The Public Square
It’s coming on ten years since Thomas Cahill published How the Irish Saved Civilization. The book gave new life to a genre of tribal literature in which extraordinary claims are made on behalf of one people or another to whom we are indebted for their crucial contribution to creating or preserving almost everything we hold dear. Now we have David Klinghoffer’s Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point in Western History (Doubleday, 272 pages, $24.95). We should all be very grateful that the Jews rejected Jesus as the Messiah because, if they had not, the Christian movement would have remained merely a sect within Judaism rather than becoming the world-transforming force that gave us Western civilization. That’s the argument in a nutshell, most of the rest of the book being devoted to why Jews must continue to reject Jesus. And, in fact, says Klinghoffer, “the Jewish rejection of Jesus has remained a constant.”
As a young journalist, Klinghoffer discovered and fervently embraced his Jewish identity. This story is told in his frequently moving spiritual memoir The Lord Will Gather Me In. He has also written for these pages. His “Anti-Semitism Without Anti-Semites” (FT April 1998) prompted a stinging rebuke from Rabbi David Novak of our editorial board (FT August/September 1998). Nothing daunted, Klinghoffer continues on his somewhat eccentric way, provocatively probing the Jewish-Christian connection. He is closely associated with Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Toward Tradition who has been a prominent defender of Christians falsely accused of anti-Semitism and has argued, in the face of powerful Jewish animosity, that the “religious right” is, all in all, a good thing for America and a good thing for Jews.
In his new book, Klinghoffer is admiring of Christ-ianity’s civilizational achievements, although not of its theology. He rebuts the claim that it is anti-Semitic to say that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus, citing Maimonides and other Jewish authorities who say the Jews were right to eliminate a false messiah. He debunks the notion that Nazism and the Holocaust were a product of Christianity, and he underscores Nazi hatred of Christianity and the Judaism from which it came. He treats sympathetically Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ, and is witheringly critical of the Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish organizations that thrive by exploiting irrational fears of anti-Semitism in America. In sum, Klinghoffer is in many respects Christian-friendly.
Except for the fact that Christianity itself is premised upon the fatal falsehood that Jesus is the Messiah. Much of the book is given to a detailed point-by-point rebuttal of the claim that Jesus fulfilled the messianic promises of the Hebrew Scriptures that Christians call the Old Testament. These arguments will be of interest mainly to those who describe themselves as Hebrew Christians or Messianic Christians, and who believe they are fulfilled as Jews by becoming disciples of Jesus. The arch-villain in Klinghoffer’s story is the apostle Paul who, he says, radically rejected Judaism and invented a new religion dressed up in “biblical trappings.” Although Klinghoffer excoriates the liberal theological reductionisms of the nineteenth century, both Jewish and Christian, at this point his argument is oddly similar to a long liberal tradition of blaming Paul for distorting the more attractive religion of Jesus. Along with many Christians, he fails to appreciate the implications of the fact that Paul’s epistles were written well before the gospel accounts of Jesus. In part because of their prior placement in the New Testament, it is a common error to think that the seemingly more straightforward gospel accounts were later and complicatedly “theologized” by Paul, whereas, in fact, Paul’s writings reflect what was generally believed about Jesus in the community that later produced the gospel accounts.
This tendency to get things backwards is at the crux of Klinghoffer’s argument. He writes, “We arrive here at the very heart of the difference between Judaism and the religion that Paul originated. The difference is still observable in the faith of Christians, as compared with that of Jews, down to our own time. Followers of Paul read and understand the Hebrew Bible through a certain philosophical lens—they bring to it the premise that Jesus is the savior, that salvation is from him. They read the Old Testament from the perspective of the New. They prioritize the New over the Old.”
Well, yes, of course. Only some Messianic Christians and Jews such as Klinghoffer think that the truth of Christianity stands or falls on whether, without knowing about Jesus in advance, one can begin with Genesis 1 and read through all the prophecies of Hebrew Scripture and then match them up with Jesus to determine whether he is or is not the Messiah. As with Saul on the road to Damascus, Christians begin, and Christianity begins, with the encounter with Christ. As with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the first Christians, who were Jews, experienced in that encounter the opening of the Hebrew Scriptures, revealing, retrospectively, how they testify to Jesus as the Christ. Klinghoffer writes, “The resurrection works as a proof that Jesus was ‘the Christ’ only if you have already accepted his authority to render interpretations of Scripture contrary to the obvious meaning of the words. That is, it works only if you are already a Christian.” The more one takes seriously Old Testament prophecy, writes Klinghoffer, “the more convinced he becomes that it is awfully hard to make Christian doctrine sit naturally on its presumed foundation, the Hebrew Bible. Yet even the arguments based on prophecies obviously aren’t perfectly invulnerable to refutation. Otherwise there would be no Christians, or at least no thoughtful Christians. They would all be Jews.”
This is, I’m afraid, gravely muddled. The argument, in effect, is that Jews reject Jesus because they are already Jews, and the mark of being a Jew is that one rejects Jesus. This is quite unconvincing in its circularity. Christian thinkers, including Paul, viewed Christ and the Church as the fulfillment of the promise to Israel not because they were engaged in tit-for-tat exegetical disputes with Jews over what Klinghoffer recognizes are often ambiguous and enigmatic Old Testament prophecies. Christians early on, and very importantly in engagement with Greek philosophy, developed a christology that entailed an understanding that all of reality, including the history of Israel, finds its center in Christ who is the Word of God (the Logos), the image of the invisible God in whom all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1), and, finally, the Son of God, the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. These philosophical and theological developments, almost totally ignored by Klinghoffer, form the matrix within which the Church—mainly Jewish in its beginnings—understood Israel and its Scriptures. For the early Christians, as for Christians today, the person of Jesus Christ was revelatory also of the history and sacred writings of Israel, of which he is the fulfillment.
The Other Jews
Klinghoffer is involved in an exercise of “what if” counterfactual historical revisionism. In fact, the early Christians, both Jewish and gentile, made no secret of the Jewish grounding of their faith. The second century Marcion who pitted Christianity against the history of Israel was condemned as a heretic. Many pagans did deride Christianity as a “Jewish sect,” which did not prevent its continuing growth. Moreover, those Jews who did not accept Jesus were themselves involved in reinventing Judaism after the destruction of the second temple in 70 ad. It is not too much to say that there were two competing versions of the history of Israel that were presented to the world: what became known as rabbinical Judaism on the one hand and the Church on the other.
The very title of the book, Why the Jews Rejected Jesus, is highly problematic. Scholars generally agree that in the first century there were approximately six million Jews in the Roman Empire (for some reason, Klinghoffer says five million). That was about one tenth of the entire population. About one million were in Palestine, including today’s State of Israel, while those in the diaspora were very much part of the establishment in cities such as Alexandria and Constantinople. At one point Klinghoffer acknowledges that, during the life of Jesus, only a minuscule minority of Jews either accepted or rejected Jesus, for the simple reason that most Jews had not heard of him. Some scholars have noted that, by the fourth or fifth century, there were only a few hundred thousand, at most a million, people who identified themselves as Jews. What happened to the millions of others? The most likely answer, it is suggested, is that they became Christians. What if the great majority of Jews did not reject Jesus? That throws into question both the title of the book and Klinghoffer’s central thesis. The question can be avoided only by the definitional legerdemain of counting as Jews only those who rejected Jesus and continued to ally themselves with rabbinical Judaism’s account of the history of Israel.
There are other parts to Klinghoffer’s telling of the story of Judaism. He is admittedly uneasy about “revealing” some of the nastier and very crude aspects of Jewish polemics against Christianity over the centuries. There is, for example, the rabbinical claim that Jesus and those Jews whom he misled are forever consigned to suffering in boiling excrement. But, as he notes, such unpleasantries have long been a staple in anti-Semitic literature and are today widely circulated on the Internet. He does not mention that they are vibrantly alive today in hyper-Orthodox literature, mainly written in Hebrew, in both Israel and this country. The viciousness of anti-Jewish polemic by Christians over the centuries is, of course, much better known. Determining who has said nastier things about whom is a bootless enterprise—as bootless as beginning with Genesis 1 and trying to connect the dots of prophecy in order to “prove” that Jesus was or was not the promised Messiah.
Klinghoffer ends on the note that Jews are elected by God to be the “nation of priests” whose duty is to minister spiritually to the “congregation” of Christians, Muslims, and others who will, God willing, one day come to recognize the truth of the religion preserved by those who reject Jesus, which is the decisive mark of being a Jew. While he is deeply appreciative of the gift that America has been for Jews, he does not seriously engage the current state of Jewish-Christian dialogue here as represented by, for instance, David Novak’s writings. Nor does he mention the historically unprecedented statement of 2000, Dabru Emet (“To Speak the Truth”), signed by hundreds of Jewish scholars and proposing a constructive understanding of Christianity (see FT November 2000). That statement says, among other things: “Jews and Christians worship the same God. Before the rise of Christianity, Jews were the only worshipers of the God of Israel. But Christians also worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, creator of heaven and earth. While Christian worship is not a viable religious choice for Jews, as Jewish theologians we rejoice that, through Christianity, hundreds of millions of people have entered into relationship with the God of Israel.”
Why the Jews Rejected Jesus: The Turning Point of Western History is not a work of scholarship, which is not necessarily a criticism. The author is a journalist who has read widely, if somewhat eclectically, and offers a provocative thesis that will, I expect, receive considerable attention. His many and contentious pages on the details of Old Testament prophecy will be chiefly of interest to a minority of Jews and Messianic Christians who will likely continue their exegetical disputes until Our Lord returns in glory. The larger claim that the Jewish rejection of Jesus made Western civilization possible is an exercise in tribal boosterism that, like Thomas Cahill’s stylish pandering to Irish pride, will not stand up under closer examination. As I said, David Klinghoffer is in many ways a friend of Christians and Christianity, but his latest book contributes little to understanding what it means to be a Christian or a Jew—an understanding that, as St. Paul ponders in Romans 9 through 11, continues to be deeply problematic in a manner that is not untouched by the mystery of God’s hidden purposes.
The Bishops and Reform Delayed
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
“Some turning point!” snorted a friend who keeps a gimlet eye on matters episcopal. He was referring to my little essay on promising developments in the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) following their June meeting in Colorado. I titled it “Bishops at a Turning Point” (see FT October 2004). After last November’s meeting in Washington, I can only say in my defense that I did caution that, like a big oil tanker, institutions sometimes turn very slowly, almost imperceptibly. “Oh, the turn was perceptible enough,” retorted the aforementioned friend. “They turned back.”
My friend is hardly alone in his dour assessment. “Our bishops, it seems, want a time-out,” opined the editors of the leftward National Catholic Reporter. Voices from center to right were not so sanguine. There was, for instance, the election of Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington, as president of the conference. With a slate of ten nominees, he won, albeit narrowly, on the first ballot. Skylstad, it is generally agreed, is a company man. He had been vice president of the Conference for the last three years under Bishop Wilton Gregory, and it has always been the custom that vice presidents succeed to the presidency. But these are not customary times, and, while company men have a necessary part to play, it was thought by many bishops—but obviously not by enough—that the conference needed bolder leadership.
While bishops, needless to say, are immune to the lures of ambition, the general rule for getting ahead is not to blot one’s copybook, and Skylstad had been less than a success even on that score. Spokane is, for instance, racked with priestly sex abuse scandals and the consequent lawsuits and financial settlements. There are published reports of nefarious doings of which one has to think the bishop had to know, but he, in his innocence, apparently noticed nothing out of the way. During the past year, he took a pass on the question of pro-abortion Catholic politicians, but not before firing a shot at bishops “who use the Eucharist as a weapon.” Shortly before the November meeting, it was announced that Spokane was filing for bankruptcy, with unforeseen consequences for compromising the governance of the diocese. But Skylstad had been the vice president, and so he was elected president. It is the way things have always been done.
A Controverted Track Record
At the same time, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, frequently described as the most respected member of the conference, was elected vice president. That almost certainly means that, if he agrees, he will be president in three years. (If George declines, the speculation is that Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh will be the next president.) According to that intrepid Rome reporter John Allen, in the Holy See, where George is held in highest esteem, there is great satisfaction with his election. It is said that, while Skylstad will be “the public face” of the conference, George will supply the “gravitas” that is not always in abundant supply, even among bishops. As much, if not more, discussed in the news from the November meeting was the election of Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, as head of the liturgy committee. Although it is not clear that the rules required it, Cardinal George resigned as liturgy chairman in order to accept the vice presidency, thus leaving the liturgy position vacant.
Trautman has a long and much controverted track record on matters liturgical. He was head of the same committee for a term in the 1990s. I have had occasion to offer some deferentially skeptical observations on Trautman’s very progressive views of Catholic worship (see FT October 1997). The election of Trautman was, one archbishop tells me, “a direct slap in the face of Arinze.” That is Francis Cardinal Arinze, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who has upset what is commonly described as the network of liturgical terrorists that is responsible for the banalization of Catholic worship over the last several decades.
Talk with anyone who follows these disputes and you will hear a lot about “ICEL.” That is the International Commission on English in the Liturgy, not to be confused with another ICEL, the International Consortium for Experiential Learning, although there are similarities. Cardinal Arinze and others in Rome are concerned that liturgical reforms have gotten out of hand. He thinks, for instance, that English texts should be accurate translations of the Latin, and that the experiential and experimental should be tempered by the awareness that the Mass and other rites are universal, as in Catholic. Trautman is a great champion of ICEL, of “gender-inclusive” language, and of liturgical license in general. In recent years he has crisscrossed the country making speeches against “interference” by Roman reactionaries who, he says, are bent upon extinguishing the light of liturgical renewal. Trautman’s enthusiasm for gender-inclusive language has prompted some to refer to him, affectionately no doubt, as Bishop Trautperson. He is said to think that is not funny, and who can blame him?
Trautman’s nomination and election came as a surprise to most of the bishops, but obviously not to all. The two nominees for the liturgy post were Justin Cardinal Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland, California. Then, quite out of the blue but employing a rarely used rule, Bishop Trautman was nominated from the floor, with the five necessary seconders already neatly lined up. The move was obviously well organized. After the voting, bishops who were unhappy with the result said it may have been a mistake to have two initial nominees who were perceived as being, in the words of one bishop, “too sympathetic to Rome.” The liturgy committee, like most committees of the conference, has little real power, but Trautman’s election signals a direction, and the committee can obstruct and delay Roman reforms. Between those who in public prayer prefer the formal “We humbly beseech you, Almighty God” and those who prefer the ever-so-spontaneous “Lord, we’re just here to tell you,” and between those who think the Mass is about the Real Presence of Christ and those who accent deeply meaningful interactions among his Really Awesome People, the bishops wanted to find a middle ground. So they went with the spontaneously klutzy and deeply meaningful.
There were other developments. The very astute Archbishop John Myers of Newark, New Jersey, was elected chairman of canon law, but just barely. The bishops agreed to work over the next couple of years on a pastoral letter on the family. Auxiliary Bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee is the new head of ecumenism. His ecumenical disposition tends toward the latitudinarian, although he has clarified that he does think there may still be church-dividing differences between Catholics and Lutherans (see FT February 2004). The bishops approved membership in a new project called “Christian Churches Together” (CCT). This was after they were given firm assurances that the commitment is to little more than friendly meetings among Christian leaders on a regular basis. CCT would not, they were promised, be able to issue statements on behalf of the bishops without their permission. Of course, CCT could issue statements on behalf of the other “four families” in its membership, in which case the headlines would read, “Catholics Oppose National Christian Leaders.” But the general feeling was that there was not much risk in CCT and maybe some good would come of it, so the bishops went along. The five families of CCT are Evangelical/Pentecostal, Historic Protestant, Orthodox, Racial/Ethnic (meaning mainly black), and Catholic. “Talk about the five families sounds like a novel by Mario Puzo,” said one archbishop.
The discussion of new forms for episcopal collegiality and accountability, such as a plenary council or a special synod of bishops, was put off. It is scheduled to be taken up in the meeting of June 2006. The charter and statutes adopted at Dallas 2002 for dealing with priestly sex abuse, including “zero tolerance” and “one strike and you’re out,” are being reexamined by Rome and will be revisited by the bishops next June. The worry that the conference is staff-dominated and committee-driven was addressed in a report that proposed that the bishops should “prioritize” their many concerns. (The use of “prioritize” does sound like it came from another committee, which it did.) Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, a keeper of the flame from the old Cardinal Bernardin days of the conference, said the report was very nice but was “blue-skying it,” meaning that such changes were not going to happen. As another bishop told me, “Conference business has been bureaucratic Jabberwocky from the beginning, and will be Jabberwocky until the end.”
In any event, the sense at the meeting was that the bishops need to focus on putting the Catholic house in order, concentrating on evangelization, catechesis, the Eucharist, and the priesthood. The last means increasing priestly vocations, of course, but also attending to the morale of the priesthood, which has been seriously damaged by the sex abuse scandals and the propensity of bishops to throw priests overboard in order to save money, to save face, and to save their own skins. The priorities set, however, do reflect the observation of Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee in his 2004 Erasmus Lecture that the bishops will increasingly attend to internal (ad intra) problems rather than lobbying on public policy (ad extra).
Then there was Theodore Cardinal McCarrick of Washington DC, and his task force on what to do about Catholic politicians who publicly and persistently defy the Church’s teaching. It may be recalled from my commentary on the June 2004 meeting that the Cardinal’s position is that the bishops should not do very much, if anything at all, about it. I had written that McCarrick had been less than straightforward with his colleagues in representing a letter from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger on the subject. A number of bishops have said that I greatly understated what McCarrick did, but I’ll stay with my formulation that he was “less than straightforward.” At the November meeting, McCarrick was to make a report on behalf of his task force but, despite the fact that the agenda was finished early and the meeting was reduced to three from its scheduled four days, the Cardinal “in the interest of time” simply put a two-and-a-half-page report on the chairs. That precluded debate and awkward questions. Not that the bishops were eager for debate or inclined to ask awkward questions.
According to Cardinal McCarrick’s report, everything was handled just right. “Bishops, pastors, and parishioners across the country have been wrestling with how our faith should shape our decisions in public life. This has been a very good thing.” Yes, there were problems. “The media or partisan forces sometimes tried to pit one bishop against another.” Oh dear, the media and partisan forces are at it again. Especially those partisan forces that are obsessed by the “one issue politics” of abortion. Never mind that some bishops very publicly stated that support for abortion and embryonic stem-cell research gravely compromised a politician’s communio with the Church, while others just as publicly said they saw no problem and happily invited such politicians to receive Communion. “We do not believe,” says the McCarrick report, “that our commitment to human life and dignity and our pursuit of justice and peace are competing causes.” But nobody said they were competing causes, except possibly Cardinal McCarrick and other bishops who seem to think the Democratic Party has a monopoly on the pursuit of justice and peace. At the November meeting, there was neither opportunity nor stomach for discussing McCarrick’s report. Which may be just as well. The bishops were simply grateful that they had escaped the prospect of having a radically pro-abortion Catholic in the White House. Except, of course, for those bishops committed to the pursuit of justice and peace.
So what happened to the “turning point”? I asked several of those who are commonly called John Paul II bishops. They are called that because they see John Paul II as an exemplar to emulate rather than an aberration to be endured. They see this pontificate as the source of authentic renewal and reform rather than as an authoritarian imposition to be resisted. The answers to my question were various: “We play by the rules and they don’t.” “The old Bernardin machine still has more gas than we thought.” “I refuse to play the debasing game of conference politics.” “Some find their satisfaction in being a conference player. My satisfaction is in being a bishop.” “The conference is finally irrelevant. In no important way does it affect what I have to do in my diocese. Why waste time on it?” And so forth.
And then there was this: “You were right in the first place, the June meeting was a turning point. The Old Guard knows that, and in the [November] meeting they fought back. Time and the age of the newer bishops are not on their side. Give us a few more years. The springtime of reform that the Holy Father talks about may not come until after his death, but it will come.” Oremus. Meantime, hold your Calloohs and Callays. The Jabberwock lives.
While We’re At It
• Some Methodists have a website (www.theymustrepent.com) and are collecting signatures to have two fellow Methodists, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, kicked out of the church for their part in the Iraq war. Such action is necessary, they say, “because the President claims his decision to go to war was guided by prayer.” It doesn’t say here what happens if George W. repents and promises to pray no more.
• Who should decide about when and where to go to war? After discussing the criteria of just war, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have responsibility for the common good” (§ 2309). That’s not good enough, writes Father Drew Christiansen in America, a Jesuit magazine. “In light of the war in Iraq, it appears that the Catechism needs updating. The revision should take into account recent church teaching and the example of the pope, bishops, and faithful in opposing war. It should acknowledge the fallibility and the failures of political leaders. Above all, it should affirm the right and responsibility of the public to set a limit in public opinion to the warmaking of elected political elites.” A great idea. Like, you know, maybe we could have elections in which candidates debate their differences about the war and other, like, really important things, and then maybe the winner, like, gets to be president. Hey, it might be worth giving it a try.
• L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, regularly reports on terrorist acts around the world but assiduously avoids mentioning that they are almost all associated with radical Islam. There are several reasons for this: the Holy See wants to resist any suggestion that we are engaged in a war of religions; as the chief institutional representative of world Christianity, it has a unique role in developing any future dialogue with Islam; and it is keenly aware of the precarious position of Christians in Muslim countries. These are all honorable reasons. But a more candid view is offered in a lead editorial in La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit-edited magazine that is also vetted by the Vatican secretariat of state. The editorial speaks straightforwardly about “terrorism of Islamic origin.” “There is a tragic conceptual connection beginning in New York on September 11, 2001, and reaching Beslan, in North Ossetia, on September 1, 2004.” The editors then list the dozens of incidents, with their many hundreds of deaths, perpetrated by “terrorism of Islamic origin.” “In reality, Islamic terrorism has not changed the goals that it has pursued since its origin [up to] the work of Osama bin Laden: to fight the Jews and the ‘crusaders’ (the Christians, seen as inveterate enemies of Islam); to fight against the Western world—and the United States in the first instance—that seeks to dominate the Islamic peoples and rob them of their riches, and which, moreover, because of its atheism and corruption, constitutes a grave threat to the Islamic faith; to vindicate the offenses and damages that Western colonialism has inflicted upon the dignity of the Islamic peoples and upon their culture and economic development; to strip of power the governments of majority Islamic countries that are allied with the West and have permitted the American military to trample upon the holy ground of Muslim countries and have served as logistic and military bases to fight against other Muslim countries and deprive them of their oil, the great resource that Allah has given to the ‘believers,’ denying it to the ‘infidels.’” “The most serious change that has taken place in terrorism,” say the editors, “is the loss of even the most minimal sense of humanity,” which, one notes, is integral to the strategy of throwing the whole world into a state of terror. La Civiltà Cattolica does not offer a blanket endorsement of responses to terrorism by the U.S. and its allies. The suggestion is that the war in Iraq has inadvertently contributed to increased terrorism. The editorial is noteworthy not for saying much that is new but for underscoring a reality about which the Vatican is usually and so manifestly reticent: the terrorism afflicting the world is, historically and at present, Islamic in origin. Arguments about whether this is a distortion of Islam and whether warfare might one day be replaced by dialogue are interesting and important. But wisdom begins with giving a name to the reality by which we are confronted: Islamic terrorism.
• “The War in Iraq: How Catholic Conservatives Got It Wrong” is a long, almost ten-page, article in Commonweal by Peter Dula, who was sent for ten months to Iraq to write “advocacy reports” for the pacifist Mennonite Central Committee. Dula is a graduate student in theology and a gifted writer. The essay is a critique of FT, with particular reference to what George Weigel and I have and have not said about the Iraq war in these pages. Dula’s position is unambiguous: “Iraq is a catastrophe—on all accounts (except perhaps for Dick Cheney’s).” Dula believes that FT has been too confident of U.S. policy and too partisan in supporting the administration. Most sharply, he accuses us of being “mute,” of failing to pay sufficient attention to what is happening in Iraq. In our December 2004 issue (“Internationalisms”), I tried to explain our approach to the Iraq war and to U.S. foreign policy more generally. Dula read that reflection just before his essay went to press, but it apparently did not change his mind. “All in all,” he writes, “I think the critique I make of Weigel and Neuhaus in this essay still stands.” Dula originally submitted the Commonweal essay to FT, and we gave it careful consideration. Had it engaged arguments counter to his “catastrophe” thesis, I expect we would have published it. In any event, it makes for an interesting read and I am glad it found an appropriate home at Commonweal.
• In April of last year we published Joseph Bottum’s “The End of the Pius Wars,” and that essay serves as an introduction to a remarkable new book edited by Bottum and Rabbi David Dalin, The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII (Lexington, 282 pages,, $29.95
). (I don’t know why “wars” became “war” in the singular, but never mind.) The Pius War will likely remain the definitive answer to the slew of malicious and misleading books that have in recent decades assailed Pius XII for his “silence,” or worse, during the period of Hitler and the Holocaust. Turning the tables, Rabbi Dalin makes a persuasive case that Pius should be honored as a “righteous gentile” in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. Of inestimable value, and the product of years of laborious effort, is an annotated bibliography by William Doino, Jr. It is almost two hundred pages in length and will become an indispensable reference for all responsible writers on Pius XII, the Holy See, and the Hitler era. The Pius War includes a brilliant critique of John Carroll’s Constantine’s Sword by Robert Louis Wilken. The attack on Pius, Wilken notes, is about ever so much more than Pius: “At the end of the day, in spite of the enormous effort to lay bare the sins of the Church over two millennia, Constantine’s Sword is not really a book about Christian theology of the Jews. Its subject is Christian theology tout court, and its polemic springs from the currently fashionable ‘ideology of religious pluralism’—what might be termed horror at strong opinions. Carroll wants a Christianity that celebrates a ‘Jesus whose saving act is only one disclosure of the divine love available to all,’ and calls for a pluralism of ‘belief and worship, of religion and no religion, that honors God by defining God as beyond every human effort to express God.’ What we have, then, is a rather conventional cultural critique of Christianity. The Jews are the victims par excellence of the excesses of revealed religion. But what Carroll forgets is that the Jews, too, believe in revelation. If Christians, on the basis of Scriptures and the Christian tradition, cannot confess Jesus as Lord, can the Jews, on the basis of Scriptures and Jewish tradition, claim that they are the elect people of God? In Carroll’s brave new world there will be neither Jews nor Christians.” On the specifics of what Pius did or did not do, could or could not do, during the Holocaust, and also on the larger theological questions addressed by Wilken and others, The Pius War will likely be an important resource in advancing the cause of Pius XII toward his canonization.
• Germans are, a half-century later, finding their voice in describing the horror of World War II as they experienced it. In May 2003 we reviewed W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, a powerful account of the obliteration bombing of Hamburg. Now we have Hans Erich Nossack’s The End: Hamburg 1943. His is a narrative of the catastrophe laden with existentialist ponderings of evil and death. The author says little about the war of which the bombing was part. “Now was no longer the time for such petty distinctions as that between friend and foe,” he writes dismissively. Adam Kirsch comments in the New York Sun: “For this reason, The End, though it is a unique document and an interesting literary composition, offers little insight into the moral questions raised by the Allied bombing. That Germany is now bringing her wartime suffering to public discussion is, essentially, a positive development, in the sense that historical honesty is always preferable to myth and amnesia. But any recollection of Hamburg and Dresden is incomplete without the recollection of Warsaw, Rotterdam, Coventry, and Belgrade, not to mention Leningrad, Lidice, and Auschwitz. As the narrator Zeitblom declares in Thomas Mann’s wartime masterpiece, Doctor Faustus: ‘We have experienced the destruction of our noble cities from the air, a destruction that would cry to heaven if we who suffer were not ourselves laden with guilt. As it is, the cry is smothered in our throats; like King Claudius’ prayer, it can “never to heaven go.”’”
• The last several years have witnessed a cultural shift marked by a renewed appreciation of the marriage-based family and the human devastations caused by infidelity and easy divorce. Remember the olden days when “open marriages” were all the rage? The shift was accelerated by last November’s election and the attention paid to “moral values.” But then there are those who live in an alternative universe that is self-described as “the creative community.” Here is Caryn James, New York Times media critic, engaged in deep thinking about cultural directions. She is impressed by the popularity of the network program Desperate Housewives, and a recent Oprah episode on the joys of infidelity. Then there is the movie Alfie, a remake of a sleeping-around story of the 1960s. Not to mention Kinsey, which casts the pitiful bisexual masochist as a heroic prophet of sexual revolution, and Closer, which adds potty-mouthed dialogue and skin shots to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the 1966 assault on the hypocrisies and betrayals of bourgeois marriage. I haven’t seen these recent films. I know only what I read in the reviews, and I understand they have all fallen flat at the box office. The interesting thing is the conclusion drawn by Caryn James. In this world of endless cheating and lying, she says, “monogamy has come to seem an impossible goal; the new ideal is honesty about infidelity.” Open marriage, anyone? Caryn James is a credit to the planet on which she was born.
• Robert Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches (NCC) and former Democratic congressman, has done some hard thinking about last November’s election: “We need to work really hard at reclaiming some language. The religious right has successfully gotten out there shaping personal piety issues—civil unions, abortion—as almost the total content of ‘moral values.’ And yet you can’t read the Old Testament without knowing God was concerned about the environment, war and peace, poverty. God doesn’t want forty-five million Americans without health care.” Some might get the impression from reading the Old Testament that God is pretty reckless about the environment. Think of the flood, for instance, or the torching of Sodom and Gomorrah. And He seems to be positively in favor of wars, including aggressive and preemptive ones. But even if one reads the New Testament as well, it will not be entirely clear to many what God thinks about health care in America. In fact, it is not true that forty-five million Americans are without health care. At any given time, about that many may be without a health insurance plan, most of them healthy young people who do not need much medical care. But all Americans have access to health care through religiously sponsored, especially Catholic, hospitals, public hospitals, clinics, and other medical facilities. And don’t forget Medicaid. Visit any emergency room and read the long list of “patients’ rights” posted there, with specific reference to those without insurance or other means of payment. Is medical care, whether for the insured or the uninsured, always adequate? Of course not, and God bless those who work at improving it. But it really is not helpful to claim that God demands socialized medicine, which is the favored policy of the NCC. Now I brace myself for letters asking why I even bother to comment on such statements by the NCC. The answer is that it is a matter of charity, which God does require of us. Every once in a while, a statement by the NCC will make its way into a newspaper, and it is a simple kindness to Mr. Edgar and his friends to assure them that somebody noticed.
• The story of Eastern Europe in the period of Soviet collapse was magnificently told by Timothy Garton Ash. He understood all the complexities and was solidly on the side of freedom. His new book, Free World: America, Europe, and the Surprising Future of the West, is very much worth reading (Random House, 286 pages,, $24
). Other writers have in the last several years been underscoring the deep differences between Europe and the U.S. Robert Kagan, for instance, famously asserted that “Americans are from Mars and Europeans from Venus.” See also George Weigel’s “Europe’s Problem—and Ours” in these pages (FT February 2004). Weigel develops that theme in a book that should be out in a few months. Ash, on the other hand, warns against our becoming obsessed with a “narcissism of minor differences” between ourselves and Europe. America is, after all, “the first European Union.” Chirac of France may posture about creating a “multipolar world” to offset U.S. influence, but his is hardly the last word, says Ash. There is a great deal of interest among European nations in having a “special relationship” with the U.S. comparable to that enjoyed by Britain, and he thinks we should encourage that interest. There is, he insists, a common civilization called the West, and it is in that civilization’s interest to embark on a grand common effort, led by the U.S., to use its political, military, economic, and cultural strength to encourage freedom worldwide and end poverty in Africa and other places that have missed out on the benefits of development. Timothy Garton Ash is a thoughtful observer and knows how to make a persuasive argument. At this point, however, it is by no means evident that Europe has the capacity or the will to pull its weight for the kind of future Ash envisions. The depopulation of major European nations, the rising prospect of Europe’s Islamization, and the continuing denial of its religio-cultural identity all work against the scenario favored by Ash. The last—the dissolution of the connection between European identity and Christianity—is perhaps the most debilitating, and the main source of Europe’s other ills. Nonetheless, if the more dour expectations of Europe and its role in the world are vindicated, it should be remembered that at least one serious thinker did his best to propose a more hopeful alternative.
• “Lights! Sound! Action! Gen Y and the Church of Choice” is an article by Paul Griffiths, professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a frequent contributor to First Things. Writing in the Boston College Magazine, he notes that “Gen Y” is the current term of choice for those born “more or less between 1978 and 1991.” Speaking with the authority possessed by the father of two Gen Y sons, he writes: “Generation Y swims in a powerful visual and aural environment like fish in a warm, salt sea. Public space is almost always saturated with background music; moments without conversation, one’s own or someone else’s, have become rarer (most of Generation Y does not recall a world without the cell phone); and when neither background music nor conversation are easily available, the personal music of the Discman or the iPod will at once be resorted to.” Mother Theresa would, upon being introduced to people, give them what appeared to be a business card. Most thought it odd that Mother Theresa would have a business card, and she didn’t. On the card was written: “The fruit of silence is prayer; the fruit of prayer is faith; the fruit of faith is love; the fruit of love is service; the fruit of service is peace.”
• The movie Kinsey takes us back half a century to the crucial role of Alfred Kinsey in launching a sexual revolution whose fall-out is still powerfully present. There is abundant reason to be sharply critical of Kinsey and his research. It is not necessary to exaggerate, as some conservative critics of the movie have done. I think columnist John Leo gets it about right: “Years ago, I covered the world of sex research as part of my social-science beat at Time magazine. I quickly figured out that a lot of people in this world seemed to have entered it because of their unusual sexual tastes, opinions, or problems. I think this was certainly true earlier of Kinsey as well. He was an exhibitionist, a voyeur, and a masochist. (This is handled in the movie by Kinsey’s wife’s discovering he has sliced his foreskin. But Kinsey did more grotesque things to his genitals than you want to read about here.) One biographer, James H. Jones, argues that Kinsey was gay from the beginning and riven with guilt about it, but he married and thought of himself as bisexual. The obvious question here is this: What are the odds that a researcher with this set of orientations and attitudes would be drawn to the conclusion that all sexual behavior is equal and that orgasms (and nothing else) count, certainly not how you achieve them or with whom? I would say the odds are very, very good. The movie stresses how relentlessly nonjudgmental Kinsey was. But as the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould once wrote, Kinsey’s absence of judgment was itself a form of judgment. Kinsey wrote: ‘What is right for one individual may be wrong for the next; and what is sin and abomination to one may be a worthwhile part of the next individual’s life.’ That certainly defined Kinsey’s own sexual demons out of existence, but it left the field of sexology with a taboo-breaking, anything-goes legacy. It also left one huge open area that has stained sexology ever since: adult-child sex. Outraged critics of Kinsey often focus on Table 34 of the male book. It lists the sexual responses of children acquired from one of Kinsey’s sources, a pedophile who kept detailed records of his child rapes, including those of a baby of five months and a four-year-old he sexually manipulated for twenty-four hours. As a nonjudgmental person, Kinsey of course did not bother turning the pedophile over to the law. His critics accuse Kinsey of ‘Mengele medicine,’ meaning that he presided over Nazi-like experiments. Not so. We have no evidence that Kinsey and his team conducted or approved of any child rapes. He just used the records of pedophiles, coldly described in the first Kinsey report as males who ‘with their adult backgrounds are able to recognize and interpret the boys’ experiences.’ Table 34 was a moral horror, and neither Kinsey nor his patron, the Rockefeller Foundation, seemed to think that anything was amiss.” As Leo notes, Kinsey did not explicitly endorse “intergenerational sex,” but he did write that the damage to children who have sex with adults is attributable to society’s horrified reaction. The advocates of adult-child sex have invoked his authority ever since. When he was writing about these things for Time, Leo says, “the air was thick with sex-world arguments in favor of incest and adult-child sex.” Fortunately, that is less the case today, and the movie evades some of what might gently be called the more controversial aspects of Kinsey and his research. Unfortunately, the portrayal of Kinsey as a bold scientist defying the taboos of an ignorant society will probably seduce the gullible into buying his debased view of sexual desire and behavior in the “human animal.” For those for whom their urges are their commands, it is an easy sell.
• It was a festive dinner over at the Union League Club where we were giving Brian Lamb the annual History Award. On Booknotes and other C-Span programs he has for nearly twenty years run a national seminar on American history. In my few words I noted that my appearance on Booknotes to discuss As I Lay Dying had been scheduled originally for a week earlier, in which case it would have been episode number 666. That was a narrow escape. In his engagingly rambling remarks, Brian revealed that they received more orders for that tape than for any other program in the entire history of Booknotes. That was nice. He said it was because everybody knows they are going to die. I thought it was my telegenic charm and rapier-like wit. Maybe it was the combination of the dour and congenial. The dinner at the club was the week before Brian was taking Booknotes off the air. The final program the following Sunday evening was number 801, and the guest was a professor of English literature at a distinguished university, the University of Virginia I believe, who had just written a book on what it means to be an educated reader. Brian’s genius as an interviewer, and it is genius, is in asking the right question and then stepping back to see what the guest does with it. Some people say he is laid back; I’d say he is incisively laconic. Brian never overtly agrees or disagrees with what is said, but sometimes there is the slightest smile of approval or twitch of the eyebrows indicating incredulity. Brian asked whether the professor was religious. No, he had been raised Catholic but at the age of twelve he had decided that none of that stuff could be scientifically proved and, anyway, it was too negative, so he chucked religion. He was not asked whether there was any other vast field of human inquiry, art, imagination, and literature about which the professor had definitively made up his mind at age twelve. What about, Brian asked, the complaint of liberal bias in the academy? That, said the professor reassuringly, was greatly exaggerated. He and his colleagues were open-minded, fair, compassionate, and interested only in respectfully trying to understand all viewpoints. Does he encounter resistance from students who are religious? Sometimes, he allowed, but they are often among the brightest, and he delights in liberating their repressed capacity to think for themselves. Many of them, he was pleased to report, end up being as wonderfully open-minded and caring as he is. The professor’s big enthusiasms, not surprisingly, were Emerson and Walt Whitman, although he is also getting into Buddhist spirituality. During the program, Brian ran clips from past interviews with worthies such as Gertrude Himmelfarb, Paul Johnson, and Milton Friedman, and asked the professor what he thought about what they said. In one clip, Friedman was talking about Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. The professor said he had never read The Road to Serfdom. In fact, said he, he had never heard of The Road to Serfdom. This is a man who had written a book on what it means to be an educated reader. Longtime Lamb watchers witnessed a pronounced twitching of the eyebrows as the last episode of Booknotes came to a close. Brian Lamb, who is also the CEO of C-Span, will be doing other interview programs that will not require him to prepare by reading a scheduled new book every week. Now he can read what he wants. In my experience, and the experience of a multitude of others, he is the only interviewer who obviously read the books to be discussed. In fact, and despite the final interview with the English literature professor from, as I recall, the University of Virginia, Booknotes was the only intellectually serious interview program on television. It will be much missed. And I do not say that because I wanted to be invited again. Booknotes had an unbendable rule: nobody appeared more than once. Brian Lamb has the idea that the 801 programs might serve as a kind of audio-visual history of the wisdom and nonsense that was the intellectual life of America at the turn of the millennium. I expect he is right about that.
• Quite suddenly, or so it seems to many, the prospect of Roe v. Wade being overturned or effectively nullified has entered mainstream discussion. This has everything to do, of course, with the November 2004 election and the filling of vacancies on the Supreme Court. James Taranto, writing in the Wall Street Journal, takes a cool, some might say jaded, view of the possible political consequences: “Republicans are an extreme antiabortion party only in theory. When it comes to actual legislation, the GOP favors only modest—and popular—regulations. The Democrats, on the other hand, must defend such unpopular practices as partial-birth abortion, taxpayer-subsidized abortion, and abortions for thirteen-years-olds without their parents’ knowledge. If the Supreme Court overturned Roe, legislators would have to consider the legality of abortion itself. Antiabortion absolutists would demand action from Republicans—but the GOP would be unable to comply without putting off moderate voters, who are much more numerous. Thus the battle would shift to terrain far more favorable to the Democrats. Congressional Republicans’ smartest response would be to avoid the issue and leave it to the state legislatures. But this would free Democrats as well as Republicans to tailor their positions to match their constituents’. Abortion would likely remain legal in much of the country, and the Democratic Party would find it has nothing to fear from democracy.” Returning abortion policy to the states might well be the best course of action available. But to say abortion “would likely remain legal in much of the country” is somewhat misleading. More probably, it would remain legal in certain circumstances; perhaps in the first month or two or in the much discussed but little encountered instances of rape, incest, and direct threat to the life of the mother. It is possible but by no means certain that any state would adopt the unlimited abortion license mandated by Roe. Some states would likely provide comprehensive legal protection for the unborn from conception on. There is another factor, however. Today no court can plausibly follow Roe in claiming that we do not know when a human life begins. Over these thirty-plus years, every literate person has learned, if they did not know before, the basic science about when a human life begins. Nor is it likely that in the future pro-abortionists will be able to use the Dred Scott-like argument about the meaning of “person” employed by Roe. Politically and judicially, the question will be posed in an unevadable manner as to why some who are undeniably human beings have a right to legal protection while others do not. Speculation such as that by Taranto will undoubtedly become more widespread. The debate over abortion may take surprising twists and turns as people seek a politically sustainable equilibrium on the single most potent question in our public life. Attention must be paid strategies and tactics and surprising turns, but those who understand what is at stake will never weary in working toward a society in which—if I may be permitted to say it for the thousandth time—every unborn child is protected in law and welcomed in life.
• “Earth is hotting up, faster than ever before,” says Hugh Montefiore, former Anglican bishop of Birmingham, England. Things promptly hotted up for the bishop as he was excommunicated from leading environmentalist circles of which he had been a prominent member. His unpardonable sin is that he came out for at least rethinking nuclear energy as a response to the fear of global warming. In these pages, Thomas Derr recently offered a judicious assessment of the talk about global warming, suggesting that much of it is hot air (FT November 2004). Montefiore, by contrast, is fully alarmed, and his alarm leads him to some revisionist thinking. “Four hundred forty-two reactors across the world produce 16 percent of the world’s electricity. Modern nuclear reactors are of vastly improved design, approved by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The permissible dose for reactor operatives is far less than the natural radiation in Cornwall! Eighty percent of French electricity comes from nuclear energy.” He takes on the objections one by one, including this: “Then there is the problem of nuclear waste. In Britain, short-lived and intermediate wastes are safely contained in trenches of glacial clay compacted, containerized, and capped with water-resistant clay. Long-lived wastes which last for thousands of years need more extensive treatment. The total amount of these since Britain began using nuclear energy is only the size of a ten-meter cube in volume. After cooling, the waste components need to be compacted into a vitrified solid, sealed in a metallic container, together with a metallic or ceramic ‘overpack,’ and placed in stable rock at least three hundred meters deep, together with a backfill to minimize any water movement. How safe is this? A former natural nuclear reactor has been found in Gabon which has remained undisturbed for thousands of years. There is minimal risk of danger to posterity. The advantages far outweigh any objections, and I can see no practical way of meeting the world’s needs without nuclear energy. The predictions of the world’s scientists are dire and the consequences for the planet are catastrophic. This is why I believe we must now consider nuclear energy. The subject is so important that it should be a matter of informed public debate.” Among his former environmentalist allies, it would appear, informed public debate is precisely what is not wanted.
• The theological differences that fall along denominational lines are not unimportant, says Nicholas Lash of Cambridge University, one of the more influential theologians of our time. But they are not the most important differences. “Perhaps the major fault line lies between those who call themselves Christians but nevertheless think that Christianity’s a human construction, full stop, and those who don’t. I think it’s a divide that goes right down to the bottom—the issue is whether we are responding or constructing.” For Lash, theology is definitely a matter of responding. “Although” he adds, “I would never begin an academic lecture with a prayer, because a lecture in a British university is not an act of worship, there is ultimately no separation. I would be horrified if I hadn’t, even indirectly, taught my pupils to pray.”
• You know that the meaning of “postmodernism” has been definitively gutted when the Southern Baptist Convention adopts a “postmodern strategy” for evangelization. Religion Watch is a useful newsletter that patrols the latest things in American, mainly evangelical, religion. Evangelical “megachurches,” which caused such excitement for a while, are so 1990s. The new thing is “emergence” and postmodernist communities that combine pop theories of evolution with New Age vocabulary and a strong dose of the “mystical,” meaning candles, chants, streamlined Eastern meditation techniques, and a theology of the “upwardly open” nature of nature. Tossed in for good measure are “traditional practices, such as communion and other rituals.” Evolutionary emergence involves everything from “sexual relationships and the Internet to larger and larger cooperative organizations and the global integration of mankind.” These innovative spiritualities have their gurus, such as Ken Wilbur, who is known as the “Hegel of emergent holists.” The ELCA Lutherans are getting in on the new thing with congregations that are postmodernist and postdenominational (denominations are so “modernist”). A Lutheran-sponsored Church of the Apostles in Seattle describes itself as “neither traditional (1950s) nor contemporary (1960s-1980s) but ancient-future.” Well, that clarifies that then. Oh yes, the postmodernist community in Seattle has also discovered that “faith is not a set of beliefs but a way of life to be lived.” Maybe, getting really ancient, they will discover the early twentieth-century slogan, “Deeds not creeds.” As I say, Religion Watch is useful and the ephemeral excitements offered by the hustling of the American religious imagination are not without a certain interest. There are few things more traditionally American than the perpetual reinvention of Christianity. The other night a preacher on television said, “Study the Bible as if you were the first person in the world to read it.” I don’t know if it is true, but the story is told of a shipwreck from which crates of Bibles washed up on a remote South Sea island, where a lone English trader had taught the natives to read. Decades later the island was visited by other white folk who discovered that all the natives had become Seventh-day Adventists. Maybe that’s the next really new thing.
• A while back a trustee of Union Theological Seminary took issue in these pages with my saying that the institution has come upon hard times. It is, he suggested, entering its years of greatest glory and influence. I hope he is right, but here is a Union advertisement for Landmark Guest Rooms. “Comfortable guest rooms within the Seminary’s walls blend the best of old and new. Our peaceful garden is an ideal spot for strolling, reading, and meditation. Union is just a short bus or cab ride away from all the excitement that New York City has to offer.” Having sold its library to Columbia University, Union is now letting out rooms. It does sound like hard times.
• Opus Dei plays a prominent part in the conspiracy theories propounded in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Learning that a company is running Da Vinci tours, Opus Dei decided to make lemonade out of lemons and invited the company to bring its clients to Opus Dei houses where they received a PowerPoint lecture on the truth about Opus Dei. Apparently the arrangement is working out to everyone’s satisfaction, although possibly not to Dan Brown’s. The Tablet reports that some Catholics are deeply troubled by the book. “We understand that members of one parish book club who read it were so troubled they sought an explanation from a priest.” They sought an explanation from a priest! You can hardly get more troubled than that.
• The Episcopal Church has an Office of Women’s Ministries, and its website recently posted A Women’s Eucharist: A Celebration of the Divine Feminine. Apparently it is a Druid rite involving the adoration of women’s water, menstrual blood, and breasts. Very edgy, as they say. The website also promotes books such as The Book of the Goddess Past and Present, Goddesses Who Rule, and Beginner’s Guide to Wicca. Diane Knippers, herself an Episcopalian and head of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is not pleased. She said, “It is bizarre to have to remind the Office of Women’s Ministry that the Episcopal Church is a Christian church.” There you have it, just as we were warned. Those crazy right-wingers are now trying to impose Christianity on the churches. What’s next? Remember Martin Niemoeller’s ominous warning, “First they came for the Druids, but I was not a Druid. . . .” You know how it turned out the last time.
• Some governments that are one-party or one-person dictatorships do really bad things to their people, and to other people when they get the chance. Freedom House puts out a highly respected annual listing of free, partly free, and unfree nations. It may be, as we hear said, that freedom is on the march, but it has a very long way to go. Human rights awareness and human rights advocacy is urgently important, and the oldline American churches each have units assigned to that task. Human Rights Advocacy in the Mainline Protestant Churches (2000-2003) is a thirty-two-page study issued by the Institute on Religion and Democracy (IRD). It examines official statements of the United Methodist Church, Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church (USA), and ELCA Lutherans, as well as the National and World Councils of Churches. During the years studied, there were 197 statements protesting human rights abuses. Sixty-nine percent of the protests were directed at Israel and the U.S. (37 percent and 32 percent, respectively). Only 19 percent were directed at countries Freedom House lists as unfree. Not one country bordering Israel is criticized. There were no criticisms of China, Libya, Syria, or North Korea. All of them brutally deny religious freedom, which one might think would be of particular interest to churches, and North Korea has concentration camps in which many thousands die after being worn out by slave labor. Never mind. The United States and Israel are the great violators of human rights in our time. And Israel is that, it would seem, because it is supported by the United States. As the authors of the report put it, “When U.S. policy cannot be blamed, the mainline denominations seem less interested in speaking up for the victims.” Some victims are more politically interesting than others. Admittedly, the chronic anti-Americanism of the religious oldline is not big news. Some Jewish organizations see anti-Semitism in the hostility to Israel. The Presbyterians are supporting a program of disinvestment from Israel, along the lines of disinvestment from South Africa during the apartheid years. The Episcopal Church says it is thinking about joining up with the program. Anti-Semitism may have something to do with it, but anti-Americanism is the chief dynamic so ludicrously skewing the churches’ perspective on human rights in the world. As Bernard Lewis has noted, criticism of Israel has the additional attraction of mitigating guilt feelings about the terrible things Christians have done to Jews over the centuries. “Yes, but,” it is said, “look at the terrible things Jews are doing to Palestinians.” It is true that Israeli retaliations against suicide bombings very deliberately aimed at killing Israeli civilians sometimes unintentionally kill Palestinian civilians. It is only the latter killings, however, that earn the censure of the oldline denominations. As I say, none of this is news. It seems probable that fewer and fewer people pay attention to what these churches say about human rights, or much of anything else. But their statements are invoked by organizations on the far left in this country, and are featured in anti-Israel propaganda in the Middle East. They ought also to be of some concern to the members of these churches.
• Geoffrey Fisher was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to be received by the pope since the sixteenth-century unpleasantness. The Tablet reports that Michael Noakes, an artist who knew him, recalls that Fisher had “several photographs of the meeting displayed in his toilet—something the artist puts down to diffidence.” As it happens, I also display photos of my meetings with dignitaries, including the pope, in my bathroom. It is nice to think that someone might put it down to diffidence. My idea is to give dinner guests a solitary moment in which to be impressed.
• On Oxford University’s Commemoration Day, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, preached at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin. “Don’t be afraid,” he said, “of assuming that your task is to equip people to take authority. In a democratic age, this is not the authority of a royal counselor or an imperial proconsul; it is the authority of the literate and educated person to contribute to public reason.” He continued: “’The honor of kings is to search out a matter.’ The royal dignity for which God has created human beings, the capacity to order their environment according to divine wisdom, is, at every level, something to do with shaping and guarding just and truthful speech, knowing how to question and to listen, reasonable conversation in the fullest sense. God shows his glory in the paradox that he hides within every created moment, every finite bit of the universe; when he hides in the cross of Jesus of Nazareth, the paradox is at its sharpest and the glory at its brightest. As human beings grow into their kingly dignity, they have also to go through the darkness and disorientation this paradox involves: the searching out of God in the cross, where faith is most deeply tested, is where the ‘honor’ of humanity is most firmly established, the glory of the image of God restored as our understanding is transformed by the Spirit of God. And the transformed understanding that the Spirit gives becomes the foundation of life in the Body of Christ, where our human awareness of each other is turned into trust and gratitude. Here is the common good as Christians experience and grasp it; this is what the Church—often clumsily and falteringly—holds up to the world in which it is set and the societies it seeks to transform. Among those societies is the society of intellectual life and practice, in its relation to the wider world. If it is the honor of rulers to search out truth and to resist the tyranny of the slogan and cliché, Christian faith offers a rationale for patience and generosity towards the intellectual community on the part of this wider society, because it is here that the tools of public life are formed, the skills to search out a shared truth. And the Church, committed as it is to the honor of human beings called by God into a royal priesthood, will continue—please God—its own rational conversation with the academy, probing its long view, the context of its labors for rationality. A university prepared to train its members for the service of the common good and to entertain the questioning of religious vision and commitment is one that remains worthy of its benefactors—and deserving still of public and private benevolence.” Williams was no doubt aware that he stood in the pulpit from which John Henry Newman preached. I expect Newman would have approved.
• Of course Thomas Cassidy of Fairfax, Virginia, is right. It was not Dublin but Cork City that in the 1950s elected Robert Briscoe, a Jew, as Lord Mayor, occasioning the observation, “Only in America.”
• I find myself in wholehearted agreement with an editorial in America, the Jesuit magazine. The editors call for “substantial, respectful intellectual exchange among Catholics.” The problem, they say, is “petty name-calling, ad hominem arguments, and a ‘gotcha’ politics of denunciation.” They lament “sophistic wars of opinion, indifferent to research and learning,” as well as “righteous anger,” “litmus-test correctness,” and “the spouting of ill-founded certainties.” I hereby join in the call for substantial, respectful intellectual exchange, and promise to do my best to eschew the dismissive and insulting language employed by the editors of America in describing those with whom they disagree.
• “Orientalism” is the term popularized by the late Edward Said of Columbia University in describing the negative stereotypes of the East, and the Arab world in particular, cultivated by Western scholars. Now Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit have published Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies, a detailed account of the “dehumanizing picture of the West painted by its enemies,” which reduces the West “to a mass of soulless, decadent, money-grubbing, rootless, faithless, unfeeling parasites.” The language, one cannot help but notice, is that of classic anti-Semitic depictions of Jews. Jews and the State of Israel loom large also in a recent issue of the International Bulletin of Missionary Research with major articles on Christian mission to Muslims. Heather J. Sharkey, who teaches in Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, notes the growth in recent decades of virulent Muslim resentment of any Christian presence in dominantly Muslim countries, very much including the Christian educational, medical, and social welfare institutions that flourished in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Moreover, Muslim hostility has become more overt toward those Middle Eastern Christians who have been in that part of the world since the beginning of the Christian movement. Against Egyptian Copts, for instance, it is charged “that they had become arrogant and had forgotten their proper place as dhimmis—tolerated, protected, but socially subordinate peoples living at the sufferance of Islamic states.” Christians have never made great missionary gains with Muslims, not least because Islam prescribes severe penalties, such as death, for those who convert. But the intensity of anti-missionary and anti-Christian passions today, says Sharkey, has to be understood against the background of a new Islamism that successfully exploits the sense of exploitation and inferiority produced by colonialism and subsequent decades in which history seemed to pass Islam by. Of Islamic polemicists she writes, “The anti-Christian sentiment of these writers was an outgrowth of their anti-Westernism.” Westernism in the Muslim mind, however, is never dissociated from Christianity and “the Crusaders,” along with, as these polemicists would have it, their confederates, the Jews, who have again seized what belongs to Islam. In the same issue of the Bulletin, Colin Chapman of the Near East School of Theology in Beirut asks whether it is time to “give up the idea of Christian mission to Muslims.” He finally answers with a definite No, but does so after a dispiriting review of reasons to answer Yes. In contrast to Sharkey, he writes, “Western involvement in the Muslim world over the last two hundred years has led to distinct improvements in the status of Christians in Islamic societies, and no country practices the dhimmi system any longer.” One thinks of, to cite but one obvious contrary instance, Saudi Arabia, where the wearing of a cross, the possession of a Bible, or the holding of a prayer service is forbidden and harshly punished. Chapman persuasively argues that there is no necessary conflict between evangelization and dialogue with Muslims; indeed, Muslims see no point in dialogue with Christians who do not want to share the truth they believe is theirs. Above all, Christians cannot betray the missionary mandate of their Lord, and Chapman holds out the hope that Muslims can have a saving encounter with Christ while remaining Muslims. Something similar happens, it seems, to Hebrew Christians who understand themselves to be fulfilled Jews in their commitment to Christ. Christian missionaries in the Middle East have been killed in recent years, and others must be prepared to be martyrs, he says. “But,” he adds, “they do so now with a keen awareness of the ambiguities of the situation: in one sense some will certainly be martyrs; but from another point of view they will simply be victims of their own governments’ policies.” Those policies, in his view, have to do chiefly with the collusion between the U.S. and the Zionists. There is a tone of sadness and even nostalgia in these reflections on the Christian mission to the Muslims. In my Lutheran boyhood we received at our house a publication, The Minaret, which depicted that mission in a way that uncomplicatedly assumed its legitimacy and eventual success, along with all the other efforts to “bring Christ to the nations.” In this era of the lethal clashing of civilizations, that sense of confidence is much reduced. And yet, as these reflections in the International Bulletin remind us, the duty to act upon the missionary mandate, however complicated and delayed, cannot be denied. But it will be ever so much more difficult in a time when a mainly benign Orientalism is giving way to an undisguisedly hateful Occidentalism.
• Beethoven, writes Algis Valiunas in the Claremont Review of Books, is “an icon of democratic nobility.” The democratic vistas opened to view in the Ninth Symphony, and especially the “Ode to Joy,” continue to exhilarate, but the view is magnificently flawed, says Valiunas. “Beethoven’s basic conception of the Ninth, at once political and religious, is vitiated by wishful thinking, which is to say false prophecy. Beethoven failed to recognize that egalitarianism taken to its extreme would establish not generous fraternal understanding but universal self-regard and contempt for all distinctions of quality. And those afford no basis for the soul’s ecstatic wanderings in the direction of heaven. Perhaps Beethoven misconstrued the necessary order of theological and political understanding: it might just be that men have to know the divine love before they can appreciate in what sense they are all brothers. And if that is the case, we might all be better off listening to Bach.” The late string quartets and piano sonatas, the Hammerklavier, and, most particularly, Opus 109, are closer to the truth, writes Valiunas. “Having traveled in mind where only the rarest of men have gone, at least so far, Beethoven returns to the world familiar to all. This sonata shows what it is to be broken by the world and decide to go on nonetheless, with the gentlest soul. The most heroic fortitude is not the steel-edged relentlessness of the man who vows to take Fate by the throat; it is rather the infinite tenderness of the indomitable sufferer who realizes that there were times when all might have been lost, and who somehow made it through all the same. Beethoven here offers himself as the man of sorrows—strictly lower-case, stripped of any godly aspirations—who wants all to touch his inmost heart and to draw needed strength from that knowledge. The third movement exposes his very soul, one man addressing all men, in the simplest utterance of simplest feeling: when an extraordinary man has passed through the fires, this stark radiance is what remains.” Returning to a comparison with the Ninth, Valiunas writes: “Modern audiences clearly feel the need to revel in that exultation, even though democracy has failed to deliver on the promised earthly and intergalactic glories. Yet the celebrated exhilaration of the Ninth, which professes to take in all Creation, is sadly missing something. That towering monument does not surpass in moral beauty the humble chapel that is Opus 109, constructed on a human scale. That sonata shows the highest rank of democratic nobility to be unassuming and unabashed, defenseless and pure in the sight of all men and their Creator. The fullest, the noblest humanity we have known so far sounds exactly like this.” Democratic nobility as a humble chapel. That is music criticism—and political thought—of a high order.
• Some meetings of ROFTERS (Readers of First Things) gather in the parish hall, others in homes over a potluck dinner, yet others at restaurants, and at least one at the local library. Groups usually meet once a month and take up, in various ways, what is in the current issue. Each group is independent and determines what structure, or absence of structure, works best. To find a ROFTERS group near you, check out the website, old.firstthings.com. If you are interested in launching a group, write Erik Ross at email@example.com.
Methodists, Bush, and repentance, Christian Century, November 16, 2004. Christiansen on just war, America, November 15, 2004. La Civilità Cattolica on Islamic terrorism, from the website www.chiesa.espressonline.it, October 7, 2004. Dula on the war, Commonweal, December 3, 2004. The Germans on their war, New York Sun, December 8, 2004. James on infidelity, New York Times, December 8, 2004. Edgar on the election, “Best of the Web Today,” www.OpinionJournal.com, November 10, 2004. How would Jesus vote, Christianity Today, November 2004. Griffiths on Gen Y, Boston College Magazine, Fall 2004. Leo on Kinsey, www.townhall.com, November 15, 2004. Tarantoon Roe, Wall Street Journal, December 7, 2004. Anglican bishop goes nuclear, Tablet, October 23, 2004. Lash on theology and prayer, Tablet, October 23, 2004. Postmodern Baptists, Religion Watch, November 2004. Episcopalian Druids, Institute on Religion and Democracy press release, November 11, 2004. America on respectful exchange, October 18, 2004. Occidentalism and the missionary mandate, International Bulletin of Missionary Research, July 2004. Valiunis on Beethoven, Claremont Review of Books, Fall 2004.