dotCommonweal

A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors

.

dotCommonweal Blog

What an Islam expert isn't

 

Most Catholics will remember the hysterical opposition to the so-called Ground Zero Mosque back in 2010. But what any may not realize is that one of the opposition’s principal organizers is considered by some influential Catholics to be the church’s chief expert on Islam.

Since the September 11 attacks, Robert Spencer has capitalized on the curiosity—and fear—that many Americans have about Muslims. While most of his sixteen books, including two New York Times bestsellers, attempt to convince all Americans that Islam is an inherently violent religion, Spencer has also authored books aimed at Catholics.

In 2003, he co-authored Inside Islam: A Guide for Catholics with a Muslim convert to Christianity, Daniel Ali, and in 2007 he wrote A Religion of Peace: Why Christianity is and Islam Isn’t. His newest book for Catholics, Not Peace But a Sword: The Great Chasm Between Christianity and Islam, was published earlier this year. In it, Spencer explicitly discourages dialogue and cooperation between Catholics and Muslims. The book’s cover features a curved sword, with the Arabic name of Muhammad inscribed on the blade, piercing a red cross. The first line of the introduction reads, “Can’t we all just get along? Maybe not. And if not, what then?”

He argues that Catholics and Muslims have virtually nothing in common, and falsely claims that Islam teaches that Christians should be persecuted. According to Spencer, Catholics put themselves in harm’s way by engaging in dialogue. Not only does this view place him in defiance of the Catholic Church’s teachings on dialogue and on Islam, it also reinforces the toxic belief that as Muslims as a group are a violent threat and should, at best, be avoided and, at worse, be opposed.

Read more

Conflict & the persistence of ‘credibility’ as justification

Oakley Hall’s 1958 novel Warlock is a western in the way The Godfather is a crime novel or The Road a piece of post-apocalyptic sci-fi, which is to say it belongs to its genre but also subverts it. The novel harnesses familiar ideas—in this case, violence, honor, and the limits of law—for fictional storytelling, while examining how they can influence, direct, and legitimize cultural, personal, and political activity in the real world.

It’s no Zane Grey, as Robert Stone—whose own work takes up questions of violence and political conflict—acknowledges in his introduction to the 2006 reissue of Warlock, which in its depiction of duels, massacres, vendettas, and assassinations reveals how deadly force so often springs from nothing more than a desire to project credibility. The characters in Warlock aren’t necessarily interested in killing one another; they’re worried what people will think if they don’t—whether it’s avenging this murder or that insult, or preemptively eliminating a perceived enemy, even when the lack of clear evidence would seem to demand restraint. Protecting one’s reputation proves a poor justification for violence, Hall makes clear in Warlock, even while (or by) acknowledging that his characters have no real choice but to act as if it’s the best one.

But that’s a novel, and Hall’s thematic intent precludes epiphanies of self-awareness and the throwing down of guns. Real-world actors operate under no such constraints, though, and so credibility would seem an even worse excuse in this realm, especially when it comes to war. Yet there were John McCain and Lindsey Graham on Monday using the word again, a couple of days after Barack Obama—sidling up to it himself because of his own unforced error with the rhetoric of red lines—brought Congress into the decision-making on Syria. (Tuesday, John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, John Boehner and Eric Cantor employed its go-to variation: inaction will “embolden other regimes.”

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Jonathan Mercer has twice made the case against using credibility as a cri de guerre—first in May, and then again last week to reflect developments since evidence of the use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians came to light.

Read more

Featured on the homepage

Three stories now featured on our home page.

George Scialabba writes on Leszek Kolakowski and the essays collected in Is God Happy?

[Kolakowski was not] solely or even primarily a political critic; he was a philosopher and a historian of philosophy. He wrote books on seventeenth-century philosophy, Bergson, Husserl, and positivism, among many others, including several on the philosophy of religion, such as The Presence of Myth, God Owes Us Nothing, Religion: If There Is No God…, and the middle section of Is God Happy?

The Enlightenment plays the same role in Kolakowski’s philosophical writings as Marxism does in his political writings. It’s where modernity went astray, where virtue took a wrong turn. Marxism distorted the quest for equality and social justice into utopian dogmatism; the Enlightenment distorted the promise of science and the rejection of superstition into relativistic rationalism. And just as Kolakowski’s positive political beliefs were hard to pin down (the closest he came was in an essay called “How To Be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist”), so were his positive religious beliefs. For a long time he styled himself an “inconsistent atheist,” but near the end of his life he resolved the inconsistency by returning to the Catholic Church.

Perhaps the philosophical equivalent of “conservative-liberal-socialist” is “skeptical traditionalist.” At any rate, that’s a good description of Kolakowski’s religious/philosophical stance until his (re-) conversion. He was not (at least in his writing) a God-haunted man so much as a scourge of secularism; not so much avid to penetrate the mysteries as keen to debunk their debunkers. He does not have much comfort for afflicted believers, but he rejoices in afflicting comfortable unbelievers.

Nicholas Clifford looks at the "historical amnesia" of Catholic leaders on religious liberty:

The greater question implicitly raised by [Archbishop William] Lori, but never answered, has to do with the Catholic Church’s recent conversion to a view of religious freedom as a “fundamental right.” When and why did it happen? Here, Lori’s historical account carries us back no farther than Dignitatis humanae forty-eight years ago. Again he’s perfectly accurate when he says that “successive popes have reaffirmed the church’s commitment to this principle,” and though he rather surprisingly ignores John XXIII’s role in planting seeds, he cites John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and now Francis I, in support of religious freedom. Yet isn’t this a bit like saying that ever since the Voting Rights Act—also of 1965—successive U.S. presidents have upheld the ideal of racial equality? Case closed, in short; and there’s no longer any need to delve into America’s murky past from 1789 to 1964, and to have to explain the difficult contradictions that crop up.

Or is there? And if, since 1965, “successive” popes have upheld religious freedom, what can we say about “predecessive” popes, those who earlier presided over the governance of the church and its teachings for almost two millennia? Should we simply ignore them?

Finally, E. J. Dionne Jr. writes about Chris Christie, his debate phobia, and how his pragmatic persona plays against his aims to burnish his conservative record (for more on that last part, see this piece about the governor's veto of a sniper-rifle ban that he proposed himself) . 

Mary Karr on prayer: "Just try it"

Fans of the poet and memoirist Mary Karr will want to read this lengthy interview in the Paris Review -- it's not new, but it's new to me (thanks, Twitter!). I reviewed Karr's third and most recent memoir, Lit, for Commonweal, and blogged about it here. In that book she recounts her struggles with addiction and recovery and her conversion to the Catholic faith. This interview is titled "The Art of Memoir," and Karr has many interesting things to say about that form (as well as about poetry), and about how she goes about writing -- something other writers always want to know. But even more interesting, to me, is what she has to say about how and why she prays -- and how prayer and writing are connected for her.

"I ask God what to write," Karr says. "I know that sounds insane, but I do. I say: What do you want me to say?.... I’ll get stuck and I’ll just say, Help me."

Karr goes into some detail about her personal prayer routine -- it's the kind of reading that makes me want to brush up my own prayer life. (She's also proudly vulgar, sometimes right in the middle of a sentence about prayer, so delicate sensibilities beware.) And she has a suggestion for anyone who doubts her sanity: "To skeptics I say, Just try it. Pray every day for thirty days. See if your life gets better. If it doesn’t, tell me I’m an asshole."

This is the part I like best; the part I identify with most:

KARR: Prayer lessens fear. It reduces self-consciousness, so I attend to the work and kind of forget myself. It’s strange, though—I know praying a steady hour a day would make me a happier human unit, but I don’t do it. Do you know why?

INTERVIEWER: No.

KARR: Me neither.

New issue is live

Our August 16 issue is now live. Among the highlights: Frank J. Matera on the future of Catholic biblical scholarship, Paul J. Schaefer on how funerals have changed, and Sarah Ruden on the concept of luxuria -- and how our selfishness threatens our compassion. Plus, Celia Wren reviews the new series Broadchurch, and George Scialaba reviews the essays of Lezek Kolakowski collected in Is God Happy? See the full table of contents for the new issue here.

Also now featured on our website: E.J. Dionne Jr. on the challenges that both progressives and conservatives face when it comes to religion.

Richard Scarry's Best Agenda-Driven Review Ever

Leave it to the Wall Street Journal to take the fun out of the busy world of Richard Scarry.

This weekend’s WSJ Books section features an essay by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the work of the children’s-book author and illustrator Richard Scarry, prompted by the fiftieth anniversary of Richard Scarry’s Best Word Book Ever (and a new anniversary edition of same). There are moments in the essay where Gurdon captures some of what makes Scarry’s work so charming and appealing all these years later. But for the most part, the world I know well from Scarry’s books – having studied them diligently as a child, and now again as a parent – is not recognizable from Gurdon’s culture-warrish, politicized perspective.

Read more

Season of the list

When temperatures climb and editorial energy wanes, up pop the reading lists. Sparing you the need to search for what others are compiling/recommending/typing into their smartphones as they get the grill going, here’s a brief rundown of some of the reading lists now making the rounds.

The Millions asks nine “experts” to identify which books might qualify as “the Great American Novel.” In addition to the predictable (Adventures of Huckleberry Finn), the inevitable (The Ambassadors), the clearly estimable (Invisible Man), and the obligatory obscurity (Corregidora?), Mario Puzo’s The Godfather also makes the cut. Nominator Tom Ferraro notes that it’s the most read adult novel in history, but more importantly that it remains as relevant as when it first appeared:

The Godfather reads as well now as then. Its fantasy of perfect succession, the son accomplishing on behalf of the father what the father could not bear to do, is timeless. And Puzo’s ability to express love and irony simultaneously is masterful: the mafia is our greatest romance and our greatest fear, for it suspends our ethical judgments and binds us to its lust for power and vengeance. Of course, our immigrant entrepreneurs, violent of family if not of purpose, keep coming.

It’s been up for a couple of weeks now, but the list of ten worst American prize-winning novels of all time assembled by D.G. Myers probably won’t wilt for a while. The good thing about this compilation is the background Myers provides on just why judging panels may have seen fit to reward works like Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Pulitzer, 2010), Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song (Pulitzer, 1980), and Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain (National Book Award, 1997). Plus there’s this about William Gaddis’s A Frolic of His Own (National Book Award, 1997):

Once again the novelist declines to punctuate speech or identify speakers, which might be effective in a story or short novel (although I am still trying to figure out the artistic purpose of making things hard for the reader), but is wearying in such a long novel. Supposedly a satire on the law, the novel also includes tortuously reasoned legal decisions, in full tortuous detail, which are longer than most Supreme Court decisions, including the dissents. A Frolic of His Own is a great unmovable monument to tedium. What a thing to be remembered for!

At the New York Times Room for Debate page, nine novelists reveal what they like to read in the summer—Sandra Cisneros opts for biography and memoir, Nathaniel Rich for noir—but Colum McCann cops to “year-round snobbery”:

In relation to reading, I have absolutely no guilty pleasures at all. No graphic novels. No murder mysteries. No "milky-white thigh" stories. No fifty shades of anything….

So, my guilty pleasures are my original pleasures. I read Ulysses, or at least a part of it, every summer for Bloomsday. It's hardly a beach read, and I understand that Molly Bloom might not be very content with me, as a reader, carting sand into her bed, but that's life. The great thing is that she has no say about it. Sorry, Molly, but you are in with the suntan lotion.

Yes, but would McCann be willing to go tome-to-tome with R. R. Reno? At First Things, Reno claims a fondness for both gin and Beowulf even if, disappointingly, he doesn’t detail how one may have led to engagement with, or necessitated use of, the other. (Maybe nothing says summer to Reno like “Nowell Codex,” but Woody Allen had it about right when he said, and I paraphrase, never take a trip where you have to read Beowulf.) Reno also includes Spenser’s The Faerie Queene in his beach tote (no room for Pope’s Essay on Criticism apparently) plus some of Henry James’s later, denser novels and, of course, Piers Plowman. But you probably could have guessed that.

Pass the Hendricks, please!

Morning reads: Bulger, Spitzer, Bishops on VRA

Somewhat overshadowed by events was the release of a statement from the USCCB on the Supreme Court decision overturning Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act. Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, California, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, and Bishop Daniel Flores of Brownsville, Texas, chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Cultural Diversity, said:

The recent Supreme Court decision necessitates that Congress act swiftly to assure that the right to vote be protected and afforded to all eligible citizens. We urge policymakers to quickly come together to reaffirm the bipartisan consensus that has long supported the Voting Rights Act and to move forward new legislation that assures modern and effective protections for all voters so that they may exercise their right and moral obligation to participate in political life.

Meanwhile, the Catholic Health Association says today that the current combination of exemptions and accommodations within the HHS’s contraception mandate are sufficient.

Campaign-ish notes: Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor of Texas (I didn’t know either), won’t run for that office again, but is reflecting and, yes, praying, about his plans for the future. 

Read more

Quiet novel goes global

The John Williams novel Stoner is (back?) in the news, now that it’s a best-seller in the Netherlands, France, and elsewhere. How this “overlooked work” about a Midwestern professor of literature, published in 1965, has managed to gain generations of new fans and now a global audience is the topic of a recent essay in The Millions. It notes the importance not only of critical advocacy but also of devoted and innovative publishers—and in chronicling the cycles of its disappearance and re-emergence suggests the book maybe hasn’t been overlooked so much as it has, from an industry standpoint, underachieved.

Writers seem especially to like Stoner, but so do (I suspect) certain types of readers, the kind who relish “restraint and clarity” (qualities that Anthony Domestico rightly cited when writing on our Verdicts blog last September) and who like to let ordinary but expertly dispensed details accrue force and meaning. Then there’s the title character himself, about whom Morris Dickstein in 2007 wrote

[Stoner] is neither a great teacher nor a noted scholar but applies himself to both with an intensity born of love. In literature he senses a depth of human understanding beyond his power to express, “an epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words.” Williams writes about this with an almost Roman gravity. “It was a knowledge of which he could not speak, but one which changed him, once he had it, so that no one could mistake its presence.”  … The one book Stoner produces is soon forgotten. His distrust of glib brilliance, his concern with ancient theories of grammar and rhetoric, make him look pedantic. Stoner’s cast of mind is monastic, unworldly. He is reduced to teaching menial courses to students who only dimly sense the warmth and conviction he brings to them.

Stoner “demonstrates that the real drama of human experience is in the daily refusal to escape, the uninterrupted renunciation of extreme situations, the muted decision to stay and do some good,” D.G. Myers wrote in Commentary a couple of years ago. The distrust of glib brilliance, the monastic cast of mind, the muted decision to stay and do some good—maybe these are the things that each new wave of Stoner readers finds so compelling. I find it interesting that Myers, in recently making the case that the 1960s may have been the best decade for American fiction, took up Stoner again, positioning the novel alongside, among others, O’Connor’s The Violent Bear it Away, Percy’s The Moviegoer—and J.F. Powers’s Morte D’Urban: “[B]oth it and Stoner  … are one of a kind. Nothing else like them—not even their authors’ later books—was ever written again.” 

While The Millions essay necessarily spends time on the practical aspects of bringing Stoner to new audiences (its current publisher has eschewed the word “classic” and uses social media to accomplish what it otherwise might were the author alive to help sell the novel), it at least acknowledges that “tweeting does not make a best seller.… This quiet book has instilled something” in its supporters on the business end—like it has in every reader who’s gone on to recommend it to someone else over the past forty-eight years.

Defending the Humanities

When politicians claim that there is an education crisis, they generally mean that there is a science, technology, engineering, and math crisis. If we want to remain competitive in a global economy, we're told, we need more chemists and biologists, more doctors and engineers, more inventors and innovators.

But what of the humanities? Who is coming to their defense? Who is arguing that life isn't just about inventing the next smart phone but about understanding the self, that philosophical introspection, aesthetic contemplation, and historical examination are goods that can't simply be replaced by a faster computer?

Leon Wieseltier is, for one. Here is his full-throated defense of the humanities, given at Brandeis's commencement ceremonies last week. I've included his opening below:

Has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were cherished less, and has there ever been a moment in American life when the humanities were needed more? I am genuinely honored to be addressing you this morning, because in recent years I have come to regard a commitment to the humanities as nothing less than an act of intellectual defiance, of cultural dissidence.

A pleasure, but not a guilty one

On the cover of Rachel M. Brownstein's new book Why Jane Austen? is a photo of a Jane Austen Action Figure perched atop a row of books. You may have seen, may even have purchased or received, one of these figures -- part of a cheeky assortment of novelty gifts for nerds. The figurine has jointed arms to permit the only action for which Jane Austen is known: the doll can write.

How did Jane Austen, the early-nineteenth-century novelist who died at forty-one, become Jane Austen, the pop-culture phenomenon? Why does she attract such a clubby following, despite her relatively hidden and uneventful personal life? Why have her lapidary novels inspired so many vulgarizations? Whence all the sequels and imitations? Why are there so many more film versions of Pride and Prejudice alone than a culture could ever want or need?

Brownstein's book reads like a collection of notes from a long acquaintance with the novelist: reflections on Austen's writing, on others writing about Austen, on Brownstein's experiences teaching Austen, and on the many facets of Jane-o-mania. She investigates the surge in Austen's pop-culture presence beginning in the 1990s, from Clueless to Bridget Joness Diary to the BBC's much adored (and exhaustive) Pride and Prejudice. Brownstein meets with Janeites at pilgrimage sites and ponders their fantasy of a personal connection with the author. But she also insists on evaluating Austen as a writer, an artist, not a woman-who-wrote or a biographical puzzle to be solved. If the question in the title is interpreted as Why bother reading Jane Austen?, Brownstein has a simple answer: "The claim I make about Jane Austen here is that she is a great writer, delightful to read."

This fact -- which Brownstein reiterates later as the obvious, if forgotten, truth that Jane Austen is a serious writer -- can get lost in all the popular fuss and fondness that Austen provokes. Can Austen be great when she is so easy to like? There is also a longstanding tendency to dismiss Austen's work as good for a woman, or to write off her novels as fine but inconsequential because they deal so narrowly with domestic concerns. What I most valued about Brownstein's book is her analysis of Austen's skill as a writer. At different points she calls attention to Austen's careful diction and disciplined style; her manipulation of the reader via the shifting perspective of the narrator; her attention to character in both the dramatic and the moral senses of the word. "Austen is most useful today," she argues, "as an example of linguistic precision."

Brownstein is shrewdly critical of the ways textual analysis can slide into biographical reading. For instance, she cites differing theories about why Austen deleted a particular phrase from the second edition of Sense and Sensibility, theories that rest on judgments about Austen's personality and propriety. But if one looks just at the text, there is a simple, more plausible explanation for the deletion: it eliminated a redundancy and strengthened the overall work. She revised to improve the text, in other words. What does it say about the way we read Austen, or any writer -- especially any woman writer -- that we strain for insights while disregarding the possibility that the author was primarily motivated by craft? "The unique specificity of [Austen's] genius is what the novels most importantly convey," Brownstein observes, "and ignoring that to look for other truths about Austen or her times is to read through or around or past the novels, when it might be better and more rewarding to simply read them as they are."

The book is a bit scattered, and sometimes repetitive -- I grew tired of the recurring references to Byron (though my lack of familiarity with or interest in his work is my own fault). But it is full of fascinating observations about the novels and insights into Austen's craft as a writer. And it helps that Brownstein -- a sometime Commonweal contributor -- is herself delightful to read. Her writing is fluid and full of delicate wordplay, as when she describes a memorial tribute Austen wrote as "an awkward, guilt-edged poem." Not many can write about writing with so much lightness and style.

As for the frenzy that surrounds Austen, Brownstein is sympathetic, to an extent: she knows that there is fun to be had in sharing the same imaginary world. But her verdict is ultimately (and, for me, gratifyingly) sharp: "Jane-o-mania, in its wrongheadedness and banality, reveals our own inadequacies: stupidity and ignorance, arrogance and greed, the qualities Jane Austen mocked." This book is among other things a helpful corrective to the popular image of Austen as a soft-edged, sweet-hearted, romantic lady novelist. She was a gimlet-eyed judge of character, and not overly inclined to compassion for her less-than-upstanding characters. That is part of what makes her so much fun to read. "Her thrilling absolute judgments of characters she disapproves of give the reader the same kind of satisfaction: some people are a pleasure to know and loathe."

I can't imagine how anyone walks away from Pride and Prejudice (for example) with the sense that Jane would have been a great friend if only they had met. Some Janeites do seem to harbor that conviction. I only know that I am very glad my own character never had to withstand Jane Austen's scrutiny.

It probably goes without saying that this book will be most interesting to those who have read some or all of Austen's novels, and recently at that. It will also likely inspire you to pick them up again, with a new eye for the linguistic precision and artistry that Brownstein teases into view. You might want to start your reading or rereading with Emma, which, Brownstein notes provocatively, is most interesting to a reader who's read it before.

I have, but only once, and years ago. In fact, I realized as I was making my way through this book, the last time I read anything by Austen was when I was working on this review of Karen Joy Fowler's The Jane Austen Book Club (and this accompanying sidebar -- my own encounter with Jane-o-mania). So, when I needed a book to keep me company during a long doctor's visit, I brought along Pride and Prejudice. I've been working steadily through it ever since -- now I'm reading the last chapters out loud to my son while he nurses, to entertain us both. (If he's confused about what he missed before he was born, he hasn't complained. Perhaps he simply knows he'll get more out of it the second time through.) This is at least my third time reading the book, but aside from the very broad outline (Elizabeth and Darcy start out mutually disliking each other, and -- spoiler alert -- end up in love), I am finding it as fresh as if I'd never read it before. The sharp character sketches, the precise vocabulary, the elusive narrator, and the densely layered plotting are all keeping me engrossed. It seems that even I may have fallen victim to the tendency to underestimate Austen's greatness due to her great capacity to give pleasure. I'm glad Brownstein's book gave me the motivation I needed to meet Jane Austen all over again.