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  • Blasphemous Modernism: The Twentieth-Century Word Made Flesh by Steve Pinkerton
  • Geert Lernout
BLASPHEMOUS MODERNISM: THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY WORD MADE FLESH, by Steve Pinkerton New York: Oxford University Press, 2017. xiv + 184 pp. $69.99.

Etymologically, at least, religion is supposed to bring people together, but to judge by recent events in the real world, that does not happen all that often. Friedrich Nietzsche had announced the death of God at the end of the nineteenth century,1 but the French Nobel Prize laureate François Mauriac famously predicted that the twenty-first century "sera réligieux ou ne sera pas,"2 and he was not wrong: if Karl Marx's specter is still haunting the world, it might well be that of the Supreme Being, a Holy Ghost.

The third person of the Catholic Holy Trinity appears on the first page of Blasphemous Modernism: Steve Pinkerton writes in his introduction that, according to Saint Matthew, blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is the only sin that cannot be forgiven (1), without mentioning that Stanislaus Joyce claimed his elder brother was trying to commit that sin.3

Pinkerton opens his book with the claim that reports of the death of blasphemy, as announced by T. S. Eliot in After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy, have been greatly exaggerated (4).4 The seemingly victimless crime is still very much alive, though less in Europe and North America: the last conviction for blasphemy in the United States was in 1928 for a window sign that said: "Evolution is true. The Bible's a lie. God is a ghost."5 In the rest of the world, as we find out every few months, blasphemy abounds: while I am writing, India is in turmoil because of a blasphemous film, which seems to be an argument against the claim in Pinkerton's book that blasphemy is a conflict of words: the Ayatollah never saw a copy of The Satanic Verses, and very few of the hundred thousands of protesters ever laid eyes on the Danish Muhammad cartoons.6 The defenders of God's honor do not need words to be offended.

But this is not the survival of blasphemy (and of God) that Pinkerton is writing about: post-secularist thought, like that of Charles Taylor and others (who in this book are called "perfectly sane thinkers") have declared (as unilaterally as Nietzsche) the "death of the death of God" (3). The argument of Blasphemous Modernism rests on this single assumption: "Even as [blasphemy] profanes religious traditions and [End Page 434] institutions, it also tacitly affirms their status as objects worthy of such profanation" (3). Thus having your blasphemy and eating it too informs all readings of blasphemous modernists in the book.

Pinkerton begins with After Strange Gods, in which Eliot claims that since blasphemy depends on belief, it has become increasingly rare and should therefore be treasured, but then (following Slavoj Žižek), Pinkerton changes the definition of religion into something that Eliot would not have recognized: "What blasphemy requires is not 'spiritual sickness' but rather a commitment to playful and critical reworkings of orthodoxy, coupled with a respect and even reverence, not for God, or scripture or the church, but for religious faith itself and its enduring cultural sway" (5). Surely a religious faith without God, scripture, or church, however, is a particularly late-post-modernist notion that modernist writers would not recognize? This book is much more about ways to enable post-secular critics to read modernist texts theologically than about the historical reality in which these works were written and read.

Pinkerton marshals all the evidence into his interpretation of Joyce's blasphemies, but his disregard for the lived reality of religion in Joyce's works and especially his rather catholic sense of Catholicism are seriously misleading. Photius I of Constantinople, Arius, and Sabellius were not Catholic heretics; there is no single Protestantism; and Queen Victoria is not "facetiously" celebrated as a "defender of the faith" (44)—that was and is the official title of the reigning monarch. The same is true of Pinkerton's readings of Joyce's works: as far as I can tell, there are no...


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