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December 2008 Archives

December 9, 2008

Will There be Lawyers in Heaven?--Skeel

            A few weeks ago, I was struck by a line in Abraham Kuyper's "Lectures on Calvinism" (1898), one of the great (and accessible!) modern Protestant works on politics and law.   In a world without sin, Kuyper wrote, "every rule and ordinance and law would drop away, even as all control and assertion of the power of the magistrate would disappear."  Heaven, he suggests, is no place for law or lawyers.


            We lawyers come in for a lot of abuse, much of it justified, but I'm not so sure our work will disappear in heaven.  The conclusion that law and thus lawyers will be unnecessary seems to assume that in heaven we will be all seeing and all knowing, and all complexity will simply disappear.  I'm not sure where that assumption comes from; it doesn't seem especially consistent with the hints of heaven, with all its richness and diversity, that we get in the Bible.  The absence of sin doesn't necessarily mean the absence of complexity, and where there is complexity law and lawyers seem to have a role to play.


            I don't think it's entirely coincidental that the Holy Spirit is described in the Bible as an advocate and a counselor, both distinctively lawyerly roles.  The lawyers in heaven will be much better lawyers, but I suspect they will still be dispensing legal advice.


            I'd be curious as to whether others agree.

December 14, 2008

Poetry in Motion--Skeel

One of the most exciting contemporary poets is the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I review "Eternal Enemies," his new book of poems, here. But don't take my word for it. Next time you're in a bookstore, skim through a few of the poems in "Eternal Enemies." Even if you've vowed never to read a book of poems, he may be the kind of poet who will make you change your mind, or at least make a small exception to the vow.

Here's the first poem, "Star" (set in Krakow, where Zagajewski lived during his college years), which establishes the tone of the book:


I returned to you years later,
gray and lovely city,
unchanging city
buried in the waters of the past.

I'm no longer the student
of philosophy, poetry, and curiosity,
I'm not the young poet who wrote
too many lines

and wandered in the maze
of narrow streets and illusions.
The sovereign of clocks and shadows has touched my brow with his hand,

but still I'm guided by
a star by brightness
and only brightness
can undo or save me.

December 18, 2008

Rick Warren at the Obama Inauguration--Skeel

The New York Times noted in a small article this morning that President-elect Obama has invited Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration, and called this an "olive branch" to evangelicals. Two thoughts on the choice.

First, as the article suggests, the pick confirms that Rick Warren is the new Billy Graham- the obvious choice for this kind of honor. The contrast between the Warren and Graham as leading public evangelicals is striking. With a couple of exceptions, Graham resolutely avoided social issues, whereas Warren has made them a centerpiece of his ministry. This is dramatic testimony, it seems to me, of the extent to which some of the emphases of evangelicalism are changing. In some respects, Warren has less in common with Graham than with the early twentieth century evangelicals (such as John R. Mott of the YMCA and Student Volunteer Movement) who treated social issues and evangelism as inextricably intertwined.

Warren's prominence does not necessarily mean, however- and this is the second point- that evangelicals will be an important part of the Obama era. Evangelical political influence may well have peaked. Evangelicals played surprisingly little role in the election- and not because Obama made significant inroads; although he won a higher percentage of young evangelical votes than John Kerry in 2004, the overall percentages were nearly the same, with McCain winning well over 70%.

I suspect the most noteworthy development in Protestant Christianity in an Obama era may be at least a temporary reversal of the decades of decline in mainline Protestantism in America. Although Obama hobnobs with a few prominent evangelicals, and his first memoir prominently featured a conversion story, his instincts seem much more in line with mainline Protestantism than with evangelicalism. The frequent comparisons to Lincoln and Roosevelt are fully consistent with this- and Obama also seems to me to have some similarities to the young Woodrow Wilson. In historical terms, Obama is a Progressive, not a Populist, and this may bode well for the mainline Protestant denominations that are the Progressives' principal religious heirs.

December 30, 2008

Inaugural Poets--Skeel

            After poet and Yale professor Elizabeth Alexander was announced as the inaugural poet, fellow poet Paul Muldoon was quoted as saying he was confident the choice was due to literary merit.  I hope there was a twinkle in his eye when he said this.  Literary merit surely was one consideration, but one doesn't have to be a cynic to suspect it wasn't the only one. 


Inaugural poets, like other inaugural speakers, have always been chosen for symbolic reasons as well.  John F. Kennedy's choice of Robert Frost as the first inaugural poet was the closest to entirely merit based.  When John F. Kennedy chose him, Frost was something like our national poet.  He was beloved, had carefully tended his reputation as the people's poet, and was widely (though sometimes grudgingly) admired by other poets.  (The closest poet to this status today is probably Billy Collins, but he does not have Frost's status among fellow poets and does not seem quite so all- American).  Although Frost was an obvious pick, he also symbolized the old fashioned (implicitly Protestant) traditions of rural America, a constituency Kennedy wanted to reach.  Bill Clinton's choice of Maya Angelou in 1993 reinforced his sympathy for minorities, and 1997 Miller Williams represented homespun Arkansas wisdom--Clinton as a man of the people. 


A key attraction of Alexander to Obama, it seems to me, is that her poetry is intensely race conscious, but in a way that is less hostile to mainstream American culture and less anchored in grievance than the work of many of the best known black poets of the past generation.  She is, in a sense, a bridge between that past and post racial politicians like Obama himself.  (More on this, hopefully, in a follow up post on Alexander's poems once I've read more of it).


Two more thoughts on inaugural poetry. 

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