Dear Intelligent American,
Hearing numerous “Amens” reminds one of Sidney Poitier teaching German nuns that famous spiritual in Lilies of the Field, no? (What a great movie, by the way.) At church this past Sunday—and you will forgive this sectarian waxing—the reading from the Gospel of John (chapter 10, for those keeping score) dealt with the “Good Shepherd,” in which the Nazarene carpenter offered up a lot of repetitive amens. As in, “Amen, amen I say to you.”
For the first time in over a half century of Sunday genuflecting, Your Humble Correspondent was struck by that phrase. After all, the “Amen, amen” was not a rhetorical device, some divine throat clearing, right? There must be a (we shall not say “darned good”) reason.
Captain Obvious headed to a search engine to inquire about that phrase’s . . . specialness. Conclusion: It is special. And then some. Jesus is saying, pay attention because what follows is of paramount import. The barometer plummets, and straight ahead, the Double Amen declares, is unquestionable certainty, words binding, truth essential, forbidding nuance.
Grasping for a cinematic metaphor, only an unholy one pressed on the pea-brain: When Vincenzo Pentangeli, in that groovy Sicilian bolo tie, dropped in on the Senate Mafia hearing in The Godfather 2.
Instead of “Amen,” Brother Frankie probably uttered a few silent and desperate Hail Marys when he got the sibling malocchio.
What this blathering is all about is . . . sometimes the Good Book, or even a good book, can make those old eyes see something anew, decades later. And now, let us get to what you and your eyes came for—some recommended readings. Can we get an “Amen”?!
The Eyes Have It! Jeepers Creepers Get Those Peepers Ready
1. At UnHerd, Oliver Bateman accuses America of being trapped in high school. From the piece:
Maggie Bullock, author of The Kingdom of Prep, on the other hand, went all-in on style after she left the American South to attend boarding school. In her book, which covers “the rise and fall of J.Crew”, she examines the history of the company that enabled her to quickly dress in the preppy style of her classmates: flat-front trousers, polo shirts, roll-neck sweaters. A well-worn roll-neck sweater, Bullock writes with nostalgic affection, “had social acceptance knit into its very fibres”.
Like America, J.Crew sold a paradoxical dream: the top tier of society is exclusive, but anyone can reach it. Its products aped those of Ralph Lauren, Brooks Brothers, and J.Press—whose name J.Crew emulated—but retailed for a fraction of the cost. The clothes were still pricey, but could be thought of as an affordable investment; the company was aspirational, certainly, but it wasn’t exclusionary. That is, unless you happened to be a woman who wore a size larger than 12 or a man who wore “XXL” shirts, although the company redressed its skinny-bias in the more obese world of the 2010s.
Indeed, what J.Crew was selling evolved in tandem with American society. At its point of inception, in 1983, clothing retailers played a critical role in the capital-powered construction of self. And J.Crew offered a ready-to-wear identity: a beginner’s guide to prep for those who quickly needed to ingratiate themselves to the establishment. Initially, the company was catalogue-only, but during the late Eighties, founder Arthur Cinader’s daughter Emily steered its expansion into the indoor mall—the place of American identity creation during this period. Being able to buy the prep look straight from a catalogue had been an innovation, but taking it to the mall, where you could browse identities between stops at the food court and the arcade, was a critical next step in expanding J.Crew’s reach.
2. At Quillette, Kevin Mims arrives, sirens blaring, to praise Joseph Wambaugh, creator of the modern-cop novel. From the essay:
By 1974, Wambaugh realized that his celebrity had made it impossible to do his job as a cop. Reluctantly, he resigned. (Wambaugh wasn’t the first member of the LAPD to give up police work for the entertainment world; Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry spent seven-and-a-half years with the LAPD before leaving to focus fulltime on a career as a TV writer and producer. The character of Mr. Spock was reputedly based on former LAPD Chief William H. Parker, under whom both Roddenberry and Wambaugh served.) Published in late 1975, The Choirboys debuted on the New York Times bestseller list on November 30th. Despite its late start, the book would go on to be the fifth bestselling novel of 1975.
By late 1975, Wambaugh had produced four of the decade’s best books, and yet he remained largely ignored by the serious literary crowd. John Leonard, as editor of the New York Times Book Review, was a high-ranking member of that crowd, and the fact that he chose to review The Choirboys himself, suggests that he, at least, had some notion of just what a cultural juggernaut Wambaugh had become. Alas, Leonard’s reviews were often marred by his heavy-handed attempts to impress others with his wit and style, which were rather weak instruments.
The Choirboys, Leonard wrote, felt “as though ‘Catch-22’ had been written by Popeye Doyle.” Presumably this was meant as high praise, but why drag a fictional cop (based on actual NYPD officer Eddie Egan) into the mix in order to praise an actual cop? Why not simply report that (now former) LAPD officer Joseph Wambaugh has written a black comedy every bit the equal of Catch-22? Leonard went on to say, “Very little in Wambaugh’s first two novels prepares one for the scabrous humor and ferocity of ‘The Choirboys.’”
3. At The European Conservative, Carlos Perona Calvete, given astronomist findings that some galaxies may be “too old” for the Big Bang, opines on the scientific urge to confine. From the piece:
It sometimes seems that the modern scientific establishment has in common with certain literalist religionists a yearning for the closure of a specific, closed beginning to the cosmological story.
Indeed, that establishment has recently tried to proscribe debate and prematurely come to definite conclusions, making very definite, corresponding policy recommendations, from the Green Transition to mass COVID-19 vaccination.
Eric Voegelin warned against the desire of the conqueror to find the finis mundi, to have the whole earth at his back and establish his realm at its edge once and for all; to seal reality off once and for all.
But closure is an inward endeavor. Absolute truth and the principles underlying reality are not empirically measurable quantities; they are stations of philosophical and spiritual insight. It is when we accord with these inner truths that outward reality is seen aright, and a true understanding of its systems is obtained.
4. At Tablet Magazine, Elizabeth Karpen—her senses of taste and smell gutted by Covid-19—offers thoughts on Jewish cooking and eating and their defining meaning for faith. From the piece:
When the realization hit that my smell and taste are likely gone for good, my sense of Jewishness felt precarious. How was I supposed to rebuild such a stable part of my identity when I felt the most Jewish sharing a meal with my loved ones? Would I ever feel like that again when I could never enjoy that meal myself? In short: I don’t think I ever will. Losing my sense of taste and smell has forced me to relearn what it means to be Jewish.
For a while after my smell and taste were gone, I resented the act of cooking. My childhood was spent at my mother’s side watching her create works of art in the kitchen and playing sous chef. As an adult who couldn’t smell or taste, offers to make an additional dessert or asks whether I wanted to help were selfishly declined. There was nothing to gain in creating something I couldn’t enjoy myself. I just shook my head and silently raged.
Losing my ability to enjoy food did not ravage my body—in fact, now I’ll gladly eat radishes and kale and other foods that used to make me retch. However, losing my sense of smell and taste has stripped me of more than my senses because the memories have begun to slip as well. I’ve already forgotten how cloves smelled or whether it was the dill or parsley that hit the tongue first in my grandmother’s matzo ball soup. There are days where I am frustrated and angry with my lack of memory and all I want is to enjoy that pizza shop falafel combo. Some days I just sit there and lie to those around me and nod along when a friend points out that New York City wet garbage smell because if I tell myself I can smell it, maybe eventually I’ll believe it.
There is no Mourner’s Kaddish for the intangible. There is no way to commemorate what once defined my Judaism. Simply, all there was left for me to do was just move on.
5. At The American Mind, Spencer Klavan shares thoughts on the latest “Barbie” doll. From the piece:
This Tuesday, the Mattel corporation revealed a new Barbie doll with Down’s Syndrome. She will join the “Fashionistas” line, alongside others with wheelchairs, prosthetic legs, vitiligo, and so forth. To this I say: Excellent! People with Down’s are indeed often delightful, creative, and virtuous. Independently of all that, they are endowed like the rest of us with a non-negotiable right to life. How nice that they have a doll to play with that looks like them. Perhaps as the next step in our campaign for their dignity we should stop executing them in the womb.
Mattel hopes the new addition will “enable all children to see themselves in Barbie.” Long criticized for reinforcing an impossible standard of human physical perfection, Barbie has been extensively remodeled in a variety of permutations to reflect the glorious panoply of human life. “Fashionistas“ is Mattel’s “most diverse and inclusive doll line, offering a variety of skin tones, eye colors, hair colors, and textures, body types, disabilities, and fashions.” Barbie descends from the heights of her once-rigidly pointed plastic toes, to walk flat-footed among us with all our maladies and flaws. Truly, she hath borne our infirmities.
On its face, this is not the kind of project that thrills me with enthusiasm. “Inclusion” and “representation” are buzzwords that often signal not just generosity toward certain neglected classes, but also hostility toward the mere idea of any standard or aspirational norm. If Mattel had wanted to keep on stamping Barbie forever in a certain svelte, prim, and shapely mold of feminine beauty, that would have been their right as far as I’m concerned. Ideals are not the same thing as insults, and just because we all fall short of them is no reason to forbid noticing them.
6. At Catholic World Report, William Kilpatrick reflects on the Salem Witch Trials, and how their spirit is captured in contemporary America. From the article:
In other words, it’s likely than the victims were hung not simply for being witches, but for failure to conform to accepted beliefs about witches—such as the belief that witches could turn themselves into birds or animals.
Many in the town of Salem doubted that the accused—several of whom had a reputation for being upright and devout—were witches. They looked upon the “bewitched” girls as play-acting teens who deserved a good thrashing rather than the rapt attention of gullible adults.
It was those gullible adults, however, that kept the hysteria alive. But perhaps gullible is not quite the right word. The Massachusetts Puritans were steeped in the Bible and their religious leaders were for the most part well-educated men—some of them were graduates of Harvard College.
Furthermore, what the girls claimed had happened to them did fit into a biblical narrative, which does include mention of witchcraft as well as numerous warnings about the devil’s thirst for human souls. On the other hand, the doubts that some townspeople had about the devil’s license to create widespread havoc did not seem to fit into a biblical perspective. Thus, those who doubted that the devil was involved in Salem’s troubles were treated much more harshly than the girls.
7. At National Review, John Lomperis tells of the “messy divorce” that is busting up the once-burgeoning United Methodist Church. From the article:
Over time, we then welcomed more and more ministers who essentially crossed their fingers behind their backs while taking the required ordination vows of doctrinal loyalty. Some have frankly admitted to lying through this process in order to change the church from within. Many such clergy members ascended to the highest levels of denominational leadership.
Meanwhile, influenced by the legacy of the Social Gospel movement, our bureaucracy developed a habit of routine advocacy on every U.S. political controversy and consistent aligning with the left wing of the Democratic Party. Causes promoted by the UMC’s liberal bureaucracy in recent years have included establishing “open borders” (their words), demonizing Israel, opposing sanctions against North Korea, broadly decriminalizing drug use and prostitution, decrying American gun culture, and supporting reparations for African Americans. Politically conservative United Methodists have shown little interest in any mirror-image approach.
Together, the laxity about core doctrine and the dogmatic position-taking on countless political controversies have further promoted a cafeteria attitude to official church positions, one in which different United Methodists prioritize different segments of official UMC statements as “most important.” For progressives, this can mean prioritizing certain technically nonbinding left-wing political statements in the UMC’s 781-page Book of Resolutions while shrugging off reports of certain bishops’ denying the Resurrection or the sinlessness of Jesus Christ.
8. At The American Conservative, Christopher Caldwell finds that a novel about the Russian strongman Putin has taken France by storm. From the essay:
The French seem content with this caricature; Putin enjoys an 11 percent approval rating there. But perhaps appearances deceive. Six weeks after the invasion, the publisher Gallimard brought out, under its prestigious NRF imprint, a first novel by the Franco-Italian political adviser and essayist Giuliano da Empoli. Le Mage du Kremlin (“The Wizard of the Kremlin”) is the first-person narrative of Vadim Baranov, a sharp-witted and sensitive Russian intellectual fed up with the way his country has been insulted, humiliated, and ripped off since the fall of Communism. Not always wholly convinced that Putin is the man to restore the country to its proper place in the world, Baranov is nonetheless eager to help. He becomes Putin’s spin doctor and a versatile kind of political fixer, winning our sympathy as he falls in love, makes his way in cutthroat Moscow, and reflects on the double-edged sword of Western modernity. Laid out by such a character, his boss’s view of the world comes off as sometimes cynical, frequently courageous, always rational.
The book has divided France’s intellectuals. Very broadly speaking, Russophiles (like the historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse) loved it; Russophobes (like the Sovietologist Françoise Thom) hated it. But French readers, presumably skeptical about Putin, have not been so divided. Not since Michel Houellebecq’s Submission have they gone into such a swoon over a serious novel.
Le Mage du Kremlin hit number one on the best-seller lists. Last October it won the prize for top novel from the Académie Française. Its failure to win France’s most prestigious literary prize, the Goncourt, became a national scandal. When da Empoli was edged out by Brigitte Giraud’s romantic autobiography Vivre Vite (“Live Fast”) on a tiebreaker vote, the Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, who had backed da Empoli along with four other members of the Goncourt jury, denounced the choice. Already translated into 30 languages, the book will be published in the United States in October.
9. Book ’Em, Danno: At Plough Quarterly, Zito Madu sings the joys of the home library. From the piece:
When I was moving to New York City, the main question was what to do with all the books. My parents didn’t want me to take them. They liked still having a room in the house to stand as a library, and of course if the books remained, that meant that I was only leaving temporarily. I would come back for the books. But I needed to take a substantial amount of them as well. I needed to be surrounded, everywhere that I stayed, with these books that were doors to endless worlds. I needed the ones that I hadn’t read, and the ones that I might not ever get to read, much more than I did the ones that I had. Those books were the unknown, the unexplored dark forests—they both comfort and thrill me with the possibility that one day I might open them up and find myself among new monsters, friends, adventures, and tragedies. Even if that opening never happens, that it might happen is enough.
My parents and I compromised on eight boxes. Eight boxes of books shipped to Brooklyn, which filled three shelves and spilled onto the floor as they should. I believe that a library, personal or otherwise, should be a little messy. In the year and change that I’ve been in Brooklyn, the books have accumulated so much that I’m starting to shift furniture to accommodate them. It won’t be long until this place also becomes a library with a bed. When I think of where I want to live in the future and the requirements of the house, the first thing that comes to mind is that I must be able to have an expansive library. Not only for myself, but for my friends and family to walk through. It doesn’t need to be the same as Umberto Eco’s, but it needs to be substantial.
10. At The Human Life Review, Diane Moriarty comes across an old kids’ game and reflects on its relation to modern abortion rhetoric. From the piece:
Mumbley Peg was a very popular game in 19th-century America, equal to marbles and jacks. In Mark Twain’s 1896 novel Tom Sawyer, Detective, mumbley peg, or “mumblety-peg,” was described as a favorite game of young boys. In it two opponents stand opposite each other with their feet shoulder-width apart, then the first player takes his pocket knife and throws it at the ground, sticking it as close as possible to his own foot. The second player does the same with his own knife. The player who sticks his knife closest to his foot wins. The winner then drives a wooden peg into the ground and the loser must pull it out with his teeth while mumbling curses at the winner, hence “mumbley peg.” But there’s another version, presumably for adults (and very bored adults at that), where one can score an automatic win by purposely sticking the knife into your own foot! Throwing the knife as close to your own foot without actually hitting it takes skill and nerve, but an intentionally self-inflicted wound as a fast track to success? Two things immediately spring to mind: How much moonshine was consumed before the concept and ground rules for this sport were thunk up, and um, what’s the point? But as I was chortling to myself over the rank stupidity of this pastime, my head snapped back with the sudden realization that it bears a close resemblance to modern rhetoric about abortion “rights.”
To be sure, the only thing modern about abortion is today’s rhetoric. The practice goes back thousands of years and was most often done with herbal mixtures. Abortion wasn’t discouraged in ancient Greece and Rome, although, according to Wikipedia, a fragment of a poem attributed to Lysias suggests it could have been a crime for a pregnant woman to abort if her husband died before she gave birth, depriving the unborn child of his inheritance. . . .
Generally, people from ancient times and on through the Middle Ages were accepting of barbarity, be it cheering as Christians were eaten alive by wild animals in the arena or penalties like burning at the stake and drawing and quartering. But needless to say, abortion wasn’t a multi-million-dollar industry as it is today, lauded as being a path to supposed “feminist” empowerment. Nor could the people who lived back then watch a sonogram of a 13-week-old fetus backing away from a needle before getting sucked into a vat. We can. So, who are the barbarians?
11. At The Center Square, Bruno Manno marks the 40th anniversary of “Nation at Risk” by reminding that the historic education report should still command attention. From the piece:
First, the report’s audience was not the conventional one of education reports. Instead of directing the report to education experts and others in the profession—the producers of education—it was an “Open Letter to the American People.” The commission wanted to educate consumers—for example, taxpayers, parents, and employers—and mobilize them to act on the problem it documented. To do this, it used direct and dramatic language like “. . . the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people.”
Second, the commission identified one problem that K-12 education had to solve. The reason for this rising tide of mediocrity was that young people were not learning enough to live, work, and compete in the new economy, placing the nation’s security at risk. The commission’s vivid language and military analogy called on Americans to roll back that tide and end the threat: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might have viewed it as an act of war.” The report documented the dimensions of the risk from the testimony it received, including 13 examples. Improving education required raising education standards to improve students’ academic achievement or performance outcomes.
12. At Warren County Record, Ray Scherer reports that the local Missouri education fundraiser broke a record. From the beginning of the article:
The annual WISE (Warren County R-III Investment in Scholastic Excellence) fundraiser held Saturday night set a new standard of success for the nonprofit organization’s efforts.
Carmen Schulze, WISE’s foundation board president, said the events staged at the Elks Lodge raised more than $83,000, before counting expenses. The Red & White Fundraiser, with the theme “Road To Success,” was highlighted by a dinner, auction, and dance.
When combined with additional donations to WISE outside of the event itself, Schulze said the program raised a total of just under $100,000—again before all expenses have been tallied. . . .
Scholastic and academic support are central to WISE’s mission on behalf of Warrenton schools. Toward those goals, Schulze said the fundraiser’s proceeds are devoted to scholarships that will be awarded to Warrenton graduating seniors in May. Determining those scholarship amounts is the first priority.
Lucky 13. At NPR, Aaron Bonderson reports on how one Nebraska small town has outwitted the sorry trend of grocery stores abandoning rural areas. From the beginning of the piece:
About five years ago, Emerson, Neb., lost its grocery store. Residents were forced to drive at least 20 miles to stock their pantries at the nearest full-service store.
Then last year this village of 824 people came together to open a new market. They raised nearly $160,000 of their own money double their initial fundraising goal. And Post 60 Market was born.
The cooperatively owned store moved into the old American Legion building. It sells a full range of groceries, including fresh produce, meat, and household supplies.
Investors receive discounts and dividends and elect a board of directors each year to oversee large financial decisions.
“With being a co-op and so many people bought in—it’s like you got multiple owners who have just as much commitment to see this thing succeed,” says manager Brian Horak.
BONUS: At Comment, Derek Taylor casts his line in a river, full of grace. From the reflection:
I realized this one morning as my pursuit of the native redband rainbow trout left me knee-deep in the swift waters of the Spokane River. As I paused between casts to take in the moment it struck me that what I was feeling against my legs—the steady flow of water moving from sky to mountain to stream to sea—was a life-sustaining force. I recalled Aldo Leopold’s narration of the “odyssey of an atom” on its oceanward journey. I saw in that moment that I stood at the midpoint of upstream and downstream—both of which extend into unknown times before and beyond my life. Standing in the river, my story is never wholly my own. Feeling the flow of water forced my imagination to expand. I couldn’t think of myself without thinking of all the other interconnected things.
Being a theologian, I also thought of the apostle Paul. If all things were created in Christ and in Christ all things hold together (Colossians 1:15–17), perhaps I was encountering Jesus in this river. The fish proved hard to find. But God was right there.
This realization has shaped my theological imagination in two important ways.
First, it taught me where I am. When I grabbed my rod that morning, I thought I was going out to be in nature. But I was wrong. I wasn’t in nature. I was a part of creation. Norman Wirzba gives language to this vital distinction: “To say that our world is ‘creation’ rather than a ‘corpse,’ a ‘material mechanism,’ or a ‘natural resource’ means that we need to see it . . . [as] the material manifestation of God’s love operating within it.” That morning I found myself immersed not merely in water molecules careening toward the sea but in the love of God that animates, orders, and sustains all things.
For the Good of the Cause
Uno. At Philanthropy Daily, the great Maria D’Anselmi tells who won the Heritage Foundation’s new “Innovation Prizes,” and she does that right here.
Due. Denver in July? Yeah, that sends a good vibe, and the Coolio Colorado City is where you should find yourself—from Monday, July 10th, through Wednesday the 13th—when AmPhil’s Center for Civil Society will host a Major Gifts Training Seminar for development professionals looking for intensive training and buffed-up knowledge in the critical art of dealing with key prospects and generous givers. This is an opportunity to gain consequential knowledge, so don’t miss it. Get more information, and sign up, right here.
Tre. What makes the difference between a good and a great fundraiser (the person, not the event)? Find out on Tuesday, May 23rd, when C4CS director Jonathan Hannan will be joined by The NorthStar Consulting Group’s Brian Green and Henry Scroope in a free, via-Zoom webinar (from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m., Eastern) to share information and advice that will . . . inspire. You will definitely want to attend. To get more information, and to register, go here.
Quattro. Are you a believer . . . in the premise that America’s skyrocketing irreligiosity may have something to do with the problems affecting this nation? You are? Then do come to the important C4CS conference—“Rise of the Nones: How Declining Religious Affiliation Is Changing Civil Society”—taking place on November 7–8 in glorious Scottsdale, AZ. Get complete information right here.
Department of Bad Jokes
Q: What do you call a maize problem?
A: A corn-flict.
Happy Cinco de Mayo.
May the Great Amen Bless All,
Jack Fowler, who lives in the ether at firstname.lastname@example.org.