Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Sword and the Cup

How does a Christian know when to denounce a doctrine as heresy and when to hold an open mind and talk things out? When should a Christian refuse to worship with someone holding different beliefs, and when should we agree to disagree? Jesus normally squared off with the Pharisees, but He welcomed the Pharisee Nicodemus into a theological discussion. Paul says the Lord will requite Alexander the coppersmith for his deeds, and yet two verses later, he prays that the desertion of his fair-weather friends not be charged against them. When to show judgment and when mercy? When to bare the sword and when to offer the cup? I have a tentative explanation for Jesus’ differing approaches, but I don’t need to share it here, partly because I think there is no one clear-cut answer – that handling these dilemmas correctly depends not on a rule but on an ongoing relationship with living Wisdom. I will say that it has seemed clear to me from the time I was a teenager and first started to think of such things that Americans tend to err on the side of separation much too often. (I also think Americans excessively tend to make these decisions individually rather than in the body of the Church as a whole, but that’s a slightly different story.)

Augustine also made these distinctions and usually seems to have been comfortable with his decision either way. He clearly considered Pelagians outside the pale of orthodox Christianity and devoted several books to refuting them. I chose the metaphors of sword and cup to represent the two options, but doesn’t Augustine actually employ both? While he draws with the sword tip a sharp line between Catholicism and Pelagianism, doesn’t he also drink together with his foes in sharing so many words with them? After all, he doesn’t recommend the literal sword for dissenters as many later purported Christians would do, so the separation isn’t so wide as to be unbridgeable.

In the three short works I read this month, Augustine presents examples of both strategies, and they both struck me as particularly wise. In Predestination of the Saints and The Gift of Perseverance (which he considered the two parts of a longer, unnamed whole), the Bishop teaches that God is the source of both the beginning of faith and the end of faith. He proves his point both through Scripture (an appeal to authority) and argument (an appeal to reason), and sometimes uses a homey form of reasoning that could be called an appeal to experience: if you don’t think God is responsible for the beginning of another person’s faith, then why do you pray to Him to bring about the salvation of others? I found his variety of strategies and his understanding of the psychology of his readers impressive, reassuring, and convincing.

In his early treatise On Faith and the Creed, when Augustine reaches the topic of the Holy Spirit, he says that Bible scholars have not yet agreed on what relation the Holy Spirit has to the other two Persons of the Trinity. We know He is a Person, he says, and that He is not begotten from either the Father or the Son (so He is not the brother of the Word, and He is not the Holy Grandson of the Father). He is not a second Beginning: all comes from the Father. But then how is He related? Is He the Love between the Father and Son or something different?  He makes no mention of either breathing or procession. I appreciated Augustine not taking a stand on this one but acknowledging that Bible scholars can reach different tentative conclusions.

Now, the Church split in 1054 supposedly over this very question of the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the other Persons. By that time, procession was generally considered the name of the bond, but does He proceed from the Father only, as the Eastern Church insisted, or from both the Father and the Son, as the Western, Latin Church declared? I recite the western form of the creed, professing that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and the Son, but I maintain confidence that my eternal salvation won’t depend on getting that one right. One thing I know: if anyone tries to tell me that “The” Church “always” believed one way on this issue, they are mistaken. Augustine says the scholars hadn’t yet agreed. Apparently they still don’t.

Saturday, February 8, 2020

Where Did I Read That?

Have you ever plagued yourself trying to remember where you read some given thing? It happens to me all the time. Sometimes I want to tell my wife about something I read in just the last day and can’t remember where I read it: News story? Novel? Philosophical work? In other instances, I look for years for the elusive source of my mental Nile. One imaginary Dr. Livingstone slashed about for about fifteen years through the densest tangle of confused memories seeking the place where I had first read about the difference between wit and judgment. He finally fulfilled his quest when I reread Thomas Hobbes in 2009. (Wit is the power of comparing disparate things, while judgment is the power of discerning differences in similar things.)

Another jungle trek came to an end in just the last few days. I really don’t know how long I had been hoping to rediscover where C. S. Lewis talks about creation as the greatest miracle. The words as I remembered them were something like these: “Creation is the first and greatest miracle because by Creation, God brought into existence what is not God.” I thought sure I’d come across it in Miracles when I revisited that book a few years ago. But I had to wait until rereading The Problem of Pain to find my rest.

It turns out that those words were all mine (except where they borrowed from Jesus talking about commandments). But the gist was accurate. Here is the actual phrasing in the inimitable style of the great professor: “To make things which are not Itself, and thus to become, in a sense, capable of being resisted by its own handiwork, is the most astonishing and unimaginable of all the feats we attribute to the Deity.”

But wait. Creation in a book about pain? Yes. In his answer to the age-old question of how an all-powerful loving God can allow evil (he’s especially interested in the pain involved in the consciousness of evil), Lewis speculates on why God made a physical universe. I don’t know of anything else like this passage, although if I told him that, he’d probably chuckle and tell me I just hadn’t read enough. Lewis then runs through his ideas on the moral constitution of humans, sin, the Fall, the meaning of goodness, the Incarnation, Redemption, Heaven, and more. Maybe this, and not Mere Christianity, is the fundamental exposition of Lewis’s view of life, the universe, and everything. Why isn’t it more popular?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Who Wants to Read Apollonius of Perga?

For my second post of the year, I’m already going to some extracurricular reading. Among other treasures, I received for this last Christmas a copy of A Great Idea at the Time: The Rise, Fall, and Curious Afterlife of the Great Books by Alex Beam, who, the cover tells me, is also the author of Gracefully Insane. Now I received on another Christmas around 1994, the best present my mom ever got me: the Britannica Great Books, the books that gave me the liberal education I had longed for over decades, the books that got me hooked on ten-year reading plans, the books that inspired this blog. One of the downsides of having a ten-year reading plan is that when someone gives you a book, it’s not always easy to find a place for it in your schedule. But when I get a history of the Britannica Great Books, I’m going to read it and I’m going to blog about it.

Alas, Beam takes a dim view of the enterprise. Not that his skewering send-up of my beloved Great Books isn’t fascinating and hilarious. Mortimer Adler was indeed a ludicrous personage, and Beam makes me laugh as he shows Adler pushing himself into situations he’s not qualified for, trying to show off at parties, or claiming that syntopicon will become a household word. And, yes, Adler comes across as a wannabe scholar when he has to admit he knows only one language. But Beam’s bottom-line critique asks whatever made Mortimer Adler think that any twentieth-century American would want to read the Conics of Apollonius of Perga. And yet, thousands of people did. They read it in English, in an old-fashioned translation (copyright free) from the previous century. They read it in 8-point type. They went to the University of Chicago to read it, and they formed clubs all over the country to read it. And they came back for more.

Also providing much comic relief in the story is Kenneth Harden, who developed techniques of selling the sets door-to-door. And it worked! Intellectually insecure suburbanites bought them up by the – ok, by the tens. But somebody had to pay for the production of these books. So what if Mrs. Midwest spent a few hundred dollars on books that got no interaction from her other than dusting? As the funny papers’ Blondie once said, “If I’m not going to read, I might as well not read something educational.” Who are we to say that that American Dreamer didn’t get enjoyment out of just having the books in the living room for guests to see?

At some point, one of those sets made it to Adrian’s Used Book Store in Oklahoma City, and then made it to me. Nothing about the set I bought suggested that any one volume had ever been opened. There were no markings in any of the books. The cracks in the cheap binding might have come from nothing other than decades of changing weather. But I have read many words in every volume and every word in about half the volumes. A couple of them I’ve read twice (Shakespeare and Boswell). Many of the volumes have book-repair tape holding the fragile covers together. And they're marked up plenty now! At some point I had to start using a magnifying glass to read the small type, but that’s no trouble for me. So why is Beam so dead set against a project that doesn’t excite millions of people at a time? Who wants to read Apollonius? I do.

And, yes, I read it in English. I’ve learned all that I’ve learned from the ancients and from the French and the Russians through translation. Beam tells of several experts arguing with Adler that Greek philosophy can only be understood in Greek, and he makes fun of Adler’s habitual retort as defensive and inadequate. But I think Adler makes a good point by asking his critics, “Oh? So you read the Old Testament in Hebrew?” Does Beam or anyone else seriously think the world would be a better place without these translated words?
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The Poetry of Broken Sentences

OK, I’ve seen some movies written by David Mamet, but I had never read one of his plays. Were the films I saw full of the interruptions, fragments, and grammatical solecisms of Glengarry Glen Ross and Speed-the-Plow? There may not have been a single complete sentence in either play.

The characters in these dramas are as shattered as their grammar; they certainly talk in the manner of people who want to make sense of life and pronounce principles without having been disciplined to read, think, and listen coherently. But does this diminished argot really make for better art than iambic pentameter does? I didn’t like Glengarry Glen Ross. I felt sorry for the dejected realtors trying to separate fools from their money by joining them to specious plots in Florida. But Death of a Salesman it was not, and so the steady flow of linguistic shards got tedious.

By the end of Speed-the-Plow, on the other hand, I found the bumpy cadence of the lines contributing integrally to a moving, pathetic portrait. Here, it’s movie producers, working in a medium that conveys meaning but constrained to create a work that a mass public will pay to see. Two of the three characters find themselves confronted with the opportunity to make a movie with a message that has a hope of changing viewers for the better, but they each alloy their altruism in various ways enough to disillusion each other, and crass commercialism wins out in the end. And yet at least now they know that commercialism is crass and that there’s a contest. In my mind, the realization moves them from being two-dimensional machines into being fully rounded tragic figures.

 In the same week, I read Thomas Morton’s Speed the Plough from 1798, having planned it thinking it had some connection with Mamet’s play. Apparently it has none except mutual inspiration from an old saying about God’s eagerness to bless industry. In Morton’s play, everyone works hard to keep secrets, marry the right person, and end up with some money: all the requirements of a good farce. And for good measure, there’s a literal plowing race.

 I much preferred this classical comedy to Mamet’s biting cynicism. Maybe I just don’t want my art imitating life too closely right now. A death and a will have a way of bringing out the worst in people, and I need some happy endings.

A happy post-script: I just found out that today, the first Monday after Twelfth Day of Christmas, is traditionally known as Plough Monday. Well, let’s all get to work!

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Book Awards -- 2019

The good old Earth has spun around the good old Sun once more, and so again it’s time for me to present my awards for some good old books.

President of the Awards Academy: Charles Dickens
In 2019, I read one of my favorite Dickens novels, Dombey and Son; and one of my least favorite, Barnaby Rudge. I read A Christmas Carol about two-and-a-half times in preparation for a series of adult Sunday School classes I taught this last month. And I revisited Cricket on the Hearth for the first time in over thirty years. Dickens is so especially good that even some passages of Barnaby were better than anything I read by anyone else this year. Fortunately, the Great Man took himself out of the running for these awards so others would have a chance.

Most Confusing Reread: Charles Williams, Descent into Hell
Ten years ago, I wrote to myself that this book was like a firehose of stew: most of it went down my neck not understood, but what landed in my mouth was hearty and nutritious. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Charles Williams, including the fact that his friend and champion, C. S. Lewis, thought that his figures were sometimes so individual, so impossible for the reader to unravel, as to risk being literary mistakes. So I may have swallowed more this time around, but the vegetables and sauce left on my neck just felt like a mess!

Best History: Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty
Every chapter of this history of the United States from the end of the Revolution until 1815 was full of surprising nuance. The most interesting point, made in the last chapter and led to by a thread that started on the first page, stated that neither Jefferson nor Hamilton, the two rivals on Washington’s cabinet, holding two rival agendas for the country, got their way in the end. Hamilton’s vision of entrepreneurs borrowing from banks and inventing new manufactures to trade internally certainly became more of a reality than Jefferson’s nation of agrarian gentlemen. But the people who created these businesses were not the educated elite Hamilton foresaw but common, middle-class citizens – sometimes even the farmers that Jefferson so loved. I also know that if you write to Gordon Wood with praise for his book, he’ll write back to you!

Best Pseudo-History: Ferdowsi, Shahnameh
When I read the first half of this book around ten years ago, I loved the legends. But within pages of starting the second half last January, the legendary heroes gave way, and the living legend, Alexander, came on to the scene. From then on, there were far fewer magical feats and, the editor assures me, more of something that approximates what archeology can corroborate. No more women with bodies like cedars that touch the star Canopus, but I still loved reading the ancient stories from an area we all need to understand more.

Best Short Story: Robert Louis Stevenson, “The Lantern Bearers”
OK, it may have been the only short story I read this year. But I thought about it often and found encouragement in its brilliant image.

Best Theology: Richard Hooker, Ecclesiastical Polity
Hooker argues for a Church that recognizes difference of opinion without giving up central beliefs such as those in the Nicene Creed, and he does it all without calling his enemies childish, stubborn, or traitorous. It is such a welcome relief to find that Christians can be Christian.

Best Mystery: Dorothy L. Sayers, Murder Must Advertise
Except that Harriet and Bunter don't appear, this is the perfect Peter Wimsey mystery! First, the book lacks the mistakes of the Wimsey novels written just before it. No onslaught of times. No onslaught of essential information in chapter 1. The hidden information is there and doesn't need to be recalled in detail in order to understand the solution. But the novel has plenty of positive virtues, as well. Peter's athletic prowess and sense of fun comes out more than ever. Dialogs between people of various classes and professions are full of interesting detail. And the book is replete with philosophical ruminations about the ethics of marketing. Is advertising, as Jack Gilbert said of poetry, a kind of lying, necessarily?

Best Longfellow Poem: Longfellow, “The Ladder of St. Augustine”
I wrote earlier this year about “The Bridge of Cloud.” But today, partly to mention something new, and partly because my year has been filled with such stress (a year that ends tonight!), I’ll give the award to “The Ladder.” (Longfellow can be upset if he wants to, but he still gets the statuette.)
            [Do not] deem the irrevocable Past
                  As wholly wasted, wholly vain,
            If, rising on its wrecks, at last
                  To something nobler we attain.

A lot happened this year, and I barely finished my reading list for 2019. There wasn’t even time to blog about anything in September, October, and November. But now the awards are handed out, and tomorrow, once the after-ceremony parties are over (Dorothy Sayers’s is usually pretty good), I’ll get started on a New Year of reading and a New Year of blogging. I hope your New Year is full of some good old books!

Saturday, August 31, 2019


A little change can sometimes make a huge difference. Jon Meacham’s histories, by including even short examinations of the religious beliefs of their main characters, end up feeling completely different from most other histories on the same subjects. Recently he wrote a book called The Soul of America. Using the word soul in a title is an unusual choice, one that indicates an acknowledgement of a transcendent world of value and even perhaps a scale of righteousness. It’s not that Meacham wants to pronounce judgment on his subjects as good or bad servants of God, but that recognizing his subjects’ desire to be good servants of God allows him entry into new realms of evaluation.

Take Andrew Jackson, for instance. In American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House Meacham concludes by suggesting that the slave quarters still standing on the Hermitage grounds serve to remind us that “evil can appear perfectly normal to even the best men and women of a given time.” The point, while implicitly calling Jackson one of the best men of his time, recognizes that he did great evil. In an earlier chapter, he says, “There is nothing redemptive about Jackson's Indian policy.” Meacham doesn’t ultimately have to say that Jackson was either a good Christian or a bad Christian or, heaven forbid, not a Christian. He tells us the seventh President was a man who did great good for our country, imposed and perpetuated great evil on our country, and did many history-changing things the value of which we can debate about (letting the Bank die, for example).

One biography may try to convince the reader that its subject is worthy of emulation and eternal honor. Another biography may aim to debunk a commonly held favorable view of its subject. Yet another may attempt a dispassionate, nonjudgmental presentation of facts, telling the reader, “Your world is different because of the events outlined in these pages. You decide whether you like the changes.” But Meacham pronounces clear judgment on the deeds of Jackson while leaving the unitary judgment of the man to the Lord. You may think Jackson is a good guy, Meacham tells us, but he once shot a man in the street because he didn’t like his brother. You may think he was a bad guy, but he fought the Nullifiers and kept the Union together. Meacham undermines all simple judgments and leaves me fascinated by a man who is neither black nor white nor gray but a chessboard of deep black and bright white.

Speaking of shooting someone in the street, it’s amazing how Donald Trump has made every Presidential biography obliquely about himself. Of course, Trump himself has drawn this particular parallel, perhaps thinking that he is like Jackson in being a populist. (I don’t have to decide whether Trump really is a populist or even understands populism.) But does Trump know that Jackson did shoot a man in the street and got away with it? Does he know that Jackson had a young couple from his family working at the top levels of government (a nephew and his wife, in Jackson’s case)? When Jackson deals with nonwhite races, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson deals with fiscal policy, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson develops a party machine that congeals loyalty to himself, I have to think of Trump. When Jackson fights with South Carolina over a tariff, I have to think of Trump. Sometimes Old Hickory is surprisingly like our current President, but sometimes he is very different. The contrast that moved me the most in our time of polarized political thought was Jackson’s persistent view that America (OK, white America) was one and that the different factions would have to compromise in order to preserve the protection and open trade of a unified nation.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

War and Fate

As I did last year, once more I’ve found myself behind on blogging. Only this year, I’ve fallen behind on reading as well. There’s some bad (death in the family) and some good (moving to a beautiful new house) in the cause of it, but still I’m behind. It’s actually December as I write, although I’m dating the post in July (because I want to talk about a couple of books I read in July), and I’ve had to double or even triple up my reading some days in the last few weeks in order to get my list for the year finished. And then that extra reading kept me from keeping up with the blog. But how can I not say something about Tolstoy?

If a million men had not wanted to march across Europe toward Russia, says the philosophical author (loosely), Napoleon could not have made them do it. Great leaders do not shape history, or else the exception would be the law. (Napoleon wasn’t all that great anyway, the Russian patriot assures us.) And yet, we find in a deeper layer of the mystery, the varied wishes of the individual soldiers don’t have any causative effect, either. They only appear to each person the reasons for the great army’s migration. Of course you can choose to raise your arm or to think through a mathematical proof, but as soon as your will comes into contact with the will of another person, you are no longer free. You don’t decide to go. Napoleon doesn’t decide to go. Why do you go to Russia? Because it is inevitable.

Now sometimes Tolstoy seems to say that “the inevitable” is an impersonal fate, and sometimes he seems to say it is the will of God. I think he ultimately thought God directed the events, although, as Tolstoy’s fellow countryman famously asked, who would want to think that God directed the torture of a young girl? On the other hand, a brighter side of Tolstoy’s coin says that if we understood how little freedom that annoying fellow in the office had, we would more readily forgive him. But then, I want to ask, am I free to forgive the other guy if he isn’t free to stop harassing me? What good would understanding him do? Determinism is so very circular, even if it does attempt to step outside the circle in order to point out that nothing but the circle exists.

I don’t know if Napoleon moved la Grande Armée, but I know that Tolstoy moves me, even when he leads me into circular conundrums of snakes eating themselves. The story of young people in love and full of promise getting caught up in a tremendous war and trying to keep their individualities and free wills within the seemingly predetermined cataclysm brings me to the edge of all meaning. It shows me the infinite and the infinitesimal within us: the head that is large enough to encompass the globe and the heart that is too small to entertain a neighbor’s needs for a moment. He convinces me that, even if the great General Kutuzov was too insignificant to affect the battles he seemed to lead, the humble Marya is worth all of Josephine’s jewels and more. At the end of the book, she is, her author tells us, so happy she feels sad “as though she felt, through her happiness, that there is another sort of happiness unattainable in this life.” Behind the noise of battle stands Marya. Behind her stand her feelings. Behind her happiness stands a blessedness of another world. The battle plans and marches and bungled orders and meetings between emperors and childhood marriage vows and houses being sold and humanitarian societies and all the rest – these are only line drawings on a curtain behind which the real drama takes place just outside our total comprehension.

If history is predetermined, can it be foreseen by human eyes? Some people, Tolstoy points out, seem to understand great movements, to have the ability to pinpoint key influences and to predict battles. But, he explains, there are always plenty of people predicting one thing or another, so that eventually every outcome is predicted. As a result, when the actual outcome happens, there's always someone to say, “I told you so.” At the same time I was finishing up War and Peace, I also read the central part of the central book in Shelby Foote’s history of the American Civil War, which naturally told about the central battle of the War, and I couldn’t help finding Tolstoy’s view critiquing Foote’s. One could read this account of the events in Pennsylvania and come away with a Great Man theory of history. The U.S. won the war because it won Gettysburg, and it won the battle of Gettysburg because it held Little Round Top, and it held Little Round Top because Joshua Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge when his troops were out of bullets. Thank you, Joshua Chamberlain.

But Foote also tells about James Longstreet, who, while Pickett charged the center of the bluecoats’ line on the third day, sat on a rail and watched the disaster, which he had forecast to Lee. But did Longstreet really know what would happen? He was right, as it turned out. But I could say that it’s raining in Kyoto just this minute and be accidentally right without knowing whether it’s raining in Kyoto. Tolstoy would say that the only reason a story as boring as that of a man sitting on a fence rail for a day survives is that Longstreet merely proved in the end to have guessed correctly. Everybody predicted something that day, and if Pickett had made it through the lines – which doesn’t seem an impossibility to me even though I don’t think he personally would have had much to do with the changed outcome – some other general (Pickett himself, perhaps) would have said to Lee, “See? I told you so.”

Which did Foote believe? Did he believe that Chamberlain was the great man because he established history? Or did he believe that great men only recognize the futility of will and the inevitability of events? The title of his Gettysburg section, “The Stars in the Courses,” suggests the latter, even if the view is adopted only to make the reading as compelling as the fate behind the events.