Friday, February 29, 2008

My Brief but Happy Brush with Bill Buckley

This past Wednesday, William F. Buckley died. He was 82. Best known as a bastion of conservative thinking, he was a novelist, newspaper columnist and master sesquipedalian (that’s a Buckley-like word, which I freely admit I had to look up!). To understand the success of the Ronald Regan era, one probably needs to go back to Buckley.

My only real acquaintance with Buckley came as a result
of stumbling upon his television show Firing Line one day
back in the early or mid 80’s. I was flipping through the channels when I came upon him interviewing an interesting looking old man. That old man was Malcom Muggeridge, a British journalist who had converted to Christianity late in life and to Roman Catholicism even later. What made me stop turning the channels was nothing more than the physical appearance of Muggeridge. But it was their conversation about Christianity that fascinated and transfixed me.

As I recall, I myself did not identify as a Christian then. I was young, and had at the time other more fleshly interests than what struck me as the ethereal and cerebral interests of Muggeridge and Buckley. But still I was transfixed.

That was the only episode of Firing Line I ever watched, my only real and sustained brush with Buckley. But it turned out to have a profound effect on my own conversion, though it would only be in retrospect that I would locate it within my own Christian narrative.

And I am remembering now something Muggeridge said of conversion, something that resonated with me then and resonates with me still. He said to Buckley, as I recall (although I could be running together in my memory that interview and one of Muggeridge’s books),

Some, like the Apostle Paul, have a Damascus Road experience…No such experience has been vouchsafed me; I have just stumbled on, like Bunyan’s pilgrim, falling in the Slough of Despond, locked up in Doubting Castle, terrified at passing through the Valley of the Shadow of Death; from time to time, by God’s mercy, relieved of my burden of sin, but only, alas, soon to acquire it again.

Like Francis Schaeffer, there is much in Muggeridge that I passionately disagree with. For example, he seemed to me to be a kind of theological determinist, to believe that particular instances of horrific suffering and evil are part of the script God has written for the world and the particular human beings afflicted by those particular instances of horrific suffering and evil likewise God scripted. Yet also like Schaeffer, he was instrumental in my early Christian formation. And were it not for Bill Buckley and Firing Line it seems unlikely that I would ever have come into the timely orbit of Muggeridge, and unlikely too that I would have been introduced to the likes of Simone Weil, Kierkegaard, Chesterton and others to whose work I would be introduced by Muggeridge himself. I’m quite grateful that I was introduced to the work and thought of these folks at the time I was introduced to it. And so I'm glad I stumbled upon Bill Buckley lo those many years ago. Thank you, William F. Buckley, Jr. Thank you.


SM said...

Just read a memorial to Buckley by the writer/commentator Denis Boyles titled God, Man, Buckley, and Me.

Boyles writes that, at age 16, he was given Buckley's book "God and Man at Yale" (about the academy flatly ignoring certain ideas including the relationship between God and man). He says, "it helped me understand something about the public relationship an intelligent person ... could have with God." And he says that the book still affects him today.

"What I took from 'God and Man at Yale' that I value most was not just an anticipation of the politicized nature of higher education, but, almost incidentally, something else: The requirement — not just the wish — that, as a matter of spiritual health, it is necessary to try to meet God through a thoughtful struggle that should form the center of your intellectual life. That struggle continues until you die ..."

I thought Boyles' Catholic teen enounter dovetailed nicely with Kevin's Catholic teen encounter.


Kevin Corcoran said...


Thanks! I look forward to reading Boyle's memorial. I think I must have come across the episode of Firing Line sometime around 1985. Whether it is necessary or not to try to meet God through a thoughtful struggle I do not know; but, I do know what it is to engage in that struggle. And I suspect too that it will continue until I die.


Keith DeRose said...

I watched Buckley on TV on many occasions, and often enjoyed it very much.

But when I was at college, I did a presentation for a class on the My Lai massacre, and in the course of researching the topic, I came across a column of Buckley's that very much upset me & from then on very much colored (discolored?) my perception of the man. With no good justification, he was laying the blame for the incident, what was done by these boys, mostly from places like Ohio, on the Berkeley scene. It's a very rare column -- at least among those written by serious people -- that I find so vile. It was very close in its effect on me to a more recent piece by Chuck Colson in Christianity Today in which Colson was discussing a couple of teenagers, one of who sexually molested & murdered a 7-year-old girl, and the other of whom just watched, did nothing to prevent it, and then didn't turn his friend in. Where was Colson going with this? We soon find out: Without a shred of evidence (at least that he was willing to share) that the culprits were at all involved in the movement Colson was seeking to demonize, but based only on what they did, it didn't take him long at all to get to this: "What most people overlook, however, is that Cash's attitude accords precisely with the postmodernist philosophy propagated by places like Berkeley." Berkeley again. I've read all of the Colson piece, but you can get a good taste of it in the five paragraph "teaser" CT provides here:
It doesn't get any better after the paragraphs you get there. It really brought back to me the disgust I felt toward Buckley's use of the My Lai massacre. But I haven't read the Buckley piece -- nor could I bring myself to read anything else he wrote -- since that time in college. Hopefully, I'm misrembering the piece & misjudging the man. But I could never think of him in same way again.

Keith DeRose said...

If that url for the Colson piece doesn't all show for you, perhaps this link will work.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I never read Buckley's column. What I knew of his politics didn't fit too comfortably with my own political views. But, I'm a firm believer in the Balaam's Ass principle: if God can speak through Balaam's Ass God can speak to us through just about anyone; and, maybe even more importantly, God might even speak through me to those to whom I am the Ass! Anyway, I was just commenting not on any of Buckley's columns nor on his social/political views, but on just that one episode of Firing Line I happened to stumble upon lo those many years ago.

As for Colson, well, it's hard to know where to begin. Perhaps here: from what I have been able to gather from my unscientific and woefully inadequate sample of the Colson corpus, the man is not the carefullest of thinkers. And the "reasoning" displayed in the CT piece would make a good example for informal logic teachers seeking examples of common fallacies.