Please welcome today’s guest writer, Brett Beasley (’10)
Brett Beasley, a 2010 Calvin graduate, is a doctoral student at Loyola University Chicago studying 19th century British Literature. He lives in Chicago with his wife, Anne Beerhorst, who is also a Calvin grad. His writing has appeared in Booklist, Religion Dispatches, The Curator, The Englewood Review of Books, TheoMag, and Catapult Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Brett_Beasley.
A recent Bookforum post stitches together real quotations from the megachurch pastor and prosperity Gospel guru Joel Osteen with excerpts from the works of the arch-pessimist 19th-century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer. The resulting dialogue is hilarious, with Schopenhauer characterizing the world as “a scene of tormented and agonized beings” and Osteen claiming, “with your words you can either bless…[or] curse your future.”
Humor notwithstanding, the dialogue is an emblem of the dilemma that writers (and especially religious writers) face in our age. Ours is a culture that lurches back and forth between blind optimism and morose pessimism. Catastrophe confronts us and, powerless to change it, we choose to look at something easier to stomach. We live in the era of mass hunger and Precious Moments dolls, of genocide and Thomas Kinkade.
For me, writing is one (very incomplete) answer to the problem. Real writing, writing that involves careful feats of attentiveness, helps us discover not simply one opinion or another about the way things are, but rather it helps us realize the way things ought to be. It helps us avoid despair without retreating into trite, easy answers. This, Aristotle claimed, is the advantage that poetry has over history. History can only tell us what is and what has been; in literature we are invited to imagine—and hopefully to strive for—a different reality.
Most of the writing we read today differs from this vision. The bulk of it is simply “spin” created either by recalcitrant pessimists or cockeyed optimists in order to please a pre-determined demographic. This is the writing of the echo chambers and mutual-admiration-societies that proliferate on the Internet. It is, as Dorothy Sayers once said of economists, “in the squirrel cage and turning with it”; it isn’t able to step outside its opinions in order to offer a vision.
This cultural milieu stymied my first efforts to publish my writing. I looked around at the publications available to me and struggled to know what my writing was and where it would fit. I knew it wasn’t quite like most of the journalism and commentary I tended to read. But around the same time I encountered the Essais of Montaigne. I learned that in its etymological sense an essay is an attempt; it is neither a treatise nor a tract. It is more wandering than systematic. It might have an argument, but it might not. It is never the final word, but rather an adventure, a brief romance of ideas striving toward some unknown that we have never grasped but only tasted just enough to know it is there. In an essay on something as commonplace as carriages, Montaigne can shift paradigms and open new worlds of possibility. This was the type of writing, I thought, that could navigate the spin and help others step outside the squirrel cage.
So, when I discovered The Curator I knew I had come upon something special. Backed by the International Arts Movement, The Curator has for the last five years been announcing “the signs of a ‘world that ought to be’ as we find it in our midst.” The Curator takes on both the loftiest and the most mundane subjects, from local breweries to videogames, from poetry to television, always with eyes ready to see the surprise of life, renewal, and reconciliation in the unexpected. In the past year I have written articles for The Curator on doughnut stores in Chicago, Kierkegaard’s views on education, and Jerry Seinfeld’s new comedy web show. These have been my attempts to modestly (and very imperfectly) see past the way things are to the way things could and should be.
This vision, I believe, comes naturally to Calvin writers who are steeped in a tradition that affirms, to quote Abraham Kuyper, that, “no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’” While many outsiders think of the Reformed tradition as essentially pessimistic (it points out depravity and imagines little power on the part of humanity to improve its situation), the deeper logic of the Reformed tradition defies the optimism/pessimism dichotomy. It is neither Arthur Schopenhauer nor Joel Osteen. Instead it insists on finding signs of renewal where other traditions would never look: in movies and in meals, in paintings and in public transit systems, and in the places of darkness and dereliction we would sometimes rather look away from.
So where are you, my fellow Calvin writers, finding renewal in those square inches you find yourself in? In the books you read, films you see, or maybe even the shoes you wear or the food you buy? I encourage you to join the conversation on The Curator’s website and learn more about how you can submit your own attempts to glimpse “the world that ought to be.”