Saturday, December 3, 2016

Comics: A Great American Institution


I love comics. My newspaper, the Financial Times, is in other respects an admirable publication but, sadly, has no comics. From time to time my parents are kind enough to send me some they've saved.

I don't merely think comics are enjoyable - though they are. Rather, I think they're a great American institution, a cornerstone of the republic, even.

First, there is the shared experience. I associate reading the comics with eating breakfast, often with my father. The comics section is passed around, favorite strips are discussed. But even apart from the physical aspect, even if comics are read electronically, people can discuss their favorite characters and watch their adventures over the years.  And comics frequently comment on our shared experiences, from grocery shopping and office life, to dating and politics.

Second, there is the intellectual exercise. Comics may seem simple, but humor is notoriously difficult to explain. It is usually based on an understanding of the way things work, an understanding shared by the joke teller and the audience, and then some deviation from that usual pattern in some quirky way.

Children, having only recently discovered the order of things, often most enjoy deviations from that order. A man absentmindedly reading his newspaper goes to pick up his coffee cup and, without looking, picks up the salt shaker and pours salt into his mouth. Hilarious.

We don't generally deconstruct every comic we read, but I'm convinced that reading the comics strengths our eye for patterns, particularly within social dynamics.

Third, comics provide perspective. Even in trying times - and when are the times not trying? - it is useful to remember that we can still laugh, that things aren't so bad that we can't carry on. Comics help remind us that the cosmos is ultimately comedic, not tragic. If you haven't read the Bible lately, forgive me for dropping a spoiler: the story ends with a wedding, not a funeral. Comics are a small foreshadowing of that joy.

The strip above is the Pearls before Swine, by Stephan Pastis, from 28 November.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

A Poem for Advent from G. K. Chesterton

A Child of the Snows

There is heard a hymn when the panes are dim,
And never before or again,
When the nights are strong with a darkness long,
And the dark is alive with rain.

Never we know but in sleet and in snow,
The place where the great fires are,
That the midst of the earth is a raging mirth
And the heart of the earth a star.

And at night we win to the ancient inn
Where the child in the frost is furled,
We follow the feet where all souls meet
At the inn at the end of the world.

The gods lie dead where the leaves lie red,
For the flame of the sun is flown,
The gods lie cold where the leaves lie gold,
And a Child comes forth alone.

Found on the website of the American Chesterton Society.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Christian Hope & the Upcoming Election

If there is one word that could characterize the prevailing mood among observant Christians in America in the weeks leading up to the election on Nov. 8, that word would be frantic. Some pundits scrutinize all the most recent polls, discerning the voice of God in the voice of the people. Others analyze the utterances of the candidates and their surrogates, seeking signs of what is to come. Still others preach their jeremiads, lamenting the sinful ways of all who disagree with them. No matter whom they support, or where they stand on particular issues, they are in continuous emotional turmoil, either worrying that Hillary Clinton will bring about the imminent demise of our fair "city upon a hill," or looking forward to the day when Donald Trump will inaugurate a new reign of peace and justice in America. Their emotions swing back and forth from the most exalted rejoicing to the deepest gloom.

But, why are Christians so frantic? Why do they seem to have so little inner peace?

Is it perhaps because they have not placed their hope in Jesus Christ? As Matthew Schmitz of First Things helpfully reminds us:

Despairing of anything other than salvation is not per se a sin. If anything, the fact that people so commonly label despair over a candidate or cause as sinful indicates that they have a weirdly spiritualized understanding of politics.

As today (in the traditional liturgical calendar) is the Feast of Christ the King, it is an opportune time to remind ourselves of what the Psalmist said: "Do not put your trust in princes, in men who have no power to save." Instead, we must accept St. Paul's teaching:

Give thanks to God the Father Who has made us worthy to share the lot of the saints in light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness, and transferred us into the kingdom of His beloved Son, in Whom we have our redemption through His blood, the remission of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature. For in Him were created all things in the heavens and on the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether Thrones, or Dominations, or Principalities, or Powers. All things have been created through and unto Him, and He is before all creatures, and in Him all things hold together. 

Once we have this proper perspective in mind, Cardinal Newman's advice on how to act in politics will make much more sense and we will be able to apply his words fruitfully to our lives:

We need not be angry nor use contentious words, and yet may firmly give our opinion, in proportion as we have the means of forming one, and be zealous towards God in all active good service, and scrupulously and pointedly aloof from the bad men whose evils arts we fear.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Happy Von Steuben Day!

Tomorrow is the birthday of Friedrich von Steuben, a German aristocrat and soldier who came to the infant United States to assist in the War of Independence.

Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben was born in Magdeburg, Prussia in 1730. Young Friedrich's father fought on behalf of the Tsarina of Russia, and therefore the son spent several years there.  He was later educated by Jesuits and served on his first campaign with his father at the age of 14.  He rose through the ranks of the Royal Prussian Army and became aide-de-camp (personal assistant) to King Friedrich the Great.  In 1771 von Steuben was made a baron.  Having suffered from debt, military politics, and unproven accusations of illicit relations for more than a decade, he came to America in 1777 to offer his services.

Von Steuben was named inspector general of the young Continental Army and brought a professional's eye to sanitation, record-keeping, procurement, and military drill.  Initially lacking command of the English language, he wrote his orders in French and had them translated.  He was attached to the headquarters of George Washington and Nathanel Greene and commanded a division in the Yorktown campaign.  After the war he oversaw the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati and became an elder of the German Reformed Church.

Although German-Americans are the largest ethnic group in the country, Von Steuben Day (observed on various days by locality) is less well known than such holidays as St. Patrick's Day, Marti Gras, and Cinco de Mayo.  Nevertheless, there are annual parades in his honor - and in honor of America's German-American heritage - in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia.  Numerous cities and counties have been named in his honor, including Steubenville, Ohio and, by extension, the Franciscan University of Steubenville.  He is also honored, alongside three other foreign volunteers, with a statue in Lafayette Square, just north of the White House.

Notably, the Steuben Society, an educational, fraternal, and patriotic organization of German-Americans, was created and named in his honor in 1919, in the aftermath of World War I and the anti-German sentiment it engendered.  This is not just a matter of history; my family's local church, part of the Evangelical denomination, was vandalized during the war for the simple reason that the inscription over the door was in German.  The creation of the Steuben Society is both a warning of the dangers of nativism and a reminder of America's diverse immigrant population from the country's earliest days.

Tomorrow, in honor of Friedrich von Steuben, our family will be flying our new German flag.

Today's image comes from the National War College, via Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

John Henry Newman on a Christian's Duty in Politics

Cardinal Newman provides, in the midst of a most turbulent election season in America, a pertinent reminder of how a Christian is to fulfill his duties in the temporal sphere:

A more difficult duty is that of passing judgment (as a Christian is often bound to do) on events of the day and public men. It becomes his duty, in proportion as he has station and influence in the community, in order that he may persuade others to think as he does. Above all, clergymen are bound to form and pronounce an opinion. It is sometimes said, in familiar language, that a clergyman should have nothing to do with politics. This is true, if it be meant that he should not aim at secular objects, should not side with a political party as such, should not be ambitious of popular applause, or the favour of great men, should not take pleasure and lose time in business of this world, should not be covetous. But if it means that he should not express an opinion and exert an influence one way rather than another, it is plainly unscriptural. Did not the Apostles, with all their reverence for the temporal power, whether Jewish or Roman, and all their separation from worldly ambition, did they not still denounce their rulers as wicked men, who had crucified and slain the Lord's Christ? and would they have been as a city on a hill if they had not done so? If, indeed, this world's concerns could be altogether disjoined from those of Christ's Kingdom, then indeed all Christians (laymen as well as clergy) should abstain from the thought of temporal affairs, and let the worthless world pass down the stream of events till it perishes; but if (as is the case) what happens in nations must affect the cause of religion in those nations, since the Church may be seduced and corrupted by the world, and in the world there are myriads of souls to be converted and saved, and since a Christian nation is bound to become part of the Church, therefore it is our duty to stand as a beacon on a hill, to cry aloud and spare not, to lift up our voice like a trumpet, and show the people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins. And all this may be done without injury to our Christian gentleness and humbleness, though it is difficult to do it. We need not be angry nor use contentious words, and yet may firmly give our opinion, in proportion as we have the means of forming one, and be zealous towards God in all active good service, and scrupulously and pointedly keep aloof from the bad men whose evil arts we fear.

--John Henry Newman, "Profession without Ostentation," in Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 1, Sermon 12

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

The Future of Christian Democracy in America

Some years ago I asked why there is no tradition of Christian Democracy in America. Unbeknownst to me, the following year a tiny party was founded, which eventually settled on the name of American Solidarity Party (ASP). It affirms the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death; it is built upon the twin ideas of solidarity and subsidiarity; and it draws on concepts familiar to Catholics and Protestants of various stripes.

But what is the future of such a party? As Steve pointed out in his latest post, the role of Christians in politics is in decline, in much the same way that church attendance is in decline. What kind of future could Christian Democracy have in the US, if Christians are fast becoming a small minority?

Admittedly, one need not be a Christian to support a political party in the Christian Democratic tradition. But the question is still a valid one. So allow me to articulate my hopes for the American Solidarity Party and, more broadly, Christian Democracy in the US.

(1) When possible, ASP will field its own viable candidates and sometimes win election. I am enough of a realist to know that this will not be common at the national level. But I am hopeful that a centrist, pro-family, localist message will resonate with many Americans. So expect to see some offices won at the local and sometimes state level.

(2) When major party candidates conform to the principles and policies espoused by the ASP, it can endorse them. This too is not likely to occur with much frequency. After all, if the major party candidates were all wonderful, there would be no need for third parties. Their groundswell, particularly in this current electoral cycle, is a sign of the shortcomings of the major party candidates. Still, it has long been the habit of the major parties to adopt elements of third parties, if only for their safety. We might hope that some of the causes ASP supports will gain sufficient traction to be picked up by major parties.

(3) ASP will provide a haven for conscience when there are no alternatives. Some might question whether this is significantly different from abstaining. In the short term, it may not be much different. But in the longer term it sends a message in a way that abstention does not. It is a call for change and a reminder that there is a constituency out there for decency.

In all of this, ASP is doing two other important things. It is educating the body politic, inviting people to think about political ideas, their implications, and the values that underpin them. And it is encouraging people to think about how they can strengthen their communities, yes, through political action, but also through volunteering or simply getting to know their neighbors.

So even if we won't see a president emerging from Christian Democracy any time soon, I think there is plenty of work for a party like ASP to do.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Donald Trump & The Emperor's Clothes

At the end of his most recent post, Aaron dismisses the commentators on both sides of the party divide hyperventilating about this year's presidential election as an "extraordinary crisis." But, while Aaron certainly has a valid point about the ubiquitous hyperbole in our political discourse, I think he actually missed a good opportunity to examine why Donald Trump is such a polarizing figure and really may represent a turning point in our politics, especially for the relationship between conservative Christians and the Republican party.

Donald Trump, in his blunt, outspoken (not to mention "vulgar") way, has been able to expose the problem of political correctness in a way no other politician has done in the last 25 years. Before this year it was practically verboten to speak about certain topics, much less advocate for certain positions. The most obvious issues all have to do with Trump's "America First" platform: mass immigration, unfavorable trade agreements, and endless foreign wars. (Another key issue would be his opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement.)

On each of these issues Trump is smashing idols of both the left and the right, as we generally conceive them in America. This is the more substantive reason why--and not just because of his objectionable style--that the GOP establishment fought so fiercely and for so long to prevent his nomination. Trump chose for the ground to fight on issues where there was a broad consensus between the Republican and Democratic parties that was opposed by a large proportion of the country. For instance, on immigration, he has shown that much of the country is deeply dissatisfied with current immigration policy (which is basically just "let them all stay here if they manage to get in"). The Democratic Party favors changing the composition of the electorate in order to dilute the European Christian heritage of the United States; but the Chamber of Commerce wing of the Republican Party favors importing cheap labor for its constituency. This means that both parties are supporting a policy that artificially suppresses wages for workers born and raised in America. On the issue of foreign policy, Trump is the first and most prominent Republican (that I can think off of the top of my head, at any rate) to question all the wars we have been fighting since September 11, 2001; most mainstream Republicans were in thrall to the neoconservatives' push for regime change across the globe, just like the Democrats' presidential nominee is.

What confuses and frightens so many conservative Republicans about this election is that it took such a thoroughly disagreeable man as Donald Trump to attack the bipartisan consensus on so many important issues and actually restate positions that are more conservative than those of the GOP's establishment. He has discredited the party's current economic policy, which seems to be an unintelligent re-hashing of Manchester Liberalism's insistence on laissez faire, with a few concessions to special interests mixed in to spice things up. On foreign policy, Trump, though far from perfect himself, at least recognizes that most of what the U.S. has done in the past 20 years has been counterproductive and the result of a hubristic, Wilsonian desire to transform the Middle East one country at a time with an invasion and a few years of occupation, willfully blind to millennia of internecine slaughter there.

I could continue in this vein and analyze all the separate issues that have emerged in this election--and they are important. But here at the Guild Review we have another concern, which is just as, if not more, pressing than all those issues: What effect will this election have on the life of Christians (particularly conservative Christians) in the United States? Will he usher in a revival of Christian morality in our country, or will he at least stem the onslaught of the liberal, anti-Christian forces gaining strength in America?

Donald Trump, it must be said, has actually done conservative Christians a great service. He has exposed us as "losers," to use one of his favorite insults. We had no idea, but we really were losers!

In the last couple decades conservative Christians have pinned their hopes for at least a modest Christian renewal in this country on the Republican Party but have nothing to show for it except a few fruitless wars in the Middle East, more mass immigration from parts of the world that are culturally very different from the U.S., and more suffocating political correctness (especially on sexual issues). And now we are being asked to support for president a man who does not care at all about social conservatism! This is a man who has enjoyed flaunting in the New York tabloids his various girlfriends and wives (including his most recent wife who did nude lesbian shoots before she met The Donald). In the past few months he has had to work very hard just to pretend that he cares about abortion. And on the specific issue of Christianity, he admitted to the nation that he could not even fake being a Christian, and one of the most prominent speakers on the last night of the Convention, Peter Thiel, told the Party not to get "distracted" by culture wars.

The best we could hope for from Trump, then, is a general policy of laissez faire or maybe him throwing us a bone to keep us from whining too much. This means that the real challenge for conservative Christians from this point forward is twofold. First, we must admit that we supported many Republican positions that really may not have been that conservative or that Christian, and that Trump is right in some important ways. Second, we will have to find new way to fight for conservative Christian social issues now that it is clear that the Republicans are not really willing to make them a priority and that liberals appear to have gained the upper hand for the foreseeable time to come.

I wish I could offer a solution here, but these are all issues that I still need to ponder, and which don't have any simple solutions. Most importantly, though, these issues require us to honestly ask whether we have been duped, and what we plan to do about it.

Finally, as a bonus for readers who made it all the way to the end and who are wondering how I could think this way, I am providing two links to pieces by writers who have a generally similar outlook but can express some of these concerns better than I can: R.R. Reno's "Why I'm Anti-Anti-Trump" and Rod Dreher's "Trump & The God Vote."