• “Look for a building with a cross on it,” people escaping North Korea for China are told, because Christians are more likely than anyone else to help them escape the Chinese police. The police, reports Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, will send them back to the hell-on-earth that is North Korea, where they will be tortured, thrown into prison camps, or killed. You don’t leave utopia.
Christians will help refugees either merge into Chinese society or get into South Korea. People go to jail for this, mind you. It is cheering to know that Christians in China will risk their freedom for strangers. And cheering that the little religious freedom the government has conceded lets the believers put on their churches a symbol of freedom, a symbol not only to those oppressed by sin but those oppressed by man.
• Yet, and not to carp, when talking about the Chinese Communist Party’s official atheism, Kirkpatrick declares that “Christianity is about the power of the individual.” No, that’s almost the last thing it’s about. That’s Americanism, not Christianity.
Christianity is about the dignity of the individual, whatever happens to him, however powerless he may be. About the God who loves him when he’s down and out. About the resurrection of his tired, beaten body and the life he is given in the world to come.
About, you know, everything that cross North Koreans are told to look for actually means.
• “It’s a great country if you have money,” said the bartender in the Irish pub downtown, shaking his head, while the two men at the bar nodded sadly. Here it comes, I thought, the usual lines about America, the enemy of the poor. “But in this country,” he said, punching his forefinger into the top of the bar, “in this country, a man has opportunity!”
They had been talking about Ireland—they were audibly Irish—and they went on to talk about mortgages underwater and about family and friends without jobs, with no real hope of ever getting another, and the government’s indolence and the way the bankers and politicians who caused the economy to collapse still have jobs—the politicians because they could exploit the anger of people who had lost their livings and the bankers because they could profit no matter what.
They also told stories about family and friends who’d come to America and started at the bottom and worked their way up. They spoke with pride of those who were now contractors and pub owners and carpenters and real estate developers.
Those of us blessed with jobs cannot talk too quickly or glibly about opportunity when so many Americans cannot find work, but it should arrest us to see that, for many people in other countries, America still promises a chance to make a life and a living for themselves and their families.
• Our society has fallen a few steps down the slope towards decadence from the position its predecessors held, but it has also taken a few steps up. We were reminded of this when we stumbled across “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” a startlingly racist 1943 Warner Brothers’ Merrie Melodies cartoon.
And reminded again the same day by an article on cnn.com, describing “the largest mass lynching in U.S. history,” the victims of which were . . . Italian-Americans, in New Orleans in 1891. Nine men were found not guilty of murdering the police chief, after which a mob dragged them and two other Italians from the jail and killed them, after which the police arrested lots of Italian immigrants in the city.
Teddy Roosevelt said the lynchings were “a rather good thing.” The New York Times’ editors called the victims “sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins,” and declared that “lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans.” One of the organizers of the lynch mob later became governor of Louisiana and then described Italians as “just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous.”
And then there’s anti-Semitism. Interviewed in the Tablet, in an article read—and we’re not making this up—the same day, the literary critic M. H. Abrams remembers being told by his advisor at Harvard in the early thirties that the “profession was not open to Jews.”
You can’t imagine a major studio making such a cartoon today, nor Italians being lynched, nor the Times and a governor talking about them like that, nor a Harvard professor telling a student that an academic field is closed to Jews.
You will find bigots who hate blacks, Italians, Catholics, and Jews, and people who don’t hate them but approve the bigots’ stereotypes—these are the people who tell you that they’re simply facing facts or just being honest—but they are not nearly so prominent and influential as they once were. There are some things a man just doesn’t say in public, even if he believes them, and many of those who believe them feel guilty for doing so. You can get fired from conservative magazines for expressing much milder versions of these views.
So some things do get better. That’s something to remember.
• “Alabama’s immigration law, according to Archbishop Thomas Rodi, makes it illegal for a priest to baptize or preach to an undocumented immigrant, to drive him or her to church or to the hospital, to give him or her food or clothing, or even to counsel her against abortion,” writes William W. Chip, responding to a “While We’re At It” item published in the August/September issue. “That is a preposterous mischaracterization of Alabama’s law, and First Things should be more cautious about repeating such incendiary claims.”
We thought we were, actually. Chip argues that the Alabama law only requires what the federal law has required for a century and that the Church hasn’t objected to. And no one has ever been fined or imprisoned for helping an illegal immigrant in the ways the archbishop described.
We see his point, but the law is broadly written, and in the archbishop’s prudential judgment the possibility of such actions is real. We have no reason to doubt his judgment, not least considering the way many people feel about immigrants, even legal ones. It would, after all, have been easy enough to write a law that explicitly excluded humanitarian care.
• That zombie movie? It’s really about you, or so our friend Russell Moore suggests. Christians are “those who were once zombies. We were walking in a kind of living death, driven by our insatiable appetites (Eph. 2:1-3). We were haunted by our demons, and by our future damnation.”
The comment appears on his weblog Moore to the Point, which can be found at russellmoore.com and is highly recommended. If we understand him, Night of the Living Dead offers a kind of pre-evangelization, though we don’t recommend showing it at churches.
• “In the U.K.,” writes Thomas Pink, author of “Conscience and Coercion” in the August/September issue, “I find Anglicans are especially rather shocked and mystified by the whole Roman canonical tradition, and by the absence, it seems, of change in fundamental claims re penal jurisdiction in 1983.” 1983 being the year the new Code of Canon Law appeared, the first revision since 1917.
I’m not surprised. When I’ve tried to explain what the Church actually teaches, with reference to the authoritative texts, two or three people have informed me with great certainty that I am wrong. A very good friend, actually referencing Dominus Iesus, told me that then-Cardinal Ratzinger had said Anglicanism was a church equal to the Catholic Church and that I was imposing my own “fundamentalism” on the liberality of the cardinal in saying that he hadn’t.
Another—explaining that one needs special insight to understand the subtle ways of the Vatican mind—wrote in a popular Anglican forum that in giving the archbishop of Canterbury the same size chair as the pope at some Vatican press conference, the Church was quietly signaling her belief that the archbishop was the pope’s equal. Utterly bats, of course. The way the Vatican is run, they were lucky the chairs matched.
As a former Anglican who spends a lot of time with Protestants, I’ve found over and over that even the well-read ones assume that the Church changed essentially with the Second Vatican Council—believing that the Church has caved on most of the matters important to Protestants. It hasn’t, and we won’t get any closer to each other until the reality of the divide is faced.
• In vitro fertilization, claims the Atlantic’s Megan Garber, has now achieved “cultural normalization,” and the indispensable Ross Douthat responds. True, it has, he says, but then he notes that the people who worried about it were right.
We don’t “decant” our babies in the laboratory, à la Huxley’s Brave New World, but between the embryos we keep on ice and the ones we create and destroy for scientific research, the normalization of paid surrogacy and the freewheeling marketplace in eggs and sperm, we live in a society that has commodified both reproduction and human life itself in ways that would have seemed dystopian, not only to the social conservatives of an earlier era, but to many of its liberals as well.
All of its liberals, actually. Garber herself mentions “advances in stem cell research” as an “achievement” of IVF and therefore an argument against its first critics and their present-day successors like us. The destruction of embryonic human life may be culturally normal, we suppose, with sadness, but it will never be normal under any standard by which men should live.
Douthat goes on to observe that there are advantages to not having experienced the innovation, in being “naive.” “The naive culture hasn’t yet implicated itself in the practice it’s trying to assess. Sometimes it’s easier to recognize the costs of a revolution when you haven’t yet tasted its benefits. And the hardest evils to acknowledge and combat are often the ones whose advantages we can’t imagine living without.”
That people find they’re okay with an innovation their parents or grandparents would have viewed with horror doesn’t mean they’re right. It may mean they haven’t noticed what happened. Not everyone who slides down a slippery slope realizes he’s sliding downhill or minds living among the rubble and trash at the bottom. You can get used to anything.
• We have quoted Ronald Knox before, both because he is so quotable and in the hope that some readers might start reading the most neglected of the twentieth-century apologists. Here, for those who’ve read old-fashioned modernist theology, is Ronald Knox’s “Modernist’s Prayer”:
O God, forasmuch as without Thee
We are not enabled to doubt Thee,
Help us all by Thy grace
To convince the whole race
It knows nothing whatever about Thee.
• In his “A Friendly Dissent from Pentecostalism,” Peter Berger mentions the Calvin College Pentecostal James K. A. Smith, who as it happens wrote a more affirmative article on the subject for us, called “Thinking in Tongues,” back in April 2008. Smith says, among other things, that “a Pentecostal worldview is a sacramental worldview. It emphasizes the goodness, necessity, and instrumentality of material elements. . . . It is in and through such embodiment that God’s Spirit is at work.”
So far so ecumenical. But according to Smith, Pentecostalism takes this in a direction the rest of us probably wouldn’t. “It is precisely this aspect of Pentecostal spirituality that explains why Pentecostal spirituality is also often attended by a prosperity gospel,” he writes. Health-and-wealth preaching is something everyone feels happy to hiss at. It is one of the very few things on which there’s an ecumenical consensus.
Except for the Pentecostals. The prosperity gospel is “a testament to the very worldliness of Pentecostal theology.” It is, Smith argues, “one of the most un-Gnostic moments of Pentecostal spirituality, which refuses to spiritualize the promise that the gospel is ‘good news for the poor’ . . . The implicit theological intuition that informs Pentecostal renditions of the prosperity gospel is evidence of a core affirmation that God cares about our bellies and our bodies.”
We would really, really like to say something patronizing and superior. But on the other hand, this may be a case in which an eccentric tradition has seen and misapplied something more mainstream traditions have not seen or have underestimated. It’s perhaps not the place of the healthy and wealthy to sneer at the aspirations of the poor and their belief that God wants them to have what the middle class takes for granted.
• This from Smith’s essay was, we thought, interesting: “Implicit in Pentecostal practice is a distinct epistemology that privileges an affective mode of knowing. This intuitive, even emotional knowing (‘I know that I know that I know’ is a common Pentecostal testimony) is more literary than logical; we are the kind of creatures who make our way in the world more by metaphor than by mathematics. The way we know is more like a dance than a deduction.”
• Writers, being writers, often insist that they need to do what the editor will not let them do—write a 1,500-word essay in 4,000 words, for example, or write sentences that would have given Proust writer’s cramp. We tell them that the challenge and pleasures of the craft come in doing what you need to do within the restrictions—in saying in 1,500 words what you’d like to say in 4,000. As Chesterton put it, “Art is limitation; the essence of every picture is the frame.”
It’s one of the things that separates the writer from the person who writes. The former thinks of how he is going to say what he wants to say in the form given him and sits down to it the way a chess player sits down to play with the pieces and board in front of him. The latter thinks of what he wants to say and accepts the limitations because he wants to get published, and wonders how he can smuggle an extra queen or two onto the board.
• Our friend Anthony Sacramone, once managing editor of this magazine and now at ISI Books, takes on Joel Osteen, admittedly an easy target, on his weblog Strange Herring.
Osteen recently told a Christian newspaper that his idea of self-esteem is “all based on the Bible” and that his principles “help you to have a good self-image and feel right about yourself, and I think God wants us to feel right about ourselves.”
Anthony is less than moved, though maybe he just doesn’t feel right about himself.
All those Christians in Sudan—and the Middle East and the Far East. Can you imagine them being sustained by this power of positive poppycock? If I really thought the hitherto undiscovered core of the Christian faith was that God wanted me to be the best me I could be, I’d assume that either the Bible had nothing to say about that God or that I’d failed God yet again, and so was not, in fact, the best me I could be but a miserable failure, and so there goes my self-esteem.
Which sends him back to that cross for which the North Koreans have been told to look. Anthony’s weblog, very highly recommended, can be found at strangeherring.com.
• If you wondered, as we did, where the word poppycock comes from, the online dictionaries we consulted all agree that it has something to do with dung (kak in Dutch). Not what we expected. We expected something to do with the flowers.
• Four Anglican bishops serving in northeastern Africa and Cyprus have asked the United Nations for an “international declaration” that “outlaws the intentional and deliberate insulting or defamation of persons (such as prophets), symbols, texts, and constructs of belief deemed holy by people of faith.” They make this proposal in response to the recent movie on Muhammad and “similar offensive incidents [which] have occurred in some European countries” and “evoked massive and violent responses worldwide.”
We understand why they did it, but it’s a very bad idea. For one thing, such a law would violate the Western ideal of free speech and there is a reason that, for all its difficulties, we value free speech.
One of them being that laws restricting it even in the best of causes will quickly be used to suppress not only deliberate insult or defamation but also reasonable criticism and disagreement. One man’s well and kindly argued belief that another man is in error can be to that other man insult and defamation, especially if he has no natural appreciation for the free exchange of ideas. Or has a fanatical belief. Or just a big ego.
Think of someone pursuing higher critical studies of the Qur’an who decides that much of it is made up, the way for two centuries now many people have argued that most of the gospel story is made up. Or of the basic Christian proclamation of the uniqueness of Christ as the Savior of the world, which, however nuanced and with however great an understanding of the value of other religions, still declares that other religions are deeply mistaken. Won’t those claims be taken by some of the followers of the religions criticized as insult and defamation?
And why should only the beliefs of the religious be protected? The “constructs of belief” of secular people would seem to deserve equal protection. Under the principle the bishops have offered, if someone believes that, say, the practice of homosexuality is a human good, he deserves—especially if he is himself homosexual—to be shielded from the insult and defamation of those who insist it isn’t.
Restrictions on free speech only expand. Nearly everyone, understandably, wants his ideas protected and freed from public evaluation. A proposal that begins with the hope that people will stop insulting Muhammad will grow to include limits on all sorts of ideas the proposers never intended.
Except, of course, in the West, where such solicitude for religious (and for secular) feeling will not limit attacks on Christianity. We will not see the concern extending to Islam and even to secular commitments extended, or extended very often or very far, to Christianity.
• Last month we published the provocative essay “Human Unity Real and Imagined” by the French writer Pierre Manent. And, caught up in the process of creating the October issue, we forgot to credit the translator, Mary Ann Glendon, who is not only a distinguished professor at Harvard Law School but a member of our board. She, in fact, first suggested the essay to us. We should also thank Daniel Mahoney, a professor at Assumption College, who as a friend of Manent’s helped with the editing of the essay. Our thanks to them both. We are blessed to have such gifted and energetic friends.
while we’re at it sources: Chinese crosses: ricochet.com, September 23, 2012. Worldly improvements: cnn.com, July 10, 2012 & tabletmag.com, July 11, 2012. Slippery slopes: theatlantic.com, June 25, 2012 & douthat.blogs.nytimes.com, June 26, 2012. Anti-mondernist poetry: In Three Tongues, edited by Laurence Eyres. Chesterton’s frame: Orthodoxy. Outlawed insults: Anglicanink.com, September 17, 2012.
wwai tips: Mark Barrett, William Tighe, & Judy Warner.