Political religion & the prophetic

Buried in today’s local section, a Washington Post article reports that “a rare parchment copy of the Declaration of Independence” has been unearthed. John Quincy Adams’s State Department had ordered two hundred copies printed, and this exhumed copy was one of two from Adams’s edition given to former president James Madison. This copy was first hidden and then forgotten – hidden during the Civil War by those who knew its value and forgotten since then by those who didn’t.

Its rediscovery – and past reports of rediscoveries of several other copies – remind me of the discovery of the Mosaic covenant while the Bible’s King Josiah was having God’s temple repaired.1 Today we’re missing the covenant’s public reading and the subsequent repentance, though, that would complete my analogy. Maybe in the future, the rediscovery of a rare copy of the Declaration might cause the kind of self-examination and action that good King Josiah models.

This is not impossible. In his 1854 Peoria address, Lincoln called for a Josiah-like rediscovery of the Declaration:

Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution. . . . Let us re-adopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it. . . .  If we do this, we shall not only have saved the Union; but we shall have so saved it, as to make, and to keep it, forever worthy of the saving.

Lincoln’s initial notion of what he called “political religion,” as he had articulated it fourteen years earlier in his Lyceum address, had involved merely a call to obey law and to exercise reason. By 1854, though, Lincoln’s concept had grown to incorporate a biblical understanding of covenant.

American civil religion is based on covenants, such as the Mayflower Compact and the Declaration, and it has its prophets, such as Lincoln, Reinhold Niebuhr, Martin Luther King, and others. These prophets don’t predict things – or, if they do, they’re not functioning in their prophetic capacity, strictly speaking. Instead, prophets unearth covenants, which terrorize the powerful like the stalking corpses exhumed by Jesus’s crucifixion. Civil prophets practice what Walter Brueggemann calls “a historical imagination”:

The practice of imagination is a subversive activity not because it yields concrete acts of defiance (which it may), but because it keeps the present provisional and refuses to absolutize it. The practice of a historical imagination maintains the possibility of a future that is not continuous from the present. 2

Covenants give the phrase “historical imagination” – otherwise, a political oxymoron – its sense. America’s civil religion allows us to understand the past through covenants in order to imagine together a common future.

This relation of past and future confounds most political thinking today. A desired future is not a wholesale rejection of the past, as some progressives envision it, nor is a desired future a replica of a golden past, as some reactionaries envision it. A desired future is especially not the fixed continuation of the present, as authoritarians would have it.

A covenantal future, instead, is promising: it can be the result of actions taken consistent with commitments to one another. After all, a covenant by definition involves two or more people and nourishes their relationships in the future. A covenant acknowledges a society, it creates responsibility, and it offers a realistic future of both promise and contingency among its members. Above all, covenants allow us to participate in the freedom of God since the future is unknowable to all but him. Covenants in which God participates thereby give us the confidence to act as if actions matter.

The best American covenants are both normative with respect to the present and aspirational with respect to the future.  The most easily recognized American covenant is the Constitution, which in its primarily normative capacity serves as a legal yardstick. The Declaration, by contrast, is a covenant with a more primal and spiritual normative function. With it we can take a more essential measure of our candidates, our leaders, and their policies, as I did in an exercise involving candidate Trump over a year ago.

The most aspirational aspect of either of these two covenants is the Declaration’s Equality Clause. Compared to this clause, Lincoln said with a certain irony, the rest of the Declaration is “merely revolutionary.” “All men are created equal,” Lincoln asserted, was “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times,” though it certainly wasn’t in practice when he spoke those words about it in 1859. The Equality Clause is both a yardstick and an aspiration.

How do civil prophets move from a normative assessment of the present to an aspirational view of the future? (As I understand it, timing means a lot in prophetic speech and action.) My question may be part of a larger one: once the powerful succeed in making the future into a frozen present, how can the future – and with it the present – be thawed? How can political time resume?

This prophetic movement from the normative to the aspirational – using Brueggemann’s terms, the movement from “gestures of resistance” to “acts of deep hope”3 – mirrors a covenantal view of American history. In this view, Americans make a compact, fall away from it, and return to its spirit to either renew the old compact or to cut a new one. The prophetic voice during the slow slide from a covenant is normative – it is resistance arising from lamentation. As Brueggemann says, “the real criticism begins in the capacity to grieve.”4

While our present politics are not at the stage in which “acts of deep hope” would serve anything more than what Brueggemann calls “the royal consciousness” or “the false consciousness,” the time for such acts will come. But whether our actions stem from legitimate grief or legitimate hope, they create political space that has never existed before.

In politics, to move from the claustrophobic present to a desired future takes what Hannah Arendt calls “the work of faith.”5 Against such works are arrayed “historical processes” that “can only spell ruin to human life.” Because human action, over time, always devolves into this future-denying “automatism,” Arendt sees no event that can ever, “once and for all, deliver and save a man, or a nation, or mankind.”6 In this sense, the need for political acts of faith is more obvious in some times and places than in others. History, to Arendt, amounts to long “processes of stagnation” interrupted by “human initiative.” 7  This human initiative creates “freedom,” a word that Arendt, like Brueggemann, associates with deliberate action that creates public space.

This post is an outline of my still-early understanding of the prophetic in civil religion. My view of today’s news about the recently discovered Declaration copy is itself perhaps a small prophetic exercise, one that finds the spiritual side of American covenant peeking through our consciousness as something like what the New Testament calls a “shadow.” A “shadow” is something concrete serving as an analogy for something more abstract, and it is something from the past serving as an analogy for something in the present or future. (Examples of Biblical “shadows” are in Hebrews chapters 8 and 10.) Some friends and I have broadened our concept of “shadows” to include things in the cultural sphere that serve as analogies for something current in the political or spiritual spheres.

There is one further detail from today’s “shadow” that I should explore, the one that I started with: the Post buried today’s story by putting it in its local news section. I speak facetiously, however, since I am beginning to understand the local’s importance to national concerns. I agree with both Brueggemann and Arendt that an effective response to an ignored covenant must start with recreating the local. Brueggemann speaks of the necessity and difficulty of creating a “subcommunity,” which he defines as “a community of peculiar discourse with practices of memory, hope, and pain that keep healthy human life available in the face of all the ‘virtual reality’ now on offer in dominant culture.”8 One of Arendt’s major theses in her 1963 book On Revolution is that the American Founders erred in not structuring local political participation into the Constitution. Action, she believes, is the essence of politics, and my watching the news and voting each year isn’t sufficient action to create the public space necessary for a healthy democracy over the long term. Instead, smaller local communities must be created or re-purposed to involve us socially and politically.

Social media, which economic and now political powers have begun to control and use for their own aims, is no substitute for public space.9 If you use social media, you may find it expedient not to look at it as a substitute for public space. The Pilgrims entered into a compact face to face on a small ship heading to America. Communities like that came together two centuries later in Philadelphia to, in Lockean terms, move from a state of nature into a national community. To realize the Equality Clause, we may have to do the kind of hard, face-to-face work that preceded the Founders’ covenant on July 4, 1776.

  1. 2 Kings 22
  2. Brueggemann, Walter. The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd ed., Kindle loc. 2503.
  3. Brueggemann, loc. 178
  4. I have seen an example of this capacity to grieve at an exhibit by Teju Cole in Chelsea last summer entitled “Black Paper.” The exhibit featured a black wall covered with small photographs suggesting the process of grief Cole undertook following the 2016 elections in the United States.
  5. Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future, 166.
  6. Id. at 167.
  7. Id. at 169.
  8. Brueggemann, loc. 178.
  9. As Timothy Snyder says, “Power wants your body softening in your chair and your emotions dissipating on the screen.” On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, 83.

Teju Cole’s spacious & taut new release

3PictureBookColeEveryDayTeju Cole was in Washington Tuesday when his novel Every Day Is for the Thief made its American release. I bought a copy that evening at Politics and Prose, where I heard him read from Thief and from Open City, his later novel, which was released stateside in 2011.

I’ve read Open City, one of my favorite novels, twice. But Thief is proving to be the rare novel I feel I can live in. Its vignettes and language are as spacious and taut as a well-staked tent. Oh! To write like this:

In December, dust drowns the city. But one Friday morning in the third week of the month, it rains heavily for only the second time in the dry season. It is a relief. It makes the roads torturous. Where there were shallow depressions, lakes suddenly appear. Rivulets rage along the roads. The rain falls for an intense half hour just after I head out. On Allen Avenue, through the gray scrim of the rolled-up windows, I see a swarm of lime-green shirts and yellow trousers, lime-green blouses, and yellow skirts: students caught in the rain, racing for shelter. These teenagers, thrilled by the weather and by the excitement of running together, are laughing, but are inaudible through the heavy rain drumming on the car roof. I drive slowly through this dream of hurrying bodies.

How to characterize the paragraph? Nothing overheated. Unobtrusive alliteration beginning with the paragraph’s first four words and puddling here, there, and now assonance: “Allen Avenue.”  The first sentence’s soft chiasmus is alliterative at 1, 2, and 4, reminding me of Sir Gawain and early English verse: “dust drowns . . . rains . . . dry.”

And the pacing. Breath units, which Joe Glasser defines as syllable counts between punctuation marks, well mixed at 4, 5, 13, 17, and then 5: “It is a relief” — syntactically and musically, too, a relief. An implied metaphor — “rage” — and another — “swarm.” Sparse, measured drams of metaphor’s strong stimulant. The whole effect makes space for a “dream of hurrying bodies” — just right, nothing purple. The clothing that makes the teens alike in age but separate in gender anticipates the next scene, his grown-up visit to his first, teenage love. (After the rain stops, Lagos is “becalmed and devastated,” just like the narrator, perhaps, by this visit’s end.)

The paragraph may have been inspired by the next page spread’s thoughtfully conflicted black-and-white photograph — running bodies in dark tops and light pants and skirts through a car window’s pimply raindrops.

Everything serves tone.

The structure’s as spare as the style. The varied vignettes, some focused more on Lagos, some focused more on the narrator, leave space for the reader to experience the tension between the seemingly objective view of the city and the rather fragmented, young narrator, who has returned there after many years in America. I like Cole’s choice to rely on style and suggestion instead of on detailed relationships and plot, the reflexive choice of many a lesser novelist. In this respect, Thief reminds me of the finest poetry. But the resemblance to poetry isn’t obvious. Make no mistake: this is lean, muscular prose.

(Here’s a thoughtful review of Every Day Is for the Thief published yesterday in the New York Times. And here’s Cole’s interview Tuesday on NPR’s Diane Rehm Show.)

Slow crux

This past month, in the process of changing my blog’s look and adjusting its focus, I uncovered a lot of essays on slow reading. An essay by Dave Bonta, another by Teju Cole, one by Fiona Robyn, and lots by me. I decided to put the best of them in one place.

I’ve done something like that before. Three essays I grouped two site renovations ago amounted to an introduction to slow reading. The ten essays I selected this month take on the subject from more angles and more writers’ perspectives.

Sorting through these old posts made me wonder why I had never asked John Miedema, a Canadian blogger and the author of Slow Reading, for an essay. John and I live just outside our respective nations’ capitals, and he represents to me a kind of slow reads completion, his yin (which, after all, literally means “north slope”) to my yang. We met online five years ago tomorrow when both of our sites landed on the same MetaFilter page celebrating the Slow Movement.

Today he said yes. “Slow reading” was his blog’s first post, and he feels it still summarizes his views on the subject. The post exemplifies John’s usual depth and succinctness, and I’m grateful he let me republish it here as part of the core.

Slow reading has its social, creative, educational, oral, literary, spiritual, poetic, and sensual aspects, and I hope the core posts open some eyes and ears. Links to the posts appear in the left margin’s slide-out side panel under “The specials.”

Slow reader

When I was a child, I thought speed reading was the thing to do. To cram all those wonders in, in almost no time at all: how wonderful it would be. I used to think about the champion readers immortalized in the Guinness Book of World Records, that sacred text of my pre-teen years. Anna Karenina in three hours! I was in awe of such genius.

But ever since I started reading as a writer—this coincided with the first sprouting of my facial hairs, though I doubt there’s an essential connection—I’ve read more slowly. It generally takes me about two weeks to get through a two-hundred-page novel, and about a month for bigger books. If I have a long languid summer, I might get through a six-hundred-pager or two.

I can read rapidly—I did pick up the skill of absorbing the gist of a paragraph at one glance—but I have no interest in doing so. Every book I read these days is part of my study of writing: I want to know how things are put together on the level of the sentence, the paragraph, the page.

Like those people who can take a sip of a soup and declare that it contains marjoram, basil, the faintest whiff of such and such a species of thyme and a hint of the earth the thyme was grown in, I am an oversensitive wreck. My own mania is for words, and it borders on synesthesia. I’ve been known to stay up late into the night marveling at the placement of a comma or at a poignant verb-adverb pairing.

In extreme cases—Here is Where We Meet is a recent example—so involved am I with the thing that I read almost as slowly as the writer wrote, somewhat like that old Russian lady who told Uncle Gabo that she copied out every word ofOne Hundred Years of Solitude so she would be sure she hadn’t imagined it all.

Plot is not the most interesting part of a book for me, and this frees me to take pleasure in book fragments. The author’s literary DNA is on every page, at least for any author worth her salt. So what if I start at page 120 and I abandon the book on page 203? What an encounter those eighty-three pages have been. The most fleeting of affairs, consummated with the passion of a death-row conjugal visit, fervid and yet full of delay-tactics.

I read page 346 of The Count of Monte Cristo last weekend, and grew wings.

One day I went to the bookshop and selected a pile of books—Svevo, Kafka, James, Calasso, about a dozen in all—and from each I read page fifty. Naturally, I often found myself in the middle of a sentence at the page’s beginning or end. But these are the fragments from which a life is made, like those snatches of conversation one hears on the subway, which are free-floating pages from a much larger and more intricate narrative. I eventually left the bookshop, late late in the afternoon, and it was as though I had been to the world’s greatest luncheon. I was sozzled on literary wine and the voices of the twelve brilliant guests echoed in my head.

And then there are those books I read and put away and pick up again and put away again. Not because there’s anything wrong with the book, but simply because I see no reason to consume it all at once. For example, I’ve been reading The Human Stain since June 2004. This work’s riches embarrass me, as a blueberry muffin with too many blueberries would. It’s undeserved, it’s sheer dumb luck on the reader’s part. I’m only on page 190, but it’s already one of my favorite books. I know how the story ends, I know who dies, I know who kills whom, but this has nothing to do with what I’m looking for in the work. Ten pages at a time is about all I can handle of Philip Roth, when he’s at his best. Actually, sometimes it’s just the one athletic paragraph, so clean and in tune with its own song, that knocks me off my charted course. I replace the bookmark, put the volume back on the shelf, and, sighing, remortgage my pact with the Devil. He already has my soul, and now we’re down to bartering the household crockery. Long may I continue to live and read and ever slowly read.

As for Love in the Time of Cholera, don’t even get me started. I’ve read the first hundred pages of that book no less than three times, Saint Ursula is my witness. The first time was out-loud to my wife, three pages a night. Maybe or maybe not I will eventually read the rest; more likely, I’ll go back and read the first hundred again. As I’ve said, that’s between me and Mephistopheles. All I know is that what little of it I’ve already taken in has set a fire in my life that I am unable to douse.

I enjoyed the first two sentences of Lolita—filthy, brilliant—so much that I put it down. For fear of damaging myself. I haven’t found the courage to pick it up again.

Beowulf’s first word bitch-slapped me. I surrendered. And I can’t even read Emily Dickinson at all; I simply console myself with the memory of her words.

I have abandoned that ecstatic fury in which one tears through an entire book over the course of nine hours, caffeine coursing through the veins, the wrists sore from page-turning, the eyes streaked with burst arterioles. No more of that for me, I’ve been saved from that particular variety of youthful indiscretion. But, worryingly, I seem to have recently picked up the nasty habit of reading novels right through to the end. As if getting to the end were the point. This is no joke: I’ve completed at least six books in the past three months. If these symptoms continue, I will consult my doctor. But for the most part, as I grow older, I’m less inclined to wolf down my nutrition, the opinions of the literature-police be damned. I think of prize judges and professional reviewers, those fifty-novels-a-year freaks of humanity, with a chuckle of relief: there but for the grace of God go I.

Life is too precious to waste on fast reading; I bet Neruda says something like that in his Memoirs, but I haven’t gotten to that part yet.
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© 2007 Teju Cole. Used by permission. Teju Cole is a writer, art historian, street photographer, and the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. His novel Open City won the PEN/Hemingway Award.