Lazy (but Nevertheless Mildly Enriching) Pleasures

Article excerpt

THE ABUNDANTLY celebrated authors featured in this edition of "The Good Book" are well past their prime. Indeed, two of the three are dead. The essays collected in each text respond to no contemporary crisis, break no new intellectual ground, and rely upon no cutting-edge research. One might dismiss such publications as literary frippery--of little more value, perhaps, than fictive masturbation.

In fact, I can't enthusiastically recommend any title by itself. Enjoyed as a group, however, the latest from Mark Twain (1835-1910), William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008), and Steven Weinberg (1933-) can illuminate in a way no single text--no matter how avant-garde--could. Each man, after all, was intensely engaged with the social movements, intellectual and technological achievements, and, of course, the politics of his respective era. And in quite distinctive ways, all three were obsessed with religion. They were, in other words, not so different from frequent patrons of this column.

For reasons unclear to me--perhaps only for his self-effacing if somewhat passive-aggressive wit, or perhaps only for his audacity to say what countless others were surely thinking--various and sundry pundits of religion continue to war over Twain's memory. Was he really America's Voltaire? An atheist restrained by ninteenth-century mores? Or, as a true believer to the bitter end, were Twain's piercing criticisms of religion aimed more toward individual and institutional hypocrisies than at the Christian faith itself?

Does his faith or lack thereof really matter? As S.T. Joshi observed, Twain's denouncements of religion were "harsher than those of many atheists who would follow in his wake," and that, as a consequence of "Twain's tender mercies, religion has few garments left untorn" Whatever he believed, Twain's intensely personal writings betrayed a religious preoccupation that, at times, could penetrate as deeply as it could entertain.

In volume one of editor Harriet Elinor Smith's Autobiography of Mark Twain (University of California, 2010), we find a mature intellect who, nonetheless, continued to struggle mightily with his contemporaries' ever-present religious expressions.

Twain's distaste for popular Christianity is well-represented by his 1906 recollection of John D. Rockefeller junior's "adventures in theology" A famous Bible-school preacher like his wealthy father, young Rockefeller instructed and apparently amused thousands of listeners across the nation every Monday morning. But when the nation laughed, Twain said, it was "laughing at itself." Young Rockefeller "never studied a doctrine for himself," Twain groused, and "never examined a doctrine upon its real merits." His sermons, in fact, were indistinguishable from those heard in church pulpits across the country every week, and his arguments were "already worn threadbare by the theologians of all the ages before [they] came in rags to him."

The author's scorn for the Christian ministry was as plain as a lion's fangs. But here, perhaps, his choice of critical conduits betrayed a more intense appetite for carnage. Whatever his objections to the Rockefellers' faith, the author utterly detested their money. Indeed, he seemed to resent young John's sermons concerning the elimination of all obstructions to personal salvation precisely because he judged his father's vast riches to epitomize such obstructions.

Also in 1906, Twain seized the opportunity to comment on a recent battle--10 "slaughter," as he stamped it--initiated by U.S. troops against the Moros of the Philippines. After a day and a half, the Americans had completely annihilated the tribe, "leaving not even a baby alive to cry for its dead mother." Apparently, General Leonard Wood had given his soldiers the option to capture or kill, and, in the immoderate custom of "Christian butchers," the soldiers chose the latter.

All of which prompted Theodore Roosevelt to pen a nippy letter of congratulations to Wood, who had lost only fifteen men during the affair, for their "brilliant feat of arms. …