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Would Jesus turn water into wine at a same-sex wedding?

Marie Antoinette must be ghostwriting editorials and judicial opinions now, because all we hear from the bench or on the internet these days is let them eat cake. Yes, today’s pundits and jurists can think of no more dangerous threat to democracy than a few confectioners who don’t want to provide same-sex couples with the flavorless monument to conspicuous consumption that is every American couple’s dream.

The cake is a lie

Bone of contention

Bone of contention

The “cake” meme is largely a smokescreen to portray religious people as being hung up on something that’s not a big deal, since usually the person who makes a wedding cake does not need to attend the wedding. But the threat of compulsion also extends to other constituents of the wedding-industrial complex such as photographers, caterers, florists, jewelers, property owners, website creators, innkeepers, musicians, journalists for the Style section, and whoever else is involved in inaugurating a modern family. Does a person who offers a service has no right to refuse that service to anyone, even if it means participating in an event that mocks a religious rite he holds sacred?

Of course, one can get married without all of these trappings. Religious ministers and justices of the peace are quite happy to authenticate a lawful marriage, with or without cake.

What would Jesus bake?

"What would Jesus bake?" Dana Ellyn, 2009

“What would Jesus bake?” Dana Ellyn, 2009

But I bring you no manifesto for alternative weddings and simpler lifestyles. I think same-sex couples can use all the help they can get in concealing the essential vacuity of their nuptuals. What bothers me is all the speculation about who Jesus would or would not bake a cake for.

As far as we know, Jesus never baked anything, although he made a lot of bread on a couple of occasions. But Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding, and that was no accident. Let’s look at John 2 (my paraphrase), where Jesus first outs himself as a miracle worker by helping people get tight.

On the third day of Jesus’s ministry as a teacher, both he and his mother were invited to a wedding in the town of Cana, and his disciples attended with him. When the wine ran out, Jesus’s mother came to him and told him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, what does that have to do with me?” Jesus replied. “My time has not yet come.” His mother told the servants who were standing there, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Now there were six large stone jars standing nearby which were used for the Jewish purification rites, each holding 20 to 30 gallons. Jesus said, “Fill them with water,” and the servants filled them each to the brim. “Now draw some out and take it to the master of ceremonies,” Jesus instructed them.

When the master of ceremonies tasted the water that had become wine (he did not know where it came from, although the servants knew) he called the bridegroom aside and chided him for a breach of etiquette. “Everyone serves the good wine first, then after the guests are tipsy they bring out the rougher stuff. But you have saved the good wine until now!”

Baptism of Christ Meister von DaphniThis story is doing a number of very symbolic things. First, in John’s gospel the story follows right after the story of Jesus’s baptism and calling his first disciples. It is his first miracle. Baptism is a Jewish purification ritual, and the prophet John was baptizing people who wanted to be cleansed from their sins and follow God. As Jesus comes up out of the water, God’s spirit descends on him. Thus, Jesus’s first miracle is a sort of self-referential pun. The waters of baptism are drawn out of the washbasins and become “spirits” through a mysterious action of grace.

Second, the master of ceremonies’ reaction upon tasting the wine shows that the bridegroom is the one responsible for the wine. This explains Jesus’s response to his mother informing him that there is no wine. On the face of it he seems to be saying “Not my party—not my problem.” But Jesus’s statement carries a double meaning. He doesn’t deny that he is a bridegroom, but he observes that the wedding has yet to take place. Mary’s response to Jesus is not to argue with him but to order the servants to do what he says. Mary and Jesus are communicating in a mutually understood language of symbolic riddles.

By turning the water into wine, Jesus shows who he is. He chooses a wedding for the scene of his first miracle, and puts the rituals of the Law of Moses to an unexpected and inebriating use.

Jesus is the bridegroom

The New Testament speaks of Jesus as a bridegroom, and his people, the Church, as a bride. It speaks of a wedding feast in the new Jerusalem at the end of days. In choosing a wedding as the scene of his first miracle, Jesus looks ahead to what he will accomplish through his life, death, and resurrection. When, at the Last Supper with his disciples, Jesus tells them that he will not drink wine again until he sits down with them in his Father’s kingdom, he is thinking once more of that heavenly wedding on the eve of his most difficult trial.

Turning water into wine shows that Jesus has no problem with people having fun, and perhaps also shows that he was willing to help an embarrassed bridegroom save face. But the way the story is told shows that the real purpose of the miracle is to be a sign of who Jesus is and what he has come to do.

Would a same-sex wedding have been an equally significant setting for Jesus’s first miracle? Jesus expressed some clear opinions about marriage, such as when the religious teachers asked him about divorce: “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Matthew 19:4-6). Whatever you may think of it from a practical or political standpoint, the theological definition of marriage involves one man and one woman (Jesus neatly excludes polygamy too, if you’re paying attention).

Cake-eater Kristen Powers may be right in one sense: there’s not necessarily anything wrong with a Christian baker making a tall white cake for a same-sex couple. Maybe by doing so the baker is showing the love of Jesus. Maybe not. Right or wrong, it’s just a cake. But she misses the point about the wedding, and about Jesus. What Jesus did at the wedding in Cana was miraculous, gratuitous, and transformative. His love is a gift. He challenges us to be washed in the waters of baptism and filled with the new wine of the Spirit.

Just as the wedding feast is a significant symbol in Jesus’s ministry, the marriage rite holds a sacred place in the hearts of his followers, some of whom make a living by baking cakes or taking pictures. Compelling them to violate their religion by participating in a ceremonial mockery of this symbolic celebration is a form of religious persecution.

So would Jesus  turn water into wine at a same-sex wedding? Perhaps a better question to ask is this:

Would his mother have asked him to?

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Why we can’t outgrow church: an ecclesiology of suffering

Donald Miller responded to his critics today, suggesting that he is one of many Christian leaders he knows who, according to him, do not attend church. What a fascinating morsel of gossip, casually tossed to the salivating watchdogs. Tell us more, Don!

Besides being a petty example of the “but all my friends are doing it, Mom” excuse, this reasoning does little except to suggest one more reason evangelicalism is in trouble.

In yesterday’s post, I gave Miller a lot of credit, because I sympathize with his disillusionment over what seems to be the contemporary evangelical status quo. An intellectual briar patch! An aesthetic wasteland! A sacramental void! But there are alternatives to that besides giving up on church entirely, as I tried to suggest.

Miller’s latest essay is less sympathetic. Like a child who reacts against his parents’ culture, he rejects the outward forms and practices of American evangelicalism while retaining its worst premises and assumptions.

He evades his critics’ arguments from scriptural authority by essentially arguing to another authority, the vague authority of a kind of impressionistic structural critique of church institutions. He claims that they have tended to follow the shape of power in successive epochs, although to be honest I mostly lose track of his argument here.

But so what? And not every church has done this. The Roman Catholic church might be an impossibly archaic relic of bygone days, but at least it hasn’t attempted to drape itself seductively across the non-Euclidean contours of modernity, and it’s still rather popular.

But no, Miller says, change is a good thing. It’s appealing to your customer base, the American way! Give the consumer what he wants, and if his tastes change, change the product.

This would be fine except that the Church is not a product. It’s a Body, visibly manifested in the world in the form of Christians meeting together in “churches.” And I think evangelicals need to start taking baby steps back toward the idea that our participation in those churches is not entirely by choice, nor is the way those churches are structured and administered entirely open to alteration.

Division in the Church is a scourge, probably allowed by God to punish us for our sins against one another and chasten us into being better followers of Christ. I think it hurts Jesus more than it hurts us. It’s one of the reasons he died–to bring us back together in him, to repair the effects of sin that divides us within ourselves and from each other.

I also think we need to suffer with Jesus. We need to be in imperfect churches, with people who hurt us, so that we can emulate the Apostle Paul when he said:

“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church . . .” (Col. 1:24)

Paul knew churches that were doing it wrong–way wrong. He didn’t abandon those churches. Instead, he suffered so that they would repent and find unity. We need an ecclesiology of suffering.

What I see in Donald Miller’s essays, to speak crassly, is an ecclesiology of self-actualization. Church as a form of therapy. You can use it if it “works” for you, or not if it doesn’t.

It’s one thing for those who’ve been severely victimized by the church, or abusers in church disguise. You may need to find healing, embrace Jesus’s love for you, and learn to love yourself again before you can forgive and accept the church. On the other hand, the best place to find that healing may be within a healthy church.

But either way, the more spiritual, the more mature, the more like Jesus we are, the more willing and able we ought to be to suffer in and for the church. This is one primary way we connect with Jesus.

I don’t think I’ve yet tasted what it means to suffer in and for the church. But I believe that’s my calling as a baptized child of God, and I can’t escape it and stay in a relationship with Jesus. For me, Christianity is a dead letter without the church.

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Donald Miller doesn’t need to go to church

Photo of Donald Miller (source: Twitter)

Christian author Donald Miller

I really like Donald Miller. He has a knack for encouraging people to follow their unique gifts. He understands how to talk about being a Christian without making people feel guilty. That’s why I appreciated his recent post: “I don’t worship God by singing. I connect with him elsewhere.”

The average church service, Miller says, doesn’t help him find a personal connection with God. For one thing, the average church service doesn’t do much for people who have more “visual” and “kinesthetic” learning styles, like Miller. It’s all mostly about hearing things—the worship band, the preacher.

Then Miller admitted that he doesn’t attend church often. That raised a lot of objections from people on Twitter: What about Christian community? What about fellowship and accountability with other believers? What about serving others?

The thing is, Miller already does those things. He has close Christian friends who hold him accountable. Isn’t that “Christian community?” He exercises his spiritual gifts by writing and teaching others and helping people develop their own callings. He has a blog and a Twitter feed where he communicates grace to people on a daily basis. Maybe Miller’s spirituality is just the postmodern, internet-enabled evolution of what we used to need church for. After all, cultural Christianity is dead.

Denny Burk (Image credit: Twitter)

Denny Burk

But maybe we shouldn’t let Don off the hook so easily. Bible professor Denny Burk writes:

Miller’s view of the church differs markedly from what we find in scripture. For him, the church is not defined by the preaching of the word and the right administration of the ordinances (e.g., Acts 2:42). Instead, the church is amorphous, “all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.” How different this is from the way that the Bible speaks of the church as local bodies of believers “who have been sanctified in Christ Jesus, saints by calling, with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). God is omnipresent, but the church is not. If you are not with a gathered community, you are not at church—despite Miller’s claim that the church is “all around us.” . . .

The New Testament pattern for gathered worship . . . involves the people of God coming together to enjoy the apostle’s [sic] teaching, fellowship, prayer, and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:42). Gathering with God’s people like this isn’t an optional add-on to following Christ. It is part and parcel of being a disciple. To neglect this is to deny the faith altogether. In fact, John describes apostates as those who stop gathering with God’s people.

Burk also has a point. Christians shouldn’t neglect to meet together for “the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship . . . the breaking of bread, and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The Bible is pretty clear about that. At the same time, who says that this has to happen within the institutional church setting?

I ask for the sake of argument, because I think Donald Miller’s critics are blind to what evangelical churches, the kind of churches Don is thinking of, have become. Many of them are almost entirely marginal to the Christian life, and in some cases worse than useless to the Christian who wants to grow in faith.

If church is about community, you can find community elsewhere.

In fact, you can create a community of your own. Reach out to lonely people who need love, and healthy people who have something to give.

If church is for learning about Jesus, you may learn better from books and podcasts.

The pastor of your local church is probably not John Stott, or Alistair Begg, or John MacArthur, or Tim Keller. He’s probably a man of slightly-above-average intelligence trying to balance his teaching responsibility with all of the other ministry he’s called to do. Not every Sunday is going to be an inspiring, enlightening experience.

If church is for fellowship with other Christians, you can do that in your home or at the coffee shop.

Even if your church has a fellowship meal after the service, a noisy room with your kids running around and climbing over the tables is not necessarily the best place for deep fellowship. Find or make places to meet with other Christians. You can do it anywhere, and you should!

If church is about experiencing God emotionally, it may not deliver the goods.

Even the amped-up, professional quality worship band of a megachurch may completely fail at inspiring people like Don, or me, who just don’t operate on that level. It’s more annoying and distracting than anything else. And by the way, the septuagenarian choir of the local UMC church singing “In the Garden” may be even more vexing. We may very well not experience God emotionally at any church.

If church is about listening to the Holy Spirit, you may do that better in a quiet room at home.

Maybe the amped-up worship band is drowning out God’s still, small voice. Maybe the chatter of toddlers in the back seat is harshing your prayerful mellow.

If church is about an aesthetic experience, you can go to an art gallery or a rock concert.

And they’ll do a better job.

If church is about discipling other Christians, you can start a small group or a teaching ministry.

Don Miller did this and has blessed a lot of people.

If church is for worshipping and praising God, you can do that anywhere.

Christian radio! Singing hymns with your family! Hiking in nature! Telling a friend about Jesus!

If church is for networking, you can do that somewhere else.

People used to join a church for the business connections, because it was the social hub of the community. Now, any given local church is peripheral to the community. There are dozens of other, more effective ways to network.

If church is for serving other Christians, you don’t need to go on Sunday.

Most of the serving that happens in a church community doesn’t happen on Sunday morning.

If church is for accountability and spiritual growth, you don’t need to go on Sunday.

In fact, you need to join a small group or find a group of friends for mutual encouragement, because Sunday morning is, again, not the best time to do that.

If church is for evangelizing the lost, it’s possibly the least efficient way to do that.

Maybe some of the church members or their children need to be converted, but most of you are sitting there because you already believe in Jesus.

If church is for submitting to the church elders, where do those elders derive their authority?

One tweeter mentioned that church is about “learning from elders” who are “shepherds for our souls.” But this raises the question: who are the elders? Is Donald Miller an elder? A lot of people feel more “shepherded” through his gracious ministry than by their local pastor.

What Donald Miller—and his critics—are missing about church

Ed Underwood tweets: “The point of preaching is difficult to define, but the point of churches [is] to build redemptive communities.” Going to church isn’t about whether you learn about God, it’s about being part of a community that is being redeemed and transformed by Jesus Christ. But “redemptive communities” are not absent from Donald Miller’s life. Indeed, his ministry is about fostering and nurturing gracious communities where people use their spiritual gifts to build each other up in love.

What Miller, and his critics, are missing about church—and what many of their churches are missing about church—is the central thing that ties all of these activities and concerns together.

Church isn’t about individuals being educated or obtaining an emotional experience. It’s also not about a social support network. It’s about a body—it is a Body. And as much as we should care about “the local church,” any particular local congregation is not that Body. All Christians, everywhere, who are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, are members of that Body (1 Cor. 12, Rom. 12).

So why should we care about the local, individual church congregation?

When a local church congregation meets together as a visible manifestation of the universal Body of the church, Jesus Christ is present. He becomes present in a special way, not in the way that He is always present for each of us through the Holy Spirit, but in a communal and sacramental way. Heaven is coming down to earth.

The way that Jesus makes Himself present to the gathered church congregation is through the sacraments. The Lord’s Supper is not just something we do “because Jesus said so,” or to “remember” what He did for us. It is a “feast that makes his guest,” as George Herbert wrote. In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is literally feeding us with the spiritual food of his body and blood, in the elements of the bread and wine.  In the liturgical prayers, we are participating in the eternal liturgy that is already going on in Heaven. In the reading and preaching of the Word, we are becoming participants in the story of God, and being taught by the apostles and prophets.

Painting by Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Nicholas Poussin: Institution of the Eucharist (1637)

Churches that don’t believe these things, or don’t practice them regularly, need to think about whether their way of doing church is relevant or necessary in today’s world. All of those other priorities I described can be done outside of the gathered church community, and in some cases they can be done better.

A church community should be about all of those values and activities. But without the direct, connection to Jesus Christ feeding us through the liturgy of the Word and Sacraments, I agree with Donald Miller. Those things are peripheral to what is supposed to happen in church.

A thought about learning styles

Traditional liturgical worship is a lot more “visual” and “kinesthetic.” In fact, it engages pretty much every sense. We sing psalms and hymns with our voices. We listen to the Scriptures (and read along, if that helps). If our mind wanders during the sermon, we look around and see images that tell us about God in other ways. We move our bodies, taking a break from sitting to stand, kneel, or walk up the aisle to receive. We exchange greetings with others to remember that we are all part of one Body. We make symbolic gestures, such as the sign of the cross, or a reverential bow. We taste bread and wine and remember that Jesus is feeding us with his flesh and blood. We repeat some of the same prayers every week, so that they have a chance to really sink into our souls and transform the way we relate to God. Miller might appreciate stepping into a traditional Lutheran or Anglican church sometime and see whether our whole-body approach to worship suits his learning style better.

UPDATE: Go read “Donald Miller and the culture of contemporary worship” by Mike Cosper. Says what I was trying to say, only better.

Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light

C.S. Lewis on movie adaptations; also my Hobbit review

My wife and I went to see the second Hobbit film this afternoon. In many ways it was a fun movie, but it lacked, shall we say, the wonder of Tolkien’s imagination. It reminded my wife of this excellent bit from C.S. Lewis’s essay “On Stories” in which he reflects on the problems involved in adapting literary adventure to the screen.

I was once taken to see a film version of King Solomon’s Mines. Of its many sins—not least the introduction of a totally irrelevant young woman in shorts who accompanied the three adventurers wherever they went—only one here concerns us. At the end of Haggard’s book, as everyone remembers, the heroes are awaiting death entombed in a rock chamber and surrounded by the mummified kings of that land. The maker of the film version, however, apparently thought this tame. He substituted a subterranean volcanic eruption, and then went one better by adding an earthquake. Perhaps we should not blame him. Perhaps the scene in the original was not ‘cinematic’ and the man was right, by the canons of his own art, in altering it. But it would have been better not to have chosen in the first place a story which could be adapted to the screen only by being ruined. Ruined, at least, for me. No doubt if sheer excitement is all you want from a story, and if increase of dangers increases excitement, then a rapidly changing series of two risks (that of being burned alive and that of being crushed to bits) would be better than the single prolonged danger of starving to death in a cave. But that is just the point. There must be a pleasure in such stories distinct from mere excitement or I should not feel that I had been cheated in being given the earthquake instead of Haggard’s actual scene. What I lose is the whole sense of the deathly (quite a different thing from simple danger of death)–the cold, the silence, and the surrounding faces of the ancient, the crowned and sceptred, dead. You may, if you please, say that Rider Haggard’s effect is quite as ‘crude’ or ‘vulgar’ or ‘sensational’ as that which the film substituted for it. I am not at present discussing that. The point is that it is extremely different. The one lays a hushing spell on the imagination; the other excites a rapid flutter of the nerves. In reading that chapter of the book curiosity or suspense about the escape of the heroes from their death-trap makes a very minor part of one’s experience. The trap I remember for ever: how they got out I have long since forgotten.

The female elf-warrior of the movie does not quite fit Lewis’s description of the “totally irrelevant woman in shorts,” but that whole action sequence, along with the overworked one involving molten gold under the mountain, seems to have been invented to fill hours that might have been better spent in enjoying Beorn’s hospitality or even observing the councils of the High Elves, who were entirely missing from this episode.

Image of Bilbo Baggins looking above the Mirkwood canopy surrounded by butterflies in the evening light

The Hobbit needed more of this, less pinball physics (credit: OneRing.net)

All that said, the second Hobbit was probably better than other recent action movies and not a terrible way to spend a few hours, so you might as well go see it.

Image: outline of a cannabis leaf

The Eternal Adolescence of the Libertarian Mind

There is a time in a young man’s life when Reason, the pure, demanding goddess, awakens, shining in her dawn with all the certainty of early faith.

As he matures, other voices arise to balance Reason’s demands, lest she drive him to inhuman lengths of rationalization. Reason should not be a master; she is a servant who does her best work in the cause of Truth and Love.

Not long ago, when I was a young teenager, I became a Calvinist through participating in online forums, which I think is also where most young libertarians are minted. The guiding principle of Calvinism is God’s total sovereignty over all that is and everything that happens. Libertarianism’s hardly less absolute doctrine is the utter sovereignty of the individual over himself, and the injustice of all forms of compulsion.

Looking back, I have been able to moderate my Calvinism, even to the point of admitting the reality of human free agency. In the same way, most young libertarians mature as they gain experience with other people and the world they live in. Opinions mellow rather than changing entirely.

But some never grow up.

This week, Catholic libertarian journalist Tim Carney wrote an endorsement of Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli, pointing out the Attorney General’s consistent stance on personal and economic freedom issues, even to the point of opposing big business interests who collude with the government, opposing busybody laws like smoking bans, suing the Feds over the unaffordable healthcare bill, and being guardedly open to legalizing marijuana.

Predictably, Internet libertarians tried to hack Carney to pieces. They claim the candidate is dangerous on “social issues.”

Image: outline of a cannabis leaf

The Libertarian Sacrament

These libertarians have all the depth of teenage potheads, and are almost as feeble-minded. They are remarkably gullible. They are always credulously repeating left-wing slanders against conservatives who supposedly want to “ban” contraception, as if that were even a remote political possibility. They are unserious and dishonest.

As Carney points out, libertarians seem content to throw away tangible political goods for imaginary hypothetical gains. Robert Sarvis will never get enough votes to give Virginia libertarians a strong third-party influence; meanwhile, in effectively voting for Terry McAuliffe, libertarians will serve themselves a nice big dose of the cronyism, taxes, and corruption they hate.

Lying, cheating, and slandering are the well-known tools of today’s Left, which has no principles besides a desire to consolidate all powers in a war against good. Libertarianism, though, is based on principles, and one of these is the principle of prudence. The fractious, self-destructive libertarian attitude is especially unbecoming.

If Libertarians wish to gain more political influence and respect, they are doing it wrong. Libertarian hero Ron Paul had the right idea. By staying in the Republican Party, he slowly developed a libertarian grassroots GOP base in Virginia, as we saw in the 2011 Republican presidential primary, where he gathered a significant minority of the vote. I voted for him myself.

This is the reason the Tea Party or the Christian Right is so scary to the Left: They have strategically decided to work within the Republican establishment to nudge the party in a certain direction. They pick fights and make a stink about the issues, but they also usually play ball and deliver the votes. With patience and realism, libertarians too could be winners in this game.

But the libertarian imagination is in a state of arrested development, occupying a merely imaginary world, unable to embrace the personal realities of society and politics.

It is true that the two-party system is flawed and corrupt. But to separate from a party does nothing but nullify any influence you might have had within it. I admire, in theory, the multi-party parliamentary systems of Europe, with their coalition governments formed through alliances of larger parties with smaller, issue-based voting blocs. Greens, Socialists, and far-right groups are not entirely shut out of the political process, as they more or less are in the U.S. But our situation is different. Until we rewrite our constitution, wishing we could be a European republic is a waste of time.

Another difference with American splinter groups is that they tend to be in the thrall of sexual ideology to a degree that their Continental counterparts are not. A French socialist can be strongly pro-family, oppose abortion and marriage revisionism without being ostracized. In America, it is practically impossible to have any kind of respect as a Green, a socialist, or even a Libertarian, without speaking the required shibboleths of abortion “rights” and “gay marriage.” This extremism drives away people of strong morals who would otherwise be sympathetic to the party’s central concerns.

Let us be honest. “Social issues” is the evasive Libertarian code for Cuccinelli’s sincerely-held traditional Christian beliefs about sexuality, and the Libertarian opposition to those beliefs. They appear to think that opposing Cuccinelli’s religious beliefs is even more important than making progress toward the positive libertarian value of personal freedom.

The essence of this kind of libertarianism is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

These libertarians are Russell Kirk’s chirping sectaries. They are the cracked reeds of the political swamp, distinguished only by the noise of their continual chatter.

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The writer does not hereby endorse any political candidate or party.

The End of Hipstery and the Last Culture

By Jacob Stubbs

All-Inclusive Disclaimer: In this essay I do not necessarily use philosophers’ thoughts as they intended. Any reference to a philosopher will probably be a heterodox or downright incorrect interpretation. I do not use Hegel as a “hipster” would, nor do I claim that Hegel is himself a hipster. His great critic Søren Kierkegaard might have something to do with hipsters, especially since he was into the whole irony thing, but I do not have the purity of heart to elucidate this connection…

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G.W.F. Hegel and Karl Marx are known as philosophers of History. That is, they focus on the process of man making himself and focusing on himself in such a way that he betters the world through technology. Alexandre Kojéve, the French philosopher who created the European Union, synthesized Hegel and Marx to argue that society lives at the “end of history.” For Kojéve, we live in a time where man has evolved to the point where all political, philosophical, and cultural developments have reached their highest apex and man lives as truth.

This “end of history” appeared with the advent of liberal democracy, given that democracy has found a way in which everyone’s rights can be respected so that each  person has the freedom or liberation to pursue satisfaction as he sees fit. The dialectical processes that fueled the movement of history have ultimately negated themselves and history has entered a “void of nothingness.” We see this happening tangibly in the ways that man has gained an understanding of nature, made technology, and used technology to counteract or negate nature. This led to a synthesis of the natural and contra-natural that causes man to live in “nothingness,” a realm that is beyond the demands of nature. Continue reading

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“Mixed Marriages” and Ethnic Identity in Lithuania

By Dovydas Skarolskis

[Editor's note: Mr. Skarolskis is a young Lithuanian columnist. A previous version of this article appeared in the iconic though now defunct Atgimimas, as well as the Lithuania Tribune.]

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Mid-20th century encyclopedia illustration of Lithuanian traditional costume

Lithuanian folk costume – illustration by Vitautas Palaimas

I thought the tautological slogan “Lithuania for Lithuanians,” beaming with solid platitude and platitudinous solidity, had been put under the sod for good. However, while I was browsing the Internet, a fairly well-done minimalistic poster caught my attention. It carried two slogans in black and white: “Lithuanian women for Lithuanian men,” and “Lithuanian men for Lithuanian women.”

Beneath these slogans in smaller text the legend read: “NATIONIA – the movement for the survival of nations.” On the official website of the “movement,” this legend is accompanied by an English caption explaining that Nationia is a movement of peaceful nationalism. Going to the main page, I found a construction that interested me because of its first three elements: “Nation diversity → Human diversity → Abilities diversity → Mankind progress, essence” [sic]. The suggestive interplay of these ideas enticed me to spend more time investigating this nationalist movement.

Nationia‘s “philosophy” features some random rallying cries for nations and patriots to act to forestall national disappearance. In parallel, they propose that “diversity” is a prerequisite to discussion and progress. A group of people with diverse abilities can solve problems more quickly. So far everything looks nice, right? But then comes a new proposition stating that human diversity is determined by internal and external factors.

The “external” ones include social, cultural, and political elements, while “internal” ones are of an anthropological, mental-psychological, and physical nature. The internal factors are illustrated by three samples of dominant features, including hair, eyes, physical, and character features. A parallel is drawn between these samples and nations. [Ed. note: For any reader unfamiliar with European politics, this is none-too-subtle code for 20th-century race ideologies, which still fuel various European far-right wing political parties.] I set aside the reading at this point, as footnotes from the tracts of Nazi eugenics started running through my mind.

To preserve “diversity” as described above, Nationia suggests the collaboration of nations without mixture, i.e. avoiding the formation of “mixed marriages.” They base this prescription on the premise that a child born in a “mixed” marriage, i.e., one of spouses from different national backgrounds, would be unable to choose either of four potential identities.

The proponents of this idea claim that such a person might be the citizen of one country, but his “national” identity is not based on language, choice, or opinion. According to Nationia, nationality is “a fusion of human behaviour, physical features, temperament, and outlook, inner and uncontrolled, natural reactions to the surrounding world and which are characteristic to a particular group of people who evolved alongside.”

Why am I so concerned with such a marginalized, outdated race ideology? The reason is that it offers a perfect illustration of what I call failed nationalism. The real, ugly face of this nationalism, concealed under archetypal symbols and historical tracts, may be familiar to American readers as it is portrayed in the emblematic movie “American History X.”

For adherents of failed nationalism, the fetish of a blond blue-eyed girl dressed in the national costume, something that has turned into a barely attainable ideal, is the only thing that protects our Lithuanian identity. Yet Lithuania is in the heart of Europe. Thousands of years of European turmoil saw many peoples, cultures, and nations meet and mingle in what is now the Lithuanian territory. It is no wonder that my mother is brown-eyed with dark-hair, I am green-eyed with brown-hair, and one of my cousins is the ideal blue-eyed blonde — although for more than four generations the names in our family have been entirely Lithuanian.

Now, we can hardly be surprised to see a representative of another race on the streets of Vilnius. From early childhood, we were accustomed to seeing a variety of facial shapes, the absence of which was utterly shocking to me when I traveled in Hungary. Yet, despite Lithuanians’ easily observable diversity, people interested in phenotypology usually assign most Lithuanians to the “Baltic” (blue-eyed, blond) phenotype.

The question of what makes us a nation, given the variety in our physical appearance and character features, can be answered with the simple description by the theoretician of nationalism, Anthony D. Smith, whose basic theory remains unchanged despite being rewritten a thousand times: The nation defines and perceives itself as a community, with common myths, common collective memory, values, and traditions, which resides in a territory to which it feels specific historic attachment, creates its own public culture, and shares common laws and duties.

This definition is valid in most cases, and Lithuania is definitely not the most extreme case. Hence, it is easier to describe a Lithuanian by answering several relatively basic questions, rather than by a person’s appearance or behavior.

There is another issue that the self-appointed guardians of Lithuanian identity confront. Who is a more legitimate Lithuanian: a Vietnamese child adopted and raised by a family of Lithuanians, or a blonde, blue-eyed offspring of a Lithuanian couple who learned his/her first words from a South African couple? Because of their physical appearance, both children are aware of their external differences, but the essential attributes of a community (and, as stated, a nation is a community), such as the language, morale, and aesthetic perceptions, will be assimilated from the environment in which the child grows up.

Despite painstaking efforts, these children will hardly be able to identify themselves as part of their nation of origin. It is likely that a biological Lithuanian may be fond of her country of birth, or that a Vietnamese person shall nurture affection for the people and culture of Vietnam. Yet these affections are themselves culturally mediated and developed, like the respect of a second-generation Greek-American for his grandparents’ culture. The phrase from the movie Gattaca sums it up: “Blood has no nationality.”

In conclusion, there is no doubt that the concept of a “pure nation” is permeating our streets and courtyards through the subcultures of skinheads and mobs of the 1970s, reaping their share of Hitler’s gleanings. One way or another, we are all the products of a mixture of different genes; but genes, as depicted in the movie Gattaca, are not a factor that determines the rest of our lives. Much more depends on external factors, proper education and, in particular, our own wills. We should protect our traditions and national culture instead of forbidding an ash-haired girl to start a family with a Brazilian who is resolved to stay in Lithuania in pursuit of love.

Nations cannot be conserved as they resemble continuously evolving unicellular organisms: they mutate, change, vanish, and separate into two similar but different particles. Looking through the time prism, this interplay of influences is fascinating. Let us not embrace an artificial history, for fate tends to play tricks on us. Furthermore, the “diversity” Nationia claims to value will never bloom if it is root-bound by the constraints of failed nationalism. The result would be too many people thinking only within the restrictive limits of the same national pattern.

National identity is important; let us not forget the great Lithuanian interwar philosophers, including Maceina, Girnius, and Šalkauskis, who never sought to sacrifice an individual’s freedoms for the prosperity of a nation or the unity of the state.

Finally, and quite patriotically, I am certain that the Lithuanian nation is prudent enough to sift through the multitude of nationalistic concepts and choose the most rational and morally-correct way.

Surrealist painting "Tristram and Isolde" by Salvador Dali

Gnostic Love in Tristan und Ysolde

Last weekend my wife and I went with another couple to see Wagner’s Tristan und Ysolde. This opera is in many ways the quintessential modern re-telling of the medieval tale of two doomed lovers, vexed by duty, misunderstanding, and jealousy, and toiling under a magical enchantment.

The medieval legend, as told by Malory, is straightforwardly melodramatic. As the earnest of a peace treaty, the Lady Iseult of Ireland is to marry King Mark of Cornwall. Mark’s nephew and knight, Sir Tristram, is given the task of escorting Iseult across the Irish Sea in safe passage to Mark. Iseult bitterly hates Tristram, since she alone knows that he is responsible for the death of her brother in a contest of arms. While on the ship, the two enemies mistakenly drink a love-philtre intended to cement the union of Mark and Iseult, with tragic consequences. Eventually Tristram is discovered in Iseult’s bedchamber and slain by a jealous Mark, and Iseult, overcome by grief, falls down dead over Tristram’s body.

Wagner raises the story to a higher degree of tragedy. Fate plays a much larger role in Tristan and Ysolde’s downfall, especially since Mark eventually relents and releases the lovers to be together. As in any good tragedy, this news comes to the lovers too late, since Tristan is already dead, but it would not have made a difference. The love of Wagner’s Tristan and Ysolde is not the natural affection of spouses, nor even the star-crossed passion of ill-fated lovers, but a particular kind of fatal enchantment.

Ysolde’s Revenge

In the early part of the opera, Ysolde tells her maid Branganë of her hatred for Tristan, how as an enemy of her people Tristan came to her under an assumed name for healing after a battle, and how she discovered through the notch in his sword that he was the killer of her betrothed. Nevertheless, she did not exact revenge on him or reveal his identity to her relatives. This strays not too far from the medieval legend, in which Iseult begins to love Tristan against her will.

In Wagner’s telling, Ysolde’s mother, a renowned sorceress, has prepared various potions for her use: some for healing, one for undying love, and one for death and oblivion. Ysolde tells Branganë that she will drink the death-draught with Tristan, and so avenge both her love and her honor, which was compromised when she refrained from killing him. Branganë pleads with her not to do this, and instead of the death-draught, gives them the love-philtre to drink. Tristan, suspecting foul play, drinks it for the sake of honor, and is confirmed in his suspicions when Ysolde snatches the half-drunk cup and finishes it, exulting that she has atoned for both her lover’s death and her own dishonor.

The Love-Philtre

As the potion takes effect, both expecting to meet death, they realize that they have come under a spell more subtle but no less awful. They become possessed of a heedless, consuming passion for one another. The irony of the “love-draught” is that the “love” it instills is identified with death. Tristan comes to see himself as fated for death; the love between him and Ysolde is the love of a “death-devoted heart.” In the love scene in Act II, Tristan curses “daylight’s lies,” singing that he is a child of the night. Not the moonlit night of romance, though, but the black night that is the opposite of day; the absence of being and personality; nothingness. The love-philtre makes him reject the real world in favor of a spiritual void in which, somehow, everything about him and Ysolde is obliterated except for their transcendent “love.” Ysolde at first protests, but by the end of the duet she too is devoted to this eternal love that is an absence of personality.

In this way, Ysolde’s hatred of Tristan and of herself, the doom of death she planned to carry out, is fulfilled in a more terrible way than she imagined, as the lovers renounce life and earthly happiness in favor of death. Wagner himself called this duet “Liebestod” or “love-death,” although most apply this term to Ysolde’s final aria, which Wagner himself, fittingly, called “Transfiguration.”

Gnostic Love

This idea of a disembodied spiritual “love” clearly fits the Gnostic mold. Gnosticism teaches that people are fragments of the Divine Spirit that have been imprisoned in the “evil” material world. Gnostics try to escape the influence of the body and all other aspects of the material world, to become once again pure “spirit.” This directly contradicts the Biblical tradition in which human beings are a unity of body and spirit, created to live in the physical world as their natural home. Christianity adds to this the belief that the son of God took on the nature of humankind. Many early Christian heretics were Gnostics who attempted to deny, in some way or another, that Jesus was indeed fully human and fully divine, because they thought that for God to be truly incarnate would diminish the glory of the Divine.

The Christian and Western understanding of love and marriage stems from the knowledge of human beings as rightly incarnate souls. Human marriage is a “one flesh” union encompassing souls and bodies, and integrating a couple within the world through children and family ties. By contrast, the ‘love’ that Tristan and Ysolde experience as a result of the enchantment is strongly gnostic in its character, demanding total separation from the world and abandonment of the lovers’ own physical existence and individual personalities. But I think it would be wrong to say that Wagner is unreservedly advocating this kind of love.

It is shown throughout the opera that Tristan and Ysolde are both psychologically troubled. Tristan’s death-fixation seems to be the result of being born an orphan. He feels that he has been marked by death from the beginning. This seems very Freudian, although it predates Freud. Ysolde also explicitly embraces death in her morbid hatred of Tristan, even before they drink the love-philtre. To what extent did the potion cause this gnostic equivocation between love and death, and to what extent was it the result of the lovers’ unresolved neuroses?

Surrealist painting "Tristram and Isolde" by Salvador Dali

Salvador Dali, “Tristram and Isolde” (1944)

Fatal Passion in Context

The other characters in the opera are normals, apparently designed to offset the morbidity of the lovers. Branganë, Ysolde’s maid, and Kurwenal, Tristan’s bodyguard, typify common sense and conventional notions about life and love. When Ysolde orders her to pour the death-draught, Branganë substitutes the love-philtre instead, presumably out of a belief that even a dangerous, inconvenient, forbidden love is better than death. For Tristan and Ysolde, though, love and death are precisely the same thing. Branganë operates in the mode of melodrama suggested by the medieval legend, while Ysolde is seeing things in an opposite light. In Act II, Branganë reasonably fears a trap and urges Ysolde not to signal Tristan to come to her chamber, while Ysolde recklessly extinguishes the warning torch. As the lovers sing of love and death, Branganë’s voice breaks in, warning of the dawn and the return of the king: “Take care! Take care!” Wagner’s musical contrast between the lovers and the maidservant is breathtakingly sublime, as the music perfectly reflects the contrast between the opposite worldviews.

Similarly, Kurwenal acts out the conventions of the faithful friend. While in Act I Tristan retreats in a mist of doubt and doom, Kurwenal jauntily boasts of his master’s prowess to Branganë, inflaming Ysolde’s wrath. In Act III, Kurwenal carries the wounded Tristan back to his ancestral home and nurses him, summoning Ysolde to come and work her healing arts. Tristan, though, still “death-devoted,” ruins his servant’s hopes. When he sees Ysolde’s ship landing he rips off his bandages and dies just as she arrives, achieving (as he believes) the unity of love and death.

Finally, King Marke, the jealous, churlish villain of the medieval legend, is transformed in Wagner’s rendering into a truly noble and sympathetic character. He is deeply grieved by Tristan’s betrayal in Act II, yet refrains from violence. Instead, Tristan is betrayed and stabbed by Melot, an envious friend who Wagner seems to have invented just for the purpose. Marke, by contrast, goes so far as to pardon Tristan and Ysolde in the final act, releasing them to be together (although Tristan already lies dead). Marke’s brief aria would place the opera in the sublime realm of classical tragedy, and in a conventional opera he or the chorus would have the final word. Here, though, Ysolde steals the final scene. Still under the influence of the love-philtre, she now recapitulates the themes of the love-duet and ends in a triumphant musical climax, joining Tristan in death as the curtain falls.

How to Listen to Tristan und Ysolde

When experiencing this opera, it is a good idea to be aware of the use of leitmotifs, tunes and musical phrases which reference specific ideas. Wagner uses leitmotifs to great effect in Tristan, achieving a unity of music, words, and ideas. Leitmotifs allow Wagner to shade the sung text with meanings beyond those expressed in words, and create subtle or even bold effects of foreshadowing and fate. For instance, the motif for death appears when Ysolde is singing of the love-philtre, reminding the listener that the distinction between the two potions is less clear than it might seem.

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Persecution and the Art of Supporting Gay Marriage: A Straussian Reading of “The Things We Share”

Photo: Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum

Most people reading this are already aware of former First Things editor Joseph “Jody” Bottum’s recent rambling essay, “The Things We Share,” in which he apparently defects to the supporters of same-sex marriage. The essay has gathered a lot of scorn from both opponents and supporters of same-sex “marriage” and does seem to be meandering, contradictory, and ultimately unsatisfying in its arguments.

Other bloggers have done well in pointing out the essay’s explicit nonsense, and I do not intend to retread the same ground. Rather, I want to take a more careful look at the essay from the standpoint of “Straussian” criticism.

Persecution and Democracy

In “Persecution and the Art of Writing” Leo Strauss suggests that modern critical scholarship has overlooked a fundamental factor that affected the writing of many of the great philosophers: the threat of “persecution.” A Jewish or atheistic philosopher writing in an Islamic context, for example, would have been in danger of denouncement if his true beliefs were too openly shared. For this reason, Strauss posits that philosophers living and writing in an intolerant age developed ways of expressing the free thoughts of their minds while apparently endorsing the current official “orthodoxy.”

“Nobody would prevent him [the philosopher] from publishing a passionate attack on what he would call the liberal [i.e., heterodox] view. He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it . . . Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse or lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of the young men who love to think.”

The philosopher would even present the “liberal” view more lucidly than its own proponents, before eventually mounting a relatively flat, conventional attack upon it in the customary style of the time.

Photo: Leo Strauss

Leo Strauss (1899-1973)

It is important to note that, in Strauss’s opinion, the most significant instances of esoteric writing appear in societies that exist somewhere between the two extremes of utter persecution of free thought and complete license. ‘Persecution’ does not necessarily mean the Spanish Inquisition. Strauss lists a panoply of philosophers he considers to have written esoterically to some degree — all of whom lived in relatively tolerant societies: Plato, Maimonides, and Locke, to name a few. A common feature of these societies is a strong state, with some degree of official religious tolerance. Free inquiry may have been more circumscribed than religious belief and practice. Without pretensions to divinity, the secular power was considered to be “right,” a correct embodiment of the political truth. In democracies, this ‘truth’ is of course the “will of the people.” Political “orthodoxy” then, in the democratic context, is first to assume that the opinions of the majority are natural and correct, and then to seek to determine what those opinions are and declare one’s opinions to be in accord with them.

According to Strauss, it was in a context of quasi-persecution that Plato developed the concept of the “noble lie.” In the Republic this is expressed when Socrates says that political society ought to be organized around a fictitious hierarchy of social classification; the “myth of the metals.” The divisions don’t actually exist but it is better to say that they do for the better ordering of society. Strauss believes that this public-spirited “lie” is a subtle hint to guide the careful reader toward Socrates’ more “liberal” true beliefs. Elsewhere, in the Laws, the philosopher suggests that vice, in this case the consumption of alcohol, can help to teach the virtue of moderation. However, in Crete, where the Laws is set, drinking is forbidden. Strauss draws the analogy between the “vice” of drinking, which loosens the inhibitions, and the “vice” of talking about the illegal act of drinking, which liberates the philosophically inhibited mind to consider a truth that exists beyond the law of the state.

Strauss observes that during the rise of modern liberalism, liberal philosophers abandoned the caginess which characterized ‘liberal’ philosophy in earlier ages (as Strauss interprets it), most notably eventually abandoning the concept of the “noble lie” in favor of strict sincerity. This tendency did not take shape immediately though, and even the plain-speaking John Locke exhibits strong esoteric tendencies and a capacity for concealing his true thoughts, especially in his hidden critiques of religion. It is not until the complete triumph of the Enlightenment, when even Immanuel Kant wondered if the French Revolution had gone too far, that liberals completely scorned the “noble lie” in favor of a kind of radical truth-telling.

The other assumption that changed with the rise of liberalism was the question of whether “the masses” could, or should, be able to understand a philosophical argument. Esoteric writing tended to shield unorthodox thought by writing inoffensively on a level that the literate populace could understand, but by means of certain techniques pointing toward a subtler meaning that only the truly thoughtful, considered to be “men of good will,” would recognize. Democratic ideology takes for granted that the majority of the public are in fact people of good will and understanding, since they hold, by franchise, the public trust. To conceal one’s meaning from them became a “vice.” Thus the practice of esoteric writing apparently withered away after the Enlightenment, at least among sincerely liberal philosophers.

In today’s intellectual world, liberalism has assumed the “orthodox” position. Thus, one intending to advance an un-liberal argument might do so under the guise of attacking it from the viewpoint of the liberal “orthodoxy.” He might exercise certain techniques to conceal this intention from the mass of readers.

One characteristic of Bottum’s essay which marks it as not being for the masses is the fact that it is prohibitively long: 90 full paragraphs or about ten thousand words; much longer than the average length of an Internet essay. What is also immediately clear is that he did not need this much space to make the argument he claims to make. He does most of that in a few paragraphs at the conclusion.

Everyone acknowledges that for an intellectual as wise and respected as Joseph Bottum, as good a writer as he is, this is some remarkably strange and sloppy work. Might it be that his essay should not be taken at face value? Perhaps he is, as Strauss puts it, “writing between the lines.”

The Funding Acknowledgement

As others have observed, the essay’s most significant feature does not at first glance appear to be part of the text. The acknowledgment at the end of the piece appears on the surface to be merely conventional: “Funding for this essay has been provided by a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.” However, given on one hand the argument the author claims to have made, and on the other hand the moral and religious views the author attributes to himself which are in conflict with this argument, the reader is led to the rather unsatisfying conclusion that the writer is corrupt — i.e., that he is accepting payment to write in support of views not fully his own. To claim to be a person of good will and yet to draw the reader’s attention to the possibility of corruption is unmistakably to raise the suspicion that there may be intentions buried beneath the surface reading of the text. It raises the possibility of unfree or even coerced action on the writer’s part — in Strauss’s terms, of “persecution.”

For this reason, as good Straussians, we must return to the text, paying more careful attention to aspects of its arrangement and style which the ordinary reader might have overlooked or dismissed as accidental lapses in style or unintentional errors in fact.

Self-Contradiction

One of the first indications that a writer intends to communicate on both an “exoteric” and “esoteric” level is when he, not being the sort of writer to make casual mistakes, errors of fact, or self-contradictory statements, seems to do so. This may be a signal that the surface interpretation of the work is not to be trusted.

A pleasing feature of Bottum’s text is the folksong, “Shady Grove,” with which he begins and ends the essay. He describes it in the last paragraph as “A bit of old-timey Americana, the stuff we all still share.” The verse he quotes in the first paragraph goes:

When I was just a little boy, / all I wanted was a Barlow knife.
But now I am a great big boy, / I’m lookin’ for a wife.

In the last paragraph he quotes the verse:

Some come here to fiddle and dance, / Some come here to tarry.
Some come here to prattle and prance. / I come here to marry.

Given the subject of the essay, is not at all clear whether we all do in fact share this “bit of old-timey Americana.” The song is about romance and married love of the decidedly traditional kind. Maturity, it implies, is about valuing and seeking the joys and responsibilities of marriage. In the course of a ten thousand word essay Bottum has done a lot of fiddling and dancing, a lot of prattling and prancing, a lot of shucking and jiving, but not much talking about marriage itself — that is to say, he has devoted hardly any time to actually arguing in favor of a view of marriage that would include same-sex couples.

Another contradictory element is Bottum’s purported Americanism. Catholics, he suggests, should support same-sex marriage because it is now (possibly) an accepted part of American culture. This reminds me of Strauss’s observation that in states where speech is restricted, the law of the land is regarded, especially by the young, to be right by virtue of being the law. The authority speaks truly, according to the “logica equina,” and since nobody is contradicting him, the young person assumes what he says must be true.

Photo: Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius

Logica Equina

Arguments Against Same-Sex Marriage

The clearest indication that Bottum intends an esoteric reading of his essay is the way he addresses the arguments against his stated position. Toward the beginning of the essay he off-handedly dismisses Ryan T. Anderson with the remark that the view of natural law Anderson wants to promote has “no purchase,” i.e., no widespread acceptance in American culture. Nevertheless, a few paragraphs later Anderson pops up again, with the writer calling his 2011 essay and 2012 book, What is Marriage?, “the clearest, most cogent defense of traditional marriage.” This seems, at least, like a book recommendation or a whispered word to the wise: If you want to understand the best argument in favor of traditional marriage, read this book. Those who take this implicit advice will find that its authors do not in fact rely on any obscure, hackneyed ideal of “natural law,” but present a prudent, comprehensive political defense of traditional marriage as a common good.

In no way does Bottum mount a critique of Anderson’s secular arguments. Instead, he spends most of his time in the realm of religion, lamenting how darned inconvenient the consistent Catholic teaching on sexuality continues to be. His citations, from G.K. Chesterton to Pope Francis, present an unchanging — one might almost say, a God’s-eye view — of marriage and sexual morality. Reading Chesterton, one is reminded that the Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality was countercultural long before the vaunted “sexual revolution.”

This also Bottum acknowledges. His narrative of the “disenchantment” of modernity would, in a less defeatist context, form an excellent program for a young Catholic culture warrior, more clearly stated than most of the popular Christian literature on the subject of sex and marriage. This reminds me again of what Strauss wrote. For ‘liberal’ read, in this case, “Catholic”:

“He would of course have to state the liberal view before attacking it; he would make that statement in the quiet, unspectacular and somewhat boring manner which would seem to be but natural; he would use many technical terms, give many quotations and attach undue importance to insignificant details; he would seem to forget the holy war of mankind in the petty squabbles of pedants.

One may recall here Bottum’s petulant excursus on his quarrels with Maggie Gallagher and Chuck Colson over the “Manhattan Declaration.” Strauss continues:

“Only when he reached the core of the argument would he write three or four sentences in that terse and lively style which is apt to arrest the attention of young men who love to think. That central passage would state the case of the adversaries more clearly, compellingly and mercilessly than it had ever been stated in the heyday of liberalism, for he would silently drop all the foolish excrescences of the liberal creed which were allowed to grow up during the time when liberalism had succeeded and was therefore approaching dormancy. His reasonable young reader would for the first time catch a glimpse of the forbidden fruit.”

The “central passage,” the fruit of knowledge which Bottum explicitly commands the reader not to grasp, is found in the following paragraphs, just after the writer has reminded us of Pope Francis’s latest recapitulation of the unaltered Catholic teaching on the family:

The stony ground on which the church must sow is the landscape created by the sexual revolution. Made possible by the pill, accelerated by legalized abortion, aided by easy pornography, that revolution actually needs none of these any longer to survive, because they never defined it. They merely allowed it, and the completed change is now omnipresent. The revolution is not just in the way we use our bodies. It’s in the way we use our minds.

One understanding of the sexual revolution—the best, I think—is as an enormous turn against the meaningfulness of sex. Oh, I know, it was extolled by the revolutionaries as allowing real experimentation and exploration of sensation, but the actual effect was to disconnect sex from what previous eras had thought the deep stuff of life: God, birth, death, heaven, hell, the moral structures of the universe, and all the rest.

This is nothing less than a comprehensive critique, an unmasking of the liberationist creed, stripped of its sentimental trappings, in a few words. Bottum even underlines it with some sly satire:

The resulting claim of amorality for almost any sexual behavior except rape reflects perhaps the most fascinating social change of our time: the transfer of the moral center of human worry about the body away from sex and onto…well, onto food, I suppose. The only moral feeling still much attached to sex is the one that has to hunt far and wide for some prude, any prude, who will still condemn an aspect of sexual behavior—and thereby confirm our self-satisfied feeling of revolutionary morality.

The turn against any deep, metaphysical meaning for sex in the West, however: that is strange and fascinatingly new, unique to late modernity.

What kind of moral or social victory do you obtain if the marriage you’re granted is defined as nothing more than a way in which individuals define the concept of their own existence?

Bottum goes on to argue, I think satirically, that since secular protestantism has, through embracing divorce, contraception, abortion, pornography and the like, already destroyed any real meaning that sex and marriage have in the modern world, why should we not allow same-sex couples to participate in this meaningless farce of “marriage?”

He references G.K. Chesterton’s tract The Superstition of Divorce:

G. K. Chesterton once suggested that if there truly exists such a thing as divorce, then there exists no such thing as marriage. The root of the paradox is his observation of the metaphysics implicit in marriage ceremonies: “There are those who say they want divorce in the second place without ever asking themselves if they want marriage in the first place. So let us begin by asking what marriage is. It is a promise. More than that, it is a vow.” If we allow divorce, then we have already weakened the thick, mystical notion of marriage vows. Adultery is an everyday sin. Divorce is something more: a denial of a solemn oath made to God.

Photo of G.K. Chesterton at his writing table

G.K. Chesterton

Then, as if nodding before the hearth, he rouses and seems to abandon this line of argument with a sort of disclaimer: “I’m not trying to argue here directly for an end to the culture’s embrace of legalized divorce, much as the sociological evidence about the harm to children now appears beyond dispute.” The important word here is “directly.” Indirectly, as I have shown, he does much to strengthen the Catholic case against perversions of marriage; little to actually promote the views he claims to hold.

Since the essay is addressed to Catholics, and yet the argument is based on secular Protestantism, the implied rhetorical critique, the “esoteric” teaching if you will, is clear: Why should Catholics (or other orthodox Christians) play by these rules? Why should we pawn our Christian identity and beliefs for a mess of stale American pottage?

Conclusion

If any devotees of Ockham’s razor, having read thus far, are inclined to think I have built up an elaborate structure of bogus argument in order to extract something other than the plain sense of Bottum’s words from his essay, consider one final point before you give my arguments a close shave. I do not want to be uncharitable to the man, and in order to be charitable I am even willing to consider that he may not have intended to be correctly understood by every reader. After all, there are only two other possibilities:

  1. That Bottum is a candid, well-meaning, but stupid man who cannot reason or coherently express his sincerely-held views without accidentally contradicting them; or
  2. That Bottum has sold himself out to a cause he does not believe in, for money, while attempting to play both sides with his incompatible and vague sympathies, in a way that provides little support or comfort to either.

Yet Bottum is both a good and honorable man, and a capable and even excellent writer, as his friends and associates all testify, even as they disapprove of his essay. My interpretation allows this essay to be the work of a virtuous and sincere man, as well as an excellent, even subtle writer, as long as you accept that he does not intend to be correctly understood by everyone. I think Bottum hinted at this in an interview he gave, in which he said,

“I didn’t really think that it would be misread in quite the way that it has been.”

Postscript

I think I can make a reasonable guess as to what Bottum believes the young Christian truth-seeker should be doing:

  1. He goes so far as to say openly that theological and philosophical reasoning has “no purchase” among the American public. This does not mean that it is wrong, just that your average Joe will not find it convincing by itself.
  2. Again, he explicitly argues that the real problem is “disenchantment,” the loss of a sense of wonder at things that points to the spiritual realities of creation.
  3. If disenchantment is the problem, it should follow that re-enchantment, rather than renunciation, is the answer.
  4. Since for most of us, this cannot be done through reasoning alone, those who understand the truth on a philosophical level need to communicate it in other ways.

The reason we say “the naked truth” is that in order to conceal her own ugliness, Falsehood steals Truth’s garments. The naked Truth is still beautiful, if severe. Clothed in her own raiment — poetry, art, music, kindness, and peace — she is glorious. Here are some ways that young Christians can present her more effectively:

  • Telling the truth about sex and marriage in clear and sympathetic ways;
  • Being living examples of married and unmarried people who honor their vocations;
  • Making art and music that adorns truth with beauty;
  • Being gracious and sympathetic to our friends who suffer from various kinds of sexual pathology, whether it be lust, pornography, or disenchanted self-image;
  • Standing up against all forms of domination and sexual violence;
  • Recognizing the gift of children as precious souls, neither to be destroyed in the pursuit of ‘freedom’ nor selfishly commodified in any way.

In doing these things, we will be counteracting by deed, word, and example the “disenchantment” of secular modernity, attracting our friends, neighbors, and even adversaries to the holistic, truly affirmative way of life to which God calls the world through Jesus Christ.

Painting of "Madonna and Child" by Marianne Stokes

Beauty and Truth: “Madonna and Child” by Marianne Stokes

Image credit: Flickr user QXZ

A Self-Conscious Scene

by Leah Rosenzweig

It is about 11:30 p.m. and I have mistakenly revealed my fascination with existentialist philosophy. I immediately stare into my drink. My blurred reflection reveals one eyebrow and a semi-shiny eyelid masked with a greenish film. PowerAde on the rocks. The figure before me is male, about six foot, and lanky. He sports a saggy maroon beanie and an expensive olive utility jacket. He begins, his voice purposefully sounding sedated,

“You like existentialism? Cool.”

“Yes, it is.” I gaze to a far corner of the room.

“Awesome. Like Camus . . . dude’s the shit.”

“I guess so.”

“Yeah . . . you know, Sisyphus? Crazy shit—”

Suddenly he turns—caught by a friend’s beckon. His dissertation on The Myth of Sisyphus would sadly, I believe, have amounted to something as meaningless and periphery as his beanie. Because, with my extensive experience basking in its presence, I’ve found that everything about the contemporary hipster amounts to just another borrowed signifier or identifier. The problem with hipsters today isn’t what they are so much as what they aren’t. They aren’t thinkers, nor are they individuals.

The beatniks of the ‘50s and ‘60s, were signified by ideology, thought, and literary zeal. The antiwar movement was alive. People read things in retaliation, said what they believed, and wore what they did because they were broke or simply liked it. The purity and practice of the original hipsters died with them and their memory remains only in clothing styles, empty references, and “that one time I read Ginsberg’s America in high school.” Idiosyncrasy has been put to bed—there is, really, no such thing any more; and in its place is the mass-marketed “counterculture.”

Like a page of Where’s Waldo, but it’s all Waldo, the hipster herd is a magnificent display of banal aestheticism—metaphorical murals that often assume the shape of a restaurant, bar, neighborhood, or even an entire city. Fashions represent large-scale identities, and identities are fashions. Face it: the beat died with the beats. The hipster is dead, and we are his murderers.

 ***

Image credit: Flickr user eastsidephil

Saturday, March 9, 2013. Le Bain, The Standard, High Line.

The meatpacking district does not live down to its name. Several windows display cowhide dress forms; some totally bare or even tipped over, others sporting taupe frocks with studded cowl necks, or large fringe circle scarves worn atop animal-spotted denim. The Standard, too, is oxymoronic in name. From its entrance, I note that the corridor is lit in sepia. The building itself is a characteristic byproduct of modern architecture. Its eastern wall straddles the High Line Park. A living testament of recycled genius, the High Line is essentially an aerial greenway constructed to preserve the century-old railway. It is urban greening at its finest, but in the summer months, when the West Side becomes an amplification of year-round Manhattan squalor, it is like Le Bain at the Standard Hotel.

I first notice the men. I say this because, as a woman guilty of measuring myself to the smells, curls, waistlines, and posh of other women, I am not typically attuned to men when anywhere. But here the men are extraordinary. They give more kisses than my dog. They come in two dispositions. One is revved-up, chattery, pocket-scarfed and jacketed. The other is dark, small-eyed, hands-in-pockets, ear-ringed, dead-beat and windowed with bold glasses frames. Inwardly, though, they do not seem to lack many similarities. They all eye me, as we staggeringly join one another on a baseboard-lit elevator. The lighting is ideal: dark as hell, so everyone looks sexy, if visible at all. The women are taller than me and it is perhaps the single moment of my semi-adult life that I am most aware of my own height.

I am accompanied by a friend, who we’ll call Stef. To ensure that our transfer from sepia corridor to 18th floor is nothing short of expedient, she has enlisted the company of her friend, who we’ll call Ramón. His hair is combed over and visibly moussed into a perfectly side-swept, coiffed creation. His crisp and skin-tight clothing emits stale fumes of vodka and marijuana. Ramón zigzags through hordes of women clad in black and animal fur, fingers, knuckles, and cartilage decked and pierced with gemstones and other platinum or brass-colored obscenities. As we enter the room adjacent to Le Bain’s main vortex of drink, dance, and revelry, Ramón begins kissing cheeks and greeting public relations types with sing-songy darlings and dears. This new room, formally known as the Boom Boom Room, brims with swanky cocktail servers in white tuxedos and crisp gowns.

The bar is like a Roman bath, a gold-walled oval implanted in the floor. Flanked by crackly gold columns and embellished with an ivory marble backsplash, it is a fermented tub fit for Caesar. I suddenly realize that someone is buying us a round. I am shaking hands with French girls, French guys, someone named Ivan. Meanwhile, I am handed a translucent lime-colored beverage, a far cry from the smooth, un-iced ochre I prefer. Ramón pulls Ivan into him, his arms wrapping round the front of Ivan’s waist. Sticking his hands into Ivan’s pockets, Ramón snickers. It is the hour of unbridled laughter. Women and men alike are laughing all around me. These laughs are accompanied by empty gestures, mindless hair twirls, and “I’ll have another Tanqueray and Tonic”s.

My self-confidence has plummeted and I am beginning to wonder whether my inability to sway my hips and swirl my tumbler about in mid-air is marking me incapable of living the Dionysian. What am I doing wrong? It dawns on me then, with an overwhelming sense of metanoia. The tyranny of self-awareness is too evident in situations like this. I am myself far too self-conscious, even as I am acutely and frighteningly in tune with the self-conscious tendency of those around me. What am I doing here,or anywhere if I can’t seem to make myself fit?

Perhaps half a century ago, when mainstream society was a force to be reckoned with—when good little soldiers “pinned” their gals and spun them around down at the town rec center and no one thought about why—people really did reckon with it; they really said no to it, and they became the counterculture. Now, the dominant “counterculture” resonates with about as much authenticity as Bob Dylan’s shades or Ginsberg’s suspenders, divorced from the men who turned these objects into icons. And here I am, thinking about it, and somehow that too feels out of place. What is presented now as “counter” or not the norm now involves submission to a Nietzschean “slave morality,” a moral blueprint that requires denying one’s own free, individual will and submitting to the scene.

At the bar, I am totally enveloped in the celebrity-seeking agendas of my company, most of whom I do not know. This does it for me. The babbling chorus has completely unraveled and I am actually thinking about things now—thoughts I cannot abate . . .

***

In a standstill moment of total situational rebirth, my inner loathing of all around me is vindicated. Something is wrong with this Instagram™-filtered sea. Then again, a sea is more forgiving to diversity. Here, I feel like a salmon, trapped in a school of trout. Moreover, here at Le Bain, diversity is muffled not only within the group, but even within the person. For instance, let’s take the girl beside me with the Rosie the Riveter bandana, chunky cat-face sweater and ripped nylons, raving about how she spent her first six months out of college following a band called Natalie Portman’s Shaved Head* from Seattle to Audubon. The self-conscious scene of contemporary hipsterdom dictates a very one-dimensional profile by which she must abide.

I would bet she’s an atheist (a clairvoyant at best), her rusted (and she likes it that way) vintage Volkswagen Rabbit is stamped with the Human Rights Campaign logo and SUPPORT LOCAL FARMS, she has 26 canvas tote bags for grocery-stowing purposes, she lives in an old bungalow in Williamsburg which she shares with a watercolorist and a couple who conducts in-home sex therapy and sells pickled things at the Sunday farmers’ market, and her favorite film is Wet Hot American Summer. When you pay the membership fee, you receive the starter package, or perhaps, the starter package receives you—that’s contemporary hipsterism. As I stand atop the covered ‘70s style cruise ship swimming pool, I feel, more than ever, a strong connection to my literary brother Sal Paradise. We are two tramps under the same night sky, crying for our brothers and sisters:

Somebody had tipped the American continent like a pinball machine and all the goofballs had come rolling to LA in the southwest corner. I cried for all of us. There was no end to the American sadness and the American madness. Someday we’ll all start laughing and roll on the ground when we realize how funny it’s been.

Except I wasn’t laughing—not yet. My eyes welled with tears as I stood, back to a wall, trying not to incur platform shoe-induced contusions to the feet. But before a single tear could break loose, I was released. We were going.

Le Bain taught me everything about social class I never wished to learn. The dustiest and most decrepit corners of this metaphysical world opened up to me, but I was too small to complete the remodeling job myself. If this was what the ‘50s and ‘60s intellectual rebel—the questioner, the writer, the creator—had become, then what really was the sociology of the contemporary hipster if the new homogenous herds assumed the old name and trashed the meaning? They are like the mannequins: identical; naked, yet festooned with gaudy signifiers. This is why I retreated. I cried for all of us.

***

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s post-war literary dominance stood as a totem for counter-culture. To create a culture in retaliation to war was a raw representation of disciplined harmonization of life with one’s individual will. Kerouac’s hipster was a far cry from today’s Dionysian herd of the same name. In an interview on The Steve Allen Plymouth Show in 1959, a mere two years after the publication of the Beat Generation’s Holy Bible, On the Road, Kerouac is asked by the goofy-eyed, hook-nosed, piano-playing Plymouth, “How would you define the word beat.” Kerouac is quick to reply, but rather than providing a definition, he reads from his holy novel. And, aside from Plymouth’s wildly incongruous swanky cocktail parlor-esque accompaniment, it is beautiful. He reads with vigor, then comments, “Anyways I wrote this book because we’re all gonna die.” It is a curious statement, loaded with purpose.

***

In a 1968 episode of William F. Buckley’s Firing Line, a drunken Jack Kerouac discusses the hipster and the post-beat insurgence of pre-apocalyptic art, writing, and music. Buckley (who, it must be acknowledged, is sporting a seersucker suit jacket) opens the episode with jolly raillery:

“The topic tonight is the hippies—an understanding of whom we must, I guess, acquire or die painfully.”

When first introduced, Kerouac is sweaty, evidently drunk, and smoking a cigar in drawn-out inhales, followed by frantic, yet erudite puffs. It is at first a sad scene, like the fallen Christ. He is a goddamn mess, but still, a goddamn mess that is not afraid to state beliefs and take sides, even if those sides seem to contradict or fail to align with a particular prototype. He blurs his brilliance with infantile displays as he verbally flips-off his intellectual counterparts, Ph.D. and author of The Hippie Trip Yablonsky, and artist and pacifist Sanders, by correcting their pronunciation of foreign words and emitting a disruptive slew of moans and “Hah’s!” Yet, drunk as he may be, Kerouac exudes brilliance amid hiccups and facial twangs.

buckley-cigar_02Buckley: Now Jack—Mr. Kerouac—to what extent do you believe that the Beat Generation is related to the hippies? What do they have in common? Was this a revolution from one to the other?

Kerouac: It’s just the older ones. See I’m 46. These kids are 18. But see, it’s the same movement, which was apparently some kind of Dionysian movement in late civilization and which I did not intend any more than I suppose Dionysius did, or whatever his name was.

Although the last two minutes of the episode are almost solely devoted to Sanders’ vehement profession of the hippie’s inclination toward non-violent forms of protest in a war-immersed society, it is Kerouac who gets the last word. Quoting the Bible. Kerouac, was, self-professedly, a devout Catholic. As described by fellow Beat Generation originator, Allen Ginsberg, he was “a very unique cat—a French Canadian Hinayana Buddhist Beat Catholic savant.” Kerouac, like many original beats, was a wild, motley mix of ideologies. His identity was not handed to him, there was no Wikipedia page outlining his habits or institutionalized behaviors, nothing really was institutionalized. He just was. At the close of the interview, Kerouac turns to Sanders, eyes three-quarters of the way closed and mouth perfectly puckered and rounded, aping unbeautiful Lowellian semantics: “Beware of false prophets who come unto you dressed in sheep’s clothing, but underneath, they are ravening wolves.” It is a wild, uncontained display, but a great one, nonetheless.

***

Now Ginsberg, who called Kerouac “a unique cat,” also exuded idiosyncrasy. Though like Kerouac he was not always a charmer either in or out of the limelight, he assumed a multi-faceted identity that seems to be exactly what’s been lost among contemporary hipsters. In a 1994 interview with BBC, Ginsberg stops the interviewer to correct his opening inquiry: “Now, the beard and the hair are trimmed, you wear a suit, a collar, and a tie, but is the REAL Allen Ginsberg still in there?” (Note: “realness” is presumed to be something that can be lost through a simple change in grooming and dress). Ginsberg, unperturbed, interjects:

Though, I’m a Buddhist and I think the Buddists would say there is no real, permanent self. In any case, there are many appearances of self, so I am certainly a Beat poet, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly gay, and I’m certainly Jewish, and I’m certainly a meditator, and I suppose a part of the counter-culture in America which is now under attack by the neo-conservative, theo-political televangelists . . . So, I don’t know if there is a real Allen Ginsberg.

The hipster Ginsberg posits, then, is one whose most revolutionary feat was the reshaping of identity. The mass movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s did not invent nor market the countercultural identity of the beats. The mass movement was in place as a comfort zone, an antinomian framework which enabled young, confused, questioning men and women to learn, be, and create whatever the hell they wanted in whatever way they wanted.

Kerouac’s hipster, his beat movement-er, had faith, a strong political opinion that wasn’t tied to anything mainstream, and was always aching to lend an ear or a word to a any such riveting, thoughtful conversation. The bars were a place for drinking, yes, but they were also for the intellect—a place to exchange ideas and theories. And people wrote. Yes, in On the Road and The Dharma Bums, it is difficult not to notice all the writing that happens. It was admirable and talked about; it was more than a fad. But now, even if our ideas and our styles feel and seem to ourselves to be wholly invented, we must fear that they will soon appear in Cosmopolitan or on that postmodernism readers message board—right there, yes, we know the word: TREND. In Rob Horning’s acclaimed 2009 Pop Matters blog post, “The Death of the Hipster,” he writes:

In always pushing ourselves to repudiate hipsterism, we may drive ourselves to new ways to conceive of our identity—but what good are these if these are always ripe for becoming the new modes of hipsterdom? . . . How do we stop running that race, stop worrying about the degree to which we are “hip,” the degree to which our treasured self-conceptions can be made into clichés against our will?

***

Today’s hipsters are the wolves in sheep’s clothes, no doubt. Or rather, vegan clothes—but they are certainly wearing clothes nonetheless. And oh, the clothes!

Urban Dictionary’s definition of the modern hipster is a characteristic representation of customary hipster dress, where to find a hipster on a map, and social conformity to hipster norms. A condensed version of the panoply of definitions on the site would look like this:

  • A composite of individuals with a certain bohemian life situation and lifestyle.
  • Lives in a young, artsy neighborhood of a major city such as Wicker Park in Chicago, Greenwich Village in Manhattan, or Williamsburg in Brooklyn. [ . . . ]
  • Favorite band is likely Bright Eyes, The Arcade Fire, The Arctic Monkeys, The Libertines, The Strokes, or something of that nature.
  • Watches independent and foreign films and reads independent books, magazines, and periodicals.
  • Dresses in progressive yet retro fashion that is often changing.
  • Eats chic ethnic food and prefers organic and Fair Trade fruits and vegetables.
  • Favorite beer is Pabst Blue Ribbon.

One must understand that intellect rarely factors into these remarkably superficial definitions One must also understand, at a very existential level, that this is a definition: a remarkably un-beat mechanism; a marketed identity. Club-going, Nylon-reading hipsters are ravenous wolves. Like many of those who surrounded me at Le Bain, they stand for chunky sweaters, beer labels, and neighborhoods. They are also the reason why my own chunky sweaters and love of local produce falls under suspicion, making it necessary for me to apologize for my tastes. And though they may be spotted reading an old battered copy of The Dharma Bums, they are not Kerouacian beats. No, they are the herd.

I can’t help but ask myself when this paradigm shift occurred; when counterculture became trendy. What began as a rough-and-tough rebuttal to pastel-painted kitchens, Kenmore appliances, and Joe Shmoe mercenaries has become an unsubstantiated façade. The hipsters of today go to Le Bain. They do their best to appear as floral-printed paupers. What is wrong with this? Well, it’s plainly written right here: THEY DO THEIR BEST. Doing one’s best and breaking a buck—bending over backwards—to appear as a hitchhiking, reclusive poet is an inherently flawed act. Hitchhiking Sal Paradise wore the same shoes till the soles fells out. His patchy jacket withstood exhaust smoke and booze stains. It was not bought that way. He did not “do his best” to look, to act.

The herd is a transcontinental mass movement. Individuals everywhere are sporting ripped, stained, tribal-looking, baggy, hooded uniforms. Everywhere there are club-goers who, like schoolgirls, turn to their neighbor, marking their straggly hair, suspendered satin trousers and tousled chemises. Does it ever dawn on them that they are facing their own mirror image—the image of the American boy or girl whose compass is always pointing toward regularity? At Le Bain, all the pretty kids stand, swaying, in a shameful sort of homeostasis.

This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.
Jack Kerouac


* This is a real band.

Essays, criticism and other fun stuff for hipsters, conservatives, or both.