hearts and heads

I promised a while back to have something to say about Garry Wills's new Head and Heart: American Christianities, but at the moment I only have a few words to offer. There’s a lot of valuable material in the book; I would especially single out Wills’s account of how the separation-of-church-and-state issue was developed by the Constitution’s framers, which is perhaps the most lucid and helpful treatment of the topic I have read.

However, as the book moves along it is increasingly marred by the hectoring, finger-wagging tone that has been marked Wills’s recent books. He has always had the tendency to pronounce ex cathedra, but he used to keep it in check; for the last decade, though, not so much. And in this case my sense of being lectured is intensified by the astonishingly simplistic conceit that drives the whole book. It’s hard for me to believe that someone as smart as Wills can really believe that the hoary old head/heart distinction provides a fulcrum long and strong enough to lift the whole history of American religious experience. (Charles Dickens wore that contrast down to the bone a hundred and fifty years ago, in Hard Times.) But that’s just what he believes.

Now, Wills does his best to be, or to pretend to be, fair-minded: predictably enough, he argues that we need both head and heart. Imagine that! But there’s no question that he thinks the devotees of enthusiastic Heart-religion have done a hell of a lot more damage than the devotees of the Head, even if he acknowledges that they have also (in some circumstances) done some good things that the drier, calmer Head-cases could never have mustered the energy to accomplish. Ultimately Wills is making a case for a Head-religion that has a little bitty heart that it can activate in times of emergency but otherwise keeps locked away in a strongbox somewhere.

I guess all this would not annoy me so much if he didn’t assume -- and it is an assumption more than an argument -- that theological liberalism is exemplary of Head religion and evangelicalism/fundamentalism exemplary of Heart religion. The truth is far more complex. I’ve been to any number of stereotypically “liberal” churches (Protestant and Catholic) over the years in which you couldn’t find a thought with an electron microscope: it’s all just come-on-people-now-smile-on-your-brother yadda yadda yadda.

Conversely, Wills has no understanding of just how intellectually serious -- if also, much of the time, intellectually warped -- many evangelical and fundamentalist churches can be. He ought to get it, because he has visited and reported on such churches, as far back as the late eighties (see his book from that period, Under God, of which Head and Heart is a kind of expansion and revision); but he doesn’t.

I’ll leave you with one example. Michael Warner, the dean of Queer Theory -- if something like Queer Theory can have a dean -- grew up in an extremely intense Pentecostal environment, and in fact graduated from Oral Roberts University. Back in the early Nineties he wrote a memoiristic essay for the Village Voice Literary Supplement in which he described that upbringing. Here’s a taste:

Curiously enough, considering that fundamentalism is almost universally regarded as the stronghold and dungeon-keep of American anti-intellectualism, religious culture gave me a passionate intellectual life of which universities are only a pale ivory shadow. . . . In that profoundly hermeneutic culture, your arguments have to be readings: ways of showing how the church down the road misreads a key text. Where I come from, people lose sleep over the meaning of certain Greek and Hebrew words. . . .

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, I remember being surrounded by textual arguments in which the stakes were not just life and death, but eternal life and death. . . .

Being a literary critic is nice, I have to say, but for lip-whitening, vein-popping thrills it doesn’t compete. Not even in the headier regions of Theory can we approximate that saturation of life by argument.