An interview with Daniel Anderson by C. Derick Varn
Daniel Anderson is an Assistant Professor of English at Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, PA. He is also the host of The Sectarian Review Podcast, which is a proud member of the Christian Humanist Radio Network.
Former People: Why did name your Christian podcast, The Sectarian Review, off of a largely Marxist literary journal, the Partisan Review?
Daniel Anderson: Somehow during grad school, I stumbled across Partisan Review, and particularly Lionel Trilling. (I focused on Jewish American fiction andPR was an important nexus of that literary community). Reading those essays 50 and 60 years late was a kind of revelatory experience. First, at the level of prose, they are so unlike contemporary academic writing. The pressure of decades of corporate-style professionalization has really taken a toll on academic discourse. The discipline-specific language and political positions that characterize modern academic writing have completely abandoned the “generally educated reader,” that the old “public intellectual” sought out, and I think that’s a shame. The writing in PR is engaging and even artistic. Those essays, as others have said, belong to literature itself.
Second, I always admired PR’s intellectual position in complicated political and artistic issues. Lionel Trilling completely understood the dialectical nature of politics and art (no doubt drawing on PR’s political origins – first as an organ of the Communist Party, then abandoning that for the anti-communist Left). His immersion in the poetry and cultural ideas of Matthew Arnold seems to have dovetailed nicely with the New York Intellectuals’ Marxist political philosophy. At any rate, PR (and Trilling in particular) never tried to simplify complexity to fit art and politics into a pre-fabricated political ideology, but instead sought to embrace complexity and paradox as a way of expanding the “Liberal Imagination.” To be too sure of one’s ideas was the ultimate threat. Unexamined certainty could only lead to calcified and rigid liberal institutions.
This is the founding philosophy of Sectarian Review. (I went to Nathan Gilmour of the Christian Humanist Podcast for suggestions about a name. I said I wanted an adjective that translated “Partisan” to a Christian context and he immediately suggested “Sectarian”). My immersion in Trilling led to a desire to translate his project of expanding the “Liberal Imagination” to my own goal of challenging the “Christian Imagination.” Trilling identified Liberalism’s weakness as an over-institutionalization of liberal “ideas,” which led to a deadening of the Liberal imagination, which eventually would have catastrophic consequences for Liberal politics (Bill Clinton’s influence upon the Democratic Party seems to have validated Trilling’s warning, no?). My reading of popular Christian culture maps almost directly on the template that Trilling set. When I see popular Christianity in America (which is not to say there aren’t dissenting communities- largely organized around organs like the now defunct journal Books & Culture) I see a culture that takes its inherited political and theological ideas for granted as unexamined fact. The art that this community produces (its music and particularly its films) takes simplistic cues from those “policies” and craf
ts them into unconscionably terrible art. The Christian imagination is then further damaged by the consumption of this art, and Christian institutions become ever more corrupted by the false desires this degraded art instills.
So basically the idea behind the show is to find topics that challenge ideas and art that are conventional to Christian institutions and to hopefully feed the Christian imagination.
Has the mission of the Sectarian review changed in light of the election?
I’m not sure the mission has changed, but some of the institutions that we’ve been focusing on have. For instance, the vast Evangelical support for Trump is, in many ways, encouraged by “Celebrity” leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. This has led me to begin a series of episodes focused on the role of celebritism in culture at large. That is ongoing, but I certainly will get to this style of leadership driven by celebrities within popular Christianity. This is not necessarily directly in response to Trump, but definitely related.
I’m not sure this is answering your question, but Trump has had a clarifying effect on the show I think. For a while, I was just doing show ideas that came to me (internally and from listeners) without thinking about how they might be related. And at times it did seem somewhat random. Around the time of the election, however, I did begin to see how most of our shows, intentionally or not, were interested in challenging institutional assumptions of one sort or another. I’m not really sure how Trump and the election influenced this revelation, but it was the occasion for it nonetheless.
What do you see at the role of Christian studies of the humanities in a time when academic support for the humanities is precarious in the larger culture?
Well, this is tricky. Ideally, Christian colleges and universities should be rushing to fill the humanities-sized gap left by secular institutions that lose more and more of their identity to corporate management models each year. While many individual faculty working in these institutions do make it their personal missions to do the traditional work of the humanities, the institutions that employ them generally do not. This is a huge topic right now within Christian academic circles. Unfortunately, Christian colleges (usually small schools without large endowments) don’t function any differently from their secular counterparts from an operational (and really even missional) level. They too are dropping Humanities programs in favor of “marketable” skill-based majors. The rhetoric these institutions use is always something like “preparing Christ-like citizens for the real world,” but that is mostly just marketing to the churches that supply them students in my opinion. The “Christ-like” aspect of their eduction is basically limited to chapel attendance and some religion classes. The rest of their education is job training just like with their secular counterparts. These schools (broadly speaking) don’t really stand in the way of Capitalism’s transformation of education, which SHOULD be conceived of as an ethical and spiritual pursuit. These nobler tasks can’t be undertaken when you marginalize the humanities in favor of physical therapy courses, however. James K.A. Smith wrote a wonderful book about what Christian higher ed should be, called Desiring the Kingdom
. In that book, Smith really smartly identifies the problem with actually-existing Christian education as he constructs a philosophical argument for what the ideal version might look like. Unfortunately, too many mainstream Christians choose to read the latest wisdom from Franklin Graham rather than people like Smith.
Christianity is, in its nature, counter-cultural. It’s institutions should stand opposed to cultural, political, and economic currents, not adopt them and try to sanctify them, as Christian institutions have done with things like Patriotism and Free Market Capitalism. The study of the humanities, in my mind (I’m not much of a New Historicist), should also provide a way to transcend inherited institutions in order to provide an ethical distance from which to try to perfect them (I’m a bit of an Arnoldian in this belief). In so many ways, the practice of Christianity shares much with the practices of the humanities. It is, to me, one of the great tragedies of American Christianity that we’ve lost that contact.
What do you see as see as the role of podcasts in keeping humanities and arts education available to the public?
Well as long as the medium doesn’t get totally co-opted by existing corporate media, I think that podcasting can play a great role in keeping the humanities vital for masses of people (maybe not large masses, but I doubt that the arts and humanities ever really captured a huge market share). The diversity of interests that one can find in a search on iTunes is rather astounding. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who is a pencil enthuiast and he was telling me that there are shows dedicated to that rarified pursuit! This level of speciality extends to the humanities as well. That kind of particularity simply cannot exist within the contemporary university economic structure. In the corporate university, philosophy departments can’t even survive in great numbers, let alone departments that deal in more esoteric interests. Podcast-land, on the other hand, still has an enthusiastic amateurism about it that, to my mind anyway, is what makes the humanities vital in the first place.
There is also a real sense of solidarity within the communities of podcasters. I’ve been able to connect with other people whose shows I enjoy listening to and they’ve been guests on mine. These relationships cross the strict disciplinary boundaries of professional academia as well. I don’t know if this dynamic qualifies as a “sharing economy” or not, but it enriches my own thinking about the subjects we cover. For instance I just recorded an episode about the 2009 book Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Crawford (it should be released in early March). I was joined by a Ph.D student in Philosophy and a Professor of Physics for that talk about a book of economic ethics by a political philosopher. And we were all there out of love and personal curiosity, not “professional development.” That’s the kind of gap that podcasting can fill, and it’s one that the modern academy has largely abandoned.
The optimist in me also wonders if the horrific working conditions of the vast numbers of contingent faculty will drive great numbers of highly educated people out of academia and into pursuits like podcasting, where they are free to pursue their interests and curiosities without institutional constraints. Tenure is wonderful, but not striving for it can be wonderfully liberating.
And finally, the ability to interact in various ways with an audience that only listens out of an intrinsic interest in what you’re doing. That kind of bonding is special and it is a wonderful version of intellectual community building. Let’s not forget the listeners.
Has the podcast had any positive or negative effects on your academic career?
That’s really hard to determine. I do believe that there are people in academia who think of this kind of work as “not counting” as professional activity. These are the folks immersed in the contemporary model of scholarship and intellectualism embodied in the academic publishing industry. For folks in that camp, anything outside of the double-blind, peer review gated community is “popular,” and not professionally rigorous. And that’s fine with me. I realized long ago that I don’t have the desire or the research chops to thrive inside those walls. I actually see a lot of value in the “professional” academy; I just also see a lot of limitations to that kind of intellectual work. What I’m interested in is much more public than that form of scholarship can be.
All that said, if there have been any negative effects from my podcasting, I haven’t experienced it. No one has denied me anything or told me to stop or anything like.
On the positive side, there are many benefits, and some of them are a little abstract. I have been able to connect with other podcasting academics who, to my mind, have really enriched the show. The co-hosts I’ve had are largely from academic backrounds and I love them to death. In addition, I’ve gotten the chance to interview academics like John Fea, a connection that would have never been made without the show. So in terms of professional networking, it’s been great. A lot of like-minded (though politically diverse) academics have coalesced around the show and that’s been really rewarding.
And on the more abstract side, producing the show has given me a lot more professional confidence. I have always felt a little underprepared for academia – I’ve always felt under-read very inarticulate. Preparing for and producing the show has helped immensely on both counts. I haven’t done this, but I suspect that if I were to go back and listen to my early Christian Humanist Podcast appearances and my more recent Sectarian Review shows, the improvement in my clarity of speech and thought would blow me away. This has also translated to the classroom. I absolutely know that the show has improved my teaching.
How you think Christians should engage with literary culture?
Well, that really depends on what we’re talking about when we say “literary culture.” If you’re talking about how Christians should engage with works of art, I would say that in popular Christianity, there’s been a long tradition of focusing on “content.” If a novel or movie contains language or images that Christian culture deems sinful, Christians have by and large avoided or actively advocated against those works. This has occurred across a wide spectrum, from Harry Potter books to the book and film versions of The Last Temptation of Christ. I actually think that the desire to maintain some form of distance from depravity is not a bad thing. Too often, erudite sophisticates equate the consumption of transgressive material as an unquestioned virtue that demonstrates one’s open-mindedness or worldliness. I think that has had the effect of generating cynicism and a lack of compassion. I guess what I’m saying is that I think it’s important to maintain our ability to be shocked and emotionally wounded. Intellectualizing those aspects of our moral imagination away is no virtue.
However, I also think that avoiding material that challenges a Christian worldview is not a good way to maintain the moral distance I’m speaking of. This approach to art leads to the problems I mentioned before with the Christian Imagination, so I won’t belabor that again in this answer.
The other conception of “literary culture” that I can think of requires a different answer. If you’re talking about the institutions that society has constructed to carry literature into various marketplaces and through time, then I think that we should create little magazines of our own, and serious ones at that. I mentioned before that the demise of Books and Culture is a terrible sign for Christianity. That is exactly the kind of space that Christians should seek to inhabit as we engage with books and art. Instead, most of pop Christianity depends on the film and book review sections of publications that seek to inform readers about “moral content.” What happens to the people who rely on those forms of engagement (more accurately those forms of ‘lack of engagement’) is that they become cut off from works of art that really explore what it is to be human. There needs to be a fearlessness that isn’t there.
Why has the Catholic approach seeming be more successful than the evangelical approach, the latter seeming to be an attempt to knock-off contemporary culture whereas Catholic or Orthodox artists really market themselves as Catholic and engage in dialogue with the larger culture but from within it?
This question really describes the approach I was trying to
articulate in the second part of the last question. The ability to maintain a distinct identity inside secularity. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a great answer for that. I do teach at a Catholic college, but did not grow up in that tradition so I don’t have a lot of knowledge about the kinds of institutions that work in parallel to official Church structure and that define the faith for its people. My admittedly uneducated guess is that Catholicism has largely maintained its traditional authority structure throughout time. Evangelicism, by contrast, has no governing authority except what emerges from various markets. So TV preachers and authors and such market their brands and are to varying degrees throughout various communities de facto
authorities – little popes for the anti-Papists. So the markets from which these figures emerge become the markets that Christian creative types and their audiences target for their own creations and the consumption thereof. There is no need to engage with the larger culture when you have created your own parallel universe to exist in. And take a look at the Evangelical creative marketplace; there are movie studios, publishers, radio and television networks, conferences, educational systems, scholarship, amusement parks etc… all of which replicate the institutions of the secular world and make it totally unnecessary to engage with the secular world. Catholics still largely defer to the Pope and move forth in the world from that position.
What do you think a Christian’s reaction to capitalism should be?
I hate the really simplistic ways that some Lefty Christians promote socialistic ideas. The whole “well the Sermon on the Mount is socialism” line of thinking is reductive and frankly boring. It misses the point that Jesus basically creates an ideology and government outside of our political language and imagination. Socialism and capitalism are cultural incidentals in the Kingdom of God. Christianity is, as I’ve said, itself counter-cultural. If the culture you live in as a Christian is dominated by the mechanisms and idols of capitalism, then one’s faith should give one the perspective to identify that. Ours clearly is, yet many Christians (not all – Dorothy Day, for instance) aren’t able to use the moral position of their transcendant faith to perceive the problem. Like everyone else in capitalism, they assume its naturalness. Marx provides a language and historical analysis that helps the Christian describe the material consequences of spiritual problems, and the way those material conditions invade and transform the spiritual life. This is not to sanctify Marx, however. His materialism is essentially irreconcilable with the transcendence of Christianity. Yet there are important intersections between the two systems of thought.
I think that many of the things that conservative Christians traditionally complain about in culture (Hollywood and Music, selfish individualism, whatever – the list is long) are, in their essences, functions of both the Enlightenment and the way that capital organizes society. Yet most Christians (as with most Americans in general) run to capitalism’s defense because the only example of anti-capitalism they know is the harsh atheism of the Soviet Union. Therefore any critique of capitalism’s corrosive qualities has to be either written-off or co-opted into Christianity itself. This is a terrible mistake as it gives up the transcendent position of Jesus’s message for a material one. The same problem results from the strain of Christianity that tries to historically reconcile America with Christianity (the “America was founded as a Christian nation” argument). Ideas like this become embodied in the faith itself through various Christian institutions, especially in Evangelicism. I even know of a Christian college that states in its mission statement that it’s goal is to preach the goodness of free markets. So I’m not saying that Christians must all be radicals, but they must be able to identify and critique false idols when they encounter them.
Anything you would like to say in closing?
Just that in pursing these critiques of Evangelical institutions in the podcast, it’s been really heartening to find an expansive and ideologically diverse community of people who also find themselves alienated by Evangelicism’s dogmas. Podcasting has been therapeutic in that, and many other, ways.