It's not easy to place thinkers as diverse as Walker Percy, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Martin Luther King Jr., G.K. Chesterton, and Northrop Frye into the same category. But Robert Inchausti, English professor at California State Polytechnic, San Luis Obispo, says they were all avant-garde orthodox Christians. No matter their different political, denominational, or literary positions, they all sought to be faithful to Jesus while engaging the world. In Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise, Inchausi discusses Christian thinkers, writers, and activists who challenged secular worldviews on their own turf, yet remained thoroughly Christian.
Who are the avant-garde Orthodox?
These were orthodox Christian thinkers and artists who were not theologians and made important and somewhat revolutionary contributions to various secular disciplines. They're interesting people because they're both subversive of the existing modern order, but they are not subversive of the church or subversive of the faith.
They have a unique status as people who model for us how it is possible for believing Christians to enter into dialogue with the secular culture in a way that revolutionizes and transforms the secular culture and doesn't just protest against it or isolate from it.
If you look at some of the major Christian artists and thinkers and social critics over the last hundred years, you find a variety of political, artistic, and intellectual schools within which they operate. Yet, they still share Christ as their major inspiration. You have somebody like Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who from an American political perspective would be very conservative. He single-handedly did away with Marxism as an attractive philosophy for Paris intellectuals. And at the same time you have somebody like Dorothy Day, whose entire witness to the poor in the United States was to defend small families and small farms and collectives and indigenous poor against a social Darwinism that she thought was running away with American culture during the Cold War years.
Few people know these believers were Christians. E.F. Schumacher, the Small Is Beautiful fellow, is often recognized as the guy who wrote about Buddhist economics, because of a chapter in his book Small Is Beautiful. But he was a Christian, and he said he put in Buddhism because he didn't want it to seem like special pleading. He just wanted to make it clear that the economic systems had religious under pinning. In order to demonstrate that in a way that he could get a hearing, he used the example of Buddhism. But he himself was a Christian thinker.
Not only was their Christianity misunderstood, but often their message was misunderstood. You include Jack Kerouac, who dismissed his hippie followers who got into Buddhism, but Kerouac was a conservative and a Catholic.
Kerouac was really only a Buddhist for three years of his life. He was a very traditional Catholic growing up, and then he toyed with Buddhism for about three years. He came back to his faith and wrote a lot of stuff about Jesus and refused to give up his love of Jesus for the Buddha. Later, when he was having a hard time kicking his alcoholism, he started getting attacked by the New York critics for a pretty accurate description of his work, in which they said, This is a form of Christian primitivism.
Kerouac captures a spiritual search in a way that many novelists don't. You make the point that the novel has the ability to probe the soul in a way that Enlightenment attempts to discover truth can't.
That's why Solzhenitsyn was so wise to novelize his history of the gulag. When he transformed the sufferings of millions of people into stories we could feel, it became real. Pasternack, in Doctor Zhivago, made the spiritual sufferings of the lost intelligentsia of the revolution real in a way that we could feel. Kerouac does the same thing with a spiritual longing that was useful in the 50s and 60s to say there's more going on then just the Cold War. We should be telling our stories to one another about our inner lives.
Thomas Merton was another Catholic writing spiritual literature during the Cold War years.
The Seven Storey Mountain was a great conversion story. It provided a criticism of materialism, modernism, the Bohemian art theme, and left-wing politics, all these things that tempted him, that he turned away from 20 years before anybody else in the country had discovered them.
Then after he died, all his journals and letters came out, and it turns out that all those years that he was in the monastery, he was having these deep conversations with people from all different backgrounds and was thinking through his faith and bringing it into dialogue with all kinds of things, which made him a different writer. Now, we even read The Seven Storey Mountain differently.
It's ironic that while Merton had left the world for the monastery, through his letters, he was active politically. Many of these Christians have a different take on political action.
If you want to argue politics in the modern world you immediately find yourself hamstrung by definitions imposed on you by politicians who have laid out the rhetorical terrain. So the best way to deal with it is to refuse to play the game by the rules. These Christians offer an alternative vision that addresses political problems from a humble and inclusive Christian perspective that doesn't argue about things so much as reveal things.
Let me give you an example of this. At the end of my book, I say these people don't want to change the world. Changing the world is not their number one priority. Their number one priority is to love and serve the world in the light of Christian revelation. Now if that means that you have to stand up to an injustice, if that means you have to change the way the mass media is run, or change curriculums or something, that will mean that you will engage in dialogue with people, and you will witness, and you will listen. You don't come in with this top down agenda and take everybody's life apart so that you can put it back together again.
[Kentucky writer and farmer] Wendell Berry's method is to ask how this reform is going to affect my community and enter into dialogue with the people for whom these political reforms are going to change. The guy I think who was really on to this is Dostoyevsky. I guess you could call him a sentimental naturalist in his first book, Poor Folk. And then he was sent to the camps and he had his eye opened to the true nature of human beings. He came back and said until we deal with the irrational in man and healing one's suspicions of another, you could have the greatest political ideology and people would subvert it out of sheer spite. Somehow, trust has to be regained between people before you can talk about politics. And that's why ideological posturing, even if you're right, is counterproductive.
What kind of impact have these thinkers had, or should have?
In the 20th century, the contemplative side of Christianity was made much more accessible by Merton's Seven Storey Mountain. Solzhenitsyn also had a great world impact.
Some of Martin Luther King Jr.'s views have been misunderstood or co-opted. We think of him more as a civil-rights icon than as an engaged prophetic Christian trying to figure out non violence. I think he had a much more troubled, interesting, complex message to America than what we have decided it was in our history books and in our one-paragraph summaries of him. I would say that his legacy probably has not been fully understood.
I don't think the full impact of what Schumacher has written about economics has really hit yet, the defense of family business and local community economies. That's starting to have resurgence in the third world with these micro credit organizations. If you start taking Schumacher seriously, then economics is due for a quantum leap, and that hasn't happened yet. We need to rethink the way we do economics, to question the assumption that we're all self-maximizing individuals.
I think Northrop Frye is another one who was understood too quickly, or misunderstood. Literary studies over the past 20 years has been struggling with a lot of competing materialisms. Frye had offered in the early 60s a radical mystic contemplative vision of the literary studies, which doomed him to obsolescence in 1963. But now that practices like lectio divina and those contemplative ways of reading are being rediscovered, you look back at Northrop Frye, and he's the guy who provides the most interesting ideas and paradigms. But I think such a recovery is going to have to be done by religious folk. Because if you try secularizing his categories, they just don't work. It's only through religious eyes that Frye's literary cosmology makes sense, in the same way that Lord of the Rings has a deeper meaning to those who see its Christian themes.
In Frye's letters and journals and also his sermons, because he was a pastor, you get to see the full Christian dimension of his thinking. He discussed how to read prophetically, how to read contemplatively. These were issues that Frye addressed that the last 20- 25-five years of literary criticism just ignored. I think what's going to happen in about 10 years is they're going to rediscover the language in which Frye was writing and learn he was trying to teach us how to read in a way that deepened our inner lives, not just increased our intellectual sophistication.
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Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise is available from Christianbook.com and other book retailers.
More information is available from Brazos Press.
Dorthy Day, Thomas Merton, Walker Percy, and Flannery O'Connor (who is not included in Inchausti's book) were all written about in The Life You Save May Be Your Own, by Paul Elie. An interview with Elie and a review of the book are available on our site.