Wednesday, November 30, 2022


Michael J. Kruger finds a fictional illustration of "deconversion" in Lord of the Rings:
...[O]ne of the most remarkable (and often overlooked) examples of apostasy is Saruman in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. In many ways, Saruman has always been an odd part of the plot line. With a bad guy like Sauron to occupy the reader’s attention, why does the story even need a character like Saruman? Besides, as my kids always complain, his name actually sounds a lot like Sauron’s which makes everything very confusing.

My hunch, though, is that the name similarity is intentional. Tolkien’s world is more nuanced than just the good guys and the bad guys. Instead, there are actually good guys that become bad guys—which makes things very complicated. It’s a perfect picture of de-conversion. ....
1. Saruman was very much on the “inside” before de-converting. As the chief of the Wizards and head of the White Council, he was a leader among those who were opposed to Sauron. He was a trusted advisor and friend to many, including Gandalf.
Lesson: You can’t always see de-conversion coming. Before a person de-converts, they can look as solid as can be.
2. Saruman became enamored by the ways of the enemy. Saruman became an expert in the rings of power, which made him a great asset. But, it was his interest in ring lore that led to his downfall because he eventually lusted after the power that the rings could bring him.
Lesson: De-conversion is sometimes preceded by a desire for the power and prestige offered by the world.
3. Saruman mocked his old allies, insisting they were uneducated simpletons. As Saruman became more open about his new direction, he was quick to criticize the world he left behind. A fellow wizard, Radagast the Brown, takes the brunt of Saruman’s mocking: “‘Radagast the Brown!’ laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. ‘Radgast the Bird-Tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!'”
Lesson: Those who de-convert often criticize (sometimes in a virulent manner) the evangelical world they left behind.
4. Saruman presented his de-conversion as a step toward enlightenment. As the head of the council, Saruman always wore a white robe. But when Gandalf confronts him at Orthanc, he notices that he has changed to a robe “woven of all colors.” This symbolized as shift away from absolute truth towards pluralism; towards what is progressive. This is evident in Saruman’s next words, “‘White!’ he sneered. ‘It serves as a beginning.'”
Lesson: Those who de-convert present their shift as one towards progress and enlightenment. In their mind, it is forward not backward.
5. Saruman tries to convince others to join him in his de-conversion. When Saruman first confronts Gandalf, he is not out to destroy him, but to “evangelize” him. He tries to convince Gandalf to join him in this new pathway. Incredibly, Saruman even tries to convince Gandalf that they can accomplish more good if they take this new direction: “Knowledge, Rule, Order; all the things that we have so far striven in vain to accomplish.”
Lesson: Those who de-convert are often evangelistic in recruiting others to join them.
In the end, Saruman functions as a remarkably accurate picture of what de-conversion is like. Tolkien was onto something. In the real world, it is not as simple as the “good guys” and the “bad guys.” Sometimes things are more complicated than that.
Michael J. Kruger, "The Deconversion of Saruman," canon Fodder, Nov. 30, 2022.

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

On Christian Nationalism

From a book review by Kevin DeYoung:
This is a long review, so let me state my conclusion up front: I understand and sympathize with the desire for something like Christian Nationalism, but if this book represents the best of that ism, then Christian Nationalism isn’t the answer the church or our nation needs. For all the fine retrieval work Wolfe does in parts of the book, the overall project must be rejected.

The message—that ethnicities shouldn’t mix, that heretics can be killed, that violent revolution is already justified, and that what our nation needs is a charismatic Caesar-like leader to raise our consciousness and galvanize the will of the people—may bear resemblance to certain blood-and-soil nationalisms of the 19th and 20th centuries, but it’s not a nationalism that honors and represents the name of Christ. ....

I’ve used the word “winsome” for years. It’s a good word. One of the unofficial slogans of Reformed Theological Seminary, where I gladly serve, is “winsomely Reformed.” If “winsome” means we engage in the battle of ideas with respect and civility, looking to build bridges where we can, then it’s certainly a worthwhile goal. The problem is when “winsomeness” and “empathy” get to be defined not by our words and deeds but by how our words and deeds make people feel. “I will be kind” is Christianity. “I will not do anything to jeopardize your good opinion of me” is capitulation. ....

For all the faults of America (and there are many), and for all the problems facing Christians today (also, many), you’d be hard-pressed to find a country where orthodox Protestants wield more political power, have more cultural influence, and have more freedom to practice their faith according to the dictates of their conscience.

.... I think we’re in a moment of profound cultural change and that the forces aligned against orthodox Christian faith are many and powerful. It remains to be seen which Christian institutions and individuals will remain faithful. A big sort is already underway. ....

[W]e should remember there are much bigger problems than national and civilizational collapse. Like sin, flesh, and the Devil. Like death and hell (Matt. 10:28). ....

[I]f we must say something about a strategy for national renewal, it’s multifaceted and rather ordinary. We need confidence, courage, and Christlikeness. We need faithful churches, gospel preaching, and prayer. We should contend for the faith. We should disciple our churches and catechize our kids. We should create new—and steward existing—civic, educational, and ecclesiastical institutions. We should love our neighbors and share our faith. We should press home the truths of natural and revealed religion in the public square and get involved in the political process. ....

We aren’t the first Christians to live in trying times; most Christians around the world, and millions of Christians throughout history, would likely trade their circumstances for ours. The cultural upheaval we’re living through will be a means of providential grace if it leads us to think more carefully about civil society, to contend for the truth more persuasively, to commit ourselves more fully to Jesus and his church, and to grow in that holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb. 12:14). .... (much more)
Kevin DeYoung, "The Rise of Right-Wing Wokeism ," TGC, Nov. 28, 2022.

Monday, November 28, 2022

The struggle

I read this book at a much too young and impressionable age. I haven't read it for some time. This quotation came to my attention today. From Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886):
.... I hazard the guess that man will be ultimately known for a mere polity of multifarious, incongruous and independent denizens. I, for my part, from the nature of my life, advanced infallibly in one direction and in one direction only. It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

It was the curse of mankind that these incongruous faggots were thus bound together—that in the agonised womb of consciousness, these polar twins should be continuously struggling. ....
Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (pdf).

Saturday, November 26, 2022

An evil empire came crashing down

Matthew Continetti, in "We Win and They Lose," reviews The Peacemaker: Ronald Reagan, the Cold War, and the World on the Brink:
"Some people say I’m very simplistic, but there’s a difference between being simplistic and simple,” Ronald Reagan told a visitor to his home in January 1977. “A lot of very complex things are very simple if you think them through.” A moment passed and Reagan continued: “Keeping that in mind, my theory of the Cold War is, we win and they lose. What do you think about that?” ....

Reagan’s confidence that the Cold War could be won made him unusual. At the time, both Republicans and Democrats believed that America was in decline. Communism was on the march in Afghanistan, Africa, Central America and the Caribbean. Then, in 1980, President Jimmy Carter seemed hapless and ineffectual after he failed to rescue U.S. hostages in Iran. The CIA mistakenly believed that the Soviet economy was growing. The policies of arms control and détente —or direct negotiations—were ascendant. ....

...Reagan sought neither appeasement nor war with the Soviets, but rather their negotiated surrender. He believed that the integration of force with diplomacy would pressure the Soviet system on multiple fronts and drive the Communists to appoint a leader willing to make concessions. His defense buildup was as much about quality as quantity: Advanced weapons such as stealth aircraft and precision-guided missiles gave America a competitive edge over the sheer mass of the Soviet war machine.

Reagan also authorized huge military exercises to demonstrate U.S. capabilities and coordination with allies. He imposed export controls on technology that crippled Soviet innovation and growth. He aided anticommunist insurgencies. And his advocacy of religious liberty inspired dissidents behind the Iron Curtain. ....

As Mr. Inboden proceeds year by year through the 1980s, one is reminded of both Reagan’s courage and history’s contingency. Reagan’s dreams might not have become reality if he had succumbed to the assassin’s bullet in the spring of 1981, if he had let the air controllers keep their jobs that summer, if he had listened to Nixon and not appointed George Shultz secretary of state in 1982, if the crisis over the Soviet shootdown of a Korean passenger jet had turned into war in September 1983, or if the economy had failed to recover by November 1984. Reagan’s opponents said that his dogged support for human rights and missile defense was both counterproductive and a distraction from good relations with the Soviets. Rather than conform to the accepted interpretation of reality, he sought to establish new facts on the ground that favored the expansion of freedom. .... (more, probably behind a subscription wall)
Matthew Continetti, "We Win and They Lose," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 25, 2022.

Advent is only a foretaste

Philip Jenkins, from "Advent, and the End Times":
If you don’t think you know the antiphons — well, you’re probably wrong. You know them in English if you have ever heard a very popular hymn translated by J. M. Neale, which begins,
Oh, come, oh, come, Emmanuel....
Each antiphon gives one of the divine titles associated with messianic prophecy, with a prayer, each rooted in scripture. We begin for instance with Sapientia, Wisdom:
O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other mightily,
and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Then we move to Adonai, the God who manifested on Sinai; then the Root of Jesse; the Key of David; Oriens, the Morning Star; King of the Nations; and finally, on Christmas Eve, to the title Emmanuel itself. And roughly, Neale’s hymn translates the antiphons in that sequence. You thus work through the whole development of the Old Testament, so that you are then ready to welcome the Christian message on Christmas morning. ....

That “coming” reminds us that Christmas is only a foretaste, a first draft, of the Second and final coming, a point that assuredly will not appear as much as it might in the year’s Christmas sermons. Advent after all, adventus, is the Latin form of the Greek parousia. To understand the implications of that weighty word in the New Testament, see its main occurrences in two heavily End Times-related sequences, namely Matthew 24, and both 1 and 2 Thessalonians. Typically, “For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.” Now that would be a Christmas sermon.
Philip Jenkins, "Advent, and the End Times," Anxious Bench, Nov. 24, 2022.

Friday, November 25, 2022

Thanks springs from humility

Stirewalt offered some Thanksgiving thoughts yesterday: "I love Thanksgiving for making explicit that gratitude is a necessary precondition for any real happiness—both for individuals and for nations. .... Thanksgiving is the most attitudinally conservative of our holidays. It is not about pride in all the good things we have and the great works we have achieved, but is instead rooted in humility. You can’t be thankful for what you believe you deserve, so humility begets gratitude, which begets happiness." He quoted part of this by Yuval Levin:
To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned too, even when they’re wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, and so what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom—of ordered liberty—built up over centuries of hard work.
Chris Stirewalt, "First Humble, Then Thankful, Then Happy," The Dispatch, Nov. 24, 1022.

Saturday, November 19, 2022


The Guardian reports "Recently discovered Wind in the Willows illustration to be sold at auction":
An original illustration from The Wind in the Willows, which was recently discovered hanging in a country house, is to be sold at auction.

The pencil and ink drawing is by EH Shepard, who illustrated Kenneth Grahame’s classic and Winnie-the-Pooh. Titled "Swaggering Down the Steps," it shows Mr Toad coming down the steps of Toad Hall clad in motoring attire to be greeted by Ratty, Badger and Mole. ....

Shepard was asked to illustrate The Wind in the Willows in 1931 by Grahame. By then, he had already provided drawings for Punch magazine and Winnie-the-Pooh. It was the author of the latter, AA Milne, who introduced Grahame and Shepard. ....
"Recently discovered Wind in the Willows illustration to be sold at auction," The Guardian, Nov. 18, 2022.


In today's Anecdotal Evidence, quoting Terry Teachout:
The English language needs a word whose definition would be ‘nostalgia for that which one has not experienced.'
Patrick Kurp, "A More Exalted Form," Anecdotal Evidence, Nov. 19, 2022.

Friday, November 18, 2022

Hosea Rood

From a very good article by Doug Welch in the Milton Courier this week about Hosea Rood (1845-1933):
The abolitionist legacy of the early Milton Academy was put to the test at the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Former and current students of the academy – renamed Milton College in 1867 – responded in kind and with great vigor.

More than 325 men with academy ties enlisted in the Union Army, a very high percentage of the school’s male student body from the time the academy opened in 1844 through the close of the war in 1865. Of those men, 46 died while serving in the Union Army and 13 were killed in action or died of wounds. Of their ranks, 28 perished to disease. ....

...[T]he largest legacy among Civil War veterans affiliated with Milton Academy is that of Hosea Rood. Rood did not attend Milton Academy until after the war when the school became Milton College. He attended and then taught at the college....

Rood enlisted in Company E of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry in October 1861 when he was 16, though he gave his age as 19. The company trained at Madison’s Camp Randall and left for Missouri in January 1862. The 12th was involved in many actions during the war. It was attached to General Grant’s army during the siege of Vicksburg, a turning point in the war’s Western Theatre when the siege ended on July 4, 1863. The 12th then joined General Sherman’s Army of Tennessee in Georgia. Rood and his comrades saw extensive action during the Atlanta Campaign, including the battle at Kennesaw Mountain.

Once Atlanta was secured, the 12th was part of Sherman’s decisive March to the Sea from Nov. 15 to Dec. 21, 1864. In May, 1865, a month following the assassination of President Lincoln, Rood and the 12th took part in the Grand Review in Washington, D.C. ....

In 1901, Rood was instrumental in having a bill introduced providing for a Memorial Hall in the capitol where war relics, books and photos might be gathered and preserved as memorials of the state’s participation in the Civil War. The bill passed and Rood became custodian of the hall.

Rood spent two years gathering a large collection of Civil War materials and artifacts for display in the new hall.

But on the morning of Feb. 17, 1904, the capitol was nearly destroyed by fire and everything Rood had collected was destroyed.... Rood went back to work to rebuild the collection and from his efforts came the foundation of what remains the Wisconsin Veteran’s Museum on the Capitol Square in Madison. ....

The Roods first purchased a home on Greenman Street in 1879 and always considered Milton to be their home, even while Hosea worked or taught in other communities. In 1924, Rood moved permanently to Milton where he continued writing, including an extensive history of his Company E of the 12th Wisconsin Infantry. He died in 1933 at age 88 and is buried in the Milton Cemetery. (more)
Doug Welch, "Hosea Rood became one of many prominent names out of Milton in late 19th century," Milton Courier, Nov. 18, 2022.

We need better voters

Chris Stirewalt:
Ours is a system crafted by virtuous people to protect us from the wicked impulses that will always afflict humankind. Now, we’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel for political leaders for a while, but the problem here isn’t so much “candidate quality” as it is a lack of civic virtue among rank-and-file partisans. Politicians tend to go where the votes are, and these days that often means scare-mongering, apocalypticism, and dehumanizing other groups. The politicians are not creating those desires, but rather responding to them. A nation that has lost its capacity for critical thinking and has developed a limitless appetite for emotional blabber will not produce virtuous politicians. As frustrating and corny as this, the truth is that our soul-sick nation needs a moral, spiritual renewal in which we learn that the only antidote to all this hate is a righteous love for our country and its people.
Chris Stirewalt, "Lessons in Power at a Time of Transition," The Dispatch, Nov. 18, 2022.

"We need all the escapism we can get"

Michael Dirda on "Why read old books?":
When I was young, I didn’t yearn to be rich, successful or famous but instead desperately wanted to feel at least halfway educated. To me, that meant gaining familiarity with history, art, music, languages, other cultures and the world’s literature. The foundations of learning, I quickly realized, were nearly all located in the past. Time had done its winnowing, and what remained were the works and ideas that shaped human civilization. ....

The great books are great because they speak to us, generation after generation. They are things of beauty, joys forever — most of the time. Of course, some old books will make you angry at the prejudices they take for granted and occasionally endorse. No matter. Read them anyway. Recognizing bigotry and racism doesn’t mean you condone them. What matters is acquiring knowledge, broadening mental horizons, viewing the world through eyes other than your own. ....

For several years now, I’ve been exploring popular fiction published in Britain between 1880 and 1930. I started doing this because of my fondness for Arthur Conan Doyle’s books and my subsequent discovery that the creator of Sherlock Holmes flourished in an age of wonderfully entertaining novels and stories. Imagine how poor our imaginative lives would be without Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, H. Rider Haggard’s She and Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, without Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit, E. Nesbit’s The Enchanted Castle and Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, without John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, Rafael Sabatini’s Captain Blood and P.C. Wren’s Beau Geste. ....

Today, most of these works are in the public domain and readily available from Project Gutenberg, the Internet Archive or in cheap reprints. I discovered many of them simply by asking friends about what books they loved. That’s how I learned about Georgette Heyer’s historical romances. Titles I didn’t already recognize I looked for online or when I visited a bookshop. For the various genres I’m interested in, such as the ghost story and the detective novel, I long ago bought standard critical histories, then studied them closely, especially their bibliographies. .... Anthologies are also immensely useful: For instance, Dorothy L. Sayer’s 1929 Omnibus of Crime and its two sequels are packed with stunning but often little-known mini-classics of horror and detection. Obviously, too, if you like one story by an author, you’ll probably enjoy others. ....

...[T]he books of the past, besides adding to our understanding, offer something we also need: repose, refreshment and renewal. They help us keep going through dark times, they lift our spirits, they comfort us. Which means that I also strongly agree with the poet John Ashbery, who once wrote, “I am aware of the pejorative associations of the word ‘escapist,’ but I insist that we need all the escapism we can get and even that isn’t going to be enough.” ....
Michael Dirda, "Why read old books?," The Washington Post, Nov. 17, 2022.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022


Peter Hitchens:
I once took bread for granted, and thought it dull. The bread of my childhood was plain stuff, smeared with a little butter or (I suspect) margarine and given to us to fill us up. ....

At school our morning break saw the distribution of “doorsteps,” thick white slabs designed to keep us going through a tough morning of learning the dates of battles and kings, the principal products of the empire, or Latin. Occasionally bread would turn up toasted (a luxury) or spread with beef dripping, a delight which has now almost completely disappeared from English life. At breakfast we often ate fried bread, now regarded as little better than poison but the perfect accompaniment for fried eggs and bacon. ....

Years afterwards came my first visits to France, and my introduction to its wholly different bread, which crackled as you broke it and had been perfectly designed to be eaten with the sort of cheese which moves of its own accord, or with the red wine which is of course the ultimate accompaniment for bread, for reasons which took years to dawn on me. I had never really understood the expression “break bread” before I broke a loaf in Paris. ....

No wonder that Christendom’s greatest prayer is a petition for bread. No wonder that the central ceremony of that religion is (whatever you believe takes place at it) constructed around bread, and of course wine. Only water, at the heart of Baptism, is more powerful as a symbol and fact of abundant life. I have myself always liked the 1662 Prayer Book’s stipulation about the loaf used at the Lord’s Supper: “It shall suffice that the Bread be such as is usual to be eaten; but the best and purest Wheat Bread that may conveniently be gotten.” ....
Peter Hitchens, "Irregular White Disks," The Lamp, Nov. 15, 2022.

Sunday, November 13, 2022

"The better angels of our nature"

From "How to have political disagreements without ruining relationships," advice I would do well to remember, and applicable to more than politics:
If you've lost a friend or a loved one to political disagreements, you're not alone. A 2021 study by the American Enterprise Institute showed that a full 15% of adults have ended a friendship over politics. ....

The soldier has one goal: to win the battle, protect their side, and defeat the enemy. The soldier isn't interested in shades of gray or in finding common ground; he's interested in winning. Given our tribal roots, the soldier mindset is highly adaptive. When you're at war with a rival tribe, letting down your sword to mull over how your opponents might actually have a point is a good way to get killed.

The scout, however, has a different goal: to understand. She wants to find the truth, because getting an accurate picture of the situation—whether it’s the terrain, the location and numbers of the enemy, or the weather—is essential to helping her side succeed. The scout approaches the problems of the world dispassionately, like a researcher, unblinkered by ideological biases or motivated reasoning.

You may be thinking that times are tough, the stakes are high, and the soldier is what is needed right now. But, in the words of Abraham Lincoln during perhaps the greatest period of strife in our nation’s history, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” If Lincoln can think that during the Civil War, we can certainly think it now. ....

When you act as a scout, you can shift the discussion away from the supposed moral deficiencies of your opponent and toward a disagreement on implementation. It helps you avoid overly simplistic framings and helps you find common ground. This framework is far more constructive and conducive to relationship-building and conflict resolution than the soldier approach, and it is needed now more than ever. ....
Julian Adorney, "How to have political disagreements without ruining relationships," Foundation Against Intolerance & Racism (FAIR), Nov. 7, 2022.

Saturday, November 12, 2022

"Had circumstances been different..."

Selected quotations from Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit:
  • As I presented myself, she gave the moustache a swift glance, but apart from starting like a nymph surprised while bathing and muttering something about ‘Was this the face that stopped a thousand clocks?’ made no comment.
  • He gave me a long, reproachful look, similar in its essentials to that which a black beetle gives a cook when the latter is sprinkling insect powder on it.
  • ‘Then I’m all for it,’ said Aunt Dahlia, making for the door. Her face was grim and set. She might have been a marquise about to hop into the tumbril at the time when there was all that unpleasantness over in France.
  • I spread the hands in a dignified gesture, upsetting the coffee pot, which was fortunately empty.
  • It is at moments like this that you catch Bertram Wooster at his superb best, his ice-cold brain working like a machine.
  • ‘Oh, Bertie, if I ever called you a brainless poop who ought to be given a scholarship at some good lunatic asylum, I take back the words.’ I thanked her briefly.
  • Had circumstances been different from what they were – not, of course, that they ever are…
  • [Bertie] ‘If I am to stave off the Cheesewright challenge, I shall have need of a weapon. His strength is as the strength of ten, and unarmed I should be corn before his sickle.’ [Jeeves] ‘Extremely well put, sir, if I may say so, and your diagnosis of the situation is perfectly accurate. Mr Cheesewright’s robustness would enable him to crush you like a fly.’ [Bertie] ‘Exactly.’ [Jeeves] ‘He would obliterate you with a single blow. He would break you in two with his bare hands. He would tear you limb from limb.’ I frowned slightly. I was glad to see that he appreciated the gravity of the situation, but these crude physical details seemed to me uncalled for.
Leigh Turner, "Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit: 20 delicious quotations," May 12, 2018.

Jefferson's Bible

From "Doubting Thomas: On Peter Manseau’s The Jefferson Bible":
WITH A PENKNIFE in his hand, Thomas Jefferson cut out of the gospels every single interesting thing about Jesus Christ. The virgin birth? Cut. Water into wine? Deleted. The raising of Lazarus? Erased. The demoniac? Exorcised. The temptation in the desert? Removed. The resurrection? Canceled. Writing in 1819, a year before he took on this task, Jefferson expressed his desire to eliminate from the Bible the “immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection & visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of hierarchy, Etc.” He ignored that several of those concepts aren’t in the New Testament, or that the immaculate conception refers to the Virgin Mary. Applying cold rigor, Jefferson evaluated the gospels, and found them filled with superstitious dross invented by unscrupulous scribes and affirmed by credulous believers. But underneath all that rubbish, he thought, there was a “system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man.” ....

In an 1814 correspondence with his frenemy John Adams, he enthuses that one can find Jesus’s authentic morals “as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.” Always sensitive to the accusations (some of them true) that he was a libertine, an atheist, and an adulterer, Jefferson anticipated his defense, writing that “I am a real Christian […] a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel” — a clever rhetorical maneuver of redefinition. ....

...[H]olding the utmost faith in the operations of his own (superior) mind, Jefferson affirmed that he could cut out those passages “which contradict the laws of nature” ....

This is what’s so unsatisfying about Jefferson’s Bible — he has expunged mystery. And mystery is the gospels’ raison d’être. Jefferson repeatedly claimed that the morality of the New Testament was the most sublime and benevolent — a frequent injunction of liberal mainline Protestantism — but is it true? I’d venture that anything which is demonstrably livable within Christian ethics is anodyne, and that anything which is novel is an impossibility, so that the gospels are only coherent if Christ is God ....

From the Sermon on the Mount come the transgressive promises of the Beatitudes, but also that “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee,” and “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” How much worse are Jefferson’s sins? Christ is just as extreme in describing forgiveness. There is undeniable beauty in trying to “[l]ove your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,” or in encouraging that “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” but such commandments are impossible. At the very least they’re incredibly hard — fit for mystics and saints — but not the normal congregation. Which is precisely the point — Christ isn’t offering a “benevolent code of morals” — he isn’t suggesting a code of morals at all. Rather, he’s proclaiming our intrinsic fallenness and the necessity for God’s infinite grace. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” isn’t a rule — it’s an ideal: one we’re bound to fail. As Jefferson himself did — spectacularly. ....
"Doubting Thomas: On Peter Manseau’s The Jefferson Bible,” Los Angeles Review of Books, Nov. 6, 2022.

Tuesday, November 8, 2022

“Government of the people, by the people, for the people”

Allen Guelzo on Lincoln on democracy:
.... The least well-examined words of the address...are its expansive triplet: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” This wasn’t merely a rhetorical flourish. In that triplet, Lincoln lays out the three fundamental elements of democracy. The first is consent—government of the people. “According to our ancient faith,” Lincoln said in his 1854 speech objecting to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which compromised on slavery, “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” That meant plainly “that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.”

A second distinctive feature of democracy is the people’s voice in the affairs of governing—government by the people. It matters little whether that active voice is the direct participation of individuals, as in ancient Athens, or through their representatives, as in the American Constitution. From his earliest moments in politics, Lincoln argued that government by the people—through their laws and through elections, and not by mobs with nooses and shotguns—was the only legitimate expression of democracy. “I do not deny the possibility that the people may err in an election,” he conceded in 1861. “But if they do, the true cure is in the next election.”

The third basic element of democracy is a government that serves the interests of the people—government for the people—not those of a monarch, an aristocracy or an angry and contemptuous elite. For that reason, Lincoln wrote, government served to do only those things that need “to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves,” such as roads and bridges, schools and asylums, the enforcement of the laws and the defense of the nation. While government isn’t “charged with the duty of redressing, or preventing, all the wrongs in the world,” he said in 1859, it does have the responsibility to keep from “planting and cultivating too many thorns in the bosom of society.” ....
Allen C. Guelzo, "Lincoln’s Vision of Democracy," Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2022.

Character, ability and experience

Via POWERLINE, a thought for Election Day, from Calvin Coolidge's newspaper column, "Calvin Coolidge Says," in 1930.
NORTHAMPTON, Mass., Oct. 8.—If self-government is to continue to be a success the voters must take their duties seriously. As the relations of the government in both our political and economic life become increasingly intricate, the necessary qualifications for discharging the functions of high office must be correspondingly raised. Administration and legislation are becoming more and more an exact science. It is no longer possible to expect the best results from men and women without previous training in public activities.

For important political service the three qualifications necessary are character, ability and experience. Some of our voters are not giving sufficient consideration to these requirements. They are often supporting candidates whose greatest appeal is that they are good fellows. An agreeable personality is a fine quality, but it is not enough to administer a great office. It is vain to support office seekers who smile, if it results in electing officeholders who are not competent.

The government cannot be run successfully by substituting the power of entertainment for the power of accomplishment. The essential quality for the voters to require in their choice of candidates is capacity for public service.


Sunday, November 6, 2022

"Watership Down" at 50

Watership Down was first published in November of 1972:
.... Three literary agents and a host of mainstream publishers united in rejecting Adams’s pastoral rollercoaster: a reader at Puffin remembered his first response, that Adams was no Tolkien. Eventually, a small independent London-based publisher, Rex Collings, accepted the novel. .... Collings issued a tentative first print run of 2,500 copies. Following rosy reviews, these sold out almost immediately. Within less than two years, the novel had sold half a million copies in hardback in the UK and the US.

Other successful children’s novels have begun life as stories told to their authors’ children, among them The Wind in the Willows and James and the Giant Peach. Unlike Kenneth Grahame or Roald Dahl, though, Adams was not already a successful writer and did not have in mind a change of career. What Adams shared with Grahame, Dahl et al was an intense love for the rural setting of his novel, an evocation of the Berkshire downland he roamed as a child, a keen sense of justice, and a clear engagement with the predicament of the underdog, or in his case under-rabbit. ....

The novel’s frequent descriptions of setting, especially wildflowers and plants, possess a lyrical quality that has become a wake-up call to successive generations. “The rabbits sheltered in dim-green, sun-flecked caves of grass, flowering marjoram and cow-parsley,” Adams writes of the surrounds of a warren called Efrafa. They “peered round spotted hairy-stemmed clumps of viper’s bugloss, blooming red and blue above their heads: pushed between towering stalks of yellow mullein. Sometimes they scuttled along open turf, coloured like a tapestry meadow with self-heal, centaury and tormentil.” Even the familiar is apparently minted anew in Adams’s lovingly picturesque descriptions, such as his vision of clouds at sunset as the rabbits await a thunderstorm: “Copper-coloured, weightless and motionless, they suggested a glassy fragility like that of frost.”

For parents reading the novel aloud, Watership Down – like The Wind in the Willows or BB’s The Little Grey Men, of 1942, an earlier Carnegie Medal winner – is a reminder of what we have lost: the ability to pause, empty our thoughts and take comfort from “the scents of warm grass, clover and hop trefoil”.

Adams was at pains to get his rabbit details right. For “a knowledge of rabbits and their ways”, he consulted The Private Life of the Rabbit by Ronald Lockley. ....
Matthew Dennison, "‘To hell with the child’: the uncompromising origins of Watership Down," The Telegraph, Nov. 6, 2022.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Hoping rightly

I remember a fellow student in graduate school mocking my pronunciation of "Augustine." I pronounced the name like the city in Florida. He taught me better. Augustine's ideas were and are rather more important than the proper pronunciation though. From "‘A Commonwealth of Hope’ Review: The Uplifting St. Augustine":
The liberal political philosopher John Rawls bestowed on St. Augustine of Hippo a dubious honor. He identified Augustine, along with the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, as one of “the two dark minds in Western thought.” Rawls said this because Augustine based his conception of man on the reality and depth of human sin.

Augustine’s emphasis on sin is evident in his Confessions. ....

Political theorists sometimes turned to Augustine to understand the terrors of the 20th century. These philosophers emphasized passages in which Augustine was fixated on evil. The “dark” Augustine that emerged in 20th-century scholarship considered the world a vale of tears. He thought of government as a necessary evil. He was a pessimist about the prospects for peace on earth. ....

Augustine was not a pessimist but a champion of hope. He encouraged his hearers to hope for the well-being of the city. And he possessed an expansive vision of Christians and non-Christians working together to improve their lives on earth. ....

Augustine...did not define hope as a naive expectation that something good will happen. It is not the belief that we can accomplish all things—including the building of heaven on earth—by our own power, without the grace of God. That is presumption. At the same time, Augustine did not endorse passivity or inaction in the face of life’s many injustices. That is despair, an outlook as condemnable as presumption. ....

Augustine famously argued that there are two cities. The earthly city is defined “by love of self extending even to contempt of God.” The heavenly city is defined “by love of God extending to contempt of self.” He recognized that the two cities are intermingled on earth. Here, the heavenly city must “make use of the peace of Babylon.” And here, before the final judgment, we do not know who belongs to what city.  ....

In any case, Augustine learned what it meant to be a good citizen by looking heavenward, to the city of God. There, “the king is Truth, the law is Love and the duration is Eternity.” His hope for the heavenly city led him to look after the good of the earthly city. ....
Aaron Alexander Zubia, "‘A Commonwealth of Hope’ Review: The Uplifting St. Augustine," The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 4, 2022.

Thursday, November 3, 2022

The butler didn't do it

Were Christie's mysteries flawed because she didn't portray working class murderers?
.... These insular, generally inbred fictional spaces (not unlike the closed-circuit token box of suspects, rooms, and weapons provided by the board game Clue) were almost entirely inhabited by utterly English types: doctors, lawyers, bankers, businessmen, actors and actresses, lords and ladies, and even policemen. Sure, there are plenty of servants roaming the crime scenes, but at the end of the day, they are inevitably blameless—leaving the profession of murder to those who run the society in which they merely serve. In a Christie novel, violent murder might happen at any moment—and yet the meals and tea still arrive on time, the beds are duly turned down, and the gardens properly managed. ....

Christie’s fictional universe (like that of her many emulators) provides the safest possible space for readers to inhabit, and every book is reliably different from every other one in almost exactly the same way—which is probably why these stories of human slaughter are, more often than not, labeled as “comforting” by those who enjoy them, just as “a Christie for Christmas” was once one of publishing’s most successful refrains. ....

One of the hardest parts of reading a Christie novel is keeping the characters straight—since they are all, to some degree, at least mildly unsavory, dishonest, and guilty of something. They are also mostly white, attractive, well employed, and well dressed; and they all speak with the same polite middle-class manner—however, as in Poirot’s case, distinctly accented. ....

It may have been the silliest irony of her life that while she could plot puzzles for readers like nobody’s business, she couldn’t solve this almost too obvious puzzle of the 1970s: Why would college kids rebel against a society being run by privileged, cloistered middle-class individuals like those in Agatha Christie’s novels? As long as she lived, she never came close to solving that one. (more)
Scott Bradfield, "Agatha Christie Suspected Everyone," The New Republic Nov. 1, 2022.

Wednesday, November 2, 2022

“It’s what a song makes you feel"

Bob Dylan's new book, The Philosophy of Modern Song, has been reviewed many times in the last few days. I probably won't buy it, but comments about it have made it seem interesting, from a Brit who thinks him a "great man" to an American who thinks him a disturbing misogynist.

From The Telegraph:
Bob Dylan’s mischievously titled The Philosophy of Modern Song barely pretends to offer a coherent treatise on the state of contemporary songcraft. Rather, its lavishly and wittily illustrated 340 pages are an excuse for the great man to write with joyful zest, piercing profundity and flamboyant imagination about whatever crosses his mind....

At 81, Dylan can come across as a grumpy old man confronting the state of contemporary culture. “Everything is too full now; we are spoon-fed,” he complains in his appreciation of Hank Williams’s 1953 country classic Your Cheatin’ Heart. “All songs are about one thing and one thing specifically, there is no shading, no nuance, no mystery. Perhaps this is why music is not a place where people put their dreams at the moment; dreams suffocate in these airless environs. And it’s not just songs – movies, television shows, even clothing and food, everything is niche-marketed and overly fussed with. ....

“People can keep trying to turn music into a science, but in science one and one will always be two. Music, like all art, including the art of romance, tells us time and again that one plus one, in the best circumstances, equals three.” For Dylan, songs are metaphysics and alchemy. This book is lightning in a bottle.
The Washington Post:
It has 66 brief vignettes about memorable sides cut by performers ranging from the Sun Records also-ran Jimmy Wages to the 1940s multithreat Perry Como to Dylan’s old touring buddies the Grateful Dead to his musical inheritors, like Elvis Costello and the Clash. ....

These essays are not all terrifying verdicts on the fate of a corrupted humanity. There are history lessons, too! ....

Oftentimes, when interrogated about himself and his views, he is something of a pill: evasive, defensive and not infrequently ornery. But when speaking about peers and progenitors in the field of songwriting, the mood shifts. He has routinely been thoughtful, insightful and uncommonly generous to those with whom he shares the arena.

The Philosophy of Modern Song is the great manifestation of that praiseful impulse. Dylan has his nitpicks, but this is mostly a liturgy. Here are 66 instances of beauty, anxiety and deliverance that taken together would make a satisfying last will and testimony....
Los Angeles Times:
“Knowing a singer’s life story doesn’t particularly help your understanding of a song,” Dylan writes. “It’s what a song makes you feel about your own life that’s important.” ....

Most of us fall hard for pop music as adolescents and never quite shake the stranglehold those formative hits have on our consciousness. Dylan is no different. Twenty-eight songs in the book date from the 1950s. Nine were released in 1956, the year Dylan turned 15.

He also writes about ‘60s and ‘70s rock anthems — the Who’s “My Generation,” the Clash’s “London Calling” — and makes a couple of excursions into the ‘80s catalog of Willie Nelson. But it’s clear that Dylan’s definition of “modern song” does not extend into the hip-hop era. ....

...[C]oherence isn’t what you want from Bob Dylan. What you want is to watch songs ping-pong around his brain; you want a close encounter with his mind. Unfortunately, that same mind is the storehouse for some extremely dark and disturbing ideas about — to use the retrograde term that Dylan himself employs — the opposite sex. ....

Dylan makes the obvious but important point that pop lyrics, which may “seem so slight” when read, are “written for the ear and not for the eye.” It’s when those words are set to music and dramatized by a singer of skill and sympathy that the magical transmutation occurs.

Dylan is a brilliant songwriter, of course; the truth is, he’s a better singer, a master vocal stylist whose performances speak to the deeps of human emotion even when they carry unseemly attitudes and ideas. ....
Neil McCormick, "Bob Dylan tackles pop, polygamy and PC culture with wicked wit," The Telegraph, Oct. 29, 2022, Elizabeth Nelson, "Bob Dylan takes us on a wide-ranging tour of songs he admires,"The Washington Post, Oct. 31, 2022, Jody Rosen, "Bob Dylan’s new book is revealing, misogynistic and a special kind of bonkers," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 27, 2022.