Some Words on Encountering an Evangelical Literary Panel

Yesterday evening, as I am sometimes wont to do, I parked myself at the café of Baker Book House’s expansive facility in Grand Rapids. The store, which is still fairly new, is geared primarily toward Protestants of the Evangelical variety, though it also boasts a fairly sizable Catholic section and an extremely modest Eastern Orthodox one. The two store’s two gems are its collection of remainder/lightly damaged titles from primarily Christian academic publishers (e.g., Baker Academic, Eerdmans, and even Ave Maria Press) and an extensive used book section (though most of the volumes are Protestant). The café is typically quiet in the evening, but not always. For instance, a month or two ago, I made the mistake of sitting there while “Movie Night” was going on. The film in question, God’s Not Dead 2, won’t be winning any academy awards next year, but so it goes. Another mistake was made last night when, after 30 minutes of peace and quiet, I noticed a flood of people (mostly women) enter the store and start sitting around the small stage area across from the café. Much to my chagrin, a panel of four Christian authors were speaking about their work; offering up some readings; and answering questions about the writing and publishing process. As someone who has almost no interest in penning fiction, let alone Evangelical fiction, I wanted to flee—but I couldn’t. For almost immediately I found myself transfixed by the well-meaning but ludicrous spectacle of listening to people who sound like they’ve never read a real book in their life tell others how to write.

Ok, perhaps that’s a bit harsh. One of the speakers, whose literary work revolves around an arsonist setting fire to her house and then purchasing a pug, was a former champion of the Moth Radio Hour’s “Story Slam” competition. She clearly knew how to string some words together and deliver them for comedic effect; she just wasn’t very funny. I say that because I find it grotesque that someone would take an obvious tragedy which greatly impacted their family and leverage it for laughs. As for the pug gimmick? Pure kitsch. When this individual began reading her work, I was equal parts mesmerized and horrified; how could anyone laugh at this? And it wasn’t just the arson; it was the fact she led off her story about acquiring the pug as if she was about to engage in a tawdry affair behind her husband’s back, and latter capped it all off with an anal-sex joke. Is that the Evangelical version of “blue humor”? I really don’t know, nor do I care to find out.

Two of the other speakers, both women, were a little easier to take. One had acquired her PhD at Princeton some time ago and spent her time writing and offering spiritual counseling. One thing that jumped out to me during her discussion is how often Evangelicals only openly confess to “positive sins,” that is, those which are typically considered virtues by contemporary secular society. For instance, this author made mention of her sins of “perfectionism” and “focusing too hard on her work,” as if neither aren’t already part of the Protestant work ethic. I also got the sense from her talk that the only times Evangelicals recognize sin is if they “feel convicted in their hearts” (or something like that). In other words, sin is defined as a subjective feeling rather than an objective abrogation of God’s Law. Strange. As for the third female speaker, she had recently penned a book of prayers that aligned with the alphabet; I must admit I had mostly checked out by the time she spoke.

The real highlight of the night was actually the panel’s first speaker, a middle-aged gentleman who writes a series of action novels revolving around a Christian cage fighter and former Philosophy major at Yale who, after beating bad guys to a pulp, tells them to go read The Bible. (No, I am not making this up.) To make matters worse, he also writes and self-publishes (of course) a miniseries about a vigilante nun entitled . . . wait for it . . . Force of Habit. (Were I a braver man, I should have reached into my pocket, removed my Rosary, and began loudly reciting the Sorrowful Mysteries.) During the course of his presentation and the Q&A session, this gentleman revealed that he had formerly been a lawyer (I knew it); that he had come to writing late in life and was often told he could never do it (obviously); and that anyone can learn to write (wrong).

And then the panel was over, and there was much rejoicing in Heaven.

Ephemera VII

The Byzantine Texas web-log is not always known for its edifying discussions, but sometimes they can turn interesting. Take, for instance, the ongoing back-and-forth between “Jake” and “Peregrinus” (and others) concerning Patriarch Sviatoslav Shevchuk’s recent remarks that the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is “a fully Orthodox Church with Orthodox theology, liturgics, spirituality, and canonical Tradition, which strives to live this Orthodoxy in the spirit of first-Millennium Christianity — that is, communion with Rome.” After all of the theological, ecclesiastical, and metaphysical dust settles, it seems to me that the real issue here is who has a “right” to use the term “Orthodox”? By conservative Orthodox lights, the Greek Catholics are misappropriating the term, even though the use of “Orthodox” as an exclusively confessional designation is of rather recent vintage. To the best of my knowledge, no Catholic kicks up much dust that Eastern Orthodox liturgical and theological texts still use the word “Catholic.” It is fairly plain to see that when Patriarch Sviatoslav and other members of the UGCC refer to themselves as “Orthodox,” they do so because they see themselves as the authentic continuation of Byzantine-Slavic Christianity which emerged in Kyivan-Rus’ at the close of the first millennium. Of course the Eastern Orthodox don’t accept this, but why should that matter? The UGCC, as a sui iurius patriarchal church in communion with Rome, needn’t seek the approval of the Orthodox when defining itself or carrying forth the Gospel in lands still reeling from the devastating aftereffects of atheistic communism.

The ongoing young-Catholic fascination with Marxism reminds me of the larger young-Christian fascination with the works of Giorgio Agamben a few years back. Without bothering to pay much attention to what Agamben was up to, Christians of various stripes were citing him left and right simply because he happened to write about Christian themes, including St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. None of this is to say that people shouldn’t read Agamben, though it seems to me that there are diminishing returns in doing so. Had 9/11 never happened and Carl Schmitt never became vogue, Agamben’s notoriety and influence in Anglophone circles would probably have remained modest. As for the self-professed “Catholic socialists” who embrace Marx, I have to wonder how many of them have read Marx or later Marxist thinkers and what insights do they believe this ideology has for Catholicism today? It’s easy to lift a handful of Marxist terminology from one’s Philosophy 101 notes; it’s exceedingly more difficult to apply those concepts in an intellectually rigorous manner. Then again, maybe the Marxist rhetoric in play among the “Catholic socialists” right now is just that: rhetoric. But wouldn’t that mean this whole “Catholic socialism” thing is little more than posturing? In other words, could it really be that primarily white, Ivy League priv-kids are co-opting something they really don’t understand in order to feel self-important? That’s never happened before, has it?

A friend of mine sometimes asks me about points concerning Byzantine liturgy, either among the Orthodox or the Greek Catholics. I feel like my answer is always, “It depends.” Despite the myth of uniformity that some Orthodox like to promote, the on-the-ground reality is that most Orthodox parishes, depending on jurisdiction, are hardly uniform. In fact, it’s not even that surprising to see parishes within the same jurisdiction or diocese (e.g., Orthodox Church of America’s (OCA) Diocese of the Midwest) do things slightly different based on the particular parish’s history, the priest’s training and temperament, and the desires of the faithful. I have been to OCA services conducted in the exact same manner as a UGCC service and OCA services which are quite consciously trying to ape the high Synodal practice found in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Most local variants are pretty harmless and unnoticeable to untrained eyes, though some aren’t. Greek Catholics in America have struggled mightily for decades to correct a whole host of liturgical abuses that crept in both before and after the Second Vatican Council. Still, for reasons I don’t fully understand, there remains a desperate, and ultimately silly, pursuit of “purity” among far too many Eastern Christians (Catholic or Orthodox), as if there was ever a time in ecclesiastical history where the liturgy was codified and practiced perfectly.

In closing, let me just note that this phenomenon is not exclusive to the East. Most readers know by now my general position on the “liturgical wars” that rage among Latin Catholics concerning changes made to the Missale Romanum and Breviarium Romanum from the mid-1950s until the early 60s. To me, that seems so secondary compared to the prevalence of what Pope Benedict XVI called a “low-Mass mentality.” I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a majority (or at least roughly half) of all Sunday Tridentine Masses are low, i.e. they are not sung. Accompanying this unfortunate development is the near-total eradication of the Divine Office from Latin parish life. Although this process began long before Vatican II, it is regrettable that the fight to maintain liturgical orthodoxy within the Latin Rite has not been accompanied by an equally vigorous fight to restore this rite to its full splendor. Some will likely argue — with justification — that the deplorable state of the Roman Church in the 1970s and 80s made it extremely difficult for Catholics to find the Tridentine Mass at all; prudence dictated that matters of liturgical solemnity should be put on hold. Well, while things are far, far from optimal in the Roman Church today, there now exists numerous resources for priests and laity alike to begin celebrating the traditional Roman Rite as it was meant to be. So what’s stopping them?

Ephemera VI

Last week I made mention of David Bentley Hart’s provocative article “Christ’s Rabble.” Although Hart opted to target an Acton Institute General in that piece, Acton has sent a Private to return fire. Dylan Pahman, perhaps Acton’s only resident Eastern Orthodox writer, has a new piece over at The Public Discourse that attacks Hart’s literal reading of certain New Testament passages which pertain to wealth. While I still harbor some reservations concerning Hart’s characterization of early Christians as “communists,” Pahman’s response is a mess. Setting aside Pahman’s childish attempts to associate Hart with the anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon and Gnosticism, the real problem with Pahman’s uncharitable critique is that he simply does what he accuses Hart of doing, namely wandering around the New Testament in order to proof-text his way to the conclusion that wealth isn’t evil; it’s how we use it that can be evil. (Pahman, unsurprisingly, ignores just how often it is used for evil.) In the end, Hart can defend himself, and should he choose to do so, it will likely be a bloodbath. While Hart has sometimes stumbled along the way, particularly when targeting Thomism and the natural-law tradition, when it comes to Greek, the Church Fathers, and Christian history, it shouldn’t be too difficult for Hart to play Mickey Gall to Pahman’s C.M. Punk.

Some mixed defenses of the Tradinistas are starting to pour in. Over at his web-log Sancrucensis, Pater Edmund Waldstein has penned a detailed piece explaining why he supports their project while also opting to not align with it. In various other writings (one of which Waldstein links to), I have tried to lay out a typography of both “illiberal Catholicism” (broadly understood) and the various approaches to the Church’s social magisterium which are available today. I have made no apologies for the fact that I believe integralism is the only sensible option available for those who wish to conform to what the Catholic Church teaches. There is no need to import problematic terms like “socialism” into the mix, nor the ideological baggage which accompanies it. Waldstein appears to believe the Tradinistas have their instincts in the right place — and I think that’s right. My primary reservation concerning them remains a seeming lack of seriousness on the one hand (e.g., group’s name and website aesthetic) and a deeply confused approach to Catholic thought on the other. As I said in my original critique of the Tradinistas, it is an endeavor comprised mainly of priv-kids from Ivy League and other high-ranking schools; it’s chances of growing any deep roots are slim.

Meanwhile, David Mills, writing for Ethika Politika, thinks we need the Tradinistas (or something like them). Mills highlights the centrality of the just wage to Catholic social teaching and appears to believe the Tradinistas will help promote it. Maybe, though there is almost nothing from the Tradinistas on the just wage or even a ready-hand acknowledgment that paying just wages means discriminating between workers based on their state of life. As Mills surely knows, Distributists have a rich history of discussing the just wage and fleshing out its meaning. Moreover, Distributists also hold to a thick (though not absolute) conception of property rights which better coheres to what Leo XIII and Pius XI taught than anything the Tradinistas have proposed. To Mills I would say that we do need “something like” the Tradinistas in the sense of an organized movement to promote authentic Catholic principles in society. What we don’t need are Catholics too afraid of their own shadows talking-up a limp-wristed form of Marxism and pretending that it’s “revolutionary.” By modern liberal lights, what is truly revolutionary is the integralist thesis, or simply the idea — enshrined in Catholic doctrine — that the state is subordinate to the Church even though it retains its own legitimate sphere of authority. What we need are Catholics willing to crawl to the Cross, not a hammer and sickle.

Last night, at the suggestion of Owen White, I watched the film Free State of Jones, starring Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a poor farmer and Confederate soldier who led a rebellion against the Confederacy in Jones County, Mississippi. Like any historical drama, this one took some liberties with the facts while working-in some additional subplots for dramatic effect. Still, wholly faithful to history or not, the film raises some powerful points about the nature of a free society (albeit a small one) and the role rights ought to play in justifying political violence. What slightly unsettled me about Free State of Jones is not the fact a band of poor farmers and runaway slaves rose up against an ostensibly lawful political authority, but that their reasons for doing so are susceptible to two opposed ideological readings. As the movie presents it, Knight and his followers can be seen as quasi-socialists who wish to provide for the good of the commonwealth above individual gain or greed. And yet, at the same time, a very libertarian reading of Knight is available, particularly his insistence that his followers have an absolute right to their property and — citing St. Paul — ought to reap what they sow.

Review: To Build the City of God

Writing as a Catholic and lawyer who once tried his hand at academia, I must say that Brian M. McCall is something of a marvel. Prior to becoming a full professor and academic dean at the University of Oklahoma College of Law, McCall was a highly successful international commercial and antitrust attorney with an enviable educational pedigree. He is also a traditional Catholic who has written for The RemnantThe Angelus, and Latin Mass Magazine and published a series of books discussing the authentic social teaching of the Catholic Church. To Build the City of God (Angelico Press 2014) is both a critique of liberal modernity in the light of the Church’s perennial teaching and a practical guidebook for Christians looking to negotiate the secular age. More than a romantic call to the past, McCall intelligently and insightfully breaks apart the liberal-secularist narrative of contemporary life while calling fellow Catholic to the carpet for trying to fuse liberalism with the Faith.

After briefly reviewing the doctrine of Christ’s social kingship, McCall’s book starts logically with the family, which is the foundation of both political and economic society. Although some may find McCall’s critical thoughts on women wearing pants and the loss of cursive among children to be a tad bit “fuddy-duddy,” these remarks are bound up with a much more significant points, namely the loss of proper order in the household and the surrender of the family’s proper authority to the spirit of the times. For those familiar with the writings of John Senior, none of this will come across as particularly shocking or new, though that’s not what McCall is up to here. What McCall wants to do is paint a clear picture of just how distorted contemporary family life has become due to the barrage of false ideas and images that we are inundated with on a daily basis. Even those who have foresworn television and limit their Internet access to edifying material alone (such as the Opus Publicum web-log) cannot escape the routine broadcasting of dominant cultural assumptions concerning sexuality, equality between the sexes, and the independence of children; to build up a bulwark against such errors is no easy task, but it must be done.

Where To Build the City of God really shines is in McCall’s discussion of economic life. Over the course of several sections, McCall submits the economic ideology of libertarianism to a withering critique by reminding readers of one inescapable fact: all economic activity involves human choice. Contrary to the propaganda spread by the Acton Institute and full-throated libertarians like Thomas Woods, the “science” of economics is not about “hard laws”; nothing is determined in advance absolutely, not even the so-called “law of supply and demand.” When supply shrinks, a choice is made to raise prices; it is not inevitable. And as for the classic argument that keeping prices low while supplies are short leads to a waste of scarce resources (an argument Woods is fond to repeat), McCall highlights that raising prices only favors the wealthy; it doesn’t mean that those who truly value the scarce resources the most will acquire them. Additionally, a wealthy person may be more inclined to waste resources because he can. For instance, a man living alone making a million dollars a year could afford to buy 10 EpiPens even though he only needs one, simply because he wants to keep one in his numerous cars and rooms. Meanwhile, a family of six with a father making $50,000/year will struggle to purchase just one even though they have a child whose life could depend on the device. Does the family of six value the EpiPen any less than the millionaire or do they simply lack the means available to the millionaire?

As the book progresses, McCall offers up some practical advice for his fellow faithful. While he has some rightly harsh words for usurers, McCall’s treatment of the topic is both charitable and nuanced. As he makes clear, not all loans — even loans with interest — are necessarily usurious, though many are. McCall also clears the air about bankruptcy brought on by such lending and other social conditions; although we have an obligation to pay our debts, there are legitimate circumstances where bankruptcy is necessary and the shame associated with the option is bound up with Protestant economic ideology rather than authentic Catholic teaching. Equally powerful is McCall’s discussion of tithing, a practice promoted by Protestants and even many Eastern Orthodox, but which has no authentic basis in the Gospel. It’s not that McCall is calling on Catholics to not support the Church; that duty can be found even in the natural law. Rather, McCall rejects the pernicious idea that the Church demands a flat 10% “tax” from the faithful while also discussing how the modern state and the current liberal economic ordo fleeces people of their rightful wages before they even have a chance to give to the Church.

My choice to finally pick up To Build the City of God is fortuitous given the recent break-out of an old error, namely the “Catholic socialism” of the self-proclaimed “Tradinista Collective” (see here and here). Although McCall spends the bulk of his work attacking the errors of political, social, and economic liberalism, implicit in his argument is a powerful rejection of the socialist temptation to seek-out a top-down “solution” to our present woes. Unlike the Tradinistas, McCall recognizes the proper role of hierarchy and subsidiarity in a just society. Above all, by demonstrating consistent fidelity to the Church’s social magisterium and her centuries-long tradition of confronting socio-economic realities in the light of both natural and divine law, McCall offers up a truly Catholic alternative to the liberal order. If only others were brave enough to follow in his suit.