Sunday, December 31, 2017

"Everything except rules got shorter and shorter."

Something I missed in the film version of Lord of the Rings was the return to the Shire in the chapter Tolkien named "The Scouring of the Shire." It contains the most political commentary in the books. One of the earliest collections of critical essays about the Trilogy that I acquired was A Tolkien Compass edited by Jared Lobdell (1975). It includes an essay by Robert Plank, ""The Scouring of the Shire": Tolkien's View of Fascism." From that essay:
.... The political changes were not essentially constitutional changes. The laws have been perverted more than amended. The traditional offices have not been abolished, but new power is wielded by a new ruling group. The essential political innovation is the rise of an unprecedented police force, headed by the Chief Sherriff. The character of government is totally altered while its forms are not markedly changed. Whereas before the Shire enjoyed an easy-going laissez-faire regime, with maximum freedom and a minimum of government interference, the new regime operates through monstrously expanded restrictive rules, enforced by equally monstrously expanded military and paramilitary forces. These troops are not productive; in fact, they do not contribute anything that would be in any way necessary if the regime were different. All their work serves their own selfish ends: the purpose of government is plainly to maintain, consolidate, and expand its own power.

Even if they were not motivated by ill-will toward the citizenry—which they are—these troops would have to consume a large part of the goods and services that were formerly available to the people. But they do make themselves inimical first by taxation, then confiscation, then barefaced robbery. A problem arises that apparently was unknown in the Shire before: What should be done to a citizen who 'talks back' to the government? The solution is simple: He is imprisoned and often beaten.

The economy is now controlled. Under the pretext of 'fair sharing', a system of government requisitions and of rationing has evolved. Shortages result, and when consumer goods are in short supply they have a way of ending up, to nobody's great surprise, with the privileged militia. Farmer Cotton has summed it up better than I could:
There wasn't no smoke (tobacco) left, save for the Men; and the Chief didn't hold with beer, save for his Men, and closed all the inns; and everything except rules got shorter and shorter.
It may seem improbable that such a regime could ever establish itself, either in the Shire or in a more sizable country. But history has a trick of making the improbable happen. The sorry state of the Shire looks like a portrait—or maybe caricature—of something that actually happened in fairly recent history. It is a perfectly recognizable portrait of fascism.

Democracy has been simply defined as 'government of the people, by the people, and for the people'. Fascism is its antithesis. It is government of a clique, by the clique, against the people—like the government of the Shire before the scouring. Note the details that logically follow from the basic principle: the proliferation of the military and bureaucratic arms of government, the control of the economy, the pretense of legality, the cynical disregard for freedom and the rights of individual citizens, the violence, the brutality.

...[J]ust as fascism got its start with the help of certain upper-class elements who thought it would serve them as a bulwark against what they were pleased to call the greed of the working man, so the ruffians get their first foothold from the Sackville-Bagginses. Let me again quote Farmer Cotton:
He'd funny ideas, had Pimple. Seems he wanted to own everything himself, and then order other folk about... Folk got angry, but he had his answer. A lot of Men, ruffians mostly, came with great wagons, some to carry off the goods south-away, and others to stay. And more came. And before we knew where we were they were planted here and there all over the Shire....
And just as those who helped the Fascists and the Nazis into power saw their mistake when it was too late, so Pimple—pardon me, Mr. Lotho Sackville-Baggins—goes to his reward. He is murdered and perhaps eaten. ....

Saturday, December 30, 2017

"Lead us not into temptation"

Should we, as Pope Francis suggests, alter a phrase in the Lord's Prayer?

“Lead us not into temptation,” the sixth petition of the Lord’s Prayer, has long baffled many Christians. Why even assume that God would lead us astray? In an effort to correct the misunderstanding, the French Catholic bishops recently introduced a new translation, “Let us not enter into temptation” (Ne nous laisse pas entrer en tentation). On Italian television, Pope Francis criticized traditional translations, following the usual lines of the debate. He praised the French revision, although it strays from the original Greek, in which we ask God unambiguously not to lead (or bring) us into peirasmon: a peril, or trial, such as martyrs face under the sword. Jesus prayed “Let this cup pass from me” and taught his disciples to pray the equivalent. The word “temptation” (together with its cognates in modern languages) is no longer recognized as a derivation of the Latin word for “trial.” So substitute “trial” for “temptation.” Problem solved. The verb is fine. Stop fiddling with it.
.... U.S. Catholics’ New American Bible formerly read “subject us not to the trial,” while the 2011 revised edition says “do not subject us to the final test.” ....

Other modern translations:

“Keep us from being tempted” (Contemporary English Version). “Do not cause us to be tempted” (New Century Version. “Don’t allow us to be tempted” (God’s Word). “Do not bring us to hard testing” (Good News Translation). “Keep us clear of temptation” (J.B. Phillips paraphrase). “Keep us safe from ourselves” (The Message paraphrase). “Keep us from sinning when we are tempted” (New International Reader’s Version). “Don’t let us yield to temptation” (New Living Translation). “Rescue us every time we face tribulation” (The Passion Translation).

Roughly similar, but those different shadings are the sort of thing that keeps theologians up nights. ....
.... The words of Jesus are clear. The original Greek is not ambiguous. There is no variant hiding in the shelves. We cannot go from an active verb, subjunctive mood, aorist tense, second person singular, with a clear direct object, to a wholly different verb—“do not allow”—completed by an infinitive that is nowhere in the text—“to fall”—without shifting from translation to theological exegesis. The task of the translator, though he should be informed by the theological, cultural, and linguistic context of the time, is to render what the words mean, literally, even (perhaps especially) when those words sound foreign to our ears. ....

The words of Jesus, as words, are clear. Their implications are profound. They are hard for us to fathom. They strike us as strange. That is as it should be. Let them stand. (Esolen's entire argument is worth reading.)

Friday, December 29, 2017

Bogart and Bacall

The evening after Christmas day my brother and I watched several films. One of my requests was The Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall. They made four films together; each of them a favorite of mine.

Scenes of Bacall with Bogart:

To Have and Have Not (1944):

The Big Sleep (1946):

Dark Passage (1947):

Key Largo (1948):

Thursday, December 28, 2017

This world is not my home

In 1972 Antonin Scalia addressed The Judicial Prayer Breakfast Group in Washington. He called the talk "Being Different." Some of what he said had to do with the distinctive "differentness" of his own Catholicism, but most of it is applicable to every Christian believer. Excerpts:
It is enormously important, I think, for Christians to learn early and remember long that lesson of "differentness"; to recognize that what is perfectly lawful, and perfectly permissible, for everyone else—even our very close non-Christian friends—is not necessarily lawful and permissible for us. That the ways of Christ and the ways of the world—even the world of Main Street America—are not the same, and we should not expect them to be. That possessing and expressing a woridview and a code of moral behavior that is comfortably in conformance with what prevails in the respectable secular circles in which we live and work is no assurance of goodness and virtue. That Christ makes some special demands upon us that occasionally require us to be out of step. It is only if one has that sense of differentness—not animosity toward others in any sense, but differentness....

The divergence of Christian teaching from the morality of the general society seems especially obvious (and especially blatant) today. Just turn on the tube any night, or walk up to any newsstand. But it would be wrong to think that this divergence between the ways of the world and Christian teaching is new. To the contrary, it is as old as the faith itself. And it sets that Christian apart not only from utterly decadent societies such a Sodom and Gomorrah, but even from purportedly moral societies as Israel itself was when he was crucified. Christ said, "You will be hated by all men for my name's sake." He said at the Last Supper:
If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before you. If you were of the world, the world would love what is its own; But because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.
And again:
I have given them thy work; and the world has hated them, because they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. I do not pray that thou take them out of the world, but that thou keep them from evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.
And he said to Pilate:
My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my followers would have fought that I might not be delivered to the Jews. But, as it is, my kingdom is not from here.
That thought pervades the Gospels. It is also in the early church. Consider the following passage from a letter of one of the early fathers in the late second century, describing the early Christians:
Though residents at home in their own countries, their behavior is more like that of transients. They take their full part as citizens, but they also submit to everything as if they were aliens. For them, any foreign country is a homeland, and any homeland a foreign country.
And of course that same notion has come down faithfully to modern Christianity. The most influential devotional work, in English, in Protestant Christianity was called The Pilgrim's Progress, preserving the same ancient image of the Christian as an alien citizen, a traveler just passing through these parts on the way to the promised land.

It becomes quite obvious why the serious Christian must be a pilgrim, an alien citizen, a bit "different" from the world around him, when one considers how many Christian virtues make no sense whatever to the world. Consider, for example, the first and foremost Christian virtue, humility: awareness of the greatness of God and hence the insignificance of self. That is a crazy idea to the world, which values above all else self-esteem and self-assertion. ....

Or consider, finally, the Christian virtue of chastity. Except for divine command, it makes no sense. The world can find reasons for condemning dishonesty, deception, and manipulativeness in sexual relations. But if those secular evils are avoided—if the partners are really fond of each other, or are not even fond of each other, but both understand that they are just having a good time—what possible justification is there for chastity? ....

When the values of Christ and of the world are so divergent—so inevitably divergent—we should not feel surprised if we find ourselves now and then "out of step." In fact, we should be worried if we are never that way. As Christ told us, we are supposed to be out of step. We must learn to accept it. Learn to take pride in it. For Jesus also said (and this is a scary thought):
And I say to you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, him will the Son of Man also acknowledge before the angels of God. But whoever disowns me before men will be disowned before the angels of God.
Included in Scalia Speaks: Reflections on Law, Faith, and Life Well Lived.

In old Missouri

My paternal grandfather, Rev. James L. Skaggs, was born near Springfield, Missouri, on May 26, 1878. That's where he grew up before coming to Wisconsin to attend college.

A gathering of Skaggs in "Old Missouri"

Detail from above: L to R, Rosanna Pearce Skaggs, his mother, Rev. Leroy Fouse Skaggs, his father, and James L. Skaggs

Later composed by Rev. James L. Skaggs:

Back there in old Missouri where the Ozark hills and heights
Are crowned with sun and flowers and rich and rare delights,
Where hardy men went seeking homes and life's supremest joys —
Great farms and flocks and herds and sturdy, hopeful girls and boys —
There stood the old log house with chimney, chink, and daub adorned,
Where heaven smiled on lovers wed, and five of us were born.
Back there In old Missouri was a home of older kind
Where mother reigned in tender love and children learned to mind;
Where father read the Holy Book at close of busy day,
And gathered round the open hearth he knelt with us to pray —
'Twas there we learned in childhood days what we shall never rue —
To always rev'rence God, and honor faithful parents too.
Back there in old Missouri nature yielded bounteous store
Of harvests rich from fertile fields and flocks and herds galore.
And e'en the virgin forests smiled upon all creatures' wants,
And turkey, deer, and fox, and hare, within their native haunts,
With myriad other forest folk, found all their wants supplied,
And shared with us the fruits and nuts of vale and mountain side.
Back there in old Missouri where we had just loads of fun,
We romped and played in twilight hours when all the chores were done;
And then around the open fire that shot its sparkles out,
We played some games or told some jokes or worked a puzzle out
O those were days I'll ne'er forget, wherever else I roam!
Those childhood days of happy play in my old country home.
Back there In old Missouri there were burdens to be borne —
Hard and weary tasks to do which weaklings surely scorn.
And there were days when petty troubles made the surface rough,
And often disappointments came which tried us hard enough;
But looking back through all the years the hardships fade from sight,
And only happy recollections fill my mind tonight.
Back there in old Missouri, in the spirit of the West,
We boys and cousin Jim took our chances with the rest.
We roamed the woods and swam the streams, on foot or horse's back;
And when it came to riding mules, the wildest of the pack,
We ranked among the gamest lads of all the country 'round,
And claimed the honors of the day for bravest to be found.
Back there in old Missouri, in the meadow o'er the hill
We caught the biggest steer in the herd, and struggled with him till
We got a saddle on his back, and with fiendish stealth
He kicked his foot the stirrup through and tried to ride himself.
Of this he made an awful mess, just plunging 'round and 'round,
Until he turned quite over and rode the saddle on the ground.
Back there in old Missouri things have changed a mighty lot
Since days when all us children played 'round the family cot.
Now all of us are scattered, have dear children of our own,
Father and mother have gone and strangers have our home.
So the old days are gone: but they live anew in every mind
When we think of old Missouri — "that old home of mine."
Back there in old Missouri we had blessings from above:
God kept us strong and well and twined our family round with love.
And since we've wandered far away and founded family nests
The cords of love have simply stretched to bind in all the rest.
So we have our family circle yet, though chairs are far apart,
For holy love of childhood days still binds us heart to heart.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

A Christmas prayer

From The Book of Common Prayer, a prayer for Christmas Day:
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us Thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made Thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end.  Amen.

Joy in the morning

From The Wind in the Willows, Christmas at Mole End:
"What's up?" inquired the Rat, pausing in his labours.

"I think it must be the field-mice," replied the Mole, with a touch of pride in his manner. "They go round carol-singing regularly at this time of the year. They're quite an institution in these parts. And they never pass me over—they come to Mole End last of all; and I used to give them hot drinks, and supper too sometimes, when I could afford it. It will be like old times to hear them again."

"Let's have a look at them!" cried the Rat, jumping up and running to the door.

It was a pretty sight, and a seasonable one, that met their eyes when they flung the door open. In the forecourt, lit by the dim rays of a horn lantern, some eight or ten little fieldmice stood in a semicircle, red worsted comforters round their throats, their fore-paws thrust deep into their pockets, their feet jigging for warmth. With bright beady eyes they glanced shyly at each other, sniggering a little, sniffing and applying coat-sleeves a good deal. As the door opened, one of the elder ones that carried the lantern was just saying, "Now then, one, two, three!" and forthwith their shrill little voices uprose on the air, singing one of the old-time carols that their forefathers composed in fields that were fallow and held by frost, or when snow-bound in chimney corners, and handed down to be sung in the miry streets to lamp-lit windows at Yule-time.

Villagers all, this frosty tide,
Let your doors swing open wide,
Though wind may follow, and snow beside,
Yet draw us in by your fire to bide;
Joy shall be yours in the morning!

Here we stand in the cold and the sleet,
Blowing fingers and stamping feet,
Come from far away you to greet—
You by the fire and we in the street
Bidding you joy in the morning!

For ere one half of the night was gone,
Sudden a star has led us on,
Raining bliss and benison—
Bliss to-morrow and more anon,
Joy for every morning!

Goodman Joseph toiled through the snow—
Saw the star o'er a stable low;
Mary she might not further go
Welcome thatch, and litter below!
Joy was hers in the morning!

And then they heard the angels tell
"Who were the first to cry Nowell?
Animals all, as it befell,
In the stable where they did dwell!
Joy shall be theirs in the morning."
The voices ceased, the singers, bashful but smiling, exchanged sidelong glances, and silence succeeded—but for a moment only. Then, from up above and far away, down the tunnel they had so lately travelled was borne to their ears in a faint musical hum the sound of distant bells ringing a joyful and clangorous peal.

"Very well sung, boys!" cried the Rat heartily. "And now come along in, all of you, and warm yourselves by the fire, and have something hot!"
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, Chapter Five: Dulce Domum

Friday, December 22, 2017

December 25th?

.... There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. ....

There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. ....

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25. ....

Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.” ....

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross...a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud.....

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year.... [more]

Thursday, December 21, 2017

"My Saviour's love..."

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

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

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

Samuel Crossman, 1664

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Christmas magazines

The extent of my Christmas decorating these days amounts to putting a wreath on my apartment door. At home we did a lot more than that. There was a wreath. There were candles in every street-side window. There was a festooned tree. And much more. I also remember Christmas themed magazines laid out on the coffee table. I don't know who, probably relatives, subscribed to Ideals for the folks but I do know the Christmas issues were saved and put out every year. I wish I had kept them.

Christmas - 2017

Monday, December 18, 2017


A blog post I just finished reading sent me searching online for "Bulverism," a term coined by C.S. Lewis. I found this:

"You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly."
God in the Dock, Part III, Chapter 1, "Bulverism."

Without Christmas there is no Easter

Walter Russell Mead reflected on the meaning of Advent in "The Coming":
.... If there is no Christmas, there is no Cross, no answer to the problems of sin, separation, failure and pain. Advent is a time to think about what life would be like if we didn’t have faith in a Redeemer, a Savior who was ready, willing and able to complete the broken arc of our lives, forgive what is past and walk with us step by step to help us build something better in the time that is left.

Advent is a time to remember that we need something more than what we can summon with our own resources to make our lives work. It’s a time to remember how lost we would be if Someone hadn’t come to find us. .... The preparation for Christmas begins by reflecting on what kind of world this would be, and what kind of lives we would have, if Christmas had never come.

There are worse ways to start your preparation for Christmas than by using this prayer from the old Episcopal Church Book of Common Prayer:
ALMIGHTY God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Ten Christmas stories

Sean Fitzpatrick recommends "Ten Christmas Stories Every Father Should Read to His Children." Three of the ten (illustrations added):
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952) is not so much about Christmas in Wales as it is about Christmas in the world. This beloved composition is composed of sudden flashes that surround drawn out recollections that tease laughter and tears with the warm delights of childhood. The poem is an ice-crystal kaleidoscope of family and friends, of food and fun, dancing in and out of a white wintry fog of memory. Everyone shares Christmas, and all Christmases are so much like another: visions, vignettes, and voices that hang on the edge of a stream or dream of consciousness; never clear, but always strong in impression and presence; at once as distinct and indistinct as shifting temperatures or shimmering scents and, though glancing and ghostly, are the very foundations of security. The power of this prose poem is that it is about each and every one of us, awakening memories of who we are and why we are, and speak with unspoken confidence about the future as it gives voice to the past. All men share these memories in common, reflecting the Common Savior that was born to save common men.


"For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. ..."


For years as a family, and now just my brother and myself, we have listened to this every Christmas afternoon on the recording spoken by Dylan Thomas himself.
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle

Though ice-cold logic was ever his bread and butter, Sherlock Holmes was not devoid of warmth. There were times, few though they were, when he exhibited a mercy that was more of a mystery than the one he had just solved. How fitting that the chief of these instances occurred at Christmastime, as recorded in The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle (1892). Just as Mr. Holmes was himself a mysterious paradox of rationalist and romanticist, so is Christmas composed of paradoxical mysteries. The Incarnation marked an elimination of the boundary between the ordinary and the extraordinary, evidenced in the joyful juxtaposition of angels and shepherds, peasants and kings, man and God. The world of 221B Baker Street is one of similar juxtaposition, where courage and justice clash with helplessness and crime, casting warm gaslight through the frigid fog, and speaking to readers through fantastic, chivalric literature to inculcate the immortal principle of human honor and human hope. Sherlock Holmes is a hero who evokes the optimism of salvation, and especially in that merciful moment when a miserable, mediocre thief was forgiven and given a second chance on Christmas Day.



The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter)

A tiny tale of love, courage, tears, and terrible happiness, O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi (1905) breathes with that spirit of sacrificial gift-giving that makes Christmas a joy. Though short, its memory stays long with readers, for people do not soon forget things that leave them brokenhearted. In their material riches, Della and Jim are likened to the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. With the loss of their riches, they are no longer compared to Old Testament monarchs, but with New Testament ones—the Magi. These two young lovers are described as foolish (as lovers are); but sometimes it requires foolishness to arrive at wisdom (as lovers prove). No one can know the wisdom of giving the gift of oneself until one gives oneself up like a fool. In giving gifts at Christmas, people of faith must give of themselves first, and then in presents. There is no gift if there is no sacrifice, and gift giving should always involve some tears—the waters that make gifts pure.



Thursday, December 14, 2017

"I cannot do this alone"

Dietrich Bonhoeffer from a concentration camp:

O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray,
    and to concentrate my thoughts on you:
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely,
    but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart,
    but with you there is help;
I am restless,
    but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness,
    but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
    but you know the way for me...
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me so to live now
    that I may answer before you and before me.
Lord, whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.
DIETRICH BONHOEFFEP, 1906-1945, was a German Lutheran pastor and theologian. Involved in the Confessing Church and anti-Nazi activities in wartime Germany, he was arrested in 1943. For two years be was held in a variety of prisons and concentration ramps. On 9 April 1945 be was hanged in Flossenburg concentration camp by the personal order of Heinrich Himmler.
Prayers of the Martyrs, Eerdmans, 1991.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

The most important event in history

On the importance of Christmas (John 1:14):
Who then was Jesus, really?

You cannot even ask the question without implicitly choosing among answers. The very wording of the question, in the past tense ("Who was Jesus?") or the present ("Who is Jesus?"), presupposes its own answer. For those who believe his claim do not say that he was divine, but is divine. Divinity does not change or die or disappear into the past. Furthermore, if he really rose from the dead, he still is, and is very much alive today.

The Importance of the Issue

The issue is crucially important for at least six reasons.

1. The divinity of Christ is the most distinctively Christian doctrine of all. A Christian is most essentially defined as one who believes this. And no other religion has a doctrine that is even similar. Buddhists do not believe that Buddha was God. Muslims do not believe that Muhammad was God: "There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet."

2. The essential difference between orthodox, traditional, biblical, apostolic, historic, creedal Christianity and revisionist, modernist, liberal Christianity is right here. The essential modernist revision is to see Christ simply as the ideal man, or "the man for others"; as a prophet, rabbi, philosopher, teacher, social worker, psychologist, psychiatrist, reformer, sage or magician—but not God in the flesh.

3. The doctrine works like a skeleton key, unlocking all the other doctrinal doors of Christianity. Christians believe each of their many doctrines not because they have reasoned their own way to them as conclusions from a theological inquiry or as results of some mystical experiences, but on the divine authority of the One who taught them, as recorded in the Bible and transmitted by the church.

If Christ was only human, he could have made mistakes. Thus, anyone who wants to dissent from any of Christ's unpopular teachings will want to deny his divinity. And there are bound to be things in his teachings that each of us finds offensive—if we look at the totality of those teachings rather than confining ourselves to comfortable and familiar ones.

4. If Christ is divine, then the incarnation, or "enfleshing" of God, is the most important event in history. It is the hinge of history. It changes everything. If Christ is God, then when he died on the cross, heaven's gate, closed by sin, opened up to us for the first time since Eden. No event in history could be more important to every person on earth than that.

5. There is an unparalleled present existential bite to the doctrine. For if Christ is God, then, since he is omnipotent and present right now, he can transform you and your life right now as nothing and no one else possibly can. He alone can fulfill the psalmist's desperate plea to "create in me a clean heart. O God" (Ps 51:10). Only God can create; there is even a special word in Hebrew for it (bara').

6. And if Christ is divine, he has a right to our entire lives, including our inner life and our thoughts. If Christ is divine, our absolute obligation is to believe everything he says and obey everything he commands. If Christ is divine, the meaning of freedom becomes conformity to him.
Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, IVP, 1994, pp. 151-152.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Joyful seriousness

I always enjoy reading Andrew Ferguson. Two years ago: "Jingle Hell: The debasement of Christmas Songs."
.... In the early church, Christmas replaced the baptism of Jesus as the preeminent celebration of the season because it stood as a happy rebuke to the Manicheans. Believing as they did in the absolute division of spirit and matter, no group of heretics has ever been gloomier. The celebration of Christmas was a way of telling the world: This really happened, to a real mother and a real child, made in flesh and blood, the coming together of God and man. And music itself is the natural expression of the union of spirit and matter, the physical act of plucking strings or hammering keys or thrumming vocal cords to produce something that points beyond the physical. ....

The idea of Christmas as a musical celebration finally took hold when peasants and other lowly folk began adapting local dance tunes to the purpose. The origin of Christmas music in dance music is worth remembering. The tunes, outfitted with words of praise and the appropriate narratives of Jesus and Mary and Joseph, of the Three Kings and the shepherds, were an effusion of popular piety—and a rebellion against the grim impositions of church hierarchy throughout Germany and, later, England. A good carol, said the great musicologist Percy Deamer, “was witness to the spirit of a more spontaneous and undoubting faith.” The effusions were organic, growing from the bottom up, and like the Gospels themselves, filled with metaphors taken from field and hearth:
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree.
Deamer traced the word “carol” back through old French to the Greek word for “an encircling dance.” Movement and dynamism and joy were the essential attributes, inseparable from the religious meaning. The message of Christmas was the Christian message, too: the Light coming into the world and the darkness proving powerless against it. What’s not to celebrate? Why not dance?

“To take life”—and hence Christmas—“with real seriousness is to take it joyfully,” Deamer went on. “For seriousness is only sad when it is superficial: the carol is thus nearer to the truth because it is jolly.” ....

In the past that lesson has often been lost, at times even more thoroughly than in our own day—a reminder that should cheer us up, if you’ll forgive the expression. The serious joy, or the joyful seriousness, of Christmas is offensive to the grim Christian. When Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans seized power from a pious English king, one of their first official acts was to ban Christmas observances of any kind. ....

“Yule tide is fool tide,” went the Puritans’ dismissive slogan.... And once in a while, at Christmas, buried in tinsel and credit card receipts, a practicing Christian might be tempted to agree. It’s a familiar human paradox that the phony good cheer of secular Christmas increases even as the genuine joy of Christmas recedes....
Jingle Hell | The Weekly Standard

Sunday, December 10, 2017

"Come all you worthy..."

The Oxford Book of Carols (1928) contains 197 carols. Many are for the Christmas season, but there are some for every season of the Christian year. Percy Dearmer edited the words and Martin Shaw and Ralph Vaughan Williams the music. From Percy Dearmer's Preface:
Carols are songs with a religious impulse that are simple, hilarious, popular, and modern. They are generally spontaneous and direct in expression, and their simplicity of form causes them sometimes to ramble on like a ballad. Carol literature and music are rich in true folk-poetry and remain fresh and buoyant even when the subject is a grave one....
I got my copy sometime in the 1970s. The book is still in print. This is a carol called "Job."

Come all you worthy Christian men,
That dwell upon this land,
Don't spend your time in rioting:
Remember you are but man.
Be watchful for your latter end;
Be ready for your call.
There are many changes in this world;
Some rise while others fall.
Come all you worthy Christian men,
That are so very poor,
Remember how poor Lazarus
Lay at the rich man's door,
While begging of the crumbs of bread
That from his table fell.
The Scriptures do inform us all
That in heaven he doth dwell.
Now Job he was a patient man,
The richest in the East;
When he was brought to poverty,
His sorrows soon increased.
He bore them all most patiently;
From sin he did refrain;
He always trusted in the Lord;
He soon got rich again.
The time, alas, it soon will come
When parted we shall be;
But all the difference it will make
Is in joy and misery.
And we must give a strict account
Of great as well as small:
Believe me now, dear Christian friends
That God will judge us all

Illustration again

Re: Illustration (I haven't been to the exhibit yet). My favorite illustrator by far is N.C. Wyeth. This is the endpaper he did for Scribner's edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island:
Treasure Hunt

Saturday, December 9, 2017

"We shall never surrender"

I intend to see Darkest Hour. There seems to be general agreement among the critics that Gary Oldman as Churchill is probably up for an Oscar. The film is getting criticism from those who know something about the historical Churchill.

Darkest Hour is a movie about the first three weeks of Winston Churchill’s premiership in May 1940, and it is balderdash. In a razor-sharp National Review critique, Kyle Smith takes out after the movie for shrinking Churchill “down to a more manageable size” by portraying him as undergoing an emotional crisis due to the political maneuverings against him and the enormousness of the challenge he faced as the Nazis bore down on Britain’s army in France. Smith is right. Nothing in the historical record supports the idea that Churchill faltered internally in his determination to face down the Nazi menace and achieve victory against Hitler.

But screenwriter Anthony McCarten and director Joe Wright are up to something interesting here that only becomes fully clear at the end. Their use of Churchill, as essayed by Gary Oldman in one of the juiciest performances you will ever be privileged to watch, isn’t biographical. It’s metaphorical. ....
.... Now it’s Churchill’s turn to be shrunken down to a more manageable size. In Darkest Hour, which is set across May and June of 1940, the English director Joe Wright and his star Gary Oldman conspire to create a somewhat comical, quavering, and very human prime minister. In dramatic terms it’s an engaging picture, and Oldman is terrifically appealing, but if you’re looking for indecision and angst, the person of Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill is a curious place to declare you’ve found it. ....
From the Power Line blog:
We went to see Darkest Hour last night. The film portrays Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) in May 1940. When Neville Chamberlain stepped down, Churchill became Prime Minister on May 10 and became the Great Britain’s war leader. In Five Days in London: May 1940 (1999), John Lukacs focused on these events and took us into the cabinet meetings portrayed in the film. Stick with Lukacs.

The film reduces Churchill to a quivering jellyfish with remarkable oratorical gifts. ....
Robert Hardy owned the role of Churchill in the great series Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years 1929-1939 which, I find, has become a rather expensive DVD set (and the DVDs aren't very good).

My favorite book about that period is the one I've pictured above.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"Trophies rather than testimonies"

From Alan Jacobs "the politics of long joy" which considers some lessons from Milton:
Near the middle of Milton’s Paradise Lost, the archangel Raphael describes for Adam — who has not yet fallen, not yet disobeyed — the War in Heaven between Satan’s rebellious angels and those who have remained faithful to God. Throughout this portion of the poem a major figure is a loyal angel named Abdiel. It is his task, or privilege, to cast the first blow against Satan himself: his “noble stroke” causes Satan to stagger backwards and fall to one knee, which terrifies and enrages the great rebel’s followers. This happens as Abdiel expected; he’s not afraid of Satan, and knows that even the king of the rebels cannot match his strength, since rebellion has already sapped some of the greatness and power of the one once known as Lucifer.

But what if the combat hadn’t gone as expected? What if Satan had been unhurt by Abdiel’s blow, or had himself wounded the faithful angel? In that case, says one Milton scholar, John Rumrich, “God would by rights have some explaining to do.” What right would God have to send Abdiel into a struggle where he could be wounded or destroyed? To Rumrich’s claim that most eminent of Miltonists, Stanley Fish, replies: Every right. God’s actions are not subject to our judgment, because he’s God — a point which, Fish often reminds us, modern literary critics seem unable to grasp. ....

Obedience is the creature’s calling; the ultimate outcome and disposition of events belongs to God, and only to God. God does not need to adjust events to meet our expectations, nor must he offer us an explanation when our expectations are thwarted. And if we focus on our own obedience we will not ask such things of God. ....

It seems to me that this politics of long joy is the one thing needful for the Christian cultural critic, as for a warring angel like Abdiel or a poetic polemicist like Milton. Perhaps the chief problem with the “culture wars” paradigm that governs so much Christian action and reflection, in the North American context anyway, is that it encourages us to think in terms of trophies rather than testimonies. It tempts us to think too much about whether we’re winning or losing, and too little about the only thing we ultimately control, which is the firmness of our own resolve. If the culture warrior would prefer not to be governed by Stanley Fish, or even by John Milton, maybe Koheleth provides an acceptable model: “In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good” (Ecclesiastes 11:6).

It seems to me that the careful dance, the difficult balance, of Christian cultural criticism is to be endlessly attentive to the form and the details of the world around us, while simultaneously practicing the “politics of long joy”—and in this way avoiding an unhealthy obsession with “trophies,” and avoiding also being conformed to the ways of this world. It’s a tough walk to walk, because one of the peculiarities of fallen human nature is that we find it difficult, over the long haul anyway, to remember that there is a world of difference between “I have no control over this” and “this isn’t very important.” We tend, against all reason, to diminish the importance of everything we cannot shape or direct. But our joy will be short if it is grounded in circumstances and events, because circumstances and events always change: if they please us now, they will displease us later. And then what will we do? ....  (emphases added) 

Monday, December 4, 2017


Doré The Last Judgement
Almighty God, give us grace, that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life, (in the which Thy son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility;) that in the last day when He shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with Thee and the Holy Ghost now and ever. Amen. (Thomas Cranmer)

Thursday, November 30, 2017


I've long been a fan of good illustration and this exhibit is just down the street from my home.
Strange new worlds, life forms and civilizations have arrived at the Chazen Museum of Art. There are also strange old worlds, old friends and fairytales.

Fantastic Illustration from the Korshak Collection, on display through Feb. 4, includes original art from classic storybooks as well as disposable science fiction and fantasy. ....

The works are drawn from the extensive collection of Chicago native Stephen Korshak, an author, developer and attorney whose lively 94-year-old father, Erle Korshak, was a pioneering science fiction publisher. ....

Fantastic Illustration is two exhibits in one, American and European. The old world is represented by art created for lavish “gift books,” with elaborate covers and lush interior illustration. Many of the artists will be familiar to fans of children’s books: Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Rackham and the brilliant British cartoonist William Heath Robinson.

Contemporary artist Brian Froud is perhaps best known for his Faeries book, created with Alan Lee in 1978. Gustav Doré is included, as is Disney-trained Gustag Tenggren, a Swedish-born animator who worked on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Pinocchio. ....

American artists are best represented by magazine illustrations whose titles are less ingenious than the illustrations themselves: Marvel Science Fiction, Fantasy and Science Fiction, Fantastic Adventures, Astounding Science Fiction, Other Worlds Science Fiction. The works of James Allen St. John, Frank Frazetta and N.C. Wyeth are among the highlights, which include original cover art for Edgar Rice Burroughs novels. ....
Faeries by Brian Froud and Alan Lee is in my library. The creature above is one of their illustations of leprechauns.

Imaginary realms - Isthmus | Madison, Wisconsin

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Don't bother to tell me how you feel about a topic

Once in an elective political science class I asked a student to defend a statement. She responded that she had a right to her opinion. I agreed but added that if she expressed her opinion aloud she should be prepared to defend it. She was offended and I had been too abrupt. Thenceforward I delivered that speech at the beginning of the semester rather than challenging an individual. I was reminded of that experience when I read this lecture by law professor Adam J. MacLeod, delivered to a class before a unit on legal reasoning. It is wonderful. From MacLeod:
Before I can teach you how to reason, I must first teach you how to rid yourself of unreason. For many of you have not yet been educated. You have been dis-educated. To put it bluntly, you have been indoctrinated. Before you learn how to think you must first learn how to stop unthinking.

Reasoning requires you to understand truth claims, even truth claims that you think are false or bad or just icky. Most of you have been taught to label things with various “isms” which prevent you from understanding claims you find uncomfortable or difficult. ....

...[E]xcept when describing an ideology, you are not to use a word that ends in “ism.” Communism, socialism, Nazism, and capitalism are established concepts in history and the social sciences, and those terms can often be used fruitfully to gain knowledge and promote understanding. “Classism,” “sexism,” “materialism,” “cisgenderism,” and (yes) even racism are generally not used as meaningful or productive terms, at least as you have been taught to use them. Most of the time, they do not promote understanding.

In fact, “isms” prevent you from learning. You have been taught to slap an “ism” on things that you do not understand, or that make you feel uncomfortable, or that make you uncomfortable because you do not understand them. But slapping a label on the box without first opening the box and examining its contents is a form of cheating. Worse, it prevents you from discovering the treasures hidden inside the box. For example, when we discussed the Code of Hammurabi, some of you wanted to slap labels on what you read which enabled you to convince yourself that you had nothing to learn from ancient Babylonians. But when we peeled off the labels and looked carefully inside the box, we discovered several surprising truths. In fact, we discovered that Hammurabi still has a lot to teach us today.

One of the falsehoods that has been stuffed into your brain and pounded into place is that moral knowledge progresses inevitably, such that later generations are morally and intellectually superior to earlier generations, and that the older the source the more morally suspect that source is. There is a term for that. It is called chronological snobbery. Or, to use a term that you might understand more easily, “ageism.” ....

...[Y]ou should not bother to tell us how you feel about a topic. Tell us what you think about it. If you can’t think yet, that’s O.K.. Tell us what Aristotle thinks, or Hammurabi thinks, or H.L.A. Hart thinks. Borrow opinions from those whose opinions are worth considering. As Aristotle teaches us in the reading for today, men and women who are enslaved to the passions, who never rise above their animal natures by practicing the virtues, do not have worthwhile opinions. Only the person who exercises practical reason and attains practical wisdom knows how first to live his life, then to order his household, and finally, when he is sufficiently wise and mature, to venture opinions on how to bring order to the political community. ....

Disagreement is not expressing one’s disapproval of something or expressing that something makes you feel bad or icky. To really disagree with someone’s idea or opinion, you must first understand that idea or opinion. When Socrates tells you that a good life is better than a life in exile you can neither agree nor disagree with that claim without first understanding what he means by “good life” and why he thinks running away from Athens would be unjust. Similarly, if someone expresses a view about abortion, and you do not first take the time to understand what the view is and why the person thinks the view is true, then you cannot disagree with the view, much less reason with that person. You might take offense. You might feel bad that someone holds that view. But you are not reasoning unless you are engaging the merits of the argument, just as Socrates engaged with Crito’s argument that he should flee from Athens. ....
It is all worth reading, perhaps especially if you are a teacher.

Monday, November 27, 2017

"Men without chests"

This is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the publication of C.S. Lewis's Abolition of Man and a collection of essays has been published in appreciation. From a review of the latter:
In Abolition of Man, Lewis takes the pseudonymous The Green Book to task for dangerous ideas which he believes will have a catastrophic cultural impact, and which will create “men without chests.” The Green Book is a primary school textbook that teaches subjectivism. Lewis’ chief concern is that children will be taught to use their heads, but not have the character to make good choices as a result of the teaching its authors put forth. In this, Lewis was on point. In fact, Lewis’ cautions are even more needed today, as his warnings 75 years ago went largely unheeded. Now we find ourselves in the situation Lewis foresaw—men afraid of making moral judgments; people who will say “this is wrong/right for me, but who am I to say it is so for someone else?” When objective truth is rejected, all foundation for virtue disappears. ....

Sunday, November 26, 2017

After you've read Tolkien...

Bradley Birzer considers "Life Beyond Tolkien" regarding what other books readers who enjoyed Tolkien might find worthwhile. Before he makes any suggestions he writes "I must make two caveats. First, almost no one has reached the literary quality of Tolkien’s writings, whether in his clever children’s stories, such as The Hobbit, or in his high fantasy, such as in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. And, second, no one has reached the imaginative quality of Tolkien’s writings, either." Quoting from Birzer, first what to avoid, and then two of his recommendations:
It should be noted that there is a lot of mediocre literature.... Indeed, there exists far more mediocre than there is the diabolic or the good. For this piece, I’ll avoid the mediocre completely. Be hot or cold, but “lukewarm, get away from me!” As to the diabolic, there are three authors that series lovers of Romantic literature should avoid: Philip Pullman, Michael Moorcock, and Stephen Donaldson, each of whom has intentionally set out to undermine, subvert, and pervert the Christian elements of Tolkienian fantasy. They are, to put it mildly, not only anti-Christian and anti-romantic, but painfully so. They’re, to be sure, quite talented, but they use their talents in ways that undermine the very gifts of truth, beauty, and goodness. ....

Of all 20th century fabulists, Ray Bradbury comes closest to equaling Tolkien’s literary and imaginative powers. Unlike his English counterpart, however, Bradbury excelled in the direct, sharp, and well-defined story. .... One of Bradbury’s best as well as his most neglected novel is his story of good and evil as represented and manifested in two young boys, Something Wicked This Way Comes. It might very well be the best Christian book written by a non-Christian in the 20th century. ....

...Russell Kirk produced some of the most powerful fiction of the last century. In terms of his short stories, one might very well imagine the power of a Bradbury with the morality of a Flannery O’Connor. These, too, deal with good and evil, though Kirk is at his best when describing noble sacrifices. His best book, however, is a dark but powerfully Christian fantasy called The Lord of The Hollow Dark. In it, Kirk places all of the major figures from the plays and poems of T.S. Eliot at a Scottish castle dedicated to Satanism and the performance of a black mass. Not surprisingly, the dialogue is intellectually rigorous while the plot remains riveting. It is a rare achievement of high philosophy, fantasy, and theology and deserves a much wider audience than it has thus far received. ....
edited to remove reference to an author I haven't read.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

"We give our thanks..."

For food that stays our hunger,
For rest that brings us ease,
For homes where memories linger,
We give our thanks for these.


MOST heartily do we thank Thee, O Lord, for all Thy mercies of every kind, and for Thy loving care over all Thy creatures. We bless Thee for the gift of life, for Thy protection round about us, for Thy guiding hand upon us, and for the many tokens of Thy love within us; especially for the saving knowledge of Thy dear Son, our Redeemer; and for the living presence of Thy Spirit, our Comforter. We thank Thee for friendship and duty, for good hopes and precious memories, for the joys that cheer us and for the trials that teach us to trust in Thee. In all these things, our heavenly Father, make us wise unto a right use of Thy great benefits; and so direct us that In word and deed we may render an acceptable thanksgiving unto Thee, in Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1906.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

"The gracious gifts of the Most High God"

From the first Thanksgiving proclamation in 1863:
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God. ....

No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy.

It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged, as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people. I do therefore invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a day of thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans. mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity, and union.

In testimony whereof I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

"Conceived in Liberty"

From an essay about Lincoln's Gettysburg address, new to me. The whole is very much worth reading.
The first paragraph of the Gettysburg Address consists of only one sentence, but it's a doozy. It describes the past, the nation's beginnings. .... The past that Lincoln refers to is a past that stretches back before living memory. "Four score and seven years ago" exceeds the individual's allotment of "three score and ten," the Biblical phrase for the natural span of a human life. Lincoln's decision to formulate the date in this way accentuates the fact that the founding is now beyond anyone's direct experience. ....

Our own time is like Lincoln's in this sense, as we daily experience the loss of the living history of the 20th century: The last surviving American veteran of World War I, Frank Buckles, died in 2011, and our "forest of giant oaks" — the World War II vets — will soon follow. In keeping with this insight into impermanence, Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address does not try to conjure up the drama of the revolution. Instead, he substitutes more peaceful, natural imagery: What happened in 1776 was that "our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation." As the date indicates, it was a document, the Declaration of Independence, that announced our nativity. A document, unlike historical memory, is permanent — there to be read and fully understood by each successive generation. While Lincoln is the greatest of constitutionalists, he considers the Declaration our foundational text. ....