Yuval Levin, on the challenges of our time of chaos and rapid change, and the danger of false nostalgia for restoring the past:
On the cultural front, the tendency of decentralization to undermine all authoritative institutions will present more of a challenge for the right. Social conservatives are so far experiencing this transition as a loss of their dominant position in the culture. But they should see that this generally means not that their opponents are coming to dominate but that no one is. They should judge their prospects less in terms of their hold on our big institutions and more in terms of their success in forming a thriving and appealing subculture, or network of subcultures. Christianity has a great deal of experience in that difficult art, of course, but it is largely out of practice in our society.
This seems right to me. I had dinner last night with Alan Wolfe, whose new book At Home In Exile: Why Diaspora Is Good For The Jews, comes out next week. When Alan told me what the book was about, it struck me that moving into the future, orthodox Christians probably have a lot to learn from the Jewish experience of living and thriving (or failing to thrive as a religiously observant community) as a minority in an alien, even hostile, culture.
(Blogging will be light today; I’m at the airport in Boston, waiting to board a flight back south. I just overheard a conversation between Sully’s and Denise’s mothers. Sorry I’m having to leave Boston so soon, without having eaten any seafood, and without having savored any local accents.)
Last year, Charles H. Featherstone, a reader of this blog, wrote a response to an essay I published on Time’s website, about Pope Francis. In it, Charles wrote about a childhood marked by physical and emotional abuse, and how he had moved through Islam, but it took 9/11 to make him face his deep anger … and to make a Christian of him. Here is that short essay.
It turned into a book, a memoir. I read the unedited galley on the flight to Boston this morning. It started out good, and it kept getting better, and finally I couldn’t believe how good this thing was. I’m not kidding when I say this: Charles Featherstone has written an American spiritual classic. I have never read a book like this — one that’s so ragged, raw, and real. I couldn’t put it down, except that one time, when the shock of recognition was so great that I had to set the book aside and think deeply about what I had just read.
People are going to be talking about this book when it comes out. This boy, an Army brat beaten by his father, picked on and humiliated at school, penniless, ultimately a failure in the Army. He falls into Islam because he finds true brotherhood among the outcasts, because in part he identifies with their anger at society. And then, Christianity, but by no means a happy-ever-after Christianity. Charles is a rambunctious holy mess, for sure — but I can’t recall the last time I read a memoir about faith that was so vivid and challenging and alive.
When the book — My Love Is All That Matters — comes out, we will be discussing it on this blog. Not sure when that’s going to be. It’s still being edited. It’s impossible to say which book is going to become a hit or not, but if this memoir finds the audience it deserves, it will be one of the biggest religious books of the year. Seriously, I’m not just saying that. I’ll stop writing about it now, because I want to save the comments for when it’s published.
Begging your pardon, folks, but it’s been a long, wonderful day in Boston — Alan Wolfe and his staff at the Boisi Center at Boston College were great and generous hosts — and I have to catch a 6:41am flight back home tomorrow. Goodnight.
[Sheriff's investigator Major Donald] Lowe has lived in Louisa County, or pretty close to it, for most of his life. The county is spread out and rural, but it is by no means small-town innocent. People there deal drugs and get caught up with gangs, and plenty of high-school girls end up pregnant. Usually Lowe can more or less classify types in his head—which kids from which families might end up in trouble after a drunken fight in the McDonald’s parking lot. But this time the cast of characters was baffling. He knew many of the girls in the photos, knew their parents. A few were 14, from the local middle school. They came from “all across the board,” Lowe says. “Every race, religion, social, and financial status in the town. Rich, poor, everyone. That’s what was most glaring and blaring about the situation. If she was a teenager with a phone, she was on there.” He knew some of the boys who had followed the Instagram accounts, too. Among them were kids with a lot to lose, including star athletes with scholarships to first-rate colleges.
Three paragraphs in, and this is already starting to sound like The Lost Children of Rockdale County. It turns out that it was not only widespread, but that there was not a lot of shame in it, as far as the kids were concerned:
Most of the girls on Instagram fell into the same category as Jasmine. They had sent a picture to their boyfriend, or to someone they wanted to be their boyfriend, and then he had sent it on to others. For the most part, they were embarrassed but not devastated, Lowe said. They felt betrayed, but few seemed all that surprised that their photos had been passed around. What seemed to mortify them most was having to talk about what they’d done with a “police officer outside their age group.” In some he sensed low self-esteem—for example, the girl who’d sent her naked picture to a boy, unsolicited: “It just showed up! I guess she was hot after him?” A handful of senior girls became indignant during the course of the interview. “This is my life and my body and I can do whatever I want with it,” or, “I don’t see any problem with it. I’m proud of my body,” Lowe remembers them saying. A few, as far as he could tell, had taken pictures especially for the Instagram accounts and had actively tried to get them posted. In the first couple of weeks of the investigation, Lowe’s characterization of the girls on Instagram morphed from “victims” to “I guess I’ll call them victims” to “they just fell into this category where they victimized themselves.”
What do you do with this, if you’re a cop? What do you do with this if you’re a parent? What happens if people are passing around images that meet the legal definition of child pornography, but the people doing it are minors, and the images have been produced by the same minors in the image, for the purpose of sexually exploiting themselves? Every one of the teenagers, both boys and girls, caught in the Louisa County sweep could have been charged with a felony. Do you really want to do that? The county chief prosecutor said:
“What do you do? Turn a blind eye? You’re letting teenagers incite the prurient interest of predators around the country,” fueling a demand that “can only be met by the actual abuse of real children.”
But, says Major Lowe:
“They’re not violent criminals,” he told me. “If these kids just made a dumb-ass mistake, we don’t want to ruin their future.”
It’s a really good piece, and a challenging one. Look at this, from Rosin’s interview with local boys:
Sometimes in Louisa County, between interviews, I hung out with a group of 15-year-old boys who went to the library after school. They seemed like good kids who studied, played football, and occasionally got into fights, but no more than most boys. They’d watch videos of rappers from the area and talk about rumors in the rap world, like the one that the Chicago rapper Chief Keef, a rival of D.C.’s Shy Glizzy, had gotten a middle-school girl pregnant. They’d order and split a pizza to pass the time while waiting for their parents to leave work and pick them up. I started to think of them as the high school’s Greek chorus because, while I recognized much of what they said as 15-year-old-boy swagger—designed to impress me and each other, and not necessarily true—they still channeled the local sentiment. This is how one of them described his game to me: “A lot of girls, they stubborn, so you gotta work on them. You say, ‘I’m trying to get serious with you.’ You call them beautiful. You say, ‘You know I love you.’ You think about it at night, and then you wake up in the morning and you got a picture in your phone.”
“You wake up a happy man,” his friend said.
“Yeah, a new man.”
“Yeah, I’m the man.”
How do you feel about the girl after she sends it?, I asked.
“You can’t love those thots!”
“That’s right, you can’t love those hos.”
“Girls in Louisa are easy.”
Girls can’t win. These boys have absorbed the degenerate values of rap culture, which takes the latent exploitative tendencies in young male culture, and valorizes them.
But girls are not victims, not all the time. There’s this:
“The only reason to regret it is if you get caught,” one girl told me.
Read the whole thing. This is the world we’ve made for our kids. Rosin points out that all this is happening in a culture in which teen pregnancy rates are going down, and kids are waiting longer to become sexually active. OK. That’s better than the alternative, but if we think this is harmful and destructive only if it results in early sexual activity or pregnancy, I would suggest that we have an impoverished idea of what constitutes harm. I think a teenager who can say that this kind of thing is only bad if you get caught is morally and spiritually damaged to a significant degree.
Things like this make me so grateful that we homeschool. No parent can afford to be blasé about this, and assume that their children cannot or will not be part of this world. But it’s hard to imagine my kids being in the mainstream of a teenage peer culture where this kind of thing is normal, and the kids doing it believe the only thing wrong with it is getting caught. It is not enough to protect your kids from the external threat, insofar as you can; you also have to build up in them the moral resilience and self-confidence to reject this kind of thing when it comes to them. And it seems to me you can’t wait until they’re teenagers, or almost-teenagers, to start.
By the way, don’t miss Gracy Olmstead’s post from earlier this week on sexting and girls.
I wish PBS Frontline would do a follow-up on the Rockdale County kids it profiled in that late-1990s episode. Where are they now? How did they turn out?
Hey, I’m traveling most of the day to Boston, then going straight to the event at BC. Will be slow posting around here, and slow comments-approving. Thanks for your patience.
This is huge. From the Washington Post:
Ferguson, Mo., police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed unarmed teenager Michael Brown after they fought for control of the officer’s gun and after Brown moved toward Wilson as they faced off in the street, according to interviews, news accounts and the full report of the St. Louis County autopsy of Brown’s body.
Because Wilson is white and Brown was black, the case has ignited intense debate over how police interact with African American men. But more than a half-dozen unnamed black witnesses have provided testimony to a St. Louis County grand jury that largely supports Wilson’s account of events of Aug. 9, according to several people familiar with the investigation who spoke with The Washington Post.
Some of the physical evidence — including blood spatter analysis, shell casings and ballistics tests — also supports Wilson’s account of the shooting, the Post sources said, which cast Brown as an aggressor who threatened the officer’s life. The sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they are prohibited from publicly discussing the case.
Here, from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, is a PDF of the complete county autopsy report. And here is a link to the P-D’s full report on the latest. There was THC in Brown’s system, suggesting he was high when he went for Officer Wilson’s gun.
Well, that doesn’t fit the narrative. Was all that rioting, all that protest, for nothing? I suppose everybody’s going to be admitting they were wrong, and apologizing now. Just watch. Any moment now.
(N.B., that still doesn’t make the overly militarized police response justifiable in retrospect, but still.)
UPDATE: There’s this strange sentiment among some commenters that if one believes that the Ferguson riots were unjustified, and these autopsy reports show that, that somehow one also endorses police brutality and racism. Makes. No. Sense.
Back in August, the former Jesuit seminarian who now governs the State of California has had enough of those obstreperous Christians, says the San Jose Mercury News:
Spurred by faculty and staff outrage over the refusal by two Catholic universities to pay for elective abortions, Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration on Friday announced that health insurance companies in the state can no longer deny coverage for these procedures.
California’s Department of Managed Health Care, which oversees HMOs, issued letters to seven insurance companies saying refusing to pay for any abortion, whether medically necessary or not, violates the state constitution and a 1975 state law.
“All health plans must treat maternity services and legal abortion neutrally,” department director Michelle Rouillard wrote in the two-page letter that also noted the decision becomes effective immediately.
The department’s reversal from an earlier decision that allowed insurance companies to eliminate that coverage drew swift reaction from both sides.
“We welcome the department’s action in really enforcing what current California law is,” said Dipti Singh, staff attorney with the National Health Law Program. Over the last year, the non profit has worked with groups including Planned Parenthood and the ACLU to bring the discrepancy to the department’s attention.
“The faculty (at Catholic universities) has done a great job advocating for themselves and ensuring that their health insurance is comprehensive,” Singh said.
Now, says The Federalist, insurance companies doing business in California have begun to inform even churches that offer insurance to employees that they (the insurance companies) are going to comply with the state mandate.
Understand what California is making churches and religious organizations do: pay for the surgical dismemberment of unborn children, even if the church believes it is murder.
The United States of America, 2014. Mene, mene tekel upharsin, Californians.
UPDATE: Sacramento Bee columnist Ben Boychuk wrote about this earlier, highlighting the fact that this whole mess started because a group of faculty and alumni loudmouths were appalled that their nominally Catholic university acted, you know, Catholic. Excerpt:
Although I’d call myself a lapsed Catholic at best on a good day, my sympathies reside firmly with the traditionalist camp. Yes, they actually believe this stuff, and it’s a good thing, too. Religion can and does enrich society. Religious liberty, properly understood, doesn’t mean you are free to believe whatever you like as long as you leave it at the church door on weekends.
It would be a real blow to religious liberty if California prevails in forcing Catholic institutions to violate their most sacred beliefs. But it will prove far worse for a free and pluralistic society when the same institutions happily violate themselves.
Robert Lopez is a college professor of English and classics, and a bisexual who is married to a woman, and raising a family with her. He supports same-sex civil unions, but not gay marriage. He believes children should be raised by a mother and a father.
Soon I was getting hit by writers all across the web. A piece on August 9, 2012, in Frontiers LA affixed my photograph and began with the line, “Perhaps you know Cal State Northridge bisexual professor Robert Oscar Lopez—and hence might understand why he wants to cozy up to the antigay National Organization for Marriage.”
At that time I had no connection to the National Organization for Marriage, yet as late as September 2014, the Human Rights Campaign would still claim that I spoke at NOM “March for Marriage” rallies. All of this would be jarring news for NOM, since I support gay civil unions and foster care eligibility for gay couples.
Against these charges, I tried to explain myself, even writing a three-thousand-word rebuttal in Frontiers LA, but the misrepresentations continued.
On August 14, 2012, the campaign reached my workplace in a whole new way when my dean informed me that I would have to turn over all emails from January 2009 onward that had anything to do with Mark Regnerus and his research team, Witherspoon Institute, Bradley Foundation, NOM, U.S. elected officials, the Romney campaign, Republican National Committee, and University of Texas officials.
A team of IT workers and student employees were allowed to access emails and turn them over to my off-campus accusers.
For a year, the provost’s office, dean’s office, and president’s office at Northridge were barraged with angry emails denouncing me and demanding that the university take action.
After a year of my being banned from speaking on college campuses, courageous students at Notre Dame and Stanford succeeded in bringing me to campus over the objections of LGBT student groups. The police had to patrol the April 3 event at Notre Dame, while the Stanford event on April 5 transpired in a firestorm of controversy. Both groups that brought me to campus were banished from the student activities boards after I left.
The HRC’s “Exporters of Hate” report in September 2014 included a one-minute video and a “Wanted” poster with a caption saying I was being placed “on notice.” The YouTube page included my work location, email, and phone number. Though my friends and I have flagged and reported this comment as harassment, YouTube has still not taken it down.
Read the whole thing. Do not for one second believe that Bobby Lopez is going to be the last one.
Tolerance. In the end, his persecutors believe, history will absolve them.
Why do we do this to people? Why?
One day in Norcia, Casella and I had lunch with Father Cassian, the prior of the Benedictine monastic community, the hometown of St. Benedict. Father Cassian is an American who founded the community in 1998, and moved them to this monastery in 2000. It had been emptied out in 1810 by the Napoleonic laws, but now, there are once again monks living in it.
Over the course of our lunch, I had the opportunity to mention the Benedict Option to Father Cassian. I told him it had to do with the final paragraph of Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue, which he indicated he understood. I said that I’m not talking about everybody running for the hills and living in an armed compound, but I am talking about forming communities within which we can make meaningful withdrawals from an increasingly hostile, increasingly chaotic society. The idea, I told him, is to be able to hold on to our knowledge and tradition in a dark time.
I was surprised, and gratified, by his answer.
He said: of course, that makes perfect sense. People have to start doing that in their own lives and families. There must be prayer and ascetic discipline, and we must find ways to do that in community. Those who sit around waiting for the institutional churches to get their acts together will wait in vain. The only way Christians are going to come through the present and future days with their Christianity intact is if they have been formed through small communities of faith and practice.
I mentioned the community of Catholics who have gathered around Clear Creek Monastery in Oklahoma (I wrote about them for TAC here, in my cover story on the Benedict Option). Father Cassian said yes, he had heard about them, and he believes communities like that are important. “There are Italian families who live not far from our monastery, who are doing the same thing with us,” he said.
I told him that it frustrated me that so many people reject the idea of the Benedict Option out of hand because they think it requires running off to the wilderness and living in a kind of survivalist compound, or in some other way cutting yourself off completely from the world. In fact, I said, I’m advocating a partial withdrawal for the sake of forming oneself and one’s children in Christian faith and morals in the face of a powerful mainstream culture opposed to those values.
“I’m not talking about hiding your light,” I said. “I’m talking about not walking out into a hurricane and expecting your candle to stay lit.”
“That’s why they make hurricane lamps,” the prior said. “Here at the monastery, we withdraw in an institutional way, but you’re right — the laity has to understand that these are not normal times. If they want their descendants to be around for the rebuilding, families can’t live as if these were normal times. St. Benedict faced the same thing.”
Father Cassian had to return to the monastery for prayers, so our lunch was cut short. He did say before he left that without prayer and the sacraments, we are going to be in trouble if we try to live the Benedict Option. There must be real, and constant, spiritual nourishment to build the presence of God within our hearts and communities, or our efforts will be in vain.
I don’t want to give the impression that Father Cassian is a gloomy man. He gives the impression of being a man of deep prayer and serenity, as you would expect in a monk, which made it all the more impressive that he has such stillness within him even though he believes the world is headed into a dark age, at least as far as the Christian faith is concerned.
“Where do you find your hope?” I asked.
“In the Lord,” he said, firmly. “And only in the Lord. Nothing else lasts. He is the only one who will not disappoint.”
Later, Casella and I were reflecting on our lunch with the prior, and marveled that such a place as this wonderful Norcia monastery exists in the world. When the Norcia monks arrived here to re-open the monastery in St. Benedict’s birthplace after two centuries of abandonment, there were only three of them. The community is now almost twenty monks strong. And seeing them in church singing the hours, I can tell you that they are all young. They come mostly from America, but there are men from other parts of the world.
They come here, I see, because the Monastery of San Benedetto is a spiritual lighthouse and a spiritual stronghold. They chant in Latin, and celebrate the old mass. If I were a young Catholic man who thought I might have a vocation to the monastic life, I would be on the next plane to Italy and make my way to Norcia for a retreat. By the way, they welcome pilgrims here too.
Casella and I left Norcia today thinking of ourselves as friends of this monastery. This small community of monks are keeping the faith alive in the birthplace of the saint who did more than any single man to preserve it in western Europe through a time of chaos and fragmentation. And he didn’t do it by coming up with a Grand Plan To Save Civilization. He did it by becoming a man of prayer, and of prayer in community. A man who believed that one’s life should be about work and prayer. He gathered like-minded men around him, and over time, they taught the people of Europe how to pray and how to live. Because of the mustard seed of faith St. Benedict had, he gave birth to modern Europe.
He faced very hard times, harder than we face today. But he didn’t surrender to them, nor did he deny their seriousness. He responded instead with faith, hope, and determination. If an avalanche is coming, you don’t surrender to it and slide down the hill with the rocks, and you don’t get yourself killed by standing in front of it hoping that God will stop it before it hits you, or that someone will show up at the last minute to rescue you. You get out of the way, and take shelter where you can until it passes you by.
This is the Benedict Option, as I see it. It inspires me to know that the prior of the monastery built over the birthplace of St. Benedict shares my vision of our cultural crisis, and the response it requires from serious Christians. I’m going back to America with a new sense of hope and discipline, and a sense that I and people like me need to get busy. I’m not a Catholic, but I’m going to keep this monastery in my prayers, and support their presence and work in Norcia however I can. Please you do the same, especially if you’re Catholic. And if you think you might have a vocation to Catholic monastic life, come to Norcia to see what their life is like here. Just do it.
Catholic blogger Robert Delahunty says Pope Francis has blown the opportunity he had for turning the global Catholic Church’s conversation away from the culture war of the West, toward the struggles that Third World Christians face with poverty and oppression. Excerpt:
The new Pope would speak for the populations of the emerging world – for their suffering, their desperation, their resilience, their energy, their sense of hope. The “North/South” polarity would supplant the “Left/Right” one. The Church would make the pivot to poverty. In making that turn, it would address the West too – but by awakening it from the deadly self-absorption of the affluent.
So when one learns that the Synod of Catholic cardinals and bishops summoned by the same Pope has returned the conversation to the culture wars of the West – though with unmistakable overtones of capitulation on many of the bishops’ part — it is, to say no more, a disappointment. Try as it may, the Church under Francis seems to be unable to resist scratching the sores of Western sexuality. The consuming obsessions of the West, now in the terminal phases of the sexual and cultural revolutions that have swept over it for more than half a century, are dominating the Church’s agenda once again. At the Pope’s insistence, the bishops did a reset, plunging the Church into renewed debate over divorce and homosexuality and cutting short the conversation that the Pope had earlier invited over famine, persecution and want. With Islamist terrorist groups like Boko Haram recently murdering 2500 Catholics in one Nigerian diocese alone, and with Christian children being crucified or cut in half by ISIS, you might think that the world’s bishops would have more pressing things on their mind than the compatibility of same-sex unions with Church teaching. You would, of course, be wrong.
Delahunty points out that the pope’s point man at the Synod, Cardinal Walter Kasper, let the cat out of the bag when he disdained the Africans. Could it be, Delahunty asks, that the Africans don’t only disagree with the West on homosexuality, but also see the kind of decline in religious faith that they don’t want to import to their own nations? More:
Pope Francis was right (at first): it really is time to change the conversation. The global Church is not the parochial Western Church; the Church of the poor and the marginal is not the affluent, greying Church of Western Europe and North America. The Church should not be shadowing the West’s cultural trajectory all the way downwards. The future of the Church lies elsewhere. Ex oriente, lux.
[H/T: Mark Movsesian]
This is interesting news from Russia. Konstantin Malofeev, a devout Orthodox Christian, tsarist, and rich guy, has ideas about media, religion, and the culture war. Slate reports:
Malofeev, whose St. Basil the Great Foundation is the country’s largest Orthodox charity, says that these cultural issues don’t stop at Russia’s borders. His mission is larger than just restoring Orthodoxy in Russia. Rather, it’s a global struggle.
“Just as Christians in the West in Ronald Reagan’s time helped us against the evil of communism, we now have to return our debt to Christians who are suffering under totalitarianism in the West,” he says. “This so-called liberalism, tolerance, and freedom, these are just words, but behind them you can see the totalitarianism.”
Asked for examples of this totalitarianism, he cites legal battles over U.S. businesses not providing flowers or cakes for gay weddings and the use of tear gas againstanti-gay-marriage protesters in France. “We saw all of this in the 1920s in the Soviet Union. We know how it starts when the protection of minorities becomes the policy of the state,” he says.
He’s also developing Tsargrad TV, a cable network—for now it’s just a YouTube channel—that will provide a conservative Orthodox perspective on the news. “We want to build up [a network based on] Orthodox principles the way Fox News was built,” he says. “We want to show the news in the way that Orthodox people, who are 70 to 80 percent of the population, see it.” (Jack Hanick, a former Fox News employee, will be a producer for the network.) I ask if Russia’s existing TV networks aren’t conservative enough. “Aren’t Orthodox enough,” he counters.
Seriously, this guy bears watching. I’m sure he’s giving Masha Gessen fits, but I’m interested to see where he’s going with this. There are a thousand ways it could go wrong, but what if it goes right?
I think one of the big culture and religion stories of the next 20 years is going to be the relationship between small-o orthodox Christians in the West, and Russian Orthodoxy — if Russia develops a robust anti-liberal response to Western secularism.
Longtime TAC readers will recognize the name John Schwenkler, who used to write the Upturned Earth blog for this website. John is now a philosophy professor at Florida State, and is working on a study about religious doctrine and popular belief. He asked me if I would post this request on the blog, inviting readers from all over the world to participate in the study, which he’s conducting in collaboration with an Oxford University cognitive scientist/philosopher. It doesn’t matter what your denomination or church is. I took the survey; it’s quick and easy. Here’s what you need to know:
You are invited to participate in a survey organized by Helen De Cruz and John Schwenkler. The purpose of this study is to explore to what extent you agree with a series of religious (theological) teachings.
The survey takes approximately 10 minutes and, if you wish, you can be entered into a prize draw for an Amazon voucher of 50 GBP or 75 USD.
Please follow this link to complete the survey: http://www.religion-survey.net/
UPDATE: Readers, if you plan to take the survey, please do so BEFORE reading the comments. It could skew results otherwise.