If youre looking for something new to vary the grinding winter sameness, the March issue of First Things will be of no use. In it youll find nothing but what youve come to expect: just another Pentecostal outbreak of intellect and eloquence applied to the highest matters of current and perennial interest.
In While Europe Slept , for instance, Jean Bethke Elsthain warns us that a rough beast is growing in the womb of European nihilism: Evil need not take the form of the Hitlerian monster of Europes past or the serial killers of contemporary movies . . . . Evil can take the form of refusing to be what one is. The retreat from defining Europe in relation to her Jewish and Christian heritage is the face of European nihilism. When a reaction comes, it is likely to be extreme and distorted because indifference prevailed too long.
Meanwhile, in A Campaign of Narratives George Weigel gives a magisterial analysis of current political culture in light of the 2008 presidential election, paying particular attention to the importance of narratives: The creation and marketing of compelling personal narrative has replaced the contest of issues and ideas as the driving force of electoral politics . . . . In a country in which American Idol has become a major cultural reference point, is it any wonder that we have elections that resemble American Idol in their dominance by narrative¯which is to say elections that are substantively vacuous?
In What Happened to the Values Voter? John C. Green looks at the 2008 election from a different perspective, analyzing the data on how believers voted. In it he addresses four questions: Has religion lost its purchase at the polls, pushed aside by questions of prosperity and peace? Is there a fundamental shift in the structure of faith-based politics, driven by crisis and charisma? Do the results presage a new era in religion and politics? All these queries presume a more basic question: What role did religious voters play in the election of Barack Obama?
For those interested in the future of the stem-cell controversy during the Obama years, Yuval Levins sober, clear-sighted report Biotech: What to Expect is, quite simply, essential reading: Over the past fifteen years, the pro-life movement has succeeded in enacting some modest limitations on embryo-destructive research . . . . The new political environment puts all of these achievements at grave risk and makes further steps essentially impossible for the time being.
Taking the perennial controversy over Israels military actions as his point of departure, Joel Schwartzs Israels Defense tackles the question, Can Jews be manly?: Traditional Jewish culture esteems piety and scholarship more than power and honor¯and this tension between Jewishness and manliness raises an important question about Israel. Israel is . . . a Jewish state, and . . . as a state surrounded by hostile neighbors, Israel must promote its citizens manliness. But does this lessen or even negate the states Jewish identity? Is it right to dismiss pride and honor? Does Jewishness have no room for manliness?
If youre more in the mood for literature, philosophy, and theology than politics, Anthony Esolens your man. In The Freedom of Heaven and the Freedom of Hell Esolen enlists Dantes help in attacking the typical modern conception of freedom as total independence from the limitations imposed on us by the old institutions: church, community, family. Dante, he argues, “has foreseen our modern notion of freedom . . . and he has rejected it . . . . Any freedom that severs us from one another, from our memories of those who came before us, is a lie about being . . . . It is autonomy collapsing into antinomy, the denial of law itself and of our created being. Dante knows both that there is an autonomy in accord with the structure of created existence, which is truly free, and that there is an autonomy that violates it, caught by its own snare.”
Readers within and without the Reformed tradition will want to read Surprised by Calvin . In this opinion piece, Richard Mouw argues that, despite their reputation for encouraging puritanical disgust at the quite ordinary things that give us satisfaction, Calvinists can find full warrant in John Calvins theology for cultivating the habit of seeing the visible world, including the full range of our ordinary human experiences in that world, as pointing beyond itself. While Calvin believed that natures order is a fragile affair . . . . [he] also celebrated the faithfulness of a God who continually delights in the created works that he holds together by his sovereign power, so that our joy is in fact a participation in divine joy.
Then theres the ever-acute Alan Jacobs, who takes Philip Jenkins to task for suggesting that Christianity learn from the supposed syncretism of lost Asian Christianity by giving up on the doctrine of Christs uniqueness. In The Way, the Truth, and Philip Jenkins he writes:
Only the coldest of hearts and the most tightly shut of minds could repudiate the acknowledgment of one another and finding meaning in one anothers views and learning from one another and having lots of fruitful interchanges. Certainly I am eager to embrace all of those values, insofar as I understand them. But must I give up my believe that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life in order so to embrace them?
And if I do give up on the uniqueness of Jesus, what do I retain?
Need a break from all this masterly analysis and argumentation? Linger a while over A.M. Justers delightfully morose quatrain Candid Headstone :
Here lies whats left of Michael Juster,
A failure filled with bile and bluster.
Regard the scuttlebutt as true.
Feel free to dance; most others do.
This is just one of five new poems in this issue, which includes offerings from Rachel Hadas , A.E. Stallings , Kevin Cutrer , and our poetry editor, Paul Lake .
Oh, and of course youll want to read the book reviews.
First Things editor, Joseph Bottum, is unimpressed by Burton Raffels new translation of Chaucers The Canterbury Tales . There is, he argues, something wrong with the very idea of an English translation of Chaucer: Chaucer is an English author, the font of English literature, and his language is our own. If you need a translation to learn about how from every shires ende / Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende , then you probably arent ready to read Chaucer, even in translation.
In her review of Mary Henholds Catholic and Feminist: The Surprising History of the American Catholic Feminist Movement , Eve Tushnet faults the author for failing to ask the really interesting questions: If there really is a conflict between ones Catholicism and ones feminism, should Catholicism ever win? And, perhaps most central of all, can there be a feminist theology of submission¯or does the feminist focus on equality and power relations crowd out any hope of understanding why a woman might find joy in kneeling, grace in bowing her head?
Robert Louis Wilken rounds out the books section with a nuanced and appreciative discussion of Paula Fredriksens Augustine and the Jews: A Christian Defense of Jews and Judaism :
Augustines writings are filled with anti-Jewish invective as harsh as anything in other early Christian writers. Yet their flows a deeper stream of thought that offers rich theological resources for Christian understanding of the Jews. Because of Gods ongoing connection to the Jews through the observance of the Law, the Church has an abiding relation to the Jewish people.
. . .
Though she does not shy away from Augustines biting reproaches . . . [Fredriksen] is unfailingly generous in bringing out the positive aspects of his thinking.
Then, as if all that werent enough, weve topped it all off with a heaping tablespoon of crème fraiche: The issue ends with some of our favorite items from The Public Square , the celebrated column that our late founder and editor in chief, Richard John Neuhaus, wrote for nineteen years.
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Stefan McDaniel is a junior fellow at First Things .