Moomins in winter

How I would love to see this puppet show at the Dulwich Picture Gallery.

the politics of long joy

Ten years ago I briefly wrote an online column for the late lamented Books & Culture, and what follows was the first entry. It still seems relevant, to me anyway.


Near the middle of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael describes for Adam — who has not yet fallen, not yet disobeyed — the War in Heaven between Satan’s rebellious angels and those who have remained faithful to God. Throughout this portion of the poem a major figure is a loyal angel named Abdiel. It is his task, or privilege, to cast the first blow against Satan himself: his “noble stroke” causes Satan to stagger backwards and fall to one knee, which terrifies and enrages the great rebel’s followers. This happens as Abdiel expected; he’s not afraid of Satan, and knows that even the king of the rebels cannot match his strength, since rebellion has already sapped some of the greatness and power of the one once known as Lucifer.

But what if the combat hadn’t gone as expected? What if Satan had been unhurt by Abdiel’s blow, or had himself wounded the faithful angel? In that case, says one Milton scholar, John Rumrich, “God would by rights have some explaining to do.” What right would God have to send Abdiel into a struggle where he could be wounded or destroyed? To Rumrich’s claim that most eminent of Miltonists, Stanley Fish, replies: Every right. God’s actions are not subject to our judgment, because he’s God — a point which, Fish often reminds us, modern literary critics seem unable to grasp.

Moreover, Fish notes, Abdiel himself doesn’t think that God owes him success, or indeed owes him anything at all. In Abdiel’s understanding of what it means to be a creature, all the owing is on his side; all the rights are on God’s. As it happens, there are moments in the story when things don’t go as Abdiel expects, where his efforts seem futile or pointless — or seem so to us. Yet this doesn’t bother him at all. Why not? Because in each case he did what he was made to do: he obeyed. Obedience is the creature’s calling; the ultimate outcome and disposition of events belongs to God, and only to God. God does not need to adjust events to meet our expectations, nor must he offer us an explanation when our expectations are thwarted. And if we focus on our own obedience we will not ask such things of God.

In the long and brilliant preface that Fish wrote for the second edition of his landmark book Surprised by Sin: the Reader in Paradise Lost, he calls Abdiel’s attitude “the politics of long joy,” and sees Milton as a passionate advocate for that politics. Milton himself strove to live by it: having made an impassioned case for freedom of the press in his tract “Areopagitica,” he pauses to say that his argument “will be a certain testimony, if not a Trophy.” That is, whether his argument succeeded or not (and in fact it didn’t), he wrote it simply in order to testify to his convictions. It was within his power to make such a testimony; it was not within his power to control the minds of the members of Parliament.

“The politics of long joy” is an odd phrase, but a rich one. Fish derives it from another moment in Paradise Lost, when the archangel Michael reveals to Adam a vision of “Just men” who “all their study bent / To worship God aright,” who then are approached by a “bevy of fair women” and determine to marry them. Adam likes this vision; two earlier ones had shown pain and death, but this one seems to Adam to portend “peaceful days,” harmony among peoples. But Michael immediately corrects him. This is in fact a vision of the events described in Genesis 6, when, after the “sons of God” become enamored with the “daughters of man,” God discerns that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” “Judge not what is best / By pleasure,” Michael warns Adam, “though to nature seeming meet.” Instead, Adam should judge according to the “nobler end” for which he was created: “conformity divine,” that is, obedience to God. And when Adam hears this rebuke Milton tells us that he was “of short joy bereft.” Of short joy bereft: for the joy which comes from judging according to appearances and immediate circumstances, according to what we now like to call “outcomes,” is always short. Only the joy of conforming our will to God’s is long.

Most important of all, Fish goes on to say, “It cannot be too much emphasized that the politics of being—the politics of long joy—is not quietism. Its relative indifference to outcomes is not an unconcern with the way things go in the world, but a recognition that the turns of fortune and and history are not in man’s control and that all one can be responsible for is the firmness of one’s resolve.” Milton says of the loyal angels fighting against Satan’s forces that “each on himself relied” as though “only in his arm the moment lay / Of victory.” Or, in Fish’s summary, “each acts as if the fate of the world is in his hands, while knowing full well it isn’t.”

It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

It seems to me that the careful dance, the difficult balance, of Christian cultural criticism is to be endlessly attentive to the form and the details of the world around us, while simultaneously practicing the “politics of long joy”—and in this way avoiding an unhealthy obsession with “trophies,” and avoiding also being conformed to the ways of this world. It’s a tough walk to walk, because one of the peculiarities of fallen human nature is that we find it difficult, over the long haul anyway, to remember that there is a world of difference between “I have no control over this” and “this isn’t very important.” We tend, against all reason, to diminish the importance of everything we cannot shape or direct. But our joy will be short if it is grounded in circumstances and events, because circumstances and events always change: if they please us now, they will displease us later. And then what will we do?

Central to this discipline, for me anyway, is a constant striving to remember who human beings are and what we are made for. Which brings me to the title of this column. On Bruce Cockburn’s 1980 recording Humans there’s a song called “Rumours of Glory”—a song about “the extremes / of what humans can be,” but also about the imago Dei which each of us bears, the divine image that waits always for the discerning eye to notice it. In the song, perhaps his best (which is saying a lot), Cockburn sees the “tension” between what we were made to be and what we in fact are; he sees that human culture is produced by that tension, which generates “energy surging like a storm.” At once attracted and repelled by that energy, “you plunge your hand in; you draw it back, scorched.” And the hand that has been plunged truly into the human world is always marked by that plunging: it’s “scorched”, yes, but beneath the wound “something is shining like gold — but better.” The truth of who we are, given the extremes of divine image and savage depravity, is hard to discern; perhaps we can only achieve it in brief moments; perhaps we only catch rumors of the glory that is, and is to be. But even those rumors can sustain us as we walk the pilgrim path.

the habitual passenger

The habitual passenger cannot grasp the folly of traffic based overwhelmingly on transport. His inherited perceptions of space and time and of personal pace have been industrially deformed. He has lost the power to conceive of himself outside the passenger role. Addicted to being carried along, he has lost control over the physical, social, and psychic powers that reside in man’s feet. The passenger has come to identify territory with the untouchable landscape through which he is rushed. He has become impotent to establish his domain, mark it with his imprint, and assert his sovereignty over it. He has lost confidence in his power to admit others into his presence and to share space consciously with them. He can no longer face the remote by himself. Left on his own, he feels immobile.

The habitual passenger must adopt a new set of beliefs and expectations if he is to feel secure in the strange world where both liaisons and loneliness are products of conveyance. To “gather” for him means to be brought together by vehicles. He comes to believe that political power grows out of the capacity of a transportation system, and in its absence is the result of access to the television screen. He takes freedom of movement to be the same as one’s claim on propulsion. He believes that the level of democratic process correlates to the power of transportation and communications systems. He has lost faith in the political power of the feet and of the tongue. As a result, what he wants is not more liberty as a citizen but better service as a client. He does not insist on his freedom to move and to speak to people but on his claim to be shipped and to be informed by media. He wants a better product rather than freedom from servitude to it. It is vital that he come to see that the acceleration he demands is self-defeating, and that it must result in a further decline of equity, leisure, and autonomy.

— Ivan Illich, “Energy and Equity” (1974)

keep the body receptive

I think that Bob Dylan knows this more than all of us: you don’t write the songs anyhow…. So if you’re lucky, you can keep the vehicle healthy and responsive over the years. If you’re lucky, your own intentions have very little to do with this. You can keep the body as well-oiled and receptive as possible, but whether you’re actually going to be able to go for the long haul is really not your own choice.

Leonard Cohen

I’m listening

Like many people of my generation, I did a lot of damage to my hearing in my youth, but I can still hear the difference between streamed music and music played on CDs. (Anything above CD-quality encoding is usually unnoticeable by me.)

Before I go any further: Kids, take care of your hearing. Please. Wear earplugs at concerts. Don’t blast music through your earbuds. You’ll thank me later.

Anyway, I have been for some time trying to spend more and more of my listening time on CDs, and reducing my time listening to streams. Sound quality is not the only reason for this: I also want to separate the listening of music from being online. I want to sit down and listen to music without being distracted by Twitter or the temptation to look up some piece of information — if I really need to do that I can make a note on a piece of paper and look it up later. I want my attention to go wholly to the music and maybe the liner notes (especially when I’m listening to classical vocal music in a language other than English and want to know what words the singers are uttering).

CDs are not the only option for my program, of course. I could go vinyl — except that I sold all my vinyl when I moved to Texas five years ago and don’t have the heart to start over from scratch. (When I was in college, thanks in part to a friend who sold stereos, I had a NAD integrated amp, a Luxman belt-drive turntable, and a pair of Magnaplanar speakers. I will never again have such a magnificent stereo system — but then, I’ll never again hear as well as I did then.) In an ideal world, which is to say a world in which I am filthy rich, this is the option I’d choose: lossless audio files on a massive hard drive with an elegant app through which to play them. But four thousand bucks is just a little bit outside my price range.

So: CDs it is. I’m looking forward to many years of more attentive, less distracted musical enjoyment. Wish me well.

autumn textures (central Texas edition)

Teresa Bejan on free speech

I simply don’t understand Teresa Bejan’s argument here. To wit:

While trigger warnings, safe spaces, and no-platforming grab headlines, poll after poll suggests that a more subtle, shift in mores is afoot. To a generation convinced that hateful speech is itself a form of violence or “silencing,” pleading the First Amendment is to miss the point. Most of these students do not see themselves as standing against free speech at all.

Well, no — but then, no one ever does. The universal line is, “Of course, I believe in free speech, but” — with the next line likely to be something about shouting and and fire and crowded theaters. Whether people admit to being “standing against free speech” is not the question at issue.

What they care about is the equal right to speech, and equal access to a public forum in which the historically marginalized and excluded can be heard and count equally with the privileged. This is a claim to isegoria, and once one recognizes it as such, much else becomes clear — including the contrasting appeal to parrhesia by their opponents, who sometimes seem determined to reduce “free speech” to a license to offend.

As best I can understand, the claim here is that, for instance, the students who shut down Charles Murray’s lecture at Middlebury felt that they were being denied a right to speak equal to that of Murray’s, and would have been perfectly happy to allow him to speak if their opportunity had been equal to his. If indeed that is the claim, I see absolutely no evidence that it is true. Certainly Bejan does not provide any.

Recognizing the ancient ideas at work in these modern arguments puts those of us committed to America’s parrhesiastic tradition of speaking truth to power in a better position to defend it. It suggests that to defeat the modern proponents of isegoria — and remind the modern parrhesiastes what they are fighting for — one must go beyond the First Amendment to the other, orienting principle of American democracy behind it, namely equality. After all, the genius of the First Amendment lies in bringing isegoria and parrhesia together, by securing the equal right and liberty of citizens not simply to “exercise their reason” but to speak their minds.

Indeed, but how is any of this at issue in campus protests? Is anyone saying that either Charles Murray, or Ann Coulter, or students who protest their presence on campus, are not allowed to “speak their minds” at all? Who, from the perspective of “American democracy” Bejan invokes here, is being silenced, and by whom?

In contexts where the Constitution does not apply, like a private university, this opposition to arbitrariness is a matter of culture, not law, but it is no less pressing and important for that.

I haver no idea what the phrase “opposition to arbitrariness” means. What is “arbitrariness” in this context? (Earlier Bejan writes of “Diogenes the Cynic, who famously lived in a barrel, masturbated in public, and told Alexander the Great to get out of his light — all, so he said, to reveal the truth to his fellow Greeks about the arbitrariness of their customs.” But who is the equivalent of Diogenes in the current debate?) Who is opposing “arbitrariness”? Are they right or wrong to oppose it? And why?

As the evangelicals, protesters, and provocateurs who founded America’s parrhesiastic tradition knew well: When the rights of all become the privilege of a few, neither liberty nor equality can last.

Again: yes, indeed. So the obvious conclusion, to me, is that when the “few” who want to shut down speech they disagree with win, then liberty and equality (within that particular community) are alike endangered. But I don’t think that’s Bejan’s conclusion. Can anyone help me make sense of this essay?

unmanly emotion

In my squandered youth I was a friend of Ian Hamilton, the biographer of Robert Lowell and J. D. Salinger and a justly renowned figure in London’s Bohemia. His literary magazine The New Review was published from a barstool in a Soho pub called the Pillars of Hercules, and editorial meetings would commence promptly at opening time. One day, there came through the door a failed poet with an equally heroic reputation for dissipation. To Ian’s undisguised surprise, he declined the offer of a hand-steadying cocktail. “No,” he announced dramatically. “I just don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t like having blackouts and waking up on rubbish dumps. I don’t like having no money and no friends, smelling bad and throwing up randomly. I don’t like wetting myself and getting impotent.” His voice rising and cracking slightly, he concluded by avowing that he also didn’t like being repellently fat, getting the shakes and amnesia, losing his teeth and gums, and suffering from premature baldness. A brief and significant silence followed this display of unmanly emotion. Then Ian, fixing him with a stern look, responded evenly by saying, “Well, none of us likes it.”

Christopher Hitchens

Design for Death

my response to Douthat’s response to my answer to Douthat’s question

Ross Douthat, responding in part to this post of mine, writes:

But it’s also possible that evangelical intellectuals and writers, and their friends in other Christian traditions, have overestimated how much a serious theology has ever mattered to evangelicalism’s sociological success. It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the evangelical mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outlier congregations — and that it is this group, not the cultural Christians who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real evangelical penumbra, which could float away and leave evangelicalism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated … but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed.

Typical NYT columnist! — interested in evangelicalism only in terms of “sociological success,” as a “cultural phenomenon.” SMH.

Slightly more seriously:

  • I don’t think it matters, either in the City of God or the City of Man, whether there are a great many people who (when surveyed by Barna or Gallup or Pew) call themselves evangelical, or only a few.
  • I do think it matters, for both cities, and in a variety of ways, that they contain people who seriously hold to the convictions traditionally associated with evangelicalism, whether those convictions are summed up in the Bebbington Quadrilateral or the Larsen Pentagon.
  • I think it matters a lot more, and again for both cities, whether generally orthodox Christians from all traditions — and including those who have moved from evangelicalism to one of the more ancient traditions — understand what they hold in common and seek to hold still more in common, pursuing the unity in Christ that they are commanded by Him to embody. There were orthodox Christians before there was an evangelical movement; there will be orthodox Christians long after the evangelical movement is but a distant memory.

One more thing, in relation to that move of many young evangelicals to older ways of being Christian: there’s a new book by Kenneth Stewart called In Search of Ancient Roots: The Christian Past and the Evangelical Identity Crisis. Andrew Wilson comments on it here.

Joe Posnanski wises up

About 15 or 20 years ago, I realized that talk radio was wrecking my writing process. I would be writing a column, and I would hear the talk radio voices in my head screaming, and I thought: “This isn’t helping me.” And so I stopped listening to talk radio. That’s sort of how I feel about Twitter now. All of the good — and there’s a lot of good in Twitter — just doesn’t for me outweigh the negativity, the rashness, the time-suckitude. At some point — I wrote about this — I figured out how many words I have written on Twitter, and it just about broke my spirit. I’ve written a full book on Twitter. A full, lousy, grammatically challenged, snarky, largely unfunny book of snap judgments and surface-level philosophy. I don’t have time for that. I have real books to write.

Joe Posnanski. Every few days or so I check in on Twitter and I see people still trying to write about important, complex matters there. They think, Hey, we have 280 characters per tweet now and I can link thoughts together in a tweetstorm. And then they produce inarticulate, disconnected, logically-challenged clumps of assertion— even when they’re perfectly capable of writing articulate, connected, logically clear arguments, at least when they’re on platforms that don’t enforce the equivalent of the electrical jolts used to keep Harrison Bergeron from thinking clearly.

If you’re trying to address complex issues on Twitter, you are serving as your own Handicapper General. Please stop. Get a blog. You’re damaging your brain and the quality of public discourse. We all deserve better.

leaving the Oasis

I’m pretty sure my body has a peculiar electromagnetic field that wreaks havoc on the batteries of electronic devices. Not all of them: all of my iPhones have had more-or-less the advertised battery life. But all of my Mac laptops, going back fifteen years, have gotten around four hours from a charge. No announced improvement in battery power has ever changed that. (I’m typing this on a MacBook that’s supposed to get around 10 hours from a charge under normal use. It gets four. It has always gotten four.) And my Kindles have been even worse — though never quite as bad as my new Kindle Oasis, which promises “weeks” of battery life on a single charge and gets … about two days. And that’s with limited use of the light. Two days.

So I’m sending it back. It’s all boxed up and ready to go, which leaves me, if I want to read on an e-reader, with this old thing:

And you know, it’s not bad — not bad at all. Yes, it’s a little heavier and the type isn’t quite as sharp, but it has advantages: no touchscreen, so I don’t have to wipe off prints; a hardware keyboard, which is much more user-friendly for someone like me who actually annotates books; underlining of marked text, which I think more readable and less distracting than highlighting. It doesn’t have a light, of course, but I rarely use the light because I read outdoors a lot and even when reading inside it’s easier on my eyes to read by lamplight.

So maybe I’ll just keep using this device I bought seven years ago — as long as the battery holds out.

Babette the Artist

This is a slightly edited version of a post I published a long time ago at The American Conservative. The original has disappeared — removed, I suspect, by someone who has a different interpretation of Babette than I do. Well, this is another reason for me to own my own turf!

Rod Dreher calls our attention to this post about cooking the central dish from Babette’s Feast. The movie is rightly legendary among food lovers and cooks, partly for reasons specified by J. Bryan Lowder here:

Contrast that with Babette. My favorite scene in the film comes after the last, glistening course has been served, when she finally sits for a moment in the kitchen, her skin dewy from work, quietly sipping a glass of wine. The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care. Indeed, Babette’s story is an argument for the idea that spending money, time, and energy cooking for friends is the best gift a home cook can give, especially if they enjoy themselves so much that they practically forget who’s behind the stove.

But: in the great story by Isak Dinesen on which the movie is based, Babette isn’t cooking for anyone else at all. She knows that when she cooks she makes people happy, but that isn’t why she cooks. At the end of the story, when the women who employ her learn that she spent all her savings to buy the ingredients for the magnificent meal they and their friends have just eaten, they are deeply moved. But they get a response from Babette they don’t expect.

Philippa’s heart was melting in her bosom. It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.

“Dear Babette,” she said softly, “you ought not to have given away all you had for our sake.”

Babette gave her mistress a deep glance, a strange glance. Was there not pity, even scorn, at the bottom of it?

“For your sake?” she replied. “No. For my own.”

She rose from the chopping block and stood up before the two sisters.

“I am a great artist!” she said.

She waited a moment and then repeated: “I arn a great artist, Mesdames.”

Again for a long time there was deep silence in the kitchen.

Then Martine said: “So you will be poor now all your life, Babette?”

“Poor?” said Babette. She smiled as if to herself. “No, I shall never be poor. I told you that I am a great artist. A great artist, Mesdames, is never poor. We have something, Mesdames, of which other people know nothing.”

Indeed, Babette’s art gives great pleasure to others — but she does not care. How other people feel about her work is a matter of complete indifference to her, because she knows herself to be a great artist and therefore to be utterly superior to them, to be made of different stuff. Lowder writes, “The satisfaction on her face is the kind that can only come from the knowledge that you have created something that sustains both the bodies and the spirits of the people in your care” — but nothing could be farther from the truth for the Babette of the original story.

There is, from our point of view, which is necessarily that of the sisters, something inhuman about Babette. “Philippa went up to Babette and put her arms round her. She felt the cook’s body like a marble monument against her own, but she herself shook and trembled from head to foot.” Lowder believes, and I guess the movie believes, and certainly I believe, in the beauty of a gift that is both given and received in love. But that is not what happens in the story. There Babette loves only her art. That that art pleases us is not, in her view, worthy even of consideration, and when the importance of our pleasure is suggested to her she responds with contempt.

The movie of Babette’s Feast is lovely, I think, but it takes, or can be read to take, Philippa’s view of the matter: “It seemed that an unforgettable evening was to be finished off with an unforgettable proof of human loyalty and self-sacrifice.”  It is therefore something of a sentimentalizing of the story on which it is based, which does not care about gift and grace but rather limns the peculiar character of the capital-A Artist.

on evidence and the life of the mind: a follow-up

A twofold follow-up to yesterday’s post:

1) Some people have written to ask me what my evidence is for the claims I made in that post. There’s a good bit of general evidence for what American evangelicals believe, as well as what larger populations of young Americans believe; and there have been some excellent in-depth ethnographies of small groups of believers; and some studies over several years of, for example, biblical knowledge among students at one Christian college — that last badly in need of updating. But we don’t have (and probably can’t have, given the work that would be required) large-scale, longitudinal studies of how evangelicalism operates day-to-day, of whether what churches preach and teach match up with what they say they believe, of the degree to which congregants accept that they’re taught in church, and so on.

So I have supplemented those accounts with my experience, over 35 years, of talking with young evangelicals from all around the country (and often from overseas as well) about their upbringing and their church experiences; talking with friends and family about their churches; visiting many churches, evangelical and otherwise, often in the role of guest speaker; and reading a great many first-person accounts online. I don’t have an ideal body of data, but it’s not negligible either.

2) In the tweet that kicked this off, Ross Douthat asked specifically about the intellectual life of young evangelicals, so let me say something about that. Mostly, of course, it’s shaped by forces altogether outside of Christianity: as I have frequently commented, our current power/knowledge regime is far better at catechesis than any churches are. But insofar as the Young Evangelical Mind is shaped by forces within Christianity, those almost never involve the local church. The minds of young evangelicals are shaped overwhelmingly by music and stories — I have tried to sketch the emergence of the latter development in this essay. In general, evangelical churches have not understood the intellectual formation of their congregants as part of their mission. As always you reap what you sow — and when you fail to sow….

Ray’s Yellow Plane

Ray’s Yellow Plane (Film Notes), 2013 by Rose Wylie. Photograph: Soon-Hak Kwon/Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner, London

where young evangelicals are headed

A long, long time ago, Ross Douthat tweeted this:

I’ve been thinking this over. I may not be as well-placed to answer that question as I was when I taught at Wheaton College — Baylor is a much more religiously diverse institution — but then Wheaton was not exactly representative of the people who now call themselves evangelicals, so maybe I have a clearer view from Waco?

Anyway, as far as I can tell, where young evangelicals are headed is simply out of evangelicalism. They have been, as Jared C. Wilson recently wrote, theologically and spiritually orphaned by pastors and other Christian leaders who were willing to entertain them and occasionally to hector them but who had no interest whatsoever in Christian discipleship. Millions of today’s young evangelicals have been utterly betrayed by a generation of pastors who could pontificate about how essential sexual purity is while simultaneously insisting that every real Christian should vote for Donald Trump, supporting their claims by a random handful of Bible verses wrenched from their context and utterly severed from the great arc of biblical story without which no piece of scriptural teaching can make sense. As I noted here, they cannot even distinguish a penitent from an impenitent sinner — that is how thoroughly they have emptied themselves of moral and spiritual understanding.

And yes: betrayed is precisely the word. A great mass of many* evangelical leaders have betrayed their young followers and congregants — and, equally, betrayed the theological and spiritual inheritance they received from their mothers and fathers in the faith. They exchanged a rich and truly evangelical birthright for a cold pottage of vague moral uplift and cultural resentment. Verily, they have their reward.

So if young evangelicals are leaving evangelicalism, where are they going? Not many, I think, will head for complete unbelief, but some will; a great many will drift further and further into moralistic therapeutic deism, which will offer them very little but, on the plus side, will ask even less from them; a smaller but still significant number will head for the older liturgical traditions, either for aesthetic or theological reasons.

There will of course continue to be vibrant congregations that define themselves as evangelical, but fewer and fewer as the years go by, I think. Most churches that would claim the label have abandoned their historic mission, and the historic Christian faith, no matter what their explicit theological formularies might say. (This, for instance, is simple idolatry, served up straight, no chaser.) As my old friend and long-time colleague Mark Noll has long contended, evangelicalism at its heart a renewal movement within orthodox Christianity, and such renewal will continue — but not in the forms that some of us have grown accustomed to over the past half-century. Renewal will need to find new strategies, new institutions. Some corpses can’t be revived.

UPDATE: See follow-up post here.


*Edited to avoid association with the phrase “the great mass,” typically meaning “a substantial majority.” Thanks to Ted Olsen for the heads-up. 

Auden adapted

The desires of the heart are as crooked as corkscrews,
Not to be born is the best for man;
The second-best is a formal order,
Tweet, tweet, for the figure is easy,
The tune is catching and will not stop;
Tweet till the stars come down from the rafters;
Tweet, tweet, tweet till you drop.

Hazlitt hating

In private life do we not see hypocrisy, servility, selfishness, folly, and impudence succeed, while modesty shrinks from the encounter, and merit is trodden under foot? How often is “the rose plucked from the forehead of a virtuous love to plant a blister there!” What chance is there of the success of real passion? What certainty of its continuance? Seeing all this as I do, and unravelling the web of human life into its various threads of meanness, spite, cowardice, want of feeling, and want of understanding, of indifference towards others, and ignorance of ourselves, — seeing custom prevail over all excellence, itself giving way to infamy — mistaken as I have been in my public and private hopes, calculating others from myself, and calculating wrong; always disappointed where I placed most reliance; the dupe of friendship, and the fool of love; — have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough.

— William Hazlitt, “On the Pleasure of Hating” (1826)

I think all the time about alternative ways of organizing my books, but am always thwarted by the fact that some are at home and some at the office. Probably what I’m most looking forward to about retirement is having all my books in one place. (But that may be what my wife is least looking forward to.) I think at least half of the Kindle books I own I bought because that was easier than getting into the car and driving to the office where I already had a codex copy. I cherish the fantasy that when I finally have all my books in the same building, and discover the ideal way to organize them, then all the chaos of my mind will resolves itself in a single great orderly pattern, and all the connections I have failed to make over the years will suddenly snap into place, and everything I have so persistently proved incapable of understanding will reveal itself in a moment of perfect clarity and unity. And then I will sit cross-legged in the midst of my books smiling like a Buddha. Enlightenment at last.

Verticals

Anni Albers, With Verticals (1946)

the poison of consequentialism

From this conversation:

Rebecca Traister: … the argument for keeping Clinton … was in part that the power he wielded could theoretically shore up or increase the very set of policies and protections that are supposed to ameliorate the gender-imbalanced conditions that make sexual harassment so pervasive, i.e., it was to some degree a compromise on a feminist issue designed specifically to further a feminist agenda. I don’t think there’s the same moral symmetry with Trump voters: that they’ll vote for a man who spews open racism or is accused of groping women specifically because they think that if elected, he’s going to strengthen defenses for women or for people of color; in some cases, the opposite. This week, Kellyanne Conway said that voters should pick Moore because he’ll help pass the tax bill. Is there a line of logic that says that voters upset about pedophilia charges should vote for the accused pedophile, despite their distress, because a lower corporate tax rate would lead to a systemic reduction of child abuse?

Ross Douthat: It’s not precisely the same, but many of Trump’s supporters framed it as “we’re compromising Christian values by electing a man who doesn’t live up to them, because that’s the only way in order to further a Christian agenda on abortion or religious liberty.” There’s some overlap with your view of how feminists thought about Clinton there.

You know what both of these arguments sound like to me? “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

Or consider this story that Rod Dreher recounted the other day:

Back in 2002, I interviewed a Catholic woman who had been blackmailed by her confessor into having an affair with him, even though she was married. She finally broke down psychologically, and sought professional help from a psychiatrist who was known to be a faithful Catholic. (I interviewed him too, and he confirmed her account.) When she and her psychiatrist went to the local bishop (who is now dead, by the way), the bishop told her he had sent the priest away overseas (as he had — that I confirmed), and that if she pursued charges against the offending priest, or made his abuse public, then he, the bishop, would be forced to go after her publicly for her messy past.

She quoted him as saying, “I have to protect the people of God.”

Protect the people of God … by destroying this woman who is one of the people of God. As I have suggested in a different context, consequentialism poisons character.

the casting game

Everyone who loves movies plays the Casting Game: Who would you cast if you could make a movie based on this novel or that comic? My son and I play this game on a regular basis and so have developed a series of more-or-less formal rules: for instance, he decreed some time ago that suggesting Daniel Day-Lewis for pretty much any part amounts to using a cheat code: not the sort of thing a person who takes a game seriously should do.

But that example raises another question: Is Day-Lewis eligible for the game at all?

There are two general version of the Casting Game, and it can only be played properly once you decide which version you’re using:

  1. Only actors who are active, age-appropriate, and available may be considered. For instance, if you try to cast a good Fantastic Four movie, you can’t pick Mark Ruffalo as Reed Richards. In the Marvelworld, he’s taken. (But Ruffalo would be a great Richards.) And now you can’t cast Daniel Day-Lewis in anything, because he has retired from acting to become a dressmaker. You can’t say “A young Meryl Streep would be great” for this or that part.
  2. In this second version, you can cast anyone from any time. I can do what I’ve wanted to do for thirty years now: cast a young Day-Lewis in an adaptation — to be written by myself — of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. (Other cast members: a young Naomi Watts as Sonia and a middle-aged Wallace Shawn as Porfiry Petrovich.)

My son thinks that V1 offers the proper degree of challenge, while V2 is the equivalent of playing a video game on the easiest setting. I am not so sure — but of course, that may be because I’ve watched more old movies than he has, which gives me a bit of an advantage while playing V2. I like V2 because it allows the imagination free play: it’s wonderful, I think, to consider what a Batman movie directed by Billy Wilder would look like, especially if it starred the best possible Bruce Wayne: Cary Grant.

On the other side of the ledger, a significant advantage for V1 is that what it imagines could possibly happen, which can make for some real excitement.

So maybe the best way to think about V1 and V2 is not as versions of the same game, but as two completely different endeavors. But in any case, you have to know what the rules are before you play, or bickering will ensue.

Old Penn Station

 

I like the Rebuild Penn Station project, if only because of all the pictures of old Penn Station. There are some cool architectural sketches too:

As horrible as these revelations are about sexually predatory men at the highest levels of our culture, they serve as a reminder of what we Christians have been saying all along about the inevitable consequences of the sexual revolution. So even as we lament with the victims, we are, I think, justified in calling attention to the higher standards that we, at least, have held our male leaders …

Um … never mind.

free speech for me …

This is a really good evisceration by Jesse Singal of some recent leftist takes on free speech on campus — it is accurate, incisive, and (to me) compelling. But I don’t think it will be compelling to people who hold the views it criticizes. Here’s a passage, critiquing an article by Angus Johnston, that helps me to explain why:

Johnston is apparently uninterested in answering questions pertaining to this actual incident [At William & Mary] and how the law would view it from a free-speech perspective, so instead he swaps out a different, easier question: “Setting aside, you know, the well-defined legal aspects of this, what do I, Angus Johnston, think about it?” (For those who want to know more about the heckler’s veto, which as it turns out is a very interesting subject, Ken White has a very good explainer on his legal blog Popehat.)

And yet again, this sort of meandering shruggery leads us to a dark place: Johnston very much seems to be endorsing the view that on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech. This is a pretty bad opinion. Not to beat up too much on the South, but there are many southern campuses that would benefit greatly from more pro-choice speakers and events, and in Johnston’s model, it’s fine for the Campus Crusade for Christ to march in and protest these events until they get shut down.

Here is where Singal is wrong: Johnston’s view is not that “on a given campus, whoever can muster the muscle to shut down an event gets to determine the bounds of acceptable speech”; his view is that when people whose views he endorses can muster the muscle to shut down an event, then that’s acceptable and even commendable. If a pro-life group were to use precisely the same tactics to shut down a pro-choice speaker, then Johnston would decry it as fascism and demand that the cops haul the offenders off to the hoosegow.

Remember: Error has no rights; righteousness has no boundaries.

People vary widely in their proclivities and needs alike, so it’s usually impossible to offer advice that applies equally well to everyone. But I believe the following law is of universal validity: When a tragedy occurs, disappear from all social media for at least 48 hours. 

friendly critic or critical friend?

The other day Rod Dreher referred to me as a “friendly critic” of the Benedict Option. I prefer to say that I’m an occasionally critical friend. I have some reservations about how Rod frames his project — see this post and this one — and I have major reservations about the history he uses to explain how we got to where we are. But the heart of the BenOp, as I understand it, may be found in what I have described as three premises and a conclusion, and in that post I commented that “I simply do not see how any thoughtful Christian could disagree with any of these premises or the conclusion that follows from them.” So I think that makes me a paid-up member of #TeamBenOp.

The questions for me, as we go forward, are as follows:

  1. I think there are likely to be ways other than the ones Rod describes in his book to pursue this project of Christian intellectual and moral renewal — ways that are more engaged with and less strictly oppositional to contemporary culture. What might those ways look like, and how can they retain their integrity?
  2. How can Christians who support the BenOp and those who don’t treat one another with forbearance and charity, and maybe even learn from one another?

Catholicism and Protestantism

The Christian doctrine which Protestantism emphasizes is that every human being, irrespective of family, class, or occupation, is unique before God; the complementary and equally Christian doctrine emphasized by Catholicism is that we are all members, one with another, both in the Earthly and the Heavenly City.

Or one might say that, in conjugating the present tense of the verb to be, Catholicism concentrates on the plural, Protestantism on the singular. But authentic human existence demands that equal meaning and value be given to both singular and plural, all three persons, and all three genders. Thus, Protestantism is correct in affirming that the We are of society expresses a false identity unless each of its members can say I am; Catholicism correct in affirming that the individual who will not or cannot join with others in saying We does not know the meaning of I.

— W. H. Auden, review of Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther (in Forewords and Afterwords)

Vladimir Nabokov on his mother’s religion

She found a deep appeal in the moral and poetical side of the Gospels, but felt no need in the support of any dogma. The appalling insecurity of an afterlife and its lack of privacy did not enter her thoughts. Her intense and pure religiousness took the form of her having equal faith in the existence of another world and in the impossibility of comprehending it in terms of earthly life. All one could do was to glimpse, amid the haze and the chimeras, something real ahead, just as persons endowed with an unusual persistence of diurnal cerebration are able to perceive in their deepest sleep, somewhere beyond the throes of an entangled and inept nightmare, the ordered reality of the waking hour.

Speak, Memory

excerpts from my Sent folder: on Rod Dreher and the BenOp

… I just don’t think the question of whether Rod is “the right messenger” for the Benedict Option is a fruitful one. Still less do I want to speculate about what he “really” wants to do or achieve. If you were to read the book, you’d see that it’s not about Rod. It’s fundamentally concerned to describe a series of experiments in Christian community which Rod has observed. Yes, Rod makes plenty of editorial comments, but the heart of the book is simply reporting. As I have said over and over again, the way for us to have a fruitful conversation about the BenOp is to look at those communities: Do any of them seem to you to be a healthy, an appropriate, an adequate Christian response to the challenges of late modernity? If so, why? If not, why not? And in either case, what can we learn from them in our own attempts to live faithfully in interesting times?

(I’ve written a lot here about the BenOp — click on the tag below for more.)

reconsidering “evangelical”

Once more about this word “evangelical.” A number of organizations, of various kinds, around the country are rejecting the label, for reasons laid out by my friend and colleague Tommy Kidd here. This has been coming for a while. Last year I offered my defense of the term and my desire to “steal it back” from those who have appropriated and abused it; it has, after all, a long and noble history.

But now I’m starting to wonder whether I can steal it back. As I mentioned the other day, I’ve received a good many responses to my recent piece in the Wall Street Journal, and it’s interesting how many of them center on my description of myself as an evangelical Christian. There seems to be general agreement — among correspondents who aren’t likely to agree on much else — that being an evangelical means supporting Trump or at least Trumpism, despising all perceived cultural elites, making our public schools repositories of “Judeo-Christian values,” and so on. The only thing missing from all those descriptions is any sense that being an evangelical has something to do with the evangelion.

I look at these emails and think about the time it would take to address all the misconceptions; then I reflect on how pointless such an endeavor would be. Because what is my (historically-grounded) position against the whole world of social media? By what means might the term “evangelical” be restored to some genuine meaning? Beats me. I’d like to steal it back, but I may be forced to let it go.

accountable

As a Christian, I am accountable to God, and, as I understand things, that means I am also accountable  to the teachings of Holy Scripture and to the witness of the Church throughout history, especially as it has expressed itself in the great ecumenical creeds. I am, further and in a different way, accountable to my local body of believers, who I am instructed to support materially, in service, in prayer, and in common worship.

To those of you on social media, and other media, demanding that I take stands in conformity to your setting forth of The Options regarding The Issues, I am not accountable in any way. I do not care what you say and will not obey you, and if that makes you angry, you may call me any names you want to call me. I do not care.

the “decline of religion”

Here’s something C. S. Lewis wrote in a 1946 essay called “The Decline of Religion”:

The `decline of religion’ so often lamented (or welcomed) is held to be shown by empty chapels [in the Oxbridge colleges]. Now it is quite true that that chapels which were full in 1900 are empty in 1946. But this change was not gradual. It occurred at the precise moment when chapel ceased to be compulsory. It was not in fact a decline; it was a precipice. The sixty men who had come because chapel was a little later than ‘rollers’ (its only alternative) came no more; the five Christians remained. The withdrawal of compulsion did not create a new religious situation, but only revealed the situation which had long existed. And this is typical of the ‘decline in religion’ all over England.

I think it’s pretty obvious that the situation that obtained at Oxford and Cambridge when chapel attendance was made optional is closely analogous to the religious situation in America today. Everywhere in America, and even in the deep South, being a Christian has ceased is rapidly ceasing to be socially rewarding or even acceptable.* More from Lewis:

One way of putting the truth would be that the religion which has declined was not Christianity. It was a vague Theism with a strong and virile ethical code, which, far from standing over against the ‘World’, was absorbed into the whole fabric of English institutions and sentiment and therefore demanded church-going as (at best) a part of loyalty and good manners as (at worst) a proof of respectability. Hence a social pressure, like the withdrawal of the compulsion, did not create a new situation. The new freedom first allowed accurate observations to be made. When no man goes to church except because he seeks Christ the number of actual believers can at last be discovered.

That’s what we are discovering. The question is whether American churches will have the intellectual and spiritual integrity necessary to recognize and accept how completely they have relied on the social appeal of a “vague Theism” and how little they have spoken to those who go to church because they seek Christ. What’s at stake here is merely life or death.


*I changed that on reflection — where I live in central Texas, and in the many parts of the Southeast, being known to have a church community is still an index of trustworthiness in some business and social contexts. 

A plea for The Replicant Edit

I do not believe that there are any exceptions to the rule that big-budget Hollywood action movies today — within which I include many SF and all superhero movies — possess the following traits:

  • They’re at least 30 minutes too long;
  • Most of that excessive length results from the decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many;
  • The decision to stage one massive action set-piece too many stems, in turn, from the catastrophically erroneous belief that raising the stakes — putting a city or (better) a country or (better still) a planet or (even more better) the universe or (best of all) ALL THE UNIVERSES THERE EVER WERE OR EVER COULD BE at risk — will increase viewers’ emotional investment in the story;
  • In order to turn the screw of tension ever tighter, some characters will be made to behave in ways wildly inconsistent with what they appear to be throughout most of the movie, while other characters will be pressed towards the abaolute extremes of heroism or wickedness.

I don’t think my claims here are seriously contestable, which leaves us with two kinds of movie viewers: those who don’t mind, and those who mind: those who can accept these traits as conventions of the genre and move beyond them in evaluating the success or failure of a picture, and those who can’t be reconciled to these traits.

I am in the latter camp, which is why I am not as crazy about Blade Runner 2049 as many of my friends. BR2049 is visually and aurally stunning — and I mean truly stunning: I am very happy that I got to experience the movie at an Alamo Drafthouse, where they really care about both projection and sound quality. But the screenplay is often inept, and the pacing is abysmally bad. During the interminable final fight scene I got seriously drowsy, and and possibly would have nodded off altogether if it hadn’t been for the occasional loud noises.

I read or heard somewhere that Denis Villanueve has said that there won’t be a director’s cut of BR2049 because “This is the director’s cut.” Well, good. But what we need instead is a Phantom Edit-style reduction. Call it The Replicant Edit. My suggestions: first, do away with that last big fight scene, and second (this is even more important), eliminate Jared Leto’s Wallace altogether. Delete him. Wallace is the Jar Jar Binks of BR2049. A number of people have complained about Leto’s performance, but I don’t blame him: the part is horrifically badly written, and literally no actor in the world could have made it work. In fact, everything between the crucial meeting in Las Vegas and the final scene could be done away with: the whole Replicant Resistance is introduced only in order to Raise Those Stakes and give K some information that he could have gotten in any number of other ways.

With all the crap out of the way, we’d have a story that is just as visually and aurally powerful as the version now on display, and one focused more consistently on Ryan Gosling’s K, who is the heart and soul of the movie. (N.B.: soul.) Gosling’s performance is truly remarkable, and his part is brilliantly written, thank God: through K all the questions about what it means to be human that were raised so powerfully and disturbingly in Blade Runner are extended and developed here with a shrewdness that quite overcomes all the fears fans of the original had about the likelihood of ham-fisted answers to subtle questions. If the internal crisis of Gosling’s K could be brought more consistently to the movie’s center of attention, BR2049 would be a worthy successor to the original, and the two films together would make a profound diptych for the emergent Age of AI. As it stands, I’m just looking forward to buying the Blu-Ray and skipping the scenes I hate. I think some important matters might come clear for me then.

In almost all democratic countries today, the ruling party appears rudderless, spiritless, bereft of ideas; energy may be found only in opposition.

waveforms

A recent Song Exploder episode features Rostam — best known for being in Vampire Weekend — talking about his song “Bike Dream.” Rostam seems to do most of his composing on his laptop, but describes how he brought analog sounds into the making of this song, and in one of the most interesting moments in the interview explains that musicians who work as he does can become too visual: their understanding of the song they’re working on is fundamentally, maybe too fundamentally, shaped by the waveforms they see in Logic Pro (or whatever app they use). They come to depend on the regularity of digitally produced waveforms, and the irregularities of analog sounds start to look kind of weird, and not in a good way. Yet, especially in rhythm tracks, irregularity is where the groove is. So, Rostam thinks, sometimes you have to override that cognitive preference for the visually regular — if you want to find a groove.  You have to let the analog preferences of the ear have their way. (Listening to “Bike Dream” I find myself wishing that Rostam would take his own advice more seriously.)

There’s a great moment in one of the World Out of Time records that David Lindley and Henry Kaiser made in Madagascar 25 years ago when they’re just sitting around with a handful of musicians, including a famous flute player, an elderly man named Rakoto Frah, and they fall into something:

(They just happened to be recording at the time.) Afterward, Lindley couldn’t stop talking about those drummers. “You can’t get drummers in L.A. to play like that,” he said. One of the primary reasons session drummers didn’t play that way — free, loose, grooving — is that they were already, in those relatively early days of digital recording, playing to click tracks that kept them in time. So even when the regularities of digital imagery weren’t getting in the way of free music expression, the regularities of digital audio were.

Lose the digital; find the groove.

making God

To develop and promote the realization of a Godhead based on artificial intelligence and through understanding and worship of the Godhead contribute to the betterment of society.

— Mission statement of Way of the Future (2017)

In a sense there is no God as yet achieved, but there is that force at work making God, struggling through us to become an actual organized existence, enjoying what to many of us is the greatest conceivable ecstasy, the ecstasy of a brain, an intelligence, actually conscious of the whole, and with executive force capable of guiding it to a perfectly benevolent and harmonious end. That is what we are working to. When you are asked, “Where is God? Who is God?” stand up and say, “I am God and here is God, not as yet completed, but still advancing towards completion, just in so much as I am working for the purpose of the universe, working for the good of the whole of society and the whole world, instead of merely looking after my personal ends.”

— George Bernard Shaw, “The New Theology” (1907)

seasons

This is a terrific post by Matt Thomas on living by the seasons: “when you think of things in terms of seasons instead of a single day, the entire year becomes your canvas.” Matt makes me want to be governed more by the seasons, but my thoughts and moods are linked much more tightly to the rhythms of the academic year. Which are of course not unrelated to the seasons: the practice of dismissing children from school for the summer is a throwback to an agricultural world in which, during the growing season, all hands were needed on the farm. But the academic rhythms are their own thing now, and last year, when I had a sabbatical, I was genuinely disoriented when August came around and I had no classes to prepare for, no syllabuses to write, no instructor’s copies of books to pick up. I certainly enjoyed my time to write, but I have to say that it felt good this August to feel those old patterns reassert their old claim on me. Because the academic seasons have been my seasons for more than half-a-century now.

politics

Politics is the art of living together and being ‘just’ to one another — not of imposing a way of life, but of organizing a common life. The art of peace; the art of accommodating moralities to one another.

— Michael Oakeshott, in a notebook

Oakeshott on education and culture

A culture, particularly one such as ours, is a continuity of feelings, perceptions, ideas, engagements, attitudes and so forth, pulling in different directions, often critical of one another and contingently related to one another so as to compose not a doctrine, but what I shall call a conversational encounter. Ours, for example, accommodates not only the lyre of Apollo but also the pipes of Pan, the call of the wild; not only the poet but also the physicist; not only the majestic metropolis of Augustinian theology but also the “greenwood“ of Franciscan Christianity. A culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers; it is composed of light-hearted adventures, of relationships invented and explored in exploit or in drama, of myths and stories and poems expressing fragments of human self-understanding, of gods worshipped, of responses to the mutability of the world and of encounters with death. And it reaches us, as it reached generations before ours, neither as long-ago terminated specimens of human adventure, nor as an accumulation of human achievements we are called upon to accept, but as a manifold of invitations to look, to listen and to reflect.

— Michael Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning.” The idea that “a culture comprises unfinished intellectual and emotional journeyings, expeditions now abandoned but known to us in the tattered maps left behind by the explorers” is one of the most beautiful and illuminating depictions of historical understanding that I know.

guides to the current moment

This is just a placeholder for a future, more-properly-thought-out reflection: since last November’s election I’ve noticed, in posts and articles trying to understand and explain the current American social disorder,  two figures assuming a prominence in our public discourse that they haven’t had in a while (if ever). One, invoked mainly but not exclusively on the right, is René Girard; the other, invoked mainly but not exclusively on the left, is Hannah Arendt. Now, for what it’s worth, I’m #TeamArendt all the way — I think Girard’s work is almost totally worthless, having, as Joshua Landy has demonstrated, roughly the same evidentiary foundation as Scientology — but what I’m really interested in is the rise of these two figures, among all that people could invoke, to explain the American scene today. That’s fascinating in itself.

the rad-trads and ecumenical hope

Many typos and missed auto-errors now fixed; sorry about those

I find myself thinking often about this 2014 essay by Pat Deneen, one of the smartest political thinkers I know and one of the most incisive commentators on matters Catholic. The core distinction the essay makes seems to me vital. It concerns two rival models of Catholicism that have emerged to replace the old distinction between “liberal” and “conservative” Catholicism.

On the one side one finds an older American tradition of orthodox Catholicism as it has developed in the nation since the mid-twentieth century…. Its basic positions align closely to the arguments developed by John Courtney Murray and others. Essentially, there is no fundamental contradiction between liberal democracy and Catholicism. Liberal democracy is, or at its best can be, a tolerant home for Catholics, one that acknowledges contributions of the Catholic tradition and is leavened by its moral commitments. While liberalism alone can be brittle and thin — its stated neutrality can leave it awash in relativism and indifferentism — it is deepened and rendered more sustainable by the Catholic presence….

On the other side is arrayed what might be characterized as a more radical Catholicism…. The “radical” school rejects the view that Catholicism and liberal democracy are fundamentally compatible. Rather, liberalism cannot be understood to be merely neutral and ultimately tolerant toward (and even potentially benefitting from) Catholicism. Rather, liberalism is premised on a contrary view of human nature (and even a competing theology) to Catholicism. Liberalism holds that human beings are essentially separate, sovereign selves who will cooperate based upon grounds of utility. According to this view, liberalism is not a “shell” philosophy that allows a thousand flowers to bloom. Rather, liberalism is constituted by a substantive set of philosophical commitments that are deeply contrary to the basic beliefs of Catholicism.

In the four-and-a-half years since this essay appeared, two significant developments have occurred that alter, but only to some extent, the story Deneen tells.

First, the collapse of liberal Catholicism — which Deneen in the essay takes as a given — has, it’s safe to say, been postponed. I doubt Deneen would see any substantive reason to question his belief that “Liberal Catholicism has no future — like liberal Protestantism, it is fated to become liberalism simpliciter within a generation”; but that leaves unanswered the question of whether “liberalism simpliciter” could come to run the Catholic Church, at least for a while. In any event, that’s an intra-Catholic issue and not one that I’m concerned with here. (Though I have my preferences about how it all falls out.)

Second, though: his “radical Catholics” — rad-trads, tradinistas (the latter being, I think, a subset of the former) — have grown in power and have taken over some territory that once belonged to that older conservative tradition. In 2014 Deneen could confidently identify First Things as a magazine exemplifying the older tradition, but in the intervening years the rad-trads have become much more vocal there, to the point that the older conservatism is certainly a minority position in the magazine and may eventually disappear altogether. And in at least one sense that is a welcome development: as I have noted several times over the years, my primary disagreement with Father Neuhaus, the founding editor of First Things, centered on what I felt was his too-great comfort with the American project and his consequent reluctance to subject it to as thorough a critique as it has often deserved.

But though I admire the rad-trad willingness to subject the liberal order to comprehensive critical scrutiny, there’s another feature of the movement that I’m not so happy with: its general lack of interest in, and in many cases even disdain for, for non-Catholics. This is an old theme with me, but re-reading Deneen’s essay has given me a new understanding of the phenomenon.

If I were writing an essay instead of a brief blog post, I’d spell this out with examples, and maybe some day I’ll do that, but for now I’ll just say this: I’ve had many conversations with rad-trads and have had no success in persuading them that any non-Catholic thinker has anything meaningful to contribute to their project. If you want to tell them that you agree wth them, they’re happy enough with that, but they’re not interested in finding intellectual resources outside the Catholic tradition (narrowly conceived) or in hearing commentary from outside the Catholic tradition. In other words, though the rad-trads in my experience rarely have anything good to say about Vatican II, they are the children (or grandchildren) of ressourcement.

More power to them, I guess — but I say that with a bit of sadness, because that older conservative tradition which they repudiate (and may be supplanting) had an interest not just in strengthening the liberal order but also in strengthening ecumenical ties among all Christians, but especially those of the small-o orthodox variety. And it now strikes me that those two projects were closely related: that is, one of the key ways to strengthen the liberal order was through drawing Christians together towards a more unified front, and one of the key ways to pursue ecumenism was through claiming a shared role for all Christians in the liberal order. So I guess the rad-trads have decided that if you want to get rid of the one you have to ditch the other as well.

There may be other factors as well: for instance, many of the rad-trads are converts to Catholicism, and continuing to value anything from the Reformation traditions might feel like a less-than-complete submission to Mother Church. (Dunno. Can’t read minds.) But in any case, I hope that in the next few years they’ll rethink their approach.

Just a couple of examples: Can the pro-life cause really thrive if Catholics and evangelicals don’t work together? Is it really the case that, as the aforelinked Tradinista Manifesto suggests, contemporary Western militarism can only be challenged by “the traditional requirements of the Church’s just war theory”? Might not the Mennonite tradition have something to say to Catholics — even rad-trad Catholics?

All this to say: I continue to think that, given what we’re collectively facing in this dark time, we Christians need one another — and need one another in intellectual collaboration as well as in common prayer. It would make me very happy if more of my Catholic friends agreed.

Griffo’s italic

Aldine Italic

Bruce Chatwin at Sotheby’s

For me, his great gift – on the page and in person – was visual generosity. He made you see different things and look at things differently. It was not works of art in galleries that interested him so much as objects, particularly those from which a story could be extracted. On the wall of his attic room in Albany, the apartment block in Piccadilly, was the king of Hawaii’s bedsheet: apricot-coloured, patterned with a shoal of jumping fish, looking like a Matisse. Chatwin had turned up at Christie’s on his bike to buy it in the 1960s. In the small Eaton Place flat designed by John Pawson – pleated like origami to hide his books – he hung pictures he had made by cutting coloured drawings from the catalogue of a broom manufacturer: rows of pinky-red-and-white toothbrushes, elegant and comic. In all his houses, he kept a prayer inscribed in Latin by the artist-poet David Jones: “May the blessed Archangel Michael defend us in battle lest we perish in the terrible judgment.” When he fell ill he took it with him in and out of hospitals.

Susannah Clapp

Le Guin’s golden age

Between 1968 and 1974 Ursula K. Le Guin published

A Wizard of Earthsea
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Tombs of Atuan
The Lathe of Heaven
The Farthest Shore
The Disposessed

— along with a series of classic stories, including “Vaster than Empires and More Slow,” “Winter’s King,” and “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.” That would be quite a literary career. She did it in six years.

you say Brexit, I say Euroapoculamus

There are various methods applied to translate hapaxes that aren’t conventional words. In the case of “apoculamus” from the Satyricon, classicists can use context and precedent to define the term. At this point in the story, the narrator is describing how he and his companion departed from their house. From the ending “-mus,” we know that this word is a first-person plural, present, active, indicative verb. Therefore, “apoculamus” can be interpreted as a form of movement. Given the influence of ancient Greek on Latin, scholars have also relied on etymology for translation hints. The prefix “apo” means “away from” and the noun “culum” refers to a person’s buttocks. Hence, “apoculamus” might be defined as “hauling your posterior away from” something.

How Do You Decode a Hapax? (Also, What’s a Hapax?) – Atlas Obscura

Dear Jenny

Dear Jenny: The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something — anything — out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something — anything — as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again — top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside. You get in your car and drive home. On the way, your mind is still knitting at the words. You think of a better way to say something, a good phrase to correct a certain problem. Without the drafted version — if it did not exist — you obviously would not be thinking of things that would improve it. In short , you may be actually writing only two or three hours a day, but your mind, in one way or another, is working on it twenty-four hours a day — yes , while you sleep — but only if some sort of draft or earlier version already exists. Until it exists, writing has not really begun.

— John McPhee’s letter to his daughter, in Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process

Twitter [is] not actually a company, it’s a dysfunctional non-profit that accidentally provides a valuable service.  — Tim Bray

A brief follow-up to yesterday’s post: Another interesting element of Kevin Kelly’s rhetoric is his use of “we.” This is something I have written about before: the assumption on the part of those writing about technology that they will be among the cadre of decision-makers. It’s always, for them, what “we” will decide about technology, what “we” will do with technology. And Saruman uses that rhetoric too: “We may join with that Power” etc. But Gandalf knows just how empty and deceptive the first-person plural can be: “‘Saruman,’ I said, standing away from him, ‘only one hand at a time can wield the One, and you know that well, so do not trouble to say we!’”

Jasper Johns

New show in London.

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