Sunday, February 28, 2021


From this essay in The Wall Street Journal last Friday:
.... Reflecting nostalgically on the past is a common and healthy experience that helps people find the inspiration and confidence needed to move forward in life, particularly during difficult times. I would go so far as to say that nostalgia is about the future more than the past. ....

We observed that nostalgia doesn’t cause distress. Instead, distress causes nostalgia. External cues such as running into an old friend, seeing an old photo on Facebook, or hearing music from one’s youth can trigger nostalgia, but when it comes to internal psychological triggers, people tend to experience nostalgia in response to feeling sad, lonely, meaningless and uncertain about where they are in life. ....

They tend to be personally meaningful social memories of experiences such as weddings, holidays, vacations with family or friends, family gatherings and religious rites of passage. They often contain a mixture of feelings, but the positive typically outweighs the negative. Critically, nostalgic narratives tend to follow a redemptive sequence in which feelings such as sadness and loss are overwhelmed by pleasant and even energizing feelings—happiness, love, gratitude and hope. ....

In a series of studies published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 2011, my research team found that nostalgia makes people feel more connected to those they care about and feel a greater sense of meaning in life. People naturally use nostalgia, perhaps without even realizing it, to maintain meaning. Revisiting cherished memories of times shared with those we hold dear reminds us that life, though sometimes painful and difficult, is also full of experiences that make it worthwhile. ....
Clay Routledge, "Remember the Good Old Days? No Need to Feel Ashamed if You Do"

Friday, February 26, 2021

To see the race to the end

Rabbi Meir Y. Soloveichik in "The Jew Who Ran Away" on one of my favorite films:
.... The two runners we see in Chariots [of Fire] are a Jew named Harold Abrahams and a devout Christian named Eric Liddell. Abrahams is a Cambridge student angered by the subtle anti-Semitism he experiences; he determines that he will “take them on, one by one, and run them off their feet.” Liddell, in contrast, competes in adherence to the advice of his missionary father: “Run in God’s name, and let the world stand back and wonder.” The two are set against each other in the hundred-yard dash to determine who will be “the fastest man on earth,” but the qualifying heat is on a Sunday, the Christian Sabbath, and Liddell refuses to run. ....

For Liddell, faith had everything to do with his qualities as an athlete. “I believe God made me for a purpose,” he informs his sister in one of the central moments in the movie. “But he also made me fast; and when I run, I feel his pleasure.” After a committee of English aristocrats seeks unsuccessfully to pressure Liddell to run on Sunday, one of them reflects that Liddell “is a true man of principle, and a true athlete. His speed is a mere extension of his life, its force. We sought to sever his running from his self.” ....

A rabbi watching the tale of Liddell and Abrahams cannot help but wish for the latter to be more like the former. Liddell’s example teaches us a great deal about faith. Speaking to an assembled crowd after a victory, he utilizes running as a metaphor for belief: “I want to compare faith to running in a race….Where does the power come from, to see the race to its end? From within.” On the Sunday in which he was meant to compete, Liddell instead sermonizes from Isaiah: “But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings, as eagles. They shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.” ....

Last year, I took Yeshiva University students to Cambridge. We had come to look at the treasures of the Cairo Geniza, to see the handwriting of Maimonides and Judah Halevi, to see the intellectual achievements of a thousand years of Judaism. Yet I could not help but stop at the Great Court of Trinity College, where, in the film, Abrahams successfully completes the “college dash,” running around the square in 12 seconds. When he wins, one of the watching dons, played by the marvelous John Gielgud, sardonically sneers: “Perhaps they really are God’s chosen people after all.” Indeed we are; but Jews watching the film today must draw spiritual inspiration from the Christian Liddell rather than Harold Abrahams as they find the strength within to see the race to its end.
Meir Y. Soloveichik, "The Jew Who Ran Away," Commentary, March, 2021

An authentic anti-racism

Thomas Chatterton Williams in The Wall Street Journal:
.... If we care about solving the racial dilemma once and for all, we should first strive to create a society in which Black people, and by extension all other identity groups, are not considered and celebrated as different. We need to arrive at a psychological place where we no longer require a Black History Month, since we would learn about the American past in ways capacious and finely tuned enough to reflect the entirety of our shared, tragic and transcendent mongrel history. ....

“The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination,” Ibram X. Kendi argues in his era-defining book How To Be an Antiracist, which became a number one bestseller in 2020. “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”

This is, in fact, the opposite of a lasting solution. It is a recipe for the reproduction of racism ad infinitum. We are drowning in the fetishization of artificial differences....

Blackness isn’t real because whiteness isn’t real. What is real, of course, is the fact that men and women like my father have been socially deemed Black in America, and this is a category that has been used to hurt and exclude them for generations, even as it has led to extraordinary cultural contributions and forms of uplift and solidarity. We often embrace and find solace in our racialized identities as an artificial defense against real attacks on our selfhood and dignity.  ....

Beyond the binary of Black and white, the world that we’re fast creating is one in which every conceivable identity ends up being presented as something akin to an essence—unbridgeable to those who don’t share it and frequently defined by little more than its relationship to oppression. Too many of us on either side of the color line, and all points between, seem not just profoundly uninterested in moving beyond race but positively invested in maintaining its grip over our lives.

What we need instead is to find ways to rectify past wrongs and present discrimination while moving toward a society in which racial and other immutable differences are seriously attenuated, in which physical characteristics and ancestry tell us as little as possible about the various individuals we happen to encounter. .... (more, but probably behind a subscription wall)
Thomas Chatterton Williams, The Saturday Essay: "Beyond Black History Month," The Wall Street Journal

Monday, February 22, 2021

Disagreeing well

From "How to have better arguments online":
.... If humans were purely rational entities, we would listen politely to an opposing view before offering a considered response. In reality, disagreement floods our brain with chemical signals that make it hard to focus on the issue at hand. The signals tell us that this is an attack on me. “I disagree with you” becomes “I don’t like you”. Instead of opening our minds to the other’s point of view, we focus on defending ourselves.

.... A disagreement can tempt us to become aggressive and lash out, or it can induce us to back off and swallow our opinions out of a desire to avoid conflict. These atavistic responses still influence our behaviour in today’s low-context environments: we either get into hostile and mostly pointless arguments, or do everything we can to avoid arguing at all. Both responses are dysfunctional.

One reason online discourse is so often so furious is because it has been designed to be this way. Studies have shown that content that outrages is more likely to be shared. Users who post angry messages get the status boost of likes and retweets, and the platforms on which those messages are posted gain the attention and engagement that they sell to advertisers. Online platforms therefore have an incentive to push forward the most extreme versions of every argument. Nuance, reflection and mutual understanding are not just casualties of the crossfire, but necessary victims. ....

Disagreement is a way of thinking, perhaps the best one we have, critical to the health of any shared enterprise, from marriage to business to democracy. We can use it to turn vague notions into actionable ideas, blind spots into insights, distrust into empathy. Instead of putting our differences aside, we need to put them to work.

To do so, we will have to overcome a widespread discomfort with disagreement. Disagreeing well is hard, and for most of us, stressful. But perhaps if we learn to see it as a skill in its own right, rather than as something that comes naturally, we might become more at ease with it. .... (read it all)
Wish AOC took her own advice (quoted late in the article) more often.

"How to have better arguments online," The Guardian, Feb. 22, 2021.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Fearing no evil

A "Prayer for Those in Trouble":
WE remember before Thee, O Lord, our brethren who are tried with sickness: entreating Thee to increase their faith and patience, to restore them to health, if it be Thy will, and to give them a happy issue out of all their troubles. Have pity on all widows and orphans; succour all who are in danger by sea and land, all prisoners and captives, and all who are oppressed with labour and toil. Have mercy on those who are tempted, and on those who are in darkness and perplexity, and strengthen them with Thy Holy Spirit. Be present with those who are dying, and grant that they may depart in peace, fearing no evil, and live before Thee in Thy heavenly kingdom; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Book of Common Worship, Presbyterian Board of Publication, 1906

Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Ash Wednesday

Remember, O man: Thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return.
Genesis 3:19
Believers who use the Christian Calendar to guide religious observance (Roman Catholics, Anglicans, many Methodists, most Lutherans and others) are beginning Lent today, Ash Wednesday.

The following explains the observance:
Lent consists of the forty days before Easter. In the western Church, we skip over the Sundays when we count the days of Lent, because Sunday is always the joyful celebration of the Resurrection. Therefore, the first day of Lent in the western Church is always a Wednesday.

....ashes became a sign of remorse, repentance, and mourning. Today someone might wear a black armband to signify that they are in mourning; back then people put ashes on their foreheads.

You can find biblical examples of this in 2 Samuel 13:19, Esther 4:1-3, Job 42:6, and Jeremiah 6:26. During Lent, ancient Christians mourned their sins and repented of them, so it was appropriate for them to show their sincerity by having ashes on their foreheads. The custom has persisted in the church as secular society has changed around us.

It is most appropriate on Ash Wednesday, when we begin a period of sober reflection, self-examination, and spiritual redirection. Whether or not the Calendar guides our own practice,...the period leading to Good Friday is an appropriate time to engage in sober reflection about God's grace in Christ, our unworthiness, and a renewal of our commitment to holy living. (Why ashes on Ash Wednesday?)
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that Thou hast made,
and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent;
Create and make in us new and contrite hearts,
that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness,
may obtain of Thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

The Book of Common Prayer, 1559

Monday, February 15, 2021

Intent matters

Bari Weiss on "cancel culture":
.... There is a difference between saying something false and lying. There is a difference between hurling the n-word and quoting “Huckleberry Finn.” There is a “difference between murder and manslaughter,” writes my former colleague Bret Stephens in a column that The New York Times publisher spiked, but which ended up running in The New York Post.

Cancel culture necessarily erases intent. It relies on taking someone’s worst moment out of context, on elevating a moment of ignorance, on exaggerating a misstep and using that error to destroy someone’s life.

We live in a time when almost everything is posted, recorded and shared — that’s the reality. It’s not changing. The forgiveness a neighborhood used to give to a kid who said something stupid at a bar now has to be granted to him by everyone with a phone. Yes, I agree, it’s terrible. But we can’t unplug the Internet.

Living in this world is going to require a deep and generous ethic of forgiveness. That isn’t possible without insisting that intent matters. ....
Gina Carano and Crowd-Sourced McCarthyism

Sunday, February 14, 2021

"But not through me"

You can resolve to live your life with integrity. Let your credo be this: Let the lie come into the world, let it even triumph. But not through me. The simple step of a courageous individual is not to take part in the lie. One word of truth outweighs the world. In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are thereby ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago, 1918-1956

Thursday, February 11, 2021


Related to the last post: confession and repentance should be an element in a Christian worship service. Today, from Skye Jethani, "It’s time for evangelicalism to embrace the act of confession":
Attend an evangelical church in the United States and you are more likely to find cushioned theater seats than a liturgy of confession or hear a prayer of repentance. ....

Evangelicals ignore Lent and avoid confession not because they don’t believe in admitting their sins. Asking for forgiveness, after all, is part of putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ. But for many white evangelicals, this is a one-time event at conversion. Some may confess in their private prayers, but the corporate practice of confession is often dismissed as an “empty ritual,” “too Catholic” or unnecessary because “God forgave all of my sins — past, present and future — on the cross.”

This confuses confession as something we do for God’s sake, instead of a practice commanded by God for our sake. It misses the formative power of confession to shape us into more humble, self-aware and empathetic people.

The evangelical aversion to confession first occurred to me 20 years ago, when I was serving as a pastor in a mostly white, suburban church. A mentor with decades of experience in a similar setting warned me against focusing on sin, confession or any other “negative” topics. When I reminded him the Bible is full of “Thou shalt not…” commands, he advised me to “preach positive” instead.

This meant inverting the command against adultery into a message about the beauty of monogamy, flipping warnings about greed into the goodness of generosity and avoiding anything about judgment altogether. ....

When self-examination isn’t valued and cultivated, it’s all too easy to see Christian faith as a battle between external agents of good and evil rather than an internal struggle against my own sin. .... (more)
When leading worship I sometimes led the congregation in this from the Book of Common Prayer:
ALMIGHTY and most merciful Father; We have erred, and strayed from Thy ways like lost sheep. We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. We have offended against Thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done; And there is no health in us. But Thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders. Spare Thou those, O God, who confess their faults. Restore thou Those who are penitent; According to Thy promises declared unto mankind in Christ Jesus our Lord. And grant, O most merciful Father, for His sake; That we may hereafter live a godly, righteous, and sober life, To the glory of Thy holy Name. Amen.
Followed with a reassurance of forgiveness for those who repent. There are similar prayers of corporate repentance in more modern language.

Skye Jethani, "It’s time for evangelicalism to embrace the act of confession"

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Worshiping the Lord of Hosts

Anyone who has followed this blog for very long knows that I have strong opinions about the appropriate nature of Christian worship. One source that influenced my views was Robert E. Webber's Common Roots. (Another was Paul Manuel.) Webber looks back to what Scripture tells us about the practice of the Jews and then the early Church. Much of the book follows the evolution of worship practices though Christian history, including the views of the Reformers. He believed that modern Evangelicals had gone astray. This is an excerpt, not a summary, from a section titled "The Meaning of Worship":
In a full service of worship, the entire spectrum of Christian faith is included. Worship is a rehearsal of who God is and what He has done, and gives expression to the relationship which exists between God and His people. The focus of content in a sermon alone, or the emphasis found among the renewal churches where worship centers around a single aspect of God or a theme, misses the point of worship and fails to worship God in His entirety.

In summary the historic Christian approach to worship which emphasizes the adoration of the Father through the Son has been replaced in some churches by a program with a stage and an audience. And the nature of worship as an offering up of the whole person, the entire community, the body, through the head, Jesus Christ, as a ministry of praise to the Father has been replaced by an emphasis which sees the minister as the agent of God to evangelize the lost and teach the saints. While evangelism and teaching are integral functions of the church, they should not, as they have in some churches, constitute the sum and substance of worship. For that reason we turn to the historic understanding of worship in search of some guidelines to lead us out of our overemphasis on man-centeredness and restore a more balanced biblical content to our worship. ....

In worship we simply tell God the truth about Himself. In doing so we see ourselves in the proper relationship to God, which, in fact, is also an essential aspect of worship. Like Isaiah who, when he saw "the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up" and heard the cry "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory," responded by crying, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isa. 6:1-5). To see the Lord in all His glory is to see ourselves as sinful and in need of grace. And that realization is an indispensable aspect of worship. ....
Robert E. Webber, Common Roots: A Call to Evangelical Maturity, Zondervan, 1978.

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Putting first things first

Kevin Williamson's Tuesday column this morning discusses his acquisition of a new dachshund and also the importance of being truthful, even in politics. He quotes from a Twitter thread:
It’s an “end justifies the means” thing. The problem is that the end doesn’t justify the means, at least not for Christians. Jesus clearly taught that his followers are to be certain sorts of people, not to achieve certain ends. And a smart person who misleads others to gain power isn’t who we’re to be.

Which brings me to [First Things magazine]. The name “First Things” refers to a C.S. Lewis essay emphasizing the importance of keeping matters in their proper place, of not overvaluing (admittedly good) things that are of secondary importance to other things. Doing so, Lewis warned, may ironically destroy the value of the second thing that was improperly elevated above the first thing.

As Lewis elsewhere put it, “Put first things first and we get second things thrown in: put second things first and we lose both first and second things.”

For the Christian politician, electoral success and advancement is a second thing. Christian virtue—truthfulness, kindness, humility, peacemaking—must come first. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added unto you.”

This new breed of Christian nationalist may retort, “Yeah, that’s a recipe for continued electoral defeat and ultimately anti-Christian policies.” To which Jesus responds, “What doth it profit a man to gain the whole world and yet lose his soul?”

[First Things] used to understand this. Its founder, Richard John Neuhaus, famously said that “culture is the root of politics and religion is the root of culture.” Get that? Religion (Christian virtue) is the first thing. Culture, and ultimately politics, follow.

The sort of “muscular” Christian who views political success as paramount for protecting religion, and thus as an objective to be achieved however necessary, puts second things first. As Lewis warned, we’re likely to lose both first things (virtue) and second (elections).
Kevin Williamson, "Operation: Pancake"

Monday, February 8, 2021

Gussie Fink-Nottle

The Spectator (UK) provides "Books to cheer you up," among which Right Ho, Jeeves, by P.G. Wodehouse:
Any list like this simply has to have a novel by the great comic writer PG Wodehouse. Of the dozens that could be included, I think that Right Ho, Jeeves makes the cut simply because of Wodehouse’s greatest-ever comic set-piece, when Bertie’s friend Gussie Fink-Nottle is called upon to present the prizes at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School. Unfortunately, Gussie – a lifelong teetotaller and newt-fancier – has become extremely drunk. Over the next pages, Wodehouse depicts a farcical situation with marvellous economy and wit, where every single line and sentence brings some new and unexpected joy, and Bertie’s narration becomes increasingly panicked. It must be read, and savoured, with great attention, but sometimes it’s hard to concentrate when the tears of laughter are rolling down your face.
The television adaptation of that particular scene:

The Spectator, "Books to Cheer You Up"

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The truth, not "your truth"

From Samuel Johnson's Sermon 20:
We not only do what we approve, but there is danger lest in time we come to approve what we do, though for no other reason but that we do it. A man is always desirous of being at peace with himself; and when he cannot reconcile his passions to his conscience, he will attempt to reconcile his conscience to his passions; he will find reason for doing what he is resolved to do....

Let it be remembered, that the nature of things is not alterable by our conduct. We cannot make truth; it is our business only to find it. No proposition can become more or less certain or important, by being considered or neglected. It is to no purpose to wish, or to suppose, that to be false, which is in itself true, and therefore to acquiesce in our own wishes and suppositions, when the matter is of eternal consequence....
Samuel Johnson, "Sermon 20"

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

The obligation to be truthful

From Samuel Johnson "Of the Duty of a Journalist" (1758):
.... A journalist is an historian, not indeed of the highest class, nor of the number of those whose works bestow immortality upon others or themselves; yet, like other historians, he distributes for a time reputation or infamy, regulates the opinion of the week, raises hopes and terrors, inflames or allays the violence of the people. He ought therefore to consider himself as subject at least to the first law of history, the obligation to tell truth. The journalist, indeed, however honest, will frequently deceive, because he will frequently be deceived himself. He is obliged to transmit the earliest intelligence before he knows how far it may be credited; he relates transactions yet fluctuating in uncertainty; he delivers reports of which he knows not the authors. It cannot be expected that he should know more than he is told, or that he should not sometimes be hurried down the current of a popular clamour. All that he can do is to consider attentively, and determine impartially, to admit no falsehoods by design, and to retract those which he shall have adopted by mistake.

This is not much to be required, and yet this is more than the writers of news seem to exact from themselves. It must surely sometimes raise indignation to observe with what serenity of confidence they relate on one day, what they know not to be true, because they hope that it will please; and with what shameless tranquillity they contradict it on the next day, when they find that it will please no longer. How readily they receive any report that will disgrace our enemies, and how eagerly they accumulate praises upon a name which caprice or accident has made a favourite. ....
Little has changed.

Samuel Johnson, "Of the Duty of a Journalist" (1758)

Monday, February 1, 2021

"But there is mercy..."

Continuing to read from Samuel Johnson's sermons. Only twenty-eight survived. Apparently those who commissioned him to write them typically copied them and then destroyed his. This is from "Sermon 2":
Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts, and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

That God is a being of infinite mercy; that he desires not the death of a sinner, nor takes any pleasure in the misery of his creatures; may not only be deduced from the consideration of his nature, and his attributes; but, for the sake of those that are incapable of philosophical enquiries, who make far the greatest part of mankind, it is evidently revealed to us in the Scriptures, in which the Supreme Being, the source of life, the author of existence, who spake the word, and the world was made, who commanded, and it was created, is described as looking down from the height of infinite felicity, with tenderness and pity, upon the sons of men; inciting them, by soft impulses, to perseverance in virtue, and recalling them, by instruction and punishment, from errour and from vice. He is represented as not more formidable for his power, than amiable for his mercy; and is introduced as expostulating with mankind upon their obstinacy in wickedness; and warning them, with the highest affection, to avoid those punishments, which the laws of his government make it necessary to inflict upon the inflexible and disobedient. “Return unto me, and I will return unto you, saith the Lord of hosts.” Malachi iii. “Make you a new heart, and a new spirit, for why will ye die, O house of Israel.” Ezekiel xviii. 31. His mercy is ever made the chief motive of obedience to him; and with the highest reason inculcated, as the attribute which may animate us most powerfully to an attention to our duty. “If thou, O Lord, wert extreme to mark what is done amiss, O Lord, who shall abide it? But there is mercy with thee, therefore shalt thou be feared.” If God were a power unmerciful and severe, a rigid exactor of unvaried regularity and unfailing virtue; if he were not to be pleased but with perfection, nor to be pacified after transgressions and offences; in vain would the best men endeavour to recommend themselves to his favour; in vain would the most circumspect watch the motions of his own heart, and the most diligent apply himself to the exercise of virtue. They would only destroy their ease by ineffectual solicitude, confine their desires with unnecessary restraints, and weary out their lives in unavailing labours. God would not be to be served, because all service would be rejected; it would be much more reasonable to abstract the mind from the contemplation of him, than to have him only before us, as an object of terrour, as a being too mighty to be resisted, and too cruel to be implored; a being that created men, only to be miserable, and revealed himself to them, only to interrupt even the transient and imperfect enjoyments of this life, to astonish them with terrours, and to overwhelm them with despair.

But there is mercy with him, therefore shall he be feared. It is reasonable, that we should endeavour to please him, because we know that every sincere endeavour will be rewarded by him; that we should use all the means in our power, to enlighten our minds, and regulate our lives, because our errours, if involuntary, will not be imputed to us; and our conduct, though not exactly agreeable to the divine ideas of rectitude, yet if approved, after honest and diligent enquiries, by our own consciences, will not be condemned by that God, who judges of the heart, weighs every circumstance of our lives, and admits every real extenuation of our failings and transgressions. .... (more)
The Yale Digital Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson: Sermon 2