Can Fairy Tales Do More than the Holy Spirit?

As much as I live and breathe and have my being in conservative circles in the United States, I cannot understand how conservatives who are Christians can write so cheerfully about virtue and what it takes to cultivate it:

Mere instruction in morality is not sufficient to nurture the virtues. It might even backfire, especially when the presentation is heavily exhortative and the pupil’s will is coerced. Instead, a compelling vision of the goodness of goodness itself needs to be presented in a way that is attractive and stirs the imagination. A good moral education addresses both the cognitive and affective dimensions of human nature. Stories are an irreplaceable medium of this kind of moral education. This is the education of character.

The Greek word for character literally means an impression. Moral character is an impression stamped upon the self. Character is defined by its orientation, consistency, and constancy. Today we often equate freedom with morality and goodness. But this is naïve because freedom is transcendent and the precondition of choice itself. Depending upon his character, an individual will be drawn toward either goodness or wickedness. Moral and immoral behavior is freedom enacted either for good or for ill.

The great fairy tales and children’s fantasy stories attractively depict character and virtue. In these stories, the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. These stories make us face the unvarnished truth about ourselves while compelling us to consider what kind of people we want to be.

Calvinists have a problem with this, obviously, since they put the T in Total Depravity. But shouldn’t any Christian who considers himself Augustinian or any theist who believes in the fall (recorded in the not so fair tale of Genesis)? Can’t we at least, if you’re not going to talk about effectual calling, reserve some space for baptism and the sacraments more generally?

Or, are we supposed to conclude that a kid reared on Beauty and the Beast has as much a shot at virtue as the one who’s baptized? If that’s the case, then why is cult so much the bedrock of culture?

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You Don’t Need an Education to be Outraged

Molly Worthen wrote a good piece at the New York Times about the way that conservatives take ideas seriously (and by implication, liberals not so much):

The syllabuses and faculty range from say, the secular Jewish milieu of Hertog to the libertarian Cato Institute to the Christian traditionalism of the John Jay Institute. But all these programs seek to correct the defects they see in mainstream higher education by stressing principles over pluralism, immersing students in the wisdom of old books and encouraging them to apply that wisdom to contemporary politics.

Liberals have their own activist workshops and reading groups, but these rarely instruct students in an intellectual tradition, a centuries-long canon of political philosophy. Why have philosophical summer schools become a vibrant subculture on the right, but only a feeble presence on the left? The disparity underscores a divide between conservatives and liberals over the best way to teach young people — and, among liberals, a certain squeamishness about the history of ideas.

Liberals, however, can’t afford to dismiss Great Books as tools of white supremacy, or to disdain ideological training as the sort of unsavory thing that only conservatives and communists do. These are powerful tools for preparing the next generation of activists to succeed in the bewildering ideological landscape of the country that just elected Mr. Trump.

One reason that liberals and progressives don’t study the past or its leading voices is that so many of the authors fail so quickly on the left’s moral grid of identity righteousness/victimhood (race, class, gender, sexual orientation). If John Stuart Mill was on the wrong side of women’s liberation or Immanuel Kant wasn’t a proponent of civil rights for blacks — a bit anachronistic, mind you — then what could they possibly teach about the plight of trannies in search of a public bathroom? It worked the same way in the world of mainline churches. Who reads Henry Sloane Coffin, William Adams Brown or their evangelical enablers like Robert Speer? These modernists or doctrinal indifferentists were on the cutting edge of reducing the conservative orientation of the PCUSA. But by the 1960s when sex, Civil Rights, and Vietnam were the topics of debate, the old contests of the 1920s had no value.

In point of fact, activism needs no serious reflection if you listen to interviews with contemporary Ivy League students like this. Sure, the Princeton University editor is respectful and intelligent in some respects. But he has no clue about the impropriety of going to college to learn while also saying that faculty need to be re-educated about race and safe spaces. If this student is representative, today’s college students, the really smart ones, can’t tell the difference between being policed in Ferguson, MO or by campus police at Princeton University. Heck, they even think that the oppression African-Americans have confronted historically is on a par with what women, gays, and trannies face.

Meanwhile, the therapeutic quality of contemporary activism should never be discounted. The idea of not hurting students’ sense of empowerment is prominent in discussions of critical race theory like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s in Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex. Where that leads was the subject of Judith Shulevitz’s New York Times piece on safe spaces discussed here.

With all the smart people running the world for the last 8 years, you might think that colleges and universities would themselves provide the sort of intellectual training for which Worthen calls. Why do you need supplemental education when you are in a four-year accredited and, in some cases, prestigious university? The reason is that universities, even the good ones, treat students like this:

But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)

When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with — and heighten the significance of — “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?

Imagine that: a good novel, historical investigation, and even philosophical deliberation might lift a person out of their own set of ideas and consider those of other people. They might even experience empathy with hillbillies (or they can simply deconstruct and carry on impervious to others).

Yes, there are lots of good faculty, serious students, and great classes across the board in U.S. colleges and universities. But the limits of smarts are well on display. Can U.S. higher education self-correct? Can the Vatican? You do the math and set the odds.

When the Gospel (Coalition) Needs Conservatism

At a time when out-of-wedlock births are skyrocketing (forty percent in 2013) and straining urban life in major ways, Bethany Jenkins, who writes with the blessing of the Gospel Coalition and who swims the the heady streams of New York City evangelicalism, considers being a single mom:

These days it almost seems passé to talk about needing marriage before having children. Today’s single woman doesn’t need marriage—or even a man.

Single mothers by choice (SMBC)—in contrast to by circumstance or chance—are single women who have chosen to have children through sperm donation (75 percent) or adoption (25 percent). The difference between these women and women like me who choose to remain childless, says Kate Bolick in Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own, is desire:

Again and again, the [SMBC] I spoke with described how they’d wanted to be a mother for as long as they could remember and how the urge to get there became so overpowering, it felt less like a rational decision than a compulsion. This conviction—that no matter what, they would have a child—is, I’ve concluded, the most common denominator uniting all choice moms.

Such women are praised for their courage and confidence. One SMBC, who became a mother through sperm donation, says her friends called her “amazing” and “brave.” Yet she confesses she didn’t feel brave. “It’s not about being brave—it was about wanting to stop feeling like a childless mother, and take the next step before I ran out of time.”

My single friend, Christine, on the other hand, became a mother by adoption. Her journey was less a pursuit of self-actualization or self-fulfillment and more a response to a need—not a need she felt within herself, but a need she saw in someone else.

While working with high schoolers through the faith-based nonprofit Young Life, Christine met Ana, a 15-year-old expectant mother. When Ana’s water broke, her mother refused to take her to the hospital. That’s when Ana called Christine. Christine drove her to the hospital and stayed with her through the birth, holding her hand in the delivery room. Over the next few years, it became apparent that Ana and the birth father couldn’t care for their daughter, María.

It wasn’t easy, but Christine stepped up. At one point, she and María shared a 425-square-foot apartment and, since María’s biological familial ties weren’t completely severed, there were some relational challenges, too. But Christine says María is the greatest joy she has ever known—in spite of the obstacles. She also says she didn’t stumble into motherhood: “I longed to become a mom, so I diligently prayed for God to give me a child. When this opportunity arose, I had eyes to see it. If this hadn’t happened, I believe I’d have seen another opportunity. I was on the lookout for it.”

Hasn’t she heard about the importance of fathers in socializing children (especially boys)?

Meanwhile, Gracie Olmstead who writes regularly for American Conservative, puts motherhood in perspective, as in it’s not all about her but about the child:

Motherhood is not easy. It is often painful, frustrating, and difficult. It involves a host of unpleasantries. In our age, in which the self reigns supreme, motherhood runs counter to every society-endorsed impulse and mantra. Motherhood is all about sacrifice—from the moment our bodies begin to reconfigure themselves in order to grow a new human being.

Motherhood means sleepless nights, sore nipples, baby blues, weight gain, aching backs, temper tantrums, frightening doctor’s appointments, endless laundry, constant cleaning, incessant worry, near heart attacks, and lots and lots of money. Motherhood isn’t about self-filling. It’s about self-emptying.

That isn’t to say motherhood can’t be fun and joyous. It truly is and can be. But in order to embrace it, one must believe that all of the pain and hardship involved in motherhood is good, and that the child that results from all our work and hardship is inherently, intrinsically good as well. One must have a moral imagination, a “stable sentiment.” Mothers must have chests.

Olmstead adds that today’s decision to have a child could turn into tomorrow’s regret at giving birth:

As soon as we take away the idea of virtue—the idea that an act, despite the pains and sacrifice it might require, is objectively good and worth pursuing for its own sake—we permanently impede humankind’s ability to pursue selfless action. It does not matter if you tell a woman she should procreate “for the good of the species,” or tell her that she’s biologically predisposed to want children. If there is no overarching moral code related to the bearing and raising of children, then motherhood is subjugated to the wild and changeful whims of human emotion and desire. One second, you might want a baby; the next, you might spurn your child—and there is no law or code that can suggest you should do otherwise. “Instinct” becomes “impulse,” and so we waffle from whim to whim.

What accounts for the difference between an evangelical and conservative outlook on motherhood? Could it be that born-again Protestants really put the mmmmmeeeEEEE in all about mmmeeeeEEEE since personal experience and fulfillment is so important to being an evangelical? In contrast, conservatives (who may also be evangelicals) tend to think about the traditions and webs of social networks that go with marriage and rearing children. If the New York evangelical intelligentsia had given Bethany more instruction in conservatism than the gospel, maybe she’d see the problem with single parenthood.

Did P&W Make Straight the Way for BLM and LBGT?

The Lutheran Satirist provides an answer:

Granted, the liberal social justice warriors were not the only ones to inherit the “take, don’t make” mentality. For the past several decades, conservative Christians adopted the parasitic approach, convincing themselves that overtaking secular nests and repurposing them in a “Christian” style was somehow more virtuous than actually making something new.

Having embraced the same mindset as many secular counterparts, Christian parents convinced themselves that creating their own unique faith-driven stories or storytelling genres, like Dante and Milton and Bunyan and Wallace and Lewis and Tolkien had done, would have been too much work and required capital and capabilities they didn’t have, so they churchified the Saturday morning cartoon nest by showing their kids videos of a talking cucumber lecturing them about honesty and fairness with a Bible verse or two thrown in at the end. They swapped out Batman episodes with the adventures of Bibleman and praised themselves for their faithfulness. They put the “Facing the Giants” DVD in the “Remember the Titans” case. They justified all of this thinking rebuilding secular nests with Christian garbage was best for their children.

Likewise, with regard to music, furthering the tradition of legendary Christian hymnists and composers like Paul Gerhardt and Johann Sebastian Bach would have required a skillset these modern Christians were neither taught nor willing to learn, and finding their own voice would have proven just as difficult.

But three chords and pop song structure were pretty easy to imitate, so when they saw their children listening to music that glorified premarital sex and drug use, they parasitically strapped on guitars, infested the pre-existing nest of secular music, and produced awful Christian rockers, embarrassing Christian rappers, and an endless array of Top-40-sounding Christian artists ranging from bad Belinda Carlisle knockoffs to somehow-worse-than-actual-Richard-Marx Richard Marx knockoffs.

The results, however, were disastrous—not just because, in seeking to make Christianity better, they only made rock and roll worse, but also because they rendered us, their children, incapable of knowing any better. Because they settled for secular copycats, they never exposed us to Christendom’s great music, literature, artwork, and architecture. Because of this, we’ve become a bunch of musically illiterate, artistically impoverished believers with no appreciation for beauty who are perfectly content to spend Sunday mornings singing terrible music in repurposed movie theaters or gymnasiums, aspiring to nothing more because it’s never even occurred to us that the Christian faith gives us the power to form culture instead of parodying it.

By trying to safely place us into those pre-built but repurposed nests, our parents only succeeded in obligating us to the parasitic tradition. We’re already passing down that tradition to our offspring, and until we learn to stop believing the lie that taking is greater than making, I fear we’ll never recover the ability to create.

I’ve (mmmmeeeeeEEEEE) been trying to make this point for twenty years. Still works.

Is Conservatism Liberal?

For political conservatives, the answer is “sort of” since movement conservatives since the 1950s have generally understood themselves as classical liberals — in favor of markets, representative government, and constitutional separation of powers (including church and state). Modern political liberalism (i.e. New Deal) saw problems of economic inequality, the nature of large-scale war, and foreign diplomacy that classical liberalism could not answer beyond standing up and yelling “stop.” So modern liberals tried to update classical liberalism and ever since we have the leading wedge dividing red and blue states.

But when it comes to theology, how do conservatives fare? Richard Weaver is the fellow who will ever be associated with the conservative conviction, “ideas have consequences,” a phrase that the University of Chicago Press applied to Weaver’s 1948 book which in turn became a classic for intellectual or traditionalist conservatives (which overlaps with movement conservatism at least in the figure of William F. Buckley, Jr. and his circle). According to a recent post, Weaver was a believer in the ancient virtue of “piety”:

… the Christian ideal and Plato­nism produced in Weaver’s conservatism the final key concept of piety, which Weaver described as “one of the oldest and deepest human attitudes.” “I would define piety,” he wrote, “as an attitude of rever­ence or acceptance toward some overruling order or some deeply founded institution which the mere individual is not to tamper with.” Or to put the proposition somewhat differently: “Piety comes to us as a warning voice that we must think as mortals, that it is not for us either to know all or to con­trol all. It is a recognition of our own limitations and a cheerful acceptance of the contingency of nature, which gives us the protective virtue of humility.”

The source of his piety (other than Plato) was the fall (a version of it):

As Weaver explained, “The recovery [of a sense of piety] has brought a satisfaction which cannot be matched, as far as my ex­perience goes, by anything that liberalism and scientism have to offer.” Weaver con­tended there was a “structure of reality” called creation. Man was not the Creator; he was not self-produced. Man is the crea­ture; therefore, he is limited in his poten­tial. Confronted with choices between evil and good, man frequently chooses evil with its accompanying anguish, and this condi­tion is compounded by that ever-present matter of tragedy. In view of these impos­ing realities, would not wisdom and prudence dictate that man ought to be modest, restrained, and humble—in a word, pious? Should he not stand in reverence and awe before this miracle called life?

To compare this sense of limitation and reverence and awe for finite existence to the Shorter Catechism may be unfair. But why wouldn’t the question of this human tragedy lead to a sense of despair, like the string of questions that explain the significance of human sinfulness:

Q. 17. Into what estate did the fall bring mankind?
A. The fall brought mankind into an estate of sin and misery.

Q. 18. Wherein consists the sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. The sinfulness of that estate whereinto man fell consists in the guilt of Adam’s first sin, the want of original righteousness, and the corruption of his whole nature, which is commonly called original sin; together with all actual transgressions which proceed from it.

Q. 19. What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell?
A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God, are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all miseries in this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever.

Q. 20. Did God leave all mankind to perish in the estate of sin and misery?
A. God having, out of his mere good pleasure, from all eternity, elected some to everlasting life, did enter into a covenant of grace, to deliver them out of the estate of sin and misery, and to bring them into an estate of salvation by a redeemer.

Not to be misunderstood. Any conservative or Christian it seems to (all about) me should welcome a recognition by another human being that we are not gods, that we can’t control the world, and that it is a conceit of monumental calamity to think that humans have any power to remedy or redeem our circumstances. But for conservatives to call this awareness “piety” is to invite all sorts of confusion about the real piety that looks at sin as abhorrent and hopes for a miraculous intervention to save sinners by the only true God.

If conservatives want to be the true friends of religion who mock secularists for dismissing faith, they will need to own religion. It can’t simply be a wave of the hand at “higher things” or faith-based humanism. It needs to be the real deal. And that could well involve choosing between Plato and Moses, between Richard Weaver and Fulton Sheen, or between Whitaker Chambers and Cornelius Van Til.