Monday, December 28, 2015

Music to end (or start) a year with

Melissa Maricich with a beautiful cover of John Michael Talbot's arrangement of the Magnificat:

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Through a glass darkly with a Land Rover?

Taking cues from bible verses like Matthew 1:21, where Joseph is told what to name the baby that Mary will have and why, Christians believe that God became man to save His people from their sins. And while nothing ought to (or even could) cloud the glory of that primary purpose, I'm beginning to think that the Incarnation had some secondary purposes, too.

I think maybe one of the reasons that God became man was to show us how to be properly vulnerable.

I'm not educated enough to say who had that insight first, but it wouldn't surprise me to learn down the road that I've paraphrased Saint Ambrose of Milan or Saint John Chrysostem without knowing it. My own thought remains half-baked, so I'm blogging about it as an aid to memory.

Saint Paul wrote to the Corinthians that the Lord had said to him, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." He (Paul) had a better understanding of that paradox than I ever will, yet I think it's in the same ballpark as the idea that there is such a thing as a "proper vulnerability." Generations before that, Mary the mother of Jesus had replied to the proposition relayed to her by the Angel Gabriel with the utterly accommodating "I am the handmaid of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word."

What makes Mary an example of proper vulnerability rather than a victim of circumstance is, I think, that she chose freely for the Lord. Not being a slave to the compulsion for instant gratification also gave Mary the patience she needed to nip pridefulness in the bud, which worked to her advantage, because proud people hate their own vulnerability, but humble people understand and embrace it.

Amusingly, it's not just scripture and dimly-remembered snippets of theology that inspire thoughts like that. Everything in the foregoing paragraphs was reinforced for me by a TV commercial for the Land Rover Discovery Sport. Have you seen it? A pretty woman running sled dogs across a snowy landscape is ferried across a shallow river by a helpful man who just happens to be off-roading in his Land Rover when Little Red Mushing Hood meets the geographic obstacle that she and her dogs would not otherwise have crossed.

The commercial has continuity problems with things like seat positions in the Land Rover and a sled that magically moves from one side of the river to the other, but I don't care. The dogs are beautiful and well-behaved, the woman training for the Iditarod is ridiculously pretty, and the Good Samaritan driving a Land Rover looks appropriately rugged but non-threatening.

A model named Lauren Hastings plays the woman. The man is Ayden Gramm. The dogs are unnamed. Interestingly, most of the commercial is silent, and the man and the woman don't actually say anything to each other. Their interaction is shown exclusively through their facial expressions.

Had she not been willing to admit her need, she would not have taken the driver up on his offer for help crossing the river. I also think that although the woman was vulnerable, she was not defenseless. Her dogs (none of them purse-sized) would presumably have done what they could to keep the driver in line had he been less than a gentleman. And the driver for his part stopped his vehicle knowing that the woman could have rejected his offer for safe passage across the river. Ergo, proper vulnerability all around.

The ad is emphatically not Christian in any obvious way, but it seems to resonate with Christian themes.

Perhaps even unrequited love, painful as it is, helps us to be properly vulnerable.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Tilting at windmills

Few things are as Quixotic as being a self-appointed champion of effective American English usage, but then that call to the jousting arena is also an occupational hazard of even intermittent blogging.

USA Today headline: Protecting Vatican from terrorists is an 'enormous' challenge
My reaction: They're mincing words with stupidly generic terms again. It's not gun-toting Methodists whom Vatican security officers worry about, as Bill Whittle and others have been saying for awhile now.

Yahoo Politics essay by Hunter Walker: The shooting at Planned Parenthood put GOP 2016 hopefuls in a 'politically uncomfortable' position (Tagged as Planned Parenthood attack flummoxes GOP)
My reaction: Who (other than anonymous "operatives for both parties") actually thinks that? What part of "Thou Shalt Not Murder" is unclear? Which Republican candidate has called for violence against Planned Parenthood staffers? Obvious answer: None of them. Corollary for Mr. Walker to consider: Does their party's support for abortion on demand at any time put Democrat 2016 hopefuls in a 'politically uncomfortable' position? Bueller? Anyone?

More Yahoo Politics innuendo: After two days of silence, GOP candidates respond to Planned Parenthood shootings (Tagged as GOP candidates break silence on Friday's attack)
My reaction: You mean those ogres waited two whole days to say that they don't condone murder? Don't they know they're supposed to hashtag outrage or sympathy within the same news cycle as whatever event they're outraged by or sympathetic to? (No, that's not actually my reaction).

Yahoo goes for the trifecta of inanity: Climate talks are underway, but saving the world might be harder than we thought
My reaction: Ya think? Alternate reaction: "Hubris," Yahoo headline writers -- you might want to re-acquaint yourselves with what that word means.

Washington Post writers are no better than Yahoo News and Politics writers, but Ed Morrissey and Glenn Reynolds have already tag-teamed to give WaPo the scorn it deserves.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

When you confuse science with wisdom

Bill Maher was a guest on Stephen Colbert's TV show the other day. I don't normally watch either of them because I don't think either is particularly funny, but they had an interesting exchange when Colbert invited Maher back to church, and Maher realized the invitation was serious.

Colbert: "You were raised Catholic, right?"

Maher: "I *was* raised Catholic."

Colbert: "Come on back, Bill! The door is always open. Golden ticket, right before you. All you have to do is humble yourself before the presence of the Lord [and] admit that there are things greater than you in the universe that you do not understand, and salvation awaits you! Take Pascal's Wager: If you're wrong, you're an idiot, but if I'm riiiight, you're going to hell."

Maher, smirking: "I do admit there are things in the universe I don't understand, but my response to that is not to make up silly stories...or to believe intellectually embarrassing myths from the Bronze Age. But *you* believe whatever you want to!"

Colbert: "Well, yeah, I mean, I have a connection to our ancestors, because I, I...

Maher: "Sure...because these were men who did not know what a germ or an atom was, or where the sun went at night, and that's where you're getting your wisdom. Anyway, let's not argue!"

At that point, the conversation took a turn not in the clip that I've seen, as both men moved to another subject. What interests me, though, is Maher's chronological snobbery. He apparently believes that because the authors of inspired texts were not well-versed in modern science, they should therefore be ignored. But whether you know what a germ or an atom is has nothing to do with whether you understand (as Colbert does) that Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life."

The other problem with Maher's implicit argument is that he has no idea what wisdom actually is. Wisdom, by definition, stands the test of time; it's not wrapped up in technology. To deride the Bible as "Bronze Age" wisdom is to ignore the fact that if it is what the church says it is, then its truths are timeless.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Paraphrasing the big questions

My parish sponsors an intermittent educational and fellowship initiative for men that organizers call "Toward Discipleship." It's good stuff run by friends, and motivating enough to plant dozens of us in a conference room at ridiculously early but schedule-accommodating times on Friday mornings.

Current talks have focused on what might be called the developmental stages of authentic Christian manhood. Speakers cleverly decided to associate each developmental stage with a key question. That's an effective strategy, especially for people like me, who'd rather take notes after a talk than during a talk.

At the five-week mark, this is what I remember:

  1. The key question in stage one, Boyhood, is "Am I the apple of my father's eye?" 
  2. In stage two, the Cowboy phase, the key question becomes, "Do I have what it takes?"
  3. A Warrior ethos appears for stage three, and the question there is "Are there things worth fighting for?"
  4. Stage four is the Lover, and ideally it tempers stage 3, because it's the other side of the same coin, when you realize that not everything is or has to be a fight. The lover's question is "Can I find the good, the true, and the beautiful?"
  5. Comes then the King. His question is "How do I use my power and influence for good?" Put another way, that question can be understood as an inquiry into the application of mercy: How do I raise other people up?
  6. The last stage in this series (and perhaps in life) is The Sage. I'm not there yet, but I look forward to updating this post when the question posed by the sage is described.
    UPDATE: It turns out that the question for the Sage stage (ha!) is "Am I able and willing to mentor someone else?" Makes sense!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Children, coercion, and climate change

Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal wrote a slow burner of a column that was published yesterday, to mark the news that the government of China was ending its official "one-child policy."

In an essay called "The Tyranny of a Big Idea," Stephens rightly calls that one-child policy a "35-year experiment in social folly and human cruelty," but he also uses its welcome demise as a lens through which to reconsider some warped aspects of the progressive credo.

Here is Stephens' ringing conclusion (italics on the last paragraph are mine):

"Modern liberalism is best understood as a movement of would-be believers in search of true faith. For much of the 20th century it was faith in History, especially in its Marxist interpretation. Now it’s faith in the environment. Each is a comprehensive belief system, an instruction sheet on how to live, eat and reproduce, a story of how man fell and how he might be redeemed, a tale of impending crisis that’s also a moral crucible.

In short, a religion without God. I sometimes wonder whether the journalists now writing about the failure of the one-child policy ever note the similarities with today’s climate “crisis.” That the fears are largely the same. And the political prescriptions are almost identical. And the leaders of the movement are cut from the same cloth. And the confidence with which the alarmists prescribe radical cures, their intolerance for dissenting views, their insistence on “global solutions,” their disdain for democratic input or technological adaptations -- that everything is just as it was when bell-bottoms were in vogue.

China’s one-child policy has been one of the great unrecognized tragedies of our time. It is a modern-day lesson in the danger of environmental fears and the misanthropic solutions they typically inspire. It behooves us to learn its lessons before we repeat its mistakes on a vaster scale."

Sparked by a reader's comment about SJWs ("social justice warriors"), John C. Wright has related thoughts about the moral slide that starts from an Appeal to Equality and inevitably ends with a lethal Appeal to Pride. Don't go there for a quick fix, though: Wright blogs at length, like the novelist he is.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Preach it, sister

(Secular conservative pundit Heather Mac Donald explains in five riveting minutes)

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Time well spent

I took myself to a concert yesterday as an early birthday present, meandering some 35 minutes up the road to hear Greg Holden and Vintage Trouble. Both acts were great. The funny thing is that Holden is based in New York, and Vintage Trouble is a Los Angeles band, but they're doing a Fall 2015 tour together. Either act by itself is worth hearing, so catching them together at the same venue was a treat.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

All over the map

My favorite story from the "Wide Open Bluegrass" festival profiled Japanese bluegrass fan and guitar player Hiroshi Arakawa. David Menconi of the News & Observer did his homework for the profile:

Arakawa’s love for bluegrass goes back to his early teenage years in Japan. His grandmother was a Christian, and after she died, her funeral featured Japanese bluegrass singer Masuo Sasabe performing the old bluegrass standard “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”

“I was 13 and had never heard bluegrass before,” Arakawa said. “I was so impressed when I heard it. I didn’t know the music at all, but bluegrass was very beautiful.”

Before bluegrass, Arakawa had listened to contemporary pop as well as the Beatles records his father played (he still picks a mean “Blackbird”). He’d also been playing baseball, but that fell by the wayside once he got his first guitar.

Arakawa would spend six or seven hours a day practicing, learning songs such as the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” and Bill Monroe’s “Sitting Alone in the Moonlight.”
In marked contrast to that optimism, hipsters at the local free weekly wrote two different stories asking whether bluegrass can survive if "acts still popular in the genre don't sound so different from their decades-old predecessors." The problem, they think, is that the World of Bluegrass festival that wrapped up today "appears very much about boundary making, not boundary breaking."
I beg to differ. Mr. Arakawa could make my point, but if he's busy pickin' and grinnin', he should not be interrupted.
The thing is, they're leftists at that free paper (Indy Week) -- boundary breaking is what they like to think they do. They're not quite honest enough to say so, but they're so busy looking for a breakout performance from a gay black quintet that they don't even notice people like Hiroshi Arakawa. They might not even notice Melissa Triplett, who's the bass-playing half of the husband and wife duo that anchors The Bankesters with virtuoso aplomb.

I wonder whether Indy Week critics realize how fluid the festival boundaries already are. Three of the four bands I heard in a church concert Thursday night under the aegis of IBMA's annual shindig do not identify themselves as bluegrass acts. They've won fans recording "roots music," Americana, and country covers, yet they're welcome in bluegrass circles.

It's also worth remembering that Alison Krauss (she of the 27 Grammy awards and counting) played in this year's festival. Her early years as a fiddle champion and bluegrass angel haven't hurt her career, or kept her from later collaborations with the likes of Robert Plant. 
Personally, I do not fear for the future of any musical genre whose signature style attracts the attention of even liturgical composers.

Bluegrass Mass? Yes, there is such a thing. Who knew?

Read more here:

Friday, September 18, 2015

The debasement of language continues

I caught a few minutes of Glenn Beck's radio program the other day, and he was talking about the most recent debate between Republican candidates for U.S. president. I'd watched the thing myself, so it was interesting to hear Beck say that he thought the only problem that Senator Ted Cruz has as a candidate is that he's "too smooth." He didn't mean that Cruz is glib, because he isn't. He meant that the man can't hide his experience in the Senate, and in Ivy League debate tournaments before that.

Ted Cruz and Carly Fiorina are the most polished speakers in the Republican field, I think, (and they're right about Planned Parenthood), but it hardly seems fair to hold polish against either of them.

I'd rather hear a well-spoken argument free of verbal tics than yet another advertisement for a TV service that promises "140 of your favorite channels."

Memo to the copywriter for the TV service: Anyone who has 140 favorite channels does not know what the word "favorite" means.

As they said in The Incredibles, if everyone is special, then no one is special.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hanging Rock State Park

Good times yesterday up near the Virginia border with buddy Jeff, toting cameras and playing mountain man. There were five of us in the original party, but three of the five cut out early. Jeff and I added a third waterfall to the "Hanging Rock plus two waterfalls" itinerary, just to be contrary.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Contra Challies (and pro crucifix)

Tim Challies has been "Informing the Reformed" on an eponymous blog for years. I read some of his work, but because he is Calvinist and I am not, there are a handful of theological questions over which we differ. Ironically for the co-founder of a publishing company called Cruciform Press, although not for a man camped in Christianity's most iconoclastic wing, Challies has a problem with crucifixes, and what sounds like disdain for Christians who disagree with him.

In a blog post titled "Why You Should Not Wear a Crucifix," Challies airs Reformation objections to the traditional Catholic depiction of Jesus on the cross. Most of his argument comes from J.L. Packer, a higher-profile theologian in his own Calvinist tradition.

From a Catholic point of view, Challies and Packer start conversations about church history at a disadvantage. Although both of them are pastors, they've allied themselves with people who rejected apostolic authority in the sixteenth century. Were they to claim that their theology has apostolic roots, their own bibles would imply otherwise, because their translations pry seven canonical books out of the Old Testament. How and why that happened -- why Protestant bibles are smaller than Catholic ones -- is a post for another day.

Packer (and Challies after him) both assert that the wording of the second commandment plainly forbids making idols out of anything. In that, they are right: The true God commands that we do not worship false gods.

The commandment does not say, however, that creating a likeness of something is an affront to the original thing, or a violation of divine law. The portraits in art museums are typically tributes to their subjects, not insults of those subjects. And then there's the Shroud of Turin: So far as I know, nothing short of a miracle explains the imprint on that fabric that has led so many to venerate it as the burial cloth of Jesus. The shroud itself is obviously not Jesus, but it appears to bear the likeness of his crucified body, and scientists cannot explain how the cloth came to have the marks it does. If, as Calvinists assert, pictures and statues of Jesus come under the ban which the second commandment imposes, then the Shroud of Turin looks remarkably like an instance of God violating His own law, which makes no sense.

Another example, this one perhaps closer to home for our Calvinist friends: Remember the gospel accounts (in Matthew, Mark, and Luke) of people who try to trap Jesus into saying the wrong thing about whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans? Jesus asks his questioners to produce a Roman coin. When they do, he says "Whose likeness is this, and whose inscription?" Everyone gathered around knows the answer, and the encounter famously ends with Jesus saying, "Then give to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."

Is that not an instance of God himself using a picture to make a point? Roman emperors presumed too much, but neither Jesus nor the experts in Mosaic law who were quizzing him stomped Roman coins into the dust as violations of the second commandment.

Aside from the way it uses the second commandment as a cudgel with which to pound medieval and Renaissance art, the other problem with the argument from the  "Reformed" tradition is a logical one: a commandment that forbids bending art into the service of false gods ought not be invoked with equal fervor to condemn art that serves the true God.

Back, then, to the crucifix. If we're going to appeal to authority while speculating about whether crucifixes help or hinder Christian piety, I'll take Thomas Aquinas over J.L. Packer any day, and it was Aquinas who said that he had learned more from the crucifix than from any book this side of the bible.

Violations of the God's law are not usually cited as great helps to faith by pre-eminent Christian theologians, and so we must suppose that Calvinists either found something in scripture that Aquinas (and Jerome, and John Henry Newman, and John Paul II, and countless other faithful scholars) missed, or that the Calvinist critique is weak sauce.

Challies quotes Packer to the effect that "images dishonour God, for they obscure his glory." More specifically, these Canadian Calvinists say, "the pathos of the crucifixion obscures the glory of Christ." I wonder whether they would also have taken issue with Saint Paul for saying "I preach Christ and Him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). Paul, remember, had seen the risen Christ, and yet he seemed to think that preaching about Christ's redemptive sacrifice on the cross would do more to reveal the glory of God than to obscure it.

Paul was no wild-eyed outlier in embracing the paradox of the crucifixion, either. Anyone who claims that the crucifix "adulterates" the majesty of Jesus, or keeps the faithful from true knowledge of the risen savior, has probably never contemplated the mosaic in the apse of the Basilica of San Clemente, which dates back to A.D. 1200.

The focal point of that mosaic shows Christ on the cross, with the cross also the Tree of Life, from which a profusion of vines grows. Doves that represent the apostles perch on the beams of the cross around the figure of Jesus. The scene speaks of life rather than death, or more accurately, life through death. It's a catechism unto itself -- and it's not wrong.

Packer and Challies also assert -- as though it were a big deal -- that "images mislead us." Well, yes, they can do that. Sistine Chapel ceiling notwithstanding, we know that God the Father is not a muscular old man with snowy white hair. But Michelangelo's fresco nevertheless captures a tiny sliver of truth about the author and ground of all being. Look at the love for Adam in the Father's eyes, and the effortless power in His posture. These are truths that the skill of the artist helps reveal, especially in times and places where literacy is not widespread.

To say that images mislead is exactly like saying that analogies are imperfect. Writers do not for that reason forswear the use of analogy and metaphor. Instead, we learn the limitations of our tools, and use them to the best of our ability within those limitations.

Stained glass windows do not encompass or substitute for the beauty of pearly light and dappled clouds at sunset, but they do not detract from or "mislead" about that glory, either, because they point to and depend on it. So too with crucifixes and the amazing sacrifice that they commemorate, especially in an age that desperately needs reminding about why it makes sense to find strength in vulnerability, and how God himself did what no one else could, turning even a horrific instrument of torture into an unbreakable link between heaven and earth.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Dalrymple on Falstaff

From Why We Love Falstaff:

"If we were to describe a man as deceitful, drunken, cowardly, dishonest, boastful, unscrupulous, gluttonous, vainglorious, lazy, avaricious, and selfish, we should hardly leave room in him for good qualities. No one would take it as a compliment to be described in this way, and we would avoid a person described in such a fashion. Falstaff was all those things, but probably no character in all literature is better loved. Only Don Quixote can compete; and our love of Falstaff is not despite his roguery but because of it."

Side note: More than one reviewer described Ignatius J. Reilly in A Confederacy of Dunces as "Falstaffian."

UPDATE for the curious: Theodore Dalrymple is is a British psychologist and writer well-known in some circles for his work with prisoners. Sir John Falstaff is a large and lazy knight made famous by William Shakespeare in three plays, most notably Henry IV, where he is the drinking buddy of Prince Hal (the future King Henry IV),  In fairness, Henry IV did not have Kenneth Branagh reciting a stirring speech to his troops the way Henry V in the video above did, but Shakespeare wrote about both kings.

Monday, August 24, 2015

They kept the pun

There was a riff on "blind ambition" in the title of a book review that I wrote about Ann Coulter's new work. That the editor at American Spectator Online let the pun stand is one of the reasons why I like him.

Some of the readers that web site attracts are sketchy characters with poor reading comprehension skills, but the staff seems entirely decent and competent.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Colbert quoting Tolkien is awesome

I know that adjective at the end of the blog post title deserves to be retired, but it fits better in this context than it would in many others.

Writer and comedian Stephen Colbert talked about the nature of suffering with a writer from GQ magazine (how's that for an unexpected sentence?). He made such an impression on his interviewer that the resulting cover story is surprisingly full of wisdom about how "our lives are compendiums of loss and change and what we make of it."

"Tragedy is sacred," Colbert suggests; "People's suffering is sacred."

When a man paraphrases the Incarnation that way, you listen -- or I listen, anyway. And paraphrasing the Incarnation is exactly what Colbert was doing (as he might have said, had interviewer Joel Lovell been as steeped in Catholic theology as Colbert himself is).

Do read the article to find out why Colbert says, "I love the thing that I most wish had not happened."

The benevolent spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien shows up to shed light on that statement when Colbert quotes from a letter that Tolkien wrote to a priest, because that letter contains at least one profound rhetorical question: "What punishments of God are not gifts?"

By "of God," Tolkien meant "from God." As for the question itself and the man passing it on -- Wow!

Even the timeline and sequence involved deserves grateful scrutiny: This is a literary triple play I hadn't seen coming -- Tolkien to Colbert to GQ (!). Wow again.

I can't remember the last time I read an essay that made me want to shake the hands of both interviewer and interviewee, but this piece in GQ deserves a round of loud huzzahs, and then (also, wonderfully) quiet contemplation.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Watching the elephants

I missed the early "undercard" debate, but I'm glad everybody says Carly Fiorina won that one handily.

The prime time debate was more entertaining than I had thought it would be. The winner there was Senator Ted Cruz. He was the most consistent, and arguably the best prepared. I also think Dr. Ben Carson was a surprisingly solid second.

Donald Trump came very close to embarrassing himself. He didn't quite fall over that imaginary line, but we all could see the line, and how close he was to it. As a result, he failed on temperament.

In the contretemps over massive and warrantless data gathering between Rand Paul and Chris Christie, I'd say Paul won by TKO, because Christie resorted to bluster, and tried unsuccessfully to use the 9/11 attacks as a shield for his own views.

Kasich? Meh. Rubio? Meh, except for the line about how Hillary Clinton could not possibly lecture him about living paycheck to paycheck because he was raised that way. Walker? Meh -- and he admitted as much.

I believed Jeb Bush when he said he was his own man, but he should have had a better answer for the question about whether people are right to worry about dynasties in American politics. If your dad and brother are both former presidents and you sound a little defensive when asked about that, then you're not the populist you claim to be.

Huckabee had some good lines, but not so many that he'll be memorable.

UPDATE: Friend Chuck emailed to say that he didn't think he and I watched the same debate. By way of explaining that comment, Chuck said that Trump seemed "not very much in control of himself." I agree with that, and thought I had said as much, because it's what I was getting at when I wrote that Trump "failed on temperament."

Chuck also said that he thinks Kasich and Walker came out of that debate as the candidates to watch, but I think he's wrong about that. Kasich benefited from what, for him, was "home field" advantage. Walker held his own, but his closing statement was a meandering bit about moral behavior. In fairness, the moderators probably derailed several closing speeches  by asking in a preamble to closing statements that candidates explain whether they thought they had received a "word from God" about "what they should do and take care of first."

It was an odd question and a tricky one, sent in from Facebook and perhaps designed to expose any candidate harboring some problematic combination of ego and presumed intimacy with our Creator.

But the question was posed first to Senator Ted Cruz, and his answer was masterful. "Well, I am blessed to receive a word from God every day in receiving the scriptures and reading the scriptures," Cruz answered. "And God speaks through the Bible." Cruz then personalized the answer by describing how Christian faith rescued his father from alcoholism. He finished by pivoting gracefully from that back to politics: "I would also note that scripture tells us, 'you shall know them by their fruit.' " The verse fit: "We see lots of  'campaign conservatives,' " Cruz explained, "But if we're going to win in 2016, we need a consistent conservative, someone who has been a fiscal conservative, a social conservative, a national security conservative."

Kasich offered only "I believe in miracles" pabulum in response to the same query. Walker's endorsement of moral behavior was more original, but he also agreed with an article that had called him "aggressively normal," and that can be interpreted as refreshing or as self-sabotaging. To me, it sounded timid.

I think Chuck likes Kasich and Walker because, like him, they're midwesterners.

Chuck wants to hear more about entitlement reform, which is a good idea, but you know what? Chris Christie, not a midwesterner, said more about entitlement reform than the comparatively colorless Kasich and Walker.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

In defense of Gone With the Wind

My friend Bookworm has a typically thoughtful post up at her blog, speculating about the literary and cultural influence of two famous novels with Southern themes: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Gone With the Wind.

What makes the post a special pleasure is that she wrote it only days removed from a first-ever vacation to the American South, and between episodes of the Civil War documentary that put filmmaker Ken Burns on the cultural map 25 years ago.

I haven't read Uncle Tom's Cabin. But I do remember liking Ken Burns' documentary (he's done nothing as stirring since), and I did read Gone With the Wind.

Now that you know my background with respect to the items about which Bookworm was musing, the reason I just compared campaign ribbons, if you will, is that I wanted a sturdy platform from which to disagree with her. One does not cross blades with Bookworm lightly, or smile midway through  a duel knowing that you did not begin by drawing your sword with your dominant hand.

Gone With the Wind -- more specifically, what Bookworm rightly calls Margaret Mitchell's "powerful, romantic, tragic, gilded view of the South before, during, and after the Civil War" was and is problematic, she says, because "it allowed Jim Crow and other depredations against blacks to continue long after they should have died a natural death."

That, I think, is too strong an indictment, even for an influential 1936 novel and the iconic movie that it famously spawned four years later (the movie was filmed in 1939 but released in 1940). When would Jim Crow and other such depredations have died a natural death? Human nature being what it is, that's hard to say. Bookworm implies that Margaret Mitchell being on the wrong side matters at least as much as Harriet Beecher Stowe being on the right side did, but I don't think the two authors are necessarily on opposite sides of the same teeter-totter.

Let's stipulate that art can have influence, especially when it's not kitsch. "Jim Crow," Google tells me, was derisive slang that came to mean any state law passed in the South that established different rules for black people and white people. The brief history of Jim Crow that I scanned while writing this says almost nothing about the cultural currents that encouraged those misbegotten laws. That article does, however, finger the infamous 1896 Supreme Court decision known as Plessy v. Ferguson for creating the fiction of "separate but equal" as being somehow synonymous with "Constitutional" or "A-O.K."

Bookworm has a legal background, so it's safe to assume that her contention about Margaret Mitchell's novel simply adds Gone With the Wind to that bilious mix of Democrat-sanctioned racism and wrongheaded jurisprudence epitomized by Plessy, without discounting the other parts of that trifecta. Jim Crow, we know, was not officially scuttled in some places until the Civil Rights movement of the early Sixties, although World War Two (and the honorable service record of black Americans in that conflict) did a lot to underscore the stupidity of "separate but equal" thinking.

Back to GWTW, then: Was the novel's romanticism as dangerous as Bookworm suggests it was? You could with equal justice ask whether Ken Burns' brilliant use of Ashokan Farewell as a violin theme in his Civil War documentary stirred more sympathy for "Billy Yank" or "Johnny Reb."

One reason to be sanguine about the influence of GWTW is that Jim Crow laws were applauded by people unused to reading for pleasure. I'm painting with a broad brush, I realize, but it seems to me that Southerners who wore out their library cards were not also going to KKK meetings.

That said, the main reason I am willing to absolve Margaret Mitchell of the charge of aiding and abetting the Law of Unintended Consequences is because GWTW was not published in a vacuum: Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn still loomed large over American letters while Scarlett and Rhett watched Sherman's troops burn Tara to the ground.

Twain's great novel is many things, but it's anti-slavery message was a stirring repudiation of the "Jim Crow" ethos in real time (1885). Ignorant school administrators who wish now that they could bowdlerize some of the language in "Huck Finn" forget its moral peak, which is when Huck decides to help free his friend Jim, the slave, even at the cost of what he (Huck) thinks is eternal damnation.

Greater love hath no man than to give up his life for his friend -- that was Twain's theme, against which Jim Crow and every racist jot and tittle associated with it looks tawdry. That Huck was wrong about the price of his moral behavior actually makes his stance (and the novel) even more powerful.

Margaret Mitchell could be nostalgic for the antebellum South without providing significant comfort to segregationists because the ghost of Samuel Langhorne Clemens barred the door to the dungeon of inhumanity in his wry but immovable way, with the help of a semi-literate teenager who had more heart than he realized while rafting along the Mississippi River.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Playing at sound engineer

It was one of those nights where my teenagers had other things to do, and the prospect of more overtime at work after a long day was unappealing, so I decided to see a band called The Whisky Runners. They were playing at an Irish bar, and their publicity flyer promised classic rock covers that were upbeat and entertaining.

All five band members are competent musicians, but I left before their set was complete. For me to walk out on a show like that is unusual, so I wanted to capture a few thoughts about why I did so. The Whisky Runners aren't likely to give any weight to my opinion, but I don't blame them for that at all.

My hope is that whoever reads this blog entry won't begrudge me the chance to lay down a marker for the value of sound engineering.

I've mentioned that the band has talent. I should add that their playlist was top-notch: We're talking about some of the best-known work of musical legends like Ben E. King, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band, and The Eagles -- exactly what you'd expect from a group working its merry way through classic rock covers.

Unfortunately, the sound mix was awful. I think the band realized that, but could not decide how to fix the problem. The lead guitarist spent most of two songs eyeballing the mixing board, and asked the audience if the sound was good. Some dummy near the stage shouted "It's not loud enough!," but from where I was sitting, his comment was easy to dismiss as a bad joke. It won a guffaw and a "Rock On, Dude!" from the band's front man, which I thought was a shame, because the "muddy sound" problem that they never fixed might have been less glaringly apparent if the band had turned its amplifiers down. More subtle sticking from the drummer would have helped, too.

Before I get to why, a disclaimer: I have no formal training in acoustics. I've never been a roadie. And the last time I picked up a soldering iron for "fun with electronics" was as a Boy Scout.

On the other hand, I've heard a lot of live music, read more than my share of record album liner notes, and worked (back in the day) as a disc jockey at a college radio station.

If I could have found a way to channel Christopher Walken-as-record-producer-for-Blue Oyster Cult, per that "More Cowbell" skit from Saturday Night Live, here's what I would have said to The Whisky Runners:

1. Your drummer isn't so much keeping time as supplying punctuation. He doesn't have to beat the crap out of the kit on every song. After awhile, it sounds like falling painfully down a long flight of stairs, even when it's well-timed. A Beatles ditty like "When I'm 64" should swing, not clomp or bludgeon, but it can't do that when every downstroke is an exclamation point.

2. You guys like to play more than you like to sing, and that's okay, but the vocal mics were overwhelmed by the "wall of sound," which meant some tasty lines were hard to hear. If you have to shout the lyrics for a comparatively mellow tune like "Take it Easy," then you end up robbing the song. Would Don Henley and Joe Walsh sound like backup singers for Twisted Sister? No, they would not.

3. Any keyboard player who can jam his way through the  arpeggios that your keyboard guy laid down for "Hey Jude" ought to be front-and-center in the sound mix for a song like that.

4. You have a rhythm guitar player. I saw him, and I saw his guitar. The lacquer finish on its body is worn off in all the right places, but the instrument itself seemed to be missing in action more often than not. Some aural separation between guitars would have been welcome.

My ears were ringing when I left the bar and walked to Dairy Queen for a "consolation cone."

Ironically, the best music I heard all night was on the satellite feed over speakers there, with singer/songwriter Jason Mraz crooning "I Won't Give Up." That sweet, syncopated ballad is nowhere near as iconic as most of the repertoire I'd just heard, but it benefits hugely from being a more technically proficient recording. The moral of the story: Sound engineering can make or break performances.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Stealth poetry

Remember Jeff Foxworthy's old comedy routine, "You might be a redneck"?

He'd sift through circumstantial evidence for which that sentence was the always the punchline ("If you've ever taken a six-pack of beer to a funeral, you might be a redneck...If your daughter's Barbie Dream House has a clothesline in the front of it, you might be a redneck.")

Foxworthy says his definition of "redneck" is "someone with a glorious lack of sophistication," and I like that.

His follow-the-anecdote-to-its-wry-conclusion formula can be applied to other kinds of identification, also. There are probably more poets out there than most of us realize, even if comparatively few people think of themselves as poets, and even fewer people make a living that way.

I think you can tell "stealth poets" by their markings. I don't know of any comprehensive field guide to identifying that species, but here are a few utterly subjective and improvised clues:

If you've ever woken up to a day when a thin scrim of cloud filters sunlight that is partially diffused but wholly beautiful, you might be a poet.

If you've ever made a U-turn just to take a photo of crepe myrtle flowering in red and purple near the road, you might be a poet.

If you deliberately wear your heart on your sleeve around people whom you trust, because the emotionally reserved alternative seems like a recipe for missed opportunity, you might be a poet.

If the song "You Don't Know Me" still seems especially poignant, then you know why Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and Michael Buble all covered it, and you might be a poet.

If while singing hymns, you sometimes substitute words to improve scansion, you might be a poet.

If you talk to wild rabbits even when you're sober, you might be a third-order Franciscan -- or a poet.

If you've ever actually watched clouds for more than a few seconds, you might be a poet.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Lesson learned

I am not a big soccer fan, but like a lot of other people, I watched the World Cup final this past weekend between the women's teams from the United States and Japan. That was a fun game. I marveled at the audacity of the longest goal in Carli Lloyd's hat trick, and cheered when Tobin Heath capped the scoring with a lightning strike that the opposing goalkeeper did not have a prayer of stopping.

The American women are champions, and rightfully so, but in the pre-game potpourri of "human interest" stories aired by Fox Sports, one thing stood out for me: Head coach Jill Ellis mentioned that a Navy SEAL had spoken with her team earlier this year. She added that his motivational advice was simple but effective: "Hold fast and stay true," he said.

Good for him for passing that along. I don't know whether he got into the oft-ignored difference between suffering and pain, as Neo-Neocon does thoughtfully at her eponymous blog, but you can't live out a statement like that without at least intuiting that there might be a difference between those things, even if you don't go so far as to wonder whether one of them can sometimes be redemptive.

Good for Jill Ellis for remembering the SEAL's line. She and her team took at least that much to heart, and the rest of us can learn from what such commitment looks like, even when we're not competing for a trophy.

(Photo by Anne-Marie Sorvin of USA Today/Reuters shows U.S. forward Alex Morgan)

Saturday, July 4, 2015

For Independence Day

It's not a bald eagle; it's a broad-winged hawk. But it'll do! And as friend Jeff notes, forget the "July 4" stuff. What makes July 4 special is that it's Independence Day.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

I do not think it means what you think it means

I saw a news clip today of the First Lady telling Girl Scouts that they were "making history" by being "the first to camp out on the South Lawn of the White House."

Newscasters also said that a severe thunderstorm soon forced those Girl Scouts to seek shelter in the Executive Office Building, but I'm more interested in what Michelle Obama calls "historic," because the action she praised seems trivial.

Doesn't something have to be significant before it can be called historic?

Etymology is not something I have any particular expertise in, but I've always thought of "historic" and "heroic" as sibling words.

Was spotlighting the White House in multi-colored light to celebrate a Supreme Court ruling also "historic"? I hope not, because it's easier to make a case for calling that stunt "ill-advised" or "juvenile."

Let me put the question a little differently: The  boys in my senior class were, as far as I know, the first to wear turquoise tuxedos and ruffled shirts for our high school yearbook photos, but that does not make our wardrobe choice "historic." What it means is that someone in school administration at the time got a superlative discount from a local formal wear shop whose proprietor was nostalgic for the Seventies.

A distant bell of memory sent me to Wikipedia to see what it had to say about Andrew Jackson's first inauguration. While accounts of the debauchery around that event seem inconclusive, there is evidence to suggest that Mrs. Obama may have been wrong not only for confusing the mundane with the historic (her husband does that, too), but also for ignoring what happened 1829. Ten thousand people came to Washington, D.C. that March to see Andrew Jackson sworn in as president, and a good number of them seem to have partied all over the place, very possibly camping on the White House lawn. In a few well-documented cases, they passed out on that lawn.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Super Troupers

Summer around here is chockablock with opportunities to hear live music outdoors, but because afternoon thunderstorms have equal claim to the calendar, local bands don't always get to play when or where they think they're going to. Such was the case last Thursday evening, when a fine quintet called the Gravy Boys was unceremoniously booted from an all-too-exposed stage under the "Lucky Strike" tower in Durham by a driving rain. I saw the sound crew and event managers scurrying to tie tarps over speakers, and assumed that the show would have to be rescheduled. Happily, I hadn't reckoned on the band's willingness to "improvise, adapt, and overcome."

What the Gravy Boys did was move about a hundred yards from the unusable stage to set up shop under the covered arcade that links two long brick buildings in the American Tobacco complex. They pushed chairs aside and played "unplugged" for appreciative fans in a show that ended up being more intimate,and possibly more enthusiastic, than the amplified gig would have been.

The band couldn't compete with the sound of rainwater or thunder, but fans skooched close to hear the boys give it their best shot. The Durham Bulls were on a rain delay nearby. Although Mother Nature managed to halt baseball, she was a little more forgiving with "Gravy Nation." Everybody  enjoyed the makeshift show so much that the band actually played two encores.

It's great when professionalism and grit also turns out to be fun.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Make art, not reparations

There is nothing wrong with reparations as such, but grievance-mongering in our society seems now to be so commonplace that when we're not careful, the entitlement attitude that goes hand-in-hand with demands for reparations can hold other activities hostage.

An almost-comically conflicted poet got me thinking about things like that. Somebody convinced the poor guy that art was a zero-sum game, probably over the course of several years. Cowed by "social justice warriors," he fears now that by using his own talents, he might be robbing other people of the chance to use their talents.

Baloney, I say. Logic like that would only apply if you decided that your "talent" was something like beating other people up for money. That's not the case for most of us, including the poet whose confused confession in an open letter got my attention.

People don't read George Orwell as much as they used to, which is a shame. If the price of diversity is selective silence, then "some animals are more equal than others," and it's time to re-frame the argument, so as to aspire instead or again to the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Theology and strategy

I'd be lying if I said I felt "scandalously close to God" on this Feast of Corpus Christi in the Catholic liturgical calendar, but John Bergsma uses that phrase effectively in his wonderful meditation on the scripture readings for Mass today, and I was privileged to be able to proclaim the text from the Letter to the Hebrews before I'd read what Bergsma had to say about it.

I like his meditation because it draws a line between Moses and Jesus in a tone of barely-suppressed excitement, and that sort of thing can only be done by people who understand both Jewish and Christian traditions.

In other church news that got my attention, the choir at my parish announced its annual atomization. What that means is that for the next ten or so Sundays, congregational singing will be led by a cantor alone, rather than by a cantor-with-chorus, as is typical for us.

Some of the people who cantor open windows onto beauty whenever they sing. Others never seem to manage that, bless their hearts, but still deserve credit for singing in public.

Lacking any kind of insider information as to who will be cantoring when, I already know that one of the ways I'll be looking to nourish my own faith on the days when it does not receive an Official Musical Assist is to sit near acquaintances whom I know are in the choir when that's possible. Another coping strategy (and I'm not ashamed to admit that it is precisely that) involves looking and listening more attentively for providential fingerprints in unexpected settings.

Friend Lynne recently introduced me to a great example of that, in a song called "Hold On Tight" as compellingly performed by Greg Holden. This might be as profound a lyric as you'll hear in pop music:

I'll try not to complain
about the things I have lost;
'Cause when you have something great
that just means there's a greater loss--
So when you look at yourself,
Tell me, who do you see?
Is it the person you've been,
or the person that you're gonna be?

Monday, May 25, 2015

Trying my patience

Friend Loy quotes one A.B. Simpson:

God may send you, dear friends, some costly packages. Do not worry if they are done up in rough wrappings. You may be sure there are treasures of love, and kindness, and wisdom hidden within. If we take what He sends, and trust Him for the goodness in it, even in the dark, we shall learn the meaning of the secrets of Providence. “

Meanwhile, friend Bill quotes G.K. Chesterton:

“A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it.”

As I look at those quotes from my own perch while trying to ignore the shards of broken metaphors on the ground below me, Simpson and Chesterton seem each to be talking about patience. It makes sense to put them on the same team, with Simpson at shortstop and Chesterton patrolling center field. The reason I think that is because Simpson calls directly for trust in God despite appearances, and four sentences gives him enough glove to scoop up even a hard grounder.

The man behind Simpson has more turf to cover, yet the parabola inscribed in the air by a long fly ball holds no terrors for Chesterton. He knows that for a living thing to stand against the current of the stream around it implies a willingness to endure opposition. That's a pretty good definition of patience, and it's more focused than Simpson's because Chesterton stands farther out, and so has to put more mustard on the ball to get it back to the infield after a catch.

The thing about impatience, as I'm slowly learning, is that it's always a marker for failure to trust: When things go well, we say “More right now!” and when things go badly, we say “Make it stop!” And by “we,” of course, I mean “I.” But note the hint of pride in both reactions, and the unwillingness to wear the bridle of time.

Patience seems to be the fix for that anxiety. Courted long enough, it flowers into trust, so that when Jesus (or a friend doing His work) eventually ambles up and says something like “Desperado, Why don't you come to your senses?” we actually hear and recognize Him. I hope that's true. I need to believe that right now. Who says the Road to Emmaus can't also be a ranch or a ball field? 

In the words of that underrated theologian, Tom Petty, "the waiting is the hardest part."

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

So swim the Tiber already

Rachel Held Evans wrote an essay to explain why so many people of her generation avoid church. Evans quotes approvingly from one of her friends, who went looking for a worship service that is "not sensational, flashy, or particularly 'relevant'." What that friend wanted instead wasn't relevance or affirmation, but an invitation to full membership in what she called "the life of an ancient-future community."

That phrasing rankles me because I'm older than Evans and her peers, and more attuned to the syntax that aspiring theologians unwrap like a fresh deck of cards when they're trying to prove that they're intellectual and compassionate. The poetically liturgical "Ever ancient, ever new" captures the same insight as "ancient-future" without threatening to veer off into the mail-order shamanism that looks to places like Stonehenge and Sedona for whatever dignity it can borrow.

Unfortunate word choice aside, I'm glad that Ms. Evans and her friends have come around to the idea that the timeless trumps the trendy. She needn't be smug about what she calls the "Millennial" ability to sniff out hypocrisy, however -- that just means that even younger people realize we're all sinners.

Four years after abandoning an evangelical Protestant church community whose spiffy worship services were unable to assuage her doubt and disillusionment, Evans now considers herself an Episcopalian. I cheered when she used part of her essay to plug ritual and sacrament:

"You can get a cup of coffee with your friends anywhere, but church is the only place you can get ashes smudged on your forehead as a reminder of your mortality," she wrote. "You can be dazzled by a light show at a concert on any given weekend, but church is the only place that fills a sanctuary with candlelight and hymns on Christmas Eve. You can snag all sorts of free swag for brand loyalty online, but church is the only place where you are named a beloved child of God with a cold plunge into the water. You can share food with the hungry at any homeless shelter, but only the church teaches that a shared meal brings us into the very presence of God."

Evans rounded out her examples by capping them with a summary worthy of huzzahs: "What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments."

Good stuff, that.  And yet I fear that Rachel Evans will eventually be disillusioned again, because despite that wonderful acknowledgement of ritual and sacrament, she also writes that the magnet that drew her back into church wasn't truth so much as Episcopalian "inclusivity." The big red doors of her church are open to all, she's happy to say: "conservatives, liberals, rich, poor, gay, straight and even perpetual doubters like me."

But of course those doors are open to all. That's not an Episcopalian distinctive; it's a mark of authentic Christianity that every Christian communion has inherited to a greater or lesser degree from the original fellowship organized by Jesus and headed by Saint Peter. To call the church "inclusive" is to call it "catholic."

Wittingly or not, Evans has transposed the vocabulary of the church fathers into a key she finds easier to sing. If that helps her meet the obligation we all have to live the Great Commandment, it's a wonderful thing. But if Evans (or anyone else) clings so tightly to inclusivity that the embrace leaves no room for the other marks of the church, then there's a problem, because "one," "holy," and "apostolic" sit at the same table that "catholic" does. To put one mark of the church in front of the others is to risk jettisoning faith when your own congregation falls short of that mark.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wolcott with a swing and a miss

I don't often see my sister, but she knows I've dabbled in media criticism, and so she recently mailed me commentary by James Wolcott that in print was called  The Sweet Smell of Disgrace and on the  Vanity Fair web site was re-packaged as Brian Williams, Rolling Stone, and the Rise of the "Media Culpa." 

In print and in pixel, Wolcott has fun with mixed metaphors and false gravitas. But if you read the essay, you get the impression that Wolcott laments not the well-publicized screw-ups of his fellow journalists, but the web-driven accountability for those screw-ups. It's the "yippee-kay-yay cries of Schadenfreude from the usual rodeo hands on the Internet" that irritate Wolcott more than "promiscuous copycats" and marquee names brought low. Brian Williams and Bill O'Reilly are the names that Wolcott cites, one dinged for false memories and the other for "serial exaggeration."

That work in front of a camera and behind an anchor desk tends to encourage a "flexible" relationship with truth is hardly news, is it?

Wolcott would have done much better to examine the upper-middle-class progressive biases that he shares with Williams and O'Reilly, but does not admit to having. At least two things function as tells there:

One: Wolcott writes that debunked stories of sexual assault on college campuses "did considerable damage after their credibility crumpled," and by that he means that fraud at the heart of those particular stories couldn't help but damage the preferred narrative of the Predatory College Male. An essayist with an eye on the reputations of students falsely accused would have recast the same sentence to point out that the debunked stories actually did considerable damage before their credibility crumpled.

Two: On the basis of precisely nothing, Wolcott declares that Bill O'Reilly (by default the "conservative" in his analysis, if only because Brian Williams needed a counterweight) has respectable TV ratings because he "functions as the angry white man's apoplexy supplier" and "his average viewer is Grandpa Simpson, shaking his fist at a cloud."

Wolcott does not seem to fathom that there are "angry white men" who can't stand Bill O'Reilly. As one such recently pointed out, "O'Reilly is a pretty thoughtless man, given to the sort of rantings of the Lunchbucket Philosopher, basing his philosophy not on Judeo-Christian teachings, as he never tired of cliche-ing, but on his visceral gut reactions."

In other words, pace Wolcott, Bill O'Reilly has not earned enough respect among conservatives of either gender (read: people whom progressives seldom pal around with) to be a preferred "apoplexy supplier." O'Reilly is actually more of an apoplexy target, especially now that -- like the progressives he occasionally challenges -- he's decided that appeasing terrorists, and arguing with women who do not appease terrorists, is the better part of valor. "No Spin Zone"? It is to laugh.

Wolcott would know that if he'd read or talked to a few "angry white men" instead of writing them off as cartoon characters. He might also know that no one following the news needs help from professional contrarians to work him- or herself into a proper snit, because ignorance and injustice are easy to find, even if not always in the places where our mandarins look first.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Stocking "Song Heaven"

Any blog that launches with a bouquet for Steve Goodman's iconic "City of New Orleans" seems bound to impress, especially when its author glides seamlessly from fond remembrance of that great old song into an honest look at how frustrating a day can be when you don't have anybody to sing at least the chorus with. Posts like that are workouts for the soul. While I don't feel up to the same high standard at the moment, I was much taken with Faith's speculation about the possibility of a "song heaven" where the best stuff goes.

The "Billboard 100" and the annual lists of "Best Rock Songs of All Time" hawked by Rolling Stone are old hat, but the criterion about which Faith was speculating has more to do with genius than with sales figures. That, I think, is why the spark for her post was struck by Mr. Goodman, rather than by better-known tunesmiths like Mr. McCartney and Mr. Lennon, who were wildly popular but not always keenly insightful. Imagine -- it must be said -- is a crap sandwich. I Wanna Hold Your Hand cannot be called a Profound Comment on the Human Condition. Hey Jude aspires to greatness, but remains a crescendo in compelling disguise.

Let's assume for the sake of argument that there actually is a "song heaven." There are grounds to believe that there might be: C.S. Lewis, riffing on a suggestion offered by Thomas Aquinas, once suggested that music is the speech of the angels (not for nothing did Aquinas divide angel ranks into "choirs"). Beyond that, some of us who believe that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful all come from and return to a divine author are sure that there is a place for great music among those perfections, and that greatness ultimately adheres to or reflects an objective standard.

What qualifies something for "song heaven"? With apologies to the blogger who inspired this post, canonization of that kind can't depend solely on the reputation of the songwriter.

Any tune in the "heaven" conversation has to be durable, memorable, singable, popular, and keenly observant.

Frankly, I did not want to make "popular" a criterion, but without that, people like me would promote so many obscure tunes into song heaven that singalongs would be difficult. I think songwriters like Townes Van Zandt and Claire Lynch should be famous, but they aren't, so they have to settle for heavy rotation on my own playlists rather than having their work acclaimed by the masses.

Because this is "song heaven" we're speculating about, everything on the foregoing list is non-negotiable. For example, I really enjoy the Blues Traveler song, "Hook," but it would not qualify for song heaven because it's not easy to sing, and it hasn't been around long enough to prove itself durable. I also like Culture Club's "Karma Chameleon," circa 1983 (Remember that?), but even I can't pretend it's keenly observant, or give it a pass because the harmonica part rocks.

"Let It Be," on the other hand, is a shoo-in for song heaven (McCartney was in top form there) --  and so is Jimmy Buffett's "Margaritaville."

If you don't think Buffett was keenly observant, then you missed the moral arc that moves the singer from "It's nobody's fault" to "Hell, it could be my my fault" to "It's my own damn fault."

That's meathead to mensch in three verses -- sounds like repentance, you betcha. I've said that for years.

Although Margaritaville ends with the shrimp overcooked and the salt shaker still missing, the singer has also come to a glimmer of wisdom, even without the "frozen concoction" that helps him hang on. Perhaps it's the same optimism that would later mark Wasted on the Way.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Bookworm strikes again

Military men are often more romantic, she says, than their peers who have not served in the profession of arms. She's right. Read her post all the way through for the top-shelf insight into vulnerability with which she finishes.

Both the military man and the romantic cheer for the underdog, and both ultimately succeed only if they're willing to engage at close quarters, which is why General Lewis "Chesty" Puller or one of his brothers-in-arms from WWII once encouraged men of the First Marine Division by roaring something like "We're surrounded. They can't get away from us now!" Even aphorisms with no known attribution back Bookworm's thesis: "Only the strong can be gentle," comes to mind, as does "All's fair in love and war."

Ignatius Loyola was a romantic and a soldier. Ditto Joan of Arc, and Robert E. Lee, even if there is some controversy as to whether he was the general who said "It is well that war is so terrible, else we should grow too fond of it."

I know a little more about Lee than the other two worthies in the foregoing paragraph: You have to be a romantic to fight on principle for what Confederate survivors would remember as "the lost cause" -- and Lee turned down command of the Union armies to offer his services to the state of Virginia instead, even though his background as an engineer certainly gave him an appreciation for the Northern industrial might that he knew he would have to face in battle.

On the other side of the ledger in that conflict, Union hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain was known both for his fighting prowess and his soft heart. You could also make an interesting case for Chamberlain's wartime boss, General Ulysses S. Grant, as being a closet romantic. Grant was stubborn and hard-drinking, to be sure, but he was also utterly loyal to anyone he respected, smitten by horses, and happily married to Julia Dent, the sister of his college roommate.

Durable wordsmithery

Neo-Neocon's close reading of lyrics in the Left Banke song "Walk Away Renee" is a treat to read.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Chesterton for Good Friday

Joseph of Arimathea did better than he knew, said G.K. Chesterton.

Chesterton's musing is of a piece with another startling reconsideration provoked by someone else's gift-wrapped insight.

Here's what I mean: The irony of "putting to death the author of life" is something I've heard priests expound on in Good Friday sermons over the years (Peter's poetic phrasing in Acts 3:15 is marvelous), but I don't remember anyone dragging Pontius Pilate into the parlor game of "who was the first evangelist for Jesus?"

That question is an occasional pastime among Christians who know just enough theology to mull it over with friends, because while Scripture identifies John the Baptist as Jesus's herald and two brothers as the first apostles whom Jesus himself called, Scripture also offers glimpses of other possible contenders for the "early evangelist" crown: John's mom is in the mix for having asked her much younger relative how she (Elizabeth) was so blessed as to receive a long visit, in that famous "Who am I that the mother of my Lord should come to me?" Similarly, old man Simeon at the Temple realized he was in the presence of the Messiah before Jesus was old enough to walk, although we don't know whether Simeon lived long enough afterward to share his joy with anyone other than Mary and Joseph.

Some thirty-three years later, the centurion who grasps the significance of the Temple veil being mysteriously torn from top to bottom when Jesus dies can't help but exclaim, "Surely this man was the son of God!" -- and that insight makes him something of an unexpected evangelist, too.

But how does Pilate -- "cowardly lion" and career politician -- come within hailing distance of evangelization? The Church Fathers explained, but I can't quote them from memory, so I'll settle for this insight from Fr. Robert Barron:

"In an absolutely delicious bit of irony, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, places over the cross, the declaration, in the three major languages of the time, that Jesus is the King, effectively de-throning Caesar and becoming, despite himself, the first great evangelist."

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lucky Sevens

I was privileged to attend a talk by Fr. Robert Barron earlier tonight. He spoke to an appreciative audience about "The Seven Deadly Sins and the Seven Lively Virtues." Down-to-earth scholar that he is, Fr. Barron used the seven-story mountain in Dante's Purgatorio as a touchstone throughout his talk, and even suggested that the seven deadly sins could be remembered with reference to the characters in Gilligan's Island:

  • Pride -- Mr. Howell, basking in his wealth
  • Envy -- MaryAnne, frequently jealous of the attention that Ginger got
  • Anger -- The Professor, seething at the failure of repeated attempts to leave the island
  • Sloth -- Gilligan, always resting in his hammock
  • Covetousness -- Mrs. Howell, wanting more
  • Gluttony -- The Skipper, large and nominally in charge
  • Lust -- Ginger, hanging on to her movie star glamour even as a castaway
Fr. Barron observed that in his Divine Comedy (of which Purgatorio is the middle part), Dante made Mary the Mother of Jesus a counter-example to each of the vices. He also had practical advice for cultivating the virtues that flip those vices on their heads:
  • Humility
  • Admiration
  • Forgiveness
  • Zeal for the mission (because sloth is not just laziness; it's also aimlessness, which implies that its balancing virtue needs both direction and drive)
  • Generosity
  • Asceticism, understood as proper disciplining of the appetites
  • Chastity, understood as right relationship, and holding fast to the dignity of people as ends in themselves rather than means to personal pleasure.
In what I thought was an arresting metaphor, Fr. Barron quoted John Henry Newman to the effect that what gives a river vibrancy and life is the strength of its banks. If those banks are chopped away, he explained, the river spreads out into a "lazy lake," lacking purpose and direction.

When you've found the mission that God has for you, he said, you've found the "pearl of great price" that Jesus was talking about in the famous parable.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

150 years ago today

Gerard Vanderleun remembers Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address for the truly great speech that it was.

Many of the people commenting at Vanderleun's blog think ill of Lincoln because of the executive power that he sometimes wielded cavalierly, but Lincoln was hardly the first or last American president to think in terms of ends justifying questionable means.

I believe that George Washington was a better man and a better president, but Abraham Lincoln deserves his almost-always-stratospheric place in any conversation about great Americans. One of the things that made Lincoln great was his carefully cultivated willingness to speak and write as often as practical within the ambit of first principles. Vision matters, and Lincoln had vision. He was a leader rather than a manager.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The difference between Walden Pond and Assisi

Anthony Esolen with something I had never thought about before:

"The world tells stories of people who work hard and go from rags to riches. It also tells stories of people who through their own folly or wickedness go from riches to rags. But Christians tell stories of those who through poverty...reap untold riches. This is not because we scorn the good things of the world, but because we seek what is above. Saint Francis himself, as that poor man of God, would fall in love all the more joyously with the beauty of the earth, even preaching to the birds.

"This is hard for us to understand. A secular person might say, 'Yes, I see what you mean. You are advocating a simple life, like the one that Thoreau lived when he retreated to Walden Pond. Then he could appreciate the beauties of nature, and not be encumbered by the cares of the world.'  No, that is not it at all. Thoreau was animated less by love than by disdain. Sure, he was in a better position to love the natural world while living in a hut by the side of a lake than while living in town. But the joy of Saint Francis is missing. That is because Thoreau's self-imposed poverty was a protest against the way his fellows lived. Saint Francis, in his poverty, did not betake himself to the woods to escape the evils of Assisi. He preached in that town he loved, by way of his life."

-- from the book, Reflections on the Christian Life: How Our Story is God's Story

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Amen, brother

Matt Walsh explains why the bible is not a self-help book.

What Matt argues for might be called "hard truth," which despite its intimidating presence and sometimes fearsome demeanor (think Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia) is what we're built for. His essay finishes in an especially poignant way.

Yes, the famous phrase from Saint Augustine about how "our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee" looms large in mind as I write this -- how could it not?

In a smoothly-written but visceral reaction to wayward pastors who want the church to get with the times, Walsh reminds us why Christianity must be counter-cultural. I'm glad he did that.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Exalting convenience

I do not ordinarily watch The Simpsons, but I remember laughing at a line in an episode called "Exit Through the Kwik-E-Mart," when Apu the convenience store owner is carried away while yelling, "Convenience forever; freshness never!"

That's as pithy a summary of a common business model as you're likely to hear anywhere, and it's also a sentiment that doughnut-loving Homer Simpson has no problem accepting. I sometimes worry, though, that convenience in our culture has absconded with a cloak of authority it was never meant to wear.

On this Ash Wednesday, for example, ABC News profiled an Episcopal church in Georgia that experimented with a program called "Ashes to Go." The story also mentioned an Episcopal congregation in Michigan with the same idea. In both cases, a clutch of ministers stood in a parking lot, dispensing ashes and quick blessings to anyone who drove up asking for them. You could get a cross of ashes on your forehead and be on your merry way in 30 seconds, without ever taking your hands off the steering wheel.

Something about that approach makes me sad, and I think it's because any drive-thru "service" can never be solemn or reflective. In catering to the manic pace of modern life, it throws mystery overboard. Defenders of the practice make a point of saying that any blessing is better than no blessing. They've got the "Jesus always meets you where you are" part of Christian belief memorized. As far as I know, however, that thought is incomplete. If saints through the ages are unanimous about any insight more bite-size than the Nicene Creed, it's that Jesus meets you where you are, but He never lets you stay there.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

When Somewhere meets "Somewhither"

John C. Wright and one of his readers have a fascinating dialog when the reader explains why he is tired of "faith-based" defense against vampires that is often described by inexperienced authors in the horror genre.

Short version of the objection: if you meet a vampire and need emergency protection from evil, but your faith is strong enough to compensate for the MacGyver-like improvisation you'll have to do when you want a crucifix but settle for a can of Spaghetti-Os, then almost any implement answers to your need, because it's incidental to the contest of wills that you're having.

Fortunately, nobody in the conversation seems ready to abandon the idea that "well begun is half done." Tools matter. In this instance, they speculate, it's not either faith or crucifix that you should arm yourself with, but both faith and crucifix.

Mr. Wright adds an excerpt from a forthcoming novel (Somewhither) to the proceedings, and the excerpt fits. 

Other fantasy novelists have wrestled with the same question, of course. Interestingly, the consensus view of the people chatting at Mr. Wright's blog seems to be that Larry Correia's Monster Hunter International books are weak on this point, whereas Jim Butcher's novels about Chicago wizard Harry Dresden are well-educated. Based on what I've read of those authors, I agree with that consensus.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Grocery store philosophy

The piquant mix of description and social commentary in highlighted italics after this paragraph made me smile. It's from an entry on the Z blog that was linked by Gerard at American Digest:

"Whole Foods is another example of why libertarian economics is utter nonsense. If humans were transactional, value seeking machines, they would not be squandering money on sustainably grown fair trade instant coffee, processed by one-legged transgendered midgets."

As far as I can tell, the "Z man" who wrote that has no real animus against Whole Foods. He simply holds that upscale grocery chain up as a symptom of the conformity in college towns like Cambridge, Massachusetts, where diversity is honored more in the breach than in the observance. Apple's iPhone also draws his eye, because it's another example of something "conformational" and "affirming." Those are interesting adjectives. Mr. Z does not treat them as outriders for an argument about greater and lesser goods, but I suspect he could. The discussion is much bigger than "farm raised" vs. "wild caught."

"Conformational" and "affirming" reminded me that some of the men at my parish have been talking about how to develop better spiritual habits. We're using the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola as a guide for that effort. One of the recommended practices in those venerable Exercises is a daily examination of conscience. It turns out that the examen is not just a mental accounting of the day's mistakes. Done right, the examen should not be discouraging; it looks back at blessings received, and our response to them. This approach makes sense because there are questions of "right order" buried in our daily lives. Shopping at Whole Foods, for example, is morally neutral unless or until it becomes part of our self-image. If that happens, we need a reality check, and that might be part of what Mr. Z was alluding to. Affirmation from things never works out, because (as saints and Scriptures remind us), it's an inversion of the moral order that puts people first.

I know that sounds preachy, but I don't mean it that way. I need the reminder myself. I'd say I was trying to philosophize my way out of a paper bag, if that metaphor hadn't been hobbled in many places by the rise of reusable canvas totes.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

One more voice in the 'sphere

In the halcyon days before Instapundit became a founding member of PJ Media,  and soon after James Lileks thumped "parachute journalism" with his "Notes from the Olive Garden," I maintained a little blog that was a mix of family anecdote and political commentary. Fun as it was, I let the thing go fallow after several years because it was consuming more of my time than it should have. It wasn't just the blog that went dark. I stopped writing for publication, period. Trying to salvage a failing marriage was more important work.

That salvage effort came to naught. Eventually, I traded a four-bedroom house for a two-bedroom condominium. On the other side of divorce, I'm more acquainted with my own shortcomings than I once was. I no longer follow the news as avidly as I had, or assume that I'm communicating even in or through silence.

But I also know that it's still possible to grow, to think, to hope, to say thank you, to give and receive forgiveness. I'm still a father, still a Catholic, and still one of those people who learns his own mind by using a keyboard or a pen to unleash thoughts as though they were tennis balls thrown for retrieval by faithful dogs. Moreover, mine is a surprisingly musical life. I don't know which movement of the symphony I'm in, but I know that there is a symphony. Often, that's enough to keep me going.

I decided that I could go safely back to blogging. If you find my essays thoughtful or amusing, I'm glad for your company. I've no plans to post as frequently as I once did, or comment often on news of the day. What I am looking forward to is a chance to hold prevailing assumptions up for scrutiny, while learning more about the love of God along the way.

This morning, there was a bird singing outside my window. First time this year. I did not see it, and I'm not enough of a bird watcher to be able to identify birds by their songs, but who's to say there wasn't something sacramental about that? Gratitude has to start someplace.