In "God's Country," the lead article in the November 2 issue of the New York Review of Books, Joan Didion takes on a wide range of subjects: Marvin Olasky (editor of World magazine and influencer of George W. Bush), compassionate conservatism, faith-based social welfare programs, the recent presidential campaign, Joe Lieberman, and the proper place of religion in public life. There is much worth chewing on in all this, whatever one's position on such matters. (Didion is deadly, for instance, in observing how many prominent conservatives who pontificate on divorce are themselves in second marriages.) But what drives the essay, what makes it hum, is Didion's barely contained hatred and contempt for evangelical Christianity.
Didion's readers have of course come to expect a double shot of loathing in anything from her pen. For many years now she has written essays and novels fueled by disgust with the lies, the corruption, the unforgivable naivete on every hand. Now that the great Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard is dead, Didion is the undisputed master of sophisticated hate.
She loves to use quoted phrases as specimens, holding them up with tweezers, as it were, for the delectation of her readers, who can be presumed to share her scorn and disgust at the words she quotes from Bush, who explains that "the main reason I quit [drinking] was because I accepted Jesus Christ as personal savior in 1986." Amazing, isn't it, that there are people who really talk like that?
Her grasp of what Christians believe is evidently rather shaky. "To accept Jesus Christ as personal savior is pretty much the heart and soul of evangelical conversion (or of being 'born again,' which both Governor Bush and Vice President Gore claim to be)," she writes, "and incurs the obligation, for evangelical Christians who want to save themselves, of converting others." Needless to say, no orthodox Christian of any stripe believes that he can "save himself" by toting up conversions. And the Catholic missionaries, for example, who have been active in Africa and Asia and Latin America, where the majority of Catholics now live, would wonder why Didion supposes evangelization to be unique to evangelical Christians. But mere facts might blunt the sharp outlines of Didion's essay, and who is going to complain?
So much does Didion loathe Christian talk that her customary shrewdness has been disabled. In this essay, written before the election, she gives great credence to the predictions of the political science savants we have mentioned earlier in this space—the ones who said that months ago one could safely predict an easy Gore victory. What infuriated Didion throughout the campaign was the widely accepted notion that a moral backlash against President Clinton might be a factor in the election. Her tweezers are busy, picking up references to a "decline in moral values" and other phrases she finds equally risible. So she endorses the pseudo-science of these savants—who in the event were proved to be woefully mistaken in their predictions.
The New York Review is the gold standard, simply the best publication of its kind. But when the subject is Christianity, the rule is to pretend for the most part that it doesn't exist—by contrast, the magazine has devoted hundreds of thousands of words to Freud—and now and then to do a hatchet job as Didion has done here. That's a gross departure from the standards of good journalism and from the New York Review's own principles.
John Wilson is Editor of Books & Culture and Editor-at-Large for Christianity Today.
Visit Books & Culture online at BooksandCulture.com or subscribe here.
Joan Didion's New York Review of Books article, "God's Country," is available at the publication's Web site.
Dave Eggers, now of McSweeney's fame, interviewed Didion for Salon.com back in the publication's early days—1996. More Didion-related links are available at Yahoo.
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Election Eve | Why isn't anyone focusing on those who simply won't bother to vote? (Nov. 6, 2000)
Three Books and a Wedding | Remembering the good news. (Oct. 30, 2000)
Unintelligent Designs | Baylor's dismissal of Polyani Center director Dembski was not a smart move.(Oct. 23, 2000)
Crying About Wolfe | Is there a scandal of "The Opening of the Evangelical Mind"? (Oct. 16, 2000)
The Light Still Shines | A Harvard-sponsored conference looks at the future of religious colleges. (Oct. 9, 2000)
RU-486 Uncovers a Lie—And It's Not Just About Abortion | Think the abortion pill is indicative of postmodernity? You're wrong. (Oct. 2, 2000)
Pencils Down Part II | Think your vote matters? You poor, misguided fool. (Sept. 18, 2000)
Pencils Down, the Election's Over | According to political scientists, Al Gore has already won. (Sept. 11, 2000)
Humans and Other Animals | How much do we share with the birds of the air and the beasts of the field? (Aug. 28, 2000)
Cardinal Mahony's Baloney Sandwich | The public face of Catholic social teaching. (Aug. 21, 2000)
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