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Camille Paglia and Cultural Appraisal

September 10, 2019


No one is more entertaining and insightful than rock’n’roll intellectual and 1960s mystic Camille Paglia. I discovered her a few years ago, and I was hooked. While not completely agreeing with her views, I admire her zeal and expansive knowledge of culture, not to mention her excellent taste in music! Her writings helped me better appreciate the Dionysian groove surging in the music I truly love. Like her, I grew tapping along to the African-American vibes expressed in rock’n’roll and funk. Additionally, I like her style; Mark Bauerlein calls her a “Force of Nature,” and he’s right. She drops truth bombs with Nietzchean panache, and I confess to watching every video of her I can find on YouTube, especially videos from the 1990s. It’s not just her personality that is delightful, but her commentaries on American popular culture. They are fascinating. She appreciates pop in ways most academes could never fathom. Sometimes her observations tend to be over-the-top but, nevertheless, true. There’s much to appreciate in Camille Paglia.

Paglia is a model for how Christians should find the workings of the Logos within the culture. Although I have some hesitancy about going completely along with her “Apollonian-Dionysian” dichotomy as a universal interpretative lens, I think Christians ought to recover their robust interpretative tradition by bringing the incarnate Logos back as the proper lens of all things just as much as Paglia brings her neo-pagan model to bear on nature and culture. Are we not convinced that the Logos is the one in whom all is made? This does not mean assimilating everything, but it means knowing enough culture and Gospel truth to recognize what to spoil from the Egyptians. Many people think it’s a stretch to find glimpses of the Gospel within popular culture; they are skeptical when Bishop Barron finds logoi spermatikoi (seeds of the Word) within pop culture. However, that “stretch” was enough to convince me to reconsider the depths of the Gospel, and I know it is an effective evangelical strategy, especially as a teacher. So let’s learn from America’s cultural guru, Camille Paglia, but use her own method so as to draw her back into the fold.

Camille Paglia grew up Catholic but drifted from the faith, not finding much appeal in the bland Jesus introduced to her as a child. She preferred the piquant “pagan” elements of Catholicism such as the colorful magi and the seemingly pagan depictions of the saints to the pristine, boring Jesus she found depicted in the devotional imagery in the Church. Also, she thought there was no room for an enquiring mind in the Church when reprimanded for asking an Irish nun: If God is all-forgiving, would he ever forgive Satan? She explains the Catholicism of her youth in an interview in America Magazine. Paglia prefers what she sees as the excitement of paganism to beige, moralistic Christianity. However, she does not despise Christianity and religion. She finds great truth in religion, despite her atheism. In the face of much of our culture’s nonsense, Paglia is one of the most sensible voices around. I think this is due to her Catholic immigrant upbringing. She understands the dark side of human nature very well, while appreciating the light that religion has brought to humanity. She’s almost a literary Caravaggio. 

I’ve been reading her latest collected essays in Provocations. These essays are brimming with insight and cultural history, especially the essays under religion. “Cults and Cosmic Consciousness: Religious Vision in the American 1960s” unveiled for me a dimension of that decade that was missing in the politically saturated presentation of the sixties I received in school. Cardinal Francis George said you cannot evangelize a culture you do not love. Read Paglia and you’ll come to know and love American culture. Provocations and Paglia’s other writings will identify for you the spoils in America. Take them and use them for evangelical purposes. Thank you, Camille!