Monday, June 21, 2010

Defeated by the Beauty of the Infinite


I like to try and read beyond the confines of the classic Reformed tradition and so I thought I'd have a go at Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart's The Beauty of the Infinite. Its a weighty 448 page volume and while I hardly ever fail to read a book right to the end, I got stuck on page 44. That was about a year or so ago and the bookmark hasn't moved since. It's not as if I have an aversion to big books. In my 20's I read Berkhof's Systematic Theology from cover to cover. I even finished Kevin Vanhoozer's tightly printed, 488 page The Drama of Doctrine and I'm making good headway with his latest offering, Remythologizing Theology. But when it came to The Beauty of the Infinite I had to admit defeat. It was Part 1: Dionysus against the Crucified that did it. Have a read of this:
In this sense postmodernity would be merely the dialectical completion of the metaphysical project, the homecoming not of Geist but of a protean and capricious god for whom creation and destruction are as one. With the disappearance of the Idea, the flux of unlikeness does not abate, but overflows its banks; an ephemeral Parmenides yields to an everlasting Heracletios; the intricate achitectural ingenuity of Apollonian violence exhausts itself before the unmasterable pandemonium of Dionysian violence; Socrates drinks hemlock, but Athens remains - forever at war. (p. 39).
Comprende? Not me. The effort of typing out that excerpt didn't help either. I left school with a Classical Studies 'O' Level - Grade  C, and therefore have a nodding acquaintance with Homer. Yet Hart's text is so packed with Classical allusions that I can't follow what he's trying to say. That might well be my fault for being so ignorant, but I'm still stuck on page 44 and can't see myself coming unstuck anytime soon. This is a shame as the author can write with great bite, clarity and verve when it suits him. Have a look at this article in First Things for a rather more accessible DBH, where he lays into the "New Atheists". HT Gary Benfold.

Which books have defeated you?

10 comments:

Martin Downes said...

Anything by Vanhoozer

And I've tried really hard

Curiously Marsden's bio of Edwards

Jake Belder said...

I've been defeated by Dostoevsky's The Idiot. I got halfway through it, but then there is a scene where all 20-something characters are in a room together at the same time, and I had to give up. I had no idea what was going on anymore.

Gary Brady said...

Where shall I begin? From where I sit I see John Gribben's "Science, a history 1543-2001". The bookmark reveals that I reached page 330 of 616 before being distracted. Nearby lies Petroski's aptly named "The book on the bookshelf" and "Oliver Twist", both uncompleted. I can see several others. Of course, these are not the author's fault but mine, though with Hugh Martin's "The abiding presence" I'm not sure if it's me or him.

Exiled Preacher said...

Seems that I'm in good company.

Young Mr. Brown said...

Almost all of them!

(But then perhaps I didn't try very hard.)

Curiously enough, I put Marsden's biography of Edwards down for over a year, and then picked it up again. I think I'll get to the end.

Jon said...

But that DBH quote is so beautiful... I'll admit, he's making a simple-ish concept more complicated but he writes to perfection!

Exiled Preacher said...

Jon, the thing is that it doesn't make sense unless you know who on earth are Parmenides and Heracletios. Even with my Classical Studies 'O' Level I'm baffled.

There's something on Wiki on Parmenides, but Googling for Heracletios only resulted in my blog post and some stuff in Greek.

To make progress with the book I'd be constantly Googling DBH's Classical allusions, which is a bit too much like hard work for a indolent South Walian.

Ben said...

You have chosen an especially bad example for an unfinishable book.

For myself, I have all too many on my shelves with bookmarks protruding from years gone by, but there is one book I distinctly remember not finishing: J I Packer's Knowing God.

I was reading it to my wife when we were newly married. When I got to the part in the introduction where he gives his view that there are non-evangelicals who have a better knowledge of God than evangelicals, the book was laid to one side, never to be reopened. And yes, I do recognise that there are professing evangelicals who remain unconverted.

I was given Burckhardt's Civilisation of the Renaissance as a set text as an undergraduate, and had to cudgel myself into skimming to somewhere near the end. Years later I bought another copy, confident that by now it would be straightforward. Not a bit of it: I could manage only ten minutes before it dropped from my fingers.

Brad said...

I feel your pain. I've made it to p.185 of Beauty, but it's taken since January, and I'm annotating like a madman. It'd help even if he transliterated his Greek, not to mention offering translations. And I've had to rely on dictionaries of philosophy and theology for some references. It's a book worth working for, but you have to want it. And it helps to be interested in aesthetics - I'm an English professor and a publisher.

Scott Schultz said...

Honestly, the book assumes a solid undergrad familiarity with Nietzsche, Derrida, and postmodern philosophers that the average reader, even an academic outside of the field, simply does not have. The book is extremely rewarding for all it's difficulty, but if the basic concepts are already unfamiliar, a few wikipedia scans won't be sufficient to make it readable.