Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Terry Eagleton's "Culture and the Death of God": Book Review

I figured, despite the difficult content, that hearing these lectures on audiobook might ease their delivery. I like Terry Eagleton's work, and I always mean to read more. The Meaning of Life, for instance, is on my Kindle, where I am saving it up still, having already studied its final chapter.

But the subject matter is challenging. Eagleton's wit is subdued, after early on a joke at the expense of Birmingham. He hones in on not the "death of God" so much as his replacement, high European culture. The kind of thinking that George Steiner represents the last generation to have espoused.

This arose earlier than the Enlightenment, but that period, for the French and the Germans, gave it its fullest diffusion. Many Germans crowd these pages, along with the sometimes somewhat more familiar French. Eagleton looks down on the likes of Diderot and Voltaire, for they suffer the hypocrisy of many of their peers. For they speak a 'double-truth': they claim the masses need religion for its calming messages and social utility. The elite, of course, can rise to a higher worship of reason.

Yet, as Eagleton astutely notes, Deism roused no martyrs. He constantly defers to, or better still champions, the Gospel message as liberation theology (even if he steps aside from this phrasing). His Christ comes to afflict the comfortable and to condemn the authorities, taking up the side of the poor.

If one wonders if this is a selective interpretation of biblical verses, one will end this book unenlightened. Eagleton employs these talks to promulgate his own insistent reading of Jesus as a revolutionary. As the modern times impinge, and Nietzsche's own shameful (in Eagleton's view) capitulation to the 'double-think' standard proves that even he is not worthy of acclaim, the book shifts into a rapid look at those such as T.S. Eliot who attempted to make the aesthetic the norm. But, being Christian, that cohort also falls short for Eagleton. He wedges into our own age, divided between a secularized and educated class and many billions (some with degrees and high incomes, surely, a factor he skims past) who continue to integrate, however irrationally to this professor's rigorous if somewhat numinous preferences for his own Christ-figure, faith with achievement.

Eagleton nods to the resurgence of Islam and Christianity in many poorer parts of the world, not so much again as forces calling for the kind of radical overthrow of the power system, but more as a way to live in a complicated world more simply. I reckon more on Marx might have helped his explication, but his promotion of Nietzsche as the central figure in this short study leaves us moderns somewhat imbalanced. After a lively if brief look at earlier Irish dissident (if renegade Protestant convert) thinker John Toland, the reader wants more such figures to energize these dense chapters.

Instead, it's less intoxicating. Eagleton crams a lot into these sections, but he often does not explain who the figures are beyond their dates of birth and death, leaving a reader (and even more a listener) curious or confused. Some transfer of lofty content to a common if smart reader was necessary, but these lectures, transcribed as I suppose they originated, go over the heads of many who could have benefitted from a more streamlined, listener-friendly, version of what remain engaging ideas and an intellectual history on a topic that an audience needs to hear, as believers, skeptics, or seculars. 
(Amazon US 10-30-15. P.S. 2012 interview at the Oxonian Review with Eagleton on this book)

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