Reflections of the Unexamined Life

I think the woke moment has peaked. I really think it has reached the point where its enormity is obvious and more importantly, understood, expected, no longer puzzling or novel; I think it is palpably tarnishing. I conclude, therefore, that its appeal begins to diminish.

And so . . . what’s the next thing?

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Craig Carter fumbled his way into Twitter and soon mastered it. He’s not yet broken 1K followers, but he does the most interesting things. His book seeks to explain and to a certain extent popularize what you can get in an essay by Steinmetz from a while back. This last, has apparently been percolating through circles in which the procedure and method of the reformers exerts a gravitational pull.

He’s right on hermeneutics, you know. Premodern metaphysics calls for premodern approaches, and the issue of metaphysics is anterior to most other issues, as I was clearly taught at Central Seminary.

I’m, by the way, so glad I attended there. You come out with baggage anywhere you go, in the case of Central, curiously, dispensational. But I’d rather not be ignorant of issues anterior to others than otherwise. I’ve talked to people who can cross and recross Scripture and have mastered all the minutiae of Covenant Theology but are flaccid on their metaphysics and you can tell what is anterior. We either interpret with the tradition of the church through the ages, or we interpret with the tradition of our age.

You need to hammer out your epistemology.

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As anybody who pays attention knows, my attitude toward the USA is that it is grand in its enormities, and I find that grand. I’m not particularly pious when it comes to patriotism, perhaps because I grew up in another country. So I have enjoyed the Trump candidacy and presidency. A lot. And I look forward to more.

I will say, if Tulsi prevails in the Democratic field, I’m going to feel a conflict. Not because I think our president should be presidential. I think the president of the United States of America should be American, and there are few that do American the way el Trump does. The puzzling thing about the whole show is how few of the candidates have any strong appeal. I think it will be sane and interesting if she makes it, and the way these things go, you never know. But then, if she makes it, a lot of people are going to be feeling conflicted, won’t they?

You know what I don’t understand? People who get so worked up about it they can’t listen to the other side, or hear about things they don’t like in politics. Perhaps that is something that has always been the case, but it puzzles and intrigues me. Is there more of it these days?

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The whole thing with AI, space, China, the possibility of Interwebs . . . this decade is shaping up to be a good one. I enjoy Niall Ferguson on the present moment. All kinds of things are going to keep shaking out. Do we at last, for example, have a compelling reason to colonize the moon? That possibility grips me.

And just look at how the world has changed in past decades.

I got a smartphone for the first time last April, and then Google sent me an email showing me all the places I’d taken it to. I was actually told by someone that you can turn that off and if you do they won’t track you. Please! I’ve worked in a fraud department. The point of networking stuff is to have it available to you. The point of a cellphone is that it is always with you, with all its connections, both the ones you desire and the ones that are the price you pay for the things you desire. The way forward is not backward, it is not to treat cars like carriages or to ban the printing press.

* * *
Things are also left behind. All are lamenting the death of Roger Scruton, who shall not be alive for this decade. He was a bit of an enigma, but a good enigma and a very helpful person. I went to events with him twice, thanks to living near Princeton and Villanova. Had him in my sights at Princeton, but couldn’t think of anything to say, so I didn’t approach him. As a result I also have my own gentle regrets.

He has become, like the England for which he wrote an elegy, another of our ideals. And in that sense he will outlast many others.

DC

Not a bustling place like NYC is it? People scoot around, there’s about as many foreigners, traffic is lighter in DC, but then the density is down. And they’re not adding value.

I love that you can get MAGA hats on the corner next to the white house.

It is a far more monumented and better treed place, DC. Much cleaner than Philadelphia too. Is it that they have a limit on the height of the glass and concrete boxes that line the roads? Is it the south? There’s more of the skies, more of the branches, and more of the sun shining on the winters wheeling flocks of birds.

Washington DC is also laid out with all these diagonals and the circles they transect. The part I was in has a feel of a very new city. You see old architecture from time to time, but not like in Philadelphia or New York. I think they’ve torn down a lot of the old, for all that it is a newer city, and have put in the faceless boxes of the administrative state. It reminds me of the north of Bogotá.

Besides having all the embassies, they have all the restaurants in DC. Every chain, everything high end, altogether nothing is left out, unless it is the hole in the wall. None seen, no diners either.

They scanned me quite thoroughly for the Natural History Museum, but I breezed into the National Gallery. Why is this? The Natural History Museum doesn’t have Degas or Renoir. Perhaps that it is less thronged and much more like a museum in the Gallery.

Reading Scripture as One Who Seeks the Truth

They bring forward then their cavillings, and say, You allow Matthew is an Evangelist. We answer: Yes indeed, with a godly confession, and a heart devout, in neither having any doubt at all, we answer plainly, Matthew is an Evangelist. Do you believe him? they say. Who will not answer, I do? How clear an assent does that your godly murmur convey! So, brethren, you believe it in all assurance; you have no cause to blush for it. I am speaking to you, who was once deceived, when as in my early boyhood I chose to bring to the divine Scriptures a subtlety of criticising before the godly temper of one who was seeking truth: by my irregular life I shut the gate of my Lord against myself: when I should have knocked for it to be opened, I went on so as to make it more closely shut, for I dared to search in pride for that which none but the humble can discover. How much more blessed now are you, with what sure confidence do you learn, and in what safety, who are still young ones in the nest of faith, and receive the spiritual food; whereas I, wretch that I was, as thinking myself fit to fly, left the nest, and fell down before I flew: but the Lord of mercy raised me up, that I might not be trodden down to death by passers by, and put me in the nest again; for those same things then troubled me, which now in quiet security I am proposing and explaining to you in the Name of the Lord.

-Augustine, Sermon 1 on the New Testament

From an Interesting Book

Despite its many hypocrisies, the awful truth is that pro-slavery Protestantism was sincere and consistent. It is less a unique aberration than an example of Protestantism’s protean adaptability. Southern society needed a religious justification for slavery, so Protestants provided it. There was no central religious authority who could tell them that they were wrong, and when their national churches expressed qualms, they simply walked away. Pro-slavery Protestantism did not lose the argument; it lost a war. That catastrophe was accepted by most of slavery’s former religious defenders as divine judgment. The consensus came to be that they had failed to built a truly Christian slavery and had tolerated too many abuses. If some continued quietly to believe that slavery might sometimes be justified, they nevertheless accepted the reality that American slavery was gone.

-Alec Ryrie, Protestants

Quite a paragraph.

Quite a book.

The truth is that the Bible does not prohibit slavery, it regulates it. That’s a controversial statement, but Ryrie runs through the options and arrives at a similar conclusion.

One of the things that impelled the English Evangelicals in their push to abolish slavery was that the Americans won the revolutionary war. Surely a sign that God was not with England, as Ryrie, who likes to point out such ironies, remarks. Not long before, in the French and Indian war, the North American subjects of England had wondered if that moment had not come on them because of national sins. And, as the paragraph above demonstrates, Ryrie is making something of a theme of that idea. When America won the war with England, it meant God was on our side, obviously. He has a persistent, gentle and effective way of mocking what we often do.

Ryrie believes the Gospel ultimately opposes slavery, though the Bible does not. I think that is a statement calculated to make people uneasy. It depends on what you think the Gospel is. One question for Ryrie would be to wonder where he believes the Gospel comes from. Still, the man presents the dilemma neatly: either slavery is wrong and the Bible is too, or the Bible is not wrong and neither is slavery. You can see him running through the options and discarding all but these alternatives if you get the book.

This is the strongest example I’ve encountered of how Ryrie, himself a Protestant, impresses the historical record on his readers in the pages I’ve read. It is a rewarding book just for the challenges it presents. He makes you think, he questions accepted categories, and he makes it hard to argue with him. No doubt on this and other subjects he can be challenged. Here is the thing: he’s making sure the challenges are about consequential and not trivial matters.

Another Kingdom, by Andrew Klavan

Another KingdomThe success of this book depends on how much you expect. There are a lot of things that Andrew Klavan does right.

This is a book which takes place between two worlds, and the conceit of relating them is what the book is mainly about. Klavan writes about Hollywood, where reading books has been relegated to the periphery, where writers go to lose their souls, and where good stories are ruthlessly marginalized. It is a book about the power of a good story, and the navigation of two separate worlds is crucial for that.

Another thing he gets right is the transition from world to world. I have to say that it is difficult to judge a series in progress. Were you to do that with, say, Harry Potter, you may come up very wrong; you have to do all seven books to make the proper judgment there. There are things missing from this first volume, but it is a projected first volume. One of the things missing is a satisfactory sense of the magic involved in moving from one place to another, and so that is not what I mean when I say this is something he gets right. What he gets right is the surprise of the transition from one world to the next, abruptly, often, which gets the reader every time it gets the narrator. That is a skill at timing the events and pacing of the story that Klavan has mastered. If you read the book just for that, you will be very happy indeed.

Klavan seldom lets the pace that he has set for himself drop. There are obviously pauses in the narrative, but on the whole, it reads like a series of uninterrupted chase scenes mostly because it consists of a series of uninterrupted chase scenes. The hero of this story is a scrambler. Let me add that one of the things he gets very right, as might be expected, is also the humor. Klavan is funny. Klavan’s sense of humor is based on good timing and a sense of proportion that always appears when least expected. The wit, the self-deprecation, the banter, all the good things that entertainment has managed to keep for itself in our age, he squanders none of these away.

But many of the things that make for modern entertainment’s cheap illusions also distort this book. Klavan is engaging the culture wars over sex, gender, and traditional roles. He has shrewd insights to offer, and he places them exactly. He is doing the right thing in engaging these through powerful stories: that’s where the traditional side has the advantage, after all. But he squanders some of that advantage by the cartoonishness that he either can’t keep out or prefers to include. Again, the banter, the humor, he occasions in which relationships flower, these things are often yielded to cheap effects. If you are going to write about men and women, about traditional roles, your adversaries advantage is the sentimental, cliched, glamorized, cheaply sexualized approach of movies. I do think Andrew Klavan is in search of better expression, and I appreciate his boldness in taking the subject on: it needs to be. But his imagination is too Disney, too cartoonish, too much visualized in a pornographic age. I don’t mean to say his story is pornographic—though the chaste ecstasy in a pool full of nymphs is the most bizarre attempt at a positive catharsis yet attempted, following hard on the most bizarre and obvious attempt to portray defilement (as a chase scene) ever—but I do mean that this is not a story for your kids, nor is it free of troubling, cheap approaches to romantic love and sexual relations.

Klavan is doing more than just telling about events: he wants to gesture at things, to set up resonances in which meaning is heard. I do not think, however, that what he achieves is enough. There is one thing that he gets really wrong, and that is the complete absence of any real, deep, moving pathos. Dreadful things happen, and they happen like a movie, like a cartoon. It is all on the surface, so much so that even a sword thrust through the body remains on the surface, you might say. Heads are bitten off, and the emotions all pass in a blur, without atmosphere, in good, concentrated, car-chase style. A story should get deep into us, but that is the worst thing that Klavan does, or fails to do. It is all a bit ephemeral. There needs to bet a better sense of place, and by that I don’t mean L.A. The foil for L.A. is not much a foil for L.A., part of it being that the book sometimes seems an long attempt to instantiate the platonic ideal of the car-chase in as many diverse iterations as possible. He does this chase-thing well, but doing that is not enough! The characters are perhaps developing gradually over the course of several volumes, but they are not developing sufficiently over the course of one.

Perhaps I am wrong. The book goes fast. It does go fast indeed, and delivers punches and keeps you reading. Perhaps by the last book, however many are projected, the story will take on depth and luminosity. I hope it does. Perhaps all the chases are from the stage in our hero’s way that requires he escape before earning a pause to rest and think. Klavan knows how to put the parts of his story in order, he knows how to structure the suspense. I hope the other crucial elements of a good story are things his story can get as it goes along.

It is hard to write a good story. I’ve been trying for years and years, without success. I wish I could at least do what Klavan has. But if I had, I would also want people to tell me what is still wrong so that I could get it better. What he is attempting is worth better success.

Thanksgiving Hanover

The wind swept up from south to north, and it continues sweeping. The mess of leaves has been swept from my view, so I went to see where all the leaves had gone. Right now the trees whose leaves resemble linden trees on Baltimore and Carlisle are being done in by the wind–they’re fresh, bright yellow and shading to a metallic burgundy. Hardier trees than the ginkgos that were done in by the first frost and dumped all their leaves in mounds like colored shadow in a matter of hours, the leaves these trees leave are telling the wind’s ways through the local architecture.

Flags are part of the town, and the municipality’s flag is tangled, standing as it does in so many conflicting influences. Another flag fared worse, and was down among the leaves. It is that sort of irreverent wind, the kind that drives the patient empty garbage cans.

The leaves scatter back and forth like indecisive traffic at the main square of Hanover, where nothing is open except the constant traffic lights. They have a green light but they will not hurry though till the light goes red, such are the habits of leaves. They come in squadrons out of Baltimore and Carlisle, and the wind comes from Frederick, depositing the leaves in low diagonal mounds which often terminate on an entryway, nesting along the bottom step of the houses along Broadway.

Signs creak, clouds pass, the wind gusts.