Conservative Liberals

Curious the TNR thing. The whole thing, but here’s perhaps the most:

Wieseltier responded to Hughes with a message about stewardship. “We are not only disruptors and incubators and accelerators,” he said, seemingly mocking the language that Hughes and Vidra often used. “We are also stewards and guardians and trustees.” He went on,“The questions that we must ask ourselves, and that our historians and our children will ask of us, are these: How will what we create compare with what we inherited? Will we add to our tradition or will we subtract from it? Will we enrich it or will we deplete it?”

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/inside-collapse-new-republic

Christmas Meditation of the Unexamined Life

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When I was in an RB congregation where they were so RP they didn’t observe advent I thought it was a shame Christmas should hardly be mentioned. But now I’m in an OP congregation I think it is a shame they start in with advent, and talk about it, even if the whole thing is desultory. What about the RP?

I should just be glad I’m not in charge.

* * *
Speaking of in charge, now two of the dawgs I went to school with are presidents of institutions I attended. To paraphrase Thorin Oakenshield, it is an odd moment. I think of how young I still am and I wonder, as they’re more or less my age. Does this mean places are running out of more mature choices? Has it always been–I now begin to think–that age that gets recruited for the highest positions? Goodness, have I myself reached the age already when I should be counted on? I think I’m safe, somehow, my age notwithstanding.

Thank God for immaturity and inexperience, otherwise . . . my awesome leadership skills . . .

* * *
Speaking of which, I’m enjoying Latin a whole lot, and I think I can be counted on for that, at least. But if I am prudent, I think I’d have to say part of teaching 7th and 8th graders is that being barely ahead of them and learning hard as I go greatly adds to the challenge. Still, there are other things I like: figuring out how to communicate enjoyment, keeping them interested in Latin itself–not by artificial means like the sociopaths in Sunday schools, juggling the rates at which they progress. The kids are variously encouraged and challenged, and it takes some thinking.

And soon they’ll go happily to their Christmas break.

* * *
And I’ll to mine. I hope to get up a head of steam on my book, which still advances. One learns that imaginative breakthroughs cannot be manufactured, and they come or they don’t come. But there’s still enough for me to push on as much as possible. When you have good material there is a lot more for you to work with, I have found. If the thing is good, it is like a block you can chip away at. But if it isn’t you just stare at it and have no idea what else it could be.

Do you know, it was to the present president of Central Seminary I first divulged my aspiration to be a writer of Science Fiction. He asked me at some graduation ceremony. He was on the board of the seminary by that time–rising meteorically and perhaps noticing I was not even pointed in a promising direction–so I made that up and have stuck by it. And it was with the present president of Northland IU that I first went to see a movie in the theater. LOTR 1, in fact. And now the Hobbit is finishing up.

That has to add up to something, don’t you think? Maybe I can pull strings now, with these powerful, influential acquaintances.

* * *
Speaking of a movie deal for my as of yet unpublished book. . .

The tree we got was already yellowing, as were all the pines on the lot. The firs were fine, but not the pines, and pine it has to be. So now I sit under my fading and mutable tree and think pleasantly melancholy things about how swiftly it all passes, drinking eggnog that I persist in but don’t exactly wholly relish and watching the midnight creep upon me.

I’ll have to remind my wife that it’s Vanilla Eggnog.

* * *
And now, A Holiday Vignette

Because my excellent wife found fraud on our credit card, because we only have one now . . .

Wait, why are we down to one card? Well, we were down to two because who needs more than two? We always pay them off and have no credit card debt. So we had an MC and a Visa, both with chase. But then chase decides the MC should be a Visa. But I didn’t realize that; I thought the new card would be replacing the old visa and destroyed that one, then read carefully, and then decided to call and cancel the old visa and just have one visa because who is going to be able to tell two visas from one bank apart? That’s how that happened.

So, there was fraud, it was caught, the card canceled, and me out of a card. And then I had to get petrol and did not want to use the debit card because you can’t be using it like a credit card. So I got cash and did what I never do, walked into a gas station. Yes! inside the door to where they sell all the stuff and a foreigner takes your payment.

It was not the wider, spacious kind. It’s not like I never go into gas stations, but personally I avoid them. Still I’ve been in them. In Texas, my parents found a gas station where they have really good breakfast burritos and we ate there and it was super. My parents go to gas stations all the time. I reckon my dad would never pay at the pump given the chance to pay to a real live person.

But I don’t. So I go in, and it was a small one with just two short aisles. Of course there’s a line. Two out of three people in the line had hats with ear flaps, big things, like slain beasts worn ritually on the head. The guy at the counter was obviously foreign, of some incalculable origin, and the hipster buying a fancy cigarillo didn’t use the same technical term for the cigarillo he did. They dickered. Another guy with a really bad haircut was mooching around, and I eyed him because he looked like he was going to jump the line and impugn the honor of my right to my place in line. Eventually, however, he picked out a plastic bag full of popcorn, sat down in the employee’s only place where all the tobacco is kept, and ripped the bag open in an insouciant way and began to eat defiantly.

Who eats popcorn out of a plastic bag like potato chips anyway? He also made a comment to nobody in particular about I don’t know what.

Then the second guy and the guy at the counter start dissing the hipster, the hipster having waddled out. Conclusion: hipster only thought he knew the lingo of fancy cigarillos. Second guy asks for copenhagen, gets skoal, says he asked for copenhagen, gets copenhagen, pays and departs on friendly terms. Then there’s only one guy in front of me–old guy, big hat with flaps, still wearing his gloves (how can you do things with your wallet if you’re still wearing your gloves and why are you still wearing your gloves after all this time in line?).

Old guy wants to know, having approached after a pause for a long moment of recollection, after, I suppose, all the bustle of waiting in line, do they have any yogurt.

Do they have any what?!?!

Yogurt, do they have any yogurt. Yogurt.

No, they don’t have yogurt. (I look around and only notice they have bud light and junk food. I note that it seems likely that it is against the principles of traditional gas station proprietors to even consider selling yogurt or anything that at one time, other than tobacco, can have been said to grow.)

Hair-cut is still slamming popcorn. Old guy pays for something, not yogurt, then finally stands aside.

Twenty in pump eight, I say.

Eight what?

Pump eight.

How much? -waving the received twenty.

All of it. All twenty in pump eight. (Isn’t that what you say at a gas station, Twenty in pump eight? Is it supposed to be: Please ring up twenty dollars worth of gas-o-lene to be dispensed out of pump number eight, there in the far distance where my freaking car is parked, please? Or is it that paying inside is unusual unless you’re buying tobacco or yogurt or bagged and sealed pop corn?)

Do I want a receipt?

Yes. (I keep them in case they want to accuse me of not paying some day, at least till the next time I get petrol. Having been back inside of a gas station, I feel vindicated in that practice.)

So I’m set, except that old guy is still standing by the door counting his money.

Here is the point, this is how you can tell I’m not a people person and probably why I’m not the president, today, of any of the schools I attended. I could have turned to the pop corn guy and said: Happy holidays.

I could have said that to the foreign guy, or even to the old guy with the flaps who was still trying to put his money in his wallet and for all I know, still wearing gloves.

I did not think of it. I thought nothing of Christmas. I brushed past old guy and headed out to pump gas and be gone. I may have said thank-you.

So much for the spirit of Christmas. And that, in a nutshell, is the story of my life, I feel. One day I’m going to see it on the news: New president of OSU, Pop Corn Guy.

Oh well.

Happy Holidays!

The Book of Strange New Things

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The Book of Strange New ThingsThe Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

The premise of the book is this: a pastor, evangelical-ish, signs up with a large corporation with interests on a remote planet. The pastor is going as a missionary, not to the humans, but to the aliens–the natives of the planet. They need the love of Jesus too. The aliens have refused to do business with the corporation unless they send them a preacher. To our pastor’s surprise, they are eager for him, desiring to understand the technique of Jesus. They have had previous missionaries, you see, who went off the reservation after a while. The pastor brushes that aside and takes it as a sign of God that there’s work here for him. He pours himself into it nobly, heroically, with abandon and sacrifice.

The book, in a way, is a coming of age story: it is about a person growing up and outgrowing religion. It is about a loss of innocence in the sense of a loss of wonder. And it’s argument against religion comes from within the leading character–we live through the stages of it. He is in many ways a dismissible character, but in many ways he is not. He is not the most orthodox of believers, but at the same time it is uncanny how much Michel Faber has gotten right in this guy. And while the argument is not persuasive, it is at least unsettling.

There are a lot of weird things in this book. Faber is good, even diabolical, and if you enjoy strange visions, you will enjoy the ones he conjures up. It isn’t really a book of science fiction because those elements are missing which would draw the science fiction crowd (the explanations: where, for example, does all the water the ground absorbs go? And how do they get leather? Why doesn’t the corporation make more thorough investigations to find out how the aliens produce their food? Run tests?). But the story is compelling if you aren’t being curious in more than a literary way. Faber is just using the conventions of science fiction for other purposes. As long as you keep in your mind what he wants you to be curious of, about people disappearing, wonder why the aliens wear gloves to begin with, the things he repeats and brings to your attention, it works.

His message is actually positive. It isn’t a Christian message, and it is achieved at the expense of Christianity, but it is about a fellow coming to evaluate unsentimentally what does and what does not matter. His religion is sentimental, and it is stripped from him ruthlessly. I had a teacher once say that sentimentality is the death of spirituality. It is true, and this book is a demonstration of that axiom. Too much is religion identified with sentimentality, and I for one cheer Michel Faber pointing out the failure of that foolishness.

Accepting the Disaster: Poems, by Joshua Mehigan

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Accepting the Disaster: PoemsAccepting the Disaster: Poems by Joshua Mehigan
It seems to me the fundamental problem for any poet is the problem of poetic diction. Why do I think so?

1 – poetic diction has always been the problem. Not just for Wordsworth. It was for Eliot and it has been since Eliot. It was for Chaucer who broke away from the old poetic diction. It is what makes Elizabethans Elizabethans, what is the whole point of Milton. W.H. Auden can write formal verse and not sound like other ages because he has solved for himself the problem of poetic diction.

2 – because no poet speaks for himself, but for a people. Language is common property, and how we speak has to do not only with ourselves, but when we live. Because it is our common property we can fight to preserve things, and should, but we should also realize it is common property. These days writers call it voice, but it is what used to be called style. It is yours, but it is also common.

3 – and poets are the ones who understand how things are said, and renew the language, not by turning it back, but by speaking in the diction of our time, finding its possibilities, pouring into life the vital imagination of words and the language’s potential under present circumstances. Like any medium, you have to work with it. You can’t do with marble what you do with clay. The poet’s medium is the language of his time.

That is not easy. I think one of the reasons so many resort to free verse is that it seems more authentic. If you try to do formal verse you come face to face with the real problem. There is a discipline beneath the discipline. There is something you have to hear that is the music wrung out of living expression and is not added by artifice, but only enhanced. It is felt that simply using free verse solves the problem of poetic diction, but it does not. The problem is not too much discipline, but too little, because good free verse has its principles and I think depends for its vitality on the memory of formal verse. Formal verse brings you hard up against the problem because all the devices have to be mastered, and that’s how what you say is scrutinized. The devices will amplify your right choices about language or they will show up your shortcomings. Free verse is more muted about both, and that’s why I think you can get away with it longer. The devices of poetry can’t be brilliantly deployed unless you understand the medium you’re using them in.

When Joshua Mehigan uses formal verse, you understand that the point of a rhyme is a device by which you ring meaning from what you say. There are many things you can do with rhyme, but you have to do something with it other than just stick it onto your poem. And you notice it at this point because you know if he doesn’t use free verse everything will be questioned, and so each rhyme, each formal structure, everything must have a reason. But that is how good poetry has always been. In other ages perhaps looser use has been tolerated because nobody was suspicious (the way people are now about free verse), but good poetry though not flawless, always approximates a flawless ideal.

People now are going to read formal verse with suspicion. But that’s how formal verse has to be written, and that’s advantageous, and Joshua Mehigan surely knows it. Every device has to serve a purpose. And then after you understand the devices, the rhythms, the uses of rhyme, you still have to say it in ways that are genuine, how we speak, and not simply by cutting out thee’s and thou’s.

And that is what gives you the timeless, good product. You have to have at least that. Read Joshua Mehigan, watch how he speaks and what he does with his formal verse. He has been working nine years on this last book, and the effort is worth perusing.

I don’t agree with his beliefs, but you’d have to be a philistine not to enjoy his poetry. You don’t have to take my word for it either: Adam Kirsch reviews the second book http://www.newrepublic.com/article/11… and Jeremy Telman reveiws the first http://www.valpo.edu/vpr/telmanreview….

Prayer

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‘But if God is so good as you represent him, and if he knows all that we need, and better far than we do ourselves, why should it be necessary to ask him for anything?’

I answer, What if he knows prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God’s idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need—the need of himself? What if the good of all our smaller and lower needs lies in this, that they help to drive us to God? Hunger may drive the runaway child home, and he may or may not be fed at once, but he needs his mother more than his dinner. Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other need; prayer is the beginning of that communion, and some need is the motive of that prayer. Our wants are for the sake of our coming into communion with God, our eternal need. If gratitude and love immediately followed the supply of our needs, if God our Saviour was the one thought of our hearts, then it might be unnecessary that we should ask for anything we need. But seeing we take our supplies as a matter of course, feeling as if they came out of nothing, or from the earth, or our own thoughts, instead of out of a heart of love and a will which alone is force, it is needful that we should be made feel some at least of our wants, that we may seek him who alone supplies all of them, and find his every gift a window to his heart of truth. So begins a communion, a talking with God, a coming-to-one with him, which is the sole end of prayer, yea, of existence itself in its infinite phases. We must ask that we may receive; but that we should receive what we ask in respect of our lower needs, is not God’s end in making us pray, for he could give us everything without that: to bring his child to his knee, God withholds that man may ask.

-George Macdonald

Doom of the Unexamined Life

We are under a blue-grey winter fog. The world is busily preparing for the momentary Thanksgiving pause before the rush of the rest of the year toward January’s stagnation. These are the accelerated winter months.

Plywood buildings are delayed, mud freezes, lights glow with diffuse aurae in the moist air of our long darkness. From every human endeavor steam rises to join the overhanging winterfog. Withered leaves still held by the green-grey trees rustle from time to time.

In my apartment I hear the noise of rushing water, then silence, then the sounds of distant traffic, and finally the ticking at the baseboards–unlike the footsteps of doom. The pen, however, scratches busily.

2 Kings 4:1-7

It seems to me the question that cracks the story open is the one you get from this part: “So she went from him and shut the door behind herself and her sons.”

Why did she have to shut the door?

One of these sons of the prophets (faithful Israelites) died and left a widow and two orphans. She borrows money until she can’t, and now faces with her two sons a bleak prospect. Will the Lord help her?

She goes to the man of God, and his response is to think about it. Apparently he has no money about him, kind of like Peter in Acts and so many of the Lord’s impecunious servants. All of the instructions he gives make sense–you get the idea of what is going to happen–except the one about closing the door. What does that matter?

Is it to ward off potential thieves? Is it to keep anybody from finding out how the prophet is helping some lest others come to him afterward, carefully divesting themselves of all but one key possession? Is it his low-key, not-Elijah personality? What?

The do as they’re told, borrowing as many vessels as they can, and they do not neglect to shut the door. Then she begins to pour from the pot.

How would you have poured? Slowly, swiftly? What kind of pot was it? Was it an amphora or a jug? What we know is the strangest part: it just kept pouring. It reminds me of when our Lord multiplied the bread and fish. That had to be strange for anybody paying attention–disproportionate. Yet, as Lewis points out, perfectly Natural; this is what God does all the time, only here it is speeded up. What was strange was that with the bread and fish nobody apparently noticed the disproportion. The last disciple in line seems not to have been looking at the bread, and after that perhaps too busy. Who knows.

Still, in that room, in that house with the shut door, how weird would it have been for those boys bringing the vessels, for the woman pouring? At what point did it come creeping over their skin that something tremendous and uncanny is in the room with them?–and the door shut fast.

Of course, my purpose is not to Peter Jacksonise this episode. There was something uncanny, but it was someone good. The uncanny is the sense of an unexplained presence, and that is exactly what was shut with them in the room. And as they watched God’s provision, the Creator multiplying that oil the way he always did, only indoors and quickly, they had to have a growing sense of who was doing it.

I think the reason the door was shut was so they could be alone with God, and could know again what God in so many ways says to his people: that he is the husband of the widow and the father of the orphan. They were told to shut the door so that the Lord could say unambiguously: I am your husband; I am your father; I am with you and I am providing. And that is what the Lord says to his people in our difficulties and destitutions, our troubles and our bereavements.

Afterward, this woman goes back to the man of God and asks what she should do, and that also is interesting, and I think where the further application is. She does not count it her oil. The oil God gives is given for God’s purposes. She doesn’t dispose of it any way she wants. She has the means to hand to save herself, but she goes back to see what exactly she ought to do.

I think I’d have been tempted to solve my problems first and then breezily thank the prophet afterward. I’d have been tempted to think: I really don’t want to ask about the next step in case it isn’t the shortest visible route to the resolution of my problem. And that way of proceeding would have been wrong, not because it isn’t what was coming, but it shows how little I trust in the goodness of the Lord.

But he is the father of the orphan and the husband of the widow, and he is with his family. We are never destitute if we expect provision of the Lord. And that what the closed door discloses: a message that nourishes my weak faith, and admonishes me, and fills me with the consciousness of the goodness of God like all those vessels brimming with bright oil.

Tonic

In the torrent that constitutes the Imaginative Conservative I sometimes go, and sometimes read an article through. There is too much, and some of it is random, and some of it is Bradley Birzer effusing about popular culture.

But there is also Claes Ryn, and this is highly recommended. Tonic.

http://www.theimaginativeconservative.org/2011/10/decline-of-american-intellectual.html

Here are some of the words he uses:

“morality urgently needs the oxygen of sound thought and imagination”

“The proper religious commitment is assumed somehow to guarantee soundness of thought. The problem here is not that there is anything wrong with genuine religious devotion. It is that in the modern world religion has been so permeated by what Babbitt calls “sham spirituality” that it has become a major pollutant of the will, the mind and the imagination. No one is immune from religious-moral confusion and smugness. There is an urgent need for scrutinizing spiritual claims. Secondly, religious faith is, especially in an intellectual movement, no substitute for intellectual labor. Insufficient philosophical effort and discipline clouds and distorts central questions of human existence and weakens religion itself.”

“Some will predictably and smugly declare that religion offers all the nourishment for the soul that we really need. They indicate thereby a deformed and cramped conception of religion as well as of life in general. In fact, this kind of religiosity often goes together with a utilitarian-pragmatic attitude towards worldly matters.”

“careerism and greed”

Note to self: shoulda looked at the CU of A.

The Spontaneous Overflow of Powerful Emotion Recollected in Tranquility

I can remember more than anything the shock, the sheer surprise. I was trembling for the better part of an hour afterward. Of course, I was doing a lot of other things: getting dressed, making sure I had what I needed for the day at work, driving off, leaving coffee scattered all over the counter. But the moment itself was a brief intense moment of alarm, and then it fell off leaving me with the aftershocks.

I can well remember the pain: it hurt like billy-o for about five hours. The emotion at that point was of impatience and dull resignation; no curiosity whatever. No curiosity about the feelings, that is. I wanted to see the damage, but of course couldn’t bring myself to. Did not want a situation under control to get out of it.

Another surprise was how clear, how bright red my blood is, I remember that. By the time I cleaned up the original three large drops on the floor, they had dried somewhat. And that’s the dominant emotion: surprise, the sense of receiving things unexpected, the sense of narrowly having missed something worse.

I still managed to make a cup of coffee and even to drink it. The water had boiled while I was trying to stop the bleeding, the impatient kettle shouting. There was disappointment in the drinking of that hasty cup. I had to leave a mess, I had to go to work, it was serving no creative purpose and there was little enjoyment other than the satisfaction that this surprise did not terminally halt that enterprise.

It came after a morning of getting all kinds of things done. I was down to the last few things: had to take a shower, was going to wash up, have the last cup and then go to work. But I flipped the coffee grinder over while it was going in order to have the ground coffee in the lid. It escaped my nimble fingers, and said nimble middle finger was what actually stopped the whirling blade. That moment, not of pain, but of alarm, of heightened awareness unable to grasp the whole situation, and something gone very wrong was spontaneous and the overflow of powerful emotion leaked long into the day.

Eternity

The term ‘eternity past’ kept coming up on Sunday night and set me thinking. Why the adjective? And I think it is because we conceive of eternity somehow stretching endlessly back, an unimaginable distance out of which God comes.

Which may be. God could come out of an endless unbeginning we cannot fathom. It is hard at that stage to draw the line between the irrational and the super-rational. Still, for some reason to me it just doesn’t seem likely that eternity should have any relationship to time: that it is merely time stretched to the unmeasurable point. Though it could be. Perhaps time had no beginning, but that’s where I get the idea we are below, not above reason. No beginning to that which identifies beginning as a concept? I’m more inclined to think it did.

But I find also that I don’t think of time as a parenthesis in eternity. That strikes me as thinking of eternity in terms of time too: before and after said parenthesis. Or course, it may be that as temporal beings, we have to, and can’t really grasp anything above reason, at least not by reasoning. Which is obvious.

Which leaves the problem, doesn’t it, of what exactly eternity is. Is it an unchanging frozen endlessness of joy and splendor? Perhaps–how can we even know? But that is something else I do not think it is.

I think time is an external constraint, something that imposes beginnings and ends externally. I think eternity has change, has moments which reach their fullness and pass, but aren’t jostled by all the other moments. Everything has its perfection. Eternity is free of time, so that nothing is rushed and nothing every waits in boredom.

But what then, how does this take place?

Of course, I really have no clue, so I proceed by preferences and intimations. There are no doubt learned disquisitions for anyone who would rather. And maybe on these some handholds of certainty can be gained. There is the poem below that swerves into something good, but leaves the thing disappointingly unanswered. He was no fool.

Proceeding on my own, then, what is this idea of eternity as perfect moments bubbling up, maturing, and being somehow held in a brighter than present memory? Isn’t that time? It is not time because it is not externally regulated, but everything is regulated from within: each experience and situation grows to maturity uninterrupted, and is savored perfectly, unjostled by anything outside of it.

And then what? So our consciousness expands, taking in each perfection perfectly, and perhaps eventually simultaneous ones in harmony and counterpoint, like the mysterious music of the musician of heaven: Bach. And we are not ruled, like now we are, by spheres and motions within which we stand, but these things are inside us, not outside.

Art in some way is an intersection in time of eternity. You are absorbed into the thing, its rules and motions and experiences exist all independent of all other concerns. It creates a timeless moment that absorbs you so that you get the perfection of it.

Which is just to say that eternity is a differently measured time, isn’t it? Yeah, probably. I haven’t gone further.

The World
By Henry Vaughan

I SAW Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it, Time in hours, days, years
Driv’n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov’d, In which the world
And all her train were hurl’d;
The doting Lover in his queintest strain
Did their Complain,
Neer him, his Lute, his fancy, and his flights,
Wits sour delights,
With gloves, and knots the silly snares of pleasure
Yet his dear Treasure
All scatter’d lay, while he his eys did pour
Upon a flowr.

The darksome States-man hung with weights and woe
Like a thick midnight-fog mov’d there so slow
He did nor stay, nor go;
Condemning thoughts (like sad Ecclipses) scowl
Upon his soul,
And Clouds of crying witnesses without
Pursued him with one shout.
Yet dig’d the Mole, and lest his ways be found
Workt under ground,
Where he did Clutch his prey, but one did see
That policie,
Churches and altars fed him, Perjuries
Were gnats and flies,
It rain’d about him bloud and tears, but he
Drank them as free.

The fearfull miser on a heap of rust
Sate pining all his life there, did scarce trust
His own hands with the dust,
Yet would not place one peece above, but lives
In feare of theeves.
Thousands there were as frantick as himself
And hug’d each one his pelf,
The down-right Epicure plac’d heav’n in sense
And scornd pretence
While others slipt into a wide Excesse
Said little lesse;
The weaker sort slight, triviall wares Inslave
Who think them brave,
And poor, despised truth sate Counting by
Their victory.

Yet some, who all this while did weep and sing,
And sing, and weep, soar’d up into the Ring,
But most would use no wing.
O fools (said I,) thus to prefer dark night
Before true light,
To live in grots, and caves, and hate the day
Because it shews the way,
The way which from this dead and dark abode
Leads up to God,
A way where you might tread the Sun, and be
More bright than he.
But as I did their madnes so discusse
One whisper’d thus,
This Ring the Bride-groome did for none provide
But for his bride.

Mid-November of the Unexamined Life

Flakes were drifting down. The skies were low, the air was damp and hanging over us like some kind of doom. That’s what I like about the winter: the quiet sense of consequence, as if we are going to be called upon at any moment for something, who knows what.

The wind shakes the few remaining leaves–that motion is a poignant thing. The cold wind, the bare branches, the withered clinging leaves, the cheerless light – all awaiting something grim. It’s coming, and it is what I am waiting for, prepared.

I saw the yellow blade of a plow on a new big truck. I don’t know why he was running around with a plow on, though, the snow is not here yet. But it is coming. Winter is coming and even now its harbingers stalk among us. They tell us it is near, like something tremendous and draped in the huge shadows of the wings offstage for the moment.

Winter

Yulius Clever

Yulius Clever

Get more here.

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Since random blogging is what I’m reduced to at the moment, let me randomly add that That Hideous Strength is a book with many parts, and many brilliant moments. You can get lost in the suggestion of scene after scene. Keep it around when you are thrust into dull circumstances during the holidays, like a pocket wardrobe.

One is awed and troubled to think that something with so much good writing, careful thinking, brilliant ideas properly executed could still not quite add up to a satisfying whole. (To say that is to suggest too much that it is not a good book to finish, because it still has its satisfactions; they do pour in at the end.) One day when that book is in the public domain somebody with skill and insight needs to take it in hand and make it whole. Maybe in Lewis’s life it was a necessary stage on the way to Narnia, though the first book of the Ransom trilogy is coherent enough. Think of all the exotic and otherwise inaccessible situations he dreamed up and has introduced us to. One does wish he had had Tolkien’s habit of endless revision.

* * *

Speaking of which, I just got the Father Christmas Letters. Here’s to paintings of winter.

November (6) Rain on the Unexamined Life

We are having damp weather. The rain tinkled in the spouts all night long, and low clouds hung over Columbus in the morning. The air was damp and foggy, like it is in the best places. When the day is damp enough, at twilight, you get a deepening weird blue before dark that’s good to be out in.

The melancholy rain has made a cheerful moss on all the trees. Columbus is at its best autumnal, and the autumn here is protracted. We still have many trees in color and a lot of green, though everywhere increasingly the Christmas trees are what’s entire. The walnuts and the locusts go very early, but the oaks are not the last, the sweetgums seem to be. And the maples, there are so many kinds of maples, all flame out over the weeks of October and November. The redwoods are quite gradual, and there’s a number of those chaps.

* * *

On my walk, because I can, because it’s right next door and on my way no matter where I’m going, really, I stopped at Half-Price Books to see if I was missing out on anything. They had this languid French singer singing to twangy music, and I found it oddly apt. I found nothing else though.

* * *

The wife of me seems to have nosed her way into her dream job: making pastries. They’re still trying her out, and she them, but it seems to be an ideal match. Fewer late nights for us, though, if she starts work at 6AM. We’ll see, but it’s food and the place likes her, not surprisingly.

A Companion

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One of the great things about re-reading C.S. Lewis, or reading anybody, is the companionship. The author’s reflections are shared as life goes by, and sometimes those thoughts coincide with what is happening to you. With C.S. Lewis, whom I tend to re-read more than others I guess, or rather listen to in the car, because he was a good writer and a good man, I get a lot of good things.

Take Camilla Denniston who loves weather and longs to be out on a cold and stormy night in the middle of the action. Lewis makes obvious Jane Studdock’s liking of Camilla, but his own he also demonstrates in the remarks she makes. One can’t help wishing he’d taken her for a major character and had her come into her title and inheritance. I love weather and so did Lewis, but this bit somehow adds more people to it. And it is good to have one more person now that the seasonal, unimaginative and tedious grumbling about winter begins to set in.

One of the things that was happening to me last Tuesday is that I was reflecting on an episode at the dentist’s earlier. They had scheduled us for 10:30 AM and had admitted us at 11:30 AM. I’m not the kind of chap who sends stuff back at restaurants and I guess I’m still not old enough (Lewis again!) to argue about items on a bill. But having us wait an hour? I can understand having to wait, I don’t mind waiting in the dingy lobby because the waiting room is full, but one hour is a long wait. They overscheduled a bunch of cleanings. Apparently all they do Tuesday is as many cleanings as possible.

So I made sure they knew I wasn’t down with waiting an hour, and to Katrina’s satisfaction because she was there: which means it was done rightly. I expressed disapproval to all four of the people I talked to for a cleaning (yeah, why four?). There are dentists offices up and down High street all the way, and waiting an hour is not something I’ve done at a dentist’s office before, so I can switch. After the last apology they offered me, I just pointed out that it would be good for their business if I didn’t have to wait so long.

I afterward proceeded to wonder about it all day: had I been too harsh? But then in my book Dimble had this encounter with Mark Studdock where neither understand the other but Dimble is left stewing over whether he’d behaved properly, when he had. That came at the right moment that day. Dimble’s one of the good guys, I’m one of the good guys, dentists are practically the N.I.C.E. all over again, everything is fine. Precisely because it was not someone seeking to reassure me, it worked.

Good old Lewis. I love his books tremendously and wish there were far more. There are so many things right about them. He was obviously a good companion.

The Body

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It is by the body that we come into contact with Nature, with our fellow-men, with all their revelations to us. It is through the body that we receive all the lessons of passion, of suffering, of love, of beauty, of science. It is through the body that we are both trained outward from ourselves and driven inwards into our deepest selves to find God. There is glory and might in this vital evanescence, this slow glacier-like flow of clothing and revealing matter, this ever uptossed rainbow of tangible humanity. It is no less of God’s making than the spirit that is clothed therein.

-George Macdonald

That Hideous Strength

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That Hideous Strength (Space Trilogy, #3)That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis
I think the reason this book fails in the end is that the active agency producing the result is too diffused. You can say somewhat precisely that the ending is achieved by the concerted work of a company. But you can say more precisely that the ending is achieved by a peripheral character, that arises like a deus ex machina to deliver our two protagonists from their plight.

Lewis was good at making Out of the Silent Planet work without a climactic confrontation. His character is passive, but his story is complete: he survives, he grows, his choices have a direct bearing on the outcome. In Perelandra, Lewis has a quest of sorts, an epic battle, and then ends the story perfectly, having set everything up from the beginning. Those two stories have plots that feed into their conclusions. The problem in That Hideous Strength is that our main characters don’t themselves bring about the outcome. I don’t think the plot is coherent in that it reaches beyond our two main characters and in the end depends on a third. It is a coherent plot in the sense of ideas and events, but isn’t the outworking of the character’s choices alone, and that I think scatters the ending.

Still, it is a good book, with a lot to think about, a lot of interesting things imagined for us, a lot of good characters playing out their beliefs and ideas, and excellently imagined scenes and situations. It is an ingenious ending, even if it isn’t plugged into the rest of the novel the way it should be. I read and re-read it because there is always something to notice. I don’t know at what point one of his books can be exhausted (I think I’m at 10 readings), but with judicious intervals, these planet stories not only entertain, but provoke thought and reward the attention you give them.

What else they do, as most people know, is help you understand his non-fiction writings by embodying ideas in characters who not only explain their views in dialogue, but play them out in imagined situations. In this book, mainly, and in the whole series as well, the ideas in The Abolition of Man.

The Influence of the Most Venerable and Learned Jonathan Edwards

My goal is to be a teacher. I want to teach in the context of the church more than the academy, but for the church in any context. I have, alas, no pastoral vocation. My desire is to get a better grasp of the material and discipline of church history.

One of the things Christians in my circles need is greater exposure to Christians who are not like them–a sympathetic view of the differences while demonstrating the underlying commonalities. In Reformed circles every single last everything any puritan ever wrote is being published and purchased and even read. Yes, read, and by not a few. That’s because somebody has shown them there is profit there and has taught them how to understand these crusty and difficult people as human beings and fellow Christians. My belief is that we would benefit, not from departing from that, but adding to it a similar–not as obsessive, perhaps–interest in other periods of history.

I find the early church intriguing because of the influence of classical thought. I’m fascinated by figures like Justin Martyr, Clement and Origen, Augustine and Ambrose, Jerome and Gregory Nazianzen because of the way they took classical learning and used it for Christian purposes, they way they wrestled with it also, ambivalent. I want to study what happened, how it shaped Christianity, how they discriminated in what they took, what they did and did not understand about what they were doing.

I’m also intrigued by the pagan reaction with Porphyry, Iamblichus and Julian the Apostate, because it represents something similar, if inverted: pagan antiquity adopting Christian ideals in spite of itself. What was in the air in the centuries of the great prophets of ancient Israel that also stirred up the great philosophers of antiquity and started something that would meet in the church, of all places, those first five hundred years?

I’d be interested in studying the remains of pagan antiquity surviving in a Christian context. Texts like Beowulf, where the two elements come together fascinate me, but as much as I enjoy literature, I want to study church history so I can be more involved directly in the work of the church. I find the world of the Sagas interesting for the same reason.

Any period of church history is interesting, of course, but one has to specialize. I’ve studied early American Fundamentalism (Bryan, Sunday and Machen), I’ve studied Edwards. I’ve done a lot of reading on medieval mysticism and a little Quietism and Eastern Orthodoxy. Besides that I’ve done extensive reading in Augustine and the early church. I’ve done work on Bernard of Clairvaux as well and some Aquinas. I want to go on consolidating my grasp on the whole, but with a careful study of the details. I admire historians like Henry Chadwick and Christopher Dawson for that: they have digested the details, but deal wonderfully with the broader view. I would like to, on the scale of my lesser talents, work similarly: digest the details and make connections, working my tenuous spider web of understood history into different corners, but hoping to spin a web dense enough in the early church corner so that I can be a proper spider.

Eliot on Blake

Blake’s poetry has the unpleasantness of great poetry.

He approached everything with a mind unclouded by current opinions. . . . This makes him terrifying.

What his genius required, and what it sadly lacked, was a framework of accepted and traditional ideas which would have prevented him from indulging in a philosophy of his own, and concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet.

The concentration resulting from a framework of mythology and theology and philosophy is one of the reasons why Dante is a classic, and Blake only a poet of genius.

- T.S. Eliot 

Eliot figured it out. Concentrated his attention upon the problems of the poet.

Lesson: know your thing.

A Considerable Speck

(Microscopic)

A speck that would have been beneath my sight
On any but a paper sheet so white
Set off across what I had written there.
And I had idly poised my pen in air
To stop it with a period of ink
When something strange about it made me think,
This was no dust speck by my breathing blown,
But unmistakably a living mite
With inclinations it could call its own.
It paused as with suspicion of my pen,
And then came racing wildly on again
To where my manuscript was not yet dry;
Then paused again and either drank or smelt–
With loathing, for again it turned to fly.
Plainly with an intelligence I dealt.
It seemed too tiny to have room for feet,
Yet must have had a set of them complete
To express how much it didn’t want to die.
It ran with terror and with cunning crept.
It faltered: I could see it hesitate;
Then in the middle of the open sheet
Cower down in desperation to accept
Whatever I accorded it of fate.
I have none of the tenderer-than-thou
Collectivistic regimenting love
With which the modern world is being swept.
But this poor microscopic item now!
Since it was nothing I knew evil of
I let it lie there till I hope it slept.

I have a mind myself and recognize
Mind when I meet with it in any guise
No one can know how glad I am to find
On any sheet the least display of mind.

-Robert Frost

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