“A gift cannot so easily be severed from its giver,” writes Gilbert Meilaender, responding to the news that the prime minister of Great Britain had called for a system in which organs would simply be taken for transplant from cadavers, with their consent presumed. “When an organ is freely given, that gift—like all gifts—carries with it the presence of the giver and directs our attention back to one who is not just a collection of alienable parts but a unified living being. Indeed, what the donor gives is not simply an organ but himself or herself. The gift can never be entirely severed or alienated from the giver.”

That’s in “ The Giving and Taking of Organs ,” Meilaender’s article in the March issue of First Things , which has just reached newsstands. From beginning to end, it’s a strong issue. In “ Lincoln and the Will of God ,” for instance, the brilliant essayist Andrew Ferguson, author of Land of Lincoln , examines the endless attempts to claim Lincoln for some spiritual or religious cause:

The famed nineteenth-century mystic Nettie Colburn Maynard wasn’t a professional writer—her time spent communing with the Next World left little energy for the literary arts—but she did have a gift for salesmanship. So when she authorized the publication of her memoirs in 1891 she chose a title sure to grab the attention of paying customers: Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? Lincoln’s name in a title has always been catnip to American book buyers, and they made Mrs. Maynard’s tell-all a great popular success. It helped, too, that the answer to the title question, spread over nearly two hundred pages of breathless reminiscence, was: You bet.

To a certain kind of reader, the evidence must have seemed overwhelming. Mrs. Maynard recalled that she held her first séance in the White House in December 1862. She was then a young girl, and President Lincoln was there in the Red Parlor, seated across from her. She fell into a trance—“passed under control” is her technical term—and wobbling through the ectoplasm she offered a bit of advice: The president must ignore advisers who were telling him to delay issuing the Emancipation Proclamation. This act, she told him, would prove to be “the mission for which he had been raised up by an overruling Providence.”

As we know, Lincoln took her advice, ignored the timid counsel of his Cabinet, and released the proclamation in a matter of days—perhaps, she later suggested, because her words had been delivered, petite though she was, in the booming baritone of Daniel Webster. Her memoir revealed much more, including one Georgetown séance at which President Lincoln was levitated while sitting, chanteuse-like, atop a grand piano.

Nettie and her book are mostly forgotten these days, but her mission lives on. A booster of spiritualism, Nettie considered it vitally important to enlist Lincoln in her cause, even if only posthumously. In other contexts, the Lincoln biographer David Donald has called this ambition “getting right with Lincoln,” and since April 1865 it has been pursued by Americans of every imaginable persuasion: Leninists and vivisectionists, pacifists and vegans, gold bugs and free-marketers, imperialists and one-worlders, even Democrats and Republicans—all have tried, at different times and with varying degrees of plausibility, to claim Lincoln as one of their own. For generations, Americans have liked to say they wanted their children to be like Lincoln: principled, resolute, patient, kind. But what we’ve really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, whoever we are.

Lincoln and the Will of God ” is this month’s free article, available even to nonsubscribers—but it forces the question: Why aren’t you subscribing? You could be reading “ Where Have All the Moonies Gone? ,” K. Gordon Neufeld’s account of his days in a Unification Church seminary. Or Michael Linton’s sharp-edged review of Lawrence Kramer’s Why Classical Music Still Matters :

It’s perhaps the most stunning comment I’ve ever read about music. Fairly early in his recent book Why Classical Music Still Matters , in an aside discussing the effort required to listen to classical music, Lawrence Kramer reminisces: “From the day I first accidentally heard a Beethoven overture (someone bought the record by mistake) rocking through the chilly, lifeless suburban ‘family room’ of my early teens with simply unbelievable vehemence, I’ve been convinced that the music is worth the bother, and more.”

The supercilious tone of suburban , the ironic quotation marks around “family room,” the veiled aggression of unbelievable vehemence, the paired chilly and lifeless: Somehow the recorded music of one man—who wrote for the patricians of a Central European capital two centuries and four thousand miles from Kramer—was both more alive to him and more beloved of him than the house he actually lived in and the presence of a family that presumably loved him, or at least provided his daily substance (including access to a record player). Apparently, classical music must really matter. Still.

You could be following the exchanges between Avery Cardinal Dulles and his critics on ecumenism, or Richard John Neuhaus and his readers on the Virgin Mary. You could be pondering new poetry from Alan Sullivan and Rachel Hadas , to say nothing of Les Murray , quite possibly the best poet writing in English today.

You could be taking in “ How to Read the Bible ,” Robert Louis Wilken’s account of the role of allegory: “The abandonment of allegory was a revolt against the Church’s tradition, including the tradition that is found in the New Testament itself. The practice of allegorizing the Old Testament—giving certain passages a meaning other than the plain sense—was not an invention of the Church Fathers or the Middle Ages; it was the work of the authors of the books of the New Testament. And in their exegesis of the Old Testament, patristic commentators consciously imitated what they had learned from the New Testament.”

Or you could be trudging through “ The Judgment of Memory ,” my tale of the impossibility of reaching truth in memoirs of childhood:

Between the narratives of the old sentimental versions of family life and the details of the newer anti-sentimental accounts, we have still not found much of a way to write an American memoir or tell the story of an American childhood.

Perhaps we never will. The great tangle of weak words and warped memory and streamlined narrative offers no apparent solution. The knot will not be untied by any memoir or story—by any confession, for that matter, or affidavit, or psychiatric review. Greater and lesser honesty remains, of course: this happened, that did not. But untruth tinges all the threads. In the end, every sentence with the word I in it is a lie: self-justifying, self-righteous, self-conscious, self-sick.

If that’s not your cup of tea, you could read George W. Rutler’s review of Piero Marini’s A Challenging Reform: Realizing the Vision of the Liturgical Renewal : “Perhaps greater contact with pastoral reality would have anticipated the chaos that comes when ardent but misbegotten theories are imposed on the people of God who do not regularly read Notitiae . The blithe obliviousness of many experts to damage all around them is, nonetheless, breathtaking. At times in various lands it is like watching a venerable procession of Alcuin, Ivo of Chartres, Gueranger, Fortescue, and Jungmann, and finding, at the end Inspector Clouseau.”

Or Ramesh Ponnuru’s review of Mark Stricherz’s Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party :

It would have required a lot of prescience to predict in 1965 that American politics, for so many decades based on economic divisions, would soon split over social issues and, especially, abortion. But not even a very prescient observer could have correctly predicted which party would take which side in the coming battles. On abortion, in particular, it looked obvious which way it would break: The Democrats were the party of Catholic Northerners and Southern whites, the party that believed in using the power of government to protect the weak; the Republicans were the party with historical ties to Planned Parenthood.

Somewhere along the line, the parties switched places, with consequences—including the Democrats’ loss of their durable majority—that are plain to see. But how it happened still seems a puzzle, and, in his new book, Why the Democrats Are Blue: Secular Liberalism and the Decline of the People’s Party , Mark Stricherz has provided a crucial piece for solving that puzzle.

Add in Thomas Hibbs on the philosophy of Jean-Luc Marion and Gary A. Anderson on Christians and Muslims in the world of Islam , and the book-review section of the March issue covers a broad range of serious topics—especially with Richard W. Garnett’s comments on Philip Bess’ Till We Have Built Jerusalem: Architecture, Urbanism, and the Sacred , and books briefly noted by our staff members Ryan T. Anderson, Amanda Shaw, and Nathaniel Peters.

And then, as the final piece of every issue of First Things , Father Neuhaus writes The Public Square , the magazine’s most popular feature. In a major essay this month, he takes up “ Clerical Scandal and the Scandal of Clericalism ”:

In the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council, many laypeople of an anticlerical disposition seized on the teaching that the Church is the “People of God.” Predictably, their anticlericalism met with a reaction of reinforced clericalism. That was dramatically the case in connection with the disastrous 1976 “Call to Action” conference in Detroit, where lay delegates, largely composed of church workers of one kind or another, led an attempted insurrection not only against episcopal governance but against the teachings of the council in whose name the conference was convened.

These and other convolutions notwithstanding, the Church is the People of God, and the clergy, from the pope to the most recently ordained deacon, have no reason for being other than to serve the People of God in their ministry of service to God and his world. Asked by a bishop what he thought about the laity, John Henry Newman replied that we clergy would look pretty foolish without them. To which it needs only to be added that the laity are not there to prevent the clergy from looking foolish.

All of this available online to subscribers—and, as a special bonus, in a curious old medium known as paper¯actually printed out and mailed to you. Shouldn’t you be subscribing to First Things ?

Articles by Joseph Bottum

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