July-August 1990

First Things magazine. Numbers 1, 2, & 3 (March, April, & May 1990).  . . . $3 each.

When a Jesuit friend of ours heard of the launching of Lutheran pastor Richard John Neuhaus’s First Things, he puzzled as to why a religious magazine would be called First Things — would it zoom in on politics to the neglect of the Last Things, as in the Four Last Things?

In his inaugural editorial, Neuhaus tells us that politics “is not the first thing,” that religion “points us to the last things,” and that “the first things are the last things.” However confusing, we get the drift, and we’re encouraged. But we fear the ambiguity won’t be dispelled until the magazine is renamed First & Last Things.

But whatever its name, First Things will perhaps be at pains to keep its theological dimension in focus, for, when it comes to religion, this politi­cally conservative (or neoconservative) journal defines itself as unqualifiedly ecumenical. Neuhaus says that his writers, who will address the interac­tion of religion and public life, will include Christians, believing Jews, agnostics, and athe­ists. Maybe Neuhaus will be able to pull it off with theolog­ical integrity. Surely it’s worth a try, and surely Neuhaus has the agility and first-rate theo­logical mind to make it work. Curiously though, this sweep­ing latitudinarianism would make even his bete noire, the National Council of Churches, blush. Perhaps symptomatic of the razor’s edge First Things will be walking is Neuhaus’s appreciative (and indeed touching) obituary for athe­ist/agnostic Sidney Hook, whose career of militant and proselytizing unbelief would make even Mikhail Gorbachev blush. While Sidney was utter­ly wrong about Jesus and God, apparently his aggressive neoconservatism was sufficient to put him on the side of the angels, so to speak.

Neuhaus is an imaginative thinker and playful impresario, and so we’re not surprised when he reports that not every article will be by a political conservative. The April issue carries a fascinating piece by Christopher Lasch pointing to the contradiction between cul­tural conservatism (which Lasch values) and corporate capitalism (which he doesn’t). However, it is followed imme­diately by an equally long ar­ticle by Jerry Z. Muller rebut­ting Lasch and holding high the banner of conservative/capitalist orthodoxy. So, politi­co-economic heresy and apos­tasy will apparently be on short leashes (First Things has been heavily funded by several right-wing foundations, and this is no doubt the way they’d want it to be).

These caveats aside, First Things is a handsome, im­pressive, and formidable intel­lectual phenomenon. It is stimulating yet sober, and not entirely predictable. With col­laborators like Peter Berger, Stanley Hauerwas, James Burtchaell, Jean Bethke Elshtain, Carl F.H. Henry, Leonid Kishkovsky, and Paul Seabury, it will certainly spark heady debate. We hope First Things will have a long life and bear much good fruit, and we wish its editors and writers a happy issue when they, like all the rest of us, must face the Four Last Things.

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The Day Christ Was Born.  By Jim Bishop. Harper & Row. 107 pages. $6.95.

The story never palls for Christians: the birth of Christ — narrated here by Jim Bishop in a book first published 30 years ago and now reissued. Christians often dwell earnest­ly upon the death and resur­rection of Christ, relegating celebration of that shattering event, the Incarnation — God become man — to one fleeting and hectic season of the year. It is almost as if they believe that Christ was born solely to die. They ignore a sublime consequence of the Incarna­tion: By taking flesh, God re­affirmed the goodness of crea­tion.

In the homely details of his narrative, Bishop accents the humanity and humbleness of all the players in this cosmic drama. Awestruck by the an­gel’s announcement, Mary re­sponds with expected trepida­tion: Her “hands began to shake. Why should she, a little country girl be blessed beyond all women?” Joseph, rejoicing in the birth of new life, suddenly recalls that “this…is the one of whom the angels spoke. He dropped to his knees beside the manger.”

The story is poignantly funny in many ways. It does not scandalize heaven to laugh. This is, after all, the most divine of all comedies, and any mother or father knows what droll little crea­tures babies are. The shep­herds, themselves scorned as riffraff by the local population, grumble that it is so…un­dignified for the Son of God to be born in a stable. The magi shake their heads in bewil­derment. “Balthasar pointed out that there was much evidence that the One God acts in ways mysterious to man, and that there must be a reason — a reason which escaped them — for having the All Highest born of unknown people in a stall for animals.” We are too solemn in the face of this breathtaking event. God become an infant in a stable: It is funny. It also turned the world upside down — or, rather, right side up.

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Acts of Recovery: Essays on Culture and Politics.  By Jeffrey Hart. University Press of New England. 242 pages. $19.95.

Although Jeffrey Hart has made his mark as a member of National Review’s merry band of fulminators and polemicizers, he is also, as these essays demonstrate, a gifted and thoughtful cultural and literary critic. These essays embrace a rich diversity of topics — ev­erything from the 17th-century poet George Herbert, to lucu­brations on pornography; from Dr. Johnson and Boswell to the “Blooming” of the Ameri­can mind; from Belloc and Chesterton to pointers on how to survive in the cloud-cuckoo-land of the academy.

In the Preface Hart pays tribute to Lionel Trilling, his former mentor and, for Hart, the exemplary cultural critic. “The critic lives as intensely as possible the life of his times,” Hart contends, “taking if nec­essary the predictable risks in making individual judgments, in all areas. The critic’s writ­ings deal, therefore, not solely with literature but with a wide range of subjects, the whole necessarily unified by the crit­ic’s own judgment and in­formed point of view.”

At a time when many literary critics itch to form an esoteric cult, it eases the mind to recall that wiser and older tradition, which Hart traces from Samuel Johnson to Trill­ing, with such intervening fig­ures as Hazlitt, Arnold, Ches­terton, Eliot, and Edmund Wilson. In this approach, the critic’s “work remains essen­tially sociable and accessible and therefore likely to be root­ed in journalism, a sign…of its involvement in both the larger and commoner concerns of the world.” Such critics are as scarce today in the universi­ties as a vegetarian at an Al­abama hog roast, but even under the most vexatious con­ditions the grand tradition, embodied here in Acts of Re­covery, endures.

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Autobiographical Reflections.  By Eric Voegelin. Louisiana State University Press. 123 pages. $16.95.

In these engaging recol­lections and musings (tape-recorded by Ellis Sandoz in 1973 and later edited by him for publication), Eric Voegelin provides a glimpse at the hu­man presence behind the intimidatingly erudite and occa­sionally impenetrable books he published between the 1920s and his death in 1985. Given the ponderous and clotted prose he favored, Voegelin unexpectedly exhibits a talent for turning a neat phrase, as when he remarks that “ide­ologies are not science, and ideals are no substitute for ethics.”

He discards the niceties of scholarly discourse to disclose a penchant for invective, lam­basting his critics as “igno­ramuses” and thwacking Karl Marx as an “intellectual swin­dler.”

Voegelin evinces a marked sense of humor and an ear for a good story. Having fled to Switzerland in 1938, to escape the Nazi seizure of Austria, he applied at the American con­sulate in Zurich for a visa to enter the U.S. The consular official, “a very nice Harvard boy,” took a dim view of the refugee’s application. He “ex­plained,” Voegelin recalls, “that, since I was neither a Communist nor a Catholic nor a Jew, I therefore had no rea­son whatsoever not to be in favor of National Socialism and to be a National Socialist my­self. Hence, if I was in flight the only reason must be some criminal record….” Relishing the drolleries and small ab­surdities of life, Voegelin chortles that, “I have in my files documents labeling me a Communist, a Fascist, a Na­tional Socialist, an old Liberal, a new Liberal, a Jew, a Catho­lic, a Protestant, a Platonist, a neo-Augustinian, a Thomist, and of course a Hegelian — not to forget that I was sup­posedly strongly influenced by Huey Long.”

These autobiographical nuggets, combined with Voegelin’s ruminations on his work as a philosopher and his pointed observations on the philosopher’s vocation, support Sandoz’s claim that the Reflec­tions provides “the best possi­ble introduction to the person and thought” of Eric Voegelin.

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