Reviews: Authors’ Minds & Metallica

Courtesy of New Hope Church Calgary
Courtesy of Oxford University Press
Courtesy of Cambridge University Press

Patrick Colm Hogan, How Authors’ Minds Make Stories. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013, xxi + 227 pp., £55.00/$90.00, cloth.

In How Authors’ Minds Make Stories, Patrick Colm Hogan explains literary creation in terms of cognitive science. Drawing on both neuroscience and literary analysis, Dr. Hogan shows how the construction of stories takes place within authors’ minds. To explain his theory, Hogan discusses works by Austen, Faulkner, Shakespeare, Racine, Brecht, Calvino, and other writers.

Although Hogan discusses creative stories in detail, he does so because he is concerned with articulating and showing how the human mind works in the act of creating these stories. More specifically, Hogan discusses literary works in relation to the cognitive process of simulation, which is essential to the creation of stories. Simulation is defined as “our ordinary cognitive process of following out counterfactual or hypothetical trajectories of actions and events in imagination” [xiii]. Simply put, it is what happens in the mind when a person imagines. Of course, this cognitive function is developed by an author’s life experiences, other stories he or she has read, in addition to other factors.

As Hogan puts it, “The focus of this book is on literature. In the course of investigating literature however, it also develops an account of simulation that should be broadly applicable” [xiv]. Hogan goes on to explain two of his goals in this book: he aims to “build on and advance our understanding of the structure and operation of the human mind” and to “build on and advance our understanding of literary art as developed in narrative theory”[xiv].

To shed light on different aspects of simulation, Dr. Hogan discusses particular literary works in detail. And since he looks at the works in relation to cognitive science, he uses a fair amount of scientific terminology. Again, the literary analysis here is not an end in itself, but a means to understanding the operations of the human mind.

In the first chapter, Hogan examines the cognitive processes that go into authors’ creation of fictional worlds, discussing Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury and Austen’s Emma. In chapter two, he examines how simulation takes place as authors develop plot and structure, examining authors’ evaluation of their own stories and characters as they create them, arguing that “authors continually assess and revise developments through ongoing processes of evaluation relative to emotional and thematic goals”[45]. In chapter 3, Hogan focuses on “narrative idiolect”—the narrative patterns that are unique to a particular writer. To do this, Hogan zeroes in on Shakespeare, examining story patterns across Shakespeare’s plays, including Henry V, Julius Caesar, and The Tempest.

In later chapters, Hogan discusses “principles and parameters of storytelling,” as well as argument and metaphor, using Racine, Brecht, and Kafka as his examples. In the final chapter, Hogan turns from story (“the ‘what’ of narrative”) to discourse (“the ‘how’ of narrative”)[138]. He discusses how simulation operates in emplotment, which is an author’s selection and arrangement of story material into the story itself. In this final chapter, Hogan focuses on Shakespeare’s construction of Hamlet. Hogan finishes the book with a more playful Afterword in which he discusses how Faulkner and Calvino expose the “artificiality of narration” in their works by making them self-referential.

This book is technical and detailed but its subject is fascinating. Hogan’s work reminds us of the amazing complexity of the human imagination—an aspect of our humanity that we still cannot fully comprehend. The book will interest readers who want to explore the cognitive processes of the human mind, and specifically their function in the creation of stories.

Review by Nathan Huffstutler

Courtesy of Square Inch
Courtesy of Square Inch

John Van Sloten, The Day Metallica Came to Church: Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything. Grand Rapids: Square Inch, 2010.

The Day Metallica Came to Church is an exploration of what is more clearly stated in the subtitle, Searching for the Everywhere God in Everything. All those like myself who hoped this book would be a theological exploration of Metallica’s music will be disappointed. In the words of Metallica, it’s sad but true. The title is something of a bait and switch. Metallica synecdochically represents one aspect of the book’s cultural and pop-cultural engagement.

The book is primarily filled with anecdotes and autobiographical material from pastor John Van Sloten’s sermons on various topics from Batman to Van Gogh and much in between. Each chapter focuses on a specific topic and tries to show how God can be seen as speaking through the particular movie, song, sport, or painting under discussion. Some insights in this regard are more interesting than others and readers will be directed to the book for Van Sloten’s thoughts.

Personally, I find theological engagement with (pop) culture to be very fruitful and worthwhile. I even appreciate much of the Neo-Kuyperian perspective expressed throughout (though, oddly, Kuyper is never mentioned or cited once, but Van Sloten has three statements that more or less paraphrase Kuyper’s famous aphorism that there isn’t one square inch over which Christ does not cry, “Mine!” [6, 119, 237]).

Despite my broad sympathies with the book, I would not share Van Sloten’s position that such engagement should be the central focus of sermons designed for church worship services. Not once does Van Sloten mention a biblical text that was the central focus of one of his sermons.

The rationale behind Van Sloten’s exegesis of the Bible and culture is articulated in terms of “co-illumination” and “counterbalance.” For Van Sloten, Scripture and culture are “interconnected.” He notes, “God’s revelation through the Bible tethers, holds in balance, and offers perspective on God’s revelation through nature and human culture, and God’s revelation through culture has the same effect on the Bible” [58]. Van Sloten helpfully admits that God speaks “most clearly” through Jesus and “more obliquely” through culture and creation [73–74]. Yet I find the notion of interconnection to be unjustified. His biblical reasoning along these lines—derived from implications about the Image of God, and analogies between the earthly Jesus speaking through parables and the risen Jesus speaking similarly through creation and culture—fail to convince me of “interconnectedness.” I affirm that the Bible is historically and culturally conditioned, being the product of real historical people, but the notion that contemporary culture is connected in some way to the meaning of the Bible is unwarranted. If an interpretation of the Bible is not historically plausible in its original cultural contexts, then it is not an interpretation worth having.

As a final assessment, The Day Metallica Came to Church seems best for those who are unsure about whether they, or their kids, should watch certain movies, listen to certain music, or read certain books. Those who struggle with how to navigate the secular/sacred divide will certainly find this book challenging and helpful. Other readers looking for something a bit more robust may be disappointed that the book does not contain deeper philosophical and theological discussions about relevant topics, such as natural theology. Regardless, all readers will be challenged in some way to be ever attentive to our active God.

Review by John Anthony Dunne

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