Over the next few days I’m posting my review of David Bentley Hart’s The Doors of the Sea, a book inspired by the Indian Ocean Tsunami.
First, let’s deal with the issue of personality. I wouldn’t normally talk about this in a theological book review, but Bentley Hart has a lot of it – personality that is, and he splashes it about pretty freely. You can’t read more than a couple of pages without feeling that you’re getting to know him, that you’re in some sense sharing his company. Some will find that more enjoyable than others.
Hart has a forceful, edgy, ironic manner that seems likely to appeal to young male theology students of the ‘alpha’ type. He takes an obvious delight in demolishing his opponents, and it seems most of the published world falls into this category. He cannot resist exposing the weaknesses or follies of those he interacts with. One feels, while in the company of Bentley Hart, that the world is a very foolish place.
There is something quite modernist about the detached vantage point from which Hart so confidently studies and weighs the merits of the world around him. Hart knows. In a book dealing with the Indian Ocean Tsunami, the reader hopes to find evidence of a bit of human feeling. If we suspect that the matter is being treated as a purely intellectual one, we might feel alienated and even repulsed. And unfortunately, in spite of his protestations of sympathy, Hart never convinces us that he has been touched at the human or emotional level by the tragedy he writes about. He plunges so quickly into combative, didactic mode, we are left with the feeling that something rather obscene is occurring, that the misery of those untold multitudes has already become so much grist for his theological mill. In Hart’s big personality, there is not much sign of compassion or fellow feeling. This is particularly unfortunate in a book on this topic.
Then there is the closely related matter of style. Hart has an impressive facility with words, piling them up with often telling effect. However, he does tend to get carried away with his own eloquence, rarely choosing one word where two will do. It seems he cannot stand to write a simple sentence, everything must be sophisticated with parentheses, adjectival clauses and explanatory asides. The overall effect of these rather baroque convolutions is a floridness that can become a bit wearing. The ‘man-of-letters’ routine starts to feel a bit self-conscious. Hart has been compared to C. S. Lewis, but unlike Lewis he seems to feel that for writing to be important it must be complicated. Lewis was of course the master of plain English speaking; Hart however has clearly learned writing in a different school.
Well, enough about David Bentley Hart, no doubt his mother loves him.
What about his gear?
(If you want to download the whole review, it’s here: doors of the sea)