Welcome to the first Blessing of Unicorns of 2024.
A brief note about the nomenclature, if this is your first encounter with this roundup and you’re wondering: whence the name? It started because a few months ago, I did the first roundup, thinking it might be just one—a unicorn in the wild, gathering some unusual but thought-provoking reads. But then I did another, and another, and it became this regular thing.
Tim Larsen, historian and fount of all kinds of unexpected knowledge, then noted that a herd of unicorns gathered together forms a blessing. And so, the name is now official.
May these first unicorns of the new year offer a blessing of peace upon your Saturday morning coffee. And if you don’t drink coffee, it’s a new year and a great time to start.
Nate Marshall finished 2023 with this excellent three-part series at Front Porch Republic: “Craft and Theology: The Reason,” “A Renaissance is Upon Us,” and “Craft and Theology: The Renaissance.” Read this in full, seriously. Nate is a plumber by trade. He also reads widely in literature, theology, and history. Often while knitting socks. He writes beautifully about the connection between the work of our hands and our love of God and the humanities. It is possible that he never sleeps. A taste from the concluding essay in his series:
The question of the intersection of our spiritual and work lives looms large for the modern-day Christian, especially one that lives in an increasingly postindustrial economy. Many find themselves wondering how their often bureaucratized and less-than-fulfilling labor can possibly be what God had in mind for them. It’s a question I spend no little amount of time thinking about and certainly one that the Holy Scriptures address at length. I am a plumber by trade, an amateur theologian, and an even amateur-er philosopher, so how to do my work in a Christianly way–how to “pray without ceasing,” as St. Paul put it, something I begin to explore here–and what this work in the material world means is on my mind a good deal.
Nate’s series reminded me of this beautiful essay by Kurt Armstrong in the most recent issue of Plough: “Just Your Handyman.”
On another note, I appreciated Marat Grinberg’s essay in Mosaic Magazine, “The Special Sway Dostoevsky Held Over Soviet Jewish Minds.” A taste:
The Russian classics—Pushkin and Gogol, Turgenev and Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov—had their own meaning for Soviet Jews. Their collected works carried the main weight of Soviet family libraries. As I put it, “The distinct musty smell of their binding has the effect for many, myself included, of a Proustian madeleine, causing us to recall the sheer aesthetic pleasure of listening to Pushkin’s fairy tales as a child, . . . or discovering that Turgenev’s and Tolstoy’s pages were surprisingly not boring at all.” The pleasures went hand in hand with the “stumbling blocks” from the occasional anti-Semitic quips in Pushkin to the ubiquity of anti-Semitic imagery in Gogol to, of course, Dostoevsky, keeping in mind that the absorption of Dostoevsky into the Soviet-sanctioned Russian canon was long and arduous. My grandmother, Maya Moshchinskaya (1929–2007), a student of Russian literature at a pedagogic institute in the Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia after the war, recalled how, rummaging through the town’s book junkyards, she discovered Dostoevsky’s novels—at the time essentially banned—and read all of them ravenously.
Now I’m all the more resolved to read Marat’s recent book, The Soviet Jewish Bookshelf, sometime this year.
Speaking of reading and the humanities, Calvin University’s new Wayfinder Program looks like a game changer, when it comes to serving low income students through humanities education!
Erika Bachiochi wrote powerfully on “The Rights of Women: A Natural Law Approach” for The New Digest. A taste from this piece, which you should read in full:
Two rival accounts of women’s rights exist in American history. These disparate accounts of women’s rights map on to rival accounts of rights per se, which themselves map onto rival accounts of who we are as human beings. To my mind, these rival accounts of the human person — and of theories of law and rights that flow from them — explain much of our legal and political discord today…
Reorienting our thinking and speaking from rights to responsibilities is a very helpful way to shift out of the autonomy orientation. Inquiries into “rights” properly demand that we first ask about natural and legal obligations – what is in justice is owed – by or to particular human beings in particular circumstances. Regarding abortion, then, the proper starting point is not inquiries into competing rights but instead what is due the unborn child and his or her mother and father, since these dependencies and responsibilities are not isolated from one another but dramatically interwoven.
As we move from this general account of rights to specify a natural law account of women’s rights, I should note that a natural law account includes two moves: stable (or universal) principles of human flourishing coupled with dynamic (or situational) determinations. The first demands that all persons, including political leaders, are subject to a higher law that both judges and legitimates their actions. The second demands on the ground prudential assessments of concrete circumstances that change as history unfolds, with the shifts and transitions in technology and political economy, philosophical or theological understandings, and other causes of cultural and social change.
Fairer Disputations is one year old, and started this new year with Nina Power’s intriguing review of three books (including the one from MO senator Josh Hawley) that consider “Sexual Politics on the American Right.” A taste:
A trio of new books offers a window into current thinking about the relationship between the sexes on the American right. The best of the three argues that we should strive to see things realistically, but also optimistically, as there is much to love and preserve in the relationships between men and women and their children. Life is difficult; relationships are hard; parenting is tough. But anything worth doing well always was. The modern man and woman is increasingly encouraged to forget this.
The pro-male alternative, as celebrated online, promotes a hyper-masculinity that sees no need for women, a kind of adventurism against the modern world where masculinity is best imagined as a kind of pirate-life, free from worldly constraints. For those men who still want the company of women and/or children, there’s (largely fantastical) traditionalism, where the woman assumes the submissive role. There are atheistic versions of this, as well as religious ones. The atheistic version invokes conceptions of natural male dominance and female weakness. Rather than a subtle and gracious recognition of difference, this often manifests as mere oppression and disrespect.
There are women, too, who seek to censure feminism tout court. One recent example is Carrie Gress. Via a series of largely unflattering portraits of figures of the first and second wave, The End of Woman suggests that feminism is, above all, a pathological movement, founded and driven by unhappy women. This is an ahistorical claim, one that neglects the reality that feminism—which Gress nowhere defines—is frequently responding to shifts in the economy, rather than actively responsible for them.
I found that combining the three books together offered useful insights. For a more detailed look at Gress’s book, stay tuned for Beatrice Scudeler’s review at Current, coming this next week!
A super fun segment in the newest issue of Christianity Today: eight writers tell about a dream book they’d love to write but never will— like Marvin Olasky’s idea, Who Programmed the Computer? The Weakness of Simulation Theory and the Logical Alternative. Meanwhile, with her characteristic wit, Joni Eareckson Tada proposes writing a book on… diving.
I was intrigued by New Testament scholar Nijay Gupta’s proposal for a Jesus novel set in the present day: “I’d love to consider what the story of Christianity would look like if Jesus came to earth in the here and now, rather than 2,000 years ago… what languages would Jesus speak? Would he stay in the Middle East or travel around the world? Would he post on TikTok or write a Substack? Would he denounce Elon Musk or Vladimir Putin? Would skeptics insist his YouTube channel of miracles was ‘all CGI’”?
Finally, Andrew Wilson proposed an intriguing idea–Between David and Odysseus: What We Learn by Reading the Works of Homer Alongside the Books of Samuel. I would generally encourage Christians to read more Homer and other Greco-Roman Classics, as it will enrich your understanding of the Bible and its world to see the literature of the world around, with which the Bible’s original audiences were so well familiar.