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!

IV, 88

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It is a generous and heavenly principle, that where a benefit is fairly intended we are equally obliged for the intention or success. He is an ungrateful debtor, that measureth a benefactor by the success of his kindness. A clear soul and a generous mind is as much obliged for the intent of his friend, as the prosperity of it: and far more, if we separate the prosperity from the intent. For the goodness lies principally in the intention. Since therefore God intended me all the joys in Heaven and Earth, I am as much obliged for them as if I received them. Whatever intervening accident bereaved me of them, He really intended them. And in that I contemplate the riches of His goodness. Whether men’s wickedness in the present age, or my own perverseness, or the fall of Adam; He intended me all the joys of Paradise, and all the honours in the world, whatever hinders me. In the glass of His intention therefore I enjoy them all: and I do confess my obligation. It is as great as if nothing had intervened, and I had wholly received them. Seeing and knowing Him to be infinitely wise and great and glorious, I rejoice that He loved me, and confide in His love. His goodness is my sovereign and supreme delight. That God is of such a nature in Himself is my infinite treasure. Being He is my friend, and delighteth in my honour, though I rob myself of all my happiness, He is justified. That He intended it, is His grace and glory. But it animates me, as well as comforts me, to see the perfection of His Love towards me. As things stood, He used power enough before the fall to make me happy. If He refuseth to use any more since the fall, I am obliged. But He hath used more. New occasions begot new abilities. He redeemed me by His Son. If He refuseth to use any more, I cannot complain. If He refuseth to curb my perverseness unless I consent, His love was infinitely showed. He desireth that I should by prayers and endeavours clothe myself with grace. If in default of mine, He doth it Himself, freely giving His Holy Spirit to me, it is an infinite mercy, but infinitely new and superadded. If He refuseth to overrule the rebellion of other men, and to bring me to Honour, notwithstanding their malice; or refuseth to make them love me, whether they will or no, I cannot repine. By other signs, He hath plainly showed, that He loveth me infinitely, which is enough for me, and that He desireth my obedience.

-Thomas Traherne, Centuries of Meditation

A Name

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I also think that names are an opportunity for characterization. I think that now because of a chap who pointed out to me once that the title of a poem is an opportunity. I still don’t understand how the title of a poem is an opportunity (I mean, how it works), but I have learned not to read his poems without noticing the title.

It is a part I usually neglect, including sub-titles in texts, notes and other devices I tend to think as merely decorative, even when they’re not. And in naming characters, you can get away with it if your character is otherwise clear. I think it does show, however, once you understand, how important the names of minor characters can be.

Here’s what I mean from The Hunger Games. Nothing can be more regrettable than the name Katniss. But we get the character notwithstanding. The Hunger Games is as strong as that strong character, and she is a remarkable one that you like. The story draws you into her struggle because of who she is. But the only thing worse than her name is the pet name she unfortunately has, Katnip. Then there’s Peeta. Whatever the thought process behind that name, the reader thinks: Well, she didn’t want to do Peter because they’re in the future, so she did Peeta, which is close but different. The effect, whatever Suzanne Collins intended, is in the reader to conjecture a kind of writerly laziness: it is a cheap name, and gives us nothing. Gale on the other hand, whether inadvertently or deliberately, suggests strength and steady if impetuous will. It does that without trying, and when you find the guy is like that, as a reader you’re pleased. It lends him much that doesn’t need to be described, and reinforces what the participating reader anticipates.

How much more if you do it with a minor character who does or says little, but enough, when you get a name that carries a lot of the character forward in the reader’s mind.

Pelican

“The simple fact was that in the context of the course that church doctrine was taking by that time, Montanism was obsolete and could not succeed or survive. Its principal significance for the development of church doctrine was to serve as an index to the gradual solidification of the church’s message and work, and to its inevitable need for fixed forms of dogma and creed.”
-Jaroslav Pelican

I’m enjoying Pelican and am really glad there are five volumes to this particular work. I hope they hold up. Southern requires his first volume of The Christian Tradition for their entrance essays, and I’m going to make an effort to get the others in before autumn comes dropping swift.

The insight above represents the kind of understanding you want to be able to achieve as a historian, should you ever become one. The quotation is his bare conclusion, but of course his book doesn’t just provide unsubstantiated conclusions; it leads up to them. Pelican proceeds by suspending judgment while he weighs the evidence and carefully excludes inadequate conclusions–as good historiography should, of course.

How do you persuade? That’s one of the fundamental questions. I enjoy how Pelican goes about it. Not that he always convinces me, you understand, but he opens the question up for consideration, and his writing is full of the possibilities for inquiry that are interesting to anybody inquisitive about the subject.

Teaching

What is the first law of teaching, and the last? I think it is that you have to try to make them want what you’re trying to give them. There are many other things, specially when it come to actually giving what you give, but at the moment I think this is the one that draws the line between a good and a bad teacher. The teacher that made me want the thing, was good, the one that failed was not destined to succeed at teaching much. And I think that if you don’t realize this, you are bound to be bad as a teacher. A student who doesn’t need you to do that, who wants it already, will learn from you, and you can stick around in some disciplines and subjects. And bad teachers take it for granted that that’s the student’s responsibility, because who can reach into anothers heart? And they’re partly right, but no enought. I think you’re on the way to being far more successful of a teacher if you know you have to try to make them want what you’re trying to give them.

Of course there are the ethics of it, which makes me think of advertising–though perhaps that’s too much of a mix. Advertising is like evangelicalism, opportunistic about its means. It knows you have to want whatever you’re going to get, and it goes about it in the quickest way. But a teacher cannot be opportunistic. Opportunism is not wisdom, and at least teaching ought to be on the side of wisdom. Opportunism is a kind of insight about means, but without the corresponding insight of the ends. And there are ways of wanting, some of which get at the thing, some of which handle it a little while and then lose the grip of true lasting interest. Some ways of wanting are only about the subject that wants, and do not nourish in that subject a desire that corresponds to the object, but only a transitory and desultory wanting that is continually vitiated, and requires endless change or deeper perversion.

Where there is no real cultivation of proper desire, who stands to gain, really?

Music

I often wish I could play skillfully enough to provide myself with live music. I can’t; I’m no hand at music at all. At one point in my life, by dint of practicing four or five hours a day for at least six months, I was able to bring several simple piano pieces to enough of a pitch to give a recital, but I didn’t at the time enjoy the music because of the labor of the performance. And I think on the whole the recital was a thing we all went through, rather than having any but the most minimal way a musical experience.

I don’t myself understand the impulse to sing. I enjoy listening to good singing, but don’t enjoy singing all that much. It is perhaps a matter of not being able to read music and a complete lack of skill. But something else, I sometimes think: you can’t get out of yourself to listen to your own voice, besides the work of doing it. You can listen to the piano you play, but you will never hear your voice the way others do, unless it is a dead recording. I personally think of a singer more as a servant that has to be appreciated by someone in the position of a master. Can one in singing achieve such complete self-detachment? I think it would be wonderful, but I wonder if at all possible.

I don’t know how singers think of themselves though. I’ve never really talked to a person who can sing well enough to impress me. Are they somehow mastering over the people they sing to? I hope some of them at least are happy to serve; I am happy to receive the service and render them honor for it. I wonder if some of them don’t think of themselves as wizards casting spells and enchantments, and in that way laboring earnestly at something recondite, difficult arcane lore.

Perhaps it is the same for those who perform with instruments. It is rewarding work, though the enjoyment is probably not the enjoyment of the listener who can be lost in the music. Can the performer be similarly lost? I think with instruments it ought to be more possible, though I really do not know. I don’t know a single person who is proficient at any instrument enough to enter into such a conversation, wondering. I suppose you would have to have extraordinary skill and then practice so much the piece became second nature. And then be lost in it, the body doing what unconsciously it knows, while the spirit wanders free in that conjured landscape, understanding, revealing and guiding the listener.

Ah well, it is not for me.

For the more burningly that a man loves, in so mickle he ascends to a higher reward.

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Forsooth some gainsetting say: active life is more fruitful; for it does works of mercy, it preaches and works other such deeds ; wherefore it is more meritorious. I say, nay, for such works belong to accidental reward, that is, joy of the thing wrought. And so one that shall be taken into the order of angels can have some meed that he that shall be in the order of cherubim or seraphim shall not have; that is to say joy of some good deed that he did in this life, the which another that without comparison surpasses in God’s love did not. Also ofttimes it happens that some one of less meed is good, and preaches; and another preaches not, that mickle more loves. Is not this one better because he preaches? No; but the one that loves more is higher and better, although he be less in preaching he shall have some meed, because he preached not, that the greater was not worthy of.

Therefore it is shown that man is not holier or higher for the outward works that he does. Truly God that is the Beholder of the heart rewards the will more than the deed. The deeds truly hang on the will, not the will on the deeds. For the more burningly that a man loves, in so mickle he ascends to a higher reward.

-Richard Rolle of Hampole

Hythe

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Looking up the reference in Tolkien from some days back, which I got wrong, I came across the word ‘hythe’. “On the bank of the Silverlode . . . there was a hythe of white stones and white wood.” Now there’s a word, I thought. I’d never noticed it before.

If you look up hythe you’ll see it is a variant spelling of hithe and find a gloss for it: harbor. When you look up hithe you’ll see it comes from Old Teutonic to Old English: hyđ. So that probably explains why Tolkien choses the spelling. They’re in Lorien, he wants the sense of an old place, he picks an obsolete word, gives it the older spelling, and works his magic.

It is a port, or haven, a small one, and usually on a river. English place names still retain the word; you can find some near Oxford, and Lambeth is the Lambs Hithe. I don’t need to point out how interesting it is to use this word at this point in the lives of these hobbits.

Then come the ropes, and Sam’s curiosity. He is told that the ropes are made of hithlain, which coming a few paragraphs after Hythe strikes one as connected. It is not: hithlain means mist thread. Still it sounds similar, doesn’t it? And the echo makes one wonder.

It made me think of mirrors, and the odd idea that the inner landscape of a mirror, so mysterious, is connected to that of all the rest. Perhaps not so odd an idea since really they all are: they all reflect the world we get around in and you can go from one to the other. But the idea of the mirrors being connected on the inside is compelling because it can get you to places though an unguarded portal. What if I could get into a mirror at home and come out of a mirror at Target?

Of course, nobody wants to go to Target by mirror, not for anything magical and wonderful. But one would like to come out in an interesting place full of danger and magic. And I think the echo in The Fellowship of the Ring, the sound of an unknown elven tongue echoing an obsolete English word, mirroring it with the suggestion that there’s something different beyond the edge of the frame is one part of the magic Tolkien works.

Turning Point

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Reading Mark Noll is not like reading Christopher Dawson or Henry Chadwick. When you read Dawson you are in the presence of a mind that has read and digested the primary sources. Dawson’s conclusions are his own, from being present where he should. In other words, his conclusions are not derivative.

Not that it is a simple thing. You try to tell people that studying the Bible is not the same as studying what the commentaries say the Bible says, and you will get those who think you’re against commentaries altogether. It has happened to me on this blog. But there is a quality to derivative conclusions that is real. The difficulty is of course that entirely original conclusions are rather suspect. We need the help of other people. But I think we need to come to terms not only with what other people have concluded, but with that about which they are drawing conclusions. Yes, you need help, and you need to be guided. But what about freshness? Vigor of engagement, penetration and understanding?

Noll struggles with that in his Turning Points, especially in the earlier parts. He’s getting better during the Reformation, which is characteristic of evangelical scholarship on the whole, I understand. But I think it is the same thing as the study of Scripture which we are supposed to be trained to do, and the study of the commentaries merely which those who perhaps don’t really understand or perhaps don’t really desire to attain what was being suggested in the more advanced language classes do.

Still, Noll has his uses. One of them is to provoke reflection. For example: he says that it is difficult to be completely objective about the subject of the rise of the papacy. Of course, he’s saying he won’t be, but there is the suggestion that he ought to be. It provokes thought, because he wants to be objective about a subject. I know we use language in many ways, but just go to the meaning of those words: objective about a subject.

I don’t think you can be objective about anything that isn’t an object. I don’t think you should even want to. I think there’s the difficulty: the rise of the papacy is an event. And perhaps here’s where I’m wrong, but what clarifies it for me is that objects are subject (!) to cause and effect. But a complex event like the rise of the papacy is the result of more than cause and effect. I know Noll knows this, but his language doesn’t seem to me to have gotten to the place where he deals with it as well as other historians might.

Scruton helps me there (subjects incarnate in the world of objects), and Lukacs: purposes, reasons, the things that move subjects incarnate in the world of objects, beside the causes bringing about effects on their bodies (Collingwood!). Ambitions, perceptions, conflicts of interest, thwartings, desire to see good carried out under unfavorable circumstances, pandering to monarchs, many such things! If you try to sort out the papacy as an object, objectively, you leave out the subjects, you leave out the reasons, you may fail to understand.

And it is Lukacs who provides the better term, though Collingwood would do. Understanding is what you’re after, not complete objectivity. What, after all, does complete objectivity provide? What? Understanding, on the other hand, needs no explanation.

Since 2005

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Do you know I’ve been providing quality blogging since 2005?

It’s the truth.

I’ve seen a lot of blogging go down in that time. Blogs come and go, and some abide.

Ten years! Nine more of those and you have a century. A hundred years ago Billy Sunday was going strong, basking in the peak of his fame and glory. A thousand years ago was the year of the great council at Oxford, King Knute went to Sandwich, King Ethelred lay sick at Corsham, and all the while Alderman Edric was up to his schemes.

I’ll probably be blogging about church history soon. Blogging provides you with observations. Here’s a few:

One thing Tom Shippey mentioned in a lecture I listened to recently was that Tolkien’s great theme is not death, it is loss. I think that is right.

One thing I’ve noticed is that sometimes people call–at my job–and because they are mad at the bank they want to punish me. It is my job to take it, apparently, though I don’t always. It is an education, sitting there figuring out why we feel like doing to the people who have to answer but not determine the things we do. Because somehow I have to there, unlike the comments here.

Look to what you hear, the Lord says. What draws you and why, why do you pay attention to what you do, and how. It reminds me of another thing Tolkien says through his elves when they’re telling Sam about the rope they make. They say they put much of what they love into the thing they make. I say we all do. We put much of what we love into the things we make. That is the tragedy.

Here is this blog, and me putting into it over 10 years much of what I love. And here you are, still reading it.

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