Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"One of the most frightening films ever made"

A post at The Anxious Bench lists "#fav7films on Faith," one of which is The Night of the Hunter. The description quotes from a 2010 essay about the film, "Charles Laughton's The Night of the Hunter, revisited," from which:
.... Laughton's movie is steeped in Americana plucked from the source novel: hymns, homilies, revivals, superstitions, and sayings make up its tapestry of Depression Era life. The landscape is at once lush and pestilential, an idyllic America marred by the evil of men and mobs.

That evil is personified by a preacher: Harry Powell (Robert Mitchum), a homicidal villain whom David Thomson rightly called "one of the most compelling studies of evil in American cinema." When we first meet Preacher (as he is referred to in the script), he is driving on a country road, fresh off a recent murder and talking to God. "Well, now, what's it to be, Lord? Another widow? How many has it been?" he asks. An emblem of American piety and certitude, Preacher sees his path as ordained by the divine. "You say the word, Lord. I'm on my way."

Into his life comes Ben Harper. An outlaw on the run from the police, Ben is arrested for robbery and murder—but not before he hides his loot and tells his children, 8-year-old John (Billy Chapin) and 5-year-old Pearl (Sally Jane Bruce), not to reveal the hiding place to anyone, not even their mother (a touchingly vulnerable Shelley Winters). Ben ends up in the same cell as Preacher, who has been arrested for auto theft, and spills the secret while talking in his sleep that the $10,000 he stole is still out there. After Ben is executed, the Preacher is set free, and the hunt for the money—really, the children—begins. ....
.... Pauline Kael called it "one of the most frightening films ever made," but its scares come not from Grand Guignol horrors or gotcha moments. There's something deeply primal at work here: The subterranean charge coursing through the picture is our childhood terror of having no grown-up left to turn to. ....

Like Moses rescued from the riverbank, John and Pearl are found by an old lady, Mrs. Cooper (the great Lillian Gish), a Mother Goose figure who becomes their guardian. ....

...(Gish's) pious Mrs. Cooper is the crucial counterweight to Mitchum's Preacher. Her presence broadens the movie's scope, helping it rise above a mere critique of American parochial fundamentalism to an encompassing portrait of humanity's complexity. Just as LOVE and HATE both reside in the soul of man, so do faith and religion serve a corrosive purpose but an ennobling one as well. If Preacher (and, to a lesser extent, the sanctimonious townsfolk who can't spot iniquity when it's staring them in the face) represents blinkered zealotry and certainty, Mrs. Cooper redeems the purpose of faith, emblematizing Christian compassion and strength. Religion as double-edged sword reaches its expressive apogee in a climactic scene, with Preacher laying siege to Mrs. Cooper's house, singing a gospel hymn—only to be joined in song by the old lady, singing her own words of devotion. .... [more]

Monday, August 22, 2016

"To criminate and recriminate"

Edmund Burke believed that Britain's troubles with its American colonies should be conciliated and he deplored the decisions that led to the Revolutionary War. What he wrote about the deteriorating level of discourse in Britain on the subject has relevance to the nature of our electoral disputes today.  From his "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol":
.... [W]e have to lament, that in most of the late proceedings we see very few traces of that generosity, humanity, and dignity of mind, which formerly characterised this nation. War suspends the rules of moral obligation, and what is long suspended is in danger of being totally abrogated. Civil wars strike deepest of all into the manners of the people. They vitiate their politics; they corrupt their morals; they pervert even the natural taste and relish of equity and justice. By teaching us to consider our fellow-citizens in a hostile light, the whole body of our nation becomes gradually less dear to us. The very names of affection and kindred, which were the bond of charity whilst we agreed, become new incentives to hatred and rage, when the communion of our country is dissolved. We may flatter ourselves that we shall not fall into this misfortune But we have no charter of exemption, that I know of, from the ordinary frailties of our nature. ....

.... It is no excuse for presumptuous ignorance, that it is directed by insolent passion. The poorest being that crawls on earth, contending to save itself from injustice and oppression, is an object respectable in the eyes of God and man. But I cannot conceive any existence under heaven, (which, in the depths of its wisdom, tolerates all sorts of things) that is more truly odious and disgusting, than an impotent helpless creature, without civil wisdom or military skill, without a consciousness of any other qualification for power but his servility to it, bloated with pride and arrogance, calling for battles which he is not to fight, contending for a violent dominion which he can never exercise, and satisfied to be himself mean and miserable, in order to render others contemptible and wretched. ....

I know many have been taught to think, that moderation, in a case like this, is a sort of treason; and that all arguments for it are sufficiently answered by railing at rebels and rebellion, and by charging all the present or future miseries, which we may suffer, on the resistance of our brethren. But I would wish them, in this grave matter, and if peace is not wholly removed from their hearts, to consider seriously, first, that to criminate and recriminate never yet was the road to reconciliation, in any difference amongst men. ....
On the purpose of government:
I was persuaded that government was a practical thing, made for the happiness of mankind, and not to furnish out a spectacle of uniformity, to gratify the schemes of visionary politicians. Our business was to rule, not to wrangle....

Liberty too must be limited in order to be possessed. The degree of restraint it is impossible in any case to settle precisely. But it ought to be the constant aim of every wise public council, to find out by cautious experiments, and rational, cool endeavours, with how little, not how much of this restraint, the community can subsist. For liberty is a good to be improved, and not an evil to be lessened. It is not only a private blessing of the first order, but the vital spring and energy of the state itself, which has just so much life and vigour as there is liberty in it. ....

.... For as the Sabbath (though of divine institution) was made for man, not man for the Sabbath, government, which can claim no higher origin or authority, in its exercise at least, ought to conform to the exigencies of the time, and the temper and character of the people, with whom it is concerned; and not always to attempt violently to bend the people to their theories of subjection. ....
The introduction to the letter included this information. Burke and Johnson were contemporaries and friends.
Burke was one of the few men whom Dr. Johnson respected as equals. He said: "Burke is the only man whose common conversation corresponds with the general fame which he has in the world. Take up whatever topic you please, he is ready to meet you. ... He does not talk from a desire of distinction, but because his mind is full. ... He is never what we call hum-drum; never unwilling to begin to talk, nor in haste to leave off." When Burke with other friends came to bid farewell to Johnson on his death bed, he expressed a fear that so many callers might oppress the sick man. Johnson replied : "I must be in a wretched state, indeed, when your company would not be a delight to me."
I read Burke's "Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol" after reading "Navigating Political Strife and Unrest With Edmund Burke" in the Weekly Standard.

"Sort of romantic experience..."

Thomas Kidd interviews Barry Hankins, the author of a new book about the faith of Woodrow Wilson. It strikes me that Wilson's approach to the Christian faith was very similar to the approach of many Seventh Day Baptists of my grandfather's generation. From the interview:
...Wilson jettisoned the doctrines of his youth but not the spirituality. This was because he was very typical of the Progressive Era. Leading progressives like Wilson believed they had moved into a new era in which progress was possible on all fronts. Using modern science and thought forms associated with it they believed this new era was different in kind and superior to all that had come before. Theological doctrine was one of the things many progressives left behind.

Wilson believed doctrinal fights were useless, even detrimental to the cause of “true” religion. The real essence of Christianity was to do good in the world publicly and have a warm, personal, sort of romantic experience of God privately. ....

He was remarkably unreflective about his faith, while devout at the same time. He read his Bible and prayed regularly, including with his daughters. He gave chapel talks often while at Princeton. Still, what surprised me most in writing the book is how little Wilson thought or wrote about religion except when he discussed religion itself. ....

One would expect that a committed Christian, reared in the rich southern Presbyterian tradition, and a scholar himself, would think deeply about the theological implications of nearly everything. Wilson didn’t. For him, to be a Christian was to cultivate private piety and public justice—a sort of two spheres approach. He didn’t believe doctrine helped much in these matters. ....

I think Wilson was profoundly wrong about the importance of theology and that his career and place in history suffered accordingly. The doctrine that might have helped him most as a public official was the Westminster Confession’s passage on total depravity. This was especially true when WWI came. Wilson flipped from total condemnation of both sides in the war, to the view that the Germans were singularly evil and had to be utterly defeated and humiliated so that justice could be done. ....

Friday, August 19, 2016

GKC

I've been paging through The Quotable Chesterton. A few that caught my attention:
  • The greatest act of faith that a man can perform is the act that we perform every night. We abandon our identity, we turn our soul and body into chaos and old night. We uncreate ourselves as if at the end of the world: for all practical purposes we become dead men, in the sure and certain hope of a glorious resurrection.
  • It is generally the man who is not ready to argue, who is ready to sneer.
  • Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give a child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
  • To begin with, we must protest against a habit of quoting and paraphrasing at the same time. When a man is discussing what Jesus meant, let him state first of all what He said, not what the man thinks He would have said if he had expressed Himself more clearly.
  • A martyr is a man who cares so much for something outside him, that he forgets his own personal life. A suicide is a man who cares so little for anything outside him, that he wants to see the last of everything.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The harm I do myself

John Mark Reynolds:
Suppose you have the choice of the lunatic John C. Fremont, the pro-slavery incompetent James Buchanan, and Millard Fillmore running on the nativist Know Nothing Party. Generally, Christian ethics would say: “Do not vote for the person who has disqualified [him]self.”

There are many reasons for this position. Perhaps, the best is that if you vote for a bad man, then you have done an evil and the best you can hope is that good will come of it. There are times when, perhaps, the lesser of two evils is the only option, but voting is never one of them.

Why?

My vote does not do enough for my preferred candidate given the size of the electorate! The harm I do the other candidates and the good I do my picked Evil is little. The harm I do myself is certain. .... [more]

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

"I liked him for his goodness"

C.S. Lewis on G.K. Chesterton via The Wardrobe Door, from Surprised By Joy:
It was here that I first read a volume of Chesterton’s essays. I had never heard of him and had no idea of what he stood for; nor can I quite understand why he made such an immediate conquest of me. It might have been expected that my pessimism, my atheism, and my hatred of sentiment would have made him to me the least congenial of all authors. It would almost seem that Providence, or some “second cause” of a very obscure kind, quite over-rules our previous tastes when It decides to bring two minds together. Liking an author may be as involuntary and improbable as falling in love. I was by now a sufficiently experienced reader to distinguish liking from agreement. I did not need to accept what Chesterton said in order to enjoy it.

His humour was of the kind I like best – not “jokes” imbedded in the page like currants in a cake, still less (what I cannot endure), a general tone of flippancy and jocularity, but the humour which is not in any way separable from the argument but is rather (as Aristotle would say) the “bloom” on dialectic itself. The sword glitters not because the swordsman set out to make it glitter but because he is fighting for his life and therefore moving it very quickly. For the critics who think Chesterton frivolous or “paradoxical” I have to work hard to feel even pity; sympathy is out of the question. Moreover, strange as it may seem, I liked him for his goodness.
And:
“In reading Chesterton, as in reading [George] MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading. There are traps everywhere — “Bibles laid open, millions of surprises,” as Herbert says, “fine nets and stratagems.” God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Read...

Samuel Johnson:
...[R]ead diligently, they who do not read can have nothing to think and little to say. When you can get proper company, talk freely and cheerfully; it is often by talking that we come to know the value of what we read, to separate it with distinctness, and fix it in the memory. ....
Letter to Mrs. Thrale, July 1780

Monday, August 15, 2016

"Be a teacher"

An article I wrote in 2009, four years after I retired from teaching:

In the film of Robert Bolt’s play, A Man for All Seasons, a young friend asks Thomas More for a place at Court. More tells Richard Rich that he won’t give him what he wants but that he may have another position for him:
Rich: What post?
More: At the new school.
Rich: A teacher! [….]
More: Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher. Perhaps a great one.
Rich: lf I was, who would know it?
More: You! Your pupils. Your friends. God. Not a bad public, that.
One of the great affirmations of the Protestant Reformation was the “priesthood of all believers” and along with that the realization that the idea of vocation applied to all believers, not just those ordained to holy orders. Our lives can’t be compartmentalized. Our work — how we earn our living — is in service to God, just as every other aspect of life. Whether we gain wide acclaim is irrelevant. What matters is whether we are faithful. Who will know? “God. Not a bad public, that.”

I didn’t come to that realization right away. For as long as I can remember I had planned to be a teacher, but because it was something I thought I could do well that would provide me with a living, not as a calling. In fact I became a public school teacher rather by default because I feared the kind of debt I would incur by continuing in graduate school. In 1970 I put out my credentials (teachers were in short supply then) and was contacted by a principal in Madison, Wisconsin. I taught in that school district — secondary history and political science — for thirty-five years.

I was a mediocre teacher when I started, making serious mistakes — especially in disciplining students — but I learned from my mistakes and eventually achieved a certain competence. I learned very little of value in the education courses I was required to take. Teaching is as much an art as a skill and perfecting the art is largely a matter of trial and error. Each teacher needs to discover the style that works for him or her. I always told my student teachers to commit to at least four or five years before deciding they couldn’t do it.

What makes a good public school teacher? You need to like kids and love your subject matter. Most students will do just about anything a teacher asks if they believe the teacher cares about them, knows what he is talking about, and teaches it well. That means knowing your subject thoroughly, and that means reading a lot. The easiest way to earn the contempt of adolescents is to pretend to know more than you do. The best teachers are those who can convey what is most important clearly and interestingly — and that is almost impossible if you are always operating at or close to the limit of your knowledge. Otherwise what makes a good teacher is what makes any good person: integrity, the willingness to admit error, intolerance of cruelty, a sense of proportion and good humor, meeting your commitments and obligations punctually, “doing unto others…,” etc.

These days, in the public schools, there is much less opportunity for Christian teachers to talk freely about our faith than was true even a few decades ago. Nevertheless, I found, at least in high school, that if the subject came up naturally as part of the curriculum or in student initiated discussion, it was possible if the subject was approached descriptively, if disagreement could be freely expressed, and nobody felt pressured. The most important witness a Christian teacher can make in a classroom, though, is behavior consistent with belief. For high school students there is no greater sin an adult can commit than seeming to be hypocritical.

“Be a teacher.” It is an honorable profession. And your Sabbaths will almost always be free.

Hitchcock

North by Northwest was, I think, the first Hitchcock film I saw. It was shown in the Milton College auditorium probably in the early '60s, well before I was myself in college. I loved it. Apart from those in the silent era and some of the early British sound films, I believe I have seen them all. When his films became available on videotape I bought many of them. I replaced those with DVDs — I have twenty-one of those he directed. Today on The New Yorker site, "The Book That Gets Inside Alfred Hitchcock’s Mind":
.... Hitchcock/Truffaut, the book in which the master of suspense exposed his most private creative mind in interviews with François Truffaut, is turning fifty, and has become the inspiration for an eponymous documentary, by Kent Jones, which has just been released on HBO. ....

Hitchcock...was the rare late-modern craftsman who not only knew exactly what he was trying to do but could lay it out in words. If you’re the sort of person who believes that lasting art is often born through the constraints of craft—that genius has a way of creeping in as restless virtuosos push against the pressures of a market, trying to meet the demands of a mainstream audience—then the Hitchcock interviews emerge as a creative Rosetta Stone. ....

One of my favorite things to do with Hitchcock/Truffaut is to open the book, in biblical fashion, to a random place and read. Here’s the director on Psycho, explaining his frequent balletic use of overhead cameras to prime the movie’s final revelation:
A.H. I raised the camera when Perkins was going upstairs. He goes to the room and we don’t see him, but we hear him say, “Mother, I’ve got to take you down to the cellar. They’re snooping around.” And then you see him take her down to the cellar. I didn’t want to cut, when he carries her down, to a high shot because the audience would have been suspicious as to why the camera has suddenly jumped away. So I had a hanging camera follow Perkins up the stairs, and when he went into the room I continued going up without a cut, as the camera got up on top of the door, the camera turned and looked back down the stairs again. Meanwhile, I had an argument take place between the son and his mother to distract the audience and take their minds off what the camera was doing. In this way the camera was above Perkins again as he carried his mother down and the public hadn’t noticed a thing.
.... As Truffaut presses Hitchcock on decision after decision, in film after film, an elaborate, reasoned logic rises to the fore—a point that both directors, similarly inclined toward meticulous visual formalism, were keen to drive home. .... [more]
I've owned the revised edition of Hitchcock/Truffaut since it was published in 1985 and I just now watched the above-mentioned documentary. If you enjoy Hitchcock films you would almost certainly like either or both. The documentary is available on-demand at HBO until some time in September.

Note: After reviewing the list of Hitchcock films in the book I revised my account of which I haven't seen, his early British films.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

"Home was home then..."


Home no more home to me, whither must I wander?
by Robert Louis Stevenson

HOME no more home to me, whither must I wander?
Hunger my driver, I go where I must.
Cold blows the winter wind over hill and heather;
Thick drives the rain, and my roof is in the dust.
Loved of wise men was the shade of my roof-tree.
The true word of welcome was spoken in the door
Dear days of old, with the faces in the firelight,
Kind folks of old, you come again no more.
Home was home then, my dear, full of kindly faces,
Home was home then, my dear, happy for the child.
Fire and the windows bright glittered on the moorland;
Song, tuneful song, built a palace in the wild.
Now, when day dawns on the brow of the moorland,
Lone stands the house, and the chimney-stone is cold.
Lone let it stand, now the friends are all departed,
The kind hearts, the true hearts, that loved the place of old.
Spring shall come, come again, calling up the moorfowl,
Spring shall bring the sun and rain, bring the bees and flowers;
Red shall the heather bloom over hill and valley,
Soft flow the stream through the even-flowing hours;
Fair the day shine as it shone on my childhood
Fair shine the day on the house with open door;
Birds come and cry there and twitter in the chimney
But I go for ever and come again no more.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Coincidence

Yesterday I was browsing in a collection of C.S. Lewis' essays, The World's Last Night and Other Essays, and read the beginning of "The Efficacy of Prayer" (pdf):
Some years ago I got up one morning intending to have my hair cut in preparation for a visit to London, and the first letter I opened made it clear I need not go to London. So I decided to put the haircut off too. But then there began the most unaccountable little nagging in my mind, almost like a voice saying, “Get it cut all the same. Go and get it cut.” In the end I could stand it no longer. I went. Now my barber at that time was a fellow Christian and a man of many troubles whom my brother and I had sometimes been able to help. The moment I opened his shop door he said, “Oh, I was praying you might come today.” And in fact if I had come a day or so later I should have been of no use to him.

It awed me; it awes me still. But of course one cannot rigorously prove a causal connection between the barber’s prayers and my visit. It might be telepathy. It might be accident…

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Reading slowly

I collected all of Dorothy L. Sayers Lord Peter mysteries but it has been some time since I read any of them. This young woman's experience tempts me to return:
...[D]uring a visit to a used bookstore, my attention was caught by the worn blue spine of Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night. I’m drawn to old things. Old professors, old languages, old books often seem to have the most to offer, and Gaudy Night did not disappoint me. A notice on the copyright page assures the reader that the book was produced in accordance with wartime standards, and the worn pages exhaled evidence of a previous reader’s smoking habit. I was sold. ....

...[H]ere, rising from smoky war-ration pages, was the languid, scholarly “Paradise” of the fictional all-female Shrewsbury College, Oxford. Here was the loving intellect, and women who would rather forfeit a career than commit academic dishonesty. Here was a staid and traditional world, one with room for worship, good food, leisure on the river, and serious scholarly pursuit. A veritable academic paradise, with a devilish snake in the grass. The story opens as Harriet Vane, a young mystery writer, returns to her Shrewsbury College for a class reunion. During the weekend, she hears of obscene drawings, death threats, and strange notes plaguing the college. She decides to stay and solve the mystery, and is eventually joined by the right honorable Lord Peter Wimsey, Sayers’s foppish, aristocratic detective (Wodehouse meets Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

I charged into Gaudy Night with my accustomed habits, but the mystery slowed me down. Which descriptions were mere setting, and which were vital clues? Were Sayers’s literary epitaphs at the opening of each chapter hints, or just whimsical flourishes? I found myself going back to the pages I had skimmed, sifting them carefully for clues. I started to read more slowly. I kept track of the characters, weighing the evidence pro and con. In the process of careful attention, I found myself savoring eccentricities and details that had nothing to do with the central mystery. ....

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Hanged, not hung

I took The Dangerous Book for Boys off the shelf this afternoon and started browsing through it. I would have loved having this book when I was a kid. It is full of exactly the kinds of things that would have fascinated me: stories of adventure and battle, explanations of how to do things like tying knots and building things and how to fish, useful information about grammar and astronomy and weather, and less useful things like Navaho code talking, and on and on. It's great for browsing. There is a Daring Book for Girls, too, but I don't have a copy of that. Today I came across pages describing "Five Pen and Paper Games" one of which I remember playing although I think it was mostly played on the blackboard rather than on paper. That game, the first one explained, was "Hangman."
I. HANGMAN

THIS IS THE CLASSIC word game for two or more players. Think of a word and mark out the number of letters in dashes _ _ _ _ _ _ _. The other player guesses letters one at a time. If they guess correctly, write the letter. If they get one wrong, draw a line of the hanged man and write the letter on the page. Incorrect guesses of the whole word also cost a line.

There are twelve chances to get the word right. If the hanged man is completely finished, they lose. Take turns and try some really hard words, like "paella," or "phlegm."

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

"Be watchful for your latter end..."

The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) contains 197 carols. Many are for the Christmas season, but there are some for every season of the Christian year. Percy Dearmer edited the words and Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams the music. From Percy Dearmer's Preface:
Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. They are generally spontaneous and direct in expression, and their simplicity of form causes them sometimes to ramble on like a ballad. Carol literature and music are rich in true folk-poetry and remain fresh and buoyant even when the subject is a grave one....
I got my copy sometime in the 1970s. The book is still in print. Today I came across a carol called "Job." I found the setting below online. It is the same as one of several settings for that carol in the book. I failed to find find a YouTube performance that seemed appropriate.
Come all you worthy Christian men,
That dwell upon this land,
Don't spend your time in rioting:
Remember you are but man.
Be watchful for your latter end;
Be ready when you're call'd.
There are many changes in this world;
Some rise while others fall.
Come all you worthy Christian men,
That are so very poor,
Remember how poor Lazarus
Lay at the rich man's door,
While begging of the crumbs of bread
That from his table fell.
The Scriptures do inform us all
That in heaven he doth dwell.
Now Job he was a patient man,
The richest in the East;
When he was brought to poverty,
His sorrows soon increased.
He bore them all most patiently;
From sin he did refrain;
He always trusted in the Lord;
He soon got rich again.
The time, alas, it soon will come
When parted we shall be;
But all the difference it will make
Is in joy and misery.
And we must give a strict account
Of great as well as small:
Believe me now, dear Christian friends
That God will judge us all

Note: I changed the post title from "He wasted his substance in riotous living..." to "Be watchful for your latter end." The first was originally chosen because of "Don't spend your time in rioting" in the first verse of the carol but the current title is more representative of the rest of the text.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The conscience of a conservative

I agree with Matthew Franck's reasoning as he explains how he will vote:
For my part, my conscience is more important to me than the outcome of this presidential election. I cannot in good conscience vote for either Clinton or Trump. What matters for me is that I cannot bring myself to intend, to will the victory of either of these ludicrously unacceptable presidential candidates. And that is what a vote for one of them would be—an act of willing that Clinton or Trump be president, carry out her or his stated policy aims, and bring his or her fundamentally bad character to the highest office in the land.

.... “Not making the perfect the enemy of the good” is not the right adage for calculating what to do in our present predicament. Nor is “choose the lesser of two evils” the right way to think. That way of thinking really only works when at least one of the choices is in fact not really evil.

.... I do believe we have entered a realm of absolutes here, where trimmers’ calculations have no purchase on our decision-making. If “lesser evil” and “objective consequences” are not my guides, it is because the times demand that I reject both Trump and Clinton, declining to stain my conscience with a vote for either one of them.

After a lifetime of studying politics, I have finally, thanks to the electoral annus horribilis of 2016, arrived at an ethic of voting that I can defend against all rival ethics. It is simply this: Vote as if your ballot determines nothing whatsoever—except the shape of your own character. Vote as if the public consequences of your action weigh nothing next to the private consequences. The country will go whither it will go, when all the votes are counted. What should matter the most to you is whither you will go, on and after this November’s election day.

Failure of moral imagination

.... Another factor favoring anti-discrimination laws over religious liberty is that the left, which traditionally fought for both religious liberty and non-discrimination, has made a virtual religion out of the latter while largely abandoning traditional religion. The left also once enjoyed a substantial religious base; today it has become dominated by secularists who simply fail to understand the perspective of religious traditionalists.

Many secularists see adherence to longstanding moral teachings as compelling evidence of irrational animus. Secular liberals seem unable to discern why—unless out of a prejudiced hostility to women’s rights—a Catholic university should decline to provide its employees with insurance coverage for birth control. This failure of moral imagination is quite staggering, especially given that progressives consider themselves to be exceptionally open-minded and tolerant of diversity.

Still another, related factor in the rout of religious liberty is the unwillingness of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other one-time supporters of the free exercise of religion to defend the rights of traditionalist Christians lest, by doing so, they fall on the wrong side of the culture wars. It was one thing for the ACLU and like-minded groups to have historically defended politically inconsequential minorities like peyote-smoking Indians and Sabbatarians (as well as Orthodox Jews) whose free-exercise rights were threatened by the mainstream Protestant majority. It’s quite another thing today to defend evangelical Christians when they object to aspects of modern anti-discrimination law. ....

Once it became clear, however, that the primary beneficiaries of RFRA were not going to be the aforementioned peyote-smokers and Sabbatarians but religious Christians seeking to repel the advance of secular, progressive values into their lives, the ACLU and many other left-leaning groups and individuals became strong opponents of religious-freedom laws at both the federal and, later, the state level.

Indeed, in a remarkable spectacle, governors of states that in the 1990s had passed still-extant religious-freedom laws are now boycotting states that have passed similar or almost identical laws in the 2010s. Thus, in 2015, the Connecticut governor Dan Malloy signed an executive order banning state travel to Indiana on account of that state’s newly passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which actually afforded narrower protection to religious liberty than does Connecticut’s RFRA.

The reason for such contortions: religious freedom is now seen as code for “discrimination against sexual minorities.” As Louise Melling, the ACLU’s deputy legal director, has put it, RFRA needs to be limited (she uses the term “amended”) “so that it cannot be used as a defense for discrimination.” More broadly, she argues, “religious liberty doesn’t mean the right to discriminate.” Actually, however, it does mean the right to discriminate, or at least it can—unless one were to adopt the old Soviet line that religious freedom means you are free to believe whatever you want so long as you don’t act on those beliefs. .... [more]

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Memory

A post at Anecdotal Evidence today moved me to find Samuel Johnson's "Rambler #XLI," from which:
.... We owe to memory not only the increase of our knowledge, and our progress in rational inquiries, but many other intellectual pleasures. Indeed, almost all that we can be said to enjoy is past or future; the present is in perpetual motion, leaves us as soon as it arrives, ceases to be present before its presence is well perceived, and is only known to have existed by the effects which it leaves behind. The greatest part of our ideas arises, therefore, from the view before, or behind us, and we are happy or miserable, according as we are affected by the survey of our life, or our prospect of future existence....

...[T]he images which memory presents are of a stubborn and untractable nature, the objects of remembrance have already existed, and left their signature behind them impressed upon the mind, so as to defy all attempts of rasure or of change.

As the satisfactions, therefore, arising from memory are less arbitrary, they are more solid, and are, indeed, the only joys which we can call our own. ....

In youth, however unhappy, we solace ourselves with the hope of better fortune, and however vicious, appease our consciences with intentions of repentance; but the time comes at last in which life has no more to promise, in which happiness can be drawn only from recollection, and virtue will be all that we can recollect with pleasure.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

"In the world which will be renewed and where He will give life to the dead..."

.... OK, he doesn’t believe in the afterlife. .... And, perhaps many Jews don’t believe in an afterlife, but Judaism certainly does....

Judaism and the Afterlife 101.
  • In the biblical period, ancient Jews believed that people went to Sheol, a shadowy pit beneath the earth. Nothing much happens there (sort of like certain cities that you have visited, no doubt).
This is pretty much the standard view until the book of Daniel, perhaps the last book of the Bible to be written.

“Many of those that sleep in the dust will awaken,” we read, “and the knowledgeable will be radiant like the bright expanse of the sky, and those who have led the many to righteousness will be like the stars forever and ever.” (Daniel 12:2-3). That verse is the beginning of the Jewish idea of personal immortality.
  • In the rabbinic period, the sages taught that people would go on to olam ha-ba (the world to come), also known as gan Eden (the Garden of Eden.) At the end of history, the dead would become resurrected.
(“Really?” people ask me. “This sounds so….Christian.” Yup. Where do you think Christianity got this idea? From Judaism, with a little help from Greek philosophy as well.)

That is why we say Kaddish for our parents – because that prayer would carry them into the World to Come. At the end of history, the Messiah would come, the dead would be resurrected and they would travel back to the land of Israel – which is why Jews were often buried with sacks of soil from Eretz Yisrael beneath their heads.

That is why autopsy and cremation are traditionally forbidden – because the body must remain whole.

Week after week, at funerals, I recite this prayer: “El malei rachamim, O God of Compassion, let the soul of our beloved rest tachat kanfei ha-shechina, beneath the wings of God’s Presence, along with all the other pure and righteous ones in the Garden of Eden.”.... [more]

Friday, August 5, 2016

A jeremiad

.... A man who lived in worse times and who loved a messed up people said:
“Beware of your friends;
do not trust anyone in your clan.
For every one of them is a deceiver,
and every friend a slanderer.
Friend deceives friend,
and no one speaks the truth.
They have taught their tongues to lie;
they weary themselves with sinning.
You live in the midst of deception;
in their deceit they refuse to acknowledge me,”
declares the Lord.
Our friends are betraying us and members of our Christian family are telling us lies. We do not speak the truth and we slander those who try to tell us the truth. We live in the middle of deception and we like the lies, because they tell us what we wish to hear.

Here are some lies we pay to be told:
  • Our problems are the fault of some other person.
  • Our sins are not as serious as the sins of our neighbor, that wicked “other guy.”
  • We don’t have to worry about sin, because God will not judge us if we just do not judge anyone else.
  • We have raised up false intellectuals, apologists who lie, and a Christian media complex that sells us product we want and not what we need.
How do false friends lie to us? .... [more]

Thursday, August 4, 2016

"A warlord in the army of God"

I've posted before about a favorite collection of mystery short stories, Uncle Abner: Master of Mysteries, by West Virginia author Melville Davisson Post, who resided in Lost Creek, WV, and inevitably would have known and been known by Seventh Day Baptists there. A later collection of uncollected Uncle Abner stories was published by The Aspen Press in 1974. The Methods of Uncle Abner appears to be out of print but second-hand copies can be found at reasonable prices.

From the back flyleaf about the author:
MELVILLE DAVISSON POST (1871-1930) was born in Harrison county, West Virginia, the approximate locale of the Uncle Abner stories. Although he traveled widely in his later years, he spent most of his life in this area, graduating from West Virginia University ("a college of unbeautiful nonsense," as he called it) in 1891 and receiving his law degree from the same school in 1892. For a number of years he practiced law in West Virginia and was active in Democratic state politics, eventually giving up a promising career in this field to become a full-time writer. His earliest stories, dealing with the unscrupulous lawyer, Randolph Mason, were as controversial as they were popular, demonstrating as they did how justice might be legally subverted. ....

He made his home in Lost Creek, West Virginia, where he relaxed by riding horse-back and reading the classics. He died in 1930 following a fall from a horse.
And from the front flyleaf:
UNCLE ABNER, a formidably righteous country squire of the hill region of pre-Civil War (West) Virginia, is the most memorable of a series of detectives created by Melville Davisson Post, one of the most accomplished Americans writing in the genre.... The Abner stories began appearing in magazines in 1911, and the first eighteen were collected in 1918 under the title Uncle Abner. Master of Mysteries, a volume that Ellery Queen has ranked as one of the four finest collections of detective short stories ever published.

It was Queen who announced the discovery that a second series of Abner tales had been published in The Country Gentleman in 1927 and 1928. "Utterly incredible as it may seem," he wrote, "none of the tales in this second series has ever appeared in book form—a prodigious publishing pity." .... They are for the most part equal in conception and execution to the first eighteen stories, with Abner unchanged, still a warlord in the army of God, riding forth on his chestnut horse to do battle with the forces of evil. ....

Abner was an original, and in him Post may well have given us our first truly great American detective. Dupin, after all, was a Frenchman, and until Hammett came along most American detectives were modeled, for better or for worse, after their British counterparts. But for all his Old Testament flavor, Abner is a wholly American figure, whose roots lie not in Doyle but in Melville. He is a sane Ahab, seeking not vengeance but justice, and a character no reader is likely to forget. As Edmund Crispin describes him, he is "the good man and the reasoning man splendidly combined into one."
Uncle Abner is available, free, as an e-book for Kindle, Nook, and other electronic formats: Uncle Abner, Master of Mysteries by Melville Davisson Post - Free eBook. Others of his are also there, but not The Methods of....