Four Things for Oct 26: Sunday Reading

On Home, Accomplishment & Failure, Country Music, Friday Night Lights, Sodom & Gomorrah. And Texas, Texas, Texas.

1) After plugging it on this blog a few months ago, I missed Mockingbird’s Fall Conference in Houston last weekend, though I did follow it as best I could via Jordan Haynie Ware’s live-tweeting.

I couldn’t make it because it was a big family weekend for me: two birthdays in my family, and a sister-in-law flying in to visit. I was definitely sorry to miss out, though, because (among other reasons) the conference headliner was one of my favorite Austin singers, Slaid Cleaves. Here’s what Ethan Richardson wrote about Cleaves last week:

The stories we keep reading and the songs we want to keep hearing are good because they carry a truth we seem bent on forgetting. In other words, good country music is not merely a take-me-back experience—country music preaches.

For Slaid Cleaves, the story that preaches best is the classic country story: the law that reality grounds the stories we’d like to tell ourselves. “Every man is a myth / Every woman a dream / Watch your little heart get crushed / When the truth gets in between.”

2) “Yes, we all wanted to be cowboys,” writes Richardson, “and yes we had big hopes for the future, but our failed lives have brought us back to the failproof hometowns that will take us back at midnight.”

That idea, that the appeal of country music comes from the interaction of failed dreams and a welcoming home, the idea of home as a space for failure, resonates with Hannah Gersen’s essay (“One Long Country Song”) on the TV show Friday Night Lights for the Millions. About the show’s fictional town, Dillon, Gersen tells us:

For years, I had operated under the assumption that the places I knew best were not very interesting. This was due to my own insecurities and also to my intense love of all things New York City. But, my infatuation with the city began to wane around 2008. That was the year the financial markets crashed—a situation I couldn’t help thinking of when I read Smith’s phrase, “sociopathic illusion of limitlessness.” It was the year I started to think about failure, really think about it. I was three years into an ill-fitting secretarial job at a Wall Street law firm, a job that I knew would only become more ill-fitting as the recession unspooled. New York did not seem like a good place to fail. In fact, it seemed like a place where I was not allowed to even speak or think of the possibility of failure.

One of the things I like about Dillon is that it welcomes failures; in fact it embraces them. Growing up in small towns, I always felt there was something bullying about this love of failure, and that there was within it a not-so-hidden class resentment, a desire to keep everyone on the same level, even if that meant everything was mediocre. I do think that sentiment exists, but I also think there is a humanity to small places, an acknowledgement that people need space in their lives to enjoy what they have, for as long as it may last—a space outside of accomplishment. A space outside of self-improvement. A space to have emotions that might not be “productive.” A space to have emotions, period.

3) Casey Fleming reminds us that we can find that space in small houses, too, even in the middle of a sprawling city like Houston. From “Sermon for Small Houses”:

I grew up in a small house.  In the mornings, before school, my father, mother, brother and I all took showers in the same shower, so we had a line-up: first my mother, then my dad, then Ben, then me.  Sometimes I showered before Ben, but I took a long time back then what with shaving and conditioning and exfoliating my vain skin, so if I went first he got a lukewarm shower, if not a cold one.  We had two bathrooms, but the shower in my parents’ bathroom boasted better water pressure.  We were always in each other’s way.  I secretly raged at my mother for four years because she’d come into my bedroom early in the morning to grab earrings or a hair brush (why were they in my room?  I don’t know) and then fail to close the door behind her when she left, so I’d have to hear her morning routine, all the clangs and bangs of getting ready, thereby losing 45 minutes of sleep.  My bedroom shared a wall with the living room, and to this day, I cannot stand the sound of Sunday: football commentators and boisterous mid-game commercials.  We mostly ate in front of the television, not because we were avoiding each other’s conversation, but because it was too cramped at the kitchen table in its tiny nook.

But I loved that house.  It bred in the four of us an intimacy.  I never could have avoided my parents or hid much from them without great trouble: not a late night make-out session, a drug habit, or even a bad mood.  Nor could they have hid much from Ben and I, and while closeness can inflame irritation, we all knew each other so well.

4) Finally, I was going to make this a “Three Things” post, but then yesterday Elizabeth Bruenig published this gorgeous variation on the themes that echo through all of the above posts, and I had to include it. Here she writes about being repelled by her home:

Texas will still call itself business-friendly, and its very fine suburbs will grow and sprawl like annexes of Disney Land, where everything appears to be halfway between real and fake. Many of them will come with zoning restrictions that restrict subsidized housing and targeted building codes intended to keep black people out. Residents will speak fondly of these places, and people will move into them in droves. High school parking lots will gleam with pickup trucks, and they will construct simulation town squares, all brand new, Anthropologies and Sephoras and J. Crews and Ann Taylor Lofts, and some of the boutiques in between will sell jewelry with a longhorn theme. Journalists will write about the ‘complacency factor‘ in Texas gubernatorial races as though it weren’t a longstanding and much-celebrated institution.

And here she writes about its attraction:

Every time I go back I am almost enchanted: there’s a certain parking garage in Fort Worth you can stand at the top of and see the courthouse where my parents were married and the hospital where I was born, and the silver snake of highway straight ahead leads, if you follow it, all the way to my house. The glare of the sun blazes out the distance even though the land is flat for miles. You forget where you are, and it doesn’t much matter. It will get you where it wants you to be.

And here she finds the perfect image to characterize that mix of attraction and repulsion:

In the Bible the doomed cities Sodom and Gomorrah are called ‘cities of the plain’, which I think of every time I come in on some late flight to DFW, and see the whole expanse of Dallas and Fort Worth laid out flat on the prairie, lights and grids, long perimeters of highway. Lot’s wife was turned to salt for looking back at Sodom, because you don’t look back at someplace you’re leaving unless there was something about it that you loved.

Crow Pot Pie Christianity

Even though most of my writing wrestles with Catholicism, I’m not a Roman Catholic. As I’ve made clear. As a teenager, I made it clear to the administration at my Catholic high school, too. Nonetheless, owing I guess to their saintly Francis-like ecumenism, when I was a senior they let me (a heathen!) run a lecture at the freshman retreat on the subject of music and faith.

I say I “ran” it, but I guess they didn’t trust me all the way, because they had me co-present with a youth leader from a local Catholic church. Still, it was a big event for me, my first experience standing in front of a classroom. I wrote a detailed lesson plan, anticipated questions I might get, even thought of contingency plans in case the school’s CD player malfunctioned.

The youth leader’s presentation was what you’d expect: he tried to sell Contemporary Christian music to the freshmen by convincing them that wholesome music could be cool. I took the opposite tack. My thesis was that the act of taking these bare materials (notes and words and effects) and trying to turn them into something with meaning necessarily takes a sort of faith and that, therefore, music is almost by definition religious. My point was that we can find faith all over in music. For examples, I played Lenny Kravitz and Jimi Hendrix, and I argued that Stevie Ray Vaughan’s version of “Little Wing” is essentially a prayer.

(Listen again if it’s been a while and tell me if you disagree)

I thought of this recently when a friend from those days sent me a link to his new band’s demo, which reminded me a little of a Denton-based band called Slobberbone.

I first saw Slobberbone at the Impala in Fort Worth after my junior prom. In fact, it was the night the Impala opened, and the show had been publicized for weeks. Jello Biafra was going to be there.

Except my date and I got there late, long after Jello had gone, when there were only about ten people left in the Impala’s back room, watching this country-punk band fall apart on stage. The band members seemed beyond drunk. At one point, the bassist, who is about six-foot-ten, just sat down on the stage, while playing, and then tipped over on his back. He kept playing from the floor.

The next day I found their CD, Crow Pot Pie, at CD Warehouse on Berry Street and listened to it almost daily for the next year or so.

I looked them up on Spotify after my friend sent me his demo to see if they sounded the way I remembered. One thing I had forgotten is just how thoroughly Christian language and themes run through their songs. I don’t mean that you can interpret them as Christian if you try—I mean that Christianity is an unmistakable obsession in their lyrics.

In “Stumblin,’ they sing, “So I picked a fight with Jesus Christ / Now I’m thinkin’ I was wrong.”

And in “No Man Among Men,”: “I know I ain’t no man among men / Jesus, I pray you’ll take me in.”

Then, in “Dunk You in the River”: “I finally found a drink to wash away all the world’s sins / And I’ll dunk you in the river once again.”

How did I miss that? I bet I didn’t really miss it, exactly. I think their religious emphasis probably just didn’t stand out. For an Episcopalian acolyte attending a Catholic school in an Evangelical city, hearing about God—even if it was hearing someone reject him—was pretty normal. There was no such thing as secular or agnostic there. The champions of the Fort Worth music scene in those days were the Toadies, who certainly fit Flannery O’Connor’s description of the South: they were God-haunted. Listen to the songs off of Rubbernecker. No word matters more, no word gets more emphasis in those songs than Jesus. On the other side of the metroplex, the biggest name in Dallas music was the Reverend Horton Heat, who parodied baptisms on his album covers and exorcisms at his concerts.


But back to Slobberbone. Understand, this is a band I remember as an absolute human train wreck. Their songs are politically incorrect, often violent, occasionally leaning towards a (hopefully) tongue-in-cheek misogyny. In no way am I endorsing them as moral exemplars, anymore than I would endorse Billy Joe Shaver or someone like that.  Still, while songwriter Brent Best doesn’t seem to take much seriously, I don’t detect a lot of irony when he’s singing about religion.

And I have no idea what Best’s faith (or lack of faith) is like. I don’t know what Cormac McCarthy believes, either, or what Fyodor Dostoevsky did (I mean, officially he was Orthodox, but c’mon. Don’t you wonder?). When Best sings “He said trust in me I’m the King of Kings, and you my friend are in a rut / But what I was looking for was the King of Beers, so I said won’t you be my Bud” I don’t know if he wants me to cheer or shake my head. But I know that if I’m going to learn anything about religion it’s probably going to come from someone like that: someone who sometimes feels like blowing off Jesus for a twelve-pack of Budweiser. Or let me rephrase that: if you can’t sing about that twelve-pack like maybe it’s the better choice, then I’m afraid we might not be wrestling with the same questions.

Making Gay Okay, Chapter 1: On Rationalization and Sodomy

In Chapter 1 of Making Gay Okay, Reilly lays out the thesis that he’ll elaborate over the next twelve chapters. Here’s the idea: America’s rapidly growing acceptance for homosexuality is the result of a nationwide process of rationalization, a rejection of right reason that jeopardizes the very foundations of our society. It starts with the gays, he says (“Men start revolutionary changes for reasons connected to their private lives,” said Aristotle), but has taken hold in society as a whole because of our embrace of the individualistic, Rousseauian worldview he’ll detail in Chapter 3.

Rationalization, Reilly says, works like this: “Anyone who chooses an evil act must present it to himself as good.” But that’s not enough—he also has to convince others of the goodness of evil. And that’s why, Reilly tells us, we now see a push not just for a private right to consensual homosexual acts, but for public affirmation—even sacramentalization—of those acts.

Rationalization, then, is an incredibly important word for Reilly, and I’ll have more to say on the specifics of his argument as he develops it. But this week I want to look at something that’s off right from the start, a big hole right at the base of his thinking. Because, while “rationalization” is an important word for Reilly, it’s not the most important word in the book.

Guess what is?


“Sodomy” appears 132 times in Making Gay Okay, including in the titles of five of Reilly’s twelve chapters. The whole second part of the book is titled “Marching Through the Institutions,” and Reilly makes clear that what is on the march is sodomy. The chapter headings include Sodomy and ScienceSodomy and EducationSodomy and the Boy Scouts;Sodomy and the Military. “[O]nly the act of sodomy (along with other peculiarly homosexual practices),” Reilly writes, differentiates an active homosexual from a heterosexual.” And he’ll also tell us, “If you are going to center your public life of the private act of sodomy, you had better transform sodomy into a highly moral act.”

In fact, the whole book seems to be little more than an elaboration on an anecdote Reilly gives at the end of Chapter 1. Evelyn Waugh was asked why there are no good proofreaders left in England. Reilly tells us that Waugh responded,“Because clergymen are no longer defrocked for sodomy.”

Of course, “sodomy” has had a lot of meanings through the years. But since the word is so central to Reilly’s thesis, surely he will give us a clear definition, right?

Here’s what we get, in a “note on usage” right before the start of this chapter: “In different legal and cultural settings, the word sodomy has included different things at different times. But, in every variation, it has always encompassed anal intercourse and is meant to here as well.”

Wow. That is… imprecise.

Sodomy means lots of things, and one of those things is anal sex? Here it is meant toencompass anal intercourse?

That’s not a very helpful working definition. Is he defining sodomy narrowly (sodomy = anal sex), or broadly (sodomy = all the things that have been considered sodomy)?

I can’t tell.

Because he’s right: sodomy has encompassed different thing at different times. Oral sex, mutual masturbation, contraceptive sex, even solitary masturbation. For centuries, the prohibition on sodomy has been justified by the Thomistic notion that it involves a misuse of the sexual faculties—that is, use of the sexual faculties for something other than their intended purpose, procreation. That includes anal intercourse, of course, but also all the other things listed above. Yet anal intercourse also stands out among that category of acts as something that’s 1) (probably) more common among gay men than among heterosexuals and 2) a subject that will cause a portion of the population to squirm.

Reilly wants to keep the broad definition of sodomy, because the “natural law” reasoning he’ll develop in Chapter 2 depends on it—from his teleological standpoint, oral sex, masturbation, and contraceptive sex are all wrong for the same reason as anal sex. On top of that, he needs that broad definition of sodomy to be able to condemn lesbians who (probably) have less anal sex than gay men or even straight couples.

At the same time, when he uses the word “sodomy” in the book, he sometimes just means anal sex. He wants that narrower definition for two reasons:

First, in his chapter on sodomy and biology, he’ll spend a lot of time arguing that “sodomy” leads to increased risk of disease. But almost of all his data in that section relates to anal sex—in fact, some of the other types of activities that have historically been characterized sodomy are considerably safer, in terms of disease transmission, than unprotected heterosexual intercourse.

But, just as importantly, he wants to play on the body revulsion that lots of people (but not all) feel when discussing anything related to poop or the anus. “Welcome is every organ and attribute of me… Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest,” said Walt Whitman. But some people don’t think that way. Whereas some people see poop as an essential part of a healthy life, I’ve literally had people describe the anus to me as the “‘death’ chute, where waste comes out of the body” and contrast that body part with the life-giving penis.*

This is playing on what’s called the “ick factor.” An infamous recent example of this non-argument is this column by Thabiti Anyabwile, who believes that if he describes gay sex acts graphically enough, I’ll feel a gag reflex, a “gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching, hand-over-your-mouth, “I feel dirty” moral outrage” that will taint me against those acts. Well sorry, I don’t. But I recognize that some people do, or at least that some people confuse their visceral disgust for moral outrage, and that makes the “ick factor” a clever place to turn when your intellectual arguments fail.

See Reilly’s dilemma? If he defines sodomy narrowly, as “anal sex,” his teleological argument falls apart, and he has no reason to condemn lots of gay and lesbian sex as inherently wrong. But if he defines it broadly as “non-procreative sex,” his argument loses a lot of its rhetorical force and most of the (meager) biological evidence he’ll muster in Chapter 5.

So what does he do? He says, Meh. Sodomy is whatever I want it to be. You know, bad stuff.

Remember, Reilly’s thesis is that gays are trying to force on society a rationalization of their behavior. But if sodomy is something that everybody does (“We are all sodomites now,” says Andrew Sullivan), then they don’t really need to: society’s already on their side.

Reilly has an explanation for this, sort of. “The acceptance of each variant of sexual misbehavior,” he writes, “reinforces the others. The underlying dynamic is: If you’ll rationalize my sexual misbehavior, I’ll rationalize yours.” Under this thinking, everybody in the world is a sexual miscreant, and gays are only gaining acceptance because miscreants stick together.

Of course, there’s another option, one that Reilly never really considers. What if society’s into sodomy (broadly defined) because non-procreative sex isn’t necessarily bad? What if it can even be good?

As we’ll see in future posts, Reilly’s argument is headed down the same track that led Thomas Aquinas to argue that masturbation is a graver sin against chastity than rape. More recently, it led Elizabeth Anscombe to say that a married couple using contraception is behaving less chastely than a pair of adulterers. Reilly gets to that logical train wreck himself in Chapter 6, when he approvingly cites William Blackstone’s vision of “‘the infamous crime against nature’ as an offense of ‘deeper malignity’ than rape, a heinous act.”

Let’s be clear: you don’t have to be depraved to reject that thinking. That thinking is insane!


[Fred Clark would say: “Return to Go. Start over. Try a different path — one that has some hope of leading you somewhere that is not absurd, monstrous, evil and inhuman.

That thinking is so twisted that holding it today, ironically, can only result from one thing: rationalization.

Remember the way Reilly said rationalization operates? You start by choosing something that’s wrong, and then you must present it as good, or right?

Reilly’s thinking on sex (like all of the Catholic Right’s) starts with a mistake: that our sexual faculties have ONE proper end, which is to produce children.** We know that’s not right. And we know, as Tina Beattie says, that “there is no mechanism built into nature” which supports the interpretation that the procreative and unitive aspects of sex are necessarily inseparable. So we don’t have to follow Reilly’s logic to its ludicrous ends; we don’t have to defend absurd propositions like the idea that contraception is worse than adultery or that consensual gay sex is worse than rape. We don’t have to twist into logical knots trying to explain why Pope Paul VI said “controlling births” is okay, but using a condom is not. We don’t have to ignore the reality of millions of couples whose healthy sex lives sometimes (or often) fall outside the limits of strictly procreative sexual activity.

But Reilly and those who think like him do have to do those things, because they’re holding on to a mistake.

They’re rationalizing.

Next up: Some quick hitters on Chapter 1, and Aristotle vs. Rousseau.



*Obviously, this overlooks the fact that the penis also expels waste. And so does the vagina, every 28 days. This is one of those dumb, late-night philosophical conversations, but I seriously wonder if these people believe Adam was created without an anus, and if that organ only appeared after his expulsion from Eden. Because if waste is the same as death, and both entered the world with the Fall…? Milan Kundera explored this question, by the way, in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, but I never found his answers very satisfying. Googling “Did Adam poop in the Garden?” also doesn’t turn up anything helpful.

Ooh! Ooh! And here’s a question: if the anus existed before waste/death, but presumably contained the pleasure-giving nerve endings that it has now, what does that tell us about its purpose, or telos?

**Technically, modern Catholics claim that sex has two intertwined ends, the unitive and the procreative. But as soon as they argue against non-procreative sex, they go right back to Aquinas, who only recognized one, and in the process they always subordinate the unitive purpose to the procreative. 100% of the time.

Defending Marriage: Before the Fall

Note: This is the first part of a series on Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity.This series is meant to be read along with my reviews of Robert Reilly’sMaking Gay Okay,which I (try to) publish on Tuesday evenings. You can read my introduction to both series here, and a preview here.


When Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry responded to my post “Relax, Nothing Unravels” a few weeks back, he basically disagreed with everything I wrote. But he conceded one thing: “It is in my view indefensible,” he wrote, ‘to claim that ‘Christian sexual morality’ or ‘Christian gender roles’ or whatever shake down to ‘the morality of middle class white America circa 1955’ or something.”

The prologue to Anthony Esolen’s Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanityactually starts with an image meant to represent the morality of middle class white America circa 1955. Okay, take “middle class” out and replace it with “working class.” The point remains the same. Esolen writes:

In my mind’s eye I see a photograph of my parents before I came into the world. They are relaxing on the beach at a local lake, one of those little picnic areas with a concession stand for hamburgers and fries, and an arcade with skee-ball and other games of skill and luck, and picnic tables, and plenty of ordinary people with their shouting troops of children.

In those days you didn’t have to discern which lakes were good children and which weren’t, since every place except for a few of the taverns were for children, and people comported themselves accordingly. I never got the impression from my mother and father that such modesty implied any sacrifice or exercise of self-control. It was the natural expression of an innocence they had kept whole and hearty into their young adulthood.

Though his parents weren’t able to marry right away, they refrained from having sex. Not, Esolen tells us, from prudishness or simple deference to tradition, but from a deeply-felt understanding that they were meant for each other, that this understanding was written on their very bodies, and that waiting was the only to uphold the sanctity of this understanding.

You won’t catch me disparaging Esolen’s portrait of his parents’ marriage—it’s touching, and as I’ll explain in a bit, characteristic of Esolen’s best moments as a writer. Of course, the existence of virtue in one type of family is not an argument that good can be found in no other type of family. More on that in future posts.

But I do take issue with the way Esolen is using that portrait: as a snapshot of a more virtuous time. The reason that Gobry refused to boil good sexual morals down to “the morality of  middle class white America circa 1955” is that there are certain ways in which that culture was immoral, and certain ways in which our culture—flawed as it is—is more moral. Gobry explains this in an earlier, absolutely brilliant post from this June:

I think the Sexual Revolution and its various consequences have created a confusion in the minds of many people who believe themselves to be “traditional” Christians, which is to associate the sexual morality of the pre-Sexual Revolution era with the sexual morality of the Gospel; consequently to see anything that has happened between, say, 1968, as consisting only of decline and apostasy, and to look at the pre-1968 world through rose-colored glasses; consequently to believe that the mission of the Church is to return the world to this Golden Age.

It shouldn’t need saying that this point of view is, from the standpoint of Catholic Tradition, erroneous and even idolatrous. First of all because, for the reasons I have explained, there is no Golden Age. Second of all because the sexual morality of any given society or era is going to come drastically short of the Gospel. If you doubt me, read the Magisterium of John Paul II, who clearly embraced the good of what came post-1968.

I’m sure Gobry and I differ about what, specifically, was immoral about the pre-sexual revolution world. But he gets it. There were certain things about that world (yes, even in the realm of sex and gender roles) that needed to change.

Esolen doesn’t get it. Though Defending Marriage is ostensibly a book about gay marriage, and Esolen will have plenty to say about Teh Ghey (believe me), it’s really a book about what happened to America and to Western culture at large in the 1960s, a massive confluence of cultural movements that he distills into three words that he spits onto the page with such venom that they seem acidic to the touch:

The. Sexual. Revolution.

It’s a book about a before and an after, and an unrelenting attack on what came between. Having written so lovingly about his parents in the 1950s, in the next chapter Esolen will give us this contrast:

‘If you’re not with the one you love,’ sang the rockers at the Woodstock festival, ‘love the one you’re with.’

‘I’m with you,’ said a girl to a perfect stranger.

That’s a snapshot from the so-called Summer of Love. It rained hard over that weekend, and the irresponsible and childish organizers of the festival hadn’t prepared for that eventuality. No surprise, since they hadn’t prepared for the crowds, either, so the concert degenerated into a vast, muddy, litter-strewn field smelling of human waste, with thousands of people wet and cold and hungry, so that the National Guard had to be brought in to nurse them.

Two asides:

1) This is a good example of Esolen’s relationship to the facts: first, he misquotes the lyrics of “Love the One You’re With,” then he says that “rockers at the Woodstock festival” sang that song when, in fact, Stephen Stills didn’t record the song until 1970, and his band, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, did not perform it at Woodstock. Also, he says that Woodstock, which took place in 1969, happened during “the so-called Summer of Love,” which was 1967. But, whatever, man. Facts are for squares.

[Germans? Forget it, he’s rolling.]

2) Reading this, don’t you get a better understanding of the exasperation gays and lesbians feel in serving as scapegoats for all of the moral problems in the world? Some chick gets high in a muddy field in 1969 while listening to Country Joe and the Fish, so now we can’t recognize a gay couple’s lifelong, loving commitment of mutual self-sacrifice?

Back to business.

Reading those two passages side by side, you see both the strengths and weaknesses of this book. Esolen writes with real warmth and sympathy at times, but only about members of traditional families. Anyone who falls outside of that category gets derision. He’s full of nostalgia for the working class of days gone by, but he alternates between contempt and condescension when he writes about today’s working class. As in Robert Reilly’s book, gays are always activist bullies, probably depraved; people who challenge his sexual mores are always unthinking hippies. Some unfortunate figures in the book are both: “I’d warn my daughter” he writes in Chapter 8, “away from any touchy-feely teacher who preaches that feminist poison that women need men as fish need bicycles. Cast your net somewhere else, Frustrata.”

You can see, too, that Esolen’s writing is lively—every sentence he writes seems to have been written while pounding on the table. That can be stirring when he’s got a good theme and a good argument; when he doesn’t, it just gives you a headache.

But the biggest flaw in the book, what undercuts Esolen’s occasionally insightful (really!) observations on marriage, is this inability to see beyond a Fall-and-Decline narrative, or what Gobry might call Esolen’s “fidelity to a ‘prelapsarian’ sexual morality.”


I promised you stories, and since Esolen started with his family, I’ll start with mine.

My maternal grandfather walked out on my grandmother when she was in the hospital delivering my mother. That was in 1952. I know nothing about him except that fact and his last name. He was never mentioned in my family growing up, neither by my mom (who passed away in 2009) nor by my grandmother—who is as sweet as they come, and whom I will never trouble with bad memories long forgotten. Although life must have been hard for my mom and grandmother, as far as I can tell he didn’t cause them any bitterness, since bitterness is as far from their character as Atlanta is from Amsterdam. My mom’s childhood, in fact, was fairly idyllic—she rode horses, she went to great schools, and she spent her summer days tramping around the Georgia woods with my great-grandfather, who taught her to fish. Years later, she would teach me to fish.

Was their situation rare back then? I guess, but it happened on the other side of my family, too: my paternal grandfather walked out on my Grandma Rosie. I know his name, I bear his name, as does my dad. This grandfather waited until he had four sons; and, whereas my maternal grandmother had a supportive family and a solid career teaching elementary school, my Grandma Rosie, the child of Danish immigrants, only had a high school education and no family nearby to help her out. She worked as a secretary, but she also depended on the maturity of her sons, who got jobs at very young ages because they had to. When I was young, my dad reconciled with his father, who by then had another family, but I think he and my uncles never stopped thinking of their father as the man who loved them for a time and then left them. I remember after my granddad’s funeral, listening to my dad and his younger brother talking: “It was so strange,” said my uncle to my dad, “to hear everybody talking about what a family man he was.” For this uncle, my granddad was the guy who walked out on his mother. On him.

Walked out. That’s a phrase that lacks currency these days, at least among the people I know. Marriage is pretty common among my friends my age; divorce is rare. That’s not just an anecdotal observation, it’s the norm for my demographic. Divorce rates peaked in 1980, and divorce is far more common among Baby Boomers than among the generations that came after them. And, as Brad Wilcox writes, people with at least a bachelor’s degree “now enjoy marriages that are as stable and happy as those four decades ago.” All of that despite the fact that people like me are more likely than average to embrace the tenets of (dum-dum-DUM) The. Sexual. Revolution.

I do know people who have gotten divorced, usually after marrying very young. But walking out on your family? My divorced friends who have children are still good parents. Imperfect, sure, like me. To compare them to the disappearing acts that both of my grandfathers pulled would be a denial of reality.

What’s my point? Well, it’s not just that bad things happened before the Sexual Revolution, too. Even Esolen would concede that.

My point is that certain elements of the culture led to those bad things, and certain elements made those bad things worse.

I don’t know what my grandparents were thinking about when they married, and I don’t know what caused my grandfathers to leave. I imagine that they felt trapped—that they looked at their lives and saw two options, one of which was to vanish forever. Today, they would have more choices. Would that make things better? I don’t know.

To be clear, I’m not trying to soil the image of the 1950s. There’s plenty I would bring back from that era if I could. But I wouldn’t bring back the stigma that attached to single mothers in those days and became a burden on their children, even when those mothers deserved no blame at all. I wouldn’t bring back the dependency that characterized women’s relationships to men. The ironclad connection of sex to marriage that Esolen praises came with higher teen pregnancy rates, lots of bad marriages and, at times, devastating consequences for women and children when those marriages failed. It came with a society where “spousal rape” was considered a contradiction in terms, where spousal abuse was probably more common, where the idea of “vocation” for a woman was horribly limited.

Esolen wants to talk about the Sexual Revolution. Great! But if we’re going to do it honestly, we need to talk about all of these things, and we need to have in mind more images than just his parents smiling at the lakeshore. If we can do that, it will be a fun conversation.

[By the way, Michael Boyle has a must-read post along these lines on the Synod and the crisis of the family. Also, I recommend this Stephanie Coontz column from last June. In general, Coontz is good reading if you want a historical perspective on marriage.]

Next Week: Defining the Sexual Revolution—and a Detour Into Shakespeare!

Stop Everything and Go Read Bilgrimage (Again)!

First, apologies for missing my planned Thursday post on Esolen’s Defending Marriage. I’ll get it out tomorrow, and then hopefully get back on track on Tuesday with my review of Reilly’s Making Gay Okay.

But I want to do a quick post on the Synod, now that it’s wrapping up until next year. I was encouraged by the midterm relatio, and I still am encouraged by what its appearance means. But I have to say that I was overwhelmed by the vehemence of the pushback against it. As Fred Clark pointed out at his slacktivist site, there is literally one answer to the central question of paragraph 50: “[A]re we capable of welcoming these people, guaranteeing to them a fraternal space in our communities?”

One Christian answer. One.


Yes, yes, yes, a thousand times yes.

And a whole big chunk of the Christian world shouted “No!” So loudly that the American bishops struck the word “welcoming” from their version of the document. Welcome the marginalized? Absurd.

I can’t imagine a better response than the one Bill Lindsey posted today. It’s an absolute must-read: “I’m Going to Sit at the Welcome Table One of These Days. A Sunday Sermon.”

The vision of a table at which everyone sits together is one that explodes worlds. It’s one that explodes worlds in which some people count and others do not count, in which some people have a right to tables and others do not enjoy that right, in whcih some people deserve food and others do not deserve to be fed, or deserve to be fed slop as they kneel at animal troughs.
So, venerable fathers of my Roman Catholic church: you may, if you wish, continue to talk until you are blue in the face about who’s worthy to sit at your table. But no matter how long you talk, I will continue to believe that it’s God who makes the final decision about who will sit at the table that belongs to God, and not to you. I will continue to believe that all God’s children are going to sit at the welcome table one of these days.
And, yes, I’m going to tell God how you’ve treated me — though I intend to plead with Her not to deal with you as cruelly and mercilessly as you have dealt with me. Because no human being deserves such treatment, and certainly not by those who imagine they are the final judges and arbiters of who may sit at the table that belongs to God alone … .