In Woody Allen’s movie The Curse of the Jade Scorpion, there’s a scene in which Allen, accused of a series of burglaries, faces his boss. He’s protesting his innocence, sure that someone must be out to frame him.
BOSS: “Do you know what they call people who think that everybody’s out to get them?”
ALLEN: “Yeah: perceptive.”
Several of my friends and acquaintances are fans of the science-fiction and fantasy writer Gene Wolfe. I’ve been working my way through Wolfe’s works, and last night I started what appears to be Wolfe’s deepest and most difficult work, The Book of the New Sun, the first volume of which is Shadow and Claw.
I was able to read only the first chapter last night, and I was pretty tired at the time, so I suspect that I’ll read that first chapter again tonight. Mind you, in “The Best Introduction to the Mountains,” an essay on The Lord of the Rings, Wolfe says,
You are not likely to believe me when I say that I still remember vividly, almost 50 years later, how strictly I disciplined myself with that book, forcing myself to read no more than a single chapter each evening. The catch, my out, the stratagem by which I escaped the bonds of my own law, was that I could read that chapter as many times as I wished; and that I could also return to the chapter I had read the night before, if I chose. There were evenings on which I reread the entire book up the point — The Council of Elrond, let us say — at which I had forced myself to stop.
I suspect that wouldn’t be a bad way to read The Book of the New Sun either. Wolfe doesn’t always explain what’s happening in the book, let alone the significance of the events, and I usually finish a Wolfe story with the sense that there’s a lot I haven’t caught yet. I’m not going to adopt the Wolfe method this time; instead, I’ll read the whole thing straight through. But I may start keeping a Wolfe journal, jotting down some things I’ve noticed or things I need to think about more. For instance, the story begins shortly after the narrator, Severian, has nearly drowned, which I suspect is a baptismal image, and all the more so since the title of the chapter is “Resurrection and Death.” And here’s a paragraph worth thinking about:
We believe that we invent symbols. The truth is that they invent us; we are their creatures, shaped by their hard, defining edges. When soldiers take their oath they are given a coin, an asimi stamped with the profile of the Autarch. Their acceptance of that coin is their acceptance of the special duties and burdens of military life — they are soldiers from that moment, though they may know nothing of the management of arms. I did not know that then, but it is a profound mistake to believe that we must know of such things to be influenced by them, and in fact to believe so is to believe in the most debased and superstitious form of magic. The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.
Here’s a quotation from P. G. Wodehouse’s Uneasy Money:
At the age of eleven or thereabouts women acquire a poise and an ability to handle difficult situations which a man, if he is lucky, manages to achieve somewhere in the later seventies.
This evening, while I was driving somewhere, I caught part of Tony Dillon-Davis’s show “Play It Again” on CKUA Radio. “Play It Again” is a weekly program which features popular music from the ’20s to the ’50s. Each week, the program focuses on one particular year, and Dillon-Davis talks about the significant events that took place that year, the famous books published then, and things like that. He also lists the number one songs for that year.
What struck me tonight, not for the first time, was how often the same song hit number one. In that era, a song might be covered by any number of artists, and sometimes the same song appeared at number one by one artist for a month or so and then by another artist the next month. That’s completely unheard of today. Sometimes artists do cover songs, but they’d never dream of releasing their cover version a month after the original! Only in jazz music, it seems to me, do the standards get performed over and over again, with each artist giving it his own particular twist.
And that leads me to questions for which I don’t have answers. What accounts for this phenomenon? It strikes me that something, or even several things, must have changed between then and now. Were the changes in the music itself? in the listeners and their expectations and tastes? in something else?
Well, I’m back home again and the vacation is over. The week went by very quickly, but I was able to do a few things I wanted to. I went up to Red Deer, Alberta, about four hours north of here, to visit my parents. I did a little book shopping and a fair bit of reading, which was exactly what I’d wanted to do. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, I managed to find a book (online!) which I’d been seeking for years. I also spent some time on Thursday with Jamie Soles, who’s been a friend of mine ever since Bible college.
On Friday, I drove up to Edmonton, another hour and a half north, to visit Arlette Zinck, who teaches English at King’s University College and who has recently co-edited a book on John Bunyan. I’ve been friends with Arlette ever since we took a Latin class together back in 1990-1991. I hadn’t visited Arlette and her husband Rob for over a year; it’s always surprising to see how their children have grown!
We had a good visit, and on Saturday I drove back to Red Deer, though that statement makes it sound easier than it was. It was about 30 below (Celsius) on Saturday, and my car wouldn’t start. I had to wait about an hour before the guy from Alberta Motor Association came to give me a boost.
Today I attended church with my parents in the morning, and then drove back to Lethbridge, arriving shortly before the evening service here. Now I’m wrapping up my blog entry (but you knew that already, didn’t you?) and then I’m going to get something to eat, make a cup of tea, and sit and read some more of P. G. Wodehouse’s Uneasy Money. Goodnight, all!
They seek him here; they seek him there;
Those Frenchies seek him everywhere.
Is he in heaven? Is he in hell?
That demmed elusive Pimpernel.
My mother has long been a fan of Baroness Orczy’s works. Over the years, she’s accumulated quite a collection, several of which I’ve found for her in used bookstores. In fact, she has almost the whole Scarlet Pimpernel series. But she was still missing two volumes: Sir Percy Leads the Band and Mam’zelle Guillotine. If you check AddAll, you’ll find the latter for $500 – $1200 or so, which is well beyond anything I can afford.
I’d long dreamed of being able to present a copy of those books to my mother. Last night, the dream came true. I was surfing the web and I thought of checking Google and lo and behold! there they were was in e-text: Mam’zelle Guillotine and Sir Percy Leads the Band. I was delighted, and so was my mother.
By the way, for those who don’t know, the Scarlet Pimpernel (Sir Percy Blakeney) is an Englishman who sets out to rescue people from the murderous Revolutionaries in France. He often leaves behind a copy of the poem quoted above or the sign of a small red flower, the scarlet pimpernel. The books are a lot of fun, especially when Sir Percy (who pretends to be an idle, brainless fop) encounters Citizen Chauvelin, Robespierre’s agent. But I suspect they also give a fairly accurate representation of the spirit of revolutionary France.
I first read John Frame’s Perspectives on the Word of God: An Introduction to Christian Ethics several years ago, before I went to seminary. Now that I’ve got a couple of years of the ministry (and a lot more reading and thinking) under my belt, I sometimes think I should go back and re-read some of the books I read in the past.
During this vacation, I took that opportunity and read through Perspectives once more. It’s a short book (only 56 pages of text) and it’s based on three lectures Frame gave at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, so it obviously can’t cover the material in any depth. And yet Frame does cover a lot of ground in this little book and does so in a very helpful and readable way.
The first lecture deals with the Word of God itself. The Word of God is not limited to Scripture. God created everything by His Word. His Word is His power, His authority, and His presence. In fact, God’s Word is even identified with God Himself and is an object of worship (Pss. 34:3; 56:4, 10, etc.).
The second lecture deals with the media of God’s Word, and here Frame makes a very important point:
All of God’s word to us is mediated, in the sense that it always reaches us through some creaturely means. This is true even when revelation seems most “direct.” For example, when God spoke to the people of Israel gathered around Mt. Sinai, and they heard the divine voice from heaven, even then God’s word reached the people through creaturely media. For one thing, God spoke human language. For another, he used the normal earthly atmosphere to transmit the sounds to the eardrums of the people. Further, it was the people’s brain cells that interpreted the sounds as words and interpreted the words as God’s message. God’s word never lacks media when it is spoken to human beings (pp. 19-20).
Frame goes on to discuss three means: events (history, redemptive history, miracles), words (divine voice, prophetic speech, written word, preaching), and persons (human constitution, examples of Christian leaders, God’s own presence). One could wish that Frame had also included the sacraments, perhaps as a subcategory (“rites”) under “event media.”
Frame’s point is worth pondering, especially in connection with a trend in Reformed theology which wants to downplay God’s mediated work as “sacramentalism” or “sacerdotalism” and which emphasizes instead some kind of “immediate” (unmediated) work of God on the believer’s heart. But Scripture speaks of the preaching of the Word as Christ’s own voice (Rom. 1:14-15) by which God regenerates (1 Pet. 1:23-25). And many times in Scripture, we hear about the efficacy of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. God delights in using means to work in the lives of His people, and as Frame says, He never speaks without using means.
The final lecture in the book surveys the three basic secular approaches to ethics (existential, teleological, and deontological), critiques them, and then proposes a Christian ethic which takes into account the strengths of all three. In our ethics, we must work with God’s objective Word as norm, the situation which we are confronting, and the nature of the persons involved. What is the situation? What does God want me to do about it? What changes need to take place in me (him, her) so that I (he, she) may do the right thing?
All in all, a helpful treatment, which whets my appetite for Frame’s long-promised but still unpublished Doctrine of the Christian Life.
After all the busy-ness of Christmas and New Year’s and the AAPC conference, I’m finally taking a short vacation. I don’t have any big plans. I’m spending time at home with my parents, doing some reading, visiting a few friends, doing some more reading…. I arrived here in Red Deer last night. Amazing! They have snow. In Lethbridge, there’s snow, too, but only in very shaded spots. The rest is just dry and brown.
My sister came out to Red Deer from Winnipeg for Christmas and left my Christmas gift here with my parents: Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf.
Heaney is one of my favourite poets. In fact, I’d checked out the poetry section in Chapters on my way here, and thought about picking up a copy of that very book. Good thing I didn’t! Thanks, Charlene!
Has this ever happened to you? I’m about sixty pages into Doug Wilson’s Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. Yesterday, I received a copy of New St. Andrews College‘s newsletter, Scriptorium, and what should I read in the Faculty Updates? “Douglas Wilson, Senior Fellow, is completing a revised and expanded edition of his ground-breaking Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning.” Augh! Now I don’t know whether to finish reading the copy I’ve got or not!
Joel Beeke’s The Quest for Full Assurance opens with this paragraph:
Theologians and pastors of post-Reformation churches struggled for theological precision in defining the relationship between personal assurance of faith and saving faith. Their labors produced a rich technical vocabulary that distinguished between assurance of faith and assurance of sense; direct (actus directus) and reflexive (actus reflectus) acts of faith; assurance of the uprightness of faith and of adoption; practical (syllogismus practicus) and mystical (syllogismus mysticus) syllogisms; the principle (habitus) and act (actus) of faith; objective and subjective assurance; assurance of faith, understanding, and hope; discursive and intuitive assurance; immediate and mediate witness in assurance; and the being and well-being of faith.
Steve Schlissel quoted that paragraph at the AAPC Pastors Conference and then put his head in his hands: “Ohhhhhhh….. There’s not enough Excedrin in the room!” Why do people have to make assurance so difficult? God speaks, and we believe Him. He promises us salvation and we believe His promise. How hard is that?
Last night I finished reading Iris Murdoch‘s An Unofficial Rose. It’s her sixth novel, and the sixth one I’ve read. Coincidence? Not at all. I’ve been trying to read her work in the order it was published. It’s something I do with a lot of authors. Am I just weirdly compulsive that way, or do other people do the same thing?
An Unofficial Rose is a complicated story, which is typical for Murdoch. Hugh Peronnet’s wife has died after forty years of marriage, and he begins to pursue his old mistress, Emma Sands, for whom he had nearly left his wife once. His son, Randall, dreams of breaking free from his marriage; he has fallen in love with a woman he deems perfect, Emma’s secretary Lindsey. Mildred Finch, a friend of the family, meanwhile, has long been in love with Hugh. Her brother is in love with Randall’s wife, Ann, and she reciprocates that love, but neither is willing to do anything about it so long as she is married to Randall. Hugh’s grandson Penn is infatuated with Randall and Ann’s daughter Miranda. And Miranda? She has plans of her own.
Put like that, An Unofficial Rose could sound like a cheap soap opera, but that would be far from the truth. Each of the relationships in the story — and there are more of them I haven’t mentioned here — sheds light on the other ones and on the various personalities involved.
Murdoch herself was not a Christian, though the book begins and ends with Scripture (“O spare me a little, that I may recover my strength: before I go hence and be no more seen”). Somewhere Murdoch once referred to herself as a Manichaean, in the sense that, though she didn’t believe in the God of Scripture, she did believe in an absolute Good and Evil. But Good and Evil aren’t merely concepts that float somewhere off in space; they are lived out in our concrete lives, in the choices we make, and in particular in the choices we make in our relationships. We often make bad choices for good motives and good choices for bad motives — and many times, we can’t even determine what our real motives are (“But to be understood is not a human right. Even to understand oneself is not a human right”). Nor do we always know what we want. Certainly, we want happiness, but where is happiness to be found? Not every path that promises happiness brings you to that goal, nor does every painful step doom you to a life of misery.
It’s not my favourite Murdoch novel, nor is it a book I’d recommend to everyone, but it is a thought-provoking read. For more on Murdoch’s ethical fiction, you might want to see the articles by Alan Jacobs and Joseph Malikail.
Well, Bill DeJong‘s blog is back after a short delay, but he has a new address now. He says that Blogger let him log in, but didn’t give him access to his blog, for some reason. So he transferred all the old stuff to his new blog. The big, annoying question? Why, even after borrowing my template, does he have the dates of his archives nicely located under his “Archives” heading and I can’t seem to get them to show up there?