In the current issue of the New Yorker, there’s a really interesting assessment, by Louis Menand, of Norman Podhoretz and his scandalous late Sixties memoir Making It, which has just been re-released. Menand’s essay includes this fascinating passage:
The reaction to the book changed Podhoretz’s life. He started looking for academic positions, and he began drinking when he was at home alone, almost a fifth of Jack Daniel’s a day, his stepdaughter later told Jeffers. He had a contract to write a book on the nineteen-sixties—he had hated the Beats, and he regarded the counterculture as the legacy of the Beats—and he went to Yaddo, the writers’ colony in Saratoga Springs, where he had written much of “Making It,” to work on it. Writers’ colonies are not where you ideally want to be if you have a drinking problem. One day, a fellow-colonist, the critic Kenneth Burke, told Podhoretz that he needed to straighten out. So Podhoretz got in his car and drove, a little under the influence, to a farmhouse he had bought in Delaware County, and it was there, in the early spring of 1970, that he had a vision.
As he told the story to Jeffers, he had finished his writing for the day. He was walking outside, carrying a Martini and feeling content, when it happened. “I saw physically, in the sky, though it was obviously in my head, a kind of diagram that resembled a family tree. And it was instantly clear to me that this diagram contained the secret of life and existence and knowledge: that you start with this, and you follow to that. It all had a logic of interconnectedness.” Not quite Allen Ginsberg’s “Sunflower Sutra,” but strangely close. The vision lasted thirty seconds, and when it was over Podhoretz realized what the diagram was telling him: “Judaism was true.” He did not mean the ethical teachings of Judaism; he meant Judaic law. He vowed to change his life.
To all appearances, he did. He stopped drinking, he began interrogating friends about their spiritual condition, and he transformed Commentary again, this time into the scourge of left-wing permissivism and progressivism.
As most of you readers know, the same issue of the magazine contains Joshua Rothman’s incredibly generous profile of me. Compare the Menand bit with this from Rothman:
In South Louisiana, religion was everywhere, but, as a kid, Dreher was indifferent to it. Then, when he was seventeen, his mother, Dorothy, won a trip to Europe in a raffle and sent Rod in her place. He visited Chartres and felt judged by the beauty of the cathedral. He began to take religion seriously.
That’s like saying Julia Child began to take food seriously after tasting sole meunière just off the boat in Rouen. I did not have a true mystical experience like Norman Podhoretz did, but I very much count that teenage visit to Chartres as one of the most formative experiences of my life, though I could not have known it at the time. It marked the moment when I turned my life around, and began the long, slow, messy pilgrimage back to God. Somehow, in that cathedral, I knew He existed, in a way I never had before — and that He wanted me.
Rothman quotes a more straightforwardly mystical story from my book How Dante Can Save Your Life:
Two life-changing events occurred after Dreher began the regimen of prayer. He was alone at home one evening, lying in bed, when he sensed a presence in the room. “I felt a hand reach inside my heart and put a stone there,” he said. “And I could see, in some interior way, that the stone said, ‘God loves me.’ I’d doubted all my life that God really loved me.”
That really did happen. And my God, it changed my life.
Question to the room: did one or more mystical experiences change the direction of your life, for good or for ill? Tell that story, or those stories. Make yourself anonymous in the comments if you feel the need to.
President Donald Trump promised religious groups he would reverse the Obama administration’s requirement that employers provide birth control to their employees under the Affordable Care Act.
But his Justice Department indicated Monday that it’s continuing to fight religious groups who are suing over the contraception mandate.
Conservatives who oppose the birth control mandate on religious liberty grounds are bewildered by the move at a Justice Department headed by former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who is well known for his conservative views.
And many had expected the Department of Health and Human Services, now led by another conservative, former representative Tom Price, R-Ga., to change the Obama administration’s underlying rule to fully exempt religious colleges, schools and charities from covering birth control. But HHS has not proposed any rule changes and didn’t respond to a request Monday about whether there are plans to do so.
As things stand now, it appears that Justice plans to continue defending the way the Obama administration applied the birth-control mandate, said Eric Rassbach, a Becket [Fund] attorney.
“That just seems to be very contrary to what they’ve been saying publicly,” Rassbach said.
The best-case scenario is that this is mere incompetence on the part of an administration still in its first 100 days. The Post notes that “Justice argued in its petition…that it needs more time to litigate the case because numerous Cabinet and subcabinet positions in several federal agencies involved remain unfilled several months into the new administration.” Perhaps they really do just need to get butts in seats in order to put the wheels in motion to end the fight.
I’ve also heard it suggested that Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants this to be decided by the Supreme Court now that Trump’s pick in Neil Gorsuch is safely aboard. But until he comes out saying that’s his plan, this move will be cause for concern.
This doesn’t look good. At all. I find it hard to believe that Jeff Sessions agrees with this move. If he doesn’t, the AG had better say so loud and clear. Now.
Let’s hope this is a bureaucratic oversight. If Trump wimps out on this one, all bets are off. This is about as basic as it gets for religious conservatives.
My late teacher Philip Rieff, may he rest in peace, had a doctrine he called “the Monroe Doctrine”. Whenever he shared this doctrine with a new group of colleagues or students he would immediately preface it by saying, “not the famous President Monroe Doctrine, but the Marilyn Monroe Doctrine.”
The famous “Monroe Doctrine” spelled out by the US President James Monroe had declared the American continent as the domain of US influence in which no European interference would be tolerated. But Rieff’s Monroe Doctrine had to do with something Marilyn Monroe had allegedly said – something to the effect of “I believe in everything – just a little bit.”
Watching a couple of episodes of Reza Aslan’s feature show Believer, you would be best reminded of Rieff’s “Monroe Doctrine”, for just like Marilyn Monroe, Reza Aslan believes in everything, “just a little bit”.
Prof. Dabashi says that “Fake Believers” like Aslan are essentially no different from “New Atheists” in that they both “trespass … on the intuition of the sacred and the moral imagination of communities constituted by that very imagination.” He goes on:
Reza Aslan ups the ante in hypocrisy and showmanship. He is born a Muslim and has made a lucrative career for himself by tackling Islamophobia in the United States in terms domestic to that Islamophobia. So if he is asked point blank if he is Jewish he of course has to say no, just before he turns to camera and says, “I feel Jewish today.”
But the calamity of the Fake Believer is much more psychotic. Reza Aslan was recently asked, “What does your religious practice look like now?” To that he responded:
I have a Christian wife; I have twin sons, one of whom is convinced he’s Jewish, and one of whom, after he read the Ramayana, was like, “That’s it, I’m Hindu.” I have a two-year-old boy that we just assume is a reincarnation of the Buddha in some way. So every Sunday, we get together and share one particular religious story, whether it’s of the Buddha or Ganesha or from the Gospel, and then we pick some value to learn from it, and then we, as a family, put that value into practice in our home and in our lives.
Thus he lays a simultaneous, unabashed, claim on four other world religions – Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, while being a convenient Muslim. For a career opportunist making a living out of other people’s sacred certitude, Reza Aslan will believe in anything and everything, “just a little bit”.
Six millions Jews were slaughtered during the Nazi Holocaust because they were real Jews. Tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims were killed or forced out of their homes in the 1990s because they were real Muslims, as indeed today Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar are being subjected to systemic ethnic cleansing for the same reason. As indeed Christians and their churches are being targeted in Egypt because they are real Christians. But for the commercial calamity of the culture industry to which CNN caters, Reza Aslan is now a yuppie celebrity because he is a Fake Believer in all of these religions at one and the same very convenient time.
Prof. Dabashi, an Iranian-born scholar of Islam, is quite the controversialist. I don’t know that I would compare the trite Sheilaism of Aslan to New Atheism, but I think Dabashi is more right than wrong.
A lot of people don’t want to hear it, but it’s true: in the future, you will either be a religious conservative, or secular. The religious left will evaporate.
Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Daniel Cox, the head of research at PRRI, a firm whose religious views tend towards progressivism. Excerpts:
The first and perhaps most significant reason for skepticism is that there are far fewer religious liberals today than there were a generation ago. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) liberals are religiously unaffiliated today, more than double the percentage of the 1990s, according to data from the General Social Survey. In part, the liberal mass migration away from religion was a reaction to the rise of the Christian right. Over the last couple decades, conservative Christians have effectively branded religious activism as primarily concerned with upholding a traditional vision of sexual morality and social norms. That conservative religious advocacy contributed to many liberals maintaining an abiding suspicion about the role that institutional religion plays in society and expressing considerable skepticism of organized religion generally. Only 30 percent of liberals report having a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in organized religion. Half say that religion’s impact on society is more harmful than helpful.
Another challenge confronting the progressive religious movement is the yawning generational divide in religious identity. Young liberals today are simply not that religious. Nearly half (49 percent) of liberals under 30 are religiously unaffiliated, according to the General Social Survey, which is more than the number who belong to all Christian denominations combined. Only 22 percent of liberal seniors are unaffiliated, while the overwhelming majority identify as religious. Your average left-leaning Christian is pushing 50. Coaxing young progressives to join a movement that would require them to reset their approach to religion is no small undertaking.
I would add this to the critique: liberal religion is simply insufficiently substantive to hold most people, particularly across generations. It is also true that milquetoast moderate bourgeois Christianity isn’t going to hold people either, but that’s true for the same reason that liberal Christianity won’t do it either. If liberalizing religion to make it a better fit for post-Christian modernity were the answer, the Protestant mainline would be booming now. I don’t doubt that there are many true believers within liberal Christian circles — some of them comment here — but I do doubt that most of them will be able to pass that faith on in the same way to their children. To be sure, it’s not easy for any of us, not in these times. But the problem, I believe, is much more serious for religious liberals.
Cox, the researcher, explains why: because younger people who identify as liberal are far less likely to be religious.
The late Cardinal George of Chicago once said, explaining why liberal Catholicism is a dead end:
Behind the crisis of visible authority or governance in a liberal church lies a crisis of truth. In a popular liberal society, freedom is the primary value and the government is not supposed to tell its citizens how to think. The cultural fault line lies in a willingness to sacrifice even the gospel truth in order to safeguard personal freedom construed as choice. Using sociology of knowledge and the hermeneutics of suspicion, modern liberals interpret dogmas which affront current cultural sensibilities as the creation of celibate males eager to keep a grasp on power rather than as the work of the Holy Spirit guiding the successors of the Apostles. The bishops become the successors of the Sanhedrin and the church, at best, is the body of John the Baptist, pointing to a Jesus not yet risen from the dead and, therefore, a role model or prophet but not a savior. Even Jesus’ being both male and celibate is to be forgotten or denied once the risen Christ can be reworked into whomever or whatever the times demand. Personal experience becomes the criterion for deciding whether or not Jesus is my savior, a point where liberal Catholics and conservative Protestants seem to come to agreement, even if they disagree on what salvation really means. Liberal culture discovers victims more easily than it recognizes sinners; and victims don’t need a savior so much as they need to claim their rights.
All this is not only a dead end, it is a betrayal of the Lord, no matter the good intentions of those espousing these convictions. The call to personal conversion, which is at the heart of the gospel, has been smothered by a pillow of accommodation. The project for a liberal Catholic church is as unoriginal as the project for a liberal reinterpretation of the mission for the church. A church, all of whose ministries, construed only functionally, are open to any of the baptized; a church unwilling to say that all homosexual genital relations are morally wrong; a church which at least makes some allowance for abortion when necessary to assure a mother’s freedom; a church accepting contraception as moral within marriage and prudent outside of marriage; a church willing to admit the sacramentally married to a second marriage in complete sacramental communion; a church whose teaching has to stand the acid test of modern criticism and personal acceptance in order to have not just credibility but legitimacy—there is nothing new in all this. It already exists, but outside the Catholic church.
More broadly, we could say that many of the things liberal Christians believe in and advocate, in contradiction to normative Christian orthodoxy, already exist outside the church, period. Liberal Christianity often appears as a somewhat desperate attempt to sanctify modern beliefs. More to the point, Philip Rieff had the number of liberal Christianity, saying in 1966’s The Triumph of the Therapeutic that Christian pastors and priests would desperately but futilely try to update their doctrines to accommodate the modern world — especially regarding sexuality — but would fail, in part because there really is no credible way to do this. The testimony of the Bible is simply overwhelmingly against what they want to do. Rieff didn’t say this, but I will: the labor one has to accomplish to “liberate” Christianity from traditional Biblical sexual ethics is so immense that you have to tear down the entire castle to free the prisoner from the dungeon.
Rieff’s theory of culture explains why liberal Christianity has no future. Here is a longish Rieff passage explaining his theory. In a nutshell, Rieff says that culture, of which religion is a part, is defined by what it prescribes and what it forbids. A culture based on knocking down taboos, on forbidding to forbid, is an anti-culture. It cannot do what a culture must do. Aside from advocating for the legitimization of homosexual desire and the approbation of sexual permissiveness, what does liberal Christianity really stand for? If it amounts to just the desiring individual and the sacrosanct quality of his own personal interpretation of Scripture and the Christian tradition, then liberal religion cannot do anything other than dissolve.
Note well, religious conservatives: if the essence of your religious conservatism is merely a reflection of your social milieu, your religion will dissolve in your children’s generation too. I know a number of older folks who might be fairly described as religious conservatives, but who have failed to transmit the faith to their offspring. Of course this is not a matter of data transfer, but rather a matter of cultivation. Not every plant in a garden will flourish, because they are organic, not mechanisms. So it is with human beings. Nevertheless, I am convinced that many, many conservatives who happen to be Christian are far too trusting in the habits of culture to pass on the faith. Given the post-Christian — and increasingly anti-Christian — qualities of the broader culture, if you are not affirmatively and meaningfully traditionalist in your approach to and practice of faith, your kids are more likely than not to lose the faith.
Let me end by reaching out to middle-aged and older readers who identify as liberal Christians, or as religious liberals within non-Christian traditions. Are your adult children practicing the faith? Why or why not? Do you think the way you brought them up in the faith had anything to do with the decision they have made? I’m not accusing you; I just want to understand this phenomenon.
UPDATE: A reader writes to recount a conversation with a senior leader in a Mainline Protestant church, who said, ruefully, that even the healthiest liberal congregations “are like mules: they’re perfectly healthy, but they can’t reproduce.”
UPDATE.2: Reader Jeremy Hickerson comments:
Here’s an example from my church that shows Rod is right to say that mainline or liberal Christianity is straying far from the faith. I give it out of honesty and dismay, and I’m still going to stay part of my church, but it shook me and made me question whether I did wrong by my kids by bringing them up in this church. I posted earlier that one of my two daughters is practicing the faith, and I have seen a number of children grow up in this church and stay in the faith. The thing that drew me and my wife to the church in the first place was the involvement of youth in the worship service the first time we visited. And my experience growing up in the evangelical church rules out that branch of Christianity for my, I have no regrets about not bringing up my kids in an evangelical church.
Here’s what happened yesterday. I was teaching an adult Sunday School class. In Methodism, we have what we call the “Wesley Quadrilateral”. This is 4 tools to arrive at decisions about doctrine, practice, etc. They are Scripture (which should be given the most weight of the four), Tradition, Reason, and Experience. A few weeks ago someone had brought this up in the S.S. class and I had asked if there were any limits to what we could change using the Quadrilateral. The general response was that there were no limits. Yesterday I said that the limits, the core that we could not touch were:
1) Humans are sinful
2) Jesus is God and human
3) Jesus died to pay for our sins
4) Jesus rose from the dead
There was a big uproar and massive disagreement with this. One person spoke up and said, look, Jeremy’s not crazy, this is basically just part of the apostle’s creed. I pointed out that we had just recited this in the service a half hour ago. Another person said that my list of four was ecumenical enough that Catholics, Orthodox, Evangelicals, would all agree with it. So out of the 15 to 20 in the class, 2 agreed and the rest didn’t or didn’t say anything.
This class is very close, and they are all my close friends. We have basically raised each others kids over the years. This is a great group. But it shook me to the core.
What really bothered me was not so much that people didn’t themselves believe the core of Christianity. I’m not surprised that might be the case – a big strength our church is accepting people where they are at. If they want to come be part, we welcome them. This follows the example of Jesus when he was on earth. What bothered me was that they felt it was out of place and wrong for a church to stand up for the faith it has in its doctrinal statement. Like they were surprised that this sort of thing would be said at a church. I thought they knew we were a church.
And there you have it. These days, a congregation that is not affirmatively orthodox in its theology will become de facto liberal … and then will evaporate.
Speaking in very broad terms, liberals see faith as giving them ethics, rather than a universal morality. That is, religious belief provides moral guidelines, but these still have to be applied to individual situations, with quite a bit of room left for diverse outcomes. This makes sense if you stop to think about it: if the world you live in is pluralistic, you accommodate different possible answers to the same questions. But if you live in a culture with more agreement on what God’s will is and how it should be applied, you’re more likely to see that as universal. (Again, this is very broad, and it’s possible to make too much of the distinctions.)
When liberals think about morality, then, they see a heuristic, not a law.
I would rephrase it this way — again, speaking very broadly: Religious liberals regard Scripture and Tradition as suggestions, perhaps ideals, but reserve to themselves the right to re-interpret in context of their own time and place, and according to their own needs and desires. Religious conservatives regard Scripture and Tradition as authoritative, and disclosing eternal moral and theological truths that bind human understanding and conduct. Another way to look at it: religious liberals think of religion as primarily what Man says about God, while religious conservatives think of religions as primarily what God says about Man.
There will be no religious left in the long term because the religious left, as it is currently constituted, doesn’t even believe in its own religion.
Said the reader who sent it to me: “There are no words (except “science”) so I’ll leave it there.”
Keep in mind that Bill Nye is considered a pop culture icon by the rationalist crowd intent on demonstrating what poltroons religious people are. And yet, this trash makes “Veggie Tales” play like the Oresteia.
“That’s exactly the right message, Rachel,” says Bill Nye, who thereby outs himself a dirty old man.
Crazy people. Batsh*t crazy.
Today the New Yorker published a long profile of me by Joshua Rothman. It’s really good, in the sense of being dead accurate, warts and all. And it’s very well written. I’m quite pleased with it, though there are parts that made me grimace a wee bit — parts that are not Rothman’s fault, but my own: he has captured me well. I’ll drop a couple of passages below.
I illustrate this post with a screen grab from the website. I don’t think it’s quite kosher (and maybe not legal) to flat-out grab the photo, a portrait done in the Starhill Cemetery by the great Maude Schuyler Clay. We spent an entire Sunday afternoon gallivanting around St. Francisville and environs, taking shots in different places. When I saw the one the magazine’s photo editor decided to use, my first thought was, “Oh, too bad!”, because I doubt it’s the most flattering of the bunch. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s exactly the right one. After staring at it a few seconds, I thought, “My God, it’s the face of my father.” I showed it to my wife and kids, and they agreed. We have all seen that look on Daddy’s face: the eyes looking suspiciously in the distance, the tension in his jaw, when confronted with things that vex him. Neither Maude nor the photo editor at the magazine knew him, obviously, but boy, have they captured my dad, and my dad inside me — and so has Josh Rothman.
Though my dad and I clashed intensely for much of our life together, what we shared was a profound need for order, to believe that the world was ordered in a certain way, and that people were seeking to harmonize with it. But people, being people, tend not to do this, hence the anxiety within the ordered person. My father worried a great deal because the world surrounding him would not order itself, or be ordered, as he thought it should. This anxiety took a painful toll on me, because my own disorder (in his eyes) was a thorn in his flesh. It was by no means the only one, but given that I was his only son, and was named after him, it was his chief torment. At least until his daughter, the Golden Girl who never did anything wrong, died of cancer at age 42.
What Josh Rothman’s profile, and Maude Schuyler Clay’s photo, revealed to me is how very much alike my late father and I are. There’s one big difference, though: Though we were (are) both restless souls, Daddy was convinced that he had found the right place; his restlessness manifested itself in countless projects around his land, by which he sought to order it. Mine was more inward, though certainly it had outward manifestations. Daddy never doubted himself or his way of living, and indeed could not have conceived of doing so. That’s not me, and never was. But the anxiety, that we share.
From the essay:
Year by year, the distance between father and son grew. In college, at L.S.U., Dreher was a leftist who invited Abbie Hoffman to campus; he tried to debate politics with his father, who once responded, in genuine bewilderment, “Why would I lie to you?” It was as though his dad couldn’t comprehend the concept of difference. Dreher describes his father and his sister as “Bayou Confucians.” He explains, “They had this idea that, if you did what you were supposed to do, you would succeed. I didn’t do those things, but I didn’t fail, and that drove them crazy.” (Dreher moved right after college—he has worked as a blogger for National Review but now says that he is more “traditionalist” than conservative: “I think there’s an individualism at the center of both parties—the economic individualism of the Republicans and the secular, social individualism of the Democrats—that I find really incongruous with what I believe to be true because of my religion.”)
In South Louisiana, religion was everywhere, but, as a kid, Dreher was indifferent to it. Then, when he was seventeen, his mother, Dorothy, won a trip to Europe in a raffle and sent Rod in her place. He visited Chartres and felt judged by the beauty of the cathedral. He began to take religion seriously. When he was eighteen, he went to see Pope John Paul II at the Superdome, in New Orleans. The Pope appeared, and a thought flashed in Dreher’s mind: “I wish he were my dad.” In his twenties, Dreher wanted nothing more than to fall in love—he had a poster for the French film “Betty Blue” on his bedroom wall—but his romances felt increasingly shallow, even sad, compared with what he’d seen in France. At twenty-six, he converted to Catholicism. Fed up with what he perceived as his own caddishness—he had dated one girlfriend longer than he should have—he decided to embrace chastity until marriage. Three years later, he proposed to Julie in a church, kneeling before an icon.
It was Dreher’s Orthodox priest, Father Matthew, who laid down the law. “He said, ‘You have no choice as a Christian: you’ve got to love your dad even if he doesn’t love you back in the way that you want him to,’ ” Dreher recalled. “ ‘You cannot stand on justice: love matters more than justice, because the higher justice is love.’ ” When Dreher struggled to master his feelings, Father Matthew told him to perform a demanding Orthodox ritual called the Optina Rule. He recited the Jesus Prayer—“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”—hundreds of times a day.
Two life-changing events occurred after Dreher began the regimen of prayer. He was alone at home one evening, lying in bed, when he sensed a presence in the room. “I felt a hand reach inside my heart and put a stone there,” he said. “And I could see, in some interior way, that the stone said, ‘God loves me.’ I’d doubted all my life that God really loved me.” A few months later, Dreher stopped by his dad’s house to organize his medications. Ray was sitting on the porch, reading the newspaper and drinking coffee. When Dreher leaned down to kiss him on the cheek, his father grabbed him by the arm. Tears were in his eyes. “He was stammering,” Dreher recalled. “He said, ‘I—I—I spent a long time talking to the Lord last night about you, and the transgressions I did against you. And I told him I was sorry. And I think he heard me.’ ” Recounting the story in the back seat of the car en route to D.C., Dreher still seemed astonished that this had happened. “I kissed him, and said, ‘I love you.’ ”
Dreher’s father died in 2015. The next summer, the mission lost its priest and one of the founding families moved away. To be near an Orthodox church, Dreher and his family moved to Baton Rouge. Looking back on his time in St. Francisville, Dreher thinks that, if he hadn’t moved there and then forced himself to follow the rules—prayer, proximity, love—he would have stayed an angry child forever.
Here is one of my favorite photos: of my father and Father Matthew, at a crawfish boil, back in 2013 or so:
More from the Rothman essay, this after our visit to the Catholic community around St. Jerome parish in Hyattsville, Md.:
Our visit had been short, but he seemed wistful, even a little sad, to be leaving a place where he might have belonged. In a 2013 post, Dreher meditates on his perennial outsiderness. He says he likes visiting places where he could live but doesn’t—places where he is “a stranger, but not strange”—more than he enjoys fitting in at home. “I don’t want to feel this way, but I do,” he writes. He wonders if he is “an outsider by nature,” chasing a “sense of fitting-in, of Home, that . . . I am incapable of experiencing.”
One of Dreher’s favorite writers is Walker Percy, whose novel “The Moviegoer” is set in a fictionalized version of West Feliciana parish, where St. Francisville is situated. (Every year, Dreher hosts a Walker Percy Weekend, combining lectures from literary scholars with crawfish, bourbon, and beer.) Binx Bolling, the book’s protagonist, is a young stockbroker who finds himself on “the search”—the search being “what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the every-dayness of his own life.” Binx explains, “To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”
Working with Josh Rothman on this profile led me inadvertently to seeing why I am so drawn to the personality of Walker Percy, and to much of his writing. Percy seemed to be as happy as he was capable of being when he was onto something. I got onto something when I stumbled into the Chartres cathedral, and I’ve been on the search for it ever since. I have tried to figure out why I can think that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, and still be so laid back about it — to enjoy, truly enjoy, life — crawfish, beer, books, prayer ropes, conversation — amid such anxiety. Well, that’s how Walker Percy was. It’s how I am. People are mysterious.
One more bit:
Another young Ben Op Christian who lives in New York told me that she didn’t share Dreher’s sense of outsiderness. “I grew up on the Upper West Side,” she said. “This is my St. Francisville.” At the same time, she said, “when I was growing up, there were these moments in the fall when you’d be walking in Central Park, and you’d see that pink, 7-p.m.-in-September sunlight on the buildings, and it seemed like there was another place the city was pointing to.” In an existential sense, she said, Christianity figured human beings as “resident aliens” in the world; the Benedict Option gave a name to the deliberate maintenance of that difference. Several years ago, with some friends who were also readers of Dreher’s, she had tried to start a theologically conservative church. She saw the church that she currently attended, in Manhattan, as a “deliberate community.” “A couple from my church lives in my house,” she said.
“What the Ben Op means to me is this,” Leah [Libresco Sargeant] told me. “You’re married, right? Imagine a world where people didn’t agree that marriage was a concept—where there was no social understanding of marriage. And imagine that your marriage was really important to you, and that, when you interacted with other people, no one mentioned your marriage; there was no respect for it and no acknowledgment of its existence. You would do a lot to claw out some space to manifest that your marriage was important. And that’s how it is with the Benedict Option. We have a relationship with Christ. Really, it should be our most important relationship. But my relationship with Alexi is treated as more real and important and relevant. If I say, ‘Oh, I can’t make it, Alexi and I have a thing,’ that’s normal. But if I say, ‘Sorry, I have to go to church,’ that’s weird.”
They weren’t sure if they would stay in New York or move somewhere else. They loved the city, but its values—competition, individualism, transience, capitalism—seemed in tension with their faith. They were still making up their minds about how they wanted to live.
OK, I have to share this passage about Andrew Sullivan:
The writer Andrew Sullivan, who is gay and Catholic, is one of Dreher’s good friends. Their friendship began in earnest in 2010, when Ruthie got sick and Dreher, moved by a spirit of generalized repentance, e-mailed Sullivan to apologize for anything “hard-hearted” he might have said in their various online arguments. Sullivan has a long-standing disagreement with Dreher over same-sex marriage, but he believes that the religiously devout should be permitted their dissent. “There is simply no way for an orthodox Catholic to embrace same-sex marriage,” he said. “The attempt to conflate that with homophobia is a sign of the unthinking nature of some liberal responses to religion. I really don’t think that florists who don’t want to contaminate themselves with a gay wedding should in any way be compelled to do so. I think any gay person that wants them to do that is being an asshole, to be honest—an intolerant asshole. Rod forces you to understand what real pluralism is: actually accepting people with completely different world views than your own.”
In “The Benedict Option,” Dreher writes that “the angry vehemence with which many gay activists condemn Christianity” is the understandable result of a history of “rejection and hatred by the church.” Orthodox Christians need to acknowledge this history, he continues, and “repent of it.” He has assured his children that, if they are gay, he will still love them; he is almost—but not quite—apologetic about his views, which he presents as a theological obligation. He sees orthodox Christians as powerless against the forces of liquidly modern progressivism; on his blog, he argues that “the question is not really ‘What are you conservative Christians prepared to tolerate?’ but actually ‘What are LGBTs and progressive allies prepared to tolerate?’ ” He wants them to be magnanimous in victory; to refrain from pressing their advantage. Essentially, he says to progressives: You’ve won. You wouldn’t sue Orthodox Jews or observant Muslims. Please don’t sue us, either.
“What I really love about Rod is that, even as he’s insisting upon certain truths, he’s obviously completely conflicted,” Sullivan said. “And he’s a mess! I don’t think he’d disagree with that. But he’s a mess in the best possible way, because he hasn’t anesthetized himself. He’s honest about a lot of the questions that many liberal and conservative Christians aren’t really addressing.” Talking to Sullivan about Dreher, I was reminded of Father Matthew’s law: “You’ve got to love your dad even if he doesn’t love you back in the way that you want him to.”
Andrew is right: I’m a mess, but I hope I’m a mess in the best possible way.
I have never had a writer do a profile of me, though I’ve certainly done it to other people. When the first journalist to offer to do a profile of you is a writer for the New Yorker — my favorite magazine, one I’ve been subscribing to for over 20 years, and probably the most prestigious magazine in the country — you can probably be forgiven if your first impulse is to shriek like Homer Simpson and dive under the table. But I trusted Josh Rothman because I had read his terrific piece about J.D. Vance’s book last September, which was one of the best things I’d read about it (and I read a lot). I believe the piece validates my trust. We spent the week of The Benedict Option‘s publication traveling together. It’s not the easiest thing to have a writer for the New Yorker at your side for a whole week, asking questions, but Josh made it into a true pleasure. I told him last week that I was sure that whatever he ended up saying about me, that it would be a fair judgment. Now that I’ve read the piece, I know that I was right.
I can’t let go of the story of my family and its fate. I don’t think there are any mysteries left to plumb regarding why my dad and my sister regarded me the way they did, or why my attempt at re-entry (to use a Percy construct) failed. I don’t sense any burning need to sort out why I’m the particular mess that I am. But what remains on my mind is this.
We now live in a world that was made for somebody like me, with my aspirations and talents. It is a world in which people like Daddy and Ruthie, and what they stood for, can scarcely thrive. (I read Chris Caldwell’s piece on the situation in France, and it resonates with regard to the small places like West Feliciana.) The values and the customs and the way of seeing the world that meant everything to them is very hard to sustain. The great tragedy of my family is that my father and my sister held onto their vision so tightly that they made all those around them whom they catechized far too rigid to survive the shocks of their passing. And now the family that they revered above all else is shattered. What will happen to the land that my father acquired, cultivated, and revered, after my mom is gone? Ruthie loved the land as much as he did, and planned to live on it till the day she died. And she did — but she did not count on dying at 42. Everything that seemed so solid, so unbreakable, has dissolved, and is broken.
I’ve been thinking about how things might have gone differently had I been able to return to St. Francisville when Ruthie was first diagnosed. What if I had been there during the 19 months she lived, and had discovered the awful truth while there was still time to resolve things. Might everything been different? Maybe, maybe not. They were so dug in to their position that I probably would have broken myself trying to breach the barrier of iron will that they built between themselves and the outside world, to which I had defected. Still, the storyteller in me keeps thinking about how that would have worked out. Last week, onstage in New Orleans with JD Vance, JD asked me what my father would have thought of Trump. I said he would have supported him, no question about it. Trump stood for the lost world of people like my dad, and all the people of West Feliciana. And I reflected in my answer on how strange it was that I lived just down the road from my father, and am a conservative, just as he was, yet I was startled by the enthusiasm both my parents showed for Trump (something I only learned in my father’s final days, when we watched Trump’s Mobile rally in my father’s bedroom, about ten days before he died).
I keep thinking that somehow, the dynamic tension between my father and my sister on one side, and me on the other, tells us something about our country in its present state. What they had is what so many of us long for, me included: a strong sense of place, and of rootedness in that place. But they were so deeply rooted that they could not bear anything that challenged their sense of how the world was. That’s why I got out: because I didn’t fit, and I could not bear my father’s judgment. But I kept trying to come back because having been out in the world, and having succeeded, I was aware of the deep value of the world they inhabited. I wanted to be part of it, in some way. It took Ruthie’s death to open my eyes to the treasure they guarded.
And yet, when I moved home, my father could not accept the grace of my offering to him. None of them could (well, my mom did, but that’s how she is: she accepts all; if I came home as a Maoist drag queen, she would find a reason to affirm me in my Maoist drag queenliness). It violated their sense of order. In The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming, I wrote about how, after I came home, my father made a startling admission to me: that he ought to have left West Feliciana when he was young, and made his way in the outside world. He told me he didn’t do it because he believed he had a duty to love and to serve his parents and his extended family. He did this, he said, but they didn’t feel the same way about him. If only he had left, his life might have been different, he said.
It was an astonishing admission — really, even today I struggle to believe it, but I recorded it on my iPhone, so I know it was real. And yet — and yet! — it changed nothing. He continued to believe that I was a disappointment to him, even though I returned home. Because I wasn’t like him. This pained him so much — it was visible — but he could not escape the gravity of his place, neither in his person nor in his judgments. I explained the failure of my return to a friend like this: imagine the Prodigal Son story in the Bible, but the father taking the side of the resentful sibling, and telling the prodigal that he cannot return home, because he had made his choice. That was us.
In the standard Hollywood telling of this story, they are villains: the close-minded country people who refuse the outsider, refuse to change, etc. In truth, though, they weren’t villains at all; anybody who reads Little Way can see that. In many, perhaps even most, respects, my dad and my sister were better people than I am. There’s no false modesty in saying that. What they never did was doubt themselves and their judgment — and in that pride was the family’s dissolution.
Reading Dante gave me the key to this. My father was a kind of Farinata of the Felicianas. Farinata is a Tuscan nobleman condemned to the Inferno because he did not believe in God; rather, he believed in his family, his city, and himself. My father believed in God, certainly, but not as much as he believed in himself and the world he inherited, and helped to build. I wrote about Farinata on this blog here. Excerpts:
Herzman & Cook add that one way to think of the sin of heresy is mistaking one part of the truth for the whole truth. In this sense, the heresy of Farinata and Cavalcante includes believing that truth consisted in their all-consuming love for family, party, status, and so forth. The thing is, there is nothing wrong with loving your family, your party, your city and your creed. The error comes in believing that these are ultimate ends. To let this disorder reign in one’s heart inevitably results in disorder in the family, in the community, in the city, in the country, everywhere — because everything is connected. Could this be why Jesus said to call your brother a fool puts you in danger of the fires of Hell?
This was incredibly helpful for me in trying to untie the knot that bound me after my return to my Louisiana home. The divisions between my Louisiana family and me that had been there for most of my life proved impossible to bridge. I couldn’t figure this out. I had no doubt that my sister loved me, though she didn’t much like me, nor did I doubt that my dad loved me, though he disapproved of me. And I loved them. So why the struggle?
It was, I think, because all of us put far more value on the good things of this world than we ought to have done. Family is important, but it’s not the most important thing. Community is important, but it’s not the most important thing. Philosophy (by which I mean worldview) is important, but it’s not the most important thing. I could not ever hope to fit in as I wanted to because they considered me to be selfish and unloving for not loving as they loved — that is, for not sharing their particular view of what it meant to be devoted to family, to place, and so forth. In their view, if I loved as I ought to love, I never would have left, and I would have the same vision of the good as they do.
I deeply believe they were, and are, wrong about this. The thing is, I had grown up in this family culture, and had internalized its values. Deep down, I accepted this critique, even though I have spent all my adult life fighting against it on the surface. Much of this is in Little Way — in the part where my niece Hannah reveals to me that her late mother and my father had raised her and her sisters to think bad of me for having left home, and for believing the things I do and living the way I do. What I hadn’t counted on is this state of things existing even after my sister’s death. It is the immovable object. And crashing hard against it on my re-entry very nearly broke me.
Reading Dante — this canto in particular, but also the entire Commedia — helped me to see things I couldn’t see. It had not occurred to me that disordered love could be so destructive, at least not in this way. How could you love the idea of family too much, and the idea of place too much? It’s not hate, so how could it be wrong?
I saw how it could be wrong. I saw that the insistence on the primacy of these divisions, on treating them as fundamental, unalterable facts of life that gave life meaning and structure, could refuse grace, and, tragically, ensure that these divisions become permanent.
I had done all I could to bridge the chasm. There was literally nothing more that I could do. This wrecked me.
What I could do, and what I did, was this: recognize the extent to which in my heart of hearts, I had always accepted this judgment, and oriented my own interior life around it. The division existed tangibly in the world, and because of that, it existed in my soul as well. It came between God and me, and made me think that God loved me, but He couldn’t possibly approve of me, no matter what I did. My spiritual life, I came to see, had been for many years oriented around appeasing a God whom I was constantly failing in my duties regarding faith and morals.
Once Dante unmasked this within me, I saw that I had made false idols of Family and Place. It’s not that loving Family and loving Place are bad things — they are, in fact, good things — but that they are only good relative to the ultimate good, who is God. Once I gained that understanding, through the graces that came through prayer and confession (and therapy), I was able to renounce these idols, by which I mean I was able to rightly order them.
And that’s where my healing started. It all ended, as regular readers know, with me spending the last week of my father’s life, living with him in his bedroom at home (he was in home hospice care). I wrote about the epilogue here. Excerpt:
Days later, the moment was at hand. We gathered all the family members who were near, and as many of the neighbors as could be there. Daddy had not been conscious for a couple of days. His bedroom filled with the people who had loved him for most of his life. They had come to see him off.
At the end, his breathing became fast and labored, and he writhed, as if trying shake off his flesh. Mama took his right hand, and I clasped his left. As Daddy drew his final agonized breaths, I looked into his face. It was the only thing I saw, and in it, I saw the face of Christ. More importantly, I saw him, not as the man of whom I was in awe, the man whom I sometimes hated, the man with whose difficult legacy I wrestled in my heart for decades, but him as a fellow sinner and sufferer, and poor creature who needed my love as surely as I needed his. Death humbles us all. That hand of his that held me as a helpless baby, I held myself when his soul left his helpless body. There is perfect harmony in this, a harmony rightly divided and bound together by love — the love that moves the Sun and all the other stars.
My final words to my father were, “Thank you, old man, for everything.” They may be the truest words I ever spoke to him.
Here is a photo of Father Matthew blessing my father, a couple of days before he died:
And here is a photo of my mother and me, hours before Daddy breathed his last, comforting him by showing him a photo of Ruthie, and telling him that soon he would be with her:
The tragic beauty of this story, of all of it, won’t let me go. Why do I wonder if this saga of one Southern family says something about the way we live today? I think it has to do with the fact that most of us long for the rootedness that Daddy and Ruthie had, but we aren’t willing to make the sacrifices necessary to acquire it — if it is even possible for us to acquire. But what if you are willing to make that sacrifice, as I had been, but the door is closed to you? More deeply, what if, in defense of the rooted way of life, they close the door to you because they cannot forgive you for being disloyal to it — being disloyal simply by being different — and without knowing what they are doing, guarantee that the way of life will die with them?
Father Matthew, who is not a Southerner, once told me that one thing that stood out to him about the Southern character is the ferocity with which we hold grudges. After thinking about it for a moment, I had to agree with him on that. We too often know who we are by who and what we hate. It’s a very Dantean point: love and hate are the same thing, seen from different angles. Because, as Walker Percy said, we in the South tend to be more Stoic than Christian, my father and my sister (who was a faithful churchgoer) believed that they were doing the right — indeed, the righteous — thing by digging in in the face of the challenge I presented to them. By being unable, or unwilling, to change, to forgive, and to seek forgiveness, they lost the things that mattered most to them.
This is one of the paradoxical lessons of di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” That is, to hold on to the things that matter most to us, we have to be flexible enough to adapt to changing circumstances. If we don’t, we could lose it all. This is a point I try to make with the Benedict Option: that we conservative Christians cannot keep doing things they way we have always done them, because we will lose everything if we don’t adapt. I say we have to build arks within which we can float atop liquid modernity; many Christians either deny the flood, or with heroic defiance say, “I’ll take my stand.”
My father and my sister took their stand with similar heroic defiance. Now they are gone, and the world they wanted to defend has gone with them. It did not have to happen. Or did it? Theirs was a lost cause, at least in the way they fought for it. Is mine?
Now you see the reason for the anxious, faraway look on the face of the man standing in the shadow of the crape myrtles in Starhill Cemetery, where his family lay all around.
UPDATE: All of this brings to mind the great and difficult Wallace Stevens poem The Idea Of Order At Key West:
She sang beyond the genius of the sea.
The water never formed to mind or voice,
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
The sea was not a mask. No more was she.
The song and water were not medleyed sound
Even if what she sang was what she heard,
Since what she sang was uttered word by word.
It may be that in all her phrases stirred
The grinding water and the gasping wind;
But it was she and not the sea we heard.
For she was the maker of the song she sang.
The ever-hooded, tragic-gestured sea
Was merely a place by which she walked to sing.
Whose spirit is this? we said, because we knew
It was the spirit that we sought and knew
That we should ask this often as she sang.
If it was only the dark voice of the sea
That rose, or even colored by many waves;
If it was only the outer voice of sky
And cloud, of the sunken coral water-walled,
However clear, it would have been deep air,
The heaving speech of air, a summer sound
Repeated in a summer without end
And sound alone. But it was more than that,
More even than her voice, and ours, among
The meaningless plungings of water and the wind,
Theatrical distances, bronze shadows heaped
On high horizons, mountainous atmospheres
Of sky and sea.
It was her voice that made
The sky acutest at its vanishing.
She measured to the hour its solitude.
She was the single artificer of the world
In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,
Whatever self it had, became the self
That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,
As we beheld her striding there alone,
Knew that there never was a world for her
Except the one she sang and, singing, made.
Ramon Fernandez, tell me, if you know,
Why, when the singing ended and we turned
Toward the town, tell why the glassy lights,
The lights in the fishing boats at anchor there,
As the night descended, tilting in the air,
Mastered the night and portioned out the sea,
Fixing emblazoned zones and fiery poles,
Arranging, deepening, enchanting night.
Oh! Blessed rage for order, pale Ramon,
The maker’s rage to order words of the sea,
Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,
And of ourselves and of our origins,
In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.
To what extent are we the makers of the songs we sing? Or merely the discoverers of songs we liberate, like Michelangelo setting the figure free from the marble?
UPDATE.2: This is delicious:
We Jews, too, recoil from calling ourselves Jews. In my experience as an editor at a publication focusing on Jewish news and culture, and hosting its podcast about Jewish life, I have noticed how many Jewish writers — me included — avoid calling anyone a “Jew.” I frequently edit articles that mention “Jewish politicians” or “Jewish artists” but not “Jews.”
Like our non-Jewish friends, we Jews have been conditioned to think of a “Jew” as something bad. We will say, “Some really nice Jewish people moved in next door,” rather than, “Some really nice Jews moved in next door.” Trying to discern if someone is suitable dating material for a single, religious friend, we’ll ask, “Oh, is he Jewish?” but not, “Oh, is he a Jew?” To be “a real Christian” is a compliment, but to be “a real Jew” is considered an insult. “A real Jew” may be stingy, crass or pushy — whatever she is, it’s not good.
There are understandable reasons one might prefer the phrase “Jewish person” to “Jew.” For one thing, anti-Semites love to talk about “Jews” and “the Jews.” The noun has been a slur in English since the 17th century, and to the Jew-haters of the world, Jew-ness, with all the genetically heritable perfidy it entails, is an essential and ineradicable trait. Whether it’s the stain of having murdered Jesus or an inborn capacity for greed or deception, the vices perceived by the anti-Semite belong to “the Jew,” not someone who happens to be Jewish. Anti-Semites have made “Jew” a term of opprobrium, and the rest of us have acquiesced.
But there’s another reason Jews prefer “Jewish.” Many of us don’t think of Jew-ness as central to our identity. If what we’re talking about is an ethnic inheritance, but not one that defines us in an important way, we may rightly feel that “Jewish” makes a more modest, weaker claim than “Jew” — just as “I’m German” sounds a bit milder than “I’m a German.” The former is purely descriptive, the latter a bit proud.
It’s precisely because “Jew” is a bit proud that I want Jews to use it more.
I agree with him that Jews should use it more, and for the reason he says. But until I read this piece, I had not realized that I do the same thing. I’m much more likely to describe someone as “Jewish” rather than “a Jew,” because I want to avoid any hint of anti-Semitism. There is nothing anti-Semitic about calling a Jew a Jew, of course, but as Oppenheimer notes, anti-Semites have made it sometimes a term of opprobrium. Better to be on the safe side. Nobody objects when you ask, “Is she Jewish?”, but if you say, “Is she a Jew?”, then there’s a part of you that may wonder, “Hmm, why does that person want to know?” I do that too, though again, I wasn’t aware of it until I read Oppenheimer’s column.
To be “a real Christian” is a compliment, but to be “a real Jew” is considered an insult. “A real Jew” may be stingy, crass or pushy — whatever she is, it’s not good.
Again, I have to admit that I would not have noticed this unless he pointed it out, but it’s true. If someone described a devout Jew to me as “a real Jew,” I would assume that there was something sinister in the formulation. I don’t know why that is.
Here’s what it reminds me of. I became serious about my Christianity as an adult in my mid-twenties when I converted to Catholicism. I was living in Washington DC, and had been pretty secular for almost a decade. I remembered how derisively my secular friends had spoken of Christians — I had done this too — and I had a lot of social anxiety about it. I settled on describing myself when asked as “Catholic,” deliberately not using the word “Christian,” though certainly that’s what I was. Why? Because “Christian” was — in my circles at the time — usually a negative descriptor, in a way that “Catholic” was not.
After reading Oppenheimer’s piece, I tried to understand why “Christian” made me feel so uncomfortable back then. After all, politically speaking, as a Catholic I held the same pro-life views that made me so offensive to certain progressives. But there was this context: the power and presence of TV evangelism.
I was at LSU in the 1980s, when Jimmy Swaggart, based in Baton Rouge, was a big national deal. I was present in his congregation back in 1988 for his big confession sermon after he got caught with a prostitute. I associated Christianity with people like him, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, and the whole herd of charlatans. Plus, on campus, the loudest Christian voices were the most obnoxious. To be fair, I was ideologically primed to see only the worst of Christians, and to think of them as emblematic. All the quieter Christians, both Evangelical and Catholic, escaped my notice, in part because of my confirmation bias.
When I finally got serious about Christianity, and did so through the Catholic church, I was well aware of the fact that whatever negative thing one might say about Catholicism, it could not be accused of the anti-intellectualism and chicanery that came with TV evangelism. I was ignorant back then of the differences among Evangelicals. I assumed — wrongly — that everybody who called himself an Evangelical was in some way part of the TV evangelism world. Choosing to identify as a “Catholic” and not a “Christian” when asked was a way of distancing myself from that mess. It played right into the ugly distinction that many of those believers make; I ran into it the other night in New Orleans, when an undergraduate at the J.D. Vance event introduced herself to me and said, “I was raised Catholic, but now I’m a Christian.” The TV evangelist types and the more conservative Evangelicals didn’t consider Catholics to be Christians, so by choosing the label “Catholic” instead of “Christian,” I signaled that I wasn’t one of the “bad” kind of Christian.
It was also, I hate to say, a form of intellectual snobbery. I didn’t want to be considered one of those Christians. It made sense to me back then, in my twenties, but the memory of it embarrasses me today. For a long time, I have been describing myself simply as “Christian,” or “a Christian.” If people want to know more, I tell them I am an Orthodox Christian. Of course I don’t agree with all Christians on everything, theologically or otherwise, but if you’re the sort of person who hates Christians, I would rather you go ahead and lump me in with all the other less “respectable” believers. I wear that spite as a badge of pride.
And that, more or less, is why I agree with Mark Oppenheimer about the word “Jew”.
This time, the polls were right: It’s going to be a second-round fight for the French presidency between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Polls also indicate the May 7 runoff will result in an overwhelming victory for Macron, who stands to win by 30 points or so. It’s hard to imagine how Le Pen makes up that ground in two weeks.
The extraordinary fact of today’s vote is that neither of France’s mainstream parties — the Gaullists of the right or the Socialists — made it to the second round. This is the first time that has ever happened in the Fifth Republic. Macron, a former investment banker and government minister, left the Socialist Party to form a more centrist movement built around himself. The official Socialist candidate, Benoît Hamon, placed fifth in today’s race — putting the future of the party itself in question. François Fillon, representing the mainstream right, began the race as the favorite, but never recovered from accusations of nepotism.
Imagine that the US presidency came down to a contest between a candidate of the hard-right and the center-left, neither of whom were a Republican or a Democrat. Something like that has happened in France. The Establishment is shaken, and shaken hard. It is rallying around Macron to prevent the National Front from claiming the Elysée Palace — and it will probably work. But the fact that neither mainstream party in France can claim enough support to make it into the second round of presidential voting — that’s incredible.
Consider that the hard-right Le Pen and hard-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon together polled over 40 percent of the first-round vote, slightly less than the combined total of Macron, Fillon, and Hamon. That reveals a tremendous unease within the French electorate. Macron will almost certainly win the second round, but will do little or nothing to deal with the immigration and Islamic radicalization crisis. The last time the establishment rallied to keep a Le Pen out of the Elysée, 2002, produced three presidencies — Gaullists Jacques Chirac, followed by Gaullist Nicolas Sarkozy, and then Socialist François Hollande — that accomplished nothing meaningful on that front. It is a time bomb.
French readers, what do you think?
UPDATE: The lede, in translation, of an editorial in the conservative daily Le Figaro. Here, “the right” means the mainstream conservatives:
So, the captain was lost. The unthinkable imposed itself. The impossible has happened. The right wing, which for five years has sacked the Socialists in all elections, the right, whose ideas and values have never been so preponderant in the depths of the country, this right from whom victory could not escape was, yesterday, dryly eliminated. While the desire for change, after a fifteen years unanimously considered calamitous, has never been so powerful, the right will not, for the first time in its history, represented in the second round of the presidential election.
UPDATE.2: Read TAC’s Scott McConnell on the results. He’s in Paris now. Excerpt:
I spent the first part of the evening at a Paris forum in the hip, boboish République quarter, where philosopher Michel Onfray discussed the election returns. Onfray is an atheist and has sometimes been labeled an anarchist, but he writes big bestselling books on large subjects, and with his emphasis on decentralization and opposition to Brussels he might be a bit of a crunchy con. He arrived on stage in jeans and an open black shirt. The audience is like anything you would find at a comparable event on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: elderly, somewhat professorial, definitely leaning left—I doubt there were any Le Pen voters there. Onfray announced he didn’t vote, hadn’t voted since 2005, when France held a referendum on the European Constitution and voted “No” by a decisive margin and the vote had precisely zero impact in slowing the advance of the European project. He held the stage for quite a while, basically deflating the idea that there was any pressing need to vote against Marine Le Pen. He obviously signaled some distaste for her (I couldn’t really tell if it was genuine, or a requirement of his position as a bestselling, non-right-wing author) but spent more time mocking Macron, the non-democratic system, French elites, the continuation of the Hollande regime through Macron, the left’s refusal to ever say the word “Islamic” when it discusses terrorism. From the questions and audience reaction the crowd seemed split—half of them probably believe Le Pen and her ilk are dangerous fascists who must be stamped out forever; the other half at least enjoyed his expressions of scorn for Macron and the French establishment political class.
Pulpit & Pen Salafi Baptist alert! James C. spent Holy Week in Bari, a city in far southern Italy. He took a photo of the above scene on the street of the town where he was. He writes:
I asked a local what it was. And he called her a ‘Quarantana’. Apparently she’s Carnevale’s widow…they have a ‘funeral’ for Carnevale (represented as a fat man) on Ash Wednesday and the black-clad Widow (symbol of Lenten deprivation) gets hung up, carrying a spindle of thread (to represent the brevity of life), a fish (as traditionally no eating meat during Lent) and a piece of fruit (representing the coming spring) with feathers stuck in it (6 black ones for each week of Lent and one white one for Easter; one black feather gets plucked out each week).
I. Love. This. I imagine it would provoke a gran mal seizure among the Pulpit & Pen fellers (the ones who didn’t spontaneously combust, I mean). Close up:
Amid investigations into Russian election interference, perhaps we ought to consider whether the Kremlin, to hurt Democrats, helped put Chelsea Clinton on the cover of Variety. Or maybe superstition explains it. Like tribesmen laying out a sacrifice to placate King Kong, news outlets continue to make offerings to the Clinton gods. In The New York Times alone, Chelsea has starred in multiple features over the past few months: for her tweeting (it’s become “feisty”), for her upcoming book (to be titled She Persisted), and her reading habits (she says she has an “embarrassingly large” collection of books on her Kindle). With Chelsea’s 2015 book, It’s Your World, now out in paperback, the puff pieces in other outlets—Elle, People, etc.—are too numerous to count.
One wishes to calm these publications: You can stop this now. Haven’t you heard that the great Kong is no more? Nevertheless, they’ve persisted. At great cost: increased Chelsea exposure is tied closely to political despair and, in especially intense cases, the bulk purchasing of MAGA hats. So let’s review: How did Chelsea become such a threat?
A threat? How so? Read on:
Since Chelsea has 1.6 million followers, we can only conclude that some people enjoy ideas like “Yes. Yes. Yes. Closing the #wagegap is crucial to a strong economy.” And maybe there’s no sin in absorbing and exuding nothing but respectable Blue State opinion. But it’s another thing to insist on joining each day’s designated outrage bandwagon. Did we need to slap down a curmudgeonly Charlotte Rampling, age 71, for griping about #OscarsSoWhite activists? Yes, and here’s Chelsea: “Outrageous, ignorant & offensive comments from Rampling.” Is gender identity not going to be included on the 2020 census? Here’s Chelsea: “This is outrageous. No one should be invisible in America.” Not that there aren’t breaks for deeper thoughts: “Words without action are … meaningless. Words with inaction are … just words. Words with opposite action is … hypocrisy.”
That is … beautiful.
The crude conventional wisdom is that Bill Clinton craved adoration and Hillary Clinton craved power. But Chelsea Clinton seems to have a more crippling want: fashionability—of the sort embraced by philanthropic high society. So you tell The New York Times that your dream dinner party would include James Baldwin, Shakespeare, Franz Kafka, Albert Camus, Jane Jacobs, and Jane Austen, and discussion would be about how “people and communities can evolve to be more inclusive, more kind, have a greater and broader sense of solidarity, while still respecting individual liberties; what provokes or blocks those changes; and what stories might resonate today to encourage us toward kindness, respect, and mutual dignity.” You almost have to bow down before someone who could host Shakespeare for dinner and make the agenda wind up sounding like a brochure for the Altria Group. At least Kafka would be on hand to capture the joy of the evening.
Frank’s view — he is, by the way, a liberal — seems to be that Chelsea Clinton embodies what is wrong with the Democratic Party today: the vapid, brainless posturing that encourages metropolitan, global-oriented elites to believe unreflectively in their own virtue. To get a better idea of what he’s talking about, read this terrific Christopher Caldwell essay about Christophe Guilluy, a Parisian geographer who studies housing policy, and who, through that lens, has come to understand some dark and troubling things about France. Excerpts:
Guilluy has published three books, as yet untranslated, since 2010, with the newest, Le crépuscule de la France d’en haut (roughly: “The Twilight of the French Elite”), arriving in bookstores last fall. The volumes focus closely on French circumstances, institutions, and laws, so they might not be translated anytime soon. But they give the best ground-level look available at the economic, residential, and democratic consequences of globalization in France. They also give an explanation for the rise of the National Front that goes beyond the usual imputation of stupidity or bigotry to its voters. Guilluy’s work thus tells us something important about British voters’ decision to withdraw from the European Union and the astonishing rise of Donald Trump—two phenomena that have drawn on similar grievances.
A process that Guilluy calls métropolisation has cut French society in two. In 16 dynamic urban areas (Paris, Lyon, Marseille, Aix-en-Provence, Toulouse, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice, Nantes, Strasbourg, Grenoble, Rennes, Rouen, Toulon, Douai-Lens, and Montpellier), the world’s resources have proved a profitable complement to those found in France. These urban areas are home to all the country’s educational and financial institutions, as well as almost all its corporations and the many well-paying jobs that go with them. Here, too, are the individuals—the entrepreneurs and engineers and CEOs, the fashion designers and models, the film directors and chefs and other “symbolic analysts,” as Robert Reich once called them—who shape the country’s tastes, form its opinions, and renew its prestige. Cheap labor, tariff-free consumer goods, and new markets of billions of people have made globalization a windfall for such prosperous places. But globalization has had no such galvanizing effect on the rest of France. Cities that were lively for hundreds of years—Tarbes, Agen, Albi, Béziers—are now, to use Guilluy’s word, “desertified,” haunted by the empty storefronts and blighted downtowns that Rust Belt Americans know well.
Guilluy doubts that anyplace exists in France’s new economy for working people as we’ve traditionally understood them. Paris offers the most striking case. As it has prospered, the City of Light has stratified, resembling, in this regard, London or American cities such as New York and San Francisco. It’s a place for millionaires, immigrants, tourists, and the young, with no room for the median Frenchman. Paris now drives out the people once thought of as synonymous with the city.
Yet economic opportunities for those unable to prosper in Paris are lacking elsewhere in France. Journalists and politicians assume that the stratification of France’s flourishing metropoles results from a glitch in the workings of globalization. Somehow, the rich parts of France have failed to impart their magical formula to the poor ones. Fixing the problem, at least for certain politicians and policy experts, involves coming up with a clever shortcut: perhaps, say, if Romorantin had free wireless, its citizens would soon find themselves wealthy, too. Guilluy disagrees. For him, there’s no reason to expect that Paris (and France’s other dynamic spots) will generate a new middle class or to assume that broad-based prosperity will develop elsewhere in the country (which happens to be where the majority of the population live). If he is right, we can understand why every major Western country has seen the rise of political movements taking aim at the present system.
Caldwell talks about how globalization has radically changed French society. The transformation he describes below has its parallel in the fact (hidden from those inside the system) that in our country, the GOP and the Democratic Party are in many respects two sides of the same coin:
The old bourgeoisie hasn’t been supplanted; it has been supplemented by a second bourgeoisie that occupies the previously non-bourgeois housing stock. For every old-economy banker in an inherited high-ceilinged Second Empire apartment off the Champs-Élysées, there is a new-economy television anchor or high-tech patent attorney living in some exorbitantly remodeled mews house in the Marais. A New Yorker might see these two bourgeoisies as analogous to residents of the Upper East and Upper West Sides. They have arrived through different routes, and they might once have held different political opinions, but they don’t now. Guilluy notes that the conservative presidential candidate Alain Juppé, mayor of Bordeaux, and Gérard Collomb, the Socialist running Lyon, pursue identical policies. As Paris has become not just the richest city in France but the richest city in the history of France, its residents have come to describe their politics as “on the left”—a judgment that tomorrow’s historians might dispute. Most often, Parisians mean what Guilluy calls la gauche hashtag, or what we might call the “glass-ceiling Left,” preoccupied with redistribution among, not from, elites: we may have done nothing for the poor, but we did appoint the first disabled lesbian parking commissioner.
Upwardly mobile urbanites, observes Guilluy, call Paris “the land of possibilities,” the “ideapolis.” One is reminded of Richard Florida and other extollers of the “Creative Class.” The good fortune of Creative Class members appears (to them) to have nothing to do with any kind of capitalist struggle. Never have conditions been more favorable for deluding a class of fortunate people into thinking that they owe their privilege to being nicer, or smarter, or more honest, than everyone else. Why would they think otherwise? They never meet anyone who disagrees with them. The immigrants with whom the creatives share the city are dazzlingly different, exotic, even frightening, but on the central question of our time—whether the global economic system is working or failing—they see eye to eye. “Our Immigrants, Our Strength,” was the title of a New York Times op-ed signed by London mayor Sadiq Khan, New York mayor Bill de Blasio, and Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo after September’s terrorist bomb blasts in New York. This estrangement is why electoral results around the world last year—from Brexit to the election of Donald Trump—proved so difficult to anticipate. Those outside the city gates in la France périphérique are invisible, their wishes incomprehensible. It’s as if they don’t exist. But they do.
Here is the key graf:
French elites have convinced themselves that their social supremacy rests not on their economic might but on their common decency. Doing so allows them to “present the losers of globalization as embittered people who have problems with diversity,” says Guilluy. [Emphasis mine — RD] It’s not our privilege that the French deplorables resent, the elites claim; it’s the color of some of our employees’ skin. French elites have a thesaurus full of colorful vocabulary for those who resist the open society: repli (“reaction”), crispation identitaire (“ethnic tension”), and populisme (an accusation equivalent to fascism, which somehow does not require an equivalent level of proof). One need not say anything racist or hateful to be denounced as a member of “white, xenophobic France,” or even as a “fascist.” To express mere discontent with the political system is dangerous enough. It is to faire le jeu de (“play the game of”) the National Front.
Caldwell goes on to say that France’s problems in this regard are more acute in the US, and also harder to face head-on, because the country’s politically correct speech laws make voicing criticism of the system in some respects a violation of the law.
Read the whole thing. It’s very good. Chelsea Clinton is an icon of the non-péripherique class of Americans. As in France, nearly all our leading media and culture-making institutions exist within the same metropolitanized bubble. (It’s not just a left-liberal thing; I refer you once again to Tucker Carlson’s great January 2016 essay laying into the Beltway conservative establishment for not seeing Trump coming).
The problem is not simply one of communication and understanding. There really aren’t jobs for the working class — and, increasingly, for the middle class. And the moral collapse among the poor and working class (think of Charles Murray’s Fishtown) is making a difficult situation worse. Of course the let them eat quinoa, the bigots attitude of The Chelsea Class only exacerbates the situation.
Hard times ahead. As TAC’s Scott McConnell points out, Americans had better watch France, because what happens there first will eventually happen here.
UPDATE: A (conservative) friend in Paris who is planning to emigrate to escape the coming turmoil writes:
Where I disagree with Guilluy is on the stability of the France périphérique model. It is dangerously unstable and my biggest fear, as I told you before, is partition. Some partition on the Israeli West Bank model, with pockets of sharia ruled territories. Actually, this presidential election has to pick the right person to transition from a de facto position to a de jure one regarding partition of France.
Here comes the good news: if you reside far enough from a sharia ruled territory, you can stay in France. …
On the short term, we’ll have to deal with the possibility of a surprising good showing for Le Pen in the 1st round, something above 24 %, spontaneous demonstrations and a confrontation with a very angry police force.
A very Titanicky kind of mood anyway with real estate prices going through the roof and cops getting killed on les Champs Elysées.
I haven’t done VFYT in a long time, but because France weighs heavily on my mind today, I’m going to post this one just in from a reader, who writes:
A glass of house red and a glass of Normandy cider, enjoyed next to a mill-race with Bayeux Cathedral looming in the background. May we yet hope for France in these times.
Earlier this year I, as chair of the political science department, offered a symbolic departmental co-sponsorship to the Charles Murray event in the same way that I had done with other events in the past: on my own, without wider consultation. This was a mistake.
Last week, I apologized to my departmental colleagues for this closed decisionmaking process, and I apologize now to the broader Middlebury community. The short amount of time between when the event became public and when it occurred gave all of us scant opportunity to listen to and understand alternative points of view. Most importantly, and to my deep regret, it contributed to a feeling of voicelessness that many already experience on this campus, and it contributed to the very real pain that many people – particularly people of color – have felt as a result of this event.
As we debate what to do next, I look forward to hearing from the college-wide committee on invited speakers that is currently taking shape, as well as from my departmental colleagues and our department’s student advisory committee. I thank all of the members of the college community who have shared their views with me, with the department, and with the college administration over the past few months. I will continue to listen.
This capitulation to the ideological thugs who attacked Murray and others on Middlebury’s campus deserves wide denunciation. A professor from the man’s own department was physically assaulted by these goons, and sent to the hospital — and nobody has been held accountable for any of this by Middlebury. As a scholar and as an American, Bert Johnson, the poli sci department head, should be ashamed of himself. He has shown himself to be a lickspittle to the campus left, and will be treated exactly that way by the radicals he is helping to empower.
Yeah, I’m furious about this. Have you been following the racist disgrace on the Pomona and Claremont college campuses in California? A student mob shut down Heather Mac Donald as she tried to speak out in favor of police. In the aftermath, the president of the college spoke out in defense of free speech. A group of black radicals issued this manifesto condemning him, and free speech. From the document:
Free speech, a right many freedom movements have fought for, has recently become a tool appropriated by hegemonic institutions. It has not just empowered students from marginalized backgrounds to voice their qualms and criticize aspects of the institution, but it has given those who seek to perpetuate systems of domination a platform to project their bigotry. Thus, if “our mission is founded upon the discovery of truth,” how does free speech uphold that value? The notion of discourse, when it comes to discussions about experiences and identities, deters the ‘Columbusing’ of established realities and truths (coded as ‘intellectual inquiry’) that the institution promotes. Pomona cannot have its cake and eat it, too. Either you support students of marginalized identities, particularly Black students, or leave us to protect and organize for our communities without the impositions of your patronization, without your binary respectability politics, and without your monolithic perceptions of protest and organizing. In addition, non-Black individuals do not have the right to prescribe how Black people respond to anti-Blackness.
Your statement contains unnuanced views surrounding the academy and a belief in searching for some venerated truth. Historically, white supremacy has venerated the idea of objectivity, and wielded a dichotomy of ‘subjectivity vs. objectivity’ as a means of silencing oppressed peoples. The idea that there is a single truth–’the Truth’–is a construct of the Euro-West that is deeply rooted in the Enlightenment, which was a movement that also described Black and Brown people as both subhuman and impervious to pain. This construction is a myth and white supremacy, imperialism, colonization, capitalism, and the United States of America are all of its progeny. The idea that the truth is an entity for which we must search, in matters that endanger our abilities to exist in open spaces, is an attempt to silence oppressed peoples. We, Black students, exist with a myriad of different identities. We are queer, trans, differently-abled, poor/low-income, undocumented, Muslim, first-generation and/or immigrant, and positioned in different spaces across Africa and the African diaspora. The idea that we must subject ourselves routinely to the hate speech of fascists who want for us not to exist plays on the same Eurocentric constructs that believed Black people to be impervious to pain and apathetic to the brutal and violent conditions of white supremacy.
The idea that the search for this truth involves entertaining Heather Mac Donald’s hate speech is illogical. If engaged, Heather Mac Donald would not be debating on mere difference of opinion, but the right of Black people to exist. Heather Mac Donald is a fascist, a white supremacist, a warhawk, a transphobe, a queerphobe, a classist, and ignorant of interlocking systems of domination that produce the lethal conditions under which oppressed peoples are forced to live. Why are you, and other persons in positions of power at these institutions, protecting a fascist and her hate speech and not students that are directly affected by her presence?
These signatories do not belong in college. They do not understand what liberal education is, and have no respect for the rights of others within that educational community. They are manifestly opposed to the function of a university. If they continue to try to shut down free speech and open inquiry, they should be expelled without hesitation or apology.
Heather Mac Donald responds:
Moreover, “We, few of the Black students” only pretend to be postmodern relativists. They are fully confident that they possess the truth about me and about their oppressed plight at the Claremont schools. An alternative construction of their reality—one, say, that pointed out that as members of fantastically rich, tolerant, and welcoming American colleges, they are among the most privileged human beings in history—would be immediately rejected as contrary to the truth and not worth debating. “We, few” would also reject the alternative truth that far from devaluing Black students, the administrations of the Claremont colleges have undoubtedly admitted many with levels of academic preparation far below that of their white and Asian peers, simply to fulfill the administrators’ own self-righteous desire for “diversity.”
Typical of all such censors and petty tyrants, “We, few of the Black students” now want to crush dissent. They ask the Claremont University Consortium to take action, both disciplinary and legal, against the editors of the conservative student paper, the Claremont Independent, for the open-ended sins of “continual perpetuation of hate speech, anti-Blackness, and intimidation toward students of marginalized backgrounds.” These are the demands not of relativists but of absolutists determined to solidify their power.
As for “We, few’s” gross misreading of my work, it shows that reading skills are in as short supply at the Claremont colleges as writing skills. My entire argument about the necessity of lawful, proactive policing is based on the value of black lives. I have decried the loss of black life to drive-by shootings and other forms of street violence. I have argued that the fact that blacks die of homicide at six times the rate of whites and Hispanics combined is a civil rights abomination. And I have tried to give voice to the thousands of law-abiding residents of high-crime areas who are desperate for more police protection so that they can enjoy the same freedom from fear that people in more wealthy areas take for granted.
Read her entire response. Elite American universities are at a crossroads. Either they stand up to racists like these students, and their fellow-traveling Jacobins, or they surrender their integrity, their conscience, and their essence. There is no middle ground. As the pseudonymous author Alex Southwell writes, identity politics have made some colleges much worse intellectually and professionally, and that’s a problem. But to have them turn into places where intellection itself is despised, unless it serves radical left-wing ideology — this ought to be utterly intolerable.
Princeton’s Robbie George reminds us:
— Robert P. George (@McCormickProf) April 21, 2017
Now it appears there will be no justice, because academic freedom is something that the head of the political science department is too ridden with white guilt to defend — even when the violent attack on it lands one of his own professors in the hospital.
It’s appalling. It’s beyond appalling. If I were a professor at Middlebury, I would look for the exits. This is not an institution that will defend itself or its own professors when the mob comes for them. And believe me, it will.
William Chace points out that what happened at Middlebury is not remotely typical of American college campuses. Charles Murray went on to speak without incident at a number of other, more mainstream college campuses, he says. This is true, and it’s important not to think that what happens at Middlebury, or at Pomona and the Claremont Colleges, is representative of all higher education. But places like those colleges punch well above their weight, because they attract elite students. Consider Wellesley College, the alma mater of Hillary Clinton and Madeleine Albright. Its student newspaper just published an editorial attacking free speech and expression on campus. Excerpt:
This being said, if people are given the resources to learn and either continue to speak hate speech or refuse to adapt their beliefs, then hostility may be warranted. If people continue to support racist politicians or pay for speakers that prop up speech that will lead to the harm of others, then it is critical to take the appropriate measures to hold them accountable for their actions. It is important to note that our preference for education over beration regards students who may have not been given the chance to learn. Rather, we are not referring to those who have already had the incentive to learn and should have taken the opportunities to do so. Paid professional lecturers and politicians are among those who should know better.
We at The Wellesley News, are not interested in any type of tone policing. The emotional labor required to educate people is immense and is additional weight that is put on those who are already forced to defend their human rights.
Debate about free speech at Wellesley has intensified since last month, when Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, spoke on campus during “Censorship Awareness Week.”
Kipnis has stirred controversy for arguing that attempts by colleges to combat sexual assault have contributed to “sexual paranoia” and a skyrocketing sense of vulnerability among female students.
At Wellesley, Kipnis was denounced by a student group called Sexual Assault Awareness for Everyone, which released a video blasting her views and arguing that “white feminism is not feminism.”
A week before the speech, student protesters at Middlebury College shut down a talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray and injured a Middlebury professor who was with him.
About a week after Kipnis spoke, a group of Wellesley professors who are part of the college’s Commission on Race, Ethnicity, and Equity argued that Wellesley should think more carefully before inviting speakers like Kipnis. The professors argued that speakers who are brought to campus to encourage debate can instead “stifle productive debate by enabling the bullying of disempowered groups.”
“There is no doubt that the speakers in question impose on the liberty of students, staff, and faculty,” the professors wrote in an e-mail to the campus community that was obtained by FIRE, a group that seeks to promote free speech on college campuses.
Seeking to ease tensions, Wellesley’s president, Paula A. Johnson, wrote a letter to the campus community April 4 in defense of free expression.
Good on the college president for taking a stand. But will she defend it when it comes under challenge? I hope so. I don’t think we will see an end to this kind of ideological bullying on campus until and unless universities start expelling those who engage in it. If a university will not defend itself, its mission, and the right of its students to get an education, then it deserves to fail.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
And the tenured leader of this nonsense:
UPDATE.2: Reader Jack B. Nimble writes:
Once again, Mr. Dreher wrongly implies that no Middlebury students are being punished or investigated for the events of March 2, 2017. A useful corrective are the links provided here:
Note in particular this excerpt:
‘Statement on Disciplinary Measures
The College’s investigation has identified more than 70 individuals it believes may be subject to disciplinary procedures under student handbook policies.
As of April 17, more than 30 students have accepted disciplinary sanctions for their actions on March 2. We are almost halfway through with the investigation and disciplinary process and we hope to bring it to a close by the end of the academic year in mid-May.
We will not comment on the nature or range of the sanctions until the process is complete.’
I am glad to hear it. I will not comment on the nature or range of the sanctions until they are made public.
I’ve caught some flak from readers e-mailing me, criticizing me for not coming to Bill O’Reilly’s defense. More on why I didn’t in a second. First, though, it’s worth thinking about Ian Tuttle’s piece on how O’Reilly and younger conservatives aren’t really in touch. Excerpt:
I appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, Fox News’s flagship evening program, hosted by the now-ousted Bill O’Reilly, in the summer of 2015. An average number of people tuned in that night — somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 million. My conservative friends, twentysomethings, many of them from reliably red states, were not tuned in. But their parents were.
That’s telling. The O’Reilly Factor, which will air its final episode on Friday, was a massively popular news show — for a decade and a half the most popular show — on America’s most-watched cable news network. But The O’Reilly Factor was not for everyone; more to the point, it was not intended to be. Bill O’Reilly’s loyal viewers were largely older, suburban or rural, middle or lower-middle class, generally white, and Republican. At the end of 2016, O’Reilly averaged 3.3 million nightly viewers, but while viewers in the key 25-to-54 demographic increased significantly from 2015 (probably an effect of the unusual election year), they still accounted for less than one-fifth of his nightly audience.
This is entirely anecdotal, but after O’Reilly’s departure was announced, I thought about who among my conservative friends watches O’Reilly. The only person I could think of was my mother, who is 73. In fact, I have lots of conservative friends in my age cohort who complain about the effect heavy Fox watching has on their parents. The general complaint is that their folks have become a lot more opinionated about political issues, and a lot angrier and more bombastic. I once wrote about Fox Geezer Syndrome, and included lots of comments from readers. Here’s one:
I grew up watching very little television. Then when I was in ninth grade we started looking to buy a new car. I promise that’s not a non-sequitur.
It turns out that the new Dae Woo dealership in town had a promotion: test drive one our cars, get a free Dish Network subscription for a year. My dad did the drive, and we got the Dish.
Over the course of the next year Fox News slowly took over our house. For a while, the main thing we watched was the O’Reilly Factor, which became appointment viewing each night. But it expanded from there. When the following summer came around–and I was home during the day–I was shocked by how much my mom watched during the day. Again, we rarely watched TV before this, and now my parents were watching 3, 4, 5 hours of TV a day, and that was almost exclusively Fox News.
It’s hard to exaggerate what effect the transition from major network news to Fox News had. It’s not that my parents’ actual views changed… Though never fundamentalists, they’d always been more or less part of “the Religious Right,” and my parents would always grumble about the liberal bias of mainstream media.
What changed was the intensity with which they held those views. Politics went from a significant but not at all central part of daily discourse to the overwhelmingly #1 concern. The amount of time my parents spent talking (and, presumably, thinking) about politics skyrocketed. As did the level of frustration and anger and vitriol. My parents seemed constantly angry about things over which they had zero control, bitter about matters that had nothing to do with them.
A few years later–recognizing that it was not a healthy influence–my parents got rid of the Dish. At some point my mom remarked that her stress levels had considerably lowered since she stopped watching Fox News. Since then they’ve gone back-and-forth with Dish or cable–one year they’ll have it, the next year they ditch it. But they’ve never returned to binge-watching Fox News.
They still watch it sometimes, and their political views are largely the same. And sometimes they can be angry and bitter about politics. But it’s not constant anymore. It’s not the regular state of being. I think the spell has been broken. They recognize at least some of the limitations of Fox News–they laugh at how ridiculous Sean Hannity is, for instance–and they do a somewhat better job of avoiding being completely sucked into things that have no relevance to their lives.
Yesterday I was talking with a conservative Evangelical friend in his early 30s. He’s really concerned that the fallout from Trump is going to be devastating for religious conservatism. I share his views. In his strong and necessary piece for National Review, David French considers the moral and reputational cost to conservatism of the “toxic” celebrity culture of the Right. Excerpts:
There are those who say that the Left is “taking scalps,” and they have a list of Republican victims to prove their thesis. Roger Ailes is out at Fox News. Bill O’Reilly is out at Fox News. Michael Flynn is out at the White House. Those three names — the head of the most powerful cable news network, the highest-rated cable news personality, and the national-security adviser — represent a stunning wave of resignations and terminations.
But this isn’t scalp-taking, it’s scalp-giving. Time and again prominent conservative personalities have failed to uphold basic standards of morality or even decency. Time and again the conservative public has rallied around them, seeking to protect their own against the wrath of a vengeful Left. Time and again the defense has proved unsustainable as the sheer weight of the facts buries the accused.
Moreover, the pattern is repeating itself with the younger generation of conservative celebrities. The sharp rise and meteoric fall of both Tomi Lauren and Milo Yiannopoulos were driven by much the same dynamic that sustained O’Reilly for years, even in the face of previous sexual-harassment complaints — Lahren and Yiannopoulos were “fighters” who “tell it like it is.” O’Reilly was the master of the “no-spin zone” and seemed fearless in taking on his enemies.
What followed was a toxic culture of conservative celebrity, where the public elevated personalities more because of their pugnaciousness than anything else. Indeed, the fastest way to become the next conservative star is to “destroy” the Left, feeding the same kind of instinct that causes leftists to lap up content from John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert. Liberals use condescending mockery. Conservatives use righteous indignation. That’s not much of a difference.
The cost has been a loss of integrity and, crucially, a loss of emphasis on ideas and, more important, ideals. There exists in some quarters an assumption that if you’re truly going to “fight,” then you have to be ready to get your hands dirty. You can’t be squeamish about details like truth or civility or decency. When searching for ideological gladiators, we emphasize their knifework, not their character or integrity.
The conservative movement includes some of the best and most admirable people I’ve ever met. It also includes its share of grasping, ambitious fame-hounds, people who live for the next Fox hit and angle to write this year’s version of the “liberals are sending this country to hell” bestselling book. But bad character sends a country to hell just as surely as bad policy does, and any movement that asks its members to defend vice in the name of advancing allegedly greater virtue is ultimately shooting itself in the foot.
How should Fox transition into remaining a conservative (ish) network, while replacing its aging audience as it dies off? Because that audience is old:
The median age of a primetime Fox News viewer is 68, according to Nielsen. That means half of the channel’s viewers are older than 68. CNN’s median primetime viewer, meanwhile, is 59. Fox News still has more total viewers in the 25-to-54 demographic that advertisers covet, but CNN and others are gaining.
It’s possible Murdoch and his sons, James and Lachlan, who are acquiring control of their father’s media empire as he ages, see all this as a good thing. Fox News, for now, has a monopoly on the “older, conservative viewer.” As currently-old conservatives get even older and, eventually, die, a new generation of viewers will replace them.
But how long can that last when you’re not attracting younger audiences? Today’s young people are watching less traditional TV and more online content—especially for their news (some of which cater to their sensibilities far better than banal news networks can). Fox News can’t afford to just wait around for these younger viewers to become old.
That’s an interesting point. I don’t know about you, but I don’t watch Fox not because I am opposed to Fox, but because I don’t watch cable TV, period. I get my news online and, when I’m driving, from public radio. If I had cable TV I would definitely watch Tucker Carlson’s show, because he’s fresh and unpredictable. If they gave Mollie Hemingway a show, I’d watch the hell out of it. But I don’t know that it’s possible for any network to win me back as a cable subscriber. There are just too many other interesting things to do, and having a TV connected to Netflix streaming and Amazon streaming satisfies all our televised entertainment interests.
I think David French is correct about the toxic influence of conservative celebrity culture, but then, John Derbyshire was right back in 2009 when he wrote in TAC about how conservative talk radio wrecks the Right. I don’t know that it’s possible in this media environment to avoid the dangers of ideological celebrity culture on either side of the political divide.
What interests me, though, is how this plays out with younger people who don’t care as much about TV. Does TV have to grow more extreme in an attempt to capture their attention? What? In my case, cable and broadcast TV hasn’t been part of my family’s life for years, and that’s just fine. Whenever I would go visit my dad in the past few years, I was jarred by how the people on Fox seemed to be barking at viewers. I don’t know if watching CNN would have felt different — I mean, I don’t know whether what I experienced is something particular to Fox, or whether I had grown so unaccustomed to cable news that all of it seemed to come on way too strong. Probably the latter. Whatever the case, I didn’t want it.
Readers, do you see different news media habits with you and your parents’ generation (or your children’s generation)? Talk to me.
If you haven’t yet read my TAC colleague Scott McConnell’s excellent primer on the political and cultural climate in France on the eve of its election, please do. As Scott puts it:
Think what you will about America’s contentious identity politics; compared with France, the United States remains Mayberry, TV’s symbol of small-town innocence. We may have Black Lives Matter, massive resistance to a president seeking to enforce the country’s existing immigration laws, and urban riots. But in France the riots are bigger and last far longer. It has hundreds of thousands of people possessing French citizenship but evincing no discernible national loyalty. And there are few geographic barriers between itself and the sources of inundating immigration. No one can forecast with confidence the American future—whether it be a more or less successful assimilation of large streams of new immigrants or a transformed country where ethnic division is a norm underpinning every political transaction. But whatever the fate of Western civilization—whether it be a renaissance, or, as Pat Buchanan has predicted, its death—that fate will be revealed in Paris before New York or Chicago.
Note this passage especially:
Last year Michel Gurfinkiel weighed conflicting estimates (between three and six million) of the number of French Muslims in the mid-1990s and contrasted them with present estimates. He concluded that the current figure is roughly six million, or 9 percent of the population, and that it is growing at a much faster rate than the French population as a whole. As early as 2010, fully 20 percent of French under 24 were described as Muslim. A more recent poll in the liberal French weekly L’Obs reported that more than a quarter of French youth described themselves as Muslim.
Because the government does not publish statistics about race, some curious researchers have looked at the number of newborn babies screened for markers for sickle-cell anemia, a test given if both parents are of African, North African, or Sicilian origin. The figure has risen from 25 percent in 2005 to 39 percent in 2015. In the Greater Paris region it has risen from 54 percent to 73 percent. One understands why Houellebecq’s right-wing professor says he wants the inevitable civil war to come “as soon as possible.”
This article from the NYT touches on the impossibility of the French police monitoring every French person on its radicalism watch list:
Jean-Charles Brisard, the chairman of the French Center for the Analysis of Terrorism in Paris, called the idea “absurd” and said France could not jettison civil liberties.
He added that putting everyone on the S List under surveillance was impossible, because there are more than 10,000 names and fewer than 5,000 agents. It takes 20 agents per suspect for 24-hour surveillance, he said, meaning France could perform round-the-clock surveillance of only a small fraction of those suspected of being radicalized.
“My profound conviction is that unfortunately we need to get used to living with this new threat,” Mr. Brisard said. “It’s permanent, it’s diffuse and it can erupt at any moment.”
You begin to see why ordinary French people speculate about a coming civil war within France.
In the wake of the shooting Le Pen called for foreign terror suspects to be expelled immediately and said it was a ‘ceaseless and merciless war’ against France which required ‘a presidency which acts and protects us’.
The killer of the Champs-Elysées was French-born, but Le Pen surely understands that expelling French citizens is not possible. But if France can expel those radicals without a legal right to remain in the country, it should, whether or not they have been convicted of a crime.
Even if that radical step were to happen, it would only put a dent in the problem. The C-E killer was, as I said, French-born, but he was not on the S List (the government’s terrorism watch list), even though he had served a prison term for trying to murder police officers:
The attacker, a 39-year-old Karim Cheurfi, was known to French security services. Media reported he had served nearly 15 years in prison after being convicted of three attempted murders, two against police officers, and was released on parole in 2015.
The attacker was shot dead by police in the van while trying to flee the scene on foot. A statement from the Isis propaganda agency, Amaq, said the attack was carried out by an “Islamic State fighter”.
… A house in the eastern suburb of Chelles, believed to be Cheurfi’s family home, was being searched on Friday. Le Parisien newspaper said the address matched that of the owner of the car used in the attack.
Police found a pump-action shotgun, knives and a Qur’an in the vehicle, while a handwritten note praising Isis was later recovered near the dead attacker, police sources told local media.
They said Cheurfi was arrested in February on suspicion of plotting to kill police officers but released because of lack of evidence. He was reportedly not, however, on France’s “Fiche-S”, the list of people suspected of being a threat to national security.
The threats came at an unusual turn in Kepel’s career. He has long been a prominent figure in the French intellectual world, a scholar whose face — a distinctive, narrow-eyed mask of polished sobriety — is often seen on TV news shows. But recently he has assumed a far more combative stance. Kepel has argued that much of France’s left-leaning intelligentsia fails to understand the nature of the threat the country faces — not just from foreign terrorists but also from the Islamist provocateurs in its exurban ghettos, the banlieues. Unlike the Islam-bashing polemicists who haunt French opinion pages, Kepel brings a lifetime of scholarship to this argument. He has always been careful to distinguish mainstream Islam from the hard-line Islamist ideologues of the banlieues, who have no real equivalent in the United States. He has long been a man of the left; his wife’s family is from North Africa, and he has no sympathy for the xenophobia of the right-wing National Front. But he believes that radical Islamists are trying to shred France’s social fabric and foster a civil war, and that many leftists are unwittingly playing into their hands. This view has made him a target for almost everyone.
One of the most common critiques of Kepel is that his relentless focus on Islam casts a shadow of suspicion onto all French Muslims. As [Olivier] Roy put it to me, “If you say it’s a religious issue, then the extremists are seen as the avant-garde of the whole Muslim population.” Jean-Pierre Filiu, another prominent French scholar of the Islamic world, pointed out that several thousand Muslims marched for peace in Mantes-la-Jolie after the Abballa murders, many of them bearing pictures of the murdered couple and posters denouncing terrorism, and laid wreaths on the steps of the local Police Headquarters. There was no one there to greet them, and not much news coverage. “The jihadis want to blur the lines, but the lines should be clear,” Filiu told me. “It’s not the Salafis who are against us, and not the Muslims. It’s the jihadis.”
These are generous sentiments, and no doubt many French Muslims appreciate them. Kepel would say they seem less aimed at truth than tact, the idea that hurting Muslim feelings will poison the atmosphere further. At its extreme, this view risks its own form of condescension: Be nice to Muslims or they will turn into suicide bombers.
Kepel has argued in his recent books that the French Muslim community, once guided by the paternalist figures from the old country known as darons, is now increasingly under the sway of younger and far more confrontational Islamists. These ideologists, Kepel believes, have fostered a rupture with French values that nourishes the ISIS narrative. Yet some French intellectuals naïvely disregard or even embrace these figures in the hopes of “isolating the radicals.” In other words, Kepel turns the accusation of Filiu and Roy — that his own emphasis on Islam is unwittingly doing the work of ISIS — against them. Kepel likes to cite ISIS propaganda urging its followers in Europe to hide behind the language of victimhood, including one document shared among ISIS sympathizers titled “How to Survive in the West,” which includes the following lines: “A real war is heating up in the heart of Europe. … The leaders of disbelief repeatedly lie in the media and say that we Muslims are all terrorists, while we denied it and wanted to be peaceful citizens. But they have cornered us and forced us into becoming radicalized.”
With all this attention focused on them, many jihadis are now adapting, and have become far better at disguising their beliefs. Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist who has spent many years researching Muslims in the French prison system, told me it has become almost impossible to get honest testimony out of the inmates. Many of them shave their beards, Khosrokhavar said, and adopt a mild demeanor, and sometimes they even stop praying and fasting during Ramadan, all so as to deceive the authorities and, presumably, get out of prison faster.
… Just before we left, I asked the North African [Muslim prisoner] whether he expected the recent wave of terrorist attacks in France to continue. This was just after the arrest of several terrorist cells, and two months before a machete-wielding jihadist attacked guards near the Louvre. He gave me a somber look. “This is just the beginning,” he said.
Read the whole thing. The author talks to French Muslims who actually agree with Kepel, and say that the real problem is the spread of Gulf-sponsored Salafism among French Muslims.
Poor France. Like Scott McConnell said, France is in the vanguard of issues that will eventually confront most Western nations.
Behold, a couple of reviews of The Benedict Option by reviewers who really understood the book.
First, excerpts from Thomas Ascik’s review in The Imaginative Conservative. Like me, Ascik is frustrated that many commenters who dismiss the book don’t seem to be reacting to what’s actually in the thing:
Rod Dreher, in his much-discussed The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation (2017), asserts that we are living in “post-Christian America.” It seems that no one, whether on the left or right, disagrees with this assessment, from liberal critic Emma Green (“Christianity is no longer the cultural default”), to conservative writers Fr. Dwight Longenecker (“the tsunami of anti-Christian culture”) and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat (“traditional religion in all its forms has become a counterculture in the West”), to Patrick Gilger (“Christian America is already a contradiction in terms”) and Damon Linker (“a minority in a majority secular nation”) also agree.
So, how should Christians react to the widely acknowledged reality that Christendom—that is, civilization and culture based on Christian principles and morality—is dead? Mr. Dreher says that “Christians are now in a time of decision,” and he calls on them to take concrete steps to preserve their Christian way of life in this country. Almost all the reviews of Mr. Dreher’s book concentrate on and criticize his supposedly monastic and society-denying “option” and downplay his very uncomfortable assessment of the need for that option. This review does the opposite.
Thank you, Thomas Ascik! It is interesting to see how many conservatives agree with me that we’re in some sort of civilizational crisis, but who resist the idea that we have to do anything different in response to it.
Though Mr. Dreher says that Christian politics has failed, he does not argue—contrary to what several of his critics claim—that Christians should completely withdraw from politics. Instead, he proposes “anti-political politics.” By this, he means, first, that because society is post-Christian, political and social opportunities are somewhat limited. Second, since culture is part of politics, the concentration by Christians should be on opportunities to affect local culture first. Following the example and testimony of the Czech dissidents under communism, whom Mr. Dreher cites repeatedly in the book, a “parallel polis” at the local level should be erected, a small counter-cultural community (with Tocqueville as additional inspiration, of course) where social bonds and solidarity can be created, fostered, and maintained—a decisive turning away from the centralized forces of media, government, and corporations.
In perhaps his most challenging chapter and the chapter that almost all reviewers have avoided talking about, Mr. Dreher points out that since Christianity is incarnational—that is, embodied—it has everything to do with the body, which means it has everything to do with sex. The Christian faith is lived every day by men and women—“male and female He created them”—in complementarity. Jesus took on a human body and came to redeem our bodies as well as our souls. The way we treat our bodies is our response to Jesus’ embodiment. Sexual practices are “central,” to Christian life and “the linchpin” of Christian culture, Mr. Dreher contends. The predominant reason people abandon Christianity has to do with Christian sexual morality rather than theology.
The “body,” both for individuals and for the social body, is now in advanced crisis in this country. Homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and transgenderism are fundamental aspects of the body and what it means—if anything—to say that we are bodily creatures. Although he asserts at one point that “future historians” may find it hard to understand “how the sexual desires of only three to four percent of the population became the fulcrum on which an entire worldview was dislodged and overturned,” at another point he answers the question on his own. Americans accepted gay marriage so quickly based on “what they had already come to believe about the meaning of heterosexual sex and marriage.”
Mr. Dreher is hard on pastors. He says that “far too many pastors are afraid to talk about sex” with the consequence that “the church has allowed the culture to catechize its youth.” He cites a Southern Baptist who remembers that he never heard a sermon while growing up about sexual complementarity or “why my body is a good thing.” Mr. Dreher cites his own twenty-year experience as a Catholic and Orthodox that he has “yet to hear a sermon explaining in any depth what Christianity teaches about the human person and about the rightly ordered use of sex.” The experience of this reviewer in the Catholic Church is the same, and this reviewer wagers that it is the same for almost every reader of this essay. Without the positive evangelizing of the theological meaning and destiny of the human body, the challenging and elevated purpose of chastity, and the noble unifying of male and female in marriage, the Christian churches are left with a bunch of off-putting sexual “thou-shalt-not’s” (when they even say that).
Reviewers also ignore Chapter 3, which is all about the monks of Norcia, and why (and how) lay Christians can adapt some of their practices to strengthen our own spiritual lives outside the monastery.
Here is an excellent review written by Trappist Father Edmund Waldstein. It’s a highly personal reflection by a young Austrian priest-monk. Here’s how it begins:
One of the great sorrows that I encounter as a priest is the sorrow of parents whose children have abandoned the Faith. Their sorrow can be more bitter even than the sorrows of those parents who suffer the fata aspera of having to bury their children. To have given the gift of life, only to see that gift taken too soon, and to be able to give only the “unavailing gift” of funeral flowers, is a bitter fate indeed. But for those who have come to believe that true life is the eternal life of Christ, it is still more bitter to have brought a child to the waters of Baptism, hoping for that child to receive a share in the inheritance of infinite bliss, only to see that child trade the infinite good for the vain pomps of this world. If it were not for the hope of future repentance, this would be almost too much to bear. And yet, it is a sorrow that Christian parents have had to bear at all times. Children of believing parents have been abandoning the narrow way that leads to eternal life since the Church began. But the great falling away from the faith in Austria in the past five or six decades or so have given so many parents that sorrow. It is of course difficult to tell whether that is because hypermodern culture has actually led more children astray, or whether it has simply made straying more obvious— previous generations of worldly children were perhaps better at pretending to their parents that they were still in a state of grace. When I tell such parents that I come from a family of eight children they often ask me whether all of my brothers and sisters are still practicing Catholics. And when I answer affirmatively they invariably ask: “How did your parents do it?”
That question occurred to me again as I read Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option. Dreher’s book is largely about the question of how parents can so live their lives that they can communicate the joy of life in Christ to their children. How can they avoid the pressures of a secular culture that seems ever more successful at drawing souls away? Dreher’s book made me reflect on my own experience, and so this review will have a somewhat autobiographical character. Readers who find such an intrusion of the autobiographical boastful or self-absorbed need read no further; they are unlikely to like Dreher’s book either, since he too illustrates his arguments from his own experience. My intention is not to hold up my own upbringing and family as an exemplar of perfection, nor to suggest that parents must do something similar to my parents if their children are to keep the faith— there are contrary examples— but simply to give an illustration of one possible answer to the question of how parents can help their children keep the Faith.
He then has a long theological and biographical digression, one that I found absorbing. And Father Waldstein can be a bit critical of the Ben Op, though mostly he’s favorable to it. I won’t try to sum up his comments, but I strongly encourage you to read them. He concludes:
Ian Ker is right that our time is the age of the ecclesial movements with their optimistic dynamism in engaging contemporary society. But it is also a time of revival of the ideals of monasticism. Ideals of stability, and rich liturgical tradition, and uncompromising contempt for the vanity and pomps of this passing world. And Rod Dreher is right that elements of those ideals can be realized outside the monastery in the life of Christian families. “The Benedict Option” will not ensure that children keep the faith— the mystery of iniquity and the mystery of grace cannot be controlled by any strategy— but if my upbringing can be called “Benedict Option,” then I do think that it can be a help.
In a comment on a review of The Benedict Option, Maclin Horton, once a co-editor of the now defunct Catholic counter-cultural magazine Caelum et Terra (and the subject of a profile in Dreher’s Crunchy Cons) wrote as follows:
… this discussion was being held twenty-five years ago in the pages of the magazine Caelum et Terra and other places. We must withdraw–but we must remain connected. We must turn off the TV–but we mustn’t turn our backs on the culture. We must form communities–but we mustn’t isolate ourselves. We must be critical of technology–but we should use it when appropriate. We must find ways of educating our children apart from the proselytizing secularism of the state school systems–but we must not be overprotective. Etc etc etc. All these things have actually been going on in places like Steubenville, Ohio. The children of those talkers and experimenters are grown now, and the results have been mixed. Those having this conversation with such fervor now seem to be younger, and I wonder whether most of you can quite grasp how bitterly sad it is to see a young man named John Paul or a young woman named Kateri denouncing Christian “homophobia” and “transphobia” on Facebook…
I don’t deny that the results of the attempt to achieve the balance of which Horton speaks in my own upbringing are mixed— as helpful grumblers are always reminding me. But at least this much is true: my parents have been spared the bitter sadness of seeing me and my brothers and sisters fall away from the Faith. Words fail me when I try to express how grateful I myself am for having received that gift and not (as yet) lost it: I have found in it the pearl of great price and the treasure buried in the field.
The US Census Bureau has a new report on young adulthood in America (PDF), and how it has changed since 1975. This finding jumped out at me:
Stunning. Less than half of Americans aged 18-34 say marriage and family are part of being an adult. All the other factors have to do with achieving personal autonomy. To be an adult, then, is to be free to exercise one’s will independently of obligations to others, including spouse and children. To choose spouse and children — formerly the most distinctive marks of adulthood — is now considered ancillary to adulthood by most American adults.
This is not a culture that cares to reproduce itself. It is a culture that lives in the everlasting present. The most important thing that every generation must do is produce the next generation. Not everyone is called to marriage and family life, of course, but most people have to understand themselves as so called, or we die off. We have created a society in which people have forgotten that lesson.
This didn’t start yesterday. In his 1947 classic Family And Civilization, Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman examined the changing role of the family throughout history, going back to antiquity. He wrote, of the US in the postwar era:
Parents must now try to rear a family under a social and legal system adjusted to those couples who do not want the paraphernalia of familism — common income, expenses, children, union for perpetuity, or serious familistic obligations. In our modern Western society the forgotten person is the man or woman who honestly and sincerely wants to be a parent. This affects our whole social system; it affects all the practicalities of life, from renting a house to economic advancement under our different forms of bureaucracy. If there are children, renting a house is difficult, changing jobs is difficult, social activities are difficult. In the words of Bacon, to have children is to give “hostages to fortune,” and one is no longer a free bargaining agent.
Zimmerman says further:
When the United States has exhausted the surplus population of the French-Canadians and the Mexicans — almost the only fertile peoples of the Western world now available to us — we too will begin the grand finale of the crisis.
This was written in 1947. In the 1960s, Quebec went through the “Quiet Revolution,” which took it from having the highest birthrate in Canada to the lowest. Today, the birthrate in Quebec is once again the highest in Canada … but still well below the replacement rate.
Mexico’s fertility rate began to collapse around 1970s. Today it is slightly above the US rate, and just at replacement rate. But it is expected to decline further.
There is little left now within the family or the moral code to hold this family together. Mankind has consumed not only the crop, but the seed for the next planting as well. Whatever may be our Pollyanna inclination, this fact cannot be avoided. Under any assumptions, the implications will be far reaching for the future not only of the family but of our civilization as well. The question is no longer a moral one; it is social. It is no longer familistic; it is cultural. The very continuation of our culture seems to be inextricably associated with this nihilism in family behavior.
Zimmerman was a social scientist. He was not a religious man. His study found the same cause in the fall of the Greek empire and the Roman empire in the West: decay of the family system, and all that followed it. Zimmerman said that there is no such thing as cultural determinism; that we have it within our power to avoid the fates of ancient Greece and Rome. But will we? Zimmerman:
The only thing that seems certain is that we are again in one of those periods of family decay in which civilization is suffering internally from the lack of a basic belief in the forces which make it work. The problem has existed before. The basic nature of this illness has been diagnosed before. After some centuries, the necessary remedy has been applied. What will be done now is a matter of conjecture. We may do a better job than was done before; we may do a worse one.
Again, he wrote in 1947; from the point of view of 2016, his question has been answered in the negative.
Zimmerman said that with the exception of the Christian churches — which he said was unpopular in his day (1947!) — there are no forces in the West fighting back against the decay of the family structure. Today, in 2016, can we say that the churches are still in the fight? I don’t think so — and if they are, they are a puny counterforce to the overwhelming atomism and self-centeredness of popular culture.
There’s something else, too. Mary Eberstadt has a theory that as goes the family, so goes religion, because the family is the strongest agent of transmission of religious belief. Indeed, sociologist Christian Smith has found that the strongest predictor of whether or not a child will still be religious in adulthood is whether or not his parents were religiously observant. If the family continues to atomize, to break apart, it stands to reason that religious belief will continue to decline.
The statistics with which I opened this post — the fact that most young adult Americans see marriage and family as incidental to adulthood — is a sign. It’s a big sign. A lot of Christians want to dismiss The Benedict Option as alarmism. Sorry, but these folks are Zimmerman’s Pollyannas. If it’s not too late to stop our fate, then people had better speak up, and speak up with enough volume to overcome the din of popular culture. If it’s not too late to stop our fate, then Christians had better prepare themselves, their families, and their communities for a future that Zimmerman, drawing on the post-imperial Roman example, says will be tumultuous and unpleasant:
Over a period of two centuries, this confused picture rectified itself; but Western society was not very orderly or peaceful for several centuries more.
Zimmerman — again, not a religious believer — said that historically, the morals and influence of the Christian church in the West restored society after its Roman collapse. Today, that influence is the only thing that gives us long-term hope for the future. But if the Church is going to be around in that far-off time to give hope to refugees floating atop the waves of liquid modernity, we Christians have to act now to prepare for the Dark Age upon us.
UPDATE: Corporate America, popular culture:
Well, after a dismal afternoon of sleeping, trying to keep the flu at bay, I happened upon this piece of unalloyed joy: Daniel Mendelsohn’s account of teaching The Odyssey to his octogenarian father. The old man, who has since died, was a cranky retired mathematician. His son is a scholar and teacher at Bard College. Mendelsohn père asked to join his son’s class one semester back in 2011. Here’s how it went:
It was at this point that my father raised his head and said, “Hero? I don’t think he’s a hero at all.”
He pronounced the word “hero” with slight distaste, turning the “e” into an extended aih sound: haihro. He did this with other words—“beer,” for instance. I remember him telling my brothers and me, after his father died, that he hadn’t been able to look into the open casket, because the morticians had rouged his father’s cheeks. Then he said, “When I die, I want you to burn me, and then I want you boys to go to a bar and have a round of baihrs and make a toast to me, and that’s it.”
When we’d first talked about the possibility of his sitting in on the course, he’d promised me that he wasn’t going to talk in class. Now he was talking. “I’ll tell you what I think is interesting,” he said.
Nineteen heads swivelled in his direction. I stared at him.
He sat there with his hand in the air. A curious effect of his being in the room with these young people was that now, for the first time, he suddenly looked very old to me, smaller than I remembered him being.
“O.K.,” I said. “What do you think is so interesting? Why isn’t he a hero?”
“Am I the only one,” he said, looking around at the students, as if for support, “who’s bothered by the fact that Odysseus is alone when the poem begins?”
“What do you mean, ‘alone’?” I couldn’t see where he was going with this.
“Well,” he said, “he went off twenty years earlier to fight in the Trojan War, right? And he was presumably the leader of his kingdom’s forces?”
“Yes,” I said. “In the second book of the Iliad, there’s a list of all the Greek forces that went to fight at Troy. It says that Odysseus sailed with a contingent of twelve ships.”
My father’s voice was loud with triumph. “Right! That’s hundreds of men. So my question is, what happened to the twelve ships and their crews? Why is he the only person coming home alive?”
After a moment or two, I said, “Well, some died in the war, and, if you read the proem carefully, you’ll recall that others died ‘through their own recklessness.’ As we go through the poem, we’ll actually get to the incidents during which his men perished, different groups at different times. And then you’ll tell me whether you think it was through their own recklessness.”
I looked around the room encouragingly, but my father made a face—as if he could have done better than Odysseus, could have brought the twelve ships and their crews home safely.
“So you admit that he lost all his men?”
“Yep,” I said, a little defiantly. I felt like I was eleven years old again and Odysseus was a naughty schoolmate whom I’d decided I was going to stand by even if it meant being punished along with him.
Now my father looked around the table. “What kind of leader loses all his men? You call that a hero?”
The students laughed. Then, as if fearful that they’d overstepped some boundary, they peered down the length of the seminar table at me, as if to see how I’d react. Since I wanted to show them I was a good sport, I smiled broadly. But what I was thinking was, This is going to be a nightmare.
After the class ends, the two end up going on a ten-day Mediterranean cruise meant to retrace Odysseus’s journey. I won’t quote from any of that tale, because I don’t want to spoil one bit of it. Read the whole thing. Please, do. Trust me.
Mendelsohn fils is an acclaimed translator of the poetry of C.F. Cavafy, an Alexandrian Greek poet of the early 20th century. Here is Mendelsohn’s translation of Cavafy’s best known poem, “Ithaca” (which, as readers of the Odyssey will know, is the home to which the epic’s hero spends ten years trying to reach):
As you set out on the way to Ithaca
hope that the road is a long one,
filled with adventures, filled with understanding.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
Poseidon in his anger: do not fear them,
you’ll never come across them on your way
as long as your mind stays aloft, and a choice
emotion touches your spirit and your body.
The Laestrygonians and the Cyclopes,
savage Poseidon; you’ll not encounter them
unless you carry them within your soul,
unless your soul sets them up before you.
Hope that the road is a long one.
Many may the summer mornings be
when—with what pleasure, with what joy—
you first put in to harbors new to your eyes;
may you stop at Phoenician trading posts
and there acquire fine goods:
mother-of-pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
and heady perfumes of every kind:
as many heady perfumes as you can.
To many Egyptian cities may you go
so you may learn, and go on learning, from their sages.
Always keep Ithaca in your mind;
to reach her is your destiny.
But do not rush your journey in the least.
Better that it last for many years;
that you drop anchor at the island an old man,
rich with all you’ve gotten on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to make you rich.
Ithaca gave to you the beautiful journey;
without her you’d not have set upon the road.
But she has nothing left to give you any more.
And if you find her poor, Ithaca did not deceive you.
As wise as you’ll have become, with so much experience,
you’ll have understood, by then, what these Ithacas mean.
As I read him, the poet is saying that the journey itself is more important than the destination. That is a cliche, of course, but I think Cavafy is saying more than that. He is saying that all of life is a journey towards some kind of home — that the yearning for home is what propels us through life. Could home (“home”) be a kind of Eden, a utopia that we can never reach, but the longing for which inspires our many adventures?
There’s a difference between someone who seeks home, and someone who is merely moving around from place to place, looking for excitement and pleasure. The first is a pilgrim; the second is a tourist. A pilgrim has somewhere to get to, and that gives weight and meaning to his journey. Dante’s journey through the afterlife in the Commedia would have been meaningless had he not been going somewhere.
Come to think of it, there’s a great canto of Purgatorio, the 28th, in which the pilgrim Dante has entered into the Garden of Eden. He meets there a woman named Matelda, who tells him:
Perhaps those poets of long ago who sang
the Age of Gold, its pristine happiness,
were dreaming on Parnassus of this place.
The root of mankind’s tree was guiltless here;
here, in an endless Spring, was every fruit,
such is the nectar praised by all these poets.”
Back in 2014, I wrote of this passage on this blog:
The lady suggests that the ancient poets’ longing for a Golden Age is, in fact, an expression of the ancestral memory of Eden, of our race’s first home. All the poetry that speaks of Arcadia comes from the collective memory of the Paradise we once shared. Ovid and all the classical poets were not entirely deceived, though their moral imagination was fallen. Still, they captured in their art glimmerings of the real world beyond our own. Here in Eden, the dreams of the poets are made innocent again, and fulfilled. Dante’s mental images of the natural world and how to read it are being restored.
You’ll remember the prophetic dream Dante had in his last night sleeping on the holy mountain. Matelda appeared to him as Leah, the first wife of Jacob. She was fertile, and loved the active life. But she was not the woman Jacob most desired. That was Rachel, the contemplative (but barren) sister, who became Jacob’s second wife after seven more years of service to their father, Laban. In the Purgatorio, Matelda represents the active life of the soul. If Matelda is Leah, then who is Rachel, the contemplative life of the soul? We will soon find out.
I continued with this update:
Still reflecting on this canto this morning, and using it to make sense of some things I’ve been struggling with. It’s made me realize that I had certain expectations about coming back to my hometown, expectations in part predicated on homecoming stories celebrated by our culture — in particular, the story of the Prodigal Son. These stories did not prepare me for what actually happened. In fact, the Prodigal Son story was particularly misleading. A friend points out this morning that the Prodigal Son story is explicitly a story about the Kingdom of God, not a story about this world. It’s the way this world ought to be, not the way things (usually) are. The stories — the parables — the Jesus told are images of Paradise; we are meant to use them as icons to redeem our own imagination.
If the fallen world has corrupted our own imagination, as Matelda indicates, then isn’t it the case that the incorrupt world can at times cause us to read the world falsely, through our hopes? Matelda speaks of the longing of the poets for a Golden Age as being an ancestral memory of Eden — that is, a lost world that can never be fully regained in mortality. I’m thinking that my own nostalgic bent, and my deep and abiding longing for Home, comes from this. Reading and thinking about Canto 28, I’m thinking about how I need to recalibrate my own inner vision. The point is not to become cynical, but rather to educate one’s hope, tempering it with a sense of what is possible in this fallen world, versus what is only really achievable in heaven. To be sure, we can, through grace and by conforming our wills to Christ’s, incarnate heaven in our own hearts and lives to a certain degree; that’s what Dante’s entire pilgrimage is about.
But we will not fully realize the Kingdom of Heaven in this life, and we must be careful about how we allow the images and stories we admit into our imagination to frame our expectations. As I wrote the other day, on Canto XXVII, realizing earlier in my life that I had accepted a false icon of womanhood, La Belle Dame Sans Merci, and turning away from it, was instrumental in the purgation of false images from my own moral imagination, and the purification of my heart. It seems to me that the purification of images is not only about casting out false images and replacing them with true ones, but also to regard the true ones rightly. With regard to the Church, and with regard to matters of family and homecoming, I have been guilty of what Flannery O’Connor warned about: “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.”
Later, as you know, I wrote a book about how going with Dante on his pilgrimage helped me make sense of the arduous pilgrimage I was making at the time through my own troubled heart, and in my life with my father after I returned home. Reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s lovely recollection of the voyage he took with his elderly father brings all this to mind tonight. My own Ithaca did not really exist, not as I imagined, though I didn’t know that until I reached it. I learned through bitter (but redemptive) experience what that Ithaca really meant.
Much of my own writing has been driven by a desire to find my way Home. I had thought, somehow, that this was a geographical place, or an emotional place — a place of harmony and rest. When I arrived at my actual birthplace, it was not what I thought it was, not at all. And as I discovered, it never would be. But see, this was a purgation, a painful but necessary liberation from the idolization of Home. I came to perceive that both my father and I had been captive to the beautiful but false idea that we can create a permanent home for ourselves on this earth.
For him, I believe it was a bulwark against death. Though he would never have articulated it this way, I believe he thought — no, didn’t think, but rather felt in his bones — that if he built a well-ordered life for himself on this piece of Louisiana ground, that death could not touch him. This is why he made idols of Family and Place, and demanded that they be things that they could not be. He was forever finding fault with the family, and with people in this place; they never lived up to his high expectations. Then fate dealt him a terrible blow: his beloved daughter, the one who shared his vision of the world, the one who had stayed home, and done all the right things, was struck down by terminal cancer. She died, while the son who did not share his worldview, and who did all the wrong things (mostly, leaving home), not only lived, but prospered.
When I came home, he was grateful, but also frustrated by me. I would not be who he wanted me to be, and he could not think of that as anything other than a failure of love. It must be admitted, though, that I suffered from a version of the same malady. I believed — no, I felt in my bones — that something was wrong with me because I did not harmonize with Family and Place, as defined by my father. The pain of that disjuncture — between the real and the ideal, and between each other — was a fracture that could not heal.
When my father died in 2015, he passed at home, surrounded by family, with me holding one of his hands and my mother holding the other. I recently published here the epilogue to the story I told in How Dante, about how Daddy and I reached a place of peace with each other before his passing. For me, it was only possible to get there once I gave up the idea of Ithaca as a place that exists in this world. I have an earthly home, but Home is paradise, in eternity — and that is the true Ithaca. For me, this was hard-won wisdom. St. Benedict has no use for monks who flit from monastery to monastery; his rule of stability requires his monks to make their earthly homes permanently in one monastery. He does this so they will not be distracted by the empty search for an earthly paradise, but so they can be freed to make their way towards heaven.
It’s a paradox, I guess: the only way we can fully inhabit this world is by recognizing that we are only passing through here on our way to the real and only Ithaca. The deep tragedy of my family is that mistaking our own rural Louisiana Ithaca for Paradise made the fracture irreversible, and we thereby lost it all.
One more thing, about how the search for Home inspires creativity. Here’s a clip from an older post of mine, in which I discovered that the real home I was searching for was not my father’s hearth, but the orchard cabin of my great-great aunts (the sisters of my great-grandmother):
Three years ago, a visit to the Morris Arboretum in Philadelphia provoked a powerful emotional response from me, related to my childhood with the old aunts and their house and orchard, for reasons I didn’t fully understand until I wrote about it on my old Beliefnet blog, and two commenters observed that for me, the old aunts’ house and orchard was a “sacred grove.” That’s exactly what it was; earlier, I had described the ruin of the sacred grove in this old Beliefnet post.
Reading “A Worn Path” as myth makes me think about the personal myth I live with, related to the old aunts. What they revealed to me was an imaginative world that became the basis for my own dreams, hopes, aspirations, and delight. I well remember walking with Loisie through her orchard, her bony, birdlike hand, roped with thick blue veins, gripping her bamboo cane as she taught me about japonicas and chestnuts and King Alfreds and all the other plants in her orchard. I didn’t love the flowers and nuts as much as I loved the words for them — loved saying the words, loved turning them over in my mind. And inside the cabin, reading their books and magazines and newspapers, I learned words like “Kissinger” and “Moscow,” words that had a magical effect on me. These weren’t words and concepts that were part of our daily life in the country, except at Lois and Hilda’s place. I wanted to know more. And they taught me so much about the world, especially France, where they had lived as young women during the Great War, and I received all this eating pecan cookies and cupcakes that Loisie made for us kids. Sometimes I helped her cook, and it was so comforting to little me, sitting in my old aunt’s lap, stirring the batter in her FireKing mixing bowl.
I don’t think it’s too much to say that in that sacred grove was born my vocation as a writer.
Every writer dreams of what he would do with the money should his book become a big success, as unlikely as that is. When I’ve thought about what I would do should The Little Way of Ruthie Leming (in which I write about Lois and Hilda and their influence on me, but also how they didn’t connect in the same way with Ruthie) become a success, I’ve imagined building a certain kind of house, and situating it in a certain kind of garden, and filling it with books and art objects and maps, and the smell of delicious things cooking. I’ve thought about this a lot. What I’m doing, I realize, is imagining that I can recreate the Sacred Grove, and live, in some sense, that myth, that dwelling in blessedness, in Arcadia. The aunts were bound by their age, infirmity, and relative poverty to that house and that orchard, but they were the quite possibly the most free people I’ve ever known. Any beauty I’ve been able to conjure as a writer comes from this personal myth. I cannot imagine how much poorer my life would be without it. I owe those old women everything.
Here’s the cabin:
And here are Aunt Hilda and Aunt Lois, holding me in the yard outside their cabin, circa 1968:
That cabin, and that entire world, has disappeared.
Bill O’Reilly has been forced out of his position as a prime-time host on Fox News, the company said on Wednesday, after the disclosure of multiple settlements involving sexual harassment allegations against him. His ouster brings an abrupt and embarrassing end to his two-decade reign as one of the most popular and influential commentators in television.
“After a thorough and careful review of the allegations, the company and Bill O’Reilly have agreed that Bill O’Reilly will not be returning to the Fox News Channel,” 21st Century Fox, Fox News’s parent company, said in a statement.
Mr. O’Reilly’s departure comes two and a half weeks after an investigation by The New York Times revealed how Fox News and 21st Century Fox had repeatedly stood by Mr. O’Reilly even as sexual harassment allegations piled up against him. The Times found that the company and Mr. O’Reilly reached settlements with five women who had complained about sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior by him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.
I think O’Reilly deserved this, though I’m sorry to see it. Deserved it, because sexual harassment is a big deal. The record O’Reilly has established on that front demonstrated abuse of power. It is always good to see the powerful held to account for their behavior. O’Reilly treated some women like dirt. And lest you think that it was just an older guy being a little too aggressive in an office culture run by feminazis, read this.
I am sorry to see it, because it’s sad to see O’Reilly end his extraordinary career on such a shameful note. Love him or hate him, what Bill O’Reilly accomplished at Fox over the last two decades is one of the more remarkable feats in broadcasting. Lots of cable hosts have come and gone, but O’Reilly has stayed on top. And at his best, he was brilliant at puncturing p.c. pomposity.
But he and he alone is the cause of his own ignominious defeat. No man is above the moral law.
I see that Tucker Carlson’s show will be moving to O’Reilly’s slot. Good.
I discovered the fundamentalist Christian website Pulpit & Pen a year or two ago, when they were hating on Karen Swallow Prior for failing to meet its high standards. They are an excitable lot, the P&P writers. One of them who participated in the attack on KSP later repented, and resigned from P&P, saying:
Unless you’ve been living under a social media rock the last week or so, you’ve no doubt been made aware of the conflict between Pulpit & Pen and Dr. Karen Swallow Prior. As of the time of this publishing, a resolution seems nowhere in sight and the entire ordeal has served nothing more than to fracture the body of Christ greatly. Regretfully, I had a hand in promulgating this conflict by taking part in a podcast at Pulpit & Pen without having researched the facts myself first.
To be clear, I disagree with Dr. Prior’s approach to evangelism in some areas. However, I was out of line to opine the way I did before making myself one-hundred percent clear on the facts of the situation. For that error, I publicly repent and apologize to Dr. Prior and ask her forgiveness for the uncharitable treatment she received from me personally and the ramifications that may have stemmed from my public comments.
He later added:
In the time that has passed since publishing this public apology, as I have grown in my sanctification and reflected on my actions as part of the Pulpit & Pen blog, it has become apparent that I must more clearly and vociferously renounce any association with or subtle endorsement of Pulpit & Pen. I can no longer in good Christian conscience recommend including that ministry to fellow believers. While many of the issues P&P raises are valid, many others are not; and even more attack the brethren unnecessarily and often in unfounded ways. I pray that our Savior may open the eyes of those contributing to come to repentance as He so graciously did for me.
If you take from these statements the idea that P&P writers shoot their mouths off maliciously without knowing what they’re talking about, you’d be correct. Today, the website turns its Eye of Sauron on Orthodox Christianity, which it describes as a “cult.” Jeff Maples of the site went to Hank Hanegraaf’s new Greek Orthodox parish looking for abomination. Lo and behold, he found a-plenty. Excerpts:
Saturday, April 15, known as Holy Saturday in the Orthodox tradition, I along with a couple of friends went to visit St. Nektarios Greek Orthodox Church in Charlotte, NC–the church that Hanegraaff was recently chrismated in. The service began at 11:30 pm, and was still going strong showing no signs of slowing down when we decided to leave at around 2:00 am. While we hoped to have the opportunity to confront Hanegraaff in person, being that we all had to get up early the next morning to worship the living God on Easter morning, we decided to call it a night early.
These knotheads didn’t even realize that they were at the Paschal liturgy. What lovely Christian men, though, to have gone to the holiest church service of the year with the intention of getting up in the face of a new convert. The report is actually pretty funny, if you see it in a certain light, because it reveals profound ignorance. I would not expect a fundamentalist Christian to agree with Orthodox theology and worship, but this is beyond absurd:
1.) I have sat through many Catholic masses. I was married in a Catholic church, and I can definitely say I’ve “been there done that.” But I’ve never sat through anything so long and tedious as the Greek Orthodox mass. Perhaps being a special Saturday night “resurrection service,” this wasn’t the norm, but it was excruciatingly long. 2 1/2 hours in and no sign of slowing down.
2.) The cliche, “bells and smells” is actually a true reality. The burning of incense and ringing of bells was a noxious combination. It reminded me of being in a college dorm smoking weed and blowing the smoke through toilet paper rolls stuffed with dryer sheets.
3.) The liturgy was vain and repetitious. Literally, the same ritualistic prayers and chanting were sung over and over. Every prayer included an invocation of Mary and the Saints.
4.) While there was actually quite a bit of Scripture reading, there was absolutely no teaching. In fact, the vast majority of Scripture reading was sung in the eerie Byzantine chant. You’d really have to pay attention and try to listen really hard to even understand what they were reading or reciting.
5.) The facility was adorned, literally, wall to wall, floor to ceiling in graven images of the saints. The images were painted in such a way that the expressions on their faces were devoid of any emotion. They looked like lifeless figures just floating around in space.
6.) The enthusiasm of the clergy and participants in the service was extremely low. Those participating in the rituals walked around with lifeless expressions on their faces. The entire ritual was empty and dead.
7.) There is obviously little to no pursuit of holiness in this church. Several times during the service, the ushers and deacons could be seen stepping out to take smoke breaks. Many of the women and even some of the younger girls were dressed less than modestly.
8.) Repeatedly, the chanting and liturgy included a summons to God to perform certain acts. It was clear that they believe that God works through and is dependent upon these rituals to activate the work of the Holy Spirit.
9.) The Greek and Eastern Orthodox church is clearly a lifeless church. There was absolutely no gospel in this service. A lost person could not walk into this church and walk out a changed man. It was literally a Pagan practice. Like a seance. Pure witchcraft was going on in this place. In this religion, salvation doesn’t come through Christ’s imputed righteousness and substitutionary atonement on the cross, it comes through these dead rituals that they believe ontologically changes them into divine beings. It was truly one of the most wicked experiences I’ve ever seen.
Pure witchcraft! More:
This is what Hank Hanegraaff has apostatized to. He knows the Bible, he has taught it his entire life. He now rejects it. The bible clearly teaches against the wickedness and error found within the manmade traditions and doctrines of demons in the Orthodox church. It would have been easy for one to let their guard down and become entranced by the production. While in the West it is likely less common for practitioners of the religion to take it that seriously, it’s easy to see how those who do take it seriously could achieve an altered state of mind which would in effect by a spiritual experience for those truly seeking it. After my experience at this church, not only do I fully stand by what I have written, but it is even more clear now that this religion is not of God and should be avoided.
A Catholic reader who sent the link to me writes:
I am reminded of the community in the early stages of Babette’s Feast, trying so, so hard to hate the glories they were tasting.
True. Again, I would not expect a fundamentalist to cotton to Orthodox worship, but this poor knothead did not even understand what he was observing. If you’re going to criticize a thing, you should at least trouble yourself to understand what it is you’re criticizing. The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which Jeff Maples observed, is a highly complex liturgy of ancient origin, having been perfected at the Hagia Sophia in the late fifth century. You can read the text of the liturgy here, but it is impossible to attend a single liturgy and understand everything that is going on unless someone is there to explain it to you. This liturgy has been the standard worship service for Orthodox churches the world over for 1,500 years. Orthodoxy is the second-largest Christian body in the world, behind Roman Catholicism. Yet a young American fundamentalist attends a single Orthodox service, and confidently declares that Orthodox Christianity is a cult, and its worship service is “witchcraft”.
Let me say it again for the sake of clarity: I have no particular problem with Christians who examine what the Orthodox Church teaches, and who conclude that it is wrong. But this Jeff Maples piece sounds like it was written by the equivalent of a rusticated banjo picker who wanders into a performance of Aïda and storms out fuming that that ain’t real music.
Being old doesn’t make a thing correct, but it’s worth considering that Orthodox Christians were worshiping God using that liturgy when Jeff Maples’s and my ancestors in northern Europe were still worshiping trees.