The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky
By Russell Kirk
Publisher: Regnery Gateway
Sometime after November 1980 a band of Reaganite terrorists kidnapped Russell Kirk and subjected him to unspeakable torture till he came round to their way of thinking. How else explain some of the things in this volume of his essays? Before the conservatives came to power, Kirk plied his own course; resisting cramped ideologies and expounding his vision of a humane and judicious traditionalism, he won a reputation for sagacity, good humor, and sound judgment — rare traits within an American Right more noted for self-righteousness, hairy-chested patriotism, and whining self-pity. While most conservatives searched for bigger bombs, fatter profits, and unfettered individualism, Kirk tirelessly reiterated his call to remember the enduring things of the spirit.
The wise and witty traditionalist is not absent from The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written on the Sky, but he is harder to find. The book’s contents were delivered originally as talks at the Heritage Foundation between 1982 and 1984. Kirk thus found himself addressing the very policy-makers, think-tankers, and opinion-manipulators — those “sophisters, economists and calculators,” to quote Burke — he had long deplored. The old Kirk of chastened wisdom and limited expectations surrendered to a triumphalist Kirk who called for moral restoration embodied in a new “Augustan Age.” Was Ronald Reagan the new Caesar? His auditors must have quivered with delectation when he invoked the image of a “Pax Americana.” Granted, Kirk repudiates a hegemony based upon gunboat diplomacy, but his evocation of America as exemplar to the world sounds suspiciously like the “democratic globalism” of arrogant neoconservatism.
As the Reagan presidency shuffles and gasps to a close, one wonders what those eight years have achieved for the brand of conservatism Kirk has exemplified over the years? Piddling little, to be honest. Somebody ought to mount a raid on the Heritage Foundation, spring our friend from captivity, and let Kirk be Kirk.
The Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America
By Robert Nisbet
Publisher: Harper & Row
Robert Nisbet is angry. Even the dustcover of The Present Age reveals his ire: in the photograph of the author a scowl mars his normally benign countenance. What is he angry about? Just about everything. Those not attuned to the nuances of political discourse might take Nisbet for a man of the Left, for he savages a herd of conservative sacred cows: supply-side economics, the cult of Oliver North, the Strategic Defense Initiative, Reagan’s muscle-flexing foreign policy, the “evil-empire” school of anti-Communism, the Pentagon, the “cash-nexus,” Straussian political theory, and the Religious Right.
But Nisbet is a conservative — one of the few legitimate ones we have left. His asperity arises from his speculations on what the Founding Fathers would think of contemporary America. They would not be happy, Nisbet opines. They would be appalled by the militarism and moralistic imperialism condoned and encouraged by Republicans and Democrats alike. The “Leviathan-like presence of the national government” would plunge them into despair. Nisbet does not use this observation as a pretext to launch a laissez-faire tirade; rather, he blames the engorgement of the bureaucracy primarily on the Pentagon and a middle class happy to feed at the public trough. Finally, the Founders would be shocked at the proliferation of “loose individuals” who racket about our society scrabbling for easy bucks.
So what makes Nisbet a “conservative”? Just this: his love of local community and decentralized power; his respect for responsible property rights; his devotion to a freedom that exists within a web of attachment to the public good; his realistic and limited view of America’s role on the world stage; his commitment to a moral authority that promotes restraint in both the private and public spheres. Nisbet’s brand of conservatism fares poorly on the Right these days. A pity, that, for if conservatives would regain the honor they have bartered for a mess of Reaganite pottage, they would do well to heed Robert Nisbet’s wise counsel.
By Kim Dae Jung
Publisher: University of California Press
American presidential aspirants routinely pay lip service to Christianity, but can one imagine a serious contender averring that “unfailing belief in the Resurrection provides me with the greatest strength to sustain my faith”? The words are those of Kim Dae Jung, who in 1971 came close to winning the highest office in South Korea, despite massive election fraud. Kim is a Catholic, something rarely mentioned by the American media. Unlike his American counterparts, Kim’s religion forms the fulcrum upon which his entire existence turns.
His Prison Writings, 29 letters composed between November 1980 and December 1982, reveal the heart and mind of a devoutly Catholic statesman. Kim has suffered grievously to advance democracy and humane government in his homeland: imprisonment, a death sentence, house arrest, several assassination attempts (one by the Korean CIA), exile — but his faith in God and commitment to democratic change remain unwavering. Though imprisoned, he was free, because he knew that the only freedom that ultimately matters is the kind Christ promises. His discipleship enabled him to transcend the oppression of circumstances; he would not permit his persecutors to distort his vision. Perhaps most impressive (especially for a politician), he confesses that “I could not be a disciple of Jesus if I did not purge myself of all recrimination and hatred.”
The Gourmet and Other Stories of Modern China
By Lu Wenfu
Publisher: Readers International
Who would blame the Chinese writer Lu Wenfu if he harbored a grudge against his homeland? On three occasions in the 1950s and 1960s a society drunk on revolutionary ideology stripped him of his livelihood and smashed his literary career. No enemy of the revolution, he simply had the misfortune to get caught zigging when the officially approved policy was to zag. During the years when his pen lay silent he earned his bread in a variety of ways: first in a machine factory, then in a cotton mill, and from 1969-1978 he supported his family by farming. How’s that for the stuff of which angry, alienated writers are made?
Neither anger nor alienation informs these stories. Rather, there is love — for China, for the city of Suzhou, for the ordinary people — wonton sellers, factory workers, peasants, obscure government employees — who have weathered the upheavals of the past 40 years. And a keen sense of irony and wry good humor, too, for Lu Wenfu spots the human comedy that bubbles beneath the major political and social happenings that catch the eye of journalists and scholarly analysts. Above all, he endeavors to dispel the “fog of politics” in order to write truthfully about the humble lives and small triumphs of unknown people who endure against heavy odds. “My feeble light burns,” he writes, “so that those moving through the dark night may be consoled when they see it in the distance, and feel that they will soon reach their destination.”
And On This Rock: The Witness of One Land and Two Covenants
By Stanley L. Jaki
Publisher: Trinity Communications
Catholics are the only literalists when it comes to Matthew 16:18: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church….” This verse is a bugbear for fundamentalist Protestants. Some try to tiptoe past it; others interpret it to mean Peter’s faith rather than the disciple himself; some probably darkly suspect that it is a piece of Romanist legerdemain slipped into St. Matthew’s Gospel when no one was looking.
For Fr. Jaki, an accomplished scientist, it says what it says and means what it means. In a wonderfully concise and percipient book (now revised and enlarged from its original edition in 1978), Jaki brings his massive erudition to bear upon this text and its implications for the Church from Christ’s time to the present. He contends that biblical scholars (Protestant and Catholic alike) have — missed two salient points. (1) Christ uttered his words in the neighborhood of ancient Caesarea Philippi, near where stands a “wall of bare rock about 200 feet high and 500 feet wide.” This setting adds immense force to what Christ meant in establishing his Church upon a rock.” (2) “In the Old Testament,” writes Jaki, “only God is called rock.” Yahweh-rock, Peter-rock: How firm a foundation! And on This Rock not only illuminates Catholic teaching, but it also inspires a mischievous rejoinder to one’s fundamentalist friends: Wherefore art thou, biblical literalists?
A Universal Heart: The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of Taizé
By Kathryn Spink
Publisher: Harper & Row
There are places on earth where time and eternity intersect, where transcendence pierces mundaneness to reveal a hint of heaven. Such locations are pockets of holiness, peace, and grace in a world enamored with the wealth, power, influence, and sophistication radiated by Paris, London, Washington, New York, and other cities that form the reference points of the 20th century. Men and women in search of “action” gravitate to these arrogant cities. But the real action lies elsewhere, in such places as the tiny French village of Taizé, a name unknown to those who chronicle the significant events of our era.
In a more expansive realm of significance, Taizé bulks large, because of the “life and vision” of a man known simply as “Brother Roger.” The only power in Taizé is spiritual, the only wealth, holiness; prayer, not prestige, counts. Among Brother Roger and his fellow Protestant and Catholic monks, the watchword is “reconciliation” — a healing between Catholic and Protestant, believer and unbeliever, West and East, rich and poor, young and old. Pilgrims flock to the community (as many as 3,000 a week during the summer months) to bathe in the spiritual waters that pour from the thrice-daily prayer services conducted by the brothers.
Brother Roger’s ecumenical vision arises not out of vague humanitarianism or sentimental syncretism, but, as Kathryn Spink notes, from the fact that “Christ has fashioned him with a universal heart.” The friendship that exists between Brother Roger, a Protestant, and Pope John Paul II illustrates the only ecumenism that matters: one rooted not in mutual tepidness of belief but in a spirituality that draws devout Protestants and Catholics toward union in Christ. Such is the vision of Brother Roger of Taizé.
Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America
By James Turner
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Every page of Without God, Without Creed (published in 1985 and now available in paperback) crackles with insight and perspicacity. Why was disbelief in God’s existence unthinkable in 1800, but easily thinkable by 1890? Christians might borrow the police inspector’s immortal phrase from Casablanca: “Round up the usual suspects.” But the usual suspects — Darwinists, godless scientists, materialists, secularizes, assorted God-haters — tell only half the story. James Turner provides the rest.
Preachers and theologians unintentionally promoted unbelief by attempting to update the Gospel. They tied Christianity to the spirit of the age, especially as embodied in science, and refashioned God to conform to human standards. “The modernizers came close,” Turner argues, “to making religion a thing of this world and creating a God in the image and likeness of man.” By the end of the century, men could reasonably ask: Who needs such a God?
Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation
By Edwin S. Gaustad
Publisher: Harper & Row
Edwin Gaustad adds another brick to a tower of Babel that has been leaping upward at an alarming rate since the mid-1970s. Americans are obsessed with the religious beliefs of the Founding Fathers, and half the forests in North America have been ravaged in order to encase that mania in books. Gaustad meticulously explicates the opinions of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Adams, but unwittingly he demonstrates the aridity of the topic.
Granted, we owe these men an immense debt for their efforts in behalf of religious liberty and the separation of church and state, but beyond that, the pickings are slim. Only John Adams evinced any comprehension of the depths of the religious impulse; only he engaged in a “lifelong wrestling with the subject of religion.” As for the others, well, it adds up to little: Jefferson’s yammerings about ecclesiastical tyranny (i.e., Catholicism), superstition, ignorance, and sinister priests; Franklin’s sniggering pragmatism (religion is good for the masses); Washington’s “broadly benign, calmly rational” — and complacent — musings on the deity; Madison’s early “wrestling” deftly transmuted into the less arduous enterprise of political speculation.
How anyone can claim these men as God-fearing Christians is a question best answered by men armed with butterfly nets. Moreover, those who believe that Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison (or even Adams, for that matter) meant to establish a “Christian nation” belong to the Alice in Wonderland school of political analysis.
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