Misc notes from Thomas Merton’s Seasons of Celebration

Liturgy is, in the original and classical sense of the word, a political activity. Leitourgia was a “public work,” a contribution made by a free citizen of the polis to the celebration and manifestation of the visible life of the polis. As such it was distinct from the economic activity or the private and more material concern of making a living and managing the productive enterprises of the “household.”

This is interesting as in the USA, the “religious nonsense” that one does inside the walls of a church are largely lumped in with all things “private” – along with what happens in your kitchen or bedroom. But historically, it’s more clearly delineated as public. Worshipping in public is a public act, but some economic acts that we now would call “public” were considered essentially private – with the end being ones own household. It is curious how some of this has been flipped on it’s head in the modern world.

We must be on our guard against a kind of blind and immature zeal – the zeal of the enthusiast or of the zealot – which represents precisely a frantic compensation for the deeply personal qualities which are lacking to us. The zealot is the man who “loses himself” in his cause in such a way that he can no longer “find himself” at all. Yet paradoxically this “loss” of himself is not the salutary self-forgetfullness commanded by Christ. It is rather an immersion in his own willfulness conceived as the will of an abstract, non-personal force: the force of a project or a program. He is, in other words, alienated by the violence of his own enthusiasm: and by that very violence he tends to produce the same kind of alienation in others. This type of zeal does great harm.

Benedict warns against the same sort of thing in his Rule though Merton is clearer here. To restate, there is a “losing oneself in a cause” that is actually just a selfish magnification of oneself. This must be guarded against when you are a leader or some of your closest and most enthusiastic followers will prove to be rotten eggs in the long run.

Here, Merton does a good job of describing time in a way that turns it from a claustrophobic constraint to an artistic one. Good stuff with a lot of potentially positive implications.

Time for the Christian is then the sphere of his spontaneity, a sacramental gift in which he can allow his freedom to deploy itself in joy, in the creative virtuosity of choice that is always blessed with the full consciousness that God wants His sons to be free, that He is glorified by their freedom. For God takes pleasure not in dictating predetermined solution to providential riddles, but in giving man the opportunity to choose and create for himself solutions that are glorious in their very contingency.

The universe which came into being will some day grow cold, perhaps, and die. What will remain? Such is the view of life and time implied by the Hellenistic mystery religions, with their ontological foundations in Platonism. Time, the realm of matter and of “becoming” is the prison of eternal and divine spirits who have been punished by their descent into bodies, and seek desperately some way to return to the pure spiritual realm which is their “home.” This climate of dualism and myth has, in effect, influence much Christian thought, though it is not found in the Bible.

It’s pretty easy to turn “gnosticism” (the scare quotes are intentional in this case) into the bogeyman in nearly any theological debate today. Nevertheless, the underlying spirit/body divide is a big deal and really has been terribly influential in Christian thought. So much so that one has to consciously examine an idea with it in mind to detect it’s presence since it’s so often assumed in casual discourse.

Misc notes from Alan Jacob’s The Narnian

The Narnian is a recent biography of C.S. Lewis that I found to be quite interesting. I wrote about Lewis’s dissonant legacy among evangelicals here. These here are just the rest of the excepts I copied down while I was reading along. A few comments are included. Like all “misc notes” posts, it’s not at all comprehensive and some of the best parts were likely forgotten due to my notebook or computer being far away when I encountered them.

Here, Chesterton defends crappy fiction. Hopefully this would extend to kids who grew up reading Transformers fan fic instead of Proust.

Chesterton is half-puzzzled and half-offended by the alarm [about ‘penny dreadfuls’ pulp fiction]. He has no wish to defend the “dreadfuls” as literature, but he does want to defend them as “the actual centre of a million flaming imaginations.” To Chesterton, “the simple need for some kind of ideal world in which fictitious persons play an unhampered part is infinitely deeper and other than the rules of good art, and much more important. Every one of us in childhood has constructed such an invisible dramatis personae, but it never occurred to our nurses to correct the composition by careful comparison with Balzac.” In fact, he continues, “literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.” That is, while we can live without Balzac, brilliant though he may be the, the penny dreadful are truly vital to human well-being.

A marvelous passage from Surprised by Joy about the call of God:

The Prodigal Son at least walked home on his own feet. But who can duly adore that Love which will open the high gates to a prodigal who is brought in kicking, struggling, resentful, and darting his eyes in every direction for a chance of escape? The words compelle intrare, compel them to come in, have been so abused by wicked men that we shudder at the; but properly understood, they plumb the depth of the divine mercy. The hardness of God is kinder than the softness of men, and His compulsion is our liberation.

In his poem Mythopoeia, Tolkien says that  trees are not “trees” until named and seen. But where does the name come from? I’ve dealt with this before here and also here. Here, Tolkien likens naming to “divination” – a sensing of God’s creative Word (capital W) behind the created thing.

The argument here is that when imagined unfallen beings – Tolkien does not speak directly of Adam, that was not his way – first named the things of this world, they did so by means of an instinctive insight into (a “divination,” a “deep monition” of) their natures. And the natures of things are primarily defined, always by their having been created, made by the commanding Word of God. (Likewise, in his Confessions Saint Augustine looks are the world and asks what it can tell hi about God, and everything “shouts aloud, ‘He made us!'”)

Fabulous quote from Owen Barfield here – this should be required contemplation for anyone who as ever used the phrase “the wrong side of history” unironically.

“You must find out why [a belief held commonly in the past] went out of date. Was it ever refuted (and if so by whom, where, and how conclusively) or did it merely die away as fashions do? If the latter, this tells us nothing about its truth or falsehood.”

His students would invariables say that [Lewis] never made any attempts to impose or even “push” his Christian beliefs in lectures or tutorials, but it could not have escaped Lewis’s notice – or that of the more attentive students – that in laying the groundwork for an appreciation of medieval and Renaissance literature, he was also silently removing some of the impediments to an appreciation of the religion of those eras – which happened to be Christianity.

Laying this groundwork is super important and fairy stories help that happen. It matters little how refined our preaching is if the seed falls on hard ground, and heavier doses of theology will not till the soil further.

Several money quotes from the Abolition of Man:

St. Augustin defines virtue as the ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that he aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought… Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting, and hateful.

What we call Man’s power over Nature turns out to be a power exercised by some men over other men with Nature as its instrument.

I loved this anecdote on Lewis not being an ascetic.

When the London newspaper the Daily Telegraph did a story on [Lewis] in 1944, the writer referred to him at one point as “ascetic Mr. Lewis,” a description that made Tolkien splutter with incredulity and indignation. He wrote to his son, “‘Ascetic Mr. Lewis’ –!!! I ask you! He put away three pints in a very short session we had this morning, and said he was ‘going short for Lent.’ To any who might might criticize such gusto as unseemly for a Christian, Lewis could reply, “There is no good trying to be more spiritual than God. God never meant man to be a purely spiritual creature. That is why He uses material things like bread and wine to put the new life in us. We may think this rather crude and unspiritual. God does not: He invented eating. He likes matter. He invented it.”

When it is necessary to approach difficult questions, one must, Lewis believes, stick as closely as possibly to “the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.” This is especially important when such questions are raised in the presence of unbelievers, that is, in public: “I think we must admit that the discussion of these disputed points has no tendency at all to bring outsiders into the Christian fold… Our divisions should never be discussed except in the presence of those who have already come to believe that there is one God and that Jesus Christ is His only Son.” This is a very strict rule! Never discuss those divisions in public? But Christians’ failure to obey it seems to have done Christianity little good and much harm.

THIS right here. I’d read the quoted passage before, but hadn’t realized what Lewis was saying until Jacobs drew such attention to it. Christians should NOT discuss inside baseball where pagans can see us bickering with each other. It destroys our witness. We should present a unified front of the foundations. This is probably a key aspect of successful ecumenical movements. The deep desire of some denominational leaders and theologians (past and present) to score points for their team in public is only every destructive.

In this passage from the Screwtape letters, the demons to minimize our awareness of the worldwide church throughout history and to just focus on problems within our local expressions. Satan hates wide reading and diversity of friends.

One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as a army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.

An “easy conscience” is precisely the problem, Lewis felt, with the “liberal and ‘broad-minded'” Christians of his or any other time: their self-satisfaction, their inability to sense that they need to be “obedient” to ANY particular teach of set of beliefs. Feeling no need to obey, they never discover that they CANNOT obey, and therefore never discover the need for repentance, conversion, transformation – the kind of transformation that would make them fit participants in the great assembly of the redeemed that John envisioned in his Revelation.

This gets to the heart of the problem with liberal theology quicker than just about anything I have ever read. When there is nothing to obey, you do not sufficiently discover that you CANNOT obey and your faith in man’s strength and cleverness and progress remains naively uncontested.

More on how “showing” morals is generally more powerful than teaching them explicitly.

What do children want? What do children need? It is better not to ask the questions at all. Let the pictures tell you their own moral. For the moral inherent in them will rise from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life.

A timeless and widely applicable quote from George Orwell:

“There is no argument by which one can defend a poem” – and by poem he meant any work of literary art. “It defends itself by surviving, or it is indefensible.”

Circling back around to the first passage about Chesterton and the pulp fiction, here Lewis asserts that children reading adventure stories are probably where the real action and learning (good or ill) is happening.

“Yet, while this goes on downstairs, the only real literary experience in such a family may be occurring in a back bedroom where a small boy is reading Treasure Island under the bedclothes by the light of an electric torch.”
p.295 (from an Experiment in Criticism)


A brief and hazardous review of Richard Rohr’s spiritual writing

At the recommendation of several acquaintances, I recently read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. It starts out well. He has a sound critique of how most of our western institutions (church, university, etc.) prop up the youthful ambition of the “first half of life” but are lost at sea for what to do with those past mid-life and especially the elderly. Some of his anecdotes and ideas effectively push back against performance-driven culture and works-based religion in the same way that Robert Capon used to and that my Lutheran friends at Mockingbird continue to do. There were a few eyebrow-raising nods to Islamic and Buddhist mystics here and there, but I can appreciate this kind of eclecticism to a point. At least it’s not boring.

But it soon become boring. Rohr’s introduction is like a smattering of ideas at turns brilliant and ridiculous. The writing is like Philip Yancy on a bad day – a whiplash of barely connected thoughts changing every paragraph instead of every page or chapter. He promises early on to provide a guide through the “second half of life” in the forthcoming chapters, but all one really finds is just more introductory appetite-whetting material. Rohr loads up his shotgun shells with quotes from the early church fathers, Carl Jung, Julian of Norwich, the Dalai Lama, Thomas Merton, Sigmund Freud, Ghandi, and occasionally St. Paul. He then blasts them at the reader with the rhythm of a gamer fraggin’ demons in Doom as if it were 1993 even though the book was published in 2011.


His writing is dressed up like it’s going to a Halloween party. How you say? Scare quotes. Scare quotes on all. the. things. I’ve never seen so many congregating in one place before. I counted only one place where the word “sin” occurred without scare quotes. The same goes for the word “salvation” though ideas imported from modern psychology and eastern religion apparently don’t require them:

If you get mirrored well early in life, you do not have to spend the rest of your life looking in Narcissus’s mirror or begging for the attention of others. You have already been “attended to,” and now feel basically good – and always will. This Hindus call this exciting mutual beholding darshan. Once you have your narcissistic fix, you have no real need to protect you identity, defend it, prove it, or assert it. It just is and is more than enough. This is what we actually mean by “salvation”. (p.5)

Actually, I don’t think that’s what ANYONE on earth means or has ever meant by the word “salvation”, even those on the fringe of Christianity.

In Rohr’s writing, there is no train of thought or sustained argument. It’s like a music video where the camera cuts every two seconds between a tranquil forest scene, a church full of chanting monks, a bevy of Buddhist break-dancers, and a time-lapse shot of bustling downtown Manhattan.


Falling Upward was like the B-side of a Sufjan Stevens record with a sublime melodic air interrupted by atonal electronic beeps every 30 seconds. If what Rohr is playing is Christianity, it’s been run through every stomp box that The Edge owns, all at the same time.


And you know what? That’s fine. All of that’s fine. If Rohr wants to make his way as a spiritual writer and self-help speaker like Deepak Chopra, I don’t have any problem with that. It doesn’t mean he can’t be or hasn’t been helpful to lots of people who have listened to him, read his works, or attended his retreats. Some of my own favorite authors and thinkers are very much not Christian at all. My only real issue is with the name he trades under. He is quick to present himself (in the first paragraph of his bio on the dust jacked) as a legitimate friar of the Order of St. Francis – a bonafide ordained Roman Catholic priest in good standing. How it is that he hasn’t been defrocked is beyond my understanding – likely due to some deeply rooted dysfunction within the RC. An Episcopal friend of mine informs me that the Franciscan order, despite it’s virtues, has long been a haven for all kinds of fringe elements and that if folks like him had been in the Benedictine order, they likely would have been kicked out ages ago. Maybe that’s it. I’m not familiar enough with the internals to know.

It is clear that Rohr’s philosophy and theology is very broad from the beginning. It has to be large enough to include Sufi Islam, Buddhism, some forms of Hindu, and even some primitive paganism inside it’s tent. In the middle of the book he recounts how elated he was when he discovered in college that the story of Abraham was actually just a myth and not real history. If only the rest of us could be so enlightened. Jesus pops up here and there in Rohr’s understanding of the universe, but at no time is the incarnation ever really necessary. Human beings have no need for a savior because the only thing we really need saved from is our own wrong thinking. He mocks “substitutionary atonement theory” (using scare quotes of course), but doesn’t invoke Christus Victor either. The reason is, Christ doesn’t apparently need to be victorious over anything. The Trinity (without scare quotes for some reason, probably a mistake) is described not as reality, but as just a helpful way Christians developed to talk about God. Rohr is a theist, but a highly univerasalist one. Not a Christian universalist like (maybe) Robert Capon was, with Jesus always at the center, but an explicitly pluralistic one.

And again, I’m fine with him being that. My chief annoyance ends up being his fluffy writing style, and his appeal to formal church authority in his credentials while abhorring dogmatic authority in all other places. He should keep the blurb from Dr. Oz on the back of his books, but bury the lead about him being a legit priest for a historically orthodox institution. I believe it to be in bad faith.


Is this blog post not a rather sloppy shotgun blast of metaphors, half-formed arguments and even silly pictures? I’m afraid it is! It’s akin to the terrible Mandarin accent I pick up after speaking with local Chinese students. Time to go try reading something else!

Best introductory paragraph to a history book

I often find introductions to be the home of the very best writing and ideas in many large works. This was most definitely the case in Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years:

“What power preserves what once was, if memory does not last?” – Czeslaw Milosz
The past doesn’t vanish at once; it dies slowly. But if remembered, the dead maintain their ground and live among us. Historical memory, like all memory, is selective, and there are many claimants to the telling of Christianity’s early history. The Christian Church has a long and crowded past, and whether by design, forgetfulness, or ignorance, its history will be remembered in different ways. Our knowledge of the past is not objective but personal and participatory. (p.1)

Encounters with Beck’s ‘Loser’ – Then and Now

In the file marked “Things I Got in Trouble for as a Kid”, is an incident that occurred in the sixth grade when my teacher asked us to keep a literary journal or book of days. As I’d already read the assigned book (The Hobbit) a few years prior, I took a class period to analyze the lyrics of Beck’s hit song “Loser”, which had just dropped onto the 1994 waves of Top 40 radio.


Forces of evil in a bozo nightmare
Banned all the music with a phony gas chamber
Cause one’s got a weasel and the others got a flag
One’s got on the pole shove the other in a bag
With the rerun shows and the cocaine nose job

The daytime crap with the folksinger slop
He hung himself with a guitar string
Slap the turkey neck and it’s hangin’ on a pigeon wing
You can’t write if you can’t relate
Trade the cash for the beef for the body for the hate
And my time is a piece of wax fallin’ on a termite
Who’s chokin’ on the splinters

Soy un perdedor
I’m a loser baby so why don’t you kill me?
(Get crazy with the Cheeze Whiz)

Who can make heads or tails out of that, eh? Especially when you’re a preteen and you have at least a third a the lyrics wrong since the internet didn’t exist yet aid to scrutinizing the urtext. But I took a stab at it, and somehow a few weeks later, my mom found it while reading through my school things. “What is this terrible stuff!?” she asked. “Did you write this? Did someone teach you this at school?” (We weren’t homeschooled yet.)

“No mom. It’s just this stupid song on the radio. It’s kind of funny. Um. Well, at the end after the loser stuff, the guy says, ‘I’m a driver, I’m a winner. Things are gonna change, I can feel it!’, so like, I don’t think he’s serious. I think it’s kind of a joke or something.”

Actually, that’s not what I said. I didn’t have the capacity to comprehend the heaps of postmodern irony in Beck’s songcraft at the time. I had nothing to do except apologize for copying Bad Things from the radio to my notebook and to promise to make more of an effort to imbibe “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report”. “If there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” (Philippians 4:8). And that is, in fact, very excellent advice.

But sometimes, when the world is a storm of curveballs and nonsense hitting you in the face, whether it be at home, at work, on the news, on Facebook or what have you, a holy reverie can seem a thousand miles away. But making fun of it all can be a healthy response too. When you’ve truly wanted to burn down the trailer park (from verse one, not included in the above excerpt) or had a job that really did make you feel like a termite choking on the splinters, then this stupid song is finally revealed for what it actually is: A silly piece like you might hear on Sesame Street, only geared for adults. Both can help make you happy if the timing is right.