A whole bunch of things to keep you reading for a while.
First, the continuing papal roundup. In The Cardinal from the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan reflects on the lessons the cardinals should learn from this pope’s life and particularly his death.
Here is a somewhat distressing article from The New Republic’s website (you need to register), distressing because the author was until very recently the editor of our sister magazine First Things: Damon Linker’s The Absolutist, subtitled The Problem With John Paul II’s Chief Legacy. He writes
there are reasons to be suspicious of all absolutisms—even the noblest kinds. While they inspire great certainty and conviction, they also distort our vision, obscuring the exceedingly complicated, even paradoxical, character of morality itself. Take the Pope’s influence on the way stem-cell research is discussed in the United States.
John Paul convinced many American conservatives that the union of sperm and ovum instantly produces a unique person who possesses the same dignity (and thus rights) as a mature human being; embryonic stem-cell research, which destroys this person within two weeks of conception, must therefore be prohibited. From this standpoint, those who support such research appear to be immoralists advocating a bloodthirsty “culture of death.”
But this is far from fair. It is neither nihilism nor a craving for “death” that leads many of us to conclude that we should support research that promises to relieve human suffering when doing so inflicts no suffering of its own. (A microscopic clump of cells in a petri dish is, of course, non-sentient.) On the contrary, this conclusion flows from an intuition embedded in moral common sense. This is not to deny a certain moral grandeur to the Pope’s absolutist stance, which holds that the defense of innate human dignity ought to trump suffering every time. But denying that both positions have moral weight does serious damage to the richness and complexity of moral experience.
You will notice some of the usual signs of the polemicist, not least the exaggeration and caricature of his target’s views, and especially true of the “moderate” writing polemically, not least the appeals to complexity (meaning “my target is simple-minded”) and the partial concessions of his target’s worth that nevertheless imply his faults and failures (meaning “my target’s virtues weren’t really so admirable after all”).
Now to other, cheerier, subjects. From Michael Medved, No fear of a Christian revival. The article is adapted from Medved’s new book Right Turns: Unconventional Lessons from a Controversial Life and appeared in the Baptist Press. He begins:
American Jews harbor the stubbornly irrational conviction that a Christian revival in this country would threaten their security and survival. To them, religious faith amounts to a zero-sum game so that any strengthening or intensification of Christianity leads inexorably to a diminution of Judaism.
This argument pointedly ignores the evidence of the recent past: In the 1950s, the Jewish community experienced an unprecedented wave of suburban synagogue construction, along with vastly increased rates of congregational affiliation, all at precisely the same time that the Christian community went through its own surge of church attendance (“The Family That Prays Together Stays Together”) and public activism (the insertion of the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance).
Two decades later, the dynamic, much-discussed Baal T’shuvah (“Return”) movement in Judaism coincided with the explosive growth of evangelical and Pentecostal Christianity—in both cases led by young people from disaffiliated or casually engaged homes who passionately embraced more fervent and traditional forms of religiosity than their parents ever practiced.
There’s no logical or empirical basis to assume that a trend which sees Christians taking their own faith more seriously will somehow force Jews to move in the opposite direction and to discard our traditions more thoughtlessly. In fact, it’s easy to argue that more respectful attention for Christianity (in its various manifestations) will likely spill over to encourage Jews to look more carefully at the substance of our own ancient creed.
A more Christian America need not menace Judaism (or any other minority religion), but it does threaten secularism—and despite confusion on the part of left-leaning agencies in the Jewish community, the interests of secularism and Judaism do not count as identical. It may weaken Christianity, for instance, if large numbers of our fellow citizens claim no religious affiliation, but that disaffiliation in no way can be said to strengthen Judaism.
Also from the BP, an important article: Land, others urge pressure on China to protect North Korean refugees.
Inevitably worth reading, given the writer: The Sovereign Individual from the latest issue of the English magazine The Spectator, by the great Mark Steyn.
In Thou shalt not be negative, Douglas LeBlanc offers a balanced review of TV Pastor Joel Osteen’s bestselling Your Best Life Now. He notes the book’s value, but also notes its defects.
Osteen takes his emphasis on being positive so far as to shoehorn the concept into biblical passages. Thus Moses’ charge to the Israelites becomes, “I have set before you life and death, blessings, and curses, positive and negative; therefore God says choose life” (a subtle spin on Deut. 30:15-19). Similarly, he writes that the Israelites’ “lack of faith and their lack of self-esteem robbed them of the fruitful future God had in store for them.”
Osteen also stresses generosity, but he tinges this with a formula he calls “In the time of need, sow a seed.” Even acts of mercy are not string-free expressions of God’s grace, but faith-building down payments in a “You can’t outgive God” account.
And he tells one story that seems to me quite revealing, of Osteen refusing to check a camera when flying to India and being told by the clerk that
the airline’s policy strictly forbids him from carrying it on, and Osteen asks if he can talk to someone else. A pilot walks up and offers to stow the camera behind the cockpit.
“The woman behind the counter glared at me and shook her head, clearly aggravated,” Osteen writes. “I just smiled and said, ‘Sorry, ma’am; it’s the favor of God.’” Or was it simply that an observant pilot intervened to prevent an unnecessary conflict (which some planning on Osteen’s part could have prevented) from escalating?
“It’s the favor of God”? Said—smiling—to some poor woman just trying to do her job and enforce rules created for the safety of the passengers and crew? Doug is too nice. The man’s a twit.
Also from Christianity Today, a fabulously useful round up of weblinks on a range of stories: Prelude to the contraception wars. The title seems to refer to the desire of certain politicians to force pharmacists to give out “morning after contraception” as morning after abortifacients are called by the less than honest, against their principles.
The Daily Telegraph offers a judicious obituary of the feminist writer Andrea Dworkin. It begins
Andrea Dworkin, the American radical feminist who has died aged 58, campaigned ferociously against pornography and the abuse of women for almost 40 years; the author of several controversial feminist texts, she dismissed men as moral cretins, said that seduction was hard to distinguish from rape, and regarded pornography as akin to terrorism.
Although she was lauded by some of her fellow feminists, many felt that her inflammatory writing (and possibly her appearance) did little for the cause; to Dworkin, men were, at best, oafish misogynists, while most were rapists for whom the primary sexual motive was killing.
She seems to have had too much personal experience of men like this, and one hopes this explains the anger and (if you will pardon the metaphor) hysteria of her writings. I’m not sure I would have responded any differently. She would have hated being pitied (as do we all), but one does pity her.
Although she was a favorite whipping girl of culture warring conservatives, I must admit to admiring her, in a way, for her consistency and for her passionate consistency, or consistency in her passion. She did herself in with the liberal and feminist establishments, who didn’t mind her extreme comments on men as rapists, by attacking pornography. When her book on the subject came out, the usual sources tut tutted in a way they had not for her other books. Previously unfurrowed brows furrowed.
She had switched from attacking men as a class to attacking an expression of the sexual revolution, and this was not done. I never read her book, but I did read an article by her on the subject which made perfect sense.
She had seen that pornography was dehumanizing and was an assault upon the dignity and worth of women: was indeed a form of violence. I don’t think she saw that such things were as much an assault by women as by men, nor saw the mind and spirit from which it preceded (which she shared with her liberal and feminist critics) and she certainly didn’t see where the true defense of feminine dignity was to be found, but she saw a lot farther than most liberals and feminists did. One should perhaps read her as one reads the more brutal writings of Jonathan Swift.
An Episcopal reader sent me this link to an article she liked on the theology of icons: Iconology 101.
The Lilly Endowment’s Pulpit and Pew study has just released its report Clergy Careers, which its press release calls “A wakeup call for Protestant denominations and pastors.”
And the Alliance for Marriage has just released its Annual Report on the American Workplace titled Not Married to the Job. It begins:
As the lines between work and family life become increasingly blurred in today’s workplace it is more important than ever for employers to take the lead in making work more family friendly.
American workers strongly support family-friendly work policies, particularly flexible employment practices that benefit married and unmarried workers alike. In fact, a recent survey by Robert Half International finds that tele-commuting is second only to salary as a recruiting tool. Moreover, a national poll by Wirthlin Worldwide finds a resounding 87 percent of all Americans agree with the statement, “Businesses should voluntarily do more to help strengthen their employees’ marriages by offering flex-time/job-sharing/home-based work options.”
For a surprising libertarian argument for a conservative marriage policy, see Jennifer Roback Morse’s Marriage and the Limits of Contract in Policy Review. In her summary of the article:
Marriage exists prior to the state. We will all be better off if the state’s regulation and recognition of marriage takes into account the basic pre-political facts about marriage.
A culture that insists on marriage as the normal situation for child-rearing has a much better chance of having a smaller government. A society that sees no difference between having children in uncommitted sexual encounters and in marriage will be unable to resist the pressures for an expansive and expensive, social assistance state, whether anyone intends that outcome or not.
Morse, a Catholic, is a fellow of the Hoover Institute and has a website called Join the Marriage Revolution.
And finally, several articles from the Sydney Morning Herald (this site requires registration, I think) on the problem of declining population: Where have all the babies gone?, arguing that “If Australia’s birth rate keeps declining, even massive immigration cannot save us from a population slide and a future dominated by old people”; Making the family cool again, arguing that “Selfish young adults and ‘unimaginative men’ will have to go if Australia is to produce more children”; Hell on two legs: the tiny generation, arguing that “Children are the new focus between the haves and the have-nots”; and Childless by choice, a short article on people who choose not to have children, which is to say, in Christian terms, choose to go through a wedding ceremony to create something that is not a marriage. The idea of being married and refusing to let your marriage be physically fruitful makes me shudder.