Culture

Audiobooks, The Word Spoken

By Deal W. Hudson

Homer, the first great poet of the West, wasn’t a writer but a performer, with the dining halls of ancient Greece as his stage. Before the advent of written literature, the medium of poetry was dramatic utterance and song. Eyes were no more necessary to the enjoyment of words than they were to blind Homer’s creation of his epics.

Now, thanks to sprawling suburbs and lengthy job commutes, united with the digital age, the Homeric practice of listening to literature rather than reading it is back in fashion with the burgeoning business of audiobooks. Taped literature originated in 1932, when the American Foundation for the Blind created the Talking Book on long-playing records (themselves an innovation). Two years later, the Library of Congress introduced the Readophone, which could contain as much as two hours and 20 minutes of literature and music.

The modern “recorded book” was launched in a moment of glory in 1952, when Dylan Thomas recorded his “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” for Caedmon at the Chelsea Hotel in New York City. This may still be the most nearly perfect recording of anything by anyone. Listening to “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” and other recordings of Thomas reciting his own poetry-or his lectures, often delivered while he was intoxicated, will likely convert anyone to the recorded-book medium. The unmatched beauty of Thomas’ voice will stick in your memory and become the measure of everything else you hear.

Several other early “star” readers deserve to be mentioned along with Thomas in the audiobook hall of fame. Sir John Gielgud left a large legacy of recordings, from early Argo vinyl disks to readings of Pilgrim’s Progress and Brideshead Revisited on the Caedmon label. Unfortunately, Gielgud’s version of the Brideshead is abridged. Jeremy Irons, the star of the 1982 television miniseries version of Brideshead, has an unabridged version of Evelyn Waugh’s novel nearly as good. Jeremy Irons made splash some years ago with a complete recording of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for Random House to complement his appearance as Humbert Humbert in the 1998 film version of that novel. The reading is a total tour de force, for adults only, of course.

The recorded audiobook, so convenient for automobile listening, had its beginnings in 1948, soon after Ampex started mass-producing the tape recorder. The first taped audiobooks were designed not for commuters but for blinded veterans of World War II. Philips produced its first mobile audiocassette, known as the 8-track, in 1963. By 1975, the smaller cassette had replaced the 8-track in most cars and homes. The biggest boost to recorded books came in 1979, when Sony introduced the Walkman, adding joggers and bus riders to its pool of listeners. Then came digital files that could be downloaded and stored, or streamed through, on personal computers, tablets, iPhones, and Androids. You can listen to an audiobook anywhere.

A sure sign that recorded books came of age was novelist-journalist Tom Wolfe’s decision to write the first stand-alone audiobook, Ambush at Fort Bragg (1997), read by Edward Norton (Bantam Audio). That same year, Audible came into being offering digital audio players four years before the iPod was introduced. In 1998, Audible created its first website for downloading books onto personal computers. Though struggling in the first few years, Audible has experienced a meteoric rise in visibility and sales. This growth was stimulated largely by the launching of Audible Air in 2005, making it possible to directly and wirelessly download books to PDAs (personal digital assistant) – no computer needed. Audible’s content has burgeoned to over 150,000 audio programs amounting to over 1,500,000 hours of programming.

I joined Audible in March 2003, almost 10 years ago, and have experienced its move into the wireless age. So it seems like an appropriate time to take stock. Here are all the books I’ve downloaded in the past decade, and if I have listened to them completely I have rated them in tiers from 1 to 6, with two additional tiers to indicated those I have not finished or those I plan to read in the future. That I did not finish should not necessarily be regarded as a lack of a recommendation because my lack of interest could have been due to my mood at the time. More than once, I have returned to a book I didn’t care for in the past and enjoyed it thoroughly, Proust’s Swann’s Way comes to mind – loved it the second time around. A good audiobook will remind that the origins of storytelling, of all fiction, are in the word spoken.

Before the tiers, may I first offer a few awards to:

Most Enjoyable: Frank Langella, Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
Most Deeply Moving: Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
Best Memoir: William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf
Best Classic Novel: Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Montecristo, read by John Lee.
Biggest Disappointment: Tom Wolfe, Back to Blood
Best Self-Help, Steven Pressfield, Do the Work
Most Funny: Justin Halpern, I Suck at Girls
Most Laughs: Stephen King, 11-22-63: A Novel
Most Touching: Tony Bennett, Life is a Gift
Best American History: Winston Groome, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans
Best European History: Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
Best Celebrity Bio: William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
Biggest Scare: Reginald Hill, The Woodcutter
Most Gripping: James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
Best Poetry: William Shakespeare, Ages of Man, read by Sir John Gielgud
Best Performance: Hartley & Hewson, Macbeth: A Novel, ready by Alan Cumming
Best Portrait of the Present Age: Deborah Moggach, The Ex-Wives, a novel.

Tier 1: The Best: a great place to sample an audiobook if have been reluctant or uninterested.

1. James M. Cain, The Postman Always Rings Twice
2. Philip Roth, American Pastoral
3. Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand: A Novel
4. Paul Collins, The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars
5. Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Montecristo
6. Tony Bennett, Life is a Gift
7. Steven Pressfield, The Virtues of War: A Novel of Alexander the Great
8. Roger Kahn, A Flame of Pure Fire: Jack Dempsey and the Roaring ’20s
9. James L. Swanson, Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer
10. Gillian Flynn, Gone Girl
11. Neal Bascomb, Hunting Eichman
12. Stephen King, 11-22-63: A Novel
13. Robert Zorn, Cemetery John: The Undiscovered Mastermind Behind the Lindbergh Kidnapping
14. Margaret George,The Autobiography of Henry VIII
15. Winston Groome, Patriotic Fire: Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans
16. Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch
17. William J. Mann, How to Be a Movie Star: Elizabeth Taylor in Hollywood
18. Anne Applebaum, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956
19. Laura Moriarty, The Chaperone
20. Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fy: A Novel
21. Compton MacKenzie, Whisky Galore
22. Emma Donohue, Room: A Novel
23. Frank Langella, Dropped Names, Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them
24. Reginald Hill, The Woodcutter
25. James Salter, A Sport and a Pastime
26. William Shakespeare, Age of Man, read by Sir John Gielgud
27. James Lasdun, Give Me Everything You Have

Tier 2: Please read this: (Which also applies the tier above)

1. Anton Chekhov, The Short Stories, v. 1
2. Somerset Maugham, Short Stories, v. 3
3. Carl Hiaasen, Skin Tight
4. Guy de Maupassant, Short Stories, v. 1
5. Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice
6. William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
7. Joe R. Lansdale, Sunset and Sawdust
8. Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road
9. Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers
10. Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories
11. Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
12. William Maxwell, The Folded Leaf
13. William Maxwell, The Chateau
14. Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
15. James Agee, A Death in the Family
16. Michael Caine, The Elephant to Hollywood
17. Jess Walter, The Financial Lives of Poets
18. Max Hastings, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945
19. Ford Maddox Ford, Parade’s End
20. Charles Dickens, David Copperfield
21. John Green, The Fault in Our Starts
22. Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre Dame
23. Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities
24. Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
25. Hartley & Hewson, Macbeth: A Novel
26. Rachel Joyce, Perfect: A Novel
27. Donald Dewey, James Stewart: A Biography
28. Donald Spoto, Marilyn Monroe: The Biography
29. Philipp Meyer, The Son
30. F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
31. Madeline Miller, The Song of Achilles: A Novel
32. Theresa Anne Fowler, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald
33. Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin
34. Justin Halpern, I Suck at Girls

Tier 3: A strongly recommended read:

1. Mike Waltari, The Egyptian
2. Nancy Mitford, The Sun King: Louis XIV at Versailles
3. Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way
4. Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies
5. Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
6. A. J. Langguth, Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence
7. Jess Walter, Beautiful Ruins
8. Bob Rotella, Putting Out of Mind
9. Emile Zola, Therese Raquin
10. Marion Meade, Bobbed Hair and Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties
11. Anthony Doerr, About Grace
12. Edith Wharton, False Dawn
13. Boris Akunin, The Winter Queen
14. Ernst Junger, The Storm of Steel
15. George Eliot, Middlemarch
16. Simon Sebaq Montefiore, Young Stalin
17. Multiple authors, The Chopin Manuscript: A Serial Thriller
18. Stieg Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Trilogy, Book 1
19. Jane Harris, The Observations
20. Adam Carolla, In Fifty Years We’ll All Be Chicks
21. Kenneth S. Lynn, Charlie Chaplin and His Times
22. David Thompson, The Moment of ‘Psycho’
23. Tony Horowitz, Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War
24. S. J. Watson, Before I Go to Sleep: A Novel
25. Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin
26. Michael Hauge, Screenwriting for Hollywood
28. Barbara Tuchman, The Zimmerman Telegram
29. Carl Hiaasen, Strip Tease
30. John Dos Passos, 1919
31. Gillian Flynn, Dark Places: A Novel
32. Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian
33. Melvyn Bragg, A Time to Dance
34. Compton MacKenzie, Monarch of the Glen
35. Andrew L. Mellen, Unstuff Your Life: Kick the Clutter Habit
36. Thomas, Hardy, Wessex Tales
37. Selden Edwards, The Lost Prince
38. Devin McKinney, The Men Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda
39. John Banville, Ancient Light
40. Patricia Wentworth, Spotlight
41. Maggie Shipstead, Seating Arrangements
42. Sol Stein, Stein on Writing
43. Robert McKee, Story
44. Steven Pressfield, Do the Work
45. Michael Frayn, Skios
46. Julian Fellows, Snobs
47. Judi Dench, And Furthermore
48. Patricia Highsmith, Selected Novels and Short Stories
49. Medavoy & Young, You’re Only as Good as Your Next One; 100 Great Films, 100 Good Films, and 100 for which I Should Be Shot
50. Bart & Gruber, Shoot Out: Surviving Fame and (Mis)Fortune in Hollywood
51. Deborah Moggach, The Ex-Wives
52. Jason Zinoman, Shock Value
53. Julian Fellows, Past Imperfect
54. Wyn Craig Wade, The Titanic: Disaster of the Century
55. Robin Sloan, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore
56. Graham Greene, The Heart of the Matter
57. Walker Percy, Love in the Ruins
58. Tom Standage, A History of the World in 6 Glasses
59. Bruce Levine, The Fall of the House of Dixie
60. Joe Lansdale, Edge of Dark Water
61. Donald L. Miller, Masters of the Air: America’s Bomber Boys Who Fought Against Nazi Germany
62. Ethan Mordden, The Hollywood Studios: House Style in the Golden Age of Movies
63. Classic Christmas Stories
64. Classic Christmas Radio Plays
65. Anthony Horowitz, The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery Novel
66. Elizabeth von Arnim, Love
67. Edward Ball, The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures
68. Diana Preston, Cleopatra and Antony: Power, Love and Politics in the Ancient World
69. James Dickey, Deliverance
70. Jane Ellen Wayne, Clark Gable: Portrait of a Misfit George Saunders, Tenth of December
71. D. J. Taylor, Derby Day: A Novel
72. Robert Lewis Taylor, W. C. Fields: His Follies and Fortunes
73. Holly Goddard Jones, The Next Time You See Me
74. Dan Schultz, Dead Run: The Murder of a Lawman and the Greatest Manhunt of the Modern American West
75. Michael & Elizabeth Norman, Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March
76. Erskine Childers, The Riddle of the Sands
77. Emma Donohue, Landing
78. William Landay: Defending Jacob: A Novel
79. Louise Penny, The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel
80. Bram Stoker, Dracula
81. Vita Sackville-West, All Passion Spent
82. Alyson Richman, The Lost Wife: A Novel
83. C.V. Wedgwood, The ThirtyYears War
84. Tony Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, the War of 1812
85. Javier Marias, The Infatuations
86. Charles Bukowski, Hollywood
87. Michael Dibdin, Cabal: Aurelio Zen, Book 3
88. Scott Weidensaul, The First Frontier: The Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America
89. Fred Anderson, The War That Made America
90. Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin
91. Simon Winchester: The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics, and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible
92. Ross King, The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade that Gave the World Impressionism

Tier 4: A worthwhile and enjoyable read:

1. Ernest Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls
2. James Meek, The People’s Act of Love
3. Rumer Godden, The Greengage Summer
4. Thomas Hardy, Two on the Tower
5. Guy de Maupassant, Normandy Stories
6. Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat
7. Stendhal, Scarlet and Black
8. Patrick deWitt, The Sisters Brothers
9. Yasunari Kawabata, Beauty and Sadness
10. Joanne Harris, Blackberry Wine
11. Cormac McCarthy, The Road
12. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage, v. 1 & v. 2
13. Crimes of Passions (various short stories)
14. Arthur Conan Doyle, The Sign of the Four
15. Christina Stead, The Man Who Loved Children
16. Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
17. Tiny Fey, Bossypants
93. Elmore Leonard, Road Dogs
94. Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich
95. Jo Nesbo, The Redbreast
96. P. G. Wodehouse, The Adventures of Bertie and Jeeves, v. 1
97. Dennis Miller, Ranting Again
98. Michael Diblin, End Games
99. Noel Coward, The Noel Coward Reader
100. P. G. Wodehouse, A Pelican at Blandings
101. T. C. Boyle, The Women: A Novel
102. G. J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918
103. Stephen Simpson, Play Magic Golf
104. Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
105. Brett & Kate McKay, The Art of Manliness
106. Martin Cruz Smith, Polar Star
107. Graham Gardner, Inventing Eliot
108. Joseph Parent, Golf: The Art of the Mental Game
109. Bob Rotella, The Unstoppable Golfer
110. Patricia Highsmith, Ripley Under Water
111. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies
112. Martin Sixsmith, Russia: Part One: From Rulers to Revolutions
113. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
114. Mark Kermode, It’s Only a Movie
115. Barbara Comyns, The Vet’s Daughter
116. Andrew Miller, Pure
117. Sean Ryan, Be the Ball
118. Suzanne Fagence Cooper, Effie: The Passionate Lives of Effie Gray, John Ruskin, and John Everett Millais
119. Robert Louis Stevenson, The Master of Ballantree
120. Charlotte Rogan, The Lifeboat
121. Alex Grecian, The Yard
122. David Morrell, The Successful Novelist
123. Robert Goddard, Caught in the Light
124. Wiley Cash, A Land More Kind Than Home
125. Elfriede Jelinek, Greed
126. Gregory A. Freeman, The Forgotten 500
127. Gregg Hurwitz, They’re Watching
128. Robert W. Merry, A Country of Vast Designs: James K. Polk, the Mexican War and the Conquest of the American Continent
129. Susan Wise Bauer, The History of the Renaissance World
130. Ian Burma, The Year Zero: A History of the Year 1945
131. Schmidt & Rendon, Writers Between the Covers
132. Eve Golden, John Gilbert
133. Christopher Isherwood, Prater Violent
134. G. J. Meyer, The Borgias: The Hidden History
135. Dan Callahan, Barbara Stanwyck: The Miracle Woman: Hollywood Legends (read the new bio by Victoria Wilson)
136. Mason Currey, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work
137. Lawrence Durrell, The Black Book
138. Michael Paterson, A Brief History of Life in Victorian Britain
139. Peter FitzSimons, Nancy Wake
140. Reginald Hill, A Cure for All Diseases
141. John Creasey, The Toff and the Fallen Angels
142. Barbara Leaming, If This Was Happiness: A Biography of Rita Hayworth
143. Stephen King, Joyland
144. Billy Crystal, Still Foolin’ Em
145. Matthew G. Lewis, The Monk

Tier 5: Should have been better:

1. Tom Wolfe: Back to Blood
2. Julie Andrews, Julie Andrews, Home: A Memoir of My Early Years
3. Karen Russell, Swamplandia
4. Russell Shorto, The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan
5. John M. Barry, The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

Tier 6: Avoid

1. Nick Tosches, Me and the Devil: A Novel
2. Kyung-Ran, Tongue

Tier 7: Left unfinished:

1. Peter Cary, My Life as a Fake
2. Alexander Lernet-Holenia, Count Luna
3. Collins and Lapierre, O Jerusalem
4. James Shapiro, A Year in the Life of Shakespeare
5. R.D. Wingfield, A Killing Frost
6. William Murray, City of the Soul
7. Eleanor Updale, Montmorency
8. Halldor Laxness, Under the Glacier
9. Anthony Powell, A Dance to the Music of Time: First Movement
10. Daniel Suarez, Daemon
11. Margaret MacMillan: The Modern Scholar: Six Months That Changed the World
12. Michelle Moran, Madame Tussaud: A Novel of the French Revolution
13. J. Randy Taraborrelli, Elizabeth (The Mann bio is so much better!)
14. Elizabeth Douglas Jackson, Caligua
15. Justin Cronin, The Passage
16. Alexander Soderberg, The Andalucian Friend: A Novel
17. Michael Korda, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia
18. John Connolly, The Gates
19. Glenn Frankel, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend
20. Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy
21. David R. Gillham, City of Women
22. Alison Moore, The Lighthouse
23. James Hogg, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
24. Cervantes, Don Quixote (this is just so long!)
25. John Boyle, The Absolutist
26. John D. McDonald, The Deep Blue Good-By
27. A.L. Kennedy, The Blue Book
28. Stephen Harrigan, Remember Ben Clayton
29. George & Weedon Grossmith, The Diary of a Nobody
30. Margaret MacMillan, Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World

Tier 8: On my reading list for the future.

1. Mitchell Zuckoff, Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
2. LeRoy Ashby, With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830
3. George Simenon, Pietr the Latvian
4. Amy S. Greenberg, A Wicked War: Polk, Clay, Lincoln and the 1946 Invasion of Mexico
5. Ross King, Leonardo and the Last Supper
6. Terence Stamp, Double Feature
7. David Bordwell, The Way Hollywood Tells It
8. Henry James, Portrait of a Lady
9. Andrei Makine, A Hero’s Daughter
10. Andrei Makine, Music of a Life
11. Robert Goddard, Past Caring
12. Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend
13. Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now
14. Florian Illies, 1913: The Year Before the Storm
15. Bruce Courtenay, The Potato Factory: The Australian Trilogy, Book 1
16. Ivan Turgenev, Torrents of Spring
17. Charles Emerson, 1913: In Search of the World Before the Great War
18. Edmund Crispin, Swan Song
19. Marisha Pessi, Night Film: A Novel
20. Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
21. Sean McMeekin, July 1914: Countdown to War

Published at Catholic Online, 2002.

 

Passion, Not Prejudice-Mel Gibson’s Christ

By Deal W. Hudson

Mel Gibson’s Passion is finally in movie theaters. Now people can see for themselves what all the hubbub is about. Most, I believe, will leave the theater shaken to the core by the terrible beauty of Gibson’s masterpiece. The media-driven expectation of an anti-Semitic portrayal of the Jews will be swept away by the spectacle of a man of peace abused, scourged, crucified, betrayed, and abandoned by all but a few of his family and friends.

When the ridiculous charges of anti-Semitism have finally passed, two questions will have to be asked. First, why was the attack on Gibson so pro-longed, so vicious, so multifaceted? Second, why did none of the liberal crowd who joined in the public hounding of Gibson ever concern themselves with his artistic freedom?

It was not that long ago when Andres Serrano was dipping a crucifix in urine to the delight of the New York Times and the anti-Catholic elites of the art world. Catholics who were offended at such vulgarity on display in an exhibit funded by public dollars were accused of censorship and the Philistine refusal of artistic license. Indeed it has been a virtual calling card of the left to place unflattering portrayals of Christianity in the arts beyond criticism. How, they ask, can the imagination of the artist be measured by the traditional religious creeds?

But what happens when an artist puts the central fact of the creed—”He suffered, died, and was buried”—on a movie screen? Apparently, concern for Gibson’s freedom as an artist no longer applies. When a major movie star employs all his talent and celebrity to put a conventional Passion play on film, everyone from seminary professors to movie critics and liberal pundits forget their defense of film director Martin Scorcese’s The Last Temptation of Christ a generation ago.

Once we acknowledge that the intelligentsia defends anything religiously heterodox, it then becomes apparent why Gibson’s film has drawn so much heavy fire. It’s perfectly fine if the meaning of Christianity is seen through the humanist vision of a Martin Scorcese or a Martin Sheen. Soon we’ll have a film version of The Da Vinci Code with its preposterous thesis about the marriage of Jesus to Mary Magdalene and about which liberal scholars and critics will say nothing.

But a film about Jesus Christ by Mel Gibson simply cannot be allowed. First, he’s a genuine celebrity, a mega-star whose film will be influential for that very fact. Second, he really believes Jesus Christ is the Son of God, that his death was not simply an example of love for his fellow man but the redemption of humankind. Third, as witnessed in Braveheart, Gibson is capable of making a classic film sure to be admired as long as film endures.

All this adds up to a movie that will be a powerful witness to the truth of traditional Christianity, precisely the force that liberal elites have been trying to still for decades. It’s Christianity—and especially orthodox Catholicism and evangelicalism—that denies them their total victory in the culture wars. Proponents of abortion, gay marriage, radical feminism, multiculturalism, and postmodernism all harbor a deep fear of the truth claims of Christianity about the fixed nature of God’s creation.

Gibson surely knew that making a film about Christ was scandalous to the unbelievers in Hollywood, but I doubt if he realized the threat it represents to the intellectuals who employ a neutered Christianity for their own ideological enterprises.

One final word on the question of anti-Semitism (an ugly and destructive force both here and in Europe): It’s possible that some bigots may have their prejudice reinforced by Gibson’s film. But that doesn’t make the movie anti-Semitic, nor does it justify the attacks on Gibson. Films are released every week that exacerbate the sick tendencies of child molesters, rapists, murderers, and Rambo wannabes. We can’t censor ourselves just because some nut somewhere may be influenced negatively by our work.

I thank Mel Gibson for his film and for all he was willing to endure in making his faith public. His life and career will never be the same—would it were that more men had such courage.

Addendum: Subsequent events in Mel Gibson’s life did reveal his anti-Semitism. His film, however, does not, in my opinion, express an anti-Semitic point of view, an opinion I am prepared to defend as I have in the past (June, 2016).

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2004

An Interview with John Cornwell

By Deal W. Hudson

John Cornwell is controversial. The best-selling author of Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII has been widely condemned both for the quality of his research and for the alleged heterodoxy of his Catholic faith.

In his newest book, Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, Cornwell opens himself up to still more criticism by taking on Pope John Paul II and the conservative current in the Church.

But if you think Cornwell is a mere toe-the-line theological liberal, you’re wrong. Deal Hudson sat down with him at his home in England to talk about Pius XII, liturgy, and the future of the Church.

Deal Hudson: When I first saw the title of your book, Breaking Faith, I thought it meant that the Holy Father had broken faith with the Church, but it has a very different meaning, doesn’t it?

John Cornwell: I wanted the book to have an arresting title, as well as a true one. Breaking Faith refers mainly to my own loss of faith, which happened in about 1965, when I was 25 years old, and took me away from the Church for more than 20 years. Although my book is not an autobiography, I wanted it to have a subjective, autobiographical dimension. When one writes about the faith, leaving out the phenomenology of personal belief, there is a danger that you’re telling people everything and yet telling them nothing. Sociological and journalistic accounts that attempt to be totally objective are always flawed. So Breaking Faith is certainly a survey—where the Church is at this time—using the Church’s own statistics, or the Vatican’s statistics, but it is also about one individual’s sense of the faith.

And I have to say that my own break with the Church was a crucial and positive thing in my life; it was providential, because I returned with a much stronger, more mature approach to belief. One would never advocate apostasy, but sometimes it may be necessary for those whose faith is immature and based on egotism and self-seeking.

In the first few chapters of the book, you describe the hurt you felt over the reception of Hitler’s Pope, the book on Pius XII and Hitler. Do you feel like your intentions or motives for writing that book were misunderstood?

I did not object to those who criticized the arguments and disputed the historical evidence. But I was dismayed by those who used ad hominem arguments, claiming that I was not a Catholic and disputing that I had started out intending to defend Pius XII. The facts are these: I spent an evening with some young Catholics who were arguing that the Church had sided with all the worst right-wing elements in the history of the 20th century. I did not believe that this was true. About that time, I had read a book by the historian Owen Chadwick called Britain and the Vatican During the Second World War, which seemed to me to be an important defense of Pius XII’s conduct during the war—certainly the best to date.

But Chadwick’s book was very academic—an uninviting sort of book.

It seemed to me that if I took that as a basis and I did the whole of Pius XII’s life, including his undoubted growth of spirituality, his youth, it would provide a riposte to the young critics I had talked to. But that’s not the way it worked out. As I went through the documents, I got a completely different picture of him. I had to revise my opinion of Owen Chadwick’s work. After the book came out, a segment of the Catholic media simply focused on whether I was lying about being a Catholic, making me out to be part of an almost demonic conspiracy to undermine the Church. Ronald Rychlak, for example, has written almost a whole book about how I was a liar and apostate.

In Breaking Faith, you have a chapter about coming back to the Church after 20 years and being horrified by the liturgies that you experienced. I was surprised when I realized this chapter could have been published in Crisis. You write about the dumbing-down of liturgical music and the banality of the “me-ism” in hymns. Yet you also seem to be struggling to accept the way God may be speaking to people through this form of music, though you find it unpleasing. Where do you stand on that question at the present time? Do you still grudgingly accept it or feel like it’s just not your cup of tea?

Well, what really concerns me about liturgy is the Mass itself. It’s not so much the translations I oppose or the music accompanying it; it is that the Roman missal has been undermined in a way that aids this general process of Pelagianism in the Church, robbing us of our sense of unworthiness and also robbing us at the very heart of the Mass of the sense of the Trinity.

You mean as in, “Lord, I am worthy to receive you”?

Yes. So I have to make that the starting point. It’s not a question of taste in music, although I must say that I deplore the dumbed-down jauntiness and egotism of much that passes for Church music, or even the loss of dignity and elegance. My greatest concern is the loss of the repetitions and the doxologies, which exemplify the truth of the Holy Trinity. I have to say I am deeply depressed about it, because I don’t know how, when, and where that will be rectified.

Conservatives believe those you call the “progressives” are trying to make being a Catholic easier for people. They do this by allowing people to measure Catholic issues by a personal standard. In doing this, liberals want to lower the bar, lower the standards, of both belief and action. I detect a tension between the higher standard for liturgy that you would like to see and your insistence that the Church become more inclusive and more participatory.

Surely, the inclusive, participatory Church doesn’t imply a destruction of the traditional liturgy. This was not envisaged by the Second Vatican Council.

Let me give an example. You tell a lot of poignant stories about people who have been divorced, and they don’t want to get an annulment, so they are excluded from partaking of the Eucharist. You seem to be suggesting that this is a barrier that should be removed. Now, isn’t that an example of lowering a standard and thereby making people who don’t want to go through the annulment process seem OK with where they are?

You are right of course. I guess we can’t have it both ways. But we are living in very difficult and confused times within the Church itself. A very large proportion of Catholic marriages founder: It is the way the whole of our culture and society is drifting. But are we right to use annulment as a form of divorce by another name? There are, I should think, hundreds of thousands of people who get annulments even though they know that they were married. Some 60 percent of all annulments in the Church occur in the United States. This can’t be right. It is beginning to look like a cynical exercise in legalism and suggests that perhaps we need a new theology of marriage and annulment.

I must confess that I feel muddled, as do many Catholics, because part of me feels very firmly that the Eucharist is a litmus test of our Catholicism. I believe that those Catholics who do not go up to the Eucharist because their situation is not right in terms of marriage—remarried divorcees, for example—are acting as witnesses for other Catholics. Part of me agrees with that. But part of me also knows, and especially from the research I did for Breaking Faith, that there are millions of Catholics drifting away from the Church because of sheer spiritual inanition. I do think that compassion and love and sympathy have got to reign, because it’s such a prodigious problem involving millions of people across the world who are being lost to the Church.

I am conscious that this is a muddled answer. But I hope that I make myself clear about one thing: Receiving the Eucharist is a huge privilege. If one’s personal situation, or marriage situation, is not right, being deprived of the Eucharist is a form of desert spirituality; it can be a positive thing. But not all of us are capable of seeing it in that light, and it worries me that so many millions of people are drifting away.

The thrust of your new book, if I understood it correctly, is that under the pontificate of John Paul II, there has been almost a parallel phenomenon. On the one hand, John Paul II has tremendous personal appeal, both to Catholics and to non-Catholics, and in this sense, the Church has benefited from his pontificate. But on the other hand, in terms of the infrastructure and management of the Church, it has been a negative experience because of the centralization, the management style—the micromanagement style—the multiplication of strictures on bishops. Do you think that those conservatives who read this entirely differently simply have a fundamental blind spot when it comes to that second issue?

We could argue forever about the issue of centralization and collegiality in the Church—whether we have the balance right. I’m not a Church historian or a theologian; I’m just trying to make a contribution from the periphery to a debate. And it’s a debate that has so many dynamics.

For example, much of my thinking on these questions comes from the work of Henri de Lubac, the Jesuit theologian who inspired much of the thinking and direction of Vatican II. And yet, de Lubac turned out by 1970 to be one of the sternest critics of the progressives, and in a curious way, he’s probably right. It’s just absolutely undeniable that people went shooting off in all kinds of damaging directions. I guess that we’ll still be arguing about the balance between collegiality, subsidiarity, and centralization of Vatican II in a hundred years’ time.

But the point I tried to make in my book on Pius XII is, I hope, a valid one for discussion. Excessive centralization, I argue, weakened a powerful German Church during the 1930s, rendering it weak in the face of Nazism. Contrast that with the strength of the local German Church during the Kulturkampf 60 years earlier, which took on Bismark and won. Think, too, of the strength of the local Church in Poland through the grassroots power of Solidarity. These are issues we need to discuss and to debate openly within the Church, and I hope that I have at least made a contribution.

Published in Crisis Magazine, March 1, 2002

A Video Interview About Jacques Maritain

In 1993 James and Tyra Arraj interviewed me about the French philosopher Jacques Maritain as part of their excellent documentary, “Understanding Maritain: The Man Who Loved Wisdom.” I was teaching at Fordham University at the time and had been president of the American Maritain Association for several years.  The first book I had published was co-edited with Matthew Mancini, Jacques Maritain: Philosopher and Friend, Mercer University Press, 1987. Maritain, as I describe, had been central in my conversion to Catholicism in 1984. For those who want a solid introduction to Maritain, I can strongly recommend the Arraj documentary, which can be seen here.

Why I Can Be Friends With Liberals, Democrats, and Pro-Aborts

By Deal W. Hudson

I’m writing this in response to comments made over the years about friendships I’ve maintained with persons who are diametrically opposed to many of my core values. Most of these comments have the tone of disapproval, others just sound flummoxed with me.

Let me say from the start that my reason is not conversion. Such an ulterior motive would make such a friendship one of utility, not a true friendship, to use Aristotle’s hierarchy of friendship. In the Book VII of his Nicomachean Ethics, he distinguishes between friends who are bonded by shared pleasure, the lowest; those who find each other useful; and true friends who share a common vision of life.

I’m sure the diligent reader just noted that I created a huge hurdle for myself to jump, namely, how can I be friends with those, who I said above, do not share my “core values”? Doesn’t this constitute an impossibility according to Aristotle’s criteria?

maritain

Jacques Maritain (1882-1973)

Since I regard myself as someone whose mind and heart has been shaped by the tradition from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas to Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, I take this challenge seriously. In order to answer it, I have been made to reflect upon those specific friendships, both past and present, to find, if I could, what “common vision” we may have shared.

What came immediately to mind was the acceptance and respect I shared, and still share, with these persons. Several of them, in addition to being liberal Democrats, have been homosexual, which I thought important to mention, though I didn’t want to put it in the headline.

Such was the case of my friendship — call him “W” — of over 40 years with a man whose eulogy I delivered only a few years ago. We shared a love of Flannery O’Connor, who had been a personal friend of his, as well all things literary and musical. I spent hours at his piano singing show tunes while he thundered away, magnificently. I still miss him.

Evelyn-Waugh-007

Evelyn Waugh ( 1909-1966 ), author of Brideshead Revisited

When issues of faith, sexuality, or politics came up, our conversations were always direct but civil and punctuated with great guffaws of laughter, usually provoked by his puncturing of my inflated ego. But W never hinted at any disapproval of my conversion to Catholicism at age 34 — he also loved the convert, Evelyn Waugh — or the help I offered to George W. Bush — a man he didn’t love — in his campaigns and years in the White House.

Unlike many liberals nowadays, W did not look upon me as a moral inferior for being conservative, Catholic, or Republican. He did not assume I was a racist or felt disdain toward the poor. Oh, W would correct me sharply if I said or did something out of line, but I accepted the rebuke as a lesson given by a man whose judgment I respected and whose love I trusted.

What I have said of W can be applied to all my friendships with “liberals, Democrats, and pro-aborts.” There is, in fact, a “common vision” that stands behind the differences about politics, religion, and morality, and at the heart of the vision is acceptance, respect, and love, the truest love of willing the good for the other.

Another dimension to that common vision is a sharing of the greatness of the world and its culture — music, poetry, fiction, film, ideas, history, travel, and mutual friends. After all friends do not simply sit and stare at each other, quite the opposite, they look out at the world together and share in its delights.

At this point the reader might be thinking that I have ignored the looming question of how I could share a “common vision” with, say, a pro-abort. My answer is to say that not all who support abortion do so with the virulence of a pro-abortion activist. Not all who call themselves feminists despise conservative men who smoke cigars and play golf. Those friends of mine who are abortion supporters respect my view and those of other pro-lifers. They agree to disagree, but do so in way not to dismiss the subject from conversation but to admit their minds are still open on the subject.

Me

The author at peace in Scotland.

The same can be said of liberals and Democrats: few of them are as unpleasant as the liberals on TV and radio who cannot address any difference of opinion without a mocking, scornful tone of voice. I cannot share a common vision with anyone, on the right or the left, who treats others with instant disrespect because of a label, whether of their party affiliation, religious belief, sexual orientation, or taste in music.

At the heart of liberal scorn is the belief that “all the rest of us” are their moral inferiors, which makes friendship impossible. I fear that conservatives are developing the same attitude toward liberals — that they hold a monopoly on the moral high ground. This may be the main reason I have felt less at home lately in what’s left of the conservative movement.

The gradual politicization of American culture since the resignation of President Nixon in 1974 — driven by the endless victory laps of the media — has made “across the aisle” friendships less and less likely, especially in the area I live around Washington, DC.

And since it has become a habit “to google” a person after you meet him or her, before pursuing further contact, many possible friendships never get off the ground. That person you found delightful at a concert, or a bookstore, a party, at church, or standing in line at the grocery store turns out to a wretched “Republican” or “Democrat,” or whatever label makes him or her an “untouchable.”

Friendship faces a difficult future, I fear. It’s for this reason I offer this explanation of what has appeared to some a disconnect between who I am and who I call “my friend.” Perhaps the “common vision” that grounds a friendship is larger, and more nuanced, than we think.

Published at The Christian Review, December 20, 2015

I Am About to Snap!

By Deal W. Hudson

I am 66 years old, and I am about to snap. Do you even need to ask, “Why?” As I watch our nation engrossed in a debate over the morality of bathroom selection, I cannot recognize the place where I was born, raised, lived my life.

I feel that I’m living in a foreign land, though I haven’t reached the point of weeping (Psalm 137), possibly because I am too angry. But if the “stages of grief” hold true, it won’t be long before I acquiesce to depression and tears. But I will refuse the final stage, acceptance, and will choose to snap instead.

What form will my snapping take? One well-known model is the character Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, from the film “Network” (1976). His rampage still resonates in our cultural memory, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore. . . .”

The continued relevance of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay is uncanny:

Mad prophet is not my style, though watching the elegant Peter Finch devolve into a rain-coated Jeremiah (Jeremiah 33.10-16) has proven, to me anyway, unforgettable.

Another model, perhaps not so therapeutic, is the character, Bill Foster, played by Michael Douglas in “Falling Down” (1993), who “has passed the point of no return. . . .” (The screenplay was written by Ebbe Roe Smith.)

My form of snapping would not be violent, though I understand the rage of man barred from seeing his daughter on her birthday. Mine would be triggered by an overloaded sensibility under constant assault by our corrupt culture, where the standard of morality has been reduced to an individual’s view of whether biological males, who consider themselves female, can use the ladies bathroom.

I recently had a discussion with a gentleman from North Carolina who considered my support for the “bathroom bill” tantamount to racism. My response was laughter, simple laughter. This was spontaneous, not pre-meditated. The absurdity of defending gender specific bathrooms just started me giggling, then came full throated laughter.

Nietzsche’s Zarathustra spoke of the laughter that kills, but my laughter was closer to what the playwright Christopher Fry had in mind in “This Lady’s Not for Burning” (1948).

The main character Thomas Mendip is asked why he said, “For God’s sake, shall we laugh?”

He answers,

“For the reason of laughter, since laughter is surely
The surest touch of genius in creation.
Would you have thought of it, I ask you,
If you had been making man, stuffing him full
Of such hopping greeds and passions that he has
To blow himself to pieces as often as he
Conveniently can manage it… would it also
Have occurred to you to make him burst himself
With such a phenomenon as cachinnation?
That same laughter, madam, is an irrelevancy
Which almost amounts to a revelation.”

As Fry wrote in his widely anthologized essay on comedy, “Comedy is an escape, not from truth but from despair; a narrow escape into faith.” Comic overcoming, as opposed to Nietzsche’s laughter that kills, requires the kind of faith that transforms tragic circumstances.

When the Jews found themselves tragically ensconced in the “foreign land” of Babylon, they hung their lyres on willow trees. When they were asked by the captors to sing the songs of Zion, they answered, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137.4).

Perhaps my impulse to snap is another form of hanging up my lyre, refusing to sing the Lord’s song? Or perhaps I will snap through the “narrow escape into faith” and find myself laughing and singing on the other side? If laughter can be an “irrelevancy/ Which almost amounts to revelation,” then, I say, bring it on!

Perhaps my laughter in the face of being called a racist was an act of faith. Why try to defend the absurd? Why try reasoning with unreason? It’s like trying to convince Dostoevsky’s Underground Man that 2 + 2 does not equal 5!

Perhaps I have already snapped and didn’t recognize it in the sound of my laughter.

Will America Last? The 2016 Election

Published Jan. 11, 2016 at The Christian Review

It’s tempting to say that the coming presidential election of 2016 is the most important in American history. What gives me pause is the number of times this has been said before, including by myself. But this time, I cannot help but believe it’s true. Why?

Terrorism: A storm is gathering in the Middle East that threatens to spread throughout the world, but its perpetrators hate America above all. In a nuclear age, a single person supported by sophisticated, committed network of terrorists can kill millions at a single stroke. ISIS must be eliminated militarily before it can grow any larger. If you need convincing, read the history of Germany of National Socialism in the 30s.

Character: America is losing the unity of its national character. This began when immigrants no longer felt the necessity of being assimilated, starting with the learning of English. It’s one thing for the Hispanic population to reach 106 million by 2015, quite another if the majority of them don’t speak English. Rival languages have, and will, produce divided communities and cultures. Assimilation is not a nasty word demanding obedience, it’s the reasonable request of a nation whose character has attracted immigrants from around the world since its founding. That character must be preserved with care.

Family: When attitudes toward LGBTs becomes the moral standard by which we are all judged, something has gone terribly wrong in American culture. Here I distinguish between charitable acceptance of differences, and socially, and legally, enforced approval. Nothing is more fundamental to the well-being of human society than the health of families, created by the marriage of men and women. Of course, many marriages turn into train wrecks, and worse, but that’s no reason to give up on the norm. Just as it’s nonsense for a drunk to give up on sobriety because he can’t live up to it.

Life: America keeps killing its children at a rate of between 700,000 and a million each year, and its citizens are paying for half of those deaths through public funding of Planned Parenthood. America became the most admired country in the world following its decisive entry into both world wars and was handed the torch of freedom from a decayed, battered Europe. America took the lead in rebuilding both Europe and Japan, but at home began building a culture of death to “celebrate” its new affluence and prestige. Since 1973, the year of Roe, America has killed more children than any one of the genocides committed by Hitler, Stalin, or Mao — 57,762,169 dead.

Manners: There’s a mystery in manners, as the Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor often talked about. One aspect of this mystery is the way manners both produce and express 0ur true values — manners bear values into the ordinary, everyday world of social conduct. Today it has become accepted that millionaire film stars will use the coarsest profanity on a public, televised stage while presenting and accepting awards for excellence. They use the privilege of their celebrity to show contempt for their audience, while indulging their egos with the equivalent of teenage flatulence. I can’t imagine Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, et al publicly shaming themselves in such a fashion.

Faith: Barack Obama is the first American president to scowl and wag his finger at America’s Christian citizens. Hillary Clinton would become the second. Obama has fought, and shown disdain towards, the orthodox people of faith from his first day in office when he repealed the Mexico City Policy. Religious institutions have had to seek relief in court from the federal laws that would require them sin against their God. Religious beliefs that won’t bend to accommodate the LGBT standard of morality are being fashionably scorned, while law and policy being shaped to bring those beliefs under the enforcement power of the state. Religious liberty is no longer celebrated but looked upon as the unconscionable excuse of a bigoted minority to “embrace diversity.”

The year after the end of WWI, the Irish poet William Butler Yeats wrote “The Second Coming” (1919). In this poem he describes the fracture of Western civilization, its break with the certainties of the past, the values and vision upon which the West was built over 3000 years. The first few lines suffice to explain:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

Perhaps the reader, like myself, read this poem in high school or college decades ago, and were told it reflected the confusion following the senseless slaughter in the trenches of WWI. In other words, just a period piece. Yeats’ words in “The Second Coming” have taken on a prophetic intensity as we near the 100th anniversary of its writing. Indeed, the “widening gyre” has widened to the point that all that I described above has come to pass, all of which are a consequence of a nation losing its “centre” and inviting “anarchy.”

The election of 2016 will have a direct impact on the direction of our nation, the fate of the national character, its families, the defense of innocent life, the people of faith, and our collective protection against ISIS terror. This is why I will do all I can do to ensure the message goes out to those who love America “under God” to vote against another eight years of war on the foundation of our country.