Category Archive: Miscellaneous
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?
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
In September, I lectured for the Bucer Institute on “Genesis and the Future,” focusing on what Genesis teaches us about eschatology and our hope for the future. But I also got to speak at the Institute’s convocation banquet, and there I talked about humility and education.
Much of what I said was probably obvious. Humility includes recognizing that we all have a lot to learn and that God puts us in certain environments — such as the Bucer Institute — to learn from others. That learning may start with being silent. As Anselm says in his “Duties of Clergy,” “Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent, that we may be able to speak?” And so we must humble ourselves to learn from our teachers and to recognize that they are, in some way, superior to us. Likewise, we must also humble ourselves to learn from our fellow students, not just to learn but to learn together.
In fact, sometimes shyness can be a form of thinking too much of ourselves (though I am not saying that this shyness is necessarily the sin of pride): “I don’t want to ask a question and have people think I’m stupid.” Or: “I don’t want to raise my hand and interact with the prof as if I think my opinions are worth his time.” On the contrary, I said: Humble yourself and ask in order to learn.
But I also wanted to speak about something perhaps less obvious, namely, humility before the subject, putting the subject ahead of yourself. If your goal at a particular school is simply to use it as a stepping-stone to advance yourself, if your focus is on your marks or on impressing teachers or on impressing future employers or whatever, you will not learn the way you could if you were really interested in the subject. I’ve often said that I would rather teach someone who is interested than someone who is simply intelligent.
And what’s the mark of that sort of humility, that sort of fascination with the subject that puts it ahead of yourself? Perhaps one mark is that you sometimes bore people by talking about the subject. Which brings me to G. K. Chesterton and to the following quotation, which was, in fact, a major impetus behind my entire talk:
Neither in public nor in private life … is it all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person. It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolises conversation is a conceited fellow. The man who monopolises conversation is almost always modest. The man who talks too much generally has a great deal of humility. Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.
It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious. The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject. He is not interested in himself: if he were he would behave better. If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing: and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realise that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.
A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse of a selfish man. He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship. He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.
No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows. They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine. The loud talker is humble. The very phrase you use about him proves this. If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be “You forget yourself.” It is the very ecstasy of altruism — an impersonal apotheosis. You say to the cad, “You forget yourself.” What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that “You forget yourself”? — Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907, 132-133.
If you never bore someone with any subject, then you have a problem: either nothing in the world fascinates you (how sad!) or the thing that matters most to you is how you appear to others. But if things do grip you, you’re going to end up boring your wife or a friend or someone at church by talking too much about them from time to time.
On the other hand, as I went on to add, if you don’t forget yourself and the subject you love in order to love others — which in this case means to shut up about your subject and talk about what interests them — you also will not excel in your learning, because truly learning anything means learning how to use it to serve others. The goal is not just to be so full of your subject that you forget yourself and spill out onto others from time to time, important as that is. The goal is, with your love of the subject subordinate to the love of others, to be the servant of all.
The other day, I read M. T. Anderson’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester to my daughter, Aletheia. The book is a lot of fun, but even more fun (for me) was the historical note at the back about the many sea serpent sightings along the New England coast throughout the nineteenth century and particularly between 1817 and 1818. I appreciated Anderson’s comment on the back flap of the book:
For generations, fishermen took for granted the existence of long, snakelike animals in the North Atlantic. It takes a peculiar kind of snobbery to believe that men who worked on the sea all their lives — though illiterate — were by nature superstitious, confused, and gullible.
And what were these sea serpents doing? According to the story, exactly what Psalm 104 says they do: they were playing (Ps. 104:24-26).
The opening paragraph of P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Sam the Sudden, it seems to me, could well apply to southwest Lousiana … except that it starts in May, not August:
All day long, New York, stewing in the rays of a late August sun, had been growing warmer and warmer, until now, at three o’clock in the afternoon, its inhabitants … had divided themselves by a sort of natural cleavage into two main bodies — the one crawling about and asking those they met if this was hot enough for them, the other maintaining that what they minded was not so much the heat as the humidity. — P. G. Wodehouse, Sam the Sudden, p. 11.
We’ve all heard it said that “you can’t turn back the clock.” Obviously, that’s true. Even if you regret what you did in the past, you can’t go back in time and do things over differently. But that’s not what people mean when they trot out this tired old line. What they mean is that we’re all doing things a new way now and we have to keep up with the times . You can’t go back and do things the way they used to be done. Don’t you believe in progress?
Here’s C. S. Lewis’s response:
First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from the whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on — Mere Christianity, 36-37.
Yogi Berra, the master of funny (and unintentional) aphorisms, captures the spirit of these “progressives” perfectly: “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”
In honor of his birthday, which is today, here’s a quotation from G. K. Chesterton:
Neither in public nor in private life, indeed, is it at all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person.Â It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolises conversation is a conceited fellow.Â The man who monopolises conversation is almost always modest.Â The man who talks too much generally has a great deal of humility.Â Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.
It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious.Â The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject.Â He is not interested in himself: ifÂ he were he would behave better.Â If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing; and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realise that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.
A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse ofÂ a selfish man.Â He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship.Â He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.
No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows.Â They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine.Â The loud talker is humble.Â The very phrase you use about him proves this.Â If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be “You forget yourself.”Â It is the very ecstasy of altruism â€”Â an impersonal apotheosis.Â You say to the cad, “You forget yourself.”Â What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that “You forget yourself”? â€”Â G. K. Chesterton, â€œOn Long Speeches and Truth,â€Â Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News 1905-1907, pp. 132-133 (paragraph breaks added).