Friday, December 6, 2013, 11:53 AM
Phillip, thanks for these profound reflections on how Genesis reveals what is distinct about human sexuality. Your central observation that “mutual help and companionship,” rather than reproduction, is what makes human sexuality distinctively human is urgently relevant to our efforts to advocate humane sexuality in the public square. When dealing with the intersection of Christianity with human culture, the central question is almost always “what does it mean to be human?” When dealing with issues of sexuality, then, we should remember that reproduction is only one part—and not the most important part—of the total union of two human beings in marriage.
This is so urgent because the cultural environment is currently structured in such a way that if we don’t make continual efforts to balance our approach, we will be constantly forced into presenting a radically truncated picture of humane sexuality. As the culture has fragmented, political conflict has displaced deeper and more holistic approaches to culture. This has happened across all issues, but perhaps nowhere more obviously than in issues of sexuality. Political conflict, in turn, requires us to focus on the aspect of sexuality most relevant to law and policy—reproduction. As a result, our neighbors constantly hear Christians talking about marriage and sexuality only as a means to reproduction. Naturally and rightly, they cringe with horror when they hear their marriages described in utilitarian terms, as tools for accomplishing a public policy objective, even an objective so noble as providing a better environment for the upbringing of children.
If Christianity is going to present to the culture a picture of humane sexuality that is plausible and appealing—if it is going to present a picture of humane sexuality that is really humane—Christians need to be aware of the danger of constantly reducing the Christian vision of sexuality and marriage to mere reproduction under the pressure of political imperatives.
Monday, November 25, 2013, 7:00 AM
Bill Gates says art is evil. Terry Teachout says Bill Gates is a barbarian. Jay Greene agrees, and he has the data to prove it.
In support of his view that art is evil, Gates cites the utilitarian philosophy of Peter Singer, who openly favors infanticide. I believe it was Hans Urs von Balthasar who said that those who refuse to give the beautiful independent value alongside the true and the good lose, in the end, not only their capacity to appreciate beauty but even their capacity for truth and goodness.
Thursday, November 21, 2013, 4:00 PM
A scholar of early modern political thought once commented that reading Locke’s critique of Filmer is like watching a wolf tear up a teddy bear. Much the same could be said of Glenn Moots’ review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Moots invests in the task of exposing Pinker’s inadequacies a level of effort and attentiveness that are ludicrously out of proportion to Pinker’s deserts—but then, that’s what makes the review so much fun.
Moots is right that the basic problem in the thought of Pinker, as of contemporary secularist ethical and political thought in general, is the “inability to distinguish survival from flourishing”:
The highest calling for a man or woman is to survive and freely engage in those activities enabling one’s genetic desire for survival to trump the genetic desire for violence. In one of his frequent episodes of rhetorical self-indulgence, Pinker commends George Carlin’s model man who spends all day on the couch watching TV while fondling himself. After all, Pinker echoes Carlin, he isn’t causing any trouble (622). To make way for Fondling Man, the highest form of the human species, Pinker attacks the two virtues that might most infringe on his pleasure: religion and honor.
One sees the same thing in figures as different from Pinker as Rawls and Cass Sunstein. Despite all efforts to incorporate other goods into the utilitarian calculus, the only goods that are ever really the subject of any attention are those that facilitate survival. I believe Allan Bloom was the first to point out that if Rawls had really thought through his idea that the means to the enjoyment of life should be equitably redistributed, he would advocate the policy depicted in Aristophanes’ Ecclesiazusae, in which beautiful people are required by law to have sex with ugly people. Subsequent theorists have acknowledged the intellectual problem and offered no solution, yet no one seems to think this detracts from the theory. Survival and money (the means to survival) are what these people really care about. Pinker’s sole virtue is that he acknowledges openly the crass utilitarian calculus that is really going on in contemporary ethics.
That said, I do wish Moots had done more to challenge Pinker’s one-dimensional account of “modernity.” The modern world is not simply the rationalistic or secularistic world; to say that it is concedes unnecessary ground to what Moots calls Pinker’s “triumphal narrative.” The view that absolutely everything that happens in the world is ultimately the result of which epistemological system is favored among the tiny minority of people that pays attention to epistemological systems is held by a surprising number of religious people but is implicitly irreligious. Just as economic determinism presupposes that the body is the essence of the human person, epistemological determinism presupposes that the brain is the essence of the human person—a view that is one of the essential foundations of scientism. But if a human being is a soul, body, and mind all together, then religious, economic, and intellectual causes of modernity should all be given due weight. And if we are religious creatures before all else, perhaps the religious causes should be at least moderately prioritized.
Monday, November 4, 2013, 9:17 AM
Perennial embarrassment David Barton, desperate for attention after the humiliating events surrounding his last book, is making noises about running for Senate. Barton “advisor” Rick Green is making statements to the press that reflect all the modesty, self-awareness and mastery of public relations that we’ve come to expect from The David Barton Traveling Medicine Show:
More than 1,000 (zero exaggeration, that is an actual number) tea party and republican party leaders have asked David Barton to run. Polling says Sen. Cornyn is vulnerable and that’s why he is running ads right now. Like America’s Founding Fathers, David Barton will not “seek” this office, but if the people of Texas speak loud enough in the next few days, he could most certainly be drafted in by the voters.
Uh-huh. Given Barton’s history of outrageous fabrication, I wouldn’t bet the ranch on that “actual number.” In fact, it’s noteworthy that in National Review’s coverage of the story, the quotations most effusively praising Barton come from anonymous sources; the quotes from named sources mostly complain about the incumbent and lament that we need a real conservative. I can’t help but wonder why those sources felt the need to stay anonymous. If it turned out that the massive grassroots groundswell for David Barton consisted mostly of the same old David Barton Traveling Medicine Show hyping itself, my world would not exactly be turned upside-down.
While we wait to see whether Barton will answer the people’s desperate cry for a savior, you can while away the time enjoying this video (quotes here) of Barton explaining that global warming is God’s judgment on the world for abortion, and ponder anew why the marriage of evangelical social activism with GOP voter registration is not turning out as happily as either side would have hoped.
h/t: Glenn Moots
Thursday, October 31, 2013, 10:01 PM
Mark, I’m with you all the way on preserving the special protection for religion in law. But I don’t see any difficulty in acknowledging that you can have religion without God, and especially without a specifically theistic conception of God. Is Hinduism not a religion? Buddhism? There is an argument to be made that, for example, some forms of Buddhism are not religions because they deny the supernatural altogether, but that is not the dominant view and to my knowledge never has been, so the burden of proof would be on the person advocating that view; we certainly shouldn’t ask judges to interpret the law based on idiosyncratic meanings of words.
To my mind, the question should not be “what is a religion in general?” but “what makes something a religion for purposes of law?” Behavior would seem to me to be more important than metaphysics.
Granted, giving full weight to the real diversity that exists in human religion makes preserving religious freedom difficult. I think it’s preferable to admit the difficulty than to deny that any non-theistic belief systems are religions.
Monday, October 21, 2013, 10:11 AM
That’s the headline of Anne Hendershott’s must-read piece in Crisis magazine on how Catholic schools across the country are overturning their curricula in the name of obedience to the Common Core initiative, which is nominally state-led but whose contents are effectively controlled by the federal government. Catholic schools are chucking their curricula for Common Core in large part because the organizations controlling the SAT, ACT and GED are all strutting around bragging that they’re all going to be super-duper “aligned” to Common Core, even though nobody really knows what that means at this point because the federally funded assessment consortia haven’t yet released their plans for what national Common Core testing will consist of.
Hendershott points out that in addition to ignoring the wishes of parents, as is also the case with the public schools, the unilateral adoption of Common Core by Catholic schools raises another concern: The bishops don’t seem even to have been consulted, much less have they approved the overturning of the curriculum. So much for religious freedom—it would appear that Catholic schools are now more responsive to the federal government than to the clerical hierarchy.
First Things readers may recall my argument from two years ago that nationalization of education through Common Core would reignite the culture wars. Sure enough, the conflict has become more and more obvious ever since. But I didn’t foresee that Common Core would make such swift headway subverting private, religious schools; that can only bring the conflict to a boil all the more swiftly.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013, 1:33 PM
Over on NRO, Gilbert Sewall takes many words to say what could be said in few: Education policymakers and reformers don’t champion the humanities chiefly because, for all the noise they make about keeping us aware of our higher purposes or enriching us with the noble and beautiful, the humanities as actually taught and studied today have virtually nothing profound or even interesting to say. “The humanities’ diminished state is to a large degree self-inflicted . . . Much of what is rewarded as advanced thinking on campus is undecipherable, trivial, filtered, or capricious. Hiring, tenure, soft money, and university publishing help protect these modes of thought.”
It is ironic that, far from helping us understand what it means to be human, the humanities are deeply dehumanizing. When they are not enslaving us to arbitrary identity categories based on our race, sex, class, and (now) sexual preference, they are exalting the sovereign self and its arbitrary tastes as the measure of all things. Math and science are generally the fields singled out as allegedly hostile to the cultivation of humane life. It’s true that scientific technocracy is a real danger, but it’s not clear to me why a pseudo-scientific reduction of the human being to a mere material body is more dehumanizing, or more on the rise in our culture, than a pseudo-humanist reduction of the human being to a mere receptor of aesthetic stimuli, or a mere participant in identity politics. Indeed, the worst reductionists among the humanities and the worst reductionists among the sciences often join arms and make common cause—we are seeing that now in the Common Core initiative, for example.
The comparison between the humanities and the rising star of STEM education, which Sewall mentions only briefly, is worth dwelling on. Education advocates love STEM primarily because STEM educators by and large actually deliver what they promise to deliver. True, the STEM field could use a bigger vision than it currently has. As Jim Clifton and many others have pointed out, there is an idolatry of the teaching of math and “basic science” in most STEM circles, to the neglect of a more fully realized vision of how the human community benefits from technological progress and the entrepreneurial role of STEM professionals in society. Nevertheless, the key to the popularity of STEM does not lie in the narrow-mindedness of advocates and funders who lack a broader vision of the human; it lies in the fact that STEM educators deliver what they say they will deliver. Humanities educators by and large do not deliver anything they promise—or much of anything else of real value.
Thursday, October 3, 2013, 1:14 PM
James, thanks for investing the effort to so thoroughly debunk the latest nonsense from Jim Wallis. But in addition to substituting ideology for theology, Wallis is also practicing a breathtaking hypocrisy. For years, Wallis has been sanctimoniously denouncing his opponents for their failures of “civility” and demanding a return to “civility.” (See for example here and here; this is also a theme in his books.) Then he turns around and demonizes his opponents, describing them as extremists who oppose even the most basic foundations of human civilization—hostes humani generis, if you will. Alas, this is not his first offense.
When he’s doing his civility shuffle, Wallis likes to quote “blessed are the peacemakers.” As C. S. Lewis remarked about a person not much different from Wallis: “The real pacificus is he who promotes peace, not he who gasses about it.”
Monday, September 16, 2013, 1:34 PM
California is about to open a litigation “window” that temporarily allows victims of sex abuse for whom the statute of limitations has run out to sue the employers of their abusers. The prime target is of course the Roman Catholic Church, with the Boy Scouts also on the radar. Over on NRO, Kevin Williamson notes that California is exempting its own government-run public schools from liability to these lawsuits, even though the available data strongly indicate that rates of sex abuse in public schools are much higher than in churches or any other institution:
In the Los Angeles Unified School District alone some 600 teachers over a four-year period were fired, have resigned, or were facing sanctions because of “inappropriate conduct” relating to students. The lumping of cases together somewhat obscures things: About 60 teachers faced punishment for outright sexual relations with students (or other minors), while others were punished for offenses such as showing pornography to students, forcing students to act out “master and slave” sexual role-play scenarios, taking a student on a field trip to a sex shop, lining girls up in the classroom to judge their relative breast size before having them do jumping jacks, and old-fashioned sexual harassment. Some of these teachers had complaints in their files dating back years that had not been acted upon, while another teacher, in an episode unhappily reminiscent of Catholic priest-shuffling practices, had been in hot water at six different schools for sexual misconduct. If we limit ourselves to those cases of actual sexual relations, then a little crude extrapolation from Los Angeles’s 662,140 students to California’s 6.2 million total public-school students suggests that, in California each year, seven to eight times as much sexual misconduct takes place in public schools as in the Catholic Church.
The double standard is, of course, a result of the stranglehold public sector unions have over California politics. When legislation was introduced to make it somewhat easier (not “easy,” just somewhat easier) to fire teachers with a history of sexual abuse, “the California Teachers Association and other unions presented a united front against a bill passed by the state senate, and it died in the Assembly.” In this, I regret to say, the track record of the CTA is not much different from that of teachers’ unions across the country.
Backfill here and here from Jay Greene, who started raising this issue four years ago.
Friday, September 13, 2013, 2:37 PM
Mark, I have to dissent from your assertion that “cluelessness” is unlikely to be a factor in A&F’s behavior. You write: “You don’t become a successful retailer by being clueless.” Maybe that’s true in most cases, even if it’s not a universal law. However, while cluelessness is not usually a path to success, success is very often a path to cluelessness. Success begets growth. Growth begets bureaucracy. Bureaucracy begets cluelessness. Major corporations do boneheaded things all the time. Just read the business columns. (Not that small businesses are always smart!)
This especially looks to me like a case of dunderheadedness. It involves those two magical, talismanic words: “company policy.” Corporate bureaucracy loves policy; the bigger the bureaucracy the more policy it will have and the more rigidly it will demand conformity. The more rules there are, the more scared everyone will be to stand up and say “stupid rules were made to be broken.” This is not even sinister! It is simply a by-product of the need to control and coordinate large numbers of people. But it does tend to create foolish behavior in increasingly large quantities as the company grows. This is why economies must not only give businesses the freedom to grow, but also give entrepreneurs the freedom to start new businesses that can challenge the stupidity of the titans.
I’m as concerned as you are about a culture where conformity increasingly means discouraging public expressions of faith. But let’s not paint the picture any darker than it really is.
And, of course, let’s acknowledge that if we support businesses claiming the right to have a religious identity, which I think we should, of course this must mean A&F has the same right to define its identity in a way that is not welcoming to headscarves—unless we can find some jurisprudential ground for distinguishing A&F’s desire not to have employees wear headscarves from that of, say, a Christian employer who finds the scarf demeaning to women.
Monday, September 9, 2013, 1:20 PM
I’m very heartened by Mark Noll’s review of George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism, linked in today’s First Links. Other than the subject of politics (I think the significance of political issues both inside and outside the church is a much bigger challenge for Weigel’s analysis than Noll does) the review gets right to core significance of the book for Catholic-Protestant relations. The book and the review are each only one man’s opinion, of course, but in their way they point toward the kind of fruitful engagement that is becoming more and more possible in our time (partly, alas, because the threat of persecution is forcing us to confront these questions more urgently).
I think that in general, there are two older paradigms of Catholic-Protestant cooperation that are inadequate and are falling by the wayside. On the one hand, there is the “let’s stop quibbling over what words mean” school, which fails to acknowledge the legitimacy and the importance of the issues that divide us. It’s pretty clear the opposition to ECT was motivated by the perception—right or wrong—that ECT leaned in this direction and failed to give adequate weight to the anathemas of Trent and the continuing divisions over justification, etc. among our communities.
On the other hand, especially on the Evangelical Protestant side, some practice a strict dualism that compartmentalizes charitable works and social activism from the gospel. Of course we can work together with Catholics to feed the hungry and fight abortion, say Protestant Evangelicals of this school, because that stuff is not about the gospel. More and more people are realizing why this is inadequate; as Weigel and Noll (in their different ways) both remind us, everything is about the gospel. The interaction between Weigel’s book and Noll’s review shows that a golden mean is possible—that we can talk about what we share without either trivializing our differences or giving those differences such urgency that we feel the need to compartmentalize them from daily life.
Wednesday, August 21, 2013, 9:44 AM
B.D., while we may never get a musical version per your suggestion, the debate between Jefferson and Henry over religious freedom and church/state relations in early post-revolutionary America lives on—it’s reenacted every April at Colonial Williamsburg. Drop by any Wednesday afternoon in April (which is “religion month” at CW) to see Jefferson and Henry get up on stage and debate whose bill the Virginia legislature should pass. All the key issues we’re so familiar with are canvassed, in the idiom of these two extraordinary political personages. The interpreters really go at it with gusto.
My favorite moment: at one of the shows I attended, Henry was making his typical argument that society needs to support the church because it is the only institutional source of moral teaching. He suddenly began to burst out: “Where shall we learn morality? From the government? Shall the government teach us frugality? Shall the government teach us honesty? Shall the government teach us self-restraint?” The crowd went wild.
At the end of the presentation, the members of the audience are invited to vote their preference—but only if they are white Protestant males who own at least fifty acres of land (or twenty-five acres of actively farmed land, or any amount of land in Williamsburg or Norfolk) in the state of Virginia. At a typical show, no one is eligible; on one of the occasions I have been present, there was one CW employee in the audience who qualified. He voted with Jefferson.
Even if they’re not qualified to vote, I expect ROFTers would get a huge kick out of it.
Thursday, August 8, 2013, 1:18 PM
Well, B.D., I’m glad to have that settled. As I said at the time, I was open to being persuaded if more evidence or better arguments were presented. Now that new evidence has surfaced, I’m content. (Although I continue to think McGrath jumped the gun by demanding we change the date based on the much shakier evidence he had in hand at the time.)
Several commenters on my original blog post wanted to know why this question matters. Andrew offers a few opinions on that, but to be blunt, my own view is that it matters because getting the facts right is important for its own sake. I believe no one would have championed that view more ardently than Lewis himself.
Speaking of getting the facts right, I have to offer a correction to your post. You write that opposition to placing The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe first in order is “heresy.” It is actually blasphemy. Heresy involves disputes over points of doctrine, whereas blasphemy is an act that profanes the sacred.
Tuesday, August 6, 2013, 10:50 AM
Joe, thanks for bringing this fascinating development to our attention. If faith-based dorms become a model that other schools emulate, it could lead a sea change in the way Americans (both believers and unbelievers) experience college.
Given the increasing level of legal, regulatory and administrative conflict at American colleges over religion, I expect this model will be watched carefully by other schools. Colleges would love to have a way to get rid of the nightmare headaches created by believers. “You want to live Christianly? Go live in the Christian ghetto.” It solves all their problems. I’m surprised nobody’s tried it before now. If it doesn’t get tossed out by courts, or crash and burn in some spectacular fashion, I expect it will be emulated.
I don’t think the legal question is all that hard to settle, at least in principle. The Supreme Court has ruled repeatedly (it just reaffirmed it this past term, if memory serves) that some forms of racial discrimination are permissible in college admissions on grounds that “cultural diversity” is a compelling interest that colleges must be permitted to pursue, even to the detriment of fair play for individuals. By any possible standard, admissions must be more eligible for court scrutiny than dorm arrangements; what’s more, dorm arrangements establish cultural diversity on campus far more clearly than discriminatory admissions do. So if cultural diversity on campus is compelling enough to justify racial discrimination in admissions, it must justify faith-based dorms.
(Unless, of course, the court’s rulings on racial discrimination represent an unprincipled imposition of the justices’ partisan preferences, justified with spurious reasoning that the court would never apply in cases where its political biases were on the other side. But that’s an unthinkable proposition.)
My concern is not so much whether this is lawful as whether it is helpful (I Cor. 6:12). When Christians withdraw into cultural ghettoes, the mainstream culture almost immediately begins to redefine itself against Christianity. (more…)
Friday, June 21, 2013, 10:12 AM
Matthew, that 2008 Campbell study is only one in a long line of empirical studies looking at how religious education (and also secular private education) affect tolerance for the rights of others, as well as other democratic values and practices such as voter participation and volunteer work. The positive impact of religious and private education on civic values and practices is confirmed across the body of studies, giving us a level of certainty that we can never have as the result of just one study. Moreover, some of the studies use random assignment methods, increasing the confidence we can have in the results.
As is always the case in international comparisons, particularly when America is compared to Europe, we must beware of comparing apples and oranges. The public/private distinction does not line up with the religious/secular distinction in Europe the way it does in America. Still, it is undeniable that the president’s comments regarding Ireland’s schools resonate with a smear campaign, now in the closing phase of its second century, to demonize private and religious schooling in the United States. From the Know-Nothings forward, we have never been free of the great lie that private religious schools undermine tolerance—a lie that was false when it was deployed by Protestant bigots against private Catholic schools, and remains false today when deployed against all private schools by teacher’s unions whose professional mission is to keep their gravy trains running on time by destroying children’s lives.
The classic review of this evidence is Patrick Wolf’s article “Civics Exam.” Some studies too recent to be mentioned in Wolf’s article are mentioned in my recent overview of the research on school choice, titled “A Win-Win Solution.”
There are several good reasons that could explain why private schooling produces more tolerant a democratic citizens.
1) A large body of very high-quality evidence establishes that private schools are better at teaching academic subjects like math and reading. Why would we not expect them to be better at teaching tolerance? They’re better at teaching.
2) The fact that the school is chosen establishes alignment between parents and schools. Sociologists report that kids getting the same messages from multiple authorities consistently is important to effective moral formation.
3) Assigned public schools cannot situate moral messages in a deep view of the universe because families are forced to send their children there. They can yell at kids to be tolerant (and be honest, diligent, etc.) but they can’t explain why in any but the most mechanistic, reductive terms. Private schools are allowed to know how the universe works and what the meaning of life is, and that makes effective moral formation possible. This doesn’t always mean a religious view; it just means they’re allowed to be human and not just bureaucratic.
School choice is one of the best things we can do for democracy.
Monday, June 3, 2013, 12:15 PM
David and Collin, I think the connection between Calvinism and the Baptist heritage is more than just about historical overlap. The question of just how much those two categories really overlap in history is very hotly contested, but that’s not the only reason to bring other dimensions into the discussion.
To the question, “why Calvinist Baptists rather than Lutheran Baptists?” we might add the question “why Arminian Baptists rather than Lutheran Baptists?” You’re right that there is a lot of important overlap between Calvin’s soteriology and Luther’s—although the differences, such as how we account for the lost relative to God’s decree, are worth noting. But the Lutheran tradition did not maintain the robust Augustinianism of its founder; under the influence of Melanchthon and others it quickly became mostly what we now call Arminian. So why do we now speak of that view as the Arminian view rather than the Lutheran view, when in fact Melanchthon and other Lutherans reached it first? You could of course reply once again by tracing historical events, and that would be valid but I think there is more to the story.
I think there are specific things about the Calvinist version of Augustinian soteriology that made it more likely, and still make it more likely, than Lutheran or Anglican versions to find acceptance in Baptist or Free Church traditions. And I think this also explains why Baptists who are not Calvinists are Arminians—what distinguishes Arminianism from the Lutheran or Anglican versions of that soteriology is that it arose among a confessionally Calvinist church, as a specific response to Calvinism, and thus shares some of the methodological qualities of Calvinism even though it disagrees theologically.
(As a side note, but one with a lot of relevance here, the question “What is Calvinism?” is an old one and there has never been any consensus about it. Enough people use “Calvinism” to refer solely to the soteriology that has developed in the theological school that traces its roots through Calvin (and others, such as Augustine and Luther) that you can’t really call it wrong to use the term that way. But enough people use “Calvinism” to refer to the coherent whole of Reformed theology as it developed after Calvin (such as one finds in the Westminster standards) that you can’t really call that use wrong, either. And enough people use it to refer to the thought of John Calvin the individual, without reference to theological traditions either before or after, that this use is also in bounds. (more…)
Friday, May 31, 2013, 3:53 PM
Micah, I’m fascinated by this discussion of negative book reviews. I had taken it for granted that the reviewer’s task is to evaluate—making allowances for reasonable differences of opinion and taste, of course, and trying to be of service to a diverse population of book-buyers rather than only those who are very much like you, but still offering an opinion rather than a mere book report. One of the most important services the reviewer provides is to direct book-buyers to good books and away from bad ones. Joyce Carol Oates’ suggestion that reviewers must get their own opinions out of the way as much as possible in order to empower the reader to make his own decision strikes me as exactly backward; my job as a reviewer is indeed to help the reader decide whether he would get his money’s worth out of the book, but to do that I have to give my opinion. I really have nothing else to provide.
Oates’ position seems to me to follow from the whole 20th century aspiration for neutrality—that if something is to be shared across many people, it must strive to be “neutral” morally, culturally, religiously, etc. That which takes a firm stand (on anything) must by definition close off communication and ghettoize social life. Of course the truth is exactly the other way around. We only really communicate when we say what we think! It is the failure to argue and disagree that leads to social estrangement and conflict.
Particularly in this era of Google Books and Amazon previews, Oates’ position suggests the review is now obsolete—you’d do better just to read the easily (and legally) excerpts available on the web for virtually all newly published books.
My favorite comment on book reviewing comes from C.S. Lewis’ diatribe against liberal theology and higher criticism. Lewis takes it for granted that the function of the reviewer is criticism; “evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written.” His complaint is that they don’t do their jobs:
All this sort of criticism attempts to reconstruct the genesis of the texts it studies; what vanished documents each author used, when and where he wrote, with what purposes, under what influences—the whole Sitz im Leben of the text….
What forearms me against all these reconstructions is the fact that I have seen it all from the other end of the stick. I have watched reviewers reconstructing the genesis of my own books in just this way.
Until you come to be reviewed yourself you would never believe how little of an ordinary review is taken up by criticism in the strict sense: by evaluation, praise, or censure, of the book actually written. Most of it is taken up with imaginary histories of the process by which you wrote it. The very terms which the reviewers use in praising or dispraising often imply such a history. They praise a passage as ‘spontaneous’ and censure another as ‘laboured’; that is, they think they know that you wrote the one currente calamo and the other invita Minerva.
What the value of such reconstructions is I learned very early in my career. I had published a book of essays; and the one into which I had put most of my heart, the one I really cared about and in which I discharged a keen enthusiasm, was on William Morris. And in almost the first review I was told that this was obviously the only one in the book in which I had felt no interest. Now don’t mistake. The critic was, I now believe, quite right in thinking it the worst essay in the book; at least everyone agreed with him. Where he was totally wrong was in his imaginary history of the causes which produced its dullness.
Well, this made me prick up my ears. Since then I have watched with some care similar imaginary histories both of my own books and of books by friends whose real history I knew. Reviewers, both friendly and hostile, will dash you off such histories with great confidence; will tell you what public events had directed the author’s mind to this or that, what other authors had influenced him, what his over-all intention was, what sort of audience he principally addressed, why — and when — he did everything.
Now I must first record my impression; then distinct from it, what I can say with certainty. My impression is that in the whole of my experience not one of these guesses has on any one point been right; that the method shows a record of 100 per cent failure. You would expect that by mere chance they would hit as often as they miss. But it is my impression that they do no such thing. I can’t remember a single hit. But as I have not kept a careful record my mere impression may be mistaken. What I think I can say with certainty is that they are usually wrong.
Thursday, May 16, 2013, 10:00 AM
Robert, one of the most important things about that excellent Charles Capps article you point us to is that it reminds us of the possibility of a stable compromise in the marriage debate. This need not be a war to the death where one side or the other gets everything it wants. Capps is showing the opportunity-seeking mindset we need to find a better way forward.
Capps argues that we should develop separate social institutions to handle two things which heretofore have both been handled by marriage: the social needs of the natural family, and the social needs of groups (whether in a sexual relationship or not) who cohabit and share assets. We seem to be entering a period of history where, in contrast to the previous period, significant numbers of people will cohabit and share assets without forming natural families. Mere justice, Capps argues, demands that we develop social institutions to serve the legitimate needs of these non-familial cohabiters (that’s my term, not Capps’; let’s call them NFCs for lack of something better).
I see three issues that will need to be tackled for this to become a viable way forward. One is that NFCs who are in a sexual relationship may have social needs different from those who are not. I’m not sure this problem is big enough to need to be addressed, but at the least we need to think about it. Sexuality has social consequences other than babies, and one traditional function of marriage has been to channel sexual behavior for legitimate social reasons other than childrearing. Capps argues that one reason redefining marriage to include gay couples fails to do justice to NFCs is that it doesn’t provide for the legitimate social needs of NFCs who are not in a sexual relationship; this is true, but developing a social institution that lumps all NFCs together may fail to provide for all of society’s necessary interests in channeling sexuality.
A bigger issue is what we call the proposed new social institution. The real value of Capps’ idea as a way forward is that it names reality in a new way to accommodate the changing needs of justice. But one of the key sticking points in the marriage debate is that advocates of gay marriage believe that gay people need marriage to participate in society on equal terms as first-class citizens. They don’t want a two-tier system where their unions are a “silver medal” for those who don’t choose the natural family. So this new name for the reality of NFCs cannot be something that suggests it’s a sort of secondary appendage to marriage.
This leads me to what is perhaps the most important issue: how natural families would be treated under the new system Capps is proposing. As I see it, his proposal is a lot more likely to be adopted if it handles all cohabiting and asset-sharing through one institution, which natural families and NFCs would all participate in on the same terms. Then marriage would be an additional institution which, legally, would exist solely to handle the unique needs of childrearing. Of course, outside the legal realm we would continue to view marriage more holistically, as a metaphysical union that expresses the love of Christ and his people; I’m only talking about changing what marriage involves legally. I would not see this as a “redefinition” of marriage, but as a constructive reform that brings our legal arrangements more fully into alignment with the reality of 1) which aspects of marriage must involve the law and which need not, and 2) which aspects of marriage involve the law in ways unique to marriage, as opposed to claims on the law that marriage shares in common with non-marital social needs.
Capps’ proposal may not be likely to resolve our marriage debate in the short term. But it may be the seed of an idea that could grow into a viable social compromise for our children’s time.
Monday, April 15, 2013, 10:58 AM
Perhaps you’ve heard about the MSNBC promo—part of its “Lean Forward” series—in which Melissa Harris-Perry asserts that “we have to break through our, kind of, private idea that kids belong to their parents or kids belong to their families.” Commenting on the promo in his e-mail newsletter the G-File , Jonah Goldberg makes a fascinating point: Where are all these “no such thing as someone else’s child” people in the Kermit Gosnell case?
The most remarkable thing no one has remarked upon, as far as I can tell, is the disconnect between the Melissa Harris-Perry view about socializing children and what I think we can call the Melissa Harris-Perry view about privatization of snipping the spines of babies. If we all own everyone else’s children, then Kermit Gosnell killed—barbarically slaughtered, actually—Harris-Perry’s babies. Why isn’t she angry about that?
Elsewhere on NRO, Peter Kirsanow demolishes the idea that the media blackout in the Gosnell case might be partly excused as a symptom of excessive racial sensitivity:
To this, most may be prompted to repeat Hillary Clinton’s infamous response, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” Scores of babies were allegedly slaughtered and women horribly brutalized. The race of the victims is, or should be, irrelevant.
One point Kirsanow doesn’t make, but could have: Some white people support abortion rights precisely because it disproportionately affects minorities. Ruth Bader Ginsburg edged toward this view in an interview with the New York Times in 2009:
Frankly I had thought that at the time Roe was decided, there was concern about population growth and particularly growth in populations that we don’t want to have too many of.
“That we don’t want to have too many of.” Just a quick reminder, in case you’ve forgotten: Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a sitting justice of the United States Supreme Court.
Far from being an excuse, the race factor, if anything, makes the media all the more culpable.
Tuesday, April 2, 2013, 10:15 AM
This Easter I’m reflecting on how much ground we Evangelicals still have to recover in connecting our faith to the institutions of human civilization. We make this connection in a few isolated cases, especially marriage (as recent headlines have reminded us). But the empty tomb and the series of events that followed it—the appearances of the resurrected Christ, the Great Commission, the Ascension, Pentecost—stand in my mind as a marker of just how far we have to go. The full reality of the resurrected Christ demands a full transformation of every aspect of our lives, and that cannot happen apart from participation in the social order and even efforts to reform that order itself. The reflections below were generated in the context of my work as part of the “faith and work” movement, reconnecting Christianity to our daily work and to the economy as a whole, but they’re generalizable to other kinds of social institutions as well.
The empty tomb—a new life of victory. If the text of the New Testament says anything at all, it says Christians are not only to repent from sin, but enter into a new and Spirit-transformed life. It seems to me that the resurrection provides the Christological basis for this imperative; it carries us beyond the atonement for sin into the new life of victory over sin. Another way of saying this is that the empty tomb proves sin is not only atoned for but also defeated. This is why Paul says our faith is worthless if we deny the resurrection. In the last century, too many of us Evangelicals have been content to offer a “fire insurance” faith; make your decision for Christ and receive your Get Out of Hell Free card. This problem is not only about achieving an ethical standard in our own lives (“personal holiness”) but also about our influence in society. When we don’t live out the resurrection victory, we don’t manifest the Spirit in the way we live our lives in human civilization. Today it has become commonplace for Evangelical leaders to bemoan this “cheap grace,” but the chorus of voices bemoaning it has not yet translated into an effective solution to the problem.
The appearances—Incarnation as permanent reality. Living out our redemption means overcoming the dualistic thinking that keeps the gospel in a box labeled “church activities, missions, social programs, etc.” The rest of life—our daily work in homes, workplaces and neighborhoods—gets cut off from the gospel. Evangelicals love to challenge “dualism.” We use that term like it’s a swear word. And rightly so! (more…)
Thursday, March 28, 2013, 3:29 PM
Matthew, what I find most fascinating about those Randinalia is how they reveal her irrationality. Her responses are not even remotely tracking the actual content of Lewis’ argument; they’re more like conditioned reflexes than reasoning. It’s clear that she perceives how Lewis’ argument is a deadly threat to all she holds dear (Victor Reppert called it “C.S. Lewis’ Dangerous Idea”). This perception cannot possibly be irrelevant to the fact that she so willfully misconstrues what he says, distorting it out of all recognition in her own mind. It’s the argumentative equivalent of putting your fingers in your ears and shouting, “la la la, can’t hear you!”
Even on the points where Lewis’ argument is weakest (such as his association of modern science with demonology), in her eagerness to make Lewis out to be a fiend Rand throws away all the really useful argumentative weapons she might have deployed against him. If she had only had the self-discipline to track his argument accurately, she could have demolished it. It reminds me of a line from Pascal: The habitual liar cannot tell the truth even when doing so would be to his advantage.
The title of your post was well chosen. She didn’t hate the argument because she thought it was false; she thought it was false because she hated it. Alas, this was all too characteristic.
Monday, March 11, 2013, 1:11 PM
I have to question Alister McGrath’s insistence (linked in this morning’s First Links) that the date of C.S. Lewis’ conversion “clearly needs review.” Lewis recounted in his autobiography Surprised by Joy that he converted to theism—not Christianity, yet—during “Trinity Term 1929,” that is, between April 28 and June 22. McGrath’s four reasons for demanding Lewis’ recollection must be challenged are as follows:
- There was “no sign of a significant change in tone or mood” of his works at the time.
- His correspondence at the time of his father’s death in September “makes no reference at all to any impact of a belief in God.”
- Lewis wrote to Owen Barfield in a state of spiritual crisis, sounding like he was coming up upon a conversion but not yet converted, on Feb. 3, 1930.
- The changes in behavior Lewis attributes to his conversion (such as attending chapel) suddenly start showing up in his letters in October 1930.
There are several problems with this. A conversion does not always translate into speech and action immediately. Even when Lewis identifies changes that followed his conversion, he doesn’t say they happened right away. Such a gap may be particularly likely to be present in this particular conversion. Most important, this was an intellectual conversion. He changed from believing in the pantheistic god of English Hegelianism to the transcendent god of Berkeley (a figure he identifies in Surprised by Joy as representing the view he changed to and the reasons for it) but not yet to the revealed God of the Scriptures or the history-changing God of G.K. Chesterton or the heart-transforming God of George MacDonald.
Also, he writes in Surprised by Joy that he was relationally estranged from his father and ashamed to admit to his friends and academic colleagues the truth about his selfish life; this may have slowed the process of communication. Plus, we know that in general the pre-conversion C.S. Lewis was (how shall we put this delicately?) a man who knew how to compartmentalize his emotions. Moreover, I beileve (under correction from McGrath or any other scholars who know this better than I do) that we do not have reliable information about the dates of Lewis’ progress from theism to Christianity. Who is to say the conversion he was beginning to experience in 1930 wasn’t this latter conversion? That would make sense of the evidence.
Granted, Lewis wrote Surprised by Joy two decades after the fact and had confessed to difficulty with dates, so the presumption in favor of his recollection is not especially strong. Still, the very fact that he usually doesn’t give dates for these movements and does give a date in this case adds some strength to it.
McGrath has done a great deal of historical study that I haven’t done, so I’m perfectly ready to be convinced by him. But he’ll have to come up with better evidence than he has so far presented.
Tuesday, February 26, 2013, 5:17 PM
Anna, I appreciate this exchange on income inequality and executive pay. I agree with you that “the rise in executive pay is due to many factors, not merely to an increase in their productivity or abilities.” My point was that the increase in their abilities has been so dramatic that it was going to confront us with this question of long-term income inequalities regardless of the impact of other factors.
Based on what you write, I would identify two main points of disagreement. (I would also quibble with some of the factual assertions you quote from outside sources in your post, but that’s not really worth getting into.)
1) Your whole post is predicated on the assumption that to whatever extent you can show a failure of rationality on the part of the buyer (in this case, the company, which is purchasing the executive’s work), to that extent you have demonstrated that the price is not rationally related to the real value of the thing being purchased. This assumption comes through clearly in the hinge of your argument, which is your statement that “if that rise is not merely the result of executive talent or the natural move of the free market, then we could try to rein in CEOs’ compensation without suffering dire economic consequences.”
The assumption is false. It stems from a conflation of the subjective rationality of the buyer with the objective operation of the price system (more…)
Thursday, February 21, 2013, 10:16 AM
Anna, as a general matter, changes in social stigmas tend to be the results of changes in underlying social conditions more than their causes. The vanishing stigma on divorce, illegitimacy, etc., which you mention, is one case in point. To some extent a reduction in the stigma preceded the change in policy (redefining marriage in law from a permanent bond to a meaningless piece of paper) and facilitated it. However, the causation in the other direction was much more powerful. The stigma against divorce declined much more after divorce was redefined in law (as a result of that redefinition) than it did before it (as a cause).
The topic of income disparities is another example. If you want to understand this phenomenon, you have to start with the fact that the aggregate inequality numbers everyone’s freaked out about are really driven by an explosive growth in incomes for a tiny number of people. A combination of very long-term structural and cultural changes (most of them good, such as greater freedom to choose marriage partners and greater educational opportunities) is coming together to dramatically increase both the development and the economic deployment of certain highly specialized human abilities. Most of these gifts fall into one of two categories: various forms of the ability to create and use systems of symbols (such as images, words and mathematical formulae) and various forms of the ability to predict and influence human decisionmaking. A small portion of the population possesses these gifts in extreme measure, and our civilization is getting better and better at helping this population nurture their gifts and put them to good use in ways that (in most cases) bring incalculable benefit to all of us.
No force on earth is going to prevent those people from making very large sums of money. It’s quite simple: The number of people in the world who are capable of doing a good job running Apple or Exxon or Wal-Mart is extremely small; the consequences of those companies being poorly run would be catastrophic for millions of people; therefore the tiny group of people capable of running those companies well is going to command extreme salaries. This would be true regardless of our economic system, law, policy, or what set of moral values predominated in the culture.
While Lindsey is right that hatred of the social outsider did create some stigmatization (more…)
Monday, February 11, 2013, 5:46 PM
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R.R. Reno’s article about the culture war today—that the Democrats are becoming the party of culture war, a transition confirmed by the decreasing power of economic interests in the party—is further confirmed by this observation: The Republicans are becoming the party of economics. They’re not going to drop their social conservatism, but if you’ve been keeping track of the conversations about the future of conservatism and the Republican party (which are two distinct but not entirely separate conversations), maybe you’ve noticed that the conversation is all around reframing the movement’s and the party’s economic message in various ways. To the extent that social issues are discussed at all, it hasn’t really gotten beyond “don’t say stupid things about rape.” The usual chorus of libertarians complaining that the social conservatives have to be kicked out of the movement/the party, while present, has been surprisingly marginal. All the real conversation is about how to deliver a message of economic hope that resonates with people who haven’t made it yet—as Ted Cruz famously put it, to counter “you didn’t build that” not with “you built that” but with “you can build that.” Or as Henry Olsen put it, to stop talking about free enterprise in ways that sound like it empowers management at the expense of labor.
The big question to my mind is whether the GOP follows the pattern of the Democrats in the last generation and becomes a party of economic interests, or manages to find a voice for an economic ideal that can at least partially subordinate those interests. That, in turn, will probably be settled by the outcome of the distinct-but-not-separate conversation going on in the conservative movement.