Monday, March 31, 2008

Sunday Night Journal — March 30, 2008

The Sword

Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.

—Matthew 10:34

There’s a certain sort of somewhat educated, yet substantially ignorant, person whose condescension toward Christianity and Christians tries my patience more than open hostility. I’m thinking of the person, often describing himself as spiritual but not religious, who believes that all “belief systems” or “faith traditions” are fundamentally the same: the same in their ultimate meaning, and the same in their origin, which is the human mind: it’s ok with him if you believe in Jesus, and it would be ok with him if you believed with equal conviction in fairies, or voodoo, or Odin, or Krishna. They’re all psychological responses to the puzzle of human existence, and one is no more true and no more false than another.

Of all the ways to be wrong about Christianity, this may be the worst, because it prevents the person from even seeing, much less confronting, the real challenge presented by the faith, the very existence of which divides the human race into two groups, those who believe and those who do not believe. Of course the same could be said of any belief: there are those who believe in fairies, and those who don’t. But the argument between those two is an argument about whether or not the world contains fairies. The argument between the Christian and the non-Christian is about the nature of the world itself, the nature of reality itself. Because one party to the discussion does not realize this, it’s very difficult to bridge the gap with words.

When the Christian in such a dialogue insists that God is not one of a pantheon, not even the most powerful one, and that God is not simply one representative of the category “god,” he seems unreasonable. All the other asks is that the Christian extend the same courtesy to other gods that he, the tolerant unbeliever, does to the Christian’s God. The refusal to do so can only appear to one who doesn’t grasp the Christian view as intolerance and pride. And it is intolerant, as a married man or woman is (or ought to be) intolerant toward the idea that the wedding vows are not meant to be kept. It isn’t supposed to be prideful, although it may be.

The Church, like Israel of old, must always stand apart from the great syncretist love-feast. The uniqueness of its teaching is of its essence, not a mistake on the part of isolated primitives, to be corrected by contact with others. Christianity is the myth that is also true, the rich array of symbols which are also facts, the belief system which is also a correct description of reality. Christian faith is not an accessory to one’s life, chosen from a boutique full of similar items because it is pretty or comforting, but the injection into it of a new principle of life. Between the acceptance of this principle and its rejection there is finally no permanent middle ground, just as there can be no permanent compromise or accommodation between life and death in one body, only a struggle in which one or the other will prove victorious.

Belief is divided from unbelief, life from death, as by a sword, like the sword that splits history in two:

…A moment not out of time, but in time, in what we call history:
transecting, bisecting the world of time…

—Eliot, Choruses from “The Rock”

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Sunday, March 30, 2008

I Am a Gentleman in a Dustcoat

A few days ago I made a melancholy, if not morbid, remark about time and loss to a young woman. I realized immediately, but of course too late, that it was rather a heavy thing to lay on a young person, and was reminded of this poem by John Crowe Ransom. It was an odd sensation to find myself in the position of the gentleman in the poem. It’s probably still under copyright, but since Ransom has been dead for thirty-five years I think I’ll share it with you (compounding my deficiency of tact, since the young woman is a reader of this blog, but trusting that the quality of the poem compensates):

Piazza Piece

—I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying
To make you hear. Your ears are soft and small
And listen to an old man not at all,
They want the young men’s whispering and sighing.

But see the roses on your trellis dying
And hear the spectral singing of the moon;
For I must have my lovely lady soon,
I am a gentleman in a dustcoat trying.

—I am a lady young in beauty waiting
Until my truelove comes, and then we kiss.
But what grey man among the vines is this
Whose words are dry and faint as in a dream?
Back from my trellis, Sir, before I scream!
I am a lady young in beauty waiting.

—John Crowe Ransom

I’ve never encountered the word “dustcoat” outside of this poem, so I’m not sure exactly what one is, but it certainly sounds appropriate.

I can’t help imagining the man as looking somewhat like those oddly bundled-up Victorian men in Edward Gorey’s drawings.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

More About the Future

A few follow-ups to the paleo-future post below:

The sad and creepy world of Ray Kurzweil, a technological genius who in all likelihood is going to die a very unhappy man.

A couple of obituaries, here and here, for Arthur C. Clarke.

Clarke was probably the last of the great sci-fi writers who was formed by a not-quite-post-Christian civilization which took certain bourgeois values for granted: the importance of reason, its power to tame the raw stuff of human nature, the virtues of restraint and tolerance. His writings are entertaining but very, very thin. He was contradicted by that older, wiser, and vastly more gifted writer who saw the rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem.

Partly in memoriam, and partly just by way of a general reflection on the decline of the future, here is a journal entry from 2004, “I Miss the Future.”

Some of Us Are Dumb Enough...

...to be interested in this.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Where Is My 250-mph Air-Cushion Car?!?

It was supposed to be here by now.

Where are the domed climate-controlled cities? The self-maintaining houses? The undersea resorts? The satellite hotels? The intelligence pill?

And most of all, where is my four-hour work day?

I love stuff like this—images of the future as it was imagined in the past. There’s even a name for it: paleo-future. And a few of these predictions are not so far off.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

New Email Address

Due to various problems with my lightondarkwater.com email address, I'm switching to gmail. New address is maclin.horton (at) gmail.com. Or click on the "view profile" button and then on the "email me" button.

By the way, spammers are a very low form of vermin. Our network administrator tells me that we receive on average 1,200,000 email messages, of which 96.5% are rejected as spam. And this is a small-to-medium-sized organization.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Sunday Night Journal — March 23, 2008

Believe It Or Not

I think sometimes of a conversation in the mid-1970s that helped push me toward a decision when I was hearing the call to Christian faith, but was still undecided as to what it meant and what I would do about it. My friend was an intelligent and educated Christian (and probably still is, though I haven’t seen her for many years), and I was struggling with the question of whether it was really possible to believe in such a stupendous miracle as the Resurrection. I had for some time been attracted to Christianity as a sort of philosophy of life and as the shaper of our cultural world, but suffered from the naturalist and materialist prejudices of modern culture. It might be nice to believe such things, I thought, but it seemed impossible.

What I recall of the conversation is actually only one exchange. I looked her in the eye and said “Do you really believe he rose from the dead?” And I remember vividly the look on her face. She didn’t back down at all, she didn’t look down or away and fumble for words, she didn’t speak evasively. But she looked almost trapped, like a witness who would rather not answer a lawyer’s question but is under oath and unwilling to commit perjury. And her answer was simple: “Yes.”

She seemed to be “confessing” Christ in the way we use the word today, revealing something which would get her into trouble or embarrass her. This exchange was not a decisive moment, but it was influential: so, I thought, yes, people who are clearly not crazy or stupid or lying do truly believe that this thing really happened; it was not a myth or a symbol or a metaphor; it happened, in this world, just as a sunset is happening as I write these words.

The main argument against the Resurrection is a dogmatic assertion: such things simply cannot happen, therefore it did not happen, and that’s all there is to it. But the historical arguments, considered fairly, are inconclusive.

These arguments usually insist on disqualifying most of the very specific and detailed historical evidence which we call the New Testament. It’s said that this testimony doesn’t count, because it was written by Christians—in other words, it must be doubted because the people who wrote it down believed it. To state the objection that way is to answer it. Naturally only the people who believed it wrote it down; naturally their lives were changed; naturally their record became the scripture of the new religion. What greater historical evidence in favor of the belief could conceivably be produced than the testimony of eye-witnesses?

Or it’s said that the Resurrection is a myth, a story that grew in the telling over time, until respect and love for a man and his teachings produced a fanciful story of his supernatural deeds. The problem with this is that so little time actually passed between the events and the writing of them. It’s a commonly held view that the first epistles of Paul were written roughly twenty to thirty years after the Crucifixion, the synoptic Gospels within the next decade or two. I graduated from high school over forty years ago, but I don’t have any trouble recalling significant events from the time. I may not be correct about all the details, but I believe I remember the essentials well enough.

I remember, for instance, that I was elected president of the Science Club in my senior year. It would be pretty easy to prove that. If I were to claim I was elected because an angel had appeared at a meeting and told the members that God had chosen me, it would be easy to find people to say that no such thing ever happened. If, on the other hand, the people who were there supported my story, it would be harder to deny. (If I remember correctly, I was elected because the outgoing president wanted me to be, and no one objected very strongly.)

And then there’s the historical-critical approach, or its abuse, which involves accepting parts of the New Testament and rejecting others for reasons which often seem arbitrary and sometimes tautological exercises in prejudice, as in the case of the notorious Jesus Seminar.

Considered with an open mind, belief in the Resurrection is plausible because it is supported by some persuasive evidence. It remains, though, dependent on the acceptance of someone else’s testimony, and since the event is so strange and so contrary to the way the world normally works, one can also find plausible reasons to deny it.

There is no easy way out; one simply has to choose. That act of choosing is mysterious, but it often includes the desire to believe, or not to believe. One person wishes to believe, and does; another would like to believe, but is afraid to—afraid of disappointment, afraid of being a fool. One person wishes not to believe, and does not; another wishes not to believe, but cannot utterly rid himself of faith. The relationship of desire, will, and grace is obscure even, or especially, to the one in whom they are operating.

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Sunday, March 23, 2008

Trumpets, Lilies, Alleluias

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Holy Saturday

Holy Saturday is an odd time, intermediate and suspended. There's nothing happening liturgically (at least in this diocese) between the afternoon of Good Friday and the Easter Vigil late Saturday. I’m never quite sure what to do with myself. Should I go about my business as if it were any other Saturday? Presumably one should try to maintain at least some degree of continuity with the day before and the day after, but how? At any rate there is always some amount of preparation for Easter eating and visiting involved, especially for most women, without whom holidays at home would be pretty bare things. I think for at least three years in a row I intended to listen to Bach’s St. Matthew Passion on Holy Saturday. But of course there was never time, so I gave that up.

Meanwhile, on the original Holy Saturday, Jesus’s body lay in the tomb while he did whatever incomprehensible thing it was that the Nicene Creed expresses as “He descended into hell.” So maybe it’s okay for us to just step aside, and remember that the work of salvation is in its essence not ours, apart from our consent.

Good Friday

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Liturgical Notes (after Tenebrae)

Just a couple of liturgical thoughts after last night, intended more as observations than criticisms, because the service was, as I expected, excellent:

(1) Romantic (meaning of the Romantic period) music doesn’t work as part of the liturgy. The Tenebrae service last night incorporated the Stations of the Cross, and for two of the stations the music was from Schubert’s Stabat Mater. It was too agitated and drew too much attention to itself. One section in particular involved a soprano in full operatic shriek mode, far more appropriate for a love-crazed murderous (or suicidal) heroine than for worship. The Baroque or earlier music, including a section from Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater, worked much better, especially the unaccompanied choral sections, maintaining an atmosphere of somber contemplation.

(2) I’ve tried for years now, but I just can’t stop being uncomfortable with the commonly used text for the Stations of the Cross. I’m not sure where it comes from or if it has a name or author, but it’s the one in which each station ends with “Grant that I may love you always, and then do with me as you will.” It’s too effusive and florid and emotional, with kisses and embraces and addresses to Jesus as “my love.” It just doesn’t work for me. It makes me wish again for a more deeply-rooted liturgical English.

On the second point, I sometimes wonder if some of my reaction is in my genes. I may live in the semi-tropics, but I have a northern soul—as in northern Europe, not northern America. We tend to be somewhat more sparing of words, and diffident about our ability to get our deepest feelings into them, preferring implication, suggestion, and symbolism. That’s a broad generalization, of course, but there may be something to it.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Tenebrae

I can’t help feeling that there is something not quite right about looking forward with pleasure to a ceremony commemorating the betrayal and crucifixion of Christ. But I also can’t deny that I expect to enjoy the Tenebrae (“shadows”) service at our cathedral tomorrow night. It will be dignified, reverent, and beautiful, especially the music.

This Tenebrae setting by Gesualdo is not what I will hear tomorrow night; I just like the cover a great deal. If I were to come into possession of a very large amount of money, I think I would buy every single recording in the ECM New Series catalog. And have the jacket photos all over the wall.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sunday Night Journal — March 16, 2008

Death of a Cat

Now that all our children have left home, my wife and I are entirely responsible for the care of the pets that have accumulated over the years: two dogs and four cats. The oldest of the cats, Jessie, was twenty years old when she died last Monday. I mention her age and the number of cats by way of explaining and justifying the fact that we did not feel this as a deep loss. Jessie had lived longer than the average cat and had a pleasant enough life (except perhaps for the period of several years when she disappeared and presumably lived in the woods), and, to tell the brutal truth, I’m somewhat tired of feeding cats. For the past couple of years Jessie had spent roughly twenty-three and a half of every twenty-four hours sleeping, rarely moving from one of two or three favorite places. Within the past few months she had declined visibly, and so it was no surprise when she grew very weak, stopped eating, and died within a few days.

We had considered taking her to the vet for a few things that might have made her last months more comfortable, but figured that he would just recommend that we “put her down” (a term I hate), and I didn’t want to do that. I know it would have prevented the suffering she experienced in her last two days of life, but something in me recoils from it. The end came on Monday night, a couple of days after we had noticed that she was having trouble walking. I sat with her as she expired on our living room floor. Her last few hours were obviously painful. And however prepared I may have been for it, the slow and difficult departure of life from her body was still somehow appalling.

It was not so much the loss of a cat that bothered me, but the sheer ugliness of death. Humankind will never learn to accept death. We can learn to deal with it more or less gracefully, and certainly there are times when it comes as a welcome release from pain. But in general we hate and detest it. And I think this hatred is a necessary function of our consciousness. Able to see before and after the present moment, we know that things we love and moments of joy will always be lost. Apart from the physical horror of it, death is the ultimate statement of time’s dominion over us.

I often wonder about the place of pets in Christian hope. “All dogs go to heaven” is a sentimental saying that generally implies mistakes and misunderstandings about the nature of the soul and of heaven itself. But no one who has ever really loved an animal can be content with theological abstractions about the vegetative, sensitive (animal), and rational souls. It is difficult in this case (as in so many) to accept that the beloved thing is forever lost in the past. Perhaps it must be so, and we will understand and accept it. But I favor the idea that these animals will somehow be present to us in heaven because our fullest happiness requires it.

What if the master or mistress does not attain heaven, but is lost eternally? What happens to the pet then? Certainly it would in some sense always exist in the mind of God. But wouldn’t it be true that the pet as pet would not exist apart from its relationship to its master or mistress? Perhaps one’s own salvation involves more than one’s own salvation.

Another conjecture follows directly on this one: is it the case that some part of creation would be lost with every human soul that is damned? It is said that artistic creation is a sort of limited re-enactment of God’s creation. Might it also be true that human knowing constitutes, in the same limited way, an analog of the fact that to exist is to be present to the mind of God? If a flower is seen by one person before it fades, and if that person is eternally separated from God, isn’t the flower also in some sense lost or at least diminished, in that it is no longer known by that conscious knower? The delight of the conscious observer is a thing in itself.

And then the greatest question: how can a person be lost if he or she was ever loved by a person who is saved? A few days ago I posted a quotation from Father Alexander Men in which he pictured souls ascending to heaven on a rope made of their prayers for each other. I pictured these as people holding to the rope with one hand and to another person with the other. Yes, of course, we know that every person’s salvation is ultimately his or her own decision. But surely it must make a difference if a person is loved by someone who has a firm grip on the rope, and who takes hold of the other’s hand and will not let go unless God himself tells him he must?

These questions are unanswerable for now, I know, but worth thinking of as we enter Holy Week and contemplate the death that killed death.

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Sunday, March 16, 2008

Can There Be Great Composers Anymore?

That’s the question asked by a fascinating article at First Principles, the new web journal of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. It’s longer and more complex than the average web piece, so you’ll need a bit of time to absorb it. The answer might be summed up as “Well, there’s no inherent reason why there couldn’t be.”

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kitchen Stories

Janet recommended this movie to me a long time ago, and it finally floated to the top of our Netflix queue. Now I’m recommending it to everybody else.

It’s a Norwegian film (Salmer fra kj√łkkenet), and the sort that reviewers call “little:” there aren’t many characters, there isn’t a lot of action (though there is a lot of development), and most of it takes place in one location. The premise is absurd, though for all I know it may really have taken place. The time is 1950, and the Swedish government is doing research on kitchen efficiency. Having studied the Swedish housewife at length and made recommendations toward reducing the number of miles she walks in her kitchen every year, the researchers have turned their attention to the single male. To this end they dispatch a group of observers to the homes of bachelors in Norway. The observer lives in a trailer beside the house and spends his days perched on a tall chair in the kitchen noting every move made by the inhabitant. In order to maintain scientific objectivity, the observer is forbidden to have any interaction at all with his subject. (I told you it was absurd.)

As you might expect, this rule begins to break down fairly quickly, and the result is alternately amusing and touching. Beyond that, the movie becomes a sly commentary on the folly of studying the human person as a scientific specimen. It might serve as an illustration of a remark made by one of the characters in C. S. Lewis’s That Hideous Strength: “You cannot study men; you can only get to know them.”

By the way, the Internet Movie Database gives the literal translation of the title as Psalms from the Kitchen.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A Rope of Prayer

From Father Alexander Men, a Russian Orthodox priest, by way of Magnificat:

Let us try to pull ourselves together spiritually and this time let us offer the Lord a prayer for each other—not for ourselves, not for our own health, salvation or well-being, but for our sisters and brothers, for those who are dear to our hearts... Pray for them, that their way may be blessed, that the Lord may keep them and come to meet them—then all of us will ascend toward the Lord, as if holding on to that prayer.

I love that image of us ascending with “those who are dear to our hearts.” I picture everyone holding the rope with one hand and the hand of someone he loves with the other.

This is the main thing—the rest will follow—but this is essential to our lives. Then Jesus, seeing our faith, will say to all those for whom we have been praying, and to us, for whom they have been praying: “My child, awake from your sleep and your sickness, from your palsy, your spiritual paralysis; arise, your sins are forgiven you.”

I was pleased to read this because I’ve been feeling for some time now that almost the whole of my faith is to pray for others.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sunday Night Journal — March 9, 2008

Severed Children

Some years ago (at least ten) I read the The Golden Compass, the first volume of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. I had seen a review praising it in terms that made it sound promising, and thought it might be something to recommend to my children. (I think we were no longer reading books aloud at that point.) It soon became clear that it was a work of anti-Christian and particularly anti-Catholic propaganda, so between that and the fact that I didn’t find it a really compelling story I never read any more of the trilogy. I’m told by several people who have, not all of them Christians, that it eventually collapses under the burden of preaching its atheistic doctrine, which I can well believe.

But there were some things I liked about it. I liked the young heroine, Lyra. And I liked the intelligent polar bears; the bears were my favorite part of the book, actually. And I liked the daemons.

I’m a little hazy now as to exactly what the daemons are, but I think the general idea is this: they have the form of animals, and every person has one. They aren’t pets, though, but rather a sort of external manifestation of the person’s soul, of his or her deepest self, and accordingly are literally part of the person in some spiritual way. They are of different species depending on what sort of animal best expresses the essential nature of the person. If I remember correctly, they function both as companion and counselor.

The villains in the story are all affiliated with a sinister totalitarian institution which is Pullman’s paranoid fantasy version of Christianity and the agent of most of the evil in the world. Although I don’t remember enough of the plot at this point to remember why, I do recall that one of the most wicked things this “Church” does is to separate children from their daemons, which more or less destroys the children psychologically.

This is a very vivid, very effective part of the narrative. And what sticks most in my mind about it is the phrase used to describe the result of the separation: “a severed child.”

The phrase came to mind recently when I read the following passage from then-Cardinal Ratzinger’s Introduction to Christianity:

[credo (I believe)] signifies the deliberate view that what cannot be seen, what can in no wise move into the field of vision, is not unreal; that, on the contrary, what cannot be seen in fact represents true reality, the element that supports and makes possible all the rest of reality. And it signifies the view that this element that makes reality as a whole possible is also what grants man a truly human existence, what makes him possible as a human being existing in a human way. In other words, belief signifies the decision that at the very core of human existence there is a point that cannot be nourished and supported on the visible and tangible, that encounters and comes into contact with what cannot be seen and finds that it is a necessity for its own existence.

It is a necessity. One of the things I love about Ratzinger/Benedict’s writing is the way he uses complex, precise, and subtle analysis and expression to arrive at very simple, very important truths. It is a necessity for the human person to accept the reality of, and to encounter, the world of the spirit, if he wishes to be fully and truly human. To deny it is to cut oneself off from the core of one’s humanity.

In a sense we are all severed children, cut off from God. The Incarnation has made it possible for us to begin to re-establish the connection. The choice is there, for everyone and for all time. The mere knowledge that this is possible, and the faith to embark on the process, is enough to undo many of the effects of the severing; it accounts for the serenity which is one of the things we always sense in someone who seems to be far advanced along the path.

The truly severed, those who most resemble Pullman’s severed children—lost, empty, half-dead creatures—are those who deny the very possibility of what they need to be whole. Or, in other words, those who believe what Pullman preaches. Because it is a necessity for us to accept the reality of the spirit in order to be whole human beings, Pullman and his fellow atheists are like miners trapped in a cave-in, breathing stale air which will soon be exhausted of oxygen, and in delirium denying that there is or could be such a thing as fresh and wholesome air.

***

William Blake famously said that “The reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devils party without knowing it.”

Blake was wrong. If Milton’s writing is stronger when he deals with Satan it’s because, as Simone Weil said, it is inherently more difficult to depict good effectively in art than to depict evil. Phillip Pullman is terribly wrong about many things, including the nature and origin of good and evil. Some of the things he calls good are evil, but some are indeed good, and he is very mistaken in thinking that Christianity is hostile to them. At times he represents the reverse of Blake’s view of Milton: his intellectual sympathy may lie with Satan, but when he favors what is genuinely good he is a true Poet, and of God’s party without knowing it.

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Friday, March 07, 2008

Further Up and Further In

I used that phrase in last Sunday’s journal, and it’s been on my mind ever since. I expect many or most people who read this blog recognize it: it’s from the last volume of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series. Here is some context, a reminder for those who know the books, and an explanation for anyone who doesn’t. It is something of a spoiler, in that it does give away The End of the series, so someone who has not read them may want to read no further here. But it doesn’t tell how the story got here, so I don’t think it really spoils anything.

It was the Unicorn who summed up what everyone was feeling. He stamped his right fore-hoof on the ground and neighed and then cried:

“I have come home at last! This is my real country! I belong here. This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it till now.... Come further up! Come further in!”

....

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our own world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?”

Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“....Your father and mother and all of you are—as you used to call it in the Shadow-Lands—dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

....

...for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Amusements

It seems plausible that this can only exist because of some odd disruption in the fabric of the universe. Come to think of it, the disruption may be increased every time someone views it. Click at your own risk. Or everybody’s:

Hat tip to Rod Dreher.

********************

Are you a white person? Not sure? Find out how much your tastes overlap with those of white people at Stuff White People Like. Just to pick one from the list at random: #76, Bottles of Water:

Water seems like a fairly simple concept. You turn on the tap, put glass underneath, and drink. Sadly, it is not this simple for white people.

On the whole, they are unable to put a glass under a tap and just drink.....

Actually it’s mostly stuff white liberals like, relatively young white liberals, almost what we would have called yuppies twenty-plus years ago, but that isn’t as immediately funny. Hat tip to Will, who is too busy with #81 to update his blog.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A Little Night Music from Sibelius

I mean literally little: the brief Romance in Cmaj for String Orchestra, of which you can hear a thirty-second sample at the preceding link. This is a very lovely piece which I discovered a month or two ago only because it’s packaged with the 2nd Symphony. (I bought this “disk” as mp3s but am slightly compulsive about getting the complete album.)

I often like to have a little musical nightcap at bedtime, and this is perfect: tranquil and sweet, but substantial. Usually I find the sort of short piece that’s just there to fill out a cd to be forgettable, but not this one.

Another recent find suitable for the same occasion: the 2nd movement of Mozart’s first string quintet.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Sunday Night Journal — March 2, 2008

On Not Being an Ex-Protestant

Last week Rod Dreher (see “Crunchy Con” link at right), apropos a news story about the frequency with which Americans change their religion, had a series of posts asking people who had done so why they left one faith for another. One of these was titled “What Makes an Ex-Protestant?” In considering what answer I would make to that question, I realized that although I am, technically, an ex-Protestant, I don’t think the term is an accurate way of describing the development of my faith. It might have been so for a year or two immediately before and after my entry into the Catholic Church, but it certainly has not remained so.

I grew up in the Methodist Church, became an atheist in my teens and a sort of syncretist around the age of twenty or so, and returned to Christianity in my late 20s. I spent several years in the Episcopal Church, and became a Catholic in my early 30s, having become convinced that Protestantism has an insoluble and fatal problem in the question of authority. (Catholicism has a problem, too, but it is not fatal.) I still believe that, but the most appropriately descriptive title for my story is not “How I Ceased to be a Protestant and Became a Catholic,” or even “How I Became a Catholic,” but “How I Turned My Back on God and Then Returned to Him.” Or, even better as a broad outline, and leaving out that unfortunate ten or twelve years of wandering, the title C. S. Lewis gives to one of the climactic chapters of the Chronicles of Narnia: “Further Up and Further In.”

I do not see a radical disjuncture between the Methodism of my youth and the Catholicism of my maturity. The Methodist Church I knew in the late ‘50s and early-to-mid ‘60s was not the secular liberal society it seems to have become, at least at the top, since then. And it was not principally the Methodist denomination at large that I encountered, but a specific place and people: Belle Mina Methodist Church, in Belle Mina, Alabama (the name is thought to be some Yankee’s attempt to transcribe the words “Belle Manor,” as spoken with a Southern accent).

I’ve often wanted to write a lengthy tribute to this little parish. In case I never manage to get that done, I’ll at least state briefly here my affection and gratitude toward it. It was a small and unsophisticated congregation, and though it began to seem dull and oppressive to me in my teens as I began to resent religion in general, it was in fact kindly and generous. When I look back on my childhood and early youth there, I cannot think of a moment when I was not treated with affection and forbearance.

Most important, though, is the fact that it gave me the Faith. I hear sometimes from younger people (Rod Dreher is one) that the Methodist Church they knew was an empty shell, preaching a gospel from which traditional Christian doctrine had been removed in favor of a worldly progressivism. I don’t know if that’s broadly true or not, but it’s certainly not the church I grew up in. My church taught something close to what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity,” and was rock-solid on the basics of the creed. When I “joined the church”—a rite which I now see was a sort of non-sacramental version of Confirmation—at the age of twelve or thirteen I was instructed by a man who still remains in my mind as the perfect type of what a Christian shepherd of souls should be; I mean as a man, apart from the sacramental role which of course Methodism does not attribute to its ministers. He was called, if I remember correctly, Brother Wilson, a white-haired old man who was both genial and firm, kindly and tolerant but uncompromising on matters of faith.

It’s not wise, of course, to dwell too much on what might have been, and anyway, as Lewis also says, we are not permitted to know. But if I could change one thing in my life, it would be my rejection of what I learned in that little white building. Far from repudiating it now, I embrace it and bitterly regret that I ever rejected it; if I had not done so, much harm, to myself and to others, might have been averted. But even so, the foundation that was laid there undoubtedly kept things from being even worse than they were. And years later, in a time of deep trouble, I found myself saying the Lord’s Prayer which had been taught to me there. Even though I didn’t really believe what I was praying, it was from that moment that I reckon the beginning of my recovery. Later on, the presence in my mind of the Apostle’s Creed, which Brother Wilson had us memorize, made it easy for me to recognize the apostasy of liberal Christianity for what it was.

Apart from Protestant mistakes about the nature of the Church, nothing that I believe as a Catholic contradicts any essential theological or moral truth that I was taught at Belle Mina Methodist. Much was missing, of course, but little was explicitly contradicted. When I returned to Christian faith in my late 20s, I did not set out on a new path, but rather regained the one I had been on. I’ve gone further up and further in, and I see Methodism, as a body of doctrine, lower down and further out. But it’s within the Kingdom. If I make it to heaven, I will expect to meet Brother Wilson there, and the first thing I’ll say to him will be to ask his forgiveness for having foolishly discarded what he worked so hard to give me.

Here is a picture of the church. Here is a set of photos that include a couple of pictures of the church as well as other scenes in the area where I grew up (including more pictures of Greenbrier Barbecue).

Oh, and here is the Crunchy Con thread about ex-Protestants.

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