Marilynne Robinson Stumbles

I’ll admit it up front. I was disappointed with Home, Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel. There are some finely spun sentences and evocative passages. The final pages breathe with emotional reality, and Robinson’s rich knowledge of Christian theology produces some rewarding insights. But the novel as a whole is workmanlike.

High expectations undoubtedly contributed to my disappointment. Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, has an aching beauty. The story focuses on Ruth and Lucille, two sisters raised by their aunt in the imaginary small town of Fingerbone, Idaho. The haunting reality of memory eventually becomes more substantial then the physical structure of their house, and by the end of the novel Robinson succeeds in making the reader feel as though Ruth and Lucille are thin, spectral waifs who have left behind the solid, everyday reality of life.

If Housekeeping spiritualizes, then Gilead, her second and widely (and justly) praised novel, moves in the other direction… .Continue Reading »

Sotomayor, Catholic Supremacy, and Protestant Approaches to Law

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court raises the prospect that for the first time in history there will be a supermajority of justices on the same court affiliated to one degree or another with the Catholic Church. Indeed, if her nomination is successful”as most experts believe it will be”half of the Catholics who have ever been on the Supreme Court will be serving simultaneously.

At the same time the number of Protestants on the court will fall to a historic low”with David Souter’s retirement, John Paul Stevens will be the lone Protestant. With Catholic representation on the land’s highest court at its apex, and Protestant representation at its nadir, the question must be asked whether this reflects a shift in the balance of legal influence reflective of underlying deficiencies in American Protestantism.

There is nothing intrinsic to historic Protestantism that would prevent it from cultivating first-rate legal thinkers… . Continue Reading »

Same-Sex Marriage and the Death of Tradition

Conservatism emerged as a defense of tradition. Edmund Burke, universally acknowledged as the founder of modern conservatism, famously defended tradition as a source of social safety and stability, a bulwark against the corrosive effects of an unfettered rationalism. To be sure, neither Burke nor his later followers have defended a blind adherence to traditional social forms. As Burke noted, a state incapable of change is a state without the means of its own preservation. Tradition must often be altered and adapted to new circumstances. Nevertheless, for the conservative, if tradition is not always to be preserved, it is at least always to be given the benefit of the doubt. As the most eminent of American Burkeans, Russell Kirk, once said, “if it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change.”

The same-sex marriage movement is surely a great challenge to conservatism. The success of the movement would represent a great repudiation of tradition; in fact, it is almost impossible to distinguish the victory of the same-sex marriage movement from a complete repudiation not only of the traditional definition of marriage, but of the social authority of tradition as such. Consider the following points… . Continue Reading »

Obama and Cairo

Under the cover of continuity, President Obama has effected a revolution in American foreign policy. As a result, America’s position as a world superpower well may have peaked in 2008, and its long-term decline to a status better resembling Britain. But unlike Britain’s misery, America’s decline will be a willful withdrawal from a leading position in world affairs, an act without obvious precedent in world history. Were this to occur”and that is the present trajectory”Obama will have had a decisive role in bringing it to pass. What motivates the president? The answer, I believe, should be sought in the tragic circumstances of the Muslim nations.

What a master of the hot button, though, this president is. Jews invest a great deal of their emotional energy in the Holocaust, and he pressed their button at Buchenwald. Jewish voters, almost eighty percent of whom supported Obama last November, are more susceptible to the sucker punch than other denizens of a cynical world, and Obama is its master practitioner… . Continue Reading »

An Invitation to Artists

How do you get an actor to complain? Hire him! An old joke, but I first heard it from television’s iconic Robert Conrad (a fact that allows me to name-drop, another thing actors are prone to).

In the May issue of First Things, I was introduced as New Media Editor, a unique opportunity to serve this journal. I am sincerely honored. Now, let me complain.

Every day I seem to scour the news looking for irritation. I find myself keeping score: tallying insults to my gender, ethnicity, race, country, church”even my favorite quarterback. I have one snarl in the barrel and another in the chamber as I click to the websites of the New York Timesand the Washington Post. If I’m really in the mood for a barroom brawl, I’ll check in with The Huffington Post or Daily Kos… . Continue Reading »

Dorothy Sayers and Economic Society

The casual observer might wonder how a pre-war English detective novelist could possibly be relevant to a twenty-first century economic crisis. That would be to underestimate Dorothy L. Sayers. In the 1933 whodunit Murder Must Advertise , Sayers placed Lord Peter Wimsey incognito in an advertising . . . . Continue Reading »

Defending Life Requires Law

My heart sank when I read the headline: “Abortion Provider Is Shot Dead.” It sank still further as I read the story. Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kansas was one of the few doctors willing to perform late-term abortion, even some, the newspaper reported, in the ninth month. Kansas . . . . Continue Reading »

Using and Being Used

My dictionary defines the word tool in some interesting ways. A tool is “an instrument like a hammer, used or worked by hand.” A tool is “a means to an end.” And”more sardonically”a tool is “someone who is used or manipulated by another; a dupe.” . . . . Continue Reading »

Sotomayor the Subjectivist

In all human probability, by the end of the summer Judge Sonia Sotomayor of Second Circuit Court of Appeals will take the seat of Justice David Souter on the United States Supreme Court. On the grossest level, we have one liberal judge replacing another, and so the change is unlikely to affect the . . . . Continue Reading »