Friday, March 31, 2023

Holy Week

Have we been missing out by ignoring commemoration of some of the most important events in gospel history?
...[F]or many of us who have grown up in Baptist churches, celebrating Holy Week has not been a long-standing tradition that we have practiced. ....

Truth be known, if your experience was anything like mine, Palm Sunday was largely overlooked. Maundy Thursday was completely unknown to you. Good Friday was just another day off from work or day out of school. And Holy Saturday was nowhere on the radar. You gave very little thought to what those days were actually meant to remember. By and large, you ignored the most important days of the Christian year, writing them off as something that only “other” churches emphasized. And as a result, you came to Easter Sunday with no real sense of what you were celebrating, no real sense of the joy of the resurrection.

Personally, I’ve come to believe that our failure to celebrate Holy Week has been to our own detriment. We are missing out on commemorating the most important events in human history, and we are missing out on understanding what those events mean for us and for our salvation. So, if you want to gain a sense of the joy that the disciples had when they understood that Jesus had risen from the dead on that first Easter Sunday, then walk with them through the sorrow, pain, fear, confusion, and darkness of that Thursday, Friday, and Saturday.

To remind you of the significance of these days, below are brief descriptions of what is commemorated and celebrated on Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. (more)
Justin Wainscott, "The Importance of Holy Week," The Center for Baptist Renewal, March 31, 2023.

Conspiracy theories are for losers

I taught secondary social studies and history for thirty-five years. Consequently I became familiar with various dubious theories, for instance that the moon landing was fake, or that JFK was killed by a second gunman firing through a storm grate. I thought adolescents particularly prone to conspiracy theories. Since retirement and spending many hours online reading blogs, political sites, Facebook posts, and tweets, I've realized that is not true. From "The Rise of the Respectable Conspiracy Theory":
.... An interesting study published last year concluded that neither the Left nor the Right are systematically biased towards conspiracy theories. Based on 20 surveys conducted in the US between 2012 and 2021, the authors found that around a third of the conspiracy theories they reviewed were more attractive to Republicans than to Democrats, a third were more attractive to Democrats than to Republicans, and the rest were non-partisan. Right-wingers were particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories about COVID-19 while left-wingers were drawn to conspiracy theories about Donald Trump. Right-wingers tended to be more anti-vax when it came to COVID-19 but not when it came to MMR. ....
Some of the best-known conspiracy theories, including the JFK assassination, Holocaust denial, and 9/11 being an “inside job,” were not associated with political views, although they may have been in the past. The authors make the important observation that widely believed conspiracy theories sometimes start out on the Left or Right and become bipartisan over time. Neither the 9/11 “truth” movement nor the JFK conspiracy originated on the far-Right. On the contrary, they most appealed to people who hated George W. Bush and couldn’t face the reality of Kennedy being murdered by a Marxist, respectively. ....

The problem is nobody believes that their own crackpot theories for how the world works are conspiracy theories. If they did, they would stop believing them. Conspiracy theories are for other people—gullible people who belong to the outgroup. They are conspiracy theorists. We are free thinkers who do our own research and think critically. ....

Many of the classic conspiracy theories arise from a sense of disbelief. A simple car crash seemed to be an inadequate ending to the Princess Diana soap opera. JFK was too important to have been killed by someone as insignificant as Lee Harvey Oswald. 9/11 was too enormous to have been mere terrorism. The logistics of putting a man on the Moon were too mind-blowing to have been achieved in 1969. ....

The election of Donald Trump and the vote to leave the EU were similarly shocking to those who had previously regarded those developments as unthinkable. As we retreat into our echo chambers, there is a growing inability to even acknowledge the existence of opposing views, let alone consider them valid. When everyone you know agrees with you, it comes as a shock when the votes are counted and you realise that your side is outnumbered by a basket of deplorables. When something seems unbelievable, the temptation is to simply disbelieve it and reach for alternative explanations.

Conspiracy theories are, in every sense, for losers. When your side is losing in ways that you find inexplicable, extraordinary explanations become appealing. The centrists and the sensibles who hold high-status opinions went a long time without losing, but in the past decade have suffered several major defeats. At the same time, conspiratorial thinking has entered the mainstream like never before. Is this a coincidence? A conspiracy theorist would say that there is no such thing as a coincidence and, in this instance, they would be right. (more)
Christopher J. Snowdon, "The Rise of the Respectable Conspiracy Theory," Quillette, March 31, 2023.

Thursday, March 30, 2023

A petition for forgiveness

From the Book of Common Prayer (1662):

ALMIGHTY and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that Thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all those who 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.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023


My favorite morning choice to break fast is not American after all:
Americans have laid claim to “English muffins”, and you’ll find countless stories online that they were invented by immigrant Samuel Bath Thomas in 1880 and subsequently sold in his New York bakery. These are balderdash.

Yes, it’s true that muffins of the bread type (as opposed to true American muffins, a sort of bloated cup cake) fell out of favour over here in the 20th century, while thriving in Stateside supermarket aisles.

But versions of the nursery rhyme “Have you seen the muffin man” date back to the 18th century, and food writer Hannah Glasse has a precise recipe in her 1747 bestseller The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy, right down to instruction to split the muffin with your hands not a knife or it “will be heavy as lead”.

Still not convinced? Oscar Wilde has quintessential Englishmen Jack and Algernon squabble over the muffins in The Importance of Being Earnest, first performed in 1895. “Good heavens! I suppose a man may eat his own muffins in his own garden,” says Jack. Without being told they are American, he might have added.
Xanthe Clay, "Carbonara, English muffins, Caesar salad and other dishes that aren’t from where you think they are," The Telegraph, March 29, 2023.

Tuesday, March 28, 2023

"The political benefits of religion..."

Burke on the proper place of politics:
During his first few years in England, Edmund Burke compiled essay sketches and fragments in a notebook published only in the mid-twentieth century. One of the entries in that notebook, possibly co-written with his distant cousin William Burke, is entitled “Religion of No Efficacy Considered as a State Engine.” ....

The premise is simple: Religion has salutary benefits for social and political life. But once it is seen primarily in a political context—when it becomes merely a “state engine”—it fails to provide those benefits.
If you attempt to make the end of Religion to be its Utility to human Society, to make it only a sort of supplement to the Law, and insist principally upon this topic, as is very common to do, you then change its principle of Operation, which consists on Views beyond this Life, to a consideration of another kind, and of an inferior kind.
.... In his later life...Burke would identify the social benefit of religion as its ability to overawe all other social calculations and considerations. It reminds us that all we say and do has cosmic significance. Placing all human endeavors next to the sublimity of God, as he noted in his Philosophical Enquiry, has the effect of diminishing our opinion of ourselves and our capabilities: “Whilst we contemplate so vast an object, under the arm, as it were, of almighty power, and invested upon every side with omnipresence, we shrink into the minuteness of our own nature, and are, in a manner, annihilated before him.” ....

The political benefits of religion, then, rely on the humility that true religion ought to produce. And, as the young Burke suggested, it could only come as a side effect of a religion that was not focused primarily on political and social affairs. ....

As Burke would eloquently argue throughout his life, unity around a genuine religious tradition can have great social benefits insofar as it places politics in a context that reveals its own insufficiency and limits. But his observations are a reminder that the question of public religion is much more complicated than a matter of whether, abstractly, religion is good for social life. Also at stake are the substantive teachings of the religion itself, the public perception of it, and its effects on the souls of those wielding it.

Minds shaped by the pulpit may, depending on what is taught there, lead to better citizens and better statesmen. But pulpits focused mostly on political matters are necessarily degraded from their true purpose and therefore self-defeating. .... (more)
John G. Grove, "A 'Religion of No Efficacy'," Law & Liberty, March 24, 2023.

Sunday, March 26, 2023

More bowdlerizing

And it continues:
Agatha Christie novels have been rewritten for modern sensitivities, The Telegraph can reveal. ....

The character of a British tourist venting her frustration at a group of children has been purged from a recent reissue, while a number of references to people smiling and comments on their teeth and physiques, have also been erased. ....

The new editions of Christie’s works are set to be released or have been released since 2020 by HarperCollins, which is said by insiders to use the services of sensitivity readers. It has created new editions of the entire run of Miss Marple mysteries and selected Poirot novels.

Digital versions of new editions seen by The Telegraph include scores of changes to texts written from 1920 to 1976, stripping them of numerous passages containing descriptions, insults or references to ethnicity, particularly for characters Christie’s protagonists encounter outside the UK.

The author’s own narration, often through the inner monologue of Miss Jane Marple or Hercule Poirot, has been altered in many instances. Sections of dialogue uttered by often unsympathetic characters within the mysteries have also been cut. ....
One can't have even "unsympathetic characters" portrayed as bigots?

Craig Simpson, "Agatha Christie classics latest to be rewritten for modern sensitivities," The Telegraph, March 25, 2023.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Thinking for yourself

At The Free Press, "From Slavery in North Korea to Jeff Bezos’s Gulfstream," an excerpt from While Time Remains: A North Korean Defector's Search for Freedom in America by Yeonmi Park. It is a fairly long excerpt, recounting some of what life was like in North Korea, but mostly her rather disappointing experiences after arriving in the United States.
.... It took a long time for me to start thinking for myself, rather than within the boundaries set for me. For the first fourteen years of my life, which is when we learn how to think, there was no thinking for me to do. What kind of haircut should I get? That was a decision made only by the regime. What kind of music should I listen to? The regime decided for us. What kinds of books and movies? The regime, again. There was no opportunity to develop critical human faculties like judgment, imagination, or taste, which of course is the objective of every dictatorial regime.

North Korea is so successful in this respect that once I was finally free in South Korea, I was crippled by the expectation and even the thought that I had to make decisions and think for myself. Which jeans should I wear? I wished someone else would pick for me. Where should I eat dinner? Can’t someone else decide? In the first several months I lived in Seoul, I felt overwhelmed even by small, meaningless decisions like these—so much so that at one point, I remember thinking that if I could be guaranteed a supply of frozen potatoes and an exemption from execution for having defected, I’d like to go back to North Korea.

It was not the education I received at Columbia, or following the American press, that helped me finally break out of this habit. It was reading old books. Michael Young’s The Rise of the Meritocracy was one; George Orwell’s collected writings were another. I started to believe, as I still do now, that the only way to think for yourself is to ignore the mainstream media, and largely forget the daily news cycle, and connect instead with the great minds of the past, who know all of our problems better than we do ourselves.

There is a reason why the great books of Western civilization are all banned in dictatorships. Before my father’s arrest, when I was seven or eight years old, I remember that one night in our home, he was sitting with a small glass bottle with cooking oil and a cotton thread inside, which he ignited with a lighter to turn it into a reading lamp. My father was holding a bundle of bound pages with no front or back cover. When I asked him what it was, he said it was part of a book about North Korean soldiers that were captured by the South during the Korean War. I remember him telling me then that the benefit of reading books, if you could find them, was that you could learn common sense, which you don’t get taught in classrooms, because they are filled with propaganda. .... (more)
Yeonmi Park, "From Slavery in North Korea to Jeff Bezos’s Gulfstream," The Free Press, March 22, 2023.

The Abolition of Man

A tweet I saw today pointed out that C.S. Lewis's The Abolition of Man was published eighty years ago, in 1943. The book is very short—my copy has only 62 pages. It is definitely worth the time. A quotation from the book demonstrates its continuing relevance, perhaps more relevant today than when written:
My copy
.... The final stage is come when Man by eugenics, by pre-natal conditioning, and by an education and propaganda based on a perfect applied psychology, has obtained full control over himself. Human nature will be the last part of Nature to surrender to Man. The battle will then be won. We shall have ‘taken the thread of life out of the hand of Clotho’ and be henceforth free to make our species whatever we wish it to be. The battle will indeed be won. But who, precisely, will have won it? For the power of Man to make himself what he pleases means, as we have seen, the power of some men to make other men what they please.

…the man-moulders of the new age will be armed with the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.”

In the older systems both the kind of man the teachers wished to produce and their motives for producing him were prescribed by the Tao (Logos, Absolute, etc.) – a norm to which the teachers themselves were subject and from which they claimed no liberty to depart. They did not cut men to some pattern they had chosen. They handed on what they had received: they initiated the young neophyte into the mystery of humanity which over-arched him and them alike. It was but old birds teaching young birds to fly. This will be changed. Values are now mere natural phenomena. Judgments of value are to be produced in the pupil as part of the conditioning. Whatever Tao there is will be the product, not the motive, of education.
I haven't tried but apparently the book can be downloaded in several formats.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

"I looked for life, and saw it was a shade..."

Chidiock Tichborne was hanged, drawn, and quartered in 1586. He had been implicated in a Catholic plot to kill Queen Elizabeth I. He was 22 or 23. He wrote “Tichborne’s Lament” on the evening before his death. For more about him, the poem, and the circumstances of its writing go here. It was new to me.
My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain.
The day is fled, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

The spring is past, and yet it hath not sprung,
The fruit is dead, and yet the leaves be green:
My youth is gone, and yet I am but young,
I saw the world, and yet I was not seen.
My thread is cut, and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death, and found it in my womb,
I looked for life, and saw it was a shade:
I trod the earth, and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I am but made.
The glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.
Douglas Murray, "Things Worth Remembering: The Last Words of a Doomed Poet," Free Press, March 19, 2023.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

The lesser evil

Charles C.W. Cooke, annoyed with some of his critics, explains the difference between his role as an advocate and his responsibility as a voter in an imperfect world: the choices we all have to make between the perfect and the possible.
.... As a commentator, I seek perfection: Each day, I lay out the contours of my ideal world, argue precisely what I think about issues and candidates, honor my conscience, and try to persuade people to my side. As a voter, I live in the world as it actually exists. A useful analogy is with someone who is trying to make a business deal. When I am writing, I lay out unsparingly what I would get out of politics if I had everything my own way. When voting — when bartering with others, that is — I must inevitably settle for much less. ...[T]here is no tension whatsoever between these two roles unless I attempt to square my own opinions with the compromises I’m obliged to make as a voter. “I don’t especially like this candidate, but, in the booth, I preferred him to his opponent” is a legitimate take for even the most punctilious of ideologues. ....

Unless a given candidate has disqualified himself from consideration by doing something genuinely unforgivable — as Donald Trump did when he attempted to stage a coup in 2021 — the important question for me as a voter is not whether I am able to get everything I want from him, but whether I prefer him to his opponents. That I may strongly disagree with him on some important things — that I no doubt will disagree with him on some important things — is immaterial. In the electoral realm, the choice is either/or. ....
Charles C.W. Cooke, "You Can Criticize a Candidate and Still Vote for Him," National Review, March 17, 2023.

Friday, March 17, 2023

A reprobate hero

George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series is surely one of the most entertaining ways to learn 19th century history. This essay explains why, but also why it may be difficult to find the books on library shelves these days.
.... Flashman was born to Lady Alicia Paget and Henry Buckley Flashman MP. After he was expelled from Rugby School at the age of 17, he joined the 11th Hussars under James Brudenell, Earl of Cardigan, and was sent to Afghanistan, where he became one of the few Britons to make it back from Kabul during the First Anglo-Afghan War (1838–42). He subsequently saw action in the First Anglo-Sikh War (1845–46), the Crimean War (1853–56), the Indian Rebellion (1857), the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64), the American Civil War (1861–65), the Second Franco-Mexican War (1861–67), and the Anglo-Zulu War (1879).

He knew or met nearly all the eminent Victorians, including Florence Nightingale, Thomas Arnold, Chinese Gordon, Lord Palmerston, the Duke of Wellington, Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, and Queen Victoria herself. His romantic conquests were no less illustrious. Lola Montez, Queen Ranavalona of Madagascar, and Daisy Greville, Edward VII’s mistress, all, at one time or another, shared Flashman’s bed (or he theirs). He was the only man to survive both the charge of the Light Brigade and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and he was (probably) the only man to sleep with both Lillie Langtry, the actress, and Yehonala, the last empress of China.

If you think that all sounds too extraordinary to be true, you’re right. ....

...[George MacDonald] Fraser insisted that he was merely the editor of Flashman’s memoirs, found in a tea chest during a country-house auction, and he provided footnotes and appendices to prove it. .... Fraser evoked the Victorian era so deftly that many reviewers of the first Flashman novel fell for the ruse, taking the character for a real man. One critic even declared that the pages were the greatest find since the discovery of James Boswell’s diaries.

It was a fitting mistake, for Flashman is a brilliant con artist, capable of pulling the wool over almost anyone’s eyes. ....

Flashman’s list of admirers is nearly as impressive as his list of lovers. Kingsley Amis, Christopher Hitchens, David Mamet, and Charlie Chaplin all confessed to being Flashy fans. P.G. Wodehouse rarely praised other novelists, but when Fraser’s name came up he gushed: “If ever there was a time when I felt that ‘watcher-of-the-skies-when-a-new-planet’ stuff, it was when I read the first Flashman [novel].” The character’s appeal derives, in part, from his candor. Though Flashman lies to everyone around him, he never lies to his readers. ....

Fraser was just as good at portraiture. Flashman was his crown jewel, but there are plenty of other gems in the series: the hero’s airheaded wife Elspeth; his cantankerous father-in-law, John Morrison; and John Charity Spring, the half-mad classicist who shanghaies Flashman aboard the Balliol College. Some of the most vivid people we meet are actual historical figures like Lord Cardigan, of Light Brigade fame, and John Brown, the abolitionist whose raid on Harpers Ferry helped precipitate the American Civil War. The most delightful of all is almost certainly the congressman from Illinois, whom Flashman first encounters at a Washington soirée in 1848: “I liked Abe Lincoln from the moment I first noticed him, leaning back in his chair with that hidden smile at the back of his eyes, gently cracking his knuckles.” .... (much more)
I've posted about the Flashman books before, here and here. If you wish to follow Flashman's career chronologically, there is a helpful chart at the foot of this post.

Graham Daseler, "A Jolly Good Scoundrel," Quillette, March 17, 2023.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

Michael Caine

On Michael Caine's 90th birthday, John Nolte lists his own favorite Caine films. Below are some of Nolte's favorites that I have enjoyed enough to own the DVDs. I watched A Shock to the System just last night.
Zulu (1964)
The movie that made Caine a star is a superb reenactment of the 1879 Battle of Rorke’s Drift, where 150 or so British soldiers somehow withstood an attack by 4,000 Zulu warriors. Caine isn’t the star, but as the arrogant and insecure officer who becomes a man over the course of the battle, the movie is all his.
The Ipcress File (1965)
Caine plays the now-iconic Harry Palmer, a bespectacled anti-James Bond. More bureaucrat than intelligence officer, Harry is our sloppy protagonist who works in a dingy office, lives in a dingy flat, and worries about things like balancing his expense account. The character was popular enough to power four sequels, all starring Caine.
Get Carter (1971)
Caine brings all his movie star power and unspoken depth to the British gangster film of all British gangster films. Cold, calculating, and fearless, Jack Carter returns home to avenge his brother. Carter is the thing that just keeps coming, and not even the ladies are safe.
The Man Who Would Be King
Caine and co-star Sean Connery shine like the superstars they are in John Huston’s rollicking adaption of Rudyard Kipling’s infectious adventure about two former British soldiers tired of the lack of criminal opportunities in the British Empire. And so, they resolve to take a treacherous journey to a place where modernity dares not go, and in this place, they will serve as kings.

The chemistry between Caine and Connery sells this swashbuckler in a way unseen since the days of Errol Flynn. This is also a movie with plenty to say about ego, friendship, loyalty, and, yes, colonialism.
A Shock to the System (1990)
A gem of a black comedy with a killer cast and killer script (adapted by my friend Andrew Klavan) about Graham Marshall (Caine), a milquetoast advertising executive who suffers one indignity too many, which turns him into a cunning sociopath. The business with the lighter is beyond ingenious, and Caine—even as Graham’s ruthlessness deepens and becomes petty—never loses the audience. Our complicity, our vicarious satisfaction in watching this warlock mow down everyone who stands in his way, defines “guilty pleasure.”
Harry Brown (2009)
Caine is perfect as an aging pensioner who’s just lost a wife to old age and a best friend to local hooligans. Unfortunately, the police are useless against a ruthless gang that terrorizes Harry’s housing project. Fed up, this former Royal Marine takes matters into his own hands, and the results are tense and glorious.

Sure, Bronson made five movies like this. However, Harry Brown still stands out because Daniel Barber beautifully directs it, and although Caine plays his age, you buy into everything that happens.
This is only a selection among many more. I enjoy Caine in just about everything he has done.

John Nolte, "Happy 90th Birthday to the Mighty Michael Caine," March 16, 2023.

"Morse" is about failure and solitude

As the final episode of Endeavor has come to British television (and here soon, I hope), a consideration of the popularity of the series:
.... Three series grew out of Colin Dexter’s 13 novels: Inspector Morse (1987-2000); Lewis (2006-2015), in which Morse is a spectral presence, which suits him (he would be a good ghost); and Endeavour, the prequel (2012-23), which ended last week. ....

When John Thaw, who played Morse, drank in Oxford pubs during shooting, people would say: ‘Here, you’re Morse, aren’t you? Mind if I have a drink with you?’ So he hid in the Randolph Bar. It is now the Morse Bar, filled with photographs of Thaw.

People who have not heard of Morse – though it was seen by one billion people – might wonder who he is. ....

There was mention of a police cadet in the last Endeavour, who may sprout another spin-off, but Colin Dexter’s will is clear: there will be no new Morse until the copyright runs out.

Dexter was a teacher all his life. I think that’s why he liked killing teachers: the series overestimates the murder rate in Oxford by 2,600 per cent. He studied classics at Cambridge and lived in north Oxford. He began the first Morse novel, Last Bus to Woodstock, in north Wales in 1972.

Dexter described Morse as:
A sensitive and sometimes strangely vulnerable man; always a bit of a loner by nature; strongly attracted to beautiful women (often the crooks); dedicated to alcohol; and almost always on the verge of giving up nicotine. In politics, ever on the left, feeling himself congenitally incapable of voting for the Tory party; a “high church atheist” (as I called him), yet with a deep love for the Methodist Hymnal, the King James Bible, the church music of Byrd, Tallis, Purcell, etc., the sight of candles, and the smell of incense. Finally, like me, he would have given his hobbies in Who’s Who as reading the poets, crosswords, and Wagner.
Morse didn’t get into Who’s Who. One of the essential elements of his success is his failure. He never finished his degree, and nothing matters more in Oxford. ....
The Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour series can all be found on Amazon Prime Video.

Tanya Gold, "The cult of Morse," The Spectator, March 16, 2023.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Time well wasted

From an appreciation on Twitter:
The older I get, the better C.S. Lewis gets. His wisdom gets keener, and his insight clearer year by year. Like Aslan, he grows as I do.

I can understand why some folks who didn’t grow up in Narnia with the Pevensies may not warm to those stories. Jesus himself tells us that it is hard to relearn the wisdom of childhood once we’ve allowed the accumulation of years to dilute our ability for faith and wonder.

But Lewis didn’t just write stories for kids. The Ransom Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, That Hideous Strength) was meant for adults. It is well told fiction, well taught theology, and well wrought social commentary. Those who appreciate what Orwell does with 1984 should watch a master at work in That Hideous Strength.

Lewis understood that good fiction can do all sorts of things, and that the best fiction can do the most important things—chief among them is telling the truth.....

...[I]f fiction is not your cup of tea, there is still no shortage of good—perhaps even the best—Lewis. His Preface to Paradise Lost is high art. More than a mere literary psychology of Milton, tracing his thought through Homer and Virgil and Beowulf, Lewis provides a psychology of Satan and litters the page with keen insights into human nature, evil, and the dynamics of the Fall. ....
Another gem that many overlook is his book on medieval cosmology disguised as literary criticism, The Discarded Image. Perhaps no other work has helped me understand the spirit of the Renaissance, with its humours, and hierarchies, and music of the spheres. More still, it helps us see what shaped the men who shaped the world. ....

His Studies in Words is a heady shot of philosophical philology served neat with no chaser. .... And many have never heard of his academic magnum opus, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Excluding Drama) and this is a shame. It really is an engaging work, despite its rather drab title. It is a fascinating study of a logocentric world turned into words again.

I have largely avoided his most “popular” titles (Miracles, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, Surprised by Joy, A Grief Observed, etc.), because their ubiquity is its own testimony. Of course they are worth reading, and it is time well wasted.

Lewis is not overrated, people are simply not interesting enough these days to be sufficiently interested. To borrow from Chesterton, there’s no lack of wonder, only a lack of wonderers.

You will neglect Lewis to your own intellectual and imaginative impoverishment. ....

Men of the North

When surprised me with news that much of my ancestry was Scottish (not Welsh, as we had thought), English, Swedish, and Dane, my interest increased in how that combination occurred. Today Micah Mattix quotes from a review by Tom Shippey, medievalist and Tolkien scholar, of several books about the Normans. Shippey:
The Viking Age​ is generally agreed to have ended, as far as England was concerned, on 25 September 1066, when Harald Harðráði, or ‘Hardline Harald’, was killed and his army all but annihilated at Stamford Bridge. This put an end to the steady progress of the Vikings from raiders to settlers to would-be conquerors: an attempted invasion by King Sweyn of Denmark three years later was abortive, and though Norwegians continued for many years to control the Scottish islands in the far North, their effect on the British mainland was negligible.

But if you take a more romantic view, the First Viking Age was succeeded within three weeks by the start of a Second Age, with the victory of William of Normandy at Hastings. By 1100, Norman princes ruled not only England and most of Wales, with much of Scotland and Ireland soon to follow, but also Apulia and Calabria in southern Italy, and Sicily. They had started the process of picking off parts of the Byzantine Empire, and a Norman prince was ruler of Antioch in the Levant. They were to play a significant part in the reconquest of Spain and Portugal from the Muslims, and had ambitions even in North Africa. Who were the Normans, after all, but the men of the North, descended from pagan pirates? ....
Micah Mattix, Prufrock, March 15, 2023.

Monday, March 13, 2023

"The eternal desire to lose oneself in a chorus of hallelujahs"

About Leonard Cohen’s most well-known song:
.... “Hallelujah” may have the 12/8 timing and major chords that work so well for gospel music and wedding processionals, but it’s ultimately a story of fear and failure: “I did my best, it wasn't much.” Cohen dedicated it to “the broken.”

Sunday Times critic Bryan Appleyard observed that among all the verses available to cover artists, “Only two possibilities predominated: either this was a wistful, ultimately feel good song or it was an icy, bitter commentary on human relations.” The first, crowd-pleasing possibility only lasted one-and-a-half stanzas, but it’s amplified by the eternal desire to lose oneself in a chorus of hallelujahs. The rest of the lyrics attest to the author’s inability to live in a state of grace.

This is unfortunate. Audiences long for a serious, modern poem about the Creator blessing human desire. .... (more)
Among the many, many covers, I picked this one:

Katya Sedgwick, "Cohen’s Hallelujah," First Things, March 13, 2023.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Free exercise

Ever since the 17th century members of my denomination have had to navigate issues engaged by this upcoming US Supreme Court case:
Should American employees be forced to choose between making a living and freely exercising their religious beliefs? That is the question the Supreme Court is considering in Groff v. DeJoy.

On Tuesday, a diverse group submitted amicus briefs urging the court to answer that question with a resounding “no.” More than 30 briefs were filed on behalf of Christians, Jews, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists, Sikhs, Zionists, religious liberty and employment law scholars, medical professionals, nonprofit organizations, states, and members of Congress, among others.

Groff involves United States Postal Service (USPS) mail carrier Gerald Groff, a Christian, who holds uncontested sincere religious beliefs about resting, worshiping, and not working on his Sunday Sabbath. After he joined USPS in 2012, USPS contracted with Amazon in 2013 to provide mail deliveries on Sundays. Initially, USPS accommodated Groff’s Sunday Sabbath observance but later required him to work Sundays.

In accordance with his religious beliefs, Groff refused to work when he was scheduled on his Sunday Sabbath, resulting in progressive disciplinary actions by USPS. Realizing his termination was imminent, Groff resigned in 2019, leading to this religious discrimination lawsuit.

This case places the future of workplace religious accommodation rights in the hands of the Supreme Court. .... (more)
Rachel N. Morrison, "No One Should Be Forced To Choose Between His Faith And His Paycheck," The Federalist, March 6, 2023.

Keepers of the Flame

Alan Jacobs today, having read reviews of a friend's biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
...[I]t’s clear that there is a strong network of Bonhoeffer scholars, centered in Germany but not confined there, for whom Bonhoeffer’s dear friend and biographer Eberhard Bethge is the one authoritative Keeper of the Bonhoeffer Flame, whose judgments must be acknowledged correct and thus made the grounding of all future scholarship on Bonhoeffer. Marsh knew and greatly admires Bethge but does not take quite that view. (How American of him!) And even mild dissent from the Authorized View – Strange Glory is certainly no “revisionist” biography of Bonhoeffer, though it has many new insights – must be policed by...the protectors of turf. Thus: turf protection as brand management; and book reviews as an instrument of brand management.

All this interests me because precisely the same kind of behavior can be seen in the world of C.S. Lewis scholarship. Here Walter Hooper plays the role that Bethge plays for Bonhoeffer: the officially designated custodian of the Cult. The majority of Lewis scholars, I think, see themselves as continuing and extending the work of Hooper, and are typically not happy with work that dissents from Hooper’s understanding of Lewis. (Everyone who reads deeply in Lewis is indebted to Hooper for his energetic editorial labors, but his interpretations of Lewis are another matter.) Thus A.N. Wilson’s biography of Lewis – which is to some degree a revisionist one – was generally excoriated by the Lewisites, though it is in fact a mixed bag, deeply insightful in some ways and grossly mistaken in others. My own biography of Lewis has been largely ignored by the disciples of Hooper, I think because I am neither fish nor fowl: by no means a revisionist or skeptic, but also not following in Hooper’s interpretative footsteps. I am outside the Cult, but the way in which I am outside the Cult is not legible to them.

The interesting question for me is this: Is there a specific kind of thinker who generates a cult, a cult that then creates and manages a brand? There are certainly thinkers who intend to build a cult around themselves – Ayn Rand comes first to mind – but that’s not something that Bonhoeffer or Lewis would ever have done. Yet readers’ devotion to them is so intense that cults happen, as it were. ....
Alan Jacobs, "of bad book reviewers and writerly cults," The Homebound Symphony, March 10, 2023.

Monday, March 6, 2023


I just ordered a Blu-ray if one of my favorite modern noirs: Twilight (no vampires). The lead actors were Newman, Sarandon, Hackman, and Garner. The supporting cast was just as impressive: Reese Witherspoon, Stockard Channing, Liev Schreiber, John Spencer, Margo Martindale, Giancarlo Esposito, and M. Emmet Walsh. From CrimeReads on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the film's release:
“You any tougher than you look?”
“Hell yes! At least, I used to be.”
“I used to be. We all used to be.”
Harry Ross (Paul Newman) was, as he describes it, a cop for twenty years, a PI for five, and then a drunk. When an errand to retrieve the wayward daughter of film stars Jack and Catherine Ames (Gene Hackman, Susan Sarandon) goes awry due to Harry’s inattention and subsequent injury, the Ameses allow him to recuperate in an apartment above the garage in their Art Deco mansion. Two years later, Harry remains, having settled into a cushioned role as a handyman and sort of kept friend to Jack. His mutual attraction with Catherine adds a pinch of spice to bland days of playing gin and fixing appliances.

Jack asks Harry to deliver a package—contents unspecified, reasons eluded. “It’s not blackmail,” Jack claims, so we and Harry know immediately that it must be. Harry allows himself to be persuaded. ....

Bookend scenes are at the actual Hollywood Station of the LAPD, with real cops as extras and movie posters on the walls. The seedy houses and apartments of LA’s further reaches have authentic grunge. A 1920s manse built for Delores Del Rio by husband Cedric Gibbons (designer of the Oscar statue) becomes the luxe abode of Catherine and Jack. Raymond Hope [Garner] lives in a small Modernist marvel hovering on stilts above the smog, a house designed by John Lautner in 1948. And one of the many unfinished projects of Lautner’s mentor, Frank Lloyd Wright, stands in for the remote ranch home of the Ameses. ....

The primary characters are in the waning days of careers, of lives, and of long-held secrets. Each is acutely aware that darkness is fast approaching. Jack is battling cancer for the second time. Catherine is younger and healthier than the two men in her life, but women in Hollywood are held to a different standard of success. Just maintaining the status quo requires desperate measures. And Harry knows he’s lost a step in an unmerciful profession. He should take his own advice and get out while he can. .... (more)
Glen Erik Hamilton, "Paul Newman’s Reflection on Noir: The 25th Anniversary of Twilight," CrimeReads, March 6, 2023.

Sunday, March 5, 2023


Richard Brookhiser, on the passing of friends:
When someone you have known for decades dies, so does that part of your own life. Gone are the occasions that only you two remembered, the punch lines that no one else now understands. ....

The fragility of friendship, like its value, is a product of adulthood. When we are kids our friends are who we know — the cohort of pint-sized neighbors and schoolmates. Looking back, you realize you did not even like some of them, but there they were, for dodgeball and duck duck goose, kids’ birthday parties and mandatory classroom exchanges of valentines. Everyone had to get one. I remember kid-size cards and/or chewable colored hearts imprinted with tiny messages. What do kids exchange now? DMs?

With age comes individuality and choice. ....

...[F]riendships can fade before friends do. Then the death of the friend annihilates even the fantasy that things might revert at last. It also highlights the wasted years that might not have gone to waste, if only.... Did we judge too quickly, not go the extra mile? Or were we wise because the person we had once picked and who picked us no longer existed, and the extra miles would have been endless? ....
Richard Brookhiser, "On Difficult Goodbyes," National Review, March 2, 2023.

Saturday, March 4, 2023


No one wants to suffer. Our Lord prayed in Gethsemane: "O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me...." Suffering has been a part of the human experience since the beginning of time and reducing it has almost always been a goal.  Katherine Boyle argues that "the war on pain has not only robbed us of resilience. It has sold us a mirage that is making us miserable."
.... It is not a coincidence that the modern campaign to eradicate suffering commenced just as religiosity in general and Christianity in particular began to decline at a rapid pace in America. There is no religion that doesn’t embrace suffering as integral to its teaching. Christianity deified it, with adherents wearing a symbol of torture as a symbol of their belief. Buddhism declares suffering its First Noble Truth. Stoicism acknowledges suffering while rejecting its dominance, and modern philosophers such as Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl wrote, “If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering.”

Many of these ancient beliefs are being replaced with piecemeal spirituality, or what Ross Douthat recently described as “magical thinking,” which is not inclined to acknowledge the need for suffering as a redemptive or meaningful part of life.

The real question, then, is why our attempt to eradicate suffering isn’t working. Most of our modern culture wars are waged in the name of harm reduction, safetyism, and relief from the mildest form of suffering—once referred to as adversity. With so much focus on comfort and safety, why aren’t we . . . happier? ....

We have long been fully invested in eradicating the suffering we deem unconscionable, but more important are the simple questions that define a serious life: For whom will you sacrifice? What will you defend? For what will you choose to suffer?
Katherine Boyle, "Get Serious: About Suffering," The Free Press, March 4, 2023.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Moving from "‘come and see’ to ‘go and be.’"

I've always been a bit suspicious of my own emotional reactions. I have cried at movies, for instance, and readily concede that I can be emotionally manipulated (and enjoy it, just as I can wallow in self-pity). I appreciated the cautions here:
.... Perhaps like some Asbury students, my most devoted spiritual years were during college. After an initial period of awakening, I spent years seeking to recreate, replicate and sustain an emotional intensity that I associated with pleasing God. ....

I have no criticism for earnestly sought after experiences of God, which I’m sure characterizes much of the Asbury revival. I do, however, think it is a mistake to make euphoric or ecstatic religious experience the goal or chief pursuit of one’s faith journey. ....

I grew up in a church where every Sunday we gathered in a large auditorium. I was surrounded by hundreds of people. The drums and electric guitar were loud, the lyrics were hypnotic, the chord structures were simple and appealed to my emotions. I’d close my eyes, bow my head, raise my hands, and sway with the music. Everyone else did the same.

It is hard to describe to those who haven’t experienced it what these church services are like. It’s beyond a mood-altering state. It is, at times, an emotional nirvana. ....

It created emotions of love for God and for others. But it didn’t build habits of behavior that helped me sustain a life of service and usefulness, or to grow in my faith and apply it to the challenges in the world outside church. I thought that was the point of the Christian faith: to love God and others, and to be salt and light in the world.

In addition, there is a tendency in some strands of evangelicalism to believe that if you’re not having regular emotionally intense experiences then you’re far from God. Maybe God is unhappy with you. This is what I think is harmful. ....

.... Riling up people’s emotions or preying on the natural human desire for ecstasy is unethical, not to mention un-Christian.

However, at the end of the day, it’s up to us to know when our emotions and desires are being preyed on. It is our responsibility to develop the habits and reflexes of self-control, moderation, and sober-mindedness. ....

The road less traveled is the one that diverts from spectacle and toward faithful work. Or as poet Dan Wilt put it as the Asbury services wrapped up: “Now we move from ‘come and see’ to ‘go and be.’”
Jon Ward, "Lead Us Not Into Temptation," The Dispatch, March 1, 2023.


When making classics appropriate for modern readers:
Sensitivity readers have been busy lately, first rewriting the works of Roald Dahl, and then trimming Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, ostensibly making them less offensive to modern readers. So what will they edit next – and how might they bring it into line with modern mores?
Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne
A honey-loving bear goes on a macrobiotic diet, and his best friend Eeyore is prescribed anti-depressants. Christopher Robin receives anti-psychotic medication to alleviate the delusion that animals are talking to him. ....

Dracula by Bram Stoker
A vampire learns to seek consent from beautiful women and people without wombs who identify as women before sucking their blood, and agrees to stop at any point that they change their minds about being blood donors. ....

The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
A group of schoolboys stranded on a deserted island form a commune and survive by engaging in a Marxist dialectic. They decry adults as bourgeois imperialists, and a pig-hunting expedition ends with them all deciding to become vegans. ....

The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
Three children are rescued by child protective services and learn not to talk to strangers hiding in the back of closets.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone by J.K. Rowling
Authorities shut down a school where pupils routinely risk their lives playing Quidditch and die in dangerous competitions, experimenting in the dark arts, or attacked by Death Eaters, killing curses and werewolves. The building is found to lack permits for moving staircases and its ubiquitous use of candlelight is branded a fire hazard. ....

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
A sexually ambiguous Mole, Rat and Badger persuade wealthy Mr Toad to share his fortune and turn Toad Hall into a shelter for underprivileged weasels. Mr Toad reveals that he identifies as a Frog, legally alters his species, and changes his pronouns to they/them.
Peter Sheridan, "After Dahl: what the sensitivity readers did next," The Spectator, March 1, 2023.