All posts by Phil W

Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

Scholarly paper warning.

David H. Caldwell, Mark A. Hall, and Caroline M. Wilkinson have written an interdisciplinary paper on the Lewis chessmen, uncovered in Scotland in 1831. They are centuries-old, walrus ivory chess pieces, 78 in all. The authors suggest the story may have become too streamlined to reveal reality.

Whether kings or princes from the Isle of Man or descended from Somerled, local nobles or high-ranking clerics, there were several men in late Norse Lewis who could have aspired to own the Lewis pieces, and who would have valued them as gaming pieces. Rather than accepting the deus ex machina  explanation of a passing merchant losing his stock, it is surely more plausible that the Lewis pieces were found in Lewis because that was where they were intended to end up and be enjoyed.
   . . .
There are two final points to make here. First, no matter how or why the Lewis pieces arrived at Uig, it is only a presumption that they were new when buried. If they belonged to a local nobleman or cleric they may have provided many years of enjoyment before they passed out of use. This is a significant point to which we will return after a more detailed analysis of the individual pieces. Second, the circumstances of the hoard’s discovery are so vague that there can be no confidence as to whether it was lost or deliberately hidden.

This isn’t quite the storyline of The Chessmen by Peter May, but you may find it interesting. Abstract to follow. Continue reading Look Again at the Lewis Chessmen

‘Where have the words gone?’

My wife is beginning to write a book. Her editor is the son of a Nobel laureate, but that is Oldthink. Because he is a clever man who keeps his finger on the pulse, he has my wife recording podcasts even before the book is begun.

Richard Brookhiser of National Review writes about his wife podcasting the subject of her book as she writes it, giving a glimpse perhaps of the future of words. (via Prufrock News)

No Little Women, by Aimee Byrd

[W]omen are created in the image of God as necessary allies to men in carrying out his mission. Because of this, women are to be good theologians with informed convictions. We are to take this call seriously and invest quality time in our theological growth ad Bible study within the context of our local church as a foundation to our service and contributions to the church, our families, and society.

Aimee Byrd, author of Theological Fitness: Why We Need a Fighting Faith and other books, took up the topic of women in the church in her thoroughly reasonably and well-written book No Little Women.  The title comes from 2 Timothy 3:6-7, “For among them are those [wicked teachers] who creep into households and capture weak women, burdened with sins and led astray by various passions, always learning and never able to arrive at a knowledge of the truth.” Do such teachers creep around today and do they find opportunities among church women who know something but not enough of the Bible?

Byrd worries that the ministry leaders of most of our churches give too little attention to their women’s ministry studies, allowing them to more-or-less do their own thing with any Bible-related study they find appealing. As a result, writers and conference speakers are using Christian language to teach unChristian principles to increasing audiences. And women are more open to these principles by the simple fact they read more. If their pastors give implicit approval to whatever bears a Christian label and no other instruction or training in the faith, then they can easily be led astray.

I worry many of our churches  lack the theological grounding to know they are going astray until the false doctrines have been laid and momentum gained. I remember a local Southern Baptist pastor telling me what he was teaching in new congregation (catechism and careful exposition), and one woman thanked him for trusting them enough to wrestle with big ideas. That was unusual.

I thought of that while reading Byrd’s recommendations to leaders for gaining the attention and trust of the women in their congregations. Understand, she said, that the body of Christ is both male and female and both male and female should be well-versed in God’s word. Also recognize while women may not be allowed in ordained teaching roles, they do teach–all the time. Mothers, sisters, and wives exercise their faith every day in diverse ways. Some bear witness to the truth, others to the lies of the world.

Men need women as necessary allies in the faith to speak the truth in love, to rebuke deception, guard affection, rally motivation, and rejoice over the work the Lord is doing in his people. Therefore, women need the same attentive training men receive.

Byrd briefly describes how, since the beginning of our country, many women have stepped up as spiritual leaders to take eager congregations away from God’s Word. “There is a common thread in the bad theology: these women have all claimed to have received special revelation from God.” But by equipping women to be the necessary and competent allies the church needs we can hold dear the truths of God for another generation.

(Photo by Bethany Laird on Unsplash)

Did Crime and Punishment Remake the Novel?

Of course, Dostoevsky’s claim to have invented a new literary genre doesn’t solely rest on Crime and Punishment. Although it was published when he was 45, after so many books and setbacks, it marked a breakthrough, not a culmination. Its resemblance to Hamlet resides both in its details (fatherless ex-student, bookish sidekick, philosophy, mumbling, murder) and in its peculiar status, as an extraordinary achievement that also serves as the preparation for a trio of more ambitiously unsettling tragedies.

Various touches point towards Dostoevsky’s later novels: a reflection on the “holy fool” (The Idiot), a dream involving a city-wide disease (The Possessed), a smattering of theodicy (The Brothers Karamazov). It is not an insult to Crime and Punishment but a tribute to its author to say that his most famous book, the face he shows to the world, plays a more servile role within his body of work, something like a hinge, or border – a spin-off that doubles as a gateway drug to more exalted highs.

Leo Robson writes of the importance of Crime and Punishment to its author and the literary world, even those who disliked it. (via Prufrock News)

You Think You’re Unpublished Now?

A thousand trees have been planted in the Nordmarka forest, near Oslo, Norway, as a work of art, literature, and hope in dystopian days. It’s being called a work of art, framtidsbiblioteket  or The Future Library; and I don’t doubt it’s beautiful even now. Trees have a way about them.

The trees are to meant grow for 100 years (starting in 2014) and then be cut for the paper to publish anthologies with manuscripts that will be written over that hundred-year period. Participating writers will surrender their original work to the project and allow it to go unpublished until 2114, preventing anyone from knowing how pretentious and unreadable it is until after their death. The writers who submit something in 2100 will be the ones under pressure, because they will have living readers to engage at the next virtual book signing. If their work flops, it will only be another weight to drag the whole project under water.

Who’s going to care to read back fifty years to see whether one of these works will hold their interest? Other writers possibly. More likely it will be publishers who read through these anthologies to find a gem they can exploit for themselves. “Frizzik Notweilder’s Ghosts at Noon Know the Heimlich, written seventy years ago and published in the framtidsbiblioteket anthologies, is the novel of the century, now available through Simon & Zondervan publishers.”

And Notweilder won’t know a thing about it.

A Bedbugger Talks Work on the Road

This excerpt from The Long Haul, by Finn Murphy reads like a western, and I suppose it is, even though he says, “I do not for a moment think I’m a symbol of some bygone ideal of Wild West American freedom or any other half-mythic, half-menacing nugget of folk nonsense.”

My destination is the ultrarich haven called Aspen, Colorado. This makes perfect sense because I’m a long-haul mover at the pinnacle of the game, a specialist. I can make $250,000 a year doing what is called high-end executive relocation. No U-Hauls for me, thank you very much. I’ll take the movie stars, the ambassadors, the corporate bigwigs. At the office in Connecticut they call me the Great White Mover. This Aspen load, insured for $3 million, belongs to a former investment banker from a former investment bank who apparently escaped the toppled citadel with his personal loot intact.

… How well a truck is loaded is the acid test of a mover. I can look at any driver’s load and tell at a glance if he’s any good at all.

The Long Haul: A Trucker’s Tales of Life on the Road by Finn Murphy was released last year.

A Generation of Theological Orphans

I was scared into the kingdom by one of those late-’70s “Left Behind” films. Nothing could be more important than to stand for the truth, even in the face of the anti-Christ’s persecution.

We Saw You at the Pole, where evangelical students gathered ostensibly to pray for the country but also, honestly, to thumb their noses at all those worldly humanists who wanted to take away our right to pray in schools.

We ate apologetics books like communion wafers—and were about as nourished. What we learned was to argue, to corner our opponents in their intellectually unfurnished corners, defeating them with our theistic strength and consistency.

And then something happened. Our Merlins and Gandalfs became Barnums and Baileys.

A months ago, Jared C. Wilson wrote this piece on a shifting tide. Let’s keep praying the waters will flow in the most beneficial direction for everyone.

Moby Dick Illustrated One Day at a Time

Illustrator Matt Kish says he had read Moby Dick eight times already, calling the novel “endlessly revealing.” Feeling a strong need for artistic inspiration, he returned to it.

“I wanted a slow, intense pace through the book so I decided to create one illustration a day, every day, for every single one of the 552 pages of my Signet Classics paperback, and on August 4, 2009 I began.”

He spent about 18 months on it.

Of course, there are other illustrators too.

Lewis’s Enduring Influence on Gaiman

Neil Gaiman was irritated to learn his beloved C.S. Lewis was a Christian who infused his work with Christian truths. He felt betrayed that this favorite author would have an agenda for his stories (as if all authors don’t write from some kind of moral framework), but Lewis’s influence on Gaiman carries on. Russell Moore spells in out in Touchstone.

In the American Gods mythology, the old gods—the supernatural beings associated with rain and fertility and war—are at odds with the new gods—such as media and technology. Many of the motifs of Narnia are there. The “bad guys” muster their troops at the Stone Table in Lewis’s Narnia; they do so at Chattanooga’s Rock City in Gaiman’s America. The Pevensie children find their destiny as kings and queens of Narnia; Gaiman’s human Shadow Moon (yes, that’s his name) finds his destiny as, literally, the son of a god. Aslan offers up his life as an atoning sacrifice in Narnia; Odin does the same for Gaiman, complete with a spear in his side and, of course, a resurrection.

Gaiman would say that he is simply working with the myths as he found them. As he retells the story in his recent collection of Norse myths, Odin does indeed climb the world tree and hang himself in self-sacrifice, “making the world-tree a gallows and himself the gallows god.” For Gaiman, the gospel might well simply be an echo of that archetypal story. One god with the gallows, another with the cross. But, of course, that is precisely what initially repelled Lewis from Christianity, and ultimately drew him to it.


Does Voracious Consumption of News Consume Us the Most?

A period of “debilitating postpartum anxiety” led Abigail Favale to drop out of social media and stop watching the news.

I steered clear of Facebook, which is its own strange minefield, photos of chubby babies and too-flattering selfies alongside headlines of horror – headlines of articles that few actually read, but we share them anyway, to at least feel like we’ve done something; we’ve shown that we’re woke, we’re aware.

Now she asks a particularly Lenten question. “Is the voracious consumption of information a virtue? Is seeking not to know a vice?”

This question has increasing importance. Most of us already suffer from an info glut and many people view this as normal life. But I won’t be surprised when news comes of the next generation rejecting all of this and seeking what some may call a new puritanism of personal responsibility and local (mostly offline) living. I’m pretty sure it’s happening already.

Jane Austen, the Teacher We Need

John Mark N. Reynolds encourages us to learn from Jane Austen, because she is a woman made in the image of God. “Jane Austen is the teacher we need, the thinker we ignore at our peril.”

Women don’t think the same way men do, generally speaking. That’s good and even godly, because the Lord created us in his image, male and female in his image. Our differences matter as mature adults designed to worship the Lord on earth.

If there is a tendency to value enduring relationships over abstract ideas in the ethics valued by most (though not all) women, then Austen is an educator in that voice. She must not be reduced to entertainment, though she is good fun. She is wrestling with status, relationships, and how to morally negotiate status ethically.

Comparing King and Coates

Scott Allen compares what he sees of the diverging worldviews of Martin Luther King and Ta-Nehisi Coates. The former advocated for a biblical application of justice and neighborly love; the latter appears to see only power.

The civil rights movement that King led had a clear agenda: End Jim Crow and bring about a change in America whereby people would be judged not by skin color but by character. It succeeded overwhelmingly, garnering support from people of all ethnicities. It led to the passage of the famous Civil Rights Act of 1964 and to the greatest period of equality and harmony between races that the nation had ever known.

Coates is very muted about the positive changes that King brought about. He prefers to paint race relations in America circa 2018 as little changed from America in 1850 or 1950. He puts forward no real positive agenda for improved race relations. Rich Lowry comments that his writing “feels nihilistic because there is no positive program to leaven the despair.”

For Dickens, Good People Drink Tea

British food historian Pen Vogler has brewed up a book of sixty recipes that appear in Dickens’ stories or figured into his life. She suggests Dickens put coffee into the hands of wicked people and tea in cups of the right, moral, and good.

Take Mrs. Jellyby in Bleak House.

“She neglects her feminine role as mother and wife, whilst she writes coffee-fueled letters long into the night, to promote her coffee-growing charity,” says Vogler. “It is funny, but, as with all Dickens’ bad mothers, it has a chilling ring of his own unhappy experience. He could never forgive his mother for wanting him to continue to work at the blacking factory, rather than go to school, even after his father was released from debtors’ prison.”

By contrast, Joe Gargery in Great Expectations is “as truly humble and good as Uriah Heep is not” and “a natural tea-drinker.” (via Prufrock News)

Christian Smith: Higher Ed is Full of BS

You’ve probably heard Christian Smith quoted in a sermon or lecture within the last decade, even if you don’t know who he is. He’s the one who gave us the label “moralistic therapeutic deism” as a descriptor of what is commonly taught in American churches. Earlier this month in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Smith describes the state of American higher ed in words I don’t expect pastors will quote so freely. He lists 22 things that are worthless in our university system.

Calling out the BS is not about my personal experience, limits, or feelings. It is not even only about the unconscionable fact that countless millions of students are receiving compromised and sometimes worthless college educations, as sickening as that is. Ultimately, we must grasp the more dreadful reality that all of this BS in the academy is mortally corrosive of our larger culture and politics.

It’s tragic, he says, but his contemporaries have probably lost all understanding of that concept.

No, the idea of tragedy is incomprehensible in institutions drifting in a Bermuda Triangle marked by the external-funding addictions of the STEM fields, the obsequious scientism of the social sciences, and the intellectual fads, ideological doctrines, and science-envy that captivate and enervate the humanities.