It Takes a Congregation

Contrary to what we hear incessantly, marriage is not a right; it is an estate, a condition. There are conditions of life that have nothing to do with rights. One doesn’t have a right to go through puberty. One either does or doesn’t. What is the condition of being married, and what makes it possible to attain it? Franz Rosenzweig’s anthropology”in which religion is a response to man’s sentience of death, and the sentience of death is not only an individual but also an communal characteristic”may help answer that question. Humankind fights mortality in two ways. The first is to raise children who will remember us, and the second is to seek eternal life through divine grace. The estate of marriage involves both.

“Why do men chase women?” asks Rose Castorini in Moonstruck. “Because they want to live forever.” Continue Reading »

How to Create a Heresy

Heresy is easy to scrounge up. All one needs is the Bible. I mean just the Bible. And that is exactly how Slate editor David Plotz cooked up a carefree pot of blasphemies in his recent book Good Book: The Bizarre, Hilarious, Disturbing, Marvelous, and Inspiring Things I Learned When I Read Every Word of the Bible.

While bored during his cousin’s bat mitzvah, Plotz”“a proud Jew, but never a very observant one””unsuspectingly picked up the Bible on the pew in front of him and started reading. Unfortunately (or fortunately), he just happened to open it up to the story of Dinah. He was so shocked by the grim sexual details, and the fact that he had never heard them before, that he decided then and there to read the entire book and blog his responses to it. “Blogging the Bible” then became this book in which Plotz chronicles his interpretations and summaries to nearly every chapter of the Hebrew Bible. His goal was simple: “find out what happens when an ignorant person actually reads the book on which his religion is based.” Continue Reading »

A Master of Horror

In his Poetics, Aristotle observed that some works of art have a paradoxical effect. They represent things that make us cringe and recoil: Orestes kills Clytemnestra; Medea murders her children. Yet, even as we shrink from the brutality and avert our eyes in horror, we are nonetheless strangely attracted to and sometimes ravished by the scenes. What is ugly and brutal can exercise an aesthetic power as great as”perhaps even greater than”beauty itself.

A special centenary exhibition of the work of Francis Bacon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (on view until August 16, 2009) offers an ideal occasion to experience the strange aesthetic appeal of deformity, pain, and the darkness of life. Bacon famously filled his studio with images of disease from medical books and murder scenes from tabloids. The paintings that resulted are not ugly. On the contrary, many have alluring color and form. But there can be no doubt about Bacon’s genius. It was energized by the grotesque. Continue Reading »

We All Have Fathers

My youngest child is now twelve. I was fifty when she was born, a child of my second marriage. There are six preceding her ranging in age from forty-six down to the twelve-year-old. The forty-six year-old was one of the unaccompanied minors out of Vietnam in 1975; that puts me at twenty-eight with an eleven-year-old who didn’t speak any English other than “hello” and “no sweat.” The youngest still at home, as I best recall, was born talking in complete sentences, a vocabulary replete with “I want everything,” which, naturally, I have tried my best to accommodate. Were she your child, you’d do the same.

A child at fifty almost made me a geezer dad. That’s a guy who heads for the store for Pampers, becomes confused, and returns with Depends. Continue Reading »

On the Demise of Fatherhood

It is news to no one that, in the Western world in general and the United States in particular, the call to fatherhood is being heeded less and less. Anyone unfortunate enough to pick up a newspaper is painfully aware that one-third of American children live without any father and that, in many inner cities, the out-of-wedlock birth rate exceeds seventy percent. Also well known, though rarely acknowledged, is the devastation that such a lack of paternity has wreaked on children and society more generally. Fatherless children have rates of incarceration, criminal activity, possession of firearms, poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, incompletion of school, and overall parental neglect and maltreatment alarmingly higher than their two-parent counterparts.

Coupled with the staggering divorce rate and the move in the West toward alternative lifestyles”permanent bachelorhood, cohabitation, or “serial monogamy””it is now possible, without the slightest exaggeration, to begin using phrases such as “the end of the human family.” Continue Reading »

Newt Gingrich’s Coded Speech, Telling Omissions

I don’t know how you feel about Newt Gingrich, but every time he is on, I’m drawn to watch him. He always has a different angle, always has something substantive to say. And that, more than anything else, explains why, with all of the turmoil and embarrassments in his personal life, a party filled with conservative people still want to hear him.

It was no small tribute to him then that even out of office he was selected to give the keynote address on June 9 to the major fund-raising dinner for the Republicans in the Senate and the House. George W. Bush gave that address when he was in office, and when a Republican isn’t in the White House, the privilege flows to one of the highest-ranking Republicans in office or the titular head of the party. Newt gave a stirring, summoning talk that night. The passion was modulated, the fires damped down only because Newt, with his bent toward the systematic, delivered himself of a lecture. He aims for the comprehensive. And along the way he spoke some telling lines. The most memorable, catching the central truth of the moment was this one: “[T]hat [Ronald] Reagan used his rhetorical skills to shine light on truths and fundamental facts. Obama uses his rhetorical skills to hide from fundamental facts.”

But past the lines that hit home, and past the evident move to be sweeping and comprehensive, he revealed in the design of his talk the omissions that were quite telling… . Continue Reading »

Marilynne Robinson Stumbles

I’ll admit it up front. I was disappointed with Home, Marilynne Robinson’s latest novel. There are some finely spun sentences and evocative passages. The final pages breathe with emotional reality, and Robinson’s rich knowledge of Christian theology produces some rewarding insights. But the novel as a whole is workmanlike.

High expectations undoubtedly contributed to my disappointment. Robinson’s first novel, Housekeeping, has an aching beauty. The story focuses on Ruth and Lucille, two sisters raised by their aunt in the imaginary small town of Fingerbone, Idaho. The haunting reality of memory eventually becomes more substantial then the physical structure of their house, and by the end of the novel Robinson succeeds in making the reader feel as though Ruth and Lucille are thin, spectral waifs who have left behind the solid, everyday reality of life.

If Housekeeping spiritualizes, then Gilead, her second and widely (and justly) praised novel, moves in the other direction… .Continue Reading »

Sotomayor, Catholic Supremacy, and Protestant Approaches to Law

The nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court raises the prospect that for the first time in history there will be a supermajority of justices on the same court affiliated to one degree or another with the Catholic Church. Indeed, if her nomination is successful”as most experts believe it will be”half of the Catholics who have ever been on the Supreme Court will be serving simultaneously.

At the same time the number of Protestants on the court will fall to a historic low”with David Souter’s retirement, John Paul Stevens will be the lone Protestant. With Catholic representation on the land’s highest court at its apex, and Protestant representation at its nadir, the question must be asked whether this reflects a shift in the balance of legal influence reflective of underlying deficiencies in American Protestantism.

There is nothing intrinsic to historic Protestantism that would prevent it from cultivating first-rate legal thinkers… . Continue Reading »

Same-Sex Marriage and the Death of Tradition

Conservatism emerged as a defense of tradition. Edmund Burke, universally acknowledged as the founder of modern conservatism, famously defended tradition as a source of social safety and stability, a bulwark against the corrosive effects of an unfettered rationalism. To be sure, neither Burke nor his later followers have defended a blind adherence to traditional social forms. As Burke noted, a state incapable of change is a state without the means of its own preservation. Tradition must often be altered and adapted to new circumstances. Nevertheless, for the conservative, if tradition is not always to be preserved, it is at least always to be given the benefit of the doubt. As the most eminent of American Burkeans, Russell Kirk, once said, “if it is not necessary to change, then it is necessary not to change.”

The same-sex marriage movement is surely a great challenge to conservatism. The success of the movement would represent a great repudiation of tradition; in fact, it is almost impossible to distinguish the victory of the same-sex marriage movement from a complete repudiation not only of the traditional definition of marriage, but of the social authority of tradition as such. Consider the following points… . Continue Reading »

Obama and Cairo

Under the cover of continuity, President Obama has effected a revolution in American foreign policy. As a result, America’s position as a world superpower well may have peaked in 2008, and its long-term decline to a status better resembling Britain. But unlike Britain’s misery, America’s decline will be a willful withdrawal from a leading position in world affairs, an act without obvious precedent in world history. Were this to occur”and that is the present trajectory”Obama will have had a decisive role in bringing it to pass. What motivates the president? The answer, I believe, should be sought in the tragic circumstances of the Muslim nations.

What a master of the hot button, though, this president is. Jews invest a great deal of their emotional energy in the Holocaust, and he pressed their button at Buchenwald. Jewish voters, almost eighty percent of whom supported Obama last November, are more susceptible to the sucker punch than other denizens of a cynical world, and Obama is its master practitioner… . Continue Reading »