6 October 2006 - Friday

Two constitutionalisms in the 18th century

Three theories competed to explain the British constitution in the 18th century: divine right, the original contract, and the ancient constitution.

Most of us are familiar with the "divine right of kings," of course, so I won't bother to elaborate on that. The second theory in this list, the "original contract," was the belief that the British constitution was the result of a social compact, an agreement by which the people had handed over some of their freedom to a government so that it would protect their interests. Last, the "ancient constitution" was the belief that Britain was governed according to venerable customs; the people had liberties, but these liberties were theirs because of historical precedent rather than because of natural rights.

According to H.T. Dickinson, the first of these theories began losing importance after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and had largely disappeared from British thought by the middle of the 1700s. The second, articulated most notably by John Locke around 1690, gained the support of some radicals in the second half of the 18th century but was not very influential in the first half. The last theory, the ancient constitution, was the only one to receive "overwhelming support" during the 1700s, even among Whigs.

Yet although the original social contract was a minority view in Britain, it seems to have had widespread following on the other side of the Atlantic during the same period. Bernard Bailyn notes that Enlightenment natural-rights theorists, including John Locke, were so widely accepted by the time of the American Revolution that "everyone, whatever his position on Independence or his judgment of Parliament's actions, cited them as authoritative." Right up to the time that independence was declared, American loyalists rarely rejected the views of Locke, Montesquieu, Voltaire, "or even Rousseau"; in fact, sometimes they cited Locke to justify their loyalism. By the 1760s, it seems, the colonists generally accepted a contractarian account of government -- a view that was still relatively unusual in the home country.

I'm going to cite several 18th-century American sermons and political pamphlets to illustrate that discrepancy and trace the influence of the social contract theory in the colonies during the century. I think I have an explanation for the early and widespread acceptance of contractarianism in America. Two factors in particular seem to be responsible for allowing the language of contract to capture the colonial imagination so easily: Puritan covenant theology in New England, and colonial experiences with self-government. These elements facilitated the enthusiastic reception of Lockean ideas, and thereby helped to create a distinct American view of the British constitution.

Continue reading "Two constitutionalisms in the 18th century" below the fold . . .

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19 September 2006 - Tuesday

Fixing Tolkien

A week ago, Peter Chattaway spread the word that not only does MGM still exist after all; it is hoping to make "one or two installments of The Hobbit" within a few years, probably with Peter Jackson.

Two days ago, Chattaway found proof of his suspicion that this is a very bad idea.

Jackson hadn't actually been approached with the idea by the studio, apparently, when he did this interview. And he claimed to be too busy to do The Hobbit anytime soon, if anyone did ask him. But here's what he would do if he were asked to direct the film:

If I was doing The Hobbit I'd try to get as many of the guys back as I could. I mean, there's actually a role for Legolas in The Hobbit, his father features in it, obviously Gandalf and Saruman should be part of it. There's things that you can do with The Hobbit to bring in some old friends, for sure. I have thought about it from time to time ... Elrond, Galadriel and Arwen could all feature. Elves have lived for centuries. Part of the attraction would be working with old friends. I wouldn't want to do it unless we could keep a continuity of cast. [...]

Yeah, we're supposed to be writing The Lovely Bones, but of course Phil, Fran and I read the thing on the net and spent most of this morning talking about The Hobbit. We think the two film idea is really smart. One of the problems with The Hobbit is that it is a fairly simple kids story, and doesn't really feel like The Lord of the Rings. Tonally I mean. It's always may be a little worried, but with two films that kinda gets easier. It allows for more complexity. At that implied stuff with Gandalf and the White Council and the return of Sauron could be fully explored.

That's what we talked about this morning. Taking The Hobbit and combining it with all that intigue about Sauron's rise, and the problems that has for Gandalf. It could be cool. That way, it starts feeling more like The Lord of the Rings and less like this kids book. You could even get into Gollum's sneaking into Mordor and Aragorn protecting The Shire. That's what we'd do. Love to work with Viggo again.

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17 September 2006 - Sunday

"God is not pleased," addendum

I suppose my previous entry failed to address, at least directly, the charge actually aimed at Benedict XVI by most Western critics. That charge seems to be simply that the inflammatory Manuel II Paleologus quotation was unnecessary, whether or not Benedict personally agrees with the Byzantine emperor.

Now, unless the pope is a liar, he does not agree with Manuel in thinking that Mohammed brought into the world only "things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." But since I cannot prove that the pope is not a liar, I will content myself with asking myself whether the quotation was necessary.

And I conclude that yes, it was necessary. Or rather, it was much more responsible of the pope to include it, in some form or another, than it would have been to exclude it.

In any kind of intellectual history, it is essential to understand what a thinker was arguing against in order to understand what he was arguing for. In this case, as long as Benedict wanted to highlight Manuel's argument for rationality and toleration at all (and I happen to think it was a cool thing to highlight), he had to place it in an historical context.

If he had not mentioned that Manuel II Paleologus was making a Greek and Christian argument against the ideas of a Persian Muslim, the pope would have done little justice to Manuel's thought. So I find it astounding that some otherwise historically-minded people are claiming that Benedict should have censored the upsetting bits out of his intellectual history.

Are there any other topics that a religious leader should shy away from when talking about the worldviews of past thinkers? Should we be making a list?

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16 September 2006 - Saturday

"God is not pleased by blood"

Benedict XVI seems to have outraged people again. And once again, some people who were not personally offended are getting offended on behalf of other people.

I find this situation very strange. The pope is now being criticized for saying that Christianity is more peaceful and reasonable than Islam, an allegation that seems to offend many Muslims. Many secular observers seem to think it was bad form for Benedict to say this. Perhaps I am missing something, but isn't it generally a good thing to have religions arguing over which is more peaceful and reasonable?

Here's how the pope's remarks, delivered at a university in Bavaria, unfolded [please see the update at the bottom of the post for a significant qualification]:

That even in the face of such radical scepticism it is still necessary and reasonable to raise the question of God through the use of reason, and to do so in the context of the tradition of the Christian faith: this, within the university as a whole, was accepted without question.

I was reminded of all this recently, when I read the edition by Professor Theodore Khoury (Münster) of part of the dialogue carried on - perhaps in 1391 in the winter barracks near Ankara - by the erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and an educated Persian on the subject of Christianity and Islam, and the truth of both. It was presumably the emperor himself who set down this dialogue, during the siege of Constantinople between 1394 and 1402; and this would explain why his arguments are given in greater detail than those of his Persian interlocutor. The dialogue ranges widely over the structures of faith contained in the Bible and in the Qur'an, and deals especially with the image of God and of man, while necessarily returning repeatedly to the relationship between - as they were called - three "Laws" or "rules of life": the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Qur'an. It is not my intention to discuss this question in the present lecture; here I would like to discuss only one point - itself rather marginal to the dialogue as a whole - which, in the context of the issue of "faith and reason", I found interesting and which can serve as the starting-point for my reflections on this issue.

In the seventh conversation edited by Professor Khoury, the emperor touches on the theme of the holy war. The emperor must have known that surah 2, 256 reads: "There is no compulsion in religion". According to the experts, this is one of the suras of the early period, when Mohammed was still powerless and under threat. But naturally the emperor also knew the instructions, developed later and recorded in the Qur'an, concerning holy war. Without descending to details, such as the difference in treatment accorded to those who have the "Book" and the "infidels", he addresses his interlocutor with a startling brusqueness on the central question about the relationship between religion and violence in general, saying: "Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached". The emperor, after having expressed himself so forcefully, goes on to explain in detail the reasons why spreading the faith through violence is something unreasonable. Violence is incompatible with the nature of God and the nature of the soul. "God", he says, "is not pleased by blood - and not acting reasonably is contrary to God's nature. Faith is born of the soul, not the body. Whoever would lead someone to faith needs the ability to speak well and to reason properly, without violence and threats... To convince a reasonable soul, one does not need a strong arm, or weapons of any kind, or any other means of threatening a person with death...".

The decisive statement in this argument against violent conversion is this: not to act in accordance with reason is contrary to God's nature. The editor, Theodore Khoury, observes: For the emperor, as a Byzantine shaped by Greek philosophy, this statement is self-evident. But for Muslim teaching, God is absolutely transcendent. His will is not bound up with any of our categories, even that of rationality. Here Khoury quotes a work of the noted French Islamist R. Arnaldez, who points out that Ibn Hazn went so far as to state that God is not bound even by his own word, and that nothing would oblige him to reveal the truth to us. Were it God's will, we would even have to practise idolatry.

At this point, as far as understanding of God and thus the concrete practice of religion is concerned, we are faced with an unavoidable dilemma. Is the conviction that acting unreasonably contradicts God's nature merely a Greek idea, or is it always and intrinsically true? I believe that here we can see the profound harmony between what is Greek in the best sense of the word and the biblical understanding of faith in God.

Now, I agree that Benedict, citing Khoury, is oversimplifying Muslim beliefs. Islam is not monolithic; it has multiple rich traditions of Quranic interpretation. As Juan Cole points out, some of these traditions actually played a central part in the development of Catholic scholasticism. And surah 2:256 cannot be explained away as easily as Benedict's "experts" tried to do.

However, we should also remember that European Christian impressions of Islam have always been shaped by memories of Muslim wars of conquest, just as the Crusades have tended to shape Muslim impressions of Christianity. Benedict is highlighting one medieval Christian's philosophical response to that context. That response was a rejection of violence as a means of conversion.

The fact is, Benedict was describing a book he read recently. He was using it as "the starting-point" to discuss faith and reason, tracing (however imperfectly) developments in the relationship between Christianity and philosophy across the centuries. And in a world where both Muslims and Christians have frequently been guilty of religious coercion, is it not encouraging to hear the pope denounce religious violence as "contrary to God's nature?" And is it not encouraging that Muslim spokesmen around the world are implicitly agreeing with him?

If the pope's speech is significant for its characterization of Islam as violent, then this controversy is silly because the characterization is nothing new. (Kuwaiti politician Haken al-Mutairi is particularly mistaken in calling Benedict's remarks "unaccustomed and unprecedented." Nothing could be less true; in fact, the question is only in Benedict's speech because it was an important part of a debate in the 14th century!) On the other hand, if the address is significant because it stresses that tolerance and reason are mandated by the law of God, then the controversy is a very healthy sign. I could get used to having religions try to outdo each other on tolerance and rationality, I really could.

All that is left is to criticize the pope for oversimplifying Islamic philosophy -- just as he necessarily oversimplified every other perspective that shows up in the speech. The Vatican has admitted as much, and Benedict seems to have been genuinely displeased to find his address interpreted as an attack on Islam. In fact, here's how his speech ended:

Only thus do we become capable of that genuine dialogue of cultures and religions so urgently needed today. In the Western world it is widely held that only positivistic reason and the forms of philosophy based on it are universally valid. Yet the world's profoundly religious cultures see this exclusion of the divine from the universality of reason as an attack on their most profound convictions. [...] It is to this great logos, to this breadth of reason, that we invite our partners in the dialogue of cultures. To rediscover it constantly is the great task of the university.
How many other "profoundly religious cultures" do you think Benedict had in mind, if he was somehow excluding Islam from his "genuine dialogue of cultures and religions"?

Update: According to Horace Jeffery Hodges, the Vatican's preliminary English translation of the pope's remarks tends to obscure the extent to which Benedict tried to distance himself from the words he was quoting. In the original speech, Benedict emphasized that Manuel II spoke "with an astonishing brusqueness, for us an astounding brusqueness, bluntly" and that he "expressed himself so very forcefully."

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14 September 2006 - Thursday

The wisdom of the ancients

One of the more obvious tendencies of the American revolutionary generation was a penchant for classical references. Of course, the republican vibe worked well with allusions to Greece and Rome, and American writers resorted frequently to ancient history for evidence in favor of their positions.

Every once in a while, I find myself sympathizing with one Martin Howard, Jr., a loyalist who in 1765 chastised another American pamphleteer:

But there is something extremely weak and inconclusive in recurring to the Grecian and Roman history for examples to illustrate any particular favorite opinion: If a deference to the ancients should direct the practice of the moderns, we might sell our children to pay our debts, and justify it by the practice of the Athenians. We might lend our wives to our friends, and justify it from the Example of Cato, among the Romans. In a word, my dear Sir, the belly of a sow, pickled, was a high dish in ancient Rome; and I imagine, as you advance in the refinements of luxury, this will become a capital part of a Rhode Island feast, so fond you seem of ancient customs and laws.

Instead of wandering in the labyrinth of ancient colonies, I would advise his honour to read the debates in parliament in the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-three, when Mr. Partridge, your agent, petitioned the commons against the then sugar-bill; he will there find more satisfaction upon the subject of colonies, than in Thucydides's history of the Pelopennesian war.

"A Letter from a Gentleman at Halifax," in Tracts of the American Revolution 1763-1776, ed. Merrill Jensen (Bobbs-Merrill, 1966; reprint by Hackett Publishing, 2003)

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10 September 2006 - Sunday

Carried away

Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) is by turns fascinating, amusing, irritating, and utterly boring.

Particularly in its first 50 pages or so, the book articulates vividly the general principles of Burke's conservatism: "A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors. Besides, the people of England well know, that the idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation, and a sure principle of transmission; without at all excluding a principle of improvement." These pages make for good reading, even as Burke attacks his English opponents rather more forcefully than one might think necessary.

However, in his passion, Burke keeps writing much longer than necessary. And in his enthusiasm for the old order, he occasionally seems to lose his wits entirely. When he suddenly turns to the topic of the Queen of France (about 75 pages into my copy of the book), all good sense gives way:

It is now sixteen or seventeen years since I saw the queen of France, then the dauphiness, at Versailles; and surely never lighted on this orb, which she hardly seemed to touch, a more delightful vision. I saw her just above the horizon, decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in, -- glittering like the morning-star, full of life, and splendour, and joy. Oh! what a revolution! and what a heart must I have to contemplate without emotion that elevation and that fall! Little did I dream when she added titles of veneration to those of enthusiastic, distant, respectful love, that she should ever be obliged to carry the sharp antidote against disgrace concealed in that bosom; little did I dream that I should have lived to see such disasters fallen upon her in a nation of gallant men, in a nation of men of honour, and of cavaliers. I thought ten thousand swords must have leaped from their scabbards to avenge even a look that threatened her with insult. But the age of chivalry is gone. That of sophisters, economists, and calculators, has succeeded; and the glory of Europe is extinguished for ever.
Were Louis still in a position to do such a thing, one suspects he might have wanted to keep an eye on Mr. Burke.

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4 September 2006 - Monday

Spoken word

Just this evening, I ran across a podcast series from the University of Sydney. The list of speakers is promising; I've been listening to a lecture by Quentin Skinner (MP3), who is presenting a "genealogy" of British and German concepts of individual freedom. I recommend it.

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21 July 2006 - Friday

A permanent state of mutual self-defense

"I don't approve of mixing ideologies," Ivanov continued. "There are only two conceptions of human ethics, and they are at opposite poles. One of them is Christian and humane, and declares the individual to be sacrosanct, and asserts that the rules of arithmetic are not to be applied to human units. The other starts from the basic principle that a collective aim justifies all means, and not only allows, but demands, that the individual should in every way be subordinated and sacrificed to the community -- which may dispose of it as an experimentation rabbit or a sacrificial lamb. The first conception could be called anti-vivisection morality, the second, vivisection morality.

"Humbugs and dilettantes have always tried to mix the two conceptions; in practice, it is impossible. Whoever is burdened with power and responsibility finds out on the first occasion that he has to choose; and he is fatally driven to the second alternative. Do you know, since the establishment of Christianity as a state religion, a single example of a state which really followed a Christian policy? You can't point out one. In times of need -- and politics are chronically in a time of need -- the rulers were always able to evoke 'exceptional circumstances,' which demanded exceptional measures of defence. Since the existence of nations and classes, they live in a permanent state of mutual self-defence, which forces them to defer to another time the putting into practice of humanism. ..."

-- Arthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940, trans. Daphne Hardy)

The novel is based on the Moscow Trials, in which leading original Bolsheviks were purged by Stalin's regime. In this scene, Ivanov is a cynical interrogator trying to persuade a prisoner (the "sacrificial lamb") to confess for the good of the state.

I find this scene intriguing because in the irony of Ivanov's soliloquy, the author may be trying to do one of two different things. Perhaps the author agrees with his character that a mixture is impossible, and therefore is arguing for absolutely deontological and individualistic ethics; or perhaps he agrees with his character that deontological ethics cannot be implemented consistently, and so is arguing that there must be a mixture of ethical principles in government.

In the former case, the passage would be thoroughly moralistic, libertarian, and pacifistic. In the latter case, the passage would be an argument not as much for individual rights as against inflexible ideology. (Either way, of course, the author rejects Ivanov's absolute consequentialism and statism.)

Given what I know of Koestler's life, and given the paradoxical title of the novel (it was Zero and Infinity in France), I am inclined toward the latter interpretation.

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11 July 2006 - Tuesday

Bulwer-Lytton 2006

The results of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced! The contest honors the memory of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, the writer famous for this opening salvo:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
The winners of the contest are those who submit the most impressive "opening sentence to the worst of all possible novels."

Jim Guigli won the grand prize this year:

Detective Bart Lasiter was in his office studying the light from his one small window falling on his super burrito when the door swung open to reveal a woman whose body said you've had your last burrito for a while, whose face said angels did exist, and whose eyes said she could make you dig your own grave and lick the shovel clean.
(HT: UD)

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Ah, those celebrated French writers

Today, reading America's Appeal to the Impartial World, a 1775 sermon-pamphlet attributed to Moses Mather, I came across a line that struck me as strangely familiar:

Most justly then did a celebrated French writer, treating of the English, and the excellence of their constitution, say, that England could never lose its freedom, until parliament lost its virtue.
I'm not totally sure who Mather had in mind, but I hazard a guess that it was Montesquieu. But that sentence reminded me of that infamous Tocqueville "quotation":
America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
I doubt that there is any direct connection between the two. In fact, in context, the two epigrams have almost opposite meanings. Mather's parliamentary "virtue" is a long way from Pseudo-Tocqueville's popular "goodness." And while Mather is emphasizing the importance of political institutions, Pseudo-Tocqueville is actually denigrating it.


The English constitution, like other imitations of nature, was a system of consummate wisdom, and policy, the balance of power, being so judiciously placed, as to connect the force, and to preserve the rights of all; [...] and no laws could be made, or taxes imposed, but such as were necessary, and in the judgment of the three estates in parliament, for the common good, and interest of the realm. Most justly then did a celebrated French writer, treating of the English, and the excellence of their constitution, say, that England could never lose its freedom, until parliament lost its virtue.
I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers -- and it was not there ... in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there ... in her rich mines and her vast world commerce -- and it was not there ... in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution -- and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits flame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.
The sentiments expressed in the latter are quite different from the analysis presented by Mather (who I think, again, was borrowing from Montesquieu).

But I wonder if the similarity is due to a deeper connection. Perhaps we can view both passages simply as the cognitive stepchildren of the old classical and humanist doctrine that personal "virtue" (however defined) is the key to political success. In that case, we could easily assume that the Tocqueville quotation gained so much acceptance not because it is unusually perceptive, but rather because it is so ordinary.

Or maybe the American collective unconscious just likes attributing that sort of thing to the French.

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10 July 2006 - Monday

Dun dun dun!

An article from USA Today:

As a waypoint on the ancient Silk Road, the metropolis of Palmyra had it all, broad towers, impressive temples and enviable trade. Water from local wells even contained fluoride, limiting that scourge of the ancients -- tooth decay.

But just as the wealth of Palmyra vanished, leaving behind ruins in the Syrian desert, a new study suggests its waters may also have been ruinous in the end for the city's inhabitants. [...] the Palmyrans' symptoms, along with discolored teeth, point to "fluorosis," a skeletal and enamel-damaging syndrome caused by ingesting too much fluoride over a long time, the researchers note.

No doubt certain sorts of people will find this story highly significant. Partly for that reason, I wish the opening paragraphs were not so melodramatic; readers could easily get the impression that fluoride caused the city's fall.

Via Mirabilis.

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9 July 2006 - Sunday


This morning, I had a brief exchange with an odd person. Having spoken with this person before, I knew I could expect odd things. In this case, our conversation took an unexpected historiographical turn.

He asked about my school situation. I explained that I'm now out of college and will pursue a doctorate in history. He nodded. Then he developed a facial expression suggestive of indigestion.

"History's good," he said, very seriously. "Just don't try to rewrite it."

I could not recall expressing any particular desire to do such a terrifying thing. But he continued, "History is what it is." That seemed to end the conversation, as far as he was concerned. He headed for the door.

I could hardly have argued with that last comment. History is, indeed, what it is. So are poetry and the moon and bunny rabbits and paint swatches.

Thinking things over after he left, I came up with how the conversation should have gone. "Just to clear things up, sir, which history do you forbid me to rewrite?" I would have asked. The one where the Confederate states seceded to protect slavery, or the one where they were lodging a protest over tariffs? The one where John Kerry was decorated for valor, or the one where he was practically a draft dodger? The one where thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were imprisoned wrongfully, or the one where that measure was justified by American national security?

I have a strong hunch about which position he would take on each of those questions. And in each case, his hypothetical version of history is the newer one, the one written as a partisan backlash against the dominant interpretation.

Who started this "revisionist history" meme, anyway? And why do so many electricians and accountants think they can tell me how to be a proper history student?

Just to set things straight as well as I can: The past does not change except by piling up. History, however, is a flawed human attempt to imagine what the past was like (in terms we can understand today), and to explain how it got that way. Until our historians reach omniscience, history will remain open to revision.

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7 July 2006 - Friday

Martin Luther on liberty

After looking at Thomas Aquinas' reading of Romans 13:1-7 yesterday, I wanted to examine a competing interpretation today. So I picked up my copy of Martin Luther's Commentary on Romans and turned to the appropriate chapter.

(Unfortunately, my copy is not a great text. I am using a translation by J. Theodore Mueller [1959] that was prepared primarily for devotional reading. It will have to serve for now.)

Whereas Thomas, in his Commentary on the Sentences, interprets Romans 13 as requiring obedience only to the legitimate commands of legitimate authorities, Luther here allows no such room to maneuver. He dismisses the idea that the passage applies only to certain kinds of rulers, or applies only under certain conditions. Instead, he takes the opening verse as a seal of divine recognition on all earthly authorities:

The powers that be are ordained of God (13:1). [...] for there is no government that is not instituted [by God]. Governments are only usurped and managed in ways not ordained. So also other blessings are misused, and yet do not lose their value. Money, for example, does not become evil through theft. Hence we must explain the words thus: Wherever there is governmental power, there it is instituted by God. That is, wherever governments exist, they are ordained solely by God. The meaning is the same as: "There is no power, but of God." Therefore, where powers exist and flourish, they exist and flourish because God has ordained them.
I find the monetary analogy interesting because I am not sure it supports Luther's case at all. That is, we do not have to recognize a bearer's claim to stolen money; so why should we recognize a bearer's claim to usurped power? (Also, Luther's remark that money is inherently a blessing seems suspect, given such New Testament passages as Matthew 6:24 and 1 Timothy 6:10.)

Yet while Thomas, in his Commentary on the Sentences, is determined to reconcile Scripture with the community's right to earthly liberty, Luther is determined to demonstrate that Christianity provides a superior type of freedom altogether. He interprets Romans 13 according to his conviction that political liberty is not a proper concern for Christians. The faithful already have a spiritual freedom that liberates them, as it were, from the need for civil freedom. The paragraph quoted above follows this:

By faith the Christian makes all things subject to himself; for he is neither ruled by them, nor does he put his trust in them. He compels them to serve his glory and salvation. That is what it means to serve God and rule as kings. That is the spiritual rule, of which we read in Revelation 5:10: "Thou hast made us unto our God kings and priests: and we shall reign on the earth."

The world is conquered and subdued in no better way than by despising it. The spirit of the believer therefore is subject to no one, nor can it be subject to anyone. It is exalted with Christ, and all things lie subdued at his feet. The "soul" is the same as the "spirit" of man, but inasmuch as it lives and works, and serves the visible world and earthly things, it must be subject "to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake" (1 Peter 2:13). By this subjection it obeys God and desires the same as God. By this subjection it overcomes the temporal world even now.

So the command of Romans 13 should not be feared as a potential source of slavery but instead embraced as a source of liberation from worldly concerns.

To understand why Luther defends the prerogatives of temporal government so strongly, however, I think we must move a little further on in the commentary. It appears that Luther is not concerned with the behavior of individual Christians, nor with the potential for popular rebellions, as much as with the behavior of the Catholic Church. In his discussion of 13:4, Luther begins a direct assault on worldly churchmen:

One is amazed at the impenetrable gross darkness that prevails today. There is nothing that angers the clerics, these widely opened mouths avariciously coveting temporal things, more than when the freedom of the churches, with their rights, their possessions and their powers is attacked. Against such transgressors they hurl their anathemas. They declare them to be heretics and publicly and with an alarming arrogance condemn them as enemies of God, of the Church, and of Peter and Paul. [...] One's transgressions may even cry to high heaven; nevertheless, he is a most pious Christian, as long as he protects the rights and liberties of the Church. But if anyone should ignore them, then he is no longer a faithful son and friend of the Church.

This practical application to present-day circumstances is very profitable for the understanding of the text.

Indeed. It seems that the "rights and liberties of the Church" are an important reason for Luther's insistence that Christians must submit completely to civil rulers. He is not thinking about the loss of the republics in Greece or Rome. He is thinking about the corruption of the Church, and the secular authorities' loss of sovereignty, in his own day. The result is his defense of sovereign secular power as a divinely ordained institution.

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6 July 2006 - Thursday

Thomas Aquinas on the right to resist

I think the one New Testament passage that has caused the most trouble for Christian political philosophers -- especially those who spend much time on the dangers of tyranny -- over the centuries, is Romans 13:1-7. These verses, addressed to a persecuted Christian minority in the first century, seem to command absolute submission to earthly rulers:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. (ESV)
Many theologians have interpreted this as requiring Christians to submit to every governing official in every particular, refusing to obey only when commanded to commit a sin. Of course, this interpretation prohibits any form of organized resistance or revolution. This view is still influential; I have occasionally heard evangelical Christians discuss anxiously whether the American War for Independence was a violation of Romans 13. (I hasten to add that the War for Independence is nevertheless very popular among American evangelicals.)

Thomas Aquinas also addressed the questions raised by this passage. I think we can see how a medieval analysis like his, reconciling classical political theory with the New Testament, could be important to later Christian revolutionaries. In the 1500s, in fact, some of the more radical Protestants resorted to arguments the scholastics had been using for centuries, as an alternative to the original and highly inconvenient Lutheran condemnation of popular resistance. I am not even slightly qualified to analyze scholastic thought, but I'm going to try anyway.

In his Commentary on the Sentences of Peter Lombard (book 2, dist. 44, quest. 2, art. 2), Thomas takes due note of the command in Romans 13. But he writes that this biblical injunction applies not to just anyone with coercive power, but only to authorities that meet certain conditions and thus actually derive their power from God. (That is, he defines Paul's "authorities" so that Romans 13:2a is a tautology.) He helpfully offers an explanation of factors that may render an earthly ruler illegitimate:

But, as we have already said, authority may fail to derive from God for two reasons: either because of the way in which authority has been obtained, or in consequence of the use which is made of it.

There are two ways in which the first case may occur. Either because of a defect in the person, if he is unworthy; or because of some defect in the way itself by which power was acquired, if, for example, through violence, or simony or some other illegal method. The first defect is not such as to impede the acquisition of legitimate authority; and since authority derives always, from a formal point of view, from God (and it is this which produces the duty of obedience), their subjects are always obliged to obey such superiors, however unworthy they may be. But the second defect prevents the establishment of any just authority: for whoever possesses himself of power by violence does not truly become lord or master. Therefore it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority; except in the case that it subsequently became legitimate, either through public consent or through the intervention of higher authority.

With regard to the abuse of authority, this also may come about in two ways. First, when what is ordered by an authority is opposed to the object for which that authority was constituted (if, for example, some sinful action is commanded or one which is contrary to virtue, when it is precisely for the protection and fostering of virtue that authority is instituted). In such a case, not only is there no obligation to obey the authority, but one is obliged to disobey it, as did the holy martyrs who suffered death rather than obey the impious commands of tyrants. Secondly, when those who bear such authority command things which exceed the competence of such authority; as, for example, when a master demands payment from a servant which the latter is not bound to make, and other similar cases. In this instance the subject is free to obey or disobey.

To clarify Thomas' discussion, I have prepared a simple flowchart. In my chart, the various questions and their answers lead, eventually, to a determination either that disobedience is permissible or that it is sinful. (One of the questions, the one asking whether disobedience would cause more problems than it would solve, technically comes from several other places in Thomas Aquinas' works. However, I believe the qualification is consistent with the passage quoted above.)

Anyway, I find it interesting that this passage does not make any clear distinction between the right to disobey passively and the right to resist actively. This stands out to me, of course, because that distinction has been vitally important to some other Christian theorists. On the contrary, Thomas here conflates disobedience and revolution. He asserts that rulership obtained through violence is illegitimate: "it is permissible, when occasion offers, for a person to reject such authority," and furthermore (citing the story of Julius Caesar a few sentences after the passage quoted above), "in such a case, one who liberates his country by killing a tyrant is to be praised and rewarded." Thomas certainly does not go out of his way to differentiate between tyrannicide and less drastic forms of disobedience.

This is because the key question for him is simply whether a particular ruler is legitimate -- that is, whether the ruler is actually a ruler under the meaning of Romans 13. If a ruler is legitimate, then Christians must obey (to the extent that the ruler's commands are also legitimate); if not, they may disobey without violating Scripture. Because Thomas reads classical theory into the text, furthermore, illegitimacy and tyranny are closely related ideas in his system. His central concern is not to detail exceptions to God's command, but rather to justify the belief that tyranny is not covered by Romans 13 at all. He does this in part to reconcile Romans 13 with other New Testament passages that seem to him to guarantee liberty to baptized Christians (such as Matthew 17:26).

Taken together with other writings by Thomas, this passage implies that only rulers who actually protect the good of the people are legitimate in God's eyes. Thomas later wrote elsewhere that "the welfare of the community" is the reason for a ruler's authority (Summa Theologica quest. 42, art. 2; cf. De Regimine Principum book 1, ch. 15). A reader might be forgiven for inferring, therefore, that to make commands contrary to the public welfare is to make commands contrary to "the object for which that authority was constituted" -- which, according to the text at hand, nullifies such commands' legitimacy. So rule harmful to the community is not rule at all. In such cases, disobedience may even be a moral obligation.

Also interesting is the implication that, at least in some cases, popular consent is the means by which divine authority is conferred upon a temporal ruler. In the event of usurpation, Thomas writes, the usurper need not be obeyed as God's representative -- unless a higher temporal ruler or public approval later establishes that authority as legitimate. So while the express consent of the governed may not be necessary to establish a proper (God-given) government, it is not an entirely irrelevant concept, either.

My quotations come from the translation of J.G. Dawson, in Aquinas: Selected Political Writings (edited by A.P. D'Entrèves, 1959). I have added paragraph breaks.

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3 July 2006 - Monday

Christians at the movies

"Novels and movies were once generally suspect in evangelical eyes," according to a Marvin Olasky article in this week's World, "but now the emphasis is on discernment." To celebrate such cultural involvement, Olasky asked 30 influential evangelicals to list their favorite contemporary films and books.

The results might be surprising. As much as conservative Christian publications like World tend to complain about the prevalence of the R rating in Hollywood, it seems many of the people they admire actually enjoy that sort of fare.

The respondents -- including preachers, screenwriters, and journalists -- named a total of 97 different film titles. Of these movies, according to my tally, the largest number have R ratings. In fact, the less family-friendly a film's classification, the more likely the title is to be on the list at least once. Here is the breakdown:

G -- 4

PG -- 24

PG-13 -- 29

R -- 34

No US rating -- 6

I bet World is going to get some nasty letters from families who go out and rent Magnolia or Eternal Sunshine after reading that article.

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2 July 2006 - Sunday

How to write tendentious history

Bias and spin in historical writing are very big topics in the blogosphere, so I have decided to write down some helpful tips for anyone trying to get started as a Partisan Historical Hack. I'm not sure anyone could follow all of these suggestions ... but I'm sure someone has tried.

* First, make no effort to develop historical research and interpretation sensibilities apart from your particular ideological project. Jump right in.

* Evaluate the reliability of any source according to whether it corroborates your opinions.

* Make no distinction between facts and interpretation. In any case, remember that the truth of the latter determines the truth of the former.

* Assume that ulterior motives lie behind the work of any scholars who disagree with you.

* Project today's political battles onto your ancestors' lives.

* Use nice round numbers. Then round them again. With enough rounding, any number will support your position.

* Either adopt a position of total relativism or ignore context altogether. Switch sides as appropriate.

* Blame historical figures for failing to take into account what you know but they did not.

* Remember that a lack of acceptance or publicity is always evidence of a conspiracy.

* When characterizing your opponents' work, employ the term "revisionist" a lot. At the same time, obsess over how wrong the conventional understanding is.

* Remember that "left," "right," and other sweeping political labels always provide accurate insight into individual opinions. Everyone within the Left or the Right thinks and acts alike, for all practical historical purposes.

* Always think of yourself as politically incorrect. At the same time, always think of your detractors as fringe radicals.

* If you must read the things your opponents write, read only the stuff that uses the most pejorative language. This will provide inspiration and spice up your prose, as well.

* Never, ever consider the remote possibility that your detractors are intelligent people speaking in good faith.

Anybody have other suggestions?

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28 June 2006 - Wednesday

Pen pals

Ian Hacking describes "the pen-friend approach to the history of philosophy":

A few heroes are singled out as pen-pals across the seas of time, whose words are to be read like the work of brilliant but underprivileged children in a refugee camp, deeply instructive but in need of firm correction.

Philosophy in History, 103.

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25 June 2006 - Sunday

An observation

It can be strangely difficult, even in the age of the Internet, to find intelligible explanations of certain concepts in historiography -- especially concepts that tend to go by longish German names. A Google search supposedly limited to English-language sites tends to return only German-language results -- and not particularly relevant-looking results, at that.

If even Google can't find it, how am I supposed to understand it?

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23 June 2006 - Friday

Patronizing our elders

In an essay collected in Philosophy in History (Rorty, Schneewind and Skinner, eds., 1984), Richard Rorty distinguishes among different genres of the history of philosophy. He argues that there are multiple valid ways to approach past thinkers. First, he notes that it is often helpful to avoid anachronism when reconstructing the work of a philosopher:

There is nothing wrong with self-consciously letting our own philosophical views dictate terms in which to describe the dead. But there are reasons for also describing them in other terms, their own terms. It is useful to recreate the intellectual scene in which the dead lived their lives -- in particular, the real and imagined conversations they might have had with their contemporaries (or near-contemporaries). There are purposes for which it is useful to know how people talked who did not know as much as we do -- to know this in enough detail so that we can imagine ourselves talking the same outdated language. [...] There is knowledge -- historical knowledge -- to be gained which one can only get by bracketing one's own better knowledge about, e.g., the movements of the heavens or the existence of God. (50)
That seems reasonable enough, although plenty of his contemporaries would object to Rorty's "better knowledge" about God's existence. But Rorty goes on to advocate an ahistorical approach in addition to the genuinely historical approach described above:
But we also want to imagine conversations between ourselves (whose contingent arrangements include general agreement that, e.g., there are no real essences, no God, etc.) and the mighty dead. We want this not simply because it is nice to feel one up on one's betters, but because we would like to be able to see the history of our race as a long conversational interchange. We want to be able to see it that way in order to reassure ourselves that there has been rational progress in the course of recorded history -- that we differ from our ancestors on grounds which our ancestors could be led to accept. The need for reassurance on this point is as great as the need for self-awareness. We need to imagine Aristotle studying Galileo or Quine and changing his mind, Aquinas reading Newton or Hume and changing his, etc. We need to think that, in philosophy as in science, the mighty mistaken dead look down from heaven at our recent successes, and are happy to find that their mistakes have been corrected. (51)
This is tangential to Rorty's purposes for the article, but I want to quibble. I see a problem here. Such "rational progress" in philosophical history is a fiction. I think Rorty implicitly admits as much, but I seem to differ from him by thinking that this fiction tends to be a harmful one. At least where prescription and spiritual matters (rather than empirical science) are concerned, we should not imagine that ignorance accounts for the differences between us and our predecessors.

The history of republicanism might be a useful illustration of the danger. There has been no sure progress in republicanism over the centuries. Generalizing grossly for the sake of convenience, I could say that the ancient Romans believed in republican government; so did the 15th-century Italians; so did the 17th-century English. But each of these groups faced opposition from viable philosophical opponents, even within its own ranks, and each favored republicanism for a different reason. Furthermore, the 20th-century Russians, claiming to represent historical progress, embraced a republican model that quickly turned into the most absolute autocracy ever seen. Me, I would happily swallow whole the worldviews of any number of medieval philosophers before I would adopt that particular modern philosophy. And I would disagree with anyone who claimed to see rational progress from the more ignorant Locke to the more knowledgeable Marx. Yet that is exactly what many Marxists claimed to see.

This is not to say that progress -- improvement of the ideas considered orthodox in a society or even considered correct by individual thinkers -- never happens; I simply believe that it does not happen reliably, and encouraging ourselves to believe in it is counterproductive. Progress is no more helpful a concept than degeneracy; both let us write thinkers off too easily. When we say that philosopher X was wrong about question Y, it is rarely wise to flatter ourselves with the notion that it was only because of ignorance of what we now know. Even if we do need such "reassurance," as Rorty says, I think we should resist the urge.

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21 June 2006 - Wednesday

Language, empire, and hope

Interestingly enough, Augustine's City of God includes a passage (XIX.7) that begins as a reflection on the diversity of human languages, and ends as an apparent condemnation of imperialism.

The passage falls in the middle of book XIX, which discusses "the opinions of the philosophers regarding the supreme good, and their vain efforts to make for themselves a happiness in this life." According to Augustine, the world's different languages produce political divisions that frustrate any efforts to achieve universal temporal peace:

And here [in the world], in the first place, man is separated from man by the difference of languages. For if two men, each ignorant of the other's language, meet, and are not compelled to pass, but, on the contrary, to remain in company, dumb animals, though of different species, would more easily hold intercourse than they, human beings though they be. For their common nature is no help to friendliness when they are prevented by diversity of language from conveying their sentiments to one another; so that a man would more readily hold intercourse with his dog than with a foreigner. But the imperial city has endeavored to impose on subject nations not only her yoke, but her language, as a bond of peace, so that interpreters, far from being scarce, are numberless. This is true; but how many great wars, how much slaughter and bloodshed, have provided this unity!
So Augustine says that peaceful intercourse (which he takes as the goal of human government) is impossible without a common language, but the Roman empire imposes a common language by force, which itself thwarts the cause of peace in the world. He continues:
And though these [wars of conquest] are past, the end of these miseries has not yet come. For though there have never been wanting, nor are yet wanting, hostile nations beyond the empire, against whom wars have been and are waged, yet, supposing there were no such nations, the very extent of the empire itself has produced wars of a more obnoxious description -- social and civil wars -- and with these the whole race has been agitated, either by the actual conflict or the fear of a renewed outbreak. If I attempted to give an adequate description of these manifold disasters, these stern and lasting necessities, though I am quite unequal to the task, what limit could I set?
So the imperial effort to impose peaceful government outside Rome is, paradoxically, producing new wars all by itself. This, to Augustine, is clearly an evil:
But, say they, the wise man will wage just wars. As if he would not all the rather lament the necessity of just wars, if he remembers that he is a man; for if they were not just he would not wage them, and would therefore be delivered from all wars. For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing party which compels the wise man to wage just wars; and this wrong-doing, even though it gave rise to no war, would still be matter of grief to man because it is man's wrong-doing. Let every one, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils, so horrible, so ruthless, acknowledge that this is misery. And if any one either endures or thinks of them without mental pain, this is a more miserable plight still, for he thinks himself happy because he has lost human feeling.
So even when war is just, it is never desirable; the fact that war is sometimes permissible should not make anyone feel better about it, since it is not actually a solution to human problems. Ultimately, war merely substitutes one problem for another, and the fact of just war should be a painful reminder of the world's evils.

These paradoxes, Augustine says (in XIX.1), show that it is "evident, not only from divine authority, but also from such reasons as can be adduced to unbelievers, how the empty dreams of the philosophers differ from the hope which God gives to us, and from the substantial fulfillment of it which He will give us as our blessedness."

Update: Nathanael Robinson provides a more nuanced description of the spread of Latin among subject peoples.

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11 June 2006 - Sunday


Pixar's latest release has been getting mixed reviews. Most critics like it, but a few have been very harsh in their appraisal. I tried to keep an open mind when I watched it in the local theater yesterday.

I am not telling people not to see the movie. On the contrary, many people love it, and I agree that the film is fairly good in the middle and has lots of beautiful scenery. The problem is that the movie starts shallow and ends maudlin, and the characters mostly seem pretty flat.

In short, the problem is that Cars is an animated sports movie. It follows the traditional pattern of all sports movies, indulging in clichés throughout. Here is the plot: Lightning McQueen is a rookie racecar with a lot of star power and a ridiculous ego. En route to a career-defining race in California, he gets lost in the desert, winding up in a nearly deserted old town that lies on the legendary Route 66. There, he learns that respect and friendship are more important than glory, and that ignorant hicks can be wonderful human beings -- er, sentient automobiles. After that ... well, I don't want to give away the ending, but it has something to do with lots of cheering fans.

Let me explain in more detail the problems in this plot.

First, because the film opens in the middle of a race, the narrative gets off to a bad start. Our introduction to three of the main characters, including the protagonist, comes from the inane chatter of the television commentators at the racetrack. It takes a long time for the movie to dig any deeper than that into the Lightning's mentality; for much of the film, he is a depressingly two-dimensional automobile.

Second, what makes the poor start worse is the fact that Lightning is not a very sympathetic character. In fact, he is a manifest jerk. We know he's a jerk from the beginning, but he does not. So we really don't care for him much until he finally figures out that this is a bad thing -- about an hour later. Meanwhile, the only reason the filmmakers give us to care about him is the same celebrity aura that makes him so annoying in the first place.

Third, the protagonist is not the only character who could use more depth. Some of the other cars are stock characters from children's movies. We have the world-weary mentor -- two of them, really -- as well as the spunky young female with a crush on the bad boy. Still other characters are predictable because of their packaging: the VW van is a hippie, the Jeep is a drill sergeant, and the lowrider is Latino. That's about all we know about them. These cars are cute, but Pixar's greatest successes have been due to less predictable characters: paranoid monsters, sharks in rehab, unionized superheroes, cowardly tyrannosaurs, thrill-seeking turtles.

Fourth, a related problem: because every living thing in the movie is a car or some other form of transportation, the Cars ecosystem lacks the diversity it needs to sustain interest. There are only so many ways to spin puns from automotive work. Every character consumes the same things; each has roughly the same mission in life; each shares the same basic design. The film thus lacks the rich variety of the best Pixar productions.

Finally, Lightning's eventual moral transformation is too abrupt, and the end of the film is overdone. These scenes have occasional traces of originality, but not enough.

The film is very pretty, and it has a lot of clever bits. But with this film, I think, Pixar made the same mistake that George Lucas made when he started playing around with CGI: they let spectacle overwhelm verisimilitude. Cars is full of gorgeous scenery and exciting effects, but a lot of it is a distraction from the storytelling.

I do think the desert portion of the film was based on some great ideas, though. I fervently wish the execution were better; a sort of Finding-Nemo-meets-The-Last-Picture-Show story could have been brilliant.

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8 June 2006 - Thursday

I think I am becoming a god

According to the LA Times (get a login here if you need it), the state of Florida has ordered American historians to be infallible and omniscient.

"The history of the United States shall be taught as genuine history and shall not follow the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth," declares Florida's Education Omnibus Bill, signed by Gov. Jeb Bush. "American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed."
Uh ... we'll get right on that. Just as soon as we figure out what the heck the "revisionist viewpoint" of history is.

Update: An important correction to the article is here.

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31 May 2006 - Wednesday

Unfortunate associations

I recently started on Quentin Skinner's The Foundations of Modern Political Thought, which is a study of medieval, Renaissance, and Reformation political philosophy. So far, I've been reading Skinner's analysis of 12th-15th century Italian scholarship, observing the efforts of the city republics to explain their resistance to papal, imperial, and plutocratic domination. I've reached and nearly finished the chapter on the Florentine Renaissance; next up is "The Age of Princes."

And you know what? Several times over the last few days as I've sat with the book, I've gotten the urge to watch The Godfather. Isn't that terrible? Apparently I think almost exclusively in terms of an unfortunate stereotype of Italian culture. I cannot read a book with names like "Bruni" and "Salutati" and "Pico della Mirandola" without also thinking of Michael and Vito. It's disgraceful.

In my defense, of course, one could easily argue that the brutal patronage politics of medieval Italy were not much different from the system depicted in the movie. Very little separates the Five Families from medieval dynasties.

In related news, Lee has been posting photos from a recent trip to Italy at verbum ipsum. Rome is here, here, here, here, and here. Florence is here and here.

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28 May 2006 - Sunday

Conflict and comprehension

In the recent Patrick Henry College controversy, the central theme of the dispute was not necessarily academic freedom, although that's what outsiders (including me) talked about the most. The central question for those actually involved was the proper Christian attitude toward the liberal arts. Two PHC professors, Kevin Culberson and David Noe, chose that topic for a student magazine article they wrote just before resigning.

The doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture, they told the PHC community, does not mean that evangelicals can ignore outside thought. On the contrary, "the majority of the knowledge we need comes to us from God's grace revealed in nature, and the bulk of that through the efforts of irreligious and ungodly men." Therefore, the liberal arts are valuable as a way to find freestanding sources of truth, not just pagan material to contrast with the Bible.

When I first read the article, I got the odd feeling that many conservative Protestants would bristle at its language even as they obey its spirit in their everyday lives. Anyway, the article seems pretty reasonable to me. What I like most in it, however, comes at the very end. I like this because it brings to mind my experiences with evangelical students.

When we examine the writings of any author, professed Christian or otherwise, the proper question is not, "Was this man a Christian?" but "Is this true?" Nor should we spend much time looking for points of disagreement. Rather we should focus on taking what has been rightly said and submitting it to the service of Christ.

It violates Christian charity when we delight in identifying those points at which pagan authors depart from the Scriptures. Is there really any profundity in concluding that Plato or Vergil did not know Christ? How much better is it to see that God has not left himself without witness among all peoples, we would say especially among the Greeks and Romans. If from the lips of infants and children he has ordained praise, and the stars themselves, though mute, declare the glory of God, day after day pouring forth speech, is it not true that in all aspects of the liberal arts God has revealed his glorious knowledge for our benefit?

In that last paragraph, I think, lies the heart of the problem. I can easily imagine the discussions that might have led Culberson and Noe to write this plea.

In my experience, many of my fellow evangelicals, although they may think they are willing to interact with the ideas of non-Christians, are actually pretty patronizing. As the authors hint above, many take pleasure in pointing out the shortcomings of any unorthodox philosophy. To such people, anything out of line with their interpretation of the Bible is by definition absurd; it is to be dismissed with ridicule and Bible verses. "How could anybody possibly think that?" they wonder.

And yes, to some of them, observing that a Spinoza or Goethe or Derrida was not exactly Chalcedon-compliant would seem like insightful philosophical analysis. They have no ability to step into someone else's worldview for a moment, to understand how people reach different conclusions. They lack the humility to recognize that someone's work can be brilliant even when they don't agree with it. As a result, they also often lack the ability to tell when a particular Christian is not being brilliant.

But I don't think this problem is unique to us evangelicals, nor do I think the problem is a religious one. I'm just observing the problems I see closest to home. Pretty much everybody is susceptible; we all tend to get uptight about something or another. And as another blogger noted some time ago, a lot of people just don't seem to be able to appreciate cool arguments for their coolness.

I think that's terribly sad. God made the human mind far too beautiful, even in all its decay, for us to disparage the variety and intricacy of its work.

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18 May 2006 - Thursday

Marsiglio of Padua

One political theorist who has attracted my attention lately is Marsiglio (or Marsilius) of Padua, a fourteenth-century writer. For his time, Marsiglio had a remarkable understanding of human society -- a republican, or perhaps more accurately, a contractarian understanding.

In any society, Marsiglio believed, the citizens are the proper ultimate source of legislation. Civil government exists to protect the community's temporal happiness, so the communal will is a better determinant of law than a particular will is. Rulers, according to this view, derive their authority from the election of the citizens.

His 1324 work Defensor pacis (possibly co-written by John of Jandun) appeals to Aristotle for support:

We declare, according to truth and the opinion of Aristotle, the legislator, or the prime and proper effective cause of law, to be the people or the whole body of citizens or its weightier part, commanding or deciding by its own choice or will, expressed verbally in a general assemblage of the citizens, that something be done or omitted concerning the civil actions of men, under a temporal punishment or penalty. I say the weightier part, taking into consideration both the number of persons and their quality in the community for which the law is enacted.

The whole body of citizens, or its weightier part, either makes law directly or commits this duty to some one or few; the latter do not, and cannot, constitute the legislator in the strict sense of the term; they act only in such matters and for such periods as are covered by the authorization from the primary legislator. [This translated excerpt is from Francis William Coker's Readings in Political Philosophy (Macmillan, 1938); I have added paragraph breaks.]

The geopolitical context of Marsiglio's work was a dispute between Pope John XXII and Ludwig of Bavaria. Ludwig imagined himself emperor. John had other opinions, and as pope, he declared Ludwig's authority void. (This conflict, by the way, is the backdrop of Umberto Eco's novel The Name of the Rose.) Marsiglio took the side of the emperor, denying the authority of the pope to interfere in civil government.

Ludwig became Marsiglio's patron. John, on the other hand, condemned the writer as a heresiarch in 1327. It is not difficult to see why. First, Marsiglio applied his governmental model even to church governance -- replacing the authority of popes and councils with "the common consent of Christians," denying the Petrine succession of the papacy. Furthermore, he denied that the Church rightly possesses any temporal authority:

... Neither the Roman bishop, called the pope, nor any other bishop, presbyter, or deacon, ought to have the ruling or judgment or coercive jurisdiction of any priest, prince, community, society or single person of any rank whatsoever. ... Christ Himself did not come into the world to rule men, or to judge them by civil judgment, nor to govern in a temporal sense, but rather to subject Himself to the state and condition of this world; that indeed from such judgment and rule He wished to exclude and did exclude Himself and His apostles and disciples, and that He excluded their successors, the bishops and presbyters, by His example, and word and counsel and command from all governing and worldly, that is, coercive rule. [This translated excerpt is found here.]
It is not particularly easy to locate online resources on Marsiglio. Here's what I've found:

+ An excerpt from Defensor pacis
+ The conclusions of Defensor pacis
+ The condemnation by John XXII
+ An entry at Wikipedia
+ An entry in The Columbia Encyclopedia
+ An unflattering Catholic Encylopedia entry
+ Lecture notes by R. J. Kilcullen

In preparing this entry, I also referred to Coker's book (cited above) and an article by Cary J. Nederman: "Marsiglio of Padua," in David Boucher and Paul Kelly, eds., Political Thinkers (Oxford, 2003).

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14 May 2006 - Sunday

Jaroslav Pelikan 1923-2006

Word is circulating that Jaroslav Pelikan, the greatest contemporary church historian, died yesterday of lung cancer. He was 82. According to OrthodoxWiki, the funeral will happen Wednesday.

My first contact with Pelikan's work came in the form of this lecture: "The Predicament of the Christian Historian."

No historicism about the West and no exoticism about the East could excise that specific history, the history of Jesus and of the movement that came out of his life and message, from the history that had produced the members of [Adolf von] Harnack's audience at the University of Berlin in 1900, who could be and were ignorant of it but who could not be and were not unaffected by it in a fundamental way. As he put it in his opening words, "The great philosopher of Positivism, John Stuart Mill, once said that the human race cannot be reminded often enough that there was once a man named Socrates. He is right, but it is more important to go on reminding the human race that a man named Jesus Christ once stood in their midst."

But there was a more substantive and fundamental reason as well: the history of Jesus and of his message carried that force also because his sayings and parables uniquely "speak to us through the centuries with the freshness of the present." ...

Was it "the Christian historian" as historian or "the Christian historian" as Christian, perhaps even "the Christian historian" as theologian, who was speaking in pronouncing such judgments? It is the predicament of the Christian historian to live in that tension; for, as I have suggested elsewhere, every historian must be a polyglot, speaking one or more of the dialectes of "past-ese" and simultaneously communicating to contemporaries in "present-ese."

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13 May 2006 - Saturday


As expected, I went to the UT Press tent sale with my father yesterday. I spent a couple of hours at the "hurt books" tables, gently pushing my way between other shoppers to get to the tables in the first place, then waiting for the pack to move so that I could survey new sections of the merchandise. I balanced a heavy box of books on one arm, using the other arm to pluck promising books from the piles. The hurt books, by the way, were generally new but slightly damaged; they cost $3 per paperback and $5 per hardcover.

Said al-Andalusi (trans. Semaan I. Salem and Alok Kumar), Science in the Medieval World: "Book of the Categories of Nations"

Wm. Roger Louis, ed., More Adventures with Britannia: Personalities, Politics and Culture in Britain

Bernard Gordon, Hollywood Exile: or How I Learned to Love the Blacklist

Michael Gagarin and Douglas M. MacDowell, trans., Antiphon and Andocides

Donald Margulies, Nora Glickman, Elise Thoron, Ari Roth, Corey Fischer, Jeffrey Sweet, Motti Lerner, Marilyn Clayton Felt, and Jennifer Maisel, Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays

Pinchas H. Peli, Torah Today: A Renewed Encounter with Scripture

Harry Huntt Ransom, The Conscience of the University, and Other Essays

Daniel Dinello, Technophobia! Science Fiction Visions of Posthuman Technology

Julius Getman, In the Company of Scholars: The Struggle for the Soul of Higher Education

T. H. White, The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to The Once and Future King

Tony Mendoza, Cuba -- Going Back

Susan A. Spectorsky, trans., Chapters on Marriage and Divorce: Responses of Ibn Hanbal and Ibn Rahwayh

Joseph H. Hobbs, Mount Sinai

After exhausting the tent sale, we headed to Half Price Books for some additional speculation.

An Evening in Paris (music CD)

W. H. D. Rouse, trans. Great Dialogues of Plato (Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Ion, Meno, Symposium)

Fernand Braudel (trans. Richard Mayne), A History of Civilizations

The Book of Common Prayer

Roy Porter and Mikluas Teich, eds., Revolution in History

Alvaro de Silva, ed., The Last Letters of Thomas More

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3 May 2006 - Wednesday

Summer is coming! Summer is coming!

I have an idea. Since school is ending (permanently, for some of my visitors) here's an opportunity to share ideas for summer reading. What books are you likely to borrow from the local library? What's sitting on your shelf right now, waiting to be consumed? We can even expand the concept of "reading a text" to include watching films, listening to the radio, and so on.

For example, my list includes:

+ the rest of The Satanic Verses
+ the rest of Political Thinkers
+ something at the Texas Shakespeare Festival
+ Cato's Letters
+ Why Study the Past?
+ lots and lots of NPR

Feel free to add your own picks -- whether you think you'll actually get to them or not. This is a chance to think wishfully, if need be.

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25 April 2006 - Tuesday

Still don't get it

Now that I've finished reading The Da Vinci Code, I am no closer than ever to understanding the hubbub surrounding the book.

First, I do not entirely understand the novel's popularity; the writing is not uniformly bad, but it is never really good. I suppose I can appreciate the book as a cheap thrill. I won't deny being entertained as the book progressed, but there are better novels to read. I have several within arm's reach right now. They are crying out for my attention.

Second, I do not understand how anyone could mistake the book's speculations for legitimate scholarship. For goodness' sake, the novel's leading "historian" actually identifies (p. 234) the Dead Sea Scrolls as heterodox Christian gospels. That's about like having a scholar casually remark that the Declaration of Independence was drafted by Napoleon Bonaparte.

Third, because of such shoddiness, I still cannot get myself worked up about the book in quite the way many other Christians can. Sure, I recognize that some members of the public seem to be embracing Brown's ideas ... and I suppose that means the church should be prepared to respond somehow. But I can't help thinking that the only response that will do any long-term good is to teach people what real scholarship looks like. I'm afraid any immediate apologetic campaign we can come up with is just going to be that much more publicity for the franchise -- publicity that could encourage the public to take the book's allegations seriously, as the academic world simply does not.

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19 April 2006 - Wednesday

The Da Vinci Code

This semester, I'm in a course that covers the development of Arthurian romance in general and of the Grail legend in particular -- from the twelfth-century stories of Chrétien de Troyes to contemporary iterations like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The course has been pure joy for me, although I don't think it's quite what some members of the class expected.

Now we have arrived at The Da Vinci Code, which, I am told, is the reason this course was offered in the first place. (The film adaptation comes out two weeks after the semester ends.) So I am actually reading The Da Vinci Code -- assuming "read" isn't too strong a word for the process involved.

The last two contemporary novels I read were by Umberto Eco, and I am in the middle of another by Salman Rushdie. The shock of going directly from those to a Dan Brown composition sent me reeling. The only way I've been able to appreciate The Da Vinci Code so far is to accept it as high camp.

This actually makes some sense, given the subject matter. Brown's ideas about the relationship between the masculine and the feminine (emphasized, for example, in his explanation of the Mona Lisa) reminds me of a remark by Susan Sontag:

As a taste in persons, Camp responds particularly to the markedly attenuated and to the strongly exaggerated. The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility. Examples: the swooning, slim, sinuous figures of pre-Raphaelite painting and poetry; the thin, flowing, sexless bodies in Art Nouveau prints and posters, presented in relief on lamps and ashtrays; the haunting androgynous vacancy behind the perfect beauty of Greta Garbo.
There. That's my fair-minded attempt to defend Brown against my own charge of bad writing. Now for the awful reality:
"So, my pupil, tell me what I must know."

Silas knew the information he had gleaned from his victims would come as a shock. "Teacher, all four confirmed the existence of the clef de voûte ... the legendary keystone."

He heard a quick intake of breath over the phone and could feel the Teacher's excitement. "The keystone. Exactly as we suspected."

That's on pages 12-13. From this exchange, I can only imagine that the Teacher wears a black hooded cloak and never clips his fingernails. I already know what Silas looks like: he's an albino who walks with a limp because he wears a spiked chain around one thigh. Really.

Here's another example (page 19) of the fine dialogue in this book:

"What is the captain's name?" Langdon asked, changing topics.

"Bezu Fache," the driver said, approaching the pyramid's main entrance. "We call him le Taureau."

Langdon glanced over at him, wondering if every Frenchman had a mysterious animal epithet. "You call your captain the Bull?"

The man arched his eyebrows. "Your French is better than you admit, Monsieur Langdon."

My French stinks, Langdon thought, but my Zodiac iconography is pretty good. Taurus was always the bull. Astrology was a symbolic constant all over the world.

First off: no, it's not. There are multiple astrologies. Second, the French word "taureau" sounds a lot more like the familiar Spanish word "toro" (as in "Toro, toro! Olé!") than the Latin word "taurus." Brown has a tendency to overanalyze these things. Third, how does a world-famous religious iconographer (Langdon) get away with not knowing French?

The first two dozen pages of the book were simply painful. Finally, I realized that I had been reading the novel the wrong way. I was demanding that it be good, which was an inappropriate expectation. Now I am reading The Da Vinci Code the same way I watch Santa Claus Conquers the Martians -- and I find the book highly entertaining.

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16 April 2006 - Sunday

The tremendous levities of the angels

G. K. Chesterton, 1908:

The mass of men have been forced to be gay about the little things, but sad about the big ones. Nevertheless (I offer my last dogma defiantly) it is not native to man to be so. Man is more himself, man is more manlike, when joy is the fundamental thing in him, and grief the superficial. Melancholy should be an innocent interlude, a tender and fugitive frame of mind; praise should be the permanent pulsation of the soul. Pessimism is at best an emotional half-holiday; joy is the uproarious labour by which all things live.

... To the modern man the heavens are actually below the earth. The explanation is simple; he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on. But when he has found his feet again he knows it. Christianity satisfies suddenly and perfectly man’s ancestral instinct for being the right way up; satisfies it supremely in this; that by its creed joy becomes something gigantic and sadness something special and small.

The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.

-- Orthodoxy, ch. IX (paragraph breaks added)

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14 April 2006 - Friday

Edward Said and 'Vanity Fair'

At the end of the film Vanity Fair -- an entertaining though not especially authentic adaptation of Thackeray's novel -- I'm pretty sure I spotted the following notice in the middle of the credits:

Salaams to Edward W. Said for continuing to inspire.

I found that especially strange given the film's treatment of India. While I'm no expert on the subject, I wouldn't say the film exactly avoided the Orientalist approach. Indians in the film are either exotic entertainers or inscrutable domestics, and they literally dance for the British every time they get the chance. Joseph Sedley's triumphant return to India on the back of an elephant is vaguely reminiscent of Palm Sunday, with crowds of whirling locals cheering him on. The natives seem a very friendly lot, of course, but they're still the natives.

Perhaps I am missing something.

Update: In comments at Cliopatria, Manan Ahmed answers:

Edward Said was a colleague of Mahmood Mamdani, Mira Nair [the director]'s husband, at Columbia. And I also think they were neighbors.

I took the dedication to be for a friend remembered.

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Keeping watch

While the Son of Man wept, his followers slept.

They went to a place called Gethsemane; and [Jesus] said to his disciples, 'Sit here while I pray.' He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, 'I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.' And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, 'Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.'

He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, 'Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.'

And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him.

He came a third time and said to them, 'Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners.'

Mark 14:32-41 (NRSV)

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Holy Week

Brandon has provided a helpful guide to Holy Week -- an overview of the significance of the days in the Christian calendar that lead up to Easter Sunday.

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12 April 2006 - Wednesday

Of Useless Studying

From The Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brant, trans. Edwin H. Zeydel (1494; 1944):

Who never learns the proper things,
Upon his cap the dunce bell rings,
He's led by idiot's leading strings.
Attributed to Albrecht Dürer
Students should likewise not be skipped,
With fool's caps they are well equipped,
When these are pulled about the ear
The tassel flaps and laps the rear,
For when of books they should be thinking
They go carousing, roistering, drinking.
A youth puts learning on the shelf,
He'd rather study for himself
What's useless, vain -- an empty bubble;
And teachers too endure this trouble,
Sensible learning they'll not heed,
Their talk is empty, vain indeed.
Could this be night or is it day?
Did mankind fashion monkeys, pray?
Was't Plato, Socrates who ran?
Such is our modern teaching plan.
Are they not bred to folly true
Who night and day with great ado
Thus plague themselves and other men?
No other teaching do they ken.
Of such men, writes Origines,
That froglike creatures quite like these
And gadflies who, unbidden, flew in,
Brought over Eqypt rack and ruin.
In Leipzig students act this way,
In Erfurt, Mainz, Vienna, ay,
Heidelberg, Basel, any place,
Returning home in sheer disgrace.
The money's spent in idleness,
They're glad to tend a printing press
And, learning how to handle wine,
They're lowly waiters many a time.
Thus money spent to train and school
Has often gone to rear a fool.
For further information about The Ship of Fools, see this recent post at BibliOdyssey.

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6 April 2006 - Thursday

Biblical hype

It looks like journalists can be an awfully superstitious lot. They sometimes seem to read history the way eBay users look at grilled cheese -- hoping for something magical to happen, something to overturn dull likelihoods and constricting plausibilities.

Take, for example, the Gospel of Judas. The text itself seems to be a document we've known about for a while from other sources, and it's certainly not the first heterodox writing from early followers of Christ. So what's with this BBC article?

Judas Iscariot's reputation as one of the most notorious villains in history could be thrown into doubt with the release of an ancient text on Thursday.
Could be thrown into doubt? Is this as sophisticated as the BBC's historiography gets? Maybe the headline should be "Scholar shocker: Text of heretical text heretical!" Or maybe "Gnostic gospel contains Gnostic teachings."

Now, here's a Reuters report:

The New Testament says that Jesus walked on water, but a Florida university professor believes there could be a less miraculous explanation -- he walked on a floating piece of ice. ... Nof, a professor of oceanography at Florida State University, said on Tuesday that his study found an unusual combination of water and atmospheric conditions in what is now northern Israel could have led to ice formation on the Sea of Galilee.
In other news, modern genetic research has shown that all first-century Galileans were probably morons.

Seriously, all three NT accounts of the event stress that (a) the sea was very rough and (b) Jesus walked all the way up to the boat and got in. If we take these key elements as inaccurate, then I suppose ice is possible; so is a raft. Let's do a botanical study to see whether wood and reeds floated in the first century.

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10 March 2006 - Friday

Of Love and Marriage

by David Hume (1741; some paragraph breaks added)

I know not whence it proceeds, that women are so apt to take amiss every thing which is said in disparagement of the married state; and always consider a satyr upon matrimony as a satyr upon themselves. Do they mean, that they are the parties principally concerned, and that if a backwardness to enter into that state should prevail in the world, they would be the greatest sufferers? Or, are they sensible, that the misfortunes and miscarriages of the married state are owing more to their sex than to ours? I hope they do not intend to confess either of these two particulars, or to give such an advantage to their adversaries, the men, as even to allow them to suspect it.

I have often had thoughts of complying with this humour of the fair sex, and of writing a panegyric upon marriage: But, in looking around for materials, they seemed to be of so mixed a nature, that at the conclusion of my reflections, I found that I was as much disposed to write a satyr, which might be placed on the opposite pages of the panegyric: And I am afraid, that as satyr is, on most occasions, thought to contain more truth than panegyric, I should have done their cause more harm than good by this expedient. To misrepresent facts is what, I know, they will not require of me. I must be more a friend to truth, than even to them, where their interests are opposite.

Continue reading "Of Love and Marriage" below the fold . . .

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6 March 2006 - Monday

The Index

Just for fun, I decided to ILL a copy of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (1930 edition). It arrived here while I was in Chicago.

Plenty of philosophers and Protestants made the list, of course. But here are some of the more intriguing entries I've found:

Chais, Charles. Bible (La sainte), ou le vieux et le nouveau testament avec un commentaire littéral composé de notes choisies et tirées de divers auteurs angloises. [As the introductory material in the Index insists, such Bibles were proscribed not because the Church hated vernacular translations but because they were exploited by Protestants; commentary from "various English authors" probably didn't help this one]

[Several other New Testament translations, including French, Dutch, Italian, and Piedmontese -- none, that I saw, in English]

Gerberon, Gabriel. Défense de l'église romaine contre les colomnies des protestans. [Gerberon may have defended the Church against Protestant calumnies, but he was also a Jansenist]

Hugo, Victor. Notre-Dame de Paris.

Algarotti, Francesco. Newtonisme (Le) pour les dames. [A book on optics, I am told]

Le Maistre de Sacy, Louis-Isaac. Office (L') de l'Église et de la Vierge en latin et en françois, avec les hymnes traduites en vers. [Sacy was another Jansenist, I believe]

Richardson, Samuel. Pamela, or virtue rewarded; in a series of familiar letters from a beautiful damsel to her parents. [A moralistic novel with some racy bits]

Relation of the proceedings against Henry Garnet, a jesuite, and his confederates, the traitors in the gunpowder plot.

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25 February 2006 - Saturday


I've just discovered an online version of The Founders' Constitution. It's a joint project of Liberty Fund and the University of Chicago Press. All five volumes seem to be available and searchable for free.

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15 February 2006 - Wednesday

Belated Valentine's Day post

THE CAST: Sir Gawain; a snow-white damsel; and two horses

"Maiden," said my lord Gawain, "may you be blessed by God! Tell me now, dear friend, what you were thinking when you, without reason, cautioned me to slow down?"

"I do have one, I swear, sir knight, for I know just what you are thinking."

"What then?" he asked.

"You want to grab me and carry me down this hill across your horse's neck."

"That's right, damsel."

"I knew it well," said she. "Cursed be any man who thinks that! Be careful never to try to put me on your horse! I'm not one of those silly girls the knights sport with and carry away on their horses when they go out seeking adventure. You'll never carry me on your horse! However, if you dared, you could take me with you. If you are willing to take the trouble to fetch me my palfrey from this garden plot, I'll go along with you until you encounter in my company misfortune and grief and trials and shame and woe."

Chrétien de Troyes, The Story of the Grail (written c. 1180s; trans. William W. Kibler)

I would have excerpted that yesterday, but I only read it this evening.

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1 February 2006 - Wednesday

History Carnival XXIV

He found matter of study to fill a hundred years, and his education spread over chaos. Indeed, it seemed to him as though, this year, education went mad. -- The Education of Henry Adams

The Official Souvenir Guidebook of the
World's Cliovian Exposition of 2006

The Arts Palace, Columbian Exposition of 1893

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the Twenty-Fourth History Carnival! History bloggers (historians, students, and amateurs) have come here from all corners of the world to display their work. This self-guided tour will help you find the best our exposition has to offer.

To enter the exposition complex, please head toward the statue of Clio Trampling the Masses, which rises triumphalistically above the main gates. This intriguing sculpture sets the perfect mood for the many exhibits to follow. Once you pass through the gates, please keep to the right of the Reflecting Pool in order to enter the Narrative and Historiography Building.

Continue reading "History Carnival XXIV" below the fold . . .

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29 January 2006 - Sunday

Beyond the scope of their research

After a humorous conversation with my academic advisor -- inspired by Stealing God's Thunder: Benjamin Franklin's Lightning Rod and the Invention of America (Philip Dray) and Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America (Mark Perry) -- I spent a few minutes Googling. Here are the results:

Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life (Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz)

Tolkien and the Invention of Myth (Jane Chance)

Greenback: The Almighty Dollar and the Invention of America (Jason Goodwin)

The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (Simon Winchester)

Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (Margaret MacMillan)

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Jack Weatherford)

Newspapers and the Making of Modern America (Aurora Wallace)

Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Mae M. Ngai)

Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World (David T. Courtwright)

Henry Adams and the Making of America (Gary Wills)

Energy and the Making of Modern California (James C. Williams)

Sex, Religion, and the Making of Modern Madness: The Eberbach Asylum and German Society, 1815-1849

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (David Von Drehle)

The Alamo (A Day That Changed America) (Craig, Tanaka, and Winders)

The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War (Fred Anderson)

The Scottish Enlightenment: The Scots' Invention of the Modern World (Arthur Herman)

The Great Land Rush and the Making of the Modern World, 1650-1900 (John C. Weaver)

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World (Mark Pendergrast)

Tobacco: A Cultural History of How an Exotic Plant Seduced Civilization (Iain Gately)

And my personal favorites:

Merovingian Mortuary Archaeology and the Making of the Early Middle Ages (Bonnie Effros)

Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (Mark Kurlansky)

The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (Larry Zuckerman)

Criticism of the trend:

"ESSAY; The Subtitle That Changed America" (Ben Yagoda, at the NYT)

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24 January 2006 - Tuesday

Texas at the World's Fair

Click for larger image (137k)

Yesterday, as part of some recent research concerning the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, I retrieved The Official Directory of the World's Columbian Exposition (Chicago: W. B. Conkey Company, 1893) through an interlibrary loan. Browsing the pages of the hefty blue book, I ran across an article touting Texas' exhibit at the fair. The entry amused me because it exemplified a combination of characteristics that any present-day Texan will recognize -- effusive state pride, annoyance at the labyrinthine constitution, and frustration at the legislature's perceived inability to appropriate money to the satisfaction of its constituents.

More than anything else, the listing was an apology for the modesty of the exhibit, which was thought inappropriate to the great state of Texas. I have inserted paragraph breaks for the reader's ease:

Texas has erected a handsome building on the right of the north entrance to the Exposition grounds, and this notwithstanding the failure of the State Legislature to make an appropriation on account of constitutional prohibition. The money for the structure was raised by the Women's World's Fair Exhibit Association of Texas, with headquarters at Austin, the State capital.

General regret was expressed when the solons of the Lone Star State failed to make a suitable appropriation for the representation of the resources of that great commonwealth. Mr. John T. Dickinson, the efficient secretary of the National Commision, is a resident of Texas, and he did all in his power to bring about a more favorable and extensive exhibit from his native and beloved State. He wrote numerous articles for the Texas newspapers, traveled and spoke all over the State, induced other prominent Exposition officials to help him in the work of creating a sentiment which would crystallize into favorable action by the law-making powers, and was materially aided in his efforts by numerous prominent citizens of Texas, but to the chagrin and disappointment of thousands of progressive and enterprising Texans, as well as to [sic] their numerous friends all over the country, the appropriation failed to pass, and Texas, once an entire republic itself and now one of the finest, best and most progressive in the galaxy of the States of this union, is not represented at the Fair in such manner as becomes its grandeur. All credit, however, to the noble band of ladies of the Exhibit Association for what Texas has to show.

In the treatment of the design of the Texas Building the architect has not deflected from the history of the Lone Star State, which, from its foundation, has been marked by a Spanish tinge, whose architectural inclination and handsome botanical effects lay down a chain of thought far too beautiful to be forsaken for that of the present day; therefore, the building was designed for colonnades, grounds, fountains, foliage, etc. It contains an assembly room 56 feet square, 28 feet high, provided with art glass skylight in the ceiling, with a mosaic Texas star in the center. The rostrum, ante-rooms, etc., are furnished in the natural woods of Texas. One wing contains rooms for bureau of information, register, messenger, telephone, telegraph, directors, Texas Press Association headquarters, commissioners, historical museum and library, toilet rooms, county collective exhibits, etc. The main entrances are through vestibules, flanked on either side by niches and colonnades. The main vestibules terminate in a large auditorium, connecting with the rooms mentioned.

The Texas Building cost $30,000.

This contrasts dramatically with the bland entries of most other states (although host state Illinois, naturally, got a much longer article for its $250,000 building). I shall take Maryland's report, in its entirety, as a convenient example:

The Maryland Building is near the lake and opposite the Virginia Building. It is a handsome structure and is divided into reception hall, ladies' toilet, ladies' parlor, exhibition hall, woman's department, bureau of information and main exhibition hall, beside spacious porches on the first floor. Gents' toilet, office, smoking room, reading room, and three parlors which communicate constitute the second floor, and a gallery overlooking the main exhibition hall is entered from this floor. The flat deck roofs of porches and buildings offer fine points of vantage for overlooking the grounds of the World's Fair.
Wusses. I bet they didn't even have colonnades.

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1 January 2006 - Sunday

The Kite Runner

It's wrong what they say about the past, I've learned, about how you can bury it. Because the past claws its way out.

Khaled Hosseini's novel The Kite Runner opens in Kabul in the years before the Soviet invasion. It ends in California in early 2002, shortly after the American invasion. The tribulations of Afghanistan serve mainly as a backdrop to the protagonist's search for individual absolution, but they lend his quest a broader symbolic meaning.

Amir and his lower-caste best friend Hassan grow up in Kabul in the 1970s. Amir is affluent; Hassan is a hereditary servant. When Amir betrays his devoted companion, he breaks families apart. The Soviet occupation soon drives Amir to the United States. Years pass.

In the summer of 2001, a telephone call summons Amir back to his country. The caller offers "a way to be good again." Amir races to rescue a remnant of his past. In the process, he stumbles into an old and powerful enemy.

Atonement is the central theme of the novel. Amir discovers his need for restoration -- discovers that forgiveness comes through his courage to face his memories, but also that only God can deliver him from his guilt. The protagonist must act, reverse his moral cowardice, yet in the end he lacks the power to rescue himself. Only God can grant Amir the final measure of peace.

The novel, I think, is an apologetic for Islam. Amir's search for redemption parallels not only the wars of his homeland but also the pain of Muslims who have seen their faith implicated in evil. The author mocks self-righteous, legalistic, and violent Muslims throughout the novel, but eventually forces his agnostic protagonist to his knees: "There is a God, there has to be .... I pray. I pray that my sins have not caught up with me the way I'd always feared they would."

The novel is excellent, heartrending work. It brought me nearly to tears more than once. Occasionally its symbolism is a little predictable, and the chief villain fits a familiar literary type, but these are easily forgiven as elements of an effective magical realism.

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23 December 2005 - Friday

Not an exact science

Isaiah Berlin:

History is not identical with imaginative literature, but it is certainly not free from what, in a natural science, would be rightly condemned as unwarrantably subjective and even, in an empirical sense of the term, intuitive. Except on the assumption that history must deal with human beings purely as material objects in space -- must, in short, be behaviourist -- its method can scarcely be assimilated to the standards of an exact natural science. The invocation to historians to suppress even that minimal degree of moral or psychological insight and evaluation which is necessarily involved in viewing human beings as creatures with purposes and motives (and not merely as causal factors in the procession of events) seems to me to spring from a confusion of the aims and methods of the humane studies with those of natural science. Purely descriptive, wholly depersonalised history remains, what it always has been, a figment of abstract theory, a violently exaggerated reaction to the cant and vanity of earlier generations.
-- "Historical Inevitability" (1954). Liberty, ed. Henry Hardy. Oxford, 2002. 140-141.

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21 December 2005 - Wednesday

Reading list

For the Guardian, Kathryn Hughes reviews Evelyn Welch's book Shopping in the Renaissance. (Via A&LD)

The American Chesterton Society now has a blog. (Via Brandon)

Rob MacDougall has found connections between nineteenth-century spiritualism and both technology and feminism/misogyny. (Via Ralph)

Blogs4God and the Evangelical Outpost are calling for Christian bloggers' responses to Charles Krauthammer's "The Truth about Torture." As much as some of these people complain about the dangers of moral relativism, I see dithering going on here. Some of the bloggers listed at blogs4God are being kind of vague; Mean Dean, at least, has the courage to argue directly that torture is a legitimate instrument of total war. He also, rather more strangely, says this: "Removing the torture option from the table – or at least the threat of it – encourages opponents of Iraqi freedom to continue acting as illegal combatants now that the most significant peril of such an act has been removed." I suppose the same could be said of a threat to kill their wives and children -- or maybe crucify them.

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11 December 2005 - Sunday

Narnia, illustrated

I saw The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe with eight friends last night. I recommend going, but I warn people to keep their hopes low to avoid disappointment. Mainly, I wish that the visual effects hadn't gotten both (both!) the LOTR and the Star Wars treatments, and that Aslan hadn't been quite so kenotic; theology aside, Lewis' lion is a lot more impressive than this one ever tries to be.

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8 December 2005 - Thursday

The judgments of man and God

I ran across a scanned Confederate textbook today and thought I should share it. I'm quoting two portions here. Painful as the first quotation is, it's not exactly surprising; I recommend continuing through my second excerpt for the really interesting part.

The Geographical Reader, for the Dixie Children (Raleigh: Branson, Farrar & Co., Publishers, Biblical Recorder Print, 1863), by Mrs. M. B. Moore.

LESSON X: Races of Men

The men who inhabit the globe, are not all alike. Those in Europe and America are mostly white and are called the Caucasian race. This race is civilized, and is far above the others. They have schools and churches and live in fine style. They also generally have wise and good men for rulers, and a regular form of government. The women are treated with respect and tenderness, and in many cases their wish is law among their male friends.

2. There is a class of people who inhabit most of Asia which is of a yellow color. They are a quiet, plodding race, but when educated are sensible and shrewd. They have some books, and a regular form of government, but they are heathen; I mean by this that they worship images made of wood and stone. They do not know about Jesus. And yet they pray to those idols much oftener than we christians do to our Savior. This race is called the Mongolion. Missionaries have been sent to teach them about Jesus. When they every become converted, they hold fast their profession, and are not fickle like some races.

3. When the white people came to this country, they found a red or copper colored race. This people they named Indians, because they thought they had sailed west until they had come to India in Asia. They were tall, with long black hair, and high cheekbones. They went nearly naked, and were cruel, and warlike. They were good friends, but terrible enemies. They were governed by Chiefs, and had not books. The women performed most of the labor, and were called Squaws. This is called the American race. They now have books, schools and churches, and many of them learn about Jesus.

4. The African or negro race is found in Africa. They are slothful and vicious, but possess little cunning. They are very cruel to each other, and when they have want they sell their prisoners to the white people for slaves. They know nothing of Jesus, and the climate in Africa is so unhealthy that white men can scarcely go there to preach to them. The slaves who are found in America are in much better condition. They are better fed, better clothed, and better instructed than in their native country.

5. These people who are descendants of Ham the son of Noah; who was cursed because he did not treat his father with respect.--It was told him he should serve his brethren forever. That would seem a hard sentence but, it was probably done to show other children how wicked it was to treat their parents so. We can not tell how they came to be black, and have wool on their heads.

6. There is still another race called the Malay. They are black and have wool on their heads, but not like the African. They are very fierce and will die rather than be made slaves. They are also cunning and treacherous, and will have little dealings with white men. They eat the flesh of their enemies, and are called cannibals. They have killed several preachers who went away there to preach: but some of them have become christians.

7. Now, dear children, you have heard how miserable many of the human family are. If they knew about Jesus, they would be happy as you are. There are good men who are willing to go and teach them, but but they lack money to bear their expenses. Can not each of you give something to help send the gospel to the heathen.

That sort of thing was de rigueur, I suppose, in literature published "for the Dixie children" in 1863. But here's what took me by surprise:

Q. How do the Indians live?

A. By hunting and fishing.

Q. Where did they once live?

A. In all America.

Q. What has become of them?

A. The white people drove them away and took their lands.

Q. Are they all gone?

A. A few of them live in some places but do not seem much happy.

Q. Was it not wrong to drive them away and take their lands?

A. It was, and God will judge the white man for it.

Q. May not some of the wars we have had, have been such judgments?

A. Very likely.

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3 December 2005 - Saturday

Massively multiplayer

Austerlitz -- reenacted by 4,000 people from 23 countries.

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29 November 2005 - Tuesday

Narnia sneak peek

FilmChat notes that a Swedish television station has posted something more than a trailer -- nine minutes of excerpts from LWW. (It streams; it buffers ... Don't even bother unless you have an excellent connection.) I see evidence of some minor narrative departures -- and more evidence that the battle scenes are going to be inordinately important, but probably fairly pretty.

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24 November 2005 - Thursday

Holiday irony

I am spending Thanksgiving Day writing a paper on King Philip's War. Ironically, this little-known but devastating conflict gave us what some call (dubiously, I think) the first thanksgiving proclamation:

The Holy God having by a long and Continual Series of his Afflictive dispensations in and by the present Warr with the Heathen Natives of this land, written and brought to pass bitter things against his own Covenant people in this wilderness, yet so that we evidently discern that in the midst of his judgements he hath remembered mercy, having remembered his Footstool in the day of his sore displeasure against us for our sins, with many singular Intimations of his Fatherly Compassion, and regard; reserving many of our Towns from Desolation Threatened, and attempted by the Enemy, and giving us especially of late with many of our Confederates many signal Advantages against them, without such Disadvantage to ourselves as formerly we have been sensible of, if it be the Lord's mercy that we are not consumed, It certainly bespeaks our positive Thankfulness, when our Enemies are in any measure disappointed or destroyed; and fearing the Lord should take notice under so many Intimations of his returning mercy, we should be found an Insensible people, as not standing before Him with Thanksgiving, as well as lading him with our Complaints in the time of pressing Afflictions:

The Council has thought meet to appoint and set apart the 29th day of this instant June, as a day of Solemn Thanksgiving and praise to God for such his Goodness and Favour, many Particulars of which mercy might be Instanced, but we doubt not those who are sensible of God's Afflictions, have been as diligent to espy him returning to us; and that the Lord may behold us as a People offering Praise and thereby glorifying Him; the Council doth commend it to the Respective Ministers, Elders and people of this Jurisdiction; Solemnly and seriously to keep the same Beseeching that being perswaded by the mercies of God we may all, even this whole people offer up our bodies and soulds as a living and acceptable Service unto God by Jesus Christ.

This proclamation was issued by Massachusetts colonists in June 1676 to celebrate their military successes against the Wampanoag sachem Metacom -- son of Massasoit, with whom the Plymouth settlers had shared the feast we call "the first thanksgiving" fifty years earlier. Soon after this proclamation was issued, Metacom was tracked down and killed; his severed head was displayed triumphantly in Plymouth.

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23 November 2005 - Wednesday

Always greener

Reading a World movie review today, I decided that we evangelicals have a great problem with nostalgia. We think too highly of the past. We lean too heavily upon history as a direct social model for the present day. Thus, I believe, our inaccurate reminiscences are keeping us from being morally coherent and intellectually relevant in the modern world.

We seem to have embraced the reverse of the myth of human progress. We believe the world is getting worse and worse. Standing up for Christian values, therefore, means pointing to our ancestors -- "They had it right! Do that!"

The trouble is, this requires us to fight tooth and nail against any interpretation of history that would impugn our forebears' legacy. ("Revisionists!" we cry, hardly stopping to consider the meaning of the word.) This, in turn, prevents us from learning the real lesson of history: that our ancestors struggled with sin too. Their nobility was a lie just as our tolerance is; both are flimsy restraints upon a depraved nature. Therefore, the morality we deprive from such history is weak; it is worth little against real evil, which is perfectly capable of adapting to the idiosyncrasies of different cultures.

Such nostalgia, furthermore, weakens evangelical Christianity's rhetoric in two important ways. First, it keeps our apologetics flabby. By appealing to the days when Christianity ruled the land, we are inviting attack based on the very real evils that existed during those times. Claiming the successes, in other words, obligates us also to accept credit for the failures. While some evangelicals can negotiate this terrain and emerge with a strong argument for our beliefs, the necessary intellectual sophistication is rare.

Second, this weakens our rhetoric because it alienates certain groups of people -- elements in society who identify with people oppressed or marginalized under the utopias we remember so fondly. Baptists who miss the genteel society of the early nineteenth century, for example, would do well to remember that some branches of their church were once unusual (even subversive) in welcoming slaves. Modern seekers who identify with the oppressed blacks of that era, therefore, are probably not interested in being told what a wonderful society existed back then. We would do much better, in fact, if we spent our time pointing out how countercultural our message is/was no matter what culture we are discussing.

As I said before, all of this came to mind because of a movie review. Covering a new adaptation of Pride and Prejudice for the current issue of World Magazine, Gene Edward Veith makes some historical observations I find immoderate.

The first hint of nostalgia comes in the fourth paragraph, which is a little too pointed:

The movie is sumptuous to look upon, capturing well both the sights and the feel of early 19th-century England. We are immersed in a graceful culture where sexual immorality is a devastating blow to the family honor. And where a gentleman's moral character changes a woman's hostility into love.
This "graceful culture" is a fairy tale -- and not Austen's fairy tale, but Veith's. Did not many 19th-century women, anxious to secure financial and social support, overlook moral weakness in their men? Remember, Elizabeth Bennet is unique in the novel for her insistence upon the man's character; the novel shows her rejecting the dominant value of her society, which would have her put economic safety and worldly honor first. To glorify her culture is to miss out on the strength of her character altogether. Furthermore, Veith is ignoring the darker side of the "devastating blow to a family's honor" associated with (a woman's) sexual immorality. In the novel, Jane and Elizabeth agonize over the shame brought down by their sister -- shame that threatens their lifelong happiness, security, and social standing despite their total innocence. Does Veith really find that desirable in a culture?

He continues:

Women resonate with [Austen's] portrait of the strong, intelligent, and exquisitely feminine "lady."
... Who sometimes had virtually no say in her own future, who could not legally own any property once she married .... No, my friends, I'm pretty sure Austen's heroine is interesting precisely because, in the eyes of her "graceful culture," she is not very ladylike at all. Recall that both her attractiveness to and her rejection of Mr. Darcy are scandalous (to his caste and hers, respectively).
And they really resonate with a specific kind of masculine character: the forceful, honorable "gentleman" that 21st-century guys would do well to emulate.
... Especially the part about the total lack of gainful employment, the social striae that kept them from viewing their fellow humans as equals, and the near-total impunity with which they could break a woman's honor .... Clearly, a proper gentry is the tonic for our social ills.

Here's my point: true moral fiber is always countercultural. Christians are called to resist the temptations of "the world," not just modernity. We are not doing ourselves any favors by getting bleary-eyed over yesteryear's state of affairs. Homesickness is natural, but we should be longing for a different kingdom entirely, not for any social state of the past.

P. S. Why another P&P film? Perfection was attained 10 years ago. You don't mess with perfection, people. (Update: Yes, I am being ironic on purpose. But thank you for your concern.)

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25 October 2005 - Tuesday

Which Is to Say

A draft.

Every morning the same boring innovation.
I do not recognize this dispensation,
Nor does it (let's be frank) me.

I was lying.
I came into this age a lost crying child
And grew to love it
Because it called me grandson
And gave me a home
With crayons and a desk
And knew I would one day be interesting.

But now my garden does not have a gate,
Nor my house a portico.
Strangers climb in through the windows
And out through the gopher holes,
Leaving no forwarding address.

Every road (you may have heard)
Goes to the same place
Because they all (after all)
Lead Somewhere. This is clever.

But I have been clever too:
My God, that's a long way down.

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21 October 2005 - Friday

Righteousness in a vacuum

At the Unreconstructed Niebuhrian's request, I present an excerpt from this week's readings in Intellectual History:

It is significant, too, that the very part of the country in which the churches insist upon "regenerate membership" and recruit such a membership by persistent revivals is most grievously corrupted by the sin of race hatred. Protestantism -- and insofar as Roman Catholicism has departed from the best medievalism, Catholicism, too -- has no understanding of the complex factors of environment out of which personality emerges. It is always "saving" individuals, but not saving them from the greed and the hatred into which they are tempted by the society in which they live. Protestantism, it might be said, does not seem to know that the soul lives in a body, and that the body is part of a world in which the laws of the jungle still prevail.

Perhaps it might not be irrelevant to add that its failure to understand the relation between the physical and the spiritual not only tempts Protestantism to create righteousness in a vacuum but to develop piety without adequate symbol. That is why the church services of extreme Protestant sects tend to become secularized once the first naive spontaneity departs from their religious life. In Europe nonconformist Protestants tend more and more to embrace the once despised beauty of symbol and dignity of form in order to save worship from dullness and futility. In America nonconformist Protestantism, with less cultural background, tries to avert dullness by vulgar theatricality. The Quakers alone escape this fate because their exclusion of symbol is so rigorous that silence itself becomes symbol. If worship is to serve man’s ethical as well as religious needs, it must give him a sense of humble submission to the absolute. Humility is lacking in Protestant worship as it is missing in Protestant civilization. If this humility is medievalism, we cannot save civilization without medievalism.

This article, by Christian intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, was published in 1926 in Christian Century.

Niebuhr's observations came at a moment when a crisis of authority was being felt acutely by Western churches. Both fundamentalism and theological modernism were making names for themselves as (rival) religious responses to the new era. Niebuhr rejected both, arguing that the best answer to "secularized civilization" was a return to an older ("medieval") understanding of the Church's role in society.

I question this position; the Church guarded its medieval authority in part by being authoritarian, vesting the society's ethical systems in a limited priesthood rather than in individuals. (Note the condemnation of "vulgar" models of worship.) Given some of his political opinions, I doubt that Niebuhr would advocate adopting this model in its entirety -- so I am not entirely sure what we should make of this article's recommendation.

On the other hand, I agree that Protestantism has sometimes shown a tendency toward privatization. When every believer stresses his own interpretation of the Bible and his own encounter with Christ (as important as these things are), the community of believers often seems to suffer fragmentation. (This strikes me as possibly relevant to some of the Southern churches' longtime complicity in racism.) A return to the symbolism of the medieval Church, problematic as it might be in some respects, could at least reintroduce respect for mystery, discouraging certain forms of glibness. Common ground may lie in what we do not understand.

Then again, a return to symbol could itself be a form of subjectivism and individualism. Perhaps Niebuhr simply fell into a familiar trap: finding a moral fault in society and blaming it on a distasteful belief system, overlooking the failures of one's own system. Racism, after all, is not the only ethical inconsistency to plague supposedly Christian civilizations, and the Catholic regions of the world have tolerated their fair share of the world's evil. Fortunately, Niebuhr made up for this a little by stressing that "the laws of the jungle" still apply to the flesh, no matter who dominates Christian observance.

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18 October 2005 - Tuesday

Mencken on the role of the critic

H. L. Mencken attacks a species of didactic and conventional critics, those who "exhibit alarm immediately when they come into the presence of the extraordinary":

As practiced by all such learned and diligent but essentially ignorant and unimaginative men, criticism is little more than a branch of homiletics. They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a "right thinker," if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect. But if he lets fall the slightest hint that he is in doubt about any of them, then he is a scoundrel, and hence, by their theory, a bad artist. Such pious piffle is horribly familiar among us.
Then he proposes an alternative role for the critic:
A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment -- and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

H. L. Mencken, from Prejudices: First Series.

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12 October 2005 - Wednesday

Santayana on history and modernity

George Santayana, "The Poetry of Barbarism" (from Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 1900):

The memory of ancient disillusions has faded with time. Ignorance of the past has bred contempt for the lessons which the past might teach. Men prefer to repeat the old experiment without knowing that they repeat it.

I say advisedly ignorance of the past, in spite of the unprecedented historical erudition of our time; for life is an art not to be learned by observations and the most minute and comprehensive studies do not teach us what the spirit of man should have learned by its long living. We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority and as an experiment. One reason why history was less interesting to former ages was that they were less conscious of separation from the past. The perspective of time was less clear because the synthesis of experience was more complete. The mind does not easily discriminate the successive phases of an action in which it is still engaged; it does not arrange in a temporal series the elements of a single perception, but posits them all together as constituting a permanent and real object. Human nature and the life of the world were real and stable objects to the apprehension of our forefathers; the actors changed, but not the characters or the play. Men were then less studious of derivations because they were more conscious of identities. They thought of all reality as in a sense contemporary, and in considering the maxims of a philosopher or the style of a poet, they were not primarily concerned with settling his date and describing his environment. The standard by which they judged was eternal; the environment in which man found himself did not seem to them subject of any essential change.

To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and effervescent than itself. The changing and the permanent elements are, indeed, everywhere present, and the bias of the observer may emphasize the one or the other as it will: the only question is whether we find the significance of things in their variations or in their similarities.

Now the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavourable to any true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which remains eternal. It is a habit of thought that destroys the sense of the moral identity of all ages, by virtue of its very insistence on the mechanical derivation of one age from another. Existences that cause one another exclude one another; each is alien to the rest inasmuch as it is the product of new and different conditions. Ideas that cause nothing unite all things by giving them a common point of reference and a single standard of value.

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18 September 2005 - Sunday

Antichrist, or the Reunion of Christendom: An Ode

G. K. Chesterton

"A Bill which has shocked the conscience of every Christian community in Europe." -- Mr. F. E. Smith, on the Welsh Disestablishment Bill.

Are they clinging to their crosses,
F. E. Smith,
Where the Breton boat-fleet tosses,
Are they, Smith?
Do they, fasting, trembling, bleeding,
Wait the news from this our city?
Groaning "That's the Second Reading!"
Hissing "There is still Committee!"
If the voice of Cecil falters,
If McKenna's point has pith,
Do they tremble for their altars?
Do they, Smith?

Russian peasants round their pope
Huddled, Smith,
Hear about it all, I hope,
Don't they, Smith?
In the mountain hamlets clothing
Peaks beyond Caucasian pales,
Where Establishment means nothing
And they never heard of Wales,
Do they read it all in Hansard --
With a crib to read it with --
"Welsh Tithes: Dr. Clifford answered."
Really, Smith?

In the lands where Christians were,
F. E. Smith,
In the little lands laid bare,
Smith, O Smith!
Where the Turkish bands are busy
And the Tory name is blessed
Since they hailed the Cross of Dizzy
On the banners from the West!
Men don't think it half so hard if
Islam burns their kin and kith,
Since a curate lives in Cardiff
Saved by Smith.

It would greatly, I must own,
Soothe me, Smith!
If you left this theme alone,
Holy Smith!
For your legal cause or civil
You fight well and get your fee;
For your God or dream or devil
You will answer, not to me.
Talk about the pews and steeples
And the cash that goes therewith!
But the souls of Christian peoples ...
Chuck it, Smith!

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8 September 2005 - Thursday

Williams on civil authority

Preparing for my intellectual history seminar this week, I read a selection from Roger Williams' The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution (1644).

In addition to some powerful figures of speech, the discourse has some fascinating logic. One argument in particular caught my attention. It is very simple (in substance if not style), yet I think it had never occurred to me before. What I like most about it is the doctrinal framework into which it fits. This is a highly evangelical plea for a highly libertarian view of religious freedom, grounded in the Two Kingdoms theory.

Secondly, whereas he [Williams' opponent] affirms that men may make laws to see the laws of God observed.

I answer, God needeth not the help of a material sword of steel to assist the sword of the Spirit in the affairs of conscience, to those men, those magistrates, yea that commonwealth which makes such magistrates, must needs have power and authority from Christ Jesus to fit judge and to determine in all the great controversies concerning doctrine, discipline, government, etc.

And then I ask whether upon this ground it must not evidently follow that:

Either there is no lawful commonwealth nor civil state of men in the world, which is not qualified with this spiritual discerning (and then also that the very commonweal hath more light concerning the church of Christ than the church itself).

Or, that the commonweal and magistrates thereof must judge and punish as they are persuaded in their own belief and conscience (be their conscience paganish, Turkish, or antichristian) what is this but to confound heaven and earth together, and not only to take away the being of Christianity out of the world, but to take away all civility, and the world out of the world, and to lay all upon heaps of confusion?

In other words, according to Williams, if government has a divine right to enforce religious law (the position he rejects), then there are just two possibilities. Either (a) every government is correct in its religious opinions; or (b) even pagan governments have a God-given right to enforce their own false religious ideas.

The first possibility may be dismissed immediately, given the divisions of religious opinion among governments. Every Englishman would have been highly conscious of these divisions; many recent wars had sprung from them. Furthermore, this option would require the state to have a better knowledge of religion than the Church had, since the Church itself had seen so many divisions of opinion. Obviously, government does not automatically know the truth about God.

The other possibility, however, must also be dismissed. It would mean that either pagan lands have no legitimate government at all, or their governments have a commission from Christ to destroy Christianity. The first contradicts biblical observations on government, and the second is simply unthinkable.

Therefore, we must conclude that civil government does not have a divine commission to regulate religious opinion.

This argument works, of course, precisely because both Williams and his audiences believed that government is a divine institution. The entire discourse presupposes the belief that God lies behind the civil authorities and is the source of their right to govern.

In fact, later paragraphs affirm this doctrine explictly. In doing so, these paragraphs provide evidence not only of early thought about religious liberty, but also of early thought about democracy.

First, whereas they say that the civil power may erect and establish what form of civil government may seem in wisdom most meet, I acknowledge the proposition to be most true, both in itself and also considered with the end of it, that a civil government is an ordinance of God, to conserve the civil peace of people, so far as concerns their bodies and goods, as formerly hath been said.

But from this grant I infer (as before hath been touched) that the sovereign, original, and foundation of civil power lies in the people (whom they must needs mean by the civil power distinct from the government set up). And, if so, that a people may erect and establish what form of government seems to them most meet for their civil condition; it is evident that such governments as are by them erected and established have no more power, nor for no longer time, than the civil power or people consenting and agreeing shall betrust them with. This is clear not only in reason but in the experience of all commonweals, where the people are not deprived of their natural freedom by the power of tyrants.

And, if so, that the magistrates receive their power of governing the church from the people, undeniably it follows that a people, as a people, naturally consider (of what nature or nation soever in Europe, Asia, Africa, or America), have fundamentally and originally, as men, a power to govern the church, to see her do her duty, to correct her, to redress, reform, establish, etc. And if this be not to pull God and Christ and Spirit out of heaven, and subject them unto natural, sinful, inconstant men, and so consequently to Satan himself, by whom all peoples naturally are guided, let heaven and earth judge.... [Emphasis added]

So Williams believes that government (like the Sabbath) was made for man, not man for government. He goes further, identifying the right of civil government with the people themselves. Therefore, the argument goes, government control of religion means popular control of religion, even in heathen lands. And since when has God given nonbelievers the right to control his Church?

This is really another form of the same argument given above, but by invoking the specter of undisciplined masses as masters of the Church, it may have had its own special potency. The previous form of the argument, I suspect, might have been less shocking to paternalists than this form.

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5 September 2005 - Monday

Feast and famine

Jesus has many lovers of His heavenly kingdom, but few bearers of His Cross.

He has many seekers of consolation, but few of tribulation.

He finds many companions at His feasting, but few at His fasting.

All desire to rejoice with Him; few are willing to endure anything for Him.

(The Imitation of Christ, Thomas à Kempis, book 2, chapter 11)

It is astounding to observe how much of our Christian spirituality is fundamentally selfish. Devotional publications are often glorified self-help books; preachers proclaim the happiness of the believer. Prayer often centers on the pleasure and spiritual satisfaction of the supplicant. Exhilaration, not humility, becomes the key characteristic of the modern Christian.

Selfishness is what got us into trouble in the first place.

Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
Colossians 2:17-19, ESV

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24 August 2005 - Wednesday

Eine kleine Dante

After recommendation from Dr. Watson and stumbling upon a copy at Sam's Club, I have begun reading Matthew Pearl's The Dante Club. So far, I find it uneven but diverting. Prominent historical characters are difficult to fictionalize properly, and this book feels far too self-conscious in other ways as well, but it has its moments.

More importantly, it reminded me that I still hadn't finished the Purgatorio (Ciardi's translation). I kept giving myself deadlines for finishing it last semester, and I missed all of them by a wide margin. I started back in on it, and I finished the last canto yesterday. Now I guess I can start on the Paradiso. I've been looking forward to that for a long time.

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23 August 2005 - Tuesday

In others' words: media edition

Brandon Watson has a list of 20 must-read science fiction novels. >>

Popcorn and Chain mail liveblogs the director's cut of King Arthur. >> (Via Sharon Howard)

Ralph the Sacred River notes that Osama bin Laden is keeping up a long tradition of Near East punsterism. >>

Oscar Chamberlain marks the death of Robert Moog, the man responsible for the synthesizer. >>

Copernicus Sashimi has a post recommending citation analysis as a tool for historians. >>

David Davisson has discovered a site called ResearchBuzz, which looks awfully handy. >>

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The Salisbury Project

The chapel

I ran across a link to the Salisbury Project at MeFi. In particular, the collection of images of the cathedral is worth a visit.

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22 August 2005 - Monday

The record of past actuality

At Spinning Clio, Marc has posted the first entry in a planned four five-part series: "Introduction to Historical Method: What is History?" Definitely worth a look for people like me.

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11 August 2005 - Thursday

An historical mystery

Henry Adams, The Education of (1907), chapter 23:

The study of history is useful to the historian by teaching him his ignorance of women; and the mass of this ignorance crushes one who is familiar enough with what are called historical sources to realize how few women have ever been known. The woman who is known only through a man is known wrong, and excepting one or two like Mme. de Sévingé, no woman has pictured herself. The American woman of the nineteenth century will live only as the man saw her; probably she will be less known than the woman of the eighteenth; none of the female descendants of Abigail Adams can ever be nearly so familiar as her letters have made her; and all this is pure loss to history, for the American woman of the nineteenth century was much better company than the American man; she was probably much better company than her grandmothers.

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10 August 2005 - Wednesday

The Great Raid

At DCAT, Tom Bruscino has posted a review of The Great Raid (opening in two days; trailer here). His assessment? Some artistic weakness, but historical grit. So far, Rotten Tomatoes is split; for Bruscino, the film succeeds because "they wanted to get it right. They wanted to do justice to the story" -- and the film avoids a common form of political correctness.

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3 August 2005 - Wednesday


Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1879

When will you ever, Peace, wild wooddove, shy wings shut,
Your round me roaming end, and under be my boughs?
When, when, Peace, will you, Peace? I'll not play hypocrite
To own my heart: I yield you do come sometimes; but
That piecemeal peace is poor peace. What pure peace allows
Alarms of wars, the daunting wars, the death of it?

O surely, reaving Peace, my Lord should leave in lieu
Some good! And so he does leave Patience exquisite,
That plumes to Peace thereafter. And when Peace here does house
He comes with work to do, he does not come to coo,
He comes to brood and sit.

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2 August 2005 - Tuesday

Hobbits in Kentucky?

Cliopatria's Ralph Luker has noticed an old essay, "Hobbitry," written by Guy Davenport (published in 1981 in The Geography of the Imagination).

I found a little more of it here:

The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien's. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

"Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that."

And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits' pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality .... Kentucky, it seems, contributed its share.

Practically all the names of Tolkien's hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren't can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: "I hear tell," "right agin," "so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way," "this very month as is." These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.

I despaired of trying to tell Barnett what his talk of Kentucky folk became in Tolkien's imagination. I urged him to read The Lord of the Rings but as our paths have never crossed again, I don't know that he did. Nor if he knew that he created by an Oxford fire and in walks along the Cherwell and Isis the Bagginses, Boffins, Tooks, Brandybucks, Grubbs, Burrowses, Goodbodies, and Proudfoots (or Proudfeet, as a branch of the family will have it) who were, we are told, the special study of Gandalf the Grey, the only wizard who was interested in their bashful and countrified ways.

It would be fun to test this, but it could be difficult. Perhaps we can show an unusual concentration of these names in Kentucky relative to other places, but if the names merely exist there, it's possible that Tolkien and Kentucky had mutual sources. The American backcountry settlements got a lot of people from northern Britain; it is entirely possible that Tolkien borrowed his Shire surnames and speech patterns from people closer to his own home. That would not at all preclude Allen Barnett's story from being true, of course. It could merely make the story slightly less impressive.

Luker says:

I've read and discounted some of the claims that English and Scots-Irish immigrants settled in remote pockets of mountainous eastern Kentucky and preserved 18th century folk culture and language largely unchanged into the 20th century. But Lexington and Shelbyville are in the lush bluegrass central part of the state. They've never been isolated in ways that the mountain communities have been.
What would a well-informed historian do when confronted with this kind of evidence? Did Davenport discover the hobbits, living unbeknownst in central Kentucky or was his own provenance over-reaching?

I don't know what a well-informed historian would do. But I know what I would do, especially if I were procrastinating right before an exam. (Pluperfect and past conditional in French, if it interests you.)

Continue reading "Hobbits in Kentucky?" below the fold . . .

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28 July 2005 - Thursday

Politics and the young mind

Henry Adams, The Education of (1907), chapter three:

Life was not yet complicated. Every problem had a solution, even the negro. The boy went back to Boston [from Washington and nearby slave states in 1850] more political than ever, and his politics were no longer so modern as the eighteenth century, but took a strong tone of the seventeenth. Slavery drove the whole Puritan community back on its Puritanism. The boy thought as dogmatically as though he were one of his own ancestors. The Slave power took the place of Stuart kings and Roman popes. Education could go no further in that course, and ran off into emotion; but, as the boy gradually found his surroundings change, and felt himself no longer an isolated atom in a hostile universe, but a sort of herring-fry in a shoal of moving fish, he began to learn the first and easier lessons of practical politics. Thus far he had seen nothing but eighteenth-century statesmanship. America and he began, at the same time, to become aware of a new force under the innocent surface of party machinery. Even at that moment, a rather slow boy felt dimly conscious that he might meet some personal difficulties in trying to reconcile sixteenth-century principles and eighteenth-century statesmanship with nineteenth-century party organization.

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24 July 2005 - Sunday

A good topic for a paper

After 1797, the American republic found itself embroiled in a "quasi-war" with France, which briefly caused an interesting realignment in regional politics. With war fever at its height in 1798, voters in the [Democratic Republican] coastal south and the backcountry suddenly rallied to the [Federalist] government. In the Congressional elections of 1798, Federalists carried 68 out of 106 seats, including 20 seats below the Potomac and in the back settlements. Even counties that gave rise to the Whisky Rebellion now voted Federalist.

The war fever of '98 marked the beginning of a consistent pattern in American military history. From the quasi-war with France to the Vietnam War, the two southern cultures strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against. Southern ideas of honor and the warrior ethic combined to create regional war fevers of great intensity in 1798, 1812, 1846, 1861, 1898, 1917, 1941, 1950 and 1965. Here is another subject that remains to be studied in detail.

David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford UP, 1989), 843.

The pattern seems to be holding up. (The biggest objection I can think of is that Fischer's inclusion of 1861 might be difficult to justify, considering the unusual circumstances of that particular war.) In the case of the Iraq invasion, I was struck by the enthusiasm of conservative Texans, who generally hate the UN in all of its forms, for a war carried out exclusively for the purpose of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions. War against enemyish people, qua war against enemyish people, got this region's support.

Of course, the fact that the war was ordered by a conservative president surely makes a difference. President Clinton's military actions were not as enthusiastically embraced. But as I recall, right-wing opposition to Clinton's military expeditions was weaker in this region than in some other areas. For Kosovo, which came closer to a traditional war than the other examples, I remember quite a bit of implicit support. Granted, I was young at the time, so my memory may be faulty.

In any case, I like this cultural-history explanation of the warlike tendencies of certain areas of the United States. Fischer traces the development of the areas settled by British borderers (immigrants who arrived in the American backcountry from northern England, southern Scotland, and northern Ireland in the eighteenth century). He rejects the idea that the material conditions of the frontier were the main reason for the belligerence of these settlements. Instead, he points out that the British borderlands were very violent long before the American frontier was -- and violent in the same ways, with blood feuds and frequent territorial wars.

The backcountry concept of liberty, in which individual independence was asserted with deadly force, has evolved and remains strong in the libertarian ideals of the southern and western United States. I think this element is often overlooked as a factor in the persistence of Confederate apologists; I know a lot of people without any detectable racist feelings who yet think the South had a legal right to secede from the Union.

I'm chasing rabbit trails now. This book has gotten me started on several lines of thought. I highly recommend it.

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13 July 2005 - Wednesday

Plotting the past

Miriam Burstein is reading novels about Anne Boleyn, and she is writing down some thoughts about the relationship between historical fiction and the history that allegedly undergirds it:

So far, all of the novels have imposed some very twentieth-century notions about marriage for love, public vs. private behavior, and domestic space as an ideally depoliticized "private sphere" on sixteenth-century maneuverings that firmly resist any such scripts. I'm not an early modernist, but I cannot see how Henry VIII's married life can be rewritten as a "private" affair; all of his machinations in that area make hash of our own public/private distinctions.

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12 July 2005 - Tuesday

Guns, Germs, and Steel

I watched the first part of the National Geographic special (starring, and based on the book by, Jared Diamond) on PBS last night. Unfortunately, I was not very pleased with the documentary.

I did find Diamond himself impressive, of course. The program tried harder than necessary to accomplish that. What did not impress me were the vagueness and self-importance of the film.

Glacially paced, the program constantly reminded the audience of how revolutionary and "audacious" its concepts were. It presented these concepts in what I found a simplistic fashion, without much specific evidence. The film backed up its conclusions mainly with other conclusions, with anecdotes, or with generalizations. And lots of stock footage.

Of course, this first segment focused on prehistory, so the means by which scholars reach their conclusions are arcane. Yet when Diamond got specific, the program got a lot stronger. The first interesting part of the film was his identification of the 14 large animals that have been domesticated (they almost all come from Eurasia). It was simple enough for him to present that information, but its specificity and objectivity provided the first real support for his thesis.

Meanwhile, the narrator was making what I thought were inflated claims. Material explanations are not exactly a new thing in the historiography of northern prosperity. Diamond has obviously done some valuable work, but I don't think he invented the concept of factor endowments.

What bothered me more, though, was that the narrator kept claiming new factors as the end-all of Diamond's work. First, the source of all prosperity was the domestication of plants ("audacious" in its simplicity!). Then, domesticated plants and large domesticated animals, the two sources. Our two sources are domesticated plants; large domesticated animals; and, next week, guns, germs, and steel. Five. Our five sources are domesticated plants; large domesticated animals; guns, germs, and steel; and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope. Amongst our sources ....

Also annoying was the frequent identification of North America with Eurasia, even though the natural resources were so different for so long. The program kept getting ahead of itself, claiming that particular natural resources are the source of the United States' prosperity even while showing a historic scarcity of those resources in the New World. So how did domesticated plants and animals reach America? The prosperity of the United States suggests a significant role for human agency -- at least in the motivation and technology for transportation -- but this was ignored.

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4 July 2005 - Monday

Full of sound and fury

Unfortunately (in my opinion), our seating for Macbeth turned out to be the reverse of our seating for Midsummer; we found ourselves in the back row.

This was mainly a problem because the placement of a few of the stage lights made the rest of the auditorium too visible; I could see everything in the theater and found this distracting. Otherwise, the lighting was superb. The set was almost totally black except for a red moon that was obscured upon Duncan's murder and a red gash in the floor that widened as the action progressed. Smoke floated across the stage throughout the performance, accentuating the white beams of the lights.

Consistent with the scenery, the costumes were all in black, red, or white. As Sharpton noted afterward, there were hints of Asian influence in all of this; the armor and choreography strongly suggested samurai.

The experience was much different from the previous night's. I found Macbeth slightly less absorbing (and, of course, less amusing) than A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it had some very strong performances. A few scenes were genuinely creepy, and Lady Macbeth was particularly fanatical and seductive. I hope Wheeler will soon post more thorough reviews of both plays. Meantime, I think I can strongly recommend the Texas Shakespeare Festival to anyone interested.

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3 July 2005 - Sunday

The course of true love never did run smooth

The performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream last night was enthralling. I've never seen the comic aspects of a Shakespeare play brought out more effectively; I felt like a groundling having a good time rather than a yuppie trying to look intelligent. This was easily the best live performance I've seen in the area, enhanced by our second-row seats. Supposedly we get the same seats tonight.

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22 June 2005 - Wednesday

American histories

Danny Loss, "Which history?":

Here's the key point. There's simply no such thing as the story of American history. There are lots of American histories, asking different questions, examining different sources, and reaching different sorts of conclusions. And there's no obvious reason why these different histories have to gel with each other. Periodization that accurately describes presidential politics might very well be useless in describing gender relations.

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14 June 2005 - Tuesday

Glow-worm on a grassblade, V


Previous: Passion

John Witherspoon, "The Dominion of Providence over the Passions of Men" (preached in Philadelphia in 1776):

He overrules all his creatures, and all their actions. Thus we are told, that "fire, hail, snow, vapor, and stormy wind, fulfill his word," in the course of nature; and even so the most impetuous and disorderly passions of men, that are under no restraint from themselves, are yet perfectly subject to the dominion of Jehovah. They carry his commission, they obey his orders, they are limited and restrained by his authority, and they conspire with every thing else in promoting his glory. There is the greater need to take notice of this, that men are not generally sufficiently aware of the distinction between the law of God and his purpose; they are apt to suppose, that as the tempter of the sinner is contrary to the one, so the outrages of the sinner are able to defeat the other; than which nothing can be more false. The truth is plainly asserted, and nobly expressed by the psalmist in the text, "Surely the wrath of man shall praise thee; the remainder of wrath shalt thou restrain."
T. S. Eliot, "Choruses from The Rock" (1934):
We thank Thee for the lights we have kindled,
The light of altar and of sanctuary;
Small lights of those who meditate at midnight
And lights directed through the coloured panes of windows
And light reflected from the polished stone,
The gilded carven wood, the coloured fresco.
Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward
And see the light that fractures through unquiet water.
We see the light but not whence it comes.

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13 June 2005 - Monday

Glow-worm on a grassblade, IV


Humorlessness comes easily, I fear. History has so many implications in contemporary affairs that it must, indeed, be taken seriously, yet I regret that the field is so often politicized. We all find it difficult to avoid using the discipline as an ideological weapon, especially when there are so many horrible ideas based on flawed accounts of the past. What, should we refuse to respond to distortions? That would not solve the problem of politicization.

Rather, I think we must try to love the past for itself, not for what history can do for our causes. The reality of the past lies far beyond our descriptions of it; humility implies a certain amount of flexibility and congeniality. None of us will ever comprehend the past perfectly. This does not mean that we should excuse recognizable distortions, but I think it does mean that responsible scholarship begins at home.

Jacques Barzun, Clio and the Doctors: Psycho-History, Quanto-History, and History (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1974), 123-124:

The use of history is for the person. History is formative. Its spectacle of continuity in chaos, of attainment in the heart of disorder, of purpose in the world is what nothing else provides: science denies it, art only invents it. To try to make out the same vision for oneself in the midst of life is difficult, not to say discouraging. One might suppose that an astute synthesis of the items in the daily paper would supply it, but the paper lacks charm and solidity; its formative effect is nil, as one can see from sampling public opinion. Reading history remakes the mind by feeding primative pleasure in story, exercising thought and feeling, satisfying curiosity, and promoting the serenity of contemplation.
If to the beholder the deeds soon become more interesting than the explanations, this influence of the primary realities does not mark a decline in intellect or seriousness. It means rather that the reader is confident about the historical effect. Like the accomplished lover of an art, he immerses himself in the material without scruple. In other words, history is a means of cultivation much more than of instruction.
Previous: Observation
Next: Grace

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12 June 2005 - Sunday

Glow-worm on a grassblade, III


As an evangelical Christian studying history, I can think of no Christian doctrine easier to document than that of original sin. The feeling that there is something not quite right with the world -- that humanity itself is, as Kant put it, "crooked timber from which no straight thing was ever made" -- is difficult to shake off as I review the records of human activity.

This situation tends to frustrate attempts at writing providential history. Christianity has a highly developed consciousness of the past; our doctrine centers not on a free-floating ethical code but on a person and a set of events surrounding that person. Significantly, we believe this person represents "the Word made flesh" -- specific revelation from God. The incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection represent the reversal of this world's corruption; Christ lived the first perfect life, died the first undeserved death, and rose again to defy the natural order as we know it. In a key respect, this account illustrates the difficulty any historian will have in understanding what God is up to.

Without specific instruction, no evangelical historian would dare suggest that the death of the Son of God was a good thing. True, the death of Christ was overturned three days later, but even so, it would be unthinkable to say that the crucifixion itself was God's will. Yet that is precisely what the Christian doctrines surrounding atonement say; the crucifixion was part of God's plan for redemption. The very murder of God was the centerpiece of his work in human experience. In this case, at least, the only way to get providential history right is to have that history written by Providence.

Desire for certainty of providential workings in other areas of history can likewise lead us astray. Often our accounts of God's work (e.g., the view of the USA as a Christian city-on-a-hill in some American evangelical circles) become esoteric rather than universal. We pick easy explanations, emphasizing the successes because we cannot imagine that God would take the field without emerging the visible victor. We must have evidence, and apparent failure cannot possibly be evidence. Perhaps we forget that the New Testament itself promises adversity rather than prosperity.

When providential history becomes that insular, limited to the historical hothouses that allow visible triumphs, it loses its claim to authority altogether. Both from the perspective of the Bible and from the increasingly global perspective of modern humanity, it has very limited credibility.

In any case, I think we should remember that the divine revelation of God's purposes given in the Bible is important to us precisely because it is extraordinary. It is a very rare, precious certainty, the sort we corrupt humans simply don't get in our own narratives.

Georges Florovsky, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian," in God, History, and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History, ed. C. T. McIntire (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), 438:

Even in the history of the Church "the hand of Providence" is emphatically hidden, though it would be blasphemous to deny that this Hand does exist or that God is truly the Lord of History. Actually, the purpose of a historical understanding is not so much to detect the Divine action in history as to understand the human action, that is, human activities, in the bewildering variety and confusion in which they appear to a human observer. Above all, the Christian historian will regard history at once as a mystery and as a tragedy—a mystery of salvation and a tragedy of sin. He will insist on the comprehensiveness of our conception of man, as a prerequisite of our understanding of his existence, of his exploits, of his destiny, which is actually wrought in his history.
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Next: Passion

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11 June 2005 - Saturday

Glow-worm on a grassblade, II


Peter Burke, "Overture: the New History, its Past and its Future," New Perspectives on Historical Writing, ed. Peter Burke (University Park: The Pennsylvania State UP, 1992), 6:

Our minds do not reflect reality directly. We perceive the world only through a network of conventions, schemata and stereotypes, a network which varies from one culture to another. In this situation, our understanding of conflicts is surely enhanced by a presentation of opposite viewpoints, rather than by an attempt, like Acton's, to articulate a consensus. We have moved from the ideal of the Voice of History to that of heteroglossia, defined as "varied and opposing voices."

Georges Florovsky, "The Predicament of the Christian Historian," in God, History, and Historians: An Anthology of Modern Christian Views of History, ed. C. T. McIntire (New York: Oxford UP, 1977), 413-414:

Indeed, historical cognition is a kind of conversation, a dialogue with those in the past whose life, thoughts, feelings, and decisions the historian endeavors to rediscover, through the documents by which they are witnessed to or signified. Accordingly, one can infer from certain facts, words or things, as from a sign to the meaning, only if and when these objective things can be lawfully treated as signs, that is, as bearers of meaning, only when and if we can reasonably assume that these things have a dimension of depth, a dimension of meaning. We do not assign meaning to them: we should detect meaning. Now, there is meaning in certain things, in our documents and sources, only in so far as behind them we are entitled to assume the existence of other intelligent beings.
Previous: Humility
Next: Observation

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10 June 2005 - Friday

Glow-worm on a grassblade, I


Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1952), 150:

The God before whom "the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as small dust in the balances" is known by faith and not by reason. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meanings which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.

Thomas C. Oden, After Modernity ... What? Agenda for Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1992), 121:

The spirit continues to use historical inquiry as a refining fire to purge from religious faith unwarranted assumptions and needless cultural accretions, to intensify ethical awareness, and to enrich the memory of revelation. Historical inquiry, even when shaped by bias or outright rejection of Christianity, may still be used providentially as an instrument by which the Spirit curbs inordinate assertiveness, leads to faith, and judges sin.
Next: Conversation

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6 June 2005 - Monday

What is modern literature?

The most important characteristic of modern world literature may be its struggle with the failure of traditional sources of moral authority. Modern literature has inherited skepticism not only of revelation and traditional religious standards but also of reason and community consensus as sources of meaning.

The typical modern writer describes a state of disconnectedness in which the individual lacks real belonging, has no ultimate purpose, and is paralyzed or controlled rather than guided and fulfilled by external expectations. The globalization of modern literature, in expanding the number of competing authorities and exposing readers to a baffling array of alien perspectives, has reinforced the idea that no particular tradition can be accepted as definitive.

One of the earliest writers to be identified as modern was the poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), whose writing challenged conventional morality and described a state of individual alienation from society.

His prose poem "One o'Clock in the Morning" (1862) is written from the perspective of an individual who loathes "the tyranny of the human face" and who prays to those few people he cares about to "keep me from the vanities of the world and its contaminating fumes [...]," fearing that otherwise he will not be able "to prove to myself that I am not the lowest of men [...]" (Norton E 1395-1396). This speaker finds his community repugnant but, in his isolated state, finds himself just as undesirable as the people he hates.

Taking a slightly different approach, Baudelaire's "Anywhere out of the World" expresses an inability to find satisfaction in any known location: "It always seems to me that I should be happy anywhere but where I am [...]" (1397). The latter poem hints at the relationship between modern writing's global perspective and its sense of disconnectedness. The more options available to the modern individual, the more difficult it is for him to embrace any one of them as a source of meaning.

In Indian literature, the writing of Mahasweta Devi (b. 1926) shows a similar loss of confidence in local traditions. Stories like "Breast-Giver" (1980) take place within Indian culture but betray an awareness of outside customs that call its values into question.

Mahasweta can satirize her own heritage:

Jashoda is fully an Indian woman, whose unreasonable, unreasoning, and unintelligent devotion to her husband and love for her children, whose unnatural renunciation and forgiveness have been kept alive in the popular consciousness by all Indian women from Sati-Savitri-Sita through Nirupa Roy and Chand Osmani. (Norton F 2830)
This ability to criticize the values of an entire nation may be liberating, but it can also be highly disorienting. Mahasweta's writing follows the pattern set by many other modern writers in expressing disillusionment with the community, which should provide moral and spiritual guidance but instead must be attacked for its evils. When an Indian individual must reject some of the most prominent values in Indian culture, where can that individual look for an alternative authority? The writer feels abandoned, stripped of protection; she has become her own source of purpose and thus has lost any sense of common purpose with others. When Mahasweta depicts the universal abandonment of the character Jashoda in "Breast-Giver," she is mirroring what happens to all independent individuals: "Jashoda’s death was the death of God. When a mortal masquerades as God here below, she is forsaken by all and she must always die alone" (2845).

This conflict between the values of the individual and the values of society is also seen often in the work of Albert Camus (1913-1960), who advocated the assertion of individual moral will in the face of an absurd environment and hostility from the community.

Camus' story "The Guest" (1957) emphasizes the mental isolation of the individual by placing the protagonist, Daru, in a physical desert, far away from the government officials who try to control his life. This desert is a difficult place to live, Camus writes, "But Daru had been born here. Everywhere else, he felt exiled" (Norton F 2575). This character, in other words, is used to living alone, without much imposition from others.

Perhaps this makes it easier for Daru to object to the orders given by the colonial rulers, orders that violate his moral sensibilities. It should be noted, however, that Daru's choice in the story puts him at odds not only with the government but also with friends of the man he tries to save. Thus, Camus declares that the modern individual is at odds with the will of his peers as well as the will of his superiors. The alienation is complete. "In this vast landscape he had loved so much," the story ends, "he was alone" (2582).

Some modern writers have reacted to the breakdown in community consensus not by embracing it but by challenging it. Alexander Solzhenitsyn (b. 1918), for example, is known for stories that recommend a return to traditional morality. Even these writers, however, are affected by the general disconnectedness. They must prove the legitimacy of any authority to which they wish to appeal; no authority may be taken for granted.

Solzhenitsyn cannot tell his readers to serve the needs of their neighbors without exploring the social difficulties this will involve. In "Matryona’s Home" (1963), for example, Solzhenitsyn portrays the altruistic title character as being very lonely; she too is alienated from her community, even though she treats it as a source of meaning.

Solzhenitsyn's argument is not that the community may be trusted, but that the individual has no choice but to live selflessly if life is to have any purpose at all. External authority is necessary even if it is not entirely satisfying, and selfless individuals are necessary if the community is to survive. Solzhenitsyn tells the reader that Matryona "was the righteous one without whom, as the proverb says, no village can stand" (Norton F 2722).

Each of these authors shows the effects of modernity's skepticism of authority. In the selections mentioned here, Baudelaire and Mahasweta seem unable to identify any definitive source of purpose; Camus advocates individual sensibilities rather than external commands as the arbiter of value; and Solzhenitsyn recommends that the individual sacrifice his own desires for the good of others even if the community proves destructive to him. None of these authors seems to recommend that the individual trust the people around him. Each of these authors describes a condition of irreversible loneliness. This guardedness is a defining characteristic of modern literature.

Works Cited

Lawall, Sarah, gen. ed. The Norton Anthology of World Literature, second ed. Vols. E-F. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2002.

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5 June 2005 - Sunday

Globalizing American history

Last night, Ralph Luker called for a Cliopatria "symposium" to discuss a NYT article on the globalization of US history. So far we have responses from Jonathan Dresner, KC Johnson, Ralph Luker, Rob MacDougall, and Caleb McDaniel, in one long hyperpost.

Ralph Luker, for example, proposes that post-9/11 US historians should learn from the example of the Annales School in France after World War I:

In the United States, it seems to me, the influence of the Annales historians has been largely limited to our European historians. R. R. Palmer certainly exemplified their breathtaking reach -- and pioneered in what Gewen calls "Atlantic history" -- in his great work, The Age of the Democratic Revolution. Their work has been known to and admired by the rest of us, but we have not followed their example.

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25 May 2005 - Wednesday

"Nerd hermeneutics"

At Easily Distracted, Tim Burke has some interesting things to say about the nature and significance of fantasy universes:

The biggest mistake that some non-nerd hermeneuts make in looking on with curled lip is to assume that the work of nerd hermeneutics is about wish fulfillment, about fashioning universes in which we would prefer to live. There’s some of that going on, to be sure, and I mentioned it in an earlier post. Jedis, wizards, nobility, superheroes are attractive figures to adolescent geeks who imagine themselves as possessing inner talents and merits that are scorned or marginalized in the wider culture. ...

But a substantial amount of nerd hermeneutics is not about wish fulfillment, quite the contrary. Like David Brin, the more hermeneutical work I do on Star Wars, the less I want to live in its universe at any time. In the end, I don’t like the Jedi at all, much less wish I were one.

Read on to see his opinion of the Christian content in the Chronicles of Narnia.

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21 May 2005 - Saturday

The first duty of a doctor

Yesterday evening, I drove into Austin to watch Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957) at the Paramount Theatre. The film, which I had never seen before, more than met my expectations.

The central character is Isak Borg, an aging doctor. The story takes place on the day of a ceremony, in the cathedral of the distant city of Lund, that will honor him for 50 years of distinguished service. Troubled by dreams of his own death, Borg abruptly decides that morning to drive himself to the ceremony rather than fly. His daughter-in-law Marianne, who has been living with him for a few weeks rather than with her husband in Lund, joins him for the automobile trip.

Borg makes a few significant stops along the way. First, he stops to show Marianne his boyhood home. Pausing at the wild strawberry patch in the woods nearby, he lapses into a dream of his first love, Sara. We learn through the dream that the straightlaced young Borg lost Sara to his own less reputable but more ardent brother.

Borg is roused from his dream by the voice of a stranger. The stranger is a gregarious young woman. She and two male friends, who seem to be rivals for her attention, ask for a ride (they are going to Italy). The girl is named Sara. Borg seems rejuvenated and charmed by their presence, and they take to calling him "Father Isak." The road trip resumes.

The next stop is unintentional. Borg's car nearly collides with an auto going in the other direction. Both cars swerve off the road, but no one is hurt. The occupants of the other vehicle are a middle-aged husband and wife, who are quite cheerful about the accident but who bicker viciously (through fixed smiles) between themselves. With their car out of commission, they join the crew in Borg's capacious vehicle, but Marianne soon asks them to leave; the husband's cutting remarks about his wife have become intolerable.

At the next stop, Borg takes his daughter-in-law to see his mother, a formidable and forbidding 96-year-old. The mother welcomes them amicably but not warmly. Borg seems unusually cheerful, but Marianne seems disturbed by the cavalier way the ancient lady speaks about her family.

Borg and Marianne return to their car to find that the young men accompanying Sara, whom they had left in an argument over the existence of God, are engaged in a physical fight. Apparently Sara is used to this. Her favorite is the boy who wants to become a parson, but she is aware that the other, who wishes to become a doctor, will probably make more money.

The journey resumes. Borg dozes off as his daughter-in-law drives. He enters another dream.

In this dream, Borg is called into an examination room to answer vague charges of incompetence. The examiner quizzes him: "What is the first duty of a doctor?"

Borg, stunned, answers, "I've forgotten."

"The first duty of a doctor," the examiner reminds him, "is to ask for forgiveness."

Borg is then led to a place in the woods, apparently to witness a scene he remembers from life. He watches as his wife Karin is raped by someone she knows (they are both well dressed, as if coming from a party). Afterwards, Karin soliloquizes about what her husband's response will be. He will try to calm her. He will say it was not her fault, even that it was his own fault. He will be perfectly proper about it – but he will be cold as ice, as always.

When Borg wakes up, Marianne asks what Borg was dreaming about. He answers that he has dreamt that he is dead – dead even in life. Marianne says that her husband has talked in a similar way about himself lately. She reveals that Evald has threatened to leave her if she decides to have the baby with which she is pregnant. Also, Evald has been speaking of suicide.

The journey continues without incident. The party arrives at Lund, where Evald is already waiting, along with Borg's old housekeeper Agda. The ceremony at the cathedral proceeds magnificently. The youths stay to cheer for "Father Isak."

That night, Borg fondly bids farewell to Sara and her friends, who continue their trip to Italy.

He asks Evald about his marriage; Evald says that he and Marianne are going to try to stay together. Borg kisses Marianne good night, and they announce that they like each other after all.

He asks his housekeeper, "Miss Agda," whether – after 40 years – they know each other sufficiently well to call each other just "Agda" and "Isak."

He drifts off to sleep, dreaming about meeting his parents on the shore of the lake by their home.


Victor Sjöström, in his last film role, is magificent as Isak Borg. He began his career in silent film; this movie uses beautiful closeups to make the most of his expressive talent. His voice is also perfect for the character; even with poor subtitles, I was grateful that the original sound had been retained.

The symbolism in the film, although heavier than most audiences are accustomed to seeing, is palatable because it is woven into the story naturally. Dreams are expected to be symbolic, after all, and children often take after their parents. In dreaming about different stages of his own life or merely in witnessing different stages in the lives of others, Borg sees the different directions a person's choices about love can take him.

The film manages a happy ending without resorting to schmaltz. Wild Strawberries, unlike maudlin cousins like A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life, does not exaggerate its protagonist's vices or virtues; Isak Borg is a routine well-meaning man of ambition. His redemption, therefore, can be of a similarly moderate nature. His "first duty" is the duty of every doctor: to ask forgiveness for the sacrifices he has made.

In particular, I enjoyed the fact that Borg makes this trip at the end of his life. He is not making a dramatic change that will redirect the course of his existence. He is making what small choices he can to show love to those around him – the sorts of choices that must be made every day.

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20 May 2005 - Friday

Clone War = War on Terror?

A large number of people have suggested that Episode III presents a parallel to the growth of American power under the current presidential administration. It is only natural, I suppose, that they should see such an analogy, tiresome as it is.

Continue reading "Clone War = War on Terror?" below the fold . . .

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10 May 2005 - Tuesday

John Brown and political violence

Caleb McDaniel says he is eagerly waiting for his copy of David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist : The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights. Why? Because the book, according to early reviews, seems to be not only a lionization of John Brown, but also a condemnation of nonviolent abolitionists as ineffective and perhaps cowardly. I like McDaniel's response:

It certainly is true that nonviolence sometimes is a sign of cowardice, but so is violence. It's always startling to me that despite the fact that most people accept detailed taxonomies of different kinds of violence, which range along a spectrum from justified and heroic violence to illicit abuse, very few of us have similarly well developed taxonomies of different kinds of pacifism, which can also range from the heroic to the thoughtless. I have suggested that a simple dichotomization of radicalism that places "fight" on the one hand and "flight" on the other does violence to history.

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30 April 2005 - Saturday

Forbearance and fellowship

My weekend reading project is The Jeweler's Shop: A Meditation on the Sacrament of Matrimony, Passing on Occasion into a Drama, by the late John Paul II. It was first published in 1960, while he was still a bishop in Poland.

The first act features alternating soliloquies by Teresa and Andrew, who describe their recent courtship. Here is an excerpt from Andrew's first speech, in which he explains how he grew slowly to love Teresa, almost in spite of his expectations:

I thought much at the time about the "alter ago."
Teresa was a whole world, just as distant
as any other man, as any other woman.
-- and yet there was something that allowed one to think of throwing a bridge.

I let that thought run on, and even develop within me.
It was not an assent independent of an act of will.
I simply resisted sensation and the appeal of the senses,
for I knew that otherwise I would never really leave my "ego"
and reach the other person -- but that meant an effort.
For my senses fed at every step
on the charms of the women I met.
When once or twice I tried following them,
I met solitary islands.
This made me think that beauty accessible to the senses
can be a difficult gift or a dangerous one;
I met people led by it to hurt others
-- and so, gradually, I learned to value beauty
accessible to the mind, that is to say, truth.
I decided then to seek a woman who would be indeed
my real "alter ego" so that the bridge between us
would not be a shaky footbridge among water lilies and reeds.

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The black dog and the bulldog

Mark Grimsely, whose stylish and prolific War Historian has been putting a lot of other academic bloggers to shame, has a post on Churchill's depression and the stigma of mental illness:

Notwithstanding Churchill's example and that of many others known to have had mental illnesses of various sorts -- to say nothing of "normal" individuals -- when it comes to explaining the views and behavior of historical actors, historians still tend to avoid psychology as an analytical tool. ... [Much of it may come from the assumption] that highly functional people cannot, by definition, have significant mental or emotional disorders. Or to frame it in the reverse, that people with such disorders reveal crippling weaknesses that unfit them for significant historical agency.

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15 April 2005 - Friday

History Carnival VI

The sixth history carnival, chaired by Jonathan Dresner, is now up at Cliopatria. Dresner chose a fun conference-program format:

Speeches (opening and closing) will be in the Droning Auditorium. Panels will be in the Alumni Donor Memorial Classroom. Poster Session will be in the big Theory Hall; Mini-Panels will meet on the left end of Theory Hall, unless the participants refuse to appear together. Papal Working Group will meet in secret.
Your humble servant is especially excited this time. His blog is included in the carnival; the recent musing on evangelical historiography was selected for the panel on "religious cultures and modernities." Fortunately, the panel has several other members to bring the quality back up. Caleb McDaniel speaks to "Democratization and Christianity"; Mark LeVine presents "Some Thoughts on the 'End of Arab History'"; and Brandon Watson reflects on the moral order espoused by Jules Verne in "Master of the World."

Take a look at the rest of the presenters, too. I think this is the best format yet for a carnival.

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10 April 2005 - Sunday

Two kinds of colleague

Premchand (Dhanpat Rai Shrivastava, 1880-1936):

It's a mystery why there's just as much love among the wicked as malice among the good. Scholars, holy men and poets sizzle with jealousy when they see other scholars, holy men and poets. But a gambler sympathizes with another gambler and helps him, and it's the same with drunkards and thieves. Now, if a Brahman Pandit [scholar of the highest caste] stumbles in the dark and falls then another Pandit, instead of giving him a hand, will give him a couple of kicks so he won't be able to get up. But when a thief finds another thief in distress he helps him. Everybody's united in hating evil so the wicked have to love one another; while everybody praises virtue so the virtuous are jealous of each other. What does a thief get by killing another thief? Contempt. A scholar who slanders another scholar attains to glory.
-- "The Road to Salvation," trans. David Rubin.

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1 April 2005 - Friday

History Carnival V

The fifth history carnival is up at ClioWeb. Since I've been thinking about literature quite a bit lately, here are some entries that relate to the proper care and feeding of texts:

The Little Professor reflects on the relationship between literary criticism and historical context (specifically, where nineteenth-century anti-Catholic literature is concerned). >>

Caleb McDaniel adds that it can be especially difficult for teachers to get students to approach texts simultaneously as rhetoric and as reportage. >>

Nathanael D. Robinson explains why he likes using Tacitus' The Germania in class. >>

Sepoy describes searching through some rather some rather fanciful medieval European depictions of Islam in an attempt to track down the origins of the word termagant (i.e., shrew). >>

Eb notes that a text can be a source for all sorts of clues about the context within which it was created; in this case, an advertisement for Uncle Tom's Cabin raises questions about the number of German-speakers in America in the nineteenth century. >>

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19 March 2005 - Saturday

Sinaiticus goes digital

I'm highly excited. A project is being launched to digitize the most important Bible of them all--the Codex Sinaiticus. The project is expected to take 4 years and cost £680,000. More details are here.

Via Mirabilis.ca. (Have I mentioned Mirabilis.ca here before? If not, I certainly should have.)

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8 March 2005 - Tuesday

Liberation militant

At Siris, Brandon celebrates International Women's Day with an anecdote about a conservative Muslim acquaintance. In an elevator, a young man lectured her on how oppressive it is to observe hijab.

How nice to have such enlightened boors about, ready to liberate us from ourselves on the spot.

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5 March 2005 - Saturday


As a result of attending a small academic conference last spring, I am one of hundreds of people on an e-mail list related to the work of the Inklings literary group. (I know there are hundreds of us because I can see every e-mail address on the list every time I receive a message.) I do not actually recall asking to be included in this list, although I suppose I may have checked a box on a form during the conference.

Today, a message arrived with the subject line "gender-inclusive language; why I oppose it." The message is more than 700 words long. It has an RTF attachment that runs to more than 6,600 words.

Allow me to provide a sample of the e-mail:

I have just completed a controversial essay that I think C. S. Lewis would have agreed with but which much of modern academia would not. I am asking you all to please, please take the time to read or at least skim through it and to then forward it on to others in your address book whom you think would benefit from it. [. . .]

Finally, I ask that if you agree with what I’ve written that you forward this email on to others in your community, workplace, school, church, etc. The censorious tide of gender-inclusive language CAN be pushed back, but it will take a real GRASSROOTS effort to do so (something akin to the grassroots attempt to halt gay marriage).

This e-mail came from a professor of English.

I was amused when, twenty minutes later, one of the recipients of this message sent a reply to everyone on the list: "Please remove me from this email distribution list. I am not particularly a lover of C.S. Lewis and have not benefited from any emails sent to me on Lewis-related topics."

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Il faut cultiver notre jardin

At The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik analyzes the humanitarian impulses of Voltaire, the Enlightenment's intellectual plenipotentiary. According to Gopnik's interpretation, Voltaire was neither the radical nor the pessimist that some think. His early advocacy of human rights came from inclinations we might regard as conservative, and his criticism of optimism was actually an attack on militant ideologies.

As Tocqueville saw half a century later, home-making, which ought to make people more selfish, makes them less so; it gives them a stake in other people’s houses. It is not so much the establishment of a garden but the ownership of a gate that moves people from liking a society based on favors to one based on rights. Enclosing his garden broadened Voltaire’s circle of compassion. When people were dragged from their gardens to be tortured and killed in the name of faith, he began to take it, as they say, personally. [. . .]

The horror that Voltaire wanted crushed, cruelty in the name of God and civilization, was a specific and contingent thing. [. . .] The villains are the villains: Jesuits and Inquisitors and English judges and Muslim clerics and fanatics of all kinds. If they went away, life would be much better. He knew that the flood would get your garden no matter what you did; but you could at least try to keep the priests and the policemen off the grass. It wasn’t enough, but it was something.

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1 March 2005 - Tuesday

One who was certainly completely crazy

For the record, Gertrude Stein's "Picasso" is the most boring poem I have ever read.

Here is the first paragraph (stanza?):

One whom some were certainly following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were certainly following was one who was charming. One whom some were following was one who was completely charming. One whom some were following was one who was certainly completely charming.
There are eleven more where that came from.

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27 February 2005 - Sunday


Take a look at this collection of unusual technical images of equipment used in World War II. It has some very nice period diagrams of battleships, submarines, minefields, and other engines of war.

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23 February 2005 - Wednesday

The passing of a prescriptivist

Miss Gould was my hero, but I didn't even know about her until her death.

She was a fiend for problems of sequence and logic. In her presence, modifiers dared not dangle. She could find a solecism in a Stop sign. [. . .] Miss Gould once found what she believed were four grammatical errors in a three-word sentence.

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29 January 2005 - Saturday

Free journals

Thanks to Gallagher (and Slashdot), I have discovered the Directory of Open Access Journals.

This service covers free, full text, quality controlled scientific and scholarly journals. We aim to cover all subjects and languages. There are now 1426 journals in the directory. Currently 347 journals are searchable at article level. As of today 62820 articles are included in the DOAJ service.

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27 January 2005 - Thursday

Memory and shame

City Journal has published an intriguing article called "The Specters Haunting Dresden." The author, Theodore Dalrymple, uses the rebuilt city of Dresden, which was firebombed out of existence by the Allies in World War II, as the basis of a discourse on the relationships among history, collective identity, and guilt.

Nowhere in the world (except, perhaps, in Israel or Russia) does history weigh as heavily, as palpably, upon ordinary people as in Germany. Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, the disaster of Nazism is still unmistakably and inescapably inscribed upon almost every town and cityscape, in whichever direction you look. The urban environment of Germany, whose towns and cities were once among the most beautiful in the world, second only to Italy’s, is now a wasteland of functional yet discordant modern architecture, soulless and incapable of inspiring anything but a vague existential unease, with a sense of impermanence and unreality that mere prosperity can do nothing to dispel. Well-stocked shops do not supply meaning or purpose. Beauty, at least in its man-made form, has left the land for good; and such remnants of past glories as remain serve only as a constant, nagging reminder of what has been lost, destroyed, utterly and irretrievably smashed up.

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3 August 2004 - Tuesday

A revealing conversation from the final days of French II

LE PROF: "Bernice, que faut-il que tu fasses pour réussir dans le cours de français?"

L'ÉTUDIANTE: "Uh, I think I know what you're saying . . . uh, something about taking the course over?"

LE PROF: "Non . . . I'm not that mean."

L'ÉTUDIANTE: "Uh, repeetay, see voo play?"

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17 April 2004 - Saturday

Whatever is excellent, part II

Part I is here.

When evangelicals discuss media propriety, someone always seems to bring up a particular Scripture passage. It is difficult to conduct a conversation of, say, the morality of watching certain kinds of movies, without hearing this verse. For some time the passage was emblazoned across the redirect page of the university's Web filtering system.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
Philippians 4:8 ESV
Many invoke this verse to prove their point -- or at least to render their point more appetizing. Some view it as implying that anything "impure" should not be "thought on" at all; others merely find it helpful as a guide to the development of refined taste and habits. While few argue that the verse prohibits anything in particular, many seem to think that their weaker brethren will find it a helpful subject of meditation the next time they feel tempted to slip an insufficiently uplifting CD across the checkout counter.

The odd thing about this phenomenon is the fact that Philippians 4:8 is not a prohibition. It tells its audience what should be embraced, not what should be avoided. The words are "whatever is," not "only what is." It does not paint a picture of restraint, but of passion -- the pursuit of everything that is worthwhile.

The verses immediately preceeding this one tell the audience to rejoice in the Lord, display "reasonableness," be thankful, and allow the peace of God to guard their hearts. The verses immediately following it encourage the practice of the things of the Lord. None of the immediate context seems to have anything to do with avoiding contact with evil.

The preceeding chapter, however, does concern the avoidance of evil. Specifically, it warns believers to watch out for legalism (3:2-7). The book as a whole speaks of a purity that is found in service and humility. Believers are to set an example in their unity and diligence, not their separation from the world (1:27-28). Blamelessness is found in doing good; it is a blamelessness of involvement, not distance (2:12-16).

When 4:8 says "if there is anything worthy of praise," why do some evangelicals read instead "if there is nothing worthy of censure"?

Much evil exists in the world. Much evil is depicted -- indeed, advocated -- in the world's communications. This has always been the case. Christ ate with sinners and paid taxes to an emperor who called his father a god. Paul based sermons on pagan shrines (Acts 17:22-23) and quoted pagan poetry into the Holy Writ (Epimenides and Aratus in 17:28). The followers of Christ face the task of communicating with a world full of sinners just like us.

Why are we so preoccupied with preventing unbelievers from influencing us? Is the truth weaker than a lie? Can Christianity not withstand the very evils for which it promises forgiveness? Is the blood of Christ less potent than the sins it covers? Is our beacon so weak that we cannot be let out of doors after dark?

Christians are susceptible to every influence that works on the rest of the world's population. In the theaters we are apt to be seduced; in the cloisters we are apt to become Pharisees. Jesus preached against the Pharisees a lot more than against the actors.

No amount of separation will ever change the fact that we are sinners too. Nothing will ever make us better than our neighbors. But at least we can avoid the mistake of the priest and Levite; we can stop to help the bloody Samaritan (Luke 10:31-32) -- even if we require another bath or two afterwards.

"Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws," said Daniel O'Connell (among others). We run the risk of separating ourselves from the thoughts and questions and desires and heartbreak of the world, if we cut ourselves off from its art. As for sin . . . we will sin on regardless.

To my relief, Gene Edward Veith interpreted Philippians 4:8 in a similar fashion when he wrote the article that prompted the first part of this post. In his explanation of World's movie review policy, Veith said:

At the same time, since Scripture enjoins us to think about "whatever" is excellent and of good report (Philippians 4:8), we want to pay attention to quality work, whether it has explicitly Christian themes or not, since all of life, including the aesthetic realm and the so-called "secular" sphere, is God's dominion. . . . While we will point out their shortcomings, movies like these deserve a "good report."
I can agree with that.

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10 April 2004 - Saturday

Whatever is excellent, part I

This Wednesday I received an issue of World Magazine in the mail, courtesy of my parents. I sat down at a table in the student center and leafed through the publication. I groaned at the cover ("toppling the dictator may prove easier than rebuilding the nation Saddam destroyed" -- wow, that had never occurred to me). I murmured approval after reading an article about the new breed of Generation-X churches (an antidote to the megachurch -- dare I call them "postmodern"?). And I winced when Gene Edward Veith tried to explain World's policy on movie reviews.

I do not like many evangelical movie reviews.

Since I found World's review of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (in the previous issue) particularly annoying, I should begin by noting that coarse language rarely upsets me much. Unlike most evangelicals, I am not often offended by the misapplication of sexual and religious terminology. I can think of various reasons not to use certain words in certain social contexts; I can think of good reasons not to get into the habit of using certain words; I can think of great reasons to keep children from hearing certain expressions; and I can find ample justification for preserving some measure of reverence in one's speech. But I cannot find it in my heart to be upset by someone else's limited English skills. To the extent that coarse language is usually shallow, sometimes a lame attempt to provoke a reaction, and often an abuse of the name of God, I view it with the same contempt in which I hold the vapidity of most evangelical culture.

I do become annoyed, however, when I see Christians dismissing thoughtful art because it accurately reflects the language of the culture around them. I also object to the (usually unspoken) assumption that anything not suitable for thirteen-year-olds is unsuitable for any follower of Christ. Furthermore, I object to the idea that art must lead its viewers directly to the church -- or at least directly to suburban nicety -- in order to be valid, useful, important, or non-damnable.

World makes a better attempt than most. In theory, this magazine recognizes that art is important, and that good art rarely includes an altar call. However, it still misses the mark.

Veith complains in the 10 April issue:

Nine of the 30 movies in circulation are rated R. This is an unusually high number, after a decline in previous months, since the movie industry has recognized that R-rated films do not make as much money as those the whole family can see. Apparently, Hollywood is trying to bring back the R movie.
That last line is laughable. First, Hollywood will do what it has to do in order to stay in business. Second, there is only a vague correlation between quality and profitability in the motion picture industry; many blockbusters are intellectually insipid and even morally insidious, while many great films lose money. Even if a film is "family-friendly" and therefore highly popular, it may be absolute rubbish; and even if a film is totally inappropriate for children, it may be precisely what their parents need to see.

This may be the right spot for me to mention that the Bible is not always a kid-friendly book. Mrs. Cleaver would have been shocked by the Old Testament. Yes, I know you've heard that before.

In fact, the next sentence from Veith cuts any value from the lines I have just quoted: "Ironically, the most successful R movie ever is The Passion of the Christ."

Funny, that.

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7 March 2004 - Sunday

Academic mechaieh

How I have missed such days!

I am sitting in the university library, gazing through its huge bay windows. The sun is casting a golden light across the grass outside. I can see a blue kite whirling in the air above the engineering building across the road. Occasionally a jogger goes by.

Two anonymous students behind me in the library are hunched over a homework assignment, conversing in low tones. Martinez is sitting to my right, reading his Circuits I textbook. To my left, Gallagher is reading his "Bible of programming" for what seems to be a Data Structures assignment. Further to the left, Wheeler is proofreading Martinez' paper for Theology of Cults.

Meanwhile, I have been searching academic databases for articles pertaining to the sociology of first century Jerusalem. So far the fruits of this search have been disappointing. The search itself, however, has reminded me of the reasons I became a history major in the first place. The glories of the liberal arts are passing in front of my eyes. As synopses and abstracts slide by, I dip my fingers into their richness to sample the many flavors of the humanities. OCLC is an exotic bazaar and EBSCOhost a farmer's market to me. I wrap myself in the titles of scholarly papers as if they were colorful silk scarves. I chuckle at articles like "The bitch had it coming to her: rhetoric and interpretation in Ezekiel 16"; I thrill to titles like "Moving to 'our' common ground - a critical examination of community cohesion discourse in twenty-first century Britain"; and I gaze in wonder at the like of "Modern and ancient olive stands near Sagalassos (south-west Turkey) and reconstruction of the ancient agricultural landscape in two valleys."

So far I have found no relevant articles in my periodical search, but I did file three interlibrary loan requests earlier this afternoon. Two of the books I ordered deal with the structure of ancient cities; the third examines New Testament views of Jerusalem. These books, however, are merely the souvenirs of the journey I have taken.

It all comes back to me now.

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29 February 2004 - Sunday

The Yiddish Project

I have added a new area to my sidebar: the Yiddish Word of the Week.

This idea came out of a conversation with Wheeler today, in which we decided that this feature would be a good way to reinvigorate the "Yiddish Project" we began last semester. Inasmuch as Yiddish is perhaps the most colorful language on earth, we decided to learn as many choice expressions as possible. The new feature seemed a helpful learning tool.

One source of information in particular has been very helpful:
Leo Rosten, The Joys of Yiddish. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1968.

Please also see the Ariga Glossary of Yiddish Expressions provided by Michael Fein.

Archive of Entries:

paskudne ("poss-KOOD-nyeh") Filthy, unkind, disgusting, contemptible (e.g., The dining hall served a paskudne meal this evening) (29 February 2004)

mechaieh ("m'-KHY-eh")
Pleasure, satisfaction, bliss, joy (e.g., Ah, a good book on a rainy night is such a mechaieh!) (7 March 2004)

meshugana ("meh-SHOOG-eh-nah")
A crazy person (e.g., He's a complete meshugana; He's completely meshugana) (15 March 2004)

shmatte ("SHMOT-ta")
A rag, piece of junk, dishonored person, slattern, or sycophant (e.g., I wouldn't be seen wearing a shmatte like that; They treat him like a shmatte; The little shmatte stole my husband; Is there anyone he doesn't agree with, the shmatte?) (22 March 2004)

shtuss ("shtuss")
Nonsense or commotion (e.g., Why do you believe that sort of shtuss?; They made such a shtuss in the street) (28 March 2004)

gevalt! ("ge-VOLLT!")
An intense expression of amazement, fear, or protest -- from German, "powers" (e.g., Gevalt! I saw a ghost!; She gave out a gevalt loud enough to wake the neighbors) (5 April 2004)

oysgematert ("oyss-geh-MOT-tert")
Exhausted (e.g., After working all day, he's oysgematert) (11 April 2004)

L'chayim ("le-KHY-im" -- the kh being quite guttural)
To life! (used as a toast, as in "to your health") (20 April 2004)

yentz (rhymes with "rents")
To copulate; to cheat, to swindle, to defraud. Very coarse, an obscenity -- think of the English "screw" (e.g., Yentz you, and your little dog too!) (2 May 2004)

loch in kop ("LAWKH enn kawp," guttural sound for "kh")
Hole in the head; part of the larger phrase "Ich darf es vi a loch in kop," which means, "I need it like a hole in the head" (e.g., I need to hear more of Scholl's euphemisms like I need a loch in kop.) (9 May 2004)

shlemiel ("Shluh-MEEL")
A fumbler, a clumsy person, someone who is all thumbs (e.g., That shlemiel spilled hot coffee all over me! I was nearly scalded to death!) (16 May 2004)

m'shigas ("meh-SHIG-es")
Insanity, craziness, locura (e.g., No, I will not join the French Foreign Legion! That's m'shigas!) (24 May 2004)

hulien ("huh-LEIN")
To revel, frolic, carouse (e.g., The happy couple huliened all through the night) (31 May 2004)

bissel ("BIH-sill")
A very little bit, a smidgen (e.g., Some teachers treat their students as though they had only a bissel of knowledge and intelligence to call their own) (6 June 2004)

hok a tchynik ("HAWK uh chai-NIK")
Literally translated, this means "to strike a kettle." Most commonly used to signify yammering, excessive talking, nonsense talk, etc. (e.g., Stop hokking a tchynik! I quit listening to your ignorant prattle five minutes ago!) (20 June 2004)

nudnik ("NUD-nick" — rhymes with "mud slick")
A pest, a nag, a monumental bore (e.g., He never stops talking about animal husbandry, the nudnik!) (27 June 2004)

tsetummelt ("tse-TU-m'lt")
Confused, bewildered, scatterbrained (e.g., He was so tsetummelt last night, it's a wonder he didn't forget his own name) (7 July 2004)

kvell (Ummm . . . well . . . "KVELL")
To beam with immense pride and pleasure over an accomplishment (someone else's or your own) (e.g., His parents kvelled as he climbed the platform to receive his doctorate) (11 July 2004)

pisher ("PIH-sher")
A bed-wetter. A young, inexperienced person ("young squirt") (e.g., One day of kindergarten, and suddenly he thinks he knows everything, the pisher!) (26 July 2004)

halevai ("hole-iff-EYE")
I hope . . . I wish . . . If only I had . . . etc. (e.g., Let's go to a movie Sunday if, halevai, we are alive. And if not we'll go Tuesday) (1 August 2004)

behayme ("b'HAY-muh")
Animal - particularly used for "cow." Used to describe a dumbbell or ignoramus, or a stolid, hardworking, uncomplaining unimaginative sort (e.g., He slaves like a behayme, and for what?! No hopes, no dreams, no lofty aspirations . . . His only mechaieh seems to involve coming home oysgematert after a long day and yentzing around, if you know what I mean!) (10 August 2004)

Moishe Kapoyr ("MOY-sheh ka-POYR")
A contrary, contradictory person (e.g., He's so backward, he's a regular Moishe Kapoyr!) (14 September 2004)

shlepper ("SHLEP-per")
A nincompoop, an untidy person, or a beggar (e.g., I wouldn't count on a shlepper like that to be on time) (26 September 2004)

kibitz ("KIB-its")
To comment idly, tease, second-guess (e.g., Are you going to help me with this, or are you just going to stand there kibitzing?) (7 November 2004)

plotz (rhymes with "watts")
To split, burst, or explode with strong negative emotion; to be aggravated beyond bearing (e.g., When my parents see my report card they're gonna plotz!) (22 November 2004)

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3 February 2004 - Tuesday

Honor in shame

Let's do a little culturally-conscious exegesis. Because I feel like it. And because I ran across something fun tonight.

David A. deSilva, in The Hope of Glory: Honor Discourse and New Testament Interpretation:

Cultural anthropologists have also discovered a common form of gaining honor in modern Mediterranean villages that appears to have deep roots in Mediterranean culture. Honor may be gained when a person offers a challenge to another person of equal social status and the challenged one fails to respond effectively in defense of his or her honor. This form of social interaction has been labeled the "challenge-riposte" .... The challenge may take many shapes, some of which may be overtly hostile (such as a slap across the face) and some of which appear quite innocent (such as a question) .... The witnesses will be looking for the response of the one challenged, and will adjudicate whether or not the response meets the challenge. In the words of Julian Pitt-Rivers, "the victor in any competition for honor finds his reputation enhanced by the humiliation of the vanquished."
As I read this, my thoughts immediately went to Matthew 5:38-40. The idea of "turning the other cheek," failing to respond assertively when slapped across the face, takes on a slightly different meaning when viewed in a challenge-riposte context.

Western exegesis of the "turn the other cheek" command usually focuses on the violence of the act and the peacefulness of the response. Some modern pacifists seem to base their entire worldview on this one brief passage. In its cultural context, however, the key theme in the passage is perhaps not peace but humility. Jesus encourages his followers not to be so concerned with their personal honor, but to pursue personal righteousness instead. They are not to find approval from society but from the Lord. Vindication is unnecessary.

It would be improper to assert that this honor-shame dynamic is the only idea being examined in the Sermon on the Mount. However, several different elements in the sermon make more sense when viewed in this light.

When the Beatitudes praise every sort of humility, for instance, they do so within a culture that values very few things more than high community esteem; the Beatitudes provide hope of divine honor for those whom society dishonors (5:11-12). When Christ tells his disciples to be "salt and light," he tells them that they may need to be different from their culture; significantly, he says that their uniqueness should cause others to glorify God -- not them (v. 16). Anger is to be forsaken, not channeled for honor's sake (v. 22). Reconciliation is to be valued more highly than vindication (v. 24). Oaths should not be elaborate and magnificent but simple and truthful (vv. 34-37). Enemies should be loved, not conquered (vv. 44-45).

Honor in the Sermon on the Mount comes properly not from man but from God. The theme continues into the next chapter, as Christ condemns religious hypocrisy and extols the virtues of contentment.

I find it interesting that this sermon is the first major teaching that Matthew records after the formal beginning of Christ's ministry. Jesus began preaching in a context that defined an individual as a function of his society. Religious norms were the defining characteristics of a Judean's identity. Christ's disciples stood to lose a lot of honor. He proposed that his followers adhere to an alternative source of honor -- a Patron recognized an unimpeachable authority on the subject.

It is easy to lapse into a traditional Sunday school perspective on this sermon, repeating platitudes about how we should get along with everybody or conform to an especially strict set of religious rules. I think we would benefit from considering instead that Jesus was preaching an inherently nonconformist doctrine. For congregational honor he was substituting singleminded allegiance to God. For religious pride he was substituting unconditional love and personal humility. Far from being a hymn to religiosity, the sermon turns religiosity on its head. Nothing fulfills the Sermon on the Mount less than being "nice" because it is expected by the church. Only when one ignores the expectations and esteem of other men, however pious, will one understand what it means to follow Christ.

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