Wednesday, December 11, 2019

You're not doing it right

Rod Dreher's post this afternoon reminded me of a conversation I may have mentioned before here. It was many years ago with a fellow teacher who was an active member of a Lutheran congregation — a choir member — who told me that he didn't believe in the divinity of Christ. I asked if he repeated a creed every Sunday that he didn't believe. Dreher:
I mentioned on Twitter the other day a conversation I overheard in which an older woman was telling her friend that she doesn’t understand her adult daughter’s relationship to her chosen religion. The daughter and her husband converted to Catholicism. Her mom asked if she goes to confession. The daughter told her mom no, that nobody in their parish goes to confession. The mom (not a Catholic) said to her friend, “I told her that if you’re going to be part of a religion, then really be a part of it.” ....

I had a similar realization — literally, a come-to-Jesus moment — in my twenties too. It was about sex. I finally quit lying to myself, and trying to convince myself that I could be fully Christian, except for that one area where I wanted to keep my options open. Not true. Either Jesus Christ is God, or he isn’t. If he is God, then that means he is the God of all my life, not just the parts I find easy to surrender to him. And despite what these liars...say, Christianity has never blessed sex outside of marriage. It’s just a lie — a lie that a lot of young Christians (as I was then) are prone to believe, but a lie all the same.

I had to want God more than I wanted myself, for once. Only then did my Christianity start to become real: when it cost me something valuable. I say “start” to become real, because a Christian’s life is one long, arduous journey to make the faith more real by dying to ourselves so that we become like Christ. If living the life of faith doesn’t hurt, ever, and if it’s nothing more than an amusing, pleasant bricolage, you’re not doing it right. ....
I had to look up "bricolage" and so decided to add a link to its definition.

Living -- Not Just Performing -- The Faith | The American Conservative

Monday, December 9, 2019


A reference elsewhere to Dorothy L. Sayers sent me, once again, to a collection of her essays. "Are Women Human?" was originally delivered before a "Women's Society" in 1938. From that address:
...[I]t is the mark of all movements, however well-intentioned, that their pioneers tend, by much lashing of themselves into excitement, to lose sight of the obvious. In reaction against the age-old slogan, "woman is the weaker vessel," or the still more offensive, "woman is a divine creature," we have, I think, allowed ourselves to drift into asserting that "a woman is as good as a man," without always pausing to think what exactly we mean by that. What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether, viz: not that every woman is, in virtue of her sex, as strong, clever, artistic, level-headed, industrious and so forth as any man that can be mentioned; but, that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person. A certain amount of classification is, of course, necessary for practical purposes: there is no harm in saying that women, as a class, have smaller bones than men, wear lighter clothing, have more hair on their heads and less on their faces, go more pertinaciously to church or the cinema, or have more patience with small and noisy babies. In the same way, we may say that stout people of both sexes are commonly better-tempered than thin ones, or that university dons of both sexes are more pedantic in their speech than agricultural labourers, or that Communists of both sexes are more ferocious than Fascists—or the other way round. What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one's tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. That has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women—and it is the error into which feminist women are, perhaps, a little inclined to fall into about themselves. ....
Dorothy L. Sayers, "Are Women Human?" Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-one Essays, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1946, pp.106-116.

Friday, December 6, 2019

From St. Nick to Santa

"Merry Old Santa," Thomas Nast, 1881
“Santa Claus” is an Anglo-Germanic rendition of “Saint Nicholas,” which is apt, because the original inspiration is a man named Nicholas who was a saint in the early Christian Church. He is believed to have been born in a Mediterranean village in a prosperous family that raised him in the faith – one of his uncles was a priest — and when his parents died, he followed his uncle’s vocational path while using his inheritance to help the needy.

Nicholas became a bishop in the church, which had not yet undergone the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox. Under the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians were widely persecuted; Nicholas was among those imprisoned, although not martyred, as were many early saints. He died of old age, beloved by his fellow believers and revered for his generosity. ....

In later years, Nicholas would be claimed as a patron saint by many people, especially sailors, as the miracles and good deeds credited to him piled up. In one reported act of kindness, he threw three bags of gold through the window of a house where a poor widower lived with three daughters who needed a dowry in order to marry. It is said that the bags of gold landed in stockings hanging by the chimney. Perhaps you see where this is going...

Nicholas died on Dec. 6 in the year 343 (Dec. 19 on the Julian calendar), and this anniversary became a day of celebration: St. Nicholas Day. In the ensuing centuries, Christianity spread throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire, and by the end of the first Christian millennium, Nicholas was the faith’s most popular saint. ....

It was the Dutch who brought this tradition to America. Here, it was refined many times again, first in print and ultimately by tens of thousands of mall Santas in identical red suits. The jolly old elf made his first appearance in a New York newspaper in 1773, three years before Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. ....

By 1821 an anonymous poem reaffirmed the gift-giving proclivities of “Santeclaus”.... Two years later, Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas was published. By 1863, America’s preeminent cartoonist and illustrator, Bavarian-born Thomas Nast, was drawing on his native culture to flesh out the images of Santa that dance in our heads to this day. .... (more)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

"Self-esteem" again

The "self esteem" approach to education has been a disaster. "How Praising Children Teaches Them Not to Learn" explains:
.... Famed Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck wants us to understand that the language we use with our children is fueling their resistance to learning. Dweck advises parents, teachers, and coaches to “keep away from…praise that judges their intelligence or talent.”

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck asks us to consider messages such as “You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!” or “You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!” Most parents, Dweck observes, see such messages “as supportive, esteem-boosting messages.” Such messages do not help. ....

Instead, if you want your child to develop good learning skills, praise “what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.” We can talk to our child in a “way that recognizes and shows interest in their efforts and choices.” Dweck gives this example: “You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it. It really worked!” ....

Dweck is concerned when teachers, coaches, and parents use “effort praise as a consolation prize when kids are not learning.” She advises,
If a student has tried hard and made little or no progress, we can of course appreciate their effort, but we should never be content with effort that is not yielding further benefits. We need to figure out why that effort is not effective and guide kids toward other strategies and resources that can help them resume learning.
Naturally, Dweck is not for handing out participation trophies. She writes:
There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run.


Via Heterodox Academy, an excerpt from Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1929):
Political discussion possesses a character fundamentally different from academic discussion. It seeks not to be in the right, but also to demolish the basis of its opponents social and intellectual existence… Political conflict, since it is from the very beginning a rationalized form of the struggle for social predominance, attacks the social status of the opponent, his public prestige, and his self-confidence. It is difficult to decide in this case whether the sublimation or substitution of discussion for older weapons of conflict, the direct use of force and oppression, really constituted a fundamental improvement in human life. Physical repression is, it is true, harder to bear externally, but the will to psychic annihilation, which took its place in many instances, is perhaps even more unbearable…

Advent and Christmastide

From Joe Carter's "9 Things You Should Know About the Christian Calendar," a few paragraphs about the season we are in:
2. Advent, which marks the start of the new liturgical year, always begins on Advent Sunday, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The term Advent is taken from the Latin word adventus, which means “arrival” or “coming,” and was from the translation of the Greek Parousia—a word used for both the coming of Christ in human flesh and his Second Coming. The season of Advent is a time when Christians reflect on the comings of Christ to Earth. The first two weeks of the season focus on the future return of Christ at the Second Coming, while the last two weeks focus on the coming celebration of Christmas. As Ryan Reeves notes, the first written evidence of Advent is found in modern Spain and Europe, and the earliest official mention of Advent practices comes as the Council of Sargossa (AD 380). Since the date of Christmas has been set on December 25, the first day of Advent changes slightly from year to year.

3. On the Christian calendar the Christmas season (often know as Christmastide) begins on December 25 and lasts for twelve days, ending on Epiphany (January 6). “Christmas” is a compound word originating in the term “Christ’s Mass,” derived from the Middle English Cristemasse. The Twelve Days of Christmas thus begin on December 25 and include January 5. In some denominations (such as Lutherans and the Anglican Communion), December 24 is part of Advent while for some others (Catholics, some Methodists), sunset at Christmas Eve marks the beginning of Christmastide.

4. The term Epiphany is taken from the Greek word for “manifestation” and is a date to celebrate the incarnation of Christ. In some denominations, the day is also known as Three Kings’ Day since it commemorates the “twelfth day of Christmas,” or twelve days after Jesus’ birth, when according to tradition the magi visited Mary, Joseph, and their child. (In the Bible, neither the number of “wise men” nor the date they arrived is specified.) ....

Monday, December 2, 2019

"It seems that after 2,000 years, it’s all coming to an end"

Pew recently surveyed a number of studies and concluded that "In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace." Donald Devine has looked further into the survey results and in "Losing Their Religion, Really?" concludes that things may not be so dire. From that article:
.... The Washington Post summarized the results: “The portion of Americans with no religious affiliation is rising significantly, in tandem with a sharp drop in the percentage that identifies as Christians” with both Protestant and Catholic ranks “losing population share.” “In 2009, regular attenders — those who attend religious services at least once a month — outnumbered those who attend services only occasionally or not at all by a 52%-to-47% margin.” Today, 54 percent say they attend religious services a few times a year or less, while only 45 percent go more often.

It seems that after 2,000 years, it’s all coming to an end.

Well, maybe. Let’s look a bit closer at the data, starting with all those atheists and agnostics. They accounted for 2 percent of the population each in 2007, and today report 4 percent and 5 percent respectively—basically within the margins of error. The proper academic conclusion is that these groups have stayed pretty much the same over time, and remain very small.

The “nothing in particular” category (or Nones) is a larger and more diverse group, and the statistics do show that they have increased from 12 to 17 percent, likewise stretching the margin of error. But more important is that Pew itself had earlier reported that 26 percent of Nones pray daily and an additional 22 percent pray weekly or monthly, that only 22 percent do not believe in God, and that from year to year many shift back and forth between identifying with the Christian and Nones categories. All of this makes them more religious than atheist, if not exactly orthodox.

The reported declines in Protestants and Catholic identifications are likewise more interesting when broken down. Catholic identification is reported as declining from 24 to 20 percent, again minor and barely within the reported error margin. Protestant identification, meanwhile, is described as declining from 51 to 43 percent, and down a more substantial 17 percent among Democrats, Millennials, and Northeasterners, with fewer losses among Republicans, Gen. Xers and Midwesterners. Mainline Protestant denominations accounted for most of the decline, while born-again sects actually have increased. Denominational decline is a very mixed bag. .... (more)

Sunday, December 1, 2019


From "Want to Get Into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness" by an Anglican priest reminding us that Advent isn't Christmas:
.... The church waits in Advent.

In the church calendar, every period of celebration is preceded by a time of preparation. Historically, Advent, the liturgical season that begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, is a way to prepare our hearts (and minds and souls) for Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ birth — that light has come into darkness and, as the Gospel of John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” But Advent bids us first to pause and to look, with complete honesty, at that darkness.

To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. ....

...Advent offers wisdom to the wider world. It reminds us that joy is trivialized if we do not first intentionally acknowledge the pain and wreckage of the world.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that original sin is the “only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” The believer and atheist alike can agree that there is an undeniable brokenness to the world, a sickness that needs remedy. Whether we assign blame to human sinfulness, a political party, corporate greed, ignorance, tribalism or nationalism (or some of each), we can admit that things are not as they should be — or at least, not as we wish they were. ....

The church, after all, reserves 12 whole days for feasting and festivity during Christmas. Both darkness and light are real, and our calendar gives time to recall both. But in the end, Christians believe the light is more real and more enduring. ....

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded...."

In "The Lord Hath Chosen...Donald Trump?" David French takes note of several recent affirmative answers to the question and then goes to scripture. From his post:
.... Too many Christians who compare Trump to David seem to have forgotten the king who came before—and how his story has perhaps better parallels to our current age.

For those who’ve forgotten, King Saul’s rise and fall is an example of God granting his people what they want—and then making them endure many of the consequences of their own foolishness. The story is told in the first book of Samuel. ....

Boiled down to its essence, after a period of chaos and turmoil (which included the ultimate insult of the Philistines seizing the Ark of the Covenant), the Israelites approach the prophet Samuel and demand a king. God directs Samuel to grant their request: “Obey the voice of the people in relation to all that they say to you. For it is not you they have rejected, but Me they have rejected from reigning over them.”

Samuel warns the Israelites of the oppressions to come, but he follows God’s command and anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul won initial victories, but he also defied God’s commands, God rejected him as king, and then Samuel anointed Saul’s successor—not one of Saul’s sons, but rather the most famous king in the Old Testament, David. Throughout Old Testament history, the pattern is clear—the status of serving as God’s ordained king of Israel (even in the line of David himself) does not relieve that king of the obligation of following God’s commands or the people from suffering the consequences of the king’s failures. ....

As Proverbs states, “[T]he king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water.” We don’t know God’s plans. We can only do our best to discern what is just, and our best is going to be limited by our own fallen nature.

At the end of the day, both ruler and ordinary citizen alike should remember Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Citizens who don’t temper their quest for justice with kindness and humility violate God’s command, but so do rulers—and when the people see from the fruits of a man’s life that Micah 6:8 is far from his heart, then it is right and even necessary to raise the alarm. .... (more)

Thursday, November 28, 2019


Re-posted (except for the date)

Sunday, Dec. 1, is the first in Advent and the beginning of the "Church Year" for those worship traditions guided by it. In a post from 2009 Michael Spencer, a Baptist, advocated greater use of the Christian calendar in traditions like ours:
I’m in favor of a modest use of the Christian calendar. I’d use the major seasons—Advent, Nativity, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost—as dominant themes in worship, but I would make many of the minor feasts and days optional. I’d use the lectionary for scripture readers, but be less encumbered by it as determinant for preaching.

I think there is a danger of being too slavish about lectionary preaching, especially in traditions that expect the Gospel text to always be the sermon text. I would counsel a great deal of freedom for any preacher in what he feels he should do on a particular Sunday within the appropriate theme related to Christ. And that is what we want to do, right? Relate all things to Jesus? ....

The Christian calendar should provide guidance and a framework, but not an oppressive confinement. It should be a help to Christ-centered Gospel worship, and be in the background, not the forefront.

For instance, Ordinary time following Pentecost should not be defined closely by the calendar and the lectionary at all. Instead, preachers and leaders should be able to address topics and emphases they feel are important for the church’s overall health. Series that address particular groups or issues can come in at that point. ....

...[T]he Christian Year can help all of us in preaching and planning worship, no matter what our situation. A good use of the Year can allow a journey through books, exegetical messages on key doctrines and creativity in coordinating word, liturgy, music and other elements of worship. Nothing about the year precludes messages on stewardship or church planting. Just look for ways to integrate with the themes available.

It is not necessary to adopt the worst aspects of the use of the Christian Year in order to use it. A modest use, with plenty of flexibility, can bring together the best of several traditions.
iMonk Classic: Do You Know What Your Church Is Doing Next Sunday? |, the image is from The Anglican Church of the Resurrection

Monday, November 25, 2019

Biblical worship

Every once in a while I get into a potentially contentious disagreement with a Christian friend about how Christians should worship or, actually, what worship is. Often we are talking past one another. My understanding of worship, and how a worship service should be arranged and led, was crystallized by a study series on the subject led by Rev. Paul W. Manuel. This is from his "Erroneous Assumptions and Essential Attitudes about Worship":
.... The first assumption many Christians have is that…

Worship is everything we do.

On Sabbath morning, this includes the songs we sing, the sermon we hear, the prayers we offer, and the SS lesson we study—everything that happens in church.

While we should be conscious of God's presence at all times and should cultivate a reverent demeanor in all activity, such a diffuse understanding obscures the much narrower definition of worship that scripture presents as the model for our worship. Of the many words biblical authors use to describe worship (e.g., praise, bless, laud, extol), there is one Hebrew (and one corresponding Greek) term that occurs with greatest frequency, the same term English translations generally render as "worship." It entails the cessation of all activity, the concentration of all attention, and the communication of all adoration to God alone.

In other words, worship, in the primary biblical sense, is not something we do while doing other things, no matter how worthy they may be in their own right. It is our singular focus on the person of God. Worship is also not about meeting our needs. It is not about making us feel good or loved or appreciated. It is not at all about us; it is all about God.

While we can and should be conscious of Him in everything we do, especially on the Sabbath, neither the sermon, which concerns exhortation (to right behavior), nor the SS lesson, which concerns education (to right thinking), matches the biblical definition of the term. To generalize the connotation of worship—by implying that all manner of activity, when done with reverence, fulfills God's expectation—is to trivialize the commandment to worship. Although believers should always be aware of God's presence, being generally conscious of Him is not the same as concentrating exclusively on Him, which is the essence of biblical worship. .... (more)
Those planning and leading worship should always have in mind how to help worshipers "concentrate exclusively on Him."

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Light reading

Via Justin Taylor, J.I. Packer on reading "detective and cowboy and spy stories":
....[T]hese are stories of a kind that would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe—whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. Villains are foiled, people in jeopardy are freed, justice is done, and the ending is happy. The protagonists—detectives, Secret Service agents, noble cowboys and sheriffs, or whatever—are classic Robin Hood figures, champions of the needy, bringers of merited judgment and merciful salvation. The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories. Paganism unleavened by Christianity, on the other hand, was and always will be pessimistic at heart.

Do I urge everyone to read detective and cowboy and spy stories? No. If they do not relax your mind when overheated, you have no reason to touch them. Light reading is not for killing time (that’s ungodly), but for refitting the mind to tackle life’s heavy tasks (that’s the Protestant work ethic, and it’s true). ....

Saturday, November 23, 2019


A Facebook friend posted this. Exquisite.

Tell me, where is the road
I can call my own
That I left, that I lost
So long ago?
All these years I have wandered       
Oh, when will I know
There's a way, there's a road
That will lead me home
Rise up, follow me
Come away, is the call
With the love in your heart
As the only song
There is no such beauty
As where you belong
Rise up, follow me
I will lead you home
After wind, after rain
When the dark is done
As I wake from a dream
In the gold of day
Through the air there's a calling
From far away
There's a voice I can hear
That will lead me home

Hiraeth: It’s pronounced “here-eyeth” (roll the “r”) and it’s a Welsh word. It has no exact cognate in English. The best we can do is “homesickness,” ....

Friday, November 22, 2019

November 22, 1963

November 22, 1963 was the day of my Grandmother Skaggs's funeral. The family was gathered in my parents' house preparing to go to the church when we heard that the President had been shot in Dallas. We learned upon returning from the graveside that he had died. On that same day C.S. Lewis died. Understandably, news of his death was obscured by the assassination. I didn't learn that he had died for some time afterward but if it had not been for the coincidence of date his death would have received a significant amount of news coverage.

Some time later, visiting good friends then living in England, I had the opportunity to go to Oxford and visit many of the locations associated with Lewis including his grave site. I have a photograph of me with one of my friends standing next to the grave (on the right).  The epitaph, "Men must endure their going hence," chosen by CSL's brother, is from Shakespeare's King Lear. It was the quotation appearing on a calendar in Lewis's childhood home on the day his mother died. She died before he was ten. Lewis wrote:
With my mother's death all settled happiness, all that was tranquil and reliable, disappeared from my life. There was to be much fun, many pleasures, many stabs of Joy; but no more of the old security. It was sea and islands now; the great continent had sunk like Atlantis. (Surprised by Joy, Chapter 1)
The actual enduring is borne by those who survive. Lewis was responsible for some of the most attractive imaginings of the experience of Christians after physical death.
The light and coolness that drenched me were like those of summer morning, early morning a minute or two before the sunrise, only that there was a certain difference, I had the sense of being in a larger space, perhaps even a larger sort of space, than I had ever known before: as if the sky were further off and the extent of the green plain wider than they could be on this little ball of earth. I had got "out" in some sense which made the Solar System itself seem an indoor affair. It gave me a feeling of freedom, but also of exposure, possibly of danger which continued to accompany me through all that followed. .... (The Great Divorce, Chapter III)
This is the anniversary of the death of C.S. Lewis, 1898-1963.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Group-think and stupidity

Annie Holmquist at Intellectual Takeout on avoiding stupidity. Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
.... “Stupidity,” he said, “is a more dangerous enemy of the good than malice,” for the latter is more recognizable and gives “human beings at least a sense of unease.”
Against stupidity we are defenseless. Neither protests nor the use of force accomplish anything here; reasons fall on deaf ears; facts that contradict one’s prejudgment simply need not be believed—in such moments the stupid person even becomes critical—and when facts are irrefutable they are just pushed aside as inconsequential, as incidental.
He goes on to say that stupidity is hard to deal with, for the stupid person will not accept reason, but is instead “utterly self-satisfied and…easily irritated.”

Where does this stupidity come from? Bonhoeffer supplies an answer:
If we want to know how to get the better of stupidity, we must seek to understand its nature. This much is certain, that it is in essence not an intellectual defect but a human one. There are human beings who are of remarkably agile intellect yet stupid, and others who are intellectually quite dull yet anything but stupid. We discover this to our surprise in particular situations. The impression one gains is not so much that stupidity is a congenital defect but that, under certain circumstances, people are made stupid or that they allow this to happen to them. We note further that people who have isolated themselves from others or who live in solitude manifest this defect less frequently than individuals or groups of people inclined or condemned to sociability. And so it would seem that stupidity is perhaps less a psychological than a sociological problem.
In other words, stupidity happens when we allow our sensibilities to be worn down and influenced by the group-think around us. ....

Tuesday, November 19, 2019


.... For Edmund Burke, the concept meant “a moral rather than a complexional timidity.” That is to say, Burke urged caution not out of cowardice but out of humility. His conservatism was grounded in modesty, and in recognizing that neither he nor any man had all of the answers. In the face of uncertainty, prudence dictates hesitating before making a drastic change.

Yet, maddeningly for those in search of a precise guide to life, Weiner tells us that prudence also demands bold action at times. Burke, at times, demanded such boldness from his country’s government, especially when it meant confronting the regicides of revolutionary France. Simple caution might call for a negotiated peace with the Jacobins; prudence demanded unyielding resistance to the destructive effects of the French Revolution. Lincoln, too, mixed caution with indefatigability when faced with the challenges of secession and Civil War. Even before his election, Lincoln’s prudence separated him from other abolitionists. He argued against slavery logically and effectively in his debates with Stephen Douglas in 1858, but understood the political necessity of moving gradually toward the ultimate goal.

Lincoln, like Burke, also knew when prudence demanded he act drastically. Gradual abolition was fine in peacetime, but when the dispute over slavery erupted into war, the political and moral calculus changed. .... (more)

Monday, November 18, 2019


In an essay about Susan Sontag Joseph Epstein introduces us to the "savant-idiot" (not idiot savant):
An idiot savant, as is well-known, is a person with serious learning disabilities but gifted in a peculiar and extraordinary way, often mathematically or musically. A savant-idiot, as is not well- known, since I have only just now coined the phrase, is a person who is learned, brainy, even brilliant, but gets everything important wrong. Simone Weil, who starved herself for the good of humankind, was a savant-idiot. So was Jean-Paul Sartre, never giving up on revolutionary Communism even in the face of the mass murders of Stalin and Mao. Hannah Arendt, who wrote a significant book on the crushing oppression of totalitarianism and then turned round to argue that Jews faced with the most systematically murderous totalitarian system of all conspired in their own death, was yet a third savant-idiot.

The classic American savant-idiot was Susan Sontag. This is the Susan Sontag who called white civilization “the cancer of human history.” She it was who, after a trip to Hanoi during the Vietnam War, idealized the North Vietnamese and said, “They genuinely believe life is simple . . . full of joy . . . they genuinely love and admire their leaders.” She claimed that the more than 3,000 innocent people killed on 9/11 in effect had it coming to them, for America, through its imperialist policies, had brought this attack on itself. Sontag waited until 1982 to decide that Communism was little more than “fascism with a human face” (what, one wondered at the time, was the least bit human about it?). Only a savant could be so idiotic.

A savant is a thinker, someone less specialized than a scholar or scientist; he or she is a generalist, an intellectual. ....

Auden on the BCP

W.H. Auden on the abandonment of the 1928 Book of Common Prayer by American Episcopalians (the 1928 Prayer Book was replaced in 1979, but the Auden letter was written in 1968 unwelcome innovations having already appeared):
I think our church has gone stark raving mad. We had the Providential good-fortune, a blessing denied to the Roman Catholics, that our Prayer Book was compiled at the ideal historical moment, that is to say when the English language was already in all essentials the language we use now — nobody has any difficulty understanding Shakespeare’s or Cranmer’s English, as they have difficulty with Beowulf or Chaucer — at the same time, men in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries still possessed what our own has almost totally lost, a sense for the ceremonial and ritual both in life and in language. Why, except in very minor details, any Episcopalian should want to tinker with either the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible, and go a-whoring after cacophonous and sometimes heretical new versions passes my comprehension. ....
And then in a 1971 letter:
.... The odd thing about the Liturgical Reform movement is that it is not asked for by the laity — they dislike it. It is a fad of a few crazy priests. If they imagine that their high-jinks will bring youth into the churches, — they are very much mistaken. ....
Stand Firm | W.H. Auden on the Book of Common Prayer, A Word About Auden And The Book of Common Prayer

Sunday, November 17, 2019

"Defenceless under the night / Our world in stupor lies..."

"The Auden Poem Auden Hated" is a review of a book about "September 1, 1939," composed by Auden upon the outbreak of World War II in Europe. The entire essay interested me, sent me back to the poem, and can be found here.
.... Never did Auden employ his gift of accessibility more effectively than in “September 1, 1939,” the poem he wrote immediately after Nazi Germany started World War II by invading Poland. Published in the New Republic that October, “September 1, 1939” contains within its nine 11-line trimetric stanzas more widely quoted phrases than any of Auden’s other poems. It was there that he called the ’30s “a low dishonest decade,” described the stunned members of his generation as “lost in a haunted wood, / Children afraid of the night / Who have never been happy or good,” and—most memorably—warned his readers that they “must love one another or die.” ....

It is, one may safely assume, the grandly resonant generalities of “September 1, 1939” that offended their author’s postwar sensibility, in much the same way that Waugh would feel the need to prune away the “rhetorical and ornamental language” of the original version of Brideshead Revisited when he revised the novel in the early ’60s.

But Auden was wrong to think that “the whole poem…was infected with an incurable dishonesty.” Indeed, “September 1, 1939” is powerful above all because of its willingness to tell the unvarnished truth about England and Europe in the ’30s....

.... Yet it is what the author of “September 1, 1939,” chastened by the failure of his own ventures into politics and bolstered by his embrace of Christian faith, very plainly espouses therein—and it is the reason the poem continues to speak to readers who, like Auden before them, “cannot swallow another mouthful” of the totalitarian ideologies with which the repeating cycles of history present them time and again.

“May I,” he cries in its last lines, “Beleaguered by the same / Negation and despair, / Show an affirming flame.” That he succeeded in doing so in “September 1, 1939” is the reason the poem survived all his attempts to mute or suppress it, and why successive generations of readers continue to turn to it in times of trial. It is, and will always be, an affirming flame of hope.

September 1, 1939
 W. H. Auden (1907-1973)
I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.
The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.
From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
"I will be true to the wife,
I'll concentrate more on my work,"
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?
Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.
All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.
Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism's face
And the international wrong.
Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.
Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The Auden Poem Auden Hated - Commentary

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

“Résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”

This morning David French quoted from a several years old column by David Brooks:
The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?

We all know that the eulogy virtues are more important than the résumé ones. But our culture and our educational systems spend more time teaching the skills and strategies you need for career success than the qualities you need to radiate that sort of inner light. Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.
French today:
.... For quite a few people, when you ask them to take a stand for a particular set of values, like religious liberty or even the ultimate truths of their faith, it turns out that you’re asking them to risk the thing they value the most—the career they see as the summit of their life—for the thing they value less, the core virtues and values that build cultures and character.

Why won’t a politician speak the truth? Why won’t a pastor take responsibility for abuse in his church? Why do corporate executives turn a blind eye to rampant misconduct? Well, it turns out that when we ask for accountability and responsibility, we should understand that we’re asking leaders to potentially sacrifice the very thing that gives them more meaning and purpose than their relationship with their spouse or their own children. ....