Tuesday, April 7, 2020

"But he still gets to be God"

Kevin Williamson writes about some theological questions raised for Christians in times like these. He makes no claim to being a theologian, nor do I, but I like what he writes (and how he writes).
There are two Christian concepts on my mind on this Palm Sunday. One is theodicy, the other is the sin of presumption. “Theodicy” means “the vindication of God,” referring to a seeming conundrum that has vexed Christian thinkers since the beginning: How can evil coexist with an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful God?

Christians conceive of God as a father, which occasionally places us in the role of resentful adolescents: If God really cares about us, why did He let my friend die? If God really cares about us, why did He let that earthquake kill all those innocent people? I never asked to be born! There is a philosophically sophisticated version of that line of questioning, but the underlying dynamic is the same. Many Christian theologians consider the problem of evil to be the most persuasive intellectual challenge to the idea of God as Christians understand Him, and so theodicy has been a very hot topic for a couple of millennia now. ....

It is difficult not to think of that in the context of the epidemic that is at the moment inflicting death and suffering on the guilty and the innocent alike around the world. As with the plagues that were visited upon Egypt, there is sickness but also economic and political damage. More than 6 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week. Confidence in our institutions is low — and, if we are to believe the evidence of our own eyes, it deserves to be low.

And here, spare a minute for the sin of presumption and its twin, the sin of despair. Presumption, in its narrowest sense, is a perversion of hope — it is the belief that God’s mercy will embrace us irrespective of our own course, with no need for repentance or acts of reconciliation on our part. It is the mirror image of the sin of despair, the belief that our depravity is so deep and so wild that it is beyond God’s salvific powers. What presumption and despair have in common is the mistaken belief that God’s mind is knowable by such creatures as us, that He can be hemmed in by our narrow ethical prejudices, that he is an algebraic God who may be approached formulaically, as an equation to be balanced. To be presumptuous is to speak on God’s behalf with unwarranted confidence and foundationless certitude.....

I do not know if God “sent” this epidemic to teach us a lesson. I am not much of a theologian. The moral lesson that I have taken from reading the Bible is that God’s sense of justice, fitness, and proportionality is at odds with my own, but He still gets to be God. I trust, but do not presume, that He will forgive my occasional irritation at those famous “mysterious ways” of His. .... (more)

Monday, April 6, 2020

A crime film

Otto Penzler is "Counting Down the Greatest Crime Films of All Time" at CrimeReads. Today he came to #21, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). That film was reputedly the favorite of Alfred Hitchcock. It is certainly one of my favorites. I've posted about it here several times. For example, from 2014 (slightly modified):

Alfred Hitchcock's film Shadow of a Doubt includes two characters who are readers of that kind of mystery popular in the middle of the twentieth century: the protagonist's father Joseph Newton and his good friend Herbie Hawkins. They often meet to discuss the stories they have recently read and their own theories about how to carry out the perfect murder:
Herbie: Say, ha-have you read this one? Huh? That little Frenchman beats them all. You can talk all you like about Sherlock Holmes. That little Frenchman beats 'em all.
Joseph Newton: I read it. Air bubbles don't necessarily kill a person. Those writers from the other side get too fancy. — The best way to commit a murder—
Herbie: — I know, I know. Hit 'em on the head with a blunt instrument.
Newton: Well, it's true, isn't it? Listen, If I wanted to murder you tomorrow, do you think I'd waste my time on fancy hypodermics? — Or on Inee?
Herbie: — What's that?
Newton: — Inee. Indian arrow poison.
Herbie: — Oh.
Newton: Listen, I'd find out if you were alone, walk in, hit you on the head with a piece of lead pipe or a loaded cane —
Herbie: What'd be the fun of that? Where's your planning? Where's your clues?
Newton: I don't want any clues. I want to murder you. What do I want with clues?
Herbie: Well, if you haven't got any clues, where's your book?
Newton: I'm not talkin' 'bout writing books. I'm talking about killing you!
Herbie: If I was going to kill you, I wouldn't do a dumb thing like hitting you on the head. First of all, I don't like the fingerprint angle. Of course, I could always wear gloves, press your hands against the pipe after you were dead and make you look like a suicide.
Newton: But you wouldn't beat yourself to death.
Herbie: I'd do it so it didn't look like murder. ....
And, in a later conversation:
Newton: What were we saying, Herb? Did I notice what?
Herbie: Well, did you taste anything funny about that coffee you had at my house this evening?
Newton: No. It tasted all right.
Herbie: That's what I mean. It wasn't all right.
Newton: — Put something in it?
Herbie: — Put a little soda. About the same amount that I'd have used if I'd wanted to use poison.
Newton: Well, you don't say? I never tasted a thing. Of course, I might not notice the soda.
Herbie: You'd notice the soda more than you would the poison. (Scoffs) For all you knew, you might just as well be dead now. ....

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sheltering at home

Michael Dirda in a couple of recent reviews, here and here
For much of the country, sheltering in place over the past three weeks has been a wearisome but essential civic duty. We don’t want to get sick ourselves, and we don’t want to bring any sickness to others. So we stay home. It’s the right thing to do.

But where or what is home? According to one old saying, home is where the heart is, and, according to the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song, it’s anywhere we hang our hats. A much less elegant truism can be traced back to hokey versifier Edgar A. Guest: “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.” ....
You would think that a guy who has spent decades with his nose in a book ought to be used to radical social distancing, to being alone day after day. In fact, the past two weeks have been hard. ....

While sheltering in place, as we all should be doing, I’ve sought temporary respite from anxiety by reorganizing the garage and culling the Smaug’s hoard that passes for my library. Every evening, though, I find myself considering a second beer until I think, “Why stop at two?” At night, staring into the darkness, I frequently recall far too many friends, colleagues and relatives who now live, often quite vividly, only in my memory. Given half a chance, I can grow impressively maudlin. ....

Pascal famously said that all our miseries derive from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room. ....

Still, aren’t there books that might help us cope with isolation and long periods of self-quarantine, that could even show us how we might thrive, not just survive, as involuntary shut-ins?

The first work that immediately comes to mind is — no surprise — Daniel Defoe’s survivalist bible Robinson Crusoe...

Saturday, April 4, 2020


An interesting review in the WSJ today sent me looking for a 1970 essay by Irving Kristol. I found it: "When virtue loses all her loveliness"—some reflections on Capitalism and "the free society" [pdf] (also published in Two Cheers for Capitalism). Much of it reads as though it were written yesterday.
"Two," not "Three"
.... Our young radicals are far less dismayed at America's failure to become what it ought to be than they are contemptuous of what it thinks it ought to be. For them, as for Oscar Wilde, it is not the average American who is disgusting; it is the ideal American.

This is why one can make so little impression on them with arguments about how much progress has been made in the past decades, or is being made today, toward racial equality, or abolishing poverty, or fighting pollution, or whatever it is that we conventionally take as a sign of "progress." The obstinacy with which they remain deaf to such "liberal" arguments is not all perverse or irrational, as some would like to think. It arises, rather, out of a perfectly sincere, if often inchoate, animus against the American system itself. This animus stands for a commitment—to what, remains to be seen, but against what is already only too evident. ....

...[I]t is my impression that, under the strain of modem life, whole classes of our population—and the educated classes most of all—are entering what can only be called, in the strictly clinical sense, a phase of infantile regression. With every passing year, public discourse becomes sillier and more petulant, while human emotions become, apparently, more ungovernable. Some of our most intelligent university professors are now loudly saying things that, had they been uttered by one of their students twenty years ago, would have called forth gentle and urbane reproof. ....

Lord have mercy

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mass in G Minor, About 25 minutes.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Joy comes in the morning

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning

....Is it okay to feel joy? Is it acceptable, when so many are suffering, that I am finding joy in additional time for stillness or for family? Is it wrong for me to discover that I am oddly joyful amid the isolation?

C.S. Lewis was right. Joy often comes as a surprise. It invades the most sorrowful spaces. It reminds us that beauty and goodness and life can grow even in the most unpromising soil.

Jesus cared about joy. He wished for our joy to “be complete.” Joyful mornings may be the best way to survive a long series of tearful nights.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The faith once delivered...

C.S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics":
.... Apologetics means, of course, Defense. The first question is—what do you propose to defend? Christianity, of course....

We are to defend Christianity itself—the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers....

The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort....

Secondly, this scrupulous care to preserve the Christian message as something distinct from one's own ideas, has one very good effect upon the apologist himself. It forces him, again and again, to face up to those elements in original Christianity which he personally finds obscure or repulsive. He is saved from the temptation to skip, or slur, or ignore what he finds disagreeable....
Delivered in 1945, the lecture can be found in God in the Dock, p. 89.

"I have calmed and quieted my soul..."

A blog post this morning called my attention to Psalm 131:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
     my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
     too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
     like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
     like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
     from this time forth and for evermore.

Monday, March 30, 2020

For protection

More Jeremy Taylor: a prayer "for all that lie under the rod of war, famine, pestilence." Protection from pestilence is definitely something we desire for ourselves and others.
O Lord God Almighty, Thou art our Father, we are Thy children. Let health and peace be within our dwellings; let righteousness and holiness dwell for ever in our hearts, and be expressed in all our actions. O merciful God, say unto the destroying angel, 'It is enough'; let Thy hand cover Thy servants and hide us from the present anger; that though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we may fear no evil, and suffer none. Those smitten, support with Thy staff, and visit them with Thy mercies and salvation, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jeremy Taylor, The Role and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650-51.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

"Remember that thou art a Christian..."

An excellent reminder:
NOW suppose thyself in as great a sadness as ever did load thy spirit, wouldst thou not bear it cheerfully and nobly if thou wert sure that within a certain space some strange excellent fortune would relieve thee, and enrich thee so as to overflow all thy hopes and thy desires and capacities? Now, then, when a sadness lies heavy upon thee, remember that thou art a Christian designed to the inheritance of Jesus. Indeed if thou thinkest thou shalt perish, I cannot blame thee to be sad, sad till thy heartstrings crack. But if thou believest thou shalt be saved, consider how great is that joy, how unspeakable is the glory, how excellent is the recompense for all the sufferings in the world, if they were all laden upon the spirit? So that, let thy condition be what it will, here thou art but a stranger, travelling to thy country, where the glories of a kingdom are prepared for thee; it is therefore a huge folly to be much afflicted because thou hast a less convenient inn to lodge in by the way.

But these arts of looking forwards and backwards are more than enough to support the spirit of a Christian: there is no man but hath blessings enough in present possession to outweigh the evils of a great affliction.
Jeremy Taylor, The Role and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650-51.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

"I love you, but Jesus loves you best"


From the final page of Surprised By Joy:
But what, in conclusion, of Joy? for that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bitter-sweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries, "Look!" The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold.
C.S. Lewis, Surprised By Joy, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1955.

Friday, March 27, 2020

"Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust"

Samuel Johnson, The Rambler No. 4, Saturday, March 31, 1750, writing about fiction:
.... In narratives, where historical veracity has no place, I cannot discover why there should not be exhibited the most perfect idea of virtue; of virtue not angelical, nor above probability; for what we cannot credit we shall never imitate; but of the highest and purest kind that humanity can reach, which, when exercised in such trials as the various revolutions of things shall bring upon it, may, by conquering some calamities, and enduring others, teach us what we may hope, and what we can perform. Vice, for vice is necessary to be shewn, should always disgust; nor should the graces of gaiety, or the dignity of courage, be so united with it, as to reconcile it to the mind. Wherever it appears, it should raise hatred by the malignity of its practices; and contempt, by the meanness of its stratagems; for while it is supported by either parts or spirit, it will be seldom heartily abhorred. The Roman tyrant was content to be hated, if he was but feared; and there are thousands of the readers of romances willing to be thought wicked, if they may be allowed to be wits. It is therefore to be always inculcated, that virtue is the highest proof of a superior understanding, and the only solid basis of greatness; and that vice is the natural consequence of narrow thoughts; that it begins in mistake, and ends in ignominy.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

If you've thought of reading C.S. Lewis

Russell Moore on "Reading in Exile: Books by C.S. Lewis." Advice about books to read while self isolating. If you haven't read Lewis or about him, but have thought of doing so, these are very good recommendations.
Reading in Exile: Books by C.S. Lewis - YouTube

Monday, March 23, 2020

Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans

From an interesting review of Against Democracy — a libertarian's argument that the franchise should be limited — comes this categorization of the voters in our democracy:
.... Brennan places citizens into three categories—Hobbits, Hooligans, and Vulcans. Hobbits are uninformed about politics and indifferent to them. The average non-voter in a Western democracy is a Hobbit. Hooligans are interested in politics, but follow it in the same way that a person follows a team sport. They are strongly partisan, frequently uninformed, and prone to cognitive bias. They barrack for team Republican or team Labour in the same way someone barracks for the New York Yankees or Manchester United. They can repeat the arguments in favour of their preferred party or ideology, but limit their sources of news to those which confirm their own views and have only a limited understanding of the position of the other side. A conservative Hooligan could not give an explanation of the arguments in favour of socialism that a socialist would recognise, nor could a socialist Hooligan give a cogent argument in favour of capitalism. In most democracies, he writes, the average voter is a Hooligan. Vulcans, by contrast, are the ideal democratic citizens—they inform themselves, seek out opposing views, and consider issues with as little cognitive bias as possible (nobody could be completely free from it). While we all like to think of ourselves as Vulcans, Brennan argues that they are actually rare. In general, when the apolitical become interested in politics, they go from Hobbits to Hooligans.

These categories do not conform to any one political ideology, and people in all three categories can be found in different camps. .... (more)
'Against Democracy'—A Review - Quillette

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Recklessness, courage, and cowardice

In "Coronavirus, Courage, and the Second Temptation of Christ" David French responds to those Christians who refuse to take precautions in the face of pandemic, for instance "a pastor encouraged people to greet each other and said that his Bible school was open because they’re 'raising up revivalists, not pansies.'"
.... Even within those churches that have chosen to comply with public health warnings and temporarily cancel services, there are rumblings of dissent and discontent. You see it all over social media. And whether sophisticated or simple, these impulses toward defiance are virtually all grounded in a similar question: Why should Christians surrender to fear? People of faith should reject the guidance of public officials. Our gatherings are different. After all, isn’t it true that “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control”? ....

There exists within Christianity a temptation to performative acts that masquerade as fearlessness. In reality, this recklessness represents—as the early church father John Chrysostom called it—“display and vainglory.” Look how fearless we are, we declare, as we court risks that rational people should shun. In the context of a global pandemic followers of Christ can actually become a danger to their fellow citizens, rather than a source of help and hope.

Or, put another way, reckless Christians can transform themselves from angels of mercy to angels of death, and the rest of the world would be right to fear their presence.

But just as Christ rejected performative displays, [Matthew 4:5-7] he also rejected cowardice. He demands sacrifice even unto death. Yet taking up one’s cross in imitation of Christ means engaging in purposeful sacrifice. This is the risk of the doctor or the nurse who possesses the courage to continually expose himself or herself to deadly disease to care for the sick and dying. This is the risk of the faithful believer who sheds personal protection to care for the least of these so that they are not alone. ....

Shun performative recklessness. Do not presume that our faith makes us immune to the laws of biology and viral transmission. At the same time, believers should not shrink from purposeful and sacrificial personal risk. There may come a time when you must care for those who are sick. Do so without reservation, but do so prudently with the knowledge that you should not impute your risks to others. ....

Saturday, March 21, 2020

"Let our spirits always rejoice..."

Thou, who with thine own mouth hast told us that at midnight the bridegroom shall come: Grant that the cry, "The bridegroom cometh!" may sound evermore in our ears, that so we be never unprepared to meet him, or forgetful of the souls for whom he died, for whom we watch and pray. And save us, O Lord. Amen.
Lancelot Andrewes (1555 – 1626)

Lord Jesus, be mindful of your promise. Think of us, your servants, and when we shall depart, speak to our spirits these loving words: "Today you shall be with me in joy." O Lord Jesus Christ, remember us, your servants who trust in you, when our tongues cannot speak, when the sight of our eyes fails, and when our ears are stopped. Let our spirits always rejoice in you and be joyful about our salvation, which you, through your death, have purchased for us. Amen.
Miles Coverdale (1488 – 1569)

On the anniversary of Bach's birth

Thursday, March 19, 2020

"Going up home to live in green pastures"

Troubles and trials often betray those
On in the weary body to stray
But we shall walk beside the still waters
With the Good Shepherd leading The Way  
We will not heed the voice of the stranger
For he would lead us all to despair
Following on with Jesus our savior
We shall all reach that country so fair
Those who have strayed were sought by The Master      
He who once gave His life for the sheep
Out on the mountain still He is searching
Bringing them in forever to keep
Going up home to live in green pastures
Where we shall live and die never more
Even The Lord will be in that number
When we shall reach that Heavenly Shore
Going up home to live in green pastures
Where we shall live and die never more
Even The Lord will be in that number
When we shall reach that Heavenly Shore

"Come unto me and rest"

Jonathan Aigner, is doing a series of blog posts about "Hymns of Hope and Comfort," today: "I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say." Some time ago I posted this performance of that great hymn:

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Come unto me and rest;
lay down, thou weary one, lay down
thy head upon my breast."
I came to Jesus as I was,
weary, and worn, and sad;
I found in him a resting place,
and he has made me glad.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"Behold, I freely give
the living water; thirsty one,
stoop down and drink, and live."
I came to Jesus, and I drank
of that life-giving stream;
my thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
and now I live in him.

I heard the voice of Jesus say,
"I am this dark world's light;
look unto me, thy morn shall rise,
and all thy day be bright."
I looked to Jesus, and I found
in him my Star, my Sun;
and in that light of life I'll walk
till traveling days are done.

Words: Horatio Bonar, 1846, Music: Kingsfold, Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1906