Dystopia 2021

“Dignity? How can there be dignity if we care so little for the dignity of others?”

—Julian


In December 1983, it was a common thing to speculate about how similar (and different) the world was from that anticipated (proposed?) by George Orwell’s classic dystopia, 1984.

A few days ago I picked up P.D. James’ 1992 novel for the first time in 15 or 20 years and was surprised to rediscover that the first entry in Theo’s diary was for this coming Friday:

Friday 1 January 2021  Early this morning, 1 January 2021, three minutes after midnight, the last human being born on earth was killed in a pub brawl in a suburb of Buenos Aires, aged twenty-five years, two months and twelve days. . . .

I had forgotten that in The Children of Men (1992) the events all occur in 2021. The premise (no spoilers if you haven’t read it) is that human fertility declines so that no one is born after 1995. The implications are frightening, as the aging population comes to trade freedom for security (in the normal way) as it faces the coming disintegration of the social order.

Boris Johnson is not the Warden of England, and the disaster James speculated about is not upon us, but the cautions James weaves into this “hopeful dystopia” are ones we may benefit from in this, the age of the latest pandemic.

Recommended (again).*

*I have no opinion about the 2006 movie, which (in any case) is set in 2027, not 2021.

Born at the Right Time

Born at the Right Time What the Incarnation means for us all
A sermon delivered December 18, 2016
and lightly edited for posting

Taiwan, it seems, has one of the highest rates of Caesarian births in the world, which leads to two questions: “What are you talking about, Al?” and “Why is that?”

A Caesarian section is an operation whereby a baby is born by surgically opening the womb of the pregnant woman, usually because of some medical emergency. It was done in ancient times, nearly always at the cost of the life of the mother. I would have guessed that it was called a Caesarian birth because Julius Caesar was born that way, but that is apparently a myth. In any case, it is relatively common these days, and not terribly dangerous.

Continue reading Born at the Right Time

October reading

We all know that it is the worst of times . . .

If I vote for Biden, I will be complicit in abortions on a mass scale.

If I vote for Trump, I will be complicit in cementing a worldview in which the ends justify the means, power replaces truth, and thus the very truths by which we define and understand ourselves as human are at stake.

Karen Swallow Prior, “Voting for Neither,” Christianity Today (Oct. 28, 2020) [link].

Here’s your semi-regular reminder: You don’t have to be there. You can quit Twitter and Facebook and never go back.

Alan Jacobs, “it’s time,” Snakes and Ladders (Oct. 28, 2020) [link].

but it is also the best of times:

There have been many men on the court who seemed deep and were celebrated for their scholarly musings but were essentially, as individuals and in their conception of life, immature. But this is not a child, a sentimentalist, an ideological warrior. This is a thinker who thinks about reality.

Peggy Noonan, “Everyone Has Gone Crazy in Washington,” The Wall Street Journal (Oct. 15, 2020) [link].

Sad tales are generally accepted, but when you share joy it is likely that someone somewhere might be hurt by it, especially in a year marked by such sweeping stress. We are all secretly afraid that there might not be enough happiness to go around, and that we will perpetually be that kid that gets left behind.

Sarah Willard, “Reader, I Married Him,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 27, 2020) [link].

and indeed, it is like all times:

And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one

T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” The Four Quartets [link].

It is not how we vote, or what we read, or who we support or oppose, or even how well we love. We live in a comedy, not a tragedy, for there is One to rescue us from ourselves.

There is One who does good, and the world is certainly in his hand. He will judge and he will redeem.

No body

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Attributed to Teresa of Avila

Duo-biography

Woodward RageBob Woodward, Rage (2020) [link].

This is an intriguing book. The veteran (older than Mr. Trump, younger than Mr. Biden) investigative journalist for the Washington Post returns to the subject of his 2018 book: Fear: Trump in the White House. While I think he will always be best known for his work with Carl Bernstein on All the President’s Men (1974) and his collaboration with Scott Armstrong on The Brethren (1979), this book is well worth reading as a (generally) unsympathetic account of Mr. Trump’s presidency.

Of course, Woodward provides ample evidence of Mr. Trump’s personality quirks from the unpleasant to the unnerving (fascinating, but nothing much new here if you have been awake since 2016), but he deals at length with the major crises of the last four years—Comey, North Korea, the Mueller investigation, the impeachment, the Biden-Ukraine scandal, the pandemic—in such a way that the reader has to conclude that Mr. Trump has been a reasonably effective president despite his unpleasant and unsettling style.

Many of the early advisors come off well here, especially James Mattis, Rex Tillerson and Dan Coats, and (most surprisingly) Jared Kushner. Mr. Trump himself seems just as mean-spirited and impulsive as you thought, but also vaguely lucky in how things turn out—like a drunken driver who manages not to hit anything or anyone despite veering repeatedly onto the wrong side of the road.

Though Mr. Trump has been widely mocked for being so foolish as to be interviewed on tape so many times* for this book, the jury remains out on the political wisdom of that decision.

The book is not just about Mr. Trump. Because of the emphasis on personal interviews, Woodward is a major character in the book and often seems to be trying to persuade Mr. Trump to change his mind on points of policy or character. We learn nearly as much about Woodward’s clever technique as Mr. Trump’s rambling responses. Though Woodward writes of the April 5, 2020 interview “We were speaking past each other, almost from different universes,” [300], they seem to be very much from the same universe to me—the universe of accomplished men whose success has blinded them to the fundamental contingency of their lives.

Woodward bluntly writes

When his performance as president is taken in its entirety, I can only reach one conclusion: Trump is the wrong man for the job.

[392] Nevertheless, the portrait Woodward draws is strangely compelling.

Recommended.

*Woodward lists nineteen interviews, eighteen dated in the last ten months: 03/31/2016; 12/05/2019; 12/13/2019; 12/30/2019; 01/20/2020; 01/22/2020; 02/07/2020; 02/19/2020; 03/19/2020; 03/28/2020; 04/05/2020; 04/13/2020; 05/06/2020; 05/22/2020;06/03/2020; 06/19/2020; 06/22/2020; 07/08/2020; and 07/21/2020. [450]

 

Breaking Bread

My review of Alan Jacob’s Breaking Bread with the Dead (Penguin Press, 2020) is online at Englewood Review of Books and is reproduced below:

Alan Jacobs, Breaking Bread with the Dead:
A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind

(Penguin Press, 2020).

To read with intelligent charity.

Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading:
The Hermeneutics of Love (2001).

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.

C.S. Lewis, “On the Reading of Old Books,”
God in the Dock 217 (2014).

As a society we are reconsidering our relationship to the past.

We wonder whether statues, schools and flags should be removed, renamed or redesigned because of their association with causes, people and history which we now find evil, embarrassing or repugnant. We wonder about the past.

Continue reading Breaking Bread

Op-eds

It is always terribly hard to be sure exactly what happened, but it is easy to collect opinions.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Defeat of Sennacherib” (c. 1613) (Courtauld Gallery, London).

Dieu a établi la prière pour communiquer
à ses ceatures la dignité de la causalité.

Pascal

The Bible says Sennacherib’s campaign was foiled
By angels: in Herodotus it says, by mice—
Innumerably nibbling all one night they toiled
To eat away his bowstrings as warm wind eats ice.

But muscular archangels, I suggest, employed
Seven little jaws to labour at each slender string,
And by their aid, weak masters though they be, destroyed
The smiling-lipped Assyrian, cruel bearded king.

No stranger that omnipotence should choose to need
Small helps than great—no stranger if His action lingers
Till men have prayed, and suffers their weak prayers indeed
To move as very muscles in his delaying fingers,

Who, in His longanimity and love for our
Small dignities, enfeebles, for a time, His power.

       C.S. Lewis, “Sonnet” (Oxford Magazine, May 14, 1936) [link]


The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
   And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
   When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
   That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
   That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
   And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
   And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
   But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
   And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
   With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
   The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

       Lord Byron, “The Destruction of Sennacherib” [link].


The next king was the priest of Hephaestus whose name was Sethos. He despised and had no regard for the warrior Egyptians, thinking he would never need them; besides otherwise dishonoring them, he took away the chosen lands which had been given to them, twelve fields to each man, in the reign of former kings. So when presently king Sanacharib came against Egypt, with a great force of Arabians and Assyrians, the warrior Egyptians would not march against him.

The priest, in this quandary, went into the temple shrine and there before the god’s image bitterly lamented over what he expected to suffer. Sleep came on him while he was lamenting, and it seemed to him the god stood over him and told him to take heart, that he would come to no harm encountering the power of Arabia: “I shall send you champions,” said the god.

So he trusted the vision, and together with those Egyptians who would follow him camped at Pelusium, where the road comes into Egypt; and none of the warriors would go with him, but only merchants and craftsmen and traders. Their enemies came there, too, and during the night were overrun by a horde of field mice that gnawed quivers and bows and the handles of shields, with the result that many were killed fleeing unarmed the next day.

And to this day a stone statue of the Egyptian king stands in Hephaestus’ temple, with a mouse in his hand, and an inscription to this effect:

       “Look at me, and believe.”

Herodotus, Histories, II, 141, 1-6 (tr. A.D. Godley) [link].


[The Lord says] “I will shield this city [Jerusalem] and rescue it for the sake of my reputation and because of my promise to David my servant.” That very night the Lord’s messenger went out and killed 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp. When they got up early the next morning, there were all the corpses. So King Sennacherib of Assyria broke camp and went on his way. He went home and stayed in Nineveh.

2 Kings 19:34-36

Race Empathy

One of the great benefits of reading, particularly novels and memoirs, is its ability to promote the kind of empathy Atticus Finch describes to Scout: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view . . . until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

Justice OnenessEmbraced

 

I am currently reading John M. Perkins, Let Justice Roll Down (2006) [amazon] [link to Rabbit Room Reading Group] and Tony Evans, Oneness Embraced (2015) [amazon], but here are several more books which may help you inhabit the skins of others:

 

 

Solitary

 

Albert Woodfox, Solitary (2019) [amazon] is the memoir of a black man in prison who spent nearly all of his life in prison in Louisiana for a murder he could not have committeed. I wrote a review and also posted some quotations from the book. [review] [post].Invisible

Stephen L. Carter, Invisible (2018) [amazon] is the biography of Eunice Hunton Carter, Stephen Carter’s grandmother, who Amazon describes as “a woman and a prosecutor, a graduate of Smith College and the granddaughter of slaves, as dazzlingly unlikely a combination as one could imagine in New York of the 1930s.”

Between the World and Me (2015) is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ heartbreaking memoir for his son about what it means to grow up as a black man in white America. Not an easy read. I’ve read this book several times and wrote a couple of posts. [post] [post]Extraordinary

Extraordinary, Ordinary People (2010) [amazon] is former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s fascinating (and touching) memoir of her parents, as she grew up in the 1950s and 1960s in Birmingham.Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines (2016) [amazon] is an excellent dystopian novel about race and control.

Incidents

Harriet Ann Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl Written by Herself (1861) [amazon] is an astounding autobiography of a woman raised in slavery, who escaped her bondage.

And of course, don’t forget Harper Lee’s incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird (1961) [amazon], which you were supposed to read in junior high! Sissy Spacek does a beautiful reading of the book. [audible]

Let Justice

Many of you are aware of Andrew Peterson’s online Christian Community The Rabbit Room (rabbitroom.com).

In August The Rabbit Room is sponsoring an online reading group on John Perkins’ 2006 Autobiography Let Justice Roll Down.* I thought it sounded interesting and I’ve signed up to participate.

John Perkins was a sharecropper’s son who left Mississippi for California, but came to Christ and returned to minister and devote his life to reconciliation:

“His brother died in his arms, shot by a deputy marshall. He was beaten and tortured by the sheriff and state police. But through it all he returned good for evil, love for hate, progress for prejudice, and brought hope to black and white alike. The story of John Perkins is no ordinary story. Rather, it is a gripping portrayal of what happens when faith thrusts a person into the midst of a struggle against racism, oppression, and injustice. It is about the costs of discipleship—the jailings, the floggings, the despair, the sacrifice. And it is about the transforming work of faith that allowed John to respond to such overwhelming indignities with miraculous compassion, vision, and hope.”

The class is being led through once a week Zoom meetings by Belmont University professor and musician Steve Guthrie. The class will take place on Thursday night at 8:30p ET/7:30p CT. If you are interested, here’s the [link] to sign up.

I’ll look for you on Zoom next week!

*The Kindle book is available for $1.49 at Amazon. [link] — I’ve begun reading and it is a moving story.

Psalm

I extolled the Most High,
and I praised and glorified the one who lives forever.
For his authority is an everlasting authority,
and his kingdom extends from one generation to the next.

All the inhabitants of the earth are regarded as nothing.
He does as he wishes with the army of heaven
and with those who inhabit the earth.

No one slaps his hand
and says to him, ‘What have you done?’

Daniel 4:34b-35 is, in effect, Nebuchadnezzar’s Psalm, as God brings him back to sanity.

It reminds us that the great Babylonian king, like Cyrus after him, and like Sennacherib before, were all used by God—either as his servants or as his tools.

His servants, if willingly submitting to God’s purposes;
his tools if arrogantly pursuing their own ends.

A caution to all who have been lent God’s authority on earth.