Saturday, December 31, 2011

Lights Will Guide You Home

Tomorrow, I start the sixth year of my ten-year reading plan. A few days later, Nancy and I leave for Arezzo, Italy, where I will teach for a semester. Before I know it, I’ll be reading the Aeneid in Tuscany, close to the site of Virgil’s Italian battles. I know it sounds weird, but I love my reading schedule. Every New Year, I look at the list and get excited about what’s coming up. There’s always a good dose of my favorite authors: Plato, Aristotle, Dickens, Trollope, Shakespeare, Aquinas, Plutarch, Durant, Augustine, Lewis, Chesterton, Boswell, James, and O’Brian. Year 6 also has me eager to read Byron, Sun Tzu, Chrysostom, Dionysius, Jonathan Edwards, and Alvin Plantinga, all of whom are basically new to me (except for a couple of poems by Byron and one sermon by Chrysostom), as well as a biography of Rutherford B. Hayes and a history of Black regiments in the Civil War. I get to read more in Boccaccio, Euclid, and Orlando Furioso, and I get to reread a novel by Charles Williams and Goldsmith’s hilarious Vicar of Wakefield. Yes, I love my reading plan.

Five or six years ago at this magical season between semesters, when time is suspended and the air is hushed, I had a dream. In my dream, I stood on a footbridge over a river, facing west-by-northwest. The sky was dark, but the details of the scene were made visible by the glow of scores of tiny blue lights floating in the air above the river and all around me. I saw no human figure other than myself, but on the western bank stood a large, imposing building complex made of dull stone. It looked a bit like a castle with several stern keeps behind a high, windowless wall that zigzagged irregularly around the inner towers like a strip of perforated postcards laid on its side. I don’t know what I thought the castle was or what lay behind me, but I remember I was headed toward the west and didn’t want to move any farther toward the castle, so I just lingered on the bridge. As much as I opposed the idea of moving forward, though, I didn’t feel fear or disgust or any negative emotion about the castle; I simply noted its undesirability cognitively. All I felt at the moment was the most joyful peace I ever remember, a peace that seemed sustained by soft, wordless voices emanating from the blue lights.

I puzzled over this dream for a long time and asked several friends for their help in understanding it. I recognized some of the features of the tableau: the bridge probably came from my memories of the footbridge leading to the music building at the University of Iowa, and the floating lights vaguely reminded me of the icicle lights that hang across the front window in our house each December, and hang there now casting their numinous glow on the room. But the peace surpassed all adult memory; it seemed to me it could only come from childhood or directly from Heaven. Ironically, this dream of utter peace agitated me for weeks as I sought an explanation. What was I headed toward? What fearsome future awaited me? What were the lights, and whose were the voices? The memory of the peace remained sweet to me, but it seemed I could feel it only indirectly as long as these answers eluded me.

A huge part of the unmediated enjoyment returned when I remembered that the windowless wall had no doors, either, and that the path from the bridge turned right on the shore and led past the castle. Whatever the buildings represented, they now seemed both more severe, since they would not allow me entrance, and less ominous, since I had discovered that the worst the castle could do to me was to cast its shadow on my way for a while.

With that discovery, a lot of things clicked. The path represented the journey of my life; I had no thought of turning around and heading east because I could no more reverse the direction of my walk than I can reverse the course of time. The lights floating around the bridge reminded me of Christmas lights because the bridge stood for the days before and after Christmas. What imposing institution lay in wait for me, ready to darken my path after the Christmas break but unwilling to fully accept me into its community? Too easy.

But how did the voices in the lights fit into this scenario? They clearly meant something more than a Christmas decoration; Christmas lights don’t talk. These lights had personalities, they had comforting messages. Surely they include my family and my best friends. But because there were so many and because their words were indistinct, I believe they also include the authors on my reading list. Maybe their words are indistinct because they were the Spirits of Reading Yet to Come.

Yes, it sounds strange even to me, but I love my reading plan. Thanks for sharing part of the journey with me. At this point, some of the lights represent you and your encouragement. What are your lights? May they lead you across your bridge and through the shadows on your path.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book Awards -- 2011

Halfway through! I finished the fifth year of The Plan just a couple of weeks ago with Dickens’s Pictures of Italy. This weekend I start year 6, and the weekend after that I take the Kindle to Italy. In the meantime, I’m happy to announce my book awards for the year. I blogged earlier in the year about the recipients of all awards except the last.

Still Too Good to Compare with Anyone Else
Charles Dickens. This year I read the Great Man’s masterpiece among masterpieces, the book about the boy Dickens called his favorite of all the children that lived in his mind. Much of David Copperfield, in fact, is about people that live in the mind: both fictional people and the imperfect shadows we create of people we know. I always wondered before why David begins his first-person account with local women prophesying at his birth that he would grow up to see ghosts. Now I understand that the prediction came true.

Best New Read: Fiction
George Orwell, Animal Farm. Partway through the book I realized that trying to figure out the allegory was a pointless distraction. Stalin’s Soviet Union provides just one example of the contemptible but all too common human dynamic demonstrated in this fairy tale. The leaders’ insistence that the common folk use particular language, the changing rules, and the loose interpretation of the rules by those who are more equal than others all sound very familiar. I once received an email stating that in my publications and correspondence I must always refer to the University of Oklahoma with a capital T in the word “the.”

Best New Read: History
Durant, The Age of Faith, chaps. 27-36. Last year I read the section on the political history of the Middle Ages in Europe. This year I read Durant’s account of the Church and the arts. My spirit soared with the Gothic cathedrals and was humbled with Dominic and Francis. And Durant got the part dealing with music right, including all the technical descriptions – a rare accomplishment for a nonexpert!

Best New Read: Religion
My first inclination says to go with the Church History of Eusebius, especially on this feast day of the Holy Innocents in commemoration of Herod’s slaughter of Jewish babies, but instead I’ll take the opportunity to celebrate George Morrison’s Christ in Shakespeare. According to Morrison, the Bard testified to Christ not so much by putting sermons in the mouths of the Christian characters as by faithfully depicting the physical, spiritual, and moral world that Christ created. I’ll never read Shakespeare the same way again.

Most Confusing Philosophy
As much as I want to say Hegel, especially after reading William James call him a lunatic, I have to give the award to Oswald Spengler, who expected others to judge ideas, people, and institutions by the colors they invoked in Spengler’s mind.

Most Encouraging Philosophy
Aquinas, Part I-II, QQ. 59-63. I’ll attempt a summary of this section on virtues – gulp! The moral virtues arise in us first as aptitudes and are developed usually by habitual action but sometimes by miraculous gift. They don’t eliminate the passions, as the Stoics incorrectly taught. The ends of moral actions must be in accord with reason, and reason orders and directs the passions; therefore, some moral actions are strengthened by rationally ordered passion. God surpasses human reason, so He gives us the theological virtues (faith, hope, and love) to direct us to Himself. My summary of the summary: God works in us to will and to do his good pleasure.

Biggest Disappointment on the List
Since Spengler already got an award, I’ll give this one to Richard Blackmore’s Lorna Doone.  The “hero” gets a lot of guns so he can kill all his enemies and get the pretty girl. Seriously?

Most Disappointing Sequel
Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book. I liked the wildly inventive first book in the Thursday Next series (which got a positive award from me last year), and this one provided lots of new clever ideas, like the secret library of all possible plots, but the story brought in too many elements and meandered. I couldn’t help wondering if the sidetracks were there to give a second meaning to the title, as if Fforde were saying that the plot of his book suffered from the literary espionage that he writes about in his fantasy world. But I never could fully buy into that theory, especially when this supposed celebration of books dethroned classic after classic by calling them all boring.

Best Reread
C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy. As much as Jasper Fforde seems to hate the classics, Lewis loves them. His story of the way God used good friends and good books to reveal Himself inspires me on every page, and I was pleasantly amazed at the number of Lewis’s favorites I had read in the twenty years since I last enjoyed Surprised by Joy.

Best Recommended Offroading
Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games. I could be picky and ask who Katniss is talking to in her first-person, present-tense narrative. Sometimes it seems like I’ve been given access to her stream of consciousness, but at other times she explains details of her culture as if talking to an outsider. But in spite of this problem (which may be resolved by one of the later volumes, for all I know), this book had me enthralled  beginning to end. It clearly belongs to the era of reality television and cameras in the sky, yet it shows Aristotelian unity in its almost relentless pursuit of a single story.

Well, there’s my last retrospective on 2011. Next time, a preview of 2012.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Imagining Christmas Morning

In year 3 of this reading plan, Calvin gave me new perspective by explaining that Christ’s entire earthly life was a redemptive act. From humbling Himself at the Conception, through birth in a feeding trough and life as a carpenter, all the way to his crucifixion – every aspect of his incarnate life was an act of human obedience that set, proved, and satisfied the standard for our race. His death, Calvin explains, was the central act of redemption, not the only act.

The Book of Common Prayer’s Litany, which I pray about once a month, confirms this idea in a section that read this way:
By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity and Circumcision; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By thine Agony and Bloody Sweat; by thy Cross and Passion;
by thy precious Death and Burial; by thy glorious Resurrection
and Ascension; and by the Coming of the Holy Ghost,
Good Lord, deliver us.
This idea came up yet another time in year 3 when I also read – and put into practice – Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. In one section, Loyola leads the reader through a series of meditations on events in the life of Jesus: the discussion with the teachers when He was twelve, his baptism, his temptation, his arrest, and so on. In each case, Loyola calls the reader to engage the imagination of all five senses: What do I see? What do I hear? What do I feel? What do I smell? What do I taste?

This morning, I am imagining myself in a dirty cave. The strong but not-so-offensive smell of barnyard waste hits my nose. The animals keep up a sporadic drone of scraping hooves, swishing tails, and calm bleating and lowing. My mouth feels the dryness of the morning, and I drink some metallic tasting water from a skin pouch. I see a little family with a newborn, wrapped tightly in a worn cloth marked with a couple of dull purple stripes. I don’t see halos. I remember seeing some shepherds come in a couple of hours ago, telling of strange visions. I run outside to look at the indigo sky but see no signs of angels or heavenly armies. As I come back in, I hear the sucking sound of a baby drinking. The father has both satisfaction and sleepiness on his face; the young mother’s face shows exhaustion and a quizzical amazement. After the meal I reach out a finger and touch the baby’s palm. He closes his fingers around my finger and holds it. I feel the hard stones pressing on my bended knees and the beginnings of tears forming in my eyes.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2011

Just about a year ago, I blogged about two of my favorite Christmas carols: “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” and “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear.” This Advent season, I’ve been reading and pondering carols again, and two more have sprung to fore of my attention: “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and “Silent Night.”

I’m thinking about grammar today, so I have to start with a lesson of a grammatical point, as best I understand it. In English, each noun must perform one of a short list of possible roles: it acts as either a subject, an object, the object of a preposition, a subject or object complement, an appositive, an adjective (unfortunately, the English grammar that allows “water glass” results in dissertations with ugly phrases such as “music understanding index survey instrument”), an exclamation (“Heavens!”), or a vocative. The vocative is a direct address, a calling upon or naming of the person spoken to, like “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. Latin has a special form for the vocative: a Roman addressing Quintus would call him “Quinte.” That function in English used to be signaled by the single-letter word “O.” These days, most people, even some hymnal editors, don’t know the difference between “O” and Oh” and sometimes assume that the shorter form is just the old-fashioned spelling of the more familiar word. But used correctly, as in “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” it indicates that the noun or noun phrase names the person (or thing!) spoken to. In this case, it shows that when we sing the first verse of this song, we sing to the town. What a pretty device! Bethlehem, did you know what monumental event was taking place in your dark streets that night?

I love the sinuous melody of this lovely carol, with its unusually high number of leaps and unusually frequent changes of direction. (Try it! Sing “Jingle Bells” or “Yankee Doodle,” and note how often the melody switches directions. Then compare your results with “O Little Town.”) And I love the turn to minor in the third line and the disappearance of harmony for three beats (“ev-er-last”). These stark features seem especially suitable to the “dark streets” and “fears” of verse 1 and to the “world of sin” in verse 3, and they contrast wonderfully with the sweet, tender outer portions of the score. The combination makes the hymn both uplifting and stern, both beautiful and sublime, and fits perfectly one of the best lyrics in any carol: “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

Several years ago, I was trying to explain to one church’s worship band the problem of lyrics that just list Biblical sounding things without saying anything about them. One popular praise song, for instance, mentions “the greatness of his mercy and love,” but it doesn’t say anything about that greatness. It’s a noun phrase that serves no grammatical function. It isn’t a subject or object. It isn’t a vocative. It isn't part of a sentence. It’s just a phrase that sounds suitable. The band didn’t understand my concern, and my frustration only grew. Ever since that time, I’ve been looking out for nouns in search of a sentence.

I blame a poor educational strategy and sloppy postmodern thinking for the lazy acceptance of these faulty lyrics, but the problem might trace partly to what is perhaps the most beloved of all Christmas carols: “Silent Night.” It certainly starts with two disconnected noun phrases: Silent night, holy night.” I take these to be exclamations or perhaps even vocatives. But it’s all sentences from there on, despite the punctuational choices of hymnal editors. In fact, after checking the punctuation in hymnals and other songbooks, I’m convinced that I’m the only person in America that understands the grammar of this song.

I know. That took a lot of nerve to say and might not sound like it’s said in the Christmas spirit. But anything good and beautiful must share in the spirit of the Child born in the manger. Good grammar has done me good through the years, and I say God Bless It! Check the closest hymnal. Does it place a comma between “virgin” and “mother”? If so, that comma makes “mother and child” a disconnected phrase. "Virgin" and "mother" go together in one phrase: Mary is the virgin mother, and all is bright around her and her child. Does it have a period after mild? If so, it leaves the Holy Infant dangling. “Holy Infant so tender and mild" is the vocative introduction to the sentence. At this point we sing a lullaby to baby Jesus and encourage Him to sleep in heavenly peace. Now honestly, until a few years ago I didn’t know that last line was an imperative addressed to the Christ Child. I just sang it as a suggestion vaguely offered to the world at large. But that reading left “Holy Infant so tender and mild” out of any sentence.

The second verse causes even more problems. The source I’m looking at now puts a semicolon after “light,” leaving “Son of God” and “love’s pure light” homeless. With that semicolon, all we have is a list, not a sentence: a silent night, the Son of God, and the light of love. The third line might as well read “These are a few of my favorite things.” But this verse of the song is not just a list of Christmas things; it’s a sentence. The biggest problem, I believe, comes down to the word “beams.” For most of my life, I thought that word was a noun, just one more thing in this list of happily floating Christmas objects. But after I became aware of the problem of dangling nouns, I became convinced that this classic song wouldn’t make the postmodern mistake. So where is the verb? “Beams” is the only candidate! So here’s my parsing: “Son of God” is a vocative: we address Jesus directly with this sentence. “Love’s pure light” is the subject. “Radiant” causes another small problem. I used to think it described the beams, but my current theory says that “beams” is a verb, so “radiant” must modify some other noun. I think it refers retroactively to the light with a little poetic inversion of word order. So it’s “love’s pure, radiant light” said out of order. Now we get the verb: the light beams – or shines, or radiates – from Jesus’ holy face to signal the dawn of redeeming grace. I’m still pondering the last line, "Jesus, Lord at Thy birth." Is it still part of the sentence? Can one sentence have more than one vocative? The modified version shown here doesn’t fit the rhythm of the melody, but it represents what goes through my mind when I sing the verse:
Such a silent night! Such a holy night!
O Son of God, love’s pure, radiant light
Shines from Thy holy face
With the dawn of redeeming grace,
O Jesus, Lord at Thy birth,
O Jesus, Lord at Thy birth.
The kind of close analysis I’m doing probably won’t make any sense to most twenty-first century Americans, and some might think I’m really missing the point of this simple, peaceful song. But I’ll attempt a short defense of my tactics by saying that only since looking at the carol in this way have I meditated also on the dawn of grace and on the mystery of Jesus being Lord at his birth. Looking at the lyrics with such scrutiny helps me see both the hopes and fears of all the years. May they meet in us all tonight!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How Aquinas Sees God

Since I started this blog partway through year 4 of a ten-year plan, I’ve tried to go back from time to time to comment on some of my reading from the first three-and-a-half years. Today I’ll look back a bit at Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica.

The first time I tried reading Thomas, he made no sense to me at all. I don’t know which hindered me more: my illness at the time or my inexperience with Aristotle. The second time I tried reading the Summa, it seemed surprisingly clear. I had a few more years of living, a bit more knowledge of history and philosophy and logic, and some beginning experience with Aristotle. But I also had Mortimer Adler’s ten-year-plan, which assigned in the first year a small section of the Summa appropriate for beginners, and I had a commentary by Peter Kreeft. Now I just read and learn every year.

In my present plan, I spend five or six weeks each year with Thomas, and I still won’t get through the book in ten years. But I started at the beginning, and I still refer back to my notes on those first pages every year to help make sense of all the rest. The theme of the entire Summa is human knowledge of God, the goal of our lives, so the Doctor begins with several pages on the need for theology for two good reasons: to introduce his subject and to justify his method. Thomas says clearly in this introductory “question” (each chapter, we might say, discusses a single topic and is called a question) that man is directed to God as an “end beyond the grasp of human reason,” but that man can nevertheless arrive at some knowledge of God through reason based on premises revealed in Scripture. Natural reason alone, he says, can only tell us that God is, not what He is.

After a question presenting five ways natural reason can show us the existence of God, Thomas goes on to several questions on the attributes of God that revealed knowledge and reason together give us. The first is the simplicity of God. God has various qualities in a manner of speaking, but these are not separable add-ons. You can take away the white from the horse, because a horse may be different colors; in this way, a horse is a composition. But God is simple in that all the things we can say of God are inseparably unified. For instance, God is his own essence. For a human to be his own essence, that individual human would have to be the same thing as humanity. Well, I am not the same as humanity, but God is the same as deity: there is no separate essence or self-existing definition of God that God merely exemplifies.

Next comes the perfection of God, not that He is complete, as if there could be anything missing from God, but in that He is completely actual with no potentiality. Knowledge, for instance, can be potential instead of actual. I normally know the square of 15 only potentially. I wasn’t thinking of it until I wrote that sentence, but now I’m thinking of it, because I always have the potential to think of it. All of God’s knowledge, on the other hand, is always actual.

Some ancient Greek philosophers pondered abstracts such as Unity and Being, and tried to decide which was logically first: what is it on which every other existing thing depends? It seems that Being is the first thing since everything else that exists has Being. But Being is one thing, so maybe Unity is the first existence. But then how can Unity have existence without Being? Thomas cuts through this Gordian knot by showing that all these abstractions are qualities of the simple God: they are all equally first, because they are all inseparable from God, who is inseparable from his essence. After the question on perfection, Thomas adds Goodness to this list. Goodness is the same as Being. Evil is only a lack of Being. God’s Goodness is inseparable from his Being, and all things that are, are good insofar as they exist.

After then discussing the infinity, immutability, and eternity of God, Aquinas turns to the question of how God can be known by us. We can be sure, he says, that the created intellect can know God in his essence because Paul’s inspired words tell us that we shall one day see Him as He is. But seeing God can come only by grace, which grants the spiritual light that makes God visible. We cannot see God, i.e. know Him in his essence, in this lifetime, but through grace God gives us some knowledge of Himself through Scripture, inner understanding, and in some cases visions.

Now all this doctrine about the need for grace and the limited usefulness of reason differs significantly from what a devotee of a certain Protestant sect once told me about Aquinas’s views. I don’t know if Aquinas sounds either particularly Protestant or particularly Catholic in this section. But he sounds Biblical to me, and he sounds wise with a wisdom that has come through grace.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Funny Things Are Everywhere

In the last two weeks, I’ve been rereading a lot of books that I’ve read many, many times – some probably fifty or even a hundred times. The grandkids are in the house, and I’m talking about classics by Dr. Seuss. My favorite book of his is One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The two anonymous kids from The Cat in the Hat return for this one. In their first book, the Cat teaches them how to have fun, while in the second, he teaches them how to clean up after all that fun. The first tells a lesson some kids need to hear, and the second teaches a lesson all parents wish their kids would learn sooner. But One Fish, Two Fish teaches a lesson that many kids, I fear, never learn: how to stop and enjoy the wonderful world around us. “From There to Here, From Here to There, Funny things are Everywhere.”

The book sticks with fish at first: fish of different colors, and fish of different sizes. “This one has a little star. This one has a little car.” And then the message begins. “Say! What a lot of fish there are!” I love that word “Say!” Besides having an old-fashioned ring to it that reminds me of something my dad would say, it expresses all the wonder and delight of serendipitous discovery.

After some more fish, this time experiencing a variety of emotions, the kids start telling the reader about the fantastic creatures that live in their house: the Ying who likes to sing, and the Yink who links to drink pink ink, the Gack, the Zans, and the Zeep. My favorite part, though, has nothing to do with either fish or special pets. He’s an independent, unnamed creature who shifts the narrative voice to describe himself in first person:
My hat is old,
My teeth are gold.
I have a bird
I like to hold.
My shoe is off,
My foot is cold.

My shoe is off,
My foot is cold.
I have a bird
I like to hold.
My hat is old,
My teeth are gold.
And now my story
Is all told.
I love the way the description lines up with the guy’s picture, describing him from head to foot as the lines run down the page. I love the way the fellow stands on one hand to describe himself in reverse order on the next page. I love the mysterious bird who appears perfectly content to be held. I love the way his beard comes not from his chin, but from a melding of two long sideburns. I love wondering why he has an old hat if he can afford gold fillings. I love the way he calls his description a story when it isn’t a story.

But I also love the rhythm of the poem. I have always laughed at the third couplet and instinctively slow down when I read it. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand why it sounded so humorous to me, but I think I do now. The first four lines all end in voiced blends: a sustaining, liquid consonant (l or r) followed by the voiced d. By comparison, the fifth line dispenses with the liquids and ends with the breathy double f. That sudden, unvoiced fricative just makes me want to stop and laugh at the matter-of-fact way this guy turns what should be a momentary situation into a feature of his character. He only tickles my funny bone more by following it up with a line expressing cheerful acceptance of the discomfort in his foot. Why doesn’t he just put his shoe on and warm up that foot? Because his shoe is off. That’s not a descriptive “is,” it’s an essential “is.” The shoe is off not out of choice; it’s off because it is a shoe whose identity is one of being off. It’s as if he had said, “My head is bald” or even “My knee is a joint.” That’s just the way it is, and this guy celebrates it, decades ahead of the era of self-expression.

Thanks, Dr. Seuss. I may not have a Zans for cans, but you helped me enjoy the mysterious world around me. Funny things are everywhere!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Reading Revelation for Advent

The Book of Common Prayer – at least the 1928 edition of the BCP; I go old school on this, as on a lot of things – schedules the reading of Revelation for the evening services during Advent. At first, it may seem that the images of horned beasts and pale horses and lakes of fire don’t fit well with the anticipation of a poor baby born in a feeding trough. But John’s vision tells of events that precede the final coming of the Lord, and reading it at this time makes the season one of preparation for Jesus, whenever and wherever He chooses to come.

The book of Revelation confuses many good Christians. I’ve even heard some say they are afraid to read it. But those who do read it often ask, “What does it mean?” I know I’m just a theory professor with no formal seminary training, but I think I know the right strategy for reading and interpreting Revelation. My hermeneutic? Read it literally. Will everything happen literally as recorded there? Absolutely not. All human speech incorporates figures, so I don’t have any reason to think that all of John’s language is literal. But I don’t know what the figures mean, and I don’t think we can know now.

My strategy comes from thinking about the prophecies of the first Coming. Jesus linked his two Comings and their prophecies when he explained Malachi’s prophecy about Elijah. When asked about Malachi’s words, He said, “Elijah is coming, and he is to restore all things; but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not know him.” In another place, Jesus says that “if we can accept it,” John the Baptist played the part of Elijah at least once. So according to Jesus, Elijah came once in the normal way and once in a figurative way, and he will come again in some way at some time after the discussion, presumably at Jesus’ second Coming.

Now if the prophecies of the two Comings are connected, how did the prophecies work the first time? Herod’s advisors had to search for an answer when asked where the Messiah would be born. How could the industrious Rabbis not already have a clear answer on such an important question? Because the prophecies were confusing and seemingly contradictory. The prophet Hosea reports God saying, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” But Isaiah says the light of the Messiah will come to the land of Galilee. And Micah says the ruler “from ancient days” will come from the little town of Bethlehem, in Judah. These prophecies weren’t clear, couldn’t have been clear, until a baby was born in Bethlehem to parents who lived on the Sea of Galilee and fled to Egypt for a time. No one could have predicted how those conflicting stories would reconcile. The prophecies didn’t exist so that people could work out a solution ahead of time; they existed to give hope in advance of the event and to provide a measure of proof after the event.

So, I reason, we should treat Revelation the same way: read it, know its stories and its images, take hope from them, and be ready to understand them when the time comes. Over the years I’ve heard several explanations of the ten-horned, seven-headed beast from chapter 13, for instance, but none has worked out. I heard once that the EU would attack Israel when it gathered ten members, but that time came and passed quickly. The EU now has twenty-seven members, way too many even for horns and heads put together. I have no idea what the heads and horns correspond to, but when the time comes, the faithful will understand everything they need to know – the faithful, that is, who know the prophecy. If we were intended to have easier, more straightforward access to what it “really” means now, that information would have been provided.

I think that the people who ask “What does this beast mean?” virtually before they read about it miss the point. Our culture has lost its poetry. The beast means a beast. It is magnificent. It is monstrous. It is asymmetrical. And it is memorable. Picture it in your mind. Put one horn on each of four heads and two horns on each of the rest. Or put the seven heads on top of some of the horns. Or think of seventeen necks and put a horn on some and a head on the others. Imagine it however you want, but picture it, and then picture a dragon giving it authority, and then picture people worshiping it. Maybe a picture like the one in your mind shows exactly how the scene will look, and maybe it is only a representation of something else. Either way, it is a poetic image with its own power. Know that image. Think about how that image makes you feel. Think about what you would do if you were in the scene. This is the story the Bible tells. Don’t worry about what it “means.” Know this story. And be prepared.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Mysteries of Robertson Davies

With its eloquent characters brimming with conflicting spiritual ideas and its constant hinting that mundane objects and events have significance also in an ethereal realm, Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels persistently brought to my mind the novels of Charles Williams, so much so that as I read, I constantly expected the world of mystery to break through the veil and manifest itself on any given page. In fact, something supernatural may take place about halfway through the book: Maria’s Gypsy mother gives two characters Tarot readings that seem to come true. Davies doesn’t specify whether the cards truly serve as a conduit of insight from another world or whether Maria’s mother simply played a psychological trick, but that ambiguity itself contributes to the mysterious aura of the novel.

Several of the characters have personal mysteries, as well. What does Maria Magdalena Theotoky draw from the rich Christian heritage residing in her names? Does she bear seven devils, or as a bearer of God, have the devils been driven out of her? Or is a name just a name? Why does Arthur Cornish insist on an orthodox Christian wedding? What spiritual benefit does he think he will draw from having the words of the 1706 edition of the Prayer Book spoken at the service, complete with its stern public warnings against fornication?

The most mysterious character is Parlabane. His name suggests that his words carry death, and one character describes him as an outright evil person. He belches, lies, sponges off his acquaintances, and sings bawdy songs – loudly – at public restaurants. He claims to be a complete skeptic about every proposition dealing with anything in the natural world. But he believes that the glory of God lies beyond skepticism, and he argues with Maria about the inadequacy of codes of honour as ethical systems. A code of honour is, he says, “no bigger than the man – or woman, if you are going to be pernickety – who possesses it. And the honour of a fool, or a pygmy-in-spirit, or a redneck, or a High Tory, or a convinced democrat are all wholly different things and any one of them, under the right circumstances, could send you to the stake, or stop your wages, or just push you out into the cold. Honour is a matter of personal limitation. God is not.” That little speech implies unskeptical belief in several propositions. At the end of the book, Parlabane asks for a special Christian ceremony for himself. So does he believe? I can fault Davies for the inconsistency only as long as I ignore the fact that every Christian believer I know (including myself) sometimes contradicts his confessional words by his committed actions.

Mystery religions show up in the book in the form of Gnostic gospels and kabbala and other heterodox traditions. The title of the book refers to a story of two angels who, without casting in their lot with Satan, come to earth to share God’s knowledge with humanity. I’m not sure how that agenda separates them from Satan since the sharing of divine knowledge seems to have been the chief rebel angel’s first ploy against mankind. In any case, the claim that their gift not only influenced Hermes Trismegistus and Paracelsus but also led to the institution of universities has me thinking about the possible motivations for intellectual research.

Having read all of Charles Williams’s novels and having enjoyed all but one of them, I was fully prepared to take the Tarot and the Gnostic gospels as literary devices that convey the mystery of the supernatural with a blunt force that scriptural quotations don’t always have for Christians inured with Biblical language. But near the end of the book, I started to suspect that Davies was trying to claim orthodox Christianity insufficient even outside the world of his novel. Arthur Cornish may want an orthodox wedding at the climax of the story, but Darcourt, the presiding clergyman and one of the two first-person narrators, questions the wisdom of living within strict orthodoxy. I’m also happy with a book that leaves spiritual questions open, but details kept goading me into thinking that Davies was closing the question with an answer I’m not so happy with. So right now, the biggest mystery for me is Davies himself. I started my adventure with Robertson Davies with one Google search, and I finished my reading of The Rebel Angels with another. Just after finishing the novel, I read online that the author once characterized himself as “not a card-carrying Christian.” Suitable, since mysteries can only be defined, not by what they are, but by what they are not.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Coincidences of Robertson Davies

 A couple of days ago, I was reading in The Los Angeles Times a news story about the Angels of Anaheim – a story I can’t bring myself to talk about. But at the bottom of that sad story, I saw a link to another sad story: “God Found in DNA.” Curious, I clicked the link and was taken to an Op-Ed piece by an author who was glad to report that scientists had finally found the causes of religion in human DNA. Imagine John Lennon’s dream coming true, he suggested. At last humanity can be free from the crippling, dangerous idea of God and admit that there is no Hell below us, above us only sky. Human DNA offers our race a unique passion for explanation, the story said, a unique tendency to assume personal agency when causes are unknown, and a unique desire to congregate with others based on shared ideas rather than just shared physical needs. Now that we see that these traits come through our genes and survived natural evolutionary processes, we can see them for the illusions they are. It has now been proven, the author declared, that man created God.

I don’t see the discoveries as proof of any such thing. Christianity has made a lot of sense to me for a long time, and I’m not about to change my view based on a report in a newspaper by a man who wants to see some pop lyrics come true. For one thing, the details were far too sketchy to overturn the wisdom of billions of people who think and have thought that God is more than a racial illusion. For another, I can’t figure out if the author thinks these genetic traits are good or bad: at one point he says they lead to religiously motivated violence and human death, but in another, he says they provide humans with a survival advantage. To give a third reason, the laboratory of history shows us that violence and bloodshed don’t disappear when belief in God is abandoned: revolutionary France and Soviet Russia were hardly peaceful, tolerant cultures.

But more than not seeing this news as proof that God is a construct, I actually see it as evidence that the Bible is true. Many times throughout the Bible we read that God has made humans in a special way that makes them capable and desirous of connecting with the supernatural. David says in the Psalms that humans are fearfully and wonderfully made. Solomon says in Ecclesiastes that eternity is in our hearts. Isaiah reports that God invites us to reason with him, and the Psalms again teach that animals don’t have the necessary reason. So scientists have at long last found the physical markers of this special aspect of our created nature. One might think that these scientists have shown the value of scientific method as an advanced intellectual tool. But another person could say that the superior path to knowledge is the one that made the discovery three-thousand years ahead of the other.

In a curious coincidence, I found an almost identical train of thought later in the day when reading more of The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies. In a conversation between scientist Ozy Froats and Renaissance scholar Maria Theotoky, Prof. Froats praises a scientist named Sheldon for developing a metric to codify different types of healthy human bodies. Maria responds that the writings of Paracelsus are full of such ideas. Oh, but you couldn’t call it scientific, retorts Froats. “You have to prove things like that experimentally.”

Maria: “Did Sheldon prove what Paracelsus said experimentally?”

Ozy: “He certainly did!”

Maria: “That just proves Paracelsus was the greater man; he didn’t have to fag away in a lab to get the right answer.”

Later that day, in an astonishing coincidence of coincidences, I was looking in the library catalog for a book I needed for class on the history of the university and found that my author had also written a book on, of all people, Paracelsus. I think I need to read it.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Hidden Things of Robertson Davies

Robertson Davies’s The Rebel Angels, which was itself hidden from my eyes until a couple of months ago, has a lot to say about hidden things. Ancestry, for instance, plays a big part in Maria’s story: her Gypsy ancestry isn’t apparent to everyone she meets, partly because she doesn’t make it apparent. And ancestry only provides one part of the mysterious, hard-to-define heritage that shapes each character: heritage also includes cultural and institutional traditions, wisdom in the literature one has read, and spiritual forces. In one of the recurring motifs of the novel, this hidden heritage is compared to the root system of a tree: what we know of each other is only the crown of the tree, but the roots that feed the crown define each of us and constitute our identity.

Several characters in the book search for hidden treasures. All the academics study either objects or documents as part of their research programs. But other treasure troves come into play. Three of the main characters, for instance, search through the uncatalogued possessions of a deceased collector, hoping to find rare manuscripts or early works by famous artists.

The subject of despised things provides a related theme in the book. A Gypsy woman poignantly explains that since the Nazis exterminated “only” a half-million Gypsies, one-twelfth the number of Jews, the world ignores the tragedy: her people don’t get the dignity of public outrage over their own Holocaust. The improbably named Prof. Ozy Froats studies human waste, and naturally his Congressman makes his work the emblematic object of his attack on what he sees as worthless research.

Linking these two themes is the constant discovery of treasures in even the humblest of places. Maria finds strength and depth in her Gypsy ancestry, and the fecal discoveries of Prof. Froats put him in the running for a Nobel prize. These two events play rather prominent parts in the story. But dropped in seemingly casually in the middle of a conversation, the Anglican priest Darcourt refers to what I consider the Source and Type of all examples of hidden treasures when he quotes Psalm 118: “The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner.”

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Thanks, Google!

Google really is a pretty amazing thing. Every time I read Dostoevsky or MacDonald or Chesterton or Lewis or Williams or Waugh, I get frustrated wondering what happened to this tradition of Christian novelists, a tradition whose quality the secular world recognizes. (Of course, several of these writers wrote much more than novels, but I haven’t puzzled so much trying to find, for instance, Christian essays from more recent times.) So I did what young people do: I Googled it. Of the handful of names that came up, the one that seemed the most promising based on user reviews (and that’s where the internet breaks down as a helpful source) was Robertson Davies.

For mostly random reasons, I decided to start Davies with The Rebel Angels, book 1 of his Cornish Trilogy. I’m about halfway through, and it has not disappointed in the least; based on my tiny sample, I can even compare it favorably with the previous authors I had in mind. Like Dostoevsky, for instance, Davies avoids predictably pious characters and just presents people of many stripes and lets them talk. Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (about whom I know only the information contained in this sentence) compares Dostoevsky’s books to musical counterpoint: the characters and their various viewpoints simply speak to each other, sometimes in conflict and sometimes in support, and the author just trusts that the Truth will come out in the composite texture. I know his books work that way for me. As George Morrison says of Shakespeare, Dostoevsky reports the world faithfully and, without overtly pursing an agenda, makes his point because the world makes its point as day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge. The Rebel Angels offers a sex-crazed epicurean, an ex-monk who declares himself a skeptic about everything except the existence of God, several academics whose religion seems to consist of devotion to research, and an Anglican priest who has become resigned to imperfections in the world, in his acquaintances, and in himself.

Like Williams and others on my list, Davies writes dense books. The Rebel Angels examines university professors, gypsies, violin making, wills, art collectors, Rabelais, bodily functions, luck, Paracelsus, clothing, dinner etiquette, literature in translation, romanticism, philosophy of science, humility, codes of honor, opulence, novel writing, bodily functions, evolutionary theories of love, and much more. Every page has something to think about. Two examples: (1) One professor states that the renaissance university got its energy from the conflict of humanism and theology, while the modern university draws its energy from the marriage of science and government. (2) In a dinner conversation about the nature of personhood, one character says that anyone who thinks declaring a person to be a spirit makes one spiritual misses a giant spiritual truth: the body’s structures and routine operations are persistent miracles.

Thanks, Google! I think I found what I was looking for.

Friday, December 2, 2011

We're Going for the Cheese

Chesterton writes in one essay – or possible two essays that my memory has confused – about the best way to travel in foreign lands. People generally go to see the famous buildings: the cathedrals, the museums, the memorials, the state buildings, the homes of famous personages from the past. But seeing Paris, for instance, doesn't mean visiting the Louvre and climbing the Eiffel Tower, because Paris consists of Parisians, and the Parisians themselves don't make the visits of typical tourists. They enjoy the Louvre and the Tower, but, Chesterton points out, not as destinations; the Parisians enjoy these structures as the environment through which they walk to work, to dine, to shop, and to meet people. The famous buildings provide, not the focus of the city, but rather its atmosphere. Far better, he says, to travel in foreign lands for the purpose of enjoying each area's distinct cuisine – above all, its cheese.

In 2005, our family traveled to Europe fortified with this healthy attitude. In Paris, we visited the Louvre briefly and looked at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower, of course. But one of our favorite memories of the trip concerns a lovely lunch we enjoyed at a sidewalk cafe, Notre Dame visible to our left and the Eiffel Tower visible to our right.

Dickens, whom Chesterton so greatly admired, seems to have had the same outlook on foreign travel. Near the beginning of his Pictures from Italy, Dickens says that, so much having been written already about famous artworks, he will say nothing of them. Instead, Dickens focuses on people, dress, food, and manners. This week, I’ve read about men playing “bowls” in a field, footpaths through trellises bedecked with grapevines, narrow streets too exiguous for the passage of a single carriage, rusty gates, gardens overcome with weeds, tanned and barefoot proselytisers for the Catholic Church, red neckerchiefs, number-guessing games, and peeling plaster. In his account of Genoa, Dickens tells about both the regional pronunciation and the town’s penchant for naming boys Giovanni Battista, the combination of which causes the streets to be filled with sneezing sounds as people greet the innumerable “Batcheetchas.”

In a passage about paintings – not great masterpieces, but the decorations at his hotel – Dickens drops some tantalizing clues about an unfamiliar English custom. Apparently, the pictures were dirty, and Dickens says that they would have pleased professional picture cleaners from London. I didn’t know about this profession before. It seems that the shops of these nineteenth-century picture cleaners were marked by a signboard that attempted to demonstrate the benefits of the service offered: a picture of death and the lady, one half dirty and the other half . . . well, less dirty. I’m fascinated and want to know which side was more covered with street grime: death or lady?

Two passages of Pictures from Italy especially capture the spirit of adventure found in this style of traveling that avoids sight-seeing. The first summarizes Genoa:
There are the most extraordinary alleys and by-ways to walk about in. You can lose your way (what a comfort that is, when you are idle!) twenty times a day, if you like; and turn up again, under the most unexpected and surprising difficulties. It abounds in the strangest contrasts; things that are picturesque, ugly, mean, magnificent, delightful, and offensive, break upon the view at every turn.
To the traveler who goes to see what a place is truly like, all these adjectives are equally welcome. The second passage even more explicitly favors the humble over the magnificent:
ARIOSTO’S house, TASSO’S prison, a rare old Gothic cathedral, and more churches of course, are the sights of Ferrara. But the long silent streets, and the dismantled palaces, where ivy waves in lieu of banners, and where rank weeds are slowly creeping up the long-untrodden stairs, are the best sights of all.
In January, Nancy and I get to travel to Italy for five months. We have a few sights we'd like to see: the ruins of Pompeii, the Senate House in the Roman Forum, David in Florence. But mostly, we're going for the cheese.