How did we get here, to this curious and unexpected place?
We could never have imagined, for instance, we’d live to see the day a book of the Bible is illustrated by an R-rated comic-strip cartoonist; or the day Federico Fellini’s 8½ is remade into a song-and-dance movie—seriously, you must be kidding.
But, then, here we are! Indeed, R. Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis is a bestseller, and Nine, a showbiz version of Fellini’s 8½ is now playing in theatres. Yes, The world may never cease to surprise us.
But do not be alarmed; amid all the turning tides of change today, First Things is your lighthouse—your guide to those changing times with the best commentary and reviews. All you need to do is subscribe.
Subscribe now, and you’ll receive issues like the latest February 2010 issue hot off the press—with articles like this one by Gary A. Anderson, FT's leading biblical scholar and contributing writer, reviewing R. Crumb’s illustrated Book of Genesis in “The Bible, Rated R”:
While some have called . . . [it] a “scathing satire” on the Bible, I would disagree. . . . No one has paid much attention to the commentary Crumb provides at the close of the book. Yet Crumb’s prose is a significant addendum to his visual art. It gives witness to Crumb’s reverence for (but not belief in) his subject. The Bible is remarkable, he writes, due to its antiquity and tradition of continuous commentary over the centuries: “[It is] the oldest text in Western civilization. It’s no wonder that people believe [it] to be the word of God.”
And articles like this one by chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle Armond White, “Filmmaking by Numbers”:
Nine gets close to 8½’s profundity only in the brief grotto scene in which a priest asks, “Are you Catholic?” Guido answers, “I’m trying.” The priest responds, “Try harder.” While Fellini pondered the possibilities of sin and redemption, Nine’s all-singing, all-dancing, all-laughing remake proffers a mindless celebration of capital S (as in silly) sin. In every way, it removes the significance of man’s self-questioning moral consciousness and substitutes in its place ephemeral, conventional showbiz.
One might think there couldn’t be a worse distortion of legendary great work, but then we hear a University of Chicago professor's baseless attack on Hannah Arendt in the Times Literary Supplement, “stitching together a picture of her as either a gullible reader of neo-Nazi literature or a closet Jewish anti-Semite in need of intellectual detoxification.” In our pages, sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz sets the story straight.
How about the epic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludovico Ariosto—of which “a new verse translation” by David R. Slavitt was recently published. Laurance Wieder mournfully describes how Slavitt wrote his own lines in place of the original, a great work that in its true form is “the artistic and temperamental opposite of the other Tuscan epic, The Divine Comedy.”
Then FT contributing writer Mary Eberstadt bemoans the dismal effects of watered-down Christianity:
Exactly as has happened with divorce, the Anglican okaying of contraception was born largely of compassion for human frailty and dedicated to the idea that such cases would be mere exceptions to the theological rule. Thus Resolution 15 itself—for all that it was a radical break with two millennia of Christian teaching—abounded with careful language about the limited character of its reform, including “strong condemnation of the use of any methods of contraception control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.”
And also as has happened with divorce, the effort to hold the line at such carefully drawn borders soon proved futile. In short order, not only was birth control theologically approved in certain difficult circumstances but, soon thereafter, it was regarded as the norm. . . . Artificial contraception went on to be sanctioned by some prominent members of the Anglican Communion not only as an option but in fact as the better moral choice.”
In her provocative feature, “Christianity Lite,” Eberstadt describes the experiment that failed.
But it’s not all bad news. In “The Orthodox Moment,” Rabbi Ben Greenberg of Harvard notes the steady growth of Orthodox Judaism and the good it portends for its young followers:
The percentage of American Jews who define themselves as Orthodox [is] 10 percent of the total Jewish population. In addition, another 21 percent of Jewish households belong to an Orthodox synagogue. What is perhaps most stunning is that 34 percent of Jews within the age racket of 18-34 identify with Orthodoxy.
David P. Goldman complements Greenberg’s piece with his scathing review of Dana Evan Kaplan’s latest book, Contemporary American Judaism. In the book, Kaplan lists and praises the many unorthodox practices that go by the name of Judaism in America, including “Storahtelling,” which he describes as “one of the hottest Jewish educational programs. . . . Founder Amichai Lau-Lavie explains that it is part psychodrama and part psychotherapy, with the Storahtelling staff using the stories of the Torah to engage worshippers. ‘We use edu-tainment. We make them laugh. It’s 95 percent humor, culture, radical fun and 5 percent meaning.’” Or consider the “new genus of hyphenated Jews: “American Jews interested in Buddhism have been called JuBus, or sometimes BuJews. Likewise, a Hindu Jews is called a Hinjew, a Sufi Jew is called a Jewfi, and so forth.” To all this, Goldman asks the pivotal question: “When does this stop being Judaism?”
Not only does the February issue of First Things look at the here and now of religion, culture, and public life—and why it matters. We also delve into the Great Beyond and predict what is to come! Gabriel Said Reynolds reviews The Future of Islam by John L. Esposito. Fr. Raymond J. de Souza reviews The Future Church by John L. Allen Jr. James Nuechterlein assesses the future of the political right in his smart review of Reappraising the Right by George H. Nash. And William Anderson examines the fate of planet Earth in his piece on climate-change politics, “Some Like It Warm.”
And, when you’ve had enough of looking ahead, we give you Robert Louis Wilken’s lovely review of The Forge of Christendom by Tom Holland in his piece “The Gift of the West.” And don’t miss Joseph Bottum’s insightful essay in The Public Square, “The Papal Difference”:
For a long while, Americans thought Catholicism was an un-American form of religion, but in our current situation, Catholicism alone appears able to synthesize faith and reason long enough, broadly enough, and deeply enough to avoid sectarianism. John Courtney Murray, the American Jesuit who influenced the Second Vatican Council’s decree on religious liberty, made essentially this argument, and the thirty years of debate over abortion has confirmed it. Catholic thought now defines the nonsecularist terms of American discourse—and does so, at its best, without threatening either the religious freedom or nonestablishment clauses of the First Amendment.
But then, not everything in this issue is an active look forward or look back. There’s some value in a piece that simply about thinking—about human curiosity and the desire to know. This issue offers a trenchant analysis by FT senior editor at large, R.R. Reno, “Brain Food,” in which he contemplates Paul Griffiths’ latest book, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar:
Our sin-sick souls fear the sharp, healing scalpel of an involving knowledge that will cut and shape and circumcise our hearts. Thus, our lust for tidbits of local gossip; for reassuring (or irritating) sound bites of political opinion; for views we can categorize by race, class, and gender; for well-defined areas of scholarly expertise; for long bibliographies and endless facts; for legally defined intellectual property; and even (as St. Augustine reports of his own vulnerability to distraction) for picturesque scenes of dogs chasing rabbits across open fields.
These forms of atomized, sequestered, and isolated knowledge can satisfy our desire to know, at least for a time; they grant the relief of feeling full while remaining empty.
Don’t fall into cerebral malnourishment. Satisfy your intellectual appetite by subscribing now to First Things.