Francesca Aran Murphy
I just finished reading Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance by Ian Buruma. Ian Buruma is Dutch, and after the 2005 murder of Theo van Gogh by a young Islamist, the journalist spent many months back in his home country investigating the roots of the crime. Theo van Gogh was a Dutch film director who together with Ayaan Hirsi Ali had made a movie about Islamic attitudes to women called Submission. As someone with strong tendencies to free speech absolutism, I was intrigued by Buruma's characterization of Ali's and van Goth's position as a conservative nostalgia for the Enlightenment. Buruma's depiction of the different Islamic and anti-Islamic factions is masterful, filled with weird characters like a Bruegel painting. With a few strokes of a pen, this short book describes how people like van Gogh's killer, Mohammed Bouyeri, become (in Buruma's word) “unhinged,” because they cannot integrate either into the Dutch society into which they were born or the Moroccan society from which their parents came fifty years ago. Liberal, permissive, post-1960s Holland has no way of imagining how to integrate young Muslims. Murder in Amsterdam is about a society of partially unhinged people, and it's no carnival.
I’m reading a book about adoption by Gilbert Meilaendar called Not by Nature but by Grace. It’s a rather unexpected book, though—while it raises a host of questions of practical importance today on the subject, like those raised by reproductive technologies, frozen embryos, and the like, as well as more basic questions like, “Is adoption only for the infertile?” and “Should single persons adopt?,” it is unique in that it brings all of these concerns to the larger question of the meaning of adoption for Christian theology. “Christians can too easily develop arguments that might almost seem to undermine the legitimacy of adoption,” Meilaender says. Bringing these practical questions to theology—the idea, most fundamentally, that adoption is a work not of nature but of grace, along with the idea that nature and history can be related in the faith—is, according to Meilander, the way to form balanced opinions on these matters. His first chapter uses literature and theological reflection to think through the ways in which nature and history work to form families. The second chapter develops the “basic Christian understanding of adoption,” which Meilander thinks is a crucial theme in the New Testament. The rest dives into the concrete. It’s certainly an honorable undertaking—I’m just waiting to see how well the argument holds together.
Eve Tushnet, who frequently appears in our pages, is always a bracing voice—it's great to see her taking her one-woman war on the paucity of our models of love to places like Vox. I just finished reading her novel Amends, which follows six alcoholics at a rehab clinic that is also a reality TV show. Sometimes it reads like satire written with a machine gun—no person or institution goes untargeted. The rag-tag cast of losers includes a high-school hockey goon, a sharp-tongued lesbian playwright, a tweedy conservative writer for The Anglican Militant, a homeless Ethiopian woman who might be a saint, a con-artist-y collections agent, and a wolfkin. To a man, they're self-mythologizing screw-ups, but Tushnet scoffs at and sympathizes with them in equal measure.
The book is perhaps overstuffed with pithy turns of phrase (“she had the serene nihilism of a fluorescent lighting fixture”). This is most forgivable when it's the characters themselves making revealing witticisms: “Drinking is a way to get to the reality-show version of yourself,” says the playwright Medea, “Where you've got a soundtrack and a character arc. Even if it's a shitty one. Being a villain is a lot more interesting than being a person.” Proving that last sentence wrong might be the book's mission statement. Recovery here, from alcoholism or from other sin, is a painful re-humanizing process that doesn't just turn back the clock, but stretches your identity to include both the wrongs you have done and the grace you have received.
Jordan Zajac, OP
I’ve been reading Oranges from Dominic’s Tree, an anthology featuring original poetry by Dominican friars, sisters, and Dominican laity from the nineteenth century to the present day. This is not verse steeped in Thomistic theology—epigrams on esse-essence composition or ballads contra Duns Scotus—but devotional, occasional, and personal poetry.
The collection includes entries by figures like Mother Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne and foundress of a Dominican community that treats the untreatable, and Fr. Vincent McNabb, a friar who, like Chesterton, engaged in public disputations with George Bernard Shaw.
The most striking poem is by a totally unfamiliar name, however: Fr. Dominic Rover, a twentieth-century American friar. His “Ars Moriendi” is artfully done, a meditation written during the early stages of the Parkinson’s disease that would take his life. I’ve never laughed so much reading a reflection on death. The speaker doesn’t use humor to mask fear; he stares down death with the kind of wry smile that God’s grace alone can supply.