Saturday, May 30, 2015

Surprising Calvin

I’m surprised to say it. I almost hate to say it. But Calvin has been really helpful this year. I originally planned to read ten percent of his Institutes each year in my decade-long reading plan. But I ended up reading two installments the first year because a friend wanted to talk about it with me. So I’ve been ahead ever since, and I came into this year, year 9, knowing it was my last year with Calvin and eager to be done with this bitter, rancorous man.

But then Calvin surprised me by being really helpful on certain aspects of the sacramental nature of Communion (i.e. Eucharist). He clarified some terms and some views on the subject – both his own views and some Catholic doctrine. And he got me reading some passages in the early Church Fathers. I know where I stand now. I’m not ready, like Luther, to say, “I can do no other.” But my mind is at rest for now.

And speaking of Luther, since I’m finishing up Calvin one year early, I’m going to fill his spot in year 10 with a book of selections from the writings of the German friar. I anticipate enjoying Luther and learning from him, partly because I don’t imagine his works will string together diatribes against doctrines held by “puerile,” “obstinate” opponents. Bye, Calvin.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Pascal’s Place in the Great Books

Within the last month, I’ve read Calvin’s thoughts on sacraments, Aquinas’s introduction to his treatise on the sacraments, and descriptions by Pascal on the controversy between the Jesuits and the Jansenists concerning the sacraments. It just all fell out that way according to my reading plan; ten years ago when I drew up the schedule, I had no idea the selections for this spring would go so well together.

I gave up on Pascal’s Provincial Letters during the first ten-year plan; it was just too dull for me at the time. Two ironies come to mind. First, I gave up on only two books in that first decade: The Descent of Man by Darwin – who, according to Richard Dawkins, made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist – and The Provincial Letters by Pascal, the very Christian author of the greatest book never written: the Pensées. The second irony: Pascal’s Pensées is one of my very favorite books, and yet I couldn’t find anything to recommend this other classic from the same pen. (Side note: Of all the authors included in the Britannica Great Books set, Darwin is the worst at coming up with titles. The Origin of Species says a lot about species dying out while the fittest survive but very little about the mechanisms by which species originate, and The Descent of Man consistently speaks of Man ascending from lower life forms.)

As I picked up The Provincial Letters this year, though, I found them suddenly fascinating. The Jesuits had issued condemnations of the theologians at Port-Royal, an abbey with which Pascal had an association. Pascal wrote anonymous letters both defending his friends and attacking the Jesuits. Apparently, the Jesuits of the time had published works demonstrating some surprising doctrines: that most sins are not really sinful, that Christians have no need to confess them, and that grace is not needed for salvation. Pascal’s meticulous examination of the Jesuits’ sophistry has me enthralled.

But I’ve been wondering as I read: why did Mortimer Adler include The Provincial Letters in the Great Books set? I can see what believers can get out of the book. Protestants get a good look at some of the problems within the Catholic Church in the Reformation era. Catholics can witness a brilliant writer defending the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist and refuting some Calvinist doctrines. All Christians can find strength in Pascal’s firm declarations that sin is sinful, that Christians should confess their sins, and that salvation requires grace. But what should the non-Christian get out of this work?

I’ve thought of several reasons for keeping the book in a reading program designed for Westerners of all religious stripes. First, the topics of debate help explain one of the most important turning points in European history, surely a topic of interest to anyone who would bother reading such a thing as a canon of Western literature. Second, the careful treatment of ethical questions concerning (among other things) lying, stealing, and killing for self-defense pertain to anyone living in society. And third, in a culture of 140-character tweets, annoyingly abbreviated and unpunctuated text messages, and ubiquitous comment boards on which unfounded opinion stands for fact and sarcasm takes the place of logic, Pascal’s letters demonstrate that length, breadth, grammar, and clear reasoning are as necessary to making a lasting point as grace is to salvation.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Rutherford’s History of America

I heard an annoying person once say that the history of the Yankees is the history of baseball. No way I’m buying that one. But Edward Rutherford manages to make the history of New York the history of the United States. Rutherford’s New York covers the era from Peter Stuyvesant to the twenty-first century through multigenerational stories of fictional families representing different ethnic groups: Native "Indian," African, English, Dutch, German, Irish, and so on. The stories are interesting in themselves, but these imaginary people interact with actual figures and events in a way that makes real history vivid, memorable, and understandable.

I’m about 60% of the way through New York, and so far I’ve read about a long list of people, places, and events from American history, including these:

• The Dutch West India Company
• Henry Hudson
• Fur trading
• The origin of Broadway as an ancient Indian track
• Wampum
• The slave trade
• The American Revolution
• The Erie Canal
• George Whitefield
• Cricket
• Railroads
• Tammany Hall, Boss Tweed, and Thomas Nast
• Coney Island
• The Civil War
• Draft Riots
• Charles Dickens
• Karl Marx
• The New York Stock Exchange
• The robber barons and their business and banking schemes

I’ve also read the origins of the names Bronx, Yonkers, Knickerbockers, and Wall Street, and of the terms “Macaroni” (as in Yankee Doodle’s feather) and “Boss” (as in Mr. Tweed of Tammany Hall). I haven’t reached the twentieth century, so I haven’t read about the baseball Yankees yet. I doubt Rutherford will represent the whole history of baseball through that one team, though. And I’m positive he won’t claim that the history of the Knickerbockers is the history of basketball.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Top 100 – Part V

I’ve reached a milestone: today’s post is the five-hundredth on Over the course of the blog, I’ve been compiling a list of the books that I think about most. And in each of the one-hundredth, two-hundredth, three-hundredth, and four-hundredth posts, I contributed seven entries to that list. Today, I offer seven more.

• Annie Dillard, American Childhood. Every page makes you glad to be alive. Somehow Dillard writes her own semiautobiographical tale and yet makes it seem like the reader’s bildungsroman. She definitely had me in mind when reminiscing about reading names on the check-out cards in library books and thinking, there in the hush of the musty stacks, about the bonds forged between neighbors and strangers alike by the experience of reading a book. I wish I could just look at a list of names of people who have read American Childhood. Oh, wait; I can. That’s what Amazon is for!

• Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like a lot of people my age, I read this for history class in high school. (Social-studies classes had us reading actual literature even if English classes didn’t.) Of course this book has problems. But the little lady who made the big war brilliantly showed that if it is wrong to own a man, it is wrong even for a good man to own a bad man: not all the slaves in the book are Uncle Toms, and not all owners and overseers are Simon LeGrees. And yet Uncle Tom and Simon LeGree are in the book, and their climactic scene haunts my thoughts often. Tom pleads Simon not to whip him because of his concern for Simon’s soul. If that degree of charity seems unrealistic, the fault is not in the book but in me.

• John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath. Tom Joad returns to the homestead after years in prison only to see a bulldozer about to take it down. “I’ll shoot you!” he shouts to the driver. “They’ll just send someone else tomorrow.” “Then I’ll shoot him, too!” “There’ll be another still.” “Then I’ll shoot the guy who’s sending them all.” At this point the driver offers words that have brought resignation and peace to me in many, many bureaucratic moments: “Don’t you get it? There’s no one you can shoot.”

• Alvin Toffler, Future Shock. I was amazed when I read in the 70s about planned obsolescence and other marks of what we now might call postmodern society. Now that I’ve seen so many of Toffler’s insightful observations become more and more the norm, I’m even more amazed.

• George Burns, Gracie. No entertainer could offer a humbler, more beautiful tribute to another than George Burns did in the biography of his wife. But my favorite story has nothing to do with humor and not much to do with Gracie. A year after adopting a little girl, George and Gracie receive a call during a dinner party with some other friends from show business. It’s the orphanage, asking if they would be willing to take another baby. As George explains his concern that his busy schedule doesn’t leave him enough time even for his one daughter, one of his dinner guests stands up, walks across the room, takes the phone, and says, “We’ll take the child.” They’re the only four words I know of Harpo Marx ever uttering. If I could choose only four words to say in my whole life, could I choose any more noble and beautiful than those?

• William Mouser, Walking in Wisdom. Mouser explains the form of the Hebrew poetry of the Bible better than anyone else I’ve ever read or heard. Before reading Mouser, I didn’t know how to read the Proverbs; after reading Walking in Wisdom, I do. Some of the most complex and rewarding proverbs are those that exhibit antithetical parallelism. Here’s an example:

    He who loves wisdom makes his father glad,
    But one who keeps company with harlots squanders his substance.

Now you can read it the way I used to: “Wisdom, good; harlots, bad.” Or you can look at the details of the parallelism. The proverb contrasts wisdom and harlots, glad fathers and squandered money. The implication of the parallelism is that Dad won’t be glad to hear you’ve spent your time on prostitutes partly because you’ve wasted money, probably his money. One more example:

    He who despises the word brings destruction on himself,
    But he who respects the commandment will be rewarded.

Without Mouser’s book, I would never have paid attention long enough to see the contrast in grammatical voice at the ends of the lines. The one who obeys the commandments does not bring reward upon himself; he will be rewarded (in the passive voice), and we’re left to decide who will do the rewarding, although that riddle isn’t too difficult to solve, given that the proverb is in the Bible and all. Sadly, this amazingly helpful book is out of print.

• Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. May I end with an obvious one? Like a lot of folks, I think about this intelligent book! this remarkable book! at least once each December twenty-fifth. But my favorite scene comes to mind many times a year for various reasons, and that’s the scene near the end in which the transformed Scrooge asks the little Cockney boy (at least he’s a Cockney when I read the book aloud) to run to the poulterer’s in the next street but one and bring round that turkey that’s quite as big as himself. Walk-ER!

I don’t know if I’ll reach a six-hundredth post. My decade-long reading plan ends next year, and I don’t plan to blog about my experiences with books past that point. Ukranian bots have discovered exlibrismagnis and account for most of the hits these days. But in case I do reach six-hundred posts by December 2016, and in case you’re a human, I have seven more books ready to praise.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What I’m Not

Let me tell you some things I’ve read in Aquinas so far his year. Christ’s Passion is the sufficient cause of Man’s salvation. Christ is the only mediator between God and Man. He was the sacrifice, He was the Priest who offered the sacrifice, He was one with Him to whom it was sacrificed, and He united those for whom it was sacrificed. The daily offering of the Eucharist in the Church is not a further atoning sacrifice but a commemoration of the sacrifice made once for all time. God has chosen to use sacraments as instruments in conferring his grace because it is befitting that human beings have spiritual truths communicated through material objects. The sacraments are signs of God’s grace. They are causes of grace only in an instrumental way, as a hammer is a cause of a chair or as a voice has the power to arouse a listener.

I started out writing thinking that I would say what this sounds like to me. But now that it’s come down to it, I don’t know if this sounds Catholic or Protestant. It just sounds Christian to me. I know the Church is split in several ways, but I try to act as if the split doesn’t exist. I regularly confess my faith in the holy catholic Church, but I’m not a Roman Catholic. I attend a Protestant church, but I’m not protesting anything. To declare myself loyal to one side or another would – in my view, at least – violate I Corinthians 1. (But, mind you, I don’t want separate myself from any Christian who does confess allegiance to one party or the other.) Paul scolds those Christians for proclaiming “I am of Paul” or “I am of Peter.” These, in fact, almost exactly represent my two main options in America; I certainly don’t want to say either of those things, so I can’t declare myself either a Protestant or a Roman Catholic.

But Paul goes on to scold also those who say, “I am of Christ.” Now what in the world could be wrong with that? Paul himself, in fact, says in other places that he belongs to Christ, so how can he condemn the statement here? It must be the context. With everyone claiming separate circles, saying “I’m of Christ” just creates one more circle: the circle of people who don’t say, “I’m of Paul” or “I’m of Peter.” It’s just as exclusive as the other statements. So what should a good Corinthian Christian have said? The problem is in the word “I.” “We are of Christ,” Paul could have accepted. “We are of Christ,” I’m comfortable with.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Four Jokes

On Amazon, readers tend to give Tristram Shandy either a 5 or a 1. It is very much what it is, and it is excellently what it is. So if you like what it is, you’ll give it a 5, and if not, you’ll give it a 1. For me, it's clearly a 5. One 1-star reviewer said that the book contains only one joke, that the one joke is digression, and that digression gets old fast. Even if that were the only joke, in the hands of Laurence Sterne that joke is hilarious. Are you going to dismiss Oscar Wilde because his plays all just contain one witty line after another? Should we forget Jane Austen because every book is just all about genteel ethics?

And anyway, Tristram doesn’t just have the one joke; it has at least four. (And if you ring the changes on them, that should be enough for six-hundred pages.) In addition to digressions within digressions and digressions about digressions, there’s (2) Uncle Toby’s obsession with sieges and (3) Mr Shandy’s poor attempts at being a classical scholar. And we mustn’t leave out (4) the concern by the Shandy men over the length of a certain body part. Tristram insists vehemently that when he says “nose” he means nothing more or less than a nose. But that’s not what gets smashed by the falling window one day. And why does the window fall? Because Uncle Toby has borrowed the counterweights for his model of the siege of Dunkirk. But not to worry: Mr Shandy convenes a conclave of classical scholars to discuss what should be done about Tristram’s injured “nose.” Oh, yeah, and there’s the joke about everything tying in to the same few jokes.

A description can’t make the book sound sufficiently funny any more than a description can make you feel the awe of a sunset. But it’s funny. It’s very funny. Through Tristram, Sterne makes fun of men, pride, hobbies, philosophy, doctors, sex, and conversation. But mostly he makes fun of the Enlightenment. Tristram takes half the book to get to the day of his birth because, like Diderot, he wants to write an encyclopedia, a book that establishes and clarifies every last detail about his life. Like John Locke, he builds a philosophy out of introspection. So how could Tristram not take three-hundred pages to get himself born? After all, once he realizes that his goal of being thorough is impossible since he’s living faster than he can write about it, he has to commemorate that thought, and so we get a digressive chapter on how life runs faster than the pen.

And now I realize it, too. I had so much more to say.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Things Fred Flintstone Never Taught You

Well, I can’t find it with a Google search today. But I’m almost sure I remember an episode of The Flintstones in which Fred thinks he’s having a baby. If it wasn’t Fred Flintstone, it was some other animated husband from the classic era of TV cartoons who mistakenly gets someone else’s test result at the doctor’s office. I thought the joke was funny when I was a kid. I know more details now, but I certainly knew then it was ridiculous, and I laughed. In fact, the story is funny because the man who accepts this news doesn’t know as much as the eight-year-old who’s laughing at him. But it’s not funny, you say. Well, I came across the story again last week in Boccaccio’s Decameron. Apparently it was funny in the fourteenth century, and it’s still funny to me in the twenty-first now that I’m quite a bit older than eight.

On each of ten days, Boccaccio’s ten characters each tell one another a story, for a total of – yes, you did that math right – one hundred stories. On most days, the stories center around a single theme. But on the ninth day, the troupe is free to tell any story they want. The results, like the genres, are mixed. There’s the story of a woman who doesn't heed the warning of her husband's dream and then is mauled by a wolf, which doesn’t come across today as either scary or dramatic  And there’s the very uncomfortable story about a man who learns (from Solomon, no less!) to beat his wife in order to keep her in line. At least Boccaccio knew enough to have the women in his group of storytellers disapprove.

But the ninth day offers plenty of entertainment in its comedic tales involving sexual romps, tricks played on fools, or both. For instance, in the second story, an abbess gets up in the middle of the night to catch a nun who has a man in her bed, but the abbess shows up with a man's pantaloons on her head instead of her wimple, so all the women decide not to say any more of the matter. Story 6 finds two traveling men staying the night with a family in their one bedroom. The family has a teenage daughter (of course), and there’s almost no end to the sequence of characters getting up to relive themselves and then stumbling back in the pitch dark to the wrong bed. And finally, there’s the story of Calandrino, a fool who features in several of the stories of the Decameron. Here on the ninth day, a physician looking for a good laugh tells Calandrino he’s pregnant. "This happened because she wanted to be on top!" the distraught Calandrino shouts. Now that’s a part of the old joke that didn’t make it to The Flintstones.