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A Problem with Half-Missing Lines
Tuesday, March 15, 2005, 9:58 AM

Some readers who use Internet Explorer will notice an occasional and recurring problem with Mere Comments: lines of text in our posts where the bottom half of the letters is missing. We are working with TypePad to resolve this error. In the meantime, if you have an alternative browser (Netscape, Mozilla, Safari, etc.) please use it to read Mere Comments.

Thank you for your patience.

Emerging from What?
Monday, March 14, 2005, 2:32 PM

One reader responds to David Mills’ The Emergents and the Evangelicals:

Although I do not presume to be an “expert” on the Emergent movement (how would one go about procuring such an expertise?), I’ve yet to encounter anything written by or about Emergentists that rises to the level of comprehensibility. This is partly, I think, due to a concerted effort on the part of Emergentists to remain incomprehensible—a vice that is usefully mistaken for the virtues of depth and mystery. More importantly, however, it strikes me that the Emergent movement is attempting the metaphysically impossible: to bring something out of nothing.

As a Gen-X’er, I empathize with the search for an authentic Christian spirituality—one that transcends the vapidity of Baby-boomer evangelicalism. Yet thus far, I see no philosophical grounds for believing that the Emergent church movement represents the way out. This is because there are points at which one will never get out by going forward (as the name “Emergent” suggests). There are points at which one must, as Vizzini told Inigo in The Princess Bride, “go back to the beginning.” And the post-modern point in which we live today and from which the Emergent church is purportedly “emerging” represents just such a point. One cannot move forward (emerge) when there is nothing there from which to move.

Goin’ back,

Justin Barnard

Justin D. Barnard
Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Chair
Department of Humanities
Crichton College

A Week from Today
Friday, March 11, 2005, 4:36 PM

If nothing changes in her favor, and we must face the fact that it isn’t likely to given the state of our laws and the culture that drives them, the State of Florida, acting on the unrelenting desire of her husband, will slowly starve Terry Schiavo to death beginning a week from today.

Resistance to such crimes can be measured in small acts too numerous to mention: prayers, petition cards, legal motions, telling our neighbors stories that witness to her personhood, even the offer of a million dollars to ransom Ms. Schiavo from the grip of men tenaciously intent on murder.

One such act was an essay, Let Live or Make Die?, written by William Luse and published in this month’s edition of Touchstone.

Death on a Friday Afternoon: A Recommendation
Thursday, March 10, 2005, 4:30 PM

In the West, we are appoaching Good Friday, just two weeks from tomorrow.

Tuesday night I went down to our local library to borrow Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus, as I have in years past.

It might seem strange to call a book with this title a primer on Christianity, but our entire faith is distilled in these “Seven Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross.”

A first-rate guide for converts, this is a book to be re-read every year: to remember what is important, to clear the dross of wrestling with false teachers or of thinking too hard about controversies, and to center the mind and heart on what is essential—faith, hope, love.

As Neuhaus writes, “If what Christians say about Good Friday is true, then it is, quite simply, the truth about everything.”

What kind of dog are you?
Thursday, March 10, 2005, 3:59 PM

Now for something completely odd, sent around by our contributing editor, Kevin Offner. Apparently there is a sort-of-new British comedy film titled Gone to the Dogs. I know nothing about the film, and this is certainly not meant as an endorsement, but Kevin brought to our attention a game/personality test on the film’s website (click on “What Dog Are You”) which purports to show what breed of dog you are most like.

The game is set in one of the spiffiest Web animations I’ve ever laid eyes on.

Kevin is most like an Irish Wolfhound, it seems, and (being a Southerner I can only express pride here) I am most like an American Black & Tan Coonhound.

Again, no warrants made about the film or the game/test, whatever its results for you.

Lent and the Modern Mind
Thursday, March 10, 2005, 3:21 PM

Partrick Hannigan, known to some as the Paragraph Farmer, has these good lines toward the end of a new article for Catholic Exchange:

Fortunately, the season of Lent is countercultural in all the right ways. By admitting that we have sinned through our own fault, we consciously abandon the “devil made me do it” excuse that has been a favorite of victim-class thinking since Adam and Eve. By repenting before God, we acknowledge that He exists outside of how we feel about things.

Lent reminds us that there is no future in trying to drive a wedge between “reality-based” policy and “faith-based” policy, because God, the subject of faith, is also the ground of all reality.

A lay Catholic theologian named Mark Price recently showed me another way to affirm this truth. Price drew from John’s story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, reminding his audience that the woman had been ostracized by and from her neighbors. After encountering Jesus, however, she left her jar at the well to seek out the very people whom she had been avoiding. The same thing happened to Peter, who abandoned his fishing, and to the Magi, who returned to their country by a different route.

See where this is going? Of course you do: Jesus is so real that meeting Him always forces us to change both our plans and ourselves. When the imperfect meets the perfect, one yields because the other cannot.

Mothering Madness Gets the Lileks Treatment
Tuesday, March 8, 2005, 10:44 AM

I caught a brief virus and then went on the road to Michigan, and so was away from the office for a better part of last week, thus my absence in this space and the presence of a few more typos than I usually let stand when around to sweep them under the rug.

Newsweek ran a bizarre cover story in its February 21 issue, Mommy Madness, lacking (surprise, surprise) perspective in its reporting and insidious in its aims, which was sliced and diced by Charles Colson in a Breakpoint radio commentary, and was wonderfully skewered and grilled by the ever-amusing James Lileks, whose commentaries are surrounded by scenes from adventures he shares with his preschool-aged daughter, whom he gives the affectionate internet name of Gnat.

There is also this fun piece, Meet the Slacker Mom, in the February 13 issue of Newsweek. While some might take this mother’s formula as an excuse to pursue mediocrity, there is wisdom in her keep-it-simple approach even as we seek to be perfect as Christ is perfect.

More Letters on Film
Tuesday, March 1, 2005, 1:39 PM

Our discussion of film continues with a new letter from Ms. Bluett:

Ever since Christians came up out of the catacombs, they have had occasion to debate the appeal to the senses. Architecture, art, music, theater, books: all the arts had to face the hurdle of concupiscence. Should the walls be decorated? Would that not be merely an appeal to the lust of the eyes? What about music and the lust of the ears? Even the books had to face this hurdle on the issue of manuscript illumination. Proponents on both sides of the question have advanced arguments for centuries; there has been no resolution. Art and asceticism continue to exist in an uneasy tension.

I am hardly the person who can resolve that centuries-old tension. I can be confident, however, that there is a tradition of Christian art behind me as I make my way in the world of entertainment. The major argument that was advanced for Christian “concupiscence” in the Middle Ages was art’s ability to reach through the senses of the sinful and/or unlearned and appeal to the soul. Art can engage the lesser functions of humanity and direct them to a higher end. Hence, artists needed training in their fields and access to the most precious materials to adorn the world, delivering to the viewer a visual metaphor for the world transformed by Christ. Abbot Suger’s account of the renovations of Saint-Denis are a part of this tradition: gold and jewels appeal to the sensual man’s interests while they tell him how precious is the subject of the artwork. The eyes can direct the thoughts; art can inspire devotion. This was the purpose of the  great liturgical drama cycles. Seeing the suffering of Christ was meant to inspire compassion and repentance for the sins that caused the suffering. Like centuries of writers before me, I am willing to concede “that there is something deeply problematic about what appeals in the first instance to the lust of our eyes.” But I am not willing to concede that the appeal cannot be directed to good ends.

I am also more than willing to ”acknowledge that reading is not the same as sitting in a live audience.” There’s something intense and powerful about sitting in a live audience and sharing an experience. That’s why we worship communally. We need both the communal experience and the silent retreat, the time alone with the book (whether or not it’s illuminated). Both of these modes of experience are powerful; each has its inherent dangers. Wayne C. Booth in The Rhetoric of Fiction and Roger Shattuck in Forbidden Knowledge discuss the dangers of reading, the way in which the reader’s intimacy with the narrator and characters and the way those characters act against the moral background of the story can have a profound effect on the thoughts of the reader long after he or she has finished the book. I would also advance the case of The DaVinci Code and its phenomenal popularity even among Christians as evidence that the world of books has as much to answer for as the world of movies.

Reading is different from theater, “that in turn is not the same as watching what is presented as life itself, not acted but merely photographed.” True. (For the record, I’d like to note that what we consider the impartiality of the camera and it’s inability to draw moral distinctions is a phenomenon that began in novels—specifically, the novels of Henry James.) Every medium has its pros and cons. Film—especially when combined with “accompanying and seductive music” is extremely sensual. But then, so are we. We can wean ourselves from that sensuality, especially now, during Lent. But we can also direct it to good ends. We fast during the week and feast on Sundays, mostly during Mass—feasting on music and stories and community and, yes, food. These are appetites common to all of humanity, and we are called to feed our brothers and sisters, as well.

Of all the comments to appear in this thread, those that have resonated most deeply in me came from Daniel P. Crandall: “Which path is the Way? I don’t really know. I just think it is wrong to encourage Christians to abandon their neighbors to the most powerful proponent of secularism, materialism, nihilism, and general anti-Christian animosity. It is just as wrong to encourage Christians to abandon the ascetic life in order to shed their Christian light on the culture. Those in the city and those in the proverbial desert oppose the culture of death as they are called by God.”

Not only can Christians watch movies and plays, as well as read books. They should also make movies, plays, and books. According to Genesis 18:32, the Lord would not destroy Sodom if there were ten good men there (there weren’t). If Hollywood is another Sodom, it is a much bigger one, but the number in Genesis hasn’t changed. All we need is ten. Maybe they’re already there (maybe that’s why California hasn’t dropped off into the sea). Maybe God is forbearing. It’s a big world. I suspect that S.M. Hutchens, Anthony Esolen, and I will always disagree about where we ought to be living in it. I can’t tell them to leave the desert. But I don’t think I’ll be following them, either.

—Kate Bluett

Our contributing editor, Anothony Esolen, replies:

Well, I’m a translator of the Divine Comedy, and I’m being reminded that art, by the very means of its appeal to the senses, can lead people to Christ. But neither Dr. Hutchens nor I deny it. We celebrate it. Our contention is that there is something specifically problematic about film: and part of it pertains to the medium itself, and part to the cultural situation in which we find ourselves.

Simply put, the closest cultural analogue to film that I can think of, in terms of its combination of sheer visual and emotional power, the utter absorption of the viewer, and a concomitant withering of healthy popular culture, would be the gladiatorial spectacles whose main purpose was to keep an urban rabble satisfied and a bored and jaded aristocracy from getting any revolutionary ideas. Miss Bluett attempts to argue that objections to film can also be made to, say, the live theater, or to reading, or to looking at the glass at Saint Denis. But to say that an objection can be made is not to conclude that it would be valid, or how far and under what circumstances it would be valid.

Let me put it this way: Renaissance polyphony might well distract the hearer from the meaning of the words sung, to the veritable cascade of notes and voices tumbling sensuously one upon the other. But what Renaissance polyphony does not do, even if that complaint is valid, is place within the mind a nearly inexpungeable memory of, say, a man having his heart lanched with a spear while the crowd roars; or a man and woman, ten feet large on the screen, having sex.

That kind of vicarious experience is of an entirely different order from what we have when we read or even when we watch actors perform on stage before us. The danger of absorption into the unreal is far greater; the reason is easier to short circuit; you cannot put the movie down, as you can put down a book, and clear your head; you are not so aware of the artificiality of it all, as you are when you watch someone on stage.

We have, in other words, much weaker protection against this particular medium when it is misused, and the temptation to misuse it is, nowadays, overwhelming. For let us now look at what we are working with—and this has to do not with film as a medium in itself but with the place that film has assumed in our civilization. If we encourage people with good films (and neither Steve nor I deny that there are films that are stupendous works of art, and that all things made by man’s intelligence and love can bring us closer to Truth Himself), then, right here and now, we encourage them to keep watching films; it is exactly the objection that Neil Postman had against  ”good” television (and I do think that there is some good television).

The habit of mind that is excessively visual-passive is, as a matter of fact, quite different from the habit of mind of a reader, or even of a devoted follower of plays and operas. We wonder whether it is, finally, good for us to foster that habit of mind, especially when so few among us now have the patience to read a difficult book or listen to a sermon for an hour or so. If we’re going to justify film, it will have to be as film, not as one art form among a host of art forms, and it will have to be justified for people as we find them now, and not for some nonexistent and timeless Rawlsian ratiocinator. And people as we find them now are bombarded with television, even in restaurants, with semipornographic greeting cards (bought by both women and men), by prurient and seductive commercials, by the ever-spammed flicks on the internet—need I go on? We are the last people who need to be encouraged to gape at moving images.

We need something else—an art form that might encourage us to turn our attention away from screens.

Finally, my first objection still stands. We have had great and beautiful films, no question; and we used to have films that themselves sprang from a vital popular culture. But that is no more. Film and television have done what novels did not do, nor opera (think of Italian opera houses in Little Italys across the country), nor plays. They have destroyed popular culture. It is not true that if you turn away from one medium of art, you will have no art. The very point of turning away from what is now a corrupt and corrupting medium is that you will have different and better art: you will at least have a chance of enjoying art that comes from the people, rather than being, as I’ve said, dosed out to them from their caretakers and pocketpickers.

For art’s sake, if for no other, I think it behooves us at least to be suspicious of Big Film. I say this as a lover of just about everything that John Ford, David Lean, and Peter Weir have directed.

One last thing: no false dichotomies between art and asceticism. For true asceticism is a great deal more muscular, more world-engaging, and even more sensual, than is most of the desiccating and world-denying hedonism we see these days on the screen. My accusation again: Of the world, but not in it.

—Anthony Esolen

S.M. Hutchens replies also:

Dr. Esolen is right. In reducing us to desert-dwellers, ascetics, world deniers, who have their rightful place in Christianity, just as those, such as herself, who communicate with their culture have theirs, Ms. Bluett is caricaturing us, identifying us with positions neither of us hold, evading our arguments and giving her own a dignity we doubt it deserves. I have taken pains to make it clear I am not inveighing against Christians working in and with the culture, but warning against the danger of approaching it with an insufficiently critical attitude in the name of influencing it for the good, specifically with regard to film and the theatre. Underlying this is my belief that a great many of us are deceiving ourselves about the effect our intimacies with these institutions are having on our souls.

I wish to impress on Ms. Bluett with full force that in an environment that was unduly restrictive, which put down laws that kept Christians isolated from their cultures and prohibited creative flowers from blooming, one would hear the likes of Drs. Esolen and Hutchens singing a very different tune, and being accused of the very opposite of asceticism, neither of us having changed our opinions a whit.

—S.M. Hutchens

Esolen: Alypius & Addiction to Mass Entertainment Spectacles
Friday, February 25, 2005, 5:09 PM

In the Confessions, Augustine describes what happened when his friend Alypius, a gentle soul, encountered for the first time the mass entertainment of his day, namely the spectacle of gladiatorial combat. Alypius was cajoled by several of his backslapping comrades to accompany them to the Coliseum. He refused at first, but then, trusting rather too much in his own will power, believed that as long as he didn’t look, nothing would harm him.

As he sat there with his head in his hands, he suddenly heard a tremendous roar from the crowd. He had to look—one of the gladiators was at the point of putting his opponent to death. The spectacle was appalling, and for that very reason it was fascinating: there was flesh, and blood, and the rush of adrenalin, and a man’s very life hung in the balance. Alypius was hooked.

The young man eventually would break the addiction—that is to say, God broke the addiction in him, and he was baptized a Christian along with Augustine, and, like Augustine, later became a bishop. He did not set out to minister to gladiators, or to provide a Christian gladiatorial league, with milder outcome for the poor fellow hooked on the trident or knocked senseless by the mace.

People will counter that the gladiatorial combats were in themselves wicked, and that movies are not obviously so. I concede the point, and so I think would Hutchens; and we’d be readier to concede it, if those who took up the standard for the mass entertainment spectacle would acknowledge that there is something deeply problematic about what appeals in the first instance to the lust of our eyes. It would also help if they would acknowledge that reading is not the same as sitting in a live audience, and that that in turn is not the same as watching what is presented as life itself, not acted but merely photographed. There are some images I wish I could rub out of my memory, not from life but from the pseudo-life of bad movies, images made all the more difficult to forget by the accompanying and seductive music.

I’m not—I repeat, I’m not arguing that films are to be abandoned. Film can be a medium for magnificent art. Yet I do think the burden of persuasion rests upon those who want Christians NOT to abandon it. And they cannot simply say, “This is a part of the world, and the world can be redeemed.”

For while Alypius was in the grip of his fascination, he was not in the world. That is the horror of some of the worldliest of our sins: they remove us from any deep and natural contact with the world. Alypius at the arena was not Alypius noticing the beggars in the Esquiline, or Alypius stopping to chat quietly with an old man, or even simply Alypius looking up at the sky. Now consider our own empty streets, and our own children who find it too demanding, too engaging, to read a book. Sometimes the redeeming thing to do is to raze the structure to the ground. Sometimes—at least it ought to be considered.

—Anthony Esolen

McClay on “Red” Republicans, “Evangelical Conservatism” & Our Need to Constrain Optimism
Friday, February 25, 2005, 4:02 PM

20050224 mcclayw300 McClay on “Red” Republicans,  “Evangelical Conservatism” & Our Need to Constrain OptimismWilfred M. “Bill” McClay, who graces this blog with a line or two now and again, gave a lecture Wednesday night at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., where he also serves as a senior fellow.

It’s a crime or shame (or something) that lectures usually are not as light-hearted, informative, and wise as McClay’s George W. Bush’s Evangelical Conservatism: Or, How the Republicans Became Red.

He begins by trying to figure out how, starting with major network coverage of Election Night 2000, the Republicans became the symbolically crimson party and the Democrats got the blues after decades of the reverse (I’m glad not to be the only television viewer who’s been wondering what happened.)

What follows this is a history of progressive movements of old liberal reform in Europe and America, how Evangelicalism has participated in and influenced the American ones, and to what extent the Bush presidency and (since Ronald Reagan) the Republican party’s infectious optimism about freedom and the human spirit are adoptions of what McClay calls a political form of “evangelical conservativism.”

As I say, plenty of controversy and fun for everyone. McClay ends on a cautionary note, appealing to a twentieth-century American theologian out of vogue with the political Left and Right, Reinhold Neibuhr—quoting from a recent article by Martin Peretz in The New Republic, “the most penetrating thinker of the old liberalism … [Neibuhr] is virtually unknown in the circles within which he once spoke … perhaps because he held a gloomy view of human nature.”

McClay, who acknowledges the political strength of the American tradition of optimistic leadership, nevertheless concludes:

But conservatism will be like the salt that has lost its savor, if it abandons its most fundamental mission—which is to remind us of what Thomas Sowell called “the constrained vision” of human existence, which sees life as a struggle, with invariably mixed outcomes, full of unintended consequences and tragic dilemmas involving hopelessly fallible people, a world in which the legacy of the past is usually more reliable than the projections of the future. As the example of Niebuhr suggests, such a vision need not reject the possibility of human progress altogether—which, by the way, has never been characteristic of traditional conservatism either, from Edmund Burke on. But it does suggest that it is sometimes wise to adopt, so to speak, a darker shade of red, one that sees the hand of Providence in our reversals as well as our triumphs. To do so is as needful for American evangelicalism as for American politics.

Readers can find the entire lecture on the Ethics and Public Policy website here or, even better when the speaker is Bill, listen to an audiorecording (in the form of an .mp3 download).

Thanks to Winfield Myers of the Democracy Project for bringing this talk to our attention.

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