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Newsweek as Commonweal?

I'd call such a comparisona compliment to the Newsweek folk. Over at TNR, Leon Wieseltier does not intend the same in this week's Washington Diarist. Though Wieseltier'sorotund style makes it hard to know what he intends. But by the end of the column, I think his heart is in the right place, even if his tongue is (k)not. Here is the top:

The problem with The New Yorker's Obama bin Laden cover was owed to a certain confusion about the moral status of wit. The image was the creation of people for whom there is almost nothing more mortifying than not being in on the joke. That is the bridge and tunnel of the soul. So it is worth interjecting that the duty to get a joke is always followed by the duty to judge a joke. More, it is possible to get a joke and to hate it. I make such jokes often: I wish to be funny because I wish to offend. The New Yorker wishes to be funny but it does not wish to offend. No, that's not fair. It is prepared to offend Dick Cheney. But now its urbanity has backfired and it has offended Barack Obama, than which there is no greater blasphemy. (The really fine transgression took place in Ryan Lizza's disenchanted study of Obama's cunning, which was smothered by the too-cool-for-school cover.) There was some amusement to be had in the magazine's appeal in its defense to its politics, as if progressivism is proof against insularity, and not itself an insulation. Still, my brothers and sisters at The New Yorker were not guilty of the week's worst. Didn't anybody see Newsweek's cover? It consisted in a close-up of Obama praying, or in an attitude of prayer--his head on his clasped hands, his eyes closed, his brow gently furrowed by faith--a head shot by Memling. "What He Believes," intoned the caption above his holy ear. This devotional portrait marked another stage in the transformation of Newsweek into Commonweal, though in this instance religious credulity was accompanied by political credulity. Why is the religiosity of Barack Obama less deserving of liberal distaste than the religiosity of George W. Bush? I mean, Jesus is Jesus. And in an open society, which places an extraordinary intellectual burden upon ordinary men and women, and cannot fulfill its democratic purpose without the ceaseless encouragement of habits of critical thought in its citizens, surely blasphemy is better than idolatry.

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Despite his reflexive anti-Catholicism and his periodic bouts of spitefulness, I have great respect for Leon Wieseltier. I think he's a brilliant editor and a brilliant writer, with one of the most distinctive voices in American journalism -- a bass note in a din of tinny chatter. As another famous journalist once described him, he's half Oscar Wilde, half Maimonides.But it seems to me he's as wrong about the Newsweek cover as he is right about the New Yorker cover. First of all, idolatry is not the opposite of blasphemy but a form of it. Second, what's so idolatrous about a magazine showing a man in an attitude of prayer -- or asking what he believes? I understand that on most days Wieseltier probably thinks all piety is really idolatry. But does he really believe that every recognition of piety is idolatrous? Why?Finally, I'd say his comparison of Newsweek to Commonweal is a compliment to both, even if it's an unintended compliment. As Time continues to turn itself into the iPod of print journalism, Newsweek has become more and more substantial. And, yes, its attention to religious matters is actually a sign of its growing seriousness.(By the way, the second half of this same column, about the effect of soaring fuel prices on the poor and elderly, is Wieseltier at his best: "There are many Republicans for whom the advocates of low-income assistance are sentimentalists who fail to grasp that a society is not built on its losers. But it is not the losers--a disgraceful way to describe the helpless, but they are used to it--who stand in the way of rationality and decency in our energy policy. It is the winners--the oil companies and the car companies, full stop; and in the dissipation of the Bush government they enjoy high-income assistance.")

Thanks for replying, Matt. I would have, but I was busy trying to remember the Luminous Mysteries.

Does this mean that Richard Alleva of Commonweal and David Ansen of Newsweek will be pairing up to replace Ebert & Roeper?That's two big thumbs up for me!

I couldn't have said it better, Matt. Really. I couldn't!

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About the Author

David Gibson is a national reporter for Religion News Service and author of The Coming Catholic Church (HarperOne) and The Rule of Benedict (HarperOne). He blogs at dotCommonweal.