Sunday, January 29, 2017

It is appointed unto men once to die

Take him, earth, for cherishing,
to thy tender breast receive him.
Body of a man I bring thee,
noble even in its ruin.
Not though ancient time decaying
wear away these bones to sand,
ashes that a man might measure
in the hollow of his hand:
Once was this a spirit's dwelling,
by the breath of God created.
High the heart that here was beating,
Christ the prince of all its living.
Not though wandering winds and idle,
drifting through the empty sky,
scatter dust was nerve and sinew,
is it given to man to die.
Guard him well, the dead I give thee,
not unmindful of his creature
shall he ask it: he who made it
symbol of his mystery.
Once again the shining road
leads to ample Paradise;
open are the woods again,
that the serpent lost for men
Comes the hour God hath appointed
to fulfil the hope of men,
then must thou, in very fashion,
what I give, return again.
Take, O take him, mighty leader,
take again thy servant's soul.
Grave his name, and pour the fragrant
balm upon the icy stone.

Saturday, January 28, 2017


My General Conference theme was "A Firm Foundation." I once had a poster quoting T.S. Eliot, somewhat out of context, about "the still point of the turning world." A favorite scripture is from our Lord: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock." And a book I found while in college was Elton Trueblood's A Place to Stand. From the chapter titled "A Center of Certitude":
For the Christian, Christ is not the end of the quest; He is the beginning. Starting with Him, we are forced by intellectual integrity to proceed a long way. If we are committed to Him, we trust Him about the being and the character of God, about the reality of prayer, about the possibility of miracle, and about the life everlasting. The deepest conviction of the Christian is that Christ was not wrong! Particularly, we are convinced that He was not wrong in His report about Himself. It is important to remember that our commitment is to one who said "All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him" (Matt. 11:27).
Elton Trueblood, A Place to Stand

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Take a breath

Alan Jacobs has decided to (paraphrasing) stay off Twitter, cut back on the news sites in his RSS feed, and delete bookmarks to newspapers.
...[T]hanks to a series of well-known technological changes, the news cycle has grown shorter and shorter until now many people get their news minute-by-minute.

...[T]he Twitter-cycle is far, far too short. People regularly get freaked out by stories than turn out to be false, and by the time the facts are known a good deal of damage (not least to personal relationships) has often already been done — plus, the disappearance of the cause of an emotion doesn’t automatically eliminate the emotion itself. In fact, it often leaves that emotion in search of new justifications for its existence.

I have come to believe that it is impossible for anyone who is regularly on social media to have a balanced and accurate understanding of what is happening in the world. To follow a minute-by-minute cycle of news is to be constantly threatened by illusion. ....


And more yet from Dorothy L. Sayers:
Moreover, whether we are dealing with simile or metaphor, it has to be remembered that every image is true and helpful only at its relevant point. God is, in a manner, light: but He is not a succession of wave-lengths in the prime matter. My love is like a red, red rose: but it is not advisable to mulch her with manure. The common sense of mankind can usually be trusted to disentangle the relevant from the irrelevant—but not always. The great dispute that was fought out at Nicaea turned upon the relevant point of a metaphor. That the Divine Son was begotten of the Divine Father was common ground; the Arians, a literal-minded set of people, argued that He must therefore be subsequent to Him, like a bodily procreation. The Orthodox, more sensitively aware of the trap concealed in metaphor, rejected the temptation to enclose God in space-time, holding stubbornly to the paradox of the Son's co-eternity. Indeed, nearly all heresies arise from the pressing of a metaphor beyond the point where the image ceases to be relevant.
from "The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement" (1963) as reprinted in A Matter of Eternity.
"...[N]early all heresies arise from the pressing of a metaphor beyond the 
point where the image ceases to be relevant."

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

"An apprehension of the eternal moment"

More from Sayers:
This tension between joy and the opposite of joy is, once again, something that is viewed with a certain distrust by an age committed to the pursuit of happiness. It can be readily pigeonholed. as lack of adjustment or, in severe cases, as a psychosis. In very severe cases it may indeed be a psychosis. But we must not disguise from ourselves that happiness is a gift of the heathen gods, whereas joy is a Christian duty. It was, I think, L.P. Jacks who pointed out that the word "happiness" does not occur in the Gospels; the world "joy", on the other hand, occurs frequently—and so does the name and image of Hell. The command is to rejoice: not to display a placid contentment or a stoic fortitude. "Call no man happy until he is dead", said the Greek philosopher; and happiness, whether applied to a man's fortunes or his disposition, is the assessment of something extended in time along his whole career. But joy (except for those saints who live continually in the presence of God) is of its nature brief and almost instantaneous: it is an apprehension of the eternal moment. And, as such, it is the great invading adversary that can break open the gates of Hell.
from "The Poetry of Search and the Poetry of Statement" (1963) as reprinted in A Matter of Eternity.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

"Where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched"

Dorothy L. Sayers:
...there seems to be a kind of conspiracy, especially among middle-aged writers of vaguely liberal tendency, to forget, or to conceal, where the doctrine of Hell comes from. One finds frequent references to "the cruel and abominable mediaeval doctrine of hell", or "the childish and grotesque mediaeval imagery of physical fire and worms"....

But the case is quite otherwise; let us face the facts. The doctrine of Hell is not "mediaeval": it is Christ's. It is not a device of "mediaeval priestcraft" for frightening people into giving money to the Church: It is Christ's deliberate judgment on sin. The imagery of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire derives, not from "mediaeval superstition", but originally from the Prophet Isaiah, and it was Christ who emphatically used it. If we are Christians, very well; we dare not not take the doctrine of Hell seriously, for we have it from Him whom we acknowledge as God and Truth incarnate. If we say that Christ was a great and good man, and that, ignoring His divine claims, we should yet stick to His teaching—very well; that is what Christ taught. It confronts us in the oldest and least "edited" of the Gospels: it is explicit in many of the most familiar parables and implicit in many more: it bulks far larger in the teaching than one realises, until one reads the Evangelists through instead of merely picking out the most comfortable texts: one cannot get rid of it without tearing the New Testament to tatters. We cannot repudiate Hell without altogether repudiating Christ. from "Introductory Papers on Dante" (1954) as reprinted in A Matter of Eternity.
A Matter Of Eternity: Selections From The Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers

Friday, January 20, 2017

An inaugural prayer

The first Inaugural prayer was offered for FDR. This is from 1937. It was delivered by ZeBarney Phillips who was an Episcopal clergyman and Chaplain of the U.S. Senate:
Almighty God and Heavenly Father, ruler and guardian of the world: Sanctify to the nation the meaning of this hour that Thy people with one heart and mind may acknowledge their fealty to Thee.

Be with the President and the Vice President, as under Thee they renew their solemn pledges of devotion to their country’s weal in the high and holy offices to which again they have been called; let the blessings of Thy bounteous goodness be upon them, upon the Congress, upon the Judiciary and upon all who bear rule in our land.

In particular, we beseech Thee for our President that, casting all his care upon Thee, he may feel underneath Thine everlasting arms. Touch Thou his lips that he may speak, in the words of the unshorn truth and never-wearying kindness, the message for the healing of the nations, and hasten the day when men shall rise above all lesser things to those glorious heights where love shall weave a holy bond of peace enduring till earth’s shadows vanish in the light of light. Amen.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Winnie-the-Pooh Day

I discover that today is National Winnie-the-Pooh Day. It is the anniversary of the birth of A.A. Milne in 1882. Milne, of course, is the author of the books and father of the real Christopher Robin. It is a good day to pull one of the books from the shelf (actually any day is).

The first "Pooh" book I owned was When We Were Very Young, a gift on my 6th birthday, that isn't really about Pooh but does have Christopher Robin ("They're Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace") and a favorite, "Disobedience" ("James, James, Morrison, Morrison, Weatherby George Dupree..."). Dad was in the Army and we were living near Camp Gordon, Georgia, near Augusta, in an apartment complex known as Myrtle Court. The gift was from a neighbor girl my age — I still have the book and there is an inscription: "Happy Birthday to Jimmy from Mimi." Dad often read to me and since I wouldn't have been reading yet I'm sure the first time I heard these verses were in his voice. I'm not sure I read any of the other Milne books until I was an adult.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Emotional restraint

Betty Smartt Carter has been reading the memoirs of a Victorian lady:
.... By the time Hughes completed her writings, her parents and two of her brothers were long dead. She had lost her first child and only girl to a sudden illness. Her husband Arthur had been killed in a tragic road accident. And at some point she had learned that her father’s mysterious death in 1879 was actually a suicide, perhaps brought on by despair over his financial situation.

Such tragedy—any one of these tragedies—would demand pages of reflection from a modern memoirist. But children of the Victorian age tended to value courage over emotional openness. Though early death was more common then, and the power of it more formally acknowledged in social customs, spontaneous emotional expression was usually a private act. This is understandable, I think, since one way to cope with heartbreak is to contain and manage it, as if it were an unruly child. We (contemporary Americans) encounter personal tragedy much less often than the Victorians did, and we talk about it all the time.

Personally, I admire those restrained Victorians.... (So do I.)

"Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour...."

Entirely by coincidence — or at least unplanned by us — both the final hymn I chose for the worship service this past Sabbath (“Rejoice, Rejoice Believers”) and the pastor's sermon were from Our Lord's parable of the Ten Virgins:

The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (1822) by William Blake
And Jesus said:
.... Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh. ....
Matthew 25: 1-13 (KJV)

Ye saints, who here in patience your cross and sufferings bore,
Shall live and reign forever, when sorrow is no more.
Around the throne of glory the Lamb ye shall behold;
In triumph cast before Him your diadems of gold!

(Rejoice, Rejoice, Believers, verse 5)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Another "Golden Age" mystery author

If you know much about C.S. Lewis you know that one of his favorite authors was George MacDonald, the author of Phantastes and At the Back of the North Wind. Well before I knew of George MacDonald, I was enjoying books by his grandson, Philip MacDonald, a screenwriter and a writer of mysteries, who first published soon after World War I and continued  into the early 1960's. I think the first book of his that I read was The List of Adrian Messenger (1959). From a GoodReads reviewer:
Prior to boarding a plane from England to America, Adrian Messenger hands a list of ten names to a close friend of his. He explains that seven of the ten men listed are dead – all of them from accidents that occurred over the last five years. He strongly believes that there is a single minded killer out there who has been systematically killing off these men for a reason he has not yet determined. When the flight is several hours out over the Atlantic, a bomb explodes and forces the plane to crash land in the ocean. All aboard are killed except a Frenchman, Adrian, and one of the flight attendants. .... Just before he died, Adrian was able to speak a few cryptic words, which the Frenchman later related to Anthony Gethryn, a retired serviceman who was helping Scotland Yard in investigating the plane crash. Then Adrian’s friend, who had the list, turned up and shared the list with Gethryn. Now the search was on for the mystery killer. ....
That book was filmed by John Huston and was in theaters in 1963. It can be watched on YouTube today. It is an interesting film but, as is almost always true, the book is much better. (Later: I just re-watched the film - it's better than I remembered.)

I've just ordered the DVD of a movie based on my favorite Philip MacDonald book, Warrant for X, also known as The Nursemaid Who Disappeared, (1938). The film is 23 Paces to Baker Street and it's pretty good although, once again, the book is better. From an online review of the book:
.... An American playwright is in a teashop and overhears the conversation of two women (whom he cannot see) who are apparently planning a crime. One, with a deeper crueler voice, is intimidating the other, with a higher, more gentle voice. He catches a glimpse as they leave of a short stumpy brunette and a tall slender young blonde. And one of them leaves a glove behind that contains what seems to be a scrawled shopping list.

.... The playright takes his suspicions to the police and is pretty much turned away, so he enlists the assistance of well-known detective Anthony Gethryn (whose adventures also began with The Rasp). Together, they piece together crucial details from the few details offered by the playwright and from the shopping list, which turns out to contain much more information than one might have thought....

It’s hard to describe one of the most appealing things about this book and Macdonald’s work in general — the quality of sheer intelligence. ....

Saturday, January 14, 2017

"One night he heard screams"

Yet there is one experience which most sincere ex-Communists share, whether or not they go only part way to the end of the question it poses. The daughter of a former German diplomat in Moscow was trying to explain to me why her father, who, as an enlightened modern man, had been extremely pro-Communist, had become an implacable anti-Communist. It was hard for her because, as an enlightened modern girl, she shared the Communist vision without being a Communist. But she loved her father and the irrationality of his defection embarrassed her. "He was immensely pro-Soviet," she said, "and then — you will laugh at me — but you must not laugh at my father — and then — one night — in Moscow — he heard screams. That's all. Simply one night he heard screams."

A child of Reason and the 20th century, she knew that there is a logic of the mind. She did not know that the soul has a logic that may be more compelling than the mind's. She did not know at all that she had swept away the logic of the mind, the logic of history, the logic of politics, the myth of the 20th century, with five annihilating words: one night he heard screams.
 Whittaker Chambers, Witness

Friday, January 13, 2017

Biblical fidgets

From Edwin Yoder's review of a new book about the history of Bible translations:
.... In what C. S. Lewis called "the liturgical fidgets," translators of Scripture and ritual too up-to-date for their own good—or that of the English language—supposed that the King James Bible (and the earlier Book of Common Prayer) had grown too esoteric for the common ear and needed flattening. God, wrote one British wit, now "speaks like someone you meet on the bus." Thus we passed quickly from the 17th-century "Shakespearean moment" to the 20th-century moment of banality. It was, to say no more, a misreading of human psychology, which values challenge in ultimate matters.

Translations and revisions of the 1960s and '70s, with the elegant exception of the Jerusalem Bible, revealed that tin ears were widely distributed. An example, which this writer recalls from a college English class, came from a Pauline epistle: The King James translated one admonition as "See then that you walk circumspectly...redeeming the time."​ The revised version was "See that you go carefully, making the most of time." The metaphoric bite of circumspection (looking about) and redemption (as of a pawned treasure) were both lost, and with it the sense and depth of the verse. ....

.... King James I finessed Puritan demands for plain language and worship by sponsoring the version that bears his name. The Puritans were represented among the 1611 translators but happily were prevented from laundering its eloquent and elegant phrases. Those hallowed words go on ringing today in the ears of those fortunate enough to be schooled in them, as do the felicities of Thomas Cranmer's incomparable Book of Common Prayer. Without the King James Version, would we know of "the world turned upside down" or "a thorn in the flesh" or "a still small voice" or the beating of "swords into plowshares" or "lambs to the slaughter"? And many other wonderful phrasings?

.... The lesson of the liturgical and biblical fidgets of the 1960s and '70s is that literacy, an essential part of what Edmund Burke called "the unbought grace of life," may be damaged, even lost, by eager revisionists who miss the deeper mysteries of life and faith. If it weren't uncharitable, I would say: a pox on them and their tinseled works!
The Jerusalem Bible was once my favorite among modern translations. I came to it upon reading that J.R.R. Tolkien was one of the editors. I still have a copy of that original edition (see above) which I think superior to a later revised version.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Biblical morality and republican virtue

Benjamin Rush
.... The renewal in 1805 of a 30-year friendship with Doctor Benjamin Rush reinvigorated [John Adams]. Their frank correspondence, touching on all manner of topics, lifted his spirits. “Dr. Rush’s letters are of inestimable value to me,” the former president recalled.

A Philadelphia physician, social reformer, and a venerated signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was respected by the leading political figures of the day. ....

In one conversation about the “perfectibility of man” and religion’s role in making “men and nations happy,” both Rush and Adams lamented the moral decay they witnessed in the world around them. “By renouncing the Bible,” Rush interjected, “philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral Subjects.... It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published. It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, Vices & Crimes.” He then concluded: “All Systems of Religion, morals, and Government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the tho[ugh]t! — it will not only survive the wreck of those Systems, but the World itself. ‘The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it [Matt. 16:18].’”

John Adams
“The Bible,” Adams promptly responded, “contains the most profound Philosophy, the most perfect Morality, and the most refined Policy, that ever was conceived upon Earth. It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it.... [W]ithout national Morality,” he continued, “a Republican Government cannot be maintained.” ....

The political discourse of the founding era is replete with expressions of religion’s vital contributions to a republican regime. This notion was espoused by Americans from diverse religious, intellectual, and political traditions. David Ramsay, a delegate to the Continental Congress and the first major historian of the American Revolution, expressed this idea succinctly in 1789: “Remember that there can be no political happiness without liberty; that there can be no liberty without morality; and that there can be no morality without religion.” Benjamin Rush similarly opined in 1786: “Without [religion], there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

A self-governing people, in short, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod. The whip and rod were clearly unacceptable for a free, self-governing people. A moral people respected social order, legitimate authority, oaths and contracts, private property, and the like. For these Americans, the Bible was the well-spring of religion, and biblical morality was the source of this essential virtue. Therefore, many founders regarded the Bible as indispensable to a regime of republican self-government and liberty under law. .... [more]

Monday, January 9, 2017

Spiritual but not religious

Theodore Dalrymple, who is not, I believe, himself religious, comments on a recognizable inclination:
.... The reason (I surmise) that so many people claim to be spiritual rather than religious is that being spiritual imposes no discipline upon them, at least none that they do not choose themselves. Being religious, on the other hand, implies an obligation to observe rules and rituals that may interfere awkwardly with daily life. Being spiritual-but-not-religious gives you that warm, inner feeling, a bit like whiskey on a cold day, and reassures you that there is more to life—or, at least, to your life—than meets the eye, without actually having to interrupt the flux of everyday existence. It is the gratification of religion without the inconvenience of religion. Unfortunately, like many highly diluted solutions, it has no taste. .... [more]

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Conservatives, radicals, and reactionaries

HUMANITIES: The reactionary belief that something beautiful has been lost to us can be as compelling to the political imagination as its opposite, the revolutionary idea that we might be able to leap out of the present and into a better and more just future. Why then, as you point out, have scholars neglected reaction and the reactionary, in favor of studying revolution and the revolutionary?

LILLA: Because most Western intellectuals since the French Revolution have held some sort of progressive view of history. They have believed that over the course of time things just naturally improve; that was the illusion of the nineteenth century. Or they have believed that forces for good have seized control of history—the workers, the Third World wretched of the earth—and that, however dismal things may now appear, they will eventually triumph. That was the illusion of the twentieth century.

Meanwhile, though, not only were there powerful minds who dissented from these views. Events were also being shaped by forces of resistance that intellectuals, given their assumptions about history, had trouble making sense of. ....

The dispute between revolutionaries and reactionaries is not over human nature. It is, as I’ve been suggesting, over the nature and course of history. And so, in many ways, conservatives and reactionaries are adversaries. The conservative believes that change should happen slowly, but that it is inevitable. He might regret what has happened in history, but he is under no illusion that the past can be recovered or recreated; neither does he believe that society should be reconstructed according to some rational plan inspired by the past. The conservative thinks that while societies differ, human nature stays pretty much the same over time and that the problems of politics are perennial. The reactionary thinks that history has changed human nature and that action in history can restore it to what it should be. .... [more]

Friday, January 6, 2017


.... I am on record somewhere saying that Winnie-the-Pooh — the 90th anniversary of whose publication passed last October — and its sequel The House at Pooh Corner are better than anything by Faulkner or Joyce. Returning to them once again, I find myself standing by that judgment; indeed, I feel inclined, if anything, to double down and say that they are among the ten or so finest novels in our language.

It is important to recall that Milne, like Dickens, the novelist whom in many ways he most resembles, did not sit down to write books from beginning to end but rather published chapters that appeared in serial form and were meant to be self-contained. ....

Some adult Pooh readers will be surprised by what they have not remembered or were never acquainted with in the first place because they have seen only the old Disney film (the less said about the computer-animated sequel and the television series, the better). The books are, for one thing, uproariously funny. Most of the dialogue is worthy of P.G. Wodehouse, Milne’s great contemporary, with whom he had an unfortunate falling-out during the Second World War:
“Hallo, Rabbit,” [Pooh] said, “is that you?”
“Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.”
“I’ve got a message for you.”
“I’ll give it to him.”
“We’re all going on an Expedition with Christopher Robin.”
“What is it when we’re on it?”
“A sort of boat, I think,” said Pooh.
Others will be put off by unexpected hints of melancholy. Milne’s trees loom in the background as a kind of reminder of the adult world with its attendant horrors. It is difficult to think of a novel with a more memorable ending than The House at Pooh Corner (Great Expectations comes to mind); it is almost impossible to think of one that is sadder. In “an enchanted place on the very top of the Forest,” after confusing him with talk about “People called Kings and Queens and something called Factors,” Christopher Robin dubs our hero “Sir Pooh de Bear, bravest of all my Knights,” and begs his friend never to forget him while tacitly begging his forgiveness in the — well-nigh inevitable — event that he will leave his animal friends forever. ....“Wherever they go,” Milne tells us in his final paragraph, “and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” ....
(the article is behind a subscription wall)

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

"Our Lady of Wheaton"

A class at the very Evangelical Wheaton College considers what Catholicism teaches about Mary:
...[T]he Virgin of Wheaton that slowly emerged in our course was a Protestant one, even if she came to light in conversation with the four traditional Catholic Marian teachings: Mary as Mother of God, her perpetual virginity (before, during, and after the birth of Christ), her immaculate conception, and her bodily assumption into heaven. How did each of these teachings fare with my Evangelical students? Our class had no difficulty assenting to the common Christian teaching of the Council of Ephesus in 431, that Mary is the Theotokos, the one who gave birth to God. “That which was formed in the womb is not itself God,” insisted the heretic Nestorius. .... Cyril of Alexandria’s question to Nestorius became ours: In light of Christ’s divinity even in utero, “How can anyone have scruples about calling the holy Virgin the ‘Mother of God’?”

In regard to the second Catholic teaching, the perpetual virginity, of course we accepted Mary’s virginity before the birth of Christ. As J. Gresham Machen argued, to dismiss this cardinal doctrine, as fashionable Protestants once did, was to invent a religion other than Christianity. Karl Barth, for whom there is much enthusiasm at Wheaton, asserted against his liberal Protestant colleagues, his own father among them, the necessity of the virgin birth as both a fact of revelation and an indispensable illustration of salvation by grace alone.

Most students were surprised to discover that the chief Protestant Reformers, Luther, Calvin, even Zwingli, as well as later lights like John Wesley, assented to Mary’s virginity after the birth of Christ, giving most of us pause before dismissing the notion as necessarily unbiblical. ....

Not surprisingly, our strongest objections arose in regard to the Immaculate Conception, the belief that Mary was preserved by God from original sin, and the Assumption, the belief that her body was taken into heaven at the end of her earthly life.... [more]