The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"I Owe it all to Agatha Christie"/150,002

A long time ago, in a campus far, far away, I was cast in a production of Ten Little Indians by Agatha Christie. The show was done rather campily--the last stand of my college classmates and I, and I had a gloriously ridiculous role as an ersatz Sherlock Holmes-figure. I got to ham it up with my old friend and fellow tummeler, D'Artagnan.

In fact, I suspect it was on the level of this:

(at 6:30. And yes, that's Jean Stapleton. She sings. It's like Cats, described by Roy Cohn)

I thought of this when, after writing about Curtain: Poirot's Last Case, I got curious enough to do something I hadn't done during its 1989-2013 run, and that is, watch a few episodes of Poirot.

I hadn't watched them during the show's run because I had plowed through almost the entirety of the series when I was a boy, only to become dismissive of her writing as I was drawn to more psychologically astute novelists. And, of course, intellectual snobbery grew on me.

So it was a pleasure to return to these old friends, as mediated through David Suchet's superb performance as Poirot, with an excellent supporting cast. Zoë Wanamaker in particular invests Ariadne Oliver with a precarious comic dignity, as well as heart, that turns any episode she appears in into a double act. (Best moment, when she dismissively introduces the irritatingly complacent Poirot as "my assistant"; only Suchet can glower politely.)

Some of the stories are well-produced trifles, with even less substance than I remembered. But more of them work. Dame Agatha had more on the ball than I remembered, ad some of the stories were brilliantly reimagined.

So, for example, Murder on the Orient Express: How do you film a story that was famously immortalized in 1974, re-filmed (less well received) in 2001, and hasn't been out of print for over 70 years? I mean, who doesn't know the twist ending?

Simple; don't make the story about the mystery.

No, really--MOTOE marks the hinge between the cheerful, long-running series that could have run forever and the story of a man who is coming to terms with the light and dark of his life. From here on, Poirot's moral foundations have been shaken. The script does this by having Poirot's rigidity leave to a suspect shooting himself rather than face disgrace--Poirot's clever exegesis ends not with victory, but with Hercule wiping blood off himself, clearly yearning to believe that the outcome is not his fault. This incident is teased out of the novel's beginning, but a second incident, in which Poirot and two of his fellow passengers are caught up in a crowd intending to stone an adulteress, and Poirot's dismissive acceptance of the culture's norm shocks Mary Debenham, is wholly new. It worked for me, seeing Poirot under judgment, his awkward efforts to justify himself rejected by the young woman whose friendliness has faded to icy politeness because he has not lived up to her moral expectation, gives us a Poirot off balance for once. Then the snow-embedded train, in a naturalistic move wholly lacking in the 1974 film or the novel, loses heat. Poirot's moral discomfort is exacerbated by physical discomfort.

At the end of the story, Poirot does not (as did Albert Finney's version) lightly compound a felony. No, he's insisting on the letter of the law. Enfin, Poirot will prove himself right, mon ami! His desperate self-assurance is shattered when the killers do not live down to his expectations. Poirot, whose moral code, and, indirectly, his faith has been challenged throughout this story, angrily yields, angry at himself, at his mercy that flouts his beliefs, unsure that he is doing right. In a masterful scene, Suchet conveys Poirot's anguish, as he suavely lies to the authorities, using his great prestige to secure the freedom of the killers, as they watch, hardly daring to believe that he is showing the mercy that he had refused to show. Point's anger is in Suchet's posture, his clutched rosary, his stalking away when he has finished his lie. He is ashamed of what may be the finest act of his life.

He has more adventures, some light, some dark, but he is on the road back to Styles Court, where he will meet the killer "X" who will pose the final and most serious challenge to Poirot's beliefs.


As I logged on to write this appreciation of a writer I once naively over-valued and then arrogantly undervalued, I saw that Anglocat has reached 150,002 visitors. Many repeat, some in error, I daresay, but still--a rather nice thing to see. So I just want to say thank you all--those who flick by and never return, those who stay and comment, those who drop in wondering what the cat is on about today--many thanks for coming on the prowl.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

That's How the Light Gets In

As I put it in Sunday's sermon, we're rounding third in Lent, and the ambitious plans of reform have been tempered (at least for me) by reality.

So it's a comfort to reach this in the appointed Epistle for today:
or I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Note that this passage is very much in the present tense. You don't have to find Paul's distancing of himself from his body persuasive; it's enough to know that even at his height as the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul knew the struggle against temptation, and knew what it was to lose that struggle. He knew what it was to to want the good, but to fail, and to respond to temptation with an instinctual, almost unthinking "yes!" only to then be wracked with guilt. But also to know that his failings, and our own, do not have the last word.

I'm not trying to say that, hey, if Paul can give in, who really cares? No, it's just that our own flaws, our errors, our misdeeds are included in Paul's most reassuring passage:
For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans gets a bum rap, in my opinion, from many who misunderstand its talk of predestination, or view its theological rigor as logic chopping (Paul's occasional rhetorical flourishes sometimes play into this misperception). Charles Gore's St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans: A Practical Exposition (volume 2, which addresses both today's reading and Romans 8, here), is both what it says and a great decoding and teasing out of Paul's meanings by a great theologian who wrote for the intelligent lay reader.

The point is, as I summarized Nadia Bolz-Weber's workshop in 2015:
We want the law to save us us, but it convicts us. We want to justify ourselves by the law but nobody can live up to the law. But Law drives us to the foot of the Cross where we cry out, My Lord and My God. Every time Jesus was confronted by someone who sought affirmation of their goodness through obedience to the Law, Jesus pointed out that the Law demanded yet more of them. A young man is able to affirm he hasn't committed adultery--Jesus asks: Have you lusted after other? And, of course, he has. The Law is a lover that will never love us back.

Only grace saves us. But here's the problem; Grace is not comfortable--it's out of our control, it's that free, unearned gift. But it means that we can't earn salvation. Right relationship with God is't not having to bother him because we have achieved sinlessness. Christianity isn't a sin management program--it's accepting our need for God and accepting to that he wants to restore, redeem and forgive us, out of love.

She quoted Martin Luther: "Sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly" in explicating this notion, and its corollary Christian freedom--a phrase not heard often enough, she suggested. Nadia urged us to consider that what people loved about was not, as they said, its creativity, but rather its exercise of Christian freedom--the freedom of a people who know that they are forgiven, ransomed, and that they don't have to earn that forgiveness, just to live in response to it.

As a lawyer who discovered the limits of the Law in my own life, all of this strikes a deep chord with me. As did Luther's line--I think it was Robertson Davies who memorably said "Dare nobly, sin greatly" (in The Manticore, if I remember correctly.)
So, and I really mean this, don't suppose your Lent is a heroic journey. It's an offering, imperfect and flawed, to a gift in which we safely trust.

And the flaws? As the great man wrote, "There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Here's Mud in Your Eye: A Sermon on John 9:1-41, March 26, 2017

A little daub of mud. A river bank. Simple elements, nothing organically and lovingly curated, no experimental procedure. Just some mud spread over the eyes, and washed away.

And a world of darkness dies, replaced by one blazing with light and new clarity.

Today’s gospel reading reminds me a little bit of the old Sherlock Holmes story, “Silver Blaze.” That’s the one in which Holmes, asked by the regular police for a clue to who could have crept into the stable, and stolen the valuable horse who was the favorite to win the Derby, takes pity on him, and tells him to pay attention to the “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time.” The police detective is confused. “The dog did nothing in the night-time,” he says.

“That was the curious incident,” Holmes answers him.

In “Silver Blaze,” the dog did nothing because he knew the culprit—it was his owner, the horse’s trainer. So of course he didn’t bark. Holmes solves the mystery based on the absence of what would normally be expected.

I’m no Sherlock Holmes, but there’s a curious incident in this story of a miraculous healing by Jesus. And that’s just how little Jesus figures in the story. The absence of Jesus for most of the story is exactly contrary to what we expect. Jesus sweeps dramatically into the life of the blind man, heals him, and leaves. Now, normally when that happens, we may get a sentence or two wrapping up the miracle and go on, and then return to Jesus and the apostles on their way.

Not this time.

Jesus heals the man, and leaves the scene.

For what I think is the only time in any of the four Gospels, we spend an extended time learning what happens in the wake of one of Jesus’s healings. We learn what happens to the person healed and to the community he was a part of. So I’m going to fill you in on part of the story that didn’t make it into the reading today, because it’s illuminating.

After Jesus leaves the scene, we follow the now-healed man, washing the mud from his eyes, and regaining his sight. As he leaves the river, his neighbors and those who had seen him begging are astonished—they debate whether this is the same helpless man they have walked by day in and day out.

He confirms that he is, and, when asked how he regained his sight, answers simply, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, 'Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight.”

Simple, straightforward answer from a man who has been helpless since his birth. They take him to the local religious authorities—the Pharisees here. When the Pharisees hear the story, they immediately discredit Jesus as a sinner, saying “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." Not all of them—a few defend Jesus on the ground that a sinner could not do such a thing.

So, at this point the Pharisees try to prove that the man in front of them is not the blind beggar, but someone pretending to be him. That fails, because his parents identify him, and they finally turn to the newly sighted man, who has already told his story twice, but doesn’t tell it a third time. Instead, he turns the tables on the Pharisees. He asks them “Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?”

Note the “also.” He’s reaffirming his earlier statement that Jesus is a prophet, and by implication rejecting the Pharisees’ claim that Jesus is a sinner. He’s also putting the Pharisees at his own social and spiritual level—which to them is an insult.

They insult him, and then say “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.”

And, with a mock-innocence that shows that this man is neither simple nor helpless, he shreds their position:

"Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. “

He then delivers judgment: “If this man were not from God,” he says, no doubt in his mind, “he could do nothing.”

They bluster, they denounce, they drive him out. Because this man, blind from birth, helpless until that very day, has beaten them on their own terms. He has reasoned better than they have, and has shown a far deeper understanding of the law and of the nature of God.

The Pharisees manage to bully his parents, and try to bully him, but the once blind man is having none of it. His manner goes from being respectful and non-committal when they start questioning him, to openly mocking the Pharisees. Whatever he was like when his world was dark, he has come home to his full self as a disciple of Jesus.

But unlike the Twelve, who more often than not need guidance, or explanations, the man once blind becomes a maverick who trounces the intellectual elite by his greater understanding and his accepting heart.

In the Gospels, that role usually falls to Jesus. Here, the newly healed man plays the part Jesus normally plays, and plays it as successfully as Jesus usually does.

He fills the gap left by Jesus’s departure.

Jesus hears about all this and seeks him out. When Jesus identifies himself as “the Son of Man,” and asks him if he believes, the man answers simply, “Lord, I believe.” And Jesus reaffirms that the man once blind now sees clearly, and that the teachers of the law are themselves blind.

The presence of God in our lives can be paradoxical that way. We look for the moment of transcendence, what Maslow called the “peak experience.” But this story doesn’t involve anything like that. Jesus acts through the mundane elements of earth and water, and unleashes the dammed-up potential of one human being. No special effects, no transfiguration in this story.

Just clay and spittle, and river water.

Through the mundane, through the ordinary, God brings healing. A coming to one’s true self, and not only a recovery of sight, but finding one’s own true voice.

As we’re rounding third base in Lent, I’ve found my more heroic plans have not exactly panned out. I haven’t prayed the traditional office from the Breviary, with its eight daily offices throughout the day. The stack of theological classics on my night-table has not been read. I haven’t exercised every day.

But my less spectacular plans, well, they’re holding up better. The Daily Office from the Prayer Book and I continue to jog along, and I find myself thinking before I speak, at home and at work.

And maybe for me--and I offer it to you, if it’s helpful--maybe I don’t need the special effects. Maybe we can make do with the mundane, and save the special effects for some other time.

The early Christians called themselves followers of the Way—you can see it as early as in the Acts of the Apostles. A modest name, but one that captures something that we might lose if we expect to become paragons by an act of will in Lent. A way of life needs to be with us in all seasons, something that we sustain while it sustains us. Maybe like the man whose sight is restored, we don’t need the special effects. We’re here together, a community, and we are hearing the stories, reflecting on what we can take away from them. We’re aligning ourselves with God in prayer and waiting to celebrate the return of God in human form, in the resurrected Christ.

In a time where hate and division are working their evil throughout the world, even in our city, in this very building we are reaching out to the stranger, the hungry, the woman who needs a place to sleep.

You know what that sounds like to me?

Clay and spittle and river water.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Remorseful Day: Colin Dexter 1930-2017

I am very sorry to see that Colin Dexter has died, aged 86. Dexter's was the fertile mind that birthed Inspector Morse, the television adaptation, and its sequel and prequel, Lewis and Endeavor. For all my great affection for the latter incarnations, the books and the original series had a magic that the later entries did not quite possess--although the shadows of the original frequently deepened and enriched the later shows.

But Morse itself! How to describe its charm? For me, it was the gentle melancholy that lay at the core of Morse's psyche that defined the series of books and haunted John Thaw's portrayal of the character. A performance reflected, by the bye in the rather haunting theme tune by Barrington Pheloung:

All of Morse's brilliance, his success as a detective, could not heal his wounded heart; he was, in one of Dexter's best phrases, a man far more attuned to life's adagios than its legatos.

Colin Dexter, however, was rather different:
Dexter was born in Stamford, Lincolnshire. His father, Alfred, was a taxi driver who had left school at 12, as had Colin’s mother, Dorothy (nee Towns), and was determined that Colin and his elder brother, John, should be well educated. The boys were not required to do any domestic chores but were expected to spend every available moment studying. Both gained scholarships to the independent Stamford school, and Colin then went to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he studied classics.

He became a classics teacher, claiming for the rest of his life that he was a born teacher rather than a writer: he took no interest in the moral welfare of his pupils but prided himelf on getting them better exam results than they thought they were capable of. He taught at schools in Loughborough and Leicester, and by his mid-30s was head of classics at a school in Corby, Northamptonshire. It was there that he discovered there was something seriously wrong with his hearing.


This had the effect of making him seek a second career in which impaired hearing would not be a disadvantage. So he became a GCE examiner for the Oxford University Board. It required him to move to Oxford, and he remained there from 1966 until 1987, by which time Morse had changed his life.

The first of the Inspector Morse novels, Last Bus To Woodstock (1975), was written because, with his wife, Dorothy, and two sons, Dexter was on holiday in north Wales at a time when the rain never seemed to stop. Thoroughly miserable and bored, he read both the detective novels in their holiday accommodation, decided that they were not much good and thought he could do better. With the benefit of medieval and suburban Oxford as the setting (Dexter reckoned that he would never have become a writer had he moved to Rotherham), Last Bus to Woodstock proved the point.


Dexter was often asked whether he wrote for a readership or for himself. His answer was that he wrote for his old English teacher Mr Sharp. He would write a page and then ask himself, “Would Mr Sharp like that?” His aim was to feel that Mr Sharp would give it at least eight out of 10.
According to his above-quoted obituary, "he one extravagance to which Dexter would admit was his purchase of the first editions of the works of A.E. Housman."

Dexter gave Housman the last word on Morse, as above shown, so let me extend the same courtesy to Morse's creator:
How Clear, How Lovely Bright

How clear, how lovely bright,
How beautiful to sight
Those beams of morning play;
How heaven laughs out with glee
Where, like a bird set free,
Up from the eastern sea
Soars the delightful day.

To-day I shall be strong,
No more shall yield to wrong,
Shall squander life no more;
Days lost, I know not how,
I shall retrieve them now;
Now I shall keep the vow
I never kept before.

Ensanguining the skies
How heavily it dies
Into the west away;
Past touch and sight and sound
Not further to be found,
How hopeless under ground
Falls the remorseful day.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Some Call it Slander, I Call it Getting Paid."

That's Jimmy Breslin as I remember him. Cranky, funny, blunt. A real authentic New York sensibility, and attitude. He was funny, he was scabrous, he vented. Not a corporate guy, not smooth.

He died today:
Jimmy Breslin, the New York City newspaper columnist and best-selling author who leveled the powerful and elevated the powerless for more than 50 years with brick-hard words and a jagged-glass wit, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88, and until very recently, was still pushing somebody’s buttons with two-finger jabs at his keyboard.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, a prominent Manhattan Democrat. Mr. Breslin had been recovering from pneumonia.

With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers. ...Poetic and profane, softhearted and unforgiving, Mr. Breslin inspired every emotion but indifference; letters from outraged readers gladdened his heart. He often went after his own, from Irish-Americans with “shopping center faces” who had forgotten their hardscrabble roots to the Roman Catholic Church, whose sex scandals prompted him to write an angry book called “The Church That Forgot Christ,” published in 2004. It ends with his cheeky vow to start a new church that would demand more low-income housing and better posture.
In our time of access journalism and "both sidesism", not to mention outright propaganda, Breslin was an old-school journalist who kept it truthful and real, careful to delineate fact from opinion.

Also, he was a great example of King Kaiser's dictum: "You don't cut funny."

Saturday, March 18, 2017


Count Dracula (at 1:35) sums up my response to Erick Erickson's tweet:

To be fair, Erickson's reading has some support, including from John Calvin. But even Calvin adds that "others are not to be altogether despised by us," and he also refers earlier to Jesus's admonishment of charity to the "stranger"--clearly not of the Christian community. Certainly my 1951 copy of The Interpreter's Bible (vol. 8, pp 530-532; 562-566), a rather middle of the road, traditionalist analysis, utterly rejects Erickson's premise, defining brotherhood as encompassing all of humanity.

But Erickson's premise is further weakened by the fact that it requires proof-texting Matthew 25, apart from the other Gospels. The Fourth Gospel does not limit Christ's redemptive mission to the those who are already believers, rather God so loved the world that he sent his only son. (Jn. 3:16). The mission of preaching and of works of mercy is not limited to those who already believe, as witness the Syrophoenician woman, or the Samaritan woman at the well.

Speaking of Samaritans, from The Gospel According to Luke:
On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

26 “What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

27 He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’[a]; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[b]”

28 “You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

29 But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

30 In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead. 31 A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. 32 So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. 33 But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. 34 He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii[c] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise
If we limit our efforts to co-believers, we disregard Jesus's injunctions.

As he is a political pundit and not a theologian, Erickson's tweet wouldn't be worth responding to if it didn't fit in with a distressing tendency in socially conservative Christianity to verge upon a purity cult. And, usually, this is achieved by stressing biblical passages that are easy for the "we" to comply with, and by downplaying those that are difficult for them (a point made at greater length here. Only the righteous (as defined by the in-group) are worth ministering to, in this reading. But in fact, Jesus said, in the very Gospel quoted by Erickson, " I will have mercy, and not sacrifice: for I am not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."

There's another danger, too, in Erickson's narrowing interpretation of Jesus's words. It's all very reminiscent of C.S. Lewis's warning against "The Inner Ring"--a circumscribed society that looks upon itself as superior to those not-we; Lewis notes that it can corrupt a group formed with thoroughly wholesome purposes. Indeed, in The Screwtape Letters, Lewis explained that even church membership can become an "Inner Ring"; as the Senior Tempter explains to the young devil Wormwood:
But there is one good point which both these churches have in common—they are both party churches. I think I warned you before that if your patient can't be kept out of the Church, he ought at least to be violently attached to some party within it. I don't mean on really doctrinal issues; about those, the more lukewarm he is the better. And it isn't the doctrines on which we chiefly depend for producing malice. The real fun is working up hatred between those who say "mass" and those who say "holy communion" when neither party could possibly state the difference between, say, Hooker's doctrine and Thomas Aquinas', in any form which would hold water for five minutes. And all the purely indifferent things—candles and clothes and what not—are an admirable ground for our activities.
So, yes, I think the Count provides the right response to Erickson's tweet. And, just to come full circle, these dangers are inherently present, to greater or lesser extent, depending on intention and practice in the "Benedict Option" covered in the previous post.

And, of course, we liberals can fall into the same trap, albeit led by different bait.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Love Among the Ruins? Notes on Rod Dreher's "The Benedict Option"

I have given conservative writer Rod Dreher a fair amount of stick on this blog. Despite this, I want to at once engage with some of his ideas regarding what he calls The Benedict Option. Despite disagreeing with many of Dreher's key arguments, I find that there is value to be found in the book, even for a liberal Episcopalian like myself.

Let's start with the disagreement. Dreher presupposes a cultural hostility to Christianity that is supported more by anecdote than by data, writing that "The workplace is getting tougher for orthodox believers as America’s commitment to religious liberty weakens." He invokes blacklisting, loss of accreditation, and a social disdain for socially conservative traditionalits.

With respect, I think that Dreher is making two errors here. First, his use of the term "orthodox believers" (often referred to on his blog as "small-o orthodox Christians") is doing a lot of lifting. It means traditional socially conservative Christians, not those Christians whose theological belief is in accordance with the creeds. Liberal Christians are "read out" of "orthodoxy" by Dreher, even if we hold all the creeds to be true without hesitation or mental reservation. Indeed, Charles Gore, whose The Reconstruction of Belief was an extended defense of the truth of creedal Christianity in the aftermath of the loss of faith caused by World War I, would probably not fall within Dreher's definition of "orthodox Christian." This is a very crabbed view of orthodoxy, in contrast to that of C.S. Lewis, who could disagree with radical theology without declaring it heretical, as witness his comment about J.A.T. Robinson's Honest To God:
The Bishop of Woolwich will disturb most of us Christian laymen less than he anticipates. We have long ago abandoned belief in a God who sits on a throne in a localized heaven. We call this belief anthropomorphism, and it was officially condemned before our time. . . .We have always thought of God as being not only "in" and "above" but also "below" us....His view of Jesus as a window seems wholly orthodox (he that hath seen me hath seen the Father....Thus, though sometimes puzzled, I am not shocked by his article. His heart, though perhaps in some danger of bigotry, is in the right place.
Dreher could, I think, learn from Lewis's charitable reading of his foes, and his expansive view of orthodoxy.

Nor do I believe that Dreher is correct to fear persecution. In 2012, the often bitterly divided Supreme Court was unanimous in finding a broad "ministerial exception" to civil rights laws in the Firest Amendment's Free Exercise Clause. Still, Dreher is not fabricating; rather, he is, I believe, overreacting to a loss of cultural hegemony that is in fact real. That, combined with the Supreme Court's relegation in Employment Division v. Smith (1990) to the political process of claims for lay religious minorities to "conscience exemptions" from non-discriminatory laws, a relegation authored by by the late Antonin Scalia, writing for the conservative wing of the Supreme Court--has basically removed constitutional protection for dissenters. Ironically, some of those dissenters are now the conservative Christians who make up Dreher's audience. The result is that conservative Christians are now themselves losing some of the political battles for exemptions and accommodations that they previously resisted when claimed by members of other faiths.

The question of when and how to extend such accommodations is a fraught one--do we effectively negate civil rights laws if we allow some accommodation, or do we oppress conscientious objectors if we follow Scalia's hard line view that it's purely a question of political (not constitutional) grace)? The facts that the right of equal marriage is so newly won, and is still being actively resisted, suggest that such a purely political process is not likely to be engaged in with much empathy. Churchill's old maxim, "In victory, magnanimity" is a good one, but it assumes a victory that is not yet solidified here. However, traditionalists are not specially targeted by the rule of Smith;in many places and occasions, they still are able to enshrine their views in law. But what is new for them is finding that in this realm they are now more likely than ever before to find themselves acted upon in the same way. That a cultural detente is necessary seems clear, but how to strike it is hard to envision.

One more:
Americans cannot stand to contemplate defeat or to accept limits of any kind. But American Christians are going to have to come to terms with the brute fact that we live in a culture, one in which our beliefs make increasingly little sense. We speak a language that the world more and more either cannot hear or finds offensive to its ears.

Could it be that the best way to fight the flood is to . . . stop fighting the flood? That is, to quit piling up sandbags and to build an ark in which to shelter until the water recedes and we can put our feet on dry land again? Rather than wasting energy and resources fighting unwinnable political battles, we should instead work on building communities, institutions, and networks of resistance that can outwit, outlast, and eventually overcome the occupation.
You will, I suspect, understand that I sign on to none of this. In fact, I find much of it deplorable--the notion that modernity is an "occupation" to be overcome suggests that Dreher is not looking for detente, but rather a regaining of cultural hegemony, which even he admits led to much mistreatment of religious dissenters, women, and gays and lesbians.

So why am I writing about this book?

Well, Dreher has another focus; he writes about the decline of Christianity from within. As he writes:
As bleak as [Notre Dame sociologist] Christian Smith’s 2005 findings were, his follow-up research, a third installment of which was published in 2011, was even grimmer. Surveying the moral beliefs of 18-to-23-year-olds, Smith and his colleagues found that only 40 percent of young Christians sampled said that their personal moral beliefs were grounded in the Bible or some other religious sensibility. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the beliefs of even these faithful are biblically coherent. Many of these “Christians” are actually committed moral individualists who neither know nor practice a coherent Bible-based morality.

An astonishing 61 percent of the emerging adults had no moral problem at all with materialism and consumerism. An added 30 percent expressed some qualms but figured it was not worth worrying about. In this view, say Smith and his team, “all that society is, apparently, is a collection of autonomous individuals out to enjoy life.”

These are not bad people. Rather, they are young adults who have been terribly failed by family, church, and the other institutions that formed—or rather, failed to form—their consciences and their imaginations.

MTD is the de facto religion not simply of American teenagers but also of American adults. To a remarkable degree, teenagers have adopted the religious attitudes of their parents. We have been an MTD nation for some time now, though that may have been disguised.

“America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War,” Smith told me in an interview. “That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism.”
Right, I don't share Dreher's or Smith's concern with "MTD" (here's my take on it), or "liberal individualism," but the cultural of illiteracy of many young Christians, and the decline of the churches in membership is a real problem for Christians, liberal and conservative alike. As is the harm done by unrestrained consumerism, a point on which I agree with Dreher (In fact, I think I go farther than he does, in more than one direction).

And in asking how to respond to a secular world in which Christianity, whether traditionalist or liberal, is in decline, , Dreher has turned to St. Benedict for concrete steps that can be taken.

As summarized by Karen Swallow Prior (with Dreher's endorsement):
The heart of The Benedict Option is the third chapter of the book. Here, after describing the order of St. Benedict and his Rule, Dreher draws from the Rule to identify and adapt principles that we in the church should apply within our modern context:

*Order: recognizing and establishing inner order that is in harmony with the natural limits and ultimate reality created by God
*Prayer: making communication with God through prayer and scripture the basis of daily life
*Work: recognizing that work is not separated from the spiritual life and must glorify God
*Asceticism: resisting the materialism, consumerism and hedonism that drive modern culture and inhibit the spiritual life
*Stability: putting down deep roots where we live, work and worship
*Community: prioritizing fellowship with others over individual interests and freedoms
*Hospitality: being as open to the world as is possible without compromising orthodox faith
*Balance: practicing the prudence necessary to balance not only right and wrong, but competing goods.
We can all agree that that the devil is in the details, and I'm not saying that I would apply all these principles in a way that even resembles Dreher's. But there is something here for liberal Christians to ponder. The values Dreher identifies have something to offer us in our distracted to death society.

Order is not necessarily conformity to external human authority; living with integrity, being one's own best self, in harmony with our individual calling from God, is not a conservative belief, it's a Christian one. Integrating prayer and the active practice of a life of faith reflects a will to live a lie that is a whole, not compartmentalized. Likewise work's reflecting our values. Who we are at home or on the job should not be unrecognizable from how we present ourselves at church.

Asceticism gets a bad press. All too often it means rejecting the good the world, often embracing joylessness as a condition of being "good." But it should not be this. Asceticism is hardly my strong point (nor was it St. Augustine's), but it can be viewed as holding a personal life in balance--not living solely through our nerve endings. To nick a phrase from Robertson Davies, it can mean having the body in the soul's keeping. Asceticism as a turning away from that which hinders us from fulfilling our responsibilities and our potential makes considerable sense to me, but that's a very biblical view--it occurs several times in St. Paul's writings.

Stability and community--I would suggest that these two are, ideally, linked. Committing oneself to a life with others who remain a part of our lives for the long haul, committed relationships in family, in friendship, and in our spiritual friends--those who help us to mature into our God-given potential by their roles in our lives, and who we, in turn, support. C.S. Lewis would not be so quick to suggest de-prioritizing individual interests--in The Four Loves, he makes the point that common interests can be the milieu of the deepest friendships. But freedom? Isaiah Berlin's Two Concepts of Liberty is an illuminating rumination on the subject of freedom, both positive and negative, and the dangers of trying to pare down freedom to one core meaning. Without wanting to ride old hobby-horses, an absolutist valorization of freedom as the sole good in itself can lead to the paradoxical, and to me, deeply repellent vision of freedom purveyed by Ayn Rand. Or, to quote the old song, "If I'm never tied to anything, I'll never be free."

Hospitality--I am a deacon at a church that practices radical welcome, and has long before it was fashionable, pinned itself to the words of St. Benedict, "“All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ.” It was that radical welcome that brought me in, and formed me to the point that I discerned a call to the diaconate.

Finally, balance. I don't feel a need to add to Prior's definition here.

The Benedict Option is a book written from a traditionalist perspective, and with a deep-seated resistance to much that has, in my view, improved the lives and faith of many who were for too long relegated to the margins by traditional Christianity in some of its crueler forms. Yet, if we can find in ourselves the humility to hear those who strongly disagree with us, there may be something to learn from it.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The Player Piano Plays On...

At the risk of being unkind, I think it's fair to say that Lawrence Summers never misses the chance to disappoint:
Imagine that 50 people can produce robots who will do the work of 100. A sufficiently high tax on robots would prevent them from being produced. Surely it would be better for society to instead enjoy the extra output and establish suitable taxes and transfers to protect displaced workers. It is hard to see why shrinking the pie, rather than enlarging it as much as possible and then redistributing, is the right way forward.

This last point has long been standard in international trade theory. Indeed, it is common to point out that opening a country to international trade is like giving it access to a technology for transforming one good into another. The argument, then, is that since one surely would not regard such a technical change as bad, neither is trade, and so protectionism is bad. Gates’s robot tax risks essentially being protectionism against progress.

None of this is to minimize the problem of job destruction and rising inequality (although it is a major paradox that we seem to be seeing unprecedentedly rapid job destruction by machinery while at the same time observing extraordinarily low productivity growth). Rather, it is to suggest that staving off progress is a poor strategy for helping less fortunate workers. In addition to difficulties of definition and collateral costs, there is the further problem that in an open world, taxes on technology are likely to drive production offshore rather than create jobs at home.
My italics, his emetics.

Summers is representative of that group of managerial-cum-economist pseudo-intellectuals who keep fighting the last war, over and over, despite the fact that they've already lost. According to Michael Morgenstern in The Economist:
In a widely noted study published in 2013, Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne examined the probability of computerisation for 702 occupations and found that 47% of workers in America had jobs at high risk of potential automation. In particular, they warned that most workers in transport and logistics (such as taxi and delivery drivers) and office support (such as receptionists and security guards) “are likely to be substituted by computer capital”, and that many workers in sales and services (such as cashiers, counter and rental clerks, telemarketers and accountants) also faced a high risk of computerisation. They concluded that “recent developments in machine learning will put a substantial share of employment, across a wide range of occupations, at risk in the near future.” Subsequent studies put the equivalent figure at 35% of the workforce for Britain (where more people work in creative fields less susceptible to automation) and 49% for Japan.
. Stephen Hawking made the same point late last year in the Guardian. The Financial Times puts the percentage of lost jobs in the U.S. from 2000 through 2010 due to automation at 85%.

And what does Summers note? He recommends the same failed nostrums of the 1980s through the present--retraining for the cataract of new jobs that will magically be created, the cataract of new jobs that never seems to come, as America's towns grow more hollowed out and the "rust belt" increasingly lives up to its name.

And it's not like this was that hard to foretell. Kurt Vonnegut's Player Piano was published in 1952, set in the fictional city of "Illium" (Troy, to you and me). While the details didn't fit his depiction, the overarching blight has, and the lack of any efficacious response, is just as he saw it.