Thursday, June 13, 2024

“Go away and think”

Reading an opinion column, I was pleased to find a summation of G.K. Chesterton's views about tradition:
In his spiritual autobiography, Orthodoxy (1908), G.K. Chesterton observed that tradition is “democracy extended through time.” It means “giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” and resisting “the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.” People die, but their ideas live on. Particularly in a constitutional republic, we should avail ourselves of the wisdom of the past and heed what Chesterton called “the democracy of the dead.”

Later and with no less panache, he demonstrated why. In The Thing (1929), Chesterton introduced the parable of the fence, in which a reformer finds a fence across a roadway and calls for its removal because he doesn’t see the use of it. Chesterton contrasts him with “a more intelligent type of reformer,” to whom ignorance of the past—of why the fence was built in the first place—justified not removing but preserving it, at least until the fence’s reason for being was understood. “Go away and think,” was the second reformer’s wise counsel to the first. ....

Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Wide Awake

Has the country ever been so divided? Well, yes, several times, including the 1860 Presidential election. From this review of a recent book, Wide Awake, by Jon Grinspan:
How did Lincoln, then relatively unknown in national politics, win this critical race? Presidential candidates at the time did not ordinarily campaign for themselves. ....

A youth movement known as the Wide Awakes played a huge role in promoting Lincoln’s candidacy. The Wide Awakes are often mentioned in works on Lincoln, but Mr. Grinspan, a curator of political history at the Smithsonian Institution and the author of two previous books on the history of American democracy, is the first to probe them in depth.

He traces the movement to five textile clerks in Hartford, Conn., who formed a grassroots political organization in February 1860 to support the antislavery Republican Party. From this initial group, known as the Hartford Originals, the movement expanded quickly. Wide Awake clubs appeared throughout the North—as Mr. Grinspan writes, they emerged “in Bangor and Brooklyn, Cambridge and Columbus, St. Paul and San Francisco, and hundreds of cities and towns in between.” Dressed in shiny oilskin capes and carrying torches, the Wide Awakes staged “monster” parades with fireworks and music, marching and thundering forth their distinctive chant: “Hurrah! Huzzah! Hurrah! Huzzah! Hurrah! Huzzah!” ....

In its early phase, Mr. Grinspan demonstrates, the Wide Awake movement opposed slavery but was not progressive on race. But the movement diversified. African-Americans became Wide Awakes, with the Ohio lawyer John Mercer Langston (later a congressman representing Virginia) and the Bostonian Lewis Hayden, a former slave, leading the way. Opponents came to view the Wide Awakes as dangerous radicals involved in a conspiracy to bring about a horrid racial reversal in America. One journalist fumed: “The chief object seems to be to give the negro the supremacy over the white man.” ....

It’s unknown how large the Wide Awake movement was: Mr. Grinspan gives us a rough range of between 100,000 and half a million participants. Regardless of the numbers, the Wide Awakes generated outsize excitement wherever they appeared. Violence sometimes followed, as groups of proslavery Democrats assaulted the Republican Wide Awakes with stones and brickbats, while the Wide Awakes were summoned to the fray with the cry: “Do your duty!”

When the Civil War came, many of these young men traded torches for rifles. Mr. Grinspan tells us that most of the former Wide Awakes participated in the war, including the African-American Wide Awakes of Boston. ....

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

We believe...

Upon occasion, the congregation in my church would recite the Apostles Creed in the Sabbath morning service. That isn't typical of Baptist worship. Many among us claim to be non-creedal, basing belief only on Scripture. Actually, that means creating a personal creed, since interpretations of Scripture can differ. This summer, the Southern Baptists will consider adding the Nicene Creed to the "Baptist Faith and Message," that denomination's belief statement. A few excerpts from arguments made by advocates of the proposal:
As each generation of Christians since the fourth century has rightly noted, the Nicene Creed’s statements are thoroughly biblical. It covers the full slate of major loci in Christian theology – the Trinity, Christology, salvation, creation, Scripture, the church, and the last things. ....

Affirming the Nicene Creed is not new in Baptist history. The rich confessional tradition among Baptists, both General (Arminian) and Particular (Calvinist) Baptists, has often made use of creedal language. For example, the influential Second London Confession of Faith (adopted in 1689) utilized specifically creedal formulations in its statement on the Trinity and the Incarnation: “one substance”, “begotten”, “proceeding,” “very…God,” and so on. ....

In addition to this general creedal dependence, at least two Baptist confessions included the full text of the three ecumenical creeds. First, the Orthodox Creed, an important seventeenth-century General Baptist confession compiled by the influential Baptist theologian Thomas Monck, affirms and includes the text of all three ecumenical creeds in Article 38. Echoing the language of the Articles of Religion, the confession begins as follows,
The Three Creeds, (viz.) Nicene Creed, Athanasius his Creed, and the Apostles Creed, (as they are commonly called) ought throughly to be received, and believed. For we believe they may be proved by most undoubted Authority of holy Scripture....
So, affirming the Nicene Creed is both biblical and Baptist, but it is also beneficial. Affirming the Creed in our confessional document would have the advantage of endorsing it and commending its use in the context of local church ministry. ....

Sunday, June 9, 2024

Working the crowd

I first posted this in 2009. I like the argument. The picture is of the pulpit in the Newport Seventh Day Baptist Church, the first SDB church in North America.

The Wittenberg Door regrets "The Loss of Symbolism," specifically what seems an aversion to the pulpit, which the pastor once ascended to preach the Word. He argues that the pulpit symbolized something very important in Christian — and particularly Reformed — doctrine.
The pulpit comprises a lectern standing upon a raised platform. Being the most important piece of “furniture” in the church, it is positioned in front of the congregation, with all pews facing it. Its symbolic importance can be summarized as follows:
  • It’s central—The pulpit’s central placement is important because it is from there that God addresses His people via the preached word. Therefore, it commands the most prominent place in the church.
  • It’s raised—The pulpit is elevated because it is upon the lectern that the minister’s bible rests, symbolizing the word of God being over the people.
  • It’s solid—The lectern is made of solid wood, symbolizing the sure foundation upon which God’s word stands. Moreover, it’s large enough to obscure most of the minister’s body, thus keeping the focus on the word. For this reason, Reformed ministers stay behind the lectern, so as to stay behind the word of God. ....
Things have changed, though. Pulpits are considered outdated, and even stifling. Like nature, the church abhors a vacuum. In the pulpit’s place sprung the Plexiglas stand, allowing the “minister” to be seen in all of his glory. But this too is seen by some as cumbersome. Why let anything stand in front of the minister, hindering his ability to work the crowd...?

Too harsh? Perhaps. But the transition from the pulpit to more modern elements is symptomatic of a greater problem: a shift from the glory of God to the glory of man; ... a shift from the preached word as a Means of Grace to the advent of a new sacrament—the minister himself. ....
The Wittenberg Door: The Loss of Symbolism

Saturday, June 8, 2024

The gift of reading

Robert Louis Stevenson was asked by a magazine editor to contribute an essay about books that influenced him. The essay was originally published in 1887. The portions below interested me more than the rest, especially the last paragraph:
The most influential books, and the truest in their influence, are works of fiction. They do not pin the reader to a dogma, which he must afterwards discover to be inexact; they do not teach him a lesson, which he must afterwards unlearn. They repeat, they rearrange, they clarify the lessons of life; they disengage us from ourselves, they constrain us to the acquaintance of others; and they show us the web of experience, not as we can see it for ourselves, but with a singular change—that monstrous, consuming ego of ours being, for the nonce, struck out. To be so, they must be reasonably true to the human comedy; and any work that is so serves the turn of instruction. But the course of our education is answered best by those poems and romances where we breathe a magnanimous atmosphere of thought and meet generous and pious characters. ....

The next book, in order of time, to influence me, was the New Testament, and in particular the Gospel according to St. Matthew. I believe it would startle and move any one if they could make a certain effort of imagination and read it freshly like a book, not droningly and dully like a portion of the Bible. Any one would then be able to see in it those truths which we are all courteously supposed to know and all modestly refrain from applying. But upon this subject it is perhaps better to be silent. ....

The gift of reading, as I have called it, is not very common, nor very generally understood. It consists, first of all, in a vast intellectual endowment—a free grace, I find I must call it—by which a man rises to understand that he is not punctually right, nor those from whom he differs absolutely wrong. He may hold dogmas; he may hold them passionately; and he may know that others hold them but coldly, or hold them differently, or hold them not at all. Well, if he has the gift of reading, these others will be full of meat for him. They will see the other side of propositions and the other side of virtues. He need not change his dogma for that, but he may change his reading of that dogma, and he must supplement and correct his deductions from it. A human truth, which is always very much a lie, hides as much of life as it displays. It is men who hold another truth, or, as it seems to us, perhaps, a dangerous lie, who can extend our restricted field of knowledge, and rouse our drowsy consciences.
This essay "Books Which Have Influenced Me," collected in Essays of Robert Louis Stevenson (1906), can be found on Project Gutenberg.

Friday, June 7, 2024

"The critically silent and the garrulous anecdotic"

Robert Louis Stevenson is famous for books like Treasure Island and Kidnapped. That is how I first encountered him and I still enjoy re-reading those books. I only discovered his essays in the last few years. This is excerpted from "Talk and Talkers," a section of that essay about the value for the young of attending to the talk of the elderly:
The best teachers are the aged. To the old our mouths are always partly closed; we must swallow our obvious retorts and listen. They sit above our heads, on life's raised dais, and appeal at once to our respect and pity. A flavour of the old school, a touch of something different in their manner...serves, in these days, to accentuate the difference of age and add a distinction to gray hairs. But their superiority is founded more deeply than by outward marks or gestures. They are before us in the march of man; they have more or less solved the irking problem; they have battled through the equinox of life; in good and evil they have held their course; and now, without open shame, they near the crown and harbour. ....

The old appear in conversation in two characters: the critically silent and the garrulous anecdotic. The last is perhaps what we look for; it is perhaps the more instructive. An old gentleman, well on in years, sits handsomely and naturally in the bow-window of his age, scanning experience with reverted eye; and chirping and smiling, communicates the accidents and reads the lesson of his long career. Opinions are strengthened, indeed, but they are also weeded out in the course of years. What remains steadily present to the eye of the retired veteran in his hermitage, what still ministers to his content, what still quickens his old honest heart—these are "the real long-lived things" that Whitman tells us to prefer. Where youth agrees with age, not where they differ, wisdom lies; and it is when the young disciple finds his heart to beat in tune with his grey-bearded teacher's that a lesson may be learned. ....

The second class of old people are not anecdotic; they are rather hearers than talkers, listening to the young with an amused and critical attention. To have this sort of intercourse to perfection, I think we must go to old ladies. Women are better hearers than men, to begin with; they learn, I fear in anguish, to bear with the tedious and infantile vanity of the other sex; and we will take more from a woman than even from the oldest man in the way of biting comment. Biting comment is the chief part, whether for profit or amusement, in this business. .... If she chance to dislike you, you will be tempted to curse the malignity of age. But if you chance to please even slightly, you will be listened to with a particular laughing grace of sympathy, and from time to time chastised, as if in play, with a parasol as heavy as a pole-axe. ....

Saturday, June 1, 2024

A thriller

I am re-reading one of my favorite John Buchan adventures. Huntingtower is the first of three novels about the adventures of Dickson McCunn, my favorite among Buchan's protagonists. It can be found, nicely formatted, and available to be downloaded or read online, at Standard Ebooks. I just discovered that the BBC made a six-episode television video of the story and that it is available on YouTube. I haven't watched it and can't vouch for the quality. But I thoroughly enjoy the book, especially Buchan's descriptions, for instance:
It was such a day as only a Scots April can show. The cobbled streets of Kirkmichael still shone with the night’s rain, but the storm clouds had fled before a mild south wind, and the whole circumference of the sky was a delicate translucent blue. Homely breakfast smells came from the houses and delighted Mr. McCunn’s nostrils; a squalling child was a pleasant reminder of an awakening world, the urban counterpart to the morning song of birds; even the sanitary cart seemed a picturesque vehicle. He bought his ration of buns and ginger biscuits at a baker’s shop whence various ragamuffin boys were preparing to distribute the householders’ bread, and took his way up the Gallows Hill to the Burgh Muir almost with regret at leaving so pleasant a habitation. ....

I will not dwell on his leisurely progress in the bright weather, or on his luncheon in a coppice of young firs, or on his thoughts which had returned to the idyllic. I take up the narrative at about three o’clock in the afternoon, when he is revealed seated on a milestone examining his map. For he had come, all unwitting, to a turning of the ways, and his choice is the cause of this veracious history.

The place was high up on a bare moor, which showed a white lodge among pines, a white cottage in a green nook by a burnside, and no other marks of human dwelling. To his left, which was the east, the heather rose to a low ridge of hill, much scarred with peat-bogs, behind which appeared the blue shoulder of a considerable mountain. Before him the road was lost momentarily in the woods of a shooting-box, but reappeared at a great distance climbing a swell of upland which seemed to be the glacis of a jumble of bold summits. There was a pass there, the map told him, which led into Galloway. It was the road he had meant to follow, but as he sat on the milestone his purpose wavered. For there seemed greater attractions in the country which lay to the westward. Mr. McCunn, be it remembered, was not in search of brown heath and shaggy wood; he wanted greenery and the Spring. ....
C.S. Lewis particularly liked Buchan's ability to describe the safe and homely—if only temporary—havens from danger that his heroes would discover.
A quarter of an hour later the two travelers, having been introduced to two spotless beds in the loft, and having washed luxuriously at the pump in the backyard, were seated in Mrs. Morran’s kitchen before a meal which fulfilled their wildest dreams. She had been baking that morning, so there were white scones and barley scones, and oaten farles, and russet pancakes. There were three boiled eggs for each of them; there was a segment of an immense currant cake (“a present from my guid brither last Hogmanay”); there was skim-milk cheese; there were several kinds of jam, and there was a pot of dark-gold heather honey. “Try hinny and aitcake,” said their hostess. “My man used to say he never fund onything as guid in a’ his days.”