My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Tony Kriz is known in evangelical circles as the guy who set up a confessional booth on a secular college campus and asked forgiveness of those who entered for the church’s failures throughout history– an example of turning expectations of guilt and forgiveness on their ear. Those familiar with the book Blue Like Jazz, in which this episode is recounted, know him as Tony the Beat Poet. He’s on my radar this semester a speaker coming to my institution and whom I’m hoping to bring into dialogue with some of my honors students. To that end, I thought I should familiarize myself with his work. This book seemed to fit the bill for the sort of discussions we try to cultivate in our class, especially this semester as we deal with writings from throughout church history.
Welcome to the Table, as I quickly discovered, is Kriz’s DMin thesis written at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, a Quaker school in Portland, Oregon. A friend who has recently started an EdD program explained the difference in philosophy between the thesis written for a professional degree like a DMin or an EdD and the dissertation written for a research degree like a PhD. The former is usually a project geared for implementation in a specific place or situation. It does not have the goal of adding to a universal body of knowledge in the way a PhD dissertation does. This is the case with Kriz’s work: as he explains in the first chapters, the post-Christian culture mentioned in his book’s subtitle is specifically the culture of Portland, Oregon. Kriz’s research is a detailed evaluation of the religious views provided by survey respondents in a specific Portland zip code. From this data, he offers what he feels is the best method of church engagement with and ministry to this culture, which is characterized by negative or neutral impressions of the practices of mainstream American Christianity- in a word, a post-Christian culture.
In an environment characterized by this lack of engagement with Christianity, but where issues of spirituality, faith, and religion are still freely expressed and explored, Kriz believes it is liturgical traditions that have the most advantage for ministry and outreach. Though this analysis is specific to Portland, Kriz’s argument is that the benefits of liturgical practice still find “a place at the table” in a culture passing out of the influence of prevailing evangelical mores. As Kriz argues, liturgical worship– specifically liturgical worship in structures of the Anglican communion– answers a post-Christian culture’s enduring need for symbolism, locality, community, ritual, and structure as well as for the gospel of Christ.
This might be a hard sell for some evangelicals, so Kriz spends an entire section of the book describing Old Testament and New Testament precedents for ritualistic worship before examining the universal witness of the liturgy in the church’s history. The work here is clearly secondary and synthetic, giving a bird’s eye view of selected texts and practices from throughout church history. He ends this section with a brief look at the origins of Anglican liturgical practice and its appeal as a “middle way” between Protestantism and Catholicism. Finally, he examines the identity of the Anglican communion today, emphasizing its global, missional aspects– specifically its growth in the global south and the fact that the African Anglican church has an active missionary presence in America. Here again, there’s a lovely freshness in turning evangelical, Anglo-centric assumptions on their ear.
Kriz is enamored of the Anglican liturgy, though his work shows a wide range of reading that includes theologians and writers from across the spectrum of Christian traditions. With this wide-ranging background, I was left with little clarity though of why Kriz felt Anglicanism in particular was the silver bullet for ministry in post-Christian Portlandia. He gives a series of short chapters in which he outlines some of the perceived weaknesses of other traditions in this culture, including a two-page dismissal of Catholic and Orthodox liturgical expression. One of his complaints here is that while there is a negative impression of the Roman Catholic Church among some of the population surveyed, the Anglican communion is still largely off the radar and thus (assumedly) able to more effectively minister. But this raises a question I was left with reading the book and hoped Kriz would address: what exactly is the Anglican communion and how does it differ from the Episcopalian Church, which Kriz acknowledges is its better-known brother but does not go into any detail upon?
In general, I’m for anything that challenges evangelical Christians to pay closer attention to liturgical practices and the forms of worship that prevailed unquestioned through most of church history (and continue around the world today in the majority of Christian churches and cultures). Anything that gets us out of our self-centered, marketed, consumeristic mentalities of worship is a good thing. So most of Kriz’s claims are largely consonant with my own feelings. Yet I remained unconvinced by the work as a whole.
Maybe part of this is simply because I’m disappointed he didn’t go further. If one is interested in getting to the bones of Christian liturgical worship, why not go all the way, back to some of the traditions in which the liturgical forms remain based directly on the very texts Kriz uses from the first Christian centuries to support the historicity of liturgical worship? Kriz’s work opens the door to a deeper discussion– a discussion that is essential in American Christianity today– regarding what exactly it is that we’re doing in worship anyway. What does it mean to worship? Kriz comes tantalizingly close to some of these issues, but ultimately his own approach seems itself a form of the consumerism that characterizes church shopping and attempts at relevance in church marketing. A cynical reading of Welcome to the Table could be that the whole thing is a long commercial for another flavor of Christianity, the one that Kriz personally finds most attractive. (Though even his case for why this particular flavor of Christianity is most “effective” in this particular environment is incomplete: Kriz never goes into detail on any Anglican communities in Portland that are evidencing this effectiveness.)
Tony the Beat Poet writing a book about liturgical worship is a great thing, even one as closely tied to a specific locality as this– but a transformative understanding of the character of the community of faith and how it is informed and shaped by its worship is lingering here just out of view. On some levels, this is simply another call for relevancy and effectiveness, underscored by the final section in which Kriz offers some creative ways to “mix up” the liturgy during service and make it more engaging and interactive for the participants/consumers. There is room at the table for liturgy, but simply as another item on the menu or as the paradigm in which we understand the entire meal itself?
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Imagine a history book that examines the philosophical foundations of mathematics, specifically the quest that culminated in the years leading up to the First World War to establish all mathematical reasoning on a firm logical basis. That book would have a lot of ground to cover. It would have to disentangle some complex mathematics to present to the non-specialist in a meaningful way, as well as shed light on the manic, driven, fascinating characters behind this story, people like Bertrand Russell, Kurt Gödel, David Hilbert, and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Finally, it would need to give at least some light to the background historic scaffolding upon which this drama played out: the turn of the century, the First World War, the rise of Nazism, and interwar Vienna. At tall order for any book, let alone a comic book.
So now imagine that book as a graphic novel—moreover, as a graphic novel that succeeds at all these tasks. That’s what you’ve got with Logicomix, a complex, stirring, well-executed, multi-layer work that brings to life one of the most compelling chapters of mathematical and philosophical history. In a general sense, the graphic novel (which is hefty, weighing in at over 300 pages not counting the reference material at the end) could be considered a stylized biography of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970), 3rd Earl Russell, the British logician and grandson of the Prime Minister, who began his career with an attempt to bring logical rigor to all mathematical reasoning.
Beyond Russell’s stylized biography (stylized because the historical interactions in the graphic novel are artfully fudged for better dramatic effect), the narrative of Logicomix plays out on three levels. Level one is the primary chronological narrative, but level two is the fact that this primary narrative is presented as a lecture delivered by the aging Russell in America near the end of his career. Hecklers in the audience want to know whether Russell, who was famous for his conscientious objections during the First World War, will join them in protesting America’s entry into the Second. Russell promises them their answer in the lecture, and these interactions, as Russell summarizes his career and offers insights on the role of logic in human affairs, bookend the first level narrative and interrupt it occasionally as audience members get rowdy or impatient.
This first narrative—the series of chronological flashbacks forming Russell’s lecture—is the main medium of the story telling in Logicomix. We see Russell as a young, troubled child in an authoritarian home finding the basis of truth and certainty in mathematics. As a student in Cambridge, Russell becomes obsessed with the logical foundations of mathematics, catalyzed by the 1900 challenge of David Hilbert and using the new logical formalism of Gottlob Frege to establish mathematics on completely rigorous, firm foundations. This is the work he spends the first decades of his career on, collaborating with Alfred North Whitehead to produce their Principia Mathematica, which—as Russell recounts wryly—took over 200 pages to prove that 1 plus 1 equals 2.
If this sounds like the stuff of esoteric mathematics, it is. But the success of Logicomix is making the story—which depends on the mathematics—both accessible and engaging. It provides enough of the technical details for the reader to get a conceptual notion of set theory, upon which Russell’s work rested, and the damning implications of Russell’s paradox, which undermined these very foundations. The narrative continues, always through Russell’s eyes though his own work leaves the center stage, to explore Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, and the rise and fall of the Vienna Circle on the eve of the Second World War.
It’s not quite history (as the authors admit they’ve altered the timeline a bit to make Russell have meetings with characters that he likely never met), but it is a sweeping and effective story of people and their ideas. It’s not quite philosophy or mathematics either, but there’s enough of both to make Logicomix intellectually rich and rewarding—from the logical puzzles themselves (boiled down to their conceptual themes) to exploration of philosophical approaches to mathematics, contrasting Gödel’s Platonic to Poincare’s inductive to Wittgenstein’s linguistic approach to the true meaning of mathematics and its relation to the physical world or the human mind. It’s a story with meat on its bones, executed in bright, clean, understated art that brings the characters and the locales to life without overshadowing the concepts it explores.
As with history of thought done well, the book is as much about the people as the ideas with which they wrestled. One of the primary themes in is the question of the sort of mind or personality it takes to devote a life to wrestling with the basics of logic. We see this most with Russell and the background of madness he worked and fought against, as well as in the periphery characters of Cantor, Frege, Gödel, and Hilbert. The close relationship between madness and logic—as well as questions of the place of logic in life—are explored by Russell himself in the course of his lecture and by the authors and artists of the book as they make their appearance (and interact with the reader) throughout in the third “meta” level of the narrative.
It is this third level of narrative—and the balance it takes to run an additional narrative overtop of Russell’s lecture and his chronological flashbacks—that pushes Logicomix in some of its most interesting directions. This meta narrative represents the self-referential nature of the book itself (nicely complimenting the theme of paradox in logic arising through self-reference, as in the case of Russell’s set theory paradox and Gödel’s incompleteness theorem): the authors and artists are characters in their own book, working in modern Athens to write about Russell and the logical foundations of mathematics. We are invited into their studio to witness the discussions between them as they work. In this way, we simultaneously receive additional background to what happens before and after the events of the novel, the rational behind their specific approaches, and what we as readers are supposed to take from the story. As a bonus, we learn a lot about ancient Greek tragedy as well, which, tied elegantly to the discussion of logic and madness at the book’s conclusion, brings the work to its poignant conclusion.
Self-reference does not work well in logic and mathematical proof, but it does quite nicely in literature (The Neverending Story, Gene Wolfe’s Peace, and The Princess Bride immediately spring to mind). There are other parallels to draw between the axiomatic formalism of mathematics and the rules and consistency that govern storytelling, but that is a post for another time. Suffice it to say, Logicomix is incredibly rewarding and opens to door to a host of further readings in history, mathematics, philosophy, and logic, aided and abetted by the helpful reference section at the end. Not many books I read merit the creation of an entire new shelf of “to read” books on Goodreads, but this one did.