Still, in the world of magazine publishing, you have to think ahead, and that joyful season of the year is at our throats again. The December issue has just arrived from the printers: the Christmas issue, jingling bells and dripping holly. Sugar plums. Tinsel. Nutcrackers. Nuts. How is it the old familiar carol goes? Stockings with care rest ye, Wenceslas, with five golden rings like a bowlful of jelly. Or something like that.
Actually, the new issue isn’t overly Christmasy. The article section opens with “Reconciling East and West,” a major essay from Richard John Neuhaus. “I am convinced,” Fr. Neuhaus writes,
that the dynamic that drives the Catholic Church’s irrevocable commitment to Christian unity is not an exercise of power or desire for aggrandizement, never mind ecclesiastical conquest. Quite the opposite is the case. It is not power but weakness that impels the quest for unity. That is to say, the Catholic Church frankly admits that she cannot be fully what she claims to be apart from other Christians and, most particularly, apart from the Orthodox.
We do not know how much time we have. It is possible that, in the larger picture of God’s purposes in history, we are the early Church. As Cardinal Dulles notes, it took fourteen centuries for Chalcedonians and non-Chalcedonians to begin to realize that they were fundamentally in agreement about the divinity and humanity of Christ. “We may hope that the deep wounds mutually inflicted on each other by Orthodox and Catholics at the dawn of the second millennium will not take fourteen centuries to heal.”
But to help our subscribers with their shopping lists, the December issue of First Things also includes a special section on booksold books, new books, books to give, and books to avoid.
The section opens with “Children’s Books, Lost and Found,” this month’s free article, available even to non-subscribers and other Scrooges. “A number of books are in the received lists of children’s classics,” the author snarls, “for the sole reason, as near as I can tell, that they always have been in such received lists of children’s classics. What makes Aesop's Fables a standard volume for children? Or the far too grown-up The Three Musketeers? Or the knock-off that is Swiss Family Robinson? Or the inferior horse story My Friend Flicka? Or that sick-making tale of the Glad Girl, Pollyanna? Or the stale Little Women, a book well known mostly because it’s already well known?”
In fact, this survey of children’s books concludes, “J.K. Rowling’s success with the Harry Potter books doesn’t just give us a recent series to add as an incidental to the received canon. It also gives us a chance to rewrite the entire list of classic children’s books we’re all supposed to knowfor Rowling makes visible the fact that we are actually living now in a golden age of children’s literature.”
Next, we asked several of our well-read friends and contributors for recommendations of a few wise, or fun, or disturbing books, limited only by the request that the lists not include the Bible, Shakespeare, or volumes by authors who appear regularly in First Things’ pages.
The result is “What to Give a First Things Reader”wonderful suggestions from Wilfred McClay, David Novak, George Weigel, Midge Decter, and Stephen Barr.
McClay, for examples, singles out a pair of novels, serious with Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s The Leopard and comic with Peter de Vries’ I Hear America Swinging. David Novak adds Karl Barth’s Fides Quaerens Intellectum and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s God in Search of Man.
George Weigel chimes in with Paul Horgan’s A Distant Trumpet and Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. Midge Decter recommends Henry Kissinger’s Crisis, and the physicist Stephen Barr piles on with Alan Cutler’s The Seashell on the Mountaintop and Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge.
Finally, this special Christmas book section concludes with “Wrapping Up 2008,” a quick survey of the year in books from John Wilson. Roy Blount’s Alphabet Juice, The Letters of Penelope Fitzgerald, John Reed’s All the World's a Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walkingthis was, Wilson insists, a good year for readers.
Figuring we should not just recommend gifts but deliver them, the main article section resumes with J. Budziszewski’s “Natural Law Revealed,” a study of the ways in which natural law is illuminated by the divine revelations that go beyond it: “The divine reminder of what we already know has a tendency to clear the mind. It confronts us, and the confrontation cleanses not only the individual but an entire culture. With our favorite evasions burned away, we think more clearly.”
In “The Forgotten Story of Postmodernity,” Rein Staal adds an alternate historya completely different way of telling the story of late-modern intellectual life. And John Coons adds “In Defense of the Sovereign Family,” a major argument that parental authority is a form of government that the Constitution must recognize:
Parents do command and enforce, and, with certain restrictions, the state admits that parents are the sole and inviolable lawgivers within the family. This domestic jurisdiction extends even to the child’s mind and body; and parents choose freely from a broad universe of commands and permissions, all of which exceed the will of the state.
Why were the Founders silent about so fundamental a legal reality as parental authority? So far as 1787 is concerned, the answer is clear: They saw no need to express the obvious. It was not the parent but the state whose jurisdiction needed to be justified by a specific social contract. The notion that the newly invented federal governmentor their own statescould redesign the legal relation of parents to their children would never have occurred to them.
Meanwhile, in the correspondence section, Joseph Bottum replies to the critics of his article “The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline.” And Robert Miola and Joseph Pearce take one last go ’round in their battle over the Catholic Shakespeare.
In the review section, the December issue of First Things features Mustafa Akyol on Islam and the Secular State by Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na’im, the poet Rhina Espaillat on Madwomen: The "Locas Mujeres" Poems of Gabriela Mistral, Thomas Hibbs on God and the Between by William Desmond, and Christopher Tollefsen on In the Shadow of Progress by Eric Cohen.
In poetry, there’s new work by A.M. Juster and Ralph McInerny, and in documentation there’s a letter from Antony Flew about Richard Dawkins. And, as always, the issue concludes with “The Public Square,” the observations and contentions of Richard John Neuhaus. This month, for instance, Fr. Neuhaus takes up the new book on Dostoevsky by Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury:
The great question addressed in multiple ways by Dostoevsky is this: What does it mean to believe in Christ as the Son of God in a world that so brutally denies his claims? Or, as Williams puts it, proposing this as the theme of his book, “What is it that human beings owe to one another?” His subtitleLanguage, Faith, and Fictionis key to Williams’ understanding of Dostoevsky’s answer to the question.
The great question posed by Dostoevsky in asking about what human beings owe to one another is how we can be counted on to respect that to which we are not obliged by a truth beyond our own contriving. That is the context in which the proposition is entertained that, if there is no God, all things are permitted.
All in all, a stocking stuffed with goodies for the December issuewhich suggests a thought: If you need another idea for a Christmas present this year, how about giving your loved ones a subscription to First Things? I know it’s a little early to talk of such things, but the yuletide season is coming. It’s coming.