Books I Loved But No Longer Do

Partial list off the top of my head:

The Metaphysical Club, by Menand. The first couple times I read this, missed or glossed over the nihilism and relativism (if those can be said to be substantially different) peeking out from every page. The stories told are so fascinating, the turnings of culture pivoting on the sins and limitations of so few minds while we many sleep – gripping stuff. And this book pointed out trailheads to a number of topics I’ve read more about since, I owe it thanks for that.

But, ultimately, Menand is a nihilist. His heart seems to wish there were meaning, even the sort of meaning that boils down to a raw exercise of personal power. He’s too smart to actually believe it, however, so I’m left only with his slick, beautifully written evasiness whenever he might wander near anything like an ultimate ‘why’.

Other writings reveal him as a Marxist apologist. Like Agent Smith defending himself to the Cookie Girl, old Karl, Menand claims, is not that bad! An avuncular adulterer, maybe! And who isn’t, these days? Not, as one reading Marx himself would conclude, the purveyor of a world view within which slaughtering 100 million or so unarmed children, women and men is not *necessarily* a bad thing, in, fact, could be required, if it moves the ball forward on the right side of History. Nihilism dressed as Relativism lurking behind the will to power masquerading as concern for the Masses.

In a similar way, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind is like a drug for a Great Books guy – the stories he tells, the points he makes, are blood-boilingly true – that, ultimately runs aground on the same question of ‘why’. Sure, these idiots are shoving everything that makes America and the West unique, wonderful and loveable down the memory hole – and? That’s a bad thing because? Just as people don’t describe our culture as Christendom anymore, Bloom wants us to love and defend results, it seems, without being making a stand for the cause of those results. It’s ultimately turtles all the way down.

Very fun read many years ago, but deeply unsatisfying today.

A bunch of old SciFi. It’s a little tragic to think how many of the books I just LOVED as a kid/young adult that largely appall me now. A few, such a Slan and Stranger in a Strange Land I read when I was older, and so realized I’d need to ignore a lot of fundamental looniness to enjoy them. Same old same old – some elect will come to save/exterminate all us peons for our own not too well defined good. Innocents dying? Omelette/eggs. Even if you don’t share a belief in a Divine Savior, that plotline is just old. Can we stop with stories that beat the drum for one’s own puffed-up self opinion (of *course* you’re among the elect! Who could doubt it? All that purges and guillotines stuff is in the past!) or for people who imagine they’d be doing you a favor if they just cut to the chase and killed you and yours?

Here are a couple I loved when I read them as a youngster, then later had ‘wait a minute!’ moments on. I still sort of like them with a childish affection, mostly, but, man, are they silly:

devil
The Good Guys! Or, at least, the sympathetic indifferent guys who feel noble regret at humanity’s horrible fate. 

Clarke’s Childhood’s End. See comments above. In this story, Clarke goes with the saviors who, you know, kill us all. Well, stand by with their ever so noble and sympathetic feelings while we all – except for the elect! – die like animals at an evaporated watering hole. It’s all for the best!

Clarke’s 2001. This time, the Chosen One come back to save us puny humans from ourselves by snuffing out our silly nukes. Who hasn’t wished our silly nukes would get snuffed out, so that we could return to the good old days before nukes when everyone treated each other as brothers and treaded lightly upon Mother Gaia? (Not loving MAD, but nukes aren’t really the fundamental problem.)

Wow, picking on Clarke here, but there are others suffering from the same shortcomings, although generally in a less hippy-dippy fashion than Clarke.  A lot of Asimov, including the much-loved (by me, at least) Foundation series kind of loses it at the intersection of story and philosophy. But I’ll stop here for today.  Maybe more later.

Then, will need to do the reverse: books I didn’t like when I first read them, but now love. Preview: really didn’t see what the fuss about Lord of the Rings was when I first read it in high school. My future wife set me straight on that. Probably why she’s my wife.

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Don’t Show, Don’t Tell

Semi-random thoughts on what I enjoy reading. Less coherent, perhaps, than usual around here:

Dante famously ratchets his storytelling up through the course of his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven by how he shows things. In Hell (and I’m not going to Google the exact quotes, nope, not going to do it!) he starts his description of the horrors of the damned by saying: O Memory! Here thy shall show thy worth! or something like that. In other words, he is relying on his merely earthy and human mental faculties as the sources of his vision. However fantastic the tortures and dooms of the damned may be, they remain within the grasp – and experiences, poetically understood – of anyone, really. Reason in the person of Virgil is perfectly competent to see and explain the poetic justice that is at the core of Hell.

Once in Purgatory, among the saved who have been judged by a judgement they willingly embrace to be unready to endure the full glory of the Face of God, Dante can’t rely on his merely human faculties to describe and understand what he sees. Virgil seeks guidance and instruction from the souls whose understanding has been expanded by the Light of Christ denied simple human reason by the Fall. There is a lovely medieval symmetry in climbing through various stages of purgation to get back to the state of original human innocence at the Garden of Eden atop a mountain. Yet the penances here, and the Mercy and Justice of God that have degreed them, are not something Virgil can completely grasp unaided.

Dante the poet invokes the aide of the Muses in order to be able to describe what he sees, and points frequently to the substantial mystery of salvation that falls outside their ken. As a reader, in Hell you are having terrifying things pointed out to you, a terrible justice, and told to see. It is in your power, you know, your reason can work it out, that the punishments of the damned are chosen by them, and are just. The tone changes radically in Purgatory, where grace is asked for to aid our understanding. For we are walking on sacred ground.

Finally, in Heaven, we leave mere human reason behind. Virgil is left standing in Paradise. The message here is not that reason is wrong and that we should abandon it in favor of some murky idea of God’s direct infusion of divine grace. Instead, we use the grace of reason – the blessing of being made in the image of God – to seek His guidance. With His help, delivered through a hierarchy of secondary causes – other penitents, the prayers of the faithful, the teachings of the Church, the very penances assigned to the particular sins, the whole world around us – we can climb back to a state of innocence.

Which is not enough.

In Heaven, Dante the poet seeks the aid of highest Heaven, and acknowledges his inadequacy. While Hell is described via definite statements – here I saw, there they lay – Heaven’s glories are couched in doubt – I think I saw, it appeared to me. It works. The reader gets the awe and wonder through sharing Dante’s feelings of inadequacy in the face of the Divine. By not describing anything in Heaven with definite certainty, he manages, paradoxically, to describe Heaven in its awe and wonder and love. The Lover is compelled to praise the Beloved, and words fail, and in that failure succeed.

In this sense, Dante succeeds by neither showing nor telling.

From the sublime to the not as sublime: in The Night Land,  Hodgson gives evocative names to the horrors of the Night Land and consistently resist any temptation to describe them in any detail – you get gigantic, imperceptibly slow-moving, cold, eerily lit – but that’s about it. They’re just Out There, full of malice and inhumanly patient.

Way scarier than any detailed description could ever render them.

As a counterpoint, was thinking of Jack Vance’s The Moon Moth. In this classic story, Vance creates with a few deft strokes an incredibly vivid and alien world, and fills it with amazing cultural detail. One the one hand, he, like Dante and Hodgson in their very different ways, leaves a lot to the imagination. Yet he also dumps a huge amount of information on the reader, which is critical to the satisfactory resolution of the protagonist’s problems.

As a reader, I never even noticed the info dumps at the time. Only in retrospect are the fairly frequent passages of explanation in Vance’s short stories apparent. Part of the trick, I think, is spooning it out over time so the individual chunks aren’t too big, and leaving plenty of mystery. In Moon Moth, it is only in the last couple paragraphs that all the pieces come together, and only after you’ve reached the point where the protagonist is surely doomed – by the same social conventions that end up saving him! In The Dragon Masters, he pulls a related trick, where only at the end are you able to piece together the large number of clues he’s left lying about to reach the shocking conclusion.

Asking how he does this – how he manages on the one hand to be very spare in his descriptions while on the other packing the exposition with what often seem like asides but turn out to be critical information – and yet writes as gripping a story as just about anyone, is, I suppose, where the genius lies.

Now somebody who writes tell me it’s just planning and hard work.

Finally, there’s Cordwainer Smith, who, even more than Vance, drops you in the middle of the action and only gradually throws you a lifeline but never quite gets you feet back on solid ground. It feels like he never explains anything, although a moment’s reflection – thinking of Mother Hitton’s Littul Kittons (I spelled that wrong in the right way, before looking it up! And I can’t spell ‘amatuer’ right 9 times out of 10.) shows that he, indeed, does. It’s a weird morality play, where Smith breaks the wall to talk to the reader on a number of occasions, yet still maintains an air of mystery, surprise, and inevitable horror.

Most of his stories leave me a bit awed and scratching my head – what was THAT? Where did that come from?

Thus ends the brain dump for today.

Updates: Airports & Atlanta & Reading

(Taking this up from yesterday evening.)

A. Sitting in the T Terminal (named after the fashion of D-Day, I suppose) in Atlanta International. I like Atlanta and its airport, mostly. Not getting a chance this trip to walk the long subterranean corridor connecting terminals A through, I dunno, Z? which has some interesting art as well as a bit of a spelunking feel about it. The narrower and darker-feeling  passages one walks between well-lit art areas and busy shuttle train stops are tiny little adventures, with few boring businessmen or travelers of any kind taking them. The bright and fast shuttle trains beckon, Siren-like.

At least, that’s how it used to be. Things have changed at ATL. I had several hours to wander T-Terminal, and found it had been remodeled. My memory, which also ain’t what it used to be, recalled that T had the best food options of all the alphabet terminals – e.g., a hip-looking place that dispensed good fresh salad, and, I think, a better than average burrito place. These are things you find out when you travel for business a lot. I did so a decade ago, not so much the last 5-6 years. My information is both dated and faded.

So I got a veggie footlong at Subway. Hate sitting in a ‘real’ restaurant by myself, and Subway was the next best thing.

Compare and contrast with SFO Terminal 2, out of which I flew to ATL. It’s been years since I’d last been there – I tend to fly out of Oakland – OAK – because it’s closer and smaller. But I’ll drive a bit for direct flights, and the cheap ones were out of SFO. Anyway, due to a confluence of forces (missed noon flight, next one out was a redeye), I was stuck there in Terminal 2 for a number of hours.

The food options were, frankly, awesome. They had, among other nice choices, very nice Mexican food, a sushi bar that always had a line, a gourmet burger place, two Peet’s, frozen yogurt – in short, all my on the road food whims were abundantly addressed. Ended up having marvelous fish tacos for lunch, and 5 hours later, a very good burger for dinner. I don’t recall anything remotely this nice from the last time I was through, but, as noted, it’s been a while and my memory is not Dante’s.

Don’t know what to make of this. Terminals get nicer, mostly, while the flights themselves get more like Greyhound bus rides without the gritty charm. The economics of all this are not transparent – while many travelers including me shop price first and foremost, leading to bare-bones flights, we evidently are willing to drop $30+ on fish tacos, guacamole & chips, and a beer? Or are the airlines competing for one set of customers – bottom feeders – while the shops and restaurants in the terminals compete for the money of the 1st and business class people? Airlines compete across a wide range of factors, so provide a wide range of options. But you couldn’t find a Taco Bell in Terminal 2, nor a sushi joint in T-Terminal. Whoever is leasing out terminal space seems to make a narrow call, intentionally or not, that attracts a set of retailers with a fairly narrow target market.

I’m sure MBA papers have been written on this. I’ve about exhausted my curiosity for now.

B. MARTA is one thing I like about Atlanta. As long as your destination is along that north/south corridor, MARTA’s hard to beat for convenience. So far, over the years, all but one of my Atlanta customers and conventions have been on that artery. I get to grab my luggage and walk to the ATL MARTA station, and, for a couple bucks, take a nice clean train to within a couple blocks of my destination. Sweet.

But mostly I like people watching & interactions. This trip, after my red eye, I was catching the train at 5:30 a.m. There was one man asleep – his feet were sticking out – and a couple more people who did not look like travellers.

(On the ride back, a woman struck up a conversation with me and three other conventioneers who were together because we were all heading back to California – she took MARTA to work from the airport, because it was easiest for her mother to drop her off there. So, even at the end-of-the-line airport station, it seems a lot of the passengers are locals.)

As train filled up over the next couple stops, I noticed I seemed to be the only white dude on the train. It was filled with black folks going to work or school. Later, the sleeping man awoke and sat up – the two of us were the only caucasians. Later still, as it filled up more, we lost that distinction.

Emotionally, this was like noticing I was the only bald guy – little more than a curiosity. Maybe if I lived there, and did this every day, it would seem different? As it is, it reinforced something I’ve noticed ever since I started traveling: race relations in the South are much mellower than they are in the North.  Again, small sample size and all.

I stood for a woman who was standing, motioning for her to take my seat. Instead, she mumbled something about getting off soon and gestured to another woman, who took the seat. Totally normal interactions. But then, a few stops later, after the first downtown stops where many people got off, the seated woman got up to leave and made sure I sat back down, and said thanks. Again, perfectly normal stuff, but not what I’d expect in, say, Chicago or Boston. Atlanta? Seems perfectly normal.  YMMV.

(Pretty soon, I may start getting the Old Guy deferral, and have women insist I keep my seat. Hasn’t happened yet, whippersnappers!)

C. Now back home. Read Lyonesse – Spring 2017 (vol 1) on the planes, most of the way through Storyhack Issue 1 as well. And I read some other anthology/collection on my Kindle, but can’t remember which one (I’ve got a dozen or more on there…) Anyway, some reviews coming up.

Also reading Writing the Breakout Novel, which is proving inspiring. Maybe I’ll get back to more ‘serious’ writing than just this blog. It would help, maybe, if I at least kept the blog moving… Aaaand – Nichomachean Ethics. Because I had this thought, and wanted to know what Aristotle thought about it, dimly remembered it was addressed somewhere in Nichomachean Ethics, and – you know. Now I’ve forgotten why I started, but feel committed to the reread.

Kinda stopped reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, only because it is long and was becoming somewhat repetitive, and I suspect I should have read Livy first. Discovered that Livy’s Histories are very long (even though the surviving version is some small fraction of the complete work!). Sooo – maybe later? Got a fair pile of half read books at the moment. Didn’t used to do this – I’d either read it, or stop. No twilight zone of half-read I’ll finish this eventually books. AHHHHH! I want to retire and read and write. At least 3 years to go.

Book Review: Tithe to Tartarus

Highly recommended. Book 6 in John C. Wright’s 12 part Moth and Cobweb series, Tithe to Tartarus completes (for now, one hopes) the adventures of Yumiko Moth, AKA the Dark Avenger’s Sidekick, begun in  Book 4: Daughter of Danger and continue in Book 5: City of Corpses. A totally fun and uplifting series, suitable for kids of all ages yet plenty action-packed and deep enough for any adult as well. These are the books we need – heroism, high stakes, lovable and honorable characters, suitably villainous bad guys, yet with a theme of redemption offered again and again despite the evil done. Even the perpetrators of the most vile crimes can still turn from them, an eternal and eternally needed message!

Just as in the tales of Arthur upon which these stories are built and in many movies from the 30’s, Christianity is simply assumed. Nice, for a change. Whatever your beliefs, if you enjoyed le Mort d’Arthur and It’s a wonderful Life, I’d bet you’ll like Moth & Cobweb.

Through the first two books, Yumiko has struggled to discover who she is after awaking in a hospital bed with a near-complete loss of memory. The last thing she remembers is a dream or vision, in which a beautiful lady told her that her life was being given back to her, that all her previous vows were void, and that she needed to save the one she loved. She is also to relay a message to the elves and other twilight creatures she meets. She has somehow also acquired a magic ring.

By this the third book Yumiko has learned she is a ninja assassin with a sacred ghost-slaying bow and gadgets to put Batman to shame, as well as a magic super suit wherein to keep it all. She has found and lost a cousin and friend, a magical half-human fairy  Elfine captured by an elf knight, and learned that her beloved is to be sacrificed to Hell. She now knows her mother, a Grail matron, was murdered in the line of duty. An order of anarchists strive to overthrow all laws human, elfish and divine. She is the disowned former sidekick to a winged vigilante, who has told her to kill herself in dishonor (she refuses).  And everybody wants her magic ring, especially the anarchists.

So, in the next couple days, she hopes to free Elfine, save her beloved, avenge her mother all while keeping the Ring out of the wrong hands. She is aided more or less by the Last Crusade, which consists of a young Dominican friar Matthias, the Swan Knight Gilberec Moth and Ruff the Dog, everybody’s favorite pooka.  Gil wields a sword of blue flame that sets the blood of enemies afire, Matthias uses an exorcist’s tools and prayers as well as some hidden magic to defend against evil, and Ruff, as he repeatedly says, is a very smart dog. (Ruff is pretty much everybody’s favorite character. He is a Good Dog.)

Adventures ensue. There’s love, horror, heroism, magic, sword fights, and all manner of creatures eldritch and fell. I was sad to see it end, especially since the next book isn’t out yet! Noooo!

Get these books, read them, give them as presents to your friends.

Updates: Reading & Weekend

Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius by [Machiavelli, Niccolò]1. Am reading Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, about 25% through. This is a book Jefferson had in his library. Got to wonder: in the concrete sense of what structures and laws were enacted after the Revolution, most importantly the Constitution itself, is this book the most influential of all? Not Locke or Hume and that crowd, but the 16th century Italian patriot?

Consider:

I say, then, that all these six forms of government (monarchy, tyranny, aristocracy, oligarchy, democracy & anarchy – ed.) are pernicious—the three good kinds, from their brief duration the three bad, from their inherent badness. Wise legislators therefore, knowing these defects, and avoiding each of these forms in its simplicity, have made choice of a form which shares in the qualities of all the first three, and which they judge to be more stable and lasting than any of these separately. For where we have a monarchy, an aristocracy, and a democracy existing together in the same city, each of the three serves as a check upon the other.

 – CHAPTER II.—Of the various kinds of Government; and to which of them the Roman Commonwealth belonged.

Machiavelli is a fascinating guy. He points out that a new prince, having siezed the government, needs to destroy as much as possible all existing practices and institutions upon which people may resort in efforts to unseat him, going so far as to physically relocate people from their homes. Very The Prince, But then he says:

These indeed are most cruel expedients, contrary not merely to every Christian, but to every civilized rule of conduct, and such as every man should shun, choosing rather to lead a private life than to be a king on terms so hurtful to mankind. But he who will not keep to the fair path of virtue, must to maintain himself enter this path of evil. Men, however, not knowing how to be wholly good or wholly bad, choose for themselves certain middle ways, which of all others are the most pernicious, as shall be shown by an instance in the following Chapter.

– CHAPTER XXVI.—A new Prince in a City or Province of which he has taken Possession, ought to make Everything new.

The next chapter recounts tales of how even bad men flinch, and don’t do all the evil they should do were they without conscience and intent on ruling. This is the the kind of things that fuel the whole ‘Machiavelli is a patriot, and the Prince is a cautionary tale’ school of thought of which I am a member.

2. Ordered a couple more books that should get here early next week. I’m up to two stacks of books to read, one on the desk and another next to the bed,  that are approaching red tag status as they could kill somebody where they to collapse. OK, they could scare the heck out of the cat and cause a trip hazard – but it’s getting bad!

These two were on my wishlist from way back, saw them and said – I’ve got to read those! More education history stuff:

Designed to Fail: Catholic Education in America Don’t know who the author is, but I figure he’ll at least point me to source materials.

The blurb:

Catholic education in America seems to have degenerated over the last few decades into a morass of modern humanism and secularism. How did we get to this point? This book provides the answers. By tying the relevant Magisterial documents into American history, we see how Catholic education began in America, why it suddenly changed in the late 1800s, and how those changes essentially guaranteed the failures we see in the 21st century.

This lines up with the impression I was getting from my other readings – that Shields and the experimental psychologists at Catholic University made an end-run around the bishops, slipping modernism into the Catholic schools by controlling the texts books and training of teachers.

And: American writers on education before 1865  just because. 

3. Writing this post to avoid cleaning up for another Brick Oven Blowout!!! (read in an epic Sunday! Sunday! Sunday! voice). Yep, having 20+ people over for some pizza, steak and ciabatta. Also going to try roast chicken. Got 3.5 hours to clean and prep, more than enough, if  – and only if – I get up RIGHT NOW and do it. Yummy fun!

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Lord of the World and the Death of God

As so often happens, a philosophical confluence. In the course of my more or less random reading, came across two writes, a century apart and coming at the issue from different angles, who notice the same thing. First, in Robert Hugh Benson’s wonderful and multiple-Pope-recommended 1907 novel Lord of the World, the rising English politician Oliver Brand thinks through what would nowadays be called his worldview:

As he looked from his window and saw that vast limit of London laid peaceably before him, as his imagination ran out over Europe and saw everywhere that steady triumph of common sense and fact over the wild fairy-stories of Christianity, it seemed intolerable that there should be even a possibility that all this should be swept back again into the barbarous turmoil of sects and dogmas…. Even Catholicism would revive, he told himself, that strange faith that had blazed so often as persecution had been dashed to quench it; and, of all forms of faith, to Oliver’s mind Catholicism was the most grotesque and enslaving….  There was but one hope on the religious side, as he had told Mabel a dozen times, and that was that the Quietistic Pantheism which for the last century had made such giant strides in East and West alike, among Mohammedans, Buddhists, Hindus, Confucianists and the rest, should avail to check the supernatural frenzy that inspired their exoteric brethren. Pantheism, he understood, was what he held himself; for him “God” was the developing sum of created life, and impersonal Unity was the essence of His being; competition then was the great heresy that set men one against another and delayed all progress; for, to his mind, progress lay in the merging of the individual in the family, of the family in the commonwealth, of the commonwealth in the continent, and of the continent in the world. Finally, the world itself at any moment was no more than the mood of impersonal life. It was, in fact, the Catholic idea with the supernatural left out, a union of earthly fortunes, an abandonment of individualism on the one side, and of supernaturalism on the other. It was treason to appeal from God Immanent to God Transcendent; there was no God transcendent; God, so far as He could be known, was man.

Later, Brand reads in the paper an account of the brave new world being ushered in by one Julian Felsenburgh, a mysterious American who is being called the Savior of the World:

“It is understood now, by fanatic barbarians as well as by civilised nations, that the reign of War is ended. ‘Not peace but a sword,’ said CHRIST; and bitterly true have those words proved to be. ‘Not a sword but peace’ is the retort, articulate at last, from those who have renounced CHRIST’S claims or have never accepted them. The principle of love and union learned however falteringly in the West during the last century, has been taken up in the East as well. There shall be no more an appeal to arms, but to justice; no longer a crying after a God Who hides Himself, but to Man who has learned his own Divinity. The Supernatural is dead; rather, we know now that it never yet has been alive. What remains is to work out this new lesson, to bring every action, word and thought to the bar of Love and Justice; and this will be, no doubt, the task of years. Every code must be reversed; every barrier thrown down; party must unite with party, country with country, and continent with continent. There is no longer the fear of fear, the dread of the hereafter, or the paralysis of strife. Man has groaned long enough in the travails of birth; his blood has been poured out like water through his own foolishness; but at length he understands himself and is at peace.

“Let it be seen at least that England is not behind the nations in this work of reformation; let no national isolation, pride of race, or drunkenness of wealth hold her hands back from this enormous work. The responsibility is incalculable, but the victory certain. Let us go softly, humbled by the knowledge of our crimes in the past, confident in the hope of our achievements in the future, towards that reward which is in sight at last—the reward hidden so long by the selfishness of men, the darkness of religion, and the strife of tongues—the reward promised by one who knew not what he said and denied what he asserted—Blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, for they shall inherit the earth, be named the children of God, and find mercy.”

and Brand’s young wife Mabel,  trying to convince her dying mother in law to abandon Catholicism:

“Mother,” said the girl, “let me tell you again. Do you not understand that all which Jesus Christ promised has come true, though in another way? The reign of God has really begun; but we know now who God is. You said just now you wanted the Forgiveness of Sins; well, you have that; we all have it, because there is no such thing as sin. There is only Crime. And then Communion. You used to believe that that made you a partaker of God; well, we are all partakers of God, because we are human beings. Don’t you see that Christianity is only one way of saying all that? I dare say it was the only way, for a time; but that is all over now. Oh! and how much better this is! It is true—true. You can see it to be true!”

She paused a moment, forcing herself to look at that piteous old face, the flushed wrinkled cheeks, the writhing knotted hands on the coverlet.

“Look how Christianity has failed—how it has divided people; think of all the cruelties—the Inquisition, the Religious Wars; the separations between husband and wife and parents and children—the disobedience to the State, the treasons. Oh! you cannot believe that these were right. What kind of a God would that be! And then Hell; how could you ever have believed in that?… Oh! mother, don’t believe anything so frightful…. Don’t you understand that that God has gone—that He never existed at all—that it was all a hideous nightmare; and that now we all know at last what the truth is…. Mother! think of what happened last night—how He came—the Man of whom you were so frightened. I told you what He was like—so quiet and strong—how every one was silent—of the—the extraordinary atmosphere, and how six millions of people saw Him. And think what He has done—how He has healed all the old wounds—how the whole world is at peace at last—and of what is going to happen. Oh! mother, give up those horrible old lies; give them up; be brave.”

Written in 1907.

Next, came across the Death of  God Fifty Years On by Matthew Rose at First Things, published a year ago. In 1966, Time magazine’s cover story was entitled “Is God Dead?” This article, what we would now call click bait, created a furor. For youngsters, way back then people took magazines like Time seriously as not only purveyors of “news” but as important social and cultural barometers. Weird, huh?

Rose’s essay is very hard to excerpt, as it spins together, from paragraph to paragraph, many sources and writers to paint its picture. What follows gives some of the flavor, but it’s well worth reading the entire essay:

Altizer was taken with Nietzsche’s idea that Christianity generated its own fatal undermining. But he challenged ­Nietzsche on a critical point: It was not Christians who murdered God, but God who abolished himself. Altizer arrived at this conclusion through a controversial reading of other theologians. Among them was Karl Barth, who according to Altizer had initiated the Death of God movement. (Alasdair MacIntyre made a similar reading of the Swiss theologian in 1967.)

A central thesis of Barth’s theology is that God’s nature is bound up with his revelation in salvation history. Since we cannot know God apart from his self-revelation, argued Barth, we have true ­knowledge of the divine only through Jesus Christ. Altizer translated this claim about knowledge into a metaphysical thesis. He stipulated that God has no being apart from the historical person of Jesus. This allowed Altizer to say, with quite shocking matter-of-factness, that God is dead because he died in history, on the cross. God is incarnate in Jesus—and he dies in Jesus. “The radical Christian,” Altizer wrote in his 1966 manifesto The Gospel of Christian Atheism, “proclaims that God has actually died in Christ, that this death is both a historical and cosmic event.”

From the perspective of classical Christian ­theology, Altizer’s views can only appear nonsensical, but his understanding of God differed in fundamental ways from that tradition. Its roots were in the nineteenth-century philosopher G. W. F. Hegel, who interpreted history as the progressive realization of human freedom. Hegel’s main idea was that contradiction—or more precisely, the overcoming of contradiction—is the law of life.

His Phenomenology of Spirit told the speculative story of how human beings attain free ­self-consciousness through conflict that always leads to a higher resolution. In this history, he claimed, we learn to see historical conceptions of God as symbolic representations of the human drama of cultural ­development.

Hegel was deeply entangled with Christian theology and saw himself as preserving the spirit of Christianity rather than overturning it. He maintained, with perfect sincerity and considerable ingenuity, that his philosophy advanced a rational articulation of the teachings of the Bible. There are many twists and turns to Hegel’s philosophical re-narration of the scriptural story, but its most important claim is that God entered history in order to abolish his separation from it. History’s meaning and purpose are no longer “above,” but instead operate within the ongoing flow of human affairs. God’s coming into the world in Christ represents, symbolically, man’s coming-to-himself as the rational author of his own destiny.

The essay concludes by remarking that, while the theology of the death of God has had little academic traction, as a reflection of what was going on in the culture, however inarticulately, it was dead on.

Benson might have agreed.

Finally, how does this sort of thing metastasize across a culture? Benson gives a clue earlier in his novel. Mabel and her mother in law went to hear Oliver deliver a speech. The people gathered began to sing:

There was no doubt that these Londoners could sing. It was as if a giant voice hummed the sonorous melody, rising to enthusiasm till the music of massed bands followed it as a flag follows a flag-stick. The hymn was one composed ten years before, and all England was familiar with it. Old Mrs. Bland lifted the printed paper mechanically to her eyes, and saw the words that she knew so well:

The Lord that dwells in earth and sea.” …

She glanced down the verses, that from the Humanitarian point of view had been composed with both skill and ardour. They had a religious ring; the unintelligent Christian could sing them without a qualm; yet their sense was plain enough—the old human creed that man was all. Even Christ’s, words themselves were quoted. The kingdom of God, it was said, lay within the human heart, and the greatest of all graces was Charity.

Weekend Update: Pizza and Luther

Hectic. Intense. Ready for a break.

But found time for some fun! On Saturday, we had a couple religious sisters over for dinner and the night (they sell books at Catholic events, were over in the East Bay from their house on the Peninsula, had some more gigs lined up in the Concord area for Sunday morning early, and didn’t want to do the drive home late, drive back early thing – if you’ve driven around here, you will be sympathetic). Took the occasion to do more wood-fired brick oven pizza! Woohoo!

One thing the interwebs in their inscrutable majesty tell us is that every brick oven is different, and one must just keep using it to learn how your particular one works. Seems ours is on the large size for a pizza oven, because I also anticipated baking bread in it, and so made it large – it’s maybe half way between a pizza oven and a smallish bread oven, size-wise. This means that heat time is longer – took about 2 hours to get the floor up to 800F, a proper temperature for Neapolitan-style pizzas.  Even then, could probably have used another 1/2 hour to really load enough heat in the 1/2 ton or so of bricks, mortar and concrete that make up the oven, to do more than a few pizzas.

But it worked! Ended up making 4 pizzas, two strictly traditional – simple flour, yeast, salt & water crusts, crushed fresh tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella, fresh basil leaves, and a dribble of olive oil – and two with a little more adventure to them.

At 800F, takes 2 minutes or less to cook a thin pizza. We didn’t quite make it – it cooled to a bit over 700F by the time the pies hit the bricks – so it took 3-4 minutes (That’s why I think we need that additional 30 minutes of heating).

How do I know the temps? This:

Fancy-dan laser infrared thermometer gun! My son and I were taking the temperatures of anything and anyone who wandered into rang. Just don’t shoot them in the eyes! Fun gadget – always impressed by how technology works it way down, so that I have a very sophisticated computer masquerading as a phone in my pocket – with satellite GPS uplinks and access to the WWW.  And it’s just a phone no better than that owned by hundreds of millions of people. Here, we have laser and infrared technology combined into a little plastic gadget that can measure temperature up to maybe 16′ away – for under $30, price of a medium fancy lunch.

Amazing. Life can be fun, if you let it.

Rereading Lord of the World. It stands up to and might even require rereading.

Next up, while shopping for pizza ingredients, got a call from my daughter at Thomas More College where the juniors are now reading Luther.

She was exasperated – people fell for this? Luther is completely unconvincing and is borderline incoherent much of the time!

She said that she at least expected him to be a smart guy, making somewhat sophisticated arguments. She, like her father and mother before her, had been recently reading the likes of Augustine and Thomas right before running into Luther, and so had developed a very high standard for rational argument. It’s hard, in that context, to see Luther’s arguments as much more than the logical equivalent of a monkey flinging poo: you don’t like the Church – we get it. Anyone who disagrees with you is evil or stupid or both – right. Your arguments, such as they are and no matter how they torture understanding and context, are the simple and pure light of the Spirit shining through – gotcha.

So she called me to vent. She’d gotten to the reading – Christian Liberty – before her roommates, and had ranted to the empty dorm room – oh, come on! – then had the experience of hearing her roommates do the same when they got to the reading. And of course she’d grown up hearing me rant about how idiotic and vile Luther’s actual words are, as opposed to what people imagine them to be in that weird space he seems to occupy in Protestant mythology.

The hard part: realizing that the followers are sincere. Educated Catholic reactions to Luther’s arguments and claims have, from the very first, been something like: that’s utterly ridiculous! You have to cherry-pick and torture Scripture to get it to say that! You ignore all context, gloss over all history, dance around basic logical question – and then call your opponents names when they point it out! What a knucklehead!

Yet – yet – those who speak of his fiery style and manly vigor, who see him as this saint who lead the world back to real Christianity, truly do not see the ridiculousness of his arguments and claims. Educated Catholics have a very hard time arguing calmly in such an environment, where each page, each paragraph, presents another absurdity, overreach and attack on opponents.

But we must. I read an essay once by prominent Protestant theologian saying he had a hard time letting go of the beauty of the basic Protestant view of Christian life, and saw it as perfectly viable and comparable to the Catholic view – a matter of taste, as it were.

Wow. Just – wow. But he is an exception – in general, admirers of Luther follow Luther’s own example when reading Scripture when they read Luther – vast amounts of authority and value are given to certain selected passages, while the bulk of Luther’s writings are explained away or simply ignored in light of those cherry-picked passages.

So: I’m going to redouble my efforts to by sympathetic to Lutherans and their Protestant brethren who take Luther seriously enough to have read some of him. I’ll try to listen, and hear where they’re coming from. THEN I’ll start quoting Luther back to them! BUWAHAHA!

No, wait – I’ll be even more patient. I’ll try to plant one little seed – and then shut up, and leave it to God. Because, frankly, this is hard.

Then there’s the rank and file – people who have read little or no Luther, and so imagine him, based on reputation alone, to be sweetness and light itself. They, like the bulk of Lutherans since before Luther’s body was even cold in the grave, more or less ignore most of what he said without even being aware of it. His Bondage of the Will teaches a predestination that is every bit as extreme  as Calvin’s – yet Lutherans don’t typically talk like Calvinists in this regard. For example.

In one of those odd confluences so typical of Real Life(tm), on Catholic Radio this morning was an interview with a bunch of converts from Lutheranism and Protestantism in general who are recently back from taking a tour of Germany to visit the various sites associated with Luther. Needless to say, they were not your typical such tourists. As converts from the mish-mash fathered by Luther, they were much more prepared than I would have been to engage – and they, by the accounts they gave, were at least as brutal as I would have been.

One point one the guys made to a tour guide at a Luther museum: 60% of the people of Germany claim to be irreligious. Well? If Luther were such a positive religious influence, why have the sheep so relentlessly fled the fold, rejecting any fold? When the guide answered that it was Communism, he replied that Poland, right next door, suffered at least as much as Germany did under the Communists – yet, united in their Catholic faith, they remain a strongly religious people. Strong enough to lead the way throwing out the Reds.

So, there is that. I, on the other hand, have to reign in my tongue. Fortunately, I suppose, have not had occasion to discuss Luther with any of his admirers for a number of years now.