Saturday, February 28, 2015


Joseph Epstein refers to a blog he often reads — one unfamiliar to me — and the first post I read includes this:
On this date, Feb. 28, in 1790, William Cowper writes to his cousin, John Johnson, an aspiring poet:
“Only remember, that in writing, perspicuity is always more than half the battle: the want of it is the ruin of more than half the poetry that is published. A meaning that does not stare you in the face is as bad as no meaning, because nobody will take the pains to poke for it.”
Except graduate students. Perspicuity is a fine word and a fine quality in writing. ....

Friday, February 27, 2015


I have a small collection of hymnbooks gathered from various Christian traditions. I just ordered another. Challies periodically reviews newly published books and Hosanna, Loud Hosannas was one of them today. From the description at Amazon:
Hosanna, Loud Hosanna is a hymnal, it is a textbook, and it is a devotional book. .... 115 essential hymns that every child should sing. Each hymn melody and text has on the opposite page biographical information of the author of the text and the composer of the tune. In addition there are suggestions of what you should consider as you sing this hymn. These devotional thoughts bring great meaning to these wonderful, timeless texts. .... Beautiful calligraphy by artist, Timothy Botts, gracefully divides the hymns under three broad sections of the Church Year, the Attributes of God, and Our Response. .... Keith and Kristin Getty wrote: "We are so excited about the publication of this hymnbook for children. Our prayer is that our children will be singing theologically-rich hymns such as the ones found here long after we are gone and will continue to pass them on from generation to generation."
The Hosanna Loud Hosannas site includes a page linking to pdf samples. Absolutely every aspect of the project seems to be beautifully done.  The first sample section includes the Advent hymns which are: "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel," "Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus," and "Of the Father's Love Begotten." Each hymn is introduced with a page like this one:

It all looks good.

 Hosanna Loud Hosannas Student Hymnal

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

An exaltation

An Exaltation of Larks by James Lipton as described at Amazon:
An "exaltation of larks"? Yes! And a "leap of leopards," a "parliament of owls," an "ostentation of peacocks," a "smack of jellyfish," and a "murder of crows"! For those who have ever wondered if the familiar "pride of lions" and "gaggle of geese" were only the tip of a linguistic iceberg, James Lipton has provided the definitive answer: here are hundreds of equally pithy, and often poetic, terms unearthed by Mr. Lipton in the Books of Venery that were the constant study of anyone who aspired to the title of gentleman in the fifteenth century. ....
Certainly the title of the book is appropriate. From "The Lark Ascending" by George Meredith.
HE rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake,
All intervolv’d and spreading wide,
Like water-dimples down a tide
Where ripple ripple overcurls
And eddy into eddy whirls;
A press of hurried notes that run
So fleet they scarce are more than one,
Yet changingly the trills repeat
And linger ringing while they fleet,
Sweet to the quick o’ the ear, and dear... [more]

Monday, February 23, 2015

What God hath promised

A Facebook comment reminded me of this hymn. I like the message very much. The YouTube version below uses the tune with which I am most familiar.

What God Hath Promised:

God hath not promised skies always blue,
Flower strewn pathways all our lives through;
God hath not promised sun without rain,
Joy without sorrow, peace without pain.
But God hath promised strength for the day,
Rest for the labor, light for the way,
Grace for the trials, help from above,
Unfailing sympathy, undying love.
God hath not promised we shall not know
Toil and temptation, trouble and woe;
He hath not told us we shall not bear
Many a burden, many a care.
God hath not promised smooth roads and wide,
Swift, easy travel, needing no guide;
Never a mountain rocky and steep,
Never a river turbid and deep.

Annie J. Flint, 1919

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Belief and unbelief

Decades ago I was asked to direct a summer camp for Christian high school students. Among other things that involved setting a curriculum for study, and — since I believed it was important for Christians to "always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you" — I made the study about arguments for the faith. I'm rather doubtful that the readings assigned and classes taught that summer had much impact on those particular adolescents but I do remain convinced of the value of such study for Christians generally. One of the books I used was a short (100+ pages) work of apologetic by Paul E. Little, published by InterVarsity, titled Know Why You Believe. It is still in print and I think it remains a pretty good introduction to many of the arguments for the faith. From Little's first chapter, "Is Christianity rational?":
"What is faith?" asked the Sunday School teacher. A young boy answered in a flash, "Believing something you know isn't true." Equating faith with naiveté hinders an objective consideration of Christianity. ....

We live in an increasingly sophisticated and educated world. It is no longer enough to know what we believe. It is essential to know why we believe it. Believing something doesn't make it true. A thing is true or not regardless of whether anyone believes it. This is as true of Christianity as of everything else.

There are two equally erroneous viewpoints abroad today on the important question of whether Christianity is rational. The first is, in essence, an anti-intellectual approach to Christianity. Many misunderstand verses like Colossians 2:8: "See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ." Some use this verse in a way that gives the impression that Christianity is at least non-rational if not irrational. They fail to realize that a clearly reasoned presentation of the Gospel "is important—not as a rational substitute for faith, but as a ground for faith; not as a replacement for the Spirit's working but as a means by which the objective truth of God's Word can be made clear so that men will heed it as the vehicle of the Spirit, who convicts the world through its message." ....

On the other hand there are those who think that becoming a Christian is an exclusively rational process. There is an intellectual factor in the Christian message, but there are also moral considerations. "If any man's will is to do his (God's) will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I (Jesus) am speaking of my own authority" (John 7:17). "The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14). Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit, no man will believe. But one of the instruments the Holy Spirit uses to bring enlightenment is a reasonable explanation of the gospel and of God's dealings with men.

It is quite true that an unenlightened mind cannot come to the truth of God unaided, but enlightenment brings comprehension of a rational body of truth.

The gospel is always equated with truth. Truth is always the opposite of error. "Therefore God sends upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness" (2 Thessalonians 2:11, 12). Those who do not believe are defined by Paul as those who "do not obey the truth" (Romans 2:8). These statements would be meaningless unless there were a way to establish objectively what the truth is. If there were no such possibility, truth and error would, for all practical purposes, be the same because we would have no way to tell one from the other.

In writing to the Romans, Paul makes it clear that men have enough knowledge from creation itself to know there is a God (Romans 1:20). He goes on to show that the basic reason men do not know God is not because he cannot be known or understood but because men have rebelled against him, their creator. "For although they knew God they did not honor him as God" (Romans 1:21) "and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man or birds or animals or reptiles" (Romans 1:23), "they exchanged the truth about God for a lie" (Romans 1:25), and, finally, "they did not see fit to acknowledge God" (Romans 1:28).

The moral issue always overshadows the intellectual issue in Christianity. It is not that man cannot believe—it is that he "will not believe." Jesus pointed the Pharisees to this as the root of the problem. "You refuse to come to me," he told them, "that you may have life" (John 5:40). He makes it abundantly clear that moral commitment leads to a solution of the intellectual problem. "If any man's will is to do his will, he shall know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority" (John 7:17). Alleged intellectual problems are often a smoke screen covering moral rebellion. ....

The question is often asked, "If Christianity is rational and true, why is it that most educated people don't believe ti?" The answer is simple. They don't believe it for the very same reason that most uneducated people don't believe it. They don't want to believe it. It's not a matter of brain power, for there are outstanding Christians in every field of the arts and sciences. It is primarily a matter of the will. ....

Friday, February 20, 2015

“The conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.”

Via Steven Hayward at PowerLine, from Michael Oakeshott's essay “On Being Conservative”:
To some people, ‘government’ appears as a vast reservoir of power which inspires them to dream of what use might be made of it. They have favorite projects, of various dimensions, which they sincerely believe are for the benefit of mankind, and to capture this source of power, if necessary to increase it, and to use it for imposing their favorite projects upon their fellows is what they understand as the adventure of governing men. They are, thus, disposed to recognize government as an instrument of passion: the art of politics is to inflame and direct desire....

Now, the disposition to be conservative in respect of politics reflects a quite different view of the activity of governing. The man of this disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down. And all this, not because passion is a vice and moderation virtue, but because moderation is indispensable if passionate men are to escape being locked in an encounter of mutual frustration. ....
Michael Oakeshott, Rationalism in Politics and other essays

A veil of innocence

The current National Review includes an excerpt from Shelby Steele's Shame: How America's Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country. Steele tells of a time when he was invited to give a speech encouraging American generosity to the Third World. He writes "On the night of the dinner it occurred to me to make the point that America was the world’s exceptional nation — not that its people were superior, but that its wealth and power bestowed upon it a level of responsibility in the world that other nations did not have to bear. Exceptionalism as a burden, not a vanity, was my point." The mere use of "American exceptionalism." elicited boos from one side of the room immediately followed by applause from the other. From "Conservatism as Counterculture":
.... In booing, these audience members were acting out an irony: They were good Americans precisely because they were skeptical of American greatness. Their skepticism was a badge of innocence because it dissociated them from America’s history of evil. To unreservedly buy into American exceptionalism was, for them, to turn a blind eye on this evil, and they wanted to make the point that they were far too evolved for that. ....

In its hunger for innocence, post-1960s liberalism fell into a pattern in which anti-Americanism — the impulse, as the cliché puts it, to “blame America first” — guaranteed one’s innocence of the American past. .... Anti-Americanism is essentially a relativism — a false equivalency — that says America, despite her greatness, is no better an example to the world than many other countries. And in this self-effacement there is a perfect dissociation from the American past, and thus a new moral legitimacy — and so, finally, an entitlement to power. ....

When you win the culture, you win the extraordinary power to say what things mean — you get to declare the angle of vision that assigns the “correct” meaning. When I was a boy growing up under segregation, racism was not seen as evil by most whites. It was simply recognition of a natural law: that some races were inferior to others and that people needed and wanted to be with “their own kind.” .... And so most whites could claim they held no animus toward blacks. Their prejudice, if it was prejudice at all, was perfectly impersonal. It left them free to feel compassion and sometimes even deep affection for those inferiors who cleaned their houses, or served them at table, or suckled their babies. And this was the meaning of things.

The polite booing I elicited by mentioning American exceptionalism at the charity dinner also simply reflected — for the booers and their cohort — the meaning of things. It was a culturally conditioned response. American exceptionalism was a scandal that one booed in the name of humility and decency. Dissociation from it was the road to the Good. And this was so sealed a matter that booing me was only an expression of one’s moral self-esteem — the goodness in oneself bursting forth to censure a heretic. ....

...[P]ost-1960s liberalism had so won over the culture, and so congealed into the new moral establishment, that conservatism — as a politics and a philosophy — became a centerpiece in liberalism’s iconography of evil. It was demonized and stigmatized as an ideology born of nostalgia for America’s past evils — inequality, oppression, exploitation, warmongering, bigotry, repression, and all the rest. Liberalism had won the authority to tell us what things meant and to hold us accountable to those meanings. Conservatism — liberals believed — facilitated America’s moral hypocrisy. Its high-flown constitutional principles only covered up the low motivations that actually drove the country: the self-absorbed pursuit of wealth, the insatiable quest for hegemony in the world, the unacknowledged longing for hierarchy, the repression of women, the exploitation of minorities, and so on.

Conservatism took the hit for all the hypocrisies that came to light in the 1960s. And it remains today an ideology branded with America’s shames. Liberalism, on the other hand, won for its followers a veil of innocence. And this is the gift that recommends it despite its legacy of failed, even destructive, public policies. .... [more]

Wednesday, February 18, 2015


The Baptist church I grew up in participated in a series of Lenten services organized by the local ministers' council. Eventually even the Catholics participated although the Wisconsin Synod Lutherans never did. The Baptist church to which I now belong usually nods toward Lent in our weekly Sabbath worship, but no Ash Wednesday, no fasting, no Holy Week observances. Should we observe Lent? Two views:

Tim Suttle, who is the senior pastor of Redemption Church in Olathe, Kansas, in "Why Evangelicals Need to Observe Lent" expresses a view with which I am sympathetic:
A church without the great traditions of the faith is like a church with amnesia. Rejecting tradition means submitting ourselves and our churches to the tyranny of the relevant, the oligarchy of the innovative, and the arrogance of the avant-garde. More than ever before, the church needs to rediscover our tradition. ....

The best way I know to explain what tradition is (and what it is not), is to borrow the words of Jaroslav Pelikan, who said:
“Tradition is the living faith of the dead; traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time, so all that is needed to solve any problem is to arrive at the supposedly unanimous testimony of this homogenized tradition.”
Lent is one of the great church traditions. .... [more]
Carl Trueman, a Presbyterian and a theologian, in "Ash Wednesday: Picking and Choosing our Piety," finds the inclination to adopt the traditions of others perplexing:
....I can understand Anglicans observing Lent. Hey, I can even approve of them doing so when I am in an exceptionally good mood or have just awoken from a deep sleep and am still a little disoriented. It is part of their history. It connects to their formal liturgical history. All denominations and Christian traditions involve elements that are strictly speaking unbiblical but which shape their historic identity. For Anglicans, the liturgical calendar is just such a thing. These reasons are not compelling in a way that would make the calendar normative for all Christians, yet I can still see how they make sense to an Anglican. But just as celebrating July the Fourth makes sense for Americans but not for the English, the Chinese or the Lapps, so Ash Wednesday and Lent really make no sense to those who are Presbyterians, Baptists, or free church evangelicals.

What perplexes me is the need for people from these other groups to observe Ash Wednesday and Lent. My commitment to Christian liberty means that I certainly would not regard it as sinful in itself for them to do so; but that same commitment also means that I object most strongly to anybody trying to argue that it should be a normative practice for Christians, to impose it on their congregations, or to claim that it confers benefits unavailable elsewhere. .... [more]

The man born to be King

In "The Greatest Drama Ever" Gilbert Meilaender commends some radio plays first broadcast in Britain in the midst of World War II:
On June 4, 1955, C. S. Lewis wrote to Dorothy Sayers to thank her for a pamphlet and letter she had sent him. He noted, in passing, that "as always in Holy Week," he had been "re-reading [Sayers's] The Man Born to Be King. It stands up to this v. particular kind of test extremely well." We might, I think, do far worse than imitate Lewis in our own Lenten reading.

The Man Born to Be King is a series of radio plays, twelve in all, dramatizing the life of Jesus from birth to death and resurrection. First broadcast by the BBC in 1941–1942, they were published in 1943, together with Sayers's notes for each play and a long Introduction she wrote recounting both her aims and approaches in writing the plays and some of the first (often comical) reactions from the public.

Sayers did not suffer fools gladly, and she takes evident delight in recounting objections, many of which grew out of a kind of piety that resisted the deliberate realism of the plays. Thus, for example, among those who wrote her with objections was one who objected to her having Herod tell his court, "Keep your mouths shut." The reason for the objection? Such "coarse expressions" struck the correspondent as "jarring on the lips of any one 'so closely connected with our Lord.'" .... [more]
Meilaender cautions that in her notes about the plays Sayers expresses some prejudices that are unacceptable today and ought to have been then. He also links to "an audio version of Sayers's play cycle [that] is available for free online."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Explaining isn't justifying

One very good historian, Gordon S. Wood, reviews a collection of essays by another, Bernard Bailyn, perhaps the most distinguished historian of the American colonial period. From the review:
.... College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by non-academics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars. ....

...[A] new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.

These historians see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. ....

Bailyn quotes Herbert Butterfield from his remarkable little book of 1931, The Whig Interpretation of History, to emphasize the importance of context in history. “The dispensing of moral judgments upon people or upon actions in retrospect,” wrote Butterfield, is the “most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflection.” And still it goes on.

It continues, Bailyn concedes, because “to explain contextually is, implicitly at least, to excuse.” Placing what we today clearly see as the evils of the past in historical context seems to justify them. Historians can explain, contextually, the Founders’ plight in dealing with slavery. Historians can show, says Bailyn, that they “were confronting without precedent or guidance the problem of racial differences in a theoretically egalitarian society, and that they were struggling with the related dilemma of bondage, an immemorial condition, in a free society.” Nonetheless, the Founders are going to be bitterly condemned by our present-day moralists for not eliminating slavery entirely. The problem, Bailyn concludes, is systematic and inherent: “a seemingly inescapable consequence” of a deeply contextual approach to history.

Despite the difficulties of writing narratives involving good contextual history, however, Bailyn believes it can and must be done. Historians, he writes, have an obligation to tell us, “in some sequential—that is to say, narrative—form, what has happened in the past, what the struggles were all about, where we have come from.” .... [more]

"Suddenly the little boy began to laugh"

I bought several of Elton Trueblood's books while in college and particularly enjoyed this one: The Humor of Christ (1964). From the author's Preface:
The germ of the idea which has finally led to the writing of this book was planted many years ago when our eldest son was four years old. We were reading to him from the seventh chapter of Matthew's Gospel, feeling very serious, when suddenly the little boy began to laugh. He laughed because he saw how preposterous it would be for a man to be so deeply concerned about a speck in another person's eye, that he was unconscious of the fact his own eye had a beam in it. Because the child understood perfectly that the human eye is not large enough to have a beam in it the very idea struck him as ludicrous. His gay laughter was a rebuke to his parents for their failure to respond to humor in an unexpected place. The rebuke served its purpose by causing me to begin to watch for humor in all aspects of the life and teachings of Christ. Sometimes this did not appear until the text had been read and reread many times. ....

We do not know with certainty how much humor there is in Christ's teaching, but we can be sure that there is far more than is normally recognized. In any case there are numerous passages in the recorded teaching which are practically incomprehensible when regarded as sober prose, but which are luminous once we become liberated from the gratuitous assumption that Christ never joked. In some cases the recognition of humor is a genuine solvent. We have heard much, and possibly too much, in our generation, of demythologizing the Gospels; perhaps there is a parallel process which is more fruitful, though we have no catchword for it. This is the process of freeing the Gospel from the excessive sobriety which is provided both by the authors and by us. Once we realize that Christ was not always engaged in pious talk, we have made an enormous step on the road to understanding. ....

Different tastes and different temptations

How is it that reading a C.S. Lewis book a third time is like reading a new book? I first encountered Screwtape when I was a teenager and picked it up again in my twenties. I was amazed at Lewis’ ability to get into the mind of a demon committed to rendering a Christian man ineffective.

Ten years later, I’m reading the Screwtape Letters yet again, and the experience is still fresh. The parts I remembered from my previous reading weren’t the parts that stood out to me this time around. Maybe it’s because I’m the one who has changed over time, not Screwtape. Returning to this book years later is like returning as a different person, with different tastes and different temptations, so that the spiritual insights here, delivered through devishly clever fiction, strike me in different places. ....

Monday, February 16, 2015

Suppose Jesus was the Son of God

Although reading C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity may have been what first persuaded me of the intellectual credibility of orthodox belief, John Stott's Basic Christianity introduced me to theology. I still value that book and would give it to anyone trying to make sense of what Christian belief is about. From Stott's Preface:
...[O]ur starting-point is the historical figure of Jesus of Nazareth. He certainly existed. There is no reasonable doubt about that. His historicity is vouched for by pagan as well as Christian writers.

He was also very much a human being, whatever else may be said about him. He was born, he grew, he worked and sweated, rested and slept, he ate and drank, suffered and died like other men. He had a real human body and real human emotions.

But can we really believe that he was also in some sense 'God'? Is not the deity of Jesus a rather picturesque Christian superstition? Is there any evidence for the amazing Christian assertion that the carpenter of Nazareth was the unique Son of God?

This question is fundamental. We cannot dodge it. We must be honest. If Jesus was not God in human flesh, Christianity is exploded. We are left with just another religion with some beautiful ideas and noble ethics; its unique distinction has gone.

But there is evidence for the deity of Jesus — good, strong, historical, cumulative evidence; evidence to which an honest person can subscribe without committing intellectual suicide. There are the extravagant claims which Jesus made for himself, so bold and yet so unassuming. Then there is his incomparable character. His strength and gentleness, his uncompromising righteousness and tender compassion, his care for children and his love for outcasts, his self-mastery and self-sacrifice have won the admiration of the world. What is more, his cruel death was not the end of him. It is claimed that he rose again from death, and the circumstantial evidence for his resurrection is most compelling.

Supposing Jesus was the Son of God, is basic Christianity merely an acceptance of this fact? No. Once persuaded of the deity of his person, we must examine the nature of his work. What did he come to do? The biblical answer is, he 'came into the world to save sinners'. Jesus of Nazareth is the heaven-sent Saviour we sinners need. We need to be forgiven and restored to fellowship with the all-holy God, from whom our sins have separated us. We need to be set free from our selfishness and given strength to live up to our ideals. We need to learn to love one another, friend and foe alike. This is the meaning of 'salvation'. This is what Christ came to win for us by his death and resurrection.

Then is basic Christianity the belief that Jesus is the Son of God who came to be the Saviour of the world? No, it is not even that. To assent to his divine person, to acknowledge man's need of salvation, and to believe in Christ's saving work are not enough. Christianity is not just a creed; it involves action. Our intellectual belief may be beyond criticism; but we have to translate our beliefs into deeds. ....

Thursday, February 12, 2015

On Lincoln's birthday

....Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether." .... from Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865
The author of Lincoln's Battle with God: A President's Struggle with Faith and What It Meant for America, summarizes his story:
.... Young Abraham rejected his parents' loud, sweaty brand of faith and in part because he could not reconcile the weepy, religious version of his father with the man who beat him, worked him "like a slave," and resented his dreams of a more meaningful life. Historian Allen Guelzo has written, "on no other point did Abraham Lincoln come closer to an outright repudiation of his father than on religion."

Young Abraham chose reading over religion — and reading made him rethink religion. Alongside Aesop's Fables and Robinson Crusoe, he read the works of religious skeptics. Books like Thomas Paine's Age of Reason, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and Ruins by the French writer Volney gave Lincoln the intellectual tools for dismantling the edifice of religion. ....

.... Lincoln drank deeply from this anti-religion stream. Soon he began openly attacking Christianity. Friends recalled that he openly criticized the Bible, that he called Christ a bastard and that he labeled Christianity a myth. He even wrote a pamphlet defending "infidelity." To protect his political aspirations, friends tore the booklet from his hands and burned it. Lincoln was furious. ....

When little Eddie Lincoln died in 1850, just shy of his fourth birthday, his parents were devastated. Ever haunted by depression, Abraham needed help pushing back the darkness. He turned to the Rev. James Smith, a Presbyterian minister in Springfield. The two met, counseled and prayed. Slowly, unsteadily, a change began. ....

We see this in his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation. He told his cabinet he did it because of a covenant he made with God. He would end slavery where he could if God would grant the Union significant victories. He had become convinced the war was divine judgment upon a slave-trading nation. He believed the act of Emancipation could help lift that judgment.

This same sense of need to mediate between God and the nation infused his Second Inaugural Address, perhaps the greatest of American political sermons. God wills this war, Lincoln said, in order to purge the wickedness of slavery. Now, at war's end, both North and South should humble themselves, honor God's righteous judgment, and heal the land through forgiveness and mercy. It tells us much about Lincoln's religious views in the latter years of his presidency that he expected the speech to disappoint the nation. Why? "Men are not flattered by being shown that there has been a difference of purpose between the Almighty and them," he explained to a friend. .... [more]
Stephen Mansfield: Abraham Lincoln's Atheist Period

Monday, February 9, 2015


The current controversy about religious extremism caused me to want to know more about the the Crusades quite apart from the ensuing political brouhaha. I just ordered Thomas Madden's The Concise History of the Crusades in the Kindle version. Madden is a medievalist who has published much on that era including a couple of books on this subject. The one I ordered is the shorter one. Madden has noted that Obama was not the first President to have become embroiled in controversy about "Crusades." After George W. Bush's use of the word Madden wrote "Crusade Myths" in 2002.  (Madden's "The Real Inquisition" is also interesting.)

"Crusade Myths" is very much worth reading. Here are a couple excerpts:
So, what is the real story of the Crusades? As you might imagine, it is a long story. But there are good histories, written in the last twenty years, that lay much of it out. For the moment, given the barrage of coverage that the Crusades are getting nowadays, it might be best to consider just what the Crusades were not. Here, then, are some of the most common myths and why they are wrong.

Myth 1: The Crusades were wars of unprovoked aggression against a peaceful Muslim world.

This is as wrong as wrong can be. From the time of Mohammed, Muslims had sought to conquer the Christian world. They did a pretty good job of it, too. After a few centuries of steady conquests, Muslim armies had taken all of North Africa, the Middle East, Asia Minor, and most of Spain. In other words, by the end of the eleventh century the forces of Islam had captured two-thirds of the Christian world. Palestine, the home of Jesus Christ; Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism; Asia Minor, where St. Paul planted the seeds of the first Christian communities: These were not the periphery of Christianity but its very core. And the Muslim empires were not finished yet. They continued to press westward toward Constantinople, ultimately passing it and entering Europe itself. As far as unprovoked aggression goes, it was all on the Muslim side. At some point what was left of the Christian world would have to defend itself or simply succumb to Islamic conquest. ....

Myth 8: Muslims, who remember the Crusades vividly, have good reason to hate the West.

Actually, the Muslim world remembers the Crusades about as well as the West—in other words, incorrectly. That should not be surprising. Muslims get their information about the Crusades from the same rotten histories that the West relies on. The Muslim world used to celebrate the Crusades as a great victory for them. They did, after all, win. But western authors, fretting about the legacy of modern imperialism, have recast the Crusades as wars of aggression and the Muslims as placid sufferers. In so doing they have rescinded centuries of Muslim triumphs, offering in their stead only the consolation of victimhood. [more]
 Some earlier posts at this site on the general subject:
The current political controversy over medieval events has resulted in a lot of information online in easily digestible form. As I find more I may link to it, too.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Reason, objectivity, and truth, under seige

Steven Hayward recently finished a year on the faculty of one of our large state universities and reports on the experience in "Grievance School" in National Review. I suspect that his experiences in Boulder would have been similar at the university in my city. Some of his observations:
.... In most departments of political science, history, English, anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and sociology, you will find several professors whose main focus is the holy trinity of race, class, and gender, along with their close correlates, post-colonialist, postmodern, and post-structural analysis. (If “holy trinity” seems like an infelicitous metaphor, you could go with the Four Horsemen of the Leftist Apocalypse instead: patriarchy, colonialism, privilege, and Israel.)  ....

Gradually coming into focus is the plain fact that today we have two universities — the traditional university, which, while mostly left-liberal, still resides on Planet Earth, and the grievance university, mired in the morass of postmodern obsession with oppression and privilege. You can still get a decent education, even from very liberal professors — I had several excellent ones as both an undergraduate and a graduate student — if they teach the subject matter reasonably, and I came to respect several far-left professors at Boulder who plainly held to traditional views about the importance of reason, objectivity, and truth. But these traditional hallmarks of the university — one might call them the original holy trinity of higher education — are fighting words to the postmodern Left, which openly rejects reason, objectivity, and truth as tools of oppression.

.... You could argue with a Marxist. Today’s ruling campus leftist ideology is indistinguishable from nihilism and rejects any consideration of nature as the ground of anything. In fact, invoking human nature is one of the surest ways of calling down ferocious denunciation from the campus Left.

The irony of today’s campus Left is the real privilege of identity politics, whose practitioners shout down anyone who dares question their premises. The current temper of the campus Left is way beyond social utopianism; it demands ritual conformism worthy of the Soviet purge trials or Maoist struggle sessions. When the campus Left cries out “Privilege!” it means “Shut up and conform.” .... [more, probably behind a subscription wall]

"When the storm of life is raging..."

From Bob Dylan's speech at the MusiCares benefit:
.... The Blackwood Bros. have been talking to me about making a record together. That might confound expectations, but it shouldn't. Of course it would be a gospel album. I don't think it would be anything out of the ordinary for me. Not a bit. One of the songs I'm thinking about singing is "Stand By Me" by the Blackwood Brothers. Not "Stand By Me" the pop song. No. The real "Stand By Me."

The real one goes like this:
When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the storm of life is raging / Stand by me / When the world is tossing me / Like a ship upon the sea / Thou who rulest wind and water / Stand by me

In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / In the midst of tribulation / Stand by me / When the hosts of hell assail / And my strength begins to fail / Thou who never lost a battle / Stand by me

In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / In the midst of faults and failures / Stand by me / When I do the best I can / And my friends don't understand / Thou who knowest all about me / Stand by me
That's the song. I like it better than the pop song. If I record one by that name, that's going to be the one. I'm also thinking of recording a song, not on that album, though: "Oh Lord, Please Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood." .... [more]
There are two more verses that follow the ones Dylan quoted:
In the midst of persecution / Stand by me / In the midst of persecution /  Stand by me / When my foes in battle array / Undertake to stop my way / Thou who saved Paul and Silas / Stand by me

When I'm growing old and feeble / Stand by me / When I'm growing old and feeble / Stand by me / When my life becomes a burden / And I'm nearing chilly Jordan / O thou lily of the valley / Stand by me

Saturday, February 7, 2015

"Real flesh and blood heroes who do something"

The heading for this post is from a 2004 New Yorker article, "Nancy Drew’s Father," quoting the man it was about, Edward Stratemeyer.
In 1926, ninety-eight per cent of the boys and girls surveyed in a poll published by the American Library Association listed a Stratemeyer book as their favorite, and another survey showed that the Tom Swift books, which the syndicate launched in 1910, were at the top of the list. Thirty-one series were in full swing. Yet Stratemeyer still wasn’t content. He had noticed the growing popularity in the twenties of adult detective fiction and of pulp magazines like Black Mask, which was founded by H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. .... Stratemeyer saw that this detective fiction, grafted onto an adventure story, might appeal to children. In 1926, the year that S.S. Van Dine’s The Benson Murder Case introduced Philo Vance to the world, Stratemeyer wrote the outline for the first three volumes of a series that proved more popular than any that had come before: the Hardy Boys.
Libraries refused to carry his books, but Edward Stratemeyer wasn't bothered because that meant they had to be bought. According to a Wikipedia entry Stratemeyer was... of the most prolific writers in the world, producing in excess of 1,300 books himself, selling in excess of 500 million copies, and created the well-known fictional-book series for juveniles including The Rover Boys, The Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, The Hardy Boys, and Nancy Drew series, among others. ....

He pioneered the book-packaging technique of producing a consistent, long-running, series of books using a team of freelance writers. All of the books in the series used the same characters in similar situations. All of the free lance writers were published under a pen name owned by his company. ....
Another Wikipedia entry, about that company, the Stratemeyer Syndicate explains, among other things, that in the series...
Characters should not age or marry. Protagonists of early series such as the Rover Boys, Tom Swift, and Ruth Fielding did grow up and marry, but sales dropped afterwards, prompting the Syndicate to make a rule that characters never marry.

I owned most of the Hardy Boys series in one of the later  — updated — incarnations. I once came across an original Tower Treasure and found the earlier version of a by then very familiar story interesting especially because of the dated slang and technology. But the ones I owned had been modernized, eliminating references to "roadsters," etc. My copies are long gone, outgrown and given away.

Several of the series are available in electronic form from Gutenberg and ManyBooks.  The books are hardly readable as an adult but I did enjoy the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew a lot when I was about ten. Unfortunately those two series are unavailable free because they are still being sold commercially. Following are some of the early series that can be downloaded without cost and in a variety of formats. There is a caution: in the early books there is some slang and stereotyping that should have been unacceptable then and is definitely so now.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Stop being stupid

Elizabeth Scalia shares "10 Things You Now Know About Me." I particularly liked this one:
My favorite verse from the bible is “you have saved me from the pit of destruction, when you cast behind your back all of my sins.” (Isaiah 38:17). I fully believe that God is that merciful, and yet I have a harder time forgiving myself, because of pride. So I pester priests with redundant confessions until they finally sigh and say, “you’ve told me this before,” and I say, “yes, but…” and they say some variation of, “Yeah, no buts; if God has forgiven you, and he has, then you have to stop thinking you know better than God and stop trying to do his job for him, which is what you really should be confessing to at this point.” then they tsk and under their breath they mutter, “talk about being an idolator…” Except for the Chinese priest who puts it to me in a beautifully succinct manner: “you have been stupid; you know you have been stupid; you must stop being stupid.” I love that priest the best.

How to think about politics

...[A]nyone hoping to understand Burke is confronted with an array of historians and philosophers of aesthetics, politics, and political theory; social conservatives and free-market liberals; and even closet radicals—all claiming that they hold the key to the “real” Burke. Undaunted, Bromwich sets out to demonstrate “the originality and continuities” of Burke’s thought. The result is an intellectual biography of the best kind. Bromwich seeks to convey “what it meant to think like Edmund Burke” and to demonstrate the coherence and relevance of Burke’s moral and political vision. .... In Bromwich’s hands, Burke offers better lessons about how to think than about what to think.

He rejects the view of Burke as “an anti-theoretical critic of modern politics, a ‘pragmatic’ adapter to local needs.” According to Bromwich, Burke was no mere improviser but rather “cherished certain abstract ideas unconditionally.” To unearth those ideas and to recover Burke’s thought processes, Bromwich performs sincere, disciplined readings of Burke’s work

.... If there is one underlying principle that Bromwich seizes on, it is Burke’s oft-repeated claim that “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” This does not mean that Burke was interested in simply reconciling moral principles and political practices. For Burke, knowledge of human nature (and culturally acquired “second” natures) set limits on what people could reasonably demand of themselves and others. Political theorists and politicians should not try to close the gap between lofty moral goals and the mundane, grubby reality of everyday politics but rather work within that very space, recognizing it as the realm of the possible. As Burke remarked in 1782, “The touchstone of all theories which regard man and the affairs of men [is,] Does it suit his nature in general? Does it suit his nature as modified by habit?” Radical revolutionaries, he complained, “are so taken up with their theories about the rights of man, that they have totally forgotten his nature.”

Despite Burke’s own insistence that he mistrusted abstract ideas, Bromwich draws attention to Burke’s understanding of their power and the way they operate—especially ideas Burke considered wrong or misunderstood. For example, Burke was less interested in whether such a thing as a “natural right” existed than in understanding why someone would believe in such an idea and what would follow from that belief. ....

...[Burke] pushed for what people today might call “good governance.” At its most basic, this means considering whether policies are suitable to the customs and nature of the people to whom they apply and considering the likely effect of any particular policy before establishing it. To prevent abuse, Burkean good governance requires constraining political power, even—perhaps especially—the influence of majorities. And it requires regularity, consistency, and predictability when it comes to interpreting and enforcing laws. 

This vision of government is difficult to turn into anything resembling a rule; it might sound like mere common sense. But for Burke, such objectives—and not more abstract quests, such as maximizing equality, liberty, or wealth—represented the important stuff of politics. ....

Burke’s fundamental objection to revolutions inspired by rationalistic ideals was their arrogance. As he wrote in Reflections, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.” In Burke’s view, knowledge is held not individually but collectively—in institutions, in customs, and even in shared prejudices. Maintaining a population’s allegiance to and trust in such institutions is a more important goal than promoting efficiency or rationality. Almost any theory, even those espoused by self-proclaimed conservatives, can be held in an absolutistic way such that it poses a threat to institutional and political stability. That is perhaps the most crucial lesson Burke has to offer modern politics. [more]
Iain Hampsher-Monk | Edmund Burke and Conservative Politics | Foreign Affairs