Tuesday, April 28, 2020


From David Pryce-Jones, an excerpt about one of the subjects of his new book: "Remembering Robert Conquest." Conquest was an ex-Communist who became an important anti-Communist and who was one of the first to detail the horrors of Stalin's rule: "The Great Terror, published in 1968, was straightforward in language, firm in tone, and careful in depicting the ruthlessness with which Stalin had sent to their death millions of Party members, soldiers from the rank of field marshal downwards, princes and peasants and anyone else whom he judged fit to distrust." Pryce-Jones reminds us of things that many seem to forget or, more likely, were never taught.
Communism was to the 20th century what sorcery had been to the Middle Ages. The claim of the foundational doctrine of Marxism to be a science was pure witchcraft. Something known as the dialectic was said to be the key to progress, but nobody could make sense of this figment. The state was supposed to wither away, leaving us all to look after ourselves as though back in the Garden of Eden, yet in the starkest of contradictions the Communist state granted itself ever more total power over the individual in every aspect of daily life. The organizing principle of class became a sentence of death, exile, or dispossession for tens of millions of men and women defined as bourgeois, capitalist, kulak, or whatever could be profitably exploited. ....

A mystery of the age is the eagerness with which so many people in the democracies took at face value whatever the Soviet Union said about itself. Suspending their critical faculties, Western Communists and fellow-travelers had no trouble justifying mass murder, subversion, treason, and mendacity. The sophisticated and the unsophisticated alike, the rich and the poor, seemed in a trance, spellbound. ....

Two versions emerged of everything that had occurred concerning the Soviet Union. On the one hand, Bob was the leading historian telling the truth about atrocious events, and on the other hand, Eric Hobsbawm was the leading propagandist falsifying these same events. For him, Communism was bound to triumph because the Soviet Union could do no wrong, whether it was invading other countries or oppressing the defenseless. ....

In an interview in 1994, Hobsbawm gave away that his high hopes for Communism still had a total hold on him. The astonished interviewer picked him up: “What that comes down to is saying that had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty million people might have been justified?” To which the response was “Yes.” ....
Hobsbawn was also British, taken seriously by many. Russia, China, Cuba, Venezuela, all have people here now eager to believe what they say about themselves.

Simplicity rather than outward trappings

M.H. Turner, an Anglican layman, asks "Why Is Anglicanism a Gateway to Catholicism?" It's a lengthy and very interesting argument that modern Anglicanism has strayed from its clearly Protestant origins.
 Whether the Church of England is one of the churches of the Protestant Reformation is not an open question. Its formularies, including the Thirty-Nine Articles, leave no doubt on this subject. Many of the articles align with the Protestant positions on Scripture alone as the supreme authority (Articles VI, VIII, XX, and XXI), salvation by grace alone (Articles IX-XIV), and justification by faith alone (Article XI). The great archbishop of Canterbury who drafted the Book of Common Prayer was a Reformation martyr. The most widely read book of divinity in the Elizabethan and Jacobean church was Calvin’s Institutes. The church sent a high-profile delegation to the Synod of Dordt, which signed the canons on behalf of the English Church—which is consistent with how that church saw itself as part of the international network of Reformed churches. ....

...Cranmer, Latimer, Jewel, Bancroft, Andrewes, Hooker, Herbert, Laud, Whitefield, Wesley, Wilberforce, Martyn—none would have had the slightest doubt that their church was a Protestant church. Even to this day, the preamble to the constitutions and canons of The Episcopal Church attests that it is The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America. The contrary view, that Anglicanism is historically a via media between Catholicism and Protestantism, has been so often debunked it only lives on in potted histories for Anglican rookies. ....

...[O]ne of the hallmarks of the historic Anglican approach to ceremony was simplicity. .... However well intended they might be, the multiplication of ceremonies would become a “yoke and burden,” and would distract people from the pure teaching of the Gospel, for “Christ’s Gospel is not a ceremonial law.” ....

.... The traditional Anglican practice strips away much of the outward trappings, fixing the attention on the Word of God, prayer, and music (the one place where ornate elaboration in the service was most characteristically Anglican). ....

...[B]efore the twentieth century Anglicanism was a religion of the word. It appealed constantly and pervasively to the ear. The reading and preaching of Scripture, the reading of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, and the reading, chanting, and singing of psalms and hymns—these were the regular staples of devout religion. Sights and smells were not. Ceremonies were thought to be as much a matter of danger and distraction as they were a matter of benefit....

In ceremonies as in theology (for can they really be separated?), the Church of England was a via media, not between Catholicism and Protestantism, but between Lutheranism, which retained images and vastly more of the medieval ceremonies; and the Reformed churches on the Continent and in Scotland, which tended toward greater austerity, often eliminating even the modest residue of ceremonies retained in the Church of England. Far from being distinguished by its retention of pre-Reformation ceremonies, the Church of England was distinguished by the reverence and modesty of its ceremonial. ....

Monday, April 27, 2020

If the Lord wills...

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13-16 RSV)
.... The text’s message is one of transience, that any human relying on permanence or predictability is making a fundamental error. Everything depends on God, day by day and minute by minute. If that has not been a central lesson for us in the West, that is because we have come to believe in foundations that we now see were not actually that firm. Other parts of the world that have always been accustomed to poverty and epidemic have always been more conscious of that frailty and transience, and the sense of dependence that arises from it. ....

So uncertain is life that James warns against even saying that you are planning to do something or to travel somewhere, because you do not know if you will live to do it. Any such plans must be accompanied by the provisional phrase “If God wills.” ....

Whose side are you on?

Thomas a Kempis prayed
Our God, in whom we trust: Strengthen us not to regard overmuch who is for us or who is against us, but to see to it that we be with you in everything we do. Amen.
Abraham Lincoln, in answer to a question,
Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Another prayer for healing

This one from the Orthodox tradition:
O Lord Almighty, healer of our souls and bodies, Who putteth down and raiseth up, Who chastiseth and healeth also; now, in Thy great mercy, visit our brothers and sisters who are sick. Stretch forth Thy hand that is full of healing and health, and raise them up, and cure them of their illness. Put away from them the spirit of disease and of every malady, pain and fever to which they are bound. And if they have sins and transgressions, grant to them remission and forgiveness, for Thou lovest humankind. Yea, O Lord my God, have pity on Thy creation, through the compassions of Thine only-begotten Son, together with Thine all-holy, good, and life-creating Spirit, with whom Thou art blessed, both now and ever, and to ages of ages. Amen.

Mercifully regard Thy servant

From the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship (1906):
O LORD our God, who art the Physician of our souls and of our bodies; who chastenest and again Thou healest; We beseech Thee mercifully to regard Thy servant, [N], for whom we pray that his life may be spared, and strength restored. O Thou, who didst give Thy Son to bear our sicknesses and carry our sorrows; for His sake deal compassionately with this Thy servant, and send upon him Thy healing power and virtue, both in his body and in his soul and spirit. Into Thy hands we commit him; unto Thy gracious mercy and protection we commend him, as unto a faithful and merciful Saviour. Amen.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

For your love's sake

A friend just received this in an email and forwarded it to me:
Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen (BCP)
An earlier version:
Watch, Thou, dear Lord, with those who wake, or watch, or weep to-night, and give Thine angels charge over those who sleep. Tend Thy sick ones, O Lord Christ. Rest Thy weary ones. Bless Thy dying ones. Soothe Thy suffering ones. Pity Thine afflicted ones. Shield Thy joyous ones. And all, for Thy Love’s sake. Amen.
The prayer is attributed to Saint Augustine of Hippo.

Count your blessings

I've quoted from Ben Patterson's Waiting before. This is from the first chapter concerning Job.
Of what was Job made? What did he do when his life collapsed around him? The Scripture says he "got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said: 'Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked I will depart. The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away; may the name of the LORD be praised'" (Job 1:20-21). Those few words sum up what this man Job was made of. He had a perspective that held him together when the unthinkable struck.

Part of that right perspective was how Job understood himself. He was very clear on who he was before God. When he learned that he was stripped of just about everything that makes for happiness in this life, the first words out of his mouth were, "Naked I came from my mother's womb." Naked! Job was saying, "I had nothing when I arrived on this planet, and I will have nothing when I leave it. Everything I have lost was not in my possession when I was born, and it would not have been in my possession when I die. My nakedness is a dress rehearsal of my death, a remembrance of my birth. In the end it will have gone full circle, and I will be back where I started: naked and helpless, with nothing and no one but God." ....

Job suffers greatly. But he has not added to his suffering by believing that his rights have been violated, that his loss is a great miscarriage of justice. He knows he has no right to protest losing anything—for nothing he had was his! It is enough simply to suffer loss; that alone is a burden sufficient to tax the strength of the strongest. We make it intolerable when we add to it the weight of resentment and injured pride.

Job had a unique clarity about himself as a human being which was grounded in his perspective on God. He was equally clear about who God is. Of God, he said, "The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away." The children, the house, the health, the wealth—Job knew that all of it had been given to him by God. They were gifts. They were not things he earned for himself or achieved by his own efforts and skill. ....

With that perspective, we can express gratitude even from the depths of sorrow. Note that the first thing Job said when he was informed of his losses was not that God had taken from him, but that God had given to him! Job, at the very point where God had taken from him, acknowledged that it was the Lord who had first given what he then took. Job was thankful even in great loss. How could he be bitter at God for removing something that was not his in the first place? He could, however, be thankful that God had once given it. Job's belief that God—even the God who takes—is generous and kind beyond measure imparted to Job an extraordinary grace and poise amidst his suffering and waiting. ....
Ben Patterson, Waiting: Finding Hope When God Seems Silent, InterVarsity Press, 1989.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Stone Table

There is another tale of Narnia but we may never get to read it.
I wish I could recommend The Stone Table to you, but you cannot get it. Only 75 copies of the book exist....

...[I]t is the work of the British writer Francis Spufford.... Spufford wrote a memoir about his childhood reading, The Child That Books Built, that contains a half a chapter on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books so good that when I first read it while researching my own Narnia-centric book on childhood reading, I almost gave up in despair. Spufford had nailed it, particularly when he wrote that Lewis had “invented objects for my longing, gave forms to my longing, that I would never have thought of, and yet they seemed exactly right: he had anticipated what would delight me with an almost unearthly intimacy. Immediately I discovered them, they became the inevitable expressions of my longing.” ....

...The Stone Table is an eighth Narnia chronicle, written not as a mere pastiche or parody but with deep and loving fidelity to the original seven. It recounts how Digory and Polly, the child heroes of the sixth chronicle (yes, I know the books come numbered in a different order now, but that is misbegotten pedantry and best ignored), got a chance to revisit Narnia a few years after the events in The Magician’s Nephew. They meet the last in a line of Narnia’s human kings, befriend an assortment of comical and endearing talking animals, battle a devious adversary, and go on the kind of quest my childhood self considered the only proper literary adventure: tromping through a wild countryside toward the mystical unknown. ....

The Stone Table tells the same sort of sweet homely jokes in the same confiding, avuncular voice: “If you have ever seen a lady otter try to curtsey, you will understand why they bow instead.” It has passages of incandescently sensual description, particularly a part where Polly drinks a potion that temporarily transforms her into a naiad, a water spirit, who can race through rivers and streams. And its plot hinges on the same kind of authentic moral quandaries that made me feel taken seriously as a child reader.

Spufford wrote The Stone Table, he told the Guardian, at the request of his daughter, Theodora, to whom it is dedicated, but also as a “present for my younger self, though sadly I have no Tardis to deliver it to him.” It may never be conventionally published because Lewis’ work remains under copyright through 2034, and his estate has expressed no interest in authorizing it. .... (more)

Monday, April 20, 2020

"A far green country"

From the final pages of The Return of the King:
And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

A film for sheltering in place

At Quillette, a list of "Nineteen of the Loneliest Films Ever Made," many of which I haven't seen, but I have seen and really liked the last recommendation:
The Straight Story (1999)

It’s David Lynch’s only Disney movie, which is delicately illustrated with scenery that looks like it’s been pulled out of the pages of National Geographic. The story concerns an aging man who travels across the heartland on a dilapidated lawn mower, hoping to reunite with his brother (played by Harry Dean Stanton). It’s not only Lynch’s most romantic film, it’s also the only one where his strange interpretation of Americana becomes almost Rockwellian. There is nothing Lynchian about Alvin Straight, who’s a swisher-smoking wiseman who shares his thoughts over crackling campfires and warm meals—each time his eyes filling up with tears. Though it’s based on an unusual story that made headlines in 1994, Lynch’s interpretation of Straight’s story is elegiac. This is a film about an aging outlaw taking his last ride towards the sunset.
Not really about an "outlaw" at all, but a decent old guy played by Richard Farnsworth who wants to see his brother at least one more time. It's set in Iowa and Wisconsin where the real events happened.

Sunday, April 19, 2020


From today's Wall Street Journal review of Ingredients, the full title of the book: Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us:
.... In a slyly brilliant bait and switch, what is framed as a book about what we should eat becomes a thriller about the scientific method itself. For a gold standard about how we build a “bridge of truth” in health science, Mr. Zaidan explains the multiple strands of evidence we amassed to be absolutely sure that smoking causes lung cancer. As an example of “less certainty,” he then discusses sunscreen: It “unequivocally reduces your risk of sunburn,” he explains, but we are less sure that it reduces the risk of skin cancer, and wearing it every day might ultimately be bad for you because of the ingredients that can enter the bloodstream.

Things are still less certain in the field of diet and health. ....

The kicker to Mr. Zaidan’s witty and clever analysis is that, even if we assume that the nutritional studies are totally right, their worst-case scenarios are still not that bad. The strongest claim is that a diet high in ultraprocessed foods is associated with a 14% higher risk of death. That sounds alarming. But for most people it’s a 14% increase in a very low baseline number. And the risk of death gets steadily higher as we age, anyway. Simply turning 20 increases a person’s risk of death by “almost exactly” 14%, even if he consumes nothing but kale, blueberries and Himalayan glacier water. ....

...[T]he author’s health advice is refreshingly simple: Don’t worry so much. Do some exercise. Go on a diet if you want to (any diet will do). “If you decide to cut out all ultra-processed food, that’s totally fine,” he concludes. “It might make you feel better, whether from the placebo effect or, just as likely, because you’ll have to replace all the ultra-processed food with fruits, veggies, and other stuff most diets would tell you to eat anyway.”

But mainly his counsel boils down to this: “Relax, dude.” .... (more, perhaps behind a subscription wall)

Saturday, April 18, 2020

"We are unlikely to act well until we think well..."

Alan Jacobs about "thinking during Covidtide," with particular attention to Christian discipleship:
.... You can see Christians who are driven by enmity invest their whole lives in a narrative of binary opposition and then choose to think, or “think,” only with those who share that investment, that enmity, and then dismiss any countervailing evidence as “fake news.“

It’s tragic when this happens to anyone, but it’s especially tragic when it happens to Christians, who are supposed to be known for their compassion, their kindness, their self-sacrifice, their love of God and neighbor. But if you listen to the Christians whom Rod quotes in that post, you’ll see that a very different theme eclipses all of that stuff: They talk ceaselessly, not about love or service or obligation, but about their rights. (Never the rights of others — only their rights.) ....

...We are looking here at the consequences of decades of neglect by American churches, and what they have neglected is Christian formation. The whole point of discipleship — which is, nota bene, a word derived from discipline — is to take what Kant called the “crooked timber of humanity” and make it, if not straight, then straighter. To form it in the image of Jesus Christ. And yes, with humans this is impossible, but with a gracious God all things are possible. .... He doesn’t bid us demand our rights. Indeed he forbids us to. “Love is patient and kind,” his apostle tells us; “love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Christians haven’t always met that description, but there was a time when we knew that it existed, which made it harder to avoid.

We are unlikely to act well until we think well; we are unlikely to think well until our will has undergone the proper discipline; and that discipline begins with proper instruction. Maybe Christians who want to act wisely and well in this vale of tears should start by memorizing 1 Corinthians 13.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

"Hoping for the wrong thing"

.... Citing T.S. Eliot (in “East Coker,” the second of Eliot’s Four Quartets), Wright speaks about “hoping for the wrong thing.”

I asked Wright how might we better think about hope.

The point is that we all too quickly hope for “our heart’s desire” without thinking that perhaps we need to let God do quite a job of reordering our hearts. In my tradition we have an old prayer which asks that God would so enable us “to love what you command, and desire what you promise.” Far too much of modernity, including would-be Christian modernity, is wanting God to command what we already love, and promise what we already desire. Eliot, (echoing St. John of the Cross) is challenging that and suggesting we might have to wait on God’s fresh leading before we know what we should really be hoping for.
The prayer:
Almighty God, who alone can bring order to the unruly wills and passions of sinful humanity: give your people grace so to love what you command and to desire what you promise, that, among the many changes of this world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen. (BCP)
N. T. Wright: We Mourned Our Alleluias on Easter | Christianity Today

If you're looking for something to read

CrimeReads suggests "there's no time like the present to read all fifty-six Sherlock Holmes stories" or, for that matter, any number of other "Detective Series You've Always Been Meaning To Read."
...[C]onsider diving into a classic detective series. I’m talking really famous, really clever stories. The heavies. The fun stuff. We’ve rounded up a list of the big ones for you.

The rules: we’re keeping this list to mystery series first written during the late nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth. .... Now, this is a transcontinental assemblage, from gentleman amateurs to hardboiled PIs. The only other rules are that there have to be a ton of books in the series, and that they all follow a single detective character. Sounds easy enough. Let’s get cracking. ....
I haven't read Ross Macdonald and only a few Nicholas Blakes, and I found S.S. Van Dyne not very interesting, but I enthusiastically endorse all of the others: Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple, Dorothy L. Sayer’s Lord Peter Wimsey, Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe, Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op and Sam Spade, Margery Allingham’s Albert Campion, and more!

Sunday, April 12, 2020


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.
Therefore let us joyful be
And sing to God right thankfully
   Loud songs of alleluia!

Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
   Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursèd tree—
   So strong His love—to save us.
See, His blood now marks our door;
Faith points to it; death passes o’er,
   And Satan cannot harm us.

No son of man could conquer death,
   Such ruin sin had wrought us.
No innocence was found on earth,
   And therefore death had brought us
Into bondage from of old
And ever grew more strong and bold
   And held us as its captive.

So let us keep the festival
   To which the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the joy of all,
   The sun that warms and lights us.
Now His grace to us imparts
Eternal sunshine to our hearts;
   The night of sin is ended.

Christ Jesus, God’s own Son, came down,
   His people to deliver;
Destroying sin, He took the crown
   From Death’s pale brow forever:
Stripped of pow’r, no more he reigns;
An empty form alone remains;
   His sting is lost forever.

Then let us feast this Easter Day
   On Christ, the bread of heaven;
The Word of grace has purged away
   The old and evil leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed;
He is our meat and drink indeed;
   Faith lives upon no other!

It was a strange and dreadful strife
   When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life,
   The reign of death was ended.
Holy Scripture plainly saith
That death is swallowed up by death,
   Its sting is lost forever.

Martin Luther, 1524

Saturday, April 11, 2020

"My heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices..."

From Psalm 16:
The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
Indeed, I have a beautiful inheritance.

I bless the Lord who gives me counsel;
In the night also my heart instructs me.
I have set the Lord always before me;
Because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken.

Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices;
My flesh also dwells secure.
For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol,
Or let your holy one see corruption.

You make known to me the path of life;
In your presence there is fullness of joy;
At your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
[Psalm 16: 6-11, ESV]

A Saturday kind of faith



.... 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 10, 2020

"Suffered under Pontius Pilate; was crucified, dead and buried..."

I've posted before from this article.

Justin Taylor:
Written over 20 years ago and published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, this article goes into graphic detail about the physical pain that Jesus would have endured in his beatings and crucifixion....
Here is an excerpt from that article, "On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ" by William D. Edwards, Wesley J. Gabel, and Floyd E. Hosmer. The original article is downloadable as a pdf and is substantially longer and detailed, with many diagrams and ample citation. Our Lord's manner of execution was like that suffered by a great many others in the Roman world:
…. It was customary for the condemned man to carry his own cross from the flogging post to the site of crucifixion outside the city walls. He was usually naked, unless this was prohibited by local customs. Since the weight of the entire cross was probably well over 300 lb (136 kg), only the crossbar was carried. The patibulum, weighing 75 to 125 lb. (34 to 57 kg), was placed across the nape of the victim’s neck and balanced along both shoulders. Usually, the outstretched arms then were tied to the crossbar. The processional to the site of crucifixion was led by a complete Roman military guard, headed by a centurion. One of the soldiers carried a sign (titulus) on which the condemned man’s name and crime were displayed. Later, the titulus would be attached to the top of the cross. The Roman guard would not leave the victim until they were sure of his death. Outside the city walls was permanently located the heavy upright wooden stipes, on which the patibulum would be secured. In the case of the Tau cross, this was accomplished by means of a mortise and tenon joint, with or without reinforcement by ropes. To prolong the crucifixion process, a horizontal wooden block or plank, serving as a crude seat (sedile or sedulum), often was attached midway down the stipes. Only very rarely, and probably later than the time of Christ, was an additional block (suppedaneum) employed for transfixion of the feet.

At the site of execution, by law, the victim was given a bitter drink of wine mixed with myrrh (gall) as a mild analgesic. The criminal was then thrown to the ground on his back, with his arms outstretched along the patibulum. The hands could be nailed or tied to the crossbar, but nailing apparently was preferred by the Romans. The archaeological remains of a crucified body, found in an ossuary near Jerusalem and dating from the time of Christ, indicate that the nails were tapered iron spikes approximately 5 to 7 in (13 to 18 cm) long with a square shaft 3/8 in (1 cm) across. Furthermore, ossuary findings and the Shroud of Turin have documented that the nails commonly were driven through the wrists rather than the palms.

After both arms were fixed to the crossbar, the patibulum and the victim, together, were lifted onto the stipes. On the low cross, four soldiers could accomplish this relatively easily. However, on the tall cross, the soldiers used either wooden forks or ladders.

Next, the feet were fixed to the cross, either by nails or ropes. Ossuary findings and the Shroud of Turin suggest that nailing was the preferred Roman practice. Although the feet could be fixed to the sides of the stipes or to a wooden footrest (suppedaneum), they usually were nailed directly to the front of the stipes. To accomplish this, flexion of the knees may have been quite prominent, and the bent legs may have been rotated laterally.

When the nailing was completed, the titulus was attached to the cross, by nails or cords, just above the victim’s head. The soldiers and the civilian crowd often taunted and jeered the condemned man, and the soldiers customarily divided up his clothes among themselves. The length of survival generally ranged from three or four hours to three or four days and appears to have been inversely related to the severity of the scourging. However, even if the scourging had been relatively mild, the Roman soldiers could hasten death by breaking the legs below the knees (crurifragium or skelokopia). …. [the article pdf]
Between Two Worlds: On the Physical Death of Jesus

"Pour on me Thy gifts of grace"

Oh Lord in Thee is all my trust.
Give ear unto my woeful cries.
Refuse me not, that am unjust,
But bowing down Thy heav'nly eyes,
Behold how I do still lament
My sins wherein I do offend.
O Lord, for them shall I be shent,
Sith Thee to please I do intend?
Haste Thee, O Lord, haste Thee, I say,
To pour on me Thy gifts of grace
That when this life must flit away
In Heav'n with Thee I may have place
Where Thou dost reign eternally
With God which once did down Thee send,
Where angels sing continually.
To Thee be praise, world without end. Amen.
No, no, not so! Thy will is bent
To deal with sinners in Thine ire:
But when in heart they shall repent
Thou grant'st with speed their just desire.
To Thee therefore still shall I cry,
To wash away my sinful crime.
Thy blood, O Lord, is not yet dry,
But that it may help me in time.

Thomas Tallis "Oh Lord In Thee Is All My Trust," 1565

"Inflame my heart with holy desires"

ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father, who hast preserved me by Thy tender forbearance, once more to commemorate Thy Love in the Redemption of the world, grant that I may so live the residue of my days, as to obtain Thy mercy when Thou shalt call me from the present state. Illuminate my thoughts with knowledge, and inflame my heart with holy desires. Grant me to resolve well, and keep my resolutions. Take not from me Thy Holy Spirit, but in life and in death have mercy on me for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen
Samuel Johnson, Easter, 1776.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

"I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection"

.... If the claims of Christianity are in fact true, they are true with or without me. On any given day, my ardent belief or deep skepticism doesn’t alter reality one hair’s breadth.

Believers and skeptics alike often approach the Christian story as if its chief value is personal, subjective, and self-expressive. We come to faith primarily for how it comforts us or helps us cope or lends a sense of belonging. However subtly, we reduce the Resurrection to a symbol or a metaphor. Easter is merely an inspirational tradition, a celebration of rebirth and new life that calls us to the best version of ourselves and helps give meaning to our lives. ....

“Let us not mock God with metaphor, analogy, sidestepping, transcendence; making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages,” writes John Updike in his poem “Seven Stanzas at Easter.” If Jesus’ “cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules reknit, the amino acids rekindle, the Church will fall.”

I am a Christian today not because it answers all my questions about the world or about our current suffering. It does not. And not because I think it is a nice, coherent moral order by which to live my life. And not because I grew up this way or have fond feelings about felt boards and hymn sings. And not because it motivates justice or helps me to know how to vote. I am a Christian because I believe in the Resurrection. If it isn’t true, to hell with it.

On the other hand, if Jesus did in fact come back from the dead on a quiet Sunday morning some 2,000 years ago, then everything is changed.... (more)

"A new commandment I give to you..."


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

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

"But he still gets to be God"

Kevin Williamson writes about some theological questions raised for Christians in times like these. He makes no claim to being a theologian, nor do I, but I like what he writes (and how he writes).
There are two Christian concepts on my mind on this Palm Sunday. One is theodicy, the other is the sin of presumption. “Theodicy” means “the vindication of God,” referring to a seeming conundrum that has vexed Christian thinkers since the beginning: How can evil coexist with an all-good, all-loving, all-powerful God?

Christians conceive of God as a father, which occasionally places us in the role of resentful adolescents: If God really cares about us, why did He let my friend die? If God really cares about us, why did He let that earthquake kill all those innocent people? I never asked to be born! There is a philosophically sophisticated version of that line of questioning, but the underlying dynamic is the same. Many Christian theologians consider the problem of evil to be the most persuasive intellectual challenge to the idea of God as Christians understand Him, and so theodicy has been a very hot topic for a couple of millennia now. ....

It is difficult not to think of that in the context of the epidemic that is at the moment inflicting death and suffering on the guilty and the innocent alike around the world. As with the plagues that were visited upon Egypt, there is sickness but also economic and political damage. More than 6 million Americans filed new unemployment claims last week. Confidence in our institutions is low — and, if we are to believe the evidence of our own eyes, it deserves to be low.

And here, spare a minute for the sin of presumption and its twin, the sin of despair. Presumption, in its narrowest sense, is a perversion of hope — it is the belief that God’s mercy will embrace us irrespective of our own course, with no need for repentance or acts of reconciliation on our part. It is the mirror image of the sin of despair, the belief that our depravity is so deep and so wild that it is beyond God’s salvific powers. What presumption and despair have in common is the mistaken belief that God’s mind is knowable by such creatures as us, that He can be hemmed in by our narrow ethical prejudices, that he is an algebraic God who may be approached formulaically, as an equation to be balanced. To be presumptuous is to speak on God’s behalf with unwarranted confidence and foundationless certitude.....

I do not know if God “sent” this epidemic to teach us a lesson. I am not much of a theologian. The moral lesson that I have taken from reading the Bible is that God’s sense of justice, fitness, and proportionality is at odds with my own, but He still gets to be God. I trust, but do not presume, that He will forgive my occasional irritation at those famous “mysterious ways” of His. .... (more)

Monday, April 6, 2020

A crime film

Otto Penzler is "Counting Down the Greatest Crime Films of All Time" at CrimeReads. Today he came to #21, Shadow of a Doubt (1943). That film was reputedly the favorite of Alfred Hitchcock. It is certainly one of my favorites. I've posted about it here several times. For example, from 2014 (slightly modified):

Alfred Hitchcock's film Shadow of a Doubt includes two characters who are readers of that kind of mystery popular in the middle of the twentieth century: the protagonist's father Joseph Newton and his good friend Herbie Hawkins. They often meet to discuss the stories they have recently read and their own theories about how to carry out the perfect murder:
Herbie: Say, ha-have you read this one? Huh? That little Frenchman beats them all. You can talk all you like about Sherlock Holmes. That little Frenchman beats 'em all.
Joseph Newton: I read it. Air bubbles don't necessarily kill a person. Those writers from the other side get too fancy. — The best way to commit a murder—
Herbie: — I know, I know. Hit 'em on the head with a blunt instrument.
Newton: Well, it's true, isn't it? Listen, If I wanted to murder you tomorrow, do you think I'd waste my time on fancy hypodermics? — Or on Inee?
Herbie: — What's that?
Newton: — Inee. Indian arrow poison.
Herbie: — Oh.
Newton: Listen, I'd find out if you were alone, walk in, hit you on the head with a piece of lead pipe or a loaded cane —
Herbie: What'd be the fun of that? Where's your planning? Where's your clues?
Newton: I don't want any clues. I want to murder you. What do I want with clues?
Herbie: Well, if you haven't got any clues, where's your book?
Newton: I'm not talkin' 'bout writing books. I'm talking about killing you!
Herbie: If I was going to kill you, I wouldn't do a dumb thing like hitting you on the head. First of all, I don't like the fingerprint angle. Of course, I could always wear gloves, press your hands against the pipe after you were dead and make you look like a suicide.
Newton: But you wouldn't beat yourself to death.
Herbie: I'd do it so it didn't look like murder. ....
And, in a later conversation:
Newton: What were we saying, Herb? Did I notice what?
Herbie: Well, did you taste anything funny about that coffee you had at my house this evening?
Newton: No. It tasted all right.
Herbie: That's what I mean. It wasn't all right.
Newton: — Put something in it?
Herbie: — Put a little soda. About the same amount that I'd have used if I'd wanted to use poison.
Newton: Well, you don't say? I never tasted a thing. Of course, I might not notice the soda.
Herbie: You'd notice the soda more than you would the poison. (Scoffs) For all you knew, you might just as well be dead now. ....

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Sheltering at home

Michael Dirda in a couple of recent reviews, here and here
For much of the country, sheltering in place over the past three weeks has been a wearisome but essential civic duty. We don’t want to get sick ourselves, and we don’t want to bring any sickness to others. So we stay home. It’s the right thing to do.

But where or what is home? According to one old saying, home is where the heart is, and, according to the Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer song, it’s anywhere we hang our hats. A much less elegant truism can be traced back to hokey versifier Edgar A. Guest: “It takes a heap o’ livin’ in a house t’ make it home.” ....
You would think that a guy who has spent decades with his nose in a book ought to be used to radical social distancing, to being alone day after day. In fact, the past two weeks have been hard. ....

While sheltering in place, as we all should be doing, I’ve sought temporary respite from anxiety by reorganizing the garage and culling the Smaug’s hoard that passes for my library. Every evening, though, I find myself considering a second beer until I think, “Why stop at two?” At night, staring into the darkness, I frequently recall far too many friends, colleagues and relatives who now live, often quite vividly, only in my memory. Given half a chance, I can grow impressively maudlin. ....

Pascal famously said that all our miseries derive from our inability to sit quietly alone in a room. ....

Still, aren’t there books that might help us cope with isolation and long periods of self-quarantine, that could even show us how we might thrive, not just survive, as involuntary shut-ins?

The first work that immediately comes to mind is — no surprise — Daniel Defoe’s survivalist bible Robinson Crusoe...

Saturday, April 4, 2020


An interesting review in the WSJ today sent me looking for a 1970 essay by Irving Kristol. I found it: "When virtue loses all her loveliness"—some reflections on Capitalism and "the free society" [pdf] (also published in Two Cheers for Capitalism). Much of it reads as though it were written yesterday.
"Two," not "Three"
.... Our young radicals are far less dismayed at America's failure to become what it ought to be than they are contemptuous of what it thinks it ought to be. For them, as for Oscar Wilde, it is not the average American who is disgusting; it is the ideal American.

This is why one can make so little impression on them with arguments about how much progress has been made in the past decades, or is being made today, toward racial equality, or abolishing poverty, or fighting pollution, or whatever it is that we conventionally take as a sign of "progress." The obstinacy with which they remain deaf to such "liberal" arguments is not all perverse or irrational, as some would like to think. It arises, rather, out of a perfectly sincere, if often inchoate, animus against the American system itself. This animus stands for a commitment—to what, remains to be seen, but against what is already only too evident. ....

...[I]t is my impression that, under the strain of modem life, whole classes of our population—and the educated classes most of all—are entering what can only be called, in the strictly clinical sense, a phase of infantile regression. With every passing year, public discourse becomes sillier and more petulant, while human emotions become, apparently, more ungovernable. Some of our most intelligent university professors are now loudly saying things that, had they been uttered by one of their students twenty years ago, would have called forth gentle and urbane reproof. ....

Lord have mercy

Ralph Vaughan Williams, Mass in G Minor, About 25 minutes.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Joy comes in the morning

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning

....Is it okay to feel joy? Is it acceptable, when so many are suffering, that I am finding joy in additional time for stillness or for family? Is it wrong for me to discover that I am oddly joyful amid the isolation?

C.S. Lewis was right. Joy often comes as a surprise. It invades the most sorrowful spaces. It reminds us that beauty and goodness and life can grow even in the most unpromising soil.

Jesus cared about joy. He wished for our joy to “be complete.” Joyful mornings may be the best way to survive a long series of tearful nights.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The faith once delivered...

C.S. Lewis, "Christian Apologetics":
.... Apologetics means, of course, Defense. The first question is—what do you propose to defend? Christianity, of course....

We are to defend Christianity itself—the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the Fathers....

The great difficulty is to get modern audiences to realize that you are preaching Christianity solely and simply because you happen to think it true; they always suppose you are preaching it because you like it or think it good for society or something of that sort....

Secondly, this scrupulous care to preserve the Christian message as something distinct from one's own ideas, has one very good effect upon the apologist himself. It forces him, again and again, to face up to those elements in original Christianity which he personally finds obscure or repulsive. He is saved from the temptation to skip, or slur, or ignore what he finds disagreeable....
Delivered in 1945, the lecture can be found in God in the Dock, p. 89.

"I have calmed and quieted my soul..."

A blog post this morning called my attention to Psalm 131:
O LORD, my heart is not lifted up,
     my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
     too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
     like a child quieted at its mother’s breast;
     like a child that is quieted is my soul.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
     from this time forth and for evermore.