THE UPWARD CURVE
If readers agree with Joseph Bottum, as I do, that American print standards are in an absurd decline, they should also agree that this new format for First Things will go a long way toward bending that curve upward. It’s a classy design, with just enough good and prominent photography. The heavy stuff on your original rag paper in the middle is ingenious.
Paul A. Barra
REIDVILLE, SOUTH CAROLINA
Obviously First Things is going through a time of transition, but the recent changes go to the heart of the magazine’s nature. The Reports section is a move away from topics that truly deal with “first things” for topics that are distinctly “second order.” This shift can’t help but to dilute the traditional character of the magazine and fragment its personality.
First Things has always stood out because the articles are of such a high caliber that they are worth archiving on the shelf as reference material. Now I see a shift to “single-use” material that is perhaps worth reading once.
I’m not often enamored of change in a thing I love and have enjoyed for a long time, but I am pleased and encouraged by the redesign. How does one maintain a craft that has been yare, for sure, when its venerable skipper has taken his final leave? Bemoaning the loss and imitating what has been lost? No, by improving and refitting it for a new crew and a new day, albeit to sail the same unending waters, driven by the same unexpiring wind. You all have done that, and I exhort you to continue with the same courage and fortitude.
I’m a librarian, and one of the small ways in which God has chosen to bless my life is by placing our current periodicals shelves midway between my office and the restroom. Last week, I was stopped dead in my tracks by that gorgeous, bright red cover. I picked it up, and it was as pleasant to hold as to look at. I flipped through—color photos! Of all things, a crossword puzzle! I was taken by one thought: I need this!
I suppose this outs me as an aesthete. If that’s true, my guess is that you can look forward to a large increase in subscriptions from that demographic.
Matthew W. Goddard
The cover illustration and artwork of the redesigned First Things make the magazine look like The New Yorker. Or The Atlantic. Or Harper’s. Or any number of other mainstream magazines that I don’t prefer to read.
In “While We’re At It” you write that the redesign is intended as an announcement that First Things is a journal unlike any other. The redesign announces that First Things has become a journal that looks and feels like many others.
CAPE ELIZABETH, MAINE
Congratulations on such a surprisingly new and beautiful magazine. More than ever, a genuine pleasure to read (and behold!).
I love the new look of First Things! Not as pretentious looking, classic stuff like a crossword puzzle, and excellent articles as always. Thank you.
COLLEGE STATION, TEXAS
As artistically pleasing as your new covers may be, I much prefer the old cover lines for a practical reason. When I save a copy of FT and refer to it later, the cover lines quickly tell me why I saved that issue. Now, I must open the magazine, find the index page and skim down that page to figure out why the issue was saved. Why do I begrudge the few extra seconds required for that exercise? Because at age 77, every second counts.
FORT COLLINS, COLORADO
Overall, I’m pleased. The upgraded paper and color pictures in the first half are very attractive and add a lot to the visual appeal and overall quality feel. I did like the inside graphics, the larger type size at the beginning of some articles, the different typefaces, the cleaner look, etc. It has good visual, graphic appeal.
I didn’t like the cover. I’m not sure what that is trying to say. Keep working on the cover and you’ll have a real winner.
The Rev. Richard Patterson Jr.
MECHANICVILLE, NEW YORK
I was surprised by the new cover, but it I like the style. However, on the whole, I do not like the shiny pictures. What do pictures of people like Elaine Chao and the new members of the Bioethics Commission add?
I realized that I liked not having pictures in First Things: I’m bombarded every day with jazzy images from the Post and the Times, to say nothing of Drudge et al. I’m here for the first things, not subsidiary things like which group of political hacks is doing what in the Beltway. That will pass away, and I doubt any member of the Bioethics Commission will arouse more interest in 1000 years than the names of Seianus or Tiberius Gracchus.
I enjoyed the rest that First Things afforded my eyes and also my soul and mind by taking me to more lasting questions. I can get information on the more passing things for free from the mainstream media.
Gerald J. Nora
As a relatively new subscriber, I had not really grown bored with the old design. I just thought it was dull. I have never been bored with the editorial content, but in many subtle ways you have revived the intellectual excitement with which I will anticipate every issue until the new design gets boring. I expect to be 120 years old by that time.
I like the Crossword! I like the art. I like the photos. I like the tactile differences of the cover and the various sections of the journal. I like the color. I’ll probably never like all of the poetry but that’s because I’m a Robert Service sort of guy.
Thank you for realizing that serious reading does not have to be dull and unattractive. Beauty is worth its cost in everything!
Robert L. Morris
I love the new look of First Things. The covers are very attractive and the photography inside is a tasteful improvement that makes my favorite publication even better. I wouldn’t have thought this was possible.
THE PEOPLE’S RESPONSIBILITY
By grounding foreign policy analysis in wider considerations of political philosophy in his “The Morality of Self-Interest” (June/July 2010), David P. Goldman has performed a valuable service, but his treatment of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars raises further questions. He supports both interventions but also believes that the United States “overreached when it occupied both countries in order to foster democracy.”
What then should we have done? After forcibly removing the Iraqi and Afghan governments, did the United States owe the people of Iraq and Afghanistan anything? If so, what is it? From Goldman’s argument, it is unclear what action his Augustinian realism would have prescribed after the tyrants were swept from power. This is not a small omission.
David P. Goldman replies:
Who has moral responsibility for the character of a government, if not the people of a country? Cultures in which individuals feel no responsibility, and will take no risk, for good government lack what we call civic virtue. These are likely to have wicked governments and fail as states. If their leaders threaten the security of the United States, we have a right to remove them from power, but we have neither the obligation nor the ability to transform the civil society of countries with no experience of democracy.
In post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States should have established interim governments that posed no threat to the United States and departed. America may sometimes have to manage the chaos in the interests of its own security. But we cannot do for the people of Iraq and Afghanistan what they will not do for themselves.
On prudential grounds I find it hard to share R.R. Reno’s hope (“Reforming the Health-Care Reform,” June/July 2010) that Obamacare might lead to a strengthened private insurance sector. I agree, however, with his central point, that Christian ethics cannot accept libertarian objections to a governmental role or to the individual mandate, but, nevertheless, libertarian objections have some merit.
It is not morally wrong that price should in part govern some health-care decisions. Most of us have received elective care we would have done without if cost had been a factor. Public and private insurance that hides real costs and gives no reward for avoiding excessive or unnecessary care is part of the problem.
America’s libertarian refusal thus far to create a European-style nanny state has led to the economic growth that enables the United States to afford its more costly system. Not long ago, a premature British infant died because it was one day short of the gestational age at which it could have received care. At the hospital where I serve as a part-time chaplain, that same infant, uninsured, would have received the finest treatment and likely survived.
Christian moral theology has only begun to examine the dangers of modern statism and its effect on both character and mediating institutions. We have also come up with ways to care—I do not say adequately—for the least among us without a childish belief in the goodness and wisdom of the state. When “we” feel we need to do something, the “we” is not necessarily the federal government. Our democratic and voluntarist instincts are too precious to put at risk, as the current administration is determined to do.
The American health-care system needs attention, but while Obamacare may well help some of the uninsured, and that is good, it will make many other things worse. It will obliterate sensible piecemeal and experimental efforts at reform. It is hard to imagine how it can be salvaged, let alone lead to a strengthened private sector. Put me down on the side of repeal.
Fr. Leonard R. Klein
In “Reforming the Health-Care Reform,” R.R. Reno justifiably recoils from the libertarian impulse to ignore the plight of Americans without regular access to health insurance, but then grossly misrepresents the nature of the problem with American health care, the character of the recently enacted legislation, and the range of other potential solutions.
The source of our health-care woes is the cost of coverage and care, which has been rising far faster than inflation for two decades, increasingly putting health insurance out of the reach of lower-middle-class families and making our health-care entitlements for the elderly and poor unsustainable. In order to allow more Americans to be covered, we have to control costs. Conservative and liberal health-care experts agree on that much.
The question is how. Conservatives tend to argue that the way to reduce costs is through greater price transparency, more competition, and a reform of the incentives in federal law for uncontrolled spending. Combined with subsidized high-risk pools for people with preexisting conditions, these changes would allow many millions more Americans to afford insurance.
Liberals argue that greater regulation of both the practice of medicine and the provision of insurance, combined with a greater socialization of costs, is the only way to control health-care inflation. They have enacted legislation that would keep most of what is wrong with our existing system but add more regulation, mandates, taxes, and government entitlements on top of it; and the next decade would cost a trillion dollars while still leaving 23 million Americans uninsured.
Reno argues this should be welcomed because it could have been worse. “The Democrats did not so much change the American health-care system as pump up everything in an attempt to realize the imperative of universal access.” But preserving and pumping up a failed system—let alone doing so in a way that funds abortion, bankrupts the next generation, and makes any genuine reform far more difficult while failing to reach anything like universal coverage—is hardly a cause for joy or relief. And the fact liberal health reformers, like conservative ones, are motivated by the desire to make coverage more available does not absolve them of the duty to do so responsibly.
The health-care debate presents us with a moral imperative to solve an economic problem. The moral character of the imperative does not eliminate the economic character of the problem and therefore the need for an economically sensible solution. The legislation enacted this spring is neither economically sensible nor morally defensible. There are better ways, but they are not to be found through moral preening and blind hope.
SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND
R.R. Reno replies:
Fr. Klein is surely right to point out the market prices should play some role in rationing health care, but he reads me as defending Obamacare, which was not my intention. I’m in favor of severe criticism of Obamacare. Even its supporters know it is a hopeless mess. But I’m tired of the coulda, shoulda, woulda criticisms. Furthermore—and I apologize to Fr. Klein for putting it so bluntly—the shibboleth of repeal is meaningless when one considers political realities.
No, it’s worse than meaningless. It’s the sort of slogan that makes our society ungovernable. We need the answer to the practical question “What next?” What precise aspects of the 2000-page bill will be repealed? Modified? Strengthened?
As a Catholic, I’m committed to universal access. As a sensible man, I’m interested in workable financing. As a conservative, I’m skeptical of government-run programs. These convictions point toward reform that pushes the private option, which, though heavily regulated (as was the old system by all sorts of indirect means), will allow future reforms to impose market-oriented solutions.
I wish Yuval Levin had designed the health care legislation. We got the poorly designed, budget-busting act because the sensible ideas he and others put forward were never acted upon by the Republican Party, which has approached the problem of universal health care coverage and financing with its head, well, let’s say, in the sand.
Levin writes that the legislation “makes any genuine reform far more difficult,” but for all its faults, Obamacare has forced the issue of universal access. Only now is genuine reform possible.
NOT FOR US TO DECIDE
J.H.H. Weiler’s “The Trial of Jesus” (June/July 2010) describes very well indeed the story of the disregard of the elite religious for the message of Jesus and of his need for punishment, even unto death. The elite religious, and their followers, were under obligation to God, under penalty of death, to uphold the Mosaic Law. Prophets, dreamers, and inciters who led the chosen astray were condemned to death under the Law but made divine, in one specific case only, under another dispensation. That was the will of God.
Support for Weiler’s position is amply evident in the Books of Moses. The common folk frequently wandered away from the demands of the Law. Severe punishment or the threat of death brought them back into the fold. Yet for about three thousand wanderers who participated in the building of a golden calf (possibly an image of the Egyptian bull god Apis), death came swiftly. Also, death came swiftly for the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, for mixing incense—the profane with the holy—at the altar of sacrifice (Lev. 10).
But a puzzle remains: Why did not Aaron die for collecting the gold trinkets with which to build the golden calf? God demanded complete loyalty and obedience. When obedience and loyalty were fulfilled, God granted the children of Israel a land flowing with milk and honey. God’s mercy and his promise led Israel to inherit the land—not at all an easy outcome of such a lengthy and arduous journey.
Weiler’s article has helped me understand more deeply why the Jesus phenomenon is but a moment in the history of such a great people, and why Jesus could never attain the status of a messiah in their midst. However, I cannot understand why some Jews accept Jesus as the Messiah and survive to tell about it.
In his insightful essay, J.H.H. Weiler proposes the argument that Jesus and the group of Jews who participated in his trial both followed the Father’s will. Jesus remained the spotless, sinless sacrificial Lamb, capable of bearing man’s sins on the cross. The Jews who participated in the trial that led to Jesus’ death were following the covenantal obligation (Deut. 13) to reject the prophet of change, who performed signs and wonders.
What about the Jews—Peter, James, John, and Joseph of Arimathea—who followed Jesus and, to some degree, presumably rejected the trial or at least did not cooperate with it? Were these Jews guilty of not following the Father’s path for the same reason the other Jews, lead by Caiaphas, were not guilty?
J.H.H. Weiler’s “The Trial of Jesus” is a fascinating but, to my mind, unsuccessful attempt to square a circle. Jews and Christians share many of the same views on life values, but Judaism and Christianity are irreconcilable as religions.
If we accept that the Sanhedrin was correct in convicting Jesus pursuant to Deuteronomy 13, then the “Jews” (in the Johannine usage) were acting rightly then and later in rejecting Jesus. That is plausible and not inconsistent with Jewish belief.
However, Weiler suggests that at the same time the Sanhedrin rightly convicted him, Jesus fulfilled G–d’s will and brought salvation to the world. This could be consistent with Christian belief except that it leaves Jews outside of the salvation of Jesus but still acting within the will of G–d. Unless Jews are then predestined to damnation—which is surely not Weiler’s thesis—that presupposes Jews find salvation outside of Jesus.
As a Jew sympathetic to, but not convinced by Christianity, Weiler’s thesis is attractive to me—it allows me to be a Jew, reject Jesus, and act according to G–d’s will while accepting my Christian friends are finding salvation through the Jesus I rejected. The trouble is that Weiler’s thesis isn’t consistent with any form of Judaism or Christianity I’m familiar with.
Put otherwise, one can see Jesus as a charismatic but misunderstood teacher within a traditional Jewish context (my own view) or one can see him as the savior of humanity, but one cannot reasonably see him as the savior for Gentiles and a mere test of faith for Jews.
Osgoode Hall Law School
of York University
J.H.H. Weiler reports that his students at NYU Law School “are shocked by the fierce anti-Jewishness of [the Gospel of] John.” He contrasts John with the synoptic gospels, where the religious establishment appears as Jesus’ main enemy, whereas in John “the enemies are for the most part ‘the Jews.’”
The words Jew and Jewish in English translate the Greek word Ioudaios, which also means Judean. Throughout the Gospel of John, Galilee is often opposed to Ioudaia (a territory corresponding roughly to the ancient kingdom of Judah) or Ioudaioi (Judeans, or Jews). Did the bad blood between Judeans and Galileans have roots in the ancient conflict between Judah, that bastion of orthodoxy, and Israel, whose distance from the Temple was felt to be religious as well as social and geographic? Was that conflict still a living reality at the time of Christ, or was it a symbolic allusion that the Evangelist invented and wove into his narrative?
In interpreting the anti-Judaic theme that runs throughout the Gospel of John, what exactly do we mean by “Judaic”: “Judaic” in the sense of Judea, as opposed to Galilee? Or of Jewish, as opposed to Gentile?
The word Roman might serve as a useful analogy. Paul of Tarsus enjoyed Roman citizenship (Acts 22:25–28), but he was far from being a Roman in a geographic or even a social sense. With respect to his religious identity Paul could be called Ioudaios, a word whose polyvalence he uses to his advantage when he chooses it to describe himself to an angry crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 22:3), but he was not Ioudaios in the sense of being Judean. Elsewhere he identifies himself in different religious terms, saying, more precisely, that he is of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin (Phil. 3:5).
J.H.H. Weiler replies:
I cannot answer the two questions posed by the kind letter of Bruno Heidik as regards Aaron and Messianic “Jews.” I am of the view that trying to understand the ways of Providence in individual cases typically ends up in ascribing to the Almighty, the Holy One Blessed be He, human motives and reactions, an almost certain shortcut to a common form of blasphemy.
Brian Potts’ question has been raised by several who have reacted to my essay on the blogosphere and personally. One must tread gently and delicately. At the core of my essay was the proposition that Jesus’ teaching about the law was ambiguous, and that he could most reasonably be understood as affirming the law, and that the changes he wrought as the normal stuff of rabbinical exegesis. If that is how his immediate Jewish followers understood him, they would not be falling foul of the Covenant.
The real challenge comes with the Pauline teachings. There the question remains pertinent till this day. From a Jewish perspective, there can be no ambiguity as to the answer the Covenant dictates.
James Morton is a tad apodictic in his last assertion so I could not follow his “either/or” reasoning. Here too delicacy is called for, though the challenge of my essay to an observant Jew is far less than it may appear to a traditional Christian.
My essay affirms a very orthodox view of Rabbinical Judaism, as our Chukat Olam (eternal law). That law does not require any belief at all about Christianity except the discipline of accepting that it is not for us, blood and flesh, to determine how the Almighty, the Holy One Blessed Be He, may or may not relate to the rest of world. I believe such a discipline is consistent, indeed required, by any view of Judaism.
Nicholas Frankovich’s thesis about St. John is supported by scholars of distinction, but in that part of the essay, my point turns on the perception of the text, justified or otherwise, over the centuries. For it is perception, not essential truth, which oft determines the contours our culture.