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.


Tuesday, December 11, 2018


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 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.

Friday, November 30, 2018

A true compass

Via The Imaginative Conservative, a quotation from a book I remember being assigned in one of my high school English classes:
“I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie…. I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe…. Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true. I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that. I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die. They died rather than live, that was all.”
Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country, 1948

Thursday, November 29, 2018

"The Bible pays a great deal of attention to the birth of the Saviour"

The current issue of my denomination's monthly magazine, The Sabbath Recorder, contains a number of articles for and against the celebration of Christmas by Christians. Partly because I was annoyed by some of those arguments I found Sinclair Ferguson's post, "Should Christians Abandon Christmas?," interesting and to the point:
...I read an article by a Christian lamenting the fact that his church celebrated Christmas. He didn’t believe it was “biblical.” After all, evangelical Christians and their churches are guided by Scripture—and there’s nothing in the Bible telling us to celebrate Christmas each year, far less celebrate it on December 25. I have friends who share that point of view. They believe we should order our lives, and our churches, exclusively in obedience to the directives of Scripture. And there’s no command to celebrate Christmas—much less Advent! ....

First, the biblical response. We are responsible to obey all God commands in his word. But that isn’t the same as saying that unless Scripture specifically commands it we should not do it. ....

I think there’s another consideration. Many Old Testament passages look forward to the coming of our Lord, conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in Bethlehem. Matthew devotes almost two chapters to describing and explaining the event; Luke does the same. John takes us right back into eternity when he invites us to reflect on its significance. There are other passages in the New Testament that help us to understand it. In other words, the Bible pays a great deal of attention to the birth of the Saviour and the theology of the incarnation. Why shouldn’t we?

My own experience as a minister has been as follows. Frequently I have preached between four and twelve messages on the birth of Jesus during the month of December. That amounts to somewhere between 3% and 10% of my preaching being devoted to the Grand Miracle. Is that out of proportion? Surely not.

But ask the question the other way round. When churches “ignore” Christmas, how much preaching and teaching are they likely to receive on the incarnation? Somewhere between four and twelve messages? I doubt it. Such non-scientific investigation of preachers I have done indicates that, in fact, by and large, the incarnation will be ignored. Is that a more biblical approach? I doubt it—which is why I agree with what Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I would lay it down as a rule that there are special occasions which should always be observed…I believe in preaching special sermons on Christmas Day and during the Advent season.” .... (read it all)
Those who claim a pagan origin for the holiday are answered here, and those who wonder why December 25 here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The most moral fiction of our time

.... I started young, ingesting my first Agatha Christies when I was seven. Since then I have read, among others, all the Sherlock Holmeses, Father Browns, and Peter Wimseys; all the Ellery Queens, Agatha Christies, and Carter Dicksons; all the John Dickson Carrs and Dick Francises except one; all the full-length stories of Hammett, Chandler, James, and Crispin; and all the work of new arrivals Amanda Cross, Antonia Fraser, Simon Brett, and Robert Barnard; not to mention most of Margery Allingham, Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, and Julian Symons.

What have I gained?

Fun, to start with. Where else could I have made the acquaintance of characters like Stout’s Nero Wolfe (world’s heaviest genius and largest ego), Dickson’s Sir Henry Merrivale (the Old Man, but no gentleman), Gardner’s Perry Mason (incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial), Christie’s Miss Marple (mesmeric village knit-wit), and the prewar Poirot, who bounced and burbled like Maurice Chevalier? .....

Ought my fellow senior editors and I repent of time wasted in our light reading? Not necessarily. If overloaded academic and literary people never read for relaxation, their brains will break. And ’tecs, thrillers, and westerns, while not great literature, are among the most moral fiction of our time. Goodies and baddies are distinguished and killers finally get it in the end. Writing that upholds fundamental morality is neither degenerate nor corrupting.

Also, these 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. ....

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). ....

Father, we thank Thee

Father, we thank Thee who hast planted
Thy holy Name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus Thy Son to us imparts.
Watch o'er Thy church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still.
Perfect it in Thy love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,   
Didst give us food for all our days,
Giving in Christ the Bread eternal;
Thine is the pow'r, be Thine the praise.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.

"Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted" has long been one of my favorite hymns. Its tune, taken from the sixteenth-century Genevan Psalter, is eminently singable. The hymn even better. For Francis Bland Tucker’s lyrics put twenty-first-century congregations in touch with the second generation of Christians, and perhaps even the first, by combining various phrases from an ancient Christian prayer book and catechism, the Didache.

Scholars continue to debate whether the Didache, more formally known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, comes to us from the second or first Christian centuries, but the weight of academic opinion now favors the earlier date. Thus, The Teaching (“Didache” in Greek) links us to what biblical scholar Raymond Brown called “the churches the apostles left behind”: the Christians who were taught by those who were taught by the Lord himself. Singing “Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted,” we are praying as second-generation Christians, formed by those who had known the Lord Jesus and were witnesses to his resurrection, prayed. ....

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Alan Jacobs reviews Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Jacobs writes "Andrew Delbanco narrates this history in lucid prose and with a moral clarity that is best described as terrifying. It is not easy to look upon the long march of the nation towards war, and even harder to look upon the suffering of American slaves during that march—and not just slaves. .... You read all this with a feeling of rising horror, and not just because of the physical and mental and spiritual suffering. You feel that horror also because it becomes increasingly difficult, as the story progresses, to imagine how even the worst of the pain could have been avoided. ...."
One of the most admirable features of this truly great book is the subtlety with which Delbanco considers his story’s applicability to our own moment. Throughout the narrative proper he remains silent about the implications—except to note that the consequences of slavery for America’s black people persist to this day. But at the end of the introduction he quotes a passage written by the historian Richard Hofstadter in 1968 about comity—consideration of others, mutual regard. “Comity exists in a society,” Hofstadter writes, when “one party or interest seeks the defeat of an opposing interest on matters of policy, but at the same time seeks to avoid crushing the the opposition, denying the legitimacy of its existence or its values, or inflicting upon it extreme and gratuitous humiliations beyond the substance of the gains that are being sought.” Comity is present when “the basic humanity of the opposition is not forgotten; civility is not abandoned; the sense that a community life must be carried on after the acerbic issues of the moment have been fought over and won is seldom very far out of mind; an awareness that the opposition will someday be the government is always present.”

But how can one tell whether comity is present in one’s own society? “The reality and the value of comity can best be appreciated when we contemplate a society in which it is almost completely lacking.” The War Before the War describes how the United States of America, in the period between the composing of the Constitution and the outbreak of civil war, became such a society. And this happened not only because of wicked people who supported a wicked system—though Lord knows there were plenty of those—but also because so many Americans lost the ability to see the moral legitimacy of any proposed remedy of that wickedness other than the one they themselves embraced.

It seems clear, to me at any rate, that our society has not yet abandoned comity altogether. But the choice to do so presents itself to us with increasing force, at least if we watch television or participate in social media. I would only suggest that it is not too late to refuse that choice—and that the costs of accepting it can be very, very high.

Passionate intensity

In his "The Robespierre Generation" Rod Dreher quotes from a David Brooks column in the New York Times, "Liberal Parents, Radical Children":
Two great belief systems are clashing here. The older liberals tend to be individualistic and meritocratic. A citizen’s job is to be activist, compassionate and egalitarian. Boomers generally think they earned their success through effort and talent.

The younger militants tend to have been influenced by the cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy. Group identity is what matters. Society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups. People who are successful usually got that way through some form of group privilege and a legacy of oppression.

The big generational clashes generally occur over definitions of professional excellence. The older liberals generally believe that the open exchange of ideas is an intrinsic good. Older liberal journalists generally believe that objectivity is an important ideal. But for many of the militants, these restraints are merely masks for the preservation of the existing power structures. They offer legitimacy to people and structures that are illegitimate.

When the generations clash, the older generation generally retreats. Nobody wants to be hated and declared a moral pariah by his or her employees. Nobody wants to seem outdated. If the war is between the left and Trumpian white nationalism, nobody wants to be seen siding with Trump. ....

Plus, the militants have more conviction. In the age of social media, virtue is not defined by how compassionately you act. Virtue is defined by how vehemently you react to that which you find offensive. Virtue involves the self-display of a certain indignant sensibility, and anybody who doesn’t display that sensibility is morally suspect.
As Yeats might have said of the left today, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

Sunday, November 25, 2018


This review of the final volume of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien that have been edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien (twenty-five books), is much more than a review of only that book. If you are interested in Tolkien you should read it. Toward the end of the review comes this:
.... J.R.R. Tolkien felt anxiety about whether his work would ever be completed or published. A short story called “Leaf by Niggle” gives a glimpse. The titular character, Niggle, spends his life painting a picture of a tree, but he departs on a “journey,” leaving the picture unfinished, knowing that officials will use the canvas to patch a leaking roof.

When the discouraged Niggle finally reaches a land meant to symbolize heaven, he is distressed by his lack of accomplishment. But then he looks up.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. ....All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.
Tolkien meant to capture the grace that grants completion and fulfillment to all of life’s wasted and half-finished undertakings. Unwittingly, he also prophesied the efforts of his youngest son. For without Christopher, we could never have beheld the sheer scope and wonder of his father’s achievement. Tolkien always saw The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion as “one long Saga of the Jewels and the Rings.” Christopher’s work, now finished, has brought the entirety of this myth, the culmination of a countercultural literary movement, a great tree “growing and bending in the wind,” into the clear, unbroken light.
Tree and Leaf includes Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories" (pdf here) and the short story "Leaf by Niggle" (full text).