While We’re At It (February 2014)
♦ As a couple, casually but well dressed, the man in his forties and the woman in her thirties, walked by, the woman said, “Well, at least my breasts are firmer.”
I would be interested to know in what world that’s a plausible sentence.
♦ “Hillel International expects all campus organizations that use the Hillel name to adhere to these guidelines,” the president of Hillel International wrote to the student board of the group’s chapter at Swarthmore College. “No organization that uses the Hillel name may choose to do otherwise.”
The group’s “Israel Guidelines” prohibit working with those who “deny the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders” or in other ways seek to harm the nation. The college’s chapter had declared that since the guidelines “privilege only one perspective on Zionism, and make others unwelcome,” they will join anyone they want to, “regardless of Hillel International’s Israel guidelines.”
“Let me be very clear — ‘anti-Zionists’ will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under the Hillel roof, under any circumstances,” explained the president, Eric Fingerhut. Would that Catholic institutions were so jealous of their identity.
♦ History, wrote Whittaker Chambers in 1954, shows that “the rock-core of the Conservative Position, or any fragment of it, can be held realistically only if conservatism will accommodate itself to the needs and hopes of the masses.” This he called “the Beaconsfield position” after the first earl of Beaconsfield, Benjamin Disraeli, noted for his “one nation” conservatism.
Not that other conservatives liked the idea. “Inevitably, it goads one’s brothers to raise their knives against the man who holds it. Sadder yet, that man can never blame them, for he shares their feelings even when directed against himself, since he, no less than they, is also a Tory. Only, he is a Tory who means to live. And to live is not to hold the lost redoubt. To live is to maneuver.”
• It apparently looks like the usual Bible, but the Holy Bible as produced by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin includes pictures, taken from the files of the Archive of Modern Conflict in London and printed on top of the words, designed to show how out-of-step it is. As the Village Voice’s reviewer explained, “Throughout, photos of levitating magicians and circus performers challenge the credulity necessary to accept the Bible as literal truth.” In one picture, a man wearing a Hitler mask performs an alternative sexual act, which “perhaps satirizes all the begetting, incest, and rape to be found within these hallowed verses.”
The Voice’s reviewer seems to think this Bible strikes some kind of blow against religion—“This is disconcerting stuff, guaranteed to rile fundamentalists everywhere”—but the observant Jew and Christian will be thinking, yes, the Bible tells about a lot of bad people doing bad things, because it’s about human life, and people often act badly. In other cases such a book would be praised for realism, or even for magical realism.
The Bible’s a safe target for such treatment, as even the reviewer notes at the end: “If you really want to plumb the limits of secular aesthetics? Try doing this to the Koran.”
♦ In her “Bloodless Moralism,” Helen Rittelmeyer writes that we read social scientists “with a jumble of opinions and half-formed personal judgments, and they repeat them back to us as facts. Their main contribution is not information, but authority.”
As Malcolm Muggeridge put it somewhere, writing of what the English used to call “clerks,” or intellectuals: “The secret of success in the modern world consists in making manifest the contemporary mind.” You articulate what people vaguely see or feel already, give them words for beliefs they hold for all sorts of reasons, not all of them rational. The reader sits up and says “That’s it! This man’s a genius,” when he really means “There! I was right after all.”
♦ “Like many Turkish and European snobs, before I came here, I looked down on the American classical music business,” says Turkish pianist Emir Gamsizoglu, interviewed by our neighborhood newspaper, Our Town Downtown. “But now I’m a very passionate fan of the way American culture presents classical music in the twentieth century . . . . If we still have classical music in the world, part of the reason is the marketing ability of the American music business. I wish European musicians were more aware of this fact.”
• With his wife, the actress Ege Maltepe, he performs a popular show called Drama in Beethoven at a cafe in the West Village. They offer as the top five classical music pieces for children and adults both: Chopin’s nocturnes, Chopin’s waltzes, Bach’s cello suites, Beethoven’s symphonies five and seven, and Liszt’s Sonata in B Minor. (Strictly speaking, that’s more than five, but we didn’t title the article.)
• The little metal shed at the corner near the office sells candy, soft drinks, and magazines, with the magazines — mostly People and its peers—on a shelf sticking out from the corner of the shed so that the passersby notice them. One of them often declares some young woman “sexy” or some version of “the sexiest woman alive.”
Why undraped young woman A is sexier than undraped young women B, C, and D is hard to discern. One suspects a better press agent or a movie studio offering to buy lots of ad space. The rest of us, like balding white-haired gentlemen, for example, who have no chance of being featured on the covers of magazines, will have to settle for beauty.
We may not like what we see in the mirror, Emily Stimpson writes, “But the people we love don’t see what we see.” They “don’t see a collection of body parts; they see us. They see our love for them. They see sacrifices made and patience exercised. They see how many times we’ve forgiven them, listened to them, and encouraged them. They see our honesty, integrity, fidelity, and devotion. They also see our intelligence, humor, wit, and creativity—all gifts from God and all ways we image God.”
Emily has written a popular treatment of the theology of the body, These Beautiful Bones.
♦ Tommaso Maria Gras was a little vexed by David Bentley Hart’s response to his letter in the November Letters section, in which he (Gras) was responding to David’s reflection on Christendom, “No Enduring City.” David had accused him of being, among other things, “immoral,” “deeply blasphemous,” and “devoid of any trace of Christianity.” We give authors a lot of freedom, but there are limits, and I think in retrospect the amount of definitive denunciation David included went over them.
Gras explains that he was simply arguing, against David, that Christendom, with “its terrible confusions,” could not (and here he quotes John XXIII) “transmit the vivifying and perennial energies of the Gospel to a modern world organized around the denial of God.” Whoever regrets the loss of Christendom, which he thinks David does, “does not understand that the presence of the Church in this world is always under the sign of the cross and not of triumph. Whoever mourns Christendom is harboring, I repeat, the gnostic dream of eliminating suffering.”
♦ There is, you will probably be shocked to find out, a Yippie Museum, but probably not shocked to find out that there being one, it’s in Greenwich Village. (The museum is facing eviction, and the founder can’t do much about it, because he was convicted in 2012 for transporting 150 pounds of marijuana in Nebraska and is now in jail.) The Youth International Party perfected pointless political theater, otherwise known as “symbolic politics,” to the despair of many on the left and the annoyance of many on the right.
Longtime member “Pieman” recalled protesting Ronald Reagan when he visited Lincoln Center for his son’s ballet performance. The Yippies held a counter-ballet outside. “Picture myself, a pregnant woman named Ruth, and Dean Tuckerman—who had cerebral palsy—dancing around in tutus, dancing the Ballet for Bullets. We stole the show from them. Wherever Ronnie boy would show up, we would have to be the pain in the ass.”
Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Debs, Goldman: None of them would have been amused. Me, I tend to yawn.
♦ In his Book of Gomorrah, an eleventh-century book we’d bet a small amount of money is not read in any seminary of any sort in America, but which has appeared in a new edition from Wilfrid Laurier University Press in Canada, St. Peter Damian applies “the surgery of words” to those who should have said something and didn’t.
Noting Ezekiel’s instruction, “If you see your brother doing evil and you do not correct him, I will require his blood from your hand,” he asks, “Who am I to see such a harmful outrage growing up among the sacred orders and, as a murderer of another’s soul, preserve the stricture of silence, and to dare to await the reckoning of divine severity? Do I not begin to be responsible for a guilt whose author I never was?”
He would, he says, “rather be cast innocent into the cistern with Joseph, who accused his brothers to his father for a terrible crime, than to be punished by the vengeance of divine fury with Eli, who saw the evils of his sons and was silent.”
The saint was writing of sodomy among the clergy, but the lessons apply more widely. The quotes are taken from a review by my friend Anne Barbeau Gardiner in the New Oxford Review.
♦ Peter Damian seems to have held that the desire for sodomy is a particular kind of inclination, an “objectively disordered” one, in the words of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Lust is one thing, but lust for someone we should not desire at all is another.
Almost no one likes to say this. Conservative Catholics note that every sin is in some sense objectively disordered and move quickly away from the subject. The Catholic apostolate Courage, which is a truly courageous enterprise, explains that it’s a “philosophical term” as if it were only part of an academic analysis with no relevance for everyday life.
But there “objectively disordered” is in the Catechism itself, in its discussion of the Sixth Commandment. As far as I can find the Church’s magisterial teaching describes only homosexuality among all human temptations this way. That must be so for a reason, and the term must mean something, even though what it means will not be something other people will want to hear, or most of us to say.
♦ I think, from observation, there is to be found among political conservatives and among conservative Christians a vague and general feeling of at least discomfort with Jews and Judaism, and sometimes overt dislike, which can edge into real anti-Semitism. I can guess at one reason.
Conservatives want a more organic and traditional society and religion, one with the rules and conventions not only inherited but implicit and understood. The world they desire requires a considerable degree of conformity. The more organic and traditional the society they have or want, the more Jews, especially observant Jews, stick out.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it was Catholics who were felt to be the aliens, the ones who didn’t and couldn’t ever fit in. Now even the traditionalist conservative has in his ideal world a Catholic church on the main street with the Baptists and Methodists and Presbyterians, based on some idea of the shared Christian heritage and mind.
It would not take too much effort to extend this vision to include a synagogue, based on some idea of a shared belief in God and the moral law. Most political conservatives and conservative Christians have made this intellectual move. But not all, and I suspect the portion who haven’t is bigger than we would like to think.
♦ The political left “is so taken over by sexual issues, sexual questions, that we have forgotten the traditional concern of the left was always social class and those at the bottom,” the writer Richard Rodriguez explained to Salon. And the rejection of religion reflects this. “We have forgotten just how disruptive religion can be to the status quo,” leaving it to Fox News and Islamic fundamentalists, and this has made the left “really empty.”
Without the language of religion—he compares Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech with its religious support and drive with the president’s forgettable secular one fifty years later—“we have almost no language to talk about the dream life of America, to talk about the soul of America, to talk about the mystery of being alive at this point in our lives, this point in our national history.”
People on the left still believe, though, in the dream of what he calls a “green” world, a world of continuous renewal. That hope “is still very much alive in the secular imagination, and when Oprah Winfrey and Bono go on TV to tell us all about the green and they get on their private jets and go on to another location, to tell those people to be green. What we’re watching is a secular dream of Eden. So many of my friends tell me they’re not religious. I’m like, Of course you’re religious. You watch Oprah Winfrey, don’t you?”
♦ Barack Obama, says Rodriguez, whose last book was titled Brown, “is still officially designated our first black president. Well, he’s our first brown president, which is a much more interesting thing to be because it unites these two races, but in some way what we are not able to deal with is the reality that brown is all around us. That kids have been born, Cambodian/Mexican/German kids who don’t look like anyone who has ever lived before. And we’re still in a kind of rhetorical swamp where we’re still using the vocabulary of the 1950s: white and black America.”
♦ Frank Skeffington, the mayor of a city that is clearly Boston, reads poetry for half an hour each morning after breakfast, which infuriates several of his political opponents, in Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah. It’s a great novel of urban politics and offers many insights into political rhetoric, for those of you interested.
Skeffington reads mostly for pleasure — his opponents can’t imagine someone doing that so assume he doesn’t actually read at all — but he also reads because classical invective gave him “a weapon to elevate and decimate the foe. (One had only to roar suddenly, ‘Ingratitude, thou marble-hearted fiend!’ at perfidious Martin Hooley of Ward 2, and poor dumb Martin, anticipating abuse but of a more prosaic kind, would stand gaping and abashed; the crowd would shout in delight, and from isolated throats would come the proud, identifying gasp: ‘Shakespeare!’)”
It was a dangerous technique, since people would turn on someone they thought was getting above himself. “The trick was, he knew, to space the grand phrases properly, to use them always with an air of winking complicity; to suggest, in other words, an allowable erudition untainted by the dangerous streaks of self-inflation. It was quite a trick, but Skeffington could say, without conceit, that it was one which he had mastered years ago.”
♦ Skeffington’s use of literature explains one trick of slightly-upper-middle-brow fiction. The shrewd writer plants allusions just barely obscure enough to flatter the reader who recognizes them, because flattered readers buy books. “‘April is a cruel month,’ thought Bob as he looked at the melting snow,” say, or “‘Abandon what hope you had,’ Percival said as they entered the law firm’s front door.”
• Christians will sympathize. Rav Kook, writes Yehudah Mirsky, was “one of the greatest Jewish thinkers of all time” and thought that when it was founded in Palestine in 1921, the chief rabbinate would “modernize Jewish law and [lead] the spiritual revolution that would be the ultimate fruit of the Jews’ secular nationalist revival.”
Rav Kook and his peers shared “a noble dream that we could institutionalize the sacred,” Mirsky writes in the Jewish Review of Books. “In the end, Rav Kook and his intellectual heirs were tragically naive about Judaism’s susceptibility to the corruptions of power.”
Mirsky, who wrote “History’s Most Powerful Rabbi” for the December issue, is commenting on the recent election of the two Chief Rabbis, one Ashkenazi, one Sephardic, in Israel. The haredim, who did not believe in the secular state of Israel, nevertheless came to control the two rabbinates, and Mirsky has a dark explanation. “While formally disdaining Zionism,” he writes, they “came to relish the rabbinate’s opportunities for patronage, profits, and power.”
Catholics have institutions we believe of divine origin, but even so they often end up controlled by people sensitive to patronage, profits, and power. A friend much involved in the Church’s affairs says that she tells young people to work with the Vatican only if their faith is very, very strong.
♦ “You’re not becoming a vegetarian, are you?” said a friend who was actually scowling at me, when I ordered a salad at lunch. I wasn’t, as it happened, but only eating lightly because we were going to a banquet in the evening and I wanted to take full advantage of the free food. The vegetarian case is one that pokes at me, at least the moral one. Not, in other words, that we shouldn’t eat meat, but that perhaps we shouldn’t eat much of the meat offered to us because it’s cruelly produced.
As our friend and writer Mary Eberstadt writes in her introduction to Catholic theologian Charles Camosy’s book For Love of Animals, “vegetarianism for some believers might be a unique ‘sign of contradiction’ in its own right—particularly in a time of relative plenty marked by rampant consumerism, and particularly given what Blessed John Paul II decried as an accompanying ‘culture of death.’ Wanton cruelty to animals, of the sort that is now pitiably routine, is arguably part and parcel of that same culture, and it further deadens the general moral sense at a time when it’s arguably needed most.”
The welfare of animals is not a matter we (generally conservative religious believers) usually think about, partly because so many obviously urgent issues require our attention. But it seems to me that it is one of those matters, the not taking up of which affects how we think and what we do about the issues we do take up.
♦ Whatever the “neurocrats” say, we are more than our brains. A mixture of popularizers and scientists press the idea in book after article after TV appearance that what we do is to a great or complete extent the result of something that goes on in our brains — the idea C. S. Lewis called “nothing buttery.” There’s something to it, obviously, but disturbingly, the studies almost always move in the direction of reducing human responsibility for our actions. Out goes free will, and out goes responsibility, never mind guilt.
Which reminds us of Samuel Johnson’s remark when Boswell told him about “an impudent fellow from Scotland, who affected to be a savage, and railed at all established systems” (not a man of whom Dr. Johnson was likely to approve, being not only Scottish but a savage Scot): “If he does really think that there is no distinction between virtue and vice, why, sir, when he leaves our houses let us count our spoons.”
The evidence for this nothing buttery claim is too ambiguous, explains a writer in Nature. Our brains don’t work that way. “Activity in a particular human brain area rarely corresponds to a unique mental state. For example, amygdala activity is often associated with fear, but can indicate surprise, happiness, anger or valuing options.”
And materialism in such things can hurt people, she continues. “People who believe that conditions such as schizophrenia are strictly biological are less likely to blame people with the condition for their behavior, but also view them as more dangerous and less able to change.” And although most drug addicts quit, often on their own, those who think “of addiction as a chronic, relapsing brain disease may be less likely to succeed in kicking the habit.”
Fortunately, many scientists push back. Fortunately also, the rest of us resist the materialist narrative. “Non-specialists,” as the writer calls us, “are not yet convinced that the self is a construct based in brain activity, nor that biology trumps free will. Instead, people assimilate scientific concepts into their previous ideas about the importance of responsibility and self-control.”
♦ The article mentions a story the New York Times published a couple of years ago, with the title “You Love Your iPhone, Literally.” The writer claimed that brain imaging showed that people felt about their iPhones the way they felt about a spouse or friend. They weren’t addicted, they were in love. Forty-five neuroscientists from the world’s major universities wrote to protest, stressing that “there is rarely a one-to-one mapping between any brain region and a single mental state.” Free will survives, for a while.
♦ Here is, by the way, the conclusion of the scientists’ letter as it appeared in the newspaper: “We find it surprising that the Times would publish claims like this that lack scientific validity.”
And here is the conclusion of the letter as it came from the scientists: “We are disappointed that the Times has published extravagant claims based on scientific data that have not been subjected to the standard scientific review process, especially considering how often its pages exhort policy makers to pay more attention to peer-reviewed scientific evidence and disregard specious claims.”
♦ We’ve mentioned New York City councilman Fernando Cabrera before, but not his colleague who this past fall ran for the city council in the district in which most of us here live. The pastor of Abounding Grace Ministries on the Lower East Side, Rick del Rio ran for the council against a member of the Democratic establishment and got clobbered in the Democratic primary (in New York City that means the election), 81 to 19 percent. But for him, it’s a start.
Hurricane Sandy pushed him into politics. In the early days after the hurricane, his church and other Evangelical ministries set up relief stations when the city and federal governments were nowhere to be found. According to one report, they gave out blankets, food, and water to about 20,000 people and served about 14,000 hot meals.
The government arrived late and then took over. The churches made the difference, and can make it in the future, del Rio argues. “We are a stabilizing factor in this area and it’s much more than a Sunday service that we provide. This is what happens in a tragedy, we are the ones here to help. This community has come together. It has not been delegated by government. This is the people rising up because of a love and a concern and a care for each other.”
“We are the church that deals with the community, and our ears are to the ground, and we know the people,” he told CNN. Hence the need for city council members who understand and respect what churches and other local groups can do.
♦ The southern part of the district, once one of the roughest areas in the city and sometimes called the heroin capital of the country, has changed. (The upper part includes the affluent Murray Hill and the hyper-wealthy Gramercy Park neighborhoods.) In the last few years, the neighborhood’s crime rate declined, landlords fixed up buildings, the vagrants and junkies moved elsewhere, and the young and affluent moved in.
“Naturally, not everyone has benefited from the ‘grandeurization’ of the neighborhood,” writes Pauline Dolle on the always interesting website A Journey Through NYC Religions. “Nearly half of the population in the area relies on government income support to face rent increases of 27% since 2005. Family store front businesses that have provided upwardly-mobile jobs for the working poor are disappearing. Basements that formerly housed community organizations like basketball leagues and churches have become prohibitively expensive. The poor, who are desperately hanging onto their apartments, are becoming trapped in a new, cleaner cage.”
Del Rio, she writes, “argues that the real history of the area, as opposed to fanciful elite histories, is that the vast improvements that have taken place were actually initiated by the poor and working class residents. When the neighborhood rebounded, then gentrifiers swarmed into ‘the edgy area’ as sort of an elite tourism among the poor.”
Ironically, ministries like his Abounding Grace Ministries can encourage the gentrification of their neighborhoods because they’re committed to them for the long run. Del Rio moved there thirty-one years ago, during the bad days. They’re the ones who invest in young people, rebuild housing, support small businesses, and risk their lives challenging drug dealers.
♦ Last month, I reported on the cheering openness to Catholics I found at the Evangelical Theological Society’s annual meeting, though I mentioned one hostile older man, who insisted that Catholics engaged Protestants only because they wanted to gobble up the naive. A friend, one of the biggies in American Evangelicalism, wrote: “On your last example about the older evangelical fellow, I am afraid that he represents quite a large swath of the Evangelical world, one underrepresented at ETS.”
So that’s one balloon popped. I had noticed, though, another problem even among those Evangelicals generously open to Catholics. Most seemed to assume that dialogue means change, because it’s a shared process of coming to see a truth that neither party sees or holds clearly now, and that the sign of sincerity is a willingness to compromise (a word I heard a lot).
They did not think this about their own essentials, but about Catholic essentials they did. In other words, they assumed that the Catholic Church must Protestantize to prove her sincerity in talking to Protestants.
♦ These things run both ways, of course. My friend added: “I have heard his complaint about other Christians gobbling up churches uttered in reverse by Catholics who think the gobbling is going the other way, especially in Latin America.”
♦ “The vast majority of official teaching of the church on marriage and the family has been prepared and promulgated by men who have no direct, personal experience of married life in the contemporary world. They have made promises of celibacy which exclude any form of sexual relationship. As a result, relatively little of the teaching in this area clearly speaks to persons who are attempting to come to terms with their sexuality, to find and enter into meaningful relationships, and to prepare for a life of committed, mutual love that may involve the challenges of parenthood.”
So claims the Catholic Scholars’ Statement on Marriage and the Family issued by a professor at the Catholic University of Louvain and signed by a variety of dissenting Catholic theologians, though apparently none of the writer’s colleagues at Louvain, and good for them. About a third were listed as emeritus or retired. Sr. Jeannine Grammick and Georgetown’s Peter Phan appear.
Some priests and bishops may not convey the teaching very well, but the Church has the laity for that. If all old Fr. Tortellini can do is recite the rules, Mr. and Mrs. Antonelli can explain how those rules work out for good in practice.
Of all people capable of rational analysis of sex and human sexuality, celibates are the most likely to examine the matter dispassionately and disinterestedly. The fact that they don’t have a dog in the fight (other than their concern for the lives and eternal destinies of their people) helps them see more clearly what’s what. But of course what the statement means by “clearly speaks” is not “explains the teaching in a way people can understand and live” but “says what we think it should say.”
♦ It’s a contentious claim, that celibates are the most likely to examine the matter dispassionately and disinterestedly, writes Anna Sutherland, until last May one of our junior fellows. “The fact that it’s so contentious exposes what seems to be a common but false assumption: that you can’t really understand a sin if you haven’t committed it yourself, when in fact sin has a blinding, not an enlightening, effect.”
We may be better able to relate to someone like St. Augustine who sinned and repented, she continues, “but Jesus and the saints were more insightful, not less so, because of their holiness.” This we find hard to believe, so deeply have most of us absorbed the idea that experience brings knowledge.
♦ A friend writes: “I had to pass along the qualifications of the staff of a children’s art ministry at an Episcopal church. The teachers/administrators include a ‘certified labyrinth facilitator,’ a ‘dance/movement specialist,’ a ‘pet loss grief counselor,’ and ‘an Episcopal priest, Jungian analytical psychologist, sand play therapist and spiritual director.’”
♦ Helen Rittelmeyer, readers will be pleased to know, also writes a weblog. To find it, go tofirstthings.com and click on “blogs.” She writes only at wide intervals, but everything she writes is a finished and thought-provoking essay.
While We’re At It sources: Hillel’s name: jta.org, December 10, 2013 and hillel.org/jewish/hillel-israel/hillel-israel-guidelines. Accomodating conservatism: Goldberg File, February 22, 2013. Picture Bible: Village Voice, October 30–November 5, 2013. Marketing the classics: Our Town Downtown, December 5, 2013. Sexy v. beautiful: catholicvote.org, n.d. Yippie Pieman: Our Town Downtown, December 5, 2013. Darrow’s jurors: law2.umkc.edu/faculty/projects/ftrials/dar_jury.htm. Damian’s surgery: New Oxford Review, November 2013. Objective disorders: couragerc.net/faqs.html. The left’s religion: salon.com, December 15, 2013. Black, white, & brown: Ibid. Familial policy, September 9, 2013. Corrupting rabbinate: jewishreviewofbooks.com, Fall 2013. Neurocrats: Nature, June 20, 2013. IPhone crushes: nytimes.com, October 1, 2011 and October 5, 2011. Times editing: nytimes.com, October 5, 2011 and russpoldrack.org, October 4, 2011. Political pastor: nycreligion.org, September 3, 2013, richarddelrio.com, n.d., and weather.com, November 5, 2012.
WWAI tips: Stephen M. Barr, Anne Barbeau Gardiner, and Nathaniel Peters.