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Friday, January 30, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Too Late for Goodbyes"

Another week of no posts. Sorry; just about everyone except me has been ill around the house, and plus I've had some budgeting headaches to straighten out here at work. Not very good excuses, I suppose, but they're what I've got.

As for today...well, I could continue with the forty-something-stars-trying-to-make-it-in-the-video-age-thing, but maybe a month of that is enough. Hmmm...well, I just did a Beatle's video (that is, a video featuring a former Beatle) from the 80s, so how about a son-of-a-Beatle too? That sounds good. Take it away, Julian Lennon.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Got My Mind Set On You"

Here's one more 40-something rock star who made it into the video era of the 1980s with his dignity mostly intact: George Harrison. (Though I admit I'm showing this version of the video, and not the one where someone wearing a George Harrison wig dances around a parlor underneath a talking moose head. If you don't remember that one, consider yourself lucky.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Recyclers of Wichita, Unite!

Okay, I doubt the cause this time around is as romantic as the last time I invoked The Communist Manifesto's most famous line, but I couldn't think of anything better.

So this morning was trash day. Unlike many other communities in Sedgwick County, Wichita itself has thus-far refused to enter into a single contract or franchise with any company for trash collection, leaving the picking up and disposing of trash to be handled by numerous small and independent haulers which individuals citizens pay for. This is good, in that it avoids the corruption and bureaucracy which so often characterize top-down corporate-city deals; but this is also bad, in that recycling (which is--due to the absence of any local, state, or federal laws mandating such, at least not around here--a mere extra to be paid for out of your own pocket if you wish) ends up being more expensive, since the extra work involved in the extensive picking up and sorting recyclables is not widely distributed, and thus not particularly cost-efficient for many of these small haulers to offer, when they offer it at all. It's your classic collective action problem.

This is frustrating to Melissa and I, which probably isn't surprising to any reader of this blog. We strive for localism, we bicycle, we re-use and buy cheap and try to do without. So of course, we're big fans of recycling, and don't at all mind it being mandated by law if that's the most efficient and complete way to do it (which is often the case). We'd been without the ability to recycle a lot of basic goods for years, while we lived in Mississippi and Arkansas; Illinois was a breath of fresh air, but then we moved to Wichita, and found the service spotty, at best. We ended up going with Waste Connections, one of the bigger players in the Wichita market, because they seemed to offer the best recycling program.

So anyway, I go outside this morning to drop off the trash...and this is what I see in our driveway:

Pretty awesome. Waste Connections had let all their customers know that some new containers and trucks had been purchased, and that therefore the availability of recycling was going to be increased--finally, glass and office paper and cardboard and more than one kind of plastic!--but we had no idea what it would actually involve. I suppose it's a little ridiculous to get all excited about new recycling container, but we're that kind of nerd; I promptly ran inside to tell Melissa, and she was duly impressed.

Of course, what I'd really be impressed by is Wichita getting with the program, making recycling a priority, and mandating it, thus by maximizing participating lowering over costs for all. But until that happens, Melissa and I are happy to be able to live ever so slightly cleaner, slightly less cluttered, slightly more responsible lives, right from our front door.

[Note: I guess I should explain that, yes, I am fully aware of the various economic impact calculations that have been made of recycling efforts over the years, many of which have concluded that melting down plastic and reprocessing paper and grinding up aluminum is ultimately a waste of time and fuel and money, and I am not persuaded by any of them. Why? Because they misunderstand the point of recycling. The point is not to ultimately lower overall energy use (a worthy goal, but one probably better achieved through other means), not to save us from being overrun by garbage (thankfully, there are few places around the globe where the future of WALL*E is anything except very, very distant, though of course it can't hurt to start changing things now), but rather to simply stop using so much stuff. Forget all the environmental lamentations and warnings (as applicable and truthful as many of them are); there's just no good reason to throw something away when you can re-use. As has been said, use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. Recycling is a big part of that ethic--or, at least, ought to be.]

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inauguration Thoughts

Random impressions, having watched the events on television in the Casado Center on the Friends University campus, in the company of about 70 students and faculty, on a day that started out cold and cloudy, but which, by mid-morning, had turned bright and beautiful:

The prayers were very fine, powerful and moving. Rick Warren exemplified the expansive yet personal power and truth of evangelical Protestant Christianity very well. He quoted scripture, he exulted in praise and emotion, he talked history and theology, he pleaded for forgiveness, he mentioned Jesus by name, he mentioned President Obama (and his wife, and both his daughters) by name, and he commended their well-being and integrity and wisdom to God, and closed with the Lord's Prayer. And as for Joseph Lowery...well, who can dissent from that? A wondrous tour of the thinking and faith of those who have lived to see at least one element of Martin Luther King's dream--a dream they helped march for and fight for--fulfilled, Lowery quoted from old Negro spirituals and civil rights anthems, paraphrased Bible passages, then very nearly started to rap, welcoming the day when "black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right." I swear, nobody prays any longer like old-school Southern black preachers do.

I can't believe Obama muffed the ceremonial oath. [Update: ok, everybody, you're right, he didn't muff it, Roberts did; his only mistake was being too quick on the draw.] I'm not bothered by it though; my first thought was that evidently, he's been too busy with other stuff to practice it much. I wonder if others will mock him for that, though: "we've got a loser who can't even repeat the words given him correctly!" I suspect that if they make a big deal out of it, it'll come back to haunt them; except for the dyed-in-the-wool haters, I suspect the flub-up was pretty endearing to millions.

The music was fine. I can't judge the poem, though I have to say I really liked the opening lines, where quotidian noises and actions of our days formed the rhythm of the piece. "A teacher says, 'Take out your pencils. Begin.'"

The speech? It was fine; some nice lines, but nothing historic, I think, which is a shame. He'll never have an audience--perhaps no president will ever have an audience--as primed for powerful and moving and transformative rhetoric as this morning's was. Obama and his people are the victim, I suppose, of the high standards which many of us have (with his assistance, to be sure) unconsciously come to expect from his rhetoric. His track record is really very good, if you think about it. He's given two speeches that have done the essential work that political speechmaking needs to do in a mass democratic society like our own (namely, articulate, inculcate, and expand upon the existing but always inchoate slices of public opinion out there, enabling people to be able to honestly say to themselves, "yes, that's what I meant to say," and get behind a cause or a candidate accordingly), while at the same time doing so with eloquent beauty and historical power: his 2004 address at the Democratic national convention, and his Philadelphia address on race and the Wright controversy last year, "A More Perfect Union." Any politician, I think, would be proud to have those on his record. If this speech didn't touch their level...well, so what? It was still a good speech, and that's what we needed. And that's not to say there weren't some good lines. I liked, as you might expect, his reference to Paul, and the line "the time has come to set aside childish things" a lot; I liked his formulation "we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist" even more. And how could someone like me fail to appreciate his frequent references to service, sacrifice, duties, the common good, responsibility, and citizenship? No, it was not a great speech, it isn't going to be carved in stone anywhere, but it got the job done.

Speaking of which, presumably Obama has already gotten to work, which is what I need to do. Celebration over, back to our jobs.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Kind of Liberal We Need

Today is a federal holiday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr., our nation's officially-anointed African-American hero; tomorrow is Inauguration Day for Barack Obama, the first African-American to be elected President of the United States. The confluence of these events is enough to make even grumpy conservatives reflect upon their significance, and they're right to do so. Will tomorrow's events signal the emergence of a truly "post-racial" era in American politics? Will the significance and--perhaps more relevantly--the electoral influence of the morass of racial hate, contempt, resentment, guilt, condescension, bitterness, exclusion, and confusion which dominated and warped American policies for decades (or, as Senator Obama himself suggested, since the country's beginnings) have truly been transcended? Will, in short, tomorrow be the moment that King's dream is finally, or at least nominally, fulfilled?

Well, better bloggers than I can struggle with the whole "post-racial" thing. For me, I'm still wondering about the dream.

The most important thing to note about King's dream is that it changed. It changed as he grew and as his country changed during his lifetime and during his career as the leader of the moral crusade which was the civil rights movement. Ari Kelman notes this change--as embodied in such later sermons he gave, like "The Other America"--and how much of America's popular memory resists that change. Note also, though, that his dream didn't change radically--it merely changed the way much of liberalism changed as the twentieth century progressed, as King's appreciation of what that "freedom" he wanted to hear ring throughout the nation required. Not just the integration of schools, but also better schools; not just the enforcement of voting rights, but better--more inclusive, more egalitarian, more just--options to vote for; not just judging people only by the content of their character, but in making it possible for more people to magnify, explore, refine and extend that character. King was never man thoroughly committed to old-world beliefs about freedom and liberty; no black person raised in the American South in the 1930s could believe that, and certainly not one who went on to attend seminary in the 1940s reading such early Social Gospel thinkers like Walter Rauschenbusch and their critics like Reinhold Niebuhr. But it's undeniable that from 1963 to 1968 his liberalism, his commitment to "freedom," went through a powerful metamorphosis, moving beyond the individualistic and rights-centered orientation of his earlier invocations of the dream of equality, and linking it more firmly to economic justice, collective action, and democratic empowerment. He became, in short, an advocate of a social democratic common good--a liberal who wasn't, strictly speaking, a socialist, but whose vision of, and demand for, a more equal American could easily be compared to such, and was.

Of course, we know from Obama's campaign that just about any talk about "sharing the wealth" in America is going to earn you comparisons to socialist revolutionaries; that is, apparently, how our political culture works. William Galston and Michael Lind had an interesting debate in The Washington Monthly a few years ago, over what liberals should do about the fact that Americans repeatedly embrace "freedom" above all other political values. Galston's argument was that there isn't any problem, so long as liberals would be willing to fight for a more expansive definition of the term--the way King and, before him, FDR did--against the conservative "presumption that government and individual liberty are fundamentally at odds." Michael Lind dissented in part from this, arguing that "freedom," as valuable as it is, can only take liberal politics so far; that in order to make the sort of transformations which FDR and MLK made for the sake of the poor, oppressed, and left behind, it is necessary to move into more explicitly republican, participatory, public interest-type language. This is an argument which will probably never go completely away (see another recent iteration of essentially the same argument over liberalism and the common good, involving Michael Tomasky, Galston, and several others here and here), until and unless our economy completely collapses and the resulting chaos leads us to make our politics more reactionary, or more radical, than the legacy of the Great Depression and WWII has made them to be. We're a pragmatic, individualistic, liberal (in the broadest sense) country, and for better or worse, you can only do so much with that.

Communitarian that I am though, I'm always looking for voices and parties and approaches, whether conservative or progressive (or both!), which can move us away from that reality, however minimally, and towards a political perspective which incorporates the sort of cultural and social sensibility that made, I think, Martin Luther King (and some who might be considered his ideological forerunners, as well as his moral descendants) so important to being liberal in America. And that, of course, leads me to Obama's inauguration tomorrow.

Early on, though I wasn't on the Obama bandwagon, I was struck by his talk of post-partisanship, of service and citizenship. Not that such isn't the sort of boiler-plate we can hear from almost any aspiring politician; of course it is. But he seemed to mean a lot of it, something that became more and more clear to as he struggled through the media fiasco created by the preaching and occasional ranting of his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright. I liked that he seemed loathe to distant himself too much from Wright's criticism of America as a nation that allows a pre-occupation with improvement and growth to eclipse a sense of limits and mutual responsibility (themes that King rarely forgot about, as much as he changed over the years); I especially liked--and really, who didn't?--his powerful distillation of the whole controversy into a reading of America that, as I put it, included (rather than avoided) the "conviction that morality and sin and hope and forgiveness are complicatedly caught up in all of our lives," which is exactly the element of civic, even spiritual, seriousness that so many other empty-headed liberal appeals for unity have lacked. All this brought me to feel that Obama's intellectual pragmatism, as much as it may at times lead him to be oblivious to, or even condescending towards, the real passions that ground people in their families and places and beliefs, is a pragmatic sensibility that is more than economic or partisan; it is deep and holistic. He may not be as driven as MLK came to be by social democratic or common-good interpretations of what the dream of liberal freedom means, but I think his is, nonetheless, a liberalism that sees as much of this nation as any president is ever likely to, and genuinely wants to bring what he sees--the people, their problems, and their possibilities--into his thinking and his plans and his goals as well.

Robert Bellah, the grand old theorist of America's civic religion--which, to put it in terribly simple terms, is the conservative assumption that the preservation of certain fundamental (cultural and religious) truths will work to liberal and egalitarian ends--has written a wonderful, thoughtful reflection on the meaning of Obama's election, making two important points. First, that the vision of a common good, in the American political context, whether articulated in a classical republican or a Biblical way (or both, as arguably Obama himself tends to do), is far from a meaningless invocation of "service," but rather a serious and important recurring feature of our culture, saving us from the excesses of our "default individualist tradition." Second, that Obama does descend from the sort of intellectual sketching that this post has been doing, and put real meat on the bones; as Bellah puts it, "If you look at Obama's specific policy concerns you will find the common good at the core of almost all of them....universal health care...[his] jobs program, his environmental program, his foreign policy concerns [--] are all examples of making the common good the focus of politics." Which means, as I read Bellah (and thus Obama), that he appreciates both our polity and the ideals that it is a carrier for, and doesn't get the two of them confused.

In a thoughtful column that is nominally about federal housing policies, but in reality is touching on the hard problem of economic justice in a complex, liberal society like our own, James Polous--himself an avowed conservative--acknowledges that Obama seems to understand the difficulty here; that the simple liberal responses to the problems King came to confront--throw money at it! let the Supreme Court solve it!--just won't do, as King himself also realized. This, as much as Polous may be loathe to admit it, suggests that Obama's aim is get our nation, as a people, as a community, to commit as much as it practically possible to a freedom which is truly common (and which, therefore, will be difficult to construct and even harder to maintain), rather than posit a "nationalized ideology" that everyone will have to sign on to. Here's hoping he can do it. He won't be able to do it alone; hopefully, in time, liberals and conservatives alike will recognize that the change he's aiming for is one we all need.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Another Brick in the Wall"

Sorry for the light posting; the spring semester started this week here at Friends, and I've had a bunch of scheduling headaches to resolve. Anyway, here's a video to acknowledge the end of the winter holiday; I hope this isn't how my students feel about me.

(Incidentally, I have no idea if I ever actually saw this video on Friday Night Videos while growing up; I probably did, but I'm not sure. I had the song memorized nonetheless, just as every white suburban school child of 1980 did. It was a huge hit at my elementary school. That, and Kenny Rogers's "The Gambler.")

(On a related point, I also once took a college girlfriend out to see a midnight showing of the movie as a date. Very bad move.)

Friday, January 09, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "You Better You Bet"

Now this, on the other hand, is a bunch of 40-year-olds who made it into the video age just fine, despite the 80s doing its best to mess them up. I mean, you can shoot the video in black and white for pretentious "artistic" reasons; you can speed up the beat so the attention-deficit teenagers listening in won't think they're being exposed to a bunch of old fogies; you can dress Roger Daltrey in an Ascot, then refuse to tie it properly...but hey, they're still the Who.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Thoughts on Neuhaus

I haven't met many famous people, and when it comes to famous intellectuals--particularly those theorists, philosophers, and theologians that I'm especially interested in--I've met even fewer. Charles Taylor once; Jürgen Habermas once; Amitai Etzioni once (though I was actually on a panel with him). I never met (and by "met" I mean "been in same room with" or "heard speak with my own ears") Jacques Derrida, or Paul Ricoeur, or Richard Rorty, though that didn't stop me from talking about the impact their ideas had had on my life and thinking when they passed away. The same thing holds for Richard John Neuhaus, the founder of First Things magazine and the pre-eminent American Catholic (some would say simply "Christian") intellectual of the past thirty-odd years, who passed away this morning from cancer: never met him, would have liked to, and am going to go ahead and saying something about how his thinking and writing regardless.

Many would argue that Neuhaus wasn't in the same category as any of those thinkers I've just mentioned, and I would agree, partly. It is true that he was neither a theorist, nor a philosopher, nor a theologian; he was, rather, a priest and a polemicist. I'll leave aside his priestly duties and pastoral influence until the end of this post; speaking solely of his polemics, it cannot be denied that many thousands of others (including myself) have drawn more that enough ideas and arguments regarding political theory, moral philosophy, and Christian theology from his writings to put him in the same camp as any of the rest of them. Obviously, it's mostly social conservatives (or those of us who at least occasionally sympathize with them) who think so--Christian believers who identified with the moral traditionalism and American-style, post-1960s economic and political conservatism which First Things espoused. Their tributes are piling up: Ross Douthat, Alan Jacobs, Rod Dreher, and so forth. But Neuhaus's ideas and arguments sparked devotion and discussion and dissent (almost always admiring dissent, as vehement as it may have been) from progressives as well: Hugo Schwyzer, Michael Sean Winters, and others. (Check this post of Rod's for continually updated links.) I take that as a sign that I have not been wrong in my estimation of Neuhaus over the years: that he was a thinker and a writer of the first order, a man capable of crystallizing difficult theoretical, philosophical, and theological concepts into sentences of great beauty and provocation, the sort of writing and thinking which can lead people into engagements--sometimes one conducted with respectful awe, sometimes one conducted with great fury--with the most important of ideas: with, quite literally, the "first things." Very few thinkers and writers of any sort are capable of doing that; the number of publicly engaged intellectuals who can do it, and can do it while simultaneously committing themselves, substantively and stylistically, to a firmly authoritative account of religious orthodoxy, is almost infinitely smaller. As a man of letters and a public man of God, he was, very simply, a national treasure.

Not all national treasures are for everyone, of course, in particular not for those whom said treasures attack--and over the years that I read him, Neuhaus demonstrated again and again that he was an expert at the supremely confident, elegantly intelligent, utterly eviscerating attack. (That's why many of those of us who read FT as undergraduates got caught up in it in the first place--to absorb with glee every month or so his meandering back-of-the-issue notes and asides, alternately casting light, asking hard questions, and shooting the wounded. He was like William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal in their prime in that sense.) But aside from that, aside those who at one point or another found themselves caught up in the actual cross-hairs of the battles (over religion in the public square, over abortion and same-sex marriage, over the Supreme Court, over a thousand different topics) Neuhaus chose to fight, amongst those who, like myself, read him as fans or curious observers, there was still many ways in which his guidance and prose just might not quite have been for us. As much as I learned from him and as much as I admired his writing and activism and thought, I think he was not for me for at least three reasons.

First of all, he was Catholic, and I'm Mormon. Several years back there was a pretty major flare-up over Neuhaus's opinion of Mormonism; many American Mormons who thought and voted along politically conservative and had embraced Neuhaus's sharp, aggressive, witty, deeply learned defense of Christian truths and traditional moral values felt angered and confused by this. The argument has continued on again and off again in the pages of FT, especially as Mitt Romney made his run for the presidency. I personally have never been up in arms over whether or not my faith is, by whichever intellectual or historical conceptualization Neuhaus or anyone prefers to use, a properly "Christian" church or not; I don't see the stakes in the struggle over that label as being particularly high. But, suffice to say, Neuhaus had a much more denominationally exact understanding of the meaning of the Christian tradition than did, say, C.S. Lewis, what with his "mere Christianity," and while he clearly viewed my Mormon religion with respect, he also almost certainly viewed it with suspicion. Fair enough for a Catholic priest, I suppose, but still, an obstacle to my acceptance of him.

Second, I'm a Christian who sees my faith as mandating a liberal sensibility when it comes to the social order; Neuhaus used to be such a believer--his recollections about Martin Luther King and his participation in King's efforts to bring a little more justice to America are some of the most powerful and deep things I've ever read about MLK--but the social dislocations of the 1970s changed him, most especially Roe v. Wade. As one who believes abortion to be a moral wrong--though not for orthodox Catholic reasons--and as someone who is at least some kind of conservative, I can appreciate how appalled Neuhaus became with the American left as the 1970s went on, as much of the notion of protests and reforms being an attempt to make America conform to its own better nature drained out of liberal politics, to be replaced with a rude individualism and a self-satisfied, elitist anti-Americanism. But that doesn't necessitate throwing out all discontent with American society, and jumping in with the neo-cons. Which is what Neuhaus did; in fact, he did them one better.

Which leads to the third, and probably the most important reason, that his wonderful prose and powerful ideas couldn't, in the end, fully be for me. Neuhaus transformed his thoroughly Christian vision of remoralized American community into a historically and theologically grounded account of the contemporary conservative political agenda--as embodied by the Republican party--as a necessary tool, indeed a carrier of, that remoralization. In time, the careful assessment of the limits of American-style liberalism disappeared from his writings: he came to present American liberty and power and rights--conceptually at least; he was always willing to acknowledge excesses and outliers--as pretty much completely compatible with his Christian vision for America, so long, of course, as conservative Christian politicians were the ones actually making use of those liberties, that power, those rights. Of course, this meant that neoconservative arguments about the projection of American strength, especially when connected to conflicts with civilizations who, predictably, have differing conceptions of liberty, power, and rights than the United States, not only made good strategic sense; they also were a moral cause. And so the war in Iraq was just (and we'll just downplay what the Pope has to say about that). And so Bush's presidency was an awesome triumph for the theoconservative cause. And so forth.

I can read and learn from--even identify with--traditionalist Christian writers with all sorts of differing construals of the world situation, despite my theological or social or economic of cultural disagreements with them, and maybe I could have continued to read and take seriously Neuhaus, even as I came, slowly, to realize how many unprocessed intellectual assumptions I'd been carrying around ever since 9/11. But I have to thank Damon Linker for really helping me figure out where I stood in regards to FT's ultimate project as the years went by. Not that Damon's book was convincing to me in all ways; far from it. Some--like Alan Jacobs--still today see it as a paranoid description of Neuhaus & Co.'s planning of a "theocratic coup"; that's not quite right (as Noah Millman notes), but it was right enough that it prompted me to work my own thinking about just what is wrong with Neuhaus's type of theocratic thought. That resulted in one of my longest posts ever,, which I'll try to excerpt this way:

Damon knows that the theocons are not out-and-out Christian Reconstructionists; Neuhaus does not aim to recreate a reign of Hebraic judges....[T]he practical threat he sees is not a potential theocratic attack on pluralism itself; rather, it is what he sees as theoconservatism's blithe willingness to play the majoritarian card in response to that pluralism....[He believes that] religious populism always turns...secularism into a seeming enemy of "ordinary folks," and modern secularism is too delicate to be trusted to the masses....

[Now, if] you buy into the idea that modern life is atomized, denuded, individualized and deprived of meaning, then surely the last thing you would want would be to encourage the masses to engage in cultural uprisings, because the "culture" which would motivate them could not possibly aspire to any broader meaning; it would, rather, be narrowly built out of the aggregate consent of individuals. And the thing is, if you look at the many ways in which Neuhaus and other theoconservatives have defended the principles of liberalism, insisting that the liberal account of the individual and society is both accurate and workable--assuming authoritative Catholic-Christian principles animate it--you have to conclude that most of them actually do buy into this very account of secularism. Secular society has stripped down and made "naked" the liberal order; a religious revival is needed to clothe it again....In other words, the baseline problem with the modern world is that people have become too lenient in moving certain elements of human life from the public over into the private realm; the solution is not to change how people think about religion and public life, but simply rhetorically and politically get large numbers of individuals to move their religion out of their private world and into the public one; in short, to clothe it again. Neuhaus's pre-occupation with finding a language which is both public and authoritative thus makes sense; he wants to persuasively recast religion as something public and ordinary, something that popular majorities will feel obliged to agree and submit to, not because it is, say, the underlying structure of all human consciousness, but because we all, as individuals, will consent to it (if we know what's good for us)....

In reflecting upon all, I find myself convinced that theoconservatism's drive to turn religion into ever stronger, firmer, more compelling public arguments does a real disservice to some of the great spiritual public figures of the past. One might be tempted to draw a Protestant-Catholic division here, and there may be some truth to that [note: Noah Millman makes this point central to his own account of Neuhaus's project]; whatever the weakness of Protestantism as a way to maintain the strength and flexibility of public religious presumptions over the long term, one thing it does always make clear is the level of subjective participation in that religious establishment, in contrast to legalistic readings of nature that present its authority in dogmatic terms. In Neuhaus's hands, Martin Luther King...sometimes seems turned around; rather than portraying King's religious call as a witness that brought people out against mainstream society, it gets turned into an argument about moral principles that are objectively right and thus must necessarily obtain. Yes, the civil rights movement was as interested as any other movement in using their moral authority to generate as many straight-up votes as possible; but it is wrong to imply that the power which civil rights movement wielded was anything other than the result of widespread, personalized, spiritual convictions, as opposed to a logically-driven consent to a particular religiously grounded doctrines. MLK shamed and praised America; he didn't catechize it.

In the end, I suppose my much belabored point isn't all that much different from the one Damon made in his reflections on Neuhaus today, and especially in his follow-up in response to Ross Douthat: Neuhaus's profound commitment to both cultural change and Christian orthodoxy led him to develop the idea--and to, let's admit it, to convince many others of its truth--that America's liberal tradition, if it was not to be corrupted, necessitated a "positive duty" on behalf of believers to sustain certain kind of religious language, a religious language that is objective enough that one can identify it with a specific political party, a specific political agenda, and maybe even a specific president of the United States. That's not a prophet calling America to its better nature from the street corners; that a precinct captain explaining to a mob on that same street corner why God logically can't possibly want Americans to do otherwise. And so, it's not that I'm a leftist Mormon communitarian (though with traditionalist religious and moral beliefs) that turned me off on Neuhaus's very conservative, very Catholic, and often brilliant polemical work; it's that too often he took the spirit of the best of American Christianity--the reforming, chastising, praising spirit of it--and insisted that it must be disciplined and contained within a single electoral box.

Now with that said, I have to confess: what do I really know of how Neuhaus prioritized his work over the hours and days? (I should ask Damon; he'd know better than me.) He was a parish priest and a faithful believer, in the midst of all these theoretical, philosophical, and moral controversies; if I have any core to my faith, it is that such work will be far more meaningful in the life to come, and is far more important to his and my soul right now, than any of the rest. Many of those who have spoken in praise of Neuhaus's pastoral writings have focused on the brilliant, haunting, deeply truthful work, Death of a Friday Afternoon: Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus From the Cross; I endorse that praise. In particular, I endorse the praise for the first chapter of that book, a revised version of which Neuhaus published as a separate essay in FT, "Father, Forgive Them." It is an essay that all Christians should read; it is an essay that I, especially as I have dealt with some difficult and painful truths about myself of late, have been reminded how much love for its clear, powerful, and deeply right sense of just what it means to ask for, and receive, forgiveness:

We confess to hurting someone we love and she says, "Forget it. It’s nothing. It doesn’t matter." But she knows and we know that it is not nothing and it does matter and we will not forget it. Forgive and forget, they say, but that is surely wrong. What is forgotten need not, indeed cannot, be forgiven. Love does not say to the beloved that it does not matter, for the beloved matters. Spare me the sentimental love that tells me what I do and what I am does not matter.

Forgiveness costs. Forgiveness costs dearly. There are theories of atonement saying that Christ paid the price. His death appeased God’s wrath and satisfied God’s justice. That way of putting it appeals to biblical witness and venerable tradition, and no doubt contains great truth. Yet for many in the past and at present that way of speaking poses great problems. The subtlety of the theory is overwhelmed by the cartoon picture of an angry Father who demands the death of His Son, maybe even kills His Son, in order to appease His own wrath. In its vulgar form-which means the form most common-it is a matter of settling scores, a drama vengeful and vindictive, more worthy of The Godfather than of the Father of whom it is said, "God is love."

And yet forgiveness costs. Forgiveness is not forgetfulness; not counting their trespasses is not a kindly accountant winking at what is wrong; it is not a benign cooking of the books. In the world, in our own lives, something has gone dreadfully wrong, and it must be set right. Recall when you were a little child and somebody-maybe you-did something very bad. Maybe a lie was told, or some money was stolen, or the cookie jar lies shattered on the kitchen floor. The bad thing has been found out, and now something must happen, something must be done about it. The fear of punishment is terrible, but not as terrible as the thought that nothing will happen, that bad things don’t matter. If bad things don’t matter, then good things don’t matter, and then nothing matters, and the meaning of everything lies shattered like the cookie jar on the kitchen floor.

Trust that child’s intuition. "Unless you become as little children," Jesus said, "you cannot enter the kingdom of God." Unless we are stripped of our habits of forgetting, of our skillful making of excuses, of our jaded acceptance of a world in which bad things happen and it doesn’t matter....

I may think it modesty when I draw back from declaring myself chief of sinners, but it is more likely a failure of imagination. For what sinner should I speak if not for myself? Of all the billions of people who have lived and of all the thousands whom I have known, whom should I say is the chief of sinners? Surely I am authorized, surely I am competent, to speak only for myself? When in the presence of God the subject of sin is raised, how can I help but say that chiefly it is I? Not to confess that I am chiefly the one is not to confess at all. It is the evasion of Adam who said, "It was the woman whom you gave me." It is the evasion of Eve who said, "The serpent beguiled me." It is not to confess at all, and by our making of excuses is our complicity compounded.

"Forgive them, for they know not what they do." But now, like the prodigal son, we have come to our senses. Our lives are measured not by the lives of others, not by our own ideals, not by what we think might reasonably be expected of us, although by each of those measures we acknowledge failings enough. Our lives are measured by whom we are created and called to be, and the measuring is done by the One who creates and calls. Finally, the judgment that matters is not ours. The judgment that matters is the judgment of God who alone judges justly. In the cross we see the rendering of the verdict on the gravity of our sin.

We have come to our senses. None of our sins are small or of little account. To belittle our sins is to belittle ourselves, to belittle who it is that God creates and calls us to be. To belittle our sins is to belittle their forgiveness, to belittle the love of the father who welcomes us home....

Were you there when they crucified my Lord? Yes, we were there when we crucified our Lord. Recognizing the line that runs through every human heart, no longer do we try to draw the line between "them" and "us." Who can look long and honestly at the victims and the perpetrators of history’s horrors and say that this has nothing to do with me? To take the most obvious instance, where would we have taken our stand that Friday afternoon? With Mary and the Beloved Disciple or with the mocking crowds? Knowing myself and fearing God, knowing a thousand big and little things that I have done and failed to do, I cannot deny that I was there. In ways I do not fully understand, I know that I, too, did the deed, wielded the whip, drove the nails, thrust the spear.

About chief of sinners I don’t know, but what I know about sinners I know chiefly about me. We did not mean to do the deed, of course. What we have done wrong-they seemed, or mostly seemed, small things at the time. The word of encouragement withheld, the touch of kindness not given, the visit not made, the trust betrayed, the cutting remark so clever and so cruel, the illicit sexual desire so generously entertained, the angry answer, the surge of resentment at being slighted, the time we thought a lie would do no harm. It is such a long and tedious list of little things. Surely not too much should be made of it, we thought to ourselves. But now it has come to this. It has come to the cross. All the trespasses of all the people of all time have gravitated here, to the killing grounds of Calvary.

If you're not a believer in the Christian faith, then all the foregoing is, of course, of at most merely formal or abstract interest, if not an example of the kind of religiosity you may find pernicious. But if you are any kind of Christian, then my judgment may make sense: a judgment which declares that the man who can write lines like that is so much more than the sum of everything I think he theoretically, philosophically, morally got wrong. The man who can write lines like that is, very simply, a treasure. And so Neuhaus was, for all he wrote worth disagreeing with or rejecting, for all he said that will not stand the test of time. He was indeed. Requiescat in pace.

(Note: as if I haven't said enough, here are some (perhaps overly chatty and inside-baseball) additional thoughts on Neuhaus's impact on contemporary intellectual Mormonism.)

Friday, January 02, 2009

Friday Morning Videos: "Some Guys Have All the Luck"

Well, it's time to wake up from the party yesterday and formally kick off the new year. And what better way to do that than with music videos from 20 or 30 years ago? I sure can't think of anything.

Having just turned 40, I find myself wondering about old pop and rock stars who similarly woke up, one morning two and half decades ago or so, to find themselves to be 40-somethings living in the age of MTV. How did they handle the transition? Some did well, I think. Others...not so good. To wit, consider Rod Stewart, whose main goal in this video seems to be to clinch the title of Worst. Dancer. Ever. He succeeds.