The Cross still shines


Smoke rises in front of the cross in the interior of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. A catastrophic fire engulfed the cathedral on Monday, as tourists and Parisians looked on from the streets below. —Philippe Wojazer/AP

As the world grieves the fire that ravished Notre Dame de Paris — a national treasure of France and a symbol of Western civilization — the giant cross behind the high altar in the nave stands tall, shining in the ashy darkness, which is no coincidence during Holy Week when Christians journey toward the Cross. A journalist rightly noted, “Physical structures may feel like safe, permanent homes for humanity’s history, but they are also fragile, vulnerable to human error and malice alike.” The Cross of Christ is the only artifact of history that will survive because it is the emblem of divine love. When I prayed the collect for Tuesday in Holy Week this morning, I was arrested by its providential timing:

O God, by the passion of your blessed Son you made an
instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life:
Grant us so to glory in the cross of Christ, that we may gladly
suffer shame and loss for the sake of your Son our Savior
Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



On how the mind is shaped by what you notice and how to define “success”

This morning I listened to the On Being podcast with host Krista Tippett. Her guest was Maria Popova, who Tippett calls a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova is the creator of Brain Pickings, “an inquiry into what it means to live a decent, substantive, rewarding life, and a record of [her] own becoming as a person — intellectually, creatively, spiritually — drawn from [her] extended marginalia on the search for meaning across literature, science, art, philosophy, and the various other tentacles of human thought and feeling.”

I am going to share two excerpts. The first concerns the knowing subject (humans) and the known object (the world).

Popova: We never see the world exactly as it is. We see it as we hope it will be or we fear it might be. And we spend our lives going through a sort of modified stages of grief about that realization. We deny it, and then we argue with it, and we despair over it. But eventually — and this is my belief — we come to see it, not as despairing, but as vitalizing.

We never see the world exactly as it is because we are how the world is. I think it was William James who said, “My experience is what I agree to attend to, and only those things which I notice shaped my mind.” In choosing how we are in the world, we shape our experience of that world, our contribution to it. We shape our world, our inner world, our outer world, which is really the only one we’ll ever know. And to me, that’s the substance of the spiritual journey. That’s not an exasperating idea but an infinitely emboldening one. It’s taken me many years to come to that without resistance.

The quotation from William James stuck out to me, and explains why I am a teacher. The source is Chapter XI “Attention” in Volume 1 of The Principles of Psychology:

Millions of items of the outward order are present to my sense which never properly enter into my experience. Why? Because they have no interest for me. My experience is what I agree to attend to. Only those items which I notice shape my mind — without selective interest, experience is an utter chaos. Interest alone gives accent and emphasis, light and shade, background and foreground — intelligible perspective, in a word.

As a teacher, I have agreed to attend to works of the imagination (literature) and intellect (theology). My mind is shaped by noticing items of delight and wisdom. How many people can say that about their work? If I were in the commercial world rather than the educational one, I shudder to think how my mind would be shaped by noticing items in the market.

The second excerpt I want to share concerns definition of “success” that runs counter to its usual monetization:

Tippett:  If I ask you how you measure success, like, in any given day, what comes to mind?

Popova: Once again, I am going to side with Thoreau. He said something like: ‘If the day and night are such that you greet them with joy, and life emits a fragrance like flowers, it’s more elastic and more starry and more immortal, that is your success.’ For me, that’s pretty much it: waking up and being excited and curiously restless to face the day ahead, and being very present with that day, and then going to bed feeling like it actually happened, that the day was lived.

I welcome Thoreau’s vision of success as joyful living, which reminds me about the purpose of the Incarnation, as Jesus said: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). I think success is waking up, keenly aware that “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is [his] faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23).  If I get to the end of the day, and my soul can honestly say, “The Lord was my portion,” then my day was full (3:24).

QUESTIONS: What have you agreed to attend to? What items do you habitually notice that shape your mind? How do you measure success?

The Augustinian Call vs. the Benedict Option

In his Comment review of Rusty Reno’s book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, philosopher James K. A. Smith diagnoses the ailments of America:

If “progressivism now seeks freedom from human nature itself,” Reno points out, then we “need to understand that these developments have sprung from the American dream of freedom.” If Christian conservatives in the United States are worried about a coming reign of terror, they can’t restrict blame to the infamous 60s. Autonomism is the fruit of seeds planted in the Revolution. And to his credit, Reno sees within this dream an inherent risk. “Anti-Americanism,” Reno rightly points out, “is a kind of hyper- Americanism.” The multicultural ideals that lament the looming constraints of American values and interests are another form of the revolutionary overthrow of constraints that gave birth to America. This is why we eat our own.

Yet Reno doesn’t recognize how the Right has played out a similar libertarian trajectory. While the Left has amplified the liberationist project with respect to social mores and traditional morality, the Right has undertaken its own revolutionary demolishment of constraints on capitalism, industry, and the economic habits that shaped earlier expressions of market practices. It’s precisely when the Right effectively sacralized the free market that it also turned it into an idol and fetishized “freedom” in a different form.

* * *

But Reno seems more interested in Christianity than the church, more concerned with Christian social thought than congregations. It’s telling that Reno’s proposal is to resurrect the idea of Christian society. Indeed, there is a kind of intellectualism about Reno’s project: the social renewal he imagines stems from the ideas and arguments that Christians can and ought to contribute to our public discourse—as if the resuscitation of solidarity and the common good would be the conclusion to a national argument. Thus Reno regularly calls for Christians to “speak up” for the necessity of “restoring our voices as Christian citizens.” While he should be commended for encouraging Christians to speak into public discourse from the specificity of their Christian convictions, the problems that Reno diagnoses will not be solved with ideas. North American society hasn’t been argued into its egoism; we haven’t embraced the cult of independence because we were convinced by Lockean apologetics. Our autonomism is caught more than it is taught. What we have here is not a logos problem but an ethos deficiency. And you can’t fix that with the right ideas or argument.

What we’re witnessing is the erosion of habitus, the cultural scaffolding that sustained healthy, meaningful, even prosperous lives in the past. It’s not just that society needs to be convinced by Christian ideas; it needs to be upheld and supported by the habits we used to learn in the church.

How, then, should the church respond to “the erosion of habitus“? In his Comment essay, “The Benedict Option or the Augustinian Call?”, Smith considers two ancient options for the contemporary church: the former involves separation from the world, whereas the latter involves integration with the world—but not accommodation. Each option has its scriptural foundations.

For the Benedict Option, we could quote the apostle Paul, who urged Christians to avoid godlessness in the last days:

But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people. For among them are those who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth. Just as Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these men also oppose the truth, men corrupted in mind and disqualified regarding the faith. But they will not get very far, for their folly will be plain to all, as was that of those two men.

You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:1-15)

For the Augustinian Call, we could quote the prophet Jeremiah, who exhorted exiled Jews to serve the welfare of the city during their Babylonian captivity:

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Do not let your prophets and your diviners who are among you deceive you, and do not listen to the dreams that they dream, for it is a lie that they are prophesying to you in my name; I did not send them, declares the Lord.

“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart. I will be found by you, declares the Lord, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, declares the Lord, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile. (Jeremiah 29:4-14)

In my estimation, Smith makes a persuasive defense of the Augustinian Call. Here is a key excerpt from his essay that should be read in its entirety:

In the treasure trove of Augustine’s letters, you’ll find a remarkable, ongoing correspondence with a man named Boniface, a Roman general and governor in North Africa. At one point in his career—embattled, bitter, despairing—Boniface is tempted to abandon his post, withdraw from public responsibility, and take up a kind of monastic life. Given that Augustine founded monastic communities and wrote his own Rule, Boniface probably expected his plan to receive an encouraging reply from the aging bishop in Hippo. Instead, Augustine counsels him to remain in his post as a matter of divine calling. While some are called to lives of chastity and perfect continence and cloistered devotion, Augustine notes, “Each person, as the apostle says, has his own gift from God, one this gift, another that (1 Cor. 7:7). Hence others fight invisible enemies by praying for you; you struggle against visible barbarians by fighting for them.” His counsel is rooted in an eschatological caution: “Because in this world it is necessary that the citizens of the kingdom of heaven suffer temptation among those who are in error and are wicked so that they may be exercised and put to the test like gold in a furnace,” Augustine says, “we ought not to want to live ahead of time with only the saints and the righteous.” Augustine’s admonition not to “live ahead of time” is his way of saying: Don’t fall for the temptation of a realized eschatology. We pray “thy kingdom come” among those who oppose it. Indeed, it’s a prayer we can tend to forget when we dwell “with only the saints and the righteous.”

When this temptation to withdraw haunted Boniface again and he again wanted to abandon public life and retreat to a monastery to devote himself to “holy leisure,” Augustine continued to counsel otherwise. “What held you back from doing this,” Augustine reminds him, “except that you considered, when we pointed it out, how much what you were doing was benefitting the churches of Christ? You were acting with this intention alone, namely, that they might lead a quiet and tranquil life, as the apostle says, in all piety and chastity (1 Tim. 2:2), defended from the attacks of the barbarians.” Augustine the pastor is mounting a theological case for the Roman general to man his station, do his job, be faithful as count and governor. Whatever disputes or frustrations Boniface might have with Rome, he still owes a debt: “If the Roman empire has given you good things,” Augustine says, “albeit earthly and transitory ones, because it is earthly, not heavenly, and cannot give save what it has in its control—if, then it has conferred good things upon you, do not repay evil with evil.” In these letters we hear something of Augustine’s hopes for Boniface and those like him: the hope for faithful agents of the coming kingdom who answer the call to public life and administer the common good in this saeculum of our waiting.

In a sense, Boniface could be our contemporary. He lives in a fractured political context—he’s literally fighting barbarians—in which paganism still holds sway, whatever the emperor might think. What does it look like to follow Christ in such a world?

* * *

The Augustinian counsel of stability is an admonishment to stay in the mix of things, among those in error—to inhabit our callings in what Augustine called the permixtum of the saeculum, the mixed-up-ness of the time between cross and kingdom come.


Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry


I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called, “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry” (2017), from executive producers Robert Redford and Terence Malick. Wendell Berry is a Kentucky farmer, conservationist, poet, novelist, and essayist, renowned for pioneering the new agrarian movement, which he defines below in The Land Magazine:

There is another way to live and think and it’s called agrarianism. It is not so much a philosophy as a practice, an attitude, a loyalty, and a passion – all based in close connection with the land. It results in a sound local economy in which producers and consumers are neighbors and in which nature herself becomes the standard for work and production.

David Skinner wrote this about the man in 2012 when he won the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Jefferson Prize:

For many of us, daily life is not an exercise in conviction. Our actions part ways from our ideals. In moments of weakness, we yield, like tall grass in a strong wind, to forces beyond our control. What others say, we accept. What happens to be on sale, we buy. What we actually think and believe is less a factor in how we live.

At seventy-seven years old, Wendell Berry continues as a great contrary example to the compromises others take in stride. Instead of being at odds with his conscience, he is at odds with his times. Cheerful in dissent, he writes to document and defend what is being lost to the forces of modernization, and to explain how he lives and what he thinks.

He is the sum of his beliefs. And those beliefs arise from a longstanding tradition most fully expressed in the American family farm, a self-sustaining economic enterprise that reinforced familial bonds and human obligations to the natural environment. The word husbandry, in his usage, combines the commitments of a spouse with the responsibilities of the farmer to his land and his animals. And what care the farmer bestows on the land and his livestock may even be reciprocated in due time.

Berry is more than a naturalist. He personifies an American school of thought that was notable, but also contested, in the founding generation. In the debate that set Thomas Jefferson against Alexander Hamilton—and rural farms against cities, and agriculture against banking interests—Berry stands with Jefferson. He stands for local culture and the small family farmer, for yeoman virtues and an economic and political order that is modest enough for its actions and rationales to be discernible. Government, he believes, should take its sense of reality from the ground beneath our feet and from our connections with our fellow human beings. And it should have a better sense of proportion: Its solutions should be equal to its problems and should not beget other problems.

Listen to NPR’s interview the creator of the documentary, Laura Dunn, “The Gospel According to Wendell Berry.” The cinematically appealing trailer to the film has a voice-over with Berry reading his poem, “The Timbered Choir” (see the text below).

The Timbered Choir

Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.

Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.

The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the ground and covered over.

Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.

Secondary Sources

  • Ragan Sutterfield, Wendell Berry and the Given Life
  • Mark T. Mitchell and Nathan Schlueter (editors), The Human Vision of Wendell Berry
  • J. Matthew Bonzo and Michael R. Stevens, Wendell Berry and the Cultivation of Life: A Reader’s Guide
  • Joel James Shuman and L. Roger Owens (editors), Wendell Berry and Religion: Heaven’s Earthly Life
  • Joseph R. Wiebe, The Place of Imagination: Wendell Berry and the Poetics of Community, Affection, and Identity

Living in the time of Trump

Marco Grob.jpg

Photograph by Marco Grob

Since the 2016 presidential election, nothing has provoked more needful thought than the following essays on living in the time of Trump.

ABC: Religion & Ethics (March 31, 2017)
A Sanctuary Politics: Being the Church in the Time of Trump (PDF)
by Stanley Hauerwas and Jonathan Tran

Christians in America can no longer differentiate between America and God – something scripture calls idolatry, which is precisely what President Trump wants of Americans.

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
When Character No Longer Counts (PDF)
by Alan Jacobs

One of the most surprising developments of the 2016 election was the wholesale abandonment by many conservative Christians of a position they once held almost unanimously: In politics, character counts. But if character no longer counts, what criteria should matter to Christian voters assessing potential leaders?

National Affairs (Spring 2017)
A New Awakening (PDF)
by George Weigel

Since election day, Americans of all political persuasions have been asking themselves two questions: What happened? And now what? The answers will be found only if we dig into the subsoil from which our present discontents have emerged. The challenges we face are far more than economic or even political. To overcome our moral-cultural crisis, we will need a new Great Awakening.

The ancient humoural system


Diagram from Noga Arikha’s Passions and Tempers. Read about the four humours.

In The Discarded Image, C. S. Lewis wrote, “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place.’ Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight.” This systematizing impulse was made possible, I submit, because the medieval man had discovered the writings of Aristotle, arguably the first thinker in the West who possessed what Lewis calls an “intense love of system.”

On the Myers & Briggs Type Indicator, the “fourth preference pair describes how you like to live your outer life – what are the behaviors others tend to see? Do you prefer a more structured and decided lifestyle (Judging) or a more flexible and adaptable lifestyle (Perceiving)?” I test as a “P”, which means that I am not constitutionally disposed to systematizing like a “J.” Perceivers are like jazz artists, insofar as we improvise based on a score rather than adhere rigidly to it. It would be mistake to think that perceivers are disinterested in systems. For example, I am fascinated by the ancient system of four humours, and continually trying to learn more about this typology and to discern its fittingness within Christian living. These two books come highly recommended:

  • Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the HumoursThis is “the first book ever to recount the full history in the West of the system of the four humours – blood, phlegm, choler, melancholy – fluids within the organism that, for 2500 years, were deemed to determine health and illness, mood and temperament. It takes the reader from ancient Greece to today`s world, via the middle ages, the Renaissance, the era of scientific revolutions, the period of the Enlightenment, and the beginning of neuroscience in the 19th century. The humoural system theoretically disappeared with the advent of modern medicine, but Passions and Tempers describes the surprising and fascinating guises it takes in our day.” The author is “a historian of ideas, particularly interested in the relation between mind and body, and in helping to bridge the divide between the sciences and the humanities.” (See website for book).
  • Art and Laraine Bennett, The Temperament God Gave You. “All of us are born with distinct personality traits. Some of us live for crowds and parties; others seek solitude and time for quiet reflection. Some of us are naturally pushy, while others are content just to get along. We don’t pick and choose these traits; they’re just part of the way we’re made. For in the womb God doesn’t merely mold our body; He also gives us the temperament that, all our days, colors our understanding, guides our choices, and serves as the foundation of our moral and spiritual life. Ancient philosophers identified four basic temperaments, and over the centuries, countless wise souls have used these four to understand human nature. Now comes The Temperament God Gave You, the first Catholic book on the subject in 70 years. Here veteran Catholic counselor Art Bennett and his wife Laraine provide an accessible synthesis of classical wisdom, modern counseling science, and Catholic spirituality: a rich understanding of the temperaments and what they mean for you and for your family. Drawing on decades of study, prayer, and practical experience, Art and Laraine show you how to identify your own temperament and use it to become what God is calling you to be: a loving spouse, an effective parent, and a good friend. Best of all, they give you a Catholic understanding of the four temperaments that will bring you closer to God and help you discover the path to holiness that’s right for you.” (See the temperament indicator from book).

I took the Temperament Quiz based on Art & Laraine Bennett’s book and my results were surprising. I always thought of myself as a sanguine-choleric but on this particular test I come up as a melancholic-phlegmatic, which may indicate that there is a gap between my self-perception and reality or, alternatively, my temperament has undergone some transformation over the years. The unexpected outcome may also indicate that systems have limited value, and no human being, in his or her full-orbed complexity, can or should be pigeonholed. Take the quiz and share your results with me through the above website.

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Royally ugly

Even though I am a monarchist in my politics, I am not a royal watcher of the House of Windsor—unless Netflix’s The Crown qualifies. Nonetheless, I could not pass up on sharing a photograph of the royal family donned in ugly Christmas sweaters, thanks to Madame Tussauds London. In case you think the family looks a bit fake, they are . . . wax figures.


Cultivating a cultural imagination

From the Center for Faith & Work: “… where my soul is floodlit by light which space cannot contain, where there is sound that time cannot seize, where there is a perfume which no breeze disperses, where there is a taste for food no amount of eating can lessen, and where there is a bond of union that no satiety can part. That is what I love when I love my God.” – Augustine

All human beings long for transcendence. The yearning for something holy, something higher than what we currently experience or know, can be the spark for so much of our work. But if that longing isn’t active, if our imagination atrophies and we can no longer see the unseen, work can seem meaningless. So how does the imagination stay active? And how does our common longing for what’s transcendent shape communities and industries? Author and cultural commentator David Brooks sheds new light on the reality of our common longings and the hope that it bears for our society.

David Brooks became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in September 2003. He is currently a commentator on “The PBS Newshour,” NPR’s “All Things Considered” and NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He is the author of Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense. In March of 2011 he came out with his third book, The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement, which was a number 1 New York Times bestseller.

Proust Questionnaire

French essayist and novelist Marcel Proust filled out a questionnaire at age 13 and then at age 20, which is known called the Proust questionnaire. The 19th century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Proust was believed to reveal an individual’s true nature.

  1. What is your idea of perfect happiness?Proust
  2. What is your greatest fear?
  3. What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?
  4. What is the trait you most deplore in others?
  5. Which living person do you most admire?
  6. What is your greatest extravagance?
  7. What is your current state of mind?
  8. What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
  9. On what occasion do you lie?
  10. What do you most dislike about your appearance?
  11. Which living person do you most despise?
  12. What is the quality you most like in a man?
  13. What is the quality you most like in a woman?
  14. Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
  15. What or who is the greatest love of your life?
  16. When and where were you happiest?
  17. Which talent would you most like to have?
  18. If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
  19. What do you consider your greatest achievement?
  20. If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?
  21. Where would you most like to live?
  22. What is your most treasured possession?
  23. What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?
  24. What is your favorite occupation?
  25. What is your most marked characteristic?
  26. What do you most value in your friends?
  27. Who are your favorite writers?
  28. Who is your hero of fiction?
  29. Which historical figure do you most identify with?
  30. Who are your heroes in real life?
  31. What are your favorite names?
  32. What is it that you most dislike?
  33. What is your greatest regret?
  34. How would you like to die?
  35. What is your motto?


The great god Gun

PhotoAs a foreigner in the Lone State State, I have observed that many Texans cling to their guns with a disturbing religious zeal. My casual observation now finds articulation in a searing meditation by Pulitzer Prize-winning author, journalist and historian Garry Wills, who now holds the Alonzo L. McDonald Family Chair on the Life and Teachings of Jesus and Their Impact on Culture at Emory.

Few crimes are more harshly forbidden in the Old Testament than sacrifice to the god Moloch (for which see Leviticus 18.21, 20.1-5). The sacrifice referred to was of living children consumed in the fires of offering to Moloch. Ever since then, worship of Moloch has been the sign of a deeply degraded culture. Ancient Romans justified the destruction of Carthage by noting that children were sacrificed to Moloch there. Milton represented Moloch as the first pagan god who joined Satan’s war on humankind:

First Moloch, horrid king, besmear’d with blood
Of human sacrifice, and parents’ tears,
Though for the noise of Drums and Timbrels loud
Their children’s cries unheard, that pass’d through fire
To his grim idol. (Paradise Lost 1.392-96)

Read again those lines, with recent images seared into our brains—“besmeared with blood” and “parents’ tears.” They give the real meaning of what happened at Sandy Hook Elementary School Friday morning. That horror cannot be blamed just on one unhinged person. It was the sacrifice we as a culture made, and continually make, to our demonic god. We guarantee that crazed man after crazed man will have a flood of killing power readily supplied him. We have to make that offering, out of devotion to our Moloch, our god. The gun is our Moloch. We sacrifice children to him daily—sometimes, as at Sandy Hook, by directly throwing them into the fire-hose of bullets from our protected private killing machines, sometimes by blighting our children’s lives by the death of a parent, a schoolmate, a teacher, a protector. Sometimes this is done by mass killings (eight this year), sometimes by private offerings to the god (thousands this year).

The gun is not a mere tool, a bit of technology, a political issue, a point of debate. It is an object of reverence. Devotion to it precludes interruption with the sacrifices it entails. Like most gods, it does what it will, and cannot be questioned. Its acolytes think it is capable only of good things. It guarantees life and safety and freedom. It even guarantees law. Law grows from it. Then how can law question it?

Its power to do good is matched by its incapacity to do anything wrong. It cannot kill. Thwarting the god is what kills. If it seems to kill, that is only because the god’s bottomless appetite for death has not been adequately fed. The answer to problems caused by guns is more guns, millions of guns, guns everywhere, carried openly, carried secretly, in bars, in churches, in offices, in government buildings. Only the lack of guns can be a curse, not their beneficent omnipresence.

Adoration of Moloch permeates the country, imposing a hushed silence as he works his will. One cannot question his rites, even as the blood is gushing through the idol’s teeth. The White House spokesman invokes the silence of traditional in religious ceremony. “It is not the time” to question Moloch. No time is right for showing disrespect for Moloch.

The fact that the gun is a reverenced god can be seen in its manifold and apparently resistless powers. How do we worship it? Let us count the ways:

1. It has the power to destroy the reasoning process. It forbids making logical connections. We are required to deny that there is any connection between the fact that we have the greatest number of guns in private hands and the greatest number of deaths from them. Denial on this scale always comes from or is protected by religious fundamentalism. Thus do we deny global warming, or evolution, or biblical errancy. Reason is helpless before such abject faith.

2. It has the power to turn all our politicians as a class into invertebrate and mute attendants at the shrine. None dare suggest that Moloch can in any way be reined in without being denounced by the pope of this religion, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre, as trying to destroy Moloch, to take away all guns. They whimper and say they never entertained such heresy. Many flourish their guns while campaigning, or boast that they have themselves hunted “varmints.” Better that the children die or their lives be blasted than that a politician should risk an election against the dread sentence of NRA excommunication.

3. It has the power to distort our constitutional thinking. It says that the right to “bear arms,” a military term, gives anyone, anywhere in our country, the power to mow down civilians with military weapons. Even the Supreme Court has been cowed, reversing its own long history of recognizing that the Second Amendment applied to militias. Now the court feels bound to guarantee that any every madman can indulge his “religion” of slaughter. Moloch brooks no dissent, even from the highest court in the land.

Though LaPierre is the pope of this religion, its most successful Peter the Hermit, preaching the crusade for Moloch, was Charlton Heston, a symbol of the Americanism of loving guns. I have often thought that we should raise a statue of Heston at each of the many sites of multiple murders around our land. We would soon have armies of statues, whole droves of Heston acolytes standing sentry at the shrines of Moloch dotting the landscape. Molochism is the one religion that can never be separated from the state. The state itself bows down to Moloch, and protects the sacrifices made to him. So let us celebrate the falling bodies and rising statues as a demonstration of our fealty, our bondage, to the great god Gun.

The New York Review of Books: Our Moloch