Potpourri 1/20/14

    1. Between the lines
    2. “No liturgical form can save us,” but …
    3. Sheer philosophical genius
    4. Summers on Inequality
    5. Rome coulda been a contenda
    6. Straining at gnats
    7. When is the Bible not the Bible?


Like practically every American commentator with an audience, Sullivan’s early posts after 9/11 were angry and hyperbolic. The attack represented something “more dangerous than Pearl Harbor” and demanded a response “disproportionate to the crime,” because “the forces of resentment and evil can no longer be appeased.” There’s nothing unique in his first words, published at 3:47 that day, though looking back now, his first sentence – “The forces of barbarism have clearly struck an extraordinary blow against freedom this morning” – carries a tragic irony. But subsequent posts reveal a startling change. Six hours later, he writes:

It feels – finally – as if a new era has begun. The strange interlude of 1989 – 2001, with its decadent post-Cold War extravaganzas from Lewinsky to Condit to the e-boom, is now suddenly washed away. We are reminded that history obviously hasn’t ended; that freedom is never secure; that previous generations aren’t the only ones to be called to defend the rare way of life that this country and a handful of others have achieved for a small fraction of world history. The boom is done with. Peace is over. The new war against the frenzied forces of what Nietzsche called ressentiment is just beginning.

There’s a nasty odor here, not unlike the scent of relief that wafted off of Christopher Hitchens as the World Trade Center smoldered. At last, Sullivan appears to be saying, we have clarity: an enemy to fight, and a destiny to claim. Like a jaded Weimar diarist, he celebrates the end of dissipated age, relieved that something is finally happening.

(Greg Waldman, emphasis added)

It’s gratifying that I’m not the only one to notice how very, very much America needs dragons to slay, princesses to rescue – a reason to feel exceptional. The only marvel is that we actually waited for a provocation rather than inventing one.


Pope Francis said some kind things, though seemingly a bit condescending, about “those who are fond of the ancient liturgy”:

When we were discussing those who are fond of the ancient liturgy and wish to return to it, it was evident that the Pope speaks with great affection, attention, and sensitivity for all in order not to hurt anyone. However, he made a quite strong statement when he said that he understands when the old generation returns to what it experienced, but that he cannot understand the younger generation wishing to return to it. “When I search more thoroughly – the Pope said – I find that it is rather a kind of fashion [in Czech: ‘móda’]. And if it is a fashion, therefore it is a matter that does not need that much attention. It is just necessary to show some patience and kindness to people who are addicted to a certain fashion. But I consider greatly important to go deep into things, because if we do not go deep, no liturgical form, this or that one, can save us.”

I was going to reply. Then I was confounded by the question-begging conclusion “if we do not go deep, no liturgical form, this or that one, can save us.” Well, yeah, I guess.

I lacked the energy to respond to the discordant chord without risking affirming that a superficial liturgical form can save us, so I turned in for the night. While I slept, David J. White did the job I passed on:

“But I consider greatly important to go deep into things, because if we do not go deep, no liturgical form, this or that one, can save us.”

Do you disagree?

To an extent, I do. A very old Christian principle is lex orandi, lex credendi — loosely translated, the law of prayer is the law of belief. Or in other words, how you pray is how you believe: prayer shapes belief. Liturgical forms can encourage one to “go deep,” or they can, well, encourage one not to ….

I would go a step further, even, and suggest that a change of the Mass signals some change of faith, a change of the Mass as major as I understand the switch from Latin Mass to Novus Ordo Mass to be signals a fairly major change of faith. And one reason I’m Orthodox, rather than Roman Catholic, is that I think that’s a bad thing. Unlike Rod Dreher, I’ve not been Catholic, but he finds much greater profundity and beauty in the Orthodox (and Eastern Rite Catholic) Liturgy than in any Western Mass.


Arts & Letters Daily teaser: “Bernard Williams had a knack for seeing through every philosophical argument. He was too clever to offer up positions of his own.” Here’s the Roger Scruton story.

 I kind of soured on philosophy as a major when I began to see that “every philosophical argument” seemed to have holes. But to make a career of finding or poking holes without ever having to reciprocate by exposing one’s own holey notions is a noteworthy genius.


Inequality has emerged as a major issue in the US and beyond. A generation ago it could reasonably have been asserted that the overall growth rate of the economy was the main influence on the growth in middle-class incomes and progress in reducing poverty. This is no longer a plausible claim.

It is not enough to identify policies that reduce inequality. To be effective they must also raise the incomes of the middle class and the poor. Tax reform has a major role to play. The current tax code is so badly designed that it is very likely to be having the effect of reducing economic growth. It also allows the rich to shield a far greater proportion of their income from taxation than the poor …

It is ironic that those who profess the most enthusiasm for market forces are least enthusiastic about curbing tax benefits for the wealthy. Sooner or later inequality will have to be addressed. Much better that it be done by letting free markets operate and then working to improve the result. Policies that aim instead to thwart market forces rarely work, and usually fall victim to the law of unintended consequences.

(Lawrence H. Summers)


Regarding the U.N.’s report on child sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church:

That various Vatican offices were slow to respond to the abuse crisis has been conceded by the Holy See: and it has been conceded by being corrected with remedial action, not by the logorrhea that characterizes U.N. agencies deploring various human ills. But it doesn’t take a conspiracy theorist to understand that the Committee’s report has far less to do with protecting young people than with deploring the Catholic sexual ethic, using the abuse scandal as a weapon. One might even describe such behavior by international bureaucrats as shameless. But then this is the U.N., where shamelessness is the coin of the realm, rhetorically and otherwise.

That having been said, and meant, let’s move on to the real issue: Why did the Holy See set itself, and the Catholic Church, up for this kind of rancid attack? Why, to return to 1990, did the Holy See sign the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which at numerous points is out of sync with Catholic understandings of family life, the relationship between parents and children, and the nature of child-rearing?

Here’s my answer: Too many Vatican officials still think of the Church’s interface with world politics as if the Holy See were the Papal States—a class-B European political entity, trying to punch above its weight in international diplomacy. And if you’re thinking within that framework, it becomes important to sign on to this, that, or the other international legal instrument contrived by the U.N. Signing on tells you that you’re a player. Signing on tells you that you’re in the game.

(George Weigel) Do read it all (it’s short) if you care about the role of the Church in the world today (and in the United States, for good or for ill, “The Church” is emblematically the Roman Church).


I have some trouble getting worked up that the campaign for polygamy is accelerating.


Yeah. In our historic moment, having swallowed a camel far more radical historically than polygamy, are we really that worried about a gnat? They’ve lobotomized us and we’re going to worry about a wart?


On Saturday, Jamie Coots, a famous snake-handling preacher died in the predictable fashion. My lifestyle and worldview are pretty radically different from the charismatic fundamentalism of the late Pastor Coots, but I nonetheless see his death as tragic in its expression of great piety and courage that I have every confidence I myself would not demonstrate. The great irony of course is that the last twelve verses of Mark, on which the practice of snake-handling is based, are almost certainly a late interpolation that made their way into the Textus Receptus but are not found in our best manuscripts and are inconsistent with Mark’s mysterious cliff-hanger literary style. That is, even if one is inclined to take even obviously imprudent suggestions from scripture, the business about snakes is not really scripture.

(Gabriel Rossman, emphasis added)

Hold your horses there, Buster! Your dodge would be really handy for dispensing with this one instance of bad hermeneutics, but those twelve verses are Scripture, and if that doesn’t quite suit some theory about “infallibility in the original autographs” (an unfalsifiable theory since we don’t have those autographs) then the theory needs work, not the Bible.

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“The remarks made in this essay do not represent scholarly research. They are intended as topical stimulations for conversation among intelligent and informed people.” (Gerhart Niemeyer)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.