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September 2008

Sunday Night Journal — September 28, 2008

Hope First

One day last week Francesca Murphy said something in a comments thread that I wanted to pursue a bit further, but I was too busy. So I’ll do it now. Francesca said:

In modern times, especially in the 19th century, Christianity re-presented itself, (partly) and partly was re-presented by others, as being essentially about ethics. Its metaphysical not even to mention its mystical claims were not of great interest to moderns, but its ethics were.

I think this is true. It strikes me, too, looking at Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular, that an emphasis on the faith as primarily concerned with ethics is characteristic of many factions that are in their specific concerns very hostile to each other. (I’m just going to refer to “Christianity” here, as what I’m going to say is applicable to the Christian community at large, not only to the Catholic Church.) The religious right, the social-justice left, and even traditionalists who wish to restore a past Christian order or create a new one have in common that they appear to the world as simply one group among many with a set of ideas about how to run the world. There’s nothing wrong—in fact there’s much right—about Christians presenting their social-political vision to the world on its own merits, and not as something of interest only to Christians. But if that’s all people see of the faith then its nature is being fundamentally misrepresented and misunderstood.

It’s a commonplace that Christianity is not to be identified with any specific political system. But more importantly, and more essentially, it shouldn’t be seen as a primarily an ethical program at all, whether social or personal. Christian morality comes after the Gospel and much of it only makes sense in that light.

That’s a matter of truth, and also an important point for evangelization. If the first and possibly only thing an outsider knows about Christianity is, for instance,a its sexual morality, he may just laugh and pass on, believing it silly, outmoded, and repressive. To really understand why Christianity teaches what it does about sexual behavior, you have to understand what it teaches about the essential nature of sex itself and of the human person.

Moreover, to preach a system of ethics is usually to engage in an argument, and in this case it may well be an argument that is crippled by lack of agreement on underlying principles. And when an argument begins people usually want to win more than they want to arrive at truth, and this is as true of the Christian in this case as of the other. So a situation may be created where the non-Christian has a strong (and probably unacknowledged) motivation not to agree. This is especially true now when so many people are so angry about politics and all the cultural questions connected to religion.

The core of Christianity is that it is an answer to the most fundamental questions and deepest longings of human life: What is my purpose? Why must I die? Is the longing for perfect happiness that I’ve had since I was born simply an illusion that will die with me? To say to a person asking these questions that the hope of such fulfillment is as reasonable as the hope of water to a thirsty man seems a much better place to start than the moral principles which are a means toward that end. To preach morality first is often to preach in the very unpopular sense of that word. Christian hope logically precedes Christian morality.

Returning to Francesca’s comment: I would like to think we might be entering a time where the world is once again interested in Christianity’s metaphysical and mystical claims. If this is true in the modernized world—Europe, America, much of Asia—it’s probably because we have attained so much and are still so unhappy.

I don’t mean, obviously—well, maybe not so obviously, as I’ve occasionally had some very curious views attributed to me when I didn’t explicitly deny them—I don’t mean that Christians should avoid discussing ethics or refrain from making a Christian case on political and cultural controversies. It’s a matter of emphasis, and of what comes first.

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The Princess Bride

Just finished watching it. Delightful. I can see why people are such big fans of it. I think I mentioned when it was discussed in the comments that I had seen bits and pieces while other family members were watching it, to which Ryan C replied that you really need to see it from the start, which is true.

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Music of the Week: Metallic Falcons - Desert Doughnuts

Although this album could be categorized broadly as coming from the world of indie rock, it’s not a collection of songs but an extended sonic ambience in which fragments of music appear and disappear. I would think most people would find it either irritating or captivating. I’m definitely in the latter group.

How to describe it? Imagine a ghost town in the desert, “ghost” not only in the sense of being abandoned, but in the sense of being inhabited by ghosts. First there are the ghosts of the late 1800s when the town was born and died with a gold rush that soon fizzled out, or was built on the path of a railroad that proved to have no good reason to exist. And then there are ghosts of the mid-1900s, when hippies and rock bands used it as a brief escape from the city. You’ve been set down in the middle of the street (there’s only one) in the middle of the night. And you start to hear sounds coming out of the darkness: distant instruments and voices from the old music hall, a rock band fooling around with half-finished songs, whispers, sad young girls singing of loneliness and longing, encounters with strange beings (perhaps angels) and the sounds of the desert itself.

If that sounds at all intriguing to you, you’d probably like this. It’s mainly the work of two young women, and has a sort of guarded whimsy that I’ve noticed occasionally in sensitive young women who seem to be trying to escape or protect themselves from the brutal sexual climate of the times—notice the cover art, here, where you can also hear samples. And here’s a video; this track, “Airships,” is one of the more straightforward ones. By the way, there’s no sound until about 37 seconds in, so don’t crank the volume on your PC till after that. Length: 3:55.

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Summer Afternoon

This hot-weather image is about out of season now, so I’ll go ahead and post it before it becomes even more so. Summer is over, astronomically speaking, but it takes a while to phase out here. I went outside a little while ago in my usual warm-weather off-work uniform of shorts and t-shirt and found the temperature almost cool enough to be uncomfortable, at least with a breeze blowing—somewhere in the low 60s (F, 16 or so C).

(Click for larger)

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Sunday Night Journal — September 21, 2008

My Election Prediction

No, I’m not going to predict who will win this November’s presidential election, because my guess on that subject would be no better than anyone else’s and worse than many. My prediction is that no matter who is inaugurated on January 20, 2009, the country will not be all that much different in January, 2013 as a direct result of that person’s policies.

This may seem a strange prediction to be making at the very moment when the expanding financial crisis seems in fact to have the potential for changing things a great deal, and for the worse. But that’s why I include that final clause: as a direct result of that person’s policies. If things are in fact very different four years from now, the difference will probably have been made by events that are mostly outside the control of the president.

Domestically, it seems to me that, broadly speaking, the situation that existed in roughly the mid-1970s has not changed very much and is not likely to change very much unless some external event causes it to. It was in the ‘70s that the great shifts of the ‘60s resulted in a social, cultural, and political landscape very different from that of the period between roughly 1945 and 1965. And it seems to me that the basic picture that fell into place then has not fundamentally changed.

To fully support my view would require much more time and space than I want to devote to it, but here are a few instances. It was in the 1970s that:

  • The sexual revolution was won by the revolutionaries; long-standing moral traditions about sex, marriage, and family lost their standing as widely accepted principles. Of course most people didn’t go as far as the extreme revolutionaries, but enough of their ideas took hold to change the basic consensus. The connection between sex and marriage was denied and both were trivialized. Pornography became mainstream.. Etc.

  • The movement of women into the workplace became the norm, conceptually if not statistically. The middle-class neighborhood that in the past had been filled, during the day, with women and children was, by the 1980s, pretty much deserted between 8 and 5: almost everybody went out to work, school, or day-care.

  • Health care costs shot through the roof and insurance became an increasingly expensive and uncertain proposition.

  • Alarm set in about the ability of the government to maintain Social Security and other long-term “entitlements.” The loud expression of this alarm and an absolute refusal to do anything concrete about the situation became a feature of every election.

  • What we now call the culture war, which began as a battle between hippies and Christians—yes, that’s an oversimplification, and I meant for it to be funny, but I think it’s broadly justifiable—became a permanent feature of national life, with a polarizing effect on politics as moral and cultural disputes became political ones, each side wishing to gain control of the state or at least prevent the other from doing so.

  • Energy costs went from being a minor concern to a primary one, with dependence on oil helping to tie us to the explosive politics of the Middle East, and everyone decrying the dependence but no one taking any serious steps to mitigate it—not the people, who simply wanted big cars and houses at the lowest possible cost, and not the politicians, who wanted votes and didn’t think that delivering bad news was the way to get them (look what happened to Jimmy Carter).

  • After the great leap away from legal segregation, the promise of racial harmony dissipated into an unhappy and uneasy estrangement which still exists.

  • A sort of Chicken Little mentality set in, with the fervent partisans on both ends of the political divide seeing the other as being on the verge of destroying the country. Throughout the Reagan, Clinton, and Bush II administrations there have been people screaming that very little of the republic would survive the current presidency. But at the end of each, the domestic situation has emerged looking a great deal as it had before.  

I think things are both not as bad as and rather worse than the more agitated among us do. I don’t think, for instance, that the Iraq war has undone us as a nation, allowed the Bush administration to “shred the Constitution,” etc. Nor do I think Islamic terrorism is a threat to our existence. I don’t mean to minimize the effect of these things on the people who are close to them, or to deny that presidents have made any difference at all, for good and ill. I’m only saying that for most people most of the time the daily routine of life in the America of today is not dramatically different from daily life in the America of September 10, 2001.

Nor do I mean to minimize the long-term effects of events like 9/11, or of the slow cultural changes of the past thirty-plus years as they have affected, for instance, marriage—because I do believe that things have changed, and are changing, and overall for the worse. But that’s another story. Suffice to say that I think the changes are slow and relatively subtle, that they drive politics more than they are driven by politics, and that—to return to my prediction—they won’t be affected dramatically by whoever wins the next presidential election.

There are two obvious possible calamities that could have truly serious effects on everyone or almost everyone in the country: a terrorist attack using nuclear weapons and a complete financial collapse. (Of course there are others—an asteroid striking the earth, for instance—but those two come first to mind for me.) If either of those happens it will probably be the case that the president and his administration bear some, or perhaps much, responsibility for not having done things that might have prevented it. What I’m saying is that I don’t think any direct positive action by a president is likely to produce effects on that scale. And that a significant part of the emotion we invest in the election is a struggle over symbols and rhetoric.

These thoughts were prompted in part by a review in a recent Atlantic by Ross Douthat of Nixonland, a history of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s (read the review here). I agree with Douthat that those who believe we are now in a major crisis don’t fully appreciate the seriousness of the crisis of the late ‘60s. Let’s not forget that--to pick two examples—cities were burning in the riots of the late ‘60s and the university system was all but paralyzed in the spring of 1970. By the mid-‘70s those shocks had passed and the country had stabilized in a new configuration. And we’re still living in it.

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Einstürzende Neubauten - Stella Maris

While writing last Sunday’s journal I looked for the hymn “Stella Maris” and came across this song and video. I recognized the name of the group: Einstürzende Neubauten (“new buildings that are collapsing”) is known as one of the originators of a musical style called “industrial” which sounds very much like you might expect it to (I’m assuming most people who read this blog don’t know this). But I’d never heard any of their music. Apparently they’ve branched out from their industrial roots. Anyway, I think both the song and the video are very beautiful. (The clip is 3:41 long.)

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Demonic Peachdroid Menaces Interstate Travelers

Ok, I admit I’ve been taking pictures while driving again. This is from a few weeks ago when I made a trip up to north Alabama. (For the full effect, click through to the larger version.)

Up in Chilton county, 200 hundred miles or so from here (300 km or so), they grow really, really good peaches. And they are very proud of their peaches—so much so that they built and painted their water tower to look like a peach. I really wanted to get a picture of this rising out of the trees like the moon as I approached, but I missed it and didn’t want to go back. Next time...

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Abusing the Union Jack

This morning’s local paper had a letter from a transplanted Englishman (an acquaintance of mine, actually) complaining that the various Union Jacks being flown around Mobile are upside down. (They’re part of displays commemorating the fact that in the course of its history the city has been under a number of different flags.) This came as a surprise to me, as I had no idea that the Union Jack has an upside-down—if you had asked me I would have said it was symmetrical horizontally (and vertically, for that matter). My wife, who knows his wife, remarked that “N says he complains about that all the time.”

So I made a point of checking out the Union Jack that I pass (without noticing) most mornings on the way to work. I couldn’t see that flipping it over would have changed it at all.

My wife did a little research on the web and here are the results.

Right:

Wrong:

It kind of makes my head spin to look at these together. So now you know, and if you ever need to display the flag of the UK you have no excuse for getting it wrong. Although as soon as I look away from the picture I can no longer remember which is right.

By the way, I think it would look better if the small red stripes were centered in the white ones. I wonder if the queen has an email address.

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Ross Douthat On the Recent Brideshead Movie

It was just a couple of days ago that I got around to reading Ross Douthat’s review of the new Brideshead adaptation in the Sept.1 National Review. Many of us had concluded from the publicity that it was going to be really bad and we weren’t interested in seeing it. If Douthat is right, so are we.

After noting that he is more likely than, for instance, me, to be open to it, because he doesn’t consider the book an untouchable classic and hasn’t seen the 1981 version, he continues:

Alas, the new Brideshead Revisited has one damning disadvantage: It was produced by a group of utter fools. Indeed, if the passel of philistines responsible for this botch of a movie didn’t exist, Waugh himself would have had to invent them. One can’t dismiss outright the possibility that the new Brideshead is some sort of posthumous prank by the master, and that its writers and director, in particular, exist only as Waughian send-ups of a certain modern movieland type, rather than as actual flesh-and-blood nincompoops. Not since Roland Joffe transformed The Scarlet Letter into a bodice-ripping vehicle for Demi Moore’s thespian ambitions (and surgically augmented breasts) has an adaptation of a classic novel labored so strenuously to miss the point of its source material.

He concludes that it must be “a satire of clueless, artless secularism.”

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