“The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor” reviewed by Ralph C. Wood
Thursday, April 25, 2013, 10:33 AM

From the new issue of Touchstone.

A Fierce Holiness

The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O’Connor
by Jonathan Rogers

reviewed by Ralph C. Wood

In 1922 G. K. Chesterton famously described the United States as “a nation with the soul of a church.” Unlike virtually all European countries of his time, America had no established state church. Yet it was still founded on a creed—namely, on a set of stated Enlightenment principles that overtly acknowledged God while refusing to enforce religious tests. Though Chesterton was far from convinced that Americans had created a sure remedy against tyranny, he might have noticed what was strange about his attraction to the obstreperous and boundary-bending Walt Whitman.

It was strange because Whitman’s heterodoxy is in thorough accord with the other major nineteenth-century American authors: Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Twain, Melville, Dickinson. Like Faulkner and Frost and Stevens in the twentieth century, they all had deeply religious concerns, but none of them was animated by a confessionally Christian vision. On the contrary, they found themselves ill at ease with a Christianity that closely tracked the nation’s political life, such that being American and being Christian were virtually synonymous. The worship and witness of the churches offered them a challenge insufficiently distinctive for their embrace as imaginative writers.

Not until the middle years of the twentieth century did such a writer appear on the American scene, a woman who came from the margins rather than the center of the nation’s churchly “soul.” Flannery O’Connor was an outsider in almost every sense. She grew up in Milledgeville, a small city in middle Georgia. She was a devout Roman Catholic in an overwhelmingly Protestant region. And she created a fiction marked by such physical violence and religious vehemence that many readers find it uncongenial. Yet therein lies her revolutionary importance: her fiction goes against the grain of American moral and religious life.

Endorsement and Academic Freedom by John Garvey
Thursday, April 11, 2013, 9:59 AM

Debates About Commencement Speakers & Student Groups Reveal a Double Standard

This is the time of year when we begin to argue about commencement speakers. Every spring Catholic colleges attract attention for inviting (or disinviting) speakers whose messages are at odds with the teaching of the Catholic Church. This matter of honoring commencement speakers is a lot like another issue we wrestle with throughout the academic year—giving official recognition to student groups. Both issues touch on an institution’s expression of its own identity. I’d like to offer some thoughts relevant to this year’s inevitable round of debates.

In spring 2012 there was a flap over Georgetown University’s choice of Kathleen Sebelius to speak at the commencement of its Public Policy Institute. The Department of Health and Human Services, which Sebelius heads, had just announced that it would force Catholic colleges and universities to cover surgical sterilizations and prescription contraceptives, including some that may cause early-stage abortions, in the healthcare plans they offer to students and employees. The archbishop of Washington protested the invitation of Sebelius, as did some 27,000 people who signed a petition.

It was like the dispute in 2009 when Notre Dame invited President Obama to give its commencement speech and awarded him an honorary degree. Let me focus my attention on that one, because the facts are better known. The president is a strong supporter of abortion. As a state senator in Illinois, he opposed the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act, intended to prevent the killing of infants who survived an abortion attempt. As a presidential candidate, he criticized the Supreme Court’s decision in Gonzales v. Carhart, which upheld the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act of 2003. He wasn’t in office as president for three days before he lifted restrictions on government funding for groups that provide abortion services or counseling abroad.

Giving the president an honorary degree seemed to be a tacit endorsement of these views by the university. Fr. John Jenkins, Notre Dame’s president, disowned this meaning in his speech to the graduates. When he introduced Obama he said, “We are fully supportive of Church teaching on the sanctity of human life, and we oppose [the president's] policies on abortion and embryonic stem-cell research.” But that did little to still the controversy. Bishop John D’Arcy of Fort Wayne–South Bend decided not to attend the graduation rather than suggest his approval of the president’s policies, and 82 other bishops joined him in condemning Notre Dame for its action.

Who was in the right there?

Continue reading. . . .
(with responses by Russell D. Moore, Patrick Henry Reardon, Hunter Baker, and Gregory L. Jao)

This article is from the upcoming May/June 2013 issue of Touchstone.

Anthony Esolen on the Hymn “The Story of the Cross” by Edward Monro
Wednesday, March 6, 2013, 11:47 AM

From the March/April 2013 Touchstone:


smallcover 26 02 Anthony Esolen on the Hymn The Story of the Cross by Edward MonroAt the Cross of Jesus

At the end of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the good Gawain approaches the Green Chapel, where he is certain he must die. It’s New Year’s Day, the snow lies deep, and a grindstone hums nearby. As far as Sir Gawain knows, it’s sharpening the ax that will shear off his head. “I’ll be with you right away,” calls the demonic Green Knight from behind the chapel. That chapel is a place of foreboding. There is no cross.

I’ve been to a chapel without a cross. It was converted from an old factory. The windowless inner “worship room” boasted electronic equipment for music and videos, but no cross. I felt, there, a little like Gawain. There’s something wrong, in the sense of being crooked, bent, about a chapel without a cross. It cannot lead to good.

The Question of Christianity

Quite different is the wisdom of a remarkable five-part hymn by one Edward Monro: “The Story of the Cross”(1864). The first part is The Question:

See Him in raiment rent,
With His blood dyed:
Women walk sorrowing
By His side.

Heavy that Cross to Him,
Weary the weight:
One who will help Him stands
At the gate.

Multitudes hurrying
Pass on the road:
Simon is sharing with
Him the load.

Who is this travelling
With the curst tree—
This weary prisoner—
Who is He?

The terse meter provides, at the end of each stanza, a moment of extraordinary pathos. For the last line is “missing” its first syllable. It begins on a strong beat, set apart from the meter of the rest of the stanza. The women walk in sorrow, where? By His side. Who is this weary prisoner? Who is He? That is the question of Christianity, right there.

Folke T. Olofsson on The History & Revelation of Anamnesis in Platonic, Jewish & Christian Thought
Monday, March 4, 2013, 12:00 PM

An excerpt from the article “All This in Remembrance” in the March/April 2013 Touchstone:

smallcover 26 02 Folke T. Olofsson on The History & Revelation of Anamnesis in Platonic, Jewish & Christian ThoughtZikkaron is the Hebrew word for the Greek anamnesis. The difference between the two conceptions can hardly be exaggerated: they represent two different worlds, two different modes of understanding human existence.

The Hebrew word is “a sacrificial term that brings the offerer into remembrance before God, or brings God into favorable remembrance with the offerer” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia). It refers to something given in time and space, which is the point of reference and contact between man and the Absolute, between man and God—in this case, man’s action in the form of a sacrifice, offered in the context of liturgical celebration. This commemoration of something that has happened in space and time becomes clearly visible in the celebration of Passover. It is a memorial set up to be observed as a liturgical remembrance of sacred history.

At the celebration of Pascha, the youngest participant asks why this night is different from all other nights (Ma Nishtana), and, in an elaborate liturgy, the Exodus from Egypt is not only remembered and commemorated, but is re-actualized, re-presented through the retelling of the Exodus story (Maggid). Those present are not only remembering something in the past, as if they were witnessing the event from afar, but are participating in the actual Exodus through the liturgy. Their celebration is a part of God’s ongoing saving activity, not only in the past, but here and now, concluding with the expression of hope that the Messiah will come and that the next celebration of Passover will be in Jerusalem, the Holy City. In the present, the celebration looks back to something that once occurred, and it looks forward in hope to something that will happen in the future, and all is encompassed in God’s mighty and liberating deeds for his people.

We can say that the reason for the celebration of Pascha is man’s reaction to God’s action. It is not an end in itself, a nice tradition to strengthen the Jewish identity, although that may come as a byproduct. It is God’s initiative, his action, which is “the reason for the season.”

Read the article online.

Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction reviewed by Graeme Hunter
Thursday, February 21, 2013, 9:48 AM

NEW from the March/April 2013 issue of Touchstone.


death afterlife theological introduction terence nichols paperback cover art1 Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction reviewed by Graeme HunterThe End Is Clear

Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction
by Terence Nichols

reviewed by Graeme Hunter

Diane, a mother in her mid-forties, is dying of leukemia, leaving behind her husband and two teenage boys. The stuff of domestic tragedy. You can easily imagine distraught relatives, and nagging questions that have no reply.

However, in Terence Nichols’s fine book, Death and Afterlife, Diane’s death figures as a luminous episode, which left her loved ones with “an inexplicable sense of peace and joy.” Her story serves as a frame for Nichols’s book, not only to introduce the wider themes of death and what comes after, but also to prepare the reader to consider the forgotten art of “dying well,” the master theme towards which the story builds.

It was wise to defer that unfamiliar theme to the end of the book. Modern people need all the help they can get to grasp an idea so out of keeping with the age. A world as materialistic, scientistic, and consumerist as ours inclines by its nature to impulsive self-absorption, and is little given to introspection about death or the inscrutable reality behind death’s door. Instinctively the modern mind thrusts aside such meditations as morbid and medieval. In their place we put the celebration of life. Think of the new style of obituary, in which we are promised a celebration of the loved one’s life but seldom a funeral, much less a Service or Mass of Christian Burial. Lacking the concepts to deal intelligently with death, we think it better to avert our gaze.

A Better Approach

Nichols’s engaging book offers readers something better. It presents the Christian Church’s considered wisdom about death and the afterlife in a manner that is both informed and practical. It addresses the difficulty of integrating Christian belief on these matters with modern presuppositions, and only then turns to offering practical ways of making the contemplation of mortality, resurrection, and eternal life our means of dying well.

continue reading . . .

Gilbert Meilaender on Reading Dorothy Sayers’s Play Cycle for Lent
Tuesday, February 19, 2013, 1:50 PM

NEW from the March/April issue of Touchstone:

smallcover 26 02 Gilbert Meilaender on Reading Dorothy Sayerss Play Cycle for LentThe Greatest Drama Ever

On June 4, 1955, C. S. Lewis wrote to Dorothy Sayers to thank her for a pamphlet and letter she had sent him. He noted, in passing, that “as always in Holy Week,” he had been “re-reading [Sayers's] The Man Born to Be King. It stands up to this v. particular kind of test extremely well.” We might, I think, do far worse than imitate Lewis in our own Lenten reading.

The Man Born to Be King is a series of radio plays, twelve in all, dramatizing the life of Jesus from birth to death and resurrection. First broadcast by the BBC in 1941–1942, they were published in 1943, together with Sayers’s notes for each play and a long Introduction she wrote recounting both her aims and approaches in writing the plays and some of the first (often comical) reactions from the public.

Sayers did not suffer fools gladly, and she takes evident delight in recounting objections, many of which grew out of a kind of piety that resisted the deliberate realism of the plays. Thus, for example, among those who wrote her with objections was one who objected to her having Herod tell his court, “Keep your mouths shut.” The reason for the objection? Such “coarse expressions” struck the correspondent as “jarring on the lips of any one ‘so closely connected with our Lord.’”

Of course, some of the objections can be better understood and may seem less comical if we note how much has changed since the plays were first broadcast roughly three-quarters of a century ago. Sayers notes in her Introduction that British law at the time prohibited “the representation on the stage of any Person of the Holy Trinity”—and this, in turn, encouraged listeners to think of Jesus in ways that could scarcely do justice to his genuine humanity. Therefore, while observing within Christian sacred art “a dialectic” that emphasizes sometimes the incarnation of the eternal Word in Jesus, and other times the “scandal of particularity” in Jesus the first-century Jew, her plays tilt in the latter direction, toward a kind of realistic narrative. Jesus is, quite simply, the man born to be king.

There were, though, other difficulties confronting her that have not changed much over time. For the British public at the time she wrote—but also, in many cases, for us today—the Gospels were known chiefly “as a collection of disjointed texts and moral aphorisms wrenched from their contexts.” This is, after all, the way we read them Sunday after Sunday. There is nothing wrong with doing so; indeed, there is much that is right about it. Still, it creates problems for the dramatist who aims to produce a story that is coherent in its overall trajectory and in its several episodes.

Touchstone January/February 2013
Wednesday, January 2, 2013, 9:00 AM
cover 26 01 Touchstone January/February 2013

Jan/Feb 2013

2012 was a great year for Touchstone. Thanks to the many people who have supported us! Subscribe to Touchstone today to receive the first issue of the new year and to get on board for 2013! Find us on Kindle, too.

ts 20121 Touchstone January/February 2013

Touchstone 2012

Touchstone Nov/Dec 2012 Article by Rebecca Sicree
Tuesday, October 30, 2012, 9:59 AM

smallcover 25 06 Touchstone Nov/Dec 2012 Article by Rebecca SicreeThe Recycled Goat

On the Adventures of Gift-Giving in a Large Family

It was one of our more embarrassing Christmases. It started when our daughter Isabel opened her grandmother’s gift: a beautiful doll of a newborn baby. It was exactly what she had wanted. It was also identical to the one from me that she had opened a minute before. Obviously, I had gotten my Christmas lists mixed up.

But I was thinking on my feet that morning.

“Oh look, Isabel!” I exclaimed, “Twins!”

Isabel’s puzzled look turned to a smile.

I wasn’t so lucky with Teresa, who was staring at her jewelry kit in bewilderment.

“Don’t you like it?” I asked.

“Oh, it’s not that,” she said at last. “It’s just that Marta gave this to me at my birthday party back in July. Don’t you remember? You put it away right away so that John wouldn’t eat the beads.”

“I thought you bought it for her,” my husband whispered to me.

“I thought you bought it for her,” I whispered back.

“At least,” he sighed, “we gave it to the right kid.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised that this had happened—like hobbits, we give away so many gifts in our family of twelve that we end up using a lot of recycled ones. We even have a mathom chest where we store gifts between incarnations. It’s just that we do try not to give the same thing twice to the same child.

continue reading . . .


These Christmas adventures by Rebecca Sicree have been a regular feature in November/December issues of Touchstone for the last couple years now and they are very fun reads.

Nativity Players

On the New Adventures of the Baby Jesus

Food, Noise, Fire!

On the Bethlehem Baboon & Other Christmas Traditions

Touchstone Nov/Dec 2012 Article by Hunter Baker
Monday, October 29, 2012, 10:06 AM

cover 25 062 233x300 Touchstone Nov/Dec 2012 Article by Hunter BakerMoynihan’s Family Arc

On the Missing Element in a Government Jobs Strategy

Daniel Patrick Moynihan (the longtime Democratic senator from New York) once suggested instituting twice-daily mail service as a way of providing good government jobs for African-American males. Moynihan’s notion demonstrates that modern liberals do not always build up the number of government jobs because more employees are needed to accomplish some mission, but because they are trying to provide a quality lifestyle for large numbers of people. In other words, the job itself (the entry on the payroll) is the mission.

In his response to President Obama’s 2012 State of the Union address, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels commented that the president appears to sincerely believe that a middle class can be created with government jobs paid for by government dollars. Perhaps such a position would not be so fantastic if there were a different spiritual core at the heart of modern left-liberalism.

continue reading . . .

Touchstone Nov/Dec 2012 Article by Leon J. Podles
Friday, October 26, 2012, 9:25 AM

cover 25 061 233x300 Touchstone Nov/Dec 2012 Article by Leon J. PodlesCatechism’s Ostracism

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics by Ross Douthat reviewed by Leon J. Podles

. . .

Ross Douthat has observed the decline of Christian orthodoxy in America, and his thesis in Bad Religion is simple: although the United States remains a religious nation, the religions that are flourishing are Christian heresies. Douthat uses Alister McGrath’s definition of heresy, which is “best seen as a form of Christian belief that, more by accident than design, ultimately ends up subverting, destabilizing or even destroying the core of Christian faith” (Bad Religion, 9). Douthat also largely concurs with Chesterton’s view of heretics as simplifiers who want to resolve the paradoxes and tensions of Christianity by discarding or distorting a key element in the Christian synthesis.

. . .

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