By Nathan Bierma

Content & Context

The Books & Culture Weblog

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This Week:


• "Cast behind you all conformity, and acquaint men at first hand with Deity," implored Ralph Waldo Emerson in an impolite address to the Harvard Divinity School in 1837. In one of the new volumes commemorating Emerson's 200th birthday, says John Updike in the New Yorker, this famous address is taken as an illustration of Emerson's deep–seated distaste for the Boston establishment, which he saw as steeped in sterile Unitarianism. Emerson was "a disbeliever in 'foolish consistency,' " Updike writes, and uttered the above anti–conformity credo after a devastating critique of the Church. But Updike's profile suggests Emerson's contempt was more cheerful than caustic, less a personal vendetta against his alma mater than a pursuit of—in Updike's words—"spontaneity over convention, vitality over formality, luck and newness over system." This makes it easier to appreciate Emerson even when he wandered into the nebulous environs of existentialism, worshipping "sublime thoughts" and "the active soul," waiting for "the huge world [to] come round." Full story

• Brash and brilliant, Malcolm Muggeridge led a "lifelong campaign against high–minded earnestness," writes Roger Kimball in an illuminating profile in the New Criterion. Although Muggeridge's 100th birthday this year has drawn a spurt of renewed interest in him (helped along by the reissue of Gregory Wolfe's nuanced biography, reviewed here by Christopher Hitchens), Kimball doubts it will last, and says that's too bad. "Muggeridge is a tonic force, well worth resuscitating. He could be crankish. … [But] often he was incandescently perceptive. Above all he provided an intelligent admonitory voice, a voice against the grain of received opinion, urging caution, broadcasting unwelcome truths, nudging his interlocutors beyond the warm circle of their self–absorption." Full story The profile seems to validate Muggeridge's stated ambition, as quoted in Christianity Today. "I should like my light to shine, even if only very fitfully, like a match struck in a dark, cavernous night and then flickering out."
Earlier in this weblog: Roger Kimball on Juvenal, the Roman satirist (fourth item here)

• Even before I came upon these two well–written profiles, I'd been doing some thinking about contrarians and conventional wisdom. Why is it so natural for us to admire the attitudes (if not all of the ideas) of Emerson and Muggeridge? We cheer on Emerson as he tells off his stuffy Harvard audience and Muggeridge as he belittles fatuous British politicians, even though most of us would never dream of doing so ourselves (publicly, anyway). We love our prophets for telling it like it is and turning propriety on its head. What was Christ if not the ultimate contrarian? ("You have heard … but I tell you … ") And yet my admiration is tempered by my distrust of the self–righteousness that consistent contrarianism seems to require. What kind of auto–centric universe must you live in to constantly declare, "I know better than everyone else!" Maybe it's the Calvinist in me, paralyzed by the awareness of my own brokenness, or my Midwestern predilection for modesty over mouthiness. Although we may observe too much conformity, convention, and comfort in modern society—among Christians as much as anyone, despite our supposed status as "strangers in a strange land"—we are equally repelled by the posturing prophets, the easy–answer televangelists, the know–it–all talk show hosts, and the self–absorbed artists of our day. Emerson and Muggeridge were easiest to love when they were restless for truth—hard–earned truth—more than self–promotion, when their contrarian impulses stemmed not from superiority complexes but from sheer dread of the ways humans perpetuate complacency when they organize.


From the Washington Post

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Wajih Ibrahim reveled in the smorgasbord of games before him: He shot miniature basketballs through a hoop, dashed to a nearby video game, then darted to the football table. "I've never been able to go to a place like this to have fun," the boisterous 12–year–old Palestinian gushed during a pause in his manic romp through the kiddie land of the first Western–style shopping mall in the Palestinian territories. … By American standards, the two–level Plaza shopping center that opened last month on the dusty edge of Ramallah's commercial district is modest, at best. By Palestinian measures, it is revolutionary—an oasis of civility and modernity in a desert of violence, economic devastation and psychological gloom. Full story

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