• Biblical scholar Fr. Benedict Thomas Viviano has proposed an original take on the story of the wise men in Matthew’s Gospel. You guessed it! They may not all have been men.
“The main reason to think of the presence of one or more women among the magi is the background story of the queen of Sheba, with her quest for Israelite royal wisdom, her reverent awe, and her three gifts fit for a king,” says Viviano, a Dominican and recently retired professor at the University of Fribourg. “If we read the magi story in the light of the Solomon-Sheba background as the closest biblical narrative parallel (as distinguished from motif parallels like the star) to it, some previously neglected possibilities open up.”
Neglected for a reason, we think. It seems a very thin argument, but now that we think about it, isn’t it obvious? One of them had to be a woman. The wise persons had, after all, the good sense to stop and ask for directions.
• We hear a lot about income inequality, but almost nothing about marriage inequality. It’s not a good scene, as they say, as the 2010 The State of Our Unions Report reveals. When Marriage Disappears: The New Middle America tells us that “the United States is increasingly a separate and unequal nation when it comes to the institution of marriage.”
The report, issued by our friends at the Institute for American Values, divides Americans into three groups: the least educated (no high-school degree), the moderately educated (a high-school degree and perhaps some college study), and the highly educated (at least a college degree). Crunching the latest data, the editor, W. Bradford Wilcox (a contributor to First Things, we might note), comes up with some arresting statistics.
Divorce: In the 1990s, 37 percent of the least and moderately educated women were likely to be separated or divorced ten years after their first marriages, which was true for only 11 percent of the highly educated. Cohabitation: Between 2006 and 2008, 75 percent of the least educated women and 68 percent of the moderately educated had lived with someone to whom they weren’t married, but this was true for only 50 percent of the most highly educated.
Births to unmarried women? Here the difference is extraordinary. Among the least educated, 54 percent of children born were born to unmarried women, and among the moderately educated 44 percent, while out-of-wedlock births among the highly educated came in at a minuscule 6 percent.
And we could go on. For example, if you’re a fourteen-year-old girl, the likelihood that you live with both your mother and father—which helps you in almost every way—goes up as their educational levels rise.
The trend is plain to see. Those who worry about income inequality ought to worry about marriage inequality. The successful, bourgeois Americans are, well, bourgeois, and some would say—we would say—successful because they’re bourgeois. Others are less successful because they’re less so. For most couples most of the time, in a hard world, when money is tight and jobs are precarious, staying together helps them hold everything else together.
• Marriage inequality isn’t just about behaviors. It’s also about attitudes and beliefs. When Marriage Disappears conveys some very interesting polling data. Between the 1970s and the 2000s, only one of the three educational levels saw an increased conviction that divorce should be more difficult to obtain: the highly educated. Only one group registered an increase in the belief that premarital sex is always wrong: the highly educated. The highest percentage who say they would be embarrassed if they got pregnant? The daughters of the highly educated.
It’s a fascinating set of statistics. Although in some cases the raw percentages are mixed, with lower educational groups still reporting more traditional social attitudes, these days only the highly educated are trending in a more conservative direction in their beliefs about sex, marriage, and family.
Church attendance may have more than a little to do with this conservative-leaning trend. All educational levels attended church less frequently in the 2000s than in the 1970s. But guess which fell off the least. Yes, the highly educated, which is also the group that these days is most likely to go to church regularly.
There is a certain view of culture, not an implausible one, that presumes the dominance of elite sensibilities: What the elite think and do now, everyone else will eventually think and do. The elites led the intellectual deconstruction of marriage fifty years ago. If they’re changing, and coming (finally) to see the necessity of marriage, perhaps everyone else will also. The moral fantasies of the 1960s generation are certainly due for retirement.
• We remembered to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the King James Bible, but we forgot the twentieth anniversary of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s revolutionary Theory of Dancing Art. Fortunately, the Korean Central News Agency has brought this timeless treatise to our attention:
The work formulates the distinctive character and basic mission of the dancing art and the orientation of its development newly elucidated by the Juche [North Korea’s official state ideology of self-reliance] idea. It also gives principles and ways of applying them to dance creation and performance and expounds all theoretical and practical issues arising in perfecting and fully introducing Korean-style dance notation.
Since the work was published, the originality and validity of Kim Jong Il’s idea and theory on the Juche-based dancing art have been fully demonstrated, many famous dance pieces created, and the dance notation brought to perfection.
Examples of famous pieces include such works as “Ever-Victorious Workers’ Party of Korea,” “Army and People United in One Mind Around the Leader,” and “We Will Never Give Up Even an Inch of Our Land.” Kim Jong Il, Lord of the Dance. Who’d have thought?
• Writing in Commentary, Wilfred McClay (author of “Whig History at Eighty” in this issue) reflects on the mournful, regretful obituaries for conservatism now being written by liberals. According to books like Sam Tannenhaus’ The Death of Conservatism, he writes, “the British model of an elite grouping of witty and arch curmudgeons and aristocrats of an occasionally deviant tendency that inertly preserves the old order along with a few progressive changes to that order would be far preferable, and more genuinely conservative. But the problem is that American conservatives are today, as they were in 1956, too populist, too majoritarian, too religious, too moralistic, too acquisitive, too middle-class, too reformist, too bumptious.”
But the liberals need us, they say. Well, not us, exactly. Tannenhaus, friend to conservatism that he is, kindly declares, “There remains in our politics a place for an authentic conservatism, a conservatism that seeks not to destroy but to conserve.” You, dear reader, are probably not authentic. As McClay suggests, these writers want conservatives to be conservative as long as what they conserve is liberalism.
Let us leave aside the problem that conservation necessarily involves a good deal of destruction. (Has Tannenhaus never had a lawn or garden? Has he never gone to war with dandelions?) McClay gets to the real problem: “Funny how liberals suddenly come to wax enthusiastic about Edmund Burke when they are in power, and when the principle of stare decisis (which they imagine to be the essence of Burke) works in their favor, and when they want to label ‘neo-conservative’ those who want to reverse bad precedents.”
The problem for the liberal is that conservatism, especially in its bumptious American variety, tries to conserve something that is always in danger of being lost — to liberalism. Like the insights of the country’s founding fathers into the limits of federal authority, for example. Remember the dandelions.
• As we mentioned, this year marks the four-hundredth anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, and the King James Bible Trust in the United Kingdom is organizing a number of events to celebrate the anniversary. The celebration has attracted at least one unexpected supporter: Richard Dawkins.
“You can’t appreciate English literature unless you are steeped to some extent in the King James Bible,” he explained on the Trust’s website, adding that “We are a Christian culture, we come from a Christian culture, and not to know the King James Bible is to be in some small way, barbarian.” He did his part with a reading of a chapter from the Song of Solomon for the Trust’s YouTube Bible project.
Just when you think that there may be some hope for Richard Dawkins, he adds that “religion should not be allowed to hijack this cultural resource.” By “hijack,” he seems to mean, “act as if the reasons it is now a cultural resource matter.” You know, Professor Dawkins, it’s our book. The people who want to take it over as a cultural symbol with no religious relevance are the hijackers.
• In their effort to morally legitimize abortion, pro-choice activists often describe unborn children as “nonviable fetuses,” “embryos,” “zygotes,” “collections of cells,” and “blobs of tissue.” The French-Colombian psychologist and feminist Florence Thomas recently came up with a new one. In El Espectador, Colombia’s oldest national newspaper, she wrote about the illegal abortion she had at age twenty-two in France during the mid-1960s.
“I remember the nights of warmth and love,” she writes. “Love every night, love at midday, and the euphoria of having the world in our hands. And yes, we took risks. The love merited it. Love always merits it.” Predictably, she got pregnant, and she found a doctor, expelled by the French Association of Gynecologists, who now performed illegal abortions at a house in a Paris suburb. Once the doctor completed the “procedure,” she writes, she felt “immense relief.” “This tumor went away, disappeared. I could go back to living.”
It remains to be seen to what extent, if any, the pro-abortion lobby will adopt Florence Thomas’ term. It is, from their point of view, an accurate metaphor for “unwanted pregnancies.” But not from ours. Cancerous tumors are life-threatening. The type of “tumor” Florence Thomas had removed in the mid-1960s was only life-changing. Or could have been, if she had really believed the love merited it.
• “If I wanted to escape,” she says, “I could do coke. But I don’t want to escape. I want redemption.” One can understand why. When she was fifteen her mother had pushed her into acting, and in her first role she played a nymphomaniac murderess. She discovered that her father was cheating on her mother and kept his secret for four years, and when she finally told her mother, her mother collapsed. When she started dating older men (she first married at nineteen, to a thirty-seven-year-old man), her father “told me there was no point in having affairs unless it was with someone who was very famous and talented.” Once a famous beauty and socialite, she now depends on nine prescription drugs, AA meetings, and intensive counseling.
And God. The daughter of the writer Roald Dahl and the actress Patricia Neal, Tessa Dahl is now mopping the chapel, making butter, spinning yarn, and hoping to become a nun at Regina Laudis Abbey in Bethlehem. “They want to be sure that I am becoming a nun because I really, really, really love God, and they want me to prove that I can contribute to the abbey, that it isn’t just an escape,” she says. “Of course it isn’t. I had an enormous God experience as the nuns sang Vespers. I felt as if a boulder had been pushed off my heart and it was open to joy.”
In coming to Bethlehem, Tessa follows her mother, who first began visiting the nuns as she struggled to heal the wounds of an affair, an abortion, and divorce. Patricia Neal converted to Catholicism and when she died was buried at Regina Laudis. There’s something fitting about these bruised reeds and smoldering wicks making their way to Bethlehem after suffering a lifetime at Calvary.
• One cannot be for democracy for some peoples and against it for others, argues Leon Wieseltier in the New Republic, but the practical consequences of trying to create democracy must be remembered. “The democratization of undemocratic societies is emphatically a policy of destabilization,” he writes. “In the anarchy of the attempt, all kinds of evils may be loosed. Unfree people dream of more than just freedom; they dream also of power, and vengeance, and exclusiveness, and heaven. The end of absolutism liberates them for their own absolutes, which may cause great suffering.”
The problem in Egypt, he continues, is that the Mubarak regime represses the Muslim Brotherhood and similar groups, who if successful in democratic politics (even of Egypt’s limited sort) would end democratic politics altogether and impose a theocratic state. “Egypt would be opened up to be shut down,” leaving Egyptians with an oppressive Islamist regime that would destabilize the region. His doubts about democracy in Egypt were for him “a moral embarrassment,” but realistic.
But he has come to see, he writes with obvious relief, that more democracy is in fact the answer. “The Muslim Brotherhood’s surest road to power in Egypt lies in the absence of any political reform. It is Mubarak who, by alienating his people and denying their rights, will bring the worse to pass.” Look, he writes, at Iran under the shah as an example. The United States ought to do what it can to encourage reform in Egypt, for our own good, though the administration is “unrattled by these precedents and these probabilities.”
Wieseltier argues with a Niebuhrian mixture of principle and prudence. As he puts it, “It is realism that now demands political reform. Or conversely, . . . there are times when idealism is a variety of prudential thinking.”
• Speaking of Egypt, last month a “While We’re At It” note mentioned the fear of Egyptian government officials who blamed the Israeli intelligence service Mossad for a shark attack on beachside tourists, an attempt, they thought, to damage their tourist industry. A few years back, the Egyptian media were aflame with rumors of Mossad plots to distribute chewing gum that would make young women promiscuous. (Inquiries presumably poured in from the sort of people who order x-ray glasses from the backs of comic books.)
Now officials in Saudi Arabia have arrested a vulture on charges of spying for Israel. Like a pelican found later in Sudan, the vulture was tagged with an ankle transponder from Tel Aviv University, presumably part of research into migration patterns. But according to the Saudi newspaper Al-Weeam, the bird is most likely part of a “Zionist plot.” As far as we can tell, the captured birds have so far refused to give up their identity. They’re still pretending to be birds.
• When the government decides that marriage is indifferent to the sex of the spouses, as it does in approving “gay marriage,” it must also commit itself to the belief that the rearing of children is also indifferent to the sex of the parents. Accordingly, the State Department announced in early January that American passports will soon be minted with “gender-neutral” parental titles, substituting “Parent one” and “Parent two” for “Mother” and “Father.” (And in some states for “Mother” and “Mother” or “Father” and “Father.”)
This new set of titles solves one alleged problem by creating another. In one way, it is even less neutral than the old one. “Mother” and “Father” are different in kind, and don’t lend themselves to any particular pecking order. “Parent 1” and “Parent 2,” however, is decidedly hierarchical. How is the poor bureaucrat to rank them?
We’ll make one prediction. A few years from now, some well-funded academic will study recently issued passports and discover that the majority of “Parent 1” entries refer to the father. He, or probably she, will be enraged. The major newspapers will carry the story, quoting feminist activists lamenting the ineradicability of sexism and demanding action, and a defensive spokesman from the State Department who will promise a better balance from now on. A few politicians will look indignant for the cameras.
The story will die, as such stories do, though the cause of eradicating sexual difference will, apparently, continue forever. And still fathers will proudly take their “Number One Dad” mugs to work, and not one will ever, ever bring in a mug saying “Number One Parent.”
• Only in our uniquely American free-market ecumenism can a Buddhist monk, a Catholic priest, and a rabbi come together to bestow benedictions on a “cursed” venue. We might be deeply moved by this comity if its occasion were not the opening of a new franchise of New York Burger Co. on West Twenty-Third Street in Manhattan. Taking up residence in a location that has seen half-a-dozen eateries come and go in the past few years, the restaurant’s owner wanted the three “to get rid of the bad spirits and start afresh and have a good vibe here.”
As they left, we imagine that they each shook their heads and muttered in their respective liturgical languages, deza, locus, and atar, or, in English, “Location, location, location!”
• Cathie Black, recently installed as chancellor of the New York City public school system, managed to put her foot in her mouth within mere days of getting her new desk. Speaking to a group of parents about overcrowding in schools in Brooklyn, her first line of defense was to quip, “Could we just have some birth control? It would really help us out a lot.”
Well, that would solve the problem of school overcrowding, along with just about every other problem in the educational system involving, um, children. Carried far enough, it would solve the problem of what to pay the chancellor. Getting at the root of a problem is often the best way to solve it. Except, that is, when the root of the problem isn’t the sort of thing that needs solving.
• It’s easy for Catholics to get down on officially Catholic universities—some people like to say that “b.c.” doesn’t stand for Boston College but for Barely Catholic—but it’s quite another thing when a third party corroborates their analysis. In early January, the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Manhattan College, despite being recognized by the Archdiocese of New York, must allow its faculty to unionize because it is no longer a religious institution.
For Catholics, the word propaganda is a technical term, not a slur, meaning that which is to be propagated or promoted. It was precisely that element of university life that the NLRB fingered as absent from Manhattan College, finding that “the purpose of the College is secular and not the ‘propagation of a religious faith.’” As evidence, the NLRB pointed to fewer and fewer leadership positions filled by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, and the college’s overt statement of “institutional autonomy” from Church governance.
While the NLRB’s move should worry similar schools—they might have to let their faculty unionize, for one thing—one occasionally wonders why they have delayed formalizing their secularism at all. The famed Catholic apologist Monsignor Ronald Knox once remarked that the Catholic Church seems to be the only church with a subculture of believers who identify themselves both as staunch Catholics and as “bad Catholics.”
We don’t often hear of bad evangelicals or bad Calvinists, since a bad evangelical might well become a good Episcopalian, and a bad Calvinist a good Pentecostal. Perhaps, not unlike self-described “bad Catholics,” these fallen-away colleges want to be “bad Catholic colleges,” maintaining the Church as a friend with benefits, even though the benefits seem to flow decisively in one direction.
• A few signs of the times.
• “It’s kind of the perfect liberal arts course,” says the instructor, quoted in an official college press release. The Muhlenberg College first-year seminar does, at least, have an unusual final exam. “Of Kings and Queens: Drag Theory and Performance” concludes with all the students performing in drag at a local bar. “Drag is about holding up gender values that are okay, even though they may not be mainstream,” the professor says. Muhlenberg is affiliated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
• An Anglican vicar in the northeast of England announced plans to put up a life-size crucifix made up of pig fat, the English magazine New Directions reports. His chapel also serves as an art gallery, and the exhibit will include an image of a devil making a rude gesture at an angel, which the local newspaper for some reason thought “shocking.” (How do they think the devil reacts to angels? With hugs?) The newspaper headlined the story: “Vicar hopes congregation will praise the lard.”
• “I think the film is rather nice, actually,” says the principal of a Swedish high school. “No one is drunk; there is no alcohol, no drugs. It’s just a bunch of naked kids having fun.” He is explaining a movie of naked students—all at least eighteen, he assures us—working on a farm on school grounds. “This kind of thing happens all the time,” he explains. “There’s nothing wrong with being naked. That’s still allowed.”
• Overheard by a First Things reader in a mall one day in December: A teenaged boy asked his parents as “The Twelve Days of Christmas” was playing on the public address system, “What’s so special about the twelve days before Christmas?”
• Finally, a conversation overheard by another reader in Rome’s Galleria Borghese, near Bernini’s famous statue of David with his slingshot:
American boy, aged about ten, to his father: “Who is that?”
Father: “That’s David. He’s in the Bible. He’s the one that killed the Cyclops.”
• And a few items of book news.
First, the 2011 edition of Best Spiritual Writing (Penguin Books) is out, and First Things is represented by four articles (the most, we might just mention, of any magazine). They are Joseph Bottum’s “Words of Nectar and Cyanide”; Robert Miola’s “Sisters and Daughters”; Robert Louis Wilken’s “Christianity Face to Face with Islam”; and Philip Yancey’s “What Art Can and Can’t Do.”
Second, also just out: Catholic Controversies: Understanding Church Teachings and Events in History (Moorings Press), a collection of essays that, says George Weigel, “dispels many of the myths, black legends, and disinformation scams that impede a real understanding of the Catholic Church.” We mention it not just because it is a helpful collection but because many of the essays came from First Things.
And third, Richard John Neuhaus’ American Babylon—a book that “displays Neuhaus in all his virtues,” the New York Times Book Review declared—is now out in paperback.
• In agreement with the board of the Institute on Religion and Public Life, Dr. Joseph Bottum’s service as editor of First Things ended on December 1, 2010, to allow Dr. Bottum to pursue his book-writing and other extensive commitments. The members of the board thank Dr. Bottum for his contributions as editor of First Things after the death of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and wish him well in his future endeavors. The board of the Institute has appointed R. R. Reno editor of First Things, effective April 1, 2011. We are grateful to James Nuechterlein, a founding editor, who is serving as editor in the interim.
—Robert Louis Wilken, Chair
while we’re at it sources: The Magi: St. Louis Beacon, December 16, 2010. Marriage inequality: When Marriage Disappears. Lord of the dance: Korea News Service, November 30, 2010. Conservatism: “The Report of Our Death was Greatly Exaggerated,” Commentary, November 2010. Richard Dawkins: www.kingjamesbibletrust.org. Florence Thomas: www.lifesite.news, November 11, 2010. Tessa Dahl: www.mercator.net, December 17, 2010. Wieseltier on Egypt: New Republic, December 30, 2010. Passports: Washington Post, January 7, 2011. Ecumenical blessing: New York Post, December 6, 2010. Cathie Black: New York Post, January 14, 2011. Manhattan College: www.lifesitenews.com, January 12, 2011. Signs of the Times: www.muhenberg.edu; New Directions, November 2010; www.upi.com, November 23, 2010; readers.
wwai tips: Dimitri Cavalli, Meghan Duke, David Lasher, David Mills, R. R. Reno, Kevin Staley-Joyce.