Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Book Selection(s) of the Month: Eight Religion-Related Items

atlas.jpg Book Selections of the Month (December 2008)

I’ve been talking in part about women, libertarians, and heretics this month, so, just in time for the holidays, it seems right to begin and end the list of eight religion-related texts below with items by libertarian women interested in heresy — specifically, historian Christine Caldwell Ames and novelist Ayn Rand, who shall form, as it were, our alpha and omega.

Consider giving one of the items below as a gift each day of Hanukkah — or possibly planning your Yale Divinity School curriculum around them! (Let the record show, though, that I’m listening to Kiss’s “Heaven’s on Fire” as I begin typing this, and I did not plan that. Kiss just happens sometimes.)

1. Righteous Persecution: Inquisition, Dominicans, and Christianity in the Middle Ages by Christine Caldwell Ames: As briefly sketched in a related article, Caldwell Ames thinks that an important lesson of the Inquisition, of which she provides a balanced, analytical overview, is that heresy is not such an easy thing to spot. Rarely do the people with convictions strong enough to result in their persecution, such as many of the Inquisition’s victims (who were given chances to repent), perceive themselves as the heretics who are deforming church doctrine. Rather, in their minds, perhaps correctly, they are the true believers beset by a fallen establishment. Along the way, though, Caldwell Ames also shows us that the Inquisition, far from being an extra-barbarous form of religion, was quite advanced in its legal standards for its day. In a world not far removed from trial by combat and blood feuds, the Inquisition was one of the first institutions in Europe to rely upon corroborating witnesses, cross examination, and the like. Its authority was also restricted to those claiming to be members of the Catholic Church (but in some cases harboring other, secret sympathies), so many of us in modern society, at least, would be safe.

2. The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command by James Kalb: For all the terrible things done in the name of the Inquisition, there is at least one articulate writer who thinks that it is the Enlightenment that will be looked back upon as a form of “insanity” from which it will take civilization centuries to recover. Jim Kalb, a Brooklyn-dwelling traditionalist, is in some sense the most conservative person I’ve ever known — which to some of our fellow New York residents probably conjures up an image of some loud, macho Sean Hannity type who shouts down opposing arguments with praise of the GOP. On the contrary, Kalb (a registered Democrat, for tactical reasons) is a thoughtful, soft-spoken self-doubter who admits that he would find it difficult to make decisions in the absence of tradition’s guidance — and who suspects the same is true of our culture as a whole. If you want to read a well-reasoned argument about why individual reason is a hopeless, terrible tool for making moral decisions and shaping society, start with Kalb. The whole modern world may end up seeming rather hollow and artificial by the time you’re done.

3. Heretics by G.K. Chesterton: Chesterton’s premise, as he wrote in 1903, was that people had by then become so indifferent to people’s underlying philosophical principles that being a heretic no longer even causes a stir — and he proceeds, one intellectual per chapter, to show how wrong and dangerous some of the great religious, political, and philosophical heretics of his day were. But for an arch-conservative, how contemporary (and still funny!) he seems, ironically — and virtually all the people he talks about sparring with are still very much parts of our culture today, which helps, including his friend George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. In fact, I worry sometimes that their brains, like Chesterton’s, seem more familiar, less alien, to me than do those of some of my own contemporaries.

(But for giving me a century-old copy of this great book, I should thank contemporary Dawn Eden, whose book Thrill of the Chaste — featuring me as “Tom” in Chapter 18 — was of course one of this blog’s earliest Book Selections, for Christmas 2006, along with Kyle Smith’s A Christmas Caroline. As a blogger who likes puns, Dawn must be pleased to know Chesterton actually married a Blogg — Frances Blogg, that is.)

4. Lucifer: Devil in the Gateway by Mike Carey and various artists: I have to thank Jamie Foehl’s boyfriend for recommending this poetic yet Buffy-like little adventure of the world’s ultimate blase heretic — a spin off of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, here focusing on a cynical, witty Lucifer who has tired of Hell and decided to become a nightclub owner and occasional doer of God’s necessary but less than divine dirty work. There are a lot of comic books quietly and non-hostilely rewriting Christian cosmology in one or another novel way these days — and indeed, I’ll go see where the Hell-on-Earth miniseries Final Crisis, also from DC Comics, stands in the fifth of its seven issues shortly after I finish writing this blog entry — but Lucifer is one of the most mature and intelligent.

5. Thriller created by Robert Loren Fleming and Trevor von Eeden: I can’t help thinking that the comics-reading public missed the boat on this one (though not Dan Greenberg, who gave me my current copies): Thriller, the short-lived sci-fi comic book series, deserves to be spoken of in the same breath as other groundbreaking 80s work like that of Alan Moore, Frank Miller, and Neil Gaiman — and was as ahead of the curve in tapping into the rising cyberpunk aesthetic as was Miller’s Ronin. I’ve mentioned before that Thriller was startlingly prescient, depicting (back in 1983) a future world in which genetically-engineered heroes battle decapitation-loving Muslim terrorists for control of global computer networks, under the watchful eyes of twenty-four-hour cable news networks — and a thin, black, slightly aloof U.S. president (and, interestingly, though Blade Runner, which came out one year earlier, must have been some influence, writer Fleming mentions X-Men, pulp fiction, and film noir as major influences, which also makes sense).

But beyond the series’ prescience, its Catholic streak is also interesting — not only the even-more-relevant-today cloned priest wittily named Beaker Parish who worries whether he can truly be said to be alive, but the young couple who give the series its title, Edward and Angie Thriller, fused in an accident that has left him surviving as flesh alone and her as spirit, merged with his body but able to manipulate other matter — including the hands of her assassin brother, Salvo, who will not take a life, and Beaker’s not-fully-organic skin. I could go on and on, even though, sadly, it lasted less than a year.

6. One Punk Under God featuring Jay Bakker: I was recently given a free DVD of this short documentary series, about the punk preacher son of disgraced televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, depicting his decision to move from Atlanta to Brooklyn, where he starts a more gay-friendly congregation. One of his Brooklyn parishioners, Benjamin Doray, actually gave it to me during a farewell bar gathering for California-bound Marcia Baczynski, who’s a big fan of item #8, coming up in a moment. One of the documentary’s most revealing moments, given the tension throughout between punk Jay and father Jim, is Jim Bakker admitting he always feared his father’s disapproval and then breaking down while speaking at Pete’s Candy Store (that’s right, the Jim Bakker has been on the same stage that has hosted spelling bee hostess Jen Dziura, not to mention Lefty Leibowitz’s Ramblin’ Kings country band — I always said there was something David Lynch-like about that slightly-claustrophobic, intensely-red space that would work well on camera). As a man working on a book called Conservatism for Punks, I was morally obligated to watch this documentary, and I’m glad I did.

7. The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life by Austin Dacey: A head honcho of the Center for Inquiry and its influential magazine Skeptical Inquirer (which helped turn me into an atheist back in high school), Dacey now makes the brave argument that we should end the liberal trend toward treating religion as something relegated to the private sphere, taboo to argue about in public — because he thinks that only through frankly debating it in public can we put an end to irrational, superstitious ideas once and for all. Far from saying “Please keep your religion to yourself,” Dacey is in effect saying, as my conservative (and combat-loving) girlfriend Helen approvingly put it, “Bring it on!” And speaking of public debate, look for Dacey to be one of our likely Debates at Lolita Bar participants in April or May.

8. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand: Rand’s fictional band of self-interested, atheistic capitalists fleeing New York City for the West to live in their own secret valley will forevermore be linked in my mind with the person who gave me my first edition, first printing copy of the 1957 masterpiece: my kind-hearted organic-farmer friend Valerie Jackson, who fled the West for upstate New York. Prone to Eastern-mystical sympathies of the sort Rand depicted as a confrontation with “pure evil” in one memorable scene about a New Age-type female, Valerie does not exactly agree with the uncompromising pro-capitalist, pro-science, materialist philosophy depicted in the novel, so it was only right to altruistically bestow the copy upon me — and you can see me wield it (along with chunks of wood from the Kelo decision house) as a prop in my most recent PJTV appearance.

People often go through a high school phase of loving Atlas followed by a college phase of scorning it, seeing it as an overblown, cartoonish thing — but given that it’s a Russian-born novelist’s attempt to depict, through a vast cast, the decay into socialism and irrationality of an entire society, maybe the novel deserves to be seen as a complex exercise in dialectics, as Rand analyst Chris Sciabarra might put it: giving us not so much familiar psychological portraits as a great deal of dissected social context — which you just might find educational, if you haven’t tried it (and even if, like me, you disagree with some of the egoism and anti-altruism stuff that Rand would consider essential).

I think religious believers, despite all their talk of submission, shame, and humility, are almost invariably more arrogant than atheists, but there is no denying that Atlas, by design, is filled with unapologetic worship of humanity — at least, humanity when it’s heroic and productive instead of parasitic. And incidentally, as New Yorkers know, that giant Rockefeller Center Atlas seen in the photo atop this entry is directly across the street from St. Patrick’s Cathedral, which is as it should be.

Now that our own world, with its faltering economic system and cozy government-industry bailouts, begins to look more and more like Ayn Rand’s political alternate universe, I plan to turn in despair to reading and reviewing outright science fiction and fantasy for 2009, much in need of a little mental vacation. (And the odd thing is, the first three sci-fi Book Selections will also be works given to me by Dawn Eden, so stay tuned and see how it’s all connected.)

Next year also brings ten major nerd films, by my count, but we’ll save all that for later — for now, happy holidays. Back tomorrow with more on feminism.


Todd Seavey said...

P.S. Valerie notes she literally found her/my copy of _Atlas Shrugged_ IN THE TRASH at Berkeley, where she was an anthro grad student years ago. That’s almost sacrilegious — yet fitting.

It’s enough to make me want to “retaliate” by leaving, say, a copy of _The Greening of America_ or _Silent Spring_ in a garbage can in Midtown Manhattan. Not that I own one. I’ve got some Michael Parenti books, though, and a Robert Kuttner. Hmmm.

Laura said...

You could add Sarah Vowell’s new book, The Wordy Shipmates, which is all about the essential Americanness of the Puritan heretics and our perceptions of them — plus there’s about a half a chapter on the early history of your hometown, Norwich, CT, as the setting for the Pequot War.

Todd Seavey said...

And in New Hampshire, circa 1630, William Seavey, one of the East Coast’s first public works directors, appears to have been tasked with building the first structure to be used solely as a church, his descendants, like my father, living in New Hampshire for centuries thereafter.

But I will not build a church.

Todd Seavey said...

[...] And luckily, as if having lunch with Dawn Eden and a priest (among others) today weren’t conservative enough, I’m scheduled to dine with someone tomorrow who’ll be the perfect person with whom to discuss such questions: not the author of Conscience of a Conservative (which was ghostwritten for Goldwater by the anarchist left-libertarian Karl Hess, not that you heard the confused neocons mention that too often over the past eight years) but rather Don Critchlow, author of The Conservative Ascendancy (a title that sounds a bit poignant these days).  For this opportunity, I must give thanks to my visiting medieval historian friend Christine Caldwell Ames, herself the author of the Inquisition analysis Righteous Persecution…and perhaps the least conservative person mentioned in this blog entry (despite her mind being full of medieval Catholic history), which may tell you something about my acquaintances, at least on alternating days. [...]