Note: When I wrote this in October 2012 for the previous iteration of Opus Publicum I never expected it to become as “popular” (relatively speaking) as it did. Since it was brought up to me the other day, I am pulling it from the archives and reposting it without any emendations.
Mark Lilla has done little to endear himself to Christians, specifically Catholics, over the past decade, but that doesn’t mean he should be ignored. The Stillborn God, Lilla’s less-than-complete account of the role of religion and politics in modernity which largely failed to include Catholic thinkers, earned him some chastising words from George Weigel: “[W]riting any part of the history of the Western debate over religion and politics without a serious wrestling with Catholic sources is a bit like writing the history of baseball without mentioning the National League.” More recently, Lilla’s polemical review of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation was unsurprisingly ill-received despite having a few insightful words to offer on meta-narratives of spiritual-intellectual decline. Lilla, for reasons which remain foggy, hasn’t done much in the academic sphere since transferring from Chicago to Columbia. Happily, however, that has left him with sufficient time to keep running reviews and commentaries in various publications, including The New York Review of Books which just published Lilla’s three-part series covering, inter alia, France, Islam, and the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Comprised of two book reviews and an independent reflection, Lilla’s “trilogy” deserves to be read in full, not because everything he says is spot-on, but because unlike most commentators on “things political and religious,” Lilla has a surprising, even enchanting, way of detaching himself from secular-liberal commitments even if, at the end of the day, he appears dedicated to holding on to them.
Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig (ESB) has had quite the year. After being received into the bosom of the Catholic Church last Easter, she proceeded to develop a loyal readership of mostly young Catholics who, like her, are fed up with economic liberalism, or at least some variants of it. In addition to writing a blog and weekly newsletter, ESB found time to publish articles in a diverse array of outlets, including The American Conservative, Salon, and Jacobin. She has since moved on to take a position as a staff writer at The New Republic (TNR), a former icon of American socio-political commentary which is struggling to restore its tarnished name, where, inter alia, she criticizes mainline conservatism, capitalism, and anyone else who doesn’t share her somewhat idiosyncratic take on Christianity. ESB also contributes to other places, including The Nation, which just published her excellent but disturbing piece on prison rape—a horrific problem that receives lamentably little attention from the mainstream media. At almost the same time as that story appeared, TNR ran “Fear of a Radical Pope,” ESB’s misaligned and difficult-to-follow polemic aimed at Pope Francis’s critics, real and imagined. Part autobiographical reflection, part historical and doctrinal mishmash, and part rant, the article is slated to appear on the cover of TNR’s next issue, which doesn’t bode well for that publication’s prospects for reputational restoration.
Could there be anything more vile to read than Christians of all confessional stripes commenting, nay, waxing indignant about pornography, either the sort popularly portrayed in films like 50 Shades of Grey or the everyday stuff which litters the Internet? Pornography is evil — is there much more to be said about it than that? The attempts of some to build-up utilitarian arguments against its production and consumption are not without merit; but that’s a dangerous road to walk down. For whether some wish to admit it or not, there are plenty of pro-pornography arguments cast in utilitarian terms, and the social-science literature has only yielded findings which are, at best, inconclusive and, more often than not, contestable. The less charitable side of me, the one activated by social media and e-mail chains, finds almost all Christian writings on pornography is perverse. The curiosity that sits just underneath the condemnatory rhetoric is — if I may use the word again — perverse. It’s not enough to just say that the sort of “deviant sex” portrayed in most pornographic (or quasi-pornographic) videos is “disgusting” or “immoral”; graphic descriptions, the sort which ended up enticing more than horrifying, are part of the package. O, how I long for the days of yore when a sly euphemism or two might have stood-in for “analingus.”