Checks and balances

Not new, but still relevant:

small quotes blueThe whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of Conservatives is to prevent mistakes from being corrected. Even when the revolutionist might himself repent of his revolution, the traditionalist is already defending it as part of his tradition. Thus we have two great types—the advanced person who rushes us into ruin, and the retrospective person who admires the ruins. He admires them especially by moonlight, not to say moonshine. Each new blunder of the progressive or prig becomes instantly a legend of immemorial antiquity for the snob. This is called the balance, or mutual check, in our Constitution.

G. K. Chesterton, Illustrated London News, 19 April 1924.

Albert Woodfox

IMG_1421Some good stuff, here (review forthcoming in The Champion):

p. 23:

I’d seen guys in my neighborhood come back from Angola throughout my childhood. They were given the highest respect. I thought it would be an honor to go there. I chose Angola.

p. 49:

Writing about this time in my life is very difficult. I robbed people, scared them, threatened them, intimidated them. I stole from people who had almost nothing. My people, black people. I broke into their homes and took possessions they worked hard for; took their wallets out of their pockets. I beat people up. I was a chauvinist pig. I took advantage of people, manipulated people. I never thought about the pain I caused. I never felt the fear or despair people had around me.

p. 59:

Prison is prison. First you figure out the routine, which doesn’t take long because every day is the same. Then you learn the culture and how to play between the lines. The faster you do that the quicker you adjust. . . . Conditions were horrible — filthy, overcrowded, and run-down.

p. 173:

Nelson Mandela taught me that if you have a noble cause you are able to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. Malcolm X taught me that it doesn’t matter where you start out; what matters is where you end up. George Jackson taught me that if you’re not willing to die for what you believe in, you don’t believe in anything.

p. 207

In my forties, I chose to take my pain and turn it into compassion, and not hate. Whenever I experience pain of any origin I always made a promise to myself never to do anything else to suffer the pain I was feeling at that moment. I still had moments of bitterness and anger. But by then I had the wisdom to know that bitterness and anger are destructive. I was dedicated to building things, not to tearing them down.

Albert Woodfox with Leslie George, Solitary: Unbroken by four decades in solitary confinement. My story of transformation and hope. Grove Press (2019).

Re-reading

Visiting an old friend, Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow:

JayberCrowsmall quotesIf you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting, say, in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory and into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked. Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circle or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The names of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there. I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led — make of that what you will.

p. 149.


As a lover of allusions, I get a kick out of the references to Bunyan, Dante and a certain famous hymn.

On honest uncertainty at a funeral

Between the stirrup

James Boswell attributes this near quotation of William Camden (originally “Betwixt the stirrup and the ground, Mercy I ask’d; mercy I found.”) to Samuel Johnson, and goes on to report that Johnson said “Sir, we are not to judge [with certainty] the state in which a man leaves this life. He may in a moment have repented effectually, and it is possible may have been accepted of God.” James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson 543 (1830) [link].*

We can never know the depth of God’s grace or the end of his persistent pursuit of each human heart. Let us resolve to speak the gospel of grace whenever we can.


*In the novel Brighton Rock (1938), Graham Greene has his character Pinkie rely on this quotation as a basis for rejecting grace on the assumption that he will be able to repent at the last moment. But in a moment in which his death seems imminent, he finds that he has hardened himself against repentance.

Aftermaths & Alternates

current reading 2Alan Jacobs is doing something fun on Snakes and Ladders:

Unscoured (July 1) [link]

Chapter 43 (July 2) [link]

this sickness is not unto death (July 5) [link]

Enjoy!


Sarah Willard had two nice posts last month “Shepherd My People” (June 17) [link], and “Here is your War” (June 6) [link], both (of course) at Blind Mule Blog.


Mockingbird always has a nice selection of thoughtful articles, essays and reviews, including “Just another Late Night in Washington (Review of movie Late Night)” (July 3) [link].


Justice Thomas’ concurring opinion in Box v. Planned Parenthood is a fascinating historical piece on eugenics and abortion. The opinion is available in full at the always well-curated SCOTUSblog (through casetext.com) [link] and is edited to look like a free-standing essay in First Things [link].

Is compassion human?

As I often do, at the end of the day, I repaired to Snakes and Ladders (blog.ayjay.org), to see what Alan Jacobs was keeping up with that I had missed. (I am coming to the conclusion after many years that “Alan Jacobs” must be a consortium of at least four or five people — no way this is just one guy.)

Here’s what I saw today:

small quotes blueI admire David French because he tries to live out his Christian convictions as consistently as possible. Those convictions led him and his wife Nancy, who are white, to adopt a girl from Ethiopia . . . .

“On David French” (May 30, 2019) [link].

Frankly, I had never heard of David French (because I am obviously completely illiterate), but when I read that first line, I though of my many friends who adopted cross-racially and/or cross-culturally (the Bs, the Hs, the other Hs, the Ms, the Ps, the Ss, the Ws, the other Ws, etc.) all out of a Christian conviction that to love and care for those in need is proper work for the followers of Jesus even when it is incredibly hard, whether it is popular or not.

Read Jacobs’ post, but even more importantly, go read David French, “America Soured on My Multiracial Family,” The Atlantic (Aug, 18, 2018) [link], where you will find:

small quotes blueThere are three fundamental, complicating truths about adoption. First, every single adoption begins with profound loss. Through death, abandonment, or even loving surrender, a child suffers the loss of his or her mother and father. Second, the demographics of those in need of loving homes do not precisely match the demographics of those seeking a new child. Adoptive parents are disproportionately white. Adopted children are not. Thus, multiracial families are a natural and inevitable consequence of the adoption process. Third, American culture has long been obsessed with questions of race and identity.

Read the whole article, please.

I still don’t know anything about David French, but when Alan Jacobs says “I believe that if you could demonstrate to David French that positions he holds are inconsistent with the Christian Gospel, he would change those positions accordingly,” I hear high praise indeed.

Herman Wouk 1915-2019

I was saddened to hear that Herman Wouk died last week, just 10 days short of his 104th birthday.

TheCaineMutinyHis novel The Caine Mutiny (1955) has long been one of my favorites, and I have had opportunity to teach it to several high school classes.the caine mutiny I was disappointed to read a recent piece by Professor Joseph Bottum* which seems a modern example of “damning with faint praise,” suggesting that Wouk was a good “middlebrow” writer, whose work (some of it, anyway) has stood the test of time better than others in his . . . league(?).

I think, that if Bottum were pressed, he would say that he was praising Wouk, just not “over-praising him.” But when Bottum says “In general, . . . he could be counted on to write a readable book with some serious ideas in it. Or, perhaps better, a readable book with some serious ideas on it, like figures embroidered on a tapestry,” it is hard not to hear that as a snide, uncharitable comment.**

In my view, The Caine Mutiny succeeds as a novel because it draws us in to care about a handful of deeply flawed people who actually grow in self awareness. Willy gains maturity, of course, but so do Maryk and Keefer — and May. The fact that Wouk does this in a long, believable, narrative, with deft humor and across many sub genres,*** is really quite impressive.

I hope that Bottum’s review does not dissuade a single person from reading (at least) The Caine Mutiny. Wouk’s accomplishment should not be disparaged for being accessible. That seems fair, doesn’t it?


*Joseph Bottum, “Herman Wouk, 1915-2019: Remembering a master of middlebrow,” The Washington Free Beacon (May 25, 2019) [link].

**Not convinced? How about this: “No doubt, [Captain Queeg] is wonderfully drawn as a character: memorable in every way, beginning with his name. But an author doesn’t get to give us a Dickensian type, and then reverse field just to flatter readers that they’ve just had a deep thought. All they’ve had is the picture of a thought, a simulacrum of ideas, unearned by the prose. Which is perfectly fine for a certain kind of fiction. This might almost be the definition, the archetype, of the middlebrow.”

***By which I mean, non-technically, that The Caine Mutiny is a war novel, a romance (modern sense), a comic novel, an adventure story, a legal thriller, and (yes) a morality tale neatly woven into one narrative.

Old & new

current reading 2This poor author proves that fact-checking old language (what would you guess “death recorded” means?) is really pretty critical. Yelena Dzhanova, “Here’s an Actual Nightmare: Naomi Wolf Learning On-Air That Her Book Is Wrong,” New York: Intelligencer” (May 2019) [link]. Alan Jacobs comments with compassion and a very appropriate pair of C.S. Lewis references. Alan Jacobs, “death recorded,” Snakes and Ladders (May 24, 2019) [link].


Matthew Butterick, “Typography 2020: A special listicle for America,” Practical Typography [link] delightfully describes the font choices and errors of the 2020 candidates (comparing them to those of the past):

small quotesFor those who think it trivializes our political process to judge candidates by their typography—what would you prefer we scrutinize? Qualifications? Ground into dust during the last election. Issues? Be my guest. Whether a candidate will ever fulfill a certain campaign promise about a certain issue is conjectural.

But typography—that’s a real decision candidates have to make today, with real money and real consequences. And if I can’t trust you to pick some reasonable fonts and colors, then why should I trust you with the nuclear codes?


Alan Jacobs, “choice”, Snakes and Ladders (Feb. 9, 2018) [link]:

small quotesYou can’t understand the place and time you’re in by immersion; the opposite’s true. You have to step out and away and back and forward, through books and art and music, and you have to do it regularly. Then you come back to the Here and Now, and say: Ah. That’s how it is.

But maybe 2% of the people you encounter will do this. The other 98% are wholly creatures of this particular intersection in spacetime, and can’t be made to care about anything else.

You can, then, have understanding or attention. Pick.

Pastoral prayer

NEHIn Nehemiah 9, there is an account of a huge corporate prayer as the faithful people of Israel have been returned to the land by God’s mercy. They gather, and pray together.

Let’s do the same, today, using Nehemiah 9 as a model.

96 You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and you preserve all of them; and the host of heaven worships you.

7 You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham. 8 You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him the covenant to give to his offspring the land . . . .

And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous.

9 And you saw the affliction of our fathers in Egypt and heard their cry at the Red Sea. . . . 11 And you divided the sea before them, . . . .

You led them, you instructed them, you provided for them. (from vv. 11b-15)

But they did not submit to your leading, they did not obey your instruction and they rejected your provision. (from vv. 16-17a)

17b [Nevertheless] you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and did not forsake them.

Through many years and many rebellions, you patiently worked in the nation to bring about your purposes, and because of this we will serve you. (from vv. 18-38)

And Lord, like Israel in Nehemiah’s time, we have seen rebellion — our own rebellion — and tragedy and hardships, and we have seen your work to restore your creation and to save us.

Unlike Israel, we have also seen the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Messiah.

As we come before you today, we too desire to serve you.

[Y]ou are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and [you do] not forsake [us].

We ask that you would be as real to us as you were to the people of Nehemiah’s day, that you would be as present in our lives, that you would be our only strength.

We ask that you would increase our devotion to you,

that you would lead us to repentance,

that you would strengthen our marriages,

that you would release our anxieties,

that you would heal our sicknesses,

that you would hear our fervent prayers.

For we are indeed your people, and we desire to worship you in Spirit and in truth.

Amen.