Beale Reviews Coelho

This is far afield of law, but it’s Sunday and there will be time enough to return to law in the coming week.

On the recommendation of various relatives and sundry others, I recently listened to Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist in the car.  It was recommended to me as representing an interesting new spiritual and mystical sensibility–an author who took the claims of religion seriously but explored them in novel ways.

I detested it.  I found it empty and pretentious, and pretentious about its emptiness.  It was truly one of the worst books I’ve listened to.  Coelho’s intolerably schmaltzy themes in the book are about pursuing one’s dreams (“Personal Legend”) and that nobody but you can help you to know and achieve your star.  Here is an absolutely splendid review by Victoria Beale that does justice to the novel, and remarks on similar themes in his other work, which it appears I won’t be reading.  From the review:

What is it in Coelho’s writing that has convinced so many millions of readers of his sagacity? In part, it is the universality of his central theme: A young person sets out on a spiritual quest, discovers that his elders are no wiser than he is, and ultimately realizes the power for change comes from within . . . . The worst aspect of Coelho (setting aside the fuzzy prose, which does a good job of concealing the greater flaws) is his absolute failure to genuinely, movingly, and convincingly, depict pain and suffering—the types of obstacles that positive thinking, however forceful, often cannot overcome . . . . This isn’t surprising. A realistic depiction of human difficulties would invalidate Coelho’s core teaching: every obstacle is surmountable and believing is all. The Alchemist lays out the grim future for those who don’t yearn sufficiently for their destiny: “Most people see the world as a threatening place and, because they do, the world turns out, indeed, to be a threatening place.’’ This is the alarming flipside of Coelho’s vapid optimism: Anyone in dire circumstances is suffering because they think it’s possible to suffer.

For a serious religious meditation by a Portuguese writer–a hard-core atheist with a knack for describing the human condition–may I humbly recommend the  novels of the late José Saramago, especially his excellent Blindness.

NYU to Host Conference on People v. Phillips (April 12-14)

Next weekend, the Center for Irish and Irish-American Studies at NYU will host a conference marking the bicentennial of People v. Phillips, an early freedom-of-religion case involving the priest-penitent privilege:

Religious Freedom in America, 1813 to 2013: Bicentennial Reflections on People v. Philips” is a weekend of events that marks the landmark 1813 case that is the earliest known constitutional test of freedom of religion and the priest-penitent evidentiary privilege in American law. A dynamic line-up of events will demonstrate how a trial for a petty jewelry theft escalated into an argument for religious freedom when the local priest was subpoenaed to testify what he had heard in confession.

In People v. Philips, William Sampson — a banished political exile from Ireland and a Protestant — argued on behalf of the Trustees of St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church on Barclay Street before the presiding judge, Mayor DeWitt Clinton [left]. William Sampson’s experience of religious-based intolerance in Ireland propelled him to persuade the court that America should not look to British common law for legal precedent when dealing with Catholics, then a small but growing minority in New York City.

William Sampson’s own published account of the case, The Catholic Question in America, will be presented in a staged reading adapted by Steve DiUbaldo of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts on Friday evening, 12 April. A full-day symposium follows on Saturday, 13 April, where scholars from a wide variety of disciplines — especially law, religion, history, and politics — will comment on Sampson’s 1813 record of the trial and consider it in relation to their own understanding of contemporary issues. On Sunday morning 14 April, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, the final resting place of lawyer William Sampson and DeWitt Clinton, will mark the 200th anniversary of the case with an encore reading of The Catholic Question and a wreath-laying ceremony.

Details are here.

The Becket Fund’s Cert Petition in the Wisconsin High School Graduation Case

Last summer, the Seventh Circuit ruled, en banc, that a Wisconsin public high school could not hold its graduation ceremonies in a rented Evangelical church sanctuary. To do so, the court ruled, posed too great a risk of government coercion, proselytism, and endorsement of religion. Three judges–Easterbrook, Posner, and Ripple–filed blistering dissents, the sort that often result in Supreme Court review.

The Becket Fund has filed a cert petition on behalf of the high school; Stanford Law Professor Michael McConnell appears on the petition as counsel of record. You can read the petition here. The Supreme Court is expected to announce whether it will hear the case, Doe v. Elmbrook School District, later this month. The case would give the Court an opportunity to clarify (or discard) its much maligned endorsement test. For my reflections on the issues the case raises, please click here.