Quotulatiousness

July 20, 2014

Culture, political correctness, and social change

Filed under: Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:11

This week’s Goldberg File email newsletter included an interesting discussion of the power of political correctness and how society continues to change:

What is commonly called “political correctness” doesn’t get the respect it deserves on the right. Sure, in the herstory of political correctness there have been womyn and cis-men who have taken their seminal ovulal ideas too far, but we should not render ourselves visually challenged to the fact that something more fundawomyntal is at work here.

Political correctness can actually be seen as an example of Hayekian spontaneous order. Society has changed, because society always changes. But modern American society has changed a lot. In a relatively short period of time, legal and cultural equality has expanded — albeit not uniformly or perfectly — to blacks, women, and gays. We are a more heterodox society in almost every way. As a result, many of our customs, norms, and terms no longer line up neatly with lived-reality. Remember customs emerge as intangible tools to solve real needs. When the real needs change, the customs must either adapt or die.

Many conservatives think political correctness forced Christianity and traditional morality to recede from public life. That is surely part of the story. But another part of the story is that political correctness emerged because Christianity and traditional morality receded. Something had to fill the void.

I wish more conservatives recognized that at least some of what passes for political correctness is an attempt to create new manners and mores for the places in life where the old ones no longer work too well. You can call it “political correctness” that Americans stopped calling black people “negroes.” But that wouldn’t make the change wrong or even objectionable. You might think it’s regrettable that homosexuality has become mainstreamed and largely de-stigmatized. But your regret doesn’t change the fact that it has happened. And well-mannered people still need to know how to show respect to people.

[...]

Now, I don’t actually think Christianity is necessarily inadequate to the task of keeping up with the changes of contemporary society. (The pagan Roman civilization Christianity emerged from was certainly less hospitable to Christianity than America today is. You could look it up.) But Christianity, like other religions, still needs to adapt to changing times and the evolving expectations of the people. I’m nothing like an expert on such things, but it seems to me that most churches and denominations understand this. Some respond more successfully than others. But it’s hardly as if they are oblivious to the challenge of “relevance.”

My concern here is more about mainstream conservatism. I think much of what the Left offers in terms of culture creation is utter crap. But they are at least in the business of culture creation.

June 10, 2014

The Catholic case against libertarianism

Filed under: Economics, Liberty, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:14

First, let’s talk about the evils of the free market and how God wants to abolish free exchange of goods for our spiritual and moral welfare, shall we?

Something strange happened in Washington last week: A panel of Catholic intellectuals and clergy, led by His Eminence Oscar Andrés Maradiaga, was convened to denounce a political philosophy under the headline “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” The conference was mainly about free-market economics rather than libertarianism per se, and it was an excellent reminder that the hierarchy of the Church has no special grace to pronounce upon matters of specific economic organization. The best that can be said of the clergy’s corporate approach to economic thinking is that it is intellectually incoherent, which is lucky inasmuch as the depths of its illiteracy become more dramatic and destructive as it approaches coherence.

[...]

The increasingly global and specialized division of labor and the resulting chains of production — i.e., modern capitalism, the unprecedented worldwide project of voluntary human cooperation that is the unique defining feature of our time — is what cut the global poverty rate in half in 20 years. It was not Buddhist mindfulness or Catholic homilies that did that. In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, neither of those great religious traditions, nor anything else that human beings ever came up with, made a dent in the poverty rate. Capitalism did. One of the great ironies of our times is that so many of the descendents of the old Catholic immigrant working class have found themselves attracted to an American Buddhism that, with its love of ornate titles, its costumes, its fascination with apostolic succession, and its increasingly coddled professional clergy, is a 21st-century expression of Buddhism apparently committed to transforming itself — plus ça change! — into 15th-century Catholicism. Perhaps it should not be entirely surprising that it has embraced the same intellectual errors.

Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga and likeminded thinkers, stuck as they are in the hopelessly 19th-century distributist model of economic analysis, apparently are incapable of thinking through the implications of their own dogma. The question of how certain goods are “distributed” in society is a second-order question at best; by definition prior to it is the question of whether there is anything to distribute. To put it in Christian terms, all of the great givers in Scripture — the Good Samaritan, the widow with her mite, Joseph of Arimathea — had something to give. If the Good Samaritan had been the Poor Samaritan, with no resources to dedicate to the stranger’s care, then the poor waylaid traveler would have been out of luck. All the good intentions that we may muster are not half so useful to a hungry person as a loaf of bread.

Those who put distribution at the top of their list of priorities both make the error of assuming the existence of some exogenous agency that oversees distribution (that being the Distribution Fairy) and entirely ignore the vital question of what gets produced and by whom. Poverty is the direct by-product of low levels of production; the United States and Singapore are fat and happy with $53,101 and $64,584 in per capita economic output, respectively; Zimbabwe, which endured the services of a government very much interested in the redistribution of capital, gets to divide up $788 per person per year, meaning that under circumstances of perfect mathematical equality life would still be miserable for everybody. Sweden can carve up its per capita pie however it likes, but it’s still going to be 22.5 percent smaller than the U.S. pie and less than two-thirds the size of Singapore’s tasty pastry. You cannot redistribute what you don’t have — and that holds true not only for countries but, finally, for the planet and the species, which of course is what globalization is all about. That men of the cloth, of all people, should be blind to what is really happening right now on the global economic scale is remarkable, ironic, and sad.

June 8, 2014

QotD: Understanding the Koran

Filed under: History, Middle East, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

The Koran is pretty contradictory. That’s because it was written by Muhammad at different stages in his career as a would-be world conqueror. In the initial stages of his inventing Islam, he presented it as a moral system and a warning. The first chapters of the Koran read a lot like parts of the Bible, especially Jesus’ sermons: repent for judgment is at hand. It condemns immoral behavior and calls for repentence. Then, as Muhammad gained followers and began his series of military campaigns to conquer all surrounding areas in the name of his new religion, the themes shifted.

Now it was all about defeating and subjugating the wicked. About how Muslim warriors are the hand of Allah on earth and fighting against the evil unbeliever who will be punished. Here instead of a call for personal repentance there are calls for conquest and destruction, slaughtering the wicked and cutting the heads off of those who will not submit or convert.

Then, having beaten almost everyone and in power, the tone shifts again. The last parts of the Koran are about how to govern, how to live, what to do in minute detail down to what hand to eat with, and information on how to live with the wicked Jew and Christian who are so close to Islam. The calls for death and conquest are subdued and fade away in this last bit, but complaints about women and how to keep them under control are pretty much the exclusive content of the last few chapters.

Now, Muslims say that there is a principle where older parts of the Koran are understood or replaced by the newer; so if there’s a conflict between part A and part C, the part C bits are the ones you follow.

But then it gets complicated. Because the Hadith is a collection of stories allegedly about Muhammad from his life, collected anecdotes, quotes, information, and tales of his life that are then used to interpret the Koran and create Islamic law with. And these can wildly differ, conflict with, and even completely contradict each other.

To make matters worse, for a thousand years or so, different Sharia Courts and Imams have been making official proclamations about Islam that are not just suggestions but absolute total voice-of-Allah law of Islam and the countries that it controls.

And these, too, can be totally at odds. So its a horrible contradictory mess of conflicting absolutes all claiming to be the total voice of Allah. And, as Muhammad himself allegedly said, Allah changes his mind sometimes, that’s why the conflicts in his writings.

The end result is that Islam can be honestly portrayed as both peaceful and opposing horrible violence against people … and violent conquerors out to behead anyone who disagrees. Because both are true.

Christopher Taylor, “I’M THE GOOD GUY HERE”, Word Around the Net, 2014-05-23.

May 30, 2014

“Historical” High Court judgment that ignores history

Filed under: Britain, History, Law, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 07:46

Last week, the High Court decided that the remains of King Richard III will be re-buried in Leicester, not in York. As you might expect, that leaves a lot of people unhappy.

When Richard III was hacked to death in rural Leicestershire in 1485, the royal House of York fell, bringing an end to the Plantagenet line that had lasted for 16 kings and 331 years. Many people see his death as the end of the English middle ages.

Despite this country’s ancient legal system, the courts do not often get to deal with real history, although they make many historic decisions. Yet the ruling of the High Court last Friday truly made history, as three judges decided that Richard III should be buried at the scene of his violent defeat, and not in York.

One side is always unhappy after a court hearing. And in this case those who sponsored York Minster may have more to be sore about than most.

The High Court acknowledged the case has “unprecedented” and “unique and exceptional features,” but nevertheless went on to give a rather bland ruling supporting Chris Grayling’s decision to leave the matter of reburial in the hands of the University of Leicester team running the excavation. In doing so, the court treated the hearing as a straightforward matter of public law, and affirmed that the government had been under no duty to consult widely before handing the responsibility over to the University of Leicester.

[...]

History and legacy mattered to medieval monarchs. Their actions, even the less obvious ones, were intended to make statements to reinforce their dynastic power. York Minster is an ancient foundation, home to the throne of the second most senior churchman in England. There has been an Archbishop of York since at least the seventh century. For Richard, a scion of the house of York, the Minster was an obvious place to fuse the sacred and secular, binding royal and church power together in one of England’s most venerable religious buildings. By contrast, Leicester Cathedral, although a lovely building with a long tradition of worship on the site, was a parish church until 1927 when it became the city’s cathedral. Although there was a church there in Richard’s day, it does not have the dynastic associations that Richard was clearly building with York.

And there’s always the religious aspect to consider (which would have been true regardless of the High Court’s decision):

And finally, the question of the liturgy is also set to run. As the old joke goes: Q. What is the difference between a terrorist and a liturgist? A. You can reason with a terrorist. Leicester cathedral has diligently teamed up with an expert medieval musicologist, who has painstakingly uncovered and proposed the finer details of prayers and music appropriate to a 15th-century reburial. However, strong feelings which go beyond the musical arrangements have been expressed in many quarters, including in an online petition, and by Dr John Ashdown-Hill, the historian who led the excavations. These views reflect a conviction that Richard should have a Roman Catholic ceremony that respects the faith in which he grew up and died, and which is honest to what his wishes would have been. Leicester Cathedral will certainly have their hands full trying to reconcile Richard’s pre-Reformation religious beliefs with the Church of England ceremonies they are permitted to conduct.

May 25, 2014

The US immigration system and the plight of Meriam Ibrahim

Filed under: Africa, Bureaucracy, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:00

Mark Steyn posted this earlier in the week, but I only read it today. It’s a very sad tale of slow moving bureaucracy that may result in a woman being executed for the crime of becoming a Christian:

… Meriam Ibrahim [has] been sentenced by a Sudanese court to hang for the crime of being a Christian and refusing to “revert” to Islam (she was turned in to the authorities by her brother, apparently). Judge Abbas Mohammed Al-Khalifa has ruled that the convicted woman, who is eight months pregnant, will be permitted to give birth to her child before he executes her. Her two-year-old son Martin is currently imprisoned with her.

I would like Meriam Ibrahim not to be hanged — for several reasons. First, I’m not in favor of hanging women for apostasy. However, I recognize that, in a post-imperial age, barbarous despots are free to terrorize their subjects, and no matter how many pouty-faced hashtags we do we can’t save them all. However, there are compelling reasons why the United States Government ought to be making an effort to bring back this girl in particular.

As I’ve discussed here and on air, Meriam Ibrahim is the wife of a US citizen, Daniel Wani. Mr Wani lives in Manchester, New Hampshire, a couple hours south of SteynOnline corporate HQ. He has lived in the Granite State for 17 years. He has been a US citizen for almost a decade.

I don’t think it’s in the interests of Americans for thug states to learn they can execute the spouses of US citizens with impunity. That will not improve the security of Americans and westerners as they move around the world. As I said the other day, the spouse of a US citizen is entitled to US citizenship herself: It’s essentially non-discretionary. So Mrs Wani is in effect an American-in-waiting.

However, the sclerotic, dysfunctional and utterly shameful US immigration bureaucracy takes years to process these routine spousal applications. And that is why Daniel Wani’s wife was languishing in Khartoum: she was waiting for “permission” from the United States Bureau of Inertia to travel to New Hampshire and join her husband. And, while she was waiting, the Sudanese decided to kill her.

[...]

The reason Mr Wani was in Manchester and Mrs Wani and their son Martin were in Khartoum is because they were trapped in the processing hell of US immigration:

    Soon after Ibrahim and Wani were wed, in December 2011, Wani applied to his government, the United States government, for a spousal visa to bring his wife to America.

As I said, a spousal application is essentially non-discretionary: An American has the right to fall in love with a Belgian or an Uzbek or a Papuan and bring her to his home, but US immigration has gotten into the habit of dragging it out, for three years, a half-decade, and even longer if the paper-shufflers are minded to really screw you over. In this case, for poor Mrs Wani, US bureaucratic torpor has proved fatal.

So this is a tale not just of a rotten worthless Third World basket-case tyranny, but of US bureaucratic incompetence, too. The late Christopher Hitchens, who died a US citizen, summarized his dealings with American immigration thus:

    There was a famous saying, I think it’s by the Roman poet Terence. Nihil humanem alienurm puto — Nothing human is alien to me. The slogan of the Department of Homeland Security is nothing alien is human to them.

And so an expectant mother and her two-year old American son are chained to a wall. Britain’s Daily Mail (which is now America’s most-read newspaper website — because American newspapers have entirely lost their nose for news) reports:

    Martin was born in Sudan and may be entitled to a US passport because Daniel in a naturalized American citizen, though the process is complicated and not certain.

“The process is complicated and not certain”: There’s another epitaph for the republic.

April 20, 2014

Those dismal, uncaring economists

Filed under: Economics, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:39

Tim Harford found a recent assertion by a clergyman to be troubling:

‘Some research on students suggests economics either attracts or creates sociopaths’

Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, recently bemoaned the way that “we are all reduced to being Homo financiarius or Homo economicus, mere economic units … for whom any gain is someone else’s loss in a zero-sum world.”

The remarks were reported on the 1st of April, but I checked, and the Archbishop seems serious. He set out two ways to see the world: the way a Christian sees it, full of abundance and grace; and the way he claims Milton Friedman saw it, as a zero-sum game.

Whatever the faults one might find in Friedman’s thinking, seeing the world as a zero-sum game was not one of them. So what do we learn from this, other than that the Archbishop of Canterbury was careless in his choice of straw man? The Archbishop does raise a troubling idea. Perhaps studying economics is morally corrosive and may simply make you a meaner, narrower human being.

However, the Archbishop appears to have been misinformed:

Economists did actually give more to charity in Frank’s survey. They were richer, and while they gave less as a percentage of their income they did give more in cash terms.

What about those hypothetical questions about envelopes full of cash? Were economics students selfish or merely truthful? Anthony Yezer and Robert Goldfarb (economists) and Paul Poppen (a psychologist) conducted an experiment to find out, surreptitiously dropping addressed envelopes with cash in classrooms to see if economics students really were less likely to return the money. Yezer and colleagues found quite the opposite: the economics students were substantially more likely to return the cash. Not quite so selfish after all.

Most importantly, classroom experiments with collective goods or the prisoner’s dilemma don’t capture much of economic life. The prisoner’s dilemma is a special case, and a counter-intuitive one. It is not surprising that economics students behave differently, nor does it tell us much about how they behave in reality. If there is a single foundational principle in economics it is that when you give people the chance to trade with each other, both of them tend to become better off. Maybe that’s naive but it’s all about “abundance” and is the precise opposite of a zero-sum mentality.

In fact, some of the more persuasive criticisms of economics are that it is too optimistic about abundance and peaceful gains from trade. From this perspective, economists should give more attention to the risks of crime and violence and to the prospect of inviolable environmental limits to economic growth. Perhaps economists don’t realise that some situations really are zero-sum games.

April 16, 2014

Handel’s Messiah – the Live Aid of 1750

Filed under: Britain, History, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:08

In the Telegraph, Michael White explains why Handel’s Messiah really was the 18th century equivalent of Live Aid:

Every year, his masterpiece reliably comes round, filling musicians’ diaries with unending renditions of the Hallelujah Chorus and “Surely he hath borne our griefs” (or “worn our briefs” as choirboys have it), like a tonic for the flagging bank balance. And it will be the same this week, with a performance of some kind or other guaranteed to come your way, unless you’re living in the Outer Hebrides without a choir in sight or sound.

But for good measure, there’s also a BBC TV programme on Saturday in which the historian Amanda Vickery is looking at Messiah’s back story. And it seems her interest isn’t in the piece as a gift to musicians but as a gift to the poor — focusing on a London performance in 1750 that was, as she says, an 18th-century precedent for Live Aid.

This performance took place at the Foundling Hospital in London, which these days is a museum but was then a children’s home attracting the support of celebrated figures in the arts world. Painters including Hogarth gave it canvases to exhibit; composers such as Handel gave it music to perform. And the funds raised helped keep it going — in something like the manner of that other famous children’s home, the Ospedale della Pietà, Venice, where Vivaldi gave his services.

[...]

The only problem was that Handel depended for commercial success on operatic ventures that proved disastrously expensive and went sour when public tastes changed (as they always do). Hence his interest in writing English oratorios: they were cheaper to produce than opera, avoided over-priced Italian singers and attracted decent audiences.

Hence Messiah, which was written not for London but for Dublin, where it was premiered in April 1742. A large crowd was clearly expected because notices published in advance begged gentlemen to leave their swords at home and ladies to attend “without Hoops”. The critical information on those notices, though, was that making room for more people would “greatly increase the Charity”; because even this initial Dublin try-out was a fundraiser, designed for the relief of prisoners and an infirmary.

So it was good causes that helped swell the turnout. And from what we know of how it went, the audience was high-minded, entering into the spirit of an entertainment that was happening in a concert hall but none the less used sacred texts.

Jonathan Swift, the Dean of Dublin’s Anglican Cathedral, had initially tried to stop his choir being involved, on the grounds that a concert hall wasn’t the right place for such things, and that one of the soloists, Susannah Cibber, was a woman of loose morals. But when she sang “He was despised” she did so with such beauty that another clergyman in the audience stood up and shouted “Woman, thy sins be forgiven”: the kind of engagement you might wish of modern audiences, if only they could be distracted from their iPhones.

March 19, 2014

Alex Marwood: “Fred Phelps might finally be teaching us a lesson”

Filed under: Media, Politics, Religion, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:45

Alex Marwood contemplates the actual lessons to be drawn from the impending death of the head (former head?) of the flamboyantly repellant Westboro Baptist Church:

But here’s the thing that might indeed deserve celebrating: I think that, in his final hours, Fred Phelps might finally be teaching us a lesson. And it’s not the lesson that his spittle-bowed ranting, his family’s laughable adaptations of pop songs and psychotic banner-waving have been intended to teach us. For years now, I’ve looked at Westboro and wanted to ask them about their take on the Seven Deadly Sins. The old man and his numerous offspring seemed, you see, to base their style upon them. Wrath he had, in plenty — but Phelps also seem to be driven as much by envy (of the “fags” who were getting preferential enabling), a prideful self-belief only challenged by that of L Ron Hubbard, greed, as demonstrated in all those juicy court settlements from local councils who sought to limit his ‘freedom of speech’ and, well, frankly, quite a bit of sloth, sitting about in his compound sending the grandkids out to demonstrate. As to gluttony and lust — well, no one really knows what went on behind the walls of that compound when Louis Theroux wasn’t filming, but the guy has 13 kids and a bit of a paunch, which suggests a degree of busyness, to say the least. And here he is, at the end of his life, alone, unmourned and, as many people believe, anyway, probably going to hell.

So thank you, Fred. You’ve taught us how not to live our lives. Actually, I would hazard that, if anything, Fred’s career has done gay rights a favour. For every sad-act who got themselves sucked in by them, there will be thousands upon thousands who will have thought “well, if that’s the face of the moral Right, I’m out,” and gone and shaken hands with their local homosexuals. In a land where the values of Christianity often seem to have been warped by the twin evils of psychopathically Right-wing Right-wingers and greed-fuelled fraudsters, Phelps picked up the ball, glued spikes on it and kicked it into the faces of small children and then sued them for getting in the way. He will have done more to turn people away from his brand of God than even Morris Cerullo. So thanks, Fred! If any of the kids are looking for an example of a Christian life, we now have a perfect example to show them, and say “the opposite of that, basically”. Well played, and flights of something sing thee to thy rest!

February 25, 2014

Freedom of belief and “administrative law” in Colorado

Filed under: Business, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:05

L. Neil Smith on a controversial case in Colorado:

In a story that recently made national news, a Colorado baker who, for reasons of Christian conscience, refused to make a wedding cake for a homosexual couple, has been ordered by a Denver administrative law judge (and exactly what the hell is an “administrative law judge”, anyway?) to do so nonetheless — and make similar cakes for any other customers who request them — or face fines and possibly a stretch in prison.

He will file reports and be watched closely from now on.

I am not kidding.

The baker, who has said that he will disobey the order, is Jack C. Phillips, his bakery, Masterpiece Cakeshop. The judge’s name is Robert Spencer. The gay couple are Charlie Craig and David Mullins. The lawsuit was brought on their behalf by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Craig and Mullins originally filed a complaint with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission. Apparently Phillips had refused another such request, by a lesbian couple, some time ago, and, according to local talk show host Peter Boyles of 710KNUS, was deliberately targeted, or “shopped”, possibly by the judge, himself. Meanwhile, a Colorado Democratic legislator (whose name I can’t find) has just introduced legislation that would crank up the fine for this “offense” by 7000 percent.

In a specimen of logic so twisted it would make Pablo Picasso or Salvador Dali vomit, Spencer has issued Phillips a “cease and desist” order — an official order to stop not doing something. It’s exactly like a moment out of a nightmare collaboration between Stalin and Kafka.

Clearly, Baker Phillips has a right, under the First Amendment — a right currently being denied him — to believe whatever he wishes, and to follow the precepts of his religion, as long as he doesn’t deny anybody else their rights. He also has a First Amendment right to freedom of speech, which necessarily includes the right not to speak, when that appears more eloquent, or to employ his artistic insights, intuitions, and skills in support of a cause that he personally finds obnoxious.

Certainly Craig and Mullins have their rights, as well, but they don’t include compelling Phillips or anybody else to work for them, or to pretend as if they agreed with their ideas and help trumpet them to the world. The fact is, there are dozens of other bakeries in Denver more than willing to do that. But, as we now know from Obamacare, everybody has to comply. They want to get this guy and get him good.

February 11, 2014

Quebec’s anti-capitalist heritage

Filed under: Business, Cancon, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 13:15

At The Gods of the Copybook Headings, Richard Anderson looks at the problem Quebec has with entrepreneurial and capitalist tendencies:

The hatred of capitalism in the “Quebec Dark Ages” had little to do with Anglo economic dominance. That most quintessential of Canadian capitalist icons, the coureur de bois, was a black marketer who flouted the authority of the colonial government and the sanctioned merchant class. Official French society, on both sides of the Atlantic, has always despised businessmen, except for those rent seekers who paid homage to the powers that be. In New France these licensed traders were known as voyageurs.

This is a never resolved tension in Quebecois society, between the pure entrepreneur represented by the coureur de bois and the official capitalist represented by the voyageur. There has been no shortage in modern economic history of talented Quebecois entrepreneurs, but their efforts are widely regarded as being some how suspicious. There is something slightly unwholesome about turning a profit and speaking French at the same time.

This is not unique to French society. In most Catholic, or post-Catholic countries this suspicion of capitalism and free markets is endemic. To their credit the French-Canadians, unlike the Portuguese, never burnt businessmen at the stake for displaying “Jewish tendencies.” It was only in some of the Protestant societies that capitalism became somewhat respectable. My own suspicion is that this had less to do with theology and more to do with social dynamics.

February 2, 2014

Groundhog Day – “…when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect”

Filed under: Humour, Media, Religion — Tags: , — Nicholas Russon @ 10:01

Jonah Goldberg‘s 2005 column on the movie Groundhog Day, which just keeps repeating:

When I set out to write this article, I thought it’d be fun to do a quirky homage to an offbeat flick, one I think is brilliant as both comedy and moral philosophy. But while doing what I intended to be cursory research — how much reporting do you need for a review of a twelve-year-old movie that plays constantly on cable? — I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my interest. In the years since its release the film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and followers of the oppressed Chinese Falun Gong movement. Meanwhile, the Internet brims with weighty philosophical treatises on the deep Platonist, Aristotelian, and existentialist themes providing the skin and bones beneath the film’s clown makeup. On National Review Online’s group blog, The Corner, I asked readers to send in their views on the film. Over 200 e-mails later I had learned that countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches. Several pastors sent me excerpts from sermons in which Groundhog Day was the central metaphor. And dozens of committed Christians of all denominations related that it was one of their most cherished movies.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuted a film series on “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” two years ago, it opened with Groundhog Day. The rest of the films were drawn from the ranks of turgid and bleak intellectual cinema, including standards from Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. According to the New York Times, curators of the series were stunned to discover that so many of the 35 leading literary and religious scholars who had been polled to pick the series entries had chosen Groundhog Day that a spat had broken out among the scholars over who would get to write about the film for the catalogue. In a wonderful essay for the Christian magazine Touchstone, theology professor Michael P. Foley wrote that Groundhog Day is “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.” Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, has cited Groundhog Day more than once as one of the few cultural achievements of recent times that will be remembered centuries from now. He was quoted in The New Yorker declaring, “It is a brilliant moral fable offering an Aristotelian view of the world.”

I know what you’re thinking: We’re talking about the movie in which Bill Murray tells a big rat sitting on his lap, “Don’t drive angry,” right? Yep, that’s the one. You might like to know that the rodent in question is actually Jesus — at least that’s what film historian Michael Bronski told the Times. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”

That may be going overboard, but something important is going on here. What is it about this ostensibly farcical film about a wisecracking weatherman that speaks to so many on such a deep spiritual level?

And on the subject of the groundhog whose day it is, here’s an old post with a local-ish connection: A tribute (of sorts) to Wiarton Willie.

December 27, 2013

QotD: The Church of England

Filed under: Britain, Humour, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 08:47

“Getting the PM to choose the right bishop is like a conjuror getting a member of the audience to choose a card. With the Church of England the choice is usually between a knave and a queen.”

“The bench of bishops should have a proper balance between those who believe in God and those who don’t.”

“Bishops tend to live a long time, perhaps because the Almighty is not all that keen for them to join him.”

“The plans for a new church in South London had places for dispensing orange juice, family planning, and organizing demos, but nowhere to celebrate Holy Communion.”

“Theology is a device for helping agnostics to stay within the Church of England.”

“The Queen is inseparable from the Church of England. God is an optional extra.”

Jonathan Lynn, “Yes Minister Series: Quotes from the dialogue”, JonathanLynn.com

December 17, 2013

Io Saturnalia!

Filed under: History, Religion — Tags: , , — Nicholas Russon @ 09:16

In History Today, Matt Salusbury traces the Roman festival of Saturnalia (which was celebrated on December 17th) and its relationship to Christmas in the late empire:

It was a public holiday celebrated around December 25th in the family home. A time for feasting, goodwill, generosity to the poor, the exchange of gifts and the decoration of trees. But it wasn’t Christmas. This was Saturnalia, the pagan Roman winter solstice festival. But was Christmas, Western Christianity’s most popular festival, derived from the pagan Saturnalia?

The first-century AD poet Gaius Valerius Catullus described Saturnalia as ‘the best of times’: dress codes were relaxed, small gifts such as dolls, candles and caged birds were exchanged.

[...]

Saturnalia originated as a farmer’s festival to mark the end of the autumn planting season in honour of Saturn (satus means sowing). Numerous archaeological sites from the Roman coastal province of Constantine, now in Algeria, demonstrate that the cult of Saturn survived there until the early third century AD.

Saturnalia grew in duration and moved to progressively later dates under the Roman period. During the reign of the Emperor Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), it was a two-day affair starting on December 17th. By the time Lucian described the festivities, it was a seven-day event. Changes to the Roman calendar moved the climax of Saturnalia to December 25th, around the time of the date of the winter solstice.

From as early as 217 BC there were public Saturnalia banquets. The Roman state cancelled executions and refrained from declaring war during the festival. Pagan Roman authorities tried to curtail Saturnalia; Emperor Caligula (AD 12-41) sought to restrict it to five days, with little success.

Emperor Domitian (AD 51-96) may have changed Saturnalia’s date to December 25th in an attempt to assert his authority. He curbed Saturnalia’s subversive tendencies by marking it with public events under his control. The poet Statius (AD 45- 95), in his poem Silvae, describes the lavish banquet and entertainments Domitian presided over, including games which opened with sweets, fruit and nuts showered on the crowd and featuring flights of flamingos released over Rome. Shows with fighting dwarves and female gladiators were illuminated, for the first time, into the night.

December 12, 2013

Sex and the Romans

Filed under: History, Media, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

In the New York Review of Books, Peter Brown reviews a new book on the evolution of our knowledge about Roman sexuality at the start of the Christian era:

One of the most lasting delights and challenges of the study of the ancient world, and of the Roman Empire in particular, is the tension between familiarity and strangeness that characterizes our many approaches to it. It is like a great building, visible from far away, at the end of a straight road that cuts across what seems to be a level plain. Only when we draw near are we brought up sharp, on the edge of a great canyon, invisible from the road, that cuts its way between us and the monument we seek. We realize that we are looking at this world from across a sheer, silent drop of two thousand years.

Antiquity is always stranger than we think. Nowhere does it prove to be more strange than where we once assumed that it was most familiar to us. We always knew that the Romans had a lot of sex. Indeed, in the opinion of our elders, they probably had a lot more than was quite good for them. We also always knew that the early Christians had an acute sense of sin. We tend to think that they had a lot more sense of sin than they should have had. Otherwise they were very like ourselves. Until recently, studies of sex in Rome and of Christianity in the Roman world were wrapped in a cocoon of false familiarity.

Only in the last generation have we realized the sheer, tingling drop of the canyon that lies between us and a world that we had previously tended to take for granted as directly available to our own categories of understanding. “Revealing Antiquity,” the Harvard University Press series edited by Glen Bowersock, has played its part in instilling in us all a healthy sense of dizziness as we peer over the edge into a fascinating but deeply strange world. Kyle Harper’s book From Shame to Sin: The Christian Transformation of Sexual Morality in Late Antiquity is a scintillating contribution to this series. Not only does it measure the exact nature of the tension between the familiar and the deeply unfamiliar that lies behind our image of the sexual morality of Greeks and Romans of the Roman Empire of the classical period. It also goes on to evoke the sheer, unexpected strangeness of the very different sexual code elaborated in early Christian circles, and its sudden, largely unforeseen undermining of a very ancient social equilibrium in the two centuries that followed the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in 312. As Harper makes plain on the first page of his dense and vivid book, “Few periods of premodern history have witnessed such brisk and consequential ideological change. Sex was at the center of it all.”

October 16, 2013

QotD: Shylock on revenge

Filed under: Media, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas Russon @ 00:01

Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, heal’d by the same means, warm’d and cool’d by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by Christian example? Why, revenge. The villainy you teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction.

William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act III Scene 1.

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