John Woodbridge contests the widespread notion that Fundamentalists invented the inerrancy of Scripture, that it’s a peculiarly post-Cartesian development. He assembles an impressive array of witnesses, including these two quotations from Augustine:
“It seems to me that the most disastrous consequences must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say that the men by whom the Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false. . . . If you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement . . . , there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, . . . the author declared what was not true.”
And, in a letter to Faustus, “I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand.”
Monkeeing With the Culture
Reviewing Michael Nesmith’s memoir, Infinite Tuesday, Joseph Bottum muses on the Monkeefication of American culture. Our common culture no longer consists of what Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said.” What common culture we possess is derived from 1970s pop music and TV.
Bottum: “we live in a time when even the Kennedy Center can’t bring itself to concentrate on classical music and the high performance arts of Western civilization. We live in a time in which even the Washington Post can’t allow a reference to the Faust legend that has inspired so much literature. The process, in both instances, probably begins with a fear of being accused of elitism and snobbery, the greatest of sins in a democracy. But the fear is allowed to rule when we notice that references to Wagner’s Ring cycle or Goethe’s Faust simply aren’t as well known as ‘Hey, hey, we’re the Monkees.’ Or ‘Oh, what can it mean / to a daydream believer and a homecoming queen?'”
Not so long ago, high culture wasn’t considered elitist; it was the aspiration of the middle class: “The old middlebrow knowledge, the aspirations to culture of the middle class as late as the early 1960s, can be discerned in everything from the leather-bound sets of Great Books to the classical themes that made up the background music to Bugs Bunny cartoons. We had a kind of consensus that the high arts, what the Kennedy Center used to celebrate, were the goal of cultural knowledge. And as that consensus died, the music of the Monkees became part of what took its place. The pop songs of the 1960s merged with the movies of the 1970s to fill the vacuum. And regardless of its quality it became the new shared knowledge.”
What have we lost in the process?
“The primacy of science — that is, of the modern physical and biological sciences, and their spillover into the social sciences — is the first article of faith for progressives, however skeptical they may be of pure moral progress. Harari is so committed to a scientific view of human history that he never seems to question whether a method invented to understand and master nature is really suited to understanding fully the nature of man himself, and whether man is the same kind of object as many of the others that science studies.”
In keeping with his scientistic commitments Harari “takes for granted that the right way to go about understanding the world is to reduce the high to the low.” Yet he can’t bring himself to be consistent with his premises: “One would even think that Harari might prefer to avoid talking of minds and beliefs, and of culture as distinct from biology, that he would consider ‘mind’ just another ‘inter-subjective’ creation of the human imagination, one that only exists because people collectively believe in it, just like ‘law, money, gods, nations,’ and companies.” He pursues this reductionism while “he wants at the same time to show how ideas actually matter, with the result that a metaphysical haziness runs through the book.”
Can Satire Save Us?
Comedians seem to think that their increasingly savage, decreasingly amusing assaults on President Trump can save the Republic. More likely, satire is one of the causes of the polarization of our politics.
The editors at The Point Magazine point to John Stewart’s Daily Show as a turning point in the development of entertainment news, and observe, “The indispensable premise of The Daily Show’s humor was that its anchor and its audience were on the same side—the side of the sober, the rational, the scientifically literate—in a cultural and political war against a group of people portrayed sometimes as malicious, sometimes as ignorant and sometimes as insane. (What else was the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ besides an attempt to delineate a politics of the mentally fit?) Most often, the overt targets of Stewart’s satire, as of the SNL skits following the election, were politicians, but these targets could never be fully separated from the voters they represented. The link was made explicit in the often-hilarious segments where ‘correspondents’ were sent out into the American hinterlands.”
The tactic was hugely successful for Stewart and his program, and for his imitators. But it’s harmed actual politicians who have to win votes from the millions of Americans who aren’t in on Stewart’s jokes: “it is hard not to draw a connection between the role these shows played in reinforcing their audience’s hunch that they represent the vanguard of an enlightened civilization, and the abandonment of the Democratic Party by large swaths of the country.”
For both right (Breitbart, e.g.) and left, “the success of the joke depends on how effectively it demeans the portion of the population who is not in on it.” Not a strategy likely to bring unum from our pluribus.
“Fear of missing out.” I had to look it up. But once Google helpfully defined it, I recognize the syndrom.
Nick Stockton describes different forms of FOMO in the September issue of Wired: “Countless studies have shown that social-driven FOMO stems from a person’s primitive desire to belong to a group, with each snap, tweet, or post a reminder of what separates you from them.”
The other type of FOMO, Stockton says, is driven by the ubiquity of news. He quotes Shyam Sundar of Penn State: “We scroll through our Twitter feeds, not seeking anything specific, just monitoring them so we don’t miss out on anything important.” We don’t want to be the guy who looks blank and has to ask, “So, what happened in Charlottesville?”
Both forms are variants of CS Lewis’s “Inner Ring,” that secret insider group that we all want to join and never can quite enter. Lewis says that desire to enter an Inner Ring is one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior. Now that lust has grown monstrous, because we can glimpse millions of Inner Rings with the touch of a screen.
And both forms of FOMO rest on the anxiety of not-belonging, an anxiety that should have no foothold in a Christian soul, since we have been admitted to the Inner Ring of all Inner Rings, the fellowship of the Father, Son, and Spirit, and have found it infinitely spacious.
Alleluia for Sinners?
Can we say “Alleluia” for sinners? asks Rowan Williams in one of his essays in Uncommon Gratitude. He thinks so.
Good sinners are those who are perplexed by their own sin – those who ask “How did it come to this?” Good sinners are humbled sinners, and humility is the gateway to the future:
“Humility ought to be the gateway to excitement, the excitement of precisely this grown-up sense of the world which is ready to make and to acknowledge mistakes for the sake of moving out into new depths. The good sinner is humble because he knows how much that exploration will be capable of getting distorted by the falsehoods he has taken in without noticing and that have become habitual and comfortable. But he knows that the refusal to grow and learn is to be condemned to what are, in the long run, worse risks” (61).
Chastened humility – it’s one of the fruits of mercy that only publicans can know.