Damon Linker, thinking about the meaning of dying for another, understands the self-sacrificial love of God for broken humanity through the example of a father, Thomas Vander Woude, who dove into a cesspool to save his Down Syndrome son from drowning in sewage. He saved his son’s life, but died in the process, his lungs filled with piss and shit, all to rescue his boy from death. Like Jesus did for us. Linker:
Christianity teaches that the creator of the universe became incarnate as a human being, taught humanity (through carefully constructed lessons and examples of his own behavior) how to become like God, and then allowed himself to be unjustly tried, convicted, punished, and killed in the most painful and humiliating manner possible — all as an act of gratuitous love for the very people who did the deed.
Why does Vander Woude’s act of sacrifice move us? Maybe because in freely dying for his son, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of the love that moves the sun and the other stars.
Which is to say, he gives us a fleeting glimpse of God.
That might sound outlandish to atheists. But for my money, it comes closer to the truth, and does more to explain the otherwise irreducibly mysterious experience of noble sacrifice than any competing account.
Don’t buy it? I dare you to come up with something better.
As our priest was reading the Good Friday matins in church, and he got to the part in which the Roman soldiers scourged Jesus, my 10 year old son Lucas walked over to me, a look of intense concern on his face. He motioned for me to bend down to hear him.
“That’s horrible!” he whispered.
“It is,” I said. “And He did it because He loved us.”
We are almost at the joy of Easter … but don’t forget at what price that joy was purchased.
It is true that in speaking to the Father about his disciples Jesus had said about Judas, “None of them is lost but the son of perdition” (Jn 17:12). But here, as in so many other instances, he is speaking from the perspective of time and not of eternity. The enormity of this betrayal is enough by itself alone, without needing to consider a failure that is eternal, to explain the other terrifying statement said about Judas: “It would have been better for that man if he had not been born” (Mk 14:21).
The eternal destiny of a human being is an inviolable secret kept by God. The Church assures us that a man or a woman who is proclaimed a saint is experiencing eternal blessedness, but she does not herself know for certain that any particular person is in hell. Dante Alighieri, who places Judas in the deepest part of hell in his Divine Comedy, tells of the last-minute conversion of Manfred, the son of Frederick II and the king of Sicily, whom everyone at the time considered damned because he died as an excommunicated.
Having been mortally wounded in battle, he confides to the poet that in the very last moment of his life, “…weeping, I gave my soul / to Him who grants forgiveness willingly” and he sends a message from Purgatory to earth that is still relevant for us:
Horrible was the nature of my sins,
but boundless mercy stretches out its arms
to any man who comes in search of it.
Here is what the story of our brother Judas should move us to do: to surrender ourselves to the one who freely forgives, to throw ourselves likewise into the outstretched arms of the Crucified One. The most important thing in the story of Judas is not his betrayal but Jesus’ response to it. He knew well what was growing in his disciple’s heart, but he does not expose it; he wants to give Judas the opportunity right up until the last minute to turn back, and is almost shielding him. He knows why Judas came to the garden of olives, but he does not refuse his cold kiss and even calls him “friend” (see Mt 26:50). He sought out Peter after his denial to give him forgiveness, so who knows how he might have sought out Judas at some point in his way to Calvary! When Jesus prays from the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34), he certainly does not exclude Judas from those for whom he prays.
So what will we do? Who will we follow, Judas or Peter? Peter had remorse for what he did, but Judas was also remorseful to the point of crying out, “I have betrayed innocent blood!” and he gave back the thirty pieces of silver. Where is the difference then? Only in one thing: Peter had confidence in the mercy of Christ, and Judas did not! Judas’ greatest sin was not in having betrayed Christ but in having doubted his mercy.
Read the whole homily. It’s wonderful. Thanks to the reader who tipped me off. Glad to know that Fr. Cantalamessa and Your Working Boy are on the same page on Good Friday.
And boundless thanks to the reader who sent me the Dante package that just arrived!
Welcome readers of my Wall Street Journal essay about how Dante saved my life. If you want to read a longer, more in-depth version, check out my cover story from the current issue of TAC. If you’re interested in looking in on the Lenten blogging pilgrimage through Purgatorio, here are links to those entries:
Canto I, Canto II, Canto III, Canto IV, Canto V, Canto VI, Canto VII, Canto VIII, Canto IX, Canto X, Canto XI, Canto XII, Canto XIII, Canto XIV, Canto XV, Canto XVI, Canto XVII, Canto XVIII, Canto XIX, Canto XX, Canto XXI, Canto XXII and Canto XXIII, Canto XXIV, Canto XXV, Canto XXVI, Canto XXVII, Canto XXVIII, Canto XXIX, Canto XXX, Canto XXXI, Canto XXXII, Canto XXXIII.
If you only have time for a few entries, my remarks on cantos VII, IX, XI, XIV, and XXVII are my favorites of the bunch.
The Atlantic has a neat Big Question forum, asking various business leaders to identify the Worst Business Decision Ever Made. For example:
Walt Mossberg, co–executive editor, Re/code
Apple’s firing of Steve Jobs in 1985 set the company back for a dozen years and drove it to near-bankruptcy. Apple only saved itself by rehiring him in 1997, at which point he went on to make Apple the most financially valuable—and influential—tech company in the world.
I was talking the other day to a friend about a particular situation. She said, “That’s just the way the world is.” I replied, “No, that’s the world as we’ve made it.” My point was that it was not inevitable that things turned out the way they did in this particular situation. It rarely is. Yes, some things cannot be helped, but mostly, our problems are caused by the exercise of our own free will, or the refusal to exercise it.
With that in mind, let me put a question to the room: What’s the worst cultural decision ever made? That is, which poor decision at the level of culture (religion, art, philosophy, and so forth) was the most regrettable, in hindsight?
My entry would be the same as Richard Weaver’s, in Ideas Have Consequences: Nominalism. Weaver wrote:
Like Macbeth, Western man made an evil decision, which has become the efficient and final cause of other evil decisions. Have we forgotten our encounter with the witches on the heath? It occurred in the late fourteenth century, and what the witches said to the protagonist of this drama was that man could realize himself more fully if he would only abandon his belief in the existence of transcendentals. The powers of darkness were working subtly, as always, and they couched this proposition in the seemingly innocent form of an attack upon universals. The defeat of logical realism in the great medieval debate was the crucial event in the history of Western culture; from this flowed those acts which issue now in modern decadence.
One may be accused here of oversimplifying the historical process, but I take the view that the conscious policies of men and governments are not mere rationalizations of what has been brought about by unaccountable forces. They are rather deductions from our most basic ideas of human destiny, and they have a great, though not unobstructed, power to determine out course.
For this reason I turn to William of Occam as the best representative of a change which came over man’s conception of reality at this historic juncture. It was William of Occam who propounded the fateful doctrine of nominalism, which denies that universals have a real existence. His triumph tended to leave universal terms mere names serving our convenience. The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of humankind. The practical result of nominalist philosophy is to banish the reality which is perceived by the intellect and to posit as reality that which is perceived by the senses. With this change in the affirmation of what is real,, the whole orientation of culture takes a turn, and we are on the road to modern empiricism.
It is easy to be blind to the significance of a change because it is remote in time and abstract in character. Those who have not discovered that world view is the most important thing about a man, as about the men composing a culture, should consider the train of circumstances which have with perfect logic proceeded from this. The denial of universals carries with it the denial of everything transcending experience. The denial of everything transcending experience means inevitably-though ways are found to hedge on this-the denial of truth. With the denial of objective truth there is no escape from the relativism of “man the measure of all things.” The witches spoke with the habitual equivocation of oracles when they told man that by this easy choice he might realize himself more fully, for they were actually initiating a course which cuts one off from reality. Thus began the “abomination of desolation” appearing today as a feeling of alienation from all fixed truth.
I am not really interested in arguing with anybody over the validity of this choice. As I said yesterday, I’m not engaging with this blog today, Good Friday (I’m actually writing this on Holy Thursday, and scheduling it to publish on Good Friday). I’m far more interested in what you think is the worst cultural decision ever made, and why? Make a case.
P.S. I can see why, “The decision not to destroy the world as a climax to the Cuban Missile Crisis, thereby sparing the world The San Pedro Beach Bums and the rest of the 1970s” is an attractive sentiment, but it doesn’t really count.
UPDATE: Again, do not argue with me over the validity of my choice. I’m asking you this as a favor; I don’t need the temptation to engage with the readership on Good Friday, and this is a hard thing for me to avoid. Just put your own choice up, and make a brief case.
The New York Times writes about Dark Mountain, a radical movement of deep-green types who have given up on the idea that the earth can be saved, and are dedicated to enjoying the slide into eco-apocalypse. Paul Kingsnorth is a leading light, as is his colleague Dougald Hine. Excerpts:
“Everything had gotten worse,” Kingsnorth said. “You look at every trend that environmentalists like me have been trying to stop for 50 years, and every single thing had gotten worse. And I thought: I can’t do this anymore. I can’t sit here saying: ‘Yes, comrades, we must act! We only need one more push, and we’ll save the world!’ I don’t believe it. I don’t believe it! So what do I do?”
The first thing that Kingsnorth did was draft a manifesto. Also called “Uncivilization,” it was an intense, brooding document that vilified progress. “There is a fall coming,” it announced. “After a quarter-century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall . . . Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis.”
Sitting in the hut, the air stale and the light almost nonexistent, I thought of something Hine told me earlier. “People think that abandoning belief in progress, abandoning the belief that if we try hard enough we can fix this mess, is a nihilistic position,” Hine said. “They think we’re saying: ‘Screw it. Nothing matters.’ But in fact all we’re saying is: ‘Let’s not pretend we’re not feeling despair. Let’s sit with it for a while. Let’s be honest with ourselves and with each other. And then as our eyes adjust to the darkness, what do we start to notice?’ ”
Hine compared coming to terms with the scope of ecological loss to coming to terms with a terminal illness. “The feeling is a feeling of despair to begin with, but within that space other things begin to come through.”
In 2009, philosopher John Gray wrote about the Dark Mountain Manifesto, giving Kingsnorth and Hine credit for seeing through progressivist myths, but saying that they’re delusional too. Excerpt:
The notion that social breakdown could be the prelude to a better world is a Romantic dream that history has proved wrong time and again. China and Russia have suffered complete social breakdown on several occasions during their history, as did much of Europe in the period between the two world wars. The result has never been the stable anarchy that is sometimes envisioned in the poetry of Jeffers. Instead, it is the thugs and fanatics who promise to restore order that triumph, whether Lenin and Stalin in Russia, Mao in China, or Hitler and assorted petty dictators in Europe. It is the old Hobbesian doctrine – one that has never been successfully superseded.
The authors do not tell us what they expect to happen after civilisation has disappeared, but it may be something like the post-apocalyptic, neo-medieval world imagined by the nature mystic Richard Jefferies in his novelAfter London, or Wild England (1885). In it, Britain is depopulated after ecological disaster and reverts to barbarism; but it is not long before a new social order springs up, simpler and happier than the one that has passed away. After London is an Arcadian morality tale that even Jefferies probably did not imagine could ever come to pass.
Over a century later, the belief that a global collapse could lead to a better world is ever more far-fetched. Human numbers have multiplied, industrialisation has spread worldwide and the technologies of war are far more highly developed. In these circumstances, ecological catastrophe will not trigger a return to a more sustainable way of life, but will intensify the existing competition among nation states for the planet’s remaining reserves of oil, gas, fresh water and arable land. Waged with hi-tech weapons, the resulting war could destroy not only large numbers of human beings but also much of what is left of the biosphere.
A scenario of this kind is not remotely apocalyptic. It is no more than history as usual, together with new technologies and ongoing climate change. The notion that the conflicts of history have been left behind is truly apocalyptic, and Kingsnorth and Hine are right to target business-as-usual philosophies of progress. When they posit a cleansing catastrophe, however, they, too, succumb to apocalyptic thinking. How can anyone imagine that the dream-driven human animal will suddenly become sane when its environment starts disintegrating? In their own catastrophist fashion, the authors have swallowed the progressive fairy tale that animates the civilisation they reject.
I didn’t know a thing about Dark Mountain until reading the Times piece, and the story’s account about the hootenanny in the English countryside is pretty unintentionally risible. That said, the Benedict Option streak in these folks appeals to me, and I agree with them that the world is not going to lower the carbon emissions, so we should quit fooling ourselves. However, in the end, Gray is right: as bad as what we have now may be in some respects, what comes after its collapse would be infinitely worse. I think for Kingsnorth and Hine, civilizational collapse is a kind of solution.
Anyway, if you’re interested, here’s The Dark Mountain Manifesto. However unrealistically Romantic these guys are, it’s hard to disagree with this:
The myth of progress is founded on the myth of nature. The first tells us that we are destined for greatness; the second tells us that greatness is cost-free. Each is intimately bound up with the other. Both tell us that we are apart from the world; that we began grunting in the primeval swamps, as a humble part of something called ‘nature’, which we have now triumphantly subdued. The very fact that we have a word for ‘nature’ is evidence that we do not regard ourselves as part of it. Indeed, our separation from it is a myth integral to the triumph of our civilisation. We are, we tell ourselves, the only species ever to have attacked nature and won. In this, our unique glory is contained.
Outside the citadels of self-congratulation, lone voices have cried out against this infantile version of the human story for centuries, but it is only in the last few decades that its inaccuracy has become laughably apparent. We are the first generations to grow up surrounded by evidence that our attempt to separate ourselves from ‘nature’ has been a grim failure, proof not of our genius but our hubris. The attempt to sever the hand from the body has endangered the ‘progress’ we hold so dear, and it has endangered much of ‘nature’ too. The resulting upheaval underlies the crisis we now face.
As the sun sets this evening, Holy Thursday, you might give a thought to the beginning of Dante’s Inferno. In the poem’s first canto, Dante awakens in the forest sometime during the night of Holy Thursday — which is to say, on the morning of Good Friday:
Midway in the journey of our life
I cam to myself in a dark wood,
for the straight way was lost.
Ah, how hard it is to tell
the nature of that wood, savage, dense and harsh –
the very thought of it renews my fear!
Thus begins his journey. On Easter Sunday morning, he and Virgil emerge from Hell. I wish you all courage and grace on your own paschal pilgrimage this weekend. I will not be blogging on Good Friday. Some posts will appear, but that’s only because I will have written them on Thursday. I will only be approving posts intermittently, so please be more patient than usual. Thanks.
By the way, I strongly, strongly, strongly urge you to listen to the BBC’s radio dramatization of Purgatorio and Paradiso online (Inferno is no longer available). They will both go away tomorrow. If you are planning to read Paradiso with us online in the weeks to come, I can’t think of a better preparation than to listen to Stephen Wyatt’s wonderful play; each episode is only one hour.
(That above painting by Delacroix depicts events in Canto 8 of Inferno.)
UPDATE: I’m going to be on WSJ Live, the live online broadcast of the Wall Street Journal, at noon Eastern time today (Friday), talking Dante. Click through to watch. I’ll be interviewed via Skype from my back porch, here at the Mothership. Watch out for photobombing chickens.
No draft had more impact than the one for “One Hundred Years of Solitude.” Mr. García Márquez’s editor began reading it at home one rainy day, and as he read page after page by this unknown Colombian author, his excitement grew. Soon he called the Argentine novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez and summoned him urgently to the home.
Mr. Eloy Martinez remembered entering the foyer with wet shoes and encountering pages strewn across the floor by the editor in his eagerness to read through the work. They were the first pages of a book that in 1967 would vault Mr. García Márquez onto the world stage. He later authorized an English translation, by Gregory Rabassa. In Spanish or English, readers were tantalized from its opening sentences:
“Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Col. Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of 20 adobe houses built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.”
A reader sends this jaw-dropping story, appropriately titling it, “Portlandia The Pure”:
Shortly after 1 a.m. Wednesday, a 19-year-old in a hoodie and baggy jeans was captured on a grainy black-and-white surveillance video urinating into a reservoir that slakes the thirst of Portland, Ore.’s 600,000 or so residents. (Cue the disgusted “Ewwwwwwwws!” right here.)
But really, Portland Water Bureau officials, do you have to flush 38 million gallons of potable water for the sake of a cup or two of human urine? That’s how much the bladder comfortably holds, although the bladder in question obviously wasn’t comfortable.
People of Portland: Birds and fish poo and pee in your reservoir water all the time! You waste 38 million gallons of water, and you forfeit all claims to be ecologically friendly, or even ecologically sane.
On the other hand, maybe the urinator is a Mormon, or worse, a Republican. In Portlandia, that changes everything!
Yes, many of the people who make popular entertainment are prominent Democrats. But pulling a lever or writing a check to advance a policy outcome is not the same thing as creating a liberal, or even forward-looking view of the world. Capitalism has something to do with this, and the assumptions about markets that guide Hollywood, which include the ideas that any woman over 35 might as well be dead, and that international audiences hate black actors who are not Will Smith. And narrative conservatism may be an even greater limitation than the pressures to be profitable. Superhero franchises need to keep us invested, so they can only critique their Übermenschen so much. Romantic comedies still hew to their Elizabethan conventions in structuring their payoffs: Marriage, or at least a boyfriend, remains the end goal. A well-landed punch or an artfully-arranged explosion that takes out a bad guy is more pleasurable to watch than a trial, whatever our convictions might be outside the cinema. In culture, the most powerful orientation is neither left nor right, but rather, towards what kinds of story arcs and character beats are satisfying.
That hardly makes culture apolitical or unimportant. Rather, it suggests that we need very different terms to understand what actually winning the culture war would look like, for either side. Conservative culture has receded into joke status not simply because the country has shifted on issues like equal marriage rights or vigilante justice, but because conservative filmmakers, documentarians, and television producers often expect values and ideas to carry the day even in projects where production quality is low, dialogue is clunky, and characters exist only to mouth talking points. Similarly, liberal creators have done a good job of advancing progressive ideas that can be easily expressed in ways that audiences will find pleasurable. But they have been less successful when advancing their principles might require them to train their audiences to approach familiar archetypes, like anti-hero dramas, in new ways.
Could it be that American popular culture represents the worst of liberalism and the worst of conservatism? Yes, it could. But liberals who say, “How were we to know?” don’t get a pass. If human nature doesn’t make you a natural pessimist about these things, you aren’t paying attention.
A friend went last week to the Arkansas Arts Center in Little Rock, to see an exhibit by the Arkansas painter Carroll Cloar (1913-1993). She brought me back the exhibit catalog, which is mesmerizing. I had never heard of Cloar, who painted scenes and people from the Mississippi Delta. Read what the great Arkansas journalist Paul Greenberg had to say about Cloar’s work. I found online a story a Memphis magazine did about Cloar and his painting. Excerpt:
Cloar was born on January 13, 1913, in Earle, Arkansas, a town of 3,000 some 30 miles from Memphis. His father — a farmer from a line of farmers — was kind but strict and distant. His mother was a devout Pentecostal who, according to Pat, “spent a lot of time praying.” Although he grew up with three brothers and a sister, he led a solitary childhood, exploring the woods and pastures and riverbanks that years later found form in his art. “I was a shy child who seldom spoke at all,” he once described himself, “but I was a keen observer.” And in fact every detail of his rural roots can be found in his paintings — somber-faced relatives, mischievous children, white clapboard houses, and fat harvest moons. Long-johns on clotheslines and men strumming banjos, diners and pool halls and field hands at dusk. And pervading these works are themes that endure through generations — childhood friendships, the wonders of nature, the loneliness of aging, the yearnings of youth.
Pat Cloar sums up the feelings of several others when she says of her late husband’s works, “One of the best things about Carroll was that he retained the ability to observe and think like a child; he kept a sense of playfulness in his work. And it was amazing how he could retain the memories of the past, recall entire conversations.”
One of these conversations resulted in The Arrival of the Germans in Crittenden County, a painting created in 1955. It harks back to World War I, when the grownups in Cloar’s life would sit around and talk about “those Germans,” says Pat. “If they win over there,” the grownups would say, “they’ll be here next.” And Cloar told his wife, “I’d worry about that. I could picture them walking across the cotton fields of Crittenden County. I could see a big long line of them with uniforms and guns. So I decided I’d get me a rock, the biggest one I could find, and put it right under the doorstep. And as soon as one of those Germans came in our yard, I was gonna hit him with that rock.” While the memory amused him, an ominous overtone is seen in the painting; it reflects the dread of a boy awaiting the onslaught of foreign soldiers.
Some of his works also reflect a sense of isolation, as in Alien Child, where the young barefoot Cloar is divided from his family by a long and jagged crevice; and in My Father Was Big as a Tree, which depicts the boy’s feeling for a man about whom he wrote, “[My father] was big and far beyond, and I was never quite able to reach him.”
Please do read that article; you will be able to see some of Cloar’s paintings. Or google “Carroll Cloar” under the images function, and prepare to be dazzled. Cloar once wrote, of his own work:
“If you will go northward in Arkansas, you will see people who might have stepped out of my mother’s album; early American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs. But they are changing too. They are the last of the Old America that isn’t long for this Earth.”
Reading the Cloar exhibit book, I recognize scenes from my own rural Southern childhood. They were passing, and had nearly passed by then, but they had not yet faded. Cloar was a magical realist of the Deep South. I could get lost in his world. Lucky you folks in and around Little Rock!
In June, the Cloar exhibit is moving to the Brooks in Memphis. With any luck, I’ll have the time this summer to make a roadtrip. Maybe you too? Oh, I’m so sorry to report that the Cloar exhibit in Memphis was LAST SUMMER.