Archive for July, 2009

Here, in discussing the rise (and fading) of pro-live activism in America. Leithart hits on a key point. Abortion is very firmly entrenched in America’s institutions and in the morality of it’s people.

Operation Rescue launched a prophetic appeal that was ignored; the rescues made it perfectly clear that the entire system defends abortion – police, courts, the Justice Department, and not just a slight majority of the Supreme Court.  Through the protests, America was confronted with its systematic evils, and yawned.  That does not leave one sanguine about the future prospects of the American system.

-Peter Leithart, Blog post on 7/28/09

It’s not like a lucky draw for the supreme court would magically reverse everything and redeem us. The foundation for it in egalitarianism and the across-the-board acceptance of sexual promiscuity for the past 50 years means that child sacrifice has dropped it’s anchor deep. Heaving the anchor back up will likely take several generations of reform (starting in the church), not just a change of tide in politicians.

Taliesan posted some excellent notes the other day. Among them:

“Eternal perspective” as used in evangelical preaching, usually amounts to docetism.

“Only what is done for Christ will last”, and so on. The implication — intended or not, people imbibe it — is that only the ghostly souls of men will pass into the next age; spend as little work as possible on things like art, engineering, plumbing. Hay and straw, to be burned up on the last day.

This is a classic, pervasive piece of Christian folklore. I could point to hundreds of sermons and books that drive this home.

Don’t Waste Your Life by John Piper is a good example.

In college, the youth group I was part of was required to read Called to Greatness by Ron Hutchcraft.

Lots of good stuff in both these books, but the underlying communication is plain as day: Those not involved in full-time religious service ministry are losers.

Losers at worst, 2nd class Christians at best. Are you an accountant? Well, all that work you are doing is going to burn. BURN man. What a waste of time. Why aren’t you on the mission field in Sudan saving people’s souls? Why, huh? Heh, excuses excuses.

Seminaries use this sort of thing as a primary form of recruiting, luring young men (along with their wives and young children) away from their careers to go deep into debt studying their brains out for 3 years while their family falls apart. For what? To go be a pastor, where his life’s work will FINALLY mean something.

The proponents of this are, of course, all ministry professionals themselves. Since they already work for a church (or make their living writing Christian books or speaking at Christian conferences), then they are exempt from their own exhortations. They’ve got it covered. Do you?

Now, nearly every book or sermon promoting this idea will have qualifications. “Of course, God does call some people to worldly-looking professions”. It’s probably a good thing that Louis Pasteur stayed in his lab and didn’t try to be a preacher. George Washington, yeah, OK. Some of these guys get a pass because it’s so obvious God called them to something (else) really great and important. But you? You work in real estate development and last month you spent a lot of money taking your family skiing. Hay and straw! You suck.

As Taliesan points out, this boils down to Platonism: Only your soul survives. The physical world is evil.

Now SOME people really get this. Even some of the people preaching this stuff actually get it. The message often gets lost though.

I think I could write a long thought-out essay on this with lots of quotes, biblical references, etc. I don’t have time for that this morning though… got to go write a database abstraction layer. I hope I’m doing it for Jesus. 🙂

In her chapter titled “Maker of Ill Things”, Sayers tackles the tricky question of where evil comes from. Focusing on her angle of “God as Creator” she gets right past dualism and get’s straight to the fact that God DID create evil and even the person of the devil (because he created everything). However, she takes the angle of “evil has no reality except in relation to his[God’s] good”. This is just an a little scrap of it here, but I think she does a pretty good job of explaining this position without getting knee-deep in philosophical jargon.

…we may make an attempt to tackle the definition of Evil as the deprivation or the negation of the Good. If Evil belongs to the category of Not-Being, then two things follow. First: the reality of Evil is contingent upon the reality of Good; and secondly, the Good, by merely occurring, automatically and inevitably creates its corresponding Evil. In this sense, therefore, God, Creator of all things, creates Evil as well as Good, because the creation of a category of Good necessarily creates a category of Not-Good. From this point of view, those who say that God is “beyond Good and Evil” are perfectly right: He transcends both, because both are included within His Being. But the Evil has no reality except in relation to His Good; and this is what is meant by saying that Evil is negation or deprivation of Good.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Ch.7

I’m not quite sure if I find this concept completely convincing or not. It seems like a non-answer to some of the deepest questions about evil. I guess it’s OK though. You could do a lot worse. I like better her version of the conversation between Faust and the devil:

FAUSTUS: Who made thee?
MEPHISTOPHELES:God, as the light makes the shadow.
FAUSTUS: Is God, then, evil?
MEPHISTOPHELES: God is only light,
And in the heart of the light no shadow standeth,
Nor can I dwell within the light of heaven
Where God is all.
FAUSTUS:What art thou, Mephistopheles?
MEPHISTOPHELES: I am the price that all things pay for being,
The shadow on the world, thrown by the world
Standing in its own light, which light God is.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Devil to Pay

Sayers, who also wrote a long essay entitled “The Lost Tools of Learning” was always interested in education. This passage here is very relevant to our current age when a quick glance at Wikipedia can tell you just about anything you desire to know.

The second suggestion [of progress] is that, once an invention has been brought into being and made public by a creative act, the whole level of human understanding is raised to the level of that inventiveness. This is not true, even within its own sphere of application. The fact that every schoolboy can now use logarithms does not lift him to the intellectual level of the brain that first imagined the method of logarithmic calculation.

The absurdity of the suggestion becomes glaringly obvious when we consider the arts. If a ruthless education in Shakespeare’s language could produce a nation of Shakespeares, every Englishman would at this moment be a dramatic genius. Actually, all that such an education can possibly do is to improve a little the general apparatus of linguistic machinery and so make the way smooth for the appearance of the still rare, still incalculable genius. Genius is, in fact, not subject to the “law” of progress, and it is beginning to be extremely doubtful whether progress is a “law” at all.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Ch.3

We still have the task of teaching our children the fundamentals of HOW to think. Lots of raw knowledge, even advanced and useful knowledge, will be of little use in their hands otherwise.

My wife and I went to a performance’s of Mozart’s d minor Requiem last night. It was superb. Afterwards, she wrote a great post on text painting in music. Check it out.

If our lives our part of a cosmic stage play:

There is one episode in particular to which Christianity draws his attention. The leading part in this was played, it is alleged, by the Author, who presents it as a brief epitome of the plan of the whole work. If we ask, “What kind of play is this that we are acting?” the answer put forward is: “Well, it is this kind of play.” And examining the plot of it, we observe at once that if anybody in this play has his feelings spared, it is certainly not the Author.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Ch.9

On the difference between fantasy and imagination and what young children should read (and even write):

Creative Imagination is thus the foe and antidote to fantasy -a truth recognised by psychologists in practice, but frequently obscured in their writings by a muddled use of the two terms as though they were interchangeable. Evidence of a habit of fantasy in a child is no proof of creative impulse: on the contrary. The child who relates his fantasied adventures as though they were fact is about as far removed from creativeness as he can possibly be; these dreamy little liars grow up (if into nothing worse) into the feeble little half-baked poets who are the irritation and despair of the true makers. The child who is creative tells himself stories, as they do, but objectively; these usually centre about some hero of tale or history, and are never confused in his mind with the ordinary day-dreams in which he sees himself riding rough-shod over the grown-ups or rescuing beloved prefects from burning buildings. Even if he does dramatise himself, and make “the bard the hero of the story”, this is pure dramatisation, and can be carried on parallel with his consciousness of real life, without ever at any point meeting it.

It is not that the one kind of fancy develops into the other; they are completely and consciously independent. Accordingly, the first literary efforts of the genuinely creative commonly deal, in a highly imitative manner, with subjects of which the infant author knows absolutely nothing, such as piracy, submarines, snake-infested swamps, or the love-affairs of romantic noblemen. The well – meant exhortations of parents and teachers to “write about something you really know about” should be (and will be) firmly ignored by the young creator as yet another instance of the hopeless stupidity of the adult mind. Later in life, and with increased practice in creation, the drive outward becomes so strong that the writer’s whole personal experience can be seen by him objectively as the material for his work.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Ch.9

The topic of children’s reading material was discussed over at Internet Monk a few days ago. I think this could shed some light on that discussion. This is why young adult literature about drug addiction sucks. It’s better to read about pirates.

On what makes a poem or other piece of writing interesting:

But what is. important, and not always understood in these days, is that a reminiscent passage of this kind is intended to recall to the reader all the associated passages, and so put him in touch with the sources of power behind and beyond the writer. The demand for “originality”-with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work-is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed. This view is adopted, and perhaps carried to excess, by writers like T. S. Eliot, some of whose poems are a close web of quotations and adaptations, chosen for their associative value, or like James Joyce, who makes great use of the associative value of sounds and syllables. The criterion is, not whether the associations are called up, but whether the spirits invoked by this kind of verbal incantation are charged with personal power by the magician who speeds them about their new business.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Ch.8

OK, so when you see something amazing are you “astonished”? “wowed”? Did your “jaw drop”? They all mean the same thing right? Or close at least. Well, no, if I’ve learned anything from reading Owen Barfield, it’s how much history is packed into a word. And YOU are aware of that history, even at a subconsious level sometimes. This is the sort of thing that can make the difference between good and bad poetry (and prose too), but it’s hard to put your finger on half the time.

Here, while mentioning the made-up words that James Joyce often employed, Sayer’s give a nice illustration of this:

The [James Joyce] apologist continues: “Some of Joyce’s neologisms need no elucidation. . . . A word like “thonthorstrok” carries more literary suggestions, combining as it does the idea of thunderbolt, stroke of lightning and Thor, the Hammerer, the Norse God of thunder.”

Well, so it does: but no more than the word “thunderstroke” carries in itself, and in fact considerably less, since the neologism limits the associations to those to which its eccentricity draws conscious attention, whereas “thunderstroke” calls up to the subliminal memory not only the associations “thunder”, “lightning”, and “Thor”, but also every verbal and visual image accrued to it through many centuries, from Jupiter Tonans to the cannon in the Valley of Death, from Job and the Psalms to the, two Boanerges and the apocalyptic thunderings that proceeded out of the Throne. In the intellectual pastime of dissecting out “thonthorstrok” we become actively alert and thus impervious to subconscious suggestion; so that in our astonishment we are scarcely even receptive to our own kinship with Robinson Crusoe, who, beholding a like unprecedented phenomenon, “stood like one thunderstruck, or as if I had seen an apparition”.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Ch.10

Interesting. In light of that, I don’t know if I’ve ever been “thunderstruck” by anything.

I’m curious if I can try to dig up some associations from the words I mentioned at the beginning of this post:

Wowed – calls to mind the actual verbal “wow” sound. Also, a sense of looking up, like at fireworks, or down at something big, like the Grand Canyon.

Astonished – this word is more cerebral. The thing that has grabbed your attention has done so not because it is just big or bright, but actually makes your brain work a lot with no conclusions. When Kobe Briant makes a slick slam dunk, you may be wowed, but not astonished. When that high-schooler does the same thing, THEN your astonished. When your neighbor’s dog does it, then your thunderstruck.

When you listen to ACDC, your thunderstruck. Either that, or your bored.

OK. This is getting way off topic. Goodnight!

…the words “problem” and “solution” as commonly used, belong to the analytic approach to phenomena, and not to the creative. Though it has become a commonplace of platform rhetoric that we can only “solve our problems” by dealing with them “in a creative way”, those phrases betray, either that the speaker has repeated a popular cliche without bothering to think what it means, or that he is quite ignorant of the nature of creativeness.

-Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker, Ch.11

And a lot more. Bear with me here:

Yet the common man, obsessed by the practice of a mathematical and scientific period, is nevertheless obscurely aware that that enigmatic figure, the creative artist, possesses some power of interpretation which he has not, some access to the hidden things behind that baffling curtain of phenomena which he cannot penetrate. Sometimes he merely resents this, as men do often resent an inexplicable and incommunicable superiority. Sometimes he dismisses it: “He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass.” But at other times-especially when the disharmonies of contemporary existence force themselves on his attention with an urgency that cannot be ignored, he will lay hold of the artist and demand to be let into his secret. “Here, you!” he will cry, “you have some trick, some pass-word, some magic formula that unlocks the puzzle of the universe. Apply it for us. Give us the solution to the problems of civilisation.”

This, though excusable, is scarcely fair, since the artist does not see life as a problem to be solved, but as a medium for creation. He is asked to settle the common man’s affairs for him; but he is well aware that creation settles nothing. The thing that is settled is finished and dead, and his concern is not with death but with life: “that ye may have life and have it more abundantly”. True, the artist can, out of his own experience, tell the common man a great deal about the fulfilment of man’s nature in living; but he can only produce the most unsatisfactory kind of reply if he is persistently asked the wrong question. And, as I have (perhaps somewhat heatedly) maintained in my preface, an incapacity for asking the right question has grown, in our time and country, to the proportions of an endemic disease.

Yes yes yes. This really gets to the heart of what art is really about (and what it’s not about). This also deep into the root of why people who only ask propositions and demand propositional answers don’t get it, especially when it comes to describing God. Here is why when fundamentalists produce art, it sucks so bad. Those who demand that a song be about something very specific and ONLY about that thing are the worst of audiences (and songwriters).

Yes, the unstable artist, the dreamer, is a threat to orthodoxy, but without him, you have no hope of achieving a robust orthodoxy. You hear that? None whatsoever.