The Importance of Sobran

Book review of Subtracting ChristianityEssays on American Culture and Society, a selection of Joseph Sobran’s writing edited by Fran Griffin and Tom Bethell.

This book, a posthumous sampling of Joseph Sobran’s writing, was assembled by close friends and associates Fran Griffin and Tom Bethell and is a must-read for all the readers of Lew Rockwell’s fine website. To my mind, Sobran ranks along with Russell Kirk (I had the privilege of knowing them both fairly well) as one of the most important truly conservative (in every way) writers of the last century.

Joe Sobran had a Renaissance mind along with a moral sense, a genial wit, and a seemingly effortless flow of felicitous phrasing. Whatever the topic, he was capable of entertaining while instructing, always conveying to the reader of his columns, articles, and essays (without the least touch of pedantry) something of the centuries—even millennia—of thought, experience, and expression underlying the topics at hand. Whether he was engaging religion, morals, politics, history, or literature, including his beloved Shakespeare, he presented truth from a fresh perspective, in arresting language, and with clarity and cogency.

Among the many friends Joe made are a number—like Robert Reilly, Pat Buchanan, and Paul Likoudis—who contribute testimonials to the effect that his writing had and has on them. One example that sums up Joe’s contribution and the depth of response he could arouse in his readers comes from Fr. Ronald Tacelli of Boston College:

During the final collapse of the Roman Empire, Livy wrote of ‘the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them.’ In this astonishingly relevant book — astonishing, because some of its essays were written many decades ago — Joe Sobran . . . describes, with clarity, power, and great beauty, the remedies — really, the remedy, The Thing — needed to cure us. In this way, Subtracting Christianity can be thought of as Joe’s parting gift — maybe his greatest gift — to the civilization he loved so much. Profound gratitude is the only proper response.

Lifelong pro-life warrior Joe Scheidler (the defendant in NOW v. Schiedler) highlights another great cause of our era to which Joe showed great faithfulness. Scheidler refers to Sobran as “without question, the most persuasive and articulate defender of life and morality of the past 50 years.” This is not to be wondered at since the moral, philosophical, religious, and cultural issues bound up in abortion involve all the deepest gifts of Christianity and Western Civilization to the world’s understanding of human life and of what makes it valuable. So when Joe Sobran wrote on the human life issues of our era—abortion, euthanasia, bioengineering, cloning, and the like—he was offering the highest level of social criticism from a thoroughly baptized mind fully informed by the best that Christian culture has thought and written.

Of course, most of the leading lights of our own modern American culture, if we can call it that, rejected Joe’s insights and his arguments. But to a great extent perhaps the audience he was writing for were those loyal in difficult times to the lived tradition of human experience and inherited moral verities but lacking his skill and penetration in defending these truths against the levelers and moral relativists in the Academy and on the editorial pages of major newspapers.

Political correctness held no appeal for Joe, who baited the cultural powers that be with deceptively simple defenses of the truth. In the area of religion, he wrote beautifully of the teachings of Christ and of his own return to Catholicism. Consider this excerpt from “The Expurgated Christ,” his critique of the deconstructed Christ of the Jesus Seminar:

. . . {T]he result is a paltry figure nobody could worship. Had this ‘historical Jesus’ really existed, we would never have heard of Him. The message that you should be nice to others and refrain from stuff like imperial exploitation would hardly have transformed the ancient world and haunted the conscience of mankind through several civilizations to come. A man who preached such watery doctrine wouldn’t be worth crucifying.

A great admirer of Belloc and Chesterton who quoted them frequently, Sobran wrote much that can stand comparison to these giants astonishingly well. His own voice was distinctive, as this excerpt from “Dark Ages, New Morality” demonstrates:

The progressives have found no substitute for virtue. They can offer only such morbid stopgaps as contraception, abortion, and euthanasia. The Dark Ages understood virtue built a civilization; the progressive age doesn’t understand virtue and is tearing down the civilization it inherited. Euthanasia is a fitting symbol: the last sacrament of a society that cannot aspire to heaven, but only to painless annihilation.

And if that is not enough, Sobran was a student of Shakespeare who knew much of him by heart and could recite famous speeches from the plays in the varied voices of great Shakespearian actors like Olivier, Gielgud, and Scofield.

In my opinion, over time Sobran will be recognized by historians as truly a prophet, given what he saw coming in the future. At the same time, he was a serious Catholic and a lover of freedom in the marketplace. His writings deserve to be part of the continuing conversation of our culture. My hope is that his splendid gift of prose and the cultural goods that he defended with it will inspire many other young men and women to become true lovers of liberty and Christianity.