While We're at It. (the Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life)
* There will of course be more in these pages on the Zelman v. Simmons-Harris decision handed down by the Supreme Court this term. As is not infrequently the case, it was a close vote (5-4) but that in no way diminishes its potential, and indeed almost certain, implications for the future. Of course Zelman is an enormous boost for the proponents of parental choice in education and especially for poor families such as those in Cleveland who had previously been confined to the thoroughly rotten system of government schooling. The approval of vouchers that parents can use in any available school, including religious schools, does not mean that the battle for parental choice is won. In every state the formidable forces defending the status quo, notably the teachers' unions, can be counted upon to obstruct educational freedom every step of the way. But with Zelman the long and dreary history of antireligious (mainly anti-Catholic) discrimination in education, based on a twisted reading of the no-establishment provision of the Religion Clause, has been, at least in principle, rejected. Therein lies the historic significance of the decision, a significance that reaches far beyond education, as important as educational freedom undoubtedly is. But, as I say, more on these matters later.
* This will come as something of a surprise to people who have known Norman Podhoretz as a writer of sharp-edged political and cultural criticism. In his thirty-five years as editor of Commentary, through hundreds of articles and a shelf of books, he has been both acclaimed and derided as a champion of polemics without apology. Now he has produced a big (almost four hundred pages) and remarkable book of a very different genre, The Prophets: Who They Were, What They Are (Free Press). Not that the book is devoid of polemics, but it is more importantly a work of love that puts one in mind of what Alan Jacobs in a recent book calls the hermeneutics of love (see Public Square, June/July). In writing as an "amateur," a lover of the Hebrew Bible, Podhoretz resumes an affair of his youth when he studied Hebrew literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary and, later, was a protege of literary giants such as F. R. Leavis and Lionel Trilling. Podhoretz has immersed himself in the vast literature, both Jewish and Christian, on the prophets, but wears his learning lightly as he speaks about the prophets in his own voice and with a sense of fresh discovery that carries the reader along on a journey through the history of Israel that combines narrative force, literary appreciation, and a bracing application of the prophetic message to our own time. Informed but not intimidated by the academic experts, Podhoretz frames the story around several arguments that some will consider controversial. First, he says that all the prophets, and indeed all the writers of the Hebrew Bible, must be understood as engaged in a war against idolatry. This he says against scholars who contend that the later (he prefers "classical") prophets invented a monotheism unknown to the likes of Abraham and Moses. Second, he persuasively argues--against a long history of liberal interpretation--that the prophets did not pit morality against ritual or the prophetic against the priestly. Third--and this against the same liberal interpretation--the prophets do not represent a breakthrough from tribal "particularism" to "universalism." Rather, the reality and promise of the universal is to be discovered in the particular of the Jewish people. The book concludes with a convincing description of the revival of pagan idolatries in our time, underscoring the abiding pertinence of the prophets. Regrettable in my view is the cursory dismissal of the continuing entanglement of Judaism and Christianity that has engaged the attention of both Jewish and Christian thinkers in the last hundred years (see my "`Salvation Is from the Jews,'" FT, November 2001). For Podhoretz--as for many Christian thinkers in the liberal tradition he criticizes--Christianity is simply another religion based on Paul's rejection of the law. That position raises questions of monumental complexity and importance for the identity of both Judaism and Christianity, and for the relationship between Christians and Jews, that deserve better than Podhoretz's abrupt and apodictic rejectionism. With respect to the unbridgeable chasm between Judaism and Christianity, Podhoretz is a Jewish Schleiermacher. Nonetheless, The Prophets is a notable achievement that can be read, also by Christians, with great benefit and enjoyment. I do not remember a telling of the story that so gripped my attention since as a young seminarian I read John Bright's A History of Israel. Incidentally, but of relevance to endless debates about translations, Podhoretz makes a strong case for the King James Version as best representing in English the nuances of Hebrew prose and poetry. Although, in light of more recent discoveries, he departs from the KJV on occasion, he comes close to suggesting that the king's men were inspired. Of such are the many instructive charms and provocative contentions of The Prophets.
* Many subscribers say they read every word of every issue, but I expect that even the most zealous sometimes skip the masthead. In that event, they will have missed the news that Dr. Timothy George has joined the editorial board. Dr. George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, did both his masters and doctorate at Harvard University and is a church historian of distinction who has held important positions with the Southern Baptist Convention. He is also an invaluable partner in the ongoing project "Evangelicals and Catholics Together." He and his wife Denise have two children. We are privileged to have him on our editorial board.
* Whatever happened to the mandatum? I recognize the possibility that you have not asked that question lately, what with all the other problems afflicting the Catholic Church, but it's a question worth asking. Recall that in 1990 John Paul II set forth a vision for the renewal of Catholic higher education in Ex Corde Ecclesiae (from the heart of the Church), and it took ten years for …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: While We're at It. (the Public Square: A Continuing Survey of Religion and Public Life). Contributors: Not available. Magazine title: First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life. Publication date: October 2002. Page number: 101+. © 2009 Institute on Religion and Public Life. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.