2011—my first full year at First Things, and my first year as Editor. During the quiet days after Christmas I found myself paging through the year’s issues. There’s a lot to savor. Here are some of my favorites.
“The Man-Made Messiah” (January). It’s the Lubavitcher rebbe, Manachem Mendel Schneerson whose followers stand outside the “mitzvah tanks” (the RV style trucks that blare klezmer music) on the eve of major Jewish holiday, asking passers-bye, “Are you Jewish?” As David Novak explains—and does so in a way that an outsider like me can understand—this typifies Schneerson’s theological genius. He transformed Chabad Hasidism from what was essentially an isolated refugee culture into a zealous missionary movement within Judaism. Faced with the seemingly omnipotent power of elite secular culture, Schneerson invaded. Extraordinary.
“The End of the Bernardin Era” (February). George Weigel’s account of the post-Vatican II American Catholic Church is as much a story of patronage as policy. The fiftieth anniversary of the Second Vatican Council is coming up, and we need more of this sort of historical reassessment, approaches that don’t rehash the now old progressive accounts.
James Kalb’s review of The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order by Daniel Mahoney (February). This review and the substantive exchange in the letters section of March issue sharpened the distinction between two ways of being conservative in America: conservative liberalism vs. liberal conservatism. Richard John Neuhaus was a conservative liberal. Kalb’s review made me wonder: Is that how I should be thinking about the basic questions of political philosophy?
“Thinking About Aging” (April). I am disposed to reject anti-aging research as just another example of our modern, self-deifying fantasy. But Meilaender reminded me that Christianity does not think of death as natural, at least not in the ultimate scheme of things. So the technological dream of defeating death isn’t altogether wrong—but then again, as Meilaender suggests, it’s not altogether right either. The result is classic Meilaender: something to read for insight rather than conclusions. Along the same lines and on a similar topic see “Real Death, Real Dignity” by David Mills (March).
“Memories of a Catholic Boyhood” (April). Tender and loving, which pretty much describes the sometimes gruff, sometimes combative and insistent author, Ken Woodward. It is part of a forthcoming book on American religion since the 1950s that I’m looking forward to reading.
“A Prophet Wrongly Honored” (June/July). The review essay of Terry Eagleton’s recent book Why Marx Was Right, by Alan Jacobs, makes me proud to be the editor of First Things. It’s beautifully written and well informed, surveying as it does the larger achievement of Terry Eagleton as a literary critic. But more important for me is the way in which this essay brings out the coherence and integrity of Eagleton’s loyalty to both a heterodox Christianity and a heterodox Marxism. Alan Jacobs thinks these loyalties mistaken (as do I), but they arise out of the serious intellectual, moral, and spiritual concerns of a serious man. That needed to be said about Terry Eagelton (both the seriousness and the mistakenness), and I’m glad Alan Jacobs did.
“A Splendid Wickedness” (August/September). Some weeks ago, Andrew Sullivan posted one of David Bentley Hart’s amusingly whimsical essays under his “poseur alert.” Hart is many, many things, but a poseur is not one of them, as anyone who reads this tour de force will recognize. Where else can you get nearly the entire history of the Don Juan myth in modern literature in eight exquisitely readable and often very funny paragraphs? Moreover, Hart’s thesis has a piercing critical point: our age is too mediocre in its half-hearted narcassism, part-time sensualism, and half-believed materialism to thrill to the heroic hedonism of Don Juan.
I am a great fan of David Bentley Hart, and I might easily have put his fine essay on Heidegger (“A Philosopher in the Twilight” [February]) on my list, as well as his superb reviews and many of his columns on the First Things website (especially the one on the greatest nation on earth—Bhutan!—a send-up of simplistic American boosterism). I’m very glad to have him in First Things every month in 2012 as our “Back Page” columnist.
“A Free Speech Year at the Court” (October). Is it possible to give a substantive account of the important cases decided by the Supreme Court in a short essay? And make it something a non-lawyer like me can understand? This is exactly what Michael McConnell does. I dare say it’s the best account of the Court’s rulings written in 2011.
“The Heavy Eyelids of Lucian Freud” (October). Ian Marcus Corbin helps us see and understand the way that modern materialist philosophies narrow the artistic vision of our age, falsifying our contemporary claims to a greater realism. As it happens, this essay appeared shortly after Lucian Freud’s death. The Metropolitan Museum of Art mounted a special exhibition of his work, which I visited. As I looked at Freud’s portraits, which are very fine, I found myself saying, “Corbin is right!”
“Restoring the Words” (November) by Anthony Esolen. “On Literature and the Life of Torah” (November) by Shalom Carmy. Hadley Arkes outlining a fundamental moral critique of the individual mandate that requires us all to purchase health insurance in “Natural Rights Trump Obamacare, or Should” (December). There are more favorites.
But enough. I hope you’ll go back and re-read some of essays I’ve suggested, or perhaps your own favorites. What’s good is always worth savoring again. And for those who haven’t read my favorites, check out the archives. Better yet, buy a subscription and get the best of 2012.
R.R. Reno is Editor of First Things. He is the general editor of the Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible and author of the volume on Genesis. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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