Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Signaling importance

It's correct in some cases to say that society can show its disapproval of some evil actions only by reacting to those actions in certain ways.

Take slavery, for example. If someone says, "I'm personally opposed to enslaving people, but I think it should be legal," then we know that he doesn't really think enslaving people is all that bad. The same with abortion. It's not possible to affirm the full humanity and full personhood of the unborn child while holding that abortion should be "a choice left up to the mother and her doctor."

But sometimes people get odd and incorrect ideas in their heads about how society must signal the importance of some evil.

Take, for example, federalizing crime. There is an idea out there that is both constitutionally and morally incorrect that says that, if you really think that some crime is truly bad and truly important, you will hold that it must be punished at the federal level. Often this statement will be made by an earnest pro-lifer with abortion in mind. When someone says that kind of thing, I will point out that pretty much all heinous crimes are still (rightly and constitutionally) punished at the state level rather than at the federal level. It is not signaling a disregard for the evil of rape and torture that a rape and torture that doesn't involving crossing state lines or any of the other "triggers" for federalization (e.g., certain firearms) is a state crime and is tried and punished at the state level. It's not as though the only way to show proper moral outrage for heinous crime is to have a federal police force and to federalize all serious crimes! And in fact it would be highly imprudent to do so.

But most people who say such things about abortion haven't thought of that.

What I think they really mean is something like this: If abortion is really the murder of an unborn child, then states should be required somehow, perhaps by the Constitution, at least to have laws against abortion rather than declaring it "open season" on unborn children, Well, that gets us into all sorts of fascinating issues such as the correct interpretation of the "nor deny to any person the equal protection of the laws" clause in the 14th amendment. I have an old post on that here that I still think makes some good points about equal protection and how its jurisprudence went off the rails. Then there's the question which Robert Bork addressed long ago as to whether the framers of the 14th amendment or their audience would have regarded the unborn as "persons" for legal purposes--a point that is going to be relevant to originalists.

But if someone wants to have that discussion about constitutional protections and state laws, it would be much, much better not to say, "If we really think abortion is murder, then it should be prohibited by the national government." That just doesn't follow. The murder of most 50-year-old people is prohibited at the state rather than the federal level. It isn't a necessary form of "evil signaling" to federalize a crime.

Another kind of importance signaling, in an (admittedly) totally different area, is dragging some subject in all over the place, even where it is not obviously relevant. For example, I saw someone on Facebook launch into a long discussion of sexual abuse in Christian churches and try to tie it to the Target boycott somehow, implying that people would do better to direct their energies at opposing church sexual abuse rather than at worrying about the evils of transgender-friendly store policies.

Sexual abuse of children in churches is a very serious matter, and in no way am I downplaying it. But it has precisely zip to do with boycotting Target and with opposition to Target's transgender policy. If this isn't obvious, I can spell it out further in the comments. But for the moment I'm going to take it as obvious and note generally this tacit mistaken idea: If X is a really serious problem, then it's always relevant to bring it up and connect it with any other topic or use it to downplay the importance of some other topic that people are concerned about.

Well, no. It's not as though the seriousness of X means that X can never be a hobby horse, can never be ridden to death, can never be dragged into a discussion where it doesn't make sense, can never give rise to an apples and oranges comparison. And I'm afraid that sexual abuse of children is the kind of X that causes people to get a blind spot about this, presumably because it is such a bad thing.

How much time one spends talking about something is going to be a matter of personal taste and personal motivation. Even, perhaps, personal calling, if that is not too grand of a word. I confess to being subject to the temptation that almost everybody in the social media age is probably subject to: The temptation to tell people who are chattering about Y that they should be worrying or talking about X instead, that they need to be getting a sense of perspective, that they're making a big deal about something that isn't that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things. I do that, too. Or I feel like doing it. I suppose that's what the hashtag "firstworldproblems" is all about. "Oh, poor baby, your espresso machine isn't working? Try being a Christian refugee about to be crucified by ISIS. Sheesh."

Not that anyone is likely to think it's his personal calling to complain about his espresso machine.

But I think one should admit that the transgender agenda is a big deal in its own right and that fighting it is an important thing. It's not the cultural equivalent of a broken espresso machine. Hence, people who boycott Target have a legitimate concern. That's not to say that everybody has to boycott Target. Boycotts aren't always effective, sometimes you might legitimately need something at Target that you can't find elsewhere or that is too expensive elsewhere,  etc. Boycotts are almost never morally obligatory. But it is one perfectly legit way to show that Middle America knows when Target is giving it the middle finger and that Middle America is not pleased about that.

This particular type of "importance signaling" (telling people they should be talking about X instead of Y) really results from underlying political and moral differences of opinion. And it can go in both directions. If I as a pro-lifer feel annoyed when progressives, especially progressive Christians, are agonizing over veganism but never talking about abortion, that's because I think that veganism is (frankly) ridiculous and that nobody should be agonizing about it. It's also because I think human beings are more valuable than animals, that vegans really often do have a lack of a sense of the relative importance of these matters, and that the combo of veganism and not talking about abortion is probably symptomatic of a failure to appreciate the relatively greater importance of mankind, made in the image of God, over animals.

What I tend to notice sometimes (not always) when it comes to importance signaling is that, when it is coming from the somewhat more progressive side, there is a sort of tortured attempt not to come out and say this about underlying differences of opinion. Instead of saying, "I think Christians who are somewhat more socially conservative than I am are just plain wrong in their assessment of the evil and importance of the transgender agenda," they have to say something else. Something (for example) about comparing the odds of a child's being molested at Target to his being molested in a church youth group. So it's hard to get to argue about the real underlying difference of opinion--namely, the importance or unimportance of Y. Because the attempt to do this is seen as denying the importance of X. But X and Y may be non-comparable in their importance.

It isn't always the case that a person who has a hobby horse about X really disagrees with other people about the importance of their issues. There is such a thing as a "pure" hobby horse that just gets ridden on any and all occasions. I don't want to overgeneralize. But a hobby horse can be a symptom of an underlying political difference, and it can be useful to get that out into the open.

If X is bad enough, there's a fear of appearing to downplay X by accusing someone of having a hobby horse about X. And of course there's no need to start fights all over the place. Social media is unpleasant enough without recklessly losing all your friends that way! But I do think it's important not to be so intimidated by certain concerns that we let them turn into a kind of collective hysteria. And I fear that the issue of child abuse in the church is in danger of becoming precisely that sort of hysteria-inducing issue, leading even to the loss of concepts like due process and the danger (and possibility) of bearing false witness.

Importance signaling can increase this sort of hysteria if not challenged, so just occasionally, it's not a bad idea to challenge it.

Monday, September 19, 2016

"O Valiant Hearts"

Well, here I am in mid-September putting up a post that fits better with Memorial Day or Veterans' Day. The explanation is quite simple: We sang "Rise Up, O Men of God" in church yesterday. I'm the organist, and as I was sitting at the organ, paging through the hymnal to get to "Rise Up, O Men of God," I stumbled upon "O Valiant Hearts" just a few pages earlier in the 1940 hymnal. I was struck by the beauty of the poetry and wondered what the tunes were. Two tunes are given in the 1940 hymnal.

Well, I still haven't checked out the tunes in the 1940 hymnal (the tunes are "Valiant Hearts" and "Birmingham"). Perhaps I'll like one or both of them as well. But my on-line research yesterday turned up the fact that in England the hymn text is almost always sung (e.g., on the English Remembrance Day) to yet a third tune, which for some reason didn't make it into the 1940 hymnal. That tune is "The Supreme Sacrifice," and was apparently written specifically for the text in the early 20th century by the Rev. Dr. Charles Harris. Both the music and the tune are found here. The tune is in an embedded video. Watch on Youtube here. I like the tune "The Supreme Sacrifice" so much that it's been playing in my head ever since I looked it up yesterday. I think it would be hard to beat.

The text, which honors the WWI British dead, is a poem by Sir John Stanhope Arkwright and was originally published in a collection of poetry on WWI.

O valiant hearts, who to your glory came
Through dust of conflict and through battle-flame,
Tranquil you lie, your knightly virtue proved,
Your memory hallowed in the Land you loved.

Proudly you gathered, rank on rank to war,
As who had heard God's message from afar;
All you had hoped for, all you had, you gave
To save Mankind - yourselves you scorned to save.

Splendid you passed, the great surrender made,
Into the light that nevermore shall fade;
Deep your contentment in that blest abode,
Who wait the last clear trumpet-call of God.

Long years ago, as earth lay dark and still
Rose a loud cry upon a lonely hill,
While in the frailty of our human clay
Christ, our Redeemer, passed the self-same way.

Still stands his cross from that dread hour to this
Like some bright star above the dark abyss;
Still through the veil the victor's pitying eyes
Look down to bless our lesser Calvaries.

These were his servants, in his steps they trod,
Following through death the martyr'd Son of God:
Victor he rose; victorious too shall rise
They who have drunk his cup of sacrifice.

O risen Lord, O shepherd of our dead,
Whose cross has bought them and whose staff has led-
In glorious hope their proud and sorrowing land
Commits her children to thy gracious hand.

The Christian concepts here are interesting. They are distinctly Edwardian (or perhaps even Victorian) in a way that is slightly difficult to explain. One way to put it is that Jesus is treated as an exemplar (even referring to him as "martyred") and that the author sees nothing theologically dangerous in comparing the sacrifice of soldiers to save people from temporal harm to the sacrifice of Jesus to save man from sin and hell. Though I suppose one could argue that that isn't absolutely distinctly Edwardian, since we find it in more modern songs as well. A notable example is Twila Paris's "What Did He Die For?"

The Bible itself says, "Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friend." Laying down one's life even in a "secular" cause certainly can be noble, and the poem's unstinting, beautifully worded praise of the fallen as heroes prompts legitimate admiration and love. One also remembers the appalling numbers of British dead in World War I, which gives weight to "their proud and sorrowing land."  I'm not ashamed to say that I would doubtless tear up hearing this played at a military funeral or on Memorial Day. All the more so given the soaring melody.

This will definitely be on my list to play at church next Memorial Day weekend and possibly this upcoming Veterans Day weekend.

Thursday, September 08, 2016

John Derbyshire's hatred of the good

I'm long behind the times. In fact, I'm about to write about a book review that was written just over a decade ago. I'm quite sure that there are more examples out there, by this same author, of what I'm going to write about here. But in a sense that's part of my point--namely, that this author was writing material this bad this long ago. Occasionally one will run into anguished "race realists" or Trump supporters or alt-rightists or other characters who seem to be deeply upset about the fact that National Review removed John Derbyshire from its stable of writers in 2012. How terrible that the right thus purges itself! What an example of wimpy political correctness! What a loss! And so on, and so forth.

Now, my own impression at the time that the actual divorce took place was that they could and probably should have chosen a better last straw. There had been (even by my cursory estimate) so many other straws that should have been the last. And, yes, perhaps one could write a little treatise on the psychology of National Review editors and on why it was something Derbyshire wrote about race relations (which wasn't anyway as bad as other, imaginable things he could have written about race) instead of his militant atheism and his hatred for the pro-life movement that pushed them over the edge.

But I'm not going to write that psychological musing. I'm just going to talk about his visceral and creepy hatred for the pro-life movement, which did not strike me with full force (perhaps because I was always somewhat bored by Derb and hence inattentive) until I read this old article.

Why write about such an old article? Well, for one thing, because Derbyshire hasn't dematerialized or anything. He's still out there and still writing and being read. So, unless he's repented (ha ha) in dust and ashes for this interesting piece of vitriol and the ideas it expresses, the article remains, in a sense, ever-timely. Second and perhaps more important, Derbyshire's long stint at National Review after writing this article (six more years) as well as the unfortunate rise of the alt-right in 2016 tell us all too loudly and clearly that there are people who want to be called "conservative," and who sometimes succeed in getting that label affixed to them rather firmly, but who hate human life and hate those who fight for human life. It would be well for those of us who have closely identified American conservatism with the pro-life movement and ourselves with both of these to be aware, and wary, on this account. These anti-lifers mean business, and we and they have no common ground on which to meet. Third, and related to both, is the fact that normal conservatives are now being pressured in comboxes by alt-rightists to denounce loudly National Review's getting rid of Derbyshire in 2012. That's happening today. In light of this 2006 Derbyshire piece, my response is a strengthened version of my original impression. Namely, my only regret is that it didn't happen sooner and on the even more solid ground of his visceral hatred of the pro-life movement, a movement for which (allegedly) the National Review stood as the flagship journal of American conservatism. Derbyshire's absence from National Review and from mainstream conservatism is therefore to be praised, not mourned, and the more informed we become, the more we will realize that. This should lead us to be skeptical about the supposed "martyrs of political correctness" whose purgings from polite company we are told we should mourn with the Internet equivalent of black armbands and righteously angry scowls.

The various strands of conservative fusionism in America are coming apart with a vengeance in the current Presidential election. We have a GOP candidate who cares nothing whatsoever for the defining social issues and his vicious followers  of the alt-right who talk much like Derbyshire (and worse) about pro-life conservatives. At the same time, a European-style Christian Democratic party has appeared on the American horizon, manned by people who appear to be deeply sincere in their commitment to the sanctity of human life but who are (not to put too fine a point on it) dangerously out to lunch on virtually all economic, environmental, and other prudential issues, including the size and power of government.

The Derbyshire article in question, which recently came to my attention via this interesting post by David Mills, is a review of Ramesh Ponnuru's pro-life treatise Party of Death. Derbyshire's review was published in the New English Review in 2006.

A dead giveaway that Derbyshire really, really dislikes pro-lifers is that he starts by (more or less) calling the pro-life movement (which he dubs RTL for "right-to-life") a cult. From that point on, he literally can't bring himself to refer to it as anything normal, not even a cause. He has to have a pause before "cause," as if every reference to it is distasteful.
Can Right to Life (hereinafter RTL) fairly be called a cult? This is a point on which I cannot make up my mind. Some of the common characteristics of culthood are missing—the F├╝hrerprinzip, for example. On the other hand, RTL has the following things in common with every cult in the world: To those inside, it appears to be a structure of perfect logical integrity, founded on unassailable philosophical principles, while to those outside—among whom, obviously, I count myself—it seems to some degree (depending on the observer’s temperament and inclinations) nutty; to some other degree (ditto) hysterical; and to some yet other degree (ditto ditto) a threat to liberty.

Ramesh Ponnuru is one of the best advocates a cult—cause, movement, whatever—could hope for;

See, for example, this exceedingly back-handed compliment for Ponnuru:
Whether it is a cult or not, RTL is made as presentable as possible in Party of Death, with writing that is engaging and lucid. Will Ponnuru’s book make any converts to the RTL whatever-it-is? That depends on how much exposure it gets outside RTL circles. Just to be on the safe side, the mainstream media are studiously ignoring the book—a sad reflection on the current state of public debate, and of respect for rhetorical virtuosity. RTL-ers are welcoming Party of Death very joyfully, though, and they are right to do so, as it is an exceptionally fine piece of polemical writing in support of their... cause.
"Their...ewww...[picks up spider with forefinger and thumb] cause."

We get it, John, you're disgusted by the pro-life movement. Did it ever occur to you that people who are less (what was that word? ah, yes) hysterical than you are about the DANGEROUS pro-life movement might find you rather creepy for your inability to write a single smooth sentence in which you refer to it as a cause?

But pro-lifers aren't the only ones who disgust Derbyshire. Those they defend also disgust him. Indeed, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that Derbyshire is disgusted by pro-lifers precisely because they defend the lives and humanity of people by whom he is disgusted. For example, he cannot bring himself to speak of Terri Schiavo without triggering his own gag reflex. She, and her daring to live when she should have died here sooner, clearly disgust him viscerally:
The second of those ratings [degree of hysteria] would have been lower before the grotesque carnival surrounding the death of Terri Schiavo last year, when a motley menagerie of quack doctors, bogus “Nobel Prize nominees,” emoting relatives, get-a-life monomaniacs, keening mobs of religious fanatics, death-threat-hissing warriors for “life,” dimwitted TV presenters straining to keep their very best my-puppy-just-died faces on while speaking of “Terri” as if they had known her personally from grade school, pandering politicians, and shyster lawyers all joined forces in a massive effort to convince the American public that RTL was a thing no sane citizen ought to touch with a barge pole while wearing triple-ply rubber gloves.
The word “polemical” needs emphasizing. Some people would say that a writer who refers to embryos as “the young,” to Mrs. Schiavo as “disabled,” or to the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment as having carefully pondered its implications for abortion, is just plain dishonest.
Heaven forbid anyone should call Terri Schiavo "disabled" or should refer to embryonic, individual members of the human species as "the young."
We likewise feel that an adult woman’s life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse.
One has to pause to admire (?), be struck dumb by (?), the Nietzschean-Darwinian logic by which Derbyshire decrees that Michael Schiavo's unfaithfulness to his disabled wife and the production of children with a woman to whom he was not married make him positively admirable. "Merrily procreating" and "vigorous." Yes, that's what we normal, moral people always call a man who behaves like that! As for "usefully employed," why yes, that is obviously an important criterion for a life worthy of life. Arbeit macht frei.

And just in case you thought referring to a living, breathing human being as an "insensate relict" was as low as Derbyshire could go in dehumanizing those he wants to see killed, out of pity for those whose real lives they are interrupting, you were wrong, because there's also this:
Here I meet a man whose loved wife has gone, never to return, yet her personless body still twitches and grunts randomly on its plastic sheet, defying years of care and therapy.
You will notice that "Mrs. Schiavo" has disappeared, in every sense, by this point in Derbyshire's manifesto.

Derbyshire makes it quite clear that his detestation for pro-lifers and those they defend is not based upon argument or principle. Indeed, he seems faintly resentful of the fact that Ponnuru has carefully mustered a coherent, well-argued philosophical position. The resentment shows, for example, in this artful little bit of well-poisoning, in which he does not interact with a single argument of Ponnuru's but rather dismisses Ponnuru's arguments on the grounds that they are "inspired by religious belief."

Yet it remains the case that our Constitution does not permit the framing of laws based on the peculiar tenets of any religion or sect, and Party of Death is obviously inspired by religious belief. The philosophical passages strictly follow the Golden Rule of religious apologetics, which is: The conclusion is known in advance, and the task of the intellectual is to erect supporting arguments. It would be an astounding thing, just from a statistical point of view, if, after conducting a rigorous open-ended inquiry from philosophical first principles, our author came to conclusions precisely congruent with the dogmas of the church in which he himself is a communicant. Yet that is the case, very nearly, with Party of Death. Remarkable! What if, after all that intellectual work, all that propositional algebra, all those elegant syllogisms, the author had come to the conclusion that abortion was not such a bad thing after all? I suppose he would have been plunged into severe psychic distress. Fortunately there was never the slightest chance of this happening.
However well-written the periods of that (snarky) paragraph may be, the attentive reader will notice that they, at any rate, cannot be accused of containing any intellectual work, much less any elegant syllogisms. Why bother with all that when one can accomplish what one wants to accomplish instead by disdaining intellectual work and insinuating that Ponnuru undertakes his own intellectual efforts in bad faith? But this is very nearly the definition of the abuse of rhetoric. Thrasymachus, call your office.

It is ironic that Derbyshire, the atheist, obviously thinks himself much superior to religious believers in terms of rationality. But his complaint in this context against Ponnuru and his fellow pro-lifers is that we insist on using arguments and following inconvenient principles when instead, if only we were not cold, heartless, bastards, we would be relying solely on gut feelings.

Our preferred method for dealing with the unpleasant side of life, including topics like abortion and euthanasia, is to think about them as little as possible. In the fuss over Mrs. Schiavo, it was not hard to detect a general public irritation at having had the whole unsightly business forced on our attention. Perhaps this is not humanity at its most noble, but:
Show me what angels feel.
Till then I cling, a mere weak man, to men.

A corollary, though Ponnuru seems unaware of it, is that people who are obsessively interested in these topics seem, to the rest of us, a bit creepy. We may even find ourselves wondering which side, really, is the Party of Death. Ponnuru says that it is unjust to regard some instances of the human organism as less alive than others based on how we feel about them. (Another RTL-er once derided this approach to me, in conversation, as “Barry Manilow ethics”—the worth of another human life judged by our own feelings, wo wo wo feelings... I offer this designation for Ramesh Ponnuru’s future use, free of charge.) Unfortunately most of us do so judge; and feelings, wo wo wo feelings, are a much more common foundation for our social taboos than are Natural Law principles, or indeed any abstract principles at all. Why, if a woman’s husband dies, should she not use his corpse for garden mulch, or serve it up with mashed potatoes and collard greens for dinner? I cannot think of any reason well rooted in pure philosophy, though there might be a public health issue to be addressed. We do not do such things because of the disgust we feel—we feel—at the mistreatment of human corpses.

We likewise feel that an adult woman’s life, even a few months of it, is worth more than that of a hardly-formed fetus; and that the vigorous, usefully-employed, merrily procreating Michael Schiavo has a life, a life, more worthy of the name than had the incurably insensate relict of his spouse. Those like Ponnuru who think differently are working against the grain of human nature, against our feelings—yes, our feelings—about what life is. The life of a newly-formed embryo, or of a brain-damaged patient who has shown no trace of consciousness for fifteen years, is worth just as much as the life of a healthy adult, Ponnuru insists. Well, most of us instinctively but emphatically disagree, and no amount of argumentative ingenuity is likely to change our minds. Hearts, whatever.

If, from the principles of Natural Law, it ineluctably follows that women who discover that they are bearing Down Syndrome fetuses should not be allowed to abort those fetuses, then I can assure Ramesh Ponnuru that Natural Law principles will be tossed out of the window by every juridical authority in the land, so long as we remain a democracy. And that is as it should be.
And thus Derbyshire works himself up to his pro-death, feeling-based, furious peroration:
Here I find a couple who want a lively, healthy child, but who know their genes carry dark possibilities of a lifetime’s misery and an early death. They permit multiple embryos to be created, select the one free from the dread traits, and give over the rest to the use of science, or authorize their destruction.
The RTL-ers would tell me that these people, and the medical professionals who help them, are all moral criminals, who have destroyed human lives. They support their belief with careful definitions, precise chains of reasoning, and—I do not doubt it—sincere intentions. Yet how inhuman they seem! What a frigid and pitiless dogma they preach!—one that would take from the living, without any regard to what the living have to say about it, to give to those whom common intuition regards as nonliving; that would criminalize acts of compassion, and that would strip away such little personal autonomy as is left to us after the attentions of the IRS, Big Medicine, the litigation rackets, and the myriad government bureaucracies that regulate our lives and peer into our private affairs.

For RTL is, really, just another species of Political Correctness, just another manifestation of the intellectual pathology, the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality. that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years. We have lost our innocence, traded it in for a passel of theorems. The RTL-ers are just another bunch of schoolmarms trying to boss us around and to diminish our liberties. Is it wrong to have concern for fetuses and for the vegetative, incapable, or incurable? Not at all. Do we need to do some hard thinking about the notion of personhood in a society with fast-advancing biological capabilities? We surely do. (And I think Party of Death contributes useful things to that discussion.) Should we let a cult of theologians, monks, scolds, grad-school debaters, logic-choppers, and schoolmarms tell us what to do with our wombs, or when we may give up the ghost, or when we should part with our loved ones? Absolutely not! Give me liberty, and give me death!

(Did someone say something about only pretending to do hard thinking so long as one is careful to come to predetermined conclusions? Why, yes, I believe someone did. But the pretense here is very thin. Derbyshire merely talks, for one sentence, about "doing hard thinking." He doesn't actually do any himself. Indeed, there is something of the fakery Derbyshire affects to despise in his talk about the importance of "having a discussion" and "doing hard thinking" in the very midst of heaping angry scorn upon anyone on the other side of such a "discussion" who comes to conclusions different from those endorsed by his own feelings.)

Well, now that we know that Derbyshire thinks that those who want to protect the unborn (yes, even the unborn with Down Syndrome) and the inconvenient helpless are "another manifestation of the hypertrophied and academical egalitarianism, the victimological scab-picking, the gaseous sentimentality, that has afflicted our civilization this past forty years," we can make our decisions accordingly. My own decision, had I been an editor of National Review in charge of such things in 2006, having read this venomous, murderous, irrational, fascistic screed against the defenders of life and the victims for whom they speak (Lebensunwertes Leben in Derbyshire's anti-egalitarian ideal world), would have been to boot Derbyshire's posterior out the door so fast that any film of the event would have caught nothing but a blur. If the other editors, through misplaced patience and an abstract notion of the free exchange of ideas, kept around someone who so despised the pro-life movement, a central pillar of American conservatism, for six more years and then fired him for a different reason, you will find it difficult to induce me to shed any tears over the final outcome.

This is not conservatism, and anyone who holds with Derbyshire concerning the wicked "egalitarianism" of the pro-life movement is not an ally social conservatives can work with.

I do not know what will happen in the end to American conservatism. I have lived to see both the birth and, in a sad and important sense, the death of the American religious right, with its shameful endorsement of Donald Trump for President. And I'm not even that old. What will rise from its ashes is beyond any mere man's power to predict. But I do know that no good can come of despising the weak, the helpless, and those who cannot speak. No good can come of treating human life as a commodity with a value on a sliding scale, so that those humans who seem to us attractive, vital, and productive have "a life, a life," while those unfortunate human beings who don't arouse such feelings in the rest of us must get out of the way.

So I'll keep looking for candidates and allies, even if I can't find a party, who understand those things. I'll also (sorry, American Solidarity Party) want them not to be incredibly foolish about the use of practical political power and about economics in the United States. And (sorry, Constitution Party) their candidates should not be nuts who coyly refuse to say whether or not they are 9/11 conspiracy theorists. Those of us who represent the last of the fusionists, a dying breed, may be doomed to disappointment in the world of politics. But the one thing we won't do, if we have any principle at all, is give up on the social issues. Because whoever turns out to be right on the pragmatic issues, on the matters of fundamental principle we know that we will have the last word, when it all comes tumbling down, when "The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare."

Tuesday, September 06, 2016

Reverence, fundamentalism, and modern evangelicalism

Recently I heard on the radio that an adult coloring Bible has been published by Zondervan.

The Babylon Bee has been satirizing the proliferation of "Bibles" for a while (e.g., here, here, and here), but really, satire almost seems to be dead on this subject.

In real life there is the so-called Brick Bible, which is a Bible story book (why does a Bible story book have to be called a Bible, since they aren't the same thing?) done in the style of Lego pictures. They even crucify a Lego Jesus on a Lego cross.

And then there's this one: NIV Wild About Horses Bible. It intersperses photos of horses, inscribed with "short inspirational thoughts and scripture verses on themes of love, peace, friendship, beauty, strength and faith [that] accompany the photos," amongst the pages of Holy Writ.

I was posting about the coloring Bible on Facebook and encountered the argument that "as long as it gets more people to read the Bible, what's the problem?" Well, I beg to question whether, in fact, a coloring book combined with the text of the Bible is actually going to get more people to read the Bible.

In thinking about all the problems with treating the text of the Bible (or even dumbed-down Bible stories labeled as "a Bible") as an opportunity for marketers to make lots of money by selling people irreverent, self-expressionistic kitsch, I got to thinking about this whole notion of reverence.

At first I was tempted to think that the "what does it matter" evangelical tin ear to all matters of tackiness and reverence is a result of an absence of sacramentalism. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that isn't quite right, sociologically.

The old fundamentalists would have had conniptions over a coloring Bible. They carried their Bibles, the actual physical books, with reverence. They even questioned whether you should place your Bible on the floor. And don't get me started imagining what they would have probably said about a fake Lego "Bible" in which Lego Jesus gets crucified on a Lego cross.

Yet they weren't, at least officially, sacramentalists. They may have treated the physical bodies of their Bibles in a quasi-sacramental way, but the only theory involved in general was the theory of being reverent and respectful toward sacred matters, including the Word of God. This meant that there were proprieties that needed to be followed. The Veggie Tales makers showed some of this idea of propriety when they refused to do New Testament stories in which Jesus appeared as a vegetable (!).

Part of the problem with a "coloring Bible," which is in turn a lot less bad than a Lego Bible, is the idea that the things of the Lord exist principally for our benefit. A Bible that you color in encourages the idea that the Bible exists for your entertainment and enjoyment rather than your existing for God's glory. Another obvious problem is history. The Bible is a large, messy, often unpleasant set of books in a variety of historical settings. It's not there to be pretty or soothing.

It would be one thing to have a coloring book, a thin, cheap, paperback thing that made no claim to be a Bible, that had some passages from the Psalms with pictures of flowers to color. Even that would be somewhat kitschy. We pick out the parts that we like, combine them with pretty pictures, and give them to you to soothe your mind and meditate on. But it is much worse to print an entire Bible this way. At least a coloring book using Bible passages is openly, frankly, using biblical passages for some other purpose. The purchaser of a mere coloring book is under no illusion that he's getting the whole Scripture. An entire Bible, printed, is supposed to have an existence in itself, aside from any particular use to which we might want to put it. In this way the whole Bible, or even a printed New Testament, testifies to the fact that man is not the measure of all things. This is an uncompromisingly real set of historical books that exists apart from ourselves and that we cannot make in our own image. We may turn to particular passages in our time of need. That isn't wrong. But if we really want to know the Scriptures, we must be prepared to be judged by the Scriptures. A coloring Bible communicates something quite different.

The old fundamentalists understood that sort of thing instinctively. But perhaps instinct is not enough in the fight against cultural slide. As the culture has coarsened and become aesthetically tone-deaf, as reverence has waned in general, virtually all of the churches that were once quiet, even somewhat bare, testaments to quiet, pious, Protestant prayer have succumbed to the culture of kitsch. Rightly desiring to bring souls to Christ, they have hired more and more number-focused pastors who subscribe to the "what does it matter, so long as..." school of thought. We wouldn't want our churches to be boring, bare, and frumpy, would we? And we wouldn't want to be legalistic and judgemental, would we? And mere aesthetics are just subjective, aren't they?

God doesn't think so. God ordered that even the tabernacle was to be made beautiful. The God who struck a man dead for touching the Ark of the Covenant hardly seems like a God who doesn't care about ceremony. It was our Lord Jesus himself who drove the money-changers from the Temple for showing disrespect for the physical House of God and using it only as a means of profit. Can irreverence send souls to hell? I venture to fear that it can.

Irreverence where there should be reverence takes us away from the awe and majesty of the great God who, miracle of miracles, loves us, and from the glorious, painful seriousness of the Christian faith, rooted in uncompromising historical fact, recorded and revealed in ancient and somewhat alien books. I suggest that we try to teach Christians to confront and meditate on all of that rather than softening and obscuring it with coloring Bible Christianity.

In closing, I leave you with a few words from the inimitable Alistair Begg, on the related subject of worship and feelings: