10 Christian Movies better than God's Not Dead

John Zmirak asked for a list of ten Christian movies better than God's Not Dead. I haven't seen that movie, but I can probably manage. I think I will include series as well, since I find restricting this to movies less fun. My list isn't a list of overtly Christian films or apologetic ones; it is a list of movies that I think couldn't exist without Christianity, and once you know that they all make more sense. And they are all pretty good.

The Mission
This one is on the Vatican's 1995 film list for a reason. For the real-life history behind this, see the Jesuit Republic of South America.

The Little Match Girl
This is the short you can find on the extras for Disney's 1989 The Little Mermaid. I've never cried for anyone the way I cried for the little match girl when she died alone in the snow.

The Lord of the Rings
The greatest novel of the twentieth century, and perhaps the best Catholic apocalyptic novel of all time, visualized expertly by Peter Jackson.

A Man for All Seasons
Too easy.

Cowboy Bebop
Spike fights a fallen angel while Ave Maria plays in the background.

Neon Genesis Evangelion
The way that Christian symbolism and legends are portrayed in Eva is peculiarly Japanese, but this series probably wouldn't be so wildly popular in either Japan or the US if stuck to a strictly autochthonous apocalypse.

Samurai Champloo
Despite being remixed history, this series is a pretty good depiction of the Kakure Kirishitan.

The Last Airbender
An excellent example of what C. S. Lewis called the Tao in The Abolition of Man.

The Book of Eli
I've never quite gotten around to my movie review of The Book of Eli, which I first watched on a trans-Atlantic flight. This is a movie about justice and providence.

Mad Max
The great theme of Mel Gibson's Mad Max movies is pain, which sometimes turns into redemptive suffering.
 

The Long View: The Fellowship of the Ring

I cannot remember the first time I read the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit. I know I was very young, and I remember getting worn paperback copies from the local library's children's section. In that library, I remember a mural on the wall of Frodo and Sam's descent into Mordor from the tower of Cirith Ungol. I also remember my 4th, 5th, and 6th grade teacher, Dale Shewalter, would read to his class from the Lord of the Rings during our after-lunch storytime, although by this time I was already familiar with the story. I was of course immediately engrossed from the very first, and I have been ever since. The impact of these books on me is similar to the effect they had on John Reilly, but at a younger age.

I still maintain that Tolkien's the Lord of the Rings is the best book of the twentieth century. Even accounting for the many who found their way to Wicca instead of Tolkien's beloved Catholicism. These books are gifts that keep on giving, and will repay the reader no matter how many times you return to them.

Peter Jackson's Film of J.R.R. Tolkien's
The Lord of the Rings
Part One: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
 
 
Reviewed by John J. Reilly
 
 
Full Disclosure: Regular visitors to this site will know that I rarely review films, and in fact I rarely go to the cinema. This film, though, had to be an exception. "The Lord of the Rings" is one of the two books that influenced me most profoundly. I first read it thirty years ago in high school, entirely by accident and with no idea what I was letting myself in for. The trilogy dissolved my positivist intolerance for fantasy, but it also had the paradoxical effect of opening history and languages to me. I have memorized the details of the book. I often cite it like scripture. People like me want to see the trilogy set out fair and square, with no contradictions. Nonetheless, I can be reasonable on the subject. Really I can.
Now for the review.
I saw "The Fellowship of the Rings" on the Saturday afternoon after it premiered here in New Jersey. That meant the whole afternoon: three hours worth. It's one of those movies that you walk out of wondering who is president now.
In a way, the film is like David Lynch's adaptation of "Dune." Neither film is so much a freestanding story as an illustration of a book. The difference is that Jackson succeeded where Lynch failed. The "Fellowship" sets are perfect. That is exactly what Hobbiton looked like. Jackson got Isengard down to the last bitter spire. I had always known that elvish civilization favored Bavarian Art Nouveau. Now the Platonic ideal has been put on film.
The casting is fine, too. Elijah Wood perhaps looks a bit too much like an anime figure even without makeup, but his Frodo makes the movie. I don't know how they did it, but they made the hobbits look believably 3'6" in the same frames as the normal-sized characters. Special mention much be made of how they turned that great Welsh windbag, John Rhys-Davies, into a plausible five-foot-nothing Gimli the Dwarf. When Boromir (Sean Bean) offers to help Gimli cross a chasm by tossing him, Gimli fixes him with a ferocious stare and says: "Nobody tosses a dwarf!" Except for the occasional remarks about the effects of the hobbits' pipeweed, that is one of the few deliberately funny lines. This is probably just as well: a lesser director could have turned the film into "Time Bandits."
The morning of the day I saw the film, I heard Ian McKellen on National Public Radio express the earnest hope that he will not become "Gandalf" for the rest of his career. Be that as it may, he did Gandalf as I had always thought of the character, down to the accent. Christopher Lee, who plays the turncoat wizard Saruman, is 79, and might reasonably be expected not to have many more parts remaining to him. However, if he is remembered for his turn as Saruman, he will have little to complain of. He could become a bedtime children's boogey to rival Mad Baggins himself.
The burden the film bears is the vast amount of exposition the story requires. The film starts with a brief history of the Ring. "Brief" here means that it is no longer than an episode of the "Simpsons" without the commercials. Episodes from the book are necessarily excised. I, for one, particularly missed the adventure in the Old Forest. Further exposition is inserted at odd points in the story. To this end, Elrond gets one of Saruman's speeches. (Hugo Weaving's Elrond, incidentally, is almost as scary as Saruman. All elves look like they take cosmetic belladonna.) Some characters are missing, too, even when the incidents in which they appeared remain. Frankly, I do not regret the substitution of Arwen Elvenstar, played by Liv Tyler, for Glorfindel in the incident at the Rivendell Ford.
Still it is not enough. There is a discernible plot once the Hobbits get to Rivendell, but anyone who has not read the books is going to be confused about who these people are and why they are doing these alarming things. There is conversation in Elvish (Sindarin, presumably) interpreted by subtitles, but the film does nothing to excite the interest in history and language that Tolkien is famous for. The film has no way to convey the scale of Middle Earth. For all we can tell, Minas Tirith and Isengard are a few days' ride from Hobbiton. Still, we should remember that the work of establishing the context of the trilogy has been completed. The next two films can be almost pure action and still be perfectly faithful to the trilogy.
There is one essential way in which the movie fails the trilogy. People unfamiliar with the books have been asking, "What does a fantasy written fifty years ago have to say to the 21st century?" To that there are two answers.
The first is that, despite Tolkien's attempts to distance himself from an autobiographical interpretation of the trilogy, the fact is that the books are clearly informed by the experience of the world wars, particularly that of a British junior officer in the First World War. Like Tolkien as a young man, Frodo takes part in a nightmare crisis that he cannot escape and that neither he nor his world seems likely to survive. The first half of the 20th century will not be the last time people face such a crisis. The film captures Frodo's desperation constrained by duty very well.
The second answer is the trilogy's implicit model of history. In every age, evil takes another form. It can be defeated, and history allows some generations a holiday. However, we should not be surprised when the Shadow grows menacing again. It is hard to imagine a message more relevant to 2001. Nevertheless, I do not think that Jackson quite delivers it. The books make plain that the Quest of the Ring is just one chapter in the long struggle against the Shadow. That sense of historical depth may be beyond the ability of any film to communicate.
The flipside to this criticism is that the movie does things the books can't. You may not have given much thought to the ways that orcs can enter a dwarvish hall, but Jackson has. The cinematography of the green New Zealand landscape looks like the Celtic collective unconscious. (There is dreamy Celtic music throughout.) Most of the monsters may be derivative from other films, but if so, the selection is commendable. The balrog seems to be related to the amplified Id in "Forbidden Planet," to take one example. The ordinary orcs look rather like Evil's dimwitted legions in "Time Bandits," for another. The extraordinary orcs, the Uruk Hai, look to me like the deeply intimidating alien hunter in, I believe, "Predator." There are original horrors, of course, not least of which is Sauron's Eye.
"The Fellowship of the Ring" is not "Harry Potter." The fight scenes are not cartoonish. Rather the opposite: they seem to have been set up by someone who had paid close attention to "Saving Private Ryan." Parents with very small children should think twice about taking them to a film with so many realistic decapitations and dismemberments. Everyone else, though, should go to see this film instantly. It will make you a better person.
And what was the other book I mentioned at the beginning of this review that influenced me so profoundly? That book was "The Decline of the West," by Oswald Spengler, which I also read in high school. I have not heard that anyone is thinking about turning it into a movie. If you are, please contact me. I have some ideas about the exposition.
 
 
 
End
Here is a review of The Two Towers.
Here is a review of The Return of the King.
For an explanation of why "The Lord of the Rings" has a lot in common with the "Left Behind" novels, click here.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2002-12-19: Lott, Lower Manhattan, and Vichy

This post of John's is interesting for the way in which you can see current trends in American politics in embryo. Trent Lott resigned as Senate Majority Leader after Andrew Sullivan and other bloggers made an issue of him mildly praising Strom Thurmond. At the time, this was a new thing. Now, the digital lynch mob may be the normal way politics is conducted in America. John didn't think much of this tactic at the time, but he also wasn't that alarmed by it. I wonder what he would make of the SJWs and the Eye of Sauron they turn on those who displease them?

Another trend John correctly predicted was the growing influence of the various strands of the non-Establishment Right after the Great Recession and the Iraq and Afghanistan debacles. Old warhorses like Pat Buchanan have indeed made the best of the situation, but newer voices like Alex Jones are also incredibly popular. Then there are the sovereign citizens, the neo-reactionaries, and various and sundry movements that exist outside the Establishment Right. There is a sense in which complete and utter political and economic disaster would suit these various groups just fine, because the status quo on both Left and Right effectively excludes them from real power. Only chaos would give them any chance of success.

Lott, Lower Manhattan & Vichy
 
If Senator Lott's colleagues are foolish enough to keep him as majority leader, the civil rights establishment would have the same sort of leverage over him that feminist groups have had over Ted Kennedy these many years. Kennedy has danced to the femnists' tune because they have enough on him personally to drive him from office if they ever so choose. Similarly, Lott would be beholden to a self-interested network that everyone who wants better race relations must oppose. Abigail Thernstrom made essentially this argument in yesterday's New York Times (except for the Kennedy analogy) and I have little to add to it.
Would it be altogether fair to Lott to force him from the leadership? Perhaps not. Few people who heard Lott's flattery of crumbly old Senator Thurmond on the occasion of the latter's 587th birthday thought much of it, until they were told to do so. Trent Lott is an ordinary bring-home-the-bacon legislator. He is not the sort of person who has an ideology, which is not necessarily a criticism. On the other hand, he is not one of the ornaments of the Senate; he has never been one of those senators, like the late Senator Wellstone, whose expertise you have to respect even if you disagree on policy.
Lott is being Borked, after a fashion, chiefly by conservative commentators, indeed by bloggers. They realized that the liability he represents for the 2004 elections far outweighs the benefits of party unity between now and then; it even outweighs the value of the Republican majority in the Senate. Borking is a vile practice, subversive of healthy politics, but this may be the least bad use of it. Any majority leader insubstantial enough to be brought down by Andrew Sullivan was a mighty thin reed to begin with.
 
* * *
The long-awaited second batch of proposals for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan has been presented to the public. The architects have taken the hint that people want something superlative to go there. My own opinion is that, to recoup the dignity of the city, the tallest building in the world has to go there, even if it is filled with house plants. Several of the nine proposals do more or less that. The one to beat is probably Forster & Partner's "Kissing Towers." We know this from the characteristically inane and uninformative commentary by The New York Times architectural critic, Herbert Muschamp, who says: "Norman Foster's design is one's favorite new hate."
As everyone acknowledges, the point of this exercise is not to design the new buildings that will actually go on the site, but to block out the land use. Specifically, they have to figure out very soon where the train stations will be. The PATH trains from New Jersey still don't have their terminus in lower Manhattan back, for instance: a serious local bottleneck.
All the proposals, including the titanic ones, will create a much more interesting neighborhood than the old WTC provided. The people who worked in that complex loved it, and I am still willing to defend elements of it architecturally. Still, it was designed at the absolute nadir of urban planning. In those days, architects went out of their way to discourage pedestrian traffic around major buildings. Walking around the old complex was as interesting as walking along the blank walls of a levee. The new plans open up the streets that the World Trade Center had blocked off. Some of the plans would create what would be among the world's great urban prospects.
As for the Hanging Gardens of Manhattan, let's see what the real estate market is like in five years.
 
* * *
While citing Thomas Friedman just encourages him, his column in yesterday's Times, Blair for President, did have some sound advice for all currently out-of-power political factions. Speaking specifically to Democrats, Friedman sets out a number of rules. For instance:
 
"Rule #2 Never put yourself in a position where you succeed only if your country fails. The Democrats can't just wait for Mr. Bush to fail in Iraq or hope the economy collapses, and assume they will benefit."
There are several reasons to take this to heart. The most important for Democrats is this: should Washington ever become Vichy on the Potomac, it is not at all clear the Democrats would be the incumbents. The Americans who are most persuaded they would benefit from disaster in the Middle East and economic collapse at home are the Buchanan Nationalists. Given enough national dismay, they suppose, they would be in a position to pursue a counter offensive in the culture war with some chance of success. They could easily be mistaken, but they are less confused about the issue than the Left is.
Most confused of all is Norman Mailer, whose picture graces the cover of the proto-Vichyite magazine, American Conservative. In the interview I Do Not Favor World Empire, Mailer gives the impression of a man who understands what he should be saying, but whose prejudices just won't let him say the words. Yes, he knows that evading a war in the Middle East now would mean a far more catastrophic war in 20 years. Yes, be believes in evil in history, and even in the Devil. Nonetheless, the fact that President Bush uses terms like "axis of evil" is gall too bitter for him to swallow. He somehow persuaded himself that the neoconservatives who support the Bush Administration, and not the people who were interviewing him, represent the cultural policies he most abhors.
When Mailer says that the occupation of Iraq would be the beginning of a world empire, he is exaggerating. Still, he is right about the trend. His only real problem seems to be that it is happening under a Republican Administration.
 
* * *
Speaking of Iraq, readers will note that I do not follow events in that region with the detailed attention of the War Blogs; the news is still mostly static. Still, an interesting crackle that came over the wires in the last day or two is the report that the Iraqi government plans to employ scorched-earth tactics in the event of an invasion. The country's infrastructure would be destroyed. Chemical and biological weapons will be used without much attention to their effect on Iraq's own civilians.
These are American reports: scrupulously anonymous but phrased with grave plausibility. They may well be true, but one suspects their real audience is inside Iraq. There have been many rather better confirmed reports of late about the collapse of the Iraqi people's faith in the durability their own government, and even that they hope the country will "get back to normal" in six months or so. If people come to believe that the regime poses a greater threat to life and property than the prospective invaders, they could just begin to ignore orders.
If a civil war breaks out, it makes little difference what the UN says: the invasions starts then.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2002-12-06: Security versus Deterrence

In the run-up to the second Iraq War, John noted the irony of American liberals defending the concept of strategic deterrence, when much of the internal American wrangling during the Cold War involved the Right defending this idea and the Left attacking it. Much, but not all. As John noted, both sides had something going for them. The Left was right that deterrence, especially as it turned into mutually assured destruction, was a dumb, risky way to run the world. On the other hand, the right was correct that the Soviets and the many Communist states they supported often destroyed the economy and oppressed the people where they gained power.

Science fiction author Jerry Pournelle was a Cold Warrior who co-authored the book the Strategy of Technology, in which he and his co-authors sought a way to break the stalemate of MAD, and bring the Cold War to an end. Arguably, they succeeded, since the Citizen's Advisory Council on National Space Policy that Pournelle chaired was influential in promoting Ronald Reagan's SDI, which helped break the Soviet economy and bring an end to the Cold War.

As for stability, I'm pretty sure we could all do with a little more stability in the Maghreb and the Middle East. At the time John wrote this, I thought he was on to something. Now I think the Romans and the British had the right idea.

Security versus Deterrence
 
Let me add a few debater's points to two theoretical arguments that appeared in The Weekly Standard of December 9, in support of the upcoming war in Iraq.
 
---
In an article entitled The Obsolescence of Deterrence, Charles Krauthammer dwells on the hypocrisy of the sudden infatuation of the Left with the doctrine of strategic deterrence. During the Cold War, he points out, the Left argued that deterrence was immoral, psychologically debilitating and ruinously expensive. When faced with the prospect of nations like Iraq acquiring weapons of mass destruction, however, the Left now argues that preemptive action is unnecessary, since the Iraqis and other evil doers will be deterred from using these weapons by the fear of retaliation.
One of the most interesting features of the piece is that the author implies that the Left of the Cold War era was partially right. Mutual deterrence, or at least mutual deterrence through weapons of mass destruction, really is not a good way to run the world. Whenever you have a choice, he says, you should prevent such a relationship from arising. He suggests this:
 
"Had we had the choice of disarming the Soviets by more palatable means, say, a limited military operation like Israel's destruction of Saddam's Osirak reactor, it might have been a reasonable option."
Let me take that a bit further. Suppose Nazi Germany had been known to have had a serious nuclear weapons program. Would the United States and Great Britain then have been best advised to forego the invasion of Europe, or to have stopped at the Franco-German border, because we knew that a situation of mutual deterrence would soon kick in? It is possible to imagine living with a Nazi Europe for the long term, but this would not have been a good thing.
Mr. Krauthammer also notes the argument that "if everyone has nukes, everyone is deterred, and no one will use them." He rightly points out that this is madness, but mentions only the near certainty that mutual deterrence among dozens of nuclear powers would eventually breakdown. Actually, the argument against universal deterrence is simpler than that. We have to remember that nuclear weapons can be used when the combatants possess only a few. 20th-century governments showed themselves quite willing to lose a few of their own cities in the pursuit of strategic goals. We should exert ourselves to ensure that 21st-century governments do not get the same opportunity.
 
---
The other Weekly Standard piece that caught my eye was Max Boot's article, The False Allure of Stability. The author points out that the regimes of the Middle East are among the most stable in the world. Some are monarchies and some are pseudo-democratic republics, but as a rule their leaders can expect to stay in office until death, when they will be succeeded by their sons. Despite the region's political glaciation, however, the region is also characterized by war and ingenious maladministration. Compared to the rest of the world, it actually loses ground economically. If this is stability, Mr. Boot suggests, then we could do with a bit less of it.
It is certainly true that stability is not the alpha and omega of statecraft. Where does that idea come from, anyway? Maybe from the Congress of Vienna: that was when the leaders of the West first began to fear chaos above all else. Be that as it may though, I am not sure that the point applies to Iraq today.
The current strategic situation in the world is not stable, because technological progress is making weapons of mass destruction available to less and less responsible actors. Keeping Iraq "in a box" is not good enough. Fissionable material and missile technology will leak into the box. At no distant date, the Iraqi regime will be able to inflict unacceptable damage on the US or its allies should there be any attempt to remove it. Iraq is only one of a class of middle-sized states with a history of doing very bad things and which seek invulnerability through deterrence. Time is not on our side.
 
* * *
Writing in the Washington Times, Tony Blankley had this to say about Senator John Kerry's announcement of his intention to seek the Democratic nomination for the presidency:
 
"[In the] 'Meet the Press' transcript, it is hard to find solid, specific policy assertions to comment on. My favorite Kerryism is found in the first few paragraphs when he claims: 'I think there's a deep anxiety in the American people about security, and they put it all under the word "security": job security, income security, retirement security, health security, education security, physical, personal security and, of course, national security.' That's nine times he squeezed the word security into one sentence. You don't suppose his pollsters have told him to use the word security as often as possible?" The JFK Who Would be JFK. December 4)
This attempt to modify the meaning of the word "security" has been popping up all over the media. There is no great conspiracy here: it's just another talking point. Still, efforts like this bring back memories. I can remember being intrigued in high school by the hypothesis that it might be possible to manipulate politics simply by modifying the "semantic field" of a language. The idea was scarcely original with me. On a crude level, this was the idea behind Newspeak in 1984. Robert Heinlein incorporated a science of semantic engineering into some of his future-history stories.
A little later I found out that Orwell's and Heinlein's premises were ill founded. The famous Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which holds that people who speak different languages live in different conceptual universes, has not stood up well in experiments, though it might have some validity in narrow contexts. The philosophy of Logical Positivism, which equates thought with language, is apparently just wrong. So, if it's any consolation, Newspeak would not work.
As for Senator Kerry's attempt to define "security" so that war and public safety are only a small part of it, I think that Steve Martin gave the best answer. In the film, The Three Amigos, the title characters defend a Mexican village against a gang of bandits, whose leader is called "El Guapo." Martin encourages the villagers thus (I paraphrase):
 
"In our lives, we all face our own El Guapo. El Guapo could be a childhood spent in under-privileged circumstances, or a broken home, or inadequate education. Of course, right now we face the actual El Guapo."
Indeed.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2002-12-12: Anomalous Phenomena

The world we live in is a strange place. Truth is stranger than fiction, and now we have the Internet and camera phones to document it. It is trivially easy to find as many uncanny things as you wish lurking in the Web. Most of these things are fabrications designed to attract clicks, and most of the rest are exaggerations or misunderstandings or misinterpretations, but there remains some small fraction of unusual things that have actually happened, but no one really has any understanding of them, or any useful way to synthesize the scattered occurrences into knowledge.

John Reilly sometimes commented upon these Fortean phenomena. However, what I find really interesting about the strange and uncanny is how very normal it all really is. People have always told stories, spread rumors, and seen things that they don't understand. This is part of the human condition, and it reflects the mysterious character of the world we find ourselves in. I would probably find the simulated universe people more convincing if the world made more sense. The very extraordinariness of the world is what makes it seem ordinary to us. There is a way in which everything is right with the world while fish still fall from the sky.

Anomalous Phenomena
 
You can always find a good reason to head for the bunkers. Consider, for instance, the US declaration earlier this week that it would respond to the use of a weapon of mass destruction with anything up to and including nuclear weapons. Couple that with a report that appeared just this morning, to the effect that al-Qaeda recently acquired nerve gas in Iraq. The latter report is based on sources as anonymous as they are unsubstantiated, but the gist is the possibility that the gas could be released in a major subway system when the war begins in Iraq.
This all sounds pretty bad, but we have seen comparably alarming headlines in the recent past that came to nothing. In order to help calm the public, here are some items that treat of less lethal prodigies.
 
* * *
English may be growing a new mood. That, at any rate, is the speculative construction I would like to put on some recent observations by Stanford linguist Geoffrey Nunberg. In an article in the New York Times (December 8: "Cablespeak: I Seeing the News Today, Oh Boy!"), he points out that the news stations are increasingly favoring tenseless constructions, like "The Navy using the island for 60 years but ceasing its tests soon." These forms are not really contractions; they certainly are not headlines. In fact, they are generally as long or longer than standard speech. What we are dealing with, he suggests, is the breakdown of the the "news day" as a frame of reference. Newspapers report events that happened before their date of publication, or announce events scheduled to happen after it. On the 24-hour news networks, however, there is no before or after. There is just the period of the news-anchor's attention.
Perhaps the language is developing a refinement that removes the possibility of confusing the historical present with the habitual present. As Nunberg notes, though, it's not a tense. I would suggest calling it the "extensional mood," as in "extensional logic." That is the logic which deals with specific instances, and not with qualities or open-ended classes. In the matter of orthography, it is reasonably clear we have not seen "Classical English" yet. Maybe the same is true of grammar.
On the other hand, the better course might be to just hang a few cable-news copyeditors and save ourselves some trouble.
 
* * *
The Turing Test has become a major business issue. I am sure we are all familiar with this one. The great mathematician, Alan Turing, said that any computer whose responses could not be distinguished from those of a human being would have to be considered to be thinking. This has led to contests to create the most human-like computer program. The Web is full of chatterbots, which can chat like human beings for those who suspend their disbelief and don't ask awkward questions. The problem is that more limited programs are being used by evil marketers to sign up for email accounts and join discussion groups, the better to spread spam.
Once it became commercially necessary to tell human beings from cheap imitations, some stop-gap solutions were found. You have probably already encountered some version of CAPTCHA program. (The name is an acronym for "Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart.".) The most familiar CAPTCHAs use visual distortion of text or images. People can see through the distortion right away, but it's a problem for computers. However, such problems are difficult rather than insoluable. The CAPTCHAs get better, but so do the programs to defeat them.
And suppose the programmers devised a pattern that a program could recognize, but that human beings could not? No: that way madness lies.
 
-----
Perhaps there is a simple legal solution to the problem of spam, one that avoids the unacceptable pitfalls of simply outlawing the transmission of large numbers of email messages. The worst kind of email is sent by, or for, people who want to make a contract of some sort with the recipient. A minor change to the Uniform Commercial Code could make such contracts unenforceable, at least if they are consummated over the Internet. It would just be a question of demanding hardcopy for sales and subscriptions.
 
* * *
Finally, we come to the kind of story that makes it worthwhile to read a daily newspaper. I quote in part from a story distributed by the Agence France-Presse:
 
ATHENS, Dec. 11 A shower of tiny fish rained down on Korona, a village in the mountains of northern Greece, Greek television reported today, attributing the incident to a mini-tornado.
Fishfalls are the classic Fortean phenomenon. Such events are named after Charles Fort, the one-time editor of a newspaper morgue who published a number of delightful books strongly suggesting that Things Are Not as They Seem. There is a wonderful continuity in these stories. Year after year, the same strange lights appear in the sky, the same metallic artifacts are found in Jurassic rock, the same improbable animals just miss being caught and stuffed (evidence for the Jersey Devil is better than you think, though not by much). Similar, too, is the Party Line put out by the defenders of consensus reality, such as the otherwise unremarked tornado in Korona.
Fortean phenomena are usually imaginary and always annoying. Still, I find them comforting. In a deep sense, everything is right with the world, as long as fish continue to fall from the sky.

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

Host Cell Lines and Homo Sapiens

Greg Cochran has re-posted an interesting article about host cell lines.

A host cell line is a microorganism that was until fairly recently a part of some higher organism – roughly speaking, a contagious cancer. We know of one good example, transmissible venereal tumor, also known as canine venereal sarcoma or Sticker’s sarcoma, a contagious neoplasm of dogs. It is not contagious in the same sense as liver or cervical cancer, which are (usually) consequences of viral infections. In those cases, it is the virus that is infectious; here it is the cancer itself. Viable cells become engrafted onto mucous membranes and grow in the new host animal. Transmission is usually sexual, but licking or inhaling sometimes causes oral or nasal tumors. Chromosomal and genetic studies indicate that all cases of TVT share a common origin – all share a particular pattern of chromosomal rearrangement and carry characteristic insertions.

Greg goes on to speculate that the cell line derived from a cervical adenocarcinoma in Henrietta Lacks in 1951, HeLa, might be something like a host cell line. Descended from a homo sapiens, but a new species. Since I just happen to be reading Dune, this reminds me of the Bene Gesserit belief that not everyone who happens to be a homo sapiens counts as a human.

Which further reminds me of one of my favorite ideas of John Reilly's: humans, homo sapiens, and persons, are different things. Discoveries like this just reinforce my conviction that John was right. However, I've found that right-thinking people seem obscurely scandalized when I repeat this. I think this is probably a good thing, because de-humanizing people is usually the first step in justifying doing something bad to them. To say that a human being and a person are not logically identical is not the same thing as saying we should de-personalize some human beings. However, it does open that up as a possibility. Thus I am not surprised when people seem off-put.

However, it does not therefore follow that those three things are logically identical. They cannot be, because they are different kinds of things. It is a category mistake to identify them. John summarized thus:

A human is an essence (if you don't believe in essences you don't believe in human beings); a homo sapiens is a kind of monkey; and a person is a phenomenon. Perhaps I read too much science fiction, but it is not at all clear to me that every human must necessarily be a homo sapiens. As for person, which is an entity, conscious or otherwise, that you can regard as a "thou," is conflated with the notion of person, as an entity able to respond in law, either directly or through an agent.

I think that the human beings we know of are homo sapiens, and that homo sapiens are persons. I just think you have to make an argument that these things are true, rather than making an indefensible assumption about it.

The last distinction John makes in the quote above often trips people up. If you conflate the two senses of the word person, and then further identify that with human being, I can see how that idea might be offensive. The problem is, it isn't true. If you can look past the controversies of contemporary American politics, the idea that a corporation can be a person has allowed institutions to flourish in the West, as opposed to tribes, nations, or dynasties, which are defined by common descent. An institution can continue through time once the founder has died, regardless of the familial relations of the people who comprise them.

Societies that lack the ability to create groups with a common purpose that do not depend on ties of kinship are weaker than those that can. We shouldn't cast that aside blithely.

The Long View 2002-11-21: Mr. Magoo Goes to Baghdad

Since I have talked a lot about John's mistakes regarding the Iraq war, let's turn to current events. Iran's nuclear program, and the negotiations thereof are much in the news lately. I mostly find this tiresome, since I don't care if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, and I also don't think they are crazy enough to try something stupid with Israel.

I think the first because the first decade and a half of the twenty-first century proved that any country with a nuclear weapon could do pretty much as it pleased as long as the dreaded weapon wasn't used. Affirmative cases: Russia annexed Crimea, North Korea continued being North Korea, Israel continued being a right wing nationalist Jewish ethnostate, and the US continued to find shitty little countries and throw them up against a wall so the others know we mean business. Negative examples: all of the shitty little countries the US threw up against a wall, plus whomever pissed off the British, French, or Russians. Pakistan, India, and China also have nukes, but Pakistan is a basket case, and India and China are busy trying to get rich.

As for the second, that is kind of a gestalt judgment. People who know Islamic eschatology, like Timothy Furnish, like to point out that Iran is officially committed to Twelver Shia eschatology. Meaning they believe the al-Mahdi, the guided one, will return to earth from his hidden refuge to usher in a period of peace and prosperity. However, what seems to be missing here is the willingness to gamble everything on a potential Mahdi who may not pan out, which has characterized the past Mahdist movements that Furnish documented in his book on the subject. I just don't think the current rulers of Iran are that kind of sucker. They seem more like cynical political survivors to me, but I am admittedly not an expert here. It is just that if they really wanted to go all-in on Mahdism, they already would have.

Getting a nuclear weapon is a long game. You have to put in a lot of money and effort to pull it off. Then you need to get enough of them to be a credible threat. Few true millennial fanatics are capable of playing the long game; by definition, they don't think there is a long game.

John also rightly pointed out that international agencies like the IAEA don't really have power. They depend upon the goodwill of the treaty nations to function.

This is not to say that Mr. Blix is crooked, or even that he is incompetent. He and the international arms-control bureaucracy do what they do very well. What we have to keep in mind is that what they do not do is control the spread of arms. Rather, they are agents of "cooperation" among the participants to arms-control treaties. This is more than enough, 90% of the time. States sign these treaties because they really have no intention of acquiring the weapons in question. The treaties have the effect of taking the issue off the table by providing proxy inspections of neighboring countries. If it amuses their neighbors to squirrel away a few cannisters of poison gas, the violation is rarely important. The inspections themselves are almost ceremonial.

I suspect Iran doesn't want a nuclear weapon, but I would put that at about 60-70% probability. There are some pretty powerful incentives to want one, and many of them are provided by us.

John also made a prediction here that the expansion of NATO was part of the debellicization of Europe.

Consider NATO, for instance. Even as I write, President Bush is in Prague at a summit meeting of the leaders of NATO countries, who are about to welcome another seven Eastern European states into their midst. NATO was formed as an anti-Soviet alliance; it has now rolled up to the very border of the Russian Federation. This is deeply offensive to Russian pride, but the Russians clearly understand that NATO is not a strategic threat.
The new additions are not the expansion of a military alliance. Rather, they are part of the process of the "debellicization" of Europe. NATO has become an excuse not to have a serious military. NATO's policy now is that the smaller members of the alliance should not even try to maintain full military establishments, however small. Rather, they should each specialize in some "niche" beneficial to all of NATO; the Czechs will do chemical decontamination if the occasion arises, for instance, and the Spaniards will do minesweeping. This sounds like an admirably rational way to allocate resources. Still, one might reasonably fear that, should it be mobilized, such a mosaic military would discover that everything from its flashlight batteries to its office folders are incompatible.
Without becoming too speculative, I might suggest that we are almost in a position to appreciate the difference between a national empire of the colonial period and an empire of the sort that comparative historians call "universal states." The British Empire, or for that matter Alexander's, were defined by their substance. In contrast, the Roman Empire was defined by its absences. It was a Zen kind of thing, founded less on conquest than on apathy. That apathy is back with us today, but no one cares.

I think this may be half right. Russia clearly thinks that NATO expansion in the Baltic states, Eastern Europe, and the Caucasus, is a strategic threat. The mess in Ukraine is part of the Russian counter-strategy to this. As far as Western and Central Europe is concerned, I think John was on the right track. The West seems to be trundling towards Empire in a rather thoughtless way. A joint-NATO task force involving more than token presence from NATO members other than the US would probably make that clear.

Austrian Cultural Forum in NYC

Austrian Cultural Forum in NYC

The Austrian Cultural Forum in New York City is a strange one. I actually find it less offensive than some other modernist buildings. My personal favorite juxtaposition is the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles [the Taj Mahony] across the 101 Freeway from the Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts. As Steve Sailer memorably said, it looks like a giant Japanese robot is going to burn down the cathedral with a flamethrower.

Mr. Magoo Goes to Baghdad


Why did I immediately think of Mr. Magoo when I heard that Hans Blix had arrived in Baghdad to begin the leisurely process of looking for weapons of mass destruction? You remember Mr. Magoo, surely. He was a cartoon character from the UPA studios. Best known in the 1950s, he was an old gentleman who mumbled cheerfully to himself as he walked through adventures that his extreme nearsightedness hid from him. I soon found what must have been half of the connection: it seems that Mr. Magoo featured in a film called 1001 Arabian Nights, which I must have seen as a child, and which was no doubt set in Baghdad.

The other half of the connection is that Mr. Blix does seem to have more than his share of Magoo-like qualities. He, too, is an amiable old gentleman whom it is easy to imagine stumbling into a doorpost and saying: "I beg your pardon, madam!" This is the man who gave Iraq in the late 1980s, and North Korea in the early 1990s, a clean bill of health with regard to the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. In the latter case, he even tried to get the inspector who blew the whistle fired. Like Mr. Magoo. he is quite capable of walking through a minefield and declaring, when he reaches the other side, that he had never seen a finer rose garden.

This is not to say that Mr. Blix is crooked, or even that he is incompetent. He and the international arms-control bureaucracy do what they do very well. What we have to keep in mind is that what they do not do is control the spread of arms. Rather, they are agents of "cooperation" among the participants to arms-control treaties. This is more than enough, 90% of the time. States sign these treaties because they really have no intention of acquiring the weapons in question. The treaties have the effect of taking the issue off the table by providing proxy inspections of neighboring countries. If it amuses their neighbors to squirrel away a few cannisters of poison gas, the violation is rarely important. The inspections themselves are almost ceremonial.

The problems arise when a country signs a non-proliferation agreement in order to cover up a weapons program. In that case, the inspection regime will not only fail to uncover the program, it will actually serve to cover it up.


* * *

The true function of the arms inspection agencies is only a special case of something that is becoming generally true of the the chief institutions of the international system. These entities often dispose of surprisingly little power. They are not idle exercises, however, because they do serve by occupying spaces where power would otherwise be.

Consider NATO, for instance. Even as I write, President Bush is in Prague at a summit meeting of the leaders of NATO countries, who are about to welcome another seven Eastern European states into their midst. NATO was formed as an anti-Soviet alliance; it has now rolled up to the very border of the Russian Federation. This is deeply offensive to Russian pride, but the Russians clearly understand that NATO is not a strategic threat.

The new additions are not the expansion of a military alliance. Rather, they are part of the process of the "debellicization" of Europe. NATO has become an excuse not to have a serious military. NATO's policy now is that the smaller members of the alliance should not even try to maintain full military establishments, however small. Rather, they should each specialize in some "niche" beneficial to all of NATO; the Czechs will do chemical decontamination if the occasion arises, for instance, and the Spaniards will do minesweeping. This sounds like an admirably rational way to allocate resources. Still, one might reasonably fear that, should it be mobilized, such a mosaic military would discover that everything from its flashlight batteries to its office folders are incompatible.

Without becoming too speculative, I might suggest that we are almost in a position to appreciate the difference between a national empire of the colonial period and an empire of the sort that comparative historians call "universal states." The British Empire, or for that matter Alexander's, were defined by their substance. In contrast, the Roman Empire was defined by its absences. It was a Zen kind of thing, founded less on conquest than on apathy. That apathy is back with us today, but no one cares.


* * *

Finally, speaking of purblindness and spiritual exhaustion, I came across this outraged reaction by William Mitchell of MIT's architecture school to Princeton's plan to build its new dormitories in the Gothic style. According to the New York Times (November 20, 2002):


"Dean Mitchell described Princeton's choice as 'roughly the equivalent of requiring all e-mail to be written in Shakespearean English' and said it signals 'an astonishing lack of interest in architecture's capacity to respond innovatively and critically to the conditions of our own time and place.'"

Actually, it is the dean's remarks that are anachronistic. The International and Postmodern Styles that MIT favors are the establishment, and have been so for two generations. Using Gothic today critiques the fact that architects working in those 20th century styles too often did uniquely bad work.


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site


The Long View 2002-11-14: Just You Wait

Not being a scientist or an engineer, John was nonetheless interested in science and engineering, and liked to think about the implications of technology on the world we live in. An abiding interest of John's was anti-ballistic missile technology. In the Reagan era, this was a hot political issue, with eminent scientists such as Carl Sagan taking strong stands against any attempt to build missile defenses.

Something that is often less clear is that equally eminent scientists such as Edward Teller were on the other side of the argument. Also less clear is how far anti-missile technology has advanced in the last thirty years.

The argument was two-pronged. The opponents of ballistic missile defense claimed that it could not be made to work, and that even attempting to build such a thing would destabilize relations between the US and the USSR, leading to greater, instead of a lesser, risk of war.

History has not been kind to Sagan and the other critics of ballistic missile defense. Both prongs of their argument were proven untrue by subsequent events. At this point, it is probably easy to make too much of their defeat; some of their arguments did have merit. On the technical side of the argument, SDI generated a lot of flashy concepts that never panned out. The laser system John cites in this post is a good example. The MTHEL project was eventually discontinued due to cost-overruns and poor performance. As for the political side of the argument, it certainly isn't crazy to suggest that an opponent who is backed into a corner might do something desperate. It is simply that this didn't happen. It is hard to evaluate all of the possible ways the Cold War might have turned out, all we can do is say what did happen.

On the gripping hand, due to continuing technological progress combined with ongoing conflict in the Mideast, we now have pretty reliable anti-missile missiles, such as the Israeli Iron Dome system. Without the opportunity to test these interceptor systems out in real-world conditions, the technology might not have progressed as far. The Patriot missiles worked after a fashion in 1991 as missile interceptors, but since Patriots were designed to intercept aircraft, the results on other missiles were mixed.

The Aegis BMD system remains untested as yet. Hopefully we won't get the opportunity.

John also finds time to complain about the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. It isn't hard to find things about the USCCB to complain about, but at least in this case I find myself somewhat sympathetic to the argument that Iraq didn't present a threat in 2002. It is hard to remember now, but war fever really did grip the US, and only a few lonely voices dared to voice doubts. Of course, it didn't help that the USCCB statement suggested that there was a risk of lots of civilian deaths during the invasion of Iraq. The American military is better than any military in the world at practicing jus in bello. Suggesting otherwise usually makes people who know something about American tactics [especially in comparison to say, Russian tactics] not take you seriously. If you retroactively combine the paragraph about the risk of destabilization with the risk of collateral damage [non-combatant deaths], then the bishops conference statement seems to have a point, but I don't think this is what was meant at the time.

Just You Wait

 

A facet of deep history appeared last week, the kind of story that excites little comment, but which illuminates so much else that is happening. This was the announcement that the US Army has a laser system that can reliably destroy artillery shells in flight. The system was developed in conjunction with the Israelis, to shoot down tactical and medium-range missiles, which are actually much easier to hit. It was no great secret that lasers of this class were being weaponized. Maybe they have been already; there was some discussion earlier this year about moving the prototype to Israel. In any case, they are yet more evidence of the end of the era of strategic weapons of mass destruction.

The threat from the Axis of Evil is the tail end of that period. The threat could arise only when the science and engineering needed for nuclear weapons and strategic missiles had become accessible even to countries of the third and fourth rank. For a variety of reasons, a world in which many such countries had the nuclear-missile package would be a nightmare. The regimes that want it must go, or the technology that delivers the bombs must become obsolete. In fact, both are happening at the same time. Although the lasers now being tested are not intended to stop ICBMs, such weapons show that the total abolition of ICBMs should no longer be thought of as an impossibly distant prospect. However, there are two points to keep in mind about a world without Mutual Assured Destruction:

 

(1) The abolition of strategic nuclear weapons, and even of tactical nuclear weapons, is not quite the same thing as the abolition of nuclear weapons. They can still be used as terrorist devices. However, terrorist weapons cannot provide a deterrent shield for irresponsible governments. Deterrence requires a public certainty of immediate response; terrorist weapons are, by definition, secret until they are used.

(2) Though the era of Mutual Assured Destruction did have its downside, such as two generations raised amidst episodes of sickening dread, it did at least cap the scope of conventional warfare. No nukes mean more war until, frankly, the planet is pacified. But we know that by now.

 

* * *

For me, at least, the show that the Baathist regime in Iraq put on before pretending to accept the latest UN inspection resolution had a great deal of historical resonance. Stalin used to do the same thing with his legislatures. "Call and response" is the term: it's what cantors do with choirs, or preachers with congregations. The drill is that parliament urges the great leader to kill everybody. He sagely demurs and says he need kill only half; there is great rejoicing.

That was, pretty much, what happened when the Iraqi parliament affected to reject the UN resolution, but the executive went through the motions of accepting it. Of course, they did not go through the motions with much conviction; the six-page letter they gave to Kofi Anan was a strange way to say "yes." I find it hard to believe that the Iraqis think they can really diddle the weapons inspectors for more than a few weeks, if that long. More likely they hope that something else will save them. Maybe terrorist attacks in Europe will drive a wedge between the US and its allies that would make an invasion of Iraq logistically impossible. Maybe they will coordinate an incident with the North Koreans. Would such stratagems fail? Not necessarily.

 

* * *

While we are on the subject of futile assemblies, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops is meeting this week. The chief item on the agenda, at least as far as the press is concerned, is their attempt to come to grips with the Vatican's modifications of their own plan for dealing with the sex abuse scandals. Their own plan consisted of a wonderful combination of Megan's Law, One-Strike-and-You're-Out, and other poll-tested devices that are happily unique to American jurisprudence. Don't get me wrong: the scandals really are scandalous, and some of the bishops at the current conference should instead have been sent to lead lives of silent contemplation at remote monasteries. The Vatican had a point, however, when it responded that the witch-hunt procedures the bishops put in place cannot be squared with canon law.

I heard one innocent radio commentator ask, "Since when is the Vatican interested in due process?" To that I answer, "You have no idea." Like Isaac Asimov's Trantor, the Vatican was conceived in red tape, and dedicated to the principle of the form in quadruplicate. Due process, like a perpetual penance, is what the Vatican does. Nonetheless things are not looking up. Some of the bishops seem to have been taken in by the victim-industry, "recovered memories" and all.

 

* * *

And of course, the bishops found time to consider questions of war and peace in connection with Iraq. In reality, it would be hard to imagine a military action more closely in accord with Just War principles: regime change is a matter of life and death; the real diplomatic alternatives were exhausted years ago; and the tactics, at least by the invaders, promise to be the most careful of collateral damage in the history of warfare. The conference said otherwise:

 

"We continue to find it difficult to justify the resort to war against Iraq, lacking clear and adequate evidence of an imminent attack of a grave nature..."

 

In other words, like the editorialists the bishops read, they seem to believe that an attack should wait until the Baathist government plainly has weapons of mass destruction, and deterrence kicks in. Things could be worse, however. The conference did at least reject an amendment that would have encouraged conscientious objection by members of the armed forces. Instead, they produced this gem:

 

"We support those who risk their lives in the service of their nation. We also support those who exercise their right to conscientious objection."

Don't the bishops realize that they are exerting themselves, however feebly, to support Jonestown? And that they someday that may have to explain to the Iraqi people (many of whom are Catholic, by the way) why they tried to prevent their liberation? The American bishops, as individuals, are intelligent, humane, thoughtful people. However, when they get together, their collective intelligence drops by about 20 points. Surely the time has come to acknowledge that the experiment of a semi-legislative national conference has been a failure, and go back to diocesan government?

 

* * *

Finally, on the subject of "what is to be done" in the Catholic Church, we should note that not only protestantizing liberals are anxious to see the Papacy of John Paul II end. Out in the fever swamps of the Catholic Right, there have long been schismatics who claim that Vatican II was invalid, and that the popes who tried to implement it were illegitimate heretics. However, even people who characterize themselves as merely "orthodox" are beginning to think that they are more Catholic than the pope. Consider this from the November 2002 issue of the New Oxford Review:

 

"None of this [laxity of discipline and theology] will change until we have a new pope, one who -- let's tell the truth now! -- isn't always flying here and there, one who will 'mind the store' and pay close attention to administrative matters, one who has the same mettle as Karol Wojtyla but who directs his indomitable will to cleaning out the rot in the Church...John Paul II has been a wonderful teaching pope. Our next pope will have to insist, over his dead body, that the teachings of the Church are taught by his bishops with conviction, follow-through, and dire consequences for fifth columnists, and that bishops who are insubordinate seek employment elsewhere..."

That characterization of John Paul II's papacy is unfair, but I think it does suggest the probable trajectory of the next papacy. I have spent many weary hours explaining to incredulous progressives that, no, John Paul II is not a reactionary, and not even a conservative. Rather, his program really is the program of Vatican II. To the extent it has been thwarted, it has been thwarted by an over-indulged Left. Come the next pope, the indulgences will cease.

 

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

 

The Long View: The Millennium and the Roman Catholic Church

I blame John for getting me interested in millennialism. I find the subject endlessly fascinating, even though it retains something of a disreputable air. I have used the linked piece in particular in a number of [relatively] popular talks I have given on the subject of millennialism and millennial movements.

In the United States, it is evangelical and charismatic Christians who are most associated with millennialism, but the Catholic Church is millennial too, just in a very different way. The terminology is endlessly confusing to the uninitiated. For example, Catholics are millennial but not millenarian. The recent Catechism of the Catholic restates the view advanced by St. Augustine in the 5th century: all of history since the time of Christ is the Millennium. The interesting twist is that all of the events in ordinary history that inspire apocalyptic expectations really are lesser instances of the eventual final apocalypse. To put it as Augustine would, each apocalyptic event participates in the form of the Apocalypse. Each one truly shares in its nature, even though they are not simply identical. For Augustine, this is why he declined to identify the sack of Rome in 410 with the literal end of the world, even though in a sense the Western Roman world really was ending.

Every version of secular progress advanced in the West ever since has been a rehashing of Augustine's argument. It is one of the durable features of Western Civilization, and part of the reason why people still find the City of God a book worth reading.

The Millennium and the Roman Catholic Church

By John J. Reilly

 

In "The Devil's Dictionary," that indispensable treasury of acidic wisdom, Ambrose Bierce defined the Millennium as "The period of a thousand years when the lid is to be screwed down with all the reformers on the under side." This terse formulation is actually not much different from the term's ordinary significance in popular American apocalyptic (see Rev. 20:1-3). In that context, the term refers to a future paradisiacal stage of history, when such constants of human experience as war, death and poverty will no longer exist. Although the earth will continue to exist in something like its familiar form, this future age will be discontinuous from secular history. It will be inaugurated by a period of natural and social disasters, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. The biblical verse on which this view is primarily based is Rev. 20:4, which says in part:

"And I saw thrones, and men sat upon them and judgment was given to them. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of the word of God, and who did not worship the beast or his image, and did not accept his mark upon their heads or upon their hands. And they came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years..."

A good argument can be made that this view of the final stage of history was also that of primitive Christianity. Certainly it was the view of St. Irenaeus of the second century, who likened the Millennium to the Sabbath of a historical "week" that consisted of "days" of a thousand years each. This view is often called "millenarian," and many observers have noted that it is an essentially revolutionary way of viewing history. From Montanus in second century Phrygia to David Koresh in twentieth century Texas, millenarians have tended to form sects that are separatist, often antinomian and sometimes violently insurgent. As a general matter, of course, persons and groups with millenarian beliefs live undramatic lives in harmony with their wider societies. However, millenarianism does lend itself to outbreaks of apocalyptic anxiety when historical events chime with one or another of the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. Millenarians are notorious for setting dates for the end of the world and then setting new ones when doomsday fails to materialize.

A point that often escapes American commentators on popular eschatology is that the official theology of the Roman Catholic Church, by far the largest segment of Christianity and the largest denomination even in the United States, is resolutely antimillenarian. The recently-issued "Catechism of the Catholic Church" provides a useful summary of traditional doctrine:

Par. 676 "The Antichrist's deception already begins to take shape in the world every time the claim is made to realize within history that messianic hope which can only be realized beyond history through the eschatological judgment. The Church has rejected even modified forms of this falsification of the kingdom to come under the name of millenarianism, especially the 'intrinsically perverse' political form of secular messianism."

This section contains a reference to the encyclical "Divini Redemptoris" by Pius XI, which condemned the "false mysticism" of the "counterfeit of the redemption of the lowly." The school of sociologically-informed Catholic social theory known loosely as "liberation theology" has fallen more and more into official disfavor during the pontificate of John Paul II largely because the Vatican sees it as just this sort of counterfeit, one that comes close to equating leftist politics with the creation of the Kingdom of God. Another problem with liberation theology, ironically, is that it has not proven popular with the poor whom it was intended to serve. Its chief effect so far, in fact, seems to have been to drive millions of Latin Americans into Protestant churches. (For a CIA assessment, see Patrick E. Kennon's "The Twilight of Democracy," Doubleday, N.Y., 1995, pp. 196-197.)

The origin of this Catechism, it may noted, illustrates the perception in the Vatican that not just liberation theology but liberal Christianity in general does not have much of a future. The Catechism is the first such universally authoritative document to appear since the "Catechism of Pius V" was composed in the 1560s following the Council of Trent. The new Catechism was created in the 1980s by a pontifical commission charged with restating essential Catholic doctrine in the wake of the disorder that followed the Second Vatican Council (1963-1965). The conservative content of the Catechism was widely deplored by liberal Catholics. The publication of an English translation was delayed until 1994 by objections from much the same people on the ground that it failed to use "inclusive language." Whatever may be thought of the merits of these controversies, the Catechism that resulted from this ecclesiastical wrangle well reflects the remarkable continuities in Catholic doctrine, not least in the matter of the Last Things.

The Catholic view of universal eschatology was formulated in all essentials in the fifth century by St. Augustine, bishop of the North African city of Hippo. Few dogmatic constructs have proven to be so durable and so practical as the Augustinian model of history. Augustine was skeptical about the possibility of associating particular biblical prophecies uniquely with particular historical events. In his day, the final decades of the Roman Empire, the western world was in fact doing a good imitation of ending. He was shocked by the first Gothic sack of Rome in 410, and himself would eventually die in the siege of his city by the Vandals. Despite this, however, he declined to see the catastrophes of his time as the literal end of the world. Rather, he showed how apocalyptic could be applied metaphorically to a range of historical situations.

The most interesting of his doctrines for our purposes is his theory that the whole age of the Church should be associated with the Millennium of the Book of Revelation. His view of the matter, as set out in Book XX of "The City of God," is reflected in the Catechism:

Par. 670 "Since the Ascension God's plan has entered into its fulfillment. We are already at 'the last hour.' 'Already the final stage of the word is with us, and the renewal of the world is irrevocably under way; it is even now anticipated in a certain real way, for the Church on earth is endowed already with a sanctity that is real but imperfect.' (The quotation is from the Vatican II document, 'Lumen Gentium,' chapter 48, section 3.) Christ's kingdom already manifests its presence through the miraculous signs that attend its proclamation by the Church."

This view of history is sometimes called "millennialism." (Nomenclature in the comparative study of eschatology can be bewildering. Augustine's view, more or less, is also sometimes called "post-millennialism," to emphasize that the Second Coming is at the end of history, or even "amillennialism," to emphasize its total rejection of the Millennium of the millenarians. The simple distinction used here is borrowed from J.F.C. Harrison's "The Second Coming," Rutger's University Press, New Brunswick, N.J., 1979, pp. 5-6.) Augustine's model is closely associated with the modern idea of historical progress. (See, for instance, Robert Nisbet's "History of the Idea of Progress," Basic Books, N.Y., 1980.) In this scheme of things, the reign of the saints takes the form of the gradual improvement of the world under Christian influence. There is no lack of material in the New Testament to support such a "long-haul" view of history. Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed that grows into a great tree. The Kingdom is also like the field where the wheat and the tares, good and evil, mature together until the harvest at the end of history. (Matt 13:24-43) This rather comforting view of history has often developed into a rejection not just of millenarianism, but of apocalyptic in general. In the view of the Social Gospel, which has enjoyed intermittent periods of popularity in the United States, history does not end in a climactic battle between good and evil, but in a state of perfection achieved by secular progress. Augustine held no such view, and neither does the Catholic Church today:

Par. 677 "...The kingdom will be fulfilled...not by a historic triumph of the Church through a progressive ascendancy, but only by God's victory over the final unleashing of evil, which will cause his Bride to come down from heaven...."

The eschatological schema set out in the Catechism is often bewildering to Americans familiar only with protestant millenarianism. However, the Catholic view retains the ancient features of Christian apocalyptic, from the conversion of the Jews to a personal Antichrist. There are passages in the new Catechism that ten Jesuits dancing on the head of a pin would have trouble allegorizing away:

Par. 675 "Before Christ's second coming the Church must pass through a final trial that will shake the faith of many believers. The persecution that accompanies her pilgrimage on earth will unveil the 'mystery of iniquity' in the form of a religious deception offering men an apparent solution to their problems at the price of apostasy from the truth. The supreme deception is that of the Antichrist, a pseudo-messianism by which man glorifies himself in place of God and of his Messiah in the flesh."

Thus, we see that Augustinian millennialism is as capable of simple apocalyptic expectation as is millenarianism. The chief difference, perhaps, lies in the Augustinian ability to transform specific historical events and personages into "types" of the elements of prophecy. As John Henry Newman (1801-1890), once an Anglican priest and later a Catholic cardinal, once put it : "...every event in the world is a type of those that follow, history proceeding forward as a circle ever enlarging...For every age presents its own picture of those future events which alone are the real fulfillment of the prophecy which stands at the head of them all." ("Tracts for the Times," Vol. V, 1838-40, London, J.G.F. & J. Rivington, 1840, pp. 4-5) From this perspective, very destructive wars are typical of the Battle of Armageddon, persecutions of the Church are typical of the Tribulation, great tyrants are typical of Antichrist. The fact that none of these precursors have yet turned out to be the embodiment of the prophecies of the endtime does nothing at all to invalidate the prophecies. To quote Newman again: "Events interpret the text."

Throughout her long history, the Catholic Church has done a very good job of suppressing apocalyptic fervor or of channelling it to social projects. This, however, is not to say that Catholicism lacks a popular eschatological tradition. Some features of popular Catholic eschatological belief are charming perennials, no less engaging for their pedantic obscurity. This class includes such items as the Prophecies of St. Malachy of Armagh, a Irish saint of the first half of the twelfth century. The prophecies are of a familiar type, a list of future popes and their characteristics. The prophecies set out 111 popes after St. Malachy's time, the last being "Peter II" or "Peter the Roman." He too is a familiar figure of medieval apocalyptic, the "Angelic Pope" who will lead the Church through the final tribulation. St. Malachy's prophecies did not come to light until about 1590, and Bernard McGinn is so rude as to suggest in "Visions of the End" (Columbia university Press, N.Y., 1979, p. 189) that they were composed then. However, the prophecies are still dragged out and discussed whenever a new pope is to be elected. There is some confusion about the full tale of the popes because of the contested papal elections of the Middle Ages. No matter how you count them, however, the list is exhausted either in John Paul II or his successor.

The chief exception to the Church's record of control over millenarian excitement is the tripartite model of history developed by Abbot Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century. The effects of this model continue to this day, not least in the form of Hegel's ineradicable three-stage dialectic of history.

Joachim's impending Third Age would not be wholly discontinuous from history as we know it. (See Marjorie Reeves's "The Influence of Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages," Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1969.) Joachim seems to have meant it simply as a specially blest period, after the defeat of the first of two Antichrists, when the world would in effect be a vast monastery. The abbot's followers notoriously turned it into an image of revolutionary theocracy, but even they tended to maintain its continuity with secular history. There is still a Third Order of St. Francis for the laity. Had history gone according to the hope of the fraticelli, the radical Franciscans who were so strongly influenced by Joachim, something like this auxiliary would have come to encompass all of civil society. The Second Coming in Joachim's system would still come at the very end of history, after the Third Age. In this, the Third Age resembles other features of medieval apocalyptic, such as the future reign of the Emperor of the Last Days, which permitted the hope of a temporary defeat of the powers of evil before actual end of history in the approved Augustinian manner. While these examples are familiar mostly to specialists, they embody patterns which continue to manifest themselves in sometimes spectacular forms.

The prophecies connected with the Marian apparitions at Fatima in 1917 are not obscure. They remain the single most important element in popular Catholic apocalyptic in the twentieth century. The story has been told many times before, often in connection with one political agenda or another. See, for instance, Malachy Martin's entertaining if somewhat alarmingly titled book, "The Keys of This Blood: The Struggle for World Dominion Between Pope John Paul II, Mikhail Gorbachev & the Capitalist West," Simon and Schuster, N.Y., 1990, p. 629 ff. The mention of Mikhail Gorbachev in the title of this still-recent book is yet more evidence, if any were needed, of the soundness of Augustine's caution against reading eschatological significance into particular historical figures. For a discussion of Marian apparitions in general, particularly the important French ones of the nineteenth century, see James Webb's "The Occult Underground," Open Court Press, Chicago, Illinois, pp. 134-140.

The gist is the story is that three children, who lived in the neighborhood of Fatima in Portugal, had visions of the Virgin Mary on the 13th of every month from May to October of 1917. Their names were Lucia dos Santos and Francisco and Jacinta Marto. Although the visions were in general apparent only to the children, they were concluded by the famous "Miracle of the Sun," in which the sun was seen by many members of a large crowd to throw off colors, spin like a pinwheel, and approach the earth. The incident is significant to popular eschatology because of the three "messages" or "secrets" which the children received.

The third message has occasioned an extraordinary popular tradition, one that continues to accumulate, since the "secret" still remains something of a secret. It was committed to paper only in 1944 by Lucia, by then a nun and the only surviving visionary, and entrusted to the pope. By most accounts, she directed that it not be revealed until 1960. That year, of course, was in the reign of John XXIII, who called the Second Vatican Council. Pope John died in 1963, and rumors swirled to the effect that whatever was in the message was so terrible that it killed him. In any event, he decided that the message did not apply to his own pontificate and did not publish the message. Remarks made in the 1980s by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, suggested that the message was simply a restatement of Chapter 13 of the Book of Revelation, particularly those elements relating to the "great apostasy," a general falling away from the faith which is another staple of eschatological prophecy (see 2 Thess. 2:3). However, the actual text has still to be published.

The other messages, however, have long been well known. The first was a call conventional in Catholic piety to personal penitence and to prayer for the dead. The second dealt with matters of historical import. This version of the latter is taken from "The Reign of Antichrist" by Fr. R. Gerald Culleton, TAN Books and Publishers, Inc., Rockford, Illinois, 1974, p. 186 (originally published 1951). Note that though the Millennium is nowhere mentioned, the text ends with the more modest sort of favored age that Abbot Joachim probably had in mind:

"...The war will soon end. But if men do not stop offending the Lord it will not be long before another and worse one begins; that will be in the Pontificate of Pius XI.

"When you see the night illuminated by an unknown light, know that it is the great sign which God is giving you, indicating that the world, on account of its innumerable crimes, will soon be punished by war, famine, and persecutions against the Church and the Holy Father.

"In order to prevent it I shall ask for the consecration of Russia to my Immaculate Heart, as well as Communions of Reparation on the First Saturdays of the month.

"If my requests are granted Russia will be converted and there will be peace. Otherwise Russia will spread her errors through the world fomenting wars and persecutions against the Church. Many will be martyred, the Holy father will have much to suffer; several nations will be destroyed.

"In the end my Immaculate Heart will triumph. The Holy Father will consecrate Russia to me, Russia will be converted, and there will be a certain period of peace."

It may be noted that this prophecy, including the mention of the Russians, resembles some of the private revelations attributed to Pope St. Pius X, who reign from 1903 to 1914. Paul Johnson, in his "Modern Times" (Harper & Row, N.Y., 1983, p. 145) dismisses this pontiff as "the last of the great reactionary popes," a conventional assessment that is probably ripe for reconsideration. (See also Johnson's "History of Christianity," Atheneum, N.Y., 1963, pp. 469-474. The character of Denethor, Stewart of Gondor, in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" is arguably based on this Pius.) In any event, the first two "secrets" of Fatima were widely publicized in the years between the world wars, and the second secret, understandably, was an important feature of anticommunist polemic.

The visions of Fatima went through the rather skeptical review process accorded "private revelations" by ecclesiastical authorities, and unlike most, they passed review. This meant, simply, that in 1930 the local bishop declared them "worthy of belief"; it did not endorse their content. It is dogma that no revelation after the close of the New Testament period can add to the "deposit of the faith," though such things may be edifying and useful in particular historical circumstances. No one is required to believe them. The review simply determined that there was no fraud involved, no obvious physical or psychological explanation, and the private revelation revealed nothing that was contrary to faith or morals.

In contrast, we may note that the visions that began to be reported from Medjugorje in Bosnia in 1981 have been through similar reviews by the local authorities and failed them. (See E. Michael Jones's "Medjugorje: The Untold Story," Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana). These and other disapproved series of visions, usually characterized by prophecies of imminent catastrophe and often including invective against the hierarchy, are a conspicuous feature of popular Catholic apocalyptic as the millennium nears its end. However, since this subject deals largely with the beliefs of schismatic groups, such as the Society of Pius X, it lies outside the scope of this essay.

Students of apocalyptic often assume that part of their problem must be to explain how people can continue to believe prophecies that are repeatedly disconfirmed. However, as Paul Boyer has noted in "When Time Shall Be No More," history rather often seems to confirm many details of prophetic expectation. The "unknown light" mentioned in the second secret was widely held to have been fulfilled by an extraordinary aurora visible over much of Europe in August of 1939. Albert Speer, later to be the German Minister of Armaments, described the eerie display, which he viewed in the company of Hitler and his entourage from the terrace of the Berghof on the evening of August 23, two days after the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact was concluded. Hitler remarked: "Looks like a great deal of blood." ("Inside the Third Reich," Albert Speer, The Macmillan Company, N.Y., 1970, p. 162.)

The course of the war and of the Cold War period would have been enough to confirm all but the gravest apocalyptic anxieties. After his accession to the papacy, John Paul II made some effort to organize special prayers for Russia, which were interpreted by Fatima enthusiasts as an attempt to fulfill the vision's demand for "consecration." Similarly, the collapse of the Soviet Union was widely regarded as a partial fulfillment of the prophecy. This would suggest that we are now living in the "period of peace" foretold by the visionaries. No one would argue, of course, that we are living in the sort of Millennium envisioned by the millenarians. Still, though the world continues to have no end of problems, in many ways it at least has better problems than it had even a few years ago. As St. Augustine might have put it, the situation is typical.

 

(This article also appeared in the Millennial Prophecy Report in 1996.)

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site

The Long View 2002-10-02: Wellstone's Wake

It really is the conventional wisdom even now that lower turnout helps Republicans, but who now remembers that 2002 saw increased turnout in the midterms and a huge Republican victory?

This was an occasion where John praised President George W. Bush for at least having some ideas of how to govern, although he didn't seem to think much of these ideas, except that W. did seem to take national security seriously.

John was on record encouraging the Republicans to adopt some kind of universal health insurance as a party platform. Over time, I came to see that he had a point. John thought healthcare was a public good, not a public right, which makes a major difference. Good health isn't something owed to you by others, which is a right. Good health is good, and we are all better off if the health of our fellow citizens is better, but how you frame it makes a major difference.

John's point-of-view was that offering public healthcare as a "right" was a frequent trick of the despotic regimes of the world in the twentieth century to claim that they offered many "rights" to their subjects that Western democracies could not or did not. The fact that many of their people were in fact in poor health wasn't the point. After all, who could fault them for their poverty.

The point here is that political rights do not truly depend upon wealth, or at least they shouldn't. If you are going to have a trial, the right to not incriminate yourself or the right to confront your accuser can simply be part of the standard procedure. All of the pieces are already in place, you simply have to do it. Healthcare isn't like this. You need an incredible infrastructure of equipment and trained personnel to make it happen, along with a distribution network for the supplies needed. If the truck broke down, do you lose your rights?

The most obvious rejoinder to this argument would be that the rich have greater relative access to their political rights than the poor. This is correct, although one should keep in mind that access to rights in modern societies is also available to the clever and hard-working, and being rich has become very strongly correlated with those things in the modern world.

The affirmative response would be the cultures that have developed political rights in the modern sense also developed the traits that are most effective at producing economic growth. These cultures were not always the richest or the most powerful, it simply happens that the political rights developed in the same place that produced the greatest wealth, over a very long period of time. Compound interest tends to add up, if you have a culture that can avoid the economic crises that destroy savings.

Finally, while the Simpsons remain incredibly popular, the data we have is that the series was at its best in the 1990s, so John's dyspeptic comment has some empirical vindication.

Wellstone's Wake

 

To tell you the truth, I was not greatly offended by the pre-election memorial service for the late Senator Wellstone of Minnesota. That was the one that turned into a political rally at which Republican dignitaries were booed, including Wellstone's colleagues from the Senate. The family was actually being tactful when they asked that Vice President Dick Cheney not attend. Paul Wellstone had his merits, among which was a fierce-but-fair partisan temper. A wake that consisted of a rally of 20,000 Democratic activists would have been just what he wanted.

The problem was that it was not what the voters in Minnesota wanted. Had the memorial service been held three weeks before the election instead of just one, the odor of rancor would have dissipated, and the candidacy of senator-emeritus Walter Mondale would certainly have benefited from the boost that the event gave to the morale of the faithful. As it was, people voted on the basis of their exposure to real politics, rather than to the smooth marketing of a normal campaign. The irony, as more commentators than I have noted, is that the memorial rally not only won the election for the Republican, Norm Coleman, it also lost the Democrats control of the US Senate.

 

* * *

Does this really tell us anything about the state of the Democratic Party? Some people made merry at the Democrats' expense, pointing out that both of the emergency replacement candidates for Senate races in 2002 were old, very old, war horses. The short answer may be that, although Mondale lost, Frank Lautenberg won in New Jersey, beating the invincibly obscure Republican, Douglas Forrester. (As we say in New Jersey, Forrester is such a bad campaigner he could not even get indicted in this state.) Personally, I think that it is something of an asset to a party to have a supply of old geezers in the freezer, in case something goes wrong. Real morbidity is when you nominate the geezer in the first instance, as the Republicans did with Bob Dole in 1996.

The problem with the Democratic Party is that it is getting, well, wistful. We see this in the alternative universe to which so many Democrats have retreated, the NBC show The West Wing. In last night's episode, President Josiah Bartlet humiliated his stupid Republican opponent with the Southwestern accent, racking up huge gains in Congress amidst subplots about the difficulties of voter registration. Probably, when the episode was written, the producers expected that it would mark the beginning of a reconvergence of their alternative universe with the real world; hardly anyone expected the Republicans to do as well as they did last Tuesday. As it was, the show was an instance of instant nostalgia

Christian Slater put in his first appearance, by the way, as a naval officer assigned to the White House. He joins Lily Tomlin, who is now President Bartlet's lovable dragon-lady secretary. When Mr. Rogers becomes Secretary of State, we will know that the time has come for NBC to find a replacement.

 

* * *

A more serious example of the Democratic disconnect was also offered around election day, by New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. In a strange column entitled "American Idol," Friedman describes the huge, enthusiastic reception that Bill Clinton received on his recent visit to Berlin. Friedman argues that America and Americans are not unpopular in Europe these days. Europeans continue to admire American optimism, as represented by the former president, even as they patronize it. Their dissatisfaction is confined to the grumpy old Republicans who happen to run the United States today. The Republicans, Friedman argues, are practicing just the sort of Realpolitik that the Europeans so recently outgrew, and which they therefore loathe. He implies that the way for America to endear itself to Europe is to wear a Clintonian face.

You don't have to be a Clinton-hater to suspect that there was something a little perverse about presenting Bill Clinton as the model American abroad, just as election returns were showing that the candidates lost for whom he had campaigned heavily. (Peggy Noonan called the effect "The Clinton Thud.") There really is a stratum of the Democratic Party that is best understood as a section of "transnational society" ("tranzies," for short) who will not be happy until there is some authority they can appeal to above the heads of the American voter. Such an attitude cannot be good for any democratic party (note lower case).

 

* * *

And what of the Republicans? There has long been an assumption (which I sometimes shared) that Republicans do better when turnout is lower. That was not the case with the recent elections, however. Turnout last Tuesday was about 39%, up two points from the admittedly dismal 37% of 1998, the last midterm election. The higher turnout was largely the product of a few, highly contested races. The most important of these was the reelection campaign of the president's brother, Governor Jeb Bush of Florida. The Republicans won that race, as well as most of the other high-profile races around the country. This makes it hard to argue that the Republican gains were the result of public apathy.

There is no point in getting elected if you have no ideas about governing. The elder President Bush did not understand that, but his son George W. Bush does. One may like or dislike his agenda, but he does have one, and it is far from merely symbolic. The great merit of the current Administration is that it understands that the chief focus in this era must be national security. That said, though, the Administration also needs to be cured of the illusion that the whole of fiscal policy consists of tax relief, and that the whole of tax relief is lowering the capital-gains tax. A demand-side tax cut is in order. They should talk to Senator Corzine of New Jersey; I am sure he would be happy to talk to them.

The Republicans should also reconcile themselves to the fact that some form of universal health insurance is inevitable. It can be done well or badly. If it happens under a Democratic Administration, it will be a perpetual subsidy for the psychiatric industry and for Planned Parenthood. If the Republicans do it, it can be a manageable catastrophic-illness program that will remove much of the pressure on private insurers for higher premiums. The president has only to broach the matter to deprive the Democrats of 60% of their agenda.

Then there is the matter of election reform. Living as I do in a largely Democratic state, I am keenly aware that the Electoral College is a perverse incentive. George W. Bush lost the popular vote in 2000 because, logically enough, he campaigned to win the electoral vote. This meant concentrating on lightly peopled states in the Midwest, while the Republican Party in states such as California and New Jersey were left to their own feeble devices. This neglect is hard to make up for during midterm elections. Even with the recent Republican successes, the campaigns that Republicans mounted in these voter-rich states were disheartening, to say the least.

I fully agree with the arguments against simply abolishing the Electoral College; imagine a very close race, and a national recount like the one in Florida in 2000. The solution, surely, is to tie the electoral votes to individual Congressional districts, and not to states. This preserves the many advantages of a winner-take-all system, while at the same time ensuring that the winner will have at least a plurality of the popular vote. We should fix this as soon as we can.

 

* * *

There is one venerable institution that deserves to be retired before it disgraces itself further. Did you see The Simpsons last Sunday? That was their eagerly awaited Halloween show, delayed after the holiday itself because the FOX network carried the World Series the Sunday before. It was not worth the wait. The writers repeated old jokes and scenarios, particularly in the middle story, in which do-gooder Lisa once again disarms Springfield just before an armed threat appears. Then there was the last story, a take-off on H.G. Wells's Island of Dr. Moreau. That had nothing to do with Halloween. In fact, none of the stories did; only the wrap-around story even featured a ghost. This is inexcusable, since several very good supernatural thrillers have appeared in the last year or two. The show is choking on film-school sensibility.

Surely the time has come for a final TV movie?

Copyright © 2002 by John J. Reilly


Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site