Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Joan Didion, Slouching Towards Bethlehem (FSG 1968, reprint ed. 2008).

  • Concerning “love” she writes “. . . everyone involved placed a magical faith in the efficacy of the very word.” p. 29, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”
  • “Joan Baez was a personality before she was entirely a person, and like anyone to whom that happens, she is in a sense the hapless victim of what others have seen in her, written about her, wanted her to be and not to be.” p. 47, “Where the Kissing Never Stops”
  • “I know something about dread myself, and appreciate the elaborate systems with which some people manage to fill the void, appreciate all the opiates of the people, whether they are as accessible as alcohol and heroin and promiscuity or as hard to come by as faith in God or History.” p. 63, Comrade Laski, C.P.U.S.A. (M.-L.)
  • “Howard Hughes is the largest single landholder in Clark County, Nevada. ‘Howard likes Las Vegas,’ an acquaintance of Hughes’s once explained, ‘because he likes to be able to find a restaurant open in case he wants a sandwich.’ Why do we like those stories so? Why do we tell them over and over? Why have we made a folk hero of a man who is the antithesis of all our official heroes, a haunted millionaire out of the West, trailing a legend of desperation and power and white sneakers? But then we have always done that. Our favorite people and our favorite stories become so not by any inherent virtue, but because they illustrate something deep in the grain, something unadmitted. Shoeless Joe Jackson, Warren Gamaliel Harding, the Titanic: how the mighty are fallen. Charles Lindbergh, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe: the beautiful and damned. And Howard Hughes. That we have made a hero of Howard Hughes tells us something interesting about ourselves, something only dimly remembered, tells us that the secret point of money and power in America is neither the things that money can buy nor power for power’s sake (Americans are uneasy with their possessions, guilty about power, all of which is difficult for Europeans to perceive because they are themselves so truly materialistic, so versed in the uses of power), but absolute personal freedom, mobility, privacy. It is the instinct which drove America to the Pacific, all through the nineteenth century, the desire to be able to find a restaurant open in case you want a sandwich, to be a free agent, live by one’s own rules.” p. 71, “7000 Romaine, Los Angeles 38”
  • “Going back to California is not like going back to Vermont, or Chicago; Vermont and Chicago are relative constants, against which one measure one’s own change. All that is constant about the California of my childhood is the rate at which it disappears.” p. 176, “Notes from a Native Daughter”
  • “It is not an unpleasant place to be, out there on Alcatraz with only the flowers and the wind and a bell buoy moaning and the tide surging through the Golden Gate, but to like a place like that you have to want a moat. I sometimes do, which is what I am talking about here.” p. 205, “Rock of Ages”
  • “[O]ne of the mixed blessings of being twenty and twenty-one and even twenty-three is the conviction that nothing like this, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, has ever happened to anyone before.” p. 226, “Goodbye to All That”

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.

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

Myths

Sam Allberry (@SamAllberry) has written a slender book called 7 Myths about Singleness (Crossway 2019) [amazon], and the only thing I didn’t like about it was the cover.

7 mythsAllberry, a single pastor and speaker at RZIM, deals winsomely about the church’s various misconceptions about singleness (not all of which are consistent with each other): 1. Singleness is too hard; 2. Singleness requires a special calling; 3. Singleness means no intimacy; 4. Singleness means no family; 5. Singleness hinders ministry; 6. Singleness wastes your sexuality; and 7. Singleness is easy.

What I liked most about this book was that it wasn’t particularly directed at single people. The target audience is believers who want to think about biblical teaching on the subject and includes married and unmarried believers. It would seem to me that the topic is pretty relevant to readers of the New Testament given that Jesus (certainly) and Paul (probably) were single. How can we be so quick to see marriage as a virtual requirement for ministers and the “highest calling” for others?

Allberry says, in his conclusion:

When I started this project, my initial aim was to write about the goodness of singleness . . . . But through it all I have been increasingly preoccupied with something else – not the goodness of singleness but the goodness of God. The issue is not whether this path or that path is better, whether singleness or marriage would bring me more good. The issue is God and whether I will plunge myself into him, trusting him every day.

P. 149. If that’s not relevant to us all, I don’t know what is.

Highly recommended.

Living with sin, living with others

current reading 2Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans 130 (W. Pauck, trans.) (Westminster John Knox Press 1961):

small quotes blue[T]his life is a life of cure from sin; it is not a life of sinlessness, as if the cure were finished and health had been recovered. The church is an inn and an infirmary for the sick and for convalescents. Heaven, however, is the palace where the whole and the righteous live.


Justin Lee, “In The Age Of #MeToo, Men Must Read More Literary Fiction,” ARC (Nov. 6, 2018) [link]. Lee argues that fiction reading impacts the reader’s ability to place themselves in another’s shoes:

small quotes blueReading fiction requires a sustained act of imagination: you inhabit a world of others, identify with their joys and travails, even learn the texture of their minds. Serious readers know that reading great fiction enhances their ability to empathize. And habitual reading helps sustain that empathy, makes it reflexive.

This (not surprisingly) makes me think of a well-known quotation from another Lee:

small quotes blue“First of all,” he said, “if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. 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.”

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) (Atticus speaking to his daughter, Scout).

I believe both Lees are correct.

Longing and love

current reading 2SW writes about our mistaken desire for permanence in this world, when it is really another country for which we long:

I loved, more than anything, and without knowing it, permanence. My six year old heart wanted to live forever. Twenty years later, it still does.

Sarah Willard, “In Ruins,” Blind Mule Blog (Oct. 2, 2018) [link].


CG reminds us that in the end it is impossible for us to overstate God’s love or to rationalize it:

We have such a hard time accepting that God’s love truly reaches out to all people, even the people we hate or disagree with, and even (especially?) to we ourselves. We insist on qualifying grace, which necessarily renders that grace null and void. We worry that if people start to believe that grace is true in all cases and that God loves people with reckless abandon all hell will break loose.

Connor Gwin, “Qualifying the Reckless Love of God,” Mockingbird (Sept. 24, 2018) [link].

Empathy

current reading 2It was not that they were looking for meaning, this man and woman on the hilltop in the early morning. They were too tired for that. But it rose like the sun among us, shadowed and slow, revealing a day we did not wish to see. In waiting, in sleepless nights, in labor, in fears, in blood, in tears, in a grave, in the gospel of the brokenhearted, in the life of the world to come, in a moment, our labor is not in vain . . . .” Sarah Willard, “Talitha Cumi,” Blind Mule Blog (Sept. 11, 2018) [link].

Elissa Ely, “From Bipolar Darkness, the Empathy to be a Doctor,” New York Times (Mar. 16, 2009) [link]; see also Alan Jacobs, “Rene Giraud, please call your office,” Snakes & Ladders (August 29, 2018) [link].

All bad, not all bad

Baseball 2I read this about 10 days ago.  I continue to think about it. Eric Dorman, “Of Cubs and Humans and Good Thieves,” Mockingbird (July 30, 2018) [link].

It reminds me of  “If you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable.” David Foster Wallace, “This is Water,” available many places on the Web, including [link] and [audio link].

A gentleman and a novelist

Walter_Sullivan_FSWI just had the experience of reading a novel written by one of my professors at Vanderbilt University.

Walter Sullivan (1924-2006) introduced me to many of my favorite books, including Brideshead Revisited, The End of the Affair, War in Heaven, and “The Four Quartets” in a class he called “Angelic and Demonic Themes in 20th Century Literature.”  We also read The Spire and, I feel certain, some Flannery O’Connor. He was a marvelous teacher who started by teaching the basics of the Bible so that the class had a common language to discuss the modern works.  I have often wished I had spent more time working on “The Four Quartets” while I had opportunity to draw on his wisdom.*

Long Long Love

It turns out he wrote three novels and last night I read The Long, Long Love [link].**

It is the story of Horatio Adams, a man strangely incapable of accepting what happiness comes his way because of the pain and fear which distracts him.

It is a moving and lyrical book:

“I wondered about that, Horatio. What happened to us? Why did things work out the way they did?”

“Why?” I said. “Nobody ever really knows why. There are a thousand reasons for every turn of every day.” I pondered this a while, knowing it was true. Thinking that not only did God know about the fall of the sparrow, but that only the mind of God could know all the reasons why the sparrow fell.

Recommended (don’t expect any tank battles).

*Thomas Howard’s The Dove Descending (2006) [link] is the best substitute I know of.

**Sullivan had written it about twenty years before I met him.  How sad that I did not read it until more than twenty years after he died.  It is still in print.

Courting with Camels

ScreenShot065A Pattern of Prayer, part 1: A Pattern of Need
February 14, 2016 | Genesis 24 (Praying for a wife for Isaac)

Today, you may have noticed, is Valentine’s Day. You can tell by all the pink and red hearts and the candies and cards.

Valentine’s Day has a spotty history, or supposed history, having been established in 496 by a pope who listed Valentinus as a martyr “whose name is justly reverenced among men, but whose acts are known only to God.”

Although the pope could not say anything about what Valentinus had done, there eventually grew up a variety of legends about a priest named Valentinus who was martyred about 270 AD. Most prominent was the idea that he was martyred for performing marriages for Christians, and that’s the idea that had the most market appeal, so that eventually “Saint Valentine’s Day,” February 14, became associated with romantic and courtly love.

It really has no spiritual significance whatsoever, and the Catholic Church has dropped it as a part of the General Roman Calendar, but it continues to sell cards, candy, and clothes.

As we were trying to figure out how we were going to approach this sermon series, I realized that we would be starting on February 14, and one of the very first specific instances of prayer in the Bible just happened to concern how God brought about a particular marriage in a particular place in time. You may be surprised that it involves camels.

I thought it might actually sanctify Valentine’s Day a bit.

It is no secret that our current view of love and marriage (even before the Supreme Court’s
decision last summer) is historically odd. We tend to think that marriage is the result of being struck by an overwhelming emotion that leads you to realize that THIS IS THE ONE FOR YOU.

But most marriages at most times and places were not romantically motivated — indeed many, many marriages have been arranged by families for various practical and political reasons.

As we look at today’s passage in Genesis 24, we will see an early arranged marriage which
proceeds along different lines — with camels playing an integral role.

Let’s pray.

* * *

Abraham was chosen to be the father of the nation which would enter the Promised Land and there worship God, and from who Messiah would come. God had called him out of Ur, which is a land far to the east of what would become Israel.

And “called him out” means invited him to walk with his wife and household 600 miles to the land of Canaan. And Abraham, in an amazing display of faith in God, does this thing.
Eventually he and Sarah have a son, Isaac (I’m leaving out some pretty big parts of the story), and Sarah passes away.

Continue reading Courting with Camels