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Saturday, January 3


One more thing on the literary critic Terry Eagleton, this from today's New York Times, "Cultural Theorists, Start Your Epitaphs". I mentioned him here and here. Eagleton, though a marxist, argues that

the postmodernist giants — like Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes — are over, he says.

"The golden age of cultural theory is long past," Mr. Eagleton writes in his new book, "After Theory" (Basic Books), to be published in the United States in January. In this age of terrorism, he says, cultural theory has become increasingly irrelevant, because theorists have failed to address the big questions of morality, metaphysics, love, religion, revolution, death and suffering.

Today graduate students and professors are bogged down in relativism, writing about sex and the body instead of the big issues. "On the wilder shores of academia," he writes, "an interest in French philosophy has given way to a fascination with French kissing."

His critique goes further. "The postmodern prejudice against norms, unities and consensuses is a politically catastrophic one," he writes. Cultural theorists can no longer "afford simply to keep recounting the same narratives of class, race and gender, indispensable as these topics are."

His work, the article claims, is still affected by his childhood religion. It

is shadowed by Roman Catholicism. Mr. Eagleton seems to find a confluence between his interpretation of Marxism and Christianity, in a shared ethic of cooperativism, and protection of the poor and the weak. He cites one of Paul's letters to the Corinthians: "God chose what is weakest in the world to shame the strong." Morality begins with a recognition of one's weakness and mortality, Mr. Eagleton says. He uses the example of King Lear, who is redeemed only after he has endured the storm on the heath and understands is own vulnerability.

Although Mr. Eagleton remains vague about what his longed-for absolute truths would look like, he writes that an ethical society can only happen under socialism, "in which each attains his or her freedom and autonomy in and through the self-realization of others."

This will give some of you a "With friends like these" feeling, but it does suggest that Christianity remains, after all the fashions and fads pass away, the thing to which serious people respond as well as the thing against which they react. Which suggests, to the Christian mind anyway, that it has some permanent, even eternal, substance and meaning.

It is, in other words, clearly and unavoidable there. Wherever you happen to be.

4:40 PM


A friend sent me a thoughtful message in response to yesterday's The unglamorous Dean". I think this is exactly right. She writes:

I'm sure almost everyone has heard about the little girl assigned in Sunday School (no doubt ECUSA) to write a story about a poor family. It began,

Once upon a time there was a family that was very poor. The mama was poor, the papa was poor, the little girl was poor, the little boy was poor, the maid was poor, the cook was poor, the chauffeur was poor, the gardener was poor. They were all very poor.

More than a joke, it makes me think about one thing that I have heard marks the very poor in the US, particularly the urban poor — isolation (& distrust) even where crowded, often broken families, the absence of effective voluntary intermediate institutions often including the church, the absence of work-mates, little social interchange that encourages and informs, etc.

I know in my own life, not just emotional sustenance, but economic and social benefit flows from the colleagues, allies, friends, and even vendors with whom I am blessed. Not on any collusive basis, just because all of us are smarter and better-connected than any one of us.

So the little girl, and Howard Dean and his mama, are not poor, are blessed not just as to the economic indicators to pay for service; but with a family, and baby nurses, and a physician and his patients that frequent the building, and well-treated servants, and well-mannered schoolmates, and . . . .

It's not economics solely or even mostly, it's an enormous web (JPII's Circle of Exchange). And attention to this web, to maintaining and broadening it, is a big part of what the culture wars are about, as conservative support for every component of the Divine gift of Abundant Life.

4:26 PM


A cheering article from Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition, titled "Religious Freedom is for Everyone -- Not just Minorities." It begins:

Well, 2004 has arrived which means that dreaded "C word" is behind us. Put politely, "the holiday season" has passed. Having shopped in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle lately and having listened to talk radio in each city I couldn't help noticing a startling double standard.

Overwhelmingly, store assistants and talk radio hosts bid farewell to Jewish guests with a cheerful "Happy Chanukah" while others, including those identified as Christians, received the generic "Happy holidays." With each passing year, secular fundamentalism more successfully injects into American culture the notion that the word "Christmas" is deeply offensive. Well, after watching this year's repeat of the annual "hate Christianity ritual" I think we may be mistaken in allowing this assault to go unchallenged.

He offers lots of examples of people enacting this ritual across the country, as in New York City, where Christian symbols are banned but Jewish and Islamic ones promoted. He argues that for Jews should not accept, much less promote, this assault on Christmas.

I don't think that America's Jewish community does itself any long term good by denouncing every public expression of Christian faith as if it were a force-fed dose of castor oil. This anti-Christianism is not only unhealthy for all Americans; I think it is particularly destructive for Jews to be leading the extirpation of all signs of Christian fervor from the village square. . . .

Many Jewish parents, who remain indifferent when their children bop to rap music's obscene lyrics, recoil in horror at the same kids' exposure to Christmas carols. It is invariably a local rabbi who teams up with the ACLU to file a lawsuit against the school singing carols or the town unwary enough to allow a Nativity scene on the library lawn.

I suppose this ritual is at least in part a backhanded compliment to Christianity. Most of us — the sort of people who write for and read Touchstone — lament the state of Christianity in this country and feel no great confidence in its institutional and cultural future. A secularist worrying about its effect is like this years Cy Young award winners worrying about facing a former batting champion now in a nursing home.

And yet Christianity remains so powerful a force in our society that the secular-minded still go out of their way to marginalize, ridicule, and banish it. It is still something to be killed, which means that it still lives. We may hope and pray it is like a fire that burns inside the woodpile, apparently almost extinguished and giving little heat and light, but ready to flame up again should someone — the Holy Spirit, say — stir it up.

4:20 PM


A regular reader responded to the next blog with:

Since when is subjugation and constraint of The Big Serpent not central to Touchstone's mission??!!

I like this.

4:19 PM


My eldest sent me this link: go to this link to see a picture of a 49-foot python, which is almost 17 feet and almost 600 pounds more than the previous biggest snakes in captivity. I know this isn't a usual topic for Mere Comments, but I thought it was fun.

1:34 PM


Our managing editor Anita Kuhn forwarded to me a message from the International Justice Mission announcing that the group was the subject of a story in the January 12 issue of Forbes, "Hitting Slavery Where It Hurts" by Quentin Hardy. He writes:

Slavery is shockingly common in the world today: in homes, factories, farms and brothels on every continent except Antarctica. The most common form is bonded servitude, or holding people to work off debts with stratospheric interest rates. One widely held estimate puts the number of people in slavery at 27 million.

The U.S. CIA estimates that up to 900,000 people are sold across international borders each year (maybe 20,000 of them into the U.S.). The trade is illegal, and officially condemned, throughout the world. Yet it flourishes, earning perhaps $7 billion a year for the perpetrators.

Haugen employs what he describes as a market approach to fight slavery. Most human rights crusaders focus on change through high-level international treaties -- what Haugen calls "a wholesale approach to human rights." That is an important first step, he thinks, but "in lots of places, there's still a big gap between what the law says and what the poor experience."

So he goes after slavery at the retail level. IJM helps overworked (or unmotivated) prosecutors to enforce existing laws, so that perpetrators either end up in
jail or pay stiff fines.

Haugen's group does not preach; it hears about exploitation from missionaries and aid workers, then builds legal cases through infiltration, surveillance and documentation.

1:22 PM


From James A. Brown, a response to Steven Hutchens' "Listen up, ok?" from December 14th. (I had meant to post it when it came but didn't. My apology to Mr. Brown.)

Mr. Hutchens' example and critique of current writing style seems to blame California for the present low state of the art. ("Style?") Please be advised that at Cragmont Elementary in Berkeley in the late 50s, we learned proper English.

I'd be more inclined to blame James Joyce. Not Joyce in general but the last chapter of Ulysses in particular: 45 pages between the intial "yes" and the final "yes," followed by the first punctuation since page 737. Of course, it works if you are James Joyce, which the current practitioners are not.

I rather doubt that many of the current writers have actually read Joyce. But their teachers' instructors had and the stream of consciousness was passed on at minute dilution, no more likely to be effective than homeopathic medicine.

1:14 PM


Another critique of The da Vinci Code, this one by Sandra Miesel writing in Crisis: Dismantling the da Vinci Code. Mrs. Miesel spoke at our conference last October, by the way.

1:11 PM


A new critique of the bestselling Da Vinci Code, this one from the editor of the Catholic apologetic magazine Envoy, Carl Olson. Here is part one and part two.

The e-mailed announcement included this bit of information about the book:

Some of the most audacious and blatantly incorrect statements in The Da Vinci Code have to do with early Church history and the person of Jesus. In the course of Sophie and Langdon’s lengthy conversation with Teabing at the English historian’s home, a dialogue takes place in which the following claims are made:

— The divinity of Jesus and his establishment as "the Son of God" were created, proposed, and voted into existence (by a "relatively close vote") at the Council of Nicaea in 325.
— Prior to this event, nobody –- including Jesus’ followers –- believed that he was anything more than "a mortal prophet."
— The Emperor Constantine established the divinity of Jesus for political reasons and used the Catholic Church as a means of solidifying his power. (The Da Vinci Code, 233)

Good grief.

1:08 PM

Friday, January 2


Something really funny from today's OpinionJournal:

Howard Dean, Populist

OK, it's not exactly a log cabin, but in a New York Times profile, Howard Dean's mom labors mightily to paint a humble picture of her son's background:

*** QUOTE ***

The Park Avenue building where Howard Dean grew up has a neurologist's office on the ground floor and a church just behind. His mother, Andree Maitland Dean, is eager to emphasize that the family's three-bedroom apartment there is not luxurious.

"Look around," Mrs. Dean said in a recent interview, gesturing at the quarters where her boys grew up. "Howard didn't have the least bit of a glamorous upbringing."

Explaining that every time she had a baby, the dining room would serve as a bedroom for the newborn and his nurse, she concluded, "I don't think we could even keep up with the Bushes." . . .

Mrs. Dean sees her son's unpretentiousness as something he learned at home, pointing out that her own parents taught her to treat people in an egalitarian way.

"When I was growing up," she said, "we didn't even treat the servants like servants."

*** END QUOTE ***

2:38 PM


A friend sends a link to a new article by William Murchison: "Gay marriage and the cult of non-procreation". Bill, a long-time columnist for the Dallas Morning News, is now a professor of journalism at Baylor and has started writing for Touchstone.

My friend noted this line in particular:

The matrix of the gay marriage culture is the abortion culture, which actively promotes sterility and the refusal of procreation.

I don't think this is true, or rather, that it explains the third stage by the second but wrongly thinks the second stage the first. The abortion culture itself developed from a decision about human sexuality and marriage most people in the West -- including the rightwingers and the Christians -- made in the two or three decades from about 1930. See "The accelerating pill" for some of the data.

The matrix of both the abortion and gay marriage cultures, to use Bill's term, is the contraceptive culture. For reasons it would be interesting to explore, the average American found the killing of an unborn child less offensive than the public commitment of two homosexual people. Roe v. Wade was publicly thinkable in 1973 but the Massachusetts' Supreme Judicial Court's recent decision was not.

For the argument on the origin of the abortion culture in the contraceptive culture, see Patrick Reardon's "The Roots of Roe v. Wade", which appeared in the January 2003 issue. It contains the line:

We submit, therefore, that children are now being aborted in the flesh, because they have already been, in large measure, aborted from the mind.

which I think the best short summary of the problem I have seen.

12:02 PM


Dr. Russ Reeves of the department of history at Trinity Christian College writes to add to "No room at the relatives:

On your reference to Kenneth Bailey's interesting interpretation of Christ's birth, I linked to a Christmas Eve sermon from several years ago by William Willimon that incorporates Bailey's view. A reader of my blog commented that the TNIV (not a favorite at Touchstone, I realize, nor mine) reflects this interpretation: "She wrapped him in clothes and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them."

He sent the link to his blog entry

And also the link to William Willimon's sermon: William Willimon's sermon.

11:44 AM


A recent conversation with a friend on the abuse of ministers by people within their congregations turned my mind to the significant degree to which conservative religion draws to itself certain types of unbalanced and, often enough, genuinely pathological personalities. Our liberal counterparts are happy enough to point this out to us, particularly if they can manage to identify sick conservatism in their personal histories as part of their justification for departing orthodoxy.

If we who call ourselves conservative or orthodox, however, fail to take full and serious account of this phenomenon, we have failed to recognize the body of Christ for what it is, and to maintain it as we should, by permitting the church to take into itself the idolatries that can hide effectively under the cloak of orthodox religion.

When we allow those who love Jesus so much that they neglect or mistreat their spouses or children or subordinates in his name, or attempt to force their petty and unbiblical legalisms on the church, or glorify Ignorance as the handmaiden rather than the enemy of faith, or who use religion to deny the personhood of others, and the freedom, dignity, and responsibility this entails, or who use church structures, offices, or theological systems to control and manipulate, or who, in pointing out that liberals destroy orthodoxy and its practices in the name of love, reason, and kindness, justify their own defects in these qualities—when these are not properly dealt with by the churches, incalculable damage is done.

I used to think that much of this could be tolerated in the mindset of “erring on the side of conservatism.” But this is wrong, because too much of what passes for conservatism, and gets by with it in self-consciously conservative churches, is in fact evil.

Orthodox Christianity is dogmatic. In the face of every "liberal" attempt to emancipate it from this supposed bond, which in fact is the very form of its constitution, it is conservative in that it resolves to conserve, without change or deviation, the faith once delivered to the saints. There are to be no apologies for this, ever. But our faith cannot be maintained, the body and mind of Christ are not realized among us, unless our object, whatever our proclivities, is not to err at all. This means those of us who are not especially tempted by liberal religion need to be doubly on guard for sins against charity and reason that come among us wearing our dress, fluent in our dialect.

11:40 AM


The late Malachi Martin, philanderer and fraud, wrote about Satanic plots in the Vatican. The reality is almost as good. Here is what I have written in my new book, which has the working title, A Harsh Light: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church:

The diocese of Ferns in Ireland has produced another priest whose story is little known outside Ireland, but whose career indicates that the troubles in the Catholic Church go far deeper than garden variety sexual immorality. The Rev. Micaél Ledwith taught systematic theology at Maynooth, the national seminary of Ireland. In 1984 he was being considered for the position of bishop of Ferns (with Dublin possibly in the future) but then some seminarians raised awkward questions about this sexual relationship with them.

Ledwith instead became the head of Maynooth and member of the Pontifical International Theological Commission under Cardinal Ratzinger, a group that advises the Pope on sensitive theological issues. In 1991 he served as an assistant under Cardinal Walter Kaspar at the 1991 Synod of Bishops. His career proceeded smoothly until 1994, when he settled financially nanotech accusation. He had just vetoed the gay student organization at Maynooth. The trustees wanted him to go away, and therefore set up a retirement fund of 77,000 Irish pounds plus a gratuity of 6 months salary. So far it is but the dreary, oft-told tale of pederasty, homosexuality, and cover-ups.

Ledwith left Ireland and quickly surfaced in the United States, where he is teaching at the Ramtha School in Enlightenment in Washington State a Gnostic University. The foundress, JZ Knight, born in Roswell, New Mexico (of UFO fame) has become the channeler of Ramtha, the Enlightened One. He was a Cro-Magnon Lemurian warrior who 35,000 years ago fought against Atlantis and an ascended master, who teaches 1. “a supreme deity is apart of every man” and 2. “the key to reaching the God within us is through Gnosis or knowledge.”

Shirley MacLaine in a disciple of Knight. Some disciples get the distinct impression “that they are above morality due to their divine status.” It is the usual New Age folderol with trappings of doctrines of classical Gnosticism. This is the gospel that Ledwith is traveling around the world proclaiming.

There are two main possibilities. The first is that Ledwith has been a con artist and a fraud all along. He is not even a Christian believer, but has manipulated the Catholic Church to get prestige, money, and sex. This means that a con man was president of the national seminary of Ireland, a possible candidate for the see of Dublin, and a principal theological adviser to the Pope.

The second possibility is that Ledwith is a sincere Gnostic. This means that a president of the national seminary of Ireland, a possible candidate for the see of Dublin, and a principal theological adviser to the Pope subscribed to the ancient heresy that the New Testament was in part written to combat. Gnosticism is currently in among pop theological liberals like Elaine Pagels. The Gnostic gospels are touted as an alternative source of Christianity. Did Ledwith buy into this intellectual fad? Or was he so shallow he did not see any incompatibility between Gnosticism and Christianity?

One does not jettison orthodox Christianity overnight; what was he teaching at Maynooth and what was he telling the bishops and the Pope? Did the ancient heresy of Gnosticism have a voice in the highest councils of the Roman Catholic Church? If so, didn’t anyone notice? Or is impolite (i. e. non-collegial) in the Vatican to point out to a theologian that he has ceased to be a Christian, and speaks with the voice of Antichrist?

I have written to someone I know on the International Theological Commission asking whether he can shed any light on Ledwith.

8:15 AM

Thursday, January 1


With the link to "A very marxy Christmas" (four blogs below), my friend also sent a link to a review of Terry Eagleton's new book After Theory, which I pass on for those of you who like that sort of thing: "What Terry did next . . .". It begins:

Being at once a leader and a rebel is a good trick. Mrs Thatcher managed it brilliantly, speaking as if she were a dissident in the government of which she was in fact head. The ordinary fudges of political life took place despite her. Terry Eagleton has always done something similar, a soi-disant intellectual outsider who was once the country's "top" literary professor. When he was Warton professor of English at Oxford he styled himself "a barbarian inside the citadel". (Now he is professor of cultural theory at Manchester University, the self-image is a little less defensive.) Travel the campuses of Britain, however, and you will find that for many he is the orthodoxy. His Literary Theory: An Introduction , a punchy synopsis of other writers' ideas first published 20 years ago, must be the best-selling work of lit crit ever.

Characteristically, this book for students of literature argued that there was no such thing as literature and that literary criticism was but a conservative political ideology: "Departments of literature in higher education are part of the ideological apparatus of the modern capitalist state." The arrival of literary theory from France was broadly welcome, for it crushed with its rigour the effete mutterings of bourgeois humanism. Yet while he was theory's ambassador, he always managed to signal his own distance from it. Literary Theory ended with what became his signature declaration of the hidden significance of politics in intellectual life (hidden from most theory buffs, too).

I had written her (my friend) that I found the things she sent interesting because I'd been sitting in a bookshop Sunday afternoon reading Eagleton's book on postmodernism -- sorry, I know that sounds pretentious, but I was reading it -- and was surprised at how respectfully he spoke of Christianity, particularly St. Thomas Aquinas. He seemed to be happy to find someone else who believed in reality and therefore might be able to change things.

Her view, she responded, is that

The Guardian review suggests to me that Eagleton is impatient primarily with his post-modernist tools in their ineptness at recruiting & coercing for Marx. However, as C. S. Lewis could probably confirm, it is "dangerous" to really look at the Christian idea.

12:51 PM


A cheering story about a Japanese diplomat who risked his life to save Jews: "A Hidden Life: A Short Introduction to Chiune Sugihara". It begins:

Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg are among the most commonly known people who have been recognized as taking extra-ordinary personal risks to help Jews and others targeted for extermination by Adolf Hitler and his National Socialist Worker's Party in Germany, 1933-1945.

Perhaps the least well known is a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara (d. 1986), who only later in life admitted to his own heroic actions, and was recognized in 1985 by the State of Israel with its highest honor. Even less well known is that Sugihara was a convert to Orthodoxy.

The writer is more concerned with Sugihara's conversion to Orthodoxy than you may be, but the article does tell us something about a Christian hero very few people know about. It includes a bibliography and the recommendation to search the website of the Holocaust Museum for more information.

My thanks to Jim Forest of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship -- and contributor to Touchstone -- for the link.

12:46 PM


A reader, Brian Bennett, writes in response to the blog titled "Christmas music":

I was happy to read your recommendation of one of my favorite Christmas albums, The Roche's "We Three Kings." You are probably aware of another spiritual CD of theirs, "Zero Church," but I wanted to write in case you were not. Technically, this is not a Roche sisters CD, but just Suzzy Roche with occasional sisterly help. The CD consists of prayers, some are ancient but most are recent, set to music.

I found the CD to be enjoyable for one or two listenings, but then it really began to grow on me. Now, I can rarely listen to it without being moved to tears. It is beautiful. The CD can be found on the same web site you indicated. The liner notes are here.

12:34 PM


I should note that the readers' comments at the end of "A Merry Marxy Christmas" (discussed in the next blog) are interesting as well. One fellow declares that

Dialectical materialism is as simple as it is true: the means of production controls all other structures within a society -- civil or economic.

I had forgotten people like that still existed. Reading this kind of thing is like spotting a Pterodactyl or a Dodo bird. (I don't mean the second example as insultingly as it may sound.)

My guess -- as I have remarked before, I grew up in a New England college town and know this world -- is that someone who writes this kind of thing is a single man living in a college town, is either in his early twenties and taking graduate school classes or in his twenties or thirties and working a simple job (e.g., in a record shop), and is either not married or is married but does not have children. There is something about the simplicity and comprehensiveness of the claim that suggests someone who has not aged or at least grown wiser with age.

12:31 PM


A friend sent me something some of you may find of interest: "A Merry Marxy Christmas" from the leftwing newspaper In These Times. Written by a professor at Villanova, who describes himself as "a Christian and a socialist," it examines the new interest in Christianity some marxist scholars are now showing. My friend remarked as she sent it:

Does this presage opening the gate of the compound to the Hound of Heaven? Or is it just another grab for the borrowed charisma of 2000 years of the Church? It's pretty clear Terry Eagleton in After Theory is merely fed up with the logical swamp that is po-mo deconstructionism, which has proved to impede his recruiting for the plod toward the Gulags.

I think they may have bitten off more than they expected to chew, with a Divine hook inside (to use the ICHTHOS metaphor). Time and eternity will tell.

Eagleton is a marxist literary critic and former professor at Oxford (I think he was Merton Professor, that is, a successor to Tolkien). The article begins:

A specter has been haunting Marxism -- the specter of Christianity. Routed politically by capitalist globalism, and hard-pressed to identify any really existing hope, some prominent Marxists have turned to Christianity for inspiration and revision. Terry Eagleton has reclaimed his Catholic past, and now exhorts his comrades to read theology. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have invoked St. Francis as a model of "the future life of communist militancy." And Alain Badiou, arguably France's foremost Marxist, has upheld St. Paul as the pre-secular augur of revolutionary universalism.

The article then considers the work of the marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who is all the rage in some intellectual circles. Zizek believes that

the "perverse core of Christianity" -- its abolition of the opposition between humanity and divinity as embodied by Jesus as God's human son -- is identical to the kernel of Marxist materialism. Indeed, Zizek advises every Marxist to "go through the Christian experience."

Zizek affirms Christian orthodoxy against both New Age beliefs (exemplified in Buddhism) and the postmodern Judaism of Jacques Derrida, the French critic known for his "deconstructions," and Emmanuel Levinas . . . . [T]hese religious constellations, which are protected among educated Westerners by the protocols of multiculturalism and diversity, disable critical consciousness and dampen political passion.

The writer goes on to explain what Zizek means by this, and it is a point with which the Christian will have some sympathy. Zizek also speaks highly of Chesterton and Tolkien:

Chesterton's conviction of "the thrilling romance of orthodoxy" serves Zizek as a model for revolutionary ardor. Chesterton pointed out that paganism's reminder of the death that awaits even the most pleasurable life leads to the deepest and most apolitical form of melancholy.

But Christians, believing that creation is good and that life is eternal, know, as Zizek puts it, "an infinite joy beneath the deceptive surface of guilt and renunciation." (Pointing to Tolkien's books, Zizek remarks that "only a devout Christian could have imagined such a magnificent pagan universe.") Zizek also affirms Chesterton's portrayal of orthodoxy as "daring and perilous."

Contemptuous of the fashionable and anemic suspicion of transcendent causes -- incarnate in the calorie-counting hedonism of our "health-conscious" middle classes -- Zizek asserts that real life consists in "the very excess of life: the awareness that there is something for which we are ready to risk our life."

The writer concludes with an astute judgment of the limits of Zizek's appropriation of Christian ideas. As a Christian, I always think when reading non-Christians who speak highly of Christianity that they miss the point, however cheering it is to find they see something of the truth.

We think Christianity is indeed a tremendously useful thing and provides a wonderful set of ideas and images, but it is only useful because it is true and the ideas and images are only wonderful because they're true. I've never understood people who derive comfort and encouragement from the Christmas story while denying that anything of the sort actually happened.

12:25 PM

Tuesday, December 30


An interesting collection of various people's idea of the best and worst of recently popular ideas: Judging 2003's Ideas: The Most Overrated and Underrated from last Saturday's New York Times.

"Interesting," you will understand, does not mean "commendable" or "true." Here is Mary Lefkowitz on "Monotheism," which she clearly believes an over-rated idea. She teaches, if I remember rightly, at Wellesley.

In their most extreme forms, monotheistic religions are deeply intolerant. If there is only one right way of doing things, every other way is wrong. If we are good, others are evil. By contrast, the ancient Greeks and Romans welcomed new gods into their pantheon and worshiped them alongside the old. They had no crusades or jihads. The Roman authorities threw Christians to the lions because they mistook the early Christians' intolerance for seditiousness. They did not seek to kill them because they rejected the Christians' God.

So if monotheism is overrated, polytheism is underrated? Does she really think that? Does she, to make it personal, remember that the ancient Greeks and Romans wouldn't have let her anywhere near a tenured, well-paid job at an elite university? That her ancient Greek or Roman may have had her killed at birth if they didn't want another girl?

And let's look at the way she loads the dice. She begins with monotheistic religions "in their most extreme forms", which begs a lot of questions, like which are the extreme forms and are they representative. Of course, her heading does not say "Extreme monotheism" but "Monotheism," which gives you an idea of her answer.

Then she announces that the old polytheists "had no crusades or jihads." No, perhaps not, but they did an extraordinary amount of invading, sacking, raping, pillaging, and oppressing. Were I the member of a small vulnerable nation in the ancient world, I would not have found it very comforting that the Roman destroying my home, raping my wife, and sending me to the salt mines was not a crusader.

And then she tells us that the Romans' apparent intolerance of Christianity was really just a mistake. How were they to know the intolerant Christians weren't seditious? She rather deftly ignores the fact that the Romans seem to have believed that refusing to worship Caesar was by itself seditious, which is to say, they were in fact intolerant of the Christians' God.

6:40 PM


Today's OpinionJournal, the Wall Street Journal's daily digest of the "Best of the Web Today," offers Howard Dean's Christmas message on his campaign's blogsite. The whole thing reads:

Today, for just a single day out of the year, much of the world recognizes a day of peace. It is a day when we set aside our differences and come together to celebrate an ideal of a world free from hate, free from want and free from war.

Over the 3,500 years of recorded human history, we have seen thirteen years of war for every year of peace. Today, as we gather with families and friends, we must remember the hundreds of thousands of U.S. soldiers separated from their families, serving overseas. We must remember the people of Africa who have seen too much war, destruction and want this year, and we must remember all of the other humanitarian crises that escape our notice on other days of the year.

On this day more than most, we must resolve to continue our work and to redouble our efforts to ensure that someday soon world peace can be something we celebrate more than just once a year.

The United States was founded on an ideal that we would serve as a peaceful and moral beacon for the rest of the world. Thomas Jefferson once wrote, "Peace with all nations, and the right which that gives us with respect to all nations, are our object." The biggest roadblock to achieving that is our own doubt that it can be accomplished. Franklin D. Roosevelt told us that "The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith." May today bring peace on Earth and goodwill toward everyone.

You will have noticed that Dean's Christmas has nothing Christian in it. It is religiously thin even for an American politician.

He quotes Thomas Jefferson. He quotes Franklin D. Roosevelt. He does not quote Jesus Christ, who said some rather quotable things about peace, justice, and love of neighbor. And Jesus told some great stories too, like the one about loving your neighbor, which rebukes the high and mighty, praises sacrificial charity, and advocates cross-cultural reconciliation.

You want your peace and justice quotes, go to the gospels. The pages are dripping with them. You could fire your speechwriters and just quote Jesus.

Unless you want the activist members of the Godless Party to pick you as their leader. Then the less said about Jesus the better. If people insist on celebrating his birthday and you can't get out of saying something, invoke Thomas Jefferson and FDR.

6:37 PM


The analysis in David Brooks' column in today's New York Times, The National Creed", will be old hat to most of you, but I wanted to pass on his very good summary:

So we have this paradox. These days political parties grow more orthodox, while religions grow more fluid. In the political sphere, there is conflict and rigid partisanship. In the religious sphere, there is mobility, ecumenical understanding and blurry boundaries.

6:35 PM


For those of you interested in Howard Dean's career, here is something from the leftish magazine American Prospect, "Shock of the Old". The writer's thesis:

He is more a product of geography -- and his was a chosen geography, as he was born in New York City -- than ideology. The more one watches him on the stump (and watches his admirers watching him), the more it becomes apparent that he comes out of, and is reviving, a tradition of small-town, New England civic and religious fervor that is all but forgotten in American politics today. He is something the country has not seen in a very long time. He is, essentially, a northern evangelist.

10:43 AM


An interesting message from one of regulars. the writer is referring to last Wednesday's Tavener busts up and Subject for prayer.

Very thought-provoking post about the formation of children. In my communications consultancy, almost all cross-purposes involve different definitions of the same words. How can this poor child know what it means to love everybody -- as himself? Other than to be a patsy for every PC proposal and ill-reasoned surface-altruistic agenda that he encounters exhorting him to be a "good person." And based on his mother's example, love means evasion of truth or other distinction, and carelessness in investigatng even vital matters.

I believe Christians maintain that Love was fully revealed to human perception -- "we beheld" -- by the man Jesus, the incarnate Christ of God, the foundational fact via story that this season celebrates. The outcome of what purports to be 'love' and may well be 'spirituality' does not always appear to entail safe-passage, of the sort the believer's
faith-experience with Jesus finds.

In the Final Analysis, even if competing Truth-Systems turn out by Grace circuitously to lead Home [which I maintain we don't yet know], by the journey metaphor one must fully commit to one. I go nowhere declaring trains, planes, and automobiles are all dandy methods of transportation, and that I may choose any one of them to travel to the Four-Square City, some day, when I'm mature enough, when I get around to it.

May the sweetest blessings of the season transform us all into Holy Innocents -- wise Holy Innocents . . .

10:32 AM


Here is another response to Dr. Tighe's article from a new contributor, Bill Paire:

The Calculating Christmas article was very enjoyable reading. However, you can also calculate a Dec 25 date from Scripture.

Reading the first few chapters of Luke, we see that everything is timed from when Zacharias was in the temple, let's assume for the sake of argument that this was in early October. That would place the likely time of John the Baptist's conception toward the end of October or early November. This is based on his week of service, his ritual cleansing time, and assuming he got right down to business with Elisabeth (if an angel told me I was going to have a kid, I'd expect things to move right along).

So, Elisabeth then hid herself for five months. In the beginning of April, the angel appeared to Mary. Let's call the date April 1. A normal gestation period of 270 days puts the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25.

Obvious question: Was Zacharias serving in October?

The Mishnah indicates that each course served a week during the first half of the year, the three festival weeks, and a week during the last half of the year, for a total of five weeks during a normal year.

We start counting weeks on the first Sabbath of Nisan (approx. March), here's when Zacharias would have served:

Week 3 Feast of the Unleavened;
Week 9 Pentecost (65 days after Nisan 14);
Week 10 (2 festivals + 8 courses);
Week 29 Tishri festival of booths;
Week 35 (24 courses + 3 feasts + 8 courses)

Week 35 is going to be sometime in October or November. However, there are various problems with the calendar translation with extra months getting thrown in, arguments about when exactly new moons happen, etc etc. Fortunately, it seems that Zacharias was serving during the Day of Atonement, which is easier to peg to a date. The Day of Atonement is the nineteenth day of Tischri, which falls in September/October. After the dust settles, you get the first week in October as the most likely date that Zacharias had his visit.

Early church lore (John Chrysostom) has Zechariah's visit from the angel happening on the Day of Atonement. Looking at Scripture (Sola Scriptura!) seems to indicate that Zechariah was in the Holy of Holies as he was apparently alone. Thumbing through relevant Scripture does seem to strongly indicate that Zechariah had his visit during the Day of Atonement. It seems that the only time someone was in his particular situation, as described in Luke, was
during the Day of Atonement.

Luke 1:9 "he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to go into the temple of the Lord and burn incense."

Luke 1:21 "Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah and wondering why he stayed so long in the temple."

Looking at what happens during the Day of Atonement:

Leviticus 16:12-13 "He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die."

From Hebrews, it seems very likely that Zechariah was performing the ceremony of the Day of Atonement, that's the only explanation I've found for why he was in the temple alone. Also, notice the symbolism pointed out in Hebrews (not that I place much weight on typological arguments, it's just interesting).

Hebrews 9:1-7: "Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary. A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand, the table and the
consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron's staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover. But we cannot discuss these things in detail now. When everything had been arranged like this, the priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and for the sins the people had committed in ignorance."

So, this, taken with early Church's belief that Christ was born on December 25th (although the Eastern Church uses either Jan 1st or Jan 6th) seems to indicate that December 25th is the date.

10:29 AM


William Tighe's Calculating Christmas has generated a lot of messages to Mere Comments. See Dating Christmas for one.

Here is a response from regular contributor Fr. Robert Hart:

The website, in its reference to Hannukah, raises a question I brought up with my friend William Tighe when he was initially preparing to write his article for Virtuosity [an Episcopal listserve] last year. I agree with his decision not to bring it up in his article, because it is based upon logic rather than upon historical evidence.

I like the idea of the 25th day of Kislev translating into the 25th day of December, giving the date of Christmas a Biblical basis (for those of us who regard I Maccabees as scripture). Someday I hope some evidence might prove that this was part of the consideration given to Dec. 25th; but the realization that all of the Jewish holidays were kept by the earliest Jewish "followers of the Way" must make one ask, what was the new significance of the other Jewish holidays? What did they do with the feast of Purim from Esther?

Especially, what did they do with the High Holy Days? Well, we know what they did with Passover, and that we still keep it (English being rare in renaming it from Passover -- Pascha, from the Hebrew Pasach -- to Easter). But, we have no evidence regarding Yom Kippur, Rosh Hoshanna, the Feast of Tabernacles, etc. We keep Pentecost because of its direct relevance to the birth of the Church. But, it seems that the rest are shrouded in mystery.

Alas, so too any direct connection of Kislev 25th to December 25th. It remains, however, an interesting, even a fun, question.

10:29 AM


James Kalbasky writes in response to yesterday's short item, "Grown up loners":

Is it now odd that the history of the Church is replete with the lives of men and women who have sacrificed themselves in so many ways for the Truth as He came unto us? Although a great many of them were husbands and wives, or otherwise joined to their families, many, if not most, were what we would call "loners". They, at one time in their lives, were part of a family, but, at some point prior to their sacrifice, they began another journey. The very journey which is written of in the lives of the saints.

Perhaps the critique of "loners", both expressed and implied in modernist culture, is a measure of the distance from which we as a people have drifted from those days. The days which produced the great saints of the Church?.

We live now in a culture which actively encourages empty thought and a meaningless focus on the trite. In such a culture, the "loner" is an object of either scorn or psychological "treatment". Tis a pity that the grace of God is so little recognized by us in this time.

I might add to this, now that he got me thinking, that materialistic moderns don't realize that the godly man by himself is not in fact alone, though he be sitting in a cave miles and miles from the next human being: he's with God, and the angels, and archangels, and all the hosts of heaven, as the liturgy puts it. The man who knows that and feels it, as the saint and ascetic do, will be the least lonely man on earth.

10:27 AM


A disturbing article by the life advocate Wesley SmithContinent Death: Euthanasia in Europe. Smith is a lawyer and consultant for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.

His thesis:

Self-delusion is rampant in the euthanasia movement. Most proponents recognize that it is inherently dangerous to legalize killing. But they desperately want to believe that they can control the grim reaper. Thus, they continue to peddle the nonsense that "guidelines will protect against abuse" despite overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary.

Euthanasia has been around long enough and practiced sufficiently enough for us to detect a pattern. Killing is sold to the public as a last resort justified only in cases where nothing else can be done to alleviate suffering. But once the reaper is allowed through the door, the categories of killable people expand steadily toward the acceptance of death on demand.

But the problem is much worse than that. The Netherlands is the test case for this sort of thing, since the country started letting doctors kill patients who faced "overwhelming suffering" in 1973. As Smith goes on to show, Dutch doctors now kill lots of people who ask to be killed though they don't qualify under the law, and at least 1,000 people a year who don't ask. And the Dutch Medical Association "is lobbying to legalize non-voluntary euthanasia." And

According to a 1997 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet, approximately 8 percent of all Dutch infant deaths result from lethal injections. The babies deemed killable are often disabled and thus are thought not to have a "livable life." The practice has become so common that 45 percent of neonatologists and 31 percent of pediatricians who responded to Lancet surveys had killed babies.

He shows the same process at work in Belgium and Switzerland as well. In Belgium, which in one year of legalizing euthanasia managed to catch up with Holland,

the chairman of the conference wants to force doctors to participate in killing patients, even if they are morally opposed. If he gets his way, the law will soon require doctors who oppose euthanasia to refer patients who want to be killed to a colleague willing to do the deed.

10:26 AM

Monday, December 29


From the ever useful OpinionJournal, the daily e-mail newsletter of the Wall Street Journal. ScrappleFace is a satirical website.

Episcopalians Imitate ScrappleFace

*** QUOTE ***

"Episcopal Church Appoints First Openly-Muslim Bishop" -- headline, , Aug. 4

"And what was God thinking when the Angel Gabriel was sent by God to reveal the sacred Quran to the prophet Muhammad?"-- Christmas sermon , the Right Rev. John Bryson Chane, Episcopal bishop of Washington, Dec. 25

*** END QUOTE ***

11:29 PM


David Nethery writes:

I am another reader who appreciated William Tighe's article Calculating Christmas.

To add to the comments by your readers Cheryl Eggers and Brian Kelly regarding the place and time of the Lord's Nativity I would like to recommend this very helpful resource page put together by a Rev. Phil Greetham a Methodist minister in the U.K.: The Nativity Pages.

5:29 PM


One of the links offered in Ponte's article (next blog) is a short news story titled "Child loners 'wind up as politicians'". It begins:

London -- Child loners tend to become politicians or to join church groups, according to a 30-year academic study published in the British press on Friday.

. . . The study suggested children's self-image could suffer as a result of early loneliness and they could seek status through these organisations.

I suspect this is often true, in fact I'm sure it's often true, but it may also be true that "loners" are often introverts comfortable with their own company and better able to reflect upon the world around them in ways that bring them to religious commitment. (Better able than the extraverted brethren, I mean.) As I once wrote in a review of a book on "personality types", still waters run deep but babbling brooks are shallow.

4:17 PM


A useful article: "Howard Dean's Politics of Bad Faith" by Lowell Ponte. The writer may be a bit too politically partisan for some of you, but he includes some useful information about Dean and a goodly number of useful links. (He also includes an interesting history of what he calls the takeover of Congregational churches by the United Church of Christ, whose liberal activisists took advantage of the congregational polity to pack the ballot box and get the property.)

Ponte also offers some apposite quotes from Machiavelli's The Prince:

"A prince," wrote Niccolo Machiavelli in 1532, "must appear to all who see and hear him to be pious . . . faithful . . . honest . . . humane, and completely religious. And nothing is more important than to appear to have that last quality."

A prince need not actually be religious, the Renaissance political analyst hastened to add, and will probably be more effective as a ruler if he is unencumbered by genuine religious scruples. But a prince must
appear to be religious "because the masses always follow appearances. . . and the world is nothing other than the masses."

The article included this revealing passage:

Howard Dean weeks ago on MSNBC’s "Hardball" was asked by Chris Matthews why he had been the first governor in the nation to sign same-sex civil unions into law for homosexual couples but has refused to take what Matthews deemed the small further step of supporting outright homosexual marriage.

Dean replied that he did not support homosexual marriages, "because marriage is very important to a lot of people who are pretty religious." Dean apparently regards himself as other than "pretty religious" in this matter.

"So," observed columnist George Will about this dialogue, "the argument about the public meaning of marriage is merely a semantic quibble important only to the 'pretty religious'? Dean has said of his faith that 'I don't think it informs my politics,' and that he became a Congregationalist 'because I had a big fight with a local Episcopal church about 25 years ago over a bike path.' Fine. His faith, whatever it is, is his business and no disqualification for the presidency. But his qualifications supposedly include a searching intellect. Where is the evidence?”

Ponte's analysis of Dean's new-found religion is the same as the one I offered in "Dean takes up God".

4:13 PM


The Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan has an interesting article today on people who want to ban public religious symbols, even ones on private properties. The subtitle is "Why are rich people afraid of the Virgin Mary?"

Some of The Banners seem driven by malice and the impulse to bully -- your religion is not my religion, so it will not be mentioned in public, bub, no matter what the holiday or how many celebrate it.

But some of The Banners mean well and believe their efforts are constructive. They believe that assertions of religious belief are inherently divisive, that to put forward the symbols of belief is threatening to society's peace. They believe that the displaying of the symbols of one faith is an implicit denial of the beliefs of another faith.

They do not think that faith is part of the answer; they think it is a big part of the problem (see fundamentalist Islam; see the protracted war in Northern Ireland). They think that if only people would stop being religious, we wouldn't have religion around roiling people's emotions and making them violent. (If you say to them, "Man is prone to violence, and one of the things that tends to make his heart gentle is faith in God," their eyes widen in shock:
That couldn't possibly be true!)

11:04 AM


Yesterday's column by Rod Dreher: "This priest shouldn't be moved". Rod is an editor at the Dallas Morning News and also a contributing editor of Touchstone.

He is writing about a Catholic priest in Dallas, Fr. Paul Weinberger, who despite having (under God) rejuvenated a dying urban parish, partly by taking seriously the Catholic liturgical and devotional tradition, is being moved by Bishop Charles Grahmann two years before his term as pastor is up. One who has followed Bishop Grahmann's career will have no confidence that this is being done for the good of the parish or the Church.

10:57 AM


This is a little late, but as I am listening to it as I write, I commend to you the Roches' Christmas album, "We Three Kings". Here is the order form.

The Roches are three sisters who have been singing together for a long time. They may be most famous for their a capella version of the "Hallelujah Chorus," which they once performed on Saturday Night Live. (A matter of taste, I suppose. A musician I know strongly disapproves of the idea but likes it anyway. I like it.)

The Christmas album contains 24 songs, 17 Christian and 7 secular, including "Angels we have heard on high," "Joy to the world," "Adeste Fidelis," "O little town of Bethlehem," and a not sappy version of "Little drummer boy." The secular carols include a funny version of "Frosty the Snowman" done in what I hope are exaggerated New Jersey accents. Their version of "We Three Kings" is played with a guitar and what I think is an oboe in an eastern-sounding style. I think it's wonderful.

10:57 AM

Sunday, December 28


Our frequent contributor the Rev'd Robert Hart (he is a frequent contributor to both Mere Comments and the magazine) has started a website for his parish in Maryland. Here is his Christmas sermon from last year -- this year his bishop preached the Christmas sermon.

6:43 PM


A useful article by a lecturer in history at Cambridge University, Joshua M. Zeitz, from yesterday's New York Times: "The Big Lie About the Little Pill". Zeitz argues that, contrary to popular opinion, the contraceptive pill "did not create America's sexual revolution as much as it accelerated it." After noting that in the 19th century the size of the average American family fell from about seven children to four, and that through the 20th century most married women reported using birth control of some sort, he argues that

In the early 20th century many Americans began experimenting with sex outside of matrimony -- partly because they could. By the 1920's a majority of Americans lived in urban areas where they enjoyed greater anonymity and social freedom. Meanwhile, a growing leisure culture provided a host of places -- from dance halls to movie theaters -- where men and women could meet.

At the same time, as an educated work force became increasingly important to the vitality of America's advanced economy, more young people (75 percent by the 1920's) attended high school, creating a new heterosocial peer culture. In the early 20th century more young women also entered the work force, where they came into increased contact with men and enjoyed a limited amount of financial and social freedom that could translate into a loosening of sexual mores.

This was particularly the case in the early 1940's, when millions of women (and exempted men) mobilized for war production, and 16 million of their husbands and boyfriends enlisted in the armed services. The resulting demographic and social upheaval created an explosion of Sexual freedom.

I suspect this all true. People have always liked sex and many indulged in it with others not their spouses. Witness, oh, the stories told by Chaucer, Dante, and Shakespeare. But there were limits to what they could actually do safely and how often they could do it.

What the pill made possible or at least a lot easier, I think, is the dangerous combination of sexual drive and "spontaneity," the ability to "let yourself go" and "surrender to passion" without worrying about producing a baby. Human beings being what they are, this undoubtedly let many people put themselves into positions of temptation they would otherwise wisely have avoided, and let many of them go on to succumb to that temptation.

For some reason, modern people feel they aren't as guilty if "it just happened" than if they planned it. The problem, one would like to point out, is that taking the pill is a way of planning it, as is putting yourself in places and with people with whom it might "just happen." But the illusion that "spontaneity" means innocence, or at least mitigated guilty, is one of our stronger illusions, these days.

This ability to delude oneself with safety -- safety from pregnancy, I mean, not from other problems like broken hearts and venereal diseases -- may well have simply accelerated the sexual revolution. But there are differences in accelerants, like that between pressing a little harder on the gas pedal and putting nitrous oxide into the gas line. The pill was probably more the latter than the former.

* * * * * * * * * *
My thanks to Peter Toon for pointing me to the article.

6:33 PM


Gil Bailie of the Cornerstone Forum sends a selection from Dorothy Sayers he thought readers would enjoy. It is a description of St. Lukewarm of Laodicea.

St. Lukewarm was a magistrate in the city of Laodicea under Claudius (Emp. A.D. 41-54. He was so broadminded as to offer asylum and patronage to every kind of religious cult, however unorthodox or repulsive, saying in answer to all remonstrances: "There is always some truth in everything." This liberality earned for him the surname of "The Tolerator." At length he fell into the hands of a sect of Anthropophagi (for whim he had erected a sacred kitchen and cooking stove at the public expense), and was duly set on to stew with appropriate ceremonies. By miraculous intervention, however, the water continually went off the boil; and when was finally served up, his flesh was found to be so tough and tasteless that the Chief Anthropophagus spat out the unpalatable morsel, exclaiming: "Tolerator non tolerandus!"

This was taken from Sayers' "Calendar of Unholy and Dead-letter Days," which appeared in the English humor magazine Punch in 1953 -- at least that's the copyright date for it -- and was reprinted in The Whimsical Christian (Macmillan 1978, but first published in 1969 by Eerdmans as Christian Letters to a Post-Christian World) and as far as I know nowhere else. Others commemorated are St. Simian Stylites and St. Supercilia.

The section of the book also includes "A sermon for Cacophonytide" and the "Creed of St. Euthanasia," which begins:

I believe in man, maker of himself and inventor of all science. And in myself, his manifestation, and captain of my psyche; and that I should not suffer anything painful or unplesant.

6:13 PM

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