Dr. Milliner: Bridging academia and pop culture

My interview with Matthew Milliner, Wheaton College’s resident art historian, fell on the first sick day in his five-year career as professor of art history, so he and I conversed through a digital window into his private home — ironic, given that we were talking about his recent recognition as an Emerging Public Intellectual. This award, handed out in October by Redeemer College in Hamilton, Ontario, is given each year to an academic who steps outside the traditional genre of academic writing in his or her field and garners attention outside of academia through his or her publishing and speaking.  

Milliner’s work is a good starting point for considering the popular role of academia. Both Milliner’s writing and his pedagogy interweave the contemporary and the contemplative, using art history to reveal the deceptive promises of much of contemporary visual culture. In his essay “Culture Breaking, In Praise of Iconoclasm,” Milliner draws on Katy Perry’s iconic Super Bowl performance. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the performance fell on the Septuagesima, the day dedicated in the Jewish calendar to remembering the Babylonian captivity. He suggested that contemporary Americans are likewise captives — often unknowingly — to a visual culture that competes at every moment for our precious attention. These distractions might be Perry’s mechanical lions, or the screens of our smartphones which allow us to idolize digital images without giving our full attention to what Milliner calls, “the icons right in front of you, your roommate, your professor, your friend.” Milliner admitted that “My daughter knows when I’m not giving her my full attention.” This is typical Milliner: connecting early icons with popular celebrity-focused culture in order to hold the Western reader’s attention and direct it back to our Christian roots.

Paradox or complement?

But does the name “public intellectual” not seem fairly paradoxical? Can someone really influence both the popular and the academic spheres successfully? Milliner’s award suggests he is able to deftly occupy both roles. He continually uses his spheres of influence to comment publicly. This past year he has been vocal on many interfaith panels in the Chicagoland area, and his website “Millinerd,” where he both blogs and shares writing, has a sizable following.

Milliner retains a healthy dose of appreciation and skepticism about the award’s goals. Yes, he called it “a shot in the arm” to encourage others to pursue public writing. But he questioned if the role of the public intellectual has not collapsed in our contemporary world, citing “The Watchmen,” an article by Alan Jacobs published in Harper’s Magazine this September. In the article, Jacobs considers the disappearance of the Christian public intellectual in the Western world, remembering Christian scholars like Reinhold Niebuhr and Dorothy Sayers who were leading social commentators as recently as World War II. Today, the Christian community is often perceived as anti-intellectual due to lingering false binaries like “Scopes Monkey Trial Crazies” versus “Intelligent Secular People.”

Where have Christian intellectuals gone? And is it possible to regain lost ground? Milliner is unsure, admitting “there actually is a real lack of this kind of thing in our world and an art historian is certainly not going to fill it.” Humility aside, Milliner genuinely sees a gap no one person can fix.

One of Milliner’s self-described “hobby horses,” is his ardent proclamation of the need for intelligent Christian commentary and attention to social issues. Milliner recognizes that Christian intellectuals might not match C.S. Lewis, who was able to talk theology openly in his mid-twentieth century context, and still be featured on the cover of Time Magazine. As far as platform is concerned, Milliner explained “It’s important to keep in mind the scale.” After the sexual revolution of the fifties and sixties, Christians largely retreated — or were pushed — into their own “counter publics,” dividing from secularism into publishing houses and institutions branded as distinctively Christian. Milliner and Jacobs insist that Christians can still speak publicly, but they must reconstitute categories by focussing on one circle of influence at a time instead of the “public” as a whole.

To be a Christian public intellectual, Milliner believes theology should be the starting point for other scholarly ventures. But instead of starting “with a clip from the Nicene Creed,” a person should assume its underlying theology as they launch straight into their take on “the best new music” or whatever is culturally relevant. Perhaps, he mused, a reader will think “Wow that was a really good article! I want to find something else they wrote,” and then discover “Oh, they also wrote an article for Christianity Today.”

Integration in real life

Getting involved in these hot-button issues is not always easy. Milliner explained that when one receives negative feedback from an article popular enough to generate it, it is tempting to want to keep your head down. Milliner said “you wonder, ‘Why expend the capital professionally on commenting on this?’” But awards like Reedemer’s continue to encourage informed voices toward contemporary tensions.

Milliner found one such opportunity during the controversial departure of tenured Wheaton professor of politics Larycia Hawkins. Some people publically interpreted the events as an institutional expression of Islamaphobia, including scholar Miroslav Volf who, writing for the Washington Post in December of 2015, labeled the motivations of the college as “anti-Muslim bigotry, not theology.” But Milliner, along with many Wheaton students and teachers, stepped into the gap and reached out to the local Muslim community.

At an interfaith panel put on by Islamic foundation in Villa Park, Milliner’s positive response surprised Volf, the Founder and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture, who is both a Croatian Christian and scholar of Islam. Milliner reminded Volf that Wheaton College had started constructive dialogue with the Muslim community well before the controversy occurred, and our relationship with Muslims will outlast this controversy as well. Still, he said, there is a lot of room for improvement, “I want area Muslims to say, no one has been as welcoming and as loving to them as the people of Wheaton College, and they did so with Jesus on their lips.”

Milliner continued on to explain that love and religious pluralism need not be seen as synonymous. The Muslim community is expecting us to be different theologically, and Wheaton College has a unique role to play because we are a place that takes our own theology seriously. It is boring to Muslim communities to experience outreach driven by self-congratulation instead of commitment to distinctiveness. Whether or not such efforts to understand Muslim theology and clarify his own have widespread public effects, they contribute to the specific public that Milliner finds himself in.

This broadened definition of “public intellectual” allows space for individuals that don’t necessarily have a Ph.D. Instead of claiming a personal willingness to take professional risks, Milliner hopes that this award encourages his students to make their voices known — especially in light of the uniquely rich environment we have here to wrestle with these issues. “What if an intelligent Christian perspective on an issue should be the first thing that comes up on Google for some Joe or Mary who’s just trying to figure out what’s going on on any given topic,” he said. For Milliner, academia that becomes an end in itself is a dead-end in itself. “I tell my students all the time: If it’s a great paper, why should it end on my desk?”

Leading the charge

Up next for the enigmatic scholar is a book currently out for peer-review, with anticipated publication. He reiterated that while his public life is important, he must still publish academic writing to truly be a scholar. His study of Byzantine icons, some of which are featured in his office’s “icon corner,” continually informs his approach to broader culture, “People have said discovering the early church fathers and mothers is like the moment in the Chronicles of Narnia when Prince Caspian blows the horn to summon Narnia’s ancient kings and queens for aid.” Icons for Milliner are the visual equivalent. Simple-looking but theologically complex, icon contemplation breaks down contemporary visual deceit by putting the viewer in touch with their Christian heritage.

To be a public intellectual is not to be a great giant of the faith, but perhaps, as Milliner once again referenced Jacobs, being one of ten people each doing a tenth of what a man like C.S. Lewis has done. This idea makes undergraduates fully capable of being public intellectuals as well.

“In grad school, I was at a party at a professor’s house,” Milliner recalled, “and I responded to his lecture in a rather existential and pathos-driven way. And he looked at me with such bizarreness, and his eyes said, ‘Hold on a moment — watch your tone — I don’t actually  care about you.’ And I realized oh, I’ve been conditioned in an environment where I could ask a professor these types of questions — and they did.” We as students are standing in the position of Prince Caspian blowing the horn, and to our aid comes, among others, a public intellectual with a bowtie on his neck and a freshly deconstructed Katy Perry commercial on his laptop.

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