We are Meant to Play and Create
An Interview with David Bentley Hart,
Author of The Experience of God
(Yale UP, 2013)
by Todd Edmondson
Since his first book-length publication, 2003’s The Beauty of the Infinite, David Bentley Hart has established himself as one of the most exciting and eloquent voices in Christian thought. His subsequent books have explored a diverse set of concerns, and each new, eagerly anticipated release invites readers to engage more deeply with matters of faith as well as the cultural streams in which we live and move. Following the publication of his most recent work, The Experience of God, Mr. Hart was gracious enough to participate in a conversation, via email, about his work. What follows is a transcription of that conversation.
TE: One of the most compelling features of your writing is the richness of your prose. The aesthetic qualities of theology are obviously important concerns within your work, so it’s not surprising that even your more technical pieces possess a certain beauty or literary quality that isn’t always present in theological writing. Beyond your interest in writing fiction, which you discussed in the introduction to The Devil and Pierre Genet, what inspires you to write the way you do? Who are some writers, past and present, who have shaped your approach to the craft?
DBH: It pleases me that you would say that. The truth is, when I was young I always assumed I would be a writer, mostly of fiction, and I have never had any other interest as consuming as that. It was an accident that I ended up writing any works of theology; my field was religious studies, originally, along with classics and literature, and at one point a purely personal search for God or truth or enlightenment—or whatever—sent me off along a path that led, for a while, to theology. But I have to point out that I abandoned formal theology about ten years ago and now write in as many different forms and on as many different topics as I can without courting financial disaster. As for why I write the way I do, I simply write in my own voice, without any particular rationale. I hate academic writing and rarely read any, so I suppose I never really learned the appropriately self-effacing style. I did try to make the most recent book much simpler in tone, for what it is worth; I suppressed my tendency to elaborate flourishes as much as I could. As for what writers most inspired me, that really is an impossible question to answer, because one learns from every good writer one reads, even those one may have no desire or ability to emulate. In English prose, I have always gravitated towards the “more is more” writers, to be honest, whether Sir Thomas Browne, Thomas De Quincey, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Vladimir Nabokov, or even S. J. Perelman (the list is very large). To me, the notion that one should strive for plain and direct diction at all times, no matter what lyrical, rhetorical, or comic effects one then has to eschew, especially when one has the glorious resources of the vast mongrel English vocabulary at one’s disposal, is like saying that an organist, no matter how grand the instrument at which he is sitting, must never pull out more than one stop. Sometimes the form is the message. At least, it should be. We are spiritual beings; we are meant to play and create, not merely to communicate simple ideas.