Old and new friends.
This Friday’s Trinity Forum conversation looks interesting:
Friday, May 21 | Reading Jane Austen: A Novel Approach to Virtue
with Karen Swallow Prior
“Dignity? How can there be dignity if we care so little for the dignity of others?”
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.
*I have no opinion about the 2006 movie, which (in any case) is set in 2027, not 2021.
Bob 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,” , 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.
 Nevertheless, the portrait Woodward draws is strangely compelling.
*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. 
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.
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.”
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:
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].
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, 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.
Ben H. Winters, Underground Airlines (2016) [amazon] is an excellent dystopian novel about race and control.
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]
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.
Andrew Peterson gave the (virtual?) commencement address at his daughter’s (virtual?) graduation. “The Certainty of Time in Uncertain Times,” The Rabbit Room (June 8, 2020) [link]:
Six months ago things (for me, at least) were kind of chugging along, and no one had ever heard of COVID-19. But in a flash, everything changed. Now our history has a new dividing line: before Coronavirus and after Coronavirus, kind of like 9/11. I used to have a pretty good idea what was coming, but now I haven’t a clue, from one day to the next. I watch the news with a desperate hope that they’ll tell us this pandemic is going to be over in a week, that systemic racism is finally banished from our hearts and our nation, that the world, at last, is at peace. I long for it. Everything feels so crazy that I just want to make some soup and get a blankie and let John Krasinski to tell me some good news.
But to say that these times are uncertain implies that the time before was certain. Graduates, these times aren’t any less certain than a year ago or 100 or 1,000 years ago. The times have always been uncertain.
This is, of course reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in War-Time,” from The Weight of Glory (1949) (“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”).
Adrian Brandon has done a series of portraits in which the subject is sketched in pencil, but the portrait is only partially finished in color:
This series is dedicated to the many black people that were robbed of their lives at the hands of the police. In addition to using markers and pencil, I use time as a medium to define how long each portrait is colored in. 1 year of life = 1 minute of color. Tamir Rice was 12 when he was murdered, so I colored his portrait for 12 minutes. . . .
“Stolen,” adrianbrandon.com [link]. The artist helps us see these subjects as lives cut short. (The short video of the coloring of Marzues Scott is fascinating as an art lesson as well.)
Gary Sheffield describes two encounters with the police in “Do You Believe Me Now?” The Player’s Tribune (June 12, 2020) [link]. It is important, I think, for us to hear these stories from people we know personally, but many of us we “know” and have “relationships with” athletes and actors whom we have followed for years. Their experiences are worth listening to, and are all too consistent with what we hear from our friends. Sheffield writes:
The unfortunate reality is that my stories aren’t unique. They’re not special or extraordinary, and neither am I. What happened to George Floyd could have easily — and far too often — happened to me or others.
What has made George Floyd’s death a defining moment in this country — what distinguishes it from countless others who were murdered and remain anonymous — was that this otherwise desensitized country actually saw it happen.
Listen, weep, wait to respond.
Christopher Beha, The Index of Self-Destructive Acts (Tin House Books 2020).
The Index of Self-Destructive Acts is the total number of hits batsmen, wild pitches, balks and errors by a pitcher, per nine innings.
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2003).
Baseball, math, crime, and faith in New York City! What could go wrong? Beha follows his two earlier novels with a beautifully written narrative about a wealthy family and those who intersect their lives.
Frank Doyle is a baseball writer turned political columnist turned pariah whose career may be jump started by a magazine profile written by Sam Waxworth, wunderkind baseball statistician turned political prognosticator turned writer about all things that succumb to numerical analysis. Frank’s wife, Kit, is on the back end of a lucrative career in investment banking. Their adult children (Eddie and Margot) are largely directionless, but in interesting ways. Eddie has wandered into and out of the military, Margot has wandered into and out of graduate school in poetry. There is a rich collection of secondary characters who alternately stress and soothe the Doyles and Waxworth.
Beha’s characters have to deal with the central question of the novel: “What would you change if you knew it was all going to end?” For some of them the question is prospective—”What choices do I have going forward?” For some of them the question is retrospective—”What can I change about the choices I have made in the past?”
For all, like pitchers, they grapple with their tendency to self-destructive acts.
Emily St. John Mandel, The Glass Hotel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020).*
No one ever thinks they’re awful, even people who really actually are. It’s some sort of survival mechanism.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven 106 (2014).
Emily St. John Mandel made our wait pay off, as she has matched her brilliant 2014 fourth novel with an equally brilliant 2020 followup. Although The Glass Hotel is superficially different than the post-apocalyptic Station Eleven, the two novels clearly come from the same pen.
Mandel again weaves chronology and biography to form a pattern which does not become quite distinct until the last pages. This time the fragile narrative winds through the lives of at least ten major and perhaps another thirty minor characters, but with fewer chronological jump-shifts. (Two characters even reappear from Station Eleven, though the two novels cannot quite share the same timeline.) These characters range from the owner and employees of the Hotel Caiette; to the staff and executives of a Wall Street investment company; to the executives and crew of a shipping concern. There are more than a few musicians, artists and addicts.
No spoilers, here, but the many characters glide into and out of “the kingdom of money,” in which the subjects carry themselves with “with the tedious confidence of all people with money, the breezy assumption that no serious harm could come” to them. P. 44. In the kingdom of money, it becomes all too possible for the servants to become invisible. (“[F]or him coffee appearing out of thin air was so commonplace an occurrence it didn’t merit acknowledgement.” P. 70.)
But for Vincent no one ever becomes invisible, and she enters and exits the kingdom with a high degree of intentionality and clarity, even when her decisions may later prove wrong. At one point she thinks I’m paying a price for this life, . . . but the price is reasonable. P. 65. She may have miscalculated, but she was not naïve.
Other characters are not so self-aware, and Mandel describes their predicaments with her typical crystalline prose:
A revelation earned only in hindsight: beauty can have a corrosive effect on character. It is possible to coast for some years on no more than a few polished lines and a dazzling smile, and those years are formative. (p. 95)
It’s possible to both know and not know something,” he said later [and] he spoke for several of us, actually, several who’d been thinking a great deal about that doubleness, that knowing and not knowing, being honorable and not being honorable, knowing you’re not a good person but trying to be a good person regardless around the margins of the bad. (p. 168).
“If we are to be honest with ourselves,” [he] said, “who among us has never made a mistake?” But this was an error, [she] saw that immediately. . . . Could [he] see the error, too? Impossible to tell. . . . He’d made a mistake but he pressed on with the story, like a boy following a dwindling trail into the woods at nightfall. . . . (pp. 216-17)
Mandel’s characters don’t always live in reality, or they flinch from reality’s glare, and so delude themselves to survive.
This is not a perfect book, and Mandel, a Canadian, stumbles over some minor technical American legal points (FBI investigators are “agents” not “detectives”; the attorneys in the trial she describes would have been federal, not state prosecutors), but her sense of the relevant psychology is perfectly lucid—the lines crossed are evident to her characters only on reflection:
He left the office in a daze, but by the time he reached the corner, he realized he couldn’t pretend to be shocked, . . . , because he was already complicit, he was already on the inside, and had been for some time. “You already knew this.,” he heard himself murmuring, speaking aloud. “There are no surprises here. You know what you are.” (p. 192)
Mandel, like Vincent, plays with light and shadows, creating a precise recording of necessarily imprecise subjects—victims who are perpetrators, innocents who choose guilty actions, insightful people who are blind. In the end, the ghosts are all real, but the dreams are nothing but delusions.
*This review originally appeared online in The Englewood Review of Books [link].
I was reminded today of a wonderful anecdote told by C.S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy. Unsatisfied by the progress of his son’s education, Lewis’ father transferred him into the care of a private tutor, William T. Kirkpatrick (“Kirk” or “The Great Knock”) to prepare Lewis for university. Kirk walks Lewis from the train station to his house, and Lewis recalls:
I began to “make conversation” in the deplorable manner which I had acquired at those evening parties and indeed found increasingly necessary to use with my father. I said I was surprised at the “scenery” of Surrey; it was much “wilder” than I had expected.
“Stop!” shouted Kirk with a suddenness that made me jump. “What do you mean by wildness and what grounds had you for not expecting it?”
I replied I don’t know what, still “making conversation.” As answer after answer was torn to shreds it at last dawned upon me that he really wanted to know. He was not making conversation, nor joking, nor snubbing me; he wanted to know. I was stung into attempting a real answer. A few passes sufficed to show that I had no clear and distinct idea corresponding to the word “wildness,” and that, in so far as I had any idea at all, “wildness” was a singularly inept word.
“Do you not see, then,” concluded the Great Knock, “that your remark was meaningless?” I prepared to sulk a little, assuming that the subject would now be dropped. Never was I more mistaken in my life. Having analyzed my terms, Kirk was proceeding to deal with my proposition as a whole. On what had I based . . . my expectations about the Flora and Geology of Surrey? Was it maps, or photographs, or books? I could produce none. It had, heaven help me, never occurred to me that what I called my thoughts need to be [based] on anything. Kirk once more drew a conclusion—without the slightest sign of emotion, but equally without the slightest concession to what I thought good manners: “Do you not see, then, that you had no right to have any opinion whatever on the subject?”
By this time our acquaintance had lasted about three and a half minutes; but the tone set by this first conversation was preserved without a single break during all the years I spent at Bookham.
Perhaps it is all too clear how this anecdote struck me on April 27, 2020. We are now surrounded by a myriad of opinions justified by nearly nothing at all. In the age of too much “information,” we consider it a useful skill to discern which opinions to ignore, but it has been a long time since I remembered that a person might actually be held to account for expressing an irrational opinion.
Jesus said (admittedly in a different context) “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak,” and this is worth remembering and taking to hear—may we be intentional in our speech and take great care with our opinions.