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Archive for April, 2018

The alt-right seeks an account of what we are meant to be and serve as a people, invoking race as an emergency replacement for our fraying civic bonds. It is not alone; identity politics on the left is a response to the same erosion of belonging. But race is a modern category, and lacks theological roots. Nation, however, is biblical. In the Book of Acts, St. Paul tells his Gentile listeners, ‘God has made all the nations [ethnos].’ The Bible speaks often of God’s creation, judgment, and redemption of the nations. In Christ there is no Gentile or Jew, yet God calls us into his life not only as individuals but as members of communities for which we are responsible.

Today there are bespoke theologies for most every identity in American life. Meanwhile, we lack a compelling civic theology for the twenty-first century—a theology of the nation, not for the nation. In its absence the alt-right will continue to grow. Young men like Dan need the gospel. But they also need an account of nationhood that teaches them about their past, without making them fear the future; an account of civic life that opens them to transcendence, rather than closing them to their neighbors. In his last book, Memory and Identity, John Paul II reflected movingly on the Christian meaning of our earthly homelands. He denied that Christians have no ‘native land’ in this life and defended the nation as a natural community. Against those seeking a post-national world, he urged Western nations to preserve their languages, histories, and religious traditions. The ‘spiritual  self-defense’ of our homelands, he wrote, is part of our moral obligation, commanded by God, to honor our fathers and mothers.

A nation will become an idol, however, if its cultural inheritance is not oriented toward, and inwardly transformed by, a divine inheritance. ‘The inheritance we received from Christ,’ the late pope argued, ‘orients the patrimony of human native lands and cultures towards an eternal home land.’ The church midwifed many nations into existence, and it can renew their cultures still. For now it must suffice to say the alt-right cannot. It speaks of tradition, while transmitting no traditions. It guards a false patrimony, while destroying real ones. Its mistake is fundamental and tragic. Race offers no inheritance, and its mere preservation reflects no human achievement. Our stories, art, music, institutions, and religious traditions—unlike race—are transmitted only through special efforts of human intelligence and love. They are a bequest of the spirit, not blood.

The alt-right speaks a seductive language. Where liberalism offers security and comfort, the alt-right promises sacrifice and conflict. Although the struggle its intellectuals and activists envision is imaginary, it does not matter: Theirs is a sounder view of human needs. Human beings desire more than small pleasures in the routines of life. We also seek great challenges in the face of d death. And here Christianity speaks another, more necessary, and no less demanding language. ‘When Christ calls a man,’ wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ‘he bids him come and die,’ and in dying, to receive true life. For Christians, the problem with Faustian man is not the vaunting heroism of his aims. It is the pitiable smallness of his goals. We are not meant to merely aspire to the infinite. We are called to participate in it—to be, in a word, deified. Faust could not overcome death. Through Christ, Christians already have.

— Matthew Rose, ‘The Anti-Christian Alt-Right’ in First Things (March 2018)

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Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, narrated sparely in this Audible Books version by Jill Masters, is nearly too sad for the bearing.

Hardy sees into the human heart with an eye for our folly that is Dickensian in its penetration. He turns that gaze on his invented rural ‘Wessex’, picking up the peregrinations of a pure young woman whose every turn is stalked by shadow.

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In the end, sixteen hours into drive time peppered with this listener’s audible gasps at each stunning turn, Tess becomes the victim of all that is artifice, class, and convention. In Jill Masters’ narration there is not a note of melodrama. She tells her tale with the same unflinching resignation that is Tess Durbeyfield, then Tess D’Urberville, then Tess a martyr to layers of unkindness that become in the aggregate a murderous and murdering weight.

An absolutely heart-ache of a listen, impossible to forget, incapable of abbreviation. There is no shortcut to the conclusion of Hardy’s most signature work. It takes sixteen hours to get there. Listen.

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There is more than one way to tell the story of the battle for Hue, an awful battle in an awful year of an awful war.

51jmtuMP+eL._SL175_Mark Bowden’s Hue, narrated huskily by Joe Barrett with a voice that was created for this story, tells of Hue with the unrelenting insistence of tragedy. The author has distinguished himself as the author of military histories that bulge with empathy for all players. Hue is no exception, in fact this work may fairly be considered Bowden’s calling card.

Though there are villains aplenty in Bowden’s tale, General William Westmoreland stands head and shoulders above them all for sheer self-delusion and defiance of evidence from the field. As a result of Westie’s pig-headed refusal to accept that Hue was a real battle waged by a determined enemy with truly threatening capabilities, Hue took the lives of more American Marines, more ARVN troops, more Viet Cong and North Vietnamese regulars, and more civilians who had called the graceful provincial capital their home than any reasonable calculus demanded. This at least is Bowden’s story, told unforgivably and with due note of the pathos that clings to almost every anecdote of this three-and-a-half week conflagration.

Joe Barrett is a superb narrator of a tale that demands both the pathos and the incredulity that his voice brings to its task. Bowden has not majored on the loss of faith in the war that Hue nourished back home in America. His concern is for the grunt, for the Front volunteer, and for the civilian whose family has perished under American bombardment or the vicious Viet Cong/NVA purging. The author unfailingly tells his military tales from the ground up, piecing together the larger picture only when concrete human experience on the ground has been sufficiently honored. Barrett is his accomplice, riveting the listener’s attention on the sheer nonsensical agony of it all. Still, all that this tragedy would mean for American involvement in the war is but a stone’s throw away, as Bowden’s slightly a-kilter subtitle suggests.

There are, as I’ve noted, other ways to tell the story of Hue, 1968, some more sympathetic to Westmoreland and his ‘MACV’. But if you appreciate a well-told audio book where author and narrator work hand-in-glove, begin here.

 

 

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