Harper In The Holy Land
Jerusalem—It Took Stephen Harper A Long Time To Get To Israel, Where He Picked Up An Honorary Doctorate At Telaviv University. The Accompanying Citation Had Been Passed By The University Senate In February 2008. They Likely Never Expected That The Most Pro-Israel Head Of Government In The World Would Take Six Years To Make His First Trip To Israel
Within months of taking office in February 2006, Harper shifted Canada's foreign policy toward stalwart support for the "Jewish State of Israel," as his preferred formulation has it. Indeed, in the second Lebanon war in the summer of 2006, Canada's pro-Israel position surprised many who previously thought that being an "honest broker" meant always splitting the difference between the opposing parties. One long-time Conservative campaign organizer, Jewish himself, offered this characterization of Harper's stand in the second Lebanon war: "The definition of political principle is reducing political donation limits while at the same time running the most pro-Israel foreign policy in Canadian history!"
It's a joke, but there is some truth to that. Harper's support for Israel is not the clumsy pandering of Joe Clark — let's move the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem! — but a principled support that far exceeds whatever political payoff there might be. There are perhaps a dozen, at most, ridings where a shift in the Jewish vote from its traditional Liberal home to the Conservatives may lead to Harper making gains. But there are far more Muslims and Arabs in Canada than there are Jews so, on balance, support for Israel is not an obvious demographic winner. For a Prime Minister who ruthlessly controls his message and woos ethnic and religious minorities with exacting precision, it is astonishing that he has fought four federal elections without having at his disposal favourable footage of himself in Israel. It's fair to say that Israel is not primarily about electoral politics for Stephen Harper.
A Moral Imperative
It is a "moral imperative," Harper argued in his address to the Knesset, Israel's parliament, where he promised Israelis that "through fire and water, Canada will stand with you." It was a stirring peroration to a speech in which the Prime Minister explained that his unprecedented and unmatched support for Israel is not a matter of political calculation, but a principled obligation and "also a matter of strategic importance, also a matter of [Canada's] own long-term interests." At the gala dinner for the two prime ministers, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu spoke in more expansive, even universal terms, praising "my friend Stephen" for understanding that Israel is a "civilizational test" and a "parable for all nations." That's lofty rhetoric that would seem absurd if said, for example, about Morocco. Of course, Morocco is not Israel. Israel alone is Israel. I have been to Israel more than a dozen times — as a pilgrim, leading pilgrimages, with my family, on a private retreat, for Christmas, for Holy Week, for board meetings, for the papal visit of 2009 — but never for something quite like this. I was invited to be part of the delegation accompanying Prime Minister Harper on his January 2014 visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority (West Bank).
When the Prime Minister makes an official visit of unusual importance, he often invites various leaders from business, culture, education and other sectors to accompany him. The visit thus is not only government to government, but includes civil society as well. This delegation was the largest one to have accompanied him on any trip. Given the holiness of this land, it included several religious leaders. One news report noted that there were "twenty-one rabbis and one priest," which led to a lot of bad jokes. Rabbis and priests are easier to spot given our dress, but there were also several senior evangelical Protestant leaders with us. The Christian contingent was strangely chosen though. There were no Orthodox leaders, though they are the largest Christian presence in the Holy Land, and no other Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans or Methodists. (I was put forward by the Canadian Jewish community, for my work with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.)
The high point of the visit was the Prime Minister's address to the Knesset. Stephen Harper is the first Canadian prime minister to whom that honour has been extended, and the warm reception he received was an occasion of pride for Canadians. He sought to explain why his government has been, both in terms of Canadian history and in comparison to other western countries today, unusually vigorous in its support for Israel. Harper put it plainly: "It is the right thing to do."
"The special friendship between Canada and Israel is rooted in shared values. Indeed, Israel is the only country in the Middle East which has long anchored itself in the ideals of freedom, democracy and the rule of law. And these are not mere notions. They are the things that, over time and against all odds, have proven to be, over and over again, the only ground in which human rights, political stability and economic prosperity may flourish. These values are not proprietary. They do not belong to one people or one nation. Nor are they a finite resource. On the contrary, the wider they are spread, the stronger they grow. Likewise, when they are threatened anywhere, they are threatened everywhere."
The Prime Minister added another reason for supporting Israel's right to a secure existence — the memory of "the shadow and horrors of the Holocaust." He characterized Israel's story as essentially that "of a people whose response to suffering has been to move beyond resentment and build a most extraordinary society, a vibrant democracy, a freedom-loving country with an independent and rights-affirming judiciary, an innovative, world-leading 'start-up' nation."
An Aboriginal Argument
Both arguments for Israel are true — it is a liberal democracy and a refuge after the Holocaust. But there is a third — or I would argue, a first — argument that Harper did not make in the Knesset. An argument that would have resonated with the Jewish and Christian religious leaders in the delegation: The land of Israel is the Biblical home of the Jewish people. It is what Liberal MP Irwin Cotler of Montreal — also present for the visit but not part of the official government delegation, as only Conservative MPs were included — has called the "aboriginal argument" for Israel, namely that Jews are an aboriginal people, living on their ancestral land, speaking their language, preserving their culture. It is an argument that Stephen Harper agrees with, even if he did not make it in the Knesset.
"All of my life, Israel has been a symbol — a symbol of the triumph of hope and faith," the Prime Minister said in 2008, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel. "After 1945, our battered world desperately needed to be lifted out of post-war dark-ness and despair.... From shattered Europe and other countries near and far, the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob made their way home. Their pilgrimage was the culmination of a two-thousand-year-old dream."
Israel as a homeland of the Jewish people — a promised homeland, the object of a providential pilgrimage, a return after a calamity of Biblical proportions, an in gathering after two millennia of expulsion and exile — is a language that must resonate with any Christian who looks at history through the eyes of Biblical faith. Contemporary questions of justice and peace, liberty and security, not only for Jews but also for Arabs, are critical, but the fundamental outlook has to be shaped by Biblical history.
For if Israel were to cease to be a liberal democracy, or if the Holocaust were to fade from memory — if Israel were to become Morocco — would the Jewish people have any less of a right to a homeland in Zion? The land of Israel is the Promised Land for the theatre of salvation. It is for that reason that the Jewish people came and established their capital in Jerusalem some 3,000 years ago. Biblical faith does not determine prudential political judgments. Christian faith does not demand Zionism, but it is congenial to it. So to be in the land of Israel as a pilgrim first and foremost was complemented, not compromised, by the presence of the Prime Minister, who came first as a statesman, not a spiritual seeker.
Yet there is inescapable ambivalence for the Christian visiting from abroad on a government delegation. Ambivalence does not mean any less enthusiasm for fraternal relations with Jews or support for Israel's existence, but the necessary ambivalence that accompanies any identification of the saving Gospel with political arrangements.
At the level of the universal Church, Christians desire good relations with Jews, and those good relations mean caring about the security of the modern State of Israel because Jews the world over care about it. At the level of the particular Church, of those Christians — Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran and, increasingly, small groups of evangelical Protestants — who live here, Christian solidarity and fraternity pulls one in the opposite direction. None of the local Christians I met was pleased with the visit of Stephen Harper, whom they view as Israel's friend and, for that reason, their adversary. The local Christians here are Arabs. (There are some Hebrew-speaking Christians, but they are very few in number, and many of them are expats who learned Hebrew in Israel but who are not themselves ethnically Jewish.)
To be a Christian and an Arab is to be conflicted in a way that to be a Muslim and an Arab is not. The Islamic view can be rather simple, namely that the land of Israel was once Jewish and then Christian, but was conquered by the Muslims in the 7th century and what became Muslim land ought to remain Muslim land, no matter how many foreigners come or how long they stay. In this telling, the Jewish State of Israel, backed by its Western Christian allies, is just the latest usurper. Christians cannot think this way, even as the Palestinian cause becomes increasingly Islamified. Christians read the Hebrew Scriptures and are taught by Saint Paul that the covenant with the Jews is irrevocable. So a Christian Arab ought to think theologically in a favourable way about an aboriginal homeland for the Jewish people. Yet that same Christian Arab knows that while the erection of the modern State of Israel in 1948 is celebrated by Jews as their independence day, Palestinians refer to it in Arabic as the naqba —the catastrophe —and mark it every year with lamentation.
Even before one gets to the very real questions about the practicalities of the Israeli presence in the occupied territories, there is a more fundamental ambivalence among local Christians. It is hard to seek peace with Israelis when their very presence is a reminder of the defeat — military and diplomatic — of the Arab nations. Many feel that to be a Biblical Zionist, or to accept the aboriginal argument for Israel, means to be a disloyal Arab. And if these Christians are our brothers in Christ, then we, too, are touched by that ambivalence, even though we do not feel it in the same way.
The Same Question
During the Gaza War, in January 2009, I was leading a group of Christian pilgrims from Canada in the Holy Land. We were received in an audience by the Holy See's representative in Jerusalem at the time — Archbishop Antonio Franco. A genial and gentlemanly diplomat unafraid to speak frankly, he said that leaving aside the particular issues between Hamas in Gaza, the PLO in Ramallah, and the State of Israel, the fundamental question remained the same as in 1948: Was the modern State of Israel a naqba, or not? Could Arabs accept a Jewish homeland in the historic land of Israel in principle, with the particular configuration to be worked out? Hamas could not, but the answer in large parts of the Arab world is obviously yes — Egypt and Jordan have peace treaties with Israel, and before Syria descended into civil war, there was hope that peace was possible between Jerusalem and Damascus, too. The Christian prays that the answer is yes, that Biblical faith and practical politics may arrive at a common position.
For Christian pilgrims from abroad, accompanying the Prime Minister or not, it is easier to see with the Biblical eyes of faith, exempt as we are from the practical realities of local politics. But Biblical faith is nothing if not grounded in the realities of this land, obtained by blood and bloodied ever since. There is milk and honey in this land but also fire and water. It is possible to come as a proud and principled Canadian, a Christian grateful for the return of the Jewish people to their aboriginal homeland, and at the same time remain troubled at the dim prospects for peace and be in solidarity with the ambivalence of our fellow Christians. It is not only possible, but necessary. I have been to Israel many times, but this time more than any other, I realized the necessity of coming and the necessity of returning, maintaining all the identities that we bring, and respecting the identities of the friends —Israeli and Palestinian — that we encounter.
You remember the moose in the shades? It was 10 years ago that The Economist put sunglasses on a moose and declared that Canada "with its mix of social liberalism and fiscal rectitude" was cool. Being cool, as any teenager will tell you, is a rather transient thing. Things that are cool today are cool partly because they weren't cool before. Things that used to be cool aren't cool now because they used to be cool before. Indeed, the word cool is less cool than it used to be.
But The Economist, the fine magazine that thinks it's cool to call itself a newspaper, still uses words like cool. In 2004, Canadian politics were as cool as The Economist could imagine — budget surpluses and gay marriage. As in high school though, being cool in politics is hard to keep up. Remember Tony Blair's election in 1997, after 18 years of Margaret Thatcher and John Major? It was "Cool Britannia" time, and even the venerable British Airways updated its livery to appeal to a new generation that did not understand words such as livery. Then came Iraq and a grubby power struggle with Blair's deputy, and dreamy Tony was no longer cool. Not to worry, for on the horizon was the coolest man who ever bothered to run for office: Barack Obama. Poor old John McCain, with his prisoner of war past and his inherited wealth, never had a chance against the cool cat from Chicago. Yet five years on and Obama, unable to launch a website but able to launch a thousand drones to kill with cold-hearted precision, is not so cool anymore.
So Canada can take comfort that in its preview of "The World in 2014," we have been found lacking by The Economist: "uncool Canada" is their judgment. We should have known that it couldn't last. Yes, corporate tax rates are way down, a return to budget surpluses is around the corner and there is a "cool new trade deal with the European Union," but where's the fun in all that good government? The purpose of prosperity is to enjoy a little weed and other indulgences, no? Alas, Canada is going in the wrong direction on marijuana, stiffening criminal penalties rather than making it free from your family doctor. Back in 2004, Canada was on the cutting edge of trendy causes, trumpeting the Kyoto Protocol for climate change and the Kelowna Accord for Aboriginal peoples. Coolness can be a matter more of style than substance, and the coolness of Kyoto and Kelowna were more about intentions than actions, as neither was implemented. Now Canada is not very trendy at all, what with its oil sands and refugee reforms and general lack of socially libertine novelties, which would strike most Canadians as just fine.
Despite his tendency to jump onstage to sing "Hey Jude," Stephen Harper lacks a certain coolness. As do most of our prime ministers, whether the long-serving Mackenzie King or the just-passing-through Joe Clark. Pierre Trudeau was an exception, though one expects The Economist would not have found his economic record very cool. Trudeau fils seems to offer plenty of coolness, but not much else.
Canada can do without The Economist's imprimatur of coolness, though one expects real coolness is rather allergic to the imprimatur of anyone. The Economist's coolness caters to those who are able to afford the luxury of being cool. Smaller government allows the wealthy to keep more of their wealth, which enables them to cope with the dislocations of social libertinism, be it family breakdown or drug rehab. The combination of fiscal conservatism and social liberalism as the new politics of the centre-left was the great innovation of the 1990s, first pioneered by the ultra-cool, saxophone-playing Bill Clinton, and then followed by Jean Chrétien and Tony Blair. Clinton was willing to end welfare for the poor, but defended partial-birth abortion. Paul Martin's record was that of a deficit-slayer who campaigned for the premiership as a stalwart defender of the world's most extreme abortion licence. The Economist found it all very congenial for the centre-right. Be suspicious when elites of both sides converge. Sometimes coolness is just another word for being cold.
Ross Douthat On Pope Francis
Time magazine did not say the Pope was cool. But they might as well have. Nine months after they first heard of him, they named him Person of the Year. The award has been given twice each to Presidents Clinton, Bush Jr., and Obama, so it is an ambiguous honour at best.
What then should Christians think when a pastor is feted with fevered laudations by those who otherwise seem to wish Christianity ill? Should Catholics be embarrassed that Time chose Francis not because of his opposition to the prevailing culture, as they did Pope John Paul II in 1994, but because of his presumed sympathy to it?
One of the keenest observers of Pope Francis in particular, Catholicism more generally, and indeed, an indispensable voice in the conversation about faith in our common life is Ross Douthat, the most readable columnist at the New York Times. Convivium is hosting a conversation with Douthat at the Manning Networking Conference on February 28 in Ottawa, and our conversation will likely touch on how the fascination with Francis can be understood in the current religious moment. Is he challenging the culture or capitulating?
"It's been the story of religion in the West for over 40 years," writes Douthat. "The most traditional groups have been relatively resilient. The more liberal, modernizing bodies have lost membership, money, morale. And the culture as a whole has become steadily more disengaged from organized faith.... Of late, this process of polarization has carried an air of inevitability. You can hew to a traditional faith in late modernity, it has seemed, only to the extent that you separate yourself from the American and Western mainstream. There is no middle ground, no centre that holds for long; and the attempt to find one quickly leads to accommodation, drift and dissolution. And this is where Pope Francis comes in, because so much of the excitement around his pontificate is a response to his obvious desire to reject these alternatives — self-segregation or surrender — in favour of an almost-frantic engagement with the lapsed-Catholic, post-Catholic and non-Catholic world."
Frantic or not, there can be no doubt about what Francis has accomplished. First, he is being discussed in every sector of society, usually with great enthusiasm. Second, the more distant one is from the Church, the more enthusiastic his reception. I was recently at a dinner party where nobody aside from myself was a Catholic, and none was even an occasional churchgoer. The enthusiasm for Francis was universal and undiluted. Most priests and bishops I talk to report the same.
"The idea of such engagement — of a 'new evangelization,' a 'new springtime' for Christianity — is hardly a novel one for the Vatican," Douthat continues. "But Francis's style and substance are pitched much more aggressively to a world that often tuned out his predecessors. His deliberate demystification of the papacy, his digressive interviews with outlets secular and religious, his calls for experimentation within the Church and his softer tone on the issues — abortion, gay marriage — where traditional religion and the culture are in sharpest conflict: these are not doctrinal changes, but they are clear strategic shifts. John Allen Jr., one of the keenest observers of the Vatican, has called Francis a 'pope for the Catholic middle,' positioned somewhere between the Church's rigorists and the progressives who pine to [Anglicanize] the faith."
Those who are in professions where drawing distinctions and defining differences is encouraged — the academy and the newsroom, for example — may well respond, as they allegedly say in Texas, that all one finds in the middle of the road are yellow lines and dead armadillos.
"In the uncertain reaction to Francis from many conservative Catholics, you can see the fear... that the centre he's trying to seize will crumble beneath him, because the chasm between the culture and orthodox faith is simply too immense," writes Douthat. "And they worry as well that we have seen something like his strategy attempted before, when the Church's 1970s-era emphasis on social justice, liturgical improvisation and casual-cool style had disappointing results: not a rich engagement with modern culture but a surrender to that culture's 'Me Decade' manifestations — producing tacky liturgy, ugly churches, Jonathan Livingston Seagull theology and ultimately empty pews."
In Argentina, the 1970s are not thought of as the "Me Decade," but as the years of the "dirty war," when the generals who usurped power made their opponents disappear. So Jorge Mario Bergoglio, already a Jesuit provincial superior at the time, learned early on that it is not possible for everyone to get along by smiling and saying agreeable things. He knows well that the Church has enemies. The difference that Francis offers is that he thinks those enemies may be converted rather than avoided or merely defeated. In that, he is a most ambitious Christian pastor and, perhaps, reckless as the most ambitious missionaries are.
Douthat's assessment is that Francis refuses to choose between self-segregation and surrender. It is because he chooses instead "encounter," which is the model he most frequently proposes. To encounter the other is to open the possibility of authentic evangelization. The conservative uneasiness about Francis is borne of experience of such encounters, which have become seductions, where the Church surrenders the Gospel for an embrace from a secularizing culture. Better to segregate than to be seduced. Francis responds that he prefers a Church "which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security." The options are not segregation or surrender, but rather bruising evangelical encounter or unhealthy confinement. In the latter set of options, any Christian with a sense of adventure would opt for bruising encounter.
In explaining its choice for person of the year, Time's rather eloquent cover story said that "in a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the Church — the Church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world — above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors."
There is some nonsense in that — Time forgets John Paul was the first world leader to physically embrace AIDS patients and he visited prison to forgive his would-be assassin — but some good sense, too. Benedict XVI taught in his first encyclical that "the Church's deepest nature is expressed in her three-fold responsibility: of proclaiming the word of God (kerygma-martyria), celebrating the sacraments (leitourgia) and exercising the ministry of charity (diakonia). These duties presuppose each other and are inseparable. For the Church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally well be left to others, but it is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being."
The Church, like the prophets of old, is often not popular when proclaiming God's word, which always challenges the errors of the time. She can seem mysterious, even alien, in her liturgy and rituals. Consequently she is, and has always been, most attractive when manifesting the healing, merciful love God has for every person, especially the suffering and the afflicted.
And that is largely what the Church does in history. Look at her great saints and founders, and the vast majority were outstanding in the corporal works of mercy—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, educating the ignorant, visiting the imprisoned. Relatively fewer were engaged in "doctrinal police work," which is a pejorative way of saying teaching the truth about God and His revelation.
The 20th century posed three enormous challenges to not only the Church but all of Western civilization. The first was from "above," the totalitarian State seeking to crush all social institutions, including marriage, family and the Church. The second was from "below," the sexual revolution and its attendant social changes, which undermined marriage, family and the Church. The third was in the entire intellectual environment, in which the possibility of knowing the truth at all, especially moral truth, was radically questioned and practically lived.
It is possible to understand John Paul II and Benedict XVI as two parts of an epic, world-changing 35-year pontificate that went into battle on all three fronts. Call it "police work" or manning the barricades or clambering aboard the ark in rough waters — it was necessary. If Francis now is able to return to what the Church usually does in times of relative tranquillity, it is because of what went before. Does the Church appear to be more attractive under Francis? Time is right about that, for she is attempting to be more of who she properly is.
So it may be that the options are not segregation or surrender as in the 1970s, but something new for the 21st century. Call it a bruising encounter with a world that is as likely to wound the Church as to embrace her. And in that bruising, the Church offers her witness to the mercy of God, the wounds of Christ. Is it possible that by the wounds of the body of Christ the world might be healed? The prophets told us as much. Perhaps the reason the new Pope unsettles his friends and attracts the attention of his enemies is precisely that: He may be a prophet in our midst.
Painters & Prophets
Every year on December 24, the National Post is the first gift of Christmas. The entire front page is given over to a Christian stained glass window — this past year the photograph was from a United Church in High River, Alta., devastated by the spring floods — and Christmas good wishes to its readers. Over at the Globe and Mail, they worship a different god and run a winter scene taken from the Thomson family's art collection. It's a two-for-one: Globe editors get to fawn over the newspaper's proprietors and get to downgrade Christmas to a winter holiday. The cold hearts at the Globe might be thawing a bit, as they now run "Merry Christmas" along the top of the front page, a change from the "special holiday edition" of a few years back.
The Globe's 2013 selection was "Deep Snow in Canada's North" by William Kurelek. In 2010, the front page featured his "Prairie Town in Winter." Usually the Globe chooses a Lawren Harris image or one from another of the Group of Seven, so it is a high compliment that the Globe (or the Thomson family) considers Kurelek their equal in Canadian painting.
The Globe biographical notes for Kurelek note his conversion to Catholicism and more or less leave it at that. Which is to leave more unsaid than said, for Kurelek was painter of urgent religious vision, and his winter landscapes were at best a minor part of his work. The dominant religious character of Kurelek's painting was expertly presented in Convivium's March 2012 issue, in which John O'Brien reviewed the Kurelek exhibition that was then touring Canadian galleries. It was a fine piece, but it turns out Convivium was just serving the appetizer from a skilled sous-chef. The main course has now arrived from the master chef, John's father, painter and man of letters Michael O'Brien. His recent book, illustrated with several of Kurelek's paintings, is William kurelek: Painter and Prophet, published by Justin Press.
"That he was a great artist is beyond doubt," writes O'Brien in his introduction. "That he was a man of prophetic gifts is often denied, when it is not ignored altogether.... Such lives are often heroic, and especially so when the subject is at once an artist and a prophet. William Kurelek's struggle to reconcile two absolutes has left an indelible mark upon his times." It takes one to know one, as they say in the schoolyard. And in this case it is true, for O'Brien is the Catholic painter-novelist-prophet of his generation. So in writing about Kurelek's interpretation of his times, O'Brien also gives us an interpretation of ours. It is not a long book, but it constitutes a deep meditation on the role of the arts as a shaper of culture, and a symptom of the sickness of that same culture.
"Kurelek's determination to paint, write and speak of the realities of faith flowered precisely at the moment in the history of the West when those realities were being countered by a growing rejection," writes O'Brien in Chapter 3, "Into the Void." "They were fast being displaced by what had been, until the twentieth century, only theories held by minority groups of the intelligentsia. The new worldview, in a word, was materialism. Kurelek had learned from his sufferings that a materialist view of existence ultimately leads to negation of life itself. When faith is rejected, both love and hope are gravely undermined, and creative passions die, culture declines and civilization collapses slowly in upon itself. It is only in the context of this climate of collapse and negation that the phenomenon of Kurelek can be fully understood. Crucial to any understanding, therefore, is an examination of the philosophical forces which, like so much deadly weight, had pulled down the young Kurelek, and which, after his conversion, so relentlessly opposed his world."
O'Brien, writing on Kurelek's work in the last century of the second millennium, extends his vision to that millennium's first century, detecting "a humanism which had its beginnings as far back as the Great Schism between the Latin and Greek Church, where a difference of theological emphasis regarding the human and the divine prepared the ground for later developments in humanism. The Renaissance was the primary point of rupture, and for all the glory it released into culture, it also released the spores of a humanism uprooted from the imago Dei, the image of God in man, which until then had been the ground of his identity. The Reformation and the Enlightenment followed inevitably as the liberal revolution worked out its logical consequences."
At the dawn of the third millennium, healing the arts, O'Brien suggests, involves healing the wounds of Christian division. Christian witness is needed against the "philosophical upheavals of the nine-teenth century" which soon pushed "humanism to the point of the absurd." In a world of divided and declining Christian witness, art lost its noble vocation and fell into mere observation and expression.
"The traditional function of art as a reverent knowing, a kind of epiphany of the beautiful, was replaced by wave after wave of art theory that appeared to 'know' in an entirely different sense," O'Brien writes of art in the scientific age. "It was the knowledge of the laboratory, where those who dissect their subject must kill it in order to know its constituent parts. In the process they lose the most essential part of its being: its life. One may know a specimen only in the crudest sense; one can never love it. The mystery of being will not allow itself to be grasped by any attitude other than reverence and humility."
One could go on reading O'Brien in this vein — and one should. For the vision is vast and the diagnosis of what ails the arts is acute. The arts, having lost reverence for life, are suitable only to portray the cadavers. Painters and prophets are required to point this out. William Kurelek did that for Canada in the 20th century. Michael O'Brien is continuing that in the 21st.