Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Essay: A Critical Memoir
by donald revell
omnidawn, 64 pages, $17.95


onald Revell did not write Essay: A Critical Memoir for the essayists, the critics, or the memoirists. He wrote it for the poets. And a poet, for Revell, is any person who loves.

A two-time winner of the PEN Center USA Award for poetry, Revell is a professor of English at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and the lauded translator of Rimbaud’s Illuminations and A Season in Hell. The translator’s patience and rapture with language are evident on every page of Essay, where a single line can send Revell into a state of paroxysmal joy or solemn reverence.

Essay pitches itself as “an experiment of the old school and of revived delight in the pleasures of close reading.” This yields a mixture of poetry, memoir, and critical insight.

The brevity of the book—it is well under a hundred pages—might fool you into thinking it can be devoured on a single lazy summer afternoon. Quite the contrary. If Revell is to be read, he must be read on his terms: “lovingly,” as he frequently stipulates, which I take to mean slowly, and with care. Revell, like any excellent poet, is one you should let sit in your auditory imagination for a while.

Revell unabashedly studies the capital letters of poetry: Nature, Beauty, Love. He has a reputation for disarming our modern knee-jerk cynicism about lofty, Romantic mores. He turns to Shakespeare and Thoreau midsentence as naturally as one recalls a conversation with old friends. Thus, the “memoir” of the title refers to anecdotal recollections of his youth as well as to the living memory of ­poetry, of the creative spirit.

As for his critical bent, don’t anticipate a treatise on metalanguage or semiology. “For Heaven’s sake, these are spiritual entities, not structural doodads,” Revell exclaims finally, and he is bold to pronounce, “Structuralists do not exist.”

Rather, the thrust of Revell’s argument in Essay—although it feels more like a celebration—is that Love, which poetry sets to allegory or metaphor, is true and real. If love is real, then our creative works are real: “Every work of every date or place already nestles, already mansions there,” Revell writes. Love’s currency, its enactment, is “‘an art / That ­nature makes’” (to quote Revell quoting Shakespeare).

What Revell is too gentlemanly (and honestly, too good of a poet) to say is that our literary culture is stifling the reason we create, and the reason we live. The virtues of poetry cannot be praised, the friendship of great brother and sister poets cannot exist, when the creative act is a specimen to be analyzed, or a practical measure to be weighed for ­usefulness.

With beguiling sumptuousness and sincerity, Revell argues that Art is progressing infinitesimally toward Paradise. Our lives are pageants of eternity, and our loves are pageants of the greatest love, that of God. Creative works are alive (“spiritual entities”). Poetry is a transformation, an interval between vision and prophecy: It is seeing, and declaring good.

Far from penning a polemic, ­Revell whispers with a wink that the emperor has no clothes, that what created Art is being drained from it: Love. Many serious readers (this reviewer included) have been guilty of not reading. Instead, we plow through books to check them off our lists. We scan classics to decode allusions and verify cross-references.

Revell gives us all a gentle nudge. He writes that if we are to “read rightly,” then “close-reading is close-loving,” or “else we risk the oblivion of metaphor, disappearing back into the anthologies.”

In order to read and write, Revell insists, our first duty is to love. Memory, of our lives and of our poets, is only what comes of it. We cannot navel-gaze but must, equipped with knowledge and remembrance, move forward.

“Love makes all things new,” Revell insists, which is the calling of the reader and writer. By loving the extravagance of creation, we make it new.

—Kelsey Burritt is an M.F.A. candidate in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis.

The Decline of Mercy in Public Life
by alex tuckness and
john m. parrish
cambridge, 318 pages, $29.99


hough mercy is a Christian virtue, our post-Christian society shies away from relying on it. Lenient criminal sentences, pardons, and debt forgiveness all seem to undercut the demands of justice and public safety. We now speak the language of rights, instead of mercy, to justify helping the needy. Social programs have displaced Christian charity, and generic ­do-gooder benevolence has sup­planted mercy. By making benevolence bureaucratic and impersonal, we have suppressed human kindness and empathy, the direct personal contact that stirs the heart. Debt relief, welfare programs, and criminal sentences become ­political footballs in a zero-sum game. Any show of mercy seems to sacrifice ­justice.

It was not always thus, as Alex Tuckness and John Parrish show in their intellectual history of the decline of mercy. Aristotle understood mercy as tailoring justice to the needs of the particular case, and other ancients emphasized mercy as restraining one’s vengeful anger. In Eastern Orthodox Christianity, mercy is God’s love for all of us and our active love toward one another, particularly those in need. Christ’s supreme act of mercy was his incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, conquering death and the devil, raising up fallen mankind, and opening the way to eternal life. The father in the parable of the prodigal son exemplifies God’s mercy and paternal love for us all.

But beginning in the Middle Ages, the Western intellectual tradition put mercy on a collision course with justice, by framing strict retribution as essential to justice. ­Anselm understood Christ’s death on the cross as satisfaction demanded by God’s justice to atone for mankind’s sins. Enlightenment thinkers then secularized this understanding of justice, collapsing the distinction between God’s punishment and man’s. By insisting upon political equality, ­impartiality, and universality, ­Grotius, Hobbes, and Locke reframed justice in terms of rights. Mercy thus seemed a relic of absolute ­monarchy, condescending to inferiors and smacking of arbitrariness. Care for the poor was no longer defended in terms of Christian mercy, but public justice.

The two opposing modern approaches to punishment thus converge in their hostility to mercy, as Tuckness and Parrish explain. Utilitarians such as David Hume, Cesare Beccaria, and Jeremy Bentham feared that mercy is unequal and arbitrary and sacrifices deterrence of future crime. Bentham, in particular, distrusted judicial discretion and put his faith in legislative codification of rules. He even mistrusted private charity, because only the state knows enough and is able to promote justice without encouraging indolence.

Immanuel Kant, though Bentham’s opposite as an advocate of retribution, agreed that mercy equals injustice. The demands of Kant’s categorical imperative require rule-based retribution without pity. Kant’s stern retributivism is driven not only by duty but also by the need to treat all persons equally and impartially.

Tuckness and Parrish’s thoughtful book is a welcome invitation to revive mercy in the public square. It should also prompt Christians to rethink our embrace of the foundational concepts of the Enlightenment, such as strict understandings of equality, impartiality, universality, and rights. Justice requires discretion as well as rules, and it can coexist with mercy.

When our laws deny this truth, they grow mechanistic and inhumane. Strenuously squelching arbitrariness simply drives discretion underground (say, from judges and juries to prosecutors) or forces everyone into the same Procrustean bed. Exalting rights and censoring empathy can be heartless toward criminal defendants and debtors. Government social programs risk crowding out charitable expressions of love that remind ourselves that the poor are our brethren and we are all our brothers’ keepers. And all of these rule-based, bureaucratic approaches miss opportunities to inculcate the virtue of mercy in our hearts as well as in our children’s. Government cannot mirror Christian teaching, particularly in a pluralistic country. But it can leave more room for Christian insights to leaven rules with mercy, compassion, and love.

—Stephanos Bibas, a professor of law and criminology at the University of Pennsylvania, is the author of The Machinery of Criminal Justice.

New Monasticism and the Transformation of American Evangelicalism
by wes markofski
oxford, 384 pages, $35


oung Christians across the United States are selling their possessions, moving into intentional communities, and dedicating their lives to the “inward breath” of prayer and the “outward breath” of social activism. These young Christians, espousing Christian communitarian values, are part of a burgeoning movement known as “Evangelical Neo-Monasticism.” The neo-monastic movement is paradoxical: It is largely composed of American Evangelicals who adopt ideas from traditional Catholic monasticism; they are pro-life and pro-Scripture, yet often politically liberal; they praise a “set-apart” lifestyle yet eschew cultural withdrawal.

Wes Markofski, a doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who himself spent five years immersed in the life of Evangelical neo-monastic communities, presents a history of the movement and attempts to explain its importance to modern Evangelicalism. He has, in essence, written two books in one volume. On the one hand, he has written a detailed and exceedingly well-researched ethnography of the new urban monastic movement, replete with interviews, scores of quotes, helpful graphs, and copious footnotes. On the basis of this research, Markofski argues that neo-monastics practice a “holistic faith” that refuses to prioritize evangelism over social activism—and so leads to political liberalism, defying the typical connection between American Evangelicalism and politically conservative values.

Within this technical study of neo-monasticism, however, another narrative can be found: Markofski writes personal accounts of some individuals who have chosen to live out a radical communitarian lifestyle they believe was first modeled by early Christians. Unfortunately, the combination of styles (no doubt intended to lend interest to Markofski’s dense technical analysis) hinders the presentation. The narrative account of young neo-­monastics—which challenges readers to consider how they might live out their faith—is encumbered by talk of “coding books” and field theoretical explanations for the movement’s impact. Conversely, Markofski’s personal interest in the neo-monastic movement calls his research into question: his prose describing the communitarian lifestyle is dripping in romanticism. He presents, but rarely questions, the beliefs of monastery members, and glamorizes neo-monasticism (though many communities have been accused of rampant abuse).

Markofski’s sympathies are clear, but his technical work is still of great value to religious social scientists and theologians alike. Evangelical neo-monasticism is important, he writes, because it is a movement that both defies stereotypes of Bible-thumping Evangelical Republicans, and has the countercultural heft (alongside politically liberal Evangelical pastors such as Tony Campolo) to change the face of American Evangelicalism. While ­Markofski is sympathetic to their cause, others might have their questions. Without a doubt, though, the movement is worthy of observation.

—Matthew H. Young is a former intern for First Things.

Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History
by paul menzer
bloomsbury, 253 pages, $29.95


id you hear the one where . . . ?
Paul Menzer has heard it. He’s heard the one with the drunk Richard III, the one with the fat Ghost of Hamlet’s Father stuck in the trapdoor, the one with the father–daughter pair playing Romeo and ­Juliet, the one where Othello’s makeup rubs off on Desdemona’s face to give her a beard. In fact, he’s probably heard several variations on any given Shakespearean anecdote, a handful verifiable, but most patently recycled, exaggerated, or apocryphal—yet in a different sense, in Menzer’s paradoxical view, no less true.

What he’s set out to do in his Anecdotal Shakespeare: A New Performance History is not simply catalogue these scurrilous or whimsical bits and bobs of backstage gossip. Instead, Menzer’s subtitle proclaims his hope that he can compose A New Performance History out of this “fugitive chronicle of exploding wigs, loutish drinking, petty rivalries, and priceless put-downs.” For Menzer, the anecdote is a subtle breed of theater criticism, a way for actors to say what plays come close to but never quite say about themselves. Tales of casting actors who, as a couple, would be incestuous make Romeo and Juliet as shocking to us as they’d be to the Montagues and Capulets; stories of ghosts that are too, too solid give us a humorous version of Hamlet’s disgust with the flesh.

Moreover, he notes that anecdotes repeatedly deal with productions going off the rails, as actors break character and characters break the fourth wall. Menzer points out that there are a million variations on a story about Guildenstern’s going off script and, relenting to Hamlet’s repeated request that he “play upon this pipe,” trilling out “God Save the Queen”—which of course causes the English audience to rise from their seats. In many anecdotes, disrupting the play’s progress is the point, because “no one lives more teleologically than actors, obligated by their occupations to live out the whole journey every Tuesday through Sunday night, and twice on Saturdays.” Anecdotes seem to cluster mainly around tragedies, serving as comic miracles that defeat (or at least delay) the fated, bloody end. “Every anecdote is a bleat of protest, a resistance against the dramatic death wish. And if that sounds overly melodramatic, we’re talking about actors.”

How does Menzer establish this grand reading of idle words on plays? Mostly through plays on words. Menzer is a writer sure never to shun a pun or fail to say oui to a bon mot. A sampling of his chapter titles illustrates this proclivity: “Hamlet: Skulls are good to think with,” “Richard III: Oedipus text,” “Macbeth: An embarrassment of witches.” One is tempted to think of the theatrical anecdote itself as a long-form pun, a story that draws its power from double meanings: Richard III is both a Machiavellian king and a visibly drunk Peter O’Toole. Whether the anecdote depicts an actor playing a role badly or too well (in the case of Macbeths, so frightening that they scared the lines right out of the extras they addressed), the narrative calls attention to the act of impersonation, the doubled reality of the stage.

—Alexi Sargeant is a junior fellow at First Things.

Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled but Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary
by craig harline
eerdmans, 281 pages, $22


raig Harline, a professor of European history at Brigham Young University, has written a personal history of his time as a young Mormon missionary in Belgium in the 1970s. At age nineteen, completely innocent of European culture, he set out in the expectation that he would bring to the unenlightened masses the gift of the Latter-day Saints’ message of restoration of the original Christian gospel. He selected the arbitrary, ambitious number of eighty-four convert baptisms as the goal he hoped to reach before returning home to California.

There was plenty in his American LDS upbringing, missionary training, and the mission culture that encouraged this kind of thinking. “Success!” is defined foremost by the number of convert baptisms. One month, the mission set itself a goal for forty-one. The number achieved was twenty-four, which was well beyond the usual accrual and not sustainable from month to month. Still, the recurrent message was that for those who had enough faith, diligence, and obedience, all types of miracles were possible, the most important of which was convert baptisms. Thus arose a scrupulosity about keeping the mission rules that he and perhaps most missionaries cultivated: His missionary companion once chastised him for writing a letter to his own father on a day other than the designated “preparation day.” Hence also the ever-­present checklists for missionaries to assess their own faithfulness and worthiness—e.g., fifty-three points of personal spirituality and sixty points of proselyting skills. The missionaries kept detailed records of each person contacted. Harline tracked his own personal spiritual progress on color-coded graph paper. There was a frank emulation of American capitalist corporate culture: One of their mission training leaders told them they were to look, dress, and act like “local businessman” (meaning something like American businessmen of the 1950s).

Fortunately, there were other in­fluences and perspectives at work as well. These are prefigured early in the book when Harline tells his LDS bishop that he is “going to Belgium to fight Catholics!” The bishop ­replies, “You just need to love them.” Over his two years of service, Harline comes to appreciate and learn from the faith and character of the people and their Catholic culture. His goals shift toward developing friendships, including with those Belgians (which is most of them) who do not want to convert to the LDS faith. He keeps in touch with many of his friends over the decades following his mission, even bringing his own family back to meet them.

Then there is the influence of the Holy Spirit, manifesting itself in ­unexpected places and with a very personal communication at moments when he is ready to receive it. Such experiences are very difficult to convey in their raw authenticity, but ­Harline does as good a job as can likely be done with words. Throughout his mission, as he begins to let go of the expectations of “sales” production, he experiences the numinous in increasing proportion. With insight from his later training, he points out many illuminating parallels between aspects of the LDS mission ex­perience and descriptions from many other traditions: Jesuit zeal for foreign conversion, Catholic nuns living with assigned ­companions.

While deftly explicating these themes and insights, the book provides an honest and frank window into the experience and interior life of a conscientious Mormon missionary, including the experience of constant rejection, and the habits by which most missionaries turn the rejection into a strengthening of personal testimony. But the real value is the lucid description of a spiritual journey toward greater understanding and love of our fellow travelers from other cultures and other religious heritages. And a journey from a Mormon belief that one should earn one’s own salvation to a radical acceptance of the grace of God.

—Joseph Stanford is professor of family and preventive medicine at the University of Utah.