Saturday, November 11, 2017

David Williams' "When the English Fall": Book Review

When the English Fall by David Williams · OverDrive (Rakuten OverDrive): eBooks, audiobooks and ...
More than one friend lately has warned me to be prepared for challenges ahead--the kind which happen when our world, that of the "English," falls apart after a solar storm fries all systems and wires, machines and networks. Harrowing, but a scenario, scientists warn, that may bring down civilization, at least as we know it. In its wake, or out of its immediate impact to some extent, the Amish in this novel prepare for themselves, and against the gunshots, looters, and refugees to come.

This does not give away the plot. The blurbs and dust jacket copy say as much. What's left for the reader is David Williams' sparely told account in the voice of a family man. We see the before as well as the during of the catastrophe, and his journal records the events in simple prose, devoid of any effect fancier than some Scriptural allusions. The one striking me most: vultures around a corpse.

The narrative device of one character who predicts the end times ahead felt too literary, and the plot did not need this, but I suppose the author by this conceit wants to show the dependence on the wider world that even the Amish need, when it comes to medicine for their illnesses, and sales for their labor. It also connects the narrator's family to one on the outside, and widens the circle of concern.

I read this over a longer than expected (five-plus hours) wait at a car dealer for repairs, so I took my time with this brief book. I also paid attention around me to what the narrator recalls from his visits to the world of the "English." "I remember how people would walk around not even seeing each other, eyes down in their rectangles of light. No one was where they were." (27) A fresh take on a familiar subject. This novel does place you in the Pennsylvania district, neither romanticized or sensationalized. Again, it's honest report of a twist on the apocalyptic trope of speculative fiction.

For one representative person outside the farmlands and old ways, the narrator reckons the biblical analogy holds true. "The sorrows are planted, and they grow strong in the earth of his life, they rise up, and there is harvest." A Presbyterian elder, the author seems to be able to think in the style of a believer, and to channel his tamped down, unassuming chronicle in the mindset of one "non-modern."

For modernity, as it collapses, reveals unsurprisingly that we city folks cannot survive this meltdown. Guns prove a regression to another sort of tradition, as militias brandish them to make the narrator wonder the worth of a life like his protected by such. The lesson does not need hyperbole. Dimly remembering the unnamed cartoon "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," the teller tells us: "you never knew when the magic you rely on will overtake and drown you." The magical realm we all live in enables these words in print, and my review beamed by its medium. So we reflect. (Amazon US 11/11/17)

Friday, November 3, 2017

Ross Douthat's "Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics": Book Review

Bad Religion Audiobook | Ross Douthat | Audible.com
No, the venerable (and atheist) L.A. punk band does not figure in this learned recounting of how accommodationalists of both major Christian versions, evangelicals, conservative Catholics, and Mainline Protestants have multiplied and dwindled over the past few decades in America. But Ross Douthat strives for a punchy presentation of data which threaten to weigh down his pages. As the token Catholic/ conservative New York Times pundit, his columns benefit from his pithy remarks.

How does Douthat manage the shift to a long-form format? I felt very early on that this unfolded as if a dutiful, well-researched, but rather by-the-numbers tallying of the bull and bear markets as applied to Christian America's gains and losses, among the varying denominations and recent "para-church" endeavors. While I admit I was being educated, as a reader, I wondered if the pace would pick up.

Bad Religion begins with Douthat's refinement of his subtitle. He's not celebrating the demise of faith. His title refers to "the slow-motion collapse of traditional Christianity and the rise of a variety of destructive pseudo-Christianities in its place." (3) The past fifty years finds the orthodox Catholic and Protestant bulwarks eroding, having "entered a state of near-terminal decline." The churches connected most to the past fade; the elite abandons its at least measured sympathy for Christian ideas. Hostility or indifference, as surely this former editor of The Atlantic knows, characterizes this culture.

While the U.S. remains an outlier in its high rates of reported belief among the "advanced" nations, a growing segment of its Christian majority, as it weakens overall in numbers, waters down traditional theology. Conservative or liberal, these factions appeal to the political and pop-cultural marketers. Often "spiritual" without being "religious," some seek a wider set of options for faith. Others distort, in Douthat's estimation, what has been the accepted dogmas and doctrines of conventional churches.

Neither conservatives nor "their secular antagonists" (4) recognize this drift. The religious right blames all flaws on explicitly anti-Christian elements. Secular stalwarts denigrate every form of belief as equally foolish or fanatical. Douthat explores those enclaves of our nation where teachings of Christ "have been warped into justifications for solipsism and anti-intellectualism, jingoism and utopianism, selfishness and greed." (4) Here, neither papal encyclicals nor New Atheists are perused.

For a hundred pages, Douthat takes us through a vanished world of post-war confidence in religion, which fifty-or-so years ago began to implode as accommodationists hastened reforms which wound up, for many believers, leaving them to wonder "why show up on Sunday after all" if the ecumenical denominations earnestly insisted that deep down they were all the same, and that divisive details overcome were all that was needed to satisfy and stimulate the faithful. Yet the accommodationists in Mainline Protestant and Vatican II Catholicism almost immediately found their pews emptying, as the disaffected rejected religion, preferred spirituality, or most tellingly, defected to the evangelicals.

Douthat, writing in 2012, reminds those keen to denigrate evangelical and Catholic voters that now there is no "Catholic bloc." That broke up under Bill Clinton. Both Catholics and evangelicals span the range of income and professions as Americans on average. They both edged ahead, by the 1990s, when it comes to income and education. Long derided as the backward bullies of the rural heartland in the Midwest and South, evangelicals now are likely to fill the megachurches of Sun Belt and Mountain West suburbs and exurbs. While Catholics have only Latino immigration to thank that their totals have not dipped more, a tenth of all Americans have left that Church; these departed would be the country's second-largest faith cohort, if definitions were tinkered with. Evangelicals hold at about 20%. Douthat does not harp on his fact: evangelicals accept "limited inerrancy" rather than slavishly literal readings of the bible which fundamentalists cling to. This means that while science in scripture may be accepted as outdated, that the transcendent truth of God's will remains forever without fault.

"He who marries the spirit of the age is soon left a widower." Douthat quotes Anglican Ralph Inge (106) aptly. As one who grew up in the very first batch of post-Vatican II Catholic children indoctrinated in the "Kumbayah" mindset, I can attest even among kids raised on The Monkees as we watched hippies delay adulthood, that the novelty of guitar mass for hand-holding congregants wore off fast for many with whom I was raised; few of them sustained this fervor well into their maturity.

Given his talent for cultural critique, Douthat documents well this transitional period when the counterculture strove to become the ecclesiastical norm. When he turns to the deconstruction of the Gospels by scholars who prefer the rabbi rebel Jesus to the Pauline redeemer Christ, I feared that Douthat would fumble. This tricky terrain challenges any to keep up. But he remains steady. I liked his comparison of the Bart Ehrman and John Dominic Crossan, Elaine Pagels and Jesus Seminar crowd's "historical Jesus" shorn of his halo to those dogged claimants who assert they've found the "real" Shakespeare. Both "turn out to be masters of detection and geniuses at code breaking, capable of seeing through every cover-up and unpacking every con." (171) No wonder we wind up with conspiratorial Dan Brown. The power of magical thinking and the relativism of po-mo profs blur.

Resisters dig in and strike back against the humanists and their Christian fifth column. Whereas mainstream seminaries diminish, a parallel evangelical and conservative Catholic set of colleges, institutions, and scholars emerge. The alliance between those once damned as papists and their former "holy rollers" foes looms larger, as the fight against abortion and for 'values' rallies both.

As the chronology catches up with recent events, the analysis sharpens. In the wake of the bursting of the 2007 housing bubble, Douthat notes in passing a telling truth. Hispanic, black, and white working class adherents of a prosperity gospel were most likely to have been swept up and over by the burst.

His chapter on this "name it to claim it" proposition, as filtered through Joel Osteen's lucrative ministry, makes God "seem less like a savior and more like a college buddy with really good stock tips." (189) Yet, the author cautions, the "crudeness" of the wealth-theology rhetoric "can obscure the subtlety of its appeal,"for it reassures followers that the sin of avarice can be assuaged by overcoming with stock phrases of credulous tit-for-tat "a simple failure of piety." (191) Rather than send down angels to prove His love for you, Douthat paraphrases, "He can just send you a raise." Similarly, Douthat delves into "financial ministries" and remains nuanced on the suitability of capitalism and its good works undertaken with the donations funding charitable endeavors. I wanted to read more on the megachurch entrepreneurial "outreach" and franchising, but this gets passed over perfunctorily.

Still, he's clever on seguing into the related New Thought-derived business empire. For it shares with the prosperity preachers an emphasis on "the social utility" of belief, an eagerness to define spiritual success in worldly terms, a hint of utopianism, and an abiding naïveté about human nature." (205)

Theodicy nestles not only within the wealth-faith, but in "the God within" predilection inherited from similar concepts of exchange with the powers above. Deepak, Oprah, Sam Harris, Eat Pray Love, Avatar, and even earnest apologist Karen Armstrong demonstrate the profitability of such pitches. Both affirm that humans figured out how the universe works, and how the spiritual forces respond. The "quest for God as the ultimate therapy" dominates. Not "I believe" but "one feels," to paraphrase prescient 1966 psychologist Philip Reiff, cited by Douthat. (230) This generates narcissism, infidelity, and a lack of empathy. The results can be tracked over the permissive period evolving in this purview. We wind up with a "spirituality of niceness" (234) Charting this among youth, as he does, is sobering.

Another congenial solution arrives with a universal God which outlasts petty local deities and clans. Drawing on Franz Rosenzweig and George Steiner, employing promised lands to polarized if both favored tribes, shows Douthat's erudition applied intelligently. Lacking the European penchant for blood-and-soil ties, Americans worship the exceptionalist, "city on a hill" civic religion of patriotism. Messianic, apocalyptic, reactionary crusades such as Glenn Beck's conflate populists with patricians. Paranoia, conspiracy theories, jeremiads of doom invigorate both extremes on the political spectrum. Angst, backlash, hubris, and adulation for whomever occupies the Oval Office produce craven American kitsch peddled for both parties and their anointed leaders ready to rescue despairing flocks.

That penultimate section of the book I found agreeable if not surprising, having lived under Reagan-through-Obama regimes. It's what you'd expect Douthat to expand upon from his columns. I do applaud his "heresy of nationalism" and his distrust of "religious faith" married to "political action."

He concludes with four "potential touchstones for a recovery of Christianity." Global, rootless life may seek an antidote to power plays and exhausted ideologies. Douthat suggests separatists offer a second route, withdrawing from the arena so as to regroup and reflect. Or, the massive movements bringing immigrant churches and missionary zeal back to America from the Third World might energize more at home. Diminished expectations, finally, might restore humility along with rigor.

Being political but non-partisan, ecumenical but also confessional, moralistic but also holistic, and last of all, oriented toward sanctity and beauty. I aver this final aspect may inspire a "saving remnant," regardless of creed, to appreciate the "great wellspring of aesthetic achievement" that unfortunately persists more as relics and canons rejected by most in schools and nearly all in culture.

Literature, architecture, film and television certainly display a dearth of Christian creative achievement. Douthat chides, correctly, that "many Christians are either indifferent to beauty or suspicious of its snares, content to worship in tacky churches and amuse themselves with cultural products that are well-meaning but distinctly second-rate." (291) This muffles the impact of a legacy.

While naysayers will dismiss Bad Religion as stale superstition or sinister priestcraft, open-minded audiences concerned with the stability of a post-Christian polity will benefit from this balanced judgement from within the Christian intelligentsia, and they may concur that those two terms are not oxymorons. Douthat backs his side, but he's poised, professional and alert to all in the faith game.

P.S. Pp. 152-3 collect a deft summation of the paradoxical models of Jesus that believers affirm and scholars may debate. This exemplifies journalist Douthat's knack for mediating scholarship for a wider readership. I admit that many who'd benefit from his book will never hear its timely message.

Sure, there are places I'd have preferred more elaboration. For instance, the tacit influence of Teilhard de Chardin on Vatican II, to me at least, is a fascinating aside begging for more. But on key topics as how evangelicals adopted the pro-life campaigns of Catholicism even as its own members dissented, or how the excesses of flower-power liturgy hold up, if in retrospect to those of us who as youngsters barely recall them (like me) or weren't around yet (like the author), are worthwhile. Certainly his judgment that those who chased reform wound up a half century on looking as if graying curators of  dated curios, overseeing a little attended museum (I extend his metaphor) rings true, when one does the math on the evaporation of vocations to those very orders that figured the only thing holding them back from really appealing to more young men and women was more Bob Dylan, far fewer hymns. (Amazon US 11/3/17 a bit altered)