Saturday, October 31, 2020

"What is the value in fairy tales..."

In Touchstone, "The Fairy Tale Wars: Lewis, Chesterton, et al. Against the Frauds, Experts & Revisionists":
.... "The individual is foolish, but the species is wise," wrote Edmund Burke. And with this deft hyperbole, he threw a monkey wrench into our modern individualism, which pits the self against tradition. Modern projects to revamp, reinvent, or otherwise rewrite the great stories are, more often than not, arbitrary exercises, prompted by the fleeting opinions of individuals who have a limited grasp of the original storyteller's literary sophistication. Today's fairy tale "experts" embrace a virtually obligatory suspicion of tradition, judging it to be inherently aligned with injurious prejudices, which, they say, we have outgrown and must shed.

These experts, whether Marxist, Feminist, Freudian, Jungian, or Comparativist, tightly wrap their story specimens in a favored methodology, and suck the very life out of them in order to single out and expose class prejudices, sexual stereotypes and gender constructs, archetypes, literary allusions, or universal themes that they claim to find in the stories. Yet in this selective process, they almost always lose grip of the narrative. The truth of a story is not scattered along the way, like the pebbles Hansel dropped in order that he and Gretel might find their way back home. The truth of a story takes form through the whole of the narrative. ....

In an essay titled "Children and Literature," the renowned child psychiatrist Robert Coles has written: "The truth is that many of us (certainly in my field of child psychology) don't give enough credit to the natural, normal everyday development of narrative interest, narrative sense, narrative response, narrative competence in boys and girls." Children are always seeking out new experiences, and they find them in stories when adults do not spoil these stories by superimposing concepts or rules over the narrative.

C.S. Lewis writes in "Sometimes Fairy Stories May Best Say What's to Be Said," that fairy tales "give us experiences we have never had, and thus, instead of 'commenting on life', can add to it." Children from roughly ages three through nine exercise their imaginations so powerfully that they quite consciously and quite deliberately leave the ordinary present entirely behind and enter into new worlds of make-believe. They will often object to adult interventions in their play because they know how, in the adult world, reason rules and imagination becomes a casualty. Children live near fairyland and enter into it through play with an ease of which adults are incapable.

More to the point, children instinctively resist abstraction. They cling to the narrative, hunt it down, one might say, to the lessons that can be learned through the dramatic action. Any parent or teacher who has read to children has experienced the intensity, even ferocity, with which children insist that when we try to explain a story, we must reference, retell, even "relive" the dramatic action. In other words, they insist on exercising their imagination, which, unlike reason or the intellect, moves not to abstraction or conceptualization, but seeks out the concrete in a story, the details, and analogizes from them to find meaning. ....

In his own essay on "Fairy Tales" from 1908, G.K. Chesterton maintains that a single idea "runs from one end of [fairy tales] to the other—the idea that peace and happiness can only exist on some condition." This truth is the bedrock of morality. It is not only "the core of nursery-tales," but "the core of ethics." The failure to do from the start what is right or what is needed is the most ancient of humanity's memories. In biblical memory, this is the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. The serpent appeals not first to the reason, but to the imagination. "Imagine," it says to the first couple, "you can be gods if you eat the fruit of that tree." The idolatrous imagination triumphs in the garden, and it has been a source of much human tragedy ever since.

"The whole happiness of fairyland hangs upon a thread," Chesterton observes, the need for something to be done rightly or completely. "The king may invite fairies to the christening, but he must invite all the fairies or frightful results will follow." Then again, sometimes "all happiness hangs on one thin veto; all positive joy depends on one negative." The failure to make the refusal may bring about immense misfortune. Edmund, in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, fails to turn down the refreshments the White Witch offers to him, even though his better instincts tell him that she must not be trusted. And this jeopardizes the entire economy of salvation upon which the hopes of all faithful Narnians rest. .... (more)
"The Fairy Tale Wars: Lewis, Chesterton, et al. Against the Frauds, Experts & Revisionists"

Friday, October 30, 2020

October 31 and November 1


Today is Reformation Day and tomorrow is All Saints' Day.

Reformation Day is the anniversary of the day Martin Luther issued his challenge to debate his 95 theses – not the beginning of the Reformation but an important point in it. Halloween is actually All Hallows Eve, the evening before All Saints’ Day. Days were thought of as evening to evening so the eve was the beginning of the next day – think New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve. Although today most approach it as a secular holiday that wasn’t its origin and for us Protestants all believers are “saints” – and All Saints’ Day is when we acknowledge “the great cloud of witnesses” who have passed on. So today and tomorrow we recognize first the Protestant Reformation and then all those believers who have gone before.

Therefore being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand,
and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2 (KJV)

No fear!

I've posted this several times in years past as Halloween has approached.

As Halloween approaches it is useful for the more excitable among us to be reminded that the Evil One has already been defeated. From "Concerning Halloween" by James B. Jordan:
.... "Halloween" is simply a contraction for All Hallows’ Eve. The word "hallow" means "saint," in that "hallow" is just an alternative form of the word "holy" ("hallowed be Thy name"). All Saints’ Day is November 1. It is the celebration of the victory of the saints in union with Christ. The observance of various celebrations of All Saints arose in the late 300s, and these were united and fixed on November 1 in the late 700s. The origin of All Saints Day and of All Saints Eve in Mediterranean Christianity had nothing to do with Celtic Druidism or the Church’s fight against Druidism (assuming there ever even was any such thing as Druidism, which is actually a myth concocted in the 19th century by neo-pagans.) ....

The Biblical day begins in the preceding evening, and thus in the Church calendar, the eve of a day is the actual beginning of the festive day. [emphasis added] Christmas Eve is most familiar to us, but there is also the Vigil of Holy Saturday that precedes Easter Morn. Similarly, All Saints’ Eve precedes All Saints’ Day.

The concept, as dramatized in Christian custom, is quite simple: On October 31, the demonic realm tries one last time to achieve victory, but is banished by the joy of the Kingdom.

What is the means by which the demonic realm is vanquished? In a word: mockery. Satan’s great sin (and our great sin) is pride. Thus, to drive Satan from us we ridicule him. This is why the custom arose of portraying Satan in a ridiculous red suit with horns and a tail. Nobody thinks the devil really looks like this; the Bible teaches that he is the fallen Arch-Cherub. Rather, the idea is to ridicule him because he has lost the battle with Jesus and he no longer has power over us. ....

Similarly, on All Hallows’ Eve (Hallow-Even – Hallow-E’en – Halloween), the custom arose of mocking the demonic realm by dressing children in costumes. Because the power of Satan has been broken once and for all, our children can mock him by dressing up like ghosts, goblins, and witches. The fact that we can dress our children this way shows our supreme confidence in the utter defeat of Satan by Jesus Christ – we have NO FEAR! .... (more)
Biblical Horizons » Concerning Halloween

Thursday, October 29, 2020

An enjoyable Halloween movie

There is a lot of over-thinking and political nonsense in the second half of this essay — attributing "insights" that never would have occurred to Capra or the author of the play or writers of the screenplay — but before that a good description of a very entertaining comedy. I first saw the play onstage in a Milton College production. About the film:
.... Arsenic and Old Lace is as Rockwell-esque as It’s a Wonderful Life, a gleeful, ghoulish comedy that runs wild in an aesthetic of darling, old-fashioned, almost Victorian-Americana. It is quaint. It is cozy. It is joyous. It is not a film, so much as a carol. A Halloween carol, you might say. ....

Based on the hit 1941 play by Joseph Kesselring and screenwritten by Casablanca dream team Julius J. and Philip G. Epstein, Arsenic and Old Lace is the story of Mortimer Brewster, a famous, wealthy, and well-liked theater critic (the first tip-off that this thing is fiction), who discovers one Halloween night that his entire family is criminally, murderously insane. Until he heads home (to the quaint Brooklyn street where he was raised), on that day, Mortimer (Cary Grant, hyper and nuttery) believes that the biggest trouble before him is a nuptial scandal, that he’ll make a mockery of his career by getting married; he’s the author of several bombastic, comical books that decry marriage, entitled things like The Bachelor’s Bible, yet what has he done? Gone and fallen in love with Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), the daughter of the Minister who lives across the road from his two adorable spinster aunts, Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha (Jean Adair). Mortimer’s aunts raised him in that house, so Elaine’s really “the girl next door,” of all things—a homey figure that checks the highfalutin city boy persona he has adopted. After they get married in the Manhattan courthouse and duck the paparazzi (again, he’s a theater critic?!), they swing by Brooklyn to say a quick goodbye to their families before heading to Niagara Falls. That’s when Mortimer stumbles upon a dead body stuffed into the window seat of his Aunts’ well-kept parlor. ....

And with this, the movie turns from a screwball romantic comedy about a secretly-reformed chauvinist who falls in love with a girl from his own neighborhood, into a high-stakes farce about a man who discovers that his loving family (and the idyllic block where he was raised) are not nearly as charming and innocent as they once seemed. There have been clues to this all along—including Mortimer’s ne’er-do-well brother Jonathan Brewster, whom they haven’t seen in years. Their childhood was spent with Jonathan tormenting Mortimer, and Mortimer seems to have blocked out the darker aspects of this fraternal bullying. But then, of course, this Halloween night, when Mortimer has to negotiate between the new, impatient bride waiting across the street [actually, across the churchyard], a dead body in his family’s living room, and his Aunts’ frank confession of serial murders, Jonathan (Raymond Massey) finally returns home. But Jonathan doesn’t look like himself—a wanted man (guilty of a dozen murders, just like his Aunts), he has commissioned a cowardly, alcoholic surgeon named Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre) to cosmetically reconstruct his face, resulting in a hack job that permanently makes him look like Frankenstein’s monster, scars and all. ....
Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) is available right now on Prime Video

Arsenic and Old Lace - Crimereads

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

"Put not your faith..."

I encountered this today and as an election approaches thought it a good reminder.

Samuel Johnson:
How small of all that human hearts endure,
That part which laws or kings can cause or cure!
Still to ourselves in every place consigned,
Our own felicity we make or find.
With secret course, which no loud storms annoy,
Glides the smooth current of domestic joy.
Lines added to Oliver Goldsmith's "The Traveller" (1764)

Monday, October 26, 2020


The Hitler-Stalin Pact, 1939

Reviewing Hitler and Stalin at The Telegraph:
Who was the worst tyrant of the 20th century? While there are many contenders – from Mao to Pol Pot – none has been responsible for more deliberate killings than Adolf Hitler, with Joseph Stalin a close second, argues Lawrence Rees in his impressive parallel study. Comparing the crimes of Hitler and Stalin is not about denying the singularity of the Holocaust, he notes. It is about reminding people of the scale of destruction brought about by these two men, and to make sure that those who suffered from their rule are not forgotten. ....

The book focuses on the war years, which Hitler and Stalin started as allies, before, two years later, Hitler broke their pact and invaded the Soviet Union, turning them into mortal enemies. Stalin’s troops, weakened by years of purges at their leader’s behest, were initially overwhelmed when Hitler unleashed his forces on June 22 1941. ....

For both men, it was the First World War that changed everything, creating the space for the Bolsheviks to come to power in late 1917 and setting Hitler on his journey into politics. Neither of the two was interested in material wealth, but they shared an obsession with political power. Stalin continued to dress in simple workers’ or soldiers’ uniforms at the height of his rule; Hitler cultivated his image as an ordinary German chosen by destiny to lead his people. Both abhorred Christianity and liberal democracy, and firmly believed that a utopian future would emerge from their rule – and were both willing, determined even, to destroy anyone and anything that stood in its way. ....

Neither Hitler nor Stalin ever felt remorse for murdering millions of civilians. In fact, Stalin insisted that even Russia’s bloodthirsty 16th-century tsar, Ivan the Terrible, whom he otherwise admired, had been too “kind” to his enemies: “He should have killed them all.”
Hitler and Stalin by Laurence Rees review: a tale of two tyrants

Sunday, October 25, 2020


It's a little after 1:30 am and I have finished re-reading Treasure Island. It grabbed me much as I remember reading when I was young. There were lots of detail I had forgotten. I think I'll continue. What next? There is a long list of possibilities: Watership Down? The Wind in the Willows? Kidnapped? The Maltese Falcon? The Hobbit? I think perhaps I'll go this time with Buchan, perhaps Castle Gay. I'm enjoying this.

Friday, October 23, 2020

A mess of pottage

Followed a couple of links to this:
.... I was an English major at a small liberal arts school in the early 1990s. Most of my teachers were uninterested in critical theory. They loved literature for its own sake and they believed in and taught the canon. How dismaying when I recently learned that my old English department has now rebranded itself the department of “English and Cultural Studies.” The current department head and other professors (most of my old teachers are retired or dead) mumble woke catchphrases and seem to go about their educational task apologetically. The love is gone. They have surrendered to political propaganda.

It makes me angry. Joseph Epstein, who was an English major at the University of Chicago and taught at Northwestern University for thirty years, understands. In his 2008 essay, “A Literary Education: On Being Well-Versed in Literature,” he writes:
“One of the reasons for anger at the theory-ridden English departments of our day is that they sold out the richness of literature for a small number of crude ideas – gender, race, class, and the rest of it – and hence gave up their cultural birthright for a pot of message.”
That was twelve years ago and things are only worse now. ....

I would never recommend any young person become an English major today. Thankfully, my kids have other things in mind for themselves. Apart from a diploma, there’s nothing of value you can gain by studying literature in school that you can’t get on your own as a reader and lover of good books. ....
Literature is for Amateurs - Idlings

Thursday, October 22, 2020

Gentlemen of fortune

Having re-read Without Lawful Authority I decided my next re-read to be Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. It's one of the first books I ever read in its entirety—sometime in second or third grade. I recall being asked to read it aloud to my elementary school class in the then Milton Junction Grade School. I also remember making my little brother play the part of Jim Hawkins while I portrayed Blind Pew. There have been many film versions of the story. My favorite is available on Prime Video and stars a young Christian Bale as Hawkins, Christopher Lee as Pew, Oliver Reed as Billy Bones, and Charlton Heston as Long John Silver. But back to the book:

I own a reproduction of the Scribner Classics edition with the N.C. Wyeth illustrations. Wyeth considered them his best and they certainly affected my visualizations of the story. This is part of a famous passage. Silver is recruiting sailors to be mutineers. Most of the pirate captains he refers to are historical. The narrator is Hawkins.
Long John Silver and Hawkins
Now, just after sundown, when all my work was over and I was on my way to my berth, it occurred to me that I should like an apple. I ran on deck. The watch was all forward looking out for the island. The man at the helm was watching the luff of the sail and whistling away gently to himself, and that was the only sound excepting the swish of the sea against the bows and around the sides of the ship.

In I got bodily into the apple barrel, and found there was scarce an apple left; but sitting down there in the dark, what with the sound of the waters and the rocking movement of the ship, I had either fallen asleep or was on the point of doing so when a heavy man sat down with rather a clash close by. The barrel shook as he leaned his shoulders against it, and I was just about to jump up when the man began to speak. It was Silver's voice, and before I had heard a dozen words, I would not have shown myself for all the world, but lay there, trembling and listening, in the extreme of fear and curiosity, for from these dozen words I understood that the lives of all the honest men aboard depended upon me alone.

"NO, not I," said Silver. "Flint was cap'n; I was quartermaster, along of my timber leg. The same broadside I lost my leg, old Pew lost his deadlights. It was a master surgeon, him that ampytated me—out of college and all—Latin by the bucket, and what not; but he was hanged like a dog, and sun-dried like the rest, at Corso Castle. That was Roberts' men, that was, and comed of changing names to their ships—ROYAL FORTUNE and so on. Now, what a ship was christened, so let her stay, I says. So it was with the CASSANDRA, as brought us all safe home from Malabar, after England took the viceroy of the Indies; so it was with the old WALRUS, Flint's old ship, as I've seen amuck with the red blood and fit to sink with gold."

"Ah!" cried another voice, that of the youngest hand on board, and evidently full of admiration. "He was the flower of the flock, was Flint!"

Old Pew
"Davis was a man too, by all accounts," said Silver. "I never sailed along of him; first with England, then with Flint, that's my story; and now here on my own account, in a manner of speaking. I laid by nine hundred safe, from England, and two thousand after Flint. That ain't bad for a man before the mast—all safe in bank. 'Tain't earning now, it's saving does it, you may lay to that. Where's all England's men now? I dunno. Where's Flint's? Why, most on 'em aboard here, and glad to get the duff—been begging before that, some on 'em. Old Pew, as had lost his sight, and might have thought shame, spends twelve hundred pound in a year, like a lord in Parliament. Where is he now? Well, he's dead now and under hatches; but for two year before that, shiver my timbers, the man was starving! He begged, and he stole, and he cut throats, and starved at that, by the powers!"

"Well, it ain't much use, after all," said the young seaman.

"'Tain't much use for fools, you may lay to it—that, nor nothing," cried Silver. "But now, you look here: you're young, you are, but you're as smart as paint. I see that when I set my eyes on you, and I'll talk to you like a man."

You may imagine how I felt when I heard this abominable old rogue addressing another in the very same words of flattery as he had used to myself. I think, if I had been able, that I would have killed him through the barrel. Meantime, he ran on, little supposing he was overheard.

"Here it is about gentlemen of fortune. They lives rough, and they risk swinging, but they eat and drink like fighting-cocks, and when a cruise is done, why, it's hundreds of pounds instead of hundreds of farthings in their pockets. Now, the most goes for rum and a good fling, and to sea again in their shirts. But that's not the course I lay. I puts it all away, some here, some there, and none too much anywheres, by reason of suspicion. I'm fifty, mark you; once back from this cruise, I set up gentleman in earnest. Time enough too, says you. Ah, but I've lived easy in the meantime, never denied myself o' nothing heart desires, and slep' soft and ate dainty all my days but when at sea. And how did I begin? Before the mast, like you!" ....

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

In Lewis's country

From Chapter 1 in Thomas Howard's The Achievement of C.S. Lewis (1980):
I may illustrate this problem by referring to my own experience of teaching prep school and college students. I have sometimes given a class the following list of words: majesty, magnanimity, valor, courtesy, grace, chastity, virginity, nobility, splendor, ceremony, taboo, mystery, purity. The reaction is quite predictible: either a total blank, embarrassed snickers, or incredulity. The entire list of words lands in their laps like a heap of dead basalt meteorites lately arrived from some other realm. They don't know what to do with them. They have never encountered them. The words are entirely foreign to the whole set of assumptions that has been written (or I should say televised) into these students' imaginations for the whole of their lives. Majesty? The man must be mad. Valor? What's that? Courtesy? What a bore. Virginity? Ho-ho—there's one for you! Chuckle, chuckle.

After I have gotten my reaction I point out to them that this awful list of words names an array of qualities that any Jew, any pagan, and any Christian, up until quite recently in history, would have not only understood, but would have extolled as being close to the center of things. Their vision of reality presented them with a picture in which these things appeared as not only natural, but blissful. Lewis understood the daunting improbability of awakening the stultified modern imagination to ancient and eternal blisses and realities. He understood the task, and he undertook it by means of the oldest method there is. He began to tell stories (sometimes you can smuggle something in as fiction that you can't force on people in a debate). ....

In the moral mythology of C.S. Lewis, the way of health lies along the well-trodden path, not in newly blazed trails. I suppose that if Lewis had lived long enough to see the phenomenon of "happenings" he would have started in horror (he was shock-able) at these quite vividly dramatized imaginations of hell. For hell, in Lewis's vision, is the ultimately unstructured place, the place of final fragmentation and randomness and inanity, and this is what was celebrated in the happenings of the 1960's.

The City of God on the other hand (thought Lewis, and St. Augustine, and St. John the Divine, and others) is a city four-square, with adamantine foundations and high walls, whose denizens have learned to experience as bliss the steps of the Dance. They are called saints, and their joyful vision of things is wholly remote from what we find extolled in the imagery of contemporaneity. Lewis's works of imagination adumbrate their vision, for if there is one word that rings like the peal of a thousand bells from Lewis's country, it is the word Joy.
Thomas Howard, "The Peal of a Thousand Bells," The Achievement of C.S. Lewis, 1980.

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Books in a time of plague

About books that can help reduce stress:
...[Re]-reading our old favourite books can be comforting when life feels uncertain: “When you’re looking for something easy and digestible, reading a book you have already read can help because you know the scenarios – you don’t have to invest in learning new characters, or situations. This sense of nostalgia makes us feel safe.” While book genres are entirely a matter of personal preference, Chambers says that thrillers and adventure stories are good options to tuck into during the pandemic, because they "take the reader on a journey" outside of the one they are already living through. ....

“Reading lowers our cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate, by anchoring us in the present. Some books are so melodic that they trigger the flow state, which is where we are completely engaged in a mindful activity to the point where we start to lose sensation of time,” says Chambers. ....

...[W]hen an adult reads to a child, or (vice versa) there's usually physical contact and cuddling happening: “Biologically, this causes a flooding of oxytocin (the bonding hormone), which makes us feel good, and its presence in the bloodstream has been linked to lower rates of depression, anxiety and stress. In a world where both children and adults are more anxious than ever, this is crucial for mental wellbeing.” ....
One of their recommendations for reducing stress was P.G. Wodehouse. That's a fine suggestion. I might choose Manning Coles or John Buchan for re-reading.

The science of a good bedtime read – and the books that will help you sleep more soundly

Monday, October 19, 2020

Politics and the local church

Mark Dever of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a church with many politically active congregants,  on what unifies us and what might divide us as church members:
Here is the broad outline:
  1. Things feel tense.
  2. We are united.
  3. We have differences.
  4. We’ll be fine.
He enumerated three levels of unity in the church:
  1. Salvific matters: unity around the Gospel (matters of salvation; necessary moral entailments of the gospel—church attendance, adultery, abortion)
  2. Church matters: unity around those things needed to have a church (who are the subjects of baptism, when and how will we meet on the Lord’s Day).
  3. Disputable matters: areas in which we can both differ and yet be covenanted together in a local church, persevering peacefully and edifyingly even through our differences (meat sacrificed to idols, drinking alcohol, the American Revolution, the ultimate hope for Israel). ....
He then helps the congregation think through questions like:
  • How important are our differences? Are the political differences we are experiencing today like slavery was? Do they rise to the level of salvation?
  • If our differences are not at the level of salvation, are our political differences at the level of those things we must agree on in order to have a church (subjects of baptism, when and how we will meet)?
  • Or are they matters about which we can sustain disagreement.
  • At which level are various political differences best understood?
Mark Dever on Politics and the Local Church


Alan Jacobs today:
We are afflicted by our ignorance of history in multiple ways, and one of my great themes for the past few years has been the damage that our presentism does to our ability to make political and moral judgments. It damages us in at least a couple of ways. One of them, and this is the theme of my book Breaking Bread with the Dead, is that it makes us agitated and angry. When we, day by day and hour by hour, turn a direhose of distortion and misinformation directly into our own faces, we lose the ability to make measured judgments. We lash out against those we perceive to be our enemies and celebrate with an equally unreasonable passion those we deem to be our allies. ....

But there is another and still more simple problem with our presentism: we have no idea whether we or anyone else have been through anything like what we are currently going through. Some years ago I wrote about how comprehensively the great moral panic of the 1980s – the belief held by tens of millions of Americans that the childcare centers of America were run by Satan worshipers who sexually abused their charges – has been flushed down the memory hole. In this case, I think the amnesia has happened because a true reckoning with the situation would tell us so much about ourselves that we don’t want to know. It would teach us how credulous we are, and how when faced with lurid stories we lose our ability to make the most elementary factual and evidentiary discriminations. ....

Even more serious, perhaps, is our ignorance – in this case not so obviously motivated but the product rather of casual neglect — of the violent upheavals that so rocked this nation in the 1960s and 1970s. Politicians and pastors and podcasters and bloggers can confidently assert that we are experiencing unprecedented levels of social mistrust and unrest, having conveniently allowed themselves to remain ignorant of what this country was like fifty years ago. (And let’s leave aside the Civil War altogether since that happened in a prehistoric era.) ....
If Then, Snakes and Ladders

Saturday, October 17, 2020

Into each life...

The current issue of National Review includes a review of a new biography of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Much (all?) of his poetry can be found online. This one seemed appropriate today.

The Rainy Day (1842)

The day is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
The vine still clings to the mouldering wall,
But at every gust the dead leaves fall,
And the day is dark and dreary.

My life is cold, and dark, and dreary;
It rains, and the wind is never weary;
My thoughts still cling to the mouldering Past,
But the hopes of youth fall thick in the blast,
And the days are dark and dreary.

Be still, sad heart! and cease repining;
Behind the clouds is the sun still shining;
Thy fate is the common fate of all,
Into each life some rain must fall,
Some days must be dark and dreary.


Thomas Howard (1935-2020) died this past week. He is one of the Christian writers who influenced how I think and feel about the faith. On my bookshelves are Christ the Tiger, Splendor in the Ordinary, Chance or the Dance, The Achievement of C.S. Lewis, The Dove Descending, and, most recently, a collection of his essays, The Night is Far Spent. This is from something he wrote for Christianity Today in 1973:
.... Is it not true that again and again in the biblical picture of things, the story has to be allowed to finish? Was it not the case with Lazarus' household at Bethany, and with the two en route to Emmaus? And is it not the case with the Whole Story, actually—that it must be allowed to finish, and that this is precisely what the faithful have been watching for since the beginning of time? In the face of suffering and endurance and loss and waiting and death, what is it that has kept the spirits of the faithful from flagging utterly down through the millennia? Is it not the hope of redemption? Is it not the great Finish to the Story and to all their little stories of wandering about in sheepskins and goatskins as well as to the One Big Story of the whole creation, which is itself groaning and waiting? And is not that Finish called glorious? Does it not entail what amounts to a redoing of all that has gone wrong, and a remaking of all that is ruined, and a finding of all that has been lost in the shuffle, and an unfolding of it all in a blaze of joy and splendor?

A finding of all that is lost? All sparrows, and all petitions and tears and vigils and fastings? Yes, all petitions and tears and vigils and fastings.

"But where are they? The thing is over and done with. He is dead. They had no effect."

Hadn't they? How do you know what is piling up in that great treasury kept by the Divine Love to be opened in that Day? How do you know that this death and your prayers and tears and fasts will not together be suddenly and breath-takingly displayed, before all the faithful, and before angels and archangels, and before kings and widows and prophets, as gems in that display? Oh no, don't speak of things being lost. Say rather that they are hidden—received and accepted and taken up into the secrets of the divine mysteries, to be transformed and multiplied, like everything else we offer to him—loaves and fishes, or mites, or bread and wine—and given back to you and to the one for whom you kept vigil, in the presence of the whole host of men and angels, in a hilarity of glory as unimaginable to you in your vigil as golden wings are to the worm in the chrysalis. ....
Thomas Howard, The Night is Far Spent, "On Brazen Heavens," pp. 244-245.
(Changed the heading for this post more than once)

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Old books

.... We have produced two or three generations disturbingly lacking in historical understanding, not to mention appreciation for the benefits of a civilization they can blithely take for granted. Is it possible to be an educated human being without a modicum of intellectual and imaginative engagement with what came before us? The dilemma is especially pressing now, though, because the task of reclamation often doesn’t begin until young people have emerged from high school with practically no knowledge of their world but with, for many, an immensely generous estimate of their own knowing­ness. Jacobs understands the world today’s students inhabit. Apart from the emo­tional burdens typical of their age, they are assailed on all sides by addictively insidious forms of distraction and manipu­lation, electronic information overload, the cumulatively debilitating effects of thin reading, and an incapacity or disinclination to think rationally, a dire state of affairs darkened even further for some by unearned cynicism and a liberally administered dose of ideological self-righteousness. ....

This path [to tranquility] also involves, in one sense, giving the benefit of the doubt to the past, or at least learning about a period and its people judiciously before passing moral judgment. Jacobs is not uncritical of the people of the past (some of whom are exposed to his magnifying glass) and he doesn’t shy from judgments, but he does believe that those judgments are lent firmer founda­tion when advanced intelli­gently while recognizing the easily over­looked fact that we too inhabit a place along the timeline of history and that our de­scendants may not come to share our high opinion of ourselves. The danger of refusing to cultivate a history-tinted mind is that we come to live “thinly in our instant, and don’t know what we don’t know,” which is precisely our public predicament. If fortunate, after much reading and reflecting, we land with the virtue of humility, without which intelligence is simply a loaded gun in reckless hands. ....

.... “To open yourself to the past,” Jacobs writes, “is to make yourself less vulnerable to the cruelties of descending in tweeted wrath on a young woman whose clothing you disapprove of, or firing an employee because of a tweet you didn’t take time to understand, or responding to climate change either by ignoring it or by indulging in impotent rage. You realize that you need not obey the impulses of the moment — which, it is fair to say, never tend to produce a tranquil mind.” .... (more)

The change we are living through

This entire essay is very much worth your time. Here are some excerpts from "Stop Being Shocked" by Bari Weiss in Tablet Magazine:
.... To understand the enormity of the change we are now living through, take a moment to understand America as the overwhelming majority of its Jews believed it was—and perhaps as we always assumed it would be.

It was liberal.

Not liberal in the narrow, partisan sense, but liberal in the most capacious and distinctly American sense of that word: the belief that everyone is equal because everyone is created in the image of God. The belief in the sacredness of the individual over the group or the tribe. The belief that the rule of law—and equality under that law—is the foundation of a free society. The belief that due process and the presumption of innocence are good and that mob violence is bad. The belief that pluralism is a source of our strength; that tolerance is a reason for pride; and that liberty of thought, faith, and speech are the bedrocks of democracy.

The liberal worldview was one that recognized that there were things—indeed, the most important things—in life that were located outside of the realm of politics: friendships, art, music, family, love. This was a world in which Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg could be close friends. Because, as Scalia once said, some things are more important than votes.

Crucially, this liberalism relied on the view that the Enlightenment tools of reason and the scientific method might have been designed by dead white guys, but they belonged to everyone, and they were the best tools for human progress that have ever been devised.

Racism was evil because it contradicted the foundations of this worldview, since it judged people not based on the content of their character, but on the color of their skin. And while America’s founders were guilty of undeniable hypocrisy, their own moral failings did not invalidate their transformational project. The founding documents were not evil to the core but “magnificent,” as Martin Luther King Jr. put it, because they were “a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.” In other words: The founders themselves planted the seeds of slavery’s destruction. And our second founding fathers—abolitionists like Frederick Douglass—made it so. America would never be perfect, but we could always strive toward building a more perfect union. ....

The new creed’s premise goes something like this: We are in a war in which the forces of justice and progress are arrayed against the forces of backwardness and oppression. And in a war, the normal rules of the game—due process; political compromise; the presumption of innocence; free speech; even reason itself—must be suspended. Indeed, those rules themselves were corrupt to begin with—designed, as they were, by dead white males in order to uphold their own power. ....

The beating heart of this new ideology is critical race theory. ....

Over the past few decades and with increasing velocity over the last several years, a determined young cohort has captured nearly all of the institutions that produce American cultural and intellectual life. Rather than the institutions shaping them, they have reshaped the institutions. You don’t need the majority inside an institution to espouse these views. You only need them to remain silent, cowed by a fearless and zealous minority who can smear them as racists if they dare disagree. ....

America is imperfect. The past few years and the problems they have laid bare have rocked my faith like no others before. But the ideas this country is based on truly are exceptional, worthy of our relentless defense and more. They are under siege by Trumpism, but also by those who suggest that the solution to our problems lies in obsessing on race; in suggesting that some Americans are more righteous or more cursed than others by dint of the circumstances of their birth; and in tearing down rather than renewing. .... (more)

Monday, October 12, 2020

Past watchful dragons

On the 70th anniversary of the first publication of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe Russell Moore considers why Lewis has meant so much to so many Christians.
.... For many of us shaped by Mere Christianity, though, the most important thing about the book isn’t the arguments for God—although those are sound and have withstood their critics like an eagle against a child.

For many, Mere Christianity resonates because of the written voice of the author. It’s a tone that, unlike the cynicism of modern religion, isn’t trying to market us a political agenda or a line of products, but is simply, with pipe in hand, bearing witness to something true—or, rather, to Someone who is Truth. In that sense, Lewis’s most important contributions in persuading skeptics or reassuring wavering Christians come not, first, from his training as an Oxford classicist but from his experience guiding children through a spare room, past a lamppost, and on into Cair Paravel and beyond. ....

The strangeness of Narnia—a strangeness bounded by the familiarity of tea and fireplaces and so on—is one of the reasons it remains compelling. Much of Christian apologetics—whether modernist or fundamentalist—has sought, first, to make Christianity familiar and intelligible—either by scholastic rationalism or by civilizational hegemony or by political ideologies of the left, right, or center. That’s not Narnia.

Lewis recognized that a major obstacle to his generation receiving the gospel wasn’t that the gospel was too mysterious to them, but that it was too familiar. The Lion of Judah seemed tame; the biblical narrative was confused with a respectable cultural script. And people can’t hear as good news that which they no longer hear as news at all.

“But supposing that by casting all these things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass at Sunday school associations one could make them for the first time in their real potency,” Lewis wrote. “Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.” .... (more)

Sunday, October 11, 2020


...I have tried to commend, in various ways, a principled yet generous, conservative yet open, living-out of commitment to evangelical Christianity, Anglicanism, and humane learning. (Not always in that order.) And evangelical Christianity, Anglicanism, and humane learning have all crumped.

Have you come across that word? I hadn’t heard it before Covid. Apparently it refers to a patient’s sharp, steep decline — not a complete and irreversible crash, but a plunge into serious danger. Everything I care about and have written to defend has crumped, is crumping, will crump.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

An intolerant spirit

This morning Alan Jacobs quotes a passage from The Federalist No. 1, [27 October 1787] believed to have been written by Alexander Hamilton. The political controversy then was whether to ratify the Constitution. The authors of the Federalist essays were advocates of its ratification. Here Hamilton is arguing for moderation in judging political opposition.
.... Candour will oblige us to admit, that even such men may be actuated by upright intentions; and it cannot be doubted, that much of the opposition which has made its appearance, or may hereafter make its appearance, will spring from sources, blameless at least, if not respectable, the honest errors of minds led astray by preconceived jealousies and fears. So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes, which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions, of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation of those, who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right, in any controversy. And a further reason for caution, in this respect, might be drawn from the reflection, that we are not always sure, that those who advocate the truth are influenced by purer principles than their antagonists. Ambition, avarice, personal animosity, party opposition, and many other motives, not more laudable than these, are apt to operate as well upon those who support as upon those who oppose the right side of a question. Were there not even these inducements to moderation, nothing could be more illjudged than that intolerant spirit, which has, at all times, characterised political parties. For, in politics as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution. ....

Thursday, October 8, 2020

A new New Testament

I own quite a few versions of the English Bible: KJV, RSV, NIV, ESV, Jerusalem, Phillips' New Testament, etc., and a number of others in electronic form. When I quote one it is less likely because I know it is an accurate translation than because I like the way it reads. I have no knowledge of Hebrew or Greek. I take refuge in the understanding that very few doctrinal issues depend on variations in translation. In 1944 Sheed & Ward, a UK Catholic house, published The New Testament of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ translated from the Latin Vulgate by Ronald Knox. It is consequently several degrees removed from the original languages. "This is not a study bible; it's a reading bible, and Knox's language pulls us into the scriptural stories and images we know so very well and then elevates us with its staggering beauty," wrote a reviewer at First Things. That seems to be a fairly typical reaction to Knox's work. There is a new edition, but more expensive than I am willing to pay. The translation can also be found online here. Knox produced translations of both the Old and New Testament. I bought a used New Testament and it arrived today. I anticipate looking into it and hope it lives up to its reputation as a "reader's Bible."

Knox, more or less at random, from Romans 3:

No human creature can become acceptable in his sight by observing the law; what the law does is to give us the full consciousness of sin. But, in these days, God’s way of justification has at last been brought to light; one which was attested by the law and the prophets, but stands apart from the law; God’s way of justification through faith in Jesus Christ, meant for everybody and sent down upon everybody without distinction, if he has faith. All alike have sinned, all alike are unworthy of God’s praise. And justification comes to us as a free gift from his grace, through our redemption in Christ Jesus. God has offered him to us as a means of reconciliation, in virtue of faith, ransoming us with his blood. Thus God has vindicated his own holiness, shewing us why he overlooked our former sins in the days of his forbearance; and he has also vindicated the holiness of Jesus Christ, here and now, as one who is himself holy, and imparts holiness to those who take their stand upon faith in him. What has become, then, of thy pride? No room has been left for it. On what principle? The principle which depends on observances? No, the principle which depends on faith; our contention is, that a man is justified by faith apart from the observances of the law. Is God the God of the Jews only? Is he not the God of the Gentiles too? Of the Gentiles too, assuredly; there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised man if he learns to believe, and the Gentile because he believes. ....

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Going along to get along

.... Some of history’s greatest philosophers...agree that wrongdoing tends to be motivated by self-interest. Alas, I’m not one of history’s greatest philosophers. Although most assume that an immoral person is one who’s ready to defy law and convention to get what they want, I think the inverse is often true. Immorality is frequently motivated by a readiness to conform to law and convention in opposition to our own values. In these cases, it’s not that we care too little about others; it’s that we care too much. More specifically, we care too much about how we stack up in the eyes of others.

Doing the wrong thing is, for most of us, pretty mundane. It’s not usurping political power or stealing millions of dollars. It’s nervously joining in the chorus of laughs for your co-worker’s bigoted joke or lying about your politics to appease your family at Thanksgiving dinner. We ‘go along to get along’ in defiance of what we really value or believe because we don’t want any trouble. ....

Tuesday, October 6, 2020

Blessed peace

What a fellowship, what a joy divine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
What a blessedness, what a peace is mine,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
O how sweet to walk in this pilgrim way,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
O how bright the path grows from day to day,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
What have I to dread, what have I to fear,
Leaning on the everlasting arms;
I have blessed peace with my Lord so near,
Leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms;
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms.
[Elisha A Hoffman, 1887]

Seeing in the darkness

A night light shines in the darkness of the hallway at my house. It’s not to help me to see in the dark. It’s there to remind me that I already can. This night light is in the shape of a wardrobe, and pictures young Lucy standing there at the door into the snows of Narnia. The light shines out from the stars overhead and from the lamppost there in the center. When I see that night light, I am reminded of how those stories helped lead me out of my own time of deep, deep darkness. It glows with familiarity for me. But it burns with mystery too. After all, I know where Lucy is going—to Mr. Tumnus’s house, to the Stone Table, on to Cair Paravel, and then to the truer, greater Narnia. But, at this point in the story, she doesn’t know all of that. At this moment, frozen in that scene, she knows nothing of witches or lions or fauns. There’s just a lamppost and a winter sky. There’s just a light shining in the darkness. And when I started out on my own trek through the dark woods, I could not see where I was going either, and could not have named precisely what was beckoning me onward. The same may well be true for you. And maybe that’s why you are afraid.

Indeed, much of what we fear is not so much because we do not think that we can endure what scares us. Most of us have seen people who have done just that. Much of our fear is rooted in mystery, that we do not know what is around the corner from us. We cannot see how everything is going to turn out for us. Sitting around a fireplace with some friends one night, one of them posed the conversation-starter: “If you could have one thing—past, present, or future—that you could read right now what would it be?” I think he answered his own question that he would want to read whatever Jesus wrote with his fingers in the sand at the attempted stoning of the woman caught in adultery, words that caused the would-be executioners to drop their stones and walk away.

Without even thinking, I said, “My obituary.” .... (more)

Monday, October 5, 2020

"I know only two things"

Alan Jacobs' newsletter, this morning, had a link to this description of an encounter with W.H. Auden:
Auden had a cracked and wrinkled face, like a baked mudflat, and he told me that he would soon be dead. (Indeed, he died a couple of years later.)

"I've learned a little in my life," he said. "Not much. But I will share with you what I do know. I hope it will help."

He lit a cigarette, looked at the ceiling, then said, "I know only two things. The first is this: There is no such thing as time." He explained that time was an illusion: past, present, future. Eternity was "without a beginning or an end," and we must come to terms with what underlies time, or exists around its edges. He quoted the Gospel of John, where Jesus said: "Before Abraham was, I am." That disjunctive remark upends our notions of chronology once and for all, he told me.

I listened, a bit puzzled, then asked: "So what's the second thing?" "Ah, that," he said. "The second thing is simply advice. Rest in God, dear boy. Rest in God." ....

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Where certainty resides

The author of a post at the Center For Baptist Renewal was assigned Athanasius’s Life of Antony as a part of his graduate work and found it particularly relevant to the times we are in. From that post:
.... Tests that shake our world sift between what is merely professed with the mouth and what is confessed in faith. As such, they cut through theological clichés and doctrinal superficiality to reveal what is truly believed, showcasing where our certainties and confidence really reside. ....

This line of questioning pierced the conscious of the desert fathers in the decades following the cessation of imperially authorized persecution against the Church. .... They regarded prosperity as a far greater threat to the church than destitution. Rather than running from crisis, they pressed into it. For them, to not perceive the perpetual crisis of human existence or to believe that one could avoid it was to have a fundamentally distorted view of reality.

Consider, for example, Antony’s spiritual advice to those who came to him seeking to know how to follow in his way of life. Recalling the words of the Apostle Paul about dying daily, he reminds his audience that the fragility of human existence ought to be a perpetual object of contemplation.
Similarly, if we bear in mind the unpredictability of our human condition, we will not sin. For when we wake from sleep, we must be doubtful as to whether we will reach evening and when we lie down to rest, we should not be confident that daylight will return. We should everywhere be mindful of the uncertainty of our nature and our life and understand that we are governed by God’s providence. Not only will we not go astray nor be swept away by some flimsy desire, but neither will we be angry with anyone nor strive to accumulate earthly treasures. Instead, fearing death each day and always thinking of our separation from the body, we will trample upon all that is transitory.
For Antony, such words were no mere lip service. ....

Strangers and exiles

Kevin Williamson this morning reacting to a letter from Pope Francis about Saint Jerome:
“This, too, shall pass” is a proverb that we remember during hard times, but it is equally illuminating advice for good times, too. Abraham Lincoln cited it in a speech, marveling at its wisdom: “How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction!” Caravaggio was called upon to paint Saint Jerome at least eight times, and in the three surviving paintings the saint is depicted in much the same attitude, working or meditating at his writing table, his only company a skull — the memento mori — to remind him that even a work for the ages will pass away, because the ages themselves must pass away.

The skull on Saint Jerome’s desk, like the example of his life, points us in the direction of the question: “What matters? If everything I know and love, and everything I fear and hate, and everything I have and everything I want will, in the end, be dust, and then not even dust — then what matters?” Great men suffer affliction, empires fall. The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius was haunted by the many tombstones he saw inscribed: “The last of his house.” The questions make us uneasy. ....
And I thought of this:
These all died in faith, not having received what was promised, but having seen it and greeted it from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb 11:13)

Saturday, October 3, 2020

A movie in Autumn

Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry was released sixty-five years ago. It is set in New England in the Fall. It's one of my favorite Hitchcocks. I think I'll watch it tonight. The kid is Jerry Mathers, later the Beaver in Leave it to Beaver.

Becoming a Christian

In 1994 InterVarsity Press published the Handbook of Christian Apologetics by Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli. It quickly became one of my favorite references for arguments about the truth of Christianity. In the final chapter, "The Bottom Line," the authors describe "Four Steps in Becoming a Christian" and explain that their book is only helpful with the first.
1. The first step is mental belief. This is first because you cannot take any other step toward a goal unless you believe it exists. You cannot seek or deal with a Person you do not believe exists. You cannot pray to a God you think is dead.

The next three steps are (2) repentance from sin; (3) saving faith, faith in a more than mental sense, acceptance of Christ as Savior; and (4) living out the Christian life. These three steps all presuppose the truth of the God to whom you repent, in whom you believe and with whose real presence and help you now live. ....

.... The first step is like believing in the accuracy of a road map; the next three steps are like actually using the map.

2. Step two is called repentance. This means not merely feeling guilty or sorry for your sins, but choosing—with that most fundamental and deep-down part of your soul, your will—to turn out of the road you are now traveling down, because you have been convinced that it is not the right road, the true road, the road designed for you by God, the road that leads to God. In the full sense, repentance means renouncing the lord of your present road—the "evil one" (Mt 13:19), the "father of lies" (Jn 8:44) and the "ruler of this world" (Jn 14:30)—so that you can give yourself instead to Christ, your rightful lord. Repentance cannot be adequately understood only psychologically, as something within yourself; it is ontological, it is a real transaction between you and your lord, a change of fundamental allegiance. It is like changing sides in a war, or like divorce and remarriage. It is traumatic.

3. The third step, which is the other side of repentance, is faith, in the biblical sense: not just mental belief (that was step one) but accepting and receiving Christ as God and Savior and Lord of your soul, your life, your destiny.

The first step is believing the road map; the second is turning out of your present road; the third is turning into another road. That other road is a Person: the one who said, "I am the one comes to the Father except through me" (Jn 14:6).

4. The fourth step is traveling down his way, actually living the Christian life. Step three is faith, step four is works—good works, works of love. The two necessarily go together. In step three the tree of Christ's life is planted in you; in step four it bears fruit. For "faith without works is dead" (Jas 1:26).

This fourfold scheme puts into proper perspective the modest ambitions of this book. Our hope is only to persuade your honest reasoning that Christianity is true. This is necessary but not sufficient. No one will launch a boat thinking the sea is only a myth; but believing in the sea is not sufficient to become a sailor.
Peter Kreeft & Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, InterVarsity Press, 1994.

Thursday, October 1, 2020

A "translation"

Earlier this year, we learned of the Chinese Communist Party’s intention to undertake its own, state-approved “translation” of the Bible. ....

We don’t yet have access to the full “Chairman Xi Version” of the Bible, but the first fruits of this sordid endeavor were made public last week, when a government-run press published a textbook for high-school students. The textbook, which is used to teach “professional ethics and law,” includes a passage from the eighth chapter of the Gospel According to St. John. The passage recounts the famous story of the woman caught in adultery by Jesus’ enemies and brought before him for judgment. ....

Those familiar with the passage in question will know how ill-suited it is to the purpose of instructing students in the art of unflinching submission to the letter of the law. The CCP is evidently aware of this, because it has made significant changes to the text. For those who haven’t read the story before, here is the original as it appears in John’s Gospel:
.... He raised Himself up and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.” And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst. When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, “Woman, where are those accusers of yours? Has no one condemned you?”

She said, “No one, Lord.”

And Jesus said to her, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”
The CCP “translation” reproduces the story more or less word for word — up until the point at which Jesus is left alone with the woman whom the Pharisees had dragged before him. Events then take an altogether bizarre and diabolical turn:
When the crowd disappeared, Jesus stoned the sinner to death saying, “I too am a sinner. But if the law could only be executed by men without blemish, the law would be dead.”
You read that right: In this telling, Jesus gets rid of the crowd so he can have the pleasure of bashing the woman’s skull in himself. .... (more)