Friday, May 31, 2013

A new canon?

Ben Dueholm, in "A new canon, created by 19 people," wonders why a New, New Testament:
.... I have no doubt that Taussig and his collaborators had the purest and most honest of intentions. But they convened a self-selected, self-authorized “council” of spiritual savants for the purpose of revising a canon along explicitly ideological lines. Shouldn’t it have occurred to someone that this amounts to a sort of parody of the conspiracy-theory version of early church history?

.... Even Dan Brown’s fantasized version of Nicaea was more populous and cosmopolitan.

This impulse to re-open the work of the Christian past is very curious. In the church and in the world, we are liable to adopt a stance of instinctive scorn and superiority toward the people from whom we inherit our books and traditions. We even imagine that our mighty critical methods allow us to see the early centuries of the Christian movement with more clarity than Augustine or Athanasius.

It’s an unfortunate irony that this temporal imperialism is most evident in those parts of the church that are otherwise highly attuned to the marginalization of oppressed communities. These are the ages in which the most authoritative, central texts became a matter of consensus, however chaotically. Why not allow them to have done their work? Whence this desire to lecture and correct the dead? ....

Of the making of spiritual resources there is no end and was never meant to be. After all, if the point of this project is to “bring new relevance to a dynamic tradition,” why content ourselves with ancient texts at all? A truly “new” New Testament should have some real, Audenesque literary trajectories. I recommend Augustine’s Confessions, Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison for starters. I’d like to see Julian of Norwich in there, too. It wouldn’t even require the approval of a council. [more]

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Praying and singing the Psalms

Via Michael Bird at Patheos, N.T. Wright on the Psalms in worship:
In some parts of contemporary Christianity the Psalms are no longer used in daily and weekly worship. This is so not least at points where there has been remarkable growth in numbers and energy, not least through the charismatic movements in various denominations. The enormously popular ‘worship songs’, some of which use phrases from the Psalms here and there but most of which do not, have largely displaced, for thousands of regular and enthusiastic worshippers, the steady rhythm and deep soul-searching of the Psalms themselves. This, I believe, is a great impoverishment. By all means write new songs. Each generation must do that. But to neglect the church’s original hymn-book is crazy. .... The Psalms represent the Bible’s own spiritual root system for the great tree we call Christianity. You don’t have to be a horticultural genius to know what will happen to the fruit on the tree if the roots are not in good condition.

But I’m not writing simply to say, ‘These are important songs which we should use, and which we should try to understand.’ That is true, but it puts the emphasis the wrong way round – as though the Psalms were the problem, and we should try to fit them, whether they like it or not, into our world. Actually, again and again it is we, muddled and puzzled and half-believing, who are the problem; and the question is more how we can find our way into their world, into the faith and hope which shine out in one Psalm after another.

As with all thoughtful Christian worship, there is a humility about this approach. Good liturgy, whether formal or informal, ought never to be simply a corporate emoting session, however ‘Christian’, but a fresh and awed attempt to inhabit the great unceasing liturgy which is going on all the time in the heavenly realms. (That’s what those great chapters, Revelation 4 and 5, are all about.) The Psalms offer us a way of joining in a chorus of praise and prayer which has been going on for millennia, and across all cultures. Not to try to inhabit them, while continuing to invent non-Psalmic ‘worship’ based on our own feelings of the moment, risks being like a spoilt child who, taken to the summit of Table Mountain with the city and the ocean spread out before him, refuses to gaze at the view because he is playing with his Game Boy.
...[T]he regular praying and singing of the Psalms is transformative. It changes the way we understand some of the deepest elements of who we are. Or rather, who, where, when and what we are: we are creatures of space, time and matter, and though we take our normal understandings of these for granted it is my suggestion that the Psalms will gently but firmly transform our understandings of all of them. They do this in order that we may be changed, transformed, so that we look at the world, one another, and ourselves in a radically different way, which we believe to be God’s way. I hope my exposition of these themes will help to explain and communicate my own enthusiasm for the Psalms, but I hope even more that they will encourage those churches that have lost touch with the Psalms to go back to them as soon as possible, and those that use them but with little grasp of what they’re about to get inside them in a new way.

From the introduction of N.T. Wright's The Case for the Psalms

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Were the Middle Ages dark?

Not really, argues Anthony Esolen:

Tom Swift

The Stratemeyer Syndicate published books for the children's market. Their book series were mostly published under pseudonyms—the writers would receive an outline from the syndicate and be paid a set fee. The series were very successful including The Bobbsey Twins, The Hardy Boys (1927—), supposedly written by "Franklin W. Dixon," and the Nancy Drew (1930—) books by "Carolyn Keene." So far as I know they continue to be published today, updated to make contemporary the technology, slang, etc. At one point I think I owned all of one of the later incarnations of the Hardy Boys mysteries, including a volume instructing—among many other useful detecting skills—how to go about writing secret messages and how to tail a suspect undetected (although I have no doubt our practice of the latter looked strange on the empty sidewalks of Milton, Wisconsin).

A good friend of mine who was more interested in science fiction than I was had many of the Tom Swift books by "Victor Appleton." That series began earlier — in 1910 — and titles have continued to appear into this century. Some of the originals are now available free, as ebooks, from

Wikipedia describes the books thus:
In his various incarnations, Tom Swift, usually in his teens, is inventive and science-minded, "Swift by name and swift by nature." Tom is portrayed as a natural genius. In the earlier series, he is said to have had little formal education, the character originally modeled after such figures as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss. In most of the five series, each book focuses on Tom's latest invention, and its role either in solving a problem or mystery, or in assisting Tom in feats of exploration or rescue. Often Tom must protect his new invention from villains "intent on stealing Tom's thunder or preventing his success," but Tom is always successful in the end.
I am sometimes in the mood for something entirely undemanding and, if it also instructs about what entertained kids in another time, that interests the historian in me. I haven't read one of these yet, but the cover pictures alone tempt me.

Monday, May 27, 2013

To the living

President Lincoln's "Letter to Fanny McCullough," a teenage girl, whose father, a friend of the President's, had been killed in battle:
Executive Mansion, Washington, December 23, 1862.

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend

A. Lincoln
This letter is one of many entries collected by Leon and Amy Kass for "The Meaning of Memorial Day" which can also be downloaded as a pdf.

Adam Keiper at NRO on the collection:
.... The little book is a treasure, including such gems as Major Sullivan Ballou’s deeply touching letter to his wife just days before he died at the First Battle of Bull Run; war correspondent Ernie Pyle’s recollections of the ways that young soldiers in the Second World War were transformed by the experience of killing; and President Reagan’s 1986 Memorial Day remarks at Arlington National Cemetery, which include a stirring tribute to the service of veterans of the Vietnam War. John McCrae’s classic poem “In Flanders Fields” is also in the book, as are poems and stories from Longfellow, Melville, Alcott, and Henry James. Rutherford B. Hayes’s impromptu remarks upon the unveiling of a soldier’s monument in Dayton, Ohio are a deeply moving, underappreciated piece of American oratory.

Each of the readings in the book is preceded by questions that seek to illuminate its important points, making the e-book especially suitable for classroom use, or for inquiring minds of any age. This is a worthy addition to the other volumes in the Kasses’ series and their larger project to give expression to our civic sentiments and patriotic feelings — and on this special day of the year, to help “us the living” find ways of expressing our gratitude to those who died serving our country.
What So Proudly We Hail's purpose:
What does it mean to be an American? What do we have in common, and what unites us? What do we look up to and revere? For what are we willing to fight and to sacrifice? And finally, how can we produce good citizens?

...[U]nlike other efforts to improve civic knowledge and virtue, it assumes that developing robust American citizens is a matter of the heart as well as the mind, and requires more than approving our lofty principles or knowing our history and institutions. Making citizens requires educating the moral imagination and sentiments, and developing fitting habits of the heart—matters both displayed in and nurtured by our great works of imaginative literature and rhetoric. For these reasons, What So Proudly We Hail takes a literary approach to making citizens, centering on classic American short stories. ....
Memorial Day Lesson Plans -- What So Proudly We Hail

Ancient wisdom: Aesop

There are several editions of Aesop's Fables at I was surprised at how many of the familiar morals I remembered having forgotten their source. The volume I've linked doesn't include illustrations but there are many online that do including this one from which I appropriated those below.

The Wolf and the Lamb.

A Wolf, meeting with a Lamb astray from the fold, resolved not to lay violent hands on him, but to find some plea, which should justify to the Lamb himself his right to eat him. He then addressed him: "Sirrah, last year you grossly insulted me." "Indeed," bleated the Lamb in a mournful tone of voice, "I was not then born." Then said the Wolf: "You feed in my pasture." "No, good sir," replied the Lamb, "I have not yet tasted grass." Again said the Wolf: "You drink of my well." "No," exclaimed the Lamb, "I never yet drank water, for as yet my mother's milk is both food and drink to me." On which the Wolf seized him, and ate him up, saying: "Well! I won't remain supperless, even though you refute every one of my imputations."

The tyrant will always find a pretext for his tyranny, and it is useless for the innocent to try by reasoning to get justice, when the oppressor intends to be unjust.

The Lion and the Mouse.

A Lion was awakened from sleep by a Mouse running over his face. Rising up in anger, he caught him and was about to kill him, when the Mouse piteously entreated, saying: "If you would only spare my life, I would be sure to repay your kindness." The Lion laughed and let him go. It happened shortly after this that the Lion was caught by some hunters, who bound him by strong ropes to the ground. The Mouse, recognizing his roar, came up and gnawed the rope with his teeth, and, setting him free, exclaimed: "You ridiculed the idea of my ever being able to help you, not expecting to receive from me any repayment of your favor; but now you know that it is possible for even a Mouse to confer benefits on a Lion."

No one is too weak to do good.

The North Wind and the Sun.

The North Wind and the Sun disputed which was the more powerful, and agreed that he should be declared the victor who could first strip a wayfaring man of his clothes. The North Wind first tried his power, and blew with all his might; but the keener became his blasts, the closer the Traveler wrapped his cloak around him, till at last, resigning all hope of victory, he called upon the Sun to see what he could do. The Sun suddenly shone out with all his warmth. The Traveler no sooner felt his genial rays than he took off one garment after another, and at last, fairly overcome with heat, undressed, and bathed in a stream that lay in his path.

Persuasion is better than Force.

The Dog in the Manger.
A Dog lay in a manger, and by his growling and snapping prevented the oxen from eating the hay which had been placed for them. "What a selfish Dog!" said one of them to his companions; "he cannot eat the hay himself, and yet refuses to allow those to eat who can."

We should not deprive others of blessings because we cannot enjoy them ourselves.

The Shepherd's Boy and Wolf.
A Shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, "Wolf! Wolf!" and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains. The Wolf, however, did truly come at last. The Shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: "Pray, do come and help me; the Wolf is killing the sheep;" but no one paid any heed to his cries.

There is no believing a liar, even when he speaks the truth.

The Fox and the Hedgehog.

A Fox, while crossing over a river, was driven by the stream into a narrow gorge, and lay there for a long time unable to get out, covered with myriads of horse-flies that had fastened themselves upon him. A Hedgehog, who was wandering in that direction, saw him, and taking compassion on him, asked him if he should drive away the flies that were so tormenting him. But the Fox begged him to do nothing of the sort. "Why not?" asked the Hedgehog. "Because," replied the Fox, "these flies that are upon me now are already full, and draw but little blood, but should you remove them, a swarm of fresh and hungry ones will come, who will not leave a drop of blood in my body."

When we throw off rulers or dependents, who have already made the most of us, we do but, for the most part, lay ourselves open to others, who will make us bleed yet more freely.

"If one person smiles at me...."

An article in The Daily Beast/Newsweek, "The Suicide Epidemic" by Tony Dokoupil, centers on the research of Thomas Joiner. Suicide is increasing, now accounting for greater mortality than war, murder, and "the forces of nature" combined. The Church needs to face up to this not least because it can do something about the isolation and despair that are major factors in determining who will try to kill themselves. We can offer hope—which is the opposite of despair—and affirm the importance of each person in the eyes of God and to each other (1 John 3:11-18).  From the article:
.... Why do people die by suicide? Because they want to. Because they can. Dozens of risk factors banged down to a formula he shared with me in his office: “People will die by suicide when they have both the desire to die and the ability to die.
....a set of three overlapping conditions that combine to create a dark alley of the soul. ...[W]hat’s alarming is that each condition itself isn’t extreme or unusual, and the combined suicidal state of mind is not unfathomably psychotic. On the contrary, suicide’s Venn diagram is composed of circles we all routinely step in, or near, never realizing we are in the deadly center until it’s too late. Joiner’s conditions of suicide are the conditions of everyday life.

He calls the first “low belonging,” and it’s the most intuitive idea in his formula. Joiner argues that “the desire to die” begins with loneliness, a thwarted need for inclusion and connection. That explains why suicide rates rise by a third on the continuum from married to never been married. It also accords with the fact that divorced people suffer the greatest suicide risk, while twins have reduced risk and mothers of small children have close to the lowest risk. A mother of six has six times the protection of her childless counterpart, according to one study. She may die of work and worry, but not of self-harm.

The need to belong is so strong, Joiner says, that it sometimes expresses itself even in death. “I’m walking to the bridge,” begins a Golden Gate Bridge suicide note he cites. “If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.” The writer jumped. He was alone, and so are more of the rest of us. Unattached is the new fancy-free, a strategy for success that translates to later marriages, easier divorces, fewer kids, and a tendency to keep running toward the next horizon, skipping family dinner in the process. ....

Joiner calls his second condition “burdensomeness,” and it may be as emotionally intuitive as loneliness. When people see themselves as effective—as providers for their families, resources for their friends, contributors to the world—they maintain the will to live. When they lose that view of themselves, when it curdles into a feeling of liability, the desire to die takes root. We need each other, but if we feel we are failing those we need, the choice is clear. We’d rather be dead.

This explains why suicides rise with unemployment, and also with the number of days a person has been on bed rest. Just the experience of needing and receiving help from friends—rather than doing for oneself and others—can make a person pine for death. .... (more)

Neither pity nor compassion, but resolve

Walter Russel Mead on Memorial Day, 2013:
The famous poem by the Canadian John McCrae commemorates the dead from the terrible trench warfare battles of World War One, but it is worth remembering today, as Americans...are putting their lives on the line in another country where poppies bloom.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
What makes this poem so memorable, I think, is that it doesn’t just see the soldiers as victims. Their lives are more than a tragic waste; we have not done our duty by them if we simply bewail their deaths and move on.

These soldiers were there for a reason; like the Americans who fought for the Union in our Civil War, they were fighting for a cause that was bigger than they were, that was worthy of the sacrifice they made. Those who die for freedom, or to protect their homes and families from invaders and aggression cannot be pitied and dismissed as victims. They must be honored and respected as warriors, as men whose service ennobled them and calls forth an answering sense of dedication among the living. ....

Pity and compassion can be noble emotions, but wallowing in these feelings is not what Memorial Day should be about. Our duty to the fallen is not just one of remembrance, or of caring for the wounded or those the warriors left behind. We also owe a debt of emulation: to continue to fight and if necessary to die for the great causes of our time. To fight an ideology of hatred that masks itself as religion is a noble and a generous thing to do; those who give their lives in the fight against this great evil are not victims. They are heroes, and they deserve to be remembered as such. .... [more]

Sunday, May 26, 2013


From US Memorial Day:
...[I]n July 1862, after the Seven Days battles at Harrison's Landing (near Richmond), Virginia, the wounded Commander of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, V Army Corps, Army of the Potomac, General Daniel Butterfield reworked, with his bugler Oliver Wilcox Norton, another bugle call, "Scott Tattoo," to create Taps. He thought that the regular call for Lights Out was too formal. Taps was adopted throughout the Army of the Potomac and finally confirmed by orders. Soon other Union units began using Taps, and even a few Confederate units began using it as well. After the war, Taps became an official bugle call. Col. James A. Moss, in his Officer's Manual first published in 1911, gives an account of the initial use of Taps at a military funeral:
"During the Peninsular Campaign in 1862, a soldier of Tidball's Battery A of the 2nd Artillery was buried at a time when the battery occupied an advanced position concealed in the woods. It was unsafe to fire the customary three volleys over the grave, on account of the proximity of the enemy, and it occurred to Capt. Tidball that the sounding of Taps would be the most appropriate ceremony that could be substituted."
And from TAPS: "There are no official words to the music but here are some of the more popular verses":

Day is done, gone the sun,
From the hills, from the lake,
From the sky.
All is well, safely rest,
God is nigh.
Fades the light; And afar
Goeth day, And the stars
Shineth bright,
Fare thee well; Day has gone,
Night is on.
Go to sleep, peaceful sleep,
May the soldier or sailor,
God keep.
On the land or the deep,
Safe in sleep.
Thanks and praise, For our days,
'Neath the sun, Neath the stars,
'Neath the sky,
As we go, This we know,
God is nigh.
Love, good night, Must thou go,
When the day, And the night
Need thee so?
All is well. Speedeth all
To their rest.

"If you love me..."

.... In the historic religious smorgasbord of works-based religious choices, Christianity remains the only grace-based option. While other religious moral systems encourage adherents to behave well because someone is watching and evaluating your merit, Christianity alone removes this driving factor related to salvation. Christianity is, as a result, the one religious system that provides the structure and foundation for truly virtuous moral behavior. Christians have already been assured of their salvation; it’s a free gift of grace. Our “good works” have nothing to do with our justification. When Christians properly appreciate the gift they have been given and the extent to which they have been forgiven, we find ourselves wanting to live in a way that reflects this appreciation. ....

We Christians sometimes abuse the freedom we have in Christ. We don’t always appreciate the gift we’ve been given or live as though we do. .... Works-based religious systems require their adherents to perform “good works” in order to be saved. If that was the case for Christians, I bet more of us would work harder and look better to the world around us. But I don’t think it would result in us becoming better people; we would just start to look better. Motive matters. When we, as Christians, respond rather than perform, we become the people God wants us to be.

Decoration Day

Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass in "Take Time to Remember":
.... Memorial Day, once called Decoration Day, is a post-Civil War holiday. It was first instituted by the Grand Army of the Republic on May 30, 1868, “for the purpose of strewing with flowers or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village, and hamlet churchyard in the land.” If the Fourth of July renews the memory of the birth of the nation, Decoration Day renewed the memory of those who gave their lives “that that nation might live,” or again in Lincoln’s words, that this nation would have a new birth of freedom.

On Decoration Day, May 30, 1871, at Arlington National Cemetery, it was an ex-slave named Frederick Douglass who delivered the memorial address near the monument to the “Unknown Loyal Dead,” before a gathering that included President Grant, his cabinet, and many other distinguished people. “Dark and sad,” Douglass began, “will be the hour to this nation when it forgets to pay grateful homage to its greatest benefactors.” Giving eloquent expression to that homage, he concluded: “If today we have a country not boiling in the agony of blood, like France, if now we have a united country, no longer cursed by the hell-black system of human bondage...if the star-spangled banner floats only over free American citizens in every quarter of the land, and our country has before it a long and glorious career of justice, liberty, and civilization, we are indebted to the unselfish devotion of the noble army who rest in these honored graves all around us.”

On this occasion and for the rest of his life, Douglass was at pains to keep alive through speech the memory and meaning of the deeds of that noble army of men who gave their lives to preserve the Union. ....

After World War I, Decoration Day was expanded to commemorate the lives of all those who have died in service to our country. Later, the name of the holiday was changed to Memorial Day; later still, it lost its fixed date in the calendar, celebrated instead on the last Monday in May. ....

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Common heritage

Far more serious still is the division between the Church of Rome and evangelical Protestantism in all its forms. Yet how great is the common heritage which unites the Roman Catholic Church, with its maintenance of the authority of Holy Scripture and with its acceptance of the great early creeds, to devout Protestants today!

We would not indeed obscure the difference which divides us from Rome. The gulf is indeed profound. But profound as it is, it seems almost trifling compared to the abyss which stands between us and many ministers of our own Church. The Church of Rome may represent a perversion of the Christian religion; but naturalistic liberalism is not Christianity at all.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Now that you've graduated...

In "Summer Reading for College Graduates," Brett McCracken writes that "practical training and skill development are only part of education’s purpose. Degrees are not the end goal. Education should be a lifelong pursuit. To exist is to always be on a continuum of known and unknown, discovered and undiscovered. 'We shall not cease from exploration,' wrote T.S. Eliot." McCracken:
.... Embrace the fact that, for the first time in many years, you can read what you want to and you won’t have to take a test or write a term paper about it. Learn to take pleasure in it. Make it a daily habit. Reading for “fun” is one of the most important things one can do to stay motivated to keep learning.

Read anything. Blogs, newspapers, magazines, tweets, billboards, poems (please read poems!), essays, journals, Wikipedia, and so on. Also, watch movies. Documentaries. Blockbusters. TV. Go to concerts. Museums. Take walks. Run. Travel. Try new restaurants. Develop an expertise or a habit. Discuss current events. Debate a friend. Sit on your front porch smoking pipes while discussing theology (or drinking scotch while discussing politics). Do any and everything you need to do in order to grow in your curiousity about the world and your desire to understand it more deeply.

Oh, and keep reading books. ....
Two of his recommendations:
When I Was a Child I Read Books: Essays (2012), by Marilynne Robinson

Marilynne Robinson is my favorite public intellectual. She has that rare, C.S. Lewis-style combination of being both a winsome communicator and an intellectual heavy-hitter. She knows a lot about a lot of things, and can write better than just about any other living writer, in both nonfiction and fiction (read her Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead for proof). She is awesome, and her most recent essay collection is too. When I Was a Child I Read Books is not easy reading, to be sure. It’s challenging. But it will inspire you to want to think as broadly and as deeply as she does about a vast array of things: religion, contemporary economics, “new atheists,” science, literature, geography, Moses, hymnology, and yes, childhood reading habits.

The End of Our Exploring (2013), by Matthew Lee Anderson

In a world where “dialogue” and “conversation” are buzzwords but rarely well practiced, and where doubt and questioning seem to be more about a scene than a search for truth, Matt’’s latest, The End of Our Exploring, comes as a breath of fresh air. Clearheaded, personal, witty and wise, the book presents a sensible framework for epistemology that is sorely needed today. How do we doubt, question, probe, debate, discuss and know in a more purposeful and productive manner? It’s en vogue today for young Christians to put on airs of intellectualism (you know: tweed sport coats, pipes, Jacques Ellul reading groups…), but the image of thoughtfulness is not enough. Matt’s book–a short, concise, engaging read–reminds us that actually being thoughtful is far greater (and more nuanced) than just looking the part.

Generic Christians?

Not at the Jordan River, but in that flowing stream
stood John the Baptist preacher when he baptized Him.
John was a Baptist preacher when he baptized the Lamb,
so Jesus was a Baptist and thus the Baptists came.

Bill Leonard begins his post about the trend to abandon denominational labels by quoting the 19th century rhyme above. There was indeed a time when some doctrinal differences were over-emphasized. That time has definitely passed. Leonard describes how denominations came to choose their names and why attempts to "re-brand" will probably be either futile or fatal:

...University Baptist Church, Coral Gables, is now “Christ Journey;” First Baptist Church, Perrine, has become “Christ Fellowship;” Coral Baptist Church, Coral Springs, now calls itself “Church By the Glades;” and First Baptist, Fort Lauderdale, is now “First Fort Lauderdale,” the word Baptist parenthetically attached. ....

As a historian of the Baptists, I’m not surprised by these decisions to drop the Baptist name, given the wide spectrum of Baptist beliefs, practices and public dysfunctions. Yet I hope that congregations find clear historical/theological justification for their actions. ....

.... As denominations became a normative means of organizing church life in England and America, their names became shorthand for distinguishing characteristics of the ever-multiplying Protestant sects. Episcopalians had bishops; Presbyterians had presbyteries; Methodists were methodical; Baptists required immersion; and Pentecostals restored, well, Pentecost.  Restorationist efforts to abolish such divisive names and replicate the New Testament church led to the formation of the Christian Church, the Disciples of Christ and the Churches of Christ – three new denominations.

These days, churches that relinquish traditional denominational designations might consider the following questions: How does abandoning a denominational name impact a church’s historic identity? Will a specific congregation continue to place itself within an identifiable context of Christian tradition or simply lose its memory? What strategies will individual churches have for inculcating identity related to faith, baptism, Holy Communion and theological orientation in contexts that no longer claim a particular historic label? What persons and issues from the past will those churches claim and articulate? Will these faith communities retain a historic center or will they foster a new generation of Christian “nones,” individuals who have a limited or uncertain sense of location inside a kind of generic Christianity?

And there is no generic Christianity; intentional or unintended identity will prevail sooner or later. Thus churches that claim generic names are responsible for introducing members to the legacy of their faith. A church without a sense of history is a church adrift, old or new, liberal or conservative, whatever its peculiar “brand” may be. ....

"Ingenuity is never a substitute for intelligence"

John Nolte reviews an old movie (1940) that he has just seen — and that I recently ordered — starring two great Hollywood character actors (Nolte once again demonstrates his really good taste). The film is based on a book by Eric Ambler, originally titled A Coffin for Dimitrios — a perfect candidate for film noir treatment. Nolte:
One of the great unheralded screen duos of Hollywood's Golden Era was Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, two character actors who made a total of nine films together between 1941 and 1946. The most famous of these pairings are the first two, The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942), in which both men played memorable supporting roles.

Eventually, though, Warner Bros. would elevate them to starring roles in a few films, including The Mask of Dimitrios, ....

In his screen debut, the underrated and very versatile Zachary Scott...plays the title character, a cad and degenerate con man named Dimitrios Makropoulos, who washes up dead on a beach in Istanbul. A Turkish policeman convinces Cornelius Leyden (Peter Lorre), a Dutch mystery novelist, to dig into the life of the deceased, promising that what he finds will fuel a great book.

Intrigued, Leyden travels all over Europe tracking down and interviewing the many sordid associates and lovers of Dimitrios, all of whom remain bitter by his betrayals.

The most intriguing character, however, is Mr. Peters (Greenstreet) an amiable, dishonest, and sometime dangerous criminal who seems as interested in Cornelius as Cornelius is in Dimitrios.

What the story lacks in plot it more than makes up for in atmosphere and chemistry. The scenes and developing relationship between Lorre and Greenstreet are brilliantly written, playfully acted, and disarmingly charming. The movie comes together perfectly once the slippery but likable Peters convinces the bemused but wary Cornelius to team up with him....
Another great Ambler book filmed about the same time, with at least one of the same chracters, was Journey into Fear starring Joseph Cotton. This film has also been unavailable on DVD and deserves to once again become available.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Andrew Schuman finds "FOMO" to be "one of the most useful acronyms to be added to the online urban dictionary." It stands for "fear of missing out" and, he argues, although characteristic of our times it is not new:
.... In 1681 Oxford University Chancellor and renowned theologian John Owen wrote the following: “The world is at present in a mighty hurry, and being in many places cut off from all foundations of steadfastness, it makes the minds of men giddy with its revolutions, or disorderly in the expectations of them…”

“Giddy with its revolutions” and “disorderly in the expectations of them”? This observation from over 330 years ago could describe our mindset today; it sounds like FOMO. Why all the hurry? Owen gives this explanation: “Men walk and talk as if the world were all, when comparatively it is nothing.

What Owen is suggesting is that FOMO is a symptom of the ancient biblical notion known as worldiness. When we believe that this world is all there is we instinctively valorize the fleeting over the eternal. We create cultural forms that embody these priorities and then we cannot help but feel like we are constantly missing out. Having no deeper realities to hold onto, we are left drifting from one momentary pleasure to the next in a world of passing beauty.

If worldliness is the cause of our collective FOMO, then the prescription for sanity in our hurried society is not to speed up or slow down, per se, but to comprehend the eternal beauty of God and let this affection produce freedom from fear.

It reminds me vaguely of this C.S. Lewis quote: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this.”

This passage of Scripture from Jeremiah gives us wise counsel, pointing us forward by pointing us back: “Ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jer 6:16) [more]

Monday, May 20, 2013

"Give to the one who begs..."

In "What to Do When Met with a Beggar," Jared Wilson considers a circumstance that every Christian confronts — and, particularly if you live in a city or are a pastor anywhere, it arises quite frequently. Wilson:
C.S. Lewis’s stepson Douglas Gresham tells the story of Lewis and a friend walking along the street one day when a beggar approached them asking for money. Lewis’s friend kept walking, but Lewis stopped and emptied his wallet, giving the beggar its contents. After rejoining his friend, he was chastised. “You shouldn’t have done that, Jack. He’ll only spend it all on drink.” Lewis replied, “Well, that’s what I was going to do.”

Here’s what I think Jesus wants us to do, and our response to a beggar gives us the opportunity to do it:

The situation is a common one and ages old. We are no more faced with beggars today than the disciples were in the first century. In urban settings or rural, the specific approach and contexts may differ, but the neediness and the opportunities do not. What is your response when a stranger asks for money? ....
  1. Hold our money loosely. I think that’s what Lewis was getting at in the exchange with his friend. He was comparing the beggar’s suspected frivolity with his own known frivolity. Only in the economy of self-justification is my spending $3 on a coffee or even a beer deemed more virtuous than, by presumption, a beggar’s doing the same.
  2. Trust him with people’s sins. Maybe that person will squander what you give them. It’s not our job to manage the expected sins of others. It’s our job to be faithful to God, obedient to his commands. So the better hedging of the bets here is to give out of obedience and trust the beggar’s financial management to the only God who judges the living and the dead. Let us give, and let us let the Lord sort it out.
In one of his Letters to an American Lady, from which we get another version of the “spend it all on drink” story, Lewis writes these other pertinent words on giving to beggars:
It will not bother me in the hour of death to reflect that I have been “had for a sucker” by any number of impostors; but it would be a torment to know that one had refused even one person in need.
No, it’s not street smart or common sense to give to those who ask of you, but it is wise. Very, very wise. It is wise to obey Matthew 5:42 with as few loopholes as you can attach to it because doing so says you obey God, not your suspicions, and you hold your money loosely because God is your God, not money. .... [more]

Sunday, May 19, 2013

"Let not ambition mock..."

Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
The short and simple annals of the poor.

The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e'er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.

From "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" by Thomas Gray (1762)

Shortly after Abraham Lincoln secured the Republican presidential nomination in 1860, a reporter traveled to Springfield, Ill., to learn about the candidate's background. In an interview, Lincoln said his early life could be condensed into a single phrase: "the short and simple annals of the poor."

The words didn't belong to Lincoln, but rather to the 18th-century English poet Thomas Gray, and they came from "Elegy Written in a Country Church-Yard." ....

There was a time when most educated people would have recognized Lincoln's reference: "Gray's Elegy," wrote Leslie Stephen (the father of Virginia Woolf), "includes more familiar phrases than any poem of equal length in the language." Its 32 stanzas burst with celebrated passages: "The Curfew tolls the knell of parting day"; "Full many a flower is born to blush unseen"; "Far from the madding crowd's ignoble strife"; and so on. ....

...Gray's "Elegy" also rose above the ghetto of a genre, expressing universal ideas in lines that worked their way into collective memory. Samuel Johnson didn't care for most of Gray's poetry, but even he confessed an admiration for the elegy, praising its "images which find a mirror in every mind, and with sentiments to which every bosom returns an echo." .... [more]

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Sticky faith

Perhaps because I was a high school teacher I often notice research about the tendency of Christian young people failing to make the transition to a mature faith. There have been a depressing number of surveys indicating a falling off of faith just about as soon as young adults leave home for college or work. In "Sticky faith: What keeps kids connected to church?" Jen Bradbury, a youth minister, reflects on what might counter that trend and engender a faith that sticks:
.... I chose topics based on what I thought youth cared about, so we talked a lot about friendships, sex and alcohol. While I tied these topics to scripture, I rarely focused on Jesus. I assumed that the youth, who had grown up in the church, already knew the Jesus story well and were likely to be bored by it. Rather than help students cultivate a lifelong relationship with Christ, I focused on getting them to live a Christian lifestyle. I had zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior.

...[R]esearchers...conducted a six-year, comprehensive and longitudinal study from 2004 to 2010 called the College Transition Project. The study’s findings are found in Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers, a 2011 book by Kara E. Powell, Brad M. Griffin and Cheryl A. Crawford.

The term sticky faith is defined by researchers at FYI as faith that is “part of a student’s inner thoughts and emotions and is also externalized in choices and actions that reflect this faith commitment.” .... It is this kind of sticky faith that we want to develop in students, for it is this kind of faith that becomes a way of life, capable of influencing people’s everyday decisions as well as their interactions with the world around them.

Friday, May 17, 2013

"Just what I choose it to mean"

Annoyed again by those who seem to believe "Christian" is a word that means whatever they want it to mean I was reminded of this from Lewis Carroll. Having proved to his own satisfaction that un-birthday presents are superior to birthday presents because they can be given far more times in a year, Humpty Dumpty says:
“There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.
“Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
The illustration is a  classic by John Tenniel done for the original book.

The persecution of Christians

Christians — as those who have been paying attention know — are among the most persecuted of religious groups in the world today. But most people haven't been paying attention and, by and large, our news media haven't helped them to. In a review of Christianophobia: A Faith under Attack at the Christian Science, the author's conclusions about why such persecution tends to be ignored:
.... Rupert Shortt points out that “[o]ne reason why Western audiences hear so little about religious oppression in the Muslim world is straightforward: young Christians in America and Europe do not become ‘radicalized,’ and persecuted Christians tend not to respond with terrorist violence.”

Another reason for the silence, he adds, stems from the fear that criticizing Muslims will prompt charges of racism. A third explanation lies in the fact that many liberals in the West look askance at Christianity in the developing world due to a simplistic and often historically inaccurate belief that its spread was bound up with Western imperialism.

Shortt, religion editor at the (London) Times Literary Supplement and biographer of Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury), begins with the premise “that freedom of belief and association are unqualified goods” and proceeds to examine countries – including several non-Muslim ones – that deny them to Christians. .... [more]

Which translation?

If you've been contemplating buying a new modern translation of the Bible, this may be helpful: Which Bible Translation Should I Use?: A Comparison of 4 Major Recent Versions (the link is for the Kindle version — it is also available in paperback). From Amazon's description:
One of the most frequently asked questions related to the Bible is, “Which Bible translation should I use?” People often wonder what is the all-around best English Bible translation available. In this book, Douglas Moo, Wayne Grudem, Ray Clendenen, and Philip Comfort make a case for the Bible translation he represents: the NIV 2011 (New International Version), the ESV (English Standard Version), the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible), and the NLT (New Living Translation) respectively.

In each case, the contributors explain the translation philosophy underlying these major recent versions. They also compare and contrast how specific passages are translated in their version and other translations.

Which Bible Translation Should I Use? is ideal for anyone who is interested in the Bible and wants to know how the major recent English translations compare. After you’ve read this book, you will be able to answer the title question with confidence. You will also learn many other interesting details about specific passages in the Bible from these top experts.
Thank you, Joel Osborn, for the reference.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The pursuit of happiness

Adam Grant considers the mistakes of a friend who seems to have finally found happiness only after a lenthy pursuit. He found it by ceasing to pursue it. Grant describes four typical blunders made by those who make happiness their goal:
.... The first blunder was in trying to figure out if he was happy. When we pursue happiness, our goal is to experience more joy and contentment. To find out if we're making progress, we need to compare our past happiness to our current happiness. This creates a problem: the moment we make that comparison, we shift from an experiencing mode to an evaluating mode. ....

The second error was in overestimating the impact of life circumstances on happiness. .....

The third misstep was in pursuing happiness alone. Happiness is an individual state, so when we look for it, it's only natural to focus on ourselves. Yet a wealth of evidence consistently shows that self-focused attention undermines happiness and causes depression. ....

The final mistake was in looking for intense happiness. When we want to be happy, we look for strong positive emotions like joy, elation, enthusiasm, and excitement. Unfortunately, research shows that this isn't the best path to happiness. .... When we aim for intense positive emotions, we evaluate our experiences against a higher standard, which makes it easier to be disappointed. ....

As...John Stuart Mill once wrote, "Those only are happy who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness."
"You know, these are yuppie words, happiness and unhappiness. 
It's not happiness or unhappiness,
it's either blessed or unblessed. 
As the Bible says, 
'Blessed is the man who walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly.'"
Bob Dylan.

Adam Grant: Does Trying to Be Happy Make Us Unhappy?

"Those whom God hath joined together..."

In "Nuptial Matters" Ruth Graham (no, not the evangelical Ruth Graham) writes approvingly about the desire of couples to make the wedding ceremony personal, particularly in the secular poetry chosen for the ceremony. It is apparently very difficult to do so while maintaining originality and not descending into cliche. The real problem may be precisely that...
Like just about every other betrothed couple in America, we wanted our wedding to be “personal.” ....
There are still oases of resistence...
The Catholic Church still officially forbids couples from including secular readings in the ceremony; Orthodox Jewish ceremonies, too, allow only for set religious readings. ....
The advent of such narcissitic ceremonies does not surprise...
It was around the early 1960s that some Protestant denominations began loosening the strictures of approved readings and music.... Suddenly, weddings were taking place in parks, and couples were writing their own vows. As the journalist Rebecca Mead writes in her 2007 book about contemporary weddings, One True Day, the modern idea is that “a wedding ceremony, like a wedding reception, ought to be an expression of the character of the couple who are getting married, rather than an expression of the character of the institution marrying them.”
Nor does the then favorite wedding poet surprise...
The first poet embraced by backyard brides and grooms was Kahlil Gibran, the best-selling poet and symbol of a vague, mystic, sentimental sort of personal freedom. “Gibran was the big discovery of people in the 1960s, and that got woven into practically every marriage ceremony from then on,”
"For as long as we both shall love"...
.... We hope the marriage lasts forever, but we have to expect the wedding itself will age. Maybe we’ll all look back on our wedding poetry the same way we’ll look back on our wedding photos: with a fondness for those young, goofy people who had no idea how their tastes would change, or what was to happen to them.
In the Christian marriage ceremony there should be limits. Although the loving couple are the occasion for the ceremony, it is a Christian service, and all present — especially the couple — should be mindful of the fact that "we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company...." Perhaps the readings and music should be chosen with compatibility with traditional Christian priorities in mind rather than endeavoring to make the wedding "personal." It is already personal — the couple are accepting — with joy one hopes — a great deal of personal responsibility.


“It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.” — G.K. Chesterton

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Prepared for resurrection

In "Tragic Worship" at First Things Carl Trueman argues that we need to re-orient worship so that it acknowledges reality:
...[D]eath is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord's Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry "Jesus is Lord!" assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar's. Christ's lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar's by power. ....

Christian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection. ....

Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection. ....

Only the dead can be resurrected. As the second thief on the cross saw so clearly, Christ’s kingdom is entered through death, not by escape from it.

Traditional Protestantism saw this, connecting baptism not to washing so much as to death and resurrection. Protestant liturgies made sure that the law was read each service in order to remind the people that death was the penalty for their sin. Only then, after the law had pronounced the death sentence, would the gospel be read, calling them from their graves to faith and to resurrection life in Christ. The congregants thereby became vicarious participants in the great drama of salvation.

There was surely catharsis in such worship: The congregants left each week having faced the deepest reality of their own destinies. Perhaps it is ironic, but the church that confronts people with the reality of the shortness of life lived under the shadow of death prepares them for resurrection better than the church that goes straight to resurrection triumphalism without that awkward mortality bit.

Irrevocably attached

Via the C.S. Lewis Blog, from a July 20, 1943 letter:
.... Nature as we see it is either what God intended or merely evil: it looks like a good thing spoiled.

The doctrine of the the only satisfactory explanation. Evil begins, in a universe where all was good, from free will, which was permitted because it makes possible the greatest good of all. The corruption of the first sinner consists not in choosing some evil thing...but in preferring a lesser good (himself) before a greater (God).

The Fall is, in fact, Pride.

The possibility of this wrong preference is inherent in the very fact of having, or being, a self at all. But though freedom is real it is not infinite. Every choice reduces a little one's freedom to choose the next time. There therefore comes a time when the creature is fully built, irrevocably attached to either God or to itself.

This irrevocableness is what we call Heaven or Hell.

Every conscious agent is finally committed in the long run: i.e. it rises above freedom into willed, but henceforth unalterable, union with God, or else sinks below freedom into the black fire of self-imprisonment. ....
C. S. Lewis Blog: Are You Attached to God?

Monday, May 13, 2013

"Abba" doesn't mean "Daddy"

From the FactChecker at The Gospel Coalition Blog:
When listening to a sermon on the Fatherhood of God, we've heard it more times than we can probably count: the illustration that when Jesus refers to his Father as abba, it is a very comfortable, deeply intimate child-like term, interpreted as either papa or daddy. ....

This intimacy and love between the divine Father and his Son is as true as the existence of God himself, for it is his very nature. But it is simply not true that Jesus' use of the word abba means something a small child would utter in reference to his father. It does not mean "daddy" or "papa." .... [more]


My brother and I just returned from a two-week excursion that included visits to some places associated with ancestors on our father's side of the family. My grandmother was a Whitney, Hettie Ann Whitney Skaggs (1877-1963), and we found her father's grave in the cemetery in Gentry, Arkansas. Edward L. Whitney (1846-1905), including information about his family, is described at a Whitney website:
Ed was claimed to be over seven feet tall. He always had to bend over to go through doors, and he would always sit down to have his picture taken. Nancy had grown up in Berlin, Wisconsin where her parents, Norman and Miriam Clarke were married. They were members of the Seventh Day Baptist church there. Her mother taught in an early pioneer school there. Her mother's parents, Jeremiah and Mercy Davis, had been early settlers in Berlin, moving first from Allegheny County, New York to Milton, Wisconsin in the early 1840's. They were charter members of the Berlin Seventh Day Baptist church in 1850.

Edward's address given on his marriage certificate (1876) was Plymouth, Iowa. The names of his parents, Ebenezar and Anna Whitney, are also given on the certificate.

Ed and Eve were married in Berlin (Green Lake County) Wisconsin in 1876, but moved to Iowa in 1878. They are listed there in the 1880 U.S. census. ....

1882 was apparently the year of the move to Dakota Territory. ...
Edward and his family moved back to Berlin, Wisconsin in 1890. .... Edward joined the Seventh Day Baptist church there by baptism, July 1892. His wife Nancy had been baptized and joined at age 16 (May 21, 1870); [with] their daughter Cora (baptized December 2, 1900) [they] were dismissed by letter to the Gentry, Arkansas, Seventh Day Baptist Church, November 9, 1901. (Hettie, their oldest daughter, was baptized & joined December 19, 1891, and Laura, second eldest daughter, October 27, 1894; both dismissed by letter to Milton, February 1902.)

They moved to Gentry, Arkansas in 1901. Edward died there in 1905. Eva married Martin Maxson in 1913. She died in 1917.
Not far from his grave was a Civil War memorial. I was curious about whether it would be Union or Confederate. It turned out to be a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) memorial dedicated to those who had fought to preserve the Union. Whether Edward had served I have not yet discovered. So far, I am happy to report, I have found no evidence that any of my ancestors ever owned slaves and — although they lived in border states all of which were slave states — a good deal of evidence that they detested the institution.

We then traveled to Christian County, Missouri, to try to locate the grave of my grandfather, Rev. James Leroy Skaggs's father, Rev. Leroy Fouse Skaggs (1845-1930), described as being near Boaz, Missouri. GPS was no help (Boaz doesn't seem to exist in Garmin) but we received a lot of assistance in the city hall in Ozark. Several people there helped us locate the cemetery — the Frazier Cemetery near where Boaz is (or was — we never went through anyplace with that designation). Many Skaggs graves are there including that of Grandfather's brother Hannibal. And we found the grave of Leroy Fouse Skaggs about whom I've posted recently. It was in a section containing many family graves including a depressing number of unnamed "Infant Skaggs" gravestones, one after another.

Exploring these locations was a very good part of our thoroughly enjoyable travels.

Friday, May 10, 2013

The retreat of liberal values

On the curious alliance of many Western liberals with the most reactionary and intolerant Islamic extremists, from "Feminism Or Islamism: Which Side Are You On?":
No group is better than liberal academics at illustrating how racist anti-racism has become. As liberals, they ought to respect individual rights and oppose reactionary attempts to corral and control. As academics, they ought to look for evidence that shakes comfortable opinions. As it is, they do neither.
In human rights organisations, leftish political parties, liberal newspapers and, above all, in the universities, committed and morally earnest people would rather die than admit that radical Islam is a murderous and oppressive movement. The effect of their evasion is to promote the racism they say they oppose, while denying their supposed allies in "Muslim lands" and immigrant communities the same rights as they enjoy. Hypocrisy is too meagre a word to cover their behaviour. ....
I don't mean to single out academics for special condemnation. The postmodern university may not be able to guide society, but it reflects its deformities and double standards. I know civil servants, liberal journalists, broadcasters, politicians, diplomats and police officers who never read an academic paper from one year until the next. They will condemn the gender pay gap or the sexual abuse of white-skinned women, but stay silent about the religious oppression of brown-skinned women. Fear of violent reprisals, fear of causing offence, fear that their enemies will denounce them for possessing a racial or sectarian hatred play their part. On the Left, there is the strong fear of accusations of complicity with the status quo, which never go down well in arts and humanities departments. ....
But we should be able to acknowledge that there is now a general taboo against discussing religious oppression, which is not confined to campuses or left-wing meetings. Universal standards are everywhere in retreat. ....
.... On the Left, radical Islam has taken the place once filled by socialism. As I said in my book What's Left?, when the dreams of Karl Marx died, many leftists concluded that any enemy of the West was better than none. It did not matter that the most violent enemies of the West were against everything leftists supported. They were also against America and that was all that mattered. Beyond the Left, in the politically indifferent mainstream, ignoring oppression has its advantages. Members of a consumer society do not want to campaign against the mistreatment of women in immigrant communities at home or support costly and dangerous interventions abroad. .... [more]

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Millenarianism and intolerance

It is perfectly possible to believe that, in many aspects of life, things are better now than they once were [and, on the other hand, that in other respects they are worse], without believing in Progress with a capital "P." 

Melanie Phillips, former Marxist, English controversialist, is the author of, among other things, The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle over God, Truth, and Power. From her essay, "The new intolerance":
...[A]theism has given us...a faith which repels reason. Ideologies such as environmentalism, or the belief in the innate harmony of the natural world; scientism, or the belief that everything in the universe has a scientific explanation; moral relativism, or the belief that everyone's value system is equal to everyone else's; multiculturalism, or the belief that no culture can take precedence over any other; egalitarianism, or the belief that everyone is entitled to identical outcomes regardless of their behaviour. These all repel reason because, instead of looking at evidence to reach a conclusion, they start with the governing idea and force the evidence to fit it.

All these ideologies are secular, undermining some aspect of Judaeo-Christian belief or ethics. But here's the strange thing: they all display characteristics not just of Christian religious belief — a body of doctrine, a belief that their story is the sole pathway to virtue, an instinct to evangelise — they also share a feature common to the religious fanaticism of previous centuries (and past and present Islam): millenarianism.

Millenarianism is a religious belief in the perfection of mankind and life on earth, often associated with an apocalypse. It is a doctrine of collective and total salvation, and it leads inescapably to a totalitarian mindset. Because it is an unchallengeable doctrine of perfecting the world, any dissenter must be evil and so must be destroyed.

It is generally assumed that the Enlightenment put an end to that kind of religious fanaticism which gave rise to the terrible religious persecutions in the medieval world. In fact, the Enlightenment merely served to secularise millenarian fantasies. This was embodied in the core idea, no less, of the Enlightenment itself: that reason would bring about perfection on Earth, and that "progress" was the process by which utopia would be attained.

In the 18th century the Enlightenment thinker Condorcet wrote: "No bounds have been fixed to the improvement of the human race. The perfectibility of man is absolutely infinite..." In the 19th century Herbert Spencer, the apostle of Social Darwinism, similarly believed that life would get better all the time. He wrote: "Progress is not an accident but a necessity. Surely must evil and immorality disappear; surely must man become perfect." It was reason that would redeem religious superstition and bring about the kingdom of man on Earth.

Just as Lenin believed, whatever fosters the revolution is therefore good; whatever hinders it is bad. In the millenarian and totalitarian mind, there is never any middle ground; and truth and reason are turned upside down to fit. .... [more]