Double Standard

December 16, 2014

In this op-ed Ross Douthat continues his occasional reflections on the sexual revolution and its impact on class divisions. I think he puts his finger on something fundamental.

America historically has been a highly mobile society, in which the poor, hard-working immigrant could by pluck and luck rise to the top. In the words of Carousel’s Billy Bigelow, musing about the future of his unborn son:

“He might be a champ of the heavyweights,
Or a feller that sells you glue,
Or president of the united states,
That’d be all right, too
His mother would like that
But he wouldn’t be president if he didn’t wanna be!”

That’s the old romance of freedom. My son could be a champion athlete, or a successful businessman, or president. But only if he wants to be!

As I understand it, studies show that such possibilities are considerably more remote than they used to be. The top and the bottom are more than ever permanently divided, with three factors pre-eminent: income, education, and marriage. They tend to go together. If you are well-off and well-educated, the chances are good that you will marry and not divorce. The reverse is also true: if you are poor and poorly educated, the chances are good that you will not marry or stay married, and that you will raise children alone.

The double standard in American sexuality has gone beyond male and female. Now it is between rich and poor. Those who are well off can afford sexual liberty, because there are forces in their lives that limit destruction, not least of which is the power of cash. (The movie Chef offers excellent storytelling of how this works on the ground.) Those who are poor may be destroyed by liberty, as they lose their most valuable asset, family.

The mores of the well-off dominate the cultural scene: think movie stars, TV producers, magazine editors, public intellectuals. They celebrate freedom. The background insinuation is that if only everybody could be as flexible and non-judgmental and open-minded as we are, problems would quickly dissipate.

Douthat suggests that the poor have adopted that philosophy, much to their detriment. And that its adoption by the rich is  more tempered by conservatism than is obvious. “We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster…. If so, it needs to be more widely acknowledged, and even preached, that what’s worth imitating in upper-class family life isn’t purely modern or progressive, but a complex synthesis of new and old.”

Of three fundamental factors—income (jobs), education, and marriage—that correlate and interact closely, I believe marriage has the longest and most tenacious hold on people’s welfare. Clearly there’s no returning to the “happy days” of the Greatest Generation. Birth control has changed everything. So have “softer” factors: the (partial) undoing of the gendered double standard; the rise of two-earner families; the end of blame and shame for children born without benefit of marriage; no-fault divorce; a more positive valuation of sexual desire; pornography. Many of these changes are good, some bad, some worth arguing about. Put it all together and the situation is very complicated. It’s not easy to say how on earth you could change it.

But as we think about it, we would do well to bear in mind this two-class reality: what works for the rich may devastate the poor.

Never Again, Please

December 10, 2014

That the country I love and belong to practiced torture as official policy against its enemies makes me sad and sick. May it never, ever, be so again.

The Beginning of the End of the Beginning

December 2, 2014

The latest Atlantic Monthly has a cover story by Jonathan Rauch regarding midlife crises. He describes his own mid-40s time of frustration, and sums up the experience this way:

“Long ago, when I was 30 and he was 66, the late Donald Richie, the greatest writer I have known, told me: ‘Midlife crisis begins sometime in your 40s, when you look at your life and think, Is this all? And it ends about 10 years later, when you look at your life again and think, Actually, this is pretty good.’ In my 50s, thinking back, his words strike me as exactly right. To no one’s surprise as much as my own, I have begun to feel again the sense of adventure that I recall from my 20s and 30s. I wake up thinking about the day ahead rather than the five decades past. Gratitude has returned.”

That’s about right, at least for me. But life in my sixties has brought other realities.

In my fifties, a big recognition began that life has a definite horizon. That means that when you make a career choice, it might well be your last one. Is this my last book? Moving to a new place, or even redecorating the kitchen, bears something of that finality. The horizon is not endless. I cannot see exactly where it lies, but I know it is there, that I will reach it, that it is not an eternity distant as it seemed to be when I was young. This makes me more serious and reflective. I want to live my life well; it is my last chance.

What I’m discovering in my sixties is a very distinctive sense of—well, call it serenity. I have less drive, and a lot less ambition. I don’t care as much. I’m less easily distressed. I’m better able to wait on things: whether family issues, or lines in the grocery store. I’m more content to watch other people lead the way, even when I think they are mucking it up.

The flip side of this coin is a pervasive sense of loss. None of my closest friends is yet gone, but my parents (and Popie’s) are, along with most of their generation, some of whom I knew well. Some of my peers have died, and it’s quite clear that this is a trend.

I’m in good health, but I can’t help noticing physical loss. I don’t like to hike as far, I run more slowly, I wake up stiff or sore just from cooking dinner. In every way, I’m less physically vital—and this, too, is a trend.

This adds up to an internal sense of loss. In some ways, it’s just that I miss the drive I once had. I miss caring about my future. I miss ambition.

I live with an awareness that life is slowly leaking out of me.

So, I live with my internal thermostat set at 62. It’s a little cold, but it’s not so uncomfortable I want to get up and change it. I can pull a blanket up. I’m happy enough with my book. This can look and feel like serenity. Or, it can look and feel like mild depression.

And this, too, is surely a trend.

What am I to do with this reality? It’s not something I expect to rise above. It’s rather something I hope to inhabit in the best way possible. I’m still exploring what that means. I think some of these are involved:

–learning to number my days, so that I don’t let them flood past without noticing or appreciating.

–learning to pray.

–learning to love.

I value your thoughts.

We Need Thanksgiving

November 25, 2014

I hate listening to the news these days, which is saying something because ordinarily I am a bit of a news junkie. I know I share this feeling. All the polls say that Americans are sick to death of ranting and blame. Yet they seem to increase, like nausea on a winding road.

It’s odd, because by some measures we are doing okay. The economy may not be great but it is much better than most. We survived the Great Recession. Crime is down. The flow of illegal immigrants is down. We aren’t fighting any major wars, and while we worry about events in Syria and Africa, they aren’t having much direct impact on us. Not yet, anyway.

And yet as a people we seem so bitterly unhappy, and preoccupied with blame.

I can trot out my favorite suspects and play the blame game with the best of them, but it’s monumentally unproductive. All sides have been ramping it up for years, maybe for decades, and all they seem to provide is more kvetching, more anger, more bitter denunciations.

I think it’s a spiritual disease. Not a political disease, one that can be solved by campaign reform or electoral victories for the good guys or constitutional jurisprudence or whatever your favorite recipe may be. I’m not denying there may be something in those recipes, but I don’t think the lack of them explains the sour mood and I doubt that the attaining of them will change this resentment. I think it’s a spiritual disease that we must all, one by one, family by family, group by group, deal with.

This coming holiday, Thanksgiving, is meant as medicine for this disease. It is only one day, intended for us to stop and be thankful. Deliberately. Thoughtfully. Prayerfully. Even joyfully. We really do have a lot for which we should be grateful.

Hemingway the Creep

November 19, 2014

I have been reading about the Spanish Civil War lately, partly because it is my daughter’s specialty and partly because it is so very interesting in its own right. It was the Vietnam war of its day—passionately argued over, saturated by media coverage, attracting celebrities. Also very deadly and very disheartening.

One excellent, gossipy book is Amanda Vaill’s Hotel Florida: Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, which tells the story of the war through a number of more-or-less celebrity couples that experience it: Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn among them. Hemingway was cheating on his wife and doing his macho bluster thing, writing dispatches that suggested he was seeing a lot more combat close up than he ever did. As Vaill writes of him—in this and also in Everybody Was So Young—Hemingway was a truly repellant human being. As to cheating on his (several) wives it does not seem that he was promiscuous so much as he was a born cheater, in a self-glorifying, self-justifying way. He trashed many of his friends in print, including people who had helped him a lot and put up with him a lot. He was vicious with those who (he thought) crossed him. He drank too much, bragged constantly, thought it was a great thing to knock somebody down. Ick.

But my daughter reminded me, as I went on about this, that he was also quite a writer. I hadn’t read him since I was in college. I remembered good things regarding the depressing The Sun Also Rises, but I was thinking that the rest was mostly Hemingway’s macho schtick. Which it is, I think. But with my daughter’s encouragement I re-read For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is a wonderful book, probably the best war book I have ever read. I can only conclude that Hemingway, when he stopped talking and sat down to write, became a much more contrite and controlled human being.

It’s a small reminder that people of great talent are human beings, and that even dreadful human beings may have something truly great in them. I like this quote from Philo of Alexander: “Be gentle with each person you meet, for each of them is fighting a great battle.”  

Interview with Eric Metaxas

November 5, 2014

My interview with Eric Metaxas is now online. He’s talking about his new book Miracles. He has an interesting take… for one, he doesn’t particularly focus on healings or other material happenings; he’s just as interested in appearances of angels or in voices directing someone out of the Twin Towers on 9/11. He understands miracles as irruptions of the heavenly realm into the earthly; and as such he pays almost no attention to “proof,” like X-rays before and after, and much more to the question of reliable human testimony. He’s basically saying: trustworthy people have experiences that suggest a wider reality than the purely physical. The nature of reality is more than what meets the eye.


November 3, 2014

Craig Barnes (Body and Soul) describes the plight of highly successful young people raised in families that gave them every opportunity. They have great jobs, cool cars and their own apartments, yet they go to therapists lamenting that they aren’t happy. “After the therapist pokes around a bit, revealing how wonderful their lives actually are, the young adults say, ‘Well, I guess I am happy. But I could be happier.’ Right. Of course, we could always be happier.”

Barnes goes on to say that the pursuit of happiness is not a good foundation for a worthy life. And he reminds us that seeking after total happiness is not a new phenomenon, relevant only to affluent, pampered Americans. “According to the biblical story of creation, we were placed in a garden in which we did not have everything. In the middle of the Garden of Eden was a tree with forbidden fruit, the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil.’ And every day Adam and Eve had to walk by this tree and remember that they were never created to have it all. That is God’s idea of paradise.

“Each of us is also created to live a life in which something will always be missing. This is simply the nature of being a creature rather than the Creator, who alone is whole and complete and lacking in nothing. But the holes in our little piece of paradise can drive us wild with anxiety. So rather than enjoy the blessings of the many fruits we are given, we become obsessed about what we don’t have.” So, as the Genesis story goes, while living in paradise we manage to create Paradise Lost.

I found this a striking thought: Paradise is described as a place where we do not have everything.

Barnes is not suggesting that we settle for mediocrity. Rather, he is speaking of a life lived fully within limits. “Living fully” does not mean having everything, it means fully applying yourself to loving God and neighbor. As another catechism puts it, “The chief end of humanity is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” That turns out to be anything but mediocrity: it demands my soul, my life, my all.


October 28, 2014

In Body and Soul, Craig Barnes’ commentary on the Heidelberg Confession, he tells of a well-educated and successful woman holed up in her law office late at night, hoping that a senior partner in the firm will notice. Her life is miserable. In fact she would say she has no life. However, this is the only way she knows to make her life better. She finds the job meaningless, but she keeps pushing harder at it.

By contrast, Barnes tells the story of a woman with a poorly paid low-level job in a bottling plant who nonetheless is thankful she has any kind of job at all. After work she heads to a homeless shelter to do unpaid low-level work serving meals.

Yet, “If you ask the miserable woman in the law office if she would be willing to change places with the joyful woman in the bottling plant, the chances are great that she would say, ‘Well, no. I don’t think so.’ “

Given the chance to abandon our high-flying ambitions for a peon’s satisfaction and peace, we are likely to decline. We keep doing what we know how to do, which is to try harder. We plan to create joy through our successful choices, and to stave off misery. When it doesn’t work, we automatically think we just didn’t try hard enough.

Barnes says this illustrates “the addictive power of sin,” which pulls us far from “the delight we find only in communion with God, a delight that does not depend on our circumstances.” He adds, “I have been a pastor long enough to know that just because people are miserable, that does not mean they want to change.”

He’s not suggesting that we should quit work and head for a monastery. That would be merely another avenue of seeking happiness through good choices. No, he’s suggesting—actually, he’s saying the Heidelberg Catechism declares—that we cannot solve our addiction at all. What we can do is recognize our helpless misery. We can recognize that our only comfort comes from belonging to a mediator who loves us and can enter our lives and rescue us through the love of God.

According to the catechism, you learn to recognize your misery by listening to God’s Law, which tells you (very simply) to love God with all your being and to love your neighbor as yourself.

We can be exposed and embarrassed in many ways. The woman in the law office may be exposed when her legal brief is critiqued, or when her lack of a social life is a source for others’ amusement. Where does that leave her? Merely with another chance to try harder at what does not work. The embarrassment and exposure that come from knowing who and how you should love, however, is truly revealing. It reveals emptiness. It reveals our deepest misery, which—thanks to Jesus—is the place from where we can be lifted like a child. Oddly, in that place we may find comfort, even in misery, assuming we trust the one who will lift us.

Great Speech by David Brooks

October 27, 2014

A friend sent me this speech by David Brooks to a gathering of Christians. It is quite helpful and extremely moving.  I strongly commend it to you.


October 23, 2014

Our small group has been studying the Heidelberg Catechism, using a book called Body and Soul by Craig Barnes. The first question alone makes the catechism worthwhile.

Q: What is your only comfort in life and in death?

A: That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

Barnes says that our culture is dedicated to the myth of the right choices. This is the underlying narrative in nearly every graduation speech, and in much child-rearing, and in most how-to books. Make the right choices—of school, spouse, career, friends, clothes, make-up—and you will be happy. This emphasis on choice makes us very anxious people—since, of course, we cannot know what the right choices are in most cases, and even when we make the best choices we often remain quite unhappy.

By contrast, the comfort of the gospel is “the discovery that our lives do not belong to us.” (p. 29) This startling and counter-intuitive assertion is the basis for everything that follows.

I find it interesting that the catechism, written nearly 500 years ago (by a 28-year-old pastor), begins with comfort—and comfort in the first-person singular. While much of faith (and the catechism) deals with communities of people, comfort is always singular. This is what we want to know: what comforts me, in life and in death?

The answer, that I belong to someone else, someone great and faithful, speaks to me very deeply.

This comfort applies to both body and soul. It is not a purely spiritual comfort. It encompasses sickness and mental illness and Alzheimers and much else. Nor is it a purely material comfort—it reaches far beyond the promises of prosperity.

The promise of belonging extends to both life and death—that great unmentionable fact. Among other things, this explains why Christians are so dubious about assisted suicide. Assisted suicide is wrapped up in the ideology of better living (and dying) through choice. It breeds the belief that comfort comes through making the right choice as to when one should die. But the catechism claims that the only comfort comes through belonging—and that your death, as your life, belongs to Jesus Christ. This does not imply in any way that we should preserve life at all costs. It merely means that our ideology of choice is undermined, that a deeper reflection will seek to affirm whom we belong to, rather than what our plans should be. If we have paid attention to life at all, we know that our plans prove to be highly fallible. And that is particularly true for our plans about death. There above all we are out of our area of competence. That we belong to Jesus is our only comfort.


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