Archive for March, 2012

From 1994, this is another one I encountered at about age 13. I poured over this one so many times! I remember how thrilling the ideas introduced where: Using trigonometry to rotate x,y,z points in 3D space, bit-shifting and Assembly code to improve the performance of your ray-casting engine, simple AI path-finding methods. Wow, so much good stuff, even if I didn’t understand what half of it meant. It didn’t matter that I was just writing little puzzle games in VB6 on Windows 3.1 at the time and couldn’t actually put any included C snippets directly to use.

This book inspired so many afternoon projects and daydreams. It was fascinating to get under the hood of some of my favorite games at the time and realize that this was all stuff *I* could do. My friend Pat (who was always much brighter than I) lent this one to me. I’m sure I kept it far too long before giving it back. Nowadays, there are a hundred modern books like this, probably with example code that actually works, but back in the early nineties, there weren’t many.

The other day, I was thinking back to what books I read as a child that were the most formative. It seems at times that I must not have read much of anything at all – there are so many gaping holes in my education. If I’m honest though, there are a couple of instances that stand out. It’s a good vehicle to briefly jot down a few memories.

Frank Peretti often gets a bad rap for his depiction of demons in the “This Present Darkness” novels. Having met him and heard him speak though, I must say that the man himself is much more interesting than some of his fans.

The major theme of Prophet is not unlike Fahrenheit 413 or 1984 – the spinning of media and suppression of information to control the public. Peretti’s description of how the opening music sequence for the nightly news struck is perfect: Duhduh Duhduh Duhduh… News is happening, happening, happening! Reading the book didn’t make me paranoid, but I can’t help but say that I never took what I heard on the news or read in the paper quite as seriously again. When you see how the sausage is made, you don’t easily forget.

I also enjoyed how Peretti introduced only one small supernatural element into his novel, and only near the very end. It gives you the shivers that much more when the previous 250 pages were all as straight as any procedural crime drama.

I think I was about twelve years old when I read this. The fact that part of the story centers around a bloody botched abortion was certainly a more serious theme than I had encountered before. It’s better to “grow up” by experiencing some of these things at a distance than being tossed into the heavier and more sorrowful things of life first hand before adulthood.

Seeing a girl of about fourteen reading this the other day and is what brought this one to mind.

Here in the introduction to his annotated edition of Aquinas’ Summa, Peter Kreeft the current state of intellectual discourse as one of the great “unsolved mysteries”.

If our question is vaguely or confusedly formulated, our answer will be too. If we do not consider opposing views, we spar without a partner and paw the air. If we do not do our homework, we only skim the shallows of our selves. If we do not prove our thesis, we are dogmatic, not critical. And if we do no understand and refute our opponents, we are left with nagging uncertainty that we have missed something and not really ended the contest.

Like Socratic dialogue for Plato, this medieval method of philosophizing was very fruitful in its own day – and then subsequently neglected, especially in our day. That is one of the unsolved mysteries of Western thought. Surely both the Socratic and the Thomistic methodological trees can still bear much good fruit. Perhaps what stands in the way is our craze for originality and our proud refusal to be anyone’s apprentice. I for one would be very happy to be Aquinas’ apprentice, or [even!] Socrates’.

-p.18

This could be elaborated upon, but I think his quick theory at the end is largely spot-on.

“A single book is a unit, like a work of art.”

Peter Kreeft mentions this in his introduction to Aquinas’ Summa. I can’t help but feel exactly the same way about books and music. There is something terribly insufficient about a hit single. The same is true for “best of” books and abridged collections. I mistakenly bought a heavily edited topical volume on Augustine. It’s proven to be almost entirely useless. I’ve fallen in love with albums, but rarely with songs. A single song may be a pretty face, but it needs a skeleton underneath it, to hold it aloft. In my mind, the studio album is still THE artistic unit of recorded music.

Why still so much interest in vinyl, in an age of iTunes? It’s not the thick sound quality or the retro street-cred, though those things certainly play a part. At the end of the day, I believe the real reason that listening to a whole album at a time is still the very best way to experience music. The most energy is transferred from the creator to the listener. I’ve long been a fan of the concept album. “Best of” collections are typically unsatisfying – the ideas just aren’t connected, only their distant popularity. Forget playlists – take an album and drive it into the ground.

For classical composers, (most of them working before the invention of recordings) the large-scale work or song cycle is the olde-world equivalent. The 5th symphony should be listened to in it’s entirety. Playing only the famous first movement turns it into the latest radio-ready dance hit. Would Beethoven do anything less than tear his long hair out if he knew that his masterpiece, the 9th, was nearly only ever played in sound-bite format – about a minute’s worth of the finale?

Oddly enough, this is also why techno seems so thin when it goes mainstream. A long – say 20 minute – trance mix is meant to be experienced over time. Encapsulating the highlights and running the melody through just a few iterations loses the bulk of what makes the music so entrancing in the first place. “Um, this just sounds like a drum machine and some lady singing nonsense for 3 minutes.” Why yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like if you don’t hear the entire album. It is designed, from the beginning to be a LONG experience. In fact, the medium demands that it be to have a significant effect. Pear it down and it just become cute.

Can you imagine watching feature-length movie, say The Godfather, and only seeing a highlight reel of Marlon Brando’s one-liners along with a few shots of guys getting shot up by Tommy-guns. Is that what the film is really about? Is that why it’s a classic? Of course not. You have to watch the whole thing, including the 15-minute wedding intro that contains almost no dialogue.

Why train your children in classical music? I don’t believe its status as high-brow art makes it superior musically or culturally. Perhaps the most valuable thing to discover (the younger the better) is to learn to love LONG things. Love, marriage, raising children, and (to some degree) building a house or a business – these are looooooooooooooong things. They “contend with time” as Kierkegaard says. How can one develop the patience to discover all the things that are enjoyable about them? Not by soaking yourself in sound-bites and ring-tone length creations. If you can’t stand Bach, go listen to some long progressive rock epics (although you’ll find these are often full of Bach too). The length is absolutely essential to it’s being. At the same time, it can’t be TOO long. A book. An album. A sculpted figure. A complete visual scene. These are the most effective and satisfying units of art.

I haven’t touched a novel in a very long time, but this past week I read through Captain Alatriste by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Nothing too fantastic about it, but it was enjoyable. I noted a few places where I enjoyed his descriptions of 17th century Spain:

Here, the young narrator, Inigo, describes how the captain gave him a dagger after Inigo saved his life from an ambush the previous night.

The next day, I found a fine dagger on my pillow, recently purchased on Calle de los Espaderos: damascened handle, steel cross-guard, and along, finely tempered blade, slim and double-edged. It was one of those daggers our grandfathers called a misericordia, for it was used to put caballeros fallen in battle out of their misery. That was the first weapon I ever possessed, and I kept it, with great fondness, for twenty years, until one day in Rocroi I had to leave it buried between the fastenings of a Frenchman’s corselet. Which is actually not a bad end for a fine dagger like that one.

-Arturo Perez-Reverte, Captain Alatriste, p.172

Ah, those were the days when a young man of thirteen could be sent into the city from the countryside to be an apprentice. Is what we do now tremendously better?

I well remember – and I believe this happened during the festival of the bulls honoring the Prince of Wales, or perhaps a later one – that one of the beasts was so fierce that it could not be hamstrung or slowed. No one – not even the Spanish, Burgundian, and German guards ornamenting the plaza – dared go near it. Then, from the balcony of the Casa de la Panaderia, our good King Philip, calm as you please, asked on of the guards for his harquebus. Without losing a whit of royal composure or making any grandiose gestures, he casually took the gun, went down to the plaza, threw his cape over his shoulder, confidently requested his hat, and aimed so true that lifting the weapon, firing it, and dropping the bull were all one and the same motion.

The public exploded in applause and cheers, and for months the feat was celebrated in both prose and verse. Calderon, Hurtado de Mendoza, Alarcon, Velez de Guevara, Rojas, Saavedra Fajardo, and don Francisco de Quevedo himself – everyone at court capable of dipping a quill into and inkwell – invoked the Muses to immortalize the act and adulate the monarch, comparing him now with Jupiter sending down his bolt of lightning, now with Theseus slaying the bull at Marathon.

I tell these thing that Your mercies may see what Spain is, and what we Spaniards are like, how our good and gentle people have always been abused, and how easy, because of our generous impulses, it is to win us over, and push us to the brink of the abyss out of meanness or incompetence, when we have always deserved better. Had Philip IV commanded the glorious tercios of old, had he retaken Holland, conquered Louis XIII of France and his minister Richelieu, cleared the Atlantic of pirates and the Mediterranean of Turks, invaded England and raised the cross of Saint Andrew at the Tower of London and before the Sublime Porte, he could not have awakened as much enthusiasm among his subjects as he did with his elan in killing the bull.

p.176

Can you imagine President Obama winning acclaim for his prowess with a rifle during a public sport? Neither can I. The kings of old had their terrible shortcomings, to be sure, but there were times when they still had some class. Nowadays, politics has reduced men to a bad-joke caricatures of themselves.

 

At this point, I don’t think I want to put the effort in to process and comment extensively on Girard’s The Scapegoat. I actually had more trouble with it than his previous works and I think it is due to the rather stilted translation from the French this time around. Still, the book is an important contribution as he spends several chapters elaborating on certain aspects of mimetic theory that don’t get thorough attention in his other works.

I’ve posted a few of my favorite passages below, with a few notes. Most of these need more context to make sense.

Persecutors always believe in the excellence of their cause, but in reality they hate without a cause. The absence of cause in the accusation (ad causam) is never seen by the persecutors. It is this illusion that must first be addressed if we are to release all the unfortunate from their invisible prison, from the dark underground in which they are stagnating but which they regard as the most magnificent of palaces.

-Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p.103

That really punches some holes in “just war theory” if you ask me.

On our astounding hesitancy to discuss or investigate the atrocities of Stalin, which were far worse than the Holocaust:

How can we be surprised that they have waited fifty years or more before making discreet inquiries into the greatest persecutions in human history. Mythology is the very best school in the training of silence. [That is, covering up what really happened.] We never hesitate between the Bible and mythology. We are classicists first, romantics second, and primitives when necessary, modernists with a fury, neoprimitives when we are disgusted with modernism, gnostics always, but biblical never.

The causality of magic is one with mythology, so the importantce of its denial cannot be exaggerated. The Gospels are certainly aware of this since the denial is repeated at every possible opportunity. they even put it in the mouth of Pilate, who says, after interrogating Jesus, “I find no case against this man.” (“Je ne vois pas de cause.”) Pilate has not yet been influenced by the crowd, and the judge in him, the incarnation of Roman law of legal rationality, acknowledges the facts in a brief but significant moment.

-p.105

For just a sec there, Pilate was not caught up in the contagion, the Satanic crowd of collective violence. He saw that Jesus was innocent. But then he was swept away. Today, we need to listen to the holy spirit and not be swept away in violence and shunning.

The magician of mythologies and religions has a very good audience in our structuralists.

-p.73

Girard here is saying that structural analysis of literature is vulnerable to deception by the devil. Yes, he really says stuff like that. I think Lewis might agree!

There is…a history of mythology. Mythology eliminates collective murder but does not reinvent it, because all evidence indicates it was not invented in the first place. Collective violence persists but is declared evil akin to cannibalism… violence is attributes to an older mythological generation and to a religious system now seen to be “barbarous” and “primitive.”

-p.74

In this passage and others, Girard has some very interesting commentary on how we tend to amplify the sins of our fathers and ancestors, while downplaying our own, even though they are exactly the same sins.

The essential factor in the Gospel use of parable is Jesus’ willingness to be imprisoned within the representation of persecution from the persecutors’ standpoint, and to do so for the sake of his listeners who cannot understand any other viewpoint, since they are prisoners of it themselves. Jesus uses the resources of the system in such a way as to warn people of what awaits them in the only language they understand.

-p.186

More here on the usual way society fails to stayed glued together:

“Every kingdom divided against itself is heading for ruin, and every city or house, divided against itself”. The repetition of “every” emphasizes the impression of symmetry among all the forms of community mentioned here. The text enumerates all the human societies, from the greatest to the smallest, the kingdom, the city, the house. For reasons that at first elude us, care is taken not to omit any category, and the repetition of every underlines that intention even more, although its importance is not apparent, immediately. This is not fortuitous or an accident of style that has no relation to the meaning. There is a second meaning that cannot escape us.

The text is, in fact, insisting that all kingdoms, all cities, and all houses are divided against themselves. In other words all human communities without exception are based on the one principle, both constructive and destructing, that is found in the second sentence; these are all examples of the kingdom of Satan.

Why should the spiritual sons, the disciples and imitators, become judges of their masters and models? The [Greek] word for judges is kirtai; it evokes the idea of crisis and division. Under the effect of mimetic escalation, the internal division of every “satanic” community is exacerbated; the difference between legitimate and illegitimate violence diminishes, expulsions become reciprocal; sons repeat and reinforce the violence of their fathers with even more deplorable results for everybody; finally they understand the evil of the paternal example and curse their own fathers. They pass negative judgment, as implied by the word kritai, on everything that precedes them just as we do today.

-p.188

The Gospel though can return “the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” (Malachi 4:6)

The truth offered to mankind unleashes the forces of Satan, the destructive mimeticism, by taking away its power of self-regulation. The fundamental ambiguity of Satan makes divine action superficially ambiguous. Jesus brings war into the divided world of Satan because, fundamentally, he brings peace. People do not or pretend not to understand this.

-p.191

That make any sense? Of course not. The chapter as a whole does though, astoundingly so. I’ll say it again: Girard is impossible to work into an elevator pitch. Someone really needs to try to explain this again, and not in French.

A careful reading of the Gospels shows us that Jesus prefers the language of skandalon to that of the demonic while the opposite is true for the disciples and editors of the Gospels. We should therefore not be surprised to find a certain contrast between the fulgurating words attributed to Jesus, which are often not very coherent, and the narrative passages, particularly the accounts of the miracles, which are better organized from a literary perspective but lag somewhat behind the thought the emerges from the direct quotations.

-p.194

I’m sure it will upset some fundy folks who like to imagine the bible as a magic book written in an inspired trance and not penned by actual human beings, but I really like how Girard discusses the Gospel writers as “editors” of the accounts of Jesus. He likes to point out how their narrative differs in meaning sometime from Jesus’ actual quotations. He makes a pretty good case that the apostles didn’t fully understand what Jesus was talking about sometimes. The bible tells us this explicitly – that the disciples were often clueless when Jesus was still with them, but we sometimes assume that by the time they wrote it all down a few years later, they had it 100% figured out. But no – they were still realizing the full implications of the Kingdom of God. They continued to mature – as do we today. Jesus’ words still hold new treasure.

Christian art in Ethiopia has a curious feature not often seen anywhere else: the depiction of the Trinity as three identical old men. They are typically depicted like this with the heads of the four gospels in the corners.

Trinitarianism demands a God whose hands are dirty in history. Any
distant conception of God always presupposes a much more “mono”
entity.

The trinity is a tangled God who gets tangled up in flesh, blood, and
time but remains infinite.

How do you categorize that? He gets his own special category.

(Photo credit)

Some more rich material from Girard here:

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Westerners made an idol of science and believed in an autonomous scientific spirit of which they were both the inventors and the product. They replaced the ancient myths with those of progress, which might be called the myth of perpetual modern superiority, the myth of a humanity that, through its own instrumentality, gradually became liberated and divine.

The scientific spirit cannot come first. It presupposes the renunciation of a former preference for the magical causality of persecution so well defined by the ethnologists. instead of natural, distant, and inaccessible causes, humanity has always preferred causes that are significant from a social perspective and permit a corrective intervention – victims. In order to lead men to the patient exploration of natural causes, men must first be turned away from their victims. This can only be done by showing them that from now on persecutors “hate without cause” and without any appreciable result. In order to achieve this miracle, not only among certain exceptional individuals as in Greece, but for entire populations, there is need of the extraordinary combination of intellectual, moral, and religious factors found in the gospel text.

The invention of science is not the reason that there are no longer which-hunts, but the fact that there are no longer witch-hunts is the reason that science has been invented. The scientific spirit, like the spirit of enterprise in an economy, is a by-product of the profound action of the Gospel text. The modern Western world has forgotten the revelation in favor of its by-products, making them weapons and instruments of power; and now the process has turned against it. Believing itself a liberator, it discovers its role as persecutor. Children curse their fathers and become their judges. Contemporary scholars discover traces of magic in all the classical forms of rationalism and science. Instead of breaking through the circle of violence and the sacred as they imagine they were doing, our predecessors re-created weakened variations of myths and rituals.

-Rene Girard, The Scapegoat, p.204

What is the prerequisite to nearly all the modern social stability and scientific advances that we enjoy today? Scientists say that the enlightenment and the rise of rationalism is what opened the door. Economists like to point out that we had to advance our agriculture to a level where we could have artists and and other specialists who didn’t need to scrape their food together all day. David Bently Hart has pointed out in numerous ways that Christianity was in fact a prereq for both of these things to even get close to happening. In the same vein, Girard argues convincingly that first we had to stop busying ourselves trying to fix our troubles by casting innocent victims out of the society. The thing that finally put a stop to that was the deep philosophical awareness generated by the Gospel.

This passage here about stress is very plain and straightforward, but I have to admit, at one point it hit me like a ton of bricks.

We can start by considering some everyday problems of living, in order to discover the needs and intentions which give rise to them. Consider the problem of stress. Stress is pressure caused by the convergence of strong, conflicting claims upon the self. If, for example, a a person feels under the pressure of having to perform at peak efficiency in his work at all times, and also desires to be an attentive partner to his spouse and present parent to his children, he will almost certainly experience stress. How can he balance the strong, conflicting claims upon his time? Add to them his desire to have time for his own interests, and he will have a very hard time reconciling the demands. This is a type of stress that is familiar to many of us.

It is all the worse in a period like the present, when the law of capability is in force. This is the law that judges us wanting if we are not capable, if we cannot handle it all, if we are not competent to balance our diverse commitments without a slip. Who among us does not live under the dread sign of the law of capability?

In a commencement address, the columnist Ellen Goodman once described the Model Woman of today, somewhat along the following lines. She gets up at six-thirty in the morning and jogs five miles. At seven-thirty she cooks a totally nourishing breakfast for her husband and two beautiful children. By eight-thirty the children have left for school, her husband to his office, and she is on the way to her incredibly demanding job: she is advertising director for a major firm. All day long she attends meetings and makes important decisions. When she finally arrives home, it is quite late because she had to attend a board meeting for a community-service organization of which she is chairman. But she does not get home too late to fix her children a totally nourishing supper. She helps both of them with their homework and has meaningful good-nights with each. Yet she still has time to plug in the Cuisinart to prepare a gourmet, candlelit supper for herself and her husband. As the day comes to an end, the Model Woman has a totally fulfilling yet deeply honest sexual relationship with her admirably sensitive husband.

Under the law of capability the Model Woman, like any of us, is bound to sicken. We are all simply human. Stress, which takes innumerable forms in our lives and of which the law of capability is one, results from strong, conflicting claims upon the self. Ultimately, stress involves a religious problem. The problem underlying our need to reconcile conflicting demands is this: What establishes my identity? What IS my identity?

Many of us act as if the answer to this question were performance. If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my worth. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy the boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still do justice to my inner aspirations, then I will have proven my worth. Their are infinite ways to prove our worth along these lines. The basic equation is this: I am what I do. It is a religious position in life because it tries to answer in practical terms the question, Who am I and what is my niche in the universe? On this reading, my niche is a proportion to my deeds. In Christian theology, such a position is called justification by works. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance. Conversely, it conceals, thinly, a dark and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. To myself I will cease to exist.

-Paul Zahl, Who Will Deliver Us?, p.9

My entire life, I’ve had the Reformation doctrine of justification by faith (versus justification by works, or “dead works”) driven home to me repeatedly. It is the heart of the gospel of Christ. And yet, how could I have acquired such a limited conception of it? You see, I’ve always seen “justification by works” as simply stuff we do to try to earn God’s favor, or stuff we try and do to “work our way to heaven” instead of giving up and relying on the work of Jesus. Most other religions are accused to living and dying by this method, in some fashion.

Here is the catch though, and the way that Zahl speaks of it makes it unusually clear: We use our dead works not just to justify ourselves before God, but also before others and especially ourselves. The pressure we put on ourselves to perform, our painful hesitancy to forgive ourselves when we fail – this is again the weight of the law pushing down on us, crushing us.

As Christians, we know that justifying ourselves to God is impossible and unnecessary. How quickly we miss the wider reaching implications though!

One rather incongruous situation comes to mind: In college, I took a Catechism class where we spent several weeks on the topic of “turning from dead works to serve the living God” (Hebrews 9:14). All the teaching and theology was sound. We read tons of scripture. But during this time, we were under an incredible amount of pressure to perform well and participate in church activities. If we didn’t show up for Saturday morning work crews, we got a phone calling asking where we were and wanting a pretty legitimate excuse, (for example, lying bleeding in the hospital). Getting in a fight with your roommate would get back around quickly to your small group leader and you were likely to get a talkin’ to. Despite being dressed up in spirituality, being buddy with the pastor or his kids was an effective and sought-after passage to climbing the social ladder. I don’t think any of this was at all unique to this particular church either. In fact, in many respects it was well above average.

What I’m getting at is that in this context, “justification by faith”, the heart of the gospel, was communicated and instilled in such a way that it was a doctrine only meaningful for eternal salvation. You don’t have to make Jesus happy to receive his love, but you still very much need to make everyone else happy, especially yourself if you want to get any love from them. In fact, putting a lot of pressure on yourself, (just like in the competitive business world or in the arts) was considered to be a good and even Godly thing to do. Yes, you rest in the Lord, but that’s only about going to heaven when you die. Right now, on earth, you had best pull yourself up by your boot-straps, “do hard things”, and kick some ass. The Holy Spirit will help you keep all the plates spinning.

No. I reject this now. It’s just more dead works. The gospel sets men free from that too. That’s why it’s a total scandal.

I’m waiting here in the pediatric surgery wing of this sprawling high-rise hospital. The waiting room sports some unusual toys, like a Little Tikes toddler car with an IV pole bolted on the back. The sweet syrup on every spoon induces amnesia so they won’t remember being wheeled away from their parents by masked men. No routine check-ups here – all the incoming adults are apprehensive.

The stars and moons on the carpet repeat over and over in every direction. Thousands of stars, and hundreds of moons. It makes me wish there were stars with only one moon, hiding in a corner somewhere for a curious child to find as they wandered in their gown, covered with prints of Tigger and Eyore. Why did God give us only one moon? More would have made the night sky far more interesting. I think he must have kept it simple out of compassion for the mariners. The sea is treacherous enough as it is without overlapping and uneven tides.

Back in the waiting room, caretakers are lounging in fluffy chairs, but their minds are out among the ocean waves. Some play games on their phones. Others read a page in their novels, then read the same page over again. Cell phone calls come and go, touching base, calling the same number again, just because. The nurses try to strike a balance between encouraging and not too perky.

Soon she’ll wake back up. They tell me she will be herself an hour later and won’t remember a thing. Neither will I as her little life supplants and replaces mine, bit by bit. As Capon warned us, it’s them or us and inevitably, it’s going to be them.

Later, it is revealed that the surgery was not a success. Must we remain in the ship? I’ll take any harbor about now.