Category : Books

Harriet Beecher Stowe on her Feast Day

Have not many of us, in the weary way of life, felt, in some hours, how far easier it were to die than to live?

The martyr, when faced even by a death of bodily anguish and horror, finds in the very terror of his doom a strong stimulant and tonic. There is a vivid excitement, a thrill and fervor, which may carry through any crisis of suffering that is the birth-hour of eternal glory and rest.

But to live,–to wear on, day after day, of mean, bitter, low, harassing servitude, every nerve dampened and depressed, every power of feeling gradually smothered,–this long and wasting heart-martyrdom, this slow, daily bleeding away of the inward life, drop by drop, hour after hour,–this is the true searching test of what there may be in man or woman.

When Tom stood face to face with his persecutor, and heard his threats, and thought in his very soul that his hour was come, his heart swelled bravely in him, and he thought he could bear torture and fire, bear anything, with the vision of Jesus and heaven but just a step beyond; but, when he was gone, and the present excitement passed off, came back the pain of his bruised and weary limbs,–came back the sense of his utterly degraded, hopeless, forlorn estate; and the day passed wearily enough.

Long before his wounds were healed, Legree insisted that he should be put to the regular field-work; and then came day after day of pain and weariness, aggravated by every kind of injustice and indignity that the ill-will of a mean and malicious mind could devise. Whoever, in our circumstances, has made trial of pain, even with all the alleviations which, for us, usually attend it, must know the irritation that comes with it. Tom no longer wondered at the habitual surliness of his associates; nay, he found the placid, sunny temper, which had been the habitude of his life, broken in on, and sorely strained, by the inroads of the same thing. He had flattered himself on leisure to read his Bible; but there was no such thing as leisure there. In the height of the season, Legree did not hesitate to press all his hands through, Sundays and week-days alike. Why shouldn’t he?””he made more cotton by it, and gained his wager; and if it wore out a few more hands, he could buy better ones. At first, Tom used to read a verse or two of his Bible, by the flicker of the fire, after he had returned from his daily toil; but, after the cruel treatment he received, he used to come home so exhausted, that his head swam and his eyes failed when he tried to read; and he was fain to stretch himself down, with the others, in utter exhaustion.

Is it strange that the religious peace and trust, which had upborne him hitherto, should give way to tossings of soul and despondent darkness? The gloomiest problem of this mysterious life was constantly before his eyes, souls crushed and ruined, evil triumphant, and God silent. It was weeks and months that Tom wrestled, in his own soul, in darkness and sorrow. He thought of Miss Ophelia’s letter to his Kentucky friends, and would pray earnestly that God would send him deliverance. And then he would watch, day after day, in the vague hope of seeing somebody sent to redeem him; and, when nobody came, he would crush back to his soul bitter thoughts,that it was vain to serve God, that God had forgotten him. He sometimes saw Cassy; and sometimes, when summoned to the house, caught a glimpse of the dejected form of Emmeline, but held very little communion with either; in fact, there was no time for him to commune with anybody.

–Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Posted in Books, History, Race/Race Relations

(Church Times) John Saxbee reviews ‘C. S. Lewis and the Christian Worldview’ by Michael L. Peterson

IN 1947, Time magazine called him “one of the most influential spokespersons for Christianity in the English speaking world”. More than 50 years later, in 2000, he was recognised by Christianity Today as the most influential Christian author of the 20th century — and he continues to feature as one of Amazon’s bestselling authors.

So Michael Peterson introduces the subject of this exemplary intellectual biography. C. S. Lewis is likely to feature on the bookshelves of most Church Times readers — Narnia, Screwtape, and Malcolm may well be familiar names. But his fantasy fiction and popular theology was inspired and informed by a philosophical journey that led from atheism to his embrace of orthodox Christianity. As he himself put it, “imagination is the organ of meaning,” but “reason is the natural organ of truth.”

Lewis, however, was not systematic in his articulation of the philosophy informing his progression towards Christianity’s world-view. So here Peterson seeks to provide just such a systematic treatment and does so with what might be described as typical Lewisian accessibility.

This is literary/philosophical “biography” because Lewis’s varied and voluminous publications can be understood only in the light of his personal story. Peterson deftly negotiates the balance between biography illuminating Lewis’s intellectual odyssey, and explaining it away.

Read it all (registration).

Posted in Apologetics, Books, Church of England (CoE), England / UK, Theology

(HDS) Brett Malcolm Grainger reviews Bruce Hindmarsh new book ‘The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism: True Religion in a Modern World’

The evangelical reversal on spirituality has happened alongside scholarly reappraisals. In recent decades, historians such as W. R. Ward (Early Evangelicalism: A Global Intellectual History, 1670–1789, 2006), Isabel Rivers (Vanity Fair and the Celestial City: Dissenting, Methodist, and Evangelical Literary Culture in England, 1720–1800, 2018), Tom Schwanda (Soul Recreation: The Contemplative-Mystical Piety of Puritanism, 2012), John Coffey (ed., Heart Religion: Evangelical Piety in England and Ireland, 1690–1850, 2016), and Phyllis Mack (Heart Religion in the British Enlightenment: Gender and Emotions in Early Methodism, 2012) have issued a torrent of insightful studies on the lived religion of early evangelicalism, looking into topics as diverse as dreaming, hymnody, emotions, attitudes toward nature, and the influence of Catholic spiritual traditions.1 Bruce D. Hindmarsh’s recent book, The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism, builds on these accomplishments, offering what is perhaps the most complete and far-ranging assessment of early evangelical spiritual life as it relates to contemporary developments in science, law, art, and literature. In some ways, the book functions as a companion to Hindmarsh’s The Evangelical Conversion Narrative, which explored traditions of spiritual autobiography in evangelical narratives of conversion. In this earlier volume Hindmarsh revealed how conversion often worked as a kind of viral outbreak within religious ecosystems. These sudden spiritual awakenings promoted novel forms of religious community built around the central ritual of narrating a personal experience of the new birth. The Bible played a crucial role in these spiritual practices. For early evangelicals, the Bible never constituted a divine download of impersonal dogma: scripture communicated a direct and personal message in God’s own voice to men and women willing to listen to it.

Another distinguishing mark of evangelicalism, Hindmarsh argued, was its historical liminality. The movement emerged, he wrote, “at the trailing edge of Christendom and the leading edge of modernity,”2 helping people move from collective identities rooted in church membership to stronger notions of the self, individual, and personal faith. If his previous work stressed the internal diversity of early evangelicalism—demonstrating the disparate constructions of selfhood that emerged among Methodists, Moravians, Anglicans, and Baptists—the new book sees more forest than trees. Evangelicals, regardless of their sectarian affiliation, Hindmarsh writes, perceived “one thing needful” in the Christian life: “the democratized pursuit of the new birth.” In other words, while conversion remains the focus of The Spirit of Early Evangelicalism, this new work offers a more expansive cultural account of the practical implications that flowed from making “true religion” (3) a matter of transformative personal religious experience.

As Hindmarsh describes the spiritual ambitions of early evangelicals, what emerges is something more intellectually substantive and expansive than “I saw the light.” (Sorry, Hank.) Evangelical spirituality encompassed the preparation for, experience of, and the practical repercussions that flowed from the relentless pursuit of what Henry Scougal called “the life of God in the soul of man.”

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History, Evangelicals

(New Atlantis) Stefan Beck–Do We Want Dystopia? On nightmare tech as the fulfillment of warped desire

Inasmuch as there are canonical texts of American education, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is one of them. But students may wonder why their teacher presents as “dystopian” a text that reads, in 2020, like an operating manual for the technocratic American Dream. The taming of reproduction and heredity by science; the banishment of boredom, discomfort, and sorrow by entertainment and pharmacology; the omnipresent availability of attachment-free sex; the defeat of death, sort of, by blissed-out euthanasia: Huxley foresaw not our fears but some of our deepest aspirations.

To read and teach Brave New World as dystopia is at best an oblivious atavism, at worst a piece of deluded self-flattery. As a character (not even an especially bright one) observes in Michel Houellebecq’s The Elementary Particles (1998), “Everyone says Brave New World is supposed to be a totalitarian nightmare, a vicious indictment of society, but that’s hypocritical bullshit.” The only thing Huxley got wrong, the character adds, is society’s acceptance of genetic caste stratification. In reality, we expect “advances in automation and robotics” to render such attine division of labor as obsolete as the sundial, the cotton gin, and the dot matrix printer.

It’s easy to look back at Huxley’s novel and attribute the radiant, meaningless future toward which it so fearfully looked as the realization of the dreams of scientists — including Huxley’s own brother, the eugenicist Julian Huxley — with their Promethean curiosity and procrustean “solutions.” But Huxley fretted about the machinations of industry as much as he did about scientists: Brave New World is peppered with the surnames of Henry Ford, Sir Alfred Mond, and Maurice Bokanowski. Huxley seemed convinced that when the last irregularity was removed from the human condition, and the last inconvenience stripped from the human experience, it would be scientists’ and industrialists’ hands wielding the plane. But where the scientists pursue knowledge for its own sake, or in service of the good as they see it, the tech titans pursue it the better to sell us what we want. How well the would-be Aldous Huxleys of our day understand that — and how much blame they place on us and our appetites — is the subject of this essay.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Blogging & the Internet, Books, Corporations/Corporate Life, Eschatology, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Science & Technology

Today in History

Posted in Books, History

(CSM) With new urgency, parents learn how to talk to kids about race

As an African American parent, Cassandre Dunbar in Charlotte, North Carolina, always knew she and her husband would have “the talk” with their son, the one preparing him for interactions with law enforcement.

But she never dreamed it would be necessary at 5 years old.

“I thought the cops were supposed to help us? Are they only helpful to white people?” he asked after taking in TV coverage of protests and overhearing his parents discuss the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor.

Ms. Dunbar explained to her eldest child: “Some people have a hard time understanding that skin color doesn’t have anything to do with what kind of person you are. I said that, yes, cops are meant to help us all, but some cops aren’t good cops and the bad ones really aren’t helpful to people who look like us.”

Many parents of all races are struggling with similar conversations after a week of outrage and sadness that spilled into streets worldwide after video of Mr. Floyd’s death emerged. It came after months of family togetherness in coronavirus lockdown, a time when kids have been cut off from schools and peers.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Children, Ethics / Moral Theology, Law & Legal Issues, Marriage & Family, Police/Fire, Race/Race Relations, Theology, Violence

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary for Peter Moore

Age 83, peacefully entered into eternal life May 30 in Mt. Pleasant, SC. Born in Scarsdale, NY, Peter was an innovative leader, mentor, preacher and author for more than 50 years. He currently served as the director of the Anglican Leadership Institute since 2016, training leaders in the world-wide Anglican Church in servant leadership, all the while serving as a scholar in residence at St. Michael’s Church, in Charleston, SC. Peter served as director of the Council for Religion in Independent Schools in New York City and at that time, started FOCUS (Fellowship of Christians in Universities and Schools) in 1962. FOCUS seeks to bring Christ to students attending independent Secondary Schools along America’s East Coast. He then served as the fourth dean/president of Trinity School for Ministry and as its first president of the board of trustees, before moving to Charleston, SC.

Decade after decade, Peter was an unswerving, tireless agent of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Read it all.

Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, Anglican Church of Canada, Books, Death / Burial / Funerals, Evangelicals, Parish Ministry, Seminary / Theological Education, Theology

(Church Times) Dean Cally Hammond reviews ‘Austin Farrer: Oxford warden, scholar, preacher’, edited by Markus Bockmuehl and Stephen Platten

{This book]…is the fruit of a conference that took place in early 2019, and was published to mark the 150th anniversary of that icon of High Church Anglicanism, Keble College, Oxford. The book is a proper tribute to Farrer in that anniversary year, providing a series of essays on him as Warden, theologian, philosopher, exegete, and preacher.

It is not often that a book compiled from many sources is of such a uniformly high quality; and this makes it seem unfair to highlight what are really no more than personal enthusiasms. But I especially enjoyed the chapter by Ian Archer on Farrer’s time as Warden of Keble, not least because it is written with benign historical detachment — a useful balance to the hagiographic tendency in many Christian biographies.

The other highlight of Part One for me was the chapter by John Barton on Farrer as a preacher. Again, this combined a personal warmth for the man with honest acuity about his excellence, and sometimes shortcomings, as a preacher. Praise from the praiseworthy is praise indeed.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History, Church of England (CoE), Education, England / UK, Theology

(LRB) Colin Burrow on Melville’s Moby Dick–The Last Whale

Moby-Dick is such an extraordinary and impossible success not because it’s a fable about man’s environmental overreach but because it is several distinct things at once, things that at a radical level don’t add up. It displays the fascination of the hunter with the anatomy and habits of the hunted and it does so with such intensity that the fascination turns into something like love. It takes you inside the process of learning things about other species and the process of making money from killing them. Then, stuck right into the middle of that intoxicating brew are huge shards of Hamlet and ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ in the form of the madly vengeful Ahab. If you were at a creative writing class and said you wanted to write a novel embodying the obsessive imagination of the romantic hero in the captain of a whale ship as a modern Hamlet plonked in the middle of a factory floating on the sea, your instructors would no doubt be encouraging, because that’s their role, but would gently tell you that it wasn’t quite time to give up the day job. But that completely non-viable combination is what gives this infinitely frustrating and ambling novel the propulsive energy of a time bomb, lifting it out of the fishery into the realms of cultural critique. The impersonal violence of energy-seeking capitalism, which boils down distinct entities into a fungible oil, is hijacked by the obsessive energy of a post-romantic individual. This particular man, Ahab, wants this particular whale, Moby-Dick, and will seek it through every possible sea, regardless of all physical or financial risk.

This means that the Satanic obsessive Ahab is not in league with the shipowners and whale-oil burners, nor is he the friend of Victorian ladies with their baleen stays. He’s the arch-enemy of all these. When the whale oil starts to leak into the Pequod’s hold Starbuck says they must ‘up Burtons and break out’ – raise the winches and unpack the hold – because of the lost profit that will result. ‘What will the owners say, sir?’ the deferential Starbuck asks. ‘Let the owners stand on Nantucket beach and outyell the Typhoons,’ Ahab replies. ‘What cares Ahab? Owners, owners? Thou art always prating to me, Starbuck, about those miserly owners, as if the owners were my conscience.’ If Ahab had, say, proudly worn the badge of WhaleCorpTM embroidered on his bosom and personally sucked the spermacetti from the heads of all the sperm whales in the multitudinous seas, barrelling it up to make his shipowners massively wealthy and provide his crew with their pitiful share of the spoils (in Chapter 16 Ishmael is tricked into signing up for a three hundredth ‘lay’ or share of the profits by two of the owners of the Pequod) there would be no Moby-Dick. It would just be Barrett’s touristic whaling voyage or Scoresby’s Arctic, whaling as industry with a sideline in marine biology. Moby-Dick doesn’t give the last laugh to the ocean or to man or to the environment. It asks how we can marry the obsessions of individuals together with the intrinsically deindividuating industrial-scale processes that melt life down into money. The conclusion – we can’t, or at least not without wrecking the entire ship and killing the crew – is indeed not great news for shareholders in whale boats or for whale-oil futures, but Moby-Dick is probably more on their side than on that of Ahab. The wrecking of the Pequod is the result of human obsession rather than unsustainable fishing practices or ecological collapse. Certainly one can see in Melville’s heirs – notably in the John Steinbeck of Cannery Row – a premonitory recognition of the damage done by human beings to marine ecology, but Melville’s gaze is always that squinting vision of the mid-19th-century adventurer-cum-naturalist-cum-money-maker, for whom a whale is a fascinating creature partly because of what you can get for its blubber, and partly for the beauty you can see inside when you chop off its head.

The mess​ that is Moby-Dick didn’t go down well with its early audiences….

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History

Saturday Food for Thought From Ann Patchett

“There are a few times in life when you leap up and the past that you’d been standing on falls away behind you, and the future you mean to land on is not yet in place, and for a moment you’re suspended knowing nothing and no one, not even yourself.”

–Ann Patchett, The Dutch House (New York: Harper, 2019), page 121

Posted in Books

(NYT) Why Yo-Yo Ma Would Invite Socrates to Dinner

What books are on your nightstand?

“The World That Made New Orleans,” by Ned Sublette.

“Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” the oral history of one of the last known African survivors of the Middle Passage, by Zora Neale Hurston.

The memoirs of Alexandre Dumas, the first volume of which I am struggling through in French.

“Spirit Rising,” by the unparalleled Angelique Kidjo, who recommended the first three titles. She and I are working on a new project that explores some of the less-known intersections between what we think of as Western classical and African music.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Music

(CC) Books worth wrestling with

Several recent books by leading economists have critiqued the capitalist worldview and its structures as inherently flawed. Branko Milanovic’s Capitalism, Alone: The Future of the System That Rules the World, offers a slightly different take: it’s complicated. While capitalism needs major corrective measures, he argues, it is the only viable option. He brilliantly frames structural deficiencies and articulates goals, but many of his proposed measures fall short.

Milanovic traces the emergence of capitalism as the globally dominant socioeconomic system and distinguishes a Western form of capitalism—“liberal meritocratic capitalism”—from the “poli­tical capitalism” prevalent in au­thori­tarian regimes. He attributes growing inequality in countries like the US to a concentration of wealth at the top, higher dividends on wealth, and marriage patterns. Milanovic posits “people’s capitalism” as an alternative that can grant everyone an equal share of income.

It’s a noble idea, but how do we accomplish it? Some of Milanovic’s suggestions, like tax breaks for the lower and middle classes or more investment in public schools, might help. But he pays insufficient attention to the massive wage gap, the lack of guaranteed universal income, and the way factors like race and gender accentuate meritocratic capitalism. He suggests incremental shifts that would keep poor people alive but without leading to major structural changes.

Read it all and see what you make of the book choices also.

Posted in * Economics, Politics, Books, Poetry & Literature, Theology

Thursday Food for Thought from GK Chesterton

“Can you not see,” I said, “that fairy tales in their essence are quite solid and straightforward; but that this everlasting fiction about modern life is in its nature essentially incredible? Folk-lore means that the soul is sane, but that the universe is wild and full of marvels. Realism means that the world is dull and full of routine, but that the soul is sick and screaming. The problem of the fairy tale is—what will a healthy man do with a fantastic world?

–GK Chesterton, Tremendous Trifles

Posted in Books, Children, Church History

Scot McKnight reviews Jack Levison’s new book ‘A Boundless God’

What we need, Levison is arguing over and over in his books, is a “ruach”-ology that matches our NT and systematic “pneumatology.”

Instead of adjudicating which texts are more Christians and which ones aren’t, and whether or not the Spirit indwellt OT covenant believers or not, Levison studies the verbs about the Spirit:

  1. Blowing and breathing
  2. Coming upon
  3. Resting upon
  4. Passed on
  5. Poured out
  6. Filling
  7. Cleansing
  8. Standing and Guiding

Then he explores in his conclusion just how “beyond” the OT ruach is and that, he is saying, is something for Christians to start thinking about.

Which we will.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Theology, Theology: Holy Spirit (Pneumatology), Theology: Scripture

(LARB) To Stop the Shrug: An Interview with Susannah Cahalan (author of Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness)

In Nellie Bly’s chapter, you write of her experience: “the first day, she quickly learned what it was like to be discarded by humanity…” and end with: “Other than some money being thrown at the problem, nothing changed after Bly’s exposé […] one of the most sophisticated and moneyed cities in the world, now aware of such cruelty visited upon its citizens, simply shrugged. As we still do.” This is potent. Instead of shrugging, othering, or hastily diagnosing, in what ways would you like to see the psychiatric community shift in the coming years? What’s your hope?

There’s so much to be excited about from the research side, but as we wait for these interventions (and I remain an optimistic), I hope that psychiatry can really take a hard look at what it can offer to those suffering right at this very moment. Good care comes from truly listening and bonding to patients — the whole “laying of hands” that distinguishes mediocre doctors from great ones — using all the senses with the patient and maintaining an open mind, searching for answers outside of the immediately obvious. I think we’ve turned our back on the more artistic side of clinical care because it’s not lucrative and it’s difficult, because it’s much easier to write a script and call it a day, and the system itself does not reward this kind of interaction. So clearly things need to change within our broken medical system in general. But I think that at the very simplest: psychiatrists need the time and space to spend more time with their patients. And we need to figure out a way to force the system to give them that opportunity.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Health & Medicine, Mental Illness, Psychology

(Worth) The 25 Best Books to Read During Coronavirus Lockdown, According to Business Leaders

“The book I’m reading is The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson. It’s the story of Churchill and his family during the World War II London blitz, bringing to life the resilience of the family and the British people during such a challenging time. It’s a book that had been on my wishlist, but I pulled it from my nightstand as I found myself wanting to read about inspirational moments in history, where people had lived through experiences that were intense and overwhelming and to find inspiration in how other people had gone through unprecedented challenges. It’s a very beautifully written book.”

Indré Rockefeller, Cofounder and Co-CEO of Paravel

Read it all and see what you make of the list.

Posted in * General Interest, Books, Health & Medicine

(CC) Dorothy Sayers and her equally fascinating friends

n Mo Moulton’s ambitious yet intimate book, at least a half dozen contemporaries of Dorothy L. Sayers emerge as figures who are as fascinating as the novelist, translator, and playwright was herself. Moulton, who teaches history at the University of Birmingham, spent nearly five years combing archives across England and the United States to round out the previously sketchy portraits of these women, most of whom appear as mere walk-ons in Sayers biographies.

Although several of these women surely deserve full-length biographies of their own, The Mutual Admiration Society celebrates collaboration rather than star performances. In describing their collective contributions to the fields of education, health care, politics, the arts, and literature, Moulton also shines the spotlight on their various forms of sexual expression. Although this element may make the book seem especially relevant today, even more timely is its articulation of the MAS’s shared political and cultural vision.

The book opens with a glimpse of the group’s inaugural members—Sayers, Charis Barnett, Muriel St. Clare Byrne, and Dorothy Rowe (“D. Rowe”)—conversing over cocoa early in their time at Oxford University’s Somerville College. The group expands, and Moulton vividly writes about each woman’s social, religious, and economic background, conjuring up not only the rigor of their academic environment but also the sense of fun they enjoyed. Accounts of ghost story-telling sessions, practical jokes, stage plays, and romantic crushes (some on each other) endear the characters to us even as we marvel at their vast capacity for intellectual engagement.

Moulton’s descriptions of the toll of two world wars draw us further into the women’s circle….

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History

(CLJ) Jessica Hooten Wilson–Flannery O’Connor Versus the Marvel Universe

In his 2007 Commencement Speech delivered at Stanford University, Dana Gioia proposes an experiment “to survey a cross-section of Americans and ask them how many active NBA players, Major League Baseball players, and American Idol finalists they can name.” He would follow this question with another: “How many living American poets, playwrights, painters, sculptors, architects, classical musicians, conductors, and composers they can name?” While many of us can name celebrities in the former category, our culture has deprived of us of the ability to name prominent artists or thinkers. Gioia argues that the loss is twofold—we neither honor those whose work is long lasting and transcendent nor do we uphold models for “a successful and meaningful life that are not denominated by money and fame. Adult life begins in the child’s imagination, and we’ve relinquished that imagination to the marketplace.”

In concert with Gioia, I wonder if the curators of our imagination are not training us away from virtuous living towards autonomous evaluations of value. Last year, acclaimed filmmaker Martin Scorsese lit into the Marvel industry:

Many of the elements that define cinema as I know it are there in Marvel pictures. What’s not there is revelation, mystery or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk. The pictures are made to satisfy a specific set of demands, and they are designed as variations on a finite number of themes . . . That’s the nature of modern film franchises: market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption.

In other words, the industry that shapes the American imagination the most caters to the lowest common denominator, our bank account, selling us what we want versus challenging us towards higher questions, deeper thinking, or richer emotional responses. We are being catered to like domesticated animals by a film industry that wants to exploit our basest instincts and capitalize on them financially. James Matthew Wilson, in speaking about licentious poetry that cares nothing for form or content but is published in mass quantities, refers to the problem as “shopping in bulk.” There may be one taste of an indulgence that was pleasurable on its own—not that it validates the taste necessarily— but when the example is proliferated over and over again, the series of similar mundanities anesthetizes us to any taste for something more. Scorsese foresees his critics: “If you’re going to tell me that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand and giving the people what they want, I’m going to disagree . . . If people are given only one kind of thing and endlessly sold only one kind of thing, of course they’re going to want more of that one kind of thing.” It is a frightful thing to imagine we are being cultivated without our discernment.

What is it about the Marvel Universe that enraptures us?

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, History, Poetry & Literature

(TLC Covenant) John Bauerschmidt–Sympathetic Imagination

We need the capacity for sympathetic imagination, and not just if we are historians or novelists, or students of these genres. We live in a time of stunted imagination, in the midst of the clash of civilizations and the culture wars of our own society, where the virtue of sympathy itself languishes. Imagine the novels of Dickens, peopled by the caricatures of each other that populate our political discourse! Oliver Twist would be tedious and unreadable, containing a succession of stick-figure bad guys, instead of being full of three-dimensional evil doers like Bill Sikes and Fagin and their associates. Aren’t we glad that the Artful Dodger survives his brush with the law? These figures are tragic precisely because we have sympathy with them. Dickens himself recognized and countered the criticism that came with a sympathetic treatment of what was morally disturbing. Sympathy does not make us sympathizers in the sense of political dupes or fellow travelers, but it does allow us to connect.

Sympathetic imagination is not only historical and literate; it is humane. Christians ought to be seasoned practitioners of the art of imaginative insight, able to make connections with others and to imagine their lives and values. A sympathetic imagination doesn’t make us traitors to our own fundamental commitments as human beings, or as Christians, but it does allow us to extend ourselves to others in ways that make for graceful connection. We must not settle for disconnection. A sympathetic imagination is essential to understanding, not only distant times and places, but also to living with our neighbors here and now.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, History, Psychology

(TGC) Albert Mohler–The Decadent and the Damned? Ross Douthat’s Timely Vision of Western Civilization

Indeed, Douthat employs decadence as a diagnosis of “economic stagnation, institutional decay, and cultural and intellectual exhaustion at a high level of material prosperity and technological development.”

As expected, Douthat lays out his case with skill and nuance. The age of economic expansion that began with the Industrial Revolution and ended sometime before the end of the 20th century is over. We should have seen it coming, Douthat writes: “At some point, every advanced-for-its-time society has ceased advancing; there is no reason to assume that the modern world is inherently immune from the torpor that claimed the Ottomans and imperial China in the not-so-distant past.”

But decadence also comes with sterility, and Douthat’s chapter on falling birthrates around the world is the most authentically dystopian part of his argument and analysis. This dystopia comes with two fundamental facts—there will be fewer babies, and there will be many more old people. The problem for society is that babies use up a lot of resources for a time, but then they become net producers for a much longer time. When it comes to the aged, the costs may well be even higher at the end of life, but without the promise of future contributions. An aging society is a society winding down, and this entropy is spreading nation by nation. It is a spiritual crisis.

The fact that human beings are making fewer babies is a far deeper problem, spiritually speaking, than the fact that Hollywood is stuck in a cycle of sequels.

Beyond stagnation (mostly economic) and sterility and repetition, Douthat also points to sclerosis (mostly political). His commentary is both perceptive and also sobering. He sees our “once-effective political order becoming impervious to constructive change.” That is a hard argument to refute, and Douthat wisely refuses to argue that it’s a truly recent development. This sclerosis was a long time in the making, and few significant political forces are even interested in reversing the process.

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Marriage & Family, Politics in General, Religion & Culture

(FB) Charles Fain Lehman Reviews Ross Douthat’s ‘The Decadent Society’

Each of Douthat’s “four horsemen of decadence”—economic stagnation, collective infertility, political sclerosis, and cultural repetition—represents structural choices to sacrifice the future for the present. Weak innovation is driven by selecting short-term returns over investment, and by a publish-or-perish paradigm that makes careers but not discoveries. Collapsing fertility rates reflect deferred childbearing, spending the future social and personal benefits of children to ensure individuals’ present stability. Sclerosis is produced by a political class that clings to its own power, at the cost of training a future elite. And cultural repetition is in large part a product of Hollywood playing it safe, churning out blockbuster pablum instead of investing in something that might fail.

In other words, what is meant by “decadence” is in part “risk-averseness.” Where once we dared to do impossible things in the hope of a better tomorrow, now we pour everything possible into simply preserving the status quo.

The book’s last section sees Douthat imagining ways we could break out of this feedback loop. Through three chapters, he considers a societal collapse driven by mass strife over immigration, a la Michel Houllebecq; a rising Africa driving “renaissance,” and a return either to the will to power through renewed space exploration, or the will to meaning through a religious revival.

Even in the case of catastrophe, Douthat seems to see such regime-shattering possibilities as fundamentally positive. The return of history, even in its worst forms, might be better than the eternal now. As writer Tara Isabella Burton put it in her own review, “What we need, Douthat implies, is a renewed eschatological vision of what history, and what we, are for [emphasis in original].” It is little surprise that among Douthat’s many positive reviewers is arch-techno-optimist Peter Thiel, who writes that, “If there is a problem with the book, it is that Douthat does not press his own theme [of returning to the future] urgently enough.”

For all the book’s many strengths, there is one question to which Douthat gives perhaps inadequate treatment: Why has decadence happened?

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, America/U.S.A., Books, Children, Economy, Marriage & Family

(1st Things) Peter J. Leithart reviews Tom Wright’s new Book ‘History and Eschatology: Jesus and the Promise of Natural Theology’

Christians confess a meta-paradox: This broken signpost is where God reveals himself, where heaven is present on earth. Here God suffers the ultimate injustice, his beauty effaced. Here the God who is love is crushed by brute force. Here Truth is drowned out by Pilate’s scoffing question and the shouts of the mob. Because Jesus rose from the dead, though, this broken signpost becomes the source of universal renewal: fresh springs of justice, new depths of beauty, a kind of powerless power, a freedom that isn’t limited by chains or imprisonment, a social body of mutual edification. New creation emerges out of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, as the ordinary lives of ordinary followers of Jesus become a “natural” revelation of the presence and power of God.

The church’s confession is contestable and contested, and Wright won’t permit a retreat into fideism. Once we refuse to foreclose the possibility of resurrection and new creation from the outset, we can treat Jesus, the cross, the resurrection, Pentecost, and the church’s history as “historical” phenomena, subject to historical investigation and confirmation. Jesus the rejected stone becomes the chief cornerstone of a renewed natural theology.

Wright’s wide-ranging book is primarily about the two topics of his title, history and eschatology. On both, his central arguments are convincing. “Natural theology” should attend to history, and since Jesus is a historical figure, it needs to attend to him. Wright is also correct that New Testament eschatology is about the renovation, not the removal, of creation. Jesus, Wright knows, shakes natural theologians, and every other sort of theologian, out of our slumbers. Once we admit the Gospels into the historical record and really grasp Jesus’s apocalyptic prophecies, we’ll see more than we’ve dreamt of, a strange world where the sky cracks, veils tear, and gravestones roll away.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Eschatology, Theology, Theology: Scripture

(Christianity Today) Philip Jenkins reviews Tom Holland’s new book–Did the teachings of Jesus launch a sweeping revolution in human consciousness? Maybe, but we need better evidence

Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World is a substantial work that makes a straightforward case. In Holland’s view, the teachings of Jesus constituted an ethical revolution that would gradually transform human consciousness, to the extent that we today find it hard to imagine credible alternative systems. When we see Christians, past or present, behaving in ways we may find abominable, in matters such as war, slavery, colonialism, or patriarchy, our disgusted attitudes must themselves be understood as products of that sweeping revolution. Without the existence of Christianity, it would not occur to us to abhor such things, whoever the perpetrators might be.

Beyond any single policy or attitude, Christianity mattered because it taught respect (or even veneration) for the poor and the oppressed. That implied the historically unprecedented exaltation of humility, forgiveness, and love. Moreover, the faith created the practical urge to offer aid and relief, to assist the poor, and (among other things) to reject infanticide. Christianity is the essential foundation of the liberal West, of democracy, and of notions of human rights. As the book’s jacket copy proclaims, “Concepts such as secularism, liberalism, science, and homosexuality are deeply rooted in a Christian seedbed. From Babylon to the Beatles, Saint Michael to #MeToo, Dominion tells the story of how Christianity transformed the world.”

These are bold claims, to which I will certainly offer some caveats. What is not debatable is the very high quality of the book as a whole, and its appeal to anyone interested in Christian history. Rather than offering a straightforward narrative, Holland tells his story through 21 vignettes, each representing a particular historical moment, which he uses to advance his larger argument. Those together constitute three distinct eras of the church: Antiquity, Christendom, and a period he calls Modernitas, extending from roughly the middle of the 17th century to the present day.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History, Religion & Culture

(New Criterion) Keith Windschuttle–Gertrude Himmelfarb & the Enlightenment

In 1983, Himmelfarb published The Idea of Poverty: England in the Early Industrial Age, and in 1991 the sequel Poverty and Compassion: The Moral Imagination of the Late Victorians, arguing that, instead of imposing unregulated Dickensian institutions and dark satanic mills on the lower orders, the Victorians had redefined poverty as a moral issue that demanded both compassion from society at large and a sense of responsibility from the poor themselves. In describing the latter, she made an important intervention in the language of morality. She did not use the term “Victorian values,” as almost every historian of the subject did at the time. The Victorians themselves, she pointed out, did not use the word “values.” This anachronism only arose in the mid-twentieth century as a way to relativize morality. It implied that anyone’s values were the moral equivalent of anyone else’s. Some values could not be better than others, only different. Instead, she insisted on using the term “virtues.” In a much-quoted passage Himmelfarb wrote:

Hard work, sobriety, frugality, foresight—these were modest, mundane virtues, even lowly ones. But they were virtues within the capacity of everyone; they did not assume any special breeding, or status, or talent, or valor, or grace—or even money. They were common virtues within the reach of common people.

To the Victorians, she argued, virtues were fixed and certain, not to govern the actual behavior of all people all the time, but to serve as standards against which behavior could be judged. When conduct fell short of those standards, it was deemed to be bad, wrong, or immoral, she said, not merely misguided, undesirable, or, that weasel-word, “inappropriate.” From the historical record, she could point to the consequences of today’s misuse of moral principles:

In recent times, we have so completely rejected any kind of moral principle that we have divorced poor relief from moral sanctions and incentives. This reflects in part the theory that society is responsible for all social problems and should therefore assume the task of solving them; and in part the prevailing spirit of relativism, which makes it difficult to pass any moral judgments or impose any moral conditions upon the recipients of relief. In retrospect, we can see that the social pathology—“moral pathology,” I would call it—of crime, violence, illegitimacy, welfare dependency, and drug addiction is intimately related to the “counterculture” of the 1960s that promised to liberate us from the stultifying influence of “bourgeois values.”

As well as detecting profound consequences from small manipulations of language, Himmelfarb’s historical eye also allowed her to understand the broad intellectual contours of the periods she studied better than almost any of her peers. She went on to use that understanding to illuminate the basis of ideological divisions with her own time. This was best demonstrated in her daring but highly successful history of the Enlightenment in Britain, France, and the United States.

In 2005, she published The Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments. It is a provocative revision of the typical story of the intellectual era of the late eighteenth century that made the modern world. In particular, it explains the source of the fundamental division that still doggedly grips Western political life: that between Left and Right, or progressives and conservatives. From the outset, each side had its own philosophical assumptions and its own view of the human condition. Roads to Modernity shows why one of these sides has generated a steady progeny of historical successes while its rival has consistently lurched from one disaster to the next.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, History

(WSJ) Charlotte Allen–God Goes Missing in ‘Little Women’: The Oscar contender is distinctive, but leaves out a critical part of the story

This weekend director Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women” is up for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It is the seventh feature film to be made from Alcott’s book and perhaps the most distinctive. Unfortunately, the latest film leaves out an important theme from the original text: faith.

The previous six movies hewed more or less to Alcott’s strictly chronological narrative structure, which follows the four March sisters—Jo, Meg, Beth and Amy—from their teen years to their late 20s. Ms. Gerwig’s film instead offers a deconstructed version. The events in Alcott’s book are presented as flashbacks in a deliberately scrambled order that reflects not chronology but the thematic aims of Ms. Gerwig, who also wrote the screenplay.

By violating Alcott’s narrative structure Ms. Gerwig also undermines the writer’s framing of the story as a tale of moral growth in a world at odds with living a Christian life. In particular, Alcott tied her story through explicit references to “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” John Bunyan’s entertaining and hugely successful 17th-century allegory of the journey of a man named Christian—and later, his wife and sons—through the travails of this world to the Celestial City. Bearing the burdens of their sins, they encounter such colorful characters as Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Giant Despair, and pass through such traps for the soul as Vanity Fair, the Slough of Despond, and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Well into the 20th century “Pilgrim’s Progress” was, after the Bible, the most-read book in many Anglophone Protestant households.

In Alcott’s “Little Women” each of the March girls has besetting sins that she must overcome through constant striving.

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Posted in Books, History, Movies & Television, Religion & Culture

(Kate Bowler) The Burden of Love

Says Lewis, “There is nothing we can do with suffering, except to suffer it.”

We know that advice from other people can sound a lot like well-meaning white noise. Or like a line separating the grieving from everybody else in the normal world. It makes me wish we learned a bit more from cultures who carve out space for mourning, like the Jewish custom of “sitting Shiva” where friends and family gather for seven days together in silence. Or how people in Greece and Portugal encourage widows to wear black for months, creating a reminder for others of their loss.

We all need a bit of permission to allow ourselves time and space to feel the weight of loss, and move through it in our own way. My friend and former cello teacher lost her husband last year, and the week after the funeral, to the chagrin of those thought she should be taking a break, there she was at the piano accompanying the services as she always did. That was her way of living through her loss, with keys under her fingers, helping others the way she always did.

So my dears, what can then be said of grief except that is the burden of love? It can’t be defined or drawn, only suffered. But what must be said, what must be given, is the permission to feel it. All of it. Not as a state, but as a process. No one can tell you what that process must be for you, just now. So gently, gently, let it lead you through.

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Posted in Anthropology, Books, Church History, Death / Burial / Funerals, Ethics / Moral Theology, Pastoral Theology, Psychology, Theology

(PD) Allen Guelzo–The Irony That Our Creed Is Our Culture: On Reno, Lowry, and National Conservatism

For these arguments to succeed, especially with other American conservatives, Reno and Lowry have to convince us of three things:

  • That the American republic was not, as Tom Paine claimed, a project that “began the world over again”; that we were instead an evolution of English norms, culture, and language, so that the Revolution (in Lowry’s words) “sought to protect the traditional rights of Englishmen”; and that the invocation of the Declaration of Independence’s preamble, with its universalistic appeal to natural rights shared equally by all humanity, has been exaggerated.
  • That (in Reno’s words now) “the free market promises spontaneous order” but in actuality promotes a self-satisfied swamp of “dissolution, disintegration, and deconsolidation,” and then calls these “openness”; that the liberal interest in economic deregulation is in fact the mirror image of the progressives’ cultural deregulation; and that capitalism and technology have reduced society to a collection of “little worlds” that imagine they have no need for virtue.
  • That no polity can live by the bread of “rights” alone, but requires love—love of country, of family, of truth, of transcendence (these are what Reno, following Durkheim, describes as the “strong gods”); that nations cannot be merely accumulations of self-interested parties; and that there is a “common interest” in the life of the nation that (as Lowry puts it) “is deeper than any specific power struggle” and which “makes possible the social trust that lubricates everyday life.”

These are no small concerns, and they are fed in many hearts by the sneers of a thin-souled and contemptuous cosmopolitanism, by educational systems that aspire feebly to little more than “critical thinking,” and by immigration policies that cannot seem to distinguish between huddled masses yearning to breathe free and outright colonization. Indeed, there were many moments in reading both books when I resonated with the losses they so tellingly itemize.

Yet their arguments must also come to terms with the reminder, on the back of every one-dollar bill, that the American republic is a novus ordo seclorum

Read it all.

Posted in America/U.S.A., Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Philosophy, Politics in General, Religion & Culture, Theology

(1st Things) Bruce Riley Ashford–My Ten (Or So) Favorite Cultural Critics

In 1974, British theologian Lesslie Newbigin returned to England after four decades of serving as a missionary to India. Back in Europe, he wrestled with a pressing question: How to preach the gospel to the West? He believed the Western church had unconsciously been captured by secular ideology. Rather than viewing the Bible’s narrative as the true story of the whole world, the church had bought into various Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment narratives. The church, Newbigin argued, must once again “soak” itself in the Bible, challenging the axioms of modernity with the axioms of Scripture.

The task of bringing the West into a missionary encounter with Scripture remains today. We must analyze Western culture to understand what is happening and why. We must attempt to discern the reigning idols of our day, how they twist the affections and thoughts of society, and how they warp our cultural institutions. This will help us better understand how to bring the gospel to the secular West.

Toward that end, I offer this list of eleven of the most perceptive cultural critics of the last two centuries. The list includes historians, philosophers, sociologists, poets, and literary critics. Some are well-known, others are quite obscure. Some are Christians, others are not. All were born before 1950 and each offers a salient evaluation of Western society and culture that remains relevant for our task today.

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, Books, History, Philosophy, Poetry & Literature

Thinking Strategically About Book Choices; An Interview with Bishop Mark Lawrence

Bishop, I sense you’re a voracious reader. Would you use that term to describe yourself?

I would say as a parish priest I was, but as a Bishop less so, because the schedule and demands – which are voracious – have truncated that.

How many books do you read a month?

Far less than I wish, unfortunately. About two a month.

What are you reading right now?

This summer I’m rereading Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth. I’m also listening to two lecture series on the tragedies of Shakespeare and looking for opportunities to attend performances of those plays. Remarkably, we’ll be at the Utah Shakespeare Festival in August, and they’re performing Hamlet and Macbeth. There’s also a haunting performance of Lear by Anthony Hopkins in a movie version.

I’m also reading Landscape and Inscape: Vision and Inspiration in Hopkins’s Poetry by Peter Milward and The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas by Byron Rogers. (Thomas was a Welsh Poet and Anglican Priest). So I’ll reread his poems along with this recent biography.

How do you go about deciding what to read?

Often I will choose a reading project. When I was in parish ministry, I did this all the time. I’d read books in three areas: preaching and teaching, leadership, and pastoral ministry.

For preaching and teaching I would read 8 to12 books per year in theology, commentaries on the scriptures, homiletics or preaching. For leadership I’d read books from the secular world whether it be a book by Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, Peter Drucker, James Burns, John Maxwell, etc., as well as in the Christian world and certainly biographies of leaders in various walks of life. The other arena was books on pastoral care, what’s known as pastoralia. That was for many years what I did in terms of my calling or vocational reading.

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Posted in * Anglican - Episcopal, * South Carolina, Books, Ministry of the Ordained, Parish Ministry

(AJ) ‘Coming to God without freedom is not coming to God’: Philosopher Charles Taylor on seeing God in church decline

Why are fewer people going to church?

It’s very hard to put your finger on this, but this is what I’m trying to work out: that there’s another kind of spiritual life, spiritual searching, going on to a great extent in our contemporary West—sometimes it’s in totally different religions, or totally non-religious—and that this somehow is taking off at the expense of an earlier way of expressing one’s spirituality, which involves being members of national churches or in the case of a very diverse country like Canada, at least a church which you know is very big and solid in some parts of the country.

It’s not that religion is disappearing, or spirituality is disappearing; it’s taking different forms. If you put yourself in the mindset of people, in particular of younger people, who are concerned about the meaning of life, concerned about becoming better people, more loving, more open, etc., and are seeking in some way some discipline—it could be meditation, it could be various things—if you put yourself in the mindset of these people, when they go to the pews the least bad thing is that they don’t feel it’s very relevant! The worst thing is they feel that their whole way of approaching this is not really appreciated and it may be seen as threatening the people in the pews. Now of course this is perhaps more the case—I’m a Catholic—in the case of the Catholic church [laughs], where you have these very backward-looking people who are screaming abuse at [Pope] Francis and so on [laughs]!

That’s the extreme case, where you actually feel, “I’d better rush out of this place [laughs]! Or I’m going to be badly treated.” But the least worrying or problematic [for those outside the church] is just that this is not a concern that people [in the pews] recognize, this searching concern. “Everything is all settled, and we’re all together in these pews affirming it.”

Read it all.

Posted in Anglican Church of Canada, Books, Canada, Philosophy, Religion & Culture, Secularism