Monday, December 31, 2018

"Incite my desire to please Thee"

Samuel Johnson on the New Year 1774:
ALMIGHTY GOD, merciful Father, who hatest nothing that Thou hast made, but wouldest that all should be saved, have mercy upon me. As Thou hast extended my Life, encrease my strength, direct my purposes, and confirm my resolution, that I may truly serve Thee, and perform the duties which Thou shall allot me.

Relieve, O gracious Lord, according to Thy mercy the pains and distempers of my Body, and appease the tumults of my Mind. Let my Faith and Obedience encrease as my life advances, and let the approach of Death incite my desire to please Thee, and invigorate my diligence in good works, till at last, when Thou shalt call me to another state, I shall lie down in humble hope, supported by thy Holy Spirit, and be received to everlasting happiness, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday, December 30, 2018

"Let not the errors and offenses of the past cling to us..."

As we approach a New Year:
EVER-LIVING God, by whose mercy we have come to the gateway of another year; Grant that we may enter it with humble and grateful hearts; and confirm our resolution, we beseech Thee, to walk more closely in Thy way, and labour more faithfully in Thy service, according to the teaching and example of Thy Son our Lord. Let not the errors and offenses of the past cling to us, but pardon us and set us free, that with a purer purpose and a better hope, we may renew our vows in Thy Presence, and set forth under the guidance of Thy Spirit, to travel in that path which shineth more and more unto the perfect day of Thy heavenly kingdom. Amen.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

"A black pool opened up"

Based on Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, the film version was renamed Murder, My Sweet (1944) because Dick Powell had hitherto played light romantic roles and this definitely wasn't that kind of film. This is one of my favorites in the film noir genre.

The Rotten Tomatoes description:
Murder, My Sweet is a nearly perfect film. Long considered one of the quintessential film noir, this tough, sardonic, and unusually witty film features hard-boiled detective Philip Marlowe (Dick Powell) hired by ex-con Moose Malloy (Mike Mazurki) to find his missing girlfriend Velma. Shortly thereafter, Marlowe is hired by socialite Mrs. Grayle (Claire Trevor) to find a valuable jade necklace that has been stolen from her. Marlowe finds the necklace and also finds blackmail, double crosses, corruption, and murder on both sides of the tracks. This film made almost washed up song-and-dance man, Dick Powell a star, and his portrayal of Marlowe is at least the equal of Humphrey Bogart's role in The Big Sleep. Director Edward Dmytryk creates a truly bleak and disorienting netherworld populated by a variety of sordid characters, including Mike Mazurki at his best. Claire Trevor is superlative in a difficult role and gives an unequaled performance as the most evil of femme fatales.
From the film:

Friday, December 28, 2018

“Down these mean streets...."

The Annotated Big Sleep is one of my Christmas books (a gift to myself). I've just started to read it. From the Amazon description (also the back cover of the book):
The first fully annotated edition of Raymond Chandler’s 1939 classic The Big Sleep features hundreds of illuminating notes and images alongside the full text of the novel and is an essential addition to any crime fiction fan’s library.

A masterpiece of noir, Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep helped to define a genre. Today it remains one of the most celebrated and stylish novels of the twentieth century. This comprehensive, annotated edition offers a fascinating look behind the scenes of the novel, bringing the gritty and seductive world of Chandler's iconic private eye Philip Marlowe to life. The Annotated Big Sleep solidifies the novel’s position as one of the great works of American fiction and will surprise and enthrall Chandler’s biggest fans.
Chandler:
...[D]own these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. He is the hero; he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor—by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.

He will take no man’s money dishonestly and no man’s insolence without a due and dispassionate revenge. He is a lonely man and his pride is that you will treat him as a proud man or be very sorry you ever saw him.

The story is this man’s adventure in search of a hidden truth, and it would be no adventure if it did not happen to a man fit for adventure. If there were enough like him, the world would be a very safe place to live in, without becoming too dull to be worth living in.
Another post about the book.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

Merry Christmas!

Hallelujah!

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,
begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
 Nicene Creed

—The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man. Every other miracle prepares for this, or exhibits this, or results from this. Just as every natural event is the manifestation at a particular place and moment in Nature’s total character, so every particular Christian miracle manifests at a particular place and moment the character and significance of the Incarnation.

—In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down;…down to the very roots and sea-bed of the Nature he has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him.

—The Incarnation…illuminates and orders all other phenomena, explains both our laughter and our logic, our fear of the dead and our knowledge that is somehow good to die, and which at one stroke covers what multitudes of separate theories will hardly cover for us if this is rejected.

—But supposing God became man—suppose our human nature which can suffer and die was almagated with God’s nature in one person—then that person could help us. He could surrender His will, and suffer and die, because He was man; and He could do it perfectly because He was God….But we cannot share God’s dying unless God dies; and He cannot die except by being a man, That is the sense in which He pays our debt, and suffers for us what He Himself need not suffer at all.

Selected quotations from C.S. Lewis via God in the Wasteland

Monday, December 24, 2018

"Let no tongue on earth be silent"



Of the Father’s love begotten, ere the worlds began to be,
He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending He,
Of the things that are, that have been,
And that future years shall see, evermore and evermore!

O that birth forever blessèd, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

O ye heights of heaven adore Him; angel hosts, His praises sing;
Powers, dominions, bow before Him, and extol our God and King!
Let no tongue on earth be silent,
Every voice in concert ring, evermore and evermore!

Christ, to Thee with God the Father, and, O Holy Ghost, to Thee,
Hymn and chant and high thanksgiving, and unwearied praises be:
Honor, glory, and dominion,
And eternal victory, evermore and evermore!
[Prudentius, 5th Century]

Once


"It seems, then", said Tirian..."that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places."
"Yes," said the Lord Digory. "Its inside is bigger than its outside."
"Yes," said Queen Lucy. "In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world."
C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Homecoming

You remember the scene of the schoolchildren—field-mice schoolchildren, naturally—caroling in "Dulce Domum," the Christmas chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows?
And then they heard the angels tell,
"Who were the first to cry nowell?
Animals all, as it befell,
In the stable where they did dwell!
Joy shall be theirs in the morning!"
I read that 5,200-word chapter again this year and found myself wanting to say that Grahame had produced a perfect reading for the season....

...Chapter V, in The Wind in the Willows. The more one reads and writes, the better seems the writing that Kenneth Grahame managed in his 1908 book. It's a delicate, autumnal kind of Edwardian prose—like the end of summer, greeny-gold. And for all the action in the book, from the dangerous hike through the Wild Woods to the battle for Toad Hall, the overall tone of the book is set at the beginning, when Ratty peers out the window of his riverside house to see Mole, a creature who's abandoned the spring cleaning of his underground home to see the sunshine of the world above.

The story does not return to Mole's home until well into the winter. As "Dulce Domum" opens, the Mole and the Rat are trudging through a small village in the snow. And they pause to look at the illuminated window of a house—and if you want an example of Grahame's near perfect prose, try this:
Close against the white blind hung a birdcage, clearly silhouetted, every wire, perch, and appurtenance distinct and recognizable, even to yesterday's dull-edged lump of sugar. On the middle perch the fluffy occupant, head tucked well into feathers, seemed so near to them as to be easily stroked, had they tried; even the delicate tips of his plumped-out plumage penciled plainly on the illuminated screen. As they looked, the sleepy little fellow stirred uneasily, woke, shook himself, and raised his head. They could see the gape of his tiny beak as he yawned in a bored sort of way, looked round, and then settled his head into his back again, while the ruffled feathers gradually subsided into perfect stillness. Then a gust of bitter wind took them in the back of the neck, a small sting of frozen sleet on the skin woke them as from a dream, and they knew their toes to be cold and their legs tired, and their own home distant a weary way.
Past the village, as they wind their way toward Ratty's house, Mole suddenly catches a whiff of his home. Grahame catches exactly a children's kind of sadness, as the Rat won't stop and the Mole's heart almost breaks in two as he turns to follow his friend. But the goodhearted Rat at last realizes what's wrong, and he turns back to visit the Mole's long abandoned home.

What follows is a small Christmas setting, as perfectly judged as anything in The Wind in the Willows. The caroling field-mice appear at the door, ale is mulled, Ratty takes charge of laying out a meal for the visitors. "And Mole, as he took the head of the table in a sort of a dream, saw a lately barren board set thick with savory comforts; saw his little friends' faces brighten and beam as they fell to without delay; and then let himself loose—for he was famished indeed—on the provender so magically provided, thinking what a happy homecoming this had turned out, after all."

Homecoming. The first Christmas came at the end of a journey, but it was in its way a homecoming, as Joseph returned to the place of his ancestors in David's town of Bethlehem. And the divine part, too, was a reestablishing of the home denied us since Adam. The Wind in the Willows is in part a tale of houses: the grandeur of Toad Hall, the strength of Badger's underground den in Roman ruins, the Rat's smart riverbank house. But The Wind in the Willows begins with the Mole leaving his home to meet these new and wonderful characters, and Kenneth Grahame seems right to let him return for Christmas.

He is coming...

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil? Why is He not landing in force, invading it? Is it that He is not strong enough? Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when. But we can guess why He is delaying. He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely. I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side. God will invade. But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does” (Mere Christianity, Chapter 5).

Friday, December 21, 2018

Advent 4: And the baby leaped for joy

But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth. And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land: and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight principal men.
Micah 5:2–5a

Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a flock; thou that dwellest between the cherubims, shine forth. Before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh stir up thy strength, and come and save us. Turn us again, O God, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved. O LORD God of hosts, how long wilt thou be angry against the prayer of thy people? Thou feedest them with the bread of tears; and givest them tears to drink in great measure. Thou makest us a strife unto our neighbours: and our enemies laugh among themselves. Turn us again, O God of hosts, and cause thy face to shine; and we shall be saved.
Psalm 80:1-7

Wherefore when he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me: In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin thou hast had no pleasure. Then said I, Lo, I come (in the volume of the book it is written of me,) to do thy will, O God. Above when he said, Sacrifice and offering and burnt offerings and offering for sin thou wouldest not, neither hadst pleasure therein; which are offered by the law; Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
Hebrews 10:5–10

And Mary arose in those days, and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Juda; And entered into the house of Zacharias, and saluted Elisabeth. And it came to pass, that, when Elisabeth heard the salutation of Mary, the babe leaped in her womb; and Elisabeth was filled with the Holy Ghost: And she spake out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For, lo, as soon as the voice of thy salutation sounded in mine ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. And blessed is she that believed: for there shall be a performance of those things which were told her from the Lord.

And Mary said, My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour. For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation. He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away. He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy; As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
Luke 1:39–55

Watership Down

This new animated film is a joint BBC/Netflix production and is coming to Netflix on December 23:


Netflix

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Reading aloud

A Wall Street Journal writer’s conversation-changing look at how reading aloud makes adults and children smarter, happier, healthier, more successful and more closely attached, even as technology pulls in the other direction.

A miraculous alchemy occurs when one person reads to another, transforming the simple stuff of a book, a voice, and a bit of time into complex and powerful fuel for the heart, brain, and imagination. Grounded in the latest neuroscience and behavioral research, and drawing widely from literature, The Enchanted Hour explains the dazzling cognitive and social-emotional benefits that await children, whatever their class, nationality or family background. But it’s not just about bedtime stories for little kids: Reading aloud consoles, uplifts and invigorates at every age, deepening the intellectual lives and emotional well-being of teenagers and adults, too.

Meghan Cox Gurdon argues that this ancient practice is a fast-working antidote to the fractured attention spans, atomized families and unfulfilling ephemera of the tech era, helping to replenish what our devices are leaching away. For everyone, reading aloud engages the mind in complex narratives; for children, it’s an irreplaceable gift that builds vocabulary, fosters imagination, and kindles a lifelong appreciation of language, stories and pictures. ....

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

"Unto us a child is born..."

Listening to this once again, right now:

George Frideric Handel's Messiah was originally an Easter offering. It burst onto the stage of Musick Hall in Dublin on April 13, 1742. The audience swelled to a record 700, as ladies had heeded pleas by management to wear dresses "without Hoops" in order to make "Room for more company." Handel's superstar status was not the only draw; many also came to glimpse the contralto, Susannah Cibber, then embroiled in a scandalous divorce.

The men and women in attendance sat mesmerized from the moment the tenor followed the mournful string overture with his piercing opening line: "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God." Soloists alternated with wave upon wave of chorus, until, near the midway point, Cibber intoned: "He was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." So moved was the Rev. Patrick Delany that he leapt to his feet and cried out: "Woman, for this be all thy sins forgiven thee!" ....

...[W]here Bach's oratorios exalted God, Handel was more concerned with the feelings of mortals. "Even when the subject of his work is religious, Handel is writing about the human response to the divine," says conductor Bicket. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Messiah. "The feelings of joy you get from the Hallelujah choruses are second to none," says conductor Cummings. "And how can anybody resist the Amen chorus at the end? It will always lift your spirits if you are feeling down."

Handel composed Messiah in an astounding interlude, somewhere between three and four weeks in August and September 1741. "He would literally write from morning to night," says Sarah Bardwell of the Handel House Museum in London. The text was prepared in July by the prominent librettist, Charles Jennens, and was intended for an Easter performance the following year. "I hope [Handel] will lay out his whole Genius & Skill upon it, that the Composition may excel all his former Compositions, as the Subject excels every other Subject," Jennens wrote to a friend. ....

Other Handel oratorios had strong plots anchored by dramatic confrontations between leading characters. But Messiah offered the loosest of narratives: the first part prophesied the birth of Jesus Christ; the second exalted his sacrifice for humankind; and the final section heralded his Resurrection. ....

There is little doubt about Handel's own fondness for the work. His annual benefit concerts for his favorite charity—London's Foundling Hospital, a home for abandoned and orphaned children—always included Messiah. And, in 1759, when he was blind and in failing health, he insisted on attending an April 6 performance of Messiah at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Eight days later, Handel died at home. ....

Mozart paid Handel the supreme compliment of reorchestrating Messiah in 1789. Even Mozart, however, confessed himself to be humble in the face of Handel's genius. He insisted that any alterations to Handel's score should not be interpreted as an effort to improve the music. "Handel knows better than any of us what will make an effect," Mozart said. "When he chooses, he strikes like a thunderbolt." [more]
My favorite recording is Handel: Messiah, conducted by Trevor Pinnock. There are probably newer performances I would enjoy as much.

The Glorious History of Handel's Messiah- page 1 | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian

Monday, December 17, 2018

Maranatha



The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills,
And life to joy awakes.
O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ, our king, in beauty comes,
And we His face shall see.
Not as of old, a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun,
That lights the morning sky.
The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings—
Hail! Christ the Lord; Thy people pray,
"Come quickly, King of kings."
O brighter than the rising morn
When He, victorious, rose,
And left the lonesome place of death,
Despite the rage of foes.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

George Orwell and C.S. Lewis

Reading that C.S. Lewis had reviewed 1984 and searching for that I found that George Orwell had reviewed C.S. Lewis' That Hideous Strength. The review can be read here (originally in the Manchester Evening News, 16 August 1945). Orwell begins "On the whole, novels are better when there are no miracles in them" but, nevertheless, "by the standard of the novels appearing nowadays this is a book worth reading." Orwell on the Lewis book:
.... His book describes the struggle of a little group of sane people against a nightmare that nearly conquers the world. A company of mad scientists – or, perhaps, they are not mad, but have merely destroyed in themselves all human feeling, all notion of good and evil – are plotting to conquer Britain, then the whole planet, and then other planets, until they have brought the universe under their control.

All superfluous life is to be wiped out, all natural forces tamed, the common people are to be used as slaves and vivisection subjects by the ruling caste of scientists, who even see their way to conferring immortal life upon themselves. Man, in short, is to storm the heavens and overthrow the gods, or even to become a god himself.

There is nothing outrageously improbable in such a conspiracy. Indeed, at a moment when a single atomic bomb – of a type already pronounced “obsolete” – has just blown probably three hundred thousand people to fragments, it sounds all too topical. Plenty of people in our age do entertain the monstrous dreams of power that Mr. Lewis attributes to his characters, and we are within sight of the time when such dreams will be realisable.

His description of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments), with its world-wide ramifications, its private army, its secret torture chambers, and its inner ring of adepts ruled over by a mysterious personage known as The Head, is as exciting as any detective story. .... (more)
And at the same site I also found "Is Animal Farm Greater than 1984? (1954) by C.S. Lewis, who greatly preferred the former:
Here we have two books by the same author which deal, at bottom, with the same subject. Both are very bitter, honest and honourable recantations. They express the disillusionment of one who had been a revolutionary of the familiar, entre guerre pattern and had later come to see that all totalitarian rulers, however their shirts may be coloured, are equally the enemies of Man. Since the subject concerns us all and the disillusionment has been widely shared, it is not surprising that either book, or both, should find plenty of readers, and both are obviously the works of a very considerable writer. What puzzles me is the marked preference of the public for 1984. For it seems to me (apart from its magnificent, and fortunately detachable, Appendix on ‘Newspeak’) to be merely a flawed, interesting book; but the Farm is a work of genius which may well outlive the particular and (let us hope) temporary conditions that provoked it. ....

...[T]he shorter book does all that the longer does. But it also does more. Paradoxically, when Orwell turns all his characters into animals he makes them more fully human. In 1984 the cruelty of the tyrants is odious, but it is not tragic; odious like a man skinning a cat alive, not tragic like the cruelty of Regan and Goneril to Lear.

Tragedy demands a certain minimum stature in the victim; and the hero and heroine of 1984 do not reach that minimum. They become interesting at all only in so far as they suffer. That is claim enough (Heaven knows) on our sympathies in real life, but not in fiction. A central character who escapes nullity only by being tortured is a failure. And the hero and heroine in this story are surely such dull, mean little creatures that one might be introduced to them once a week for six months without even remembering them.

In Animal Farm all this is changed. The greed and cunning of the pigs is tragic (not merely odious) because we are made to care about all the honest, well-meaning, or even heroic beasts whom they exploit. The death of Boxer the horse moves us more than all the more elaborate cruelties of the other book. And not only moves, but convinces. Here, despite the animal disguise, we feel we are in a real world. This – this congeries of guzzling pigs, snapping dogs, and heroic horses – this is what humanity is like; very good, very bad, very pitiable, very honourable. If men were only like the people in 1984 it would hardly be worth while writing stories about them. It is as if Orwell could not see them until he put them into a beast fable. Finally, Animal Farm is formally almost perfect; light, strong, balanced. There is not a sentence that does not contribute to the whole. The myth says all the author wants it to say and (equally important) it doesn’t say anything else. Here is an objet d’art as durably satisfying as a Horatian ode or a Chippendale chair. .... (more)
Upon opening my copy of That Hideous Strength, folded inside the front cover I found this map from, I think, an issue of the New York C.S. Lewis Society's CSL. The "University of Edgestow," where much of the story is set (the image can be enlarged):


Friday, December 14, 2018

Advent 3: The Lord is at hand

Sing, O daughter of Zion; shout, O Israel; be glad and rejoice with all the heart, O daughter of Jerusalem. The LORD hath taken away thy judgments, he hath cast out thine enemy: the king of Israel, even the LORD, is in the midst of thee: thou shalt not see evil any more. 16 In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem, Fear thou not: and to Zion, Let not thine hands be slack. The LORD thy God in the midst of thee is mighty; he will save, he will rejoice over thee with joy; he will rest in his love, he will joy over thee with singing. I will gather them that are sorrowful for the solemn assembly, who are of thee, to whom the reproach of it was a burden. Behold, at that time I will undo all that afflict thee: and I will save her that halteth, and gather her that was driven out; and I will get them praise and fame in every land where they have been put to shame. At that time will I bring you again, even in the time that I gather you: for I will make you a name and a praise among all people of the earth, when I turn back your captivity before your eyes, saith the LORD.
Zephaniah 3:14-20

Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and not be afraid: for the LORD JEHOVAH is my strength and my song; he also is become my salvation. Therefore with joy shall ye draw water out of the wells of salvation. And in that day shall ye say, Praise the LORD, call upon his name, declare his doings among the people, make mention that his name is exalted. Sing unto the LORD; for he hath done excellent things: this is known in all the earth. Cry out and shout, thou inhabitant of Zion: for great is the Holy One of Israel in the midst of thee.
Isaiah 12:2-6

Rejoice in the Lord alway: and again I say, Rejoice. Let your moderation be known unto all men. The Lord is at hand. Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God. And the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.
Philippians 4:4-7

Then said he to the multitude that came forth to be baptized of him, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and begin not to say within yourselves, We have Abraham to our father: for I say unto you, That God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham. And now also the axe is laid unto the root of the trees: every tree therefore which bringeth not forth good fruit is hewn down, and cast into the fire. And the people asked him, saying, What shall we do then? He answereth and saith unto them, He that hath two coats, let him impart to him that hath none; and he that hath meat, let him do likewise. Then came also publicans to be baptized, and said unto him, Master, what shall we do? And he said unto them, Exact no more than that which is appointed you. And the soldiers likewise demanded of him, saying, And what shall we do? And he said unto them, Do violence to no man, neither accuse any falsely; and be content with your wages. And as the people were in expectation, and all men mused in their hearts of John, whether he were the Christ, or not; John answered, saying unto them all, I indeed baptize you with water; but one mightier than I cometh, the latchet of whose shoes I am not worthy to unloose: he shall baptize you with the Holy Ghost and with fire: Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and will gather the wheat into his garner; but the chaff he will burn with fire unquenchable. And many other things in his exhortation preached he unto the people.
Luke 3:7-18

Thursday, December 13, 2018

"She believed in evil"

Anyone who has followed this blog at all knows that my favorite light reading consists of mysteries and suspense. That started early and at some point I read my way through much of Agatha Christie. She was still writing when I was young — one book a year published before Christmas: buy a "Christie for Christmas." This long essay, "The Case of Agatha Christie," begins by comparing Christie's mysteries to the work of two other "Golden Age" authors, Dorothy L. Sayers and Margery Allingham (both of whom I like very much), and speculating why Christie has been so much more successful and widely read. Two paragraphs from the essay (read it all):
A novel in which the detective did it. A novel in which the entire structure of the story was suggested by a title that popped into Christie’s head: Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? A novel in which the victims are killed in alphabetical order. A novel in which all the characters are murdered, except that one of them turns out to have done it. (Christie herself gave a rare glimpse of what she really thought about her own craft when she described that book, And Then There Were None, as a ‘technical extravaganza’. With its intense atmosphere of claustrophobia, menace and darkness, it remains genuinely frightening. It’s also the only book I’ve ever read three times under three different titles.) A novel in which the crime was solved long ago, and the murderer convicted and hanged, but the mystery is now unsolved by the appearance of a crucial witness, whose evidence proves that someone else – a hitherto unsuspected family member – must be guilty. (That novel, Ordeal by Innocence, is another one in which the psychological atmosphere is distinctly oppressive.) A novel which is based on the game of bridge, explained in detail and with diagrams, and in which the crucial evidence is the character revealed by the way one player copes with one particular hand. A novel based on a murder glimpsed through a train window. A novel where the murder happens on a small aeroplane, complete with seat diagram. A novel where the time and place of the murder are announced in advance in a newspaper ad. ....

Christie was very, very good at murder: it’s right at the top of her strengths. This is sometimes credited to the fact that she had trained as a pharmacist and had a solid, matter-of-fact education in the precise details of how people can and do poison each other. This is certainly important in her books, where the murders have none of the fun nonsense of the Conan Doyle type: poisonous snake sliding down a rope, giant mutant hound with flames coming out of its arse etc. Christie’s murder methods aren’t like that. Her killings are practical-minded and often involve poison, about which she did indeed have a good working knowledge. That helps, but it isn’t the crucial component of her credibility in this respect. Christie’s great talent for fictional murder is to do with her understanding of, and complete belief in, human malignity. She knew that people could hate each other, and act on their hate. Her plots are complicated, designedly so, and the backstories and red herrings involved are often ornate, but in the end, the reason one person murders another in her work comes down to avarice and/or hate. She believed in evil, not necessarily in a theological sense – that’s a topic she doesn’t explore – but as a plain fact about human beings and their actions. She isn’t much interested in the ethics or metaphysics of why people do the bad things they do. But she is unflinchingly willing to look directly at the truth that they do them. ....(more)

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

"Lively, but not deep"

Via Alan Jacobs' "Snakes and Ladders," a letter from John Wesley advising another preacher. Good "counsel for preachers (and other Christians)":
Certainly some years ago you were alive to God. You experienced the life and power of religion. And does not God intend, that the trials you meet with, should bring you back to this? You cannot stand still; you know this is impossible. You must go forward or backward. Either you must recover that power, and be a Christian altogether, or in awhile you will have neither power, nor form, inside nor outside. ....

What has exceedingly hurt you in time past, nay, and I fear to this day, is want of reading. I scarcely ever knew a Preacher read so little. And, perhaps, by neglecting it, you have lost the taste for it. Hence your talent in preaching does not increase. It is just the same as it was seven years ago. It is lively, but not deep: there is little variety; there is no compass of thought. Reading only can supply this, with daily meditation and daily prayer. You wrong yourself greatly by omitting this. You can never be a deep Preacher without it: any more than a thorough Christian. Oh begin! Fix some part of every day for private exercises. You may acquire the taste which you have not: what is tedious at first, will afterwards be pleasant. Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily. It is for your life: there is no other way; else you will be a trifler all your days, and a pretty, superficial Preacher. Do justice to your own soul: give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer. Take up your cross and be a Christian altogether. Then will all the children of God rejoice (not grieve) over you; and, in particular, yours, etc.

J. WESLEY

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Spies

Today CrimeReads provides "A Brief History of Spy Fiction." The essay is actually the introduction to The Folio Society's new edition of The Spy’s Bedside Book (1959) edited by Graham Greene and his brother Hugh. The introduction is by Stella Rimington, former Director General of MI5.
.... What really is a spy story? Is John Buchan’s Greenmantle, which supplies the anthology’s first tale, truly a spy story or is it merely a ripping good yarn, a pure adventure story about a gang of Scottish, South African and American swashbucklers who persuade themselves, and us, they are English patriots, prior to sloshing a beastly Prussian called Von Stumm and stealing his motor car? Aren’t the coded messages, the hidden journeys, the secret rendezvous and all the stuff about the jihad and the fire sweeping from the East to combust the dry leaves of European civilisation, merely what spies call “chickenfeed,” information intended to attract and puzzle the recipient? In fact, like Kipling’s Kim before it and so many spy stories after it, it was based in reality and has, as T.E. Lawrence observed, “more than a flavour of truth.” ....

.... Nothing, save only the Cold War, ever gave the genre such a boost as did, successively, Russian covetousness for India, and Kaiser William’s designs on England. The two most influential of all spy stories were published at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both were British—Rudyard Kipling’s Kim (1901), and The Riddle of the Sands (1903), Erskine Childers’ story about preparations for a clandestine German invasion across the North Sea. Selling, reportedly, over three million copies, The Riddle of the Sands not only influenced public attitudes but also demonstrated the profitability of the new genre. The only comparable masterpiece of spy fiction before the Cold War and le Carré is Conrad’s The Secret Agent (1907), inspired by an older world of international conspiracy and terrorism, springing from anarchist and revolutionary movements. If you put together the twentieth-century forces of national rivalry and the nineteenth-century forces of revolutionary conspiracy, you have most of the springs of the “classical” spy story (and arguably of the modern profession of intelligence). .... (more)

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Wheat and tares

Solzhenitsyn wrote that while in the GULAG one thing they couldn't take away were thoughts and that those years of self-examination were valuable:
Looking back, I saw that for my whole conscious life I had not understood either myself or my strivings. What had seemed for so long to be beneficial now turned out in actuality to be fatal, and I had been striving to go in the opposite direction to that which was truly necessary to me. But just as the waves of the sea knock the inexperienced swimmer off his feet and keep tossing him back onto the shore, so also was I painfully tossed back on dry land by the blows of misfortune. And it was only because of this that I was able to travel the path which I had always really wanted to travel.

It was granted me to carry away from my prison years on my bent back, which nearly broke beneath its load, this essential experience: how a human being becomes evil and how good. In the intoxication of youthful successes I had felt myself to be infallible, and I was therefore cruel. In the surfeit of power I was a murderer, and an oppressor. In my most evil moments I was convinced that I was doing good, and I was well supplied with systematic arguments. And it was only when I lay there on rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart—and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains...an unuprooted small corner of evil.

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.

And since that time I have come to understand the falsehood of all the revolutions in history: They destroy only those carriers of evil contemporary with them (and also fail, out of haste, to discriminate the carriers of good as well). And they then take to themselves as their heritage the actual evil itself, magnified still more. ....

(from "The Ascent," in The GULAG Archipelago 1918-1956)

"It will not always be Winter"

Searching for information about The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe I came across this from 2015. It seemed right for Advent. Advent is about a Hope once fulfilled but also yet to come:
“It is winter in Narnia,” said Mr. Tumnus, “and has been for ever so long….always winter, but never Christmas.”
There are words that capture our imaginations, often from the very first time we hear them. I confess that when I read this so long ago now, I understood them—though now years later, I understand them so much more fully. ....

For every one of us, with our families, our friends, our neighbors, our cities, in every relationship in every way we are burdened by what is tragically not the way it is supposed to be. And beyond what we see with our own eyes, the day by day onslaught of the news of the world is more often than not a window into a heartache and horror that seem impossible to explain.

Across the board, in all of life, we feel the tension of the now-but-not-yet of history and hope. As my friend Todd Deatherage recently wrote, “Sometimes it feels like there is a lot more ‘not yet’ than ‘now.'” ....

Always winter. Never Christmas.

But then I know that I have staked my life on something more: that this wounded world, this very broken world, is not the last word. Simply said, I believe in Christmas, and in a Christmas that has moral meaning. Cursed as we are, cursed as this life so often seems, it will not always be winter. ....

Saturday, December 8, 2018

"Their fists are clenched...their eyes fast shut"

In God's Prayer Book: The Power and Pleasure of Praying the Psalms, Ben Patterson considers all of the Psalms in order, with commentary and suggested prayer from each. I came across Psalm 36 there today and (those who know me understand) reference to C.S. Lewis attracted my attention. Patterson:
In C.S. Lewis's insightful fantasy The Great Divorce, the residents of hell are given the option of taking a bus trip to heaven to look around a bit and decide whether they'd like to stay on. They may if they wish, but practically no one wants to. Heaven is so real and hell so false and insubstantial that, compared to hell, even the grass of heaven hurts their feet.

There is a surprise at the end of the tale. Hell, at the beginning of the story, was so vast, some of its residents lived light-years away from one another. But after the narrator leaves hell, he is shocked to discover that it was actually no bigger than a tiny crack in the soil of earth, so small it had to be pointed out with a blade of grass. Dumbfounded, he asks his guide for an explanation:
"Do you mean then that Hell—all that infinite empty town—is down in some little crack like this?"

"Yes. All Hell is smaller than one pebble of your earthly-world: but it is smaller than one atom of this world, the Real World. Look at yon butterfly. If it swallowed all Hell, Hell would not be big enough to do it any harm or to have any taste."

"It seems big enough when you're in it, Sir."

"And yet all loneliness, angers, hatreds, envies and itchings that it contains, if rolled into one single experience and put into the scale against the least moment of the joy that is felt by the least in Heaven, would have no weight that could be registered at all. Bad cannot succeed even in being bad as truly as good is good. For a damned soul is nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself. Good beats upon the damned incessantly as sound waves beat upon the ears of the deaf, but they cannot receive it. Their fists are clenched, their teeth are clenched, their eyes fast shut. First they will not, in the end they cannot, open their hands for gifts, or their mouths for food, or their eyes to see.
This psalm's description of the wicked in verses 1-4 is another way of saying that a lost soul is "nearly nothing: it is shrunk, shut up in itself." Such people's blind conceit and deceit, their preoccupation with doing wrong, are evidence that each of their souls has imploded on itself.
Transgression speaks to the wicked  deep in his heart; 
there is no fear of God before his eyes.
For he flatters himself in his own eyes
that his iniquity cannot be found out and hated.
The words of his mouth are trouble and deceit;
he has ceased to act wisely and do good.
He plots trouble while on his bed;
he sets himself in a way that is not good; 
he does not reject evil. 
(Psalm 36:1-4 ESV)

Monday, December 3, 2018

A prayer

Almighty and eternal God, so draw our hearts to Thee,
so guide our minds, so fill our imaginations, so control our wills,
that we may be wholly Thine, utterly dedicated unto Thee;
and then use us, we pray Thee, as thou wilt,
and always to Thy glory and the welfare of Thy people;
through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
(Book of Common Prayer, "A Prayer of Self-Dedication.")

Sunday, December 2, 2018

A tickling sensation

I just watched Charade (1963) again for the first time in several years. Some have written that it is the best Hitchcock film not directed by Hitchcock. It is very good. I've read that Cary Grant thought himself too old to play a romantic lead. The solution was to have Audrey Hepburn take all the amorous initiatives. The cast is great (Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy), the film is beautiful (Criterion has done a perfect Blu-ray restoration), and the score was by Henry Mancini. The dialogue is wonderful (and funny), too.  This is Grandpierre, the police inspector, confronting all of the murder suspects:
None of you will be permitted to leave Paris until this matter is cleared up. Only I warn you — I will be watching. We use the guillotine in this country. I have always suspected that the blade coming down causes no more than a slight tickling sensation on the back of the neck. It is only a guess, of course. — I hope none of you ever finds out for certain.

He came and He will come again

Advent began this weekend — today for most Christians. Walter Russell Mead reflected on the meaning of Advent in "The Coming":
.... If there is no Christmas, there is no Cross, no answer to the problems of sin, separation, failure and pain. Advent is a time to think about what life would be like if we didn’t have faith in a Redeemer, a Savior who was ready, willing and able to complete the broken arc of our lives, forgive what is past and walk with us step by step to help us build something better in the time that is left.

Advent is a time to remember that we need something more than what we can summon with our own resources to make our lives work. It’s a time to remember how lost we would be if Someone hadn’t come to find us. .... The preparation for Christmas begins by reflecting on what kind of world this would be, and what kind of lives we would have, if Christmas had never come.

There are worse ways to start your preparation for Christmas than by using this prayer from the old Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.