Friedrich Nietzsche’s famous quote that “God is dead” dates back to his 1882 book “The Gay Science.” The notion entered public consciousness with the provocative 1966 Time magazine cover, which asked, in large red type, “Is God dead?” It has been clear for a while now that, no matter how many holdouts there may be with regard to personal beliefs, the monotheistic God of the Abrahamic religions no longer lays claim to the cultural power He held from the reign of Constantine to the Protestant Reformation.
Until now, what comes next has remained an open question. The husk of institutional Christianity has limped along for the last hundred or so years, with Hollywood and the literati (and recently corporations as well) feeling little to no compunction about dancing on its grave. But if world history has shown us anything, it is that religiosity is a deeply human impulse, and one that will not so easily perish from this earth.
Tara Isabella Burton’s new book “Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World” takes a look at the various ways religious tendencies are popping up in our post-modern, post-Christian culture. Describing members of upcoming generations as neither purely atheistic or purely Christian, Burton terms them “Religiously Remixed.” Just as the invention of the printing press spurred on humanistic transfigurations of the Church into dozens of branches of Protestantism, the rise of the Internet has allowed every Millennial and Zoomer to pick and choose doctrine to follow and idols to worship. These include major commercial properties like Harry Potter and Marvel, self-help and self-care mantras such as those prescribed by Gwyneth Paltrow for women and Jordan Peterson for men, and New Age mumbo-jumbo like horoscopes and tarot cards.
On the surface, these outlets all seem relatively harmless, things for us to do and to care about in an age in which we’ve been separated geographically from our families and told to put off starting our own. Burton’s read on the new normal get significantly bleaker toward the end of her book, as she gives her take on larger social movements she believes have the potential to become institutionalized as religious traditions. Her description of the “Gospel of Social Justice” in particular seems prophetic. Although eagle-eyed culture warriors foretold of the matriculation of “cancel culture” from college campuses to the country at large, even the most pessimistic Cassandras could hardly have predicted this level of unmitigated success. Wanting to tear down statues of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is no longer a niche position, nor is the notion that it one is to disregard public health imperatives in the name of “anti-racism.”
Less prominent but perhaps no less terrifying is the other quasi-religious trend identified by Burton: transhumanism. Unrelated to the “trans” prefix obsessed over by the SJW movement, transhumanism is the desire that humanity should be transcended and our lives prolonged indefinitely. Not uncommon in Silicon Valley, transhumanists (or techno-utopians, as Burton calls them) believe in the power of technology to free us from the chains of flesh and blood. Whereas Gwyneth Paltrow’s readers pursue “anti-aging” to merely look young forever, Peter Thiel’s are trying to actually be young forever. One of the foremost goals of this movement is to be able to “upload” human consciousness so that one can continue to “live” after one’s body has withered away. If you think that such an insane idea lacks appeal, consider that the most popular episode of “Black Mirror,” a program typically pessimistic about the role of technology in society, is “San Junipero.” In that episode, deciding to be euthanized and “uploaded” to the simulation is considered a happy ending.
The best reason to read “Strange Rites” is to be prepared. The world is changing rapidly, and truths that were once held to be self-evident are now threatened. Even after Enlightenment thinking caused belief in a personal God to wane (remember, most of the Founding Fathers considered themselves Deists), Christianity remained a lingua franca. Today, few people have read the Bible, and if there is anything resembling a shared language, it is more likely to include Muggles and Dementors than angels and demons. In other words, the kids are not all right.
Book Review: “A Concise History of Hungary”
People are looking to move. I have no idea if the numbers back this up, but anecdotally at least there is talk in the air about leaving the United States for greener pastures. As the most powerful institutions in America grow ever more hostile to those adhering to traditional ways of living, it’s difficult not to ask: “Is there a better place for me?”
Many people are looking to Hungary. Not only is it one of the only countries in the Western World not to be completely subsumed in the acid bath of modernity, but it also encourages repatriation by those with Hungarian ancestry. In Ireland, famous for its lax bloodline citizenship laws, you need to have had grandparents born in the Old Country. In Hungary, there is no limit to how far back you can go to prove your Hungarian heritage.
There is a catch. The Hungarian government only wants new citizens who are committed to being Hungarian. As such, you have to pass a language test in order to be eligible. And you should probably demonstrate more than just cursory knowledge about the country you are trying to be a part of. Being familiar with paprika and goulash is not going to cut it. You’ve got to try to learn about the history.
That’s where the book “A Concise History of Hungary” comes in. Given the upsurge in interest in migrating to Hungary, it is a shock that there are so few English-language books about the storied nation.
Do a search on Amazon for books about Hungarian history, and you will find your results to be limited. No matter, because Miklós Molnár’s work is an excellent place to start. This historical survey traces the story of Hungary all the way back to before King Saint Stephen became Hungary’s first king, to even before the Magyars conquered the Carpathian Basin. It tells about the many wars in which Hungary has been embroiled, from the wars against the Ottomans to the World Wars in the 20th century.
I don’t know much about Miklós Molnár, but after reading his bio on the book jacket, I was skeptical of his ability to be unbiased. The blurb notes that he was the editor of a communist newspaper (“Irodalmi Ujság”). Those familiar with the intricacies of Hungarian history will not be surprised there is no love lost between Molnár and the Soviet Communists who ruled his country for four decades; in fact Molnár fled the country like Imre Nagy after the Revolution of 1956.
So readers should not be worried about the author being to sympathetic to communists. However, there is some animus in this book, especially toward the Habsburgs, who controlled Hungary for two centuries. Also, as the events depicted get closer and closer to present day, Molnár’s descriptions of political parties and movements become more clouded by his own thinking.
Overall, I do recommend “A Concise History Of Hungary,” if only because there is so little else out there. Until it reaches the 18th century, the book is remarkably even-handed, almost academic in tone despite its eminent readability. If I am to be a Hungarian citizen, I would like to have read more books on Hungary than just this one. But I think it is a great place to start.
Read These Christmas Books On Christmas Eve
There’s only one more sleep ’til Christmas. I’m not sure exactly how we got here, but Christmas Eve has come at last. For obvious reasons, this entire Christmas season has been more subdued than most; all across the world the phrase “Silent Night” may never have been so apt.
With all sorts of traditional holiday traditions being in flux, this got me thinking to a quieter way to spend the night before Christmas. This year provides a great occasion to re-read and re-familiarize yourself with some Christmas classics.
If you don’t know where to start, I’ve listed some of my favorite Christmas books below. They include a mix of both short children’s books and longer novels. And although you won’t be able to order any of them now and have them arrive before Christmas Day, Kindle and Audible are both available options.
A Christmas Carol: and Other Holiday Treasures by Charles Dickens
“A Christmas Carol” had to top the list. Everyone is familiar with Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and the three ghosts, but how many have read the source material? A good collection of “A Christmas Carol” will include some of Dickens other Yuletide stories, including “The Cricket on the Hearth,” which earned him the epithet “The Man who Invented Christmas.”
The Night Before Christmas by Charles Dickens
When I was growing up, it was a tradition for everyone to gather around on Christmas Eve for a reading of “The Night Before Christmas.” Like “A Christmas Carol,” Clement C. Moore’s poem will never get old.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas
Dylan Thomas’s prose poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” may not be as universally well known as “The Night Before Christmas,” but it is just as highly regarded.
Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
Don’t let the creepy Tom Hanks movie turn you off to the book version of “Polar Express,” which belongs on every child’s bookshelf.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
The Jim Carrey rendition of Dr. Seuss’s Mt. Crumpit dweller was panned when it first hit theatres two decades ago, but constant airtime has turned it into a minor holiday classic. After re-reading “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” it is impressive how much depth and detail Ron Howard’s team was able to add to such a refreshingly simple work.
Skipping Christmas by John Grisham
While we are on the topic of books turned into films, let’s talk about John Grisham’s “Skipping Christmas.” You know this story better as “Christmas with the Kranks.” This novel is a departure for the master of the legal thriller, but if you like Grisham’s writing style (and can’t get enough of Luther, Nora, and their rooftop Frosty), then give “Skipping Christmas” a read.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
“The Corrections” is my favorite Christmas book, as well as one of my favorite books of all time. Despite reading it nearly every December for the past seven years, I still can’t make it to the end without crying.
Letters From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
A late edition to this list, I’ve actually never read Tolkien’s beloved Christmas letters. But a special 100th anniversary edition of “Letters from Father Christmas” was published this year, so it may be time to see if lives up to its reputation.
The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
The first time I read “The Gift of the Magi,” I was surprised at how short it was. If you know the general story of impoverished couple Della and Jim, then you know the entire contents of O. Henry’s classic tale. Unlike “A Christmas Carol,” the written version of “The Gift of the Magi” is not filled with details that never make their way to the screen. If anything, that sparsity of extraneous information adds depth and poignancy to the story’s resolution.
Did I miss any of your favorites Christmas books? If so, let me know in the comments, and I will update the list. Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!
Sparking Interest in Chess, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Offers Hope
“The Queen’s Gambit,” the latest hit show from Netflix, could not have come at a better time. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people are not only starving for content but also for more active diversions to help them occupy their time.
“The Queen’s Gambit” fills both of these voids. To start, it is a short but meaty 7-episode mini-series, beautifully shot and rife with interesting situations for a viewer to imagine herself in. Perhaps more importantly, it introduces a whole new generation to the game of kings. According to news reports, chess sets have been flying off the (virtual) shelves since the series dropped on Netflix. The New York Times even features on article on how to make your own chess set at home, for those who can’t find one available online.
The numbers are jarring. Sales of chess sets were already on the rise at the start of the pandemic. You may remember a slate of articles from the spring detailing celebrities, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Giannis Antetokounmpo, who were spending their time in quarantine playing the game. (Chess’s famous fans were not limited to those with impossible to spell names; presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders were also said to have played.) But since “The Queen’s Gambit,” chess set sales have skyrocketed anywhere from 125% to 1,048%.
This is nothing if not an extremely positive development. After reading dispiriting stories about how the nation’s young ones are wiling away the hours on online video game platforms like Roblox and Fortnite, or else watching other people’s content on TikTok and YouTube, it is nice to see people take up a hobby that requires them to use their brains. You don’t need to be able to think as many moves ahead as Beth Harmon or Benny Watts to get something out of playing chess. Furthermore, chess is a game that bridges generational gaps. Whether you are a Zoomer or a Boomer, your learning curve will be exactly the same. If there is something our society needs more of, it is spending time with those with different life experiences. Chess can help facilitate that.
I’m not sure when they starting making “The Queen’s Gambit,” but I sure am grateful they did. I suppose we also owe a debt of gratitude to Walter Tevis, who wrote the novel the show is based on. Also the author of “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money,” Tevis had a knack for cinematic storytelling. I am looking forward to reading “The Queen’s Gambit” to see if it can provide yet another outlet for recreation and leisure when we need it most.
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