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October 2007

A Little Williams for Halloween

I'm not sure it makes sense to talk of tradition where a blog is concerned, but I know I mentioned Charles Williams' All Hallows' Eve here last All Hallows' Eve, and perhaps another year as well, and I think I'll make it a tradition. This is one of my favorite books. I don't know of anything else which makes the spiritual quite so real.

In this passage, a woman named Lester (yes, that's right) encounters her husband, Richard. She is dead. He is living. They are working together on something which I can't explain without a long synopsis, so I'm editing out the parts that wouldn't make sense without that.

Lester saw him. She felt, as he came, all her old self lifting in her; bodiless, she seemed to recall her body in the joy they exchanged. She said—and he only heard, and he rather knew than heard, but some sound of speech rang in the room...—she said, "I'll wait for you a million years." She felt a stir within her, as if life quickened....If Richard or she went now, it would not much matter; their fulfillment was irrevocably promised them, in what manner so-ever they knew or were to know it.

I'm not absolutely sure what that last clause ("in what manner...") means. I think it indicates that their fulfillment would be, in fact, fulfillment; it would not be subject to any deficiency whatever.

(Here is the post from last Halloween.)

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Ain't It Grand? (2)

Perhaps the phrase "ain't it grand?" comes across as "ain't I grand?" Or "ain't we grand?"—we Christians, self-congratulatory rather than grateful. I don't hear it that way in Blind Willie McTell's song, and certainly didn't intend it that way. I think, rather, of someone walking around in a marvelous place, exclaiming in delight. Or myself, standing on the seashore: "Lord, it is good for us to be here." This is not a boast, but an expression of gratitude. I have no idea why one person receives the faith—is called, and answers—and another does not; I mean, I know the theological explanations, but they still leave me in the dark as to the interplay between the secret movements of any soul and the grace of God. But the believer deserves, at most, credit only for saying "yes."

On the subject of atheism: Theodore Dalrymple offers another interesting view of the current crop of wrathfully atheistic writers (Christopher Hitchens et.al.) vs. Christianity. Dalrymple is in an uncomfortable position: he doesn't believe, but he sees that the Christian view is much richer and more human:

A few years back, the National Gallery held an exhibition of Spanish still-life paintings. One of these paintings had a physical effect on the people who sauntered in, stopping them in their tracks; some even gasped. I have never seen an image have such an impact on people. The painting, by Juan Sánchez Cotán, now hangs in the San Diego Museum of Art. It showed four fruits and vegetables, two suspended by string, forming a parabola in a gray stone window.

Even if you did not know that Sánchez Cotán was a seventeenth-century Spanish priest, you could know that the painter was religious: for this picture is a visual testimony of gratitude for the beauty of those things that sustain us. Once you have seen it, and concentrated your attention on it, you will never take the existence of the humble cabbage—or of anything else—quite so much for granted, but will see its beauty and be thankful for it.

You can read the whole thing here.

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Sunday Night Journal — October 28, 2007

Ain’t It Grand?

Ain’t it grand
To be a Christian?
Ain’t it grand?

—Blind Willie McTell

A few weeks ago my wife and I were in a restaurant which had a pretty good selection of pop music playing in the background. The music wasn’t loud enough to be heard clearly, but I kept recognizing songs when a loud guitar or vocal line cut through the ambient noise. One of these was the guitar solo in Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” which is not a favorite song of mine but has always caught my attention because of these poignant lines:

When I was a child I caught a fleeting glimpse
Out of the corner of my eye
I turned to look but it was gone
I cannot put my finger on it now
The child is grown, the dream is gone

I suppose most people recognize the sensation described there, and the sadness that comes with it. I know it very well myself, and have done for as long as I can remember. But it struck me that evening, with a great sense of relief, that to be a Christian is to believe that the sadness is not the end of the story. That “fleeting glimpse” is not just a stray emotion, a meaningless fluctuation of consciousness, a bit of irrational hope that is ultimately no hope at all. It is a real glimpse of something that is really there. The inexpressible yearnings known by every human heart have a real object, and a real hope of attaining it.

Materialism and atheism have their built-in presuppositions and prejudices, and one of these is the notion that the burden of proof is always on the non-materialist. They scoff at this universal desire for the transcendently perfect, but as a matter of objective reason, it is at least as plausible that the desire itself should constitute evidence of its object as that it should be considered a pointless emotion. After all, as many have pointed out: we know hunger, and food exists; we know thirst, and water exists; we know sexual desire, and sex exists; we long for love, and love exists; we desire to know, and knowledge exists. It should be at least puzzling to anyone who thinks about the question with an open mind that we could have a spiritual hunger that cannot, in the nature of things, ever hope to be satisfied.

A week or two after the “Comfortably Numb” incident I was reading an article in The Atlantic by an evolutionary biologist arguing for a purely naturalistic explanation of altruism and generosity. The underlying assumption was that it’s very important to have such an explanation. It’s not enough that evolution be able to explain the material development of the human body; it must explain everything, including our moral development and the existence of morality itself. For those committed to the idea that scientific materialism is the only valid approach to reality, all of reality must, obviously, be seen as the sort of thing that can be approached this way. Therefore evolution must be an all-encompassing explanation. The author said nothing about this goal, but it was implicit throughout the article.

The theoretical objections to this view are obvious, and have been taken up by people much better equipped for it than I am. What struck me was the sheer unnecessary constriction and narrowness of it, and the sense of how much larger my mental world is than the author’s. My conception of the world includes the material, and more; the materialist’s cannot admit even the least trace of the spiritual. I can believe in everything that science can establish about the material world; I can also believe in a God who created that world for purposes of his own. Therefore I do not have to forcibly crush my natural instinct to look for purpose in the world, or in my own life. I do not have to crush my instinctive belief that love is something real, not just a byproduct of material phenomena. Or my belief that the self which is the one thing of which I am immediately and indisputably conscious has no actual existence. Or my belief that good and evil are objective categories. Or my belief that to choose one over the other must have some sort of ultimate consequence for the chooser.

None of this proves that Christian belief is true, of course. But it does mean that one who holds it lives in a world that is far more naturally suited to human beings than the world of the materialist. It is a grand world, in two senses: it is both large and splendid. I have yet to hear a convincing materialistic explanation of how such creatures as ourselves got into a world which is so much less than they are.

Note: you may, depending on how your computer is configured, be able to hear a thirty-second sample of that Blind Wille McTell song here, at the Amazon page for the CD. Or try this eMusic sample. But the one at Amazon is better; it’s a later recording on which you can really hear the big ol’ 12-string guitar.

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Music of the Week: October 28, 2007

The Ramones: The Ramones

I pretty much skipped punk rock in its day. What little I saw and heard of it didn’t much appeal to me—both the sound and the marketing imagery suggested flat, dull, monotonous. I didn’t even hear the Sex Pistols until sometime in the late ‘80s, when a younger co-worker lent me Never Mind the Bollocks. “I think you’re going to find this a bit of a letdown,” he said. “I guess it was something new at the time but now it just sort of sounds like bad heavy metal.” Yep.

But now and then someone tells me there really was something to the whole thing, and of course it became a major part of the pop music culture. So I’ve been trying to give myself a little education in the punk classics, and it doesn’t get much more punk and more classic than this album.

I can certainly see why, at a time when pompous and over-elaborate progressive rock shared the spotlight with dull country-folk rock (stigmatized for me by the term “mellow”) and vacant disco, the idea of going back to three chords and a cloud of dust (to borrow a football image) was both appealing and in fact needed. And I’m all for the do-it-yourself aspect of the punk movement, for encouraging people to make their own music without waiting to be spoon-fed by the radio (although of course the effect was mostly to have them spoon-fed by a different set of fashionable people, but that’s another story).

But I just don’t really like this album that much. I do get the joke, I think. I know the stupidity is deliberate. And it’s fun in small doses—four or five of these fourteen songs are extremely catchy and would be great to hear in the middle of a mix of more substantial stuff.

But there’s too much irony in it. It might seem strange to say that the problem with the Ramones is that they’re too artsy, but it’s true. The Ramones is almost a sort of conceptual art (starting with the stage names), less music than a statement about music, and a curiously flat one. The musical and emotional range is so deliberately limited that it begins to feel oppressive. This is a very short album (about 29 minutes), but I find it difficult to listen to the whole thing at once; to hear more than four or five songs in a row gives me a sense of unpleasant constriction.

I’ve read more than one tribute to the Ramones that goes on about how they restored rock-and-roll to its position in some extra-musical project, usually an incoherent desire for cultural revolution, which in turn is what rock-and-roll is “really about.” (Example from the liner notes of the Ramones anthology I’ve been listening to: “The four short lines of ‘Commando’…in one absurdist swoop obliterated the religio-jingoistic cold warspeak of the day.”)

Wrong. It’s about music, and the obscure rockers of the ‘50s and ‘60s who were claimed as inspiration for punk were making the best music of which they were capable, not dumbing themselves down as some sort of cultural statement. “96 Tears” may have been dumb but it wasn’t ironic. Although this music deliberately imitates certain aspects of the garage-rock sound that appeared in the mid-‘60s, its flattened emotional quality is totally different, and in that respect more truly a testimony to the atmosphere of the mid-‘70s than it was probably meant to be.

But I admit it probably would have been fun to be at this gig (CBGBs, 1977):

Although this song always leaves me wanting to hear “I Fought the Law.”

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Nightwish: Sleeping Sun

Nightwish is one of the most well-known goth/symphonic metal bands, and one that I've been wanting to investigate for some time, but hadn't, mainly because they aren't available on eMusic and cds are too expensive for experimenting. It occurred to me the other day to look for them on YouTube, and I found the video below.

There are no doubt those of you—almost all of you, more likely—who scoff at my interest in this sub-genre. And I admit I feel slightly sheepish about it—not only is the music often at least implicitly anti-Christian, but it's frequently way over the top aesthetically. So I'm offering this by way of partial explanation: it's moments like this, mixed in with the blast and thunder, that make the style affecting. Not that there are many quite this good, but it doesn't take many to keep me looking.

By the way, if you sample any of their other videos that will appear on the page with this one, be aware that they're mostly pretty definitely metal, and quite loud.

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Speaking of Flannery O'Connor

Robert pointed me to an excellent post at Church of the Masses discussing O'Connor. It's mostly from a talk by Archbishop George Niederauer of San Francisco, and he quotes O'Connor a lot. My favorite:

I don't think you should write something as long as a novel around anything that is not of the gravest concern to you and everybody else, and for me this is always the conflict between an attraction for the Holy and the disbelief in it that we breathe in with the air of our times. It's hard to believe always but more so in the world we live in now. There are some of us who have to pay for our faith every step of the way and who have to work out dramatically what it would be like without it and if being without it would be ultimately possible or not.

And I like this from the Archbishop:

Genuine Christian faith transforms the meaning and value of everything; cosmetic Christianity merely brightens Sunday morning and highlights the tiny compartment of life labeled "religion.

So many in the post-Christian West have rejected the cosmetic Sunday morning thing without ever encountering the reality. (Personally I would not say that superficial Christianity "brightens" Sunday morning, but rather the opposite.)

You can read the whole thing here.

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"He wasn't absent, I was"

That's from a brief but striking statement by German director Wim Wenders about his return to belief in God. I'm tempted just to quote the whole thing, but that's bad manners, so please go read it for yourself, over at Mere Comments. MC in turn is quoting it from a recent issue of Image magazine (see link in sidebar), which has a sort of symposium in which a number of artists comment on the question "Why believe in God?" Sounds interesting, or more.

I saw Wenders' film Wings of Desire some years ago and have been wanting to see it again. As I recall it had a pretty questionable theological slant but was fascinating, including some really memorable images, and probably the only film that has appearances by Nick Cave and Peter ("Columbo") Falk.

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In Memoriam: Jean Horton Blythe 1947-1979

In addition to my own brothers and sisters, four in all, I grew up with three cousins, daughters of my father's brother, who lived close by, across the pasture about a hundred yards or so away. The older two were about my age—Jean a little older, Susan a little younger—and were almost like extra sisters. I think I still remember all of our birthdays. Today is Jean's.

When I think of Jean, I think of three things: golden hair, green eyes, and sickness. Even when we were very small—I mean four or five years old—I was vaguely aware that there was something pleasant about looking at her, even when we were fighting. Retrieving memories now, I see that she was really a beautiful child.

I was also aware that there was something wrong with her body. She had violent and frequent coughing fits and her breathing was sometimes oddly loud and heavy. And I knew that she sometimes went to the hospital, and that there were things she couldn't do, and that sometimes the family's activities were limited by some concern for her health. She was always thin and frail-looking, although surprisingly strong and energetic. For some years—until she was eleven or twelve, I think—her mother taught her at home while the rest of us went off to school. But I just accepted all this, as children do, without giving it a lot of thought, as being the way things were. It was perhaps easier to do that because she was always so full of vitality and good spirits; any weakness that got in the way of her playing with the rest of us was just a sort of natural obstacle, like the briars and the cow manure that interfered with our pasture baseball games, that we all worked around. Her mother, I can see now, was understandably riddled with anxiety, but managed to give her the freedom to be as much of an ordinary child as possible.

I was somewhere well into my teens before I knew the name of her disease: cystic fibrosis. In those days children diagnosed with it were not expected to live past adolescence. Jean lived long enough to graduate from college, marry, and have a daughter, making it about halfway through her 31st year. Her daughter has her eyes.

When I learned of Jean's death I had a very strong reaction of disbelief. I don't mean disbelief that her death had occurred, as I had long understood that she would die young. I mean disbelief that she had ceased to exist. Whatever had happened to her, and it certainly involved her removal from our world, I knew that there must be somewhere, somehow, on some plane of reality, a green and gold essence of Jean that still lived. And I could only imagine it freed from the sickness that had always hobbled her.

I find these days that I have an increasing confidence that heaven exists and less and less of a coherent and specific idea of what it might be like. Nothing that I can imagine can transcend the limits and defects of this present world; I mean that literally; where I begin to imagine such transcendence, my imagination begins to fail me. But I do find myself thinking of it, broadly, in somewhat Platonic terms. In some reality which we can never hope to enter by our own power, to which we can only be taken, is the real Jean, the one who always has existed and always will exist in the mind of God, the one who exists perfectly because God has thought of her that way and whatever is in the mind of God is real, eternally.

...it doth not yet appear what we shall be (1 John 3:2)

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On the Feast of St. James

You'd think that after 25-plus years as a Catholic I'd be more conscious of saints' days. Especially this one, since my first name is James, although the name was given to me, as one in a long line of Protestants, only as a family name. I wouldn't have noticed that this is St. James's day if I hadn't happened across a mention of it at the Touchstone blog (see sidebar for link).

Anyway, here is a thought from the Epistle of James, from the King James version:

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

I've always liked that phrase "shadow of turning," usually translated nowadays as something like "shadow caused by change."

And another:

For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath showed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment.

As Chesterton says (approximately): children, being innocent, love justice, but adults, being guilty, love mercy. "Is there no mercy?" asks Professor Borg in Wild Strawberries. His accuser can't answer the question. But apparently there is.

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Sunday Night Journal — October 21, 2007

An Extraordinary Logic: Wild Strawberries

I’ve been planning to re-acquaint myself with the Bergman films I saw and loved many years ago, and to see those I haven’t, which are many. This is my first step, and as it turns out a very good place to begin. I would recommend it to anyone who’s curious about Bergman but has been put off by what they’ve heard about him, or perhaps, as someone said here a while back, by a bad experience with one of his more difficult or disturbing works.

This film is also a good example of what makes the non-religious Bergman so interesting to some Christians, especially to Catholics. It’s not only that he takes on the big questions and treats them profoundly. It’s that many of the themes of Christian spiritual life work themselves out on an earthly level in the lives of his characters. Wild Strawberries is very similar in that respect to Babette’s Feast, another great film which has no religious intention but is much loved by Catholics because it bears such deep and clear parallels to certain aspects of the faith. It’s not hard to suppose—in fact it’s hard not to suppose—that Bergman’s childhood as the son of a Lutheran clergyman left his mind deeply impressed with Christian ways of thinking even though he rejected the faith. He consistently confirms our belief that the empty place in the human heart is, in fact, as we are so often told, God-shaped.

Wild Strawberries might be described as a story about Purgatory, an earthly and secular rendering of the process we can all expect to undergo after death. It’s a process that frequently begins before death for one who is open to it, a painful process of recognizing how and where one has failed and what one may have lost as a result—a recognition which may itself be the punishment for those failures—and of preparing to accept forgiveness. The film is the account of one day in the life of an elderly physician, Isak Borg, in which both internal and external events come together to confront him with his failures as lover, husband, and father, bringing him a deep and almost unbearable pain (“Is there no mercy?” he begs at one point) followed by the beginnings of reconciliation. And it’s so beautifully done in every way, so rich in its details and their meanings, that anyone who is susceptible to Bergman’s art is likely to find himself wanting to watch it over and over again.

The Criterion Collection (may it be praised) DVD also includes an interview with Bergman. Any Bergman fan who’s acquainted with Wild Strawberries but hasn’t seen this interview should seek this disk out at once. It was done in 1998, when Bergman was 80 and semi-retired. He comes across as a surprisingly unpretentious man, given his achievement and celebrity. Toward the end of the interview he speaks interestingly and movingly about death and faith.

The first comes up in reference to his beloved third wife, whom he married in 1971 and who had died in 1995. His grief is plain; he describes himself, calmly, as “crippled” by her death. And he goes on to say that after having been terribly afraid of death for many years he had, around the time he made The Seventh Seal, at last taken comfort in the idea that it would be a simple extinction. But his wife’s death has disturbed this comfort: that he might never meet her again is “an unbearable thought,” in “violent conflict” with his previously comforting views. Anyone who has his own unbearable thoughts will sympathize.

And when the interviewer asks him if he has perhaps returned to faith in his old age, Bergman dismisses the idea with a laugh, but then begins to reflect: he is “not what you would call religious in any way” but has “a whole lot of ideas about other realities that surround me. I have the feeling sometimes that we’re part of an infinitely larger pattern….You can feel that sometimes.”

Indeed. Or, in the words Bergman gave to Isak Borg some fifty years ago: “In this jumble of events, I seemed to discern an extraordinary logic.”

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Postscript: This Is More Like It

On the occasion of Bergman’s death in July of this year, I was irritated by a rather stupid (may as well speak plainly) dismissal of his work by John Podhoretz. Some weeks later my friend Robert sent me a link to this far more perceptive piece by John Simon. Perhaps the Shakespeare comparison reaches too far, but I have no doubt that Simon is far closer to the mark.

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