MFA OR NOT?When I met Randy Boyagoda, I told him that I was pursuing an MFA in fiction and he genially disapproved: “No! Why?” I forget what I answered. But most MFAs, when surveyed, will say, “I want time to write.” Any MFA program worth getting into will give you a reasonable stipend for two or three years and little to do for it but write, read, and teach fiction. It’s a better deal than you are likely to get again—and one that seems compatible with Boyagoda’s prescription (“If you want to write, then write”) in “Write Away” (August/September).Unless you fear the institutionalization of your creativity. I have to say, I don’t. Boyagoda is certainly accurate in his enumeration of the defects of today’s literary fiction: its mundanity, its straitened vision, its shying from “Big Questions.” But these surely are a subset of the broader, baffling trend whereby artists and writers have become monotonously secular, liberal, and (incidentally) shallow. Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, Boyagoda’s Exhibit A, is not an MFA product; it only looks like one. (Or is it that MFA products only look like Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch?) Our literary fiction would be what it is in an America without MFA programs.As Boyagoda notes, the great writers of the twentieth century worked in fields such as publishing and journalism—whereas today, he argues, our literary writers must make their way in the academic fiction complex. Within this complex, everyone has to worry about offending workshop classmates and (later) tenure committees, so no one wants to go big or bold like Bellow. Continue Reading »
Faith, Fiction and Force in Medieval Baptismal Debates
by marcia colish
cua, 384 pages, $69.95 B aptism seems so simple: water and the formula “In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” But like so many religious practices, it can be celebrated in different ways, with divergent meanings, and with conflicting motivations. In the mission field, some are drawn to baptism for access to the medical, educational, or economic benefits offered by membership in a Christian community. Today such people are called “rice Christians,” but in earlier centuries the term was “fictive” baptism, i.e., submitting to the ritual of baptism without moral or spiritual conversion. The validity of fictive baptism was debated extensively by theologians and canonists. One of the earliest instances is a story about a group of boys “playing church” on the beach near Alexandria. The bishop, Alexander, saw them from a distance and was astonished that they went through the ritual of baptizing one of the group. The boy who performed the baptism was Athanasius, the future bishop of Alexandria and great defender of the creed of Nicaea. After asking the boys some questions, Bishop Alexander learned that water had been poured on the “catechumen” and the proper questions had been asked and answered. After consulting with his clergy, Alexander ruled that it had been a valid baptism and need not be repeated. For centuries, this tale was the basis for discussions of “fictive” baptism. Continue Reading »
no disciplineI am writing to express my shock and disappointment at the profanity in the article “Freedom Within the Disciplines” (June/July). The word “bullshit” appears multiple times. I have encountered this word and its ilk in the New Yorker, Fast Company, and The Economist, but I didn’t expect to see you sink to such a community. I expect First Things to be a magazine of piety and civility, a publication I don’t mind our children and grandchildren leafing through. Now I find that I must read quickly through your issues to see if you are promoting language that is offensive to me and my family.I can’t understand the attitude toward your readers this article conveys. I can only promise that if you send me another issue including a profanity-laced article, I will immediately cancel my subscription and terminate all financial support.
bethesda, maryland Continue Reading »
DEFENDING ORTHODOXYMykhailo Cherenkov’s pain and anger are deeply personal (“Orthodox Terrorism,” May). Anti-Ukrainian separatists have occupied the Baptist university that he used to head in Donetsk. They have also taken over forty Protestant churches in eastern Ukraine and have killed or detained at least twenty-seven Protestant leaders. A senseless war has claimed thousands of lives and created hundreds of thousands of refugees.Russia’s actions against Ukraine, however, can hardly be reduced to Patriarch Kirill’s notion of the “Russian world.” The Russian state has never been happy with the idea of an independent Ukraine. Realpolitik plays a much larger role than the Church in Putin’s calculations. And while some separatists speak of a holy war, Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Onuphrius have not endorsed the separatists’ violence and have repeatedly called for peaceful resolution of the conflict.To be sure, one wishes that the Moscow Patriarchate would publicly condemn political misuses of Orthodoxy and vigorously defend freedom of religion. But the relation of the Russian Orthodox Church to Ukraine is complicated by the painful experience of schism, a phenomenon that should trouble Protestants more than it generally does. Ukraine’s other major Orthodox body, the Kyivan Patriarchate, broke away in 1991, taking several thousand parishes and priests. It would gladly become Ukraine’s new national church, and it has not hesitated to bless Ukrainian soldiers and weapons against the separatists. Nevertheless, Cherenkov’s forceful charges are best met not by efforts to spread blame around, but rather by self-examination and repentance. That would be painful but not impossible.After the fall of communism, some Russian Orthodox leaders came to see the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution as divine judgment on a Church and nation that were more Christian in name than in reality. Events in Ukraine now challenge the Church in Russia to reconsider its theology of culture, which does not always make clear the difference between cultural Orthodoxy and Christian faith.I know many people in the Russian Orthodox Church who are trying to be thoughtful about these matters. In listening to Cherenkov, we should be aware of them, too.
John P. Burgess
pittsburgh theological seminary
pittsburgh, pennsylvania Continue Reading »
by robert zaretsky
harvard, 288 pages, $26.95 When James Boswell met Voltaire, he was not content to pass on after a few pleasantries. Sitting in the French philosophe’s chaletin Ferney, Boswell pressed him to declare whether he believed in immortality and eternal life. Bantering and batting away questions as long as possible, Voltaire finally conceded, “I suffer much, but I suffer with Patience & Resignation: not as a Christian—But as a man.” Boswell himself suffered as a man, especially from the gonorrhea he contracted in the course of a too-active social life. But unlike Voltaire, he also suffered as a Christian. Boswell was riven with contradictions: delighting in lust and analyzing his sexual performances with a variety of women, yet speaking often of virtue; self-analytical to a fault and anxious, yet socially capable and successful; religious from birth, yet attracted to the atheist and deist thinkers of the day. Continue Reading »
A First Things symposium on how to respond to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Obergefell. Continue Reading »
At its General Convention this summer, The Episcopal Church (TEC) will consider a resolution to amend the church’s canons to allow same-sex couples to marry. The denomination’s official Task Force on the Study of Marriage has proposed replacing language in its canons drawn from the famed “Dearly beloved” opening exhortation of the marriage service in The Book of Common Prayer, which asserts that “the union of husband and wife” is intended, when it is God’s will, “for the procreation of children.” By excising the requirement that Christian marriage be a “a lifelong union between a man and a woman,” along with the Augustinian tradition’s second good of marriage, offspring,from the list of “purposes for which it was instituted by God,” marriage would be defined as open to same-sex couples whose sexual unions are not biologically fruitful. Continue Reading »
Love Is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive
prepared by the archdiocese of philadelphia and the pontifical council for the family
our sunday visitor, 128 pages, $9.95 Love Is Our Mission, a preparatory catechesis on family tied to the Catholic Church’s upcoming World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, begins exactly as it should: with Jesus revealing that being created in the image and likeness of God means being created to offer others the gift of ourselves. The sexual difference between men and women is deeply connected to this giving. One of the catechesis’s virtues is the way it treats not only sex but also celibacy as open to this giving—and not just the celibacy of professed religious but the far more common celibacy of those who are unmarried but seeking to live chaste lives. For both celibates and married persons, “the internal motion of soul, the heart’s offering of itself, is similar at its core.” We might think that Christian married couples have more in common with other married couples of different values, whereas celibacy is a much different vocation. In truth, the catechesis notes, “a happy marriage—the kind that endures over a lifetime—has more in common with the generous, patient, self-giving powers of celibacy than what Pius XII called ‘a refined hedonism.’” Marriage also includes openness to procreation and to the purpose of parenting, which is to prepare children to become saints. After articulating this vision of sexuality and the human person, the catechesis treats the more controversial topics, including contraception, divorce, and same-sex marriage. It notes that the Church’s injunction to chastity for Christians is uniform, no matter what sex they are attracted to: “All Christians are called to face their disordered sexual inclinations and to grow in chastity—not a single human individual is untouched by this summons—and hence in their capacity to give and receive love in a manner consonant with their state in life.” Continue Reading »
BARTH'S LEGACY I am grateful to Phillip Cary for his admirable review of my book Reading Barth with Charity (April). I have only one demurral. I would simply like to enter a plea for greater historical consciousness. After all, it has not yet been fifty years since Barth’s death. It seems premature to write him off because he supposedly hasn’t had a major impact yet on the world’s Reformed churches. For one thing, his influence has already been felt. The Book of Confessions of the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A., which is its normative document, includes the “Barmen Declaration,” of which Barth was the principal author. He was also a major source for the PCUSA catechisms (which I helped to write), adopted by the 210th General Assembly in 1998. Besides his own leadership against Hitler through the German Confessing Church, he was a major influence in both South Korea and South Africa in inspiring the Reformed churches to resist, respectively, tyranny and apartheid in those countries, from roughly the 1960s to the 1990s. The World Communion of Reformed Churches has also been greatly influenced by Barth in various ways. The Center for Barth Studies (for which I served as the founding director) at Princeton Theological Seminary gives Barth an ongoing institutional location that is more than merely “academic,” despite Cary’s misperception that Barth has had no significant ecclesial reception. Let’s not forget the historical fate of Thomas Aquinas, who more or less fell into eclipse until the nineteenth century, and for whom we can say that the twentieth century was his biggest moment by far. It seems reasonable to suggest that reports of Barth’s demise, no matter how much certain parties may wish for it, are greatly exaggerated.
princeton theological seminary
princeton, new jersey Continue Reading »
On March 7, 2015, Randy Boyagoda of Ryerson College, R. R. Reno of First Things, and Raymond de Souza and Peter Stockland of Convivium, discussed the legacy of Richard John Neuhaus and the life of magazines in a panel discussion hosted at St-Jean-Baptiste parish of Dominican University College in Ottawa, Ontario. What follows is a selected transcript of their remarks. Continue Reading »