Lear vs. Lear

There is a block in Brooklyn where it storms every day—twice a day, on Sundays. It’s been storming since January, and it’ll last till May—and then the storm will spread out all over New York. On one side of the street, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Angus Jackson’s . . . . Continue Reading »

While We’re At It

  • Some aren’t cheering my governor’s brand of liberalism. Some even oppose his efforts to increase access to abortion. Shocking. His diagnosis: “Their problem is not me and the Democrats; their problem is ­themselves. Who are they? Are they these extreme conservatives who are right-to-life, pro–assault weapon, ­anti-gay? Is that who they are? Because if that’s who they are and they’re the extreme conservatives, they have no place in the state of New York, because that’s not who New Yorkers are.” Strange that I wasn’t asked if I agree with Cuomo when I registered to vote. Must have been a clerical oversight.

  • A couple of issues back, I wrote about the paradox of liberalism. What starts out as a campaign for freedom circles around to become a philosophy encouraging state control. That happened in economics. I predicted it would happen in culture. Today’s proponents of liberated personal life will be tomorrow’s advocates of state-sponsored paternalism.

  • James Rogers wrote me, agreeing in the main, but pointing out an important difference. “The analogy between the injury of nineteenth-­century economic laissez-faire and twentieth/twenty-first-century social laissez-faire breaks down at this point: Those trapped by market forces in the nineteenth century knew they were indeed trapped and not free. They recognized, however ­inchoately, that their lives were ­dominated by external forces beyond their control.
    “I dare say, except under the rarest of circumstances, the victims of social laissez-faire do not recognize themselves as victims. The porn addict, the drug addict, the promis­cuous girl, may lament the consequences of their choices, but nonetheless recognize them as their choices.”And because they feel free, “building the case against social laissez-faire is more difficult than building the case against economic laissez-faire. Quite often, the victims will simply reject the claim that they are indeed victims.”Yes and no. It is true that social laissez-faire feels like freedom to many, perhaps most. But I’m willing to bet that ordinary people will begin to recognize that they’re trapped. Case in point: marriage. There’s a growing awareness, even among the privileged, that it’s hard to get and stay married. Nobody’s stopping them, just as nobody was preventing textile workers in Manchester from starting their own companies. But it’s an increasingly empty freedom.
  • There are times when theology achieves an almost transcendent ­importance and relevance in human affairs. The syllabus of coffee errors formulated by the Rev. Fr. ­Andrew ­Stephen Damick is such a moment. From his blog, Orthodoxy and ­Heterodoxy:
  • Decaf is Docetic because it only appears to be coffee.
  • Instant is Apollinarian because it’s had its soul removed and ­replaced.
  • Frappuccinos are essentially a form of Monophysitism, having their coffee nature swallowed up in a milkshake.
  • Chicory is Arian, not truly coffee at all but a separate creation.
  • Irish coffee is Nestorian, being two natures conjoined solely by good will.
  • Nitro coffee (coffee + Red Bull) is Montanist, having a form of godliness but denying its power.
  • Affogato is Adoptionist, being merely topped with espresso.
  • The Café Bombón is Sabellian, appearing at some points to be foam, at others coffee, and at ­others sweetened condensed milk.
  • The Caffè Americano is a form of Unitarian Universalism, being so watered down so as not even to qualify as coffee.
  • The Cafe Mocha (espresso + steamed milk + chocolate) is syncretic and polytheist, for it ­presumes to adulterate coffee with another nation’s gods.
  • The Doppio (espresso + espresso) is Monothelite, permitting only one will to dominate.
  • Half-Caf is another form of Adoptionism, being a hybrid of disparate natures.
  • The Pharisäer (drip coffee + 2 shots rum + whipped cream) is nothing but sheer ­Antinomianism.
  • The Red Eye (drip coffee + 1 shot espresso) is Ebionite, for it would swallow up pure faith in the Law.
  • A rigorist exclusivism for Fair Trade Coffee is a form of Donatism, insisting that only sinless hands may produce a true ­beverage.
  • “Coffee is bad for you”: The watchwords of the Iconoclast.
  • One wonders what Fr. Damick makes of tea. Sin against the Holy Spirit? Continue Reading »

    The Christ of Marc Chagall

    It recently became widely known that the favorite painting of Pope Francis is the White Crucifixion by Marc Chagall. The news stirred up considerable speculation and controversy. Chagall, born Moishe Segal in the Polish-Lithuanian village of Vitebsk (now in Belarus), was probably the most prominent Jewish painter of the twentieth century. His White Crucifixion was not new to religious controversy. It received severely disparaging reviews from Jewish critics when it was first shown in France, and more since. The work (now hanging in the Art Institute of Chicago) represents Jesus the Jew crucified between, on the left, communist soldiers storming a village and, on the right, Nazis desecrating a synagogue. The Crucified, his loins draped in a tallit, or prayer shawl, is hoisted in the middle, a victim of hatreds from left and right alike.For Chagall, not alone among Ashkenazi artists, Jesus on the cross represented the painful predicament of all Jews, harried, branded, and violently victimized in an apparently God-forsaken world. The INRI over his head is translated by Chagall into Hebrew, “Yeshua Hanotzri Melech Hayehudim.” In the foreground, fleeing, is a peasant wearing a German placard reading “Ich bin Jude.” Below, front and center, a sense of the whole scene as a horrific modern altarpiece is created by a candelabrum—not a menorah but a six-candled candelabrum in which one of the candles has been quenched. Explicit use of classic Jewish images, the vivid presence of modern-day horrors: Many have found the White Crucifixion a disturbing work, and not just pious Jews. For it to be singled out for admiration by a reigning pontiff is remarkable.Bloggers have commented on the pope’s singular admiration of this painting. Some Catholics fear that he has betrayed a kind of “ecumenical syncretism”; others hope for a shift toward religious pluralism. Some Jewish commentators think the pope does not understand the uniquely Jewish—and, for them, even anti-Christian—character of the painting. Others welcome what seems to be his appreciation of a commonality in the face of evil too long neglected. We can have no doubt that the juxtapositions of Jewish and Christian symbols are unsettling. The burden of history remains heavy. The hope for deliverance from its antagonisms and agonies is strong. Continue Reading »

    Biotech Babies

    Suzanne is a forty-year-old mother of two who recently attended an Evangelical women’s Bible study in a suburb of Chicago. At this particular gathering the topic was infertility. The church had brought in two guest speakers. One spoke of how she and her husband had spent years unsuccessfully trying to conceive before they decided to adopt. The other related that she and her husband also had experienced fertility complications but that, after many years of trying, they were finally blessed with a child of their own. She had been so overcome with gratitude at having given birth that she was now serving as a surrogate mother of twins for another couple desperate for children. Both women were hailed as models of how to turn private sufferings into public goods, and as strong Christian witnesses for how to face one’s own infertility with courage and grace. That response suggests that we’ve failed to reflect deeply enough about the moral significance of reproductive technologies. Continue Reading »

    The Ancients on Abortion

    Teaching Dante’s Divine Comedy last semester, I hoped to cruise through the Purgatorio to make sure we completed the Paradiso by semester’s end. But my students wouldn’t let me skip canto 25—they stopped there, awestruck. I think we spent longer in the seventh cornice on the mount of purgatory than Dante did.There Statius explains to Dante the generation of the embryo, and how the embryo passes through various stages before it can be considered a rational human. Continue Reading »

    Letters of Affection

    The Selected Letters of Willa Cather
    edited by andrew jewell and janis stout
    knopf, 752 pages, $37.50

    One might be forgiven for feeling some ambivalence in opening this volume, the first-ever publication of the personal correspondence of Willa Cather, the writer who moved from the Nebraska prairie to Pittsburgh, to Greenwich Village, and into the literary pantheon. Editors Andrew Jewell and Janis Stout acknowledge the prospect of this unease in the first lines of their introduction: “Before Willa Cather died, she did what she could to prevent this book from ever existing. She made a will that clearly forbade all publication of her letters, in full or in part. And now we flagrantly defy Cather’s will.”
    What justifies this disregard is Cather’s vital presence in this far-ranging correspondence. Arranged chronologically and grouped into twelve sections, her letters appear in their entirety minus presumably large bodies of letters, to Cather’s two closest friends (more than friends, some say), that were likely destroyed. Helpful editorial bridges provide ­necessary context, as often Cather is responding to unprinted letters she has received. Continue Reading »

    Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet

    Music can move us in ways that reach beyond discursive speech. That does not mean that notes have no relation to words. Music is not a literal language, but it is more than a metaphorical one. The best music hints at a universal language that can redeem the cultural and geographical barriers of . . . . Continue Reading »

    Pop Imperialism

    Through a Screen Darkly: Popular Culture, Public Diplomacy, and America’s Image Abroad
    by martha bayles
    yale, 336 pages, $30

    During the Cold War the United States government made important attempts to manage America’s image in the world. Besides the radio stations—Voice of America and Radio Free Europe—and the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, there was the U.S. Information ­Agency, whose aim was to ensure that an upbeat and truthful image of ­America would prevail against the adverse propaganda of the Soviet Union. The USIA was closed down in 1999, and the scope of the radio networks has been curtailed.One consequence of this—lamen­ted at length by Martha ­Bayles—is that the image of America in the world is now entirely the product of American popular culture, which has succeeded in giving a worse name to America than anything that could conceivably have been implanted by the Soviet propaganda machine. The Muslim peasant in his village has only to turn on the television to witness the Great Satan in flagrante delicto, and even if he is not immediately prompted to join al-Qaeda he is likely to be glad that others are doing so, with a view to punishing the blasphemies and obscenities that pour out across the screen.Martha Bayles is an intelligent, learned, and sensitive person who has spent a long time studying the world of morons, apparently without going mad in the process. Her earlier book, Hole in Our Soul, described the loss of beauty in American popular music, and drew attention to a singular fact, which is that the music of modern life, which was born in America, has also died there. And the same has happened to the drama of modern life. Just as the life-affirming melodies of jazz have declined into the tuneless aggression of rap, so have the innocent romances of Hollywood morphed into movies in which explicit sex and manic violence are almost the only points of interest.It is this second transformation that concerns Martha Bayles in her latest book, and the reader quickly learns why. Continue Reading »

    Ulterior Lives

    Richard Rodriguez has been an occasional companion of mine for more than thirty years, since the publication of Hunger of Memory in 1982. I feel I know him well enough, in part because so much of his writing is autobiographical; but until last September, I’d known him only on the page. Then I heard and saw him give a talk in Dayton, Ohio, shortly before this book was published, which confirmed my admiration for this writer whose work is consistently intelligent, beautiful, and deeply Catholic. Writers who manage even one of these are rare enough; those who consistently combine all three are something close to a wonder.A visual image remains with me from that talk: a handsome, animated, small, brown, not-young man (Rodriguez was born in 1944) adopting on stage the posture of the crucified one to show, with just enough self-mockery, what lies at the heart of Catholicism in general and of Catholic pain-piety in particular. He notes in Darling that you can’t mock a crucifixion because it’s already a mockery. In the talk I heard, he managed to show this, too, without saying it; and to show at the same time that no human representation of the crucifixion can altogether avoid self-mockery. Holding all that together gives some sense of the texture and temperature of how he thinks about and represents being Catholic. Continue Reading »

    Rewriting Nature’s Laws

    In February, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed Senate Bill 1062, a piece of legislation designed to strengthen protection of religious freedom. Passed by a Republican legislature, it was a bill her staff (she is a Republican as well) had helped to craft some weeks before. But her support turned to opposition after an extraordinarily well-orchestrated campaign by gay rights groups turned almost the entire American establishment against the bill. What began as a legislative attempt to define more precisely the line ­between the proper rights of religious conscience and the necessary power of society to coerce became a referendum on “bigotry.” This transformation is remarkable—and troubling.The Arizona legislature passed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act (a law enacted in many states to clarify the full scope of religious freedom in light of recent Supreme Court decisions) in 1999. Since that time, the gay rights movement has been trying to reshape the legal landscape—and is largely succeeding. A baker in Colorado was hauled into court for refusing to make a cake for a gay wedding reception. In Oregon, it was a florist. The New Mexico Supreme Court decided that a photographer who wouldn’t take pictures of a lesbian commitment ceremony had violated that state’s anti-discrimination laws.These developments prompted the Arizona bill, which featured two main points. The first stipulated that individuals and their businesses have protected religious interests. The second made it clear that a defendant could appeal to Arizona’s religious freedom “regardless of whether the government is a party to the proceeding.” With these changes, the Arizona legislature hoped to make sure religious consciences have some protection in social and economic relations governed by anti-discrimination laws—the issue at stake in Colorado, Oregon, and New Mexico. Continue Reading »