Volume > Issue > What Would Joe Sobran Say?

What Would Joe Sobran Say?


By Peter Maurice | January-February 2022
Peter Maurice, a native of New Orleans who resides in Washington, Missouri, is a retired teacher of French, English, and humanities at all levels, from elementary through university. He is the recipient of several fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities. His writing has appeared in The Wanderer, Chronicles, Touchstone, Crisis, and Gilbert! magazines.

Comedians find it easy to imitate the distinctive voice of an actor. Not all actors have a trademark voice, but those who do make easy work for the impersonator. Joe Sobran (1946-2010) was a writer by trade, not a mimic, but he amused his friends on the police force by barking out from his car window, à la James Cagney, “You’ll never take me alive, Copper!”

A passable takeoff is not so easy with a writer who has an identifiable voice. Try simulating a page in the tone of Charles Dickens or Samuel Johnson: satisfaction is not guaranteed. Sobran’s was one of those distinct voices, hard to define but easy to recognize. You might describe it — inadequately — as an erudite blend of moral earnestness and playful humor. This essayist who defined prejudice against homeless people as “hobophobia” obviously didn’t share Dr. Johnson’s disdain of the pun as the lowest form of wit. Sobran’s almost Shakespearean coupling of wordplay with high sentence was more in the style of another of his avatars, G.K. Chesterton. A critic once clucked that Chesterton’s jokes and paradoxes comported ill with momentous themes like “Truth and Progress.” Chesterton rejected the dichotomy. The critic, a Mr. McCabe, Chesterton wrote, “thinks that I am not serious but only funny, because Mr. McCabe thinks that funny is the opposite of serious. Funny is the opposite of not funny, and of nothing else.” Sobran, too, was both serious and funny.

To be fortified and entertained by his moral depth and his sometimes caustic but usually lighthearted wit, NOR readers who’ve never read Sobran (if there are such) could do no better than to sample the essays in Subtracting Christianity, the 2015 anthology compiled by his friends and admirers, Fran Griffin and the late Tom Bethell, a contributing editor of the NOR. The reader will find therein over a hundred essays on government, faith, papal politics, the new atheism, abortion, saints, and writers and artists, along with 18 autopsies of postmodern culture, which Sobran dubs “The New Dark Age.”

I would suggest starting with the title essay. In “Subtracting Christianity,” Sobran addresses a story from the headlines of 1999: the Columbine school shooting. Reams of commentary had already poured from the press, psychoanalyzing the two alienated trench-coat goths who’d shot 13 of their schoolmates before turning their guns on themselves. Government commissions and panels of experts were convened to make sure, as they have repeatedly since, that nothing like this will ever happen again. Innovative solutions were called for: spotting early warning signals, hiring more counselors, implementing anti-bullying programs, and, of course, stricter gun control. All dredged up, thought Sobran, from the dry well of bureaucratic futility.

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