The House of Christmas

One of Chesterton’s better pieces of verse:

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay on their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A Child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost – how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky’s dome.

This world is wild as an old wives’ tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.



Here in the pacific northwest United States, we have a high concentration of breweries. Around Christmas each year, Deschutes releases a winter ale called “Jubelale”. The best part about it is the artwork –  it’s often full of light! That, along with the Christological name makes this, in my mind, a very festive Christmas beverage indeed.

By the way, happy new year!


Your instruments are too blunt

Here, in his introduction, Alter spells out clearly what nearly everyone in any field at some point attempts in their writing.

After three chapters on the system of biblical verse, I try to extend and refine my generalizations by applying them to major poetic texts, and through such applications to see something of the difference poetry makes in the Bible. I have not attempted a comprehensive treatment of every subgenre of biblical poetry or of all the various poetic insets in the narrative books, but the main genres and texts – psalms, prophetic poetry, Wisdom poetry from Job to Proverbs, love poetry – are all scrutinized. Indeed, one of the many gaps in the understanding of biblical poetry is a failure of those who generalize about it to make sufficient distinctions among genres, and this study represents an initial effort to correct that tendency of amalgamation.

-Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry, p.ix

That last sentence could be rewritten for a thousand topics:

Indeed, one of the many gaps in the understanding of _______ is a failure of those who generalize about it to make sufficient distinctions among ______, and this study represents an initial effort to correct that tendency of amalgamation.

Man is always categorizing things. That’s how our minds work. It’s utterly natural. It’s the only way our brains can contain larger ideas. Our memories can’t hold and manage a deluge of details, so we have to name things (like Adam). Go us! But there is the rub. Close inspection finds that we are always grouping things too hastily or in too large of groups. Depending on the context, these categories may be helpful, but that can suddenly turn out to backfire on us and derail our thinking when they are not done carefully. In Alter’s case, he is annoyed at the number of bible scholars who group all poetry in the Bible in one bucket and talk about it as if it has this or that characteristic or meaning. Good job distinguishing the poetry in the bible from the other things, but that’s not far enough. The same may be said for a doctor who throws all children with autism under the same heading, or an agronomist studying a fertilizer technique and only distinguishing between “trees” and “flowers”, and not making more meaningful slices and calling things “grasses”, “broad-leafs”, “vines”, “evergreens”, etc.


It seems nearly every well-done academic study should start out with this plain statement: I am writing this book because you are using too blunt an instrument. Let me introduce you to some sharper tools. Watch me use them for a while to see how nicely they slice, dice, and explain. At least, that is the sort of study I want to read. N.T. Wright’s big books follow this style very well. In doing so, most of the really useful stuff is up front where he lays out and sharpens the tools. In the later chapters, you get see them at work and learn by example. Wright’s popular books, on the other hand, take a meandering and narrative approach. He tries to engage his reader with potent thoughts early on. He often doesn’t tell you where he’s going and sometimes, it’s not entirely clear when he’s arrived (or if he ever does arrive!). A popular work like Blue Like Jazz also falls into this category.

I’m not going to say one is better than the other. Both of them can be done well or poorly. Certainly, the context of the reader (who is reading it) will determine which is most effective. I have found that in my learning and persona reading, I greatly prefer the former. I think it’s worth noting that the presence of highly technical language doesn’t determine which is which. Some memoirs are awash in jargon. Some plain academic studies are surprisingly easy to read, even for an outsider.

What am I trying to say? It’s not that I dislike one or the other so much. Many academic-style studies are terrible. What makes the difference? (Besides the obvious – writing skill, force of argument, etc.) I think it’s the part where they show how the sausage is made. I don’t like being in the dark about what the author is doing. I like to see under the hood of the machine, not just watch the machine work. The “making of” is often better than the movie.

Books read in 2012

The Chronicles of Narnia (All 7 books), C.S. Lewis (out loud to the kids, 5th time personally)
The Scapegoat, Rene Girard
God in the Dock, C.S. Lewis
Summa of the Summa, Thomas Aquinas/Peter Kreeft (partial)
Captain Alatriste, Arturo Perez-Reverte
Who Will Deliver Us?, Paul Zahl
Bed and Board, Robert Capon
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien, (out loud to the kids, 5th time personally)
The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Shakespeare, and a bunch of commentary
Joy at the End of the Tether, Doug Wilson
Between Babel and Beast: America and Empire in Biblical Perspective, Peter Leithart
Singing Out: An Oral History of America’s Folk Music, David King Dunaway and Molly Beer
Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (out loud to the kids)
Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning: Volume I, George Polya
The Prophet, Kahil Gibran
Small is Beautiful, E.F. Schumacher
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee, Dean Cycon
A History of Ethiopia, Harold G. Marcus
Laying Down the Sword: Why We Can’t Ignore the Bible’s Violent Verses, Philip Jenkins

Projecting sola scriptura

This passage from near the end of Jenkin’s latest book discusses how we in the west (both conservatives and liberals) have often viewed other religions erroneously through a Reformation-formed lens.

The Protestant inheritance [of sola scriptura] has led later writers to assume that for other religions too the scripture must represent the authoritative core of belief. As the West encountered other faiths during the age of imperialism, scholars published anthologies of thew world’s sacred texts, which set the scriptures of all the great faiths alongside on another. Such efforts made the fundamental assumption that to know a scripture was to understand the religion – although often editors had to struggle to find texts that played the same role in particular faiths that the Bible did in Christianity or Judaism. It was only after encounters with Christians that Hindus decided that the Bhagavad Gita offered a succinct description of their own faith, a counterpart to the New Testaments so freely distributed by missionaries. When Robert Ballou published his World Bible in 1944, he claimed to offer “the gist of each of the world’s eight most influential religious faiths, as revealed by their basic scriptures.”

But do scriptures, any scripture, contain the “gist” or kernel of any religion? One can make such an argument, and the compilers of such anthologies did. But they had a highly subjective view of what that gist might be, and what it “revealed.” Most editors carefully selected and stressed passages that, in their opinion, showed the religions at their ethical and even mystical best, suggesting that members of all faiths could unite in these common goals, whatever their petty differences of ritual or custom. In practice, all the world’s faiths seemed to become varieties of liberal Protestantism.[!!!]

However noble such an interpretation, it has little connection with the ordinary lived reality of any religious tradition, which is so thoroughly conditioned by its particular historical experience and cultural background.

-Philip Jenkins, Laying Down the Sword, ch.11

He goes on to imagine an alien learning the Bible thoroughly, then visiting the earth and trying to make sense out of a Catholic mass in Chicago, a Quaker meeting in London, a pilgrimage in the Philippines and (I’ll add) a Texas megachurch. How completely baffling that would be!

This all sounds remarkably similar to how European colonialism forced African nations to define their borders with a Sharpie – just like us, lest we grab anything that wasn’t clearly marked.

In many ways, this is the same challenge we have reading the Koran. Across the world, the local culture frequently trumps theology proper. Tribal loyalties and traditions often take precedence or strongly shape interpretation. As it turns out, learning to love, understand, or at least live with your neighbor requires many, many things – a fundamental understanding of their religion being just one piece of the puzzle, albeit a very important piece.


1000th Post

It looks like I’ve finally hit 1000 blog posts. I started pretty slowly in early 2007 and many of my early posts were entirely quotations or excerpts from what I was reading at the time. Over the years, actual original content has become a bit more predominant. It would be fun to run some more detailed stats on it sometime. Unfortunately, the regx functions in MySQL don’t work quite how I expect and I don’t want to bother with figuring them right now without all my tools handy. Oh well.

Still, I was able to get the following word count for all published posts: 361,272

Now, I have been faithful from the beginning put nearly every quotation or excerpt in blockquotes, making them indented on the page. There are exceptions, but they are few and they are balanced out my exceptions in the other direction I think. Fortunately, this allows me to easily remove them from the word count, revealing how many of those words are actually my own: 182,419.

Looking at this number is encouraging to me. I would someday like to write a book. Could I actually do it? Well, The Hobbit clocks in at 95K – about half of my original output for the past six years. That’s doable.

Why do I blog? Because I want to become a better writer. I was terrible and I wanted to be better. Now I am slightly less than terrible and there are even occasional satisfying sentences and even whole paragraphs to be discovered. It’s a joy – one that has proven more consistent (and possible) than practicing a musical instrument during the last half-decade. I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon, even if there are no readers. We’ll see if I’m ready to tackle something more substantial after 2000 posts.

Different criteria for the importance art


In reading several chapters of a book on Ethiopian art, I was intrigued by the story of Adamu Tesfaw (b. 1922), a priest turned painter. He came from a family of rural craftsmen – his father was a painter and his brother a sculptor. He studied to be a priest and then also had an arranged marriage to a local girl as a young man. After four years, mostly abroad though, he discovered his wife had been unfaithful. (Perhaps because he was never around?!) So he reluctantly divorced her, but this means his career as a priest was over. He moved to the capital to paint, remarried and had 7 children, 4 of which died young. His work can be seen in churches all over Ethiopia. His style is like that of the ancient icon painters, but with some contemporary inventions of his own. In looking through a collection of them, I especially liked how he carefully how he uses the pupils of the eyes of his figures to add meaning (and occasionally mystery) to the scenes. It seems that he largely made his modest living by painting scenes commissioned by rich Italian tourists.

The author of the book, who befriended the artist and arranged to have his works displayed in a western gallery tour was very interested in the form of the works and the stylistic history. When Adamu was asked to pick seven pieces to send to the museum though, he surprised the organizer by picking what he considered to be the most important religious scenes he had depicted – many of which the author considered rather unremarkable compared to much of his other work. Different criteria indeed!


Misc notes – Christmas Eve

The following is a pile of things from my notebook without a home.

“The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is not to be taught a priori.” -Edmund Burke

Good stuff here, as usual, from Amy Hoy:

Sometimes I think we smartypantses walk around expecting to be given a delicious cookie by The Universe as reward for thinking deep thoughts and soaring above the teeming masses on fluffy intellectual wings.

There’s no point in deep thinking, though, if it isn’t its own reward, if it isn’t helping us & those we love to be happier.

My thoughts at a recent mandatory Human Resources meeting/presentation:

No questions pending from the audience doesn’t mean the teacher was successful. It may mean the material was so ridiculous or mystifying that nobody even knows how to begin talking about it.


Why on earth does everyone have the word “executive” in their job title now? I smell language rot of the same sort that happened to “awesome”.

A question I have with regards to a phrase I still here in sermons a lot:

Is “what God designed you to be” simply hindered by our stupidity? What kind of nonsense is this? Is the creator so easily thwarted?

I’m listening to Loreena McKennit’s A Midwinter Night’s Dream a lot again this Christmas. Why? Partially because I can’t bring myself to work through the gigantic new Sufjan Stevens Christmas album and partially because I don’t want to buy the new Tracey Thorn Christmas album without listening to it first and none of the services I use seem to have it yet. Oh well.

Four more posts until 1000. Can it hit it before the end of the year? No problemo!

An absolutely fantastic example here from Taliesin, now calling himself TimothyOne on the differences between formality and spontaneity and why we need both. (The context is Christian worship, but it works for a lot of other things too.)

It’s not either-or.  It never is.  It’s not that spontaneous is authentic while planned is fake.  It is simply both, in their sequence.

Consider a man who arranges an elaborate marriage proposal, complete with memorized recitation, and kneeling, and holding of her hand as if it were the jewel of the raj.   He is not less authentic for all his planning; indeed, to the degree he searches precedent to adopt what others have done, he shows her how much she means to him.  And she will love him more for his trouble and formality.

But of she leaps across his papers to stop the recitation with a kiss, the man who can’t drop the outline and re-write the rite (I think the rubric now says “kiss”) – well, he’s a fool.  And if she doesn’t leap, she is obtuse.  If she doesn’t ruin the rite, she wasn’t worth writing it for, and if there is no rite, he does not deserve her.



A few more Beowulf notes

In which I am vindicated (sort of) for starting sentences with “so”.

The first line of Beowulf reads: “Hwaet we Gar-Dena in gear-dagum”

Conventional renderings of hwaet, the first word of the poem, tend towards the archaic literary, with “lo” and “hark” and “behold” and “attend” and – more colloquially – “listen” being some of the solutions offered previously. But in Hiberno-English Scullionspeak, the particle “so” came naturally to the rescue, because in that idiom “so” operates as an expression which obliterates all previous discourse and narrative, and at the same time functions as an exclamation calling for immediate attention. So, “so” it was.

-Seamus Heaney, p.xxvii, (Introduction)

Where is this from?

Oh, cursed is he
who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul
in the fir’s embrace, forfeiting help;
he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he
who after death can approach the Lord
and find friendship in the Father’s embrace.

What is this, Psalm 151? Sure could be. Nope. Beowulf again, but translated by someone who definitely reads the psalms.

The leader of the troop unlocked his word-hoard;
the distinguished one delivered this answer:


Unlock your word-hoard”. Whoa. That is the sort of threat free-style rappers still make today. Beware!

Ruling for the short or long term?

Think about how much the world has changed in the past century. We went from having no electricity to having space missions to Mars and smart phones. We’ve gone from under 2 Billion people to 6. I’ve heard it said that as a President, George Washington had a lot more in common with Julius Caesar than with George W. Bush or Barack Obama.


I’ve been reading several books about the history of Ethiopia. Probably its most famous figure of all time was the last emperor, Haile Selassie. I’ve been trying to sort out all the different accounts and figure out if he was really an amazing guy or not. What I’ve concluded is that he really was a astounding leader, but that NOBODY on earth could have led a people through all of the last century. He took Ethiopia from 1913 to the 1950s with clever diplomacy, wise ruling, and a culturally aware modernization campaign. In any other century, he would have been beloved for his entire tenure and died a hero. But the 20th century was just too big of a change for any one man to swallow. He’s was getting old by the time the sixties arrived and he just couldn’t swing it. He just couldn’t understand. The world was changing and he knew an older world. He had adapted marvelously, but he couldn’t adapt 100% again. And so he was finally pushed out of power by young brash communist rebels without much of a fight. In hindsight though, everyone that followed him made a giant mess. Now, he is remembered as presiding over the golden age, even though he was very unpopular near the end of his reign. Ras Tafari was a man with problems like anyone else, but he accomplished a rather staggering amount. I guess I dare anyone else to do as good a job.

Reading through this history also caused me to consider a potential weakness of our modern democratic republics. The term limits of our rulers give a different rhythm to political and cultural change than post models. A monarch by birth could have forty or even fifty years to rule with a consistent vision. He does something stupid? Guess what – he has a chance to learn from his mistake and fix things a few years later. In contrast, we in America are on a 6-8 year scapegoat cycle. That’s about how long it takes for us to get fed up with the last guy and remove him in favor of his ideological opposite. Nothing substantial ever happens because NOBODY is in it for the long haul. In the meantime, the crooked financial institutions try to make a quick buck while everyone is busy looking the other way.

It seems that to some degree, secularism (no fear of God) must necessitate this. Despite the great failings of Christian (and even Muslim) rulers over the last thousand years, one thing they DID have was an eschatology. The future meant something. The world had an actual end and they were working toward it. A Godless system has no future. We are blobs of organic matter pretending to have meaning. It naturally (and I mean that in every sense of the word, ‘naturally’) tends toward short-term gains. It may claim to care about the children of tomorrow, but this is really just something it inherited from people that feared God and really did care about their children. Its nihilism is still haunted by the Creator. So now we have short-lived politicians that are hailed today and tossed out tomorrow. Just like maxing out our credit cards instead of saving toward a purchase, we look to the here and now. We build, at best, for our retirement. Beyond that, who cares? Those who fear God care, even if they can’t handle all the challenges and changes that come in their own lives.

* Disclaimer: I am not advocating a return to monarchy, but just questioning the alleged shiny awesomeness of our current setup.