I’ve been engaged in a discussion regarding the term “radical theology” as employed by Homebrewed Christianity. You can read the various blog posts here and here. The second post sprung up as a response to a post on the An und für sich blog, here. I don’t like embroiling myself in these sorts of online debates (I very rarely post comments on things), but I felt that the original question over the use of the term “radical theology” was too important not to say something. This post isn’t addressing that, since I think enough has been said, and if you look in the comments of the second HBC post, Bo Sanders, one of the hosts of the podcast, concedes the point that was originally raised on that issue specifically.
But in a follow up comment, Bo makes it clear that the “CliffsNotes” he provided were a) not intended for those already immersed in the conversation but those trying to find a helpful way into the discourse and (therefore) b) not meant to be a part of the academic conversation.
Somehow. This leaves me a bit confused.
I was once in school earning a teaching credential to teach high school English in California. I remember one teaching methods course I took in which the professor advocated we use CliffNotes in our classes in conjunction with the actual text. I was appalled. I had quite common aspiring English teacher visions of everyone in my classes thoroughly enraptured by The Great Gatsby or Macbeth coming up with incredibly insightful comments and caring deeply about the discipline of literary criticism. That, of course, is more than idealistic; it’s ridiculous. This professor knew that. His argument was simply that in order to help students to even begin to see what kinds of things they should be looking for in the text as they read, they need to know what sorts of questions to ask, which might inspire a few of them to ask these sorts of probing questions in their day to day lives. Definitely still a pipe dream, but I suddenly saw the value of what CliffsNotes could be if put in the context of the right assignments. That is, if you assign CliffsNotes followed by a test on information about what happens in a novel, then it seems as though you’re just facilitating cheating. But if you assign CliffsNotes followed by an essay requirement or presentation in which students have to think more theoretically about the text, CliffsNotes actually show them how to think that way about the text. This is where CliffsNotes can provide a service to students of literature (e.g. freshman majoring in English) who really are trying to figure out what literary studies is in the first place. Yes, they summarize what happens in the novel, but more importantly, they show what sorts of questions one could probably ask of the text. They’re always basic questions about theme and character, but that’s okay because moving from reading for pleasure to reading in order to be able to make abstract theoretical claims about what a text is doing is really tough at first.
I readily admit that when I was first trying to get a handle on Derrida, I read a lot of encyclopedia entries (including Wikipedia) and relied on summaries by people like Caputo, Jonathan Culler, and James K.A. Smith. I was in my first year of graduate school (an MA in English), and eventually, I realized that I just needed to read more Derrida and a wider variety of treatments on and applications of Derrida (in literary theory) in order to know how my own reading was going to fit into that larger conversation. As I read more and more, I was able to confirm that by and large, I agreed with Caputo’s reading of Derrida (a position that has shifted somewhat), that I actually didn’t like Smith’s reading, and that Culler wasn’t going to be that helpful for my papers because he is primarily a summarizer. I began to see the landscape of the “deconstructive conversation” more clearly.
Here’s the big difference between what CliffsNotes actually do and what Bo is wanting to claim his gloss on radical theology is doing. CliffsNotes, in a very basic sense, participates (or at least tries to) in a broader academic conversation about the work it summarizes and poses questions about. Is it possible that a Melville scholar might look at a CliffsNotes version of Moby Dick and object to how some of the summary is presented or some of the questions about theme and character? Sure, but I’m pretty confident she would probably also admit that if intended as an entry point into how theoretical work on literature is done (say, for high schoolers or something), it does the job and is broadly attempting to be an introduction to an academic conversation.
CliffsNotes are not for people who are reading for pleasure or even looking to use literature to pontificate about… whatever they want based upon the literature. It’s a directed guide filled with prose that is not nearly as inspired or interesting as the original text with questions that resemble the very basic questions that an aspiring scholar would first ask consciously and later subconsciously as she begins to participate in what scholars of literature do. The purpose is very clearly entrance into an academic conversation.
So what is HBC doing with this? I’ve been listening to the podcast on and off for the last two years, with a little more consistency over the last year. I enjoy it because I like to hear how two pretty smart guys articulate ideas that are really complex to people without formal academic training and try to help them understand their practical implications. I’m interested in how one might make something like deconstruction intelligible to a lay audience. HBC interviews academics, they talk about academic things, and they encourage people to become armchair theologians–all wonderful things, in my opinion. When they introduced their “High Gravity” course a few months ago, I had assumed from their description that this was going to be for people who wanted a more formal introduction to the academic discourse that surrounds these ideas. They were actually reading primary texts and trying to see how they function theologically. Shouldn’t that mean they’re going to be participating or attempting to participate in the tradition?
But Bo says no, it doesn’t.
“The cliff notes were explicitly written for those struggling in the High Gravity reading group. Jeremy clearly does not need Cliff Notes. He was not my intended audience. Joel (JD) makes the point about academia… but this was a blog post about a reading group NEITHER of which was in the context of academia. That is why I have not been primarily concerned with answering their educated concerns.
Those for whom the Cliff Notes were intended have let me know that they were greatly appreciated and helpful.”
Wait–how does this have nothing to do with academia again?
Maybe a better question is: Why would a CliffsNotes version of radical theology or a “High Gravity” course not be an introduction to the more formal academic conversation and tradition that has been going on since long before we knew what radical theology even was? How is it a negative thing if it is that sort of introduction? Engagement with the tradition as understood broadly by scholars doesn’t mean people don’t have freedom to get things wrong all of a sudden, or to wrestle with ideas, or to even question ideas. But chances are that that wrestling, those misunderstandings, those questions, have already been rehashed over and over again within the academic tradition and one only need to seek to enter that conversation in order to find them.
I have no problem admitting that in the beginning I drew crazy, baseless connections between deconstruciton and things like pragmatism. I was just trying to grasp on to whatever I could in order to try to get a handle on what Derrida was up to in his work, so I would say things to myself like, “It sort of seems like this.”
But listen: At a certain point I had to dump those props if I wanted my reading of Derrida to have weight in my application of his thought as I read literature and, later, theology. If I wanted to better understand how his work could be maximally fruitful to my own, I had to strive to understand him the best that I possibly could, and there was no way to do that other than seek out what was already being said about him.