Wednesday, January 30, 2008


As long-time readers of this blog know, I've been really taken with E. Michael Jones' The Slaughter of Cities: Urban Renewal as Ethnic Cleansing. Jones, it must be said, is a conspiracy theorist nutjob in bad need of an editor -- but I think he's onto something, and his historical argument seems hard to refute.

The thesis of the book is that the death of our great American cities in the twentieth century was not, as commonly believed, a tragic mistake from well-intentioned efforts at improvement, but an intentional move to wipe out immigrant communities, who threatened the Establishment through their labor unions, political power, and different religion (primarily Catholicism, with its strong critique of Establishment sexual mores).

I was interested in the urban-planning angle, but Jones is interested in the ethnic struggle. Key to his argument is a shift, around 1930, from a racial to a class understanding of ethnicity. This shift allowed the Establishment to "convert" the Irish, Poles, and Italians (and others) by moving them from their ethnic communities to the suburbs.

It also opens up for us an angle from which to understand the WASP Establishment. My stock is solidly WASP. But I'd always taken it in purely racial terms: yes my ancestors are Anglo-Saxon, and thus necessarily white and almost necessarily Protestant -- but what does that have to do with anything? What Michael Jones helps us see is that WASP is not so much a racial inheritance as a state of mind.

WASPs understand themselves as the chosen race. They long ago gave up on ideology. (Indeed, I would argue, though Jones probably would not, that this is part of their strength: pragmatism allowed the English and Americans to be more principled by being more wary of half-baked theories.) They are successful and powerful, and consequently look down on other ethnicities, with their silly religions and hang-ups.

WASPs are good men, with a strong sense of honor and duty, and a natural reverence for tradition and country. But they do not believe in ideas, in part because ideas challenge their hegemony. WASPs are authorities, not to be trifled with -- to do so would insult their honor and integrity.

I bring this up, of course, because John McCain seems to have wrapped up the Republican nomination for president. John McCain, of course, is an honorable man. He fought for his country in Vietnam, and when offered a chance to get out of a Viet Cong prison camp where he was being tortured, he opted to stay with his comrades. Can't beat that for honor.

He's also a "straight-talker" -- which means he shoots from the hip and doesn't care what anyone thinks about him. That's certainly "honorable," and mostly commendable. It also has something to do with his total lack of ideas. Don't misunderstand me: I'm not saying that McCain is inconsistent, or wishy washy. Those things he is not. I'm just saying that his consistency is based in his gut, not his brain.

Consider his position on Iraq, which seems to be his strongest issue. He supported the "surge" when no one else did; now that the surge seems to be successful, John McCain is the man of the hour. Fine. I support the surge now, and I supported Bush's decisions back when he was "keeping a small footprint" -- so McCain was right and I was wrong. But really, McCain's position comes down to little more than bellicosity: he wanted to fight bigger and harder. Fine. He was right. It seems to have worked. But that's not a theory, it's just an impulse. (And honestly, what I've read about Petraeus' successes seem to indicate a lot of theory, a lot of good ideas, and not just "Surge!" David Petraeus, by the way, is Dutch.)

Consider McCain's position on torture. I hope I don't misrepresent him here. McCain made a lot of noise "opposing" the Bush administration on this issue. But it was all a lot of bluster, because, so far as I know, he never entered a serious discussion of what constitutes torture. I think torture is absolutely wrong, always -- but the "moral syllogism" also requires a minor premise, which states what particular practice we're opposing. Big moral statements don't get us very far. (This, I suppose, also plays into McCain's environmentalism: fine, protect the planet -- but against what, and how?)

Even worse, though, I believe McCain said that of course he would use torture if it were absolutely necessary to protect the country--I hope I'm not misrepresenting him. This is the same mentality as the WASPs who ran World War II: we oppose the inhumanity of the Nazis and Japanese, so we'll only directly target civilians with nuclear weapons and -- worse -- firebombing if we really think we need to. Oh. This is thinking with the gut, and sometimes it leads to gross immorality.

Of course John McCain is "pro-life." That means he mostly votes against abortion -- which is good, and follows from John McCain's basically good moral sense. But when it comes to the government funding research on embryos, suddenly he shifts to pure utilitarianism. So, is it wrong to kill the unborn, or not? Forgive me if I seem simplistic, but this sounds like thinking with the gut. A good gut, but guts don't get you all the way.

(For the record, Steve Long's new book on Thomist moral principles gives all the tools to think through this question with great precision. On embryo research, pro-lifers are not the ones thinking with their guts.)

And then there's judges. He wants "clones" of Sam Alito and John Roberts (Catholics), who believe the Constitution means what it says, and is absolutely binding on judges. But he is also tremendously proud of the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance reform, which asserts that when the First Amendment says, "Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press," it implicitly means, "except if the speech or press might be critical of someone running for office." So which is it, Senator? An honorable man, John McCain thinks we should uphold tradition, and thus the Constitution -- except when we don't like it, because we perceive it to allow too much money into politics. (Incidentally, has anyone noticed a great decrease in political money since 2002?)

Will I vote for John McCain against the Democrats? Absolutely. His instincts are pretty good. At least he more or less cares about somewhat limiting the dominance of the federal government in our lives, and somewhat protecting "traditional" marriage (which I guess John McCain would see as a matter of tradition, instead of, as it is, a matter of nature and biology), and somewhat protecting the unborn, and somewhat protecting the Constitution. He's certainly willing to make moral distinctions in the international law, instead of this goofy business of equating Islamo-fascist terrorism with any form of legitimate military force. He's not all bad.

And WASPs aren't all bad. But as the example of The Slaughter of Cities helps us see, they aren't to be trusted, either. Their guts sometimes lead them to make imprudent decisions, often make them forget moral distinctions when the going gets rough, and brook no dissent from us lesser forms of life who are benighted by the belief that ideas matter.

So I'll vote for John McCain against Hillary or Barrack. But in the primary, I think I'll take Ron Paul, just to send a sign that I'm not happy with unprincipled government.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008


I participated in the March for Life today on the National Mall here in Washington, with my wife and two small children. It's always inspiring to see all the lovely people: the men and women religious in their habits; the priests leading groups of fervent parishoners; the crowds of young people first discovering politics through this most important of issues, the sanctity of life. It's encouraging to see how peaceful and beautiful, and at times devout, the groups are. It gives a sense that there is still hope for our culture, and it makes me darned proud to be Catholic.

It's also a lot of fun, because the March for Life is like the national Catholic family reunion. There are people we only see this one time each year, and good friends who make a special point of getting together on this day.

With some of these old friends, and surrounded by all the beauty of the pro-life movement, I got a couple chances to explain my advocacy for Rudy Giuliani, the one "pro-choice" candidate in the Republican race, and the strongest hope for those who would like to see both parties run abortion advocates for president.

I think my case is strong. Guiliani's policies on abortion, as on other important social issues, like the defense of marriage, is the same as the other major candidates: he pledges to nominate judges who are bound to the Constitution, instead of pushing their own non-Constitutional agendas, thus eroding the judicial logic of Roe v. Wade; he thinks partial-birth abortion should be illegal; he has pledged to maintain, even with the veto pen, the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding of abortions. He's glad embryonic stem cells are no longer an issue, so that he doesn't have to take a stand on federal funding. There's not a lot else a president can do, apart from advocacy at the UN and pressing things through the Justice Department--and none of the other candidates has anything to say about these things, either.

The difference with Giuliani is that he calls himself "pro-choice." To my knowledge, the only time he's defined that during this campaign, he said he opposes putting women in jail for abortion; fine, so does every serious pro-life voice. (Fred Thompson brought up the same strawman of putting women in jail, got some grief from pro-lifers, and nonetheless got the endorsement of National Right to Life.) Still, it rightly gives us pause to hear him label himself pro-choice. What does it mean? What does it signal about his commitment to good judges? What would he do with the Department of Justice and the UN? And what kind of message is he trying to send? Is he trying to marginalize the pro-life movement?

Those who know Giuliani's history know that in his first political contest, he ran to be the first pro-life mayor of New York. He lost, then ran again calling himself pro-choice, and went on to do nothing for the pro-abortion movement--and, indeed, oversaw, somehow or other, a fall in abortion rates unmatched in American history.

So why does he call himself pro-choice? I suspect he's tired of flip-flopping, and label politics. At the so-called Values Voters Forum last Fall, he tried to pitch himself as someone you can trust, because he doesn't just remarket himself for every campaign. (Unlike, say, some of the other candidates?) That pitch failed. The pro-life movement doesn't trust him. Maybe they shouldn't--maybe I'm all wrong.

That's the trick with politics: along with policies, you have to judge the candidates' characters, and it's easy to be wrong. And the candidates have the same problem: they have to try to communicate their characters--and hide their flaws--and sometimes they screw up. I think Giuliani probably blew it on this one, just like he seems to have blown it by not campaigning in New Hampshire and Michigan. That's a strategic error. But maybe he really is pro-abortion, and the pledges he's made are all lies, or subterfuge. Who knows?

I told a friend at the March that I support Giuliani, also, because I think his governing philosophy is most likely to produce a conservative culture. I believe in limited government. I believe that low taxes isn't just a give-away (and certainly isn't any more of a give-away than liberal economic policies), but an investment in the people, a way of asking them to make wise decisions for themselves, and so create the kind of rich culture and vibrant economy that only myriad decision-makers can create. I believe that government interference on things that aren't absolute right-and-wrong issues demoralizes the people, and creates the kind of moral thoughtlessness that so prevails in America today. I believe that the only way to produce good people is to let parents make their own decisions about their children's education. I believe that a just society depends on the rule of law, and the rule of law depends on a judiciary that judges, not according to personal preference--not even good personal preferences--but according to the actual written laws: first the fundamental law of the Constitution, and then the laws of elected Legislatures. And I believe that if government takes over health care, the only way to keep down costs will be rationing, which will not only reduce the quality of our care, but also put life-and-death decisions in the hands of a government that cannot be trusted: no matter whether the nicest Baptist preacher you ever met is President, nationalized health care will end in forced abortion and euthanasia. Because the more power you give government, the more likely it is that corrupt politicians will take it over, with promises to serve the majority at the expense of the weak.

For these reasons and others, I think being pro-life and socially conservative is necessarily linked to a broader, traditionally "conservative" agenda. And I have made the prudential judgment that Rudy Giuliani is the most likely to fight for this agenda. So as a social conservative and a committed pro-lifer, I support Rudy Giuliani for president.

Still, it makes me sad that the argument has to be so complicated, involving so much guesswork about what these guys really think and will really fight for. Seeing all those committed pro-lifers at the March today, I wish they could just say, "Giuliani calls himself pro-choice, so we will do everything in our power to stop him from taking over the Republican party." And I wish that Giuliani would just switch his label, and pursue the same policies while calling himself pro-lifeWhy can't it be easier? Why can't we be united behind simple labels?

But then, that's the nature of democracy. (And indeed, of the whole moral life). It just isn't simple. You have to think through all the issues, and the governing philosophies that inform them. You have to weigh the characters of the candidates--and weigh the statements of the Press, to see if what they say about the candidates is true. (Based on my research, for example, I think the standard narrative about Giuliani's personal life is outright libel, based on nothing but the rumors of the liberal New York media.) I wish it were simple--I wish life were simple!--but it isn't. And so good people will disagree about prudential decisions, especially the prudential decision of what candidate will best serve our culture, and best protect the most basic rights of the most vulnerable among us.

What can we do, except do our best, argue it out, and pray that the Good Lord will watch over this blessed country we love so much?

Friday, January 11, 2008

Trial of Faith

As any classical grammarian will explain to you, “of” is an ambiguous word. (Classicists refer to it as the “genitive,” but it’s the same thing.) The word after “of” can be the object of the word before: the love of horses means that the horses are what’s being loved. But the word after can also be the subject of the word before: the beauty of horses refers to something the horses have. Sometimes, but not always, a phrase is ambiguous: the love of Sally could mean Sally’s love for horses, or it could mean Tommy’s love for Sally. This is an interesting ambiguity in the phrase “love of God.”

Sometimes, of can also indicate an identity between the words before and after. The “law of the seas” is an objective genitive: it’s the law that obtains over those at seas. But the “law of gravity” is not a law over gravity, or in the realm of gravity; it means that gravity itself is a law. I’m not sure how grammarians categorize this one. It could be a subcategory of the subjective genitive, like “beauty of horses,” so that of would indicate a particular aspect of gravity, the part that is a law. But that seems wrong. Probably this is another kind—I’ll call it the genitive of identity—so that “law of gravity” means neither the law that rules over gravity nor the law that gravity possesses, but gravity itself, which is like a law.

(Sidenote: in Latin, at least St. Thomas’s Latin, “natural law” is usually not lex naturale but lex naturae: the law of nature. You get very different ideas of natural law depending how you construe this genitive: is it objective, the law that rules over the state of nature? or is it subjective, the aspect of nature which serves as a law? or is it a genitive of identity, nature itself taking the place of law. I believe St. Thomas understands it in the last way, but moderns, especially in the wake of Kant, construe it in the first.)

What occasions these reflections is my perusal of the new book on Mother Teresa, which reveals the darkness of her life of faith through her private letters to priests, and which I received for Christmas this year. I’ve only perused it, so these reflections are based more on my reading of theology, especially Garrigou-Lagrange (who shows up a lot in the footnotes to the Mother Teresa book) and the Neo-Platonic strands of St. Thomas. And other saints, especially Thérèse of Lisieux.

So here’s the question: if Mother Teresa’s interior darkness is called a “trial of faith,” or “test of faith,” what does of mean?

The standard assumption is that it’s an objective genitive: faith is what is being tested. So we assume that anyone who goes through that kind of darkness must have a lot of doubts about whether God really exists. Their faith must be sorely “tried.” How can you believe what you don’t see?

But, of course, when you put it that way, it’s a stupid question, and you see that “trial of faith” can’t be an objective genitive: you can only believe what you can’t experience. That’s what belief means. That’s what faith means. If you can see, then by definition you aren’t believing. Faith is always dark. That’s what distinguishes it from sight. (And that’s why we call heaven the “Beatific Vision”: where faith gives way to sight.) The lack of evidence can’t, by definition, “try” our faith.

(This is not to say that faith is contrary to evidence. Indeed, there is lots of evidence, both historical and metaphysical, to confirm what we believe. But nonetheless, faith is by definition what you believe because you have been told, because you have heard, not seen.)

I think the correct way to construe “trial of faith” is as a genitive of identity: faith itself is a trial. But—and here’s the key point—it’s more of a trial for those who love more. For us schleps who really aren’t that interested in God, we believe what we don’t see, but it really doesn’t bother us whether we see or not. Faith isn’t a trial if the darkness doesn’t bother you.

But for the saints, for those who really love God, who desire his presence more than anything, faith is a horrible trial, because faith is defined as distance, inability to see the one you love. Mother Teresa’s darkness was not some strange trial imposed on her, not the removal of something that the rest of us have. Rather, the darkness we all have became a trial through the addition of love. She experienced her distance—the distance of all of us wayfarers—with acute pain because she didn’t want to be distant.

Which is why the great spiritual writers insist that the “dark night of the soul” (a subjective genitive) is common to all the saints. Those who do not experience darkness are by definition not saints. If your inability to see God doesn’t bother you, if the life of faith (objective genitive) doesn’t drive you crazy, you don’t love enough! Of course, most of us don’t. But we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter darkness. We shouldn’t be surprised when prayer ceases to be fun. We shouldn’t be surprised when the more we advance, the more we seem to recede. Because in the life of faith, we are distant from our Lord. He who does not ache for heaven is not really a Christian.

And the Spirit and the Bride say, “Come!” And he who hears [the believer?] says, “Come!” And the One who thirsts will come. And he who desires will receive, by grace, the water of life. — Apc. 22:17

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A Criterion for Good Literature

My wife and I are avid readers, and hope our children will be as well. We are bibliophiles, acquiring books wherever we can, but we also try not to be packrats, so we are continuously pruning our collection. We are thus concerned—as every cultured person should be—to decide what books are worth reading.

It should go without saying that not all books are worth reading. This is not to deny that reading is a good in itself. Reading develops the imagination, cultivates an appreciation of silence, and improves literacy: that is, the more one reads, the more one is able to read, with a longer attention span, a greater vocabulary, etc. But these are all secondary goods, ordered to something beyond themselves. Only a good imagination is worth developing; to take the limit case, a pornographic imagination, which even most popular novels encourage, is far worse than having no imagination at all. Silence is good because it aids contemplation; but if one’s silence is filled with garbage and unreality, it would be better to get out into the real world. And literacy is good only if you use it to read good books; one can be quite a “good” reader, but so acclimated to crap that one is quite unable to read real literature.

A preliminary, but too simplistic, criterion for good literature is whether it helps or hinders our ability to read Scripture. Novels that make your heart pound, or brusque magazine captions, may make Scripture less accessible. But noble stories can help us appreciate the nobility we find in Scripture.

But although this criterion is a start, it is obviously too simplistic, both because it doesn’t explain what makes a story noble and because it doesn’t cast any light on what it means to read Scripture, and why one would want to.

Perhaps a better criterion may be found in the classical idea of text actuation. In the pre-modern world, I am told, it was expected that one would memorize texts and then use them to articulate one’s one situation. To use the example of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in a time of great difficulty, one might imagine the terror and quiet nobility of Frodo and Sam as they entered Mordor. Comparing one’s own situation—confronting someone in the office, volunteering to serve the poor, or even fighting distractions in prayer—to Frodo’s, one might be able to “re-read” the situation, to see the value of pressing on against extraordinary odds, taking one small step at a time, etc. Or the silent nobility of Aragorn (so horribly misrepresented in the movies) might help one to appreciate the nobility of underappreciated perseverance. One might see one’s own quiet works, or one’s neighbor’s, as somehow parallel to a scorned ranger who will one day receive his crown.

A friend recently shared with me how he saw his own process of conversion in the light of Charles Ryder’s in Brideshead Revisited. On the last page of the book, when Charles genuflects before the battered old tabernacle in poor misused Brideshead, then returns with a happiness that Hooper can never understand, many Catholics find an image of their own inexplicable faith, emerging from all the highs and lows of a sinful life, ever drawn by that providential grace of “a twitch upon the thread.”

Most books, I think, are only marginally open to such actuation. When Harry Potter fights Voldemort (I don’t know the stories well, having read only the first one, years ago), I guess we can see some image of our own efforts to stand up against evil, somewhat parallel to Frodo and Sam. But does Harry’s experience really parallel ours? It seems to me—ignorant of the stories as I am—that what makes Harry Potter attractive is not the parallels between his struggles and ours, but the parallels between our will to power and his magical abilities. We are most likely to actuate these texts, I submit, in daydreams about flying, wishes that we could make household items levitate, and other desires to be snazzy. In other words, the Harry Potter texts become “actual” to us more in daydreams than in our real lives.

The idea of text actuation gives some precision to other ways of evaluating books. Even secular people recommend Harry Potter because he is exciting, and makes us want to read—but to what end? Christians and other people motivated by morality argue that Harry presents the battle between good and evil, and that is surely true. The question is, does Harry Potter help us to understand our own struggles with good and evil? It seems to me that he falls short, both because the good and evil of these novels bears little relationship to the good and evil of our own lives and because what really engages people about Harry is not his struggle with good and evil, but his magical abilities; an imagination trained on Harry Potter is an imagination that looks for occasions of magic, not occasions of moral heroism.

(Again, let it be said that I am not an expert on the Harry Potter texts; I hope that the principle I am articulating can make sense even to those who disagree about this application.)

My wife and I have been discussing, somewhat fruitlessly, a children’s book about wood sprites, gnomes, and tiny trolls. I think the principle of text actuation does apply to children’s literature. In the case of small children—though not in the case of adults—the development of imagination is an end in itself. Many of Dr. Seuss’s books, including favorites of ours such as McElligot’s Pool, If I Ran the Zoo, and the supreme If I Ran the Circus, focus on imagination itself: the main character looks at an ordinary situation and imagines how he could enrich it. Such books encourage imaginative play—and imaginative play that builds upon ordinary experience. And the wonderful, and wonderfully accessible, poetry of Seuss encourages the child to articulate his imagination, to think of verbal articulation as a good in itself. Trying to “be like Dr. Seuss” by rhyming about the world and our embellishments thereon means verbal practice, a central task of the toddler years.

The Pooh stories are more subtle—and, I have found, less appealing to the very youngest audiences—because they tend to come closer to great literature, considering themes of friendship, exploration, and creative problem-solving. When, during a flood, Pooh’s “missage” in a bottle brings Christopher Robin in an upside-down umbrella to rescue him from up a tree, we experience the joy of homecoming, the creativity of using what we have in unexpected ways, and the surmountability of all our little troubles. Indeed, I think one of the most wonderful things about Pooh is that all the pickles he gets in are funny, encouraging us—and especially young readers—not to take our own predicaments too seriously. But also in Pooh, one of the great joys is little songs: again, a focus on articulation, encouraging us to “be like Pooh” by playing with words and verbally exalting little things.

What about the wood sprites? I have argued, negatively, that they provide a parallel universe, little people whose lives are like ours but with none of our problems—like a sitcom. To the contrary, my wife argues that these stories encourage us to look at nature as something magical and alive, to see a tree not as a dead shape, but as a world unto itself. The real quesiton, I suppose, is how the target audience reads the stories. I suspect that my negative argument applies only to adults: yes, I see the little people as a parallel universe, but my little boy sees it as his universe; that is, he doesn’t wish he could be a wood sprite, with an alternative morality (or whatever I was imputing), but gazes at the trees and wonders if the wood sprites are there, and contemplates how beautiful a forest is, what a magical world surrounds him.

The example serves, I think, to show how the theory of text actuation helps us rethink a text—and how our judgments can fall short when we fail to appreciate how the text is actuated for the real-life reader. What matters in Harry Potter, as in the wood sprites, is not what theories we can lay over the text, but how it comes alive for the people who read it: what draws them in, and thus how the text allows them to re-read their own situations.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Traditional Christmas Hymns

I've been especially struck, this Christmas, by the strength of traditional Christmas hymnody. Struck, in part, because I've spent much of the last year listening to bad hymns, including new hymns in the traditional style that just don't pull it off. The nadir for me is one we've sung several times in the last year with the words, "across the world, across the street . . . ." The sentiment is fine, though a bit horizontal. But the poetry is atrocious. There's something important, I think, about hymnody combining beautiful thoughts with beautiful phrasing.

Indeed, I often say that any argument for why music is important necessarily proves, by corollary, that bad music is bad. If music is good because it lifts our spirits (which is true, but needs more spelling out), then there must be some relation between particular forms of expression and particular states of spirit -- and bad music must depress our spirits. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of bad poetry: if a beautiful turn of phrase has any value at all, spiritual or otherwise, then an ugly turn of phrase ("across the street"?) has negative value. Music and poetry are not a gentle and necessary upward ascent, but a potential to raise or depress.

(This argument doesn't tell us, of course, what qualifies as bad music or poetry. It just tells us that such a thing exists, that it's bad, and that it can be identified by the same criteria as good music or poetry.)

In any case, I've been struck by the beauty, both musical and poetic, of the standard Christmas hymns. Today, for Epiphany, we have "As with gladness men of old," with its beautifully drawn parallels: they followed the star, "so . . . may we / Evermore be led to thee;" they went to worship him, "so may we with willing feet / Ever seek the mercy-seat." Even "We three kings," which has received more than its share of saccharine treatments, follows the first, most well-known verse, with three on the Christological symbolism of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, concluding in the final verse, "Glorious now behold him arise, King [gold], and God [incense], and Sacrifice [myrrh]." Nice.

(Though I must note: "Westward leading" seems to parse Matthew's "we saw his star in the East" oppositely to the older tradition: "We three kings" has the kings in the East; tradition seems to have either the star in the East (so that two of the kings come to Judea from Sheba in Africa and Tarsus in Asia Minor) or the star in its "rising" (the literal word, in Latin and Greek, for east), so that the third king can come from the south, in Arabia.)

The point I'd like to make is that these hymns represent accumulated tradition. "We three kings," one of the weaker ones, is twentieth century, but "As with gladness" is nineteenth, "God rest you merry" is eighteenth, "The first Nowell" is seventeenth, "Lo, how a rose" is fifteenth, and "Good Christian men" is from the fourteenth century. Some centuries are over-represented: "What child is this," "It came upon a midnight clear," and "O little town of Bethlehem" are all from the nineteenth century -- but the nineteenth century was a great period in English hymnody. Meanwhile, "Hark! the herald angels sing," "O come, all ye faithful," "Angels we have heard on high," and "Joy to the world!" are all eighteenth century: but "Hark" is by Charles Wesley (perhaps the greatest English hymnist of all time), "Joy" is very early eighteenth, with music by Handel, "O come" was composed in Latin, and "Angels" is traditional French -- I don't know when it was written, but it was translated into English in the early nineteenth century.

What's my point? Newer isn't always better -- often isn't better. What is better? There's no way to tell. Tradition is a sorting out. There were doubtless many hymns in those prodigious eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that didn't stand the test of time. There are many in the twentieth that surely shouldn't. And the ones that have remained are worth keeping. Genius shows up unpredictably--and even more, the historical forces that produce genius, and produce great flowerings of genius, as in nineteenth-century England, cannot be manufactured, but must be embraced when they come.

How can they be embraced? Above all, by not holding them too tightly. Centralization of decision-making--whether social, cultural, or even liturgical--is the surest way to push genius to the side: first, because individual authorities will always be over-concerned with their own legacy, and thus inclined to pick new over great. But even more, because the same historical forces and surprise appearances of genius that produce greatness also mean that the present will never contain the same greatness, and is often mediocre indeed--which means that anything that gives too much authority to the present will tend to lose the greatness of the past. This includes those who try to rewrite our moral or social codes as well as those who try to push an ultra-current translation of the Bible. It congregations are not taught how to understand older English -- say the RSV -- how can we expect them to appreciate fifteenth century hymnody? Not to mention Latin.

The only way to preserve the myriad greatness of the past is through "conservatism": that is, a constitutional unwillingness to let anyone move too quickly, or especially to let any centralized power too authoritatively decide what is worth keeping. True conservatism, which is at its heart a cultural movement, fights for liberty--the dispersal of power and decision-making authority--not, as libertarians do, to unleash the individual from moral bounds, but precisely to prevent moderns from too quickly discarding the genius of past ages.