While We’re At It (December 2011)
♦ A few nights ago two of our junior fellows, Matt and Mark, were riding the subway going to visit the third junior fellow, Alex, who lives uptown. As they were heading north on the 1 train, Mark reports, “A middle-aged, normal-looking woman began preaching fire and brimstone in the subway car. She encouraged repentance, cited Scripture, said we are all loved, etc., in an actually very impressive and not too over-the-top manner. One guy said loudly, ‘Don’t want to hear it, lady.’ A woman sitting close to us began nodding her head and mumbling ‘Amen.’”
This subway evangelist shuffled off the train at 125th Street. As the doors closed behind her and the car got quiet again, Matt pointed to an ad for the very popular pop psychologist Andrew Weil’s new book Spontaneous Happiness. According to the publisher’s description, in the book Weil teaches that “true satisfaction and well-being come only from within.”
Sounds great, and not so uncouth and discourteous as our subway evangelist and her message. You can do it yourself, without all that religious stuff. But of course this also means that if you can’t do it yourself, it’s your own fault. You’ve got happiness somewhere within you and you’re just not pulling it out.
That’s an evangelistic message, too, and it’s a cruel one. That fire and brimstone lady may annoy guys in the subway, but she’s also telling them they’re not on their own, that they’ve got a friend in high places. She’s the one, bless her, who’s telling them how they can really find happiness.
♦ A lot of people in the cities dismiss people in small towns as rubes and hicks too slow for urban life. They’re not. “Maybe I can describe it this way,” says Don Colcord, the only pharmacist in 4000 square miles of southwestern Colorado, profiled in a recent issue of The New Yorker. When he moved from the city to a small town, one man offered to play checkers with him when no one would play chess. “I always thought it was kind of a simple game, but I accepted. And he beat me nine or ten games in a row. That’s sort of like living in a small town. It’s a simpler game, but it’s played to a higher level.”
Small towns are not, Colcord adds, as close-minded as people elsewhere”New York City, for example”think. People in small towns often learn not to judge others precisely because they know everyone so well and never know when they’re going to need each other. Colcord mentions needing the meth addict’s help getting his car out of a ditch late on a winter’s night. And he thinks people in small towns don’t gossip that much either, because everyone already knows so much about everyone else.
It may be the city where people can choose their intimates and wall themselves off from everyone else that has the vices those in the city ascribe to those in the country. We’re staying in New York, though.
♦ Whatever’s wrong with the Catholic Church, it’s the pope’s fault, or the bishops’ fault, or both the pope’s and the bishops’ fault, or the fault of the clergy in general. So, usually, runs the complaints Catholics make about the Church, whether they identify themselves as progressive or traditional or just plain Catholic. And there’s something to that, in a hierarchical Church. You take the job, you take the blame.
But whatever’s wrong with the Church, the clergy didn’t do it all. “Many Catholics still love the church. It’s just that we feel that the church doesn’t love us,” writes Matthew Schmalz, a blogger for the Washington Post ’s On Faith website. Here it comes, we thought, the usual complaints about distant, uncaring, out-of-touch, boys’ club prelates . . . but then Schmalz says, “I would say that those who identify the hierarchy as the sole problem are replicating a very hierarchical view of Catholicism that ignores the deep dysfunction at the core of much of Catholic life in the United States. If the church is truly a family, then it’s not all about ‘Dad.’”
In other words, as long as you’re a sinner, it’s also about you.
♦ We are pleased, as you can imagine, with the revision of the Mass that began to be used on the first Sunday of Advent, for all the reasons Anthony Esolen listed in “Restoring the Words” (November) and others. But if we could quibble, we really wish the revisers had not kept the Kyrie as one of the penitential rites.
Nothing against the Kyrie, of course, but the Confiteor says more and says explicitly what sinful people need to say. (And besides, when you say the Confiteor you then go on to say the Kyrie as well.)
Here are the words: “I confess to almighty God, and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.” The people smite their breast as they say “my fault.”
It begins with “I,” for starters, with everyone taking responsibility for his own sins, when the Kyrie offers statements about Christ — all true, of course, but not so effective an act of repentance as having to say “Yep, I did it, all right.” Then that “I” confesses that he’s sinned and admits that his sinning is his own fault, indeed his own most grievous fault, and smacks his chest while doing so, which drives home what he’s saying. He finishes by asking everyone from the Mother of God on down to the people he’s standing with to pray for him.
This, we insist, says right out loud what the sinner needs to say as he begins Mass. He’s got to lay his cards on the table, for his own good, and the Kyrie by itself doesn’t force him to do that. The Confiteor draws him into a community, of the saints in heaven and his friends on earth, and particularly the people around him. It reminds him he’s not alone in his sins, nor in turning to God for forgiveness.
And there’s one other benefit perhaps only converts notice so clearly: The Confiteor is an overtly Catholic prayer. You don’t say this prayer anywhere else. It helps you remember who you are and who you’re with, and why you’re there and not somewhere else. That’s not the primary reason for saying it, but in an age of doctrinal indifferentism, it’s still an important one.
♦ Some years ago we saw, in a short-lived Christian weekly in Pittsburgh, a reference to “the Pittsburgh pet community.” The writer didn’t mean the pets’ owners; she meant all the dogs, cats, gerbils, rabbits, turtles, fish, and birds in the area, which didn’t seem to us like much of a community. As Woody Allen said, the lion and the lamb may lie down together, but the lamb won’t get much sleep.
The word community, despite its relation to communion and the implication of a deep interrelatedness with others in the same community, doesn’t mean much anymore, beyond “group.” Writing in the conservative Anglican magazine New Directions, Trevor Jones suggests replacing the word with a better one from the Christian tradition: “Those to whom we owe moral obligation and care other than the ecclesia are our neighbors.”
The word neighbor is more specific, more focused. Our neighbors are those who live here , he points out, people who “may, or may not, understand themselves as part of the nebulous idea of ‘the community.’ Some, perhaps an increasing number, will reject the local community appellation completely, seeking to understand themselves only in terms of their self-selected networks . . . . We minister to a neighborhood, to those who live or work here regardless of their other self-understandings . . . . It is essentially better to ‘help the neighborhood grow’ than ‘move the community forward.’”
♦ What we say, even with the best intentions, has an effect. Missionary work is a trickier calling than it seems, with results that can last for generations. We thought of that when reading in Mission Frontiers about the first missionaries to Africa. They didn’t go, says Rick Woods, “with the goal of making the gospel indigenous to the people and applicable to every aspect of life.” They passed on the message “with all the cultural baggage and limitations” they brought from Europe and America.
This caused problems, he notes, quoting an African theologian: “Because the Gospel was not brought to the people as a new totally encompassing life view, which would take the place of an equally comprehensive traditional life view, the deepest core of the African culture remains untouched.” The missionaries’ presentation of the gospel being so limited, the African convert did not see that Christianity addresses his deepest concerns, and so today across Africa “Christians in time of existential needs and crises . . . fall back on their traditional beliefs and life views.”
As a result, claims another theologian Woods quotes, the dominating form of Christianity in Africa “is of an escapist and pietist nature. Their Christian faith is something of another world, without any relevance to the burning issues of Africa.”
Woods presumably speaks here about Protestant missionaries, and in any case this is a subject on which we have no expertise. But if he’s right, or even half right, it’s a useful lesson. Woe to us if we do not preach the gospel, as St. Paul wrote the Christians in Corinth, but woe to our hearers if we preach it in our own terms and confuse our own culture with the message that transforms (grace perfecting nature) all cultures.
By the way, the magazine, published by the U.S. Center for World Mission, can be found at missionfrontiers.org.
Though now that we think of it, American Christians probably live no differently than African Christians. It was our cultural baggage, after all, that seems to have affected Africans. All we have to do is examine our own lives to suspect that in times of existential needs and crisis we often return to our old ways. Lying in the hospital, we have more hope in the doctors than in God.
♦ We don’t publish letters from our own editors in the letters to the editor section, but our new junior fellow Alex Ozar couldn’t resist jumping into the discussion of Gary Anderson’s “Is Purgatory Biblical?” (October). Alex, a rabbinical student, sides with the Catholic Anderson, and writes that the Talmud “rather explicitly endorses a view on which sinners suffer only a limited period of purificatory punishment preceding their ultimate ascension to heaven”‘purgatory,’ some would call it.”
He offers some evidence for this. “Among a characteristically Mishnaic list of ‘five things that are twelve’ appears ‘the judgment of the wicked,’ said to be of no more than twelve months’ duration, following which all proceed to worship before God. For eleven months following the death of a parent, Jews recite the kaddish prayer to provide merit for the deceased’s soul”eleven, not twelve, because surely our parents were not entirely wicked.”
♦ In 1984, the enslaved people of Oceania engage in a daily “two minute hate,” a propaganda exercise in which they scream at Oceania’s enemy. It is apparently a cathartic exercise. They feel good at the end.
We’ve thought about this reading the reactions to the sexual-abuse scandal at Penn State, in which a once-beloved football coach went from national hero to national disgrace in a few short days. You just have to read the websites to find thousands of people excoriating everyone involved. “I’d never do that ” is a constant theme.
We’d like to think so, but we have our doubts. We’d all like to think of ourselves as moral heroes, but as Scripture tells us, this is one of those things in which pride goes before a fall. The New York Times’ David Brooks doubts it too, and he has evidence. One study (at Penn State!) found that when asked, half the students said they’d object if someone made a sexist comment, but in practice fewer than one-sixth said anything. Other studies have also found that our predictions about our moral integrity can be over-optimistic, and we’d be very surprised if any study ever found that we were anywhere close to as good as we thought.
And this, says Brooks, has something to do with how we think about ourselves. Earlier ages’ moral systems understood how wicked we are, and “gave people categories with which to process savagery and scripts to follow when they confronted it. They helped people make moral judgments and hold people responsible amidst our frailties.”
But now (alas) “we live in a society oriented around our inner wonderfulness. So when something atrocious happens, people look for some artificial, outside force that must have caused it, like the culture of college football, or some other favorite bogey. People look for laws that can be changed so it never happens again.”
St. Paul would have said something on the lines of “Well, duh” — not just that we’re sinners but that we’re sinners who find really good ways to deny that we’re sinners.
♦ In The Public Square, the editor writes about Robert Jenson’s new book on Lutheran slogans. As it happens, Mustafa Akyol, whose book Islam Without Extremes is reviewed in this issue, similarly criticizes the “sloganization” of Qu’ranic texts by his co-religionists.
One verse often turned into a slogan, especially by Islamic revolutionaries inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979, is “Those who do wrong will come to know by what a great reverse they will be overturned.” The verse, he argues, actually speaks about the punishment of unbelievers on the day of judgment day, not about affairs in this world.
He has an explanation for why militants of all sorts read their sacred books the way they do. And it’s not because the books themselves encourage violence. “Militants turn angry and violent not because they read their religious texts. Rather, they focus on the harsher parts of those texts because they are already angry and violent for temporal”often political”reasons.”
• We have written elsewhere that the idealistic, gestural politics of the Occupy Wall Street movement fails to meet a basic criterion of political action: that the actors have a good idea what they want. Lech Walesa agrees. The founder of the independent trade union Solidarity, which helped bring down Poland’s communist regime and eventually even the Soviet Union’s, Walesa is a man who knows what’s needed.
He explained that in an article for the San Francisco Chronicle reflecting on the world’s new protest movements, including OWS. “In the war of ideas, it’s not enough just to be against something; you have to be for something that is sound as well. Before you set out to alter the status quo, you ought to know how to replace it”and you need to be convinced, intellectually and in your heart, that the new system will actually be better.”
Solidarity had “a unifying idea,” he writes: “that men and woman have a God-given right to be free and that government has no right to deny them this freedom.” (Which is rather clearer and more concrete than what seems to be Occupy Wall Street’s unifying idea, which is something like “Things are really bad and it’s the rich guys’ fault.”)
And they had specific goals to make this unifying idea a reality: “freedom of speech, freedom to worship, freedom to organize unions, freedom to congregate in public places and express our views, freedom of the press, and freedom to contract, own property, have enterprises and work to uplift the lives of our families and communities.”
Solidarity was a grown-up’s liberation movement. And one whose experience our contemporary protesters would do well to learn from. When Walesa supports movements for freedom, he explains, “I do not support solely the idea of overthrowing those who are in power. I support the processes that would lead to new orders guaranteeing individual liberty, democracy, civic virtue, equality, and the rule of law.”
♦ Ms. magazine, dedicated among other things to the constant advance of “women’s reproductive rights,” is celebrating its fortieth birthday this year, and a friend writes that she wants to start an “Uncelebrate Ms. Campaign” encouraging people to donate to enterprises undoing the damage Ms. and its epigones cause. A second friend cheers her on, remarking, “It’s about time someone stood up against Ms.ogyny. That magazine’s Ms.sion has always been to Ms.construe the world in a fashion guaranteed to make women Ms.rable.”
• “There’s yet another criticism begging to be made here,” writes our friend Fr. Dave Poecking, responding to our item in the October issue on the new Common English Bible ”in which Adam is “the human,” Jesus “the human one” rather than “the Son of Man,” angels are called messengers, etc. He notes that “messenger” is presumably more “common English” than “angel.” At least the translators seem to have thought so. “But is it, really?” he asks.
He argues, appealing to Google, that the word “angel” is more common than “messenger.” Moreover, he asks, when was the last time you actually met a messenger? They’re all but extinct, and in this world of email and scanners and PDF files they are preserved only in very rarefied atmospheres of an elite sort of traditionalism. A “messenger” is as much an archaism as an “angel.”
So why do the translators use “messenger”? he asks. “The translators may have decided that ‘angel,’ as typically used in English, has suffered from ontologism and now needs to be re-functionalized, as it were. I fear it may be more a matter of trying to stamp out religious wonder. That, after all, is the ultimate effect of the consistently desacralized language, stripped of both poetry and drama.”
♦ The Orthodox Church in America — roughly the American branch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and after the Greeks the second largest Orthodox group in America — met in Seattle recently for their sixteenth All-American Council. Two of the church’s dioceses, Dallas and the South and San Francisco and the West, had both overwhelmingly passed resolutions asking the OCA to drop its membership in the National Council of Churches, as the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese did several years ago.
The issue never came to the floor, reportedly through delays in the resolution committee and an unwillingness to move the motion to the floor for debate, and some members of the church are asking why they weren’t allowed to talk about it. One friend in the OCA asks why any Orthodox Christian would want his name associated with a group whose goals are not, shall we say, notably Orthodox.
♦ As we write, the government of Pakistan has ordered mobile-phone companies to ban 1600 words it considers obscene, vulgar, or otherwise harmful, and this list includes “Jesus Christ.” A stumbling block to the Jews, foolishness to the Greeks, an obscenity to the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority.
♦ You will remember the character who, in the old “Loony Tunes” cartoons, briefly turns into a sucker. We thought of this when reading a New York Times story on the rise in the number of people consulting psychics for travel advice. One should not, apparently, travel during a full moon or when Mercury is in retrograde, but should travel on dates like 11/11/11. “It means angelic protection,” explained one psychic, who gets $100 for every thirty minutes of, er, what do you call it? “It means alignment. It’s all about embracing a new vibration. Travel will be better.”
But maybe we’re being unfair. Maybe there’s something to it. After all, the founder of something called the Holistic Studies Institute told the Times, “I’ve never seen a person’s plane crash, and I’ve been right every time.”
♦ Wait a second. We’ve told various anxious friends not to worry about flying, that they were going to
be just fine, and we’ve been right every time. Every single time. Kind of spooky. Just come by the First Things office before your next trip. We promise to be just as accurate as any psychic.
• In November, readers may remember, we ran an ancient Christian reflection on the ways dogs teach us to serve God, and we made a passing comment that no one would ever write such a thing about cats. This seems to have bothered Jay Pierotti. “My First Things came in the mail yesterday. I am always excited when it comes”it’s like a little Christmas,” he writes.
Imagine my dismay when I read that extremely nasty and disparaging crack about cats in “While We’re at It.” The New York Times and Jesuits, OK, but the cat-bashing really must stop. I know that my cat is an angel sent from on High no less. I am sending you pictures of my cat enjoying Happy Hour with me and comforting my wife and me after a hard day.
Take this as brotherly correction: You run the risk of being met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter, who very well may say to you not “Well done, good and faithful servant” but rather “What about all those bad things you said about cats?” Praying for your release from the yoke of canine infatuation, sincerely . . .
♦ Eleven names on the memorial at the World Trade Center read “and her unborn child.” The mainstream press seems not to have mentioned this. We’re pleased that the memorial remembers these children. We’d also be happy to see their number added to the official number of those killed in the attack, for they were also Americans who died on that day.
Which reminds us of a revealing comparison James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal ’s Opinion Journal noticed a few years ago. On the same day in 2005, the Associated Press put out stories with two different ways of speaking about the unborn: “A 13-year-old giant panda gave birth to a cub at San Diego Zoo, but a second baby died in the womb, officials said Wednesday” and “A cancer-ravaged woman robbed of consciousness by a stroke has given birth after being kept on life support for three months to give her fetus extra time to develop.”
♦ Our long-time writer, advisory council member, and friend Michael Novak became famous for his theology and then for social thought, but he is also, you might like to know, a poet. Just out is his book All Nature is a Sacramental Fire, collecting his poems from his time as a professed religious in the early fifties to a moving tribute to his late wife, “On Loving Karen,” written last year. It also includes a rollicking “Ballad of Richard John [Neuhaus],” modeled on Chesterton’s Lepanto , and much else besides. It can be ordered at his website michaelnovak.net .
In Michael Novak’s “Ballad of Richard John,” he writes near the end:
And Richard John of First Things rides home from his Crusade,
He tells his crews this message, which I mark down in my book:
“We’ll turn this thing around, my friends”
Just turn your head and look.
Our foes are fierce, and O! they boast!
But you can tell them now, my friends,
In Richard’s eyes, they’re toast!”
Our founder exhibited great hope for the nation and for the world, especially if religiously serious people became thoughtfully and energetically engaged in the public square. We think so too, of course.