Rod Dreher

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The Great Book That Saved Your Life

Detail from a 1486 edition of Boethius' 'The Consolation of Philosophy' (POP/Flickr)

A reader writes:

I just wanted to take a moment to congratulate you on the publication of ‘How Dante Can Save Your Life’.  The book does indeed look beautiful.  And I will be ordering it for the store I work at as soon as possible.  And I will be reading it and hopefully reviewing it for my poetry blog.

I have felt a special connection with your posts about the healing power of Dante.  I had a similar experience, but with another one of the great classics, “The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius.  It was over 12 years ago now.  I was diagnosed with skin cancer and scheduled for surgery.  The surgery was more extensive than one might think upon hearing the diagnosis and a hospital stay was required.  As I was leaving my house I had a small collection of things to take with me.  I suddenly realized I hadn’t put any books into the small piece of luggage.  I was feeling very anxious.  I looked at my books in my room and none of them really spoke to me and to my situation.  And then I saw on the shelf the ‘Consolation’.  I grabbed it and put it in with my other things.

It turned out to be perfect.  It really spoke to me in my condition.  Not that I was in prison, or that I was about to be executed.  Those were Boethius’ specifics.  But the book spoke about mortality, and how life inevitably has its ups and downs, how little we actually control, and how a kind of peace comes with acceptance.  To this day I am so grateful for Boethius and his ‘Consolation’.  I have recommended this book to quite a few people in the ensuing years and every one of them has found the book rewarding and helpful in a time of need.

Like Dante, Boethius was Christian and Catholic (in the Catholic Church he is a Saint; his feast day is October 23rd).  The ‘Consolation’ is less overtly Catholic than the Divine Comedy.  But the world view is tangibly the same; that there is a transcendental reality and that it is there that one finds meaning, and consolation, in life.

There is another way that the ‘Consolation’ resembles Dante and that is that a large portion of the ‘Consolation’ is in poetry.  The book alternates between prose sections and sections written in verse.  The edition I took with me to the hospital was a Loeb Classical Library edition that had the original Latin facing the English translation.  This allowed me to read the poetry sections as poetry which, I feel, deepened the experience.

I have had no recurrence of my diagnosis for which I am very grateful.  But at a deeper level I am grateful that someone like Boethius can speak to me across the centuries, one human being to another, offering solace and comfort.

That’s so great. It reminds me of Gary Saul Morson’s recent Commentary essay about Anna Karenina. Excerpt:

In his daily work, Levin comes to appreciate the importance of the ordinary and prosaic. If one lives rightly moment by moment, and trusts that daily practice has its own wisdom, then the questions troubling Levin are not exactly answered, but they disappear. When Levin recognizes these Tolstoyan truths, he is overcome with joy:

I was looking for miracles, regretting that I had not seen a miracle that might convince me. But here is a miracle, the sole miracle possible, existing continuously, surrounding me on all sides, and I didn’t notice it!…I have discovered nothing. I have only recognized what I already knew….I have been freed from falsity, I have found the Master.

In his time, Tolstoy was known as a nyetovshcik—one who says no (nyet) to what almost all educated people believed. If anything, his views are even more at odds with educated opinion today. In this novel’s rejection of romantic love, in its challenge to the inauthentic ways intellectuals think, in its trust in practice over theory, and above all, in its defense of the prosaic virtues exhibited by Dolly—in all these ways, Anna Karenina challenges us today with ever-increasing urgency.

Morson’s essay about the “moral urgency” of the Tolstoy novel makes it clear how a book like that could save one’s life. (It also makes me want to return to Anna Karenina.) If Francesca da Rimini, the damned adulteress of Dante’s Commedia, had had been able to read Tolstoy instead of the story of Lancelot and Guinevere, her life and fate might have been different.

So, question to you: was there ever a single book, other than the Bible, the Koran, or a holy book, that saved your life, in the sense that it brought you back to reality, or kept you from making a serious mistake? If so, what was the book, and how did it work for you?

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‘Where I Might Be Wrong on Gay Marriage’

Detail from a 1486 edition of Boethius' 'The Consolation of Philosophy' (POP/Flickr)
Detail from a 1486 edition of Boethius' 'The Consolation of Philosophy' (POP/Flickr)

You think there’s nothing new to be said about same-sex marriage, and you’re mostly right, but the editors at the conservative online magazine The Federalist have come up with something worth reading. Half of them are for gay marriage, the other half against, and they’ve asked contributors on both sides of the issue which aspect of your own position on the issue gives you the most pause. The results are pretty interesting.

Mollie Hemingway, who opposes SSM but believes, libertarianishly, that the government should get out of regulating marriage, says that the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes that “getting the government out of marriage” will make a bad situation worse. Heather Wilhelm, who also wants to get the government out of marriage, similarly fears that the government taking a hands-off position, while satisfying to libertarians like her, avoids more difficult issues, such as protecting the liberties of dissenters.

Jody Bottum, a conservative Catholic who caused a huge blow-up when he endorsed SSM a couple of years ago, says what keeps him up at night is fear that the theocon pessimists were right about what’s going to happen to religious freedom under the new order. It’s already happening, he points out, and he hopes that this trend is stopped before it goes too far. Excerpt:

I suffered in my profession for supporting same-sex marriage. Not much, in truth, but a little, and having already been through all that, why would I change my position now? Still if the day comes that no one is allowed to speak or write against same-sex marriage and homosexual behavior—if the day comes when, across the nation, people lose their jobs, lose their businesses, lose their voices—then I pray to God I will have the strength to join the other side.

Eric Teetsel, who heads up the traditionalist Manhattan Declaration organization, shares my concern as a marriage trad: that our position is unfair to same-sex couples who ought to be able to expect some kind of help from the government in forming stable households. But my position for years now has been that some form of civil union should be permitted under law for exactly that reason, but it has been clear since California provided civil unions but got sued anyway that civil unions would never be accepted because they would be seen as separate but equal. So I’m not really troubled by this today, though I was a decade ago, when I was trying to decide if a marriage trad could in good conscience support civil unions.

Ben Domenech, who is an Evangelical Christian and a libertarian who supports SSM, says that his greatest concern, like Bottum’s, is that now that SSM is about to become the law of the land everywhere — as he believes it should be — precious few people will care about religious liberty. Domenech writes:

From the perspective of the secular Left, the fight over gay marriage in our political scene was merely a prelude to what they truly want to achieve: the destruction of all family units and the elimination of publicly practiced religion. No families and no God but only the state. All the while, they have dismissed the concerns of religious Americans as absurd. As Ayn Rand wrote, “The uncontested absurdities of today are the accepted slogans of tomorrow. They come to be accepted by degrees, by dint of constant pressure on one side and constant retreat on the other — until one day when they are suddenly declared to be the country’s official ideology.” Refusal to honor that ideology by religious Americans creates an inevitable clash in the courts and the culture, and libertarians must be prepared to defend the liberty of religious citizens just as they stood with gay citizens.

Read the entire symposium.

On this comment thread, I would like you readers to do the same thing that the Federalist writers have done: think about which part, or parts, of your position on SSM gives you the most pause, and articulate them.

It’s hard for me to figure out how to answer this, because I’ve become such a fatalist on the issue. For at least seven years, I have been saying that SSM was going to become the law, and it was going to become the law not so much because the media, academic, legal, and corporate elites wanted it to — though they certainly do — but because it makes perfect sense to ordinary Americans, given what we have come to think about the meaning of sex and marriage. My only hope for these years is that religious liberty means enough to the courts — because in the end, they are the only institutions that matter to this question — to carve out a place respecting the religious liberty of the dissenting minority.

I have not been hopeful about that, in part because I am a natural pessimist, but mostly because I have spent most of my professional life around people who cannot imagine why anybody would have a problem with same-sex marriage, except that they are the kind of hateful bigots who deserve to be driven to the margins of public life, and who are owed no consideration at all. I expect the worst, and expect this issue to eviscerate churches in ways that most church leaders don’t anticipate.

So how would I answer the question? At one point, I might have answered that by saying that I don’t give enough consideration to the possibility that maybe gay marriage will come to pass and things won’t fall apart. There too, though, I have come to terms with it. People who say, “Look, Massachusetts has had gay marriage for a decade, and things are rolling along just fine there, so what’s your problem?” — they’re not really interested in the real issue here. What conservative with more than two brain cells to rub together thought that as soon as SSM became legal, Massachusetts or any other state would go off the deep end? Not me.

SSM matters not because of simple cause-and-effect, but because it is a Rubicon of principle. It decouples marriage from its traditional meaning, or to be precise, it ratifies in law a decoupling that had been underway for decades. And it is about to be constitutionalized by the Supreme Court. Once marriage is commonly seen as solely a contractual, expressive social phenomenon — as it already is by most people, whether they realize it or not — then things begin to fall apart, as they have been for the poor and working classes for some time now.

If we did not have gay marriage anywhere, and it was on nobody’s radar, we would still be in just as much trouble now with marriage stability. But the principles we have accepted as applied to straights, but that make gay marriage conceivable and justifiable morally and legally, will prove over time to have been disastrous, I think. I lay out that case more or less here. 

We will see. I’m not worried that I might be wrong on this, because there’s no stopping it anyway, and we won’t be able to tell for another 20 years at least. The reason my interest in the issue has been about religious liberty for so long is because I don’t believe most Americans really care about it, despite what the First Amendment says, but I’ve hoped that when the rubber hits the road, a good number of Americans will understand how much their own churches, religious schools, and institutions may be negatively affected by constitutionalizing SSM, and demand some kind of accommodation.

I’m starting to doubt that will happen. That we recently had a Catholic bishop — Bootkoski of Metuchen — throw overboard a veteran Catholic schoolteacher because of a slightly intemperate Facebook remark about homosexuality, is a terrible sign. Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia has been terrific on the religious liberty issue, and has been for a long time. But I sense that the social pressure from lay Catholics on the bishops to conform to the Zeitgeist will be overwhelming. Many will resist it; many will not. This is what I mean by it eviscerating the churches. What we are about to see, I fear, is that a shocking number of American Christians don’t even believe in the religious liberty of their own churches, because they have bought into the narrative that to find homosexuality to be morally problematic is the same thing as being a racist. This is what happens when churches and Christian parents abdicate catechizing their children to popular culture.

I hope I’m wrong.

But look, I’ve digressed plenty on this question. I simply don’t know how to answer it for myself. If my position on SSM had a ghost of a chance of succeeding, I would know how to answer the question. But that ship has sailed.

How do you answer it for yourself? What is it about your position on same-sex marriage that bothers you the most?

UPDATE: I’ve re-thought about this to frame it in a way that makes more sense in fidelity to The Federalist’s question: What aspect about my position on religious liberty vis-à-vis gay marriage gives me the most pause? 

That’s easy to answer: that it would leave gays and lesbians subject to being unfairly fired or thrown out of their housing simply for being homosexual. I think our best hope as a pluralist democracy is to adopt something like Utah’s anti-discrimination statute, which gives protections both to LGBTs and to religious institutions. But that still doesn’t say what businesses can or can’t do, as far as I know.

I understand why a Christian wedding cake baker may believe that she cannot in good conscience make a cake for a same-sex wedding. I think it’s perfectly fine for people who find that to be discriminatory to take their business elsewhere. Though I am a conservative Christian, in most cases I can think of, I would choose not to do business with a merchant who refused to trade with gay customers. I think the reason this doesn’t worry me so much is because I think very few businesses operate like this, or would operate like this. Do you see a bakery refusing to sell pastries to gays? I don’t.

Still, I am concerned that to protect religious liberty to the degree I would like to see it protected would require having to sign off on giving some nasty people the right to mistreat LGBTs out of sheer meanness.

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The Crazy Old Lady Who Lived in the Desert

Last night in services at our church we did the annual Lenten reading of the story of St. Mary of Egypt. I had the honor of reading aloud in the service the entire account, which was written down by St. Sophronius, the patriarch of Jerusalem, in the 630s. The death of the saint it recounts occurred in 522; the amazing story had been passed down in oral tradition within the monastery whose hieromonk, Abba Zosimas, was central to the events. The Orthodox Church reads it in services every Lent because it is a stunning testimony to the power of repentance.

Here is a link to the entire story.  It’s the tale of a monk in the early sixth century who went far out into the desert east of Jerusalem during Lent. There he found a scrawny old woman, naked, her skin almost charred-looking from the sun. The story picks up:

At length, when he was near enough to be heard, he shouted:

“Why do you run from an old man and a sinner? Slave of the True God, wait for me, whoever you are, in God’s name I tell you, for the love of God for Whose sake you are living in the desert.”

“Forgive me for God’s sake, but I cannot turn towards you and show you my face, Abba Zosimas. For I am a woman and naked as you see with the uncovered shame of my body. But if you would like to fulfil one wish of a sinful woman, throw me your cloak so that I can cover my body and can turn to you and ask for your blessing.”

Here terror seized Zosimas, for he heard that she called him by name. But he realized that she could not have done so without knowing anything of him if she had not had the power of spiritual insight.

He at once did as he was asked. He took off his old, tattered cloak and threw it to her, turning away as he did so. she picked it up and was able to cover at least a part of her body. The she turned to Zosimas and said:

“Why did you wish, Abba Zosimas, to see a sinful woman? What do you wish to hear or learn from me, you who have not shrunk from such great struggles?”

Zosimas threw himself on the ground and asked for her blessing. She likewise bowed down before him. And thus they lay on the ground prostrate asking for each other’s blessing. And one word alone could be heard from both: “Bless me!” After a long while the woman said to Zosimas:

“Abba Zosimas, it is you who must give blessing and pray. You are dignified by the order of priesthood and for may years you have been standing before the holy altar and offering the sacrifice of the Divine Mysteries.”

This flung Zosimas into even greater terror. At length with tears he said to her:

“O mother, filled with he spirit, by your mode of life it is evident that you live with God and have died to the world. The Grace granted to you is apparent — for you have called me by name and recognized that I am a priest, though you have never seen me before. Grace is recognized not by one’s orders, but by gifts of the Spirit, so give me your blessing for God’s sake, for I need your prayers.”

Then giving way before the wish of the elder the woman said:

“Blessed is God Who cares for the salvation of men and their souls.”

Zosimas answered:

“Amen.”

Abba Zosimas told her he wanted to hear the story about who she was and how she came to live in the desert. She didn’t want to tell him, but he insisted. Then:

And with these words she turned to the East, and raising her eyes to heaven and stretching out her hands, she began to pray in a whisper. One could not hear separate words, so that Zosimas could not understand anything that she said in her prayers. Meanwhile he stood, according to his own word, all in a flutter, looking at the ground without saying a word. And he swore, calling God to witness, that when at length he thought that her prayer was very long, he took his eyes off the ground and saw that she was raised bout a forearm’s distance from the ground and stood praying in the air. When he saw this, even greater terror seized him and he fell on the ground weeping and repeating may times, “Lord have mercy.”

And whilst lying prostrate on the ground he was tempted by a thought: Is it not a spirit, and perhaps her prayer is hypocrisy. But at the very same moment the woman turned round, raised the elder from the ground and said:

“Why do thought confuse you, Abba, and tempt you about me, as if I were a spirit and a dissember in prayer? Know, holy father, that I am only a sinful woman, though I am guarded by Holy baptism. And I am no spirit but earth and ashes, and flesh alone.”

And with these words she guarded herself with the sign of the Cross on her forehead, eyes, mouth and breast, saying:

“May God defend us from the evil one and from his designs, for fierce is his struggle against us.”

Hearing and seeing this, the elder fell to the ground and, embracing her feet, he said with tears:

“I beg you, by the Name of Christ our God, Who was born of a Virgin, for Whose sake you have stripped yourself, for Whose sake you have exhausted your flesh, do not hide from your slave, who you are and whence and how you came into this desert. Tell me everything so that the marvellous works of God may become known. A hidden wisdom and a secret treasure — what profit is there in them? Tell me all, I implore you. for not out of vanity or for self-display will you speak but to reveal the truth to me, an unworthy sinner. I believe in God, for whom you live and whom you serve. I believe that He led me into this desert so as to show me His ways in regard to you. It is not in our power to resist the plans of God. If it were not the will of God that you and you r life would be known, He would not have allowed be to see you and would not have strengthened me to undertake this journey, one like me who never before dared to leave his cell.”

Much more said Abba Zosimas. But the woman raised him and said:

“I am ashamed, Abba, to speak to you of my disgraceful life, forgive me for God’s sake! But as you have already seen my naked body I shall likewise lay bare before you my work, so that you may know with what shame and obscenity my soul is filled. I was not running away out of vanity, as you thought, for what have I to be proud of — I who was the chosen vessel of the devil? But when I start my story you will run from me, as from a snake, for your ears will not be able to bear the vileness of my actions. But I shall tell you all without hiding anything, only imploring you first of all to pray incessantly for me, so that I may find mercy on the day of Judgment.”

The elder wept and the woman began her story.

Read the whole thing to see how it turned out. It’s wild.  The woman is remembered today in the Church as St. Mary of Egypt. In Orthodoxy, she is commemorated during Lent as a sign of the power of repentance. Last night, as the chanters continued their prayers after I read the long story aloud in services, I thought about how Mary of Egypt is a saint for our own time, and how so many contemporary Americans — and contemporary American churches — would see this extraordinary wild desert woman as some sort of psychotic. We see her, as the early medieval church saw her, as a saint.

There is no way to domesticate Mary of Egypt’s story, no way to rationalize it or to make it palatable for middle-class Americans. She was as radical as they come. She was either a lunatic or a saint. The Gospel that changed her life was, and remains, a scandal. The determination you make after reading her story says as much about you as it does about her.

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The Most Beautiful Book in the World

The front endpaper of 'How Dante Can Save Your Life'

I know some of you are tired of reading me talking about Dante. Well, I’m sorry, but just this moment I received a delivery of the printed version of my new book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and I have to celebrate here on this blog, where the book was born.

What you see above is the front endpaper of the book — that is, what you see when you first open the book. And this, below, is the back endpaper:

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Here is Your Working Boy in the driveway, having torn it from the envelope and pretty much had a fit over how beautiful this thing is:

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This really is one of the most beautiful books I have ever seen — and these images are only part of what’s inside. The intensity of the colors, the quality of the images, are breathtaking. My agent, who received his copy yesterday, put it best: “It’s like holding the Frick Museum in your hands.” It seems cosmically unjust that something this beautiful should have my name on it, but here we are.

See, this is what happens when your publisher is Judith Regan, who put everything she had into making the book package beautiful. This is what happens when the parent company of your publisher is Phaidon, the art book people. This is what happens when designers as gifted as Richard Ljoenes (exterior) and Daniel Lagin (interior) bless a writer with their extraordinary talents.

If you find what’s between the covers beautiful, most of the credit goes to Alexis Gargagliano, my editor, who worked as hard as I did to refine the sprawling mess of a manuscript, and did so under tremendous deadline pressure. With luck, the pressure will have made this book a diamond. I don’t know how the interior can live up to the exterior, but if you buy this book, even if you don’t like the words, you will have purchased a thing of great beauty.

Pre-order it now, and this Frick Museum will be in your hands on or just after April 14, when it publishes. On April 14, I will be signing books at the Barnes & Noble Citiplace in Baton Rouge. On April 16, I will be giving a Dante talk and signing books at Eastern University in suburban Philly (the talk is free and open to the public; register here to ensure a seat). Off to Baltimore the next day to speak to a class at Loyola University there (hey students, your school and I are giving you each a copy). I’ll be in South Bend, Indiana, the following week — venue for the talk to be determined later — then, on April 21, in Houston, at Houston Baptist University; Dr. Louis Markos, a Dante scholar whose work I drew on as I was writing my book, has kindly agreed to let me share the platform with him that night for a Dante discussion that’s free and open to the public (information on that here).

I’m off then to Boston College a couple of days later, for an event at Boston College on Thursday April 23 (free and open to the public, but reservations are requested). On April 29, I’ll see you in Dallas at the Barnes & Noble by Northpark, and all TAC donors who come to a special reception with me and the editors of the magazine (tickets and information here) will receive their own signed copy.

More details on all appearances that will be open to the public will be forthcoming. Watch this space.

There are other appearances in the works for the book, including this summer’s CiRCE Institute conference in Charleston. I’ll be there talking Dante, and I hope to see you too. If you would like me to come this summer or fall to talk to your school, church, or group about how Dante can save your life, e-mail me at rod (at) amconmag (dot) com.

OK, one more, then I’ll stop. Judith Regan is amazing.

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Why People Are Afraid of Dante?

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When I was writing How Dante Can Save Your Life, one of the books I drew on was Prue Shaw’s excellent, highly accessible book Reading Dante: From Here to Eternity. Shaw is a Dante scholar, but her book address the lay reader. If you read my book and find yourself captivated by Dante, Shaw’s book, now out in paperback, is a great companion for the reader who wants to know more.

The podcaster Gil Roth has a new episode up featuring a long interview with Shaw, recorded in her Cambridge, England, home. I could listen to her talk all day. You can skip the introductory first six minutes of the podcast without losing anything. But you won’t want to miss the rest of it.

At the outset, Roth tells Shaw that he had stayed away from the Commedia for many years because of its “monumental” quality. But once he started it, Roth read right through, surprised by how well the story flowed once he crossed the threshold. I’m really glad to hear him say this. I think that is a very common experience. I had never seriously considered reading the Commedia, for just that reason. It seemed so, well, monumental, and therefore inaccessible. I considered it the Mount Everest of Great Books. Like Roth, I was surprised by how easy it was.

Wait, “easy” is not the right word, because it’s an extraordinarily complex poem. But it’s not complex in the way that Modernist verse is complex. For example, I have never closely read Eliot’s Four Quartets, because those poems have always struck me as a puzzle to be solved. I suppose I will get to them one day. Dante’s verse, though, while amazingly deep and intricate, is also highly accessible, simply as storytelling. With each successive reading, especially if you have a good guide (like Shaw, or Herzman & Cook), the layers and layers of meaning reveal themselves to you.

It must be said — and Shaw confirms this — that Paradiso, the third and last book of the Commedia, is by far the most difficult, because the most intellectual and abstract. But its language is the most beautiful, and I find that it is becoming my favorite. My book focuses almost exclusively on Inferno and Purgatorio, because that is where I found Dante to be the most helpful to me, and where I think most people will as well.

Shaw tells Roth that she wrote her book after several highly educated literary friends said they couldn’t imagine why anybody would read Dante. One of them, a famous poet, hated Dante, believing him (quite wrongly!) to be spiteful and vindictive. Shaw and Roth talk about why modern people might feel that way, and he suggests that the religiosity of the Commedia might have something to do with it. Shaw concedes that that is probably true, because there’s no getting around the fact that this is a very Christian, and Catholic Christian, poem. Says Shaw:

“I think that shouldn’t be a barrier because the appeal of the work in terms of humanity, of human issues … these are issues that are of interest to everybody, and the fact that it is built into a medieval Catholic worldview doesn’t mean it’s not interesting, in fact it makes it more interesting, because you can see the perennial questions that human beings have been engaged with [appearing in a work written] 700 years ago. It’s just the same.”

Yes! Exactly! That was one of the most surprising things to me about the Commedia: how relevant it is to life today. It’s why it reached me so deeply, and why I wrote a book about it — to show others how this miraculous poem can reach them wherever they are. I suppose this is a naive thing to say: that Great Books remain Great because they address the human condition, across cultures and eras. When my son and I studied the Odyssey, I found the same thing, to my surprise and delight. The Commedia, probably because it occurs within a Christian worldview, not a pagan Greek one, was much more relevant to me, and I think will be even to non-Christians, given that we are all heirs intellectually and culturally to Christian civilization.

Roth, who is Jewish, says to Shaw that he suspects the well-known focus in the Commedia on sin is another turn-off for contemporary readers. She agrees, saying that it says something about our world today that the strongest term of disapprobation people can stand is “inappropriate.” I wish she had spoken a bit more about this with Roth. In How Dante, I talk about the way Dante’s discussion of sin — as disordered love — is so much richer than the way I had been used to thinking about sin, and helped me to reset my own mental categories for evaluating my behavior. From my book:

The wild beasts symbolize sin. Let’s dwell on that word for a moment: sin. The novelist Francis Spufford says that nowadays everybody knows that “sin” refers to indulgence, or naughty pleasure, but that’s about it. For Christians, though, sin refers not to what Spufford calls “yummy transgression”—a chocolate sundae, getting drunk at a party, a roll in the hay with one’s lover—but rather, to paraphrase his pungent expression, to the human propensity to screw things up.

When you think about sin this way, you cannot help recognizing that you—yes, you—are a sinner. No matter how hard we try to do right and how sincerely we want to do good, we fail. That’s how we are. It’s like a sickness that we can’t quite shake. If you cannot admit that you too have a propensity to screw things up despite yourself, then you are probably suffering from the sin of pride.

Not long ago I was complaining to my wife about a certain man in our town who has a reputation for self-righteousness. “How can he think so highly of himself?” I said. “Is he really so blind?”

No sooner had the words left my mouth than I thought about my own high opinion of myself. I never set out to hurt anybody or to do the wrong thing. But I do. Every single day. Maybe I don’t do it as much as I used to do, but scarcely an hour goes by when I don’t pass harsh judgment on someone else, or bark at my kids for their misbehavior, or blog something clever but cruel, or miss an easy opportunity to comfort and encourage someone who is struggling and in need of healing. There are people in my town who are sick and who could use a visit from me, or at least a phone call. But I don’t go see them and I don’t call them. There is always an excuse, and sometimes they’re good excuses.

This is a failure of love on my part. It’s screwing things up. It is sin. Sure, the world is full of drug dealers and thieves and adulterers and warmongers, all of whom no doubt do more active harm than a small-town writer with a sense of humor and a potbelly and a weakness for rich food. I mean, look, I go to church regularly, I give to charity, I’m a good husband and father, and I scratch my dog under his chin when he asks. I never do anything seriously wrong in my life, right?

Wrong. That’s not good enough. I’m not responsible for the sins of the drug dealers, thieves, adulterers, and warmongers. I am responsible for myself. Every time I do the things I shouldn’t do or fail to do the things I should do, I sin. The weight of our sins can seem overwhelming, so much so that we feel trapped by them in a dark wood of our own making.

What makes it worse is the sense in contemporary culture that sin is either not real or no big deal. Unfortunately, this attitude is common in contemporary churches, many of which preach that it’s more important to affirm the faithful in their okayness than to lead them away from sin.

In light of this, and of what Shaw says in the Roth podcast, I think of how liberating reading Dante is, because he takes sin, and the ways it works its way into our characters and distorts our relationships, so liberating. Again, sin in the Commedia is very far from the didactic moralism you might be expecting. Frankly, Dante’s exploration of the myriad ways sin works itself out within the individual and in society is subversive of the Sunday-school simplicity many of us carry in our heads. And this is a good thing!

Another crucial aspect of the Commedia that Shaw identifies in the podcast: that Dante’s “breadth of vision” pushes out any “rabid theological self-righteousness” from the work. Yes, Dante’s theological and moral convictions mean that some of those he meets will be punished in Hell, others will be working out their salvation in Purgatory, and others will be in Paradise. What’s so interesting about the work is that Dante the poet is so generous to some of the damned, painting them sometimes as noble, even tragic figures. And he puts some of his earthly enemies in Paradise. He is, says Shaw, “much angrier at those who are within the Christian system” and abuse it than he is with righteous people who are not Christians. In the end, Shaw says, Dante admits (when considering the eternal fates of men who live and die in India without ever having heard of Christ) that there are some mysteries of divine justice that we humans cannot fathom. God will know His own, even if we mortals, with our limited vision, cannot see them.

One more comment about the Shaw interview. She says that we should be careful not to put an analytical barrier between the reader and the experience of reading the Commedia. First timers shouldn’t approach it as a literary artifact to be worshiped and deciphered, but as a story, an amazing story, about a man who died and came back to life. She says that the epitaph on Immanuel Kant’s grave is a perfect summary of the meaning of the Commedia:

“Two things fill the heart with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the starry skies above, the moral law within.”

 

Click here to listen to Gil Roth’s podcast interview with Prue Shaw.

Click here to pre-order How Dante Can Save Your Lifewhich will be in your hands in less than three weeks. I’d love it if you would order Prue Shaw’s book too — but read mine first!

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Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown

That’s a tweet from a conference of the National Union of Students, in the UK. Question for academics who read this blog: is this insanity general in university culture, or is it just something limited to Anglo-American academia? I find this fascinating, in a train-wreck sort of way. It’s like these women (and their male fellow travelers) are always on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Sooner or later, ordinary sane people are going to get fed up with it, and push back, and these people are going to collapse and retire to the fainting couch, and everybody else can get on with the business of education.

If this kind of thing is not global, only Anglo-American, why would that be? Serious question.

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Come to TAC’s Dallas Party

AmCon+invite

The American Ideas Institute Board of Directors invites you to join us for a private evening reception on Thursday, April 30, in support of The American Conservative magazine, website, and programs.

Rod Dreher will discuss his forthcoming book, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and editors Daniel McCarthy, Maisie Allison, Jonathan Coppage, Benjamin Schwarz, and Daniel Larison will be present to answer questions and meet our guests. The reception will be hosted by our Board Chairman in Dallas.

Attendance is free for members of The American Conservative’s Publisher’s Club. Publisher’s Club members are encouraged to join us early at 6 p.m.

Members of the American Ideas Institute (including all current subscribers to the print edition of The American Conservative) may purchase reception tickets for $200. Go here to become a member of the American Ideas Institute.

All others may purchase tickets for $250.

Donations to the American Ideas Institute are tax-deductible, and proceeds from this event will support the work of The American Conservative. Guests will receive a free signed copy of Rod’s book How Dante Can Save Your Life: The Life-Changing Wisdom of History’s Greatest Poem.

We hope you will join us on April 30 for this special event! Please contact Maisie Allison at mallison (at) theamericanconservative.com if you have questions.

Click here to make your reservation, folks. I hope you will come. You know that when you get Larison and me in the same room with a bottle of Scotch and a piano, we’re all about singing Randy Newman classics in all eight Orthodox tones.

One of these days, we will have Uncle Chuckie materialize at one of these things, and it’ll be the best party since Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball.

 

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View From Your Table

Starhill, Louisiana

Starhill, Louisiana

Yes, that is exactly what you think it is. My neighbor loves him some pig.

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The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to P.C. Babymaking

It is almost impossible to be completely morally consistent. Life is messy; we all make compromises and rationalize them. Most of us, I think, manage to be aware of the tension between our ideals and our behavior, and at least make an attempt to reconcile them, or acknowledge the gap.

And then there are mindless partisans like the the ladies of Cosmopolitan, above, and like the angry libertine feminist Amanda Marcotte, the Cosmo reader’s idea of a Diana Trilling, who is OUTRAGED at a legislator who wants to equip poor, sexually active women with state-sponsored contraception.

But wait, don’t many progressives want this? Well, yeah, but this legislator is a Republican, and wants to equip the poor with contraception for the wrong reason. Excerpt from Marcotte’s commentary:

Free contraception programs are a great idea. Free contraception programs that offer access to IUDs and hormonal implants—which are long-acting and highly effective, but carry upfront costs—are an especially great idea. A program offering free IUDs in Colorado helped lead to a 40 percent drop in the teen pregnancy rate in a mere four years. The St. Louis Contraceptive Choice Project showed that IUDs and implants can be wildly popular with young women.

There are IUD programs that respect women’s intelligence. And then there are IUD programs like the one proposed by Arkansas state representative Kim Hammer, who has introduced a bill that would offer free IUDs—but only to single mothers on Medicaid.

More:

But Hammer’s little stunt, with its troubling whiff of eugenics, could cast a pall over more legitimate efforts to make contraception more accessible and affordable for all women.

The reader who sent this item in says:

See how that works? For years, conservatives complain about the size of government and how culture is driving up costs, like you know, out of wedlock births and taking care of those kids and blah blah blah.

So progressives say, “Well, gee, if you were REALLY interested in saving money, you’d support aggressive provision of long-term birth control for poor women.”

So this politician does just that. He says yeah, right on progressives, let’s give these poor single moms birth control so we don’t have to take care of their kids.

And wham! Not good enough! Whiff of eugenics!

The only approved comment is, “I actively affirm your decision to have sex with whomever you want to have sex with, and I dutifully offer to to pay whatever it costs for you to do so without any ramifications as they relate to procreation.”

Yeah. Whiff of eugenics is right.

What would it mean to have a government-funded IUD program that “respected women’s intelligence”? How would that work? Do they get a free subscription to the New York Review of Books with their new IUD?

Let it be noted that a couple of weeks ago, Marcotte blasted conservative lawmakers for all the money unintended pregnancy and childbearing costs the taxpayer. Excerpt:

Pregnancy-related medical care isn’t cheap. Total government expenditures on unintended pregnancy in 2010 totaled $21 billion, or approximately $336 for every woman age 15-44 in the country. That’s an important number to keep in mind when you hear Republicans touting their willingness to slash family planning funding or even just denying that there’s a need to make contraception more affordable: For less than what we spend on the costs of unintended pregnancy, we could make sure every woman who wants reliable contraception can get it. In fact, as Guttmacher notes, “In the absence of the current U.S. publicly funded family planning effort, the public costs of unintended pregnancies in 2010 might have been 75% higher.”

The recent report from the Brookings Institution shows that women who make a middle-class or higher income have exponentially lower unintended childbirth rates than women living in poverty, in no small part because middle-class women use contraception and even abortion more, as needed, to time their pregnancies. This is disturbing on just a human rights level, because it suggests that lower-income women would like to be able to control their own fertility more but simply can’t because they don’t have the same access to contraception and abortion as middle-class women do. But if you aren’t moved by the human cost of an inadequate reproductive health care system for low-income women, perhaps looking at the price tag will do it.

How, exactly, is what the Arkansas Republican legislator proposes different from what Marcotte wants to see happen? She says poor women having babies they don’t want to have are costing taxpayers plenty, and says that if the humanitarian plight of these women doesn’t move you to support providing them with free birth control, the cost to taxpayers should.

So an Arkansas Republican agrees with her, and files a bill to do just that. But now he’s a villain. That Marcotte minx needs to acquaint herself with proper theology and geometry.

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St. Julian the Apostate

Painting by Geertgen Tot Sint Jans (15th c.) depicts legend of Julian the Apostate ordering the destruction of St. John the Baptist's tomb (Jean-Louis Mazieres/Flickr)
Painting by Geertgen Tot Sint Jans (15th c.) depicts legend of Julian the Apostate ordering the destruction of St. John the Baptist's tomb (Jean-Louis Mazieres/Flickr)

Did you know that the theologian David Bentley Hart once published a collection of short stories? I did not, until I read this fascinating reflection on one of them by Joshua Gibbs on the classical education site Circe.org. Here is how the Gibbs piece begins:

Your numbers are dwindling. Your side is losing. Your way of life is passing from this Earth. In bygone eras, your people transmitted your ideals from one generation to the next with ease. Now, you plant a teaching in the heart of your children, and all the world conspires to strip it out before it can take root. The gravity of this world now inclines away from you. When you set the things you love on the ground, they roll away from you like marbles in an uneven house. When you become tired in the evening and your eyelids lower, contrary forces rise to undo all you have accomplished in the day.  Your constant worry is how to conserve the good things your people struggled for centuries to obtain, how to keep the gold that flowed toward your kind (mankind, really) in those sane years when your star was on the ascent. Now, that star has begun a scythe-like sweep toward the horizon and you fear that, when it passes from the heavens, it may pass forever. The conundrum is how to spend these years— these years when there is but a little light left, a little beauty, a few statues which remain unsmashed, a few drops of perfume to drive the stench of death and vulgarity away.

Oh, perhaps these words ring quite true to any reader who even sporadically dabbles in the news, but I wasn’t speaking on behalf of contemporary Christians. In truth, I was trying to give voice to the interior worries of Julian the Apostate, that great failed reformer and pagan conservative of 4th century Rome.

Gibbs — and Hart — compare Julian to a 21st century Christian in the West. In the Hart story, though, the emperor is contrasted with a priest of Apollo, a dignified man who keeps the faith with as much honor and dedication as he can muster, even if few others care. More:

As Christianity in the 21st century West goes the way of paganism in 4th century Europe, how will her adherents spend those last few decades of light and warmth? Will we defend our God after Julian’s fashion or after the manner of the priest?

Classical educators have a lot riding on these questions. We have all seen schools (or teachers, or parents, or administers) which trade primarily in images of keeping heads above water. The world is going mad, and we must save it! If we can graduate so many persons from our schools every year, and those graduates are good and fecund rabbits, within three generations we will have so many voters who… How can we regain the cultural upper hand? For others, the loss of the world is a foregone conclusion, and the last 1700 years of human history have been nothing more than a happy, but unexpected and unsustainable holiday from a slowly burgeoning conflagration lit by Diocletian.

Hart’s priest is uninterested in saving the City of Man because his god dwells within. Man is a microcosm, a little universe, and to save one soul (even if it is your own) is to save the world entire. Hart’s priest saves the world, perhaps, the way ten righteous men in Sodom might have saved the entire city. It is not the influence of the priest over the world which saves it, but simply his being in the world, whether recognized by other men or not.

Read the whole thing. The point of it is to explore the question of whether or not to approach the decline of Christianity as a culture warrior or a culture pacifist. If we are bound to go down, should we go down fighting a war we are highly unlikely to win, or go down with our heads held high, our swords still sheathed?

This, by the way, is the moral dilemma at the heart of the great 1980s film The Mission. The mission is going to be destroyed by the state and its people enslaved. Do they fight to the last man, though their cause is hopeless, or do they embrace their martyrdom? Which is the more authentically Christian act? I have always felt strongly that the fighter, played by Robert De Niro, has the better case, but my conscience has never been settled on that. There are no easy answers.

Gibbs’s point in his piece is to say that classical Christian educators who approach their vocation with the idea of raising up culture warriors are going about it wrong. If people do not want your God, no amount of fighting (figuratively) is going to change their minds. There are more effective forms of witness, though you must be prepared to accept the idea that defeat can also be a way of testifying to the Truth.

Many will see this as defeatist; others will see it as realistic. It gives me something to think about as I try to put meat on the bones of the Benedict Option idea. It has never been my belief that the Benedict Option is about raising up a generation of culture warriors, but rather about training ourselves, our children, and our communities in how to live out the faith so that we can hold it and pass it on through a time and a culture that is hostile to Christianity. To develop an angry, fearful siege mentality — to behave like Julian the Apostate, basically — would be to hollow the faith out from within. And yet, to accept defeat passively seems all wrong as well, given the stakes: it is one thing to lose the culture, but quite another to lose the souls of our children and our descendants.

The Benedict Option is meant to be a different strategy. It’s meant to be about how to live faithfully in Babylon, and pass the faith on to our children, and to anyone who wants to join the community of believers. That is the aim. Perhaps the Anonymous Priest of Apollo model is depressing because we know that his mission is hopeless, and we don’t want ours to be, and it really can’t be, not if our God (unlike his) is real. We Christians are told that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church.

But we are not promised that the gates of Hades shall not prevail against the Church in all places and all times. Our defeat in the West, if that is what the spreading apostasy means, does not mean the light goes out for the whole world. But we are men and women of the West, and we have children; we cannot be indifferent to the spreading darkness. As with Julian the Apostate, much depends on how we react to the signs of the times.

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