Richard J. Mouw has written a wonderful book, Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars (Eerdmans, 2014). A bright young student raised in a tradition of conservative Evangelical pietism, Mouw recalls that his pastors “often viewed the intellectual life against the background of a cosmic spiritual battle in which the human intellect, especially as it aligns itself with the cause of the academy, is inevitably on the wrong side of the struggle.” He came to reject the “inevitably” but nevertheless mistrusts the complacent assumption that Christians can assimilate into academic culture without difficulty. “This is indeed a spiritual struggle going on in the cosmos,” and “the intellect does often promote the wrong side of the struggle.”
The Catholic way of putting the point is to say that intellectual excellence is a natural virtue, just as patriotism or piety is a natural virtue. But it can be misdirected and put into the service of false gods. That was my experience in higher education. I am very grateful for the rigor and depth of learning at the fine schools I attended. These qualities encouraged me to work to a higher standard. But I regret the way in which so much of the secular academy served (and still serves) the false god of “critical thinking.”
Mouw also encourages Christian intellectuals to reclaim the title “creationist.” Knowing means beholding that which is, and this beholding implicitly affirms the world as a created order. “In an intellectual climate in which there is so much emphasis on ‘constructing’ truths, we Christians have to insist that truth is to be discovered and not created by us.” Quite right. Mark me down as a creationist and not a constructivist when it comes to truth.
Ten members of the Israeli anti-Arab group Lehava were arrested on suspicion of incitement and calls for violence motivated by racism. Lehava is Hebrew for “flame.” It is also an acronym for Preventing Assimilation in the Holy Land. I mention these arrests to draw attention to the absurdity of the slander that equates Israel with Nazi Germany.
“Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis Leaves Pearly Gates Open.” So read a front-page headline in the New York Times. What followed was a feel-good story about Pope Francis consoling a young boy grieving over his dead dog. It fit the liberal media’s narrative about Pope Francis: New progressive pope changes the Church’s teaching and makes Catholicism relevant. Finally.
But it turned out to be false and an embarrassment for the Grey Lady. Pope Francis never said anything to a sad child about puppies in paradise. It seems someone picked up an Italian headline about the pope and dogs. But the New York Times writer failed to grasp that the article in Italian was commenting on off-hand remarks by Pope Francis at an audience in November, suggesting that perhaps he agrees with Paul VI, who once said to a young boy that his dog would be with him in heaven.
I don’t see any great harm in this journalistic faux pas. But it’s a reminder of the perils of running a newspaper these days. Journalists now rely on Twitter and other forms of social media to get leads for stories. It’s easy to be led astray. The problem is compounded when it comes to religion. Good journalists have a well-developed sense of what’s plausible and what’s too good to be true in the fields they cover. This usually keeps good journalists from trusting unreliable sources. But most secular journalists have a tenuous grasp of what religious people actually believe. This makes them unreliable reporters. Of course, editors are supposed to protect writers from themselves. But they’re for the most part just as ignorant of religion, as the New York Times error indicates.
I’m not one to rage against the New York Times. It’s owned and run by people who disagree with me about a lot of important issues. There’s a clear bias in the stories covered and tenor of the coverage. It’s nevertheless a very good paper that provides an extraordinary range of stories on lots of important topics. In any event, newspapers are civic institutions that have always taken sides in partisan politics.
I used to read the NYT every day when I was a graduate student. Then I stopped, not because of the bias but because I was seduced by the superior quality of the Wall Street Journal, which in those days had the most sophisticated and sparkling prose of any daily paper. Over the last decade, that’s changed. In an effort to expand its readership, the Journal has become more demotic. I still subscribe, but I find myself drifting back to the NYT to supplement. And to read the editorials to remind myself why I’m not a liberal.
Super-rich owner of the New Republic Chris Hughes announced big changes: cutting print production, moving to New York, and pursuing a new media strategy. Resignations ensued, including that of the storied literary editor Leon Wieseltier. There was much weeping and crying and gnashing of teeth among TNR loyalists. Even your stony-hearted editor felt a moment of sadness. Until I read TNR CEO Guy Vidra’s office memo to staff, at which point I felt my good humor returning. “A recalibration of our resources.” “The mission of our storied institution.” “Brands such as the New York Observer and The Atlantic.” Brands! I can’t help but chuckle when people talk this way.
But this one was the best: “We are re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company.” When you think about it, that’s First Things! We produce content, edit it, publish it in print and digital formats, support our publishing efforts through social media, and talk about it all around the office cooler. I’m flattered the folks at the New Republic want to copy our business model.
The New Republic’s paid circulation is reported to be 40,000. Part of the plan for its future as “a vertically integrated digital media company” is to shift from biweekly publication to ten issues per year. (Yet another sign they’re copying our approach.) I’ll be interested to see what their circulation numbers look like after they become a monthly. For readers interested in comparisons, First Things has a paid circulation of nearly 27,000.
Boston Globe columnist James Carroll penned a meaning-of-Christmas column that spoke of the “mistake” made by Jesus’s disciples. “After his death and disappearance, they expected him to return quickly and fulfill his mission, bringing about the culmination of history.” But he didn’t. Hm. My recollection of the New Testament is that the early Christians believed in Jesus’s death and Resurrection. That changes things, doesn’t it? Especially if his mission is to triumph over sin and death. Especially if the Risen Lord comes to us in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. Especially if the Church is his Body.
Long-time professor of politics at the University of Virginia James W. Ceaser writes in the Weekly Standard of the crowd psychology that took hold after the now-discredited Rolling Stone story of gang rape was published. “Like many such crowds, this one sought its own victims to punish. Strangely, retribution against the seven alleged perpetrators was treated as less important than one might have thought, for this result would have placed the onus in the affair on these individuals and their criminal acts. From the moment of the first mass rally, speakers from the faculty and student body left no doubt that they were in search of much bigger game. Moving in a reverse pyramid from the specific to the more abstract, they decried the fraternity system, privilege (the ‘money-fraternity complex’), and the rape culture of the South, including Thomas Jefferson for his relations with Sally Hemings. The charges went higher and higher up the ladder of generality until the sex crime committed at UVA became a confirmation of the basic theory of privileged Western male oppression that is so widely subscribed to in the disciplines of cultural studies.”
This trajectory is only too familiar to those who have spent time on a college campus. When faced with a moral problem like sexual assault, a university culture quickly shifts to “critical thinking” rather than moral judgment. It’s not a matter of immorality. No, it’s a problem of injustice! It’s not about men, women, and the Agent Orange spread over whatever remains of courtship. No, it’s money and power! The allure here is obvious. Morality has to do with the soul. Social justice is about society. The shift reassures. We’d rather think that the problem is with “the system,” not with our impoverished souls.
The gang rape scandal at the University of Virginia morphed into a journalistic scandal. An unscrupulous writer was given a free pass by editors eager for a salacious, sensational story. Yet the furor hasn’t died down. One reason: The grownups are waking up to a hard question, one that implicates their leadership. How is it that the sexual culture of America’s elite universities has gotten so ugly? The same goes for the military and a rash of accusations of sexual assault. (Unlike elite universities, the military isn’t an upper-middle-class institution, so a dysfunctional sexual culture there has received less media attention.)
New England School of Law associate dean Victor M. Hansen offers an answer: “The fact that both the college experience and the military experience are often the first time people of this age range are independent, have access to alcohol and are interacting socially with members of the opposite sex suggests to me that we have not done enough before young people reach this age to educate, model and encourage appropriate behavior.”
I love the discreet term appropriate. Along with “healthy” and “unhealthy,” “appropriate” and “inappropriate” are surrogate words used to express the moral judgments we’re not supposed to make. That’s part of the problem. How are students to know what’s appropriate and inappropriate when we banish the concept of right and wrong from discussions of “interacting socially with members of the opposite sex”?
The Kabuki dance between activist group outrage and administrative prostration at the University of Virginia and elsewhere suggests to me that the university has become less and less capable of addressing our culture’s problems (and successes) in a serious way. Victor Hansen’s bloodless appeal to “appropriate behavior” also suggests a lack of serious thinking. I have the impression that young people recognize this. As I wrote recently when commenting on the editorial bloodletting at the New Republic (“Wieseltier the Dinosaur”), its owner, Chris Hughes, very likely reflects the attitudes of other bright, ambitious people of his generation. They don’t expect much from their professors. They don’t look to them as sages or mentors.
Over at the Spectator, the venerable conservative English weekly, Ed West observes that having the “right” views on homosexuality functions as “a new test act.” That’s exactly the right historical analogy. The Test Acts were passed by the English Parliament in 1673 and 1678. They imposed a religious test not just for public office but for any sort of role in public life. Only members of the Church of England were eligible to serve as members of Parliament, judges, lawyers, sheriffs, and many other positions. Catholics and non-Anglican Protestants were not allowed to attend Oxford and could not receive a degree from Cambridge. The goal was to drive dissent to the margins.
Today, the belief that homosexual acts are immoraleven a modest belief that gay marriage is an unwise redefinition of an age-old institutionstrikes as much horror in the liberal establishment as transubstantiation and papal primacy did among English Protestants in the seventeenth century. And liberals today show the same intolerance. The policy of excluding Catholics and dissenting Protestants has a new form today. I’m quite sure any young applicant to an Ivy League school who expresses opposition to gay marriage will be denied admission. We know that it is virtually impossible for anyone who dissents from sexual orthodoxies to be hired as a professor. The Brendan Eich affair indicates the extent to which gay activist groups will go to destroy the careers of any who dissent.
The media treats all of this in an irresponsible way. The Michigan legislature is debating the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, one modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A CBS News online article opens with a damning question: “Can doctors and emergency medical technicians legally refuse saving assistance to a gay person, because of their religious belief?” The article goes on to quote a CBS legal expert. He says this bill opens the door to discrimination. “A Christian doctor who does not believe in a gay lifestyle would not have to treat a gay patient.” Only a shocking ignorance of the legal scope of laws patterned on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act can explain these sweeping claims. Or a gullible and culpable willingness to transmit the propaganda written by the Human Rights Campaign.
Next month we will publish “The New Intolerance,” Mary Eberstadt’s first annual First Things lecture in Washington, D.C. It’s a timely reflection on the censorious mentality at work in today’s progressive consensus.
G. K. Chesterton writing in 1926: “The next great heresy is going to be simply an attack on morality; and especially on sexual morality. And it is coming, not from a few Socialists surviving from the Fabian Society, but from the living exultant energy of the rich resolved to enjoy themselves at last, with neither Popery nor Puritanism nor Socialism to hold them back.”
I’m not sure “enjoy themselves” is quite right. The rich today often lash themselves forward in the great scramble for wealth and status. Our hearth gods are health, wealth, and hedonism. The first two can be hard taskmasters, with the third only permitted to hold sway on occasion. Work hard; play hard. But perhaps the occasions are all the more precious for being limited. In any event, Chesterton was far-seeing. Political correctness and high-minded claims about inclusion fuel a paradoxically moralistic attack on morality, especially sexual morality.
In the most recent Notre Dame Magazine, philosophy professor John O’Callaghan offers sage advice about the nine bourbons every professor should have and where they should be carefully and intelligently hidden (alcohol being frowned upon in faculty offices).
9) Early Times. Because, as Walker Percy once wrote, “the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’” Stash behind Love in the Ruins.
8) Evan Williams. Because it’ll do. Payday isn’t until Friday. Stash behind Lost Weekend.
7) Wild Turkey (101 not 81). Because essential reading requires essential drinking. Stash behind Elmore Leonard’s Three Ten to Yuma and Other Stories.
6) Maker’s Mark. Because sometimes it seems the world isn’t quite as awful as it appears to be. Stash behind Augustine’s Confessions.
5) John B. Stetson. Because the world is as awful as it seems to be. John B. will help you make it through the night. Stash behind Paradise Lost.
4) Woodford Reserve. Because sometimes class went well. Stash behind Deus Caritas Est.
3) Bulleit. Because if you’re good, it may give up the ghost for you. It did for me. Stash behind Hamlet.
2) Basil Hayden. Because it’s the Catholic bourbon. Stash behind Wise Blood.
1) Blanton’s. Because Pappy Van Winkle is for rich people and other criminals. Blanton’s is ¼ the price and is what Christ serves to the saints while they smoke their cigars on the veranda of His Father’s mansion. Stash behind the Summa Theologiae.
Readers in Charm City (for the uninitiated, that’s Baltimore, Maryland) should know that Jerry Lawler would like to form a new ROFTERS group. If you live in Bawlmer and would like to join, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This issue was put together in the week before Christmas. It’s the time of year when we ask our readers for donations. I’m sitting at my desk right now. I can see that tall stack of donation envelopes we’ve received. We’re very blessed to have such devoted and generous readers.
while we’re at it sources: Dogs in heaven?: nytimes.com, December 11, 2014. Big changes: politico.com, December 4, 2014. Christmas mistake: bostonglobe.com, December 8, 2014. Rape on campus: weeklystandard.com, December 22, 2014. Victor Hansen: nytimes.com, December 8, 2014. Wieseltier the dino: firstthings.com, December 5, 2014. New test act: spectator.com, December 10, 2014. Treating gay patients: cbsnews.com, December 11, 2014.