WTS, Impressions

In every age, I suppose, there are incongruities. It is not unusual of ours to have them, however odd they may be. And things are judged differently depending on where you happen to be located.

Our guide was a nice person, and perhaps a deep thinker. He is not a quick thinker, at least not if he thinks at the rate he speaks. I’ve had several phone conversations with him (that is not something I can say about many people–outside of my job); and quick and to the point they were not. So the first hour was listening to him. No coat, no name tag, no commercial patter, no attempt to sway me. I was glad of that incongruity (for as such, of course, it comes across in this age to us), and of his wit which flashed forth in his somewhat labored dialogue from time to time, all unexpected.

On our first arrival we wandered in to a largely abandoned Machen hall and caused some slight dismay in the lobby by asking for directions. Apparently the desk there is manned (or womaned) largely as an effort at interior decoration. It is not a big place and there are friendly people there, but they do not seem to be in charge. In fact, Westminster does not seem to be a place where anybody is in charge at all. That will, come time for administrative necessities, no doubt be a drawback; but I find it warms my heart at the moment. A bit fuzzly, shall we say they are? Allow me to coin the term. A bit fuzzly about getting things done, but I am not in the mood for high efficiency at this point.

Some stories about Machen and about Murray there were, under their portraits (the genial Machen’s resolve and fidelity, the severe Murray’s cigar smoke and incarceration). These notables for some reason do not have the honor of the paneled lobby that Van Til’s chilling portrait surmounts–of whom no stories were told whatever. The ugliest building on a campus not distinguished for its architecture is named after Van Til, which I found satisfying, though he probably did too, the blighter.

There were many people studying in the library. The more frivolous portions of the place were desolate, but the library was full of industry and quiet. One likes to see that in a library. No incongruity. I understand in this world there will be incongruities, but things are going as well as can be expected under the moon if they can be at least kept from the library.

They have to many Korean students that they offer a degree in Theological English to help those who haven’t quite TOEFLd their way to sufficient fluid command. Apparently, Westminster means to Koreans what a place like Oxford would mean to us: a storied university of splendor, glory and ancient dignity. That is what was confided to me, at least, when making inquiries. This degree, the activity implied by it at least, is something that interests me, having taught English and dealt a little with the problems of getting things across to people in Spanish. And as the Protestant age passes and perhaps the torch of leadership leaves the Anglophone world, it seems a worthwhile consideration: how to get the resources we now have to where they are needed.

We attended a class consisting of a mostly clear explanation of the philosophy behind Rudolf Bultmann. I should like to have asked When? a lot more, but I shall have time anon. It was not uninteresting, though the quality of the discussion could not have said to have been penetrating. But, after all, penetrating discussion, I am sure every teacher will tell you, is not something you get every day.

Philadelphia has a lot of precious white people places with organic ketchup and other such logical fallacies. Because we were in a hurry, with apologies, our host took us to Chili’s. I like Chili’s, personally, and Applebee’s for that matter, or Cane’s. Apparently, there are persons who think such places are uninteresting, which was the point of the apology. I had far rather get something worth eating than organic turnips fried in craft beer and sprinkled with seasonal pickled crab grass. Highly satisfied with my club sandwich and cup of southwestern chicken soup, stuffed copiously, I suppose, with pesticides, hormones, gluten and stuff that renders the immune system more robust but which white people now fastidiously avoid, we arrived late to Trueman’s class, which is something I can regret.

He is not ceremonious at all. Did not greet us, did not come over to speak, nothing (I realize how many persons are likely to take that so let me just say it is not a negative statement I make). His lecture on of all things the Synod of Dort was good, with insight afforded and quite a bit of banter. He is an ugly man to look at, with a devilish pointiness to eyebrows and nose when he smiles, which I’m glad to say he is not reluctant to do. He knows what he’s talking about and that makes you pay attention to him readily.

He lectures sitting down, which I wish he didn’t. He sometimes walks around, which I wish he would do more. He’s more animated, but then he’s more extemporaneous when he’s walking around. So I listened to him, watching him. There is nothing to remark about his habiliment, I am glad to say. Sometimes these professors are shabby or have bad taste. His hands are small and pale, and delicate and I wished he would gesture more. He doesn’t. He’s a very still person, with his dark, burning eyes (from a distance; not so dark up close). I didn’t think he would be such a white person as to have a Macintosh computer, but he did. Absolutely trendy. There’s your incongruity.

Afterward we shook hands, settled on a mostly deserted place to talk, and he was generous with the few questions I managed to fumble at him. I found out what I wanted to know, but no more, and this is largely due to the fact that speaking with people is not something I do very naturally, and with perfect strangers not at all well. I didn’t want to say more than a few words about anything not to the point. (Often a good impression can be marred by overmuch in the way of things said, I have noticed. And if I am to have him as my adviser I’d rather he thought of me as one who tendeth more to brevity than otherwise. I feel that when it comes to scheduling time with him in the future that would be more advantageous.)

I’d be able to push back into the middle ages with him, and that has its attractions. So there’s that. As far as living here (being on location for this special edition of my blog), Philadelphia has its attractions. It is expensive to live here, but we’ve managed before in two big cities and also in the semi-rural rustic environs of Columbus, OH (Oh, it is good to be back in a big city for a few days, and the consideration of moving instead out to the hinterland of KY is a bit of an off-putting consideration). I walk among the quaint old buildings that white people are good at keeping up, though they fill them with their precious restaurants and fair trade soap and gormless pottery shops and overpriced boutique hotels furnished by T.J.Max and Target, and think how good it is to clap eyes on a decent structure made of stone and with the traces of more than a few generations on it. The grounds of venerable colleges are here, the tangled roads of human passage rather than the wanton grid, the air from the Atlantic Ocean, the eastern seaboard which is among other things the locus classicus of Reformed Baptists in America.

But as Trueman himself put it to me, if you want to study Plotinus and Origen and Early Church stuff, Michael Haykin is your man. And that is the question. Do I? Here is my dilemma: until I’ve been there for a while, gotten to know the adviser, figured out more about the thing I’m getting into, how can I possibly know?

Travel Unexamined

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Snow on the ground this morning. Above, the rook delighting sky.* Long miles in a car today, until going slow feels unreal. John Synge, Dorothy Sayers, Trollope if need be.

I don’t find it best to eat a lot on journeys. But then sometimes it is good to stand still, to be refreshed with good cheer somewhere. Today, somewhere in Pennsylvania, or in West Virginia. Perhaps we will have fog; I’d like that.

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*Suddenly I saw the cold and rook delighting Heaven
That seemed as though ice burned and was but the more ice,
And thereupon imagination and heart were driven
So wild, that every casual thought of that and this
Vanished, and left but memories, that should be out of season
With the hot blood of youth, of love crossed long ago;
And I took all the blame out of all sense and reason,

-the poet Yeats

Why must theology be so difficult?

Trueman’s work on John Owen is rather stratospheric when it comes to theology–and that kind of theologian I am not. That coupled with another sally into the fourth century trinitarian controversy on Saturday–how bewildering that can be to the uninitiated–prompted the question. Why must theology be so difficult?

At least two reasons spring to mind:

1 That we are talking about divinity, and there is no reason for that subject to be easy. Why should God and his ways be easy for any mind? True, there are ways of coming at it, basics which we can readily master, but it would be foolish to think the subject doesn’t go deep beyond the basics. Further up and further in, he says, and we are meant to follow.

2 That theology must deal in truth, and one error is enough to disturb it. A simple error in logic is enough to undermine a doctrine, which is odd to think about, but nevertheless true. God will have all of us and requires the most careful thinking; God possesses all things, therefore there is nothing that he does not find useful to his purposes. Every consideration is necessary. How shall the consideration of him who is holy not require of us an entirety of attention? Everything possible must be considered; and the slightest mistake will be a telling mistake.

Email of the Unexamined Life

OSU sent an email to say I would not do. Which I’d rather be saying to them than have said to me, but at least puts that potential to rest. Columbus, I shall not live in thee more than a few months! What would I have done had they accepted me? I do not know. Why even apply? I was expected to, and I did it to say I had.

So, two acceptances and one rejection. How vain must I be that it stings nevertheless. I had rather be the lord of all rejections! But it prepares me for the dashing of my St. Louis hopes when that occurs.

As a consolation I have begun to charge my blue pen with sepia ink, and it is a wise move on the whole. Sepia is a nice, autumnal color. Muted, but unusual, with a sense of faded antiquity. There are shades of paper on which one does not use it of course, but white and pale green are good for sepia, as I think cream will be to. Sepia seeps out of the pen which had been struggling with the intermingled red and blue rather more than is convenient better. I am consoled by it.

Top Tier

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When the headmaster of Veritas Academy told me that the students could all recite Lukacs’ definition of history I thought he was perhaps exaggerating. When I showed some of them the book I’m reading they immediately recognized the name and proceeded spontaneously to recite the very definition in chorus.

Lukacs’ mind is no insignificant mind. His thinking is careful and deep and wide. His reflections on what history is and what historians have to do bear deep pondering, and I mean to ponder them as much as I can. He takes some understanding, but he has written enough books. If you persevere in reading them, you begin to get the picture; and the more I read him, the better he gets.

Clutter and Commerce

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Three stores, I have in mind.

One is the coffee place. No real clutter there. He keeps the place so bare, so free of the guile and squalor of advertising and the glib meaningless surfaces of modern commerce that one is surprised to find he’s been there for twelve years. It always has the air of being a startup, waiting to be decorated by some soul-less interior decorator. But it is not. And he roasts his coffee there on a small roaster, and offers three options, that’s it, and they are all good: I will buy no other unless providentially hindered.

The second is Karen Wycliffe’s, one of the three remaining independent used book-stores that I know of in these parts. Always a monument of clutter. It seems every time I go there’s less space at the counter for the transaction to take place. Sometimes the lower shelves are visible in some aisles, often not. Always stacked books like ice in a February parking lot in great immoveable heaps. Always among the tides of books some curious thing to find.

The third is the pen place. All these shops bear the eccentricity (which I celebrate) of their owners, but this has to be the most. His hat, his manner, his discourse, the paraphernalia jumbled there. The place has not been tidied in ages, and I wonder very much if he even tries. I am sorry I so seldom need ink, and I refuse to buy it elsewhere because going to that rampantly non-commercial commercial establishment does my heart good.

Vanishing places perhaps, but still around and the more precious for being rare. Islands of dignity, two of them don’t even take a credit card, that’s how indifferent they are to the financial behemoth of our commercial age. Nothing like a curious shop not given to the doctrines and fatuities of marketing, the obsequious convenience of the fastidious and unintelligent customer, but to the expression of an odd humanity. I spend my money gladly there.

Hengest’s Tale

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Hengest's Tale (Puffin Books)Hengest’s Tale by Jill Paton Walsh
A grim but great tale. One of the best things the author does is put you into that world: the ways of speaking, the motivations, the feeling of things, the comforts and discomforts, a glimpse at the long winters. It isn’t easy to make such a remote world come alive, but she does, and without disconcerting lapses–at least to someone like me who is familiar but no expert.

It is like E.R. Eddison’s Styrbiorn the Strong in making the world of the pre-Christian northern peoples come alive. And ruthlessly troubled about its ending in that it only offers pagan solutions. That’s one of the most compelling things about the book: the dilemma of the pagan outlook is squarely presented.

It All Cometh Rushing

Hengest’s Tale is a worthy book and hard to find. It is full of strange, compelling imagery, is sparsely narrated in the Saga style, of dreadful, ominous scenes and foreshadowings, detailed by history, and brief. I haven’t finished it, but it won’t be long I can say that. It is a really good story so far.

My time for these things is short, as it is for writing. I have to make a decision in a month, and then I have the feeling the leisure of these lasts years will vanish soon enough. I’ll snatch a few moments on the accordion, have an hour or two on Sunday evenings to paint is all. I trust I’ll have all the replies I need to make that decision by then. The nice thing is that acceptance is the work of a moment, done online.

So the chance is good that we’re going to move. One wants to clear off the shelves, recover some bookmarks that have been languishing, pare down the swollen collection, get rid of accretions. I like that part. The part I don’t like about moving is boxing up the books and not having them available. That’s the part that lasts too long for me, no matter how many I keep out.

A Flip Worth Considering

Blessed are the entitled, for they get their way.
Blessed are the carefree, for they are comfortable.
Blessed are the pushy, for they win.
Blessed are the self-righteous, for they need nothing.
Blessed are the vengeful, for they will be feared.
Blessed are those who don’t get caught, for they look good.
Blessed are the argumentative, for they get in the last word.
Blessed are the winners, for they get their way.

Ray Ortlund, The Gospel, 71.

Louisville, February 2015

One of the things that used to be a regular part of my life and no longer is was driving for hours on end. There are many things one could dislike about it, but not everything. I’ve missed being able to do so.

Usually it includes a sunrise or a sunset or both. One can’t always be in view of such things, what with the times always alternating here in the northern hemisphere, and with schedules tending to remain unaffected. So it is good to see the colorations of skies and clouds. I remember the nearly numinous look of the windmills in Indiana one foggy morning, speeding along. The sun was shining through those great blades and the shadows were dragged through the fog like agile burdens as they rotated slowly. I enjoy these phenomena because I sense there is a meaning there, that these things gesture, waiting to be understood; and one feels one has come through an event. When the bright, fiery ball of the sun is a pinpoint on the farthest little mirror on the driver’s side, and a miniature landscape beckons, it is hard to keep one’s eye on the road, on the wonders of the other horizons, and on the flash of the sudden brakelights up ahead.

I like going fast and passing people. I like it once you know your car and can make the most of a corner. Not that I drive fast cars. I had a Hyundai Accent and didn’t figure out the pseudo (or is it semi?) manual gear shifting available, so it didn’t seem as powerful as my good Ford Focus. But you go through the heart of Cincinnati and there are plenty of corners, long bridges and traffic to make it interesting. I like to drive straight through cities, see what can be seen, pass through the structure of them as much as possible.

There is a meaning to going fast, to being alone in a car on the landscape, being far from your place and from people that you know. Driving is an errand into the wilderness, and some seek the wilderness. Roger Scruton somewhere remarks about that: that England is more of a kept, a shire kind of place, whereas this vast country is more rugged, untended, more of a place of wildernesses. We drive cars as much as we do because we’ve built the roads for it, but I also think we built the roads because we desire it: to go independently, to be in our wildernesses. Not all, but many. These wildernesses of the highway are pretty tame when it comes to figuring things out, but not entirely so. And there are the comforts of arriving which draw one forth, and make the enjoyment of the wait over long distances more complex.

I got there fine and quickly. They had a big hotel room for me, and I enjoyed it some as I walked around reading, but the tension of the test was foolishly upon me. I thought that perhaps I had been less than responsible in not compiling a huge list of details from the reading to review. So I spent the day going through things as much as possible, responsibly assimilating the not altogether congenial Mark Noll. After driving down, after getting up early, after working at Pelikan without a good deal of success, I put it down. I had the dread of the social gathering upon me.

One of the worst moments at Southern was the dessert reception in a conference room. I hate mingling because I’m shy and I don’t do small talk. They were playing the sounds of the shallow soul of evangelicalism in the background and I sat there with a sinking feeling wondering if this was where I really want to be. I think sometimes fundamentalists are right when they say that evangelicalism has more problems; it is fundamentalism spread thinner. I was faced with the real question: is this where I want to be?

I waited, put on a cheerful face, exchanged remarks with persons who were not looking to do more than exchange remarks. I was arrested eventually when heading toward the unappealing pies by one of the faculty. I still don’t remember his name, but he does Reformation studies and is kindly–I’d study whatever I had to with him right away. We exchanged remarks and even talked a bit. My impression of the faculty at Southern is very favorable: they pay attention, they can handle prolonged eye contact, they behave with intelligence. They even get around to humor, though for some reason did not appear to expect anything above the dullest, most obvious joke.

I’m living in the age of my life in which I’m appreciating the richness of human personalities more, it seems. I met one guy who was the model of absentmindedness, interested in early Baptist covenant theology. I liked that he was inelegant and unaffected, no forced laughter, no dull joking, no overattentive earnestness, a bit of confusion though not of a nervous sort. May he one day provide us with a clearer understanding of early Baptist covenant theology. I met an aggressive evidentialist and experienced a baffling conversation which was obviated by the vicissitudes of architecture. I met a preacher guy from Dallas all cheerfulness, dubiety about the cold, three pens uncapped and neatly laid beside his computer, bow tie. And my favorite was the guy taking the exam beside me: old Toshiba laptop, Vista, would not start without power, had to plug in a mouse–earnest, friendly, concerned about his interview. I liked him and I wish him well. I watched him walking slowly down the hall after his interview, dealing it seemed to me with discouragement as if it were something still too unfamiliar. I hope that if I make it, he does too.

Southern ratcheted up the tension in a passive-aggressive way. I was not thinking much of the events–thinking they were more of a making sure type of thing than a rigorous appraisal of who will or will not be in. And from the questions I got in the interview I still think that. Why then send an email a week before telling us they’ve been praying for us? It excites alarm, and it is bound to. Then the note sounded at the reception was: Relax, relax, relax . . . if you can. No kidding, and I don’t know if it is deliberate, subconscious, or just naive. Part of the explanation is that they actually have four responses to an applicant: 1 – you’re accepted, 2 – you’re accepted provisionally, and you’ll need to work like the dickens your first year, 3 – you can do a ThM for now and we’ll see about the PhD after that, and 4 – no dice.

Still, the effect overall was disquieting, except for actual interactions with the faculty. Another thing perhaps to say in their defense is that they offer a whole lot of programs. I think we had 60 people taking tests and interviewing. Out of those 60, only four of us were doing Church History, and I was the only one doing Early Church (or as they call it, and as I don’t like to call it, Patristics–what an odious locution, like metrics, or statistics). So there had to be some crowded programs, perhaps specially the NT and Biblical Studies.

I spend two hours most mornings just writing, and so I got my coffee and plugged in my computer–just in case–and once I got the questions got going like I was writing a blog. I can’t talk about the questions for obvious reasons, but I found the first one exactly my thing and the second a bit more challenging, a bit more thought provoking. I can say that whatever else is lacking at Southern Seminary, coffee is not. It is in abundant supply and easily obtainable. So during the test I had something outside of myself and congenial circumstances for it, and if I did badly on those essays then I alone am to blame. I question the organization of my second essay a little, and the content a little more, but in general I remain pleased.

That, I have found, can be misleading. Speaking of being misled, I had two slight misgivings interacting with the faculty at Southern: humor was either at a low tide or not much appreciated. Now I know that I don’t help people and often find that my wife interjects explanations with forced laughter when I endeavor to joke with people, with annoying solicitude (I’m not sure she’s right but I’m not sure I am either). Still, people with PhDs shouldn’t need any help. There were gleams in their eyes toward the end of some conversations, and that encouraged me. I really hope they’re not ponderous blokes, and I have good reason to think they’re not. The other thing was the wording of something: one director talked about how he felt something was God’s will, and I heard that like fingernails on the chalkboard of my soul. Is the use of the word ‘feel’ some king of modesty of approach, or a veil for ambiguity? Do the people in charge really wait for some sense from God about what to do? It is a big-tent kind of place, not like Reformed circles, and that can be refreshing, but it can be vague too. Then another prayed that I’d have a sense of leading and guidance during the interview. Is this the passive-aggressive thing? A sense? He was praying soberly, so I’m sure he meant it. Not that I was going to follow that red-herring of thought, or get caught up in examining myself for a sense of what was going on. I didn’t have a sense of leading and guidance during the interview, I’ll have you know. I myself was hoping that the Lord would grant me to answer candidly, discreetly, carefully, wisely and well. I trust I did, endeavoring not to impress them with myself, thinking in as clear and orderly a way as possible, trying to understand what they wanted from the question asked, sticking to the question and not belaboring the answer obsequiously. I think it very odd that some there proceed along lines of sensing and feeling, though; I did not expect it. I hope there’s some order behind it.

I understand that where you get a PhD is important because that’s the ambit where you probably end up. The question from the dessert reception is the question: Is this where I want to be? I have to think (unless I’m privileged with a sense of guidance!) carefully if I want to end up in those regions. When I left fundamentalism it was not to a wider world of evangelicalism, it was to the smaller world of the strictest Reformed Baptists. Granted, they can fellowship more widely, and judge in a more careful and principled way (nor do they ever talk about feeling God’s will, for heaven’s sake!). It is wider in some of its possibilities because they are principled about their associations, rather than intuitive. They reason among themselves, evaluate what the aims are, don’t judge arbitrarily, allow room for mistakes and exhibit the disorder of variety.

But if these guys at Southern are led, are we back to intuitive? If you have a good feeling about something, is it ok? Maybe they can explain to me how one tells between God and personal impulse, because I’d would like to find out. What there is is a world of wider associations, is room for discussion, the sense of the possibility for the question carefully to be considered, whether it actually is or not. In the OP you can question the literal reading of Genesis without being accused of favoring evolution, for example, and I welcome that.

One of the great things about Southern is that you constantly run into Tozer, which in Reformed circles does not happen that I know of. You’ll find the latest volume of Perkins on the shelves, and Tozer too, which is for me required breadth. They’re a bit more catholic than my experience outside of fundamentalism to date has been, and so am I if for no other reason than that I am a contrary person. It was interesting when I told them I am a Baptist for now, to have the ‘for now’ followed up. I’ve come a long, long way from where I started out, and because of that I guess I think of myself as still having a long way to go. If other people don’t have to go as long and start with the same amount of time, doesn’t it stand to reason that I should be prepared to keep on going? If your convictions are based on understanding, it stands to reason, specially if along the way there is a lot of misunderstanding you need to work through. There is were plenty of things in fundamentalism that were made to seem to matter; then you found out they don’t. What I wonder about Southern is how many of those things are there? And are there those that do which are not recognized? It is a place I haven’t really been to yet, I realize. And it was one of the observations the guy with a PhD from the U of Toronto, the most relentless in his questions, made: You really have come a long way, haven’t you?

Indeed. Maybe that’s why I like driving a car over the endless highways of the USA. You know what was great about those guys? They wrote with fountain pens. They wrote on paper, one with green ink and the other with purple, with interesting fountain pens, two out of three. I wish they had been a bit more civilized and offered tea, had us into an office with some personal touches, that kind of thing. I don’t know why Americans don’t think of that, don’t value it the way for example Colombians would. You can’t drink or smoke at Southern, and maybe that’s why: the teetotaler view of life has its own built in bleakness, going so far as to exclude even tea. (If I get accepted at WTS I’m going to go visit, and then we’ll see what they serve.) But there was nevertheless a warmth at Southern I appreciated, and a sense of contributing and aiming to contribute to the cause of Christ, a sense of being in earnest at least about the professors–which I hope is more than just a sense that I have. I think that would be one of the great things, to be able to be connected, to participate. It is what I am looking for. The real question is: in the world of American religion, can I? When asked why I wanted a PhD I answered it was that I needed help.

So why go for it in that world, at an evangelical seminary? It would have to be that I think I can live with the outcome, that I think they can help me, and would. And then perhaps I can cause another student to wonder, to encourage someone in their work with more than temporal attainments and ends, to work toward and with true and lasting things, to work among God’s people, elect for no obvious reason but nevertheless beloved. One of the bad things about traveling is that you do not feel at home. Southern has drafty buildings, they have a cafe that is as soulless as an airport, the friendliness there is genuine enough, but it isn’t the deep friendliness of where people know you–after all I was just visiting. This whole planet, though, is the place our exile now, and traveling reminds me of that. Southern reminded me of that. Even in the alien non-culture of evangelicalism we are exiles, and it reminds me I have a real home and why whatever changes the romantic is my temperament, for now. I wept on the road speeding out of Kentucky thinking that I have a proper country, I have a sure city and a true civilization: would that I were there, not driving through the wilderness! I have longed for it since I was first read the Chronicles of Narnia; but there is in this life only the longing, the flashes and glimmers of it distantly, the discipline of hope. There is no getting there by car, however much you drive. If I must wait, I can wait, and not in the bad way that I waited for that test. There is one thing really which the Lord at all times requires of us: we have to understand what faithfulness looks like in our context and keep trying. Perhaps that’s why he so much says we must watch and pray. It is not enough to wait, we have to wait well.

Strategies

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I have few enough students that I can deal with them individually, and I try to. Two in particular are paying off.

One wants to be an artist when she grows up, and when I asked them to come up with a Latin preposition landscape, she came up with a creative explosion truly admirable. I’m having her try to do something now with Latin words, the way David Jones did inscriptions in his books. She’s already said she isn’t taking a third year of Latin, she got stuck because of a schedule conflict in a semi-first year class, and was going through the motions. But now I’m hoping to hook her on Latin: how lapidary it can be, particularly. The strategy is to put inside her the suggestion that it is useful and valuable for artistic endeavor, and a source in many ways. Because if she gets that idea, she will carry on on her own whether she ever studies Latin in a classroom again or not.

The other one is a Harry Potter fan. She wants to be an English teacher when she grows up, and is an exemplary intermediate Latin student. So we’re doing Harry Potter, and she’s getting the idea: looking up verbs, finding uncommon words, starting slowly but gathering speed in the translation, observing peculiarities of idiom that do not translate. I saw in her eyes the dawning sense of how this tentative essay into Harry Potter is going to work, and I predict she will finish the book before she gets to third year Latin. We’ll see, of course, but I think she’s hooked.

You wish you could figure that out for all of them, and maybe there is a way; I keep at it. But for now I have the special satisfaction of these two students who gave me a rough beginning in January and most of February; now the effort of coming to terms with them is paying off. These are brighter students and have had a very experienced teacher and a very well-trained one, and now they have me: I who desperately lack experience and am not as bright as this other young lady teaching them was, and remains. But I have my tricks, I’ve read Augustine and Edwards and C.S. Lewis and I know a bit about the heart. And I have acquired along the way certain unconventionalities.

Book in Progress

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What I have learned that is a valuable lesson is that nothing worthwhile is achieved without its corresponding effort. That fact itself is one thing in the thinking, entirely another thing to understand. Because of where I find myself in life, no doubt, I have been forced really to consider it–at least more than formerly–and it has produced in my writing.

I have a huge problem with my Falcon Lord story: the lack of any protagonist worth having. That isn’t the only problem it has had, but it is the main one, and as it presently stands, really the only one remaining. I have been working on that problem recently, and if I come at it as something that has to be surmounted bit by bit, rather than something seeking for an easy and quick solution, then it stands a chance of being solved.

I guess it’s like learning Latin. You start in the foothills of the first declension, startled at how the way is indicated by these unexpected signs on the trees and rocks: case endings. Then you climb up into the first conjugation and as you begin to see sentences you start to think you’re almost through the mountains. Encouraged you face the more but not so much more challenging second declension, and adjectives of the same. When you get the second conjugation and a few prepositions you feel like you understand the way out, especially when you get the Imperfect and Future down–though the bit about -er adjectives is somewhat disquieting. Then, as you overcome those heights, you look with dismay upon the higher hills and real mountains of the perfective tenses, the third conjugation–not to mention declension, and that neither stop at three–the pronouns and demonstratives, and then they start multiplying before your way. It is then you understand that the firsts and seconds and the scattered conjunctions lobbed at you got were child’s play. You have a longer journey than you anticipated when you scan appalled the passive voice, the participles and those brooding, snow capped Moods. But while you’re slogging toward the pass you start to get a glimpse of the country beyond. You see, or think you see, a vast wood, a forbidden tower, enchanted and unexpected kingdoms and blue distances.

As I take on for the moment the problem of my protagonist, I realize I now have at my command more tools than formerly. There are things about writing–and reading (my life it seems to me is nothing but a laborious approach at learning obvious and easy things in a, if not the most, difficult way)–things about writing and reading which I was never conscious of formerly. Do you know one can distinguish between characters by the kind and also level of detail one descends to in narrating from the viewpoint of each? It is obvious in the statement, but takes a lot of figuring out: how to do it, what it suggests, what it can be made to suggest. I noticed it listening to The Two Towers last night: the view of Ithilien you get is not entirely the narrator’s, but is in large part Sam’s, the gardener. Not that Tolkien tells it only from one viewpoint, but he register’s Sam’s impressions on the whole, which is why you get so many herbs leading into the relief of the coney episode.

Just as a free aside: how much Tolkien describes the weather and the rise and fall of the sun sometimes! But that also goes to show what I am learning. When the careful, detailed imagination of the circumstances, the study to make sure the imagination is well-guided, when there is the work of sinking deeper into the thing you’re making required in order that the thing be of that highest, elvish craft, then he (and how much more every lesser writer!) goes to the lengths required. No detail is gratuitous. He tells everything as part of the atmosphere of that section, part of the forward motion of the story. Pacing with him is more gradual, but it is always stead, which is what counts. It is like our Sunday school teacher who in order to bring us to a high place overlooking a panorama of much of Scripture has led us up a winding and long set of stairs, beguiling us, instructing us, persuading us so that we thought the winding stairs were the point, but his point is in the end to bring us to that height and cause us to look out into distances unimaginable toward the sea and a light through the clouds, and a tall white ship.

A Sunday school class, by the way, on the OT sacrificial system of instructive and careful construction, which I mention in order to point out that that is much of the task. Think of the superscription in the Gospel: Jesus super mare ambulat. Any first year student can translate it: Jesus walks on the sea. But what a statement! It arrested me in Latin, and not because Latin is special but unfamiliar instead. And that is the thing: bring them by new ways to see the wonder in the objects in view afresh. The sea? A light from heaven? A ship? Yes, as long as by elvish craft you vest them with ordinate significance.

That’s all I have to do for my protagonist: vest the black hole with some useful significance. Mountains lie ahead, but vistas, I hope, lie beyond them.

XL

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Soon this little time on earth will flash by. I am presently a citizen of the United States, and grateful for it, but that will soon pass. This brief country with its mutable rights and privileges arises like a bubble in time, to burst or diminish and eventually to exist as a memory. My present incarnation is obviously set to expire as well, but I have hope of such indestructible life as can outlast the galaxies, and time itself will not prevail against the one to whom I have been eternally united. The defining moment in this first stage of my existence will be the return with glory and splendor of Jesus Christ, my savior, who will burn down this world, and along with that every part of me which is not that renewed being of the New Creation. That is something to keep in mind during this present time. Then I hope to be removed from the habitation of my present exile, and the only thing that will matter is not my character nor my health or any accomplishments or possessions, but the believing heart’s desire. And that also is a good one to keep in mind: Jesus Christ is not looking for people with good character who are able to behave well, he is coming for those who believe in him and because of that long for him and know they need him, not those who think they deserve him. I have come to understand that character matters to a moralist, just as behavior matters to a legalist, but neither are what God looks for, since he looks for the undeserving to display his excellence, to give them another’s character and behavior, that of Jesus Christ through the ordinary supernatural work of the Holy Ghost. Of course, it is more about the how of it, isn’t it? Like so many important things. Character and behavior matter, but not those you can boast of. It is good to keep that in mind when one is forty, it renews expectation. God dwells with the contrite, and there is nothing like advancing age to bring contrition.

Here is another interesting consideration: what can we desire that we know and understand? Desire, I know, is stronger than understanding and can outstrip it; we know we can have a desire for we know not what. And with God is the satisfaction of that which we were made to desire and which we do not even know or otherwise possess. Which is why perhaps one is exhorted out of self-absorption through sober self-assessment and then to a self-inattention; and not an aimless one, but one directed at the contemplation of a true object of a desire that understands not itself, one that has to originate in belief and is possessed entirely by faith. There may I be found however long I have to wait, which should not be long now!

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