A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Mark Coppenger
This is an alternatively gratifying and exasperating book which I could scarcely put down. It’s all over the place, with a cornucopia of striking quotations, illustrations, defamations, salutations, venerations, obfuscations, illuminations, and misdirections—gems on successive pages and then a head scratcher or howler on the next.
Stanley’s been on quite a journey, raised as a Baptist, with transitions to ordinary Anglicanism, Anglo-Catholic Anglicanism, and Roman Catholicism. He began his political life in the Labour Party (even running unsuccessfully for MP on that ticket) but has come around to voting Conservative. He discarded some impediments but has held onto other baggage. In this connection, he’s like an American who’s lived in El Paso, Atlanta, Portland, Boston, and Memphis—a man who wears cowboy boots as he sips his Coke through a paper straw when tackling a combo plate of lobster and BBQ. In British terms, he’s conservative (a columnist for the Telegraph rather than the Guardian), backing Brexit, and preferring Romney to Obama, whom he tags with “the mendacity of hope.” But he’s keen on the Green New Deal and Black Lives Matter; condescending toward Americans alarmed over drag queen story hours; warmly disposed toward “Christian Socialism” and reluctant to say anything kind about capitalism. (“One of the greatest enemies of truth, beauty, excellence, authority, and self-government is the untrammeled free market.”) He despises Trump and warms to Margaret Thatcher. He’s been featured on CNN, MSNBC, and BBC, but also on Sky News.
His basic case is that the Enlightenment birthed “economic self-interest” and “individualism,” both of which are killing our appreciation for and subscription to tradition. The “liberalism” it spawned “has created a permanent rebellion against the past.” We’re being encouraged “to examine our ancestors with skepticism, even contempt: ‘They were superstitious, ignorant and dead by forty.’” Thus, we are ruining ourselves. In contrast, tradition salubriously “connects the individual to their society, passes along social knowledge and transcends time and space.”
Make no mistake, tradition doesn’t entail stultification or ossification. As Gustav Mahler is quoted to say, it’s “not the worship of ashes but the preservation of fire.” And it evolves in healthy/healthful ways. (He says he can live with the institution of British royalty, while he notes that it grew more palpable when they stopped executing their rivals, e.g., Mary Queen of Scots.)
For those of us who lament the collapse of Western Civilization (society generated by and infused with Judeo-Christian wisdom), Stanley serves up rhetorical red meat. He observes that we “are at war with our own history” and to blame for our “loss of identity.” It’s not the Muslims’ fault that, quite possibly, within a few years “there will be more mosques in Britain than in Iraq.” In this connection, he quotes a sheik’s son to say, “You don’t have children. You abort your babies. You are homosexuals. Your churches are empty.”
Indeed, we’ve lost our way:
The ambition of the sixties, we thought, was that people should be judged on the content of their character, not their external appearance, but now we are ranked by our level of victimhood, and bigotry is not beaten back but evaded with segregation rebranded as a “safe space” . . . [W]e are told [that] prejudice is systemic, which is a code for inevitable. But if it is inevitable, on what basis can progress be achieved? Can white people ever not be racist, or men not sexist?”
And the deconstruction starts early:
[T]he contemporary school has become as much a place of forgetting as it is a place of learning. We think we’re raising children without a prepacked identity but we’re really not. We are giving them the alternative identity of a person in search of an identity. Educating a child to think and act independently is a good thing, obviously, but if the individual is to be anything other than an aimless wanderer, they need to be instilled with a sense of self that is beyond the self—be it the transcendence of music or the community of a church. This is what we do when we raise a child in tradition.
Religiously, he’s all in on his Catholicism. He begins and ends the book with the apt image of Notre Dame Cathedral (representing “a unity of faith and art, purpose and design, making it the very pinnacle of the Christian tradition”), at first on fire and then in reconstruction. And he insists,
If Notre Dame is rebuilt exactly as it was before, but the liturgy is ugly, the priests are hypocritical and the congregation doesn’t believe a word of what they hear, and doesn’t live by the commandment to love, then the exercise would be pointless. If the faithful of any tradition want to keep it going, the trick is to live it.
Of course, you’d wish for more awareness or acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God in preserving and enlivening the Church, something more than a “life hack” we mortals can deploy, but he does well to call out the debilitating behavior of particular congregations and denominations.
Alas, Stanley’s version of “living it” lacks a Reformation cast. Instead of embracing sola scriptura, he shows his affinity for a Catholic version of authority as a three-legged stool, whose legs are 1. scripture, 2. sacred tradition, and 3. deliverances of the Magisterium—with overwhelming emphasis on 2. Indeed, this book offers precious little in the way of Bible discourse and a lot of tradition, much of it unmoored to anything recognizably sacred. Case in point: Versus the shallow funerals we call “celebrations of life,” he compares favorably the treatment of the dead by the Toraja people of South Sulawesi, Indonesia. Their “funerals are of such importance that an entire lifetime’s work can go into paying for them.” The productions are so elaborate that in the months required to arrange them, “the deceased is embalmed, dressed and placed in the home, where life continues as normally as possible. The corpse attends meals sitting in its usual chair; at night, it is laid out in its bed.” One photo shows a family member adjusting a Yankee ball cap on the shriveled body of a relative sporting a cigarette.
When Stanley does address the Bible, he shows himself a biblical “errantist” and is apt to fumble, e.g., “It is possible that the Jews picked [circumcision] up from the Egyptians.” And then there’s his treatment of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of Isaac, which he calls “one of the most ‘unreasonable’ bits of the Bible.”
Some biblical commentaries insist that Abraham knew he wouldn’t have to kill Isaac. God had promised him that his sons would inherit the land, therefore God would have to break his own contract to go through with it, which he presumably wouldn’t do. I find this unconvincing: it turns a traumatic situation into a game of bluff. I prefer to see the story as a comment on parenthood and familial responsibility . . . “We mustn’t over-psychoanalyse the story of Abraham and Isaac because what really matters is the outcome. Son trusts father; father comes through for son.
Maybe Stanley just never got around to reading Hebrews 11:17-19.
Alas, his apparent Bible illiteracy doesn’t slow his forays into theology: “According to Christian teaching, we are all born with an instinct to worship and with the capacity to be a good person. This is the Christian understanding of conscience: not something we invent for ourselves but a gift from God planted in each of us at our birth.” Well, yes, Romans 2:14-15 speaks to the instinctive conscience of the Gentile, but where’s the nuance that at least picks up on the reality of the Fall. Perhaps he’s never heard of TULIP, or counts it nothing to note. And yes, Romans 1:22-23 shows man with a hankering to worship, but it typically goes off the rails into idolatry; not the rosy picture Stanley suggests.
As for doctrine, he demonstrates his liberation from believer’s immersion, taught by his Baptist upbringing. He calls it “a very interesting take on baptism,” one he says is at variance with the convictions of most Christians, who are happy to “perform this ritual shortly after birth.” The underlying problem: “Baptists have a deeply emotional and instinctual faith, but with their emphasis upon an individual relationship with God and their respect for reason, they are very much children of the Enlightenment.” Thus, Stanley cautions, “When an 8-year-old declares ‘Jesus is Lord!,’ it can be said that ‘out of the mouths of babes’ comes great wisdom—yet it’s highly likely they’re recycling something the pastor said on Sunday, a pattern of imitation interpreted as intuition that one sees a lot of on social media.” Well, yes, it happens in cases; it also doesn’t in many other cases. Either way, since when is the answer to ritualize “salvation” upon an addled newborn by the sprinkling of water? And who knew that those good ole boys down at Caney Creek or Hog Branch Baptist Church in Dixie were cat’s paws of the Enlightenment, slaves to reason? They thought they were New Testament baptizers.
As if it weren’t enough to venture into Christian theology, Stanley briefs us on the deep virtues of other faiths, including Islam. For context, I’ll mention a Kurdish friend in Nashville, one who maintains that ISIS is not a corruption of Islam, but rather the very soul of the Islam that subjugated his people (formerly the Medes) in the seventh century. But Stanley waxes rhapsodic over seventh-century Islam as he castigates ISIS as a tradition-killing perversion of Muslim culture:
Slavery was a fact of life in contemporary Arabia. It would’ve been revolutionary to try to eliminate it. But Muhammad and his successors encouraged kindness, praised manumission, and taught that the believing slave was superior to the free pagan, all of which raised the status of the Arabian slave to that of a human being with quasi-legal rights. The trend was towards gradual emancipation . . . The soul of Islam, along with its sublime quality of mercy, was missing [from ISIS]; custom and ritual were enforced to assert dominance and power.
One scarcely knows where to begin in addressing this conceit. Yes, Jordanian Islam is nicer than the Talibanite sort; yes, there’s a general distinction between desert (Saudi) and island (Indonesia) Islam, which is often syncretistic. But where does Stanley signal awareness that the dhimmitude (which he associates with ISIS) is a widespread, centuries-old, Islamic practice; that “apostates” are brutalized in Pakistan and Iran; that there’s a striking difference (20+%) between male and female literacy in Egypt; that familial “honor killings” are common throughout the Middle East, even occurring among Muslims in the West; that academia is so benighted in the Islamic world that only three Muslims (compared with nearly two hundred Jews) have received Nobel prizes in the sciences, and each of them did their doctoral studies in either England or America); that the Koran is devoid of anything suggesting that Allah manifests costly, agape love.
Along the way, Stanley quotes or comments on a host of folks, including George Floyd, Matthew Arnold, Pete Buttigieg, Edmund Burke, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ann Coulter, Friedrich Engels, Isaiah Berlin, Walter Bagehot, Emmanuel Macron, Elizabeth II, Haile Selassie, Winston Churchill, J. S. Bach, Marshall McLuhan, Bill Gates, Allan Bloom, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, C. S. Lewis, Steven Pinker, Benjamin Disraeli, Thomas Hobbes, Prince Harry, Jordan Peterson, Jared Diamond, William Morris, Christopher Hitchens, Michel Foucault, and Vladimir Putin. And in his Catholic vein, he gives attention, sometimes generously, to the writings of Peter Kreeft, William Buckley, Oliver Cromwell, Russell Kirk, Joseph Pieper, Pope Francis, G. K. Chesterton, John Henry Newman, Eric Gill, Richard Neuhaus, Anthony Esolen, Jacques Maritain, Mother Teresa, François-René de Chateaubriand, and Joseph De Maistre, who mocks Enlightenment wrongheadedness with the rhetorical question, “Mad as we are, if we want a mirror to reflect the image of the sun, would we turn it towards the Earth?” His answer is yes.
The prose is lively and there are surprises around every turn. We learn that ‘nostalgia’ is built from the Greek for “return home” and “pain”—as in “homesickness” (making it a relative of ‘neuralgia’ and ‘myalgia’); that scouting’s founder, Robert Bayden-Powell, looked East to commend the samurai spirit to British schoolboys; that socialism was big among Baptists and other Evangelicals in Oklahoma in the early 1900s; that Margaret Thatcher represented the Wesleyan strand of Methodism rather than the Primitive strand; that in the flux of modernist culture, churches should supply parishioners with “the novelty of consistency”; and he uses a special seasoning of cheekiness, as when he observes that Prince [now King] Charles “is the opposite of a politician. He has nothing to say, yet everyone, great and small, hangs on every empty word. There’s a similar effect when people are introduced to beautiful women and chimpanzees: their exoticism casts an egalitarian spell, all eyes in the room are on them.” And I’ve not seen such an endearing quotation as one by Stanley himself: “I pray this book doesn’t sell too well.” His reason: “[E]very penny made from the sale of this book puts me one penny further from Christ who, when asked by a rich man how to enter the kingdom of Heaven, replied that he could begin by giving away everything he had.”
In sum, Stanley has penned a paean to tradition, one that celebrates the contribution of venerable culture. It is, on balance, a fine read. But, in my estimation, he short-changes two things: 1. The exceptionalism of Judeo-Christian culture and the Protestant/Evangelical contribution to it; 2. The terrible aspects of tradition that make it at least as baleful as it is meritorious across the centuries. And to bolster the status of tradition (which he grants comes in morally various forms, with slavery as the basement), he’s too quick to ignore, mitigate, or extenuate the persistently toxic versions or to rescue them by pointing to later, pruned, full flowering examples—tradition at its best. (I’m reminded of Antony Flew’s “No True Scotsman” fallacy, as in “No true Scotsman would put sugar in his porridge.” So, mutatis mutandis, “No tradition worth its name would fail to evolve into something admirable.”) As he puts it early on, “This book is not a defense of snobbery, elitism or pickling things in aspic: progress is integral to tradition.”
Except when it isn’t.
Buy the books
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO TRADITION?: HISTORY, BELONGING AND THE FUTURE OF THE WEST, by Tim Stanley