Compelling but not convincing

Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010 by Charles Murray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I think that Murray is basically right, but the book is more a compelling essay than a convincing diagnosis. The amount of evidence is not enough to support the ambitions of the book. One of the weaknesses is taking 1960 as a starting point, 27 years after the beginning of the New Deal, making it difficult to argue that changes since 1960 have propelled us toward a more European model of society. Mostly ignoring the positive and/or negative effects of the New Deal leaves, in my opinion, a significant hole in his argument.

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Online shaming

This post by Patrick at Popehat linked to Jon Ronson’s article about the shaming of Justine Sacco for a careless tweet. I read this a couple of months ago, but thought that I would link to it here as well.

War in the Land of EgyptWar in the Land of Egypt by Yusuf Al-Qa’Id

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A really well-crafted novel with a different narrator in each chapter, telling a story of Egyptian hierarchy, corruption, and bureaucracy at the time of the October War in 1973.

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An introduction to presuppositional apologetics

Always Ready: Directions For Defending The FaithAlways Ready: Directions For Defending The Faith by Greg L. Bahnsen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a clear and forceful case for presuppositional apologetics. Bahnsen wants Christians to stand on the ground of the Bible and show how non-Christian perspectives cannot adequately account for their views about reality. One of the aspects that I really enjoyed about the book is that Bahnsen’s commitment to the Scriptures meant that the Christian must love the person he or she is debating, being characterized not by arrogance but by a “humble boldness.”

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History and myth in Tolkien

An excerpt from Bradley Birzer’s J. R. R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle-earth appeared on the Intercollegiate Review’s site late last year. Birzer points out that the characters in Lord of the Rings cite the folklore of their world that Tolkien had created. Secondly, Tolkien believed that he was exploring a world that already existed, that “God authored the history of Middle-earth, in all its manifestations. Tolkien thought that he merely served as a scrivener of God’s myth. ‘I have long ceased to invent,’ Tolkien wrote in 1956. ‘I wait till I seem to know what really happened. Or till it writes itself.’ ”

The last paragraph of the post illustrates this:

Besides Ringwraiths and hobbits, other characters presented themselves to Tolkien, and he did not always have time to discuss them in detail. One of the most intriguing omissions from the tales is the story of Berúthiel, briefly mentioned by Aragorn during the harrowing journey of the Fellowship of the Ring through Moria. “There’s one exception that puzzles me—Berúthiel,” Tolkien told an interviewer. “I really don’t know anything of her. . . . She just popped up, and obviously called for attention, but I don’t really know anything certain about her.” He proceeded to take a spontaneous and rather long guess at who she might be, and why she despised cats. The interviewer, a former student of Tolkien’s, writes nothing of what must have been a bewildering and surreal discussion except that she enjoyed being in the presence of such a fine storyteller. Tolkien also regretted leaving Círdan, the keeper of the Grey Havens, as a minor and poorly developed character in The Lord of the Rings. The Silmarillion and the twelfth volume of the History of Middle-earth gives him a satisfactory and interesting context, but the reader never really learns about Círdan as a person. Finally, Tolkien seemed genuinely puzzled over the names, whereabouts, and fate of the two unnamed wizards (members of the Istari) who arrived at roughly the same time as Gandalf, Saruman, and Radagast. Known only as the “Blue Wizards,” they simply fade from the legendarium, never to be seen by any of the characters who populate Middle-earth. Tolkien predicted that either Sauron corrupted them to evil or they had become the founders of Eastern mystery religions and gnostic cults. Considering that Tolkien created such a complex and believable world with what he called an “inner consistency of reality,” complete with its own culture, religion, politics, law, peoples, languages, topography, and climate, it is astounding that there are not more loose ends in Tolkien’s mythology.


Crito and Rousseau

I assigned Plato’s dialogues Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo for class this semester and last. In the Crito, Socrates’ friend tries to persuade him to escape from Athens before his execution, which prompts Socrates to do his usual dismantling of his interlocutor’s ideas. Near the end of the dialogue, Socrates pretends to converse with the laws of Athens. To the statement that the legal decision was unjust and therefore can be disobeyed, he has the laws reply as follows:

“And was that our agreement with you?” the law would sar, “or were you to abide by the sentence of the State?” And if I were to express astonishment at their saying this, the law would probably add: “Answer, Socrates, instead of opening your eyes: you are in the habit of asking and answering questions. Tell us what complaint you have to make against us which justifies you in attempting to destroy us and the State? In the first place did we not bring you into existence? Your father married your mother by our aid and begat you. Say whether you have any objection to urge against those of us who regulate marriage?” None, I should reply. “Or against those of us who regulate the system of nurture and education of children in which you were trained? Were not the laws, who have the charge of this, right in commanding your father to train you in music and gymnastic?” Right, I should reply. “Well, then, since you were brought into the world and nurtured and educated by us, can you deny in the first place that you are our child and slave, as your fathers were before you? And if this is true you are not on equal terms with us; nor can you think that you have a right to do to us what we are doing to you. Would you have any right to strike or revile or do any other evil to a father or to your master, if you had one, when you have been struck or reviled by him, or received some other evil at his hands?- you would not say this? And because we think right to destroy you, do you think that you have any right to destroy us in return, and your country as far as in you lies? And will you, O professor of true virtue, say that you are justified in this? Has a philosopher like you failed to discover that our country is more to be valued and higher and holier far than mother or father or any ancestor, and more to be regarded in the eyes of the gods and of men of understanding? also to be soothed, and gently and reverently entreated when angry, even more than a father, and if not persuaded, obeyed? And when we are punished by her, whether with imprisonment or stripes, the punishment is to be endured in silence; and if she leads us to wounds or death in battle, thither we follow as is right; neither may anyone yield or retreat or leave his rank, but whether in battle or in a court of law, or in any other place, he must do what his city and his country order him; or he must change their view of what is just: and if he may do no violence to his father or mother, much less may he do violence to his country.” What answer shall we make to this, Crito? Do the laws speak truly, or do they not?

I had read this before, but I don’t think that I had realized the parallel with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s conception of the “general will of society” and society’s right of life and death over its members.

The quote from Crito was taken from the Internet Classics Archive given the ease of copying and pasting. I read the Crito in Five Dialogues (Hackett, 2002, trans. by Grube/Cooper).

Secularization in the Netherlands

A two-part analysis of Abraham Kuyper’s impact in the Netherlands by David Koyzis recently appeared at the First Things site. The first part explained Kuyper’s approach to Christian politics in the early 20th century: “During his political career, Kuyper worked, not to turn the Netherlands into a godly commonwealth, but more modestly to secure a place in the public square for his Reformed Christian (Gereformeerd) supporters in the face of the secularizing ideologies spawned by the French Revolution. He did so primarily by means of his Anti-Revolutionary Party (ARP), which would come to govern the Netherlands at various times in coalition with the Christian Historical Union (CHU) and the Roman Catholic State Party (RKSP), thus anticipating by almost a century the ecumenical effort known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together, spearheaded by Fr. Richard John Neuhaus and Chuck Colson.”

Koyzis’ second piece offers an explanation of why the Netherlands has become so secular.

During the 1960s and ’70s a number of political scientists, including Arend Lijphart and Hans Daalder, turned their professional attentions to a phenomenon they called consociationalism. In a consociational polity the leaders of mutually hostile subcultures have learned to collaborate for proximate political purposes, even as their respective constituents remain fairly isolated from the others. Power-sharing occurs at the elite level, while at the grassroots each subculture has its own churches (if applicable), labor unions, hospitals, charitable organizations, fraternal associations and so forth. This social segmentation is often referred to by the Dutch word verzuiling, or pillarization. Kuyper’s efforts led to the establishment of a variety of explicitly Christian organizations parallel to their secular counterparts. (The painter Piet Mondrian grew up in this Gereformeerd subculture.)…

Nevertheless, I have found myself wondering whether Kuyper’s perhaps too peaceful coexistence with the forces of secularization in 1917 might not have been sufficient to maintain the subculture he led over the long term. Kuyper certainly wouldn’t have been pleased by his followers’ failure to evangelize, and pillarization needn’t lead to a lack of outward strategy, but historically such power-sharing agreements place a premium on reaching a least-common-denominator form of consensus and toning down differences. In a pillarized society, the distinct subcultures became adept at erecting and maintaining barriers against the other subcultures, yet the consociational arrangements they come up with have tended to be short-lived. Lebanon’s National Pact lasted from 1943 until civil war broke out in 1975. A similar arrangement in newly independent Cyprus lasted only three years. The classic era of Dutch verzuiling endured from 1917 to around 1966, when the divisions among the subcultures began to break down.

religious community focused only on its own survival in a hostile environment may already have lost the battle, and this is where the efforts of Kuyper’s followers perhaps fell short. If we genuinely believe that the redemptive story contained in the Bible is not just our story but the world’s story, then we have reason, not to keep it to ourselves, but to proclaim that news with urgency and enthusiasm and to live accordingly. A political ceasefire may serve the proximate good of intercommunal peace, but it can never be a substitute for the biblical command to preach the Gospel to the world, whose salvation ultimately depends on it. Different confessional groups may agree to disagree for the present, but the followers of Jesus Christ must manifest a confidence that the truth that sets us free is everyone’s truth, and not just a subjective truth peculiar to our own community. We should, in short, not be content to turn inward defensively but ought always to reach out to the larger world. If we lose confidence in the transforming power of the Gospel, we run the risk of losing ground in a conflict we may forget is still being waged, even under formal conditions of a political ceasefire.


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