Category Archive: Miscellaneous

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October 30, 2017

Pre-Raphaelite “Comfort”

Category: Art,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

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.

Posted by John Barach @ 8:53 pm | Discuss (0)
October 25, 2017

Bells on Sunday

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I suppose every one has a mental picture of the days of the week, some seeing them as a circle, some as an endless line, and others again, for all I know, as cubes and triangles.  Mine is a wavy line proceeding to infinity, dipping to Wednesday which is the colour of old silver dark with polishing and rising again to a pale gold Sunday.  This day has  feeling in my picture of warmth and light breezes and sunshine and afternoons that stretch to eternity and mornings full of far-off bells.

How varying are the evocations of bells.  They have almost as much power to startle a memory to life as the odours which annihilate the years between us and our childhood.  Wherever I am in the world, a grey warm Sunday with the sound of bells coming damped through quiet unceasing rain will mean Oxford to me.  In the underworld, twelve thousand miles away, that sound of bells in steady rain has translated me for a moment to Oxford in early summer and the scented drip from hawthorne and laburnum.

And even now to hear bells in London on a June morning makes me lose the many intervening years and go back to a pale gold Sunday when the sun shone on an endless leisured day. — Angela Thirkell, Three Houses, p. 15.

Posted by John Barach @ 4:01 pm | Discuss (0)
April 18, 2016

The Real Secret

Category: Miscellaneous,Theology - Pastoral,Theology - Soteriology :: Link :: Print

The other day, I was sitting in a coffee shop and reviewing my exegetical notes on Matthew 8 and reading Gibbs’s commentary. Honest, I was. But I couldn’t help overhearing the conversation going on at another table, a man who looked ex-military rattling on and on about martial arts.

Well, not really. Martial arts, as taught in America, doesn’t use the real secret. This guy had studied under someone (in Tennessee, which, last I checked, seemed to be in America, but never mind that) who had revealed the secret to him.

Mind you, I was doing my own reading and I was some distance away, so I’m sure I missed a lot. But I gleaned that true power is not a matter of learning martial arts. It’s a matter of flipping the switch in our brains. We’re all animals and so this used to come naturally to us but now we have to learn how. But it’s not a matter of trying; it’s just natural … if we only can get our bodies to remember how. “It’s called ‘Mind over Matter,'” the man said.

It’s not punching; all you need is a touch. When you punch, you’re still trying. In fact, it’s not that your arm sends out your fist; rather, your fist pulls your arm. Everything is waves, and in fact if you do this right, you’re not breaking the board; the board is virtually tearing itself apart.

The whole thing is about speed: if you move at 60 miles an hour, then you have force. You’ve got to reach out and touch the wall and get your hand back before you’ve even touched it. That way, the guy said, and I quote, “I can hit you again before I hit you again before I hit you again.” And if a baseball, thrown at 100 miles an hour, were to hit the bat, the bat would shatter. That’s why the bat has to hit the ball instead.

There was a gnostic element to the whole thing, a secret knowledge that turned into seven secrets, of which the first were “Dilate your eyes” and “Empty your body of all air” (because that makes you move fast) and “Point your toes in the direction you want the energy to go” and “Yell” (this is a secret?) and, I think, “Practice one thing for a minute a day” …

And then I finished my work — really, I was working — and headed home, never to know the last secrets that, if I could but master them, would make me a martial arts expert — no! martial arts is about trying! — um … a dangerous animal, capable of having my fist pull my arm out at 60 miles an hour to touch someone and have him virtually tear himself apart because of my energy waves, as I hit him again before I hit him the first time.

It was tempting to stay, to finish the lesson — or was it a sales pitch? — but no. I remain a 98 pound (give or take a hundred or so) weakling, with a pretty good grasp on Matthew 8.

[Update: When I thought about it some more, this talk reminded me of the way some Christians talk about sanctification and our growth in godliness — as if you’re not suppose to be “trying,” as if it’s never right to tell anyone to “try harder,” as if it should all just flow naturally from grace without any effort on our part, as if our efforts are somehow in conflict with grace.  Same sort of bushwa, different barrel.]

Posted by John Barach @ 8:47 pm | Discuss (0)
January 28, 2014

No Truer Heaven?

Category: Miscellaneous,Theology :: Link :: Print

In his survey of Augustine’s City of God, Edward R. Hardy, Jr. talks about the way things were in America at the time he was writing (c. 1955):

Perhaps our national temptation … is a new form of the imperial ideal in which the civic idealism of the “American dream” replaces the religious vision of brotherhood in God.  If St. Augustine heard a modern American school or congregation singing with devout fervour:

O beautiful for patriot dream
That sees beyond the years
Thine alabaster cities gleam
Undimmed by human tears!

he would assume that these words referred to our true fatherland, the heavenly city which can be reached only after the sin and sorrow of this earthly pilgrimage are ended.  And we should have to tell him that for many of those present there was no truer heaven than the future United States of America.  Some would suggest that our national church is the public-school system, as in St. Augustine’s time schoolmasters rather than priests passed on from generation to generation a more than secular loyalty to the great traditions of Rome (“The City of God,” in Roy W. Battenhouse, ed., A Companion to the Study of St. Augustine, pp. 258-259).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:49 pm | Discuss (0)
December 18, 2013

Keeping Ranks

Category: Miscellaneous,OT - Chronicles,Theology - Pastoral :: Link :: Print

F. W. Boreham, commenting on 1 Chron 12:38 (“All these men of war, who could keep ranks, came to Hebron with a loyal heart to make David king over all Israel”), tells the story of the Scottish lad who joined the army.  On parade day, his mother and sister were proud to see him marching but were surprised by something: “Look, mother!” his sister says. ” They’re all out of step but our Jock!”  Boreham comments:

It is not for me to decide whether Jock is right or whether the others are.  But since the others are all in step with each other, I am afraid the presumptive evidence is rather heavily against Jock.  And Jock is well known to all of us.  Nobody likes him, and nobody knows why they don’t like him.  In many respects he is a paragon of goodness.  He loves his church, or he would not have stuck to it year in and year out as he has done.  He is not self-assertive; he is quite willing to efface his own personality and be invisible.  He is generous to a fault.  Nobody is more eager to do anything for the general good.  And yet nobody likes him.  The only thing against him is that he has never disciplined himself to get on with other people.  He has never tried to accommodate himself to their stride.  He can’t keep rank….

Why should Jock destroy his own personality in order to render himself an exact replica of every other man in the regiment?  Is individuality an evil thing that must be wiped out and obliterated?  The answer to this objection is that Jock is not asked to sacrifice his personality; he is asked to sacrifice his angularity.  The ideal of British discipline is, not to turn men into machines, but to preserve individuality and initiative; and yet, at the same time, to make each man of as great value to his comrades as is by any means possible (“Tramp! Tramp! Tramp!” in Mushrooms on the Moor, 182-183).

Boreham elaborates:

Jock … may be firmly convinced that the stride of the regiment is too short or too long.  But if, on that ground, he adopts a different one, nobody but his gentle and admiring little sister will believe that he is right and they are wrong.  Jock’s isolated attitude invariably reflects upon himself.  “The whole regiment is out of step!” he declares, drawing attention to his different stride.

That is too often the trouble with Jock.  “The members of our Church do not read the Bible!” he says.  It may be sadly true; but it sounds, put in that way, like a claim that he is the one conscientious and regular Bible-reader among them.  “The members of our Church do not pray!” he exclaims sadly.  It may be that a call to prayer is urgently needed; but poor Jock puts the thing in such a light that it appears to be a claim on his part that he alone knows the way to the Throne of Grace.  “Among the faithless faithful only he!” “The members of our Church are not spiritually-minded!” he bemoans; but somehow, said as he says it, it sounds suspiciously like an echo of little Jack Horner’s “What a good boy am I!” (185).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:48 pm | Discuss (0)
September 26, 2013

Intimations and Coincidences

Category: Literature,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

In a recent blog entry, Doug Wilson pondered the potential significance of some coincidences that cropped up recently in his reading.  I’ve had the same experience more than once, though, like Doug, I don’t know what weight or significance to attach to these experiences.   They’re certainly not all profound or obviously meaningful.

The other day, just for the fun of it, I was reading a book about the old pulp magazines, which generated a blog entry on westerns and another on the amount of writing some pulp writers did and how much they were paid for it.

In a chapter on the pulp hero named Operator # 5, there was a discussion of the novels in this series about  the invasion of the United States by the Purple Empire, headed up (of course) by the Purple Emperor.  There’s a picture of the first of those pulp novels to the right.

I set that book down and picked up Kenneth Grahame’s Pagan Papers (a dud, by the way; stick to his The Wind in the Willows and The Reluctant Dragon) and what should I find at the end of an essay on getting a bookbinder to put expensive bindings on your books?  These words:  “For these purple emperors are not to be read in bed, nor during meals, nor on the grass with a pipe on Sundays; and these brief periods are all the whirling times allow you for solid serious reading. Still, after all, you have them; you can at least pulverise your friends with the sight; and what have they to show against them?”

Two occurrences of the phrase “purple emperor” in the space of a few minutes.  I’d understand that if either of these books was about butterflies (and I suppose Grahame may be making a metaphorical allusion to the purple emperor butterflies, though the allusion is not entirely clear to me).  But what are the chances of finding that precise and unusual combination of words twice in two very different books, neither of them about butterflies, in the space of fifteen minutes?  A big coincidence, certainly, but intimating … what, exactly?  Probably nothing.  Certainly nothing clearly.  But then, why the noticeable coincidence?

Posted by John Barach @ 12:30 pm | Discuss (1)
December 28, 2012

Ephemeral Inheritance

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A book is a gift that keeps on giving.  If you write a book and have it published, it has a certain weightiness to it; it ends up (you hope) in someone’s library; it gets passed on to someone’s children.  Maybe — just maybe — it becomes a classic.  But even if it doesn’t, it may still influence generations to come.  I hope that happens, for instance, to Jim Jordan’s Through New Eyes.  How awful if that were forgotten by the next generation.

Blogging, however, isn’t nearly as weighty or as lasting.  When I am dead, will someone collect all of my blog entries and pass them on to my children and they to theirs?  Never mind me.  My thoughts may not be worth collecting.  What about Peter Leithart?  There’s gold in his blog entries, of which he sometimes turns out two or three a day.  Some of them will show up in books, and for that I’m thankful because that form of publication will give them longer life.  But will the individual blog entries last into coming generations?  I doubt it.

Facebook and Twitter?  They’re useful tools.  You can draft a sentence or two and send it out and find out immediately that a bunch of your friends have read it and liked it, and God may use that to influence a lot of people in good ways.  But they’re ephemeral in the extreme.  Ever remembered something one of your friends said and then tried to track it down?  Even if you remember who said it, good luck finding it on his Facebook page.  It’s not that sort of medium.  Nothing in it lasts into the future.  Except those embarrassing photos someone tagged you in.

By all means post helpful comments in your Facebook status or Tweet a sentence you’ve just read.  But if you want your thoughts to last a bit longer and for people to be able to find them again, don’t shut down your blog (as some people seem to have).  And if you want your thoughts to be preserved for future generations, there’s still no substitute for a book.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:58 pm | Discuss (1)
June 29, 2012

Too Much Lawyer

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The whole point is … not that our Judges have a personal power, but that the whole world around them, the newspapers, the tone of opinion, encourage them to use it in a very personal way. In our legal method there is too much lawyer and too little law. For we must never forget one fact, which we tend to forget nevertheless: that a fixed rule is the only protection of ordinary humanity against clever men — who are the natural enemies of humanity. A dogma is the only safeguard of democracy. The law is our only barrier against lawyers. — G. K. Chesterton, Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News 1905-1907, p. 290.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:06 pm | Discuss (1)
March 7, 2012

The Power of Optimism

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At first sight it would seem that the pessimist encourages improvement.  But in reality it is a singular truth that the era in which pessimism has been cried from the house-tops is also that in which almost all reform has stagnated and fallen into decay.  The reason of this is not difficult to discover.  No man ever did, and no man ever can, create or desire to make a bad thing good or an ugly thing beautiful.  There must be some germ of good to be loved, some fragment of beauty to be admired.  The mother washes and decks out the dirty or careless child, but no one can ask her to wash and deck out a goblin with a heart like hell.  No one can kill the fatted calf for Mephistopheles.  The cause which is block all progress to-day is the subtle scepticism which whispers in a million ears that things are not good enough to be worth improving. . . .  Things must be loved first and improved afterwards. — G. K. Chesterton, “In Defense of a New Edition,” The Defendant, pp. 7-8.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:41 pm | Discuss (0)
September 21, 2011

Deschooling Society

Category: Education,Medicine,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society is, in many ways, a disappointing book.  The problem is not just that it’s outdated.  The problem is that the flashes of insight that impressed me at the beginning of the book were reduced to a trickle midway through and that, while I appreciated a lot of Illich’s critique of compulsory government schooling, his own suggestions for a “deschooled” society struck me as quixotic and utopian, bordering on ludicrous.

That said, there was stuff I appreciated, stuff that (even if you don’t agree with it) makes you say “Huh!  I need to think about that some more,” beginning with the opening paragraph:

Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them.  They school them to confuse process and substance.  Once these become blurred, a new logic is assumed: the more treatment there is, the better are the results; or, escalation leads to success.  The pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.  His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.  Medical treatment is mistaken for health care, social work for the improvement of community life, police protection for safety, military poise for national security, the rat race for productive work.  Health, learning, dignity, independence, and creative endeavor are defined as little more than the performance of the institutions which claim to serve these ends, and their improvement is made to depend on allocating more resources to the management of hospitals, schools, and other agencies in question (1).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:08 pm | Discuss (1)
June 6, 2011

Serves Him Right

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C. H. Spurgeon offers some strong words to the sort of people who kick you when you’re down:

How aggravating it is when those who knocked you down, kick you for not standing up!  It is not very pleasant to hear that you have been a great fool, and that there were fifty ways at least of keeping out of your difficulty, only you had not the sense to see them.  You ought not to have lost the game; even Tom Fool can see where you made a bad move.  “He ought to have locked the stable door“; everybody can see that, but nobody offers to buy the loser a new nag.  “What a pity he went so far on the ice!”  That’s very true, but that won’t save the poor fellow from drowning.  When a man’s coat is threadbare, it is an easy thing to pick a hole in it.  Good advice is poor food for a hungry family….

Lend me a bit of string to tie up the traces, and find fault with my old harness when I get home.  Help my old horse to a few oats, and then tell him to mend his pace.  Feel for me, and I shall be much obliged to you, but mind you feel in your pocket or else a fig for your feelings. — C. H. Spurgeon, John Ploughman’s Talk, pp. 85-86.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:33 pm | Discuss (0)
October 6, 2010

Sports Stars and Sports Writing

Category: Miscellaneous,Sports :: Link :: Print

In his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace talks about his (and, by extension, our) obsession with sports autobiographies.  We read the things, he says, because

we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers.  We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough.  We want to get intimate with all that profundity.  We want inside them; we want the Story.  We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain.  We want to know how they did it….  and of course, we want to know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best (“How did it feel to win the big one?”) (143).

And yet, when sports stars tell their own stories, they are almost always disappointing.  In fact, they are often banal, whether they appear in books or in interviews:

Turn on any post-contest TV interview: “Kenny, how did it feel to make that sensational game-winning shoestring catch in the end zone with absolutely no I mean zero time remaining on the clock?”  “Well, Frank, I was just real pleased.  I was real happy and also pleased.  We’ve all worked hard and come a long way as a team, and it’s always a good feeling to be able to contribute.”  “Mark, you’ve now homered in your last eight straight at-bats and lead both leagues in RBIs — any comment?”  “Well, Bob, I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time.  I’ve been focusing on the fundamentals, you know, and trying to make a contribution, and all of us know we’ve got to take it one game at a time and hang in there and not look ahead and just basically do the best we can at all times” (152).

So these stars are stunningly inarticulate, especially right after a demanding game (which is something Wallace doesn’t factor in: ask me a detailed, heavy, challenging question right after a sermon or a lecture and I may not be as articulate as I’d like either; ask me how it felt to give that lecture and I’d probably say something banal: “Um … fine”).  But the inability to articulate and the tendency to the banal pervades the autobiographies, too, which are not composed on the spur of the moment after the game was won.

Are these athletes dim?  Hardly.  Their sports require “extraordinary mental powers”:

Anyone who buys the idea that great athletes are dim should have a close look at an NFL playbook, or at a basketball coach’s diagram of a 3-2 zone trap … or at an archival film of Ms. Tracy Austin repeatedly putting a ball in a court’s corner at high speed from seventy-eight feet away, with huge sums of money at stake and enormous crowds of people watching her do it (153).

Where most of us, under such circumstances, would freeze up, overcome perhaps by our own internal voices, great athletes aren’t.  Wallace suggests that these great athletes aren’t analyzing what they’re doing or what they’re supposed to do; they’re bypassing the mind and acting:

The real secret behind top athelete’s genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself.  The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands as the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all (154).

He adds:

It may well be that spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied.  And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it — and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence (155).

The same, it occurs to me, may be true not just of sports, but of a lot of work.  I spent a week out in the wilds of British Columbia planting trees when I was in college and I wasn’t good at it at all.  Part of the problem, it seemed to me, was that I was bored; I couldn’t turn off my mind and I couldn’t entertain my mind.  Where others simply got out there and planted, climbing every mountain and fording every stream in their way, I thought about it all and couldn’t get the job done.

One thing that’s going on here is what is sometimes called “poetic knowledge”: the knowledge that comes from experience, not from analysis.  What Tracy Austin could do with a tennis ball wasn’t the result of analyzing the game of tennis, let alone analyzing what she herself was doing, but was simply something she did.  So, too, with an experienced carpenter: Where I have to think about where every nail goes and how exactly I ought to hold it and what force I ought to swing the hammer with, a carpenter simply bangs in the nails — and he may not be able to explain all the questions I’m thinking about.  He just does it.

Another thing to consider in this connection is that, as Wallace illustrates throughout his essay, a high degree of poetic knowledge does not necessarily correspond to a high degree of analytical knowledge.  Put another way, just because you can’t talk about your touchdown — let alone about how you felt about it, when feelings are notoriously hard to put into words and harder still to put into words that are not banal or cliche — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re stupid.

What’s particularly impressive, though, are those people who manage to achieve both great technical prowess and a great ability to think things through and communicate.  I’ve met several in churches, men who can work hard in construction without having to analyze everything they do (as I would) and who can then come to a Bible study and grapple with the text of Scripture or go home and read a book and follow a complex argument.  They’re the really impressive ones.  But apparently, if Wallace is correct, they aren’t writing sports autobiographies.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:03 pm | Discuss (0)

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