Thursday, April 1, 2010

On old wineskins and the taste of Easter

Three and a half years ago I contributed a brief piece to my university's student magazine which I titled "Tasting Christian Truth: Wine or Nihilism?" The issue was on lifestyles, broadly defined, and because I was attending an institution that had all on-campus students sign a lifestyle pact addressing such matters as alcohol consumption and sex, I wanted to complicate the "Christian" approach to such topics. The article distorts both Nietzsche and the Christian aesthetic (Nietzsche as nihilist? The beauty of the cross unproblematically related to the taste of good wine?), and is rhetorically overblown (please make note of the bit about feeling up creation with the hands of the body of Christ), but I find it rather compelling to this day. And so, in the interest of documenting my early exposure to Nietzsche (or something), here is a slightly abbreviated version of the text:

Nietzsche was a teetotaler. Apparently, Zarathustra spake without the aid of any German brew, not to mention wine. But perhaps we should mention wine. It is the first of the miracles after all – water to wine. David Bentley Hart, an American Eastern Orthodox theologian (and a brilliant one, at that), calls the wine of the scriptures “the perfect and concrete emblem of the beauty of creation and the joy of dwelling at peace in the midst of others”. Hart then suggests that one might develop a theological response to Nietzsche entirely through a typology of wine. Although he (rather unfortunately) doesn’t immediately take the task upon himself, he does manage to say that Nietzsche’s inability to appreciate Christianity is intimately connected to his rather “pedestrian palate” when it comes to wine. [Even after reading Nietzsche extensively, I can hardly think of a better way to insult him than by calling him pedestrian.]
[Regarding communal accountability:] Hart connects “dwelling at peace in the midst of others” to joy, and to the beauty of creation. I’m not particularly interested in how much wine people are drinking, but whether we’re properly tasting it, whether we’re letting it roll around on our tongues. Put another way, can we keep each other accountable to beauty? Can we together begin to smell and to taste the wine of the scriptures? Or the words of the scriptures? Can we use the hands of our body, the body of Christ, to ‘feel up’ this good creation?
Hart argues that although Nietzsche was a teetotaler, he did understand something about Christianity that so many fail to see: Christian truth is about aesthetics. We are Christians because it is a beautiful story; it appeals to us. It didn’t appeal to Nietzsche, however, so he advances a different story, one of the will to power. He found nothing attractive about a God on the cross. Certainly this had not only to do with abstaining from wine, but by suggesting as much, Hart draws some important connections. The Christian body is a body that savors beauty, and perhaps only in keeping each other accountable to such savoring can we taste Christian truth. If we do not have practice tasting, smelling and touching properly, how are we to taste, smell and touch the feast when it comes?

Maybe now, in the season of of Easter and spring, the sensual experience of the gospel message is worth considering, yet much to the astonishment of my undergraduate self, Nietzsche may end up being a more helpful guide in this task than Hart. I will spend the Easter weekend considering the relationship between the phenomenology of the icon - in which the senses never find their object and are, perhaps, failing - and the nature of life as kenotic drama - in which we are undoubtedly failing. More on that later.

I have lately discovered that several people are regularly attending this Ass Festival. If you are here, let me know sometime.

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