Who the Blank is Leah Libresco?

Who the Blank is Leah Libresco? June 19, 2012

You know you’re hopelessely out of touch when a blog post manages to go viral without containing a single word you can make sense of. At a tender age of 24 hours, former atheist blogger Leah Libresco’s announcement that she’s joined an RCIA class in preparation for baptism is standing on 12,700 Facebook shares. Plus 1,721 tweets. To put this in perspective, “Sorry, Young Man. You’re No Longer the Most Important Demographic in Tech,” which earlier this morning reigned as the Atlantic’s fifth most popular article, has been shared barely one-tenth that many times, though it first appeared 11 days ago.

At last counting, Libresco’s readers had posted 728 comments, which is to say her combox has become a world unto itself. In a year or so, mark my words, Catholic portal managing editor Elizabeth Scalia will receive at least one e-mail to the tune of: “My spouse and I met in the thread following Leah Libresco’s conversion post. Here’s a picture of our firstborn.”

In one sense, the numbers add up perfectly, so to speak. Now that atheists are gaining new confidence, evangelizing and undertaking good works in the manner of the competition, the public defection of one is just cause for buzz. But how did Libresco become that one? So little in her style and persona follows the recipe for blogging superstardom, at least as I’ve always understood it. Libresco never traffics in snark or indignation, and seems have no interest in being a phrasemaker or a Personality-with-a-capital-P. She does blog about sex, but in drier language than typically sells. Her acquaintance with the 24-hour news cycle is distant and cordial, at best.

The opening sentence of Libresco’s conversion announcement conveys a fair sense of her headspace. “For several years,” she writes, “a lot of my friends have been telling me I had an inconsistent and unsustainable philosophy.” Well, shit, lady, I confess thinking. Who doesn’t? But Libresco goes on in that vein, describing her evolution from “A virtue ethicist atheist whose transhumanism seems to be rooted in dualism,” to a believer in a “Moral Law” that is more than “a Platonic Truth, abstract and distant.” Throughout, she remains blissfully — touchingly — unaware that a big share of humanity would perceive talk like this as an invitation to blackjack the speaker for her milk money.

Honestly? I belong to that share of humanity. Though I have a dim idea what Libresco’s talking about here, I can’t quite stretch into the shoes of anyone who defaults to jargon when organizing her inner experiences. My religious convictions, such as they are, reside in my gut, far from the long arm of reason. Rightly or wrongly, I think of God as a bearded baritone with one bitch of a duodenal ulcer who lives in Orange County and joined the Republican Party around the time Reagan first ran for governor. Somehow, I doubt I’m alone here. Yet Libresco’s eggheadery has won the day. It is playing like Star Wars, even in Peoria.

Call me crazy, but I’d say this points to some new developments in the national conversation on religion.

Among millennials, belief versus unbelief is a big issue. Last year, Pew researchers found that 26% of Americans aged 18-30 declared themselves “unaffiliated” with any religious denomination. Moreover, 46% — as opposed to 64% of Gen Xers and 69% of Boomers — agreed with the statement “religion is the key to a nation’s success.” Libresco, falling right in the middle of that age range, is well qualified to argue faith’s case with her people. When we old farts try, we sound pompous, if not downright misinformed, which is to say we sound like David Brooks when he’s writing about Jeremy Lin.

Old-style culture war is getting musty. Last week, Sister Joan Chittester told Christiane Amanpour that the feminism of the Leadership Conference of Women Religous was hardly more radical than the patriarchal thinking of the Vatican. To anyone using women’s current status in the U.S. as a baseline, she’s right. Many of the same conservatives who recently defended Ann Romney’s stay-at-home momhood, had backed the Mama Grizzlies during the previous midterm elections. More than half of all Americans support gay marriage; servicemen and women are asking and telling to their hearts’ content. To claim any measure of relevance, a Christian apologist must be conversant with these realities. She can’t get away with simply wishing aloud for a return to simpler times or calling Spongebob gay.

On her “About” page, Libresco declares her intention to “skip past the normal scripts and have the weird arguments.” For example, a few weeks ago, she challenged Christian readers: “Go Ahead: Tell Me What’s Wrong with Homosexuality.” Right away, she struck any references to “gay brownshirts” off the table. If respondents were going to breathe fire, it couldn’t be the same old fire. The post got 153 responses — not quite a barn-burner, but far from a dud. The numbers may reflect a topsy-turvy, Karl Rovian sort of reality: that Librecso’s reluctance to play grievance politics, which I’d taken for a weakness, is actually a strength.

These days, Christians had better sound smart. The dice are cogged against authority. Cite the Bible, any pope, or either Vatican Council, and you’ll probably hear “So what?” If Christianity wants to survive as a cultural force, or inform public policy, it had better explain itself in terms intelligible to people who reject its supernatural basis. At the very least, it had better entrust its message to people who talk the talk of the academy. If a few middlebrows like me are left cross-eyed — oh, well. We’re collateral damage, a small price to pay for intellectual street cred.

In some ways, Ross Douthat has been filling this bill. As Michael Sean Winters observes in his review of Bad Religion, Douthat’s arguments can be facile and nostalgic, but the man has a Phi Beta Kappa key and sticks words like “numinous” into bestsellers. Therefore, he connects with New York Times readers in a way Rick Warren could never dream of doing. Libresco has roughly the same skill set. And, though she enjoys reading Chesterton, she does not channel him like a drag queen doing Miss Ross. For that alone, may the Lord bless and keep her in His loving care.

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