Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy at NYRB

The latest issue of The New York Review of Books is a page-turner (not) of essays that should touch or focus on religion but don’t. For those unfamiliar with NYRB, as it’s known, it’s worth noting that the august publication is perhaps the premier forum for “public intellectuals” in the U.S. It sometimes slants liberal (but never left), and it enjoys a sprinking of genuine neo-conservatism. Its religion is literally aesthetic, limited mostly to John Updike‘s musings on art.

The current issue features Ahmed Rashid, a correspondent for The Far Eastern Economic Review writing on “The Rise of bin Laden” by way of a lengthy review essay of Ghost Wars, the new book by Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll. “No one else I know of has been able to bring such a broad perspective to bear on the rise of bin Laden,” writes Rashid. Apparently, not broad enough to include the role of religion in the plans of the world’s most dangerous religious fanatic — nary a word out of the 4,700 in Rashid’s review is devoted to the subject. Coll’s book — and Rashid’s review — provide valuable insight into the political forces at play in bin Laden’s career. And also into the massive blindspots of American and European journalism.

Michael Ignatieff, a Harvard “Professor of the Practice of Human Rights,” writes about another man guided by an unambiguous certainty about evil, good, and his position as commander-in-chief of the latter. Any discussion of President Bush‘s vision of the war on terror — a war he explicitly views in terms that can fairly be called “holy” — ought to investigate its religious underpinnings, right? Not if former New York Times-man Anthony Lewis has 4,800 words to review it in the kind of admiring terms reserved for a fellow mandarin: “Michael Ignatieff,” he writes, “brings history, philosophy, law, and democratic morality to bear on the problem.” But not, apparently, insight into the role played by religion in the decisions of the president who prefers the advice of a “higher father” to that of his own, former-president father.

NYRB is comfortable with religion when it’s nailed to the wall. Ingrid D. Rowland, Andrew W. Mellon Professor at the American Academy in Rome, writes on Byzantium: Faith and Power (1261-1557), catalog of an exhibition currently hanging at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Professor Rowland is enthusiastic: “However hoary the tradition in which they work, these icon painters are always finding fresh ideas, burnishing a halo to provide a barely perceptible contrast with its gold-leaf background….” Lovely.

Buried in NYRB‘s pages one finds a small, sparkly rock, a paragraph in novelist Andrew O’Hagan‘s review of a new academic book on the Beatles. “It was perhaps the dangers of excessive populism that Lennon was commenting on when he observed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus; he was pilloried in America for the statement, but, actually, he was saying something very straightforward and real. He wasn’t calling for the overthrow of religion by rock and roll, but, more simply, expressing surprise at the way religion’s ancient fantasia had given way to cries for the newer, more prosaic messiahs…”

Now that’s revealing, the ghost of religion made visible amidst the flash of pop culture. It’s the kind of smart looking at what’s going around you — the intangibles as well as the facts — that reporters, whether they’re Times-men or “Professors of the Practice of Human Rights” ought to make their very own orthopraxy.

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