Rod Dreher

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OTOH, Maybe We Should Give Civil Unrest A Chance


Because they’re good enough, they’re smart enough, and doggone it, people like them.

Suddenly, I have a Strange New Respect for the up side of rioting, police brutality, and general mayhem.

UPDATE: It strikes me that I had better say now that I’m being sarcastic, about TV therapists and media hyperbole, before people start to accuse me of actually sympathizing with the cops or the rioters in Ferguson. Because that’s how the Internet rolls.

I bet Dr. Phil hates that Iyanla Vanzant for beating him to town.

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The Crimson Tide Will Die A Happy Death Prophecy


What is the symbolism of this photograph? Answer me, people! It’s making me a little crazy since Ryan Booth brought it to my attention. People can’t figure it out. From an Alabama football fansite:

Are they a family of twins, each of whom had that identical twin die in the past year? Did they murder these twins? If so, why are they so cool with each other after this? Does every Alabama fan have a cloudy Other awaiting them in the heavens? Are these cloud-giants, come to crush their tiny, human doppelgangers? If so, did they lose to Auburn last year, too? We have so many questions, and so few answers. Please help us, and make the terror go away.

I choose to interpret it as a prophecy that the Crimson Tide’s football season will be a disastrous one — the black clouds — but that this faithful family will rejoice in their crown of martyrdom, because being able to suffer for the sake of Satan Saban is its own reward. Speaking of suffering for the sake of Saban, ‘memba this? And ‘memba this [NSFW]? ‘Cause I sure do.

What the hell does the symbolism of this photograph mean? Please, semioticians of the SEC, lend us your expertise.

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The Benedict Option & The Assimilation Apostasy

Matthew Sitman, writing on the Jeremiah Option and the Benedict Option, mischaracterizes (no doubt inadvertently) the Eagle River, Alaska, community I wrote about in my TAC piece late last year:

I think those hesitations are largely right, and as a Christian, I’d add that I have to wonder what these kinds of communities do to reach out to the poor, the sick, and the lonely in the world around them. I’m not sure hunkering down is what Jesus called us to, and when, for example, a member of the Alaska community I mentioned says that “If you isolate yourself, you will become weird,” I wonder how living in a remote Alaska village is not isolation. Christians are given the Great Commission, not the Great Retreat. I’m not trying to demean the people Rod profiled, but rather express that I can’t quite understand Christianity in the same way. Jesus always seemed to wandering around, telling strange stories, mingling with the kind of people Benedict Option types might prefer to avoid.

There’s a reason why it’s not isolation or separatism: because Eagle River is not a “remote Alaska village.” It’s suburban Anchorage. The people live within greater Anchorage, but many who worship in the church live in physical proximity to the cathedral and each other so they can be more of a traditional community. But they’re open to and welcoming of outsiders. I’ve been there twice. My wife and son Lucas spent two weeks there this summer, in the company of a group that was mostly non-Orthodox. It’s fine.

Here’s Alan Jacobs on this point. Read all of it, but especially this passage:

I think individuals and communities often consider the Benedict Option not because they’re trying to avoid the wrong kind of people — a seriously uncharitable assumption on Sitman’s part — but because they feel that their spiritual lives are undernourished and unstable. Benedictine-style communal retreats aren’t usually meant to last forever, or to build permanent barriers to contact with non-Christians, any more than people who shelter under a bridge during a thunderstorm mean to set up housekeeping there.

And typically, even when the retreats themselves become permanent, their population is always in flux: some are always coming in for rest and renewal, others (now well-fed) are going back out into the highways and byways.

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

Yes, this. I’ll quote from Matt Sitman’s piece once more, then add my own:

While not being uncritical of modern life, I’m not in rebellion against it – and thus don’t seek to escape it. I also resist the notion that Christianity is fundamentally about morality, at least not in the ultimate sense. Christianity is premised on our inability to be moral, and it’s most important idea is that of grace, or God’s one-way love for us, which isn’t premised on how much we have our acts together. So I’m suspicious of religious movements that value purity above all else, which, in a way, I think the Benedict Option does. Withdrawal from mainstream culture can only mean that a desire for purity has trumped the risks of engagement.

But most of all, Christianity teaches us that God is love, that God loved the world and so should we – a notion that I find difficult to square with retreating into a remote community waiting for the world to burn. I actually am hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life, and seeing the brutality, violence, and indifference to suffering all around us, I can’t help but think the message of Jesus will retain it’s power. But that hope is premised on living in the world, not apart from it, while also letting go of apocalyptic rhetoric and the acute sense of persecution so many Christians feel.

One of the more frustrating aspects of this ongoing Benedict Option conversation is that so many of its critics repeatedly mischaracterize it as hiving off in separatist compounds. I keep pointing out that strict separatism is not the goal of most of these people. In the article I wrote that Matt quotes, I wrote this about the Catholic community around Clear Creek Abbey:

Many Clear Creekers are teaching themselves old-fashioned skills that will allow the community to get by in case of emergency, but they are not neo-Amish. Some work the land, but no family supports itself with farming. The monastery’s abbot tells me relative material poverty exists among the laity, but there’s also a richness in spirit and family life that you can’t put a price on.

“I think there’s a kind of gratitude we all share,” Pudewa says. “That’s what bonds people together a little more, rather than that we want to push our version of how to be more Catholic on other people.”

Clear Creek’s mothers and fathers bring up their children largely disconnected from mainstream American popular culture. Yet, though homeschooled, the community’s children are not being raised in, well, a monastery. They go to Tulsa for swing dancing twice a week, for example. Still, their relative isolation makes the mission of forming the children’s character easier, Pudewa says.

Stressing that the kids are not being taught to shun life outside the Oklahoma hills, Pudewa adds, “The purpose of the cocoon is not to be wrapped up in yourself forever; the purpose is to prepare the butterfly.”

I don’t know how to make it clearer than that. These are not people running to the hills waiting for the world to burn. So many of these Benedict Option critics are arguing with a straw man. Again, I wouldn’t claim that there doesn’t exist a strict separatist strain within the general line of thinking here, but it’s not something I believe is feasible or desirable for non-monastics, nor do the folks I choose to write about. It happens so often, this cartoon rendering of the Benedict Option, that I begin to wonder why so many of those who criticize it can’t seem to help themselves from framing it that way. I can’t read their minds, of course, but I do wonder if by characterizing it in such an extreme way, it makes it easier to dismiss their concerns. It’s like conservatives who take environmentalists at their most extreme and treat them as if they were normative, and then use that as a reason to convince themselves that everyone who expresses concern about the long-term environmental costs of living beyond our limits is silly and unrealistic.

Pudewa’s comment about the butterfly is exactly what Alan Jacobs is getting at. Benedict Option people believe that the mainstream culture in this time and place is so powerful, and so antithetical to what they (we) believe is true, that we have to engage in some kind of withdrawal in order to hold on to what we know to be true, and pass it on to our kids. Look at the piece I wrote yesterday about how Jews within Modern Orthodoxy are struggling to hold on to their Jewishness in modernity. People don’t want to hear it, but it’s clear that if you are part of a religious community that does not define itself strongly against modern secularist culture, you are all going to lose yourself in it — if not yourself, then your children likely will. It’s just too strong.

An important example: Alexander Griswold runs the numbers on Mainline Protestant churches that have embraced gay marriage (and, more broadly, modern sexuality), and they are in collapse. He says that modern Christians contend that if the church is to remain relevant and attract new believers, it will have to conform to the times. Excerpt:

These arguments often see church acceptance of homosexuality as a carrot as well as a stick. It isn’t so much that denouncing homosexuality will drive people away from church, but that embracing it will also lead people into church. LGBT individuals and their supporters, many of whom hold a dim view of religion after a decades-long culture war, will reconsider church if denominations remove their restrictions on gay marriage and ordination.

But a number of Christian denominations have already taken significant steps towards liberalizing their stances on homosexuality and marriage, and the evidence so far seems to indicate that affirming homosexuality is hardly a cure for membership woes. On the contrary, every major American church that has taken steps towards liberalization of sexual issues has seen a steep decline in membership.

As I wrote in the much-cited Sex After Christianity essay, the cause-and-effect in this dynamic is not one way. We’ve talked about this essay on many occasions here, and I don’t want to go down that path again in this thread. The relevant point here is that for whatever reason, there is a deep connection between the rejection of Christian sexual orthodoxy and the rejection of Christianity entirely. I bring sex up because even though many progressives, especially progressive Christians, don’t want to accept it, sex, more than any other issue, is at the center of our cultural and religious divisions.

The way a Christian thinks about sex and sexuality is a very, very good indication of what he thinks about living out the faith in modernity. The reason it is so central is because it reveals, more than any other question now, how a Christian relates to authority and moral order. Matt is a kind and honest interlocutor, and I sincerely appreciate his attention, so please don’t take this in any way snarky or hostile towards him or Christians who share his viewpoint … but the questions have to be put strongly: Where is the evidence for being hopeful about Christianity’s place in modern life? Why should anyone think that the message of Jesus will retain its power in modernity if a Christian experiences little conflict between his faith and the world as it is?

To get to the heart of it: What is Christianity for? 

This is why the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism critique is so powerful: it reveals that for modern Christians (and for most modern religious people), religion is not meant prophetically, to guide and correct our failings, and to show us what it means to live faithfully to God’s order, but rather to give us a peaceful, easy feeling about reconciling ourselves to the world. I’ll give you a right-wing version of this kind of thing. Martin Luther King Jr., in his Letter From Birmingham Jail, directly challenged local religious leaders to repent of their indifference to the grave injustices Jim Crow inflicted on Negroes. Note this passage:

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

In this prophetic Letter, King accuses the Birmingham religious establishment of paying lip service to Judeo-Christian morality as a way to assuaging their own religious consciences in the face of their personal and collective failure to do right by the standards of their own professed faith. Those pastors and rabbis were moralistic, they were therapeutic, and they were deist — but they were not behaving as Christians and Jews ought to behave, according to the Scripture and traditions of their faiths.

Do you see what I’m getting at? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi martyr, addressed the same exact mentality in his book The Cost Of Discipleship. Excerpt:

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting today for costly grace. Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or
fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing….

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system. It means forgiveness of sins proclaimed as a general truth, the love of God taught as the Christian ‘conception’ of God. An intellectual assent to that idea is held to be of itself sufficient to secure remission of sins…. In such a Church the world finds a cheap covering for its sins; no contrition is required, still less any real desire to be delivered from sin. Cheap grace therefore amounts to a denial of the living Word of God, in fact, a denial of the Incarnation of the Word of God.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner. Grace alone does everything they say, and so everything can remain as it was before. ‘All for sin could not atone.’ Well, then, let the Christian live like the rest of the world, let him model himself on the world’s standards in every sphere of life, and not presumptuously aspire to live a different life under grace from his old life under sin….

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

… The price we are having to pay today in the shape of the collapse of the organised church is only the inevitable consequence of our policy of making grace available to all at too low a cost. We gave away the word and sacraments wholesale, we baptised, confirmed, and absolved a whole nation without condition. Our humanitarian sentiment made us give that which was holy to the scornful and unbelieving… But the call to follow Jesus in the narrow way was hardly ever heard.

Christianity is a call to die to the world, even as we live in it. If Christians ever grow too comfortable with themselves in the world, they risk losing their faith. The particular challenges facing Christians in second-century Rome are not the same as the particular challenges facing them in 14th-century Constantinople, 1930s Germany, or America in 2014. But the universal challenge is always the same: what does it mean to live as an authentic follower of Christ? That is, what does it mean to think as a Christian, and to act as a Christian? The answers are rarely clear, but the answer can never be, “Whatever seems right to me must be right with Jesus.”

I recall a friendly argument I once had over religion and racism with a white man who expressed truly appalling opinions about black people within a general conversation about the life of the church. I pressed him on how he reconciled those opinions with Scripture, and he didn’t even try to. Here’s what amazed me about that conversation: he didn’t see that it was necessary to reconcile his own opinions and behavior with what he professed to believe about the Bible. He wasn’t even defensive about it. He felt at liberty to write off core elements of Biblical teaching because it just didn’t seem right to him, as a white man. I realized quickly enough that I was a guest in this man’s home, and that it would have been rude to have pressed it further, but I did ask him, “How do you know that you are a Christian?” — by which I meant, tell me about your conversion, and the difference it made in the way you saw the world and lived your life.

“Well,” he said, “I was baptized as a baby, and I guess I’ve always known I was a Christian because of that.”

Technically speaking, he was right. He may have been a bad Christian, but a Christian he indeed was because of his baptism. But that wasn’t the real meaning of his statement. What he was saying was that he believed he was an authentic Christian because of his formal membership in the Christian church. He was raised a Christian in a small-town culture where people went to church, and nearly everyone professed Christianity. That was all he needed to know. There was no chance that the message of the Bible could reach him, because his conscience was untroubled; cultural Christianity had inoculated him against the possibility of conversion.

Soren Kierkegaard had this man’s number. Excerpts from his Attack Upon Christendom, a jeremiad against the Danish state church and the comfortable bourgeois Christianity of 19th-century Denmark:

In the New Testament the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ, represents the situation thus: The way that leads to life is straight, the gate narrow—few be they who find it!

—now, on the contrary, to speak only of Denmark, we are all Christians, the way is as broad as it possibly can be, the broadest in Denmark, since it is the way in which we all are walking, besides being in all respects as convenient, as comfortable, as possible; and the gate is as wide as it possibly can be, wider surely a gate cannot be than that through which we all are going en masse.

Ergo the New Testament is no longer truth.

All honor to the human race (p. 115)!


The Christianity of the New Testament rests upon the assumption that the Christian is in a relationship of opposition, that to be a Christian is to believe in God, to love Him, in a relationship of opposition. While according to the Christianity of the New Testament the Christian has all the effort, the conflict, the anguish, which is connected with doing what is required, dying from the world, hating oneself, etc., he has at the same time to suffer from the relationship of opposition to other men, which the New Testament speaks of again and again: to be hated by others, to be persecuted, to suffer for the doctrine, etc.

In “Christendom” we are all Christians—therefore the relationship of opposition drops out. In this meaningless sense they have got all men made into Christians, and got everything Christian—and then (under the name of Christianity) we live a life of paganism. They have not ventured defiantly, openly, to revolt against Christianity; no, hypocritically and knavishly they have done away with it by falsifying the definition of what it is to be a Christian. It is of this I say that it is: (1) a criminal case, (2) that it is playing Christianity, (3) taking God for a fool.


The apostasy from Christianity will not come about openly by everybody renouncing Christianity; no, but slyly, cunningly, knavishly, by everybody assuming the name of
being Christian, thinking that in this way all were most securely secured against … Christianity, the Christianity of the New Testament, which people are afraid of, and
therefore industrial priests have invented under the name of Christianity a sweetmeat which has a delicious taste, for which men hand out money with delight.

The situation of Christians in 1850s Copenhagen was not the same as that of Christians in contemporary America. But then again, it was.

There’s a great line I once heard: “If someone put you on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict?” There is no Christian alive who can ever afford to quit asking himself that question. Ever. We are faced with a culture that became apostate in exactly the way Kierkegaard predicted it would, and is now moving into post-Christianity. Benedict Option people see what happened to “Christendom” Christianity — think 1950s America, for example — and see that it led to people abandoning Christianity. The wiser ones do not seek total retreat, because to cut a culture off entirely from the world, and to attempt to preserve it under glass, is to suffocate it, and to ensure its death. But to accept assimilation into a broader culture that embraces beliefs and practices that are so opposite to Biblical Christianity is suicide by a different route. As far as I can see, nobody yet has the answer, but those who don’t even see that there’s a question are at great risk of seeing their faith parish, if not in their own lives, then in the lives of their children. Again, Alan Jacobs’s post is worth reading in full, and this excerpt from it worth repeating:

Indeed, I’m inclined to think that Christian individuals and communities that fail to build in periods of significant retreat are setting themselves up for disaster. Man cannot live by constant engagement alone. To try is surely to be gradually but relentlessly absorbed into social structures that are at best indifferent and at worst deeply hostile to Christian faith and practice.

I am a prosperous middle-class Christian living like the King of Exurbia in the freest and richest nation that ever was. And if the Christian faith exists to make me comfortable with myself and my American way of life, instead of struggling every day to see the world and myself as God would have me see it, and repent of my sins against Him and my neighbor — well, then, to hell with it. The questions asked by the Benedict Option people do not become meaningless because some believers — angry fundamentalists, say — have answered them badly. Nor do the questions become meaningless because their implications are radically disruptive to the way we wish to live.

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How The Media Ruin Everything

A reader sends a short, powerful post by Ryan Schuessler, a freelance journalist who is leaving Ferguson because he’s disgusted by the behavior of the media (and by locals who are now performing for the media). Excerpt:

One anecdote that stands out: as the TV cameras were doing their live shots in front of the one burnt-out building in the three-block stretch of “Ground Zero,” around the corner was a community food/goods drive. I heard one resident say: “Where are the cameras? I’m going to go see if I can find some people to film this.”

Last night a frustrated resident confronted me when he saw my camera: “Yall are down here photographing US, but who gets paid?!” 

There are now hundreds of journalists from all over the world coming to Ferguson to film what has become a spectacle. I get the sense that many feel this is their career-maker. In the early days of all this, I was warmly greeted and approached by Ferguson residents. They were glad that journalists were there. The past two days, they do not even look at me and blatantly ignore me. I recognize that I am now just another journalist to them, and their frustration with us is clear. In the beginning there was a recognizable need for media presence, but this is the other extreme. They need time to work through this as a community, without the cameras.

We should all be ashamed, and I cannot do it anymore. I am thankful for my gracious editors who understand that.

It’s like the Heisenberg Principle applied to media and society: the observation of a thing changes the thing itself. Read the whole thing; the Anderson Cooper anecdote will make you throw up in your throat.

Here’s the thing: it cannot be denied that media attention can be a positive thing. I’ve seen that up close and personal, and been a part of it myself. But it also cannot be denied that at a certain point, it becomes a harmful thing. What’s the tipping point? How can we tell? Is it even possible to pull back, or do these stories take on a momentum of their own, like a tsunami wave rushing relentlessly toward shore from the deep?

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What Do Near-Death Experiences Tell Us?

Reader Tim G. passes along this fascinating 2012 essay by neuroscientist Mario Beauregard saying what we know to this point about Near-Death Experiences (NDEs). Beauregard tells the amazing story of Pamela Reynolds, an Atlanta woman who was put into clinical death (no measurable brain activity) in an operating room to allow surgeons to perform an extremely delicate procedure on her brain. When she was brought back to life, she reported having had a classic NDE:

At this point, Pam’s out-of-body adventure transformed into a near-death experience (NDE): She recalls floating out of the operating room and traveling down a tunnel with a light. She saw deceased relatives and friends, including her long-dead grandmother, waiting at the end of this tunnel. She entered the presence of a brilliant, wonderfully warm and loving light, and sensed that her soul was part of God and that everything in existence was created from the light (the breathing of God). But this extraordinary experience ended abruptly, as Reynolds’s deceased uncle led her back to her body—a feeling she described as “plunging into a pool of ice.”

Her case is unusual in that it was induced under controlled medical conditions, and recorded in detail. Here’s another interesting one:

Some skeptics legitimately argue that the main problem with reports of OBE perceptions is that they often rest uniquely on the NDEr’s testimony—there is no independent corroboration. From a scientific perspective, such self-reports remain inconclusive. But during the last few decades, some self-reports of NDErs have been independently corroborated by witnesses, such as that of Pam Reynolds. One of the best known of these corroborated veridical NDE perceptions—perceptions that can be proven to coincide with reality—is the experience of a woman named Maria, whose case was first documented by her critical care social worker, Kimberly Clark.

Maria was a migrant worker who had a severe heart attack while visiting friends in Seattle. She was rushed to Harborview Hospital and placed in the coronary care unit. A few days later, she had a cardiac arrest but was rapidly resuscitated. The following day, Clark visited her. Maria told Clark that during her cardiac arrest she was able to look down from the ceiling and watch the medical team at work on her body. At one point in this experience, said Maria, she found herself outside the hospital and spotted a tennis shoe on the ledge of the north side of the third floor of the building. She was able to provide several details regarding its appearance, including the observations that one of its laces was stuck underneath the heel and that the little toe area was worn. Maria wanted to know for sure whether she had “really” seen that shoe, and she begged Clark to try to locate it.

Quite skeptical, Clark went to the location described by Maria—and found the tennis shoe. From the window of her hospital room, the details that Maria had recounted could not be discerned. But upon retrieval of the shoe, Clark confirmed Maria’s observations. “The only way she could have had such a perspective,” said Clark, “was if she had been floating right outside and at very close range to the tennis shoe. I retrieved the shoe and brought it back to Maria; it was very concrete evidence for me.”

This case is particularly impressive given that during cardiac arrest, the flow of blood to the brain is interrupted. When this happens, the brain’s electrical activity (as measured with EEG) disappears after 10 to 20 seconds. In this state, a patient is deeply comatose. Because the brain structures mediating higher mental functions are severely impaired, such patients are expected to have no clear and lucid mental experiences that will be remembered. Nonetheless, studies conducted in the Netherlands, United Kingdom, and United States have revealed that approximately 15 percent of cardiac arrest survivors do report some recollection from the time when they were clinically dead. These studies indicate that consciousness, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings can be experienced during a period when the brain shows no measurable activity.

Beauregard takes on various theories attempting to explain NDEs as hallucinations caused by a brain dying (e.g., from oxygen deprivation), and says the data simply do not fit those conclusions. More:

The scientific NDE studies performed over the past decades indicate that heightened mental functions can be experienced independently of the body at a time when brain activity is greatly impaired or seemingly absent (such as during cardiac arrest). Some of these studies demonstrate that blind people can have veridical perceptions during OBEs associated with an NDE. Other investigations show that NDEs often result in deep psychological and spiritual changes.

These findings strongly challenge the mainstream neuroscientific view that mind and consciousness result solely from brain activity. As we have seen, such a view fails to account for how NDErs can experience—while their hearts are stopped—vivid and complex thoughts and acquire veridical information about objects or events remote from their bodies.

NDE studies also suggest that after physical death, mind and consciousness may continue in a transcendent level of reality that normally is not accessible to our senses and awareness. Needless to say, this view is utterly incompatible with the belief of many materialists that the material world is the only reality.

Before you comment on this, read the whole thing.  I have a couple of general observations, neither of which are surprising. For one, the NDE research pretty clearly undermines, even demolishes, a purely materialist viewpoint on consciousness. For another, NDEs undermine generally the received Christian teaching on life-after-death. As Beauregard reports, the basic NDE experience doesn’t really change across religions, and even unbelievers report the same ones.

However, David Sessions at the Daily Beast writes that about one in five NDEs are hellish. I knew a man once who had an NDE like this, and it radically changed his life. I believe in Hell, and not only because the Bible tells me so. I believe it exists, and it is possible to go there. The fact that the great majority of NDEs are “heavenly” does not mean that an incorporeal realm of darkness, rage, and pain does not exist. It does mean, however, that strict Christian orthodoxy may not accurately describe the afterlife. I will point out, though, that NDEs broadly support the Christian teaching of salvation as theosis, a merging with God, an “engodding.” If you’re reading Dante’s Paradiso with me, you understand this.

It’s embarrassing to admit, but it’s difficult for me to shed the idea that I had for much of my life that heaven is a place where we are as we were on earth, only everything is always wonderful, everybody you love is there, and not annoying in the least, and God’s down in City Hall in the New Jerusalem, like an omnipotent Mr. Rourke, making sure everything on Fantasy Island is going just swell. I put it crudely, but my guess is that most of us Christians who believe in the afterlife conceive of it in that way, more or less. If that’s how you see it, it’s easy to think that salvation consists of doing what’s necessary in this life to make sure you gain entry into the Ultimate Resort. Especially since becoming Orthodox, I’ve been trying to understand salvation as theosis, a process that starts now. Nothing has helped me grasp and absorb this like The Divine Comedy. Salvation is moving towards union with God, of joining our spirits to His. We don’t pray, fast, do good deeds and avoid sin because we want to keep a clean record and build a good transcript so we can graduate to heaven after we die. We do these things because they allow us to participate more fully in the life of God both right now, and after we die.

I hope you theologians among us will correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems to me that this way of conceiving salvation could explain why most NDEs, if they are real, show good people of all (or most) religions, and no religion, ending up in the same place: united with God. If true, it is first an example of God’s great mercy, but also a logical consequence of this model of how we are saved. That is, if the goal of our earthly life is to move toward ultimate union with God, then this is something people who did not have the Christian revelation have managed to achieve by the grace of a God they may not have fully understood (as if any of us could fully understand the Infinite, the Absolute!), or even believed in. But they lived as if He were real. All of us Christians know people who are unbelievers, or who believe in another religion, who live more lovingly and mercifully than many who profess Christ. In fact, Jesus himself taught that not everyone who calls him “Lord” will be with Him in Paradise.

None of this is a reason not to preach the Gospel. If we are to be saved, we are saved by Christ, whether we confessed Him with our tongues or not. I believe, though, that in God’s boundless mercy, it is possible to confess Christ with our hearts, by our own deeds, and by the power of God’s grace. We believe and follow Jesus not transactionally, so we can get into heaven when we are at life’s end, but so we can begin entering into union with God today, in this moment.

That’s a theory, anyway. I’m not a theologian, or even very smart about this stuff. I welcome correction. This is all speculative.

To me, there’s also an interesting question in what these stories — in particular the Pam Reynolds case — say about metaphysics (as distinct from theology). In modernity, we who are not materialists tend to believe that there is a sharp, clear line between the soul and the body, between the material and the immaterial. This is called dualism: the belief that the mind (that is, consciousness, or the spirit) and the body are separate. Catholic and Orthodox Christianity (and perhaps some forms of Protestantism; I don’t really know the theology well enough to say) teach that were are not ghosts dwelling in a corporeal home, but that we are incarnate — literally, we are enfleshed spirits. The spirit and the flesh separate at death. That being the case, doesn’t it make sense that it’s perfectly natural for the spirit to make that separation when the flesh reaches a certain biological point of no return (or at least, almost certainly no return)? Maybe I’m making this more complicated than it has to be, but I’m trying to think through what NDEs tell us about the way the nonphysical aspect of our being relates to the physical. Do NDEs tell us that the spirit and the flesh are less distinct from each other than we may believe? I think of consciousness/spirit not as bound to the brain, but as a field that pervades our flesh, but that finds its focus in the brain.

An imperfect analogy that may nonetheless indicate what I’m getting at: I’m sitting at my kitchen table writing this on a laptop that is connected to the Internet via wi-fi. The wi-fi signal is filling this room, but it finds its focus in my laptop. If my laptop crashed, the wi-fi signal wouldn’t cease to exist; it would simply no longer be accessible to me.

Again, this is all mere speculation. But these are things I like to think about. If you’d like to have a conversation about them, I’m eager to hear from you. If you just want to be this guy, either from a theistic or non-theistic point of view, don’t bother; I’m not going to post it.

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Will Modern Orthodoxy Make It? Will Any Traditional Religion?

If you ask me, Modern (Jewish) Orthodoxy is the ideal Benedict Option approach to religion. It holds fast to Jewish religious tradition, in a meaningfully countercultural way, yet engages to an extraordinary degree with modern life. [UPDATE: I should make it clear, in response to comments below from Jewish readers Aaron Gross and Jack Ross, that I see now that despite what I thought, I never really understood Modern Orthodoxy. -- RD]

But there are problems. Mosaic magazine has several essays asking whether or not Modern (Jewish) Orthodoxy can survive the culture wars. Here’s the lead one, by Jack Wertheimer. In it, he says that the “same culture wars that have engulfed non-Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and Protestants now rage in the modern-Orthodox world.” You can read more details on this in the Wertheimer piece, but I found this to be the critical factor, one shared with the rest of us religious believers too:

Rabbinic authority is waning. Rabbis across the spectrum of Modern Orthodoxy, resisters and accommodators alike, point to a community that has absorbed American understandings of the sovereign self. “What rabbis say does not matter,” is a refrain I have heard repeatedly. “Authority is in retreat,” declares one rabbi; says another, “People like traditional davening (prayer) and singing; but when it comes to halakhahimpinging on them, then they resist.” In one haredi [that is, Ultra-Orthodox, *not* modern Orthodox! -- RD] school, the head of Jewish studies states without any prompting, “In today’s age, the model of rabbinic authority does not exist. We don’t live in ghettoes anymore, so you have to reach students where they are. Saying ‘because it is so’ no longer works.”

In private conversation, the same lament recurs regardless of ideological position, although some go on to lay the blame for the loss of rabbinic authority on their opponents. On the accommodative side, the prevailing sentiment is that hidebound rabbis have brought this situation on themselves because, when it comes to the demands of modernity, they are “oblivious and clueless.” From the resisters, one hears that the accommodative wing has undermined the authority of recognized legal decisors by running to peripheral figures who are only too willing to approve innovations. Many sense their loss of authority so keenly that they shy away from asserting their views on the major cultural issues of the day even when they personally feel strongly about them.

Accelerating these trends is the new reality of the Internet. Thanks to it, states one rabbi, “everybody has a right to have a position; everyone has a de’ah [opinion] about everything.” Educated Jews can look up answers to their own questions and choose from the answers available online. Many feel empowered in this role simply by dint of their day-school education and by the time they have spent studying in Israel, even as they are also encouraged by modern culture’s stress on individual autonomy to act according to the dictates of their conscience.

The question of Authority is the common factor here. We all live in a Secular Age, as Charles Taylor famously dubbed it, meaning not that we are all unbelievers, but rather the awareness that our religious beliefs are chosen is impossible to escape. Even if we accept traditional teaching and traditional authority, the awareness that it is a choice, and that we might have chosen otherwise, is undeniable. If even the haredim, the strictest of the Orthodox expressions of Judaism, are finding their communal understanding of authority to be dissolving (relative to its own tradition), then who among us can stand? Not even the most insular Jewish communities are immune from modernity.

To be clear, the Wertheimer essay is not about the haredim, but about the Modern Orthodox, who are being torn apart from forces on both the Jewish religious right — the haredim, whose more vigorous and separatist Judaism is attracting some formerly Modern Orthodox — and the Jewish religious left, which is more in tune with the liberal secularist Zeitgeist. I can’t possibly do justice to the breadth and detail of Wertheimer’s piece (which is not very long, so don’t be intimidated away from reading it) in a blog post. If you’re religious at all, do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. You should also go to the Mosaic main page and check out the four responses.

For me, the takeaway is that religious identity and belief of all kinds is unstable today, and there are no foolproof ways to stabilize it. The Ultra-Orthodox are better than anybody else, it appears, because they unite behind clear, bright lines, but Wertheimer’s reporting indicates that that may not always be the case, as the increasing engagement of the haredim outside their self-imposed ghettoes is weakening their commitment to their tradition. The experience of the Modern Orthodox, and, from Wertheimer’s reporting, what is increasingly the experience of the Ultra-Orthodox, raises questions about whether the Benedict Option is even possible. Surrender is not an option, God knows, but it seems that there are no clear paths forward for any of us.

Thoughts? Let me know how it looks from within your tradition. It appears to me that if Jews are going to have a long-term future in this country, it will be Orthodox, one way or another. The same is true of Christians, in a small-o orthodox way (that is, built around traditional iterations of Christianity, either Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox). But there is no safe, solid ground. No ark, no monastery. Those who claim this is not a problem are whistling past the graveyard. But we who see a big problem here had better figure out how to grapple with the dimensions of the thing. The Wertheimer piece is about Judaism, but it causes me to doubt that I recognize the true scope of the challenge — and I think about this stuff a good bit.

I had always looked to Modern Jewish Orthodoxy as an ideal for the kind of modern Christian Orthodox I wanted to be. But maybe that’s an illusion.





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Kajieme Powell As Rohrshach Test

The video above is Not Safe For Work; it contains profanity, and shows a man being shot dead by police.

Kajieme Powell was the mentally ill St. Louis man who committed a petty robbery at a St. Louis convenience store and waited for the police. He confronted them with a knife and asked to be shot. Suicide by cop, they call it.

The mobile phone camera video is above. It is shocking to watch, because Powell was not all that close to police when they shot him multiple times. To an outside observer, it looks like an incredible overuse of force. The man was shot dead! But I’m trying to be careful here, because I don’t know how these things work. Powell had a knife, and disobeyed multiple orders to drop it. The police had no way of knowing that he was mentally ill. Conor Friedersdorf has a balanced, nuanced analysis of the event and this video.  Excerpts:

With that in mind, it seems to me that the initial set-up chosen by the police officers was the bigger problem. The man with the knife wasn’t anywhere near other onlookers and perhaps could’ve been calmed or incapacitated with less than lethal force had the officers given themselves more space and time. If they had it do to over, would they have parked farther away, or stood on the other side of their vehicle while engaging the man? Would they assert themselves less confrontationally? (On the other hand, would you or I do any better in their place?)

“It is easy to criticize,” Ezra Klein writes. ”It is easy to watch a cell phone video and think of all the ways it could have gone differently. It is easy to forget that the police saw a mentally unbalanced man with a knife advancing on them. It is easy to forget that 20 seconds only takes 20 seconds. It is easy to forget that police get scared. It is easy not to ask yourself what you might have done if you had a gun and a man came at you with a knife.” All true. “But there is still something wrong with that video,” he adds, doing his best to articulate specific objections that I share:

​The police arrive and instantly escalate the situation… Powell looks sick more than he looks dangerous. But the police draw their weapons as soon as they exit their car… They don’t seem to know how to stop Powell, save for using deadly force. But all Powell had was a steak knife. If the police had been in their car, with the windows rolled up, he could have done little to hurt them…

…Even when he advances on police, he walks, rather than runs… He swings his arms normally, rather than entering into a fighting stance. They begin yelling at him to stop. And when they begin shooting, they shoot to kill—even continuing to shoot when Powell is motionless on the ground. There is no warning shot, even. It does not seem like it should be so easy to take a life.

That’s how I felt, too.

A police officer might retort that law enforcement shouldn’t be obligated to take on any extra risk to their own lives in a dangerous situation wholly and needlessly created by a person menacing them. A citizen deliberately baiting police with a deadly weapon cannot expect restraint. Even a small knife can be deadly.

But Conor tries to look at it from the other side too. You need to read the whole thing, because Conor quotes a range of community reactions in which people see the same video, and work from the same facts, and come up with strongly different reactions.

I don’t know what to think about it. Like I said, looking at it cold, it’s clear that the cops badly overreacted. But trying to think through it dispassionately, it’s a lot murkier than it seems. Is it really fair to expect cops to do a mental health exam of a man with a knife stalking around the street with people all around him, acting bizarrely, and refusing orders to drop the knife? I don’t know. If the cops had a taser, would they have had time to deliberate and get it out to use it, given how close the man was, and how irrationally he was behaving? I don’t know that either.

I do know that I am glad that it is not my job to make these kinds of calls in the heat of the moment.

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Ferguson & Bourgeois Christianity

Baptist pastor Thabiti Anyabwile throws down a challenge to us middle-class Christians, both progressives and traditionalists. Especially us traditionalists, which are the ones he takes seriously. He’s writing to fellow Evangelicals, but this is by no means a challenge only to Evangelical Christians. Excerpt:

When James Cone wrote A Black Theology of Liberation in the late 1960s, he was attempting to provide a theological framework for understanding and guiding the feelings and actions of African-American protestors. He wrote in the wake of a deadly riot in Detroit. He felt a burden, a heavy weight to say something meaningful as a Christian. He felt, as many had before him, that if Christianity had no answer for Black people caught in the roiling cauldron of Jim Crow segregation and state-sponsored terrorism then Christianity had no credibility whatsoever.

I wish the evangelical church felt the same way that Cone felt. Though I find Cone’s answers unbiblical and untenable, he at least raised and grappled with legitimate questions of justice from the vantage point of the oppressed. And until evangelicalism finds the courage and the love to enter those questions with empathy for that vantage point on a quest for better answers than Cone’s, then evangelicalism as we know it is dead.

I’m not talking about the “evangelicalism” of progressive Christians who seem to rarely preach and emphasize the biblical gospel while championing every cause, the “evangelicalism” that has no evangel. I’m talking about the “evangelicalism” of “Bible-believing Christians,” of “gospel-centered people,” of “conservative” movements that pride themselves on not being “those liberals.” I’m not talking about your local church or my local church as much as I’m talking about the movement as a whole, at its highest levels. I’m talking about the “movement evangelicalism” that I run in. That evangelicalism is dead.

Or, to put it another way, you don’t answer oppression, violence, poverty, sexism, corporate theft and a host of other problems with theology alone. Theology alone is not an answer. Nor are vague appeals to the gospel, however true it is that the gospel is our first, only and greatest hope. Action and policy guided by sound theology are answers. When Paul wrote to Philemon on behalf of the enslaved Onesimus, he reminded Philemon of the gospel and the duty of Christian love. Then in love he told Philemon to take an action consistent with that theology: release Onesimus and receive him as a brother. Evangelicalism is long on theology (gospel) and short on ethics (loving action).

More. He’s talking about the response to Ferguson:

Nevertheless, most of what’s been said by evangelical leaders thus far (including my post yesterday) has been a general lament. It’s been the expressing of sentiment. There’s not yet been anything that looks like a groundswell of evangelical call for action, for theology applied to injustice. It’s possible (even likely) that I’ve missed a call for action from my colleagues and peers in the evangelical world. But I don’t think I’ve missed our most influential leaders with the widest reach. They’ve been silent en masse. Today I think we need to be pushed a couple steps ahead.

Otherwise, orthodox evangelicalism is dead. It’s dead to oppressed folks in our back yards who need to hear the word of God spoken into their situation with all the prophetic unction our Lord would give. It’s dead to grieving parents required to have closed casket funerals for their children because racist systems and people so disfigure the body it can’t be shown. Orthodox evangelicalism is dead to the marginalized because it’s so allergic to the margins. It wants its mainstream, its tree-lined streets of cultural acceptance, its reserve and respectability. So it’s dead.

Read the whole thing. If you don’t see this as a challenge — I do, to myself — you probably need to look harder within. You don’t have to decide who is Right in Ferguson, and what version of events is the Truthful one before acting in other cases. As the pastor says, there are lots of cases in our own backyards that never make the news, but that we know about. Or should know about. The preacher is talking about Ferguson, but he’s really talking about our own hearts.

My friend Charles Jenkins, the retired Episcopal bishop of Louisiana, found that Hurricane Katrina woke him up to poverty and injustice right under his nose in New Orleans. Excerpt:

They are an unlikely pair, chatting up people on porch stoops in the poorer neighborhoods of New Orleans: Bishop Charles Jenkins, 57, the son of white, rural north Louisiana and pastor to 18,000 south Louisiana Episcopalians, and Jerome Smith, 69, black and rumpled, son of Treme, a former Freedom Rider from the civil rights movement.

Before Hurricane Katrina, in the days when Jenkins says he was focused more on the well-being of his predominantly white church than his predominantly black city, they might never have crossed paths.

But since Katrina, they have forged a relationship in which Jenkins, now deep into a profound personal and spiritual transformation, said he has come to love and rely on Smith.

Smith, a sometimes fiery activist in whom Jenkins sees a gentle soul, has become one of the bishop’s principal guides into New Orleans’ poor African-American culture, a landscape Jenkins said he previously glimpsed but did not understand.

“He’s my mentor, you know,” Jenkins said recently. “It is a good day whenever Jerome Smith comes by.”

But Smith is only one symbol of the journey of Charles Jenkins, and by extension Jenkins’ diocese, since Katrina.


Fundamentally, Jenkins has embarked on a personal re-education in which he seeks to see the city through the eyes of the poor. And that education inevitably yields a new personal mission: to work for citywide racial reconciliation and for purging the social injustices Katrina laid bare.

Before the storm, “I thought Christianity and priesthood were primarily about the cult,” Jenkins said. “And doing the actions correctly — holding my fingers correctly at Mass, not wearing brown shoes when celebrating the Mass. That it was getting all those right.

“And I was missing the larger picture of the dignity of humanity and the world for whom Christ died.”

Read the whole thing. (Christian blogger loosens his collar nervously, looks around for the exits…)

[H/T: Charles Featherstone. -- RD]

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Richard Dawkins On Life Unworthy Of Life

Albert H. Teich /



Don’t be stupid, be a smarty/Come and join the Dawkins Party!

There are some things so evil that only superbrilliant intellectuals can believe them. And no, I’m afraid it didn’t sound better in the original German.

God forbid such men should ever take power. We know exactly where such tenderness as Dawkins shows leads.

UPDATE: A reader sends in this photo of his daughter Beatrice, saying:

“Look at this terrible suffering I have wrought. I suppose I will have my reckoning.

Look indeed. Here is Beatrice’s smile.


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Paradiso, Canto XXV

Dante begins this canto in an extraordinary way. Look at this:

Should it ever come to pass that this sacred poem,

to which both Heaven and earth have set their hand

so that it has made me lean for many years,


should overcome the cruelty that locks me out

of the fair sheepfold where I slept as a lamb,

foe of the wolves at war with it,


with another voice then, with another fleece,

shall I return a poet and, at the font

where I was baptized, take the laurel crown,


For there I came into the faith

that recommends the soul to God, and now,

because of it, Peter encircled my brow.

The pathos in this moment is overwhelming. Remember, Dante has just been tested in his faith by St. Peter, and passed. Here, opening the canto devoted to the virtue of Hope, the exiled poet expresses hope that his art — that is, the poem that he forged in the pains of exile, of homelessness, of having his deepest identity stripped from him — will be the means of his redemption. He identifies himself with the lost sheep of the Gospel parable that the Good Shepherd will risk anything to save. He identifies a return to Florence, to the baptistry where he entered the Kingdom as a baby, as the place where he will be honored as a poet. I don’t read this as Dante’s hope for a literal return to Florence, but rather his poetic way of expressing hope for the reconciliation his art will have brought him to the Heaven. It’s not that God will reward Dante with heaven for having written a beautiful poem; that’s not how Christian theology works. It’s that Dante worked out his salvation through the writing of this poem, because it took him through repentance and into deeper unity with the God he had forsaken years ago.

Note well that Dante’s use of the “fleece” imagery identifies him with St. John the Baptist, the prophet of Christ, who lived in exile in the wilderness, preparing the way of the Lord. St. John the Baptist is the patron saint of Florence, and its baptistery — the place where Dante was baptized — is dedicated to him. In these tercets, Dante identifies himself profoundly with his city, the one that has sent him into the wilderness. It strikes me that Dante is indicating here that he knows he will only be reunited with Florence in the Heavenly Jerusalem, where perfect justice is done, and all broken things are made whole. These tercets form the bridge between Faith and Hope, which is the topic of Canto XXV.

A few words before we go further into hope. These past two weeks, I’ve been reading a fair amount about the work of the black critic Albert Murray and the black playwright August Wilson. Both men believed that African Americans are “blues people,” meaning that the essence of their existence as a people is in the blues. They have suffered as forced exiles from their native continent, from their own families (which were broken up by slavery), and from themselves, thrown as they are into a country where their personhood and worth has been historically denied by the broader white culture. Yet their staggering resilience in the face of the worst life can inflict on a people has produced sublime art, and this art is not merely an aesthetic accomplishment, but it both contains the spirit of the people from which it came, it tells their story, and it contains within it the means of their sustenance and points to their redemption. August Wilson once wrote:

That my ancestors had arrived in America in chains as part of a labor system. They were forced to work on the vast agricultural plantations in the South. They made do without surnames and lived in dirt floor cabins. When they tried to escape, they were hunted down by dogs and men on horseback. They were denied the benefit of familial tutoring. They had lost their political will and with that the right to define their own person and their own destiny. They had lost the power to construct their own political history. They lost their moral personality and their language. They lived in a world that refused to recognize their gods, their manners, their mores. It despised their ethos and refused to recognize even their humanity.

Undaunted, and within the scope of the larger world that lay beyond their doorstep, they had begun to build a culture, to set down rules, and to urge a manner of being that corresponded to their temperament and sensibilities. Life was to be lived in all its timbre and horrifics, with zest and purpose. To live hard is still to live, and it was this life, worthy of the highest of possibilities, that was to be cultivated and celebrated. And it was this culture that I learned in Pittsburgh in my mother’s house.

The culture that was passed on to him was a blues culture (meaning not just a musical culture, but a culture marked by a blues sensibility; the blues was the core form the spirit of that culture took). As Albert Murray wrote in his landmark study Stomping The Blues, the blues exist to reaffirm life and make its continuity possible in the face of adversity. The blues exorcise the thing they represent by transforming them (transfiguring them?) into an affirmation of life, its dignity, and of defiance of all that denies life. In the final scene of Wilson’s play The Piano Lesson, the evil spirit of slavery and its legacy, including its legacy to divide families generations after slavery’s end, is finally cast out by the blues played on the totemic piano during an exorcism. In particular, the evil spirit of slavery possesses Boy Willie, who is obsessed with proving his worth to the white man, giving his oppressor more power than he deserves. Art becomes the means through which suffering is expressed, robbed of its power to destroy, and in fact turned into the source of life.

Dante Alighieri is a blues man. Like Herald Loomis in Wilson’s Joe Turner’s Come And Gone, he finds his song; the Commedia is that song. In it, Dante returns to his ancestral religion, Catholicism, for his spiritual renewal, despite the fact that the priesthood is corrupt and the Pope is his persecutor. He refuses to give his oppressors power over him that they don’t deserve. He turns to his ancestor Cacciaguida for inspiration. And he does an astonishing thing in Western literature: by creating high art out of the lives of the people he lived with in medieval Tuscany, Dante revolutionized Western literature, and opened the gate to literary modernity.

Compare this to August Wilson, who called his discovery, at age 20, of Bessie Smith’s blues a creative watershed. The blues, he realized, was what came about when African Americans were carried into exile, and had everything taken from them but their spirit. What they made from that experience was the blues. He said he dedicated his own drama after that to exploring universal themes in the experiences of ordinary black Americans. He told an interviewer in 1996: “So I say, ‘Let’s look at it. The world is right here in this back yard.’ There is no idea that cannot be contained by black life. We have the entire world here.”

As Dante had the entire world in Tuscany of his day. The Commedia is Dante’s blues. And I’ll tell you what re-reading the opening tercets of this canto reduced me to tears this morning. I was up till four a.m. last night reading August Wilson, and thinking about how art and religion have carried African Americans through suffering and exile, and today I come to this intensely personal statement of Dante’s faith and hope, made as he was surely coming to terms with the likelihood that he would never make it back home, in which he binds the art created out of his suffering to his baptism, to the new, redeemed life he created by the grace of God out of the death of his old. Dante sees this poem as his spiritual rebirth, as his return from exile, as completing the circle, as his homecoming and his second baptism.

Giuseppe Mazzotta writes that Dante, in these tercets, presents his own writing as “an ascetic labor of the soul.” Through the composition of his great poem, Dante has stripped himself even more bare, so that the Holy Spirit could work through him. Mazzotta says the image of his own restoration at the Baptistery in Florence implies reunion of the community whose bonds have been sundered by civil war. Prof. Mazzotta:

Why would he use this particular metaphor? The baptism is the time when a community is constituted, and the baptismal font is clearly a space that has that same value. It also has a textual and historical element related to the sacrament that takes place there, which is a ceremony that reenacts Exodus. When a child is baptized, he is told that he is re-creating the crossing of the Red Sea in Exodus.

So Dante is asking: how does  poet come home? The answer, initially, is one of hope, hope for a homecoming where everybody will be at peace. There will be a feast and a festive mood. It is his great fantasy of the winner’s return. Yet he’s also using this language of a baptismal font, as if he were saying that the poet could only come home in order to tell his community that he has to get out again. He has been punished, and exile itself is the only message that his poetry can convey to the community from which he has been exiled. He is convoking the whole community around the baptismal font to tell them that this is where they belong — in exile, or at least in the language of spiritual exile, a language that implies a kind of remaking and rethinking of oneself.

What got to me emotionally today was the sudden realization that my own personal pain of exile, of not being able to fully return Home, for reasons having nothing to do with geography, and for reasons completely outside of my control, had forced me to do some excruciatingly difficult spiritual work of remaking and rethinking myself, and the sources of my identity. I had stumbled into my own dark wood by defining myself too strongly by the idols of Home and Family — by loving those goods in the wrong way, and without meaning to, giving those who were the embodiments of Home and Family, and who would not receive me, more power over me than they were entitled to. Having to come to terms with the fullness of my own symbolic exile had made me physically ill, emotionally broken, and spiritually desolate. But it also was, and is, generating in me a creative sense and power that I have never before known. I’m still working this out, but here’s the thing: Dante is helping me find my own song.

So. Canto XXV. The Canto of Hope. Beatrice introduces Dante to St. James, and tells him that Dante is the most hopeful man on earth. God has given him the opportunity “to come from Egypt to Jerusalem that he may see the city before his time of warfare has its end.” In Biblical symbolism, she is saying that Dante the pilgrim has been granted an extraordinary grace to see the Promised Land, the Heavenly Jerusalem, the Home that all Christians hope for once they are delivered from the slavery of the passions. Now St. James asks Dante to tell him how he understands hope.

“Hope,” he says, “is the certain expectation of future glory, springing from heavenly grace and merit we have won.”

I could be wrong, but I don’t think Dante means that we can earn our way to heaven. That would nullify so much of what has come before. What he’s saying is that “merit” is only our cooperation with heavenly grace — that is, the degree to which we have consented to get out of the way, overcoming through prayer, fasting, and good works our own selfishness, and thereby letting the grace of God regenerate our deadened spirits from within.

The pilgrim tells St. James that his hope tells him to keep moving towards Home:

“Isaiah says that each in his own land

shall be vested in a double garment,

and their own land is this sweet life.”

He’s talking about Isaiah, Chapter 61, which offers a vision of the Messianic age, in which all that is broken is restored. Says the prophet:

Instead of your shame you will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace, you will rejoice in your inheritance. And so you will inherit a double portion in your land, and everlasting joy will be yours.

The hope, then, is that for those who mourn, those who have been exiled, those who have been shamed and dispossessed and crushed by injustice — that they will be rewarded doubly for their fidelity to the Lord. Dante is saying here that his hope consists in his confidence that suffering, exile, and death are not the last word, that in the age to come, all will be restored for those who kept the faith. Note well that hope is not the optimism that all will be made right in this life. Hope is the assurance that even if things are not fully made right in this life — even Dante does not know whether or not that will happen to him before he dies — but rather that our suffering here has meaning. God has not forgotten His people, and will be rewarded by Him in eternity.

When Dante completes his answer, the circles of the blessed proclaim their approval by singing Psalm 9, which is an affirmation of hope in the Lord, Who will ultimately deliver justice.

The great African American gospel singer Mahalia Jackson said she preferred gospel music to the blues, because the blues are a music of despair, while gospel is the music of hope. I think, however, that blues and gospel are brother and sister, and their family bonds cannot be severed. Theirs is a dialectical relationship; they feed off each other. For Dante, the blues and gospel, so to speak, are intimately connected. His Inferno is the blues, speaking only of sin, despair, and brokenness; his Paradiso is gospel, speaking only of holiness. His Purgatorio is where they both are joined. Maybe it is not quite right to call him a bluesman. He is that, but he is also a gospel singer, is he not?

We can’t know the fullness of hope unless we have truly known the depths of despair. No suffering, no crown. This is the lesson that is passed down in every generation. In this canto, Dante tells St. James that his hope began with King David, “that exalted singer of our exalted Lord,” whose Psalms sing of desolation, redemption, and exaltation, as David had known all three. The Psalms are the blues of the Hebrews, but also the gospel, the proclamation of the Good News. The Psalms teach us that blues and gospel are only superficially polar opposites.

King David’s hope was taken up and handed down through St. James’s epistle, which is a counsel of hope amid adversity. From the Letter of James:

Consider it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials,for you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. And let perseverance be perfect, so that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.But if any of you lacks wisdom,he should ask God who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and he will be given it.But he should ask in faith, not doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed about by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord, since he is a man of two minds, unstable in all his ways.

The brother in lowly circumstances should take pride in his high standing, and the rich one in his lowliness, for he will pass away “like the flower of the field.” For the sun comes up with its scorching heat and dries up the grass, its flower droops, and the beauty of its appearance vanishes. So will the rich person fade away in the midst of his pursuits.

Blessed is the man who perseveres in temptation,for when he has been proved he will receive the crown of life that he promised to those who love him.

Says Dante, of the effect King David and St. James had on him through their writing:

“After [David] had imbued me with his song,
you poured your epistle down on me so that I,
overflowing, now rain your rain on others.”

What powerful imagery! The water of life, flows from one songwriter, who sang the blues and who sang the gospel, to another writer, and now, through the centuries, to Dante, who draws on the tradition, reifies it — that is, makes it real for him, in his historical circumstances — and passes it along, in his own redemption song, to others. Water flows into water, across time and civilizations. Though it falls into different cups, it is the same water of life that redeems us all.

In less than six weeks, I will stand inside the Baptistery in Florence, and I will read the opening verses of this canto there, in honor of the bluesman and gospel singer of Tuscany, and in gratitude to God for sending him to speak to my lostness in exile, and to proclaim hope to me, captive to my own error, and lead me out of the dark wood, and maybe, in time, to find my own song.

UPDATE: I realized after posting this that I may have misled you into thinking that Dante is only talking about artists and writers finding their own song. He’s talking about all of us doing so. Dante never would have chosen exile, but he came to see that it was only in exile that he found the song he was supposed to sing. Likewise for us. You, wherever you are, are suffering in some way. Things are not right with you and yours. What is the song you are singing in response? Have you found it yet?

Remember the lesson of Purgatorio XVI: we do not have full control over the circumstances in which we find ourselves, but we do have control over how we respond to them. None of us will escape trial. None of us. Our trials may be collective, or they may be individual. Some will be severe, others, not so severe. In the way we meet these trials, we will find our song. Or fail to. If you don’t look, you won’t find.

I think about my sister Ruthie, and her response to cancer. She found her song. She never, ever would have chosen cancer, but the sweet, soulful melody she drew out of her pain and her dying bore witness to the goodness of life and the power of faith. In her song we can all find the strength to go on. I recorded her blues and her gospel in The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming. Whether there is anyone there to transcribe your verses, very day you are writing the song of your own life. Find the harmonies, and sing them true.


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