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Sophia's World

An evening with Dennis Prager

A Jew and a Christian muse about goodness, loving God, and bacon

I think it’s fair to say that anyone who has met Dennis Prager in person would have a hard time disliking the man. You can disagree with his politics, reject his Jewish faith, and criticize his decisions, but sit with the conservative pundit for an hour and you’ll find that he is a down-to-earth, humble guy who’s genuinely interested in people. 

When I asked Prager’s wife Sue if I could interview him for a story (she’s the strict gatekeeper of Prager’s schedule, since it’s his nature to say yes to everything), she invited me to their house. That evening, a crew from PragerU was also there to shoot an episode of “Fireside Chat with Dennis Prager,” a series of short live videos in which Prager sits by the roaring fire in his study and muses about anything from LeBron James to human nature to his favorite cigars. 

So there I sat on a couch, letting Prager’s pudgy, droopy-eyed bulldog Otto slobber over me, when Prager showed up and boomed in his baritone voice, “Well, hello!” He then held up two ties and asked, “Which one matches my shirt?” We decided on the crimson tie, and as he swung it around his neck, he suddenly remembered that he ought to shave. A few minutes later, he was sitting by the fire, cracking jokes as he ran an electric razor around his chin. 

Meanwhile, Otto had plopped down at the one spot where he got in everybody’s way. “Look at him,” Prager marveled, looking delighted. “He couldn’t have picked a worse spot!” Otto soon began snoring loudly with the tip of his pink tongue sticking out, and he was still snoring when the video went live, featuring Prager puffing a fat cigar and pondering the importance of college. (It’s only as important as you make it, he concluded.) 

Prager is a natural speaker—he needs no script, just an abstract thought in his mind that he’ll flesh out into something practical that you can grasp and use. Example: That evening, he challenged parents to ask their children, “What do you think I, your dad or your mom, most want you to be: smart, successful, happy, or good?” And then he said, “Very few parents get the answer ‘good.’ And that should be ... instructive. It means you have not communicated that that’s the most important thing you want your child to be. And the truth is, I don’t think most parents want their child to be good”—at least not as top priority, he said. 

Prager inhaled on his cigar, then continued, “But here’s the killer: Everybody wants everybody else to have ‘being good’ the most important thing in their life. ... But they themselves—that’s not their No. 1 priority!” He let out a wry chuckle and shook his cigar. “Now you know why the world is screwed up!” 

That evening after the shoot, Prager and I drove five minutes down to a family-run diner, where Prager ordered a salad. I ordered a dish with bacon, and when I apologized (Prager keeps kosher), he exclaimed, “Bacon is delicious, are you kidding? I still remember the taste!” 

Turns out, in his early 20s, Prager decided to break some of the Jewish religious laws. Not wanting to break his parents’ hearts, he broke the laws only when he was far away in England as a study-abroad student. He may have tried octopus and pork chops, but even then, Prager tried to keep the Ten Commandments. From the day he left his parents’ house till the day they died, he called them every week, simply because God had said, “Honor your father and your mother.” 

Now, at age 69, having written several best-selling books and created an immensely popular media platform, Prager still tries to keep the Ten Commandments. He contends that if everyone in the world were to accept and obey the Ten Commandments as God-breathed, God-mandated law, then people would be kinder to one another: Peace and justice and goodness would reign. The reason the world is so “screwed up” right now is because people would rather determine good and evil for themselves. “That’s their greatest religion,” Prager said. “Ultimately, they hate the idea that there’s an authority called God. And that’s what I fight against.”

While Prager chewed on his salad, I chewed on what he’d said. It’s not just “those people” who fail to follow the Ten Commandments. It’s me, too. When the Pharisees asked Jesus to name the great commandment, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This, Jesus declared, “is the great and first commandment”—yet it’s a commandment that I break time and time again by placing other things ahead of God in my thoughts and desires. 

Prager agreed: “The hardest law for me in the Torah is to love God.” Jesus said the second great commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself”—but it’s difficult to love God when you love your neighbors, Prager said: “If you love human beings, how can you love a God who allows them to endure such suffering?” That’s why his favorite verse in Scripture is Psalm 97:10: “Let those who love the LORD hate evil.” In a way, it simplifies the commandments for him: To love God is to pursue goodness, because God is good and wants us to be good.

Though I agreed, I also felt that alone falls short of the commandment to love God with all my heart and with all my soul and with all my might. Prager is primarily preoccupied with the evil out there in the world, which makes it hard for him to love God, while I’m primarily grieved by the evil inside of me—the inability to love God with my whole being. 

But that’s why I so resonate with Psalm 42, where the author moans, “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God.” I’m in awe of the longing love in Psalm 27, when David sings, “One thing have I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to inquire in his temple.” And I understand the astounded, responsive love of Lamentations 3:22, when Jeremiah gasps, “Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.”

Prager and I both agree it’s not easy to love God. We might differ on how to do so: Prager would probably say he strives to better observe the Law, while for me, the more I try to obey the Law, the more I discover that I can never live up to God’s standards—and that’s why I so desperately need Jesus Christ. 

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Sophia's World

Jordan Peterson’s spiritual appeal

The Toronto professor may not be a born-again believer, but he’s fueling a resurgence of interest in Christianity

Recently I wrote an article about three public intellectuals who are influencing the minds of young people: Jordan Peterson, Ben Shapiro, and Dennis Prager. They’re three very different styles of thinkers. Peterson is a dour-faced, thinking-out-loud Jungian psychologist in Toronto who can pontificate about life’s inevitable sufferings for three hours. Shapiro is a barb-tongued, Orthodox Jewish pundit who led the Never Trump movement. Prager is a down-to-earth, gregarious talk show host who has taught the Torah to Jews and non-Jews for decades. Shapiro and Prager both believe in God as a personal, divine being.

Peterson, on the other hand, takes a Darwinian yet transcendental interpretation of the Bible. For example: The cross, he writes, is “simultaneously, the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic centre of the world.” Christ is symbolically the one who “determines to take personal responsibility for the full depth of human depravity,” while Satan is the embodiment of “arrogance, incarnate; spite, deceit, and cruel, conscious malevolence. He is pure hatred of Man, God and, Being.” Meanwhile, God is “the highest value in the hierarchy of values,” Peterson says. God is “that in which we manifest necessary faith.” He is the “voice of conscience.”

If you’re confused by how all that fits into a clear religious worldview, don’t worry— so are his fans, who spend hours in internet chatrooms trying to decipher Peterson’s frustratingly ambiguous religious views, and probably so is Peterson himself, who’s still in the process of developing his own beliefs. Perhaps that’s why people find him so fascinating—here’s a highly intelligent man who so values the art of thinking, that every lecture is a public demonstration of him airing out his meditations, insights, and questions in an eloquent stream of consciousness.

Though Peterson gained instant fame in 2016 by poking a political landmine (he opposed a Canadian bill that added gender identity and gender expression to the Canadian Human Rights Act), people who follow his lectures know that the meat of his message is not political. Most of his lectures delve into deeper questions such as how to bear the tragedies and injustices of life, the struggle between good and evil, and how to find meaning in life.

When Peterson speaks of these ideas, his forehead knots into lines of earnestness, his voice tightens with urgency, and he paces and gazes at his audience, as though beseeching them to join him on his quest to understand the world—our world, together—a world so saturated with information and entertainment, yet so devoid of wisdom. Though he doesn’t profess to know it all, he articulates his ideas with such conviction that many listeners can’t help accepting what he says as truth.

That’s concerning for Peterson’s detractors, who see him as a sort of snake oil-peddling, pseudoscientific, pseudo-Christian missionary preaching to a cult of followers. From a gospel point of view, if Peterson is indeed a modern prophet, he’s a full-blown heretic. But here’s the most fascinating thing about Peterson’s appeal, at least from my perspective as a Christian: For some crazy reason, people are getting curious about Christianity because of him.

But here’s the most fascinating thing about Peterson’s appeal, at least from my perspective as a Christian: For some crazy reason, people are getting curious about Christianity because of him.

Paul Vander Klay is a pastor in Sacramento, Calif., who recognized this strange phenomenon and took advantage of it. When Vander Klay first watched Peterson’s 15-part lecture series about the Bible on YouTube and saw that he was speaking to a packed auditorium, he almost fell out of his chair: “I have friends who have churches in Toronto with plenty of empty seats, but people were paying $30 a pop to hear this guy ramble about the Bible! What’s going on?”

Vander Klay then began viewing every available material concerning Peterson, and soon realized that while Peterson was attempting to explain the psychological significance of the Bible, no Bible-believing Christian that he knew of was point-by-point dissecting (or refuting) Peterson’s ideas from a Biblical point of view. What’s more, Vander Klay saw comments in chatrooms from atheists and agnostics who said that after listening to Peterson, they wanted to learn more about Christianity. Peterson stoked their curiosity in God—but couldn’t lead them to Him.

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Charley Gallay/Getty Images for SiriusXM

Jonathan Gold (Charley Gallay/Getty Images for SiriusXM)

Sophia's World

Remembering Jonathan Gold

What an acclaimed Los Angeles food critic taught me about being a bumbling journalist

On July 21, Los Angeles lost one of its greatest cultural icons. Jonathan Gold, a Los Angeles Times food writer born and raised (and beloved) in LA, died from pancreatic cancer at the age of 57, leaving behind his wife of 28 years and two children ages 23 and 15.

Gold is the only food journalist so far to win the Pulitzer Prize, and his whimsical, poetic descriptions of all things gastronomical—from golden ossetra caviar at a fine dining restaurant to carnitas off taco trucks—lured Angelenos into hole-in-the-wall eateries tucked into strip malls on the other side of the county. He challenged local eaters to venture into Korean cuisine beyond the tired all-you-can-eat barbecue to try out less-familiar dishes such as blowfish soup and live octopus. He pushed them beyond Americanized Chinese menu items such as kungpao chicken to regional dishes such as Chengdu’s cold-diced rabbit and Xinjiang’s mutton kebabs.

Unlike Anton Ego, the bony, acerbic food critic in the animated film Ratatouille, Gold ate everything and anything with gusto and good cheer, once even penning a tongue-in-cheek review of Olive Garden. He was never snarky in his writing, even with food he didn’t enjoy, but was honest and generous in his critiques, like an uncle reminding a kid that he could do better.

I began actively following Gold after reading his review of cheonggukjang, a thick, bubbling Korean stew made of fermented soybean paste that smells like pubescent boys’ socks boiled down into an orange goop. At least, that’s how I would describe it. But not Gold: He explained it as having “a lovely, nutty flavor, a little like toasted barley,” though he did advise readers to avoid it for lunch if they’re returning to the office.

I was impressed. Even I, a pure-blooded Korean, can’t stand the stink of cheonggukjang, yet this white Jewish man ate it, digested it, and then composed such a delightfully thoughtful description that scores of non-Koreans drove down to Koreatown to try it out. No doubt about it, this guy had a gift—he could make boiled silkworm pupae sound like a nice, juicy afternoon snack.

In the summer of 2011, I finally got to meet The Gold in person. I was a college sophomore at the time, interning at the Los Angeles Times, when I spotted Gold at a food event I was covering for a story. This was before Gold unveiled himself in 2015, but people by then already recognized his trademark scruffy mustache, black suspenders, and the strawberry-blond lion’s mane that floated like an Elizabethan ruff around his shoulders.

“That’s Jonathan Gold,” a fellow intern friend whispered to me, and we clumsily walked crabwise up to him. A throng of fans was already peppering him with all sorts of foodie questions. Gold seemed shy with a crowd, yet curious and interested enough to ask questions in return and discuss the intricacies of bibimbap, a Korean mixed rice bowl dish. Finally I got to shake his hand, and given that I had less than eight minutes with the Wizard of the Culinary Literary World, I tried to ask him something I couldn’t google: “Mr. Gold, you’ve written about food for decades. What keeps you fresh?”

Gold shrugged: “Well, you know, I always just saw myself as bumbling into places I don’t know and trying new things and sharing it with people. I don’t see myself as an expert. I’m just a curious guy.”

Gold, though not a religious person, understood the sacredness and communion of breaking bread.

At the time, I was a newbie journalist, unsure about my reporting skills, making tons of mistakes, and feeling like a fraud. Gold’s words comforted and encouraged me. If Gold, with the esteemed Pulitzer Prize and several other awards under his suspenders, still saw himself as a bumbling tourist in his own field of expertise, then it was also OK for me to bumble about, curiously asking questions and acknowledging that I don’t know as much as I’d like to know.

From then on, Gold remained one of my journalistic role models. He was more than a food writer, though saying that sounds like I’m trivializing the culture of food. As someone who’s had a fraught relationship with food, I know it was never just about the taste and the calories. Jesus broke bread with uneducated fishermen and sinners. He turned water into wine, and multiplied five loaves of bread and two fish into a feast for the thousands. He cooked a breakfast of fish and bread over a fire of burning coals for His disciples after they trudged back to shore from an exhausting night of fishing (John 21:1-14).

Through food, Jesus shared his love, care, compassion, power, providence, grace, and humanity. God could have made eating an act of pure sustenance, a dull transformation of calories into energy. Yet He made blueberries juicy and tart, made pigs deliciously edible from snout to tail, made tea bitter and honey sweet—all so we could widen our eyes in pleasure over a good bowl of chili con carne (or stinky soybean stew) on a cold winter night, and thank Him for the meal.

Gold, though not a religious person, understood the sacredness and communion of breaking bread. His writing showed clearly that he cared about the person who fed him, cared about the unique histories and cultures that produced certain dishes. He cared about bridging individuals of different upbringings, languages, and locations in a common dining experience, and about delighting, educating, and inspiring his readers. And he did all that by bumbling around with an open heart, a curious mind, and a hungry tummy.

That, to me, is what made Gold a brilliant journalist.

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