Friday, April 29, 2011

Easter Friday Flowers

Yorba Linda, 2:15 p.m.

With Influence Comes Responsibility

David D. Kirkpatrick, writing in the New York Times about Egypt's assertive regional moves: Bringing Fatah and Hamas together, promising to end the Gaza blockade, and improving relations with Iran:
Egyptian officials, emboldened by the revolution and with an eye on coming elections, say that they are moving toward policies that more accurately reflect public opinion. In the process they are seeking to reclaim the influence over the region that waned as their country became a predictable ally of Washington and the Israelis in the years since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

National Leader Pretend

Remembering the late David Broder, dean of the Washington political columnists, saying that "the only way a reporter should ever look at a politician is down,” the Washington Post's Dana Milbank fears that the annual White House Correspondents' Assn. gala has turned into a level preying field where lobbyists and corporations seduce journalists with swag and fancy receptions. And what's with the at-table matchmaking?:
[Is it] ABC News’s role to unite Glee’s Jane Lynch with White House chief of staff Bill Daley or 30 Rock’s Elizabeth Banks with National Security Advisor Tom Donilon? What’s the purpose of Fox News introducing actress Patricia Arquette to Rep. Michele Bachmann, National Journal presenting actor Taylor Kitsch to Obama strategist David Axelrod, NPR introducing REM’s Michael Stipe to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, or The Post connecting Trump and House Speaker John Boehner?
I'd have enjoyed eavesdropping on Stipe and Rice, though. And that's R.E.M.!
Hat tip to Mick Gilford

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Evil Of Tahrir Square

Lara Logan of CBS News speaks once, and only once, about the 40-minute sexual assault by 200-300 men that she suffered in the Arab street.

Donald Trump For Mayor Of Faber

Is he already self-destructing? In the foreign policy section of his Las Vegas remarks, I especially enjoyed the sum and syntax of the Trump doctrine:
I'm not interested in protecting none of them unless they pay.

The Best Work In The World

The baptism of Nolan van der Linden at the Great Vigil of Easter on Holy Saturday at St. John's Episcopal Church. His parents, Diana and Scott, and brother, Brent, look on. Thanks to Diana for sending me the photo.

"Say Goodbye To Palestine"

Martin Peretz says the upheavals in the Arab world and the pact between Fatah and Hamas have doomed the peace process:
There are no subtleties to the political and religious aims of the people who now govern Gaza. It is a febrile Islamist movement, allied with Iran and with Syria. It has murdered many more Arabs than it has killed Israelis—but not for wont of trying. A Fatah spokesman has assured the Palestinian masses that Salam Fayyad will not be a member of the interim government that should emerge from this pact. If you are hopeful about peace you are crazy. Barack Obama has thus far said nothing. It is very hard to comment when, day after day, one illusion after another, one delusion after another crumbles in the sands.

Say goodbye to Palestine. At least for the foreseeable future. And even if the General Assembly recognizes the fable for a fact.

Trump Change

Not taking the bumptious tycoon seriously? Think again. Jonathan Chait does. Andrew Sullivan does. And watch for the Nixon guy lurking beyond the scenes. Now you seen him, now you don't.

Sermons: "Fade To Black" And "Hallelujah!"

People just like us were honoring institutions and traditions they loved. They were tired and scared. They were trying to do their jobs and keep the peace. As they gave in to what social scientists call ethical fading, they had no idea that they were killing God. Would we? If we attend to the song of the risen Christ in our hearts, we don't actually have to worry about it. My sermons for Good Friday and Easter.

Peace Amid Chaos?

As the "Economist" sees it, the Arab revolution of 2011 has increased the chances of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. First, it redeemed Hamas, since Egypt's new leaders no longer oppose it because of its links to the now-respectable Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt just brokered the deal between Hamas and Fatah. Now the speculation: Hamas may join Fatah in endorsing the two-state solution, increasing pressure on Israel to make peace. Still hanging fire: Israel's security in a more volatile and perhaps hostile region.

Liturgy Junkies: This Is Your 13-Hour Warning

William and Katherine's hymns.
Hat tip to Jean Spencer

Feeling That Easter Discomfort

Charles Dickens' Nicholas Nickleby contains an insight into theological sophistry with which the Church has grappled virtually since the days of Jesus's earthly life. Near the end of the epic story of the novel's brash, heroic namesake, a dissolute character named Walter Bray is on the verge of selling his daughter, Madeline, into marriage. When the wedding day comes, Walter says to his co-conspirator, Nicholas' uncle, that it seems like a cruel thing to do. Dickens observes:
When men are about to commit, or to sanction the commission of some injustice, it is not uncommon for them to express pity for the object either of that or some parallel proceeding, and to feel themselves, at the time, quite virtuous and moral, and immensely superior to those who express no pity at all. This is a kind of upholding of faith above works, and is very comfortable.
Dickens conveyed his surgically precise grasp of human venality and vanity in characterizations that were often harsh but sometimes deeply affecting. I especially love Nicholas' narcissistic if harmless mother. In chapter 55, as she begins one of her exasperating, self-celebratory flights of free association, her son tries to keep reading his book. Finally, Dickens writes, "Nicholas snuffed the candles, put his hands in his pockets, and leaning back in his chair, assumed a look of patient suffering and melancholy resignation." Dickens was more astringent about misdeeds such as Madeline's greedy father's, especially if they were laced with pretensions of compassion.

Dickens' grace note about faith and works was an echo of Reformation struggles by Protestants against medieval Roman Catholic doctrines that seemed to teach that we could earn and buy our way into heaven. The author of of the New Testament letter of James proclaimed that faith in God without good deeds and works was dead [2:26].

As James and St. Paul (in Romans 6:1) both make clear, even in Jesus's time some had concluded they could do whatever they wanted as long as they had faith that they'd be forgiven, once they repented, at long last. For centuries, Reformation ideals propelled some Christians into lives of robust situational ethics. Even today, whenever we're tempted to compromise, neglect, mistreat, lash out, oppress, or isolate, we're been called to live Easter lives instead. But it's not always easy. Thinking we're justified in ungodly or unkind action or inaction is, as Dickens would say, very comfortable indeed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Ryan Adams premiers new songs.

Obama Plays The Trump And Loses

I wish I didn't think this, but I do. Donald Trump's now the frontrunner for the GOP nomination -- not because he's on TV all the time, not because he's good copy, not even because his job-creating bona fides could be incredibly appealing to voters.

It's because Barack Obama broke the first rule of incumbency by helping a pretender look like a peer.

Obama and his aides couldn't have dealt his birth certificate more ineptly. I get it that he decided two or three weeks ago, in the midst of the budget debate, that the birthers, thanks to Trump, were drawing people's attention away from matters of substance. Obama deserves credit for the public-spirited gesture of releasing the certificate even though the issue was tying the GOP in knots. But the next, equally important question was when and how to do it.

Congratulations: This morning was the worst possible choice. Isn't there someone at the White House keeping track of potential candidates' public schedules? Didn't it cross anyone's mind that it wouldn't be ideal to have Obama walk into the press room while Trump was giving a press conference about the same issue in New Hampshire?

It didn't help that Trump looked and sounded confident and imperturbable, whereas Obama sounds a little more peeved and scolding every time. Ironic that Obama called Trump a sideshow, because he put him in the center ring.

Salam Dunked

Twinned with the stunning announcement of a Fatah-Hamas unity pact is the troubling news that the able Palestinian prime minister who put the West Bank on the road to statehood is no longer welcome in office:

The deal brings with it the risk of alienating the Western support that the Palestinian Authority has enjoyed. Azzam al-Ahmad, the Fatah negotiator, said that Salam Fayyad, the prime minister in the West Bank who is despised by Hamas, would not be part of the interim government. It is partly because of Mr. Fayyad, and the trust he inspires in Washington, that hundreds of millions of dollars are provided annually to the Palestinian Authority by Congress. Without that aid, the Palestinian Authority would face great difficulties.

The announcement was sure to fuel a debate on whether Mr. Netanyahu had done enough in his two years in power to forge a deal with the Palestinian Authority led by President Mahmoud Abbas and Mr. Fayyad, widely considered the most moderate leaders the Palestinians have ever had.

Petit Fors And Againsts

I'm grateful for historian Jeremy Young's comments on my recent Rick Perlstein post. Young wrote here and here (at "Daily Kos," no less!). Perlstein's shown at left, Young at right. Young writes:

The strawman here is Perlstein's imagined claim that Nixon was responsible for the political polarization of the late 1960s and after, down to our own time. If this were actually Perlstein's argument, his book would be pure partisan hackery, not to mention boring and unoriginal. Plenty of people have blamed plenty of things on Nixon; nothing new in that.

Where Perlstein scores, and scores big, is in accepting that many of Nixon's basic assumptions about politics (at least those not rooted in paranoia) were accurate. There really was a silent majority; there really was a widespread belief among middle-class whites and white ethnics that elite liberalism and civil rights were succeeding on the backs of their own suffering. This sentiment led to class and racial warfare and left white middle-class Americans ready to drop liberal causes in exchange for security and the maintenance of the status quo. It also made them racist, in the way that petit-bourgeois people often become racist in times of economic strain: in a desperate desire to maintain their status above the people and races in the class below them.

I replied:

Thanks for your post and for linking to mine. It’s been a couple of years since I read Nixonland. I read it on Kindle, and I believe the author actually got the news from me that it had been Kindled. I mention this only because all my underlining is somewhere on Amazon’s server and therefore a little too difficult to get at. So my comments are impressionistic rather than specific, and I apologize in advance if I’ve forgotten something from Rick’s massive and entertaining narrative.

All that being said, I readily concede your basic point. I get that it wasn’t a Nixon biography and that Rick was saying that Nixon was superbly prepared by his upbringing and temperament to understand and exploit the fears and resentments of those you refer to as petit-bourgeois people. I’ll even go so far as to say that a better title would’ve been “Americaland,” seeing as — according to your own analysis — Rick was arguing that Nixon was the incarnation of our country at its worst.

Making Nixon seem like the target was the smarter move, since otherwise it would’ve been obvious that Rick was actually excoriating the tens of millions of fear-motivated, sometimes racist petit-bourgeois people who voted for him. Of course one person’s petit-bourgeois is another person’s indispensable GOP primary voter. That being said, as I recall, Rick showed that Nixon was exceedingly careful about what he said about so-called wedge issues during 1966-68. He eschewed the cheerful demagoguery of Gov. Reagan, for instance.

And then there’s the matter of what he did in office. The southern strategy is one thing, but telling George Shultz to get schools in the deep south desegregated is another. The law and order issue is one thing, but setting up methadone clinics in the big cities is another. I don’t recall that Rick seemed very interested in Nixon’s policy agenda. But his breathtaking foreign policy, and what Nixon library director Tim Naftali recently called his progressive domestic initiatives (from the EPA to national health insurance), would seem to have deserved at least equal mention alongside his political tactics.

If Nixon the politician was a reflection of America at its worst, what might we say about Nixon’s substance? Given that the petit-bourgeois masses gave the author of that relatively progressive agenda an historic landslide re-election victory, don’t both Nixon and all those angry, fearful Americans, thanks to his leadership, look like something far greater than the sum of their resentments?

I don’t say this to minimize Watergate. But as I assume Rick would be among the first to concede, Watergate’s biggest winner was the Goldwater-Reagan right. Did Nixon’s failure make RINOs an endangered species? It appears so, and I think that’s a devastating loss. You write that we need drastic action to solve our problems, whereas I, a committed incrementalist, get the willies just typing the words. I’m with Stephen Ambrose: When we lost Nixon, we lost more than we gained.

My principal beef with Rick’s book, having to do with the Ellsberg break-in, is here.

Thanks again. I tried to leave this at Daily Kos, but it wouldn’t let me sign up!

Watergate And Floodgates

At the March 31 opening of the Nixon library's new Watergate exhibit, director and exhibit curator Tim Naftali, coming to the end of his months-long struggle against Nixon-Haldeman operatives, choked up for a moment while talking about his charming mother, Marjorie, and, well, a friend. A bit John Boehner-like, as Naftali smilingly notes; and might we also say Nixonian? In her comments, archives official Sharon Fawcett, with whom Kathy O'Connor and I worked for years to get the Nixon library into the federal system, appeared to overlook the first generation of archivists who worked on the Nixon White House materials.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Dragging Our Feet For Egypt's Women

In a study of the Obama administration's foreign policy (the perennial hoo-ha between realists and idealists), Ryan Lizza reveals one reason it resisted the temptation to encourage Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak's immediate ouster:
[T]he first major problem arose when State Department officials learned that if Mubarak stepped down immediately, the Egyptian constitution would require a Presidential election in sixty days, long before any of the moderate parties could get organized. Egyptian officials warned the Administration that it could lead to the Muslim Brotherhood’s taking over power. “My daughter gets to go out at night,” Ahmed Aboul Gheit, Egypt’s then foreign minister, told Secretary Clinton during one conversation. “And, God damn it, I’m not going to turn this country over to people who will turn back the clock on her rights.”

Let's Talk Again When There're Arab Democracies

At "The National Interest," Paul Pillar describes why the Arab revolution is bad news for Israel:
First, increased popular sovereignty in Arab states gives heightened attention to the lack of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli occupation. Second, continued (and even intensified) criticism of Israel from Arab states that are more responsive than before to popular sentiment belies the Israeli contention that animosity toward Israel is chiefly a device used by authoritarian rulers to distract attention from their own shortcomings. Third, the emergence of new Arab democracies in the Middle East will remove the single biggest rationale—that Israel is the only democracy in the region—for the extraordinary special relationship that Israel enjoys with the United States.

Confederacy of Donald's

Donald Trump gave $25,000 to repair Jefferson Davis's retirement estate.

"Flint Hill Special," Sleepy Man Banjo Boys

The Mizzone brothers: Jonny, 8, on banjo; Robbie, 12, fiddle; and Tommy, 13, guitar. Song by Earl Scruggs. Read more about the New Jersey-based trio here.
Hat tip to Boom Baker

Big Trumple Brewing

Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, correctly if somewhat ominously identifies the destructive potential of the birther issue, newly emergent because of the indestructible ego of Donald Trump.

Brainwashed, Jr.

Mitt Romney, whose father, George, flunked out of presidential politics when he said he'd been brainwashed over Vietnam, files an op-ed with a reference to our "peacetime" economy.

Moderately Overlooked

As historians such as Rick Perlstein and Sam Tanenhaus mull the rightward progression of the GOP and conservatism from the age of Nixon to the age of Beck and Hannity, historian Maarja Krusten starts with her mother, a Nixon fan right through Watergate's bitter end, especially because of his foreign policy. Today, she doesn't watch Fox News, and she reasons that you can't balance the budget without more revenue. Her daughter concludes:
Nixon was a moderate and a pragmatist. He was not a conservative. Nor were all his supporters. Did some Nixon voters later vote for Reagan and become Fox News fans? Absolutely. Yet there also were people such as my Mom. There’s a lot in the mix. As with all issues Nixonian, working through the motives and objectives requires discernment.
Among other things, one discerns that moderates are dissed, devalued, and demoted. We don't have a cable station. Few if any Republicans would dare utter the word "moderate" without swearing or spitting. At first blush, we indeed appear to be a dwindling tribe. According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans identifying themselves as moderates has fallen from 43% to 35% since 1992. During the same period, self-identified conservatives increased from 36% to 40%, while the liberals edged up from 17% to 21%. That means we've lost 4% each on both ends of the spectrum, a symptom, Gallup says, of our increasingly polarized politics.

But those numbers, while great news for Fox News' and MSNBC's ratings, aren't so great for the GOP's general election chances in 2012. Conservatives are prone to saying that moderates are really liberals. Spend three minutes on FreeRepublic, and you'll get the picture. Stipulating their point for the purposes of argument, that makes the U.S. electorate 56% (liberals plus moderates) to 40% conservatives. Nixon's oft-quoted dictum was that Republican candidates always had to scurry to the center to contend in general elections. This year, primary-season contenders will have had to spend so much time in birtherland and Obama-ignored-Easterland that reclaiming a sufficient share of the center back from the president may be impossible.

Foxes Have Dens (But No Dems)

Barack Obama preached the gospel at a Holy Week White House breakfast for ministers:
I wanted to host this breakfast for a simple reason -- because as busy as we are, as many tasks as pile up, during this season, we are reminded that there's something about the resurrection -- something about the resurrection of our savior, Jesus Christ, that puts everything else in perspective.

We all live in the hustle and bustle of our work... But then comes Holy Week. The triumph of Palm Sunday. The humility of Jesus washing the disciples' feet. His slow march up that hill, and the pain and the scorn and the shame of the cross. And we're reminded that in that moment, he took on the sins of the world -- past, present and future -- and he extended to us that unfathomable gift of grace and salvation through his death and resurrection.

In the words of the book of Isaiah: "But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

This magnificent grace, this expansive grace, this "Amazing Grace" calls me to reflect. And it calls me to pray. It calls me to ask God for forgiveness for the times that I've not shown grace to others, those times that I've fallen short. It calls me to praise God for the gift of our son -- his Son and our Savior.

Meanwhile Fox News published this misleading, provocative headline, with an ugly picture of the president: "WH Fails to Release Easter Proclamation." The same was true under Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and both Presidents Bush.

Monday, April 25, 2011


In Nixonland, historian Rick Perlstein (left) argued that Richard Nixon's class resentments inspired him to bait the privileged elites he hated (plus win a whole bunch of elections) using wedge issues such as anti-communism, race, and law and order, igniting the hyper-partisanship that roil our politics today.

That was and remains hard for Nixonites to swallow, since today's mainstream conservatives are far to Nixon's right. Sam Tanenhaus (below), another leading authority on Cold War-era politics, has argued that the culture wars' Fort Sumter moment was actually the far right's outrage over Nixon's moderate to liberal foreign and domestic policy agenda. If that's true, and if you're a liberal or moderate, then you have to end up admiring Nixon, at least grudgingly, for battling his way to the top of a party that had nominated an extremist such as Barry Goldwater (another Perlstein subject) four years before and then proceed to go to China and create the EPA. Maybe Nixon was just acting smart instead of acting out.

Perlstein's now researching the last volume of his political triduum, on Ronald Reagan. I had assumed (well, hoped) that as a political progressive, Perlstein would at least be tempted by the idea that the U.S. had lost more than it gained when Nixon was ousted, as another Nixon biographer, the late Stephen Ambrose, wrote in his own third volume. The Reagans, Goldwaters, and Buckleys always knew Nixon wasn't one of them. If the right had fought harder for Nixon in 1973-74, might he even have been able to hold on? Did any key conservatives come to the conclusion in the depths of Watergate that you could discredit liberal Republicanism by letting Nixon go down the tubes?

If there's anything to Ta
nenhaus's theory, it will take Perlstein a considerable amount of intellectual engineering to get from Nixonland to Reaganland without leaving the impression that he scapegoated Nixon for the sins of the Reagan-Goldwater wing of the party by blaming him and not it for today's political rancorousness.

Aptly rendering Reagan, and especially his latter day, right-of-Reagan acolytes, without redeeming Nixon -- that would need to be Perlstein's secret plan.

One approach is just to say that Nixon's failures de-legitimized his substance, leaving a vacuum for GOP extremists to fill. Perlstein would be onto something there. Deep down, Nixon himself thought Watergate was worse than most of his critics did. They thought he was guilty of hurting the presidency. He believed he helped contribute to the deaths of millions in Cambodia and Vietnam as U.S. resolve to continue to support anti-communist regimes crumbled amid the distractions of Watergate. If Perlstein plays his cards right, he can blame Nixon for Reagan and Pol Pot both.

There's a hint of Perlstein's approach to his Reagan book in his new "Mother Jones" article about lying and politics. He doesn't say lying started with Nixon. How could he after devoting so much attention to the Pentagon Papers, which embodied the vast, fateful mendacity of two Democratic administrations? And yet he writes:

[A] virulent strain of political utilitarianism was already well apparent by the time the Plumbers were breaking into the Democratic National Committee: "Although I was aware they were illegal," White House staffer Jeb Stuart Magruder told the Watergate investigating committee, "we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a legitimate cause."

Even conservatives who were not allied with the White House had learned to think like Watergate conspirators. To them, the takeaway from the scandal was that Nixon had been willing to bend the rules for the cause. The New Right pioneer M. Stanton Evans once told me, "I didn't like Nixon until Watergate."

Though many in the New Right proclaimed their contempt for Richard Nixon, a number of its key operatives and spokesmen in fact came directly from the Watergate milieu. Two minor Watergate figures, bagman Kenneth Rietz (who ran Fred Thompson's 2008 presidential campaign) and saboteur Roger Stone (last seen promoting a gubernatorial bid by the woman who claimed to have been Eliot Spitzer's madam) were rehabilitated into politics through staff positions in Ronald Reagan's 1976 presidential campaign. G. Gordon Liddy became a right-wing radio superstar.

So Nixonland ethics and personnel were mainlined into the Reagan GOP -- and that's not to mention the worst Rogering of America, as Perlstein sees it. That began with Nixon, too, specifically his corrupt first vice president, Spiro Agnew, who excoriated the networks for their criticism of the administration:

There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged "balance" over truth-telling—even when one side was lying. It's a real and profound change—one stunningly obvious when you review a 1973 PBS news panel hosted by Bill Moyers and featuring National Review editor George Will, both excoriating the administration's "Watergate morality." Such a panel today on, say, global warming would not be complete without a complement of conservatives, one of them probably George Will, lambasting the "liberal" contention that scientific facts are facts—and anyone daring to call them out for lying would be instantly censured. It's happened to me more than once—on public radio, no less.

In the same vein, when the Obama administration accused Fox News of not being a legitimate news source, the DC journalism elite rushed to admonish the White House. Granted, they were partly defending Major Garrett, the network's since-departed White House correspondent and a solid journalist—but in the process, few acknowledged that under Roger Ailes, another Nixon veteran, management has enforced an ideological line top to bottom.

Lying (more than ever before, "every day," worse than the Maine, worse than the Pentagon Papers!), continuing Watergate-style opportunism, media balance instead of "truth telling," partisan politicking disguised as cable news -- all laid at the feet of Nixon and his men, all because he didn't get into that snobby club back at Whittier College.

I Am Stardust, I Am Golden, But You Suck

New York Times:
[A]fter a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs...psychologists report finding what they were looking for: a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. As they hypothesized, the words “I” and “me” appear more frequently along with anger-related words, while there’s been a corresponding decline in “we” and “us” and the expression of positive emotions.

Bill And Ted's Midlife Crisis

Even closer to Death this time.

Our Heaven, God's Heaven, And Hell

Ross Douthat is worried that while Americans' belief in God and heaven is strong, our fear of hell is waning:

As Anthony Esolen writes, in the introduction to his translation of Dante’s “Inferno,” the idea of hell is crucial to Western humanism. It’s a way of asserting that “things have meaning” — that earthly life is more than just a series of unimportant events, and that “the use of one man’s free will, at one moment, can mean life or death ... salvation or damnation.”

If there’s a modern-day analogue to the “Inferno,” a work of art that illustrates the humanist case for hell, it’s David Chase’s “The Sopranos.” The HBO hit is a portrait of damnation freely chosen: Chase made audiences love Tony Soprano, and then made us watch as the mob boss traveled so deep into iniquity — refusing every opportunity to turn back — that it was hard to imagine him ever coming out. “The Sopranos” never suggested that Tony was beyond forgiveness. But, by the end, it suggested that he was beyond ever genuinely asking for it.

Is Gandhi in hell? It’s a question that should puncture religious chauvinism and unsettle fundamentalists of every stripe. But there’s a question that should be asked in turn: Is Tony Soprano really in heaven?
Douthat blames our hellessiousness on two factors. The first is our big-hearted pluralism, or what I call the interfaith dilemma: How dare Christians (or Muslims) say that faithful adherents of other faiths will be consigned to perdition just because they were born and raised in the wrong cultural and religious milieu? What disturbs him far more is pastors' and theologians' falling back on the notion of an infinitely benevolent God as they try to explain why bad things continually happen to good people:
[I]f it’s hard for the modern mind to understand why a good God would allow such misery on a temporal scale, imagining one who allows eternal suffering seems not only offensive but absurd.
Douthat worries that insisting that God redeems and saves everyone devalues human life by reducing the significance of human choices. Put another way, why waste all that effort being good if you'll get into heaven anywho? St. Paul grappled with the same dilemma in Romans 6:1:
Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? [NRSV]
On the contrary. Being joined to Christ in baptism, Paul continues, enables grace to lead us from sin to righteousness. Putting it in interfaith terms, the closer the spiritual searcher hews to the mind and heart of God, the more likely she is to please God. She won't be able to help it. Christians understand that the Incarnation gives them a leg up on proximity to the divine. When we seek to imitate God, we have the advantage of a teacher and savior who uses our language, argues through everyday analogies (as in the parables), and even suffers and weeps as we do.

When closeness to God becomes a habit, a way of being, we understand that we're experiencing a foretaste of heaven. Hell would be the opposite, the ultimate isolation from God, a loneliness so terrible that the sufferer might prefer the distraction of demons with pitchforks. Someone to talk to, at least. So I don't share Douthat's concerns about the church's underemphasis of the underworld. Actually, I'm surprised that anyone who believes in God's omnipotence worries very much about the church. It's up to God to figure out how to draw his creatures closer to him, and God evidently believes that our hunger for relationship with him and one another is ultimately more compelling than fear of fiery perdition. Maybe it's because, at least in the west, we're living in societies where family and social relationships people once took for granted are fraying and even disappearing. If you want to see what hell looks like, visit a nursing home where someone's mother spends 20 hours a day lying in bed, rarely if ever visited by someone she loves.

Lurking behind the theological consensus that hell as humans usually portray it isn't logical is a third factor Douthat doesn't mention, namely the sovereignty of God. How could any soul, no matter how blighted, lie outside the saving power of a creator who repeatedly promises to lose or give up none that he has made? I've had conversations with evangelically inclined friends who say that, if it were up to them, gays could marry and Jews could be saved, but the Bible insists otherwise. But by their very nature, God's creatures can't be more compassionate than God.

This Easter Monday, I proclaim my faith in the saving power of the risen Christ and yet find that I am humble enough to accept that God's imagination mightily transcends mine and even that embodied by the church's doctrines. Douthat argues that evil people should have the right to make their choices in the world and receive the corresponding recompense in the hereafter. If I were running the universe, that's probably the rate card I'd come up with, too. There are people, the all-too-numerous real Tony Sopranos of the world included, that I would never let into my heaven. But you spotted what was wrong with that sentence right away.

"Hallelujah," From Messiah

High school student as silent monks. Watch the little guy on the far right.
Hat tip to Daphne Layland

Why Libya But Not Syria?

In Syria, we'd probably lose.

"Get in Line," Ron Sexsmith

NPR is a showcase for great new music. Its music app is the best thing you can get for your iPhone. Just this morning it introduced me to Canadian songwriter Ron Sexsmith's new album, "Long Player Late Bloomer," whose first song, above, will go down as one of the great codependency anthems, and God knows we need more of those. I also learned about two choir members from Brooklyn who started a band called the Sweetback Sisters. Their smoking 2009 album is "Chicken Ain't Chicken."

Even Better Than A See's Chocolate Bunny

Since I started blogging again in August, 80,000 page views as of 9:07 a.m. on the Monday in Easter week. Thanks, readers!

The Sheer Logic Of Agnosticism

A moving appeal by novelist Martin Amis to his ailing friend, polemicist Christopher Hitchens:

My dear Hitch: there has been much wild talk, among the believers, about your impending embrace of the sacred and the supernatural. This is of course insane. But I still hope to convert you, by sheer force of zealotry, to my own persuasion: agnosticism. In your seminal book, God Is Not Great, you put very little distance between the agnostic and the atheist; and what divides you and me (to quote Nabokov yet again) is a rut that any frog could straddle. "The measure of an education," you write elsewhere, "is that you acquire some idea of the extent of your ignorance." And that's all that "agnosticism" really means: it is an acknowledgment of ignorance. Such a fractional shift (and I know you won't make it) would seem to me consonant with your character – with your acceptance of inconsistencies and contradictions, with your intellectual romanticism, and with your love of life, which I have come to regard as superior to my own.

The atheistic position merits an adjective that no one would dream of applying to you: it is lenten. And agnosticism, I respectfully suggest, is a slightly more logical and decorous response to our situation – to the indecipherable grandeur of what is now being (hesitantly) called the multiverse. The science of cosmology is an awesome construct, while remaining embarrassingly incomplete and approximate; and over the last 30 years it has garnered little but a series of humiliations. So when I hear a man declare himself to be an atheist, I sometimes think of the enterprising termite who, while continuing to go about his tasks, declares himself to be an individualist. It cannot be altogether frivolous or wishful to talk of a "higher intelligence" – because the cosmos is itself a higher intelligence, in the simple sense that we do not and cannot understand it.

Hat tip to Hugh Hewitt

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Love. Just Love.

Alex Knapp on the most subversive ideas in the Bible.

37 Felt Strongly About This

When Nixon stuck up for Deep Throat.

Redemption And Revenge

Historian Maarja Krusten reviews the recent Nixon wars.

The Great Post-Feast Of Easter

After Easter services, we go to brunch at El Adobe in San Juan Capistrano. Daughters Lindsay and Valerie are flanking Valerie's boyfriend, Mark. Below is Kathy's son, Dan, teaching a family friend, 20-month-old Eilee, how to play air mariachi guitar.

"The Rising," Springsteen & the E Street Band

An Easter hymn about Sept. 11. "May your precious blood bind me, Lord, as I stand before your fiery light." The St. John's folk circle will attempt the song at the May 7 women's brunch.
Hat tip to Paul Arndt (who will pay the guitar solo)