The new issue of First Things is out—the August/September issue, filled with as broad a range of material as we’ve ever published. There’s economics, politics, legal theory, literary theory, history, poetry, and ethics.
And then there’s René Girard—the grand literary theorist turned anthropologist turned theologian—who contributes an essay, drawn from his forthcoming book, on the lessons of war and the apocalypse. “Christianity is the only religion that has foreseen its own failure,” he writes.
This prescience is known as the apocalypse. Indeed, it is in the apocalyptic texts that the word of God is most forceful, repudiating mistakes that are entirely the fault of humans, who are less and less inclined to acknowledge the mechanisms of their violence. The longer we persist in our error, the stronger God’s voice will emerge from the devastation.
This is why no one wants to read the apocalyptic texts that abound in the synoptic gospels and Pauline epistles. This is also why no one wants to recognize that these texts rise up before us because we have disregarded the Book of Revelation. Once in our history the truth about the identity of all humans was spoken, and no one wanted to hear it; instead we hang ever more frantically onto our false differences.
The article is a dense and difficult piece by a member of the Académie française, and different readers will have differing interpretations. One of the difficulties of Girard’s wide-ranging vision of mimetic violence is that it has no strong political theory for the era in which we have had to live for nearly two thousand years—no certain application in the mid-time between the biblical revelation and the coming of the kingdom.
I had always understood Girard to hold that the problem of the foundation of culture is like a quadratic equation with two solutions: the negative pagan solution, based on sacrifice, and the positive biblical solution, based on love. Insofar as I understand this latest turn in his thought, he seems to be saying that there is, in fact, no Christian solution to the problem of culture: Christianity’s great revelation makes the old pagan solution fail—and gives us no real cultural replacement for it. And the Bible’s promise of the apocalypse is proof that knowledge of this fact was built into Christian revelation from the beginning.
Meanwhile, the theologian Paul Griffiths takes us a different account of the Christian age, in a witty and solid review of David Hart’s new book Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. “To be a Roman,” Griffiths notes,
was to be a follower of the gods who had the eternal city as their place. This intimate intertwining of the gods with a place and the political forms of that place meant that there was little room for appeal beyond the local political norms to the will of God; there was certainly no institution that could set itself over against the local political forms by way of challenge and call to account.
The Christian revolution changed this. The Church, the community of those who worshiped the risen Lord, was not and could not be identical with any secular political form.
The August/September issue soon changes pace, however, with a grim report on the American financial situation from the highly regarded economist Reuven Brenner:
For the time being, the United States is lucky that the world does not presently have a good alternative to the dollar. This gives the country a window of opportunity to make the necessary changes. Part of the world is committed to the politically motivated export model, and another part (Europe) is in the midst of the unique experiment of betting on a paper money that is not backed by any government, making the coordination between treasuries and a central bank during crisis hard to achieve. These experiments cannot be corrected fast.
The window of opportunity for the United States will not last long, however.
And the issue changes pace yet again with “Death in Naples,” Michael Ledeen’s fascinating tale of the way the dead are always present among the citizens of Naples. And again, when Shalom Carmy examines the new translation of And from There You Shall Seek from the great Jewish theologian Joseph Soloveitchik. And yet again when the well-known Shakespeare critic Robert Miola writes of the experience of watching his two daughters leave for the convent:
I find myself saying with dismay, “You can’t be serious.” Another daughter, Rachel this time, looks at me with deep blue eyes. Her lip quivers. Robert Kaske’s book of medieval sources, my gift to her before she heads to graduate school at Notre Dame, sits on the table, already a relic from another dispensation.
“You are wholly different from Chrissy and wholly unfit for that life,” I insist. “She loves rules and you can’t stand them.”
“There are a lot of ways to serve God,” I lecture. “Human love is good. Are you afraid of human love, afraid of marriage, afraid of sex?”
“Daaad,” she rolls her eyes in exasperation.
There’s nothing in the world quite like the range of pieces we’ve assembled in this new issue. In “Her Choice, Her Problem: How Abortion Empowers Men,” for example, Richard Stith brilliantly assembles the cultural history by which legalized abortion freed men from feeling much responsibility for the products of sex.
In “Intolerant Tolerance,” Australia’s Cardinal Pell explains how hate laws are a ratchet that turn in only one direction, and in his study of the rule of law and empathy—this month’s free issue, available online even to nonsubscribers—Hadley Arkes asks the simple question of who gets judicial empathy and who doesn’t.
What’s an issue of the magazine without some serious literary work? In “Hast Thou Considered My Servant Faust?” First Things’ associate editor David Goldman examines the parallels between the Book of Job and Goethe’s classic poem. To place the strange new world of modernity in context, Goldman writes, “Goethe applies the marvelous conceit of inverting the premise of the Book of Job. To tempt the righteous man of Uz, the biblical Satan takes from him all that ancient man might need (wealth, children, and health). Goethe’s Mephistopheles tempts Faust instead by offering him everything that modern man might desire.”
Then, in “What Marriage Is—And What It Isn’t,” Robert George takes up, in his usual clear and careful way, the theory that stands behind the current fights over marriage.
The issue has poetry from Amit Majmudar and N.E. Dunkle, and a stunning set of book reviews. Alan Jacobs on Anthony Grafton’s Worlds Made of Words, for instance. And Jean Duchesne’s surprising rejection of Christopher Caldwell’s Reflections on the Revolution in Europe. And Amanda Shaw’s unsurprising praise for Paul Mariani’s new biography of Gerard Manley Hopkins. And Edward Oakes’s read on Mark E. Powell’s Papal Infallibility.
All that’s to say nothing of the Public Square, which includes the editor’s essay on how the American Catholic Renaissance of the 1950s helps explain the problems of Catholic higher education today. Along, of course, with the usual run of While We’re At Its:
A United Church of Christ congregation explains on its website that it welcomes everyone: “No matter . . . where you’re going on life’s journey.” Hmm. The goal of a Christian on life’s journey is, we’ve heard, to end up somewhere within the vicinity of the Throne. But perhaps it is good to keep other alternatives in mind.
for instance, and
Just yesterday, walking through the park at Madison and 23rd, I passed a quiet man, on a quiet bench beneath those quiet summer trees, quietly reading a shopworn hardback copy of that 1964 pop-psychology classic Games People Play by Eric Berne. Nay, never ask this week, fair lord, / Where they are gone, nor yet this year, / Save with this much for an overword- / But where are the bestsellers of yesteryear?
With all this packed into a single issue, shouldn’t you be subscribing?
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things.