In the description and narration of such events, Alan Jacobs writes of Martin Amis recent book about the attacks of September 11, great literary skills can actually impede the proper response, as many of us learned when Updike reported his view of the towers fall—from a house in Brooklyn—in the most delicately pointillist of styles. The result proved to be grotesque: As Leon Wieseltier memorably commented of Updikes prose, the loveliness is invincible. Amis is not as elegant a writer as Updike, but he too seems often to be trying too hard to accomplish something that is not worth accomplishing. When Amis writes, It was the plane itself that was in frenzy, one felt, as it gunned and steadied and then smeared itself into the South Tower, I only think: No, no, please dont. That is not wanted here.
Thats in Amis Amiss , one of the many features in the new issue of First Things . Its another rich issue, featuring, for instance, the sharp exchange between N.T. Wright, the bishop of Durham, and the magazines editor in chief, Richard John Neuhaus. Bishop Wright complains:
Errors abound in Neuhaus discussion of Surprised by Hope . I do not heap scorn on centuries of Christian piety. I do not claim that I am the first person since the New Testament and the early Fathers to take the thoroughly orthodox view that I do; many Orthodox and Reformed theologians of the last centuries have expounded a similar view. And, despite Neuhaus suggestion that I think myself superior to the Angelic Doctor, it is substantially Thomas Aquinas view of the Resurrection to which I suggest the Church should return. The views I attempt to controvert are, in terms of overall Christian tradition, comparatively modern and mainly Western.
To which Fr. Neuhaus responds:
My chief complaint about Surprised by Hope was and is that, in its admirable advocacy of a recovery of the eschatological, it caricatures and derides centuries of Christian thought and piety, including the thought and piety of almost all Christians today, with respect to their understanding of eternal life. A cosmic and eschatological corrective is needed, but I believe it will only be effective if presented as a development, and not as a severe rupture, in the Churchs faith and life. I, too, trust that this exchange with Bishop Wright will be understood within the context of robust friendship and indeed fellowship in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Meanwhile, in poetry, the June/July issue contains another cornucopia, with work by Rachel Hadas , William Baer , Kevin Hart , Alfred Nicol , Sally Cook , Robert McDowell , Robert B. Shaw , and this, from Midge Goldberg :
Why is Satan not too hot in hell?
He doesnt seem to suffer like the rest
Who languish there. Youd almost say hes blessed,
Hes acclimated to the place so well.
Perhaps he has a fast metabolism?
But he cant be impervious to heat—
That would be kind of silly and defeat
The purpose of this weather-changing schism.
No, theres a different way he disobeys—
An air-conditioned office where he stays,
A well-stocked mini-fridge that would entice
God himself—cold beer and, oh, the ice!
To his chagrin, he cannot let God know.
From time to time, he mops his brow for show.
Weve got books briefly noted by authors as good as James Bowman, Anthony Sacramone, and Frederica Mathewes-Green—together with full reviews from such authors as Shalom Carmy (reviewing James Q. Whitman’s The Origins of Reasonable Doubt ) and Caitrin Nicol (reviewing Steve Talbotts Devices of the Soul ) and Fr. John J. Coughlin (reviewing Nicholas P. Cafardis Before Dallas ).
The issue features, as well, David Shushons Zionism for Christians . Thats this months free article, available even to non-subscribers—but, then, why are there any non-subscribers , when you could read in the print version Shushons fascinating essay, which begins: Israel always matters . Biblical scholars have devoted endless pages to ancient Israel as a religious idea, and pundits have penned endless newspaper columns about modern Israel as a geopolitical entity. The deeper implications, however, have received less attention than they deserve in recent years, overshadowed by the exigencies of Middle Eastern politics. Indeed, real questions remain: What does the sheer existence of the modern state of Israel mean for theology—particularly for Christian theology? And what does that theology mean for the continuing existence of Israel?
For that matter, if you were a subscriber, you could be reading Roger Kimballs major essay, The End of Art . Or Russell Hittingers path-breaking Two Thomisms, Two Modernities : The past century and a half of papal teaching on modern times often seems a tangle: any number of different strands—theology, Thomistic philosophy, social theory, economics—all snarled together. And yet a little historical analysis may help loosen the knot. In fact, a careful reading of papal documents reveals one of the main causes of the tangle. Throughout Catholic thought over the past hundred and fifty years, there have run two entirely distinct conceptions of modernity and two quite different uses of Thomism—a combination of four threads weaving in and out of the Catholic Churchs response to the strangeness of modern times.
William Chip and Michael Scaperlanda renew their argument about the churches and immigration, while Gary Anderson undertakes a critical examination of the important recent book from Kevin J. Madigan and Jon D. Levenson, Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews .
And, as always, First Things contains The Public Square , Richard John Neuhaus popular column on religion, culture, and public life. This month he examines Steven Pinkers attempt to pick a fight with Leon Kass, Avery Cardinal Dulles achievement, the influence of the Dalai Lama, and much else. Heres a sample:
The subject of clericalism comes up with some regularity. Clericalism is the corruption that, overtly or subtly, subordinates priestly service and devotion to clerical privilege and power. Heres a little book by Father George B. Wilson, S.J., put out by Liturgical Press, Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood . The author is described as an organizational facilitator, and the theology is pretty thin. But I was struck by this: The time when an uneducated laity needed an ordained minister to explain the bare fundamentals of faith is long past. Laymen and laywomen in our developed society are educated to levels their grandparents could scarcely imagine. To be trusted to provide spiritual guidance in the complex world faced by todays adults requires demonstration of a high level of sophistication.
Well, yes and no. Far be it from me to discourage intellectual sophistication. We need all the subscribers we can get. But people no longer need to have the fundamentals of the faith explained? In my experience, and I dont think my experience is unique, laity who are in many ways highly educated have frequently not grown beyond their childhood understanding of the faith.
The good news is that they love preaching that sets forth and intelligently explains the doctrine of the Church. Ordained ministers who presume to take up fifteen minutes of their time with a homily have the opportunity and obligation to do just that. William Cardinal Levada, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was in the country in February, and he urged priests to at least balance, and perhaps replace, the homiletical diet of casual reflections on the readings of the day, seasoned by a cute story or two, with a solid dose of catechesis. He went so far as to suggest that preachers might even draw on the Catechism .
It is often said that we have the most highly educated laity in the Churchs history. It is less often said that many of them are religiously semi-illiterate. That is their fault in part. The fault, along with a large part of the remedy, rests with preachers. It is not clericalism but priestly duty—a duty that can become a delight—to set forth, persuasively and winsomely, the faith once delivered to the saints. Very much including the bare fundamentals.