The Right Coast

March 04, 2005
Theologian to watch
By Tom Smith

David B. Hart, whom I read whenever he appears in one of my favorite magazines, First Things, is a theologian to watch, as in, keep a reading eye on. For example, about pornography, he wrote this:

We are already, as it happens, a casually and chronically pornographic society. We dress young girls in clothes so scant and meretricious that honest harlots are all but bereft of any distinctive method for catching a lonely man’s eye. The popular songs and musical spectacles we allow our children to listen to and watch have transformed many of the classic divertissements of the bordello—sexualized gamines, frolicsome tribades, erotic spanking, Oedipal fantasy, very bad “exotic” dance—into the staples of light entertainment. The spectrum of wit explored by television comedy runs largely between the pre- and the post-coital. In short, a great deal of the diabolistic mystique that once clung to pornography—say, in the days when even Aubrey Beardsley’s scarcely adolescent nudes still suggested to most persons a somewhat diseased sensibility—has now been more or less dispelled. But the Internet offers something more disturbing yet: an “interactive” medium for pornography, a parallel world at once fluid and labyrinthine, where the most extreme forms of depravity can be cheaply produced and then propagated on a global scale, where consumers (of almost any age) can be cultivated and groomed, and where a restless mind sheltered by an idle body can explore whole empires of vice in untroubled quiet for hours on end. Even if filtering software were as effective as it is supposed to be (and, as yet, it is not), the spiritually corrosive nature of the very worst pornography is such that—one would think—any additional legal or financial burden placed upon the backs of pornographers would be welcome.

His writing style is more ornate than I prefer, but golly, he hits a lot of important nails on the head. Of course, you try to shelter your kids from this stuff. Our kids go to a local Catholic school instead of the public middle school which had to have an emergency parents' meeting about the "blow job contests" that were going on. It's not just the internet, it's the whole culture, and how are you supposed to filter that out, without turning your kids into freaks?

I bought Hart's ecstatically reviewed book, The Beauty of the Infinite, inspired by his wonderful essays in First Things. Unfortunately, I'm finding it pretty hard going. Hart is a postmodernist, sort of. Or maybe a post postmodernist. In any event, he is engaging in this book Derrida and his ilk, using many of the dead, opaque Frenchman's own words and concepts, if that's what they are. There have been quite a few paragraphs at the end of which my honest reaction has been, "well, I have no idea what the f#$% that was about." I attempt to read a lot of hard stuff, so that is a frequent reaction on my part. With postmodernish talk, however, I'm never sure whether it's me or that what is allegedly being expressed really is unintelligible. Oh well.

Hart's essay on theodicy and tsunami in this month's First Things, unforunately not available on the web, is the most thought provoking thing I have read on that difficult topic in a long time, since I guess Alvin Plantinga's book some decades ago on theodicy. Which is not really a book on theodicy, I suppose, but on God and evil, anyway. Hart's idea is completely different. And quite a bit scarier, sort of Schopenhauer but help has come/is on the way. Maybe it will be available on line next month.