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December 2011

Further English Food Update

Cooper's Oxford Marmalade: Excellent. Doesn't look like the orange marmalade we have here, which is, like, orange, probably with chemical assistance. This is brown. It has a bitter edge of orange peel, which I like and doesn't seem to be present in American marmalade anymore. I thought maybe that was just an effect of my aging taste buds.

Branston pickle: Odd at first bite, but quite tasty. When I opened the jar I thought the smell was very familiar, but I couldn't place it. Then someone else recognized it: it's very much like some steak sauces, such as A-1 and Heinz 57. It went very nicely with the leftover Christmas turkey we had for dinner last night.

I haven't been back to the Marmite jar. I do plan to finish it, but I probably won't replace it.

The Queen's Message and Other Christmas News

Sunday Night Journal — December 25, 2011

We've had a pretty quiet and very pleasant Christmas Day. Only one of our four children is here, and we slept late and didn't eat breakfast until after 11 or so. Now it's getting late, and I'm sitting in the living room near the Christmas tree and listening to the rain. My wife and I had been so busy for the past couple of months that we hadn't thought about Christmas as much as we usually do (I certainly hadn't; she still managed to make some definite plans about food and family get-togethers.) Last weekend we bought a tree and she put the lights on it. We planned to wait till this weekend to finish decorating it, but suddenly realized late last night that we'd completely forgotten about that. So we've left it that way. It's actually rather nice, having only lights, although I think I prefer it with the full outfit, especially the glass ornaments that multiply the light.

I never have been able to take a good picture of one of our Christmas trees. I probably need to set up a tripod, because the exposure time is too long for me to keep the camera still. So I took one of my bad ones and messed it up even further, the way it might look if you were falling asleep while looking at it.


I'm not sure how I ended up at the BBC's site earlier today watching the Queen's Christmas message. But I'm glad I did. I found it impressive and touching, and began to think that it might not be a bad thing to have a monarch. As I've mentioned here more than once, I get the impression from conservative British writers that the Queen's domain is in steep and irreversible decline. But you certainly wouldn't think that from listening to her. It is a heartening message, and makes me hope that there really is such a thing as the Anglosphere.

A Marmite Encounter of the Third Kind

Speaking of British things, I have finally tasted Marmite. As it turns out, one can in fact buy it in at least one of the supermarkets here (the Publix chain). I of course am a great lover of English literature, and my wife and I have watched an awful lot of BBC TV productions, and read an awful lot of English novels, and we've both been curious about some of the English foods that are always being mentioned in those works. So for Christmas I bought a number of various English foodstuffs that could be found locally and packaged them as a present, officially for my wife, but really for both of us. And I included Marmite.

My wife had been snarking about my plans to eat "that stuff made out of motor oil." I thought that unjust, because it appeared to me (or rather I assumed) from photographs that it looked more like apple butter. But on opening the jar I discovered that my wife's impression was more accurate. No, it doesn't look like motor oil, but it looks almost exactly like that heavy grease that mechanics put in a thing called a grease gun (I'm not sure if those are still in use or if they've been made obsolete by some other technology). 

In accordance with instructions from actual English and Australian persons, I buttered and toasted a piece of bread (inauthentically, however, I used pumpernickel rye), and spread a thin layer of Marmite over it. I resisted the temptation to taste the pure stuff first.

I suppose it's a bit of an anticlimax that I was neither appalled nor delighted. Overwhelmingly, it is salty. As salty as tinned anchovies--which I like. I can't say I like it very much, but I didn't find it sickening, either. If you haven't tasted it: imagine anchovy paste, but with a yeasty rather than fishy taste under the saltiness. I am rather surprised that anyone ever thought to market it as a food, and even more so that he was successful.

I had asked my wife, half-jokingly, to buy me some Marmite for Christmas, so I had to tell her I'd already done that, so she wouldn't. Other than that, I didn't mention any of these foodstuffs to her. One of things I bought was lemon curd. Imagine my consternation when she announced a day or two ago that she had just seen a recipe for lemon curd and was going to try making it for Christmas. I couldn't believe it. We have been married for 34 years, and I think one small jar of lemon curd which we had bought or perhaps been given some years ago was the only time lemon curd had ever so much as been named between us. I couldn't tell her not to bother without giving away my whole plan, so I let her go to all that trouble. Well, it was delicious, and the bought stuff can stay in its jar for a while.


A few weeks ago I was thinking that this might be the last Sunday Night Journal. As in 2009, when I took a year-long break from it, I have been wrestling with the tension between producing it and doing some of the bigger projects that I have in mind. I don't quite want to give it up, though. I think I'll keep it for a while longer, but make it shorter and lighter, not try to cram serious essays into it. We'll see whether this results in any actual increase of work on those other projects.

Another Kind of Love Story

For the past several days I've been seeing a story on Google News, which I look at several times a day, with a headline about "The Nun Who Kissed Elvis." I didn't pay any attention, figuring that it was just some silly episode, probably from the '60s, in which a foolish nun developed a crush on Elvis. But this morning the story appeared in our local paper, and I found that it was nothing of the sort. Here's the same AP story that was in the paper. The paper also included a picture of her as a young woman. She was, as her film career would indicate, quite a beauty.

There is an intriguing spiritual biography here. I was especially struck by the continued connection with her onetime fiancé, because I once contemplated using just such a story in a novel that I don't expect ever to write now, but had serious doubts as to whether it was plausible, whether any order of nuns would have permitted such a thing. 

God is Being

Instead of attempting to free ourselves from the things of the senses, or abstracting from them, we should try to probe deeper into them; not stopping at their external appearance, which changes, but seeking what is hidden deep in their substance; their being, in a word. For God is Being. And thus we shall find him beneath the veil of the senses.

This is the meaning of the Incarnation. God became tangible, in order to teach us to find him in all that we touch and see and feel; for we are necessarily bound to the senses in this life. Jesus did not do away with these external contacts; what he taught us is not to stop at them.

—Dom Augustin Guillerand

(from Magnificat)

Christopher Hitchens, RIP

Sunday Night Journal — December 18, 2011

At least half the Christian and/or conservative bloggers and pundits will have something to say on the passing of Mr. Hitchens, and most of it will be somewhere between mildly sympathetic and adoring. This is a curious phenomenon, because he was not a conservative, and he was an anti-Christian bigot. We feel this way—I say "we" because I'm in the mildly, or perhaps a bit more than mildly, sympathetic range—because we believe him to have been intellectually courageous and honest. We believe he loved the truth, and his Christian sympathizers and admirers believe that love of the truth is love of God, and so we were willing to forgive him his bigotry. And, more importantly, to believe or at least hope that God would forgive it.

Before going any further I have to say emphatically that I don't intend what follows as any sort of definitive judgment. My acquaintance with Hitchens's work is relatively slight, most of it the book reviews in The Atlantic, the occasional essay in Slate or Vanity Fair, the occasional interview. So it's entirely possible that I'm not judging him fairly. 

With that qualification stated: I do not think he was quite the thinker or writer that many consider him. That he was brilliant and wrote brilliantly I wouldn't deny. But I haven't seen much evidence that he was profound.

I used the word "bigotry" above. I think it's the correct word for his attitude toward Christianity and toward religion in general, and bigotry is a pretty grave intellectual flaw. One cannot wholeheartedly admire the intellect of a man who exhibits such a depth of it on such an important matter. It is a failure of both the honesty and courage which we imputed to him (I don't believe that it takes any great courage to attack Christianity these days). I had always enjoyed his writings on literature, but once I became aware of how unreliable he was on the subject of religion I began to wonder whether I could trust him on other subjects. Read, for example, his review of Wolf Hall, a novel about reformation England, and then this one by the anonymous blogger who calls herself Alias Clio (well, actually, she calls herself Musette, the mortal servant of Clio).  I think the second is more perceptive. 

And his writing is fluid, rich, and elegant, often witty, supported by what appears to be a comfortable erudition. But is it? Once you have realized that, in speaking of religion, Hitchens was able to combine an enormous and intimidating confidence with ignorance and incomprehension, you're suspicious. Those of us who have little learning of our own, and little opportunity to acquire it, can only trust or distrust those who appear to have it; we can't judge for ourselves. It's a bit like your relationship with an auto mechanic, if you have no appreciable knowledge or skill in that area: if you once discover that the mechanic has confidently replaced a part that wasn't broken, you don't have the same confidence in him—especially if he refuses to acknowledge his mistake.

The first sentence of the book review I linked to above is a good example of this combination of skill and quite false assurance:

Early last fall, the Vatican extended a somewhat feline paw in the direction of that rather singular group of Christians sometimes denominated as “Anglo-Catholic.”

A somewhat feline paw. That's a striking and effective image. And yet it grossly distorts the event it describes. A deep, intense, and difficult dialogue has been going on between Rome and Canterbury for decades, with high hopes often entertained for its success, and this latest development represents not a move in a chess game—in which the object, of course, is victory—but something closer to an act of despair, a recognition that the hoped-for reunion is not going to happen. It is the result of a painful decision balancing the hopes of bringing the two institutions closer together against the desire to welcome a group of Christians who have been abandoned by their own communion. Hitchens, as the rest of the paragraph makes clear, can see only a power struggle. Moreover, he exhibits the sometimes amusing but mostly exasperating reflex of some post-Christian Englishmen: no longer Protestant, but still anti-Catholic in a paranoid sort of way, he seems to think it still possible that a Jesuit might spring from a priest-hole and sweep him away to the torture chambers. Pope Benedict personally gets only a passing mention in the review, but elsewhere Hitchens has written not only viciously but stupidly about this man who has, I would guess, twice the erudition and three times the wisdom of Hitchens himself.

I had a teacher once who was a great lover of Yeats. But in a conversation with me late in his career he confessed that he no longer regarded Yeats as being quite as important as he once had. It was not that his enjoyment of the poetry, as poetry, had lessened, but that he had come to see Yeats's style as a sort of rhetoric that was often greater than its subject: that there was somewhat less to the poetry than meets the eye. It appears to me that something like that is operative in Hitchens's work; its brilliant surface—brilliant in an English way that's especially impressive to Americans—often makes it appear better—more accurate, more profound—than it really is. 

Yet, with all the reservations above, I don't think we are wrong to admire him. The fact that he had huge blind spots, and was perhaps not so accomplished a writer and thinker as some esteemed him, does not mean that he didn't have the virtues often attributed to him. If a man sets out willingly to battle a dragon, he deserves credit for courage even if it turns out that the dragon was not a dragon at all, or that he attacked it in the wrong way with the wrong weapons. 

Hitchens was applauded by conservatives and especially neo-conservatives for his willingness to question and then to break with the left, with a quasi-religious view of the world that he had inhabited for most of his life. That took courage. His support of the Iraq war, whether it was right or wrong, was based on a genuine attempt to understand what is happening in the Middle East and what the West can and should do about it. 

Whether we agreed with him or not, those of us who admired and respected him felt that he was trying to see and understand the world as it really is, and to follow that understanding wherever it led, whatever offense might be done to conventional opinion. I find it impossible to believe that he wasn't sometimes speaking out of a simple and somewhat juvenile desire to shock and to play the rebel. But I also believe that he genuinely hated cant, whatever its source, and that his fundamental intention was always to seek out and to face reality. This is the stuff of which great faith is made, and what made so many Christians feel a kinship with him. We hoped he would convert, of course, and put his brilliance to a better purpose. And after his cancer was diagnosed some hoped, and a few predicted, that it would be the catalyst for a change of mind. But to tell the truth I'm almost glad that didn't happen: I wouldn't have wanted to see him back down out of a simple fear of death. In his last illness he refused to avert his eyes from the reality of his situation, and in this piece in Vanity Fair (was it his last?) he shoots down that popular and obviously shaky proverb of Nietzsche's, "Whatever does not kill me makes me stronger." If there is some element of spiritual truth at the core of that, it is manifestly false in the physical realm, and often enough in the psychological, and I don't think Nietzsche would have cared for the power-of-positive-thinking twist it has been given in recent popular culture.

I also don't think Hitchens would have wanted obituaries that were anything less than honest, which is why I've said here exactly what I think.

I had thought I might gather up some of the obituaries and tributes, but there are simply too many for me to sort through. Google the name "Hitchens" and you'll turn up plenty of them. You really must read his brother Peter's first published reaction, though. (Thanks to Robert for passing that along to me.)

I was about to post this when I ran across this piece by Hitchens in which he discusses the death in Iraq of a young soldier whose decision to enlist was partly due to Hitchens's writing. I believe it settles the question of whether he could be profound.

Maddy Prior & the Carnival Band: The Angel Gabriel

(Advent) Weekend Music

Maddy Prior With The Carnival Band - A Tapestry Of Carols - 08 - The Angel Gabriel

I heard this song used in an Advent context somewhere recently, and looked for it on YouTube, but didn't find it. So I'm trying something new: uploading my own copy. TypePad has an audio feature which I've never used before. There's a little play/pause control on the left side of the panel above, or should be, which appears when you roll the mouse over it.  This is illegal, so I will probably take it down after a week or two. May I suggest that if you like it you purchase the album? which, as I never tire of saying, is my favorite single Christmas album.

From the SNJ Archives

One of my many, many unfinished projects is the conversion to blog posts of all the Sunday Night Journal entries that were published in hand-crafted HTML before I started this blog in 2006. Here's July 11, 2004, on the subject of the intelligent design movement.

Since I wrote that piece I've become considerably less hopeful that ID would have much effect on the evolution debate. Its opponents seem to have been able to deflect its attacks pretty easily, because the IDers can't produce any experimental evidence for their view. Strictly speaking, the materialists can't, either, but the burden of proof naturally falls on the challengers, and the materialists can always come up with some kind of explanation for any biological feature that the IDers hold to be irreducibly complex.