• A friend, having attended a lecture on exoplanets (planets circling stars not our own) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, reported that the lecturers were quite concerned with, nay excited by, the possibility that some of these planets might contain life. It’s an interesting question why the search for alien life so animates so many people in the sciences, and so many of the people we might call sciencey.
The American Museum of Natural History here in New York had an exhibit last year called “Beyond Planet Earth” and almost every part of it was directed, in slightly breathless prose, to the possible discovery of a microbe here or there. Whoever wrote the exhibit seemed to think the main purpose of exploring space was to find life, even if all we find is a germ deep beneath the ice of one of Jupiter’s moons.
But where does this get us? It’s a lot of money to spend to find a microbe. Why not just go exploring because that’s what man does or because we might find things we need out there? Landing on Mars is cool enough even if it’s a completely dead planet.
We suspect that this search for alien life is driven not so much by intellectual curiosity as by the desire to feel that we’re not alone in the universe. The religious believer knows we’re not alone even if man is the only sentient species on all the millions of planets that probably exist. And if God doesn’t exist, the fact that somewhere out there are other beings in the same situation we’re in isn’t really comforting. We’re still alone in the universe.
• Mistakenly thinking the great Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen had written a book on Catholicism, I googled the subject and found that he hadn’t. I seem to have been thinking of a silly book by a man named Loraine Boettner. But I found good things anyway.
Machen was not Boettner. As serious as is the division between the Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestantism, he wrote in his book Christianity and Liberalism, “Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today!”
“The gulf,” he insisted, “is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.”
• Machen stood with Catholics in the public square in circumstances not unlike ours. In the mid-twenties, powerful people invoking high principles demanded laws against Christian schooling, the main but not only target of which seems to have been the parochial schools. This Machen called an “attack upon tolerance in America” and an act of “tyranny.”
He was, perhaps surprisingly, given the stereotypical view of men as theologically dogmatic as he, cheerfully pluralistic. “I am for my part an inveterate propagandist; but the same right of propaganda which I desire for myself I want to see also in the possession of others,” he explained.
“What absurdities are uttered in the name of a pseudo-Americanism today! People object to the Roman Catholics, for example, because they engage in ‘propaganda.’ But why should they not engage in propaganda? And how should we have any respect for them if, holding the view which they hold”that outside the Roman church there is no salvation”they did not engage in propaganda first, last, and all the time?”
• In this same discussion, Machen offered some thoughts on how such divided Christians could face their division. Family life offers an answer.
“In countless families,” he writes, “there is a Christian parent who with untold agony of soul has seen the barrier of religious difference set up between himself or herself and a beloved child. Salvation, it is believed with all the heart, comes only through Christ, and the child, it is believed, unless it has really trusted in Christ, is lost. These, I tell you, are the real tragedies of life.”
These sorrowing parents, who stand for Christians who think their brethren deeply mistaken, don’t pester the child. “In countless cases there is hardly a mention of the subject of religion; in countless cases there is nothing but prayer, and an agony of soul bravely covered by helpfulness and cheer.”
• Some clever German entrepreneur is selling “Luther Socks” in anticipation of the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation in 2017. On them appear the words “Here I stand.”
• Weed Man wears a cardboard box, decorated with pictures of marijuana plants, over his head, and tells the people in Times Square from whom he wants money, “I am the weed man. I’m too sexy for you to see me.” Beer Man, a portly man with long wavy hair and a long long beard, just holds a sign saying “Spare change for pot, pizza and beer.”
They don’t, these members of what someone has undoubtedly called the panhandling community, get along. They’re competing for limited resources, after all. According to a story in the New York Times , Weed Man spat on Beer Man, who decked him, only to find that Weed Man was armed with a pen, with which he stabbed Beer Man (apparently not deeply) five times in the face, head, and chest.
Questioned later, the Times reported, several of the witnesses “including Buzz Lightyear, Mario, Luigi, Hello Kitty and an assortment of Elmos and Cookie Monsters”seemed puzzled to hear about the violence. One Cookie Monster shrugged, as if to say he had no information, and offered a hug instead.”
• Some people, you will be distressed to hear, will give money to someone who wants it to buy drugs but will pass by the mother with her child who wants to buy food. And these people are not themselves druggies. All I can figure is that people do not want to be taken in and worry that the mother might be faking, but the guy asking for money for weed is telling the truth.
Of course he might not be. See Conan Doyle’s “The Man with the Twisted Lip.”
• The northern part of Times Square, by the way, is officially named “Duffy Square” after Fr. Francis Duffy, who as a chaplain in World War I would go out under fire to help his men and became the most highly decorated cleric in Army history, and won the French Republic’s Croix de Guerre to boot. He was played by Pat O’Brien in the movie The Fighting 69th , a regiment still based, as it happens, in the Lexington Avenue Armory nearby.
A statue of him in army uniform standing before a large stone celtic cross sits in Times Square in front of the TKTS booth. Duffy died in 1932. Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia unveiled the statue and dedicated the Square in 1937.
• Duffy also helped then-Governor Al Smith respond to a sleazy attack on Catholic participation in the public square published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1927. Written with the kind of unctuous concern most of us have suffered from critics veiling their antagonism, it included all sorts of claims that “It is obvious” and “Nothing could be clearer” after which follow very dubious assertions: the claims of a prosecuting attorney not entirely concerned with being fair to the prosecuted. It closed with an oleaginous declaration of his wish that Smith would prove himself innocent.
Cf. J. Gresham Machen above.
Appearing in the Atlantic Monthly , and written by a lawyer and Episcopalian, the attack came with all the authority of the WASP establishment. Smith acquitted himself, and defended his faith, well. His essay can be found on the Atlantic ’s website. Search for “atlantic smith catholic patriot.”
• A revealing quote I just came across in a book review: “A nation without religion, that is like a man without breath.” Nicely put, but it comes, as some of you may have known, from Joseph Goebbels.
Who wrote in his diary in 1928: “National Socialism is a religion. All we lack is a religious genius capable of uprooting outmoded religious practices and putting new ones in their place. We lack traditions and ritual. One day soon National Socialism will be the religion of all Germans. My Party is my church, and I believe I serve the Lord best if I do his will, and liberate my oppressed people from the fetters of slavery. That is my gospel.”
The religious man would note that a man must breathe, but what he breathes matters. You can breathe clean air, or dirty air, or toxic fumes. The New Atheists like to condemn “religion” and point to religions like Goebbel’s, but that’s like condemning “atmosphere.”
• In politics, little if anything is settled. The English Labour party, once reliably socialist, has become startlingly hard-nosed about welfare. At least its members. The leadership, not so much. In the late eighties, after almost a decade of dealing with Margaret Thatcher, half the party believed people were poor because they suffered injustice and three-quarters wanted welfare benefits to be increased.
Now, after a decade following Tony Blair and a few years dealing with the Conservative David Cameron, only a quarter of the party’s members ascribe poverty to injustice and only a third want benefits to be increased. Almost half believe that cutting welfare benefits would help people be independent. And while a third blame “society” for child poverty, almost two-thirds blame the parents.
They could be Republicans. This has something to do, the editors of the Spectator suggest from the other side of the political spectrum, with their own observations of English life. People working low wage jobs see that those on welfare are nearly as well off. “An overgenerous benefits system which encourages worklessness is becoming entwined with mass immigration as a cause of dissent among the working class.”
Yet the Labour party’s leaders, which the magazine refers to as the “metropolitan elite” who exercise “a patrician socialism, where the poor are seen from a distance,” reject welfare reform because their interests differ from members’. For one thing, they want to win over the Liberal Democrats, now uncomfortably linked with the Conservatives in a coalition government even though their views on welfare are to the left of Labour’s.
One thinks of the Republican party’s leaders.
• What really annoys him about romantic locavorists, writes Will Boisvert in the New York Observer , is that they ignore the city’s environmental virtues. They’d take a one-acre empty lot in Brooklyn, say, and put in a community garden: a small, inefficient, part-year farm. He suggests a thirty-story apartment building.
Because then its six hundred residents won’t be living on sixty suburban acres, which could remain farmland or forest. Not having much room for stuff, they’ll have less stuff. And using the bus and subway, they’ll produce only a third as much carbon as the average American.
“That fundamental land-use equation,” he says, “is the key to understanding how cities promote global sustainability. By concentrating high-density housing, business and lifestyles inside its borders, New York lifts enormous burdens from the ecosystem outside its borders.”
This he calls “a triumph of eco-engineering that leverages extreme communal efficiencies to conserve land, minimize carbon emissions and abate all the toxic externalities of civilized life.”
• Someone called “Writing Prompter” suggests this way of writing an essay: Pick up anything in your house with text on it that isn’t a book or magazine, then “Freewrite for fifteen minutes, recording as many words and phrases from the objects as you can, and taking note of any connections, associations, or themes that may arise. Then write an essay about what you find.”
As an editor, let me say, in case any of you are thinking of trying this: Don’t. Just don’t. Please don’t. Or if you have to, don’t send it to an editor whose inbox can be depressing enough already, especially if he edits a literary journal. There are people whose thoughts on random texts will be interesting and then there are the other 99.97 percent.
Most writers need to be drawn out of themselves to write well. They need to engage something that pushes back, something that provides a subject and meaning they can develop, interrogate, criticize, praise, etc. When they look within themselves, which is essentially what Writing Prompter is asking . . . let’s just say there’s a reason for the image of the bleak-faced editor sitting at his desk as the sky outside his window darkens, reaching for his bottle of Scotch.
• Gramercy Park, through which several of us walk on the way to and from the office, has flower boxes around the trees on the sidewalk. Dogs use them, leaving material that encourages other dogs to go and do likewise, or rather to do likewise and go.
When you walk a dog around there, as I do, and have a concern for the effect of uric acid on the flowers, you should be very careful about who is around when you say to your dog in a loud, peremptory voice, “We don’t pee on the plants!”
• A reader ended a note with “And no cat jokes.” We have commented on cats in the past but are trying to avoid doing so, in an effort to obey St. Paul’s injunction in Philippians 4:8.
• An easy target but it may amuse some of you: A writer in the Daily Telegraph pretends to be Dan Brown thinking about his critics as his book Inferno appeared.
The critic said his writing was clumsy, ungrammatical, repetitive and repetitive. They said it was full of unnecessary tautology. They said his prose was swamped in a sea of mixed metaphors. For some reason they found something funny in sentences such as “His eyes went white, like a shark about to attack.” They even say my books are packed with banal and superfluous description, thought the 5ft 9in man. He particularly hated it when they said his imagery was nonsensical. It made his insect eyes flash like a rocket.
• Another writer in the Telegraph offers the eight worst lines from the book. This one, for example, from chapter five: “Emerging from the darkness, a scene began to take shape . . . the interior of a cave . . . or a giant chamber of some sort. The floor of the cavern was water, like an underground lake .”
He responds: “ A giant chamber”perhaps like a cave! And a giant cave with a watery floor”why, you’re right, that is like an underground lake. Uncannily so, in fact.”
• We missed this when it appeared last year, but having seen it quoted by Terry Mattingly in the very useful website Get Religion , and in memory of our founder, who found the local newspaper of record trying, we send part of the final statement from the New York Times ’ former “public editor,” Arthur Brisbane. He was gently critical of the newspaper, but insisted that it was not run, ideologically, by “any Wizard of Oz-like individual or cabal.”
But even so, “the hive on Eighth Avenue is powerfully shaped by a culture of like minds”a phenomenon, I believe, that is more easily recognized from without than from within.” Reporters covering a presidential campaign, he says, usually succeed in being fair and balanced. But “Across the paper’s many departments, though, so many share a kind of political and cultural progressivism”for lack of a better term”that this worldview virtually bleeds through the fabric of The Times .”
For example: “As a result, developments like the Occupy movement and gay marriage seem almost to erupt in The Times , overloved and undermanaged, more like causes than news subjects.”
The same applies to its coverage of Christianity, but in reverse.
• He grew up in the kind of small town that counts as a village in the “It takes a village” sense. (By which Mrs. Clinton meant “It takes a government.”)
In his home town, writes Bobby Winters, who writes a newspaper column as well as helping run Pittsburg State University in Kansas, when a young woman got pregnant, “she and her boyfriend had to get married. Please note that I didn’t put scare quotes around ‘had to get married.’ Not getting married in such a case just wasn’t an option; it was simply what one did.”
If the child grew up without a father, the mother would need help from her family, who would need help from the rest of the community. And the community would do it. But that child will still be a financial burden on the community and one small communities can’t easily afford.
Bobby concludes, “If you accept that it takes a village to raise a child, you might consider a part of that is encouraging the father to marry the mother.”
• The editor refers to “illegitimacy” in his “Public Square” column this month. Which is a term, we just realized, we hardly ever hear or read anymore. It seems originally to have been a polite way of saying bastard , with less of that word’s stigma directed to the child who had nothing to do with the circumstances of his conception. But now even the judgment implied by illegitimate is, apparently, illegitimate. Or maybe we mean inappropriate.
• The Girl Guides, the English version of the Girl Scouts founded by Baden-Powell’s sister, is replacing the pledge in its oath to “love my God” with the pledge to “be true to myself and develop my beliefs.” The Chief Guide”who was previously the chief executive of the, wait for it, Family Planning Association”told the Daily Telegraph that “I just think it is fantastic that our members have come up with a promise that they feel they can confidently say and feel that they can keep.”
Keeping a promise does become easier when you make it so broad that it means anything. I can think of lots of promises I could keep. Anyway, “The Outcome of the Promise Consultation FAQs” on the group’s website explains that
spiritual development is one of the six aspects of development of girls and young women that Girlguiding focuses on, alongside the social, emotional, moral, intellectual and physical aspects. Spirituality is open and accessible to everyone. It is concerned with the inner life and its meaning and purpose, and with making sense of the world around us. Spiritual development is an independent journey that continues throughout our lives.
It has, in other words, nothing to do with any particular spirit.
“Outcome” also explains that “ Making the Promise [that’s the name of the oath] is therefore a very personal experience that means different things to different people.” But nevertheless, inner life, independent journeys, very personal experience, meaning different things aside, when a guide says the Promise, “the updated wording must be used.”
So it can mean a great many different things, basically almost anything, but whatever it means to you, you have to bow to its gods.
• We find it hard not to speak ill of men like Rep. Dwight Scharnhorst, a Republican in the Missouri state legislature, who wants casinos to loan people the money to gamble if they pass a background check. They’d have to pay back the loans in thirty days. “People traveling around the country do not want to carry checkbooks and take the risk of identity theft through credit cards,” he said.
The appeal to the state is, of course, revenue. “I do think it is a loss of tourism, a loss of revenue to the industry and also tax revenue to the state,” said Troy Stremming, a spokesman for Ameristar Casinos. (What kind of man, we wonder, becomes a flack for casinos? How does he face his children?)
• Americans lost $92 billion gambling in 2007, about nine times what they lost in 1982. Although internet gambling is illegal in the United States, the Obama administration has suddenly developed an interest in federalism and on this matter is letting states do what they wish. Great Republican hope Chris Christie signed a bill in February making it legal in New Jersey.
The fact that it is bad for people and bad for society doesn’t seem to matter. “This isn’t just moralizing,” explains Jay Evensen, the associate editor of the Deseret News editorial page. “Gambling produces no product that can be sold or exported. It does, however, remove billions of hard-earned dollars from people who otherwise might spend or invest in things of value. It also takes money from other forms of recreation.”
Now, he notes, “those arguments get drowned out by self-righteous shouts about personal liberty. As Leslie Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, told me recently, ‘We’ve lost the sense that how we earn money matters.’ Perhaps more to the point, we seem unconcerned with how we lose it.”
• The New Yorker staff writer Joseph Mitchell often went to church in Catholic churches. As he writes in an excerpt from a memoir recently published in the New Yorker , he began to be haunted by the thought of “the ancientness of the Mass”that it and its antecedents very likely go farther back into the human past than any other existing ceremony . . . . I began to feel that the Mass gave me a living connection with my ancestors in England and Scotland before the Reformation and with other ancestors thousands of years earlier than that in the woods and in the caves on the mudflats ?of Europe.
“This was deeply satisfying to me . . . and I began to develop a respect for the Mass that has little or nothing to do with how I may happen to feel one way or another about organized religion.” Not quite the attitude we’d hope for, but maybe a man who felt closer to his ancestors through their religion might eventually come to accept that religion.
Mitchell’s essays, mostly reporting, are collected in Up In the Old Hotel , and much recommended. As are, while I’m at it, those of his New Yorker colleague St. Clair McKelway, many of which are collected in Reporting at Wit’s End .
• Readers will remember being given, or having given, the talk explaining human reproduction to children. When a man and a woman . . . and then nine months later . . . . Everyone understands how and why these things happen. “Birds do it, bees do it, even educated fleas do it . . . Cold Cape Cod clams, ’gainst their wish, do it, even lazy jellyfish do it,” as Cole Porter famously put it.
Frances Kissling, one-time director of the Playboy Foundation-funded Catholics for Choice, apparently missed this talk. “Pregnancy is not natural,” she explained to the Women Deliver global conference.
• Cairo’s “Garbage City” is a slum of 50,000 people, mostly Coptic Christians whose families came to the city from farms in the south seventy years ago. Known as the Zabbaleen, most in Manshiyat Naser earn their living by recycling the city’s garbage. The government, now run by the Muslim Brotherhood, “is content to have the Zabbaleen do the dirty job that no one else wants to do,” reports Jonathan Alpeyrie in the Christian Century .
It does not, however, supply the neighborhood with electricity or a sewage system, and often diverts its water to other neighborhoods. And it does little to protect Coptic Christians from Muslim mobs. The citizens of Manshiyat Naser feel, Alpeyrie reports, abandoned.
• It’s a little surprising to find on an official New York City document: “Across our nation, more than 24 million children are growing up in homes without a father. In New York City, approximately 33 percent of children under the age of 18 are growing up in fatherless households. This crisis disproportionately impacts New York City’s black and Latino children. Fifty-one percent of black and 46 percent of Latino children in New York City under the age of 18 are being raised in fatherless households, compared to 11 percent of white children.”
Completely correct, of course, but not something usually said in print by agencies in eastern seaboard cities. The web summary of “The Mayor’s Fatherhood Initiative” went on to note the effect of fatherlessness on being poor, being in jail, and doing badly in school. It concluded with these recommendations, or rather “expected outcomes”:
• Uncover and remove any barriers that fathers may face in interacting with City agencies to make them as “father friendly” as possible.
• Support fathers as they increase their capacity to be good dads.
• Assist in the creation of memorable moments between fathers and their children.
There was, of course, no mention of the best way to help fathers be good dads and have memorable moments with their children, which is to marry and remain married to their children’s mothers. But why have a wife when you can interact with city agencies?
• One expression of this campaign are subway posters like this one, which showed a man and a boy with the caption “My son and I SPEND TIME TOGETHER. He knows I love him.” This is “One of the ten ways to be a good dad,” says the poster, giving the nyc.gov website address.
Not to flog a dead horse, but none of the posters say: “I’m married to his mother. My son knows I love him.”
• “Two flat silver disks” were seen above the English headquarters of Scientology, the British tabloid The Sun reported and for some reason found itself threatened by the . . . trying to think of a tactful euphemism for “crank cult founded by a nasty human being”? . . . and failing . . . found itself threatened by Scientology’s lawyers. The newspaper gave in: “We apologize to any alien life-forms for linking them to Scientologists.”
This is why I want to work for a tabloid when I grow up.
• Speaking in Ireland, the president said that “if towns remain divided”if Catholics have their schools and buildings and Protestants have theirs, if we can’t see ourselves in one another and fear or resentment are allowed to harden”that too encourages division and discourages cooperation.” Our first reaction is to note the ideological loading of this call to unity, typical of such utterances, in this case an argument for gathering all children under the control of the state.
But writing on our weblog First Thoughts , our deputy editor Matthew Schmitz shrewdly skips the obvious point and hits the president with the facts”quoting, as it happens, an article that we published, Ashley Berner’s “The Case for Educational Pluralism” (December, 2012). Ashley pointed out that students in religious schools, and especially Catholic schools, were more civically engaged than those in state schools.
There’s something to be said for the instinctive jump to the facts and not to the speaker’s ideology, as a way of speaking effectively in the public square. We need to discern what interests a speaker’s claims are serving, especially when liberalism is so good at cloaking its desire for power in ideals like unity and peace. But identifying the con game doesn’t move others to reject it. The facts might.
• Congratulations to my friend Russell Moore upon his appointment as the president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The clever and winsome Dr. Moore believes in “convictional kindness” in dealing with those with whom he disagrees”Jesus “speaks clearly about sin, righteousness, and judgment, but Jesus is not panicked or outraged,” he told Religion News Service”and “engaged communitarianism” as a description of the proper Christian witness in the public square. He hosts a podcast called The Cross and the Jukebox discussing religion in country music.
while we’re at it sources : Hello out there: personal message. Machen rules: Christianity and Liberalism . Weeping over division: Machen’s Selected Shorter Writings , quoted on oldlife.org , December 22, 2009. Luther socks: Times Literary Supplement , March 29, 2013. Weed and Beer Men: New York Times , June 25, 2013. Disregarding Labour: The Spectator , May 18, 2013. Environmental New York: The New York Observer , April 16, 2013. Bad advice: pw.org/content/found_essay, no date. Dan Brown I: telegraph.co.uk , May 10, 2013. Dan Brown II: telegraph.co.uk , May 14, 2013. The Times ’ causes: nytimes.com , August 25, 2012, reported by patheos.com/blogs/getreligion . GirlGuide spirituality: telegraph.co.uk , June 16, 2013, and girlguiding.org.uk . Gambling shills: callnewspapers.com , May 1, 2013. Gambling is bad for people: deseretnews.com , May 1, 2013. Mitchell’s Mass: The New Yorker , February 11, 2013, quoted in Forum Letter , June 2013. Kissling’s confusion: lifesitenews.com May 31, 2013. Abandoned Copts: Christian Century , June 26, 2013. New York’s Dads: nyc.gov . Obama’s con: firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts , June 19, 2013. Tabloid joy: theatlanticwire.com , June 13, 2013. RNS, published in the Christian Century , June 26, 2013.
wwai tips : Shmuel Ben-Gad, Gregory Laughlin, Chad Pecknold, William Tighe, Carl Trueman.