Monday, April 29, 2019

T.S. Eliot and crime

At CrimeReads, "T.S. Eliot, Crime Fiction Critic," from which:
.... Like many a mystery reader in the Golden Age, T.S. Eliot had catholic taste in crime fiction and enjoyed both character-driven mysteries like The Moonstone and those which have been dismissed as “mere puzzles:” detective stories depending primarily on the mechanical cleverness of their plots to grab readers. ....

In The Criterion, the prestigious literary journal he founded and edited, Eliot had a forum where he could share his fascination with detective fiction and its aesthetics. Between 1927 and 1929 Eliot in its pages reviewed thirty-four mystery novels and short story collections, as well as two works on true crime. Like a kind of highbrow pope he lent detective fiction, at a crucial time in its development as an art form, the considerable cachet of his intellectual benediction. ....

...Eliot advocates a prohibition on outré devices: incredible disguises; insanity; occult phenomena and fantastic science; and elaborate and bizarre machinery, such as cyphers and codes, runes and rituals. Testing the nine mystery works in his review essay against these rules, Eliot concluded that of them R. Austin Freeman’s detective novel The D’Arblay Mystery was “the most perfect in form” (despite one violation). ....

Eliot had a half-dozen favorite authors of modern detective fiction, whom he “recommended to the small, fastidious public which really discriminates between good and bad detective stories.” These authors were R. Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, S.S. Van Dine, J.J. Connington, Agatha Christie and Lynn Brock. Eliot had comparatively little to say about Agatha Christie and Lynn Brock, but he went into more detail on the four other authors. As early as June 1927, Eliot speculated that “Mr. Freeman and Mr. Croft [sic]…seem to be our two most accomplished detective writers.” On two other occasions in The Criterion, Eliot bracketed Freeman and Crofts as the finest modern mystery novelists. Austin Freeman, a contemporary of Arthur Conan Doyle who had created Sherlock Holmes’ greatest rival in the form of the brilliant medical jurist Dr. John Thorndyke, had produced his first detective novel as far back as 1907; yet, unlike Doyle, he was an extremely prolific producer of mystery novels and short stories during the Golden Age. Besides singling out Freeman’s The D’Arblay Mystery in his January 1927 review article as the “most perfect in form” of the nine books reviewed, Eliot commented in his June 1927 review essay that he regretted having no Freeman novel on hand to assess, as the author “has more of the Wilkie Collins abundance than any contemporary writer of detective fiction.”

In Freeman Wills Crofts, a railway engineer turned detective novelist who was a meticulous plotter (the acknowledged king of the “unbreakable alibi” story) but rather an indifferent literary stylist, Eliot could glimpse little of that “Wilkie Collins abundance.” In the critic’s view, however, Crofts did not stand in need of that abundance, for he had other gifts valuable to a spinner of mystery tales. ...Eliot noted...: “Mr. Crofts, at his best, as in The Cask [his celebrated 1920 debut mystery novel], succeeds by his thorough devotion to the detective interest; his characters are just real enough to make the story work; had he tried to make them more human and humorous he might have ruined his story. ....

T.S. Eliot’s mystery criticism in The Criterion reveals the great writer as a representative twenties detective fiction fan, one still amused with and mentally stimulated by the ingenuity of the puzzles crime authors were devising. .... (more, including a list of Eliot's favorite mysteries)
I haven't enjoyed Crofts or S.S. Vane Dine as much as did Eliot but I very much enjoy R. Austin Freeman. Most of these authors are now in the public domain and many of their books can be read online or downloaded free of cost.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019


.... Today, on the 104th anniversary of the beginning of the genocide, we should remember the Armenians — and not forget the disgraceful denial of the genocide by the modern Turkish state.

In 1915, some two million Armenians lived in Ottoman Turkey, three-quarters of them in six provinces of eastern Anatolia, on the borders of Russia and Persia. By 1918, 90 percent were gone. An estimated one-and-a-half million were murdered in their towns and villages, or killed by disease, starvation, and death marches into camps in the Syrian desert, where the last survivors were massacred. Hundreds of thousands of women and children were forced to convert to Islam; tens of thousands more fled to the Russian Caucasus as refugees.

The genocide of 1915 was the worst instance of the massacres that accompanied the weakening of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of nationalism among its subjects. The pattern in the blood-soaked carpet includes the indiscriminate killing of thousands of Greek Christians in 1822, as recorded in Delacroix’s Massacre at Chois; the ingenious and varied sadism of the ‘Bulgarian Horrors’ of 1876; and the killing of some 100,000 Anatolian Armenians in 1894-96, which was described by the New York Times as a ‘holocaust’ — probably the first time the term was used to describe the attempted annihilation of a people. Nor was the Armenian genocide the last mass slaughter in the fall of the Ottomans. In 1922, an estimated 500-750,000 Greek Christians were killed, and the remainder of Turkey’s historic Greek population expelled.

To this day, the Turkish government claims that there was no Armenian genocide, and that what happened was the Armenians’ fault. .... (more)

"Lots of Jews, lots of sheep..."

.... Josephus, a Jewish historian contemporary with the Gospels’ authors, writes that on Passover, the population of Jerusalem swelled to more than two million as Jews made pilgrimages to the Temple for the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery in Egypt. Ancient pilgrims had to be in the city no later than seven days before the beginning of the feast.

In Gospel traditions about Jesus’ “triumphal entry,” we catch an echo of the excitement and high spirits of the holiday throng. The Passover meal, according to biblical law, had to be eaten in a state of purity. Pilgrims—Jesus among them—streamed into the city to undergo a week-long ritual of purification. Only once that was completed could preparations for the sacred meal begin. The Feast of Unleavened Bread (matzo) would then continue for another week; only thereafter would the city begin to empty once the holiday came to a close.

Lots of Jews. Lots of sheep. Lots of unstructured time, punctuated by bouts of ritual purification, before the holiday actually began. And, in Jesus’ period, one more social ingredient went into the mix: lots of Roman soldiers.

The Galilee, Jesus’ native corner of the Jewish homeland, was an independent Jewish state for all of his lifetime. But Judea, with its capital city of Jerusalem, lay under Roman jurisdiction. Rome didn’t rule from Jerusalem. The “prefect” or governor—in our story, Pilate—was garrisoned with some 3,000 soldiers in the beautiful harbor city of Caesarea. Three times a year, during the Jewish pilgrimage holidays, the prefect and his troops marched up to the capital to help manage the holiday crowds.

Roman troops were in Jerusalem to see and to be seen. They maintained order and kept things moving. And they ensured that no protests erupted, especially on the Temple Mount—for it was during these holidays, wrote Josephus, that “sedition is most likely to break out.” It was in this bustling, bursting space, the beating heart of the city during the great festivals, that Jesus taught about the “kingdom of God” in the week before the feast. Rome’s soldiers, alert to any sign of trouble, would have gazed down at Jesus and his listeners from their stations on the perimeter wall that surrounded the Temple precincts’ sacred space.

The fact that Jesus traveled to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover—and, according to John’s gospel, to observe many other high holidays as well—means that he was actively engaged in worship at the Temple. This can come as a surprise to some readers of the Gospels, because of the scene where Jesus turns over the tables of the money-changers in the Temple’s Court of the Nations, disrupting the sale of sacrificial birds. Some readers have assumed that, in so doing, Jesus was repudiating the very idea of sacrifice.

But other gospel details point in the opposite direction, depicting a Jesus comfortably at home in the traditions and practices of his people. Jesus wore “fringes” (in Hebrew, tzitzit), the ritual garment meant to remind the wearer of God’s commandments; in one gospel story, a sick woman is cured of her illness by touching them. In Matthew’s gospel, Jesus describes for his followers how they should make offerings at the Temple altar. Jesus also affirms the traditional Jewish belief that the Temple was the place where God dwells. And in all three synoptic gospels, Jesus celebrates the Seder, the ritual Passover meal, with his closest followers. The centerpiece of this meal, the Passover sacrifice, was the lamb itself. There was only one place in town to get one: the Temple.

Finally, one last, nice detail: Mark’s gospel closes off the Seder scene by commenting that the group all “sang hymns.” If you’ve been to a Seder, you know: These first-century Jews finished celebrating the Passover meal by singing the psalms of praise and thanksgiving that today bring to a close the traditional text for the meal. .... (more, almost certainly behind a paywall)

Sunday, April 21, 2019


From a review of a new biography by John Buchan's granddaughter, Beyond The Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan, "Was there no end to John Buchan’s talents?":
John Buchan was a novelist, historian, poet, biographer and journalist (assistant editor of The Spectator indeed); a barrister and publisher; one of Lord Milner’s ‘young men’, charged with the reconstruction of South Africa after the second Boer war; director of propaganda 1917–18, a Member of Parliament; lord high commissioner (i.e. the king’s representative) to the general assembly of the Church of Scotland; governor-general of Canada. Yet the title of this excellent biography by his granddaughter is to the point. He is best known today as the author of a thriller he wrote in a few weeks in 1914 which, more than 20 years later, was made into a film by Hitchcock.

The book is still read; the film, which Buchan thought better than the book, still watched. ....

...[W]hy did this intrepid mountaineer, a man of so many and such varied talents, never quite scale the topmost heights except — arguably — as a writer of the kind of novels he himself dismissed as ‘shockers’. These certainly survive. They are read as the novels of writers more admired in their time — Wells and Bennett, for example — no longer are. ....

.... As for the charge of anti-Semitism, still sometimes leveled, Ursula Buchan demonstrates that it is ridiculous. A novelist, as she says, should not be saddled with opinions expressed by his characters. In any case, Presbyterian Scots since the 17th century had identified themselves as a Covenanted nation like the Israelites, and Buchan was a Zionist.

Ursula never knew her grandfather, but she was close to his widow, Susie. Her book is not hagiography, but if it isn’t ‘warts and all’, that is because there were, in truth, very few warts, only small, scarcely discernible ones. She gives us a strong sense of both the man and his milieu. In short, she has written a good book about a good and extraordinary man who touched life at so many different points and adorned most of what he touched.
Gertrude Himmelfarb's very good essay on Buchan in which, among much else, she addresses the antisemitism question, can be downloaded here as a pdf (pp. 46-53).

"Tis the spring of souls today"

From the hymn "Come, Ye Faithful, Raise the Strain," words by John of Damascus (675–749).

Tis the spring of souls today;
Christ has burst His prison,
And from three days’ sleep in death
As a sun hath risen;
All the winter of our sins,
Long and dark, is flying
From His light, to whom we give
Laud and praise undying.
Neither might the gates of death,
Nor the tomb’s dark portal,
Nor the watchers, nor the seal
Hold Thee as a mortal;
But today amidst the twelve
Thou didst stand, bestowing
That Thy peace which evermore
Passeth human knowing.
"Alleluia!" now we cry
To our King immortal,
Who, triumphant, burst the bars
Of the tomb’s dark portal;
"Alleluia!" with the Son,
God the Father praising,
"Alleluia!" yet again
To the Spirit raising.

Saturday, April 20, 2019


Words and music by Martin Luther in 1524. The translation sung above and that printed below differ some. The message is the same.

Christ Jesus lay in death's strong bands, for our offenses given;
But now at God's right hand He stands, and brings us life from heaven.
Wherefore let us joyful be, and sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of Alleluia! Alleluia!
No son of man could conquer Death, such mischief sin had wrought us,
For innocence dwelt not on earth, and therefore Death had brought us
Into thralldom from of old and ever grew more strong and bold
And kept us in his bondage. Alleluia!
But Jesus Christ, God's only Son, to our low state descended,
The cause of Death He has undone, his power forever ended,
Ruined all his right and claim and left him nothing but the name,
His sting is lost forever. Alleluia!
It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended;
The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended.
Stripped of power, no more it reigns, an empty form alone remains
Death's sting is lost forever! Alleluia!
Here the true Paschal Lamb we see, Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree — so strong His love! — to save us.
See, His blood doth mark our door; faith points to it, Death passes over,
And Satan cannot harm us. Alleluia!
So let us keep the festival where to the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the joy of all, the Sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended! Alleluia!
Then let us feast this Easter day on the true Bread of heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away the old and wicked leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed; He is our Meat and Drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other! Alleluia!



.... Martin Luther said himself that Saturday was the day that God himself lay cold in the grave. Friday was death, Sunday was hope, but Saturday was that seemingly ignored middle day between them when God occupied a dirty grave in a little garden outside Jerusalem. Saturday is about waiting, about uncertainty, about not knowing what’ll happen. ....

So much of Christian faith is Saturday faith. ....

A medieval theologian, Anselm, once described the kind of faith that comes with Saturday—fides quaerens intellectum: “faith seeking understanding.” By that, he meant that faith isn’t something that arises after moments of understanding. Rather, faith is something that you cling to when understanding and reason lay dead. We don’t believe once we understand it—we believe in order to understand it. Saturday’s like that: offering a day of waiting, a day of ambiguity, a day when God is sovereign even if our ideas and theologies and expectations about him are not. It is the day that our ignorance is our witness and our proclamation. Truth is, our intellect will always be one step behind in our love of God. We don’t love God once we understand him; we love God in order to understand him. ....

At times, we are all like the two disciples on their way to Emmaus who were really close to Jesus but didn’t always know it. In Luke 24, two disciples walked away from Jerusalem, where they’d just seen their Lord and Master die on the cross. Leaving, dejected, upset, hopeless, and broken, to find the next stage in their lives and careers. Unbeknownst to them, Jesus had been resurrected and was actually walking alongside them on their way to Emmaus. The hope of Sunday hadn’t dawned on them yet. The Gospels tell us that, on their way to Emmaus, the disciples were “downcast.”

That experience is the kind of experience Saturday is all about. .... [more]
A. J. Swoboda is a pastor in Portland, Oregon. This is from his A Glorious Dark: Finding Hope in the Tension between Belief and Experience, excerpted in Christianity Today.

Friday, April 19, 2019

"Fit for Thy service"

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, suffer me once more to commemorate the death of Thy Son Jesus Christ, my Saviour and Redeemer, and make the memorial of his death profitable to my salvation, by strengthening my Faith in his merits, and quickening my obedience to his laws. Remove from me, O God, all inordinate desires, all corrupt passions, & all vain terrours; and fill me with zeal for Thy glory, and with confidence in Thy mercy. Make me to love all men, and enable me to use Thy gifts, whatever Thou shalt bestow, to the benefit of my fellow creatures. So lighten the weight of years, and so mitigate the afflicions of disease that I may continue fit for Thy service, and useful in my station. And so let me pass through this life by the guidance of Thy Holy Spirit, that at last I may enter into eternal joy, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen
Samuel Johnson, Easter, 1778.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

"...Good company — ready to talk, laugh, drink, eat, and argue...."

The reviewer doesn't think the book quite lives up to its promise because how wonderful would it be to have a record of the conversations, arguments, debates, among the members of this group:
In the famous dictionary he published in 1755, Samuel Johnson defined a “club” as “an assembly of good fellows, meeting under certain conditions.” Nine years later, in 1764, the lexicographer became a founder of the Club, with a capital C. Its good fellows met under these conditions: They gathered one evening each week near the Strand in London, where they took a private room at the Turk’s Head Tavern, ordered food and wine, and conversed about topics great and small. Members “had to be good company — ready to talk, laugh, drink, eat, and argue until late into the night,” writes Leo Damrosch in The Club, an ambitious, multi-part biography of their lives and times.

The Club was no ordinary collection of drinking buddies. Rather, it represented an astonishing assembly of talent and accomplishment. Members included Johnson as well as James Boswell, Edmund Burke, Edward Gibbon, and Adam Smith. These five, according to Damrosch, were “arguably the greatest British critic, biographer, political philosopher, historian, and economist of all time.” The Club’s second-tier members also were extraordinary: David Garrick, the greatest actor of the age; Joshua Reynolds, a top painter; and Oliver Goldsmith and Richard Brinsley Sheridan, two of the era’s most successful playwrights. Men of this caliber of intellectual and cultural firepower have congregated only rarely, in places such as classical Athens, Renaissance Florence, and, coincidentally, in Philadelphia at roughly the same time as Johnson’s group.

Who wouldn’t want to eavesdrop on the Club’s conversations? Imagine Johnson and Garrick debating the art of Shakespeare. Or Boswell and Reynolds discussing the differences between written and visual portraiture. Or Burke and Smith — a pair of thinkers whose ideas echo loudly in today’s conservative movement — chatting about just about anything. .... (more)

Maundy Thursday

re-posted from 2014:

Various Christian denominations place greater or lesser emphasis on what is known as the Christian Year. I grew up in one that emphasized only Christmas and Easter, and observed Lent only because the local ministers' council cooperated in a Lenten series of services. Kevin DeYoung helpfully defines Maundy Thursday for people like me:
.... If you've never heard the term, it's not Monday-Thursday (which always confused me as a kid), but Maundy Thursday, as in Mandatum Thursday. Mandatum is the Latin word for "command" or "mandate", and the day is called Maundy Thursday because on the night before his death Jesus gave his disciples a new command. "A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another" (John 13:34).

At first it seems strange that Christ would call this a new command. After all, the Old Testament instructed God's people to love their neighbors and Christ himself summarized the law as love for God and love for others. So what's new about love? What makes the command new is that because of Jesus' passion there is a new standard, a new examplar of love.

There was never any love like the dying love of Jesus. It is tender and sweet (John 13:33). It serves (John 13:2-17). It loves even unto death (John 13:1). Jesus had nothing to gain from us by loving us. There was nothing in us to draw us to him. But he loved us still, while we were yet sinners. .... [more]
DeYoung, Restless, and Reformed: Maundy Thursday

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Hold fast

Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.... (1 Cor 15:1-4 ESV)

"Never ascribe to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence."

"Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" (the heading above was Napoleon's version) is a maxim I have heard variations of before but I didn't know it was called "Hanlon's Razor." This article uses a somewhat kinder formulation: "Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by neglect." It's a good thing to remember.
.... Hanlon’s razor can provide insights when we deal with people, institutions, or entities which we dislike. The more we dislike someone or something, the more likely we are to attribute their actions to malice. When someone we dislike makes a mistake, reacting with empathy and understanding tends to be the last response. Acting in an emotional way is natural, yet immature. It can only worsen the situation. The smartest solution is, no matter how much we dislike someone, to assume neglect or incompetence. ....

Modern media treats outrage as a profitable commodity. This often takes the form of articles which attribute malice to that which could be explained by incompetence or ignorance. We see examples of this play out in the media multiple times a day. People rush to take offense at anything which contradicts their worldview or which they imagine to do so. Media outlets are becoming increasingly skilled at generating assumptions of malicious intent. When looking at newspapers, websites, and social media, it can be beneficial to apply Hanlon’s razor to what we see. .... (more)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

"We shape our buildings..."

Steven Hayward, thinking about the destruction and potential reconstruction of Notre Dame Cathedral, is reminded of Winston Churchill's speech about rebuilding the House of Commons Chamber after it was destroyed by a German bomb during the Second World War. Churchill famously said “We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.” This is especially true of places of worship. Churchill:
I beg to move, "That a Select Committee be appointed to consider and report upon plans for the rebuilding of the House of Commons and upon such alterations as may be considered desirable while preserving all its essential features." On the night of 10th May, 1941, with one of the last bombs of the last serious raid, our House of Commons was destroyed by the violence of the enemy, and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again, and how, and when. We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us. Having dwelt and served for more than 40 years in the late Chamber, and having derived fiery great pleasure and advantage therefrom, I, naturally, would like to see it restored in all essentials to its old form, convenience and dignity. I believe that will be the opinion of the great majority of its Members. It is certainly the opinion of His Majesty’s Government and we propose to support this resolution to the best of our ability. .... (more)

Sunday, April 14, 2019

"Women and children first"

In the early hours of April 15, 1912, the Titanic sank, having struck an iceberg hours earlier. In 2010 Albert Mohler in an article on his site compared its sinking with that of another liner only three years later:
The great ocean liner that was built as unsinkable struck an iceberg on April 14, 1912 and sank early the next morning, taking 1,517 of 2,223 lives on board. The RMS Titanic became a parable of modernity — of the limits of technology and the hubris of humanity. It is also a subject of enduring fascination because of the stories of those who lived and died, known to us because of the fame and fortune of so many on the Titanic.

Less known to many is the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, taking 1,198 of 1,959 lives on board. The sinking of the Lusitania was a major factor in bringing the United States into war against the German Empire in World War I, but it plays a much less prominent role in the American imagination — largely thanks to Hollywood and its fascination with the Titanic.

But more is at play here, for the two sinkings were notably different in one crucial respect. The Titanic took hours to sink, leaving time for a remarkable human drama on board the sinking ship. The Lusitania sank in just eighteen minutes, leaving far less of a human trace in the imagination. ....

Aboard the Titanic, the men generally behaved with great concern for women and children, doing their best to get the women and children into the precious and insufficient seats in the lifeboats. Hundreds of men died with the Titanic, demonstrating a commitment to put the welfare and lives of women and children above their own.

Aboard the sinking Lusitania, the scene was very different. Women and children were less likely than men to survive that disaster, because the men used their natural strength and speed to take the spaces on the lifeboats, with women and children forced out of their way. ....
Another article that I quoted elsewhere but no longer can find online, from the now defunct Weekly Standard:
...[T]hird class women passengers had a far better chance of surviving (49 percent) than first class males (34 percent). Yes, first and second class women had a much greater chance of survival (97 percent and 86 percent, respectively) than did third class women (49 percent). But the corresponding figures for men were abysmal, even in first class–and, curiously enough, second class men fared even worse than those in third class (8 percent to 13 percent).
Back to Mohler:
What accounts for the difference? The researchers looked at several factors, but settled on one that appeared more obvious as they considered the question — the length of time it took the ship to sink. As the report explains, on the Lusitania "the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic, there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge."

Put plainly, on the Lusitania the male passengers demonstrated "selfish rationality." As TIME explains, this is "a behavior that's every bit as me-centered as it sounds and that provides an edge to strong, younger males in particular. On the Titanic, the rules concerning gender, class and the gentle treatment of children — in other words, good manners — had a chance to assert themselves." ....

Aboard the Lusitania, young males acted out of a selfish survival instinct, and women and children were cast aside, left to the waves. Aboard the Titanic, there was time for men to consider what was at stake and to call themselves to a higher morality. There was time for conscience to raise its voice and authority, and for men, young and old, to know and to do their duty. ....

A secular worldview has little at its disposal to explain all this, and is left with some argument based in evolutionary survival behaviors or socially constructed morality. The feminists are in even worse shape in this. They call for a world like the Lusitania, but must hope against hope that the world is really more like the Titanic. ...

Friday, April 12, 2019

Command of language

Theodore Dalrymple in the National Review (March 22, 2010), from Alice in Wonderland:
Having proved that un-birthday presents are superior to birthday presents because they can be given on 364 days of the year instead of only one, Humpty Dumpty says to Alice:
“There’s glory for you!”

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘glory,’” Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. “Of course you don’t—till I tell you. I meant ‘there’s a nice knock-down argument for you!’”

“But ‘glory’ doesn’t mean ‘a nice knock-down argument,’” Alice objected.

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in a rather scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”


"Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. ...."
"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ " Matthew 7:15, 21

Thursday, April 11, 2019

"Good and ill have not changed..."

.... For the Christian, genuine faithfulness always makes the same demand: the whole of your life. As Bonhoeffer says, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He does not say, “When Christ calls a man in Nazi Germany, he bids him come and die.” Indeed, in a society that is comfortably Christian, this call may be harder to hear than in a society where Christian faith and practice are under assault — this is indeed the foundational insight of Kierkegaard’s work, from beginning to end. Jesus wants the people who hear his teachings to “read the signs of the times,” but what he means by that is: Understand that your Lord is among you — which is something that it’s difficult for all of us truly to apprehend.

Further, I want to suggest that “reading the signs of the times” in a more familiar sense of those words has always been the chief bane of the Church. Christians have often looked about them and seen a world that seemed fundamentally hospitable to the Gospel, a world in which Christians can be at home, and that interpretation of their environment has led them to neglect the formation of their children and the strengthening of the bonds of community in their local church, leading to “the total collapse of the faith within our own families and communities.” We would do better to ignore the so-called signs of the times in order to focus on what Jesus demands of every Christian everywhere, without exception. Evil days may well come; but “sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

In the third book of The Lord of the Rings — otherwise known as the first part of The Two Towers — when the Riders of Rohan meet Aragorn and Gimli and Legolas, Eomer is confused. “It is hard to be sure of anything among so many marvels. The world is all grown strange. Elf and Dwarf in company walk in our daily fields; and folk speak with the Lady of the Wood and yet live; and the Sword comes back to war that was broken in the long ages ere the fathers of our fathers rode into the Mark! How shall a man judge what to do in such times?” And Aragorn’s answer is: “As he ever has judged. 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, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house.”....

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

"My flesh and my heart may fail, but..."

Psalm 73:1-28 [ESV]
Truly God is good to Israel,
  to those who are pure in heart.
But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,
  my steps had nearly slipped.
For I was envious of the arrogant
  when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

For they have no pangs until death;
  their bodies are fat and sleek.
They are not in trouble as others are;
  they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Therefore pride is their necklace;
  violence covers them as a garment.
Their eyes swell out through fatness;
  their hearts overflow with follies.
They scoff and speak with malice;
  loftily they threaten oppression.
They set their mouths against the heavens,
  and their tongue struts through the earth.
Therefore his people turn back to them,
  and find no fault in them.
And they say, “How can God know?
  Is there knowledge in the Most High?”
Behold, these are the wicked;
  always at ease, they increase in riches.
All in vain have I kept my heart clean
  and washed my hands in innocence.
For all the day long I have been stricken
  and rebuked every morning.
If I had said, “I will speak thus,”
  I would have betrayed the generation of your children.
But when I thought how to understand this,
  it seemed to me a wearisome task,
until I went into the sanctuary of God;
  then I discerned their end.

Truly you set them in slippery places;
  you make them fall to ruin.
How they are destroyed in a moment,
  swept away utterly by terrors!
Like a dream when one awakes,
  O Lord, when you rouse yourself,
  you despise them as phantoms.
When my soul was embittered,
  when I was pricked in heart,
I was brutish and ignorant;
  I was like a beast toward you.

Nevertheless, I am continually with you;
  you hold my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
  and afterward you will receive me to glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
  And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
  but God is the strength of my heart
  and my portion forever.

For behold, those who are far from you shall perish;
  you put an end to everyone who is unfaithful to you.
But for me it is good to be near God;
I have made the Lord GOD my refuge,
  that I may tell of all your works.

"Friendship, family, community..."

A young traditionalist finds contemporary conservatism wanting—too libertarian and too materialist—and commends "The Radicalism of Russell Kirk." The essay is a very good introduction to the "Kirkian" variety of conservatism. The final paragraphs:
My generation has seen the West undone by consumerism, lax divorce laws, the Sexual Revolution, outsourcing, urbanization, and centralization. All are defended (even if only half-heartedly) by modern conservatives as “the price we must pay” to live in a free and prosperous country. They’re wrong. Liberty without morality is mere license; prosperity without charity is mere decadence. The traditionalist rejects both perversions while upholding the essential Good that they distort.

To quote Burke: “Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants.” And what is it that Millennial traditionalists want? Friendship, family, community, an honest day’s work, real music, good books, and above all God. Kirk summed it up very nicely when he said that “conservatives declare that society is a community of souls, joining the dead, the living, and those yet unborn; and that it coheres through what Aristotle called friendship, and Christians call love of neighbor.”

This is the radical vision he posited against the “dreams of avarice” shared by socialists, progressives, and libertarians. This is what conservatives once fought for. We’ve abdicated that duty in the decades since Kirk’s death, but a new generation of conservatives is taking up the fight again.

Monday, April 8, 2019

"A pointer to...deeper sources of wisdom"

This review of the Library of America collection of Madeleine L’Engle reflects on her "Moral Reasoning in an Acceptable Time":
.... Whether or not her characters experience something as overtly supernatural as time or space travel, L’Engle’s concern lies not merely with the social and developmental struggles faced by teenagers, but with their spiritual lives. Just as Meg must learn to love in A Wrinkle in Time and the volumes of the earlier quartet, her daughter Polly O’Keefe must learn forgiveness in the later quartet. The final book, An Acceptable Time, culminates with Polly forgiving the offenses of a young man described as having been “out of [his] mind with self.” A wise elder character tells him, in language echoing Scripture: “Ultimately you will die to this life.” This unapologetically religious stance, along with L’Engle’s willingness to combine genres, kill characters, and quote difficult literature, doubtless accounts for both the enduring success of her works and their initial difficulty in finding a publisher, with A Wrinkle in Time famously having been rejected more than twenty times.

On these matters L’Engle’s Christianity is both overtly present—among L’Engle’s frequent quotations are many drawn from Scripture, the Book of Common Prayer, and Christian mystics—and diffused throughout the imagery and symbol systems of the novels. ....

In this, L’Engle aligns closely with Tolkien and his associates among the Inklings. ....

For all L’Engle’s explicit spirituality, her works show a greater comfort with the Modern Moral Order than one might expect from a writer so often associated with the antimodern Inklings. For all her explicit Christianity, L’Engle also endorses a modern, liberal form of the religion. This is illustrated most infamously in A Wrinkle in Time as the protagonists list those who have made the greatest contributions against the powers of a darkness, a list that begins with Jesus Christ and continues to Leonard da Vinci, Albert Schweitzer, Gandhi, Buddha, and Copernicus. L’Engle features clerics in more than one novel (themselves somewhat non-modern figures by virtue of their role), but their wisdom tends to favor modern dogma, as when Bishop Colubra of An Acceptable Time blandly asserts that “yesterday’s heresy becomes tomorrow’s dogma.”

Ultimately the spiritual values L’Engle aims at tend toward those that are uncontroversial in the Modern Moral Order: A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door endorse love over hate, Dragons in the Waters challenges greed and environmental destruction, and An Acceptable Time provides a lesson against selfishness. ....

In contrast with her character’s banal pronouncements about tolerance, kindness, and consent, the traditional Christian language L’Engle weaves throughout these books stands out with all the more clarity. When Bishop Colubra quotes the psalmist—“O Lord, I make my prayer to you in an acceptable time”—or the hymn “Of the Father’s Love Begotten,” the strength and richness of the traditional language makes his own modern vocabulary seem facile by contrast. It is no coincidence that the strongest of these eight novels, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, featuring the most vivid and emotionally satisfying characters in the sequence, is structured and saturated with the language of L’Engle’s version of the ancient prayer “St. Patrick’s Breastplate.” ....

If L’Engle finally lacks the moral and imaginative resources to escape the linguistic confines of the Modern Moral Order, her work nonetheless points young readers to a treasury of richer language, both in classic literature and the hymns and prayers of the ancient Christian church. Maybe, for young readers already fostering a suspicion that the modern project may not be all it claims to be, she can serve as a pointer to these deeper sources of wisdom. A person could do worse. (more)

"Salvator Mundi"

A Facebook friend posted a gorgeous version of this Tallis composition today. I went looking for a translation of the text and while looking around on YouTube found another performance that I liked:

O Saviour of the world, save us,
who by Thy cross and blood hast redeemed us,
Save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee, O Lord.
Thomas Tallis, 1575

Sunday, April 7, 2019

"O who am I, that for my sake My Lord should take frail flesh and die?"

Jonathan Aigner has been posting hymns for each Sunday in Lent. This Sunday he posts "My Song Is Love Unknown" with what I assume are all of its verses, many more than I had known. Below is a performance I have posted on this site before:

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 O! 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.

Friday, April 5, 2019

American history

I taught US History classes in secondary schools for thirty-five years. I never had the privilege of choosing the textbook. Invariably the ones chosen were dry, uninspired, and boring. This one might be different. From a review of Land of Hope:
.... After a beautifully written introduction, “Beginnings: Settlement and Unsettlement” starts with the first human settlers in the new world—twenty to thirty thousand years ago—and ends with Christopher Columbus’ four trips from Spain to the Americas starting in 1492.

McClay’s treatment of Columbus and his discoveries is illustrative of his even-handed approach:
Columbus had trouble seeing America for the new thing that it was, and could be, and eventually would become. He was not first, and he would not be the last. It is part of the human condition, and a recurrent feature of human history, that what we find is not always what we were looking for, and what we accomplish is not always what we set out to do.

Hence, too, the reality that Columbus’s journeys were also the beginning of a great collision of cultures, a process that nearly always entails tragic and bitter consequences. Hence the cruel irony, as we shall see, that the settlement of America by newcomers would also produce a profound unsettlement for those who were not newcomers. The fresh start for the world came at a heavy price for those who were already settled on the land, men and women for whom San Salvador was not a New World being discovered but an old and familiar world about to be transformed.
The book then catalogs American history from “The Shaping of British North America” to “The World Since the Cold War” over 22 chapters. The text ends with an epilogue on “The Shape of American Patriotism.” It also includes an excellent list of works for further reading. ....

Land of Hope is the kind of book I wish I’d had for my own Advanced Placement U.S. History course back in high school. I don’t remember now which book was used, but it was dull and uninspiring. It distilled the great American story into boring lists of facts and “concepts” to memorize. Land of Hope includes the same material, but in a much more engaging and naturally memorable way. Reading it is inspirational rather than merely a chore.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that Land of Hope will be widely adopted. With today’s politicized and “internationalized” AP U.S. History curriculum, Land of Hope would be a poor fit.

Instead, parents and grandparents who care about their children’s understanding of their own country and culture should purchase Land of Hope as a supplement to the history that students learn in school.

Professor Mark Bauerlein puts it better than I can in his panegyric to the book:
This book is THE antidote to abysmal levels of historical knowledge our high school graduates possess. History bores them; the textbooks are dreary; lessons play up guilt and identity politics. It turns them off. They want powerful tales and momentous events, genuine heroes and villains, too—an accurate but stirring rendition of the past. This is Bill McClay’s Land of Hope, a superb historian’s version of the American story, in lively prose spiced with keen analysis and compelling drama. Every school that assigns this book will see students’ eyes brighten when the Civil War comes up, the Progressive Era, the Depression, Civil Rights…The kids want an authentic, meaningful heritage, a usable past. McClay makes it real. ....
Perhaps also for home-schoolers?

The book will be published in May so I haven't had a chance to look at it. It is available at Amazon for pre-order.

Wednesday, April 3, 2019


Netflix produced and is streaming a film called The Highwaymen about the lawmen pursuing Bonnie and Clyde. My brother and I watched it last Friday evening. It is far more accurate history than any other dramatic portrayal thus far, especially the 1967 movie. From a review of The Highwaymen :
.... Retelling Bonnie and Clyde from the point of view of the actual heroes of the story is a superb idea that took far too long to come to screen. Hired by the governor of Texas, “Ma” Ferguson (Kathy Bates), aging ex-Rangers Frank Hamer (Costner) and Maney Gault (Harrelson) are given a special mandate to end a reign of terror that left 13 people dead, yet was celebrated as a romantic tale of sexy desperadoes who were folk heroes to the newspapers of the Great Depression and later easily adapted into symbols of Sixties liberation.

Channeling Hamer’s rage and disgust, The Highwaymen attacks the myth of Bonnie and Clyde, who are seen only in glimpses. Far from robbing banks on behalf of hapless victims of the Depression, the Barrow gang mostly stuck to soft targets such as gas stations and grocery stores. Yet ordinary Americans were enthralled by the rebel legends and are seen concealing information to cover for the killers — though they were cheap, vicious cowards who would do anything for a buck. Governor Ferguson (Kathy Bates) replies to reporters pushing the Robin Hood narrative, “Did Robin Hood ever shoot a gas station attendant in the head for four dollars and a tank of gas?” .... (more)
...Hamer was almost a prototype of the kind of man the Boomer generation would be taught to distrust, both in life and in fiction. Almost insanely brave and almost unbelievably tough, he was Texas’s most famous man hunter. He wouldn’t sell his life story to the movies; he was too dignified, too suspicious of the alien (even then) West Coast culture and of “dramatic license.” But if he had, John Wayne would have played him, with all 50 of his shoot-outs accounted for, as well as his numerous wounds.

The Duke would have been portrayed standing up against lynch mobs murderously incensed by African-Americans...uncovering murderous bounty-hunter schemes. And Wayne would have yelled out fair warning to the pair, as both he and another posse member, the selfsame Ted Hinton, claimed occurred in their written accounts of the incident. And the Duke would have replicated Hamer’s odd body posture so evident in the photographs, his almost contemptuous slouch, off center always and listing one way or the other as he refuses to look at the lens, sucking on an always-present tailor-made cigarette.

That movie, however, certainly could not have been made in 1967 and it certainly can’t be made in 2009 [but has been made in 2019] : Hamer is too straight, too commanding, too uncompromising for such a treatment. The irony is that Hamer is forgotten while Clyde and Bonnie live on. Hamer stood for something: the idea of right and the guts to make it stick. Clyde and Bonnie stood for nothing, except perhaps infantile nihilism, unformed, incoherent, vicious. If they were ambushed without warning, it’s because each had weapons at hand, and so they wouldn’t widow and orphan other police families. If they were shot to pieces, it’s because the old-time law enforcement guys knew you shot them, and then you shot them some more.

Hamer stands for your grandfather’s authority, annoyance at fools, and the willingness to kill in the belief that he was saving the weak by eliminating their predator. He was a righteous killer, a dinosaur whose time has passed. ....

Tuesday, April 2, 2019


Emmylou Harris was born on this date in 1947. I started buying her albums in the 1970s. I've seen her perform twice, once at Milwaukee's Summerfest, and once at what was then the Milwaukee Auditorium, backed that time by the Hot Band which included Ricky Skaggs. A collection of Emmylou singing gospel from YouTube: