Everything is Broken

In a recently highlighted post by Alana Newhouse on the Tablet website entitled Everything Is Broken the author generalizes from her experience with what she describes as a broken US medical establishment to musing on how every other part of modern American life appears broken as well. Newhouse uses the metaphors of ‘flattening’, ‘boundarylessness’, and ‘frictionlessness’ to describe how many aspects of our experience are being altered by rapid changes to our institutions and our relationships to them resulting in a sense that everything is broken. One finds in reading her description of current affairs a recognizable refrain repeated in the headlines. Her remedy for the pervasive brokenness is to attempt resisting being ‘flattened’, “Build new things! Create great art!…make a friend and don’t talk politics,…go back to a house of worship – every week”. Her diagnosis mostly focuses on the social and political institutions within which we live our lives, and which no longer seem to meet the needs of those they are intended to serve. In contrast, most of the material world Newhouse inhabits must be doing OK. There are no complaints about a car that won’t start or clocks that don’t keep time, and she appreciates the speed, accessibility, and portability of modern technology driven devices.

Thirty-two years ago Bob Dylan released a song entitled “Everything is Broken” . In Dylan’s song most of the items he mentions as broken are physical objects, “strings, springs, heads, beds, plates, gates, parts”, but then he comes to broken “hearts” which is followed by the line “broken words never meant to be spoken….everything is broken”. There is a medical condition called ‘broken heart syndrome’, but we know the poet is alluding to the metaphorical ‘broken heart’ of love’s thwarted desire and the words that typically spark the break. Also, among the non-material broken items in Dylan’s lyrics are “laws, treaties, vows, and rules”. Here we are in the arena of Newhouse’s broken world of human institutions. Our woke fellow citizens are familiar with the transgressive attitude towards laws, treaties and rules that they believe have repressed our desires and ensconced privilege for some and victimized others, usually historically marginalized groups. Breaking rules, even laws, that violate the rights or dignity of victims is celebrated by some. Breaking vows, however, resonate with other aspects of our frayed common life, marriage and faith. Whatever Dylan saw in the late 80’s that led him to include vows among the broken it has only become increasingly clear in the ensuing three decades, in spite of marriage itself having been inclusively redefined, that declining family formation and ecclesiastical scandals have exposed a brokenness at the core of these institutions.

“Everything is Broken” was one of ten songs on the album Oh Mercy whose title points to a source of healing for our brokenness. These other songs also are worthy of examination for insights into the poetic and prophetic path that Bob Dylan, along with the rest of Western culture, has traveled over the past thirty years:

Gil Bailie has recently been sharing draft excerpts from his current manuscript project with friends of the Cornerstone Forum in monthly group Skype calls we’ve named ‘Florilegia’. The working title of the manuscript is “The Apocalypse of the Sovereign Self: Recovering the Christian Meaning of Personhood”. In an early section of the manuscript Gil discusses an experience which Bob Dylan relates in his 2017 Nobel Prize lecture in which a youthful Dylan, then Robert Zimmerman, attended a live performance of his idol Buddy Holly. That night Dylan indicates that he seemed to receive something from Holly in an uncanny way, and that the experience changed him. Shortly after this event Buddy Holly was killed in an airplane crash and Dylan was on a new path.

It could perhaps be surmised that Buddy Holly’s death was a shock to his young acolyte and the late adolescent world of Bob Dylan’s small town was broken apart in the smashed ruins of Holly’s airplane. Everything was broken…nevertheless something essential had been passed on that when nurtured and followed faithfully for twenty years ultimately grew into a deepening spiritual expression of Christian conversion blended with Dylan’s Jewish heritage.

Newhouse’s experience with the American medical establishment led to her see its brokenness and feel its failures personally. As a journalist her instincts directed her to search for the sources of the failures and expose them. It is another example of the perennial Western desire to shine a light on those who have been victims of any kind of injustice or suffering. However, someone who has recently recuperated from the suffocating effects of the COVID-19 virus after a long stay in the ICU, or who has lived many years after a successful cancer therapy would likely have a different opinion.

Modern Western medical institutions were developed over centuries by people who have gone from greater to lesser ignorance in understanding our physical and psychic ailments. In this undertaking they have learned how to alleviate or even cure various pathologies afflicting our species. And in the process, some of the hypotheses that have been put forth and the treatments developed from them have been found to be faulty with harmful results. Ultimately, these dead ends are abandoned, and new research is undertaken to find better more effective treatments with many more trials and errors. This lack of comprehensive knowledge is only one hinderance, and not the most debilitating one, to our institutions whether medical or any other kind.

Every person involved in the cultural endeavor is afflicted by what our Western tradition understands as a fallen human nature, the ‘disease of conceit’ in Dylan’s terms. In order to moderate the effects of this on our institutions we have tried in sometimes fumbling and half-hearted ways, so characteristic of our fallen human species, to restrain vices and encourage virtues. But human recalcitrance is immediately observed in objecting to ‘being told what to do’.  This has led to cycles of casting off habits and doctrines inculcated by our Judeo-Christian tradition, and revivals of religious repentance and zeal with renewed dedication to teachings and ways of life which were understood as fundamental by many of those who founded this country and were trailblazers in the formation of its institutions. Nevertheless, since the enlightenment there has been a concerted movement away from the traditional religious basis of cultural values toward an increasingly secularized and materialistic world with an accompanying relativizing moral perspective.

Newhouse points to a period beginning in the latter half of the 20th century when many institutions were hollowed out by a corrosive mix of political, economic, and social policies. While this may be so, it reveals a predisposition to view the problems as essentially manageable. This attitude shows a determined avoidance of looking into the mirror our tradition holds up to each of us reflecting our self-delusion resulting from our fallen nature and sinfulness. Such interiority and self-reflection help provide a check on the pride and greed endemic in the Western enterprise. Perhaps we can make better policies, but who or what will make us better?

Of late the human problem of sin has become taboo. A sinful human nature has been eclipsed by a belief in a merciless human perfectibility. This belief is no less a religious attitude than the belief in the Fall, and with much less evidence to support it. Humans, usurping the place of God, are now the deity and science our sacred source of all that is known. It is now shameful to hold such retrograde ideas as a sinful human nature. Anyone who continues to hold onto such superstitious beliefs is considered anti-human and cancelled/silenced. The arbiters of culture seem to be saying, “It is a sin to believe in sin. Mercy is unacceptable and only weakens the race. It is better to cull the defective”.

It should not be surprising that our human institutions reflect this brokenness especially as the culture of which they are a part becomes evermore materialistic. Add to this that the entire world has been living in a pandemic reality for almost a year. In such circumstances we can see from past historical accounts (Boccaccio’s Decameron) a pervasive sense of anxiety induced by spreading disease and potential death can lead to a general societal breakdown, persecution, and violence. Recent events show we are not immune to such effects as well. This pandemic coming in the midst of the rancorous political atmosphere of the 2020 presidential election heightened the general uneasiness we all are feeling. With new variants of the virus reportedly spreading around the world who can say for sure when we will ever again feel as complacent about our contacts with others as we did in January 2020.

I sense there is a kind of misapprehension in the ‘everything is broken’ refrain. While Newhouse’s description of our situation sounds right, it is not the number of broken ‘things’ that is the essential issue. In whatever humans attempt to achieve there will always be broken aspects of it resulting from our fallen nature. It is both wisdom and humility that takes this into account.

As in the Greek aphorism, “The fox knows many things – The hedgehog knows one big thing”, Newhouse sees many broken institutions afflicting our polity, but she may be missing the one big thing that will provide context and meaning to the scene she describes. It is the one essential thing those like the hedgehog know, or perhaps more accurately experience, as the sacramental reality of forgiveness for sin – mercy. For the brokenness revealed in suffering, pain, or injustice will always provoke some kind of response. Newhouse advises a self-assertive resistance to ‘flattening’ and believes in this way we can overcome our current crisis of brokenness. There is precedent for this. Cultures can experience revivals when the divisions and resentments of the past are healed with the balm of mercy. But there is also precedent for institutional and cultural collapse in catastrophe and chaos. We do not know amid a crisis which it might be. The martyrs who, while forgiving and praying for those responsible for their suffering, also resist ‘flattening’ at the extremity and in so doing bear witness to a faith and hope that finds solace without resentment in the gift of mercy.

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Annus Horribilis

It has been almost one year living in a global pandemic reality. The physical isolation resulting from the cautious distancing of human contact along with the strange and ominous mask wearing is taking a toll on our sense of community. Also, the news of many people becoming seriously ill and dying has included friends and loved ones and are not just anonymous numbers listed in mortality charts. Recently reports of more infectious variants of the pathogen making their way around the world are competing with stories of armies of medical workers vaccinating masses of people everyday in the hope of providing some protection from the viral spread of disease and death. I ask myself, am I anxious in the face of these things? How does my faith respond to the challenges these times present? Historical accounts of similar times such as Boccaccio’s Decameron describe scenes of societal distress with accompanying civil unrest, and violence. As current events show, we are not immune to these same effects.

Entering into the season of Lent on Ash Wednesday we are reminded anew of the certainty of our mortality and our need to repent and believe the Gospel. These words may sound in our ears differently this year. These are times of testing. Will my faith survive the trial?  God have mercy!

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Awakening in the New Year – Part 2

The following is from Gil Bailie’s new introduction to the audio book edition of Violence Unveiled:

At the end of the last millennium, the Dominican scholar Aidan Nichols, issued a clarion call under the boldly retrograde title, Christendom Awake, in the introduction of which he said this of the Catholic Church:

Does this community have the resources (of symbols in the Liturgy, the material environment, devotion in the home), the language (in philosophy and literature) and the conviction (in doctrine and morals) to restore a broadly-based public faith to the society in which it lives? No other issue in the Church is worthy of consideration with the same seriousness as this.

Aidan Nichols, OP, Christendom Awake: On Re-energizing the Church in Culture, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 7

You may listen to the entire new introduction here.

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Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads – Audio book now available

It has been over five years since we started the project of making an audio book version of Violence Unveiled: Humanity at the Crossroads available. Just after Christmas Amazon/Audible approved the audio book for sale. In coming months it will also be available in other audio book vendor sites. Patience has paid off, finally. You may listen to the new introduction to the audio book below.

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Awakening in the New Year

Which is more difficult, to awaken one who sleeps or to awaken one who, awake, dreams that he is awake?

Soren Kierkegaard

Some weeks ago I reflected on our American Thanksgiving tradition of civic proclamations of corporate repentance for our sins and gratitude to God for blessings in the year past. At the end of these musings I suggested we pray for a new ‘Great Awakening’ in our land so that we might again whole heartedly “offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ” as did the Puritan colonists of Charlestown, Massachusetts in 1676.

David Goldman (aka ‘Spengler’) has recently reviewed American Awakening, Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time, by Joshua Mitchell. I recommend the review to those who, like myself, are concerned and troubled by what many have seen as a rapid secularization of the fabric of American life. Mitchell suggests that certainly there has been a dramatic drop in traditional, especially ‘mainline’, religious involvement across the US since the 1960’s, but what appear to be secular/non-religious phenomena in the passionate dedication to identity politics of all kinds are best understood as de-Christianized Puritanical movements. This new (anti-Christ) Awakening has immense breadth and power not only among the young but also in the leading cultural institutions of education, media, business, law and of course the politics of the left most prominently.

Identity politics is a form of secularized Puritanism, as surely as the ritualized hunt for racists at American universities is a farcical reenactment of the Salem Witch Trials of 1692, which the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts first supported and later regretted.

Having not read Mitchell’s book, I’m not aware that he references any Girardian influences. But Goldman’s quotes from the text indicate a possible fruitful exploration:

“We have lost sight of the real significance of the individual in proportion to the degree to which we have lost sight of the Christian understanding of the scapegoat,” writes Mitchell. “Should this loss become complete, we would not replace much-maligned individualism with wholesome communitarianism, but rather with the satisfaction that comes when one group scapegoats another group. We will replace it with tribalism. Although he wrote reverentially about the precious gift of liberty in the democratic age, Tocqueville understood that democratic man would find the plural world of parochial, local, and national attachments in which that liberty had to be embedded too much of an encumbrance to endure. He would wish to take flight. Having already broken free of some of the linkages that bound him to nature, to his past, and to his fellow citizens, democratic man would wish to break free from them altogether…. This democratic impulse goes too far. Citizens are, ultimately, creatures that must have a home, a family, a locale, a nation, a religion.”

What makes men equal, Mitchell avers, is “the radical asymmetry between God and man.” For Christians, God himself provided the scapegoat for all of our shortcomings, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth sacrificed on the cross. That sacrifice, Mitchell argues, makes it possible for every man to look at every other as an equal; without it, we inevitably find a human scapegoat and descend into tribalism.

Mitchell has hope that we will awake from from the slumber into which we have fallen due to identity politics, bi-polarity, and addiction. But as Kierkegaard implies it is much more difficult to awaken someone who, while “woke”, ‘dreams he is awake’

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Reflections on the Girard Christmas Card

In past years in celebration of Christmas we have posted a short excerpt from the Hoover Institutions Uncommon Knowledge series of an interview by Peter Robinson with René Girard recorded in 2009.

Viewing it again, I find the combination of profound intellect with humility one of the most compelling aspects of the man. My experience tells me this is not common among scholars. In our current fractured world I miss his graceful presence and wisdom even as I pray for the repose of his soul.

As we approach the Feast of the Nativity (and remembering the anniversary of the birth of René Noël Théophile Girard on December 25, 1923) it is good to again be reminded that:

  • history contains both human and divine threads, it is religious
  • our destiny and duty is to look for the truth – which must be discovered/uncovered
  • human life is essentially drama and each of us must take our part in the struggle for the good and right

Finally, when Peter Robinson asks René to give a summary of his insights for those unfamiliar with his work he protests that it is unimportant – emphasizing again the fundamental religious understanding of history and each person’s essential part in it.

It is clear that René Girard was faithful to the work he was called. Both Gil Bailie and I strive to emulate that faithfulness in our work and lives. We are grateful to all those who have made our work possible by their prayers and material support, and wish a blessed Christmas to all.

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Holiday Parties (circa 1830’s Maryland)

The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery. They are professedly a custom established by the benevolence of the slaveholders; but I undertake to say, it is the result of selfishness, and one of the grossest frauds committed upon the down-trodden slave. They do not give the slaves this time because they would not like to have their work during its continuance, but because they know it would be unsafe to deprive them of it. This will be seen by the fact, that the slaveholders like to have their slaves spend those days just in such a manner as to make them as glad of their ending as of their beginning. Their object seems to be, to disgust their slaves with freedom, by plunging them into the lowest depths of dissipation. For instance, the slaveholders not only like to see the slave drink of his own accord, but will adopt various plans to make him drunk. One plan is, to make bets on their slaves, as to who can drink the most whisky without getting drunk; and in this way they succeed in getting whole multitudes to drink to excess. Thus, when the slave asks for virtuous freedom, the cunning slaveholder, knowing his ignorance, cheats him with a dose of vicious dissipation, artfully labelled with the name of liberty. The most of us used to drink it down, and the result was just what might be supposed; many of us were led to think that there was little to choose between liberty and slavery. We felt, and very properly too, that we had almost as well be slaves to man as to rum. So, when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field,—feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.

Frederick Douglass
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Educating the young

Try to guess when the following observation was made:

… the more completely secularized public education becomes . . . the more the Christian element in our culture will diminish and the more complete will be the victory of the secularization as the working religion, or rather counter-religion, of the American people. Even today the public school is widely regarded not as a purely educational institution in the nineteenth century sense . . . but as a moral training in citizenship, an initiation and indoctrination in the American way of life; and since the public school is essentially secular this means that only the secular aspects of American culture are recognized as valid. It is only a short step from here to the point at which the Christian way of life is condemned and outlawed as a deviation from the standard patterns of social behavior.

Unless there is a revival or restoration of Christian culture – of the social life of the Christian community – modern civilization will become secularist in a more . . . aggressive way than it is today. And in a Godless civilization of this kind, it will be far more difficult for the individual Christian to exist and practice his religion than it has ever been before, even in ages of persecution. In the past, as for instance under the Roman Empire, the family formed an independent society which was almost immune from the state, so that it could become the primary cell of an unrecognized Christian society or culture. But today the very existence of the family as a social unit is threatened by the all-persuasive influence of the state and the secular mass culture. Yet without the Christian family there can be no Christian community life and indeed no church in the traditional sense of the word: only a few scattered individuals who maintain an isolated prophet witness, like Elijah in the wilderness.

When was this observation made, and by whom? It was made by the British historian, Christopher Dawson in lecture at the Harvard Divinity School in 1959.

Reaching back much further than 1959, Isabel Lyman quotes a 19th century Princeton Seminary theologian, A. A. Hodge:

I am as sure as I am of Christ’s reign that a comprehensive and centralized system of national education, separated from religion, as is now commonly proposed, will prove the most appalling enginery for the propagation of anti-Christian and atheistic unbelief, and of anti-social nihilistic ethics, individual, social and political, which this sin-rent world has ever seen.

Lyman adds: “Have events of the 20th century proved him wrong?” And from her own essay entitled “Taking Back Our Children,” Lyman offers this:

Abetted by mandatory education laws, many modern schools now serve as de facto indoctrination centers where little kids, tweens, and teens are compelled to listen to half-truths about everything from the Founding Fathers to the free market.

I might add that the moral indoctrination the young are receiving very often deals with matters of far greater import than the Founding Fathers and the free market. For they are being taught to accept as the moral prerequisite for social respectability suppositions which, as Dawson warned almost half a century ago, call into question “the very existence of the family as a social unit.”

Note: this was originally posted on our old weblog on September 6, 2007

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Thanksgiving retrospective

Reflections on Civic Religion – public expressions of national faith in God

This year’s pandemic transformed holiday traditions have attempted to replace physical with virtual presence to mitigate the spread of the COVID virus. Perhaps those adapted to the virtual existence of social media platforms and video games find this unproblematic. But for those whose relational sensibilities remain embodied this altered state has an unsettling feeling. No doubt the recent increase in COVID infections give testimony to the reluctance of many to forego physical distancing and mask wearing while enjoying the company of friends and family as people move indoors in cooler weather and the habits of past Thanksgiving celebrations overcame public health guidance. Trying to be thankful while one’s family appeared on screens around the Thanksgiving table was likely an effort. At least it was for me.                

Hoping to find a touchstone of thanks after the contentious messiness of the recent national election and its aftermath I sought some relief in reading about Thanksgiving and the holiday’s historic mixture of civic and religious sentiments. I was led to revisit the texts of past Thanksgiving Proclamations to see how our predecessors expressed their gratitude.

The first English settlers on the shores of North America in the late 16th century had little to be thankful for amid hostile locals, lack of food and ultimately did not survive (though some suggest any who did manage to escape death were assimilated by local tribes). However, by the mid-17th century successful colonies began to thrive. The Thanksgiving Proclamation of the governing council of Charlestown (near what is now Boston) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony dated June 20, 1676 was the earliest I could find. The attitude it reveals is remarkable for its sense of the tenuousness of their existence referring to the “afflictive dispensations” they understood God had visited upon them due to their sins. Yet the council nevertheless instructs that the people keep a day of “Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God” and “persuaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.”

A century later in proclamations by the Continental Congress (1777), and the President of the United States, George Washington (1789) confession of the sins and transgressions of the nation against God continued to be included in the document. In asking for a day of Thanksgiving they also implore the nation to “prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost” and “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue.” The following late 18th century Thanksgiving Proclamations by US presidents became an episodic tradition enjoining the nation to examine its sins and give thanks to God for all the blessings the nation had enjoyed.

In Abraham Lincoln’s Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863 (initiated and written by Secretary of State William Seward) after outlining the good that had come to the nation even in the midst of civil war he says, “No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.”

After the Civil War the proclamations contain hardly any mention of “sins or transgressions” of the nation. But there are more frequent references to “pestilence” both avoided and experienced in the past year. Into the 20th century the proclamations take on a ‘pro forma’ character while continuing to acknowledge God as the source of the nation’s blessings, there is apparent a sense of the special character of the American people as a nation and as individuals. For example, this from President Theodore Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1904, “Our success will mean much, not only for ourselves, but for the future of all mankind, and every man or woman in our land should feel the grave responsibility resting upon him or her, for in the last analysis this success must depend upon the high average of our individual citizenship, upon the way in which each of us does his duty by himself and his neighbors.” The absence of humility in the face of our sins and dependence upon God’s grace through Jesus Christ is evident.

Reading through the Thanksgiving Proclamations into the 21st century one gets the impression similar to what Soren Kierkegaard expressed in describing attitudes toward the worship of God in his book “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing”. He used the metaphor of a theater (church) where the parishioners of his day would come to be entertained by the minister on stage who would be fed lines to speak by the Prompter (God). Kierkegaard shows rather that proper worship puts God in the audience as Spectator for Whom the performance of the people on stage (in their lives) glorify God, as the minister prompts them to virtue.

There is a sense that our nation remains a nation that worships. But for some parts of our ‘woke’ citizenry, especially the most elite, the object of our worship is no longer God but ourselves. No doubt there are some others who worship the Nation. For many in the political class God is a mere rhetorical trope, and sin simply no longer has any meaning. Perhaps a new Great Awakening will begin to move the hearts and minds of the American people to recognize our manifold sins before God, personal and national, such that we experience the grace of repentance and then as our predecessors once aspired, we may “even this whole people offer up our bodies and souls as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.” Let us pray that the ‘woke’ will become Awakened, but I make no predictions and, in any case it would take many decades of many institutional changes to reorient the fabric of civil society. How this could come to pass without disruptive civil unrest is unimaginable.  Only God knows.

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Sobering Advice

For if each individual allows himself to be led by his personal whim, and betakes himself to what pleases him taking no account of the judgment of reason, and still more if no one is content with his allotted function, but if all wish to be concerned with everything which attracts them by an indiscreet exercise of activity, then surely there will be no unity but rather confusion and disorder.

May the Lord Jesus order in me that small degree of love that he has granted me; so that I may set my heart on the whole, which belongs to him, in such a way that I may attend before all things to that part which he has allotted me in the scheme of duties; but that the precedence given to this shall not prevent my dwelling with great interior interest on the many other duties which are no concern of mine in the performance of my own function. For what we must principally apply ourselves to is not always what we must love the most. It often happens that what is primarily our own concern is of itself the least important and that, consequently, we should not bring our greatest interest to bear on it.

St. Bernard
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