Old and new friends.
Prior + Austen
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.
Quotations and excerpts from Stephen L. Carter’s The Violence of Peace (2011) (emphasis in red is added):
It is an article of faith among many on the left that there exist on the right some who were chomping at the bit to strike Iraq, and that any evidence, however specious, would do. It is an article of faith among many on the right that there exist on the left some who will never find any war to their liking, and will seize upon any evidence, however specious, to justify their disapproval. Perhaps there is something to these ad hominem fears, but they are uninteresting to the scholar and, in a wiser world, would be equally uninteresting to politicians and pundits. Evidence and argument, not preexisting prejudices, should guide us in our moral lives, particularly when we ponder so momentous a moral decision as whether to move a nation to war.
When we contemplate disaster, our heuristics misfire. Catastrophic harms tend to be treated, in our minds and in our regulations, as far more likely than they are. And, certainly, successful terror attacks are considered catastrophic. The public position is, in effect, zero tolerance. If no attacks are permitted, then no risks can be taken. Thus a risk of 1 percent becomes too high.
Classifying everything unpleasant as “torture” makes a mockery of language. We must not redefine terms to the extent that we become unable to reason about distinctions. Threatening to kill a prisoner is horrific, but not as horrific as actually killing him. Holding him in a position that stresses his knees is outrageous, but not as outrageous as breaking his knees. Forcing him to listen to loud and noxious sounds is terrible, but not as terrible as cutting off his ears. When we say that all that is bad is identical, we are not creating useful moral bright lines; we are, rather, establishing our own moral laziness, our inability to admit that even among those things that shock our consciences, there are degrees of shock.
In war, says Walzer, there is often “a kind of killing frenzy that begins in combat and ends in murder.” There may even be a sort of “temporary insanity”: “a frenzy of fear such that the soldier cannot recognize the moment when he is no longer in danger.” The point is that, in war, decent people fighting for the just side will at times do terrible things. To pretend that their emotions will never get the better of them is childish. To seek somehow to bring them all to justice is again to confuse cause and effect. The war itself is the cause—not some defect in the nature of a few wayward soldiers, but the war itself. That was Sherman’s point: “You cannot help yourself.” You try. You do your best. You train your people, you hammer home the rules, and, if you really care about what happens in the battle, you raise your children to believe the same propositions. If you are serious, you might even build your society around self-discipline and self-denial, even in the face of horror and fear. But, in the end, no matter what, your efforts will be imperfect.89 If you fight a war, terrible things will happen. If you do not want terrible things to happen, do not fight any wars, but bear in mind the risk that the rest of the world might not mind doing terrible things quite as much as you do.
Although there are those on the right who look at our warlike President [Obama] and accuse him of cynicism, and there are those on the left who look at the same President and accuse him of betrayal, I think the truth is different. For it is a painful fact known to all of us, but too often forgotten, that deciding is a more difficult matter than criticizing. It might even be that Obama the insider has realized what Obama the outsider did not: whatever the mistakes of his predecessor, President Bush acted out of a belief in the urgency of the threat facing the nation. The threat was neither invented nor imagined, but is instead out there in the world. The plotting against America continues. If you pay attention, you can hardly miss the fresh headlines every month or so about another conspiracy blocked by federal authorities.
[W]ar rarely accomplishes its objectives except imperfectly. As the church historian Robert Bainton has noted, commenting on the pre-Pearl Harbor support among some Christians for American entry into World War II: “To be sure, the war might not establish democracy, liberty, and a just and enduring peace. The only thing war can ever do is to restrain outrageous villainy and give a chance to build again.”
p. 161 (quoting Niebuhr’s 1948 essay “Why the Christian Church is not Pacifist”):
A decision to intervene in the affairs of another country is no doubt in the end a matter of politics. But the arguments for it are moral. Not every form of government is equal. One thinks here of Reinhold Niebuhr: “Pacifism either tempts us to make no judgments at all, or to give an undue preference to tyranny in comparison with the momentary anarchy which is necessary to overcome tyranny.” Niebuhr points to the tendency of many pacifists to hubris, because of the belief that they have found the one true solution to the brokenness of man, whereas (in Christian terms, and one would hope in the terms of secular morality as well) none of us can ever be sure. Whatever the attraction of pacifism when you alone are under threat, there is less virtue in being pacifist when called upon to defend someone else.
But a moral individual who cares about others still has to decide what the people in Darfur ought to do about the slaughter; or whether anybody else should help. “It’s not my fault” is perhaps the worst reason in the world for doing nothing.
Genocide has always been difficult for genuine pacifists. Consider the Holocaust.
* * *
Gandhi did not merely call for nonviolent rather than violent resistance to Hitler. He evidently believed there was merit in Germany’s claim to lands lost in the First World War, even though he regretted that Hitler had turned to war to attain justice. And Gandhi praised the Nazi leader, arguing that future generations would honor his bravery and genius. True, he also insisted that Hitler’s actions were “monstrous and unbecoming of human dignity.” Yet the praise can hardly be ignored. Probably it was necessary, and not only as a tactic. Gandhi had to believe there was something human and reachable in the worst of dictators, because absent that conscience, nonviolence could never have its desired effect.
This core conception is essential to any pacifism that is not mere pose. Anybody can claim to be a pacifist but politically or intellectually serious pacifism is mature enough to accept the consequences.
* * *
Again, consider the President’s words (about Gandhi’s principles):
But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: Evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies. Negotiations cannot convince al Qaeda’s leaders to lay down their arms. To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism—it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.
Gandhi could not possibly endorse any of this.
The office of the Presidency, once assumed, transforms the outlook of its holder. What had seemed frivolous becomes frightening. What had seemed nonsense becomes necessary. The world turns out to be a dangerous place after all. The United States turns out to have actual enemies, people who wish the nation harm, and very few of them are moved by personal loathing for any particular resident of the White House.
I understand why war is not popular, but I also know this: The belief that peace is desirable is rarely enough to achieve it. Peace requires responsibility. Peace entails sacrifice. That’s why NATO continues to be indispensable. That’s why we must strengthen U.N. and regional peacekeeping, and not leave the task to a few countries. That’s why we honor those who return home from peacekeeping and training abroad to Oslo and Rome; to Ottawa and Sydney; to Dhaka and Kigali—we honor them not as makers of war, but of wagers—but as wagers of peace.
Andrew Peterson, Adorning the Dark: Thought on Community, Calling, and the Mystery of Making (2019) [link].
This is an absolutely marvelous book if you (1) are a fan of Andrew Peterson, (2) are interested in Christians in the arts, or (3) read books. (Okay, I threw the last one in, because I think this could have very broad appeal.) Peterson, of course is a singer-songwriter living near Nashville who is also involved the lives of a number of creative Christians in an online community called The Rabbit Room.*
You likely know Peterson as a thoughtful singer-songwriter and (perhaps) a gleeful author — mostly of fantasy novels — but in this case his thoughtful faith plays out in a string of reflections and personal anecdotes about the faith and the creative calling. Adorning the Dark is memoir and (in the best sense) sermon.
There are many delightful anecdotes referencing the influences on his thought, including some usual suspects (C.S. Lewis, Rich Mullins, Wendell Berry) and some decidedly unusual suspects (The Dragonlance novels, Bruce Springsteen, James Taylor). Tolkien and Dylan were relatively late additions. By far, though, it is friends and fellow believers who seem to have built themselves into Peterson’s life. Continue reading Jesu juva
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.
Allberry, 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.