C.S.Lewis at the Breakfast Table

C. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences: New EditionC. S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences: New Edition by James T. Como
The book is a collection of essays. People who knew Lewis remember him, from the guy who drove him around, to his personal doctor (and friend and Inkling, and blustery good-fellow who fitted him out with a catheter that was not quite the best), his colleagues and acquaintances.

The collection of course contains God’s plenty. These are the memories of people who sat with him in a car, went with him on vacation, could tell us how he prayed at train stations and read his Bible in the evening before supper. What is strange is the amount of criticism in it. Good criticism, but criticism nonetheless.

There was a lot of debate, a lot of exchanging ideas in the life of Lewis, and many of the people that remember him in this volume continue some of the debates. Alan Bede Griffiths has some penetrating criticisms to make (he’s skeptical of ‘the personal heresy’), and another curiously critical essay is that of John Wain. Griffiths brings up some inconsistencies in Lewises attitude toward Catholics. Many of Lewises friends were, but his attitude toward them was peculiar. John Wain seems to have more criticisms than fond recollections, though he adds a few of those. Perhaps Wain’s is anomalous.

Certainly, you go from the unpolished and sometimes maudlin essay of the bloke who drove Lewis around, to the too-polished and sometimes byzantine essay of Austin Farrer. But you get it all: the blokes he stayed up late talking to, the Americans who met him once or twice, and poor Walter Hooper’s tediously thorough historical account of the Socratic which is the only interminable essay in the collection.

Worth having, if you’re after a better understanding of C.S. Lewis.

Some Jones

In the mood of celebrating good health after coming from our once-every-five-year’s-visit to the doctor, and having broken the tribulation period of 24 hours without coffee at the excellent out-of-the-way coffee place with no tables or marketing or anything, we went to the bookstore. It was almost $50 I put down at there this morning. Besides the Virgil tweeted, I found some David Jones. There were two books, and I passed up the $20 to get the $5 one, as the cheaper still had more of what I wanted. David Jones is hard to find–try finding his Anathemata. What I got has bits of the Anathemata, besides other stuff–like collecting dust and broken sections of that thing I continue to pursue.

Latin First

I’ve done a Latin class; only 71 more to go. 

They thought it was cool that The Hobbit has been translated to Latin. They want to get there. For now. 

They’re well behaved kids: two girls with brushed hair, two girls with hair not so brushed, two participative boys–both eager. 

Life changing decision that comes out of this: if I don’t get accepted to a PhD program maybe instead I’ll teach High School Latin. I enjoy it so far, which is more than I expected.

Further Cogitations of an Unexamined Life

It is August. In the morning the trees greet the world with shadows long in the west, and all day long those shadows move under them, from west to east. The insects are loud, and with all this rain the plants flourish in the tropical heat, rank, untamed and wild. 

I smelled grass, and it came over me as an American smell again. So many good things of this country: the milk, the cheese, the pickles, the bacon, the smell of warm wooden houses in summer which I have not smelled since I was a kid somewhere in PA in an old aunt’s house–these all flow back. When you came back to the USA, to its conveniences, automatic doors, floods of air conditioning, exotic flavors like root beer and orange juice, the drollery of American ‘cheese’, these things all had their impact when you were a kid. Pleasing, believe it or not, because not only desired instantly, but associated with paneled basements with deep carpets, the living rooms smelling of candles and adjoining dining rooms next to kitchens redolent with American cooking; the spacious and comfortable coordinated nature of life here washed over one after tile floors, uncomfortable seating, public transportation and the grime of life elsewhere. 

It comes back to me in smells, now that I take it for granted. It charms me with memories of a time when I was small and all the world a wonder, and this country was brand new to me. And it still charms me, not only when I come back to the USA after being abroad. I still find grocery stores here magical from time to time, though not all the time or even most. I still get butterscotch ice cream not because I’m particularly fond of it (though I am; but I just don’t really ever crave ice cream), but because it is one of the flavors I associate this country.

It is similar to the reason I read C.S. Lewis: the associations conjured up. The order and imagination and intelligence and the goodness of a dim pub in a damp country with a good fire in the grate, the neglected joys of books, the atmosphere of all his stuff, his fondness of good cheer. 

I’m a hobbit. 

* * *

I listened to a few things yesterday. A couple of good Scruton youtubes and one not so great (because he was on a panel with a couple of Canadian dimwits), and then a not-outstanding panel discussion on CS Lewis in which among others was featured one William Lane Craig. Craig said something interesting in an off-hand way: That he knew about Mormons who for whatever reason picked up Mere Christianity and were faced with Lewises Trinitarian arguments. Isn’t that interesting to consider? 

They are exposed to Narnia probably, they like it, they look deeper, they find Mere Christianity, and there are faced with his rather relentless contention that a Christian believes in the Trinity. All their life they’ve been told they’re Christians, just that some Christians who aren’t exactly right about Christianity and the prophet Joseph Smith are bigoted and won’t admit them. And then they look at Lewis. Lane intimated they begin to question the prophet Joe. 

Isn’t that interesting? So now William Lane Craig has said something interesting.

* * *

I’m listening to Thomas Sowell’s Economic Facts and Fallacies. I think this is the kind of book people who lament that we no longer follow an elaborate argument might be happy for more people to read. In order to debunk the fallacies, Sowell has to go into some lengthy considerations. For example, in order to show the futility of drawing conclusions simply by contrasting how much women and on the other hand men make, he goes into all the various reasons why this is pointless, at length. It is good: a long bit of careful considerations and close reasoning. What else he also does that is very interesting to me as I’m considering the shadowy world of higher education, having some friends who are a bit snobbish about the place you get your degree and for some reason rather keen on saving money while doing it, is show how much economic skullduggery goes on in so-called higher education. Collusions and nonsense.

I also like Thomas Sowell because he’s not a snob. Like C.S. Lewis, he teaches me well in that area. Speaking of whom, Craig was on a panel of academics discussing him (degrees from Yale and Cambridge and other celebrity universities) and said panel was largely making no sense in their rambling pronunciations, or at best uttering platitudes and truisms with the added emphasis of the shaking of the head, like evangelicals. 

* * *

Speaking of evangelicals, I think I’m going to visit Southern Seminary in Louisville. I’ve been invited by them and by WTS, so far. It is a four hour drive to KY, they’ll put me up free, they’ll feed me free, and I can’t lose on it since my expectations are not high. I still have to find out whether they’ll welcome the addition of my wife, but I’m pretty sure southern hospitality will not fail us there. 

I thought about it: I could go out to Philadelphia and they’d put me up in a hotel, but I’d have to fly (and take my wife who will not be left behind), pay to rent a car, pay for food, etc., and then maybe Trueman isn’t there for whatever reason (ash cloud from Iceland, say) and I end up with bitterness. Better take up Southern on their offer. Do I expect anything but programmatic enthusiasms and a glib, glossy reception? No. 

What if I somehow get something more? Just slightly more? I’ll be glad, and I’ll get all the free food as well.

And what if I get someone who cares about the permanent things and evidences a real concern for the things of God and the cause of Christ in this present evil age? I will be astonished and glad beyond measure. 

You have to admit that as a strategy, it has much to commend it.

Rain Today

People don’t like to walk in the rain, even when it is slight. They hunch over and wince sometimes, as if there were nothing so painful as getting a drop of water on the face. C.S. Lewis made quite a few sensible remarks about weather in the person of Camilla Deniston in That Hideous Strength; persons ought to consider these remarks more. Weather is interesting, and clothes dry pretty quickly.

Of course, my clothes aren’t top of the line. I don’t like to look like I’ve made too much of an effort–I go out of my way to make sure I don’t too much look like I’ve made too much of an effort–because I don’t want to come across as being to particular about my appearance. It does make me wonder if I’ll have to dress up to teach Latin. I have a feeling that’s going to be the case.

I don’t even have much in the way of ties nowadays. I have noticed they’re all narrow and of thick material–thick material does not strike me as congenial. I don’t think I’ve bought a new tie in ten years, and I’ve chucked quite a lot. Do I care that my remaining ties are wider and thin? The patterns are not recent? Shall I play the old guy who doesn’t care? Wish I had more timeless ties.

But is it even in the nature of a tie to be timeless? Probably not, unless it is a bow tie, and that’s not something I’m willing to do. Bit of the wrong kind of eccentric about that for me, like a tie with words: not something I’d of my own free will do. Goofy stuff, cartoons–No.

They vary everything on ties, don’t they? The dots can change, the patterns, the width of the stripes. Does it mean anything? Does the overall look become identifiable later? How far it hangs or not can stand out over time. Then there’s the guys who knot it short and tuck the remainder on the wrong end into their pants. Not recommended.

Clip-on ties I need hardly mention. I have seen where some people use strings to suspend elaborate metal badges on their necks, apparently a custom in more Western regions, at least in the past.

It troubles me that ties cannot be timeless. Why should that be? Am I troubled that other articles of clothing will change constantly? Not really. It is in the nature of clothes to wear out. Clothes wax old as doth a garment, even ties which are probably the least of all garments.

Forty years were the children of Israel in the desert and their clothes did not wax old. Like a walking thrift store, come to think of it: all used clothes, none new, none worn entirely through. But they weren’t wearing ties, were they? Because if they had, we would have heard them complaining of it. I for one regret about the age to which I was born that it requires ties from time to time.

Meanwhile, the trees bask in the rain and the moss flourishes. It is a bit humid, this August rain. I’m glad my habiliment can be casual.

Fruit of the Day

It was a warmer August day. The grass browning, the crickets loud when traffic died away. We went to the North Market and found it mostly empty: it is a wonderful place when its empty. Stuff white people like, but without the crowds of white people, when it’s empty. Barrels of pickles, cheeses, coffee, waffles if you like that thing, bowls of soup, smoked meat, fresh meat, fish and flowers, spirits and kitchen supplies. The poles got me again: leek salad. A leek salad which adumbrated the children of Israel’s desire to return to bondage, provided they got leeks again.

I’m resting from my labors till school starts next week, as August pauses and the summer pauses before the rest of the year begins. Heroic, I’ll sprawl over the end of this week, dawdling over my Friday off, if by the end of tomorrow evening I don’t feel like the thing to do would just be Latin (I like it, as long as I don’t make it become onerous by undertaking it too ambitiously). I am under the impression at the moment (an impression I do not believe will last much beyond my first week) that I will be a genial and accomplished teacher of Latin, and I’m not arguing with myself about it but enjoying it here, with the sound of the crickets of August and the memory of the polish leek salad of this morning.

Where It Is At

From what I can tell, I’ll be lucky to score above 50% on the quantitative reasoning of the GRE, and probably can score about 75% on the verbal sections. As for the essays, as long as they don’t include a disputable word such as ‘nation’ that I can’t figure out why it bothers me in less than half an hour, I should be fine. I’ve done some practice tests and that’s what it works out to on average. And I haven’t tried to bother so much as I would in the real situation. I’m counting on that really paying off at test time.

It does strike me as a bit artificial to operate on a time limit. I hope the reasoning is not that people procrastinate. I do not do things at the last minute, just because I don’t always go all out on them always; I shut down a whole lot of time before the last minute and I stress out about things a whole lot earlier than everyone else. I hate being penalized for the procrastination of others more than anything. If that is the reason, I will blow a gasket right in the ETS testing center. What would suit me better would be: take as long as you can stand doing this, and if you can’t deal with the question, write something interesting about it instead using the random word ‘firehydrant’. That’s more of my idea of the GRE.

But I’m ready to get it out of my life. Whether that gets me anywhere, I don’t know. My aim is Westminster. What I managed to find out from talking to them is that they only care about the GRE slightly more than they care about feminism, which is promising. I might have a chance nevertheless at St. Louis U for next year, just because it seems a good chance that applications may not be quite as many as usual there this year. Other than that, there aren’t places that seem interesting, not that St. Louis U seems interesting: they have one of these eager-beaver PhD programs with diversity and crap. We white Anglo-Saxon male protestants realize that it is a world in which we’ll have to pay our way. I would not have it otherwise. I remember with admiration still the dude Solzhenitsyn met in the Gulag: never compromised, got worse treatment, derived palpable strength from his integrity. One has to have integrity and be strong, if for no other reason than to be able to write an indictment of the age.

That still leaves the overseas stuff that doesn’t even look at the GRE. That’s looking all the time more interesting. I just haven’t managed yet to find out how those programs work. Not that I’ve managed all that much about anything since all my time is taken up with this ridiculous . . . GRE.

The Comforts of Winter

Already I am thinking about it, and it is not mitigated by this mild August. I watched the walnut leaves blowing down on the path along the Olentangy river just a few days ago. Autumn in the air already. The mornings are often cool now, and the evenings mild and gentle. Oh, it must be wonderful farther north! Apparently in Cleveland the average high has been 66 or something. One would think that with such temperatures I would be pleased, and I am. I am thankful, let me hasten to add, that the highs hit no more than the eighties and have only a few times, mostly in Ohio’s rash June, crept near to ninety.

But I want more. I want cold, I want sweaters, I want the sun in my south-facing windows when outside it is cold. I dream and long for it. I think of Iceland, of Minnesota, read Canadian news, pine for all these legendary and too, too distant boreal realms.

And yet it is pleasant here in August. I can look out and in the distance see the clear motion of the leaves in the breeze of a morning high above. It is as if they rippled in the clear water of a stream. It doesn’t seem that long ago the fulsome green of the world was only beginning, but for that predatory intervening June.

The wet leaves, the clear skies, the frost, the melancholy peaceful desolation, the silent snow, the layers and the books, the books of winter all rise up out of their summer graves. A few more weeks of the idiotic and perpetual sun and then it should be changing. Night with its twinkling snowflakes will draw near.

GRE Week

I’m ahead enough on Latin. I can shuffle priorities and study for the GRE this week. Study . . . practice, more like. It is a hoop you have to jump through and I’m still mad that so many Americans do. But they want to see that you’ve tried, and I can at least try.

This week they’re tearing down the Wendy’s behind which I live in order to put up something more in keeping with, I assume, the times. It is an exercise not altogether unlike mine of the GRE. I look on the diminishing building as I come out of my apartment building and think: “It’s GRE week.” I hope to have the examination over by the time Wendy’s is back in business.

Algebra! Who needs it? People who use it need it, but it has been 20 years since I have, and now I find myself tested on it–on the area of a triangle and the perimeter of a trapezoid, and stuff I no longer retain. And of course I wonder why we still consider hanging on to information like that important for graduate work. I would rather be learning Anglo-Saxon. I can see the need for carpenters knowing algebra. But I’m not applying to carpentry graduate school.

Is it an insight into the culture of higher education . . . you’re going to have to be able to handle this, it seems to say, if you’re going to be in places run by academics? Maybe it boosts the esteem of math faculties so that they don’t feel like an appendage and closer to the real work done by the glorious and necessary faculty of Anglo-Saxon. To me, it makes the places that don’t require a GRE look a lot more legitimate. Oxford does not require it unless you are applying to the department of the dismal science. Is this indicative of anything?

It is in God’s nature to be patient

Tertullian made the observation, and he apologizes at the beginning of the treatise On Patience because patient, he says, he is not.

Nor am I. Nor are we. Do you know, for example, what’s so attractive about fast food? Not the taste, though that’s part of it–the predictable taste we can count on. It isn’t that great when you eat it. What is great is how easy it is. How quickly one can have it, sit down to devour it unceremoniously, stuff the disproportionate trash in an extra large trash can, slouch off. Fast food that is fiddly and laborious to eat is doomed. Fast food that requires cutlery . . . do you think it would keep the fast food restaurants open? And I think it is the badness of it, the instantness we want. At least, that’s what at present I believe.

And if you agree, then you will see there are an awful lot of things in this American life like that. It is as if there were a huge push to satisfy us easily, with that which is desirable because it is nothing so much as easy. Convenient–from appliances, to loans, to food, to relationships, to church, everything–it is the great good. It is how we define comfortable–both in the sense of easy (comfortable is convenient, in clothes however sloven, in food however substandard, in recreation however vulgar). Is it also in the sense of consoling us? Is convenience, is ease comfort? I have the feeling it is, and that is awfully near the core of the heart, isn’t it? It seems to me that we cultivate impatience because it is how you best desire the great good of easy everything. It’s the American way. Is it Tertullian also who speaks of how impatient lust is? That’s another one we’re laboring under in our day; not just a disordered desire, but one that will not wait to be satisfied and in our day must be easily satisfied. And we live in the middle of the consequences of this impatience.

What ought truly to comfort us is that it is in God’s nature to be patient. And the Christian life is about the life of God in the soul of man. The fruit of the Spirit is longsuffering and meekness. We have no patience and live in an age at war with patience and even its benefits. But God is at war with the age and living in his people. It is in God’s nature to be patient, and we have been made participants in the divine nature to manifest the radiant supernatural qualities of patience in a world dim and torpid with impatience.


One of the reasons for studying another language is to learn to think more clearly about what you say, and specially about how you say things. When you are at first bewildered by the various ways in which you can take a Greek genitive case, you can begin to wonder if it is the same with similar phenomena in your language, and you can start to realize that we mean different things by similar expressions. When you try to use another language on the basis of conjugations and declensions and the rules of syntax, you are more likely to become aware, I think. It helps us to see how we say things, and it helps us to be more honest about how we understand the things others say.

Not that you can’t be honest and aware if you don’t study another language, but that studying another language makes is obvious as few other things–in my experience–do. And what it does is make us more sophisticated in our ability to use language, or it should. We should realize that there are ways of taking things, that people don’t always chose the right expression, that we need to, as it were, listen with attention, because it isn’t what we say, it’s what we mean that we try to communicate with varying levels of success.

It is sounds strange to say that honesty and sophistication go together, but consider what a great ruse it is to associate sophistication with deceit. In one fell swoop the sincere are diverted from something valuable and the wicked attracted to its misuse. Still, prevailing notions of sophistication are wrong. There are things that must be taken in a sophisticated way in order to be dealt with correctly, because there are things that are more complex things in and of themselves.

One example would be a murder mystery. We might be inclined to think it dwells on murder and depravity and so it is therefore a bad thing. But if we thought this, we would not be dealing rightly with what a murder mystery is. A murder mystery is not about reveling in murder, it is about dealing with what murder does to our village, or town, or society, and about how we recover the peace of order after such a disruption occurs. If it were absolutely bad to think about those things, it would be wrong to be a policeman, and that is obviously not the case.

The mystery has to do with why the baffling deed occurred, and what resources we have to understand it and make sure it is not often repeated. You can say: it happens because men are evil and nobody can understand the heart; but we find that murder is still anomalous after we’ve said that; none of us would want to live in a society where murder was more than rare (in other words, no society but instead anarchy). We understand we can’t live in a society free of evil men. We live in societies with evil men (ourselves being one of those evil members) because society provides ways to control our evil so that we can live tolerably together, though not perfectly. We want societies that reduce evil to a minimum and study ways to achieve that, and we should. Once we think about the kind of society we want our descendants to live in, we realize we have a duty to make sure if possible that our society is a wise one, one that reduces evil to a minimum in the best way so that we can all enjoy the benefits of living together. And a murder mystery wants to know how the order of society was broken, how life together became for one of us death. It is not about enjoying the damage, but about picking up the pieces. And we don’t write manuals about appreciating murder mysteries because most of us understand that something like that is going on. When we understand they’re trying to figure out what happened, we understand it is about figuring out what happened on a larger scale – not about solving a particular mystery, but about how to deal with and if possible prevent these kinds of events in our societies.

That’s a bit far afield from learning a second language, but it illustrates what you stand to gain. Of course, there is a nearer place for us, and that is the interpretation of Scripture.

One of the rules of hermeneutics that came at me in the DR was this one, neatly translated into Spanish: si el sentido sencillo tiene sentido, no busques otro sentido (if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense). I was taught that, and I think part of the appeal to the person teaching me was that it made a neat little saying. I don’t warm to those kinds of things (like the last verse of “Praise the Savior,” I think it’s silly). But I thought for many years that it was the truth. Now I don’t, and when it came at me recently, I considered it from a new angle and found I could not agree. I found myself thinking that what it means is that the Bible is not interesting.

It is a principle of interpretation which seeks to go no deeper if the meaning is obvious to the reader. I don’t agree, and I interpret Scripture differently. It doesn’t mean that the obvious meaning on the surface of a text isn’t important, but that it isn’t where an interpreter stops. If that is where you stop, then the Bible in many places is just giving you information about the past, because it does and that is plain. But the Bible is not giving us information about the past merely; it is giving information about the past not to inform us about the past primarily but by that means to reveal God to us. I believe that because I believe that’s how the apostles handled the Bible, and I believe that they did that as examples, teaching us how we should handle Scripture. In fact, I’m pretty enthusiastic about the four levels of interpretation the church used to advocate: literal, tropological, anagogical and allegorical. And I think it is true that you will get what you go looking for, which is why I don’t agree with the saying above.

True, there are abuses. People see a plausible explanation and they think that as long as you can explain something it must be true. They get discouraged when they are faced with two explanations, because immediately it defeats their assumption. But a good explanation is the one that explains more, and the best explanation is the one that explains most. Not most arbitrarily, explaining anything at all you want to ask of the text including things the text never seeks to explain; but coherently, controlled by the literal meaning but going deeper and showing us God as he reveals himself to us, showing what he expects of us, and showing us at the deepest level who and what Christ is and does.

It is a clear book, but it is not an easy book. It is revealing sophisticated things, such as the doctrine of the Trinity and the dealings of God with man. If you have the idea these things aren’t sophisticated, you either think that and don’t operate on that notion, or you operate on that notion and will be limited in what you understand of what God reveals.

And that’s why it is good to study another language. You’ll start to see what you’re missing.

The Unexamined Life in the Dominican

The DR is so warm that hot running water isn’t necessary. In all the time I was there I saw one or two windows with glass, but that isn’t really necessary either, unless you have air conditioning–which nobody where we were does. What they have is metal blinds, shutters or nothing on most openings. Where we were is just a poor rural area. People may live in the usual Latin American brick and concrete houses, but many live in brightly painted wooden shacks. The church building was made of sheet metal, and probably built by a mission team–which is a way you can avoid the law of institutional decay, I suppose.

We never had any gentle rain there, just torrential. When it rains, you get out of it and wait for it to pass. And when it rains, you might turn or shut the blinds depending on the wind. What we had right at the moment I started to teach on Wednesday evening was a renewal of the rains and a sudden invasion of insects which the saturated ground no longer harbored and to whom the lights beckoned. They arrived on one side of the church, afflicting those seated there. Then someone started playing with the lights to attract them away from the people and they ended up at the front where I was. Nobody calling a halt to the proceedings, I didn’t either, and we continued on, ignoring the insects as best we could. The Americans mentioned them later, but the Dominicans didn’t.

* * *
What did attract attention one night was that someone saw a mouse emerge. They were all playing dominoes and then someone shouted and suddenly they were all around a wall darting in to step on a mouse, using chairs and brooms to poke at it, chasing it around until it got away. A mouse is something you have to be concerned about, the clouds of insects are not.

* * *
The unpaved roads are lined with discarded mango seeds. As they walk along they notice whether any of the nearby trees have ripe fruit and when they see some they throw stones and knock it down so they can eat it on the spot. They don’t really seem concerned with whose mango tree it is. I guess there’s such an abundance nobody cares about it. It may be that it just isn’t customary for someone to run out and fight about something like that. The people who live closest have the best opportunities, and that’s enough. I also think that if you have a crop you want to protect, you will keep it out of view.

* * *
We had mashed yucca our first night in the DR. We had scrambled eggs and mashed yucca for supper. And if they eat eggs, it is for supper: we were never given eggs for breakfast. There was also a bottle of ketchup provided with the scrambled eggs and yucca, and hot sauce. So I put ketchup on the eggs and hot sauce on the yucca.

Yucca can taste good on its own. It is a stringy tuber that grows large and prodigally in tropical climates. It really is good first boiled and then fried (in Colombia Katrina would buy frozen yucca fries), and with skill can be prepared so that alone it is interesting, the way Colombians do with potatoes and rice. But the mashed yucca wasn’t.

We also had mashed plantain, and on this they put sautéed onions with vinegar. Highly palatable, sautéed onions with vinegar. I was surprised, and pleased, and even thought it was mashed plantains, I almost went back for more; then I realized they were out of the onions.

We had our bread in rolls. One night they put ham and yellow cheese in the rolls (they have two kinds of cheese, white and yellow, both mild: they don’t really age cheese there), one night they put a hot dog in the same rolls and we could add ketchup and mustard. I learned from the eggs to steer clear of the ketchup–something in the spices is different.

The best meal we had was on Sunday. Rice, stewed beef, and a good salad with beets and tomatoes. I love the soggy salads you get in those parts of the world; so much better than what Americans do. They had some fried things with a base in yucca too, that Sunday. They grind the yucca up and from that make other things. Such things were these fried, the yucca ground coarse, like cornmeal.

We had several consecutive meals without meat, but never a whole day without. We had stewed chicken, stewed beef, baked pork ribs and once goat, hamburger (on a large flour tortilla with shredded cheese, lettuce, carrots and diced tomato: no Dominican recipe). Their dietary staple is rice and beans. They eat a lot of brocoli and cauliflower, it seemed to me, perhaps because I don’t like them too much. Carrots were often present, green beans, corn–not on the cob. We had potatoes a few times, a shepherd’s pie type of thing. Yucca tended to get paired with eggs, and once most curiously with large rounds of fried sausage.

If I go back, I’m going to have to take coffee and a french press. They make coffee, but of course it is of the lowest quality and worst. I was going to take tea, but it got left behind. You end up drinking a lot of water there, of course, and I ended up wishing it could have been cool tea (no ice there, but I can’t relate when Americans say they miss ice. I’m fine if you never put ice in my cup). What surprised me is that they never drank hot chocolate once. They must export it all. And of course they’re not given to warm beverages or soup, sadly. But that’s what happens. In Colombia they exported the best coffee.

* * *
Every once in a while you got an unpleasant smell drifting through. Was the smell tropical? Was it because part of the place we were on is a goat farm? Tropical places usually have the smell of decay wafting through from time to time, and it is unpleasant. I didn’t smell a more intense version of the same when we walked through the goat farm. I never figured it out, and I didn’t remember to ask, though I have the feeling what would have resulted there would simply be a puzzled look.

Did learn that goats are in their eating habits more of a deer than a sheep. They need the higher mineral content of plants with deeper roots than what grass has. So they bring in forage for the goats. On Sunday night as I was walking over to the church to preach I was surprised by a guy driving a truck stacked up with chopped branches for the goats. He wanted me to open the gate for him. That would never have happened in Colombia: if they see you dressed up they won’t ask you to get your hands dirty. I did not mind, but I was surprised. They aren’t as solicitous in the DR as Colombians are.

* * *
It frustrates me the way we go about all this. I had, for example, an activity besides the preaching: reading a book in English. We could have gotten pretty well along in the book had we done it in Spanish, but the point was the English camp so we waded through slowly in English. Which is fine from the point of view of teaching English, but frustrating from the point of view of Christian teaching.

Because they are hungry for the teaching. One of the things I was most impressed with is their desire to know and to learn, and just the nimbleness of their minds. They have curious and restless minds, but what they don’t have is a steady discipline. It is kind of the opposite of the USA where discipline is much more dominant (and valued) than quick wits.

They keep their wits sharp by loving jokes and arguments. That’s what the domino sessions taught me. It has to be dominoes because you have to use your head to play with them – they’re not just discarding high points, they’re figuring out who’s playing what and what can be played. All of them are good at dominoes. And it is the occasion for all kinds of mock arguments which they enter into with great enthusiasm, the point being to say the most preposterously funny thing. It is lively and energetic, and they’ll bite at anything that requires them to be clever. They appreciate clever cheating and are always up to tricks, though the point is more to be caught rather than to get away with it otherwise nobody would know of their ingenious scheme.

I was impressed with how bright they are. And it makes me wish they could be taught more and better, and that’s why it frustrates me that instead of doing Bible teaching–which we are in a way there to do–we do English teaching to keep up the pretense. Our lay people could instruct them successfully in something, having better access to resources and in general a better level of education. They have the translators themselves.

I don’t know exactly why it is but it may be that we don’t think strategically. We think that somebody is involved in religious activity and that in itself is good. People come back and talk about how awesome it all was, and how happy it made them feel. And I asked the chaps there what the benefit was; they all say they were converted chiefly because of English camp. We do it because it is apparently getting results. But that could be saying that in spite of what we are doing, God is at work, kind of the way it was with Joseph’s brothers. It isn’t the way to measure.

The way to measure is to find out what they really need, and then do what we are instructed to do to meet that need. Why don’t we proceed that way? Out of politeness, perhaps. We trust them to know that. They say we need native speakers to teach English and do chapel services. We say, fine, we’ll provide them. And we are glad to do something.

They used to have a family that did the week-long camp for the lower grades, but the family grew up and now can’t come, so what happens? They don’t do the camp. Which tells me it isn’t really a need. If they needed to do it, they have people there who can handle English enough to be able to teach basic and intermediate levels. And they bring in the preacher to preach in English and be translated too. So when I go and preach in Spanish, the ruse is over. They don’t need us to go because they have preachers who could do it, and connect better because they know their audience and speak their language at more than one level.

But it is a jolly time for the people you meet. You get to know them, and that’s interesting. I sometimes wonder if we of the human race are capable of organized and intelligent work, or if the best we can hope for is from time to time to have intelligent moments. Especially Christians. There are people who do intelligent and organized work, no doubt, but probably not Christians. All the surrounding muddle of the way we go about things perhaps is the only way for us to get to that.

Dominican Dominoes

I remember going to The Mission Lodge when I first started seminary. It was a government rehab program, and we’d have Bible studies with the chaps. One time I figured out the book of Ruth and gave them study that gave them an overview of the wonderful work of God in that book, and then afterward asked them what they thought. They ripped into me about how it didn’t have anything to do with their lives of fornication and murder and drugs.

I didn’t know what to expect in the Dominican Republic of course, and we all say that because we have to plan everything, or expect ourselves to, nevertheless. One of the things you always get is the culture clash of those for whom the clock ticks and those for whom it does not. The key to efficiency, Thomas Sowell somewhere says, is to value time. Things in the Dominican Republic get done, but not with maximum efficiency.

One of the things they like to do is play dominoes. Four of them will sit propping a board on their knees and on this makeshift surface they’ll play. And they do it in the most aggressive way possible too. There is a guy here from Venezuela who works in the baseball industry–exporting free agents for MLB–and I asked him what the chief difference he found was when he first came. It was the aggression. Not that they’re bad tempered, but that they don’t speak softly–not even the women, for which they seem to prefer not the word mujer, but the word hembra, female. And they play dominoes with the same aggression: slapping the domino down, crowing about their wins, tricking and humiliating each other, boasting, cheating good-naturedly, arguing. You can know they’re at some sport when everything pauses for them to argue about something, an event which can take up to half of any game. I haven’t seen that it is ill-tempered. They enjoy it–it’s how they rear their children, how they approach life.

And this interests me, so I sat and watched them play and listened to them. They think that because I don’t speak much and don’t speak the way they do, that I don’t know Spanish well enough to understand what they’re saying. Perhaps they also think I don’t understand because I don’t censure them. But I observed, and I’m thinking that Dominicans at dominoes is one of the best ways to understand them. Not that I have much time and experience, but I did find it sufficiently illuminating.

I had a hard time with my first chapel on Monday morning for several reasons, but one of them was that I was having a hard time holding their attention. I didn’t have a good breakfast, I didn’t have enough coffee, I did have a good lesson prepared but then the shambles of the preliminary activities had me in quite the sarcastic mood simply because ironic detachment helps with one’s spiritual hygiene. But I think the main thing was that I still didn’t understand them well enough.

I do a book reading in the afternoon, and I picked Tozer’s The Knowledge of the Holy. In his preface he mentions how the Quakers advised “speaking to the condition of the hearers.” The condition of the hearers is what the evening rounds of dominoes helped me to understand better, and I returned to my place realizing why Monday didn’t quite work like I thought it would, and wondering how Tuesday could go better. I had begun to see how they think about life, and I had gotten it all wrong before.

Of course, it took prayer and effort. I didn’t realize before undertaking to preach again, how much the steady rhythm of doing so in Bogota saved me in my schedule. I did something on Romans 14 on Sunday night and I reworked it at least 3 times before even leaving Columbus. And again here. But what I needed more than anything wasn’t so much to understand what I was saying better so much as to understand those I was speaking to better. Not that I’m that close still, but I am glad for the dominoes.

Seventh Verse

The clouds come like ill-balanced crags,
Shouldering, Down valleys smokes the gloom.
The thunder brags. In joints of sparkling jags
The lightnings leap. The day of doom!
I cry ‘O rocks and mountains make me room.’
And yet I know it would be better so,
Aye, sweet to taste beside this woe.

-Gerard Manley Hopkins, ‘Fragments of Pilate,’ 7

Teaching of the Unexamined Life

One thing I have learned to do better teaching a Sunday school quarter on church history has been to say only one thing. It is one thing to say you should say one thing, another to practise it. And church history is particularly hard because you have to select from a huge diversity of detail. What does it all add up to? When you teach a passage of Scripture you’re already working with someone’s main point, and so discerning the point is not as difficult. History is otherwise because it comes alive in the details and the point is not made obvious by a limited trail of crucial details. The primary sources make the stories come alive: things dropped out of a larger context, an unexpected anecdote, a custom no longer customary with a crucial influence on behavior or thought. But details aren’t enough because one can’t just present aggregated facts. Even when you use a controversy or just one person to organize your details, you have to make a point, otherwise it won’t all come together. Henry Chadwick and Christopher Dawson’s work has been really useful to me in that regard. I can’t say that I was working alongside them, especially since I’m working so far below them and so often borrowing, but seeing how they did what they did as I was working on the same material, I was able to pick up on what they were doing and proceed a little further along in my own negligible practice. I haven’t had a chance to do church history before: in the USA it never came up and in Colombia I lacked the sufficient resources to feel confident about what I was saying, even had I had the time, which I did not. But here were both, and I have finally had a chance to practice that for which I was trained, at least in a Sunday school. I’m pleased at the progress.

I should go on with the study, right into the early middle ages of the church even though I’m not slated to teach, but I can’t go on once the class is done for three reasons. The first is called a GRE, and reading a preparatory manual makes me realize this is a sui generis test that masquerades as a test of general knowledge. It is a test of how the ETS company tests people, and the better you master this esoteric and not entirely connected corner of American academia, the better your chances of being accepted into a PhD program are. The second entirely makes up for the GRE. I’ve been asked to teach Latin in the fall on a very part-time basis. If it were full-time, nobody would think of me, since at this point I have to learn Latin in order to teach it. Which I can do, but not while chugging my way through the early middle ages of church history and giving the GRE a good run. It is very lucky though. I was asking my wife why the Lord didn’t just offer me a job teaching the Saturday before the headmaster walked up to me in church to ask me if I’d be willing to teach Latin. And the second stroke of luck was that I crossed over to the strip mall beside our apartment and entered Half-Price Books to find the seventh edition of Wheelock’s Latin there for $16. But maybe once the GRE is done, and Latin beginning to settle, and applications over with around December, I’ll have time to read again, and maybe I’ll even have a chance to teach the same quarter next spring. The third is the Dominican Republic of course, on which I have to concentrate my efforts now.


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