The American Scene

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Articles filed under Culture


Which Authority Do You Love?

The problem with old-school blogathons is that you have to summarize the eleven posts you’re responding to and by the time you’re done you’re too tired to write anything else.

How do we convert in and out of religions, and worldviews in general? What roles do experiences, reason and revelation play? Here’s Scene Alum David Sessions, describing his own conversion from fundamentalist evangelical Christianity to secular materialist liberalism. Here is Scene Alum Noah Millman, responding with a great (as usual) meditation on how we deal with authority, also riffing off a post by TAS Overlord Ross Douthat. Here’s Rod Dreher.

The point David makes (violently compressed) is that while experience is the primary means by which we determine our worldviews, reason can and should play a role, and that experience-driven conversions that cannot be buttressed by reason are, to use a word David would I’m sure dispute, suspect.

As a Jew, this is a question Noah has had to wrestle with, and obedience to the law (or disobedience) is a dominant theme in both the Hebrew scriptures and the Jewish experience generally. In Judaism, or at least in a significant strand of it, there is, I think it is fair to say, an insistence that following the law is valuable for its own sake.

This is a question that also has a special resonance for the Catholic, because Catholicism is the faith where the authority has the strongest institutional component. Catholicism demands submission not just to a book or a tradition, but to—in Henry Cardinal Newman’s phrase—a “living voice.” The Church is “Mother and Teacher.” To be sure, most other faiths have clerics who speak with authority, but there are always ways to finesse this: there are different schools of thought; while these sometimes anathematize each other, more often there is room for legitimate disagreement within the same communion. In Catholicism, when the Pope speaks ex cathedra, that’s it—it is as good as the Word of God handed down on Mount Sinai. Allegiance to the Catholic Church is not just allegiance to an abstract worldview, it is also allegiance to a specific institution which is declared to have the same authority as God.

And so I think these words from the Catholic Eve Tushnet, talking about her discussions with other gay Christians, are of relevance here:

We need not only models for respectful sharing of life experiences, but also models for respectful disagreement–since at the end of the day, we do in fact disagree. At times I felt as though my Catholic faith was a gaucherie or an obscenity which must be hidden from the eyes of those it might scandalize.

But notice that I said “my Catholic faith,” not “my beliefs about gay sex.” This is the other reason I think mere sharing-stories “dialogue” is insufficient on gay Christian questions: It tends to make us think that our disagreements are primarily about homosexuality. But in my experience the deepest source of disagreement is authority. Which sources are authoritative for you, and when they appear to conflict, how do you rank or reconcile them?

My own “conversion” story might be of interest here, and it is a fundamentally Catholic one. I was brought up Catholic, but clichédly enough as a teenager I moved away from the faith. Oh, not very far. You see, from when I was young I had basically two ambitions for when I grew up: I wanted to have lots of children, and I wanted to be involved in Christian ministry. Obviously, for a Catholic, there’s a tension there. (If only I’d known about Marcial Maciel then, things would’ve been much easier!) I always figured that the Holy Spirit would one day point me in the right direction.

But hey—there was a way to square that circle: I could become a Protestant minister, and have my cake and eat it too. The entrepreneurialism (and Americanism) of Evangelical ministry definitely appealed to my character, as those who know me can imagine. There was a vocation that could combine it all: Christian ministry, entrepreneurialism, and a large family (not only allowed, but encouraged!). For a while there, my role model was basically Rick Warren.

Much more seriously, as I began to study the issue of justification, I found myself drawn heavily to the Protestant doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone, which seemed to me to be much more in accord with what I knew of Jesus’ message, and I was repelled by what I took to be the Catholic doctrine of justification by works (it tells you something about the state of modern catechesis that a literate cradle Catholic could think the Church taught salvation by works!).

As you know, I did not, in fact, become a Protestant minister. So what kept me in the flock? Was I convinced by the Catechism’s view of justification? That only happened much later.

What, in fact, kept me in the Catholic faith was the Eucharist. I might conceivably be sold on the idea that the Church was wrong about justification, or priestly celibacy, or sexual ethics, or anything else. What I found myself absolutely, utterly unable to renounce was the belief that the Eucharist is the Real Presence of Christ. As much as I wanted to, I absolutely could not stop believing in the Eucharist.

And if the Eucharist is the body of Christ, then the Church that “performs” this sacrament has to be the body of Christ as well, and if the Church is the body of Christ, then I have to be joined to it and obey it. So I put aside my qualms about justification (it would only be many years later that I would investigate the issue deeper and actually be convinced by the Catholic doctrine of justification) and let go of my dream of evangelical ministry.

Now, as far as reasons for joining a faith, this is inexplicable. In fact, I can’t explain it. At that point, I had never had any sort of mystical experience relating to the Eucharist. I have no idea whence the strength of this belief—which polls indicate is lacking in many Massgoing Catholics—originated. All I know is that I believe it, and I believe it with all my heart.

I think that for many Catholics who believe in the Eucharist, they believe in it because they believe in the Church and/or the Gospel. For me, it is exactly the other way around. It is because I believe in the Eucharist that I believe in the Church, and it is because I believe in the Church that I believe what it says about the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ.

I recognize how absurd this seems, or is. There is actually a fair amount of empirical evidence for the proposition that the man Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead. The empirical evidence for the proposition that bread and wine are transubstantiated into the body, soul and divinity of Christ is—the Church cheerfully admits—zilch.

I say all this because I am not sure how this all fits in the categories of “experience” and “reason” and “revelation” that David and Noah and Rod have been talking about. As I said, when I decided that the Eucharist was the one belief I could not part with, I had no specific mystical or religious “experience” to point to as justification for my belief (or my belief in my belief, so to speak). And the doctrine of the Eucharist is, by “design”, quite impervious to rational explanation. The doctrine of the Eucharist says that it is an incomprehensible mystery, so that if you claim to understand it (which I certainly do not) you are in fact in error. (In the small-t traditional phrase, the concept of transubstantiation explains the “what”, but not the “how”, which is incomprehensible.) I do not have any reason to believe in the Eucharist. I can certainly defend it. I can certainly explain (in inadequate words) why the Eucharist fits most sublimely into everything we know about the arc of the Bible and Christian revelation. But that is not ultimately why I believe.

Which is why, circling back, I found myself nodding along with Eve Tushnet’s words about authority:

authority is primarily an aesthetic movement of love rather than a rational movement of adducing evidence. (Adducing evidence can be a part of how we come to trust an authority–that was a part of Leah Libresco’s conversion, for example–and reasoned argument aimed at clearing away misconceptions was a big part of my own conversion. But overall, authority is what we love, not what we understand.)

I think this might be the missing piece of what we’ve been talking about. Experience, reason, yes, they are parts of it. But as Eve puts it, assenting to authority is “primarily an aesthetic movement of love.” I love the Eucharist—I crave it, I cherish it, I need it. I don’t know whether this belief is fully described as “primarily an aesthetic movement of love” but that does seem to me to be a better descriptor than the ones I’ve seen heretofore.

This notion of authority is also, I believe, important, because it is ultimately what this is about. When you are adopting a “world picture,” you are assenting to an authority. You are putting yourself under an authority. And while the various things that this authority says about the world might be defendable on their own terms, ultimately you assent because you assent to the authority they flow from. And it does sound right that choosing/being chosen by this authority is, yes, primarily an aesthetic movement (and experiential and/or rational second) and, certainly in the case of Catholicism but arguably for any authority, a movement of love. I would even go as far as to use this as an apologia for the Catholic faith, because Catholicism is the faith that makes this movement most explicit. As DFW immortally put it, in the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there are no atheists. We all worship something. All we can do is choose what we worship. And Catholicism is most explicit about not only the choice but its implications.

I don’t know if this meditation is useful. But it might be.

A Sermon on the Trinity

The excellent Elizabeth Stoker (whom you should follow) was recently asked to deliver a sermon on the Trinity. Since this is a topic I often think about but have never really written on, her excellent sermon has inspired me to take a crack at the exercise. Here goes, and thank you to Elizabeth for inspiring me…

We don’t talk about the Trinity often enough. We don’t think about it often enough. We often have a tendency to think about it as an abstruse, technical theological concept that has little relevance to our daily lives as Christians.

The Incarnation—the fact that Jesus Christ is both completely a man, and completely God, the ruler of the Universe—is an equally incomprehensible mystery, but it seems more “relatable.” In our daily lives as Christians, we can take comfort in the fact that, in the Patristic phrase, “God became man so that man could become God.” The Incarnation tells us that whatever suffering we encounter, the God-Man takes it on for us. The Incarnation tells us that the God we worship is a God of total self-giving in love who invites us to share in His love. The Incarnation tells us that God, who is greater than we can conceive, can and wants to be united with us as humble bread and wine.

But what does the Trinity tell us, in our daily lives as Christians?

To answer that, we have to ask what the Trinity tells us about God. Perhaps the most important Biblical passage about the nature of God is Exodus 3:15 when God, appearing to Moses as the burning bush, describes himself with the mysterious tetragrammaton, the sequence of letters we translate as “Yahweh” or “I am the one who is.” According to the Tradition of the exegetes, here, God describes himself not as a being, but as Being with a capital B. God is Being itself. He is the sheer act of being, the one who sustains all existence, the one who is the very nature of being.

Of this Biblical One God, who is Being itself, the apostolic Christian Tradition tells us something else: this one God is also one in three divine Persons. God is Father, God is Son, God is Holy Spirit. And yet God is one. What are we to make of this mysterious idea—an idea that the Tradition of the Church tells us is a fact?

One way to understand it that has been really helpful to me was explained by then-Cardinal Ratzinger in his book Introduction to Christianity. If we keep in mind the Biblical idea that God is the nature of being itself, we see that the Trinity tells us that the nature of being itself is being-in-relation. Being, all being, is being-in-relation.

This is radical and transformative.

As Ratzinger writes, this turns on its head twenty-five centuries of philosophy. From Socrates to Sartre, philosophers have debated the nature of being, and they have always described being as (to use non-philosophical language) that which is basic, autonomous. If it is in relation to something else, then it is not being itself. The doctrine of the Trinity flips that on its head.

But nevermind the philosophy. If Exodus tells us that God is the nature of being itself, and if the Trinity tells us that God is a being-in-relation, then it means that the nature of all being is being-in-relation. You. Me. We are all beings-in-relation. Our relationships are not things we do, they are not outside of us, they are part of us. Our very nature is to relate to other persons, because the very nature of being itself is being-in-relation. We are made for—in every sense of those words—relationship. Relationship with the Triune God, who is the very act of being itself, and relationship with all other beings.

I don’t know about you, but that has completely changed my daily life. Once this idea of the nature of being as being-in-relation hits you, it’s like stepping out into the world after hours in a dark room. Everything is brighter, the colors are more vivid. Everything that exists is made for relationship. And so am I! And so is the God who sustains it all!

Of course, the divine Persons of the Trinity are not just in any relationship. They are in a relationship of complete and eternal self-giving. They are one, even as they are separate. Another way to express this is that God is Love. God is Being itself, and Being is being-in-relationship, and this relationship is self-giving in love.

It turns out that the chorus of the Blues Brothers song—“Everybody needs somebody to love/You, me, everybody”—is a profound, and profoundly true theological statement. Everybody. Needs. Somebody to love. Love isn’t a nice thing to have. Relationship isn’t a nice thing to do. It’s the very nature of being itself. You, me, everybody. Including God, since that’s why He created us in the first place.

Far from being an abstract theory with little relation to our daily experience, I have found that the doctrine of the Trinity profoundly changed how I look at God, at the world, at my brothers and sisters, and at myself. Because the Trinity reveals to us the most profound truth about the nature of all being.

There’s another bishop who has profoundly influenced my view of the Trinity. It’s a little something that was said by the Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware. He was talking about prayer. And he said—I’m paraphrasing—I pray to Jesus Christ. But why is it that I pray to Him? Because He is the Son of God. And how is it that Jesus is not just a figure from the distant past, but is present in my daily life? Through the Holy Spirit.

I find this very profound. In particular, I find it tells us two very important things about the Trinity.

First, it tells us that Jesus is the Way. In the famous parable, Jesus described himself as the Good Shepherd, but in the same parable he also described himself as the gate through which the sheep pass. Jesus is the gate through which we can begin to walk into the Trinity. Jesus makes the Trinity manifest for us. Because the Father is one with the Son, and the Son is one with the Father. Because wherever there is Jesus there is the Holy Spirit, and wherever there is the Holy Spirit there is Jesus. Our relationship with Jesus, through His Word, through the Sacraments, through prayer, is a relationship with the Trinity, and Jesus is the Way to intimacy with the Trinity.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, it tells us that the way we can relate to the Trinity is not just through abstract thinking, but through prayer. Maybe the fancy-talk about being-in-relationship impressed you as much as it did me, maybe not. But one thing is certain, which is that a prayerful relationship with Jesus Christ draws you into intimacy with the Trinity. Through simple prayer, through this awareness that whenever we commune with Jesus Christ we also commune with the other persons of the Trinity, and the way we understand them as they are reflected through Jesus, we can have an intimacy with the Trinity which is greater than any philosophical treatise. Through prayer, through the sacraments, we walk with the Trinity and the Trinity walks with us.

Because this is the fundamental, radical truth of Christianity. God doesn’t just want us to serve Him. He doesn’t even just want us to love Him. He wants intimacy with us. God doesn’t love us, He is love. He is mad love. Love unto dying of the Cross. Love unto being consumed as bread and wine. He is love because He is being-in-relationship, and because He is all being, we are beings-in-relationship, called to be the love that the Triune God is.

Rather than the Benedict Option, the Francis Option

French Catholics are outraged at new sex education curricula in French public schools. I think the outrage is largely misplaced, but I wrote a post (in French) arguing to my fellow French Catholics that they should realize they’re a (tiny) minority now and they shouldn’t be surprised when the majority enacts public school curricula that disagree with their worldview. My advice to French Catholics, in a nutshell, is to, instead of agitating for more Christian-compatible curricula, take their kids out of public school and build true Catholic schools that are a sign of contradiction against the prevailing culture, rather than carbon copies of public schools, as most French Catholic schools are at present.

That got me to wondering if I wasn’t advocating a version of what’s been called “The Benedict Option” as a Christian response to the secularization of the West. The Benedict Option, named for Saint Benedict, encourages a retreat from secular life to build alternative societies. The explicit analogy is that the West is undergoing a similar decline as the Roman Empire did; by retreating from the decline, this narrative goes, the monks saved all that could be saved of Western civilization and eventually restored it. In general, I tend to be highly critical of the Benedict Option. I don’t think the West is as far-gone as “Benedict-ers” seem to think, and I also think Christians have a duty to serve the world and be in the world. (By the way, you should read this excellent and largely sympathetic story by Rod Dreher on the Benedict Option as it’s currently being practiced.)

But if I’m advocating retreating from public schools rather than trying to improve them, aren’t I backing the Benedict Option?

I don’t think so. But I do think we shouldn’t dismiss the Benedict Option out of hand. I think we should take the best of it, but rather think of a Francis Option, rather than a Benedict Option.

Obviously talking in these terms is attractive because it allows a parallel not just between two of the greatest monastic founders in history but also our two living Popes, with Benedict generally being thought of as sympathetic to the Benedict Option and Francis having a very different pastoral view.

Indeed, while our scribes scrutinize every of Francis’ words for doctrinal innovation, it seems they’re missing the big picture of his pastoral emphasis. The by now common refrain we hear from Francis is of a Church that goes out “on the streets”, “to the peripheries” (a favorite expression of his), a Church that “goes out of itself.”

I want to linger on that last expression because it exemplifies what I think a “Francis Option” would learn from the Benedict Option. Sorry for the semantic gymnastics, but if you want a Church that “goes out of itself”, you need an “itself” for the Church to go “out” “of”.

In other words, yes, I think the Church should try to build these “alternative societies,” but always in a concern of going out of them, of ministering, of serving the world. This is consonant with what I’ve called “the fundamental Christian dynamic”: first, you realize you’re a sinner; then, you realize that God loves you anyway; and then, this love propels you to love your fellow men equally sinful and equally loved. The fundamental Christian dynamic involves this indwelling with God (the dwelling of God among us being one of the dominant Biblical themes) as equal with service to others. It is the meaning of the Ite Missa est.

We need both halves. I do think we need to build alternative structures to the prevailing culture (before we are forced to?) so that the Church can be a body, but these structures need to also be put at the service of the prevailing society. Similarly, the Franciscan order is conventual, but it is also resolutely ordered towards service to the society around them.

If we want to think of a mode for Catholic engagement in 21st century postmodern culture, the Francis Option might be a good frame. I’ve been very influenced in my thoughts on this general topic by the following lectures by Tim Keller and Jonathan Sacks (yes, non-Catholics—not coincidentally, I think).

The problem isn't that rich kids get off prison, it's that poor kids don't

I can’t believe this even has to be said. Everyone is in uproar over the kid who drove drunk and killed four people and “got away” with a suspended sentence and rehab, in part by arguing (with the help of psychologists) that his wealth was what drove him to drink and exonerated him.

The outrage here isn’t that a rich drunk driver is getting a suspended sentence and rehab, which seems to me to be exactly appropriate (I might add garnished wages and/or community service). The outrage is that poor kids don’t.

I fail to see how anyone is helped by destroying a kid’s life (which is what prison is, in many cases, certainly in America) just because other lives are destroyed, and this should be true for all across the income spectrum. I fail to see how it would be justice.

God pray for all of us.

This Quartz Post Going Viral Right Now Is Everything Wrong With Education Reform, Neoliberalism And America

God have mercy on all of us.

This post on Quartz is going viral right now on Twitter, and it is a perfect snapshot of everything that’s wrong with the worldview of a set of people. I just have to write it up. I only have half an hour.

It is wrong in a particularly pernicious and perverse manner, because it is actually filled with a lot of right and important stuff.

Right and important thing 1: hard work and diligence pays off!

Right and important thing 2: everyone has the capacity to learn math at at least a high school level (even French high school level, which is like a collegiate level in the US).

Right and important thing 2 is absolutely right and absolutely important.

Right and important thing 1 is also right and important, though the authors’ insistence that this constitutes some sort of bold, contrarian truth telling is…bizarre.

They are also absolutely right that our tendency to convince ourselves that we’re “not a math person” is both empirically wrong and absolutely disastrous at both an individual and a societal level.

But this is precisely why this post is so infuriating. It gets so much right, and yet it is so, so wrong.

Here is the pernicious problem with that post: its prescription for helping more kids learn math more better-er is… hard work!

Uh, no.

The reason why kids don’t learn more math better isn’t that they don’t work hard enough.

The reason is that math education is awful.

And the reason why math education is awful is because it is based on antiquated, awful 19th century principles.

Awful principles…that the authors of the article trot out as that which we should emulate!

The authors venerate East Asian education where the authoritarian focus is on hard work and perseverance through difficulty. The authors specifically endorse criticism and punishment as good ways to get kids to learn more math.

The problem with that is that it’s wrong. Not in the sense that it’s morally wrong, though it is, but in the sense that it is absolutely not the way to teach kids math, or anything else. The reason for that is that there is an overwhelming, abundant body of research that very very strongly suggests (if I was as rigorous as most pundits I would say proves) that the best determinant of learning is intrinsic motivation, not extrinstic motivation.

Do you want kids to learn math? Make learning math rewarding. Not with gold stars and grades and sticks and carrots.

This is true of all subjects, but it is particularly true of math. I’m going to assume the article’s authors were themselves “math people” and were schooled in the United States.

Since they appeal to their own personal experience, let me appeal to mine. I went to school in France, whose system is roughly as authoritarian and as math-focused as those in East Asian countries. And I was the prototypical “I’m not a math person” kid.

Here’s the thing—and it is bewildering to me that the authors won’t acknowledge this—if you want to learn a math subject and you’re “stuck”, no amount of “hard work” will help you. What will “unstick” you is being able to view the problem in a different light until you can “grok” it. The problem of math education in authoritarian systems is that it assumes that once a concept is explained, if you don’t succeed it’s because you’re not working hard enough. It’s like pushing at a door that says “PULL.” The problem isn’t that you’re not pushing hard enough.

For example, here’s how I was taught trig. I was taught to memorize the formulas to use to derive sines, cosines and tangents. Because I am a human being (worse, at that point, I was a preteen human being) I found it very hard to memorize these things that I didn’t understand. I was stuck. I had terrible grades.

But I was lucky enough to have a tutor, who actually not only had a solid grounding in mathematics but tutorial skills, and this tutor explained to me the unit circle. Once you understand the unit circle, all of trigonometry magically falls into place. Deriving sines and cosines and tangents doesn’t just become possible, it becomes pleasurable.

You could have said that my problem wasn’t that I wasn’t working hard enough because, well, maybe if you’d whipped me enough I would have memorized the formulas (in my specific case, I highly doubt it, but in the case of most people, maybe). But the real problem was that I had been taught trigonometry wrong.

Of course, an emphasis on rote memorization without thinking is one of the hallmarks of traditional authoritarian schooling. And it’s bullshit.

Let me give you another story. When I was in 7th grade, instead of doing homework, I watched Star Trek. Because dubbing in France is terrible, I watched it in English. And because I watched a lot of Star Trek (because I was a huge nerd), I quickly found myself able to speak English.

Now, I had English class in school, during which I mostly dozed. One common test was a quizz on irregular English verbs, of which there are plenty. Because I “wasn’t” “studying” English—like an idiot, all I was doing was learning it—most of the time I didn’t get a perfect score on those quizzes. More like 80-90%. Meanwhile I had a classmate who learned all of the forms of the irregular verbs by heart. He got 100% every time. And I still remember, petty soul that is mine, the burning pride and jealousy I felt when, each time the teacher would hand in the test results, I got some backhanded compliments and he got effusive praise. Of course, he couldn’t string an English sentence together. But hey, he got better grades than me! I guess he won in the end.

Using math as an analogy to speaking English, what we want is not kids who can recite irregular verbs, but kids who can hold a conversation. Even after “grokking” trig, I bet if you’d timed me doing problem sets next to a kid who’d memorized everything, I would do worse because I would probably start by scribbling a unit circle and re-deriving everything before applying the formulas. But as anyone who’s done math in a serious way knows, the latter is actually an infinitely better way. Of course, if you want to, at that point you work hard so that the rederiving becomes essentially muscle memory and becomes easier. But the key thing is the grokking. And if you have the grokking, the motivation to do the hard work will come easy.

The reason why this post is so awesomely, perversely wrong (despite being so right in some key ways!) is because it fails for the same reason “education reform” fails, which is that it fails to question the basic structure of how “education” is done in most modern countries, a way which is just contrary to how research says the learning mind works—didactic and extrinsic.

This is the problem of neoliberalism in a nutshell. To grossly oversimplify, while conservatism says “the poor suck, and they deserve it” and liberalism says “the poor are awesome”, neoliberalism says “the poor suck, and it’s not their fault” If only we could explain to minorities the value of hard work through targeted intervention and tweaking the incentive pay of teachers! Then they could pull themselves up by their bootstraps and do some linear algebra. Give me a break.

The authors start from a very good finding of fact (hard work pays off in life! Everyone can learn math!) to recommendations that make education worse like more authoritarianism, more homework, and so forth.

“Treat people who work hard at learning as heroes and role models.” LOL.

And the tragedy is that we already have very good ways of teaching kids, but we just pretend they don’t exist.

Think of replacing pi with tau as the circle constant.

Think of the flipped classroom.

Think of this clever binomial equation hack.

Think of the Montessori algebraic cubes.

Man, if only there could be a method, field tested, to teach kids math.

Oh wait, there is, and the authors seem completely innocent of it. It is called the JUMP Math curriculum, and from what I’ve seen, it Just. Works. Of course, its philosophy doesn’t say what the authors of that article pretend at all.

Of course, the authors could be excused for not having heard of JUMP Math, because society as a whole seems to be engineered to hide education alternatives and to be allergic to experimentation overall. Even though the lack of bottom-up experimentation is why education is so awful to begin with.

PS: If all I’m saying is true, how come kids from East Asian countries score so well in math?????? Because whipping people works to some extent. Kids at one end of the distribution will do better in math. Of course, kids at the other end will kill themselves. Yay!

Bleg: Great Books For Your Child

The Internet is currently abuzz with David Bowie’s list of 100 must-read books and justifiably so—it’s a great list.

This brings something to mind. Our current plan (which is always subject to modification) for educating our children is to put them in Montessori school from 3 to 12, and unschool them thereafter. It’s not going to be a full unschooling, however. There will be some things that will be mandated of them.

In particular, I want to put my kids through a Great Books tutorial, and put together a list of books that I want them to read between 12 and 16/18. So I’m trying to come up with my own list of Great Books to put them through.

I know the lists that are currently in existence, but I want our own list to be slightly different. I want the books to cover disciplines outside the traditional liberal arts (e.g. economics; business) and cover more temporary topics. I also want the list to include literature.

But the idea is to give my kids a broad and deep exposure to the liberal arts, human (Western (?)) thought from the pre-Socratics to today.

With that in mind, I’d love to have your suggestions for books for inclusion in the list.

Here are some tips on what I have in mind. Please refrain from suggesting books that are already on most “Great Books” lists, as I’m already aware of them (an exception to this rule would be to say something like: “You really can’t do without, e.g. The Gorgias because XYZ”). A bleg-within-the-bleg is that I’m utterly ignorant of Anglo and particularly recent American literature and I’d like some of that stuff in there. Another tip is that I’m eager to include in the list what I’d call “secondary” material; meaning, I’d e.g. rather have my kids read the best book on Kant’s philosophy than force them to slog through the Critiques which are really technical and abstruse—but that requires that the “secondary” book be really outstanding and that’s one of the things I need help on. More generally, it seems that most “Great Books” list include books based on their historical importance rather than what a reader may get from them. Is the best way to understand Newton’s Principia Mathematica to read it? I don’t think so, actually. And I certainly don’t want to inflict Das Kapital on them, though they will certainly read The Communist Manifesto. Another thing is that, to an extent, I’m willing to define “Book” broadly; for example, on the list are Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose series and Leonard Bernstein’s lectures, even though they’re video, so if you have some great ideas for non-book material that would fulfill the purpose I have outlined, let me know. I’d also like to include a “meta” book like How to Read a Book, though I know TAS Alum Alan has criticized that one. I’m also open to “lifehacks” books (like How to Win Friends and Influence People and such) if they’re really good.

With that in mind, to further guide you (and spark discussion!) here are some ideas of the books I’m considering for inclusion, bearing in mind that there’s no final list (and there might never be):
- The Didache
- Books by Church Fathers not named Augustine (I am so ignorant! Give me the recs! Especially the Orthodox contingent! (You know who you are))
- Good books on/of Jewish theology
- F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (?)
- Milton Friedman, A Monetary History of the United States (?)
- François Varillon, Joie de croire, joie de vivre
- Marc Bloch, The Strange Defeat
- Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter (shocking, I know)
- Charles de Gaulle, France and Her Army, The Edge of the Sword, Memoirs of War, Memoirs of Hope
- Kierkegaard (which one?)
- John Paul II, Dominum et Vivificantem, Redemptoris Mater, Centesimus Annus, Evangelium Vitae, Ut Unum Sint, Ecclesia de Eucharistia
- Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus trilogy
- Therese of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul
- Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, Eichmann in Jerusalem
- Alain Besançon, A Century of Horrors
- Primo Levi, If This Is A Man, The Truce
- Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man
- Amar Bhidé, The Venturesome Economy
- Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Solution
- Eliyahu Goldratt, The Goal, The Choice
- Andy Grove, High Output Management, Only The Paranoid Survive
- Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil, Small Prose Poems
- Eric Cobast, Leçons particulières de culture générale
- Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (?)
- Vladimir Volkoff, The Turnaround, The Angel Chronicles, The Moods of the Sea, Disinformation, Towards a French Metric
- Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, America at the Crossroads
-

I could go on, but I think I’ve given you an idea. There are so many pieces that are missing here: art history; the Middle Ages; Catholic doctrine and mysticism; etc. Not enough fiction, not enough poetry…

…In any case, the floor is yours! Please help me. This should be a good discussion.

A Hermeneutic Of Pontiffs

I remember that one day I produced a theological musing on Twitter. One of my tweeps responded with something like “If you take that to an extreme, that’s [Heresy X].” I thought about that for a second and my response was “Well, don’t do that, then.”

I often think about that moment because whenever we write about theology there is a great room for interpreting anything anybody says, because the terms we use are so imperfect, and perhaps because Christian theology contains so many carefully (un?)balanced paradoxes.

It seems to me that this should lead to a general principle of, well, charity in interpreting what people say in this arena. If I am an orthodox Catholic, and I say “X” and some version of “X” is heretical, then you should probably assume that that’s not what I meant.

I say this, of course, because whenever Pope Francis says something, some Catholics have what seems best referred to as a hissy fit. And these hissy fits, invariably, seem to be based not on what the Pope actually said but what he seems to have said.

So for example, when the Pope says “Everyone has his own idea of good and evil and must choose to follow the good and fight evil as he conceives them”, that could be interpreted as a brief for moral relativism. Of course, the only problem with that interpretation would be that it would be arrant nonsense. Because, you know, he’s the Pope, and also an orthodox Catholic, as he has demonstrated on countless occasions.

What’s striking is that the same people who always wish to interpret the Pope in an unorthodox fashion are always so prompt in explaining why, say, the media are interpreting a Pope’s comments wrong.

The problem here, as always, is pride. We think like politicians. We parse words for whether they help the Republican Party of the Church or the Democratic Party of the Church, whereas we should be humbly receiving the teachings of the Vicar of Christ. When those teachings seem shocking to us, common sense alone dictates that, instead of rending our garments, we should, with humility and charity, check ourselves to see what we can learn.

So, for example, in his most recent interview, when the Pope criticizes proselytizing, is he criticizing evangelization? That’s what some people on Twitter seemed to think. It also doesn’t make sense, because the Pope later praises the Jesuits’ missionary work and, you know, more generally, he’s a Catholic bishop. It seems to make more sense if we understand his criticism as applying to pointless, antagonizing grandstanding (which is so often the form “evangelization” takes), and as calling us to an ethic of love in addressing unbelievers.

The wrong interpretation is particularly sad in this case, and missing the forest for the trees, since in this case the interview itself is an inspiring example of evangelization, with the Pope inviting (with striking humility!) a secular atheist journalist to a candid conversation. You think the Pope doesn’t care about evangelization? He is showing you how to do it! Note that his interlocutor leaves, while not converted, absolutely in awe, which is a pretty good first step. Note how the Pope speaks to his interlocutor in terms he can relate to—terms which might irk you, if you are a “conservative Catholic”, but terms which might bring people to the flock.

We really have to learn from the Pope.

Pope Francis Spits On Benedict And John Paul II's Corpse Again

Will you get a load of this?

We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity. I remember […] I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems. If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.

This is really too much. Poor Pope Emeritus Benedict is in seclusion and can’t say anything about this stuff, but I’m sure he must be fuming! The era of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is well and truly over, and now we’re just 5 seconds away from womenpriests, balloon masses, and worshipping the Great One Togetherness. Francis is very clearly trying to undermine and reject the conservatives in the Church with these words. They may be nice, but they’re just going to get misinterpreted and we can’t have that.

Wait, what’s the full quote?

We should not allow our faith to be drained by too many discussions of multiple, minor details, but rather, should always keep our eyes in the first place on the greatness of Christianity. I remember, when I used go to Germany in the 1980s and ’90s, that I was asked to give interviews and I always knew the questions in advance. They concerned the ordination of women, contraception, abortion and other such constantly recurring problems. If we let ourselves be drawn into these discussions, the Church is then identified with certain commandments or prohibitions; we give the impression that we are moralists with a few somewhat antiquated convictions, and not even a hint of the true greatness of the faith appears. I therefore consider it essential always to highlight the greatness of our faith – a commitment from which we must not allow such situations to divert us.

Wait, Germany?

Oh! It’s a quote from Pope Benedict XVI in 2006.

Nevermind then.

h/t Why I Am Catholic

Just In Case You Thought There Are Catholics Who Are Better Than Other Catholics...

After Pope Francis’ interview, the “group” Catholics United put out a press release titled “Pope to Right-Wingers: I’m Not One Of You.”

Here’s Paul:

You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere humans? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not mere human beings? What, after all, is Apollos? And what is Paul? Only servants, through whom you came to believe—as the Lord has assigned to each his task.

Don't shut the doors of heaven in people's faces

The working title of this post was “Are you frickin’ kidding me?”

The greatest sin is the sin of pride, because it is the first sin and it is the one that leads to all the others. Pride is what turns us away from God, and all the rest flows from it.

Meanwhile, the demonic mind is a mind of perversion which always seeks to lead us to perversion. The Devil likes when we do evil, but he likes nothing so much as when we do evil in the name of the good. Fallenness is the work of Man, but perversion is the work of the Devil.

This means we must always guard ourselves against pride, and we must particularly guard ourselves against perversion, in the true etymological sense of turning something good to evil ends.

Nowhere is this perversion more evident than in the never-ceasing perversion of the Church. The Devil attacks the Church relentlessly, because nothing pleases him so much as the flaying of the Body of Christ, particularly when it is self-inflicted. The Devil likes Nero but his masterpiece is the Grand Inquisitor.

We see this pride leading to perversion whenever children of the Church seek to make the Church into something which it is not. A political party. A club. A prison. An elite. An NGO. A commune.

Because doing this to the Church and to us is the Devil’s main obsession, we see it arising always, in ourselves and in the world, and we must keep ever-vigilant about it.

All of which brings me to the trepidation du jour among some Catholics, which is the latest Pope Francis interview.

The mainstream media reaction was as sad as it was predictable, and the less said about it the better.

What was striking was the reaction of some “conservative” Catholics (why do you need a modifier before “Catholic”?) to, well, a message of love. The same people who are faulting the New York Times for focusing only on the culture war issues in this deep, wide-ranging interview are focusing on the culture war issues in this deep, wide-ranging interview.

This interview is just wonderful, so full of depth and love and humility and wisdom.

The Pope says two things about issues like homosexuality and abortion: he says Catholics should show their love first before catechizing, and he says that the teachings of the Church should be remembered in their broader context of love. This is precisely correct.

We have to love sinners before we teach them. We have to welcome sinners into the Church. We first have to show them that Jesus saves them before we can teach them. This is true not just because it works better. It’s true because it is God’s Way. God led his people out of Egypt and then gave them His law. God does not say “Follow these rules, and maybe I will save you.” God says: “I save you—follow these rules if you want to love me back.” The entire dynamic of the Bible and the Gospel is about receiving God’s love first, and His Law second.

Everything the Pope said about “social issues” in his interview was the stark, naked, Catholic truth. He preached an ecclesiology of love, and charity in movement.

And yet some people are saying: Now, Mr Bergoglio, I don’t know just who you think you are, but this will not do.

This is what happens when pride leads us to perversion.

It was written: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.”

Oh but no no no, we are told, the Pope didn’t say anything wrong, exactly (how generous of you to grant!). It’s not that we shouldn’t love sinners, it’s just that the Pope just shouldn’t have said it.

Well okay then. That’s much better.

Here’s Rod Dreher, whom I love as a brother and a friend albeit in a terribly imperfect way, and who I don’t want to single out. I single out this post only as an avatar of the many comments I’ve seen on Twitter and elsewhere, and not Rod personally. I’m certainly no better than Rod in any way. But this is what Rod writes:

I know what the Pope means here, and he’s right: there is so very much more to Christianity than its teachings on sexuality and abortion. But this is where I think he goes badly wrong: his remarks will be received as the Pope saying that this stuff doesn’t matter all that much.

Well yeah, they’ll be received that way. If you let them.

Can’t risk being misinterpreted! Why, if Jesus’ contemporaries had misinterpreted His message, they might have turned on Him.

This is the perversion of the Church. This is the pride that leads us to destroy the good in the name of the good. We have to find a reason to fault the Pope for saying we must love the sinner, when by our own admission everything he says is right.

You understand, the Roman Catholic Party can’t have one of its spokesmen undercutting message discipline! We can’t have him make us look bad! Yeah, yeah, sure, that love the sinner stuff, it’s in the platform, but this week is Abortion Week. And all the other weeks.

Catholicism is not an identity. It is not a party platform. It is not a clique. It is not a political objective. It is not an ideology.

Writes a priest of Rod’s acquaintance:

Words fail. If this keeps up, everything is going to be much harder. I can’t say it surprises me; the man gave an eighty minute press conference to the assembled press corps on an airplane. But it’s terribly naive, in a time when people graduate from Catholic elementary and high schools, college, and don’t know the most fundamental things about the Faith, not to realize how selectively people will pounce on this kind of thing.

I’m really sorry that the Pope expounding on the verities of the faith will make your job harder. I hadn’t realized that you had signed up for an easy job.

People “don’t know the most fundamental things about the Faith”? It’s pretty good, then, that the Pope is teaching the most fundamental things about the Faith.

People will “selectively pounce on this kind of thing”? Yes! As they always have, and as they always will! Your job is hard! It involves carrying a Cross! And dying!

But hey, look on the bright side. Catholic institutions of education have been failing at their mission for decades, but now we can blame the Pope who was elected two seconds ago.

“The man” (that’s “His Holiness” to you, Father) is “naive.” He just doesn’t know how to do his job right.

“Words fail”? Father, if this quote reflects what’s in your mind, then you need to go to confession and say penance.

This accusation of naïveté, it’s quite something.

Writes Rod:

I love his style — seriously, I do — but I am sure the liberal Pope has been very, very naive in his words here.

First of all—“the liberal Pope”? Really? When, exactly, did he become a liberal? Was it when he called same-sex marriage a plot by the Devil as bishop of Buenos Aires? Was he a liberal when he denounced abortion literally today?

Anyway, this (hold your nose) liberal is just naive. (How often do you hear a Jesuit described as “naive”?) If he’d been a Provincial, and Primate of a big country, he might have some worldly wisdom. But he’s just a holy fool. And holy fools aren’t bad, exactly, you understand, but they just shouldn’t mess with grown-up stuff. They just don’t know any better.

There are many words that can apply to Jorge Mario Bergoglio. I really, really don’t think “naive” is one of them.

The world wants to be told, “It’s okay, do what you like.”

No, actually, the world wants to be saved by a King of Glory.

For liberals and Moralistic Therapeutic Deists within Catholicism, it’s springtime. For traditionalists and conservatives in the Catholic Church, it’s going to be a long winter.

This is it. This, right here. This is the problem. This is the perversion. This is the defiling of what is holy.

The Pope is measured by whether what he says helps politically the “Republican Party of the Catholic Church” or the “Democratic Party of the Catholic Church.” This is the disease. This is the cancer. We have our cliques, we have our parties, and the question is who is going to win. Who cares!

Is it going to be a long winter? Why? Because you don’t love enough? Good!

Is it going to be a long winter because you’re going to look bad? Tough! You shouldn’t have looked good in the first place. A Christian who looks good is headed in the wrong direction.

What does it mean to have a long winter? The Pope isn’t going to give you brownie points? He won’t hang out with you at recess anymore? The Pope’s job isn’t to take care of the feelie-feelies of self-described Modifier-Catholics.

Anybody who thinks the Pope is promoting Moral Therapeutistic Deism or cafeteria Catholicism or anything like that is just out of their mind. Anyone who is challenged by the Pope saying that we must first love the sinner ought to be challenged, and is not challenged by the Pope but by Christ, who is speaking through His Vicar is the Pope.

When will it get through our thick skulls? (Mine is certainly very thick.)

The Gospel of Life is the Glengarry Glenn Ross speech, except with love instead of selling real estate. “Nice guy? Good father? I don’t give a shit.” LOVE. Take up your Cross and follow Him.

It is written: “If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”

It’s not a figure of speech!

It is also written: “Dreadful it is to fall in the hands of the living God.”

Dreadful! Christianity is not a cake party! The Spirit burns like a flame!

Now, I am not saying you cannot ever criticize the Pope. I have questions about his comments about the Latin Mass, and his comments about Papal Infallibility, although they seem to be well-within the bounds of Catholic doctrine and to be taking it in an interesting direction. These are not things that I would criticize, because I just do not know enough about what the Pope is saying, but I certainly understand why there are questions.

But to treat an interview where the Pope urges us to treat sinners with love first with alarm is, for a Christian, demonic. It is a perversion of the good in the name of the good. It is yielding to temptation.

Do you know how many people feel excluded from the Church because they have had abortions, or are gay, or are divorced? “Oh, but they’re not excluded.” You have quite the way of showing it, by freaking out when the Pope says they shouldn’t be excluded. Love! The way the Catholic Church treats homosexual persons is very often a damned disgrace (I am in no way referring to the Church’s doctrine) and it is a blessing that we have a Pope with pastoral experience who realizes it.

The Pope is calling on you to love.

I am cutting out here because I have hated writing this post, which is almost certainly an unhinged rant which is not treating people faithfully and is all wrong.

On Recommending Books

Friend of The Scene Rod Dreher has a bleg: 3 good “Intro to Christianity for the interested irreligious reader” book recommendations.

I think that’s a great idea and I’m curious what people’s recommendations are.

But what was striking was Scene Alum Alan Jacobs’s response that, essentially, you can’t do that. It’s impossible to recommend books to people you don’t know, because nobody knows how a book will affect someone, and it might have the opposite effect. (Alan noted that he knows people who were turned away from Christianity by reading C.S. Lewis, even though he is (Anglo) Christians’ go-to apologist.)

After being snarky on Twitter, I sort of want to explore this.

There’s a sense in which this is obviously true, right? We’re all different, books are universes, and so on.

But there’s also a sense in which it’s a bit absurd. If we take it to its logical conclusion, then no one could ever make any recommendation—of anything. Gone is any sort of Great Books curriculum, or any list of books whatsoever. It looks particularly absurd when you go into non-fiction. “What are the 5 best books on the fall of the Roman Empire?” “Well, who can say? It’s a mystery.” That will not do. And this is true despite the fact that many of the books on such a fraught topic have viewpoints, editorial choices, and so on that might rub readers the wrong way. But it’s still useful for me to be able to know “Hey, here’s what So-And-So, woman I respect/whose credentials tell me her opinion is worth something/whatever, thinks are the X best books on Y.” It’s easy to make fun of “Top 20” lists and suchlike, but they actually serve a purpose in human affairs, at least in the aggregate (one Top 20 list is probably going to be useless, but a bunch of Top 20 lists together paint a picture).

I would want to make some remarks about this:

There is at least ONE Book that recommends itself to everyone. Right?

It’s possible to hate a Great Book and still get value from reading it. For example, I hated Madame Bovary. I hated the melodrama, hated the story, hated the characters. And yet, I couldn’t help but note the mastery of Flaubert’s prose, and I was still glad to be immersed in it.

Recommendations really are useful, or can be. I bought Benedict XVI’s Introduction to Christianity after reading Rod’s comments.

Recommendations are a good intellectual exercise. I’ve read a few books about Christianity, and yet Rod’s question stumped me for a while. Making a recommendation actually forces you to settle down and think about the books you’ve read, what they’ve brought to you, how someone might receive them, what they’re like, why, exactly, you’ve found them so valuable (or not so valuable), and so on.

People are grown-ups. If someone recommends a book to me, and I read it, and I don’t like it—that’s fine. Or I might not even read it because I’ll take the recommendation into account, compare it with other recommendations, and decide I want to read something else instead. To recommend a book is not to foist it upon someone. If you recommend a book on Christianity to me and I hate it, I might think “Well Jeez, this Christianity stuff really is ridiculous”, or I might think “Huh. That was really bad. Maybe there’s something else out there” or “I hated this, but So-and-So is smart and recommended it anyway, and so I’m going to try to think about why, even though overall this was bad.”

A recommendation should not just be a title and a name. I think this is the point that we should keep in mind. This is the thing that makes Alan’s point important, and the thing that might reconcile his point with recommendations. “The best book on X is Y” does not have much value. “If you’re the kind of reader who cares about A, who feels a certain way when B, and who is particularly interested in C, then the best book on X is Y. Y gives you the story of α, β and γ in such and such a way” that’s actually very useful. And remembering that People Are Grown-Ups, it both improves the odds they’re going to read a book that’s good for them and takes into account their agency.

What do y’all think?

With that in mind, here are some tentatives answers to Rod.

1. The Gospel of John and the First Epistle to the Corinthians (yes, I’m counting them as one book, if only because if I were to write “The New Testament” that would also count as one book and be bigger). Why? First of all, I don’t think it’s possible to have a good intro to Christianity without reading the actual Scripture. For many reasons. First of all, obviously, because it’s the Word of God. Second of all, because everything else in Christianity is based on it. Third of all, because Christianity starts with a (true) story about a man who lived and died in 1st century Palestine, and so the place to start is by actually reading that story. But fourth, most of all, because Christianity is not merely a doctrine, it is an experience, and to understand Christianity you have to do what Christians do, which is read Scripture.

So why John and 1 Corinthians? John because it is the most explicitly theological Gospel. It makes explicit what the others make implicit. The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us. This is what Christians believe. And 1 Corinthians, frankly, because it includes the soliloquy “Without love, I am nothing”, which is the other core of Christianity.

2. Tentatively, Unapologetic by Francis Spufford. I say tentatively, because the inquiry of Rod’s questioner came in a sort of culture-war-ish context, and Spufford actually rejects some bits of traditional Christian orthodoxy, e.g. on homosexuality. So if you want a book that will tell you, e.g. “Why orthodox Christians believe homosexual acts are sinful”, this is not the book (though Spufford is pretty fair in his treatment of the traditional view). But the reason why I want to recommend Unapologetic anyway is because his topic is Christian faith first, and Christian doctrine second, which is how Christians experience it, and how they live it, and is how Christianity is properly understood, because Christians believe that Truth is a Person, not a body of knowledge. This is the great value of Spufford’s book, in that even though he covers the “philosophical bits” of Christianity, such as theodicy and soteriology and Trinitarianism and the rest, he does so in the practical, real, human way which is not only the way Christians experience it, but the way it ought to be experienced.

3. This is a cop-out, but Joie de croire, joie de vivre (Joy of Believing, Joy of Living) by François Varillon. It’s a cop-out because, tragically, this book has apparently never been translated into English, and so it probably won’t be of much help to Rod’s questioner, but it is simply the best, most accessible treatment of orthodox Christian theology I’ve ever read. François Varillon was a Jesuit priest who actually (I believe) never wrote a book but spent most of his life giving lectures (so sort of like Jesus), and Joie de croire is a set of edited lecture transcripts on all the most salient topics of the faith. He is just great and perfect and scintillating, and the “spoken word” style of the lecture helps make the text alive, and helps sometimes complex ideas go down easier. Another disclaimer is that because Varillon was a Catholic priest, some of his stuff, especially on Purgatory and the role of works in salvation, would not be endorsed by most Protestants (though they would certainly endorse 98% of the book).

I would also add some left-field choices:

The Brothers Karamazov First of all because it’s a great book. Second of all, because it contains some great Christian theology. In Karamazov, theodicy and salvation are not given neat explanations thereof. Instead, one must acknowledge one’s sin and give oneself up to Christ. In that spirit, let me also add Kristin Lavransdatter and The Power and the Glory.

The Messiah The story of Christ, set to some of the most beautiful music ever.

The Story of a Soul by Therese of Lisieux. Again, experience matters as much as theology in understanding Christianity, and Therese had all of them in spades.

Finally, I would critique some of the popular choices among Rod’s commenters:

I would not recommend the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I am a Catholic and I believe it is a great document, but it is a statement of what the Church believes, not why it believes it (or only incidentally). It is also a fairly legalistic document, which again is fine, but makes reading it cover-to-cover a daunting thing, and is unlikely to teach much to a non-Christian, except that Christianity is just a bunch of rules.

I would also not recommend Chesterton. Chesterton was chiefly an apologist and a polemicist. Which is great. But if you’re trying to understand Christianity from a detached perspective, being hit over the head with it might not be the best thing.

That’s my contribution. What are other people’s choices?

The nicest resort in France

The era of faster transport swiftly led to the era of the vacation. When, in its industrializing drive, France began covering itself with train tracks, well-to-do Parisians quickly saw the opportunity for quiet weekends away from the bustle.

Given 19th century steam trains, the only place where it was practical to spend a weekend at the beach from Paris was the North Sea. Thus enterprising entrepreneurs bought tracts of land alongside a desolate beach, albeit one with the finest sand in Europe, christened it Le Touquet, and built France’s first beach resort.

Since Le Touquet is pretty much France’s northernmost point, a swim away from England (a difficult swim sometimes, as many French monarchs found out), their Entente-era business plan called for attracting posh English tourists as well as French. So they built one of the best golf courses of the time and a city with the architectural look of an English seaside town, a grand hotel called the Westminster Hotel and street names like Avenue Reine Victoria.

This history explains the unique charm of Le Touquet. In reality, its buildings are as “fake” as those of any resort, but since they’ve been fake for more than a hundred years they’ve acquired the patina of reality. Since it was designed as French people’s idea of what an English town looks like, it doesn’t really look like anywhere else. Houses here are not called houses but villas (however small), and they all must have a name like ships, often poetic or amusing ones like Found Time, A Thousand Pleasures, Jalna) or Fifteen Minutes. Here, the sports of choice are golf, rugby, polo, tennis… (Don’t know about cricket, but I wouldn’t be surprised.) Le Touquet feels like it should be its own microstate, a sort of Monaco or Gibraltar on the North Sea.

And speaking of the sea… Those who can appreciate northern seas know this awe-inspiring beauty. I’ve already mentioned the sand, the finest that I’ve ever had the pleasure of resting my feet on, an angelic cushion. And the sea… Those tones of pale copper and steel blue, streaked with impatient foam, a carpet of diamonds glittering in reflection of the pale sun, arrayed against a sky of ever-changing colors and cloud patterns. The powerful wind, alive with salt and embers. This is a real sea, not the tepid lake of the Mediterranean.

Everyone should learn to swim in cold, living seawater. Once you realize in your bones that the cold resides in your mind and in its instinctive fear, once you learn to enjoy and even relish the cold sea’s reinvigorating properties, there are many more adventures you are ready for.

Le Touquet is its own tiny magic kingdom, a well-kept secret—and here we get to the most awkward reason why I love it so much. The city was born thanks to transport technology, and it changed, or rather didn’t, because of it. Lucky for me, the North Sea is not for everyone. As transport got faster, well-off Parisians quickly diverted their attentions to the warmer climes of, first, Normandy, and later, the Côte d’azur. Deauville and Saint Tropez have eclipsed tiny Le Touquet. Because of this change in fashion, the kind of people who come to Le Touquet aren’t just any rich people—they’re rich people whose families have been rich since the 19th century at least, and whose grandparents came to summer here. The friends who are letting us borrow their beach cabin have had it for 60 years, and other houses for longer (“Why go to the city museum? To see black and white photos of German officers living in our villa?”). My mother learned to swim here, and my uncle won tournaments at the Tennis Club. Here, people who go to the beach to get roasted by the sun like a steak don’t come. This affects not just the kinds of people you meet, but the character of the shops, of the restaurants, with the luxury understated and the focus on what’s on the plate. The best restaurant, Pérard, which makes the best fish soup in the Universe (the Universe, I tell you!) is decorated with cartoons that are only funny if you’re well versed in French and English history and literature. Le Touquet isn’t about bling. It’s Hermès, not Vuitton. BMW, not Ferrari. God, I know this is all so horribly elitist, but so be it. I would die if I had to spend my entire life in a gilded ghetto of “my people”, but for a week’s vacation at the beach, I refuse to begrudge myself.

Like every place in France, Le Touquet draws upon the rich treasures of a deep terroir. Here you can eat rattes, the tiny potatoes, grown in the sand, with their wonderful nutty flavor, made world-famous by Joël Robuchon. Maroilles and the other pungent cheeses of the North. And, of course, the wonders of the sea—mussles with fries, amazing seafood aplenty, and have I mentioned Pérard’s fish soup?

In short—the beach, the scenery, both natural and man-made, the food, the ambiance, the memories… Perhaps you’ll understand, then, why I think Le Touquet is the nicest resort in France, by far.

Bloggin' Kristin 3: Et Nos Dimittimus Debitoribus Nostris

What a book, what a book.

Read the full article

Watch Reza Aslan Make An Ass Out Of Himself

A scholar named Reza Aslan wrote about about the historical Jesus. From what I’ve seen, the book reprises one of the familiar narratives about the historical Jesus, which is that Jesus was not a religious preacher but a political rebel against Roman rule. Apparently Aslan was once a Christian and is now a Muslim.

You probably already know these things already, and the reason you probably knew them is because Twitter has been aflame with links to an interview Aslan has given about his book to Fox News. The Buzzfeed post about the interview has over 3 million pageviews and a “12X social lift” (whatever that means). Meanwhile the Slate post is cited among its “Most Viral”. Both call it “embarrassing”, and usually with superlatives.

Well, it’s certainly embarrassing. But mostly for Aslan.

Let’s back up here for a second. There is a problem for “historical Jesus” research, which is that source material is so scarce. You have a few fragments in Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. You have the non-canonical gospels which are of very late and dubious origins. And you have the canonical gospels, which make supernatural claims about Jesus and therefore automatically (and justly) invite skepticism. This gives a wide latitude for historians and other scholars to paint pictures of the “historical Jesus” as basically whatever they want. That’s not an indictment of Jesus scholarship. That’s just the way it is.

Meanwhile, there is a great popular interest in “historical Jesus” scholarship, if only because there is a great popular interest in “What You Don’t Know About This Familiar Story”. Many “historical Jesus” books have gone on to become publishing sensations. And often, they’ve gone on to become publishing sensations in the wake of generating controversy for proclaiming that the traditional Christian account of Jesus’ life is a-historical. (Even though it’s not possible to prove it, only to hypothesize it.) Controversy generates book sales. Particularly religious controversy. Such is the world.

In this context takes place the Aslan interview.

And it’s impossible to watch the video and not feel that Aslan has come into the studio picking for a fight. Trying to generate a viral moment.

Oh sure, the Fox News interviewer also has an agenda. But watch how the interview proceeds.

Interviewer: “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?”

Aslan: “Well, to be clear, I am a scholar of religions with [enunciating] four degrees including one in New Testament and fluency in Biblical Greek who has been studying the history of Christianity for [enunciating again] two decades.”

And boom, we’re off to the races!

Aslan won’t answer the question, and so the interviewer presses on (as Interviewing 101 demands), and we all go downhill from here. Aslan never stops treating the interviewer with contempt, and never stops taking offense at any relation between his faith and his book.

Those bigots at Fox News with their anti-Muslim views. Oh, how dare they say that a Muslim can’t write a book about Jesus! And their buck-toothed anti-intellectualism. This is a SCHOLAR. Don’t you understand? A scholar!

Except that there is nothing whatsoever offensive or out of the ordinary about the interviewer’s question.

“Why did you write this book?” is literally the most common interview question asked of authors! It is so common, it is such a cliché, that it is a joke in literary and media circles! This is also true of the variation “[Tidbit of author’s personal history], so why did you write this book?”

I’m a Frenchman who has never lived in the US for long, and who often writes about American politics. As a result, I am often asked why I, as a Frenchman, decide to devote so much time and attention to US politics. This is normal. And to be honest, I sometimes tire of answering that question. But I’m never offended by it.

And I’m also a practicing Roman Catholic, and if I wrote a book about Luther or Muhammad or the Buddha, it would be normal and completely innocuous to ask me why I chose to write about this particular subject given my faith tradition.

But I could take offense. I could treat the person like a child and say something like “I have a master’s degree from HEC School of Management which was ranked number one in Europe for many years running by the Financial Times — a small newspaper out of London, maybe you’ve heard of it — where I was ranked among the top twenty matriculants.” You know what that answer would make me? It would make me a complete ass and a buffoon.

Scholarship is scholarship and should be judged on its merits. But there is absolutely nothing weird or out of the ordinary for an interviewer to ask an author how his background affected his decision to write a book. It’s amazing to me that this has to be pointed out. I would even add especially if a believer in one religion writes about another religion.

Aslan, talking to his interviewer “as if she were a child”, Slate notes, says “it would be like asking a Christian why they would write a book about, you know, Islam.” Indeed, old chap! That’s exactly what it would be like!

To take an example, one of the TAS Alums is Alan Jacobs, a professor and scholar of literature. His latest book is a biography of The Book of Common Prayer. The Book of Common Prayer (I now know, thanks to Alan) is one of the great works of the Anglican Church. And I know Alan is an Anglican. So it seems obvious to me why Alan wrote this book. Alan is a man who cares deeply about books and their history and about his own religious tradition so it makes complete sense to me why he would write this book. If Alan’s next project was a Biography of the Ramayana, I would be indeed curious to note why he decided to write it.

The interview goes on in this vein. The interviewer quotes Aslan a bit of criticism of his book. Instead of responding, Aslan talks about how his book has a hundred pages of endnotes and is therefore a serious book. First of all, that’s silly. I mean, really. But second of all, answer the damn question. Aslan speaks as if the fact that he has a PhD somehow means that he is beyond criticism, at least from non-PhDs, and certainly from journalists.

Then why go on the interview?

I mean, think about it for a second. There’s about as much chance of Fox News’ audience buying Aslan’s book as there is of it buying Yeezus. So why do the interview?

Well, for this, of course. The interview didn’t ever degenerate—it never “generated” to begin with. Oh sure, Fox News had its own agenda. But Aslan could have played it cool, or presumed good faith at least on the first question. That’s if he hadn’t been coming on the interview just for this. To assume bigotry on the part of Fox News, to talk about his academic bona fides, and therefore to generate a viral moment and juice his book sales.

And this is why I’m annoyed and I’m writing this. Yes, Fox News had an agenda, and yes, Aslan is not the first person to manufacture controversy.

What’s so annoying to me is that I haven’t seen a single media outlet—that so breathlessly posted the video, and called it “embarrassing”—point out what is actually going on here. Because there’s the Bad Guys in one camp—the camp of bigoted Christians—and there’s the Good Guys in the other camp—the camp of Scholars who, because they are Scholars, are Good.

Oh yes, the Fox News video is embarrassing. It’s a little embarrassing for Fox News. It’s a lot embarrassing for Aslan. And it’s very, very embarrassing for Buzzfeed and Slate and all the other outlets that amplified it uncritically.

Bloggin' Kristin 2: Mother

I read in great big gulps while our daughter naps on the weekend. Now halfway through. I am soon leaving for a week’s vacation without internet, so you’ll have to wait a little while for the next installment, which will probably be the last one.

This may be the single best novel I’ve ever read. (The other contender is War and Peace.)

Again I am struck by Undset’s gift at sketching characters that are utterly believable, as complex as any living being, and deep. I am struck by her gift of “showing not telling.” When I wanted to be a writer (ha) those were the two things that bedeviled me. Those who can do it I view as gods.

(Before I started Kristin I was reading Infinite Jest but for all my true admiration for DFW’s amazing wordsmithery, this is not where the charism of writers lies.)

I’m also struck by what a page-turner this is. I am intensely invested in the story. I can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. As I write this I’m struggling with the temptation to just spend the whole day reading the book—but of course I have a business to run here.

All right, some chaotic notes.

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Whatever You Do, Don't Pray

I take a break from your regularly scheduled 14th century Norway blogging to bring your attention to a funny piece that appeared recently in America’s Finest News Source: “Unambitious Loser With Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives In Hometown.”

You may have already seen it because it’s been around on Twitter and Tumblr several times now. I’m writing about it now because TAS Alum ayjay linked to it.

Quick question: what’s missing in this paragraph?

According to relatives who moved thousands of miles away and are currently alienated from much of the family, Husmer has never once taken a major professional or financial risk, choosing instead to “coast through life” by putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his two children’s lives, and being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.

First, let’s think about what The Onion is doing here. I’ve argued before that the internet (and perhaps its recent change of ownership) has led The Onion to change its editorial strategy from “writing funny stuff that panders to our readers” to “writing funny stuff that will make our readers want to heighten their social standing by sharing it on social networks”, a subtle but, in my view, real, difference.

If we accept the old-school newsgroup definition of “trolling” as “trying to get a reaction” as opposed of “trying to make people angry” The Onion is now very much (and a real way, moreso than in the past) in the trolling business.

And here we’ve got a great Onion piece, because it is trolling both “sides” here, is it not? It’s trolling its traditional audience of urban hipsters who are mocked by the piece and will ironically share it, but it’s also trolling the guys-who-stayed-in-their-small-town and will very unironically also share it.

Anyway…

When I read the sentence “putting considerable time and effort into his rewarding marriage, playing an active role in his…” my mind completed the sentence with “church.”

But there’s no mention of “church,” or “God,” or “faith” in this story, is there? And shouldn’t there be? I mean, this is a piece that recites clichés of Small Town vs Big City life, and one of those clichés is that Small Town people are churched.

But Michael Husmer, for all appearances, doesn’t go to church. Not that he isn’t “spiritual”, because we still need that for his picture of happiness. So instead of going to church, he has “[put] considerable time and effort into […] being sincerely thankful for what he has in this world.”

That would have been a bridge too far for The Onion. The Onion trolls its audience—while pandering. If they’d shown someone who goes to church as more fulfilled than their presumably largely secular audience, they wouldn’t have been able to build the ironic detachment to enjoy this critique of their lifestyle.

Anyway, I couldn’t help but think of this post and video brought to you by Friend of TAS Rod Dreher which highlights just how thoroughly contemporary American media ignores religion in the day-to-day life of people.

Meanwhile, we’ve replaced the language of salvation with the language of addiction.

I’m not sure I have a point here except to note that it is through the day-to-day that we build the awareness of faith that allows it to remain a potent cultural force (as well as through projects of infiltration and renewal) and that there’s something important here about making and keeping faith as a fabric of everyday life for contemporary American culture. Call it the naked cultural square.

Bloggin' Kristin 1: Youth

My first hundred pages. Below the fold because spoilers.

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Bloggin' Kristin

After the eighth horse’s head in my bed I have finally caved in to TAS Chamberlain Matt Frost’s entreaties and begun reading Sigrid Undset’s novel Kristin Lavransdatter.

Since the translation available on Kindle is reportedly not very good, I have next to me as I speak an ancient and cumbersome artifact, a codex which I will carry around with me now for some time. It has been handed to me by my wife, who is now done with Kristin (for now, at least).

The timing is apt. Summer is here, and I will be vacationing (or, “vacationing”, as entrepreneurs do…) soon.

This is a nice throwback for me. It’s been a very long time since I’ve read fiction, or a codex, or a book this long. And since I’m told this is such a masterpiece (and thirty or so pages in, I’m already inclined to agree), and since I may or may not need extra motivation to make it to the last page, and since I know Matt has a gun and so I’d better make it to the last page, I intend to blog my reading of the book here.

It would be truly glorious if we could get a bit of a book club started and have other folks (bloggers, commenters) join in, but I understand that’s a bit of a stretch.

In any case, get ready for some more Kristin bloggin’.

A Shift In How We Think About Education

Random thought I had on the way back from dropping my daughter off at the Nanny…

There’s been a remarkable shift in our public discourse about education, and what it ought to entail, over the past few centuries, more remarkable for the fact that (I think) it’s gone unnoticed.

Simply put, in the 19th and 18th centuries, the public discourse about education was about politics; over the past few decades it’s become about economics.

Here’s what I mean: if you read the great advocates of democracy in the 18th and 19th century (the Enlightenment philosophers, the American Founding Fathers, various French liberal and/or republican intellectuals (using those words in their French meanings)), to them education was a necessary precondition of democracy and its main goal was to build enlightened, free, citizens. What was foremost to them was that education be liberal, in the oldest and etymological sense of the word: an education to freedom. A free society could not long endure if its citizens were not educated enough to make responsible use of that freedom in their personal lives and in public life, and so education was not only crucial but a certain type of education was.

Flash forward to today, and the only goal is to beat the Chinamen who are coming to eat the bread off our plates. The central question about education, both sides of the aisle agree, is how to create productive worker bees workers to win the economic race against China.

This has obvious consequences. The classic curriculum of the public schools of the French Third Republic emphasized philosophy, mathematics and latin. There were also “morality” classes in elementary school. Today the United States is obsessed with producing ever more graduates in the field of experimental science and engineering.

Now, there are several possible explanations for this shift, not all of them bad:

  • To some extent, the earlier focus on liberal education was related to an anxiety about whether the then-new experiment of democracy could succeed. Critics notwithstanding, the architects of democracy were well aware of how the regime could fall victim to populism leading to despotism (today we would say fascism). One might say liberal education has become less pressing a concern, because we’ve reached that goal. Advanced democracies have been around and relatively stable for a long time, and almost everyone in them agrees with the basic tenets of individual rights, representation, rule of law, etc. Of course, a critic would say that this is all dangerous complacency—we think democracy just “happens” whereas in fact it is a constant struggle.
  • If you agree that the polity should encourage some form of liberal (in this sense) education, then you are postulating that there is some sort of “public morality” that everyone must subscribe to, and perhaps this is dangerous. Perhaps we’ve grown a lot more weary about “imposing morality” on anyone and this is something we prefer to leave to the private sphere. There’s an obvious sense in which any attempt to impose a worldview through (mandatory) public education is creepy; Jules Ferry, the architect of France’s public school system, once wrote that his main goal for his school was to teach citizens to be able to sit quietly for hours at a time and to obey orders. And obviously the overarching goal of public education in France was to rid the country of organized religion by combating the “brainwashing” of non-secular schools with secular brainwashing. But there are obvious retorts to this libertarian-ish view: that it amounts to a dangerous relativism; that the ideology that has replaced it, which we could dub “economism”, is itself a form of public morality; that indeed the very belief that only the private sphere should teach morality is itself a form of public morality; that really no one actually believes this, witness ever-flaring debates about e.g. evolution and sex in school curricula, or the striking resemblance between school curricula in the US’s manifold jurisdictions.

What’s striking to me here is that if we’ve gone away from “public morality” as a goal for education, it seems to me that it’s either because we all agree on what the public morality is, or because we can’t agree on what the public morality is. And I have a nagging sense that the answer is actually “both.”

There’s a sense in which there is a “public morality” in education and that it works out to some sort of “atheistic productivist moral therapeutic deism” where the goal of life (and what education should prepare you for) is to be happy and do whatever you want and find fulfillment as long as fulfillment involves earning a degree from a four-year institution of higher education in a vocational field and finding a productive 9-to-5 job (and getting married but as long as it’s not before 30 and having had many other romantic experiences before that). Or something.

Keen readers of this post will rightly guess that I side with the “politists” against the “economists” in this debate, if only because the “economist” view is so awful, but what I’m more interested in is in why we’ve actually shifted away from this view so much that to articulate it is to seem old-fashioned and out of step, and perhaps even outside the Overton window.

(PS I guess I’m thinking about this because yesterday I had a convo with libertarians on Twitter about civil liberties and terrorism. They argued that another 9/11 wouldn’t be such a huge deal because after all plenty of people die in car crashes every year. I responded that another 9/11 would be a huge deal because it would have huge social and political ramifications. Now they’re right that it doesn’t have to be this way, but they’re wrong to just wave away the stubborn fact that this is the world in which we live. I really wish it weren’t this way. As I said yesterday, I agree strongly with David Foster Wallace here. But most Americans don’t. Perhaps teaching that sacrifice is part of liberty should be part of our public goals for education. Of course, the idea of public goals for education would also horrify libertarians…)

La Chanson française

As one who straddles the Transatlantic cultural divide, I often have trouble communicating to my American friends the wonder of some French musical acts, particularly the great auteurs of la chanson française.

The thing with chanson is that it is as much poetry as it is music, and poetry that relies heavily on alliteration, cultural references, wordplay, poetry therefore that is very hard to carry over to another language and culture.

The obvious example here is Georges Brassens, who rolls his Auvergnat r’s over a meek plucked guitar, casually unfurling lyrics packed several layers deep with cultural allusions, extended metaphors, clever rhymes and astute wordplay.

His masterpiece Les Copains d’abord (originally written for the soundtrack of an eponymous film which has been utterly forgotten, overshadowed by the song, even though it is one of the gems of French cinema, starring some of the greatest actors of the 20th century, often before they were famous) is built upon an extended metaphor of friendship as a ship and a nautical journey, bringing in The Raft of the Medusa, Fluctuat nec mergitur and the Battle of Trafalgar. In the song, friendship is “franco de port,” a technical expression for shipful of merchandise paid for by the sender, that is to say free, but also a wordplay on “port”—a port in the storm—and “franco”—slang for “honest.”

For Brassens, friendship is unselfconscious and not theorized. The copains would give anything for each other, but the last thing they would do is think “I would give anything for him” :

They weren’t fancy friends
Like Castor and Pollux
Or people from Sodom and Gommorrah
They weren’t friends chosen
By Montaigne and La Boétie

For all its value and perhaps transcendence, it would be wrong to see friendship as religion:

They weren’t angels
The Gospel? They ain’t read it
But they loved each other at full rigging
John, Peter, Paul and the gang,
That was their only litany,
Their Credo, their Confiteor,
Friends first

(Brassens is known for his opposition to organized religion, and isn’t it nice for once to see an adversary of the Church who actually knows what he’s talking about? One finds it hard to imagine Christopher Hitchens knowing how to use confiteor. )

This is just a small glimpse of the lyrical depth of one song by Brassens, and perhaps I’ve shown how hard, perhaps futile, it seems to translate the combination of alliteration, rhyme, cultural reference and wordplay that the chanson throws at the listener.

Another glorious example is Jacques Dutronc, perhaps—I dare submit—the coolest cat of the 20th century (no doubt helped by the fact that his wife is one of the most beautiful women in the 20th century). Known in his youth for his three-piece suits and forever for his big cigars, Dutronc is what you would get when you cross the perfect son-in-law with a fiercely playful devil.

His formidable song L’Opportuniste, a send-up of politics, is impossible to appreciate without understanding the idiomatic expression of the chorus: retourner sa veste (to turn one’s jacket inside out, that is to say, to change one’s affiliation or public belief):

Some object, demand and protest
I only do one thing
I turn my jacket inside out
I turn my jacket inside out
On the good side always

The predictable line “I am of all parties” has three layers: political parties; fun parties, but also parties fines, that is to say, orgies. (Not that French politicians would know anything about that, of course.)

J’aime les filles (I Like Girls) is, as the title suggests, a French song out of central casting.

I like the girls from Castel
I like the girls from Régine
I like the girls you see in Elle
I like the girls from the magazines (…)
I like the girls with dowries
I like the daddies’ girls
I like Lot’s girls (!)
I like the girls who don’t have daddies
I like the girls from Megève
I like the girls from Saint Tropez
I like the girls who go on strike
I like the girls who go camping (…)
I like the girls from Camaret
I like the bookish girls
I like the funny girls
I like the Vieille France girls

The song’s overall theme is, well, pretty straightforward. But then again, you miss much of the song if you know the popular Paris nighttime spots Castel and Régine (as popular when I was in college as in Dutronc’s generation—I like les filles de chez Régine too), if you know Megève and (this one is easier) Saint Tropez, if you know that “les filles de Camaret” is the title of a French bawdy song, if you know what “Vieille France” refers to…

Every Dutronc song is packed to the brim with awesomeness, but it’s just so hard to convey. I’ve been meaning for a while to share with fellow Scenester Matt Frost his amazing anti-French Parenting song Fais pas ci, fais pas ça (Don’t Do This, Don’t Do That). Listen to the song’s restless tune, and know that “A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet” is one of the sillier French nursery rhymes.

Don’t do this, don’t do that
Come here, sit here
Watch out, don’t get cold, or else
Eat your soup, come on, brush your teeth
Don’t touch this, go to sleep
Say Daddy, say Mommy
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t put your fingers in your nose
You still suck your thumb
What did you spill?
Close your eyes, open your mouth
Don’t bite your nails nasty child
Go wash your hands
Don’t cross the street or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Let your dad work
Go do the dishes
Stop squabbling
Respond when I call
Be polite say thank you to the lady
Leave your seat
Time to go to bed
Can’t miss the class
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
You tire me I can’t take it
Say good day say good night
Don’t run in the hallway
Or else I’ll spank you
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Come here get out of here
Here’s the door get out
Listen to the grown ups
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Stubborn runt
You’ll get a beating
What did you do with my comb?
I’ll only say it once
You’re good for nothing
I’m telling you for your own good
If you don’t do better
You’ll be a ditch-digger
Don’t do this, don’t do that
A da da prout prout cadet, A cheval sur mon bidet
Don’t worry guys
Don’t worry guys
They told me all that too
Don’t do this don’t do that
Don’t do this don’t do that
And this is where I ended up
And this is where I ended up
La la la
La la la
La la la
La la la la
La la la la
La la la la

Fuckin’ A man.

Dutronc is, after all, a guy who wrote—and, more importantly, got past the censorship boards of mid-‘60s France—a song dedicated to how wonderful his penis is.

Am I jealous?
Not at all, not at all
I have a girl trap
A taboo trap
An amazing toy
That goes crac-boom-hoo
It makes girls fall to their knees

Dutronc disses “professional play boys” who “work like beavers, not with their hands or feet” (beavers use their tails to build their dams, and in French queue (tail) is slang for penis). Those playboys are “minets” who “eat their ron ron at the Drugstore”—minet means kitten but is also slang for “prettyboy”, hence the “ron ron” (cat food) they eat at the Drugstore, a nouveau riche hangout near the Arc de Triomphe. Dutronc may not have the play boys “Cardin suits” or “Ferraris” or hang out at “Fauchon”, but is he jealous? No, because he’s got his “amazing toy” that makes all the girls fall to their knees…

Dutronc disses all the types of Parisian playboys: “the Supermen with bodies of steel”, “those who read and who can speak” and even “those who get married at La Madeleine”. As far as diss songs go, this is pretty great. “My rivals may be richer, prettier and smarter, but I have a bigger dick.”

Then there’s his untranslatable L’Aventurier where he rhymes French slang with basically every town on Earth (my favorite: “J’ai été lourdé à Lourdes”), while mocking the fake adventurers we sometimes run across.

Perhaps I’ve gotten my point across: it’s very hard to convey the awesomeness of the chanson française to a non-French audience, based as it is on poetic lyrics and cultural references, rather than musical quality.

Of course, there are exceptions. Jacques Brel’s volcanic intensity punches through all cultural barriers. I dare you to listen to his Quand on n’a que l’amour (When All You Have Is Love) and not feel like you’ve just been punched in the gut.

When all you have is love
As your only reason
As your only song
And only succor

When all you have is love
To provide, in the morning,
The poor and the wanderer
With velvet coats

When all you have is love
To offer up as a prayer
For the evils of the Earth
As a simple troubadour (…)

When all you have is love
To talk to cannons
And just a song
To convince a battle drum

Then, having nothing
But the strength to love
We will have in our hands,
Friends, all of the world.

Without a doubt, the most underrated of the great auteurs of chanson is William Sheller. Sheller has a fatal flaw: he appeals to the people of my class, the old money, and thereby earns the contempt of the music critics. He has the gall to use Christian themes sometimes, and not to mock them either, so he’s clearly a simpleton.

Sheller is, first and foremost, humble. It’s so easy to mistake him for a peddler of poor pop, with his saccharine synth and mild electric guitars, his unimpressive voice, a light tenor which sounds like it could be yours or mine. Sheller sneaks up on you. When you listen to his songs, you don’t picture an arena, you picture him in your living room or perhaps some dive, on the piano, banging out a few tunes. Then you realize that the catchy tunes are the wings of deep poetry, that his voice has a je ne sais quoi of earnest intensity you’ve never quite heard elsewhere, that this man is painting a whole world for you in the span of just a few minutes.

Sheller is a poet for sure (his pseudonym “Sheller” is an homage to Shelley and Schiller) but like his lyrics, the quality of his music likes to hide in plain sight. A classically-trained pianist and composer, Sheller uses the tools of orchestration to make the elements of pop music do more than they’re supposed to. The drums, the base are ever so slightly more subtle and complex than they would be if someone else was writing the song. You’ll never catch the music showing off, or overshadowing the song, but always accompanying and strengthening it.

In Les Filles de l’aurore (The Girls Of Dawn), an almost meditation on hedonic teenage love, the drums and base first give off a very simple beat, but they are quickly completed with piano, then synth, then strings. The strings are on their own melody, undergirding the song. The drums sometimes bounce up into the song. So easy to miss that there’s a lot going on under the catchy choruses.

The boys of dawn
Slide their bodies in worn jeans
They brush nervous fingers through their hair
And walk outside
They have deep in their eyes
The dreams of the strongest
The wars they still wage
When the dawn sees them walk two by two

And I come well after the dawn
When the sun rises above St John
I want to tell them I still love you
You who always leave me

The lovers of dawn
Still give themselves to each other
In wrinkled beds
Hearts against bodies
Is it love or death
That keeps them in their embrace?
They have deep in their eyes
Dreams I used to dream
That you would stay
After the dawn kept us

Vienne (Vienna) is both an ode to the beauty of the imperial city and the telling of the bittersweet story of a marriage hitting bottom.

If I write you tonight from Vienna
It’s for you to understand
That I chose absence
As our last chance
Our sky became so heavy

If I write you tonight from Vienna
— O fall in Vienna is so beautiful —
It’s that without thinking I chose to take off
And I’m in Vienna without you

I walk and dream in Vienna
To the triple time of a distant waltz
It seems as if shadows turn and melt into each other
Our evenings in Vienna were so beautiful

(Don’t worry. They get back together in the end.)

I ask you, who has the means to take off for Vienna for a week off when their marriage goes south? Someone who’s not paying enough taxes, that’s who. Class traitors like Sheller can’t make good music.

One of Sheller’s most affecting songs is Maman est folle (Mom Is Insane), narrated from the perspective of the older child who has to care for both his disabled mother and his younger brother, while hiding her condition for fear of having her taken away. No father is mentioned. This heart-breaking song is 100% pathos-free, carried by a strangely upbeat tune and lyrics appropriately simple and blunt for the child narrator.

Mom is insane
Can’t do nothin’ about it
What makes it better
Is she loves us

When she flies away
We hold her hand
She’s like a kite
That the wind plays with (…)

When Mom laughs
We forget we’re hungry
That it’s time for school
That we’re afraid of the neighbors

She’s our idol
She fills our hearts
They mustn’t steal her
Or take her away

So Sheller does naturalistic stories. There are biographical ones, like Basket Ball about, well, playing basket ball as a young man, and more (“I was then a guy/Who played a bunch of basketball/Who played a bunch of rock’n‘roll/But when you were there, I never knew what to say…”), RockNDollars about his slightly silly teenage dreams of making lots of money as a rock star and aping all things American (“I will be your popstar, your King/It’s all about dollars and feeling”).

He also often evokes history, as in Guernesey a poetic evocation of Victor Hugo’s exile on the eponymous island and a call for free speech (“To be exiled for ideas/To hear the voices drifting/Under the waves”).

But Sheller is not above mysticism. With impressionistic touches, he paints worlds that sometimes have supernatural hues. You never know what’s what, as in Les Miroirs dans la boue (Mirrors In The Mud)

In the storm of an ageless forest(…)
I saw the face of a wild child
Carrying a jewel
Green eyes swept with ginger hair(…)

God makes pictures with clouds
The rain makes mirrors in the mud
I have looked for you everywhere
I keep a mirage in a strange cage
The kind that mad men build
I have looked for you everywhere

My favorite Sheller song (and I’m going to end this interminable post with this) is without a doubt Excalibur An hommage to the chansons de geste, this song evokes the powerful mythos of the Middle Ages about as well as anything else I can think of. The faith and the heroism of knights, but also the violence and the tragedy. I said Sheller’s orchestration is subtle, but here he goes all out, with an orchestra and a Latinate choir. This is a song that makes you want to ride your steed to Jerusalem to retake it for Christendom, and yet leaving you with a piercing feeling that it’s all for nothing, and yet somehow still worth it if it’s noble. A medieval history professor I knew once told me this about the Middle Ages: “They committed as much horror as any era, but they repented more than any era.” The knight narrator addresses a father who is alternatively his lord and God.

It is a great blessing, noble father
To see you again, so full of life
Back on your noble lands
Before your proud squadrons
After these long years of war
Heaven is a witness that today
It is a great joy for the whole city
To open its doors loudly

Misery and long nights came
God gave and God took back
Our brothers are gone, so are our enemies
God gave and God took back
God kept you
May He be blessed

It took so much earth
To dig so many beds
That whole mountains were not enough
And You needed so much stone
To build fair churches
Where we sang Your light
Where we felt so small.

In the forest of your banners
Blows a good wind, flapping with life
The sun burns your iron gloves
Today is a great day,
But allow me noble father
To leave you with this
The road to the border is long
I shall have to travel by night (…)

I leave to bury
At the ends of our old land
The soft Diane with the fair hair
Whom I cannot forget
She shall sleep as in prayer
Out of the fairest marble anyone saw
Under the fair light
Of your fair churches

This bittersweet song appeals to any romantic, particularly one taken with the romanticism of the Medieval knights. It does not flinch from the ugliness of the Medieval drama, but nor does it deny its epicness. This song grabs you and makes you travel to another world, one where you could almost—not quite—confront Mordor on horseback with Aragorn.

Sheller is really cool. He has an uncanny gift for painting whole worlds with just a few words in his songs, and elegant, subtle orchestration. I hope I’ve been able to convey that.

PS: This is a guy who wrote a “psychedelic mass” in 1969. Side 1 and Side 2 on YouTube.

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