Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Reformation Day


Today, October 31st, is Reformation Day. Kevin DeYoung reminded us of some of the most important reasons we are Protestants:
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses concerning clerical abuses and indulgences on the church door at Wittenberg. This famous event is often considered the launching point for the Protestant Reformation.

The chief concern for Luther and the other reformers was the doctrine of justification. ....

There are five key concepts every Protestant should grasp if they are to understanding the reformer’s (and the Bible’s) doctrine of justification.

First, the Christian is simul iustus et peccator. This is Martin Luther’s famous Latin phrase which means “At the same time, justified and a sinner.” The Catechism powerfully reminds us that even though we are right with God, we still violate his commands, feel the sting of conscience, and battle against indwelling sin. On this side of the consummation, we will always be sinning saints, righteous wretches, and on occasion even justified jerks. God does not acquit us of our guilt based upon our works, but because we trust “him who justifies the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5).

Second, our right standing with God is based on an alien righteousness. .... I am not right with God because of my righteousness, but because “the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ” has been credited to me. .... We contribute nothing to our salvation. The name by which every Christian must be called is “The Lord is our righteousness” (Jer. 23:6).

Third, the righteousness of Christ is ours by imputation, not by impartation. That is to say, we are not made holy, or infused with goodness as if we possessed it in ourselves, but rather Christ’s righteousness is credited to our account.

Fourth, we are justified by faith alone. The Catholic Church acknowledged that the Christian was saved by faith; it was the alone part they wouldn’t allow. ...[E]vangelical faith has always held that “all I need to do is accept the gift of God with a believing heart.” True, justifying faith must show itself in good works. That’s what James 2 is all about. But these works serve as corroborating evidence, not as the ground of our justification. We are justified by faith without deeds of the law (Rom. 3:28; Titus 3:5). The gospel is “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:30-31), not “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and cooperate with transforming grace and you shall be saved.” There is nothing we contribute to our salvation but our sin, no merit we bring but Christ’s, and nothing necessary for justification except for faith alone.

Finally, with all this talk about the necessity of faith, the Catechism explains that faith is only an instrumental cause in our salvation. .... It is the object of our faith that matters. If you venture out on to a frozen pond, it isn’t your faith that keeps you from crashing into the water. True, it takes faith to step onto the pond, but it’s the object of your faith, the twelve inches of ice, that keeps you safe. Believe in Christ with all your heart, but don’t put your faith in your faith. Your experience of trusting Christ will ebb and flow. So be sure to rest in Jesus Christ and not your faith in him. He alone is the one who died for our sakes and was raised for our justification. Believe this, and you too will be saved. (more)
From Nathan Finn: "Baptists and the Reformation":
...[O]n this Reformation Day, I’m thankful for the Protestant heritage we Baptists enjoy. We stand with Luther and Calvin on justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We stand with the Anabaptists on a believer’s church committed to radical discipleship and confessor’s baptism. We stand with all three of these groups in their commitment to the supreme authority of Scripture. And as good Protestants, we ultimately stand where we stand, not because others stand there as well, but because we believe the Spirit still speaks through His Word to guide Christ’s people on the narrow way.
Five Key Concepts in the Reformation Understanding of Justification – Kevin DeYoung, Baptists and the Reformation

Monday, October 30, 2023


Tomorrow, October 31st, is Reformation Day and the day following is All Saints' Day.

Reformation Day is the anniversary of the day Martin Luther issued his challenge to debate his 95 theses—not the beginning of the Reformation but an important point in it. Halloween is actually All Hallows Eve, the evening before All Saints’ Day. Days were thought of as evening to evening so the eve was the beginning of the next day—think New Year’s Eve or Christmas Eve. Although today most approach Halloween as a secular holiday that wasn’t its origin and for Protestants, all believers are “saints” and All Saints’ Day is when we acknowledge “the great cloud of witnesses” who have passed on. So on Halloween, we can celebrate both the Protestant Reformation and all those believers who have gone before.
Therefore being justified by faith,
we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ:
By whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

Romans 5:1-2 [KJV]

Sunday, October 29, 2023

A good egg

From a review of The Soul of Civility by Alexandra Hudson:
.... Civility, she writes, is not a technique but a disposition, “a way of seeing others as beings endowed with dignity and inherently valuable.” Embracing this mind-set, she believes, “may be our only hope for navigating and emerging from our fraught and divided present times.”

How does a person suffused with civility behave? He (or she) makes eye contact with others, offers and accepts hospitality, tactfully speaks the truth, welcomes disagreement without rancor, cultivates humility and a habit of curiosity, and avoids dispensing either flattery or abuse. A civil person is a trustworthy friend, a thoughtful conversationalist, a solid citizen, a good egg.

You might think it not a high bar to clear, but it is. ....

Saturday, October 28, 2023

A dark and unwholesome turn

This weekend Halloween is being celebrated here. The celebration is a bit more subdued than it once was but still, the proprietor of the establishment where I often lunch dreads the drunken revelers that he expects tonight. On television, in movies, and on the street, it has become something much different than it was decades ago. I have come to feel about it much as Barton Swaim:
.... In recent years, as celebrations have become darker and more gruesome, I’ve started to dread its onset.

Part of my aversion arises from my own hidebound premodern Calvinist outlook, in which death is no laughing matter and necromancy is forbidden by God (see Deuteronomy 18:9-13). Forgive my Puritan sensibility, but I find the whole spectacle ugly and offensive and vaguely sinister. What sort of “holiday” deliberately terrifies children with images of murder and ruin and treats torture and death as a joke? ....

I am of course speaking only of the way in which All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve, is celebrated by Americans in the 21st century. I grew up in the 1970s and ’80s, when Halloween consisted of trick-or-treating, jack-o’-lanterns, apple-bobbing and maybe a viewing of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

Halloween has since become a kind of industrial cartoon death cult. ....

Nobody likes a scold, and I want to state clearly that I am pro-jack-o’-lantern and trick-or-treating.... But the yearly observance that used to be Halloween has taken a dark and unwholesome turn. My fear is that ironic celebrations of death are becoming less and less ironic.

Friday, October 27, 2023

Growing old

Patrick Kurp just reached 71. Yesterday at his blog, Anecdotal Evidence, he quoted Samuel Johnson on aging. From "a December 7, 1782 letter to Boswell":
I am afraid, ...that health begins, after seventy, and often long before, to have a meaning different from that which it had at thirty. But it is culpable to murmur at the established order of the creation, as it is vain to oppose it. He that lives, must grow old; and he that would rather grow old than die, has God to thank for the infirmities of old age.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Turn the clock back (selectively)

Can the clock be turned back? Can social disintegration be reversed? When it seems that things are falling apart, that "the center cannot hold," it may help to remember that there have been times when things did move in a more hopeful direction. For instance, Gertrude Himmelfarb, the great historian of 19th century England, described how the Victorian Era saw a remarkable improvement:
.... One of the extraordinary facts about Victorian England, which came as a revelation to me, was the low illegitimacy rate. Around 1845 the illegitimacy ratio was 7%; by the end of the century it had come down to less than 4%. In the poorest part of London, east London, it was 4% at its peak and 3% by the end of the century. Remember, this was a time of enormous political, economic and social turmoil: the industrial revolution, the cultural revolution, urbanism and so on. And yet it in spite of all these difficulties, illegitimacy was considerably reduced and the English emerged from this period in a state of re-moralization – in dramatic contrast to our present situation where illegitimacy rose from 5% in 1960 to nearly 30% today. ....

.... Like the low illegitimacy rate, the low crime rate is quite extraordinary. There was a drop in the crime rate of nearly fifty percent in the second half of the 19th century; again in dramatic contrast to the crime rate in our own times which in the past thirty years has risen ten-fold. The low crime rate was a reflection of the Victorian virtues – work, temperance, orderliness, and responsibility.

It was also a reflection of the degree to which this ethos had been internalized. We tend to think of stigma and sanctions as being externally imposed by society, by law and coercion. But in fact, what was most characteristic about Victorian England was the internalization of these sanctions. For the most part they were accepted by the individual willingly, even unconsciously; they were incorporated in his superego, as we would now say. This combination of external and internal sanctions made for a powerful ethos, an ethos supported by religion, law, and all the other institutions of society. ....
Alan Jacobs has been thinking about a book describing England in the preceding century and the tendency to believe that "progress" can only move in one direction:
I think it’s fair to say that most of us living in America today assume that, as we like to put it, “you can’t turn back the clock,” that history always and inevitably moves in a liberalizing direction. And we think that whether we consider such “liberalizing” as the epitome of good or the embodiment of evil or something in between. It seems to be endemic to Americans to embrace the “Whig interpretation of history”, that is, to see the whole of history as marching inexorably towards us, to see everything culminating in ourselves — whether we happen to like that culmination or not.

But when we seriously compare the social world of England in 1750 to the social world of England in 1850, it becomes harder to sustain the Whiggish model. As C.S. Lewis once commented, “as to putting the clock back”:
Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from that whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man.
Of course, we can and will disagree about what counts as real progress — about whether the clocks are wrong at all, and, even when we agree that they are wrong, where they should be re-set. But the key point is that history does not move in a single, inevitable direction — or at least, has not done so thus far — and if we imagine our grandchildren’s world as nothing but a continuation of our own, an extension or our own values and inclinations, we may prove in the end to be as wrong as wrong can be. (more)
Learning from Victorian Virtues | Acton Institute, A Not-So-Distant Mirror | Big Questions Online


Scrolling through the things related to C.S. Lewis that I have posted on this site, I came across this (shortened and slightly modified):

From the diaries of W.H. Lewis (C.S. Lewis's older brother):
This afternoon I got a Margery Allingham Omnibus from the library, with a foreword by her husband Youngman Carter from which I learnt with regret that the poor woman died of "a sudden and devouring cancer" on June 30, 1966. Pax cineribus. She'll be a great loss in the field of 'teccie [detective] writers. Why, I wonder, does the 'teccie provide a medium for so many women writers, most of them too at the top of the field in this genre—Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, Patricia Wentworth—and all of them outstanding. (Brothers and Friends: The Diaries of Major Warren Hamilton Lewis, 6 May 1969)
Somewhere (I no longer remember where) I read that Margery Allingham was a friend of C.S. Lewis and his wife, Helen Davidman. I have been an Allingham reader since I was a teenager. A friend returned from the wilds of northern Minnesota with a Penguin edition of one of Allingham's Albert Campion books which he lent me after which I read them all and acquired most of them. It is very pleasant to discover that an author you enjoy was known to one you admire.

Monday, October 23, 2023

O death...

Halloween will be celebrated here this coming weekend and homes and lawns have long been decorated. It is a thoroughly secular holiday for most people. But there is another way to consider the macabre decorations that appear this time of year:
.... Long before suburbanites started littering their lawns with plastic craniums every October, Christians were adorning their art, tombs, and places of worship with death imagery—especially skulls. These grim symbols that pervade the Christian tradition are strange, sobering, sometimes quite funny, and deeply theological. ....

Skulls in Christian art usually function as part of the memento mori tradition, a reminder that no matter what our station in life, death inevitably comes for us all. Puritan tombstones in New England provide some of the most memorable examples of this artform. In these colonial-era churchyards you’ll find, among other images, carvings of hourglasses symbolizing the unceasing passage of time, and the death’s head, an occasionally menacing but often goofy-looking skull with wings. While our modern sensibilities may find these depictions off-putting (outside of the month of October, of course), these symbols of mortality called the living to contemplate their end—not in order to cause fear and anxiety but to encourage wisdom, repentance, and faith in Jesus. ....

Far from being a celebration of death, these Halloween decorations are opportunities to reflect on the truth of the gospel: the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ has rendered our most feared foe the butt of the joke. They function like the Riddikulus spell in Harry Potter, turning our greatest fear into something laughable. Although we still suffer under the curse of death—and the suffering is indeed immense—through our tears we can defiantly, and with hope, join the Apostle Paul’s taunts, saying, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” .... (more)
Cort Gatliff, "Mocking Death," Mere Orthodoxy, Oct. 31, 2022.

Sunday, October 22, 2023

Good parenting

I've never been a parent but this book does seem to me to offer some good advice for parenting. From a review of A+ Parenting
.... "Some parents think they owe it to their children to clean up after them, to entertain them every moment they get bored, and to let them whine and complain whenever they're unhappy." On the contrary. "This may lead your children to think that the whole world revolves around them, and that their needs should take precedence over everyone else's, including yours, which isn't a good way to start life." Amen.

One way to make clear this point is by having your child spend time around adults. They will hear more advanced vocabulary and learn interesting things that they may not if they just spend time around kids their own age. But Moskowitz also has a lot of suggestions for family time. She is a big fan of board games and card games, but she is very specific. Even for younger kids she prefers games that involve strategy to those that are just luck. ....

Family activities should include a lot of talking and playing together and listening to music. Moskowitz even has strong opinions on children's songs. She is a fan of show tunes and Tom Lehrer. Because kids listen to them over and over, they can learn new vocabulary, and even if they don't get all the jokes at first, they can understand more as they go. ....

A child of the '60s, Moskowitz also recommends Bob Dylan. She imagines a child thinking about Dylan's lyric: "How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry?" "The first reaction might be one of bemusement. The idea that a person may have more than two ears, or that this would allow them to hear better, may intrigue a child. This leads the child to think each time they listen to the song and to realize that Dylan isn't being literal. ....

For parents—especially immigrants or those in the working class—who are trying to give their kids more opportunities, A+ Parenting is invaluable. Not only does it offer real lists of the things kids should know—an E.D. Hirsch approach to childrearing—but it also explains how those things will enable parents to engage more with their children. ....

Saturday, October 21, 2023

"I waited until the story had told itself..."

John  Buchan on his thrillers:
...I had become a copious romancer. I suppose I was a natural story-teller, the kind of man who for the sake of his yarns would in prehistoric days have been given a seat by the fire and a special chunk of mammoth. I was always telling myself stories when I had nothing else to do or rather, being told stories, for they seemed to work themselves out independently. I generally thought of a character or two, and then of a set of incidents, and the question was how my people would behave. They had the knack of just squeezing out of unpleasant places and of bringing their doings to a rousing climax.

I was especially fascinated by the notion of hurried journeys. In the great romances of literature they provide some of the chief dramatic moments, and since the theme is common to Homer and the penny reciter it must appeal to a very ancient instinct in human nature. We live our lives under the twin categories of time and space, and when the two come into conflict we get the great moment. Whether failure or success is the result, life is sharpened, intensified, idealised. ....

I let fiction alone until 1910, when, being appalled as a publisher by the dullness of most boys' books, I thought I would attempt one of my own, based on my African experience. The result was Prester John, which has since become a school-reader in many languages.  ....

Then, while pinned to my bed during the first months of war and compelled to keep my mind off too tragic realities, I gave myself to stories of adventure. I invented a young South African called Richard Hannay, who had traits copied from my friends, and I amused myself with considering what he would do in various emergencies. In The Thirty-Nine Steps he was spy-hunting in Britain; in Greenmantle he was on a mission to the East; and in Mr. Standfast, published in 1919, he was busy in Scotland and France. The first had an immediate success, and, since that kind of thing seemed to amuse my friends in the trenches, I was encouraged to continue. I gave Hannay certain companions—Peter Pienaar, a Dutch hunter; Sandy Arbuthnot, .... and an American gentleman, Mr. John S. Blenkiron. Soon these people became so real to me that I had to keep a constant eye on their doings. They slowly aged in my hands, and the tale of their more recent deeds will be found in The Three Hostages, The Courts of the Morning and The Island of Sheep.

I added others to my group of musketeers. There was Dickson McCunn, the retired grocer, and his ragamuffin boys from the Gorbals, whose saga is written in Huntingtower, Castle Gay and The House of the Four Winds. There was Sir Edward Leithen, an eminent lawyer, who is protagonist or narrator in The Power House, John Macnab, The Dancing Floor and The Gap in the Curtain; and in his particular group were the politician, Lord Lamancha, and Sir Archibald Roylance, airman, ornithologist and Scots laird. It was huge fun playing with my puppets, and to me they soon became very real flesh and blood. I never consciously invented with a pen in my hand; I waited until the story had told itself and then wrote it down, and, since it was already a finished thing, I wrote it fast. The books had a wide sale, both in English and in translations, and I always felt a little ashamed that profit should accrue from what had given me so much amusement. I had no purpose in such writing except to please myself, and even if my books had not found a single reader I would have felt amply repaid. .... (more)

A limitless contempt

I'm finding John Buchan's memoir both interesting and relevant. Here he describes the attitudes of many after World War I. It seemed familiar, rather like today:
It was a difficult time for those who called themselves intellectuals. They found themselves living among the fears and uncertainties of the Middle Ages, without the support of the mediaeval faith. The belief in the perfectibility of man, the omnipotence of reason, and the certainty of progress, which began with the French Encyclopaedists and flourished among the brisk dogmatists of the nineteenth century, had more or less ended with the War. ....

One section of this class, very vocal in speech and writing, cherished modernity as its peculiar grace, regarding the word as descriptive of quality, and not merely as denoting a stage in time. These people, who were usually young, had few of the genial characteristics of youth, and their extravagances were not Plato's agreeable impertinences of juniors to seniors. They were a haunted race, who seemed to labour under perpetual fear. Like a tenth-century monk who expected the world soon to end, they had ruled out of their lives many normal human interests on the ground that the times were too precarious for trifling. They seemed to be eager to get rid of personal responsibility, and therefore in politics—and in religion if they had any—were inclined to extremes, and readily surrendered their souls to an ancient church or a new prophet, an International or a dictator. They were owlishly in earnest and wholly humourless; and, lacking moral and intellectual balance, they were prone to violent changes. It was the old story of the debauchee turned flagellant, and a man who had made a name by raking in the garbage heaps would suddenly become a precisian in manners and morals. They had a limitless contempt for whatever did not conform to their creed of the moment and expressed it loudly, but their voices would suddenly crack, and what began as a sneer would end as a sob. ....

Friday, October 20, 2023

A pastor

So among these chapters it may be permitted to allot one to the pictures which, as we grow older, acquire a sharper outline than the contemporary scene—those family recollections which are the first, and also, I think, the last, things in a man's memory. As one ages, the memory seems to be inverted and recent events to grow dim in the same proportion as ancient happenings become clear. ....

My father died in his early sixties when I was in my thirty-seventh year. His strong physique was worn out by unceasing toil in a slum parish, an endless round of sermons and addresses, and visits at all hours to the sick and sorrowful. He had retired to his native Tweeddale, where he had a brief leisure among the scenes of his youth before he died peacefully in his sleep. For the last dozen years of his life I saw less of him, for my own life was spent in London or abroad. The picture in my memory belongs to my childhood, amplified a little by the reflections of adolescence. ....

It was odd that he should have been by profession a theologian, for he was wholly lacking in philosophical interest or aptitude. But a stalwart theologian of the old school he was, rejoicing in the clamped and riveted Calvinistic logic and eager to defend it against all comers. In church politics he belonged to the extreme Conservative wing, and it was his delight, when a member of the Annual Assembly, to stir up all the strife he could by indicting for heresy some popular preacher or professor. There was no ill-feeling in the matter, and he might profoundly respect the heretic, but he conceived it his duty to defend the faith of his fathers against every innovator. Partly the interest was intellectual. .... Partly it was sentimental—a love of old ways and a fast-vanishing world. Partly it was the reaction against two things which he whole-heartedly disliked—a glib modernism and the worship of fashion. He had no belief in compromises and a facile liberalism; he never cherished the illusion that the Christian life was an easy thing, and on this score he had to testify against many false prophets. He had a complete distrust of current fashions and of the worship of the "voice of the people" and the "spirit of the age" and such fetishes. ....

But, except as regards dogma, he had little of the conventional Calvinistic temper. He had no sympathy with the legalism of that creed, the notion of a contract between God and man drawn up by some celestial conveyancer. .... In the beleaguered city of the Faith he thought it his duty now and then to man a gun on the dogmatic ramparts, but more of his time was devoted to easing the life of the civilians and strengthening their hope. What he preached for forty years was a very simple and comforting gospel. His evangel had neither the hysteria nor the smugness of ordinary revivalism. He believed profoundly in the fact of "conversion," the turning of the face to a new course. But, the first step having been taken, he would insist upon the arduousness of the pilgrimage as well as upon its moments of high vision and its ultimate reward. His religion was tender and humane, but it was also well-girded. He had no love for those who took their ease in Zion.

To his children he was a companion rather than a mentor; or, to put it otherwise, his life was the example, not his precepts, for he rarely preached to us. He could judge sternly but never harshly. He hated lying and cowardice, and he was distrustful of large professions. He was nervous about the value of youthful piety and used to rejoice that his family, bad as they were, were not prigs. For cant, and indeed for all rhetoric, he had a strong distaste. ....

My father was an instance of what I think was commoner among the Puritans than is generally supposed—a stiff dogmatic theology which in practice was mellowed by common sense and kindliness and was conjoined with a perpetual delight in the innocent pleasures of life. He was like that seventeenth-century Scots minister who besought his flock to thank God, if for nothing else, for a good day for the lambs. He could preach a tough doctrinal sermon with anybody; but his discourses which remain in my memory were those spoken at the close of the half-yearly Communions, when he invited his hearers, very simply and solemnly, to share his own happiness.

For he was above all things a happy man. Straitened means and a laborious life did not weaken his relish for common joys. He found acute delight in the simplest things, for he savoured them with a clean palate. Like the old preacher he could exclaim, "All this—and Heaven too." He had always the background of an assured faith to correct man's sense of the fragility of his hopes. .... (more)

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Gathering darkness

Russell Moore recently attended a gathering where a letter from C.S. Lewis to J.R.R. Tolkien was quoted. The Lewis quotation, then Moore:
“All my philosophy of history hangs upon a sentence of your own.”

If I’ve ever read that letter, I’ve forgotten it. And I think I had forgotten the sentence in question too. I immediately went to my well-worn copy of The Fellowship of the Ring to find it.

In it, Gandalf says to Frodo, “That is a chapter of ancient history which it might be good to recall; for there was sorrow then too, and gathering dark, but great valor, and great deeds that were not wholly vain.”

“Great deeds that were not wholly vain.” Gandalf was right (on this and most other things). Yes, this is a time of darkness. Yes, there is sorrow all around us. But there’s valor too. And there are deeds done—small, almost always unnoticed—that will turn out to be not wholly in vain.

So don’t be afraid. And don’t give up. ....

Wednesday, October 18, 2023

"When a people loses its self-confidence..."

John Buchan, then Governor-General of Canada, on American democracy:
.... It has two main characteristics. The first is that the ordinary man believes in himself and in his ability, along with his fellows, to govern his country. It is when a people loses its self-confidence that it surrenders its soul to a dictator or an oligarchy. In Mr. Walter Lippmann's tremendous metaphor, it welcomes manacles to prevent its hands shaking. The second is the belief, which is fundamental also in Christianity, of the worth of every human soul—the worth, not the equality. This is partly an honest emotion, and partly a reasoned principle—that something may be made out of anybody, and that there is something likeable about everybody if you look for it—or, in canonical words, that ultimately there is nothing common or unclean.

The democratic testament is one lesson that America has to teach the world. A second is a new reading of nationalism. .... She is the supreme example of a federation in being, a federation which recognises the rights and individuality of the parts, but accepts the overriding interests of the whole. To achieve this compromise she fought a desperate war. If the world is ever to have prosperity and peace, there must be some kind of federation—I will not say of democracies, but of States which accept the reign of Law. In such a task she seems to me to be the predestined leader. ....

For forty years I have regarded America not only with a student's interest in a fascinating problem, but with the affection of one to whom she has become almost a second motherland. Among her citizens I count many of my closest friends; I have known all her Presidents, save one, since Theodore Roosevelt, and all her ambassadors to the Court of St. James's since John Hay; for four and a half years I have been her neighbour in Canada. But I am not blind to the grave problems which confront her. Democracy, after all, is a negative thing. It provides a fair field for the Good Life, but it is not in itself the Good Life. In these days when lovers of freedom may have to fight for their cause, the hope is that the ideal of the Good Life, in which alone freedom has any meaning, will acquire a stronger potency.  ....

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Knowledge is good

E.D. Hirsch Jr. in Cultural Literacy argued that there are things that “every American needs to know." Biblical literacy ought to be among them:
At times, a tiny cultural moment can reflect a titanic sociological shift. Such is the case with a 10-second video clip from Jeopardy! On July 12, 2023, one of the “Double Jeopardy” categories was “Walking and Talking.” The clue: “This Bible book gives us the line ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.’” All three contestants—undoubtedly all highly educated individuals, as Jeopardy! candidates tend to be—stared blankly in silence until the signature buzzer sounded. ....

A single instant on Jeopardy! provokes us to ponder what has been lost. The tragic irony is that the entire story of Western culture is, in a sense, indebted to the Psalms; even if one does not believe in the theology expressed in the biblical book, one cannot understand the history of literature without it. The greatest of English writing—from Shakespeare to the modern novel—provides a window into the interiority of the human psyche. But this was not learned from the works of Homer, or Ovid, or Sophocles. Only in the Bible, and especially in the Psalms, could ancient literature provide such a window on man’s ability and need to look within. It is difficult to believe that the humanist literature of the West would have been possible without David’s inspiration and example. ....

But the Psalms are most essential because of their theology. In an ancient age when the state reigned supreme; when the monarch was worshipped as a god, the Psalms presented us with a king named David who assured his subjects that there was something, Someone, higher than he, to Whom he owed everything, and to Whom even the most powerful of rulers will be called to account. .... (more)

Monday, October 16, 2023

Read for enjoyment

Why have the books John P. Marquand wrote as popular fiction survived while his more serious, lterary, works are now seldom read? Lawrence Block in the introduction to a recent re-publication of Marquand's Your Turn, Mr. Moto:
Why has Moto survived, while Marquand's most honored creation is very much the late George Apley?

.... It is, I submit, one of the more extraordinary ironies of our ironic age that what turn out to be the most enduring fiction would presumably be categorically excluded from literary longevity.

Literary fiction, along with mainstream popular fiction, tends to give every evidence of having been written with disappearing ink. Genre fiction—crime, fantasy, western, horror, adventure, science fiction—while not precisely etched in stone, are far more likely to hang around, and they survive not as assigned reading in college classes but as books sought out and read for enjoyment by, well, readers.

Even as you and I.

Who could have guessed this would happen? People actually read Agatha Christie, and Erle Stanley Gardner, and Hammett and Chandler and MacDonald...and Macdonald, Louis L'Amour, Elmer Kelton, Bram Stoker, Robert Heinlein, J.R.R. Tolkien.

Will Mr. Moto put John P. Marquand in their company?

Well, I don't know that I'd go quite that far. But I think you'll enjoy making his acquaintance as soon as I wrap up this long-winded foreword and let you get on with it.
I remember staying up all night once reading one of Marquand's Mr. Moto books and I have several of them in my library. This one, just received, is one I've never read. It's the first, originally titled No Hero (1935).

To forget

From Kevin Williamson's newsletter today, on a favorite chapter:
One of the few scenes in a book that will reliably make me tear up a little is the episode in The Wind in the Willows when Rat and Mole go looking for Otter’s lost son, Portly, who has wandered off. They fear that something awful might have happened to him. Of course, Rat and Mole end up far from home and possibly in danger themselves, when they encounter the Piper at the Gates of Dawn, the divine “Friend and Helper” who looks after lost animals and other innocents. He delivers Portly to them and sets them back safely on their way, and then gives them one last blessing: They forget. The memory of the awe and majesty of that divine presence would have robbed the animals of the innocence and simplicity for which they were made, and, so, they forget, catching only a snatch of music and the words sung to it: “Lest the awe should dwell—And turn your frolic to fret—You shall look on my power at the helping hour—But then you shall forget!” To forget can be a blessing. But we aren’t all innocents, and life isn’t The Wind in the Willows.

Sunday, October 15, 2023

Lord Peter Wimsey

About Dorothy L. Sayers' detective mysteries featuring Lord Peter Wimsey. They are among my favorite mysteries:
The youngest brother of the Duke of Denver, Lord Peter is an Amateur Sleuth with a keen observational faculty, an intense sense of justice and deeply ingrained trauma from his service in the trenches, all of which he hides behind a diffident and flippant personality. As he has no need for a job, he spends his time collecting rare books and acting as a police consultant in murder and grand larceny cases, frequently alongside Inspector Charles Parker of Scotland Yard and Mervyn Bunter, his loyal valet and old war comrade. Other recurring characters include Harriet Vane, Peter's love interest and a rare example of an Author Avatar done exceptionally well; Miss Climpson, an elderly spinster whom Peter sometimes sends on fact-finding missions; The Honourable Freddy Arbuthnot, financial genius; Peter's mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver; and Peter's sister, Lady Mary, who rebels against her aristocratic family by involving herself in socialist politics.

The Wimsey stories take place between 1922 and 1936, and (a bit unusually for a mystery series) the characters age in real time: Lord Peter is thirty-two in Whose Body? and forty-six in Busman's Honeymoon. ....

In order of publication, the novels are:
  • Whose Body? (1923)
  • Clouds of Witness (1926)
  • Unnatural Death (1927)
  • The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club (1928)
  • Strong Poison (1931)
  • The Five Red Herrings (1931)
  • Have His Carcase (1932)
  • Murder Must Advertise (1933)
  • The Nine Tailors (1934)
  • Gaudy Night (1935)
  • Busman's Honeymoon (1937)
Literature / Lord Peter Wimsey

Saturday, October 14, 2023

"Standing athwart history, yelling Stop!"

National Review was founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1955. In that first issue, Buckley wrote "It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." Then and since the magazine was a fortnightly (it was published every two weeks). With this November's issue, the magazine has become a monthly. The editors have thought it appropriate to reiterate some of their priorities. I think Buckley would have been perfectly comfortable with them:
The United States grew from seedbeds in Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem, and especially in the English traditions of accountable government, from Magna Carta to the Glorious Revolution. America built on the best of this inheritance through the colonial experience, the Revolution and the Declaration of Independence, the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and seminal events since—including the Civil War and the extension of civil rights—to create a great experiment in self-government and a truly exceptional nation.

All our efforts are geared toward preserving that experiment and the foundations of American exceptionalism—in particular, the ordered liberty that reflects the Founders’ belief in our ability to govern ourselves as well as their clear-eyed view that we need institutional and cultural constraints, personal virtue, and, above all, religious faith to maintain the predicates of freedom.

Our priorities include:

Constitutional Government
The U.S. Constitution is the best governing document created by man. Its protection of rights, its latitude for democratic decision-making constrained by guardrails, its balance among the branches of government and between the federal and state governments, and its allowance for the diversity of a vast continent-spanning country within a framework of national cohesion reflect a work of genius. The Constitution must always be defended as the foundation of the American republic.

Free Enterprise
Without economic liberty, people cannot be free and cannot express their God-given creativity and drive. Free markets have made possible the extraordinary economic and technological advances that have made us prosperous and powerful. Economic freedom and its associated elements—the rule of law, property rights, and social trust—are necessary to a free, just, and vibrant society that has ample opportunity for individual advancement. In debates about government intervention in the economy, our presumption should always be in favor of freedom.

Moral Bedrocks
Freedom depends on an intrinsic moral order and fundamental virtues, without which lives lose meaning and society loses cohesion. The traditional two-parent family is the most basic building block of our society. All human beings, born and unborn, deserve the equal protection of the laws. Personal responsibility is foundational to individual achievement and orderly social life. Community is a guard against atomized individualism and a source of countless other social goods. Belief in objective truth is necessary to pursue the higher things and to protect against relativism and nihilism. Religious faith is not only useful as a check on selfishness and a pillar of self-confidence; America’s faith in God is a conduit of blessing upon the nation and its enterprises.

A Strong Defense
Peace through strength is an enduring American idea beginning with the strategic thought of George Washington. It is the approach to national security most consistent with a realistic appreciation of human nature and the protection of our sovereignty, interests, and values. It depends on a strong military, a vibrant military-industrial base, and technological innovation. We must preserve a forward-leaning posture abroad—better to counter threats before they come to our shores—and an American-led system of alliances as a force multiplier. Our overwhelming priority is advancing our national interests. When it is consistent with that priority, we should be friends of the true advocates of freedom everywhere.

Love of Country
Patriotism is the lifeblood of a nation. We should revere our national symbols, heroes, and traditions, as well as our founding documents. America’s survival depends on teaching our children to do the same and protecting the schools from ideologically driven distortions of our history. Our patrimony deserves civic and cultural institutions dedicated to our national memory and highest ideals. Military service should be encouraged and honored. Whatever America’s imperfections, we can never forget that she is great and good.

Defending Western Civilization
We need to know the sources of our civilization in the ancient, medieval, and early-modern world. We must defend the West from its enemies in academia and popular culture, restore to our schools the teaching of Western Civ, and ensure that our children know about—and engage with—the statesmen, thinkers, artists, and writers whose extraordinary contributions changed the world.
National Review, Novenber 2023. Consider subscribing.

Friday, October 13, 2023

No “contextualization” needed

“The Day of Judgement will not come about until Moslems fight the Jews,
when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees.
The stones and trees will say 
O Moslems, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him,”
- Hamas Covenant.

Sometimes certain moments in history reveal in minutes what was concealed for decades. And sometimes those moments of revelation come with hearing oneself say the words, “Yes, but …” or “But what about …”

The aftermath of the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel is not one of those times. In this case, saying who is to blame—and who is not—is not factually or morally difficult at all.

“Bothsidesism” is an imprecise label, much like deconstruction or evangelicalism. There are several senses in which an appeal to “both sides” of the reality here are completely right. For one, both sides—all sides—are human beings created in the image of God. We ought to care about the lives and deaths of Israelis and of Palestinians in the West Bank, in Gaza, or anywhere else. An Israeli life is of no more value in the eyes of God than a Palestinian life, and vice versa.

“Both sides” also refers rightly to who is harmed by this atrocity, and the inevitable war to follow. Hamas is killing and destroying the futures of both Israelis and of Palestinians, as the inimitable Mona Charen wisely wrote. That’s one of the reasons we shouldn’t think of this as a war between Israel and “the Palestinians,” but, exactly as Israel defined it, a war on Hamas, in response to a vicious and unprecedented attack.

“Both sides” is also perfectly appropriate when it comes to working for and hoping for a better future for both Israelis and for Palestinians. That rules out the unthinking acceptance of anything the modern state of Israel does (God certainly didn’t accept everything even biblical Israel did!). And it rules out chanting “From the River to the Sea” in Times Square, just as it rules out any viewpoint or program that would see Israel completely eradicated. We want “both sides” (here referring to Israelis and Palestinians, not to Hamas) to thrive and to co-exist.

All of that is far different from the kind of “both sides” language that has been used in some conversations about the morality of the Hamas attack. Hamas targeted innocent civilians. Hamas butchered young people dancing at a music festival. Hamas murdered elderly people and toddlers and babies, reportedly in the most sadistic ways imaginable. There is no “contextualization” needed to condemn that, to recognize Israelis (and innocent Palestinians) as victims here, with Hamas as the evildoer. As President Biden put it, “full stop.” .... (more)

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

It's not you, it's me

I really like Alan Jacobs and today I've found another reason. Because this describes me, too:
Pretty much all my life I have been fighting against my instinctive introversion, and now that I have turned 65, I’ve decided to stop fighting. I hope people will see this as the legitimate prerogative of a senior citizen.

When someone – anyone, except those I know very well indeed – asks me to have coffee or a beer, I am filled with a feeling not far from dread. But I have always thought that I shouldn’t give in to the anxiety; instead, I have tried to push back. It’s just grabbing a cup of coffee and having a little chat, for heaven’s sake! I tell myself. You’re not being taken in by the Stasi for interrogation. So I make myself say yes, and I make myself go…and while I can manage to be friendly and engaged during the meeting — indeed, more than friendly, way too talkative, out of sheer nervousness — when we’re done I want to go home and sleep for a day or two. ....

...I will with great delight have coffee or beer or dinner with my dearest friends, of whom I am blessed (despite my weird disability) to have a few.

But the main thing is this: I have done what people do, my life makes a reasonable showing. I have a house full of books and music and movies, and I shall go back to them now. If you write to invite me out for coffee or a beer, I will probably send you a link to this post. So please remember: It’s not you, it’s me.

Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Right and Wrong

C.S. Lewis on Natural Law:
Every one has heard people quarrelling. Sometimes it sounds funny and sometimes it sounds merely unpleasant; but however it sounds, I believe we can learn something very important from listening to the kind of things they say. They say things like this: "How'd you like it if anyone did the same to you?"—"That's my seat, I was there first"—"Leave him alone, he isn't doing you any harm"—"Why should you shove in first?"—"Give me a bit of your orange, I gave you a bit of mine"—"Come on, you promised." People say things like that every day, educated people as well as uneducated, and children as well as grown-ups.

Now what interests me about all these remarks is that the man who makes them is not merely saying that the other man's behaviour does not happen to please him. He is appealing to some kind of standard of behaviour which he expects the other man to know about. And the other man very seldom replies: "To hell with your standard? Nearly always he tries to make out that what he has been doing does not really go against the standard, or that if it does there is some special excuse. He pretends there is some special reason in this particular case why the person who took the seat first should not keep it, or that things were quite different when he was given the bit of orange, or that something has turned up which lets him off keeping his promise. It looks, in fact, very much as if both parties had in mind some kind of Law or Rule or decent behaviour or morality or whatever you like to call it, about which they really agreed. And they have. If they had not, they might, of course, fight like animals, but they could not quarrel in the human sense of the word. Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football. ....

This law was called the Law of Nature because people thought that every one knew it by nature and did not need to be taught it. They did not mean, of course, that you might not find an odd individual here and there who did not know it, just as you find a few people who are colour-blind or have no ear for a tune. But taking the race as a whole, they thought that the human idea of decent behaviour was obvious to every one. And I believe they were right. If they were not, then all the things we said about the war were nonsense. What was the sense in saying the enemy were in the wrong unless Right is a real thing which the Nazis at bottom knew as well as we did and ought to have practised? If they had had no notion of what we mean by right, then, though we might still have had to fight them, we could no more have blamed them for that than for the colour of their hair. ....
C.S. Lewis, "The Law of Human Nature," Mere Christianity, Chapter 1, 1943.

Monday, October 9, 2023

The perils of democracy

James Fenimore Cooper, author of The Last of the Mohicans, was a commenter on politics as well. From an appreciation of James Fenimore Cooper's The American Democrat:
People pride themselves on “speaking truth to power” — leaders, big shots. In a democracy, this is very easy to do. Usually, you get nothing but applause for it. What is hard is speaking truth to “the people” — for, in a democracy, that’s where power lies.

Cooper writes,
The constant appeals to public opinion in a democracy...induce private hypocrisy, causing men to conceal their own convictions when opposed to those of the mass.... A want of national manliness is a vice to be guarded against, for the man who would dare to resist a monarch shrinks from opposing an entire community.
Pretty much everyone in my business knows politicians who say one thing in private — their true beliefs — and another when before a crowd. Moreover, the same applies to not a few media personalities. ....

On the character of the officeholders, says Cooper, the character of the institutions depends. Thus, it is the “duty of every elector to take care and employ none but the honest and intelligent in situations of high trust.”

Every system of government has its dangers — some more than others, of course. “The peculiar danger of a democracy,” writes Cooper, “arises from the arts of demagogues.” So, again, “it is a safe rule, and safest of all, to confide only in those men for public trusts in whom the citizen can best confide in private life.” ....

...[A]nother subject — parties and partisanship:
Party is known to encourage prejudice, and to lead men astray in the judgment of character. Thus it is we see one half the nation extolling those that the other half condemns, and condemning those that the other half extols. Both cannot be right.
An additional statement to absorb: “No freeman, who really loves liberty, and who has a just perception of its dignity, character, action, and objects, will ever become a mere party man.” But that “mere” is important. Cooper goes on to say,
He may have his preferences as to measures and men, may act in concert with those who think with himself, on occasions that require concert, but it will be his earnest endeavour to hold himself a free agent, and most of all to keep his mind untrammeled by the prejudices, frauds, and tyranny of factions.
Bad actors fan popular passions. They prey on ignorance and resentment.
This is the weak point of our defences..... Opinion can be so perverted as to cause the false to seem the true; the enemy, a friend, and the friend, an enemy; the best interests of the nation to appear insignificant, and trifles of the moment; in a word, the right the wrong, and the wrong the right. ....

Saturday, October 7, 2023

My family

My name is James Austin Skaggs. James was the first name of my father and his father. Austin was the middle name of my maternal grandfather. I was born—I was told—on May 29, 1946, in Clarksburg, West Virginia.

My mother, Mary Elizabeth Bond (1911-2009), belonged to a family that had lived in West Virginia for generations, well before there was a West Virginia. She was the fifth of eight siblings and even after suffering dementia late in life she could recite their names in birth order: Beatrice, Walter, Stanley, Harold, Mary, Richard, Charles, and Robert. The youngest, Robert, was killed in the Second World War. His middle name, Levi, was also the name of a great-uncle killed fighting for the Union in the Civil War. Mom was born, and lived her early life, on the family farm on Canoe Run near Roanoke, West Virginia. By the time she was school-age, the family had moved to Salem, West Virginia, where she grew up. She attended Salem College, where she trained to be a physical education teacher. She taught high school girls physical-ed after graduating. The Bonds had been Seventh Day Baptist since the 1700s. Mom was baptized and became a member of the Salem Seventh Day Baptist Church.

Dad, James Leland Skaggs (1912-2003), was born in Shiloh, NJ, where his father, James Leroy, was pastor of the Shiloh Seventh Day Baptist Church. Dad's grandfather had also been a Seventh Day Baptist pastor, and his younger brother would become one (as would Dad's brother-in-law, Charles, my mother's younger brother, who married my father's younger sister). Except for his time in the Army, Dad was known as Leland, or "J.L." Dad was one of five siblings: Alison, Evalyn, Leland, Margaret, and Victor. A Baptist pastor's family tends to move from one pastorate to another. When Dad was in high school his father was pastor of the Milton, Wisconsin, Seventh Day Baptist Church. Dad graduated from Milton College in that town, in 1933, just after his father had been called to another church in the East. After graduation, Dad moved to New York City, where he taught college mathematics evenings and attended graduate school.

Dad and Mom probably first met at one of the annual Seventh Day Baptist General Conference sessions. The first time they ever spent time alone together was after driving Dad's sister, Margaret, and mother's brother, Charles, newly married, from Salem to their honeymoon hotel in Clarksburg, West Virginia. They stayed in touch, Dad in NYC, and Mom in Salem. Mom and Dad married the Monday after Easter in 1942. Dad's father, now pastor in Salem, presided over the ceremony. The wedding hadn't been planned for that date, but World War II had begun and Dad expected to be drafted, and soon after, was.

During the war, Dad was a Lieutenant in the Army Signal Corps and taught radio to soon-to-be infantry radiomen. The classes were held in Convention Hall, near the Boardwalk, in Asbury Park, NJ. Mom joined him there for the duration.

I was born just after the war and the following winter, we moved to Milton, Wisconsin, where Dad was a Math professor, later Registrar, and briefly Acting President, at Milton College where he spent the rest of his professional life apart from a time in the military again during the Korean War. This time he was stationed at Camp Gordon near Augusta, Georgia, commanding a basic training company.

My brother, Samuel Bond Skaggs, was born in July of 1951 after Dad had been called up. Mom returned to her parents in West Virginia until after Sam arrived when the three of us joined Dad in Georgia. Then back to Milton. Our lives there centered around the Milton Church and the College.

Mom joined the College faculty as the women's Phy-ed teacher and the Counselor for Women.

Sam and I both grew up in Milton and graduated from Milton College. After graduation, and not being drafted, I taught one year at Milton Union High School, attended graduate school for one year at William & Mary, and accepted a position teaching history and political science in the Madison, Wisconsin, public schools. I retired in 2005 and still live in Madison. Sam spent his entire professional career as an accountant for the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company, living in Milwaukee, where he still lives. Neither of us married. We stay closely in touch.

Friday, October 6, 2023

Are you a fundamentalist?

.... It used to mean someone who believed in the “fundamentals” of the faith: the historicity of the biblical accounts, the Virgin Birth, the substitutionary Atonement, the bodily Resurrection, a visible and physical Second Coming, etc. By that definition, Billy Graham—the founder of Christianity Today—and all of those involved with the post-war evangelical movement were fundamentalists. And so am I.

In fact, in the old days of what was seen as a two-party system in the American church—of fundamentalists and modernists—the so-called fundamentalist party was broad enough to include hyper-creedal Presbyterians such as J. Gresham Machen, fiery revivalists such as D.L. Moody, experiential Baptists such as E.Y. Mullins, along with tongues-speaking Pentecostals and “deeper life” enthusiasts.

The problem with fundamentalism was that it came to not be about the fundamentals at all, but about an ever-narrowing sect based on grievance more than hope, quarrels more than cooperation. It came to be defined more and more by “secondary separation” from those who didn’t see everything the same way.

The renewal movement that came out of all of that, which came to be known as “evangelical,” struck out on a different path—though not a new path—back toward respecting what the creeds and confessions defined as essential for cooperation with conviction. This included biblical authority, the necessity of new birth, the reality of the supernatural and of sin, and the dual destinies of heaven or hell. When one knows what is fundamental, one is able, then, to work across differences on those things that we agree are important but are not of the essence of what it means to be a gospel Christian. ....

Thursday, October 5, 2023


Money and honor, the traditional rewards of work, do not satisfy because money begets the need for more money and honor is fleeting. Even pleasure is tiresome after a while. Who, in the waning days of a vacation, has not itched to get back to a “normal” routine? In reaching the limits of work and pleasure alike we are prone to boredom, disillusionment, and depression. Gary proposes that leisure and liberal education can remedy these unpleasant states. I agree. But the escape from boredom may require a still more radical transformation of will, and that transformation may be something we cannot accomplish by ourselves. ....

Why does nothing seem interesting, everything dull and gray? The answer might be not that the world is boring, but that we ourselves are dull, shallow, and malformed. This ignorance and lack of formation is partly due to the usual suspects of modern culture—vacuous television programs, electronic devices in general, the advertising industry—but we have allowed these influences to shape us. ....

The bitter truth is that we modern Americans are privileged to have enormous potential for leisure and liberal education; yet we cannot seem to understand or desire it. ....

The stubborn characters who appear in C.S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce illustrate the immense difficulty of such an escape. In this short fantasy, heavenly spirits welcome their visitors from Hell, urging them to forget themselves and embrace the great joy and release that await them in Christ.

Instead, almost to a person, the visitors refuse to relinquish their hard-won identities. The bishop wants to continue his intellectual questioning and paper-giving; the painter insists upon continuing to paint; the mother protests that her love for her son is more important than anything else. All perversely refuse to see the beauty that is right in front of them... Perhaps only prayer can really deliver us from our willful pride and self-centeredness, traits that seem to stick with us despite our best efforts. .... (more)