Monday, March 30, 2015

The first freedom

The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act of 1993 was introduced in the House by then Representative Chuck Schumer where it passed without dissent. It passed the Senate 97-3 and was signed by President Clinton. Democrats held majorities in both houses. Subsequently nineteen states passed similar legislation and ten others (including Wisconsin) had laws or state constitutional provisions that were interpreted by their courts as having essentially the same effect as the federal law.

Illinois passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1998. President Obama, then a state legislator, voted for it.

So, why the controversy over Indiana's recent adoption of essentially the same language?

The free exercise of religion has been called the first freedom, that which originally sparked the development of the full range of the Bill of Rights. Our Founders cared a lot about religion. And one of the reasons they worked so hard to get the first amendment into the Bill of Rights at the head of the class is that they well understood what could happen to this country, how both religion and Government could be perverted if there were not some space created and some protection provided. They knew that religion helps to give our people the character without which a democracy cannot survive. They knew that there needed to be a space of freedom between Government and people of faith that otherwise Government might usurp.

They have seen now, all of us, that religion and religious institutions have brought forth faith and discipline, community and responsibility over two centuries for ourselves and enabled us to live together in ways that I believe would not have been possible. We are, after all, the oldest democracy now in history and probably the most truly multiethnic society on the face of the Earth. And I am convinced that neither one of those things would be true today had it not been for the importance of the first amendment and the fact that we have kept faith with it for 200 years.

What this law basically says is that the Government should be held to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone’s free exercise of religion. This judgment is shared by the people of the United States as well as by the Congress. We believe strongly that we can never, we can never be too vigilant in this work. ....

.... There is a great debate now abroad in the land which finds itself injected into several political races about the extent to which people of faith can seek to do God’s will as political actors. I would like to come down on the side of encouraging everybody to act on what they believe is the right thing to do. ....

.... We are a people of faith. We have been so secure in that faith that we have enshrined in our Constitution protection for people who profess no faith. And good for us for doing so. That is what the first amendment is all about. But let us never believe that the freedom of religion imposes on any of us some responsibility to run from our convictions. ....
The freedoms protected by the First Amendment all protect actions that may inconvenience, offend, or even cause some interference with the freedom of, others. That is why the courts need criteria to decide how to balance competing rights.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The pride of the South

Yes, and there were Union men who wept with joyful tears,
When they saw the honored flag they had not seen for years;
Hardly could they be restrained from breaking forth in cheers
("While we were marching through Georgia")

From Josh Gerlenter's "The Romance of the Confederacy"
.... I wouldn’t ask sons of Confederate veterans to disown their ancestry; in fact, my mother’s mother’s family was southern, and four of my great-great-grandfathers fought in the Confederate army. And I know that lots of Americans sincerely see the Confederate flag as a symbol of states’ rights — particularly because virtually no Confederate soldiers actually owned slaves. But, personally, I see the Confederate flag as the symbol of men who, as Lincoln put it, wrung their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; who, “to strengthen, perpetuate, and extend” slavery, were willing to “rend the Union, even by war.” And I’m a very reasonable man.  ....

Needless to say, the South has lots to be proud of, and — though it might not be my place — I’d like to point out something that could (and ought to) supplant its traditional reverence for the Confederacy.

The best estimates of the size of the Confederate army range from 750,000 men to a million. One hundred ten thousand additional southerners fought in the Civil War — for the Union. That means that more than one of every ten southerners who fought in the war fought to end slavery and keep the country united. The South ought to be very proud of that.

Over the last 150 years, historians have carefully dissected the Union Army, which was 2.2 million strong; 1.2 million Boys in Blue were born in the United States, but the rest were immigrants: 5,000 Polish Americans born in Poland, 6,000 Mexican Americans born in Mexico, 7,000 Jewish Americans born all over Europe (including, I’ll slip in, another of my great-great-grandfathers). The largest subdivisions were 200,000 men each from Germany and Ireland; the third largest such “minority” was the southern contingent. A very impressive record. In fact, southerners constituted such a large proportion of the Union Army that every Southern state except South Carolina assembled at least one battalion. Ulysses S. Grant singled them out for praise as “brave and loyal men who volunteered under great difficulty.” ....

The face of Jesus?

From the Wikipedia article about "Relics associated with Jesus":
...[T]he sixteenth-century Catholic theologian Erasmus wrote sarcastically about the proliferation of relics, and the number of buildings that could have been constructed from the wood claimed to be from the cross used in the Crucifixion of Christ. Similarly, while experts debate whether Christ was crucified with three or with four nails, at least thirty Holy Nails continue to be venerated as relics across Europe.
That skepticism was and remains the attitude of most Protestants about relics and especially about the idea of venerating them. I suppose the argument may be made that, just as icons are not actual images of the persons represented, like them, relics—whether actual or not—can serve a spiritually useful function of directing attention toward what they represent.

My only interest in such things has been in a very specific relic: the Shroud of Turin, described in a recent article as "a 14.5’ by 3.5’ linen cloth bearing the image of the front and back of a man who has been scourged and crucified." It is, in fact, alleged to be the burial shroud of Jesus. If authentic, it provides remarkable information about the Crucifixion, and if not, it may provide interesting information about crucifixions. The Wikipedia article referred to above describes some of the controversy:
Painting based on the Shroud image
Various tests have been performed on the shroud, yet both believers and skeptics continue to present arguments for and against the validity of the tests. One of the contentious issues is the radiocarbon dating in 1988 which yielded results indicating that the shroud was made during the Middle Ages.

Believers have since presented arguments against the 1988 carbon dating results, ranging from conflicts in the interpretation of the evidence, to samples being taken from a non-representative corner, to additional carbon content via fire damage. Heated debate has ensued ever since.

Believers claim that pollen residues on the Shroud of Turin shows strong evidence that it originated in the Jerusalem area before the 8th century.

Both skeptics and proponents tend to have very entrenched positions on the cause of formation of the shroud image, (at times pitting science versus divine formation) which has made dialogue very difficult. This may prevent the issue from being fully settled to the satisfaction of all sides in the near future. ....
"The Shroud: Not a Painting, Not a Scorch, Not a Photograph" presents the opinion of one of the scientists who believes the Shroud is authentic:
Barrie Schwortz is one of the world’s leading experts on the Shroud. In 1978, Schwortz, a technical photographer, was invited to participate in the first ever in-depth scientific examination of the cloth, known as the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STRUP). A non-practicing Jew at the time, he reluctantly agreed to be part of STRUP, fully expecting the team to prove that the Shroud was a painted image from the Middle Ages. But after many years of study and reflection he came to believe in its authenticity.
The interview is interesting as is Schwortz's website about the Shroud controversies.

I've been following the historical and scientific debates about the Shroud of Turin since sometime in the 1970s. If it were to be proven beyond reasonable doubt to be the likely shroud in which Our Lord's body was covered while in the tomb, it would provide a lot of information about how he suffered—authenticating what the gospels tell us with physical evidence. It would also give us information about Our Lord's physical appearance. But, if it isn't authentic, that discovery would be unlikely to shake a believer's faith.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

It's not gonna rain forever

You can stand alone
Or with somebody else
Or stand with all of us, together
If you can believe
In something bigger than yourself
You can follow the flag forever

They say it's just a dream
  Some dreamers dreamed
That it's an empty thing 
That really has no meaning
They say it's all a lie
But it's not a lie
I'm going to follow the flag 'til I die

Into every life a little rain must fall
But it's not gonna rain forever
You can rise above—you can rise above it all
We will follow the flag together
We will follow the flag forever

"It’s not one of Newman’s most memorable songs — and maybe it’s the country’s current state of distress that reminds him of it — but, talking on the phone from his home studio in L.A., he cites it as an example of his 'songs that are close to the line.… I didn’t exactly mean [‘Follow the Flag’] as a straight-out patriotic song. But if I wanted to take advantage of what it is, I could. It’s so close to the line you can’t tell what it is. And that may be a mistake.'

"You think?

"'No,' he decides. 'I want it to get close to the line.'" .... (Newman's Own, 2001)

"To be somewhere else"

Via Anecdotal Evidence, quoting Guy Davenport on reading:
I had never before felt how lucky and privileged I am, not so much for being literate, a state of grace that might in different circumstances be squandered on tax forms or law books, but for being able, regularly, to get out of myself completely, to be somewhere else, among other minds, and return (by laying my book aside) renewed and refreshed.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


A review of Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives includes a number of quotations from Gretchen Rubin's book, among which:
Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life. We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future. If we change our habits, we change our lives. ....

Self-control is a crucial aspect of our lives. People with better self-control (or self-regulation, self-discipline, or willpower) are happier and healthier. They’re more altruistic; they have stronger relationships and more career success; they manage stress and conflict better; they live longer; they steer clear of bad habits. Self-control allows us to keep our commitments to ourselves. Yet one study suggests that when we try to use self-control to resist temptation, we succeed only about half the time, and indeed, in a large international survey, when people were asked to identify their failings, a top choice was lack of self-control. ....

And that’s why habits matter so much. With habits, we conserve our self-control. ....

Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control. ....

When possible, the brain makes a behavior into a habit, which saves effort and therefore gives us more capacity to deal with complex, novel, or urgent matters. Habits mean we don’t strain ourselves to make decisions, weigh choices, dole out rewards, or prod ourselves to begin. Life becomes simpler, and many daily hassles vanish. .... [more]
Habit frees the mind from having to decide, allowing thought about other things.

Better than Before: A Psychological Field Guide to Harnessing the Transformative Power of Habit | Brain Pickings

Monday, March 23, 2015

Priorities upside down

Via Justin Taylor, Screwtape's advice applied to politics: "Once you have made the World an end, and faith a means, you have almost won your man, and it makes very little difference what kind of worldly end he is pursuing."
Let him begin by treating the Patriotism or the Pacifism as a part of his religion.

Then let him, under the influence of partisan spirit, come to regard it as the most important part.

Then quietly and gradually nurse him on to the stage at which the religion becomes merely part of the “cause,” in which Christianity is valued chiefly because of the excellent arguments it can produce in favour of the British war-effort or of Pacifism. .... (Taylor's emphases)
C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, chapter 7

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Fundamentally human

Jay Nordlinger has discovered "Are Women Human?", an address "delivered to a Women's Society in 1938" by Dorothy L. Sayers. Nordlinger reminds us who Dorothy Sayers was:
Dorothy L. Sayers was an English writer born in 1893. She was an outstanding student at Oxford. She went on to write poems, plays, novels, essays, all sorts of things. She was chiefly known for her crime fiction, whose star sleuth was Lord Peter Wimsey. She wrote an important translation of The Divine Comedy. In short, she was a woman of letters. Sayers died in 1957.
...and then proceeds to the address, which he very much likes. It was later published in a collection of essays called Unpopular Opinions (1946), which I own. I re-read it today and it is, I think, just about as relevant today as it was in 1938 — and not just about the sexes. From "Are Women Human?":
...[I]t is the mark of all movements, however well-intentioned, that their pioneers tend, by much lashing of themselves into excitement, to lose sight of the obvious. In reaction against the age-old slogan, "woman is the weaker vessel," or the still more offensive, "woman is a divine creature," we have, I think, allowed ourselves to drift into asserting that "a woman is as good as a man," without always pausing to think what exactly we mean by that. What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether, viz: not that every woman is, in virtue of her sex, as strong, clever, artistic, level-headed, industrious and so forth as any man that can be mentioned; but, that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person. .... What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one's tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. That has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women—and it is the error into which feminist women are, perhaps, a little inclined to fall into about themselves. ....

.... The late D.H. Lawrence, who certainly cannot be accused of underrating the importance of sex and talked a good deal of nonsense upon the subject, was yet occasionally visited with shattering glimpses of the obvious. He said in one of his Assorted Articles:
"Man is willing to accept woman as an equal, as a man in skirts, as an angel, a devil, a baby-face, a machine, an instrument, a bosom, a womb, a pair of legs, a servant, an encyclopedia, an ideal or an obscenity; the one thing he won't accept her as is a human being, a real human being of the feminine sex."
"Accepted as a human being!"—yes; not as an inferior class and not, I beg and pray all feminists, as a superior class—not, in fact, as a class at all, except in a useful context. .... There is a fundamental difference between men and women, but it is not the only fundamental difference in the world. There is a sense in which my charwoman and I have more in common than either of us has with, say, Mr. Bernard Shaw; on the other hand, in a discussion about art and literature, Mr. Shaw and I should probably find we had more fundamental interests in common than either of us had with my charwoman. .... Then there are points on which I, and many of my own generation of both sexes, should find ourselves heartily in agreement; but on which the rising generation of young men and women would find us too incomprehensibly stupid for words. A difference of age is as fundamental as a difference of sex; and so is a difference of nationality. All categories, if they are insisted upon beyond the immediate purpose which they serve, breed class antagonism and disruption in the state, and that is why they are dangerous. ....

Indeed, it is my experience that both men and women are fundamentally human, and that there is very little mystery about either sex, except the exasperating mysteriousness of human beings in general. And though for certain purposes it may still be necessary, as it undoubtedly was in the immediate past, for women to band themselves together, as women, to secure recognition of their requirements as a sex, I am sure that the time has now come to insist more strongly on each woman's—and indeed each man's—requirements as an individual person. It used to be said that women had no esprit de corps; we have proved that we have—do not let us run into the opposite error of insisting that there is an aggressively feminist "point of view" about everything. To oppose one class perpetually to another—young against old, manual labour against brain-worker, rich against poor, woman against man—is to split the foundations of the State; and if the cleavage runs too deep, there remains no remedy but force and dictatorship. If you wish to preserve a free democracy, you must base it—not on classes and categories, for this will land you in the totalitarian State, where no one may act or think except as the member of a category. You must base it upon the individual Tom, Dick and Harry, on the individual Jack and Jill—in fact, upon you and me.

(Dorothy L. Sayers, Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-one Essays, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1946, pp. 106-116)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Congregational autonomy

Albert Mohler, interviewed at WORLD, on the nature of "autonomy of the local church" in the Southern Baptist Convention. It seems to me a pretty good description of that tenet of Baptist polity:
We do believe in the autonomy of the local church, but we also believe in the autonomy of the Convention. The Convention has the right to set its own expectations for membership. Those churches who associate together in the Southern Baptist Convention have not only the right, but every responsibility to determine the churches with whom they want to be in cooperation and do this work. … The Southern Baptist Convention was being quintessentially Baptist when it said, we’re going to take our stand here. These are going to be the parameters of our cooperation. If you’re within those parameters, we’d love to have you. If you’re outside those parameters, you need to join with a Baptist denomination or do whatever that fits your convictions, but not here.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

" and incapable of living with doubt..."

John Gray again, responding this time to Steven Pinker's confidence that things are getting better and better. Gray is dismissive of the idea that, as The Guardian summarizes, "war and violence in the developed world are declining." He argues that "the idea of moral progress is wishful thinking and plain wrong."

My abortive graduate school thesis was to have been about the "idea of progress."

From Gray's essay:
...[M]odern thinkers look to numbers for signs that show the emergence of a world founded on rational and moral principles. They believe that improvement in ethics and politics is incremental and accretive: one advance is followed by another in a process that stabilises and strengthens the advances that have already taken place. Now and then regress may occur, but when this happens it does so against a background in which the greater part of what has been achieved so far does not pass away. Slowly, over time, the world is becoming a better place.

The ancient world, along with all the major religions and pre-modern philosophies, had a different and truer view. Improvements in civilisation are real enough, but they come and go. While knowledge and invention may grow cumulatively and at an accelerating rate, advances in ethics and politics are erratic, discontinuous and easily lost. Amid the general drift, cycles can be discerned: peace and freedom alternate with war and tyranny, eras of increasing wealth with periods of economic collapse. Instead of becoming ever stronger and more widely spread, civilisation remains inherently fragile and regularly succumbs to barbarism. This view, which was taken for granted until sometime in the mid-18th century, is so threatening to modern hopes that it is now practically incomprehensible.

Unable to tolerate the prospect that the cycles of conflict will continue, many are anxious to find continuing improvement in the human lot. Who can fail to sympathise with them? Lacking any deeper faith and incapable of living with doubt, it is only natural that believers in reason should turn to the sorcery of numbers. How else can they find meaning in their lives? .... [more]

The pathologizing of dissent

A "phobia" is defined by Merriam-Webster as "an exaggerated usually inexplicable and illogical fear of a particular object, class of objects, or situation." I, for example, am acrophobic, which manifests itself every time I look down from the balcony of my seventh-floor apartment. Phobias exist, but the use of the term in political debate is almost always illegitimate; it is a particular type of ad hominem, a way to de-legitimize without engaging. From Brendan O'Neill's "Stop Smearing Critics of Islam as Islamophobes,":
.... We live in an era of phobias. They are apparently spreading like a ravenous blob, turning more and more human minds black with prejudice. Today, it isn’t only fear of spiders, clowns, or open spaces that is branded a phobia—so are certain ways of thinking, certain beliefs, moral viewpoints that fall outside the mainstream. ....

It isn’t only Islam and its sympathizers who use the phobe label to chill legitimate moral debate. Everyone’s at it.

Gay-rights activists have become way too fond of using the word “homophobe,” not only to attack actual anti-gay bigots but also to slam people who simply oppose gay marriage, for religious reasons, or who aren’t in love with every aspect of the gay lifestyle. Here, too, legit moral viewpoints are reimagined as irrational fears and in the process demonized. ....

Heaven help anyone who criticizes any aspect of transgender politics. Question the idea that boys who identify as girls should be allowed to use the girls’ toilets at school and you’re a transphobe. Wonder out loud if gender is at least partly biological and you're a transphobe. ....

What we’re witnessing is the pathologizing of dissent, the treatment of edgy or just eccentric ideas as illnesses requiring silencing or even treatment. It’s a cynical attempt by certain groups and their media cheerleaders to opt-out of the battle of ideas by branding their opponents as irrational, and therefore not worthy of engagement.

.... In Nineteen Eighty-Four, O’Brien, the torturer in Room 101, offers to cure Winston Smith of his anti-authority outlook: “You are mentally deranged," he tells him. “Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane!”

The 21st-century West is rife with O’Briens, keen to cure us of our phobias. .... [more]

Monday, March 16, 2015

What should you read before you die?

I recently developed a reading challenge for myself based on the authors and works found in a 1950s edition of the children’s card game “Authors” that my grandmother had. These are mostly works that were even at the time of the card game’s publication 100 years old or older.

And now they’re older still!

My thinking was that it might somehow be worth reading books that a previous generation had already considered classics, but many of which aren’t read much anymore. So I’m currently in the middle of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, and it’s very slow going due to a couple century’s worth of changes in language and literary style. But I’m really enjoying the heck out of it. ....
Goodreads has a list of the books from the game: Authors Card Game (53 books) 

When I was about ten our landlady, Miss Kidder, was a retired elementary school teacher. She lived up a set of outdoor stairs at her house on Vernal Avenue in what was then Milton Junction. I would climb the stairs and she would read to me and we would also often play "Authors." 

The problem atheism has with morality

John Gray's "What scares the new atheists" has been getting much attention online since it was published two weeks ago. Gray is himself a non-believer but is unconvinced by the arguments for a science-based morality advanced by the "New Atheists." Gray's essay is very much worth reading:
...[P]retty well all secular thinkers now take for granted that modern societies must in the end converge on some version of liberalism. Never well founded, this assumption is today clearly unreasonable. ....

It’s probably just as well that the current generation of atheists seems to know so little of the longer history of atheist movements. When they assert that science can bridge fact and value, they overlook the many incompatible value-systems that have been defended in this way. There is no more reason to think science can determine human values today than there was at the time of Haeckel or Huxley. None of the divergent values that atheists have from time to time promoted has any essential connection with atheism, or with science. How could any increase in scientific knowledge validate values such as human equality and personal autonomy? The source of these values is not science. In fact, as the most widely-read atheist thinker of all time argued, these quintessential liberal values have their origins in monotheism.

The new atheists rarely mention Friedrich Nietzsche, and when they do it is usually to dismiss him. This can’t be because Nietzsche’s ideas are said to have inspired the Nazi cult of racial inequality – an unlikely tale, given that the Nazis claimed their racism was based in science. The reason Nietzsche has been excluded from the mainstream of contemporary atheist thinking is that he exposed the problem atheism has with morality. It’s not that atheists can’t be moral – the subject of so many mawkish debates. The question is which morality an atheist should serve. ....

It’s impossible to read much contemporary polemic against religion without the impression that for the “new atheists” the world would be a better place if Jewish and Christian monotheism had never existed. If only the world wasn’t plagued by these troublesome God-botherers, they are always lamenting, liberal values would be so much more secure. Awkwardly for these atheists, Nietzsche understood that modern liberalism was a secular incarnation of these religious traditions. As a classical scholar, he recognised that a mystical Greek faith in reason had shaped the cultural matrix from which modern liberalism emerged. Some ancient Stoics defended the ideal of a cosmopolitan society; but this was based in the belief that humans share in the Logos, an immortal principle of rationality that was later absorbed into the conception of God with which we are familiar. Nietzsche was clear that the chief sources of liberalism were in Jewish and Christian theism: that is why he was so bitterly hostile to these religions. He was an atheist in large part because he rejected liberal values. ....

...[A]nyone who wants their values secured by something beyond the capricious human world had better join an old-fashioned religion. If you set aside any view of humankind that is borrowed from monotheism, you have to deal with human beings as you find them, with their perpetually warring values. ....

Evangelical atheists at the present time are missionaries for their own values. If an earlier generation promoted the racial prejudices of their time as scientific truths, ours aims to give the illusions of contemporary liberalism a similar basis in science. ....   [more]

Thursday, March 12, 2015


From Anecdotal Evidence: `The Pilgrim Steps of Spring':
.... What has come back to me is a Northerner’s sense of earning the right to spring’s return. Character-building is built into the cycle of the seasons. Only the stalwart shall know spring. In Houston, solstice and equinox are permeable membranes. The seasons customarily blur. Here is Sonnet VI by Robert Bridges from his sonnet sequence The Growth of Love (1876):
While yet we wait for spring, and from the dry
And blackening east that so embitters March,
Well-housed must watch grey fields and meadows parch,
And driven dust and withering snowflake fly;
Already in glimpses of the tarnish’d sky
The sun is warm and beckons to the larch,
And where the covert hazels interarch
Their tassell’d twigs, fair beds of primrose lie.
Beneath the crisp and wintry carpet hid
A million buds but stay their blossoming;
And trustful birds have built their nests amid
The shuddering boughs, and only wait to sing
Till one soft shower from the south shall bid,
And hither tempt the pilgrim steps of spring.
The final line recalls Chaucer – the turning of the seasons as a sort of pilgrimage. ....
Anecdotal Evidence: `The Pilgrim Steps of Spring'

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

"A plague of nonjudgmentalism"

David Brooks today on "The Cost of Relativism":
.... The health of society is primarily determined by the habits and virtues of its citizens. In many parts of America there are no minimally agreed upon standards for what it means to be a father. There are no basic codes and rules woven into daily life, which people can absorb unconsciously and follow automatically.

Reintroducing norms will require, first, a moral vocabulary. These norms weren’t destroyed because of people with bad values. They were destroyed by a plague of nonjudgmentalism, which refused to assert that one way of behaving was better than another. People got out of the habit of setting standards or understanding how they were set.

Next it will require holding people responsible. ....

History is full of examples of moral revival, when social chaos was reversed, when behavior was tightened and norms reasserted. It happened in England in the 1830s and in the U.S. amid economic stress in the 1930s. It happens through organic communal effort, with voices from everywhere saying gently: This we praise. This we don’t. .... [read it all]

Monday, March 9, 2015

Poetic truth

A while ago I quoted from Shelby Steele's Shame. The most recent issue of National Review contains Jay Nordlinger's review of the book, "A Brave Tour de Force." Nordlinger begins with why he considers it brave:
.... He is an intellectual who belongs to that bravest of bands: black conservatives. My sense is that few people can imagine what such conservatives have to put up with. I once asked Thomas Sowell, “Who has treated you worse in your life? White liberals or fellow blacks?” He shook his head, chuckled, and said, “It’s too close to call.” ....

In his new book, Steele writes that a black conservative is “unforeseen and unsettling.” What’s more, “we seem to put the moral authority that comes from our race’s great suffering into the service of an ideology (conservatism) that many see as a source of that suffering.” Therefore, “the black conservative can only be opportunistic or, worse, self-hating and sycophantic.” This is part of the lot of the black conservative. Who but the strongest, and most independent, would dare to join up? ....
Steele believes liberalism has gone badly astray:
Steele begins his book by relating an experience he had at a conference, staged by the Aspen Institute. He was scheduled to be “the lone conservative” on a panel. .... To open the conference at large, some participants were asked to spend a few minutes saying what they most wanted for America. Steele was one of them. He did not waste his time.

“I said that what I wanted most for America was an end to white guilt, or at least an ebbing of this guilt into insignificance.” White people, he said, were crushing blacks with paternalism in an attempt to show themselves innocent of racism. This was bad for whites, bad for blacks (obviously) — bad for America. And these words went off at Aspen like a stink bomb. ....

“Liberalism in the twenty-first century,” writes Steele, “is, for the most part, a moral manipulation that exaggerates inequity and unfairness in American life in order to justify overreaching public policies and programs.” The liberal calls himself “progressive” and “forward-looking.” .... But he is always looking at America’s sinful past, notes Steele. The progressive’s gaze is fixed backward.

And what is conservatism? According to liberalism, it is “an ideology born of nostalgia for America’s past evils — inequality, oppression, exploitation, warmongering, bigotry, repression, and all the rest.” The ability to “taint conservatism” with “America’s past shames,” writes Steele, has been a bonanza for the Left: “a seemingly endless font of power.” ....

To liberalism, writes Steele, black people are “eternal victims.” Their problems “are always the result of some determinism, some unfairness or injustice that impinges on them like an ongoing rain out of permanently hostile skies.” ....

One of the themes of this book is truth versus “poetic truth.” The latter kind of truth — a non-truth, or lie — “disregards the actual truth in order to assert a larger essential truth that supports one’s ideological position.” Poetic truth, says Steele, is liberalism’s “greatest source of power.” It is also liberalism’s “most fundamental corruption.” .... [more, possibly behind a pay-wall]

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Defenders of the faith

Christian History Magazine gives us an issue about "Seven Literary Sages." The seven are George MacDonald, G.K. Chesterton, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield, four of whom were Inklings, two influenced the Inklings and one was a contemporary non-Inkling. The magazine is full of informative articles about them including one that would be a good introduction: "The seven sages," with brief biographies of each author. Another page of "Recommended Resources" includes "Begin with" and "You might also like" lists of works by the authors.

The entire magazine can be downloaded free as a pdf through a link here and each of the articles can be read online through links here.

I am unfamiliar with the work of Owen Barfield and have never succeeded in getting into Charles Williams's supernatural thrillers but enjoy all of the others. The contemporary of the Inklings — and the only woman, Dorothy L. Sayers, is a particular favorite of mine, especially for her detective novels and her Christian apologetics. From one of the articles about her:
.... Not only was she the only high-profile woman in a church completely dominated by men, but she was also eccentric, was married to a divorced man, and had borne a child out of wedlock. Yet she played a leading role in the renewal of Christian drama and applied her knowledge of the Bible and the creeds to the problems of her generation. In so doing she proclaimed a genuine Christian approach to art and voiced a powerful theology of work.
When Sayers was a child, the discovery that Cyrus the Persian and King Ahasuerus could be found both in her history books and in the Old Testament convinced her that “history was all of a piece and the Bible was part of it.” During the economic and political crises of the late 1930s, according to her biographer Barbara Reynolds, Sayers “experienced a return of the vision she had had as a child, of the relatedness and wholeness of things. .... Her mind focused on the central belief of Christianity—the Incarnation—and she saw how all else flowed from it.” In fact, three principal doctrines of Christianity—Creation, Incarnation, and the Trinity—came together in her mind to throw light on her world and the problems of her age. .... [more]
This will be enjoyed by those who already know these authors but is also a very good introduction for those unfamiliar. And no Christian should be unfamiliar with them. (I need to try Williams again.)

Friday, March 6, 2015

Bob Dylan, traditionalist

Christopher Caldwell's "AWOL from the Summer of Love" is a review of Dylan's The Basement Tapes Complete: The Bootleg Series Vol. 11, with considerable attention to the songs themselves and the circumstances surrounding their creation. I suspect that anyone who cares about Bob Dylan would find the whole article interesting. These excerpts are representative of the none-album-review portions:
.... Working mostly in the garage of a big, pink-asbestos-shingled split-level house that Danko had rented in the woods of West Saugerties, Dylan recorded at least 10 dozen songs in just a few months around the middle of 1967. All sorts of songs: blues standards, sea shanties, gunslinger ballads, Welsh folk songs, some reworked pop hits from the 1950s, some reworked hits of Dylan’s own. But most of the recordings were newly written Dylan songs of astonishing originality and wit. And the musicians backing him up coalesced in ways they hadn’t before. Towards the end of the sessions they were rejoined by the Arkansan drummer-singer Levon Helm, who had left Dylan’s 1966 tour in a huff. The band would become The Band. Building on the tracks recorded with Dylan and even releasing their own versions of some of them, they would produce two or three of the most original albums of the rock era, starting, the following year, with Music from Big Pink.

The summer of 1967 was the Summer of Love. People going to San Francisco were sure to wear flowers in their hair. The country had got itself in a terrible jam, way down yonder in Vietnam. But aside from one mumbled aside about burning draft cards, nowhere in the hours of recordings Dylan made with The Band is there the slightest mention of the concerns of the 1960s—peace, race, revolution, psychedelia. Their collective secession from the fuss of the sixties astonished the English guitarist Eric Clapton when he went to visit them: “It became quite obvious to me I was on a different planet to these guys,” Clapton recalled in a 2004 interview. “I had an Afghan jacket and curly hair and pink trousers. They looked like The Hole in the Wall Gang.” ....

By the mid-1960s, Dylan was in an impossible position. He had become perhaps the most famous person on the planet by snickering at the American game of ambition as a rat race. Dylan’s fans not only had unmeetable expectations of his music, they had unmeetable expectations of him. He was supposed to share and even embody a whole set of burn-it-down, I-spit-on-your-bourgeois-institutions attitudes towards American society—and he simply didn’t. He was suspended like a cartoon character in midair over the chasm separating his own pre-1960s America from the post-1960s America he had done so much to create. His fans would have been appalled (perhaps he, too, would have been appalled) to recognize on which side of that chasm he thought virtue lay.

When the songwriter Carly Simon...met Dylan around the time of his move to Woodstock, he was drunk and, she later said in an interview, “saying a lot about God and Jesus.” Dylan’s Christianity has, ever since, been allusive, idiosyncratic, and never of the sort to place him on anyone’s side in any Kulturkampf. But there are a half-dozen songs in these sessions that begin to show the more open Christian religiosity that would appear on his late 1967 album John Wesley Harding. .... [more]

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

No moral truths

If the Barna statistic is right, then the observations made by this philosopher in  "Why Our Children Don't Think There Are Moral Facts" may be the explanation:
What would you say if you found out that our public schools were teaching children that it is not true that it’s wrong to kill people for fun or cheat on tests? Would you be surprised?

I was. As a philosopher, I already knew that many college-aged students don’t believe in moral facts. While there are no national surveys quantifying this phenomenon, philosophy professors with whom I have spoken suggest that the overwhelming majority of college freshmen in their classrooms view moral claims as mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.

What I didn’t know was where this attitude came from. ....

A few weeks ago, I learned that students are exposed to this sort of thinking well before crossing the threshold of higher education. When I went to visit my son’s second grade open house, I found a troubling pair of signs hanging over the bulletin board. They read:
Fact: Something that is true about a subject and can be tested or proven.
Opinion: What someone thinks, feels, or believes.
Hoping that this set of definitions was a one-off mistake, I went home and Googled “fact vs. opinion.” The definitions I found online were substantially the same as the one in my son’s classroom. As it turns out, the Common Core standards used by a majority of K-12 programs in the country require that students be able to “distinguish among fact, opinion, and reasoned judgment in a text.” ....

How does the dichotomy between fact and opinion relate to morality? I learned the answer to this question only after I investigated my son’s homework (and other examples of assignments online). Kids are asked to sort facts from opinions and, without fail, every value claim is labeled as an opinion. Here’s a little test devised from questions available on fact vs. opinion worksheets online: are the following facts or opinions?
— Copying homework assignments is wrong.
— Cursing in school is inappropriate behavior.
— All men are created equal.
— It is worth sacrificing some personal liberties to protect our country from terrorism.
— It is wrong for people under the age of 21 to drink alcohol.
— Vegetarians are healthier than people who eat meat.
— Drug dealers belong in prison.
The answer? In each case, the worksheets categorize these claims as opinions. The explanation on offer is that each of these claims is a value claim and value claims are not facts. This is repeated ad nauseum: any claim with good, right, wrong, etc. is not a fact.

In summary, our public schools teach students that all claims are either facts or opinions and that all value and moral claims fall into the latter camp. The punchline: there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths. .... [more]

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

"This is the Sabbath, and how will we spend it?"

The newsletter of the church in which I grew up, the Milton, Wisconsin, Seventh Day Baptist Church, notes "The First Sabbath in Milton" by Caleb Sanford:
Nearly 175 years ago, on November 12th 1840, the Milton Seventh Day Baptist Church was officially organized. Two days later, the first Sabbath under this church occurred. This was not, however, the first Sabbath to be kept in Milton. That occurred more than a year and a half previously on March 9th, 1839. The story behind this Sabbath is one of the determination, sacrifice and faith of an entire family, and one woman in particular.

The lead-up to the first Sabbath in Milton began in early 1838 when Joseph Goodrich, the founder of Milton, decided to emigrate from New York to Wisconsin with his wife Nancy and his two children. After scouting the Wisconsin Territory with two friends, purchasing his new land and building a house for his family, Joseph returned to New York to sell his remaining assets there and bring his family to their new home. If all went as planned, they would arrive in Wisconsin before winter began.

Nancy Goodrich
But, as with many things in life, all did not go according to plan. It was January 29th, 1839 before his family and 8 others left for Wisconsin. They travelled on sleighs due to the wintery conditions and the journey was not easy on any of them. Joseph's wife Nancy had it particularity harsh, however. The very first day on the trail, the wagon carrying Nancy turned over and Nancy broke her collarbone. The others in the party encouraged Nancy to stay in New York and heal, but Nancy was adamant that she would not be separated from her family. And though her collarbone had to be set and reset three times over the course of the journey and every bounce and jostle of the wagon was sure to be agony, she "endured the pain without a murmur," according to her daughter Jane.

On Monday March 4th, 34 days later, the wagon party arrived at the red-frame building Joseph had constructed the year before. There were 13 people in all crowded into a small cabin in the tail-end of a hard Wisconsin winter. Five days later, with the thermometer reading about zero, Joseph and the other men of the party were greatly concerned with the work that needed doing on an early frontier settlement, especially in the face of a fast-approaching spring.

The still-healing Nancy Goodrich, however, had only the Sabbath on her mind. After breakfast, she could hold her tongue on the subject no longer and said "This is the Sabbath, and how will we spend it?" to which another member of the household replied "It is an important question."

After his wife's prompting, Joseph decided to call upon Bro. Henry B. Crandall and his family of seven, their closest neighbors and their only fellow Seventh Day Baptists in the entire Wisconsin Territory. After gathering together under the Goodrich roof, the first Sabbath gathering in Milton took place, consisting of signing a written agreement to "watch over each other for good, maintain good morals and attend meetings on the Sabbath when prudent," followed by a Bible class in which all joined.

Since that Saturday in 1839, more than 9100 Sabbaths have been kept in Milton. And there's no reason to think that that number will stop any time soon.
Caleb's grandfather, Don A. Sanford, wrote A History of the Milton Seventh Day Baptist Church

Monday, March 2, 2015


Reading Justin Taylor's quotation from Mere Christianity this morning caused me to want to re-read "The Great Sin," from which:
We must not think Pride is something God forbids because He is offended at it, or that Humility is something He demands as due to His own dignity—as if God Himself was proud. He is not in the least worried about His dignity. The point is, He wants you to know Him: wants to give you Himself. And He and you are two things of such a kind that if you really get into any kind of touch with Him you will, in fact, be humble—delightedly humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible. .... To get even near it, even for a moment, is like a drink of cold water to a man in a desert.

Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call "humble" nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.

If anyone would like to acquire humility, I can, I think, tell him the first step. The first step is to realise that one is proud. And a biggish step, too. At least, nothing whatever can be done before it. If you think you are not conceited, it means you are very conceited indeed.
C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Death Day

On St David whose day, March 1, is the national day of Wales:

Philip Jenkins on why we are certain March 1 was the day the patron saint of Wales died and why "death days" were so important:
St David's, Pembrokeshire, Wales
...[W]e really know very little about David that is historically solid and can only guess at his dates, or his main areas of activity. A death about 590 is a reasonable guess, but we could easily slip fifty years either way. Oddly though, we can be sure that he died on March 1, whether in (say) 532 or 632 AD. Through the Middle Ages, hagiography was a vast area of cultural effort, when almost any outrageous achievements could be credited to a saint. (No, David did not really make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was ordained by the Patriarch). The one thing that we know these writers did keep faithfully was the death day – the date not the year – because that marked the hero’s ascension to glory, the promotion to heaven. In a particular church or community, those days were critical, as marking the annual celebration of the beloved local saint.
Argue as much as you like, then, about precise years, achievements, martyrdoms and areas of activity, about the number of lepers cured and tyrants opposed – but don’t quarrel with death days.
Death days.
It’s an interesting term. I know my birthday. I also know that at some future point I will die, and that that will befall on a particular date. Let me be optimistic and assume that it will be a distant event, say on July 23, 2049. Each year, then, I pass through July 23 happily unaware that I am marking my Death Day, surely as significant a milestone as my birthday, but not one I can ever know with certainty until it occurs. Nor is it something we really ever contemplate, as we all know, in our hearts, that we are immortal.
I suppose though that it is something we can learn from those medieval monks, that the Death Day is not just a key event in anyone’s life, but literally the only one we can take with absolute confidence.