Category: General

Richard John Neuhaus is dead. We’ve lost some big ones in the last year. Many of you will not realize how big this one was. I pray Jody Bottum and some of the others in the First Things (Neuhaus’ hugely influential journal) world can carry on his legacy. Though Neuhaus’ death leaves a chasm to be filled, I think Dr. Bottum is the right man for it.

Anthony Sacramone is a former managing editor of First Things. He is also one of my favorite writers. So, I’m happy to bring you his wonderful tribute to Neuhaus. Here’s a taste:

Woody Allen said that 90% of life is just showing up. Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at civil-rights marches in the 1960s or pro-life marches of the 1980s, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Whether it was at the altar as a parish priest or at the bedside of a dying friend, Richard John Neuhaus showed up. As writer, lecturer, editor, raconteur, counselor, teacher — Richard John Neuhaus showed up. Every day. Until today.

And by the way, the New York Times didn’t do badly, either. I give them credit, particularly since Father Neuhaus spent part of his last column writing about how his desire to read the NYT had continued to slip.

It is the new year and the time of reflection is upon us. In 2008, we witnessed a revolutionary left-liberal presidential victory and the onset of substantial economic challenges.

Under the circumstances, I thought now might be a good time to propose a list of outstanding books for the intellectually curious friend or fellow traveler.

I would not dare attempt to put these in order based on excellence. Just consider it a series of number ones.

1. Lancelot by Walker Percy — A southern moderate-liberal is slowly fading out of his own life. He doesn’t know what his purpose is or where his marriage and family are going. But then, something strange happens. He discovers there is such a thing as evil. Percy won the National Book Award for The Moviegoer, but Lancelot is my favorite.

2. Witness by Whittaker Chambers — Surely, the greatest memoir of any man of the right. Possibly, the greatest memoir ever. I once tried to copy out the passages that meant the most to me and ended up just typing in whole pages at a time. For those too young to know, Chambers was an American traitor loyal to the Communist cause, who left the Communists for what he felt was the losing side. He had to do it because of his recovered belief in God. In the course of his life, he became a senior editor of Time magazine and ultimately defeated Alger Hiss in legal battles over Hiss’s identity as a communist agent. Since Frost/Nixon is hot, you might also know that Richard Nixon’s presidency would likely never have happened without his championing of Chambers’ cause.

3. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand — I can’t resist putting Chambers and Rand together, especially since Chambers was the instrument William F. Buckley used to read Rand out of the conservative movement. As a Christian, I find Rand’s work antithetical to my own sensibilities, but I have to admit its power. Besides, this is a conservative-libertarian list and she can’t be left off. On the other hand, as literature, it cannot rank with the greats. I still remember the moment when John Galt grabs a microphone to speak to the nation . . . and one hundred pages later is wrapping it up!

4. After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre — This is arguably the finest and most readable piece of political philosophy I have ever encountered. Anyone who wonders why our political discourse has become so poisonous and incommensurate should read this work. So, for that matter, should anyone interested in answering John Rawls. George W. Bush would have known long ago that “the new tone” was destined to fail, if only he’d read his MacIntyre.

5. Anarchy, Utopia, and the State by Robert Nozick — I’ll make this one simple. Robert Nozick provides the most convincing case for a minimalist state that I’ve ever seen. You can break your head on his symbols and formulas, but bear with it because you WILL get it if you keep reading. Even if you were only to read the short portion where he tells his “tale of the slave” you will be confirmed in your libertarian instincts.

6. Man and the State by Jacques Maritain — This collection of lectures about the relationship between the individual, the culture, and the state contains the kind of essential thought we wish every politician understood. Careful, wise, insightful. You will understand many things better after reading Maritain. If you would like to read political philosophy, but have been afraid to start, this may be your entry point.

7. Stained Glass by William F. Buckley — William F. Buckley is dead and I don’t feel so good, myself. However, I am comforted by reading his best works. This Blackford Oakes heart of the Cold War novel is one of his strongest entries. You want to see the kind of chess match the Soviets and Americans were playing? Then, read this Buckley spy novel.

8. The God Who Is There by Francis Schaeffer — Would you like to know who was the prince of the Christian conservatives? It wasn’t Falwell or Robertson. It was Francis Schaeffer. The missionary who set up a Swiss Chalet spent years arguing with college students in Europe. Along the way, he formed a convincing apologetic for the existence of God and the reality of values. (I am almost required to point out that Schaeffer was wrong in his critique of certain figures. So, I said it. Still, this book is great stuff.)

9. Perelandra by C.S. Lewis — I could have chosen almost any title by C.S. Lewis, so I picked the one that had the greatest emotional impact on me. Perelandra is the second book of Lewis’s space trilogy (underappreciated next to Narnia). The story centers around the drama of Adam and Eve being replayed on a new planet with an earthman there to witness it. Utterly compelling and, of course, full to bursting with philosophical and spiritual meaning.

I like Robert Samuelson’s recent column about the difficulty (impossibility?) of accurately analyzing economic reality, let alone predicting its future. Over the past several months a few people, mistaking me for someone who knows a great deal about economics, have asked what I think about the financial crisis, the stock market, the recession, etc. My response is usually something along the lines of the following: Anyone who pretends to know and understand completely the causes of the economic meltdown and/or how to “fix” it, is either not very smart or is selling something (e.g., political schemes or financial advice).

It is a bitter pill for modern man–maybe contemporary Americans, especially–to swallow, but the fact is we can’t control the economy, even if we have “learned the lessons” of the Great Depression of the 1930s, the stagflation of the 1970s, and the tech bubble of the 1990s. And often enough our efforts to manage and control it aggravate whatever problem we’re trying to address.

Recognizing this truth can be depressing, or it can be freeing.

It’s a reminder to all who are even occasionally viewed, described, or invoked as “experts” always to wield our opinions with humility. It won’t stop us from pontificating, but it should prevent anyone from taking us too seriously.

To substantiate this claim about the ignorance of the experts, here is an enjoyable summary of the worst economic predictions of 2008, courtesy of Business Week. (My fave: “I think you’ll see [oil prices at] $150 a barrel by the end of the year” —T. Boone Pickens, June 20, 2008.)

Here’s to an equally unpredictable 2009.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, December 31, 2008
By

The year is 1943 and Valkyrie, the second release under the revamped United Artists brand, opens with German officer Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) on assignment in Africa. He had been sent there because his opposition to Hitler and the Nazi regime had become dangerously explicit and bellicose. His promotion to lieutenant-colonel of the general staff and transfer from the European lines to Africa is intended to give him some protection from pro-Nazi officers who might make trouble for him.

An attack on a transport column in Africa leaves Stauffenberg badly wounded. He loses his left eye, the fourth and fifth fingers of his left hand, and his right hand above the wrist. Given director Bryan Singer’s resume (which includes X-Men) and the opening sequence, initial concerns that the film might be turned into an action movie are quickly dispelled. Given that the end of the movie is never in doubt, the movie never quite becomes a suspense thriller either. Yet Valkyrie still manages to deliver a thought-provoking and moving story of loyalty, betrayal, sacrifice, and doubt. (more…)

Blog author: kschmiesing
Friday, December 26, 2008
By

One of the most thought-provoking articles I’ve read lately is Robert Louis Wilken’s “Christianity Face to Face with Islam,” in the January 2009 issue of First Things. It’s accessible online only to subscribers, but you can find the publication at academic and high-quality municipal libraries and it will be freely available online in a month or two.

Wilken makes so many interesting and informed observations that I don’t know where to start. Among the points to ponder:

“In the long view of history, and especially from a Christian perspective, the Turkish conquest of Asia Minor was of far greater significance” than the Crusades. In the eleventh century, Wilken notes, the population of Asia Minor was virtually 100% Christian; by 1500, it was 92% Muslim.

“Set against the history of Islam, the career of Christianity is marked as much by decline and extinction as it is by growth and triumph.” The missionary impulse in Christianity is strong and its history impressive. But Wilken points out that Christians often view that history selectively and that Islam’s spread is equally impressive and seems at present to be more durable. (On two recent books about the early spread of Islam, see this review.)

Christianity’s fading in so many places undermines precisely those claims on which it prides itself: its catholicity, its capacity to embed itself in any culture, anywhere. “If Christianity continues to decline in Europe,” Wilken cautions, “and becomes a minority religion, its history will appear fragmentary and episodic and its claim to universality further diminished by the shifting patterns of geography.”

“By focusing on what went wrong, on Islamic terrorism, on Wahhabism, or on radical Islamists, we miss ways in which Islam is adapting constructively to a changing world.” The unparalleled success and staying power of Islam, Wilken insists, obligates us to take it more seriously–not merely as a threat, I take him to mean, but as a world view that is immensely powerful and attractive. “If we see Islam as a historical relic, incapable of change and betterment, inimical to reason and science, a form of religion that is disadvantaged in the modern world,” he writes, “we will never grasp the formidable challenge it presents to Christianity.”

For Christians, the article raises some uncomfortable questions. That’s not a bad thing. For its historical insight, for its analysis of the interaction of Christianity and Islam, and for its suggestive glance at the future, it is well worth reading.

Blog author: eschansberg
Thursday, December 25, 2008
By

I felt inspired by a fellow Hoosier’s blog post this morning. Doug Masson wrote:

Merry Christmas everyone. Like I’ve said probably too many times, I’m not a religious guy. But, it’s tough to argue with the message — peace to everyone, love your family. Love each other. Sounds easy enough. Looking at the world, apparently it’s harder than it sounds. Still, this is a nice reminder each year.

I’m not particularly religious either, but in a different sense than Doug means (I think). Of course, even assuming that we’re talking about Christianity, sometimes it’s “religion” that gets in the way of the message– both believing it and living it out. This was probably the most important aspect of Christ’s earthly ministry– to mess with the Pharisees who had distorted the message.

The other difficulty is that we’re selective with the message:

We like baby Jesus, but not so much the bearded Man from Galilee.

Or we like some aspects of the bearded Man’s message, but not others. And so, we practice a cafeteria Christianity that’s somewhere between an attenuated Gospel and heresy in doctrine– and in practice, somewhere between lukewarm love and destructive behavior.

Or to borrow from and paraphrase a good sermon I heard in a United Church of Christ service two weekends ago, we’re cool with the cradle, ok with the cross, and not so hot with the throne.

The cradle seemingly makes no demands. It’s somewhere between cute and quaint, warm and fuzzy, myth and Myth. The calls from the cradle are implied and easily trumped by the trappings of the holiday celebration.

The cross, in practice, is a mixed bag. It inspires awe when we focus on what Christ offered to do for us. His Sacrifice, which begins when He goes from Heaven to Cradle, is staggering– in particular, to die for the stupid things that we did, do, and will do. In a word, Christ died for bozos like you and me. As Paul writes in Romans: “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

But often, we stop just there, focusing on the Gift of God’s Grace, and not the resulting call: to extend grace as Grace as been extended to us, to love as we have been Loved– not just those who love us, but beyond what is relatively easy.

The throne is left out altogether– that Jesus Christ would not only be Savior, but Lord of one’s life. The results are predictable: relationship becomes religion and ritual, the Church is tainted, God’s Kingdom is diminished. We are then incapable of loving as we were created to do, unable to be who we were created to be.

May Christmas Day be a reminder that we should strive to make every day Christmas– from the cradle to the cross to the throne.

Of course, Santa is based on a historical character. And in many (but certainly not all!) ways, he points forward to Jesus Christ. But in a broader sense, God has created a mystical, mythical, and magical world– that can be overdone or mis-imagined. That said, the more common error is to under-do or under-imagine– out of our “modern” heritage and tainted worldview.

I’ve blogged on this quite a few times– and three times in the past month, in noting the 100th anniversary of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, a connection between Harry Potter, D&D, Chesterton and Lewis, and the ultimately irrational hyper-extension of rationality.

My family and I just watched Elf the other night on TV– a charming little movie with the same message. (I’m on a bit of a Will Ferrell kick these days– after seeing Talladega Nights after this post.)

Here’s Tony Woodlief in the WSJ (hat tip: Linda Christiansen) on the same general topic– with applications to Santa Claus and our ability (&/or willingness) to believe (or not)…

After describing his 8-year old son determining that Santa was not real, “the talk” they had, and his son’s ultimate question (“He isn’t real, is he?”), Woodlief moves into deeper waters:

Perhaps a more responsible parent would confess, but I hesitate. For this I blame G.K. Chesterton [and] “Orthodoxy”…One of its themes is the violence that rationalistic modernism has worked on the valuable idea of a “mystical condition,” which is to say the mystery inherent in a supernaturally created world. Writing of his path to faith in God, Chesterton says: “I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician.”

Magic-talk gets under the skin of many, like renowned scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins. This is doubly so when it is what the Christ-figure Aslan, in C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” calls “the deeper magic,” an allusion to divinity. Mr. Dawkins is reportedly writing a book examining the pernicious tendency of fantasy tales to promote “anti-scientific” thinking among children. He suspects that such stories lay the groundwork for religious faith, the inculcation of which, he claims, is a worse form of child abuse than sexual molestation.

I suspect that fairy tales and Santa Claus do prepare us to embrace the ultimate Fairy Tale, the one Lewis believed was ingrained in our being….

Blog author: hunter.baker
Friday, December 19, 2008
By

It’s the end of the year, so the book lists are out. I’m thinking about conservative icon Russell Kirk.

If you want a really enjoyable and edifying read, I recommend you begin with The Roots of American Order. That book will give you an understandable and historically grounded sense of what “ordered liberty” means. It will also open the mysteries of Kirk wide to the uninitiated reader. The prose is lively. Highly readable.

Kirk is more widely known for the book that made his reputation, The Conservative Mind, but I think The Roots of American Order is a better read for the vast majority of people.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Milton, best known for his masterpiece, Paradise Lost. An essay by Theo Hobson, author of the newly-released Milton’s Vision: The Birth of Christian Liberty (Continuum, 2008), well summarizes Milton’s integrated theological, political, and social vision (HT: Arts & Letters Daily).

John Milton (1608-1674): “None can love freedom heartily, but good men; the rest love not freedom, but license.”

Instead of secularizing a figure that has been deemed important in the history of political philosophy by some sort of post-Enlightenment textual deconstruction, Hobson attempts to show how Milton’s Christian convictions positively informed his perspective on the responsibilities of both state and church. For Milton faith was no vestigial appendage that contemporary observers might feel at liberty to amputate with warranted zeal.

At the same time, notes Hobson, Milton “started working out a coherent account of England’s religious situation. It wasn’t enough to insist that the church should be more ‘Protestant’, for that term was vague. He realised that the Reformation had evaded the whole issue of church-state relations; it allowed for an authoritarian state church. Real religious reform entailed going right back to the time of Constantine, and questioning the idea of a politically empowered church.” Hobson works out this thesis regarding Milton’s contribution to judge that Milton’s influence has been much more positively felt on the American side of the Atlantic rather than in his native land.

To say that the Reformers “evaded” the issue of church and state is perhaps misrepresenting Milton’s criticism a bit (or if it isn’t then Milton’s criticism ill-stated). It’s one thing to say that the Reformers didn’t address the question in the right way, or came up with the right solution, or didn’t go quite far enough in “reforming” the relationship between church and state. But it’s quite another thing (and a patently false one at that) to say that they didn’t directly and rather thoroughly discuss the issue.

What Milton was really concerned to fight, which Hobson accurately articulates, was the influence of a sort of Constantinian Protestantism, communicated to Britain via figures like Martin Bucer (whose De Regno Christi appeared in 1550) and Wolfgang Musculus (whose Common places were published in translation in 1563 and 1578 in Britain). And while there were important varieties of this Constantinian or magisterial Protestantism in the sixteenth century, there was near unanimity among the major first and second generation Reformers on the question of civil enforcement of both tables of the Law.

Both Bucer and Calvin preferred the hypocrite, who only endangered his own salvation, to the open apostate, who could lead many astray.

The distinction between “religious” obligations in the first table and “civil” obligations in the second table is not identical to a distinction between internal motives and external works. The conflation of these two distinctions is what paves the way for a corrosive kind of secularism, the kind that privatizes or internalizes religion and faith. And as Milton clearly saw, the institutional separation between state and church in no way entails the withdrawal of faith from public life. Indeed, since his own religious convictions so profoundly influenced his political views, to say otherwise would have been to render Milton’s own position untenable.

Kathleen Parker has a major case of secular reason sickness and it needs to be cured. I’ll keep this short and simple. Here is an offensive line from one of Kat’s latest columns:

How about social conservatives make their arguments without bringing God into it? By all means, let faith inform one’s values, but let reason inform one’s public arguments.

Problem #1: Social conservatives very rarely argue for their public policy positions on the basis of straight-up revelation. It is much more common to hear them talk about scientific evidence that life begins from conception (which could be found in an embryology textbook, for example) than to hear a scriptural exegesis of, say, Jeremiah 1. If anything, American social conservatives have worked quite assiduously to persuade their fellow citizens without direct appeal to revelation.

I think the Yale Law professor Stephen Carter was more correct several years ago when he complained conservative Christians relied on a platform that lacked spiritual distinctives and simply mimicked Republican positions. Mr. Carter is a scholar in the area of law and religion. His observation is well-informed by a review of recent history and current events.

Let us not forget that when some Christian leaders hid behind the separation of church and state to avoid addressing topics like Vietnam, the civil rights movement, and nuclear proliferation, their liberal colleagues were applauded for highly public spiritual approaches to those controversies. When liberals do it, we call it “speaking truth to power” or “speaking prophetically.” When conservative religionists enter the political process, everyone suddenly frets about impending theocracy.

Problem #2: Ms. Parker acts as though everything we discuss in politics can be parsed scientifically. This is the same sort of casual toss-off we get when some self-satisfied personage says, “You can’t legislate morality.” Really? Hate crimes? The illegality of segregation? A welfare state? Human rights?

The simple fact is that politics concerns itself with the realm of value as well as the realm of fact. There are both religious and philosophical approaches to questions of value. Is there any compelling reason to commit epistemological segregation, Ms. Parker? Must the religious contestants sit at the back of the bus to satisfy you?