In the current issue of the Weekly Standard , Joseph Epstein has a scintillating analysis of the celebrity cult to which much of our society is in thrall. The article put me in mind of a lecture many years ago by Paul Tillich, a towering figure of the time, at the University of Chicago. In an informal conversation after the lecture, one of the students asked Tillich what it felt like to be famous. "Famous?" he responded. "I’m not famous. My idea of being famous is that I get into a New York taxi and the driver turns around and says, ‘Aren’t you Professor Tillich?’ That has never happened to me." Some years ago I got into a taxi and the driver asked, "Aren’t you Father Neuhaus?" Ah, I thought, this is it. Then the driver explained that his sister-in-law is a parishioner at Immaculate Conception, the church where I regularly say Mass, and she had complained to him about my too long homilies. Sic transit gloria .
I’m glad to see the Wall Street Journal weighing in, from an angle more sensible than that of the Interfaith Alliance , on the use of religion in promoting the nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court. A similar ploy was used when Justice Anthony Kennedy was nominated. Senator Jesse Helms said to Kennedy, "I think you know where I stand on abortion." Kennedy responded, "Indeed I do and I admire it. I am a practicing Catholic." We know what that means¯or doesn’t mean. Once he was on the court, Kennedy helped entrench the unlimited abortion license in the Casey decision of 1992, and has since "grown," as they say in Washington, in sundry other liberal directions. It is very good to know that Ms. Miers is born again, but that doesn’t tell us a whole lot about her views on the legal protection of the unborn. As Dr. Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School, a Baptist institution, will remind us when he delivers FIRST THINGS annual Erasmus Lecture next week, the Southern Baptist Convention was still supporting Roe v. Wade as late as 1980, and many evangelicals have still not been converted to the pro-life position. It seems Ms. Miers is definitely pro-life, but that doesn’t tell us how she would read the law with respect to abortion. As I said earlier, I expect Ms. Miers will not withdraw, her nomination will likely be confirmed by the Senate, and, if she turns out to be a constitutional textualist along the lines of Scalia and Thomas, the present row will soon be forgotten, with only wounded conservative egos to show for it. On the other hand, if . . .
In two months the big-budget movie The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe will be released. The Disney people are putting on a full-court press with evangelical and Catholic leaders. It is reminiscent of the promotion of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ . Of course, Gibson was responding to massive and vicious attacks on his film, beginning many months before its release. I gather from a couple of people who have attended a screening of the Narnia film that it follows Lewis’ story very faithfully with no watering down of the Christian themes. If so, I see no reason to carp about Disney making big bucks out of it. It could be a further encouragement for Hollywood to turn away from productions of deadly dull decadence, or at least to recognize that there is money to be made also in films affirming religion and virtue. There are few studios that operate on the basis of altruism or zeal for the gospel. If Disney gets richer, God’s people are edified, and some pagans are converted, that’s not a bad outcome. As Michael Novak might say, such is the genius of capitalism.
Alan Jacobs’ new book, The Narnian: The Life and Imagination of C.S. Lewis , is reviewed in a forthcoming issue of FIRST THINGS. Following that, I will weigh in on it in The Public Square. Readers will not be surprised to learn that there is some disagreement about the merits of the book. Not to keep you entirely in suspense, I rather like it.
Tuesday night was a gala occasion at the Union League Club up on Park Avenue and 37th Street. William F. Buckley received the American History Award, and I was there for brief remarks and the invocation. Bill is a friend of many years standing and was in fine form for the event. He’s being fêted by all and sundry on his 80th birthday and the 50th anniversary of National Review . Even his opponents¯maybe especially his opponents¯know that he has played a singular part in changing our political culture. I was struck at an earlier anniversary celebration when George Will declared that National Review is the most influential magazine ever published. Among political magazines, that is almost certainly true. On Tuesday evening, Bill spoke about Whitaker Chambers, author of the classic Witness , and how he was convinced that Western civilization was irretrievably lost. As much as Bill revered Chambers, he resisted that counsel, and we all have reason to be glad he did. In my invocation I said this: "Accept, we beseech you, Lord, our gratitude for your servant William. As you taught him, so teach us through his example, that we need not choose between profundity and wit, between urbanity and respect for the commonplace, between the passion for battle and the protocols of civility. Grant us, we pray, a similar patience in bearing witness to the truth, as you give us to see the truth; and, as you have greatly rewarded his endurance, so also may we never weary of our appointed tasks. Let this evening be marked by the gifts of friendship and the arts of conviviality exemplified by your servant William, and let all we say and all we do be to your glory and our good." And, all in all, so it was.