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When Nothing (or “Anti-Everything”) Is Cool

Lisa Ruddick, an associate professor of English language and literature at the University of Chicago, has written a poignant, powerful piece on the anti-humanism that has brought her discipline to an embarrassing, dysfunctional pass: “When Nothing Is Cool.”

I mention it to those who would read this weblog for a few reasons:

First, it’s courageous. To look at one’s field and say, in effect, “There is something morally, spiritually wrong—even perverse—at the very heart of what we do,” takes more than gumption. It takes a sober, strong love that is willing to be publicly earnest, straightforward, temperate, and vulnerable at a time in which those traits are all too rare, and all too quickly mocked.

Second, it’s right…in both its diagnosis and its etiology. I do not have anything like Dr Ruddick’s expertise in English literature, of course. But I have more than a nodding acquaintance with things “pomo” and particularly the discourses of closely related disciplines: history, philosophy, theology, and religious studies. What she says about what’s wrong with even the top levels of literary criticism and how it got that way rings true to me.

Third, it could serve as a nice answer to the question, “If C. S. Lewis were alive today, what might he write?” Particularly because Dr Ruddick shares a disciplinary field with Lewis (I have no idea about her own religio-philosophical outlook), the way this essay carries on Lewis’s concerns, articulated particularly in The Abolition of Man but not only there, demonstrates a similarly capacious, critical, and constructive mind at work.

Fourth, this article would serve well as a departmental conversation piece in Christian colleges and universities, especially in English, of course, but across the humanities and beyond. The awful hole in our soul, seen in the lionization of decadent auteurs of popular culture such as Quentin Tarantino, Kanye West, and Jeff Koons, started out as a gnawing, voracious cancer in the department of the university traditionally focused upon the intersection of art, ethics, and the human person. Lisa Ruddick bravely, quietly, and indisputably identifies it, and implicitly challenges us to ask, Has it hollowed us out, too?

Especially those of us who congratulate ourselves on our sophistication among the Philistines on our campus? Do we think that our Angst, our Weltschmerz, and our Schadenfreude (the more German here, the better) give us a privileged position from which to eviscerate anyone and everyone else? Or at least to revel quietly in our smug superiority?

Finally, this piece concludes with a lovely call to…well, not arms, but craft. To courageous craft that refuses to be cowed, to be co-opted, but instead insists on critically and creatively contributing. Dr Ruddick curses the deep darkness, but rightly concludes with a plea to light candles. Christians, who take for granted the integrity of the individual, the value of the interior life, the high calling of the human being sub specie aeternitatis, and the companionable and inspiring presence of the Holy Spirit of God, should rejoice in her challenge and continue to do what Christian scholars at our best have always done: give glory to God and love one’s neighbour as one’s self.


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