True Story
Thursday, October 1, 2009, 11:12 PM

This week a Catholic lady I have no reason to disbelieve told me her priest delivered the following joke in a homily:

A man died and went to heaven.  He was met at the Pearly Gates by St. Peter and given a tour.  They came upon a group of people enjoying themselves in a broad meadow and when asked who they were, Peter said, “Those are the Muslims and Hindus.”  The next group in the field, similarly rejoicing in their blessedness, were identified as Methodists and Lutherans.  Then they came to a high wall from behind which also came happy sounds.  “Who are these people behind the wall?” asked the man.  “Those are the Catholics,” replied St. Peter.  “They think they’re the only ones here.”

It’s an old joke of course, but the variations on it I have heard have always involved varieties of Christian, in which the Baptists or Presbyterians, for example, think they’re the only ones in heaven to the disadvantage of the Catholics or Congregationalists.  I’ve always thought of them as evidence of lay belief in something like mere Christianity in the face of clergy expected to promote and defend the denominational product.  The introduction of adherents of non-Christian religions–as adherents of non-Christian religions–however, made the joke something else entirely.

What could the people listening to this knucklehead be hearing but an assertion that there are many ways to God, of which Christian faith is only one?–and that those who might be inclined to disbelieve (the Catholics behind the wall) that one religion could get you into heaven just as well as the next were not only ignorant, but more than a bit nasty.   Believing that the light of Christ in the world will draw many to him through and in spite of their religions (the story of the Magi) is one thing, but this is another.

When I did nothing but grunt in response to the joke, the lady noted that she didn’t think her former priests would have appreciated it, but things had changed at St. Hepzibah’s.  The new priest was, well, new, and clearly a man of broader outlook than some of her pastors had been.

I rather regret not telling her that the difference between some of her old priests and her new one may well have been that the old guys were Christians, whereas the joke her new priest told was evidence he was not. 

Contemplation of the advantages of being Catholic (or Orthodox) has been my daily bread during my years at Touchstone, but there are some definite advantages in being Protestant of which this encounter reminded me, one of which is fairly clear labeling.  If one appreciates the joke delivered above, then may get himself to the local United Methodists, Episcopalians, Unitarians, ELCA Lutherans, United Church of Christ, or United Presbyterians, where belief in its assumptions (well, where the possibility of “heaven” is still around) is the rule. 

If he does not, then he might try the Southern Baptists, the Assemblies of God, PCA or OPC Presbyterians, Missouri or Wisconsin Synod Lutherans, the Praise de Lawd Cathedral, the Anglican Church of St. Charles the Martyr, or congregations with the word “Bible” in their names.  But who knows what one will find at the Catholic church?  Alas for the sleepy congregants of St. Hepzibah, for while they dwell in the stoutest of ecclesial edifices–stouter, perhaps, than any Protestant tabernacle–so often all they seem to know of the separation of the catholic faith from apostasy is a dim apprehension of old priest and new.



Ecumenical Conferring
Sunday, September 27, 2009, 3:54 PM

Recently someone suggested I drop in on an ecumenical conference held by conservative members of divided communions.  I have participated in a number of these, and found them by and large to be good things, but the goodness in them is not something that can be planned or programmed.  Rather, the conferences were given in hope and prayer, and the goodness was visited on them from beyond the operation itself, no thanks to some of the people involved. 

As a rule I cannot get excited about ecumenical conferences, even conservative ones, because I am convinced that too many are given on the presumption that if only people get to understand each other (to eliminate prejudice born of ignorance) better relations will ensue.  Not necessarily.  Closer examination of other people’s thoughts and way of thinking, even though bathed in good will and high expectation, may well lead to stronger conviction than ever that they are fools, and probably damned fools at that–in wondering how anyone professing both faith and reason can be tempted to hold to the pernicious nonsense these people do, and the fleeting thought that the world would be better without them.  I have seen this happen–in myself.

Of course, I am all for eliminating prejudice born of ignorance, and conferring can, if blessed, be good for that.  But most of the conferences in which I have been most intimately involved are not places where much ignorance has been dispelled because there has been very little ignorance in them of the other Christians’ beliefs; indeed, many of the principals have been converts from the churches the others represent, and know them very well indeed.  There is little chance, therefore, they are going to learn something they do not know, but a strong possibility that o. theologicum will raise its head to devour whom it can.  I have seen more than one close call, for the beast always comes to the fair, and knows his way around the booths.

For this reason I am not much interested in dialogues between learned Christian conservatives with the ostensible purpose of improving understanding.  There is less of this to be done than one might think.  Rather, what has always interested me is meeting on the basis of agreement that we already have–or have good reason to believe we have–for purposes related to our common interests as Christians, in the house of what has been called “mere Christianity.” 

Now granted, Catholics and Orthodox don’t think such a house really exists, at least in the way C. S. Lewis described it: Christians are Christians because they are sacramentally members of the True Church, which (no offense intended) c’est Nous.  I leave the reasons they might wish to cooperate with members of mere ecclesial societies honored with the name of Christian to them, but am glad so many of them can see their way to doing it.  Surely we have some things to do together before hell freezes over and two-thirds of us get straightened out.



What Kushiner Won’t Tell You
Saturday, August 22, 2009, 9:12 AM

From time to time I wake in cold apprehension of falling under the Lord’s censure for those of whom all men speak well.  (I feel quite safe in the assurance that all women don’t speak well of me, having worked very successfully on that for years.)   Googling my name, however, quickly gives me the desired result: someone out there doesn’t like me.  Although the first of these is obviously misprision, no one can rob me of the eschatological promise of being called a militant anti-theist.  

From a blogsite describing the invitation of genial atheists to visit a few Evangelical churches, after which they were asked if they had any interesting or useful observations:

. . . You’re right. And the atheists did have some very helpful things to say about some of the formal aspects of worship (“Why do greeters always feel the need to smile?” “Why do people arrive so late to worship – is it because they don’t like the music?” etc.) In many ways the atheists were doing exactly what you suggest, and in their own way showing great tolerance. They effectively say, “I’m with you to this point, but… when it comes to belief in the transcendent as motivational, or the centrality of faith, or the need for a hopeful story, etc.” And, gratefully, neither atheist was in the militant camp–the anti-theist camp of S. M. Hutchens, Mike Hutchinson, or Richard Dawkins.

And here’s something from a site apparently frequented by dyspeptic dwarfs.  I’m honored to be put in the same soup as my friend Esolen (especially when it gives bellyaches to the likes of these), but here all Touchstoners join us in the pot: 

Sometimes I want to sit back and imagine that “Anthony Esolen” and “S.M. Hutchens” are pseudonyms for some outstandingly clever satirist who is trying to show what the world would be like according to the dictates of man-children held captive by an almost perverse fascination with medieval legends as models for living and an adolescent schoolgirl’s approach to morality. If you mix in there some requisite citations to the Bible, you basically get an issue of Touchstone.

I must agree with Obi-Wan that what we regard as the truth is very often a matter of perspective.  When peered out at from beneath a rock, our brand of morality is indeed that of an adolescent schoolgirl–provided she is a serious Christian.

But the teaching point is this: Mothers, be sure to keep your children from Touchstone (check under the mattress, or out behind the corn crib, or behind an innocent copy of Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang), and should you see one of its editors, or forsooth, someone you know to be a reader, on the street, pass by on the other side with eyes averted.  One glance may bring atheism or arrested moral development–depending on your perspective.



Evidence and Verdict
Friday, August 21, 2009, 10:50 AM

Visiting a site that linked to debates on religious subjects, I found one of the hotly disputed theses to be that no one has ever produced evidence God does not exist.  Rather optimistic, that.  Evidences both for and against the existence of God appear to exist with roughly equal logical force, depending upon which side of the bed one rises from–the business of life being just this lectulary probation, a testing of the intelligent creature to see upon which side it shall arise.

Response to evidence, however, rests upon something deeper and hidden to us, and to which the choice of evidences is subsequent.  On one side it is the mystery of election: God inexplicably chooses.  On the other it is the mystery of the free response of the soul to the enlivening touch of its Creator: man inexplicably chooses, for that is what he, a son of God created in his image, has been made for–a getting up from recumbence in which he must not simply arise, but rise on his right or his left.  It then remains for him to have his faith confirmed in whatever evidence suits him.  



Moore on Adoption
Monday, May 25, 2009, 12:05 PM

I have just read Russell

Moore's new Adopted for Life: The Priority of Adoption for

Christian Families and Their Churches, and

commend it to you. Several years ago Russell and his wife

Maria adopted two little boys from a squalid orphanage in Russia.

Russell, who is Dean of the School of Theology at Southern Baptist

Seminary and a senior editor of Touchstone, has

written this book as a

reflection in which he skillfully weaves the Christian understanding

of adoption in its widest sense with his own family's story. This is

not so much a “how to” manual as an account of a journey of

souls–his, his wife's, and his sons', laboring under the yoke of

this peculiar joy. Dr. Moore 's mind is fertile, and his

range is wide, so the book, like any really worthy book of its kind,

may be read profitably for matter that goes beyond its subject–such

as the extended Moore family's rather unevangelical attitude toward

cats. (You'll have to read it.) 



Thoughts on a Slow Trip to Minneapolis
Monday, May 18, 2009, 11:52 AM
Had I not been born and raised among Christians and accepted their faith as my own, but rather among secularists who made me one of them but could not efface my thirst for the Greatness beyond myself, my chief difficulty with Christianity as I have seen it operate in my own culture would be its lack of seriousness, summarized in its public self-presentment as something that is both free and easy, as nothing that required something as radical as the death and resurrection of my way of thinking and habits everyday life, but as a kind of hobby for the sort of person born with a personal taste for religion, or a refuge for those pitiful souls that can only join the sort of club whose rules demand it take all applicants.  

I would be repulsed by both Experience Jesus then Behave Yourself Evangelicalism and Fulfill Your Obligations, Do Some Good Deeds on the Side, and leave Serious Religion to the Professionals Roman Catholicism.  Only the more severe and other-worldly manifestations of the Faith would seem to approach the genuine: the farthest thing from my understanding as biblical Christianity (and yes, my secular self would have read the New Testament carefully) would be the domesticated form in which Christians lived in the world, owned property, raised families, and “went to church.”  This form of religion, best sustained by an attitude denominated “conservative,” would seem to me of a single kind with that denominated “liberal,” for both are so invested in the World, one in its body and the other in its mind, that they are equally willing to think and act toward Christ as Judas did.  Kierkegaard and Simon Stylites and Mother Teresa and Nate Saint and the Amish I could understand as Christian; Harry Emerson Fosdick, Bishop Spong, and the megachurch, Catholic or Protestant, I would not.  (That the Spirit of Megachurch is either new or distinctively Protestant, I doubt.)


These thoughts came in the context of a recent trip in which I had opportunity to meditate upon how churches present themselves in the attempt to seek the membership that sustains and enlarges them–and no doubt also to convert souls.  They have the strong tendency to leave something out.  How foreign to their customary operation, that is, of offering enjoyment of some kind as the chief benefit of joining, is the relief for the soul burdened by sin and confusion and worldliness implied by the invitation to come to this place and die, which is the first necessity for being born again.  How many churches are filled by “take my yoke upon you and learn from me,” and “sell all you have and give to the poor and you shall have treasure in heaven, and come, follow me,” or, instead of giving them for charity’s sake things to sustain their bodies (thus doing good deeds for their own advantage), chiefly offer them the water that springs up to life eternal and which if given they will never thirst–this being the evangelical kindness from which all the others come?  


Do these churches and their pastors understand, whatever the form of life given after this death, that what the man burdened by life seeks, under the conviction of the Holy Spirit, is death to himself and the morbid accretions of the world that cling to him, and that this is the first thing the Church offers him in its baptism?  Instead we offer him (usually incompetently, and often risibly) pleasures and palliatives in accordance with the tastes and opinions and philosophies and desires that have already led him to despair, abandoning the serious pilgrim to the tender mercies of cultic thieves who, instead of offering him the infinite treasure of eternal life in Christ, will beat him and strip him bare. 


The Church must seek only those upon whom the guiding hand of God already rests, and it must be careful to offer him what the Lord offers him, no more and no less.  The only way it can enlarge its borders, to enrich itself as the Church and not as something else, is to enter the kind of death it offers to others, a baptism in which it dies to itself–which means the full willingness to sacrifice its institutional body for the life of its soul, and to see then what the resurrected Lord will do with the dead thing that has expired in his hand.     



Attack of the Bantam Roosters
Friday, May 8, 2009, 10:41 AM

Writing as much as I do in places where anyone is free to take a shot at me, I have been tried on many occasions by people who argue nothing substantive against what has been said, but simply give off noxious rhetorical gases calculated to blind the audience so they can crow about how smart they are. From time to time I stop to explain what they're doing to put readers on guard.  Here's another dodge used by a correspondent that I recently remembered:

"In what you said you completely ignored this and this and this and this and this and this, thus proving both your ignorance and malice."   

There's no way to respond to this–it's a bottomless pit.  If you choose, for example, to speak to even one of the points he said you ignored, the same accusation will be leveled on the next level down, and so on ad nauseam.  You haven't said everything that is possible to say, from which it may be inferred that you are ignorant of the subject, and that your ignorance arises from malice.  It is conveniently ignored that in order to say one thing, even God has to refrain from saying a universe of other things.  



Commencement Address
Monday, May 4, 2009, 9:51 AM
Attending graduate commencement at the University of Michigan last week, I heard the usual kind of speeches from faculty and administration grandees, but a term one of them used in connection with the mission of the university caught my ear: the service of “holy curiosity.”  It struck me, and no doubt others, that curiosity cannot be holy in and by itself; it can only be so in the service of an end which is good

Then there was the procession of more than 200 new doctors, the vast majority of whom were taking their degrees in scientific and technical subjects, and were assured in the strongest terms by the authorities of their future-shaping importance as graduates of the greatest public university in the world.  With this came the greatest of the curiosities to be contemplated by those in attendance:  There were only two, perhaps three, doctorates in philosophy, and, of course, there was no scarlet at all–none in theology.  There was evidence here of curiosity in magnificent abundance, but practically none in its telos, its relation to the Good, which is the task of theology, and philosophy as its handmaiden, and which used to be the principal interest of the university.  Ah yes, there was ethical talk aplenty, but the university apparently does not place high value on a disciplined approach to the ratio for its disciplines.  In this regard it is undisciplined in the formal sense of unscientific, unstudied, and apparently oblivious to the irony in which it is involved.     

Now, to be sure, theology is dark and bloody ground, and one can understand a school’s desire to avoid it, first by disconnecting it from allegiance to particular confessions for “objective” study, or limiting it to an undergraduate program, and finally banishing studies on the graduate level to the exiguous province of the sectarian institution.  In places where the mind is used, however, the proprietary categories of theology and philosophy simply will not go away.  The university cannot successfully banish them by plugging its ears, stamping its feet, and screaming, “We’re doing science here.”  

The matters of concern to theology and classical philosophy persist in reasserting themselves–as when someone on the podium of a doctoral commencement refers in an unguarded moment to holy curiosity, which leads directly to the question of how curiosity in itself might be “holy”–on, for example, the essential difference between the laboratory work of Jonas Salk and Josef Mengele, or Edward Jenner and the Tuskegee Experimenters?  To imply that it is obvious is not a university answer, any more than it is obvious that students at Michigan should be exposed to star chamber proceedings (as they notoriously have been) for offending its police state tenets of political correctness, as though these, too, were beyond consideration for ethical probity.    

I am not singling out Michigan for special blame here–I just happened to be there last Saturday as a father of one of the graduates who is also a son and grandson of its alumni.  It is just one of many schools that, while undoubted paragons in the scientific study of natural phenomena, are in another sense deeply bigoted institutions, distorted at the root by their inability to consider the reason and the ends of their studies.  “The good of the human race” as the goal of its science will not do, for there is hardly a great evil that has not been perpetrated in that name.  The consistent tu quoque of the greater intellectual community to religion’s guilt in that regard is a method of covering its own shame (religion having slain its thousands, but scientific ideology its tens of millions), its professed devotion to diversity a cloak for its own rigid narrowness in banning certain ideas from the realm of serious intellectual consideration. 



No Cheering Quite Yet
Saturday, April 25, 2009, 8:57 AM

A friend sent me news of an influential evangelist in South Africa whose movement emphasizes the subordination of wives to husbands.  Careless or hostile readers of what has been written on this subject over the years, here and in the pages of Touchstone, might think the likes of us would be immediately gratified in hearing of it.  Not so.

What makes me nervous about movements of men that emphasize the subordination of women is that (1) how the Christian doctrine works out in practice is based upon a mystery that includes the woman's full equality to the man, so to those outside may not look very much like women's subordination in any crass or obvious sense, and (2) these operations are very much the creative province not of conferences of men, but of faithful women, not doing what they do because of the demands the law of the male places upon them–however just that law may be–but because they love the men to whom they are committed, so follow the lesser law within the greater. Christian women living near the center of their faith are simply too accomplished, too strong, too well-integrated, too wise, too fruitful, and too happy, to satisfy the expectations of either feminism or the subordinationism of those who would make them less than they are.  Christian men living near the center of their faith like them that way, and trust them with their lives.


This is what St. Paul is referring to when he speaks of mutual submission in marriage: charity does not efface or relativize the law of subordination of woman to man, but transforms it into a dance (C. S. Lewis) in which what each partner does in his own proper sphere is done in self-forgetfulness for the good and the glory of the other, which in turn becomes his or her own glory because of the possession, in love, of the other.  There is neither offense in the leading or resentment in the willing and creative response to that leadership (submission), that in its own turn informs and enlarges it.  Both feminism–as gender feminism or the egalitarianism of its ostensibly more benign religious form–and male legalism, each every bit as ugly and destructive as the other, have vested interests in killing romantic love and the charity of marriage into which it can grow (both founded as they are on interest in the other), either by abandoning them for isolation of the sexes, or reducing them to one element, typically sexual excitement.

So, on first hearing I am somewhat leery of religious movements in which the submission of wives to husbands is prominent.  This may be a very good thing, or quite the opposite.  One is wise, I believe, to question these things as one might question all reputed revivals of religion:  Is what we have here mostly the valueless and ephemeral froth of enthusiasm which will end in spiritual exhaustion and rejection of the faith it falsely claims to be–or does it result in denunciation and abandonment of individual and collective sin, in juster, happier, and more temperate societies, and an environment where virtue is rewarded instead of punished–none of which can be had apart from the right ordering of the sexes?  All these things are known by their fruits, not their advertisements.  



A Lesson Worth Learning
Sunday, April 19, 2009, 11:03 AM

Last week I was sent a You-Tube clip from a British television talent show in which contestant performances were evaluated by a panel of very hip-looking judges before a huge studio audience.  In the recording a very un-hip looking woman of middle age had just come upon stage.  Everything about her appearance was unremarkable, to say the least.  She was just too old, too frowsy, too heavy, too badly dressed and coifed, and it turned out when the judges asked her preliminary questions about herself and her ambitions–far too overconfident–to be anything but an object of cruel amusement for the audience, members of which were filmed laughing, shaking their heads, and rolling their eyes before she began.  What could come from a number like this but a reminiscence of Florence Foster Jenkins or Elva Miller? 


The button for the accompaniment recording of a well-known pop song was pressed by the grinning engineers, and out of her mouth came . . . . a stunningly glorious voice, performing at the very highest professional level.  The audience was clearly shocked, but soon began an uproar of standing applause that continued far past the end of the performance.  The judges, equally taken aback, admitted that they had all learned a very big lesson, although articulating what that lesson was in all its grim reality proved difficult.


In my line of work I handle a great many album covers, and have found it striking how many pop and country and western female stars, and yes, even female classical instrumentalists, look, or can be made to look, unusually beautiful.  No one in his right senses could believe there is any connection between physical beauty and musical talent, so clearly there must be other dynamics at work here, and these dynamics, after brief reflection, are obvious.  


It’s a market phenomenon.  When there's a surplus of talent, as there clearly is in these fields, the choices of the success-brokers are made on supplemental grounds calculated to increase profit, and beauty is the most important of these.  The audience here was firmly under the impression that this unfashionable woman couldn't possibly be talented because they had been thoroughly trained in this conventional wisdom, completely ignorant of their indoctrination, by those who profit from it.  They learned an important lesson, and I'm very glad this film is making the rounds.  


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