“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.
Christ has no body but yours,Attributed to Teresa of Avila
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.
This is a good time for respectful, thoughtful, listening. It is probably worth seeking out voices which relate experiences and opinions which are a little foreign to us. (It is probably a good time for holding back on dramatic and absolute political conclusions, but that is another post.)
Appropriately for Father’s Day, Aaron Jones, “Two Fathers,” The Player’s Tribune (June 19, 2020) [link] is reflecting on his father and his fatherhood as he holds his two-month-old son:
My dad told me then (and many times after) that life isn’t fair, and that an African-American man has to work a little bit harder — and be a little bit nicer — in order to be treated like he should be treated all the time, like a normal human being.
It’s time for a change. You’re living life as a little boy, and you see things, and then you start to grow up, and then you have your own child, and you’re like, Hold on. I see why my dad was having these conversations with me. I see why he had a fear like that could be me one day, and he might get old without a son, or my son could grow up without a father.
Jones is properly and appropriately seeing the the events of the day in the context of what his son will see a dozen years from now.
The Players Tribune has been focusing on statements of black athletes recently, and if you follow sports you may well find that these stories of people you sort of “know” are useful in broadening your experience. Yesterday’s piece by Kevin-Prince Boateng, “To My White Brothers and Sisters” is also worth your time [link].
Making the obvious (but important) point that the slogans don’t always communicate the same way to different people, Nathaniel Rakich, “How Americans Feel About ‘Defund the Police,'” FiveThirtyEight (June 19, 2020) [link]:
“Defund the police.” In the last several weeks, this slogan has entered the mainstream amid nationwide protests against police violence.
However, there’s some disagreement about what exactly the slogan means. Some activists actually do want to disband police departments entirely, while others argue that police budgets should be radically decreased, but not brought down to zero. But even among those who want to abolish the police, some say they want to do so over time.
But while the slogan is suddenly everywhere, so far it doesn’t poll well. Four polls conducted in the past two weeks found that Americans opposed the “defund the police” movement or “defunding police departments” 58 percent to 31 percent, on average.
In FiveThirtyEight world, these initial statements are supported and explored with polling data.
And from Tony Evans’ 2015 book Oneness Embraced 17-18:
While this tension can also be seen in many other ways, either through swastikas painted on synagogues or Hispanics marching against the concern of racial profiling and the passage of immigration legislation, it is the black/white relationship that has set the bar of racial division the highest. Given the length and volatile history of this divide, if we can ever get this right, we will have developed a template for addressing wherever else this evil shows up in the culture. The church will have established a model on how to biblically address issues such as those found in the current tension arising out of the influx of both legal and illegal immigrants to America, among other things. The church will have put forth biblical and theological answers that have pragmatic manifestations above and beyond mere social and political dialogue about the situation.
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.
I was saddened to hear that Herman Wouk died last week, just 10 days short of his 104th birthday.
His 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. 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.
Sarah Willard writes about choices, and the will of God and finding a place to light, mentioning Jayber Crow, and Amy Carmichael and Galatians 5. Today, I am giving no excerpts—you need to read this whole thing: “Freedom also for her to stay (and our ever sure place to light),” Blind Mule Blog (Apr. 8, 2019) [link].
You should follow this wise young woman.
Another piece you should just read in its entirety is Kyle Korver, “Privileged,” The Player’s Tribune (Apr. 8, 2019) [link], in which he thinks about how white men should react to racism.
Connor Gwin, “Things We Cannot Say,” Mockingbird (Mar. 20, 2019) [link] has a compelling take on silence, pain, and grace in the church. Any one of these would be worth your time, any two intriguing, but it is the combination which is compelling:
It is almost trite to say that people are hurting. We all know it intellectually. The truth is much more startling. A majority of people are in an incredible amount of pain (emotional, spiritual, physical). No one has it all together. In fact, most people are on the verge of falling apart. People are always in a crisis, coming out of a crisis, or heading into a crisis. This is one of the only things in life that we can guarantee to be true.
He goes on from there — you should, too.
Sarah Willard, “New Things Coming On,” Blind Mule Blog (Mar. 20, 2019) [link] writes (beautifully, as always) about conflict and resolution, and how what we think of as resolution is too timid for what God is planning.
What kind of storyteller expects anyone to believe the kind of things we see in this life alone? The threads of his work aren’t tidy, and sometimes they can’t be followed and they break off in all the worst places, but in the end you see it secure and whole, and not the dishrag you imagined at all, but a tapestry filling the whole world, with every scene more beautiful than the last, where those of a cool unfriendliness meet over a hillside and listen to each other, where sad old things have passed away and you feel a pressure on your shoulders… for it’d really be wise, my friend, to sit down for the sight of all the new things coming on.
She also mentions a piece which she wrote recently for Chronic Joy, which is a blog for people who suffer chronic pain — “War Stories and White Fences” (Mar. 20, 2019) [link].
Both pieces are well worth your time.
In my church, we sometimes find it most loving to be “careful with the images” in the sense that (for example) when we pray on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day we want to be gentle, knowing that there are some who would like to be mothers but can not; and some who had fathers who did not remotely model Godly fatherhood. That makes this passage particularly poignant:
[Some biblical] images we recognize from our own experience, but once we have grasped them, they in turn cause us to revise the way we carry out the activity. An example would be God as father; as Proverbs 3:12 has it, “for the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” There is no reason to suppose that the compilers of Proverbs had a too-rosy view of what actual fathers are like; they could no doubt be every bit as distant, abusive, short-tempered, or just plain inconsistent in Israel as they can in the modern West. But most people have an intuition of what a father ought to be and can use that for thinking about God. The image has a varied texture.
So God is compared to a father not because fathers are perfect fathers but because God is a perfect father.
Another instance is Psalm 103:13, “As a father shows compassion to his children, so the LORD shows compassion to those who fear him.” Those who meet the image halfway, allowing imagination and intuition to prevent experience from making them cynical, may find their own practice of fathering is changed to be more like what they perceive God’s to be, infusing tender compassion into moral education.
C. John Collins, Reading Genesis Well 76 (2018) [amazon].
A brilliant point I think, but here is what I thought when I read it—those who will not meet the image (fatherhood, marriage, parental compassion, exuberant celebration, feasting, fertility) halfway because of past experience push away a part of the grace offered to them.
And we each need grace too much to push any of it away.
Let us open our hearts to the metaphors in which God speaks.
“The ‘I surrender’ list,” Mockingbird (Jan. 28, 2019) [link]
[T]he opposite of faith is not doubt—doubt is the enduring human companion, even in faith. No, the opposite of faith is control, the need to be in the driver’s seat for every turn in the road. Just like Eric facing that silent room and that blank page, the invitation to faith also means a resignation of will, namely your will. Faith means surrendering the notion that you are the Higher Power guiding your life, and realizing instead that it might be better off in Another’s hands.
Surrender is never considered a virtue, though, especially in a culture which champions, uh, champions, those who don’t surrender. Surrendering means failing—raising the flag of defeat or incompetence. And surrender is especially dubious when the terms are chartered by some less-than-appealing Religious Authority. Faith simply isn’t worth the risk with a God Who Vindictively Punishes or God Who Is Church Lady. But with a God Who Forgives?