Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A tame religion

And the sight of the glory of the LORD was like devouring fire on the top of the mount
in the eyes of the children of Israel.
(Ex 24:17, KJV)

Via Gene Edward Veith, from a recent Peter Berger essay:
.... Sociologists who deal with religion often like to refer to the etymology of the Latin word religio. Supposedly it derives from the verb religare—to re-bind. If so, this points to a very valid insight, most fully formulated by the classical sociologist Emile Durkheim—namely, that religion provides the symbolic ligature that keeps a society together. I understand that Latinists reject this etymology for a different, and actually more interesting one: Religio derives from relegere—to be careful. In other words, the supernatural is a very dangerous reality—one has to approach it with great caution. This understanding was brilliantly formulated by Rudolf Otto, arguably one of the greatest twentieth-century historians of religion, in his book The Idea of the Holy. Religion is always based on an experience, on whatever level of intensity or sophistication, with a reality that is intensely dangerous....

Otto coined the term “numinous” to refer to this experience. His German language too seems to break down, as he falls back on Latin to describe the numinous—it is a mysterium tremendum, both terrifying and alluring. It is totaliter aliter—totally other than the fabric of everyday life. Above all, it is extremely dangerous. This is why, in the Bible and in other sacred scriptures, the first words spoken by an angel to a human being is “Do not be afraid!” ....
Veith comments:
This, I think, is what is missing in so much of today’s Christianity: the fear of God. We have tamed our own religion. We are no longer “careful,” and so we have lost the “numinous” and thus the sense of holiness. I would argue that the historic liturgy and sacramental spirituality retain that sense, whereas so much of the trappings of contemporary Christianity, in its worship and art forms, have the effect of domesticating the supernatural and rendering it banal.
Religion means “be careful” | Cranach: The Blog of Veith, Defanging the Supernatural | Religion and Other Curiosities

Those who do not remember

An explanation of the value of studying the humanities, not to learn some skill, or for some immediate practical gain, but for the sake of learning about humans:
...[W]e live in a historical context, so having a sense of history is actually very useful in itself in making sense of the present: how many political debates have we had on this site that have come down to different interpretations of history? In life, I encounter a startling number of people now who seem to live in an eternal present, in which their society exists, for them, outside of any historical context whatsoever and the past is an amorphous grey zone with horse-drawn buggies. I wonder just how they could participate in their own democracy when they have no sense of how it came into being or how other societies have functioned. They have no historical parallels to draw from. It is never shocking to me to read about totalitarian states that began by rewriting, and finally erasing the historical record in the public mind. Those who do not remember the past have less space to oppose the present.

It’s not just history: all of the humanities, to some extent, give you a broader understanding of the world around you—the world of human beings—and the world within you. .... Ideally, all of the humanities do this—they help you to create your own guide to being human. Even more ideally, academic departments are a place that society allows for its slow and patient thinking to be done. ....

.... The humanities are rooted in the study of texts, which will increasingly put them at odds with a society in which reading is becoming vestigial. People who grow up detached from any cultural/historical context will find academics increasingly alien, if not offensive to their sensibilities. Attacks on the humanities will increase. The way to address them isn’t to trick the public into thinking they’re getting something else for their money, but to repeatedly defend the right of academics to hang back from the passions of the day—to be less-than-useful for whatever desires the society wants satisfied today. That means, by the way, academics in the humanities must drop altogether the pretense of political “activism” and, in their public role, become much more explicitly apolitical and inactivist; conversely, they need to start expressing quite loudly the worth of this eternal hanging back, instead of flattering and placating a culture that is arguably no culture. [more]
Thanks to Joe Carter for the reference.

Studying one Thing to Learn Another

Monday, November 29, 2010

"I give you the example of spittoons"

PJ O’Rourke selects the top five books of political satire for FiveBooks and is interviewed about each of them. If you know PJ O'Rourke, no slouch at political satire himself, you may well enjoy his comments. These are the five he chose:
  • Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels
  • Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
  • George Orwell, Animal Farm
  • George Orwell, 1984
  • Evelyn Waugh, Put Out More Flags
And here is a selection of the five best books about film noir.

P J O’Rourke | FiveBooks

The story of good and evil

I just got Criterion's Blu-ray edition of The Night of the Hunter — one of my favorite films. It is about menacing evil and human fallibility redeemed by genuine goodness. This review of the DVD from a very good DVD site explains some of the reasons I like it:
Laughton's The Night of the Hunter is something of a marvel considering its timing and history. The 1950s are not remembered as a time of complexity or darkness—in fact, the '50s are often recalled as a moment of joy, simplicity and fun. It's this contrast that makes The Night of the Hunter stand out from most thrillers of the time. Laughton's film features a dreamlike quality that wrestles unease from the viewer's grasp. Robert Mitchum is so evil and engrossing as the manipulative Harry Powell that he's almost impossible to forget, even days after the film's credits have closed. Mitchum had been arrested for possession of marijuana a few years before The Night of the Hunter was made and his time in prison served him well—we believe that Powell is capable of doing whatever is necessary to get Ben Harper's money. Forty-five years later and Mitchum's Harry Powell is still one of the most powerful and disturbing villains ever to grace the silver screen. ....

One of the best things about The Night of the Hunter is the set decoration. Not content to feature just darkness and light, Laughton took special care to craft scenes of dread and menace out of silhouette, shape and contrast. Grassy hills and jagged houses often take on a looming quality that seems almost Tim Burton-esque in their shape. One famous scene involving Powell's search for the children in the basement is so stark and specific—only a portion of the screen is used—that it can be seen as a precursor to many other future horror movies.

As I'm writing this review I'm realizing that I only have praise for Night of the Hunter—it is in almost every way a perfect film (and that's not something I say very often as a critic). The writing is taught and fluid; the performances are striking and memorable; the set design, music and cinematography are all wonderfully realized and evocative. .... [more]
DVD Verdict Review - The Night Of The Hunter (Blu-Ray) Criterion Collection

Knowing what we profess

Rod Dreher, reviewing a new book, American Grace, about the state of American religious life:
.... The good news is that we Americans of different faith traditions get along remarkably well, not by casting aside religion, but by learning how to be tolerant even as we remain religiously engaged.

The bad news is that achieving religious comity has come at the price of religious particularity and theological competence. That is, we may still consider ourselves devoted to our faith, but increasingly, we don't know what our professed faith teaches, and we don't appreciate why that sort of thing is important in the first place. .... [more]
Thanks to Joseph Knippenberg for the reference.

Rod Dreher: All-American Grace | News for Dallas, Texas | Dallas Morning News | Opinion: Points

Sunday, November 28, 2010


The inclination to force people to behave in ways that will be good for them is hardly limited to any one point on the ideological spectrum and, indeed, the argument about where to draw the line is inevitable in any society governed by law. George Santayana observed a century ago that the only thing liberalism has liberated people from is their marriage vows. Now, as then, those most inclined — in every aspect of life apart from sex — to regulate, prohibit, censor, and mandate how we live, seem to be liberals or, as they once again tend to style themselves, "progressives." George Will wrote today that "Progressivism is a faith-based program. The progressives' agenda for improving everyone else varies but invariably involves the cult of expertise — an unflagging faith in the application of science to social reform." There can be problems with applying "science" to social reform. Wilfred McClay recounts an example from an era when scientific expertise supported ideas today's progressives properly abjure.
With a few honorable exceptions, our historians have tended to gloss over the Progressive Era’s affinity for many of the 20th century’s most troubling ideas. Few Americans know, for example, about the magnetic appeal Italian fascism held in the 1920s for many of the most prominent American liberals and pragmatists. They openly praised Mussolini’s achievement in transforming a chronically disordered nation into “the cleanest, neatest, most efficiently operating piece of social machinery I’ve ever seen,” as FDR Brains Trust adviser Rexford G. Tugwell enthused.

An even more interesting omission is our neglect of the then-widespread popularity and respectability of eugenics. This new “science” for the systematic practice of selective human breeding for the supposed improvement of society led to the sterilization and segregation of the “feeble-minded” and other “undesirable” individuals and groups in American society. It sounds like a preoccupation of the exotic fringe to most of us now, but nine decades ago eugenics was openly advocated as a mainstream Progressive idea. Indeed, the most certifiably advanced minds of the day promoted and celebrated it. In 1923, former President Charles W. Eliot of Harvard, U.S. Senator Royal Copeland of New York, former President David Starr Jordan of Indiana and Stanford Universities, President Livingston Farrand of Cornell University, and a host of other educational, medical and social-welfare luminaries making up the Eugenics Committee of the United States came forth with a program calling for “selective immigration, sterilization of defectives and control of everything having to do with the reproduction of human beings.” In 1932, Margaret Sanger, founder of the organization that would eventually become Planned Parenthood, advocated “a stern and rigid policy of sterilization and segregation to that grade of population whose progeny is already tainted or whose inheritance is such that objectionable traits may be transmitted to offspring.” ....

Nor was eugenics merely a utopian idea. It formed the basis of concrete policies. For one thing, it lent its strong support to the immigration-restriction statutes of the 1920s. But there were more direct and telling effects. Thirty-three American states passed laws that allowed for the involuntary sterilization of those deemed “unfit.” The famous words of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in the 1927 Buck v. Bell case—”three generations of imbeciles are enough”—expressed the Supreme Court’s upholding of a Virginia law, thereby signaling the general acceptability of eugenic involuntary-sterilization laws. Such activity was hardly restricted to Southern states. California, well-known to be one of the most Progressive-influenced states in the nation, led all others in performing some 20,000 forced sterilizations and did not cease the practice until the 1960s. .... [more behind a subscription wall]
George F. Will - Our puritanical progressives, Chesterton's Warning - Wilfred M. McClay - The American Interest Magazine

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Advent I: Sleeper awake!

Almighty God, give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, (in the 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. [Thomas Cranmer]
Owe no man any thing, but to love one another: for he that loveth another hath fulfilled the law. For this, Thou shalt not commit adultery, Thou shalt not kill, Thou shalt not steal, Thou shalt not bear false witness, Thou shalt not covet; and if there be any other commandment, it is briefly comprehended in this saying, namely, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Love worketh no ill to his neighbour: therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. And that, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light. Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness, not in chambering and wantonness, not in strife and envying. But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof. [Romans 8]

That day, when sent in glory by the Father,
The Prince of Life His blest elect shall gather;
Millions of angels about Him flying,
While all the kindreds of the earth are crying,
And He, enthroned above the clouds, shall give
His last just sentence, who must die, who live.

[Henry Vaughan]

Thursday, November 25, 2010

All praise and thanks...

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!

All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Mar­tin Rink­art, c. 1636

Monday, November 22, 2010

And yet...joy

Mike Potemra visits a remarkable urban church and is greatly impressed:
Not enough good things can be said about the ministry of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. The senior pastor, Tim Keller, is justly acclaimed for his Biblical preaching, which is both (unostentatiously) learned and deeply moving. And thousands of people, mostly young professionals, are attracted there every Sunday. ...I went to the evening service at Redeemer and was rewarded with one of the most spiritually affecting services I have ever encountered. The music at the evening services is provided by a six-piece jazz combo. .... The band was simply great, its uptempo songs almost danceable; and now listen to some of the lyrics: “Sinners, whose love can ne’er forget the wormwood and the gall...”

The convicting message of sin and depravity — wormwood and gall! — could not be clearer in these lyrics. And yet the music is, at the very same time, utterly joyful. This is the Christian message in miniature: Suffering, failure, and heartbreak exist, they are — at least in this world — not abolished; but they are transfigured into something beautiful. This is the Christian understanding of joy: laughter and beauty in the full awareness and experience of tears.

The Rev. Keller’s sermon was terrific, relating God’s presence in the burning bush to the “FIRE” that blazed in the mystical experience in 1654 of Blaise Pascal. But the band had the final word, doing a splendid job with the instrumental postlude, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” by Joe Zawinul. (Here’s a version by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet; the version at Redeemer was a worthy competitor.) I strongly encourage visitors to NYC to give Redeemer a try....
The Gospel in Miniature - By Mike Potemra - The Corner - National Review Online

"Men must endure their going hence"

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 the grave site. Somewhere, stored away, I have a photograph taken by one of my fiends of me standing near this grave. 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.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Christian calendar

Next Sunday 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? | internetmonk.com, the image is from The Anglican Church of the Resurrection

Friday, November 19, 2010

False liberty of thought

Via Insight Scoop, John Henry Newman on theological liberalism:
Whenever men are able to act at all, there is the chance of extreme and intemperate action; and therefore, when there is exercise of mind, there is the chance of wayward or mistaken exercise. Liberty of thought is in itself a good; but it gives an opening to false liberty. Now by Liberalism I mean false liberty of thought, or the exercise of thought upon matters, in which, from the constitution of the human mind, thought cannot be brought to any successful issue, and therefore is out of place. Among such matters are first principles of whatever kind; and of these the most sacred and momentous are especially to be reckoned the truths of Revelation. Liberalism then is the mistake of subjecting to human judgment those revealed doctrines which are in their nature beyond and independent of it, and of claiming to determine on intrinsic grounds the truth and value of propositions which rest for their reception simply on the external authority of the Divine Word.
Insight Scoop | The Ignatius Press Blog: "Religion, as a mere sentiment, is to me a dream and a mockery." Amen!

Putting the clock back

Can the clock be turned back? Can social disintegration be reversed? When it seems that things are falling apart, that "the center cannot hold," it may help to remember that there have been times when things did move in a more hopeful direction. For instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the great historian of 19th century England, described how the Victorian Era saw a remarkable improvement:
.... One of the extraordinary facts about Victorian England, which came as a revelation to me, was the low illegitimacy rate. Around 1845 the illegitimacy ratio was 7%; by the end of the century it had come down to less than 4%. In the poorest part of London, east London, it was 4% at its peak and 3% by the end of the century. Remember, this was a time of enormous political, economic and social turmoil: the industrial revolution, the cultural revolution, urbanism and so on. And yet it in spite of all these difficulties, illegitimacy was considerably reduced and the English emerged from this period in a state of re-moralization – in dramatic contrast to our present situation where illegitimacy rose from 5% in 1960 to nearly 30% today. ....

.... Like the low illegitimacy rate, the low crime rate is quite extraordinary. There was a drop in the crime rate of nearly fifty percent in the second half of the 19th century; again in dramatic contrast to the crime rate in our own times which in the past thirty years has risen ten-fold. The low crime rate was a reflection of the Victorian virtues – work, temperance, orderliness, and responsibility.

It was also a reflection of the degree to which this ethos had been internalized. We tend to think of stigma and sanctions as being externally imposed by society, by law and coercion. But in fact, what was most characteristic about Victorian England was the internalization of these sanctions. For the most part they were accepted by the individual willingly, even unconsciously; they were incorporated in his superego, as we would now say. This combination of external and internal sanctions made for a powerful ethos, an ethos supported by religion, law, and all the other institutions of society. ....
Alan Jacobs has been thinking about a book describing England in the preceding century and the tendency to believe that "progress" can only move in one direction:
I think it’s fair to say that most of us living in America today assume that, as we like to put it, “you can’t turn back the clock,” that history always and inevitably moves in a liberalizing direction. And we think that whether we consider such “liberalizing” as the epitome of good or the embodiment of evil or something in between. It seems to be endemic to Americans to embrace the “Whig interpretation of history”, that is, to see the whole of history as marching inexorably towards us, to see everything culminating in ourselves — whether we happen to like that culmination or not.

But when we seriously compare the social world of England in 1750 to the social world of England in 1850, it becomes harder to sustain the Whiggish model. As C. S. Lewis once commented, “as to putting the clock back”:
Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
Of course, we can and will disagree about what counts as real progress — about whether the clocks are wrong at all, and, even when we agree that they are wrong, where they should be re-set. But the key point is that history does not move in a single, inevitable direction — or at least, has not done so thus far — and if we imagine our grandchildren’s world as nothing but a continuation of our own, an extension or our own values and inclinations, we may prove in the end to be as wrong as wrong can be. (more)
Learning from Victorian Virtues | Acton Institute, A Not-So-Distant Mirror | Big Questions Online

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Intellectual triviality and sheer boredom

I received what was known as a "liberal arts" education. That meant that in addition to the courses in my major and minor I was required to take a series of survey courses designed to familiarize me with the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities, including English literature, and the history and appreciation of music and art. No doubt the requirements were unforgivably Western and altogether too reliant on the insights and creations of "dead white males." In any event, even during my time in college, such requirements began to disappear or at least be modified so as to bear no real similarity to my experience.

Now, apparently, not only the requirement, but even the option, of studying many of those courses is disappearing on many campuses. John M. Ellis argues that those who are today trying to preserve the humanities on these campuses are doing so under a false flag. In the excerpts below, first how study of the humanities has traditionally been justified, and then a diagnosis of the problem.
...[E]xposure to the best of our civilization's achievements and thought gives us the trained minds of broadly educated people. We learn about ourselves by studying our history, and understanding how it has shaped us and the institutions we live by. As European civilization developed it produced a range of extraordinary thinkers who grappled memorably with questions that will always be with us, leaving a rich and varied legacy of outstanding thought on philosophical, ethical, religious, social and political matters. Its creative writers left a record of inspired reflection on human life and its challenges. Studying the humanities make us better prepared for civic life and for living itself, and better citizens.

And so "Defend the Humanities" is a most attractive flag to sail under. The trouble is that for those who are now using it, it is a flag of convenience only, and a deeply dishonest one. For the conception of the humanities set out above is despised by those who now ask for our help in saving the departments they run. Long ago, they took aim at it, defeated it and abolished it, and that is precisely the source of their present troubles. The story of how they did it and why is well-known. A virulent strain of Marxist radicalism took refuge in college humanities programs just as it was being abandoned in the real world because of catastrophic results world-wide. This created a mismatch of temperaments: humanistic scholars are naturally animated by a profound respect for the legacy of our past, but all the instincts of political radicals go in the opposite direction. Their natural instinct is to denigrate the past in order to make the case for the sweeping social change that they want. That's why they don't look at the past and see accumulated knowledge and wisdom, but instead only a story of bigotry, inequality and racial and sexual prejudice that needs to be swept aside. Political radicals are interested in the utopian future and in their present-day attempts to achieve it, not the cultural past which must be overcome to get to where they want to be.

Accordingly, they set out to dismantle the humanities curriculum that they saw as standing in the way of radical social change. Freshman core courses that gave an overview of the achievements of Western culture were soon abolished almost everywhere, mandatory courses in this nation's history and institutions went too, and literature departments even stopped requiring that Shakespeare be an essential part of the English literature major. Even when formerly mandatory courses are still offered as options, they are often presented through the lens of a jaundiced view of our cultural past that tends to discourage further study. ....

There was a time when "save the humanities" would have been an appropriate cry, but that was years ago, when they were being dismantled in one department after another and replaced with the intellectual triviality and sheer boredom of endlessly repetitive Marxist identity politics, as cowardly administrators looked on and did nothing. The poverty of intellectual content was masked by an elaborate jargon, but that only made things worse: the remade programs became the laughing stock of their campuses. But now the day of reckoning has arrived. Enrollments have collapsed, to the point where the smaller departments face extinction. Those enrollments are sinking not because students don't value the humanities, but because they do. .... [more]
'Defend the Humanities'--a Dishonest Slogan

A "niceness" problem?

Kevin DeYoung is analyzing his own denominational tradition, but I'm inclined to think this observation, at least, might also apply to mine:
I know you can’t prove these things, but again in my experience, I have seen a niceness and “inbredness” that leads Christians to avoid careful delineation and controversy. The unwritten rule is that he who mentions the problem is the problem. Getting along, maintaining the peace, not rocking the boat is the name of the game. And since there are so many overlapping family relationships (not really inbred of course), controversy is usually avoided at all costs. It’s too easy for family ties to be upset or for close friendship way back from Hope and Calvin days to be threatened. As a result, theological laxity is a huge problem.
Can the Reformed Resurgence Fly in Grand Rapids? – Kevin DeYoung

Monday, November 15, 2010

"One more exact Translation of the holy Scriptures into the English tongue"

One unfortunate reason sometimes offered for not using the King James Version of the Bible is that it is unintelligible to the modern reader. That suggests that the "KJV only" folks are more literate than the rest of us - something I doubt. There are better reasons to use good recent translations - the most important being that they are likely to be based on earlier resources than were available to King James's scholars. But those unfamiliar with the KJV deprive themselves of one of the most important treasures of our literary heritage and that unfamiliarity contributes to our cultural illiteracy. From a review of two books about the Authorized Version, "Long Live the King" by Meghan Duke in First Things:
.... On the eve of its four-hundredth anniversary, Gordon Campbell, a professor of English Renaissance literature at Leicester University, gives us an “affectionate biography” of the KJV. Bible: The Story of the King James Version provides a brief but thorough history of how the KJV came to be, how it changed, and how it came to occupy a preeminent place in the hearts of English-speaking Christians.....

The KJV project was undertaken by six groups of scholars at Westminster, Oxford, and Cambridge. It was, Campbell notes, the most ambitious collaborative translation of the Bible since the seventy elders gathered in Alexandria produced the Septuagint in the third century B.C. Campbell suggests that a collaborative project of a similar size might be unrepeatable today. As he observes, “The population from which scholars can now be drawn is much larger than that of the seventeenth century, but it would be difficult now to bring together a group of more than fifty scholars with the range of languages and knowledge of other disciplines that characterized the KJV translators.” The translators of the Revised Standard Version might contest the point, but it’s perhaps better understood as Campbell’s effort to defend the KJV against those who would dismiss it as the work of the “benighted people of the seventeenth century.” ....

....[T]he King James Version was to become not only the most widely known but also the most beloved English translation of the Bible. Campbell offers several theories as to how this came to be. In the first place, the KJV was the Authorized Version. The title page informed readers that this Bible was “appointed to be read in churches.” While this did not mean that every church had to replace its Bishops’ Bible with a King James Bible, it did mean that, as churches needed to replace their Bibles in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they replaced them with the KJV. It also helped that the most popular alternative to the KJV, the Geneva Bible, was suppressed in England; it went out of print in 1644.

The KJV was introduced to consolidate the already unifying consensus of the English Protestant church by providing a scriptural focal point. It largely succeeded. When dissenting groups such as the Quakers, Methodists, and Baptists separated from the Church of England in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, they took the KJV with them. As a result, the KJV was, for a long time, the Bible read by nearly all English-speaking Protestants.

A more modern reason for the KJV’s popularity has been its aesthetic appeal. The “uncommon beauty and marvelous English of the Protestant Bible...the convert hardly knows how he can forgo,” lamented Catholic convert Frederick William Faber in 1853. The appreciation of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for the KJV’s aesthetic qualities is in many ways odd because the translators’ chief intention was not to produce beautiful prose but to render the original texts as accurately as possible. In fact Tyndale, whose translation heavily influenced the KJV, strove to make Scripture “speaketh after the most grossest manner.”

In Pen of Iron: American Prose and the King James Bible, Robert Alter takes up the ways in which the aesthetic qualities of the KJV were appreciated by and exerted an influence on the prose style of American novelists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Rather than view this deference to the King James Version as a Romantic appreciation of simple, yeoman language to be embraced in spite of the Bible’s religious content, Alter suggests that these authors chose to contend with the language of the KJV in their own writing because of its “set of values” and particular way of “imagining man, God, and history.” To say “chose” is not quite right, however. As Alter points out, Americans from the time of the Pilgrims have been “Bible-steeped, Bible-quoting folk.” If an author does not engage the language of the Bible, he fails to engage the fullness and depth of American life. .... [more, perhaps behind a subscription wall]
Long Live the King

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The industry of worldly wisdom

Algis Valiunas considers the "...vast apparatus of uplift and solicitude [that] services Americans’ longings for ­success and happiness. Self-help, ­positive thinking, actualization, ­motivation, empowerment: the industry of worldly wisdom whirs on like a perpetual-motion dynamo, powered by the consumers’ insatiable compulsion to have it all and to feel good about themselves, and by the purveyors’ confidence that they, at any rate, can indeed have it all, by turning out swill by the boatload and feeding the cravings of the perennially feckless." He does, however, find one school of "self-help" that offers value:
Amid the blather, hokum, and trumpery, there is a sub-genre of self-help lit that represents the traditional granite in the American character, and which proffers hope that not all of our countrymen in a generation or two will be sops or ninnies. For some, the pursuit of happiness remains above all the pursuit of excellence. Three recent books, Geoff Colvin’s Talent Is Overrated, Daniel Coyle’s The Talent Code, and Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers, examine high achievement — literary, musical, business, sporting — down the ages, in the light of recent discoveries in psychology and neurology. What all three writers agree on, despite some obvious ideological differences, is that hard work, so-called deliberate or deep practice, extremely intense and pursued over many years, makes the difference between the remarkable and the less accomplished. Inborn genius, to which we commonly attribute success, is in fact so rare that it doesn’t really figure in the calculations. ....
Valiunas concentrates his attention on Coyle's work and, after a description of its empirical basis, cites a practical application in education:
.... America today tolerates so glaring a disparity between our best schools and our worst largely because we have written off a large portion of our population as too dumb to learn. Underneath an avalanche of cynical excuses for educational failure lies the tacit assumption — left over from the eugenic fantasies of such moral luminaries as Margaret Sanger, Walter Lippmann, and Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes — that generations of inbreeding among the poorest of the poor have produced an inherently unintelligent underclass that will never have what it takes to rise from its misery. Coyle’s most moving chapter describes how this line of thinking has been proved wrong by the astonishing success of the Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, founded in 1993 by a couple of frustrated young teachers, Michael Feinberg and David Levin, in Houston’s inner-city schools. By 2008 there were sixty-six KIPP schools coast to coast, with 16,000 students. KIPP takes children who seem headed for mediocrity or failure — who have little or no hope of ever making it out of the slums — and turns them into exemplary scholars with bright futures.

Generous severity and loving regimentation work wonders. The school day lasts from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., with additional classes every other Saturday. The KIPP school is what Coyle calls “a bastion of deep practice. [Teachers] constantly remind KIPP students that their brains are muscles: the more they work them, the smarter they will get — and there’s plenty of work to do. Two hours of homework a night is standard; worksheets number in the hundreds; the day is filled with stretches of intense silent work.”

KIPP operates on the principle — reinforced by the research findings of Martin Seligman — that self-discipline is more important than IQ in determining academic performance. There is strict instruction in just about everything you can think of: how loudly to talk, how to sit while listening, how to carry your notebook, how much toilet paper to use. Students are brought to understand that they can make their way confidently in the strange world beyond the hood. “College is the spiritus sancti that is invoked hundreds of times each day, not so much as a place as a glowing ideal.” From the lowest rungs of elementary school, KIPP students pay campus visits to colleges, where KIPP alumni offer advice and inspiration. Eighty percent of KIPP students go on to college. Along the way, they learn how to be courteous, considerate young men and women. ....
From Valiunas's concluding paragraph:
In the absence of something better, one appreciates the recent books on achievement, but one wishes for a modern primer in high achievement for the end most worth achieving: a noble character. .... To revive the ancient spirit of competitiveness with regard to high things would be a worthy goal for the American literature of worldly counsel. For now, however, even the best purveyors of functional wisdom offer less than we really need. And as for the rest, there is pap from sea to shining sea, of wanton avarice, or diaphanous lunacy, or simpleton dullness. One fears for a nation awash in this drivel. One longs for a practical democratic philosopher to save us from drowning in it. (more)
The New Atlantis » The Science of Self-Help

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Trains on film

I like trains. I'm not as fanatic about them as some of my best friends, but I do like trains. If I have the time and the money, and if trains go where I need to go, I will take the train. And there have been a lot of good movies involving trains, too. From "Closely Watched Trains: Memorable Movies on the Rails," a selected few of those:
...[L]et's take a scenic journey aboard some of the most memorable movies in which trains played scene-stealing roles. (The Polar Express is not on this list. Those dead-eyed children give me the creeps). ....

Trainspotting with Hitch — Trains loom large in the Hitchcock ouvre. In The Lady Vanishes, a globe-trotting socialite meets a sweet old lady who mysteriously disappears aboard a train full of eccentrics and sinister types. A diabolical "criss-cross" double-murder plot is hatched between two Strangers on a Train. It is a train belching death-black smoke that delivers a serial killer to quaint Santa Rosa, CA in Shadow of a Doubt, and it's on a Chicago-bound train that femme fatale (or is she?) Eva Marie Saint seduces ad man on the run Cary Grant in North by Northwest. ....

Murder on the Orient Express — Bacall, Bergman, Bisset. And that's just the Bs. A star-studded cast headed by Albert Finney stars in this classy whodunit based on Agatha Christie's classic Hercule Poirot mystery.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three — Accept no remakes. This crackerjack '70s thriller stars Walter Matthau as a Transit Authority officer who matches wits with Robert Shaw, whose color-coded gang has commandered a New York subway train and is demanding a million dollar ransom. .... [and many more]
Armchair Commentary: Closely Watched Trains: Memorable Movies on the Rails

Friday, November 12, 2010

The worst system, except for all the others

Considering a statement Tolkien once wrote that his "...political opinions lean more and more to Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning the abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs)—or to ‘unconstitutional’ Monarchy....," David B. Hart reflects on how unsatisfying the democratic system can be even when things go your way:
.... Last week, as I watched the waves of the Republican electoral counterinsurgency washing across the heartland, and falling back only at the high littoral shelves of the Pacific coast and the Northeast, I found myself reflecting on what a devil’s bargain electoral democracy is. These occasional bloodless bloodbaths are deeply satisfying at some emotional level, whatever one’s party affiliations, because they remind us of what a rare luxury it is to have the right and the power periodically to evict politicians from office.

But, as is always the case here below in the regio dissimilitudinis, the pleasure is accompanied by an inevitable quantum of pain. The sweetest wine quaffed from the cup of bliss comes mingled with a bitter draft of sorrow (alas, alack). Tragically—tragically—we can remove one politician only by replacing him or her with another. And then, of course, our choices are excruciatingly circumscribed, since the whole process is dominated by two large and self-interested political conglomerates that are far better at gaining power than at exercising it wisely.

And yet we must choose, one way or the other. Even the merry recreant who casts no vote at all, or flings a vote away onto the midden of some third party as a protest, is still making a choice with consequences, however small. And none of the other political systems on offer in the modern world are alternatives that any sane person would desire; so we cannot just eradicate our political class altogether and hope for the best (anyway, who would clean up afterward?).

Yes, I know: there are good and sincere souls who run for office, and some occasionally get in, and a few of those are then able to accomplish something with the position they assume, and some of those even remain faithful to the convictions that got them there. But, lest we forget, those are also the politicians who often create the greatest mischief. Sincerity, after all, is not the same as wisdom.

A cynical poltroon of infinitely pliable principles is in many cases less a threat to liberty, justice, or peace than someone whose mind has been corrupted with “high” ideals or (worse yet) high ideas. As for all the others, the great majority of politicians—well, bear with me here for a moment. ....
Anarcho-Monarchism | First Things

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tough, patriotic, and a believer

Andrew Klavan, in an interview, explained what he was trying to do with his Homelander series of books:
...[I]f you want to tell a story that cool, you can’t preach and you can’t hammer people with your point of view, so I decided, okay, I just want to change the rules of the game, that’s all. Instead of the usual alienated teen, or the wimpy guy who finds a magical sword, I’m gonna make my hero the kind of hero I like to read about: a manly guy who loves America, believes in God and is ready to fight for liberty if he has to. I thought, in the current climate, that alone would be revolutionary.
The third book in the series, The Truth of the Matter, was published at the beginning of this month. From Lars Walker's review:
.... “Extreme” describes The Truth Of the Matter well—not in the sense of extreme shock content or extreme edginess, but in the sense of action that never slackens, but constantly ratchets up the dramatic tension. Poor Charlie barely gets a chance to grab a nap or anything to eat through the whole story. Wherever he turns, he’s got enemies on his tail. The premise isn’t terribly realistic, but that’s the whole point. This roller coaster of a story isn’t intended to give you time to consider its plausibility. The only drawback is that it’s so compelling that it’s hard to stretch the reading of it longer than a day and a half or so, and you want more. On the other hand, Charlie’s earned some rest.
Somewhere in the Bible—I couldn’t remember where just then—it says you’re supposed to be happy about the hard things that happen to you, you’re supposed to be grateful for the “trials” you go through because they test your faith and harden your endurance. Well, I definitely wasn’t happy—or grateful. The truth is: I was angry, ticked off to the maximum. I was sick of trials, sick of being tested. I was eighteen, for crying out loud. I was supposed to be getting ready for college. I was supposed to be with my girl. I was supposed to be preparing for life. It wasn’t fair that things should be so hard for me, so dangerous. It wasn’t fair that there was no one to help me, that God wouldn’t help me, that I was all alone. I wanted my life back, my ordinary life. I wanted to go home. It wasn’t fair.
This is the third volume in the Homelanders series (which, as I understand it, will be four books long). Charlie, who woke up at the beginning of the first book shackled to a metal chair in a torture chamber, unable to remember the entire previous year of his life, has been following up every lead he can think of ever since, to learn why a secret terrorist group is after him, and why the police think he murdered his best friend. In this volume, at last, he starts to get some answers, and his memory starts to return. Unfortunately, this does not necessarily make him safer.

But he’s a tough kid. Tough, and patriotic, and a believer. Just the kind of guy you want your own kid to hang out with. .... [more]
I've recommended this series before. Although the intended readership is young males, Klavan is so good at writing action and suspense that I read the entire thing in a couple of sittings and I don't really want to wait a year for the final volume. If you decide to read them, it is important to read them in order: The Last Thing I Remember, The Long Way Home, and then The Truth of the Matter.

Touchstone Magazine - Mere Comments: Book Review: The Truth Of the Matter, by Andrew Klavan

The eleventh hour

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Not that there's anything wrong with that

Via Instapundit:
“At the request of the university’s Muslim Students’ Association, George Washington began offering a once-weekly, female-only swim hour in March. But it only recently turned into an online debate over issues of religious and sexual discrimination and — though not always explicitly — racism, spurred by an article in the student newspaper, The GW Hatchet.”

UPDATE: From the comments: “Out of curiosity, if this hour had been demanded by Christian women, would it have even been considered?” No, but it would have been mocked. Stupid backward Christianists!
As it happens I think the university's willingness to accommodate the Muslim students is laudable but perhaps the right action for the wrong reason — I suspect the comment raises the right question.

Instapundit » Blog Archive » RELIGIOUS ACCOMMODATION MAKES WAVES: “At the request of the university’s Muslim Students’ Assoc…

Hard times come again no more

Via RightWingBob.com, Mavis Staples singing Stephen Foster's "Hard Times Come Again No More." It's a fine version, even if the creator of the YouTube felt his illustrations needed to apotheosize the New Deal.

I earlier posted a version by Bob Dylan which I also found via Right Wing Bob's excellent site, but which has apparently been removed at the demand of Sony.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Defend us this day

O Lord, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day; Defend us in the same with Thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings, being ordered by Thy governance, may be righteous in Thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Friday, November 5, 2010

You Are Not Alone

Via RightWingBob.com, Mavis Staples: You Are Not Alone:

The songs on the CD:
  1. Don t Knock Listen
  2. You Are Not Alone
  3. Downward Road
  4. In Christ There Is No East Or West
  5. Creep Along Moses
  6. Losing You Listen
  7. I Belong To The Band Hallelujah
  8. Last Train
  9. Only The Lord Knows
  10. Wrote A Song For Everyone
  11. We're Gonna Make It
  12. Wonderful Savior
  13. Too Close To Heaven

"Priests to one another...."

Christianity Today reports on a controversy among Baptists about how to handle one of our most distinctive characteristics:
Warning to Baptists: fighting words to follow, including "creeds," "confessions," and "individual vs. congregational authority."

The subject of long-standing debates in Baptist circles is gaining renewed attention as the North Carolina chapter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) revises its foundational statement.

BF is a national alliance of 1,900 moderate Baptist congregations that broke from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1991, in part because of concerns that the SBC was becoming too authoritative—"too creedal" and "too Catholic," as some complained.

In a section titled "Priesthood of All Believers," CBF North Carolina currently affirms "the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply Scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit" without creeds or clergy control. The revision replaces that section with this: "We confess that the Christian faith is best understood and experienced within the community of God's people who are called to be priests to one another …." ....

The new statement includes the Apostles' Creed, an early statement of Christian belief used for liturgical and teaching purposes. "It is included not as a matter of coercion or discipline, but as a way for [us] to express [our] connection with Christians throughout the ages," said Larry Hovis, CBF North Carolina's executive coordinator. ....[more]
See "The priesthood of all believers"

Challenging Individualism | Christianity Today | A Magazine of Evangelical Conviction

"With God on our side..."

Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, warned that "Our task should not be to invoke religion and the name of God by claiming God's blessing and endorsement for all our national policies and practices—saying, in effect, that God is on our side. Rather, we should pray and worry earnestly whether we are on God's side."

Standpoint gives us a lecture by Michael Burleigh, author of The Third Reich: A New History, Sacred Causes: The Clash of Religion and Politics, from the Great War to the War on Terror, and Moral Combat: A History of World War II, among others. The lecture is given the title "Is God on Our Side? Morality in World War Two," in which he discusses various aspects of the uses of religion in that war.  Excerpts:
.... The Old Testament presumption that God was on one's side was universal during the Second World War, although the churches toned down the sort of militancy they had espoused in 1914-18. Just consider Churchill's account of divine service aboard HMS Prince of Wales on August 10, 1941, where he and Roosevelt agreed the Atlantic Charter. ....

...[H]ere is what he wrote about the service: "I chose the hymns myself — For those in Peril on the Sea and Onward Christian Soldiers. We ended with O God, Our Help in Ages Past, which Macaulay reminds us the Ironsides chanted as they bore John Hampden's body to the grave. Every word seemed to stir the heart. It was a great hour to live." Similarly, most of us know about the variant communiqué Eisenhower carried in his wallet on June 5, 1944, the unread one admitting blame for the failure of the D-Day landings. Few can probably recall the wording of the D-Day Prayer which the Episcopalian President Roosevelt broadcast as the invasion got under way: "Almighty God: Our sons, pride of our nation, this day have set upon a mighty endeavour, a struggle to preserve our Republic, our religion, and our civilisation, and to set free a suffering humanity...With thy blessing we shall prevail over the unholy forces of our enemy. Help us to conquer the apostles of greed and racial arrogances." ....

The third element of the Grand Alliance, the Soviet Union, was forced by necessity to abandon militant atheism and to allow a deeply nationalist Orthodox Church some slack as part of the drive to mobilise Russia's resources. It is well known, for example, that the Dmitri Donskoi monastery raised funds for a tank brigade, but maybe less familiar that the last issue of Bezbozhnik, the paper of the League of the Militant Godless, was devoted to denouncing Nazi persecution of the Protestant and Catholic Churches. Bezbozhnik disappeared on the grounds of "paper shortages." ....

Every German soldier (except for the SS) had "Gott mit uns" inscribed on his belt buckle. Himmler preferred his men to be God-believing for without belief there could be no fanaticism, while atheism would elide Nazism with communism in ways that were politically unhelpful.

The regime grew out of a political movement which had significantly mobilised north German Protestants, despite its leader being an Austrian lapsed Catholic who had become a German citizen only in 1932. That is not to say there were not Catholic Nazis, but merely that the latter were more heavily invested in Weimar through the Centre Party, which was vital to all the Republic's coalitions. Popes Pius XI and XII deplored all forms of totalitarianism and practised neutrality in wartime, with a pronounced tilt to the Allied side as Nazi barbarity became unmistakable.

Much of the Nazi movement's domestic political pitch derived from its claim to be remoralising German society after the decadent Weimar Republic. Hitler repeatedly claimed to be "doing the Lord's work" or to see God's Will in his own actions. In fact, like communists, the Nazis deified an historical mechanism, in their case pitiless racialism rather than dialectical materialism. This was camouflaged in a redemptive national myth, with Hitler, rather than a saviour social class, at the centre of an idolatrous Führer cult. Although the Nazis gave full vent to anticlericalism, they were also certain that sooner rather than later science would triumph and abstained from physically wiping the churches out. None of which should excuse clergy from both major German denominations for blessing, from afar or in the field, the invasion of the Soviet Union as a crusade against godless Bolshevism, a task made easier by Hitler's restoration of religious institutions in the occupied territories. .... (more)
Is God on Our Side? Morality in World War Two | Standpoint

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

To the Lord your God

I am reading a little book by Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath. Winner is a convert from Judaism. From the introduction:
It is now going on seven years since I converted from Judaism to Christianity, and I am still in that blissed-out newlywed stage in which you can't believe your good fortune and you know that this person (in this case Jesus) whom you have chosen (or, in this case, who has chosen you) is the best person on the whole planet and you wouldn't take all the tea in China or a winning Lotto ticket or even a nice country estate in exchange.

Still, I miss Jewish ways. I miss the rhythms and routines that drew the sacred down into the everyday. I miss Sabbaths on which I actually rested. I have even found that I miss the drudgery of keeping kosher. I miss the work these practices effected between me and God. ....
The book is about those "spiritual practices" she misses and believes have value for Christians. Again, from the introduction:
All religions have spiritual practices. Buddhists burn sage and meditate. Muslims avail themselves of their prayer rugs. Christian tradition has developed a wealth of practices, too: fasting, almsgiving, vigil-keeping, confessing, meditating. True enough, Christians in America—especially Protestants in America—have not historically practiced those practices with much discipline, but that is beginning to change. in churches and homes everywhere people are increasingly interested in doing Christianity, not just speaking or believing it. Here is the place where so-called Jewish-Christian relations become practical. if the church wants to grow in its attendance to, in its doing of things for the God of Israel, we might want to take a few tips from the Jewish community.

There are, of course, some key differences between how Jews and Christians understand the doing of practice (differences that are perhaps most succinctly captured with Paul's words: "Christ, and him crucified"). The Jewish practices I wish to translate into a Christian idiom are binding upon Jews. Jews are obligated to fulfill the particularities of Mosaic law. They don't light Sabbath candles simply because candles make them feel close to God, but because God commanded the lighting of candles: Closeness might be a nice by-product, but it is not the point.

Christians will understand candle-lighting a little differently. Spiritual practices don't justify us. They don't save us. Rather, they refine our Christianity; they make the inheritance Christ gives us on the Cross more fully our own. The spiritual disciplines—such as regular prayer, and fasting, and tithing, and attentiveness to our bodies—can form us as Christians throughout our lives. Are we obligated to observe these disciplines? Not generally, no. Will they get us into heaven? They will not.

Practicing the spiritual disciplines does not make us Christians. Instead, the practicing teaches us what it means to live as Christians. (There is an etymological clue here—discipline is related to the word disciple.) The ancient disciplines form us to respond to God, over and over always, in gratitude, in obedience, and in faith. Herewith, a small book of musings on and explorations in those practices. ....
In the first chapter Winner discusses "shabbat/sabbath" [now, for her as for most Christians, Sunday] and what it is that seems lacking:
.... After all, I did spend Sunday morning in church. And I wasn't working that afternoon, not exactly.

A fine few hours, except that my Sunday was more an afternoon off than a Sabbath. It was an add-on to a busy week, not the fundamental unit around which I organized my life. The Hebrew word for holy means, literally, "set apart." In failing to live a Sabbath truly distinct from weekly time, I had violated a most basic command: to keep the Sabbath holy.

I am not suggesting that Christians embrace the strict regulations of the Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. Indeed, the New Testament unambiguously inaugurates a new understanding of Shabbat. In his epistles, Paul makes clear that the Sabbath, like other external signs of piety, is insufficient for salvation. As he writes in his letter to the Colossians, "Therefore do not let anyone judge you. . . with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ." And Jesus, when rebuked by the Pharisees for plucking grain from a field on Shabbat, criticizes those who would make a fetish of Sabbath observance, insisting that "the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath."

But there is something, in the Jewish Sabbath that is absent from most Christian Sundays: a true cessation from the rhythms of work and world, a time wholly set apart, and, perhaps above all, a sense that the point of Shabbat, the orientation of Shabbat, is toward God. ....

.... In observing the Sabbath, one is both giving a gift to God and imitating Him. Exodus and Deuteronomy make this clear when they say, "Six days shall you labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God." To the Lord your God.
The chapters:
  • shabbat/sabbath
  • kashrut/fitting food
  • avelut/mourning
  • hachnassat orchim/hospitality
  • tefillah/prayer
  • guf/body
  • tzum/fasting
  • hiddur p'nai zaken/aging
  • hadlakat nerot/candle-lighting
  • kiddushin/weddings
  • mezuzot/doorposts
Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Drifting in the stream

Joseph Epstein, in the current issue of Commentary, an essay about T.S. Eliot's life, art, and criticism. There was a time when this literary figure had the status of celebrity: "The fame Eliot achieved in his lifetime is unfathomable for a poet, or indeed any American or English writer, in our day. In 1956, Eliot lectured on 'The Function of Criticism' in a gymnasium at the University of Minnesota to a crowd estimated at 15,000 people." In our day, this would be even more remarkable for someone who defined himself as “Anglo-Catholic in religion, classicist in literature, and royalist in politics.” Epstein concludes with Eliot's assessment of "literary culture," the health of which has only deteriorated since:
...[L]iterary culture is, I believe, shutting down chiefly because literature itself has become unimportant: what is being created in contemporary novels, poems, and plays no longer speaks to the heart or mind.

Eliot spoke to this point, too. He did so most incisively in his essay “Religion and Literature.” There Eliot reminds us that the “greatness of literature cannot be determined solely by literary standards.” Ethical, theological, and moral standards must contribute to such determinations. Criticism can only be effective where there is agreement on these other standards, and in his day, he claimed, “there is no common agreement.” If an arguable proposition about Eliot’s day, it is unarguable in our own.

Eliot held that “moral judgments of literary works are made only according to the moral code accepted by each generation.” Obviously the code changes from generation to generation. Some take this regular change as equivalent to progress, as over the generations we jollily make our way to perfectibility. For Eliot, such regular change “is only evidence of what insubstantial foundations people’s moral judgments have.” He also believed that “those who read at all, read so many more books by living authors than books by dead authors; there was never a time so completely parochial, so shut off from the past.”

Writers, in his view, tend to be not much better than general readers: “The majority of novelists are persons drifting in the stream, only a little faster. They have some sensitiveness, but little intellect.” He doesn’t speak of poets, but, considering the vast quantity of them being turned out by contemporary MFA programs, he could scarcely have thought the poets of our time as other than in an equally irrelevant stream of their own.

For Eliot, literature was a moral enterprise, but moral in a way that purely secular moralists—the moralists of economics, of social science, of contemporary politics—cannot hope to grasp. He wasn’t accusing modern writers of immorality, or even amorality, but of ignorance “of our most fundamental and important beliefs; and that in consequence [contemporary literature’s] tendency is to encourage its readers to get what they can out of life while it lasts, to miss no ‘experience’ that presents itself, and to sacrifice themselves, if they make any sacrifice at all, only for the sake of tangible benefits to others in this world either now or in the future.” Not, any of this, good enough. .... [more - probably behind a subscription wall]
T.S. Eliot and the Demise of the Literary Culture

Monday, November 1, 2010

"The present now will later be past"

Right Wing Bob responds to a blog post arguing that Bob Dylan's “The Times They Are a-Changing” is "a really dumb song" that seems a "self-serving charter for liberating oneself not only from one’s parents but from all they metaphorically represent....":
The song is a reflection on the reality and the irony of the fact that the times are always changing, and in this they never change. The constancy of human nature in a fallen world is a fundamental and persistent theme in Bob Dylan’s work. It is no accident that the last line of the song, before the final refrain, is from the Bible (“the first one now will later be last”). The Bible is Dylan’s nearest and dearest touchstone. ....

I would recommend listening to the elegiac rendition of the song which Bob Dylan delivered early this year at the White House. It was not the more triumphalist version which some in that audience may have been expecting to hear. I think that the performance underlines some of the points I made above, albeit in a rather more unspeakable and beautiful way. ....

RightWingBob.com » Times Changing

All Saints' Day

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
(Heb 12:1-2, ESV)