Tuesday, December 31, 2019

"The paradox of liberalism"

Gertrude Himmelfarb died yesterday, Dec. 30, 2019. A few paragraphs from Yuval Levin's much longer appreciation at National Review:
.... She was among the most important American historians of the last century. Her path-breaking work illuminating the intellectual life of 19th-century Britain not only helped transform our understanding of what the Victorians were up to but also provided a rich vocabulary for describing the place of the moral in the social and political lives of liberal societies. And in the process, she helped several generations of politically minded intellectuals in her own day understand themselves, their roles, and their goals more profoundly.

Himmelfarb’s approach to the contemporary relevance of historical inquiry was more or less a mirror image of the attitude that came increasingly to prevail in her profession over her decades of scholarship. As she put it in the introduction to the final collection of her essays, in 2017, many academic historians now fall into “interpreting the past in terms of the present, imposing the values of an enlightened progressive present upon a benighted, retrograde past.” Her own temptation, she wrote, was almost the opposite: to learn from the past what the present has forgotten. ....

She found the Victorians particularly instructive regarding two sets of questions she thought were essential to her own time and place. The first was what she would later (in a biography of John Stuart Mill) call “the paradox of liberalism” — namely that in prioritizing individual liberty above all other political goods, modern liberalism threatened to undermine the moral foundations of individual liberty, and therefore of its own strength. The second involved the significance of intellectuals in the public lives of free societies. ....

Acton offered her much fodder on both fronts. .... Himmelfarb characterized his view concisely:
The only liberty recognized by the Protestants was the liberty of the individual; the only authority the authority of the state. Thus the individual acquired the right to worship in whatever religion he wished, but his church was deprived of the right to administer its own laws. By this means, the emancipation of the individual became a refined technique for ensuring his utter subjection and the limited power previously exercised by the church was replaced by the absolute power of the state.
The elimination of mediating, moderating layers of both authority and liberty endangered them both. This would become a defining insight of a certain kind of communitarian critique of liberalism over time. But Himmelfarb, drawing on Acton, saw it early and clearly.

Acton’s answer to this problem was not to abandon liberalism, but to insist that it be tethered to traditional religion. The attachment would serve both partners, though it was destined always to be rocky and perturbed. “The liberals wanted political freedom at the expense of the church,” Himmelfarb wrote, “and the traditional Catholics wanted the church at the expense of political freedom. Acton knew that in a non-Catholic state the church’s freedom could only be guaranteed by a free society so that people who wanted religious freedom needed to be friends of genuine liberal freedom.” But he also knew that they needed to insist that religious freedom was a communal, not just an individual freedom, and that the moralism that grew out of serious religious conviction needed to have a place in the public life of a liberal society.

The relevance of this insight for our own time hardly needs to be stressed. ....

And from the 1950s through the 1970s, Himmelfarb devoted herself to exploring and articulating the lessons of that [Victorian] era, and to illuminating its most appealing and instructive figures.

Much of this work took the form of essays written over two decades and collected in Victorian Minds: A Study of Intellectuals in Crisis and Ideologies in Transition, published in 1968 and selected as a finalist for a National Book Award. In these essays, Himmelfarb proved to be a masterful observer of the sociology of intellectual transformation — how ideas percolate, rise, are debated and considered, accepted or rejected.

This is, as she described it, an elite process of opinion formation, but it happens at the core of elite intellectual life, not at its highest reaches. “The philosopher need address himself only to the best minds of an age—perhaps only to the best minds of all time,” she wrote in the introduction to Victorian Minds. But “the historian of ideas must also consider the representative minds of an age, which may well be the ‘second best’ minds.” She quickly added, however, that “for Victorian England, fortunately, this is no great affliction, the second-best then being better than the best of many other times and places.” ....

...[T]wo essays on Edmund Burke (whom she dubs a “proto-Victorian”) offer the extraordinary spectacle of a historian changing her mind: The first is a highly critical overview of Burke’s political project and the second, written more than a decade later, is essentially a scathing review of the first, in which Himmelfarb openly critiques what she had come to consider her own narrow-mindedness and offers a very different reading of Burke. She notes in the introduction that she could have just hidden the first away, but wanted the reader to see her rethinking in public and judge if she was right to do so. ....

From the Contents of Victorian Minds
.... “Liberals have learned, at fearful cost, the lesson that absolute power corrupts absolutely,” she wrote. “They have yet to learn that absolute liberty may also corrupt absolutely.”

This led Himmelfarb to the most powerful formulation of the worry that hangs like an ominous shadow over her seven decades of scholarship:
Having made an absolute of liberty and having established the individual as sovereign, the liberal has no integrated view of the individual in society which can moderate either his passion for liberty or his desire for regulation and control. When liberty proves inadequate, government rushes in. And since the only function assigned to government by the principle of liberty is the negative one of protection against injury, when government is obliged to assume a positive role, neither its proper powers nor its proper limits have been defined. The paradox is inevitable: government tends to become unlimited when liberty itself is thought to be unlimited. The paradox brings others in its wake. While contemporary liberalism has enormously enhanced the roles of society, government, and the state, it has provided them with no principles of legitimacy.
The result is a recipe for social breakdown and political disillusionment — for what she termed “de-moralization.” It is a recipe that Himmelfarb worried our society had set out to follow. .... (much more)

For old friends

I've posted this several times on New Year's Eve:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and days of auld lang syne?

Peggy Noonan, in 2011, on the song:
"Auld Lang Syne"—the phrase can be translated as "long, long ago," or "old long since," but I like "old times past"—is a song that asks a question, a tender little question that has to do with the nature of being alive, of being a person on a journey in the world. It not only asks, it gives an answer.

It was written, or written down, by Robert Burns, lyric poet and Bard of Scotland. In 1788 he sent a copy of the poem to the Scots Musical Museum, with the words: "The following song, an old song, of the olden times, has never been in print." Burns was interested in the culture of Scotland, and collected old folk tales and poems. He said he got this one "from an old man"—no one knows who—and wrote it down. Being a writer, Burns revised and compressed. He found the phrase auld lang syne "exceedingly expressive" and thought whoever first wrote the poem "heaven inspired." The song spread throughout Scotland, where it was sung to mark the end of the old year, and soon to the English-speaking world, where it's sung to mark the new.

The question it asks is clear: Should those we knew and loved be forgotten and never thought of? Should old times past be forgotten? No, says the song, they shouldn't be. We'll remember those times and those people, we'll toast them now and always, we'll keep them close. "We'll take a cup of kindness yet." .... [more]
SHOULD auld acquaintance be forgot,    
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne

And here 's a hand, my trusty fiere,
And gie's a hand o' thine;
And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught
For auld lang syne.

We twa hae rin about the braes,
And pu'd the gowans fine;
But we've wander'd monie a weary fit
Sin' auld lang syne.
And surely ye'll be your pint-stowp,
And surely I'll be mine;
And we'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne!
We twa hae paidl't i' the burn,
Frae mornin' sun till dine;
But seas between us braid hae roar'd      
Sin' auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne, my jo,
For auld lang syne,
We'll tak a cup o' kindness yet
For auld lang syne.

Days of Auld Lang What?

On the 31st of December

Hasten, O Father, the coming of your kingdom and grant that we your servants, who now live by faith, may with joy behold your Son at his coming in glorious majesty, even Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen. (BCP)

Monday, December 30, 2019

"As surely as Water will wet us..."

On the anniversary of Kipling's birth, re-posted:

I have several collections of Kipling's poems including A Choice of Kipling's Verse selected and edited by T.S. Eliot in 1941. Toward the back of the book Eliot includes two that I particularly liked for the lessons they deliver.

(AD. 980-1016)
It is always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say:—
'We invaded you last night—we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.'
And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you've only to pay 'em the Dane-geld
And then you'll get rid of the Dane!
It is always a temptation to a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say:—
'Though we know we should defeat you, we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.'
And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we've proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.
It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:—
'We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!'

And the penultimate poem in the book:

As I pass through my incarnations in every age and race,
I make my proper prostrations to the Gods of the Market Place.
Peering through reverent fingers I watch them flourish and fall,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings, I notice, outlast them all.
We were living in trees when they met us. They showed us each in turn
That Water would certainly wet us, as Fire would certainly burn:
But we found them lacking in Uplift, Vision and Breadth of Mind,
So we left them to teach the Gorillas while we followed the March of Mankind.
We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market-Place;
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch.
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings.
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'Stick to the Devil you know.'
On the first Feminian Sandstones we were promised the Fuller Life
(Which started by loving our neighbour and ended by loving his wife)
Till our women had no more children and the men lost reason and faith,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'The Wages of Sin is Death.'
In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all,
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul;
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: 'If you don't work you die.'
Then the Gods of the Market tumbled, and their smooth-tongued wizards withdrew,
And the hearts of the meanest were humbled and began to believe it was true
That All is not Gold that Glitters, and Two and Two make Four—
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings limped up to explain it once more.
*    *    *
As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man—
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire,
And the burnt Fool's bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;
And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins,
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn,
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!

A Choice of Kipling's Verse Made By T.S. Eliot with an Essay on Rudyard Kipling, Faber & Faber, 1941.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The most important things...and politics

David French in "Politics Is a Jealous God":
.... The Pew Research Center has been tracking American polarization, and it’s quite clear that mutual loathing is widespread and getting worse. A whopping 91 percent of Republicans have very unfavorable or unfavorable views of the Democratic Party—with the “very unfavorable” rating almost tripling between 1994 and 2016 (increasing from 21 percent to 58 percent.) A full 86 percent of Democrats have very unfavorable or unfavorable views of the Republican Party, and the “very unfavorable” has more than tripled, moving from 17 percent to 55 percent. ....

Moreover, the animosity is deeply personal, not just institutional. ....

In other words, the idea that a person is “good, but wrong” or even “decent, but wrong” is vanishing. Instead, the conventional wisdom is that our political opponents are “terrible and wrong.” Our opponents not only have bad policies, they are bad people. ....

Here’s an interesting test. In examining your own personal engagement with your political opponents, how much of it is characterized by these commands, first from Jesus:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.
Next, from Paul:
Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.
And finally, from the prophet Micah?
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
Time and again, we see Christians in public life shed even the pretense of upholding those values. The times are too dire, we’re told. The stakes of the culture war are too great. Political identity is the unmoved mover. Political success is the paramount necessity. Under this formulation, virtues like kindness and love are relegated to the status of mere tactics, to be discarded the instant they’re not seen to work. ....

This presidential election year will tax the church. It will tax our nation. A Christian who is properly engaged in politics seeks justice, but he or she does so with love and without fear. When we fail to uphold those values (and even the best of us does, on occasion), it will be necessary to remind ourselves that the “unmoved mover” in our political lives is not our political tribe, but rather the God who made us all. .... (more)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

"A voice was heard in Ramah..."

Dec. 28, The Massacre of the Holy Innocents:
And when they were departed, behold, the angel of the Lord appeareth to Joseph in a dream, saying, Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him. When he arose, he took the young child and his mother by night, and departed into Egypt: And was there until the death of Herod: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Out of Egypt have I called my son. Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not. (Matt. 2:13-18 KJV)
The Martyrdom of the Holy Innocents, Gustave Dore
ALMIGHTY God, who out of the mouths of babes and sucklings hast ordained strength, and madest infants to glorify Thee by their deaths; Mortify and kill all vices in us, and so strengthen us by Thy grace, that by the innocency of our lives, and constancy of our faith even unto death, we may glorify Thy holy Name; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

"Until He return..."

From Ray Ortland s few years ago, "The Second Coming of Christ is not a peripheral doctrine." The painting Ortland uses is one of Doré's 19th century illustrations for the English Bible:

Christ did truly rise again from death, and took again his body, with flesh, bones and all things appertaining to the perfection of man’s nature; wherewith he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth until he return to judge all men at the last day.
Article IV, The Thirty-Nine Articles
The Second Coming of Christ is not a peripheral doctrine

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

"God rest you merry..."

God rest ye merry, gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,
Remember Christ our Savior was born on Christmas Day;
To save us all from Satan’s power when we were gone astray.
O tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy;
O tidings of comfort and joy.

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Once in our world...

"It seems, then", said Tirian..."that the Stable seen from within and the Stable seen from without are two different places."
"Yes," said the Lord Digory. "Its inside is bigger than its outside."
"Yes," said Queen Lucy. "In our world too, a Stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world."
C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle

Monday, December 23, 2019


J.C. Leyendecker

A Child's Christmas in Wales

If you've never read, or heard read, A Child's Christmas in Wales, and you can spare twenty minutes, then sit comfortably, start the YouTube below, close your eyes, listen, and allow your imagination to illustrate. The reader is the author.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

"Deck the Halls"

Norman Rockwell, Christmas Trio, 1923

"O that birth forever blessed..."


Sean Morris is grateful for the hymns we sing during this season:
.... In addition to the Christmas hymns and carols being among the most beautiful, sing-able, and familiar, they are also among the most richly doctrinal and creedal. I know of no other time of the year where so many Evangelical and Protestant congregations (from all sections of the worship-style spectrum) are singing and meditating on such explicitly creedal confessions of the church and Scripture with such frequency and regularity. ....
For instance...
...[S]tanzas 2 and 3 of “Of The Father’s Love Begotten”:
O that birth forever blessed, when the virgin, full of grace,
By the Holy Ghost conceiving, bore the Savior of our race;
And the Babe, the world’s Redeemer,
First revealed His sacred face, evermore and evermore!

This is He Whom heav’n-taught singers sang of old with one accord;
Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word;
Now He shines, the long expected,
Let creation praise its Lord, evermore and evermore!
...[I]f, as people of faith, our humanity is both blessed and in various degrees redeemed by the coming of a Savior who took on our humanity, then by all means, hymnody that extols such beautiful truths is worth singing and celebrating!  .... [more]

Saturday, December 21, 2019

A Saviour's love

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

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

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

Samuel Crossman, 1664

Friday, December 20, 2019

Another Advent

The King shall come when morning dawns,    
And light triumphant breaks;
When beauty gilds the eastern hills,
And life to joy awakes.
O brighter than that glorious morn
Shall this fair morning be,
When Christ, our king, in beauty comes,
And we His face shall see.
Not as of old, a little child
To bear, and fight, and die,
But crowned with glory like the sun,
That lights the morning sky.
The King shall come when morning dawns,
And light and beauty brings—
Hail! Christ the Lord; your people pray,
"Come quickly, King of kings."
O brighter than the rising morn
When He, victorious, rose,
And left the lonesome place of death,
Despite the rage of foes.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

"For poor on'ry people..."

I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
When Mary birthed Jesus 'twas in a cow's stall
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all
But high from God's heaven, a star's light did fall
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing
Or all of God's Angels in heaven to sing
He surely could have seen it, 'cause he was the King
I wonder as I wander out under the sky
How Jesus the Saviour did come for to die
For poor on'ry people like you and like I;
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Don't lie

.... In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal psychoanalyst Erica Komisar notes upward rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents and argues that much of this can be explained by the decline of religious observance. And she has the data to back up her claims—showing how belonging in a religious community lowers risks for mental illness. She further expresses alarm at the fact that the last twenty years have seen a 20 percent drop in attendance of religious services and that nearly half of under-thirty adults report no religious affiliation at all. This, she contends, makes for trouble.

“Nihilism is fertilizer for anxiety and depression, and being ‘realistic’ is over-rated,” she writes. “The belief in God—in a protective and guiding figure to rely on when times are tough is one of the best kinds of support for kids in an increasingly pessimistic world.”

On this much, we agree.

Komisar’s counsel goes awry, though, when she discloses her advice for parents on how to talk about death if they don’t believe in God or life after death: “Lie.” ....

But the end-result of all of this is not psychological well-being, but a loss of integrity. How can a child trust a parent who intentionally lies about something as monumental as whether the universe is the creation of a loving Father or a random collection of particles whirling toward nothing? The end result of this is cynicism. ....

Moreover, great damage is done to a person who says something they don’t believe in order to get the results that they want. This is moral injury, not effective cultivation of the next generation.

So what should atheists say to their children, to protect them from the sort of nihilism that leads to despair? Well, I doubt they will want to hear this from an evangelical Christian, but I will give my counsel here anyway. Question why your beliefs lead to nihilism and despair. Examine the sort of love that you have for your children, the reasons you want them to avoid depression and anxiety. Ask why the loss of a sense of a transcendent Father God has left so many with a sense of meaninglessness. And then follow those signposts where they lead. I believe they lead right to a transcendent Father God who created and holds all things together in the person of Jesus Christ.

Don’t lie to your children. .... (more)

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

"To show us how we must be saved..."

Ralph Vaughan Williams, "Herefordshire Carol," Choir of St. John's College, Cambridge:

This is the truth sent from above,
The truth of God, the God of love;
Therefore don’t turn me from your door,   
But hearken all both rich and poor.
And at that season of the year
Our blest Redeemer did appear;
He here did live, and here did preach,
And may thousands he did teach.
The first thing which I do relate
Is that God did man create;
The next thing which to you I’ll tell
Woman was made with man to dwell.
Thus He in love to us behaved,
To show us how we must be saved;
And if you want to know the way,
Be pleased to hear what He did say.
And we were heirs to endless woes,
Till God the Lord did interpose;
And so a promise soon did run
That He would redeem us by his Son.

There are more verses, including:

"Go preach the Gospel," now He said,
"To all the nations that are made!
And he that does believe on me,
From all his sins I'll set him free."

O seek! O seek of God above
That saving faith that works by love!
And, if He's pleased to grant thee this,
Thou'rt sure to have eternal bliss.

God grant to all within this place
True saving faith, that special grace
Which to His people doth belong:
And thus I close my Christmas song.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.

Suggested by "Let the Psalms Be Your Guide This Advent" in Christianity Today

Blessed is the man
That walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly,
Nor standeth in the way of sinners,
Nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.
But his delight is in the law of the LORD;
And in his law doth he meditate day and night.
And he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water,
That bringeth forth his fruit in his season;
His leaf also shall not wither;
And whatsoever he doeth shall prosper.
The ungodly are not so:
But are like the chaff which the wind driveth away.
Therefore the ungodly shall not stand in the judgment,
Nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous.
For the LORD knoweth the way of the righteous:
But the way of the ungodly shall perish.
Why do the heathen rage,
And the people imagine a vain thing?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
And the rulers take counsel together,
Against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying,
Let us break their bands asunder,
And cast away their cords from us.
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh:
The Lord shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath,
And vex them in his sore displeasure.
Yet have I set my king
Upon my holy hill of Zion.
I will declare the decree:
The LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son;
This day have I begotten thee.
Ask of me,
And I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance,
And the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.
Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron;
Thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.
Be wise now therefore, O ye kings:
Be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Serve the LORD with fear,
And rejoice with trembling.
Kiss the Son, lest he be angry,
And ye perish from the way,
When his wrath is kindled but a little.
Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.
Psalm 1 & Psalm 2 (KJV)

Sunday, December 15, 2019


The G.K. Chesterton page on Facebook today posted this quotation from the final chapter of Orthodoxy:
Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Christmas stories


Sean Fitzpatrick recommends "Ten Christmas Stories Every Father Should Read to His Children." Three of the ten (I added the illustrations and the title of each section is linked to its story):
A Child’s Christmas in Wales by Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales (1952) is not so much about Christmas in Wales as it is about Christmas in the world. This beloved composition is composed of sudden flashes that surround drawn out recollections that tease laughter and tears with the warm delights of childhood. The poem is an ice-crystal kaleidoscope of family and friends, of food and fun, dancing in and out of a white wintry fog of memory. Everyone shares Christmas, and all Christmases are so much like another: visions, vignettes, and voices that hang on the edge of a stream or dream of consciousness; never clear, but always strong in impression and presence; at once as distinct and indistinct as shifting temperatures or shimmering scents and, though glancing and ghostly, are the very foundations of security. The power of this prose poem is that it is about each and every one of us, awakening memories of who we are and why we are, and speak with unspoken confidence about the future as it gives voice to the past. All men share these memories in common, reflecting the Common Savior that was born to save common men.
"For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, 
put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept. ..."
For years as a family, and now just my brother and myself, we have listened to this every Christmas afternoon on the recording spoken by Dylan Thomas himself.
The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle by Arthur Conan Doyle

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

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

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

"The Wrong shall fail..."

"Christmas Bells" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1863):

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
  And wild and sweet
  The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!   
It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
  And made forlorn
  The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And thought how, as the day had come,   
The belfries of all Christendom
  Had rolled along
  The unbroken song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
And in despair I bowed my head;
"There is no peace on earth," I said;
  "For hate is strong,
  And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!"
Till ringing, singing on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
  A voice, a chime,
  A chant sublime
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
  The Wrong shall fail,
  The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men."
Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
  And with the sound
  The carols drowned
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

You're not doing it right

Rod Dreher's post this afternoon reminded me of a conversation I may have mentioned here before. It was many years ago with a fellow teacher who was an active member of a Lutheran congregation — a choir member — who told me that he didn't believe in the divinity of Christ. I asked if he repeated a creed every Sunday that he didn't believe. Dreher:
I mentioned on Twitter the other day a conversation I overheard in which an older woman was telling her friend that she doesn’t understand her adult daughter’s relationship to her chosen religion. The daughter and her husband converted to Catholicism. Her mom asked if she goes to confession. The daughter told her mom no, that nobody in their parish goes to confession. The mom (not a Catholic) said to her friend, “I told her that if you’re going to be part of a religion, then really be a part of it.” ....

I had a similar realization — literally, a come-to-Jesus moment — in my twenties too. It was about sex. I finally quit lying to myself, and trying to convince myself that I could be fully Christian, except for that one area where I wanted to keep my options open. Not true. Either Jesus Christ is God, or he isn’t. If he is God, then that means he is the God of all my life, not just the parts I find easy to surrender to him. And despite what these liars...say, Christianity has never blessed sex outside of marriage. It’s just a lie — a lie that a lot of young Christians (as I was then) are prone to believe, but a lie all the same.

I had to want God more than I wanted myself, for once. Only then did my Christianity start to become real: when it cost me something valuable. I say “start” to become real, because a Christian’s life is one long, arduous journey to make the faith more real by dying to ourselves so that we become like Christ. If living the life of faith doesn’t hurt, ever, and if it’s nothing more than an amusing, pleasant bricolage, you’re not doing it right. ....
I had to look up "bricolage" and so decided to add a link to its definition.

Living -- Not Just Performing -- The Faith | The American Conservative

Monday, December 9, 2019


A reference elsewhere to Dorothy L. Sayers sent me, once again, to a collection of her essays. "Are Women Human?" was originally delivered before a "Women's Society" in 1938. From that address:
...[I]t is the mark of all movements, however well-intentioned, that their pioneers tend, by much lashing of themselves into excitement, to lose sight of the obvious. In reaction against the age-old slogan, "woman is the weaker vessel," or the still more offensive, "woman is a divine creature," we have, I think, allowed ourselves to drift into asserting that "a woman is as good as a man," without always pausing to think what exactly we mean by that. What, I feel, we ought to mean is something so obvious that it is apt to escape attention altogether, viz: not that every woman is, in virtue of her sex, as strong, clever, artistic, level-headed, industrious and so forth as any man that can be mentioned; but, that a woman is just as much an ordinary human being as a man, with the same individual preferences, and with just as much right to the tastes and preferences of an individual. What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person. A certain amount of classification is, of course, necessary for practical purposes: there is no harm in saying that women, as a class, have smaller bones than men, wear lighter clothing, have more hair on their heads and less on their faces, go more pertinaciously to church or the cinema, or have more patience with small and noisy babies. In the same way, we may say that stout people of both sexes are commonly better-tempered than thin ones, or that university dons of both sexes are more pedantic in their speech than agricultural labourers, or that Communists of both sexes are more ferocious than Fascists—or the other way round. What is unreasonable and irritating is to assume that all one's tastes and preferences have to be conditioned by the class to which one belongs. That has been the very common error into which men have frequently fallen about women—and it is the error into which feminist women are, perhaps, a little inclined to fall into about themselves. ....
Dorothy L. Sayers, "Are Women Human?" Unpopular Opinions: Twenty-one Essays, Victor Gollancz Ltd, London, 1946, pp.106-116.

Friday, December 6, 2019

From St. Nick to Santa

"Merry Old Santa," Thomas Nast, 1881
“Santa Claus” is an Anglo-Germanic rendition of “Saint Nicholas,” which is apt, because the original inspiration is a man named Nicholas who was a saint in the early Christian Church. He is believed to have been born in a Mediterranean village in a prosperous family that raised him in the faith – one of his uncles was a priest — and when his parents died, he followed his uncle’s vocational path while using his inheritance to help the needy.

Nicholas became a bishop in the church, which had not yet undergone the split between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox. Under the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, Christians were widely persecuted; Nicholas was among those imprisoned, although not martyred, as were many early saints. He died of old age, beloved by his fellow believers and revered for his generosity. ....

In later years, Nicholas would be claimed as a patron saint by many people, especially sailors, as the miracles and good deeds credited to him piled up. In one reported act of kindness, he threw three bags of gold through the window of a house where a poor widower lived with three daughters who needed a dowry in order to marry. It is said that the bags of gold landed in stockings hanging by the chimney. Perhaps you see where this is going...

Nicholas died on Dec. 6 in the year 343 (Dec. 19 on the Julian calendar), and this anniversary became a day of celebration: St. Nicholas Day. In the ensuing centuries, Christianity spread throughout the remnants of the Roman Empire, and by the end of the first Christian millennium, Nicholas was the faith’s most popular saint. ....

It was the Dutch who brought this tradition to America. Here, it was refined many times again, first in print and ultimately by tens of thousands of mall Santas in identical red suits. The jolly old elf made his first appearance in a New York newspaper in 1773, three years before Thomas Jefferson penned the Declaration of Independence. ....

By 1821 an anonymous poem reaffirmed the gift-giving proclivities of “Santeclaus”.... Two years later, Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas was published. By 1863, America’s preeminent cartoonist and illustrator, Bavarian-born Thomas Nast, was drawing on his native culture to flesh out the images of Santa that dance in our heads to this day. .... (more)

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

"Self-esteem" again

The "self esteem" approach to education has been a disaster. "How Praising Children Teaches Them Not to Learn" explains:
.... Famed Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck wants us to understand that the language we use with our children is fueling their resistance to learning. Dweck advises parents, teachers, and coaches to “keep away from…praise that judges their intelligence or talent.”

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck asks us to consider messages such as “You learned that so quickly! You’re so smart!” or “You’re so brilliant, you got an A without even studying!” Most parents, Dweck observes, see such messages “as supportive, esteem-boosting messages.” Such messages do not help. ....

Instead, if you want your child to develop good learning skills, praise “what they accomplished through practice, study, persistence, and good strategies.” We can talk to our child in a “way that recognizes and shows interest in their efforts and choices.” Dweck gives this example: “You really studied for your test and your improvement shows it. You read the material over several times, you outlined it, and you tested yourself on it. It really worked!” ....

Dweck is concerned when teachers, coaches, and parents use “effort praise as a consolation prize when kids are not learning.” She advises,
If a student has tried hard and made little or no progress, we can of course appreciate their effort, but we should never be content with effort that is not yielding further benefits. We need to figure out why that effort is not effective and guide kids toward other strategies and resources that can help them resume learning.
Naturally, Dweck is not for handing out participation trophies. She writes:
There is a strong message in our society about how to boost children’s self-esteem, and a main part of that message is: Protect them from failure! While this may help with the immediate problem of a child’s disappointment, it can be harmful in the long run.


Via Heterodox Academy, an excerpt from Karl Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia (1929):
Political discussion possesses a character fundamentally different from academic discussion. It seeks not to be in the right, but also to demolish the basis of its opponents social and intellectual existence… Political conflict, since it is from the very beginning a rationalized form of the struggle for social predominance, attacks the social status of the opponent, his public prestige, and his self-confidence. It is difficult to decide in this case whether the sublimation or substitution of discussion for older weapons of conflict, the direct use of force and oppression, really constituted a fundamental improvement in human life. Physical repression is, it is true, harder to bear externally, but the will to psychic annihilation, which took its place in many instances, is perhaps even more unbearable…

Advent and Christmastide

From Joe Carter's "9 Things You Should Know About the Christian Calendar," a few paragraphs about the season we are in:
2. Advent, which marks the start of the new liturgical year, always begins on Advent Sunday, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas. The term Advent is taken from the Latin word adventus, which means “arrival” or “coming,” and was from the translation of the Greek Parousia—a word used for both the coming of Christ in human flesh and his Second Coming. The season of Advent is a time when Christians reflect on the comings of Christ to Earth. The first two weeks of the season focus on the future return of Christ at the Second Coming, while the last two weeks focus on the coming celebration of Christmas. As Ryan Reeves notes, the first written evidence of Advent is found in modern Spain and Europe, and the earliest official mention of Advent practices comes as the Council of Sargossa (AD 380). Since the date of Christmas has been set on December 25, the first day of Advent changes slightly from year to year.

3. On the Christian calendar the Christmas season (often know as Christmastide) begins on December 25 and lasts for twelve days, ending on Epiphany (January 6). “Christmas” is a compound word originating in the term “Christ’s Mass,” derived from the Middle English Cristemasse. The Twelve Days of Christmas thus begin on December 25 and include January 5. In some denominations (such as Lutherans and the Anglican Communion), December 24 is part of Advent while for some others (Catholics, some Methodists), sunset at Christmas Eve marks the beginning of Christmastide.

4. The term Epiphany is taken from the Greek word for “manifestation” and is a date to celebrate the incarnation of Christ. In some denominations, the day is also known as Three Kings’ Day since it commemorates the “twelfth day of Christmas,” or twelve days after Jesus’ birth, when according to tradition the magi visited Mary, Joseph, and their child. (In the Bible, neither the number of “wise men” nor the date they arrived is specified.) ....

Monday, December 2, 2019

"It seems that after 2,000 years, it’s all coming to an end"

Pew recently surveyed a number of studies and concluded that "In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace." Donald Devine has looked further into the survey results and in "Losing Their Religion, Really?" concludes that things may not be so dire. From that article:
.... The Washington Post summarized the results: “The portion of Americans with no religious affiliation is rising significantly, in tandem with a sharp drop in the percentage that identifies as Christians” with both Protestant and Catholic ranks “losing population share.” “In 2009, regular attenders — those who attend religious services at least once a month — outnumbered those who attend services only occasionally or not at all by a 52%-to-47% margin.” Today, 54 percent say they attend religious services a few times a year or less, while only 45 percent go more often.

It seems that after 2,000 years, it’s all coming to an end.

Well, maybe. Let’s look a bit closer at the data, starting with all those atheists and agnostics. They accounted for 2 percent of the population each in 2007, and today report 4 percent and 5 percent respectively—basically within the margins of error. The proper academic conclusion is that these groups have stayed pretty much the same over time, and remain very small.

The “nothing in particular” category (or Nones) is a larger and more diverse group, and the statistics do show that they have increased from 12 to 17 percent, likewise stretching the margin of error. But more important is that Pew itself had earlier reported that 26 percent of Nones pray daily and an additional 22 percent pray weekly or monthly, that only 22 percent do not believe in God, and that from year to year many shift back and forth between identifying with the Christian and Nones categories. All of this makes them more religious than atheist, if not exactly orthodox.

The reported declines in Protestants and Catholic identifications are likewise more interesting when broken down. Catholic identification is reported as declining from 24 to 20 percent, again minor and barely within the reported error margin. Protestant identification, meanwhile, is described as declining from 51 to 43 percent, and down a more substantial 17 percent among Democrats, Millennials, and Northeasterners, with fewer losses among Republicans, Gen. Xers and Midwesterners. Mainline Protestant denominations accounted for most of the decline, while born-again sects actually have increased. Denominational decline is a very mixed bag. .... (more)

Sunday, December 1, 2019


From "Want to Get Into the Christmas Spirit? Face the Darkness" by an Anglican priest reminding us that Advent isn't Christmas:
.... The church waits in Advent.

In the church calendar, every period of celebration is preceded by a time of preparation. Historically, Advent, the liturgical season that begins four Sundays before Christmas Day, is a way to prepare our hearts (and minds and souls) for Christmas. For Christians, Christmas is a celebration of Jesus’ birth — that light has come into darkness and, as the Gospel of John says, “the darkness could not overcome it.” But Advent bids us first to pause and to look, with complete honesty, at that darkness.

To practice Advent is to lean into an almost cosmic ache: our deep, wordless desire for things to be made right and the incompleteness we find in the meantime. We dwell in a world still racked with conflict, violence, suffering, darkness. ....

...Advent offers wisdom to the wider world. It reminds us that joy is trivialized if we do not first intentionally acknowledge the pain and wreckage of the world.

G.K. Chesterton wrote that original sin is the “only part of Christian theology which can really be proved.” The believer and atheist alike can agree that there is an undeniable brokenness to the world, a sickness that needs remedy. Whether we assign blame to human sinfulness, a political party, corporate greed, ignorance, tribalism or nationalism (or some of each), we can admit that things are not as they should be — or at least, not as we wish they were. ....

The church, after all, reserves 12 whole days for feasting and festivity during Christmas. Both darkness and light are real, and our calendar gives time to recall both. But in the end, Christians believe the light is more real and more enduring. ....

“From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded...."

In "The Lord Hath Chosen...Donald Trump?" David French takes note of several recent affirmative answers to the question and then goes to scripture. From his post:
.... Too many Christians who compare Trump to David seem to have forgotten the king who came before—and how his story has perhaps better parallels to our current age.

For those who’ve forgotten, King Saul’s rise and fall is an example of God granting his people what they want—and then making them endure many of the consequences of their own foolishness. The story is told in the first book of Samuel. ....

Boiled down to its essence, after a period of chaos and turmoil (which included the ultimate insult of the Philistines seizing the Ark of the Covenant), the Israelites approach the prophet Samuel and demand a king. God directs Samuel to grant their request: “Obey the voice of the people in relation to all that they say to you. For it is not you they have rejected, but Me they have rejected from reigning over them.”

Samuel warns the Israelites of the oppressions to come, but he follows God’s command and anoints Saul as the first king of Israel. Saul won initial victories, but he also defied God’s commands, God rejected him as king, and then Samuel anointed Saul’s successor—not one of Saul’s sons, but rather the most famous king in the Old Testament, David. Throughout Old Testament history, the pattern is clear—the status of serving as God’s ordained king of Israel (even in the line of David himself) does not relieve that king of the obligation of following God’s commands or the people from suffering the consequences of the king’s failures. ....

As Proverbs states, “[T]he king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water.” We don’t know God’s plans. We can only do our best to discern what is just, and our best is going to be limited by our own fallen nature.

At the end of the day, both ruler and ordinary citizen alike should remember Micah 6:8—“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Citizens who don’t temper their quest for justice with kindness and humility violate God’s command, but so do rulers—and when the people see from the fruits of a man’s life that Micah 6:8 is far from his heart, then it is right and even necessary to raise the alarm. .... (more)