Right & Justice vs. Law & Lawyers

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Title: Bleak House
Author: Charles Dickens
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 830
Rating: 4.5 of 5

Everyone loves to rip on lawyers, and Charles Dickens was no exception. Much of this book revolves around a lawsuit in the courts of chancery that has dragged on for generations, destroying lives through false hope in a system of law and lawyers that has little to do with right and justice. Dickens’ views on the English legal system are best summed up in this quote:

“The one great principle of the English law is, to make business for itself. There is no other principle distinctly, certainly, and consistently maintained through all its narrow turnings. Viewed by this light it becomes a coherent scheme, and not the monstrous maze the laity are apt to think it. Let them but once clearly perceive that its grand principle is to make business for itself at their expense, and surely they will cease to grumble.”

Dickens is in top form throughout the book: devastating social critique, politely sarcastic turn of phrase, absurd yet somehow familiar characters, heart wrenching tragedies, amazingly convenient coincidences, and all. In spite of the name, this isn’t Dickens’ bleakest book. He achieves a nice balance between sweet selfless heroes, well-meaning but foolish people, and loathsome villains. For the most part, this is the kind of book where (as Oscar Wilde’s Miss Prism would say): “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily.” Some romantic situations may be a bit off-putting to modern sensibilities (e.g. guardian-ward & cousin-cousin), but they should be understood as a product of its era (and ended up playing out better than I hoped).

I highly recommend this book for fans of Charles Dickens. If you’re new to his work you might want to start with A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield, Great Expectations, and/or A Tale of Two Cities, but I’d say that this one comes in close behind those. (Also, I will be using this for my Classic by a Favorite Author category over at the Back to the Classics 2021 Challenge)

Analyzing the “Culture Wars”

Title: Pagans and Christians in the City:
Culture Wars from the Tiber to the Potomac
Author: Steven D. Smith
Genre: Philosophy/Theology & History
Pages: 384
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 11/15/18 (thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley! This in no way affects the content of the review)

This book takes as its starting point a statement by T. S. Eliot to the effect that people are better off living in a Christian society than a pagan one. A hefty chunk of the book is taken up with defining what is meant by “Christian society vs. pagan society.” The author comes down on a basic definition of “transcendent religion (acknowledging or at least open to a God and objective ultimate good beyond the universe and in eternity) vs. immanent religion (finding ultimate good in this world and lifetime).

He purports to show how these incompatible views have constantly fought to be the dominant view undergirding society. He starts with the early Christians in the Roman Empire and then jumps to modern Western civilization in general and the US in particular. He examines how each view shapes society, what kinds of conflicts arise (and why), the meaning of religious freedom for each side (I found the historical and legal issues related to this to be especially interesting and relevant), and a host of other implications.

When someone talks as if they have discovered the key to understanding a massively complex issue, I take it with a grain of salt, but overall this was a thought-provoking book. The hysteria and paranoia that frequently underlie “culture war” discussions is replaced with calm, relatively even-handed description of both sides of most arguments. I don’t necessarily agree with the author’s sometimes vague conclusions (I’m deeply suspicious of trying to “Christianize” society, especially via politics), and the book is pretty lacking in the “how shall we then live?” element, but there’s a lot to chew on here. If you’re looking for an academic analysis of the “culture wars” without the usual hysterical rhetoric, this is worth reading.