Tuesday, December 31, 2013


Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?

Peggy Noonan, in 2011, on a song many will sing tonight:
"Auld Lang Syne"—the phrase can be translated as "long, long ago," or "old long since," but I like "old times past"—is a song that asks a question, a tender little question that has to do with the nature of being alive, of being a person on a journey in the world. It not only asks, it gives an answer.

It was written, or written down, by Robert Burns, lyric poet and Bard of Scotland. In 1788 he sent a copy of the poem to the Scots Musical Museum, with the words: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, has never been in print." Burns was interested in the culture of Scotland, and collected old folk tales and poems. He said he got this one "from an old man"—no one knows who—and wrote it down. Being a writer, Burns revised and compressed. He found the phrase auld lang syne "exceedingly expressive" and thought whoever first wrote the poem "heaven inspired." The song spread throughout Scotland, where it was sung to mark the end of the old year, and soon to the English-speaking world, where it's sung to mark the new.

The question it asks is clear: Should those we knew and loved be forgotten and never thought of? Should old times past be forgotten? No, says the song, they shouldn't be. We'll remember those times and those people, we'll toast them now and always, we'll keep them close. "We'll take a cup of kindness yet." .... [more]
SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot,  
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne

And here 's a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o' thine;
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae rin about the braes,
And pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit
Sin' auld lang syne.
And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine;
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
We twa hae paidl't i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd      
Sin' auld lang syne.
For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.

Days of Auld Lang What?

If you think your opponent is evil...

Rick Esenberg on understandings that would help return civility to politics:
  • If you think that your political opponent is evil, you are probably wrong. Most liberals are not fanatical communists or amoral libertines. Most conservatives are not heartless and greedy or censorious  prudes. People differ in the priority that they place on often competing, but commonly shared, values—say liberty v. equality—and in their judgments on the way that the world works and what must be done to serve those values. Beware of responding to a cartoon that you have created, as opposed to real people and the arguments that they make.
  • If you think that your political opponent is corrupt, you are probably wrong. .... What motivates them is a sincere belief that certain policies will harm, while others will help, their country. I'll assume—until I'm shown otherwise—that the other side is similarly sincere.
  • Resist the desire to destroy your political opponent.  One of the most treacherous developments in our politics is the irresponsibility with which certain people have attempted to criminalize political differences. ....  Another is to place the most uncharitable—and often unreasonable—interpretation on something that a person [has] said in order to label them as "racist," "homophobic," "un-American" or "pro-criminal."  Most of us are none of these things. Cut it out.
  • Acknowledge when the other side has a point.  ....
  • Understand why these things are hard. ....
  • Take things in stride.  ....
  • Be realistic.  I don't expect to dislike lawyers on the other side or carry our battles outside the litigation. But I do expect to have a battle. Just as clients really have opposing interests, our political battles reflect real differences of opinion about things that matter and cannot be dismissed as mere "partisanship." Respect does not imply agreement. It is simply not the case that, if we put "politics" aside, we'll magically agree on things. .... [more]

The Old Testament canon

Upon returning to Catholicism Laura McAlister was surprised to discover that her Bible had gotten bigger. Here she explains why Protestants and Catholics treat the Old Testament Apocrypha differently and summarizes:
To put it simply, Catholics and Orthodox follow the canon of the Septuagint, the translation used by the New Testament writers and early Christians, while Protestants follow the canon of Rabbinical Judaism that was set after Christianity began.
This is a very clear explanation of why the Protestant and Catholic canons of Old Testament scripture differ. If I were teaching the subject I might appropriate much of it [with proper citation, of course].

Monday, December 30, 2013

A trusting heart

Kevin White at Mere Orthodoxy on William Cowper's God Moves in a Mysterious Way, one of the finest hymn lyrics:
.... William Cowper lived a tragically sorrowful life. At what should have been a triumphant moment in his career, he fell into a suicidal depression. For the rest of his life, he was plagued by years-long spells of depression and delusion. Some of his delusions were too horrifying to relate here. John Newton’s sermon at Cowper’s funeral gives a frank account, though it is, I repeat, a disturbing read.

Cowper wrote this particular hymn around the time of the onset of one of his relapses, the one that Newton mentions as beginning in 1773.  When he writes of dreadful clouds and “a frowning providence,” he describes the oncoming storm in his heart and mind. He speaks, in short, from the place of grievous experience. ....
God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.
Cowper forthrightly sets the theme of the song: the mystery of God and His providence. We cannot see His reasoning or plans, even if something of His broader purpose has been revealed. ....
White provides good commentary on each of the verses, from which I have selected only a few of his paragraphs. Continuing with the verses:
Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will. ....

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.
The dreadful cloud is full to bursting, and its storm will surely break on your head. But beyond the ominous outward appearances, there is mercy even in the thundercloud and blessings in the oncoming storm. The mercies and blessings may not be readily visible, but the eye that sees the divine goodness, as we shall see, is the eye that sees with faith.

This is where the context of Cowper’s suffering is vital. This is no saccharine promise of gaining your best life now. .... It comes from a man who has known despair in its most irrational of depths, but still girds himself to trust in God’s good providence.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.
Cowper speaks directly. Trust in the God of grace, and do not judge the Lord by outward appearances. Here Cowper says no more than what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:17-18:
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
The trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen. The breakers and waves may cover you. The fierce storm may break out on your head. It may feel as if God is frowning over you. These are all too visible to the eye. But the wisdom of the matter is, at present, hidden in God’s deep mines. It remains unseen, along with the divine smile, because it rest in the Eternal One.
His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower. ....

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain:
God is His own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.
Now Cowper comes to the bottom line. His words about unbelief are not meant to be a slur on those who lack faith. Rather, it is to say that God’s purposes can only be perceived from the perspective of a well-formed faith. It is similar with human relationships. If things look bad, we will only believe, or even listen to, someone’s explanation if we are already inclined to trust them.

Cowper is, in essence, suggesting the posture of “faith seeking understanding.” Unless we begin with a posture of trust, informed by God’s public revelation in Scripture, we will not see the broader picture. .... [more]
Related: Leading from the Pit (of Depression): How Can You Be a Spiritual Leader When You Can't Get out of Bed?

Reading the Hymns: God Moves In a Mysterious Way | Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Character or personality?

Calculated manipulation is incompatible with genuine friendship. From a review of the new biography of Dale Carnegie, author of the enormously influential How to Win Friends and Influence People, the text for an amoral approach to relationship and success.
.... Carnegie was born in 1888, and through his early life the nation experienced, in Watts's words, "not only massive industrialization, mass immigration, and the closing of the frontier but the rapid growth of a modern consumer economy." With economic and demographic transformation came an attendant shift in cultural values, as strict Victorian moral codes lost ground and "character" came to be seen as less important than "personality." ....

... Carnegie and the instructors he trained stressed positive thinking, pop psychology, and salesmanship, teaching that the key to success lay in knowing how to "handle" people properly.

.... Though panned by critics, who saw its worldview as cynical and manipulative, How to Win Friends and Influence People was an immediate sensation.... In chapters like "Fundamental Techniques in Handling People," "Six Ways to Make People Like You," and "Making People Glad to Do What You Want," Carnegie offered concrete advice in brisk, folksy, and inspirational prose. .... [more]

Why does life matter?

During Christmas's twelve days Walter Russel Mead is exploring "The Meaning of Christmas": "Why do Christians and so many other people believe in an invisible ruler and creator of the universe — and then how does the Christian idea of God differ from the others?" Today he takes up the question at about the same place C.S. Lewis did in the beginning of Mere Christianity: are there transcendent moral standards and, if so, where do they come from?
.... Most people believe in God because they feel that life means something.

We are born, we move through life; if we are lucky we grow old and die. As all this happens, we feel things. We feel connections to other people – to family, friends, lovers and spouses, fellow citizens of a nation, fellow members of our species facing a common fate on a single and fragile planet, the animals that share our lives and our world. We see astounding acts of heroism and devotion, especially in everyday life. We see parents sacrificing for the sake of their children, young people caring for aged relatives, firemen rushing into burning buildings to save people they don’t even know, inspiring teachers who earn very little money but seem contented and fulfilled, volunteers giving spare time and money to their communities in many ways, judges who give honest verdicts without favor or fear – and on and on and on. ....

Most people, including the very large majority of those people who say they are atheists, believe that life means something. To those who believe that life means something, the moral feelings we have about justice and duty (for example) aren’t just random biological signals that flash across our neurons in response to evolutionary patterns. We sometimes can’t articulate why this is true, but we feel that it matters that we do the right thing: that we bring up our kids well, that we honor our parents and care for them when they are old, that we remain loyal to our spouses and keep our wedding vows, that we behave fairly in our dealings with other people and that we contribute to the greater good through the way we live our lives. There are people and causes for which many of us are willing (though perhaps not particularly eager) to die.

Maybe we feel this way because we are biologically hard-wired to do so, but the fact is that the overwhelming majority of people around the world believe that life counts and that the whole is somehow greater than the sum of the parts. ....

Discussions and disputes about the nature of God are best understood as discussions about the nature of meaning. They involve the different answers people give to the question “What is life really all about?”

Christians answer that question with a distinctive understanding of God; looking into that a little more deeply will help us see how Christians can possibly believe that a baby in a manger could be God — and what they mean when they say it. .... (more)

Saturday, December 28, 2013


The last few months of his life Dad suffered from dementia and Mom's Alzheimers got progressively worse during her last six or seven years.  This book excerpt on the subject gets a couple of important things right:
It is important to remember two fundamental points when interacting with people struggling with dementia. First, the older adult with dementia is still an adult that deserves respect, honor, and admiration. It bothers me when healthcare workers (who should know better) treat dementia patients like toddlers. No matter how reduced an older adult’s mental faculties are, baby talk does not improve communication, and it is degrading to older adults. Second, it is crucial to remember the older adult is suffering from a disease that affects memory, cognition, and behavior, so do not take things personally. It is difficult when a parent forgets who you are, expresses no appreciation for your care, and may even be assaultive toward you, but it is futile to engage in fruitful discussion about these matters—go instead to God with your burdens.
Repetitive questions are characteristic. My brother came up with the idea of laminated sheets of paper containing answers to Mom's most frequent questions. We attached one to the wall in view of her chair — her vision was good and she could read — and another copy on the table beside her. That helped her a lot. When she asked whether she had a husband, for instance, we or her attendant would refer her to the answer and she was, for the moment, satisfied. Mom had also written her "Memories" some years before and she spent hours reading and re-reading that. The most important realization for us was that each time she asked a question it was, for her, the first time, and we needed to treat it as such.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

"God bless us, every one!"

This is the blessed morn

ALMIGHTY GOD, which hast given us Thy only begotten Son to take our nature upon Him, and this day to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made Thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by Thy Holy Spirit, through the same Our Lord Jesus Christ who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost now and ever. Amen. [Thomas Cranmer]
IN THE BEGINNING was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. The same came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by Him, and the world knew Him not. He came unto his own, and his own received Him not. But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. [John 1]
O GOD, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of Thine only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive Him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold Him when He shall come to be our Judge, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
[Thomas Cranmer]
Come all you faithful Christians
That dwell here on earth,
Come celebrate the morning
Of our dear Saviour's birth.
This is the happy morning,
This is the blessed morn:
To save our souls from ruin,
The Son of God was born.

Now to Him that is ascended
Let all our praises be;
May we His steps then follow,
And He our pattern be;
So when our lives are ended,
We all may hear Him call —
"Come souls, receive the kingdom,
Prepared for you all."

[Hereford Carol]

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Lessons and Carols from King's College

▶ A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols 2010 (Carols from King's) - YouTube

Everything past and everything future


As if to shame the mightiest human efforts and achievements,
a child is placed at the center of history.
A child, born of humans: a son, given by God.
That is the mystery of the world’s redemption.
Everything past and everything future is encompassed here.
The infinite mercy of almighty God comes to us,
condescends to us in the form of a child, his son.
That this child has been born for us,
that this son has been given,
that this human child, this son of God, belongs to me;
that I know him, have him, love him,
that I am his and he is mine –
my very life now depends entirely on all these things.
A child has our life in his hands.

The Mystery of Holy Night
Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Monday, December 23, 2013

For my sake

My song is love unknown,
My Saviour’s love to me;
Love to the loveless shown,
That they might lovely be.
O who am I, that for my sake
My Lord should take frail flesh and die? 

He came from His blest throne 
Salvation to bestow; 
But men made strange, and none
The longed-for Christ would know:
But Oh! my Friend, my Friend indeed,
Who at my need His life did spend.

Here might I stay and sing,
No story so divine;
Never was love, dear King!
Never was grief like Thine. 
This is my Friend, in Whose sweet praise
I all my days could gladly spend.

Samuel Crossman, 1664

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Messiah shall come!

Via Mere Comments, Johann Sebastian Bach, Cantata for the 4th Sunday in Advent, Karl Richter, Munich Bach-Choir/Orchestra, 1972:

Make ready the pathways
And make ev'ry byway
In faith and in living
Now smooth for the Highest,
Messiah shall come! ....

Arouse us through Thy dear grace;
The ancient man make weaker,
So that the new may live
E'en here while on earth dwelling,
His mind and ev'ry yearning,
His thoughts inclined to Thee.

God was man

No love that in a family dwells,
No caroling in frosty air,
Nor all the steeple-shaking bells
Can with this single Truth compare —
That God was Man in Palestine
And lives today in Bread and Wine.

John Betjeman

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Wondrous love

Filippo Lippi, Medici Nativity, 1455-59
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
[Luke 2:6-7]
What wondrous love is this, O my soul, O my soul!
What wondrous love is this, O my soul
What wondrous love is this that caused the Lord of bliss
To lay aside His crown for my soul, for my soul,
To lay aside His crown for my soul.

What Wondrous Love is This

Friday, December 20, 2013

Let nothing you dismay

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The problem of personality-driven leadership

In a post inspired partly by the controversies surrounding Mark Driscoll, Miles Mullin at The Anxious Bench argues that personality-driven leadership is a problem and not just a problem in mega-churches:
.... The reality of charismatic, personality-driven leadership functions at all levels of ministry in American evangelicalism, including the level of the local congregation.  With some exceptions, evangelical laypeople choose a church based upon the pastor. Denomination and doctrine matter to some extent for some people, but the person of the pastor matters most for most people.  Those who prefer an affable, personable leader choose a church with an affable, personal pastor.  Those who like a somber, serious-minded preacher choose one that suits their tastes. ....

This systemic reality functions to empower the people while simultaneously putting them under the persuasive power of a charismatic pastoral leader.  In evangelical churches, such leaders often accumulate significant power over time.  At first, this power comes through their personal charisma and powers of suasion.  However, as the congregation grows numerically, procedural and governance practices that protect the pastor from criticism and critique are implemented.  ....  The growing scope of the ministry “demands” efficiency and these changes provide the pastor freedom to act decisively, leading quickly and efficiently.  At the same time, they exacerbate the problems latent in personality-driven leadership as they create an echo chamber around the pastor, isolate him from the people, and eventually set him up as an untouchable celebrity.

A perfect solution to this challenge does not exist.  More hierarchical structures bring their own problems.  Yet there are steps that can be taken–by rank-and-file evangelicals and their leaders–to help mitigate these challenges.  First, no matter how much they love their charismatic pastor, evangelical laypeople need to insist on the transparency of governing processes and accountability for leaders in their congregations.  Second, local church leaders need adopt a long-term vision that looks beyond their tenure by putting into place structures of accountability that will work to guarantee integrity and accountability in their congregations–even if it means less efficiency for them in the short-term.  This takes an incredible amount of fortitude, patience, and humility.  After all, what charismatic leader wants to spend time on developing processes that slow down the implementation of their vision? And yet, by doing so, His kingdom is best served–even if theirs is not. [more]

Monday, December 16, 2013

Coincidence or conspiracy?

I've posted several times about my skepticism regarding most conspiracy theories. At Ricochet.com it is argued that the tendency to suspect the existence of a conspiracy is often related to the need to make sense of the senseless. What if something very bad had happened at the Mandela memorial service? Would the speculations about conspiracy have been comparable to those after the JFK assassination?
Glenn Reynolds hits on something I've been thinking about since the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination: the role of everyday coincidences that we normally ignore if there's no crisis.

Glenn notes a few shady-sounding facts surrounding the crazy sign-language interpreter at Nelson Mandela's memorial service. He is schizophrenic, yet he'd been hired by this company before. He has been arrested or convicted on a number of charges, some of them violent. The company that hired him has closed shop and vanished. And now we discover that there was a lack of security at the memorial service. With all of these coincidences put together, the whole situation was an incompetent mess, but nothing bad happened. Now, imagine if the interpreter had turned violent towards President Obama while he stood next to him. We'd be looking at all of  these coincidences differently. We'd probably see them as part of a larger conspiracy to assassinate the President. ....

.... I lived near Washington when the D.C. sniper attacks were happening in 2002, and I recall how we were told to be on the lookout for a white van that had been seen near several of the shootings. A friend at work tried an experiment while he was running errands in the area. He imagined hearing a gunshot, and he'd look around for a white van. He always saw one. Often more than one. The actual sniper had a blue sedan. The vans were just a coincidence.

The latter is just a simple example of the fact that man is good at finding patterns, sometimes where there is only noise. .... [more]

Which version is best?

Get Religion's "Religion Guy" responds to "There are many different versions of the Bible.... Which is considered the closest to the earliest available manuscripts?"
...[M]ost renditions from recent decades are reliable products from well-credentialed scholars capable of wrestling with the best available texts. Because there are so many ancient Greek New Testament manuscripts and the meaning of some Hebrew Old Testament terms is unclear, there are differences in wording among the translations, but key substantive disagreements are few. Instead, the major differences involve the philosophy of translation and, to a lesser extent, the reading skill of the intended audience. ....

Popular paraphrases such as Kenneth Taylor’s Living Bible, Eugene Peterson’s The Message, or J.B. Phillips’ elegant New Testament in Modern English aim for literary flow more than accuracy and are not true translations. Such loose versions can be helpful for fresh thinking and overview, but an actual translation is recommended for careful study of a passage.

Thanks to the computer age, www.biblegateway.com can provide Bible browsers the full text of no less than 46 English translations to search and compare, not only the modern RSV, ESV, NRSV, NIV, NASB, or HCSB, but the King James, Douay-Rheims, John Wycliffe’s pioneering and outlawed version of 1382, and the influential Geneva Bible from 1599. This Web resource has texts in many other languages. It lacks two important English Bibles, the Catholic NAB and the Jewish Publication Society’s modernized Tanakh of 1985. ....
My father introduced me to the J.B. Phillips paraphrase of the New Testament and it remains a favorite. Nothing comes close to the literary quality of the KJV, but the ESV has become my default for personal reading and aloud when I lead congregational worship.

So which Bible version is really the most authentic?

Congregational polity

Recently the Gospel Coalition Blog hosted two entries on polity: "Why You Should Be a Congregationalist," by Hunter Powell, a Baptist, and "Why You Should Be a Presbyterian," by Mark Jones. Today Jonathan Leeman at 9 Marks tells "Non-Congregationalists, Stop Firing Your Church Members!" Leeman concludes with nine reasons he believes authority should rest with the congregation:
  1. The final court of appeal is the church. The whole church must address the unrepentant sinner (“if he refuses to listen even to the church”), and then the whole church must assent to any act of excommunication in order for it to work. (Even if the pastor says, “He’s excommunicated,” the congregation simply has to agree and to participate in the decision to make it happen. Their assent simply must be involved.)
  2. There is no mention of bishops or elders in the text.
  3. Nowhere does the New Testament explicitly connect the keys of the kingdom to pastors/elders, and nowhere do we see pastors/elders unilaterally excommunicating someone. Since the apostles did hold the keys, we do see Peter, for instance, unilaterally excommunicating someone (Simon in Acts 8).
  4. Verse 19 offers an explanation for the activity of binding and loosing in verse 18 in which Jesus refers to “two of you” asking about anything (presumably in terms of binding and loosing). This activity can occur, it seems, wherever there is a church of two or more (less than two is not an “assembly”).
  5. Saying the church possess the keys makes sense of 1 Corinthians 5, where Paul does not call upon the leaders of the Corinthian congregation to “hand this man over to Satan” (5:5). Instead, Paul exhorts the church as a whole to do this when they are formally gathered together in the name of Jesus and under his authority: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan… (1 Cor. 5:4-5). Like Matthew 18, he is arguing that the Corinthian congregation is responsible to declare that this individual is no longer a citizen of the kingdom of Christ, but belongs to the world, where Satan rules (John 12:31; 14:30; Matt. 4:8-9; cf. Matt. 16:23). The same is true in Galatians 1 where he tells the churches not to recognize teachers teaching a false gospel.
  6. It makes sense of 2 Corinthians 2:6-7 and the fact that Paul seems to say some kind of vote happened in an act of church discipline: “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow.”
  7. This explanation has the advantage of corresponding more closely with the Greek conception of an ekklesia, which involved an assembly of citizens who shared rule together. Every citizen had a vote.
  8. Moving authority of the keys away from the local church and to the presbytery divides authority from pastoral and relational care. Matthew 18’s example of discipline, for instance, could now be determined by a group of men with whom the offender shares no fellowship.
  9. Keeping the keys in the hands of the congregation authorizes and equips the baptized believer to fulfill the job responsibilities he or she has by virtue of being a baptized believer and new covenant member.

Friday, December 13, 2013

As dead as a door-nail

The book is better than the films and plays. If you've never read it, you should. I rather envied the friend whose father read it to his family every Christmas Eve.
Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner.  Scrooge signed it: and Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail. ....

Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the warehouse door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley.  Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names: it was all the same to him.

Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grind-stone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shriveled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dogdays; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas. ....

Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, "My dear Scrooge, how are you?  When will you come to see me?" No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blind men's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, "No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master!"

Once upon a time — of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve — old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already — it had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale.

The door of Scrooge's counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters.  Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn't replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed.

"A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!" cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

"Bah!" said Scrooge, "Humbug!" .... [more]
The story can be downloaded, free, here for any form of e-reader: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Tolkien on writing for children

On the eve of the second Hobbit film Joe Carter gives us "9 Things You Should Know About The Hobbit" — Tolkien's book, not the movie. The last of the nine reveals the author's misgivings about the style in which he wrote the book:
9. Tolkien denied that his stories were written for children:
That's all sob stuff. No, of course, I didn't... The Hobbit was written in what I should now regard as bad style, as if one were talking to children. There's nothing my children loathed more. They taught me a lesson. Anything that in any way marked out The Hobbit as for children instead of just for people, they disliked—instinctively. I did too, now that I think about it. All this 'I won't tell you any more, you think about it' stuff. Oh no, they loathe it; it's awful. Children aren't a class. They are merely human beings at different stages of maturity. All of them have a human intelligence which even at its lowest is a pretty wonderful thing, and the entire world in front of them. It remains to be seen if they rise above that.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Lost causes

"Stand, Men of the West!" cautions against the excessive pessimism to which conservatives are prone, noting that neither total defeat nor final victory is possible in this world. The post includes these three quotations. The first is from T.S. Eliot and the others will be recognized by Tolkien fans:
We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.

There’s some good in this world, and it’s worth fighting for.

A day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends, and break all bonds of fellowship; but it is not this day! An hour of woe, and shattered shields, when the Age of Men comes crashing down; but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear on this good earth, I bid you stand, Men of the West!
And those reminded me of this:
.... I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr Paine. All you people don't know about lost causes. Mr Paine does. He said once they were the only causes worth fighting for. And he fought for them for the only reason any man ever fights for them. Because of just one plain, simple rule: Love thy neighbor. In this world full of hatred a man who knows that one rule has a great trust. You know that rule, Mr Paine. I loved you for it, just as my father did. You know that you fight harder for the lost causes. You even die for them. ..... (Mr Smith Goes to Washington)

Of the Father's love...

Sean Morris is grateful for the hymns we sing during this season:
.... In addition to the Christmas hymns and carols being among the most beautiful, sing-able, and familiar, they are also among the most richly doctrinal and creedal. I know of no other time of the year where so many Evangelical and Protestant congregations (from all sections of the worship-style spectrum) are singing and meditating on such explicitly creedal confessions of the church and Scripture with such frequency and regularity. ....
For instance...
...[S]tanzas 2 and 3 of “Of The Father’s Love Begotten”:
O that birth forever blessed, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom heav’n-taught singers sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!
...[I]f, as people of faith, our humanity is both blessed and in various degrees redeemed by the coming of a Savior who took on our humanity, then by all means, hymnody that extols such beautiful truths is worth singing and celebrating!  .... [more]

Monday, December 9, 2013

Reading with Bryan Cranston

Via Althouse, from the New York Times interview with Bryan Cranston (of Breaking Bad and Malcolm in the Middle) about his book-reading habits and likes. I like much of what he likes:
While shooting in Portland, Ore., I got the pleasure of discovering Powell’s Books, an enormous old bookstore (which I hope still exists) and stayed there the entire day. I just curled up in a comfy chair and read. They had a cafe in the store that I frequented. What joy. I suppose it helped that it was a rainy day. Rain creates a Pavlovian response in me to relax with a good book. I find that peace at our beach house, and created a cozy nook just for that purpose. I admit that I am driven to work and have to remind myself that reading is not an indulgence or a luxury. I have to improve that aspect of my life. ....

.... Anna Gunn, my wife on “Breaking Bad,” gave me a beautiful hardcover of The Dangerous Book for Boys. A perfect book to flip through to get back in touch with the little boy within. It inspired me to create a concept for a TV show. ...Stay tuned.

....I like mysteries, thrillers and adventures best. I haven’t been interested in very many science fiction novels. .... [more]
I posted about A Dangerous Book for Boys when it was first published. I bought the book and was very pleased. It can be purchased here in hardback for less than I paid, at less than $10.00. Every parent of a boy should consider it (and there is one for girls, too).

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Siding with the good

"[I]t is our baseness to admire anything evil. It seems to me we should in everything side with virtue, even if we do not feel its charm, because good is good. ...[W]ithout earnestness there is nothing sound or beautiful in character, and a cynical vein indulged coarsens everything in us.”
quoted in a review of The Collected Works of Gerard Manley Hopkins in The Weekly Standard, Dec. 16, 2013, p. 33.

Why do we do it our way?

Christianity Today has an article about New Life Church in Colorado Springs since the Ted Haggard scandal. It is encouraging. I found these passages about one of the branch churches particularly attractive:
.... This past Easter Sunday, my family and I attended New Life Downtown. Meeting in a high school near Colorado Springs' urban core, the fledgling church branch had been looking toward Easter for months, specifically since the beginning of Advent. Pastor Glenn Packiam, 35, teaches the congregation to follow the liturgical calendar, used for centuries by major Christian traditions. During Lent, we had been anticipating the Resurrection through fasting, repentance, and sacrificial giving. Easter was preceded by a Good Friday service at the main campus. There, Packiam and associate pastor Daniel Grothe led a service of mournful prayer before dismissing us in hushed darkness. ....

New Life Downtown's service remains couched in familiar evangelical expressions—there's a set of praise and worship songs, a half-hour sermon, and an overall tone of de rigueur Colorado casual. But it draws on aspects of traditional liturgy, straining to do so in a way that's both serious and inviting. Many Sundays, we recite the Nicene Creed and say the prayers of the people. Every Sunday we hear Scripture read (Old Testament, Epistle, and Gospel) and do corporate confession. We share the Eucharist, receive a blessing, and sing the doxology. ....

"I'm slowly turning the ship toward a more contemplative, thoughtful time," says Boyd. "I inherited a big ol' building with gigantic lights and screens. I've got all the cool stuff. But that's not what we're about."

New Life's convictions have also been examined anew. Its elders recently voted to adopt the Nicene Creed as the church's statement of faith. ....

Gary...is a former fundamentalist who started reading broadly after Haggard resigned. A business traveler whose faith foundered amid the scandal, Gary used long commutes to study Christian history, wondering why the faith at New Life bore little resemblance to the faith he was reading about. As he studied, he brain-dumped and peppered with questions any New Life staff member who would listen: "How does the way we worship determine the way we believe?" "Why don't our songs mention Father, Son, Holy Spirit?" "Would Paul assent to our statement of faith?" Gary pointed pastors to more traditional ways of thinking, praying, reading the Scriptures, and caring for strangers, and asked: "Why do we do it our way instead of this way?" .... [more]
New Life After the Fall of Ted Haggard | Christianity Today

Friday, December 6, 2013

St Nicholas Day

Today, December 6, is St Nicholas Day. Christopher Warner at The Catholic World Report on the real St. Nicholas — the one of legend — and the fictional one most Americans enjoy:
.... In 1809, Washington Irving wrote Knickerbocker’s History of New York, a work of imaginative fiction that included several tales about a jolly, elfin Dutchman scampering down chimneys to bring gifts to children. The American image of Santa Claus was solidified during this time period. “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a poem by Clement Clarke Moore published in 1823 and better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” introduced the enduring image of Santa’s reindeer and sleigh and fixed the date of his visit to Christmas Eve. These are fun stories that make up an important part of our literary tradition and culture in America. However, stuffing chimney-hung stockings is an ancient tradition that pre-dates the American elf lore as well as the Dutch, who fill their children’s wooden clogs with gifts the night before St. Nicholas Day (December 6). Chucking gold into people’s wet socks is a custom started by a young man named Nicholas who lived in Asia Minor around 300 AD.

There are hundreds of stories about St. Nicholas of Myra. He was born in Lycia on the southwest coast of modern Turkey. His wealthy, pious parents, Theophanes and Nonna, read to him the Holy Scriptures and faithfully taught him his prayers, but apparently died while he was still young. His uncle, Bishop Nicholas of Patara, ordained young Nicholas and made him his personal assistant. The zealous youth proved himself an inspiring catechist in the Christian community and an obedient servant to his uncle. During these dutiful years he showed great kind-heartedness and generosity by distributing his inheritance to the poor.

During this time, the three grown daughters of a formerly rich inhabitant were in danger of being sold into slavery because of their father’s pennilessness. Hearing of this, young Nicholas secretly visited the man’s house at night and threw gold in at the window to provide a dowry for one of the girls. ....

.... Nicholas was made archbishop of Myra. Difficult years followed for the archbishop and his flock, who were forced underground by the Roman Emperor Diocletian’s brutal, expansive persecution of Christians. During this time the good archbishop, who had the charism of bi-location, often appeared to imprisoned members of his flock as a model of gentleness, kindness, and love, until the day he too was discovered in hiding. In jail Nicholas continued to sustain and exhort his fellow believers to endure torture and death for the love of Christ. After Diocletian’s death, Nicholas was released and returned to his sacramental duties as a “confessor of the faith”—a titled given to Christians who were imprisoned and tortured for their faith during this period, but not executed. They were extremely revered and respected by their contemporaries.
My favorite story about St Nicholas probably doesn't reflect well on me:
Archbishop Nicholas attended the first Ecumenical Council at Nicaea (325), where he allegedly assailed the heretic Arius. In the middle of his hearing, Arius stood up on his seat in order to be better heard. Enraged by Arius’ denial that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, Archbishop Nicholas strode quickly over to Arius, pulled him down by his beard, and punched him in the face. The scandalized council fathers sprang upon Nicholas, stripped him of his pallium, and threw him in prison for his brutish behavior. That night Nicholas was visited by the Holy Family who loosed his bonds and vested him again in his apostolic garb. The bishops were astonished by this miracle and realized that Nicholas’ anger was righteous. He was honorably restored to his chair—where the aged prelate slept through much of the remaining proceedings. ....

.... [T]he biggest problem with a Turkish Santa Claus seems to be that it spoils the best-kept, sacrosanct secret in America. If children stop believing in the elfin Santa who flies down from the North Pole with his reindeer, won’t they stop getting presents? And if I tell my child different St. Nicholas stories, won’t it spoil Christmas for someone’s precious child when she hears my son tell her at school: “Santa doesn’t live at the North Pole. He sleeps by the Adriatic Sea sweating off myrrh for lame pilgrims.” .... [more]

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Poirot is dead

Hercule Poirot has been played by thirteen different actors in plays and on film including Charles Laughton, Albert Finney, and Peter Ustinov, but the actor who has most effectively inhabited the character is David Suchet who has been playing the role for twenty-five years. Suchet has now completed filming the final stories in the final season of Agatha Christie's "Poirot".

It has been years since I read any of the books (college?) but I have thoroughly enjoyed watching the series. In fact I began re-watching the first season on Netflix this week. "A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s 'Poirot'" by Mollie McArdle is an appreciation of the television series and particularly of Suchet's Poirot. Apart from some rather silly stuff about sexuality and politics in the middle section of the essay, it is interesting and informative and I think will be enjoyed by those who like Christie either in book or filmed form.

.... There is something about violent crime, when treated in a very specific way — that is, named and punished — that provides audiences in any medium a profound comfort. Though ostensibly about a brutal rupture in the social order, mysteries and crime novels end with a solution (murder is exposed) and a resolution (murder is punished).... Law and order (and thus justice), despite pernicious threats, ultimately prevail.

Poirot, because of his status as a private detective, and because he is always right, has remarkable control over the outcome of an investigation. Occasionally, if he feels their cause is just, or if he has a particular fondness for them, he will let guilty parties go. .... The television series has done a better job of complicating this privately held discretionary power than Christie did. In Suchet’s version of Murder on the Orient Express, his detective is far more disturbed by the truth of the killing than his counterpart in the novel:
“No! No, you behave like this and we become just … savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high and if it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed! “
It’s a thrilling speech from Poirot, given during his traditional last-act summation: Suchet’s slack face quivers in the cold air of the stalled, and unheated, train compartment; his words are puffs of ghostly white. It’s also more than a little hypocritical, given Poirot’s lenience in other cases. ....
Of course Poirot is lenient in this case, too.

McArdle explains why Suchet is so good in the role and so much better than the others who have attempted it:
Chiefly, these actors’ worst crimes are that they are not Suchet: a man who has so totally embodied this role that it becomes painful to watch anyone else attempt it.
“There is only one Poirot, and there’s only one way of doing it.”
—Philip Jackson (Inspector Japp in the series)
“He was as real to me as he had been to her,” Suchet writes in his memoir, Poirot and Me, released in the UK this November 7, “a great detective, a remarkable man, if, perhaps, just now and then, a little irritating. He had inhabited my life every bit as much as he must have done hers as she wrote 33 novels, more than 50 short stories, and a play about him.” ....

....He read all the books and copied down every piece of information Christie included about the detective, a master document he used throughout his tenure as Poirot. (It instructs him to take three, or occasionally five, lumps of sugar with his tea or coffee and to not sit down on a park bench without draping a handkerchief over it first.) He also retired the hair and mustache nets his predecessors wore to sleep as sight gags. His performance is a master class in immersive, detail-oriented acting.

“The care and precision that he brings to it is exactly right for the character he’s trying to do,” Jackson says in Super Sleuths, “it’s actually the approach Poirot himself would use.” ....

.... In the mid-1990s, Suchet was filming an episode of Poirot in Hastings, a town on England’s southern coast. He left the set for a quick breather — they were on location on some small road — in his full costume (pince-nez and swan-topped cane included).

“I was very, very tired at the end of the day. I just needed to get away,” he told the Irish Times recently, “I leaned on my cane and went, ‘Phew.’” He gestured to show his exhaustion.

“Then there was a little old lady with her shopping trolley, and she looked at me. I looked at her, and she looked at me again. She says, ‘Well, hello, Mr. Poirot.’”

“What do I do?” he asks himself, “What do I do?” He cannot speak in his own voice to her, looking like this. “I just can’t do it.”

He does what comes natural. He says “Hello, Madame” in Poirot’s voice. (more)
A Time-Lapse Detective: 25 Years of Agatha Christie’s "Poirot"

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Inconsiderate zeal

At Books & Culture Allan Jacobs begins his review of Francis Spufford's Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense with consideration of some of the limitations of rational apologetic for the faith:
.... Would-be apologists cannot think only of the needs of their audience; they must think also of their own limitations. Those limitations may be intellectual: as Sir Thomas Browne wrote in the 17th century, "Every man is not a proper champion for truth, nor fit to take up the gauntlet in the cause of verity. Many from the ignorance of these maxims, and an inconsiderate zeal unto truth, have too rashly charged the troops of error, and remain as trophies unto the enemies of truth." They overrate their own intellectual capabilities, and embarrass not just themselves but the faith they had planned to defend.

But equally important are emotional or spiritual limitations. 'I have found that nothing is more dangerous to one's own faith than the work of an apologist," Lewis wrote in 1945, when he was at the apex of his career as defender of the faith. "No doctrine of that faith seems to me so spectral, so unreal as the one that I have just successfully defended in a public debate." The key word in that second sentence is "successfully": the greatest spiritual danger presents itself not to the one who has manifestly failed (in Milton's phrase) "to justify God's ways to man," but to the one who succeeds, or thinks he succeeds. And the greatest danger is not even pride: it is the discovery that a doctrine put into cold print, or into one's own (fallen, fallible) mouth, loses much of its reality and power. .... [more]