Less than the Least

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August 2008 Archives

August 3, 2008

Living In Between--Stuntz

Since my films are now clear, my oncologist tells me that I have a good shot at living for what seems like a long time: my five-year survival odds are in the 25-30% range, if I understand the data correctly. Those odds are much higher than anyone with metastatic colon cancer has any right to expect—for which I’m very grateful. It may sound strange, but I’m a very lucky guy, as my cancer patient friends know well.

The news isn’t all good. If I’m not in that happy 25-30%, my life expectancy is two years, maybe a little less. Apparently, the mortality curve for someone in my situation is not a bell curve with a long tail, as I had assumed. Instead, the curve has two humps: one that begins in about a year and a half (again, if I understand the relevant data), and another one several years later. Odds are, cancer will either get me soon, or not for a long time.

In the meantime, I seem to be nearing the end of the treatment road, at least until the cancer pops up again. Chemo begins in a little over two weeks, and will last for a few months. Then, I wait. If and when the cancer comes back—probably in my lungs, since it’s already been there—chances are, it won’t be treatable.

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August 5, 2008

Solzhenitsyn--Stuntz

Sixty years ago, Joseph Stalin was the most powerful man in the world: not only was he the absolute ruler of one of the world’s two superpowers; he led a movement that seemed about to take the world by storm. Sixty years ago, China was falling; the next year, Mao would proclaim the People’s Republic. Sixty years ago, Jan Masaryk fell—or was pushed—from a bathroom window in Prague, and Czechs’ freedom died with him. Individual freedom seemed a small idea; it was the age of the powerful state. Orwell saw that, and described the future that beckoned in “1984,” published sixty years ago: a future of Big Brothers ruling over billions of drones.

Sixty years ago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was one of those drones: one more inmate in one more camp lost in the middle of the world’s largest empire, ruler of its largest prison system. To the state that punished him for an inopportune comment about its leader, Solzhenitsyn must have seemed a surpassingly trivial creature: not even important enough to kill, in a time and place where killing was routine.

Yet it was this solitary man at the bottom of the world’s most brutal pecking order who shaped the future. Stalin’s world is as dead as the dictator himself. Solzhenitsyn’s lives, because Solzhenitsyn lived. Freedom won, because this one man decided to write the truth. One free mind proved more powerful than Stalin’s massive state, more powerful than any state. States, armies, even gulags are temporary things. Individual souls endure. Thanks be to God for this one.

August 10, 2008

Judge Not!--Skeel

Like many Americans, I spent the weekend judging John Edwards. Edwards’ presidential campaign was steeped in morality-- a populist condemnation of the rich and a promise to fight for those left behind. In retrospect, his judgment on the wealthy looks like a case of seeing the speck in others’ eyes without recognizing the log in his own, exactly the kind of self righteousness that Jesus warned against in Matthew 7:1-5. (The full passage is here).

Only later, after I had been thinking about specks and logs for some time, did it occur to me that Jesus’s warning to “Judge Not!” applies to me too. Judging our politicians is only one of many ways our culture seems to encourage subtle and not so subtle condemnation of those around us. Nearly every reality show on TV derives its popularity from the opportunity it gives to its viewers to cast judgment on the hapless people in the show. Watching dysfunctional families and clueless celebrities enables us to exalt ourselves, at least a little and at least in our own minds. In a real sense, ours is a judgment society.

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August 15, 2008

Where's the New "Mere Christianity?"--Skeel

Over 55 years since it was first published, C.S. Lewis's wonderful book Mere Christianity still seems to me the best introduction to, and most winsome account of, orthodox Christianity. I've found it surprising that after all these years, there still isn't a real replacement for it. I wrote a little op-ed about this that appeared this morning: here. I'd be interested to hear whether readers agree, and whether there's a book any of you thinks measures up to the Lewis classic.

August 16, 2008

More on Lewis's Uniqueness--Stuntz

Two comments on David’s interesting and wise column on the absence of contemporary C.S. Lewis equivalents:

I think the absence of Lewis-like figures in the university world is part of a larger change in academic culture. Used to be, the best professors at the best universities were expected to engage with the world outside universities. Lewis was hardly alone in this. His rough contemporary, British historian A.J.P. Taylor, was a major public figure even as he wrote first-rate historical scholarship. In mid-twentieth-century America, sociologist Daniel Bell, historian Arthur Schlesinger, and economist John Kenneth Galbraith are all famous examples of the same type. Today, economists still play this “public citizen” role, but few academics in other disciplines do. And most academic writing is now so technical and jargon-filled that no one outside the relevant discipline could bear reading it.

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Alan Wolfe on Rick Warren--Stuntz

One of my favorite people is Alan Wolfe, a sociologist and political scientist at Boston College who knows American evangelicals better than we know ourselves. Here are Alan’s thoughts on Rick Warren, and on the significance of the Obama-McCain event that Warren is hosting tonight: [link is here].

August 18, 2008

Abortion, Fighting Evil, and the Saddleback "Debate"--Stuntz

Two comments about the excellent speaking event (I don’t know what to call it) at Rick Warren’s church:

First, as many bloggers have pointed out, Obama was wrong to say that the abortion rate hasn’t fallen on George W. Bush’s watch. [Link: here] But the commentaries I’ve read on this issue ignore a crucial point: the abortion rate also fell—and fell more—during Bill Clinton’s administration. [Link: here-- scroll down til you see the graph.] That fact matters: it suggests that Bush’s pro-life policies aren’t driving the abortion rate down, since that rate was falling when those policies weren’t in place. Large cultural forces are at work here, and conservatives of all people should not be optimistic about the government’s ability to steer those forces in its preferred direction.

The second comment concerns McCain’s answer to the question whether evil exists and, if so, whether we should ignore it, negotiate with it, contain it, or defeat it. McCain’s answer was simple and powerful: “Defeat it.” But that answer is also deeply troubling, and doesn’t seem particularly Christian. In a world corrupted by the Fall, the scope of evil is beyond any government’s capacity to “defeat.” I’m pretty sure that my religious forebears would have been appalled at the misplaced confidence—they would have called it “pride,” the heart of all sin in Christian terms—that answer suggests.

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August 21, 2008

A Few More Thoughts on Mere Christianity--Skeel

Thanks to everyone who has chimed in on the question of whether there's a true successor to Mere Christianity. The discussion has prompted many thoughts, but I'll mention three for now:

1) Several people (both in the comments and in emails) asked whether we really need a new Mere Christianity. In a sense, I think the answer is no. Like Augustine's Confessions, Mere Christianity is unique; perhaps we should simply be grateful for the gift. But I also like to think that each generation has a classic that has permanent value yet also speaks to that particular generation. I don't feel as though our generation's classic has emerged yet.

2) I especially appreciated all the suggested readings. A few I've read, but others I haven't and now plan to: Michael Green, Rav Zacharias, even D'Souza. Several are on my desk waiting to be read (Francis Collins, Phillip Yancy). I have read Pascal (with a friend) and loved a number of his pensees, but they struck me more as brilliant isolated insights than as a complete apologetics.

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August 22, 2008

Eastern Christians and Environmentalism--Skeel

Some of our earlier discussion on this blog about evangelicals and the environment prompted a email from my colleague Stephanos Bibas that may be of interest to those who are following this issue. The email argues that there is a connection between evangelicals' "uneasy relationship with environmentalism" and their relationship with the Republican party, and is informed throughout by Stephanos's Orthodox faith.

Rather than trying to restate his comments, no doubt much more poorly, I'll simply quote from his email:

"Christianity should naturally (excuse the pun) embrace environmentalism. The first few chapters of Genesis make it clear that while man is the crown of creation, he is also to be a steward of it, because all of creation bears God's imprint as His handiwork; as God created each thing, he saw that it was good. Francis of Assisi, St. Seraphim of Sarov, and many other holy men and women have been so attuned to creation that they befriended wild animals, reflecting their love for His creatures.

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August 23, 2008

Olympic Medal Count--Stuntz

I'm not the biggest Olympic junkie around, but I've enjoyed watching, and following the Chinese and American medal counts. So far, everyone I've read uses one of two measures: who has the most gold, and who has the most total medals. Both measures are obviously unfair in opposite ways.

The solution is easy--give each country three points for a gold medal, two for a silver, and one point for a bronze. According to cnnsi.com (link: here) and my own arithmetic calculations, the two nations have nearly identical counts by that measure.

As of this writing, China has 49 golds, 19 silvers, and 28 bronzes.
(49 x 3) + (19 x 2) + 28 = 213

The U.S. has 33 golds, 37 silvers, and 36 bronzes.
(33 x 3) + (37 x 2) + 36 = 209

Very, very close. By this measure, the two nations were tied last night at 200 apiece.


The Obama-Biden Ticket and Business Reform--Skeel

Most of the commentary on Obama's decision to tap Senator Joseph Biden as his V.P. pick has focused on the foreign policy expertise that Biden brings to the ticket. But I think the implications for some of Obama's business reform proposals are at least as important.

Obama has suggested that he will support more federal regulation of corporations. And he has signaled his support for bankruptcy reform that would allow borrowers to write down the value of their mortgages in bankruptcy. He also has sharply criticized the major bankruptcy reforms passed in 2005, which made bankruptcy more difficult for consumer debtors.

Biden has been on the other side of most of these issues.

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August 28, 2008

Chemo Again--Stuntz

Last week, my latest and I hope last round of chemo began; unless things change, the plan is to keep going til mid-December and then quit for good.  I feel lousy:  low-grade nausea is a constant companion, and sometimes it isn't low-grade.  One of the drugs gives me a swollen and sore mouth, which makes eating, drinking, and talking painful.  (No doubt my speech has often pained my students.  Maybe this is payback.)  And, of course, there is the onset of Chemo Brain, just when classes are about to begin.  (What was I talking about again?)

 

One day, I suspect we will see today's chemotherapy as akin to leeches and bloodletting for patients thought to have "bad humours" in their blood:  earlier versions of the kind of medicine that kills the disease by killing the patient.  Of course, the comparison isn't quite fair, and it seems ungrateful on my part to make it.  These treatments are not killing me--on the contrary, they may be keeping me alive.  I should be thankful, and I am, for the skilled and decent men and women who supervise my drug regimen.  Whatever life I have left, I owe to their competence and commitment.  I can't say enough good things about them.  Still, it's a strange enterprise:  progress happens, but it always feels like regress.

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Lake House--Stuntz

Thanks to the kindness of some local friends, Ruth and I have spent most of this week at a lake house in New Hampshire.  It's a remarkable place.  Staggeringly lovely and (much to my surprise) nearly deserted:  I guess the traffic returns on weekends.  Today was still; the lake looked glassy save for the tiny ripples moving along its surface.  Sitting on an old wooden dock, all I could hear was the low buzz of insects, a few birds, and the sound of barely-moving water lapping at the dock.

 

To me, such places offer a kind of magic.  Their near-silence sings to my soul:  a soft love song, sweet and sad and achingly beautiful.  The scene seems at once alive and at rest, and I feel as though I belonged to it.  I usually think of myself as having been made to do things:  raise a family, teach, write.  But I wonder sometimes whether, instead, we might be made for places.  If so, I was made for someplace like this.

 

Though I love that world, going home to the world of cities and cell phones and reliable internet access will be hard.  But then, I'm not sure whether I'm going home or leaving it.  Beauty can confuse, even as it captivates.

August 29, 2008

Palin, Obama, and the Experience Issue--Stuntz

Everything is faster in the internet age.  It took about ten seconds from the time McCain announced Sarah Palin as his running mate for the conventional wisdom to congeal:  Palin forfeits the experience issue and opens the way for attacks on McCain's judgment.  South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn analogized her to Dan Quayle, but the better analogy--if the CW view is right--is Spiro Agnew, who had served one four-year term as Baltimore County Executive and a year-and-a-half as Maryland's Governor when Richard Nixon picked him in 1968.  And the population of Baltimore County exceeds Alaska's population.

 

But I wonder whether the CW is right.  Seems to me, this year's election puts in play three different definitions of "experience."  One is the Washington time-serving kind.  Joe Biden and John McCain have both been in the Senate for decades without making complete fools of themselves (well, not on a regular basis anyway); that makes them qualified for the presidency on this definition.  Barack Obama is more of a stretch, since his time in Congress is much shorter.  And Palin is wholly unqualified, since she has never worked for the federal government.

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