Friday, November 30, 2018

A true compass

Via The Imaginative Conservative, a quotation from a book I remember being assigned in one of my high school English classes:
“I shall no longer ask myself if this or that is expedient, but only if it is right. I shall do this, not because I am noble or unselfish, but because life slips away, and because I need for the rest of my journey a star that will not play false to me, a compass that will not lie…. I am lost when I balance this against that, I am lost when I ask if this is safe…. Therefore I shall try to do what is right, and to speak what is true. I do this not because I am courageous and honest, but because it is the only way to end the conflict of my deepest soul. I do it because I am no longer able to aspire to the highest with one part of myself, and to deny it with another. I do not wish to live like that, I would rather die than live like that. I understand better those who have died for their convictions, and have not thought it was wonderful or brave or noble to die. They died rather than live, that was all.”
Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country, 1948

Thursday, November 29, 2018

"The Bible pays a great deal of attention to the birth of the Saviour"

The current issue of my denomination's monthly magazine, The Sabbath Recorder, contains a number of articles for and against the celebration of Christmas by Christians. Partly because I was annoyed by some of those arguments I found Sinclair Ferguson's post, "Should Christians Abandon Christmas?," interesting and to the point:
...I read an article by a Christian lamenting the fact that his church celebrated Christmas. He didn’t believe it was “biblical.” After all, evangelical Christians and their churches are guided by Scripture—and there’s nothing in the Bible telling us to celebrate Christmas each year, far less celebrate it on December 25. I have friends who share that point of view. They believe we should order our lives, and our churches, exclusively in obedience to the directives of Scripture. And there’s no command to celebrate Christmas—much less Advent! ....

First, the biblical response. We are responsible to obey all God commands in his word. But that isn’t the same as saying that unless Scripture specifically commands it we should not do it. ....

I think there’s another consideration. Many Old Testament passages look forward to the coming of our Lord, conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in Bethlehem. Matthew devotes almost two chapters to describing and explaining the event; Luke does the same. John takes us right back into eternity when he invites us to reflect on its significance. There are other passages in the New Testament that help us to understand it. In other words, the Bible pays a great deal of attention to the birth of the Saviour and the theology of the incarnation. Why shouldn’t we?

My own experience as a minister has been as follows. Frequently I have preached between four and twelve messages on the birth of Jesus during the month of December. That amounts to somewhere between 3% and 10% of my preaching being devoted to the Grand Miracle. Is that out of proportion? Surely not.

But ask the question the other way round. When churches “ignore” Christmas, how much preaching and teaching are they likely to receive on the incarnation? Somewhere between four and twelve messages? I doubt it. Such non-scientific investigation of preachers I have done indicates that, in fact, by and large, the incarnation will be ignored. Is that a more biblical approach? I doubt it—which is why I agree with what Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “I would lay it down as a rule that there are special occasions which should always be observed…I believe in preaching special sermons on Christmas Day and during the Advent season.” .... (read it all)
Those who claim a pagan origin for the holiday are answered here, and those who wonder why December 25 here.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

The most moral fiction of our time

.... I started young, ingesting my first Agatha Christies when I was seven. Since then I have read, among others, all the Sherlock Holmeses, Father Browns, and Peter Wimseys; all the Ellery Queens, Agatha Christies, and Carter Dicksons; all the John Dickson Carrs and Dick Francises except one; all the full-length stories of Hammett, Chandler, James, and Crispin; and all the work of new arrivals Amanda Cross, Antonia Fraser, Simon Brett, and Robert Barnard; not to mention most of Margery Allingham, Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, and Julian Symons.

What have I gained?

Fun, to start with. Where else could I have made the acquaintance of characters like Stout’s Nero Wolfe (world’s heaviest genius and largest ego), Dickson’s Sir Henry Merrivale (the Old Man, but no gentleman), Gardner’s Perry Mason (incompetent, irrelevant, and immaterial), Christie’s Miss Marple (mesmeric village knit-wit), and the prewar Poirot, who bounced and burbled like Maurice Chevalier? .....

Ought my fellow senior editors and I repent of time wasted in our light reading? Not necessarily. If overloaded academic and literary people never read for relaxation, their brains will break. And ’tecs, thrillers, and westerns, while not great literature, are among the most moral fiction of our time. Goodies and baddies are distinguished and killers finally get it in the end. Writing that upholds fundamental morality is neither degenerate nor corrupting.

Also, these are stories of a kind that would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe—whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong. Villains are foiled, people in jeopardy are freed, justice is done, and the ending is happy. ....

Do I urge everyone to read detective and cowboy and spy stories? No. If they do not relax your mind when overheated, you have no reason to touch them. Light reading is not for killing time (that’s ungodly), but for refitting the mind to tackle life’s heavy tasks (that’s the Protestant work ethic, and it’s true). ....

Father, we thank Thee

Father, we thank Thee who hast planted
Thy holy Name within our hearts.
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus Thy Son to us imparts.
Watch o'er Thy church, O Lord, in mercy,
Save it from evil, guard it still.
Perfect it in Thy love, unite it,
Cleansed and conformed unto Thy will.
Thou, Lord, didst make all for Thy pleasure,   
Didst give us food for all our days,
Giving in Christ the Bread eternal;
Thine is the pow'r, be Thine the praise.
As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
Was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands Thy church be gathered
Into Thy kingdom by Thy Son.

"Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted" has long been one of my favorite hymns. Its tune, taken from the sixteenth-century Genevan Psalter, is eminently singable. The hymn even better. For Francis Bland Tucker’s lyrics put twenty-first-century congregations in touch with the second generation of Christians, and perhaps even the first, by combining various phrases from an ancient Christian prayer book and catechism, the Didache.

Scholars continue to debate whether the Didache, more formally known as The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, comes to us from the second or first Christian centuries, but the weight of academic opinion now favors the earlier date. Thus, The Teaching (“Didache” in Greek) links us to what biblical scholar Raymond Brown called “the churches the apostles left behind”: the Christians who were taught by those who were taught by the Lord himself. Singing “Father, We Thank Thee, Who Hast Planted,” we are praying as second-generation Christians, formed by those who had known the Lord Jesus and were witnesses to his resurrection, prayed. ....

Tuesday, November 27, 2018


Alan Jacobs reviews Andrew Delbanco’s The War Before the War: Fugitive Slaves and the struggle for America's Soul from the Revolution to the Civil War. Jacobs writes "Andrew Delbanco narrates this history in lucid prose and with a moral clarity that is best described as terrifying. It is not easy to look upon the long march of the nation towards war, and even harder to look upon the suffering of American slaves during that march—and not just slaves. .... You read all this with a feeling of rising horror, and not just because of the physical and mental and spiritual suffering. You feel that horror also because it becomes increasingly difficult, as the story progresses, to imagine how even the worst of the pain could have been avoided. ...."
One of the most admirable features of this truly great book is the subtlety with which Delbanco considers his story’s applicability to our own moment. Throughout the narrative proper he remains silent about the implications—except to note that the consequences of slavery for America’s black people persist to this day. But at the end of the introduction he quotes a passage written by the historian Richard Hofstadter in 1968 about comity—consideration of others, mutual regard. “Comity exists in a society,” Hofstadter writes, when “one party or interest seeks the defeat of an opposing interest on matters of policy, but at the same time seeks to avoid crushing the the opposition, denying the legitimacy of its existence or its values, or inflicting upon it extreme and gratuitous humiliations beyond the substance of the gains that are being sought.” Comity is present when “the basic humanity of the opposition is not forgotten; civility is not abandoned; the sense that a community life must be carried on after the acerbic issues of the moment have been fought over and won is seldom very far out of mind; an awareness that the opposition will someday be the government is always present.”

But how can one tell whether comity is present in one’s own society? “The reality and the value of comity can best be appreciated when we contemplate a society in which it is almost completely lacking.” The War Before the War describes how the United States of America, in the period between the composing of the Constitution and the outbreak of civil war, became such a society. And this happened not only because of wicked people who supported a wicked system—though Lord knows there were plenty of those—but also because so many Americans lost the ability to see the moral legitimacy of any proposed remedy of that wickedness other than the one they themselves embraced.

It seems clear, to me at any rate, that our society has not yet abandoned comity altogether. But the choice to do so presents itself to us with increasing force, at least if we watch television or participate in social media. I would only suggest that it is not too late to refuse that choice—and that the costs of accepting it can be very, very high.

Passionate intensity

In his "The Robespierre Generation" Rod Dreher quotes from a David Brooks column in the New York Times, "Liberal Parents, Radical Children":
Two great belief systems are clashing here. The older liberals tend to be individualistic and meritocratic. A citizen’s job is to be activist, compassionate and egalitarian. Boomers generally think they earned their success through effort and talent.

The younger militants tend to have been influenced by the cultural Marxism that is now the lingua franca in the elite academy. Group identity is what matters. Society is a clash of oppressed and oppressor groups. People who are successful usually got that way through some form of group privilege and a legacy of oppression.

The big generational clashes generally occur over definitions of professional excellence. The older liberals generally believe that the open exchange of ideas is an intrinsic good. Older liberal journalists generally believe that objectivity is an important ideal. But for many of the militants, these restraints are merely masks for the preservation of the existing power structures. They offer legitimacy to people and structures that are illegitimate.

When the generations clash, the older generation generally retreats. Nobody wants to be hated and declared a moral pariah by his or her employees. Nobody wants to seem outdated. If the war is between the left and Trumpian white nationalism, nobody wants to be seen siding with Trump. ....

Plus, the militants have more conviction. In the age of social media, virtue is not defined by how compassionately you act. Virtue is defined by how vehemently you react to that which you find offensive. Virtue involves the self-display of a certain indignant sensibility, and anybody who doesn’t display that sensibility is morally suspect.
As Yeats might have said of the left today, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.”

Sunday, November 25, 2018


This review of the final volume of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien that have been edited by his son, Christopher Tolkien (twenty-five books), is much more than a review of only that book. If you are interested in Tolkien you should read it. Toward the end of the review comes this:
.... J.R.R. Tolkien felt anxiety about whether his work would ever be completed or published. A short story called “Leaf by Niggle” gives a glimpse. The titular character, Niggle, spends his life painting a picture of a tree, but he departs on a “journey,” leaving the picture unfinished, knowing that officials will use the canvas to patch a leaking roof.

When the discouraged Niggle finally reaches a land meant to symbolize heaven, he is distressed by his lack of accomplishment. But then he looks up.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. ....All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.
Tolkien meant to capture the grace that grants completion and fulfillment to all of life’s wasted and half-finished undertakings. Unwittingly, he also prophesied the efforts of his youngest son. For without Christopher, we could never have beheld the sheer scope and wonder of his father’s achievement. Tolkien always saw The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion as “one long Saga of the Jewels and the Rings.” Christopher’s work, now finished, has brought the entirety of this myth, the culmination of a countercultural literary movement, a great tree “growing and bending in the wind,” into the clear, unbroken light.
Tree and Leaf includes Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Stories" (pdf here) and the short story "Leaf by Niggle" (full text).

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Freedom from opinion

Those with fervently held opinions tend to be convinced of their importance, though some of us understand that opinions are as disposable as Kleenex. Please, don’t tell me your opinion. Tell me what you know, assuming you know anything and that it holds some interest. ....

Theodore Dalrymple...speaks for many of us:
“Thanks to so-called social media, we have lost one of the most cherished freedoms of all, namely that of freedom from opinion.”

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Thanksgiving, 2018

Freedom from Want, Norman Rockwell, 1943

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessèd peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, Whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

Mar­tin Rink­art, cir­ca 1636

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Free speech

G.K. Chesterton:
It is not natural or obvious to let a man utter follies and abominations which you believe to be bad for mankind anymore than it is natural or obvious to let a man dig up a part of the public road, or infect half a town with typhoid fever. The theory of free speech, that truth is so much larger and stranger and more many-sided than we know of, that it is very much better at all costs to hear every one's account of it, is a theory which has been justified upon the whole by experiment, but which remains a very daring and even a very surprizing theory. It is really one of the great discoveries of the modern time, but once admitted it is a principle that does not merely affect politics, but philosophy, ethics, and finally poetry.
G.K. Chesterton, Robert Browning, 1914

Monday, November 19, 2018

Hasty reasoners

Via Anecdotal Evidence, a letter from William Cowper to John Newton on this date in 1781:
Discoverers of truth are generally sober, modest, and humble; and if their discoveries are less valued by mankind than they deserve to be, can bear the disappointment with patience and equality of temper. But hasty reasoners and confident asserters are generally wedded to an hypothesis, and transported with joy at their fancied acquisitions, are impatient under contradiction, and grow wild at the thoughts of a refutation.

"A new birth of freedom"

Abraham Lincoln in 1863
November 19 is the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in 1863, his most famous speech and one of the most famous in American history. He delivered the speech at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, four months after the conclusion of the Civil War’s decisive battle. The renowned orator Edward Everett was the main speaker for the day, giving an entirely forgotten two-hour speech prior to Lincoln’s. ....

The most striking phrase of the address was Lincoln’s aspiration that, with slavery now in serious jeopardy, the nation could have “a new birth of freedom.” Some might forget that this language was unmistakably referencing Christ’s words in John chapter 3, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The specific phrase “new birth” became a staple of Anglo-American religious rhetoric during the Great Awakening.

Lincoln grew up in a Primitive Baptist family but never joined a church. Yet because of his religious milieu, his insatiable appetite for reading, and inquisitive spiritual nature, he knew the King James Bible backward and forward, and its themes and images suffused his speeches. Here he suggests that not only individuals, but a nation itself, could experience a new birth. This was not so the nation could “see the kingdom of God,” but perhaps that the kingdom’s purposes, in the matter of slavery, could be manifested on earth. ....

Saturday, November 17, 2018

Civic virtue

From Jonah Goldberg's "Fusionism Today," prerequisites to freedom:
.... There is another problem. Freedom itself—at least the specific kind of classically liberal freedom that informed nearly all sides of the fusionism debate—depends on specific notions of virtue. Both capitalism and democracy are rational systems, but they depend on a host of pre-rational commitments and institutions. Some of these commitments are familiar to anyone who has read Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism or Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments: Thrift, diligence, honesty, respect for the rule of law, and the desire to be seen as a decent person are just a few of the things that make capitalism work. Patriotism, respect, pluralism, tolerance, etc. are indispensable to keeping democracy—or, if you prefer, liberalism—from degenerating into autarky or authoritarianism. Virtue is more than just these things, but these things are all part of virtue. Many nations have embraced formal constitutional democracy or the free market only to see it fail to take root with the people themselves. ....
Jonah Goldberg, "Fusionism Today," National Review, December 3, 2018, pp. 31-34.

Doing nothing

When I walk I don't use electronics, or, usually alone, talk. It is time to think, listen, observe, pray. I enjoyed this:
As an undergraduate, I went for walks in rural Michigan. Sometimes alone, sometimes with others. Romantic walks, friendly walks, philosophical walks, beautiful walks. On one memorable walk, I delighted in the loveliness of the effect a streetlight can have on green leaves in the dark. I wasted time on those walks, and it shaped my soul.

Such time-wasting walks do not happen very often in a fast-paced, modern society of constant work. Even when we do walk, we do so quickly. ....

Our technology allows us to fill every moment with sensory stimulation, and that has detrimental consequences to our mental well-being. We are depriving ourselves of “that needed replenishment of mind that comes from doing nothing in particular.”

We are depriving ourselves of what Josef Pieper calls leisure, that receptive disposition to reality that makes possible poetry and philosophy. Those with leisurely souls are receptive to the beauty of the world around them and full of wonder about its causes. Such receptivity is important to our mental health. In our busyness, we are neglecting the cultivation of an inner richness that is part of a healthy and flourishing life. ....

.... Human beings are not simply producers; they are also lovers of beauty and contemplators of truth; they are wasters of time.

The liberally educated person does not have an agenda when he walks. He simply walks slowly, keeps his eyes open, and his wits about him.

Friday, November 16, 2018

"Divine love can reverse human catastrophe"

In the current issue of National Review appears "The Long Shadow of the Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis defied the spirit of the age" by Joseph Loconte (now online). Both Lewis and Tolkien were combat veterans of that war. Loconte demonstrates how differently they responded to that experience than did many of their contemporaries. Cynicism about ideals and causes was understandably common in the years after the war. Loconte:
.... The key to understanding the moral universe of Lewis and Tolkien can be found in a brief exchange in The Lord of the Rings, in Aragorn's answer to Eomer, who asks how they ought to respond to the storm of evil thrust upon them. "Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man's part to discern them." The same vision animates Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia. All of its various creatures (bears, badgers, horses, moles, mice), along with a group of English children, are summoned to rescue Narnia from despotism and restore its rightful line of kings. "I'd rather be killed fighting for Narnia," says Jill, "than grow old and stupid at home and perhaps go about in a bath-chair and then die in the end just the same."

The perspective of these two Oxford friends is remarkable when we consider another of the pernicious effects of the First World War: the widespread erosion of the concept of individual freedom and moral responsibility. ....

But the purveyors of fatalism found in Tolkien and Lewis implacable opponents. In the worlds they created, everyone has a role to play in the epic contest between Light and Darkness. No matter how desperate the circumstances, their characters are challenged to resist evil and choose the good. "Such is oft the course of deeds that move the wheels of the world," wrote Tolkien. "Small hands do them because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere." ....

Tolkien and Lewis possessed two great resources that helped them to overcome the cynicism of their age. The first was their deep attachment to the literary tradition of the epic hero, from Virgil's Aeneid to Malory's Morte d'Arthur. What matters supremely in these works is remaining faithful to the noble quest, regardless of the costs or the likelihood of victory "The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important," Tolkien explained in his 1936 British Academy lecture on Beowuif. In the end, "the real battle is between the soul and its adversaries."

The second great resource was their Christian faith: a view of the world that is both tragic and hopeful. War is a sign of the ruin and wreckage of human nature, they believed, but it can point the way to a life transformed by grace. For divine love can reverse human catastrophe. In the works of both authors we find the deepest source of hope for the human story: the return of the king. In Middle-earth that king is Aragorn, who brings "strength and healing" in his hands, "unto the ending of the world." In Narnia, it is Aslan the Great Lion, who sacrifices his own life to restore "the long-lost days of freedom." In both we encounter the promise of a rescuer who will make everything sad come untrue.

As the world marks the centennial of the end of the Great War and remembers the many lives swallowed up in its long shadow, here is a vision of human life worth recalling, too.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

"Those who hear will live"

Via Alan Jacobs, from "A sermon for Remembrance Day," (the day Americans call Veterans' Day):
.... Today we remember especially the dead who died with their lives and their promise unfinished and unfulfilled. They died by violence, and their loss is beyond our understanding. We see the waste of the lives they did not live as we look upon the tossing waste of waters between them and us, and we mourn for them even as we thank them for the actions of their often brief lives. As we do these things, we grieve that the dead cannot hear us.

But the dead can hear one voice. They can hear the voice of the one whom death could not hold, the one through whom death is joined back into life. In our Lord Jesus Christ, who knows our griefs and has carried our sorrows, the unspeakable joy of God’s life beyond loss is his gift to the dead and to those who die. He joins us, in himself, to the Creator of all things, redeeming all the lost time, and saving everything that is good and true. For the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. Amen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018


One of the consequences of the First World War was the Russian Revolution. The current issue of the Claremont Review of Books has reviews of new biographies of both Lenin and Stalin. From the latter: "Blood-Soaked Monster."
.... In 1928, Soviet peasants stopped selling their grain to the state in the face of low fixed prices and a lack of goods to buy. Stalin’s response was to order vast seizures of grain and then, beginning in 1929, to initiate collectivization. This entailed rounding up and deporting millions of “rich” peasants—who were supposedly hoarding grain—while simultaneously seizing and reorganizing the Soviet Union’s land into state-owned collective farms. Met by massive resistance, collectivization threw the Soviet Union into a low-level civil war for the next four years. Some of the seized grain and meat went to feed Soviet cities. But, more importantly for Stalin, much of the seized food was sold overseas for financial capital to buy machine tools and industrial equipment, which in turn he used to build more factories and expand the Soviet working class. The human cost was a famine that exploded in 1931-32, killing between five and seven million people—a year in which Stalin ordered the export of 4.8 million tons of grain. ....

The horrific violence Stalin unleashed between 1936 and 1938 is almost impossible to fathom. Never in history had a leader murdered so many of his own elites and bureaucrats—including old friends and many relatives—while simultaneously executing vast numbers of those tasked with the actual executions themselves. About one in every hundred Russians was arrested, with somewhere around 700,000 executed in less than two years. The army was decapitated, with 30,000 officers executed, arrested, or dismissed. Huge numbers of the diplomatic corps, intelligence services, and secret police were similarly slaughtered. What is perhaps most shocking is that, at the end of it all, Stalin acknowledged to the politburo that the vast majority of those shot or arrested—1.6 million people—had not been spies or guilty of any crime. Given that he had signed so many death warrants himself, Stalin’s monstrousness is hard to grasp. ....

In August 1939 Stalin, who had been negotiating a collective security pact with Great Britain and France, suddenly performed an about-face and signed the infamous Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Hitler. Why? Half blinded by the purges, which had eliminated much of Soviet foreign intelligence and the Soviet diplomatic corps, he relied on his ideological worldview as he played what Kotkin calls “Three-Card Monte.” This was a triangular game of bluff among Hitler, Stalin, and Britain’s Neville Chamberlain to steer when and where the coming war would begin. Stalin’s aim was to entangle Germany and the Western powers into a long conflict from which he might benefit. To pick which side he would ally with Stalin held an “auction for spheres of influence in Eastern Europe.” Hitler won.

Stalin’s gamble failed, of course. As a result, for the next 18 months, Hitler had the initiative, overrunning much of Europe. During this period, Stalin supplied staggering quantities of oil and other raw materials to feed Hitler’s war machine, secure in his belief that Hitler would not dare start a two-front war. This false notion convinced him that Hitler’s build-up for invasion in 1940-41 was merely a negotiating tactic aimed at compelling the Soviet Union to provide more raw materials to Germany. It was a nearly fatal miscalculation, a product of the purges and Stalin’s ideological blinders. When Hitler struck in June 1941, the Soviet Union was completely unprepared militarily or institutionally. The Red Army would suffer five million casualties in the war’s first six months. ....

Sunday, November 11, 2018

On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month...

Allen Guelzo on "The Great War's Price":
.... Given that almost 8 percent of the American population was (like my great-grandfather) either German-born or the offspring of German parents, and another 4.5 percent Irish, who had every reason to sympathize with the 1916 Irish uprising against British rule, the United States might have felt little incentive to take the Allies’ side. ....

But once in, Americans were all in. “There was a crusading spirit in the air,” recalled one new recruit in the spring of 1917, “bands were playing martial music on the courthouse squares.” Newspapers hawked stories of German atrocities and pictured the German emperor, Wilhelm II, as “the Beast in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, who wanted to conquer the world.” Re­cruitment posters (led by James Montgomery Flagg’s frowning Uncle Sam) confronted young men with the demands “I want you for u.s. army” and “Uphold our honor, fight for us.” Those more hesitant would be drafted under the Selective Service Act of 1917.

After three years of watching the Great War from the sidelines, Americans ought to have been better prepared for taking up arms. They weren’t. The Army’s tactical doctrine showed no sign of any of the brutal lessons being taught in the trenches in France about machine guns, barbed wire, and poison gas.

The country would soon learn otherwise, for what the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) walked into was an entirely new and horrific way of making war, honed by three years of remorseless practice. All told, the United States put into uniform less than 4 percent of its population that was eligible for military service; from that number, 116,000 Americans died in the short span of their involvement. ....

From the muck of the war, American soldiers were able to retrieve at least a few moments of glory. The first sizable American units to go into action fought at Cantigny on May 26, 1918, at Soissons and Château-Thierry in July, at Saint-Mihiel in September (where up to 14 American divisions participated), and, in October and November, in the 47-day battle to clear the Argonne Forest. The U.S. Marines earned their first great title to combat glory in the fighting for the Belleau Wood in June 1918, along with the memorable response given by Lieutenant Lloyd Williams when the French advised him to retreat: “Retreat? Hell, we just got here!” The Germans gave the Marines one of the names they’ve lived with ever since: Teufel Hunden (Devil Dogs). ....

Friday, November 9, 2018


Alan Jacobs likes maps and really likes this book:
Barring some unforeseen miracle of publishing occurring in the next few weeks, The Writer’s Map will be my book of the year for 2018. It gathers intelligently charming meditations from writers and festoons them with map after map after map after map of imaginary, and sometimes non-imaginary, lands. (Only after several days of staring at the beautifully reproduced images did I force myself to read the words, but I am glad I finally did.) I am so enamored of this book that I bitterly resent what takes me away from it, whether that be the need to eat, or sleep, or write this review. But when duty calls, I sometimes answer. ....

During the rainy Scottish summer of 1881, Robert Louis Stevenson made an elaborate (and very skillfully drawn!) map for his stepson, and from that map emerged, inevitably it seems, the story called Treasure Island. The whole tale was implicit in the shape of the place, and when no other places are on the map that kind of thing can be more easily seen.

This is true even when places aren’t literally islands but are self-contained to a degree that nothing outside their boundaries is effectively real. A.A. Milne’s Hundred Acre Wood might as well be an island, as might Trollope’s Barsetshire, Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County, and Richard Adams’s Watership Down. (Adams knew from the beginning the boundaries of his locale, because it is a real place, but Trollope and Faulkner only started making maps when they were well into their storytelling and had begun to be confused.) .... (more)
N.C. Wyeth"s map of Treasure Island is a fvorite of mine (no idea whether it is in the book reviewed above)

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Father Brown

If you read detective fiction but are unfamiliar with G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories there is potential pleasure ahead. From "The Mystical Vision of Father Brown":
Chesterton contends that the detective story, though often sensational and occasionally rude, is unique among popular literary forms for its ability to express “some sense of the poetry of modern life.” It can infuse a plain and dreary city with a heightened sense of Romance; it can turn a lowly cab driver into a figure of supreme importance. Where other genres risk turning haughty or pedantic, the detective mystery “declines to regard the present as prosaic or the common as commonplace.” For Chesterton it is ordinary circumstances, not extraordinary ones, that conceal the greatest mysteries—it is ordinary circumstances that are the most extraordinary. ....

Chesterton’s detectives—especially Father Brown—approach mysteries with a preference for the ordinary. Though Chesterton frequently expressed his admiration for the craft of the Sherlock Holmes stories, he still suspected that there was something fundamentally unrealistic about the way the Baker Street Bloodhound went about solving crimes. Chesterton’s own detectives never rely on any special knowledge of the coagulation of blood or encyclopedic familiarity with cigar ash, or a copious awareness of every headline in every paper on any given day. Instead we see them making sense of evidence from a broad familiarity with the common patterns of life and the common natures of things. ....

...Father Brown is a student of human nature and sin—a knowledge he gained from years listening to men in the confessional. He is a longtime observer of the thing most common to man—the heart itself; that body of general knowledge renders him immune to the distractions of extraordinary circumstances. ....

Many great literary detectives succeed by “getting into the mind of a killer,” but according to the prophet Jeremiah, it is the heart of man that is most deceitful, most unknowable. Facts provide a poor path into it because they are singular. Peculiar evidence is specific to this or that crime, but common realities can be observed again and again; they grow into patterns and become basis for intuition. The intuitions of Chesterton’s detectives lead them into the common truth of uncommon circumstances and the extraordinary reality of ordinary signs.

By employing this poetic turn again and again, Chesterton trains his reader to look with a vision that turns the world inside out—a vision that exposes the vacuity of astonishing spectacle and reveals the unexpected mystery of the ordinary. ....

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

"No God: no law. No law: no morals"

Peter Hitchens, who is not an atheist, reviews John Gray's Seven Types of Atheism. Gray is an atheist but seems to have a very clear-eyed understanding of what that means and not much respect for atheism as most of its believers understand it. From the review:
This is a justifiably testy book, by an atheist about atheists. Perhaps it means that the long and lucrative fashion for books about how God does not exist, and how God is simultaneously hateful and wicked, is over. Since John Gray is a capable thinker, knowledgeable about philosophy and a respecter of facts, the recent outburst of arguments for and even about atheism, presented as if they were fresh discoveries, must have struck him as thin. As he himself says, atheism does not really amount to very much. It is just an absence, even if it is a willful one. There is no Gospel of Godlessness, as such, no anti-scripture to which the unbeliever may turn for guidance or solace. ....

Unlike so many modern scoffers at religion, he grasps that while the idea of a just God is terrifying, so is the suspicion or the conviction that there is no just God. The idea of a universe where there is no power that stands for order and justice is, or ought to be, very frightening. So men who can no longer believe in God have instead invented various more or less fatuous concepts to provide such a power, especially a belief in human progress. The trouble with such ideas is that, without God, they are so much whistling in the dark. The godless believer in “progress” is in reality like the victim of an avalanche tumbled deep in snow. He has no idea which way is up because he has no means by which to measure anything of the kind. Ultimately he must use religious categories to orient himself.

.... Perhaps most definitive of all is his observation that godless searches for a universal law are futile. “Without a law giver, what can a universal moral law mean?” he asks. “If you think of morality as part of the natural behaviour of the human animal, you find that humans do not live according to a single moral code. Unless you think one of them has been mandated by God, you must accept the variety of moralities as part of what it means to be human.” Well, exactly. No God: no law. No law: no morals, just situational, alterable ethics. I am amazed that so few seem to realize the implications of atheism for the rule of law over power, the one thing that really sustains human civilization.

...Gray teases those who try to build a morality on evolution by natural selection, pointing out how that theory has been used in the past to justify what its modern supporters would rightly denounce as appalling racial bigotry and perhaps worse than that. He reminds us of T.H. Huxley’s typically clear-eyed and undeceived warning that evolution “is incompetent to furnish any better reason why what we call good is preferable to what we call evil than we had before.”

Gray gleefully drives a bulldozer through and across what are really already the ruins of historical inevitability, the belief in progress, and the other Marxist and pseudo-Marxist rubbish that clutters the minds of the conventionally wise. ....

As I think Gray understands very well, a good poem may describe more than it apparently expresses. This is not least because it will be concerned precisely with unimaginable reality. I considered that unimaginable reality recently as I looked down into a grave in the warm, familiar chalk soil of Hampshire in England, and contemplated the coffin, already half-covered with earth, of a good friend, younger than I am, who has just gone into eternity a little way ahead of me. And it was the profound poetry of monotheism, specifically that of the English Prayer Book...that best enabled me to consider and respond to the unimaginable reality of the fact that in the midst of life, I was in death.

.... “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.” And then, as we turned away, ambushed by beauty and perhaps blinded by tears, we might consider the possibility that it is not a pose to believe that God was once man and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and knew death, and overcame it. For if there are justice and law and hope in the universe, they are surely to be found only on the far side of the grave. And if none of these things exists, then there is no unimaginable reality, nor any point in one, nor any point in poetry and music and speech and temporal love—just mud and silence.

Friday, November 2, 2018

"Good intentions are not sufficient to make us good men and women"

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, 
and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. 
But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. 
And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” 
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956

From Jordan Peterson's Forward to a new anniversary edition of The Gulag Archipelago (the cover picture below is from the book in my library — the one volume abridged version.): it still acceptable—and in polite company—to profess the philosophy of a Communist or, if not that, to at least admire the work of Marx? Why is it still acceptable to regard the Marxist doctrine as essentially accurate in its diagnosis of the hypothetical evils of the free-market, democratic West; to still consider that doctrine “progressive,” and fit for the compassionate and proper thinking person? Twenty-five million dead through internal repression in the Soviet Union (according to The Black Book of Communism). Sixty million dead in Mao’s China (and an all-too-likely return to autocratic oppression in that country in the near future). The horrors of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, with their two million corpses. The barely animate body politic of Cuba, where people struggle even now to feed themselves. Venezuela, where it has now been made illegal to attribute a child’s death in hospital to starvation. No political experiment has ever been tried so widely, with so many disparate people, in so many different countries (with such different histories) and failed so absolutely and so catastrophically. ....

And it is exactly the necessity for interminable sacrifice that constitutes the terrible counterpart of the utopian vision. “Heaven is worth any price”—but who pays? Christianity solved that problem by insisting on the sacrifice of the self; insisting that the suffering and malevolence of the world is the responsibility of each individual; insisting that each of us sacrifice what is unworthy and unnecessary and resentful and deadly in our characters (despite the pain of such sacrifice) so that we could stumble properly uphill under our respective and voluntarily-shouldered existential burdens. But it was and is the opinion of the materialist utopians that someone else be sacrificed, so that Heaven itself might be attained; some perpetrator, or victimizer, or oppressor, or member of a privileged group. A cynic might be forgiven, in consequence, for asking: “Is it the City of God that is in fact the aim? Or is the true aim the desire to make a burning sacrificial pyre of everyone and everything, and the hypothesis of the coming brotherhood of man merely the cover story, the camouflage?” Perhaps it is precisely the horror that is the point, and not the utopia. .... And we should also note that the utopian vision, dressed as it is inevitably in compassion, is a temptation particularly difficult to resist, and may therefore offer a particularly subtle and insidious justification for mayhem. ....

The dangers of the utopian vision have been laid bare, even if the reasons those dangers exist have not yet been fully and acceptably articulated. If there was any excuse to be a Marxist in 1917 (and both Dostoevsky and Nietzsche prophesied well before then that there would be hell to pay for that doctrine) there is absolutely and finally no excuse now. And we know that mostly because of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and The Gulag Archipelago. .... It was Solzhenitsyn who carefully documented the price paid in suffering for the dreadful communist experiment, and who distilled from that suffering the wisdom we must all heed so that such catastrophe does not visit us again. Perhaps we could take from his writing the humility that would allow us to understand that our mere good intentions are not sufficient to make us good men and women. Perhaps we could come to understand that such intentions are instead all too often the consequence of our unpardonable historical ignorance, our utter willful blindness, and our voracious hidden appetite for vengeance, terror and destruction. Perhaps we could come to remember and to learn from the intolerable trials endured by all those who passed through the fiery chambers of the Marxist collectivist ideology. Perhaps we could derive from that remembering and learning the wisdom necessary to take personal responsibility for the suffering and malevolence that still so terribly and unforgivably characterizes the world. We have been provided with the means to transform ourselves in due humility by the literary and moral genius of this great Russian author. We should all pray most devoutly to whatever deity guides us implicitly or explicitly for the desire and the will to learn from what we have been offered. May God Himself eternally fail to forgive us if in the painstakingly-revealed aftermath of such bloodshed, torture and anguish we remain stiff-necked, incautious, and unchanged.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

This world is not my home

Each generation of young Christians has to face the reality that biblical teaching conflicts decisively with contemporary secular morality. That conflict is often especially acute in the area of sexual morality. Moreover, the price of social acceptance is often theological compromise. Yes, people in good faith reach contrary positions on the authority and meaning of individual scriptures, but one would have to be willfully blind to deny the persistent pressure toward “inclusivity” and the irrebuttable presumption of moral superiority inherent to secular progressive ethics.

That is the temptation of faith. The temptation of tribe is different. It’s the temptation to find a “place” in contemporary American culture outside of the church. You’ll see Christians acknowledge that, yes, they’re members of the church, before asking with anguish, “But where else do I belong?” They have a religious home, but they want a political home, too, and as American society becomes increasingly politicized, the latter feels more important every day. ....

I confess I’m vulnerable to this temptation. I’m not “merely” a Christian, you see. I’m part of the “Christian conservative” sub-tribe. And I realized how much that sub-tribe meant to my life when, for the first time, it fractured over politics. I remember feeling a sense of homelessness when the vast majority of friends and neighbors and colleagues in the conservative movement chose Trump, and I did not.

This attitude was fundamentally wrong. My true home had never changed. Only my false home was exposed. ....

So, young Christians, hold your faith tightly and your politics loosely. You will not find a home here. As Peter says, you are a “foreigner and exile.” It’s best to get used to it early on. Trust me, it can be a gut-wrenching discovery to make when you’re old.

"Consequence, not vengeance..."

Continuing with The Gospel in Dorothy L. Sayers: Selections from Her Novels, Plays, Letters, and Essays, I'm coming across some things I don't recall reading before. This is from one of her plays, The Devil to Pay:
...Hard it is, very hard,
To travel up the slow and stony road
To Calvary, to redeem mankind; far better
To make but one resplendent miracle,
Lean through the cloud, lift the right hand of power
And with a sudden lightning smite the world perfect.
Yet this was not God's way, Who had the power,
But set it by, choosing the cross, the thorn,
The sorrowful wounds. Something there is, perhaps,
That power destroys in passing, something supreme,
To whose great value in the eyes of God
That cross, that thorn, and those five wounds bear witness.
Son, go in peace; for thou hast sinned through love;
To such sin God is merciful. Not yet
Has thy familiar devil persuaded thee
To that last sin against the Holy Ghost
Which is, to call good evil, evil good.
Only for that is no forgiveness — Not
That God would not forgive all sins there are,
Being what He is; but that this sin destroys
The power to feel His pardon, so that damnation
Is consequence, not vengeance; and indeed
So all damnation is. I will pray for thee.
And you, my children, go home, gird your loins
And light your lamps, beseeching God to bring
His kingdom nearer, in what way He will.

Until we meet again...

In "Saying Goodbye for Good" Wesley Hill writes:
In his book A Severe Mercy, a memoir of Christian conversion and student life in Oxford, Sheldon Vanauken tells the story of his last meeting with C.S. Lewis, who had become a friend. The two men ate lunch together, and when they had finished, Lewis said, “At all events, we’ll certainly meet again, here—or there.” Then he added: “I shan’t say goodbye. We’ll meet again.” And with that, they shook hands and parted ways. From across the street, above the din of traffic, Lewis shouted, “Besides, Christians never say goodbye!”
Hill recounts this story to make a different argument. Saying "goodbye" is important because doing so acknowledges the reality and pain of physical separation. Vanauken's book is largely about his separation, because of her death, from his wife. And of course Lewis wrote A Grief Observed after the death of Joy Davidman. They both felt the pain of physical separation in this life. Feeling the grief of separation is important but so is remembering what Lewis is saying here.

A Severe Mercy is still in print and it is very good. My copy dates from the year of its publication. I haven't read it in many years. I should read it again.

This is the somewhat longer account that appears in the book. So, on All Saints' Day, it may be particularly appropriate to remember that we will meet again.
On that last day I met C.S. Lewis at the Eastgate for lunch. We talked, I recall, about death or, rather, awakening after death. Whatever it would be like, we thought, our response to it would be 'Why, of course! Of course it's like this. How else could it have possibly been.' We both chuckled at that. I said it would be a sort of coming home, and he agreed. Lewis said that he hoped Davy and I would be coming back to England soon, for we mustn't get out of touch. 'At all events,' he said with a cheerful grin, 'we'll certainly meet again, here—or there.' Then it was time to go, and we drained our mugs. When we emerged on to the busy High with the traffic streaming past, we shook hands, and he said: 'I shan't say goodbye. We'll meet again.' Then he plunged into the traffic. I stood there watching him. When he reached the pavement on the other side, he turned round as though he knew somehow that I would still be standing there in front of the Eastgate. Then he raised his voice in a great roar that easily overcame the noise of the cars and buses. Heads turned and at least one car swerved. 'Besides,' he bellowed with a great grin, 'Christians NEVER say goodbye!'
A Severe Mercy at Amazon