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Biblical Themes

For a magazine devoted to religion and public life, the piece by R. R. Reno entitled “Engines of Destruction” was rather strange (January 2024). Religious analysis was almost completely absent: Except for an attack on the positioning of Christian leaders and Pope Francis, it was entirely secular.

The result was a piece that was crudely partisan and focused on areas where the author admitted his knowledge is limited. To take one illustration: The problem with anthropogenic climate change (which is not a “perhaps”) is that it does lead to an increased number of costly weather events. When the increased number of droughts and wildfires is factored in, the economics of renewables becomes more balanced. Some economists would argue that if you are pushing for a longer transition (or even for continuing carbon energy sources), then a better way to go would be to advocate technological solutions such as carbon capture.

It would be wise for First Things to reintroduce a bit more religion into its analysis. One reason why most Christian leaders are sympathetic to immigrants is that immigration is a major biblical theme. They are sympathetic to the desperate stories of families trying to survive and create options for themselves. Making a biblical case for why a culture needs to limit diversity for the sake of greater cultural cohesion would be both difficult and really interesting. Perhaps Richard Hooker is a possible resource. 

Ian S. Markham
virginia theological seminary
alexandria, virginia

Under the Sun

J. C. Scharl’s poem “After the Funeral” is a moving modern recasting of Ecclesiastes (January 2024). The author of the biblical book viewed the world from a mortal perspective “under the sun” and concluded, “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” After all, what is the purpose of industry, pleasure, recreation, and even wisdom if there is nothing beyond our material world? If you subscribe to the prevailing presuppositions of our culture, then you would have to conclude that life is as meaningless as “a broken useless pen,” worthy of nothing more than “a sigh.”

For decades, we have sown the assertion that there is nothing beyond our material existence. Now we have reaped the existential and experiential fruit of those assertions. Life is a “a clearance sale,” a “scattered rose,” and “a ruined cathedral.”

It is easy to bow the knee to our culture’s belief that life is merely a slow death march down “a darkening trail,” where our lives are as arbitrary as “a coin once flipped and idly caught again.” Scharl’s question is appropriate, “is that all life is?”

There is more to life than what happens “under the sun.” Jesus has come. Light and life have come into the world. Indeed, “in the dark, pinpricks of candles.”

Daniel Nealon
littleton, colorado

J. C. Scharl replies:

Thank you for your lovely letter; your connection to Ecclesiastes is profound. That book has always puzzled me, because of its apparent lack of “pinpricks of candles,” if you will.

My mother had a saying: “It’s all going to burn.” She usually employed this after we had broken something, lost something, or otherwise destroyed something that she held dear. It was her way, I thought, of distancing herself from the grief, but as I grew older, I wondered if she meant it more as a way of expressing sacrifice. I wondered if in fact what she was saying was: “Everything will become an offering. Everything will be made a gift.” I try to think of the world that way.

Thank you again for your careful and thoughtful reading.

Orthodox Doctrine

As an Orthodox Christian I was disturbed as I read “A Visit to Fr. Zinon” (January 2024). The most outlandish opinion expressed by Fr. Zinon was his belief that “Catholics and Orthodox recognize the validity of each other’s sacraments.” Such a belief had been promulgated by the Russian Orthodox Church in earlier times. The modern proponent of this understanding was the late Metropolitan Nikodim, an avowed ecumenicist, of Leningrad and Novgorod, who died of a heart attack in 1978 while in Rome for the installation of Pope John Paul I.

This belief has since been repudiated. As St. Anton the Georgian remarked to a Catholic priest: “As it is impossible to pour water and wine into a single vessel and keep them from mixing, so it is impossible to accommodate both Orthodox doctrine and heresy.” The article left me wondering if Fr. Zinon has been totally consumed by prelest (pláni), or spiritual delusion?

Vaseili Doukas
oak park, illinois

John P. Burgess replies:

Vaseili Doukas rightly raises the concerns that led Fr. Zinon’s bishop to ban him from serving as a priest. However, Fr. Zinon’s actions belong within a larger theological context.

Representatives of Catholic and Orthodox churches have long affirmed a mutual responsibility for unity of faith and sacraments. Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism declared, “Through the celebration of the Holy Eucharist in each of these Churches, the Church of God is built up and grows in stature.” Its Orientalium Ecclesiarum provided for offering the Blessed Sacrament to Orthodox brethren in

various circumstances affecting individuals, wherein the unity of the Church is not jeopardized nor are intolerable risks involved, but in which salvation itself and the spiritual profit of souls are urgently at issue.

In 1987 Pope John Paul II and Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios I affirmed, “The Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church can already profess together as their common faith regarding the mystery of the Church and the bond between faith and sacraments.”

In Ut Unum Sint (1995), John Paul II praised the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which has worked “steadily . . . with the purpose of re-establishing full communion between the two Churches. This communion . . . will find its fulfilment in the common celebration of the Holy Eucharist.” In 2006 Pope Benedict XVI and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I renewed this commitment.

To be sure, progress toward shared communion remains slow. Fr. Zinon’s reception of the Eucharist from a Catholic priest was incorrect according to his church’s canons. Might it nevertheless be understood as a proleptic expression of the two churches’ commitment to unity? John Paul II regularly exclaimed, “The Church must breathe with her two lungs,” referring to East and West. Zinon’s iconographic work invites us to breathe as deeply as we can—with both lungs.


Meir Y. Soloveichik in “The Undying People” (January 2024) correctly points out that anti-Semitism’s failure to eradicate the Jewish people is theological. God’s astounding willingness to risk his reputation on the survival of the Jews is reported in Genesis 22:17–18 when God declares to Abraham,

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.

If God is not supreme to all the powers in heaven and earth, then he is not worthy of our devotion. To pursue the theology of anti-Semitism a little further, Satan’s attempt to thwart the redemptive purpose of God went awry at the Crucifixion, as some Church Fathers pointed out. Unfortunately, he continues to make a last-ditch attempt to overthrow the authority of God by exterminating the descendants of Abraham. 

James Robert Ross
st. petersburg, florida

Meir Y. Soloveichik has written an insightful article about Jewish perseverance. However, I think he’s missed an important point about chosenness. I agree with Robert Nicholson’s observation that anti-Semitism “almost always grows from a resentment of ‘chosenness.’” That’s because, in most contexts, chosenness implies favoritism. In ordinary conversation, to be chosen implies that you’re being rewarded for something. For many, it seems implicitly unfair that God favors the fortune of some particular group. In the eyes of God, should an accident of birth be more important than personal merit? Are the chosen trying to tell us that it’s easier for them to get into heaven?

In truth, being chosen by God is an experience that’s in a category by itself. It’s not an unearned privilege! In fact, it’s a hard and dangerous job. The chosen person is called upon to “walk point” for humanity. It’s not unlike the man in a military unit who is chosen to lead his soldiers into new and dangerous territory. To be chosen as the “point man” means that your comrades respect your ability to protect them. True, you’ll be the first to see new territory. However, you’ll also be the first to take a bullet. If you understand that, then you understand that Jewish people are not to be envied. 

Finally, it should be clear that even though the Jews are God’s chosen people, anyone can become a “chosen person.” Even a cursory glance at history would reveal that there are many non-Jews who have voluntarily taken on the hard, dangerous, and often unenviable job of leading humanity forward and upward. I strongly suspect that Don Gaetano Tantalo was such a one.

Wallace Schwam
pismo beach, california

Lewis and Dostoevsky

Thank you to Carl R. Trueman for his January 2024 essay “The Desecration of Man.” Trueman performs a valuable service by weaving a tapestry that illustrates the roots of the wreck of Western culture. One hopes that many readers will be spurred to read, or reread, C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, which I believe explains our current crisis as well as any book of the twentieth century.

I also appreciate Trueman’s reference to the “Rebellion” chapter in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov’s argument against God cannot be countered through argument, but only through a life imitating Christ.

Dean Rutzen
alhambra, california

Carl R. Trueman replies:

I am very grateful to Dean Rutzen for his kind words of encouragement. There is too little of that even in the Christian world today. And I can only affirm his desire that people return to Lewis’s The Abolition of Man, a book as incisive as it is concise. Dostoevsky too should be on every Christian’s reading list: He was truly the prophet of the modern age. In the polyphonic dialogues of his major works, the pathologies of our day and the contradictions of the human heart alienated from God are displayed in painstaking detail.

His call for a lived, vital Christianity is also on target. While I believe the gospel is not reducible to a way of life, but is at its core a declaration of what God has done for us in Christ, the plausibility of our Christian witness is tied to the integrity of our lives. The problem of the human condition is not at root epistemological or technical, but moral. Only when, in the words of St. Paul, we present our bodies as living sacrifices will our words carry the apologetic weight necessary in this day and age.

Lady Chatterley

Patricia Snow, in her article “Self-Abuse” (January 2024), refers to “Chatterley on Trial” (February 2018), where I wrote about D. H. Lawrence’s novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. I discussed its use in a campaign to destroy the obscenity laws of the United States and England. Though she does not name me, there can be no doubt that her words are aimed at me. She says I “excoriated Lawrence generally” and “laid at his door responsibility for all of the pornography we have been subjected to since.” This is not correct. I do say in the piece that I do not love Lawrence as a writer, which is true. Nor do I admire some of his actions. But I accept that many think he was a great or at least a very good novelist, and I would not dream of challenging them. My attack was directed solely at Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I think is a comically bad book, though I conceded that it had some passages which are perfectly all right. Even if Lawrence had also written War and Peace and Great Expectations, Chatterley would be risible rubbish. It was not Lawrence’s fault that this embarrassing late work was chosen by social revolutionaries for use as a battering ram against the pornography laws. He did not write it for that purpose and was long dead when two very different trials, the first in New York in 1959 and the second in London in 1960, ruled on the legality of publishing it unexpurgated. So I cannot and do not “lay at [Lawrence’s] door” the “responsibility for all of the pornography we have been subjected to since.” In fact, I refer to “a clever alliance of social and moral liberals from both British political parties,” who I do blame for permitting this change for the worse in my own country’s laws.

Peter Hitchens
london, united kingdom

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