Friday, April 08, 2005

The Great Paul Henning

Paul Henning, who died this week at the age of 92, was one of the most underrated comic writers of our time. Henning began working in Hollywood in 1950 as a writer for the excellent George Burns and Gracie Allen Show. A hallmark of that pioneering TV comedy series was its cheerful absurdity--it went further in that direction than any other TV show of the time except possibly The Jack Benny Program. George would talk directly to the camera, and Gracie would get the pair into the most insane escapades possible. Their dialogue together, with George patiently trying to make sense of Gracie's bizarre leaps of logic and ridiculous misunderstandings of simple language, is classic comedy. The show remains entertaining even when watched today.

During the rest of the 1950s, Henning went on to write for TV shows featuring Dennis Day, Ray Bolger, Bob Cummings, and Walter Brennan. He also wrote the script for one of the best early Andy Griffith Show episodes ("Crime-Free Mayberry," 1961) and those for two feature film satirical comedies, Lover Come Back and Bedtime Story.

However, the achievement for which he will be best—and justly—rememembered is the three 1960s sitcoms he created and produced: The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and Green Acres. These three programs tracked the change of the United States from a rural nation to an urban one, and they considered what was gained and lost, through zany comedy reminiscent of Robert Benchley and S. J. Perelman.

The concept of The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971) is well-known, of course, but what is perhaps insufficiently appreciated is the level of satire the show achieved. It is difficult to say which is more ridiculous: the naive folk culture of the Clampett family, or the insane greed and status consciousness of their Beverly Hills neighbors. No matter, for Henning was not using the show to score political points or twig social enemies; it is clear that he was just looking at the world around him and finding it immensely funny. Anyone watching the program will do so as well, if in possession of any kind of a sense of humor. The show is being rerun on TVLand at present, I believe, and is well worth watching.

Petticoat Junction (1962-1970, canceled, along with Henning's other shows, in a CBS purge of programs deemed as too rural and insufficiently swingin' for late-'60s younguns—even though all three shows were still pulling very high ratings), took place in the bucolic, small town of Hooterville, Kansas. Here the folk culture is the norm, and it is portrayed as charming but often stupid and insane, and the incursions of the modern world, and in particular modern culture, on the town make for some interesting social satire. The concept of the program was not nearly as strong as that of The Beverly Hillbillies, but it has the advantage of being rather more pleasant to watch, as the characters are not as disturbed as those of the earlier show.

The capstone of Henning's career, and his claim to greatness, is Green Acres (1965-1971). Telling the story of New York attorney Oliver Wendell Douglas, who moves his wealth- and status-conscious wife with him to live in blessed simplicity in Hooterville, Kansas, the program is, in my view, the funniest situation comedy on television ever. (Funniest show overall, in my opinion, was SCTV Comedy Network, for those who may be wondering.) I believe that Green Acres is currently running on TVLand. The first season is available on DVD.

Green Acres is simply pure comedy. Whatever was funny, went in, and whatever wasn't, didn't. From Fred Ziffel's sarcasm to Lisa's cluelessness to Oliver's stubbornness to Mr. Haney's greed to Hank Kimball's indecisiveness to Arnold Ziffel's unexpected genius and on and gloriously on, the show's effect was based on the comedy of humors, of characters whose differing personality types result in endless comic conflicts. Of course, much of this plays out in a highly satirical form that spoke not only to late-1960s culture but also has meaning today, but the finest thing about the show is that the satire is organic, arising directly from the characters and situations, not forced upon a structure that cannot handle it.

If you want to see the roots of Henning's humor in Green Acres and his other programs, look to Ben Jonson, Moliere, and the like. Henning is not nearly on their level, of course, but he compares favorably to second-tier comic geniuses such as Holberg. His kind of humor is always refreshing and delightful, and I dearly wish there were more comic writers like him working today.

From Darwin to Hitler

Studying religion and politics as I do, I've noticed that Christians are often tagged with the massive moral bill, so to speak, for the Holocaust. That ain't exactly fair. The recently released book, From Darwin to Hitler, helps explain why. I'm including the full review from Donal O'Mathuna:

Book Review: From Darwin to Hitler, Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics and Racism in Germany by Richard Weikart

Reviewed by Donal O'Mathuna:

Weikart has provided bioethicists with an excellent resource in From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004). He summarizes the writings of many prominent German scientists, philosophers, and popularizers who wrote during the period between Darwin and Hitler. His book demonstrates a thorough understanding of the primary sources and clearly presents their perspectives on ethics, on human worth and the notion of those unfit to survive, and on the legitimacy of eliminating the unfit and inferior.

Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species set off a chain reaction that impacted just about every field of study. Although Darwin himself initially tried to avoid dealing with the human implications of evolution, he stated in his Autobiography that someone, like himself, who doesn’t believe in God or an afterlife, “can have for his rule of life, as far as I can see, only to follow those impulses and instincts which are the strongest or which seem to him the best one” (quoted on p. 21).

A number of German thinkers, in particular Ernst Haeckel, were to seize on this idea and use it to develop an ethic they believed was based on science. This view was monistic, deterministic, and relativistic. Weikart shows how underlying many of these thinkers was a determination to reject the two dominant ethical systems of that time: Christianity and Kantian ethics. Foremost amongst the problems these thinkers had with Christianity was its claim to moral absolutes and its concern for the weak and vulnerable.

Their problem with the latter was how it contradicted the one moral absolute of social Darwinism. In spite of their adherence to relativism, Weikart demonstrates from the primary sources that evolutionary progress was the goal by which morality was to be evaluated. Decisions and policies that promoted survival of the fittest were thereby viewed as ethical. It was thus a relatively small move to promote the elimination of the ‘unfit.’

Weikart traces the development of these ideas over several decades until they impact the thinking of Adolf Hitler. He acknowledges the difficulty of specifically identifying the ideas that contributed to Hitler’s final ideology. However, a very discomforting conclusion of this development, is how it shows that Hitler’s conclusions were not primarily those of a madman. Rather, “they were mainstream ideas of respectable, leading thinkers in the German academic community” (p. 225).

This is what makes Weikart’s book an important contribution to bioethics. Many of the same beliefs of social Darwinism at the beginning of the twentieth century are once again being promoted today: that certain lives are not worth living, that human life needs to be unsanctified, that ethics is relative, and that science has all the answers. The same academic groundwork is being laid to justify technological developments like embryo grading, infanticide, and euthanasia. Those opposed to these developments can learn much from how the Nazi policies came to be proposed, accepted, and implemented. Richard Weikart has made the historical documents accessible in an engaging format. History shows how important it is for us to combat the current, similar trends.

Dónal P. O’Mathúna, Ph.D.Lecturer in EthicsDublin City University, Ireland

Sin City: While We Wait for Karnick

National Review film critic and Baylor University Dean of the Honors College Tom Hibbs has reviewed Sin City for NRO. Though I know Hibbs and have had the chance to talk film with him at a restaurant that absolutely refused to bring our check to the table, I remain loyal to the work of "the greatest living film critic in the English language," S.T. Karnick.

Nevertheless, Mr. Karnick has ceased to produce early release criticism, so we'll have to settle for some Hibbs-ian stylings about this black and white gorefest:

Although Tarantino gets a director’s credit for assisting on a certain segment of the film, the central vision — and full director’s credit — is Miller’s, with assistance from Robert Rodriguez. The devotion to Miller’s sacred text is apparent throughout, but the decision to use easily recognizable actors such as Elijah Wood, Benicio del Toro, Jessica Alba, and Bruce Willis gives Sin City the feel of a Tarantino satire on pop culture. The viewer cannot help but be distracted from Miller’s vision into thinking, “That’s Bruce Willis reprising his role from Die Hard or Pulp Fiction,” or muttering, “Wow, that’s Benicio del Toro whose skull has just been turned into a ‘pez dispenser,’” or wondering, “Is that actually Elijah Wood playing a rapist-cannibal in league with the local Catholic cardinal?”

Media talking heads have been bubbling about the timing of Sin City’s rise to the top of the charts on the very weekend during which Pope John Paul II died. A dramatic contrast to be sure, but beyond that it is not clear what the point of the media attention is. The timing was of course pure coincidence, unless we think the pope held on just to provide a counterpoint to decadent American film. Nor is such a contrast unprecedented. Just last year, The Passion was unseated from its number-one ranking by Kill Bill, Volume II. Sin City’s in-your-face mockery of religion locates the Catholic clergy and its sacramental system at the very heart of this corrupt world.

More on the Center for Naturalism!

Joe Carter at Evangelical Outpost went further than I did in pointing out the silliness of the Center for Naturalism's prescriptions for the good life. You can read his take here.

I've excerpted a brief portion of his remarks:

My favorite line from the article (referring to an article on the website) is this gem of self-delusional rationalization:

"That we are alive and sentient, with the capacity to form an understanding, however provisional, is the source of much amazement to the naturalist, since after all, none of what we consist of is sentient."

Think about what is being claimed: A human is indistinguishable from nature and comprised completely of physical matter; not one molecule in our bodies is sentient. Yet somehow when you combine all of these non-sentient molecules in the shape of a human being, a unique property magically arises.

What is amazing is not how this occurs but that people who claim to base their beliefs on scientifically-informed empiricism fall for such garden-variety mysticism.

I could literally go on for hours delving deeper into the unashamedly contradictory claims made by CFN. But for now I have to write a thank you note to Leitner and Dennett expressing my gratitude for their new venture. They have done more than any theist in exposing the absurdity of naturalism. All these years we’ve wasted our time on arguments and refutations when all we needed to do was have the naturalist explain what they truly believe.

Conservative Lecturers: Cheery Lemmings?

Both William Kristol and David Horowitz had pies thrown at them in universities over the past few days. Herewith my letter sent this morning to Mr. Kristol (I am a contributor to The Weekly Standard):

Dear Mr. K,


Here's hoping that all is well with you and yours....

....as we fervently deny experiencing any amusement at your getting pasted with the pastry.

Let's face it: academic waters are deep and roiling for a conservative, whether you row or wade. The good news is that this time they only got you with a pi, but who knows? Next time it could be an epsilon. And those are nasty. (I'm sure you recall the Wayne and Shuster routine with Flavius Maximus, the Roman Detective. When he gets the report about Julius Caesar that "Big Julie got stabbed", Flavius asks "Where did they get him?" "In the rotunda." "Ooh, that's painful.")

Still, unquestionably this is good for the Jews. In the past only Pat Buchanan and Ann Coulter had to pay the piper by being pied; finally Jews have broken through the Glass Pie Dish, first you and then Horowitz. The organizations who provide kosher certification are overjoyed, as Entenmann and other pie-makers are rewarded for their fealty to Jewish needs.

As a device to enhance communication, this is... er, nonpareil. Your bringing a Soupy Sales sensibility to the conservative movement does much to blunt the old-fuddy-duddy image that has been an albatross around its neck and an anchor on its ankle. The pathos of the patisserie shows us the path. Worker bees of the world, unite!

But I imagine you can live without that kind of cool. You probably feel like answering what Yogi Berra did when the Mayor of New York's wife said, "Yogi, you look cool in that suit." Ever the gentleman, Yogi answered: "You don't look so hot yourself."

The good news is that the Liberals have been reduced to this: an incoherent, half-baked argument. It's time to declare victory and have the makeup girl clean up the battlefield.

Warmly,

Jay

Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Crazy Contradictions of Naturalism

Daniel Dennett, who once suggested religious persons might have to be kept in cages, and Brian Leiter, who writes tirelessly of the frightening Texas Taliban (which is all about people who send their children to fight the Taliban, but are somehow themselves Talibanesque), have come together in an advocacy group called The Center for Naturalism. Both are esteemed academicians, which gives an aspiring academician like me great pause.

What immediately struck me about the group is that it commits to the same bizarre reasoning employed by their forebear John Dewey. They tell us that we are the product of random forces and that there is no meaning to life, BUT then go on to make policy prescriptions for the good life! On the same page, Dewey could explain our meaningless rise from microbes and then go on to promote a just industrial order! What?!!!

Leiter and Dennett's group does the same thing. From their webpage:

Because it replaces traditional free will with a causal understanding of human development and behavior, naturalism has significant implications for social policy. For an overview, see the Policy page. The CFN’s policy areas include, but are not limited to:

Criminal justice – A naturalistic understanding of the causes of criminality helps undercut retributive attitudes favoring the
death penalty and punitive prison conditions, while building support for alternative sentencing and policies that address the conditions which generate crime and recidivism. Realizing that but for the luck of circumstances, any of us could standing in the criminal’s shoes, generates compassion for offenders as well as for victims. See Criminal Justice page and the Council on Crime and Causality initiative.

Social and economic inequality – Since on a naturalistic understanding, persons are not self-made, but owe their successes and failures to the conditions into which they were born and developed, major social and economic inequalities cannot be justified on the basis that individuals strongly deserve their status. CFN supports policies that will increase the material and psychological well-being of those who are unlucky in life, and that reduce the extreme disparities in income and opportunity so characteristic of our society. See for instance the
Progressive policy implications of naturalism.

For some reason I've yet to discern, the resort to meaningless ends in left-wing politics rather than nihilism. It doesn't make any sense and somewhere Bob Dole reminds us that he knows it, we know it, and the American people know it.

Sitting On Defense

Well, our California "colleagues" are getting some company from yours truly, who has been lobbing columns cross-country to the Sacramento Union. Today I use the Johnnie Cochran funeral as a springboard to ponder the role of the defense attorney in our society.

And here is a line that I cut for purposes of space and brevity, but I hated to drop: "Al Sharpton was there too, delivering an obsequious obsequy."

As I Was Saying

Herewith, a few responses (in italics) to Tlaloc, who offered thoughtful but utterly unpersuasive comments on my previous post "A Few Thoughts On Terri Schiavo" (March 30):

Tlaloc: I don't think you get to call it a "humble" opinion when you go ont [sic] to refer to the judges involved as morons.

That depends on how vacuous and worse one considers the judges' rulings to have been. As I said: I think Judge Greer deserves all the opprobrium he gets, I see little reason under the law to criticize the rulings of the higher Florida judges, and the federal judge who essentially ignored the law calling for a de novo review of Mrs. Schiavo's federal rights also is worthy of little respect.

Tlaloc: The potential conflict of interest is irrelevent since the court was being asked to make the decision rather than the guardian making it on his own. In effect for this one decision the court was the guardian.

It was the testimony of Mr. Schiavo and a couple of his relatives, years after the fact, that allowed Greer to make his finding of fact with respect to Mrs. Schiavo's wishes. For Greer to have ignored the conflict of interest and the testimony of other witnesses is inexcusable.

Tlaloc: Actually the Judge was remarkably insightful by refusing to allow a grotesque abuse of congressional power to be rewarded. The federal courts had no place in the matter. They said so repeatedly. When congress passed an incredibly badly thought out law to give the federal courts power over the case the Judge basically said "No, we still aren't touching it." As I've said before, thank god one branch of government is still actually doing it's job.

The federal courts have no place in the enforcement of federal law? Excuse me? Congress has the explicit power under the constitution to determine the jurisdiction of the federal courts, and the argument that Congress had no power to direct the federal courts to conduct a de novo review of Mrs. Schiavo's federal rights is preposterous.

Tlaloc: Jewish tradition is completely irrelevent.

Tlaloc certainly correct about the irrelevance of Jewish tradition in terms of the legal issues involved. But anyone reading my post ought to recognize easily that I had shifted from a legal/analytic argument to a normative (or moral) one.

Tlaloc: At a FACTUAL level everyone is dying, she was on life support according to Florida state law (which does include feeding tubes as life support), she did get therapy during the first three years at least.

Oh, please. "Everyone is dying." So: The government has the power to starve anyone who might or might not have made some ambiguous statement about not being kept on life support? Huh? Tlaloc may be correct about a feeding tube being defined as "life support" (I am not an attorney); but that riases more questions than it answers. Mrs. Schiavo apparently had never been given a swallowing test. Suppose she had passed one, and then was fed by hand: Would the spoon qualify as "life support?" What, precisely, is the analytic difference between a feeding tube and a spoon? Yes, she did get therapy for a few years, but not thereafter, despite Mr. Schiavo's testimony during the malpractice suit that the monetary damages payment would be used for her care. So much for the sanctity of marriage and for the reliability of Mr. Schiavo's statements with respect to his wife's wishes. All together now: Judge Greer is a moron.

Tlaloc: Now that's ironic given that republicans broke every promise they've ever made inorder [sic] to pander to their social conservative base. Bigger government, violating states rights, ignoring the "sanctity of marriage," and so on...

No doubt about it: Pandering is ubiquitous in politics; but I do not believe that to have been the driving force behind the efforts in Congress to direct the federal courts to conduct a de novo review of Schiavo's federal rights. (They were joined, after all, by a significant number of Democrats.) Bigger government? The Americans With Disabilities Act may be (well, is) unconstitutional; but it is the law, and for the death-with-dignity crowd to scream "States' Rights!" when Republicans invoke it is the height of hypocrisy. In any event, this is not "bigger government"; it is an attempt to prevent the states from violating an individual's federal rights. And that is why the "States' Rights!" argument is so facile; "State's Rights!" was the term used in the 1960s to denigrate civil rights legislation; does Tlaloc want to argue that states have the "right" to enforce Jim Crow? I rather doubt it. The implicit argument that a state has the "right" to starve a severely disabled individual to death is just appalling. And to apply a "sanctity of marriage" argument to the unique (or, perhaps not so unique) circumstances of the Schiavo case is, to be blunt, a joke. As I understand the facts, Mr. Schiavo never remembered the (apparently) offhand statements of his wife until years had passed. I will not take further space here with the sordid details of Mr. Schiavo's behavior.

Tlaloc: The Justice system proved itself to work rather well, it was congress, the president and the govenor of Florida who showed they were politicized and corrupt. The Judges consistently ruled according to the Law. Your disapproval and recourse to Jewish canon not withstanding that is their job.

Well, I guess we will have to agree to disagree. The judges' job is to enforce the law, and when they fail to do so other branches of government have every right and power to do so. After all, the courts are not supreme over the other branches, notwithstanding the apparent views of many. Mrs. Schiavo had rights under federal law that were not upheld, on the flimsy premise that her husband knew her wishes. At a more fundamental level, let us not mince words about the fundamental reality of the Schiavo case: A severely disabled woman was starved to death on the say-so of a husband with obvious conflicts of interest, and in the context of countervailing testimony from others without such conflicts. This is what the law demanded? Please....

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

The Adventures of Saul Bellow

Saul Bellow, who died today at the age of 89, was one of the very few first-rate American novelists of the past century. (He was born in Canada.) His early novels heralded a new, postwar direction in American fiction, toward a more private, confessional approach. Unlike much of what came after he set the tone in that form, his novels were strong on narrative drive. Bellow was a thinker as well as a writer, and his characters tended to ponder life's mysteries as they agonized over the choices before them.

One could say that Bellow was something of a Jewish Walker Percy. There was certainly a modern American Jewishness evident in Bellow's work, as his protagonists struggled to find their place in the world and discover what purpose their lives were meant for. It is no coincidence that one of his major novels was called Seize the Day. Bellow's evident sense of romance, a yearning to do important things, suffused his work and made his novels more than just the private musings of unhappy people; they express the longings of indiduals to be truly individual in a modern, mass society, and his stories explore the difficulty of achieving that.

Bellow's work showed intelligence, perspective, and humor. His novels are not to everyone's taste, but they definitely repay reading, and they provide many great insights into twentieth century American life. Books such as The Adventures of Augie March, Henderson the Rain King, Herzog, and Mr. Sammler's Planet will last.

Shaft Of Pure Reason

Do we all appreciate sufficiently the gift of moments of solitude?

They provide pause for reflection. We scurry all day through a maze of routine. Note is supplanted by rote. Whence, then, reflection? Wonderment? Self-examination? Growth? Penitence?

When I was in the Israeli Army, my mates all scorned guard duty. I always embraced it. It was cold in those hills of Dotan (where I trained for 60 days), right near where Joseph had been sold. How can we avoid mistakes like that in our own time if we don't flex our brains beyond reflex?

Indeed I'll never forget (I promise I'm not making this up) as a teenager staying up late at night to watch Tomorrow with Tom Snyder on NBC. His guest was Xaviera Hollander and she was telling him how much she loved solitude. I kid you not.

And then, of course, there is this piquant item, the proximate cause of these pensees.

Time For Re-Petition

On the off-chance that I had not succeeded in nuking my career as a right-wing columnist with my assault on the Republican Congress for finessing the Terri Schiavo situation, I have come back with another round, this time at my home base of Jewish World Review.

This is the first time that I have ever written two columns on the same subject, making more or less the same point, but I found that the hoarse cry of anguish had not been fully slaked by the first. Plenty of grim humor here, too, but no mercy for the gentlemen and gentlewomen.

Two reps for the Reps; maybe someone is listening.

Hugh Hewitt Treads Similar Ground

Hugh Hewitt has a piece at Weekly Standard today dealing with the pope and the poll, but gives a much briefer analysis. He spends most of his white space wondering why the media didn't notice John Paul II had critics from the right, too. Thus, this pope was . . . TADA . . . center-right, something Hewitt loves. I'm suspicious of the whole "who's in the center" game because it usually ends up just being a way of making oneself look virtuous. Anyone can do it. A Klan member can claim to be "in the center" between those who would shoot black men on sight and those who would invite them into their homes!

Anyway, one thing caught my eye in Hewitt's short article. He writes:

Non-Catholics are best advised to keep silent on matters of doctrine within the Church. It is, after all, no more the business of a non-Catholic what the Church commands on the celibacy of its priests than it is a non-Muslim to opine on the proper keeping of Ramadan.

Uhhhh . . .no.

Any Christian has a right to discuss matters of doctrine within the Catholic Church because it claims to be THE CHURCH. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox are all connected as Christians. We should discuss our differences and our doctrines. Otherwise, we have given up on Christ's exhortation that we be one like he and the father are one.

The Difference Between Religion and Politics

I've got a piece up today at American Spectator on expectations for the new pope to conform to "new realities" which John Paul II stubbornly resisted.

Here's a bit:

In the wake of John Paul II's death, the Associated Press did what the American media always do as great historical events shake the world. They took a poll. The verdict? Americans and American Catholics want change. It is hoped a more open-minded pope will take the reins. He was a great pope (you know, resisted the Nazis and the Communists and all that), but he failed to adapt to the times. What a pity. He could have capitulated to all of the demands of liberal Western democracy and really burnished his legacy. Oh well, missed opportunities ...

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Terri's Trial, Life

I was excited to find on another blog this elegant musing by Eytan Kobre, an Orthodox Jewish attorney from New York City, who always has something thoughtful and insightful to say:

Ask a proponent of plug-pulling why he believes what he does about Terri Schiavo and the response will likely be that she presently has zero dignity of life, that without consciousness, her life is devoid of value. But isn’t that a supreme irony? This woman’s fate has caused, by this point, countless millions of words to be spoken and written about some of life’s most important issues—the meaning and value of life and of death; the parameters of man’s obligations to fellow man; the definitions of dignity, suffering, soul, consciousness, marital and familial bonds; the roles of religion, law and medicine in society, and on and on.

Though we mortals are unable to judge such things, it may just be that this woman’s life has been the vehicle for enriching the world with more meaning, more wisdom, more moral seriousness in the past few weeks than many other individuals are responsible for in their combined entire lifetimes.

And while the vast majority of people in Ms. Schiavo’s predicament do not generate anywhere near the level of soul-searching and moral debate that she has engendered, does not every such situation hold within it a vast reservoir of potential meaning waiting to be actualized? The opportunity for family and friends to express altruistic love and provide care with no quid pro quo ; the lessons that sickness and looming death teach about making the most of our fleeting time on earth and the commitment to moral betterment this inspires; the opportunity for loved ones to repay moral debts and right past wrongs—- these and many more sources of meaning make every human life inherently significant, whatever its supposed “quality.”

The only difference between Ms. Schiavo and those individuals is that she is seemingly unaware of the role she is playing in focusing a large part of humanity on life’s ultimate concerns, while other, sentient beings are aware of their roles and actions. And therein lies the rub. Terri Schiavo’s life can only be termed valueless if individual value is dependant on one’s subjective awareness thereof, if “I” am the final arbiter of all things meaningful, not the world as a whole or, dare we say, a Supreme Being. But what a pitifully small-minded and egoistic way of determining value and meaning that is.

Danny Boy, The Pipes, The Pipes....

Kudos to the great Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, for an excellent article on Ariel Sharon's folly in today's Jewish World Review. Pipes is a great scholar of all things Middle Eastern and is one of the most important writers of our time on the subjects of terrorism, the Arab world and Israel. All his books and articles are valuable reading.

As our readers know, the critique offered by Pipes today echoes the one that I published in The American Spectator on March 9. Pipes and I share in common with most of our readers not only a great love for Israel and concern for its security but also an abiding respect for the late Menachem Begin. Begin founded the wing of Israeli governance (after its seeds had been sown in pre-statehood days by Vladimir Jabotinsky) that Sharon now heads. But Menachem Begin once said: "I cannot count the wounds in my back placed there by Sharon." The back-stabbing continues, albeit posthumously for Begin.

Neither Pipes nor I are Kahanists or some other form of radical. We would agree to return territory for peace, but only AT THE END of a multi-year process that includes significant and consistent moves by the Palestinians, starting from the abandonment of terrorism and continuing through the purging of vitriolic anti-Semitism from textbooks. (When they keep hanging maps of the Middle East that do not include Israel, we skeptical types are hard-pressed to buy into the contention that "uber alles" has given way to uberrima fides.)

Taking Names

In a brilliant career move for a right-wing columnist, I have set out to lambaste the Republican Congress for their pathetic futility in the Terri Schiavo debacle. Catch it in today's Spectator, who gutsily gave me the platform to lay out this harsh indictment.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The MoveOn.Org Laxative

The team at Sojourners is just about the only place in the evangelical world where the Democrats have a foothold. However, these Christian lefties have a sense of humor. Check out this fake news item from their April Fool's email:

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John Paul II—Some Thoughts of a Non-Catholic

Pope John Paul II did wonders in confronting the many divides within the Catholic Church and between that church body and the rest of Christendom. There remains much, much work to be done, of course, but I believe that the beginning he has made (which of course builds on earlier reforms which, ironically, many American Catholics strongly opposed and still do) will leave a lasting legacy if the church continues to build on his accomplishments.

In my view, the greatest source of this pope's success—beyond his hard work, passion, and wisdom—was his willingness to question all things while remaining true to the essentials of his faith and his church. That is a perspective the Catholic Church and its next leader must retain if progress is to continue.

The church must continue to ask serious questions about its internal organization and its engagement with the world. The answers will greatly displease many people. Nonetheless, fulfilling its mission, the Great Commission, must be the central consideration in all church matters. Where traditions or current doctrines and practices stand in the way, they must be abolished. Where these things serve the misson of the church, they should be strengthened.

Ultimately, the aim of the Catholic Church is to be catholic, to be universal among all Christians, which it is at present very far from becoming. However, as Hunter Baker has pointed out on this site and in writings published elsewhere, the major orthodox Christian groups are closer to one another than at any time in centuries. (I should also add that the Christian church may now be in closer harmony with believing Jews than it has ever been.) Appropriate internal reforms combined with principled ecumenicism should be the goal of all Christian churches, and it is right that the world's largest Christian church body should lead the way.

In this endeavor, all Christians should wish for God's great blessings on the Catholic Church.

Excellent Links on John Paul II

Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard

William Kristol (Ditto)

Thomas Hibbs at NRO

George Weigel at Opinion Journal

The Great Christian Witness of the Last Quarter Century

My mother grew up Catholic in a small town in Alabama. When she was a teenager in public school for the first time in high school, one of the students asked her if it was really true that she would have to sleep with a priest on her wedding night.

I grew up in the same town and recall when John Paul II replaced his short-lived predecessor. From that time forward, I paid attention to his career. He was dedicated to freedom, a man who had lived through the oppression of the Nazis and the Soviets. Now, he was the most powerful religious figure on earth. He did not shrink from the challenge. His Poland would eventually prove pivotal in loosening the Soviet's iron grip on Eastern Europe.

In addition to freedom, Pope John Paul labored against the easy and deadly conveniences of the age. His greatness brought evangelicals and Catholics into a single camp in opposition to the culture of death and materialism. The alliance was made easier by his insistence that Protestants were separated brethren and his desire that the church should again be one. We may yet see his wish fulfilled within decades rather than centuries. The two sides are closer now than at any time since the Counter-Reformation.

Though I am an evangelical Christian, I do not hesitate to recognize this Pope as God's minister to the world and as the greatest public Christian of the age (with apologies to Billy Graham).