Category Archives: Non-fiction

Renewing the Mind

Nate Shurden of Reformation21 on James E. White’s A Mind for God:

In a day where more and more Christians prefer humble ignorance to a cultivated mind and where the newest bestseller receives more attention than Christian classics, White’s introduction to Christian thinking is not a moment too soon. In a little over a hundred pages, we’re exposed to the world of the mind and principles by which our minds can be enlisted in the work of God for the glory of God. White understands our time to be filled with great promise and opportunity, like no other time in human history. But, equally so, ours is a time of great peril. We cannot continue to shirk our God-given responsibility to think and live in a consistently Christian manner. At heart, it’s a question of worship. Will we be conformed to this world or transformed by the renewing of our minds? Time will be our biographer; let us choose today what story will be told of us.

I submit that most of us in the modern church do not know what “conforming to the world” means. We may be able to define it adequately, but we can’t apply it to our lives and we don’t know what it looks like. “Taking every thought captive”–what does that mean? Do I have to give up Desperate Housewives?

‘God Delusion’ Helped by Reading the Word

Frank Wilson reviews Richard Dawkins’ complaint about faith in God, entitled The God Delusion. He says Dawkins doesn’t mind teaching the Word of God in classrooms for its cultural value and somehow believes this will undermine faith instead of build it. Frank notes:

As for teaching the Bible as literature, that might be the best way of communicating its spiritual message. If the scriptures were treated with the respect and attention we give to poems and novels and plays, with an appreciation for their often rich ambiguity, they would touch readers – in the way poems and novels and plays do.

I agree, but, Frank, why the complaint about people who take the Bible literally (which can be read at the end of his review)? Are you saying I shouldn’t believe Joshua really fought the Battle of Jericho several centuries ago?

“If a conservative order is to return . . .”

If a conservative order is indeed to return, we ought to know the tradition which is attached to it, so that we may rebuild society; if it is not to be restored, still we ought to understand conservative ideas so that we may rake from the ashes what scorched fragments of civilization escape the conflagration of unchecked will and appetite.

—Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind

SR directed my attention to ISI.org, and I found this quote which opens a pamphlet called, “Ten Books That Shaped America’s Conservative Renaissance.

Philosophy of Science: Evolution

Maxine of Petrona has a couple posts on evolution. The first points to several reviews of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion and other evolutionary items. The second post criticizes a librarian who appears to leap the logic to conclude that libraries are biased against intelligent design theories.

Author Marilynne Robinson also reviewed Dawkins’ book in the latest Harper’s. Mark Bertrand summarizes that review here:

In a nutshell, the problem with Dawkins is that he compares the very worst of religion with the very best of science. Nineteenth and early twentieth century race-based eugenics isn’t “real science,” in Dawkins view — in spite of its widespread acceptance by the scientific community worldwide, not just in Nazi Germany — but suicide bombings, the Inquisition, and the murder of abortion clinic doctors are real religion. Historically speaking, science hasn’t always made things better, just as religion hasn’t made them worse. But, as Robinson points out, Dawkins isn’t concerned too much with historical realities.

Perhaps Robinson makes the point on which I always stand with evolution (though I didn’t stand there firmly in our recent blog argument), that being the theory of evolution is only a philosphy of science, a way of viewing the evidence, not the only conclusion for clear-headed scientists.

The Staunch Atheist and Moral Clarity

Columnist Janie Cheaney has a short take on Sam Harris’ new book, Letter To a Christian Nation. She’s says it’s a short book from a “hard-boiled atheist of the kind C.S. Lewis lamented back in the ’40s.” He wants to eliminate faith from our minds. Interestingly enough, he complains in a recent column about radical Islam and the fact that those speaking with the “greatest moral clarity about the current wars in the Middle East are members of the Christian right.”

Sam, what basis does an atheist have for recommending moral judgements to others? Isn’t it just an appeal to individual reason that your way is the way for us all to get along better? That’s what Richard Dawkins seems to argue in his book, The Selfish Gene, but he states our biology works against this idea of everyone’s better good:

The genes are the master programmers, and they are programming for their lives. They are judged according to the success of their programs in copying with all the hazards that life throws at their survival machines, and the judge is the ruthless judge of the court of survival.

Whenever a system of communication evolves, there is always the danger that some will exploit the system for their own ends. Brought up as we have been on the ‘good of the species’ view of evolution, we naturally think first of liars and deceivers as belonging to different species: predators, prey, parasites, and so on. However, we must expect lies and deceit, and selfish exploitation of communication to arise whenever the interests of the genes of different individuals diverge. This will include individuals of the same species. As we shall see, we must even expect that children will deceive their parents, that husbands will cheat on wives, and that brother will lie to brother.

So he urges us to find morality outside of biology. Why?

Confederacy of cats

I was intrigued by Florence King’s review of Dixie Betrayed by David J. Eicher over at the American Spectator blog today.

My attitudinal history as regards the Confederacy has traced a sine wave profile over the years. As a child I was a Lincoln buff (still am), and a rabid partisan of the Union (I was born just in time to have the Civil War Centennial pretty generally in my face during my early teen years, and I loved it).

Later, as I found myself drawn to federalist politics, I started thinking more highly of the South. I find the argument pretty compelling that the Constitution would never have been ratified if anybody’d been told that secession would be forbidden. Lincoln’s constitutional argument, so far as I could tell (in spite of my reverence for the man himself) seemed to be basically, “We have to preserve the Union because I think it’s a good idea.”

Which is nice, but one might argue whether it was worth 600,000 lives.

But I had no idea what an organizational mess the Confederacy was, if Eicher is correct in his analysis.

Maybe the best thing Lincoln could have done would have been to have told them, “Bye-bye, have a good life,” and then waited for them to go to pieces, then crawl back and ask to be readmitted.

I have a sad feeling that somewhere on one of those battlefields a man died who would have written or preached or sung something that would have made America a better, happier place today.

Then again, maybe Lincoln was right when he said in his second inaugural address.

“Yet, if God wills that [the war] continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

Simplistic Literary Biographies

The great Terry Teachout addresses literary biographies:

Far too many new biographies—including a forthcoming book about a famous filmmaker that I read last week and will be reviewing later this year—are rigidly and reductively thesis-driven, an approach that never fails to remind me of what Earl Long, Huey’s brother, said about Henry Luce, the founder of Time and Life: “Mr. Luce is like a man that owns a shoestore and buys all the shoes to fit himself. Then he expects other people to buy them.” I loathe biographers who nudge you in the ribs every few pages, sticking in pointed little reminders that the deeply suppressed sadomasochistic tendencies (or whatever) of Flannery O’Connor (or whoever) permeated her life and thought and insinuated their way into every page she wrote, blah blah blah.

Also, note his list of “first-rate” biographies, none of which he wrote himself.

Buy or Download Piper’s Latest Book

John Piper’s latest book, What Jesus Demands from the World, is available for $12.49 in print through Crossway Books or for free in PDF. In an audio file, Piper explains the need for the book. He says the Lord charges us to teach everyone in the world to observe his commands, not just teach them the commands. We can teach parrots all of Christ’s commands, but they can’t observe them.

So what does it mean to observe the things the Lord instructed us to do? Take up your cross. Always pray without losing heart. Avoid all anxiety. What God has joined together let no man separate. We know the words; do we understand and obey the meaning?

I’m looking forward to it.

Kathleen Antrim Investigates Senator George Allen

Columnist Kathleen Antrim is coming forward with information in her yet-to-be-released book on Virginia Senator George Allen, currently titled, Actions Speak Louder than Words. Her publicist, Kristen Schremp of KAS Publicity, reports Antrim has had “unlimited access to the Senator, his wife, children, family, close friends, staff and colleagues for the past 17 months.”

In short, the recent charges of Sen. Allen’s racism are ridiculous. For more on this, watch for Kathleen Antrim’s next book.

How a novelist changed eveningwear forever

Memo from my subconscious:


You’ve got nothing today. Why do you persist in blogging, when you know you’ve exhausted your tiny store of things to write worth reading? Why do you persist in this failed strategy? Why don’t you have an exit strategy? It’s a quagmire! Admit it.

When in doubt, borrow. I shall tell you about a fact I learned years ago, which has stayed with me for all the intervening years. I share it with you freely, so that you can bore your friends, just as I do.

Back when I was doing community theater in Florida, I performed in the play, “The Elephant Man.” I played Dr. Gomm, and it wasn’t one of my better performances. Suffice it to say that I didn’t make anyone forget Sir John Gielgud in the movie.

The costume people procured Victorian clothing for us. The moment I saw the tan-colored suit they’d gotten me, I knew that what we had was “A Christmas Carol” costumes, not “The Elephant Man” costumes. Because between the time of Dickens and the time of John Merrick, Englishmen stopped wearing anything but black (or, if they were feeling extremely cheery, a dark gray). I knew this because I had read Frank Muir’s An Irreverent and Thoroughly Incomplete Social History of Almost Everything.

(By the way, did you know that Dr. Frederick Treves, whom Anthony Hopkins played in the movie, was an active and influential Christian evangelical? I learned this in Newfoundland, when I visited the Grenville Museum. Treves was one of Dr. Grenville’s [Grenville of Labrador] mentors.)

Anyway, this quote from Muir’s book:

Probably the most prolific novelist and playwright of the nineteenth century, for years the most popular writer of his day, was Edward George Bulwer-Lytton (Blogger’s note: Yes, this is the guy the annual award for bad writing is named after), later Baron Lytton, who managed to be a statesman as well….

Bulwer-Lytton made a lot of money from his books, plus a little more from playing whist. He moved easily in fashionable circles and his most popular novel, Pelham, had as its eponymous hero a society dandy who startled London by forsaking the bright colors then worn by gentlemen in the evening to appear in black. This fashion was taken up by society and Britain’s manhood has appeared on formal evening occasions ever since dressed like undertakers.

I note on re-reading that Muir is only talking about evening wear, so I remembered the story wrong. But it’s also a fact that Englishmen eschewed bright colors for all clothing not long thereafter (as a sign of respect for Queen Victoria’s mourning of Prince Albert, I think). I still blame Bulwer-Lytton.

No I don’t. I like black suits.

A Land Fit For Criminals

Mike Johnson sent me the following link to a review by (the great) Theodore Dalrymple of the book A Land Fit For Criminals by David Fraser. It’s about the criminal justice system in Great Britain today.

He shows that liberal intellectuals and their bureaucratic allies have left no stone unturned to ensure that the law-abiding should be left as defenseless as possible against the predations of criminals, from the emasculation of the police to the devising of punishments that do not punish and the propagation of sophistry by experts to mislead and confuse the public about what is happening in society, confusion rendering the public helpless in the face of the experimentation perpetrated upon it.

My observation is that what happens in Europe generally works its way to America in time.

The poetry of Utsira

Because I’m short on ideas tonight, I’ll share a nice passage from the book I’m reading now, In Forkbeard’s Wake by Ben Nimmo. It’s the sort of book I like to discover, a sailing memoir involving the seas I describe (as a rank landlubber) in my Viking novels. Here Nimmo writes about the Norwegian island of Utsira, where (as it happens) one of my great-great-grandmothers was born:

It’s one of the peculiar facts of history that many of the world’s most moving poems aren’t actually poems at all. The King James version of I Corinthians 13 (faith, hope and charity) and the Third Collect in the Anglican Evensong are hymns without tunes; the closing paragraphs of The Lord of the Rings are the final chords of a symphony…. As far as I’m concerned, though, the most bewitching use of words ever penned comes in the Radio 4 shipping forecast.

It reads like an incantation. No matter that it’s a simple and practical way of identifying sea areas by their outstanding geological feature. No matter that every word of the forecast has a precise and numerically defined meaning: the mysterious rune ‘Dogger, Fisher, German Bight: southwest four, a thousand and two, rising more slowly, fair, moderate to poor,’ simply means that the wind over the central North Sea and the Danish and German North Sea coasts is blowing from the southwest at between eleven and sixteen knots, atmospheric pressure stands at 1002 millibars and has risen by between 0.1 and 1.5 millibars in the preceding three hours, and that it’s not raining but that surface visibility is fluctuating between five nautical miles and a thousand metres. The shipping forecast is music in words.

Viking. The Viking banks, northeast of Shetland. Dogger. The Dogger bank, so overfished that it’s the only British bank worth less than Barings. German Bight, the German bay. Rockall and Malin, Trafalgar (early mornings only) and Finisterre, Portland and Dover, the cliffs and capes. Humber, Thames, Forth, Tyne, the rivers. Biscay and Irish Sea, the bays. Faeroes and Southeast Iceland, Fastnet and Scillies, the islands.

North Utsire and South Utsire.

Norwegians call it Utsira, with the stress on the first syllable: Ut-sira. It’s an island. Just one island, a lumpy rock a mile and a half long and two miles wide, nine miles off the Rogaland coast, surrounded by long chains of spray-washed skerries. In, as it were, skerried ranks. Its eastern and western flanks build up into brooding granite howes like the Lakeland peaks, frowning across the water. Between them a broad green valley runs north to south, plunging at each extremity into a rock-edged channel where the breakers burst in foam. The prevailing winds here are northwest and southwest. To the southwest, the next land is Shetland, over two hundred miles away. To the northwest, it’s the Arctic. When the northwesterly gales drive the waves onto the rocks, the whole island seems to shudder.

I’ve got a photo of waves breaking at a harbor entrance on Utsira as the desktop on my computer at work. It’s just the kind of grim, sea-lashed beauty that speaks to my blood.

I’ve got to visit there someday.

Nihilist kitsch and villages

I came up with something in the comments on my Wednesday post, and I liked it so well I’ll repeat it here, for the sake of those of you who don’t read comments.

It occurs to me that much of what passes for art today is a kind of “nihilist kitsch.” You know what kitsch is. It’s sentimental or cutesy art produced on the cheap for people without much taste. Black velvet paintings are kitsch. Pictures of Jesus with moving eyes that seem to follow you around the room are kitsch. Garden ornaments that depict a fat guy leaning over so that all you can see is his legs, his butt and his butt crack above his jeans, are kitsch.

When a little old lady, not very bright but devout, looks at her 3-D Jesus portrait, she sees it as very beautiful. This is not because it’s really beautiful (it’s actually pretty disturbing), but it’s lovely to her because she associates it with her sincere love for Jesus.

I think the pleasure an art connoisseur feels when he/she looks at a piece of art consisting of blood or urine or dung or garbage is a reverse form of kitsch. The viewer knows that what he or she is looking at is in no sense beautiful. But he/she enjoys it and praises it because it represents an assault on things that he/she hates.

So we’ve got the kitsch of love and the kitsch of hate. Both of them are kitsch.

But I know which one I prefer.

A little more about Jonathan Kellerman’s nonfiction book, Savage Spawn.

It’s a frightening book about children who seem to be born bad, and who can’t seem to be stopped except by death or lifelong incarceration.

Kellerman’s opinion (and he admits he can’t prove it) is that the cause is a combination of genetics and nurture. Some kids may be genetically designed for psychopathy, but a good upbringing might prevent it.

So how do we as a society intervene to rescue these marginal kids before bad environments send them on the road to something like Columbine?

Kellerman has a number of suggestions, which he admits are generally utopian. I don’t agree with all of them (especially the one that would make it a crime to teach a child to use firearms). Many of them make sense. None of them seem likely.

The problem, it seems to me, is that we’ve reached a cultural impasse. If we could give the government new powers to intervene radically in families, it might be worth it (if the power could be limited), if we had confidence that the government would use that power wisely. Unfortunately, “government” and “wisdom” are for the most part mutually exclusive terms.

My opinion is that the kind of radical evil in children that we see today is mostly a new thing, and it comes from the way society has changed. In the past most people lived in small, homogeneous communities—villages or tribes where everybody believed the same things, valued the same things, and were intimately involved in each other’s lives. The kids were monitored all the time, by the whole community.

When Hillary Clinton said “It takes a village to raise a child,” she was being disingenuous. She was right about the village, but the new-style village she wants is not a village but a bureaucracy (I’ve blogged about this before).

I think people need close-knit networks of likeminded relatives and neighbors, all gathered in the same place, to raise children in the most healthy way. But today we value diversity and individuality, which means a terrible, dangerous environment for children.

Will we figure out a new way to build villages? I hope so. But I don’t know how we’ll do it.

I’ll be off the blog for a couple days now. My relative Trygve from Norway will be in town, and I’ll be giving him the grand tour. I’ll tell you about it when it’s over.

Prometheus, bounder

Today it rained. This is a good thing, just here and just now. We’ve had it mighty dry for a spell in these here parts. I think a lot of farmers got a drink too, which is, needless to say, a lot more important than the state of my lawn.

I picked up a book called Savage Spawn, by Jonathan Kellerman, the mystery writer. I’ve already told you how much I enjoy his novels, so I was interested to check out this book, which is not fiction but a book of popular psychology about children who become cold-blooded criminals.

I’ll probably say more about his conclusions tomorrow, but today I want to quote a passage that impressed me:

Psychiatrist Thomas Millar, in an eloquent essay titled “The Age of Passion Man,” written nearly two decades ago, decried the tendency of contemporary Western society to glamorize hedonism and antisocial behavior, and to confuse psychopathy, which he regards as a form of malignant childishness, with heroism….

Confusing creativity with morality and psychopathic rebelliousness with social liberation led Norman Mailer to predict that psychopaths would turn out to be the saviors of society. Mailer was as terribly wrong about that as he was when he worked hard to spring career criminal Jack Henry Abbott from prison. Shortly after his release, Abbott murdered an innocent man. Oops. What impressed Mailer were Abbott’s writings, summarized in a thin book titled In the Belly of the Beast. A coolheaded review of this volume nearly two decades later reveals it to be a crude, nasty, sophomoric collection of self-justifying diatribes—prototypical psychopathy.

Muddled thinking about evil is by no means limited to the political left. Sex murderer Herbert Smith, sentenced to execution for raping and bludgeoning a fifteen-year-old girl to death with a baseball bat, was able to turn a phrase with some skill, and he conned William Buckley into thinking he was innocent. Buckley campaigned to get Smith out of prison, finally succeeding in 1971, whereupon Smith promptly and viciously attacked another woman. Smith then admitted that he’d been guilty of the first murder. Oops again.

Kellerman identifies here what I consider a major problem in our culture today. Beginning in the days of the Romantic Movement, we began to see the titanic, rebellious, Promethean social rebel (like Shelley or Byron) as the hero, the one who would free us all from Rousseau’s chains, who would liberate us all to become the gods and goddesses we were born to be. The parallel Romantic current, the more Christian and conventionally moral Romanticism of Wordsworth and Coleridge, found few followers. That strain was less sexy. It lacked the sweetness of forbidden fruit, and was much harder work.

Thus we came to believe, first of all, that great, creative souls must always reject conventional morality. Further down the slope we came to believe that whatever was socially transgressive must by definition be a work of genius.

This has given people with artistic pretensions a wonderful excuse to live lives of selfishness and self-destruction.

It has also been responsible for a whole lot of lousy art.