetuate them in the long run. The Catholic "worldview" (if there is such a thing) is one that sees things for what they really are. Jesus Christ is the eternal Word that grounds all reality, and our call to conversion is a call to union with that Reality. Ideology, whether conservative or liberal, is a move away from what is real, towards our own self-constructed ideas, and must inevitably lead away from Christ Himself.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

What Miola's review brings to light, as the commentator mentions, is the failure of Catholicism in general after Vatican II. For me, these arguments left and right simply demonstrate that Christianity has lost its vision. Luther was correct about the individual nature of belief; the outcome of St. Paul's vision, which preceded all the written texts of Christianity, is that it didn't convert the Jews and that argument about who has the Truth never ends. It is too bad that through these arguments we have lost the meaning of metaphor and the sense of seeing Christ in the poor and in the despised other. The only contribution, as far as I am concerned, that Christianity has given to civilization is this focus on an individual's claim to personhood, brought about through one's own sacrifice of self to the good of the other. Nothing else in Christianity makes any sense, as history has shown, and avoiding the contributions of science and scholarship as people like Joseph Pearce do in order to continue useless and stupid arguments proves that Christianity is simply a Hellenistic religion whose cultural influence is more or less spent.

Monday, August 04, 2008 7:01:00 PM  
Blogger John Cassian said...

You appear to support the therapeutic model of Christian belief, where the chief criteria by which we judge religious belief is its ability to anchor the individual in an integrated and stable pattern of thought and feeling. Might I suggest a reading of Philip Rieff?

As for "Hellenistic" Christianity, well let's just say that proposition is one of many Harnackian theses I reject.

Still, I think that you unintentionally make an interesting point. Theological liberalism, a la Harnack, and ideological cultural triumphalism a la Pearce are the opposite sides of the same coin. For both camps, Catholicism is treated as essentially a cultural artifact, and is evaluated primarily with regard to its ability to either provide therapeutic balance or impact large-scale cultural patterns. Harnack and Pearce simply reach opposite conclusions through the same methods, either rejecting it as failure or proclaiming it as triumph.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008 8:50:00 AM  

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