Jack Niewold's Blog

Viewing Church and Culture Through The Great Tradition

Spoiled Sons: A Great Danger to a Republic

Recently over at Facebook I posted concerning Barack Obama and the ways his political style parallels the rebellion of Absalom, son of King David. Absalom attacked Jerusalem and David went into exile, leaving his concubines to watch over his palace. Absalom’s first act in taking over the seat of power was to publicly rape his father’s concubines in order to win over the hearts of those populists for whom “getting even” is always the supreme end of political conquest.

There are a number of political styles, and David’s and Absalom’s exemplify two styles. David had been primarily a uniter with some inconsistencies, while Absalom was a divider without the least self-doubt.

Dividers appeal to what is base in people rather than what is noble. The desire to get even never fails to garner large public approval since there are always those who resent the world that is and desire to bring it down, or “transform” it, if you will. Dividers will often use methods designed to scandalize the virtues and values of a dominant segment of the population in order to solidify the loyalty of those who hate the prevailing norms.

Barack Obama is a divider nonpareil. Some of this is owing to his relentlessly ideological approach to governing. Nothing is more central to his style than progressive doctrinal rigidity. Some of it is, however, even more pernicious than progressive dogmatism, which is saying something.

There is in the President a kind of gratuitous malevolence against his political enemies. As is well known, he is much less tolerant towards his Republican counterparts than he is towards even the most depraved of regimes such as Iran and North Korea. One wishes to hear the President address, say, Syria, Russia or the mullahs in the impatient and harassing tones he reserves for our most faithful ally in the Middle East, Israel. One wishes in vain.

Why this inversion of normal political and personal values?

Much of it a learned response to reality. We live in a world where a popular culture largely steeped in the spirit of rebellion and antinomianism holds sway over much of our youth and emerging adults. Never mind that this rebellion is largely hypocritical and hugely profitable for its practitioners. The rebel trope is now so engrained in the secular western worldview that it is unquestioned and even taken as normative and prescriptive.

Much of the President’s learned response is also ideological. Marxism and its French critical apparatus is expressed as the necessity to vilify and outrage one’s opponents. “Epater la bourgeoisie,” goes the old Socialist maxim: Violate the decorum of the enemy. In this sense, the liberal mindset makes everything profoundly personal. This also explains the central role of profanity and obscenity on the left, and the imperative to “shame” those who dissent. Sarah Palin or Brendan Eich, anyone?

The President’s typical responses were learned as a child in his mother’s political rants as a member of the New Left. They are the legendary stuff of student intimidation of faculty and administrators, where their effectiveness has been almost complete. They have been tested in the street theater of ’60s anarchists such as Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman and Norman Mailer. They reflect the tactics of the community organizer, whose binary worldview splits humanity into oppressors (whites, Christians, capitalists, landlords, entrepreneurs) and oppressed (certain minorities, women, millionaire rappers, criminals, deviants of many kinds, homosexuals) with no commonalities among them.

This urge to piss on one’s opponents persists in the President’s manner and policies. Many of his initiatives make no sense apart from this psychological trait, and attempts to find a consistent thread in his policies are largely unsuccessful.

One might even conclude that as Absalom had no compelling need to rape his father’s concubines, at least from the perspective of his will to power, his decision to do so derived from the sheer pleasure of humiliating his closest family members. As a spoiled son, he had already killed one of his brothers, an act that resulted in his banishment from Israel for a number of years. When he came back, he was resentment personified, and took his revenge, personally.

And perhaps that is another reason the President acts as he does. Like Absalom, he was a coddled and spoiled child who developed a chip on his shoulder, and now in some way, beneath all the ideology and progressive sanctimony, there still beats a heart of one cheated and determined to get even.

God spare us.


Advice to My Young Friends

As I approach the three-quarters-of-a-century mark, I have a few pieces of advice for my young and younger friends. All of us grandfathers do this from time to time, so I simply ask your indulgence as I pass on a few tidbits of insight.

Do most of your memorizing as young as you can: Key Bible verses, important and favorite sections from Shakespeare, lyrics of a few Jerome Kern or Oscar Hammerstein love songs, a passage or two from Jane Austen or George Eliot, and some poems of Dylan Thomas, Christina Rossetti or Robert Frost.

Learn a musical instrument as early as possible and keep up your skills into adulthood, by which time you will always have them. This takes some time and money, but there are ways around the money if you are serious about learning to play well. If you’re older and have left the piano or violin behind, return to it as soon as you can so you can recover your former skills.

The first two suggestions above will have taught you self-discipline, but in addition develop courtesy, kindness and decorum. These will not only set you apart, but will give you confidence in social situations and will help you to live with a clear conscience. Avoid crudeness, profanity and careless behavior. These will lead to unhappiness and regret.

Steer clear of as much popular culture as you can, especially that part of popular culture that centers around sex, rebellion and self-destructive activities. Too much loud music will impair your hearing. Too much rebellion will make you hard and dogmatic. There is plenty of good in popular culture, so seek that out instead.

Write letters and cards by hand, and practice speaking in full sentences. Take a day a week away from all electronic devices, and remember to turn them off when you are with other family members, even if they don’t do the same. Hang out in the biography section of your local library and learn from the lives of others.

“Remember your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw to a close, when you will say, ‘I have no pleasure in life.'” (Ecclesiastes 12:1). If you make habits of the suggestions above, you will always live a full life, in spite of circumstances and setbacks. May God bless you as you choose to live your life in honor of Him.

Have You Been Completely Converted?

A recent issue of Christianity Today (Jan.-Feb. 2015) magazine has the story of two conversions. I think conversion stories have a lot to teach us, and I cherish reading those of people who want to go public with their personal journeys.

One of the two conversion stories is that of Gregory Alan Thornbury, president of King’s College and an authority on mid-century evangelical theologian Carl Henry, of whom more in a moment. Thornbury grew up in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, home of Bucknell University. He was the son of a Baptist pastor and a kind of preacher’s Wunderkind in his teenage years. Then he went away to college, where he was exposed to what used to be called ‘higher criticism.”

Higher criticism was (and still is) the application of literary analysis to the Bible that had the effect of reducing the scriptures to a compilation of a variety of texts and traditions. Today you encounter an extreme form of this method in the Jesus Seminar and in the books by Bart Ehrman. I remember my own first brush with a particular strain of higher criticism called by the German name Formgeschichte while a student at Princeton Seminary in the 1970s. For me it was disorienting; for Gregory Alan Thornbury, it was nearly lethal. “Any sense that the Bible was divinely inspired and trustworthy,” he writes, “or that the creeds had metaphysical gravitas, started to seem implausible.”

Discouraged, he called his father one evening. The wise pastor counseled his son to turn to the works of a new theologian by the name of Carl Henry. Henry’s systematic theology, God, Revelation and Authority, had recently appeared, and was having a deep impact on evangelical scholars. Young Thornbury went to the library and found the work. “I kept reading for days on end. I cried and kept searching, and genuine faith began to awaken… Because Henry was a philosopher defending biblical authority, I rallied.”

Carl Henry “combined head and heart,” Thornbury writes. The young man had had plenty of heart in his boyhood religion, but he lacked the intellectual equipage to deal with the skepticism that met him in the academy and in a world that is increasingly secular.

God brings great theologians and Christian thinkers along at critical times in the world’s history. Perhaps no theologian of our time has had such a salutary impression on evangelical Christians as Alister McGrath, professor of science and religion at Oxford University. McGrath’s small book of essays, The Passionate Intellect has been a great help to me, and I look forward to reading his recent biography of C. S. Lewis. He is the author of many other important books. McGrath combines a deep grasp of modern science with classic Christian theology.

And it is to McGrath’s conversion story that we turn next from the pages of Christianity Today.

McGrath’s “first conversion” in college was largely an intellectual persuasion that Christ was Redeemer and Lord. He had previously been, in his words, “an aggressive atheist, utterly convinced of the godless worldview.” That first spiritual experience was in 1971. Yet over the next two years as a Christian, he sensed that something was missing. One day he went off to a hillside with his Bible and read carefully the book of Philippians. The magnificent portrait of Christ that is found in that short work of St. Paul completely reinvigorated McGrath’s faith.

“I grasped the importance of ‘spirituality’ for nourishing my relationship with God,” he writes. “And the great ‘Christ hymn’ (Philippians 2:5-11) helped me see my need to focus on Jesus’ life and death, and not approach him through a depersonalizing framework of abstract ideas. Previously I had tended to see my faith as something I needed to sustain; now I realized it could sustain me.”

Two men, two conversions, one convergence.

Young Thornbury had imbibed a childhood faith that was largely emotional but lacked a robust dimension of the mind. Young McGrath had an intellectual understanding of Christ, a knowledge about Jesus Christ, but he needed a personal knowledge of Christ. Each came from a different end of the mind-heart continuum and met in the middle, the vital middle, where true, mature faith in Christ is found.

We should not be surprised. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart, mind and soul.

I sense that today it is much more the case that Christians need to develop their minds (Romans 12:1-2) than their hearts. We have a strong affective faith, and our churches are full of praise music, but most Christians are ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of an aggressively secular culture. We could do worse than to go to the library and pick up a book by–who else?–Alister McGrath.

Crusades, Inquisitions and All That

President Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast recently has been the subject of numerous deconstructions. I admit I haven’t read the entire speech, so I can’t comment on it exhaustively, but I’ve gained a bit of perspective from partial readings and comments of others.

Going in, one has to realize that these kinds of events usually result in speeches that are easily open to criticism from those who are deeply invested in the subject matter. We don’t expect most Presidents or other public figures to mount the podium and hold forth with deep theological clarity and expertise.  To his credit, President Obama has attended numerous times during the past few years, and has spoken before (2009).

The National Prayer Breakfast dates from the Eisenhower years, and has hosted many interesting celebrities. Mark Hatfield, former Senator from Oregon, took President Nixon and Henry Kissinger–both in the audience–to task for their conduct of the Vietnam War in 1973.  Mother Theresa spoke in 1990, Dr. Ben Carson twice (1997 and 2013), British Prime Minister Tony Blair (2009), and musician Bono in 2006. Usually there are several speakers at each event, which actually lasts most of the day. Darryl Waltrip, the Nascar driver, spoke this year in addition to the President.

Prayer Breakfast speeches are often a mish-mash of religious pieties and American civil faith. Bono’s was a kind of “we-are-the-world” farrago with his unique humor thrown in. There has to be a good bit of eye-rolling around the room, but most attendees. believers or otherwise, seem to enjoy the event. At the very least, it’s a good chance for aspiring religious leaders to shake hands with a President.

Much that Mr. Obama said yesterday fits the historical pattern in terms of anodyne generalities. It was his comments on the parallels between current Islamic atrocities and ancient Christian “sins” that have caused a stir. The President should have stayed with what he knows about, which seems to be a kind of progressive Christianity of soft liberationist hue. Instead, he only proved again, as if that’s necessary, what an ignorant and pompous ideologue he is.

“And lest we get on our high horse and think [Islamic terror] is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” He also brought up slavery and Jim Crow to cinch the knot.

Therapeutic banality of the first order.

One wonders who writes this stuff. His attempts to be even-handed result in a moral equivalence that take no measure of context, historical accuracy, or agonistic construction. In speaking of the terrible recent events in the Middle East, he transitioned to deliver a series of platitudes to his audience, especially those from the evangelical side of the aisle.

In effect, he told his gathered guests, mostly Christians, that in terms of their psychological profiles, they are no different from jihadists.

But are we no different? The things we are seeing now seem indeed unique. Islamic barbarism is utterly different in kind, scope and effect from the Crusades even at their worst. Mr. Obama appears not to know that the Crusades were essentially defensive in nature. As to the Inquisition, Mr. Obama has plainly never read an accurate historical account of what the Inquisitions (they were plural) were.

The Inquisitions were an attempt by the church to remove the arbitrary persecution of heretical Christian and other groups and individuals from the hands of secular kings and princes. Sure, there were excesses, and torture and death of any magnitude is too much. But the figures, based on new sociological analyses, are these: In the 220 years of the Inquisition where records were kept (1480-1700), about ten deaths per year were meted out by the ecclesiastical courts. Torture was only rarely used. This was a violent age; recall that Henry VIII killed two of his wives, and routinely used boiling, beheading, burning and hanging to kill his miscreant subjects.

Even medieval jousting contests, the Superbowls of the day, resulted in gruesome injuries and deaths. Read the novel Ivanhoe for the details.

By late medieval and early Renaissance standards, the Inquisitions were really quite humane.

Let’s postulate that maybe 5,000 people were killed for heretical behavior, immorality or criminal activity by the Spanish “Inquisition.” Let’s even double that to 10,000. A lot of people, right? A needless loss of life? To be sure. A stain on the church? Sadly, yes.

But hardly a good week’s work for ISIS or Boko Haram. Furthermore, large-scale slaughter is nothing new for Islam. The horror stories of the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman Muslims in 1453–an event that happened roughly at the same time as the earlier, more impromptu years of the Inquisitions–shocked the Christian world by their level and scope of brutality. Whole churches were packed with Christians and set ablaze. Why do we never hear of those atrocities?

Mr. Obama’s comments about slavery also lack temporal context, are intellectually selective (biased), and appear blind to proportionality. Nobody in our culture believes any more in slavery or Jim Crow laws. Moreover, it was Christians who ultimately ended slavery in America and elsewhere. Today Indentured servanthood, a kind of slavery, is still widespread in one civilization: the Islamic. Former sins of free nations such as America, sins eradicated not from the outside but by the inner logic of the Christian belief system itself, are somehow equated with present-day sins of Islam, sins that seem ineradicably rooted in the very scriptures and cultures of that civilization.

In the end, Mr. Obama’s invidiousness stems from his ideology. He wants America to bear the preponderance of guilt in the modern world because this provides the basis for his transformational program.  For progressivism in general, historical accuracy is a bourgeois value, to be used when convenient and dispensed with when necessary in the pursuit of utopia here on earth.

The President’s words initially lead one to conclude that he has an immature view of geopolitical reality. His foreign policy, insofar as he has articulated one, seems to consist of something like the pieties so common in the 1950s: “When you point out the faults of another remember that you have three fingers pointing back at you.”

But this conclusion would be a mistake. Barack Obama’s comments indicate a fully-orbed view of the world, a view in which not merely America, but western civilization and its Christian religion have been and remain a historical anomaly and a human tragedy. And the moment has come for the score to be evened. Mr. Obama has taken it on himself to humiliate what he sees as the greatest oppressive force ever known: America.

As others have noted, it is Mr. Obama who is on a high horse. In his own way, he is the Final Crusader, the Grand Inquisitor himself, the one who will make all things right.

What is Christianity all About, Anyway?

What do we Christians mean when we talk about salvation? What does it mean to be saved? As Christians who strive to follow the Bible in matters personal and social, what is involved in the concept of salvation, and how does one achieve the status of “saved”?

It should surprise no one that there are wildly differing answers to those questions, so let’s begin with the words of Jesus, always a good place to start.

Jesus said many things about salvation. Those who followed Him recorded what he said. Here are a few from the Gospel of John. Perhaps the best known verse in the Bible, John 3:16, reads that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Later in the Gospel of John, Jesus says “He who hears my word and believes Him who sent me has eternal life; he does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (5:24). Even later in his earthly ministry, Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me:” (14:6). Near the end of his life, shortly before his crucifixion, Jesus said while speaking to Pontius Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Every one who is of the truth hears my voice” (18:37). After the resurrection, John says of his own gospel that “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

What are we to make of these and many other statements of and about Jesus on the subject of salvation? Several brief points:

First, there is a human need for salvation. And this need is universal. If this were not so, the gospels would make no sense. Moreover, our consciences tell us it is true. We bear a guilt of some kind, a guilt that is part our own doing, and part the doing of something or someone else. It is a guilt that attaches both to our sinful nature and our sinful choices. It is a guilt that we cannot seem to erase by our own efforts, no matter how hard we try. Salvation consists of having something done about that guilt, of having it taken off our consciences and our souls.

Second, Jesus is the One who has dealt with our guilt. He has come to remove it from us by dying for us and taking it upon himself. There are technical doctrines that spell out this central event in all of history, but all of them agree on this point: That Christ came into the world to save sinners (I Timothy 1:15).

Third, the nature of belief is far more than mental assent. Though it entails cognitive agreement with the truth, the scriptures say that even “the devils believe, and tremble” (James 2:19). It is a matter of serious intention that is required. The will must be involved. When this is so, Jesus will take you as seriously as you take him. “You will seek me, and find me,” God says, “when you will search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).

Fourth, even though salvation is technically “free” in the sense that it has been accomplished for us, it is not “cheap.” Jesus always framed a decision to follow him as one fraught with high moral significance. He likened it to taking up one’s cross daily and following him (Luke 9:23). There is a steep price to be paid to believe in Jesus Christ and to follow him. The gospels tell the stories of some who were both willing and (sadly) unwilling to pay that price.

Fifth, part of the price to be paid is captured in the biblical term “repentance.” The root of this old word means to “think anew.” To repent is to turn away from the habits, the assumptions, the worldviews, and the allegiances that have characterized our lives prior to his call, and to follow the new path on which Jesus leads us. “I have come to call sinners to repentance,” said Jesus (Luke 5:32).

There can be no true conversion unless repentance is front and center to the notion of believing. Repentance is first of all an abrupt break with the past and taking up the way of Jesus. On the other hand it is a process, a lifelong turning away from the sins that continue to beset us. A child who trusts Jesus as savior, and who has few specific sins to confess, will still enter a life of confession and repentance that will last a lifetime. If this is true for children, it applies all the more to those of us who have many sins and much rebellion in our backgrounds.

Sixth, salvation has social aspects. It begins with a private act of believing and trusting, expressed in prayer that confesses sin and professes Jesus as Savior and Lord. But then it takes concrete form in baptism or rebaptism, participation with the life of the people of God in church, and observance of the disciplines of faith such as study of the Bible, testifying to others of God’s mercy toward you, sharing the Lord’s Supper with other Christians, and sacrificial giving to God’s work in the world.

Seventh, the scriptures know almost nothing of private, isolated Christian belief. That doesn’t mean a person cannot be saved in secret, but rather that it is normative for the believer to share a common life with others of like mind. We do not know how to live an effective Christian life unless we see it modeled in others, nor will others see Christ in us unless we are held accountable by other believers.

There are many people who believe in Jesus, who say their prayers, read their Guideposts and abstain from certain social practices, but nobody knows them as Christians. That is not their primary identity. They live solitary, fruitless, often confused lives, half in this world and half out of it. Their habits and pastimes differ little from the world around them. They will probably go to heaven, but their rewards will be few.

Eighth, nobody attains perfection in this world. We are all of us tainted by sin, and it is only the constantly renewed grace of God that gets any of us to the finish line. “Therefore, as you have always obeyed,” St. Paul writes to the Philippians, “so now continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12).

Finally, it is a wonderful adventure to be a serious Christian, and none of us who have experienced such a calling would trade it for anything else. And though our gaze is fixed on the Celestial City on the distant horizon, we have a clearer understanding of this world. We are pilgrims, passing through, but seeking the happiness of all we meet on the way. We are fit for the world to come only insofar as we are fit for the world at hand. As an old Christian hymn has it, “perishing things of clay / born but for one brief day, / pass from my heart away; / Jesus is mine.”

If your heart is crying out to be saved, you have but to get on your knees and seek God. Those who seek, he says, will find. But you must come with your whole heart and be willing to go where he leads. He will soon call you by name and lead you. For you will be the sheep of his pasture, and you will know his voice. And he will give you life both eternal and abundant.

Tomorrow may be too late, so do it now.

“Should Life All Labor Be?”

The title above is from Alfred Tennyson’s Homeric poem “The Lotus Eaters,” in which he pictures a people sated on the narcotic of hedonism and pleasure. Odysseus and his men encountered these strange sybarites when their ship was blown off course. The Lotus Eaters inhabit “a land in which it seemed always afternoon.” “Let us alone,” they say, “Time driveth onward fast, / And in a little while our lips are dumb. /   Let us alone. What is it that will last? / All things are taken from us, and become / Portions and parcels of the dreadful Past.”

Homer’s Odysseus and his mariners were tempted away from their journey by the enchanted shores of the Lotus Eaters. “Oh rest ye, brother mariners,” those sensualists call out, “We will not wander more.” In spite of warnings, some of the mariners ate of the enchanted fruit and had to be dragged back on board the ship. The land of the Lotus Eaters has ever since represented the seduction of once-purposeful people to a life of self-satisfaction. It is the broad way that leads to destruction spoken of by Jesus. It is the indifference of modern, affluent societies that has led to historical amnesia and spiritual torpor.

It is said that only a third of Americans supported the Revolution in 1776. Another third opposed it, and yet another third was indifferent. Those indifferent masses are the enduring nightmare of all who care about the future of the nation. Many have no skin in the game. They are net takers who contribute little to the life of our republic. They are those who care little about first order affairs; their days are spent, as is the case with multitudes of youth, in hedonistic pursuits: the latest tunes, fashion, entertainment and self-absorbed pastimes of many sorts. Older such pococurantes settle in with hobbies, golf or tennis, pornography, travel or sports, and other secondary and tertiary matters more in line with lazy affluence. Innumerable churches promote this head-in-the-sand posture towards history by purveying an inner-directed, happy-clappy religion with little apparent public dimension.

Indeed, the public expression of the Christian faith is often considered off-limits in our hip, postmodern congregations. I have noticed that it is usually youth ministers, fresh from their seminary studies of “missional” and “emergent” church models, who promote a quietism towards popular culture and partisan issues. By doing so, they perpetuate among young Christians the indifferentism that the cultural left finds so easy to manipulate.

The late, and great, Vaclav Havel spoke of “the attractions of mass indifference and the general unwillingness of consumption-oriented people to sacrifice some material certainties for the sake of their own spiritual and moral integrity.” He considered obsession one of the greatest dangers to civilization, but indifference to be an even greater danger.

Tyrannies always depend on the vast mushy middle to remain complacent and pliable. Compliance can, after all, be bought by welfare handouts, by rewards for not working, and by the demagoguery that appeals to the populist urge to blame others for one’s own problems. The mushy middle is easily swayed by images of cool, by prefab gestures of compassion, and public pieties such as diversity and multiculturalism. Their votes are guaranteed by more food stamps, by a few more months of unemployment compensation, or by a late-in-the-game, well-produced TV commercial. Millions of people go to the polls and decide on the basis of hair style, skin color, high-sounding platitudes, the last TV ad they saw, or the alleged sins of this or that candidate.

How ironic it is that most elections come down to winning the momentary and fickle allegiance of great numbers of people who ultimately care little for either the freedom or tyranny their casual votes ensure.

“Should life all labor be?” Yes, because it takes intention and action to preserve a free nation.

When Fearlessness is Foolishness

In the 1999 cult classic movie “The Blair Witch Project,” three young people enter a strange Maryland woods to make a movie concerning old rumors about strange deaths that have occurred there. Grizzled locals warn them to call off their project. But Heather, Mike and Josh are typical hip, secular and profane twenty-somethings whose breezy narcissism prevents them from perceiving danger. Their habitual insouciance, including cursing God and ridiculing those who tell them to go home, leads to their ultimate disappearance and presumed death in a ruined house. The movie moves through a strange crescending sense of horror even though no sign of a slouching evil Presence is ever explicitly shown.

How is it, that the “wealthy curled darlings” of our time—often young but not always so—seem oblivious to the enchantments of nature that not many generations ago formed a kind of unposted boundary between the safe and the unsafe?

My friends will know that for several years I have been fascinated by an essay written by Lisa Polito titled “Everywhere is Here” (Oregon Quarterly, Winter 2008). In this story concerning the death of James Kim in the Oregon wilderness in 2006, Polito tries to understand why a young, upper-class family from San Francisco would find themselves in the vast forests of southwestern Oregon, cut off from the world around, burning the tires of their late-model Saab in a desperate attempt to attract attention to their plight.

On their return to the Bay Area from Seattle at Thanksgiving, the Kims had decided to take a detour across the mountains to the coast rather than stick to the main highways. As Polito retraces their harrowing journey deep into the untamed woods, their world begins to fall apart. Their two cell phones prove useless, their four-wheel European sedan cannot match the ruthlessness of nature, and their sense of invulnerability quickly ebbs away. Having run out of fuel, James takes off on foot for help while leaving wife Kati and two daughters with the car. Days later, after the family is rescued, James is found face-up in the water of Big Windy Creek, sixteen miles away, having frozen to death.

Polito speculates that the Kims, like so many people in our technological times, had been lulled into a false sense of security, and had lost the age-old instinct of Here versus There. The primeval anxiety that used to afflict those who left the comfortable Here and traveled to the alien There has largely disappeared, replaced by a nonchalance that sometimes fails to register danger. “Emboldened by this easy, instantaneous connection to civilization, quite literally at our fingertips, we step through our front doors virtually fearless,” she writes. “With a cell phone in hand, everywhere is here.”

Camille Paglia recently wrote about young women on American campuses who give little thought to their dress, who walk confidently along paths and into places no coed from the 1950s would have gone alone, apparently oblivious to the peril that lurks in the dark.

One of the unrecognized effects of contemporary secular worldviews is that they have flattened the moral terrain. They have told us that everything is pretty much the same, that we construct our own reality, that materiality is all there really is, that the spiritual dimension of the world is an internal orientation, nothing more, and that we are more or less free to experiment with ideas, habits and images with no consequences.

Young-adult literature reflects a now-habitual blending of right and wrong, good and evil, innocence and guilt, so that it is difficult for the mind of today’s typical adolescent to grasp the notion that there are hidden dangers of every sort in the world, some natural, some spiritual; and that, even more, those dangers can be and should be avoided.

In my own experience, having grown up in the Mid-Century Moment of America (Michael Barone) where Here and There were more clearly delineated than they are now, I watch today’s popular habits with alarm. I am often considered retro because of my negative views of tattoos. I find the omnipresence of Netflix troubling because many people who are untrained in critical thinking and ignorant of historical trends receive much of their information through Hollywood downloads. I find the postmodern, indifferent shrug a threat to civilization, and the casual attraction to outré behavior a soul-killing reflex. I was recently stunned, and outraged, by a group of guitar-toting youth who had taken it to be their right to intimidate a small band of Christians in a nearby small city.

Today’s incipient barbarism is different from that of ages now gone. Today’s barbarians have little fear of the cosmos whereas our prehistoric ancestors knew that the world was a menacing realm best treated with respect. They keenly sensed both Here and There. Their response was pantheism and superstition, to see all of nature as fraught with unpredictable forces to be placated. Today’s barbarians are atheistic, or perhaps post-theistic; they scoff at the notion of Here and There.

Paradoxically, it was the coming of Jesus Christ and the Christian gospel that tamed much of that primitive fear and menace, that “disenchanted” much of the natural world, and allowed a safe zone for the development of modern science. But the Christian gospel also warns us that the Prince of Darkness is still largely in charge, and that He must not be trifled with.

But today’s fashionably bad boys and girls, fascinated with their transgressions and impatient with older subtleties, have no time for such distinctions as Here or There.

Until it is too late, as it was for Heather, Michael and Josh, as well as James Kim.

The Monuments of Unaging Intellect

Ezekiel Emmanuel is a doctor, and one of President Obama’s chief advisors concerning the Affordable Care Act, aka ObamaCare. Mr. Emmanuel thinks that when we turn 75, our options for further thriving should run out. If we can make it on our own, fine, but if we need public medical assistance, sorry. Can anyone say: “death panels?”

Mr. Emmanuel is, I believe, about 58, so his take on all of this is, I suspect, somewhat academic. I’ll turn 73 in about two weeks, and I have a mean dog in this fight. I’m not too worried that Mr. Emmanuel’s kind of passive euthanasia will come about soon, but the fact that some people are thinking about it makes me nervous.

The nineteenth-century poet Walter Savage Landor wrote on the occasion of his seventy-fifth birthday: “I strove with none, for none was worth my strife. / Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art: / I warm’d both hands before the fire of life; / It sinks, and I am ready to depart.” He lived nearly another fifteen years, dying at 89. His friend the writer Algernon Swinburne wrote of his final days: “The last fruit of a genius which after a life of eighty-eight years had lost nothing of its majestic and pathetic power, its exquisite and exalted expression.” Landor may have been ready to depart at 75, but some of his greatest dramatic masterpieces would have gone to the grave with him.

Oh, to be 58 again, like Mr. Emmanuel! I hit my stride only in my 50s, and to some extent I’m still going strong. Seventy-five is rapidly becoming the new 65, and if American healthcare can escape the worst ravages of progressive tampering, we might all look forward to vigor into our 90s and beyond. How will Mr. Emmanuel feel when he turns 75, surrounded by his grandchildren, and the actuarial table strongly in his favor, yet a victim to his own principles? Sure, longevity has a social cost, and we don’t yet know what all of that means to Social Security and Medicare, but there’s not a healthy 75-year-old around who would not look forward to another decade or two.

It used to be that old age was venerated, but with the recent advent of the Age of Resentment nobody who has anything more than his neighbor, even if only a few years of happy dotage, is safe.

Vladimir Horowitz played his last, great piano concert at the age of 85. President Reagan awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom shortly thereafter. He lived to the age of 87. Jacques Barzun, the staggeringly brilliant cultural historian, wrote his magnum opus From Dawn to Decadence at age 92. He lived for another nine years. Composer Elliott Carter, who died two years ago, wrote his final piece at age 104. Katherine Anne Porter wrote her novel Ship of Fools in her seventies, and she lived to 90, writing to nearly the end of her days.

We all have or had a favorite ancient aunt or uncle, grandfather or grandmother, whose hoary wisdom and wit have enlivened our holidays. When Shakespeare asked, “Why so large cost, having so short a lease, / Dost thou upon thy fading mansion spend?” the answer is, I Am Not Done! As I wrote in my wedding vows to Marilyn my wife: “But we are here, cupped in each other’s hands, / At home at last, the day still early morn, / The winter past, and seasons still to run, / Love giving life, and life by love reborn.” If man knows not his time, neither does he know his span.

True, old age should rage against the dying of the light (Dylan Thomas), but it should rage even more against the snuffing of the light.

Utopian socialists always equate old age with superannuation, and hence expendability. We’ve seen this kind of thing before, in the sad annals of the twentieth century. The fact is that with the extended adolescence now so common among those of Dr. Emmanuel’s generation, it is just possible that they haven’t grown up yet. Give them a few more years, and they will sing a different tune.

Grandfather’s View of History

“I must study politics and war, that my sons may have the liberty to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, and naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

John Adams wrote that. It is the grandfather’s view of history. In many ways, you and I are the beneficiaries of the Founding Fathers, who studied war and politics. Our fathers were the second generation: builders, farmers and businessmen. We are the grandchildren, the poets, musicians, and artisans. We’ve inherited a world where law and order have already been established first by the warrior and then by the tycoon.

The late eighteenth century and most of the nineteenth were the generals, the revolutionaries, the pioneers. The twentieth century was the great era of designing, building, defending and consolidating. The twenty-first is a time for reflecting, refining and recreating.

That’s how history goes. Yet, it falls on that third generation to start the cycle over. The third phase of civilization is where decline and decadence set in. It is the generation of leisure that breeds, unless resisted, discontent, intellectual laziness and resentment. Progress is itself not inevitable, and many civilizations have carried in their DNA the genetics of their own destruction.

John Adams was himself the heir of an earlier civilization. He and his compatriots faced a decision: luxuriate in the enchanted fields of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope, or become men of purposeful action. These were very bright men, the best educated of their time. They could meditate on Seneca or Cicero, but were also prone to the seductions of the French progressives of the day. Would they turn inward, spend their days in pubs and libraries (the internet cafes of the day), or perhaps become Jacobins and throw over all their Puritan forefathers had built?

Or would they heed the call of history, and start civilization all over again?

Of course that is the choice before us today. The entropy of civilization is all around us: the world-weariness of the gadget-crazed young, the manic pursuit of personal development among the middle-aged, the faux piety of the religious, the moral senescence of the old. We are becoming a trans-generational, self-titillated culture of lotus eaters. The West is becoming, in the words of Tennyson, “a land in which it seemed always afternoon, / Living and lying reclined / On the hills like Gods together / Careless of mankind.”

What is to be done? Any prescription will sound self-serving and provincial in so insouciant a world. Each must ask himself: Am I what God intends me to be? Or do I fight against that? Am I merely a product of my times? Or am I more than that? Have I pushed boundaries today, or only defended them? Do I owe any thanks to the past, or commitment to the future, or is it all just about Me, Here, Now?

Have You “Leaned In” Today?

Sheryl Sandberg is the COO of Facebook. That makes her smart, right? She’s also the author of a best seller, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Sandberg travels the country, often with other smart women, telling even more smart women to throw off the shackles of cultural expectation, to stand up and say “I Am Somebody,” and to get out there and shift some paradigms. If only American women could stop beating themselves up and hiding their natural leadership gifts under a bushel, why, we’d all be better off. Lean In: to yourself, to your talents, to the future.

“Our economic growth depends on having women fully engaged in the workforce,” she writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Our companies perform better with women in management. And our homes are happier when men and women share responsibilities more equally.”

She seems especially sensitive to being called “bossy,” which in her lexicon is the other “B” word. Doggone it, Sandberg seems to say, all you have to do is put your hands on your hips, look sidelong at life and declare with Sandra Day O’Connor’s pillow, “I’m not bossy, I just have better ideas.”

That’s the ticket. The only problem with America is faulty self-esteem. The only solution? “Lean In” to a career, give it your all, shuck the old values of playing nice, and you’ll rise to the top. She’s even confirmed all of this by asking her women audiences to raise their hands if they’ve ever been called “bossy.”  Who could imagine so many women would have borne this silent putdown so patiently for so long, some even jumping up and down while raising both hands!

I’m sure Sheryl Sandberg is a wonderful human being and that she means well. Her injunctions to the women in her world are decidedly softer than the vein-bursting screeds of feminists of the past. But she reminds me of another smart woman, Susan Patton, whose recent book Marry Smart is profiled in the weekend Wall Street Journal. Whereas Sandberg tells women to lean into a career before thinking about marriage and family, Patton says the better advice is to lean in to finding a husband WHILE women are in college. Your whole life will go better if you find the right man soon enough, she concludes.

I’ll let these two have at one another over their contrary views of what it means to “lean in.” For my money, the way America is going to be saved is for some people to begin to lean out.

Charles Murray, he of the scandalous (to liberals) book The Bell Curve, has said that the elite classes, to which Sandberg belongs, have shirked their historic role of modeling successful social roles to the lower classes. These classes have become self-referential and isolated from the middle and lower classes. The elite classes are predominantly liberal and Democratic, educated, and comprise the majority of the urban and suburban technocrats. They are the very kind of people Sheryl Sandberg is, as are most of the women who make up her audiences.

Rich elites have the time, money and social capital to spend their careers “leaning in” to the opportunities and privileges of companies like Facebook. They are the people for whom a bit of self-esteem is the only thing standing between them and their own self-actualization. As Betty Smartt Carter, who reviewed Sandberg’s book, writes: “I see the attraction of Sandberg world: a place where the old gender/work division are nothing but the lingering scent of fields and woods–part of our agricultural heritage. We can ignore those, right? We can all choose to do what we like no matter who we are and what our parents believed fifty years ago.”

Most of the young women in my world have done about all the leaning in they can possibly do. Many are already more ambitious then their husbands, smarter even, and pretty confident of themselves. But they’re facing some awfully formidable obstacles. “Leaning in may be a good thing,” Carter writes, “unless you’re already pulling the wagon toward a cliff.”

The fact is, it is precisely the world created and sustained by the Sandberg-type classes that has become one of the great obstacles looming before much of the young middle class today. The Leaners-In of the superzips have made their concordat with the Obama administration’s class war; they’ve exempted themselves from that war’s assault on the middle class; they’ve thrown their money into the huge pot labeled “The Poor,” but they themselves wouldn’t know a poor person if it were their own nanny. They obsess over their own “authenticity” but haven’t a clue concerning the laws of necessity that govern the twenty-somethings on the other side of Atherton, Evanston and Belmont.

Reviewer Carter writes: “Sandberg’s book is culture-specific to America’s northern and western centers of power. If she lived in my southern hometown, where the calendar is always stuck on 1985, she might have to write a different book: “Lie Down: Women, Work, and the Desperate Need for Sleep After Doing It All By Yourself.”