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Two famous men died on November 22, 1963. The first did so in the most dramatic way possible, assassinated in the full glare of publicity on the streets of Dallas; the second in relative obscurity, in the upstairs bedroom of his simple home on the outskirts of Oxford, England. John F. Kennedy’s legacy has, of course, been enormous, but I wonder whether C.S. Lewis has actually, in the course of these past fifty years, had a greater impact on the culture than his counterpart. When he died at the age of 65, Lewis’s reputation was on the wane, but he has enjoyed an extraordinary posthumous vogue, as two successive generations have delighted in his literary criticism, his novels, and above all, his clever and incisive Christian apologetics.

One reason why Lewis has proven so persuasive to so many is that he was compelled to undergo a transition—halting, painful, anguished—from non-belief to belief. Though he had been brought up in a Christian environment, he had lost his faith by the time he entered university. He was not someone to whom religious conviction came naturally or effortlessly; he had to work his way to it, in the face of often harsh opposition, both interior and exterior. This very personal struggle gives him credibility with the millions today who want to believe but who find ideological secularism and militant atheism enormously challenging.

A second reason why Lewis was successful was that he came at Christian apologetics primarily from a literary rather than a philosophical point of view. I want to be careful not to overstate the case here: Lewis certainly understood philosophy and used it at times in his apologetics both effectively and creatively. Think, for instance, of the subtle analysis offered in his book Miracles. But Lewis was, first and foremost, a man of letters—a poet and storyteller. His area of academic specialization was the literature of the sixteenth century—he wrote with tremendous insight on Milton—and his first published writings were poems.
Posted: 11/17/2013 12:02:04 PM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


When I saw that Reza Aslan’s portrait of Jesus, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, had risen to number one on the New York Times bestseller list, I must confess, I was both disappointed and puzzled. For the reductionistic and debunking approach that Aslan employs has been tried by dozens of commentators for at least the past three hundred years, and the debunkers have been themselves debunked over and over again by serious scholars of the historical Jesus.

Here is how the method works: a scholar focuses on one aspect of Jesus’ life, finds all of the Gospel passages that emphasize that aspect and declares them historically reliable, and then casually characterizes the rest of the Gospels as the non-historical musings of the evangelists and their communities. So in the course of the last three centuries, Jesus has been presented as, exclusively, an eschatological prophet, an itinerant preacher of the kingdom, a wonder-worker, a magician, a social revolutionary, an avatar of enlightened ethics, a cynic philosopher, etc. To be sure, evidence can be culled from the Gospels for all of these identities, but the problem is that these portraits invariably fail to present “Jesus in full,” the strange, beguiling, elusive, and richly complex figure that emerges from a thorough reading of the New Testament.

The Jesus that Aslan wants to present is the “zealot,” which is to say, the Jewish insurrectionist intent upon challenging the Temple establishment in Jerusalem and, above all, the Roman military power that dominated the land of Israel. His principle justification for this reading is that religiously motivated revolutionaries were indeed thick on the ground in the Palestine of Jesus’ time; that Jesus claimed to be ushering in a new Kingdom of God; and that he ended up dying the death typically meted out to rabble-rousers who posed a threat to Roman authority. Jesus, he argues, fits neatly into the pattern set by Menahem, the heroic defender of Masada, Judas the Galilean, Simon son of Giora, Simon bar Kochba, and any number of other revolutionaries who claimed Messianic identity and who, in the end, were ground under by the Romans. On this reading, Jesus indeed died on a Roman cross, but he didn’t rise from the dead; instead, his body was probably left on the cross to be devoured by dogs or the birds of the air.
Posted: 11/4/2013 7:00:00 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


As by now everyone in the world knows, Pope Francis offered a lengthy and wide-ranging interview to the editor of Civilta Cattolica, which was subsequently published in sixteen Jesuit-sponsored journals from a variety of countries. As we’ve come to expect practically anytime that this Pope speaks, the interview has provoked a media frenzy. To judge by the headlines in The New York Times and on CNN, the Catholic Church is in the midst of a moral and doctrinal revolution, led by a maverick Pope bent on dragging the old institution into the modern world. I might recommend that everyone take a deep breath and prayerfully (or at least thoughtfully) read what Pope Francis actually said. For what he actually said is beautiful, lyrical, spirit-filled, and in its own distinctive way, revolutionary. 

The first question to which the Pope responded in this interview as simple: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio (his given name)?” After a substantial pause, he said, “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” At the heart of the matter, at the core of the “Catholic thing,” is this encounter between us sinners and the God of amazing grace. Long before we get to social teaching, to debates about birth control and abortion, to adjudicating questions about homosexual activity, to disputes about liturgy, etc., we have the graced moment when sinners are accepted, even though they are unacceptable. Pope Francis aptly illustrated his observation by drawing attention to Caravaggio’s masterpiece, “The Conversion of St. Matthew,” which depicts the instant when Matthew, a thoroughly self-absorbed and materialistic man, found himself looked upon by Christ’s merciful gaze. Because of that look, Matthew utterly changed, becoming first a disciple, then a missionary, and finally a martyr.
 
 
Posted: 10/10/2013 10:12:25 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


The appearance of an art house film on the philosopher Hannah Arendt has sparked renewed interest in an old controversy. In 1961, Arendt went to Jerusalem as a correspondent for the New Yorker magazine to cover the trial of Adolf Eichmann, the notorious Nazi colonel accused of masterminding the transportation of millions of Jews to the death camps. Arendt was herself a Jew who had managed to escape from Nazi Germany and who had been, years before, something of an ardent Zionist. But she had since grown suspicious of the Israeli state, seeing it as un-self-critical and indifferent to the legitimate concerns of the Palestinians. I think it is fair to say, therefore, that she came to the trial with a complicated set of assumptions and a good deal of conflicting feelings. 
Posted: 9/19/2013 9:58:49 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


Time Magazine’s recent cover story “The Childfree Life” has generated a good deal of controversy and commentary. The photo that graces the cover of the edition pretty much sums up the argument: a young, fit couple lounge languidly on a beach and gaze up at the camera with blissful smiles—and no child anywhere in sight. What the editors want us to accept is that this scenario is not just increasingly a fact in our country, but that it is morally acceptable as well, a lifestyle choice that some people legitimately make. Whereas in one phase of the feminist movement, “having it all” meant that a woman should be able to both pursue a career and raise a family, now it apparently means a relationship and a career without the crushing encumbrance of annoying, expensive, and demanding children.   

There is no question that childlessness is on the rise in the United States. Our birthrate is the lowest in recorded history, surpassing even the crash in reproduction that followed the economic crash of the 1930’s. We have not yet reached the drastic levels found in Europe (in Italy, for example, one in four women never give birth), but childlessness has risen in our country across all ethnic and racial groups, even those that have traditionally put a particular premium on large families. What is behind this phenomenon? The article’s author spoke to a variety of women who had decided not to have children and found a number of different reasons for their decision. Some said that they simply never experienced the desire for children; others said that their careers were so satisfying to them that they couldn’t imagine taking on the responsibility of raising children; still others argued that in an era when bringing up a child costs upward of $250,000, they simply couldn’t afford to have even one baby; and the comedian Margaret Cho admitted, bluntly enough, “Babies scare me more than anything.” A researcher at the London School of Economics weighed in to say that there is a tight correlation between intelligence and childlessness: the smarter you are, it appears, the less likely you are to have children!

Posted: 9/10/2013 11:08:41 AM by Word On Fire | with 0 comments


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