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Book Review: Strangers In A Strange Land (Charles Chaput)

This is a self-help book.  I don’t mean it’s to be found in the bookstore under the sign “Self-Help,” where people gather to remake their lives by unlocking the secret of costless auto-regeneration.  Rather, this is a self-help book because it, like the famous Kitchener poster, points at the reader and says, “You—there is a problem, and you are the solution.”  Of course, since the author, Charles Chaput, is a bishop (and an archbishop at that), and this is not Pelagianism, the reader is not expected to act in isolation, but with the guidance and help of God.  He is to act nonetheless, and much hinges on what he does.

There has been a spate of books in late 2016 and early 2017 focused on the theme of Christian regeneration.  The theme is both broader and narrower than that, really.  Broader in that it encompasses not only Christians, but any group of people with a transcendent moral vision, compatible with the culture of the West, who believe in both objective reality and objective morality.  Most, but not all, of these people are orthodox Christians, but they could be agnostic or pagan.  Broader, also, in that it encompasses cultural renewal beyond the purely religious.   Narrower, because its main focus is a subset of most of what people call or think of as “Christian.”  After all, what most “Christians” today profess bears little resemblance to the historical reality of Christian belief, which they either deny or ignore, in favor of something content-free, guilt-free, and reward-free:  the Snackwells of religion, Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.

Strangers in a Strange Land is explicitly Catholic in its orientation and little focused on specific political issues.  And it is suffused with hope—not optimism, as Chaput makes clear, but with a joyful hope and confidence.  Nearly ten years ago, Chaput wrote Render Unto Caesar, where he called for renewed Catholic (and Christian) activity in the public sphere.  Since then, the juggernaut of left-liberal worship of autonomic individualism has ground onward, most recently in the Supreme Court’s Obergefell decision rejecting the idea that standards of sexual morality can be based in anything other than malice, and like the original Juggernaut of Hindu processions, it crushes humans under its wheels.  The space for Christian public participation is thus smaller now than it was then.  But Chaput is the first to admit that it is not just our overlords, but our whole society, that has adopted a new definition of what it means to be human—namely, nothing in particular at all, except our own unfettered pursuit of whatever catches our fancy.

Chaput, naturally, espouses the opposite view: that as humans, we are not always remaking ourselves, but that there is such a thing as “authentically human,” and it is knowable.  And, since his earlier book, what is new in society is that his position, always the position of our culture since the beginning, is now stigmatized and punished by both society and government, a trend Chaput believes will continue.  Nonetheless, he still counsels hope and action—but with less focus on action in the public sphere, and more on our private action, by ourselves and in our communities.  But, like I say, this is self-help book, and that implies each of us taking responsibility for where we are as well as where we are going.  Chaput points the finger not so much at government as at us.  He cites Augustine to the effect “it’s no use complaining about the times, because we are the times.”  (In some ways, this book, and the genre, are perhaps too narrowly focused.  As Chaput notes, Christianity is exploding around the globe, even in China, and it is not the desiccated, enervated faith found even in most Catholics in the West.  But that doesn’t help our culture.)

I think this is an excellent, valuable book.  However, as a self-help book to solve the problems it identifies, it falls somewhat short.  On the other hand, it succeeds as a book of informative essays about Christian regeneration and the role of Christians in our society as it is today.  Moreover, it is a an excellent introduction to a wide range of important thinkers, both secular (a very wide range, from Tocqueville to Tolkein) and religious (Chaput extensively cites both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis).

As a self-help book the problem is that it is not unified enough—a real call to action pushes or pulls the reader through, each section either coming at the issue from a different angle or furthering conclusions from prior sections, so that the net effect is like John Henry’s hammer.  Strangers in a Strange Land sometimes feels a bit academic and disjointed—it is really a series of essays, and within each essay, sometimes it lacks adequate focus.  For example, in an early chapter on how we got where we are culturally, and why we can’t go back, Chaput jumps from the failure of immigrants to remain Catholic (or even Christian), to the costs of geographic mobility, to the costs of technology, to a discussion of the social differences between a society of production and a society of consumption in the thinking of Zygmunt Bauman—all in the space of six pages, ending the chapter.  The next chapter is a rumination on home, pulling together the Bible, the Wizard of Oz, The Magician’s Nephew, The Silmarillion, and much more, to serve the thesis that we are idol worshipers, of the false god of progress, for which we forsake recognition of a higher purpose of humanity.  This is all very good.  But each chapter does not follow from, or really fit with except in a general sense, any other chapter.  Yes, someone interested in the theme of Christian regeneration can read all the chapters with profit.  But the revivalist spirit of an outstanding self-help book is lacking.

This book is also an entry in another, related genre—questioning whether the entire American political experiment is a failure, and was doomed to failure from the start due to the hidden poison in its premises.  Prior to modern times, democracy was always held to be the worst form of government.  The American founding combined a type of democracy with extensive personal freedoms and attendant structural limitations, to create a new type of government in the hope of limiting the vices inherent in previous forms.  The American Republic seemed successful, but astute observers such as Tocqueville early predicted that the system would lead both to continual erosion of any limit on the individual’s will, especially of limits that “create bonds and duties among citizens,” and, just as importantly, to a concomitant rise in the power and despotism of the state, which would replace the organic structures of society with obeisance to the state, the power of which would be directed more and more against any who would suggest limits to human freedom, especially religions.  A line of thinkers, mostly cited by Chaput, has developed these thoughts, starting in the 20th Century with Robert Nisbet, but as our culture has decayed in the direction predicted, more and more thinkers have latched onto this pessimistic view.  In this book, though, the focus is (naturally) more on religion than on political theory, but there are clear threads of this genre in Strangers in a Strange Land.

The book is well written and easy to read.  It has twelve chapters, each of almost exactly twenty pages.  Chaput begins with an overview of the book, and then a chapter on the history of Christianity in America.  He then turns to “Why It Can’t Be Like It Was,” a corrective to those orthodox Christians (who are fewer now than they were) who think that all we need to do is get the right votes on the Supreme Court and we can have once again a society with a common, coherent moral vision.  Here, as elsewhere, the examples and authors Chaput cites are well-known—not just Obergefell, but others such as the lynch mob that attacked Memories Pizza, joined by the media and egged on by President Obama, and, less recently, the changes in society wrought by easy birth control and widespread pornography.  But Chaput’s primary focus isn’t on sexual issues (although those are important because sex “is intimately linked to how we understand ourselves as human,” which is a key theme of Chaput’s book)—it’s on how very few Christians even know what a Christian life looks like, one shaped by an actual belief in a revealed God who requires certain actions, largely because we have failed to transmit those beliefs to our children for several decades.  And this builds on itself—as the family erodes, since it serves as the main transmission of these beliefs, the problem compounds.

The first several chapters are overview and analysis; the last several are a exhortation to hope and, to a degree, a call to action.  Chaput’s basic point in the first section is, since our culture now recognizes no first principles (citing Alisdair MacIntyre’s 1981 After Virtue extensively), “The moral conflicts that permeate our public policy debates are endless and irresolvable because our culture no longer has a rational, mutually accepted way of getting to moral agreement.”  And, as a result, combined with an ever-more-extreme societal desire for atomized autonomic liberty, the government is now used to attack and destroy those who do not conform all public aspects of their personal morality to each latest moral degeneration, including by failing to adequately publicly celebrate it themselves.

In the second section, Chaput focuses on hope, a core Christian virtue, and what it implies for Christian action in today’s America.  He contrasts hope to its flip-side sins:  despair and presumption.  While he doesn’t say this explicitly, despair is the besetting vice of today’s American orthodox Christians, and presumption is the vice of today’s go-along, get-along Christians.  He finds neither appropriate.  In another chapter, Chaput contrasts the rules of Saul Alinsky with the rules of another radical:  Christ, in the Beatitudes.  This is the section in which it comes through most clearly that Chaput is, after all, a shepherd, not a political advocate or the creator of a new philosophy to remake the world.  Speaking of the “mourning” of the Beatitudes, he notes that “this is mourning as witness,” including that Christians should weep for “the man in the homeless shelter . . . the gay teenager caught between promiscuity and condemnation”—people conservatives sometimes forget, or if they don’t forget, gloss over and fail to prioritize.  Thus, hope in action is living the Beatitudes; it is growing in communion with our fellow believers.  It is not, by implication, working for a specific political party or unveiling a new set of bureaucratic initiatives for the Church.  It is living the Christian life to its fullest, in the way of the anonymous Second Century writer of the Letter to Diognetus, who wrote a chapter on “The Christians in the World”—at a time, much like ours, in which paganism was strong, though the idols today take largely different forms from that time (perhaps not that different—infanticide/abortion, sexual confusion, and euthanasia were common then too).  Christians are to live in the world, “but in their own lives [ ] go far beyond what the laws require,” showing that love for others remarked on by many non-Christian Romans.

Chaput, therefore, rejects the option “to withdraw, to shake the dust from our feet and retreat to the margins.”  He rejects this because “the world will come after us. . . . .The Church and Christian beliefs will be resented simply because they exist, they have life, and they move faithful persons to act.”  And, more importantly, “God calls us to be the soul of the world.  As the Letter to Diognetus reminds us, the task to which God calls us is to hold the world together.”  To that end, we need (citing Rod Dreher, ubiquitous in today’s such discussions) “countercultural places that we make for ourselves, together.”  But doing that, we should be certain “we don’t give up on the good still present in American society.”  And we should be politically involved to the extent necessary to protect what defenses we still have, and to “defend the truth of the human being.”  He cites Havel, who spoke of Communism, of course, but Chaput applies it to today’s Christians:  “The power of living the truth does not consist in physical strength or threats, but [as Havel said] ‘in the light it casts’ on the ‘pillars [of a mendacious] system and on its unstable foundations.’”  We should show ourselves, and evangelize, and uphold our beliefs and our culture in the public eye, while not entangling ourselves to the degree it prevents us from being “distinctly Christian and distinctly countercultural” (citing Dreher again).  This means, as Chaput quotes Flannery O’Connor, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.”  It is that oddity, in the eyes of the world, which it is necessary to make flourish.

This is all good advice, it seems to me, but it is very close to being needle-threading advice.  I think Chaput understates the degree to which, as Havel experienced, the iron fist of the state will oppose even the wholly private beliefs of Christians.  And today’s state has both power and aspirations far vaster and far more intrusive than those of Rome or even of the Communists of the mid-20th Century.  The range of today’s private sphere is vanishingly small, and Moloch is within the gates.  For people like me, who, basically, want to view themselves as Hospitallers or Templars in a new videogame: Call of Duty:  Anno Domini 1120, Chaput’s call, though certainly not wrong, seems a trifle anodyne.  “That, in the end, is our calling as Christians: to make Christ known in the world.  To hand on the hope that fills our hearts.  To work for God’s justice in our nation, honoring all that remains beautiful and good in it.  And always to do so knowing that we’re on a journey to our final homeland.”  This is all true, but it is not a clear guide to concrete action.  Maybe it is enough—but maybe we could use a bit more Pope Urban, and a bit less Pope Francis.

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