Joseph Bottum Articles

Literary Postcards

The writer’s vocation in J. F. Powers’s correspondence.
Oct 21, 2013

One of the things you learn when you read the letters of great writers is how rarely great writers talk about literature in their letters. Mostly they talk about money. The letters of Henry Ford show more interest in big ideas and artistic principles than do those of James Joyce. When Joyce wrote a letter, it was usually a complaint about how expensive everything seemed—and would the recipient mind enclosing a small check in his next reply?

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Waylaid in Malta

Sep 16, 2013

Early in 1659, a strong-willed woman named Sarah Chevers and an even stronger-willed woman named Katharine Evans arrived in Malta. By chance—or, as they insisted, Providence—they had been diverted, their Dutch ship chased into the port of Valletta by rumor of pirates and bad weather. And since Malta is where they found themselves, Malta is where they would stay, preaching God’s true Protestant faith—the Knights Hospitaller who ruled the Catholic island be damned.

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Augustine’s Mission

The right man, at the right time, for Christendom.
Sep 02, 2013

Most of the time, intellectual history is a tangle, the threads so snarled that the result looks like a skein of yarn after a dozen kittens have been set loose on it. That lump over there? The muddle that the Venerable Bede made of things. That twisted set of knots? The playful chaos that Thomas Carlyle constructed for us. That indecipherable web? It’s what was left of Western philosophy after Martin Heidegger got his paws on it. 

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A Christian Realist, par Excellence

Jean Bethke Elshtain, 1941-2013
Aug 26, 2013

Jean Bethke Elshtain may have been the busiest woman many of us had ever met. Shuttling back and forth between her regular teaching appointment at the University of Chicago and her settled home in Tennessee, she wrote and wrote—and wrote and wrote. Essays, talks, books, memos to fellow directors on the almost endless number of boards on which she served. Letters, emailed comments about her friends’ latest work, notes on current theological and political issues: a ceaseless flow of words.

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The Birds

Joseph Bottum, in mourning for peace
Jul 29, 2013

I woke this morning to the gentle coo of a mourning dove on my windowsill. The gentle coo, the mellifluous murmur. You know that sound—mourning doves are everywhere in this country, over three hundred million of them across North America, calling out their woo-OO-oo-oo-oo in wistful sorrow at .  .  . well, actually, I don’t know at what. Their lost loves? Their absent parents? The sad condition of this fallen world?

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The Light of Francis

The new pope’s first encyclical
Jul 22, 2013

There’s something in the new papal encyclical Lumen Fidei to disappoint everyone who longs for direct political action from the Vatican.

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Ray Manzarek, 1939-2013

Joseph Bottum on the guy who knew Jim Morrison
Jun 03, 2013

I met him once. Well, met in the loosest sense: I was introduced to Ray Manzarek at a Los Angeles restaurant in the 1980s and got to shake his hand. No more than that, but even at the time it felt like an encounter with passing greatness, a brush with the fading mythology of the age, and down through the years, I’ve never forgotten it.

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Lives of the Eccentrics

Joseph Bottum, diplomatic player
Apr 29, 2013


In 1859, John Stuart Mill published On Liberty, a book that included, among its other peculiarities, a complaint that Victorian society was destroying eccentricity, and thereby individuality, and thereby freedom. 

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New World Pope

An Argentinian Jesuit in the Vatican.
Mar 25, 2013

There was much talk during the recent conclave in Rome, as there usually is at such times, about the Catholic church as a medieval institution. Occasionally that took the mild form of newspaper Sunday supplement pieces brightly describing the voting process in the Sistine Chapel. More often it combined a sneer at the past with an attack on the present. 

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Electing the Next Pope

The race is close, and turnout promises to be high.
Mar 04, 2013

The next pope will be Christoph Schönborn, cardinal archbishop of Vienna. The principal editor of the modern Catechism of the Catholic Church, Schönborn was among Benedict’s favorite students back when the current pope was a theology professor, and he stands as one of the few high clerics to act heroically during the sexual-abuse scandal.

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The Papal Abdication

Benedict XVI’s problematic farewell.
Feb 25, 2013



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Universal Empire

All roads, historically speaking, lead to Rome.
Feb 18, 2013

Athens and Jerusalem are not the sum of symbolic ancient cities. And in truth, they never have been. Even when Tertullian coined that distinction early in the third century—“What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the Academy with the Church?”—he did so in the context of Rome: He was the son of a centurion, preaching and scribbling away in long-before-conquered Carthage. The Roman Empire was the ground on which he walked, so vast and omnipresent he could barely notice its existence.

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Christmas, Inflated

Joseph Bottum, (not simply) having a wonderful Christmastime
Dec 24, 2012

Turkey in the Straw

Joseph Bottum considers the turkeys
Nov 26, 2012

They squabble, scrabble, and squawk. They peck at the last windfalls, out under the fruit trees, until they’re—I don’t know, drunk maybe on the hard cider of the apple mash or rendered hyperactive by some mad avian sugar rush, and then they strut through the yard, chests puffed out, spoiling for a fight. Lords of creation, proud as peacocks. Vain as blue jays. Stupid as chickens.

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Prairie Democrat

George McGovern, 1922-2012
Nov 05, 2012


I only really spent time with him once. Well, no, that isn’t entirely true. I also met him briefly when I was a child, trying to fish for rainbow trout one summer morning in the Black Hills. He was a stranger, coming down the stream in hip-waders, green rubber overalls, but he stopped to help unsnarl my line from the dark pines that overhang Rapid Creek. 

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Whose Vote Counts Most?

For maximum clout in the presidential election, move to Virginia.
Oct 29, 2012

Reason for Faith

The case for the peaceful coexistence of science and religion.
Oct 01, 2012

Pleonasm and pomposity, those twins of purple prose, define a certain kind of religious writing. A certain kind of holiday writing, for that matter—read a typical newspaper column about Thanksgiving, if you need another example—and any number of political orations. Historians, scientists, social workers—even poets, when called upon for public occasions: They all seem incapable of not turning, say, a graduation speech into a gooey mess of unction and uplift.

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The Ungreening of America

Joseph Bottum's handful of dust
Sep 17, 2012

In the great Nefud Desert—on the sun’s anvil—of my south yard, the noonday heat rises in shimmering waves and burns like ancient, unforgiven sin: the primal fault of the world laid bare. “From here until the other side,” my wife says as we stare out from the back porch, “no water but what we carry. For the camels, no water at all. If the camels die, we die. And in 20 days they will start to die.”

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Numbering the Days

Memories of Strat-O-Matic baseball
Sep 03, 2012

He kept a diary—a friend, a boy we knew when we were young, all those years ago—and at the end of most entries he would assign himself a line from a baseball box score, defining each day as though it were part of some classic pennant race against .  .  . well, who knows? The general malevolence of the universe, maybe, or the daunting future and his own adolescent doubts, glaring down at him from the pitcher’s mound.

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To Boldly Go

A novel whose characters are re-creating ‘Star Trek.’
Aug 20, 2012

Science fiction is idea fiction, you often hear—and it’s true. In a way. But trying to describe how it’s true proves surprisingly difficult, for the ideas in science fiction are much more often about the fiction than about the science. The rootstock isn’t the technological flourishes; those are the pretty flowers that distract the eye from what the stories are actually doing—which is training up tropes and memes and metafictional references. 

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Uncivil Tongues

Should ‘ hate speech’ trump our principle of free expression?
Jul 23, 2012

It’s John Stuart Mill’s world. Jeremy Waldron is just living in it. Not that Waldron isn’t a smart guy in his own right. A law professor at NYU and Oxford, the author of 10 books, one of Ronald Dworkin’s favorite students, and a leading figure in debates about the use of foreign law in American courts, Waldron has established himself at the center of the academic profession. And just as he did with his 2010 book on torture, he has injected himself into contemporary policy debates with this latest work.

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The Law of Dismality

Joseph Bottum, the dismal scientist
Jul 02, 2012

Back in the dark ages of superstition and disease, before science brought suffering humanity into our present era of perpetual peace and economic stability, people were very unenlightened. As Harris (2010) and Hitchens (2007) note, it was a dark time. Very dark.

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Conservatism, North Dakota Style

Jun 25, 2012

North Dakota is a rich state, relatively speaking. Good Midwesterners of mostly Scandinavian descent, those Dakotans always tried to live within their means, with the result that the state never ran up much debt, even in the lean years. And recent times have been far from lean: The boom in oil development—and consequent tax revenues—throughout the Bakken formation has produced an easily balanced budget of $4.1 billion for the state in 2012, despite $500 million in property and income tax reductions.

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James Abdnor, 1923-2012

Jun 11, 2012

When he died on May 16, the New York Times miscaptioned the photograph it ran with his obituary. And then misspelled his name in the correction it ran three days later. 

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Whose Fault Is It?

Laying the blame for blame.
May 14, 2012

This might have been a funny book if it hadn’t tried so hard to be serious. It might have been a serious book if it hadn’t strained so hard to be funny. It might have been witty, it might have been clever, it might have been profound—it might even have been good. If it weren’t so bad.

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The End of Reference

Hail Britannica.
Mar 26, 2012

It’s around, say, 1979, and you’re trying to remember where you saw that article on rising radiation levels in Eastern Europe. It might have been in Foreign Affairs, but, then again, it might have been in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists or even the New Statesman, although that seems less likely. 

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Bastard Wit

Joseph Bottum, in search of the right(-speaking) man
Jan 30, 2012

The angry man at the town-council meeting snarled, “As Harry Truman put it, ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.’ ” “No,” answered his tension-easing neighbor, “that was Mark Twain. You remember, the guy who also said, ‘The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco’—and he should have been talking about the weather we get around here.” Everybody laughed, and the council moved on to water rates.

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Square’s Roots

As the Cold War ended, the compass went haywire.
Jan 02, 2012

There was a time when John le Carré mattered, really mattered—back when he seemed a major talent and one of the best observers of our time: the man who had turned genre fiction into literature.

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Goodly Fragrance

Joseph Bottum, the scent of Christmas
Dec 26, 2011

Mrs. Johansen always complained. She’d whine about newsprint smearing. She’d grumble that I folded the paper wrong. Never mind that I was delivering to all her neighbors; she knew that some of them, most of them, were waiting for a chance to steal her newspaper, and she’d make me wedge the paper—folded in thirds—between her door handle and the jamb.

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The End of Canterbury

Will the sun set on the Anglican communion?
Dec 19, 2011

The archbishop of Canterbury is going to resign next year. At least that’s the story making the rounds of newspapers in London, and the interesting part is not that the 61-year-old Rowan Williams should be willing to give up another decade in the job. Or even, if the Telegraph is right, that the clergy and his fellow bishops are working to push him out.

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