Cautionary Tales

I wish I’d had this ready for yesterday.

A little over 20 years ago, I asked myself a question that ended up changing my life. The question was based on C.S. Lewis’s haunting book The Great Divorce. Given a chance at heaven, most deceased hellions, already having experienced hell, rejected heaven, and they rejected it based on the habits of their hearts, formed in life.

The question I asked myself was “what are you doing to form habits of the heart that would make eternity in God’s presence heavenly instead of hellish?” I had a Calvinist form of Christian faith, to be sure, but whether by my fault, or that of my pastors, or simply providentially, this question just hadn’t registered usefully before. There’s even a strain in Calvinism that would snort and say I’m now (at best) semi-Pelagian, but that’s caricature Calvinism, methinks, and my pastors weren’t caricatures.

This came to the front of my mind because of events over the last week.


Last Monday reportedly brought a stunning performance on the Late Show with Stephen Colbert:

Sometimes pop culture seems completely prepackaged and professionalized, so when somebody steps out and puts on a display of vulnerability, trust and humility, it takes your breath away.

That’s what Chance the Rapper did on Monday on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” He debuted a new, untitled song, but which is about the perils of stardom — which is what you’d sing about if you were 24 and you’d blown up so big.

He begins, not completely originally, by implying a contrast between pop stardom and the actual stars spread across the universe, between celebrity success and the vastness of God.

Then he compares his own first-world problems with actual problems (“stone mattresses, thin blankets, really long winters spent in a windbreaker”). But his problems are still real and they have to do with the strains on his intimate life. (“I’m a rich excuse for a father. You just can’t tour a toddler. She’s turning 2. She don’t need diapers, she just need a papa. … My daughter barely recognizes me when I lose the hat.”)

The first part of the song is about how success is threatening his relationships (“I think my little cousins want their cousin back. The automatic quarterback who doesn’t rap.”). Then it changes mood with each verse. There’s his love-hate relationship with his own ambition, his ambivalence about his own complacent fans. The chorus is: “The day is on its way, it couldn’t wait no more. Here it comes, here it comes, ready or not.”

But David Brooks had a contrast in mind, too:

It’s interesting to compare Chance’s song with Taylor Swift’s new song, “Look What You Made Me Do,” which is also about a young star coping with celebrity. The former stands out from the current cultural moment; the latter embodies it. Swift is a phenomenally talented and beautiful songwriter who has lost touch with herself and seems to have been swallowed by the ethos of the Trump era.

The video to that song, which has been watched 478 million times on YouTube so far, contains a string of references to Swift’s various public beefs — with Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Katy Perry, and so on. If Donald Trump or his political enemies made a video about their Twitter wars, it would look like this.

The crucial lyric is “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me.” The world is full of snakes. The only way to survive is through combat. (“I got smarter. I got harder in the nick of time.”)

The first thing you notice in comparing the Chance and Swift songs is the difference between a person and a brand. A lot of young people I know talk about “working on their brand,” and sometimes I wish that word had never been invented.

What habits of the heart is Taylor Swift forming by working her brand? Chance the Rapper?


This week also brought the death of Hugh Hefner.

I’ve long detested his legacy. But I assumed that he was “livin’ his dream,” the dream that was part of the Playboy brand, which Hef worked well and which made him a lot of money. But it turns out, if one Holly Madison is to be believed, that Hef’s sexual tastes were more Hustler (or worse) than Playboy. If you haven’t heard her stories about the aging wanker’s “sex” life, I’ll spare you (and spare myself having to go back to cut and paste some very distasteful stuff). Suffice that Hef’s life could illustrate the theories (a) that porn is addictive, and requires ever “stronger” doses for anything simulating satisfaction and (b) that porn screws with your real-life relationships, too, reducing real intimacy.

He had his brand down pat. He had me snowed that he was at least enjoying many of the young women around him. Now “enjoy” seems too strong a word.

What would hellion Hef do if given a shot at heaven, but without his bimbos and satyriasis? Well, what habits has he formed in his heart?


Or our Narcissist-in-Chief, who late last week in a series of Tweets from a golf course, fer cryin’ out loud, told Puerto Rico to go to hell:

“Such poor leadership ability by the mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help,” Mr. Trump said. “They want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort.”

I agree that this may be his nadir, though there have been 8 months of vulgarities to compete with it.

I’m not, in this blog, lamenting that he’s POTUS. I’m asking what kind of man is our POTUS? What are the habits of his heart?

It’s clear that Donald Trump has a lucrative brand (one that, unlike Hef, never attracted me for a moment), but does he still have a soul to speak of?

Given a tour of heaven, would he call it a “dump” and get back on the bus to the other place? Would he stay only on condition that it be re-branded a Trump facility?


What possible human motive could there be for such violence? Thank God for the courage and brilliance of the police who took down this coward, who had to use explosives to blow out the door …

… a coward who assaulted a vulnerable crowd with 10 minutes of machine-gun fire, hundreds of rounds … like, as one commentator said, with no little jejune irony, “shooting into a barrel of fish.”

I really don’t care what pain or sorrow this wretch experienced in his life to prompt him to such evil. Evil is not justified by evil.

But if you want to look for causes, I’ll tell you this. This is due to anger, pure and simple. If you have a culture and a world that is constantly inflamed by denunciation, offense, and complaint, then this sort of carnage is not only possible, but increasingly likely.

Because it is not human at all to shoot into a barrel of fish, if the fish happen to be thousands of people at a country music concert.

Humans — being human — are simply not able to do such a thing. What is required for such evil is non-human assistance. To get this assistance is easy, sad to say.

Just keep yourself pissed off long enough, and you too can grow up to become a shooter (literally or figuratively). You’ll get your superpowers soon enough, especially if you classify yourself at odds with the rest of humanity.

If Christians want to make a difference in this age of rage and insanity (and patent anti-wisdom), then their best “option” is to swear off anger, to stop self-conscious tribe-speak, to stop waving banners, to be peacemakers, to be meek, to be poor in spirit, to hunger and thirst for righteousness, to be pure in heart, not revolutionary.

Pray for Las Vegas … and Catalonia … and Marseilles … and Nigeria and Congo and Burma and North Korea and Mexico and the Caribbean and etc and etc …

Bože moj. The times are difficult enough what with natural disasters. The last thing we need (and have too much of) are angry human beings prostituting themselves to devils.

(Fr. Jonathan Tobias on Facebook, emphasis added)

* * *

So there you have it. Three Four cautionary tales.

What habits of the heart are you forming? Influenced by a strong strain of teaching in Orthodoxy, I’ve come to think over the last 20 years that God is gracious and loves mankind — “No Exceptions” as the bumper sticker says. But we don’t all love him back, not even a little.

That strain of teaching in Orthodoxy suggests that we’ll all spend eternity in God’s presence, but some will perceive it as searing heat rather than glorious light. And what we do about God’s love, in forming habits of the heart, may make the difference.

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

France & America


France and America are countries linked at birth and have always seen in each other funhouse-mirror visions of the other, and they have used the other to try to understand themselves. Writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century and Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber in the 20th wanted France to be more like America; today, Gobry argues, America is turning into France, and in the wrong ways.

(Editor’s note on each of the articles I’m about to excerpt)


As of the most recent count, the French government spends an eye-watering 57 percent of the country’s GDP every year, with the crazy taxes that go along with that. The country ranks a paltry 72nd on the Heritage Foundation’s Economic Freedom Index, behind such free-market champions as Kazakhstan and Malaysia.

An administrative-law professor of mine once quipped, “In terms of administrative law, the French Revolution never happened.” By this, he meant that all one sees in the French law is just a long, uninterrupted power grab by the central government. The aristocracy and the Church had to go not because they were inegalitarian, but because they doled out status by birth or, what’s worse, by God, which challenged the State’s monopoly on status-conferring.

To speak generally, what a typical Frenchman wants out of life is some status granted, directly or indirectly, by the government. The government’s job, then, is to find some way to distribute status and economic rent in a way that keeps the social peace while preserving its own power and paying off the losers.

Hence civil-service laws, whereby civil servants cannot be fired and are paid by the state until death.In France, to be a bureaucrat is not a job, it is a status.Under Brussels-mandated austerity rules, French civil servants have barely had a pay raise in five years, and they have mostly taken it lying down — but everyone knows they would strike or even riot if something was done to threaten their status.

(America’s Francification, Part Deux)


If there’s one way in which America and France differ from each other, it’s in the role of religion. America famously stands out among Western nations for its religiosity, and France for its rigidly enforced secularism.

But the picture is more complicated than that. France has many religious people, andAmerica has a strongly secular contingent, which tends to occupy the country’s elite perches.The Christian sociologistPeter Berger famously quipped that if the most religious country on earth is India, and the most secular is Sweden, then America “is a nation of Indians run by Swedes.”

But the ground has begun to shift. Americans are less and less religious — or at least, less and less churched. As Ross Douthat has pointed out in his invaluable book A Nation of Heretics, Americans are not turning into Christopher Hitchens–style militant atheists; they believe in God, in spirituality, in the numinous, in numbers at least as large as ever. What they are rejecting however, is institutional forms of religion, whether Protestant or Catholic, whether black or white. They are therefore rejecting Christian orthodoxy, with significant cultural consequences.

In terms of politics, however, this may end up being a distinction without a difference. After all, as the secularist creed proclaims, it doesn’t matter what people believe in their hearts of hearts, so long as they leave it there.(That this creed is hypocritical, since secularists have no problem bringing their own metaphysical commitments to politics, is another matter.)

(America’s Francification, Part Trois: Secularism, emphasis added)


Paris is to France what the Boston-Washington Corridor and Silicon Valley are to America: Giant magnets that pull young brains out of the heartland:

If you’re drowning in college debt and the economic future looks bleak for all but the most successful, it becomes almost a matter of survival to jump on the meritocratic hamster wheel and run as hard as you can.

Men and women who would have become regional elites in a previous generation now all congregate around New York and Washington, playing their national games instead of enriching their local communities.

(Washington Wealth and the American Desert? Not Yet, But It’s on the Horizon)


America has a strange bipartisan blind spot. The Left’s social liberalism and the Right’s libertarian tendencies combine to make the family the great forgotten institution in American politics. Republican officeholders can talk a good game about “family values” and, sometimes, social issues related to the family, but when it comes to policies aimed at materially supporting and strengthening families, one hears crickets. But the family is the basic unit of society, and if supporting the family isn’t conservative, then that word is meaningless.

By contrast, family policy is an ancient commitment of the French political class, shared broadly across almost every political divide, for over a century, through regime changes and constitutional crises. There are quibbles around the edges, but there is broad agreement on the idea that strengthening the family is one of the pillars of government policy.

None of the objections on the right to pro-family policy hold water. The libertarian Right argues that pro-family policy is “social engineering,” but this is nonsense. The idea that tax policy, for example, should take into account only the individual as the most basic economic unit is an a priori metaphysical stance that is no more or less “social engineering” than structuring policy around the family, which after all was considered the basic economic unit for the great bulk of human history. What’s more, in practice, pro-family policy would only — though far from sufficiently — act as a pushback against the decades of effectively anti-family social engineering pursued by the Left.

Every one of the ills I’ve been writing about in this series is connected to the atomization of American society, which has been perhaps the main driver of the country’s deleterious turn over the past few years. In the face of runaway divorce and illegitimacy rates and declining birth rates, the decline of the American family is not merely one problem among many, it is a national emergency. In this context, policy tools such as marriage incentives and child tax credits are not luxuries, but bare minimums.

(America’s Francification: La Fin)

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.

The Catholic Integralist/Liberal Revanchist straddle


From Jake Meador’s long and helpful article, Indexing Political Theologies: Six Christianity and Culture Strategies:

[L]et’s consider the six most common strategies that Christians seem to be embracing. They are:

  • Catholic Integralism
  • Post-Liberal Protestantism
  • Post-Liberal Retreatists
  • Radical Anabaptists
  • Liberal Protestantism
  • Liberal Revanchists

I also want to note that I have ordered them in a particular way. The first four approaches are all variations that reject modern liberalism. The first two approaches, Catholic Integralism and Post-Liberal Protestantism, retain a fairly robust idea of civil society and the polis while the third and fourth strategies, Post-Liberal Retreatism and Radical Anabaptist, would offer a similarly stinging critique of liberalism but are much less hopeful about the possibility of reinvigorating civil society and are often even skeptical as to whether such a work is necessary or desirable, although that is a contested point within these groups.

The fifth group, the Liberal Protestants, are the first of the two groups that are much more at peace with modern liberalism. What separates them from the Post-Liberal Protestants is that they are more hopeful about the possibility of a just society existing within our current social order. What separates them from the sixth group is that they are also quite skeptical of any sort of “God-and-country nationalism” or other similar rhetoric from the religious right. Finally, the sixth group, the Liberal Revanchists, are those who see the American experiment as being compatible with a just society but who think that we need to take back large swathes of society in order to achieve such a goal. On the evangelical side of things, this is the old Religious Right plus many Trump-supporting evangelicals. Amongst Catholics, this is the John Courtney Murray wing of American Catholicism.

One reason I have made this option sixth and placed Catholic Integralism first is that the current editor of First Things, Dr. R. R. Reno, strikes me as someone straddling the line between the first and sixth options in a “so far left he’s almost right” sort of way. He also seems to be a transitional figure in the history of First Things. Richard John Neuhaus, the founding editor of the magazine, clearly belongs to the sixth school. Younger editors like Matthew Schmitz and Elliot Milco (himself a founder of The Josias) are clearly part of the first school. So Reno is a major figure here both because he seems to represent a transition chronologically and because he seems to be the only prominent Catholic thinker in the US right now trying to blend some of the Integralist insights with the more pro-American ethos of writers like his predecessor Neuhaus as well as George Weigel.

I added the emphasis to show why I thought Reno’s recent salvo was really a big deal. It seems to me that Reno no longer has one foot planted in Liberal Revanchism. Whether that foot is suspended in mid-air, or planted in Catholic Integralism (or somewhere else) remains, as they say, to be seen,

* * * * *

“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.