Monday, December 31, 2018

Book Awards – 2018

Because Americans love awards, on this last day of 2018, as I have at the end of each of the last several years, I offer you my list of encomiums on the highlights of my twenty-second year of planned reading.

Most Deserving of His Own Category: Charles Dickens
Yes, once again, I enjoyed Dickens so much (The Old Curiosity Shop on this circuit of the merry sun), it just wouldn’t be fair to others in the fiction category if they had to compete with the Inimitable.

Best Reread, Fiction: White, The Once and Future King
And since Dickens has his own category, E. B. White is able graciously to accept this well deserved award. When I first read this Arthurian work, I thought White made up a lot of the zanier material to keep it all a little irreverently weird. After all, in the first part, “The Sword in the Stone,” Merlin lives backwards, turns Wart into a fish, and transports himself by accident to Bermuda. Oh, yeah: and Arthur is called “Wart.” So naturally I thought White made up episodes like Lancelot rescuing a girl from a bath that she had been unable to get out of for five years. But now that I’ve read so many of the original Arthurian sources, I can say, Nope, that’s right from Malory. It just hadn’t been in the children’s version by Lanier that I had read.

Best New (to me) Poetry: Horace, Odes
Speaking of Sidney Lanier, I had assumed for years that I would enjoy all of his poetry as much as I did his King Arthur and the handful of his poems I had read before. But on the whole they disappointed me and certainly didn’t stand up to the Odes by the ancient Roman. Whether singing to the gods themselves, country life, drinking, or a lowly fellow whose girlfriend no longer likes him, the activity and character and presence of the gods is always in Horace’s mind, as are geography and flora and fauna and weather. Here is a man whose mental world is made constantly richer by the ever-present context of both nature and supernature.

Best New Read, Fiction: Anthony Trollope, The Prime Minister
This novel of wealth and ethical dilemma in the highest political offices seemed terribly relevant.

Best History: Christopher Duggan, The Force of Destiny
I learned amazing things on every page about the last two-hundred years in Italy. My only disappointment is that alongside Napoleon, schools, rebels, the Cosa Nostra, bandits, kings, railroads, poetry, Fascists, economics, and football, Duggan didn’t have much to say about food.

Weirdest Drama: Charles Williams, Thomas Cranmer of Canterbury
You’d think that Tom Stoppard would win this award with his multiple timelines sharing the stage simultaneously and his plays-within-plays that aren’t really plays. But Williams’s unique (and uniquely opaque) poetic vision coupled with a personified death wins out. In fact, it received 14 of 19 votes in this category, many of which were cast in the Stoppard plays.

Best New Read, Religion: Justin Martyr, “Hortatory Address to the Greeks”
Justin read the classics and taught Greek philosophy. Then he became a Christian and continued to teach philosophy, even opening up his own school in Rome. His basic point in the Address is that no ancient follower of Greek philosophy should have any trouble accepting the truth of Christianity since Plato and company lead us right to the brink. The Roman authorities did have trouble, though, and killed him for his faith.

Best New Read, Nonfiction: C. S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism
Since it changed the way I think about reading, I should actually just call it the best new book, period.

Three Others Who Need to Be Mentioned Without Unfairly Competing for Prizes
(1) Alexandre Dumas, The Three Musketeers: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring.
(2) Jane Austen, Mansfield Park: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the swashbuckling adventure takes place within Fanny Price’s heart.
(3) Dante, The Divine Comedy: Beautiful, heart-wrenching, funny, exciting, and inspiring, except here all the adventure takes place literally everywhere in the physical, spiritual, and moral universe.

Who will receive awards in the coming year? Robert Louis Stevenson? Isaac Asimov? Evelyn Waugh? Henry Wadsworth Longfellow? Abu ‘l-Qasim Firdowsi Tusi? Come back in a year, and we’ll find out together!

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Troll the Ancient Yuletide Carol – 2018

Most years around this time, I’ve shared some thoughts about the words to some of my favorite Christmas carols – which is to say, some of my favorite things in this world. (Click here to see posts from 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016.) But in my enthusiasm, I set out to write about two different carols a year, and now I’m running out of material!

This year, it’s not a carol that I’ve been concentrating on anyway, but the first chorus of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio. Here are the original words (possibly by Christian Friedrich Henrici) in German:
Jauchzet, frohlocket, auf, preiset die Tage,
Rühmet, was heute der Höchste getan!
Lasset das Zagen, verbannet die Klage,
Stimmet voll Jauchzen und Fröhlichkeit an!
Dienet dem Höchsten mit herrlichen Chören,
Laßt uns den Namen des Herrschers verehren!
And here’s a translation to English:
Celebrate, rejoice, rise up and praise these days,
Glorify what the Highest has done today!
Abandon despair, banish laments,
Sound forth full of delight and happiness!
Serve the Highest with glorious choruses,
Let us honor the name of the Lord!
It is a glorious chorus indeed that Bach serves the Highest with here, one full of the delight and happiness it calls for. The trills and the fanfares and the insistent, repeated tones in the choir, like the merry chiming of a church bell, banish all laments and give us the courage to celebrate and rejoice. The chorus accomplishes what it can of its own injunction and leads us to complete the rest of the self-fulfilling prophecy.

As one whose black humour outflows the red, yellow, and white, I tend toward the melancholy in most things. I feel justified by sober Bible passages like Solomon’s “With much wisdom comes much sorrow,” and I find great comfort in somber lines from carols such as “Rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing!” But what the angels sing to me is this: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!” Yes, there is a season for everything, and Christmas – I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know – is a season for joy. If it doesn’t come naturally to me, then I need to listen to those angels, and to Bach’s chorus, and rejoice.

But look how beautifully this chorus, with at first glance no tinge of dust from the weary road, speaks to those like me. Its own celebration doesn’t come naturally, either. It tells me to get up (Auf!) and to abandon despair. Why tell me this if I have no despair to banish? (And why, the Scrooge in me asks, tell me this if I am past all hope!)

So this December I will honor Christ in two ways. Yes, I will treasure the pungency of the four minor chords on “Fall on your knees! Oh hear the angel voices!” And I will still secretly find satisfaction in the few versions of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” that dare use the lyric “Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow.” But I will set these blue shades aside when I hear Bach’s clarion call and with him will praise these gladsome days.

May your days be merry and bright as you honor den Namen des Herrschers.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Authority and Index

In some end-of-year off-list reading, I just finished Gary Scott Smith’s Religion in the Oval Office. A couple of years ago, I read Smith’s Faith & the Presidency, in which the author goes to heroic lengths to detail the religious positions of eleven American Presidents (Washington, Lincoln, Kennedy, and others), their relationships to religious groups, and the influence of their faith on their policies. After finishing that first book, I thought, “I wish he had included John Quincy Adams, William McKinley, Nixon, and Clinton.” And then I found that Smith had written a second book that included those very Presidents and seven more! Smith is a better researcher than writer: after tracking down hundreds of quotations from speeches, letters, diaries, conversations, and even junior high English essays (!) by each of his subjects, Smith seems to think that the goal of writing a chapter is to get every last note card represented in the text one way or another. Organization, flow, analysis, and reader wakefulness suffer as a result. But the information is extremely interesting and typically neglected in standard biographies, so I’m grateful to Smith for sharing the fruits of his labors with me.

One curious detail in Smith’s commentary on Barack Obama caught my eye and reminded me of something I had read two other times in the last year. After noting President Obama’s statement that his interpretation of the Bible could conceivably change based on what other Christians might tell him, Smith says that Obama’s position implies that conversation has authority equal to or higher than the Bible. I had read a very similar view earlier this year in Gregg Allison’s Historical Theology, and last year in Mark Noll’s America’s God: in those two versions, changing one’s interpretation of some piece of Scripture based on someone else’s argument ascribes to reason an authority higher than that of God’s Word. (The point was Allison’s own; Noll was reporting the position of historical personages.) The idea sounded obviously wrong to me the first two times I came across it, but the way Smith worded it, I can’t see how anybody could believe it. What does Smith think Sunday School lessons or sermons or Bible commentaries are for if not potentially to change one’s mind about what the Bible means? Does he think that once he has an understanding of any given scriptural passage, it is necessarily the right understanding and can never be corrected?

I think the problem comes down to a misunderstanding of the word authority. If authority simply means the reason you think something, then many factors compete with the Bible in authority for a believing Christian: reason, grammatical fluency, the dictionary, memory, eyesight. I believe that in the beginning, the Word was with God and the Word was God, because the Bible says so. But I know the Bible says this because I’ve read it and remember that it says it. And I believe the words that I remember reading partly because I have an understanding of what those words mean and how they go together grammatically – even if I wonder at the mystery of the Divine Being involving at least two Persons who are at the same time separated (“was with”) and unified (“was”). If these factors determine my understanding of the Scripture and that makes them authorities, well then, I guess I have to recognize many authorities for my beliefs.

But the word authority doesn’t in fact denote any and all things that provide reason to believe and submit. There’s authority, and then there’s recognition of authority. Suppose you’re a child living in fairy-tale land, and you hear there’s a big parade coming through your town. Your mother takes you out to see the spectacle, and as a fine-dressed man on a splendid horse passes by, your mother points and says, “Look! There’s the king!” Now let’s say this man stops, looks your way, and tells you to come near. Your mother has told you never to talk to strangers, and yet kings demand and deserve obedience. So you go, knowing that, as the king, he has the authority to command you. But how do you know he has this authority? Only because your mother told you. So does that make her the actual authority? Ridiculous! Her pointing out the authority to you doesn’t give her higher authority than the king. He is the authority; she is an index to the authority. And, yes, you see your mother as an authority, but clearly it’s possible for one authority to point to a higher one.

Similarly I have my reasons for recognizing authority in the Bible. That the Bible is authoritative to life is not a self-evident truth like “The whole is greater than or equal to any of its parts.” If it were, every sane person would acknowledge it as soon as the idea is presented to the mind. But they don’t, so believers must have reasons for believing. These reasons indicate the authority (which is why I’m calling them indices); they don’t trump the authority.

Now if a fairy tale makes this distinction clear, how can so many American Christians get confused by it?