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The trouble with posting a notice, as I do each month, in praise of the new issue of First Things , is that when a really superior issue comes along¯one even beyond our usual high standards¯the superlatives have all been used up. Greater than Great! Better than Best! More Infinitely Good than Infinitely Good Has Ever Been Before!

No, at this point, all that’s left is understatement and litotes. The August/September issue of First Things is acceptable, I suppose, and not unreadable, its own small way. The issue features, for instance, “ The Vindication of Humanae Vitae ,” a stunning essay¯er, I mean, a mildly amusing little exercise by Mary Eberstadt (this month’s free article, available even to non-subscribers, if such people can be imagined):

That Humanae Vitae and related Catholic teachings about sexual morality are laughingstocks in all the best places is not exactly news. Even in the benighted precincts of believers, where information from the outside world is known to travel exceedingly slowly, everybody grasps that this is one doctrine the world loves to hate. During Benedict XVI’s April visit to the United States, hardly a story in the secular press failed to mention the teachings of Humanae Vitae , usually alongside adjectives like “divisive” and “controversial” and “outdated.” In fact, if there’s anything on earth that unites the Church’s adversaries¯all of them except for the Muslims, anyway¯the teaching against contraception is probably it.

To many people, both today and when the encyclical was promulgated on July 25, 1968, the notion simply defies understanding. Consenting adults, told not to use birth control? Preposterous. Third World parents deprived access to contraception and abortion? Positively criminal. A ban on condoms when there’s a risk of contracting AIDS? Beneath contempt . . . .

And in just that apparent consensus about the ridiculousness of it all, amid all those ashes scattered over a Christian teaching stretching back two millennia, arises a fascinating and in fact exceedingly amusing modern morality tale¯amusing, at least, to those who take their humor dark.

“He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh,” the Psalmist promises, specifically in a passage about enjoying vindication over one’s adversaries. If that is so, then the racket on this fortieth anniversary must be prodigious. Four decades later, not only have the document’s signature predictions been ratified in empirical force, but they have been ratified as few predictions ever are: in ways its authors could not possibly have foreseen, including by information that did not exist when the document was written, by scholars and others with no interest whatever in its teaching, and indeed even inadvertently, and in more ways than one, by many proud public adversaries of the Church.

Just to fill out the issue, the Canadian professor Douglas Farrow adds “ Kangaroo Canada ,” an account of the human-rights commissions in Canada and their campaign against everything from free speech to Christianity. And, from Duke Divinity School, Paul Griffiths adds a little squib of his own ¯nothing worth reading, really; just the answer to Steven Pinker’s strange attack last month on dignity, life, and nearly every author who’s ever appeared in the pages of First Things .

Richard John Neuhaus contributes another major article with “Benedict in America,” the not undefinitive account of the pope’s visit to the United States: “‘What is God whispering to you?’ For the hundreds of thousands who were there during those six memorable days, and for the millions who watched on television, I expect that was the question that lingered long after the airplane dubbed ‘Shepherd One’ took off from Kennedy Airport. After the commercial break and the television cameras turned without missing a beat to What Is Happening Now, one would like to think that the whispering suspicion persisted that this gentle man with the odd accent and shy smile really does know what it is all about. It is all about saying yes to ‘Christ Our Hope.’”

Someone named Joseph Bottum adds an unimportant but perhaps not entirely dull piece called “ The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline ,” that opens:

America was Methodist, once upon a time¯Methodist, or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. A little light Unitarianism on one side, a lot of stern Calvinism on the other, and the Easter Parade running right down the middle: our annual Spring epiphany, crowned in bright new bonnets.

The average American these days would have trouble recalling the dogmas that once defined all the jarring sects, but their names remain at least half alive: a kind of verbal remembrance of the nation’s religious history, a taste on the tongue of native speakers. Think, for instance, of the old Anabaptist congregations¯how a residual memory of America’s social geography still lingers in the words: the Hutterites, Mennonites, and Amish, set here and there on the checkerboard of the nation’s farmland. The Quakers in their quiet meeting houses, the Shakers in their tiny communes, and the Pentecostals, born in the Azusa Street revivals, like blooms forced in the hothouse of the inner city.

And yet, even while we may remember the names of the old denominations, we tend to forget that it all made a kind of sense, back in the day, and it came with a kind of order. The genteel Episcopalians, high on the hill, and the all-over Baptists, down by the river. Oh, and the innumerable independent Bible churches, tangled out across the prairie like brambles: Through most of the nation’s history, these endless divisions and revisions of Protestantism renounced one another and sermonized against one another. They squabbled, sneered, and fought. But they had something in common, for all that. Together they formed a vague but vast unity. Together they formed America.

Is it worth mentioning that the issue also contains “ Thy Canonized Bones ,” Robert Miola’s brutal review of Joseph Pearce’s new book The Quest for Shakespeare ? Pearce is a friend whose work has appeared in our pages, but Miola suggests in his Shakesperian adventure, Pearce had made a seriously wrong turn:

As Pearce notes about much contemporary work on Shakespeare: “For the proponents of ‘queer theory’ he becomes conveniently homosexual; for secular fundamentalists he is a proto-secularist, ahead of his time; for ‘post-Christian’ agnostics he becomes a prophet of modernity.” Quite right, one wants to say. But what shall we do when Joseph Pearce comes along to say, in essence: “You’re all stupid to think that Shakespeare is just like you. Actually, Shakespeare is just like me”? There is a parable about a mote and a beam that applies somewhere here.

It’s not all negative reviews in the August/September issue. The fine historian George McKenna thinks fairly well of Peter C. Myers’ new Frederick Douglass: Race and the Rebirth of American Liberalism , the lively writer Philip Zaleski finds a natural topic with Alan Jacobs’ Original Sin: A Cultural History , and the always-excellent Robert Louis Wilken enjoys Judith Herrin’s Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire .

I wish I could say the same for Thomas Hibbs’ review of the new volume from Alister McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology . Unfortunately, Hibbs demonstrates convincingly that McGrath¯another friend whose work has appeared in the pages of First Things ¯cannot solve the problem he sets himself: “Like many contemporary philosophers and theologians, Alister McGrath is eager to avoid both Enlightenment rationalism and the self-defeating postmodern repudiations of reason. But when it comes to precise answers as to how we are to embrace the postmodern critique of reason and yet resist radical postmodernism, McGrath’s book is pretty short on arguments.”

Along the way, there are poems from Catharine Savage Brosman , Timothy Murphy , Samuel Menashe , and Stephen Scaer , together with correspondence on AIDS in Africa, George Weigel’s vision of the 1960s, R.R. Reno’s account of Bible reading, and the vital question of whether or not England stinks.

And, as always, to end the issue, there are a few words from Richard John Neuhaus: a little thing called The Public Square that a few readers seem to enjoy. This time he takes up the Evangelical Manifesto, the literary criticism of Clive James, the theology of Wolfhart Pannenbeg, the Texas polygamists, the most-popular names for newborn babies, the Obama-Wright affair, and even the new science-fiction novel from Gary Wolf and John J. Myers, the archbishop of Newark: “I expect some people will wonder what a bishop is doing writing a science fiction novel. Keep in mind that bishops could, and some possibly do, devote their spare hours to less innocent pursuits.”

All in all, a not unimpressive, not unimportant, not uninteresting issue. Perhaps you might think about not failing to subscribe .

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