Friday, September 30, 2016

The pace never slackens

I posted recently about one of my favorite thrillers, Geoffrey Household's Watcher in the Shadows. Another of his, written earlier and twice filmed, is Rogue Male (1939) reviewed here:
The opening lines are highly intriguing and offer a glimpse of the nonchalant protagonist, who is rarely out of danger for the following 180 pages. The book begins: “I cannot blame them. After all, one doesn’t need a telescopic sight to shoot boar and bear; so that when they came on me watching the terrace at a range of 550 yards, it was natural enough that they should jump to conclusions. And they behaved, I think, with discretion.”

This stiff upper lip was typical of fictional British heroes of this era, though Rogue Male has endured thanks to its stylish prose and the psychological insight the author brings to a man who’s hunted like an animal. ....

The unnamed narrator is an aristocratic sportsman on a shooting holiday in Poland, who decides to tackle a bigger challenge than wildlife. With that rifle and telescopic sight, he describes how he stalks and lines up a European dictator in his sights at a heavily guarded country estate.

What’s his motive? It’s not clear that he actually intends to assassinate this despot. It seems the rogue male simply wants a bit of sport by proving that he could do it. “It is obvious that the type of man who is a really fine shot and experienced in the approaching and killing of big-game would shrink from political or any other kind of murder,” the narrator tells us. ....

His despotic prey is, like the narrator, never named, and the absence of identities makes for a lean and uncluttered narrative, as well as an ingenious ending. From the geography and the viciousness of the secret police, it’s clear that the dictator is modeled on Hitler – and Household was apparently no supporter of appeasement. ....

Having captured the apparent assassin, the secret police torture him but find no evidence of his being a British agent (because he’s not). To maintain diplomatic relations with Britain – the story is firmly set in the pre-war period – the rogue male has to be dispatched in such a way that his injuries are not suspicious. So this book begins with a cliffhanger – literally. He’s left clinging to a rock face, with the intention that his inevitable death be reported a few days later as a hunting accident.

Somehow, he survives....

.... The novel’s pace never slackens as he makes his way home, yet it becomes clear the foreign agents’ reach extends to England. He finally goes to ground in Dorset, an area that Household knew well. .... (more)
The book: Rogue Male (Kindle is $9.99.)

The films are each available on DVD: Man Hunt (1941) (also on YouTube), and Rogue Male (1977) with Peter O'Toole.

 Benedict Cumberbatch has committed to star in, and produce, a new film of the story.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

"Not all those who wander are lost"

The Proverbs of Middle-earth will be published on November 18, 2016. This is a book I will buy. It will apparently only be available at a publishing house called Oloris. It's not on their site yet, nor at Amazon, but The Inklings site confidently tells us that it's coming and moreover that "until publication date, and each day until November 18th, I will be posting here a short extract from the book." More:
Tolkien did not merely fill his books with hundreds of original sayings – however great and unprecedented an achievement that is – he also invented entire wisdom traditions in which they belong. Each proverb reflects the culture, the philosophical worldview, and the history of those who use them.

In The Proverbs of Middle-earth, David Rowe discovers and investigates the degree to which the 'soul' of each of Tolkien's fictional civilizations can be understood through the lens of their proverbs. What is revealed enriches the reader's experience of and delight in Tolkien's world, as well as illuminating the astounding depth and detail of creativity in his work.
The author:
David Rowe started reading The Lord Of The Rings aged seven, and hasn't stopped yet. Born in Sheffield, England, he has lived in four continents, now making his home in Charleston, SC, where he works for an Anglican church and teaches people how to make tea properly.

Will the circle be unbroken

A Facebook friend "liked" a very good article describing how the soundtrack of O Brother, Where Art Thou? broadened the audience for bluegrass. The artists who provided the music of the Soggy Mountain Boys have reunited to perform at a gathering of the International Bluegrass Music Association. Toward the end of the article another group performing there is noted:
The band's appearance coincides, in spirit, with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Red Hat headliner Friday evening—a band that has spent 2016 celebrating its fiftieth anniversary. Like the O Brother soundtrack, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's expansive 1972 record Will the Circle Be Unbroken brought revered traditional artists like Doc Watson, the Carter Family, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, and Jimmy Martin back into the national spotlight. It remains an important crossover record that bridges revered old-school figureheads with a young, fresh audience.

"These albums really helped cross over into the mainstream, and I think remind people how powerful and important the music is," Lewis says. "It's kind of cool to have both of those on the same stage, in the same night, to give a nod in the direction of film and of albums that bring traditional music to broader audiences."

There were eventually three collections of songs in a series of "Will the Circle be Unbroken" records/CDs. My favorite is Volume Two, the one that includes the remarkable gathering of musicians above (and more).

Fifteen Years Later, Bluegrass Is Still Reeling from O Brother, Where Art Thou? | Music Feature | Indy Week

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

"To banish sin from our delight..."

In the back of the issue of Christian History I posted about earlier today is a list of hymns: "2000 years, 25 hymns." One of the earliest is "O Splendor of God's Glory Bright" by Ambrose of Milan (340-397). It was unfamiliar to me. The translation below, except for the final verse, is by Robert Bridges (1844-1930).

O SPLENDOR of God's glory bright,
O Thou that bringest light from light,
O Light of Light, light's living spring,
O Day, all days illumining;
To guide whate'er we nobly do,
With love all envy to subdue,
To make ill-fortune turn to fair,
And give us grace our wrongs to bear.
O Thou true Sun, on us Thy glance
Let fall in royal radiance,
The Spirit's sanctifying beam
Upon our earthly senses stream.
All laud to God the Father be;
All praise, eternal Son, to Thee;
All glory, as is ever meet,
To God the holy Paraclete. Amen.
The Father, too, our prayers implore,
Father of glory evermore,
The Father of all grace and might,
To banish sin from our delight:

I have found versions of the hymn in several hymnbooks including the one we used in my youth and the one we use where I worship now but I don't recall ever singing it.

Reading the Bible

Tim Challies reviews the ESV Reader's Bible and likes the fact that it "strips away nearly everything that might threaten to displace the text. The text is printed in a single, paragraphed column free of all verse numbers, chapter numbers, footnotes, or annotations."
.... Reading the Bible in so simple a form reminds us that it is first a book, first literature, first words from God to humanity. When left with only the text we are encouraged, maybe even forced, to read it as a text, as a book. After all, without chapter and verse markings it is difficult to zoom to a single chapter or verse. .... This Bible wants to be read it in bigger swaths, a book at a time or at least a section at a time. As we read we have to look for internal clues as to where thoughts begin and end, where sections start and close. We engage it in a different way, perhaps even a purer way. It’s rather a foreign experience to those who have known nothing but clutter. But what may at first be alarming soon becomes comforting. ....

Words that changed the Church

Last fall Christian History magazine published an issue listing "25 writings that changed the church and the world." (A free pdf of that issue is available.) The editors consulted "over 70 of our past authors" in selecting the works that made the list and that issue of the magazine is composed of articles about their choices. The list:
  1. Augustine, Confessions (c. 398)
  2. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Thaologiae (1265-1274)
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536)
  4. Augustine, City of God (413-426)
  5. Martin Luther, 95 Theses (1517)
  6. John Bunyan, Pilgrim's Progress (1678)
  7. The Nicene Creed (325, revised 381)
  8. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952)
  9. Athanasius, On the Incarnation (c. 319)
  10. Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (c. 1418-1427)
  11. Benedict, Rule (c. 540s)
  12. The Book of Common Prayer (1549)
  13. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (1937)
  14. Martin Luther, Freedom of a Christian (1520)
  15. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (1932-1962)
  16. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (c. 1308-1320)
  17. Anselm, Why God Became Man (c. 1095-1098)
  18. Augustine, On Christian Teaching (397-426)
  19. Augustine, On the Trinity (c. 400-428)
  20. Westminster Confession (1646)
  21. lrenaeus, Against Heresies (c. 175-185)
  22. John Wesley, A Plain Account of Christian Perfection (1777)
  23. Jonathan Edwards, Religious Affections (1746)
  24. Pope Gregory I, Pastoral Rule (c. 591)
  25. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (c. 1515-1516)
I was pleased to see Mere Christianity among the books selected. C.S. Lewis, Barth and Bonhoeffer are the most recent listed. The article about Lewis is by David Neff, a retired editor of the magazine. He concludes with what he believes the legacy of the book:
First, Mere Christianity itself—"mere" not in the contemporary connotation of "lowest common denominator," but in older meanings: "genuine," "pure," "nothing less than." To avoid any hint of denominationalism, Lewis asked four prominent clergymen—Anglican, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic—to vet the talks. He got four thumbs up. Bles published the book in 1952. It went on to sell over 200,000,000 copies in 30 languages. It also changed lives.

Second, Lewis helped to create a genre of Christian publishing marked by informed simplicity, clarity, and imagination. Eric Fenn guided Lewis not only in writing to a specific length, but also in speaking in short, unadorned sentences for radio, addressing the experiences of common folk.

Third, Lewis's broadcast talks proved that an intelligent, informed layperson could expound historic Christian orthodoxy without kowtowing to ecclesiastical or academic gatekeepers.

Finally, Lewis demonstrated the power of the imagination combined with rational analysis. Either one without the other creates lopsided Christians. Together they prepared Lewis's contemporaries to cope during wartime. Today, more than 70 years after Lewis's last radio broadcast, his unique blend of imagination and analysis continues to speak.

Monday, September 26, 2016

"Never read a Bible verse"

Greg Koukl writes "Never Read a Bible Verse," or, I would add, never quote a Bible verse (unless):
If there was only one bit of wisdom, one rule of thumb, one single skill I could impart to you, one useful tip that would help build your knowledge as a Christian ambassador and help you cultivate a sensible faith, what would it be?

Here's what I came up with: Never read a Bible verse. That's right, never read a Bible verse. Instead, always read a paragraph—at least. Here's why. ....

This works because of a basic rule of all communication: Meaning always flows from the top down, from the larger units to the smaller units. The key to the meaning of any verse comes from the paragraph, not just from the individual words. ....

A reflection on a Bible passage from a sermon or a devotional may be edifying, encouraging, and uplifting. But if it is not the message of the text, it lacks biblical authority even when the quote comes right out of the Word of God. .... [more]
Paul Manuel says on his site that "context controls meaning."

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The first great novel about terrorism

I just added The Secret Agent to my Watchlist at Amazon Prime based on John Miller's NR review. I have never read Conrad's 1907 book on which the BBC series is based. From the review:
When Martial Bourdin moved through the streets of London on February 15, 1894, he planned to strike a blow against the order of the world — or so it would seem, judging from his decision to bomb the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park. The truth is that nobody knows exactly what the 26-year-old Frenchman intended. Rather than blowing up his apparent target, Bourdin managed only to blow up himself. Investigators collected his bone fragments from a path that led to the famous hilltop building, which was unharmed.

A dozen years later, Joseph Conrad used the incident as an inspiration for his book The Secret Agent. Just as Bourdin had become the sole casualty in what may have been the first act of international terrorism on British soil, Conrad wrote what may be the first great novel of global terrorism....

The Secret Agent tells the story of Adolf Verloc, a London shopkeeper who sells “shady wares” (i.e., pornography). He lives with his much younger wife, Winnie, and her adult brother, Stevie, a gentle but confused soul who nowadays probably would be diagnosed as autistic. Verloc also associates with a band of anarchists and informs upon their activities to Mr. Vladimir, an official at the Russian embassy.

At the time Conrad wrote, the international anarchist movement included peaceful strains embodied by the likes of Leo Tolstoy, but also became notorious for its violence. In the United States, the lone-wolf anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley in 1901. Meanwhile, Russia’s czarist government saw anarchists as proto-Communists and sought to suppress them. In The Secret Agent, Vladimir, Moscow’s man in London, orders Verloc to become an agent provocateur who pushes the anarchists to commit an act of terrorism that will give the public “a jolly good scare” and compel the British government into a repressive crackdown on political radicals and refugees. “This country is absurd with its sentimental regard for individual liberty,” he says. Then he proposes a bombing of the Royal Observatory. ....

.... Much of the dialogue comes straight from Conrad’s pages, even as it compresses an important chapter into just a few moments of screen time. In the book, Vladimir says that the anarchist terror “need not be especially sanguinary.” He adds that royalty and religion no longer hold the public’s esteem. “The sacrosanct fetish of today is science,” he says. “What do you think of having a go at astronomy?” ....

The BBC version of The Secret Agent is a reasonably faithful adaptation. .... Toby Jones plays Anton Verloc as a bumbling, amoral manipulator, and Vicky McClure as Winnie Verloc shows that good actresses can do great work even in motionless silence.

Behind it all sits Conrad’s perceptive and prophetic novel, written for his times but with lessons for ours.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Psalm 34

O taste and see how gracious the Lord is;
Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.
O fear the Lord ye that are His saints,
For they that fear Him lack nothing.
The lions do lack, and suffer hunger,
But they who seek the Lord
Shall want no manner of thing that is good
O taste and see how gracious the Lord is,
Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him
John Goss (1800-1880)

O taste and see how gracious the Lord is;
Blessed is the man that trusteth in Him.
Ralph Vaughan Williams

Be the Church

Walking home after Sabbath services this morning I noticed this hanging on the fence alongside the First Congregational Church in Madison. I agree with all the exhortations (at least my interpretations of them) but the priorities seemed a bit askew. Shouldn't "Love God" be at the top if the idea is to "be the Church"?
Jesus said unto him, 
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,
and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.
This is the first and great commandment. 
And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.
(Matt 22)

Friday, September 23, 2016

"The ever-living now"

A brief reference in an article I was reading sent me to find Frederick Douglass's 1852 Fourth of July address, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” I had never read it. It is very much worth reading. Not the most important passage but one that struck me:
.... My business, if I have any here to-day, is with the present. The accepted time with God and his cause is the ever-living now.
Trust no future, however pleasant,
Let the dead past bury its dead;
Act, act in the living present,
Heart within, and God overhead.*
We have to do with the past only as we can make it useful to the present and to the future. To all inspiring motives, to noble deeds which can be gained from the past, we are welcome. But now is the time, the important time. Your fathers have lived, died, and have done their work, and have done much of it well. You live and must die, and you must do your work. You have no right to enjoy a child’s share in the labor of your fathers, unless your children are to be blest by your labors. You have no right to wear out and waste the hard-earned fame of your fathers to cover your indolence. Sydney Smith tells us that men seldom eulogize the wisdom and virtues of their fathers, but to excuse some folly or wickedness of their own. This truth is not a doubtful one. There are illustrations of it near and remote, ancient and modern. .... [more]
*From "The Psalm Of Life" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Growing inside the right words

When Alan Jacobs became a Christian he first worshiped in evangelical congregations but felt too "emotionally incompetent to be an evangelical. I mean, the pastor would tell me how happy I ought to be that Jesus had saved me from my sins.... And then five minutes later he’d tell me how grieved I should be when I realized how deeply sinful I am, and I’d try to make myself appropriately sad.... Again: emotionally incompetent." He found a way that worked better for him:
From the Book of Common Prayer (1928)
It was only when I began to worship in the Anglican tradition that I felt the burden lift. Because that tradition gave me the right words to say — words that Christians had prayed (in one language or another) for two thousand years, words that had stood the test of time, that had been crafted by people whose walk with Jesus was longer and stronger than mine would ever be. Instead of trying to feel a certain way, I just needed to focus on saying the right words, and in that way training myself to live inside them. ....

I cannot possibly overstate what a gift the ancient liturgies and the ancient calendar of the Church have been to me. They have quite literally made it possible for me to be a follower of Jesus. Now, I am sure that if I had never come across the ancient faith God would have found ways to nourish and bless me, but how much smoother my path has been thanks to these old and well-trodden ways. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for them.

If you just had more faith...

From - A curiously Christian webcomic

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

"Such a Life, as killeth death"

Come, my Way, my Truth, my Life:
Such a Way, as gives us breath:
Such a Truth, as ends all strife:
Such a Life, as killeth death.
Come, My Light, my Feast, my Strength:
Such a Light, as shows a feast:
Such a Feast, as mends in length:
Such a Strength, as makes his guest.
Come, my Joy, my Love, my Heart:
Such a Joy, as none can move:
Such a Love, as none can part:
Such a Heart, as joys in love.
Composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Text by George Herbert (1593-1633)

"A Cheap, Easy High—With No Side Effects"

In "A Cheap, Easy High—With No Side Effects" Patrick Kurp refers to Terry Teachout's "post devoted to the music he listens to whenever he feels 'the urgent need to upgrade my mood.' He writes, 'I’ve always found music to be one of the most potent means of attitude adjustment known to man,' and his experience jibes with mine. .... Music’s impact is prompt and unambiguous. In contrast, literature is an oral ingestion of medicine compared to the intravenous immediacy of music." Kurp goes on to list some of the works of literature that invariably lift his mood. For instance:
  • Most anything by...P.G. Wodehouse
  • Thomas Traherne’s Centuries of Meditation 
  • Tristram Shandy, especially the scenes with Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman 
  • The essays of Joseph Epstein and Guy Davenport 
  •  Jonathan Swift’s “A Description of a City Shower” and “The Lady’s Dressing Room”
Teachout's list of music that provides "a cheap, easy high" is long. A few of the many he listed:
  • Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”
  • The Band’s “Up on Cripple Creek”
  • Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture
  • Gershwin’s An American in Paris
  • Copland’s “Buckaroo Holiday” (from Rodeo)
  • The Who’s “Shakin’ All Over” (from Live at Leeds)
  • Sidney Bechet’s 1932 recording of “Maple Leaf Rag”
  • Mendelssohn’s Rondo capriccioso
  • The first movement of Mozart’s A Major Piano Concerto, K. 488
  • Steely Dan’s “My Old School”
  • Flatt and Scruggs’ “Farewell Blues”
  • Bill Monroe’s “Rawhide”
  • The first movement of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony
  • Johann Strauss’s Fledermaus Overture
  • Gilbert and Sullivan’s “Three little maids from school are we” (from The Mikado)
  • Pretty much anything by Count Basie, Erroll Garner, Fats Waller, Haydn, or John Philip Sousa 

Anecdotal Evidence: `A Cheap, Easy High--With No Side Effects', About Last Night | TT: Make me smile

Monday, September 19, 2016

"He was once possessed"

.... This is far from a generic anti-technology, anti-Internet screed. There is profound religious insight in this essay. The gist of it is here:
In his survey of how the modern West lost widespread religious practice, A Secular Age, the philosopher Charles Taylor used a term to describe the way we think of our societies. He called it a “social imaginary” — a set of interlocking beliefs and practices that can undermine or subtly marginalize other kinds of belief. We didn’t go from faith to secularism in one fell swoop, he argues. Certain ideas and practices made others not so much false as less vibrant or relevant. And so modernity slowly weakened spirituality, by design and accident, in favor of commerce; it downplayed silence and mere being in favor of noise and constant action. The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn.
Andrew says that if churches stopped trying to outdo the secular world with light shows and racket, and instead offered a place of silence from which to escape the noise of modernity, they might draw more people. Maybe he’s right. ....

We who immerse ourselves in information technology become a people who regard the world at the level of sensation. What does surrendering to this technology teach us about being, nature, and truth? It is not a neutral tool. As Andrew’s essay makes plain — and this is something he had to discover for himself from experience — the particular content of the data we take in is not as important as the form in which we receive it. You might even say that the medium is the message. ....

Ultimately, Andrew’s essay is a humanist religious testimony, bearing witness against one of the most powerful gods of our place and time. It is an essay about possession and deliverance. One lesson I take from the piece is that we don’t have to wait for genetics laboratories to abolish man, in the sense C.S. Lewis meant. We are doing it ourselves, one click at a time. [more]

"The clean sea breeze of the centuries"

C.S. Lewis argued that "It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between." Why?
Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook—even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it. Nothing strikes me more when I read the controversies of past ages than the fact that both sides were usually assuming without question a good deal which we should now absolutely deny.
College students find it therapeutic to decry offense in old books. Last year Columbia undergrads, shocked at Ovid’s insensitive portrayal of Persephone’s abduction, demanded their professors tag Metamorphoses with trigger warnings. Such texts, according to four students on the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board, were “wrought with histories and narratives of exclusion and oppression,” making them “difficult to read and discuss as a survivor, a person of color, or a student from a low-income background.” The suggestion is that some books survived the centuries not because they were great, but because they were “privileged.” That word has the finesse of a wrecking ball. “Privilege” is to serious criticism what a strobe on a cop car is to natural lighting: a warning, not a source of illumination. ....

All books have blind spots. All eras do. We can look back and spy past prejudices, ridiculous and discredited in hindsight. We see their mistaken premises and faulty logic. We can reject geocentric astronomy, the rooting of disease in the “influenza” of the planets, and the race-based classification of the human and the “subhuman.” We see the futility of phrenology and cringe at doctors who bled their patients to cure fever. We laugh at the “divine right of kings” and wonder why Salem thought it wise to hunt witches. But should we avoid books whose authors accepted what passed for wisdom in their own time?

Several reasons support wide reading of old, even flawed, books.

Censoring history helps nobody. TinTin might stereotype and degrade the Congolese. That might be reason to keep his African escapades from toddlers, who surely are not ready to learn of King Leopold’s reign of terror in the Belgian Congo. But those who are mature ought to know the hard realities of history. We shouldn’t erase the Trojan War because it was bloody, just as we shouldn’t forget Jim Crow laws because they are troubling.

We benefit from the clarity arising from past mistakes. We can learn to avoid old errors, of course, but “the clean sea breeze of the centuries” sweeps away hubris, as well. Meeting dead assumptions—whether they are disproven or merely discarded—confronts us with the realization that we may have our own unexamined suppositions. What premises do we consider self-evident that earlier generations scorned? Perhaps our own generation’s ideological fads are not so permanent as they seem.

Reading classics is humbling. Myopia becomes impossible. Millennia of human history unfold with the pages of books—and with an authenticity that no textbook or documentary can mimic. Read the Iliad and you glimpse the grandeur of a bygone warrior civilization. Marvel at the mysteries of The Inferno—and at the epoch that thrived on such poetry. Read Of Plymouth Plantation and admire the pluck of the Pilgrims who erected homes in a barren Massachusetts winter. Whistle at the sheer determination that drove pioneers like the Ingallses to plough and homestead the West. Recognizing hardships in other centuries doesn’t erase our own. But the recognition can relieve the feverish sense that our troubles are overwhelming. Great books stand as testaments that civilization survives adversity. Thucydides’s History is the record of wartime. Boethius bequeathed The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution. Milton composed Paradise Lost blind, and Bunyan penned Pilgrim’s Progress from prison.

Old books remind us that human nature persists across time. Rosalind’s love for Orlando, hidden in her boyish disguise but at the end bursting forth in womanly depth, speaks to us today as it did in Shakespeare’s time. Joy, love, loneliness, valor, heroism, grief, pride—we sense these anew with characters whose lives look nothing like our own. Human emotion isn’t limited by geography, economic conditions, political structures, or time. The stories of long ago reflect to us something of our own experiences, as in a mirror that mimics the major features but twists and alters the rest. .... [more]

Sunday, September 18, 2016

"Well-wrought English, within a book that is well-made"

Alan Jacobs explains why he continues to use the English Standard Version (ESV) of the scriptures:
.... I don’t use the ESV as enthusiastically as I did when it first came out, largely because I have listened to the scholars who’ve been critical of some of its decisions, but it still has a place in my rotation. There are two reasons for this.

The first is that the ESV committee’s Prime Directive — defer to the RSV whenever possible — means that the translation retains much of the linguistic and poetic excellence that the RSV had inherited from the KJV. For someone who has devoted much of his life to teaching and writing about poetry, this can’t not be a consideration. By contrast, the utter stylistic incompetence manifest in all versions of the NIV makes it simply unreadable to me. Indeed, all translations not directly in the Tyndale line of succession suffer from one or another disease of the English language, and even the NRSV translators were often deaf to the music of what they had inherited. (N.B. People who say that translators of the Bible — which is comprised largely of poetry and narrative! — should focus only on accuracy and ignore aesthetic questions simply do not understand the concept of accuracy in translation. Beauty matters, and not in “merely” aesthetic ways.)

My second reason for keeping the ESV in my rotation is not unlike the first: Crossway has devoted far, far more time and energy and skill into quality book-making than any other Bible publisher. .... Crossway has lavished similar attention on their smartphone apps....

Sometimes I want to sit down to read the Bible in well-wrought English, within a book that is well-made, and on pages that are admirably formatted and presented. Those are all features that help me concentrate on what I believe to be the Word of God. And that’s why the ESV, for all its flaws, is still in my reading rotation. (more)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Gray Seal

While I was in elementary school an uncle, Rev Victor W. Skaggs, was serving a church only a few miles from where I lived with my parents. We visited often. In his bookcase I discovered several volumes of Frank L. Packard's Jimmie Dale stories. They date from the 1910s and '20s (my uncle was born in 1918). I devoured them and have since acquired a few of them. Today a review in the Weekly Standard reminded me of the books. They gave me a great deal of pleasure then. I wonder how they would seem to me now. I came across this description at a site called The Dusty Bookcase:
.... As with Buchan and Richard Hannay, Packard returned to his hero repeatedly throughout his career.

Jimmie Dale owes everything to his late father, who made millions manufacturing the finest safes money could buy. You might say that the fortune came through protecting those of others. Jimmie himself dabbled in sketching and writing before turning to breaking and entering. Donning a black silk mask, he'd sneak into the expansive homes of New York's well-to-do, crack open their safes, and affix a diamond-shaped grey seal in place of a carte de visite. Nothing would be taken – Jimmie has never wanted for anything – the thrill was payment enough.

One night, all went horribly wrong. Jimmie's secret identity as the "Gray Seal" was discovered by a mysterious, unseen woman who threatened to expose him unless he turned his talents toward combatting crime. The millionaire playboy did just that – resulting in even greater thrills. ....

.... There's a gritty reality in the depictions of New York's impoverished and its criminal class, aided I think by the access Packard was granted to NYPD stakeouts and raids. Then there is the Sanctuary, a secret lair in which Jimmie transforms into Larry the Bat, to all appearances a down-and-out cocaine addict who moves through the city's underworld. As both Larry and the Gray Seal, Jimmie wears a wide leather belt holding the tools of his crime fighting trade. ....

The mystery the reader is left with is how such an influential character can be so forgotten. Why has there been no revival? How is it that The Adventures of Jimmie Dale is out of print? Most of all, why did it take me so long to get around to reading it? .... [more]
The first two of the books in the series are downloadable, free, for Kindle or Nook or other electronic readers:  
The Adventures of Jimmie Dale
The Further Adventures of Jimmie Dale

An ethical legacy

Tom Holland, a classical scholar, explains in the New Statesman "Why I was wrong about Christianity":
.... The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable. ....

.... Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. In the ancient world, it was the role of gods who laid claim to ruling the universe to uphold its order by inflicting punishment – not to suffer it themselves.

Today, even as belief in God fades across the West, the countries that were once collectively known as Christendom continue to bear the stamp of the two-millennia-old revolution that Christianity represents. It is the principal reason why, by and large, most of us who live in post-Christian societies still take for granted that it is nobler to suffer than to inflict suffering. It is why we generally assume that every human life is of equal value. In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.
Thanks to Brandywine Books for the link.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Gutenberg in Guttenberg

My brother and I just returned from Guttenberg, Iowa. It is a nice, well-kept, old river town on the Mississippi. We've been going there for two or three days at a time for several years. It's perfect for a brief, relaxing, getaway on the Mississippi. On display in the public library is a facsimile of the first full book printed with movable type: the Gutenberg Bible.

From the description of their copy purchased after World War II:
The volume on display is not one of the Gutenberg originals (of which there are 46 copies still in existence). It is one of a two-volume set of an edition of 310 facsimile sets printed at Leipzig, Germany in 1913 by the Insel-Verlag, which using a copy of an original, reproduced it with modern printing methods.

This facsimile copy of the Gutenberg Bible was on display in the Gutenberg print shop in Mainz during an air attack on Mainz on August 12, 1942, and as a result the covers and some pages along the edges of the volume were damaged by fire and water. However, it was decided not to rebind the book or to trim the burned portions, because it was felt that the survival of the book through the bombing was an important part of its history.

No copy of the Gutenberg originals has been offered for sale for many years. Most are in the hands of large universities or libraries. The facsimile copies are also scattered throughout the world, and are considered rare books. A facsimile copy is on display at the Truman Library. President Truman used the book when he took the oath of office.
More, about the original Gutenbergs:
The Gutenberg Bible was the first book printed in the Western World. It was printed by Johannes Gensfleisch zum Gutenberg at Mainz, Germany, between 1450 and 1456. ....

It has been estimated that about 200 copies of the original Gutenberg Bible were printed, of which 46 are known to be in existence. Most were printed on paper, but at least 12 of the surviving examples are on vellum, a fine variety of animal skin. The Latin text is in double columns throughout, printed in black, with some lines printed in red, and with capital letters and headings ornamented by hand in red and blue....

Friday, September 9, 2016

"A flaky but principled genius"

In "How the Colonies in America Moved from 'Tolerance' to 'Free Exercise' of Religion" Justin Taylor describes the rather halting progress toward religious liberty. One step along the way — not the final one — was Rhode Island, the place of my denomination's first church in North America.
Both Maryland and Pennsylvania failed to tie down tolerance publicly; they bound it only to their founder’s authority and goodwill. When that was gone, tolerance floated away with it. Rhode Island, in contrast, conducted an imaginative experiment, tying tolerance not to a human founder but to the Founder Himself: God.

Roger Williams founded Providence Plantations in 1636, and he obtained a royal charter in 1663 calling for a “lively experiment...with a full liberty in religious concernments.”

Williams himself, a flaky but principled genius, separated from so many churches that he eventually ended up worshiping alone with his wife in his house. But he believed that “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils” — “it is the will and command of God” for “permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, [to] be granted to all men in all nations and countries.”

In other words, Williams based his theory of tolerance on his understanding of theology.

The lesson:
Williams’ answer...that it was “the command of God” that consciences not be coerced...[was] a magnificent insight, but...convinces only those who share the insight itself. It’s positively hopeless against...people who have no doubt that God’s will is something completely different.... In fact, it did have a short shelf life: successor governments of Rhode Island, which did not share in Williams’ revelation, felt free to cut back on the religious liberty he recognized.
(The Right to Be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America, by Kevin Seamus Hasson)

Thursday, September 8, 2016

"Beware of my partisanship"

Peter Wehner has been re-reading Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938) and is impressed by "George Orwell’s Fierce Modesty." Orwell:
I hope the account I have given is not too misleading. I believe on such an issue as this no one is or can be completely truthful. It is difficult to be certain about anything except what you have seen with your own eyes, and consciously or unconsciously everyone writes as a partisan. In case I have not said this somewhere earlier in the book I will say it now: beware of my partisanship, my mistakes of fact and the distortion inevitably caused by my having seen only one corner of events. And beware of exactly the same thing when you read any other book on this period of the Spanish war.
I am struck by the honesty and self-knowledge of Orwell, in particular his acknowledgement that we all write as partisans and that distortions arise because we see “only one corner of events.”

This is among the hardest things for us to accept—that at best each of us, whether we’re reporting on an event or contemplating metaphysical matters, has only a partial knowledge of the truth. We of course don’t approach it that way. We hold the views we do because at a given moment we believe that they are true, that they reflect the reality of things. If we knew where our views were wrong or incomplete, presumably we would change them. ....

That’s the danger of living in an echo chamber, isn’t it, surrounding ourselves only with people who reinforce what we already believe. That’s true whether we’re talking about politics, philosophy, theology, the social sciences, or even the hard sciences. Because the temptation is to see just about everything in partisan terms. .... [more]

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

"Good teaching is a matter of metaphysics"

At he beginning of a new academic year Carl Trueman offers "Teaching as Joyful Rebellion." Here I excerpt from his experience with "teacher training" (my experience was similar) and what it is that makes teaching a joy:
Not a single thing I heard was relevant to anything I have ever subsequently done in a classroom. ....

What was most striking, however, was the reduction of teaching to the merely technical. What discipline we taught was apparently irrelevant. The room was full of historians, theologians, philosophers, medics, nurses, engineers. But that did not matter, because education was ultimately not about disciplinary content. Rather, we were to use our disciplines to teach “life skills.” ....

.... A good teacher must always be driven by conviction—that the world is and that it has meaning, and that it is so much bigger than any one person can ever apprehend.

Teaching—true teaching, not the mere imparting of techniques or earning potential—is perhaps the most delightful calling and privilege in the world. It has its challenges, but it brings incomparable joys. The second greatest joy I have as teacher is seeing that flash of light in a student’s eyes when a previously unknown or misunderstood concept suddenly becomes clear because of something I have said. And the greatest joy (albeit a rarer one) is the one I experience when a student writes or says something that indicates they have gone far beyond that which I, as a teacher, have been able to teach them. When they become greater, I delight that I become less. For such is the proper order of things, if teaching is truly about truth and not about power or making disciples. Yet neither joy is possible where there is no truth to discover and where the world is simply whatever the loudest and most aggressive among us care to claim that it is. Good teaching is a matter of metaphysics. .... [more]

"When there is not a ray of light..."

It is easy to sing when we can read the notes by daylight; but he is the skilful singer who can sing when there is not a ray of light by which to read,— who sings from his heart, and not from a book that he can see, because he has no means of reading, save from that inward book of his own living spirit, whence notes of gratitude pour forth in songs of praise.

Men will never become great in divinity until they become great in suffering. ‘Ah!’ said Luther, ‘affliction is the best book in my library;’ and let me add, the best leaf in the book of affliction is that blackest of all the leaves, the leaf called heaviness, when the spirit sinks within us, and we cannot endure as we could wish. And yet again; this heaviness is of essential use to a Christian, if he would do good to others.... There are none so tender as those who have been skinned themselves. Those who have been in the chamber of affliction know how to comfort those who are there. Do not believe that any man will become a physician unless he walks the hospitals; and I am sure that no one will become a divine, or become a comforter, unless he lies in the hospital as well as walks through it, and has to suffer himself.

Mark then, Christian, Jesus does not suffer so as to exclude your suffering. He bears a cross, not that you may escape it, but that you may endure it. Christ exempts you from sin, but not from sorrow. Remember that, and expect to suffer.

Israel gained by education. The Lord was not going to lead a mob of slaves into Canaan, to go and behave like slaves there. They had to be tutored. The wilderness was the Oxford and Cambridge for God’s students. There they went to the University, and he taught and trained them, and they took their degree before they entered into the promised land. There is no University for a Christian like that of sorrow and trial. [all ten quotations]

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

SDBs in Newport, RI, 1664-1808

Just announced by Mercer University Press with a publication date of November 1, 2016: Baptists in Early North America—Newport, Rhode Island, Seventh Day Baptists, Volume III ($60), edited by Janet Thorngate, available for pre-order from Amazon already.

From the description by the Mercer Press:
The Baptists in Early North America Series provides a unique contribution to religious and Baptist scholarship, recovering never-before-published original records and manuscripts for students, scholars, and genealogists. Baptists in Early North America—Newport, Rhode Island, Seventh Day Baptists, Volume III covers the period 1664 to 1808, from the date some members of Newport's first Baptist church began meeting for worship on the seventh-day Sabbath (Saturday) through the first 137 years of their life as the Newport Seventh Day Baptist Church. .... The record follows the covenant community, nurtured in colonial Rhode Island's unique religious freedom, from Newport's pioneer period through its Golden Age as a major colonial seaport and its devastation during the Revolutionary War. Scattered membership could be found east and south into Plymouth Colony and Martha's Vineyard and west to Westerly and Hopkinton, Rhode Island, and New London, Connecticut. Members from Native Americans and African "servants" to Rhode Island Governors and wealthy merchants are also documented. This congregation had involvement with other Baptists in founding Rhode Island College (Brown University) and through the Second Great Awakening, then joined with daughter congregations and others to form the Seventh Day Baptist General Conference in 1802.
Baptists in Early North America—Newport, Rhode Island, Seventh Day Baptists, Volume III

Monday, September 5, 2016

"Weeding out the runts"

Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian on "one of the grisliest skeletons in the cupboard of the British intellectual elite" and, it should be noted, not only in Britain.
.... It is eugenics, the belief that society's fate rested on its ability to breed more of the strong and fewer of the weak. So-called positive eugenics meant encouraging those of greater intellectual ability and "moral worth" to have more children, while negative eugenics sought to urge, or even force, those deemed inferior to reproduce less often or not at all. The aim was to increase the overall quality of the national herd, multiplying the thoroughbreds and weeding out the runts.

...[I]n the prewar era it was the common sense of the age. Most alarming, many of its leading advocates were found among the luminaries of the Fabian and socialist left, men and women revered to this day. Thus George Bernard Shaw could insist that "the only fundamental and possible socialism is the socialisation of the selective breeding of man", even suggesting, in a phrase that chills the blood, that defectives be dealt with by means of a "lethal chamber".

Such thinking was not alien to the great Liberal titan and mastermind of the welfare state, William Beveridge, who argued that those with "general defects" should be denied not only the vote, but "civil freedom and fatherhood". Indeed, a desire to limit the numbers of the inferior was written into modern notions of birth control from the start. That great pioneer of contraception, Marie Stopes – honoured with a postage stamp in 2008 – was a hardline eugenicist, determined that the "hordes of defectives" be reduced in number, thereby placing less of a burden on "the fit". Stopes later disinherited her son because he had married a short-sighted woman, thereby risking a less-than-perfect grandchild. ....

.... Harold Laski, stellar LSE professor, co-founder of the Left Book Club and one-time chairman of the Labour party, cautioned that: "The time is surely coming…when society will look upon the production of a weakling as a crime against itself." Meanwhile, JBS Haldane, admired scientist and socialist, warned that: "Civilisation stands in real danger from over-production of 'undermen'." That's Untermenschen in German. ....

...[T]he eugenics movement's definition of "unfit" was not limited to the physically or mentally impaired. It held, he writes, "that most of the behavioural traits that led to poverty were inherited. In short, that the poor were genetically inferior to the educated middle class." It was not poverty that had to be reduced or even eliminated: it was the poor.

Hence the enthusiasm of John Maynard Keynes, director of the Eugenics Society from 1937 to 1944, for contraception, essential because the working class was too "drunken and ignorant" to keep its numbers down. ....

They believed in science and progress, and nothing was more cutting edge and modern than social Darwinism. Man now had the ability to intervene in his own evolution. Instead of natural selection and the law of the jungle, there would be planned selection. And what could be more socialist than planning, the Fabian faith that the gentlemen in Whitehall really did know best? If the state was going to plan the production of motor cars in the national interest, why should it not do the same for the production of babies? The aim was to do what was best for society, and society would clearly be better off if there were more of the strong to carry fewer of the weak. .... [more]
Not unrelated:

Sunday, September 4, 2016

"But I be outraged"


 Douglas Dalrymple "On Outrage":
“If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” So I was admonished by a bumper sticker belonging to a twenty-year-old Toyota sedan on a recent morning amble. My parents never allowed bumper stickers on their cars; they worried it would harm the vehicle’s trade-in value. I’ve avoided them too, but for the same reason that I never got a tattoo: I was always sure I’d regret it.

In fact, I despise bumper stickers, except when I’m amused by them, but in this particular instance I was not amused. I nonetheless asked myself: “Am I outraged?” The answer, I’m afraid, was, “No, I’m not especially outraged at the moment.” Immediately the sledgehammer of bumper-sticker logic brought home the conclusion that I was not, alas, paying attention.

Perhaps I pay attention to the wrong things. The trouble is that there is so much one might pay attention to, and so little attention that one lone mortal can spend. After my encounter with the righteous bumper sticker I tried to pay very strict attention to the weather, to several birds, and to the rhododendron in a neighbor’s front garden, but I failed in every case to be outraged.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Parent and child

.... A young mother remarked to me, ' I don't want to teach my child any religion. I don't want to influence him; I want him to choose for himself when he grows up.' That is a very ordinary example of a current argument, which is frequently repeated and yet never really applied. Of course the mother was always influencing the child. .... The grown-up person cannot in any case escape from the responsibility of influencing the child, not even if she accepts the enormous responsibility of not influencing the child. The mother can bring up the child without choosing a religion for him, but not without choosing an environment for him. If she chooses to leave out the religion, she is choosing the environment—and an infernally dismal, unnatural environment too. The mother can bring up the child alone on a solitary island in the middle of a large lake, lest the child should be influenced by superstitions and social traditions. But the mother is choosing the island and the lake and the loneliness, and is just as responsible for doing so as if she had chosen the sect of the Mennonites or the theology of the Mormons.

It is entirely obvious, to anybody who will think for two minutes, that this responsibility for determining childhood belongs inevitably to the relations of child and adult, quite apart from the relations of religion and irreligion. But the people who repeat these fragments of phraseology do not think for two minutes. ....
G.K. Chesterton: (excerpt) Illustrated London News, Feb. 18, 1928.
One of the results of the attack on September 11, 2001, was a Wisconsin statute requiring schools to either play the National Anthem or recite the Pledge of Allegiance. One of my colleagues refused to do anything when the anthem was played over the PA arguing that to do so would pressure his students to participate. Of course his non-action was at least as influential.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Everything had changed

I enjoy Andrew Klavan's books, both the hard-boiled adult thrillers, and especially his young-adult fiction. Now he has written a non-fiction book that I anticipate liking even more and for better reason: The Great Good Thing.  From Amazon's description:
No one was more surprised than Andrew Klavan when, at the age of fifty, he found himself about to be baptized. Best known for his hard-boiled, white-knuckle thrillers and for the movies made from them—among them True Crime (directed by Clint Eastwood) and Don’t Say a Word (starring Michael Douglas)—Klavan was born in a suburban Jewish enclave outside New York City. He left the faith of his childhood behind to live most of his life as an agnostic in the secular, sophisticated atmosphere of New York, London, and Los Angeles. But his lifelong quest for truth—in his life and in his work—was leading him to a place he never expected. ....

The Great Good Thing is the dramatic, soul-searching story of a man born into an age of disbelief who had to abandon everything he thought he knew in order to find his way to the truth.
Klavan wrote "How a Man of the Coasts and Cities Found Christ" for Christianity Today:
.... For most of the next 35 years, I remained a philosophical agnostic and a practical atheist. No shock of revelation changed me either. I never saw a flash of light like Paul on the road to Damascus. I never heard a voice telling me to “take up and read” like Augustine under the fig tree. Jesus never appeared to me while I lay drunk in the gutter.

And yet, looking back on my life, I see that Christ was beckoning to me at every turn. When I was a child, he was there in the kindness of a Christian babysitter and the magic of a Christmas Eve spent at her house. When I was a troubled young man contemplating suicide, he was in the voice of a Christian baseball player who gave a radio interview that inspired me to go on. And always, he was in the day-to-day miracle of my marriage, a lifelong romance that taught me the reality of love and slowly led me to contemplate the greater love that was its source and inspiration.

But perhaps most important for a novelist who insisted that ideas should make sense, Christ came to me in stories. Slowly, I came to understand that his life, words, sacrifice, and resurrection formed the hidden logic behind every novel, movie, or play that touched my deepest mind.

I was reading a story when that logic finally kicked in. I was in my 40s, lying in bed with one of Patrick O’Brian’s great seafaring adventure novels. One of the characters, whom I admired, said a prayer before going to sleep, and I thought to myself, Well, if he can pray, so can I. I laid the book aside and whispered a three-word prayer in gratitude for the contentment I’d found, and for the work and people I loved: “Thank you, God.”

It was a small and even prideful prayer: a self-impressed intellectual’s hesitant experiment with faith. God’s response was an act of extravagant grace.

I woke the next morning and everything had changed. There was a sudden clarity and brightness to familiar faces and objects; they were alive with meaning and with my own delight in them. I called this experience “the joy of my joy,” and it came to me again whenever I prayed. Naturally I began to pray every day. And over time, this joy of my joy became a constant companion: a steady sense of vitality and beauty that endured even in periods of sorrow and pain. ....

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Ideas have consequences

"Under the rule of great Stalin - let's go ahead to communism!"
Comrades, none of us wishes or is able to be right against his Party. The Party in the last analysis is always right, because the Party is the sole historical instrument given the proletariat for the solution of its basic problems. .... I know that one cannot be right against the party. It is only possible to be right with the Party and through the Party for history has not created other ways for the realization of what is right. — Leon Trotsky
From Gary Saul Morson "On the hidden horrors of Soviet life":
Ninety-nine years ago, Tsar Nicholas II abdicated, and, after a few months of weak parliamentary rule, the Bolsheviks seized power. We call that seizure the Russian (or October) Revolution, but it might better be designated the Bolshevik coup d’état. A party of 10,000 people gained control of an empire occupying one-sixth of the earth’s land area.

From the start, they made up for their small numbers with outsized violence. If at first their executions of liberals, socialists, workers who showed independence, and peasants from whom grain was seized at gunpoint seemed like a short-term necessity, it soon became evident that the violence would never stop. In fact, it was to grow, with Stalin proclaiming “the intensification of the class struggle” when Bolshevik control had long been total. The Bolsheviks made up for their small numbers with outsized violence.

Eventually some eighteen countries were to fall under Communist rule. ....

...[N]o form of government had ever been so brutal to those it regarded as its own people. Soviet Russia was far crueler than its tsarist predecessor, which had long been proverbial as “the gendarme of Europe.” Between 1825 and 1905, the tsars executed 191 people for political reasons—not for mere “suspicion” as under the Soviets but for actual assassinations, including that of Tsar Alexander II. In The Gulag Archipelago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn remarked that between 1905 and 1908 the regime executed as many as 2,200 people—forty-five a month!—“calling forth tears from Tolstoy and indignation from Korolenko and many, many others.” By comparison, conservative estimates of executions under Lenin and Stalin—say, twenty million from 1917 to 1953—yield an average of over ten thousand per week. That’s a tsarist century every few days.

Western public opinion has never come to terms with the crimes of Communism. Every school child knows about the Holocaust, Apartheid, and American slavery, as they should. But Pol Pot’s murder of a quarter of Cambodia’s population has not dimmed academic enthusiasm for the Marxism his henchmen studied in Paris. Neither the Chinese Cultural Revolution nor the Great Purges seem to have cast a shadow on the leftists who apologized for them. Quite the contrary, university classes typically blame the Cold War on American “paranoia” about communism and still picture Bolsheviks as idealists in too great a hurry. ....

Some figures speak for themselves. The volume’s scholars estimate twenty million deaths in the USSR, sixty-five million in China, two million each in Cambodia and North Korea, 1.7 million in Mengistu’s Ethiopia and other African countries, and so on, to a total of about one hundred million. .... So far as I can tell, these estimates are understatements. For example, the most authoritative study of Stalin’s war against the peasantry in the early 1930s, Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, arrives at a figure twice the one in this volume. The difference between the two estimates—the margin of error—equals the number of Jews killed by the Nazis.

By contrast, Nazi deaths are estimated at twenty-five million. Of course numbers aren’t everything, but one might imagine that it would be reasonable to compare the two systems. In intellectual circles, however, such comparisons taint not Communists, but the person who makes them. ....

Jörg Baberowski’s new book, Scorched Earth: Stalin’s Reign of Terror, also provides a lot of good material for appreciating Russia under the Great Helmsman, Father of Nations, and Coryphaeus of Science. Delivering a toast on the twentieth anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power, Stalin declared: “We will destroy each and every enemy, even if he was an old Bolshevik; we will destroy all his kin, his family. We will mercilessly destroy anyone who, by his deeds or his thoughts—yes, his thoughts!—threatens the unity of the socialist state. To the complete destruction of all enemies, themselves and their kin!” Even when the tsars imprisoned or executed revolutionaries, they never thought of arresting their spouses, children, grandparents, and cousins as well. And note Stalin’s insistence that not just wrong actions but improper thoughts merit “destruction.” Georgy Arbatov, adviser to five general secretaries of the Soviet Communist Party, observed that “the main code of behavior” was “to be afraid of your own thoughts.”

The goal was to change both nature and human nature. The Marxist “leap from the kingdom of necessity to the kingdom of freedom” meant that everything would be subject to human redesign. .... [more]