A Light-Hearted Requiem for Old Europe

Reflections on The Grand Budapest Hotel

One must forgive some viewers for mistaking Wes Anderson’s recent film The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) for comedy. The film was billed as such. But, as in the case of its titular edifice and the rest of Anderson’s corpus, beneath a light-hearted veneer lurks deep melancholy. Ostensibly this is a caper about a hotel concierge dodging murder charges while chasing a vast fortune. At the same time, it is also a portrait of Old Europe—along with its Jewishness—in the midst of its dying. Beneath the film’s cartoonish frivolity lies that tragedy.

Read More »

The Minds of Others

Reading Advice for Extroverts

Have you ever wanted to read someone’s mind? That is the power of books. They invite us into the minds of others, to see the world through their eyes. The bookish among us know this. This essay is not for them. I have a friend who is a well-educated and thoughtful people person. He recently admitted to me that he has little desire to read—but he wants to want to read. This essay is for him and for those like him.

Read More »

The Winter of Our Salvation

The Kingdom of God vs. the American Dream

“You ought to be happy, healthy, fit, wealthy, comfortable, and popular. All you need is the right state of mind.” Substitute the phrase “God wants you to be” at the beginning of the message, and there you have the core message of not a few television preachers. The message runs deep in U.S. culture. It strikes at the heart of the latest iteration of the “American Dream.”

Physical and financial prosperity are not wrong, but they are spiritually perilous, for they distract from things that actually matter. The message of easy living has its appeal because it is exactly what many of us want to hear. It claims to offer empowerment to the powerless and wealth to the poor. Yet this is ultimately a false hope, for its focus is on the outwardly visible measures of Success, that falsest and most American of all the false gods.

Read More »

Perverse Incentives

What College Rankings Actually Do

American colleges and universities rise and fall based on their rising and falling in a handful of rankings. This is true to a significant extent in terms of their finances, reputations, and general welfare. Up and up or down and down, as goes its rank, so goes the university. U.S. News and World Report’s is the most influential. Forbes, The Princeton Review, and others offer alternatives with slightly different methodologies and surprisingly similar results. All purport to demonstrate which colleges and universities have the best academic programs. All of them fail to do so. By virtue of measuring many things unrelated to quality of education, they incentivize the diverting of resources away from educating students.

The established rankings show institutional wealth, both directly and indirectly. They also show an institution’s popularity, both among prospective students, enrolled students, and faculty at peer institutions. Many also emphasize how well their incoming students performed in high school, shown by grades and standardized test scores. The rankings show little else. But by providing the illusion of demonstrating educational quality, the rankings incentivize many things but not support for the actual quality of education at any given institution.

Read More »

Our Cross to Bear

Conclusions on Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 7 of 7)

We as a society are busy pointing out crises. Some pending disasters merely threaten to destroy individuals, while others threaten communities or even our species. Yet, we often seem disinclined to take action. The reasons include disagreements about which crises are real, which ones are critical, and how to best approach them. We should be not only resolving present crises but discerning their source and how to prevent future ones.

In the preceding weeks’ meditations on the nature of collective guilt and shared human responsibility, a number of general principles are evident.

Read More »

The Air We Breathe

The Environment and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 6 of 7)

The polar caps are melting. Extreme weather events occur with greater frequency. Air quality has reached abysmal levels in major urban areas worldwide. Global consumption vastly outstrips the replenishment of natural resources. Many individuals respond to these realities with denial, cynicism, and a sense of futility. Rather than defining terms and demonstrating premises, this post will take these facts as givens; those seeking to contest them had best look elsewhere.

As urgently as any current crisis and with great clarity, the state of the environment demonstrates both the at times collective nature of guilt and the shared nature of human responsibility. In fact, to a greater extent than other issues explored thus far in this series, the environment illustrates with particular clarity a general principle governing guilt and responsibility: distribution is uneven. While guilt and responsibility may transcend individuals, some individuals are implicated more directly and fully than others.

Read More »

Their Blood Cries Out to God

Reflections for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Not long after the beginning, Genesis tells us that there were two brothers. One killed the other. “And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground’” (Gen. 4:10). This is the Lord’s response when the murderer denies knowing where his brother is and asks, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We humans are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers; and yet we have been disowning and killing each other since the beginning.

On this day seventy years ago, the last prisoners were liberated from Auschwitz. On this day today, we commit to remembering the more than six million Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, and others who were rejected and murdered by their fellow humans. Their blood still cries out to God from the ground.

Read More »

From Brother to Brother

Gender, Sexuality, and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 5 of 7)

Many people in the world face the persistent threat of sexual assault and see their career prospects diminished because of their gender, as a recent study shows. Some of these same individuals—but also many others—face ridicule and rejection because they find themselves attracted to people of the same gender. Some face similar treatment because they find themselves from a very early age alienated from their own bodies, understanding their gender identity to be other than their biological sex.

And then there is the rest of humanity. Some of us have the luxury of being able to ignore others’ struggles and to deny that gender and sexual identity define our lives in significant measure. Not all of us do ignore or deny their impact—and none of us should—but many can and some do. Straight, non-trans men, that’s us.

Ironically (and perhaps unfortunately), the cause of justice for women, including transwomen, for transmen, for gays, and for those who reject traditional binary definitions of gender and/or sexuality, depends in part measure on us.

I am not advocating the idea that women need men more than men need women. Neither am I proposing an androcentric noblesse oblige. Rather, I am drawing attention to the facts that those who are straight, non-trans, and male have been among the greatest perpetrators of injustice against those who are not, and that those of us who are not perpetrators are too often silent. People need people, and humanity needs all the people—or at least the vast majority of the people—to be on board with solving its most pressing issues. Issues of justice relating to gender and sexuality are no different.

You do not even need to believe that non-traditional approaches to gender and sexuality are moral to recognize that you and people like you, including your faith community, have been complicit in failing to love all people and love them well.

Read More »

A Threat to One of Us is a Threat to All of Us

Genocide and Shared Human Responsibility (Communal Guilt Part 4 of 7)

Few of humanity’s transgressions seem as weighty as genocide. The average American high school student knows this, if they have paid any attention at all. Some see Schindler’s List or excerpts of The Holocaust miniseries. Many read Night, The Diary of Anne Frank, or Maus. The Holocaust looms large.

A focus on the Holocaust risks endowing it with a sense of uniqueness. Yes, it was unique in its scale, intensity, and efficiency; but genocides had happened before and they have continued to happen since. We must not teach with depth at the expense of breadth, lest students falsely assume that genocide is either a phenomenon of the past or will remain perpetually someone else’s problem.

Read More »