If you’re looking for something new to vary the grinding winter sameness, the March issue of First Things will be of no use. In it you’ll find nothing but what you’ve come to expect: just another Pentecostal outbreak of intellect and eloquence applied to the highest matters of current and perennial interest.

In “ While Europe Slept ,” for instance, Jean Bethke Elsthain warns us that a rough beast is growing in the womb of European nihilism: “Evil need not take the form of the Hitlerian monster of Europe’s past or the serial killers of contemporary movies . . . . Evil can take the form of refusing to be what one is. The retreat from defining Europe in relation to her Jewish and Christian heritage is the face of European nihilism. When a reaction comes, it is likely to be extreme and distorted because indifference prevailed too long.”

Meanwhile, in “ A Campaign of Narratives ” George Weigel gives a magisterial analysis of current political culture in light of the 2008 presidential election, paying particular attention to the importance of narratives: “The creation and marketing of compelling personal narrative has replaced the contest of issues and ideas as the driving force of electoral politics . . . . In a country in which American Idol has become a major cultural reference point, is it any wonder that we have elections that resemble American Idol in their dominance by narrative¯which is to say elections that are substantively vacuous?”

In “ What Happened to the Values Voter? ” John C. Green looks at the 2008 election from a different perspective, analyzing the data on how believers voted. In it he addresses four questions: “Has religion lost its purchase at the polls, pushed aside by questions of prosperity and peace? Is there a fundamental shift in the structure of faith-based politics, driven by crisis and charisma? Do the results presage a new era in religion and politics? All these queries presume a more basic question: What role did religious voters play in the election of Barack Obama?”

For those interested in the future of the stem-cell controversy during the Obama years, Yuval Levin’s sober, clear-sighted report “ Biotech: What to Expect ” is, quite simply, essential reading: “Over the past fifteen years, the pro-life movement has succeeded in enacting some modest limitations on embryo-destructive research . . . . The new political environment puts all of these achievements at grave risk and makes further steps essentially impossible for the time being.”

Taking the perennial controversy over Israel’s military actions as his point of departure, Joel Schwartz’s “ Israel’s Defense ” tackles the question, “Can Jews be manly?”: “Traditional Jewish culture esteems piety and scholarship more than power and honor¯and this tension between Jewishness and manliness raises an important question about Israel. Israel is . . . a Jewish state, and . . . as a state surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel must promote its citizens’ manliness. But does this lessen or even negate the state’s Jewish identity? Is it right to dismiss pride and honor? Does Jewishness have no room for manliness?”

If you’re more in the mood for literature, philosophy, and theology than politics, Anthony Esolen’s your man. In “ The Freedom of Heaven and the Freedom of Hell ” Esolen enlists Dante’s help in attacking the typical modern conception of freedom as total independence from “the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family.” Dante, he argues, “has foreseen our modern notion of freedom . . . and he has rejected it . . . . Any freedom that severs us from one another, from our memories of those who came before us, is a lie about being . . . . It is autonomy collapsing into antinomy, the denial of law itself and of our created being. Dante knows both that there is an autonomy in accord with the structure of created existence, which is truly free, and that there is an autonomy that violates it, caught by its own snare.”

Readers within and without the Reformed tradition will want to read “ Surprised by Calvin .” In this opinion piece, Richard Mouw argues that, despite their reputation for encouraging puritanical “disgust at the quite ordinary things that give us satisfaction,” Calvinists can find full warrant in John Calvin’s theology for cultivating the habit of seeing “the visible world, including the full range of our ordinary human experiences in that world, as pointing beyond itself.” While Calvin believed that “nature’s order is a fragile affair . . . . [he] also celebrated the faithfulness of a God who continually delights in the created works that he holds together by his sovereign power, so that our joy is in fact a participation in divine joy.”

Then there’s the ever-acute Alan Jacobs, who takes Philip Jenkins to task for suggesting that Christianity learn from the supposed syncretism of “lost Asian Christianity” by giving up on the doctrine of Christ’s uniqueness. In “ The Way, the Truth, and Philip Jenkins ” he writes:

Only the coldest of hearts and the most tightly shut of minds could repudiate the acknowledgment of one another and finding meaning in one another’s views and learning from one another and having lots of fruitful interchanges. Certainly I am eager to embrace all of those values, insofar as I understand them. But must I give up my believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life in order so to embrace them?

And if I do give up on the uniqueness of Jesus, what do I retain?

Need a break from all this masterly analysis and argumentation? Linger a while over A.M. Juster’s delightfully morose quatrain “ Candid Headstone ”:

Here lies what’s left of Michael Juster,

A failure filled with bile and bluster.

Regard the scuttlebutt as true.

Feel free to dance; most others do.

This is just one of five new poems in this issue, which includes offerings from Rachel Hadas , A.E. Stallings , Kevin Cutrer , and our poetry editor, Paul Lake .

Oh, and of course you’ll want to read the book reviews.

First Things ’ editor, Joseph Bottum, is unimpressed by Burton Raffel’s new translation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales . There is, he argues, something wrong with the very idea of an English translation of Chaucer: “Chaucer is an English author, the font of English literature, and his language is our own. If you need a translation to learn about how from every shires ende / Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende , then you probably aren’t ready to read Chaucer, even in translation.”

In her review of Mary Henhold’s Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement , Eve Tushnet faults the author for failing to ask the really interesting questions: “If there really is a conflict between one’s Catholicism and one’s feminism, should Catholicism ever win? And, perhaps most central of all, can there be a feminist theology of submission¯or does the feminist focus on equality and power relations crowd out any hope of understanding why a woman might find joy in kneeling, grace in bowing her head?”

Robert Louis Wilken rounds out the books section with a nuanced and appreciative discussion of Paula Fredriksen’s Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism :

Augustine’s writings are filled with anti-Jewish invective as harsh as anything in other early Christian writers. Yet their flows a deeper stream of thought that offers rich theological resources for Christian understanding of the Jews. Because of God’s ongoing connection to the Jews through the observance of the Law, the Church has an abiding relation to the Jewish people.

. . .

Though she does not shy away from Augustine’s biting reproaches . . . [Fredriksen] is unfailingly generous in bringing out the positive aspects of his thinking.

Then, as if all that weren’t enough, we’ve topped it all off with a heaping tablespoon of crème fraiche: The issue ends with some of our favorite items from The Public Square , the celebrated column that our late founder and editor in chief, Richard John Neuhaus, wrote for nineteen years.

Want all this and more? Afraid you’re missing out? Why wait a second longer? Good things come to those who subscribe .

Stefan McDaniel is a junior fellow at First Things .

blog comments powered by Disqus