Today begins the new website design for First Things : more punch, more power, more action, more zowie!
Or so I’m told. You’ll have to check it out to see for yourself. As I promised in our May issue , we’ve launched our redesigned and much-improved website, which includes both a new look and a range of new content features.
In addition to the four new blogs we introduced last month” The Anchoress , Spengler , Icons & Curiosities , and Postmodern Conservative ”we’ve added two more to the First Things family: First Thoughts , which replaces our old group blog, will be the place to find engaging and spirited discussions about the issues of the day with our staff and contributors; and Secondhand Smoke , where Wesley J. Smith provides an ongoing seminar on bioethics and the importance of being human.
On the new site, as well, in the In the News section, we keep you informed of the latest developments in the public square with a daily roundup of news and articles of interest.
First Things , however, is more than a magazine; its a community. So in order to strengthen our online ties with ROFTERS (“Readers of First Things “) we’ve opened up all the content sections”articles, blogs, In the News”for comments. (For a limited time all of the comment areas will be open to non-subscribers, too.) ROFTERS can also interact with us on Twitter and Facebook .
Although we are excited to unveil these new features, they are but a few of the changes we have in store for our readers. Over the next several weeks we’ll be adding even more ways to improve your online experience with First Things . Please continue to let us know what you think of the new site by sending suggestions and recommendations to our web editor Joe Carter .
Meanwhile, this is the time we announce, as well, the appearance of the new issue of First Things . Since mathematicians assure us that there are degrees of infinity, we don’t mind saying that this June/July issue of First Things is even better than the last. An outrageous claim, you say? Just consider the evidence.
Everybody’s got an opinion, but when the subject is the state of the American Catholic Church, few deserve the careful attention that Archbishop Charles Chaput does. The issue roars into action with Chaput’s ” St. Paul in the Public Square ,” a blistering reprimand to American Catholics in light of the most recent presidential election:
The new administration has now made its first decisions in moral and cultural areas, and the badness of those decisions should surprise no one. Some Catholics in both political parties are deeply troubled by these issues, but too many Catholics don’t really care. That’s the truth of it . . . . If 65 million Catholics really cared about their faith and cared about what it teaches, neither political party could ignore what we believe about justice for the poor, or the homeless, or immigrants, or the unborn. If 65 million Catholics really understood their faith, we wouldn’t need to waste one another’s time arguing whether the legalized killing of an unborn child is somehow balanced out or excused by other social policies.
If we learn nothing else from last November, it should be this: We need to stop overcounting our numbers, our influence, our institutions, and our resources, because they are not real.
On the more cheerful side of things, Stephen Barr offers a warm appreciation of the life and work of the recently deceased writers on science Stanley Jaki and Peter Hodgson . Barr writes that there is untapped wealth in their writings:
Not many people can do the kind of work they did. Both Jaki and Hodgson quoted with approval [Pierre] Duhem’s statement that “in order to speak of questions where science and Catholic theology touch one another, one must have done ten or fifteen years of study in the pure sciences.” Hodgson added, “It is also highly desirable that [one] be philosophically and theologically literate, and that is a much more difficult criterion to satisfy.” The laborers in this part of the vineyard are rather few. But their numbers are increasing, and those who come after Stanley Jaki and Peter Hodgson will find the labor lighter for having their work to build on.
Then there are the articles, of course. Contributing writer Mary Eberstadt delivers the goods again with a thought-provoking piece called ” Pro-Animal, Pro-life. ” She argues that there is no real reason for the current estrangement between vegetarians and pro-lifers:
Vegetarianism is not easily dismissed either morally or intellectually, despite the fact that some traditionalists have relished doing just that for several decades now. Like the boutique academic theorists speaking in vegetarianism’s name, these traditionalists seem to have missed the moral forest for its more superficial trees . . . .
Most people who adopt a vegetarian or cruelty-free diet do not do so on the basis of the antihumanist, antilife ideas that prevail in academic thought. On the contrary, evidence abounds that most people change their dietary habits not because of carbon footprints or absent referents but through a very different process”acknowledging and acting on a moral intuition.
Many pro-lifers, she observes, came to their views after a similar process, and recognizing this similarity should help to bring the two groups closer together: “As a matter of theory, the line connecting the dots between ‘we should respect animal life’ and ‘we should respect human life’ is far straighter than the line connecting vegetarianism to antilife feminism or antihumanist utilitarianism. Any moral intuition powerful enough to cause second thoughts about a widely accepted practice”and to reshape personal behavior accordingly”is an intuition that religious believers ordinarily take seriously indeed.”
More provocative still is David P. Goldman’s ” Jewish Survival in a Gentile World ,” which makes the fascinating argument that Jews who know their own best interest should ask Catholics to pray for the conversion of the Jews “not only on Easter, but three times a day.”
Jews have a definitive interest in seeing Benedict XVI’s interpretation of the election of Israel written in stone for the ages. We should welcome the opportunity to befriend this pope, all the more so when he is facing down the enemies of Israel within the Church. We should seek opportunities to make common cause with Catholics on the issues that unite us, above all the holiness of life, which is what God first called us to his service to defend. And we should cajole our Catholic friends to enshrine the philo-Semitism of John Paul II and Benedict XVI in the magisterium of the Church so that this moment of clarity becomes a monument for our common journey.
If Goldman and Eberstadt between them don’t provide enough audacious arguments for you, Francesco Sisci is sure to get you your fix. In ” China’s Catholic Moment ” he claims that: “In recent years, the Chinese government has shifted from persecution of Christians to subtle”and sometimes even open”encouragement of Christianity. Christianity will never be a state religion in China, to be sure, and the Communist party in China is still officially atheist. But it is not an exaggeration to say we are near a Constantinian moment for the Chinese Empire, as the government looks to Christianity”particularly Catholicism”for an instrument of social cohesion.”
After all the excitement of wrestling with the first three articles, you’ll surely want a change of pace. To that end we’ve provided Algis Valiunas’ ” Starlight in Hell ,” a sober reflection on Russian literature. “We continue to read Russian literature,” he says, “because it shows the full amplitude of the soul, from the bestial to the holy.”
If you’re more in the mood for the holy than the bestial you will want to read ” Keeping Time ,” Wilfred McClay’s elegant appreciation of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time to Keep Silence . In that book, Fermor explains how he went from seeing St. Wandrille abbey as “a necropolis of which I was the only living inhabitant,” to admiring the monks’ disciplined pursuit of holiness as the very fullness of life.
Of the making of ignorant and wildly irresponsible claims about the Crusades there is no end. Things would be even worse without tireless scholars like Thomas Madden, who has committed himself to the thankless task of correcting errors. In ” Inventing the Crusades ” Madden gives a positive review of The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam , a new book by the equally tireless Jonathan Riley-Smith. Neither Madden nor Smith seems very hopeful that anything can destroy the “caricature of the Crusades created by a pox of modern ideologies” but, Madden says, “well-written and powerful” books like Riley-Smith’s have the best shot at doing so.
Some publications would think this was more than enough fascinating material for one issue but, in keeping with our policy of shock-and-awe, we’ve ensured that the book reviews are just as rich and diverse as the opinions and articles. Call us overachievers.
First up, we have Gary Anderson’s appreciative review of Brevard Childs’ last book, The Church’s Guide for Reading Paul . Then Thomas Farr welcomes William Inboden’s Religion and Foreign Policy, 1945“1960 , a book that ends Cold War historians’ neglect of the “spiritual side of containment.” Farr writes, “In Inboden’s skillful telling, religious ideas and actors, especially Protestant ones, were critical to forging what he calls a ‘diplomatic theology of containment’”the policy of military, ideological, economic, and spiritual resistance that over the next century helped secure communism’s demise.”
In his review of Gregory Baum’s Theology of Tariq Ramadan: A Catholic Perspective Gabriel Reynolds faults the author’s largely uncritical attitude towards his subject and his failure to offer a distinctively Catholic perspective on Ramadan’s thought. Ramadan “maintains the traditional Islamic claim that the Bible (and by extension Christianity) is falsified,” Reynolds notes.
There is nothing unusual about this, and Baum is certainly not obliged to feel any sort of offense or outrage about it. Still, he might have spared a sentence or two for Ramadan’s view of Christianity in a book on a Catholic perspective of a Muslim scholar’s theology.
Following Reynold’s stern critique is David Paul Deavel’s lush exploration of Dark Water , Robert Clark’s fascinating book centered on the 1966 flood of Florence. Finally, Edward T. Oakes, S.J. reviews an exchange between Christian theologian John Milbank and atheist Slavoj iek called The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic? Oakes concludes that the exchange shows that atheism is “far more ideologically unstable than many people think . . . . Intellectually serious atheism cannot merrily trash religion. Whether paradox or dialectic, Christ is still . . . a source of fear and wonder for Christian and atheist alike.”
Naturally, the issue ends with the Public Square, featuring my discussion of the Notre Dame controversy. In ” And the War Came ,” I argue that the role of American Catholic culture is what Fr. Jenkins seems not to understand: “Opposition to abortion doesn’t belong at the absolute center of Catholic theology. It doesn’t belong at the perfect center of Catholic faith. It exists, however, at the center of Catholic culture in this country.”
And of course, we can only mention in passing the lively letters, the helpful Briefly Noted review section, and the ten great poems by ten great poets strewn throughout the issue like so many scattered diamonds”poems from A.E. Stallings , Stephen Scaer , Timothy Steele , Julie Stoner , Frank Osen , Greg Alan Brownderville , Kevin Durkin , Timothy Murphy , Marilyn L. Taylor , and Daniel Haar .
Want full access to this portable buffet? Why don’t you subscribe? And, after you’ve subscribed, browse through the community created by our new website design. It’s got more punch. It’s got more power. It’s got more action. It’s got more zowie! .
Joseph Bottum is editor of First Things .