The Eyes of the Heart

Frederick Buechner, The Eyes of the Heart (HarperSanFrancisco 1999).

  • When she is in her 80s, Buechner’s mother, who generally “refused to talk about death the way she refused to talk about a great many other things,” unaccountably asked “Do you really believe anything happens after you die?” After an unsuccessful attempt at a verbal answer (exacerbated by her partial and partially willful deafness), Buechner “tried to answer the question in a letter, I wrote her I believe that what happens when you die is that, in ways I knew no more about than she did, you are given back your life again, and I said there were three reasons why I believed it First, I wrote her, I believed it because, if I were God and loved the people I created and wanted them to become at last the best they had it in them to be, I couldn’t imagine consigning them to oblivion when their time came with the job under the best of circumstances only a fraction done. Second, I said, I believed it, apart from any religious considerations, because I had a hunch it was true. I intuited it I said that if the victims and the victimizers, the wise and the foolish, the good-hearted and the heartless all end up alike in the grave and that is the end of it, then life would be a black comedy, and to me, even at its worst, life doesn’t feel like a black comedy. It feels like a mystery. It feels as though, at the innermost heart of it, there is Holiness, and that we experience all the horrors that go on both around us and within us as horrors rather than as just the way the cookie crumbles because, in our own innermost hearts, we belong to Holiness, which they are a tragic departure from. And lastly, I wrote her, I believe that what happens to us after we die is that we aren’t dead forever because Jesus said so.” p. 14-16.
  • “[My brother Jamie] never went to church except once in a while to hear me, and he didn’t want a funeral, he told me [but] he did ask me if I would write a prayer for him that he could use, and . . . he had it there on the table beside him [when he died]. ‘Dear Lord, bring me through darkness into light. Bring me through pain into peace. Bring me through death into life. Be with me wherever I go, and with everyone I love, In Christ’s name I ask it. Amen.'” p. 163.
  • “Years ago when I first started giving lectures and readings here and there, I rather dreaded the question-and-answer sessions that usually followed them, nervous that I wouldn’t know what or how to respond and that the audience would see me for the impostor I more than half suspected I was. Now, on the other hand, it is the part of such junkets that I look forward to most, and I find myself responding to people I have never set eyes on before as though they are members of my own family. The risk, of course, is that I will make a fool of myself, or worse . . . . But it has been my experience that the risks are far outweighed by the rewards, chief of which is that when you speak to strangers as though they are friends, more often than not, if only for as long as the encounter lasts, they become friends, and if in the process they also think of you as a little peculiar, who cares? In fact it seems to me that I often feel freer to be myself in the company of stranger-friends than in the company of those with whom there is such a long tradition of reserve and circumspection that it is hard to transcend it.” p. 178.
  • “I have never risked much in disclosing the little I have of the worst that I see in my mirror, and I have not been much more daring in disclosing the best, I have seen with the eyes of my heart the great hope to which he has called us, but out of some shyness or diffidence I rarely speak of it, and in my books I have tended to write about it for the most part only obliquely, hesitantly, ambiguously, for fear of losing the ear and straining the credulity of the readers to whom such hope seems just wishful thinking. For fear of overstating, I have tended especially in my nonfiction books to understate, because that seemed a more strategic way of reaching the people I would most like to reach who are the ones who more or less don’t give religion the time of day. But maybe beneath that lies the fear that if I say too much about how again and again over the years I have experienced holiness—even here I find myself drawing back from saying God or Jesus—as a living, healing, saving presence in my life, then I risk being written off as some sort of embarrassment by most of the people I know and like. For the most part it is only in my novels that I have allowed myself to speak unreservedly of what with the eyes of my heart I have seen. . . .” pp. 180-81.

Misha on Depression

Talcott Garland:

  • “I am depressed. And I almost like it. Depression is seductive: it offends and teases, frightens you and draws you in, tempting you with its promise of sweet oblivion, then overwhelming you with a nearly sexual power, squirming past your defenses, dissolving your will, invading the tired spirit so utterly that it becomes difficult to recall that you ever lived without it . . . or to imagine that you might live that way again. With all the guile of Satan himself, depression persuades you that its invasion was all your own idea, that you wanted it all along. It fogs the part of the brain that reasons, that knows right and wrong. It captures you with its warm, guilty, hateful pleasures, and, worst of all, it becomes familiar. All at once, you find yourself in thrall to the very thing that most terrifies you. Your work slides, your friendships slide, your marriage slides, but you scarcely notice: to be depressed is to be half in love with disaster.”

Stephen L. Carter, The Emperor of Ocean Park 207 (2002).

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”

AJ

You should visit Alan Jacob’s blog regularly or have Snakes and Ladders (blog.ayjay.org) on your newsfeed. You know this, because I write it all the time. Of course you will not find everything he writes (or reads) interesting, but many things are quite striking. Four recent examples:

  • In “hubris” (Aug. 26, 2021) [link], Jacobs revisits the question of whether it might just be better to opt out of social media.
  • On August 25 [link], Jacobs points us to his January 6, 2021 piece “School for Scale” in The Hedgehog Review [link] and reminds us why it is really, really important to understand decimals.
  • Jacobs refers us to something Oliver Burkeman wrote long ago in the Guardian: “Everyone is totally just winging it, all the time” (May 21, 2014) [link]. Eerily reminiscent of observed reality!
  • “Tolkien and Auden” (Aug. 16, 2021) [link] concerns the two famous writers who were good, though unlikely, friends. Jacobs wrote a delightful short play (“Sandfield Road”) about the two men. You can read it in 15 minutes, here [link].

Jacobs has twenty eight posts since August 15, so you have some catching up to do.

18 for ’21

Old and new friends.

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.

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

Reading

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.)

TPT logoAppropriately 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:

small quotes blueMy 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.

small quotes blueIt’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].


538 logoMaking 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]:

small quotes blue“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.


OnenessEmbracedAnd from Tony Evans’ 2015 book Oneness Embraced 17-18:

small quotes blueWhile 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.