Friday, April 29, 2016

On Arbor Day


Alan Jacobs has created a beautiful site, G O S P E L  O F  T H E  T R E E S. He explains:
The Bible is a story about trees. It begins, or nearly enough, with two trees in a garden: the Tree of Life, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The pivotal event in the book comes when a man named Jesus is hanged on a tree. And the last chapter of the last book features a remade Jerusalem: “In the midst of the street of it, and on either side of the river, was there the tree of life, which bare twelve manner of fruits, and yielded her fruit every month: and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” If you understand the trees, you understand the story. ....
One of the entries:
Out of the fertil ground he caus’d to grow
All Trees of noblest kind for sight, smell, taste;
And all amid them stood the Tree of Life,
High eminent, blooming Ambrosial Fruit
Of vegetable Gold; and next to Life
Our Death the Tree of Knowledge grew fast by,
Knowledge of Good bought dear by knowing ill. — John Milton, Paradise Lost, Book IV
G O S P E L  O F  T H E  T R E E S

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Our fellow-man


...I learned with little labour
The way to love my fellow-man
And hate my next-door neighbour.

The World State, G.K. Chesterton

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The loud and troublesome insects of the hour.

From Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor: Edmund Burke in 1791.
Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field; that, of course, they are many in number, or that, after all, they are other than the little, shriveled, meager, hopping, though loud and troublesome, insects of the hour.

Making invisible things visible

I have received my copy of Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor. I'm enjoying it. Farnsworth warns against reading it from beginning to end and I won't. This is selected from the introductory chapter:
.... A metaphor can make unfamiliar things familiar, invisible things visible,and complicated things easier to understand. It can, as Aristotle said, give life to lifeless things. It can produce amusement by putting a subject into unexpected company. It can create feeling by borrowing it from the source to which the subject is compared. It can make a point riveting and memorable by the beauty of the comparison's fit. It can make an insult or a compliment immortal. It can attract attention by the element of surprise. And it can do all this with wondrous economy, invoking a mass of imagery and meaning in a sentence or a single word. ....

Metaphors can serve deeper ends. Many important subjects cannot be described literally, at least not well. States of mind are like this, as are the sources and effects of language and other arts and many elements of spiritual life. They don't just require pictures in order to be understood. They require comparisons, because they cannot be depicted literally in images or in words. A subject tends to defeat literal description when it is inaccessible to the senses; our words for what we can see are more extensive and refined than our words for what is intangible. Other truths and observations cannot be captured through a literal use of words simply because words and reality aren't coextensive. The range and subtlety and feeling of what we wish to say outruns the labels that our language provides for the purpose. Comparisons free us from those limits. They allow a writer to use words not as labels to name a thing but as links that attach it to what we have known or seen or can imagine. The link summons pictures and other associations in the reader's mind and rallies them to the descriptive purpose. A metaphor may, in short, express something that otherwise cannot quite be said or shown, and provide a way to understand it—possibly the only way. ....

The title of the book and some of the comments just made have used the word "metaphor" to refer to figurative comparisons in general. The word will bear that meaning but is also commonly used in a more specific way: a metaphor is a comparison, often implied, in which one thing is equated with another ("all the world's a stage"), whereas a simile makes the comparison explicit by saying that one thing is like another or using similar language ("he doth bestride the narrow world/Like a Colossus"). The differences between metaphor and simile are discussed...but most of the book presents those two kinds of comparisons side by side without fussing over the distinction between them. ....
The rest of the book is examples, categorized but almost entirely without commentary. Most are from secular literature of the 18th and 19th centuries but a few are from Scripture (KJV) and there are many from Shakespeare. Samuel Johnson, Charles Dickens, Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse, are among those from whom many examples seem to have been selected. I have a feeling that I will be posting favorites as I come across them.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Arsenic or cyanide?

One of the prized possessions on my mystery shelves is the Handbook for Poisoners (1951). The subtitle reads "A collection of great poison stories." And indeed it includes stories by great Golden Age mystery writers including Dorothy L. Sayers, E.C. Bentley, Agatha Christie, Anthony Berkeley, R. Austin Freeman, G.K. Chesterton, and earlier authors Nathaniel Hawthorne and Rudyard Kipling. It is a good selection of stories but the most valuable section of the book for mystery lovers is the seventy-five page introductory essay by the editor, "A Preface: About Poisons and Poisoning." From the flyleaf:
...[L]eading the reader into this treasury of malevolence, is Raymond Bond's introduction — as exhaustive as it is entertaining. With lively authority, he discusses not only the great poisoners of history, but also nature's own — the snakes, fishes, insects, trees, plants, etc. And to sum it up, he lists twenty poisons common to fact and fiction, with symptoms of each.
He begins with snakes:
...[A]ll poisonous snakes may be classified on the basis of their venom. Broadly speaking, their poison is either neurotoxic and attacks the nerve elements of the body, or it is hemotoxic or hemolytic and breaks down the blood and the tissue. In many instances, the same venom seems to contain both toxins to some degree.

Snake venom, when freshly drawn, is a colorless or slightly yellow liquid, without taste or smell; it quickly deteriorates unless it is dried, when it lasts almost indefinitely. It is not affected by cold but heat destroys it, as will certain chemicals such as nitrate of silver and potassium permanganate. The yellow crystals of the dried poison are soluble in a weak salt solution and generally in distilled water. Chemically, snake venom is a combination of proteids, too complex for analysis. It may be taken into the mouth and stomach without harm, provided there are no cuts or abrasions in the tissue walls. The neurotoxic type of venom destroys and paralyzes the nerve centers, such as those controlling the respiratory system; the larger the concentration of this element in the venom, the sooner death results. This is in the poison of the cobras and the coral snakes and makes them far more dangerous, other factors being equal, than the rattlesnakes. Indeed, it has been estimated that if a western diamondback rattler were equipped with neurotoxic venom, it would carry a sufficient quantity to kill four hundred men. The rattlers, copperheads and moccasins of this country, however, are dangerous enough with their own supply of hemotoxic or hemolytic venom. This poison acts on the blood and cell walls, breaking them down much as our digestive juices break up meat tissues. An antifibrin element prevents the blood from clotting and adds to the destruction. It is this escaped and blackening blood which produces the swelling and discoloration so typical of the pit-viper's wound. ....
And so on....  Then he lists those poisons most often used by mystery writers with a brief description of each. An example:
ARSENIC (or arsenium) — A steel-gray brittle metal, odorless and tasteless, and found with the other metallic minerals in the older rocks. In combination with sulphur, arsenic occurs naturally as realgar and orpiment. Arsenic and its soluble compounds are exceedingly poisonous, as mystery-story readers have learned. In its various forms, it is used in the production of green pigments, in glass and wallpaper manufacture, in dyes, in insecticides such as Paris green, flypapers, fruit sprays, and in rodent poisons. Arsenious oxide, sometimes called white arsenic, has an astringent sweetish taste and is white or porcelainlike in color. In addition to its popularity in commercial poisons, it is used in medicine for treating skin diseases, in malarial fevers, neuralgia and asthma. Limited amounts of arsenic have been used by women for many years in cosmetics and by men as a stimulant to increase their power of endurance. Symptoms of arsenic poisoning appear within an hour—a burning in the throat, stomach pains, cramps, pallor, shallow breathing, thready fast pulse, coma, convulsions and collapse.
I assume all of this sort of information is available from many other sources. If not this would be a rather disturbing "handbook." But for someone who reads Christie, or Sayers, or any number of others, or watches crime films or TV, it provides interesting background. Unfortunately the book is out of print, although both used hardbound and paperback editions can be found online at Amazon and elsewhere.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

"Dogs barking idiotically..."

Michael Dirda reviews Farnsworth's Classical English Metaphor in "What does this remind you of?" After reading his description I couldn't resist ordering the book. Dirda:
.... Most of this handsome book’s examples are drawn from works written in the 18th and 19th century. Samuel Johnson, Herman Melville and, best of all, Charles Dickens are probably quoted most often. Given their extraordinary linguistic gusto, G.K. Chesterton, P.G. Wodehouse and H.L. Mencken are also included but no authors more modern. ....

Although Farnsworth structures his book as a scholarly anatomy of metaphors, he recognizes that most people will find it a grab-bag of memorable quotations, an ideal browsing book for the nightstand. Discussing images of cold, he cites Robert Louis Stevenson on old age: “After a certain distance, every step we take in life we find the ice growing thinner below our feet, and all around us and behind us we see our contemporaries going through.” ....

Let me end with a glorious passage from H.L. Mencken in full throat as he destroys the prose of Warren G. Harding:
“He writes the worst English that I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of tosh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.”
Lord, what I’d give to be able to write like that! [more]
More, from Anecdotal Evidence: `The Permanent College of Rhetoric'

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

"When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins"

Reviews of Disney's new Jungle Book set me thinking about Kipling again. I have several collections of his verse including A Choice of Kipling's Verse selected by T.S. Eliot in 1941. Toward the back of the book Eliot includes two that I like for the lessons they teach.

(AD. 980-1016)
It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say:—
'We invaded you last night—we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.'
And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you've only to pay 'em the Dane-geld
And then you'll get rid of the Dane!
It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:—
'Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.'
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—
'We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!'

And the penultimate poem in the book:

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch.
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'Stick to the Devil you know.'
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'The Wages of Sin is Death.'
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'If you don't work you die.'
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four—
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
*    *    *
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

A Choice of Kipling's Verse Made By T.S. Eliot with an Essay on Rudyard Kipling, Faber & Faber, 1941.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Through the eyes of others

Continuing reading the Marsden book, a quotation in his final chapter sends me to my library to find C.S. Lewis's An Experiment in Critism (1961) and re-read that book's final chapter. From Lewis:
.... Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realise the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realise it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through, the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

What sorts of books?

A new acquaintance and his library. From Anecdotal Evidence:
Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds
.... On this date, April 18, in 1775, Dr. Johnson, Boswell and Sir Joshua Reynolds were visiting Richard Owen Cambridge at his home on the Thames, near Twickenham.

Boswell, who recounts the meeting in his Life, was already acquainted with Cambridge, whom he introduced to Johnson in the library. With pleasantries out of the way, Johnson “ran eagerly to one side of the room intent on poring over the backs [spines] of the books.” .... Cambridge, by all appearances a cultivated and courteous man, says to Johnson:

“Dr. Johnson, I am going with your pardon, to accuse myself, for I have the same custom which I perceive you have. But it seems odd that one should have such a desire to look at the back of books.” Boswell observes that Johnson, “ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about and answered”:
“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we enquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it. This leads us to look at catalogues, and at the backs of books in libraries.”
Something else was going on. Many of us, when visiting, examine our host’s book shelves forensically. Is this the library of one who reads broadly and deeply, and with taste? The mere presence of books, even many books, means little. What sort of books has our host accumulated? Do they appear to have been used enthusiastically and often, or are they interior decoration, put up to impress credulous guests? ....
When visiting acquaintances have you ever evaluated them based on the content of their libraries (or the absence thereof)?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Permanent things

I am approaching the end of George Marsden's C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity: A Biography. The final chapter considers "The Lasting Vitality of Mere Christianity." The first reason he cites is "Lewis looks for timeless truths as opposed to the culturally bound." From that section:
.... As a young man he [Lewis] had been so enthralled by modern thought that he had become a deeply disillusioned atheist. Then, during years of searching, he came to recognize the passing and ephemeral character of modern dogmas. During his quest for truth as a young man at Oxford in the 1920s, he took to heart his friend Owen Barfield's observations regarding "chronological snobbery." Many of the most heralded "advances" in modern thought, he came to see, would appear to later generations to be quaintly naïve. As he explained in a later essay, he rejected the "Great Myth" that had captivated him in his younger days. That was the modern myth that regarded history as basically an evolutionary progression from earlier, more primitive times of relative ignorance toward the triumph of modern scientifically based illumination. ....

As a literary scholar with immense learning about human thought and imagination from other eras, Lewis was eminently positioned to be a guide in sorting out the perennial from the time-bound. His works of literary criticism are exemplary in explaining how the assumptions of earlier ages differed from his own. Each time and place has characteristic insights from which we may learn but also blind spots and misleading mythologies. So, for instance, in Lewis's English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Excluding Drama (1952.), his contribution to The Oxford History of English Literature, he titled his introductory chapter "The New Learning and the New Ignorance," a title he might have assigned to twentieth-century thought as well.

Lewis offered one of his most memorable expositions of the value of the wisdom of the past in gaining a proper perspective of modern times in a lay sermon, "Learning in Wartime," that he preached in Oxford in September 1939. Britain and France had just declared war on Germany, and students were asking why they should study the ancients at a time when there were so many urgent present needs. Lewis's answer was that, rather than being impractical, learning from great writers of other eras was one of the needs of the hour. Especially in times of crisis, people need perspective from the past in order to recognize that "much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion," One who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone pnone or his own age. ....

Lewis has sometimes been criticized for making the Gospel too individualistic. He was, nonetheless, clear about his priorities. If perennial Christianity was true, one's eternal relationship to God was the overwhelmingly preeminent question. As Lewis said in "Learning in Wartime' "Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself." Humans must recognize that they are on a pilgrimage toward "a permanent city satisfying the soul" and should not expect to build a Heaven on earth. So "a man may have to die for his country, but no man must, in any exclusive sense, live for his country. He who surrenders himself without reservation to the temporal claims of a nation, or a party, or a class is rendering to Caesar that which, of all things, belongs emphatically to God: himself." ....
"Learning in Wartime" (Word doc., pdf).

"All that is not eternal, is eternally out of date."
C.S. Lewis

Stott "updated"

John Stott's Basic Christianity was, for me, an extremely helpful introduction to Christian doctrine alongside Lewis's Mere Christianity. I have given it away. I have used it as a study text for Christian high school students. I have re-read it. Its publisher, Eerdmans, (update: apparently Eerdmans was not responsible. See below.) decided that it needed updating. Barton Swaim, in "Stott Bowdlerized", ("Bowdlerize") thinks that they haven't done a very good job:
Recently I bought a copy of John Stott’s brief and famous exposition of the Christian gospel, Basic Christianity, which I intended to give to a friend. The book was first published in 1958 and has sold several million copies. It is at once simple and refined, gentle and uncompromising, and many people in the Anglophone world can trace their conversions to reading Stott’s little masterpiece. If any “spiritual classics” were published during the second half of the twentieth century, Basic Christianity surely is one. ....

My curiosity aroused, I went through the new book and compared it, sentence by sentence, with the old one. The sheer amount of revision is startling. Two out of every three sentences, I estimate, involve some new wording.

Of course, the general masculine pronouns are gone: “all other men” becomes “everyone else,” and so on. This and other alterations are relatively innocuous—they do no violence to Stott’s meaning—but they lower the quality of the writing. One example among scores: Whereas in 1958 Stott had written, “In brief, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, the one earthly and the other heavenly,” the 2008 version has it, “To put it in a nutshell, we find ourselves citizens of two kingdoms, possessing dual nationality, the one earthly and the other heavenly.” Are we to believe that “To put it in a ­nutshell” improves on “In brief,” and that adding the term “dual nationality” better conveys the idea to a ­modern audience? ....

Clearly the editor wanted to introduce a new generation to Stott’s beautiful book; his intentions were noble. But the project was a mistake. The Basic Christianity people are buying and reading today is a bad imitation of the original. The editor and publisher had no right to transform Stott’s book as they did, whether or not the author granted his permission. Good books are precious things that belong as much to their readers as they do to their publishers and even their authors. That is doubly so in the case of Basic Christianity, a work that has engaged its readers at the most intimate levels. ....

.... Anyone who picks up Basic Christianity today will do so because he wants something altogether different from the products available in his own age. He wants something from the past. What he gets instead sounds almost as if it were composed yesterday: chatty, choppy, bereft of much difficulty, with an improbable hint of political correctness.

In a sense, then, the updated book is a metaphor for the modernizing urge so typical of contemporary religiosity. Nothing achieves irrelevance quite so consistently as the feverish attempt to stay relevant.
I'm happy to have a few "unimproved" copies of the book.

Update on 4/20: Eerdmans has responded to Swaim's article quoted here: "Setting the Record Straight on John Stott."

Friday, April 15, 2016

Ordinary human beings

From Dorothy L. Sayers' essay, "Are Women Human?" (1938):
.... A man once asked me—it is true that it was at the end of a very good dinner, and the compliment conveyed may have been due to that circumstance—how I managed in my books to write such natural conversation between men when they were by themselves. Was I, by any chance, a member of a large, mixed family with a lot of male friends? I replied that, on the contrary, I was an only child and had practically never seen or spoken to any men of my own age till I was about twenty-five. "Well," said the man, "I shouldn't have expected a woman [meaning me] to have been able to make it so convincing." I replied that I had coped with this difficult problem by making my men talk, as far as possible, like ordinary human beings. This aspect of the matter seemed to surprise the other speaker; he said no more, but took it away to chew it over. One of these days it may quite likely occur to him that women, as well as men, when left to themselves, talk very much like human beings also.

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, Victor Gollancz, 1946.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

"Slip past our everyday defenses"

Behind the subscription wall at First Things Peter Hitchens writes about "A Church that Was," the Church of England as it once was and is no more. Hitchens writes "I have learned, in a time of loss where anything good and beloved fights to survive, to mourn such departures but not to imagine that, in this life, what is lost will ever return. It will not. But anyone who is pleased that it is gone for good is a fool."
Chichester Cathedral
.... No minister or preacher, his bare dusty words surrounded by the ancient canticles and psalmody which were then the context of all our worship, would have dared to be emphatic, let alone enthusiastic. Ambiguity and loveliness helped us to accept, quite happily and without effort, something which is very difficult to credit. We believed completely in the entire creed, but poetically and musically and architecturally, in ways which naked prose cannot express.

I have never understood why people jeer at this form of belief. “Oh,” they say dismissively, “You just like the old buildings and the music, and the ­Shakespearean language.” They say this as if “liking” these things were a meaningless self-indulgence, an aesthetic fancy, like preferring China tea to Indian (which I don’t). My own view, then and ever since, is that the languages of architecture, music, and poetry work mightily on us when we are not aware of it, slip past our everyday defenses and so convey the unspeakable grandeur of God to us better than any other means. The haunting rhythms and shadowy shapes of the eternal disturb the banalities of the temporal, and no properly conscious human being comes out of a cathedral or ancient parish church the same as he or she went in. You might have thought that these were gifts we should take care to treasure and use aright. By themselves, simply by being there, they must have quietly wafted the spirit of God into millions of lives. ....

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Who stands firm?

Mark Tooley remembers the martyrs at Flossenbürg:
April 9 was the anniversary of the executions of Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and five fellow anti-Nazi conspirators in 1945 at Flossenbürg concentration camp. ....

The most senior among the imprisoned conspirators was Admiral Wilhelm Carnaris, head of the Abwehr (German military intelligence) which enabled him for years to disguise and protect much of the anti-Hitler conspiracy. ....

Hans Oster
Also among them was Carnaris’ deputy General Hans Oster, who had recruited Bonhoeffer into Abwehr service. The son of a pastor in the French Protestant church in Alsace, Oster had devoted years to the anti-Hitler plot. He was arrested in 1943 for shielding Abwehr officers helping Jews. One conspirator described Oster as “a man such as God meant men to be, lucid and serene in mind, imperturbable in danger.” ....

Over two years before execution, Oster was one of several Christian friends in the resistance to whom Bonhoeffer wrote a famous letter of reflection about a decade under Nazism, saying:
Who stands firm? Only the one for whom the final standard is not his reason, his principles, his conscience, his freedom, his virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all these, when in faith and sole allegiance to God, he is called to obedient and responsible action; the responsible person, whose life will be nothing but an answer to God’s question and call.
In this spirit, General Friedrich von Rabeneau, an army archivist, was directly motivated to turn against Nazism early in the 1930s due to his Christian faith. A member of the Order of St. John, a Protestant chivalric and charitable order, he eventually was forced out of the military after which he studied theology at the University of Berlin, until his arrest. He was executed six days after Bonhoeffer and the others. ....

The monument at Flossenbürg to the seven martyrs cites 2 Timothy 1:7: “For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline.”

Monday, April 11, 2016

Grief II

After yesterday's post about C.S. Lewis's A Grief Observed a friend sent me the "Foreword" to a more recent edition than the one I have. It was authored by Douglas Gresham, son of Joy Davidman and step-son of C.S. Lewis. I haven't been able to find that edition of the book on Amazon — the "Foreword" in the one linked above was by Madeleine L'Engle. The book was, of course, written in response to Gresham's mother's death in 1960 when Gresham was 14. From Douglas Gresham's Foreword:
A Grief Observed is not an ordinary book. In a sense it is not a book at all, it is rather, the passionate result of a brave man turning to face his agony and examine it in order that he might further understand what is required of us in living this life in which we have to expect the pain and sorrow of the loss of those whom we love. It is true to say that very few men could have written this book, and even truer to say that even fewer men would have written this book even if they could, fewer still would have published it even if they had written it.

My stepfather, C.S. Lewis, had written before on the topic of pain (The Problem of Pain, 1940), and pain was not an experience with which he was unfamiliar. He had met grief as a child, he lost his mother when he was nine years old. He had grieved for friends lost to him over the years, some lost in battle during the first World War, others to sickness. ....

Helen Joy Gresham (née Davidman), the "H." referred to in this book, was perhaps the only woman whom Jack ever met who was his intellectual equal, and also as well-read and widely educated as he was himself. They shared another common factor; they were both possessed of total recall. Jack never forgot anything he had read, and neither did she. ....

Much has been written, both fictional and factual (sometimes one masquerading as the other) concerning their lives and their meeting and marriage, but the most important part of the story pertaining to this book, is simply a recognition of the great love that grew between them until it was an almost visible incandescence, they seemed to walk together within a glow of their own making. ....

This book is a man emotionally naked in his own Gethsemane. It tells of the agony and the emptiness of a grief such as few of us have to bear, for the greater the love the greater the grief, and the stronger the faith the more savagely will Satan storm its fortress. When Jack was racked with the emotional pain of his bereavement, he also suffered the mental anguish resulting from three years of living in constant fear, the physical agony of osteoporosis and other ailments, and the sheer exhaustion of spending those last few weeks in constant caring for his dying wife. His mind stretched to some unimaginable tension far beyond anything a lesser man could bear, he turned to writing down his thoughts and his reactions to them, in order to try to make some sense of the whirling chaos that was assaulting his mind. At the time that he was writing them, he did not intend that these effusions were to be published, but on reading through them some time later, he felt that they might well be of some help to others who were similarly afflicted with the turmoil of thought and feeling which grief forces upon us. This book was first published under the pseudonym of N.W. Clerk. In its stark honesty and unadorned simplicity the book has a power which is rare, it is the power of unabashed truth.

What many of us discover in this outpouring of anguish, is that we know exactly what he is talking about. Those of us who have walked this same path, or are walking it as we read this book, find that we are not, after all, as alone as we thought. C.S. Lewis, the writer of so much that is so clear and so right, the thinker whose acuity of mind and clarity of expression enabled us to understand so much, this strong and determined Christian, he too fell headlong into the vortex of whirling thoughts and feelings and dizzily groped for support and guidance deep in the dark chasm of grief. .... [the Foreword]
Douglas Gresham's own book about his mother and C.S. Lewis is Lenten Lands: My Childhood with Joy Davidman and C.S. Lewis.

Sunday, April 10, 2016


A Grief Observed is the journal C.S. Lewis kept after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman. It was published pseudonymously in 1961. His faith was shaken and unlike an earlier book, The Problem of Pain, in which he attempts a logical argument explaining how suffering happens in a universe created by a good and loving God, this is an account of an emotional response to loss. I first discovered the book in the bookstore of what was then known as Nyack Missionary College during a Seventh Day Baptist General Conference there in a summer in the 1960s. The book is very short — only 60 pages — so quickly read that I was able to recommend it to others that very week. One of the responses I got was particularly disappointing: "But it doesn't give an answer." And truly it doesn't tell us why God allows suffering — but neither does Scripture. The book does lead us vicariously through an experience that each of us has had, or will have.

From the first page:
No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.

At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. Or perhaps, hard to want to take it in. It is so uninteresting. Yet I want the others to be about me. I dread the moments when the house is empty. If only they would talk to one another and not to me. ....
.... You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death to you. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong and sound as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn't you then first discover how much you really trusted it? The same with people. For years 1 would have said that I had perfect confidence in B.R. Then came the moment when I had to decide whether I would or would not trust him with a really important secret. That threw quite a new light on what I called my 'confidence' in him. I discovered that there was no such thing. Only a real risk tests the reality of a belief. Apparently the faith — I thought it faith — which enables me to pray for the other dead has seemed strong only because 1 have never really cared, not desperately, whether they existed or not. Yet I thought I did. ....

Feelings, and feelings, and feelings. Let me try thinking instead. From the rational point of view, what new factor has H's death introduced into the problem of the universe? What grounds has it given me for doubting all that I believe? I knew already that these things, and worse, happened daily. I would have said that I had taken them into account. I had been warned — I had warned myself — not to reckon on worldly happiness. We were even promised sufferings. They were part of the programme. We were even told 'Blessed are they that mourn' and I accepted it. I've got nothing that I hadn't bargained for. Of course it is different when the thing happens to oneself, not to others, and in reality, not in imagination. Yes; but should it, for a sane man, make quite such a difference as this? No. And it wouldn't for a man whose faith had been real faith and whose concern for other people's sorrows had been real concern. The case is too plain. If my house has collapsed at one blow, that is because it was a house of cards. The faith which 'took these things into account' was not faith but imagination. The taking them into account was not real sympathy. If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled 'Illness', 'Pain', 'Death' and 'Loneliness'. I thought I trusted the rope until it mattered to me whether it would bear me. Now it matters, and I find I didn't. ....
It gets better — Lewis didn't lose his faith in God or in God's goodness. It is, I think, one of the best books for those bereaved.

A Grief Observed at Amazon

Friday, April 8, 2016

Blind faith

Alan Jacobs reviews Roger Scruton's Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left, an update of a book originally published in 1985. It discusses a number of individuals who, Scruton argues, have some things in common including that...
.... “they illustrate an enduring outlook on the world, and one that has been a permanent feature of Western civilization at least since the Enlightenment.” That outlook is composed of two major commitments, or proclaimed commitments anyway: to liberation of individuals from oppressive existing structures, especially political, familial, and religious; and to social justice, usually conceived as requiring the elimination of political and economic systems that create inequality.

Scruton rightly notes that much of the internal tension, at times exploding into hatred, among figures of the New Left arises because these two commitments are pretty clearly not compatible: the more fully people are liberated, the more energetically they will create and sustain various forms of inequality, while equality can only be enforced at the cost of placing strict limits on personal freedom. ....

At that time [1985], scarcely anyone imagined that the collapse of the Soviet Union was imminent, and the New Left of that era was often implicitly—less often explicitly—communist in orientation. In the intervening three decades things have changed, and in an important passage I must cite at length, Scruton explains why:
we must recognize that the Marxist spectacles are no longer on the left-wing nose. Why they were removed, and by whom, it is hard to say. But for whatever cause, left-wing politics has discarded the revolutionary paradigm advanced by the New Left, in favour of bureaucratic routines and the institutionalization of the welfare culture. The two goals of liberation and social justice remain in place: but they are promoted by legislation, committees and government commissions empowered to root out the sources of discrimination. Liberation and social justice have been bureaucratized. In looking back at the left intellectuals in the decades before the collapse of the Soviet Union, therefore, I am observing a culture that now survives largely in its academic redoubts, feeding from the jargon-ridden prose that it amassed in university libraries, in the days when universities were part of the anti-capitalist ‘struggle.’
One need to look no further than to the current student protests on American college campuses to see evidence for Scruton’s interpretation. Unlike their radical counterparts from the 1960s, these students have no thought of breaking down and rebuilding the fundamental structures of the university along egalitarian lines; rather, in their dream world, universities are still hierarchical, bureaucratic, and driven by administrative diktat, but the bosses doing the dictating are sympathetic to the students’ politics and willing to persecute the students’ enemies. ....

Late in his book Scruton comments that he has searched these thinkers’ writings “in vain for a description of how the ‘equality of being’ advocated in their fraught manifestoes is to be achieved.” In the end, he says, “We know nothing of the socialist future, save only that is it both necessary and desirable.” But for that reason the socialist faith is a blind faith. .... (more)

When racism was Progressive

"Harvard's eugenics era," in Harvard Magazine is about the promotion of the theory of eugenics by scientists associated with that school. Harvard was hardly unique. As the article notes, "Eugenics attracted considerable support from progressives, reformers, and educated elites as a way of using science to make a better world." Eugenics "insisted that human progress depended on promoting reproduction by the best people in the best combinations, and preventing the unworthy from having children." The excerpts below show the application of the theory to race and ethnicity, although the article deals with many of the other aspects of the theory as argued by its proponents.
.... Harvard’s geneticists gave important support to Galton’s fledgling would-be science. Botanist Edward M. East, who taught at Harvard’s Bussey Institution, propounded a particularly racial version of eugenics. In his 1919 book Inbreeding and Outbreeding: Their Genetic and Sociological Significance, East warned that race mixing would diminish the white race, writing: “Races have arisen which are as distinct in mental capacity as in physical traits.” The simple fact, he said, was that “the negro is inferior to the white.”

East also sounded a biological alarm about the Jews, Italians, Asians, and other foreigners who were arriving in large numbers. “The early settlers came from stock which had made notable contributions to civilization,” he asserted, whereas the new immigrants were coming “in increasing numbers from peoples who have impressed modern civilization but lightly.” There was a distinct possibility, he warned, that a “considerable part of these people are genetically undesirable.” ....

East’s Bussey Institution colleague William Ernest Castle taught a course on “Genetics and Eugenics,” one of a number of eugenics courses across the University. He also published a leading textbook by the same name that shaped the views of a generation of students nationwide. Genetics and Eugenics not only identified its author as “Professor of Zoology in Harvard University,” but was published by Harvard University Press and bore the “Veritas” seal on its title page, lending the appearance of an imprimatur to his strongly stated views.

In Genetics and Eugenics, Castle explained that race mixing, whether in animals or humans, produced inferior offspring. He believed there were superior and inferior races, and that “racial crossing” benefited neither. “From the viewpoint of a superior race there is nothing to be gained by crossing with an inferior race,” he wrote. “From the viewpoint of the inferior race also the cross is undesirable if the two races live side by side, because each race will despise individuals of mixed race and this will lead to endless friction.” ....

One of Harvard’s most prominent psychology professors was a eugenicist who pioneered the use of questionable intelligence testing. Robert M. Yerkes, A.B. 1898, Ph.D. ’02, published an introductory psychology textbook in 1911 that included a chapter on “Eugenics and Mental Life.” In it, he explained that “the cure for race deterioration is the selection of the fit as parents.” ....

Another eugenicist in a key position was William McDougall, who held the psychology professorship William James had formerly held. His 1920 book The Group Mind explained that the “negro” race had “never produced any individuals of really high mental and moral endowments” and was apparently “incapable” of doing so. His next book, Is America Safe for Democracy (1921), argued that civilizations declined because of “the inadequacy of the qualities of the people who are the bearers of it”—and advocated eugenic sterilization. .... [more]
Eugenics gave "scientific" justification for racism and bigotry. These academics thought themselves "on the right side of history" and undoubtedly despised benighted souls who resisted the "consensus" of science.

G.K. Chesterton, in the same times:
“The thing that really is trying to tyrannize through government is Science. The thing that really does use the secular arm is Science. And the creed that really is levying tithes and capturing schools, the creed that really is enforced by fine and imprisonment, the creed that really is proclaimed not in sermons but in statutes, and spread not by pilgrims but by policemen—that creed is the great but disputed system of thought which began with Evolution and has ended in Eugenics. Materialism is really our established Church; for the government will really help it to persecute its heretics…I am not frightened of the word ‘persecution’…It is a term of legal fact. If it means the imposition by the police of a widely disputed theory, incapable of final proof—then our priests are not now persecuting, but our doctors are.”
Eugenics and Other Evils: An Argument Against the Scientifically Organized State,

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Stevenson and Wyeth

My father's library included an omnibus volume of the works of Robert Louis Stevenson. I've posted before about Treasure Island, a book I re-read so many times that by the time I was in third grade I could recite many passages from memory. Also included in the omnibus were The Black Arrow, set during the Wars of the Roses, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which I should probably have first read when I was a bit older. Apart from the pirate tale my favorite Stevenson was (is) Kidnapped, set in Scotland in the mid-18th century not long after Bonnie Prince Charlie's failed attempt to reclaim the British crown for the Stewarts. Years later I discovered the editions of these books published early in the 20th century by Scribners with illustrations by N.C. Wyeth. I have never seen better illustrations for Stevenson's stories.  Wyeth illustrated several of the books including Treasure Island, The Black Arrow, and Kidnapped. This one is from Kidnapped and is a favorite of mine.

The Torrent in the Valley of Glencoe

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

"Industrious to detect wickedness"

Samuel Johnson in The Rambler, # 76 (8 Dec 1750):
It may be observed, perhaps without exception, that none are so industrious to detect wickedness, or so ready to impute it as they whose crimes are apparent and confessed. They envy an unblemished reputation, and what they envy they are busy to destroy; they are unwilling to suppose themselves meaner and more corrupt than others, and therefore willingly pull down from their elevations those with whom they cannot rise to an equality.

Monday, April 4, 2016

"Hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss"

From The Practice of the Presence of God, the experience of Brother Lawrence:
.... That he had been long troubled in mind from a certain belief that he should be damned; that all the men in the world could not have persuaded him to the contrary; but that he had thus reasoned with himself about it: I did not engage in a religious life but for the love of GOD, and I have endeavoured to act only for Him; whatever becomes of me, whether I be lost or saved, I will always continue to act purely for the love of GOD. I shall have this good at least, that till death I shall have done all that is in me to love Him. That this trouble of mind had lasted four years; during which time he had suffered much.

That since that time he had passed his life in perfect liberty and continual joy. That he placed his sins betwixt him and GOD, as it were, to tell Him that he did not deserve His favours, but that GOD still continued to bestow them in abundance.

That in order to form a habit of conversing with GOD continually, and referring all we do to Him; we must at first apply to Him with some diligence: but that after a little care we should find His love inwardly excite us to it without any difficulty.

That he expected after the pleasant days GOD had given him, he should have his turn of pain and suffering; but that he was not uneasy about it, knowing very well, that as he could do nothing of himself, GOD would not fail to give him the strength to bear them.

That when an occasion of practising some virtue offered, he addressed himself to GOD, saying, LORD, I cannot do this unless Thou enablest me; and that then he received strength more than sufficient.

That when he had failed in his duty, he only confessed his fault, saying to GOD, I shall never do otherwise, if You leave me to myself; ’tis You must hinder my falling, and mend what is amiss. That after this, he gave himself no further uneasiness about it.

That we ought to act with GOD in the greatest simplicity, speaking to Him frankly and plainly, and imploring His assistance in our affairs, just as they happen. That GOD never failed to grant it, as he had often experienced. ....

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"The approach of more joyous days"

Via Anecdotal Evidence, Samuel Johnson on the coming of Spring:
There is, indeed, something inexpressibly pleasing in the annual renovation of the world, and the new display of the treasures of nature. The cold and darkness of winter, with the naked deformity of every object on which we turn our eyes, make us rejoice at the succeeding season, as well for what we have escaped as for what we may enjoy; and every budding flower which a warm situation brings early to our view is considered by us a messenger to notify the approach of more joyous days.
Yesterday in church we sang "Morning Has Broken." The last line of the hymn is "God's recreation of the new Day!" I've never been certain whether that should be "God's re-creation" or "God's recreation." I rather like the latter. "There is...something inexpressibly pleasing in the annual renovation of the world...."

Saturday, April 2, 2016

"By our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures"

This post and the previous one result from reading Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches. This quotation is from James Wilson: Pennsylvania representative to the Continental Congress, signer of the Declaration of Independence, a framer of the US Constitution, and also a Justice of the Supreme Court. Wilson in 1790:
Having thus thus stated the question—what is the efficient cause of moral obligation?—I give it this answer—the will of God. This is the supreme law. His just and full right of imposing laws, and our duty in obeying them, are the sources of our moral obligations. If am asked—why do you obey the will of God? I answer—because it is my duty to do so. If I am asked again—how do you know this to be your duty? I answer again—because I am told so by my moral sense or conscience. If I am asked a third time—how do you know that you ought to do that, of which your conscience enjoins the performance? I can only say, I feel that such is my duty. Here investigation must stop; reasoning can go no farther. The science of morals, as well as other sciences, is founded on truths, that cannot be discovered or proved by reasoning. Reason is confined to the investigation of unknown truths by the means of such as are known. We cannot, therefore, begin to reason, till we are furnished, otherwise than by reason, with some truths, on which we can found our arguments. Even in mathematics, we must be provided with axioms perceived intuitively to be true, before our demonstrations can commence. Morality, like mathematics, has its intuitive truths, without which we cannot make a single step in our reasonings upon the subject. Such an intuitive truth is that, with which we just now closed our investigation. If a person was not possessed of the feeling before mentioned; it would not be in the power of arguments, to give him any conception of the distinction between right and wrong. These terms would be to him equally unintelligible, as the term color to one who was born and has continued blind. But that there is, in human nature, such a moral principle, has been felt and acknowledged in all ages and nations.

Now that we have stated and answered the first question; let us proceed to the consideration of the second—how shall we, in particular instances, learn the dictates of our duty, and make, with accuracy, the proper distinction between right and wrong; in other words, how shall we, in particular cases, discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures. The law of nature and the law of revelation are both divine; they flow, though in different channels, from the same adorable source. It is, indeed, preposterous to separate them from each other. The object of both is—to discover the will of God—and both are necessary for the accomplishment of that end.
James Wilson, The Laws of Nature, 1790

Friday, April 1, 2016

The consolations of religion

From Alexander Hamilton to his wife on the eve of his duel with Aaron Burr:

To Mrs. Hamilton, July 10, 1804
This letter, my dear Eliza, will not be delivered to you, unless I shall first have terminated my earthly career, to begin, as I humbly hope, from redeeming grace and divine mercy, a happy immortality. If it had been possible for me to have avoided the interview, my love for you and my precious children would have been alone a decisive motive. But it was not possible, without sacrifices which would have rendered me unworthy of your esteem. I need not tell you of the pangs I feel from the idea of quitting you, and exposing you to the anguish I know you would feel. Nor could I dwell on the topic, lest it should unman me. The consolations of religion, my beloved, can alone support you; and these you have a right to enjoy. Fly to the bosom of your God, and be comforted. With my last idea I shall cherish the sweet hope of meeting you in a better world. Adieu, best of wives—best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.
To Mrs. Hamilton, Tuesday evening, ten o'clock
This is my second letter. The scruples of a Christian have determined me to expose my own life to any extent, rather than subject myself to the guilt of taking the life of another. This much increases my hazards, and redoubles my pangs for you. But you had rather I should die innocent than live guilty. Heaven can preserve me, and I humbly hope will; but, in the contrary event, I charge you to remember that you are a Christian. God's will be done! The will of a merciful God must be good. Once more, Adieu, my darling, darling wife.
Hamilton died the day after the duel. He apparently fired intentionally to miss Burr. He was buried in the churchyard of Trinity Church in Manhattan.