Monday, January 21, 2019

The enemy is us

Karen Swallow Prior is an English professor at Liberty University. A few weeks ago I saw her on C-SPAN presenting and answering questions about her recent book, On Reading Well. Today there is a very interesting New Yorker profile:
.... Prior believes that one legacy of the Church’s history of sexism is that women tend to receive less formal theological education than men, which forces them to seek answers on their own. “They’re often being discipled by the blogosphere and by the latest, greatest celebrity,” Prior told me. This leaves them vulnerable to people who distort scripture to serve their own ends. Prior was dismayed by the success of Girl, Wash Your Face, a Christian mega-best-seller that intersperses self-help advice with Biblical verses, which has sold more than a million copies since February. “There’s a whole genre of Christian self-help books that emphasize a Christianity that’s more informed by the American Dream and therapy than the Bible,” she told me. She didn’t like to see her religion commercialized in this way. The distortion is especially harmful when scripture is distorted for political ends. Some conservative Christian men have gone so far as to argue that, according to the second book of Timothy, which grants men “Biblical headship” over women, female police officers have no authority.

When Trump was elected with some eighty per cent of white evangelical support, including that of many evangelical women, despite his history of alleged sexual violence, Prior saw it as a call to address the problems within the evangelical community. “We recognized that the real problem wasn’t Trump,” she told me. “It was the need to clean our own house.” Last month, along with twenty female leaders from different denominational traditions—including Baptist, Messianic Jewish, and Anglican—Prior launched the Pelican Project, an effort to provide orthodox women with scriptural guidance. The group plans to serve as a resource for evangelical women, and for pastors looking for help in educating their female parishioners. .... (more)
The Pelikan Project has a web presence.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Torrent

Still my favorite N.C. Wyeth illustration, from the Scribner edition of Stevenson's Kidnapped:

The Torrent in the Valley of Glencoe

More on old stories

My recent blog post about reading old stories reminded me of an earlier book by Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, reviewed here by Thomas Howard. In the review Howard summarizes four of the "ten ways" and then Esolen's responses. One paragraph relevant to the theme:
The old, unedited fairy tales and folk tales, which opened out onto a totally unregulated domain, patently dangerous for a child’s emotional health, simply won’t do. We can’t have the wolf gobbling up granny, or Cinderella’s sisters having their eyes pecked out by helpful little birds. All too gruesome—the modern theory being that the child must never be asked to cope with the gruesome. I must confess that I myself might wish to tax Esolen on this point—amiably, to be sure. But his point is that those old tales, at times gruesome, roused a child’s imagination. They saw life in all of its peremptory starkness. They never applauded the gruesome. Furthermore, the figures that showed up in those stories were patently good or evil. Esolen remarks here, “It has been a great victory for the crushers of imagination to label such figures ‘stereotypes,’ and add a sneer to it, as if people who used them in their stories were not very imaginative.” Current educational theories, with the moral vision that suffuses them, suppose that at all costs everything must be nuanced. Since there are no eternal fixities anyway, we can never presume to judge people—whether thieves or cruel stepmothers. Esolen’s rejoinder here is that in the realm of faerie we do, in fact, come up against intransigent figures—or better, archetypes: orcs, Dark Riders, dragons, wicked stepmothers. That’s what the genre is about. It is in other genres of literature—serious drama, or post-eighteenth-century prose fiction, say—that we undertake the nuanced psychological scrutiny of human behavior.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

"The word of God to His people"

From a series of "Bible Guides" edited by William Barclay and F.F. Bruce:
The story of the making of the Bible is a story which enables us to see the supreme value of the books of the Bible as nothing else can or does. It enables us to see that these books did not become Scripture by the decision of any Church or any man; they became Scripture because out of them men in their sorrow found comfort, in their despair hope, in their weakness strength, in their temptations power, in their darkness light, in their uncertainty faith, and in their sin a Saviour. That is why the Bible is the word of God. When the Church did make its canonical lists, it was not choosing and selecting these books; it was only affirming and attesting that these already were the books on which men had stayed their hearts and fed their souls. And that is why there never can be a time when the Church or the Christian can do without this Bible which has always been the word of God to His people, and the place where men find Jesus Christ.
William Barclay, The Making of the Bible, 1961.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

"One for the road"

The Telegraph Travel section provides an article about "London's 11 most notorious public execution sites," from which:
1. Smithfield

Many of the Marian Martyrs, protestants slaughtered under Queen Mary, met their demise at the Elms at Smithfield, London’s oldest execution site. St Bartholomew's Hospital features a plaque to commemorate several of them.

It was also the site of William Wallace’s execution in 1305. It happened much like in the movie, Braveheart (hung, drawn and quartered), though there is no evidence to support the blood curdling cry of “Freedom!”

Wallace’s head was tarred and put on display atop the southern gatehouse of London Bridge; his limbs were placed (separately) in Perth, Stirling, Berwick and Newcastle, and a quarter was sent to Aberdeen (it’s said to be entombed in the walls of St Machar's Cathedral). A memorial to the Scot can be seen today outside St Bartholomew's. In 1869 the Wallace Monument was erected near Stirling Bridge. ....

2. Tyburn

Smithfield fell from favour as an execution site in the 1400s, with Tyburn (close to the modern landmark of Marble Arch, one of central London’s busiest corners) seizing the limelight. Back then it was a mere village, but it soon became synonymous with public executions.

Prisoners would be taken there from Newgate Prison, via St Giles in the Fields and Oxford Street, with some permitted a final drink at a pub en route — the source of the phrase “one for the road”, some believe.

The dream of all condemned criminals would be an escape on the way to the gallows — or from prison — and a mad dash to the nearest church, where sanctuary might be found. ....

A stone memorial can be seen on the pavement marking the spot where the Tyburn Tree, its distinctive three-sided gallows, once stood. The design meant multiple hangings could be carried out at once, such as on June 23, 1649, when 24 prisoners were hanged simultaneously, having been conveyed there in eight carts. You can get a sense of the chaos of the crowds attending these events in Hogarth’s etching The Idle Apprentice.

Oliver Cromwell's exhumed body was, symbolically, hanged at Tyburn in 1661. ....

3. Newgate Prison

In use for more than 700 years — from 1188 to 1902 — and the site of London’s gallows after Tyburn was retired from duty in 1783. The executions took place in public — with the gallows set up on Newgate Street — until 1868.

The prison, whose former inmates include Casanova, Rob Roy, Ben Jonson, William Kidd and Daniel Defoe – was demolished in 1904. The Old Bailey occupies the main site, but head to the church of St Sepulchre-without-Newgate to see the old jail’s execution bell, Amen Court, which is home to a surviving wall, or The Viaduct Tavern, where five former cells of a neighbouring lock-up are visible in the basement. .... (and more)

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

"I will strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand..."

A Facebook friend's post today reminded me of this:

How Firm A Foundation is my favorite hymn, especially when sung to the tune known as "Foundation" or "Protection" (pdf). It first appeared in John Rippon's A Selection of Hymns in 1787, and was well-known and often sung in 19th century America. As with any good hymn, the words are all-important — and the words of this hymn are an affirmation of confidence in God and His promises. The verses affirm that God has more than sufficiently proven His reliability to us through His Word. What more could He possibly do or say than He has already said and done? The verses are based on passages from Scripture, especially from Isaiah. If we trust in His Word, everything that may happen to us will be for our good. It concludes with a paraphrase of Hebrews 13:5-6:
"...be content with what you have, because God has said 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.' So we say with confidence, 'The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?'"

How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!
What more can He say than to you He hath said,
To you who for refuge to Jesus have fled?
Isaiah 28:16; I Corinthians 3:11
"When through fiery trials thy pathway shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine."
Isaiah 43:2b; II Corinthians 2:9; Zechariah 13:9
"Fear not, I am with thee, O be not dismayed;
For I am thy God and will still give thee aid;
I'll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by My gracious omnipotent hand."
Isaiah 41:10
"The soul that on Jesus hath leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not, desert to his foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavor to shake,
I'll never, no, never, no, never forsake!"
Hebrews 13:5b-6
"When through the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of sorrow shall not overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress."
Isaiah 43:2a; Romans 8:28


The rest of the verses can be found here.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Read old stories

Another wise entry at Quillette, this one by Meghan Cox Gurdon, excerpted from her The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction. From "Correcting ‘Youth’s Eternal Temptation to Arrogance’—One Bedtime Story at a Time":
.... “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales,” Albert Einstein advised. I don’t know if the great theoretical physicist really made that remark, and I cannot promise that reading fairy tales to a child will tweak his IQ, but there is no doubt that these weird dramas of risk, terror, loyalty and reward agitate the blood and captivate the heart. To C.S. Lewis, time spent in what he called “fairyland” arouses in a child “a longing for he knows not what. It stirs and troubles him (to his lifelong enrichment) with the dim sense of something beyond his actual reach and, far from dulling or emptying the actual world, gives it a new dimension of depth. He does not despise real woods because he has read of enchanted woods: The reading makes all real woods a little enchanted.”

The reading does something else, too. It situates children in a cultural sense, equipping them to understand references to fairy tales and other classic stories that they will find all around them. When we read Hansel and Gretel or The Fisherman and His Wife or Puss in Boots, we’re at once transporting children with our voices and grounding them in foundational texts. For this reason, the time we spend reading to them can amount to a second education, one that helps children “acquire a sense of horizons,” in the phrase of linguist John McWhorter. What we give them is not schooling qua schooling, but an introduction to art and literature by means so calm and seamless that they may not notice it’s happening. ....

The more stories children hear, and the more varied and substantial those tales, the greater the confidence of their cultural ownership. They will recognize allusions that other children may miss. A girl who has heard the stories of Aesop or Jean de la Fontaine will have a clear idea of what is meant by “sour grapes” and will know why people compare the industriousness of ants and grasshoppers. A boy who’s heard a parent read The Odyssey has a more complete idea of what constitutes a “siren song” than his friend who thinks it must have something to do with an alarm going off.

The narratives of the past have helped to frame the consciousness and language of the present, and it’s a gift to children to help them recognize as much as they can. The milk of human kindness, the prick of the spindle, the wolf in sheep’s clothing, the wine-dark sea: all are expressions of a vast cultural treasury.

“We all come from the past, and children ought to know what it was that went into their making, to know that life is a braided cord of humanity stretching up from time long gone, and that it cannot be defined by the span of a single journey from diaper to shroud,” Russell Baker writes in his beautiful memoir, Growing Up.

Children get a wider perspective when they’re tugged out of the here and now for a little while each day. In an enchanted hour, we can read them stories of the real and imagined past. With picture-book biographies we can acquaint them with people we want them to know: Josephine Baker and Amelia Earhart, Julius Caesar and Marco Polo, Martin Luther King Jr. and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, George Patton and Shaka Zulu, Pocahontas, Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, William Shackleton, the Savage of Aveyron, and the terrible Tudors.

With any luck, our children will come to appreciate that the people of generations past were as full of life, intelligence, wisdom, and promise as they are, and impelled by the same half-understood desires and impulses; that those departed souls were as good and bad and indifferent as people who walk the earth today. Those who came before us wrote stories and songs, built roads and bridges, invented and created and argued and fought and sacrificed for all sorts of causes. Do we not owe them a debt of gratitude? We wouldn’t be here without them. .... (more)

"On our side in one thing"

Peter Hitchens reviews a recent biography of Francisco Franco in "The Caudillo." It is one of those reviews from which much can be learned and perhaps the most important lesson is cautionary. Hitchens concludes:
.... Power is the opposite of love. This does not absolve Christians from fighting for, and more often against, armed power of one kind or another. But it surely means they must be very careful whom they aid, and whom they oppose. In general, the slide from civil peace to civil war begins when both sides become enemies instead of opponents, and then cease to listen to each other. It ends with the worst possible cruelty, because when brothers fight brothers, they have to strip away the very last and deepest restraints to draw the sword and strike the blow. Take the first step down that particular slope, and you will find it very hard to retreat. We should seek to exert our influence long before it comes to that. We are warned in the terrifying Epistle of James that “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity: so is the tongue among our members, that it defileth the whole body, and setteth on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire of hell.” When we consider men such as Francisco Franco, and are tempted (as even I have been) to make excuses for them because they seem to be on our side in one thing, we make a serious mistake. Do not, if you can possibly avoid it, take that path. It leads into a long and dark valley.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Different kinds of experience

From C.S. Lewis, "Meditation in a Tool-shed," (1945):
I was standing today in the dark tool-shed. The sun was shining outside, and through the crack at the top of the door there came a sunbeam. From where I stood that beam of light, with the specks of dust floating in it, was the most striking thing in the place. Everything else was almost pitch-black. I was seeing the beam, not seeing things by it.

Then I moved, so that the beam fell on my eyes. Instantly the whole previous picture vanished. I saw no tool-shed, and (above all) no beam. Instead I saw, framed in the irregular cranny at the top of the door, green leaves moving on the branches of a tree outside and beyond that, 90 odd million miles away, the sun. Looking along the beam, and looking at the beam are very different experiences. ....

As soon as you have grasped this simple distinction, it raises a question. You get one experience of a thing when you look along it and another when you look at it. Which is the “true” or “valid” experience? Which tells you most about the thing? And you can hardly ask that question without noticing that for the last fifty years or so everyone has been taking the answer for granted. It has been assumed without discussion that if you want the true account of religion you must go, not to religious people, but to anthropologists; that if you want the true account of sexual love you must go, not to lovers, but to psychologists; that if you want to understand some “ideology” (such as medieval chivalry or the nineteenth-century idea of a “gentleman”), you must listen not to those who lived inside it, but to sociologists.

The people who look at things have had it all their own way; the people who look along things have simply been brow-beaten. It has even come to be taken for granted that the external account of a thing somehow refutes or “debunks” the account given from inside. “All these moral ideals which look so transcendental and beautiful from inside”, says the wiseacre, “are really only a mass of biological instincts and inherited taboos.” And no one plays the game the other way round by replying, “If you will only step inside, the things that look to you like instincts and taboos will suddenly reveal their real and transcendental nature.” ....

...[L]et us go back to the tool shed. I might have discounted what I saw when looking along the beam (i.e., the leaves moving and the sun) on the ground that it was “really only a strip of dusty light in a dark shed”. That is, I might have set up as “true” my “side vision” of the beam. But then that side vision is itself an instance of the activity we call seeing. And this new instance could also be looked at from outside. I could allow a scientist to tell me that what seemed to be a beam of light in a shed was “really only an agitation of my own optic nerves”. And that would be just as good (or as bad) a bit of debunking as the previous one. The picture of the beam in the toolshed would now have to be discounted just as the previous picture of the trees and the sun had been discounted. And then, where are you?

In other words, you can step outside one experience only by stepping inside another. Therefore, if all inside experiences are misleading, we are always misled. The cerebral physiologist may say, if he chooses, that the mathematician's thought is “only” tiny physical movements of the grey matter. But then what about the cerebral physiologist's own thought at that very moment? A second physiologist, looking at it, could pronounce it also to be only tiny physical movements in the first physiologist's skull. Where is the rot to end?

The answer is that we must never allow the rot to begin. We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything. In particular cases we shall find reason for regarding the one or the other vision as inferior. Thus the inside vision of rational thinking must be truer than the outside vision which sees only movements of the grey matter; for if the outside vision were the correct one all thought (including this thought itself) would be valueless, and this is self-contradictory. You cannot have a proof that no proofs matter. .... (pdf)  C.S. Lewis, "Meditation in a Tool-shed," The Coventry Evening Telegraph,  17 July 1945.
Collected in God in the Dock, Walter Hooper, ed., Eerdmans, 1970.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

"A fresh, unused mind"

CrimeReads is "Counting Down the Greatest Crime Films of All-Time" and their choice for #102 is a Hitchcock film I re-watch often, Foreign Correspondent (1940), a great combination of suspense and humor. From CrimeReads:
At the beginning of 1939, John Jones, an American newspaper reporter, is sent to Europe under the name Huntley Haverstock. His mission is to learn more about the possibility of war, mainly by interviewing Van Meer, a Dutch diplomat who has committed to memory a key secret element in the Allied Peace Treaty. Jones meets Stephen Fisher, a member of the British upper class who is the head of a pacifist organization, and his daughter Carol, with whom Jones quietly falls in love. ....
Why Johnny Jones?:
Mr. Powers, the editor of the New York Morning Globe, is disgusted with his foreign correspondents for failing to send any hard news to the paper and decides that he wants a real reporter to go to Europe, selecting the charming if slightly dim Johnny Jones, who admits that he knows nothing about Europe or any crisis. “What Europe needs,” Powers exclaims, “is a fresh, unused mind.”

Counting Down the Greatest Crime Films of All-Time: #102 | CrimeReads

Tradition and true creativity

Roger Scruton's "Counterpoint and Why It Matters" is an essay about more than music:
I recently acquired a CD of music for piano duo by Jeremy Menuhin, son of Yehudi, the great violinist and cultural icon. The CD, issued by Genuin classics, Leipzig, is entitled The Voice of Rebellion. But the rebellion is not the usual one, against the rules and strictures of an authoritarian past. For the last fifty years or so the posture of rebellion against tradition, authority, hierarchy, and knowledge has become an orthodoxy in the media and the academic world, and the anti-establishment hero has become the cliché of a new establishment. There is only one real rebellion now, and that is the rebellion against rebellion, the rebellion on behalf of order, knowledge, and tradition—to put it in essential terms, the rebellion against the Self on behalf of the Other. This is the rebellion practised by Jeremy Menuhin in the music on his engaging CD. ....

Of course, not every composer versed in counterpoint can write in the manner of Bach. Nor should they want to. Nevertheless we must recognize the centrality of counterpoint to our tradition, and its role in bringing order and logic to the polyphonic forms that have made classical music into the symbol of our civilisation and the art-form of which we Europeans should be most proud. This makes it all the more lamentable that so many of our departments of composition teach counterpoint only as an option, or don’t teach it at all. This is one more illustration of the flight from knowledge that has swept through our universities. In music, as in every art-form, there has arisen in recent times the illusion that knowledge is not necessary, that the old forms of discipline are merely obstacles to the true creative process, and that real originality means doing your own thing, free from traditional constraints. That this is nonsense is apparent to all truly creative people, who know that artistic freedom comes only when form has been mastered and internalised. But this truth clashes with the democratic prejudice that self-expression, not discipline, makes the artist, and that no one should be excluded by mere ignorance from the rewards of creative genius. .... (more)

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Time travel

Kevin Williamson's post at NRO led me to an interesting essay at The New York Times. Williamson introduces it:
Brian Morton, who is the director of the writing program at Sarah Lawrence College and the author of Starting Out in the Evening, has a useful essay in the New York Times. In it, he considers the problem of young people who refuse to read or engage with great works of literature because they morally disapprove of the authors. .... (more)
.... When they discover the anti-Semitism of Wharton or Dostoyevsky, the racism of Walt Whitman or Joseph Conrad, the sexism of Ernest Hemingway or Richard Wright, the class snobbery of E.M. Forster or Virginia Woolf, not all of them express their repugnance as dramatically as the student I talked to, but many perform an equivalent exercise, dumping the offending books into a trash basket in their imaginations. ....

.... It’s as if we imagine an old book to be a time machine that brings the writer to us. We buy a book and take it home, and the writer appears before us, asking to be admitted into our company. If we find that the writer’s views are ethnocentric or sexist or racist, we reject the application, and we bar his or her entry into the present.

As the student had put it, I don’t want anyone like that in my house.

I think we’d all be better readers if we realized that it isn’t the writer who’s the time traveler. It’s the reader. When we pick up an old novel, we’re not bringing the novelist into our world and deciding whether he or she is enlightened enough to belong here; we’re journeying into the novelist’s world and taking a look around. ....

When we imagine that writers from the past are visiting our world, it subtly reinforces our complacence, our tendency to believe that the efforts at moral improvement made by earlier generations attained their climax, their fulfillment, their perfection, in us. The idea that we are the ones who are doing the time-traveling doesn’t carry the same implication.

If, whenever we open old books, we understand from the get-go that their authors have motes in their eyes regarding important ethical or political questions, it might help us understand that the same thing could be said of us today. ....

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

"He here did live, and here did preach"

Ralph Vaughan Williams, "The Truth From Above," Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge:



This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love;
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,   
But hearken all both rich and poor.
And at that season of the year
Our blest Redeemer did appear;
He here did live, and here did preach,
And may thousands he did teach.
The first thing which I do relate
Is that God did man create;
The next thing which to you I’ll tell
Woman was made with man to dwell.
Thus he in love to us behaved,
To show us how we must be saved;
And if you want to know the way,
Be pleased to hear what he did say.
And we were heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose;
And so a promise soon did run
That he would redeem us by his Son.

Monday, January 7, 2019

"If you will not have God..."

T.S. Eliot:
So long...as we consider finance, industry, trade, agriculture merely as competing interests to be reconciled from time to time as best they may, so long as we consider "education" as a good in itself of which everyone has a right to the utmost, without any ideal of the good life for society or for the individual, we shall move from one uneasy compromise to another. To the quick and simple organisation of society for ends which, being only material and worldly, must be as ephemeral as worldly success, there is only one alternative. As political philosophy derives its sanction from ethics, and ethics from the truth of religion, it is only by returning to the eternal source of truth that we can hope for any social organisation which will not, to its ultimate destruction, ignore some essential aspect of reality. The term "democracy," as I have said again and again, does not contain enough positive content to stand alone against the forces that you dislike—it can easily be transformed by them. If you will not have God (and He is a jealous God) you should pay your respects to Hitler or Stalin. (T.S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture, 1940)

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Magi

For Epiphany:

Doré: "Wise Men Guided by a Star"

The Journey of the Magi

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death,
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

T.S. Eliot

From "Poem for Epiphany" by Dwight Longenecker:
This was one of the first of Eliot’s poems I encountered, and I have loved it since. I especially like the way he uses various imagery from the gospels to load the poem with a mysterious level of meaning–pointing us to a contemplation of the deeper meanings–meanings that have yet to be revealed.

“Feet kicking empty wineskins”, “Six hands dicing for pieces of silver”, “three trees on a low sky” then my favorite image, “an old white horse galloped away in the meadow” ....

The “old white horse galloped away in the meadow” does not represent the Old Testament dispensation or the former lives of the three kings or the departure of purity or youthful power. Instead it is meant to evoke an emotional response in the reader which is beyond words. In other words, how do you feel when you hear those words? I feel strangely nostalgic and thrilled. I feel a poignancy and longing at the words. This is how Eliot’s poetry is supposed to work, and those who keep trying to find specific symbolic or allegorical meanings are missing the point.

What interests me...is how Eliot’s use of evocative imagery that connects to the Biblical imagery is similar to the way Tolkien uses imagery in Lord of the Rings. The characters speak and act in a world that constantly echoes the world of the Church and the Scriptures, and yet never descends to the one on one correlation of allegory or to the specific allusion of a reference or quote. ....
Another Longenecker essay: "T.S. Eliot's Magical Journey"

"Poem for Epiphany" by Dwight Longenecker

Friday, January 4, 2019

Escapism

From Joseph Pearce, "Chesterton, Tolkien and Lewis in Elfland," about the influence of Chesterton's “The Ethics of Elfland,” the fourth chapter of Orthodoxy:
.... The materialist, wrote Chesterton, “like the madman, is in prison” and, what was worse, he was seemingly consoled by the fact that the prison, i.e. the material universe, was very large:
It was like telling the prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.
Evidently inspired by this metaphor of materialism as a prison, Tolkien resurrected it in his own essay “On Fairy Stories” in which he spoke of “Escape” as “one of the main function of fairy-stories”: “Why should a man be scorned, if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?”

We desire something beyond the prison of time and space because our true home is to be found beyond the prison walls, and the reason that the greatest truths are told in stories is because history itself is a story told by the greatest of all Story-Tellers. History is His Story. As Chesterton put it, “this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller…. I felt in my bones; first, that this world does not explain itself…. Second, I came to feel as if magic must have a meaning, and meaning must have some one to mean it. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art….”

D.L. Sayers and the gospel

Gina Dalfonzo who "is currently working on a book about the friendship between Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis" here reviews The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers, from which:
.... This way of studying Sayers’s work and thought makes clear that her faith—which she always stressed that she experienced primarily through her intellect—permeated all her writings, even the lightest and most seemingly secular of them. It gave her a way of thinking about life, with all its dilemmas, delights, and foibles, that was cohesive and comprehensive. She never wrote a story, or anything else, to “send a message”; instead, she chose her subject and then brought to it her extensive knowledge, wisdom, and skill, to serve the work as faithfully as she was able. That, she always insisted, was her highest duty as a writer.
She never sank the artist and entertainer in the evangelist,” Lewis recalls in his “panegyric,” and goes on to quote her (or rather, to slightly misquote her) as saying, “It was assumed that my object in writing [The Man Born to Be King] was ‘to do good.’ But that was in fact not my object at all. .... My object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium at my disposal—in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a work of art that is not good and true in art is not true and good in any other respect.
Lewis had experienced his share of arguments with her over this topic; though they were largely on the same page about it, she thought he was too inclined to write solely for the sake of “doing good,” rather than sticking to topics he personally felt called and equipped to address. He got to have the last word when he pointed out, “Her disclaimer of an intention to ‘do good’ was ironically rewarded by the immense amount of good she evidently did.” ....

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The curious incident

I've been browsing in the "Quotations" section of Michael and Mollie Hardwick's The Sherlock Holmes Companion (1962), from which:
"Which is it today," I asked, "morphine or cocaine?"
He raised his eyes languidly from the old black-letter volume which he had opened.
"It is cocaine," he said, "a seven-per--cent solution. Would you care to try it?"
"May I ask whether you have any professional inquiry on foot at present?"
"None. Hence the cocaine. I cannot live without brain-work. What else is there to live for? Stand at the window here. Was ever such a dreary, dismal, unprofitable world? See how the yellow fog swirls down the street and drifts across the dun-coloured houses. What could be more hopelessly prosaic and material? What is the use of having powers, doctor, when one has no field upon which to exert them?" The Sign of Four.
And later:
For years I had gradually weaned him from that drug mania which had threatened once to check his remarkable career. Now I knew that under ordinary conditions he no longer craved for this artificial stimulus; but I was well aware that the fiend was not dead, but sleeping... The Missing Three-quarter.
And two of the most famous:
"It is an old maxim of mine that when you have excluded the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." The Beryl Coronet.

Inspector Gregory: "Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"
Holmes: "To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time."
Inspector Gregory: "The dog did nothing in the night-time."
Holmes: "That was the curious incident." Silver Blaze.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

The quest for meaning

In the last few months I've found myself often interested in essays published at Quillette. Today it was "From Astrology to Cult Politics—the Many Ways We Try (and Fail) to Replace Religion" by Clay Routledge, a professor of Psychology.
.... The history of science is full of examples of science replacing old superstitions. But explaining the natural world is only one of religion’s functions. Ultimately, religion is about the human need for meaning. This need is inherent, not learned. It is a fundamental component of the human condition.

Indeed, the degree to which humans perceive their lives as meaningful correlates reliably with observable measures of psychological and physical health. A sense of meaning also helps people mobilize toward the pursuit of their goals (persistence), and serves to protect them from the negative effects of stress and trauma (resilience). In short, people who view their lives as full of meaning are more likely to thrive than those who don’t.

When people turn away from one source of meaning, such as religion, they don’t abandon the search for meaning altogether. They simply look for it in different forms. ....

Nearly one third of Americans report having felt in contact with someone who has died, feel that they have been in the presence of a ghost, and believe ghosts can interact with and harm humans. These numbers are going up, not down, as more people seek something to fill the religion-shaped hole in their lives. By no coincidence, infrequent church attendees are roughly twice as likely to believe in ghosts as regular churchgoers.

Americans are abandoning the pews, but are increasingly fascinated by astrology, “spiritual” healing practices, and fringe media sources that purport to describe the powers of the supernatural realm. ....

And if you imagine that secular ideologies and political movements now seem to exhibit faux-religious characteristics, you aren’t alone. “We have the cult of Trump on the right, a demigod who, among his worshippers, can do no wrong,” wrote Andrew Sullivan recently in New York magazine. “And we have the cult of social justice on the left, a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical. They are filling the void that Christianity once owned, without any of the wisdom and culture and restraint that Christianity once provided.”

.... The more people abandon religious spaces to meet existential needs, the more likely they are to turn to extreme political tribalism, and to blur the lines between spiritual and secular pursuits. Indeed, studies find that it is people who score low on commitment to a religious faith who are most likely to invest in political ideologies to counter threats to meaning in life. Also, the more extreme secular ideologies on both the left and right often involve conspiracy theories, which are cognitively similar to paranormal and supernatural-lite religious substitutes and similarly motivated by the need for meaning. ....

Some people may be disinclined toward religious-like thinking in all respects, but they are likely an extremely small percentage of the population. And I have seen no evidence that the underlying cognitive and motivational psychological characteristics that orient people towards religion and religious substitutes have diminished during the time that the Western world has supposedly become less religious. Instead, most people who imagine themselves as irreligious simply haven’t come to terms with their religious nature. They believe that because they have rejected the faiths of older generations that they have no faith at all. They may simply be unaware of how many leaps of faith they regularly take, and misjudging which ones will allow them to generate meaning in ways that allow humans to maintain a healthy harmony between the secular and the sacred.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

"Hear my prayer...."

From Psalm 102 (ESV)

Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me;
answer me speedily in the day when I call!

For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered;
I forget to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning my bones cling to my flesh.
I am like a desert owl of the wilderness,
like an owl of the waste places; I lie awake;
I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop. ....

For I eat ashes like bread
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger;
for you have taken me up and thrown me down.
My days are like an evening shadow;
I wither away like grass.
But you, O LORD, are enthroned forever;
you are remembered throughout all generations....

He has broken my strength in midcourse;
he has shortened my days.
“O my God,” I say, “take me not away
in the midst of my days—you whose years endure
throughout all generations!”

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
but you are the same, and your years have no end.
The children of your servants shall dwell secure;
their offspring shall be established before you.

I eat ashes for food. My tears run down into my drink because of your anger and wrath. For you have picked me up and thrown me out.... He broke my strength in midlife, cutting short my days. (Psalm 102:9-10, 23)

May you never have to suffer in the ways described in verses 3-11. But many have and many do, even this very moment. Maybe you do too. Jesus did. Take these words and pray them as your own, either to express what you feel or to identify with the sufferings of God's people and God's Son. Say them slowly and repeatedly.

But you, O LORD, will sit on your throne forever. Your fame will endure to every generation. (Psalm 102:12)

Count the personal pronouns in verses 1-11. You'll find I, me, or my mentioned twenty-five times in just eleven verses. There's nothing wrong with that; pain will do that to anyone. It's not self-absorption; it's just that the self can be swallowed up in the suffering. Pain confines.

That's why the words "But you, O LORD" are so liberating. They are like a fresh breeze in a stale sickroom. The loving, sovereign God who rules forever from his throne in heaven puts everything in perspective; for it is from his throne that he "causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them" (Romans 8:28).

Look at all the things that trouble you, name them before God, and then add, "But you, O LORD, will sit on your throne forever."
From Ben Patterson, God's Prayer Book, 2008.