Tales of Loida

Loida has bright, black eyes. She has a husky way of speech, dresses rather for activity than ostentation, and has a sense of humor. She likes to tell stories and she is always prepared. She looks after her mom and scolds her relatives when they take advantage of her.

She told me about Wilson. Wilson was a loose, rangy chap with a corrugated forehead that sloped back. He had thick features, a quick eye, and often a sudden, distant look. Very friendly, his teeth somewhat incomplete. His business was repackaging wholesale cereal and distributing it in the backways of the highlands. He’d fill his little truck and take the winding backways toward Villa de Leiva, Tunja, maybe Chiquinquira. All that windswept region of potato farming land. What roads he must have seen, what leaning out the window shouting, what soups he enjoyed, what yellow skin he must have gnawed of the boiled leg of a chicken, what stars and fogs, what dust and wind and rain.

He had a son of Anglo-Saxon designation: Wilfredo. Not a happy relationship, apparently. Nor was he happy in his business. His village clients didn’t pay regularly, and he kept supplying regularly, wracking up debts. Time wore on, he became infrequent in his attendance at church. He always sat upstairs and often left early, but usually after coffee. Loida’s mom asked if he was attending elsewhere; he denied it. Apparently, it was anxiety and stress. I talked enough to Wilson in my time to picture the frown, the look away, the rubbery, vague responses he would give.

Loida thinks the stress did him in. The compounded worry of enormous debt and his unhappy son. He checked himself into the hospital one evening, not feeling well. They gave him a bed where he died unattended of a heart attack in the early hours of the morning.

His faith was stretched in the circumstances. I hope it didn’t break, and that he fell asleep in Jesus, in hope of the resurrection of the dead. Rest in peace, Wilson my friend.

* * *

The federal police in Colombia wear green uniforms. The standard uniforms are a kind of olive drab, but the outer jackets and security vests are a bright, avocado green. So they call them the avocados. “Los Aguacates” I said, as Loida squeezed the little car into the open lane past a section of the road they had commandeered for checking people. I had only learned that the night before.

Loida commented that they had pulled her over in the truck recently, asked for her ID and so on, and then asked her to open up the back. “No sir,” she told them. “I’m not opening this truck for you. I know how you are! I know you’re just going to put something in there and then further up the way I’ll get stopped by some other police that will find it. I’m sorry, but I’m not opening anything up (Que pena, pero yo no les abro nada—she actually said). You set up a proper and legitimate post and I’d do it. But you’re not putting that over on me.”

And she stood up to them, and there was nothing they could do.

“You have to know what the procedure,” she told me. “They can’t be doing it without a proper post like we saw back there. One has to know how they can do it and the things they do. You have to be careful.”

Loida is fantastic. When one knows one’s way around in Colombia, one knows a considerable thing or two. Loida knows all those things. Every single one.

We sat across from her and her mom at the coffee shop, on the third floor of the Niza Boulevar. They had milkshakes that came with long spoons. They were the kind of spoons with nearly useless narrow, shallow bowls. They spooned their milkshakes slowly down, while we heard of life in Neiva down in Huila, where the heat is tremendous, and of Wilson, and several other affairs.

Continuities and Discontinuities

Sounds like a post on dispensationalism, doesn’t it? It is a post about historiography, and so it is a post about hermeneutics, and if dispensationalism is principally a hermeneutic, then there is no wonder that it sounds like a post on dispensationalism. It was a hermeneutical and historical issue for the early church to distinguish themselves from the OT economy without separating themselves from the OT message, after all.

I’m studying the period known as the modern church in most periodization, which in terms of what I need to know can also be described as the American church (the other periods leave it out, so perhaps it is only fair). The American church begins with the puritans in the 17th century, leads into that struggle over its heritage of the 18th century as experience gains prominence and collides with doctrine, as the resulting kaleidoscope highlights one thing and another and you come into the modern sensibility of what were then first called Evangelicals. The great awakening is when they take the stage, and it really is a watershed.

You can tell it was because preaching changed. The history of homiletics seems to me a useful one for marking some of the most important changes in Christians’ sense of what their religion is. One of the things that would spark awakening in New England was exchanging pulpits, which seems like a very curious fact. It was also the time for the introduction of a greater informality not only in venue but also in manner of preaching, and this of course led to a flowering of informality in worship and adherence. Here, then, is a study in continuity and discontinuity.

Individualism, for example, is often bandied about. One of the reasons that Benedictine monasteries were allowed to grow and thus grew up in Europe the Christian civilization without which the Reformation would not have taken place was that there was a weak sense of the individual in the early middle ages. If a person could have monks on his land praying and doing holy things, then it was really perceived as a spiritual benefit to him just by virtue of his connection. It cannot all attributed to superstition but was in large part due to a weak sense of the individual. If you read C. S. Lewis’ Discarded Image you’ll get an idea of the connectedness that the premodern notion of the cosmos encouraged.

Emerging from an animistic cosmos into one more deterministic and mechanistic meant strengthening the sense of the individual which had been simmering along in the Renaissance and in humanism. A person who is cut off from his connections stands more alone. The protestant doctrine of justification by faith alone strengthened it also, coming as it did from the nominalist world in which declarations and power were the overriding realities, a world of a profoundly legal character. When you go to the law you are no longer in a world of presiding ontologies, you are in a world of relating persons.

Relations require individuation, and the more immediate and newly forensic soteriology of the protestant reformation, as opposed to the mediate and mainly ontological soteriology of the medieval church, leads eventually to the logic of personal conversion, and a further individualism of personal experience, and to a further individualism of personal preference and taste, and so on.

Empiricism is another factor. No Nominalism, no empiricism, as Heiko Oberman has argued. Once you dismiss the overriding reality of the invisible, then you affirm the overriding reality of the visible, and you turn to it with all your philosophy. The trajectory is suggested in Roger Scruton’s quip about the Enlightenment being a form of light pollution. The Enlightenment is the exclusion from consideration of anything violating the Nominalist prejudice. Attention was focused on the visible; that is, the lights were turned on and turned up so that the stars were no longer visible. The stars of metaphysical reality were relegated to the land of fairy, and the result was a boon in applied science by which modern man defends all his ignorance.

The epistemology of Nominalism is experimental. Not surprisingly, then, as Aristotle’s instrument of education is abandoned for Bacon’s new one, you also get in theological circles a concern for experience. It begins to overshadow doctrine because it is part of the bias of its underlying and presupposed Nominalism to be empirical. So you begin to see Pietism, and Preparationism, and experimental Calvinism.

What strikes me as interesting in experimental Calvinism is that Jonathan Edwards takes a Lockean sensualism and psychology and does more than merely idealize or ‘spiritualize’ it. It is common for people with Nominalist assumptions to think that metaphysical realism is nothing more than a premodern idealism. No doubt the exact nature of realism and idealism and that continuity and discontinuty is something more than less characterized by confusion in our times. What, after all, is mind? What was it for Edwards? As Ahlstrom comments about The Nature of True Virtue, “One who consults it now can see clearly how Edwards’ highest thought moved out of the realm of Lockean psychology and into the great tradition of Christian Platonism.”

Great tradition indeed!

And that is my point. How are these things to be interpreted? Mercersburg theology held that the Reformation was the flowering of the best medieval piety, which is a way of accenting the continuities, the way the Oberman – Steinmetz – Muller – historiography is once again doing . . . with discontinuities. There can’t be history, there can’t be an account of how one things develops, or breaks with, or comes after in an intelligible way without continuity or discontinuity. The question is which do you accent. And why.

Those that are, those that might be, those that never will be, and those about which I cannot tell.

I will often walk over to Half-Wit. It is laid out so that I can start with the science-fiction paperbacks, and so I usually do. And when I do, a memory arises of happy days spent reading some of these very paperbacks.

I remember that I used to drink tea with milk and sugar all the time when I was a kid. I had a largish mug that one day broke when I fell while cleaning it, which was then kindly replaced for me with an even larger mug–the stein kind of thing with enameled foam perpetually overflowing it. Those were happy afternoons of reading, specially during the rainy season in Mexico City.

And I remember, as I glance over the spines, the joy of so many perfect books. There are books I can’t find anymore I remember once reading and enjoying a lot. One was by Tanith Lee and all her stuff looks like trash to me now, but there was one about a guy who had to use a skull as the sounding board on his harp; can’t find it anymore, but I have good if cloudy memories of it.

I have, however, grown reluctant to go searching for finding those perfect books now, and it is seldom–compared with how much time I look over them–that I even take a book from the shelf, let alone read it. Some of it is that that part is over. I could enjoy more then because I was not as critical as I now am. I think it is part of the melancholy of wisdom. Perhaps you think that should not be regretted, it may be that my melancholy is sentimental–though I doubt it; it is not a desire still to think substandard books are perfect, but the realization of how few there really are.

I’ll always read the Lord of the Rings as a perfect book, and even The Hobbit, wishing for no change (Tolkien’s opinion to the contrary notwithstanding). There are still afternoons ahead for me of those. But there are no longer afternoons, I think, ahead of me enjoying The Elfin Ship or The Disappearing Dwarf, or Elizabeth Boyer’s Scandinavian stuff. There are some of those I don’t regret not having anymore: David Eddings, for example (which, come to think of it, I most spent my youth with). The fourth posture is ambivalence at the memory: Neil Hancock, for example. I don’t know if I would or would not like that back.

Is it the idea which could be perfected? Is it not like Harry Potter which is fine though perhaps a revised edition would be better, and like the Hunger Games where a revised ending and revised grammar and punctuation would raise it to a perfect book? I think that’s why I end up with four categories: because there are four things in my memory when I’m looking at the rows and rows of spines. Those that are, those that might be, those that never will be, and those about which I cannot tell.

Swimming

I must have been five years old, perhaps less. It is my first memory of a sleepless night. Sleepless with anticipation. I remember dreaming of concrete cisterns overflowing with clear, brownish water, stained orange and ochre. I think I dreamed of brown waters from another memory of bathing in a brown river—but I do not know if the brown river came before that day of swimming. I remember the anticipation I more clearly than the day itself. All that night I longed for the wetness of it, the happiness it undoubtedly would hold. When we got back I could still feel myself moving in the water as my muscles relived the memory of a day which I cannot now remember.

When I was 12, somewhere in New York state

The name Whitehurst brought to me the smell of a summer house. I remember about it a lake in New York and blue skies above it. We stayed on the top or perhaps the third storey of the farmhouse, my brother and I: a wide space, sloping walls under the roof, a long room. The smell was the peculiar smell of heat and wood and pungent like sawdust, but not fresh sawdust.

It is a vivid memory coming to me in the night, and I regard it. I remember there was a dog there: Meg. She had a tennis ball that she would chase. I remember throwing it for her, throwing it into the lake and watching her fetch it back all wet. I remember first observing how her lips were black, and the edges on the side sagged out and had regular ridges. She was a black dog, gentle, perhaps a dog for herding sheep.

The sailboat on the lake we swam in; the creek must have come out of it for I remember a bridge over it with a part all covered over so the sheep that had to walk on it would not know it was a bridge—that was explained; a vaguer memory of the large farm house; the moment we were shown where our towels were; that is all . . . but that we stopped there for a VBS and one project was to collect pennies. And I remember drinking cool-aid in a kitchen at the church, the walls of painted cinder block.

The name Whitehurst is not at all part of the memory, and I do not know why it should have awakened in me the memory of the smell that brought the rest