TAC Bookshelf for the Week of July 15
Bradley J. Birzer, scholar-at-large: I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to state that Sam Gregg is one of our finest living thinkers. Whether he’s writing about Catholics and the American Founding, the humane economy of Wilhelm Roepke, or, most recently, about Christianity as the reality of Western society, he does us all a grand service.
His latest book, Reason, Faith, and the Struggle for Western Civilization has already served as a wake-up call for those of us who rightly fear the “woke.” As such, it should be for the first third of the twentieth century, what Witness by Whitaker Chambers was for the middle third of the previous century. Clarions rarely come as beautifully written or as beautifully argued as Gregg’s latest. I am currently enjoying (if enjoying is the right descriptive for watching the suicide of a civilization) every word of it.
I have also, after nearly two decades of painful indecision, finally concluded that I really admire Charles Williams, the strangest and most esoteric of the Oxford Inklings. Controversial even in his own time, C.S. Lewis thought him an angel, but J.R.R. Tolkien referred to him as the “witch doctor.” During my early thirties, I found Williams repulsive, a closet occultist parading as a Christian. In my early fifties, however, I have now come to believe that his sacramental vision of Christianity—especially with its emphasis on the radical aspects of the flesh in this world—was profoundly prescient, especially in anticipating much of what John Paul II would argue in his “theology of the body.” At one point, throwing down the gauntlet, Williams reminded us that while the Patristic Church referred to the Blessed Virgin Mary as the “Mother of God,” it also acknowledged her as the “Mother of Man.” If we cannot deny the title of Theotokos in our Incarnational theology, we cannot deny her the title of Anthropotokos.
Reissued by Inklings Heritage Series of Apocryphile Press, Williams’s posthumous The Image of the City And Other Essays, edited by Anne Ridler, is a masterpiece of wit and wisdom. Though certainly heady, The Image of the City captured me and my soul from page one to page 195 (and the opening 72 pages, an introduction to Williams’s life, is excellent as well).
With Williams backing us up, and Gregg pushing us forward, I actually feel somewhat content with the West of the present day. Then again, we’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Grayson Quay, contributor: If you asked me to name the best novel I’ve ever read, my answer would depend greatly on what I’d been reading recently and on my situation in life more generally. The Catcher in the Rye; On the Road; A Farewell to Arms; The Power and the Glory; Rabbit, Run; and Bleak House have all had their turn in the spotlight.
But, when asked to name my favorite novel, my answer has been consistent since ninth grade: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
In this 1985 military sci-fi novel, Card (a conservative Mormon) portrays a 22nd-century world in which humanity has already improbably weathered two invasions by insectoid aliens known pejoratively as “buggers.” An authoritarian, militaristic world government holds Earth’s fractious nations in check, rigorously enforces a global two-child policy, and takes genius-level children from their families at the age of six to train them as military commanders for the next invasion.
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin is one such child, a despised and bullied “Third” whose parents were given permission to conceive him after their first two children proved temperamentally unfit for the International Fleet. Ender was not so much born as requisitioned. With the threat of human extinction looming, the warfare state claims boundless authority to monitor, manipulate, and mold Ender in whatever ways they wish. As Ender ships off to Battle School, the head instructor tells him upfront that humanity’s deepest evolutionary drives necessitate and justify anything, even mental and physical child abuse, if it leads to the survival of the species. Ender can be a person when he’s done being a tool.
Ender tries his best to subvert the military’s mind games by developing his own inborn empathy, but even Ender’s acts of rebellion may be part of the teachers’ plan…
As a fifteen-year-old, I fell irrevocably in love with this novel because it taught me the importance of truly seeing those around me and treating them as ends in themselves. Soon after I finished the book, a girl in my class who everyone had mocked for being a “basket case” withdrew from school after engaging in self-harm in the bathroom between classes. I realized for the first time that I was not the solipsistic protagonist of reality, and I knew that I would spend the rest of my life fighting the temptation to think of myself as such.
Recently, Card has been expanding the “Enderverse” with two trilogies of novels that tell the stories of the first two alien invasions, and I just finished The Swarm, the first book of the second trilogy. These new novels are clever and entertaining, and although they lack the depth of Ender’s Game and introduce a number of apparent inconsistencies into the Enderverse, they make perfect beach reads with the added bonus of enabling me to revisit the author who taught me one of the most important lessons of my life.