Category Archives: Non-fiction

‘The New Philistines,’ by Sohrab Ahmari

The New Philistines

The marginal is the norm. We are in the final chapters of liberal democracy’s story of ever-greater inclusion. What are the hardline identitarians to do? Posing as permanent outsiders, they are deeply uncomfortable now that they own the culture.

This book moves me a little out of my comfort zone. The New Philistines is written by Sohrab Ahmari, who proudly lets us know that he fully supports many progressive social initiatives, such as homosexual marriage (though I was surprised to learn, when he happened to appear on Dennis Prager’s talk show just today, that he has recently converted to Roman Catholicism). In spite of his social views, however, author Ahmari is appalled by the fruit contemporary political movements have produced in the world of the arts. Truth, beauty, all the traditional pursuits of art have been swept from the stage. Only political identity (what he calls “identitarianism”) matters in the art world today.

He starts with a visit to the new Globe Theatre in London. Built some years ago to reproduce the kind of structure in which Shakespeare’s plays would have been originally produced, the theater attempted, in its initial phase, to do Shakespeare “straight,” to give the audience an idea of what a performance would have been like in the 17th Century. It sounds like a project both entertaining and enlightening.

But recently a new director has taken over. She is a doctrinaire feminist, whose goal is not to make Shakespeare accessible, but to deconstruct him, and with him all our “imperialist, oppressive” western civilization. The author describes a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which all roles are distributed equally between males and females (hasn’t she heard there are more than 50 genders?), the love-inducing magic flower becomes a date rape drug, and one of the two chief romantic pairs is male/male.

The author doesn’t argue with the social goals of the kinds of “artist” who produce this kind of ugliness. He merely complains that what they are creating is crude polemic, not art. Instead of truth and beauty (which he is old-fashioned enough to still seek in art), modern art has become a frenzied exercise of ever-decreasing effectiveness, desperate to find new ways to shock an increasingly unshockable – and disinterested – public.

The New Philistines is a well-written, very short book. I found it stimulating and convincing. Cautions for disturbing subject matter, and some foul language.

‘The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross

The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga

I’m scheduled to give a lecture on the Icelandic sagas for a Sons of Norway lodge next month. Consequently, in an unaccustomed spasm of integrity, I thought I ought to check out the latest scholarship, since the information I’ve been operating on is a decade old or more. I chose The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross. I think I chose well.

I had learned from my efforts translating Torgrim Titlestad’s work (still awaiting publication in English, dash it all) that there has been some upheaval in saga studies of late. This Cambridge Introduction concentrates mostly on different aspects of saga studies from those Titlestad does (he’s mostly interested in the use of sagas in historiography), but it reinforced the impressions I got from him.

During the 20th Century, scholarly interest concentrated mostly on what are often called “the Icelanders’ sagas” (designations of categories seem to be a continuing problem in the field), the famous “wild west” stories of individuals and families involved in feuds and lawsuits, sometimes over generations. But Ross reminds us that there are in fact many different kinds of sagas – the sagas of ancient times, the chivalric sagas, the saints’ lives, the historical sagas, etc. Scholars are beginning to appreciate the other genres, and to admit that a) the earlier sagas aren’t necessarily better, and b) they’re not sure which ones are earlier anyway. As in biblical studies, textual critics in the 20th Century got a bit grandiose in their certainties about the evolutions of textual variants and which variants have priority. Scholars today are becoming a little less snobbish, and are broadening their range of tastes.

I enjoyed The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga. Recommended for anyone looking for a fairly accessible, up-to-date guidebook.

Suicide by Praise Song

Many Khmers resisted, to the degree they were able, by shutting down. Do your job; don’t complain; keep your head down; and most important, trust no one. Over time, people’s souls shriveled. In one sense, even the Khmer Rouge themselves were dying on their feet. They were soldiers of socialism for whom murder was not a crime but the prelude to a new society.

Surrounding Radha as he lay on the termite hill were endless stretches of shallow water broken up by dikes and stands of trees. He saw no way out. Lord, he prayed, I really want my rest. Take me home. He waited, and the rain kept falling. If you aren’t going to take me home, I’m going to help you.

So he began to sing in English. With water dripping off the bushes around him, he lifted up his voice and sang, perhaps not as loudly as he could but quite clearly, about how this world was not his home. “I’m just a-passing through / My treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue.” It’s a bouncy, country gospel tune called “This World Is Not My Home” that he had learned at Maranatha Church in Phnom Penh. He learned it soon after he became a Christian in 1973. He hummed it to himself in the fields while plodding behind the water buffalo, along with “Call for the Reapers” and “Bringing in the Sheaves.” “Power in the Blood” was one of his favorites.

World Magazine shares the opening of the remarkable story of how a Cambodian Christian survived an evil communist regime.

‘The Fellowship,’ by Philip and Carol Zaleski

The Fellowship

Though surpassed in poetry and prose style by the very modernists they failed to appreciate, though surpassed in technical sophistication by any number of distinguished academic philosophers and theologians, the Inklings fulfilled what many find to be a more urgent need: not simply to restore the discarded image, but to refresh it and bring it to life for the present and future.

Last night I was complaining about the length of this book, but it turned out as I speculated – about 35% of its body is end notes. Still, it’s a big book. But it’s well worth reading, if you’re interested in the social and intellectual matrix that produced some of the 20th Century’s most influential Christian writing.

The Inklings began as an Oxford student literary group in 1932, but when the students had graduated and moved on, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and other friends who had been invited to join carried it on as a sort of cross between a writers’ criticism group and a social club. They met once a week in Lewis’ rooms at Magdelen College for the writing phase, and again at the Eagle and Child pub for the more social part. They carried on, with some changes in membership, until the 1960s.

The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip and Carol Zaleski, concentrates on the lives of the four best-known Inklings: J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, and Owen Barfield. Much of the material covered will already be familiar to fans, but Williams’ and Barfield’s lives are far less known, and there’s plenty of material that will be new to most readers (there certainly was for me). I did not know, for instance, the Tolkien had suffered an injury to his tongue in his youth, which caused him to mumble when speaking (this impediment disappeared when he was “performing,” as in his famous LOTR readings recorded by George Sayer). I didn’t know that Owen Barfield was baptized as an adult into the Anglican Church (though he continued to believe in reincarnation and other Anthroposophist doctrines). Remarkably, there’s even some movie trivia – one discovers connections between the Inklings and David Lean, Julie Christie, and Ava Gardner. Continue reading ‘The Fellowship,’ by Philip and Carol Zaleski

A Basketful of Thyme

AP: “A new study published Friday by the Anne Frank House museum in Amsterdam says despite decades of research there is no conclusive evidence the Jewish diarist and her family were betrayed to the Netherlands’ German occupiers during the second world war, leading to their arrest and deportation.” While it’s still possible they were betrayed, it’s also possible the Nazis were investigating “illegal labor or falsified ration coupons” when the Franks were discovered.

University of Stavanger: “The works of J.R.R. Tolkien are an excellent introduction to Old English and other historic languages, according to researcher.”

TGC:  Robert Barron has produced a documentary on G. K. Chesterton. Treven Wax says, “It dives headlong into two of Chesterton’s greatest works: Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, the latter of which C. S. Lewis called the greatest apologetic for Christianity in English.”

Uncurious Scientists Making Up Stuff

John C. Wright has a long essay on the suicide of thought, starting with the reason a group of natural scientists would believe geometry is empirical. Just to put the cookies on the bottom shelf, geometry is a logical science, which uses analytic reasoning. You don’t observe natural shapes and conclude the ratio of circles or hypotenuse of three-pointed things, and yet here was a group of scientists saying that’s where geometry is found.

Apparently they did this out of a commitment to materialism in opposition to rationalism or some combination of the two.

One of the many flaws in radical materialism is this: if radical materialism were true, radical empiricism must also be true, on the grounds that if nothing is real but matter, no knowledge is real except for knowledge about matter, and facts about matter can only be known by empiricism. But radical materialism is a universal metaphysical theory, and therefore cannot be known empirically, which means it cannot be known at all. Hence, if radical materialism were true, it is false.

It is a doctrine that refutes itself, something which the mere unambiguous statement of the terms proves false. No further argument is need, no other witnesses need be called.

Hence the final clue also fits the pattern, but also leads to a bigger mystery: the reasons why the teachers do not teach and the students do not learn about the basics of science is because of dogmatic yet illogical beliefs that cannot withstand such scrutiny that swirl about science.

These beliefs and beliefs like them are beliefs that make outrageous claims about the prestige of science, which is inflated to serve as a substitute religion. Such beliefs are called science worship. These beliefs flourish only in a dark age, when the lamp of reason is guttering or extinguished.

Science worshippers are not necessarily partisans of radical materialism and radical empiricism, but these and beliefs like them are friendly to science worship. Such beliefs dull the curiosity, encourage dismissive arrogance, or inspire bellicose narrowmindedness, which, in turn, forms a favorable environment to allow science worship to grow like mold.

Science worshippers do not do science, do not understand science, and are easily duped by junk science.

So, the lesser mystery of who killed Euclid now has to have a reasonable theory that fits the facts. Since teaching the truth about geometry and science would necessarily cast doubt on a cult belief about science worship that is prevalent in society, it can only be passed along from one uncurious mind to the next by indoctrination.

… Science worship is a symptom, but only one, of a deeper sickness that afflicts more than just one field of study, more than just one school of thought or more than just one topic.

True Crime Podcasts That Catch Your Ear

I don’t listen to podcasts much, mostly because of technical limitations. My commutes haven’t been long. My iPod probably qualifies as a vintage edition, and I’m not a regular iTunes user. When I listen to podcasts, it’s through a computer, sometimes while washing dishes, usually while doing things that don’t require my full attention. I’ve heard a few episodes of Crime Writers On, which has put me onto two other true crime podcasts.

via GIPHY

Both series talk through a current criminal case, but that’s where their similarity ends. The first series is out of Hawaii. “Offshore,” produced by Honolulu Civil Beat, focuses on 2011 incident in which an off-duty federal officer shot and killed a young Hawaiian man. Here’s the preview.

Many on the island see the case as a tangible symbol of powerful Americans running over native Hawaiians, which some have said it how the island kingdom became a US state in the first place. This abuse of privilege dramatically unfolded in an 80-year-old case remarkably similar to the current one. Reporter Jessica Terrell draws the parallels between the two cases and gives an ear to the hearts of Hawaiians who want justice and respect. Continue reading True Crime Podcasts That Catch Your Ear

Fred Sanders Can’t Dance the Flow

In his review of Richard Rohr’s new book, Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation, Fred Sanders explains how it isn’t about the Trinity at all. It’s about the divine flow, a dance within the Godhead that ends up being more important than the Godhead.

The flow is a self-giving exchange of love and life. If you were to ask Rohr whether the flow is primarily something about God, the world, or the human person, he would no doubt answer with an enthusiastic “Yes!” and his twinkling Franciscan eyes would twinkle Franciscanly. The flow overflows the distinction between the Creator and the creature. It flows from God as God empties Godself; it circulates among creatures and binds them together with each other and the absolute; it flows back to God, enriching and delighting that Holy Source who loves to see finite spirits awaken to their true, divine selves. The flow sounds like a noun, but it’s really a verb. Flow verbs all nouns as they flow with its flowing.

That looks like some good verbal dancing on Sanders’ part, but it isn’t the flow. It’s more like keeping his footing solid while the room shakes, which makes for entertaining reading.

A Basket Full of Links

Can novels spread awareness of mental health issues? Author C.K. Meena said, “Fiction has no purpose, if you want to spread awareness, use non-fiction.” But author Amandeep Sandhu countered with the idea that nothing we write is truly non-fiction, because we focus on or exaggerate some facts and ignore others.

Eighty-one Anglo-Saxon coffins made from the hollowed-out oak oak trees have been discovered at a site called Great Ryburgh in Norfolk, England. “‘This find is a dramatic example of how new evidence is helping to refine our knowledge of this fascinating period when Christianity and the Church were still developing on the ground,’ said Tim Pestell, curator at Norwich Castle Museum in Norfolk, where the finds from the dig will be kept.” Here are some photos.

“Exactly a century after Saki’s death on 14th November 1916, it seems remarkable that his work has survived so well. In a line-up of the wits of 20th-century English literature, Saki is usually tucked somewhere between PG Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh.” (via Prufrock News)

Appalachian culture is often misunderstood and misrepresented, a problem the people behind Foxfire magazine hope to correct. Mountain people are “very resourceful, self-reliant, hardworking, intelligent and with an amazing sense of humor.”

A new coffee vendor in Redlands, California, And Coffee, operates a “a remodeled utility truck” next to city hall and runs on donations.

Growing Up with the Cubs

The most challenging thing about suddenly taking in a 10-year-old who doesn’t start school for three weeks is figuring out what to actually do with them on a day to day basis. There are a lot of hours in a day, and every one of those hours needs filling. It is hard to whip up a busy routine from scratch, and it is doubly important to do so when that 10-year-old has just gone through what is likely the most traumatic thing she will ever endure.

One immediately fun activity involved the Cubs. I found a sports bar that would turn the Cubs games on while we were there, so we began going out to eat chicken fingers and watch the Cubs games. Early on, this meant weekends or the odd afternoon game so she could watch the whole thing. But even that changed, and the baseball became less important.

. . .  Baseball season ended, but Thursday night chicken fingers did not.

Lewis on Politics and Natural Law

C. S. Lewis on Natural Law

Today at Power Line blog, Steven Hayward writes about C.S. Lewis and a new book on Lewis and politics. He mentions having wondered in the past whether Lewis and Leo Strauss, whose thought he considers highly compatible, were aware of each other. Although he still doesn’t know that Lewis had ever heard of Strauss, he now has evidence that Strauss knew (and admired) Lewis’ The Abolition of Man.

He plugs a new book, C.S. Lewis on Politics and the Natural Law, by Justin Buckley Dyer and Micah J. Watson. No reason why we shouldn’t get in on that business too.

The Anchor as a Christian Symbol

Anchored“In every high and stormy gale, my anchor holds within the veil.”

What is the origin of the anchor as a Christian symbol, and why do we no longer use it? Apparently, it relied on a play on Greek words, so as Greek lost its hold as a language among Christians, so did the symbol.

Also,  a few questions answered by Jonathan Edwards’s A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, a highly recommended book.

Speech Is a Uniquely Human Quality

Max Muller, a pioneering 19th-century linguist at Oxford, read Darwin’s work and declared that the use of language was the gift that definitively separated human beings from the animal kingdom. It was, Muller said, “our Rubicon, and no brute will dare to cross it.” Nowadays, neo-Darwinians would dismiss mulish Muller as a “speciesist.”

Andrew Ferguson summarizes and reviews Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech for sympathetic readers. He condemns scientists who argue against non-scientists asking awkward questions they’d rather ignore and claim to deserve a respect they have yet to earn.  “Evolutionary theory is no closer than it was in Darwin’s day to explaining in materialist terms how traits like self-consciousness and language came to be.” (via Prufrock News)

How Media Bias Influences Americans

Professor Tim Groseclose released a book in 2011 with his eight years’ of research into political biases in newsrooms and communities. He pushed for a way to quantify someone’s ideology–to slap a number on it–with as much accuracy as possible. As a result, he developed the political quotient (PQ).

” A person’s PQ indicates the degree to which he is liberal,” Groseclose explains. “For instance, as I have calculated, the PQs of Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and Nancy Pelosi (D-Ca.) are approximately 100. Meanwhile the PQs of noted conservatives Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) are approximately 0.”

The main point of his book is that most media outlets are liberal, far more liberal than their readers and viewers. Naturally, their PQ comes through in their reporting, and their perspective is moving Americans in a liberal direction. Get a rather detailed overview in this lecture to an audience at the Cato Institute.

Media bias, he says, is largely in what is not reported, “true statements they are leaving out, not false statements they report.” He illustrates this by recalling a report on voter limitations, saying nothing in the article was a lie, but there were several things that should have been stated to give proper context for the truth. Also what the press chooses to report on and what to ignore shows their biases (Van Jones being a communist, for example).

If it were possible to remove the influence of media bias on Americans, what would the result be? Continue reading How Media Bias Influences Americans