All over the world, wherever evangelical Christians are few in number and persecuted, the memory of the 16th century, when believers reasserted the truth against all odds, is still fresh. For them, the Reformation is still ground to stand on, even to die on. And even in largely papalist Slovenia, where the Reformation was snuffed out by violence, the State honorably celebrates Reformation Day out of gratitude for what Protestantism gave that nation.
But for a number of Protestant intellectuals now, Reformation Day is nothing to celebrate. Taking their cue from Stanley Hauerwas’s extremely tedious sermon of 1995– predictably, Francis Beckwith linked to it just before Reformation Day of this year– they say that the Reformation was a tragedy, a divorce, a civil war in which no side was really right, with the implication that if any side was more in the right, it was probably Rome, which was the side of “unity.”
The objections to Reformation Day are are that it is anachronistic at best and uncharitable at worst. That it can be uncharitably commemorated I am the first to grant; that it is inherently uncharitable, I do not. Celebration of truth winning, especially winning against great odds, is never uncharitable.
The charge of anachronism is that being Protestant now is rather like running for US President on a “Down with George the Third!” platform. With Bergoglio rather than Borgia in the Vatican, and the 21st century rather than the 16th, isn’t being Protestant now like being anti-Hanoverian now? But this idea of anachronism presupposes that doctrinal truth, and the life proceeding from it, are the same kinds of thing as transitory political arrangements or fashions.
One of my favorite hymns:
The movie isn’t perfect, but this scene from the Martin Luther movie is fantastic:
The Rome Opera House sacked its entire orchestra and chorus the other day. Financed and managed by the state, and therefore crippled by debt, the opera house — like so much else in Italy — had been a jobs-for-life trade union fiefdom. Its honorary director, Riccardo Muti, became so fed up after dealing with six years of work-to-rule surrealism that he resigned. It’s hard to blame him. The musicians at the opera house — the ‘professori’ — work a 28-hour week (nearly half taken up with ‘study’) and get paid 16 months’ salary a year, plus absurd perks such as double pay for performing in the open air because it is humid and therefore a health risk. Even so, in the summer, Muti was compelled to conduct a performance of La Bohème with only a pianist because the rest of the orchestra had gone on strike.
After Muti’s resignation, the opera house board did something unprece-dented: they sacked about 200 members of the orchestra and chorus, in a country where no one with a long-term contract can be fired. It was a revolutionary — dare one say Thatcherite? — act. If only somebody would have the guts to do something similar across the whole of the Italian state sector. But nobody will. Italy seems doomed.
The latest panic on global stock markets has reminded the world of the vulnerability of the euro, and this week pundits in the British press have been busy speculating about France’s possible collapse. Hardly anyone bothers to fret about Italy any more, even though last week its exchanges took the second biggest hit after Greece. Italy’s irreversible demise is a foregone conclusion. The country is just too much of a basket case even to think about.
This is fantastic.
Wendell Berry’s mind is preoccupied with four dead sheep. I join the 80-year-old food movement sage for a drink and a visit in the kitchen of his neat white house on the top of the hill in Henry County. The talk meanders, picks up steam, and tapers off until the hum of the refrigerator fills the air, but the conversation always circles back to those missing animals.
Berry has four fewer sheep, but there were only two carcasses. The others disappeared without a trace. It’s coyotes, according to a trapper who knows the beasts and how to get rid of them. Berry has never heard of coyotes doing such a thing — not the stealing of sheep, for which they have an established reputation, but for doing such a clean job of it. No telltale chunks of hide or dried blood. I can tell that the mystery rattles around in his thoughts even as we trade stories of hunters being hunted, my home state of Montana, and women who tell dirty jokes.
Berry’s mind is one of the most famous and respected in environmentalism. The farming poet has been writing since the ’60s, and has more than 50 books to his name. His timeless tomes show a deep love of nature and rich understanding of the power of community. Described as the “modern-day Thoreau,” Berry holds up the simple, good things in the world while decrying the forces of greed and globalization that sully them. The man knows how to pack a punch in just a few words: “There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.’’
A Berry sentence — “eating is an agricultural act” — set Michael Pollan off in his own storied explorations. The National Humanities Medal winner has influenced everyone from baby boomer farmers to presidents to our 23-year-old intern who, upon hearing about my trip, exclaimed, “Wendell Berry is my Leonardo DiCaprio!”
In his best-selling book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Penguin, 2011), popular science author Jared Diamond meticulously and relentlessly plunges into a wide variety of historical case studies using what he terms the “comparative method” in order to answer the question that has preoccupied scholars from Edward Gibbon through Oswald Spengler – why do societies decline and ultimately disappear?
Diamond makes it clear that he is not a “determinist,” particularly one of the ecological variety, although he does stress environmental issues, even in his earlier publishing writings, in an outsize way.
As the title of the book implies, history is in many respects like a game of cards. Each people, nation, or cultural aggregate is dealt a certain hand with particular endowments, talents, or possibilities. Yet it is how one plays the hand that counts.
Environment itself, or the pressure of powerful neighbors (think Poland), are constitutive factors. But they are not destiny. Destiny lies in the kinds of “decisions” societies as a whole are apt to make.
As I write two of the four apocalyptic horsemen – pestilence in the form of the deadly Ebola epidemic and war in the guise of the unimaginably brutal, but militarily successful armies of the Islamic State – are galloping across the global dais and shaping the destiny of many peoples and nations, including the United States. If one takes seriously the doomsayers who are increasingly blogging on the internet and occupying the talk show air waves, the end of society as we know it may be looking less like the product of an ignited imagination and more like some kind of imminent reality.
From Wired (the title of the piece is rather profane FYI):
The campuses of the tech industry are famous for their lavish cafeterias, cushy shuttles, and on-site laundry services. But on a muggy February afternoon, some of these companies’ most important work is being done 7,000 miles away, on the second floor of a former elementary school at the end of a row of auto mechanics’ stalls in Bacoor, a gritty Filipino town 13 miles southwest of Manila. When I climb the building’s narrow stairwell, I need to press against the wall to slide by workers heading down for a smoke break. Up one flight, a drowsy security guard staffs what passes for a front desk: a wooden table in a dark hallway overflowing with file folders.
Of the 150 or so acres making up Willow Creek Community Church’s main campus, a full 8 acres are devoted to buildings. Parking lots cover more than 28. That ratio demonstrates just how important cars are to most churches today.
Though Willow Creek is now a multi-site church, it still calls South Barrington, Illinois, home. Population? 4,656, Each weekend, most of the church’s 20,000 attendees drive on to the main campus using three major entrances, swelling the suburban village’s population for a few hours on Saturday nights and Sunday mornings. People arrive by car from all over Chicagoland. The fact is undeniable: for megachurches, cars are essential.
It’s probably more accurate to say that cars created the megachurch. Without them, these churches simply couldn’t exist in the form they do today. There have certainly been large churches in the past—Charles Spurgeon’s church had over5,000 members when he died, and Spurgeon is said to have preached to an audience of 10,000 on a few occasions. But that was in densely populated 19th-century London, quite unlike Willow Creek’s campus of mostly undeveloped marshland in pastoral South Barrington. Today, the number of sprawling church complexes eclipses the few large, urban churches of past centuries.
The influence of cars isn’t limited to megachurches though. Churches of all sizes have adapted to car culture. And this involves not only buildings, locations, and weekly attendance, but also church practices. Since the car, church life simply hasn’t been the same.
The most important consequence of this trend is that the gathered church—as distinct from the church as corpus Christi, which is all-encompassing—has been reduced to a mere voluntary association of like-minded individuals who can join and quit, or come and go at their discretion. The church, like any other commodity in the marketplace, exists only to serve the needs of its individual members. In this respect John Locke’s definition, scarcely deemed orthodox in seventeenth-century England, seems uncontroversial today: “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphases mine). Note the contrast to the scriptural definition of Church as the covenant community of those called by God into a living relationship with him.
We live in a world where we can affect less and less of what we see, and where we can see more and more.
When the stormwater drains overflow, or the traffic is terrible because a road needs another lane, or some political problem keeps getting worse and worse, we can do little if anything about it. As Brooks points out, most of us are cut off from those in authority. Traffic is an excellent example; studies have shown it is one of the few annoyances of life that is actually cumulative—it makes you madder every time you have to deal with it, which is why road rage becomes an issue. I think an obvious reason is because we can do nothing about it. We are powerless.
Meanwhile, we are aware of more and more problems, as Brooks also points out. Rather than only seeing what’s before our eyes, we are slammed with a 24-hour news cycle of tragedy and fear from around the world. We don’t just have to worry about getting the kids to school—we are supposed to worry about a shooting 2,000 miles away. What is right in front of our faces matters least, and the Big and Important things that will never affect us matter most—a civic and economic calculus in which, as Joy Clarkson pointed out this week, the things that make us most human are the things least prioritized.