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A Lament for First Things

I should admit at the outset, I’ve never been a fan of First Things. As far as literary-theological magazines on political issues go, I’ve always found Commonweal to be far more stimulating, and, well Christian. But, there was a time when, even if I pretty much always disagreed with Neuhaus’s “The Public Square” and most of the other political pieces in First Things, I could still find much to appreciate therein. There were substantive articles and exchanges with erudite theological reflection and debate. First Things even used to be something of a forum within which Christian scholars and activists could meaningfully disagree and argue with one another in print. Even Stanley Hauerwas had a seat at the table with Neuhaus and his neocon crowd at that time.

No longer. Over the last couple years First Things has made clear that it is no longer a literary entity capable of providing critical distance, balance, or bipartisanship in any meaningful sense of the word. First Things has jumped gleefully into bed with unabashed neoconservatism and American exceptionalism without any inhibition whatsoever. First Things now features articles by the pseudonymous “Spengler“, a regular writer for Asian Times Online, whose blatant racism and idolatrous theology of American exceptionalism should not be allowed to see the light of day in any reputable publication. The dregs of First Things these days offers little that deviates from calls for constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, anti-abortion polemics, and even tired apologias for the war in Iraq (which as William Cavanaugh has handily pointed out simply puts Neuhaus, Novak, Weigel, and their ilk at odds with the Pope).

Most recently, it seems that everyone at First Things has felt a desperate need to trash N.T. Wright over his opposition to Iraq war, insisting that a bishop such as he is unqualified to engage in “speaking out on international affairs, the war against jihadism, and Iraq.” (A post written by Peter Wehner,  Bush’s speechwriter up through 2007, by the way.)

I fear that First Things has taken its place alongside all the other conservative rags out there and, as such, has confined itself to a position of total irrelevance, pedantic jingosim, and, from a theological perspective, nationalistic idolatry. First Things has decided that it is better to grow fat off of our culture of barbarism than to confront it prophetically (unless, of course the issue happens to be homosexuality or abortion). They live now only in the time called America; Messianic time can, for them, do nothing other than serve America’s imperial ends. This I consider a sad thing indeed. While neocons nationwide may rejoice that First Things can now take its place as their bathroom reading alongside The Weekly Standard and American Vision, I can do nothing more than try to figure out a way to get the bad taste out of my mouth. You could have been more, First Things. Alas.

22 Comments

  1. Thom wrote:

    I thought the same thing when I read that First Things post. N.T. Wright is an easy target for neocons thought: he’s Anglican, British, and likes to help poor people. And did you hear he has a new perspective?

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 1:32 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    I share many of your feelings about FT, and have for some time. I still think there is hope, however, as I have despaired in much this same way many times, only to come across a brilliant piece published seemingly against all odds (Hart’s article ‘Christ and Nothing’ comes to mind). I think the unified political project embodied by journal is generally misguided, but as long as they publish articles by people like Hart and Hauerwas, it will retain the odd and almost inexplicable tension that has saved it from being worthless through the years.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 2:02 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    That’s the thing about it, every now and then there’s a really great article. Although I suspect that they way I am reading an article like Hart’s and the way that they are are two very different ways indeed.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 2:22 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    Yeah, I really wonder how some of the articles they publish get in there. The best example I can think of is Milbank’s article from 1999:

    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=3119

    I have no idea how Milbank ended up publishing in FT. I suppose the world was a different place in 1999.

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 2:50 pm | Permalink
  5. Chris wrote:

    I haven’t been patient with FT at all over the past decade—or for any “Christian” rag for that matter. Isn’t that the problem with them all? Why can’t Christians just write articles for mags that don’t presume to speak for “all” Christians?

    Like The New Republic, if you drift in that direction, or, er, The National Review if you drift in the other? Are there any good conservative political rags out there?

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  6. Jody+ wrote:

    I have noticed this same sort of negativity in FT, but also in another, more popular (in terms of style) magazine I subscribe to, Touchstone. I still subscribe to the online version of FT in order to have access to their archives and the insightful pieces that still get printed from time to time, and at the moment I still subscribe to Touchstone, but I find myself questioning why more often as every reference to any mainline church is filled with negativity and vitriol. I sometimes wonder if they know or care about the fact that they have had subscribers from among the more moderate to conservative mainline who share their stated appreciation for orthodoxy and “mere Christianity.” More and more I find these publications depressing rather than uplifting, defeatist and bitter rather than excited and hopeful about the opportunities orthodox Christians have today, and that’s a shame.

    Would anyone have any alternatives to suggest?

    Thursday, July 31, 2008 at 3:33 pm | Permalink
  7. mike d wrote:

    Hauerwas wrote a great article on MacIntyre in October issue of 07. Has it all gone wrong since then?

    I though Wright won his little debate with Neuhaus but Neuhaus’ criticism chiefly was that Wright “caricatures and derides centuries of Christian thought and piety, including the thought and piety of almost all Christians today, with respect to their understanding of eternal life”.

    Neuhaus may be wrong about that but its a theological beef not a political one. I’m fairly certain Iraq or any war didn’t even come up in their exchanges (at least in print).

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 4:14 am | Permalink
  8. A.T. wrote:

    I’d agree overall that FT has become a lamentable enterprise. However, I’d say that there are still a handful of careful and intelligent folks writing for them. R.R. Reno and Peter Leithart (who, oddly enough, writes for American Vision) readily come to mind. What do you think? Should the whole shebang be discounted or does some of the work in FT still merit consideration?

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 6:22 am | Permalink
  9. Matt wrote:

    I’d like to suggest that the rather rapid decline of FT into one extended apologia for American imperialism and war coincides precisely with the rise of Joseph Bottum as its editor several years ago. Ever since, there have been fewer and fewer articles by Hart, Hauerwas, Paul Griffiths, et al, and more and more articles by, well, Joseph Bottum, not to mention the likes of Spengler.

    Eugene McCarraher described Jean Bethke Elshtain as the “Unofficial Conscience of the State,” and the moniker fits FT nicely these days (not surprisingly, Elshtain is on the FT board).

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 7:00 am | Permalink
  10. Hill wrote:

    While there may be some empirical truth to what you are saying, Matt, Bottum’s articles are some of the most consistently interesting (and non-political, or at least less obviously “political”) that the journal publishes. I found his most recent article on the fall of the mainline Protestantism to be quite good.

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 7:45 am | Permalink
  11. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    This is truly sad.

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  12. Jon Stock wrote:

    Peter Dula’s 2004 article in Commonweal is a great read on the FT crowd. You have to have a subscription to view it, but this blogger quotes the article substantially if you want a taste:

    http://www.philocrites.com/archives/001488.html

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  13. Michael Westmoreland-White wrote:

    Halden,
    Since I do not have your email (although I once did), I am misusing this space to invite you to be a guest blogger. See this post:
    http://levellers.wordpress.com/2008/08/01/invitation-to-guest-series-recovering-neglected-theologians/

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 9:27 am | Permalink
  14. Dave wrote:

    I seem to share the same feelings as the consensus, although I have never really been a regular reader or even a casual reader. I once read a Hauerwas article and was impressed, so I bookmarked the site to check back later. Then I checked back, and it was some political nonsense, so I was confused for a while.

    Now I just judge by whoever the author is.

    Friday, August 1, 2008 at 9:16 pm | Permalink
  15. Jordan wrote:

    Whew. Folks– just recently in FT we’ve had Richard Hays’ review of BVI’s book on Jesus, Hauerwas’s essay on MacIntyre, Paul Griffiths on Steven Pinker, Thomas Hibbs on Alister McGrath, Alan Jacobs on Martin Amis, Rusty Reno on biblical criticism, James K. A. Smith on Pentecostalism… etc., etc.

    I’m guessing that y’all have some regard for those folks. And they write for FT, rather than lament its “demise.”

    Also, as for Neuhaus– sure, it’s OK to disagree with him, but you have to engage with him first. Go back and read his stuff on how to think about America and the Church. It’s not just “neocon” warmongering, etc. He has a lot in common with Oliver O’Donovan’s political theology. Hauerwas himself of course disagrees w/ O’Donovan and Neuhaus, but he engages with them first.

    Btw, I recently discovered this blog, and I’ve become a regular reader. It’s very, very good. And I think y’all are too thoughtful and theologically grounded to actually dismiss FT like this. You folks seem to be big fans of Duke theology, and so am I. But the profs like Hays, Griffiths, and Hauerwas don’t dismiss or denigrate FT– they respectfully engage it even if they disagree with it.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 10:50 am | Permalink
  16. Halden wrote:

    Jordan, if you peruse the comments on this thread, you’ll see that we do indeed talk a good deal about the still-good articles that sometimes appear in First Things. I didn’t mean to imply that they never ever include anything good, merely that they have pushed the edge of the envelope far further with the blatently idolatrous neoconservative pieces that they allow to appear, and these pieces have come to dominate the thrust of the publication as a whole. Demagogues like Spengler and Wehner should not be given any sort of voice in any remotely Christian publication. Perhaps I should have been more clear, but my point was not that FT never prints anything worthwhile, it is rather that it has embraced an overarching trajectory that is highly partisan, ideological, and to my reading idolatrous. Hence my lament.

    Also, I don’t think you should infer from one very brief blog post that people haven’t ever read O’Donovan or Neuhaus or know the content of their actual work. Also, there are some key differences between O’Donovan and Neuhaus which should not be glossed over, not least of which is O’Donovan’s willingness to engage the just war tradition seriously and carefully, whereas Neuhaus has simply hitched his horse to Elshtain’s horrible “just war against terror” tripe. Neuhaus would like to enlist O’Donovan as supplying a theopolitical substructure to his thought, but I don’t think it really works. O’Donovan is a far better and more culturally critical theologian than Neuhaus who is rapidly becoming more and more of a cookie-cutter conservative Catholic.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 5:35 pm | Permalink
  17. Jordan wrote:

    Halden,

    Thanks. And yes, you’re right, many people on this thread have mentioned several worthwhile articles in recent issues of FT. Although, the tone in which they were mentioned was more along the lines of, “Isn’t it amazing that something worthwhile makes it through every once in a while?” Of course, I wouldn’t want to argue that each and every article is worthwhile. The criticism of the Spengler piece is well-taken. But our difference is just here. Are the good pieces now the exception to the rule, or are the Spenglerian pieces the exception? And I would argue that the latter is true.

    Whether or not one would agree would of course have a lot to do with the perspective one takes on various issues. For instance: Is Commonweal less partisan than FT? Or does it rather take a different perspective, coming more from the left? If a magazine is overly partisan– in a pejorative sense– it would mean that it unthinkingly toes a party line, seeking first to support a party perspective, rather than giving first place to a thoughtful and self-critical pursuit of the truth.

    Now obviously, FT is conservative. No one is disputing that, least of all the FT editors. But there’s nothing per se wrong with being conservative or liberal, if one’s first allegiance is to the truth rather than the support of a party line. To accuse FT of being “partisan” would be to say that they put party over truth, position statement over God. That’s a large claim and serious if true. Is that what you mean to say? Apparently, yes. And I would certainly want to disagree if so.

    Next point: Yes, I can tell that most people here know O’Donovan well, and probably better than I do. I’ll concede that, and I didn’t mean to say otherwise. But it is quite common for people to affix the “neocon” label to Neuhaus and then suppose that they know all they need to know. Now, I have no idea how much folks here have read of Neuhaus. But I’m not sure how a careful reading can support the claim that his position is “tripe,” neither serious nor careful, and moreover is idolatrous. Those are strong words, and I would say ought to be carefully defended. Once again I would strongly disagree.

    Halden, this is a great blog you have going here. I’d like to hear more about why you feel able to make such strong claims about Neuhaus. “Idolatry” just isn’t something to throw around lightly, and I hope that you don’t mean it lightly. Obviously, I think the charge is unfair and I do take issue with it.

    One of my main points, which I think bears repeating, is that people such as O’Donovan, Hays, Griffiths, Wainright, Hauerwas, David Hart, Robert Jenson, Rusty Reno, etc., wouldn’t make these sorts of claims about Neuhaus. Would they disagree with him? Yes, of course. But disagreement and charges of idolatry are two different things. We know what Elijah had to say about the latter!

    I’ll look forward to hearing more from you and other commenters. Thanks again.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 8:46 pm | Permalink
  18. Halden wrote:

    Jordan, clearly what you’re looking for would take more than combox discussions. Should time and fortune allow, perhaps I’ll be able to post a fuller critique of Neuhaus in days to come. I would want to clarify that I did not call him an idolater, I rather said that the views he holds, I consider to be idolatrous. What I meant by all that was not to make an accusation against Neuhaus personally, as though I thought he were intentionally worship false gods, only to identify that the outworking of his political and theological views leads to practices that I consider to be predatory on the sole worship of the God of Jesus Christ. For whatever that distinction is worth. Glad you’re enjoying the blog and thanks for the continued comments. All the best.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 8:59 pm | Permalink
  19. Hill wrote:

    Just to humanize the Neuhaus discussion a bit, I have a fairly deep respect for both his faith and his intellect, but for that reason, I find his protoypically neoconservative positions on some issues all the more baffling. I still enjoy reading his columns, and no one does snarky like Neuhaus (that’s a compliment). Still, I don’t see how one could, in good conscience, come to the conclusions about the making of war in the 21st century (for example) that the orthodox FT crowd has come to, especially as a Catholic.

    Saturday, August 2, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  20. Jordan wrote:

    Thanks, and I’ll look forward to hearing your fuller response. I think a discussion here could be interesting. Too much of what passes for discussion about this sort of thing doesn’t get much further than name-calling and labeling: e.g., “neocon,” which to some apparently obviates the need for further explanation. We can do better than that.

    In the meantime, you might like to take a look at:

    “Our American Babylon,” FT December ’05
    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=268

    For reflections on “Christian America,” see FT June/July ’01:
    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=2200

    On Iraq and just-war theory, see “War and Statecraft,” exchange btw. George Weigel and Rowan Williams, FT March ’04:
    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=313

    Also probably pertinent is the infamous “End of Democracy” forum. No one back then thought Neuhaus was in danger of setting up America as an idol… precisely the opposite, actually.

    Finally, this 2005 quote, from here:
    http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=177

    ““And so,” writes Gelernter, “we circle back to the beginnings of Protestantism, which begot Puritanism, which begot Americanism.” There is no room for Catholicism in this telling of the story. “Papism” and Anglicanism’s compromise with papism are the Pharaoh from which God delivered his Puritans who begot Americanism. That aspect of Gelernter’s American religion is troubling, to put it delicately, but many will be even more troubled by the hubris of Americans being “positive that their nation is superior to all others—morally superior, closer to God,” that America is “a promised land, a chosen people, and [has] a universal, divinely ordained mission.” The promised land? The chosen people? More than all others? Presumably Gelernter, being a Jew, would not say so, although I am not sure.

    Certainly, Christians must not say so. Christ and his body the Church is our first community, prior in time and prior in allegiance. Jews can speak to the Haggadah, but an American Anamnesis is, not to put too fine a point on it, idolatry. It is a welcome development of great importance that thinking about America and Providence is receiving renewed attention. The direction pointed by David Gelernter, however, ends up in conclusions that contributed to discrediting such thinking in the past.”

    Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 9:15 pm | Permalink
  21. Jordan wrote:

    Halden– One more thing, re: your last paragraph:

    “I fear that First Things has taken its place alongside all the other conservative rags out there and, as such, has confined itself to a position of total irrelevance, pedantic jingosim, and, from a theological perspective, nationalistic idolatry. First Things has decided that it is better to grow fat off of our culture of barbarism than to confront it prophetically (unless, of course the issue happens to be homosexuality or abortion). They live now only in the time called America; Messianic time can, for them, do nothing other than serve America’s imperial ends. This I consider a sad thing indeed. While neocons nationwide may rejoice that First Things can now take its place as their bathroom reading alongside The Weekly Standard and American Vision, I can do nothing more than try to figure out a way to get the bad taste out of my mouth.”

    ————————

    You can see, I think, why I continue to take serious issue with this, and why I think you do need to engage more fully and sympathetically with Neuhaus and the magazine. Of course Neuhaus is not one to shy away from polemic himself, but I’d say these sentences of yours have turned into belittlement and condescension. And additionally, are an untrue and unfair characterization of Neuhaus’ positions, both personally and editorially.

    First Things lives “only in the time called America,” with no purpose for the Messiah other than to “serve America’s imperial ends”? Really? This is something that can be said, with Christian concern for truth and charity, of Neuhaus and his magazine?

    I think you can do better than that. I’m honestly not looking to score points here, Halden– in fact, I likely wouldn’t have written so much but for the fact that I’ve spent a good deal of time reading your blog, and, as I said, am a big fan. You strike me as a truly thoughtful and charitable person. You can do better than this.

    Sunday, August 3, 2008 at 9:35 pm | Permalink
  22. michaeloneillburns wrote:

    Halden,
    Great post. You articulate what I’ve been feeling for quite sometime.

    On the topic of some of the ‘good’ theologians distancing themselves from FT; I know for a FACT that Milbank has intentionally stopped writing for them and basically thinks they are a bunch of neo-con idiots. I’ve heard that Hauerwas has made similar comments, but wasn’t there so won’t make any definitive statements.

    It really is terrible that these guys present themselves as Americas catholic theological sensibility. Most Catholics in Europe would likely find them insane, unreadable, and ultimatley unbearable.

    Cheers,
    Michael

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 9:24 am | Permalink

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