Category: General

Thomas Babington MacaulayLooking through my back stacks of periodicals the other day I ran across a review in Books & Culture by David Bebbington, “Macaulay in the Dock,” of a recent biography of Thomas Babington Macaulay. The essay takes its point of departure in Lord Acton’s characterization of Macaulay as “one of the greatest of all writers and masters, although I think him utterly base, contemptible and odious.”

As Bebbington writes, “Acton, a towering intellectual of the later 19th century, was at once a strongly ideological Liberal and an entirely faithful Catholic. He considered Macaulay insufficiently liberal, and Acton, as somebody aware of the eternal law of God, felt bound to censure the historian.” It is one of the marks of Lord Acton’s historical approach that he was unwilling to bracket the question of morality from his historical judgment. As Acton contended, “Moral precepts are constant through the ages and not obedient to circumstances.” The historian could not thus proceed as if such a moral order did not exist, or was irrelevant, to the events and actions of the past. In an essay on Acton’s view of the historian, Joseph Altholtz describes Acton’s “ideal of the historian as judge, as the upholder of the moral standard.”

The biography of Macaulay at issue is by Robert E. Sullivan, who Bebbington describes as “also of liberal inclinations; and he, too, is a loyal Catholic with a firm moral outlook. The result is a biography treating Macaulay as base, contemptible, and odious.” So in one sense, argues Bebbington, what we have in Sullivan’s work is an Acton-esque biography of Macaulay, which takes into account and, indeed, passes severe moral judgment on Macaulay.

As Bebbington concludes, the biography “is less history than indictment. Macaulay stands charged with being corrupted by power—not so much his own power, even though he sat in parliament and was twice a government minister, as the power wielded by Victorian Britain.” Macaulay was captured by the triumphalism of an empire at the height of its powers, and thus propagated an imperialistic ethic:

Macaulay pandered to his country’s taste for self-aggrandizement when it was unequivocally the most powerful nation on earth. Most crucially, he sanctioned genocide: “it is in truth more merciful,” wrote Macaulay in an essay of 1838, “to extirpate a hundred thousand human beings at once, and to fill the void with a well-governed population, than to misgovern millions through a long succession of centuries.” Sullivan returns to this judgment again and again, clearly deeply troubled by it. He is outraged that Macaulay has benefited over the intervening period from silence about his “imperial ethic of extermination.” Sullivan will not remain silent.

In this way, Sullivan is seen as taking up Acton’s mantle. For as Bebbington writes, Sullivan’s critical attitude

is very much what Acton might have adopted. Acton famously remarked that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Sullivan, who alludes to a version of the dictum at one point without naming Acton, holds it to be true. He also maintains Acton’s principle that the historian must make rigorous moral judgments. For Acton, persecution was an unpardonable crime. In the same way, Sullivan believes that mass murder must be condemned as an execrable evil.

Lord ActonBebbington proceeds to outline many of the potential pitfalls of such an approach, and how they actually come to fruition in Sullivan’s work: “We do not know what allowance has to be made for conditions in the past.” In Bebbington’s view, Sullivan brings a kind of persecuting zeal to his indictment of Macaulay that “turns his book into a pursuit of his quarry for almost every imaginable misdeed.” Bebbington thus concludes, “Macaulay may have shared in the corruption that Acton attributed to any who exercise power, but he was not as black as he is painted here. He was not base, contemptible, and odious.”

Now it must also be said that Lord Acton characterized Macaulay as such in a letter, and not in a work of historical biography. The application of moral critique need not be pressed to the extreme to become relevant to historical judgment. Even if Sullivan’s work applies such moralizing into excess, however, it is not necessarily an indictment of Lord Acton’s approach, for the abuse of a thing is no argument against its proper use.

Indeed, a more thoroughgoing application of Lord Acton’s dictum about the corrupting tendency of power would apply it to the power the historian exerts as well. This stance of sitting in judgment on the far side of history can turn into a kind of self-righteousness, which corrupts the reliability and the veracity of the historian’s work. This is perhaps why Altholtz describes Acton’s view as “the most noble ideal ever proposed for the historian,” but goes on to say that “it is an ideal that has been rejected, perhaps with grudging respect, by all historians, including myself.” As Scripture makes clear, God is the only one who impeccably judges the hearts and deeds of men: “At the set time that I appoint I will judge with equity,” says the Lord (Psalm 75:2 ESV).

The power of the historian in exercising moral judgments may well tend to corrupt and therefore need to be circumscribed. But this is not an argument against all exercise of such power. It does mean, however, that Lord Acton’s twin ideals of moral judgment and objectivity must be held together, or ultimately not at all.

Blog author: jcarter
Friday, February 24, 2012
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How much is a homemaker worth? Financial service company Investopedia recently added up what it would cost to hire someone to do cooking, cleaning, child care, driving, laundry, and lawn service equivalent to a full-time homemaker. The equivalent compensation would total $96,261.

Studies like this one are perennial, as Greg Forster notes, and have been around since at least the 1950s. But while the intentions are well-meaning, such studies have a tendency to reinforce materialistic assumptions about the nature of human relationships in both the family and the economy:

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When it comes to our view of individual liberty, one of the most unexplored areas of distinction between libertarians and religious conservatives* is how we view neutrality and bias. Because the differences are uncharted, I have no way of describing the variance without resorting to a grossly simplistic caricature—so with a grossly simplistic caricature we shall proceed:

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On Valentine’s Day, just one day before having to tender its application to the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, Italy’s pragmatic Prime Minister Mario Monti showed no romantic spirit by canceling his nation’s dream to host the 2020 Summer Olympics.

In a last-minute decision made Feb. 14, Prime Minister Monti explained at a press conference that the already overburdened Italian taxpayers simply cannot afford to finance the estimated $12.5 billion to bring the 2020 Olympic Games to Rome.  “I do not think it would be responsible, considering Italy’s current financial condition.”  (See video below.)

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VTiq0oBT2cI]

The news sent shock waves through the national media and angered Rome’s Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who had aggressively put together the logistical plan and budget.

Yet Monti is no dupe and was honest enough not to hoodwink his nation into taking on financial responsibilities it is in absolutely no position to accept.  Finally, we are seeing an Italian politician demonstrating some degree of practical realism and sense of sacrifice. The Italian Premier, while spearheading historic fiscal reforms, wants the country to wake up and smell its caffe by finally shedding the need to fund unwarranted public expenditures.

While time will tell whether Monti and his government are making wise decisions, the heart-wrenching financial assessment was based on few simple black and white economic facts. Italy has an unbridled a national debt to GDP ratio, which has swelled from 115 percent  in 2010 to 120 percent in 2011 while experiencing stagnant growth and uncontrolled inflation over the last 10-15 years. Next you have the nation’s toxic dependency on massive public welfare programs, despite Monti’s drastic attempts to change Italy’s entrenched entitlement culture.  Then you add in widespread tax evasion, very little new entrepreneurship among young business persons, the Italian bond and spread crises, Standard and Poor’s further stripping of Italy’s credit rating (from A to BBB+) and downgrading 34 of the country’s top credit institutions at the start of 2012 and you got a country that is on the verge of insolvency.

It couldn’t get worse, but a day after Monti renounced any Olympics bid ANSA news service announced Italy had officially entered a recession with negative growth recorded for the last two quarters.

No Olympics, no gold. But whatever wealth seemed guaranteed at the end rainbow, it would be foolish to think the 2020 Games would bolster an entire national economy for more than a very limited period (and quite realistically, only the benefactors of Italy’s crony capitalism and the mafia-infested public works sectors). 

It is high time that Italians themselves start permanently growing their economy through new forms of entrepreneurship — just like it did in its economic boom era when Italy last hosted the Summer Olympics in 1960 —  and not count on riding on the tails of the government’s large-scale, short-lived public projects.

Blog author: jcarter
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
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While the recent contraceptive mandate controversy has exposed the Obama Administration’s disregard for religious freedoms, it has also reveled their natural disdain for subsidiarity. As George Weigel notes, this incident tells us “something very important, and very disturbing, about the cast of mind in the Executive Branch.”

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Blog author: jcouretas
Wednesday, February 15, 2012
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When we launched the PowerBlog in 2005, we had little idea that it would grow into one of the Acton Institute’s most popular and powerful communications channels. Nearly 4,000 posts, and 8,000 comments later, the PowerBlog is still going strong. And for that, we heartily thank our many readers, contributors and commenters.

Now we have for the first time a dedicated editor to help sustain and grow the blog for the advancement of the “free and virtuous society.” Veteran journalist Joe Carter is joining Acton as Senior Editor beginning today.

Joe Carter

Joe also serves as an editor at the The Gospel Coalition, online editor for First Things, and as an adjunct professor of journalism at Patrick Henry College.  A 15-year Marine Corps veteran, he previously worked as the managing editor for The East Texas Tribune and the online magazine Culture11. He has also served as the Director of Research and Rapid Response for the Mike Huckabee for President campaign, as a director of communications for the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, and as director of online communications for Family Research Council. He is the co-author of How to Argue like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator (Crossway).

Please join me in welcoming Joe to the PowerBlog.

Link with his Cross ShieldEarlier, I wrote a blog post about The Legend of Zelda and Theology by Jonathan L. Walls. At 173 pages, the book is a collection of 10 essays from various contributors. Its goal is twofold: to present Christianity to Zelda fans who might not know much about it and to give those familiar with Christianity insight into how Zelda relates to the religion. It explains intricacies of Zelda for those unfamiliar, and thankfully the descriptions are brief for those of us who know our Zelda lore. Unfortunately there is some overlap with the synopses of Zelda across essays, but that’s a minor complaint and is only natural given the format of the book.

Jonathan Walls gives a very clear disclaimer about this book in his introduction that cannot be ignored:

…none of us claim to have found the intended meaning behind the Zelda mythology’s symbolism when we relate it to Christianity. A very astute theological thinker and friend warned me of the error of superimposing Christian beliefs onto games that very well may have been made without Christian beliefs in mind. Let me assure you, we intend no superimposing.  Attempting to find an intentional and exclusive allegorical connection between Zelda mythology and Christian theology would be utterly erroneous and a dead end.

That being said, it’s time to look at how Zelda’s hero Link, Ganondorf, Zelda herself, and the games look from a Christian worldview according to Zelda and Theology.

The Problem of Evil

Jonathan Walls’ “Trouble in the Golden Realm: Ganondof and Hyrule’s Problem of Evil in Ocarina of Time” is one of the stronger entries in the book and looks at the philosophical problem of evil in the Christian and Zelda worlds. He channels C.S. Lewis often and identifies Pride as the “complete anti-God state of mind.” One such character with excessive Pride from the Ocarina of Time game is Ingo, a lazy ranch worker who is given control of the ranch by Ganondorf, the game’s primary villain. Ingo’s desire for power by calling the previous owner weak and himself hard working shows excessive Pride.

Walls goes on to tackle The Problem of Evil, summarized as: “If God is all-powerful and good, shouldn’t He just snap his fingers and wipe out all crime, hate and injustice from the world?” His explanations of free will and gratuitous natural evil are well articulated, relate to Zelda, and I’d even say they could prevent some non-believers from using The Problem of Evil as an argument against Christianity if they read the essay.

Secondary Worlds and J.R.R. Tolkien

Philip Tallon’s essay is in a “choose your own adventure” format. For instance, you can skip over the introduction to Zelda and J.R.R. Tolkien if you’re familiar with them. I read it straight through and it was still good, so the gimmick may be unnecessary. Tallon references Tolkien’s Andrew Lang lecture at the University of Saint Andrews on fairy stories. In this lecture, Tolkien elaborates on a secondary world called Faerie. Secondary worlds are, to Tolkien, a reshuffling of facts about our own world, as “only God has the power to create ex nihilo (out of nothing).”

The author acknowledges that Tolkien’s view of Faerie depends on fantasies being in the imagination and not visualized, as in video games. He counters with examples such as when “the gamer, on receiving from Nintendo Power a map of Hyrule with blank spaces at the edges, fills in the blank spaces with additional screens of his own creation.”  It is also noted:

Hyrule has retained a level of abstraction.  It is as if Miyamoto (the game’s creator) is aware of Tolkien’s worry that visual tricks might cancel out the imagination, and so intentionally hangs onto the charming children’s book quality of the first games.

This essay is lighter on relationships to Christianity, but does focus on Tolkien’s Christian faith and how Faerie relates in its presentation of magic and wonder.

The Afterlife and Majora’s Mask

Josh Corman’s entry about The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask examines the afterlife, purgatory, and sanctification. In the game, Link acquires the ability to use the souls of fallen individuals to become them and complete tasks that they failed to do while they were living. This relates with Christianity in that the end of life is not the end of the spirit. Interestingly, the game never shows the characters reunited with their old bodies, which is where this concept differs from Christianity. This essay evokes a unique interest in Majora’s Mask, which is one of Zelda’s stranger and more complex games.

Zelda and Theology BookVirtues Explored

Two essays in the book focus on virtues in The Legend of Zelda. In “On Hylian Virtues: Aristotle, Aquinas and the Hylian Cosmogenesis,” Justus Hunter looks at the Hylian virtues of power, wisdom, and courage and relates them to Aristotle’s account of virtue. He then explains Augustine’s and Aquinas’ accounts of virtue and how they differ from Aristotle. Aquinas says virtues are caused by God and Hunter goes on to look at what the source of Hylian virtues might be.

The essay “High Rule? Vintage Virtue in The Legend of Zelda” by Benjamin B. DeVan is more approachable for those who don’t know a lot about Christianity and Zelda. It looks at altruism and its role in Zelda games, particularly the first two installments that were released in the 80’s. DeVan claims that Jesus was indeed an inspiration for Link:

For example: Ganon’s minions believe Link’s blood contains the power of resurrection. Link walks on water like Jesus, though Link requires the winged boots. Link’s shields and gravestones in both games bear the cross (though Link’s shield in later games bears the sign of the Triforce.)  The Adventure of Link once references a church bell ringing. Link descends beneath Death Mountain in one game and Death Valley in the other to defeat the Prince of Darkness and confront the Shadow/Dark/False Link.

He goes on to look for the source of morality in Hyrule:

The creative design of the gaming universe(s) inhabited by Link, Zelda and other Hyrule citizens parallels God’s work as the Grand Designer, High Rule(r) and Ultimate Source for morality in our world, whether or not people directly acknowledge it.

With this, the author targets atheists and their supposed sources for morality:

Atheists recount some motivations for moral behavior, describe examples and manifestations of morality and moral intuitions, but they do not, and perhaps cannot, supply an original source, authority or absolute adjudicator for moral principle, outrage and conviction. Is philosophical incoherence the price for denying a source for absolute morals?

Power and A Link to the Past

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is my favorite game from the Zelda series. Jeremy Smith does a good job in looking at the role of power in the game and addresses the question, “Why spend time helping people when it won’t matter when they’re gone?” In A Link to the Past, a parallel “Dark World” is created by Ganon that will disappear along with all of its inhabitants when he is vanquished. Smith finds that the religious guide in the game, Sahasrahla, would be a proponent of a cataclysmic Christ “who sees sees the spiritual struggle and wants nothing but to vanquish all things dark, as the legend tells”. On the other hand, Link emulates a catalytic Christ “who acknowledges the spiritual struggle but does not allow this to interfere with helping individuals and expanding the circle of God’s grace to people beyond.”

Conclusion

The Legend of Zelda and Theology is certainly a thought-provoking book.  A few of the essays not mentioned here are a bit less exciting, but I wouldn’t call any of them bad. Some of the powerful essays will likely make connections and turn a few lights on for gamers who weren’t particularly religious before.

On the other hand, if you’re a devout Christian I recommend the book to illustrate why Zelda is possibly the greatest series of video games out there. What are you waiting for? Go pick up a copy at Amazon.