A recent NPR podcast featured George Scialabba’s new book entitled What are Intellectuals Good For?, and it seems to me that a more relevant question can hardly be posed to our culture, thick with celebrity worship, self-aggrandizement, and ‘chuffed to bits‘ with anything that has even the remotest potential to make us wealthier. (FYI: I am a card-carrying member!)

Scialabba is the consummate New England intellectual with a bohemian twist. He works at Harvard (also his alma mater), not as a prof/lecturer, but as a building manager. His writing has been featured on the national stage, and you can find a free collection of some of these essays here. His newest book is an apology (in the classical sense of the word) for the role of critical thought and the importance of ideas irrespective of whether said ideas actually help one to fill their bank account or not. Scialabba’s primary concern is that there is a tendency among modern intellectuals to become so absorbed in the adiaphora, that they miss the proverbial forest for the trees.

From Maureen Corrigan’s review:

Scialabba tries to get a handle on just what intellectuals do for civilization, by delving into the work of Great and allegedly Great Minds. In that latter category, critic Edward Said comes in for especially droll and scornful attack because of what Scialabba sees as the damaging legacy of his writing: that is, inspiring this current generation of academics into deluding themselves that they’re carrying out political work by teaching, say, post-colonialist critiques of Paradise Lost. If intellectual work matters, Scialabba implies, it has to matter in ways that run deeper than delusionary self-puffery.

In part, the reason the age old Law/Gospel dichotomy is so attractive to many of us is because it is the opposite of self-puffery. It acts as a meta-template which is not only highly flexible but entirely ‘real’. Neither an intellectual short-circuit nor a lazy person’s guide to life, it is like a satellite map that allows us to see the ‘big picture’; thus, it perfectly encapsulates what Scialabba’s book advocates. To those of you who may be new to this theme, when we speak of Law/Gospel in the biblical sense, we are using shorthand for divine requirements/unconditional grace. In the more general sense, what we are talking about can be described as the difference between trying to prove your worthiness on your college entrance essays and receiving a love letter from your girl/boy-friend. In other words, because it seeks and mends the wounded rather than hogging the spotlight, the ‘grace thing’ always produces something of value instead of being preoccupied with nothingness.

We feel the endurance of such a theological construct is a testimony to its value in the history of ideas. Many of us here at Mockingbird defend ideas like this not because we’re trying to pass some time while waiting for the next best thing to come around the corner, but because we have found them to be elegant, true and timeless. This is why these same themes have a way of reappearing in great films, literature, and music. In addition, I would also like to think that we focus upon the Gospel/grace message here because of Jesus’ warning to some of the intellectuals of his day who always erred on the petty side of Law & evaluation: “You’re hopeless, you religion scholars! You took the key of knowledge, but instead of unlocking doors, you locked them. You won’t go in yourself, and won’t let anyone else in either.” (Luke 11:52)