Saturday, January 30, 2021

"The business of life is to work out our salvation..."

Samuel Johnson made his living by writing, and among his writings are sermons that, as with almost everything he produced, he wrote for pay for preachers who apparently were unwilling or unable to compose their own. There is no reason, however, to think he wrote anything he didn't believe. From the Yale Digital Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson: "Sermon 15": 

Man that is born of a woman, is of few days, and full of trouble. JOB xiv.I

.... The business of life is to work out our salvation; and the days are few, in which provision must be made for eternity. We all stand upon the brink of the grave; of that state, in which there is no repentance. He, whose life is extended to its utmost natural boundaries, can live but a little while; and that he shall be one of those, who are comparatively said, to live long, no man can tell. Our days are not only few, but uncertain. The utmost that can be hoped, is little; and of that little, the greater part is denied to the majority of mankind.

Our time is short, and our work is great; it is therefore, with the kindest earnestness, enjoined by the Apostle, that we use all diligence to make our “calling and election sure.” But to an impartial surveyor of the ways of men, will it appear that the Apostle’s summons has been heard or regarded? Let the most candid and charitable observer take cognizance of the general practice of the world; and what can be discovered but gay thoughtlessness, or sordid industry? It seems that to secure their calling and election is the care of few. Of the greater part it may be said, that God is not in their thoughts. One forgets him in his business, another in his amusements; one in eager enjoyment of today, another in solicitous contrivance for tomorrow. Some die amidst the gratifications of luxury, and some in the tumults of contests undecided, and purposes uncompleated. Warnings are multiplied, but without notice. “Wisdom crieth in the streets,” but is rarely heard.

Among those that live thus wholly occupied by present things, there are some, in whom all sense of religion seems extinct or dormant; who acquiesce in their own modes of life, and never look forward into futurity, but gratify themselves within their own accustomed circle of amusements, or limit their thoughts by the attainment of their present pursuit; and, without suffering themselves to be interrupted by the unwelcome thoughts of death and judgement, congratulate themselves on their prudence or felicity, and rest satisfied with what the world can afford them; not that they doubt, but forget, a future state; not that they disbelieve their own immortality, but that they never consider it. ....

If reason forbids us to fix our hearts upon things which we are not certain of retaining, we violate a prohibition still stronger, when we suffer ourselves to place our happiness in that which must certainly be lost; yet such is all that this world affords us. Pleasures and honours must quickly perish, because life itself must soon be at an end.

But if it be folly to delight in advantages of uncertain tenure and short continuance, how great is the folly of preferring them to permanent and perpetual good! The man whose whole attention converges to this world, even if we suppose all his attempts prosperous, and all his wishes granted, gains only empty pleasure, which he cannot keep, at the cost of eternal happiness, which, if now neglected, he can never gain. .... (more)

Monday, January 25, 2021

On Robert Burns Day

Madeleine Kearns, herself a Scot, writes today that some of Scotland's unfortunate past seems to be being replicated. In the process she references a few of Burns' poems. I looked up a few of them online. First from "Address To The Unco Guid," the first and last verses (full poem here):
O YE wha are sae guid yoursel',
Sae pious and sae holy,
Ye've nought to do but mark and tell   
Your neibours' fauts and folly!
Whase life is like a weel-gaun mill,
Supplied wi' store o' water;
The heaped happer's ebbing still,
An' still the clap plays clatter.
Who made the heart, 'tis He alone
Decidedly can try us;
He knows each chord, its various tone,
Each spring, its various bias:
Then at the balance let's be mute,
We never can adjust it;
What's done we partly may compute,
But know not what's resisted.
Kearns also quotes from "To a Louse, On Seeing One on a Lady’s Bonnet at Church":
O wad some Power the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
It wad frae monie a blunder free us
An foolish notion:
What airs in dress an gait wad lea'es us,
An ev'n devotion!
Much more at this site.

Robert Burns’s Antidote for Our Self-Righteous Times

Friday, January 22, 2021

"Everyone is crazy except me and thee, and I'm not sure about thee"

Re-posted from pre-Trump times because it still applies:

In "A nation of truthers," reviewing The United States of Paranoia, Laura Miller explains why we are inclined to credit conspiracy theories and why that is usually foolish:
...[O]ur brains are predisposed to see patterns in random data and to apply stories to explain them, which is why conspiracy theory can be so contagious. Although conspiracies do exist, we need to be vigilant against our propensity to find them whether they are there or not. The most sensible outlook would appear to be that of Robert Anton Wilson, who concluded that “powerful people” could well be “engaged in criminal plots” but who found it unlikely that “the conspirators were capable of carrying out those plots competently.” Or, I would add, of covering them up effectively. It’s the ineptness of human beings in executing elaborate schemes and then shutting up about it afterward that makes me skeptical of almost all conspiracy theories. Besides, if the U.S. government was masterful enough to engineer the 9/11 attacks, why couldn’t it also plant some WMD in Iraq? .... (more)
A nation of truthers -


Stanley G. Payne, a retired University of Wisconsin professor who has written extensively about the history of "fascism" offers a brief but very informative essay, "Antifascism Without Fascism," from which:
.... The aggressive military expansion of the fascist powers doomed them to complete destruction by 1945, and Hitler’s Holocaust so discredited extreme nationalism in Western countries that fascist ideology could never be successfully revived. It was dissolved in an era of materialism, hedonism, partial democratization, and radical egalitarianism.

Yet the term never dies, for the sibilant and sinister sound of the word, together with its very indeterminacy of meaning, makes it ideal as an indiscriminate pejorative, particularly with regard to the more right-wing or conservative side of politics....

The F-word has become such a popular epithet in part because its association with Hitler and the Holocaust gives it a special imprecatory power. It denotes something not merely bad or violent, but positively demonic. This confers a sort of metaphysical or spiritual force lacking in any equivalent term, and is all the more useful in the twenty-first century as progressivist politics more and more adopts a redemptive and salvific tone as a sort of substitute religion.

Though fascism has all but disappeared, antifascism has not. An antifascism without fascism makes it possible to create or imagine exactly the right kind of enemy, one that in fact does not exist. This has the further utility of seeming to justify an appeal to violence and the adoption of increasingly aggressive tactics, which impose ever greater centralized power and terms of censorship, and gain objectives less easily achieved through rational discourse and analysis. There is no simpler, easier way to stigmatize and to verbally assert power over an opponent. .... (more)
Antifascism Without Fascism by Stanley G. Payne

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Not just an adventure tale

Michael Dirda seems to love books that I love. Today he writes about Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped:
...Kidnapped is...more than just exciting and more than just a kids’ book; it’s a thoughtful novel about politics and dissent, rich in moral complexity, and, for a reader in 2021, weirdly contemporary at times. It’s also beautifully written, the occasional Scots word or phrase contributing to its peaty flavor.

At its center is David Balfour, who at 17, following the death of his schoolteacher father in 1751, hikes to the small town of Cramond, near Edinburgh, with a letter for an uncle he never knew he had. ....
About a central character, Alan Breck Stewart:
.... One foggy night the Covenant, still in Scotland’s coastal waters, inadvertently runs down a rowboat. Everyone on board drowns, except for one man who rescues himself by leaping up and grabbing the ship’s bowsprit:

“He was smallish in stature,” recalls David, “but well set up and as nimble as a goat; his face was of a good open expression, but sunburnt very dark, and heavily freckled and pitted with the small-pox; his eyes were unusually light and had a kind of dancing madness in them, that was both engaging and alarming; and when he took off his greatcoat, he laid a pair of fine, silver-mounted pistols on the table, and I saw that he was belted with a great sword. His manners, besides, were elegant.... Altogether I thought of him, at the first sight, that here was a man I would rather call my friend than my enemy.”

Alan, it turns out, is a Jacobite, one of the highlanders who, defeated at the Battle of Culloden five years previous, nonetheless continue to support the “restoration” of the Stuarts to the throne of England. ....

From the moment this coolly self-possessed outlaw swings aboard the Covenant, Kidnapped begins to speed up, to move faster and faster, like the quicksilver thrusts of Alan’s sword, and only slows occasionally so that the reader and our heroes can catch their breath. ....

Still, above them all and beyond praise, are the chapters titled “The Flight in the Heather,” during which the two comrades...try to escape capture by a life-or-death scramble across the rough terrain of the Scottish highlands. These pages provide the template for many later classics of topographical pursuit, including John Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps and Geoffrey Household’s Rogue Male. As Stevenson once said, “No man is any use until he has dared everything.” .... (more, but probably behind a subscription wall)
Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Kidnapped’ is not just an adventure tale, it’s a timely novel about politics and dissent

Tuesday, January 19, 2021


Patrick Kurp today:
There was a time when poetry was not the hobby of an inbred coterie. Non-poets read it for inspiration and solace, and some even wrote it. Narrative poems were always popular. Americans declaimed story-poems from stages and by the fireside. Our fifth-grade teacher had us memorize the opening stanzas of “The Village Blacksmith.” ....
'He Came to Save that Stricken Soul'

Monday, January 18, 2021

Another poem

Continuing with The new Oxford Book of English Verse I come to Leigh Hunt (1784-1859). I started at the back of the book, so as I read I'm moving back in time. This one is familiar, although not read for a long time. 

Abou Ben Adhem
ABOU BEN ADHEM (may his tribe increase !)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace,
And saw, within the moonlight in his room,
Making it rich, and like a lily in bloom,
An angel writing in a book of gold:—
Exceeding peace had made Ben Adhem bold,
And to the presence in the room he said,
    "What writest thou?"—The vision rais'd its head,
And with a look made of all sweet accord,
Answer'd, "The names of those who love the Lord."
    "And is mine one?" said Abou. "Nay, not so,"
Replied the angel. Abou spoke more low,
But cheerily still; and said, "I pray thee, then,
Write me as one that loves his fellow men."
    The angel wrote, and vanish'd. The next night
It came again with a great wakening light,
And show'd the names whom love of God had blest,
And lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest.

The new Oxford Book of English Verse was edited by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch and originally published in 1900. The edition I have is a re-print of the "Revised and Enlarged" one that came out in 1918, thus including WWI. It was pretty dusty when I took it down. I hadn't looked in it for a long time.

Sunday, January 17, 2021

In the hour of death...

R.D. Blackmore was the author of Lorna Doone (1869). Browsing in The new Oxford Book of English Verse (up to 1918), I came to this poem by that author:
Dominus Illuminatio Mea
IN the hour of death, after this life's whim,
When the heart beats low, and the eyes grow dim,
And pain has exhausted every limb—
    The lover of the Lord shall trust in Him.
When the will has forgotten the lifelong aim,
And the mind can only disgrace its fame,
And a man is uncertain of his own name
    The power of the Lord shall fill this frame.
When the last sigh is heaved, and the last tear shed,
And the coffin is waiting beside the bed,
And the widow and child forsake the dead
    The angel of the Lord shall lift this head.
For even the purest delight may pall,
And power must fail, and the pride must fall,
And the love of the dearest friends grow small
    But the glory of the Lord is all in all.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021


At Common Sense with Bari Weiss, from "The Great Unraveling":
.... Hate sells and hate also connects. Communities can grow quite strong around hatred of difference, and that’s exactly what’s happened to the American left and the right. It is painful to resist joining a mob when that mob includes most of your friends. It feels good, at least in the short term, to give in.

So part of my hesitation about what comes next is that I have been unsure about who will have the strength to stand apart from the various tribes that can give their members such pleasure of belonging. It is hard to know how to build things that are immune to these dangerous forces when the number of the people who are — or appear to me — immune to it is so very small.

Perhaps a psychologist can explain what makes these people resistant. Is it personality type? Is it principle? Is it rootedness in a real community with real people who you love and who love you and who you trust when they call you out on your bullshit?

I don’t know the answer. But I know that you have to be sort of strange to stand apart and refuse to join Team Red or Team Blue. These strange ones are the ones who think that political violence is wrong, that mob justice is never just and the presumption of innocence is always right. These are the ones who are skeptical of state and corporate power, even when it is clamping down on people they despise. The ones who still hold fast to the old ideas enshrined in our constitution. ....
Common Sense with Bari Weiss: The Great Unraveling

Sunday, January 10, 2021

If Truth is in the field

Reminded of this today by a Twitter quotation. John Milton (1644):
And though all the windes of doctrin were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously, by licencing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falshood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the wors, in a free and open encounter. Her confuting is the best and surest suppressing. ....
John Milton, Areopagitica

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The light has come

Writing about the unfortunate convergence of events on Epiphany this week, Chris Gehrz provides a good explanation of the season's liturgical significance:
Not just a single date, Epiphany is the season in the liturgical year when Christians focus on how Christ is made known to the world. It started on Wednesday with prophecy from Isaiah (“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you…Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn”) and Matthew’s story of that light reaching wise men in the East. In the weeks to come, we’ll read Mark’s accounts of John the Baptist proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, that savior calling his first disciples, and Jesus beginning to preach and perform miracles. Before the calendar turns to Lent and then Easter, Epiphany culminates with Jesus transfigured, the Father proclaiming “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”
I'm entirely uninterested in discussing here the the rest of that interesting essay but thought this excerpt a usefully concise explanation of Epiphany.

Will This Week Bring an Epiphany for Evangelicals?

Friday, January 8, 2021

Country rock

Chris Hillman of the Byrds and much more has written a book, reviewed in the Wall Street Journal:
Mr. Hillman never shared the name recognition or charisma of Byrds co-founders Roger McGuinn and David Crosby, and though he was a founding member of the Flying Burrito Brothers, it’s the doomed genius and eternal youth of Gram Parsons that people remember. .... He later found the country charts with the Desert Rose Band and made a string of excellent solo albums ....


Mr. Hillman, a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer with four Grammy nominations to his name, has as solid a claim as anyone—though he modestly does not make it—to have invented the entire genre of country rock. His early bluegrass contributions to the Byrds found their apotheosis in 1968’s “Sweetheart of the Rodeo,” which has become latterly influential, a wellspring of today’s alt-country movement. By that time, Mr. Hillman had emerged both as a songwriter (including the classic “So You Want to Be a Rock ’n’ Roll Star”) and a singer....

‘Time Between’ Review: And Your Byrd Can Sing

Monday, January 4, 2021

"Yet God the same abiding..."

An important reminder in contentious times:

William Cowper, who often suffered depression, wrote Sometimes a Light Surprises in 1779:
Sometimes a light surprises the Christian while he sings;
It is the Lord, who rises with healing in His wings:
When comforts are declining, He grants the soul again
A season of clear shining, to cheer it after rain.

In holy contemplation we sweetly then pursue
The theme of God’s salvation, and find it ever new.
Set free from present sorrow, we cheerfully can say,
Let the unknown tomorrow bring with it what it may.

It can bring with it nothing but He will bear us through;
Who gives the lilies clothing will clothe His people, too;
Beneath the spreading heavens, no creature but is fed;
And He Who feeds the ravens will give His children bread.

Though vine nor fig tree neither their wonted fruit should bear,
Though all the field should wither, nor flocks nor herds be there;
Yet God the same abiding, His praise shall tune my voice,
For while in Him confiding, I cannot but rejoice.
And from a reflection on that great hymn, I've excerpted this portion about the final verse:
Cowper chose the text from Habakkuk 3 for the fourth and final verse of "Sometimes a Light Surprises." It is an interesting choice for a number of reasons. First of all, it is likely that Habakkuk was a musician. Scholars believe that Habakkuk was a Levite and associated with the temple singers. The last chapter of Habakkuk is in the form of a liturgy with a prophetic prayer meant to be sung.

Secondly, Habakkuk 3 includes the language of lament and, according to one commentator, "provides one of the most moving statements of faith and trust found in Scripture (vv. 16-19)." There is something about honest lament that bridges our limited, finite humanity with our infinite, covenant Lord.

Often when we look around at our circumstances we want to cry out, "Lord, what are you doing? What is going on?" There is something telling in this kind of stark and honest dialogue with God. It may seem obvious, but lament, rather than revealing a distance from God, reveals that an actual relationship is intact. When we feel close enough to God to talk to him honestly about our circumstances, intimacy is revealed. Moreover, it is often through intimate, honest lament that clarity is received. Though it begins with a description of tough circumstances, Cowper's lyric ends with the assurance of God's faithfulness: "yet God the same abideth, his praise shall tune my voice, for while in him confiding, I cannot but rejoice." ....
Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls: Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.
Habakkuk 3:17-18 (KJV)

Sunday, January 3, 2021

An anniversary

J.R.R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892, 129 years ago.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
(The Fellowship of the Ring)

“I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo.
"So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” (The Fellowship of the Ring)

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule. (The Return of the King)

Faithless is he who says farewell when the road darkens. (The Fellowship of the Ring)

Saturday, January 2, 2021

"Dithering to and fro"


C.S. Lewis on faith:
Now Faith, in the sense in which I am here using the word, is the art of holding on to things your reason has once accepted, in spite of your changing moods. For moods will change, whatever view your reason takes. I know that by experience. Now that I am a Christian I do have moods in which the whole thing looks very improbable: but when I was an atheist I had moods in which Christianity looked terribly probable. This rebellion of your moods against your real self is going to come anyway. That is why Faith is such a necessary virtue: unless you teach your moods ‘where they get off’, you can never be either a sound Christian or even a sound atheist, but just a creature dithering to and fro, with its beliefs really dependent on the weather and the state of its digestion. Consequently one must train the habit of Faith.

C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 11 "Faith" (1952)

"A joy beyond words"

The Gospel Coalition site once invited various Christians to write about "The Page That Changed My Life." For Matthew Lee Anderson it was reading G.K. Chesterton's Orthodoxy:
.... Chesterton does not simply magnify "joy," a concept we hear much about and experience very little. He understood the permanent temptation to view the sadness and the sorrow as the substance, and the cheerful and uplifting as the shadow.

Chesterton marks out a path that leads away from despairing cynicism, the besetting sin of hipster Christians. When our resistance to the overwrought, pollyannish cheerfulness of suburban megachurch Christianity (or so the story goes) crosses over into treating the "real" and "authentic" as that which is broken and sorrowful, we have embraced a sub-Christian outlook on the world. ....

...There is a joy beyond words, a joy behind the veil that runs too deep to show others. And it is a joy that, when we taste, we realize that we are ill equipped to live with. Like those poor Israelites who plead with God to hide himself, it is goodness that we are not equipped to handle, even while we include sorrow and suffering among our friends. Here Chesterton closes his work: "Joy, which is the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian.... There was something that [Jesus] hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was one thing that was too great for God to show us when he walked upon the earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was his mirth." (more)
Our Delightfully Strange World – The Gospel Coalition Blog