Rod Dreher

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Alms for a Priest’s Family

Father Matthew Baker
Father Matthew Baker

Horrible news:

A 37-year-old Greek Orthodox priest died in a crash on Route 2 in Norwich on Sunday afternoon, according to state police.

Police said Matthew Baker, of Danielson, was driving a 2002 Dodge Caravan west on Route 2 just prior to 4 p.m. Sunday when he lost control. He was thrown from the van when it crossed into the snow-covered median and rolled several times before stopping on the east side of the highway.

The family was on their way home from pan-Orthodox vespers. Miraculously, the children and their mother survived (the priest’s wife was at home, I have since learned). But they had to see their husband and father killed.

Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick mourns the loss of his friend:

Like Florovsky, Fr. Matthew engaged the world in terms that it would understand, whether it was in philosophy, theology, history, politics, science or even popular culture. He never was content to remain in the ghetto of the safe list of books everyone is “supposed” to read in the Orthodox Church—though of course he had read them all, including the ones everyone says that they should read but don’t. Like Florovsky, he was actually engaging with philosophy and theology and issues that are the major concerns of the modern world but in many ways have still only just begun to be noticed by Orthodox cultures as they awake from their centuries-long slumber.

Hearing of his death is shocking, and it made me angry at the loss not just to his family and to his friends, but to Orthodoxy. We needed someone like him, someone who helped us all to see that Orthodoxy is alive and faithful in its tradition, not just as a crystallized set of “answers” to questions that were asked long ago, but still creative, still able to say new things even while being wholly faithful to the old things. Even in the midst of the darkness that seems to become more present in our culture every day, I always knew when I talked with Fr. Matthew that we did not have to abandon the world.

 Hierodeacon Herman Majkrzak writes of the death of his best friend:

The life of Fr. Matthew Baker is a triumph of Orthodoxy.

It is easy to doubt God’s Providence in taking away a young priest, newly installed in his first parish, a husband, and a father of seven (his youngest, Alexis, so recently taken from his mother and father in stillbirth).

It is tempting to question God’s Providence in taking from the Church one of the most brilliant theological minds of the twenty-first century at a time when the Church is very much in need of sound and sober, yet penetrating, teaching, in both the academic and the pastoral spheres.

It is, for me personally, difficult to see the hand of God’s Providence in taking from me my best and most intimate friend, the man who taught me what true friendship means by pouring himself out year after year after year in boundless dedication to every aspect of my spiritual well-being and human flourishing.

Yes, in all of this we are reminded – harshly – that God’s Providence is a mystery that cannot be grasped by the minds of men.

And yet: Fr. Matthew was taken from this life on the Sunday of the Triumph of Orthodoxy. And because of this seemingly small detail, there can be no doubt, no question, no difficulty in perceiving that God is at work here, that His Church will triumph still, that His Truth will prevail over all falsehood, darkness, distortion and exaggeration – all those evils against which Fr. Matthew fought, exhaustively, ruthlessly, and bluntly. And when Truth is triumphant, love is victorious. For Fr. Matthew love and truth were inseparable, distinguishable only in thought. “Mercy and truth are met together; righteousness and peace have kissed each other.” When truth triumphs over falsehood, there love triumphs over coldness, mercy over suffering, and light over shadow. There life triumphs over death. Orthodoxy has triumphed! And this means, as Father Matthew would teach us, that Christ – the whole Christ, the totus Christus, Head and Body, the Savior and his Bride, holy Church – Christ has triumphed. He is triumphant over death, since He is the firstborn of the dead and the author of life. And in Him, the presbyter Matthew also is triumphant.

If you are inclined to give alms this Lent, a young widow and her six fatherless children who would benefit from your charity. 

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Publishing While Others Perish

Georgetown professor Jacques Berlinerblau recently published an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, lamenting and attempting to explain why few undergrads aspire to be professors. Excerpt:

Somewhere along the way, we spiritually and emotionally disengaged from teaching and mentoring students. The decision—which certainly hasn’t ingratiated us to the job-seeking generation—has resulted in one whopper of a contradiction. While teaching undergraduates is, normally, a large part of a professor’s job, success in our field is correlated with a professor’s ability to avoid teaching undergraduates.

In a subsequent letter to the editor of the magazine, Kathryn D. Blanchard, an associate professor at a small college, gave Berlinerblau hell. Here’s a big chunk of her letter, but you really should read the whole thing:

Then Berlinerblau offers this groundbreaking idea: “I submit a re-visioning of an American college professor’s job description: The successful candidate will be skilled in, and passionately devoted to, teaching and mentoring 18- to 22-year-olds, as well as those in other age groups. Additionally, she or he will show promise as an original and creative researcher.”

This would be quite a revelation if it didn’t describe most of “us” already.According to the AAUP, more than half of college instructors are now part-time and three-quarters are non-tenure-track, a turn toward cheap labor diagnosed as “largely a matter of priorities rather than economic necessity.” But it is not teachers’ priorities that have changed. According to one study, the first love of many college teachers is still—wait for it—teaching. “We” got into academe not because we wanted to be lauded by a few intellectual snobs with obscure tastes (and certainly not because we wanted to spend our lives in governance meetings) but because we loved our undergraduate professors and wanted to be just like them for a new generation of students.

What has changed are not “our” priorities but those of the nation. Americans don’t care to help educate other people’s children anymore, conceiving education as a private good rather than a societal benefit. Institutions that don’t have a Georgetown-sized endowment, in turn, must change their priorities for “customers” who value good teaching far less than affordable, marketable credentials.

As with global recessions, the people who have made the problem in higher education are not the ones who suffer from its effects. Faculty members at well-funded schools will continue a pattern of heavy research and light teaching (to the tune of about $178,000 per year for Georgetown professors), while lower ranks at less prestigious colleges will be phased out and replaced course-by-course with starving adjuncts.

Berlinerblau’s thoughts might indeed be inspiring if, for the long-term benefit of higher education, the one-percenters in academe were to suddenly and magnanimously give up their privilege and start teaching respectable course loads for no extra pay. Until then, “they” will keep publishing and the rest of “us” will keep teaching till we perish, since our salaries won’t allow us to retire before then.

Hoo boy. This is getting really interesting.

[H/T: Leroy Huizenga]

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At Home in Dallas

Winding up our very short visit to Dallas last night, I told Julie that I realized how much I miss this place. I don’t miss the way Dallas looks: big, sprawling, concrete-y, impersonal. I guess I’m spoiled by living out in the country, but man, it looks even more jammed up with construction than ever. But boy oh boy, do I ever miss these people. We saw some old friends, and we made some new ones. The people here are the best. Seriously, I’ve never lived in a place where it was easier to make friends, and where I had so many people with whom I had a lot in common. The Covenant School, where I spent most of the day and gave a talk this evening, is a great place. We go home with such good feelings about having been here, and having invited half the city, it seems, to come down to drink beer and eat crawfish with us at Walker Percy Weekend. 

I failed to appreciate how many good things we had when we lived here. We had a great church, great food everywhere, and above all, dear friends. One of the great lessons I’ve learned of my life is that you should not be so quick to walk away from these things. We ended the evening at the Old Monk, sitting right in Tim Rogers’s booth. Gotta leave first thing this morning, but not before going by Central Market to lay in provisions.

I had an encouraging comment after last night’s Dante talk. A parent of one of the high school students whose class I spoke to yesterday about my Dante book told me that her daughter talked for an hour after school about the session (which was about the message of my book). The mom said that her daughter can be diffident about things, and a little standoffish, but after school, her daughter talked for an hour about what I had told them about Dante. Her mother said the girl put it like this: “I hardly blinked when he was talking, and I almost cried twice.” The mom thought I would like to know.

Yes, I would. This is not praise of my oratorical skills, which are middling at best. This is, I think (I hope), evidence that How Dante Can Save Your Life  really does have the power to open up the Commedia for students in a new way. I couldn’t tell anything from any of the classes; they almost all had blank expressions. But I had been warned by a couple of teachers not to assume anything from that; this is how teenagers are. The reaction to the talks will come later. What this mom told me was really, really encouraging to me about how the book will be received by an audience I particularly want to reach: students.

Anyway, back to Dallas. I was reminded on this trip of something I knew when I lived here, but had not valued as I ought to have done: the presence in this city of so many intellectually engaged Christians. It’s like this: you can drop the name “Ken Myers” in conversation around the table at a pub, and one or more people present will know who you’re talking about. That’s golden. I miss Dallas. Must make a provisioning trip to Central Market before hitting the road for home today. Can’t wait to come back. Even if we will never live here again, we belong here.

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The Accessible Dante

big dante copy

On the Oxford University Press blog, Peter Hainsworth writes:

Modern scholarship often gives the impression of being a hotbed of internal dissent, but it seems united in presuming that to understand Dante you have to know the Bible, Aristotle, the byways of Medieval thought and much more. If that’s the situation, maybe Dante really is unreadable for most people.

The opposite is true. With a modest amount of patience the busy modern reader, Italophone or not, should be able to get a long way into Dante and to enjoy him. There isn’t an end-point, any more than there is with Shakespeare. Dante presses his readers to think (and to enjoy thinking) in a way Shakespeare doesn’t, and he has some very clear ideas he wants us to accept and assimilate. But he provides fewer definitive answers to the problems he obviously raises than we might expect. That is one of the reasons for dissent among scholars, and also one of the reasons why every reader, given a certain amount of information about the context, idiom, and history, can think things through for himself or herself, and up to a point to construct his or her own Dante. And what we think about regards not just the fate of souls after death but even more human life on this earth. The idiom may be foreign, the world view long vanished, but, though Dante is not our contemporary, much of what he says about morality, politics, language and love bears in on our lives today (for instance, his insistence that organised religion and the secular state must not interfere with each other).

Read his whole (short) post. 

I have spent much of today talking about Dante to high school classes at The Covenant School in Dallas. I found myself surprisingly — what is the word? — evangelical about all this. What I mean is that I found myself sitting in front of these kids wanting so much to communicate to them how revolutionary Dante can be for them, if they give themselves over to the poem. What I ended up doing was telling my story, and showing how the dilemmas and the situations faced by the characters in the poem speak directly to things all of us deal with in our lives. The Divine Comedy gives us a framework for approaching them. Hainsworth is right: Dante is not a source of easy answers to hard questions. He makes you think, and feel, and imagine in ways that may never have occurred to you.

The thing about Dante is that he is not satisfied with comforting lies. He’s lived with those all his life, and they landed him in the dark wood. He wants the truth, no matter what it costs him. He discovers on his journey that the truth is not a proposition; the truth is a Person, is a mode of living. The truth is not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived.

We were talking about suffering in the final class of the day, and I said to these kids, some of whom have suffered terribly (e.g., one boy lost a leg to cancer), that they will not find in Dante the secret teaching that will make suffering disappear. What they will find is wisdom about how to approach suffering so that it is not only bearable, but can, through love, be transformative and redemptive. But these are truths that come hard.

I looked out and saw kids who might well be like myself at that age: skeptical of received truth. I encouraged them to be skeptical, but I warned them against the mistake I made at their age, which was to assume that the shallow, anesthetizing version of Christianity that I had encountered to that point was the entirety of Christianity. What’s more, just as it’s possible to be too accepting and too unquestioning, it is possible to be too skeptical — if the skepticism leads you to doubt that truth exists, and is knowable.

Dante is so terrific, and so trustworthy, because he is so realistic about these things. And as Hainsworth says, he is a lot more accessible than people may think. This I tried to convey to the students: that the Commedia is not just a “Great Book” to be studied in class and admired as a cultural artifact, but a doorway through which ordinary people can enter into a new life. Remember, Dante wrote for the common man, in their language. In my book, How Dante Can Save Your Life (out April 16) I hope I have told a story about how this great man of the Middle Ages saw deeper than nearly anybody who ever lived, and revealed to us the pathway to healing and restoration and harmony. It is not the path to comfort. It is not the road to a realm where pain is no more. It is a road to hope, where our suffering has meaning, and can lead to the greatest joy possible in this fallen world.

If you live in the Dallas area, I hope you’ll come hear my talk at Covenant tonight. Details here. I love talking about this stuff. I’m no scholar of Dante, but I am a witness.

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The Chaos Inside Students’ Heads

Philosopher Justin McBrayer says it’s no surprise to him that young people come to college thinking that there are no such things as moral facts, only opinions. What surprises him is where they are taught this nihilism: public schools. Excerpt:

Given the presence of moral relativism in some academic circles, some people might naturally assume that philosophers themselves are to blame. But they aren’t. There are historical examples of philosophers who endorse a kind of moral relativism, dating back at least to Protagoras who declared that “man is the measure of all things,” and several who deny that there are any moral facts whatsoever. But such creatures are rare. Besides, if students are already showing up to college with this view of morality, it’s very unlikely that it’s the result of what professional philosophers are teaching. So where is the view coming from?

A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:

Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.

Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.

This comes from Common Core standards, McBrayer says. What’s wrong with this? McBrayer goes on:

First, the definition of a fact waffles between truth and proof — two obviously different features. Things can be true even if no one can prove them. For example, it could be true that there is life elsewhere in the universe even though no one can prove it. Conversely, many of the things we once “proved” turned out to be false. For example, many people once thought that the earth was flat. It’s a mistake to confuse truth (a feature of the world) with proof (a feature of our mental lives). Furthermore, if proof is required for facts, then facts become person-relative. Something might be a fact for me if I can prove it but not a fact for you if you can’t. In that case, E=MC2 is a fact for a physicist but not for me.

But second, and worse, students are taught that claims are either facts or opinions. They are given quizzes in which they must sort claims into one camp or the other but not both. But if a fact is something that is true and an opinion is something that is believed, then many claims will obviously be both.

It’s pretty shocking to read the examples he found, and the evidence from his own child’s moral reasoning that this instruction is having a corrosive effect. McBrayer concludes:

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.

This kind of nihilism cannot work in the real world, the world that they will encounter, the philosopher says. Read the whole thing. It’s important.

I’m in Dallas today meeting with students at The Covenant School, a classical Christian academy. Last night I had dinner with some Covenant teachers, administrators, and parents. They shared with me the stark challenges of countering this kind of thinking among kids who are raised in Christian homes. The popular culture that pushes this line is so powerful.

I’m talking about Dante with the high schoolers here this morning. My thought is: thank God for classical Christian schools. They are among the countercultural institutions that we desperately need to push back, to give our kids a chance at moral sanity in a world of moral chaos. I have long believed in classical Christian schooling, but being here seeing the kind of education these kids are getting at Covenant, and reading things like Justin McBrayer’s report in The New York Times, confirms in me the urgent need to build places like this up.

By the way, if you are interested in coming out tonight to hear me talk about my book How Dante Can Save Your Life, I’ll be at The Attic room at Covenant. Info:

Monday, March 2 | 7:00 PM
The Attic | The Covenant School
7300 Valley View Lane | Dallas, Texas 75240

The lecture is free and open to the public.

UPDATE: Reader Devinicus:

A rigid differentiation between “facts” in the land of reason and “values” in the land of opinion produces the likes of the liberal philosopher Richard Rorty who dogmatically held to his opinions while simultaneously refused to offer any rational grounds for them. He believed in his values because he believed in them. Period. And by the way, he was perfectly happy to have certain people killed if they threatened his values.

As a college professor, I am constantly running into students who certainly hold many things to be moral truths. Here I think McBrayer is quite wrong. However, they have no ability to defend their beliefs in such moral truths, infected as they are by ‘fact v. opinion’ thinking. They strongly — sometimes very strongly — believe in equality or liberty or God or Nature or the social construction of gender or whatever, but can give no account of those beliefs. So they wind up believing not “moral facts” but rather holding very, very strong opinions which are immune to reasoned argument because, after all, they are opinions.

The result is not good for our society at large, either/both:

[1] a hive mentality where “we” in the group all believe the same things simply because certain beliefs stand as markers of group identity; or/and

[2] a deeply cynical mass of people highly skilled at parroting beliefs which they do not hold simply in order to join the dominant group.

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Walker Percy Weekend 2015 Is Coming

Walker-Percy_GR

Tickets are now on sale for the Walker Percy Weekend 2015, June 5-7 in St. Francisville, La. Here are the panel topics for Saturday:

Morning panels/talks:

LOSING IT AT THE MOVIES (Walker Percy and David Foster Wallace)

The late novelist David Foster Wallace once asked a very Walker Percy-like question: “Why are we – and by ‘we’ I mean people like you and me: mostly white, upper middle class or upper class, obscenely well educated, doing really interesting jobs, sitting in really expensive chairs, watching the best, you know, watching the most sophisticated electronic equipment money can buy – why do we feel so empty and unhappy?” Panelists will discuss the answers both novelists answered this question, with special focus on each writer’s insights into how modern people evade the question by immersing themselves in film and mass media.

CATHOLICS IN THE CHRIST-HAUNTED SOUTH (Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor)

Roman Catholicism — historically an outsider form of Christianity in the heavily Protestant South — informed the moral vision of Percy and Flannery O’Connor, two of the modern South’s best writers and most observant social critics. What did their Catholicism reveal to them about Southern culture? What did their Southern roots and Christian faith reveal to them about the discontents of contemporary America in an increasingly secular age?

Plus, at 11, Peter Augustine Lawler will deliver a one-hour lecture on Percy’s Lost in the Cosmos, the film Interstellar, and changing perspectives on man’s place in the universe.

Afternoon panels/talks:

MISSISSIPPI WOMAN, LOUISIANA MAN: EUDORA WELTY, WALKER PERCY, AND THE SOUTHERN IMAGINATION

Walker Percy and Eudora Welty were friends and contemporaries whose fiction was profoundly infused with a sense of Southern place. But they dwelled in their places — Jackson, Miss., and Covington, La. — very differently. Welty was thoroughly engaged in the life and community of her hometown, while Percy, though rooted in Covington, never felt quite at home anywhere. Exploring the pair’s contrasting relationship to place, and what it says about the Southern imagination. Panelists from Jackson, Mississippi, Louisiana State University, and beyond.

FROM ‘GONE WITH THE WIND’ TO GARDEN & GUN: WALKER PERCY AT THE CROSSROADS BETWEEN THE OLD SOUTH AND THE NEW

Walker Percy was raised in the last age of the aristocratic Old South culture, epitomized by his Uncle Will. He wrote in, and of, the New South — the emerging South of the middle class, commerce, and suburbia. How and why did the changes come about? And how has the South changed further since Percy’s death 25 years ago?

Just prior to the Front Porch Bourbon Tour, we’re hosting this talk:

AROUND THE TABLE, UNDER THE TABLE: ALCOHOL AND SOUTHERN WRITERS

“You see, I usually write at night,” said William Faulkner. “I always keep my whiskey within reach; so many ideas that I can’t remember in the morning pop into my head.” Alcohol — especially bourbon — has forever been a part of Southern culture, particularly Southern literary culture. Bourbon was the favored tipple of Faulkner and Percy. Considering the role of drinking in Southern fiction and culture, especially in an era of Recovery.

Of course we will be having the Bourbon Tour on Royal Street, which was a hugely popular event last year. The food this year? On Friday night, we’re having a Twilight In The Ruins cocktail party in the ruins of Afton Villa plantation (no word yet on whether we will be able to serve Ramos gin fizzes, like Dr. Tom More loves). On Saturday night, the festival will close with a crawfish boil under the live oaks (if you were there for last year’s crawfish boil from Hot Tails restaurant, you know how great this event is). Here is a photo gallery from the 2014 fest. There are other things going on too around the festival, including a tour of the River Bend Nuclear Power station (which plays a role in The Thanatos Syndrome) and Angola State Penitentiary (ditto). Plus, there are lots of plantation houses to see. And you’ll get to see some familiar, er, faces from this blog. Franklin Evans is making a return trip, as is Bernie. Leslie Fain was here last year (coming back, I hope), and others. Mary Pratt Percy Lobdell, one of Walker and Bunt’s daughters, is coming back too, and bringing friends. Here is the full schedule. 

Tickets are now on sale at WalkerPercyWeekend.org. Please keep in mind that tickets are limited. Many festivalgoers last year said that they loved how small the event was, because they felt like they got to talk to folks, and to get to know them. We agree. We want to keep this thing neighborly, and to recreate the vibe that Peter Augustine Lawler described in his review of the 2014 festival. By the way, Peter will also be anchoring the New South/Old South panel this year. Baylor’s great Ralph Wood will be the man lecturing on Flannery, Walker, Catholicism and the South. More names to be announced later.

Anyway, please keep in mind that the festival sold out weeks in advance last year, so don’t wait too long to get your tickets and to make reservations. The St. Francisville Inn is right next to the crawfish boil grounds, and the 3V Cabins are just across the street. The Shadetree and the Barrow House are both in the historic district, easy walking distance from the lectures and bourbon tour. But look, it’s a small town, so nowhere is far away.

If you weren’t here last year, here’s a little of what you missed:

walker_percy_weekend_2014_photo_gallery_+(20+of+124)

 

Front Porch Bourbon Tour

Front Porch Bourbon Tour

walker_percy_weekend_2014_photo_gallery_+(40+of+124)

Books, literary talk, Southern culture, cold beer, hot crawfish, good conversation, drinking bourbon on the front porch and in the ruins of a plantation — how can you miss this cool little festival? I hope to see you in St. Francisville in June. Thanks to The American Conservative for co-sponsoring this event again.

 

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Wonkette Hearts Jesus

Ana Marie Cox, aka Wonkette (My Music Thing/Flickr)
Ana Marie Cox, aka Wonkette (My Music Thing/Flickr)

“Holy jamoley,” writes the friend who sent me this essay, in which Ana Marie Cox, the snarktastic liberal blogger known as Wonkette, comes out publicly as a Christian. Excerpts:

The only place where my spirituality feels volatile is in my professional life; the only time I’ve ever felt uncomfortable talking about my faith is when it comes up in conversation with colleagues.

It does come up: Since leaving Washington, I have made my life over and I am happier, freer, and healthier in body and spirit and apparently it shows. When people ask me, “What changed?” or, “How did you do it?” or, sometimes, with nervous humor, “Tell me your secret!” I have a litany of concrete lifestyle changes I can give them—simply leaving Washington is near the top of the list—but the honest answer would be this: I try, every day, to give my will and my life over to God. I try to be like Christ. I get down on my knees and pray.

The last time I tried giving that answer was in the Fox News green room and it stopped conversation as surely as a fart, and generated the same kind of throat-clearing discomfort.

She says that living in the closet as a Christian might strike conservatives as evidence of “a liberal media aversion to God.” In fact, she says:

I’m not scared that non-believers will make me feel an outcast. I’m scared that Christians will.

This, because of the recent foofarah in which some prominent conservatives publicly doubted the Christian faith of the president. Cox goes on:

Here is why I believe I am a Christian: I believe I have a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior. I believe in the grace offered by the Resurrection. I believe that whatever spiritual rewards I may reap come directly from trying to live the example set by Christ. Whether or not I succeed in living up to that example is primarily between Him and me.

My understanding of Christianity is that it doesn’t require me to prove my faith to anyone on this plane of existence. It is about a direct relationship with the divine and freely offered salvation. That’s one of the reasons that when my generic “there must be something out there” gut feeling blossomed into a desire for a personal connection to that “something,” it was Christianity that I choose to explore. They’ll let anyone in.

To be clear, I don’t just believe in God. I am a Christian. Decades of mass culture New Ageism has fluffed up “belief in God” into a spiritual buffet, a holy catch-all for those who want to cover all the numbers: Pascal’s wager as a roulette wheel and not a coin toss. Me, I’m going all in with Jesus. It’s not just that the payoff could be tremendous, it already has been! The only cost is the judgment that comes from others, from telling people that my belief has a specific shape, with its own human legacy of both shame and triumph.

Here’s where her essay really connected with me:

One of the most painful and reoccurring stumbling blocks in my journey is my inability to accept that I am completely whole and loved by God without doing anything. That’s accompanied by a corresponding truth: There is nothing so great I can do to make God love me more.

Because before I found God, I had an unconsciously manufactured higher power: I spent a lifetime trying to earn extra credit from some imaginary teacher, grade-grubbing under the delusion that my continuing mistakes – missed assignments, cheating, other nameless sins – were constantly held against me.

And I knew in my heart that failure was inevitable.

I thought when I read this, You too? I say that as someone who had found God in his twenties, but who didn’t have this particular burden lifted from him until just over one year ago, thanks mostly to reading Dante. I tell this story in my forthcoming book How Dante Can Save Your Life, so I don’t want to spoil it here. In broad outline, though, even though a professed Christian, I had never really believed that God loved me, except in a dutiful way. He is God, after all, and God is love, therefore He is compelled to love me. But He is not compelled to like me very much, or to approve of me. And, as far as I was concerned, He did not. I constantly worked on making myself acceptable to Him, knowing all the time that this wasn’t going to work, but not knowing what else to do.

This wasn’t a matter of having bad theology in my head. I knew perfectly well that one could not earn salvation. It was a matter of having a broken heart. Reading Dante unmasked within me the particular quality of the brokenness, and led me to turn from it. And then a mystical event happened that cracked a heart hardened by self-loathing and unknowingly worshiping a false idol. It’s all in the book.

Anyway, read all of Cox’s essay here.  It’s important that you do, especially if you are, like me, an orthodox, traditional Christian. It shows why we should be very reluctant to proclaim someone not a real Christian.

Should we refrain from criticism of beliefs and opinions a publicly-identified Christian holds? No, not normally. Cox says in this piece that she is pro-choice. I find that position impossible to square with my understanding of what Christianity teaches about the sanctity of human life. Pagan writings from the first centuries of the Christian faith tell us that one of the distinguishing marks of the Christians were that they did not kill their babies, born and unborn. So I think Cox is wrong here, and I pray that she will come to see that she is wrong.

But do I think she’s not a true Christian? Of course I don’t think that. What right do I have to make that judgment? I think her belief about abortion is irreconcilable with true Christianity, but that’s a different claim. It is right, and often necessary, to examine our beliefs in light of what we know to be true from authoritative sources: the Bible, first of all, and for most Christians in this world, the teachings of the Church, either Roman Catholic or Orthodox. We should not assume that because we have been baptized, or have had a born-again experience, that our baptism therefore baptizes everything we believed prior to our becoming a Christian. Being a Christian requires not only conversion of the heart, but conversion of the mind.

And yet, one of the plainest lessons of the New Testament is that it is impossible to know from one’s conduct who really knows the Lord in a saving way. The Pharisees, after all, prided themselves on following the Law — yet their hearts were corrupt. It is possible, I think, to say, “This is what Christians believe,” and to judge the public statements of others, and to be prepared to have our own beliefs judged, by that objective standard.

But there are very few of us who don’t struggle with this or that doctrine, and almost none of us who put all Christian beliefs into action consistently. When I am in church, I can’t know the hearts of the people around me. I don’t know how the others have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and how they continue to sin, in thought and deed, despite themselves. I only know that they do, and that I am just like them. The only heart I know is my own, and that is the one for which I am responsible. Every Orthodox Christian publicly calls himself, with St. Paul, the “chief of sinners” before he receives communion. What this means is that as far as you know, God sees you as the worst sinner in the world. Worse than the infidels, the thieves, the drug dealers, the wife beaters, and so forth? Yes, as far as you know, because only God can see their hearts, and only God knows how responsible they truly are for the darkness they harbor there.

It’s a difficult thing, because not judging whether or not one is a Christian can easily lead to indifference to what one believes. I think Martin Luther King Jr. was a Christian, and a great one, though he was a philanderer. I think the white pastors of the South who preached segregation, or who kept silence in the face of injustice against black people, were also Christians, though their failures were acute.

I just don’t see any up side to looking at someone and saying, “She’s not a Christian, because she believes (or does not believe) X.” I would say, “That’s not a Christian belief,” or, “That belief is irreconcilable with Christianity.” I think that’s true about abortion, and I think it’s true about same-sex marriage. (It would be interesting to see how Cox’s progressive friends would treat her if her Christianity caused her to oppose either abortion or same-sex marriage.) And I think it is important to say that.

But it is also important not to say that people who believe those erroneous things lack an authentic relationship to God. How would you know, anyway? Salvation is free; sanctification — or, in Orthodox terms, theosis — is a lifelong process. We are never perfected in this life, and are always moving towards or away from full communion with God. To be a Christian is not to hold the right doctrine, though right doctrine is important. To be a Christian is not to put doctrine into practice, though right practice is important. Being a Christian isn’t a matter of picking a set of beliefs that “work” for you, and taking emotional and psychological comfort in them; rather, it’s dying to yourself, repenting constantly, opening your heart to the healing grace of God and being made into a new creature — and that is sometimes excruciating.

A Christian is one who conforms herself to Christ. I did not realize until I read Dante how much I still had to repent of — that is, what structures of sin buried deep in my own heart kept out the unmerited grace of God, and kept me mired in my own self-hatred. Was I not a Christian all those years prior to this repentance? Of course I was. But I was a flawed one. I still am. If I’m doing this right, I will be searching my heart for the rest of my life, removing everything in its depths that is not of God, and that keeps Him from shining transparently through me. This will continue up to the point of my death. As Dante shows, anybody who stops on the journey and satisfies themselves that they have done enough repenting is in danger of Hell.

So yes, I take Ana Marie Cox — and President Obama — at their word that they are Christians. But they are bad Christians, and so am I. We are all called to turn from our sins, to be more Christ-like. Being a Christian is not the same thing as being a good Democrat, or a good Republican. And — this was a hard thing for me to learn — being a good Christian is not merely a matter of holding the right doctrines in your head. You can be certain that if there’s nothing about your faith that contradicts party orthodoxy, you are not taking your faith seriously enough. We are commanded to love each other, in spite of ourselves. Sometimes that love requires telling the other, “What you believe is wrong. What you’re doing is wrong.” But we must never lose sight of the fact that people are not simply the sum total of their beliefs, and that if we dare to call someone who professes Christ “not a true Christian,” then we bring down judgment on ourselves for falling short of God’s commandments.

The Shepherd knows his own, and will know His own. Our primary task is making sure that we ourselves know Him.

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To Lyon, With An Appetite

One of the more famous bouchons of Lyon (Jacques Meynier de Malvi/Flickr)
One of the more famous bouchons of Lyon (Jacques Meynier de Malvi/Flickr)

So, my friend Sordello and I have decided to spend our post-Palio weekend in France in Lyon. Given that we arrive in France on a Friday afternoon (July 3) and leave for the US on the following Monday, it didn’t make sense to spend a lot of time trying to get somewhere. Both of us love to eat, so going to France’s second-biggest city, and its gastronomic capital, makes sense.

Really, though, Anthony Bourdain’s CNN show episode on Lyon, with Daniel Boulud, put things over the top. I’ve watched it three times on Netflix streaming. I want to go eat at a bouchon or two (or three), and I want to make a pilgrimage to Reynon the traiteur, and taste his saucisson à cuire. I think this must be the first time I’ve ever chosen a travel destination solely for the purpose of eating.

Been to Lyon? Where should we stay? Where should we eat? Talk to me.

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The Doorway Into Dante

Image by ReganArts

I just got this via e-mail from a friend who is superintendent of a Catholic school system. Because I know him and value his opinion, I had a galley copy of How Dante Can Save Your Life sent to him. I publish this with his permission:

Just wanted to touch base to say how completely engrossed I am in the book.

I think you and the editors do a really great job of straddling the line between memoir and scholarly treatise. Neither can work in and of itself. You story offers a way into the text, but it’s clear that your specific story is not the ONLY way into it. Your book, I think, offers a great way for people to see that it’s worth taking that journey with you, with Dante, with Virgil and, ultimately, with themselves.

Fantastic!

Now, I would add that I see this book as completely serendipitous. I have been talking with my teachers about introducing more of a classical model of education into our schools. It’s a huge step, and most of my teachers are not classically trained.

Just yesterday—yesterday!—a long-time English teacher told me she is going to teach the Inferno next year. She’s terrified. She hasn’t ever read it herself. But she’s really smart. So while she contemplates reading Dante, I am going to get her a copy of “How Dante” for inspiration!

I can’t tell you how encouraged I am by that letter. It tells me that How Dante has the power to do exactly what I hoped it would do: draw ordinary people — especially teachers and students — into this powerful, life-changing poem. I wrote it not only for people who know the Commedia, but also for people have no prior experience with it at all, but who are curious and would like to know more.

This is the third comment like this I’ve gotten from an educator who has read the advance copy. The previous two are going to be on the back of the hardcover when it comes out April 16:

“We will use How Dante Can Save Your Life in our classrooms because it makes the Divine Comedy live in a person –and students need to experience this. Now everyone can find in Dreher’s book the wit, wisdom, and application of the great poem to your life.” – John Mark Reynolds, provost of Houston Baptist University and author of When Athens Met Jerusalem

(John Mark founded the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, by the way).

And this:

“By weaving his own pilgrimage into Dante’s, Rod Dreher makes Dante accessible and, more important, compelling. He has assimilated what is most urgent in Dante and by grafting it to his own story he makes the ‘Divine Comedy’ passionately real. This is certainly the book for those who previously have only come across Dante as a name. Equally important, it provides fresh insights to those of us who are already hooked.” — Ronald B. Herzman, State University of New York at Geneseo and co-teacher of The Great Courses lectures on ‘The Divine Comedy’

You can pre-order How Dante here, or go to your local bookstore to do so. If you are an educator or school administrator who thinks this book might be something you would use in the classroom, please drop me a note at rod (at) amconmag.com. I have no authority to provide galley proofs (that is, the uncorrected version) on my own, but I will consult with the publisher to see if it’s feasible. I don’t handle the business end of the book either, but it’s typical for publishers to offer discounts for bulk buyers. If you like the book and think it would be helpful in opening the Divine Comedy up to teachers and students, I’ll be pleased to put you in touch with the right people at ReganArts, my publisher.

Think of the images at the top of this post as doorways into the world of Dante. That’s what I believe they are, and hope they are for many readers.

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Queering the GOP

When Bush officially launches his presidential bid later this year, he will likely do so with a campaign manager who has urged the Republican Party to adopt a pro-gay agenda; a chief strategist who signed a Supreme Court amicus brief arguing for marriage equality in California; a longtime adviser who once encouraged her minister to stick to his guns in preaching equality for same-sex couples; and a communications director who is openly gay.

To an extent that would have been unthinkable in past elections, one of the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination has stocked his inner circle with advisers who are vocal proponents of gay rights. And while the Bush camp says his platform will not be shaped by his lieutenants’ personal beliefs, many in the monied, moderate, corporate wing of the GOP — including pragmatic donors, secular politicos, and other members of the establishment — are cheering the early hires as a sign that Bush will position himself as the gay-friendly Republican in the 2016 field.

Read the whole thing. It’s pretty interesting stuff, and it ought to bring home to social conservatives how profoundly we have lost this thing. If I were Jeb Bush, and I didn’t have a strong belief one way or the other on same-sex marriage (and it appears from the piece that he’s either for it, or at most not against it), then this is exactly what I would do. It will open the wallets of the donor class, and take SSM as an issue off the table in 2016. Sure, it will tick off a substantial number of social conservatives, but they (we) are not the future. This issue has tremendous symbolic value among the middle class, where the GOP still has an image problem, as the recent Pew survey revealed. Besides, we all know that the Supreme Court is going to constitutionalize same-sex marriage later this year, so there’s a political advantage to getting on the SSM bandwagon before SCOTUS leaves socially conservative Republicans behind.

What Bush’s moves represent is the institutionalization within the Republican Party of the most radical aspect of the Sexual Revolution. I don’t think many GOP grassroots activists, especially in the churches, understand this. They will. This was inevitable, and now, it’s here. No Republican president will ever campaign on a promise to appoint Supreme Court justices who will overturn same-sex marriage. Given that it is very difficult to imagine SCOTUS revisiting abortion in our lifetime, or ruling differently on it than it did in Casey, it seems to me that socially conservative voters have to ask ourselves what, exactly, does the Republican Party offer us? I think the GOP would be much more sensitive to religious liberty concerns than the Democrats, but that is pretty thin stuff. It might be enough to justify voting Republican, but if other issues are front and center — war and peace, or economic concerns — there will be much less cause for a social conservative to vote Republican for socially conservative reasons. 

“Vote Republican: They May Be Politely Indifferent to Us, But At Least They Don’t Hate Us” is hardly a rallying cry. That logic may make the most sense, from a strictly pragmatic point of view, but most people do not vote strategically. Social conservatives, I think, are now in a worse position vis-à-vis the GOP than labor unions were to the Democrats in the Clinton era. Republican presidential candidates will still feel obliged to respect us publicly, but they will not advance our interests. The difference is, labor unions still had money to donate. There aren’t many social conservatives in the GOP donor class.

The last Bush president was (is) an Evangelical Christian who openly campaigned for social conservatism, including traditional marriage. But the late David Kuo, who was a Bush White House adviser on social policy, explained to 60 Minutes what was really going on behind the scenes:

David Kuo is an evangelical Christian and card-carrying member of the religious right, who got a job in the White House in the president’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. He thought it was a dream-come-true: a chance to work for a president whose vision about compassionate conservatism would be matched with sweeping legislation to help the poor.

But Kuo says the so-called compassion agenda has fallen short of its promise and he blames President Bush for that in his new book.

As correspondent Lesley Stahl reports, he also says the White House was a place that cynically used religion for political ends and that White House aides ridiculed the very Christian leaders who helped bring Mr. Bush to office.

In his book, Kuo wrote that White House staffers would roll their eyes at evangelicals, calling them “nuts” and “goofy.”

Asked if that was really the attitude, Kuo tells Stahl, “Oh, absolutely. You name the important Christian leader and I have heard them mocked by serious people in serious places.”

Specifically, Kuo says people in the White House political affairs office referred to Pat Robertson as “insane,” Jerry Falwell as “ridiculous,” and that James Dobson “had to be controlled.” And President Bush, he writes, talked about his compassion agenda, but never really fought for it.

“The President of the United States promised he would be the leading lobbying on behalf of the poor. What better lobbyist could anybody get?” Kuo wonders.

What happened?

“The lobbyist didn’t follow through,” he claims.

“What about 9/11?” Stahl asks. “All the priorities got turned about.”

“I was there before 9/11. I know what happened before 9/11 … The trend before 9/11 was…president makes a big announcement and nothing happens,” Kuo replies.

This is exactly what George W. Bush did on the Federal Marriage Amendment, which went nowhere. The next Bush would be an improvement only in that he would not be hypocritical about it. This is also the difference between him and any plausible GOP competitor who says things social conservatives want to hear.

Eventually orthodox Christians and other social conservatives will learn this. Clown acts like Phil Robertson growling at CPAC about hippie herpes, and how we need real Christians in the White House, are a distraction at best from political reality. This reality is something that social and religious conservatives have to come to terms with.

Forget it, orthodox Christians, it’s Chinatown.

UPDATE: Reader Devinicus writes:

Rod, I think you are confusing national politics for politics tout court. The national Republican Party is a hopeless case for social conservatives. But then again, it always has been. That doesn’t mean that state Republican Parties are as well.

My policy when it comes to elections is: always vote in local races and issues; always vote in state referenda; vote for statewide offices and state legislature as seems prudent and worthwhile; never vote for national offices. Giving money to a national candidates strikes me as among the stupidest things a person could do with their money, short of using it to buy heroin and giving that heroin to children.

Electoral politics at the highest levels of government really doesn’t matter. What matters is money and access to elites. National elites are a lost cause for social conservatives. They would do well to shore up their prospects at the state and local levels, learn how to defy the federal courts, and get to building those arks.

This is true. I was talking about presidential politics, and more broadly, politics at the national level. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

Reader Bobby, who supports SSM, writes:

So, this isn’t so much a debate about the merits os SSM as it is about the merits of social paternalism. Social traditionalists don’t simply believe in the merits of conservative social practices. They also believe in the merits of paternalistic social institutions that have the power to cudgel people to choose conservative social practices. Of course, such paternalistic social institutions only make sense if we see ourselves as participating in a common culture. And that’s where the rub lies.

What drives social conservatism is a wistful longing for the kind of common culture that we once enjoyed. Social paternalism was important then because it played an important role in mediating the relationship between individuals and that common culture. But, like it or not, the world of Jay Gatsby has won out over the world of Nick Carraway. And, like it or not, the common culture has faded, replaced by a world where paternalistic social institutions have no substantial role to play. Going forward, practicing Christianity will become more akin to practicing yoga. Christianity will certainly continue, but Christendom is all but dead.

Against this tableau, social conservatism is simply a last-gasp effort to stop the burial rite from proceeding. SSM isn’t significant because of any direct threat it poses to the social order. Rather, its significance lies in its totemic value–as the event that represents the final passing of judgment against the notion of a common culture and against the alleged need for social paternalism.

Yes, this is true, but I do not think this is the victory that Bobby believes it is. I agree. We have little or no common culture. The atomization is advanced. Alasdair MacIntyre saw this decades ago. Absorbing this lesson is critically important for the church, so Christians can learn how to be authentically Christian in a post-Christian, and increasingly anti-Christian, culture.

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