June 6, 2018

Body Parts

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

Many of the churches I have attended as an adult are full of professionals  doctors and lawyers and PhDs. It is a comfortable place for me because I share so many unstated assumptions about the world with my friends. It is a church of brains, but we may be missing some other important body parts that are gathered en masse at the Baptist church down the street.  Peter Leithart, The End of Protestantism.

When the apostle Paul speaks of the church as a body and each of us as members of it, we might be inclined to think that he is speaking about our own local congregation. But is it the case that every local congregation is a complete body, with all the parts intact and functioning?

Paul’s letter is to the church in Corinth. It is not written about each distinct congregation in a particular city, in spite of all of their differences and their divisions from each other. Rather, it is written to the whole church in a particular city or region. More broadly, Paul is also speaking about the whole church throughout the world.

What happens  and what denominationalism ends up producing — is that particular body parts tend to cluster together with similar body parts, hands with hands, feet with feet, eyes with eyes, brains (or what people think of as brains) with brains.

People who are interested in helping the needy cluster together with others interested in helping the needy. Theology wonks go to church with other theology wonks and often disdain those who don’t read much. People who have a heart for missions want to be with others who share their missionary zeal.

A hand shows up at a church and thinks “Huh. Not many hands here. I guess I’ll go where there are more hands.” But hands are precisely what that church needs.

We need each other. And we have no promise that every gift  every body part   exists in every local congregation. We need the body parts that are found in the church down the street and the body parts in the other church across town and so on.

It’s possible that we too have some body parts that those other churches lack.  And maybe if we stopped thinking that we were superior to them  we’re brains and they’re not; we’re feet and they just stand still  we might even be of service to them so that the whole body grows up into the fullness of Christ, locally and globally.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:49 pm | Discuss (0)
April 27, 2018

Butter and Margarine

Category: Literature,Psychology :: Permalink

“The fact is that by profession I’m a psycho-analyst — quite a successful one, I suppose; successful certainly as far as money goes.  The amount of money,” he said confidentially, “which some people will pay for information which they could get from three hours’ intelligent reading in any public library….  However” — he became conscious that he was getting off the point — “there it is.  I suppose in London I’m pretty well at the top of my profession.  You may think we’re all charlatans, of course — a lot of people do” — Geoffrey hurriedly shook his head — “but as far as I’m concerned, at least, I have tried to go about the business methodically and scientifically, and to do the best for my patients.  Well, then –”

He paused and mopped his brow to emphasize the fact that he was now coming to the crux of the matter; Geoffrey nodded encouragingly.

“As you know, the whole of modern psychology — and psycho-analysis in particular — is based on the idea of the unconscious; the conception that there is a section of the mind in some sense separate from the conscious mind, and which is responsible for our dreams, certain of our impulses, and all the complex manifestations of the irrational in human life.”

His phraseology, Geoffrey thought, was taking on the aspect of a popular textbook.

“From this concept all the conclusions of analytical psychology are derived.  Unfortunately, about a month ago, it occurred to me to investigate the origins and rationale of this basic conception.  A terrible thing happened, Mr. Vintner.”  He leaned forward and tapped Geoffrey impressively on the knee.  “I could not find one shred of experimental or rational proof that the unconscious existed at all.”

He sat back again; it was evident that he regarded this statement as in some sense a personal triumph.

“The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that in fact it didn’t exist.  We know, after all, nothing at all about the conscious mind, so why postulate, quite arbitrarily, an unconscious, to explain anything we can’t understand?  It’s as if,” he added with some vague recollection of wartime cooking, “a man were to say he was eating a mixture of butter and margarine when he had never in his life tasted either.” — Edmund Crispin, Holy Disorders.

Posted by John Barach @ 11:24 am | Discuss (0)
February 5, 2018

Requirements for Poets

Category: Literature,Poetry :: Permalink

Sister M. Madeleva [Wolff], poet and college president, writes:

Sometimes students ask what books are best to read as helps to writing. With no hesitation at all, I say, “The Bible, the Oxford Dictionary, seed catalogues.” This is spoken in parable. Here are the words of God, of man, of nature.

What preparation best enables one to be a poet? The Sixth Beatitude, I think, “Blessed are the clean of heart for they shall see God.” (My First Seventy Years, p. 148).

Posted by John Barach @ 12:59 pm | Discuss (0)
February 2, 2018

A Teacher and a Gentleman

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

Sister M. Madeleva, looking back over her life in her delightfully titled My First Seventy Years, recalls her experience with C. S. Lewis during a brief stay in Oxford:

Oxford that Trinity term meant and continues to mean for me Mr. C. S. Lewis.  After attending his second lecture on the Prolegomena to the Study of Medieval Poetry I said to some of the students at Cherwell Edge, “Mr. Lewis is the one person at Oxford with whom I should like to tutor.”  “But,” they exclaimed in amazement at my temerity, “Mr. Lewis refuses to tutor a woman.”  “That,” I replied stoutly, “does not change my statement in the least.”

You probably are not interested in a prolegomenon or preface to medieval poetry, or indeed in this archaic poetry itself.  I should like, however, to share with you two experiences from the class in which Mr. Lewis dug up medieval poetry by the roots and planted it in our minds, there to grow and flower as it might.

At the beginning of the course he announced by titles nineteen lectures.  Later in the term he missed three of these because of illness.  Returning to class, he stated that obviously some of the assigned lectures would have to be omitted.  He asked that if we had any preference for those to be retained we would write him a note saying so….

I had been anticipating impatiently the single lecture on Boethius.  I wrote as much to Mr. Lewis.  He gave in response three lectures on the author of The Consolation of Philosophy.  This was the graciousness of the teacher.

Later, I wrote to thank him and to ask if there was available a bibliography on his course.  He replied by writing out for me a history of the development of his study, a list of the books I should read relating to it, a list I might read, and a list to which I need pay no attention at all.  This was the gentleman.  Mr. Lewis had tutored me. — Sister M. Madeleva, My First Seventy Years, pp. 75-76.

By the way, in case you wish you could see that letter Lewis wrote, you both can and can’t.  The letter is in the second volume of C. S. Lewis’s Collected Letters.  But alas, the bibliography is not there.

It seems that what Lewis did was loan Sister Madeleva a notebook that contained the book lists she mentions here, which (judging by his letter) were the bibliography he worked with in particular when he was preparing The Allegory of Love.  But the notebook itself is not reprinted in the Collected Letters and may, in fact, no longer exist … although one wonders if it really was loaned (as Walter Hooper says in his footnote in Collected Letters), with the intention that she return it, or if it was given, since Lewis’s letter says nothing about returning it and it would have been laborious for her to copy it out.  In either case — whether it was loaned and she made a copy for herself or if it was given outright — one does wonder if it exists somewhere in Sister Madeleva’s papers.


Posted by John Barach @ 9:06 pm | Discuss (0)
December 29, 2017

Books I Enjoyed in 2017

Category: Literature :: Permalink

The books I enjoyed the most this year were:

* Edoardo Albert. Oswiu: King of Kings. The third in Albert’s trilogy about the Christian kings of Northumberland.

* Lloyd Alexander. The High King. An excellent conclusion to a great series.

* Michael Bond. A Bear Called Paddington. The first in the series; the one book I’ve read more than any other. This was the first time my third child got to hear it.

* Nicholas Carr. Utopia Is Creepy and Other Provocations. A collection of essays and blog posts, mainly about technology and computers and how they affect us.  Some of the essays are hilarious; almost all of them are thought-provoking.

* Blaine Charette. Restoring Presence: The Spirit in Matthew’s Gospel. Very helpful. Even when he says things I already know, he puts them extremely well. You might think the Gospel of Matthew doesn’t say much about the Holy Spirit; you would be mistaken.

* Mark Dallow. The Heir of Charlecote. Great novel for kids, set in Shakespearean (and Elizabethan) England.  I read it aloud to the kids.

* August Derleth. Wind Over Wisconsin. Known primarily for preserving H. P. Lovecraft’s legacy through his publishing house, Arkham Press, or perhaps for his Sherlock Holmes pastiches starring Solar Pons, Derleth was primarily a regional writer, devoted to telling stories about the area of Wisconsin he called Sac Prairie. This is a long, slow novel about the settlers’ change from hunting and trapping to farming and about the passing of the Indians.

* Elizabeth Enright. The Saturdays; The Four-Story Mistake; Then There Were Five. The original three books about the Melendy family. I hadn’t read these since I was a boy, but my kids were reading them and so I picked them up too.

* C. S. Forester. Payment Deferred. Forester is the author of the Hornblower novels, but this was his first novel, a particularly gripping crime novel.

* Tim Gallant. Feed My Lambs: Why the Lord’s Table Should Be Restored to Covenant Children. This was the second time I had read this book. Read it this time in preparation for Sunday School. Excellent.

* Ted Gioia. How to Listen to Jazz. Basic, but quite helpful. I’d love to have seen more structural analysis of popular jazz songs, but what Gioia provided was eye-opening.

* Harold Lamb. Swords from the West. A collection of several of Lamb’s stories about Crusaders after the Crusades, wandering around the Middle East and getting into various adventures. Lamb wrote well and researched thoroughly.

* John Masefield. The Midnight Folk. Bizarre but engaging story. Read to kiddos.

* A. E. W. Mason. The Four Feathers. Engaging story, though I have to admit that I have no sympathy for the sort of patriotism / militarism that undergirds the whole story, such that resigning from the military could ever be seen as cowardice.

* Charles McCarry. The Tears of Autumn. Originally presented as an unpublished non-fiction book, this is McCarry’s spy novel based on what he thought — and may still think — is the true story behind JFK’s assassination, and it’s probably not a theory you’ve heard elsewhere.

* Cal Newport. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Very helpful.

* Margaret Oliphant. Salem Chapel. Very enjoyable Victorian novel … except for the last couple of pages.

* Margery Sharp. The Rescuers. The first of the series. Read aloud to the kiddos. We loved it.

* Sherwood Smith. Wren to the Rescue. The first in a fantasy trilogy aimed at young adults; quite well done.

* Angela Thirkell. Three Houses. A memoir tied especially to the houses in which Thirkell grew up.

* Douwe van Dijk. My Path to Liberation: Reflections on My Life in the Ministry of the Word of God.  A memoir by a pastor of a Reformed church in the Netherlands, most of which deals with the events surrounding the Liberation in 1944.

* Laura Ingalls Wilder. Little House on the Prairie. Read to the kiddos.

* P. G. Wodehouse. The Girl on the Boat. Fun.

The worst book I read this year was Geoffrey Trease’s Bows Against the Barons. In his defense, it was Trease’s first novel and he was strongly Marxist at the time he wrote it. It’s full of things like “Everyone is equal; there should be no leaders, no rulers.” I was disturbed by the casual violence—lots of innocent people killed even by the “good guys,” in a novel aimed at children, no less—and irritated by several elements of the plot. I could not bring myself to suspend my disbelief in a secret network of caves under all of Nottingham, known only by the humble shopkeepers who are on Robin Hood’s side, a Robin Hood (by the way) entirely different from any you’ve ever met before. Again and again, there were extra “suspenseful” moments thrown in for good measure (e.g., an escape wasn’t enough; there had to be quicksand, too, from which the protagonist is also quickly rescued). And then there was the episode in which the main character somehow smuggled longbows into a castle in a pack on his back. Longbows. Hidden. In a pack on his back.

The book I had the most fun with this year may well have been Harry Stephen Keeler’s The Riddle of the Traveling Skull. Of Keeler, Neil Gaiman writes: “He may have been the greatest bad writer America has ever produced. Or perhaps the worst great writer. I do not know.”

Otto Penzler, on the other hand, writes:

Keeler is to good literature as rectal cancer is to good health. He makes the J.D. Robb novels seem as if they were written by Shakespeare. Given the choice of reading three Keeler novels back to back or being imprisoned in an Iranian jail,you’d need to think about it.

But this is the novel that contains, in the opening chapter, as an explanation for why the narrator didn’t pay much attention to the Chinese man who spoke to him briefly on the street near his apartment, this fascinating sentence:

For it must be remembered that at the time I knew quite nothing, naturally, concerning Milo Payne, the mysterious Cockney-talking Englishman with the checkered long-beaked Sherlockholmsian cap; nor of the latter’s “Barr-Bag,” which was as like my own bag as one Milwaukee wienerwurst is like another; nor of Legga, the Human Spider, with her four legs and her six arms; nor of Ichabod Chang, ex-convict, and son of Dong Chang; nor of the elusive poetess, Abigail Sprigge; nor of the Great Simon, with his 2,163 pearl buttons; nor of — in short, I then knew quite nothing about anything or anybody involved in the affair of which I had now become a part, unless perchance it were my Nemesis, Sophie Kratzenschneiderwümpel — or Suing Sophie!

The whole novel is just as strange. Which is why the New York Times once wrote: “We are drawn to the inescapable conclusion that Mr. Keeler writes his peculiar novels merely to satisfy his own undisciplined urge for creative joy.”

[Update, December 31, 2017: In his comment, Alastair Roberts alerted me to the fact that, however bad Trease’s novel might be, there really are underground caves in Nottingham.]

Posted by John Barach @ 10:03 pm | Discuss (3)
November 28, 2017

“The Sojourner in Her House” (Exodus 3:21-22)

Category: Bible - OT - Exodus :: Permalink

In Exodus 3:21-22, we read that each “woman will ask from her neighbor and from the sojourner in her house objects of silver and objects of gold and clothing.”

What in the world does “the sojourner in her house” mean here? It makes it sound as if there were Egyptian women — or at least, non-Israelite women — living in the houses of the Israelite women (?!).

Houtman, who doesn’t have a good answer himself, says that some think this is a reference to a family member who is Egyptian. Some think it’s an Egyptian woman living with an Israelite family. Some think it’s an Egyptian slave of an Israelite family (“Those last people won’t have had much to give,” says Houtman).

None of those answers makes much sense to me. Why would family members or slaves be called “sojourners”? Why would Egyptians or other non-Israelites be living with an Israelite family?

I wonder if it might refer to Egyptians who are now living in the houses once occupied by and owned by the Israelites. Goshen was, after all, the best part of the land. Perhaps some Egyptians moved in and kicked the Israelites out of their own homes. They’re called “sojourners” because the homes they’re living in are not their own. And so these people are singled out in particular because they owe the Israelites something in recompense for their mistreatment of them.

This isn’t a view I’ve found in any commentary, but I haven’t seen any commentary with a clear explanation. Any better suggestions?

Posted by John Barach @ 9:15 pm | Discuss (0)
November 22, 2017

Strange and Wonderful Proceedings

Category: Music :: Permalink

I remember my earliest visits to jazz clubs when I was still a teenager. Before the music started, I would say to myself, “Almost anything could happen tonight. Almost anything!” Perhaps that sounds naive, the breathless enthusing of a fan, not the sober reflections of a future critic and music historian, but I still can’t imagine approaching jazz any other way.

When I attend a classical concert, in contrast, I can tell by looking at the program exactly what I will hear. If it says Beethoven’s Piano Sonata Number 8 (the Pathétique) is on the bill that evening, I can anticipate almost every note.  Rock and pop concerts are a bit more unpredictable, but even in that setting I know the band will play its familiar hits and probably try to make them sound similar to the albums, the proceedings “enhanced” with stage props and visual effects, yet still essentially the same routines they did last night in a different city and will re-create at their next tour stop.

But jazz, I learned at the very start of my exposure to it, plays by different rules.  It is open to a much wider range of possibilities.  The musicians themselves hardly know what they will play; the jazz world’s fixation with improvisation ensures that strange and wonderful proceedings can unfold on the bandstand, perhaps during the very next song. — Ted Gioia, How to Listen to Jazz, pp. 202-203.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:31 pm | Discuss (0)
November 7, 2017


Category: Music :: Permalink

Music fans today can hardly imagine how disruptive the saxophone was during the early days of jazz.  Even decades after the sax had taken over the bandstand, many New Orleans purists objected to its baneful presence.  And the instrument had other marks against it.  The sax was not an accepted symphonic instrument — the American Symphony Orchestra League even issued a formal prohibition of the horn during the 1920s.

It was loud and lowbrow and perhaps even morally dangerous.  I’ve heard stories, perhaps apocryphal, of radio stations refusing to play sax music on the Sabbath, fearing its corrupting influence on impressionable young souls.  But there’s little doubt that Pope Pius X had the sax in mind when, at the dawn of the twentieth century, he instructed the clergy to avoid instruments “that may give reasonable cause for disgust and scandal.” — Ted Gioia, How to Listen to Jazz, p. 159.

So what brought about the change, so that jazz embraced the saxophone and it became, as Gioia says, “the defining sound of jazz”?  Here’s Gioia’s answer: “Most of the credit for this stunning turnabout goes to a single musician: Coleman Hawkins” (159).  To find out why, you’re just going to have to read the book.  Or you could just listen to this 1939 version of “Body and Soul”:



Posted by John Barach @ 9:29 pm | Discuss (0)
November 3, 2017

Just So

Category: History,Literature :: Permalink

Angela Thirkell describes how she used to play Cavaliers and Roundheads with her cousins.  She and her cousin Josephine Kipling were the Cavaliers, and the Roundhead was Josephine’s father, whom Thirkell calls “Cousin Ruddy”:

Josephine, very fair-haired and blue-eyed, was my bosom friend, and though we both adored her father, the stronger bond of patriotism drew us yet more firmly together as Cavaliers against Cousin Ruddy’s whole-hearted impersonation of an Arch-Roundhead….

The war between Cavaliers and Roundheads raged furiously every year as long as the Kiplings were at Rottingdean, Josephine and I leading forlorn hopes against the Regicide and being perpetually discomfited by his superior guile, or by the odious way in which the Nannies would overlook the fact that we were really six feet high with flowing locks, a hat with feathers, and huge jack-boots, and order us indoors to wash our hands or have an ignominious midday rest.

How would they have liked it if they were plotting to deliver King Charles from Carisbrooke and their Nannies had suddenly pounced upon them with a “Get up off the grass now Miss Angela and come and lie down before lunch, and there’s Lucy waiting for you Miss Josephine, so put those sticks down like a good girl and run along.”  Fools!  Couldn’t they see that these were no pea-sticks, but sword, dagger, and pistol, ready to flash out or be discharged in the service of the King?  But Nannies are by nature unromantic, so we had to submit and pretend to be little girls till we could meet again later (Three Houses, 83-84).

Later, when she talks about Josephine’s death at six years of age, Thirkell writes:

I still have a letter from Josephine, written in sprawly childish capitals.  “I will help you,” it ran, “in the war against the Roundhead.  He has a large army but we can beat him.  He is a horrible man let us do all the mischief we can to him.”  It must have been a very real game that made her call the father she loved a “horrible man.”  The world has known Josephine and her father as Taffimai and Tegumai in the Just So Stories and into one short poem he put his heart’s cry for the daughter that was all to him (86).

Thirkell was one of the first to hear these stories:

During those long warm summers Cousin Ruddy used to try out the Just So Stories on a nursery audience.  Sometimes Josephine and I would be invited into the study….  Or sometimes we all adjourned on a wet day to the Drill Hall where the horse and parallel bars made splendid forts and camping grounds, and when the battle was over and the Roundhead had been unmercifully rolled upon and pommelled by small fists he would be allowed by way of ransom to tell us about the mariner of infinite resource and sagacity and the suspenders–you must not forget the suspenders, Best Beloved.

The Just So Stories are a poor thing in print compared with the fun of hearing them told in Cousin Ruddy’s deep unhesitating voice.  There was a ritual about them, each phrase having its special intonation which had to be exactly the same each time and without which the stories are dried husks.  There was an inimitable cadence, an emphasis of certain words, an exaggeration of certain phrases, a kind of intoning here and there which made his telling unforgettable (87-88).


Posted by John Barach @ 6:17 am | Discuss (0)
November 2, 2017

“The Holy City”

Category: Bible - OT - Nehemiah :: Permalink

From the time of Moses and the building of the tabernacle through the time of David and the kings, it was the tabernacle or the later temple that was the holy place. But what is easily overlooked is that after the return from exile, things change. Peter Lau and Gregory Goswell explain:

It is plain from Nehemiah 2:20 what the wall [of Jerusalem] is intended to do, namely shut out all sources of uncleanness from the sacred place, the city. The entire city is now as holy as the temple, as the consecration of the first section of the wall by the priests makes clear (3:1). The appointment of (temple) gatekeepers, (cultic) singers and Levites to guard the city gates (7:1-3) shows the sacral character of the city, and situating the assembly “in the square before the Water Gate” does the same (8:1).  The city is designated “the holy city” (11:1, 18) and at the dedication the priest “purified the people and the gates and the wall” (12:30).  Lastly, in 13:22 it is the Levites who guard the city gates, which again bespeaks the expansion of the sanctity from the temple to the city as a whole (Peter H. W. Lau & Gregory Goswell, Unceasing Kindness: A Biblical Theology of Ruth, 15).

Posted by John Barach @ 8:44 pm | Discuss (0)

Mrs. Burne-Jones

Category: Architecture,Art,History,Politics :: Permalink

Angela Thirkell talks about how her grandmother — the wife and, later, widow of the painter, Edward Burne-Jones — used to have workingmen into her home to read to them about Pre-Raphaelitism and socialism: “All the snobbishness latent in children came to the fore as we watched the honoured but unhappy workman sitting stiffly on the edge of his chair in his horrible best clothes while my grandmother’s lovely earnest voice preached William Morris to him.”

In spite of her wide affections and deep understanding she was curiously removed from real life and I think she honestly believed that The Seven Lamps of Architecture on every working-man’s table would go far to ameliorate the world.  She was absolutely fearless, morally and physically.  During the South African War her sympathies were with the Boers, and though she was at that time a widow, living alone, she never hesitated to bear witness, without a single sympathizer.  When peace was declared she hung out of her window a large blue cloth on which she had been stitching the words: ‘We have killed and also taken possession.’  For some time there was considerable personal danger to her from a populace in Mafeking mood, till her nephew, Rudyard Kipling, coming over from The Elms, pacified the people and sent them away.  Single-minded people can be a little alarming to live with and we children had a nervous feeling that we never knew where our grandmother might break out next. — Angela Thirkell, Three Houses, pp. 78-79, 79-80.

Posted by John Barach @ 9:36 am | Discuss (0)
October 30, 2017

Pre-Raphaelite “Comfort”

Category: Art,Miscellaneous :: Permalink

What would it be like to live in a house with furniture designed by, say, William Morris or someone with similar ideals?  Lest anyone read John Ruskin or Morris or the various Pre-Raphaelites and think he’d like to live in such an abode, I offer this from Angela Thirkell, the granddaughter of Edward Burne-Jones:

Curtains and chintzes in The Bower were all of Morris stuffs, a bright pattern of yellow birds and red roses.  The low sofa and the oak table were designed by one or other pre-Raphaelite friend of the house, or made to my grandfather’s orders by the village carpenter.

As I look back on the furniture of my grandparents’ two houses I marvel chiefly at the entire lack of comfort which the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood succeeded in creating for itself.  It was not, I think, so much that they actively despised comfort, as that the word conveyed absolutely nothing to them whatever.

I can truthfully say that neither at North End Road nor at North End House was there a single chair that invited to repose, and the only piece of comfortable furniture that my grandparents ever possessed was their drawing-room sofa in London, a perfectly ordinary large sofa with good springs, only disguised by Morris chintzes.

The sofas at Rottingdean were simply long low tables with a little balustrade round two, or sometimes three sides, made of plain oak or some inferior wood painted white.  There was a slight concession to human frailty in the addition of rigidly hard squabs covered with chintz or blue linen and when to these my grandmother had added a small bolster apparently made of concrete and two or three thin unyielding cushions, she almost blamed herself for wallowing in undeserved luxury….

As for pre-Raphaelite beds, it can only have been the physical vigour and perfect health of their original designers that made them believe their work was fit to sleep in.  It is true that the spring mattress was then in an embryonic stage and there were no spiral springs to prevent a bed from taking the shape of a drinking-trough after a few weeks’ use, but even this does not excuse the use of wooden slats running lengthways as an aid to refreshing slumber.

Luckily children never know when they are uncomfortable and the pre-Raphaelites had in many essentials the childlike mind. — Angela Thirkell, Three Houses, pp. 64-65.

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